“I’m never gonna be a parent, but if I were, I’d be like, ‘We’re skippin’ this Goodnight, Moon thing; you’re goin’ to Pale Fire.'”
Cartoonist Katie Skelly joins the show to talk about her new book, Operation Margarine (AdHouse Books), which is really just an opportunity for us to talk about Barthes, Edie Sedgwick, and The Maxx, before getting to the moment when she was 15 and read the least “YA”-friendly book ever for all the wrong reasons. Along the way, we also talk about how she manages to work on her comics while holding down a (respectable) full-time job, why she’d rather hunt for a rare comic than buy something new, what it was like to belong to a high school anime club that only had two members. Go listen!
“6 o’clock hits, it’s time to leave the office; what are you going to do with the four or five hours you have before going to sleep?”
About our Guest
Katie Skelly lives and works in Queens, NY. Her first graphic novel, Nurse Nurse, was published by Sparkplug Books in 2012. Her latest book, Operation Margarine, was published by AdHouse Books in 2014. You can find her on her website, on Tumblr, and on Twitter.
Credits: This episode’s music is Katie’s Been Gone by The Band. The conversation was recorded in my hotel room during the 2014 Toronto Comic Arts Festival on a Zoom H2n (I had some weird distortion/flutter on my usual Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder, so I went with my backup recording). The intro and outro were recorded on Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Ms. Skelly by Amy Roth.
Since we’re building a library downstairs and adding a bunch more shelf-space, I’m no longer quite so constrained in my book-buying. I’m still on an austerity plan for 2012, so I’ll generally only pick something up on the cheap. Here’s what I’ve bought lately and why.
The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay – Michael Chabon – I’m planning to read this for a Secondhand Loves podcast with one of my old college pals. I detested it the first time I tried it, complaining, “If you write a novel about comic-book history, Jews in eastern Europe, escape artistry and the golem-myth and you lose me, you’ve seriously fucked up.” We’ll see if I’m still as uninto it. It cost me $2.62, plus shipping
The Anatomy of Influence – Harold Bloom – I’m sure I’ll spend a little time with it. $8.31
I stopped in Princeton for lunch on the way home from a client visit in Philadelphia, so I hit Labyrinth, which used to be Micawber Books. I found a used copy of Little, Big for $12.74. Amy lent hers out, and I’m hoping to interview the author soon for the podcast, so I picked that up. Still, $12.74 is kinda high for a used paperback. I balanced things out by finding a backup hardcover of George, Being George for $2.
There was a street fair in Suffern, NY last weekend, as Amy & I discovered when going out to our favorite hole-in-the-wall taqueria in town. We meandered through that, and discovered a little used bookstore in the same building as the Lafayette theater, this great old movie house where I once saw The Empire Strikes Back. The stock wasn’t really my sorta thing, but then I noticed a copy of Mr. Crowley’s Four Freedoms for $4, so I picked that up.
While staying in NYC for a conference last week, I hit up the Strand Bookstore on my last night, since my wife & I are content to do that sorta thing. I decided I wouldn’t buy anything over $10, but managed to get by without crossing the $8 barrier:
Wise Blood – Flannery O’Connor – I read it in the big ol’ Library of America collected works last year, but figured it wouldn’t hurt to have a portable copy. $7.95
How Fiction Works – James Wood – I generally like his literary criticism and book reviews. $7.95
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City – Nick Flynn – My pal Elayne loved this one, and implored me to give it a shot. $7.50
Role Models – John Waters – I’ve always liked John Waters in theory much more than in practice, so I’m hoping the printed page works better for me than the movie/TV screen. $7.95
And that’s my recent book-buying binge. We’re still a few weeks away from having the library finished, but once it’s wrapped up, I’ll be sure to post a ton of pix.
When I was a pretentious young man (I’m older now; but that doesn’t mean I’m less pretentious), the Paris Review Writers at Work anthologies were my Bible. (Or at least my Apocrypha. My Bible was a mash-up of Tropic of Cancer and Inside the Whale.)
I’d seek out the collections at used bookstores. The first volume I picked up, the 5th Series, contained interviews with William Gass (whom I was just then struggling to read), Jerzy Kosinski, Gore Vidal, P.G. Wodehouse, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and more. The interviews were a joy to this self-important, deluded Future Great American Writer, deftly exploring the writers’ histories, influences and literary opinions, while also revealing some of the practical aspects of their writing habits. Each interview was prefaced with a facsimile of a page of the writer’s manuscript or typescript. This was a wonderful touch, a peek into the writer’s editorial process.
(Well, except for the Henry Miller interview, which had a bizarre diagram with the caption, “Manuscript plan of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn, ’embracing planetary conjunction; topographical map of region and monuments and streets and cemeteries; fatal, or otherwise, influence of fields â€” according to type; Major Events; Dominant Idea; Psychological Pattern.” This may be why I never finished Tropic of Capricorn.)
If I found WaW volumes in a library, I’d photocopy the interviews with my favorites. I still have a folder somewhere with Philip Roth, Harold Bloom, Milan Kundera (I said I was pretentious back then) and others. I began looking up past issues of the Paris Review to find other interviews that had yet to be anthologized.
One of my great triumphs came when I was in Bethesda, MD in 1998 for the Small Press Expo (SPX), an indie-comics event. In a used bookstore near the expo hotel, I found issue #105 with the famed (and uncollected) William Gaddis interview!
At SPX, I met Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth. I’d been writing mean-spirited reviews for his magazine, The Comics Journal, for a few months at that time. He thanked me for those, joking that it was good to have someone else writing mean-spiritedly in the magazine, because it freed up his time. Then he noticed the Paris Review back issue in my hand and said, “I see you found the one with the William Gaddis interview!”
I felt like I was in good company.
The WaW anthology series, published by Viking / Penguin, ended after the 9th volume in 1992, near as I can tell from abebooks.com. A decade or so later, Modern Library began publishing Women Writers at Work, Beat Writers at Work, Playwrights at Work and, um, Latin American Writers at Work (?), but I never picked those up. (I did grab The Writer’s Chapbook, which excerpted quotes from the interviews around particular themes, such as the audience, character, potboilers, peers, etc. It was a nice volume, but not as satisfying as having the complete interviews.)
In 2006, St. Martin’s Picador imprint began a new series called The Paris Review Interviews (I, II, and III). They’re the same format as the old WaW collections, right down to the facsimile manuscript page. And they collected the Gaddis interview! I still find the interviews pretty delightful, even though I’m no longer harboring dreams of being a Great American Writer. (I 0-fer-ized two of them here and here.)
George, Being George has a lot of good material about the history of the interviews, including the giddy elation some writers experienced when they were asked by George Plimpton to sit down for a Writers at Work session. Rather than excerpt any of those, I instead offer up a passage about the business of publishing the books:
MONA SIMPSON: [George] was very unhappy at one point with the amount of money that the Review had been paid for the various anthologies of interviews. Viking was paying us very little, and they were delaying publications. So Jay and I volunteered to go to this guy we knew at Simon and Schuster to see about moving our books there, and George was all for it. After an extended series of meetings, we got an offer for twenty-five thousand dollars â€” the current publisher was offering, I think three thousand â€” and they were really going to push it and promote it. So we come to George saying, “Okay, let’s sign on the dotted line, it’s going to be great.”
Then, at the last minute, George calls our editor at the other house â€” basically an old friend of George’s whom he’d been working with for years, who occasionally sent him tickets to a ball game. The editor sends George some tickets to the ball game and the whole deal is off. We realized at that point that we couldn’t just go out in the world and do that sort of thing anymore, not even with his permission, because we found that we basically didn’t have power to go against his personal loyalties. It was very embarrassing, because Simon and Schuster was outraged that we were staying with an offer that was about twelve percent of theirs.
I’ve taken several clients to basketball and baseball games, as well as fancy dinners. I like to believe that our magazine offers great value to our advertisers and that the fun times are sorta ancillary, but I’m sure that “relationship-building” activities like this muddle even the most otherwise clear business decisions.
As I said, George, Being George is a pretty entertaining book. Why, it’s right here at the end of my Plimpton/Review shelf!
Oh, and the fourth volume of the new series â€” sorry, the IVth one â€” is coming out next week, so you should get on that.
Looks like it’s Tangential Connections to George Plimpton Week here at Virtual Memories! Here’s another passage that stuck with me from George, Being George:
MYRA GELBAND: By the late 1980s, of course, the magazine evolved, and the kind of journalism George did for [Sports Illustrated], which was his signature journalism and I would guess his most commercial, took a backseat to the type of hard-sports journalism that became prevalent in the 1980s with the advent of things like ESPN and cable television.
I think it became harder for George to figure out stories that would work for the magazine, because his interests had changed, too â€” he wasn’t gonna go suit up and play football for us, and we weren’t gonna run those kind of stories. So it became a little more challenging for him to get into the magazine.
So SI faced the challenge of 24-hour sports coverage by . . . trying to replicate it on a weekly basis? Rather than play to the strengths it had in long-form writers like Plimpton, Dan Jenkins, Frank Deford, etc.? Because the media only got faster, but SI has to keep coming out once a week.
I’m not saying anything new; here’s a piece from 2007 by John Levin on why SI sucks. Still, I knew there was a reason that the only articles I remember from the last 10 years of SI were Frank Deford’s long pieces on Bill Russell and Roger Bannister and Edmund Hillary. (Wait: 1999 was 11 years ago, huh? Man, that decade just flew by.)
And of course, the most memorable piece published in SI in the past 30 years was Plimpton’s Sidd Finch prank, from 1985. The section on that article in George, Being George is hysterical, as expected. There’s a great passage from one of the Paris Review young’uns, detailing how afraid he was that he and Plimpton were going to get mugged by a trio of thugs, until one of the thugs realized who Plimpton was and told him how much he loved the Sidd Finch article.
Oh, well. I guess this means last April’s TEN-PAGE FEATURE ON A PROFESSIONAL SURFER was SI‘s attempt at getting back to its roots.
Gripegripemutter. . .
As I mentioned a while back, one of my favorite recent discoveries is NYC Grid, in which blogger Paul Sahner posts a new photo essay of a block of NYC each day. About a month ago, he covered 72nd St., between York and FDR. I found this post fascinating, especially because of the series of beautiful townhouses at the end of the street.
On a whim, I looked up real estate listings for the street and found a couple of openings in those gorgeous buildings. If I can just get a $749,000 mortgage together and convince a co-op board that Rufus is a pretty quiet dog, I can get 1,168 square feet (with an additional $1,849 in monthly maintenance fees)! Or with a $1.25 million mortgage (plus $4,000/month in fees) I could get almost 2,100 square feet!
I shouldn’t be snide. The apartments are gorgeous and the location is insane; they’re just so far beyond what I’d ever be able to pay for a place, it made me sad.
Anyway, this past weekend, as I was reading George, Being George, I noted the many references to George Plimpton’s apartment and the connected Paris Review offices in a townhouse on E. 72nd St. The speakers mentioned the multitude of parties held in Plimpton’s apartment, and the way the staffers at the Review were pretty free to meander into his home (to the chagrin of his wives).
I just didn’t connect the dots with NYC Grid until I read this quote:
BEN RYDER HOWE: The first thing you noticed, coming to work at the Review office, was George’s block, the last before you hit the East River. That block was incredible, with red brick sidewalks and, down at the end of it, his building, the smallest, black as coal. You’d think it was a tenement, not a warren of small luxury apartments.
The street scene was bizarre, too. You had all those cancer treatment centers, with people coming there from all over the world. I remember seeing a Saudi sheikh on the promenade who was between chemo treatments, and he was out there smoking a cigarette. Or you would see someone who had just come out of Sotheby’s, at the corner of York, with a two-thousand-dollar egg cup or something.
Toward the river, opposite George’s building, were huge, ugly apartment buildings, outside of which you might see powerful people screaming into their cell phones as they paced up and down the street. You’d see people who were obviously having secret rendezvous down on the promenade.
George’s building had four entries, 527 to 541, the last of which, with his apartment, gave right onto the river. It was right there under the promenade, practically at your feet, narrow as a sluice at that point, with big ships squeezing past each other between Roosevelt Island and the FDR Drive. Sometimes, at about four o’clock in the afternoon, when you were just completely delirious from reading all those unsolicited manuscripts, you felt like one of those ships spinning on the tide.
On the next page was a b/w photo of the door to 541. Sure enough, it was the very building I’d searched out weeks earlier, at the end of the street, overlooking the East River. And those huge prices?
TERRY QUINN: My first visit to 541, I asked him, “How did you get all this space right on the East River? It must have cost you a million dollars.” And I think he said that when he and others in the building outbid some developers for the whole block of apartments, his piece cost sixty thousand dollars. He said it was the only good financial decision he’d ever made.
What I’m reading: I finished Moby Dick last week, and got swept up in George, Being George, an oral history of George Plimpton, over the weekend. Reading the section on Plimpton’s divorce from his first wife, I felt really sad for his kids. I went to college with his oldest daughter, but don’t recall having any interaction with her during our time at Hampshire. When I finished that chapter, I thought, “Man, I hope she has kids and they give her a big hug today.” Outside of that, the book’s very entertaining. The scenes at the Paris Review offices sound like they were wonderful, although I’m guessing that, had I submitted a resume back in my post-college days, my name would’ve triggered a lack of a callback. (Not that Plimpton was anti-semitic, so much as, um, well, it just sounds like there weren’t many Jews (or black people) working at the Review, is all I’m saying.) Midway through the book, it occurred to me that Plimpton was “Fitzgerald who wanted to be Hemingway.” I thought this was a pretty good insight until I reached the last quarter of the book, where I learned that Plimpton had in the 1990’s adapted Fitzergald and Hemingway’s correspondence into a dramatic dialogue that he performed with Norman Mailer and Mailer’s wife Norris Church (who played Zelda). So I’m no genius. Anyway, it’s a really fantastic book, despite the sadness of the closing years of Plimpton’s life, where it became clear that his devotion to the social sphere had taken its toll on his body (and was part of his inability to be a good husband). Here’s the only passage that I dog-eared:
JAMES SCOTT LINVILLE: The only time I saw George nervous was when he was about to interview Andy Warhol for the magazine. There was something in Warhol’s voice, which had always been so flat, almost inhuman-seeming, but here . . . well, I thought: My God, he really wants George to like him. I realized he’d have had to have been hurt by the Edie book years before, and here he was talking to him. And George, George clearly did not like him, but he was fascinated by him. I suddenly realized these two guys had in some sense studied each other, for decades, how the other fashioned himself in the media â€” George of course with his effortlessness, the patrician thing, and Warhol . . . well, whatever he was. It was clear they had each paid attention to how the other had moved through some grid of public awareness.
It’s a topic I’d love to spend time writing about, trying to understand these two representative figures and how they shaped our ideas of celebrity. But I’m too busy watching the Balloon Boy story unfold. (Just kidding; I laughed about the story when it first began and devoted zero time to it after that.)
What I’m listening to: Nothing specific; just letting the iPod shuffle away.
What I’m watching: Adventureland (meh), the Yankees (yay!).
What I’m drinking: Not a thing till I’m over this cold.
What Rufus is up to: Wearing his coat when we go out for walks, and making friends at our local dry cleaner. I was a little nervous when the proprietor said, “Greyhounds are very valuable in Korea!” but he didn’t make any comment about how tasty their haunches are, so yay.
Where I’m going: Probably down to suburban Philadelphia, to deliver a TV. Don’t ask. Also have a get-together with a bunch of pals at Peter Luger in Brooklyn on Thursday evening.
What I’m happy about: That my wife’s pal Kate delivered her baby! Welcome, Charlotte!
What I’m sad about: Getting snow on Thursday. And being sick for basically two straight weeks. Grr.
What I’m worried about: Pettitte will have That One Inning this afternoon in Anaheim. You Yankee fans know what I’m talking about.
What I’m pondering: When NJ diners began getting liquor licenses. Was it around the same time they got rid of their jukeboxes?