Conversation with Donald Breckenridge

Intern Nancy discusses inspiration, his new book, and more with our new Black Sparrow author.

One of our new Black Sparrow titles, And Then by Donald Breckenridge refreshes the traditional ghost story with dynamic interwoven narratives and direct language that subverts the typical suspense of the genre to contemplative tension. The hauntings explored in the novel go beyond encounters with strangers who have passed to become ghosts and those fleeting moments that are nestled within our memories. An engaging read with the crisp emotional clarity of an unaffected narrative, And Then is a succinct read that leaves you feeling fulfilled.

Donald Breckenridge is the author of four novels and the editor of two fiction anthologies. He also engages in editorial work as the Fiction Editor of the Brooklyn Rail, the Co-Founder and Co-Editor of InTranslation, and the Managing Editor of Red Dust Books.

Your career thus far seems deeply involved in the literary world, from writing novels to editorial work with the Brooklyn Rail, InTranslation, and Red Dust Books. As you started your career, did you see yourself as a writer first or an editor?

Writing fiction evolved out of writing plays and that was something that grew out of my interest in acting. When I came to New York at twenty I was deeply involved with the theater, I helped found a small company in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and then gradually, when financial and aesthetic necessity began to dictate otherwise, I cautiously drifted into fiction. I say cautiously because I had almost no confidence in my ability to write fiction, and while writing dialogue and blocking for the stage came easily, especially in a youthful and wildly open collaborative environment, writing fiction was and still is a highly challenging route. Then about six months before my first novel was published, when I was thirty-three, I became very close with a few editors and the publisher at the Brooklyn Rail just when they decided that they wanted to publish fiction on a regular basis. I was asked to come on board and since it was guaranteed that I would have complete control over the content of the section I readily agreed. Until that point I never had the slightest intention of becoming an editor although I have always been an avid reader. So when I began at the Rail I saw myself as an aspiring writer simply posing as an editor who was positively determined to give back to the community by publishing work by other young ascending authors, older authors who at one point in their careers might have been successful from a commercial standpoint who were now being neglected by larger publishing houses and subsequently shunned by smaller independent houses, so-called experimental literature, and of course, world literature in translation which has always been my principal focus as a reader, my first love, and where I derive nearly all of my influences as a writer. At the time I expected that my involvement with the Rail would capture a moment, a very brief moment in time, that I would eventually outgrow this posturing then drift away from editing. Of course the exact opposite has happened; I have been at the Rail for sixteen years now, InTranslation, the journal I founded with Jen Zoble, turns ten years old this April, and my involvement with Red Dust, Joanna Gunderson, who founded Red Dust in 1962 and ran it for decades by herself, published my first novella in ’98, is only really just beginning.

That seems like a very fruitful way to connect to a creative environment and community, especially since fictional prose does not often have the same outlets as theater. I think the examples that can be found in literary history also make writing seem like a very solitary process, so editorial work does seem like a communal extension to that task. Do you find that your playwriting and editorial work influence your novels?

You are absolutely correct, writing fiction is an incredibly solitary process, which is one of the things that I really enjoy about it. Although on occasion it is a pretty good idea to leave the desk and brave the great outdoors. To be honest one of the hardest things for me when I was involved in the theater was being so exposed, it was nearly always too much, on stage or not, as I have never been very comfortable in my own skin. Being an editor and an author is a lot like being in the world but not quite being of the world. Editing and writing are both highly selective; you take your sweet time while you pick and choose. It is important to never rush. When working with a writer I always try to be as non-intrusive as possible. I’ve never aspired to be a tastemaker or a trendsetter. I’ve nearly always found ambitious writers, artists in general but writers in particular, to be incredibly dull self-absorbed imbecilic clowns. When I find a singular story, or a stand alone chapter, or a book that works brilliantly or has the potential to work brilliantly I want it, I have to have it; and if I’m lucky enough to get my paws on it I’ll do everything in my power to make it perfect. I can be incredibly harsh with my own work and occasionally that turns out to be a detriment but more often than not that is what saves the book. And finally, my technique of imbedding dialogue while cementing characterization around a character while they navigate a moment on the page is something I’ve adapted from writing plays:

“You boil a few medium-sized potatoes,” Russell had finished cooking them, “the red ones,” when Tom returned from the bodega. “Make sure you leave the skins on,” Russell emptied the pot into the colander, “the flavor is in the skins,” and steam rose from the sink. Tom removed two cold forties of Ballantine from the brown paper bag, “Here you go,” placed one on the counter, “the sour cream and butter is in the bag.” And Then (page 70)

The imbedded dialogue technique does add immediacy to the scenes. I think it also adds a sense of transience that feels very lived in. It’s exciting to read and clearly a benefit from having been involved in theater! I also admire the way you approach acquisitions. It can be tough for authors to find publishers that want to take a chance on their writing, but your energetic appeals really speak to your enthusiasm for reading and providing good books to read. You mentioned that translated works are very important to you. Do you read in languages other than English? How do foreign books find their way into your influences? Ionesco, for instance, is the epigraph to And Then.

I can only read English. I was born with the wrong genes when it comes to learning other languages, unless it is a wine list, only then am I truly multi-lingual. I became a voracious reader in my early teens, and world literature has always been extremely important to me. Much of And Then is a cumulative response to the work of Claude Simon, who has always been one of my heroes. Simon, thanks to Richard Howard, Jordan Stump, Helen R Lane and Jim Cross’ stellar translations, really illuminated the multiplicity of roles and possibilities a novel can accomplish while telling a compelling story. His masterful ability to explode fragmentary narratives into gorgeous mosaics while still retaining their overall push through the plot while his characters continue their gradual evolution is something that I never grow weary of reading. Also, Eugene Ionesco, his writing touched me when I was in my early teens and reading Ionesco, not just the plays but his fiction, and most importantly, his journals, helped me understand the limitations and possibilities not only of language but of existence as well. I have found the epigraphs for all of my books in the pages of Ionesco’s memoir Present Past, Past Present.

Navigating a wine list is a good skill to have; an even better one is navigating the possibilities of world literatures. There seem to be an abundance of voices that you channel into your works. Can you expand a little more on how And Then is a response to Claude Simon?

Yesterday I was visiting John Reed’s class at the New School, where I had been invited to talk to his students about how to go about submitting fiction to editors at literary publications, anyway, after the class a few of his students asked me about my forthcoming novel, and when they commented on how much they liked the title, And Then, I informed them that I had taken it from Soseki’s masterpiece of the same name. This would be the Norma Moore Field translation that Perigee Books published in ’82, and that Tuttle recently brought back into print. Natsume Soseki is another writer whose work, and I have to confess that he is one of a half dozen authors obviously including Claude Simon, is someone that I am always returning to and responding to in my fiction. All of Soseki’s protagonists share a sense of discomfort with their world, maybe exquisitely cautious dislocation is a better way of putting it, what Soseki does with dislocation is truly extraordinary, that nearly constant sense of cautious unease with the present is so expertly crafted and effortless. I have stolen the title from his novel And Then, but I owe his book To the Spring Equinox and Beyond (translated by Kingo Ochiai and Sanford Goldstein, Tuttle Classics ’85) a massive debt as one of the main story lines in And Then is a response to that absolute gem. So anyway, while I was on the subway on my way home from the New School last night after this class I was thinking about your request to expand a bit more on the writing of Claude Simon in relation to my own paltry attempts at writing fiction and I’ve decided to respectfully decline to elaborate any further on the matter of influences. Believe me, I can go on and on about the writers who have influenced my work all afternoon, and I do greatly appreciate your questions, and maybe I’m being coy but in this case I think tossing a few bread crumbs on the path might be better than leaving you a tidy trail of stones.

That’s just fine! You gave me a thorough response, and I think there’s more than enough room for guesswork and intrigue in your answers. It’s good to leave some mystery in the process, and it leaves room for discussing And Then. It seems from the introduction that And Then is partially autobiographical. What was the emotional process of working on the novel like? The candid emotional discussions about dealing with life’s transience were particularly powerful to me as a reader. Was writing this novel cathartic in anyway?

Initially I wanted to write a ghost story about two people who occupied the same apartment at different points in time, to examine their possible connections and similarities while alternating the story lines—as the one who first occupies the space returns to haunt the one who comes later—while living through what I strongly suspected to be the last few years of my father’s life. I had actually encountered a ghost in the spring of ’06 and my intention was for this ghost story, inspired by actual events, to be informed by what I was experiencing with my father, it was to be my filter, and my plan was to keep the impending trauma at arms-length while gradually processing it through this ghost story. I began the book in earnest in the early spring of ’09 and my father passed away in the fall of ’10. I finished the book in the spring of ’13 and actually placed it that fall with Ted Pelton at Starcherone. He agreed to take the book but told me that he wouldn’t be able to publish it until the fall of ’15. So the story had served it’s purpose, and although it was complete and would soon be published, somehow a sideways confidence gradually overcame me in the summer of ’13, and I found myself writing out the last few months of my father’s life, describing how things ended for him, the where and how of why he chose to die, then going back further and really examining our relationship. Unblinking. I wanted to honestly describe this landscape of living memory. Everything in And Then that happened to my father is true. Everything that happened to me in this book is also true. My father and I were very close friends. What happened to him is just as what you’ve read in the book. It was an ugly and brutal way for someone to die. Writing out the 3rd part of the book, this autobiographical section was extremely painful and also wildly nostalgic in the best possible way. And yet he is still gone and I think of him everyday. I’m very grateful for the time we had together. I never suspected I would have the courage much less the ability to actually tell our story. So the initial ghost story became a stage for what gradually became the autobiographical section of the book, and finally, I wove all three sections together so now there are three alternating narratives instead of two.

Your dedication to recording the end of your father’s life and your understanding of the situation is apparent in the text. The ending, too, is matter-of-fact but sensitive. You leave the reader with a sense of closure without attempting to flourish. The image of the ghost is also well rendered! Is there a scene in the book that you enjoy rereading the most or that you feel most satisfied with how you wrote it?

I think that the Gare du Nord opening for the book works well to set a tone for what is to come, it is also a very concise narrative summary of an extraordinary work of art. That was an absolute pleasure to write. When I read out I tend to open with that, so much so that most of the people who have seen me read out in the last few years are growing a bit weary of hearing it. And I’m really happy that you like the way the ghost came off. That was a really incredible experience, it opened up an entire world of new possibilities, although not everyone believes me when I tell them about it. I think people who have encountered ghosts can relate to that moment whereas people who haven’t actually had that experience think that I might have lost my mind, or that I am spinning them a really convoluted yarn. Have you ever encountered a ghost? Generally feeling satisfied with what I have done is a giant red flag—a sure sign that something is horribly wrong with what I’m attempting—although there are a respectable number of places in the book that became high points when I completed them. Passages where the writing serves as a standard for what comes next. I’ve tried to pitch all the half-baked telling, the neon-illuminated characterizations and all the dull explications into the trash. Perhaps that is why the book is only 100 pages long. Which is probably a perfect length for me.

I wouldn’t say that I’ve encountered a ghost, but I’ve had ghostly events happen that I can’t attribute to anything else. It really makes you less skeptical when you’ve seen or experienced events that you can’t quite explain. Do you anticipate exploring ghostly themes or spiritual storylines in future works? It seems to have made a strong and positive impact on your writing. Perhaps there are more possibilities from here.

As a massive fan of Poe, Wilkie Collins, Nerval, Arthur Machen, Gautier, and J S LeFanu the realm of the supernatural has always captivated me on the page. I’ve always appreciated the genre but I wasn’t someone who believed—it was a device, atmospheric coloring, suspenseful sepia from another century and when used effectively by a master like Machen the end results were always profound—and even if I did believe I would certainly never even entertain the idea of confessing it in public. Is the Easter Bunny next? No, my worldview was far too steeped in the concrete and existential calamities of this toxic century, justifiably cynical, but yes, to answer your question, absolutely. The fantastic and spiritual are new vocabularies, doors are always opening and if the walls don’t cave when you put your back into them then they are probably easy to climb, and hopefully I’ll eventually learn how to incorporate them effectively into other writing projects.

Those sound like exciting prospects to me. Ghost stories and the supernatural have a broad potential for creating different atmospheres and stories. Is there anything else about And Then that you would like potential readers to know or keep in mind as they approach the novel?

I think that’s it.

Author Interview: David Cundy

Intern Amy asks the hard-hitting questions we all want to know


Animals Spell Love teaches readers of all ages how to express the word “love” in sixteen languages from around the globe, using critters made of letters. With its vivid colors, striking design, and positive message, it’s an especially good read during this holiday season. As an enthusiastic, lifelong lover of children’s books, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to learn more about the process of creating them. Having also studied literary translation and foreign languages in college (though sadly I know only one other language, not sixteen!), I’m always intrigued to learn more about how language can translate to image, and vice versa. I was thrilled to interview author and designer David Cundy about the creation of Animals Spell Love, his debut children’s book and to hear more about his design and life philosophies.

I’m interested in how you came to write Animals Spell Love. Is this a project you’ve been thinking about for a long time, or was there some event that sparked the idea?


Animals Spell Love was six years in the making. It came from serendipity: I composed the Czech lovebirds to illustrate a poem I’d written, and was greeted by the necessary book.


You’ve been working in art and design for most of your adult life—how/why did you decide to translate those skills to a book?


You mean books plural! Planning ahead about a decade ago, I knew I’d want to engage in fulfilling work in my “Third Age” – the stage of life after youth, employment and family raising. Writing, the recoalescence of my early-career aspirations to be an artist and poet, was the natural path. And because books endure, authors are able to create cultural memory, and to influence the future. The inspiration behind Animals Spell Love was the opportunity to “accentuate the positive,” to demonstrate the universality and diversity of love throughout the world, to educate children and to remind adults. I’m well into the sequel, so stay tuned!


You mention that your “linguistic explorations” have included French, Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, and Spanish. What inspired these explorations? Where and how did you study these languages?

The first source of inspiration would be my middle school Latin teacher, who showed us how so many English words are classically derived. By then, I was immersed in mythology, which is subliminal storytelling. Latin led to Greek, which is more difficult because you need to learn a new alphabet, and Greek to Sanskrit, the hat-trick Indo-European language, which inspired Animals Spell Love’s blue monkey – Hanuman, the Monkey King from the Ramayana.


How did you decide which languages to include in the book? Some of them are commonly understood (Spanish, French) but others, like Amharic, are specific to one country or region of the world. What kind of tools did you use to research languages you were not as familiar with?


I selected the sixteen languages in Animals Spell Love to represent as many people as possible, and to cover the widest geographic territory. Over three billion people speak the languages used in Animals Spell Love! Chinese, for example, is spoken by almost a billion people, Hindi and Spanish by around 500 million each, and Amharic and Thai by over 20 million each.


What was your creative/design process for Animals Spell Love?

The process was – using type as my palette – to evaluate what I had to work with, and then to experiment, to look for happy accidents. And to vary the illustrations stylistically to communicate diversity visually in the same way the languages and letterforms literally did.


david-cundy-process-image


The images were sometimes homages – the crickets to Kazue Mizumura’s If I Were a Cricket, and the ducks to Marjorie Flack’s and Kurt Wiese’s The Story About Ping. The ducks themselves were modeled on a pair of Qing dynasty boxes from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s image collection, and the illustration itself (a shaped poem inspired by Apollinaire’s calligrams) is literally a Spring poem by Du Fu, which tenderly closes, “two ducks are napping on warm sand.”


What were some of the challenges you faced in creating Animals Spell Love (i.e. working with unfamiliar languages/alphabets, creating recognizable creatures from letters)?


Besides pronunciation, the most difficult linguistic challenge came down to the fact that in some languages, “I love you” takes a different form for masculine, feminine, platonic, romantic and honorific. For example, in Amharic, the form is different if you are addressing an elder; in Chinese and Japanese, the literal sentiment would be considered too personal, so it’s replaced by something like, “I like you.” Structurally, Arabic was most difficult to compose because its letters have initial, medial and final (as well as isolated) forms, and because, like Hebrew, it reads from right to left.


Illustrating Animals Spell Love, on the other hand, was pure fun. Constructing the animals from letterform and ideogram building blocks was like playing a game or solving a puzzle, and when the images materialized, it was like seeing magic tricks performed! And foreign languages are inherently mysterious – like hieroglyphs or secret messages.


What authors or illustrators have influenced and inspired you the most?


Growing up with great children’s books in an era of great children’s book illustrations, I came to admire many author/illustrators and illustrators. Inspirations included the icons – Tenniel, Potter, Rey, McCloskey, Lawson and Seuss, and lesser-knowns like Wanda Gág (Millions of Cats) and Nicolas Mordvinoff (Finders Keepers). Artists who inspired illustrations in the book include Durer, Hiroshige and Peter Max. Graphic designer Bradbury Thompson’s typographic face for Westvaco, a paper company, is a direct antecedent of the illustrations in Animals Spell Love.


Animals Spell Love is ostensibly a children’s book, but it’s complex enough for adults to enjoy as well. Did you intentionally design the book to appeal to a broader audience? Who do you hope will read this book?


The artistic, cultural and literary allusions are entirely intentional – there’s something for everyone! I’m hoping the book will appeal to readers from 5 to 95: that it will be enjoyed by parents and children, and grandparents and grandchildren, since love is experienced when sharing a book; that it will inspire children to appreciate and learn languages, which are instrumental in kids’ development of empathy; and that teachers will use it as a springboard tool. Because I’m a bit of a romantic, I’m also hoping that lovers of all ages will fall in love with Animals Spell Love and share it as a gift.


You talk about how Animals Spell Love represents your life philosophy. Are there any specific events, interactions, or memories that led you to that philosophy, the idea that we “owe it to ourselves to make each other’s lives better”? How does Animals Spell Love represent that philosophy?


My mother was a saint and teacher who gave me an optimistic temperament and a lifelong love for books. Parents endeavor to make their children’s lives better; as an author, I guess I’m transmitting my mother’s meme – that the way to live is to be loving and kind. I hope that Animals Spell Love conveys that helpful message to people today – and in the future.


What’s your favorite image or animal in Animals Spell Love, and why?


While I haven’t chosen any favorites, I look forward to hearing from readers about theirs! Actually, some of my favorite things in Animals Spell Love are its secret pleasures, like the foil stamped LOVE lunette hidden under the dust jacket, and Tchaikovsky’s “Gentle Stars” song in the Russian vignette. To notice these things, you’ve got to C#! And the book closes with an elfin pair of tangram mice sharing cheese, the animal metaphor for my approach and message, which are to persuade with subtlety and humor, and to convey the still revolutionary idea that, to paraphrase the Beatles, “all we need is love.”

 

Author Interview: Adam Van Doren

Intern Allie asks the hard-hitting questions we all want to know.

Adam Van Doren is the author of The House Tells the Story (2015), and An Artist in Venice (2013).  Van Doren’s artwork is included in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago; The Wadsworth Atheneum; The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Princeton University Art Museum; and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. His work has been exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., among other institutions. Van Doren teaches at Yale University, where he is also an Associate Fellow, and is a graduate of Columbia University. He has written and directed two documentaries about the arts which were broadcast on PBS and cable television: James Thurber: The Life and Hard Times, narrated by George Plimpton, which was awarded a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities; and Top Hat and Tales: Harold Ross and the Making of The New Yorker, narrated by Stanley Tucci.

In your introduction you explain that the criteria for the houses featured was (1) that the house for the most part be architecturally interesting, (2) that the choice be apolitical, (3) that you should be granted permission to visit it, and, knowing that presidents have lived in more than one house in their lifetimes, (4) that you consider residences that have an especially intriguing connection to the presidents themselves. With so many to choose from, I imagine it was a difficult decision. Which residences almost made the final cut, but didn’t?

Others that were high on the list were Reagan’s ranch in California, Andrew Jackson’s The Hermitage in Nashville [Tennessee], Lincoln’s house in Springfield [Illinois], LBJ’s ranch in Texas, and James Madison house in Virginia. (Maybe a sequel is in order!)

You mention the great tradition of illustrated letters in your introduction as well, along with the 2007 Smithsonian exhibition More than Words that featured many of these correspondences. Browsing through some of them online, I was particularly intrigued by Joseph Lindon Smith’s letters to his parents (his handwriting is fascinating), Allen Tupper True’s letters to his daughter, and Rockwell Kent’s letters to Frances Kent (especially the “My darling—I do!”). Were there any that struck you in particular or that served as inspiration for your own illustrated letters to David McCullough?

Yes, a wonderful collection of letters by Edward Ardizzone was a great source of inspiration. I can’t imagine a better artist/writer for this ”genre.”

Early on, you explain that this was an ideal project due to your interests and background in both art and architecture. Which house was the most enjoyable to paint, and which did you find the most architecturally interesting? Are these things directly correlated with one another in your personal experience?

I would say Teddy Roosevelt’s house at Sagamore Hill because I happen to be a great admirer of the great shingle style houses of the Gilded Age, which are masterpieces of a complex, asymmetrical design.

Many of these houses have beautiful libraries. Did any of the books on the shelves surprise you? You listed several titles for Truman, but I was curious if there were others.

I was interested in Jimmy Carter’s personal library (in the house he nows lives in) which has many poetry collections, including Dylan Thomas, one of his favorites.

You mention presidential artifacts such as FDR’s stamp collection, Jefferson’s souvenirs from Lewis and Clark, and Teddy Roosevelt’s assortment of rifles and hunting trophies. Which collection or artifact was most interesting to you, and which did you find to be most revealing about its owner?

I would say Truman’s home. Many of his personal items were not valuable per se, but they were meaningful to him and his family, and they reveal a great deal about who Truman was as a person.

You mention a quote from Jefferson that clearly states his opinion on architecture: “Palladio is the Bible.” Do you agree with him?

Yes, it is required reading for any understanding of great architecture. It is a classic treatise that teaches timeless lessons about proportion, planning, decoration, etc. that can apply to both traditional and modern architecture.

Aside from the White House’s intense security and the oppressive heat in the summer at Mount Vernon, were any of the houses challenging to paint in other ways, logistically or otherwise?

Yes, getting access to the Kennedy compound in MA, and the homes of the Bushes and Jimmy Carter required a fair amount of planning with the presidents themselves and the secret service, since these homes are private and not open to the public.

Describing Jefferson’s genius in his design of Monticello, you write that he had somehow managed to “plan for spontaneity!” Do you try to do something similar when you paint by creating the optimal conditions to allow room for spontaneity in your work?

Yes, I always come prepared. I paint on site, so I have to be ready for all sorts of change in weather and sunlight. I also work on both white papers and tinted papers, and I often make a decision on the spot which ones I want to paint on.

The insides of the houses are just as fascinating as their exteriors. I was surprised to learn that George Washington chose a bold green for his dining room in keeping with the latest fashions of his time, and I was less surprised to learn that Teddy Roosevelt had an original man-cave. Have any rooms in particular left lasting impressions on you more than others?

I was taken with JFK’s bedroom at his parents’ home in Hyannis. It has been left exactly as it was when he last visited it, including the objects in the room and the prints on the wall. It was very moving to see.

Do you find you paint architecture differently after learning more about a place and its inhabitants? Where do you locate the subjectivity in your paintings?

Once I learn more about a president, I tend to emphasize certain aspects over others. For instance in the case of George H. W. Bush, I wanted to emphasize the isolated, exclusive quality to the family compound, so I choose the vantage point of the rocky outcrop which the house sits on, by the ocean’s edge, so you get a sense that the structure is all alone.

Author Interview: Builder Levy

Intern Jack asks the hard-hitting questions we all want to know

Appalachia USA is an honest, unrelenting and thoroughly humanist look at the people of the Appalachian coal mining communities in southwestern Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. Through his photographic lens and insightful commentary, Builder Levy illuminates the human stories and moments beneath the thin, black layer of coal dust and paints a deeply moving picture of the personal and environmental impacts of the mining industry’s ceaseless search for veins of black gold. In his photographs we see mothers struggling to protect their children, men and women fighting for their rights as workers, but above all we see the same warmth in their eyes that unites us all.

Builder Levy is a graduate of Brooklyn College of City University of New York as well as New York University. He has worked as a New York City teacher of at-risk adolescents for thirty-five years. He works to highlight the humanity of Appalachian coal miners in much the same manner that Walker Evans did for disadvantaged farmers in the dust bowl. His photographs are in more than 80 collections around the world.

Having studied Marxist critical theory at university, I took a deep interest in Levy’s portrayals of union culture and his focus on the working person, as well as the negative impacts of the energy industry’s operation in Appalachian America. His photographs are simultaneously sobering and heartwarming, and create a unique and endearing sense of familiarity between reader and subject. I asked him questions in order to learn more about his past experiences as a photographer, teacher and a union member.

As someone who grew up in Brooklyn and has lived in New York City for most of your life, how did you find yourself interested in photographing rural Appalachian mining towns?

Toward the end of the sixties, I felt I needed to see and experience more of America outside of NYC. I had spent most of the sixties photographing in the streets of Brooklyn and New York City. I had also photographed at the March on Washington where Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. I had photographed at mass marches and demonstrations in New York City and a few more in DC for civil rights and peace. In addition, in April 1968, I flew to Memphis, Tennessee to photograph the “Martin Luther King Memorial March for Union Justice and to End Racism,” and then to Atlanta, Georgia to photograph the Martin Luther King Funeral. That summer I began my “Appalachia USA” project, although I didn’t come up with that title until 2008.

I had been raised in a family that encouraged art, and believed the world needed to be changed. As a little kid I listened to my parents’ records of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie singing “Which Side Are You On,” a song about coal miners’ struggles, written by the wife of a striking miner in Harlan County, Kentucky, and many other songs including: “John Henry” and “Oh Freedom”. In the small multiracial progressive children’s summer camp I attended in Wilmington, Vermont, we sang those same songs. Today they still resonate with me.

Why did you select Appalachia for this project?

Appalachian miners [have] struggled against some of the most powerful industrial and corporate forces on earth to make life better for themselves, their families, and workers throughout the nation. (In the 1930s and ‘40s the United Mine Workers helped organize the United Steel Workers and the United Autoworkers.) During slavery, the Underground Railroad had many way stations manned by mountaineer settlers in Appalachia, and during the civil war, 250,000 southern Appalachian mountain boys volunteered for the Union army in the war against the Confederate slaveocracy. The Appalachians, the oldest and most biodiverse mountain range in North America, was originally the hunting grounds of the Cherokee and other indigenous people. Appalachian miners were not a monolithic ethnic group, but a polyglot that included African Americans, eastern Europeans, Western Europeans, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Italian, Mexican, Native Americans and others. This project allowed me to make photographs as art while immersing myself into the life of a very significant, yet often mischaracterized and misunderstood rural region of America, in the hope of finding and revealing deeper American reality and truths.

Would you say your teaching career has affected your photographic style or your outlook on life? If so, how?

My students were mostly adolescents of color from poor, working-class families. Some had been in gangs. Some came from foster homes. Some came from jails and/or prison. I talked with them. I listened to them. I got them to write about and photograph their own lives. They shared their lives with me. They enriched my life and my understanding of life. I learned that if you show people you are genuinely interested in them, their lives, their humanity, and culture, and are willing to listen and interact with them, they will often open up to share something of their own lives. I could be given so much from my students and my photographic subjects. I learned how to allow people—students/subjects to give [some] of themselves to me so that in return, I could give something back to them and the world, through my teaching and my photographs. I taught that the students could find their subject matter and vision in their own lives and within their families, their communities, heritage, culture, and struggles. I worked alongside my students, encouraging examples of strength, dignity, love, and camaraderie. I taught by my own example, but also with examples of the great photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eugene Atget, Lewis Hine, Paul Strand, Dorothea Lange, Roy de Carava, W. Eugene Smith, Robert Frank and Peter Magubane. I approached teaching as a way to share and raise consciousness, and while interacting with my students and their lives, enriching and raising my own consciousness as well. By working with my students and getting them to create writing and photography about their own lives, they inspired and enriched my life — [this is] reflected in my own photographs as well.

You mentioned in the Adore Noir interview that several of the places you photographed have since been destroyed by mountaintop removal, flooding, highway construction, or other causes. ( The subject “Coal Camp,” for instance, was gone when you returned in the new millennium), what is it like to return to a location you previously photographed only to find it missing?  

The feeling is of a void, a sadness, an emptiness!   A way of life and a community is disappearing. The dying mines need to be replaced with new industry and living wage jobs. Such could be in education, the health/medical field, environmental reclamation, sustainable energy fields—wind power, solar power, music and visual arts and cultural centers, etc.

When I revisited Raleigh and Boone Counties, West Virginia, in the new millennium, I considered revisiting Stotesbury, where I had made my photograph “Oglesby Bedroom” in Luther Oglesby’s home, in 1982. But I was told there were only a few homes and families left out of the hundreds that I had seen in 1982. I had lost touch with the family. In May I heard from the Oglesbys. The daughter in the photograph, her daughter emailed me with info about the family, and we talked and emailed and caught up. And in June I spoke with Dora Oglesby (the one in the photo). Now there are only three houses left in the whole coal camp.

It is a feeling of loss. A void.

What is the state of mining unions in Appalachia today?  Is their power on the rise, or are they seeing stagnation?

Beginning in the 1980s and accelerating in the 1990s, many of the large coal companies aggressively tried to break the union contract and run non-union mines. One result was less down time in the mine to remedy safety issues. Safety was sacrificed for increased production and profits. There was a rise in mine accidents and fatalities. The worst was at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, Raleigh County, West Virginia, where 29 miners died from a methane explosion in 2010. Mines have been closing all over Appalachia and employment is steadily declining. A number of large mining companies have filed for bankruptcy. Membership in the UMWA has been declining as well. The union is weaker in terms of numbers and influence today.

Could you tell us a little about your experience with the teachers’ unions during your time as a teacher in New York?

It is a long story, but the short answer is, I am a union man! I come from a union family. I like to say, “Coal miners and teachers are among America’s unsung heroes.” The union fought for and won smaller class size, no asbestos in the schools, pensions, a decent salary, paid holidays, and healthcare.

Why do you take pictures?

It gives me a heightened sense [of] being alive. It is my way of being intensely connected to the world. It allows me to explore/discover/experience/interact/teach/reveal/be involved in the real world and simultaneously be deeply immersed in the aesthetic process, to create something new—a photographic print as a physical art object that is imbued with a new consciousness in and of the world. I want my photographs to take on a life of their own. To change the world.

The humanity of your subjects is obviously an incredibly important part of your work.  Do you find your presence as an outsider in their community prevents them from opening up and being themselves, or is it the opposite?

I work till I am not looked at as an outsider—or at least considered an ally or friend. Sometimes I get introduced by someone who is already known. I always try to start off with some advanced contacts. I talk to people. I answer questions and explain what I am trying to do. I hang around. I return. I talk. I show people what I am doing. I give out samples of my work in the form of postcards, announcement cards etc. as small gifts. If I feel like an outsider, and if I am viewed as an outsider, I usually won’t get good photographs. I try to break down barriers. I introduce myself and tell them what I am trying to do: “I am a teacher from New York City trying to make photographs about the real life of the Appalachian coal miner.”

For several days I was hanging around talking to and photographing miners while they waited for their shift to begin. I talked. I listened. I answered their questions seriously and honestly. They joked, good-naturedly—a foreman asked,” You’re not one of those Nader raiders, are you?” And, while I am setting up a large view camera on my tripod, and focusing the old fashioned looking camera under the black cloth, an old timer tells me, “A miner’s life is a dog’s life—buddy, put that in your book!”

Special Sneak Preview! Author interview with Ralph Steadman

Intern Hannah interview Ralph Steadman--see this first glimpse!

Check out this sneak peek of our interview with Ralph Steadman, author of Little.com, published for the first time in the U.S. by David R. Godine, Publisher in June 2016.
Take a brief look at the creator of the eccentric little Dot who bounds through the pages of this unforgettable picture book for ages 3-100. Steadman, best know for his work with Hunter S. Thompson, explains how he came up with the idea of the Dot and how his illustrative process works.
Interview by David R. Godine intern, Hannah Winkelman, editing by Sales Manager Tildy Banker-Johnson. Thanks for watching!

Transcript posted below.

Hannah Winkelman: How did you come up with the idea for Little.com?

Ralph Steadman: Um, you know it was at the very beginning of things that were sort of, um, well, not the beginning, but 2000’s the year when I got the thing, or 1999. And I just decided that, uh, it was a nice idea for a character, for a book, Little. It’s like little something, you know, like little, little Jim, little something like that. So I thought Little.com, because I thought, I always say, for some reason, know what I mean? I always say confused.com. So that became kind of a habit, to say “.com.” So Little.com became a little guy.

[Publisher’s note: In the 2000s it was common to add ” dot com” or ” dot org” to phrases such as “give me a break dot com” or “move on dot org” (See: Gilmore Girls, Season 5, Episode 9). This is what Ralph is trying to express.]

 

RS: But how you see, I was making use of things like all the blots. I love blots. I just love a blot to just go down, and do what it’s going to do, and then turn it into something with the eyes, make it live. I mean look at him, crazy fool. And that there that’s the Duke of Bogshott… So, it’s like antiquated, antiquated computer animated, computer stories. It’s like the beginning, you know like when Steve Jobs was doing things.

HW: Really?

RS: Well it was the… He hadn’t really got going, he was still doing things, but… ‘Cause a lot of people didn’t have, uh, any of this stuff. And I made mine up as I went along. I’m looking at it for the first time in ages and I’m feeling quite impressed….Yeah, I like it, I like them. You see, the thing is, I think I have a thing about blots. I’m clumsy and I love doing that.

RS gesticulates.

RS: It does something wonderful. You know it’s energy. It’s energy! It’s going out in all directions and I think I like that. And you put an eye in it, or two eyes, teeth, and it’s a lovely idea. I mean I think that’s quite impressive. I don’t love drawing circles, I used to be an engineering draftsman.

HW: Oh, really?

RS: I just, uh, well—I liked doing the geometric drawing, but I used to like doing cartoons in the corner, down the side of my drawing.

HW: Would you just doodle on the side and that’s how you got started?

RS: Yeah, little funny drawings on the side. Then I was asked why I was doing that and I’d say “Because they’re looking at what I’m doing.”

9781567925203

Author Interview: Jeremy M. Davies

Intern Olivia asks the hard-hitting questions we all want to know

Olivia wrote a review of Davies’ The Knack of Doing, which we posted here on July 7, 2016. “Expect the unexpected. That is my advice to anyone planning to read The Knack of Doing,” she wrote. Now you can be a little better prepared by reading her interview with the author, below.

What prompted you to compile this collection of stories, with some new stories and some revised ones? What themes do you see connecting them?

I write short fiction so infrequently that I was as surprised as anyone to find I had amassed enough of it to make for a collection. I thought it would be ungenerous to keep this surprise to myself. Hence: a book.

If there’s a through-line here it’s the eternal question of how one writes such things as short stories without their winding up either inconsequential or tiresome. The book is something of a “manual of style(s).” And within many of the stories in Knack you’ll find characters trying to impose a certain style or manner of speaking upon their own situations. Largely unsuccessfully.

How did you go about choosing the order for the stories and deciding on the structure of the book? Were there stories you thought about including in The Knack of Doing that didn’t make it into the final product?

Yes, there are stories that didn’t make the cut. Mainly because I forgot about them. Which is to say that my mind edited them out of the collection without this selection process requiring any conscious effort on my part. This is by far the best way, I think, and I suggest the method to all aspirants.

What are some of the challenges you face when writing short fiction that differ from those you face when writing a novel?

The greatest challenge is that the frivolity of the enterprise will so overwhelm you that you just give up and go back to bed. The issue is how to turn out something only ten pages long that nonetheless commands the attention–and we are all misers of attention–long enough to achieve a lasting effect, even if that effect is “merely” mild amusement. I have no time for short fiction that was written only because there is already so much short fiction in the world that one might as well churn out a little more. I have no time for short fiction that was written only because the form, in its brevity, lends itself to the classroom. (Novels that were written out of this same sort of formal inertia annoy me less, for some reason. Probably because their inconsequentiality is deployed that much more gradually, over a longer span. Stories rub your face in their superfluousness, all at once. That’s the challenge; that’s the fascination. That’s why it’s still worth trying, from time to time. To see if you can beat the odds. To see if you can be nimble enough to avoid the door of Who Cares hitting you in your ass on your way out, as it were.)

“Kurt Vonnegut and the Great Bordellos of the Danube Delta” examines the art of storytelling from the perspective of an aspiring writer. To what extent do the views presented by the narrator of this story reflect your personal views on what fiction is meant to be, i.e. “Fiction can be many things, and no one mode is appropriate for it—no one genre, no one method, no one orthodoxy, no one heresy, no matter my own prejudices—but it may be accurate to describe it, as many have done, as essentially a form of attention, attention specifically to language, attention even to the ‘absent friends’ we can make believe this language describes”? How does this statement or the overall considerations presented in “Kurt Vonnegut” relate to the approach to fiction you take in the stories of The Knack of Doing?

That particular statement reflects my own views absolutely. I’m not certain that I’d stand behind every other assertion in the piece, however. I’m content to consider it a fiction; the speaker, conveniently, ain’t me. It’s safe to say, though, that I share the narrator’s skepticism about the enterprise of fiction, even if I’m a bit less naive about it. That skepticism–about what makes a story worth telling, about what makes it a story to begin with–is, I guess, the real “theme” behind The Knack of Doing, which might be said to be a series of answers to those questions. (Well, ripostes more than answers.)

“Is it that it skips a generation? He means this knack of doing. . . . they are agents, they act, they effect.” Would you say that many of the characters in your stories have mastered the “knack of doing” as you describe in the titular story of the book? Is that what makes these characters interesting, their agency?

What makes them interesting–to me–is their lack of agency. Few if any of the characters in these stories have the “knack,” and those that do don’t tend to profit by it. As someone or other said, “Absolute impotence corrupts absolutely.” Writing is the actionless action; it commands no respect in the phenomenal world (unless, of course, it makes you phenomenally rich). Nor, probably, should it.

The narrator of “Forkhead Box” aims to pay homage to his subject, informing the audience, “In deference to Schaumann, I too am trying to adopt a style of meticulous plainness” (13), and in a similarly honest fashion says that he isn’t exactly a reliable narrator: “But you know I can’t be trusted. I come from a broken home.” How do you conceptualize the narrator for a particular story or decide how present they should be, and how are or aren’t the various narrators in The Knack of Doing’s stories connected?

Telling someone that you’re not to be trusted isn’t honesty; it’s a way of making even honesty suspect. And, in fiction, honesty is a nonexistent principle: the only honesty in a contrivance is consistency. If honesty is an issue in that story it’s only because it is, in fact, “based on actual historical events,” as they say. But, clearly, my interest was never in presenting these in the manner of a more realistic historical fiction, fully clothed in substantiating details and period dialogue and the like. My interest was in travestying that same impulse to dramatize, to say of a bit of history or gossip that “that would make a great story!” Not because this impulse is bad or foolish in itself, mind you, but because I consider it imperative to fight off complacency (in both myself and in prospective readers).

The narrators of the various stories arrived fully conceptualized along with the matter they narrate. It wasn’t a question of selecting a subject and then assigning the appropriate narrator. More a matter of the story not being possible until I could hear a way to tell it, a way that excited me, that didn’t feel dead. And no, the narrators aren’t connected in any way I’m aware of, besides the connection of all being written by me.

Can you choose one or two of your favorite stories in the book? Or is there a certain story that was the most fun to write?

The oldest story in the book, “Sad White People,” was written in a single night, in a burst of pure, bitchy cussedness, while I was getting an MFA. I am slightly embarrassed by the story even as I remain peculiarly proud, if in an adolescent way, of having written it. The most recent story, “Delete the Marquis,” was perhaps the most fun to write, because I enjoyed all the tortured, faux-classical syntax; enjoyed the struggle to produce, essentially, a Philip K. Dick story in the style of Miguel de Unamuno. That’s how sickos like me get their kicks, you see.

What do you hope a reader will take away from The Knack of Doing?

A posthypnotic suggestion regarding a particular action to be undertaken on May the 23rd, 2018. Oh, it shall be glorious.

 

 

Author Interview: Don Krohn

Intern Frederick asks the hard-hitting questions we all want to know

On Cape Cod celebrates the Cape in summertime, showing that place which has captivated photographers, painters, and poets. Its photographs loosely chronicle a summer’s day and look at each of the Cape’s fifteen towns, delicately illuminating the lush country through a variety of photographic techniques. From the introduction by Geraldine Brooks to Don Krohn’s afterward, this book betrays its intimacy with the Cape, giving a nuanced sense of delight to the reader. 

Don Krohn has made his home in Orleans, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. Originally from New York City, he is a graduate of Brandeis University and the Harvard Law School. His photographic work has taken him across the United States and to several other continents: In the South of France, his previous work, was highly acclaimed and quite lovely. 

Having lived on the Outer Banks in my childhood, I was drawn to Krohn’s personal perspective of the Cape. His photos explore its beauty in a way that can only be gained through long association and familiarity with a place. Engaged by this, I decided to ask him a few questions about the creation of On Cape Cod.

You’re a self-taught photographer. In On Cape Cod, you talk about what first drew you to photography as a child: could you say a little bit about that and what motivated you to continue over time? What were some milestones along the way?

I began taking photographs at a very early age, and loved going to school with a camera. I began with various Kodak Brownie cameras, then before long started using 35mm cameras, with adjustable focus lenses, and adjustable shutter speeds and apertures. There was something about capturing the world around me and bottling it into a little bit of film that seemed irresistible. Over time, it was really just a progression of new approaches and deepening involvement in the medium that carried me along. By college I was using 4 x 5 inch sheet film in view cameras — the entire set-up that looks like something from the 19th century, working under a black focussing cloth with a heavy camera on a substantial tripod. The optics of working on a view camera are very different from other iterations of the medium, not the least of which is the fact that the image visible to the photographer on the ground glass is upside-down. That forces a close analysis of the image in a unique way, emphasizing abstract elements. A view camera also provides unusual corrective possibilities for focus and perspective. Many of these corrections are now easily done in post-production computer processing with Photoshop or Lightroom programs.

You’re originally from New York City: what appealed to you about Cape Cod?

I have been coming here since I was a child, and moved here shortly after college to live full-time. It was the era, for some of us, of living simply, closer to the Earth. The Cape seemed very inviting, not quite as remote as Maine or some other areas I considered. And I loved being near the ocean.

Was there a specific moment when it came to feel like home?

It was more of a process, and since I was already familiar with the place, it happened quickly. For extra money, I drove a school bus part time for the first few years here, so I got to know many local families quite quickly. Soon I became involved in town government in Orleans, and later was a founder of a charter school (one of the first in Massachusetts).

How, for you as an artist, was the creation of On Cape Cod different from your previous work, In the South of France? Is it a development?

The book about France comprises images from a much larger region, and the photographs were taken over a period of almost a decade. The photographs for On Cape Cod were taken during a two-year period, and the region is very small in comparison.

How do you feel that your perspective of the Cape differs from that of other writers and photographers? How did this influence your work?

Joel Meyerowitz brought Cape photo books into the modern era with his innovative and now-classic work Cape Light. Since then, many of the books of photographs of the Cape have reverted to the more customary landscapes and beach scenes. I feel that I have picked up where Joel left off, by looking beyond the obvious, seeking images that reveal more about the Cape than just the expected vistas.

Why did you choose to focus on the Cape in the summertime?

I photograph here year-round, but for my first Cape book I wanted to concentrate the experience seasonally, and it is of course summertime and its blandishments are the hallmark of the place. And for many, it is the only Cape landscape they ever have seen or will see. So I wanted to speak directly to that summer experience. I took some liberties, though, by including a cranberry harvester image from late September, because it is so quintessentially Cape Cod.

Are there photographs in the book that you particularly enjoyed taking? If so, why?

It’s hard to answer that. Some images that were very demanding technically, such as some to the landscapes and seascapes in which I used progressive focus and digital stitching to create perfect focus at all distances, were a bit trying to produce. The technique creates an interesting illusion of hyper vision. You can see that in the “Receding Sand Pattern” photo, and also in the “Provincetown Causeway” image, for example. So in terms of enjoyment, the more spontaneous images of people and animals were probably more fun and had an unpredictable element that I enjoy.

You talk in your Photographer’s Note about “looking for spiritual traces in the world of appearances”: with which photo, place, or incident in the book did you come closest to “the spiritual?”

If I have to choose one, I’ll say the lightning strike image off Yarmouth Port. I wandered over to that beach just by chance on a friend’s suggestion earlier that morning, and this monster storm of hail and thunder and lightning came on almost the instant I arrived. To capture that bolt of lightning connecting sky and sea (and to live to tell about it!) embodied that kind of spiritual experience perfectly.

What projects are you working on now?

I am working considering doing a book of “Off-Season” photos of the Cape, and am also returning to France later this summer, where I plan to do a follow-up series of images related to those from In the South of France. I also have an expanding series of black and white photos from many visits to Paris, which could be an interesting book project.

From May to September, images from On Cape Cod are being featured in The Boston Globe.

Author Interview: Ward Farnsworth

Intern Hannah asks the hard-hitting questions we all want to know

 

Farnsworth’s Classical English Metaphor9781567925487 is a comprehensive field-guide for the art of comparison that any English-speaking reader or writer can learn from and employ. This is a handy compendium, first organized by source type, including nature, architecture, animals, and myth, and then through countless examples taken from the classics. Farnsworth illustrates just how each of those metaphors is utilized for distinct purposes—for caricature, to make an abstract idea visible, to make a complicated idea simple.

Ward Farnsworth himself is the Dean of the University of Texas School of Law and holds the John Jeffers Research Chair in Law. His previous title, Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric was a bestseller in its field and became the definitive guide to the use of rhetoric.

As someone who appreciates the study of language, I found the book incredibly fascinating and fun. Just as its predecessor, Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric, was, Metaphor is thorough and exhaustive in its examples, allowing its readers to fully comprehend the art of comparison. I decided to ask Farnsworth a few questions about how he arrived at creating this metaphoric epitome.

Your books explore rhetoric and metaphor, which are old-fashioned topics. Why those subjects, and why now?  

They are beautiful and practical. Most of what most of us hope to achieve depends on words; we need them to persuade others or even just hold their attention. Yet we usually spend little time really thinking about how to use words well. Those who care about language do have some resources, but they mostly consist of books on style that explain how to avoid vices and mistakes. The study of rhetoric, as I conceive it, is a little different. It is the analysis of what makes speech and writing successful. When words strike us with their beauty and power, it is not a random event or accident. Memorable writing usually has properties and follows patterns that we can learn to hear if we read and listen carefully. Then we can turn what we’ve learned to our own ends.

Your books focus on examples that are usually a hundred years old or more. Why?

We have more to learn from them. Our own times and culture are teaching us how to write and speak every hour, for better or for worse. If we want to use words in ways better than our own cultural average, we do well to learn what we can from writers at other times and places.

To say it more directly, writers one or two or three hundred years ago understood some things about language that do not come as naturally to us. We may not want to write as they did, or may not be able to do it, but they can teach our ears things that our own times cannot—about rhythm, repetition, surprise, and other rhetorical principles. Older examples have another advantage as well when we come to the study of metaphor. Writers used to know more than their modern counterparts typically do about many great sources of figurative comparison: the animal kingdom, for instance, or nature, or mythology. We can learn not only from how they arranged their words but from how they thought.

Which writers of the past have the most to teach us now?

From Lincoln we can learn a lot about writing, and also about how to learn about writing. He was the most gifted writer in the history of American public life. He gained that distinction by spending a great deal of time with the King James Bible and with Shakespeare. Those sources taught him much about how to write, as can be heard in his letters and speeches. But he didn’t imitate. He immersed himself in the sounds of those writings and absorbed them. Their influence appeared naturally and happily in his own work, though he wrote in a manner that fit his times, not like a man of the early 17th century. Now we can read Lincoln in the same way that he read Shakespeare—not to write exactly as he did, which would sound strange even if we could do it, but to learn what he has to teach. Lincoln probably was not conscious of much that he knew about the sound of writing, and we may not be conscious of all that we gain by listening to him. We learn as musicians sometimes learn, by educating the ear.

If you had to create a metaphor to explain your writing process, what would it be?

Laboring in a vineyard.

Do you find any overlap between the study of law and the study of rhetoric or metaphor?

The lawyer’s job is to achieve consequences with words. That is why the most influential figures in our legal culture have usually been the most gifted rhetorically as well. The most influential legal thinker of the 20th century, for example, was Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. It’s no coincidence that he was also the most literate and talented writer in the legal profession of his times, and the most gifted with metaphor. So a school of law should function in part as a school of rhetoric, and I hope to help that project along in a small way.