Category Archives: Interviews

‘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

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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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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Making Sense of Our Compulsions

Photo credit: Kayana Szymczak

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…

Birds as an Antidote to Bombastic Noise, or How to De-stress in Stressful Times

Magnolia Warbler by Bill Majoros (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In this interview by Patricia Treble at Maclean’s, author Kyo Maclear talks of birds and bird-watching as an “ode to the beauty of smallness, of quiet, of seeing the unique in the ordinary… in an age in which bombastic noise often triumphs over quiet contemplation.”

Q: You have to keep very still when birding. We’re in a world now where everyone has to do stuff. This is the antithesis: you are the observer and the birds are working.

A: The one thing I’d thought of is that we spend most of our lives in survival time. There’s a sense of hanging off the ledge, trying to tread water, trying to keep ahead of the deadlines or the business of the city. Birds are the antithesis of that, for sure. I discovered that there were things that did not pay off in the birding world. Rushing, for example. Impatience. All the things that we do to self-optimize in our working lives don’t work out at all in the birding world. To realize that there’s an actually entirely different way of being if you’re watching birds.

I hadn’t thought it was about observing the birds in action, but it’s true: they are very industrious, very active. The grebes [mentioned in the book] are very collaborative. They are nest-building but doing it together. There is a sense that they are barn-raising together. It’s not about ego, you know.

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The Intelligence, Intuition, and Sex Lives of Octopuses

Photo by damn_unique  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In an interview at National Geographic, Sy Montgomery, author of the book The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness, reflects on the uncanny intelligence, intuition, and surprising sex lives of octopuses.

The fact that three-fifths of an octopus’ neurons are not in their brain, but in their arms, suggests that each arm has a mind of its own. All of these things make it very hard to measure the intelligence because, we only have four lobes in our brains, while octopus have 50 to 75, depending on how you count them. It’s hard to take the measure of the mind of somebody like that.

I heard one story about an octopus in a home tank, who would get out, cruise around the house, take knick-knacks and drag them back to its tank. Like a dog! They’re so smart that there are octopus enrichment handbooks so you don’t bore your octopus. I’ve seen them play with Legos, Mr. Potato Head, you name it!

…the female whooshed into the male’s arms. They enveloped each other and turned colors with their emotions. There was a lot of wrapping around and afterward they turned white, which is the color of a relaxed octopus and they lay literally in each other’s arms, holding each other, for hours. It was lovely.

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Pablo Neruda on the Intersection of Politics and Poetry

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In 1970, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) sat down for an interview with The Paris Review just months before abandoning his campaign for president, running as the Chilean Communist Party candidate. American author Rita Guibert conducted the interview at Neruda’s home in Isla Negra, just south of Valparaiso:

Oh, there is no advice to give to young poets! They ought to make their own way; they will have to encounter the obstacles to their expression and they have to overcome them. What I would never advise them to do is to begin with political poetry. Political poetry is more profoundly emotional than any other—at least as much as love poetry—and cannot be forced because it then becomes vulgar and unacceptable. It is necessary first to pass through all other poetry in order to become a political poet. The political poet must also be prepared to accept the censure which is thrown at him—betraying poetry, or betraying literature. Then, too, political poetry has to arm itself with such content and substance and intellectual and emotional richness that it is able to scorn everything else. This is rarely achieved.

… My poetry has passed through the same stages as my life; from a solitary childhood and an adolescence cornered in distant, isolated countries, I set out to make myself a part of the great human multitude. My life matured, and that is all. It was in the style of the last century for poets to be tormented melancholiacs. But there can be poets who know life, who know its problems, and who survive by crossing through the currents. And who pass through sadness to plenitude.

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Paul Auster: ‘I Feel Utterly Astonished That We Could Have Come to This’

Photo by Francisco Huguenin Uhlfelder (CC BY 2.0)

In a candid interview at the Guardian, author Paul Auster — who turns 70 next month — discusses his breadth of work over the decades, American life and politics in the age of Trump, and his new novel, 4321, which he refers to as the biggest book of his life.

“I’ve been struggling ever since Trump won to work out how to live my life in the years ahead,” he says. And he has decided to act: “I have come to the conclusion to accept something that has been offered to me again and again over the years – to become president of PEN America. I have been vice-president, and secretary, but I’ve never wanted to take on the full burden. I’ll start early in 2018. I’m going to speak out as often as I can, otherwise I don’t think I can live with myself.”

In 4321 the young Fergusons react to landmark events of 1960s US history: the civil rights movement and JF Kennedy’s assassination, the Vietnam war and the student protests at Columbia University in 1968. I ask Auster if there any connections to be made between then and now. “Tumultuous as those times were, they weren’t as depressing as what’s going on today,” he reflects. “How little has changed in American life since then. Race is still a very big problem. Stupid foreign policy decisions are still being made. And the country is just as divided now as it was then. It seems as though America has always been split between the people who believe in the individual above everything else, and those people who believe we’re responsible for one another.”

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The Taste of Emotion: A Conversation with Dominique Crenn

All photos by Ed Anderson

Cody Delistraty | Longreads | January 2017 | 8 minutes (2,327 words)

 

Dominique Crenn did not follow the typical path to chef stardom. Instead of going to culinary school or working in Paris kitchens, she earned a business degree from the Academy of International Commerce and moved to San Francisco.

She immediately fell in love with it. “It was home, and I knew it,” she said. There, she worked under the legendary Jeremiah Tower and Mark Franz at the now-defunct Stars, a restaurant-cum-training ground for great chefs. (Restaurateur and Food Network host Mario Batali spent time in the Stars kitchen.) Two years later, she went to Indonesia, where she was the first-ever female executive chef at the InterContinental Hotel in Jakarta. There, she won her first Michelin star.

Crenn decided that she wanted to create a place that felt like a community, “that felt like a family,” so she moved back to San Francisco and opened Atelier Crenn in 2011.

Crenn’s food is highly inventive, mostly seafood, with combinations of traditional French ingredients mixed with American modernism. The menu — written entirely in poems — rotates constantly. A diner might receive a menu with a line of poetry that reads, “I touch the salted water, and hold the shell against my ear.” The corresponding dish is caviar, sea urchin, and oyster topped with cucumber “snow” (crème fraîche). A line like “and leaving a beautiful reflection” precedes a delicate Bluefin tuna belly. “There came a wave of oceanic delicateness,” is lobster in a yogurt broth with coconut.

In 2012, her culinary stardom took off. Atelier Crenn received a second Michelin star in its second year, making Crenn the first female chef at an American restaurant to earn two Michelin stars. Earlier this year, she was named “The World’s Best Female Chef.”

We discussed the role of memory and literature in food, the emotions of taste, the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated industry, fame, and how she, like Picasso, has created a fundamentally new style — where her canvas is a curious mix of ingredients and memory.

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