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Well, I almost didn’t when I heard you were doing the interview.
I’m not that bad…we go way back, after all! I think of us as brothers, almost twins.
Says you. I already have an identical twin, thank you very much. Come on, let’s get this over with.
All right, all right, anything you say. So: for most of your career, you’ve published poetry and literary essays. But now you have two books out, companion pieces, one a book of poems, House of Fact, House of Ruin, while the other is a book of long form journalism, The Land Between Two Rivers: Writing In an Age of Refugees. About ten years ago, you began to write these essays, in part about refugee issues in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. And you’ve also written about the situation in Libya just before the second civil war broke out a few years ago, as well as your trip to Iraq just as ISIS was establishing itself in the region. Can you explain how a poet came to write about these issues?
This week on the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast, a conversation with journalist Michael Finkel . He is the author of True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa, which was made into a film starring Jonah Hill and James Franco. His latest book is called The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, available now from Knopf.
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So, you’re an author, a journalist and a bull runner. Did reading Ernest Hemingway have anything to do with these life choices?
Hemingway has everything to do with those choices. I hadn’t read a book until I was 19. I took Professor David McGrath’s Hemingway class at College of DuPage and it changed my life. I sat down in the library with The Sun Also Rises and read it in one six-hour sitting. That experience made me want to be a writer and want to go to Pamplona and run bulls. When I want something, it usually happens, eventually.
Guilt. When my brother died, I was shell-shocked. I felt a strong sense that I had failed him. Pat was 10 years younger than me, and our dad was sick with cancer for most of Pat’s life (he died when I was 19 and Pat was nine), so I spent a lot of time babysitting Pat when we were younger, and there was a maternal aspect to our relationship. But I also tried to foster openness and honesty between us, which is why I didn’t understand the secrecy of his addiction. Hiding is a part of addiction; no one wants those who love them to know the depths of their darkness. I didn’t know that at the time, so I felt that Pat was either making stupid choices or actively trying to hurt me—sometimes both. And because of that misperception, I was angry with him. I had no experience with addiction and I certainly didn’t know about the link between painkillers and heroin. I ended up saying things to him like “just stop doing drugs,” as if it were something he was doing for fun. He wasn’t. His downfall was hard and fast, and shocking in the context of our family. Of course we’d had tragedy with the loss of our dad, we weren’t perfect, but we loved each other and lived in a great community where this type of thing didn’t happen.
Dear Jeff Bezos,
Congratulations on your recent purchase of The Washington Post, one of the finest institutions in American journalism, as well as my hometown newspaper. I further applaud you for immediately speaking up and calming the speculation about what changes might be on the way for the paper. It’s comforting to know that you plan to keep the values and leadership of the Post intact.
August 02, 2013
Jeff Selingo’s new book, College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students (New Harvest, 2013), finds the editor at large for the Chronicle of Higher Education articulating the challenges to contemporary higher education. He also explores possible new directions for a future in which learning may well be unbundled from many of its traditional structures.
I interviewed Selingo and published a short version of our conversation at the Huffington Post under the title “When the Jobs of Tomorrow Don’t Exist Today: Jeff Selingo on College, Liberal Arts, and the Possible Future.” Here, I let the conversation expand to its full flowering, and then move at its close to issues of contemporary publishing.
December 12, 2011
In her introduction to Geek Girls Unite: How Fangirls, Bookworms, Indie Chicks, and Other Misfits are Taking Over the World, Leslie Simon defines a geek as “a person who is wildly passionate about an activity, interest, or scientific field and strives to be an expert in said avocation.” What distinguishes a geek from his or her close relatives—say, a nerd, a dork, or a dweeb—is that a geek “does not necessarily sacrifice social status to participate in area of expertise; instead, person will often seek out like-minded peers—in both the real and virtual worlds—in order to connect, bond, and celebrate mutual love for this area.
With this sociability in mind, Leslie aims to unite geeky girls worldwide. She notes that geek guys have sucked up the air in the room—Seth Rogen, Mark Zuckerberg, and Michael Cera, to name a few—and that it’s time for women to claim some of the oxygen; but first, we must learn to recognize one another. This is where Geek Girls Unite, an amusing field guide to geekdom, lends a helping hand.
There are many types of geeks out there: there’s the comic book geek, the music geek, the movie geek, the comedy geek, the geek who enjoys the domestic arts, and those geeks who always have their nose in a book. Using pop-anthropology, Leslie profiles each of these types, highlighting where they can be found, their outward signifiers, and who their historical predecessors are.
Having written something of a manifesto, Leslie says, “Embrace your quirkiness!”—and with Geek Girls Unite she makes it a little bit easier.
Leslie spoke with me about the impetus for the book, her research, finding geek mentors, and growing up geek.
What was the spark that led you to write Geek Girls Unite?
I’ve been banging my head against the wall trying to remember what or who it was that sparked the idea for Geek Girls Unite and the only thing I got out of it was a big lump on my noggin. Odds are, I was probably standing in the middle of some weird L.A. party, feeling completely out of place and having horrible high-school flashbacks. Or maybe I was watching 30 Rock, basking in the amazingness of Tina Fey and her Liz Lemon alter-ego while sucking back a glass of wine. Either way, I’m sure it was inspired by how I used to feel my quirks and idiosyncrasies held me back—when, in fact, they probably helped propel me to where I am today.
You’d mentioned feeling ashamed of your geekiness growing up. I can totally relate. When I look back at what I did to fit in I cringe. How did you react to, or against, your inner-geek—and when did you finally accept that it was who you were and you weren’t going to change?
I still consider myself a work in progress, but my geek evolution started happening when I was eighteen. Once I went away to college and realized that I could choose my friends, it was a whole different ballgame. I wasn’t forced to socially cohabitate with people just because they lived in the same zip code; I could actually choose my comrades based on similar interests and outlooks. (What a concept!)
What would you tell your teen geek self if you ran into her today?
I would definitely tell her to loosen up and live a little… or a lot! In high school, I was so scared of life—scared of not doing well on a test, scared of my friends thinking I was lame, scared of getting in trouble for missing curfew, scared of disappointing my parents. I really didn’t understand the concept of unconditional love, whether it was coming from my friends, my family or myself. When you want so badly to be liked (and/or loved), it’s easy to lose focus on who you really are and what’s really important. I know that now… but it would’ve been nice to understand it a little sooner.
You have a section in each chapter called “Geek Love” where you give a description of a guy who would be compatible with the specific type of geek girl outlined. Finding a good match, especially in high school, can be difficult, if not impossible. What were your dating experiences like in high school and what advice do you have for young women negotiating the hormonal minefield today?
First of all (and unrelated to your question), I’d love to say that while I highlight male love matches in each of the chapters, I really mean to spotlight whoever your beloved might be: male, female, transgendered, animal, mineral, vegetable, what have you. It was a huge yet unintentional oversight on my part, and I want to make sure that my readers know that geek love knows no gender.
Okay, now that I’m off my soapbox, I’d like to say that my dating experiences were nonexistent in high school. Zero. Zilch. Nada. At the time, I think I was more interested in having boy friends than boyfriends—or at least that’s what I told myself to avoid a full-on emotional shame spiral. (Plus, I spent most of those four years lusting after my best guy friend who I’m pretty sure ended up being gay. That’ll put a slight cramp in your romantic life, huh?) Ergo, I’m probably not the best person to give romantic advice. However, if I had to muster up some pearls of wisdom, I’d tell said hormone-fueled geeks to be patient and not to settle. It might take a while to find the He-Man—or She-Ra—of your dreams, but that person is out there. Trust.
Where was your weakness in compiling this book and how did you overcome it?
Great question. I think I was most nervous about compiling each geek’s character sketch because it’s such an intimate portrait of who these girls are. Thankfully, I was able to pick the brains of my friends and acquaintances, and that really helped to humanize all of the characteristics that I was trying to paint together into one cohesive picture. I also spent a lot of time agonizing over which Geek Goddesses to include in each chapter. It’s hard to pick only six women to represent an entire subculture, but I gave it my best shot!
You’re a self-professed music geek—did that make the music geek chapter easier or harder to write?
I’d have to say both. Going into that chapter, I knew I had to be really focused because it would be easy to overwhelm the reader with all sorts of tangents and sidebars. Seeing that my past two books were primarily music-centric, I also didn’t want to repeat anything, so it was quite a challenge to write things from a fresh perspective, even if I had tackled them in some way before. That said, I didn’t do as much research for that chapter because I felt super-familiar with the subject matter, probably more than any other content in the book.
Do you feel there’s something women bring to music journalism that’s unique to them? Something a guy might not necessarily be able to tap into, express, or just miss completely?
When it comes to communication styles between the genders, they say women are more interested in rapport and men in report. Generally speaking, of course, women music writers seem to connect more with the emotional side of music as opposed to the technical side—at least that’s why I started scribbling about bands, although I’ve never thought of myself as a music journalist. I’m a writer who just so happens to write a lot about musicians because they have amazing stories to tell and I’d like to be the one who helps them get the words out.
You mention that young geek girls should seek out mentors — find someone in a field that they’re interested in and contact them for advice. As someone working in a hectic field you know that life can be busy, emails tend to pile up, and general inquiries, if not presented correctly, can go ignored. What tips do you have for approaching professionals?
Before you reach out to anyone, I’d recommend that you research them as much as possible. Not only will it help you focus on the questions you’d like to ask them about their career trajectory, but there’s nothing worse than getting a query that appears to be a cut-and-paste job. Plus, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: People love to talk about themselves, so don’t be afraid to ask questions! Finally, while I try to write back everyone that contacts me, I know I’m prone to write back faster if we have a friend or acquaintance in common. So go ahead and ask for a virtual introduction or recommendation if you’re a couple degrees away from your would-be mentor.
Leslie Simon is the author of Wish You Were Here: An Essential Guide To Your Favorite Music Scenes and co-author of Everybody Hurts: An Essential Guide to Emo Culture. She is currently the Senior Creative Director at Warner Bros. Records. You can find her online right here.
What prompted you to write Killing the Cranes?
Having covered Afghanistan for so many years, in fact, since three months prior to the Soviet invasion in December, 1979, I wanted to write an informed but highly readable general interest book that would help readers understand this extraordinary country and its people, and why so many outsiders develop such a passion for this place. For me, it’s always been a romantic adventure like being in Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King. Many Americans just see a semi-arid landscape on TV reports from Helmand or Kandahar, but it’s an amazingly diverse place with some of the most extraordinary topography in the world. You’ve got the snowcapped Hindu Kush range running across much of Afghanistan as an extension of the Himalayas, parts of which look just like Grand Tetons in Wyoming. Then you have baking deserts with churning rivers slicing through rugged gorges, which could be in Arizona or New Mexico. And thick mountain forests and highland meadows looking like Switzerland.
At the same time, I wanted to write a book that explains what happens when outsiders come in with arrogance, ignorance and pre-conceived ideas – and then try to impose themselves. The British did this in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Soviets did this in the 1980s and now the Americans and other Western countries are doing exactly the same thing. Everyone ignores history at their peril. If there is one thing that one learns from the history of Afghanistan is that no one wins wars, not even the Afghans.
And finally, I just wanted to do a book that reflected my own personal experiences, my own journeys through Afghanistan that would help put across what it was – and still is – like reporting in this incredible country. In many ways, I always felt that, despite the dangers, it was a privilege to have the chance to trek through this country, whether by foot, by horse or by camel. I often felt that it was a spiritual if not romantic journey of self-discovery, at times living as if in the 18th or 19th centuries but dealing with a 20th or 21st century conflict. Nowadays, when I drive by vehicle through Afghanistan or take the plane I feel as if I’m cheating. The real experience is to see the country by foot.
As a people, whether the Pushtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks…one always meets them on equal terms. Everyone is a king in Afghanistan. And as a country, to really understand it, you need to understand a thousand Afghanistans. Seeing one part only means that you’re seeing one part. It may be totally different elsewhere. When I look back at my notes – and I’ve got a whole trunkful of them – I could not believe some of the adventures I had, such as going in to attack the Soviets at Jalalabad airport with a bunch of Afghan fighters, many of them former veterinarian students, who hadn’t a clue, or fleeing back to Pakistan with a group of French doctors and other foreigners, always a day or two ahead of communist informers. Some of the things I did were incredibly stupid and risky. But then, that’s all part of the adventure.
Why did you go to Afghanistan in the first place?
I was a young foreign correspondent in Paris. And like so many young Americans, I had gone there to become Hemingway. But I realized pretty quickly that I was not Hemingway. In fact, what I really needed to do was become Girardet. I also kept meeting all these journalists and photographers – American, French, British, German – who had covered Vietnam or were reporting conflicts in Africa, such as the Congo, or Central America. I was always enthralled by their stories about ‘liberating’ some bottle of wine in some shotup town or dealing with guerrilla fighters in the Horn of Africa. I decided that I had to go and find my own war, my own Vietnam, because clearly so many of these reporters had cut their teeth on such conflict zones. It gave them the experience they needed.
One of my friends from TIME magazine, Bill Dowell, a reporter who had covered Indochina, suggested I check out a small war brewing in Afghanistan. He warned that even the smallest of wars have a nasty habit of inflicting long-time consequences, so I should go check it out. Journalistically, it was some of the best advice anyone had ever given me. I travelled out with some freelance assignments, such as the International Herald Tribune and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for a radio documentary. I had been to Afghanistan once before as a student hitch-hiking to India from Europe and I had always remembered how staggeringly beautiful it was. But I returned as a journalist, and a highly nervous one at that, because the war was already spreading with attacks against the roads, but I felt I had no option but to travel by bus. The bus was full of Sri Lankan migrants making their way to Europe and they kept offering me their window seats. But I was terrified of being picked off by a guerrilla sniper. Of course, nothing happened, but I did find myself gripped by the defiance and sheer challenge of Afghanistan.I was awestruck. And even to this day, I’m awestruck.
Of course, as I later understood, war is brutal but it always seems more romantic or exhilarating years later. One forgets the awful stuff, but that’s human nature. So I wanted to become one of those reporters. However, I never managed to develop that really hardened attitude of the war correspondent with everything being just a story. I always felt touched, and was sometimes deeply shocked, to see the real and longterm impact of war on people. While trying to remain the cool observer, one also realizes that many of these warlords, military commanders or politicians, regardless whether in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka or Angola, don’t a give a damn about civilian populations. And this leaves one very angry. This is what I tried to convey with Killing the Cranes. Wars kill people, mainly innocent civilians. Plus the impact of war drags on for years afterwards. The Soviets, for example caused the deaths of as many as 1.5 million Afghans plus destroyed much of the countryside. Ordinary Afghans in the countryside, where 80 percent of people live, are still trying to recover from this damage today.
You were covering wars and humanitarian crisis situations elsewhere at the same time. But you became fascinated by the concept of resistance.
Yes. Throughout the Soviet war – the Red Army pulled out in February, 1989, but the Afghan communists continued to hold out against the mujahideen, or guerrillas, for another three years – I was also reporting crises in Africa and Asia. I covered the Iran-Iraq war in the early 1980s, reported the civil war in Angola from the guerrilla (UNITA) side, but also reported the humanitarian or refugee predicaments in Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Indochina and so on. So I was able to compare these conflicts and humanitarian situations with Afghanistan. At one point, I did a world-wide refugee survey totalling 30 articles over a week for the Christian Science Monitor newspaper. I literally travelled the world for several months as part of this reporting.
But while based in Paris, I had also met former French and European resistance people. I devoured numerous books about resistance And while covering the death of Tito in Yugoslavia, I visited the resistance museum (now gone, I believe) which showed how the partisans fought against the Nazis – and themselves – during World War II. It was interesting to see how all these resistance movements consisted of ordinary people. Many individuals became exceptional but all had to learn the ropes of how to fight a brutal occupation force. I am always intrigued to see what it takes to persuade someone to go on fighting at constant risk of death and often against all odds. The French resistance was never that large – most French resisted passively, while others collaborated – but sometimes the most exceptional people were originally low key and non-descript. Others were born leaders.
With Afghanistan, I became fascinated by guerrillas such as Ahmed Shah Massoud and Abdul Haq. Massoud, who was assassinated by al Qaeda on September 9, 2001, and Haq, who was killed by the Taliban some weeks later, were both extraordinary individuals. And I knew them well. Massoud, who staved off at least nine major Soviet-Afghan government offensives during the 1980s, was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, guerrilla strategist of the 20th century along side General Giap of North Vietnam or Tito. He was also Afghanistan’s Jean Moulin, an inspiring French resistance leader who died as a result of Gestapo torture. Abdul Haq was a specialist in urban guerrilla war, but was a man who, even when disgusted by all the infighting that led to the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s had left the country, retained enormous influence in eastern Afghanistan. Both emerged at the end of the 1990s as the only real potential leaders of a new Afghanistan. Massoud, a Tajik, and Haq, a Pushtun, were in the process of establishing a broadbased anti-Talib alliance in early 2001, and yet we (the Americans and British) ignored them. This lost us the big chance for a peaceful resolution to Afghanistan.
Your book often reads like a novel or an adventure mixed with lots of personal insight. Some people have said that it’s exhausting to read because they’re traveling with you. It’s still written in the tradition of American journalism, but you obviously write from your own point of view. You consider yourself part of the Afghan story. How do you deal with this?
One of my editor friends kept telling me that Killing the Cranes had to be the definitive book about Afghanistan. But I told him that there is nothing definitive about Afghanistan. All that you can do is paint a picture with broad sweeps coupled with detailed observation about certain incidents. He also complained that I wrote so much about trekking. But I did this deliberately. Almost all my reporting was done by foot across the Hindu Kush and deserts. This meant walking 14-16 hours a day. You slept in villages, bombed houses, under rocky overhangs, out in the open and so on. But you were always walking and you kept meeting people, such as fighters, refugees or farmers. You were in constant touch with local people.
I was also fascinated by the environment. The thick cedar forests of Nuristan in the east or broad expanses of very dry and brittle terrain east of Kabul. I always carried two or three books on birds and other wildlife in my pack. I was excited when I was able to glimpse Ibex, Markhor or even wolves. Or find leopard prints on the ground. At one point, I really got excited when some villagers told me that they had shot a tiger only several years earlier. And that there were still some roaming the mountains and forests. This was totally pooh-poohed by a British environmentalist friend, who thought the last Caspian Tigers (same species) had been killed in the 1950s. But I thought it was a great story.
As you walked, you dreamt of food or drinking a cup of tea. Everything in your mind became very basic. Existentialist. A piece of dry bread could be savored like a juicy steak. And then, no matter how tired you were, you always had to talk with the villagers. You were their entertainment or sources of fresh information. They all listened to the BBC or VOA on their short-waves, but the on-the-ground information came from travelers. You also learned what they thought. So the trekking was very important and I loved it. I miss it awfully, but today it is simply too dangerous to return to many of these areas. Even Afghans I know well who support the Taliban are apologetic about not being able to take me to these parts because they cannot guarantee my safety. It’s all part of Afghan hospitality and pride. Afghans are some of the most hospitable people in the world as long as you remain a guest and do not seek to impose yourself. Anyone who imposes themselves are perceived as occupiers.
The result is that now I feel much more out of touch with the feel of Afghanistan. I really wonder how any of those diplomats in Kabul who do not get out into the country can even begin to grasp what’s going on. They have no idea, and yet many are as pompous and arrogant as ever with their supposed “reliable intelligence sources.” I wouldn’t trust their intelligence sources for a bean. Afghans tell you what they think you want to hear. That’s the way of survival. You keep four or five feet in different camps, and then see how the wind blows. That’s what the Americans and NATO forces just don’t understand. They believe that they have Afghans on their side because they can drink tea with them and because they may seem willing to collaborate. That’s a serious delusion.
You say that the Americans – and the West – failed to learn from history and have made a mess of things in Afghanistan. In fact, you even go as far to say that the US bombing of Afghanistan on October 7 started a new war.
When I say one needs to go back in history, one should go back hundreds, even thousands of years. However, let’s be generous and only go back 30 or so. First, one needs to understand that any of those numerous outside players dealing with Afghanistan have always done so, and still do, as part of their own agendas. They are not there for the Afghans. This includes the Pakistanis, Chinese, Americans, Indians, Iranian, Russians…
When the Americans began supporting the mujahideen against the Soviets, they did so to give Moscow its own Vietnam. This was not done for any great love of the Afghans. The trouble is that the CIA and Washington handled the whole thing so incredibly incompetently. They relied primarily on Pakistan’s military InterServices Intelligence or ISI agency to provide the political direction and on-the-ground intelligence. I try to explain this in the book with lots of examples and incidents. ISI supported the Afghan Islamic fundamentalists, many of whom – or their sons – are now fighting US and NATO forces in Afghanistan today. This includes Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a notorious and highly ruthless resistance politician who has murdered or otherwise killed numerous Afghan moderates. Another was Haqqani of the Haqqani Network, another key insurgent organization today.
We also supported Osama bin Laden because he was a favorite of ISI. Our policy was totally ludicrous despite all the available information provided by journalists and aid workers who had travelled clandestinely with the resistance. A few US diplomats and intelligence operatives also warned Washington that we were creating monsters who would come back to haunt us, but they, too, were ignored. When you think how many billions of dollars are being spent with all that sophisticated logistical support, I am constantly stunned at the stupidity and incompetence of so-called experts who continue to ignore history and think they know better, and yet keep making the same mistakes.
We even supported the Taliban. In early spring, 2001, former Vice President Cheney provided a 43 million dollar grant to the Taliban for their supposed clamping down on narcotics. At the same time, we ignored people like Massoud and Abdul Haq. Both warned the US not to bomb Afghanistan but to bring pressure on the Pakistanis and Saudis who were heavily supporting the Taliban alongside al Qaeda. The Taliban would collapse without their support. But we ignored this and went to war. We also jailed this young American guy, John Walker Lindh – the American Talib – for fighting along side the Taliban but we let those who abused the US constitution and made a mess of things in Afghanistan get away with it.
And it did not – and does not – stop there. During the post-9/11 period, we brought in the warlords and former Jihadists who were totally discredited in the eyes of ordinary Afghans. And then we brought in the military – and let the military call the shots – rather than focus on intelligent and low-key recovery. We also brought in the big corporations, which are largely corrupt, spend massive amounts on overhead and rely on mercenaries for their security. The result is that we are now fighting a totally pointless war and have spent billions on Afghanistan with little to show. We should be focusing on the way the experienced international and local aid organizations on the ground are operating. They work with local communities and retain contacts without everyone, NATO, the Kabul government, the insurgents and village elders. The only way to resolve Afghanistan is to get people talking. All of them, including the insurgents. But the Afghans have got to this, not us.
How does reporting compare today with before?
It is much more difficult to report. We had incredible access to local communities during the 1980s and 90s. Now it is far more dangerous. There are some excellent on-the-ground reporters, but many prefer to only report from the military side which gives a completely lopsided view of the conflict. They have no idea what Afghans think. The only way to operate in Afghanistan – and to understand what’s going on – is to maintain the contact with ordinary Afghans. Unfortunately, most of the internationals, including the US, British, German and other embassies, now live behind walls and don’t get out for months at a time. This is no way to work. And its frustrating for those who do want to get out, but are not allowed to by the rules because of security concerns.
April 22, 2011
This week, I participated in a reading in New York City’s West Village. All I knew when I entered was that I was going to a new “science fiction” bookstore. That turned out only to be partially true. Ed’s Martian Book is indeed new, but what it stocks is nonfiction, namely author Andrew Kessler’s debut book, Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission (Pegasus). There’s something extremely surreal about being in a store where shelf after shelf, case after case, table after table only have one title. Perhaps that is science fiction-like. It’s mesmerizing, and I kept being tempted to open the books to make sure they weren’t blank inside (I gave in to temptation and, in fact, they were not blank inside). I emailed Kessler to find out more about his mission to Mars and his “crazy” bookstore brainstorm.
This is a continuation of my series of personal observations about my native country on its golden jubilee. For items 1-16, please see part 1.
17. Nobody deploys the witty put-down quite like Wafi and Safi boys (and girls). You know it by many names: “the dozens,” “snaps,” “cracks,” “yo mama jokes,” and such. The tradition of non-violent contests of wits through rapid-fire mutual insults is well know anywhere Black culture has left a mark. But in my travels I don’t think I’ve met any group that dishes it out quite as expertly as folks from the Niger delta towns of Warri and Sapele (AKA Wafi and Safi), rendered in the particularly extravagant brand of Pidgin English for which that region is famous. I myself still bear the scars from some such encounters. And if you are trying to get cozy with a girl from that region, you had better come correct, or you might not survive the resulting put-down.
February 10, 2010
Lorraine Adam’s The Room and the Chair, just published this week, is getting some well-deserved praise from all quarters for her ambitious novel of war, politics, and journalism. She was gracious enough to field a few of Dennis’s questions:
DH: Thanks very much, Lorraine, for taking my questions about The Room and the Chair. It’s one of the toughest-spirited stories I’ve read. I want to start with something at the heart of that toughness, the American military.
I was struck at one point when you pointed out that the armed forces have their own way of talking.
There’s a gap in mind-set between civilians and the military. In your novel, the sections set on bases and their environs are held separate from the parts of the narrative centering on civilian characters. If you wanted to say something to perpetual civilians like me about what soldiers are like, how they look at the world and how they handle their feelings, what would it be?
LA: First of all Dennis, thank you for your enthusiasm about The Room and the Chair. Your comments about the novel are smart and interesting.
To answer your question. Soldiers inhabit an environment where violent death in youth is nearer than it is for most of the rest of us. In that way they’re like cops, criminals, emergency room staff or the severely impoverished. Like those groups of people, they develop their own argot. It’s a logical outgrowth of their constant encounters with extremity. They need to invent words to get at what is rarely described by others living more commonly experienced lives. One of the singularities of the female soldier in my novel, a fighter pilot, is that because of recent changes in warfare, she is far more insulated from combat death than fighter pilots in previous wars. Yet she is at the nexus of one of the most serious moral dilemmas of today’s wars–civilian casualties from aerial attack. So her sense of her righteousness and bravery are under a peculiar and new pressure. For anyone raised in a military culture, as she was, (her father was a fighter pilot in Vietnam) this causes some serious emotional contortions.
DH: In your novel, there’s a classified report that gets leaked to the media. But it’s the sensational parts of the report, really not that significant, that get all the attention. The most salient facts in the voluminous report don’t get noticed, even though they are in plain sight. The public is always shocked when the dots are not connected. But it’s the public themselves who are the worst at connecting the dots. Aren’t the answers in plain sight sometimes but we are not seeing them? What role do you think literature can play in connecting the dots?
LA: Consider the Napoleonic wars. In the first decade afterwards, a reader will find state records, memoir and correspondence. Sometime after, historical accounts appear that try to synthesize those writings. Eventually historians take issue with those accounts, usually with conceptual narratives that make a story out of the claims and counterclaims of the histories themselves. But if you want to know what the Napoleonic wars felt like to the human beings caught up in them, you read War and Peace or The Charterhouse of Parma. Fiction gives us a grasp of seemingly vague or disparate phenomenon. It makes meaning. History and non-fiction, at least the intellectually honest practice of both, give us arguments about what is knowable. Somehow today it’s gotten fashionable to call what I call meaning-making “connecting the dots.” But only fiction can do that. Intelligence is the collection of data and making arguments about what that data portend. Our expectations about what intelligence gatherers can extrapolate speedily from data is way too high. First, these gatherers of data are evaluating things which are definitely not dots. And they’re not working with the traditional childhood numbered dots. The data is all around the globe and it sure doesn’t have any numbers. So what the data gatherers must do is more akin to a back-and-forth process of making judgments about meaning. It’s fantastically complex. When the narratives and facts are voluminous and time pressure is great, as they can be in terrorism or newspaper writing, judging what certain narratives or facts mean usually
becomes a race to generalize. I think novels, unlike film, television series or other narrative art forms, allow for an appreciation of everything I’ve just described.
DH: In your fictional newsroom, the clash of egos between journalists has a big impact on what gets reported. At one point, a prize winning journalist withholds vital information from his newspaper because he wants to include it in his forthcoming book instead. You’re a prize winning journalist. Does that ever happen? How big a role does career jockeying among journalists play in what the public gets to see?
LA: This most certainly happens. I witnessed it at The Washington Post, and many others have too at other publications. I also believe that books about political events, such as Game Change or Too Big To Fail, usually are composed by young men of great ambition who have far more to gain by sketchily sourced story telling than they do by the plodding piecemeal distribution of isolated facts, usually with a name attached, that is daily or periodical journalism’s hallmark. It is obvious to any serious practitioner of reporting that these books contain myriad guesses, assumptions and extrapolations, all of which assembled together make for a gloppy tissue of almost lies. Which is to say, they’re like James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces–entertaining fiction masquerading as fact. I don’t necessarily condemn any of this, I just think it’s fascinating material for a novel.
DH: People believe what sounds plausible. Drone aircraft might really be piloted aircraft. But that would never have occurred to me because the use of drones sounds more plausible. When you write a novel, the safest strategy is to make the events and characters seem plausible. But do you think that novel writing has any role to play in helping us distinguish between what’s only plausible and what’s actually real?
LA: The use of drones sounds plausible because you’ve heard or read news accounts of them. Yet you also know but probably don’t focus on the fact that there are many military endeavors that are kept secret. The United States has made what is supposed to be a secret program–drone bombings within Pakistan’s sovereign borders–a well-known fact. Why? Possibly because it’s more palatable to Pakistani leaders? dignity and self-respect to be able to say, Look these are just machines, they aren’t Americans horning in on our homeland. The leaders look stronger to the Pakistani electorate. It may very well be that there are no American fighter pilots bombing Pakistan. But if there were, it wouldn’t be anyone’s interest, Pakistani or American, to acknowledge it, when they can just as easily call it a drone and get some political benefit.
I’m not entirely sure that novels taught me to think the way I’ve just outlined above. I do know that reading newspapers and history books taught me that after Vietnam there were many revelations about what really had gone on in Laos and Cambodia. I was trying in the novel to imagine what might be the secret actuality of the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In that way I think running secret piloted missions in Pakistan is plausible. Nonetheless, I do think novels remind us of reality’s changeability. They help us see how what seems to be a collection of rigid occurrences is much more fluid.
DH: Several of your key players, Mary the fighter pilot especially, seem to go into these disassociated fugue states, these very personal interior monologues. It’s as if when they want to be most themselves, they have to pull the plug on the outside world and enter into what’s almost a dream state. Giving your characters alternative, hidden identities supports this process. One character in R&C is passing for white, another has a dark family history under another name.
These sections are very effective but when you depict the real world, it’s rock solid and hard-boiled. There’s little space for subjectivity here.
There are such binary swings in your novel: civilian life/military life, interior feeling in free association combined with hard-boiled, we’re-taking no-prisoners toughness. Also, whole groups of your characters don’t meet each other. The story is in two halves that connect only at key points.
I’m sorry for the long question. But is there a sort-of schizoid split in your art. Did you adopt it as a canny writer’s strategy? Or did the novel just form itself that way? Do you think that’s what our time is like? That it’s split into compartments that rarely meet?
LA: What you observed is intentional on my part. My first thoughts about the novel, even before there were any characters, centered around how in Washington the warrior class and the writing class cannot exist without the other, and yet, they rarely if ever intersect. They were connected and disconnected at once. That kind of paradox, what you call a binary swing, is a preoccupation for me. I also think because of the complexity of contemporary life we are forced into compartmentalizations and generalizations. It helps us cope, but it doesn’t help us understand. Eventually, the segmentation and the formulation catches up with us, sometimes with comic, but more often tragic result.
DH: For me, the heart of your novel was a couple of brilliant chapters in the middle that take place at Bagram Air Force base. That sequence of chapters starts with a mission and concludes with an accident. You link the incidents by having the narrator of the mission suffer in the accident. I was fascinated by whether you meant to depict the mission and the accident as morally equivalent.
Let me approach the problem this way: How do questions of morality get into a novel? When your characters get subjective, they ponder about what they have done…or what others have done. Are questions of morality in the real world or just in people’s heads? Do you want readers to draw moral conclusions from your novel?
LA: The accident and the mission present themselves to the character Mary Goodwin as morally equivalent. But she is also aware that her pre-military personal history, one of extreme violence, suggests the equivalency. Mary is too multivalent to rest there, and she experiences an unraveling in a military hospital of the seemingly difficult, but actually easy assumptions of her life story.
Moral questions get into a novel because I’m interested in them. I chose to write about a fighter pilot who aims at enemy targets and has been trained to see civilian casualties as collateral damage. It starts there. But what doesn’t interest me is that starting point, the simplistic moral problem. I’m interested in the before and after of that problem. And I?m interested in it at the most microbial level–how it feels when she takes a piss after a run, how it feels when she’s in her bunk, what she does or doesn’t say about it to a casual acquaintance or her wingman, a close friend. Moral questions exist in our heads, and that is the real world. Just because it can’t be examined by casual observation doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I don’t want readers to draw moral conclusions from my novel. I want them to be awake to the moral questions. To feel their texture and weight and smell.
DH: The conclusion of your novel blew me away. Novels end two ways: Either there’s a definitive denouement…the lovers get married or we find out who did it. Or…the novel ends because the writer has completed their exploration of the characters lives and the ancillary themes of the story…so the tale just stops.
In R&C, you have done both. In trying to evaluate the book, I found myself referring back to older literature. I ordered a collection of Kipling stories in a fine Everyman edition from Amazon.
We are not the first soldiers to tread Iran and Afghanistan. Alexander has been there before us…and the Russians and the Brits. That’s why I picked up Kipling.
What seemed remote and exotic to me before, late imperial Russia and Britain, now seems salient and their literature suddenly seems salient as well. So what do you think of me comparing you to Kipling? And thanks, Lorraine, for considering my questions. I went ape shit over your book. There…I’ve said it again.
LA: I think the only thing Kipling and I share is geographical. And even that is a tenuous connection. He was born in Lahore, in what is now Pakistan and at the time was India. My third novel, which I’ve been working on for a year now, is set in present day Lahore. I’ve traveled throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan, crossing the Khyber Pass–a journey Kipling also took when he was a newspaper reporter for a Lahore newspaper. You can check out his essay on that journey in Kipling Abroad, a wonderful new collection of his travel writings. His only full length novel of any consequence is Kim, which is set in Lahore, and which Edward Said rightly called “a rich and absolutely fascinating, but nevertheless embarrassing novel.” It’s a masterwork of imperialism, but without a shred of irony or doubt. Also the bulk of Kipling’s literary output was short stories for boys. Kipling viewed women as extraneous or entrapping. He viewed non-Europeans largely as objects of fantasy, as beings who, like the Na?vi in Avatar, supply Europeans with adventure, redemption and escape from the strictures of the typical middle class existence of petty struggle. The Room and the Chair is definitely about empire, the American empire, but one that is more a state of mind than an institutionally administered construct. To the extent that we have an empire, it is through our military bases around the world. In our history we certainly have colonized the Philippines and other territories, but the current American project is not colonialism in the 19th century European sense. I think my book, peopled as it is with strong women who are never entrapping, and with an Iranian character outside the reach of the American military, is completely at odds with Kipling’s literature of imperial benevolence.
Now that the “holiday season” (Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, the release of Avatar) is finally behind us, I can say with finality that I never got around to visiting the Charmin public restrooms here in NYC. I certainly had my chances, but it just would have felt too strange for me to see the final results of the process that took place on November 5th.
Let me tell you about the events of that day. What I am about to share with you is a completely true, accurate report. I know this because I was the one shady-looking participant standing around with a little notebook, writing down every single ludicrous thing I heard and saw.
Every year around the holidays, Charmin—yes, the toilet paper company—sets up these really nice public bathrooms in Times Square. They exist to serve all the desperate shoppers who can’t find a place to pee when they’re running from Bloomie’s to the M&M Store. This year, for the first time ever, they decided to hire five people to be greeters at the bathroom and blog about the experience. When I told my mother about this on the phone, she was unimpressed. But then I added, “It pays $10,000.” That sealed the deal for getting parental encouragement.
In order to choose the lucky five, Charmin held an open audition. The online posting for the job had been sent my way by three different friends along with notes like “You gotta try out for this!” I should mention here that “toilet blogging” was my own derogatory moniker for the post. The official title Charmin had adopted was a lot more highfalutin: “Charmin Ambassador.”
Charmin’s description said that Ambassador candidates should “Have a resume on-hand, have an outgoing personality, exude enthusiasm, and possess social media savvy.” I felt that I had all of these, in spades. At the very least, I was certainly capable of printing out my resume. The ad continued: “Auditions will begin promptly at 10 a.m. on November 5. Interested applicants may line up at the New York Hilton starting at 8 a.m. Only the first 1,000 candidates in line will be guaranteed an audition.” Since I’m a complete idiot, I assumed barely anyone would show up. I even laughed at their delusional hope of attracting 1,000 people.
I had forgotten about a sizable group in New York: the unemployed. Arriving at 8:25 put me at #182 in the line, which was a harrowing sight that snaked along the outside wall of the hotel. In addition, it turned out to be (how grand!) the first truly cold fall morning of my three months in New York. While I and the other 184 losers stood shivering, peppy assistants with headsets ran around handing out yellow sign-in sheets, to which they stapled Polaroid snapshots they took of each person.
I examined the form and found pretty standard questions about my profession (none), my age (young), and my agent. Wait, they were asking me for the name of my agent? I didn’t have one.
I quickly learned that most of the people in line were not bright-eyed journalism students, but out-of-work actors. In fact, Charmin had hired a casting director to run the auditions. Some people were even practicing lines from plays. I was out of my element.
“Don’t worry, lots of people here are amateurs!” a cute casting assistant told me after I expressed concern. “Yeah, I’ll bet that guy doesn’t have an agent,” I quipped, pointing to an old man leaning on a cane. I found it somehow mortifying that a person over forty was trying out to be a toilet blogger. This man looked about seventy. Sporting a giant silver beard and a trucker hat that said BEAST on it, he looked like he could have been the drummer for ZZ Top. When a cameraman rushed down the line to get reaction shots and people waved or whooped, the old man shouted at the camera, of all things, “Good to see you!” which seemed to me a bizarre choice.
Everywhere around me were more people to ridicule. The girl directly in front of me had brought along a small ukulele, and was singing a song she had written about toilet paper. “My favorite thing about the go,” she crooned, “is I get that time for me!” I should add here that the online job description instructed that applicants come prepared to explain, “Why you love the go.”
Still, I wasn’t really thinking of the audition in those terms because I assumed that they really meant, “Tell us why using a public bathroom could be a good experience and how you would make it one as our greeter,” and not, “Tell us why you love urinating or evacuating your bowels.” Of course, to my horror, a good number of people in line had prepared serious answers to that very question.
Meanwhile, a girl in line behind me had forgotten to bring a resume and was now writing one by hand, using a crayon. This was my competition—people who seemed to have walked off the set of Glee.
And boy, people were excited. A chubby, likable guy who must have been around 25 had informed everyone that he was a comedian, and from then on I took everything he said to be a shtick. He especially hammed it up as he told us about the time he took his grandmother to the Charmin restrooms a couple years ago. “Have you guys actually seen them? They’re unbelievable! My grandma said it was more fun than Disney World!” Oh, god.
We learned from our yellow info sheets, which were decorated with that adorable Charmin grizzly bear character at the top (you know, the one who adorably wipes his ass on tree trunks in the commercials), that this job would run from November 23rd to December 31st (so that’s $10,000 for 5 weeks of work) and would require 40 hours a week, including weekends. In truth, I knew as soon as I saw this detail that logistically I could not take this job, were they to offer it to me. For my graduate program I had class all day on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays. Even if I worked all day on weekends I wasn’t sure I’d be able to fulfill the 40 hours. Still, I stayed. ‘Go big or go home,’ right?
We were finally allowed to come out of the freezing cold and go into the building at 10:15, but not before I had managed to successfully offend everyone in my near vicinity by announcing, “Why would actors want to try out for this?!” The answer, as many were all too happy to tell me, was money.
Once inside the giant reception room, I came into contact with a host of other misfits who seemed to think it was still Halloween. One woman had dressed in a toilet paper gown. A tall, bald guy had written ‘CHARMIN’ on his skull with a Sharpie pen.
We all sat down in plush hotel conference chairs and began to chatter amongst ourselves. The young woman who sat beside me had brought along an illustration she had done. The drawing depicted a stick version of her, standing in a room before a panel of judges. They were all holding up signs that read ‘9.5’ or ’10.’ I strongly wished that the Charmin judges would not be wooed by unsolicited artistic gifts. When this same girl looked up from her drawing, which she had been examining proudly, she asked me what I could possibly be doing with my iPhone. It had been glued to my hand for quite some time. “I’m tweeting the shit out of this,” I said. And I was.
Another good-looking casting assistant entered the room after forty minutes and finally announced, “We will begin calling numbers shortly. You will head upstairs in groups of ten. Once it’s your individual turn you will enter the room and have no more than 90 seconds to tell the casting people why you should be the Charmin Ambassador!”
After this warning terrified everyone, I witnessed several “routines” in the works, including the same comedian from outside practicing what he called “my TP rap,” a gorgeous Italian girl practicing a dance routine that looked like she had lifted it from Grease, and two siblings juggling toilet paper rolls. Their plan was to audition as a pair.
I found myself extremely fucking annoyed. I felt pretty sure that a woman using the Charmin bathrooms would not want a greeter to get all up in her face, playing ukulele to herald her toilet trip. The innocent visitor would want a warm, normal “hello” with no tiresome shenanigans.
I had a grand plan to say exactly this, to tell the casting director in honest terms that I would make the perfect greeter because I was the common man (in my Timberland boots and un-tucked flannel shirt) and that I had come with no gimmick, no song and dance, just my friendly demeanor and marketable blogging skills.
I grossly misjudged myself, and the event. By 3pm, almost 700 people had shown up. I had sat in the waiting room for nearly five hours, and had consumed two Clif Bars and a Turkey sandwich.
At last the time came for #182. After an elevator ride of pregnant silence with the other nine people in my group, I stepped into the room and a man behind a table, flanked by two women on either side, called across the vast space between us, “Hello. Please stand directly in that circle, directly under that spotlight.” It couldn’t have felt more unnatural. He pressed record on a camera and said, “Ninety seconds, and, go.”
I did not ‘freeze,’ exactly. I said what I had planned to say, but the entire speech was painfully artificial. I found myself making these strange exaggerated hand motions. I could feel that I was giving little forced laughs after each statement—ha!—and that my face was twitching with fake smiles.
I watched all of this as though through a window. It was abundantly clear after only ten seconds that it was not going well, but I kept digging myself into a deeper hole. “Welp, ya know,” I yammered, “I saw a lot of these other people out there [motioning with my thumb like a cartoon character] practicing elaborate songs and dances, and lemme just say I just think that’s kind of fake. See, I’m [pointing to myself the way one might while saying ‘this guy!’] just a down-to-earth, friendly dude. I’m a real people-person [oh no, not that] and I know how people would want to be greeted.”
It was a train wreck. I had heard before my turn that if you were chosen for a callback audition, you would find out on the spot. The man would hand you a blue slip. After I finished speaking, I said with whatever desperate energy I had left, “So that’s it; I’m your guy!” The director looked up from the camera and said sweetly, “It was nice to meet you.” I walked out.
I had spent that day ridiculing the most outlandish freaks there, but they were probably the ones to receive callbacks. Part of me—the bitter asshole part—is still sore that Charmin apparently did not want the outgoing, social media savvy everyman they clamored for, but actually was looking for ebullient, over-the-top clowns.
But that’s not a fair conclusion. Mostly I’m just humbled. I could feel a little silly for wasting a whole day, sure. But the experience was worth it, if only for this mildly entertaining story at parties. I left with a new awareness of my performance limitations. Oh, and I have that coupon they gave everyone for a free 10-pack of Charmin toilet paper. Maybe I’ll mail it to my mother.