“There are thresholds or shelves where we go from having incremental change to systemic moments of transformation.”
In the ’90s, Sven Birkerts cautioned us about the impact of technology on reading with The Gutenberg Elegies. In 2017, we mute our iPhones to talk about his new book, Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (Graywolf Press). We dive into the impact of digital technology on perception and identity, but also get into the way life becomes a thematic puzzle in middle age, why he stepped down from his role directing the low-residency MFA program at Bennington, the joy of bringing his favorite writers in as instructors (and the ones he regrets not getting), the challenge of interviewing fiction writers, his big literary 0-fer and what I’m missing about Virginia Woolf, how he’s adapting to a year-long sabbatical and how he understands his writing life, what he’s learned editing the literary magazine AGNI, and why the prerequisite for anything he’s reading is that it has to be more interesting to him than whatever it is he’s vaguely brooding about. Give it a listen! And go buy his new essay collection, Changing the Subject!
“When I was your age, I discovered the doubling over of one’s own experience. . . . Themes, recurrences and motifs in my life began to manifest. Then as if on command, the whole sunken continent of memory began to detach from the sea-floor.”
About our Guest
Sven Birkerts is the author of Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age and nine previous books, including The Other Walk: Essays, The Gutenberg Elegies, The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again, and My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time. He recently stepped down as director of the Bennington Writing Seminars, and he also edits the journal AGNI based at Boston University. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts, and he’s on Twitter as svenbirkerts and Instagram as cyberbirk.
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. Birkerts’ 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. Birkerts by me. It’s on my instagram.
“I’m an enthusiast. I think that’s why I was a good editor. I fall in love with things and I get very enthusiastic and I boost them. Now I’m a Latin enthusiast.”
Why did former publisher and book editor Ann Patty start studying Latin at age 58? Find out in our conversation about her book, Living with a Dead Language: My Romance with Latin (Viking). We talk about her deep dive into a dead language, the “Living Latinist” revival, her unceremonious exit from the NY publishing world, the terror of the blank page, the perils of groupthink, how her pursuit of Latin reconciled her to the memory of her mother, and more! Give it a listen! And go buy Living with a Dead Language!
“This is going to sound grandiose, but I’m going to say it: I identified with Aeneas because I had to find a new homeland just like he did. My homeland was the publishing world and I was exiled.”
We also talk about where mainstream book publishing has gone wrong, what it was like to be the oldest student in the room by 40 years, how her experience as a publisher and editor helped and hurt her as a first-time author, how Abigail Thomas tricked her into writing a book, the benefits of inflection, her new career goal of Girl Latin Reporter, and more! Give it a listen! And become a patron of this podcast via Patreon or Paypal to get access to bonus conversation with Ann and a big ol’ list of all the books we talked about.
“Editors have been disempowered in favor of groupthink, and there’s nothing more horrible than groupthink. Any book I was ever successful with would not have been bought if it had been subject to groupthink. I include Life of Pi.”
About our Guest
Ann Patty worked in New York trade publishing for more than 30 years. She was the founder and publisher of The Poseidon Press and an executive editor at Crown Publishers and Harcourt. Her first discovery as an editor was V. C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic. Other highlights of her career include the US hardcover debuts of: George R. R. Martin, Graham Swift, Mary Gaitskill, Patrick McGrath, Clive Barker, Frank Zappa, Michael Moore, Siri Hustvedt, and Kristin Hannah. She was the editor of Steven Millhauser’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Martin Dressler, and Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning Life of Pi. In 2008 she became a freelance editor and began studying Latin, which she continues to do. She teaches Latin to teenagers at her local library in Red Hook, New York. Living with a Dead Language: My Romance with Latin is her first memoir.
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 Ann’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 Blue enCORE 200 Microphone feeding into a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of Ann by me.
“In the late 1970s, I wanted to write against the grain, so I wrote about a marriage that lasted a long time, with all the strife and stresses.”
Novelist, essayist, poet, short story writer, and translator Lynne Sharon Schwartz sat down with me to talk about her newest essay collection, This Is Where We Came In: Intimate Glimpses (Counterpoint), but we talked about a lot more in our hour! Listen in to learn how she and her husband began recording literary readings by authors like James Baldwin, Philip Roth, John Updike, William Styron in the ’60s, and how they’ve re-launched those recordings. We also discuss how second-wave feminism convinced her to pursue a writing career, how her ear for music influences her writing, why she swears by audiobook reader David Case, and how Margaret Atwood once dropped the boom on Norman Mailer. Give it a listen!
“Although I identify with feminism, my literary tastes don’t divide into men and women; it’s the ones who are concerned with language and delight in language, rather than their gender, that I read.”
We also talk about her love of digressive essays, the joys of translation, her travel-anxiety, the difficulty in getting a book of essays published, why W.G. Sebald is one of her favorite authors, and how — kinda like last week’s guest, Caitlin McGurk — she got involved in bringing back lost women writers.
About our Guest
Lynne Sharon Schwartz is the author of more than 20 books, including novels, short story collections, non-fiction, poetry, and translations. Her new essay collection, This Is Where We Came In: Intimate Glimpses, was just published by Counterpoint. Her first novel, Rough Strife, was nominated for a National Book Award and the PEN/Hemingway First Novel Award. Her other novels include The Writing on the Wall; In the Family Way: An Urban Comedy; Disturbances in the Field; and Leaving Brooklyn (Rediscovery), nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award. She and her husband Harry have launched Calliope Author Readings, which offers lovers of literature a rare opportunity to hear great 20th century American authors interpreting their own works. Ms. Schwartz has received grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEA, and the New York State Foundation for the Arts. Her stories and essays have been reprinted in many anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and The Best American Essays. She has taught writing and literature at colleges and universities in the U.S. and abroad. She lives in New York City.
Credits: This episode’s music is Gladiolas by Scott Joplin. The conversation was recorded at Ms. Schwartz’s 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 Ms. Schwartz 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.