Andrei Codrescu

Andrei CodrescuEssayist, filmmaker, poet, novelist, university professor, magazine editor, radio commentator Andrei Codrescu has close to thirty published books to his credit, including the novels Blood Countess, Messiah, Hail Babylon, and his latest, Wakefield. He is a regular commentator on National Public Radio's All Things Considered, edits the literary magazine Exquisite Corpse, and holds a professorial chair in English at Louisiana State University. His peripatetic life has taken him from his birthplace, Romania, to a variety of locations mostly in the U.S., before finally settling in New Orleans.

Wakefield features Codrescu's trademark acerbic wit. To quote Chilean novelist Ariel Dorfman, " [Wakefield] is a hilarious—and yet grievously sobering—road trip told by a maniac and signifying everything. Codrescu made me laugh over and over again, while brilliantly revealing the dark and absurd underbelly of our crazy global landscape."

And poet WillisBarnstone nails it: "Andrei Codrescu has joined classicalwriters Tirso, Goethe, Hawthorne, and Borges as the contemporarymaster of devil covenants. Like Sinclair Lewis before him, his mainstreetreveals a wildly corrupt, entertaining, loony Odysseus on his picaresquejaunt through popular world culture. Most poignant and darkly compellingin Wakefield is his admixture of madness, cunning, andthe ultimate metaphysical sorrow of his journey, worth it, for whatalternative exists in a world of diabolical tricksters? Yet lifeprevails over death, over any pact, in this laughing encyclopediaof Wakefield's wanderings."

Robert Birnbaum: I look at the body of your workand your activities and, forgive the lame-ass question, but howmany of you are there?

Andrei Codrescu: Well, I have a little elf workshopbased on the Soviet style—it seems prolific, but look at musicians;they make 4 or 5 albums a year. They sit in on bands. They jam.It's just working.

RB: And you teach. You have a professorial chair at Louisiana StateUniversity.

AC: I do teach. But, you know, the higher your chair, the lessyou actually teach. [both laugh] I have a tall chair. [laughs] Ahigh chair.

RB: How much work does Exquisite Corpse require?

AC: It requires entirely too much work. We were in print for 16years and then went to the Internet, and that has its own set ofproblems. It's just as much work as doing it on paper. The journalbecame bigger and bigger on the Internet because you can put morein there—you can practically publish novels. I can do artgalleries—it turns out to be quite a bit, plus the fact thatpeople submit very easily by email. Submissions have quadrupled.So I have been reading a lot more.

RB: And you write?

AC: Yeah.

RB: I couldn't help but notice that on your itinerary—after here, you go back to New Orleans and you speak to the Glass Art Association. Is this where the character in Wakefield gets his occupation? Do you speak publicly a lot?

AC: Well, I lent Wakefield some of my speaking experience. Butthe fact is, I do. The National Glass Arts Association is havingits [annual] meeting and decided to ask me. One of the reasons thatdisparate people ask is because they will be sure that I know nothingabout [their thing].

RB: [laughs]

AC: So that's where I start out. I start reading and I immersemyself in the stuff, and by the time I actually open my mouth, Imight have some fresh ideas. This glass thing—I started readingthe histories of glass. I ended up with about 10 histories of glassat my bedside, and then I started getting catalogues of glass art,and then I started looking at glass in museums. And galleries. Andthen I started looking at glass on the street. I was going crazy.

RB: Why not do as the character Wakefield does—remain ignorantand just wing it?

AC: I would if I was as spontaneous and good as Wakefield. Thething is, I clutch if I don't have a written essay in front of me.The problem is actually I could have three or four basic speeches,which many speakers do—just change the first paragraph andsay, "I'm so glad to be in Cleveland." But I can't dothat. So when people call, they ask, "How about a title forthe lecture?" So I make one up, and that usually obliges meto write an entire essay.

RB: Do you like doing that?

I do teach. But you know, the higher your chair, the less youactually teach. I have a tall chair. A high chair.

AC: Well, I do. And the money is good.

RB: Forget the money.

AC: I do. It's an occasion for an essay. And if it's particularlyabout something that interests me but I don't know a lot about it,it's a good excuse to read a bunch of books.

RB: What's the most unusual group that you have spoken to?

AC: The one that I gave Wakefield, the Fire Sprinkler Association.

RB: [laughs] And there are really two competing groups?

AC: Apparently there are two fire sprinkler associations. One isunion and the other isn't. So I spoke to the non-union shops. Imade a whole lot out of the fact that the first radical union inthe United States was as a result of the disaster in New York, theShirtwaistFire. And nobody was too pleased. I ran to the bank with thatcheck.

RB: Does your writing fly under the radar of certain kinds of groups?Some religious fundamentalists might take exception to your characterizationsof the Devil and such.

AC: They should.

RB: Would those types read your book?

AC: I tried to get my driver in Chicago to leave one in the carseat because he was driving Pat Robertson around—I thoughtif he found it and read it he would be sufficiently offended. ButI did offend people on the radio with the same kind of thing. Atsome particular point about five or six years ago when Ralph Reedwas the head of the Christian Coalition, he promoted a real campaign,so there were 40,000 letters sent to affiliate NPR stations complainingabout my insult to the faith. Which was not an insult. I thoughtit was satirical, but somebody took offense.

RB: Who is a satirist in America these days?

AC: That's a good question.

RB: David Sedaris—but not really.

AC: That's a very good question. Almost everything [in America]contains its own satire—it’s satirical in itself. Soit's hard to get to what it is about it that is actually funny,or at least smirkable.

RB: The satirical tradition is dwindling.

AC: Everyone takes themselves so seriously.

RB: What about the image of the open, free society, practical welcoming,funny—

AC: It is those things. And it is also closed and bigoted and narrowminded and a whole lot of other things. It's true there is an awfullot of comedy, and there is good satire on television. The DailyShow is terrific. Where I was born and where I grew up, jokeswere the only oppositional culture, and in 1989 when the regimecollapsed, it was possible to have comedy on television. It waspossible to have satirical newspapers, and all of a sudden the cultureof the joke disappeared. So with it disappeared a kind of cohesionto the society which before was based on a kind of oral shared whisperingof bad things about NicolaeCeausescu and the Communist Party.

RB: Can you characterize what it was or is about the Eastern Europeanhumor or worldview that was so singular?

AC: Humor is a very deep-rooted mode of survival in those countries,for Romanians who kept being conquered over and over, who alwayshad to look over their shoulders to see who is coming over the hill.Not taking things so seriously was a form of, literally, surviving.So you could hide in your cave while the Visogoths were gallopingover your head on horseback and tell jokes until they passed. Thequintessential Romanian joke during the Ceausescu era was [toldby]—people waiting in line—If you are Romanian you canbe born in the city or born in the country. If you are born in thecity, that's fine. If you are born in the country, there are twopossibilities. You can stay home and die of hunger, or you can gointo the army. If you stay home and die of hunger, that's fine.If you go into the army, there are two possibilities. You couldget sent to the front, or you can stay behind a desk. If you staybehind a desk, that's fine. If you get sent to the front, thereare two possibilities: you could get wounded or be killed. If youare wounded, that's fine. If you get killed, there are two possibilities.You can get your own grave or get thrown into a common one. If youget your own, that's fine. If you are in a common one, there aretwo possibilities—people played this in line until they gotto the front. So death meant nothing. You somehow had to get pastthat.

RB: You told a joke, something to the effect, "People werewaiting in line and then all Jews were ordered to leave. The Jewsleft and everyone was still waiting. And finally the store closed.And someone complained, 'Those Jews have all the luck.'" [bothlaugh]

AC: That's pretty classic. The jokes in Eastern Europe shared prettymuch the same form—Kundera's wonderful novel The Joke,which talks about Czechoslovakia in the '60s and the '70s in whichthe entire society had become a joke. Nobody took anything seriouslyincluding the party leaders. Everybody told jokes, and the secretpolice spread them. So everybody was in on them, laughing, the wholething was collapsing.

codrescuRB:What is it like for a Romanian of Jewish origins to live in NewOrleans?

AC: New Orleans is a very, very different city than any other Americancity—than any other city I know. It's Caribbean, tropical.It's laissez-faire. Jews have very long history in New Orleans.Most of the great institutions including the hospitals and everythingelse was founded by Jews. [But] they don't really know what Jewsare. They think they are good citizens, and in the country thereare so many denominations of religions that they think Jews arejust another kind of people who go to church. Until more recentlywith David Duke and the KKK, there was no anti-Semitism around there.New Orleans has one of the oldest synagogues and Judah P. Benjaminwas the vice president of the Confederacy. So in the South, Jewshave long history, and it’s not a particularly bad place tobe a Jew. Not that I am a terribly overt Jew.

RB: The only references to your Jewish roots are your emigrationexperience—

AC: My mother and father are both Jews. But I didn't know my fathervery well and we emigrated from Romania. We were part of an exchange,a buyout really, because the State of Israel was paying Ceausescu$2000 a head for Jews. The West Germans were doing the same thingfor ethnic Germans. But in effect, Israel and Germany were buyingfreedom for people. But we never went to Israel because we spentour time in transit in Italy and then applied for American visasand came here.

RB: Your course through America has been New York, Baltimore,New Orleans—

AC: Actually, Detroit was my first American city that I came to—Iwas really nicely surprised coming from sunny Italy to frozen streetyDetroit. There was no center to the city. There were no beautifulwomen on mopeds and just cars going by on the freeway. And thenabout a year later the riots broke out in Detroit and—

RB: 1967?

AC: Yeah, there were tanks going up Woodworth Avenue, and the 82ndAirborne fired at any head they saw in the windows. I came froma nice little peaceful Communist country [laughs] to urban war.

RB: Detroit was the murder capital of the US for a time.

AC: It had that title in the '60s.

RB: And then you moved on to New York City?

AC: I went to New York to live on the Lower East Side where allthe writers were. I met Ted Berrigan and Ann Waldman and a lot ofpoets with whom I am still friends—the so-called Second GenerationNew York Poets. And then my then wife Alice and I went to San Franciscoand lived there for four years, and then three years in Sonoma County,north of San Francisco, and then Paris for one year, and then Baltimore,and that's when I started teaching and things of that kind.

RB: Being serious and focusing on a career—you're givingme a look when I say 'serious.'

AC: Well actually 'career' is the word that grabbedme. Yeah, we had a child and I started teaching in community collegesand a course here and there, and then I met John Barth at a partyin Baltimore, and I had a couple of books published by then. Sohe said, "How would you like to spend a year in residence atJohns Hopkins?" I said, "Oh yes." "But you knowit pays very little." It was a lot more than I was making atthe time. I jumped at it.

RB: Have you stayed in touch with Barth?

AC: Now and then. Actually I polemicized with him at some point.He wrote some essay in the NYT and I wrote a letter taking issueand he answered back, quite kindly. He is a generous man, and Ihave always liked him and his books.

RB: People don't polemicize here.

AC: They do in Europe. It's not that civilized yet here. They fight.They quarrel and they keep black lists on each other [both laugh].And they hate people intensely for saying the slightest cross wordabout their work.

RB: It was in Baltimore that you started the ExquisiteCorpse because you felt literary culture at the time was disappointing?Non-existent?

AC: I definitely felt there wasn't anything excitinggoing on in the literary magazines and the literary conversationin 1983. There were factions just as there are now and politics.And the so-called academic poets didn’t mean necessarily theywere teachers because of a certain style of traditions they followed.And then the so-called avant-garde and the New York Poets were ondifferent sides of the fence and I thought it might be interestingto polemicize. To actually make a journal that's alive. And it worked.In '83 I started the NPR work, too, and I started teaching, andso that was a big year.

RB: How do you see the literary conversation now, today?

AC: I think it's a lot better than it was. The Corpseprobably had a very small part in that. There are so many writersnow and so many ways of approaching craft and different areas ofit and sub-specialized genres. Like the third person memoir. [laughs]It's hard to talk about a state of literature and state of the artbecause there are so many being practiced and there are regionalscenes that are interesting.

RB: What you mean by literary conversation is actually the work.I was thinking also of the commentary and the critics and enthusiastsand such.

AC: I was thinking of the work and also of critics.Which still to a large extent don't exist. We have a lot of reviewers.There are some essayists who are in various in the quarterlies andthen the old standby war horses like the New York Review ofBooks and a few of these things. Really there is a kind of—thiscountry doesn't for the most part have a lively periodical criticismscene. In Romania, which obviously doesn't have the vastness ofthe resources as American literature, there is a great deal of attentionpaid to poets and to writers by critics, and these critics don'tdo anything else but write weekly considerations of new books ofpoetry, and they do it at quite an intelligent level. They readwell and they are conscious of their own critical tradition in doingso. But they pay attention to contemporary literature. Particularlyto young poets. In this country, if you publish a book of poetry,it sinks like a stone.

RB: There is that conventional wisdom that more people write poetrythan read it.

AC: Doubtless.

RB: April was National Poetry Month and—

Almost everything [in America] contains its own satire—it's satirical in itself. So it's hard to get to what it is about it that is actually funny, or at least smirkable.

AC: It was also National Fireman month and soon. [both laugh]

RB: National Chicken-plucking month. We have Pinsky and Billy Collinsand some recognition for Heaney. But doesn't it seem like poetryis more accessible and thus should be more popular?

AC: It's a matter of tradition, and we don’t have that here.The Russians and the Romanians recite poetry since they can opentheir mouths. They are told poems. It's big oral culture. Here wehave other things. You talk to the kids and they can recite commercialsfrom the minute they open their eyes. They know all kinds of ditties.They know an incredible number of songs. Any kid of whatever ageknows a whole range of songs. That's lyrical. It serves that function.Poetry here—anyone who writes poetry seriously is more orless in a 20th century idiom, and it’s one that is becomingincreasingly difficult. It's not something that is really sexy oraccessible to someone just beginning to enjoy text. It is somethinglearned. It's an acquired taste for sure.

RB: Of all the things that you do, the thing you most identifywith is being a poet. Is that right?

AC: I do. I do. I started writing when I was fairly young. Romanianslike their poets precocious. I was 16 and they liked me and, ofcourse, there was a great cachet with girls, to write poems andhave dewy eyes and long hair and a slightly dissolute appearance.

RB: Smoke Galoises and wear a beret?

AC: If you could afford it. We smoked the most vile brand of cigarettes.[laughs] I started writing early on and thought it was the highestform of literary expression.

RB: Why did you think that?

AC: It was quickest and most unintelligible to the philistines.It created a sense of snobbishness and elevation immediately.

RB: Exactly the reverse of why I thought poetry might be accessibletoday.

AC: We did it to make ourselves totally different. Also becausethere was a great deal of poetry that was forbidden in those daysand it was a sense of distinction to actually have access to itand it was a language that burned very intensely and was highlylyrical. It was the language of adolescence. Your hormones and yourmysticism woke up at the same time. And so we were about 17 andmade a pact if any one of us writes a novel we are not to speakto each other again.

RB: [laughs]

AC: And I haven't. [laughs]

RB: You've lost your childhood friends.

AC: I've lost my friends. They quit everything, not just poetry.Some of them don't write anymore and some are dead.

RB: How do you decide what form you are going to work in?

AC: I carry a notebook for ideas, and some of them seem to be poetrybecause they have a nice sound or seem to somehow become a poem.It’s not that often. But then the essays have to be fairlyarticulate, be composed of complete sentences. [laughs] Those are—

RB: —and be intelligible.

AC: Right. Intelligible, to some degree. They are somewhat deliberate.And then, of course, travelogues are just keeping a very good diary,and in the case of Ay Cuba! I went there with a photographerand a producer from NPR. Road Scholar, there was a filmcrew along, so I kept a diary of those adventures. The novels aresomething else altogether. I think they are the most capacious form.You can put everything in them. You can put travel or poems or recipesor whatever but just be able to hang them by some interesting narrativethread.

RB: Would it be fair to say that the writing of Wakefieldwas fun? The evidence is that it's funny. Was it fun?

AC: It was. It took a long time, but the mostfun part was before 9/11, because the whole book is about the periodat the end of the '90s, which is now a guilded age as Mark Twaincalled it. Or Great Gatsby. It's a time that is very specifichistorically defined. But then 9/11 happened, and I realized thata lot of those ideas that were in there in a way contained thisominous feeling. The character and those surrounding him have thisidea that something is going to break and live with a sense of doomeven in the middle of this terrible affluence. Then the editingtook place mostly after. I had to resist the temptation to insertideas into the book to make myself seem more omniscient than I reallyam. But yeah, it was fun up to that point. Then I really struggledwith a few rewrites, and then I just finally went back to what wasthere and that was that.

RB: My awareness of American literature dims significantly as wemove back past the mid-20th century. Wakefield was a novelby Nathaniel Hawthorne?

AC: Actually it is a really interesting story. It was a very shortstory, three pages in Twice Told Tales called "Wakefield."And Hawthorne picked it up from a random item in a London newspaperand it was about a London clerk who goes to work one day and doesn’tcome back for 20 years. He knocks back on his door and Hawthornedoesn't tell you what happens after he knocks. His entire storyhas this brilliant series of questions really about what Wakefielddid for 20 years. He doesn't try to make a psychological nutcaseout of Wakefield. He is just wondering what he did. This is a timewithout television. He speculates he took rooms across the streetfrom his wife. And he watched.

RB: Which your Wakefield does, in a way, in this story.

AC: Right. A lot of writers are fascinated by this story. Borgesloved this story. And an Argentine writer wrote a book called Wakefield'sWife.

RB: What was his name?

AC: I can't remember. The story held a lot of fascination and whenI thought how hard it was in the period of the '90s to find an authenticlife because everything was moving so fast and things were so fancifuland strange.

RB: And as you say everything seemed to contain its own caricature.

AC: Right. So when Wakefield is called upon by the Devil to show hiscards and find an authentic life, he has a hell of a hard time doingit. Because he is still traveling through a never-never land.

RB: I take it you didn’t want to name the cities he travelsto in the story in keeping with your restraint in using brand namesand proper nouns?

AC: I wanted to do regions for a couple of reasons. One, I wantedPortland and Seattle in the Northwest to be one place. The otherreason was because I had a dim idea of the continental U.S. as abody and this was before the Homeland Security Office got into theact. And I wanted to figure out where the regional borders were,if there were any. And what the borders were at the time when globalismwas the word of the day, and the borders were so quickly obsolete,and the flows of trade were making new borders so people were talkingabout the Pacific economic region and this and that. People werelosing completely awareness of the continent. And now of coursethere is a whole new paradigm at work where you have the physicalborders are bigger than ever and tensions going against them aremaking a whole new—

RB: There are books regularly written about life at the U.S.- Mexicanborder. But none that I know of about the U.S.-Canadian border.

AC: The Mexican border now runs through every city. It runs throughAtlanta. It runs through Houston. It runs through New York. TheCanadian border ran all over the place for a long time—assoon as Peter Jennings started doing the American news, the Canadianborder moved to New York. These borders now run through these placesbecause there are so many immigrants of various kinds—illegalimmigrants and so on. Then there is also the paranoia that is beingfostered now by Homeland Security Office—everyone is veryconscious of the border and making the border is just outside yourwindow. If you walk out of your house, god forbid you might findterrorists who are outside because that’s where the borderis now. That kind of thinking resembles Communist thinking actuallyfrom the days when I was growing up; everyone was paranoid evento think stuff inside themselves. So this kind of shifting of theborder, then you'll keep moving the border inside ourselves. Andwhen that happens a lot of inner terrorists are going to be born.I want to write a poetic investigation of the idea of borders.

RB: It seems to me when you do a movie such as Road Scholar,you can't not echo the parable of the three blind men and the elephant.This is a very large country with a diversity that Americans can'tseem to get a handle on. And the conventional representation isone that wants to emphasize the homogeneity of the country.

AC: I was hoping to do the opposite. To meet people who are outsidethe mainstream. I met little religious groups and communities in—

RB: Such as the Sikhs in New Mexico?

AC: Yeah, people who live in other ways than in traditional Americansin the suburbs who are in regular families. The Bruderhof, the ChristianCommunists and the Sikhs and all sorts of people. And so I got—thisis what made America interesting. These kinds of people can actuallyoperate here and do so unbothered as if they were back where theycame from, where they would probably be at war with each other.Differences can coexist is one generalization that I found thatworks.

RB: It's a fact that appears true and yet it seems unacknowledged.People saw Road Scholar and felt good about the pictureit showed and then returned to seeing the U.S. terrain as Wal-Mart,McDonald's and endless strip malls.

AC: If you get off the highway. Things have changed considerablysince 93, and there are a lot more Wal-Marts now. It's harder andharder to find a contrarian community that can resist modern America.

RB: Some municipality just rejected a Wal-Mart.

AC: Yeah in California they did. Somewhere else too.

RB: The subject of the multiplicity of Americas came up in a [recent]talk with Jim Harrison. He wanted, for some, reason to assert therewere seven Americas.

AC: I think there are 18 [both laugh]. I'm doing Jim a little betterhere. 11 more, Jim!

RB: What purpose does it serve to see the U.S.A. as a unity?

AC: It serves the purposes of rallying behind the war. Ideas ofnationalism and who we are immediately take on a different—

RB: As in, "We are good and they are bad."

AC: We are good because we are a democracy and we are tolerant,which are true things. But they are not bad because they haven'tquite figured it out. The government may be very bad, but thereis a sense in which being American is different and is real. I knowthis because I am an American and I go to Europe and I feel claustrophobic.I can only be there about three months. I love the old buildingsand I love my hometown; I love certain things about it. But thereare unspoken codes of manners. There are still social taboos, thingsthat I forgot. And they are still there. I don't recognize themanymore. I don't know the appropriate response to certain thingsand I can't wait to escape. I come back and I feel a sense of relief—likeI can stretch my legs.

RB: Are you saying that no matter where you are in this countrythere is less protocol and social formality and rigidity?

AC: Oh definitely. If you look at America from a European pointof view, one of the things you see immediately is informality anddirectness. Romanians, for example, don’t know how to say'no.' They don't have a direct approach to questions. And they makedecisions in a completely different way. They are always amazed.They quite often consider Americans rude. Because they get rightto the point.

RB: This being a week of Ronald Reagan's beatification, someonewrote to remind Americans that Reagan had the audacity to claimthere was no word for 'freedom' in the Russian language.

In this country, if you publish a book of poetry, it sinks like a stone.

AC: I don't remember that. I know he did say pollutioncomes from trees. [both laugh] He was quite memorable.

RB: I looked at the dust jacket of Wakefield, and it'san impressive array of writers who have blurbed your novel. CanI assume you know these people?

AC: Well, they are people whose writing I admire. Some of them—Imet Elizabeth McCracken once in Prague. I don't know her. But Ireally like her books.

RB: Jonathan Raban.

AC: Actually, I haven't ever met him. I would like to meet Jonathan.He lives in Seattle. I am going there, so I hope to meet him.

RB: Mary Karr?

AC: Her book, Liar's Club, which I think is exceptionallywonderful.

RB: Ariel Dorfman, the Chilean writer.

AC: —who was quite well regarded there before he had to gointo exile under the Pinochet regime.

RB: How did these people come to read Wakefield?

AC: I sent them the manuscript and they just generously respondedwrote quotes. This was before the galleys, before I had a publisher.

RB: They must really like you. Reading a manuscript is laborious.

AC: Well, I mean Tom Robbins is a friend. I wrote to him becausehe put me in one of his books. In a list of extra-terrestrials.[both laugh]

RB: You didn’t take that personally.

AC: Not really. I liked that. So then I wrote to him, and he isa great correspondent. He is just wonderful, an epistolary genius.He writes wonderful letters.

RB: Letters or emails?

AC: He writes letters as well.

RB: In a 100 years will there be many collected literary correspondences?

AC: I think email has certainly shortened correspondence and shortenedthe time it took to respond. If you did take time you took timeto write about more things. It’s changed but there are peoplewho still write emails as if they were letters.

RB: Maybe. But I don’t see much evidence. Rapidity seemsto foster a guiltless sloppiness.

AC: Before email people used to write each other letters. You'dget letters from home if you were in college—a five-page letterfrom Mom and Dad with all kinds of advice. That sort of thing isgone.

RB: I asked before about your view of the literary conversation.Not much of a critical community here.

AC: No there isn’t much. There are many, many reasons forthat. One of the big ones is that people are specialized. They writeto their gang. And they don't pay any attention to books that falloutside either their aesthetic or their circle of acquaintances.

RB: It's perhaps early in the game, but I pay attention to [andto some degree, participate in] a burgeoning community of literaryweblogs and web sites. And many are taking place at a very intelligentand dedicated level. And yes, there is still a kind of cliqueishness.But it seems smart.

AC: It's possible. I am not a big fan of the blogs. They take toomuch time. Certainly the people who make them take time, their entiretime is spent—I think of them as spider webs.

RB: [laughs]

AC: You have the spider in the center of the blog. And people getcaught in there. And get eaten.

RB: [laughs] I think 'blog' is an ugly word. It would be wonderfulif someone came up with a different verb. Personally, I like someof the voices and am engaged by those voices. And I think it letsthe air out of the big institutional gatekeepers.

AC: Well, the New York Times Book Review has decayed considerablyif it ever was anything. It had periods when it had some life init. But now it's a dead magazine. It's way behind other sectionsof the newspaper. The style section is ten thousand times more interestingthan the Book Review.

RB: Occasionally they will cover something of a literary natureand it will be more lively. I'd rather read about Chip Kidd's refrigeratorthan the things in the Book Review.

AC: Yeah, it's predictable and it yellows quickly. But it doeshave a tremendous influence because what is left of general readershipif there is such a thing, of people who just buy books because theyhave read something about it, the Times does influencethem.

RB: It is a good thing there are new publishing houses: MacAdam/Cageout of Denver, Soft Skull out of Brooklyn, Melville House out ofNew Jersey.

AC: Dave Eggers out in San Francisco—McSweeney's.

RB: He [Eggers] collaborated with MacAdam/Cage on Stephen Elliot'sbook.

AC: There is a lot of hope that the Internet is breaking this down.It happened in music. Also the technology for making these thingsis cheaper. People figure out very quickly how to distribute them.The big publishers don’t have the slightest idea which books[will] sell.

RB: Right. Just like in music.

AC: They put it out there and have no idea why people pick it upand it's kind of a 19th century way of operating. I think otherbusinesses have figured out efficiently how to distribute the productsor who likes it, why they like it. I don’t think it's thecase with books.

RB: Is a dilemma of the book business that everyone should be ableto publish and on the other hand that there are too many books beingpublished?

AC: There is no question about it. Also the big publishers havea scatter shot approach. They just publish a lot of things.

RB: I just read, for example, that Simon & Schuster published1200 books last year.

AC: The two novels I published with Simon & Schuster got no distribution at all. No marketing ideas—I wrote three books that Simon & Schuster published. Blood Countess got some attention because they figured out some niche. Audiences who like sadistic countesses and flowing blood and long fingernails. But Messiah, which I love and think is one of my best books, a novel set in New Orleans at the turn of the millennium, I think, they were literally afraid of the Christian backlash in 2000. I wish I published it later. They just pushed it under the rug. And then Casanova in Bohemia, which was the last book they published and an amazing story about Giacomo Casanova set in the 18th century, a great philosopher and adventurer. They didn't know how to sell it. And now all of a sudden, there are these movies and TV series and Casanova is being given his due—

RB: And there have been other recent novels about Casanova.

AC: There are novels about Casanova. I thought I was doing somethinginteresting and new because it was based on the last 20 years ofCasanova's life, which are not in his memoirs. And that's anotherbook [with which] they didn't do anything. And they didn't eventake out an ad. I don't know why they published it. They shoot themout there and hope one of them sticks. But I have them back now.I will republish them.

RB: I gather from the way you talk about Wakefield youcompleted the book and then sold it?

AC: I had most of it written. Unlike the Blood Countessand Casanova, which are ideas I sold [and] then wrote thebooks. This time I decided it was better if I had a finished manuscriptand then I had some friends and writers I admire read it and saythings about it and then I could shop it as a whole package. Andthen an editor wouldn't have so much work. Also, if you don’tengage in those endless discussions about which way it should gobefore it even exists—

RB: [laughs] Can I assume that this is a book you are happy with?

It's not that civilized yet here. They fight. They quarrel and they keep black lists on each other. And they hate people intensely for saying the slightest cross word about their work.

AC: I'm very happy with it. Because I can readfrom it. I have been doing all these readings and it sounds funnyto me and I see people laughing and enjoying it. I am getting newpleasure.

RB: Is that not part of what you do when you write, read it aloud?

AC: No, I don't. In fact the audio version of the book is justout, and it's an actor reading it because it's too much work forme.

RB: So what's next for you?

AC: Let's see, what am I going to do? I want to write another novelbased on the life of Tristan Tzara, the Romanian-born Jewish worldshaker and founder of dada. And also an amazing poet, which is somethingnobody knows. He was born Sammy Rosenstock in Moinesti Romania,and went to Switzerland and was in the Resistance in WW II, andbecame a high-ranking member of the French Communist Party afterthe war, and had these transformations that went along with thecentury—up to the mid- century. He changed languages and Iidentify with him.

RB: What claims will you make about this fictional Tzara?

AC: I don’t want to write a biography because it's too confining.I want to be able to imagine certain periods of his life that haveno record. I will try and find as many letters—after 1951there is very little. He became quite private. He published somepoets, but nothing much is known about his life. I will find outwhat I can in the way I did it about Casanova. I'll try to be asaccurate as I can.

RB: Why do you need to be accurate in a fiction?

AC: Because the facts themselves made that life coherent. Or madethat life, anyway. I think it important not to deviate too muchfrom that. Then you just create—then they [your subject] shouldhave another name.

RB: You are obliged, once you use a real name, to adhere to thefacts?

AC: Yeah. I am not sure I'm going to —

RB: What if you used his real name?

AC: Sammy. And just told it from his point of view. That's a greatidea —actually tell it from inside his head.

RB: Do you envision doing another road trip?

AC: Actually, now that you ask, there is a movie in the works.It's not about, but the center of it is the Mississippi River asa defining body of the North American continent. I want to takea trip going both up the river and following the blues and the musicand then down the river following the decay of the political culture,something I call "downflow ethics" from Minneapolis toNew Orleans. There is quite a bit of it planned, and as soon asmy good producer Brian finishes the money he has been raising forthe past three years we are going to do it.

RB: Great, something to look forward to. Thanks very much.

AC: Thank you.

© 2004 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing

Share this story