Category Archives: Interviews

“In France, I’m a Star”

a man in an orange knit hat lights a cigarette

Tennesseean Sara Estes profiles the man behind her state’s strangest sporting event: Lazarus Lake, aka Gary Cantrell, the creator of the punishing Barkley Marathons. Estes’ piece is a fascinating profile of both the man, the land — “trees like steel bars, thickets like razor wire” — and the community where the Barkley takes place.

When I arrive at Hardee’s, the sun still hasn’t risen, and the air is chilled and dew-damp. Inside, a group of white-haired men — retired, church-going, grandpa types — are seated around a large table in the middle of the restaurant. They’ve been eating breakfast here, every morning, at this very table, since the dawn of fucking time. They can remember all the various phases of branding and décor Hardee’s has cycled through over the decades; they can recount what year the restaurant got new booths, new light fixtures, new flooring. They know the Barkley well, and can always tell its arrival by all the strange new people who flood into the small town around April Fool’s Day, the day on which Laz purposefully chose to host the race, or as near to it as possible.

When Laz arrives, he orders sausage and eggs and joins the men at their roost. Media crews from France and New York are slowly trickling in. They look like aliens from a distant land with their hi-tech AV equipment and tight-fitting athletic wear. Laz ignores them. His particular brand of grungy, mountain-man fame is generally underwhelming to locals, yet ceaselessly exhilarating to clean-cut city dwellers near and far.

“In France, I’m a star,” he tells me. “In America, I’m thought of more as a homeless person.”

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‘Turn Off Your Brain and Just Trust Instinct’: Q-Tip on the Evolving Sound of Hip-Hop

A Tribe Called Quest’s sixth album, We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service, is a reminder of how much time has passed. As Noisey editor Kyle Kramer notes, it brings Phife Dawg’s voice back from the dead, uses familiar samples, and has that unmistakable Tribe groove. But the hip-hop group’s final studio album also marks now, and for many fans is very much relevant and political, especially given its release the day after the U.S. presidential election in 2016.

Kramer talks with Q-Tip about being egoless and instinctive — and staying true to himself and to Tribe while evolving with the sound of hip-hop.

I think you have to always look ahead, in anything. We sometimes become creatures of habit, and we want to continue to do things that we maybe have enjoyed or that strike a particular chord that we’ve experienced a long, long time ago. But as time moves on and humanity moves on and man moves on and art moves on and philosophy moves on and so on and so forth, you find yourself either faced with a choice of adjusting and moving on with it or staying put. Now, there’s also some good things about what you may have experienced in the past or whatever, and therein lies the challenge. Of: Man, how do I keep to my ethos and keep to my philosophy but adjust it and update it and still have a fresh kind of attitude about it? And that’s tricky. To be able to do that, again, you have to just be egoless to a degree and you have to allow yourself to be challenged and allow yourself to be uncomfortable. And turn off your brain in a way and just trust instinct. And then fall into that, and I think you may end up on a good side.

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Literature by the Numbers

Jessica Gross | Longreads | March 2017 | 12 minutes (2,982 words)

 

If you’ve ever taken a writing class—or enrolled in high school English—you’ve probably been advised to use fewer adverbs. But does a glut of adverbs really degrade writing? Moreover, do the writers who’ve given this advice even follow it?

This is just the opening gambit of data journalist Ben Blatt’s deep dive into the mathematics of literature. In his new book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing, Blatt examines the stylistic fingerprints of writers (which follow them even when they write under pen names in different genres), whether Americans are “louder” than Brits in their writing, the differences between how men and women write, whether books are getting simpler (yup), and many other curiosities.

Blatt has a penchant for numbers. In his first book, I Don’t Care if We Never Get Back (co-written with his friend Eric Brewster), Blatt mathematically engineers the ideal baseball road trip. In this new book, he makes a convincing case that words aren’t any less suited for mathematical analysis than baseball is—and that data can actually help us see and appreciate rule-breaking that really works. We spoke by phone about why he’s drawn to treating art as data, as well as some of his most compelling findings.

* * *

I’m not sure if you chose the title Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve or if your publisher did—but if it was you, I wondered if you could walk me through that choice. Was that finding the most delightful to you?

So, the title was a collaboration between me and the publisher. But what we were going for was, the book covers a lot. It covers the reading level of New York Times Best Sellers, the adverb use of your classic authors, the difference in how men and women write, book cover design—and with this title, we were going for a bit of intrigue, and a bit of the possibilities of combining numbers and writing, or science and art. And yes, the specific finding about Nabokov was very exciting when I stumbled across it.

In an interview, Ray Bradbury had said his favorite word was “cinnamon.” If you look at the numbers, he actually does use the word “cinnamon” at a high rate. And his reasoning for liking cinnamon was that it reminded him of his grandmother’s pantry. If you look at a bunch of other words that relate to pantries, spices and smells, he also uses those at an extremely high rate. So I repeated that experiment on a hundred other authors, not knowing what to expect or if anything would come up.

For Nabokov, I found that his favorite word was “mauve,” and that struck me as a bit curious. And then I remembered, and found in some further reading, that he had synesthesia. He wrote in his autobiography about how when he would write a certain sound or letters, he would visualize, automatically, that color in his head. And mauve was one of them. I thought this was a nice way of showing that there’s not an opposition between the numbers and the words. This is probably what he would say his favorite word was anyway, but the numbers do back it up.

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A Conversation With Ariel Levy About Writing a Memoir That Avoids ‘Invoking Emotional Tropes’

Jessica Gross | Longreads | March 2017 | 17 minutes (4,391 words)

 

When she was 22 and an assistant at New York Magazine, Ariel Levy, hungry for success and action, went to a nightclub for obese women and reported her first story. New York published the resulting piece with what Levy, two decades later, claims is still the best headline she’s had: “WOMEN’S LB.” Levy worked for New York until 2008, when she was hired as a staff writer at The New Yorker. There, she has focused largely on gender and sexuality: she’s profiled comedian Ali Wong, long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, boxer Claressa Shields, and Nora Ephron. She has traveled to Jerusalem with Mike Huckabee, to Italy to report on Silvio Berlusconi, to South Africa to report on runner Caster Semenya.

And she has traveled to Mongolia. In 2012—38 years old, married and in love, and five months pregnant—Levy got on a plane for what she felt would be her last big trip for a long time. But, while there, a pain in her abdomen grew and grew until, in the middle of dinner at a Japanese restaurant, she had to rush back to her hotel room before the food came. On the floor of her hotel bathroom, an “unholy storm” moved through her body, and she gave birth to her son. Less than twenty minutes later, he died.

Levy recounted this experience in her first piece of personal writing, the essay “Thanksgiving in Mongolia.” Her new memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, tells the broader story of her gradual realization, through trauma and loss—including divorce from her wife, who struggled with alcoholism—that our options are limited by nature.

Having read your work and knowing how adventurous you are, I was surprised to read about how fearful you become before you travel. I’m the type of person who, when I feel very fearful, often heeds that and runs away. You seem to do the opposite—diving headfirst into fear. What’s that about?

That’s just how I’ve always done it. I mean, you’re absolutely right.

If you’re an only child, you only ever talk to grown-ups; it makes you a very weird kid. So when I was a kid learning how to talk to other people my own age, I do think my initial problem was that I’d be really scared, and I’d come on so strong. People were like, “Who is that aggressive, terrifying child?” I was just overcompensating for fear.

That’s definitely how I deal. I hope I’ve gotten less weird socially, but if a story scares me, if a job scares me, I’m definitely going to dive in. I just didn’t like the idea of living a terrified life, you know? I didn’t want to go down that way. Read more…

The David Letterman University of Excessive Self-Deprecation

Over at Vulture, David Marchese sits down to a nice long conversation with the great David Letterman to rap about Dave’s thirty-three years in television, the evolution of late-night, what obligations comedians have to put comedy in service of our nation, and the loneliness of retirement. Wait, why is this man retired? Dave, please pop your head up more often!

How? Is comedy useful for that?

Comedy’s one of the ways that we can protect ourselves. Alec Baldwin deserves a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Sadly, he’s not going to get it from this president.

Can you explain that a bit more? How does satire protect us from Donald Trump?

The man has such thin skin that if you keep pressure on him — I remember there was a baseball game in Cleveland, and a swarm of flies came on the field and the batters were doing this [mimes swatting at flies] while the pitcher was throwing 100 miles an hour. Well, that’s Alec Baldwin and Saturday Night Live. It’s distracting the batter. Eventually Trump’s going to take a fastball off the sternum and have to leave the game.

There’s this idea that reducing Trump to a punchline could make him seem harmless or helps to normalize him. Is there any validity to that argument?

I guess it’s a possibility. On the other hand, Donald Trump can be Donald Trump, but if he doesn’t help the people that need help, then he’s just a jerk. That press conference that he held berating the news media? I mean, how do you build a dictatorship? First, you undermine the press: “The only truth you’re going to hear is from me.” And he hires the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Steve Bannon, to be his little buddy. Bannon looks like a guy who goes to lunch, gets drunk, and comes back to the office: “Steve, could you have just one drink?” “Fuck you.” How is a white supremacist the chief adviser to our president? Did anybody look that up? I don’t know. How’s this interview going? Do you think you’re talking to a normal person here? Don’t I seem like I’m full of something?

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‘Have You Ever Had Trashcan Nachos?’

guy fieri on stage

Helen Hollyman spent a lot of time plumbing the depths of America’s leading purveyor of Donkey Sauce™ to produce this in-depth profile of the man behind the sunglasses, Guy Fieri. But what did she really learn? Is Guy Fieri the American dream with frosted tips?

Over these past few months, I’m not sure if I’ve ever met Guy Fieri, but I don’t think it matters. In his new book, Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen explains why he puts on his famous costume—American blue jeans and rolled up T-shirts—every night to perform on stage. “Those whose love we wanted but could not get, we emulate. So I—who’d never done a week’s worth of manual labor in my life—put on a factory worker’s clothes, my father’s clothes, and went to work.” Fieri’s rockabilly-meets-NorCal aesthetic may in fact, be his wardrobe of choice, but the moment the organic kale-eating millionaire entrepreneur rolls into your town in his ’68 red Camaro with his white spiky hair and that bowling shirt decked in flames, he’s suddenly transformed into your friendly, wacky neighbor. He’s here to eat some “off-the-hook” food with you, bump fists, and tune up the jams. He’s the kind of guy who makes you believe that you want to have a few beers together at the local dive, and if you stumble into a bar fight, you know he’s got your back. And when it’s all over, he’ll crank up a song from Van Halen’s 5150 album and make you a sashimi taco that is just awesome.

In an increasingly divided country, Fieri provides viewers with a distraction that promotes positivity and faintly displays a former America. Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives is a fuzzy moving image of the United States, where small towns with restaurants that celebrate the dishes forged by a long history of the blending of cultures happens. It visits the cities where the product of hard-working Americans is delicious, and when you take a bite, you can taste their version of the American dream. On these menus, this concept is still possible.

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

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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Happy Birthday, Toni Morrison

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

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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Making Sense of Our Compulsions

Jessica Gross | Longreads | February 2017 | 15 minutes (3,932 words)

 

Checking our smartphones every few minutes. Making sure every spice jar is in the exact right place in the rack. Shopping. Stealing. Working nonstop. Hoarding. “Compulsions come from a need so desperate, burning, and tortured it makes us feel like a vessel filling with steam, saturating us with a hot urgency that demands relief,” Sharon Begley writes in her new book, Can’t Just Stop. “Suffused and overwhelmed by anxiety, we grab hold of any behavior that offers relief by providing even an illusion of control.”

In a time of extreme anxiety for many of us, Begley’s book feels particularly relevant. In chapters that run the gamut from obsessive-compulsive disorder to compulsive do-gooding, Begley—a senior science writer for STAT, whose previous books include The Emotional Life of Your Brain and Train Your Mind, Change Your Brainexplores how behaviors that range widely in both character and extremity can come from a common root. “Venturing inside the heads and the worlds of people who behave compulsively not only shatters the smug superiority many of us feel when confronted with others’ extreme behavior,” she writes. “It also reveals elements of our shared humanity.” Begley and I spoke by phone about what anxiety is, exactly; her own compulsions; and whether it’s possible to have no compulsions (not likely).

What is the definition of “compulsion,” as compared to addiction and impulsive behaviors?

This was the first thing that I had to grapple with. The first thing I did was go around to psychologists and psychiatrists and start asking, “What is the difference between these three things?” To make a long story as short as possible, they really didn’t have a clue, or at least they were not very good at explaining it—to the extent that the same disorder would be described in the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders from the American Psychiatric Association, using “compulsive” one time and “impulsive” the next.

So where I finally came down, after finding people who had really thought about this, is as follows. Impulsive behaviors are ones that go from some unconscious part of your brain right to a motor action. There is very little emotion except for that feeling of impulsivity. There’s certainly little to no thought involved.

Behavioral addictions—and this is where I thought it started to get interesting—are born in something pleasurable. If you’re addicted to gambling, it probably is because, at least when you started, it was a whole lot of fun. You loved it. You got a hedonic hit, a pulse of enjoyment. And certainly as things go along, a behavioral addiction like gambling can cause you all sorts of distress and destroy your life. But at least at the beginning, it brings you extreme pleasure.

Compulsions are very different. They come from this desperate, desperate need to alleviate anxiety. They’re an outlet valve. The anxiety makes you want to jump out of your skin, or it makes you feel like your skin is crawling with fire ants. And what compulsions do is bring relief only after you have executed the compulsion, whether it is to exercise, or to check your texts, or to shop, or to keep something if you’re a hoarder. And crucially, compulsions, although they bring relief, bring almost no enjoyment except in the sense that if you stop banging your head against a wall, then it feels good to stop. Read more…