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Birnbaum V.

Ron Rash, Redux

Our man in Boston talks with writer Ron Rash about his latest book, America’s great regional voices, the high percentage of readers in New Zealand and Australia, and the misery that accompanies putting a novel together, where it’s rather more fun to stick pencils in your eyes.

Credit: Robert Birnbaum

The fact that too many great writers live their lives in relative obscurity is, by now, an accepted though unpalatable facet of the literary world.

North Carolinian Ron Rash, despite having published four books of poetry, four books of short stories, and five novels, one of which was his stunning 2008 novel Serena, might suffer that fate but for the forthcoming adaptation of Serena, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. Of course, this circumstance only matters because, as with many fine writers, Rash’s body of work deserves wider currency and greater attention.

Ron Rash’s newest novel, The Cove, is set in backwoods North Carolina during the final stages of World War I, weaving a dark piece of local geography, obscure historical fact, an ornithological metaphor, and a love story into a riveting narrative exhibiting Rash’s fluent and formidable prose.

Rash and I have chatted before. Here we discuss old dogs, Jim Harrison’s popularity in France, reading reviews, this year’s Pulitzer Prize kerfuffle (which was boiling at the time that we spoke), the American white underclass, young Southern writers and recently dead Southern writers, regional writing and, you know, other stuff.

So please read on, and discover for yourself another fine writer with a fine body of work and a major motion-picture adaptation under his belt.

 

Ron Rash: Is your dog still alive?

Robert Birnbaum: No, Rosie passed away.

RR: I remember your dog. I’ve got a couple of real old ones—I’m afraid they are going to die soon.

RB: How old?

RR: One’s 15. Small dog. And the other one is 10. They’re both mutts.

RB: I love big dogs but they don’t live very long. Rosie’s death was one of the worst days of my life. When she died her vet was incredibly compassionate.

RR: My experience is that vets tend to be amazingly decent people.

RB: Yeah, the money is not that great and it’s a difficult task. It’s not easy—you have to love those animals. Anyway, so here you are. The big news today is there is no Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

RR: That’s wrong.

RB: What’s wrong—that they didn’t give an award, or that people are upset that there was no award?

RR: I don’t know. That kind of struck me as just bizarre, that they couldn’t have come up with a book. One of my hopes is—the only good thing that happened is that it causes such a furor that maybe it brought back the idea that books—it made books more visible. That’s my most optimistic take on that.

RB: Why not just say that three books won? There were the darkest and gloomiest forecasts about literary fiction. Ann Patchett wrote in the New York Times an op-ed full of self-serving pretzel logic that I had difficulty reading. I want to know one reader that suffered. Please call me. Anyway, you live in western North Carolina—weren’t you born in South Carolina?

RR: What happened was, my parents had come down from North Carolina to work in textile mills for a few years, and we went back up to where all my family was from. I think of myself as being from western North Carolina.

RB: And you teach there.

RR: Yeah, I’ve been there 10 years now.

RB: Do you feel any sense of isolation? Do you travel much?

RR: I’d been on one overseas trip before I was 55. I went to Britain when I was 26 and I had not been back overseas until I was 55. Because of the writing I just got back last month from Australia and New Zealand, where the books are doing well. And I have been to France three times.

RB: Do they like you in France?

RR: Yeah, they do. They like Southern writers.

RB: They like Jim Harrison a lot.

RR: Yeah, Harrison’s a god over there. That’s been one of the great things, just getting the opportunity to travel. I never had that opportunity before—especially in the U.S.

RB: How much has that affected how you look at writing or what you write about?

RR: I don’t know. I don’t know that it’s something conscious.

RB: In The Cove you chose to reference WWI POW camps, and things that are not commonly referred to history texts—the seizure of the German liner Vaterland. How did you come to write that story?

RR: Well, just curiosity. I mean, once I started doing research on the hot springs camp I found out about the Vaterland. And I just thought that was amazing. I feel like I am reasonably well educated, but I had never heard about it. My editor in New York had never heard about it. I just thought it would make a good novel. Also, as I did in Serena, I think it’s a good way to talk about the present by going back. I like that strategy of seeming to be writing about the past, but I hope the reader senses I am also writing about the present. I have used this quote a number of times; Emily Dickinson said, “Tell the truth but tell it slant.” In a way, I kind of like the idea of sneaking up on the reader, that this is 1918 but then realizing that maybe something else is going on.

RB: One Foot in Eden was set around the Korean War. Or was the protagonist just a veteran?

RR: He was a veteran right at the time of the war.

RB: How much did you know about that war?

RR: I had several members of my family that were in Korea. They all survived. That’s an interesting war, because it seems to be the forgotten war. Some of the stories that my relatives told me—what was the name of the reservoir?

RB: The Chosin Reservoir?

RR: Yeah, some of the most horrific fighting Americans had ever been in.

RB: When you think about it, what generation of veterans doesn’t have a right to be pissed off—except for WWII vets? (both laugh)

RR: Yeah.

RB: Everybody has “Support Our Troops” bumper stickers—I guess you aren’t a troop when you get back.

RR: I guess not.

RB: I skimmed some of the reviews of The Cove and at least one used Serena as a benchmark—is that fair? It’s like criticizing you for the book you didn’t write.

RR: Well, I tend not to read my reviews. Somebody just brought me up a copy of the Boston Globe and wanted me to read it. I kind of scanned it. It was a very positive review and I was very happy about that. But I try to stay away from being too aware of them. I don’t know that it’s healthy in any way. ‘Cause if you start believing what they say, the good stuff (laughs)—Colum McCann told me, “If you don’t believe the good stuff, you don’t believe the bad.” (laughs)

RB: I’d read a review if I had experienced learning something from the writer of the review.

RR: I would say that Serena for me is the best novel I will ever write.

RB: Really? What’s it like to have that feeling? Are you resigned?

RR: No, I just feel lucky that it just came together in a way that I had never had a novel come together. Part of it may be subject matter; it might have been the right age. It’s interesting for me to see where a writer hits that—I think Gatsby is Fitzgerald’s, or Huckleberry Finn—why is it that Twain hit a level that he never hit again? And part of it is just the timing and maybe the right subject. That’s the book I am proudest of.

RB: In my experience, when asked their favorite book, authors will say the one they just wrote.

RR: Well, you’re supposed to be promoting your book. I’m very pleased with The Cove. It’s a very different kind of book. Sometimes something—it’s almost as if you are writing better than you are. It’s like grace. (laughs) Sometimes it happens—it happens with athletics. I was an athlete growing up. There are just those days when you can’t miss a shot.

RB: Why do you call The Cove a different kind of book?

RR: It’s a quieter book than my others. And I wanted it to have the feel of a dark fairy tale. I really wanted that sense. Even though a character like Chauncey, in other books I’ve written, would be much more nuanced—but in a fairy tale, the Big Bad Wolf, you don’t find out that he’s just having a bad day. (laughs)

RB: Both Janet Maslin and Ron Charles thought Chauncey was insufficient. But from your point of view he didn’t have to be.

As Southern writers, this is the world you have, and the world you know best. And you write about that, but always with the idea that ultimately if it doesn’t touch what it means to be a human being, if it’s not universal, then it’s not any good.

RR: Both those reviewers have been very fair to me over the years.

RB: I would not say those were bad reviews.

RR: They were very fair and honest reviews. I have no problem with that—from what people told me. You know, different people have different tastes.

RB: How are you received when you leave your home turf?

RR: It’s been interesting—with each book it seems like there is a little more interest in me. After Serena, especially; that book was more popular by far than any of the others. And it’s also brought people to some of the other books, including One Foot in Eden. It’s also a book I feel very good about.

RB: Yeah, I love that book.

RR: I do too. So, yeah, it’s been good. I get more invitations. And that’s what you want to do as a writer. Last time we talked about the idea of regional literature. And I don’t think either one of us wants to get into that, but one thing you do want is to know that your work is transcending your little place on the map.

RB: I get a sense that American white underclass is being more represented in stories than ever before.

RR: I agree with that.

RB: Daniel Woodrell, Donald Ray Pollock, Frank Bill, Bonnie Jo Campbell. And I don’t know if you are familiar with this writer, Joe Bageant? He is devoted to telling that story, especially in Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir. Breaking Bad, Winter’s Bone, or Justified, an FX series that takes place in Harlan County, Ky. Suddenly we are getting these stories instead of The Sopranos or some other urban grit.

RR: I hadn’t thought about that.

RB: One writer, talking to me about Winter’s Bone, said, “They even made the trees look ugly.”

RR: (both laugh) Daniel’s a good friend of mine. He’s a great writer. I love that book. He’s got a Civil War book called Woe to Live On, which is really good. It’s just being reissued.

RB: I’ve been reading Woodrell for years. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that it’s taken a while for him to get recognized.

RR: What you hope for—Daniel and I have actually talked about this—we have both had some success these last couple of years. He said something like, “We were overnight success but it took us 30 years.” (laughs) We have both been writing seriously about 30 years.

RB: Like Edith Perlman, who is 65 years old, and some of the reviews of her last collection asked why they had never heard of her, though she has been writing for years.

RR: Well, it happens. There is a writer I love, Donald Harrington, who died a couple of years ago.

RB: An Arkansas writer.

RR: I kept thinking, book after book, Somebody is going to recognize this guy. He’s a genius.

RB: It was amazing that he continued to be published.

RR: Yeah—a lot of times it was a smaller press. But he did.

RB: A number of Southern artists have died this year.

RR: We’re averaging one a week.

RB: William Gay, Lewis Nordan—

RR: Harry Crews. Another underrated writer, Doris Betts.

RB: I would include [musician] Levon Helm.

RR: Oh yeah.

RB: I wondered about the next generation of Southern writers, 30-year-olds.

RR: I think there are some good writers coming up—a novelist named Mark Powell out of South Carolina is good. And Wiley Cash has a new novel that’s gotten some attention [A Land More Kind Than Home].

RB: I just came across his list of “11 Greatest Southern Novels.” (laughs)

RR: Oh really?

RB: (Laughs)

RR: But yeah, I see some younger writers that I think will do well—that young woman who won the National Book Award.

RB: Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones.

RR: Yeah, that’s a good book.

RB: I found it unreadable—I got 100 pages into and it got tiresome. I couldn’t get a feel for the characters—I’ve liked books set in Louisiana.

RR: Have you read Tim Gautreaux?

RB: Yeah, I loved The Clearing.

RR: Yeah, that’s my favorite book by him.

RB: His newest one, The Missing, was a good one. More complex than his previous stories.

RR: I love him and Tommy Franklin.

RB: He’s one of those younger, up-and-coming writers.

RR: He’s in his 40s. Yeah, there are still a lot of good writers coming out if the region.

RB: Do the young ones think of themselves as Southern writers—part of a tradition? Are writers from the South still ghettoized?

RR: I think we have a sense we are really no different from any others. I think Richard Price is an incredible regional writer. I mean that in the best sense of the word, because I love his work.

What I sense from overseas is more readers. Australia and New Zealand, there are a lot of readers there, I would think percentage-wise much more than the United States.

RB: The region of five boroughs. (laughs)

RR: Yeah, but he just nails it, you know; he shows you so much of that world.

RB: I was reading Ishmael Reed’s criticism of Price and The Wire and the new TV show he is producing, NYC-22. He offered the usual complaints of stereotyping. When I read Samaritan I didn’t read any stereotyping—I found the characters to be vividly singular.

RR: And Lush Life was a wonderful book. That’s my favorite by him. So I think we realize—I mean, as Southern writers, this is the world you have, and the world you know best. And you write about that, but always with the idea that ultimately if it doesn’t touch what it means to be a human being, if it’s not universal, then it’s not any good. It just becomes local color, and quaint. You show how interesting and quaint these people are. That is something I am into.

RB: I don’t know about the book, but the movie Deliverance was that: toothless mongoloids playing banjos in the trees. A cartoon.

RR: It’s more about urban/rural. Jim Harrison is a writer who was very important to me growing up. I felt the world that he was writing about was so much my world.

RB: Growing up in Chicago, it’s not my world, but I have always liked those stories. I was talking about urban stories with Hari Kunzru. He said “Some writers think they are being risky if they have a character take a bump of cocaine.”

RR: (laughs) When you read William Gay you are out there in some really dark ways.

RB: Isn’t there a long-awaited novel?

RR: I don’t know.

RB: You knew Gay?

RR: Yeah, he was a friend. Really a great guy and novelist. A great storywriter. I miss him. I don’t think he ever really got his due in the United States. He was well known in Germany and France. It’s interesting when I am overseas to see who is considered important.

RB: Are they reading people like Gay in English, or is it translated?

RR: Very often they read in English.

RB: I wonder how regional vernacular translates?

RR: At least in France they read a lot in English. I think you have to do that to get what William was doing—his language was so amazing.

RB: It doesn’t seem to be translatable.

RR: Yeah, it’s like trying to translate poetry—you just can’t do it. You can give a sense of what’s going on but you can never—

RB: I wonder how you can translate Chinese prose into English—there don’t seem to be correlates.

RR: Serena has been translated into Chinese. And I have no idea. It had a really interesting cover. It looked like a western. What they made of that I couldn’t imagine. (laughs)

RB: Apparently, Pablo Neruda is the most popular poet in the world. His poetry is translated into Chinese. How does that work, from Spanish to Chinese?

RR: One of my great regrets—I know some French and some Spanish. One of my favorite poets is Rilke, and you read the translations and you know you are missing everything. I actually have had a friend who knows German read it. I am kind of scanning along, and you hear it, you hear the music then.

RB: I wonder about people who translate using a dictionary, without really knowing the language.

RR: I don’t know how you do that.

RB: Do you still write poetry?

RR: I do. I had a book come out last fall from a small press in South Carolina.

RB: Naturally.

RR: Yeah, poetry is not high in the radar. I love poetry. One of my hopes is that when people read my fiction that they know I am a poet. I mean, you can overdo that, but I hope that there’s that sense.

RB: Jim Harrison has always considered himself a poet, though I don’t think most readers see him that way. His poems are funny. And gentle.

RR: And there is a real clarity to them. Which, very often, is what I think distinguishes his prose—that kind of clarity.

RB: I don’t get why he is not more present in the conversations about literature in the way that, for instance, Cormac McCarthy, Roth, or Updike are.

RR: I don’t either. And there was a long time that McCarthy wasn’t getting any attention. All the Pretty Horses was kind of his breakout book. He was just quietly doing his work. I think that’s not a bad thing. When I talk to younger writers they don’t want to hear this. I would not want to be a writer who had a lot of success early. To have a novel that got a lot of attention when I was 25—that would not have been good for me, at least. So much of the other stuff starts getting the way of the writing.

RB: Readings are still part of the publicity strategy. Public conversations seem to be preferred in Europe—do you do those?

RR: Oh, sure. It’s always a little unsettling. I am not that quick. I am not one of those people that can come up with these, you know, like Samuel Johnson, and just say these memorable sentences. And when I get through I always think, “Well, why didn’t I say this?” But you know, that’s because I’m a writer. I write 12 or 143 drafts of something. Suddenly you are up there spouting nonsense.

RB: There is an expectation, after you have spent a long time alone creating a story, then you should go out for an extended period and be charming.

RR: I feel very lucky just because there are so many good writers not getting published, or who have been dropped by good houses. It’s a weird experience. I make myself write on the road. That allows me to lock myself into a hotel room and not see people, just talking and doing a book-signing. Writers tend to be introverts and I am certainly one. It takes a lot of energy. Because I teach, I am kind of used to getting up in front of people, but I find it draining. But at the same time I find it nice—for 20 years nobody cared.

RB: Want to speculate on what might happen if you hadn’t finally enjoyed some success with Serena?

RR: One Step in Eden—once you have a novel out, that gave me some—that kind of raised me to a little more visibility. To me, a healthy kind of building a readership and interest in the work. I just felt that I have written the books I want to write. I have written them at my own pace.

RB: You have been teaching as you have been writing?

RR: Yeah, I was teaching at community college—I was teaching five, six courses a semester for 17 years. I taught two years of high school, and half of it composition. But you know, as I tell people, if it’s important enough, you’re going to find a way to write. What I do is just get up early and teach at night, so I can have a little time and energy in the mornings.

RB: That’s some hard work—I wonder who is willing to do that these days?

RR: It is hard work.

RB: I’m thinking of young writers out of prestigious university writing programs getting the stories published in the New Yorker and being signed to half-million-dollar contracts.

RR: Well, I certainly was not part of that. Once again, it was probably a good thing for me as a writer that it was slow.

RB: There was the ’80s brat pack—Brett Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney, they tasted early success and they haven’t seemed to come close since then. Do you attend the conferences and festivals down South?

RR: I go to some. It’s a good way to meet friends, and get to meet—I’ve been invited to festivals in Australia and France. That’s been great. Actually I finally met Richard Russo in France.

RB: Russo’s another writer who deals with white working-class characters—Nobody’s Fool. He also writes movie scripts. Do you watch a lot of movies?

Novels are so horrible to write. It takes me three years. Very often I’d rather stick pencils in my eyes. But when you finish them, it’s wonderful.

RR: Not a huge number.

RB: Have you been approached for movies of your books?

RR: Oh, they are doing Serena right now.

RB: I might have known that. Who’s involved?

RR: Susanne Bier is directing. Jennifer Lawrence is Serena and Bradley Cooper is—

RB: You caught Lawrence at the right time.

RR: Yeah.

RB: She was great in Winter’s Bone and in another obscure one called The Burning Plain.

RR: She’s going to be good as Serena—she grew up riding horses and she’s used to being outdoors. Serena, you know, hunts with an eagle and rides the horses. She’s physical.

RB: And Brad Cooper is playing her husband?

RR: Yeah, and they have some other good people involved. Toby Jones, a great actor, plays the sheriff. Rhys Ifans is another good actor.

RB: Are you involved?

RR: No.

RB: The paperback reissue/tie-in will have Lawrence and Cooper on the cover. I remember talking with Russo when Nobody’s Fool was made into a movie and how delighted he was that Paul Newman was on the cover of the reissued paperback. (laughs)

RR: Yeah, they’re filming it now in the Czech Republic.

RB: That must look like North Carolina.

RR: I guess for all the timber-cutting scenes they unfortunately find them there.

RB: Are you on a schedule or pattern of writing—you just finished a novel and are on tour—have you already started another project?

RR: Oh yeah. Actually I am finishing up a book of short stories.

RB: Written specifically for this collection, or—

RR: Well, some of them are a little bit older, but actually when I finished The Cove about a year ago, I just started writing stories.

RB: Do you have to write all the time?

RR: Seems like it. I just don’t feel right if I’m not. It’s like exercising.

RB: What’s the longest you can go?

RR: Oh, I can go a few days. (both laugh) Sometimes I have to. But I always start getting restless. I have done it so long, like I said, it’s like not exercising that day—it just doesn’t feel right.

RB: What does it feel like when you do? Do you go to another place?

RR: Oh yeah. To me, I’m pretty much oblivious to everything around me when I am writing. I need a quiet place—some people can write with music but I don’t like distractions. Sometimes I write on my porch, which is very quiet. Actually where I do most of my writing is in my office, and I have a little photograph of Flannery O’Connor glaring down at me, keeping me honest.

RB: What does New England, Boston, look like to you after you step off the plane?

RR: I’m curious. I enjoy cities. I don’t think I could ever live in one. That’s just me. I wouldn’t feel comfortable.

RB: Do you notice the noise?

RR: Yeah. The first time I went to New York, I could not sleep—I kept hearing the traffic, mainly. At the same time I love Indian food and I don’t have a restaurant within 40 miles of me that serves that. We have good bookstores, but—

RB: How close to Asheville are you?

RR: About 50 miles. Asheville has a lot of fine restaurants and a great bookstore.

RB: Warren Wilson [College] is there.

RR: Right outside it.

RB: It seems that Vermont and North Carolina seem to have the most writers per capita in the U.S.

RR: I think North Carolina right now—it just seems like there is one over every fence. It’s pretty amazing—just a lot of really good writers.

RB: Do you have any worries about books disappearing?

RR: Yeah, it may be generational, but for me there is something so wonderful—I like the fact that it’s tangible. And very often it has a beautiful cover, the aesthetic, so that I just find wonderful. I have trouble reading off of a screen—a novel at least. Like I say, it may be generational, but it doesn’t feel quite right for me.

RB: Any novel in the works? Do you have a master plan? You want to write a bookshelf full of novels and X amount of stories and X amount of poems?

RR: I like a kind of symmetry. For a while I had four books of poetry, four books of stories, and four novels. Now I have five novels, I’ll have five books of stories—that means I’ll owe another book of poems. I kind of like that. Novels are so horrible to write. It takes me three years. Very often I’d rather stick pencils in my eyes. But when you finish them, it’s wonderful. Right now I can’t even think about writing one.

RB: Having written five novels, do you have doubts that you can write another one?

RR: Well, no, not in that sense. Just whether I want to do that to myself. (laughs) I mean, I was pretty miserable for about a year, year and a half, just because it kept going the wrong way. I would throw away 50, 60 pages. And it was good writing. The writing was good, I felt. It was like pulling out organs.

RB: Do you actually throw it away, or do you store it somewhere?

RR: I throw it away. Occasionally there might be a description that I feel like, Maybe this can go somewhere else. I did a huge amount of research for The Cove on jazz because I was going to have the character Walter join a jazz band those three years the ship was in the harbor. I probably read 20 books on jazz—I figured out who would have come from New Orleans, how quickly they could have gotten to New York, all those kinds of things. I ended up writing about 40 pages where Walter actually hangs with those guys. He’s learning this exotic kind of music he’s never heard before.

RB: I didn’t think they used flutes in early jazz.

RR: Well, to me that’s what would make it interesting—I think they did occasionally, I mean, Herbie Mann—

RB: That’s much later.

RR: I thought it would be interesting for him to try—it is fiction. Maybe nobody else ever heard of it. But you know, it wasn’t working with the book, and I had to get rid of it.

RB: What’s the interchange after you submit the manuscript to your editor [Lee Boudreaux]?

RR: She reads it carefully. She’s a great editor, she really is, and we discuss it, and very often she is dead-on right. I sensed the jazz scenes were slowing the story down and she concurred. And I want that.

RB: Has she been your editor all along?

RR: I was with Holt for my first three books and they didn’t want Serena—Ecco did. I just feel lucky that someone in New York picked it up. I was afraid I wouldn’t have a New York publisher.

RB: It’s not like you turn your copy in and that’s it?

RR: No, no. She reads it carefully and, as I say, makes a lot of good suggestions. Sometimes we disagree, and she is very open when I feel strongly that something needs to stay the way it is. That’s what you hope for from an editor. I always feel the book is better because of her.

RB: Those are very special relationships.

RR: Yeah.

RB: What do you do besides write?

RR: Oh gosh—not a lot.

RB: Sports—pay attention to sports?

RR: I love sports. I ran track in college. I love basketball. I love watching NBA basketball. So I am excited about the playoffs. I fish some. I like to spend some time outdoors.

RB: What have you been reading?

RR: Let’s see—I went back and reread Light in August, and I have been reading some Australian writers that I like. The problem with writing novels is, after spending six hours writing I am so burned out at night I just want to sit and watch a ball game. It’s hard to have the energy to read. I mean, I do—maybe 30 minutes.

RB: Random House is reissuing some Faulkner and I started rereading the Snopes trilogy. I was amazed—mostly by whole passages that I don’t think I understood, but I continued to read it.

RR: Oh yeah. He’s just amazing. Light in August, it’d been about 20 years since I read it. I had forgotten how great a book that is.

RB: I remember being introduced to Faulkner and Melville and James in high school—I didn’t get any of them. I wonder if that discourages people from becoming readers?

RR: What is initially important is if students have bad experiences with reading, reading a book that that person can’t connect to or [is] over their heads. When I look back on what I read—I was reading the Hardy Boys. I’d read some Poe and things like that, but I was developing that love.

RB: I remember the first book to really excite me, the first real literary work I read, was Thomas Pynchon’s V. Funny, complicated, and engaging. From there I jumped into all sorts of stuff. I don’t think we foster real literary appreciation.

RR: What I try to do is be optimistic about it. One of the great things is I’ll have a kid who is not a reader—one of the books that has done well especially with male high school students is The World Made Straight. It’s about somebody their age getting into serious trouble—they find that interesting. I just can’t imagine living a life without reading. I mean, I just can’t. It’s not even being judgmental. To me it’s something that would be missing. Missing one of the best things about life. I mean, really—a really good book is like communion. The reader is taking these splotches of ink and making them real, and being affected by them. But the reader has to bring a lot. A good reader is an artist. You have to have that kind of ability. I feel sad that they are missing out on it.

RB: It seems to be a failure to teach appreciation for what a story is. Same problem in teaching history. We teach a lot of details and leave out the good stories.

RR: Randall Jarrell said, “Man is the narrative animal.” That may be changing. We are becoming the visual animal. There is something about story that continues to resonate with us as human beings.

RB: I was reading an essay by Lewis Lapham that argued that language today is not used to tell stories but to encourage us to buy stuff. It’s about transactions.

RR: What I sense from overseas is more readers. Australia and New Zealand, there are a lot of readers there, I would think percentage-wise much more than the United States.

RB: That there were 300,000 titles published last year must be a good sign—in aggregate the money is there.

RR: That’s amazing.

RB: Well thanks.

RR: Yeah, good to see you again.

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