Category Archives: Books

A ‘Constellation of Meaning’: The Rumpus Interviews George Saunders

Photo by David Shankbone

Last week, Maria Bustillos released a blockbuster Humanities Kit in which you can experience George Saunders teaching Anton Chekhov for yourself.

In Kate Harloe’s interview at The Rumpus, George Saunders reflects on the creative process for his new novel, Lincoln In The Bardo, bold compassion as the right course of resistance under a Trump presidency, and how his interviews, notes, and scenes coalesce into the “constellation of meaning” that inform his nonfiction work.

Rumpus: There are so many characters in this story. Did these characters flow out of you during the writing process or were they more of a conscious creation? Did you think, “I need a character that represents this or experiences this kind of suffering?”

Saunders: No, it was definitely the first thing. My general approach to writing fiction is that you try to have as few conceptual notions as possible and you just respond to the energy that the story is making rather than having a big over plan. I think if you have a big over plan, the danger is that you might just take your plan and then you bore everybody. I always joke that it’s like going on a date with index cards. You know, at 7:30 p.m. I should ask about her mother. You keep all the control to yourself but you are kind of insulting to the other person.

Rumpus: I don’t want to leave the topic of your book, but I love what you said about starting a piece with as few conceptual ideas as possible. Do you approach nonfiction the same way? For the New Yorker story you wrote about Trump, for example, did you begin with a similar kind of open-mindedness?

Saunders: It’s a different form of that. With nonfiction, I go in trying to be really honest about what my preconceptions are. In the Trump piece, I knew I didn’t like Trump and I confessed that to myself and also to my interviewees. I’d always say, “I’m a liberal and I’m left of Gandhi and I don’t like Trump and this article is me trying to understand why you do.”

My theory for nonfiction is that nobody can be free of some kind of conceptions about whatever story they’re writing. But if you can find a way to build those into the story, then the story becomes a process of deconstructing and heightening and sometimes changing those notions and that makes dramatic tension. The initial statement of your position, and then letting reality act on you to change it, is pretty good storytelling.

All I really know in nonfiction is that when I come home, I’ve got all these notes and I’m trying to figure out what actually happened to me. I usually kind of know what happened, but as you work through the notes, you find that certain scenes write well and some don’t even though they should. Those make a constellation of meaning that weirdly ends up telling you what you just went through. It’s a slightly different process, but still there’s mystery because when you’re bearing down on the scenes, sometimes you find out they mean something different than what you thought.

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The Last Decent Person in Washington

Librarian of Congress

There is a straight line from the worst person in the government to quite possibly the best: Every tweet that Donald Trump sends each morning, setting off news alerts for a groggy American public, pings across millions of timelines before settling in its final resting place, the Library of Congress. The keeper of those tweets—and of George Gershwin’s piano, Rosa Parks’s peanut-butter-pancake recipe, and Bob Hope’s joke collection—is Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress, an Obama appointee who embodies the calm, measured wisdom of the 44th President and the forward-looking hope of that era.

The New Yorker’s Sarah Larson visited the library in the days after the Inauguration and she wanders through the collection like a person tasked with cataloging Noah’s Ark, the last great treasury of humanity tossed upon the seas of an angry God. At the helm is Hayden, a career librarian with a drawerful of butterscotch candy. Hayden replaces 87-year-old James Billington, a Bush-era appointee who had “been asleep at the switch” as the library struggled with the digital age. The library is still far behind where it should be technologically—Kyle Chayka at n+1 noted that the library did not have a Chief Information Officer from 2012 to late 2015, among other institutional failures—but Hayden’s cool competence is a light in the bureaucratic darkness.

Hayden met the Obamas when they all lived in Chicago. When I asked about her relationship with them, she was reticent—no anecdotes, no self-aggrandizement. (She also gently demurred from talking about Trump.) But if you watch footage of the Inauguration, you can see the affection there. Hayden, in a black coat and black gloves, is seated just to the right of the Capitol door. Michelle Obama, looking melancholy, smiles and waves in her direction. A minute later, someone yells, “maga!” Horns sound, and Chuck Schumer, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and President Obama emerge. Obama sees Hayden, waves, beams, approaches her, and leans in for a hug. “Sir!” she says, heartily, patting him on the back.

In her office, Hayden picked up the Jefferson candy bowl and offered me some butterscotch. “This is my secret sauce,” she said. I asked if there was anything in the library’s collections that people might love to explore but not know about. “Oh, yes! Oh, my goodness, yes!” she said. “Like the comic-book collection.” It’s the largest in the world. She described the depth of knowledge among the librarians: “You’ll say, ‘I’d like to see the original “Luke Cage,” ’ because of the TV show. And then they tell you, Luke Cage first appeared in this comic…’ And they just keep going.”

I later visited Georgia Higley, the head of the newspaper section of the serial division, who showed me an array of comics milestones (“All-Nego Comics” from 1947; Batman; Luke Cage), many so valuable they’re available only to scholars. I was struck that even “Archie” had notes of the country’s painful history and present: “The Mirth of a Nation,” the cover said, as ice-skating Archie flew over some barrels, toward a hole. “Wonder Woman,” Winter Issue No. 7, from 1943, was called “Wonder Woman for president.” There she was, with her boots and golden lasso, banging on a lectern covered in stars-and-stripes bunting. Below that, it said, “1000 years in the future!

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How David Bowie Came Out As Gay (And What He Meant By It)

bowie-melody-maker-1972-2

Simon Reynolds | Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy, from the Seventies to the Twenty-first Century | Dey Street Books| October 2016 | 19 minutes (5,289 words)

 

Below is an excerpt from Shock and Awe, by Simon Reynolds. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

People like Lou and I are probably predicting the end of an era … I mean that catastrophically.
Any society that allows people like Lou and me to become rampant is pretty well lost.

On Sunday afternoon, 16 July 1972, David Bowie held a tea-time press conference at the Dorchester, a deluxe five-star hotel on London’s Park Lane. Mostly for the benefit of American journalists flown in to watch him and his new backing band, The Spiders from Mars, in action, the event was also a chance to show off Bowie’s new ‘protégés’, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. They had – separately – made their UK live debuts on the two preceding nights, at the exact same venue, King’s Cross Cinema.

Glammed up in maroon-polished nails and rock-star shades, Reed sashayed across the second-floor suite and kissed Bowie full on the mouth. Sitting in the corner, Iggy also displayed a recent glitter makeover, with silver-dyed hair, eye make-up and T. Rex T- shirt. Reed, Iggy and Bowie would later pose for the only known photograph of the threesome together, Bowie looking resplendent in a flared-cuff Peter Pan tunic made from a crinkly, light-catching fabric. That was just one of three outfits he wore that afternoon – surely the first time in history a rock’n’roll press conference involved costume changes.

During a wide-ranging and somewhat grandiloquent audience with the assembled journalists, Bowie declared: ‘People like Lou and I are probably predicting the end of an era … I mean that catastrophically. Any society that allows people like Lou and me to become rampant is pretty well lost. We’re both pretty mixed-up, paranoid people, absolute walking messes. If we’re the spearhead of anything, we’re not necessarily the spearhead of anything good.’ What a strange thing to announce – that you’re the herald of Western civilisation’s terminal decline, the decadent symptom that precedes a collapse into barbarism or perhaps a fascist dictatorship. But would an ‘absolute walking mess’ really be capable of such a crisply articulated mission statement? There’s a curious unreality to Bowie’s claims, especially made in such swanky surroundings. Yet the reporters nodded and scribbled them down in their notepads. Suddenly Bowie seemed to have the power to make people take his make-believe seriously … to make them believe it too. Something that in the previous eight strenuous years of striving he’d never managed before, apart from a smatter of fanatical supporters within the UK entertainment industry.

Some eighteen months before the Dorchester summit, the singer had looked washed-up. Deserted by his primary collaborators Tony Visconti and Mick Ronson, he put out the career-nadir single ‘Holy Holy’. (Can you hum it? Did you even know it existed?)

Yet a little over a year later, Bowie had everybody’s ears, everyone’s eyes. His fortunes had transformed absolutely: if not the biggest star in Britain, he was the buzziest, the focus of serious analysis in a way that far better-selling contemporaries like Marc Bolan and Slade never achieved. No longer a loser, he had somehow become the Midas man, a pop miracle-worker resurrecting the stalled careers of his heroes, from long-standing admirations like Lou Reed to recent infatuations like Iggy Pop and Mott the Hoople. Sprinkling them with his stardust, Bowie even got them to change their appearance in his image. There was talk of movies and stage musicals, the sort of diversification that’s tediously commonplace in today’s pop business, but back then was unusual and exciting.

‘People look to me to see what the spirit of the Seventies is,’ Bowie said to William S. Burroughs in a famous 1974 dialogue convened by Rolling Stone. This was not boasting, just the simple truth. How did Bowie manage to manoeuvre himself into place as weathervane of the zeitgeist? The battle was not won on the radio airwaves or at record-store cash registers. There are bands from the early seventies who sold millions more records than Bowie ever did, but they never came near to having the high profile he had at the time and are barely remembered today. Bowie’s theatre of war was the media, where victory is measured in think pieces and columns, controversy and the circulation of carefully chosen, eye-arresting photographs. Read more…

Happy Birthday, Toni Morrison

Photo by west_point

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned getting permission to write. Who gave it to you?

MORRISON

No one. What I needed permission to do was to succeed at it. I never signed a contract until the book was finished because I didn’t want it to be homework. A contract meant somebody was waiting for it, that I had to do it, and they could ask me about it. They could get up in my face and I don’t like that. By not signing a contract, I do it, and if I want you to see it, I’ll let you see it. It has to do with self-esteem. I am sure for years you have heard writers constructing illusions of freedom, anything in order to have the illusion that it is all mine and only I can do it.

-Toni Morrison, in a 1993 conversation with Elissa Schappell at The Paris Review. Morrison turns 86 on February 18.

Here’s Morrison with Charlie Rose in 2015:

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On Midlife, Failure, and Thwarted Ambition: Sarah Manguso and 300 Arguments

Photo by Kelly Teague (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Anna Furman interviews Sarah Manguso about the process of writing her new book, 300 Arguments, her writing influences, failure and thwarted ambition, and how Sarah’s sleeping post-inauguration.

I wrote 300 Arguments when I was in a bit of a midlife funk. I was thinking about certain types of failure that just sort of collect at midlife. The idea of midlife is itself a sort of a cliché; it’s a very conventional mode of thinking about the human lifespan. It’s an assumption, to start, that everybody has the same life span. But there really is something to getting to a point in life where major decisions have been made—maybe they’re not permanent but they feel permanent. You choose a vocation and the thing that you do all day long. You choose your people, and if you have a family you’ve chosen the people to include in your family. What felt really sharp to me at the time that I was writing this is that there’s this experience of failure that seems fairly generally applicable to being in one’s midlife. All of a sudden there are these desires that felt obsolete to me that I thought would always feel necessary. There were thwarted ambitions. You sort of realize that failing is a skill of general utility.

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Poem on the Range

Old cowboy boots

She doesn’t write on command, can’t write your friend a birthday poem or an ode for the centennial celebration. She writes when the words strike her, making sure to keep stacks of paper scattered around the house. And she writes with pen and paper, never a computer, though she does email and knows enough about Facebook to know she hates it, the way people share every detail of their lives.

American Cowboy profiles Elizabeth Ebert, the “Grand Dame of Cowboy Poetry”  — and takes the required detour to the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada.

When I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, Baxter Black — maybe he’s the Prime Minister of Cowboy Poetry?  — had a segment on our public radio station. His short weekly bit is how I learned about the festival; this piece reminded me that I’ve long wanted to go. I added it to my calendar for 2018.

“Above my basement stairwell is a little cubby hole in which I put junk I don’t know what to do with,” she begins, “and I take the box out every once in a while and I ruffle through it, and one day I found a little notebook that said ‘21st Anniversary.’  The poem went like this:

We have reached a majority.

Twenty-one conglomerate years of marriage.

Good times and bad, sickness and health,

Joy and sorrow.

Sometimes I’d like to try for twenty-two

(Winchester, bolt action right between his eyes.)

Ebert sounds like, well, a pistol.

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The Early Principles That Guided the Makers of LEGO

Legos in space

In his 2013 book, Brick by Brick: How LEGO Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy Industry, David Robertson outlines the early successes and failures of the Denmark-based LEGO Group — from their early experiments with plastic, to their decision in the late 1990s to finally strike licensing deals with movies and characters, starting with Star Wars.

Robertson describes a pivotal moment in the company’s history, when Godtfred Kirk Christiansen, the son of founder Ole Kirk Christiansen, met up with a toy buyer: Read more…

‘Elephant and Piggie’ Author Mo Willems on the Importance of Teaching Kids to Fail

We are in a #longread!

Over the past eight years, when I wasn’t reading Pamela Colloff or Ariel Levy, I was probably reading Mo Willems. The children’s book author made the world giggle with Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus and the Elephant and Piggie series, and reduced every parent to tears with Knuffle Bunny Free, the final installment in the Knuffle Bunny series that is making me cry again just thinking about it. Darn you, Mo!

In Rivka Galchen’s wonderful New Yorker profile of Willems, we learn that Knuffle Bunny’s real-life main character Trixie (Willems’s daughter) is now 15, that Willems couldn’t write another Pigeon book (“He’s a monster!”) and that he’s particularly focused on kids learning to embrace the “f” word:

Willems’s books reveal a preoccupation with failure, even an alliance with it. In “Elephants Cannot Dance!,” they can’t; in “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!,” Pigeon, despite all his pleading and cajoling, never does. Willems told me, “At ‘Sesame Street,’ they would give us these workshops about the importance of failure, but then in our skits all the characters had to be great at what they did, everything had to work out. That drove me crazy.” One of his most memorable sketches on “Sesame Street” was about a Muppet, Rosita, who wants to play the guitar; she isn’t very good, even by the end of the episode. Many artists talk about the importance of failure, but Willems seems particularly able to hold on to the conviction of it. He is a distinctly kind, mature, and thoughtful person to spend time with, and there was only one anecdote that he told me twice. It was about a feeling he had recently while walking his dog, a kind of warm humming feeling starting in his abdomen, which, he said, he had never had before. Was it happiness? I asked. He said no. He’d felt happiness before. This was something different. He said he thought that, for the first time ever, he was feeling success.

The feeling would appear to be transient. When I asked him if it felt strange to no longer be writing Elephant and Piggie books—I was still working on a way to break the news to my daughter, who had been using the Other Titles endpaper as a field of dreams—he said, “Well, at least now I have my obituary.” Shortly afterward, he said, unprompted, “I think ‘What are you working on next?’ is the worst question. It’s such a bad question. I hate that question. Everyone asks that question. I want to say, ‘Isn’t this good enough for you?’ ”

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What It’s Like to Lose Your Short-Term Memory

Illustration by Perrin

Christine Hyung-Oak Lee | Longreads | February 2017 | 18 minutes (4,276 words)

Longreads is proud to feature an exclusive excerpt from Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember: The Stroke That Changed My Life, the forthcoming memoir by Christine Hyung-Oak Lee. Lee’s story was first featured on Longreads in 2014, for her BuzzFeed essay, “I Had a Stroke at 33.”

***

Short-term memory dominates all tasks—in cooking, for instance: I put the water to boil in a pot on the stove and remember that the water will boil while I chop the onions. I will put the sauté pan on the stove to heat up the oil for the onions, and I will then put the onions, which I will remember I have chopped, into the oil, which I remember I have heated for the onions. I will then add tomatoes. While the onions and tomatoes cook, I will put pasta in the water, which I remember I have boiled. I will know that in ten minutes I will put the cooked pasta into the tomato and onion stir, and thus have a simple tomato pasta meal. Read more…

What the Thousands of Calls Against Betsy DeVos Say About American Public Schools

An Iowa public school. Photo by photolibrarian

Congress was inundated with thousands of phone calls from people urging their representatives to vote against Trump’s education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos. Given her poor performance during confirmation hearings, her lack of experience, and her history of supporting attempts to dismantle traditional public education, Americans had visceral, negative reaction to DeVos. But this defense of our schools comes after years of anti-public education rhetoric by our country’s leaders about “failing schools” and teacher accountability.

Dana Goldstein’s 2015 book The Teacher Wars seeks to understand how America’s relationship with its public school teachers became so complicated. It goes much farther back than the battles of the past few decades: Read more…