Podcast: The Wonders of the Audible World

Virtual Memories – season 3 episode 14 –
The Wonders of the Audible World

“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!


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

Others conversations with contemporary literary writers and critics:

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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.

Life’s work

Earlier this year, I had variations of the following e-mail exchange with several NYC literary figures I know:

GIL: Just wondering: do you know Robert Caro?

AUTHOR/WRITER: By acquaintance. Why?

GIL: Would you say he’s in good health?

A/W: Not sure. What’s up? Have you heard something?

GIL: No. It’s just that, well, I loved his biography of Robert Moses, so I grabbed the first three volumes of his biography of Lyndon Johnson. But I know he’s getting up there in years and I’m afraid to start reading it until I know that he’s going to be around to finish the fourth volume.

A/W: . . . You’re a cold person.

GIL: Yeah, but do you think he’s going to finish the biography?

A/W: . . . Good question.

Caro’s own site doesn’t give info about how he’s doing and I’ve been afraid to contact his agent with such a crass question, so I’ve held off on starting the series. The first three books add up to around 2,250 pages, and winds up in 1960, as he becomes vice president under JFK. I confess that I didn’t understand Caro’s desire to devote the half his life (figuring that he started around 1976 or so) to this biography; I don’t know enough about LBJ’s presidency or his character. He’s sort of a void for me, falling between the mythologies of JFK and Nixon.

But, given Caro’s enormous achievement with The Power Broker, I picked up the first volume of the LBJ bio secondhand last summer and read the first 40 pages (introduction and first chapter) one afternoon. I was blown away by the combination of Caro’s wonderful narrative prose and his ability to convey exactly how LBJ epitomizes American politics. On top of that, LBJ’s character and his seeming desire to cover up and rewrite his past made him a fascinating literary character (to me, but I still like Thomas Pynchon’s novels). By the time I’d wrapped up those 40 pages, I knew that Caro had made a perfect choice of subject, and was looking forward to reading the whole series.

Still, I’d seen Caro in Ric Burns’ New York documentary and, while he didn’t look frail, I feared that I’d be taking a risk in diving into the biography, only to see it cut prematurely.

So I was happy to read that there was a Caro-related party this summer as part of the Authors’ Night  benefit for the East Hampton Library (and you scoff at my devotion to Page Six!). I found out about it too late to break out my seersucker suit and crash the event, but I took it as a good sign that Caro was part of the social scene.

Yesterday, I got even more of a boost when I followed an Andrew Sullivan link to a George Packer piece in The New Yorker, where he discusses the importance of LBJ:

Whenever Democrats gather to celebrate the party, they invoke the names of their luminaries past. The list used to begin with Jefferson and Jackson. More recently, it’s been shortened to F.D.R., Truman, and J.F.K. The one Democrat with a legitimate claim to greatness who can’t be named is Lyndon Johnson. The other day I asked Robert Caro, Johnson’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning biographer and hardly a hagiographer of the man, whether he thought Johnson should be mentioned in Denver. “It would be only just to Johnson,” Caro said. “If the Democratic Party was going to honestly acknowledge how it came to the point in its history that it was about to nominate a black American for President, no speech would not mention Lyndon Johnson.” Caro is now at work on the fourth volume of his epic biography, about Johnson’s White House years. “I am writing right now about how he won for black Americans the right to vote. I am turning from what happened forty-three years ago to what I am reading in my daily newspaper—and the thrill that goes up and down my spine when I realize the historical significance of this moment is only equaled by my anger that they are not giving Johnson credit for it.”

Looks like I have a new reading project set once this Montaigne project is over!