August 07, 2016
Would you prefer that we write a book about live people? No, better the dead…
Are the essays in this book eulogies?
Yes…and no. We did try to take each of these dead persons seriously and therefore to write with some sympathy. In general, even with the living, we try to take people seriously and on their own terms. But the job of writing about recently deceased persons of note is not to say something nice simply for the sake of saying something nice. It is about digging and scratching at the lives in order to see what comes to the surface. Sometimes, this creates surprises.
What do you mean surprises? Can you give an example?
[Morgan] Well, when I started writing about Christopher Hitchens he had literally just died. I became very emotional as I wrote. The whole thing was written while crying, to be honest. I realized two things. One, that I had a lot of anger and resentment toward the man and two, that I actually loved him, in the non-romantic sense of the term. I realized that this love was generated by something other than the usual regard for his writing and argumentative skill. In fact, upon reflection, I realized that his writing and argumentative skill were, to my mind, overrated. That made my deep feeling of connection to the man all the more mysterious, a fact that pleased the hell out of me the more I thought about it. I tried to capture some of that in the essay, which, if it has any virtue at all, has the virtue of mostly refraining from restating the well-worn Hitchens clichés. The more I wrote about Hitch, the more I realized that I have no idea why he was such a powerful person.
[Shuffy] I had an overall negative feeling about Mikhail Kalashnikov when I first heard that he died. I considered it one of those mild, everyday ironies that the man who invented one of the killing machines of the 20th century, the AK-47, was now, himself, dead. But when I started to read more about the man, and read the letter he had written to a priest near the end of his life, something changed. I started to see him as a tragic figure. That would be an interesting enough change in perception and might make for a good eulogistic essay. But then a third thing happened. I started thinking about Mary Shelley, which is something I do more often than not. I started to see Kalashnikov as involved in the struggle that faces all inventors, which is the struggle, as I see it, between nature and culture. I started to see Kalashnikov as a Dr. Frankenstein figure. This made Kalashnikov scary again, but in a better way. Now, he was no longer, for me, simply the guy who mechanized killing or the tragic figure caught up in historical events that were over his head. Instead, I started to see Kalashnikov as a monster and in being a monster of sorts, to see his specific humanity. Because the gun he invented was, after all, supposed to solve problems. It is in trying to solve problems that the trouble starts, for all of us. And yet, who would ever suggest that we should stop trying to solve problems? The are infinite knots you can get tied up in trying to resolve all the conflicting thoughts and emotions around a figure like Kalashnikov. My little essay was an attempt to get the ball rolling on that.
This book is sounding more and more intellectual the more questions I ask. Is Dead People extremely boring to read?
No. It is fun to read. Fun fun fun fun.
Although you write about very well-known people like John Updike and Kurt Cobain, you also include some pretty obscure figures … James van Sweden, Tadeusz Konwicki, Roman Opalka. Is the reader being challenged here? Who the heck is Roman Opalka?
Roman Opalka was a French-Polish painter who mostly painted numbers. First, white numbers on a black background. Later, he switched the color of the background to gray, making the gray lighter and lighter as he went along. He got to the number 5, 607, 249 … then he died. If this little story is not interesting to you, if you do not, right now, want to know more about Roman Opalka then we cannot help you. Do not buy our book. Cease.
But we very much suspect that you are intrigued. You want to know more about Roman Opalka, and therefore, probably, about James van Sweden and Tadeusz Konwicki, too. So, no, the reader is not being challenged. But there is a smidgen of seduction, maybe. Just a smidgen.
Can you say something smart to wrap up this interview?
STEFANY ANNE GOLBERG is a writer, multi-media artist, and a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York.. She was a writer for The Smart Set magazine and Critic-in Residence at Drexel University from 2009, and has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Her husband MORGAN MEIS has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for The New Yorker, n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, Image Journal, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. They are co-authors of the essay collection Dead People, published by Zero Books.