“The great [storytelling] advantage to driving a cab is that you have the back of your head to the person. It makes them open up in a way that, if they saw my face, I don’t think they could have. Then they would have had to reckon with me as a person, and I really wasn’t a person to most of them.”
This podcast often hangs out at the intersection of art and commerce, so I was happy when Dmitry Samarov drove up in a cab with his sketchbook!* Dmitry recently published Where To?: A Hack Memoir (Curbside Splendor Press), his second book of essays and art about his experiences behind the wheel of a taxi in Chicago and Boston. We talk about that job vis-a-vis his fine arts background, his compulsion to chronicle his working life in words and images, how he made the transition from ‘zine to blog to book deal, how John Hodgman helped him get his break into publishing, what it’s like to run a website built in 2004, why he fled Parsons School of Design after one semester, and how it felt to leave the cab-driving world behind.
We also talk about his family’s emigration from the Soviet Union when he was a child (and his affinity for The Americans), what it was like to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with Chris Ware, and why he hates Boston with the passion of a thousand burning suns. Most importantly, we find out what an appropriate tip is for a cab-ride! That’s worth the price of admission by itself!
* Actually, I drove out to Newark Airport to pick up Dmitry on his book tour
Dmitry Samarov was born in Moscow, USSR, in 1970. He emigrated to the United States with his family in 1978. He got in trouble in first grade for doodling on his Lenin Red Star pin and hasn’t stopped doodling since. After a false start at Parsons School of Design in New York, he graduated with a BFA in painting at printmaking from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1993. Upon graduation he promptly began driving a cab — first in Boston, then after a time, in Chicago. He is the author of two books, Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab, and Where To?: A Hack Memoir. You should go watch five teaser clips of the Chicago Hack series (dir. John McNaughton), which use Dmitry’s art and writing for a half-hour scripted TV series. You should also check out his paintings, and maybe buy some.
Credits: This episode’s music is A Nice Piece For Orchestra by Bernard Herrmann (from the Taxi Driver soundtrack, duh). The conversation was recorded at Chez Virtual Memories on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Mr. Samarov by me.
“I set up a scenario where all of my characters were unhappy in one way or another, and they were all watching other people, as opposed to looking inward at their own lives. I didn’t know what people do about that. I was writing a realistic novel, but part of me believed that no one actually acts on their unhappiness.”
Tova Mirvis joins The Virtual Memories Show to talk about her brand-new novel, Visible City and how she learned to act on her unhappiness, as well as the lifelong advice she got from Mary Gordon, the ways that writing a book is like building a stained-glass window, why being an orthodox Jew in Memphis wasn’t just like Designing Women with better wigs, and the advantages of being offline for a week when the New York Times publishes your op-ed about getting divorced. Give it a listen!
“Orthodox Judaism and southern culture meld beautifully. In the south, there’s a way we do things and a way we don’t do things. And it’s the same in orthodox Judaism. They’re both very well-structured worlds. I grew up as a sort of cocktail of those two worlds.”
We also talk about how one person’s urge to freedom is another person’s betrayal, why Visible City took her 10 years to write, what you can discover about yourself in your 40s and what you can leave behind, and the varieties of religious experience (ours, not William James’). BONUS! You also get my essay/monologue about Jews & Geordies!
Tova Mirvis is the author of three novels, Visible City, The Outside World and The Ladies Auxiliary, which was a national bestseller. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies and newspapers including The New York Times Book Review, The Boston Globe Magazine, Commentary, Good Housekeeping, and Poets and Writers, and her fiction has been broadcast on National Public Radio. She has been a Scholar in Residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute at Brandeis University, and Visiting Scholar at The Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center. She lives in Newton, MA with her three children.
Credits: This episode’s music is NYC USA by Serge Gainsbourg. The conversation was recorded at the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt offices on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones, feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and monologue were recorded on the same setup in a hotel in Columbus, OH. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Ms. Mirvis by me.
Emily Raboteau, author of Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora (Atlantic Monthly Press), joins the Virtual Memories Show to show to talk about the many notions of “home” for black people. Along the way, we talk about the many notions of what constitutes a black person. As Ms. Raboteau discovered in the travels chronicled in her book — encompassing Israel, Jamaica, Ethiopia, Ghana and America’s deep south — there are a lot of ideas about who’s black and what blackness means.
“As my husband told me, ‘You can’t valorize the oppressed just because they were oppressed. It doesn’t make them saintly; more often than not, it makes them want to step on someone else to elevate themselves.'”
We also talk about churchgoing in New York City, what it’s like to travel to Antarctica, why the story of Exodus is so pivotal in the black American experience, why Jewish book reviewers thought she was pulling a bait-and-switch, why she chose to explore her black roots instead of her white ones for this book, what motherhood means, and what it was like to give a talk about faith on behalf of Bobby McFerrin.
Emily Raboteau is the author of a novel, The Professor’s Daughter (Henry Holt, Picador), and a work of creative nonfiction, Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora (Grove/Atlantic), named one of the “Best Books of 2013” by The Huffington Post and the grand prize winner of the New York Book Festival. She recently visited Antarctica and Cuba to research her next novel, Endurance, about a shipbuilder and his autistic son. Her fiction and essays have been widely published and anthologized in Best American Short Stories, Best American Non-required Reading, Tin House, The Oxford American, The Guardian, Guernica, The Believer and elsewhere. Honors include a Pushcart Prize, The Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Christopher Isherwood Foundation and the Howard Foundation. An avid world traveler, she resides in New York City and teaches creative writing in Harlem at City College, once known as “the poor man’s Harvard.”
Credits: This episode’s music is Promised Land by Johnnie Allan. The conversation was recorded at the home of a friend of Emily’s on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded at home on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Emily Raboteau by me.
The podcast countdown continues! The 4th most downloaded episode from 2013 was #1 most nerve-wracking! It was my live podcast with cartoonist Ben Katchor!
#4 – Visible Cities: VMS Live with Ben Katchor – Ben Katchor is the guest for the first live recording (as in, in front of an audience of 50 or so people) of The Virtual Memories Show! Our conversation (and Q&A with the audience) covers Ben’s new collection of comics, Hand-Drying in America, his creative process, his relationship with technology, his non-nostalgic laments for lost urban totems, and more! (4/16/13) – mp3
I’d been after Ben for a while to do the show, and when he finally took me up on it, he insisted that we record it live at his New York Comics & Picture-stories Symposium. I had to run around to find some mic stands and I jury-rigged a setup that could record our conversation and also pick up the audience questions. I was pretty worried about how it would all work, but I had three different recorders going and we managed to get pretty good sound.
I was a pretty nervous about the public-speaking angle of it, but there were some friendly faces in the audience — like past guest R Sikoryak and upcoming guest Richard McGuire — and that made the whole experience a lot of fun. In fact, we’re talking about doing some live episodes with guests at the Symposium during 2014!
“Most people [in Iran] don’t want to see an out-and-out revolution. They don’t want to see the chaos that comes with it. Particularly after the Arab Spring. People want change, a better life. If it has to be Islamic-tinted, then so be it, for now.”
Writer and journalist Hooman Majd was born in Iran in 1957, but lived his life abroad, first because of his father’s career as a diplomat and then because of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. In 2011, when U.S-Iran relations were near an all-time low, Hooman, his Wisconsin-born wife, and their 8-month-old son moved to Teheran for a year. That experience has resulted in Hooman’s new book, The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay: An American Family in Iran, out this week from Doubleday Books.
“There are 80 million people in Iran, and they have the same wants and desires that we do. There are people we’re going to disagree with on an ideological basis, and there are people we’re going to agree with. And they’re suffering under sanctions. It’s not to say that the Iranian leadership is without fault. But the people who are suffering . . . are the people.”
We talked about Hooman’s fascinating book, his family’s experience with Iran’s culture, the significance of Iran’s nuclear program, how its nationalism can trump religion and vice versa, why Iranians hate Great Britain much more than they hate the U.S., what he missed most during his year in Iran, whether it’s possible for a state to achieve modernity without being a liberal democracy, why he doesn’t plan on writing another Iran book, the growth of Islamic sectarianism and the possibility of another revolution in Iran, how its leaders may be taking baby steps in coming to terms with Israel (and why he thinks the two countries should be BFFs), whether there’s a Farsi word for “sprezzatura”, and Iran’s other unconventional weapon: The Big Sulk.
“There’s a recognition that this system, the way that it is right now, cannot endure forever. It has to undergo some change, some reforms. Whether they’re fast and drastic or slow is another question.”
Credits: This episode’s music is The Girl from Ipanema by Amy Winehouse. The conversation was recorded in Mr. Majd’s home in Brooklyn on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded in my home on a Blue Yeti USB microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Hooman Majd by me.
Jonathan Hyman is the first guest of our two-part 9/11 special! Jonathan began photographing 9/11 murals, tattoos and other memorials immediately after the attacks and continued the project for 10 years, amassing a collection of 20,000 photos, as well as field notes and interviews. (We first met when a mutual pal told him about my 9/11 tattoo.)
University of Texas Press recently published a collection of critical essays about Jonathan’s work, The Landscapes of 9/11: A Photographer’s Journey. The book includes more than 100 of his amazing photos, including 32 pages in color (so you can see this guy in full splendor). Jonathan co-edited the book (along with professors Edward T. Linenthal and Christiane Gruber), and wrote one of the essays as well as all of the captions.
We had a fantastic conversation about his decade-long project, the notion of these mementos mori as American folk art, the reticence of non-New Yorkers to let him photograph them, his own 9/11 experience, how he became a photographer, and his struggle to keep this work from defining him as a person.
Jonathan Hyman is a freelance photographer and Associate Director for Conflict and Visual Culture Initiatives at the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at Bryn Mawr College. A graduate of Rutgers University, he earned his Master’s degree in Fine Art from Hunter College in New York City where he studied painting and photography. At Hunter he was an Eagelson Scholar and a Somerville Art Prize recipient. His main areas of interest include memory, memorialization, social class, the American funerary tradition, vernacular and folk art, and public speech. He has lectured widely in the U.S. and Europe about his work and experience documenting the folk art made in response to the 9/11 attacks. His photographs have been exhibited in solo exhibitions at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, the National Constitution Center, the Duke University Library, and the Wald/Kim Gallery in New York City Hyman’s work has been published in Time magazine, the New York Times, and featured on television on the PBS NewsHour and other print and online media outlets in the U.S. and Europe. He lives in the upstate community of Bethel, New York, with his wife, Gail, daughter Jane, and German Shorthaired Pointer, Quincy.
Credits: This episode’s music is America by David Bowie (covering Simon & Garfunkel). The conversation was recorded in Jonathan’s studio in Smallwood, NY on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 mics feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. There was some trouble with mic placement, so I apologize for all the plosives. I tweaked the EQ to try to reduce them without damaging the overall quality of Jonathan’s conversation. The intro and outro were recorded in my home office on a Blue Yeti USB microphone. File-splitting is done on a Mac Mini using Audacity. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band. Top photo copyright Jonathan Hyman. Photo of Jonathan by me.
“Americans who come to Italy want to get its beauty, its art, its delicious food. They move very fast through Italy. They’ll see 8 or 10 cities in two weeks.”
Poet, novelist, memoirist and all-around wonderful writer Wallis Wilde-Menozzi joins us on this episode of The Virtual Memories Show to talk about her two new books, The Other Side of the Tiber: Reflections on Time in Italy and Toscanelli’s Ray: A Novel. It’s a great conversation about the American experience in Italy over 40 years. Ms. Wilde-Menozzi possesses both a poet’s sensibility for beautiful language and a keen eye that carefully observes the character of Italy, its populace, and its art. I highly recommend The Other Side of the Tiber; it’s a gorgeous, haunting book (I haven’t read Toscanelli yet, so I can’t vouch for it).
“I felt the enormous power of what Michelangelo was doing, but also this sense of process, the fact that we’re becoming, that nothing is quite finished.”
Wallis Wilde-Menozzi grew up in Wisconsin amid stability and quiet natural beauty. After graduating from the University of Michigan, she lived in Oxford, England, NYC, London, Rome, Palo Alto, California and finally, Parma, Italy. Her Midwestern accent has never been replaced, even by learning other languages. She teaches in Europe and the U.S., lectures widely, and is a founding member of the Ledig-Rowohlt International Writers Residence in Lavigny, Switzerland, where she has read the work of more than 500 writers from 65 countries. She is the author of Mother Tongue: An American Life in Italy.
She writes, “The decades I have lived in Italy brought me to the door of different ways of seeing. I knocked, not without trepidation, and have never gotten through half of the rooms. I write about our times in poetry, essays, memoir, nonfiction, and fiction.”
Credits: This episode’s music is Her Hollow Ways by Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi. The conversation was recorded at Wallis’ New York pied-a-terre on a pair of AT2020 mics, feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB mic into Audacity. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band. Photo by Amy Roth.
“My impulse is to break the windows of Starbucks, but I’d get arrested if I did that, so I make comics about people breaking the windows of Starbucks.”
Cartoonist and MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellowship winner Ben Katchor joins us for the first live episode of The Virtual Memories Show (in conjunction with the New York Comics & Picture-stories Symposium). Ben & host Gil Roth talk in front of — and take questions from — an audience of 50 or so about Ben’s career in cartooning, including his new book, Hand-Drying in America and Other Stories (Pantheon), which collects his monthly comic page from Metropolis magazine. During the episode, Ben even performs several of his comics. If you’d like to see the comics themselves, you can download Manumission Houses and Lossless Things.
“People ask about influences and where I get my ideas. A lot of people looked at all the stuff I looked at, and they’re doing something else. It’s not like there’s an equation, like you read Saul Bellow and you look at Poussin, and then you make my comics. It’s not an equation. It’s brute force.”
The conversation and Q&A also cover his work process (with a surprising revelation about how he draws!), how book publishing lost its identity, what he learned from working in other art forms (like musical theater), how he teaches cartooning, the allure of new technologies, his one critical audience demographic, the joy of imperfections, whether he has an ideal era for New York, what happened to his History of the Dairy Restaurant book, how fear of shame keeps him productive, how Google can help when you need to draw a Russian prostitute, what he picked up from the Yiddish humor strips he read as a child, which one book the Library of America should withdraw, and how to pronounce “Knipl”! He didn’t win a “Genius” grant for nothing!
“It’s a golden age of art comics. It didn’t exist when I started. Most bookstores wouldn’t carry a comic, or even something that looked like a comic, back then. I can’t imagine what it must be like for a young cartoonist now, when these things are taken seriously and there’s an audience for them.”
Ben Katchor’s picture-stories appear in Metropolis magazine. His most recent collection of monthly strips, Hand-Drying in America and Other Stories, was published in March 2013 by Pantheon Books. Up From the Stacks, his most recent music-theater collaboration with Mark Mulcahy, was commissioned in 2011 by the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library and Lincoln Center and was performed at both venues. He is an Associate Professor at Parsons, The New School for Design in New York City. For more information, visit www.katchor.com.
Credits: This episode’s music is Big City Blues by Sun Ra and his Arkestra. The conversation was recorded in the Bark Room at The New School in NYC on a pair of AT2020 mics, feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. Mr. Katchor’s readings and some of the questions from the audience were recorded on a second Zoom H4n. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB mic into Audacity. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band. Photo by Amy Roth.
It’s time for another month’s worth of my tweets from twitter! First the retweets (the ones that begin with RT) and then the marginally more original ones! Remember, you can get these regularly by following groth18!
In honor of July 4th, we’ll start off with a bang!