We believe what we can see: In the Garden of Beasts edition

From Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, which is worth getting from the library (this section deals with 1933):

It was one thing to read newspaper stories about Hitler’s erratic behavior and his government’s brutality toward Jews, communists, and other opponents, for throughout America there was a widely held belief that such reports must be exaggerated, that surely no modern state could behave in such a manner. Here at the State Department, however, Dodd read dispatch after dispatch in which Messersmith [the Consul General] described Germany’s rapid descent from democratic republic to brutal dictatorship. Messersmith spared no detail—his tendency to write long had early on saddled him with the nickname ‘Forty-Page George.’ He wrote of the widespread violence that had occurred in the several months that immediately followed Hitler’s appointment and of the increasing control the government exerted over all aspects of German society.

People in the 1930s simply couldn’t believe that Germany would act as it did. This might be one reason why cell phones and cell phone cameras are so powerful: it’s very hard to deny video. If cell phone cameras had been widely available in 1930, could the Holocaust have unfolded as it did, in a major Western country? The answer, of course, will always be “maybe,” but I think the shock of seeing footage of Jews and others being beaten and murdered in the streets might have had a powerful effect around the world.

I wonder if we’re on the cusp of seeing cell phone cameras reduce the amount of police brutality in public places, since police will know they’re likely to be taped. Cops don’t like this (see here and here for more).

Although I obviously love reading, it’s relatively easy to deny a written description of an event. It’s much harder to deny a video that shows the people involved. That’s not to say video can’t be manipulated—it obviously can—but sometimes a short video can do what “Forty-Page George” can’t. It’s hard or impossible to “exaggerate” video, even if it can be maliciously edited. We should still read, as “Twilight of the Books” makes clear, but video still changes things (it changes what can happen in fiction, for example; people have been writing about blue movies or explicit pictures for a long time, but the plausibility of something like Anita Shreve’s Testimony depends on widespread access to inexpensive video equipment (see also Caitlin Flanagan’s somewhat misguided but interesting essay on the novel). That’s relatively recent, and we’re still dealing with what it means.)

EDIT: See also this discussion of police and cameras from Crooked Timber.

Week 38 links: How to write a book, the sexual risks of your bike seat (seriously), college students, writers, Philip Roth, and more

* Practical Tips on Writing a Book from 23 Brilliant Authors. Some are contradictory, but they’re useful to think about. I will add: if you’re writing nonfiction, read this essay on Devonthink Pro as or before you start. I find Freedom to be spectacularly useful.

* Before You Ride That Bike, Know the Sexual Risks. Seriously. I ordered a no-nose saddle based on this.

* Don’t always trust what you read in the press, James Fallows edition.

* Paul Krugman on college students:

I think it’s actually a point when you’re quite vulnerable, because you are looking for someone who is going to offer you all the answers. Some people turn to religious orthodoxy, other people turn to Ayn Rand. One of my favourite lines – and I haven’t been able to find out who came up with it – is that “There’s an age when boys read one of two books. Either they read Ayn Rand or they read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. One of these books leaves you with no grasp on reality and a deeply warped sense of fantasy in place of real life. The other one is about hobbits and orcs.

* Rooibos tea: hard to spell, not really tea, and on a possible path to yuppie ubiquity. See also A Hacker’s Guide to Tea, which taught me how to make the genuine article.

* What Would You Pay $10 to See A Writer Do?, or, alternately, why are so many bookstore readings so bad? I suspect the real problem is that the kind of skills a good or great writer needs don’t overlap very much with the skills a good public speaker or teacher needs (which might be obvious to anyone who’s sat through a college class or lecture with a research superstar professor who doesn’t give a damn about teaching).

One downside of this: a lot of writers, especially serious writers, might simply skip bookstores in smaller book markets that charge a lot. Over the last year I’ve noticed that Changing Hands bookstore in Phoenix appears to have increased the number of weak writers hawking self-help books and systems relative to the number of real writers. For example, I have their July events in my inbox, which mentions “Creativity Coach Quinn McDonald: Raw Art Journaling” and “Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners”

Here’s the original article.

* Scenes From a ‘Playboy’ Playmate Casting Call (safe for work; it’s on The Atlantic). Mostly about logistics and motivations.

* Why don’t rich people do more awesome things?. My answer:

I’m guessing that most (rich) people do one or maybe two “awesome things,” since doing one thing to the degree of “awesome” is really, really hard to the point of almost everything else being a distraction.

* At home with Philip Roth. I’ll leave you to find the money quote; Roth even knows it and indicates as much to the reporter.

* Living in the Era of Infinite Computing Power.

* Sex, love, and loneliness on the Internet.

Brady Udall's The Lonely Polygamist Interview: Part II

You can find part I of the interview here, including the context of this interview.

Jake Seliger: [Ideological conformity] seems like one of the conflicts between Beverley, who I think is homeschooling all of her children, and the—

Brady Udall: Right, Roland and Rose-of-Sharon, when all the other kids are at public school.

JS: Where they’re known as what Rusty is very aware of—as a Plig kid, which has a pretty obvious negative connotation.

BU: Polygamists face these kinds of feelings almost anywhere they live.

JS: It reminds me of—I went to high school outside of Seattle [in Bellevue, for those of you wondering]. At my high school, we had a relatively large Mormon population. There were also some—not a lot, but some—mainline Christians. The mainline Christians often thought the Mormons weren’t real Christians.

BU: Sure.

JS: And the Mormons would sometimes be a little, well—I mean, most of us were busy drinking and taking SATs and having sex, but—

BU: But that goes on and on. We’re out trying to convert the Baptists, and the Baptists are saying we’re not Christians. There’s going to be those conflicts everywhere. And more. Those conflicts exist in my own marriage. You know, it’s me and one wife. I just can’t imagine—you put two or three more wives in there.

JS: There’s also this establishment of what Golden’s life feels like. Early on, there’s a section that says, “Normally there would’ve been a crush of children waiting at the door, all of them shouting at once, pulling his clothes and asking what he brought them. The little ones standing on their heads, displaying some new bruise. Look at me! Look at me!” That little interjection there—look at me, look at me—is a lot of what’s going on among the children and among the wives. The wives are hanging back, waiting for their chance to lay claim on him, almost like he’s a piece of land. Just that phrase, “to lay claim on him—”

BU: Yeah, well that’s exactly it. The active verb is not his—it belongs to everybody else. And so he becomes more of a figurehead.

JS: Right.

BU: He’s like the president, you know what I mean? He is who you want him to be. But there’s a person there.

JS: When we enter his consciousness, we see his point of view, and he’s not really—he’s less concerned about dealing with each individual child and more concerned with Huila. He’s concerned the construction site. He’s concerned with his wives. It seems like the children are more concerned about him in many ways, than vice-versa.

BU: Yeah. He doesn’t have the wherewithal to deal with anybody individually. And I really wonder sometimes if the person who exists who can do this. You know what I mean? Maybe there is. I don’t know.

JS: It’s hard to wear the crown. Even if you want to be the king.

BU: I guess so. I just don’t know that this could be done. I don’t know where the cutoff. I was one of nine kids. My Dad did the best he could. But is it enough? What does a kid need? I’m not sure. I think it’s a pretty interesting question, actually. Most cultures, you know, want you to have more kids. Now we have two. Has it gotten any better? Have parents gotten better? Do kids become, you know, more mature, better readers now? It doesn’t seem like it. You know what I mean? I don’t know. . .

JS: What’s ideal. Or if there is such a thing.

BU: That’s what I’m saying. I don’t think there is. We’re telling ourselves that we think we know. It’s better to have fewer kids. I just went and said, is 28 obviously too many? I don’t know. It’s a good question.

JS: The issue of children is present because—in the interview you did with Powell’s Books, you said your characters were like having children. So what’s it like, then, having a child in the form of Golden, who’s in turn dealing with all the rest of these children?

BU: That’s a good question. As a writer, that’s very difficult. I look at myself as kind of a Golden. I put myself in his place, and I’d be like, “Damn.” So as a writer, dealing with all these characters, trying to keep track of them all, trying to understand what all their motivations are—it’s just a huge, daunting task. That’s why I write 1,400 pages. It was hard. But I guess I just wanted to do it right. And I had to go all out. I couldn’t do it halfway. I couldn’t easily. . .

JS: Abandon your literary children?

BU: I could have, you know, ten children. It would’ve made things easier, with only two wives, or three.

JS: But that would probably be less chaotic feeling.

BU: Yeah, that’s what I really wanted—that really big family. Because, you know, when I grew up, it was a family that wasn’t polygamous, but there were 16 kids. So it still happens. I want to go beyond anything that could naturally happen, in a regular American household. And it does, in polygamous households, around this country.

JS: Sixteen children goes back to the old Groucho Marx quote, I like my cigar but I take it out of my mouth every once in a while.

BU: [Laughing.] I haven’t heard that one.

JS: I’m surprised. It seems appropriate.

BU: It seems applicable, doesn’t it? I should mention that one to my Dad.

JS: Yeah.

BU: And we have versions of that, but yeah. But sometimes you wonder why. You see people with all these kids and sometimes the first question you want to ask is, “Why?”

JS: If you have a religious injunction against birth control, that’s where some of the culture gets going—

BU: That’s right, that’s right. And that’s an important part of all this. And you probably remember that Golden looks at the thing, the condoms, I remember the thing—it was imbued with the power of dark and benevolent Gods, or something like that, like a ring in a fantasy novel.

JS: That’s not at all how I view you. You know, you go into Rite Aid to buy 20—

BU: You know, with 28 kids—it’s such a possibility that’s not even available to you. That was the question—why would women have so many children? Well, that’s the whole point.

JS: Yet at the same time, that’s ultimately the tipping point for Trish to cheat.

BU: Absolutely.

JS: Because feels he’s not going to get the job done.

BU: He’s not going to get the job done. And that’s a very simple equation. You’re right. Their desires are at cross purposes. She wants to increase the family. He’s scared of the family. He doesn’t want it to increase anymore.

JS: He also has a million other things that are concerning him.

BU: Anyway, so that works out. That kind of conflict. That’s what story is. Put two characters in the same place with different desires, and that’s a story.

JS: I feel like I just walked into the Brady Udall creative writing seminar—

BU: Yes, yes, this is creative writing class.

JS: How do your students respond when you tell them variations on that theme?

BU: Well, they listen, but I don’t know if they always act. I just try to make it sound simple. They don’t seem to always believe me, that it’s that simple.

JS: It reminds me of your comment—I think you said, that’s the only thing worth addressing in literature—death and how we deal with the loss of people we care about.

BU: That’s right.

JS: Obviously, a fair amount of that comes in here. It sounds like you’re channeling Leslie Fiedler, in Love and Death in the American Novel. So my question would be, why death? Why not the love half of that as well?

BU: Well, obviously, there’s love and death. And love is the only thing that can overcome death. I think Fiedler talks about that. I’m just more interested in the death part. And the reason death is so meaningful is because of love. It all becomes the same thing. It wouldn’t matter if we didn’t love the people who go [I wonder if science fiction is exploring this space], who disappear from our lives. So love is a huge part of that. It’s not just death. I’m not as interested in romantic love. I don’t know why. I guess I’m just not a romantic person. I tend to leave that out. Even in this book, there’s certain kinds of romance going on, but I think it’s clear I’m not as interested in it. So it’s probably just a personal thing.

JS: Right. And the characters—they all seem to be driven by desire, but often not by desire for the person who they should want to desire.

BU: Right.

JS: You see that with Golden—

BU: We use other people to escape the people we should be with.

JS: Part of Rusty’s problem is his age, part is because of his circumstances—there is no one for him. No one who would be appropriate for him.

BU: Right. It’s totally true. His desires are totally inappropriate.

JS: And yet they make sense within the context.

BU: Sure. But if you think about it—for any 11-year-old kid, everything’s pretty much inappropriate. There’s no appropriate anything. Like most 11-, 12-, 13-year-old boys, he’s in a bad place.

JS: He’s in a particularly bad place, because even if he has an object of affection, and she’s another polygamist, she’s pretty strictly controlled.

BU: And June, June is kicked out. His group, someone shows affection for a certain girl, and that’s out of bounds.

JS: It seems like in some cases it would actually be harder for the girls to rebel. There’s a fairly strong hold to try to keep them. . .

BU: Absolutely. It’s almost impossible.

JS: So I don’t know what it would take, if you were a 16- or 18-year-old girl, to say, “Fuck this,”—

BU: “I don’t want this.”

JS: Do you have to call 911? Can you call 911?

BU: It’s much more difficult. It’s such an almost, I don’t want to say it’s wonderful. It is a great irony. In certain ways, the female has more power. It’s interesting stuff.

JS: The power of no, which it seems like they have.

BU: It’s power in a way, because they have a commodity. Which is horrible, obviously. They’re the ones, if you have five, six, seven wives, the more righteous and powerful you are. . . but the women become a commodity, and therefore have significant power.

JS: Assuming they manage to exercise it.

BU: Yeah, if they figure out how to do that.

JS: I believe there are a couple of older teenager girls in the novel.

BU: Sure.

JS: I love, by the way, the little family web at the front of the novel.

BU: Right, I made them do it. They wanted to just list it, but I made them do it that way.

JS: The thing is, instead of being a family tree, there’s a family web, with Golden at the center.

BU: Golden had to be at the center. That’s the whole point of it. That’s exactly the place he does not want to be.

JS: So it’s obviously not their story, but we don’t hear as much from those girls, the older kids. Em and Nephi are getting towards—

BU: If you remember, Em comes and stays with Trish for a while. She dresses up. She dances to the Beejees. But Beverley comes and shuts it down. So she has a little moment where she feels free, though.

JS: Perhaps Beverley is doing that because Beverley is thinking back to her own past.

BU: Yeah, sure. It’s the worst thing that she can see her daughter doing. Going anywhere near that sort of lifestyle. The world, or whatever.

JS: Here are some of my big, standard questions: What question do you wish interviews would ask and they never do?

BU: [Laughs.] Well. I wish I had a good, quick quip for that one, but I don’t.

JS: All right, I’ll give you my card. If you think of an answer, send me an e-mail.

BU: You probably want a real answer, and I don’t have one.

JS: Any kind of answer is okay.

BU: I get asked mostly about—you know. The same stuff. You do a good job, because you’re not asking all the same questions. You usually have to answer the same questions over and over again.

JS: Any time I interview a writer, I try to read at least a couple of other interviews so I don’t go over the same territory.

BU: Yes, and you’ve done a good job, sort of—what I like is talking about the book. Too often it’s about—and you see this in criticism—is a focus on the writer as opposed to the work. Which I have to say—I think it’s nearly useless. But people seem to find it interesting. That’s why there’s a magazine called People.

JS: People always ask you, “Do you use a Mac, or do you use a PC?”

BU: That’s right. They want to know. You know, I understand.

JS: I did see in one of your interviews, you said you like old typewriters.

BU: I don’t use a typewriter.

JS: Have you ever gotten a—for a while I used a keyboard called an IBM Model M, which is from the 80s. It’s got a very clicky. [We trade e-mail addresses.]

BU: I love that. The keyboard I have is that chunk, chunk-chunk chunk. You have to whack the keys to get it to respond.

JS: Do you have any final thoughts or things I should know?

BU: No, I don’t think so. I do appreciate the focus on the book, and the characters.

JS: I tried to talk about the language some.

BU: Language is very important to me. I’m trying to do two things at once. I don’t want the reader to notice the language, most of the time. But I’m trying to make language that’s, I don’t know, extraordinary. I don’t want it to disappear. I want the reader to sometimes go, “Wow.” To be moved by the language as much as the story itself. So that’s what most writers, anyway, look for—the Holy Grail. To have it both ways.

JS: I remember Stephen King, when someone said, “I want to be a writer,” or something like that, said, “Do you love sentences?”

BU: I love that. I love it. In the end, that’s all we have as writers. We just have words and sentences. We have nothing else. We don’t have pictures.

JS: Well—

BU: Yeah, you could. I mean, I might try that sometime. It might be easier than doing sentences. But I tell my students, you have to care for the sentence. You have to really care. Or your work’s not going to be worth that damn.

JS: I guess your last comment is, love sentences. I think that’s appropriate.

BU: Yeah, I like that. That’s appropriate.


No answer as to whether he got a different keyboard in response to this interview.

Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist Interview: Part II

You can find part I of the interview here, including the context of this interview.

Jake Seliger: [Ideological conformity] seems like one of the conflicts between Beverley, who I think is homeschooling all of her children, and the—

Brady Udall: Right, Roland and Rose-of-Sharon, when all the other kids are at public school.

JS: Where they’re known as what Rusty is very aware of—as a Plig kid, which has a pretty obvious negative connotation.

BU: Polygamists face these kinds of feelings almost anywhere they live.

JS: It reminds me of—I went to high school outside of Seattle [in Bellevue, for those of you wondering]. At my high school, we had a relatively large Mormon population. There were also some—not a lot, but some—mainline Christians. The mainline Christians often thought the Mormons weren’t real Christians.

BU: Sure.

JS: And the Mormons would sometimes be a little, well—I mean, most of us were busy drinking and taking SATs and having sex, but—

BU: But that goes on and on. We’re out trying to convert the Baptists, and the Baptists are saying we’re not Christians. There’s going to be those conflicts everywhere. And more. Those conflicts exist in my own marriage. You know, it’s me and one wife. I just can’t imagine—you put two or three more wives in there.

JS: There’s also this establishment of what Golden’s life feels like. Early on, there’s a section that says, “Normally there would’ve been a crush of children waiting at the door, all of them shouting at once, pulling his clothes and asking what he brought them. The little ones standing on their heads, displaying some new bruise. Look at me! Look at me!” That little interjection there—look at me, look at me—is a lot of what’s going on among the children and among the wives. The wives are hanging back, waiting for their chance to lay claim on him, almost like he’s a piece of land. Just that phrase, “to lay claim on him—”

BU: Yeah, well that’s exactly it. The active verb is not his—it belongs to everybody else. And so he becomes more of a figurehead.

JS: Right.

BU: He’s like the president, you know what I mean? He is who you want him to be. But there’s a person there.

JS: When we enter his consciousness, we see his point of view, and he’s not really—he’s less concerned about dealing with each individual child and more concerned with Huila. He’s concerned the construction site. He’s concerned with his wives. It seems like the children are more concerned about him in many ways, than vice-versa.

BU: Yeah. He doesn’t have the wherewithal to deal with anybody individually. And I really wonder sometimes if the person who exists who can do this. You know what I mean? Maybe there is. I don’t know.

JS: It’s hard to wear the crown. Even if you want to be the king.

BU: I guess so. I just don’t know that this could be done. I don’t know where the cutoff. I was one of nine kids. My Dad did the best he could. But is it enough? What does a kid need? I’m not sure. I think it’s a pretty interesting question, actually. Most cultures, you know, want you to have more kids. Now we have two. Has it gotten any better? Have parents gotten better? Do kids become, you know, more mature, better readers now? It doesn’t seem like it. You know what I mean? I don’t know. . .

JS: What’s ideal. Or if there is such a thing.

BU: That’s what I’m saying. I don’t think there is. We’re telling ourselves that we think we know. It’s better to have fewer kids. I just went and said, is 28 obviously too many? I don’t know. It’s a good question.

JS: The issue of children is present because—in the interview you did with Powell’s Books, you said your characters were like having children. So what’s it like, then, having a child in the form of Golden, who’s in turn dealing with all the rest of these children?

BU: That’s a good question. As a writer, that’s very difficult. I look at myself as kind of a Golden. I put myself in his place, and I’d be like, “Damn.” So as a writer, dealing with all these characters, trying to keep track of them all, trying to understand what all their motivations are—it’s just a huge, daunting task. That’s why I write 1,400 pages. It was hard. But I guess I just wanted to do it right. And I had to go all out. I couldn’t do it halfway. I couldn’t easily. . .

JS: Abandon your literary children?

BU: I could have, you know, ten children. It would’ve made things easier, with only two wives, or three.

JS: But that would probably be less chaotic feeling.

BU: Yeah, that’s what I really wanted—that really big family. Because, you know, when I grew up, it was a family that wasn’t polygamous, but there were 16 kids. So it still happens. I want to go beyond anything that could naturally happen, in a regular American household. And it does, in polygamous households, around this country.

JS: Sixteen children goes back to the old Groucho Marx quote, I like my cigar but I take it out of my mouth every once in a while.

BU: [Laughing.] I haven’t heard that one.

JS: I’m surprised. It seems appropriate.

BU: It seems applicable, doesn’t it? I should mention that one to my Dad.

JS: Yeah.

BU: And we have versions of that, but yeah. But sometimes you wonder why. You see people with all these kids and sometimes the first question you want to ask is, “Why?”

JS: If you have a religious injunction against birth control, that’s where some of the culture gets going—

BU: That’s right, that’s right. And that’s an important part of all this. And you probably remember that Golden looks at the thing, the condoms, I remember the thing—it was imbued with the power of dark and benevolent Gods, or something like that, like a ring in a fantasy novel.

JS: That’s not at all how I view you. You know, you go into Rite Aid to buy 20—

BU: You know, with 28 kids—it’s such a possibility that’s not even available to you. That was the question—why would women have so many children? Well, that’s the whole point.

JS: Yet at the same time, that’s ultimately the tipping point for Trish to cheat.

BU: Absolutely.

JS: Because feels he’s not going to get the job done.

BU: He’s not going to get the job done. And that’s a very simple equation. You’re right. Their desires are at cross purposes. She wants to increase the family. He’s scared of the family. He doesn’t want it to increase anymore.

JS: He also has a million other things that are concerning him.

BU: Anyway, so that works out. That kind of conflict. That’s what story is. Put two characters in the same place with different desires, and that’s a story.

JS: I feel like I just walked into the Brady Udall creative writing seminar—

BU: Yes, yes, this is creative writing class.

JS: How do your students respond when you tell them variations on that theme?

BU: Well, they listen, but I don’t know if they always act. I just try to make it sound simple. They don’t seem to always believe me, that it’s that simple.

JS: It reminds me of your comment—I think you said, that’s the only thing worth addressing in literature—death and how we deal with the loss of people we care about.

BU: That’s right.

JS: Obviously, a fair amount of that comes in here. It sounds like you’re channeling Leslie Fiedler, in Love and Death in the American Novel. So my question would be, why death? Why not the love half of that as well?

BU: Well, obviously, there’s love and death. And love is the only thing that can overcome death. I think Fiedler talks about that. I’m just more interested in the death part. And the reason death is so meaningful is because of love. It all becomes the same thing. It wouldn’t matter if we didn’t love the people who go [I wonder if science fiction is exploring this space], who disappear from our lives. So love is a huge part of that. It’s not just death. I’m not as interested in romantic love. I don’t know why. I guess I’m just not a romantic person. I tend to leave that out. Even in this book, there’s certain kinds of romance going on, but I think it’s clear I’m not as interested in it. So it’s probably just a personal thing.

JS: Right. And the characters—they all seem to be driven by desire, but often not by desire for the person who they should want to desire.

BU: Right.

JS: You see that with Golden—

BU: We use other people to escape the people we should be with.

JS: Part of Rusty’s problem is his age, part is because of his circumstances—there is no one for him. No one who would be appropriate for him.

BU: Right. It’s totally true. His desires are totally inappropriate.

JS: And yet they make sense within the context.

BU: Sure. But if you think about it—for any 11-year-old kid, everything’s pretty much inappropriate. There’s no appropriate anything. Like most 11-, 12-, 13-year-old boys, he’s in a bad place.

JS: He’s in a particularly bad place, because even if he has an object of affection, and she’s another polygamist, she’s pretty strictly controlled.

BU: And June, June is kicked out. His group, someone shows affection for a certain girl, and that’s out of bounds.

JS: It seems like in some cases it would actually be harder for the girls to rebel. There’s a fairly strong hold to try to keep them. . .

BU: Absolutely. It’s almost impossible.

JS: So I don’t know what it would take, if you were a 16- or 18-year-old girl, to say, “Fuck this,”—

BU: “I don’t want this.”

JS: Do you have to call 911? Can you call 911?

BU: It’s much more difficult. It’s such an almost, I don’t want to say it’s wonderful. It is a great irony. In certain ways, the female has more power. It’s interesting stuff.

JS: The power of no, which it seems like they have.

BU: It’s power in a way, because they have a commodity. Which is horrible, obviously. They’re the ones, if you have five, six, seven wives, the more righteous and powerful you are. . . but the women become a commodity, and therefore have significant power.

JS: Assuming they manage to exercise it.

BU: Yeah, if they figure out how to do that.

JS: I believe there are a couple of older teenager girls in the novel.

BU: Sure.

JS: I love, by the way, the little family web at the front of the novel.

BU: Right, I made them do it. They wanted to just list it, but I made them do it that way.

JS: The thing is, instead of being a family tree, there’s a family web, with Golden at the center.

BU: Golden had to be at the center. That’s the whole point of it. That’s exactly the place he does not want to be.

JS: So it’s obviously not their story, but we don’t hear as much from those girls, the older kids. Em and Nephi are getting towards—

BU: If you remember, Em comes and stays with Trish for a while. She dresses up. She dances to the Beejees. But Beverley comes and shuts it down. So she has a little moment where she feels free, though.

JS: Perhaps Beverley is doing that because Beverley is thinking back to her own past.

BU: Yeah, sure. It’s the worst thing that she can see her daughter doing. Going anywhere near that sort of lifestyle. The world, or whatever.

JS: Here are some of my big, standard questions: What question do you wish interviews would ask and they never do?

BU: [Laughs.] Well. I wish I had a good, quick quip for that one, but I don’t.

JS: All right, I’ll give you my card. If you think of an answer, send me an e-mail.

BU: You probably want a real answer, and I don’t have one.

JS: Any kind of answer is okay.

BU: I get asked mostly about—you know. The same stuff. You do a good job, because you’re not asking all the same questions. You usually have to answer the same questions over and over again.

JS: Any time I interview a writer, I try to read at least a couple of other interviews so I don’t go over the same territory.

BU: Yes, and you’ve done a good job, sort of—what I like is talking about the book. Too often it’s about—and you see this in criticism—is a focus on the writer as opposed to the work. Which I have to say—I think it’s nearly useless. But people seem to find it interesting. That’s why there’s a magazine called People.

JS: People always ask you, “Do you use a Mac, or do you use a PC?”

BU: That’s right. They want to know. You know, I understand.

JS: I did see in one of your interviews, you said you like old typewriters.

BU: I don’t use a typewriter.

JS: Have you ever gotten a—for a while I used a keyboard called an IBM Model M, which is from the 80s. It’s got a very clicky. [We trade e-mail addresses.]

BU: I love that. The keyboard I have is that chunk, chunk-chunk chunk. You have to whack the keys to get it to respond.

JS: Do you have any final thoughts or things I should know?

BU: No, I don’t think so. I do appreciate the focus on the book, and the characters.

JS: I tried to talk about the language some.

BU: Language is very important to me. I’m trying to do two things at once. I don’t want the reader to notice the language, most of the time. But I’m trying to make language that’s, I don’t know, extraordinary. I don’t want it to disappear. I want the reader to sometimes go, “Wow.” To be moved by the language as much as the story itself. So that’s what most writers, anyway, look for—the Holy Grail. To have it both ways.

JS: I remember Stephen King, when someone said, “I want to be a writer,” or something like that, said, “Do you love sentences?”

BU: I love that. I love it. In the end, that’s all we have as writers. We just have words and sentences. We have nothing else. We don’t have pictures.

JS: Well—

BU: Yeah, you could. I mean, I might try that sometime. It might be easier than doing sentences. But I tell my students, you have to care for the sentence. You have to really care. Or your work’s not going to be worth that damn.

JS: I guess your last comment is, love sentences. I think that’s appropriate.

BU: Yeah, I like that. That’s appropriate.


No answer as to whether he got a different keyboard in response to this interview.

Thoughts on the movie Objectified

I watched the documentary Objectified last night and would recommend the first 30 or so minutes via Netflix streaming, if you have a Netflix account. If not, check out the Jonathan Ives portion on YouTube, which feels like an ad but still has content. The movie gets slower as it goes on and the real content is in the first half hour. Some other thoughts:

1) A lot of these designers (or the filmmakers) are really, disproportionately interested in chairs. As far as I can tell, outside of office chairs made by Herman Miller, Steelcase, Humanscale, and a couple of others, not much has really happened to chairs in the last couple decades. Most of the chairs shown in the film looked uncomfortable, especially the ones by the guys in Paris.

EDIT May 2012: Apparently I’m not the only one to have noticed the designer fascination with chairs: see also “Against Chairs.” Note that I’ve switched to a Herman Miller Embody, which I like less than the Aeron and may sell.

2) Speaking of the guys in Paris, they were really annoying. I’m not sure why.

3) The movie got slower as it went on.

4) Some comments made me think of Paul Graham’s essay Stuff, which begins: “I have too much stuff. Most people in America do.” I think he’s right. I don’t want more stuff. I want the right stuff. Too much of the movie focused on “more” rather than “right.” I don’t want to be a consumer.

5) Someone asked something very close to, “do you rule your stuff, or does your stuff rule you?” In the movie, it seemed like only designers were really capable of ruling their stuff. Graham: “once you’ve accumulated a certain amount of stuff, it starts to own you rather than the other way around.”

6) The bit about peelers at the very beginning was fascinating, especially because of the prototypes and CAD drawings.

7) The movie should have focused more on technology.

8) There was a guy who said he was depressed as a teenager, so he looked at his alarm clock, which made him feel better somehow and presumably acted like Paxil. I was depressed as a teenager too, which was alleviated somewhat by losing my virginity.

9) See number four again. I’ll quote Graham more: “the people whose job is to sell you stuff are really, really good at it.” Is this movie’s goal to sell me stuff, or make me want to buy, or to really explain the stuff in my life? The makers would no doubt argue the latter, but I think the former might be the actual outcome.

On writing young-adult fiction

On writing young-adult fiction, much of which is euphemistic and fascinating:

It’s hard to find the same reader gratification as a writer of literary fiction. You have to be thankful to get reviewed at all, even if they pan you. And literary fiction readers are tough. We’ve both had some really appreciative fans, and when they tell us nice things, we want to make out with them. But readers of literary fiction are also very excited to judge you. Like the woman who turned to Katie at a reading and said: “Your writing is really coming along! Your voice is not really developed yet, but keep at it!”

This is another way of saying that readers of literary fiction have a strong sense of history and have spent a lot of time both reading and considering what good writing is. If your reader is someone who’s read thousands of books ranging from, say, The Iliad to Cryptonomicon, you’re going to have a fundamentally different experience than someone whose reading ranges from a handful of young adult novels to today’s Facebook messages. The authors write that they like teenagers because “No one’s forced them to sit through college lit courses yet, so they’re still fresh and unjaded.” That might be another way of saying, “They have no taste.”

By the way, this isn’t a post designed to slander books that have been marketed as “young adult.” The marketing of a book isn’t an indicate of its quality. Novels like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy, which is marketed as young adult, or Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind, which isn’t but deals with teenagers, retain their power regardless of their labels. A lot of throwaway young adult novels won’t.

This is also not to deny that self-consciously literary people can be patronizing, stupid, dense, or various other things. They can also miss the point of novels that offer something new but don’t conform to the pieties of literary fiction. But I still get the impression that the problem is more often that a lot of people writing young adult fiction are happy to write young adult because you don’t have the same standards for quality and insight that you would writing for those persnickety adult literary readers. For writers, I think the real question is how well you’re going to write regardless of your target audience: having fidelity to the craft means writing well, or as well as you can, even when no one is looking.

Brady Udall Interview for The Lonely Polygamist: Part I

Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist, follows a suite of characters orbiting around Golden Richards, a polygamist with four wives and more than two dozen children who is trying to keep his construction business afloat and manage a family that practically requires an MBA due to its size. The novel shies away from overt religious discussion and towards the day-to-day comic combat necessary to merely the family together and functional.

This interview was conducted in May 2010 at Changing Hands bookstore in Tempe, Arizona. Although this is an incredibly lame comment, it’s nonetheless true that I simply forgot to post it when other issues arose. It’s here now, however. As we got started, Udall mentioned Daughter of the Saints: Growing Up in Polygamy by Dorothy Allred Solomon.

Udall reminded me of someone slightly too small and far too wary to make it on a high school football team. He spoke with a paradoxical mix of certainty and exploration. The first half of the interview is below.

Jake Seliger: I was listening to Bookworm on the way up here. It’s a radio show on KCRW, and Michael Silverblatt was talking to Michael Cunningham, and Silverblatt said Cunningham’s book was really about the primal relationship between fathers and sons. I heard that and thought to myself, “That’s a lot of what’s going on in The Lonely Polygamist as well,” except I was too dense to notice it the first time through.

Brady Udall: There’s a lot of distractions. Right? There’s no doubt that one of the things I was interested is that Golden, the main character, is an only child abandoned by his father. And then, he manages to have 28 children of his own.

JS: Almost overcompensating.

BU: Yes, yes. But is no better a father because of it. And I think that’s where I’m interested. Numbers have nothing to do with it, really. It’s just there’s something in men—and this is a gross generalization, but we have difficulty taking care of our obligations, emotionally. That’s part of what the book is about: Golden’s not up to taking care of his obligations emotionally.

JS: He seems unable to deal with his emotions in relation to Royal [Golden's father]. It seems that there’s this Royal-Golden-Rusty [Golden's son]—I don’t want to call the eternal golden braid, but—

BU: Yeah, you look at the names and there’s something going on. There’s definitely something there, and somewhere in the book I talk about the curse of the father. And we all live with that in some way or another.

JS: Sometimes the absent father, too.

BU: Yeah. So that’s definitely part of what I was doing.

JS: You mentioned that it’s not an issue of numbers, but it seems like there’s something going on—when you scale a family from, say, a two-person couple, to four children, to twenty-eight children, it seems like something has to change there. There’s a passage about that I wrote down somewhere—I can’t find it right now—

BU: Well, I don’t know what it says, but it might be the passage that says something about, when you have 28 children, and you’re a father, you have to try to treat them all equally. Which is nearly impossible. Because he’s not up to the task—if you pat one kid on the head, then everybody’s going to have to have a pat on the head—at some point you can’t balance—

JS: It’s a matter of time.

BU: Yes. He’s just not up to the challenge. He doesn’t know how to manage this. Could he have managed it with three or four children? Maybe, I don’t know.

JS: It’s funny that you use the word “manage,” because it seems like at this scale you almost need to have a managerial mindset.

BU: You have to be a logistical genius of some kind.

JS: And it’s strange, because there’s section on page 21—early in the novel, and Golden says that “whenever he walked into one of his houses he felt more than ever like a stranger, an outlander unfamiliar with the customs of the place.” It seems like you almost have to be unfamiliar with the customs of a place if you’re doing this rotation.

BU: The thing I’d say about that, those houses aren’t his. The family is a stranger. The wives are controlling the houses. He’s just an intruder in some ways. And it makes some sense because at the center of everything, yet he’s on the outside of it all. Which I think is cool.

JS: It’s interesting too that you use that kind of language—the center of everything but outside of it all—because to my mind I almost hear an aspect of the religious part of the novel, because religion seems to influence everything that’s going on, and yet it doesn’t seem as constant a presence. So it’s like the center that’s also outside. I don’t know if you agree or not, but that’s what I was hearing.

BU: Religion dominates these people’s lives, but I try to avoid it as much as possible.

JS: Which you succeeded at.

BU: I tried to, so if I include that I’m going to have to write a book that’s 2,000 pages long.

JS: You said in another interview that this one started out at 1,400—

BU: Fourteen, and I did address some of the religious or spiritual stuff. But really what I’m interested in is really—and I’ve said it before—how, how do you do it? How does somebody manage this? And there’s enough there to easily fill 1,400 pages. Some of the more esoteric stuff got left out.

JS: I think when I was coming in, I expected religion to be more front and center, and more important than interpersonal politics. Maybe it’s unfair. I don’t know if my perception is off—I might be unfairly stereotyping a lot of these people.

BU: If you think about it, even for religious people, who would take their religion very seriously, the religion disappears in some ways. It’s just their life. And so when you write fiction, that’s what you tend to focus on—the details of everyday life. How people live, how people interact, is what I think as a fiction writer you really have to think about. That’s going to make interesting fiction. Ideas . . .

JS: Have to be embodied in the events—

BU: Right, right. You can’t—they talk about a novel of ideas. I don’t think there’s ever been a successful novel of ideas, to be honest with you. There’s no such thing. People make the attempt. I’ve always felt, if you’re going write about ideas, write an essay.

JS: Pick a different genre?

BU: Exactly.

JS: That’s funny, because I wrote this paper for one of my grad seminars on Melville’s Pierre, which—I don’t know what to call it besides being about ideas—

BU: I’ve never read it, so I don’t know.

JS: Because no one has read Melville after Moby-Dick, because he seems to—my academic adviser is a guy named Ed Dryden. He’s written a lot about Melville and argues that Melville wants to break with fiction after Moby-Dick.

BU: That’s interesting. I’ve never heard that. That’s why people don’t read Melville after Moby-Dick.

JS: Well, that’s how you get Pierre and Israel Potter and The Confidence Man, which are novels that as far as I can tell no one but academics read.

BU: I’ve read The Confidence Man, I can tell you that. I have virtually no memory of it.

JS: Maybe that says something if you have virtually no memory of it.

BU: Yeah.

JS: As far as religion goes, there’s also a book by a critic named J. Hillis Miller called The Disappearance of God. He argues that in the Nineteenth Century God basically goes from being an active presence in people’s lives in fiction to being an absent center.

BU: And it’s continued to this day. Not to ask you this question, but—

JS: Why not?

BU: Can you name any contemporary fiction writers who address God in the lives of people? It’s very rare.

JS: I wonder if they’re out there, but they’re being published by religious presses that I don’t read.

BU: It could be, but Flannery O’Connor was writing about this in a certain way.

JS: Or a lot of Catholic writers, like Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene.

BU: Jewish writers don’t tend to write a lot about God. And it’s weird because America’s such a religious place. We’re not Europe. We’re very religious, yet if you read fiction of the past 50, 70 years, you’d never have any idea we’re a religious place.

JS: Yeah, or at least mainstream fiction. A lot of the Jewish writers are dealing with Judaism and Jewish culture more.

BU: Right. They’re not dealing with God. And it’s because it’s difficult, that’s really why. Most writers—I feel the same way—don’t feel like they have the authority to deal with such a large subject. But it’s still disturbing to see the lack of people—religious people—in fiction. And very often they’re the villain. And I’m not religious, so I’m not defending this in any way. I’m not a religious person.

JS: It’s like Michael Chabon’s book, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. I don’t know if you’ve read it.

BU: Of course I’ve read it.

JS: The black hats, the Orthodox, are the villains.

BU: And he gets in trouble. Among Jews, he gets in trouble for his depiction.

JS: A little bit. But I don’t think he does like Philip Roth did—

BU: But people still get upset. I think one of the reason writers aren’t address it—if they don’t come from a religious background—I know this from experience—people get upset. If you’re going to depict the religion and religious people of that culture, they want you to depict it in a positive light. And if you don’t, they see it as betrayal.

JS: But it seems like people, oftentimes, whether they’re religious or not, reading about people in a positive light is boring. You want to read about foibles—

BU: That’s absolutely right. Life—fiction is about trouble. It’s about nastiness. It’s not about nice things. It never is.

JS: We have plenty of nastiness here—especially with Golden’s boss. Also with Rusty to some extent. Because he’s—

BU: He’s a little jerk. He’s not a kind—you know, there are idealized children in fiction. They’re education, they’re overly smart, they read in their spare time, I don’t know what. And you know, you don’t see that in real kids. A lot of them are little brats, like Rusty.

[Food shows up.]

Rusty’s a tough one.

JS: At the same time, he’s somewhat justified, and some of his behaviors are understandable. I mean, there’s the scene with his birthday party. And because there’s all these birthday parties—they get back to this individual / privacy issue. At that moment June says about Rusty, “I know he’s going to end up like me. No family, lost, wondering who he’s supposed to be with, what he’s supposed to do.” And it seems like a pretty accurate comment—this idea of lacking family or being lost. It’s easy to get lost in all these people.

BU: In families that large, you do get lost very easily. If you go along with the program, you’re okay, but some people aren’t cut out for that. You can be in trouble. And there’s no place for you. It’s especially true for the boys.

JS: Yeah. It never happens, but it seems like if Rusty were to go on, he’d be really lost, really wondering. Kind of like Golden.

BU: This happens to polygamous boys all the time. If you think about it, the math doesn’t work. There can’t be—all the boys can’t have four wives. All the men can’t have four wives. It just doesn’t work that way. So three out of those four men have to go somewhere else. They can’t hang around.

JS: It’s like what Tim Harford wrote about in The Logic of Life. He had a chapter called “The Marriage Supermarket,” where he develops a theoretical model of what happens if you have 20 men and 20 women who all want to marry. If you take one away from either side, the gender politics shift very rapidly. You can actually see stuff like this happening on college campuses, because now more women than men go to college.

BU: That’s right! It’s in our favor now. Well, too bad I’m not in school. You’ve got it better than we did.

JS: Yeah, and these shifts bring out different kinds of politics.

BU: It’s happening in China, where there are more boys born than girls. And that’s one of the inherent weaknesses of that culture—it’s just mathematics.

JS: And it’s a problem for the men and boys who will end up wandering, like Rusty probably will.

BU: You can end up with no place. You make one false move, you end up on the outs. That’s what happens.

JS: Even Golden growing up with his father, there was wandering for different reasons.

BU: There was a lot of unhappiness. And so there is a correlation between Golden and Rusty, obviously. I guess the way of thinking of it—it’s just easy to end up going over the edge.

JS: If Rusty gets away from the mob—if he survives—maybe he goes on.

BU: You could take it a long ways. Rusty’s sort of like the sacrificial lamb of the family. Somebody has to—something has to happen to bring this family back together. The one who doesn’t belong, is having the hardest time with the family—is the one who’s sacrificed for the greatest good.

JS: You have a feeling Rusty would not perceive it that way.

BU: No, no, the sacrificial virgin never does. It’s like, “Why me, man? Why am I getting thrown in the volcano? This sucks.”

JS: The issue of sacrifice is interesting to me. At the end—I think it’s the second-to-last page—we have Beverley’s voice, and she says, “She would spend the rest of her time tutoring Maureen and making peace with the other wives, to ensure that once she was gone the Richards family would soldier forward in harmony and righteousness until the promised day, on the others side of the vil, when they would be joined together again.” To me, I hear a lot of irony regarding what Bev really thinks, because if she really soldiers towards harmony and righteousness, that’s going to be a pretty big change.

BU: That’s true. The quote that I love—I just heard her say it—I don’t know if you know it—Mary Karr, she wrote The Liars’ Club—is that a dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person. Once the numbers start going up more—

JS: The possible connections go up exponentially.

BU: It goes exponential. So the chances are, that they will soldier forward in harmony and righteousness, believe me, are just about nil. They just added, not only a wife, but two new kids to the family. Good luck to them.

JS: Wastrels, who’re happy to get away—

BU: They’ll just take Rusty’s place. So yeah, there’s The Liars’ Club.

JS: I get the impression from the passages that I’ve seen from Beverley’s consciousness, she probably believes that.

BU: Oh yeah, she does. You have to.

JS: It explains some of her obsessive ordering of the household too.

BU: In the background that she comes from, she believes that if you obey all the rules and in righteousness, having rules and regulations keep anarchy at bay. That’s what she strives for throughout the book. She’s right in some ways. I suppose what I’m saying is that you can try all you want.

JS: Too much order is as stifling as anarchy, and that might be what’s driving Rusty. He’s unhappy.

BU: And it probably drives the other wives, who don’t agree with her approach. So that’s why they’re all fighting with her, because they don’t go that far. Those wives are born and raised in the principle. She’s a newcomer to it. If you’re a convert to something, you get fired up.

JS: The convert’s zeal. There’s a section about it. I can’t remember off the top of my head, but the conflicts between Beverley and the others is a conflict between the first and the others. It’s hard because there has to be a disciplinarian, but no one likes the disciplinarian.

BU: Yeah.

JS: Yet there has to be one.

BU: I can tell you that in my family I’m the disciplinarian, and nobody likes me. My wife’s like, the super safe place to go. I’m like Nurse Ratchet or someone like that. It’s the oldest story in the world, I guess. In this case, it’s the wife.

JS: Because of Golden’s job, and because of how he rotates, in The Lonely Polygamist it would have to be the wife, or the wives, because he’s not there enough.

BU: That’s the truth about anything. Pierre and I were talking to this—a guy who’s gone all the time, working his ass off—he’s not going to be around to have much influence at all, positive or negative. Without influence there’s no power. So the only power he has is to pick his clothes every day. But I’ve seen it in these families.

JS: The power and the attention, because there’s so many children—

BU: Exactly. Because the kids know where the power is. You know what? I don’t think it would be that different if it was a family of four kids, and their father is gone all the time. The mother’s the one who has the influence. He’s not there, he doesn’t develop what he needs to. The entire story and situation—everything that’s true of a family of four or five people is just amplified four or five times. To me that’s interesting for the sake of seeing how far we can take this. For me, it makes things clearer. It helps you see what I’d call a regular family a little bit more clearly when you exaggerate more.

JS: Even regular families seem to be steadily declining, if we mean by that a mom and dad and 2.1 kids and a golden retriever. It’s a smaller proportion—

BU: Right. What I love—let me back up. I’ve put it this way before: what fascinates me about polygamy is that you can look at it as this alternative thing. Like gay marriage. Or you can look at it like this chauvinistic, terribly old-fashioned, ridiculous, unfair way to live. So you want to look at it.

JS: It probably depends in part on where you grow up, and whether you can really make an independent decision about where you want to live. It seems like not everyone grows up as a polygamist gets that.

BU: Most of the polygamist communities are closed, so it makes it hard for people to make their own choices. That’s not true of all polygamist families. But again, the same could be said of many cultures and subcultures in this country and around the world.

JS: You have ideological conformity.

BU: Exactly. Within family, within a neighborhood.

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