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Category: Interview

The Reading Life: The wisdom of Harry Crews

HarrycrewsThis is part of the occasional series "The Reading Life" by book critic David L. Ulin.

In the latest issue of the literary quarterly New Letters, there's an interview from the early 1980s with Harry Crews.

Crews, who died in March at the age of 76, was a satirist, but, really, he was more than that: His novels emerge out of the dreamscape, offering bleakly funny, exaggerated portraits of America at the brink.

In his first, "The Gospel Singer," an itinerant preacher ends up in a Georgia town more grotesque than any in Flannery O'Connor's writing; "A Feast of Snakes" (1976) involves a rattlesnake roundup. My favorite is "Car," in which a man eats a full-size automobile, four ounces at a time.

The New Letters interview was conducted at a moment when Crews was on (or just coming off) the skids, at the tail end of a decades-long wrestling match with alcohol -- "I drank with two hands," he once said. "... I was drunk every day for 30 years" -- and unsure of what to do next. Nonetheless, he was feisty, not giving an inch.

Here he is on what it takes to be a writer:

One of the things that prevents people from becoming writers is the inability to look at their lives and look at what they believe. They can't look at themselves honestly and say, "Okay, that's how it is." Society makes it damn near necessary to disguise yourself. To appear "normal." To appear like everybody else. ... Whatever people think of me is fine. I made peace with that a long time ago, and realized that I'm not "gone" be like most people, not "gone" be what most people called decent. I'm not like most people, and I don't act like most people. I can live with that just fine and always have.

And here, on whether or not alcohol had finished him (clearly it hadn't, since he went on to publish five more books):

Wimps always think that things are destroyed. Wimps see a little blood and bone, and they think the game is over. They don't know you can go out and get taped up real good and shot up with a little dope and get back in and hit somebody. No ... I'm a long way from finished.

 Best of all are his thoughts on whether "all writers are congenital liars, as Faulkner said":

Oh, yes. I think the business of being a fabulist, that is to be involved with fabrication and making things up and living in the world of the imagination, all that spills over into lying even when you don't have to lie, just because you want to tell something that is memorable and compelling. In your own mind, this isn't what happened to me at Daytona Beach, but this is the way it should have happened. You tell it, and it's a great story. It's not true to the facts of the matter, but very true to the spirit of what happened -- truer in spirit than the facts are. When you give someone the spirit of the thing, that's better than the facts.

-- David L. Ulin

Photo: Harry Crews in 1998. Credit: The Gainesville (Fla.) Sun

Sarajevo with tears: Another walk down Logavina Street

Barbara Demick says that" real Sarajevans don’t like to talk about the war," but her book, "Logavina Street," follows the lives of a small community during the conflict
Twenty years ago, war raged across the former Yugoslavia, killing 100,000 people. The Bosnian war was the first in Europe in nearly half a century and, coming after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, was a shock to those who expected those events to yield a lasting peace. What they got instead was the horror of ethnic cleansing at a level not seen in Europe since World War II.

Sarajavo, a relatively modern European city, was the subject of the longest siege of a capital city in modern warfare, lasting from 1992 to 1995. The city that had hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984 became a prison for more than 300,000 people who were trapped with little food, running water, electricity or heat. Residents were subjected to constant mortar attacks and sniper fire from Bosnian Serb gunners on the hills overlooking the historic city.

Barbara Demick, now perhaps best known for her groundbreaking book on North Korea, "Nothing to Envy," was a correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer during the siege. She and photographer John Costello moved into Sarajevo and filed a series of dispatches from one six-block-long stretch of the city called Logavina Street. About 240 families -- Muslims, Christians, Serbs and Croats -- had lived easily together on this street unified by their common identity as Sarajevans until the war tore that apart.

Demick received the prestigious George Polk Award as well as the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for her reporting from Sarajevo. She was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. In 1996, her book, "Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood," was published and received excellent critical notice.

Last month, she and hundreds of other reporters who covered the war had a reunion in Sarajevo to mark the war's beginning in April 1992. A revised edition of "Logavina Street" was recently released with a new preface, final chapter and epilogue.

We talked to Demick, now the Beijing correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, about the process of revisiting, in her book and in person.

Jacket Copy: What was the original idea for your reporting from Logavina Street?

Barbara Demick: To allow readers to grasp the enormity of what was happening, I picked one street and followed the residents as they tried to cope under the siege. Logavina is a beautiful street with slender, white minarets over red rooftops, rising into the mountains from the old downtown. Near the foot of the street are Catholic and Orthodox churches and a synagogue. We followed a teenage girl whose parents had been decapitated by a mortar shell as they collected water, a volunteer policeman and his young sons, a doctor, a dentist, a general who happened to be an ethnic Serb. Although Bosnian Serb nationalists were responsible for the siege, Logavina still had quite a few Serb families who remained during the war and rejected ethnic extremism. The project was very innovative at the time. Although many others had covered the hardships of Sarajevo, we always wrote about the same people so that readers came to know them. It was a bit of a soap opera set in wartime.

Barbara Demick continues after the jump.

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Curating short fiction: Recommended Reading

This post has been updated. See below.

Electric Literature, which started out publishing a quarterly journal simultaneously in print, ebook, iPhone and Kindle form, is always up for trying something new. It regularly invites animators to create short videos of single sentences from its stories, like the one above. And way back in 2009, it published a short story in tweets by Rick Moody on Twitter, an experiment that was only partially creatively successful but that earned it an important literary place in the Twittersphere. What does a quarterly do with 150,000 followers in the long months between publication? Editor Benjamin Samuel decided curation is the thing.

Hence, Recommended Reading. It's a project that will publish one fiction story per week, with selections being made by a variety of readers who are in the know: an independent press, a writer, the kind folks at Electric Literature, and another literary journal. That's one month, then the cycle starts again.

The project went up on Kickstarter in April and swiftly reached its $10,000 goal (aided in part by a donor perk of a really cool flask). The organizers now hope to raise double that goal, and have about $3,500 and less than a week to go. Samuel explained what to expect from Recommended Reading, via email.

Jacket Copy: How many recommends will Recommended Reading make each week?

Benjamin Samuel: We'll publish one piece of fiction each week. It’s an ideal rate for readers who are already overwhelmed with options, and will help them focus on fiction that's worth spending time with.

The magazine runs on a four-week cycle of curators: the first week is a story chosen by Electric Literature, then an indie press like New Directions excerpts a collection or novel, then a guest editor like Jim Shepard picks a story, and then another journal like A Public Space re-releases work from their archives.

JC: Is Recommended Reading sort of like Longreads for fiction?

BS: I love Longreads and appreciate the comparison. While we have curation in common, the nature of Recommended Reading's model makes us somewhere between a salon, magazine and a digest. We want Recommended Reading to be a true community that’s passionate about literature, and we’ll do this in part by introducing readers to independent publishers as well as new and emerging writers. Each issue will feature a note from the editor, written by that week's partner, i.e., when we publish fiction from Melville House, Dennis Johnson will introduce that week's issue. We hope that this will increase awareness of the diversity of the indie publishing community, and hopefully translate into sales and subscriptions for our partners.

JC: Is there a pool of literary magazines and journals from which you'll be pulling stories?

BS: The first pool was Brooklyn based: A Public Space, Armchair/Shotgun, The Coffin Factory, and One Story. But we're not a Brooklyn-centric publication. My co-editor, Halimah Marcus, and I  spent most of the mayhem of this year's AWP meeting other editors and learning about the great magazines they’re creating. The indie publishing is diverse and flourishing, and we want to share our discoveries with our audience.

JC: Do you have plans to expand that pool?

BS: Absolutely. We're on the lookout for indie publishers with strong mission statements and who are committed to keeping literature a vibrant part of our culture. We’re also looking overseas to bring in international partners, as well as work in translation.

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Interview: Veronica Roth on her book 'Insurgent' and feminism

InsurgentHCIn Veronica Roth's bestseller "Divergent," a young woman chooses to leave her family and align herself with a group that seems better suited to her true identity. "Insurgent," out Tuesday, sees Tris coming to a better understanding of what that decision really means in a book that is every bit as action-packed and questioning as the series kickoff. We caught up with the 23-year-old Chicago-based author to talk about her highly anticipated second book in the "Divergent" trilogy and strong female characters in dystopian young-adult fiction.

Jacket Copy: "The Hunger Games," "Divergent" and dozens of other titles in this burgeoning dystopian genre showcase strong female protagonists. Do you see a new shape of feminism emerging here?

Veronica Roth: That's a complicated question. What's interesting about these characters is that a lot of their strength is expressed in a physical way. Tris is physically weak but she learns how to be skilled in a physical way. Katniss isn't super buff, but she knows how to defend herself. I think that's something that needs to be explored more. Characters like Tris and Katniss, their worth and strength is not limited to their physical abilities. They're very much in control of their own destinies. In "Insurgent," Tris says, "Where I go, I go because I choose to." That element of "I can do it. I can control my life," that everything that happens, good or bad, happens because of the choice of the main character, that's sort of a new thing.

Jacket Copy: How would you describe your personal adolescent experience, and how did it inform "Divergent"?

Veronica Roth: As a teenager, I put a lot of pressure on myself, and a lot of that, for me, was about finding a moral high ground. As I've grown up, I've decided to abandon that because it made me judgmental and also stressed me out. There's really no way to be perfect. Perfectionism is a silly trait to have, so in a lot of ways that inspired the world of "Divergent," in which everyone is striving toward that ideal and falling short of it. Tris is a character who experiences that stress about, "Am I doing the right thing? I always have to do the right thing. If I don't, what am I worth?"

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Festival of Books: How the 'boys on the bus' cover campaigns

Click to view photos from the Festival of Books

We are, it seems, living in fragmented times.

Four notable political journalists and a media critic spent an hour late Saturday afternoon dissecting the state of American politics and political journalism. The L.A. Times Festival of Books panel was called "The Boys on the Bus," but as moderator (and L.A. Times political reporter) Mark Z. Barabak pointed out, these days half of the nation's political reporting class are women, and the bus was long ago replaced by chartered airplanes.

The panel's title was drawn from Timothy Crouse's 1973 landmark book "The Boys on the Bus," which was among the first and best-known works to examine the role of the media during presidential campaigns. Crouse helped create the modern perception of political journalists as celebrities in and of themselves, a role since elevated by the talking-head shows on cable and Sunday morning network news shows.

PHOTOS: Festival of Books

But as anyone who has been on the bus knows, celebrity has little to do with the day-to-day coverage of campaigns (Disclosure: I covered political campaigns for the L.A. Times from 2000 to 2008, where I worked with Barabak and his fellow panelist Ronald Brownstein, and against panelist Adam Nagourney, then a political correspondent for the New York Times). 

And in this era of instant news, tweets as stories, and television programming propelled by opinion, both the practice of politics and political journalism are undergoing tectonic shifts. Nation magazine media critic and journalism professor Eric Alterman condemned the predominant mode of coverage, arguing that most political journalism is about the process with a de-emphasis on what kinds of leaders the candidates would be if elected.

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Rodney King and the L.A. riots: When 20 years can seem like yesterday

Click to view photos from the Festival of BooksOne aspect of Los Angeles hasn't changed in the 20 years since the 1992 riots: Traffic tie-ups. Rodney King, whose March 1991 beating by L.A. police officers was the first link in the chain of events that culminated in the 1992 riots, was a half-hour late Saturday for his interview with Times columnist Patt Morrison.

So, in a sense, the session ran in reverse. With Morrison, who also anchors a radio show on KPCC, as the moderator, Angelenos spent a half-hour talking about their own experiences during and after the riots as they awaited King's arrival. The general consensus: The LAPD has changed for the better, but the socio-economic conditions that set the stage for the riots have worsened. And the racial divides are still chasms.

PHOTOS: Festival of Books

"I'm surprised at how white we are here," said one white woman, looking around at the crowd of more than 500 people in a basement auditorium at USC's Ronald Tutor Campus Center, about four miles north of where the riots began near South Central's Normandie and Florence Avenues. The woman said she lived in South Central, in a neighborhood in which she is the rare white resident. "The riots can certainly start again, until we have socio-economic changes, and in how we view other people."

King, for his part, arrived out of breath, and spoke of forgiveness for the officers involved in his videotaped beating after a high-speed chase. With his history of substance abuse, he said, he has been in need of some forgiveness. "I am a forgiving man," he said. "That's how I was raised, to be in a forgiving state of mind. I have been forgiven many times. I am only human. Who am I not to forgive someone?"

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An interview with National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward

An extended interview with Jesmyn Ward, whose novel "Salvage the Bones" won the 2011 National Book AwardJesmyn Ward won the 2011 National Book Award for the novel "Salvage the Bones," her second. The 35-year-old author, who gave a moving speech at the ceremony about why she writes what she writes, will be appearing at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books this weekend on the panel "Fiction: The Dream Deferred" at 10:30 a.m. Sunday.

Ward has been a New Yorker, a Californian and a Michigander, but it's rural coastal Mississippi that she returns to, and that is at the center of her literary universe.

In Sunday's Times, Ward talks to Carolyn Kellogg about where she came from, and how she almost gave up writing to go to nursing school.

Below are additional excerpts from that conversation. We start in 2008, when Ward, after earning an master's degree at the University of Michigan, was commuting to New Orleans from Mississippi to work as an instructor, teaching mostly composition.

Jesmyn Ward: My first novel, "Where the Line Bleeds," was dead in the water. I almost gave up. I thought, "Maybe I should stop this." Because I was making –- instructors don't make anything; it's criminal how little they’re paid. I was really struggling. And I thought, "Maybe I should just quit all of this and do something that would give me a steady, higher-paying paycheck like nursing, that I know I could go back to school and do." And I was, I was really close to that.

But then I thought, "I'm just going to give it one more try, and apply for some fellowships, and see what happens." I applied for the Stegner fellowship and I applied for Provincetown, and at the same time I applied for the fellowships I was looking into nursing programs. During that winter, when I was waiting to hear from people, and that spring, that's when my novel was accepted for publication by a really small publishing house out of Chicago called Agate, which publishes a lot of African American literary fiction. And then I found out that I'd gotten a Stegner. It was amazing, like winning the lottery.

I lived in San Francisco and did the Stegner fellowship for two years, and it was amazing. From fall 2008 to spring 2010, I was there. When it came time for me to apply, again for jobs, in 2010 ... I began applying for jobs. Then I got the Grisham Writing Residency at the university of Ole Miss. Part of the residency is that they give you a fabulous large old house to live in, which is actually right down the street from Rowan Oak, Faulkner's house.

CK: I understand you're working on a memoir now?

JW: The memoir is about a particular time in my life, from 2000 to 2004, when five young black men from my community [the towns of Delisle and nearby Pass Christian] died in different ways. First was my brother, who was hit by a drunk driver and killed in October 2000. The second young man committed suicide ... he shot himself. The third young man was in a car accident; the car that he was in hit a train, and he was sitting on the passenger side and was trapped. The fourth young man was shot and his murder has never been solved -- somebody was waiting for him when he got home one night and shot him. The fifth young man died of a drug overdose -- he had a heart condition so the drugs made him have a heart attack. The book is asking why an epidemic like that -- of young black men dying, which is something I feel people associate with urban landscapes -- would happen in a place like the place where I'm from: Rural, southern, poor. I feel like it's very outside of the preconceived notions that people have of epidemics of young black men dying.

The [tentative] title, "The Men We Reaped," comes from a Harriet Tubman quote. ... I love it so much I hope that I am able to use it. I hope it's not an Internet quote:

We saw the lightning and that was the guns
And then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns
And then we heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling
And when we came to get in the crops it was dead men that we reaped.

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Mike Wallace and Aldous Huxley [video]

Mike Wallace died Saturday at the age of 93. He'd been a contributor to the television show "60 Minutes" for 42 years, and before that he had a long journalism career. That included "The Mike Wallace Interview," a show that broadcast on ABC "discussing the problems of survival and freedom in America," the announcer intones over the credits as Wallace, in "Mad Men" style, puffs a cigarette in the background.

In 1958, he interviewed Aldous Huxley, the author of "Brave New World." When Wallace asks Huxley what the greatest threats to our freedom are, Huxley responds gently but incisively. First, he points to overpopulation, its pressure on resources and, with scarcity, the greater need for state control.

Then he outlines the second force: "As technology becomes more and more complicated, it becomes necessary to have more and more elaborate organizations, more hierarchical organizations. And incidentally, the advance of technology has been accompanied by an advance in the science of organization. It's now possible to make organizations on a larger scale than was ever possible before. So you have more and more people living their lives out as subordinates in these hierarchical systems in  control by bureaucracies, either the bureaucracies of big business or the bureaucracies of big government."

Wallace presses him on the devices he says diminish our freedoms. "We musn't be caught by surprise by our own advancing technology," Huxley says. Huxley was living, at the time, in Southern California, and would die just five years later. He must have sounded a little alarmist at the time, but now, well, it seems like a very reasonable 28 minutes.


Anne Sexton: 'My husband hates the way I read poems'

Is this the best book trailer of the year or not?

Life everlasting on YouTube

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Writer Nick Flynn on 'Being Flynn'


Nick Flynn has lived an odd life. Meeting his estranged father for the first time in his twenties, Flynn found himself face-to-face with a man who believed he was one of the greatest writers who ever lived. He wasn’t -- Jonathan Flynn was mainly a drifter with delusions of grandeur. But he clearly carried something in his genes. The younger Flynn would evolve into a poet, and would also draw on his experiences with his father to write an acclaimed memoir, “Another ... Night in Suck City,” that bore out some of his father’s bold claims.

Flynn doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects such as homelessness and alcoholism in describing his tentative steps toward reconciliation with his father. Heavy on both poetic language and fragmented rumination, the book wasn’t an easy read. But it became a cult hit with the book-buying public when it was published in 2004, also winning the PEN/Martha Albrand Award.

A different audience will get to live Flynn’s story starting this weekend, when a movie based on “City” -- titled “Being Flynn” and starring Robert De Niro as Jonathan and Paul Dano as Nick -- opens in theaters.

Flynn spent every day of the New York shoot on set, guiding its director. Before the shoot began, he said, he imagined that the experience of watching an actor reenact his life could get surreal.

“I was trying to get a frame of reference,” he said. "So I called my friend Tony Swofford [the “Jarhead’ author who also saw a movie made of his book] and he told me that even writing the memoir is turning yourself into the character -- it’s not my life but the memory of my life.” Flynn said. “So really this was all something I had done before.”

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William Gibson talks to Wired

William Gibson's 1984 novel "Neuromancer" established him as one of science fiction's great, most prescient voices, and he's never slowed down. He's continued writing fiction, of course. For a long time, he blogged, but he traded that in for Twitter. He's one of the few authors of his generation who really gets it -- he's @GreatDismal, and has more than 70,000 followers.

His latest book, released in January, is something different still. "Distrust That Particular Flavor" is a collection of Gibson's nonfiction essays. He talked to Wired Magazine -- where some of his pieces first appeared -- about the book, aging futurists and more. Gibson says:

Futurists get to a certain age and, as one does, they suddenly recognize their own mortality, and they often decide that what’s going on is that everything is just totally screwed and shabby now, whereas when they were younger everything was better.

It’s an ancient, somewhat universal human attitude, and often they give it full voice. But it’s been being given voice for thousands and thousands of years. You can go back and see the ancient Greeks doing it. You know, “All that is good is gone. These young people are incapable of making art, or blue jeans, or whatever.” It’s just an ancient thing, and it’s so ancient that I’m inclined to think it’s never actually true. And I’ve always been deeply, deeply distrustful of anybody’s “golden age” — that one in which we no longer live.

Gibson's interview marks the launch of the new Wired podcast, The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy. That's all I know about it, but I hope they continue speaking to authors.

After the jump, an anecdote from the podcast in which Gibson gets the Hollywood treatment.

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