“It’s an existential question, not a historical one: what kinds of places make you feel at home? Some people feel at home nowhere, and some feel at home everywhere. I’m myself, wherever I am.”
Willard Spiegelman returns to the show to talk about his wonderful new essay collection, Senior Moments: Looking Back, Looking Ahead (FSG). We get into the process of deaccessioning, Mark Strand’s advice on paring down to 100 books, Willard’s take on 45 years living in Dallas (and what he’ll miss about it now that he’s retired), the joy of getting lost in Italy, the best way to pick someone up in NYC, the contrast of his 50th high school and college reunions, and more. Give it a listen! And go buy Senior Moments!
“I’m enthusiastically looking forward to getting rid of everything.”
We also mix it up over the aesthetic sunk cost fallacy, ponder being alone in the middle of a crowd, compare Japan and Hungary relative to being linguistically uprooted (I argue that Hungary is tougher, because it looks like you should be able to piece together the language), examine the pharaonic idea of hoarding, and listen to time’s winged chariot hurrying near. Now go listen to the show!
“I’m much too old to write a memoir. That’s the province of 25-year-olds.”
- Willard Spiegelman (2013)
- Jonathan Galassi
- Burton Pike
- Rachel Hadas (2016)
- Ann Patty
- Langdon Hammer
- JD McClatchy
About our Guest
Willard Spiegelman is the Hughes Professor of English at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. From 1984 util 2016, he was also the editor in chief of Southwest Review. He had written many books and essays about English and American poetry. For more than a quarter century, he has been a regular contributor to the Leisure and Arts pages of The Wall Street Journal. In 2005, Willard won the PEN/Nora Magid award for literary editing. In addition to Senior Moments, he’s also written or edited Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness, How Poets See the World: The Art of Description in Contemporary Poetry, Wordsworth’s Heroes, Imaginative Transcripts: Selected Literary Essays, Majestic Indolence: English Romantic Poetry and the Work of Art, The Didactic Muse: Scenes of Instruction in Contemporary American Poetry, and Love, Amy: The Selected Letters of Amy Clampitt. Oh, and he’s quite dapper.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission of the artist. The conversation was recorded at Mr. Spiegelman’s home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 Microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. Photo of Mr. Spiegelman by me.
“I often think that my ideas are exaggerations that are on the brink of disbelief, but just this side of that, so the suspension of disbelief is a challenge in my books. I like to push things as far as they can go.”
Rupert Thomson returns to the show to talk about his new novel, Katherine Carlyle (Other Press, 2015). We also discuss IVF babies, doing research “in character”, keeping the reader’s interest in a “road movie” novel, prioritizing imaginary facts above real facts, his pros & cons list for becoming a parent, the challenge of writing a novel about a father’s fear for his child’s safety, the long and short answer of “Where do you get your ideas?”, how he got James Salter to blurb his new book, and more! Give it a listen!
“My wife was adopted. She told me what it was like not to be related to anyone in the world by blood. She said, ‘We learn about ourselves by looking at people we resemble, and if you don’t have that, you’re alone in the world. And the only mirror is the one on the wall.’ I felt like it was within my gift to change that for her.”
Rupert also talks about repetition compulsion, the changing nature of a full-time writer, learning to perform in public readings, why he wanted to name his new book Frankenstein’s Daughter and why his wife told him not to write it for years, who he’s reading, and what his daughter thinks about his work. Go listen!
“People would assume that you’d do all the research and then write the book, but with me it’s absolutely the opposite way ’round: I think the real facts can really get in the way of the imagined ones. I sink down into my imagination and write the book I want to write first. The imagined facts have to have priority over the real ones.”
We talked about some books during this conversation. You should go read ’em!
- Katherine Carlyle – Rupert Thomson
- Secrecy – Rupert Thomson
- Unformed Landscape – Peter Stamm
- Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
- Love Me Back – Merritt Tierce
- All That Is – James Salter
- Light Years – James Salter
- The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories – Joy Williams
- The Mare – Mary Gaitskill
About our Guest
Rupert Thomson is the author of nine highly acclaimed novels, including Secrecy; The Insult, which was shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Prize and selected by David Bowie as one of his 100 Must-Read Books of All Time; The Book of Revelation, which was made into a feature film by Ana Kokkinos; and Death of a Murderer, which was shortlisted for the Costa Novel of the Year Award. His memoir, This Party’s Got to Stop, was named Writers’ Guild Non-Fiction Book of the Year. He lives in London.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission of the artist. The conversation was recorded at the Carlyle Hotel on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro.
“How do you learn things? How do you acquire the patience to admit when you don’t know things? I think those are really important things for an Army officer to know.”
Elizabeth D. Samet has been a professor of English at West Point since 1997. We talk about the tension between education and training at the military academy, the importance of books to soldiers and officers serving overseas, learning West Point’s unique argot, preparing her students to be unprepared, trying (and failing) to convince Robert Fagles that Hector is the moral center of the Iliad, why she doesn’t teach Henry V to plebes, how not to get caught up in the tyranny of relevance, why she balked at learning the fine art of parachuting, and more! Give it a listen!
“The question I’m endlessly fascinated with is, what do we call war and what do we call peace and can we draw these nice distinctions? It seems to me right now that we can’t.”
NOTE: The opinions Elizabeth Samet expresses in this interview are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of West Point, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.
We also talk about teaching students who are both future Army officers and 18-year-old kids, how West Point and the student body changed after 9/11, her new anthology (Leadership) and her first two books (Soldier’s Heart and No Man’s Land), her house-on-fire list of books to save, her quarrel with Plato, and her adoration of Simeon’s Maigret novels. Bonus: I tell a long, awful and emotional story from last weekend (it starts around the 75:00 mark, so feel free to stop long before that).
“I have this idea about Plato: no one loves Plato who does not already think himself a guardian.”
We talk about a lot of of books in this episode. Here’s a list of ’em (Note: if I ever go to a Patreon crowdfunding model for the show, this is the first thing that goes subscriber-only):
- Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point – Elizabeth Samet
- No Man’s Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America – Elizabeth Samet
- Leadership: Essential Writings by Our Greatest Thinkers – Elizabeth Samet
- An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, Vol. One of the Liberation Trilogy – Rick Atkinson
- The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, Vol. Two of the Liberation Trilogy – Rick Atkinson
- The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945, Vol. Three of the Liberation Trilogy – Rick Atkinson
- The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay – Michael Chabon
- Bleak House – Charles Dickens
- Middlemarch – George Eliot
- Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant / Selected Letters, 1839-1865 – Ulysses S. Grant
- Everything Flows – Vassily Grossman
- Life and Fate – Vassily Grossman
- Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
- The Iliad – Homer (tr. Fagles)
- The Odyssey – Homer (tr. Fagles)
- Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery – Henry Marsh
- Black Swan Green – David Mitchell
- The Complete Works – Montaigne
- Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans, Vol. 1 – Plutarch
- Hamlet – Shakespeare
- King Richard II – Shakespeare
- War and Peace – Tolstoy
- Anna Karenina – Tolstoy
- Hadji Murat – Tolstoy
- The Aeneid – Virgil (tr. Fagles)
- Sword of Honor – Evelyn Waugh
About our Guest
Elizabeth D. Samet is the author of No Man’s Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America (FSG). Her first book, Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point (Picador), won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Current Interest and was named one of the 100 Notable Books of the Year by The New York Times. Samet’s work has appeared in various publications, including the The New York Times, The New Republic, and Bloomberg View. She is also the editor of Leadership: Essential Writings by Our Greatest Thinkers, which is out this month from Norton. Samet won the 2012 Hiett Prize in the Humanities and is also the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. She is a professor of English at West Point.
Credits: This episode’s music is On, Brave Old Army Team by West Point Marching Band. The conversation was recorded at Prof. Samet’s apartment on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Formal photo of Prof. Samet by Bachrach; bookshelf photo of Prof. Samet by me.
“What I really cared about most, what drew me, was the relationship between lives and work, between how we live and what we do, and what we do with it. And that’s one of James Merrill’s major subjects.”
Langdon Hammer, Chair of the Yale English department, joins the show to talk about his new biography, James Merrill: Life and Art (Knopf) (and one of the best books I’ve read this year). We discuss Merrill’s allure as a poet and the alchemy that allowed him to turn base wealth into artistic gold. He also talks about learning the art of literary biography on the fly, the challenge of recreating Merrill’s life in Greece, Merrill’s silence over AIDS, how we can understand the Ouija board-derived poems of Merrill’s masterwork, and more! Give it a listen!
“Alchemy is a theme in Merrill’s writing. How is he going to make his own gold, how is he going to transform the lead of his father’s money into a higher value?”
We also learn about Langdon’s decades at Yale and how students have changed during his time there, what the globalization of English poetry means for the form, why he considers The Book of Ephraim to be James Merrill’s greatest poem, and the farthest he traveled to research the book.
About our Guest
Langdon Hammer is chair of the English Department at Yale and the poetry editor of The American Scholar. His books include Hart Crane and Allen Tate: Janus-Faced Modernism and, as editor for the Library of America, Hart Crane: Complete Poems and Selected Letters and May Swenson: Collected Poems. His lectures on modern poetry are available free online at Yale Open Courses. There’s a more extensive bio at JamesMerrillWeb, if you’d like to check that out.
Credits: This episode’s music is Lust for Life by Iggy Pop. The conversation was recorded at Prof. Hammer’s office at Yale on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro.
“The literary writer still needs someone to have a dialogue with, to help shape their book, understand it and make it as presentable to the world as possible.”
FSG president Jonathan Galassi has been a literary editor and publisher for more than four decades, so how did that experience prepare him for publishing his first novel? Find out in this week’s show, as we talk with Mr. Galassi about Muse (Knopf)! We talk about his history (and future) in publishing, how he wound up a publisher-hybrid of Roger Straus and James Laughlin, how he learned to shut off his editor-self in order to get in touch with writer-self, why he took the challenge of writing a character’s world-changing poetry, and more. Give it a listen!
“The most important thing an editor has is taste. And how do you get taste? By reading a lot of books, and coming to understand what makes them good. Having a visceral love or detestation is important.”
We also talk about Muse‘s affectionate satire of the New York publishing world (okay: he calls it a “revenge fantasy” in our conversation), why he enjoys the rough-and-tumble aspects of the biz, the degree to which authors’ expectations have changed over the decades, the degree to which publishing relies on luck, the best training for an editor, our favorite Philip Roth novels, the value of big advances, where he falls on MFA vs. NYC, why the better literary writers should shouldn’t self-publish, and whether it was a taboo for him to venture into fiction writing after spending so many years editing fiction writers. (Photo: Yvonne Albinowski/New York Observer)
“You go into publishing because you love literature, and you end up reading a lot of crap.”
About our Guest
Jonathan Galassi is a lifelong veteran of the publishing world and the author of three collections of poetry, Morning Run, North Street and Other Poems and Left-handed, as well as translations of the Italian poets Eugenio Montale and Giacomo Leopardi. He has served as a senior editor at Houghton Mifflin, and as executive editor and later president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. In 2008 he received the Maxwell E. Perkins Award, which recognizes an editor, publisher, or agent who “has discovered, nurtured and championed writers of fiction in the U.S.” A former Guggenheim Fellow and poetry editor of the Paris Review, he also writes for the New York Review of Books and other publications. He lives in New York City. His new novel is Muse.
Credits: This episode’s music is Caçada by Bebel Gilberto. The conversation was recorded at Mr. Galassi’s office at FSG on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of Mr. Galassi by Yvonne Albinowski/New York Observer.
“It’s said that the sources of writing are mysterious, but the sources of not writing are pathological.”
Ron Slate spent more than two decades in the corporate world before returning to poetry and writing an award-winning collection praised by the likes of Robert Pinsky. We talk about his roots in poetry, how those “lost” years weren’t so lost, what it’s like to be the guy who sees things late, and how his life was forever changed the day he saw Buddy Rich’s teeth.
“Poetry is always battling invention over assertion, over statement. That’s the tug-of-war. I love poets whose work suggests that tension. I look for that battle between ‘words can do so much’ and ‘words are ineffectual.'”
We also explore why he bailed on his Ph.D., how Ted Leonsis asked him the greatest job interview question ever, what it’s like to get poetry-stalked by Louise Glück, and why he’s trying his hand at fiction. Plus, he reads us a poem from his second book!
About our Guest
Ron Slate was born in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1950. He earned his Masters degree in creative writing from Stanford University in 1973 and did his doctoral work in American literature at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He started a poetry magazine, The Chowder Review, in 1973 which was published through 1988. In 1978, he left academia and was hired as a corporate speechwriter, beginning his business career in communications and marketing. From 1994-2001 he was vice president of global communications for EMC Corporation. More recently he was chief operating officer of a biotech/life sciences start-up and co-founded a social network for family caregivers. Since 2007 he has been reviewing poetry and prose at his popular homepage called On the Seawall. He lives in Milton, MA.
His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Slate, and many other magazines and sites. The Incentive of the Maggot, his first book of poems, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2005. The collection was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle poetry prize and the Lenore Marshall Prize of the Academy of American Poets. The collection won the Breadloaf Writers Conference Bakeless Poetry Prize and the Larry Levis Reading Prize of Virginia Commonwealth University. The Great Wave, his second book, was published by Houghton in April 2009.
Credits: This episode’s music is Poet by Sly and the Family Stone. The conversation was recorded in Mr. Slate’s home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Mr. Slate by me.