“What would young, pre-Trainspotting Irvine Welsh think of you now?”
“He’d think I was a total wanker.”
Irvine Welsh has created unforgettable characters in his novels, beginning with the cast of Trainspotting in 1993. We caught up in his Chicago home and talked about writing, boxing, the art world, the White Sox, the creative flourish that’s seen him publish three novels in four years, the perils of success and exhausting your autobiography, the periods of life he’s interested in writing about, his first meeting with Iggy Pop, his childhood and the school-days’ balance of being a reader and being a jock, the narcissism of online living, Trainspotting over the years, Edinburgh’s failed gentrification, the ways that America’s friendlier than Scotland, and more! Give it a listen!
“I think it’s good for me as a writer not to be hanging out with writers all the time.”
We also talk about his critique of global capitalism, the problems with permanent austerity, American and UK tabloid culture, standing up David Bowie (twice), returning to Ulysses every few years, the ways William S. Burroughs helps rewire his brain, and the great anonymous allure of the first-time novelist.
“Instagram is like Methodone to Twitter’s heroin”
Then Dmitry Samarov rejoins the show to talk about his memoir-in-progress, his paintings, his latest readings, and his decision to jump off the social network treadmill. This episode also includes my justification for being a New York Yankees fan, as well as my problematic relationship with superhero comics. Give it a listen!
We mention quite a few books in this episode. Here’s they are:
- Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh
- Glue – Irvine Welsh
- Marabou Stork Nightmares – Irvine Welsh
- Filth – Irvine Welsh
- The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins – Irvine Welsh
- The Complete Richard Allen, Vol. 1: Skinhead, Suedehead, Skinhead Escapes – Richard Allen
- A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
- How Late It Was, How Late – James Kelman
- The Busconductor Hines – James Kelman
- Jernigan – David Gates
- Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America – Jill Leovy
- The Letters of Ivor Punch – Colin Mcintyre
- Ulysses – James Joyce
- Cities of the Red Night – William S. Burroughs
- Where To?: A Hack Memoir – Dmitry Samarov
- Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab – Dmitry Samarov
- Experience: A Memoir – Martin Amis
- A Childhood: The Biography of a Place – Harry Crews
- Ask the Dust – John Fante
- Fante: A Family’s Legacy of Writing, Drinking and Surviving – Don Fante
- The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay – Michael Chabon
- Forest of Fortune – Jim Ruland
- Streets in Their Own Ink: Poems – Stuart Dybek
- The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis – Lydia Davis
- Can’t and Won’t: Stories – Lydia Davis
About our Guests
Irvine Welsh is the author of Trainspotting, Ecstasy, Filth (adapted for film in 2013), Glue, and Crime, among other works. His latest novel is A Decent Ride. Welsh is also producing movies and writing screenplays. A native of Edinburgh, he lives in Chicago and Miami. You can find a more extensive bio at his website.
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. 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. Go check out his paintings, and maybe buy some.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald. The conversations were recorded in the homes of Irvine Welsh and Dmitry Samarov on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on the same equipment in a hotel room in Washington, DC. 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.
Note: DG Myers died on Sept. 26, 2014, about 6 months after we recorded this episode. You can read my contribution to his festscrhift here.
“I would take an evil delight in asking my colleagues what they were reading, and watching the look of panic on their faces. Because everyone reads scholarship now, and very few primary materials. Our academic specialties are an inch wide and a mile deep.”
Literature professor and book critic DG Myers is dying of cancer, but that doesn’t mean he’s planning to go gentle into that good night. In a far-ranging conversation, we talk about why he believes university English departments will barely outlast him, how he made the move from Southern Baptist to Orthodox Judaism (getting recircumcised a few times along the way), what he’d like to be remembered for, why the idea of The Western Canon is a canard, which books and authors he’s trying to get to before he dies, who he regrets not reading before now, and the identity of the one author he’d like to hear from. Give it a listen!
“Every Shabbos I thank Hashem for my cancer, because it has focused me on what’s good and enabled me to ignore what’s not.”
We also talk about his plans to dispose of his library, the joys of studying under Stanley Elkin, the relation of books to moral life, the things that cease to matter in the face of a terminal diagnosis, the failure of English departments in the age of Theory, the thorny question of whether creative writing can be taught, and what writers and readers should do to save the humanities. Also, check out the list of books that came up in our conversation.
About our Guest
DG Myers is the author of The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880, a work of literary scholarship. He has been a critic and literary historian for nearly a quarter of a century at Texas A&M and Ohio State universities, and was formerly the fiction critic for Commentary. He has written for Jewish Ideas Daily, the New York Times Book Review, the Weekly Standard, Philosophy and Literature, the Sewanee Review, First Things, the Daily Beast, the Barnes & Noble Review, the Journal of the History of Ideas, American Literary History, and other journals. He is working on a memoir, Life on Planet Cancer, and lives in Columbus, OH, with his wife Naomi and their four children: Dov, Saul, Isaac, and Miriam (“Mimi”). He writes at A Commonplace Blog.
Credits: This episode’s music is First We Take Manhattan by Jennifer Warnes. The conversation was recorded at Prof. Myers’ 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 Prof. Myers by me.
“The emotions are what interest me in writing erotica, rather than the hydraulics. . . . Essex House showed me that you could write erotica without pandering to the lowest common denominator”
Maxim Jakubowski has had an amazing multi-decade, multi-genre career as a writer, editor, translator and publisher. During Book Expo America in New York, we sat down to talk about how he feels about being The King of the Erotic Thriller, the silliness of genre labels, the perils of having a bad book habit (but not a “bad-book habit”), the story of publishing the first The Mammoth Book of Erotica, how e-books have amplified Sturgeon’s Law, how he managed to make a killing off the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon, and more!
“As a publisher, you have to accept that it’s a business. And genre was always accepted as solid, an area where you don’t lose money: crime, fantasy, science fiction, horror, thrillers.”
- Michael Dirda
- Phillip Lopate
- David Rothenberg/Clive Bennett
- Theodora Goss/Valya Lupescu/Nancy Hightower
- Jesse Sheidlower
About our Guest
Maxim Jakubowski worked for many years in book publishing as an editor (including titles by William Golding, Peter Ackroyd, Oliver Stone, Michael Moorcock, Peter Ustinov, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Paul Ableman, Sophie Grigson, Marc Behm, and Cornell Woolrich) and launched the Murder One Bookshop, which he owned and ran for over 20 years. He now writes, edits and translates full-time in London. He was born in London and educated in France, and his books have been translated into many languages. From an early age, he was always fascinated by popular culture and his writing and editing has criss-crossed all areas, from science fiction & fantasy to thrillers and, inevitably, erotica.
He conceived one of the genre’s first major contemporary anthologies, The Mammoth Book of Erotica, which has been followed by 18 more volumes, as well as four books devoted to erotic photography. In addition to more than 80 collections in other genres, Maxim has also edited the Sex in the City series, and run the Eros Plus and Neon lists, alongside such crime imprints as Black Box Thrillers, Blue Murder and Maxcrime.
Credits: This episode’s music is Song for Bob by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The conversation was recorded in Mr. Jakubowski’s hotel room in Manhattan 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. Photos of Maxim Jakubowski by me.
“One day, I was on the train to work and I had a terrible anxiety attack and a crisis of whatever, and began just scribbling on a yellow legal pad that I had. It was basically my complaints about my own misery. I was terrified that if I even lifted the pen from the page, I would just be carried off that railroad car screaming, past all the commuters.
“I did that for about three days, just a therapeutic venting on the page. In a little while, I began to become cold and calculating and worldly, and I thought, ‘Shit, this is pretty interesting. What if I just gave this a little quarter-turn to the left? Maybe this would be fiction.’ So that was it.
“Having nothing else to do, it was, hey, let’s dedicate the life to this.”
This episode of the Virtual Memories Show features a conversation with one of my favorite contemporary authors! In June, I drove up to Bennington College to talk to David Gates, author of the novels Jernigan and Preston Falls, the short story collection, The Wonders of the Invisible World, about owning his niche (once described as “smart-but-self-destructive-white-American-middle-class-male-in-crisis”), teaching fiction and non-fiction writing, why he left the east coast for Montana, how he feels about the end of Newsweek, what it was like to make his start as a writer in his 30s.
You’ll also find out why he doesn’t want to write another novel, whose books he rereads every year, the status of his next collection of stories, the lineup for his country-rock band of writers and critics, and why he’s not exactly as enamored with Jernigan as its fans are.
As a bonus, our very first guest, Professor Ann Rivera, rejoins us for a quick conversation about what she’s been reading lately and why! (Hint: she’s down on postmodern lit.) Why, here we are at Gina’s Bakery in Montclair, NJ, recording away!
Others conversations with contemporary literary writers and critics:
About our Guests
David Gates is the author of the novels Jernigan and Preston Falls and a collection of stories, The Wonders of the Invisible World. His fiction has appeared in such magazines as The New Yorker, Esquire, GQ, Granta, The Paris Review, Tin House and Ploughshares. His nonfiction has appeared in Newsweek, where he was a longtime writer and editor, The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, GQ, Rolling Stone, H.O.W., The Oxford American and the Journal of Country Music. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow, and his books have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is an Assistant Professor Fiction and Nonfiction in the Creative Writing Program at University of Montana.
Ann Rivera is a professor of English at Villa Maria College in Buffalo, NY, where she teaches courses in writing, narrative and literary genres. Her current project investigates the influence of digital media on narrative, reading networks and social structures. She attended Hampshire College along with your humble podcast-host in the early ’90s, which may help explain our mutual dislike of postmodernism.
Credits: This episode’s music is Guitar Man by Bread. The conversation with David Gates was recorded in the back yard of the Dog House residence on the Bennington College campus on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 mics feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The conversation with Ann Rivera was recorded Gina’s Bakery in Montclair, NJ with the same equipment. (Sorry about all the door opening/closing noises in that segment!) I recorded the intro and outro with that gear, sitting in a comfy chair in my library. File-splitting is done on a Mac Mini using Audacity. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band. Photo of David Gates by me, photo of Ann Rivera and me by Amy Roth.
The original version of this episode had terrible audio quality, so I went back and remastered it! Enjoy!
(And go listen to the followup episode we recorded in July 2014: Bookman’s Holiday!)
“My personal crusade has been to urge people to read books they might otherwise not think of reading. . . . There are a lot better books that have been forgotten than are being published today.”
Are you ready for a
new beautifully remastered episode of The Virtual Memories Show?
“Some very self-confident writers feel they are among the chosen, the ones that will last forever, but they’re like deluded Calvinists.'”
This time, Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic Michael Dirda talks about his lifetime of reading and career in writing, the essence of book reviewing and the role of negative reviews, breaking free of genre ghettoes and the pretense of literary immortality, how the internet has changed the reviewing ecosystem, and why Mao would have loved the collective wisdom of the internet.
“I think of it all as ‘literary fiction,’ if it’s well written.”
We also get in some literary kibitzing, touching on John Crowley, Neil Gaiman, Marilynne Robinson and a host of other writers and books.
“One of the things I’ve lamented in the course of my lifetime is the changeover in the English curriculum in the universities. English majors will really only know the literature of their time. They will know the same 40 or 50 authors and books. Anyone off the obvious track of the times, they won’t know. They’ll know Gary Shteyngart, but they won’t know Mikhail Bulgakhov, or Gogol. It’s that narrowness, that feeling that anything not of the moment is irrelevant. That worries me.”
Listen to the conversation: Virtual Memories – season 2 episode 13 – The Correction of Taste
(BONUS: Go listen to the followup episode we recorded in July 2014: Bookman’s Holiday!)
About Our Guest
Michael Dirda, a weekly book columnist for The Washington Post, received the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He is the author of the memoir An Open Book and of four collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure. His most recent book, On Conan Doyle, received a 2012 Edgar Award for best critical/biographical work of the year.Mr. Dirda graduated with Highest Honors in English from Oberlin College and earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature (medieval studies and European romanticism) from Cornell University. He is a contributor to The New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, the online Barnes & Noble Review, and several other periodicals, as well as a frequent lecturer and an occasional college teacher.
About Our Sponsor
This episode is sponsored by Out of Print Clothing! Visit their site and check out their great selection of T-shirts, fleeces, bags and other gear featuring gorgeous and iconic book cover designs.
The Virtual Memories Show is on iTunes! If you’d like to subscribe, visit our iTunes page! If you’d like to check out past episodes, you can find us on iTunes or visit the Podcast page for all our back episodes, as well as e-mail signup and tip jar! And why don’t you friend the Virtual Memories Show at our Facebook page? It’d make my mom happy.
Credits: This episode’s music is Desert Prayer by John Sheehan. I recorded the intro on a Blue Yeti mic into Audacity, and the conversation with was recorded in Mr. Dirda’s home in Silver Spring, MD on a pair of Blue Encore 100 mics, feeding into a Zoom H4N recorder. All editing was done in Garage Band, with some post-processing in Audacity. This is a remastered version of the October 2012 episode, with better sound quality. Photo by Amy Roth.
I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again: “Life is too short for shitty novels.” Years ago, I tried to read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and found myself bored silly. I gave up at the 100-page mark or thereabouts, and said, “If you write a novel about comic books, Jewish immigrants, golems, and escape artistry and you lose me, you’ve seriously fucked up.”
However, a pal of mine mentioned it as a book she came back to and learned to appreciate a lot. Since I’m interviewing her next month for another podcast, I thought I’d give Chabon’s novel another shot. After all, maybe I was just being overly critical way back when; maybe I was jealous that someone else had tackled a bunch of topics that I’d love to have written about.
Alas, no. I made it around 40 pages further this time, nearly a quarter of the way through the novel, before giving up. The writing is still boring; the story structure makes no sense, with its nested flashbacks without triggers for the sake of building a symbol; the characters are uninteresting; the four-page exposition about the early history of comics may have been necessary, but it was a tedious info-dump. The final straw? A mere footnote, an asterisk that led to a 4-line aside.
Why did that push me over the edge? Because it served no purpose that couldn’t have been achieved within the third-person narration. Even if it was meant as an homage to David Foster Wallace, all it did (for me) was demonstrate that Chabon’s writing sucks and his editor was stealing paychecks.
And really, that latter point could be proved simply by looking at the page count: 640 pages! Was it meant to be a Great American Novel or something? How do you write 300 pages longer than, say, The Leopard, but say so much less?
(Don’t get me started on the chapter-long origin story of the superhero that Kavalier & Clay create. A long paragraph in that story begins with the lead character standing at the door of his mentor, then explains exactly why none of the mentor’s entourage would knock on the door, before explaining that the mentor’s mistress is the one who compelled the lead character to knock on the door. Which he was about to do at the beginning of this lengthy parapgraph and gets around to at the end. Mind-bogglingly shitty, cumbersome writing.)
I felt like I was cheating myself every time I read a few pages, like it was some sort of burden. Good thing this one only cost me $2.62.
NOTE: If you’re interested in a good novel about escape artistry, go read Carter Beats the Devil instead. You’ll thank me once you’ve come up for air.
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.