In a Perfect World

Last Friday was my final day at my job. I quit it to launch a new business (sorta; it’s complicated).

The last time I was unemployed was 1995. I was 24, finished grad school in May, moved back to NJ, and started looking for a gig. I pored over the local papers’ and New York Times’ help wanted ads (this is 1995, remember), looking for writer, copy editor, and other writing-related jobs.

I had some interviews that didn’t work out. At one, I explained to the publishers of a massive, multi-volume hotel/resort guide for travel agents that they should be working to create a digital version that would be accessible via CD-ROM (it was 1995, so the idea of having all that stuff on a website was still nascent), and updatable more often than the print schedule permitted. They were looking for a “wordsmith.” I didn’t get that job.

In another interview, I was asked, “In a perfect world, what would you be doing?”

I thought it was diplomatic of me to say, “In a perfect world, my girlfriend would have a high-paying job and I’d be free to work on my fiction,” because my real answer was, “In a perfect world, I’d have heat vision and be able to destroy my enemies with a glance.” I didn’t get that job.

Another place told me that the starting pay was $18,000; that meant I was likely going to lose money just commuting back and forth to NYC for that one. They didn’t offer me the job.

During the months of unemployment, as my savings ran down (I was living in my old house, and my dad was covering the mortgage, so I wasn’t as desperate as a lot of people), I read The Recognitions, the 956-page first novel by William Gaddis. It had been recommended to me over the years in college by people who took my Pynchon poseurism as a genuine sign of literary connoisseurship.

I don’t know how much I got out of The Recognitions in 1995. My mind was faster back then, but I wasn’t as smart as I am now; that is to say, I knew so much less when time and swiftness were on my side.

By October, I cashed in a $250 savings bond given to me as a baby or something. It was the last of my assets. A week later, I finished Gaddis’ book. One day after that I was offered a job as an assistant editor for two business-to-business magazines. I went on to another company 17 months later, worked on more trade magazines, and got to launch my own in 1999, where I stayed until this past Friday.

On my podcast a few weeks ago, I mentioned a passage from The Recognitions that always stuck with me, except it didn’t stick with me well enough to remember it exactly. One of my listeners e-mailed to let me know where the passage is, so I opened that book up again to check it out. The line doesn’t say much by itself — Now, what if there was no gold? — but it implies the absence of God by pondering the use of alchemy in a goldless age (or the point of art in an age without genius). I backed up around 10 pages to the beginning of that section, and found myself getting drawn back into that immense, artful, postmodern cosmos of a book.

Gaddis published The Recognitions in 1955, at the age of 32. It wasn’t a critical or financial success, and he worked in corporate gigs for 20 more years until publishing his second novel. That one, J R, won the National Book Award and he was pretty much able to write full-time after that, thanks to grants and awards.

Tomorrow will be the first day that I’m not employed in almost 19 years. I have some paying gigs that’ll help me get by until I can afford to pay myself. No need to cash in the last savings bond — or take a loan from my 401(k) — yet. Startup costs will be hairy, but I’m confident I can make it work.

I’m tempted to take up The Recognitions again, to read it from a 43-year-old perspective. But I’m afraid that I won’t get my first big business win until the day after I finish it, and who knows how long that’ll take this time around?

Podcast: Wine, Women, and Novel-Writing

Charles Blackstone on The Virtual Memories Show

Virtual Memories – season 3 episode 23 – Wine, Women, and Novel-Writing

“Restaurants follow the opposite direction of stories: they’re like finding a book of blank pages and trying to come up with something to fill the space. That’s not how it goes with stories.”

Charles Blackstone, managing editor of Bookslut, joins us to talk about his new novel, Vintage Attraction, out this week from Pegasus Books! We recorded in Chicago last April, so he wasn’t in full book-publicity mode, and I hadn’t read the book. Instead, our conversation veers all over the place, covering his descent into post-grad career madness, the problems with getting mired in literary theory, what he does at Bookslut, how he deals with the sheer volume of books published every day, Chicago’s restaurant culture, the similarities between deconstruction and molecular gastronomy, and how to master the party-throwing art of taking a guest’s coat while handing them a beverage.

But we really do talk about Vintage Attraction (which has great blurbs from Jay McInerney and Gary Shteyngart)! I promise!

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes! Related conversations:

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About our Guest

Charles Blackstone is the managing editor of Bookslut, as well as the co-editor of the literary anthology The Art of Friction: Where (Non)Fictions Come Together (University of Texas Press, 2008) and the author of the novel, The Week You Weren’t Here (Dzanc and Low Fidelity Press, 2005). His short fiction has appeared in Esquire‘s Napkin Fiction Project (the piece was also selected for the &NOW Awards: The Best Innovative Fiction anthology), Lewis University’s Jet Fuel Review, and the University of Maine’s Stolen Island. His short plays have been produced by Victory Gardens and Lifeline Theaters. He is married to Master Sommelier and television personality Alpana Singh. He currently is a ghostwriter, coach, and editor for clients at all stages of the publication process in private practice. He and his wife live with their pug, Haruki Murakami, in downtown Chicago. His new novel is Vintage Attraction.

Credits: This episode’s music is Graceless by The National. The conversation was recorded at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago on a pair of AT2020 cardioid condenser mics feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded in the InterCity Hotel in Frankfurt on a Samson Meteor USB Studio mic. File-splitting was done in Audacity and all editing and processing was done in Garage Band on a Macbook Air. Photo of Charles Blackstone by me.

Podcast: Readercon 2013 – Fairies and Zombies

Virtual Memories – season 3 episode 15 –
Readercon – Fairies and Zombies

It’s time for a two-part mega-podcast! I visited the 24th annual Readercon, conference on literary fantasy & science fiction (or “imaginative literature,” as it’s known) in Burlington, MA in July, and came back with a ton of interviews! Readercon is a fantastic (ha-ha) event, with great programming, a good booksellers’ hall, and lots of fun conversation; you should make a point of attending it if your tastes run toward the authors who come up in this and the following episode.

I (not-so-wisely) conducted five interviews in one day so, rather than make a 3-hour episode, I decided to split them up between boys and girls. This time around you get interviews with authors John Crowley and Scott Edelman!

“The big books I’ve written have never had a genre at all. They were certain kinds of fictional possibilities that interested and intrigued me and that I wanted to try to achieve. I wouldn’t say there’s an awful lot in Little, Big that’s realistic, but there’s plenty that was based on my daily experiences of life in New York City.”

–John Crowley

John Crowley is the author of Little, Big (or, The Fairies’ Parliament), which I consider one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. I’d known about it for a long time, but only read it a few years ago, after learning that my wife has been re-reading it every year or two since it came out in paperback in 1983 or thereabouts. You should go read it now or wait for the deluxe edition from Incunabula Press! (He’s also written other amazing books, like the Aegypt cycle, Engine Summer, and more.)

I talked with Mr. Crowley about readers’ devotion Little, Big, the problems he faced in writing it and how surmounting them opened the doors to his subsequent books, how the fantasy genre developed during the course of his career, what his favorite imaginary books are, why I felt unprepared for our conversation despite having read six of his novels, and what it was like to write copy for Maidenform bras when he was starting out.

“One of the most amazing things about writing to me is that, even though you’ve read, and heard, and seen thousands of stories, when you sit down to write one, you have no idea how to begin!”

–John Crowley

Even if you haven’t read Little, Big, you’ll find this a fascinating conversation about the writing process, literary reputation, and what it means to tell a story!

“You have to write the things you love. They have to be extremely important to you, to give you that tingle when you read them. Because if you’re not moved by it, I don’t see how anyone else is going to be moved by it. . . .”

–Scott Edelman


Then I talk with Scott Edelman, a longtime writer, editor and Con-goer, about his zombie-fiction, being an editor at Marvel Comics in the 1970s, his storytelling tips and his pros and cons of workshops, whether he pays attention to literary markets, what Readercon means to him, and what it was like to move from one side of the convention table to the other.

“Why zombies? Because zombies are the closest we’ll ever see to what we’ll really become. Because there’ll be that day when we’re all walking husks without memory.”

–Scott Edelman

Enjoy the conversations! Then listen to part 2 of our Readercon conversations with Theodora Goss, Valya Dudycz Lupescu, and Nancy Hightower. Meanwhile, check out the archives for more great episodes!

Related episodes:

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About our Guests

John Crowley lives in the hills above the Connecticut River in northern Massachusetts with his wife and twin daughters. He is the author of Little, Big, the four-volume Aegypt cycle, The Translator, Novelties & Souvenirs, Lord Byron’s Novel, and Four Freedoms. You can find out more about the special anniversary edition of Little, Big here.

Scott Edelman has published more than 75 short stories in magazines such as Postscripts, The Twilight Zone, Absolute Magnitude, Science Fiction Review and Fantasy Book, and in anthologies such as The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Crossroads, MetaHorror, Once Upon a Galaxy, Moon Shots, Mars Probes, Forbidden Planets. His poetry has appeared in Asimov’s, Amazing, Dreams and Nightmares, and others. What Will Come After, a collection of his zombie fiction, and What We Still Talk About, a collection of his science fiction stories, were both published in 2010. He has been a Stoker Award finalist five times, in the categories of both Short Story and Long Fiction. He is the editor of Blastr at the Syfy Channel. You can find more about him at his site.

Credits: This episode’s music is Fairy Tales by Style Council. Both conversations were recorded in a room at the Burlington Marriott on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 mics feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti into my Mac Mini, at my Ikeahack standing desk. File-splitting is done on a Mac Mini using Audacity. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band. Photos by me.

Podcast: Sound Before Story

Virtual Memories – season 3 episode 5
Greg Gerke – Sound Before Story

To celebrate the publication of Middle C, the new novel by literary legend William Gass, I sat down with writer Greg Gerke, who interviewed Gass for Tin House literary magazine. We talked about Gass’ position in the postmodern literary tradition (as it were), what Greg learned over the course of reading much of Gass’ writings and interviewing The Great Man, what it’s like to construct a literary monument to horror, which authors Greg discovered through Gass’ essays over the years, how you can’t judge a man by his (roommate’s) bookshelf, why Gass holds self-publishing in disdain, and how one can build a powerful literary career by putting Sound Before Story.

 

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out our archives for more great talks! And buy the issue of Tin House with Greg’s interview with Gass, while you’re at it!

Follow The Virtual Memories Show on iTunesFacebookTumblr, and RSS!

About our Guest

Greg Gerke‘s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Tin House, The Kenyon Review Online, Denver Quarterly, and Mississippi Review. He’s the author of the short story collection, There’s Something Wrong with Sven. You can read his work and find links to his criticism at greggerke.com and Big Other.

Credits: This episode’s music is Life’s a Gas by T-Rex. The conversation was recorded at Greg Gerke’s apartment in New York City, on a pair of AT2020 mics, feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. I recorded the other material on a Samson Meteor Mic USB Studio Microphone into Audacity. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band.

Finishing the Dance

I first encountered A Dance To The Music Of Time in the mid-’90’s. A Borders bookstore had opened at the West Belt Mall in Wayne, NJ, and as was my wont, I inspected the fiction section — or was it “literature”?

At the time, my points of reference were the beginning of the G’s, where I’d look for Williams Gaddis and Gass, as well as David Gates, and the late P’s, where I’d check the selection of books by Richard Powers and Thomas Pynchon. It was in the latter section that I discovered Anthony Powell. University of Chicago Press had recently released a four-volume, slipcased edition of A Dance To The Music Of Time.

In college, I focused on “the encyclopedic novel” for my literature degree. I had a vague idea of what that term meant, and wound up conflating it with “really long novels with which I could impress/cow my contemporaries.” As such, this 12-novel cycle looked like it was right up my alley. Still, I’d never heard of Powell and the internet in that period wasn’t as awash in fan pages for obscure artists as it is today.

Further, I don’t recall there being any “flap copy” or anything else involving a plot description on the slipcase, which was shrink-wrapped to prohibit singleton sales. So I had nothing to go by, in terms of knowing what this series was about. The case was adorned with Poussin’s eponymous painting of the Dance, and the spine of each volume was a detail of one or another face of the dancers. I knew nothing of Poussin back then, still a year away from reading Arcadia for the first time.

The dance to the music of time c

Sixty or so dollars was a large sum to me in those days, so I held off on buying the Dance. It slipped off my radar shortly after. When Powell died in 2000, I read up on the Dance a little. I considered tackling the series, which is a sort of roman a clef of British literary & society life through the eyes of a crypto-Powell narrator over the span of half a century, but never got around to it. I noted at the time that it seemed like a book to tackle in my 40’s. I used to say that about Proust when I was young, but I got around to him before turning 35, and should’ve done so sooner.

It wasn’t until last December, when U of Chicago Press announced that it had released all 12 novels as e-books, that I returned to the notion of reading the Dance. Like a good drug dealer, the publisher was offering the first e-book free. I had just finished My Year Of Gin, in which I would try a bottle of a new (to me) boutique gin each month of the year. I had planned to write about the project, but both overachieved (in terms of bottles) and underachieved (in terms of coherence), and so scrapped my chronicle of the project. You can, however, find photographic evidence here:

A Dance To The Music Of Time, it seemed to me, would make for a fine followup. The two projects were of a piece with what I now realize is a life of dilettantism. Why not give my amateur passions some degree of structure by organizing them around the calendar?

And so I decided to read one book of the Dance each month throughout 2011. Besides allowing the pace to mirror the seasons themselves, around which each novel was (subtly) organized, I was also protecting myself from burnout. I know myself well enough to know how easy it would be for me to roll through 3 or 4 of the books in the first 6 weeks of the year, before allowing the distractions and derailments that characterize much of my life to lead me away.

This morning, I finished reading the last of the 12 books, Hearing Secret Harmonies. My wife still asks me, “So, is it good?” and I don’t know exactly how to answer her.

I certainly enjoyed reading the novels, and I’ll be the first to admit that Powell’s prose can be quite tortured at times. I was also amazed at the reticence to reveal anything about the narrator’s own life or feelings, to the extent that one never learns Jenkins’ children’s names nor much about the books he writes over his 70 years (his volume on Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy notwithstanding).

At times, the sheer volume of coincidental meetings can be maddening (coincidence being the author’s point, I know). Another type of coincidence, during a bombing raid of London, strains all credulity. But then, perhaps that’s because my own life doesn’t have much room for chance meetings nowadays. In the early books, bumping into old friends takes the place of the narrator having to commit any real activity. While the stories and the interrelations of his friends and acquaintances are engaging, I found the “autumn” novels — those covering WWII — much more entertaining, because the narrator was largely removed from his society surroundings and had to become much more of a participant in the world. Paradoxically, the level observation is much sharper in these books than the preceding ones. There’s a wonderful comedy of manners of Jenkins’ superiors at dinner, highlighting the absurdities and hierarchies of military life. (There’s also a great moment when Jenkins, who remembers everyone over the years, encounters his brigade from earlier in the war, and discovers that his old cohort has no recollection of him whatsoever.)

I think Jenkins also undergoes a maturation process during the war novels. By book 9, The Military Philosophers, his literary persona really blooms as his military duty begins to draw to a close. There’s a wonderful passage where he realizes his assignment has taken him to Cabourg, the town that Proust fictionalized into Balbec. Maybe it’s a sort of clue into the roman a clef of the whole Dance itself, but it’s also some of the most gorgeous writing in the books.

As I look back over the scope of it all, a story beginning in 1920 or thereabouts, carrying on to 1971 (the year I was born, coincidentally enough), and flashing back to Jenkins’ childhood in the naughts, I’m struck by the vividness of so many minor characters. Just like life, I didn’t think much of some of them at the time and miss them now they’re gone. (Speaking of which, Powell is merciless in his characters’ ends. So many figures are simply reported dead as the years carry on. I was under the impression that the whole cycle of novels would revolve around the four schoolboys introduced in the first book, and then found myself thinking, “Well, they didn’t actually show us [x]’s body, so maybe he’s still alive and will be back in a later novel…”, as though Anthony Powell was writing The Fantastic Four or something.)

But I won’t write too much about the goings on of the Dance. I do think it comprises a wonderful tapestry of the transformation of a certain class in British society throughout the century, but it’s also the sort of thing that no one (I know) reads anymore. In harmony with my college self, that’s probably a big part of why I stuck with this project all year.

Just as Jenkins sees patterns and echoes throughout the generations (and there are plenty of echoes in the last novel), I know there are echoes of myself from that pretentious college kid to this pretentious trade magazine editor. But there are also substantial changes, both internal and external. That Borders was demolished a few years ago, before the chain itself went under. Pynchon and Powers? I don’t read them much anymore.

I’m not sure if I’ve changed all that much since beginning A Question of Upbringing last January. It’s been a complex year, and I think reading The Leopard had more of an effect on me than these 12 novels. Perhaps I’m underestimating. After all, the clarity of the first 800 words or so of this piece — written in the morning after finishing Hearing Secret Harmonies, driving my wife to the bus stop, and walking the dogs in a frosted-over field — and the sense of bliss I had all morning long could be telling me that I’ve been feeling a subtle anxiety about completing the Dance. Maybe my hesitance and depression of these past few months has stemmed from an anxiety about coming to the end of something so long and continuous. (Everything after Anatomy of Melancholy was written following a long day at the office.)

Publishers at Play

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 — 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 — the current publisher was offering, I think three thousand — 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 — 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!

IMG_1592

Oh, and the fourth volume of the new series — sorry, the IVth one — is coming out next week, so you should get on that.