“I wanted to be a writer since I knew that I couldn’t be a detective.”
We close out the summer of 2015 with a great summer novel, Orient (Harper) by Christopher Bollen! We talk about his new book, the difference between a “smart murder mystery” and a “literary thriller,” the perils of Male First Novel Syndrome (as evinced in Lightning People: A Novel), the challenges of writing about Long Island, how his years at Interview magazine honed his ear for dialogue, his fascination with rootlessness, why it’s too easy to parody the contemporary art scene, and more! Give it a listen!
“Remember how you could totally judge a stranger by what they were reading? Now we’ve totally lost that cue, thanks to e-books.”
We also talk about Christopher’s impending 40th birthday, his reverse mid-life crisis, “kids today,” the people he now realizes he should’ve been nervous about interviewing when he was young, the allure of detective stories, why childhood bookish shut-ins have great skin when they get older, how I once nearly blew up a shopping mall back in my high school years, and whether the actual inhabitants of Orient were peeved about his new novel.
“You don’t interview Fran Lebowitz; it’s more like you’re her audience.”
We talk about some books and movies 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):
- Orient: A Novel – Christopher Bollen
- Lightning People: A Novel – Christopher Bollen
- The Flamethrowers – Rachel Kushner
- The Secret Parts of Fortune: Three Decades of Intense Investigations and Edgy Enthusiasms – Ron Rosenbaum
- The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Tender Is the Night – F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Plum Island – Nelson DeMille
- Less Than Zero – Bret Easton Ellls
- Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books – Michael Dirda
- The Beach – Alex Garland
- Women in Love – DH Lawrence
About our Guest
Christopher Bollen is a writer who lives in New York City. He regularly writes about art, literature, and culture. His first novel, Lightning People, was published in 2011. His second novel, Orient, was published by Harper in May 2015. He is currently the Editor at Large at Interview Magazine.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, which seems to have become our unofficial theme song (I’ll ask DB if it’s okay to make it official). The conversation was recorded at Mr. Bollen’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. Bio photo of Mr. Bollen by Danko Steiner; not-as-good photo by me.
“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.
“I have a private test for whether I’m an individual person or whether I’m part of the culture: I go to the supermarket and I look at the supermarket weeklies, and if I recognize the names, then I’m not a person, I’m a product of collective culture.”
Professor Edward Mendelson joins the show to talk about his new book, Moral Agents: Eight Twentieth-Century American Writers (New York Review Books), which profiles Lionel Triling, Dwight Macdonald, Alfred Kazin, William Maxwell, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, WH Auden, Frank O’Hara. We discuss the role of individuals in mass culture, the intellectual’s temptation to be a leader, the outdated figure of the Beloved Professor, Orwell’s misinterpretation of Auden, the writer he was terrified to meet, the failures of identity politics, the purpose of Columbia University’s Core Curriculum, his lack of nostalgia for the era of public intellectuals, the way certain books need a year off from teaching in order to recharge, and more. Give it a listen!
“All these writers were tempted by the way they were taken seriously.”
We also talk about why he hates one of my favorite novels, why he agrees with my take on Achilles’ uncanniness in the Iliad, why professors think students are getting dumber year after year, how the economic collapse of the ’70s led to improved colleges across the country, why he thinks Stoner is a study in self-pity, and more! Go listen!
About our Guest
At Columbia since 1981, Professor Edward Mendelson has also taught at Yale and Harvard. A recipient of American Council of Learned Societies, NEH, and Guggenheim fellowships, he is chiefly interested in 19th-and 20th-century literature, formal and social aspects of poetry and narrative, and biographical criticism. He is Auden’s literary executor; his book Later Auden (1999) is a sequel to his Early Auden (1981). His book, The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life, was published by Pantheon in 2006. His new book is Moral Agents: Eight Twentieth-Century American Writers, from New York Review Books. He has edited a volume of essays on Thomas Pynchon and, with Michael Seidel, Homer to Brecht: The European Epic & Dramatic Traditions. He has prepared editions of novels by Hardy, Bennett, Meredith, Wells, and Trollope, the first five volumes of a complete edition of Auden, and selections of Auden’s poems and prose. His essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, TLS, the New York Times Book Review, and many other journals and collections, and he wrote an introduction for a new edition of Gravity’s Rainbow. He has also written about computers, music, and the visual arts. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and was the first Isabel Dalhousie Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh.
Credits: This episode’s music is Homesickness by Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou. The conversation was recorded at Mr. Mendelson’s office 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. Mendelson by me.
“No one can be deeply affected by this course of study and not want to go beyond it. It gets you excited about ideas, questions and authors. To read one author is to lead you to another.”
How does a man go from being a ne’er-do-well in a Pennsylvania mining town to a tutor at St. John’s College? Peter Kalkavage joins the show to talk about his path to that Great Books institution, what he’s learned going into his 38th year as a tutor, how he fell in love with the college’s music program, what his study of Hegel taught him, what he’d add to the St. John’s curriculum, and more! (Also: Iliad or Odyssey, which offsets the question of “Luther or Calvin?”)
“In my time here, the one change that has irked me the most has been the shift from Luther to Calvin in the sophomore seminar. There were understandable problems with Luther . . . on the other hand, he deals in a blunt and powerful way with questions of freedom, secular authority, and faith-vs.-works. Calvin seems too relentlessly negative and too obsessed with the question of predestination.”
We also discuss his upbringing, The Big Lebowski, the teacher who got him to turn himself around, his favorite area to teach, how Dante taught him the possibilities of poetry, the question of whether we’re ever mature enough to read the curriculum, and the recent move to rebrand St. John’s College.
“We have to be very careful not to present ourselves in what we think might be an attractive way which misrepresents what we most have to offer our students, the country and the world: our curriculum. That’s the most important thing. Not our location, not our extracurricular activities, but the program. ‘The following teachers are returning to St. John’s next year. . . .'”
About our Guest
Peter Kalkavage has been a tutor at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., since 1977. He is director of the St. John’s Chorus. Dr. Kalkavage is the author of The Logic of Desire: An Introduction to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, and has produced translations of Plato’s Timaeus and Statesman for Focus Philosophical Library. He is also author of two texts that have been used in the St. John’s music program, On the Measurement of Tones and Elements: A Workbook for Freshman Music.
Credits: This episode’s music is the opening credits to Miller’s Crossing by Carter Burwell. The conversation was recorded in Peter Kalkavage’s office during the St. John’s College 2014 Piraeus seminar 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 Peter Kalkavage by me.
“In the late 1970s, I wanted to write against the grain, so I wrote about a marriage that lasted a long time, with all the strife and stresses.”
Novelist, essayist, poet, short story writer, and translator Lynne Sharon Schwartz sat down with me to talk about her newest essay collection, This Is Where We Came In: Intimate Glimpses (Counterpoint), but we talked about a lot more in our hour! Listen in to learn how she and her husband began recording literary readings by authors like James Baldwin, Philip Roth, John Updike, William Styron in the ’60s, and how they’ve re-launched those recordings. We also discuss how second-wave feminism convinced her to pursue a writing career, how her ear for music influences her writing, why she swears by audiobook reader David Case, and how Margaret Atwood once dropped the boom on Norman Mailer. Give it a listen!
“Although I identify with feminism, my literary tastes don’t divide into men and women; it’s the ones who are concerned with language and delight in language, rather than their gender, that I read.”
We also talk about her love of digressive essays, the joys of translation, her travel-anxiety, the difficulty in getting a book of essays published, why W.G. Sebald is one of her favorite authors, and how — kinda like last week’s guest, Caitlin McGurk — she got involved in bringing back lost women writers.
About our Guest
Lynne Sharon Schwartz is the author of more than 20 books, including novels, short story collections, non-fiction, poetry, and translations. Her new essay collection, This Is Where We Came In: Intimate Glimpses, was just published by Counterpoint. Her first novel, Rough Strife, was nominated for a National Book Award and the PEN/Hemingway First Novel Award. Her other novels include The Writing on the Wall; In the Family Way: An Urban Comedy; Disturbances in the Field; and Leaving Brooklyn (Rediscovery), nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award. She and her husband Harry have launched Calliope Author Readings, which offers lovers of literature a rare opportunity to hear great 20th century American authors interpreting their own works. Ms. Schwartz has received grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEA, and the New York State Foundation for the Arts. Her stories and essays have been reprinted in many anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and The Best American Essays. She has taught writing and literature at colleges and universities in the U.S. and abroad. She lives in New York City.
Credits: This episode’s music is Gladiolas by Scott Joplin. The conversation was recorded at Ms. Schwartz’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 Ms. Schwartz by me.
“Poetry chose me at an early age. I think it was connected to the fact that poetry is emotional, pretty, and short.”
Rachel Hadas, author of Strange Relation: A Memoir of Marriage, Dementia and Poetry (Paul Dry Books), lost her husband to early onset dementia. We talk about how poetry — hers and others’ — gave her solace during this years-long process. We also talk about poetry is a way for the poet to both release and identify emotions, why it was easier to publish collections of poetry in the 1980s and 1990s, the benefits of poetry memorization, and why the Furies looked the other way when Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia.
“Writing helps us to live through something and then it helps us remember it, if we want to.”
BONUS: You get to hear me record an intro after 35 hours with no sleep, and find out about the huge, life-changing thing I did last week!
About our Guest
Rachel Hadas studied classics at Harvard, poetry at Johns Hopkins, and comparative literature at Princeton. Between college and graduate school she spent four years in Greece, an experience that surfaces variously in much of her work. Since 1981 she has taught in the English Department of the Newark (NJ) campus of Rutgers University, and has also taught courses in literature and writing at Columbia and Princeton, as well as serving on the poetry faculty of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the West Chester Poetry Conference. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry, an Ingram Merrill Foundation grant in poetry, and an award in literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Rachel Hadas is the author of many books of poetry, prose, and translations. Most recently, she her memoir about her husband’s illness, Strange Relation, was published by Paul Dry Books (2011) and a new book of her poems, The Golden Road, was published by Northwestern University Press (2012).
Credits: This episode’s music is Strange Conversation by Ted Hawkins. The conversation was recorded at the home of Ms. Hadas on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded in a hotel room in London on the same gear. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Rachel Hadas by me.
“There is a great tradition of very brilliant, outside-the-box, non-traditional, dynamic thinkers in the Marine Corps. . . . At the same time, our totem animal is the bulldog, not an animal known for its finesse.”
Zach Martin recently retired from the U.S. Marine Corps after 16 years in the service. But 25 years ago, he and your host were hyperliterate misfit high-school pals, trading Thomas Pynchon, Thomas Disch and Robert Anton Wilson novels. So how did he end up commanding Marine Recon forces in Iraq and Afghanistan as Maj. Zachary D. Martin?
“We greatly misunderstand the young men who go overseas and fight for us. We make them idols. They’re heroes, but we misunderstand what that means.”
We have a wide-ranging conversation about Zach’s career, the military’s risk-averse culture, the rise (and fall) of counterinsurgency strategy, what it’s like to give a kill order, how it felt to lose troops under his command, what it’s like to clear, hold and build a city in Afghanistan (and how it felt to see it all fall apart), how he fought all his best battles in Afghanistan wearing shorts and t-shirt, and more!
“The police we were training [in Afghanistan] were effective. I mean, they were gangsters, but provided you were willing to overlook their criminal activities, they were certainly maintaining order.”
We also discuss Virginia Postrel’s The Power of Glamour and how it reflects the nation’s perception of the military, how he was inspired by Bill Clinton (but didn’t reckon with survivor bias), why he’d like to write a novel about his experiences at war, what books meant the most to him during his years in the service, the difference between motivation and volition, and why war is like a self-licking ice cream cone.
About our Guest
Major Zachary D. Martin (ret.) was most recently a member of Afghan National Police Advisor Team, and previously served as the Commanding Officer, Force Reconnaissance Company, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. His most recent deployment in that role was to Afghanistan in command of Company G, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines. He keeps a blog about his reading and writing at booksandmovement.net, where you can also find some of the articles he wrote during his career in the Marines.
Credits: This episode’s music is Life During Wartime by Talking Heads. The conversation was recorded at the home of a friend of Maj. Martin 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 Zach Martin by me.
Your humble(ish) host just made his annual Piraeus pilgrimage to St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD, this time to participate in a four-day seminar about Moby Dick . . . and score a great interview! I managed to get legendary tutor Eva Brann (above) to take a break from her crazy schedule and sit down for a 45-minute conversation about the college’s Great Books program and how she’s seen it change (and stay the same) in her FIFTY-SEVEN YEARS at the school. We also talk about the value of a liberal arts education, the one novel she’d add to the St. John’s curriculum, the need professors have to profess (and why St. John’s has tutors instead of professors), her swoon for Odysseus, her desert island book, her one criterion for a great novel, where she sees the school going in the next fifty-seven years, the Dostoevsky-or-Tolstoy debate, and more, including a boatload of questions I solicited from alumni! It’s a fascinating conversation with one of the most learned people in the world.
And then Ian Kelley, a St. John’s student from 1993, talks about his experience at the college, what brought him there, what he learned about himself and the Great Books, and how his Annapolis experience influenced his decision to join the U.S. Navy. Ian’s a longtime pal and is the first guest to appear in the non-famous Virtual Memories Library (pictured, with dog, who occasionally sighs and grunts during the podcast).
About our Guests
Eva Brann has been a tutor at St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD since 1957 and served as dean there from 1990 to 1997. Ms. Brann is the author of Homeric Moments: Clues to Delight in Reading the Odyssey and the Iliad, The Music of the Republic: Essays on Socrates’ Conversations and Plato’s Writings, Open Secrets / Inward Prospects: Reflections on World and Soul, Feeling Our Feelings: What Philosophers Think and People Know, Homage to Americans: Mile-High Meditations, Close Readings, and Time-Spanning Speculations, and The Logos of Heraclitus, all of which are available from Paul Dry Books.
Ian Kelley is a proud 1997 graduate of St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD, and an avid motorcyclist, traveler and reader. He trusts Gil Roth to keep him smart and honest. Ian and his wife, Jessica, live in Fallon, NV.
We previously interviewed St. John’s College tutors David Townsend and Tom May, so you should check those out! For more information about St. John’s College and the Great Books program, visit its site.
Credits: This episode’s music is Wonderful World by Sam Cooke. The conversation was recorded at the home of Eva Brann on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones, feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The conversation with Ian Kelley was recorded at my home on a pair AT2020 mics feeding into the Zoom H4n. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue enCORE 200 into the Zoom H4n. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band. Photo of Eva Brann by me, photo of Ian Kelley and me by Amy Roth.