“There were times when I was transcribing the tapes and I’d catch my breath and say, ‘Oh, my God.’ I would stop the tape and just sit there, staring into space. Did I hear what I just heard? It was a shocking, dramatic experience.”
Is wisdom possible? One of my favorite writers, Phillip Lopate, returns to The Virtual Memories Show to talk about his new book, A Mother’s Tale, where he revisits a series of taped conversations he had with his mother in the mid-’80s (and didn’t listen to for 30+ years). We talk about listening to his mother’s voice years after her death, whether I should record with my parents, the way people try to be honest but back away in the face of their own mythologies, the one venue he’s always wanted to write for, the border traffic between fiction and nonfiction, the impact of the 2016 presidential election on his psyche, his prediction for the New York Mets, what it’s like for him to write a blog and the mistrust between mother and son that never goes away. Give it a listen! And go buy A Mother’s Tale (Mad River Books)! (And here’s our 2013 conversation.)
“I feel like all the values I grew up with were repudiated in one election.”
“”We carry this adolescent self in us for so long, we’re not prepared to see ourselves as older.”
About our Guest
Phillip Lopate is a central figure in the resurgence of the American essay, both through his best-selling anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay, and his collections: Getting Personal, Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body, Portrait Inside My Head, and To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction. He directs the nonfiction MFA program at Columbia University, where he is professor of writing. His new book is A Mother’s Tale.
(There’s a more extensive version at his website.)
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded at Mr. Lopate’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 Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of Mr. Lopate by me. It’s on my instagram.
“The enemy of the artist is self-consciousness. You can’t be writing for anyone, because that’ll paralyze you.”
Phoebe Gloeckner, the author of The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures joins the podcast on way too little sleep to talk about transgressing borders: national borders, panel borders, and familial borders. We talk about Diary’s hybrid structure and why it would have been unpitchable to a publisher (luckily, she had a two-book contract), the tightrope of portraying a 15-year-old girl’s affair with her mother’s 30-something boyfriend without making her strictly a victim or “asking for it”, and some audiences’ obsession with “the facts” of the book. We also get into her ongoing, decade-long multi-media project to recreate a life in Juarez, Mexico, her place in the comics scene (too young for the undergrounds, too old for the alternatives), her unrepeatable approach to making art, and more! Give it a listen! And buy Diary of a Teenage Girl!
“If I thought of myself as a victim, there was nobody who was going to feel sorry for me, or help me. I was a victim, but a teenager in that situation doesn’t feel like a victim. The minute you feel like a victim, any power you have is sucked from you. It’s a dangerous thing to call yourself.”
She also tells a hilarious story about her first meeting with Matt Groening, explains why she’ll never get into another relationship, discusses her attachment to the works of Dr. Ira Lunan Ferguson, and reveals perhaps the most insane version ever of the “reconnecting with your ex on Facebook” phenomenon. Go listen!
“I know there are limits in art, but I reject them as long as I can.”
About our Guest
Phoebe Gloeckner is a graphic novelist and a Professor at the University of Michigan Stamps School of Art and Design. She is the author of The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures (which was recently made into a film), and A Child’s Life and Other Stories, as well as many short stories, illustrations, and comics which have appeared in a variety of publications over the last 25 years. She has a master’s degree in Biomedical Communications from The University of Texas at Dallas, and was an undergraduate at San Francisco State University. She also studied at Charles University in Prague and L’Unversité D’Aix-Marseille in France. She was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008. Phoebe is currently working on a multi-media novel based on the lives of several families living on the outskirts of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. She has traveled frequently to Juárez over the last 10 years to research the project.
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 ink48 Hotel in NYC on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on the same setup. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of pissed-off Phoebe 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.
“Being in a wheelchair didn’t change me; it just made things harder to do.”
From the Flora-Bama to Vietnam, Claudia Young has sprinted through life. We got together to talk about running songwriting workshops in Nashville, redesigning the menu for the hippest bar in Cleveland, living in the Chelsea Hotel as a teen, and being confined to a wheelchair for the past 35 years. We also talk about food-blogging, southeast Asia’s pull on her, the place she regrets she’ll never visit, what she’s reading, and getting the sear on a scallop! It’s a fascinating conversation, so give it a listen!
About our Guest
Claudia Young used to blog at CookEatFret. She should probably get back to that.
Credits: This episode’s music is The Wheel by Roseann Cash. The conversation was recorded 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 Ms. Young by me, photo of both of us by Amy Roth.
“We were taught with the idea that these books meant something, that it was something vital to your life, that if you read these books you could understand what was going on around you better than you could if you didn’t. I don’t know if anyone’s doing that now.”
Time to wrap up our August book critics miniseries! Following our conversations with Michael Dirda and Jessa Crispin, we have Frank Wilson, who’s been reviewing books for FIFTY YEARS. Frank, who launched the Books, Inq. blog in 2005, talks about the changes in book culture over that half-century, the marvel of Tolstoy, his picks for most underrated and most overrated authors, the perils of using big-name writers as book reviewers, and more!
“I think that blogging has wiped out the book reviewing business but it does wonders for the literary business.”
We also talk about his life as a Catholic Taoist, the similarities of poetry and religion, whether Catholics can write good novels, the biggest gap in his literary background, when it’s okay to break the rules of Haiku (and other forms), and why he thinks Willa Cather is truly the Great American Novelist!
About our Guest
Frank Wilson is celebrating his 50th year of book reviewing. His reviews have appeared in a number of newspapers and magazines, but mainly the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he served as book editor until 2008. In 2005, he launched Books, Inq.: The Epilogue, a blog about books and publishing. He has an entertaining bio over here.
Credits: This episode’s music is Sinner’s Prayer by Ray Charles (see, because of Frank’s Catholicism and belief in the fallenness of — oh, never mind). The conversation was recorded at Mr. Wilson’s home in Philadelphia on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a brand-new Zoom H5 digital recorder. The intro and outro were also recorded on that equipment, in a room at the Courtyard Marriott in Creve Coeur, MO. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Mr. Wilson 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.
“When you start out writing, you think, ‘Maybe I’ll become one of the great writers, like Dostoevsky or Goethe, Tolstoy.’ Then you quickly realize that that’s never going to happen. But I’ve been writing now for close to 50 years, and I’ve never really had writer’s block. I think success has been esteem in this particular world of the essay and nonfiction. When I go to conferences for the Association of Writing Programs, I’m treated like a demigod. But when I’m in the real world, I’m anonymous.”
Phillip Lopate, the finest personal essayist of our time, joins us to talk about finding his voice, the difference between memoir and essay, teaching students to use the self to fetch the world, why blogs remind him of Sei Shonagon’s pillow books, what’s too personal for a personal essay, and more!
“I had learned from the great essayists — Montaigne and Hazlitt and Lamb — that it wasn’t so much the subject matter as it was the voice and the display of consciousness that was intriguing. If you liked the essayist, you would read anything that they wrote.”
We discuss his five-decade-plus-long career (spanning 20 books and collections, including 2013’s Portrait Inside My Head and To Show and to Tell), the author who started him on his path, his balance between writing fiction and essays, how readers read and misread his work, his methods for fusing the personal and the critical, why students should read some of his essays before taking his classes, whether he considered going Hollywood, why and how he assembled The Art of the Personal Essay anthology, and who his favorite New York Met is. (I was surprised by his answer to that last one.)
“An editor once told me, ‘Phillip, your idea of a perfect assignment is one where you never have to leave the house.'”
About our Guest
Phillip Lopate is the author of numerous collections of personal and critical essays, including Bachelorhood, Notes on Sontag, Portrait of My Body, Against Joie de Vivre, and Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan,, as well as several novels and novellas, and three poetry collections, and has edited several anthologies, including The Art of the Personal Essay and Writing New York. His essays, fiction, poetry, film and architectural criticism have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Essays, several Pushcart Prize annuals, The Paris Review, Harper’s, Vogue, Esquire, Film Comment, Threepenny Review, Double Take, New York Times, Harvard Educational Review, Preservation, Cite, 7 Days, Metropolis, Conde Nast Traveler, and many other periodicals and anthologies. He is the director of the nonfiction graduate program at Columbia University, where he also teaches writing. His two most recent books are the personal essay collection Portrait Inside My Head and To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction.
Credits: This episode’s music is Sometimes The Truth Is All You Get by The Low and Sweet Orchestra. The conversation was recorded at Mr. Lopate’s home in Brooklyn on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 mics feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. 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 by me. Bottom photo by Cheryl Cipriani.