“If virtue can be taught, it’s only by learning to ask the types of questions that make you a thoughtful person.”
My two-year term at St. John’s College’s Graduate Institute was the most important part of my life. During my recent trip back to Annapolis, I sat down with outgoing president Christopher Nelson to talk about lessons learned during his 26-year tenure, the books that guided him to the college, the ones he returns to, and the ones that gave him the most trouble as an undergrad, what he’ll miss and what he hopes to do next, his key advice for his successor, and more! Give it a listen!
“Running an institution and reading a budget were second nature to me. . . . Being able to participate in the life of the college so I could make good and deep judgements about what’s important around here; that was going to come from spending time in the classroom and with the faculty.”
We also talk about the unique situation of being the only president in the college’s 300+ years who is also an alumnus, why math and philosophy are for the young, while big novels are for middle age, how he grew into The Aeneid, the use of literature in understanding Japanese morality, why he returns to Middlemarch every few years, what he’d add to the St. John’s curriculum (even if he can’t bring himself to drop something to make room for it), and a lot more! Give it a listen! (and become a supporter via Patreon or Paypal so you can check out the big list of all the books we talked about this episode!)
“The commodification of higher education — like the monetization of every good in life — is deeply disturbing. It’s certainly something that’s always been in America. You read de Tocqueville and you see that it’s part of the American spirit to do that.”
About our Guest
Christopher B. Nelson has been president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD, since June 1991. He is an alumnus of St. John’s (B.A. 1970) and a graduate of the University of Utah College of Law (J.D. 1973), where he founded and directed the university’s student legal services program. He practiced law in Chicago for 18 years and was chairman of his law firm when he left the practice to take his current position at St. John’s College. Christopher Nelson is a national spokesperson for the liberal arts, participating actively in the national conversation about higher education. Frequently a panelist and speaker on state, regional, and national programs, he has addressed issues of institutional autonomy in the face of government regulatory intrusion and changes proposed in the accrediting system. His current focus is making clear the value of liberal education – in providing excellent grounding for career and professional development and, most importantly, for an open-minded pursuit of lifelong learning.
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 office of Christopher Nelson at the Annapolis campus of St. John’s College on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 Microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue enCORE 200 Microphone feeding into a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. B/w photo of President Nelson by me. Photo of Annapolis campus by me.
“I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had three separate careers: freelance illustrator, then set designer, puppetteer and animator, and now fine artist. I just bluffed my way into every one of ’em.'” –Wayne White
Artist Wayne White joins the show to talk about how his life and art have changed since he starred in the documentary Beauty is Embarrassing (which, if you haven’t seen it, go do so now now NOW!). We talk about the allure and absurdity of hubris, how much of the movie-Wayne maps onto the real version, how LA influenced his word-paintings, how he balances art and commerce, what happens to the giant puppets that he makes for installations, what he thinks of Jeff Koons, why he’s moving toward art-as-public-spectacle, what art form he’s dying to get back to, what his next big project is, when he’s gonna get rid of that beard, and more! Give it a listen!
“Cartooning is the hardest craft I ever did, because it’s no-shit-everything-has-to-work. With a painting, you can fudge things. Everything in a cartoon has to work, like a car, or it won’t run. I learned a lot about craft and discipline from cartooning, way more than painting.” –Wayne White
But first, we have an interview with Wayne’s wife, Mimi Pond! I interviewed Mimi last May (go listen to it!) at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, shortly after the release of her graphic memoir, Over Easy. This time around, we talk about the success of the book, the surprises of the book tour, how the sequel’s progressing, how it felt to win a PEN Center USA Literary Award, and more! (There are also some overlapping questions, and I thought you guys might dig hearing their different perspectives on topics like LA vs. NYC, and becoming empty-nesters.)
“In LA, it’s the law that you must be engaged in writing a screenplay with your hairdresser, pool boy, personal trainer, life coach, dog walker, or yoga instructor.” –Mimi Pond
About our Guests
Wayne White is an American artist, art director, illustrator, puppeteer, and much, much more. Born and raised in Chattanooga, Wayne has used his memories of the South to create inspired works for film, television, and the fine art world. After graduating from Middle Tennessee State University, Wayne traveled to New York City where he worked as an illustrator for the East Village Eye, New York Times, Raw Magazine, and the Village Voice. In 1986, Wayne became a designer for the hit television show Pee-wee’s Playhouse, and his work was awarded with three Emmys. After traveling to Los Angeles with his wife, Mimi Pond, Wayne continued to work in television and designed sets and characters for shows such as Shining Time Station, Beakman’s World, Riders In The Sky, and Bill & Willis. He also worked in the music video industry, winning Billboard and MTV Music Video Awards as an art director for seminal music videos including The Smashing Pumpkins’ Tonight, Tonight and Peter Gabriel’s Big Time.
More recently, Wayne has had great success as a fine artist and has created paintings and public works that have been shown all over the world. His most successful works have been the world paintings featuring oversized, three-dimensional text painstakingly integrated into vintage landscape reproductions. The message of the paintings is often thought-provoking and almost always humorous, with Wayne pointing a finger at vanity, ego, and his memories of the South. Wayne has also received great praise for several public works he has created, including a successful show at Rice University where he built the world’s largest George Jones puppet head for a piece called ‘Big Lectric Fan To Keep Me Cool While I Sleep.’ He was the subject of Neil Berkeley’s 2012 documentary, Beauty is Embarrassing.
Mimi Pond is a cartoonist, illustrator and writer. She’s created comics for the LA Times, Seventeen Magazine, National Lampoon, and many other publications. Her TV credits include the first full-length episode of The Simpsons, and episodes for the shows Designing Women and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. She lives in LA with her husband, the artist Wayne White. She is currently working on the sequel to her 2014 graphic memoir, Over Easy.
Credits: This episode’s music is I’m Ragged but I’m Right by George Jones. The conversation was recorded in Wayne and Mimi’s dining nook on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photos of Mr. White and Ms. Pond 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.
“There is a kind of comfort in having a part of yourself that will never be known, can never be known, by others.”
Genre-jumping author Rupert Thomson joins the show to talk about his new novel, Secrecy (Other Press), a 1690’s-based thriller about the Florentine wax-sculptor Zumbo. Along the way, we talk about the arbitrariness of “historical fiction,” the perils of researcher’s block (as opposed to writer’s block), what he learned from a 90-minute audience with James Salter, discovering archaic Italian curses, letting one’s art follow one’s unconscious, the joys of visiting the graves and/or homes of his literary idols, why finding the psychological truth of a story is more important than the details and background, and why it always helps to know a good histopathologist. Go listen!
“When I first started out, what I liked was the unlikely image, the unlikely metaphor. What I like now is finding that simple sentence that captures something you haven’t thought of before.”
About our Guest
Rupert Thomson is the author of nine highly acclaimed novels: Dreams of Leaving, The Five Gates of Hell, Air And Fire, The Insult, Soft!, The Book of Revelation, Divided Kingdom, Death of a Murderer, which was short-listed for the 2007 Costa Novel Award, and Secrecy. His memoir, This Party’s Got To Stop, won the Writers’ Guild Non-Fiction Award. He lives in London.
Credits: This episode’s music is Hotwax by Beck. The conversation was recorded at the Other Press offices 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 Mr. Thomson by Graeme Robertson.
“I set up a scenario where all of my characters were unhappy in one way or another, and they were all watching other people, as opposed to looking inward at their own lives. I didn’t know what people do about that. I was writing a realistic novel, but part of me believed that no one actually acts on their unhappiness.”
Tova Mirvis joins The Virtual Memories Show to talk about her brand-new novel, Visible City and how she learned to act on her unhappiness, as well as the lifelong advice she got from Mary Gordon, the ways that writing a book is like building a stained-glass window, why being an orthodox Jew in Memphis wasn’t just like Designing Women with better wigs, and the advantages of being offline for a week when the New York Times publishes your op-ed about getting divorced. Give it a listen!
“Orthodox Judaism and southern culture meld beautifully. In the south, there’s a way we do things and a way we don’t do things. And it’s the same in orthodox Judaism. They’re both very well-structured worlds. I grew up as a sort of cocktail of those two worlds.”
We also talk about how one person’s urge to freedom is another person’s betrayal, why Visible City took her 10 years to write, what you can discover about yourself in your 40s and what you can leave behind, and the varieties of religious experience (ours, not William James’). BONUS! You also get my essay/monologue about Jews & Geordies!
About our Guest
Tova Mirvis is the author of three novels, Visible City, The Outside World and The Ladies Auxiliary, which was a national bestseller. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies and newspapers including The New York Times Book Review, The Boston Globe Magazine, Commentary, Good Housekeeping, and Poets and Writers, and her fiction has been broadcast on National Public Radio. She has been a Scholar in Residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute at Brandeis University, and Visiting Scholar at The Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center. She lives in Newton, MA with her three children.
Credits: This episode’s music is NYC USA by Serge Gainsbourg. The conversation was recorded at the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt offices on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones, feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and monologue were recorded on the same setup in a hotel in Columbus, OH. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Ms. Mirvis by me.
Today’s episode of The Virtual Memories Show is a little offbeat, but I have faith in you, dear listener!
I take something that seems obscure, and it leads you to somewhere that is not where you expect.
First, philosopher, musicologist, clarinetist and author David Rothenberg joins us to talk about his new book, Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise, and its accompanying CD. It’s a fun conversation about rhythms and meta-rhythms, 17-year cicadas, David’s lifetime of music, the joy of bringing different people’s worlds together, how aesthetic preference sorta trumps survival of the fittest. the development of bugstep, and the secret to finding a rewarding job teaching the humanities. (And, really, you should listen just to find out that secret.)
These points in your life, you often wonder what would have happened if you’d taken the other course. I could’ve gone into theology or some bloody thing. Instead I wound up in science and I’m atheist now.
Then (around the 43:00 mark), we have a conversation with Clive Bennett, the CEO of Halo Pharma, a pharmaceutical contract manufacturing organization. I met Clive through my day job, and found him so delightfully literate, discursive and thoughtful that I asked him to record a segment on the podcast. Once I had him cornered, I asked him why he’d gone into the sciences, given his artistic, historical, musical and literary interests. (Really, I think it was just a condemnation of myself for not doing more with my time.) He decided to bring his Kindle along to reveal what he’s reading and why (and reveal himself in the process). It’s two men talking about the choices we make and those that are made for us.
About our Guests
Philosopher and jazz musician David Rothenberg is professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and the author of Bug Music, Survival of the Beautiful, Why Birds Sing, and Thousand-Mile Song. He is also a composer and jazz clarinetist, and he has nine CDs out under his own name, including On the Cliffs of the Heart, named one of the top ten CDs by Jazziz Magazine in 1995. He lives in the Hudson Valley, New York.
Clive Bennett has been CEO and president of Halo Pharma since 2008. He’s spent 40 years in the pharma industry, including 23 years at Hoechst Marion Roussel (now sanofi), as well as Fisons Limited, Evolutec, and Patheon. He’s also a voracious reader, history buff, opera-goer, and a lot of other things that don’t go on a CV.
Credits: This episode’s music is Katydid Prehistory by David Rothenberg. The conversation with David Rothenberg was recorded at his childhood home in Westport, CT on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 mics feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The conversation with Clive Bennett was recorded at his office in Whippany, NJ on the same equipment. The intro and outdo 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. Photo of David playing with cicadas by Charles Lindsay. Photo of Clive & me by Sally Langa.
“Readercon focuses on the literature. And the people who come here are really smart. They take science fiction and fantasy seriously as literature. It’s always interesting to be on panels. It’s also a real community, so I can talk with writers, small presses, editors. Beyond that, it’s really a good scene socially.”
It’s time part two of our Readercon 2013 mega-podcast! I visited the 24th annual Readercon conference on literary fantasy & science fiction in Burlington, MA in July, and recorded five interviews in one day! Readercon has great panels and programming, a fine booksellers’ hall, and lots of fun conversation; if you’re into the “literature of the fantastic,” you really should make a point of attending this event next year.
First, Theodora Goss talks about her new accordion-shaped novella, The Thorn and the Blossom, what writing contracts taught her about writing stories, why most classic literary monsters were female, and the joys of coffee in Budapest. Then (52:00), Valya Dudycz Lupescu explores the joys of Growing Up Ukrainian in Chicago, the role of folklore and myths in her fiction, and how every immigrant wave has to choose what it holds onto when it lands in America. Finally (1:15:00), Nancy Hightower tells us why she gave up Colorado for NYC, how she made the transition from teaching the grotesque to writing epic eco-fantasy, and how we learn the cost of wilderness.
- John Crowley/Scott Edelman (Readercon 2013 part 1)
- Paul Di Filippo
- Michael Dirda
- Craig Gidney
- Kyle Cassidy
About our Guests
Theodora Goss was born in Hungary and spent her childhood in various European countries before her family moved to the United States. Although she grew up on the classics of English literature, her writing has been influenced by an Eastern European literary tradition in which the boundaries between realism and the fantastic are often ambiguous. Her publications include the short story collection In The Forest Of Forgetting (2006); Interfictions (2007), a short story anthology coedited with Delia Sherman; Voices from Fairyland (2008), a poetry anthology with critical essays and a selection of her own poems; and The Thorn and the Blossom (2012), a novella in a two-sided accordion format. She has been a finalist for the Nebula, Locus, Crawford, and Mythopoeic Awards, as well as on the Tiptree Award Honor List, and has won the World Fantasy Award. Check out her website, tumblr, Facebook page and twitter feed for more.
Valya Dudyz Lupescu is a writer and the founding editor of the literary magazine, Conclave: A Journal of Character. Born and raised in Chicago, she received her degree in English at DePaul University, studying with Richard Jones, Maureen Seaton, and Anne Calcagno. She earned her MFA in Writing as part of the inaugural class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she studied under Michael D. Collins, James McManus, M. Evelina Galang, Rosellen Brown, and Carol Anshaw. Since receiving her MFA, Valya has worked as a college professor, obituary writer, content manager, goth cocktail waitress, internal communications specialist, and co-producer of the independent feature film, The Secret. She teaches workshops around the city and online, and helps to facilitate a monthly gathering of writers and artists in Chicago called the Chicago Creative Cooperative (“the Coop”). Her historical novel, The Silence of Trees, was published in 2010 (Wolfsword Press) in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audiobook (2012, Iambik Audio). She has also been published in various journals, including Sentence, The Pedestal Magazine, and Doorknobs & Bodypaint. She is currently an Artist-in-Residence at the historic Cliff Dwellers Club and at the Everleigh Club in Chicago. Check out her website, tumblr, Facebook page and twitter feed for more.
Nancy Hightower is a speculative fiction author and poet, as well as an art critic who writes for Weird Fiction Review. Her debut epic fantasy novel, Elementarí Rising, will be published in September 2013 with Pink Narcissus Press. She has co-authored, along with Carrie Ann Baade, the Cute and Creepy exhibition catalogue, an art book of contemporary macabre and surrealist works. She reviews books for Fantasy Matters and interviews writers such as China Miéville and Neil Gaiman for DJ Spooky’s Origin Magazine (interviews can be read online here). She has a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Denver, and previously taught the rhetorics of the fantastic, uncanny, and grotesque in art and literature at the University of Colorado. Her short fiction and poetry has appeared in Up the Staircase, Word Riot, Strange Horizons, Neon, Bourbon Penn, Prick of the Spindle, Liquid Imagination, Corvus, Red Fez, Prime Number Magazine, The New York Quarterly, storySouth, and Dense Macabre, among others. She now resides in New York City. Check out her website, Facebook page and twitter feed for more.
Credits: This episode’s music is Budapest by Blimp by Thomas Dolby. All 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 and all editing and processing was done in Garage Band. Photo 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.