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Arthur Phillips

Three novels under his belt, Arthur Phillips sits down for a chat with our man in Boston about his commitment to fiction writing and, a challenge on quite another level, finding the discipline to focus on one piece at a time.

PHOTO BY ROBERT BIRNBAUM

As should be clear from the chat below, when I first met Minnesota-born novelist Arthur Phillips, I was prepared to view him as just another in the latest wave of Harvard smart alecks (following on the heels of Matthew Pearl and Benjamin Cavell) hawking a clever book (in Phillips’s case, Prague). And given Phillips’s evident pride in being a five-time Jeopardy! Champion, what seemed to be a bemused buoyancy, and his unconstrained penchant for glibness, I was wary of his commitment to fiction writing. Now, after two more novels, The Egyptologist and Angelica, I am pleased to report that it appears Arthur Phillips is seriously committed to literature. (Further proof: He has even moved to Brooklyn with his young family.)

In the following conversation, which took place last year, we talk about his latest opus, Angelica, and why he chose to write a kind of 19th-century Gothic ghost story, his feelings about writing, being edited, what’s hard about writing and what’s not, and of course, what his favorite color is. This and some thoughts on books he’s read—recent and past. One thing I very much hope comes across here is that Arthur Phillips is as much fun to converse with as he is to read.

 

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RB: Once again, I’m proud and privileged [chuckles] to be talking to Arthur Phillips. We talked a few years ago upon your fabulous international debut—

AP: I remember it fondly.

RB: Thank you. I do also, as does Rosie. Now you have published your third novel. Could we say that you are serious about writing? [laugh]

AP: Early mid-career seriousness? Yeah, I think I’m pretty serious about it. I am happy to do this as long as they’ll let me. I am working on another one.

RB: Let’s talk about your book, which, ostensibly, you are out here—what’s the current verb, hawking?

AP: Schlocking?

RB: Hustling?

AP: Whoring, pimping? Bringing the news to the people, that’s the verb.

RB: Charm initiative. Doin’ it. In any case, I am impressed with this book, in large part because it’s not the kind of story that I normally would read—any intimations of Gothic, horror, ghost—not my kind of story.

AP: Mine either.

RB: So the writing here trumped the story line. This seemed to be a concept novel that you quickly got past. All three of your books are significantly different from each other, your body of work. What do you start with when you begin a novel or piece of writing?

AP: You mean, was the concept I started out with [that] I have to do something different than the other books?

RB: No, that there is a concept that you are starting with, as opposed to, “Here’s a character or an incident…”

AP: Three different books, three different starting points. So I wanted to write about Budapest. I lived there, I loved it, I wanted to write about it. That’s where that one started. And then I had an idea for what ended up being the first scene in the book. And I wrote that first. For The Egyptologist—I had an idea for an ending of a story. I was daydreaming and I thought, “I don’t think I have ever read a story where an archeological expedition goes so badly that the guy has to forge the body with his own body,” which seemed like a pretty nifty ending to a story. And this one, I was walking along and I had an idea for a child coming to her parents saying or complaining of a certain physical pain which would map to what the parents had been up to with each other, far from the daughter the night before. And I thought that was creepy, I hadn’t seen that before. So that’s where that started. They start with plot, or ideas or images.

RB: Prague, I suspect, was somewhat easier because you knew the territory, Eastern Europe, Budapest—what do you know about the 19th century? [both laugh]

People who aren’t writers often say, “Oh you must have such great discipline to write every day.” It doesn’t seem that to me. What does seem disciplined is sticking to the book.AP: They have all been easy or difficult for their own reasons, and the first one was, certainly—I was able to say, “I am just going to describe the things I loved about Budapest.” And then found other difficulties that I hadn’t foreseen. I know very little about the 19th century. Other than what I have picked up in previous fiction, 19th-century fiction. I read one volume of Peter Gay’s work on Victorian private life—The Bourgeois Experience.

RB: I thought he concentrated on middle Europe?

AP: He may have. He wrote a five-volume work called The Bourgeois Experience and then wrote a sixth volume, a condensation of it called Schnitzler’s Century, which I read. And then read a lot of Victorian literature and some Victorian ghost writers because, like you, I have never really had an interest in the Gothic.

RB: Where it’s most prominent and praiseworthy is that you seem to get the diction and the vocabulary and the speech patterns right.

AP: [chuckles] My brother came to a—my brother is a journalist and a war correspondent and a fact-based person—and he came to a reading I did in D.C. and he raised his hand and said “How do you know that you got it right? How do you know that’s how people talked?”

RB: [laughs]

AP: I said, “I read a lot of Victorian literature.” He said, “Well, how do you—”

RB: It doesn’t matter.

AP: Exactly. That’s your newspaper war boy.

RB: Isn’t the idea to be plausible and internally coherent?

AP: It seemed plausible to me. And I used Victorian vocabulary that has been out of date that I found in Victorian novels I liked and then I made up my own that sounded Victorianly plausible.

RB: Part of the task is to stay in character for some period of time—as you were writing, were you thinking in Victorian language and then reverting to real life, dealing with your dog and children and your wife? Is her name Jan? Are you planning to dedicate all your books to her?

AP: Yeah, that’s the plan. “Come here to me, woman!” I would often say that and she would hesitate and do as she was told because the household became increasingly Victorian. No, voices and parodies of voices and mimicry of voices come easily to me and I have big plans for that a couple books down the road.

RB: What?

AP: That’s a secret.

RB: Not only are you writing another book, you have books down the road?

AP: I have two or three.

RB: Is there no restraint on your ambition?

AP: I have two or three schemes afoot. And one of them is a big voice-mimicry thing, which I am very excited about—if I can do it. So the Victorian stuff came relatively easily and then I passed it by people who would know better than I would. I gave it to some Victorianists, and some literature professors and said, “Point to what is emotionally, mentally or literarily implausible to you,” and that helped.

RB:And then you delivered your manuscript to Random House. Who edited it?

AP: Daniel Menaker.

RB: Being a Jewish kid from Harvard, how did he grasp it?

AP: He didn’t have much trouble with the language. We did a lot of work on structural stuff and philosophical stuff. But the Victoriana he let slide pretty well, so—

RB: Do you sleep much?

AP: [thoughtful pause]

RB: You seem to have a significant reservoir of energy. Maybe I am just projecting?

AP: Yeah, you’re just projecting.

RB: What’s your favorite color?

AP: [laughs] Do I sleep much? No, because we sleep with the dogs and in the middle of the night they want to stand on your head or something like that. They like to go from above the covers to under the covers, a few times a night. And then I have kids. So they squeak and things.

RB: The real reason I asked that—if I was mapping out my future past one or two projects, I would be highly energized to get there.

AP: There is that.

RB: There would be urgency and a diminution of procrastination.

AP: People who aren’t writers often say, “Oh you must have such great discipline to write every day.” It doesn’t seem that to me. What does seem disciplined is sticking to the book I am writing and not jumping ahead too much. There is a certain amount of note-taking for the next one or two or three. But not actually sitting down to write.

RB: You are writing a book and starting another?

AP: And I am sometimes tempted to put down the book I have committed to aside, to go write the next one—which I think would be a disciplinary lapse of serious repercussions.

RB: What keeps you in line is simply adhering to the principle. You won’t succumb because—

AP: I might not ever finish any book. Which would be a serious problem. The process of what to do next—I am sure everyone’s is different. For me now, each time it has been the process of untangling a bunch of projects half-started and saying, “That’s the one I am. I now want to commit to it for two or three years.” I’ll work on all of them. Every day, I’ll try the next one and see which one sticks and finally it takes six or eight weeks, after really closing off the one before, to say, “Now I know for sure.”

The best days are the ones that I seem to end up, in the early going, with pages I didn’t plan on writing that day and didn’t know were in me.RB: Do you do journalism? Or whatever it is that fiction writers are asked to do for periodicals?

AP: I just did my first book review. And that’s as journalistic as I am.

RB: Short stories?

AP: I have some. No one really wants them. Someday, maybe, I’ll force them.

RB: How do you know that?

AP: The usual ways. [both laugh]

RB: Why did you write them?

AP: Ideas that I had. They are very old now. I will dabble with one story in between novels, but—

RB: That would allow you to indulge your grasshopper mind.

AP: Yeah, it’s true.

RB: Do you find them satisfying?

AP: There are three or four I quite like, and there is one I have not finished and I have literally been working on it for six years—more, maybe.

RB: A short story?

AP: And it’s not that long, I just can’t figure how to do it.

RB: Maybe there is a story in a writer who takes 30 years to write a story?

AP: Somehow I think it may take that long to finish this one. Maybe longer.

RB: I didn’t want to say.

AP: Each regression takes another 15 years.

RB: So, it strikes me that you are certainly in the bosom of the writing life now.

AP: Uh-huh.

RB: And I don’t think you were that before. You were going back to Paris at the time?

AP: I was on tour for Prague at the time and I was in Paris writing The Egyptologist.

RB: And then you came back to South Carolina. Why?

AP: To live for free off of my generous parents while we finished buying a place in Brooklyn.

RB: So now you are in Brooklyn and you have two kids.

AP: Uh-huh.

RB: Two dogs.

AP: Uh-huh.

RB: One wife.

AP: Uh-huh.

RB: And one mortgage.

AP: I gotta get back and work. [both laugh]

RB: I believe you when you say each of the starting points is different, each of the novels are different. What’s constant? Your satisfaction? Your excitement?

AP: What’s constant? Yeah, all that stuff.

RB: I’m saying that; You’re supposed to say something.

AP: You’re doing great. [hesitates] Generally speaking, I love to go to work in the morning. And write. And the best days—

RB: Do you write longhand?

AP: I do. The best days are the ones that I seem to end up, in the early going, with pages I didn’t plan on writing that day and didn’t know were in me, and in the later going, when I put those pieces together in a new shape that I hadn’t planned on. And when I start connecting wires from the front of the book to the back of the book—I love all that stuff.

RB: How long was Angelica when you submitted the manuscript?

RB: It was probably another 50 pages on top of its final form. Something like that.

RB: At the publisher level the editing was about structure?

AP: In this case it was about trimming and clarifying.

RB: Is 50 pages a lot to trim out of 450 pages?

AP: I am constantly reading in the blogs and elsewhere that editing is dead and yet I feel plenty edited and wisely edited and improved for the editing.

RB: I know that [Daniel] Menaker has been around for a while, a veteran—

AP: Yeah.

RB: The complaint about lack of editing is directed to the younger editors, who through no fault of their own are—

AP: My first two books were with younger editors. Lee Boudreaux, who is much more senior now at Ecco—she was a wonderful editor. I have had nothing but good editing.

RB: It’s interesting, I’ll tell you what’s interesting—

AP: All right, bring it on.

RB: I don’t quite know what to make of it yet. I don’t really want to make anything of it—I notice that in many author acknowledgements that the publicists are getting notice and less, the editors.

AP: [laugh] Acknowledgments are such a tricky thing. Now I feel I should acknowledge my publicist, who does a wonderful job.

RB: [laughs]

AP: Not to mention the copy editors and then everybody else.

RB: The little people, as they say in baseball.

AP: God bless the little people.

RB: The clubhouse attendant, and the towel guy—

AP: I have had a lot of great publicists at Random House, currently Jynne Martin. Bless her heart.

RB: Right, a sweetheart.

AP: We should have a little link on the website to her. She’s great at her job and she publicizes the bejeezus out of me. So, Jynne, you are acknowledged.

RB: Go, Jynne, go.

AP: But your question is why are people acknowledging their publicists?

I am very happy with the book. I am happy with all my books.RB: When I, on occasion, ask this, there is the response that publicists actually read the books and offer editorial suggestions.

AP: I haven’t that experience. I certainly have the impression, perhaps because she is wily, that Jynne has read the books, in order to publicize them more successfully. But I haven’t gotten editorial suggestions from the publicity department. I would be disoriented if that happened.

RB: Or the fact that a publicist has read the book leads to creditable publicity initiatives.

AP: I have had some time in PR myself, so it would be a tough sell to publicize a book you know nothing more about than the dust jacket.

RB: Would that be why so many books fail to gain any traction in the newspaper review world?

AP: The rap on publishing is that more books are bought than can be publicized. And budgets on a book determine who is going to get the best publicist and all the rest of it. And the publicist cannot possibly read everything that they are given. And all the rest of it.

RB: Nobody can read all the books that they are given.

AP: [laughs] I can’t read everything I buy.

RB: It’s a Sisyphean thing. On the other hand, I take comfort from the fact that I have maintained this image in my head of walking around a large book-lined room, picking one out and browsing, and then another and another…

AP: This is a past life you are reliving?

RB: I think I harbor this image to mitigate the guilt that I feel for having many more books than I can read cover to cover.

AP: I don’t know why you should feel guilty about that. On the one hand, you are supporting writers.

RB: I get many of them gratis.

AP: Well, you are morally supporting writers and certainly have a full fridge or full pantry. You are not always in the mood for yams, but eventually you’ll use those up.

RB: Yams aside, I doubt I will have used all the books at my disposal.

AP: That’s putting a lot of pressure on yourself.

RB: A lot of pressure.

AP: Relax, have a yam. Take a load off.

RB: Are you happy with this book?

AP: It’s a nightmare. Things have gone horribly wrong from the first—

RB: Is this the book you wanted to write?

AP: Yeah, pretty much. The decision of what book I want to write takes several years to realize, but, yeah, I am very happy with the book. I am happy with all my books. I am sure there is going to come a time when I am going to have to lie about that question and say, “I’m delighted with this piece of crap.” For the most part, the goal in writing them is to write something that I’d want to read anyhow.

RB: Have you reread the first two?

AP: In snippets.

RB: Do you know them well?

AP: I know them pretty well. I mean, in the course of writing them I read them 40 or 50 times and then in the course of a reading tour I read certain passages a lot. I occasionally go back and now, especially—now it’s five years since the first one was published, so I’ll go back and look at it and say, “What did I write like? Is it any different? Would I still leave that sentence the way it is. Would I change it?”

RB: And what do you find?

AP: I could tinker with anything, I suppose, but I am generally pretty happy and I am very happy there are three so different books. I think it is hard, speaking of publicity and marketing, to explain what one of my books is. Or what my group of books is. Certainly authors are brands that you can identify something about and I don’t think that as of three books it’s very clear—

RB: Some writers are said to write the same book over and over again.

AP: Right.

RB: You don’t show any evidence of that. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, anyway.

AP: Someone will figure why that’s true, I suppose.

RB: OK, why did you write this book?

AP: ‘Cause I had that idea walking the dog. And I liked it enough to—

RB: The idea of the little girl manifesting—

AP: Yeah.

RB: And why this particular structure with four voices—

AP: Four and a half. Three and a half, sort of. Because in the course of writing bits and pieces of it, that was the structure made the most sense. And then of course certain thematic or philosophical implications adhere to that structural idea. So there does come a time when you make a structural choice and a voice choice and you say, “If I do it, then it is going to be a book more about this than about that.” And if I am going to structure it like this, it’s going to be a book about varying perspectives, more than a book about ghosts.

RB: My recollection is that the shortest section, the smallest section, is Angelica herself.

AP: Uh-huh.

RB: Both past and present.

AP: No, present is the shortest, but since she is—not to spoil it for anybody—the narrator of the other three parts as well, she is in and out of the whole thing. And that was one of the things the editor and I worked on was clarity on that, calibrating when I think something should be obvious to someone.

RB: That’s a tough call, I would think.

AP: It’s a tough one and a great philosophical question in itself. As I said, I want to write a book I want to read, and so in Egyptologist there are things where I said, “OK, this is not exactly a mystery but I need people to figure this out more or less by this certain point.” And that became, in the stuff I read about the book, a big complaint. “I figured this out by…”

AP: I would have thought after Gail Caldwell’s review of Prague you’d stop reading your reviews.

AP: [laughs] I am a glutton for it. I am curious to see if people are reading it the way I would read it. And I am curious to see what people like and don’t like and if they laugh at the same things I laughed at. But this whole question of “I figured something out on page eight and he obviously didn’t want me to,” is something I find kind of baffling, because I can’t tell you what page you are going to figure it out on and I wasn’t trying to get you to do anything. I was trying to write this book that I would want to read and a certain amount of information has to be transmitted and all the rest of it.

RB: I wonder about the responsibility of the writer, how much you have to draw out things in a complicated story. I read Martin Amis’s House of Meetings and there were two crucial things I missed. Am I a bad reader or is he a deficient writer?

AP: The race of a character, as I recall.

RB: He let me off the hook for that because he thought few readers would have gotten that. It was more that she was narrating a certain part I didn’t get.

AP: It’s a tricky thing. Some number of people will not get it no matter what you do and some will feel you beat them over the head with information they could have picked up if you trusted their intelligence, quote-unquote. No matter what you do, there is going to be this spectrum. So how you calibrate the book to that vast spectrum is impossible.

RB: It’s even more complicated by the degree of subjectivity and other variables we bring to reading fiction. On one reading, I may like or get something, and on another the contrary. Who is responsible for that?

AP: Exactly.

RB: I do wonder how hard writers feel like they need to work to help the reader, or how hard they want to work to make something unclear.

AP: If you do read something 40 or 50 times and you are constantly rewriting it and changing it, things are a lot clearer to you than even your best-imagined reader—so going to your best-imagined reader and saying, “Did you notice that the narration changes from first person to third person?” And they say, “No,” then there is a problem because if it’s important to you and your perspective is a little warped because you sat around and wrote it for two years—

RB: There are books that are homages to other writers, big ideas, or have a connection to something other than an abstraction. If a writer has begun with that in mind and I haven’t read Henry James and he’s heavily referenced James, what am I losing?

AP: On the one hand, you are always losing something by not knowing some reference to something—

RB: By not knowing enough.

AP: If books are written by people who have read other books, then there are references and connections and subconscious connections that you will or won’t pick up, ever.

RB: Slice that layer of ignorance away and—

AP: There is no requirement to have read Henry James to take pleasure in Angelica. And the relationship between Turn of the Screw and Angelica is certainly inspirational but not much more than that.

I’m afraid there were moments in Proust I felt my teeth were being extracted.RB: If someone said, “I know you are on a book tour, hawking your wares. How much can you talk about your new opus? How about if we talk about one of your favorite authors or books?”

AP: Fantastic. If someone asked that, I would say, “Oh, fantastic.” [laughs]

RB: Hazard a guess at what other writers would think?

AP: I don’t know. Not to kiss-up or anything, but it doesn’t strike me that this is the best forum for selling copies of Angelica. It isn’t the fun of doing Birnbaums, as they say. So I think, I imagine most people would be happy to talk about books.

RB: Because of what I do, I feel sadly lacking in my contact with classic literature—

AP: Let’s do it.

RB: Number two, there is a lot of good current fiction, but I don’t know that it rises to the weight and stature—whatever that means—of some of the books I have missed. I still haven’t read Moby-Dick.

AP: Totally subjective, yes. Well, I have read Moby-Dick, but relatively recently because I realized I hadn’t read Moby-Dick yet, and then I read The Confidence Man by Melville, also. Historical perspective is very warping on that question of whether the thing you love the most in contemporary fiction holds up to the thing you love in the classics. There was a great article in Harper’s recently about how Shakespeare got his reputation as Shakespeare. I am fascinated by that one in particular—there is a poem, a Michael Drayton poem, I think that’s right, in which he talks about the poets and playwrights of his time and he praises many of them. Shakespeare is in the middle of the list. And it’s just a great reminder that he was a contemporary playwright judged, next to his contemporaries, certainly successful. Some plays, “Ah, I didn’t like that so much. I thought Romeo and Juliet was a little ah….But he was good on the one with the Scottish guy. I liked that.” He was in that boat. And surrounded by people that other people judged better. The fact that he has gone from that position to what he is now is not wholly to be credited to his work. I don’t know what percentage is credited to his work, but some vast percentage is credited to other influences.

RB: The superlatives “best” and “greatest” are suspect in this area. When someone asks for my 10 favorites, I give them 43 or 37—

AP: [laughs] It’s hard.

RB: When I read Great Gatsby four or five years ago, I was stunned by how great it was. I’m sure I read it in high school and college and it didn’t register in the same way. But anyway, I did mention this idea about shifting the focus of these chats to my friend Howard, who is a reader and formerly a marketing expert, and he said no one would want to talk to me.

AP: I would happily do hours—we can throw this tape away and start again with “This is the name of his new book,” and never mention it again and just talk about favorite books after that. I’d love that—you should be on television doing that.

RB: Yeah, sure. More and more the sense of talking about a freshly minted book has lost its allure. I like reading them, to be sure—but you are doing a number of cities, lots of reviews and interviews; what’s to be said about the new book in this context?

AP: Oh, forget it.

RB: I talked to Dani Shapiro, and she was telling me she was talking to two other writers and they were saying that when they get on NPR they are “authoring,” a new verb for what they do when they talk about writing and such. It’s become a distinctive activity that may not have any other sense except in this limited context. I am not suggesting that there is nothing to be said about Angelica

No one is going to read books anymore because they’ll have chips implanted in their eyes.AP: Let’s move on. Let’s get to another book.

RB: What are you reading these days?

AP: I am reading Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.

RB: First time?

AP: First time. Quite taken with it. But I also have a disciplinary problem—I just picked up An Incomplete History of the Funerary Violin by Rohan Kriwaczek.

RB: What is that?

AP: This is so—I am five pages into it and I am prepared to say he is an absolute genius.

RB: Violins that are played at funerals?

AP: Yeah.

RB: Is there a section on gypsy music? How is it organized?

AP: I just started it. It’s a hoax.

RB: How did you come to it?

AP: I read about it when it was being uncovered as something other than what it purported to be.

RB: Recently?

AP: Last year. [Published by] Overlook. It’s a vast and intricate work of false history.

RB: Sounds like a Jim Crace novel.

AP: It doesn’t purport to be a novel. I am always taken with off-the-fringe items—it’s an extraordinary mind that produced this.

RB: Do you know Jim Crace’s work?

AP: I have read about him but haven’t read him. I don’t usually read the living, to be honest—other than friends. Actually I don’t read friends as a policy. I tend not to read the living. But Rohan seems to be alive.

RB: Yates isn’t living—you saw that Revolutionary Road is being used as the basis for a movie?

AP: I saw that, yeah. Before that I finished Dance to the Music of Time.

RB: Anthony Powell?

AP: Yeah.

RB: How many novels?

AP: It depends on how you buy it. Twelve novels in four volumes. I was gripped from beginning to end. Loved it and had all the payoff of Proust without any of the pain of Proust, is my review. [both laugh] You get the same payoff, really feeling at the end that you have spent an actual life with somebody and that you are looking back on his/yours/narrator’s childhood with feelings of having been there, and it feels a long time ago. And yet greatly funny, which I can’t hand to Proust and no 200 pages in which you just have to stick with it. I’m afraid there were moments in Proust I felt my teeth were being extracted.

RB: I haven’t managed to read writers who I now see as cultish—Proust and Wodehouse.

AP: I have enjoyed him enormously. I don’t know that I’d read all 95 or 150 or 300 books or whatever it is—

I was asked to do one of those Name Your 10 Books. Which was torturous.RB: There’s an example of productivity or hypergraphia.

AP: There is a famous story—I’m going to get the details wrong, but he was in New York for a while and someone asked if he was hanging out at the Algonquin and he said, “I don’t know how those guys get any work done.” That’s the problem with Brooklyn—you have to really try not to meet other writers.

RB: The Problem With Brooklyn. I keep hearing titles in this conversation. Speaking of which, I was thinking of a title today—Unmailed Letters.

AP: That sounds good. How about Smoked Trout and Other Stories?

RB: That sounds like Wodehouse. That’s pretty good. Yates and Powell and the violin book by Rohan—what do we know about him?

AP: English and a violin busker. Came up with this thing and hasn’t talked about it at all, leaving it out there as purported history. It wasn’t labeled as fiction or nonfiction, just left out there for you to figure out.

RB: Who reviewed it?

AP: I don’t know who reviewed it, but there was an article about it in the Times. There was an article suggesting a date was wrong. This was during the oh-my-God-that’s-not-a-memoir-of-your-drug-use period.

RB: The post-Frey fray?

AP: So people were very jumpy and Rohan Kriwaczek snuck through an entire history of the violin, a false history. So what else have I been reading? I have read Confidence Man recently, which is a really weird book. If you have read Moby-Dick and you want more, then read Bartleby the Scrivener first. The other was a very strange allegorical—I’d bet Kafka read it. It’s a recurring thought I have—trying to figure out what Kafka read. I read Bleak House when I was working on Angelica and I thought, “Oh, Kafka definitely read…”

RB: There’s a title, What Kafka Read.

AP: I think it turns up in a movie somewhere.

RB: Melville died in the late 1890s. And was ignored and was resurrected by D.H. Lawrence.

AP: In the ‘20s, yeah. I don’t know if any of that stuff got into German either, so I’m just speculating.

RB: Kafka did come to America?

Even if we escape global warming, the sun is going to expand and eat the earth.AP: No he only wrote a book about it. A wonderful piece of nonsense, too. That’s another good one. Amerika is a great—I think is one that he wanted burned. I am not sure. Do you know the opening sentence of it? It’s like, “Karl Rossman—Karl Rossman stood on the bridge—I am getting this wrong—of the steamer as it came into New York harbor and he saw the Statue of Liberty, her arm lofted, the gleaming sword catching the sunlight.” Or something like that. [both laugh] And you are immediately thinking, “Were there no pictures in the 1920s or is he just saying up front we are not going to bother with that stuff?” And then later on in the story, the character takes the subway out to the mountains to visit the senator who seems to be a duke of some sort, where he is attacked by the senator’s kung-fu wielding daughter. It’s a great—

RB: Another author I know something about but have not read. I think I read The Trial

AP: Those things are great. I was asked to do one of those Name Your 10 Books. Which was torturous to do and as soon as I did it I tried to change it and then I read something and tried changing it again and I couldn’t duplicate the list to save my life but I said, “all of Kafka” as one of my entries.

RB: I wouldn’t mind thinking about favorites if it didn’t cater to a journalistic list fetish. They are irresistible even as I am completely philosophically opposed to them.

RB: I guess. Any thoughts about Kurt Vonnegut?

AP: Uh… [long pause]

RB: I can start if you like—I remember reading everything he wrote from ‘68 to the mid-’70s, so I read a fair amount of writing. But after that I didn’t pay much attention to him, but on rereading him, I found him immensely wonderful and on-target. I had dismissed him as a joker.

AP: It’s funny, if I were to dismiss him it wouldn’t be as a joker. He’s very funny. Even when I agree with him, I found a lot of it to be too didactic. Often I was agreeing. My uncle knew him, and actually 40 or 50 years ago brought him in to speak to the interns and residents at the hospital where he was on the staff as an effort to humanize the doctors. “I brought in my friend Mr. Kurt Vonnegut who writes stories. Perhaps you’d like to hear from him.” And they remained friends ever since.

RB: Now who is around with a point of view like Vonnegut’s to speak up? Jon Stewart? Frank Rich isn’t funny but he manages to see the nude emperor.

AP: His son seems to be quite funny.

RB: Who is his son?

AP: Simon Rich.

RB: He just published Ant Farm.

AP: I just read a “Shouts and Murmurs” thing in The New Yorker that was pretty funny. So who is the liberal witty iconoclastic voice of the future?

RB: Yeah, this is a particularly humorless time and what there is of personal stories, David Sedaris and—

AP: He’s funny. Not revolutionary funny, but—

RB: In the serious business of politics and social change, there should be someone who—Keith Olbermann?

AP: He doesn’t seem that funny. Jon Stewart may be your guy. I think of it as an entirely different industry than the one that I am in. You’re right, there should be someone. Too bad you have P.J. O’Rourke on the other side. He’s funny.

RB: Right.

AP: He’s funny, but not your politics.

RB: He is at least not a zealous ideologue, a pit bull, foaming at the mouth. Ah, well, any predictions about anything?

AP: Prediction in the near term?

RB: Will we be croaked by global warming?

AP: Now we are far from my expertise.

RB: I don’t think so. Are you thinking I think you have meteorological expertise?

AP: I hope we don’t all melt, obviously.

RB: Do you worry about it?

AP: Oh, sure.

RB: What has being a father done?

AP: I worry about stuff I didn’t used to worry about, of course. I think if we can keep the world from melting long enough for the four-year-olds kids to reach adulthood, then we can relax. But then I know he’ll be concerned about his grandkids—it’s endless. We have to worry forever. I also worry about the far end of things. Even if we escape global warming, the sun is going to expand and eat the earth and by then we will have evolved into something else that doesn’t even care about humans and no one is going to read books anymore because they’ll have chips implanted in their eyes to produce entertainment for them or something like that.

RB: Or an ongoing chemical drip that is an anesthetic.

AP: Exactly. Definitely Kurt Vonnegut country. So I worry about stuff so much I have to go lie down and make up ghost stories.

RB: How much time do you spend with your kids?

AP: A lot. I am very fortunate. My wife and I split pretty much fifty-fifty.

RB: Do they know what you do?

AP: Yeah, and the older one is strangely talented at it himself.

RB: Writing novels?

AP: He is not up to a novel yet. He comes up with stories and back stories and writes them all down. He is particularly gifted at names.

RB: Do you think that he does it because it’s in the air?

AP: Somewhat. You do what Dad does. In the same way I used to try to draw up lease contracts like my father. [both laugh] I think there is something to that, but he is good and also has a great imagination. The four-year-old knows I write books, but I don’t think he’s into it that much more.

RB: Does he have books?

AP: Sure. Books are a big thing in the house. Everyone reads books and reads to each other and all the rest of it. And then we play baseball outside.

RB: Well, good. Thank you.
 

biopic

Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum