What She Said

By Tom Hansen

Memoir

I was in the offices of The Department of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) here in Seattle, talking to a caseworker about getting DVR to fund the remaining two years of my MFA. This was 2006, I was 44 years old, seven years off heroin, six years into my education and halfway through an MFA at The University of British Columbia. In my former life as first a failed musician and then a functioning heroin addict and successful drug dealer I had been lucky and smart and devious enough to never have been caught selling or possessing heroin, or when I had been caught, weaseled or schemed my way out of it, and had been funding my new direction in life with Stafford Loans and the odd grant, all channels that would have been off limits to me if I’d ever been convicted of the bazillions of crimes I’d committed over the years. Everything had been running smoothly, through Community College, a BA and the first two years of grad school. I was four years into a memoir I’d been working on and I was beginning to have hope for the future. This was big for someone like me. Pulling oneself out of an addiction as self-destructive as mine is a long grueling process. It takes years to rebuild your self-confidence and to deal with feeling things again and I was well on my way. And then life threw me a curveball, which it’s known to do. George W. Bush, the “Decider,” decided to make some major cuts to education funding, one of which was to cut all student loans to US citizens attending colleges outside the US. That meant me.

 

The DVR caseworker sat across from me as I explained what was what. She looked at me apprehensively, and then explained that DVR didn’t fund art programs, only vocational stuff. “Anyone can write,” she said dismissively, when I told her what kind of program I was enrolled in. This kind of pissed me off, but I kept my cool. I told her about my disabilities that I’d acquired as a result of my End Game with heroin, the destroyed and degenerating hip that required me to walk with a cane, my mangled right elbow, my contracted hands from shooting up in my arms so much the wires controlling most of my fingers had been severed. She was unmoved. She insisted I change course, give up writing and accept some kind of training in the vocational realm. I told her I would think about it and left.

 

I’m a very quiet guy, usually.* I’m very good at staying out of trouble and avoiding conflict, which ironically is why I was such a good drug dealer for so many years. But it was less a thought out plan and more just the way I’ve always been, which I think I got from my adoptive parents, Norwegian immigrants, some of the most unobtrusive, hardworking and stoic people on the face of the Earth. When life threw curveballs at my parents they ducked. When it came too fast and the ball hit them, it knocked them down, and then they picked themselves up and carried on. They never complained, and going after the pitcher was never an option for them. They were firm believers that “the meek shall inherit the Earth.” And that rubbed off on me. When people messed with me in school, I never fought back. Never. I don’t know where the hell Mr. Miyagi was when I was growing up. Not in my neighborhood, apparently.

 

I stewed for a few days after the caseworker told that I shouldn’t be a writer. What she said played over and over in my head. “Anyone can write,” echoed in my mind and the more I thought about it the madder I got. I didn’t want to be a riveter. I didn’t want to work in some damned office. I didn’t want to work on spreadsheets or computer programs or bullet points. I’d always had artistic inclinations that I’d gotten from my biological parents who had been artists and with writing I had found the creative outlet I had always been looking for, the one I had come to conclude was what I should have been doing all along as music had turned out to be too laden with traps regarding my drug problem. It wasn’t that I had delusions of grandeur about writing, fantasies of fame and fortune, it was simply that I wanted to do something that I loved. I had grown to love writing, and I think writing loved me. It was what had kept me clean to that point. It had taught me discipline and perseverance and instilled in me a new kind of work ethic. I knew of course that I could be a writer without finishing the degree, but I was still in a somewhat fragile state regarding my self-confidence, my abilities as a writer and my psychological condition. I had never finished anything legitimate in my life and I wanted to finish this degree. It would be additional proof that my old life was over and a springboard to whatever came next.At least that was what I hoped. And prayed.

 

Normally I would have accepted my fate. I would have told myself my education was over and it wasn’t meant to be. This was what I’d done my entire life. I had responded to these situations the way my parents had. It was one of the things that led me to drugs. I hadn’t been able to make a career of music and suddenly found that I was good at drug dealing. Really good. Everyone wants to be good at something, and that was my thing, and now that my education was over it looked like it was going to be my thing again. I began to think about selling heroin again, and trying to keep my using under control. I knew that that was damned near impossible, but I still had too much pride, and would rather be successful at something even if it killed me than be unsuccessful at everything and live.

 

And then I decided to do something I’d never done before. I decided to fight. I really didn’t think anything would come of it. I had no faith in my government, and I didn’t think I would even get a response. I was sure that if anything I would get a letter back from some Bushbot saying “Sorry kid,” but I sat down that night and wrote an email to The US Department of Education, who informed me that when these sorts of cuts had happened in the past, students who had begun something were grandfathered in and allowed to finish what they’d started, but this time, that was not the case. Bush’s ‘decision’ was final. It was over. I was Shit-Out-Of-Luck (SOL) as they say. And then I got madder and decided to fight harder. I wrote letters to Rep. Jim McDermott, Gov. Christine Gregoire, and Sen. Maria Cantwell. I used every writing skill I’d learned to that point and crafted an argument (I should have been a lawyer) that given my physical disabilities I was not suited for a regular labor job, and that I could use a writing degree to become a teacher in the future. I was honest. I even told them that I was a former heroin addict (I left out the part about me being a dealer for almost twenty years) and that I was trying desperately to forge a new direction in my life. I told them about the not being grandfathered in. I made my case.

 

And then to my utter surprise two days later I received a call from Rep. Jim McDermott’s office. They told me they had received my letter, and asked how they could help. I asked if they could help me persuade DVR to help me fund the last two years of my degree. And that night I got a call from some bigwig at DVR, who said Jim McDermott had called him. He did not sound happy at all, but he went on to say said that DVR didn’t ordinarily fund art programs, but that they were going to make an exception in my case. Jim McDermott, who didn’t know me from Adam, had apparently done some arm-twisting for me. Little old me.

 

The moral of this story is that people can change. For most of my life I didn’t think that was possible, and for most of my life it kept me stuck in self-destruct mode. This was the first time something like this had happened. It didn’t even happen when I first got clean. That I put down to divine intervention. But this was different. I had changed. Just like the characters we write about have to undergo some kind of change or transformation or overcome an obstacle, I had changed from someone who just accepts things to someone willing to fight for what they want. It was an amazing lesson that informs my writing and it restored (somewhat) my faith in government. And that’s how I graduated from The University of British Columbia, became a writer, finished my memoir American Junkie, got it published and became a fan of Jim McDermott. The End

 

*Except when I’m shooting my fat mouth off on The Nervous Breakdown (I’m working on it people)

“The fans, which move from time to time, touched by invisible currents, serve also as some form of communication known only to the Reptiles.”
-William Burroughs

One of the key purposes of art in my view is pure inquiry-to ask ourselves some new questions, or to be invited to consider familiar or obvious things in a new way. As mainstream commercial art in all its forms becomes ever more committed to the quick narcosis of superficial entertainment, I think this inquisitive and participatory aspect of more thoughtful art becomes all the more significant.

What I\'m Working On Now

• horror movie sheep sculptures

• inflatables on water

• sand skeletals

• night fire figures & industrial effigies

• cheval-de-frises

• steeplechase grounds for huntsmen spiders, along with a family of
giant puppet figures made from piano wire & polystyrene,
foam, poultry supplies, gauze & nylon stockings full of hay

• oatmeal-textured plaster encrusted mannequin heads

• sexual ceremony boxes that look like beekeeper’s hats

• cheesecloth covered molds of limbs
and faces & exaggerated genitals

• skeleton men made of coat hangers

• complex diagrams, models & blueprints of imaginary machines,
maps, games, intelligence tests

• illuminated mental illness manuscripts and talismans
of luminous casual revelation and continuous apocalypse

How nervous is that?

DISCLAIMER: If one is to set out on a Einsteinian quest for a unified theory of the first-person singular, one must be mindful that the good professor failed in his attempt to develop a unified theory of the nature of the physical (read: physics). That an effort to theoretically unify the first-person singular should somehow escape a similar fate is an unlikely and remote possibility. (Some might say, a folly.) Let the pilgrim be forewarned.

Christopher Russell’s first solo show for the Luis de Jesus Gallery at Bergamont Station in Santa Monica, is an exploration into how images make up a narrative. It starts off with some abstract prints: a pattern motif encapsulated by a series of X-Acto knife slashes that form a “frame” around the image. The borders are spray-painted and blurred, turning the whole thing into a vignette – a memory of nothing. Along with the collage-like illustrations in the back room, these pieces resonate like a confused echo of the decadent romanticism Russell displayed last year at the Hammer Museum. The show includes a giant, hand-illustrated, hand-bound tome, behind which hang monochromatic prints of varying sizes, each one a different version of a ship lost at sea or sinking into a foggy gray backdrop. Unencumbered by spray paint and X-Acto knife slashes, they seem to bring a bit of peace to the show, even if they fail to deliver an emotional impact with sail ships boxed into a postcard-sized frame or placed almost cartoonishly aslant on a larger print.

How does the new Lynda and Stewart Resnick Pavilion fit into the LACMA family? Surely you must remember the Arnold Schwarzenegger/Danny DeVito movie “Twins.” I will not go so far as to suggest that this is what the worldly architect Renzo Piano had in mind when he designed the Resnick Pavilion at LACMA and placed it right next to his other contribution to “the campus:” the Broad Contemporary Art Museum. The resulting effect, however, is not far off. As viewed from the Entrance Pavilion, the Resnik Pavilion looks like the less-developed sibling of the taller, more imposing BCAM. It’s, well, the grand Piáno and the baby Piáno (insert restrained, WASPY laugh here). Both buildings are topped by a saw-tooth roof, are constructed from the same pale travertene marble, and are embellished with this or that functional accent in fire engine-… sorry, “Renzo-Red:” a staircase (BCAM) or an air-duct (the Resnik).But these are just surface details. As LACMA CEO and director Micheal Govan assurs us, the Resnik Pavillion is nothing but grand when viewed from the inside.

Explosion

Watched my old quarry friends blow up a section of hillside today. With extreme reluctance I agreed not to film it, for corporate reasons. But, man, C-4 is breathtaking, a plastic explosive not quite as powerful as PE4 but half again up on TNT. A detonation velocity of 25,000 feet per second +. That’s pushing 18,000 mph.

I concede this kind of stuff is extremely dangerous and needs the tight controls it has. But it is a godful thing to behold in action. And contrary to what you might think, the satisfaction of watching it work lingers. It’s like a raw pink Argyle diamond placed in your hand. For one moment you hold what might be a million dollars a carat in Antwerp–and your hand knows. It remembers when that rough gem is taken away. It’s not the same hand ever again.

The same with a proper blast. Your mind holds it–even as pieces of bluestone are flying.

The care in setting a good explosion…

It’s an art. And it makes me think of my own arts differently.

If you’re not blowing something up, you’re not really making anything. That’s the new credo. I’m going to be sorry to miss these guys. One’s going off to Western Australia to blow up things for real money for the mining industry out there. The other is joining the world’s biggest building demolition team in America. They’ve studied for their credentials and expertise–good for them. Everyone has to explode forward or implode inward.

Gone are the days. But we went out with a boom.

To anyone in the arts, I say if it can’t also hurt you, it might not really be art. Think dynamite and pink diamonds.

Embers

By Arielle Bernstein

Essay

When Adile and I see each other for the first time in five years, our embrace is awkward. “I forgot how tiny you were,” she says to me. There is nothing specific I can point out about Adile, immediately, that has changed. My memory of her is distant and charged with sentimentality, an echo of her voice emblazoned on my brain, a silhouette impression in the back of my eyes. Big black curls cascade down her shoulders. She isn’t wearing glasses like she did in high school so her eyes stand out even more than usual. Her black eyeliner is thick like an Egyptian goddess. “I didn’t remember you were so blonde,” she says to me, touching my hair as if I am a little doll.

In my interview with the late Dennis Hopper, he described his love affair with photography as an obsession. “I’m a compulsive shooter.”

I think the same thing can be said about the New York street photographer Matt Bialer (who is also a recognized watercolorist and published poet).

This summer when I took the train up to Montreal for a conference, I sat next to a scruffy hipster dude in his forties who told me he was from Brooklyn. The whole ride he lamented the lousy hipster kids who had moved into his ‘hood, saying they turned a dirty patch of city space into a slice of Martha Stewart. He told me the real people in every city hate the gentrifiers, but no one knows how to stop them, and he never realized I thought he was one of them, before he started talking.

There have been a lot of posts about love in recent months–finding it, losing it, what’s the right kind, what’s the proper duration, is it really even worth it?  Eccetera.

It reminded me that I went through a phase, some years ago, in which I was obsessed with the philosophy of Platonic Love.  It’s my favorite kind of love.  It’s the most interesting–and, I think, most delicate and complicated–kind.


Judith Gurewich: One always runs the risk of reverting to platitudes when one talks about one’s publishing vision, and why should I be any different? After all, I am a little greener than most in the business and therefore even more prone to superlatives than my seasoned colleagues. The old saying goes, “You are what you eat.” For publishers, it should be, “You are what you publish.” If so, I’d prefer to jump right into the kitchen and talk about the books. Since I love to cook as much as I love to edit, my authors often move into my house in Cambridge so I can feed them as we talk, fight, and work around the clock. Mind you, they love the food—it helps the editorial medicine go down—and they like the results: great publicity, beautiful covers, lavish ads in the New York Times and strong sales even while the depression rages on. The Glass Room by Simon Mawer is a case in point, with over 40,000 copies in the market place and more than 25,000 of those already avidly read.

But life has not always been so easy. A while back, I published an array of remarkable literary novels in translation, by the likes of Hanna KrallIcchokas MerasAlberto MoraviaErri De Luca, Peter StammGeorge Konrad, and many more. In my view, they all qualify as classics, for they each reveal not only the their authors’ talent but also the mentality, the culture, and the psychology of a different era, often the second part of the twentieth century. I only wish that then was now! We were small at the time, and did not have the incredible Random House sales force to push our books, thanks to whom we have acquired credibility among booksellers, as well as the friendship and support of many. I could easily spend my time touring the country and hanging out with what I have discovered is the secret intelligentsia of our country.

These booksellers did not need to read more than one page of the galley of The Wrong Blood by Manuel de Lope to realize that this Spanish novel, translated by the award-winning John Cullen, is the kind of literature that only comes by once in a blue moon. Written like a dream with resonances of Borges, Proust, and Baudelaire, and just enough dark wit to give it spice, The Wrong Blood shows us the Spanish Civil War as seen from the perspective of two women who share a secret that will give you the shivers. It isn’t far-fetched to say that I am always searching for a “classic” feel, even in the most contemporary and avant-garde literature I publish. It is no coincidence that Charles Elton, whose Mr. Toppit, a huge bestseller in England that really captures the pulse of our celebrity-obsessed era, read the early novels of Joan Didion and Philip Roth over and over again in order to shape his writing style and his story line. Learning to Lose by the celebrated Spanish author David Trueba also fits the bill, though it falls into the entirely different genre of “cool.” Here we find the joys and woes of soccer and young love under the sun of modern Madrid.

Occasionally I relax a little and publish stories that are simply terrific page-turners. Even with these, I look to go beyond superficial entertainments, because a good book, even when not a literary masterpiece, must affect your soul, and leave you with something you did not have before—whether knowledge, emotional charge, or some particular insights. This is the case with Mitchell Kaplan’s By Fire, By Water, a novel that effortlessly introduces us to the world of conversos during the Spanish inquisition, filled with intrigues, love affairs, and real history. Similarly, The Debba by Avner Mandelman is both my first foray into thriller-land and an insider’s look at the incredibly complex texture of Israeli society from 1947 to 1972. The reader leaves the book totally exhausted, having taken a roller coaster ride while acquiring a very different perspective on the Middle East conflict.

As far as non-fiction is concerned, I am proud to have published the much-lauded memoirHurry Down Sunshine by Michael Greenberg. It seems everyone has heard of this brilliant memoir but few connect it to Other Press. Hurry Down Sunshine was also my first international success, having been sold to eighteen countries and becoming a big best seller in Spain, Italy and Sweden.

This October, Montaigne comes to America in the form of an amazing biography by Sarah Bakewell called How to Live. It is my pride and joy of the season. I think you already know this because I saw the tweet on your blog.

My goal is to get Montaigne on the Colbert Report – it would do Steven and America a lot of good to finally learn “How To Live.” In a nutshell, Sarah’s wonderful book epitomizes what I want people to associate with my publishing house: it is at once immensely instructive, entertaining, intelligent, and beautifully written. And it puts you in a good mood!

—Judith Gurewich


I’ve never met Gina Frangello, and when we hooked up on Facebook we both wondered why weren’t already friends.  Gina and I both write for The Nervous Breakdown (she more than I), and her book Slut Lullabies has just been published by the independent label, Emergency Press. Gina is cool lady, and a great voice of of our generation. I know that’s a bold statement, but check her out, she won’t disappoint. -JR

When We Fell In Love by Gina Frangella

In the world of my childhood, books were not common objects. Growing up in a blue-collar neighborhood, what I remember about the shelves often were built into the walls of Chicago apartments is that they were usually full of cheap, decorative items (plastic flowers; imitation Lladros), rarely books. Most of my friends’ parents were first generation American, and had grown up speaking Italian or Spanish; few had finished high school. One friend’s mother devoured paperback V.C. Andrews or Sidney Sheldon, and her reading habits all but rendered her “intellectual” status in the hood . . .

Amid this, my mother was an anomaly, with titles on our shelves like Understanding the City Child and Love on the Left Bank and The Brothers Karamazov. And yet even in her case, these books were relics of a bohemian youth: the mother of my childhood—in her early 40s as I am now—had long since abandoned reading as a pastime, either out of depression or a desire to assimilate into her surroundings, my father’s world. These books loomed over my daily life of watching Happy Days and Little House on the Prairie, scanning the “funny pages,” playing kick the can or sitting endlessly on the front porch listening to ladies in house dresses gossiping, or practicing dance moves to the Bee Gees or Donna Summer on the record player. They hinted at something else—a life my mother had left behind to marry my father. Another kind of world that might be out there, someday, for me.

I trolled the library. I do not recall ever entering a bookstore until I was in college, though this seems hard to believe in retrospect so I’m open to the possibility that it is an exaggeration. In my library forays, I was confined to the children’s section—the librarian did not let us into the adult section, and so what we knew of adult literature consisted of a school friend’s smuggled in copy of The Friendly Uncle, glued into the spine of Moby Dick, or borrowed gang-rape-and-kidnapping-love-stories by Harold Robbins, loaned out by my best friend’s mother, a party-girl divorcee who never seemed to consider that this might not be the best reading material for twelve-year-old girls. In the children’s section of the library, I made lifelong friends. The Changeling by Zilpha Keatley Snyder and A Pocket Full of Seeds by Marilyn Sachs; Anne of Green Gables; A Little PrincessThe OutsidersAre You There God, It’s Me Margaret. Titles flood my memory: Foster ChildThen Again Maybe I Won’tThe Westing Game. Characters as diverse as Esme Sanchez and Ramona Quimby. These books were my childhood friends. They served, if anything, as stark relief from the world of my actual friends, many of whom, by twelve, were blowing twenty-year-olds in exchange for coke, running away from home, having pregnancy scares. Like the titles my mother had treasured in her younger days, these books served as a guidepost to me that there was another lens with which to view the world—many other lenses, and many possibilities as to how I might “turn out.”

I had started writing. By the time I was eleven, I had a “novel” of several hundred pages on butcher paper, ripped off into roughly equivalent sheets. By the time I began high school, I had three such completed projects, all about the same characters: a quartet of orphans living in an urban orphanage worthy of Dickens or Kafka, though I had never read either. I fancied myself a reader, a writer, and imagined it, in some way, as my ticket “out.” As soon as I could, I had headed across the city to a college prep high school you had to test into, high on my perfect Reading test scores that had landed me there. Gladly, I left my old peers behind, prepared to reinvent myself and conquer the world of books.

Imagine my surprise, then, when my first two years of English class at this prestigious high school left me dry. I was entertained by Greek mythology, but by and large the Important Work we studied failed to move me as the novels of my childhood had. Shakespeare sonnets or Beowulf. The gimmicky schmaltz of Flowers for Algernon. Steinbeck’s The Pearl, which I vividly recall provoked me to write a diatribe of a paper on why symbolism sucked. I can’t say why entirely—perhaps I was simply too young, with a shoddy early education—but these works simply failed to move me on any personal level. Too old for Judy Blume and too . . . something . . . now for the strange romantic misogyny of pulp fiction, I began to lose interest in reading altogether.

Enter The Crucible by Arthur Miller. I was almost sixteen, nearing the end of my sophomore year. If this was not the first book I loved, then it was the first book I read with what would later become my obsessive adult habits: underlining passages I liked and copying quotes into notebooks, dog-earing pages, memorizing lines that still ring in my mind. What was it about this short play that resonated so deeply—that knocked me on my ass and made me remember again the power of reading? Well, what is it ever? The answers to such questions are elusive to some degree. I can say that The Crucible contained many elements that would later work their way into my own fiction: sexual secrets, the theater of hysteria, jealousies between women, the hypocrisy of religion. I can say that while the books of my youth sometimes did take risks and end semi-unhappily, on a note of murder (ah, The Outsiders!) or war, that The Crucible pushed beyond that to a place where darkness and death could also be triumph, and where the illusion of triumph through death (on principle) could also be absurdity, because lines are blurry and truth itself is subjective. After reading The Crucible, there was a hunger in me not just to “escape” through books as I had in my girlhood, but to learn about people, their minds, their foibles. How intimate reading could be! What it could reveal of the human psyche! And because it was a play, I saw what dialogue could do for character development, and long before I ever sat in a creative writing workshop I internalized a major dose of “show, don’t tell.”

The Crucible was not a first love, and in the end (it no longer figures on my “favorite books of all times” list, exactly) not even my Great Love. But it was the love that came precisely at the moment I needed it. It was my transitional object/ rebound kind of love that took me from the realm of childhood escape to the complex, sometimes-scary world of adult lit, and reminded me again not only that I was a reader, but why.

I meet Matt at BookCourt an hour and forty-five minutes before the reading in Brooklyn. I haven’t seen him in months. Every time we reunite, I think the same thing: this room isn’t big enough to contain two people as beautiful as this. I consider loathing myself for this — it’s not a competition — but there it is all the same. In my head the words take up physical space and I visualize pushing them aside so they disappear somewhere near the ear canal.


New Yorker cover

The New Yorker continues the full court press of it’s ’20 under 40′ list; I guess that makes sense, if you’re going to try to define a literary generation you should probably publish its members in your magazine.

In “The Young Painters,” a piece of fiction appearing in The New YorkerMs. Krauss delivers a powerful story about the provenance of a painting.   The story comes across as a confession, of sorts, like a person might tell a judge after harboring the awful truth for years, and when it all comes out, it does so with great force.  The story turns to the severely morbid almost immediately when we learn that the people who created the painting were children, and they met with a gruesome end at the hands of their deranged mother, but I’ll let you sniff that part of the story out yourself.

I’m not sure if story is a part of Great House, her third novel, which will be published this fall, or if it’s a stand alone story.  If we take the Franzen school of thought, at least from The New Yorker’s point of view, then this work of fiction from Ms. Krauss is a slice of her new novel.  After reading this story, I’d like to read the novel, if the two are connected in some way, and I’d like to read it right now.  There is a smoky quality to the language here, it reminds me of stories that I once heard at a dinner party on New Year’s Eve in Rome, shared with a small group, revealed to everyone like lost treasure, and hard to forget.  At the same time, there is a modern feel (I don’t mean “modern” in the Frank Llyod Wright sense of the word, more “contemporary”) to our narrator, like she’s going through some form of crisis, a kind of awakening, or perhaps a realization that as a writer, there are at least three sides to each story.  At the same time this woman is miserable at having to deal with realities which come with writing a novel about her own father, and how she doesn’t know the difference between being a storyteller, and a person in her own stories, or life.

The story our narrator hears is told to her while she’s at the home of the dancer, and later on we find out that the story in question is reworked by our narrator and published in a “prominent” magazine.  It’s no accident that The Young Painters has been published, and I can almost see around the next corner, where this story might be going, or where Ms. Krauss wants me to think its going.  Either way, our narrator and Ms. Krauss are in on the trick, or somehow I was fooled, which happens to me quite often.  I’ll admit it, Ms. Krauss, you got me.

-JR