Jill Bialosky is a versatile and accomplished woman of letters. She’s published acclaimed works of poetry, memoir, and fiction, and is an editor and senior executive at W.W. Norton. In whichever genre she is writing, to me her work stands out for its compassionate attention to the psyche of the imperfect humans struggling through their lives in her lines.
Her recently published novel, The Prize, tells the tale of Edward Darby, an art dealer who finds himself somewhat at the emotional mercy of his own under-investigated family history and of the vicissitudes of the temperamental and often superficial art world. As in many of her works, Bialosky moves the story back and forward in time with the grace of a writer who is well practiced in her art. It is an elegant, poignant, and sensual read. You will want to tell Edward what — and what not — to do. We corresponded via e-mail.
You write such memorable women and girls — both as studies in interiority and as moving portraits. I’m curious about your decision to write from the perspective of a male character in The Prize. Was there something in particular you wanted to explore or achieve in doing this?
First and foremost, thank you. As a writer my desire is to create a memorable character who lives and breathes on the page, whether male or female. My first two novels involved female protagonists and I wanted a challenge with this new one. My last book was a memoir of sorts and I wanted to get as far away from myself as possible in writing The Prize, and I suppose too I was interested in exploring the male psyche through one character. You know, as a writer, the key is to keep yourself interested. It’s slightly embarrassing to admit that I sought to create a character I could fall in love with as a woman.
I see Edward Darby as a man who wants to do good in the world and in his personal universe and remain true to his ideals and perhaps his desire to be a gentlemen, an old fashioned concept, but one I still believe in, traps him. He discovers he is also fallible and human and his unconscious and conscious desires press against him in the course of the novel. He also loves and admires women, and that was important to me. I think about my own education and much of what I thought and understood about human nature came from my voracious reading as a young adult. I wanted to create a character for the reader who in his complexity might help a reader understand parts of his or her own nature.
A character, if realized, is an object of perception and consciousness, and I worried over Edward and his fate as I wrote the book, and I wanted my readers to worry and feel for him too. I’ve discovered that some men act strangely when they desire or are admiring of a woman or feel threatened and I wanted to try and capture those nuances, shine them to the light. In a way, The Prize is a feminist novel, in the sense that it is written by a woman with an intention. There are many novels written by men about women and their own desires and fantasies shape those portraits. I wanted to flip that notion on its head. Of course, it’s frustrating when you attempt to do something more nuanced and your book is reviewed in a The NYTBR with four other novels under the heading “Marriage Plots.”
I love that you speak of The Prize as a feminist novel due to your intention for it as a woman author. History is, as you mention, rife with male intention in regard to female characters. In a way, not only did you flip that notion on its head, but you’ve also played with the conventions of the Western tradition’s early female novelists as well. Out of the gate I couldn’t help but think of Austen’s Darcy when I saw the name Darby. I’d bet my house that you knew that as you named him. More than understanding human nature ahistorically, then, this evocation speaks to the history of women making literature. How would you want a reader to consider your work in relation to this history? And how do you situate your writing in this vein? Have we come a long way?
It’s important as a female novelist to write into a tradition. It’s curious because reviewers and critics rarely pick this up in female authors but of course when a writer like Franzen writes a new novel, it is considered Dickensian, and Knausgaard, Norway’s Proust. I’m curious now about Garth Risk Hallberg and his new novel, City on Fire, called “Dickens-size” in NYTBR, and how his novel will weather the media storm that is descending. I don’t recall a female novelist tagged in this way, nor do we but rarely see the media lifting a female novelist into stardom the way male novelists seem to immediately gain traction.
As for The Prize I did think about Jane Austen and Mr. Darcy early on in the novel’s conception and I was playing with that association. Names are about association, aren’t they? A close friend recently pointed out that she lived on Darby Lane, and wondered if that had subconsciously entered my mind when I conceived of Edward Darby’s name, and perhaps there was an echo there too. Names are important in creating characters. Edward, to my ear, is a classical, slightly buttoned-up name, and my character is a reserved and inward man; with the echoes of “Darcy,” it seemed right, and as I grew to know him better the name stuck.
I think of the novel as feminist since the major women characters leave my poor Edward spinning in all their complexity and strength, and he learns from them and admires all of them. And I attempted to create a male character who is gentle and a man to admire, as there are so few in literature. I admire many of the male characters in Henry James’s novels, and in Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer’s fate is shaped by four strong male characters, and part of her plight is that she longs for her own independence in a world where men dominate. In The Prize I flipped this notion on its head by creating a male character who is surrounded by four strong female characters: Holly, his wife, Astor Mayweather, known as May, his mother and the woman who owns the gallery he works for, and then there is Agnes Murray, the painter he makes famous, and Julia Rosenthal, a woman he falls in love with. I wanted to see how he would fare and what he would learn about himself in the midst of all this feminine energy.
Back to your question about how I see my work in the context of other female writers shaping history: I suppose some of the female novelists that I admire are Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, the Brontës. I love the stories of Katherine Mansfield and poems of Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath, and in all of their literatures there is a sense of conflict, pathos, and tension between the feminine and the masculine, and in many ways The Prize is concerned with these tensions.
I was happy this season that Elena Ferrante’s work created a stir. I haven’t read the quartet yet, but the two early novels of hers, Days of Abandonment and The Lost Daughter are filled with feminine pathos, and I consider both works of literature. As a novelist, I am interested in psychological perception and insight. You know, there are some male novelists — their ambition is perhaps more testosterone driven– who set out to write the great American novel, as if on a quest for importance and singularity. As a novelist, I’m more interested in the novel succeeding on its own terms.
Many novels I admire most are considered by the critics to be “quiet,” “small gems,” and yet those are the novels that move me — here I’m thinking of novels by Alice McDermott, for instance. I loved Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. And then there is Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. All of these works have gained in stature over time. They’re character driven, and though it has been years since I’ve read these novels, I remember their characters and feel their souls. I see Elena Ferrante in this tradition — at least in the two novels I’ve read and cited here. I don’t think these writers set out to write the great American novel. In my own work, I’m interested in character primarily, but also in the novel as a vehicle for exploring ideas of art, integrity, betrayal, and love.
One of the delights for me in reading The Prize is the nuanced way in which you deal with hype and ambition in the art world. Your characters are keenly aware of it, indulge in it, push back on it, resist it, and cannot help but be affected by it. I think many artists (and writers) have a complicated relationship with this aspect of how work gets valued — or doesn’t.
One of your previous books, History of a Suicide, was a New York Times bestseller and rightly received quite a bit of media attention (it’s a stunning book). Did that influence your subsequent writing in any way? Or, as Julia says in The Prize, did that enter the studio for you as you started on new work?
I love this question because like my characters I have an ambivalent relationship with ambition and hype. I am, as you say, keenly aware of it, at times indulge in it (for instance, I am by nature a modest person, but, as an editor, I know the importance of self-promotion and ask my writers to indulge in it as much as they can stomach it), resist it, and cannot help but be affected by it. It bothers me when books I don’t admire suck up all the air (and often these are books that were highly sought after in auction), and books that are more deserving get left behind. One has to take the paradoxical view of Montaigne, who I have been reading as of late. He writes: “We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn.” This quote says everything about my relationship with ambition. I want to be the quiet insular writer making my own art and disregarding how it will be perceived and what I can and cannot do to make it so, but I know that ambition, and the desire to be read, partly drives the enterprise. I wanted The Prize to struggle with this conundrum.
Thank you for your kind comment about History of a Suicide. It was an emotionally and psychically difficult book to write, and I struggled with it morally, both as I was writing it and when I finished it, and though I persevered in committing myself to publishing it, I had no idea it would be received generously. Many publishers — at least ten if not more — rejected the initial proposal, not because they did not admire the writing, but because they feared there wouldn’t be an audience for a personal book on suicide. They were wrong. Readers longed for a candid account, and I heard from many of them, and continue to, in personal emails. I was stunned when the first two weeks of publication reviews began to appear in mainstream publications like Time, People, and Entertainment Weekly. It made me happy as part of the urgency of writing the book had to do with my desire to destigmatize suicide.
As for how this attention entered the “studio” when I began writing The Prize, that’s a fascinating question to ponder. I began writing The Prize as a balm. I wanted to step out of myself after writing History of a Suicide and dive into a fictional world. In the five years in which I was immersed in it, I did not think of audience, per se. I thought only of making my characters as complex as possible, and I wanted the novel to contain many of my thoughts about integrity, ambition, power, money, as these ideas were, in moments, threatening to overstimulate me, living in New York City at the epicenter of it all, and writing is a way of calming the chaos. So yes, like Julia, I sought only to immerse myself in my own obsessions and see what would come of it, and somehow block out the noise.
Rendering complex characters seems a particularly timely endeavor in an age of instantaneous judgment of others via social media based on gotcha photos and decontextualized sound bites. I don’t take issue with a brevity of form (140 characters is little different than haiku, for example), but the frenzy that can ensue from one documented moment in another person’s life can be brutal. It’s de rigueur to say that comment streams are viscous and quickly polarizing, but still so true. The phenomenon of virtual bullying has increased the teen suicide rate.
In a way, Edward gets piled on in The Prize. This happens mostly in his “real” life, rather than exacerbated via the virtual. I wonder if you’ve ever considered placing your richly flawed characters in that kind of mediated milieu. And have you seen any works that are grappling with this in a way that you admire?
I’m afraid I don’t have much to add to this conversation. The characters in The Prize, particularly Edward, are living in a different moment. I can’t imagine Edward dabbling with social media — Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. He’s too refined and paranoid. I’m not interested, at least not now, in writing novels that mimic our day-to-day realities. And I can’t recall any novels I’ve read recently that deal with social media. I see that more in nonfiction.
What do you make of Henry James’s claim that fiction is history? That the novelist should speak with the assurance and tone of the historian?
If I understand James’s statement clearly — and while I admire his novels, his long-winded sentences in his letters and essays are sometimes more difficult to parse — he is referring to authenticity. In his essay “The Art of Fiction,” he states that the only reason for the existence of a novel is that it attempt to represent life:
One can speak best from one’s own taste, and I may therefore venture to say that the air of reality (solidity of specification) seems to me to be the supreme virtue of a novel — the merit on which all its other merits […] helplessly and submissively depend. If it be not there, they are all as nothing, and if these be there, they owe their effect to the success with which the author has produced the illusion of life.
This notion of the “illusion of life” is what resonates for me in his statement. In other words, the novelist must be true to the reality he has created or set up for his characters within the realm of his imagined world. If the reader does not feel his illusion of life, then there is no real engagement. A reader must trust the voice in a work of fiction, and for that to happen, then, yes, I would argue that the voice must be one of assurance — and that this voice is representative of the imagined world, as if the author were historian to it.
As I said earlier, I am interested in the way in which the novel can be an intimate act between author and reader. I just finished Ben Lerner’s 10:14, and while Lerner makes imaginative leaps and connections in this novel, he is to some degree asking the reader to authenticate his experience as “author” of 10:14 as well as narrator. I admire how closely he brings the reader into this imagined world. In spite of occasional moments of indulgence, one leaves the novel feeling as if a psyche is revealed. I love that closeness in a work of fiction, and in this case I would agree that Lerner in 10:14 speaks with the assurance and tone of the historian.
Have you any thoughts yet on your next writing project?
After finishing a book of poems, The Players, and a novel this past year, the well is pretty empty. I have three or four projects churning in my head, but I’m not sure yet which one or two — or if any — will spark fire. I’m in that period of unknowing and second-guessing. I miss the characters in The Prize. They were great company and it’s hard to say goodbye.
Jessa Crispin, editor in chief of Bookslut, interviewed Patricia Goldstone on her new book Interlock: Art, Conspiracy, and the Shadow Worlds of Mark Lombardi and on the many complexities of Mark Lombardi’s life and work.
The body of artist Mark Lombardi was discovered hanging in his studio soon after his big New York debut in 2000. The circumstances were suspect, almost immediately. Why would he kill himself immediately after his entry into the New York art world, now that he finally seemed to be getting everything he ever wanted? Why was there an empty bottle of champagne also hanging from the ceiling, near Lombardi’s body, despite him hating champagne? Then there was his paranoia before his death, that he was going to be assassinated by government agents, that he was going to be just the latest in a series of unexplained deaths.
It sounds like delusions of grandeur, that the government would want to take out a struggling artist, and yet the subject matter of his artwork could have gotten him killed: he documented the connections between the Bush family and groups that financed terrorism, as well as the heads of corrupt international banks and the CIA, all outlined in “interlocks,” intricate flowcharts with meticulous notecards explaining each connection.
Having not heard of Lombardi before, I basically came from the conspiracy and stayed for the art. And Goldstone is a deft guide to her subject, managing to write up all of his conspiracy research without making him sound like a loon, while also providing a thorough examination of the art scene in Houston and New York. She also makes a tricky, loud, ambitious, pushy man… if not sympathetic than at least charismatic enough to overlook his flaws.
I exchanged emails with Patricia Goldstone about her book as we were both shuttling around the world, catching up in hotels and airports.
My first question, which is lazy I admit but I am totally really interested in this question, is why did you choose Mark Lombardi as a subject for a biography?
Actually, that’s a great question because the answer shows what tiny things books can grow out of. I read a piece about Lombardi that came out in the Wall Street Journal a year after his death, in 2001. The Journal does those droll little pencil sketches of its subjects and there was this portrait of this goofy-looking artist with one of his drawings raying out behind his head. The drawing caught my eye and I realized it was an interlock, a form of flowchart tracing overly-cozy relationships between boards of directors that’s used in both accounting and anti-trust litigation. I had been a business writer for some years and I thought to myself, hmm, how curious. Here’s the Wall Street Journal, one of our preeminent business publications, and nowhere in this piece does it even mention that Lombardi created his art out of interlocks. That’s certainly unusual for the art world, and if I had been writing the piece it would have been my lede. I collect oddities, so I clipped this one and carefully filed it away. I was working on another book, Aaronsohn’s Maps, and didn’t take it out again until 2007, when the financial tiles first started falling off the roof. I had done some reading up on Lombardi meanwhile and found myself wondering about how the connections he had made related to the current crisis. Those questions just nagged away at me and that’s how this book began.
Yes, one of my problems with many biographers is the closed-off nature, this relentless focus on the individual (part of the Great Man myth of individual genius, as if they were sort of out of time and place), and not enough on the era, the community.
That’s absolutely right, and why, if I have to classify myself, I would say I’m a hybrid, a biographer/historian. Writing this book also involved an odd kind of deja vu for me. Since Mark and I are contemporaries, I was revisiting experiences I had lived through myself and yet not fully lived through. His grasp of what was going on under the surface was so acute that I felt that I was educating or re-educating myself by writing about it as fully as I could within the constraints of writing just one book and not two or three.
Would you even consider this book, given its long sections on the conspiracies he was following and the political nature of a lot of it, strictly a biography? I will say that one of my favorite things about it was its refusal to conform to the expectation of the biographical template.
Another very good question. I actually look for lives like Mark Lombardi’s and Aaron Aaronsohn’s, partly because they are under-discovered and partly because they offer a prism to look at history from an alternative angle. I love what Barbara Tuchman, who is one of my favorite historians, says about history being like a kaleidoscope: when the cylinder is shaken the countless colored fragments form a new picture and yet they are the same fragments that made a different picture just a moment earlier. Her biography of General Joseph Stilwell, which is subtitled “The American Experience in China,” guides the reader through a vast panorama of World War II, Japanese, Chinese and Southeast Asian history by using the narrative of Stilwell’s life as a frame. I saw Mark’s life as a great vehicle for discovering our own turbulent present — which, as Harold Rosenberg reminds us, is a very difficult thing to do.
By “strictly a biography,” I assume you mean strictly the story of Mark’s life, but Mark, as well as being an artist, was also a socially and politically engaged intellectual who said himself that his work was his way of coping with the times in which he lived. His life is hard to separate from his work, which is part of what made the book so challenging to write. The seven decades of largely clandestine financial history — a term I prefer to conspiracy because most of what he was following was quite well documented in published material — he linked together in his drawings are both tremendously complex and convoluted. He said himself that he had tried to put it all together in a book, but couldn’t keep the narrative in his head. I hit upon the idea of using his own life as the uber-narrative because he lived through so many of the decades his work describes, but when I wrote the first draft I found that the exposition needed to introduce each financial scandal was so dense that I lost track of Mark for pages on end. When I discovered that the drawings in fact all linked together to form a continual narrative of their own, my editor, Charlie Winton, suggested that I try pulling that narrative into the second half of the book. Those points which intersected directly with Mark’s own life — notably getting into a fight with the Bushes and being engaged by Texas politician and art patron Sissy Farenthold to track the Iran-Contra scandal — I left as guides in the first section of the book, which is more strictly biographical. So I would say that the form of the book is organic, and came out of the material itself.
When it comes to the connections that Lombardi was working out, between Saudis and Bush being the most obvious one, how much did you already know about or assume, and how much did you have to research?
There has been quite a bit written on this topic already, notably Joseph Trento’s Prelude to Terror, Craig Unger’s House of Bush, House of Saud, and Russ Baker’s Family of Secrets. I was already familiar with those, but much of the research I had to do to try to capture the granular detail (i.e. names) in Mark’s work, much of which has disappeared into private collections and is unavailable to view consecutively, was to read almost everything in his library. Fortunately there are bibliographies published in two catalogues, so I was able to reconstruct much of the narrative behind the drawings. It was quite a shock, though, to go into his personal files and discover he had raw memos from Bush associates about the Saudis. That became an important part of the story which, strangely, no one in the art world had remarked upon before.
Because it sounds simultaneously crazy and yet obvious. Of course there is this corruption, of course there is this filthy influence of money in politics and these oppressive regimes, and yet I think we prefer to think of this things as being outlandish and absurd, simply to think we live in a just world. Did the scales fall from your eyes or were they already gone?
Well… like Mark, I came of age in the 1970s. In fact, we’re almost exactly the same age. It was an odd era, curiously like the one we’re living through now. In fact, I just came back from Washington and the Double Exposure investigative film festival where we listened to Edward Snowden chatting via satellite with the group of “anonymous burglars” who broke into an FBI office in 1971 and stole hundreds of files that led to the discovery of Cointelpro, the Senate investigation of the FBI, and the defrocking of J. Edgar Hoover. There was a good deal of chuckling, in the audience, onstage, and even from Snowden himself, at the outlandishness and absurdity of surveilling American citizens for political activity. But I think the laughter was a means of creating a moral distance, a self-protective mechanism. Of course we would all prefer to think we live in a just world. I wouldn’t describe myself as a cynic by any means. But you can’t believe in justice naively, or take it for granted. You have to protect it. The fact is that repression moves in cycles, and we’re stuck in a repressive cycle now, which is why I think we’re seeing such a lot of pushing back across the country, both in politics and in the streets.
We have a Bush running for president again. How cold does that make your blood run after researching and writing your book?
It doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. Political dynasties are powerful in this country, even though I don’t feel that the Bushes are as strong as they once were. Unfortunately, the Clintons don’t come off too well in my narrative either. I think what actually dismays me most is the feeling that the deluge of hot money Mark’s work describes has been so pervasive and so corrupting. Oligarchs across the world can buy candidates, national munitions industries, perhaps even entire governments. I think Bernie Sanders is being honest with his constituents when he tells them that it will take more than one administration, or change of administration, to put things right again here. If indeed they can be put right, without the intervention of a financial collapse even greater than the ones we’ve already sustained. That might hurt the real bad guys enough to slow them down for awhile, but it will hurt everyone else too.
I was interested in your brief assessment of the art world in the ’70s, where violence against women was considered just kind of routine. Or, at least not shocking. There was a cluster of male artists and writers — Norman Mailer stabbing his wife in the chest, Roman Polanski raping a teenage girl, Carl Andre’s maybe murder of his wife Ana Mendieta etc — in that time that were behaving outlandishly and being immediately forgiven. You suggest in the book that this behavior was maybe actually expected from great male artists. What do you think was fostering that kind of atmosphere during that era?
An interesting question, and on to which answers occur on all sorts of levels. First, the 1950s, when the Abstract Expressionists were in their heyday and Mailer’s literary career was launched on The Naked and the Dead, was also the height of the postwar boom in America and thus an era of excess in many ways. America was flexing its muscles in Europe by exercising the Marshall Plan and all its derivatives at the same time that the Abstract Expressionists were being encouraged to display the “big macho American virtues” to distinguish themselves from effete European artists and maybe the second was a manifestation of the power politics of the first.
Why we should persist — even well into the 21st century — in bringing up our young men to be cowboys is a large and open question but who knows. Maybe the CIA’s patronage had something to do with nurturing a new image of the artist as tough-guy. Certainly the Abstract Expressionists were the rock stars of their day, and their antics probably satisfied the fantasies of their more buttoned-down buyers in much the same way. Mendieta’s death occurred quite a bit later and in a different era, in 1985, although the zeitgeist was just as ego-driven. People attributed her fall from the 34th floor apartment she shared with her husband, Andre, to a drunken brawl over the fact that she was selling more than he was — that’s progress, of a sort, I suppose. Andre was acquitted of all charges in 1988, but the rumor persisted that powerful forces in the art world circled the wagons and even intervened in the justice system for commercial reasons — an experience I was reminded of while writing Interlock.
You could argue that a system that values money and/or celebrity over human life supports all kinds of bad behavior. That was certainly a factor on the Polanski case in 1977, when an ambitious mother was Polanski’s means of gaining access to the child thus allowing her to be doubly victimized even though she herself said many years later that she was a product of the more relaxed mores of the 1970s. If we’re talking about Texas in the 1970s, when Mark first moved down there, we’re talking about a genuinely redneck if not a genuinely cowboy culture where a bunch of East Coast art world city slickers were trying to horn in and, as usual, were overdoing it. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed about males in corporate settings, it’s that they are pitifully eager to conform in what they perceive as the dominant culture.
With Lombardi, you write that there were public, occasionally shading into violent, arguments with his girlfriend, which was part of this culture. I have to admit, at the beginning of the book, I had to fight some repulsion to Lombardi (I stuck with it despite my discomfort because of the conspiracy, I love shadowy government stuff). You describe him even as a child of being kind of an intellectual bully, of dominating his space, and I kept thinking of, you know, all those dudes I have known. I am going to just go ahead and assume you are a feminist, so did any of this exasperate you, too?
You know, I suppose I have to admit there’s a certain erotic component to writing biography, which is that you have to be a little bit in love with a person to follow him — or her — around for three years. I felt the same way about Aaron Aaronsohn, who had some characteristics in common with Mark Lombardi. There are a lot of points during that three years, or however long it takes to write it, when you start falling out of love, which is to say you become disillusioned as you learn more about the object of your affections — which is to say that at certain points you say to yourself, Is this guy really a jerk or what?
But, as in love, you also, over time, do your sums and add up your subject’s good points against the bad and try to come out with a balanced portrayal. I’m a great believer in warts-and-all biography. I think the most interesting people are often the most flawed, and that the tension between their flaws and their gifts is what drives their talent. I can’t write — or read — hagiography in any form. I think it’s a form of betrayal. But I think, in fact, that what really kept me in Mark’s corner was a strong sense, which became stronger over time, of how painfully he had to struggle to invent himself, how that always underlay the bullying and the domineering, and how the level of frustration he felt for years at not being able to reach the very high goal he set himself often sparked his outbursts. He didn’t come from privilege. He didn’t have much technical facility to speak of. With the exception of his mother, his family did not support him. But he wanted to be an artist more than anything else. In the course of making himself into one, armed with nothing more than a bachelor’s in fine arts and an extraordinarily tenacious will, he managed to beat both a Senate investigating committee and the best artificial intelligence labs in the country, with all the bells and whistles at their command. That’s really an amazing ride for a working-class guy from Syracuse, and it’s the real story to me. It doesn’t excuse him from — occasionally — being an asshole, but even that makes him less of a Great Man and more of a human being.
Thank you for sticking with the book. I’ve known my share of those dudes, too. God knows there are enough of them out there. But I don’t think he was one. If he was, I wouldn’t miss him.
October 28, 2015
22. Bird by Noy Holland – November 10
Bird puts her child on the bus for school and passes the day with her baby. It’s a day infused with fear and longing, an exploration of the ways the past shapes and dislodges the present. In the present moment, Bird dutifully cares for her husband, infant, and older child. But as she inhabits this rehabilitated domestic life, she re-lives an unshakeable passion: Mickey, the lover she returns to with what feels like a migratory impulse.
The day begins. Nothing will stop it.
The phone rings in the dark. Word finds its way along—no matter how far out you live, no matter what you say.
For years now, Bird has said it, for all the years since she has seen Mickey, all the things she has thought to say. “I wish you’d stop,” Bird says.
But this is Suzie. Newsy Suzie. Her voice high and bright, “It’s me.”
“Me too,” Bird says. “I was sleeping. You have no fucking clue.”
What Suzie has is the next word on Mickey. She has a new name to give Bird. She has had the names down the years, a trade sometimes. Beatrice. Once a dancer, Brigitte, a girl who painted. Rosemarie. Country girls, exotics. Clara, Angelina, Racine.
“That’s enough,” Bird tells her.
“Oh it isn’t. I keep you posted. Early girl news. He moved.”
Moved, moved again. He thought to marry. He’d marry another, think of that, just as Bird had.
“He’ll never marry,” Suzie says, “he’s like me. She would have to swear to die in three months’ time of an incommunicable disease. I don’t care who—Racquel, Ruby Lou, Victorine. He’s like me.”
Suzie lives among the samplings. The saplings, and the fathery men. Men and boys and girls. Ship to shore; hand to mouth; bed to bed. Not for her: the leaky tit, the pilly slipper. The dread of the phone that rings in the dark: It’s your turn next to suffer.
– Noy Holland
The Los Angeles Review of Books ran a review of Summer Brennan‘s The Oyster War: The True Story of a Small Farm, Big Politics, and the Future of Wilderness in America, calling it “freighted with backstory, with multiple and intersecting histories.”
October 25, 2015
The Oyster War opens with the epigraph “Everything not saved will be lost.” The sentiment seems straightforward, appropriate for a book addressing, according to the subtitle, “the future of wilderness in America.” But I paused at the quote’s attribution. The book’s guiding thought comes not from Thoreau or Stegner, not from Muir or Snyder, not from generations of writers who’ve proclaimed the intrinsic value of the wild. Instead, the author pulled this quote from a Nintendo quit screen message.
What, exactly, are we talking about saving?
An epigraph can be quiet, whispering an idea into a reader’s ear. Or it can be loud. This one, with its incongruous source stamped in all caps across the middle of an otherwise blank page, stomps its feet, announces itself. This is not your ordinary environmental story, it shouts. Drop your assumptions now.
The Oyster War casts shadows over a political landscape often rendered in stark, noontime black and white. It forces us to think beyond an easy binary of wilderness (pure, moral, natural) and business (corrupting, foul). The “war” reported here isn’t between the usual foes, plunderer and defender (say, Shell and Greenpeace), and the wilderness in question isn’t a remote, pristine battleground (the Arctic, say). Instead, author Summer Brennan recounts the decade-long fight between the National Park Service and a small, family-run oyster farm operating, alongside cattle ranches and dairy farms, in California’s Point Reyes National Seashore, just an hour north of San Francisco.
In the early 2000s, Point Reyes’s Johnson Oyster Company was struggling to comply with environmental regulations and to stay afloat financially. Sewage from the company’s onshore buildings leaked into Drakes Estero, and plastic debris from the mariculture operation washed up on nearby beaches. The company’s 40-year lease with the National Park Service, which owned the oyster farm’s land and waters, was due to expire in 2012. Owner Tom Johnson was ready to give up.
In 2005, his neighbor, Kevin Lunny, a local rancher seeking to diversify his family’s operations, bought the struggling enterprise and renamed it Drakes Bay Oyster Company. As part of the sale, Lunny took over the lease. He knew park officials didn’t plan to extend it, but he hoped that by investing in the company and cleaning up the environmental problems he could convince them to issue a special operating permit. What perhaps he didn’t foresee was the park service’s determination to fulfill a long-standing mandate.
Back in 1976, four years after the Johnson Oyster Company signed its lease with the National Park Service, the Point Reyes Wilderness Act designated the majority of Drakes Estero, where the farm raised imported oysters, as “potential wilderness.” The continuing presence of the oyster farm was considered a “non-conforming condition,” and in 2004, the year before Lunny bought the oyster farm, an NPS field solicitor wrote that “the Park Service is mandated […] to convert potential wilderness […] to wilderness status as soon as the non-conforming use can be eliminated.”
These are only the barest outlines of the complicated fight over the fate of the oyster farm — a 10-year battle that would play out in lawsuits and scientific reports, federal legislation and mediation attempts, a grassroots poster-making campaign and countless column inches in local and national newspapers. The “war” would end only after the US Supreme Court had its say. Supporters of the farm — ranchers who worried that the threats to the oyster farm might endanger their own livelihoods, and advocates for local, sustainable agriculture — argued that agriculture and wilderness had coexisted for generations in Point Reyes and that the oyster farm, if managed sustainably, could be an asset to the landscape. Park employees, local environmental groups, and other residents countered that oyster workers disturbed seals and fouled the shores with plastic spacers they used in farming. The farm’s supporters accused the park service of government overreach and bad science. Wilderness advocates accused the farm of misrepresenting the facts.
Enter Summer Brennan, a journalist who landed in the middle of the controversy when she took a job as a reporter for the Point Reyes Light. Brennan was both insider and outsider — she’d grown up in the area but had spent the better part of a decade away. Eventually, she parted ways with the paper, and set out on her own, as she writes, “to solve a specific scientific mystery” — was oyster farming harming the estuary? — and to discover which side was telling the truth and which side was bending it. Along the way, she raises critical questions that extend beyond the immediate controversy — questions all of us need to be asking ourselves about our rapidly changing world. In the prologue, she identifies two “riddles” as central to the story of The Oyster War. One of these conundrums is, as Brennan puts it, “When humanity has touched and changed every corner of the earth, what does it mean to be wild?”
The wild is both cultural concept and legal description. Going back to Thoreau and beyond, we have understood wildness to be in opposition to cultivation. In “Walking,” Thoreau wrote, “Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.” For him, the wild was both a physical place and a mental state; when he wrote, in the same essay, “that in Wildness is the preservation of the World,” he was advocating both for the preservation of wild places and for a resistance to civilization’s demands. He valued wildness in part for what it offered to human beings: “When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most interminable, and, to the citizen, most dismal swamp.”
Americans have inherited Thoreau’s romantic attraction to the natural world. We go to wild places to shed the city and its stresses, to “reboot,” to find ourselves and save ourselves. Our national park system was founded on the idea of preserving our country’s natural wonders and wild places — for the people. The 1872 legislation that created our first park set aside Yellowstone “as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Pleasuring-ground. The phrase sounds decadent and hedonistic today, but then you think of that park’s traffic jams and camera-toting tourists walking toward buffalo and, well, it doesn’t seem that far off the mark.
The landscape we’ve inherited would be unrecognizable to Thoreau, and our environmental laws have reflected its degradation. Just over a century after his death, the 1964 Wilderness Act (which Brennan includes in the book’s appendix) created wilderness as a legal category, conferring a higher level of protection on an area than park status, and serving a different purpose as well. According to the act, “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” In wilderness, the needs of the earth and its nonhuman inhabitants eclipse the interests of human beings.
Inherent in the conflict over the oyster farm is the fact that human beings had been more than visitors in Point Reyes for a long time. The Wilderness Act goes on to refine the definition of wilderness as “land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation.” But the oyster farm operation on the shores of Drakes Estero, as Brennan describes it, included an oyster shack and hatchery, a dock and conveyor belt, drainage ponds, picnic tables, a shipping container that functioned as a cannery, and trailers and mobile homes that housed the farm’s employees. On a visit there, Brennan encounters escaped dairy cows, a child’s Big Wheel, propane tanks. How could this be wilderness?
Here is where the designation of “potential wilderness” enters the scene. In creating a legal category of areas that could be converted to wilderness once “non-conforming uses” were removed, the authors of wilderness legislation suggested that we might be able to undo the damage we’ve done, that we might restore a place to, if not its original state, at least a “natural” one. It’s a hopeful thought in a world where human activity, in the form of carbon emissions, now affects even the most inaccessible, seemingly unspoiled regions of our planet. But whatever condition a place reverts to, after an oyster farm is removed or after (if) we drastically reduce carbon emissions, it likely won’t even remotely resemble whatever might have been in the absence of human civilization.
The very idea of wilderness restoration requires that we revise our definition of what’s “natural,” and perhaps also that we reenvision the wild.
Food writer Michael Pollan, who, Brennan tells us, weighed in on the side of the oyster farm, has been arguing since his very first book appeared nearly 25 years ago that we need to abandon Thoreau’s view of wilderness and cultivation, nature and culture, as opposites. In today’s world, he insists in Second Nature, even wilderness requires intervention and management: “[B]y now, we have made so many changes in the land that some form of gardening has become unavoidable, even in those places we wish to preserve as monuments to our absence. […] it’s too late now to do nothing.”
What that management should look like is controversial. In the city parks near my house, volunteers rip out the invasive Himalayan blackberry, bindweed, and English ivy that tangle, climb, and threaten to engulf entire trees and replace them with native plants. But in many wilderness areas, workers are allowed only to remove invasive vegetation. Policy then dictates that they let “nature” take over and see what regenerates.
In the question of how to manage the stretch of land and water comprising the Drakes Estero wilderness area, Pollan and others contended that sustainable agriculture was a responsible use of a region that was already “semi-domesticated.” Others maintained that the “gardening” necessary to restore wilderness was digging out the oyster farm entirely.
Which brings us to the other “riddle” Brennan raises at the beginning of her book: “How do we decide who belongs or doesn’t belong?”
As I read The Oyster War, a controversy was brewing in my own neck of the woods. Two days before the Vietnamese supermarket three blocks from my house was to close its doors for the last time, a neighbor posted on the community’s Facebook page the announcement of the closure and a link to Trader Joe’s “Request Location” page. The post, which encouraged neighbors to ask the company to move into the soon-to-be-closed Viet-Wah location, set off a 50-comment flame war, with buzzwords like “local,” “affordable,” “corporatist,” “gentrification,” and “multicultural” lobbed like grenades.
My urban neighborhood, with its screaming sirens and sea of concrete, looks nothing like fog-hushed Point Reyes, where wind rushes across water, picks up sand, rustles through grasslands. Still, I can’t help but see parallels between the two, not just in the rancor inspired by change but in the issues that stir that rancor. Both there and here, people worry about their ability to remain, on the land, in their neighborhood, connected to a place that feels like home. Or they worry that all that’s valuable about a place will be lost as it changes.
As the battle in my neighborhood played itself out on Facebook, an occasional bell of sadness would cause a break in the hostilities, like this one: “That Viet-Wah was one of the first memories I had in the United States. Tomorrow a part of me closes.”
The Oyster War is a story about our relationship to the wild and our attachment to place, but it is also a story about how story itself functions. Near the end of the book, Brennan writes, “The more I researched and wrote or thought about this case, the more it seemed like a Rorschach inkblot test, with people seeing within its sprawling little mess whatever monsters they already found most frightening.” Among the monsters she calls out are “big” government,” sloppy science, and the struggle of the “little guy.”
Unique, specific stories can transmute into symbols when we close our eyes to nuance and particulars. With the proliferation of click-baiting, sound-biting media that convey only stripped-down summary or the shouts of the loudest voices, we are ever in danger of losing our ability to see the complexity of our world.
Every story is freighted with backstory, with multiple and intersecting histories. The great value of Brennan’s book, even if it gets, as she writes, only “as close to the truth as I could reasonably be expected to come,” is her deeply probing effort to understand and craft as full and complex an account as possible. Shaped like a spiral, the book begins at the outer edges of the narrative and circles slowly inward, tracing as it goes the many contexts that are indispensable to understanding the oyster farm controversy. Along the way, Brennan takes us across the country to negotiations over wilderness legislation in the halls of Congress and back in time to the origins of California oystering. We follow her into a dispute over the “culling” of nonnative deer in Point Reyes and through Edward Abbey’s writings and the inception of the radical environmental groups Earth First! and the Earth Liberation Front. Finally, she leads us into the local ranching community, the creation of the Point Reyes National Seashore, and the scientific and legal volley between the oyster farm and the park service.
Only after accompanying Brennan through these histories can we begin to come to any conclusions about what should or shouldn’t have happened in the war over the oyster farm. Even then, we might not easily come down on one side or the other (and perhaps such a conflicted reaction is desirable in our complicated world). We will, however, have come closer to understanding some of the questions we face, and the options open to us, as we seek to create a world that retains something of the wild.
Everything not saved will be lost. Maybe the out-of-context origin of Brennan’s epigraph was simply coincidence. Maybe the quote just happened to fit her topic — wilderness — and who cares where it came from? But I doubt it. Because as the digital world — in the form of a quit screen message — unexpectedly intruded into my reading experience, what came to mind were all the words I’d ever lost, drowned in the deep blue screen of a crashing computer, locked away on an unreadable floppy, or simply forgotten.
Everything not saved will be lost. Doesn’t this apply to story, too? What about all the words lost — perspectives and knowledge unavailable — because they were never written down in the first place? Writing is an act of preservation, too. We need stories like the one Brennan tells here — stories that take time and great persistence to research, consider carefully, and then fashion into a coherent and engaging narrative. Books like The Oyster War ask much of their readers: patience, openness, a willingness to see all sides of a situation. Are we at risk of losing these complex accounts in favor of a quick glance at the headlines? And if so, what then? Will we become locked in our own perspective, seeing only what we want to see and ignoring the rest?
WhoWhatWhy, the investigative reporting site led by Russ Baker, ran an essay by Larry Hancock on the futility of Hillary Clinton’s Benghazi hearing. Hancock is the author of Surprise Attack: From Pearl Harbor to 9/11 to Benghazi.
October 23, 2015
The underlying story of Benghazi is one that cannot and will not be talked about in any open session of Congress. This means that Thursday’s hearing featuring former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was nothing but an exercise in futility.
It is the story of a covert CIA operation that was operating from a separate facility in the Benghazi compound that was simply known as the “Annex.” Some two dozen CIA case officers, analysts, translators and special staff were a part of this operation and its security was provided by CIA Global Response Staff (GRS), who had entered the country under diplomatic cover.
The CIA’s mission included arms interdiction — attempting to stop the flow of Soviet-era weapons to Central Africa — and very possibly the organization of Libyan arms shipments to vetted insurgent groups on the ground in Syria.
There is also evidence that the mission was working in concert with military personnel from the Joint Special Operations Group Trans-Sahara. At the time of the attack, an unarmed American surveillance drone was in flight over the territory east of Benghazi and Trans-Sahara military personnel were stationed in the Libyan capital of Tripoli.
In contrast, the State Department’s special diplomatic mission facility, classified as “temporary,” was minimally staffed with a rotating series of State Department officers sent to and from Tripoli.
US Ambassador Christopher Stevens had not been in Benghazi for a year. When he arrived for a short stay in September 2012, only a single diplomatic officer was present there, and that officer rotated back to Tripoli upon the ambassador’s arrival. Stevens was accompanied by a communications officer and a handful of Diplomatic Service Security staff. The security personnel provided protection for the ambassador during his travels and meetings in the city. His presence was intended to be extremely low key, but it was exposed in the local media shortly after his arrival.
FRUITLESS, MEANINGLESS, POINTLESS QUESTIONING
Asking Clinton to justify maintaining the State Department temporary mission in the face of a worsening security situation is fruitless, given its actual function as a clandestine national security mission cover.
Questioning Clinton about that role would be as meaningless as questioning senior CIA personnel about operational information. Such missions cannot be publicly acknowledged or discussed, and revealing anything about them is strictly prohibited.
The same national security laws constraining State Department and CIA personnel also prevent lawmakers, other than those on select intelligence committees, from being briefed on such missions. And even those privileged individuals could not raise related questions in public — or even in closed sessions that include committee members or staff without the appropriate clearances.
In addition, querying Clinton about her involvement in the immediate response to the attacks is also pointless. The Secretary of State has no legal or operational role in a military response to a diplomatic facility attack. Only National Command Authority (president/secretary of defense) can order a foreign military intervention. The State Department does have Foreign Emergency Support Teams (FEST), composed of personnel from multiple agencies and maintained on alert to respond to crisis. But the FEST teams have no military elements and are dispatched only in the aftermath of a crisis, when the security situation allows. Following an attack their role is damage assessment and recovery.
Earlier investigations have already documented that President Obama ordered a military response immediately upon word reaching Washington. They showed as well that the AFRICOM commander responded to that order right away, directing deployment of the closest military quick reaction units — units which were on station in Spain, training in Eastern Europe, or back in the United States.
There were no armed American aircraft or naval units close enough to respond during the attack, those assets were in operation in Afghanistan, Iraq and around the Horn of Africa in Somalia and Yemen.
MAINTAINING A COVERT PROFILE
As for the well-equipped paramilitary operatives at the CIA station, according to their own statements, they were initially held back by the CIA station chief — as they had been in other incidents. And the station chief was, in turn, acting under his directive to let local militia groups respond. That practice was intended to maintain the station’s covert profile. Unfortunately, it was not consistent with providing any real time defense for the State Department compound.
Given all of the above, it is clear why the hearing quickly turned into a game of “pin the tail on the donkey.” As Democrats have claimed all along — and some Republicans have recently admitted — the committee’s work is mostly about beating up a political adversary and not at all about advancing the security of American diplomats abroad.
October 20, 2015
Jill Bialosky likes to do a lot of things.
As executive editor at W.W. Norton, she has worked with writers such as Nicole Krauss, Mary Roach and Thomas Lynch. As a poet, she has published four collections, most recently “The Players,” which came out earlier this year. Her 2011 memoir, “History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life”, documents the life and death of her youngest sibling, Kim, who killed herself in 1990 when she was just 21.
Then there are the novels — “The Life Room,” “House Under Snow” and the newly published “The Prize” (Counterpoint: 348 pp., $25), which tells the story of Edwin Darby, partner in an art gallery; father, son and husband; a man in the middle of his life, wrestling with his own commitment to art, to aesthetics and to commerce, as well as to the people he loves.
“It’s incredibly sustaining,” Bialosky told me recently, over coffee on an early fall morning in Manhattan, “to carry on a full-time job and also be a writer. My books build over time. I sometimes work on two or three projects at once, different forms, and this takes the pressure off each project.”
Bialosky is onto something there, I think, the balance required by doing many things, the sense that all this overlaps and yet remains distinct.
“Novels,” she said, “require the breadth to explore ideas, while poetry is more intimate. I build a collection poem by poem.” The same, in a different sense, is true of editing, which involves immersing in another writer’s project, another writer’s voice.
“It requires a different sort of concentration,” Bialosky explained. “I only edit one project at a time because I don’t want to get out of the writer’s head. It can be a great relief to plunge into another author’s work, but it is very important to keep it separate from my own.”
After our conversation in New York, I sent Bialosky some follow-up questions by email.
You’ve said autobiography is where writing starts, but autobiography is not enough. Some of your books — “House Under Snow” and certainly your memoir — grow out of the circumstances of your life, but in “The Prize,” not so much.
This novel represents my thinking over many years about art, commerce, integrity, betrayal, secrets and their power, and of course, desire and the sustaining power of love and marriage, so in a sense the book is very close to me, but not to my personal experience, if that makes sense.
The risk in writing close to personal experience is that it can be a trap and not allow for the imaginational pull, which is ultimately where transformation and insight occurs. Early drafts of “The Prize” were written in close third person, but I grew impatient with this perspective and I allowed an authorial narrator to be witness to the events transcribed. The first sentence of the novel is in this voice: “Edward Darby knew that an artist’s work had the power to change the way in which art was perceived, for every successful artist must recreate the medium, but he did not know, each time he went to a new artist’s studio, if he’d ever find it.”
I suppose this is how I feel about the art of writing, and in many ways, this novel is as much about the creative process as it is about a man at a crossroad. In writing “The Prize,” I thought about that a lot, and also about what the novel could do. Foremost I wanted the reader to be engaged and to keep turning the pages, and to do so, I had to create trouble for my protagonist, but I was also interested in his private world.
I suppose aspects of myself are in all the characters in the novel. In other words, it would be impossible to write a novel that did not in some ways capture some aspect of the essence of the author and his or her obsessions, concerns, but in this work, I was not seeking transparency. I suppose, too, that after writing “History of a Suicide,” I wanted to escape into a fictional world unlike my own, and I found it to be liberating.
Was it difficult to imagine your way into a different art world, a different artistic process? Or do you think that your work as a writer across genre, and also as an editor, made it easier to blur those lines?
I found it fascinating to write about artists and their artistic process. I found in many ways that it was similar to writing in the sense that both visual art and writing begin with obsession. There is an obsessiveness to any act of creation, and that clearly must be urgent to the artist and the writer, so there are similarities.
Of course, the mediums are different, and I loved imagining myself into the world of visual art because I admire its conceptual nature, closer perhaps to poetry than fiction, and admire the commitment.
An author is similar to an actor in the sense that in creating character, a writer must embody that voice, that being. In that sense, writing “The Prize” was pleasurably voyeuristic. Flaubert said: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” I like this statement because it mirrors my relationship to the many worlds I navigate. My life as an editor and a person in the world is fairly orderly and regular, which allows me to explore dangerous territory in my writing.
To access it, at least in “The Prize,” it was important to create a world separate from the one I navigate daily. Of course, this is counterintuitive to a new movement happening in literature where writers blur fiction and nonfiction, and here I am thinking of Ben Lerner and [Karl Ove] Knausgaard and Rachel Cusk, and those are writers I admire too, though I object to the idea that literature concerned more perhaps with transparency, and less with artifice, is not ultimately fictional. All art is fictional to a certain degree, isn’t it?
What of writing about a male protagonist? We talk a lot about the other in our culture, but your approach seems more about commonalities.
I wanted to create a male protagonist because I was interested in inhabiting and, to a degree, exploring the male psyche. I think this has to do with boredom, with keeping myself engaged in a long project. This novel took five years to write, in the weird way in which I write, diving into short periods of singularity and solitude, and then coming out into the world.
I had in mind that I would write a character who doesn’t fully know himself and witness the way in which his erotic and hidden desires come to the surface when his life suddenly becomes challenging. It’s Freudian, of course, but I believe that most of us act out unconscious wishes even when we believe ourselves to be conscious beings. Perhaps this is what you mean by commonalities?
Part of “The Prize” is about the making of art, and part about the business of art. As a writer and editor, you are involved in both yourself. To what extent does your experience color that set of movements in the book?
This is a fascinating and dangerous question, and I don’t want to think about it too hard as I want to celebrate the mystery a work of fiction must be.
What I mean by this is that any art — whether a poem, a novel, a story, a painting, sculpture, performance art — must to a certain degree remain unknowable, for this unknowability is what keeps the viewer, the reader intrigued. In other words, as I was writing the novel, I became so immersed in Edward and his world that I was not thinking at all about my own world, though of course on a daily basis as an editor I work closely with authors and engage in their process, and I also am fully aware of how books are packaged and promoted and the incongruity at times between art and commerce. I was very careful about navigating this slippery slope.
In short, book publishing is a fascinating and intellectually engaging profession, and I feel privileged to be a part of it and to serve my authors and the company in which I work, but I have no interest in writing about it.
You work on multiple projects at once, and I was hoping you might elaborate on that. How do they inform each other, either in terms of content or sensibility or in a more porous, experiential sense?
When I say “at once,” what I mean is that over a two- or three- or four-year period of time in which writing incubates — a book of poems or a novel, for instance. I am able to shift between the mediums, and I like the way in which they diverge and challenge me as a writer and thinker. What’s interesting about form is what I might discover through it that is not already accessible to me, and I suppose that is ultimately why I write.
In the five years in which I wrote “The Prize,” I was also working on a book of poems called “The Players.” I like moving between these forms. Poetry keeps me keenly aware of the precision of language and what it can do, and magic can happen on a small scale and still a powerful poem can be as impactful as a novel. In writing a novel, I am working on a big canvas and keeping a lot of balls in the air. Moving between the two forms allows me room to breathe and ruminate, if that makes any sense.
Among the most resonant aspects of the novel is its deep understanding about the communicative nature of art. This begins with the artist, but it also has to do with bringing the art to market, exposing it to an audience. To what extent does your knowledge of, and participation in, the “making of the sausage” influence what you write about and how?
I have an uncomfortable relationship with “the making of the sausage,” and I love that metaphor!
I get cranky when I think about the ways the media distorts the public’s sense of what is worthy of attention, and of course both art and literature need to be made known in order to flourish.
For instance, poetry gets little attention in mainstream media, and then we wonder why the public has an uncomfortable relationship to the form.
By the same token, there are six or seven books each season that suck out all the air in the room, get nominated for all the prizes, and I wish that book editors for newspapers and magazines and journals, and NPR and TV producers would take more risks and not feel as if they have to cover the same five or six or seven books.
Of course, as an editor and a writer, I want the books I edit or write to be among the six or seven sucking out all the energy, and this is what I mean by my uncomfortable relationship with the process!
Finally, though, I do believe that authenticity rises to the surface over time, and I suppose that is why I am so passionate about what I do as an editor and a writer.
The Washington Center for the Book administers the annual Washington State Book Awards (formerly the Governor’s Writers Awards), given for outstanding books published by Washington authors the previous year.
Dennis McNally, author of the book On Highway 61: Music, Race, and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom, was awarded a 2015 ASCAP Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award.
The 47th annual ASCAP Foundation Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award honors outstanding print, broadcast, and news media coverage of music. The awards were established in 1967 to honor the memory of composer, critic and commentator Deems Taylor, who died in 1966 after a distinguished career that included six years as President of ASCAP. Last year the Awards were renamed to also honor the memory of Virgil Thomson (1896 – 1989), one of the leading American composers and critics of the 20th Century, and a former member of the ASCAP board of directors.
Where were you when you found out about the National Book Award shortlist? How do you plan on celebrating?
I was at home when I got a call from the director of the National Book Award on Tuesday saying I had been shortlisted. I shrieked so loudly, my husband ran upstairs and we started jumping around, screaming. Every minute now feels like a celebration, to be honest.
And where were you when you first heard the news about being on the longlist? How did you react?
I was in Virginia, teaching at Hollins University, when I heard the news. It was 9 am and I knew the National Book Award was announcing the longlist, and I was kind of curious who was on it. So I clicked on the site and saw the cover of Refund, that shimmering gold. I actually thought I had gone insane for a moment; I called my husband Robert and said, “I think Refund’s on the longlist—is it real?” and he said, “Yes, it’s real!” I started laughing, a bolt of pure joy.
What are you reading right now?
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, which I’m reading with my tutorial group at Hollins. It captures the complexity of young women and ambition and connection with such depth and beauty. Recently finished Young Skins by Colin Barrett, which are just amazing short stories.
What’s the one book that you recommend to people, over and over?
It changes, depending on what book I have fallen in love with at that moment. The Collected Stories of John Cheever is a book that I so often recommend; his images illuminate the world in a way I haven’t seen until he has shown me. And recently, I tell people they must read Bobcat, the stunning story collection by Rebecca Lee.
Who are some of your writer mentors? Do you find that’s changed over time as you evolve as a writer or do they remain the same?
So many writers have shaped me at various points of my writing life. My work is often trying to converse with the works of these authors: Philip Roth, JD Salinger, Flannery O’Connor, Joy Williams, Lorrie Moore, John Cheever, James Baldwin, Cynthia Ozick, Grace Paley, Stanley Elkin, Jamaica Kincaid, Carson McCullers, Paula Fox, Junot Diaz.
What is your most prized book possession? A first edition? A gift? Please describe.
I don’t know if I have a prized book possession; my books are all important for what they taught me, the sentences and characters and stories that carved into me, really formed me. But I do feel warmly about the copy of The Catcher in the Rye that I read when I was in high school—it was the first book that made me cry.
Greenland’s Northwest Passage is known for Northern Lights and polar bears—but also resource grabs that harm the environment and threaten indigenous cultures. Kathleen Winter, author of the book Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage, chats with National Geographic about what she discovered in this mythic land.
October 14, 2015
For centuries, it was a chimera on the horizon of European dreams: a mythic sea-route through the Arctic that could link the riches of Asia to Europe. But even after the Northwest Passage had been charted, unless you had a nuclear-powered icebreaker, it remained firmly closed. Now, this mythic land and its resources is being unlocked by global warming.
So when Canadian author Kathleen Winter was invited on a scientific expedition to explore the passage, she jumped at the chance. In Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage, she explores the new realities of the North where Inuit are used as “human flagpoles” and the world’s superpowers are poised to make a land grab for the Arctic’s resources.
Speaking from her home in Montreal, she describes how objects dropped hundreds of years ago still dot the landscape; what a Greenland woman sang to a polar bear; and how she almost became trapped in the ice.
You describe the Northwest Passage as a land of fables and the channel of dreams. Why is it so mythical and what drew you to its romance?
It has always been a dual-natured fascination. Colonial governments intentionally capitalized on the romance of it, while looking to finance exploration of the passage to get the riches from a trade route to Asia. And it is a fabled land of dreams because it has been unattainable and closed in ice, which, as a liminal substance, reflects all light.
This is the place of the Northern Lights, the polar bear, things that seem mythical in a world where the everyday has less and less romance and mystery. There is a psychological beauty to being in a place of 24-hour light; a place also of 24-hour darkness. What does that do to the inside of a person? I was fascinated with the idea of going there and then, serendipitously, one morning I received an invitation. How could I say no?
As you are flying over Greenland, the pilot says about the landscape below, “A whole lot of nothing,” but you discover the opposite. What was beyond the apparent “nothingness” of the North?
Two things. One is the human imprint, the things that people have left behind. Nothing gets picked up by municipal works people. There are buttons and rusty kettles and bits of wood from ships’ crates. Some are from 10 or 20 years ago, some are from hundreds of years ago. Next to those things left behind are the archeological remnants of the indigenous people that go back millennia. It is all simultaneously on the ground, as if it had been dropped just this morning.
It is like a three-dimensional living history book in which the stories, words and parts of speech are things instead of words. That in itself is fascinating. But there’s also a mystery to each thing. Was this peg left by an Inuit person drying a caribou skin or was it left by a stranded, white explorer? There are so many possible dialogs about these artifacts. It’s a fascinating place to discover.
Then there are the animals, the land, the stones, the air, and the light. Those natural things had a powerful effect on me that I could only begin to put into words several years after I was there. How do I explain what the land said to me?
Describe the lamp lighting ceremony on your first night arriving in the North.
The lamp is made of stone with seal oil in it and a wick made out of plant material. The ritual was performed when we arrived in the North and as it was lit, we were told how light and flame are used in the North. The flame was so tiny and soft, yet the light it gave off was powerful. I could see the whole room, and everybody in the room. You could probably read by it and it gave off heat. It is such an ancient and non-technological thing. Just a flame floating in molten fat. But it looks like it is floating on water, and we were welcomed to the North by it.
Aaju is a Greenlandic Inuk woman, who now lives on Baffin Island, in Canada. Tell us why she prefers life in Canada even though the economy is better and more prosperous in Greenland.
We landed in Greenland first and saw beautifully painted and built houses. When we got to Canada, the houses are makeshift, inadequate. The whole living situation is fraught with social problems. A lot of the people on board the ship, myself included, asked Aaju what was going on?
She explained that Greenland, “looks nicer, but the food security is completely based on Danish and Southern principles. It’s commercialized; you buy and sell your catch. Whereas, in the north of Canada, we share it.” Then she added, “I would never go back to Greenland.”
I could understand her feelings. If you go into a supermarket, one of the co-op shops in the far north of Canada, you will not see sugar-filled, fake food at exorbitant prices that nobody can afford.
People like Aaju also practice another layer of food acquisition that is ancient and sustaining. It is also imperiled and threatened by modern practices of buying and selling, rather than sharing. This might not be as visible to tourists passing through, but Aaju said she wouldn’t exchange her freedom to share food she caught with her community for the Greenland model.
Let’s talk about the escalating resource grab going on in the Arctic—particularly with regard to oil.
Everywhere we went there was a military presence. Everybody thinks the Coast Guard is there to rescue grounded vessels, but it has been commandeered by geologists working for big oil companies and consortia of government and business, who are mapping the waters of the Arctic for oil exploration.
It’s not a new thing, either. The Canadian government physically moved Inuit people from more southerly communities and took them away from their families to put them farther north, as part of what was known as “human flagpoles,” to assert sovereignty. That is a huge part of the Canadian government’s agenda.
The recent discovery of the ships from Franklin’s expedition was, in my opinion, part of the Canadian government’s attempt to twin this romantic tragedy with an urge to take possession of the resources in the North.
You visit the graves of the first men to die on the doomed Franklin expedition and discover someone else lives on that island now. Tells us about Aaju and the Polar Bear.
We had arrived on Zodiacs, which transported us from the ship, and as we were standing there we heard crackling on the radio from the edge of our gun perimeter. Aaju and other members of the expedition crew formed a gun perimeter around us when we explored uninhabited places, as a lookout for polar bears. The watchman told us to get back to the Zodiacs because there was a male polar bear heading for us.
Polar bears look as if they’re loping slowly, but they are covering a great distance. He was only about two kilometers away. We were told not to hang back and try to watch, but as a writer I waited while the first two boats left.
Aaju went down on one knee on the stones and looked straight at the bear, as he loped towards us and then began to sing. She was not afraid. Her gun was lowered. She just stared the bear in the face and sang. Afterward I asked Aaju what she was singing to the bear.
“I was telling the bear that we respect that this is his place, not ours,” she told me. “That we mean him no harm; and to please know that we are leaving and that he has sovereignty over this place.”
You write, “In the Arctic, we do not own or contain individual thought, but rather move in a living element that contains us.” Can you unpack this sentence for us?
There were times when we could get away from the other passengers and walk on the land and be one with the land. It’s hard to talk about this in a way that people don’t just roll their eyes. All I can say is that I felt a distinct sensation that the boundary between ego and earth was dissolving in my consciousness.
I have heard environmentalists and native elders tell me we are connected to the earth. We hear things like that all the time. It was in the North that I experienced what that means in a deep and visceral way.
You have an abrupt end to your trip. Tell us what happened and how you were rescued.
It was the second to last day of our journey. We were about to sit down to dinner when there was a horrendous grinding sound coupled with a shaking and scraping of the ship. It took the best part of a minute for the ship to stop. When we stopped we were leaning at a six-degree angle after becoming grounded on some rocks. The first thing you do when you go aboard a ship is have lifeboat drill, which is a bit like a fire drill at school. But this time it was real.
The alarm went clang clang clang, the lifeboats were lowered into the water and we were all told to put on our lifejackets. It was a real crisis. After about an hour the captain announced that the ship was stable, and we were able to return on board. But we were there for three days before the Coast Guard could come and rescue us. Imagine if we had been on lifeboats or a nearby island for three days. But, unlike Franklin, we were lucky and had a fairly nice time being shipwrecked!
October 14, 2016
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald never won a prize. In 1925, the year it was published, the Pulitzer went to Edna Ferber for her novel So Big. How many readers have read this book or remember it?
In 1952 Catcher in the Rye lost the Pulitzer to The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk. Catcher in the Rye is a short novel told in the first person and is about a teenager disenchanted by the world of adults. The Caine Mutiny weighs in at over 500 pages and is a sprawling novel of life and mutiny on a Navy warship in the Pacific dealing with the moral complexities and the human consequences of World War II. Which work would now be regarded as literature?
In 1937 Margaret Mitchell took the prize for Gone with the Wind, the same year that William Faulkner published Absalom, Absalom!
Poor Ernest Hemingway. In 1930 A Farewell to Arms, along with The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, lost the Pulitzer to Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge. In 1941, the year that Hemingway published For Whom the Bell Tolls, no Pulitzer was awarded in fiction at all. We may remember the winner of a prize, but we often fail to recall the finalists that year or the vast array of deserving works that were overlooked.
Now that awards season is upon us, with various lists of contenders for the Booker, the National Book Award, and soon the National Book Critics Circle Award and Pulitzer Prize, it is interesting to step back and examine the place of prizes in literature. Do they necessarily reward greatness or works that, like a fine wine, gain stature over time? Do they simply reflect the taste of the jury at a particular moment in history? Or is it a little of both?
Prizes are not awarded by an omniscient god. They are based on a jury. The Pulitzer typically invites three to five judges to recommend works that then go to its 19 to 20 member board of newspaper journalists to make the final decision. The National Book Award seats five jurists. According to its blog, Critical Mass, The National Book Critics Circle divides “into informed, committed teams that focus on one category each. Those committees take their judging to the finalist stage, after which the board reunites into one massive voting group to choose the winners.” Although their choices may be worthy, does the 24-board-member committee have its ear tuned to the winds of media hype? When they meet to choose their finalists, typically announced in January, are they looking for the best books that year, books that may have been overlooked by the judges of the National Book Awards, for instance, which holds its award ceremony in November? Or do they hop on the bandwagon and support the same five or 10 books that — because a seven-figure advance was paid and publishers have a vested interest in getting the books known — are getting all the attention? Or because the NYTBR has chosen to give the book front-page acknowledgment? Or because a particular author’s work has been ignored in the past, even if the new work isn’t as strong as earlier work? Do they purposely seek out a book by a smaller press to stir up debate? Why is it that the same books generally tend to be acknowledged by various prize committees?
Roxanna Robinson, president of the Authors Guild says, “I am very wary of a book that has won more than one prize. Then it seems like a lemming award. Two things I wish would change: One, that prize-awarders would agree tacitly not to award more than one prize to any given book. There are always a number of good books in any season, and for one book to get more than one award is a huge waste of public attention — there are other books that could use it. Two, I wish some of the many First Novel awards would shift their sights to writers in mid-career. Those are the writers who often need support, if their first books weren’t blockbusters, or didn’t win a prize.”
About awards, author Alex Kates Shulman’s feelings are mixed: “Of course I like getting one, which feels validating, and my desire to read a book shoots up a little bit if it has won an award, even though I know the process is basically corrupt. Awards help the few and hurt the many and probably make literary culture a little less welcoming to most writers and more clubby. Having been on award committees, I’ve seen that those who have an advocate or friend on the committee (preferably male and loud) are the ones who usually win. And then there are those writers, some very good (or who seldom get reviewed): I’ve seen them get discouraged and even depressed — the opposite of validated.”
What happens to writers who do win awards? Does it affect their own perceptions of their work? I asked Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Philip Schultz. “Winning the Pulitzer Prize affected me in many helpful, sustaining ways. It was certainly surprising. The attention it brought to my work helped me find more time to actually write, which no doubt affected my process, too. But one’s creative process is a mysterious, unknowable source, and I doubt anything external can really affect what takes places at its core.”
The Pulitzer and National Book Awards help the publishing industry because they ignite sales and interest in books in general and invite traffic into the bookstore. If consumers go to the bookstore to purchase the latest novel by Jennifer Egan or Elizabeth Strout after it won the Pulitzer, the likelihood is that they will pick up or be made aware of another book. Prizes affect sales, advances, and influence. Prize-winning books that earn a gold stamp of approval, even if the judging that goes on behind the scenes is subjective, tend to be volumes that book club members will choose for their book club inflating further the worth (and sales) of the book. But while prizes offer a greater visibility for an author and his or her award-winning book, do they necessarily validate a work’s artistic worth?
Joyce Hackett, whose novel Disturbance of the Inner Ear won the Kafka Prize for fiction, said her book “gained far more recognition that it might otherwise have, after it won. Still, prizes reflect one thing: the taste of this year or this era’s committee. A book like The Known World, which won every prize, has only grown in stature since it was published. On the other hand, the Nobel list is littered with people who are no longer read.” But still she sees the benefits of such distinction: “One of the great things about literature is that it’s as individual as the souls who read and write it. Well-read people can have completely contradictory, equally valid lists of what’s great and what’s unreadable.”
Perhaps, in the end, a work’s worth can only be based on the beholder’s sense of what qualifies as greatness, and it is the artist alone who holds the power of validation over his or her work.
When Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1945, he refused to accept it — as he did for all awards — out of fear that by accepting the award he would be aligning himself with an institution. He believed that individuals must create their own purpose in life. “The writer must therefore refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution, even if this occurs under the most honorable circumstances, as in the present case,” he said. “If I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre it is not the same thing as if I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prizewinner.”
I can’t think of many writers today who would not want to sign their name as a Nobel Prize winner.