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Lili Anolik is the author of Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A., available from Scribner.

 

Anolik is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and a writer at large for Air Mail. Her work has also appeared in Harper’s, Esquire, and The Paris Review, among other publications. Her latest podcast, Once Upon a Time… at Bennington College, dropped September 29th, 2021.

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Otherppl with Brad Listi is a weekly literary podcast featuring in-depth interviews with today’s leading writers.

Launched in 2011. Books. Literature. Writing. Publishing. Authors. Screenwriters. Etc.

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Now playing on Otherppla conversation with Michael Schumacher. He is the editor of The Fall of America Journals, 1965-1971, by the late Allen Ginsberg, available now from the University of Minnesota Press.

 

Schumacher is also the author of the acclaimed Ginsberg biography Dharma Lion (Minnesota, 2016). Along with Ginsberg’s Iron Curtain Journals and South American Journals and Conversations with Allen Ginsberg (all from Minnesota), he has edited Family Business, selected correspondence between Allen and Louis Ginsberg, and The Essential Ginsberg, a reader of Ginsberg’s best work. He lives in Wisconsin.

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Rod McKuen is the Odd Man Out in the history of American pop culture. Music encyclopedias almost never included him even though he released albums for over 40 years. Surveys of contemporary literature overlooked him despite (or perhaps because of) his enormous sales. Rod’s work as a musician and poet didn’t lend themselves to easy categorization. Over the decades, he was associated with the San Francisco beat poet scene, the Twist dance craze of the early ’60, the folk revival, the Great American Songbook school of pop, the early days of New Age environmental recordings and 20thCentury classical music.  Yet none of these genres or movements claim him as even an adjunct member. He remains sui generis by his own choice or otherwise.

His fans didn’t care. Try to see him as they saw him at the height of his fame: a rumpled, slightly stooped 30-ish man with lemon frosting-colored hair ambling into the spotlight to the sound of orchestral fanfare. Inevitably, he is dressed in a sweater, jeans (or chinos) and high-topped sneakers – no amount of success could change his outfit. There’s a laid-back cowboy charm about him, as well as the romantic melancholy of a French cabaret singer. He laughs bashfully, gives wistful sideways glances, rises from quiet murmurs to emotional crescendos. Now close your eyes and hear his voice – hoarse, pitted, compelling in its imperfection. It adds to his pathos and his sexiness.

Now playing on Otherppl, a conversation with Michelle Dean. She is the recipient of the National Book Critics Circle’s 2016 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Her new book is called Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion, available now from Grove Press.

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bolano2

A review of Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction by Chris Andrews (Columbia University Press, 2014), Bolaño, A Biography in Conversations by Mónica Maristain, translated by Kit Maude (Melville House, 2014) and A Little Lumpen Novelita by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer (New Directions, 2014)

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Some readers turn to fiction to find not a mirror of the world they live in with all its ambiguity and ugliness, but a comfortable construct where beginnings are followed by middles and conclude with at least moderately-happy ends. The bad earn their comeuppance, while the good get the girl/win the man/score the job/enter heaven. It’s a version of the Elizabethan worldview, where a society riven with murder and incest and terror always rights itself in the end. “The time is out of joint,” Hamlet says early on the play, and at the end young Fortinbras will ride in to reset the clock. A broken world always ended up mended, all its gears and springs put back in place. We tell ourselves stories to make sense of the wayward quality of our lives. We tell stories to soften the painful edges and pull the sting out of the bad moments we wish had never happened. We tell stories because we always want everything to end happily ever after, just like we were taught as kids, when the big people read to us. Even our memories get a little soft and rounded over time, just to shine a kinder glow on ourselves. But the twentieth century also made vividly clear just how chaotic and uncertain life is. Evil can rise up in the pathetic guise of a nondescript German corporal, or of a skinny disaffected ex-Marine in his Texas backyard with a mail-order rifle, not to mention—going back a few centuries—the pious crucifixed footmen of the Spanish Insurrection who promised you heaven and then broke your legs. It’s the smiling soldier who marches you under the sign that claims Arbeit macht frei, or the man who calls you out of the dark doorway and draws you into the Mexican desert with his guarantee of mercy and salvation. This is the world of Roberto Bolaño; this is the carnival of wandering troubadours and lost souls.

Author Photo linocutSo, you just weathered a really difficult Upper Michigan winter. I mean, the icebergs just melted in Lake Superior, and all these eager bastards are swimming in it already. What did you do to inaugurate the summertime, symbolically or otherwise?

I drank from the hose.

Domenica_Ruta_ 32

The Library of Congress breaks down your book into these categories: Children of drug addicts—Massachusetts—biography—drug addicts. What genre would you put your book into?

I really dislike reducing any work of art to a DSM-IV listing. My mother was more than her addictions and mental illness. And I am more than her daughter.

JD Salinger Portrait Session

In “Just Before the War with the Eskimos,” a story in J. D. Salinger’s second book, Nine Stories (1953)—his first was his novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951)—all four characters, two girls in their teens and two men in their early twenties, are so vividly drawn and speak in such perfectly rendered idiomatic American English that the reader might be watching them in a movie.  These days the story also has the quality of a faultless antique: a Manhattan taxi fare, for example, comes to 65 cents.

 

Joyce Johnson is the guest. She is the author of several books, the most recent of which is called The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, available now from Viking.

Kirkus calls it

An exemplary biography of the Beat icon and his development as a writer…Johnson [turns] a laser-sharp focus on Kerouac’s evolving ideas about language, fiction vs. truth and the role of the writer in his time…there’s plenty of life in these pages to fascinate casual readers, and Johnson is a sensitive but admirably objective biographer. A triumph of scholarship.

Also in this episode: Joshua Mohr, author of the novel Fight Song, now available from Soft Skull Press. Fight Song is the February selection of The TNB Book Club. Publishers Weekly calls it “an interesting mix of Charles Bukowski and Tom Robbins, with a cinematic heaping of the Coen brothers for good measure.”

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I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, by Sylvie SimmonsFor the past thirty-five years, author Sylvie Simmons has imbued the pages of music’s most important print outlets with an engaging style and her incisive views of the industry. The London-born journalist (now based in San Francisco) has written for the likes of SoundsCreemQRolling StoneMusic Life, and MOJO; she’s also had articles appear in The GuardianThe TimesThe IndependentThe San Francisco Chronicle, and other newspapers.

Beyond her proficiency in all things pop, Simmons penned a catalog of pivotal features on the emerging L.A. metal scene in the 1980s; perhaps most notably, she was the first journalist to devote serious attention to then-unknowns Guns N’ Roses and Mötley Crüe.

Not every game that I played with my parents required so large and so mathematically sophisticated an apparatus as our beanbag tic-tac-toe set: with its ever shifting planes of experience—Xs and Os—victory and loss—all poised on invisible pins and ready to pivot from pleasure to pain to panic—that nightmare land of indecision—at the slightest provocation.

We also enjoyed simpler pastimes, such as hide-and-seek.

Why two history books, Boone: A Biography and now Lions of the West, after publishing fourteen books of poetry and eight volumes of fiction?

I have always been interested in history. My dad, who did not have much formal education, loved to read history and tell stories about Daniel Boone, the Civil War, the Revolution, Cherokee Indians, George Washington, David Crockett. Growing up on a farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina I found arrowheads and pieces of Indian pottery while working in the fields. The very ground seemed haunted by the Indians. I always felt that intimate connection to the frontier past.

 

Why did you write Lions of the West as ten linked biographies?

There are literally thousands of figures one could write about in the story of the westward expansion. My plan was to tell the story through the lives of ten representative and significant figures, implying the much greater whole story. What Bernard DeVoto called “history by synecdoche.” I like the quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “There is properly no history, only biography.”

 

The subtitle of Lions of the West is Heroes and Villains of the Westward Expansion. Who are the heroes and who are the villains?

As it turns out they are all both heroes and villains at different times. Except for John Chapman, Johnny Appleseed. He is mostly a saint. They all did things we are ashamed of. Even the great Thomas Jefferson recommended to William Henry Harrison that he let the Indians go deeply in debt to the government trading posts in Indiana so they would have to pay off their debts by ceding more land to the United States.

 

Which genre do you prefer, poetry, fiction, or nonfiction?

Whatever I am working on at the time seems the most important.

 

How would you compare biography writing to novel writing?

Obviously there are great similarities between biographies and novels. Both are about lives, both are prose narratives, both require some research about geography and history. Both require the use of the imagination. But fiction writing requires a different kind of sustained imagination, where the writer often lets the characters and story take over, unfolding with their own surprises and revelations, whereas the imagination in biography writing has to bring alive actual events in
already known sequence, with already known results.

 

Do you think your experience as a poet and fiction writer has influenced the way you
write history?

I hope my experience with poetry has influenced my use of word choice, economy, and cadence in language. Poetry teaches us that what is implied is often more effective than what is stated. Writing fiction gives a strong sense of structure, and a feeling for narrative dynamics, the way a story has to move, keep unfolding, with something wonderful about to happen around the bend, on the next page, or the next. I think all those things have influenced the way I write biography.

 

What is the central theme of Lions of the West?

When I started writing the book I thought the central subject was the complex combination of poetry and beauty with the brutal story of Indian removal and the Mexican War. But as I proceeded with the book I came to see several sub-themes. One was the way deeply flawed and mostly ordinary people grew into greatness at the right moment in history. For example, Sam Houston was a bully, a drunk, and a dueler, when he was young. Yet in the Texas War for Independence he sobered up and became the great military leader and statesman that history recognizes. These leaders were made by history as much as they made history.

Another theme that emerged as I wrote was the way many leaders used westward expansion as a way of avoiding the unpleasant issue of slavery. Thomas Jefferson, for example, believed that expansion of the country into the western territories would cause slavery to wither away naturally. Other politicians, instead of confronting the thorny issue, chose to divert attention by the annexation and settlement of the West. When California was acquired there was nowhere farther to go. The events of the next decade, the 1850s, culminated in the Civil War.

 

What was the greatest surprise to you in your research for Lions of the West?

There were lots of surprises. For example, I didn’t know before that Jefferson was an inch and half taller than George Washington. Washington is always portrayed as a physical giant of a man. I did not know that Jefferson was so shy he almost never spoke in public. He never spoke at the Continental Congress, yet he wrote the Declaration of Independence and is the voice of the Continental Congress and the American Revolution.

Perhaps the greatest surprise was Kit Carson. I did not know that he never learned to read or write. For all his fame he had to dictate his letters and have letters read to him. Yet he had a photographic mind, could remember any land or trail he’d ever seen, and knew many Indian languages as well as Spanish and Canadian French. He was physically small, but probably the greatest scout and mountain man of them all.

 

Are there any themes in Lions of the West that seem relevant to contemporary issues?

Many of the controversies of the first half of the nineteenth century are still with us. The battles over “internal improvements” is still being fought between those who believe the federal government is the only institution that can build infrastructure, highways, canals, railroads, harbors, airports, versus those who want less government, arguing these things will somehow take care of themselves if the federal government will not interfere. Of course this controversy is closely tied to resistance to taxation. Disputes about involvement in foreign wars then are echoed in the arguments in our time about the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

What are your future projects?

I have just finished the sequel to the novel Gap Creek, called The Road From Gap Creek. And I’m thinking of a new novel also, set on the Appalachian Trail.

 

Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich by Mark KriegelHe was the sad-eyed wizard of the hardwood, wearing floppy socks and scraggly hair upon his head, the prodigy child of his father, Press Maravich. To a generation he was known as Pistol Pete, a soulful magician with a leathery, orange globe ricocheting from the tips of his fingers to the tips of his toes, the all-time leading scorer in NCAA history—a legend.

This is a Hollywood story, and it starts simply: A car drives through the streets of Los Angeles. It is March 2, 1994, and behind the wheel sits a man who has found a level of success that eludes the desperate majority here. Simon Lewis is a film producer and, at 35, an accomplished one. His is not a household name, but it is becoming an industry one. He makes light stuff mostly, and brings it in on time.

Forget Johnnie Cochran, F. Lee Bailey and Gerry Spence. The greatest trial lawyer in American history was the incomparable Clarence Darrow.

For that matter, forget Perry Mason, Matlock and Atticus Finch, too, because Darrow was also our greatest fictional trial lawyer.