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Birnbaum v.

Rick Moody

When novelists are listed among our most despicable citizens, can America claim to love literature? Our man up north talks to author Rick Moody about how we’re all on the same team when we’re reading.

One of the least useful peculiarities of our celebrity-infested culture is that we frequently are aware of someone but not for their professional accomplishments: Rick Moody, having published seven books, occupies a prominent place in the New York-centric literary firmament. He has been famously savaged by one of New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier’s enabled bad boys (Dale Peck), and recently the New York Times devoted an entire article to the cover of The Diviners, Moody’s first new novel in seven years. The Guardian in Britain promptly raised the ante on the Times by doing a piece on Moody’s band, the Wingdale Community Singers. In the spirit of full disclosure, a gesture brandished fetishistically even by (perhaps especially by) the biggest scoundrels and mountebanks of my chosen profession, I must confess to having read thousands of words about Rick Moody but not word one of his—until now.

Which brought me to The Diviners, his new novel, which as a feature of its farcical nature and broad reach introduces us to a kaleidoscopic ensemble of cultural supernumeraries: an action film star, talent agents, movie producers, (a self-proclaimed “world’s greatest”) wine writer, a network chief, a self-help guru, a thriller writer, a film school graduate, a gallery curator, an immigrant with a doctorate, and even environmental terrorists. Lots of asides and digressions weave themselves into the novel, which is set in the weeks after the 2000 presidential election. At the core of Moody’s compact epic is action hero Thaddeus Griffin, who starts spinning a tale (in a bar, naturally) that begins with the Mongol hordes in Asia, wends its way through the Mormon odyssey and the discovery and founding of Las Vegas, and eventually becomes a much-sought-after TV miniseries.

The Diviners—in spite of taking on television, which may be construed as an easy target—is rollicking good fun and achieves, in part, Moody’s ambition to write a comic novel. In one scene, Ranjeet Singh, an immigrant Sikh car service driver who has an advanced degree in European literature from the University of Delhi, chauffeurs Vanessa Meandro to her office. He eavesdrops on her cell phone conversation and hears the word “movies”:

A spell begins to overcome Ranjeet. The spell of that perfect word, that pair of syllables that changes everything. Movies. It is as perfect as the two perfect etymological American exports: okay and Coca Cola. The word movies may have its origin in Sanskrit, Movati, in which one pushes or shoves; movies, culturally speaking, involve a fair amount of pushing and shoving. It is a global romance, a word of American promise as is no other, a word that summons the glittering prizes offered by this land of opportunity, the word movies.

The talk that follows ranges over literary shop talk, baseball, life in Brooklyn, music, his new book, and lots more—having finally come to acquaintance with Rick Moody does bear out the old truism.
 

All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum
 

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Robert Birnbaum: You wanted to talk about baseball? What is there to say?

Rick Moody: Well, it’s a pretty exciting end of the season.

RB: It is.

RM: Every night it’s a nail biter, practically. The Curt Schilling problem is a little terrifying at the moment.

RB: I’m ambivalent about Schilling—he’s a great competitor and a fine pitcher, he talks too much.

RM: Yeah, also I find his politics—

RB: Oddly, his fundamentalist religious beliefs don’t get any attention in Boston. On the other hand he adopted a family from flood-ravaged New Orleans. That’s beyond a gesture.

RM: Even if you find the guy loathsome, the performance at the end of the Series last year was unbelievable. Blood pouring out of the wound and everything—

RB: It wasn’t “pouring.” [laughs]

RM: The close-ups of the blood-stained sock and everything. That was incredible.
Moody, photographed by Robert Birnbaum, copyright 2005
RB: I loved that, in true Red Sox fashion, after the season they fired the doctor who did those operations. I like a lot of the team, mostly because they are Latin [laughs] but recently I decided if the Sox don’t win the division I hope the Indians win the wild card. The World Series champs should win their division or not be in the playoffs.

RM: Yeah, they’re defending champions—they ought to be able to win the division. I like Manny actually. That’s who I like.

RB: There’s something that bothered me about Boston fans—Pedro Martinez on a bad day would get booed at Fenway. How do you boo a pitcher like that?

RM: I know. I’m a Mets fan—actually, that’s my team. And they love him in New York. I can’t understand how hard they were on him in Boston. Maybe next season New York will be hard on him, but for the moment he’s the guy every Met fan loves. And I love Manny’s off-handed gangster rap thing.

RB: I like David Ortiz a lot but he adapted to the acceptable Latino persona—he got a nice, warm, fuzzy nickname that all the white people can say. And he talked the talk and is very friendly and amenable and a great performer on the field. But Manny grew up in Washington Heights and apparently people resent him making all that money. Since the new owners came in, they have been trying to get rid of him. One hundred and forty RBIs a year and 40-plus home runs bats in the high .300s with men on base, and who actually protects Ortiz, is worth that money.

RM: He’s worth a lot of money. And if they trade him they will see how much he’s worth, because he will be back playing on the other side in Fenway at some point. And they are not going to like it.

RB: I like him and the condescension of “Manny being Manny” is also stupid. I think it’s a kind of incipient racism that still exists in Boston.

RM: Yeah, but it’s a great team to watch. It’s a real team. That’s what’s so wonderful about it.

RB: We’ll see what happens after October. Reading The Diviners, I was thinking about Marx’s observation that in “history things first occur as tragedy and then as farce.” I wonder if we closed the gap in the 21st century and everything appears as farce?

RM: That’s a really nice idea. Probably it’s not immediately obvious to some readers but it is a historical novel, set in the year 2000 and it does treat the election contest and the period after as objects of satire and comedy and so forth.

RB: As is everything else—more broadly, the pop culture all seems to be a caricature of itself. What can you say about television? It’s a joke. And the people who are responsible for the creative decisions and the execution of the ideas—tend to be like your characters in the Diviners.

RM: Yes, they are an easy mark to some extent. It’s hard to persuade them of that. Probably some kind of the subliminal outrage in the book comes from my astonishment that it’s so hard to persuade—

RB: They don’t see it.

RM: Exactly

RB: I was watching Charlie Rose last night. He had on [Martin] Scorsese and [David] Remnick; he’s his own caricature. For a while he had the podium because he brings on people worth talking to, but what he delivers from them is disappointing.

RM: That’s an indication of what a dearth there is of decent interview settings for anyone who is an intellectual in this country. It’s a foregone conclusion that you are not getting on any of the regular networks. So he was the only game in town and the only network that theoretically had an interest in intellectual discussion of any kind. But it’s obvious that whatever commitment they had along those lines, they no longer seem to have.

RB: Recently he spent an hour on super-rich Las Vegas developer Steve Wynn. A self-serving ego, and Rose follows him around his newest whatever-it-is and they run into sycophants like Richard Branson, who sucked up. I guess Wynn has more money than Branson. And they’d all be saying how brilliant he is. It was, to me, despicable.

RM: I know.

RB: Who needs it?

RM: They think someone needs to see it, and that’s the crime. Part of it has to do with who is in charge of PBS now and their so-called commitment to balanced journalism. Think about when Dick Cavett was a reigning talk show host, what the difference is—

RB: Was he?

RM: Well, not the reigning talk show host but a significant talk show presence.

RB: His was the show that smart people watched

RM: Yeah, yeah, [he was] a significant intellectual talk show host, and this is what our significant intellectual talk show hosts looks like now.

RB: There were also David Frost and David Susskind and there were probably four or five people. Now it’s just radio—Terry Gross, Michael Silverblatt and Chris Lydon and David Barsamian and I’m sure some local people who we don’t know about.

RM: I agree it’s really bad. And even Brian Lamb, the last book show on cable, he’s gone now too.

RB: Why did he stop? Fatigue?

RM: I think he was tired, if I remember correctly.

RB: Wasn’t he the head of C-SPAN? Couldn’t he have found a replacement? I would have done it. [laughs]

RM: It was only non-fiction books. Novels were just out in the cold.

RB: Oh well. You’ve been at the writing thing for a while. Does it seem to you that the criticism writers are recipients of is much more bitterly personal and derisive and vicious than it ever was?

RM: Yeah, I have lot of theories about that, and the broad stroke would be to say that the culture at large is so dismissive of what literature does now that subliminally it encourages this attack dog mentality because we have such a tiny bit of scrap to fight over.

RB: Even people who ostensibly—

RM:—should know better.

RB: And profess devotion to literature. Subliminal means that they are not conscious of what they are mimicking—

RM:—what the culture wants them to do. That’s the part that people don’t understand. My contention has always been that any time anyone in America elects after 6 p.m. to read a book instead of turning on the television, we have won an incredibly glorious victory.

RB: [laughs]

RM: And that’s what we should be pulling for. Every day. So there is no writer out there really who is not on the same team I’m on, as far as I’m concerned. I may not think some of these popular writers are great prose writers, but reading is the thing. Reading is a precious act and we should all be encouraging one another.

RB: Exactly. Whatever stylistic differences, you are on the same side. I am still thinking about this, even a few years later: One of those snide ratty New York weeklies came up with a list of despicable New Yorkers and there were two or three authors on it. How despicable could an author be?

RM: Right.

RB: Child molester?

I have that Hemingway thing, drive to the border, throw your book over the fence—I only talked to Hollywood on the phone.RM: Or slumlord? It’s incredible—it’s obvious almost, in a way, that writing is culturally inoffensive compared to—

RB: Does this affect you? Is it somewhere in your field of vision when you write?

RM: Umm, really, when I do I my job I try only to make work that excites me to write and I try to make work that’s the kind of stuff that I like to read. And I think it’s really important to try to protect that environment from reception and publication, as quite different experiences unrelated in some way. I need to feel like the process is sacred. I can do it tomorrow regardless of what’s going to happen to me. But that doesn’t only mean that you don’t then get to the publication part and find yourself in a gauntlet of sorts.

RB: You mentioned the subliminal processing of this cultural animus—so I wonder when you think about your own process if somehow that burdens you? How would you even know?

RM: Yeah, I’m not sure I would. I’d be fibbing if I didn’t sit here and say there is not scar tissue. [both laugh] I mean, there’s scar tissue, that’s it. And the hard part for a writer is that your job requires you to be open and vulnerable when you make the work and then it requires you to be tough as nails when you go out to publish it. They are two very different emotional, psychological ways of being in the world.

RB: When you first published, I suspect there were not the same publicity initiatives and tactics and the whole marketing engine that obtains today. Are you aware of big changes in the way writers are received when they are part of this?

RM: Sure. There are a couple different things happened. One thing that is really different is just how—it’s the situation with newspapers and book coverage in newspapers. As I’m sure you know, most of the large well-known newspapers in the United States have been losing circulation since 1987. And it’s really dramatic and particularly dramatic among people younger than me. The result of it has been huge cutbacks in book coverage.

RB: Which strikes me as absurd.

RM: Yeah, crazy. But then, secondarily, they have this faith that the kind of coverage that is going to create more readers for book review sections or book pages is the “newsworthy sort of coverage.” Which means slash-and-burn, go-for-the-jugular reviewing, which obviously has nothing to do with actual critical perception of the books. And it’s cyclical because once one guy gets his throat cut, he wants to go cut someone else’s throat.

RB: [laughs]

RM: So then you end up—

RB: Whatever happened to the “turn the other cheek” response?

RM: I know. If you read Harper’s this month, there’s this piece by Ben Marcus. I have to say, I agree with the theme of the essay entirely and I couldn’t be happier that certain people in the piece are getting what I imagine they are probably due for things that they’d said. But I am not happy about the whole snowballing of this stuff. I don’t think it’s good for books ultimately. What’s good for books is if we all say we are on the same team and we start to recognize we are on the same team.

RB: And that the public conversations are—this may sound Pollyannaish—more collegial and constructive instead of rip and rape.

RM: Is there anyone out there who hasn’t read a contemporary novel in the last five years that they loved? How come we never see a review that says “Don DeLillo’s Libra is a book that will change your life, here are 20 ways”? That’s a review I can get behind.

RB: Well, I started reviewing in the last year or so—despite my belief that it’s a degraded enterprise. [laughs]

RM: It certainly is.

RB: I can be degraded as well as anyone else. I have published four or five reviews, and none are negative. And I think one that wasn’t published wasn’t negative enough for the editor. In any case, I see a lot of carping about the New York Times Book Review by people who don’t really need or depend on it for book information. Why worry about the Times? Granted it’s powerful in a certain way, but publishers and authors will find a way around the Times and the traditional gatekeepers.

RM: That would lead me to my second answer to how things have changed since I published my first novel: The publishers’ marketing strategies need new attention. They have been doing the same things in the same way for a really long time, and one thing that no longer works is reading at the big chain stores. Nobody comes to those readings. No one wants to go to a reading in those stores. They are no fun. Nobody has any fun. It’s not doing anybody any good. Similarly, this blurb racket for the dust jackets. It puts writers in horrible positions, particularly with other writers. You have to beg and scrape. This stuff just is not doing anything new to create a market for what we do.

RB: To use the Fox Network gambit, “some people say,” there is an argument that there has been a change in publicity in that now books are marketed like movies.

RM: Sure. It’s a month in and out and you better make that impact in that month. I don’t think that’s terribly good for anyone, either.

RB: I agree about the readings, although I am not sure the independent bookstore readings are much better except that they get an audience.

RM: These stores where they have a lot of consumer loyalty to the particular store and so forth. I can think of a few stores. Tonight I’m reading in Newton [Mass.] at Newtonville Books—great store, Tim [Huggins] is great and he totally works his ass off to get to his people in the neighborhood who come in and give a shit about books. That kind of store—how are you going to complain about that? You can’t.

RB: That’s a couple steps up, but still I think the reading except in a few cases is static, and at least people like Dave Eggers and others have tried to add some unpredictable performance thing. Which, surprisingly, publishers have not picked up on. There should be more of that.

RM: Right. I have been doing that too. Playing music at readings and bringing bands. That confuses the message for publishers. They don’t have time to figure out how that strategy fits into what they do. They just want to streamline and reduce to make the tour the simplest possible thing.

RB: I want to get back to your book. But do you as a writer feel obliged to create ways to publicize your book when it’s published? Or do you just play along with your publisher?

RM: I have ambiguous feelings about that. One the one hand, touring is a bitch and no one really likes doing it. I like meeting people at the stores but I hate flying every day. And I am actually basically shy, so it’s demanding for me to keep doing it. I want to play ball and be on the team with the publishers; I want them to know that I am cooperating with the enterprise. By the same token, I do feel like I’m in a rut. And that a lot of us are in a rut with respect to this particular way of doing things. So I am thinking more broadly—I’m doing the band. I’m doing music. I have been doing a lot of radio the last couple of years and really thinking about radio as an interesting medium. So I’m trying to be involved and in a different way from this way that publishers are doing it. And I have to do that—try to create or at least make my book available to people who really want it, or potentially who could care about it. I do have doubts about the touring thing as an ongoing strategy for marketing.

RB: I guess touring took off because it was decided that it’s cheaper than advertising.

RM: And they all don’t believe that advertising works for books. I never understood that mentality.

RB: The ads you see in the Times seem to be a quid pro quo for the reviews.

RM: I really think more than ever that’s the case.

It’s an entire culture right now that orbits around the notion that you’ll take what we’ll give you. In the popular sense, that’s what American culture does now. It churns out crap and tries to persuade people that is all they really want.RB: Little, Brown for Michael Connelly and George Pelecanos created musical CDs to accompany books.

RM: It would be really easy for me to do because I am already making music but I have tended to think that’s gimmicky and condescending to the book a little bit. That’s my problem.

RB: Distracting?

RM: Exactly.

RB: I did like the music.

RM: I’m sure the music’s great. And those guys seem like great guys and they probably have great taste in music. That’s a clever idea for Little, Brown, and they are doing this thing now which at one point they were going to do for me—where they essentially make tiny little videos. For Sedaris they made an animated video with him reading. If that’s really going to help get the book to some new people, I am for it. And it’s also an attempt at least to try to come up with an alternate route to doing the same, same old things over and over again.

RB: You mentioned you have five weeks of touring ahead of you—it gets old. How do you keep it from getting old?

RM: First I try never to penalize an audience for the fact that I am on tour.

RB: [laughs]

RM: I get to the store and treat every group like the first group I have read to and the other thing, I invariably try to have a friendly face somewhere in the room. That really, to me, makes it a lot more pleasant to do. And that way I can have dinner with someone afterwards. So it is really like you get to see 15 American cities, some of which you have never been to—

RB: You live in Brooklyn—what would happen to American literature if Brooklyn were bombed? [laughs]

RM: I know it would be bad.

RB: I guess it’s Brooklyn, North Carolina, Vermont, and Oxford, Miss.

RM: It’s outrageous. There is a cafe near me called Ozzie’s in Park Slope. I was interviewing there a couple of weeks ago and at various points I would see Jonathan Foer,—he’d go, “Hi.” Siri Hustvedt, Paul Auster’s wife, waves going by, like that.

RB: That proximity of writers would lead people to believe you all hang out together.

RM: No, not so much. There are people there I know and love. Jonathan Lethem is a good friend of mine and Shelley Jackson—

RB: Damn, he won that MacArthur money.

RM: He’s doing good for five years.

RB: I wrote him telling him people were going to hate him for receiving that fellowship—starting with me. [laughs]

RM: He totally deserves it. But that wouldn’t stop people from hating him.

RB: If would be nice if they stopped calling them the “genius” grants.

RM: I know, it’s bad. It’s bad for everyone.

RB: I recall a study last year that asserted that MacArthur Fellows’ performance or accomplishments declined after they received the grant—however that might be measured.

RM: Actually I wrote a piece about Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello and I did a thumbnail sketch of books that people wrote after they won the Nobel—it’s always the worst book they wrote. And then Jazz by Toni Morrison, her least interesting book. Bellow after the Nobel—much less interesting than Bellow before.

RB: Sounds like it has the effect of a Sports Illustrated cover.

RM: Yeah, these awards are such pressure and the MacArthur is more pressure than a lot of them—it’s five years.

RB: The Diviners took you seven years to write?

RM: No, it’s the first novel in seven years—I’ve written other stuff. I wrote a nonfiction book, a collection of stories.

RB: How do you work? Do you start something and then finish it? Or work on a few things at once?

RM: I always have several things going on, but not several novels. If I am writing a novel, that’s pretty much what I am doing, except maybe I am writing a few stories and doing some journalism. And this one I did start at the beginning and write straight through till the end.

RB: What was you ambition for it?

RM: To write a comic novel.

RB: Did you know what the story was?

RM: I had some ideas. I knew who the characters were, but I kind of set myself this task to structure it like a TV series. And that presupposed that I would have off-kilter episodes and create little mini stories with these episodes. So I knew I was going to discover some of the material as I went along.

RB: And was the beginning that you call the overture, was that the first thing you wrote?

RM: Yup.

RB: Did you feel like you were taking a big risk with that incantatory?

RM: Sure.

RB: But you took it any way.

RM: I have a couple of other big openings. My novel Purple America was a pretty big opening. I like big openings. I like a certain amount of—I like an overture, in an operatic sense, and there was a review on the last book that—

RB:—and your response was?

RM: “Now I’m going to do it so that it is so in your face that this guy, if he happens to see it, will scream for my head.”

RB: Is there an audio version of this book yet?

RM: No, uh, uh.

RB: I liked the opening. It worked for me, though I could see where some of smaller attention spans could be disturbed. Did you read this out loud to yourself?

RM: I usually read just about everything out loud. Yeah, I mean, it sounds great out loud, actually. To me. And I have no compassion for people of short attention spans. They should apply elsewhere. [both laugh]

RB: Well. It’s an era in which lack of focus is endemic.

RM: Indeed.

RB: It would seem a lot is now excused by that or attempted to be excused by it.

RM: You just leave out a whole way of approaching the world, one that’s methodical and patient, and I love to read books that are demanding in this way.

RB: Length is only a deterrent if the content is not interesting or good. I recall the first long movie I ever saw was Zorba the Greek—over three hours. I would tell people I saw it and they’d say, “Isn’t that long?” “I’m sorry it ended.”

RN: I’m the same way. Before I started [writing] this book, I had an awesome reading experience—once of those you’ll-remember-it-forever experiences. I finally read The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. Which I missed in college. I was totally preoccupied with Moby Dick and Ulysses. But I finally read it and I loved everything about this book. If I could have made it last two years, I would have. And that’s just the kind of reading experience I want to have.

RB: What’s the famous book by Robert Musil?

RM: Yeah I haven’t read that either—my excellent copy of The Man Without Qualities.

RB: Oh yeah, it’s a two-volume slipcased edition—I think I traded my copy for something else. I read Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

RM: I loved Infinite Jest.

RB: I even read that horrible Mailer novel Harlot’s Ghost—all 1,100 pages. And I’m asking myself, at the end, “Why did I read this?” I’d like to read Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy to complete the troika of book behemoths of the ‘90s.

RM: I didn’t read that.

RB: So you wanted The Diviners to be like a TV series, which does return me to the notion that it’s also kind of self-mocking—the culture mirrors its own caricature. There is a lot of funny stuff going on here, which is funny and sad because it’s ostensibly an accurate picture. Like the action hero who knows his movies are awful and off the top of his head comes up with this crazy Byzantine story idea which everybody gloms onto. Do you have experience with film people?

RM: Yeah, The Ice Storm was made into a film and after that briefly I was—

RB:—tempted.

RM:—so I wrote a script for someone on retainer and I was getting paid and everything and I just didn’t have very much fun doing it.

RB: So you spent time in Hollywood?

RM: No I have that Hemingway thing, drive to the border, throw your book over the fence—so I only talked to them on the phone. I never actually went out there.

RB: I bet people think you wrote the movie Garden State.

RM: Many people do. And I think I have sold some books as a result. [both laugh]

RB: Nice soundtrack.

RM: Yeah.

RB: So is Diviners what you wanted it to be? Are you satisfied with it?

A) I always want to try something new. And B) I am always looking back and saying, “Did I really do the best I could do in this spot, solving this particular aesthetic problem?”RM: Yeah, I like this one.

RB: Suggesting there were some you didn’t?

RM: I don’t like The Ice Storm particularly. I think it’s juvenile.

RB: Did you like it when you wrote it?

RM: It was the best I could do. I was really learning how to make a novel at that point. I had published one other, Garden State. I didn’t have tremendous confidence about pacing and story at that point, and I figured it out as I was going. I like everything after that quite a bit better. I am not a guy who wakes up and says, “ Goddamn, I wrote The Diviners, I can go to heaven a happy man.” I am always thinking about what I can do in the next one.

RB: And in pursuit of the next one, do you consciously do a review of the past writing?

RM: I am. A) I always want to try something new. And B) I am always looking back and saying, “Did I really do the best I could do in this spot, solving this particular aesthetic problem?”

RB: How does one answer that question by oneself?

RM: I need context—a little bit. I need other people reacting and so forth. By now it’s easy for me to look at The Ice Storm and say, “These sentences don’t sing the way I want them to sing.”

RB: Who is a good reader for you?

RM: I have several people and I usually lean on someone at the manuscript phase but it’s a different person each time; I don’t want to make anyone do it twice.

RB: [laughs]

RM: It’s a hassle. I don’t want to be told to fix things at that point and yet I need to be told. There are a couple of people I really like. The short story writer Any Hempel is a good friend of mine and I always show her stuff because she has got a perfect ear. So if there is a sentence that’s awkward, you are going to know about it. And she and I have a mutual friend in Julia Slavin, who is a novelist in D.C.

RB: She has a new novel.

RM: Yeah, Carnivore Diet. It’s great. And she’s someone who can tell me stuff without my reacting badly and so forth.

RB: Are your friendships and social milieu mostly around writing?

RM: No, but a lot in the arts in general. I like being around creative people.

RB: Musicians?

RM: Love musicians. And painters. Visual artists in general. Sometimes it can be hard to be friendly with other writers. Male writers are particularly legendary in their inability to get along.

RB: [laughs] Testosterone?

RM: Yeah, absolutely. It’s like there are only three slots—that’s how they seem to feel.

RB: It’s probably true. Mainstream culture seems to be able to only handle three or four books at a time.

RM: Right. Or three or four great writers. Even though there are several hundred.

RB: As Paul Collins points out, it’s part of a greatest-hits attitude toward literature—which is that we are trained to attend to maybe a dozen writers in our literary history. [both laugh]

RM: No, I agree it’s crazy.

RB: Since I enjoy the beneficence of book publishers, I find great joy in looking through my mail and attending to books on just a gut feel—[picking up books and discovering] that have no so-called buzz or any such previous recommendation. That’s so pleasing.




Moody, photographed by Robert Birnbaum, copyright 2005


RM: I’m the same way. I love that sense of discovery. I remember a couple of years ago, somehow, I missed Austerlitz when it was happening. A couple months later, someone said, “You should read this book,” and handed me The Rings of Saturn, an earlier Sebald novel. And it just blew the roof off the house. I couldn’t believe how great it was. And I love that. I’m still really fan-oriented as a reader.

RB: That’s what’s so disturbing about these cranks who insist that a lot of crap is being published. Sure, but there is so much good stuff being put out.

RM: I agree. That’s what I was saying earlier. The review that is hortatory and celebratory of work and discovers stuff, that’s the kind of review that I love to read. There aren’t enough of those.

RB: I am trying to think whether in any area of pop culture the gate-keeping criticism, if any of it is ever joyous and positive. Nowhere. I can’t think of any film critics [who write reviews like that]. [On later consideration I think Anthony Lane fits that.]

RM: There are a lot of miserable film critics out there. It seems like it’s a requirement. Like they check your serotonin level, and if it’s flat they take you off your medication.

RB: Did it seem to you that it was surprising to you when John Updike wrote that he was much more stimulated or moved to write by looking at paintings and visual stuff than by reading?

RM: I think it’s good. It’s synesthetic. I’m sure that you and I both know that John Updike read a ton as a young man. He read the same way anyone else reads when in they are in their apprentice years coming up. He’s 74 or 75 and he’s not reading the same way he was. But any writer who finds inspiration in other media is doing something brave and important. Instead of being cut off from the culture at large.

RB: Have your reading habits changed?

RM: I like dead people now better than I like living people.

RB: [laughs]

RM: Because I have that feeling there’s all this stuff I haven’t read. I haven’t read enough Trollope. Woeful on George Eliot. And every time I tackle one of these old books, I am incredibly moved by them. That just means I have so much more to learn. And I would love to learn those things.

RB: For most of my reading life, I have always made myself finish books I started. And now I much less inclined to do that. And these days I probably start twice as many books as I finish. And mostly without prejudice [by which I mean I don’t necessary not finish because a book is a bad book].

RM: Didn’t Borges say some thing about that? That you should leave off any book the second that you are bored. The principle, then, is that you are always reading out of pleasure. Always delight associated with it.

RB: My own countervailing argument is that I have had a few books that I stuck with and at some point, some code-cracking thing happened. And I then understood what preceded and gained the enjoyment I had missed.

RM: I wouldn’t say any longer that I will read a book if I find it objectionable in some way, but I do read things that require immense patience and I like things that require immense patience. So for me, if I only read two pages a day of something and it takes me two months to finish it, I don’t have any anxiety about it at all.

RB: I do read three or four books at a time.

RM: I do, too.

RB: As a person and conversationalist, I very much like Martin Amis but find it hard to read his novels.

RM: Yeah, they are strange. Something about those books—you don’t react to the people like you react to people in other books. But the writing is so great. The descriptive writing is beyond fabulous. But I will feel the same way, and I’ll open an Amis book and—I’m thinking of the early ones here especially—you know, read a chapter and then that’s it for now.

RB: Hmm. So working in the charm initiative for The Diviners, does it give you tunnel vision or are you able to think beyond where you are going and such?

RM: Actually, I am only thinking of other things. [both laugh] The amazing part is that I can conduct an interview in that circumstance. It’s really important to have other stuff to do. And I have been doing that in the hotels, and I am finishing a novella. Reading some stuff by students and other people.

RB: Where do you teach?

RM: Right now I have one student. I am a thesis adviser for a kid at Columbia, but I am taking it incredibly seriously, I decided, because I have very mixed feelings about teaching and I wrote an article recently in the Atlantic trashing the workshop as a pedagogical methodology. So in order to atone for that, I decided I would try to live up to what I had preached, which is mentorship. So I took this kid and I am reading every page of her work like it’s the most important work on earth. Questioning every adjective, you know, “Can we find a better word?” So I am really working on that and I am finding it very gratifying.

RB: I don’t know if the debate about workshops and writing programs will ever be resolved, but that aside, there are a couple instances which are the low-residency ones, Bennington and Warren Wilson. [For the most part, low-residency programs allow writers to work from home rather than live at the university where they’re studying—eds.]

RM: I taught low-res for a while. I taught at Bennington for several years and I really like low residency.

RB: It seems to me to be admirable. These students are not taking what appears to be a two-year hiatus from reality, and there is a lot at stake for them.

RM: I totally agree. That’s why I did that program for a while, people who are living out in the world, trying to come in from the cold and get a sense of community. I like that model. It was fun—the collegiality part of it was really fun.

RB: Two weeks, twice a year?

RM: Eleven days.

RB: No time to get sick of it?

RM: No exactly. It’s fun to come home.

RB: You are inclined not to teach again?

RM: I don’t know about that. I was at a gala in D.C. and I had dinner with Ha Jin, and we were talking about how many people we knew who were teaching for health insurance. And at the present instance, my wife works for the EPA, so we have government health insurance. But we want to have a kid and I might teach at that point.

RB: Doesn’t the Writers Guild offer decent health insurance?

RM: I was on National Writers Union health insurance and it wasn’t great. And they kept cutting back on it.

RB: I was driving through Exeter where I live and the McDonald’s on its marquee had, “Hiring for all shifts. Medical benefits available.”

RM: Wow. That’s what the country is coming to.

RB: Have you a dark vision of the future? Or a rosy vision?

RM: It depends on the 2008 presidential election, to some degree. If permanent Republican majority—the Karl Rove movement—succeeds, then I have a pretty dark vision of the future. At least by my standards. Maybe other people will find that perfectly reasonable, but it’s not exactly the culture I want to live in that’s worrisome to me. I think there are reasons to be a little bit agitated at the present moment.

RB: A little bit? Why so understated?

RM: I don’t want to be a—

RB:—ranting maniac. [both laugh] Let me do it. While I think the political class in the country, Democrat or Republican, is of the same cut—

RM: I agree.

RB: So choose your poison—on the other hand, though I am not fond of her, Hillary Clinton as a viable candidate for president, including Barack Obama as her running mate, is intriguing and suggests a sea change. To me, the most disconcerting thing is that our fellow citizens elected Bush and Co. What a bunch of bozos!

RM: I agree.

RB: I may be kind to call them bozos. Mike Brown has the nerve to get up and testify that it’s everyone else’s fault.

RM: Right. That was astonishing. That guy is astonishing. I read on a blog today that he straightfacedly said that as of this certain day the governor of Louisiana had not asked for emergency aid for Orleans Parish, and then the blog guy produced the letter with the date on the top of the letter that completely negates what Brown claimed. As far as I can tell, he knows that.

RB: The Big Lie, writ small.

RM: In that sense there is plenty to worry about.

RB: Were you involved in the tumult at the Paris Review?

RM: In a minor way.

RB: Didn’t you publicly resign from the board?

RM: No I was on the masthead as a contributing editor. It’s an interesting story, because it’s a real case of getting trapped in the media perception of this stuff. What happened was Brigid [Hughes], the outgoing editor, was really being treated shabbily by the board and so at a certain point I said, “You know what? I don’t like what they are doing to you, and I am going to ask to be removed from the masthead,” and she said, “That’s really generous of you, etc., etc.” She never bothered to convey this to anyone and so when they announced they were going to hire Philip [Gourevitch] whom I like personally a great deal and I like his work, she wrote to me. She said, “Rick, by the way, I never told the board that you were off the masthead or anything. I know you like Philip. It’s not going to hurt my feelings if we just forget about this.” And I said, “I am totally supportive of you. I want to do what’s best for you. But if it doesn’t make a bit of difference to you, let’s just let it go for now.” And then the next day someone leaked it to the press. So then I was stuck at that point. I looked like an asshole, no matter what.

RB: You are still affiliated with the Paris Review and Brigid Hughes has a new—

RM:—magazine, yeah.

RB: Public Space. Is it something you will contribute to?

RM: I intend to. If she will have me.

RB: All carping and NEA reports aside, doesn’t it strike you that there is much vitality and energy in the literary world and that there are any number of new journals and new small presses?

RM: Yes. Robert Polito at the New School keeps saying that it’s like the record business in the ‘70s when the indie labels all sprang up—the punk labels and everything. I think that’s the direction it has to go in, to some extent. The smaller print run kinds of books are not going to be well served by this big publicity machinery, and you are absolutely right that the literary magazine situation is great, right now. There are a lot of great magazines. And the Believer is a great magazine. It sells 15,000 copies. They are doing pretty well. And the Paris Review is going to do great under Philip and you have Brigid. And just in New York there are six or seven quarterlies right now.

RB: Open City, Land Grant College Review, N+1. On the West Coast, there is Swink, Steve Erickson’s Black Clock.

RM: Black Clock is great. It looks fabulous.

RB: Arts Tri Quarterly still exists. Ploughshares. Georgia Review—

RM:—is sort of moribund at the moment. But any of those magazines with the right editor, and it changes instantaneously.

RB: So the tour finishes, the novella is—

RM: I’m done. The next book is done, actually. It’s stories, and it’s coming out in ‘07 and it’s done, pretty much.

RB: Why so long?

RM: They don’t want it to coincide with the paperback of The Diviners. But it’s good because for the first time there is absolutely no way I can publish a new book before 2008, so I have a lot of time to think about what I want to do next.

RB: What kind of music do you like?

RM: Everything. The only thing I don’t like is white boys with amplifiers.

RB: Who would that be?

RM: Korn. Puddle of Mudd. Any of these metally kind of pop bands, right now, I am not interested in. But I love serious music, new music experimental classical music. I love jazz. I love Appalachia. I am hugely infatuated with Appalachian music. Any kind of African music. Indian music. So I like a lot of different things.

RB: That’s a great thing about new media. More music is available to a greater audience. If you listen to the radio—

RM: Radio is so dead right now.

RB: You’re old enough to remember free-form radio.

RM: Last week, I got interviewed by one of my big heroes of free form, Vin Scelsa. He’s out of New York, out of WNEW when it was a free-form station and then he bounced around for a long time and now he is on the Fordham University station once a week. He’s in his late 50s, maybe even in his early 60s, and has spent 35 years in radio, and he has that thing where he plays whatever the hell he wants. And he will talk 10 minutes between songs if he feels like it. I love that stuff. It’s an entire culture right now that orbits around the notion that you’ll take what we’ll give you. In the popular sense, that’s what American culture does now. It churns out crap and tries to persuade people that is all they really want.

RB: Might we hypothesize that—forget the phrase “dumbing down,” but is it possible that—last night I was reading an acquaintance’s feature essay on Ikea, which he wrote about their store opening in Minneapolis. And I was thinking about these big institutions against my neighborhood gas station closing after 38 years. One doesn’t deal with a merchant anymore whom you know, just these big impersonal retail behemoths that deal with you as numerical marks on a conveyor belt. Does the confluence of these large entities contribute to the reduction of consciousness [as opposed to unconsciousness]?

RM: I really worry about that. That’s my anxiety. And you would think from some of the kinds of—from reviews these days, from popular criticism, from the press—that to think otherwise means you are an elitist fuck.

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