Thomas Beller

Thomas BellerThomas Beller ( is the author of a novel, The Sleep-Over Artist, a story collection, Seduction Theory, and recently, How to Be a Man: Scenes From a Protracted Boyhood. He is a contributing editor at The Cambodia Daily, a co-founding editor of Open City, and co-editor of With Love and Squalor, a book of essays about J. D. Salinger. He also runs the literary web-zine Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood.

In the review that Thomas Beller references in our talk below, Jonathan Yardley correctly concludes, “There's not really a whole lot about how to be a man, but few readers are likely to care.” And most incisively he nails Beller (or at least the Beller I have come to know):

Thomas Beller is a smart, funny, interesting guy who labors under the misfortune of knowing that he's a smart, funny, interesting guy, but for the most part he manages to avoid the pitfalls -- narcissism, self-absorption, self-congratulation -- that such knowledge often creates. To be sure, he is an accomplished navel-gazer -- "How to Be a Man" is all about Me, Me, Me -- but he is disarmingly self-deprecatory and gets his laughs, of which the book has a number, mainly at his own expense.

This is my third chat with Thomas Beller—the first back was back in 1995—and, as he correctly notes, each has taken place in radically altered (from the previous) circumstances. As that adds a subject to our already full agenda, I expect that Tom Beller and I will be talking again, perhaps sooner than 2010.

Robert Birnbaum: I won’t ask you to repeat what you were saying off camera.

Thomas Beller: I’ll say it again. All the things one associates with the mechanics of writing, I can’t do.

RB: You can’t type?

TB: That I can do well, although with two fingers. I can’t spell. I can’t do handwriting. It’s not that I—grammar as it applies to syntax and cadence, I’d like to think I can do. Grammar as one understands it apart from the act of writing sentences, I’ve never—

RB: —you can’t diagram a sentence?

TB: No and I was very late in coming to an understanding of the components.

RB: The parts of speech?

TB: Yeah, still, yeah. I’m still recovering from—

RB: What is it you think you can do [laughs] as a writer?

TB: Hmm.

RB: [still laughing] What do you bring to the table?

TB: Another thing I can’t do is answer questions that directly. But I can tell you apropos of what I can do as a writer that I did a radio interview with the North Carolina NPR affiliate. And the guy who conducted it was not a local. He was subbing. He had come down from Washington. A very nice guy, very intelligent. Had read at least a respectable amount of the book. And understandably wanted me to discuss some of the thematic offshoots of what that issue [raised by How to be a Man] might bring up. I just went into this thing of what I do—I just won’t do what is asked of me. I did have things to say and afterwards this very nice producer said, “You know, you wrote a really good book and you are really self deprecating in your book and that’s great, but when you go on the radio you have to get over that and say that you wrote a good book and say what it’s about.”

RB: As you were saying that, it occurred to me that I might have the same tendency—that is, not answering a question directly. Except maybe a yes or no.

TB: Even then. [chuckles]

RB: Sometimes the question doesn’t stimulate or seems to call for a pat response, “Yes, John, I wrote this book because…”

TB: This just gets back to what I bring to the table in terms of writing—there is some little dissenting sort of—

RB: Bad boyism?

TB: Something in me that is, to put it that way makes it about a personality, I think unfortunately it’s probably a little bit more innate. Let me just go stream of consciousness here. I read, against all my normal inclinations, a book by Cormac McCarthy this summer.

RB: The newest one?

TB: No, I had never read anything by him and I was going on a honeymoon to Corsica via Rome and in a used bookstore in Rome I picked up Blood Meridian. I wrote a little about this for journals I kept for Slate—which is its own weird thing to take writing assignments on your honeymoon. But, anyway, that’s another thing. I mention all this by way of saying I had all this reluctance about him because of this kind of aura of macho cowboy fetishism in his most fierce proponents, I was always somewhat suspicious of them as being or having a slightly, and here I am going to antagonize many good people, but having a compensatory vibe about them, somehow. So—I’m reading this book and it has an incredible incantatory spell and the violence is sooooo magnificently over the top and—

RB: And it’s funny.

TB: Funny?

RB: There are sections that are very funny.

TB: Yeah, you’re right. I laughed although it hadn’t occurred to me to think of it as funny. More as nervous laughter when confronted with the absurd luridness of—

RB: In the beginning, in the opening scene. Somebody is tagged with—

TB: Yes, the preacher is slandered by the judge—but even there it’s funny because you are watching someone just dissolve into their death, basically. As everyone does in that book. But I am only bringing this crazy thing up because in the middle of this whole crazy thing that was so without psychology and even that’s not the word but without that sort of tender awareness of the emotions and conflicted ambivalences that any individual might be going through—it’s a much more gestural book. He suddenly has this riff about the main guys; the kid’s not having had a father and a few sentences on this condition of fatherlessness and one of the things he said was about what he missed. [pauses] The things that struck me was not all the causative role modelly things. Or even the idea that a father would provide a screen against which to revel, which is a more interesting thing. But he said the kid had not had the opportunity to witness the father getting in the way of himself—creating his own obstacles.

Obviously the whole culture of coaching and prepping and that sort of intense PR stuff, how to talk on TV and the radio, is disgusting as it applies to a real person, to writers.

RB: Very human thing.

TB: Not answering the question. And I thought, “Aw, that is really perceptive because that’s its own sort of gift.” And this winds me back to the North Carolina interview because the guy wanted me and this was also the first one I did. He seemed to want to guide me towards—

RB: Everyone’s a coach, an expert. It’s one of the reasons I find the book tour to be an increasingly less interesting place to converse with authors. They are consciously or unconsciously being coached and coaxed to be on a charm initiative—

TB: —well for what it’s worth, this woman was smart and nice. She was the producer, not the on-air person. But her point to me was basically, stripping away the well-meaningness, “Yeah, you’re on the show to sell your book and you can’t apply the same thing you used to write your book—you need to find a different source with which to talk about your book.” And so that reiterates what you just said. But I am of two minds about that. Obviously the whole culture of coaching and prepping and that sort of intense PR stuff, how to talk on TV and the radio, is disgusting as it applies to a real person, to writers. Also, you have to forgive the writers of the world for living in the world.

RB: Well, they’re not crimes of a high order—just unfortunate graceless notes. Speaking of which.

TB: Speaking of graceless notes?

RB: Yeah, I have been collecting signatures of people who have been photographed by Marian Ettlinger, having them sign her book.

TB: That’s great. Chip Kidd started doing that at her book party.

RB: He got that idea from me!

TB: There you go, let it be said right here—

RB: I began to look at proliferation of her author portraits as a sign of the publicity machine.

TB: Marianne Ettlinger is not the machine.

RB: She’s an element. Get the hot celebrity photographer that all the hot authors that the publishers are spending money on are using. Have Chip Kidd design your book cover—am I wrong?

TB: Those are two—Marianne Ettlinger and Chip Kidd are artists in their own right. Who have this idiosyncratic style that plays. But it’s a style that’s authentic to them. It’s a sensibility that’s their authentic thing. The other category you are talking about, the coaching, is this surreal, TV-inspired thing in which things are not presented as they are-- like a chintzy game show set with like weird wax in someone’s hair and everything looks absurd, but they are presented to play on a screen, and to say that’s done in bad faith is too melodramatic a way of putting it. It’s its own fake bullshit thing. But Chip and Marianne are people with their own sensibility that’s generated some energy around them and it seems to be getting response. Marianne is a bohemian. She is not some slick corporate person. She is this person who figured out what she wanted to do rather late and has a very human quality as a person and takes pictures without using any—talk about coaching which by extension you mean the non-verisimilitude of things. She won’t use any artificial lighting. She would come into a room like this and use an old-fashioned camera—the least high-tech thing. A sure sign of having arrived is, of course, being attacked. There was big piece about her in the New York Times Book Review a little while after her book came out that accused her of all kinds of trickery in terms of how she presented people.

RB I think it started before that by Dennis Loy Johnson—you may know him, Dennis from the website MobyLives?

TB: The guy who, thank god, started using a middle name—I certainly know his website. For a while he didn’t use a middle name and I might have had an exchange with him and said something like “There is another Dennis Johnson— you must distinguish yourself.”

RB: That Denis Johnson, the writer, spells his name with one “n”.

TB: That’s a very small point. [both laugh]

RB: Dennis excoriated her before her book came out. I happen to loathe that style. I’m sure she’s a nice person but she’s become a symbol of some marketing person saying, “Here’s the package, get Ettlinger, get Kidd, get Goldberg McDuffie and get this and get that.” It’s not her fault that she is part of that.

TB: The sense that you have of this homogenized corporatized packaging that takes place in publishing is totally correct. Chip Kidd and Marianne Ettlinger, to the extent that they yet might fit in to that, they are not the emblems of that. They are individuals. It’s funny that we are talking about her pictures because so many things are preconceived in this horrible way but so many things are so accidental even—I’m thinking of—all of sudden I’m full of a lot of thoughts. The thrust of it is that I want to talk about my own book, if not about writing, but it’s so tempting to talk about the other ephemera that surrounds it.

RB: Let’s try to find our way back.

TB: But I did want to defend Marianne because she is not a corporate person.

RB: Gary Fisketjon was one of the first people to use her for people like Richard Ford and Cormac McCarthy, which I must say were elegant portraits—

TB: And Raymond Carver, not too bad.

bellerRB: But then she became really rigidly stylized, so much so that the photos seem to be visual embalmings.

TB: Yes, there is that quality.

RB: Okay, we should move on. Here’s what struck me after reading these pieces and listening to you last night and then recalling the last fiction I read by you. What’s the difference between your fiction and these things you are calling essays?

TB: Humph. Well, these things that I call essays I am prepared to stand up and say this is me writing about something that happened to me and the fiction, I am not prepared to do that. The fiction is often informed by autobiography a lot but it’s twisted enough so that I want to take that feeling of responsibility out of it. It’s true that sometimes my fiction swerves into this essayistic discussing mode and some of these pieces function like short stories, I think.

RB: I am not concerned with the autobiography in any writing because I presume that somehow it infiltrates every writer’s work. But in impact, style, and voice in so many things I find this writing indistinguishable—it’s not a criticism. Maybe it’s because I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and talking with you a few times.

TB: Well, it’s by me.

RB: I guarantee that you read an essay by Cynthia Ozick and then a piece of fiction and it presents differently.

TB: True. Some writers, who go both ways as it were, use the essay as a means for talking about ideas primarily, I use the nonfiction form as a means for—it’s another way of telling stories, but I am telling it in a somewhat different voice. Actually it’s probably a little less personal. That’s my take on it. The essays in some ways are less personal than the fiction. Because I am standing up there and there is no barrier between what’s going and—

RB: There’s no barrier so you are trying to create a barrier? Or assume one?

TB: Yeah, it’s almost in the very act of saying, “Here I’m going to write about myself” is when I actually like the most privacy or want to just—I don’t know, have some desire to have a gentlemanly presence and be discrete suddenly come over me—

RB: Why not fashion, if you feel it necessary, some kind of hybrid description like—

TB: I think it says memoir on the back of this book. But it’s not. A memoir is a portion of person’s life and this is different. It’s a kind of weird mosaic thing that I seem to be, I would say drawn to, but that’s too calculated—I seem to end up in this kind of quasi-collage structure because of the reasons we were discussing in the beginning—certain mechanical facilities that I don’t seem to have.

RB: Refresh my memory. You didn’t attend a writing program?

TB: I did and I got a huge amount out of it, too.

RB: Where?

TB: Columbia.

RB: Who was there when you were?

TB: Robert Towers, Phillip Lopate, Susan Minot who gave me an excellent piece of advice for a graduate student which I will repeat, “Stop thinking about getting published all together and stop sending things out while you are here.” Which was great advice because for a year—

RB: This was twelve years ago?

TB: A long time ago.

RB: No one would follow that advice today.

TB: Really? Why is 1989 or ’90 so different than 2005?

RB: The gap between diminished expectations and personal needs—why are there more people in writing schools today?

TB: But there were more people in writing schools ten or fifteen years ago than the ten or fifteen years before that. The writing school issue is simply one of those things that as a phenomenon, it’s weird and you can critique it very validly. On a person-by-person level, it’s not a phenomenon, it’s an individual person’s experience. It can be positive. Just the other day a friend of a friend called me and asked about writing school. And I found myself saying of all these, not exactly discouraging [things], but pointing out some of the difficult aspects of the whole process and the money it costs—

RB: The claim that writing schools have destroyed or vastly diminished American fiction is too easy to make and in my mind hard to substantiate. And beside the point.

TB: I don’t know how people would take it now but I did go to an MFA program and it was great because I just learned so much about literature that I hadn’t read before.

RB: Why didn’t you just go to—

TB: The library? I don’t know.

RB: A grad course in literature?

TB: Because MFA programs teach literature now in the way that graduate programs have somewhat abdicated. I think, I am not that so into the academy that I can be authoritative about this. It’s sort like the difference between doing Ph.D. in art history and a Masters in how to paint. And it’s much more sensitive to the excitement and pleasures of books; and I took these classes with Richard Locke; and Robert Towers was such an interesting, sensitive, scholarly, funny guy whose professional life was mostly as a reviewer, not so much as a novelist himself. He was really eye opening. I don’t know how the hell we are talking about graduate school but when I think about that period of time, it’s not only about the workshop experience I had, which was good too, but you come out of college, in my case I felt like, a life form had made it onto the beach in terms of literature.

RB: [laughs]

TB: Okay, I’d read Shakespeare and whatever— a few other essential things in the history of literature, but it wasn’t until graduate school that I was barraged with Peter Handke, Donald Barthelme, Milan Kundera, Chekov, Dostoyevsky, and all that. There’s so much—how am I rambling on about this? [chuckles]

RB: Why, do you think there is a point to this conversation? One reason I am interested in the school issue is that you are also editing a couple of things and wonder what your experience is—what’s coming at you? What can you say about what is being sent your way?

TB: I could say, “Hello.” I don’t know. I have a huge reluctance to get meta on that level. I feel like that [about submissions] a little bit the way I feel about writing—which is to say, you just try and then it seems hopeless and then suddenly there are little moments of breakthrough and hopefulness and you get really excited about it.

RB: Are you getting a lot of good stuff, a little bit?

TB: It always feels like nothing really exciting or galvanizing until the thing that is. And that’s the truth in every situation including one’s own work. Like that piece you liked in Ploughshares. There is an interesting story, I think, behind that. I tend to spend a long time before I am comfortable with something to publish it. Which sucks for me because also it means that an early draft will go out into the world and get shot back to me and I’ll sit down for years later, not working on it every day for years, I might just leave it in a drawer for a year. That piece in Ploughshares [“Sally the Slut”] probably saw its earliest draft in 1995.

The sense that you have of this homogenized, corporatized packaging that takes place in publishing is totally correct. Chip Kidd and Marianne Ettlinger, to the extent that they yet might fit in to that, they are not the emblems of that.

RB: Hmph.

TB: And then I really worked on in it in 1996 and 1997 and then I hated it so much and it wasn’t until—it’s a little fuzzy now‚ 2002 or 03 that I took it out of the drawer and worked on it again and showed it to this guy. This poet named Rodney Jack—who did this bizarre edit on it. In which he basically, with this very light pencil, copyedited it a little bit, made a few little remarks, and it was like going to the fiction chiropractor.

RB: [laughs]

TB: The whole vertebrae snapped—cut this out, add that, and Amy Bloom had a few more suggestions. I am not imperious when it comes to editing—I need help. Suggestions are good. And I am glad you liked the story, but that wasn’t something that just popped out.

RB: Remind me of how the guest edit works at Ploughshares. Did Amy contact you?

TB: No, I heard she was doing it and I just sent it in. I had been in Ploughshares before, in ’95. It’s intense to be, this is my third book, these interesting things—like I have now seen you at five-year intervals, three times. Or going to Newtonville Books five years after I first came. After that first reading we went and drank bourbon really intensely and he [Tim Huggins] gave me this like—we were both really pumped—and he was like, “Most people don’t know how to do bookstores.”—He’s from Alabama. “I’m going to get it together and make this work.” And we were like, “Yeah!” Drinking and knocking it back. Five years later, here he is. And talking about Ploughshares, after a ten year interval. You’re asking me questions—I want to bring something up to you. You have an interesting theme with some of your writers. I read, I don’t read everything you do but I read a number of your interviews. And the theme was best encapsulated by something Russell Banks said.

RB: Hmm.

TB: He talked about how people—and you are included—are obsessed with the delivery system. Which I took to mean both the stuff you read about all the time, Google and the Internet and portable electronic devices and—

RB: Distribution and—

TB: —the business aspect. And the business aspect turns into the mechanics of the editorial process and then—I’m fascinated by that stuff, too. I think of it as a vice. Almost an extension of looking at the sports pages.

RB: A guilty pleasure, I suppose.

TB: It’s a weird impulse, I suppose. It stems a little bit from the idea that once you understand the mechanics of the movement you drop down into the mechanic of the interior movement and the motivations. It’s a psychoanalysis of distribution—the motives and the methods of it all. I laughed when I read that because he’s absolutely right. I share that, too. I’m not above it.

RB: On a conscious level I find myself not wanting to get into the external industrial aspects of the book world. The other stuff is harder and frankly in a conversation I am apt to take what is given. I am not inclined to consciously direct to or from something. I remember—because really who could forget—early in my doing this, I would occasionally cause someone to cry. Not because I was asking cruel and accusatory questions. But somehow we quickly went to something so private and personal and some raw nerves or open wounds were probed. Okay, my turn not to know the point of this—

TB: This is a very confessional act and invariably—it’s great that you do these things, there is not much competition in the “interviewing writers of serious intent” field—but there is this very confessional element.

RB: The two people who end up sitting in for the conversations that I have care about the stuff. There’s a lot of stuff that is covered quickly. Is this mid-career for you?

TB: Holy shit! I don’t know.

RB: I met you as a strapping young literary man-about-Manhattan.

TB: How far have I come from that? [both laugh heartily] And now?

RB: And you’re so prototypically New York—

TB: I don’t think that’s true. I [do] write about it a lot.

RB: You write a book. You mention an 8000 mile trip in your ‘70s vintage Thunderbird and to me that’s a whole book. That’s America. A road trip around the country. You think you would have spent more time on it—

TB: Hey, hey, hey! Trying very hard—this book is—I’m so happy with it for a couple of reasons.

RB: It’s a sweet book.

TB: Thank you and this was true of The Sleep-Over Artist too. And this gets back to when I said all the mechanics of writing that you understand to be the essential building blocks like spelling, how to understand intellectually how a sentence works, and my not possessing that—these books came together late. It took a while to figure out what I was doing and only once I had the concept then a lot of shaping took place. Most of the writing was done but a lot of tweaking and evolving and I am so pleased that this book turned into a book with a kind of thread which is to say, it wasn’t done intentionally—I perceived it or was helped to perceive it.

RB: Are you still holding on to Susan Minot’s advice? [laughs]

TB: No, no, no. First of all, speaking about the delivery system, I have always been a very reluctant—it’s very hard for me to let go. Even to say—I asked a friend of mine, would you look at some fiction of mine? To be perfectly honest and I am going to do myself some terrible injustice here. I am often asking, now and then, I will ask a friend of mine, different friends, “Would you ever look at some fiction of mine, if I need some feedback?” And I would never show it to them. I just need to know that I could.

RB: [laughs]

TB: But I am very into holding on to things. What I was going to say about this book was that I am so pleased because it came together late and it feels like a real book. In the beginning, I thought it was going to be a greatest hits. I’ll take the best nonfiction I’ve done and only at a certain point when my editor started to share some of her thoughts of what the book could be and parts of this manuscript started getting chucked, half of it, two thirds of it was taken off the table and I started writing new material and this absurd title came to me—which was an incredibly stressful moment because it seems like such an embarrassing title to have. Even if you mean it with a level of irony or—

RB: Don’t you have to mean it that way?

TB: Of course and I do and I am proud of it, but I spent a few weeks being like, why would I do this? It’s such an exposing title and I realized that its what I always do with my titles. It’s like embarrassment is the Holy Grail. It’s some meter—when it starts moving you know you are near whatever you are looking for, gold or water. I felt that sting of embarrassed slight self-recognition in that question of the title, I bring all this up because you are saying aren’t you going to write about that other stuff. I’m now telling you I’m trying—it’s slow and it’s a miracle that I have this book out now to give me some semblance of seeming like a productive writer. It never feels like I am.

RB: Do you devote a lot of time to Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood and Open City?

TB: I do definitely devote some serious time and if it’s not time in hours it’s time as a compartment in my head. Something I have thought is to what extent my own production as a writer would be different without those things. It’s hard to imagine I wouldn’t be a little more productive. At the same time it’s like those things I do—I don’t do them for money.

bellerRB: Right.

TB: The writing supports the editing. It’s a weird inversion in my case.

RB: Who’s talking about making money here? I can’t let go of your disagreement with my assertion that you are prototypically New Yorkish.

TB: Well, I have definitely staked some weird claim to that city—I keep writing about it. And went to school there, set things there. It’s my hometown, essentially. I’ll answer that with anecdote. Which is when stopped and asked directions in the city I am always effusively polite and helpful because it’s nice to be helpful and I am living in this bizarrely configured neighborhood where everyone gets lost and I feel proud of myself—

RB: Where?

TB: The West Village. But there is this idea that the prototypical New Yorker is the brash obnoxious person. And there, this is a cliche but there are many thousand different New Yorks. So I am somewhat prototypical of one of them. I don’t think it’s the one that most people associate with. I don’t know what the one is. Jonathan Yardley wrote this extremely gratifying review of this book. He’s pretty grouchy so it never went into swoons of hyperbolic praise exactly. You asked about the fiction/non-fiction thing —with this book for better and for worse, I want people to respond to the book, but Yardley kept talking about me—he was speculating about the author, the way you would with a piece of fiction. Or you would feel you could allow yourself with a piece of fiction but somehow there would be a boundary. Whereas in this book there is no boundary because that’s how it’s presented. But he had some remarks about intuiting or inferring some kind of environment—my New York, as it were. I guess I disagree with it because of my ideas of the various cliches. You know, the Brooklyn Dodgers and knishes and Wall Street.

RB: It’s that I can’t conceive of you outside of New York. I see you like the cover of that second or third Bob Dylan album [The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan], walking down the middle of street with a leather jacket and a girl on the arm, hands in the pockets…

TB: That would be my wife now.

RB: We’ll get to that.

TB: That’s flattering as a reference. What can I say? It’s just here I grew up.

RB: Are you Jewish?

TB: Yeah, yeah.

RB: I didn’t think your mother would have made her film if she wasn’t Jewish.

TB: She grew up on a kibbutz in Israel. This is another thing I have been trying to deal with in the stuff I am working now and it’s very hard for me.

RB: Does anyone ever refer to you a Jewish writer?

TB: I’ve never done anything to request it.

RB: I’ve noticed at least one anthology of young Jewish writers—

TB: I did do this thing in the reissue of Seduction Theory, partly because [Raymond] Carver had done some re-titling from when his stories first came out and then when they were collected again—which I thought was kind of cool. It acknowledged the fact that in theory it’s over when you publish it in a book but actually—even last night I was reading that drummer piece at Newtonville Books and I made some reflection that in a rock band getting what you want as a rock band doesn’t necessarily solve your problems and then I looked up and I was like, in rock and roll it works that way and, well, how well that applies in life—

RB: Do you often reread your writing?

TB: Not too much. I have a piece in this anthology called Coach that’s just now out. I just got a copy—we’ll come back to the Jews shortly but we live in an age of mega anthologization and I am a party to that. I’ve put out three anthologies and been in a number of them. And it’s almost the literary version of iTunes. The album concept is diminishing and now we are getting these mixed tapes. This Coach is actually quite good and I am quite pleased to be in it. So, “Do I reread my stuff?” Not really except when I get the book I‘ll definitely reread it again and maybe even reread it twice. Or rethink some point, you know.

RB: And do you make “corrections”?

TB: In this case it’s quite plausible and one day it—but I digress massively here. Oh yeah, this book, there is a story in here that in Seduction Theory was originally called “Live Wires.” I had a long discussion with my editor at the New Yorker about the title, who is a guy that you have interviewed—

RB: Roger Angell?

TB: Yeah. His pieces he has been doing that have been appearing in the New Yorker are so interesting on a formalist level in terms of just what he is doing, in terms of how he is structuring them and approaching this kind of memoir genre is fascinating, and he is quite an interesting writer and there were moments when I wished I had been in the room so that I could have asked follow-up questions. Particularly talking about the New Yorker casual [Talk of the Town] and being influenced by his stepfather [EB White]. He [Angell] said he would mostly be known for his children’s books. And I was like, “Wait wait, let’s talk about that style EB White had of creating golden miniature cities out of almost nothing in these 800 and 1200 word pieces.” At the time I remember he wanted to not call the story “Live Wires.” And my image was that story is about a Hanukkah party where this kid brings home his girlfriend who is not Jewish and also a bit older than he is and he is overly anxious about it. And he at some point looks at his mother and girlfriend and thinks of them as these two live wires and doesn’t want them to touch. So I advocated for that title and the other side of the argument was that a title should just be like a handle. You pick up the story with it. That’s a very Roger Angell New Yorker attitude—which is a funny thing to say. This is where I wished I could have jumped in, “Yeah, baseball absolutely.” Angell has this weird thing by which he is such a utilitarian and pragmatist in a literary sense and wants clarity and lucidity which is so important, but he has also worked with—you know he was Donald Barthelme’s editor, who was the most absurd, non-linear person—I shouldn’t say the most, but an example of a very non-utilitarian mode.

RB: How man people even know that Roger Angell is a fiction editor other than people in that culture?

TB: Let’s take baseball off the table. There is this interesting thing that goes on with Angell and even a little bit with EB White —it’s this juxtaposition of totally credible, serious, lucid, grounded thought and discussion and these weird flights, not exactly into the surreal or absurd but the gravitational pull gets turned off. That happens in EB White and Angell did a lot of these, over his fifty year career of Talk of the Town /casual pieces. And there is this genre that is pretty much extinct in the magazine’s current incarnation— the tiny little reported piece that is also a kind of fable. At one point [Beller was a fact checker at the New Yorker] I spent some time browsing through these folders from the ‘50s and Roger had this piece about dogs roaming on a beach—no, it couldn’t have been a beach in East Germany. Somewhere were “dogs,” “beach,” and “Germany” in a short piece that was so funny and kind of absurd but also kind of grounded in reality in a way that he is—I actually had fairly decent point to make out of all this but I forgot.

RB: We started out talking about anthologies and before that, Jews. You’re right, I hadn’t consciously noted this proliferation of anthologies. Around almost any thing—

TB: Can I finish—this is where I was going. You said, “Oh, you don’t seem identifiably Jewish,” and I said, “Yeah, I’m Jewish and I’m a writer but it’s not something I have ever aspired to—my work is my work.” However, “Live Wires,” which I had been told was obscure for a title but I insisted on it and it was a bit obscure for a title and and for the reissue I said, “Let’s call the damn story the Hanukkah Party.’ and do a little Carver re-title,” and so this reissue has that. So maybe I am raising a little flag that says, “Shalom.” On the other hand, I also got some resistance about a story called “A Different Kind of Imperfection” which I was—

RB: I’m glad you brought this, my copy is in storage.

TB: They just republished this.

…there is this idea that the prototypical New Yorker is the brash obnoxious thing. And there, this is a cliche but there are many thousand different New Yorks. So I am somewhat prototypical of one of them. I don’t think it’s the one that most people associate with.

RB: Why not publish the new book in hard cover?

TB: I don’t know the publishing logic.

RB: It’s hard to make money off of hardcover, isn’t it?

TB: I don’t know. If they sell a lot of books they make money on it. Essays—even though this has “memoir” in its title, it is a collection of personal essays. Which is a bit different and though that genre, even though you can find huge exceptions to this, that genre is a—someone said to me a notch above poetry in the commercially saleable concept. To be perfectly honest I am just glad they put it out and it’s gotten some—

RB: Of all the [major] publishing houses, Norton might be the last one whose rationale I would question. Why did you get married?

TB: I am in love with the woman I married.

RB: You have been in love before, yes? Forget that! Now you are married—you talked about enjoying that you could ask friends for feedback even though you didn’t let them, what happens now with your work?

TB: That process goes on to this day.

RB: Do you show her your work?

TB: Yeah, I do, that has been a really nice aspect of our relationship—that she is interested, first of all, and has been a really sensitive reader. I almost want to take you up on that challenge that you just threw to me, “You’ve been in love before, so why is this different?” Uh, it is different. Partly because—well finally because of the nature of the feeling between me and my wife. But there is an irrefutable fact that, well you yourself said, you met me ten years ago when my first book was out and in some way or another you think I have changed—correctly. As one would expect in ten years. Those changes are—some of them are self-made and some are inflicted on you by circumstance and that’s what my next book hopefully is going to try to look at, the way you are wrenched into change as a person. Sometimes it’s for the worst and sometimes it’s for the better.

RB: And for both.

TB: It’s almost always for both. Part of the better in this case is being able to have this feeling and courage to do this crazy thing. Which of course once I’ve done it now, not doing it now seems like the crazy thing. I guess I’m trying to say that I have been thinking a lot about getting older and time going by and how that affects relationships and friendships. Some crazy things have happened in the ten years since I have known you. Certainly every writer who publishes their first book is kind of like—you emerge into this —the very act of crossing that line is so glorious. There are a lot of other things in terms of the way my life was set up, the way that Open City, the people involved in that, a lot of things have changed really radically.

RB: Your good friend Robert Bingham died.

TB: That would be a very big one. There have been good things that have happened but there have been really freaky things.

RB: Me too.

TB: Every time I have come here to Boston, I have gotten this very different tableau. Radically different. Different media.

RB: I asked about marriage because Elizabeth is from North Carolina and I wondered if that means you would leave New York more?

TB: I’m sure I’ll be in North Carolina much more now than I would have been before I met Elizabeth—beyond that I don’t think too much about it. It’s another place on the map. You were saying, “Oh, you prototypical New Yorker.” Part of being, to the extent that I might be part of that, is spending a lot of time thinking of leaving New York.

RB: [laughs]

TB: That’s fundamental to the condition. That’s the danger—sometimes I am concerned to be so associated with the city because to be Mr. New York is to be turned in to a booster. But I am not a booster. The very essence of being a New Yorker is feeling tormented by it. Or wondering if you ought to leave it. Not all the time, I should add.

RB: One of the less attractive features of New York is the self-congratulations that they trumpet. There are certain books and certain writers who are New York writers that I have a certain antipathy to—that I feel are published perhaps to the exclusion of other books since the culture and the industry has a limited span of attention.

TB: I don’t know if that’s true.

RB: I don’t either.

TB: I used to be in a band. And being in a rock band in New York, it’s like the worst—

RB: Was Honus Wagner really the name of the band?

TB: Yeah. It was a terrible thing. We thought it was a really obscure baseball player.

RB: No.

TB: Well, he is famous mostly for his baseball card. That’s where a lot of that comes from—this most valuable baseball card. And I knew that and kind of regretted that. But it was definitely a real band. Our main singer-song writer, Tom Cushman, had been in several other bands—often in a band there is one member who had been in other bands that almost made it. Tom had been in this band called Brooklyn with this guy Darryl from the Bad Brains and Adam from the Beastie Boys and we were serious and trying to get signed and we played a lot of shows and rehearsed all the time and when I got hired at the New Yorker I told them I may have to take a leave of absence to tour and was that okay? Which turns out to be absurd. I want to make a point. When you said, Ah, so publishing publishes all these New York writer-type books to the exclusion of other more worthwhile books.” I don’t know if that’s true but I don’t know what New York writer means. There is the Jay McInerny model of what a New York—

RB: Citation of lots of brand names, currently trendy media darlings or spoofs on those—

TB: Aw, I think of Nicholson Baker as a New York writer.

RB: Really?

TB: He’s not writing about doing coke at the Odeon but his obsessive, meticulous, incredibly human, weirdly redemptive impulses in which he—he’s a writer I really respond to—the business by which you take your flaws and faults and the most embarrassing things about you and you move toward them and you try to redeem them somehow.

RB: I think of him as a Jewish writer [laughs].

TB: That’s funny, He’s not a New Yorker or Jewish. Maybe I was just conflating New York and Jewish in some wildly chauvinistic way.

RB: You mentioned your next book.

TB: I have been working on something for a while but I couldn’t say I know what it is. It’s one of the things where I’ve got several boats sailing and I am hoping that they will converge into an armada. But at the moment they are all pointed in weird different directions.

RB: When you are writing you are not thinking of how it comes to market?

TB: Oh my god, no! Jesus, who is thinking about that?

RB: Who? My impression is that most writers are.

TB: That’s not true.

RB: They say, “I am writing this novel. And it’s going to have a title and my agent is going to ask about and my editor and…” It’s not like they are not thinking that they are not locked into, the phrase of the moment, the delivery system and that people they deal with are not seeing it through the lens of commercialism.

TB: I know but at least not me and not some of the people I know who are writers who I am friends with—I don’t feel that’s the motivation. That reminds me of this really annoying, fascinating though, but annoyingly stupid review that came out around the time The Sleepover Artist came out. It was Matthew Klam and Sam Lypsite and another guy and myself were reviewed.

RB: Together in one review?

TB: Together, like a trend piece about something.

RB: That does a disservice to everyone?

TB: It doesn’t have to be. It’s often very interesting to write about a bunch of different even disparate books and writers and think about them as a group. This woman somehow got into this remark that suggested that this was all—we were calculating our work. We were going to create this sort of persona—

RB: A new Brat Pack?

TB: She wasn’t implying we were a gang. But in each of our cases we were purposefully moving into some kind of niche. I think she actually said marketing ourselves. It was not even naïve, it was belligerent. It was willfully ignorant and belligerent of the process, which is so much less calculated than that. Just to get back to Baker as a New York writer. He will go into the difficult area and he will try to unpack it and redeem it with comedy and with insight.

RB: What did you make of the New York Times review of Baker’s last book, Checkpoint?

TB: I haven’t read Checkpoint or Vox. That’s not what I go to Baker for. I like the Mezzanine. U and I.

RB: A Box of Matches?

TB: I haven’t read that yet either. I am kind of funny with the writers that I like in that sometimes I like things to cool down. Unfortunately this may be a feeling shared by a lot of readers that you want to discover your own work, you want to be outside the mainstream so that even a writer that you really like—like Nicholson Baker—publishes a book that sounds interesting to you and it would be useful to Baker for all the people who like him to go buy his book when it hits the bookstores, but unfortunately in my case—and I am sure that this comes back to me in all sorts of ways—sometimes you want to let things cool down. I reread The Mezzanine this summer.

RB: What do you make of the assertion that only a handful of books can be attended to at a time by the culture? Meaning that major media seem to end up reviewing the same handful of books.

TB: Everything about the way I am operating is to pretend that that reality doesn’t exist. Even though it does. That speaks to the website and Open City. I try to ignore everything about the realities of the publishing world.

RB: What’s your take on the proliferation of small literary magazines in the last three or four years?

TB: That’s kind of interesting. Cool. There have a been a lot. I’m all for it.

RB: So what does that say, a generation of Don Quixotes?

TB: Yeah, definitely. I can only refer back to my own impulses. There is some aspect of writing that is really solitary and some writers are very solitary and not hungry for the company of others. There is another aspect of that—because it’s so solitary that you want to gather around in a little gang. And sort of make a production and an enterprise. In fact, there is a line, I need to find it in either The Mezzanine or Room Temperature, where he has this line about friendship—friendships between guys only exist when you have this shared project. They need to be on a team together or a business or something like that. In the absence of that, it doesn’t exist. I was thinking about that recently and was really provoked by that and thinking that’s not true. But maybe it is true—when you start the things like a magazine it’s an occasion to gather your little gang together and expand the gang and have fun with them. And thank god, it’s still fun because there is no other reason to do it.

RB: It doesn’t become routine.

TB: That thing I said about how sometimes one wants to go to piece of writing that’s not in that pop pocket of “just out, just new,” you want to feel like you are discovering it. Editing these things is an extreme case of that.

© 2006 Robert Birnbaum Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing

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  1. Pingback: “Under-Appreciated Fiction of the 21st Century” –January 1, 2003 | Identity Theory

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