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‘Someone suggested that my new book is bedtime stories for children who drink’. The humorist David Sedaris talks to Hadley Freeman
The man routinely described as the best living humorist in America, David Sedaris, was recently enjoying a plate of marinated salmon over greens while signing books in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois when a fan decided he wanted more than the writer’s autograph. So he reached over and grabbed a handful of food off the Sedaris plate. Understandably, Sedaris was not best pleased. In fact, he was downright annoyed, which is not a common reaction from a writer who tends to regard the world in general with wide-eyed affection and his readers in particular with real fondness (“I always think it’s a good policy to like the people who like you,” he says with an almost straight face). It wasn’t the hygiene issue that bugged him. It wasn’t even the loss of the food, although he was a little upset about that (“I’d been looking forward to that salmon!”) – it was the fact that the man was trying to cheat.
“He just did it because he wanted to be written about,” recalls Sedaris, with the distaste of an artist discussing a plagiarist. “It was a gimmick, you know? So I ignored him because I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction.” For a few moments, Sedaris’s face clouds at the memory. “But then a woman came up to me later after I read the story about the rabbit and the unicorn” – in Sedaris’s new collection, Squirrel Meets Chipmunk – “and she said, ‘You know it’s just wild that you read that story because I went to see my gynaecologist yesterday and he said my uterus is shaped like a unicorn.'” Sedaris leans back in his chair, clouds cleared and replaced with a smile of delight. “I mean, someone handed me a gold coin there.”
This tale, like all of Sedaris’s short stories and autobiographical essays, makes wider points beyond its classically Sedaris-esque world-righted-again conclusion. Just as “Go Carolina”, from Me Talk Pretty One Day, isn’t only about his school’s failed attempts to cure him of his lisp but also about his youthful attempts to conceal his homosexuality; and just as “The Sick Rat and the Healthy Rat” in Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is partly about animal testing but really an exploration of the cruel smugness of the homeopathic set (“I’m sorry to say it, but if you have a terminal illness it’s nobody’s fault but your own”), so this story about Sedaris’s stolen dinner reveals why he is so popular – his delighted fascination in people’s eccentricities (the real, not the faked ones).
His past five collections of essays, When You Are Engulfed in Flames (2008), Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004), Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000), Holidays on Ice (1997) and Naked (1997) have all been bestsellers and have made celebrities out of not just Sedaris, but also the most frequent subjects of his essays: his siblings, his parents, and his boyfriend, Hugh. At a reading in London in March this year, Sedaris himself garnered plenty of happy applause, but it was Hugh who prompted gasps and camera phone flashes when Sedaris pointed him out in the audience, as though Mr Darcy had been suddenly summoned from the wings by Jane Austen.
The most unlikely subjects become hilarious in Sedaris’s hands, such as the time his father threw him out of the house when he realised he was gay. He was, however, too embarrassed to say the word “gay”, so the 22-year-old David assumed, with a shrug of fair-enough acceptance, that he was being ejected from the family home because of his fondness for his bong: “I guess I could have pinned him down, I just hadn’t seen the point. ‘Is it because I’m a failure? A drug addict? A sponge? Come on, Dad, just give me one good reason,'” he wrote in “Hejira”.
Yet his delight in eccentricities is often undercut by a sharpness and a darkness that at times can be startling in a writer who enjoys such mainstream success. In “The Smoking Section”, his essay about his eventual, reluctant, abandonment of smoking, he writes about how he was introduced to his favourite brand of cigarettes: “Just after she started chemotherapy, my mom sent me three cartons of Kool Milds. ‘They were on sale,’ she croaked. Dying or not, she should have known that I smoked Filter Kings, but then I looked at them and thought, Well, they ARE free.”
That his stories are telling most of all in their detail is also shown in the saga of his pilfered dinner – the simple fact that he was eating it at a book event: “I just found that if I do an evening book signing I don’t get back to my room until 2am, and then room service takes another 45 minutes,” he explains blithely over cupcakes in a New York coffee shop. “So now I just bring my dinner with me.” It is a rare author whose readers regularly queue until after midnight to get his autograph.
In America at least, Sedaris is in the tiny golden circle of writers – along with Stephen King and Woody Allen – who commands rock concert-sized audiences in venues such as Carnegie Hall, and whose fans shout their love for him when he walks down the street in New York. “And,” adds fellow humorist and American-abroad writer, Bill Bryson, “he really ought to be as famous here in Britain as he is there. He is the funniest and most original American writer since SJ Perleman.”
In fact, it was at least partly to escape fame that Sedaris fled America for Europe several years ago. “I mean, it’s nice to be told that people love you, but you can’t live like that and I can’t write about it. So I had to go.” To where people are rude to him? “Yeah,” he agrees with a smile. His first refuge of rudeness was of course France, but he now lives in Britain – in London and in a recently bought house in West Sussex. “But I don’t know what that means – West Sussex,” he says, rolling the words with pleasure on his tongue, his lingering North Carolina accent rendering them even more foreign-sounding. “If someone bought a place outside New York I would know what that said about them. So it’s weird not knowing what West Sussex says about us. But I also kinda like that.”
Sedaris was born in New York and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina, along with his siblings, Lisa, Gretchen, Amy, Tiffany and Paul. Everyone in the family, he says, had a role, and his was “the drop out”; it was the other members of his family who were funny, particularly his sister Amy and his brother Paul, who, if warned not to wear shorts at a fancy restaurant, would turn up wearing a thong. “And if it embarrassed me, he would think it well worth it.”
Amy, also a successful comedian and writer, disagrees with David’s self-deprecation: “We’re all funny in different ways but he was the funniest, and I gravitated to him. If I had to learn about Julius Caesar for school, instead of just helping me memorise the whole ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ thing, he would create a talk show with all the characters for the play. He has always been an amazing storyteller, but he also makes you want to make him laugh because he is the most generous laugher you’ll ever meet.”
Sedaris knew he wanted to be a writer from the age of 25, when he read a collection of Bobbie Ann Mason stories; he attempted to fulfil his ambition by “writing a lot of bad Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver.”
It would take almost another decade before he found success. In the meantime, he kept himself busy dropping out of two colleges, going to art school (“I know I didn’t really want to be an artist, simply because I wasn’t jealous of the other students’ success”), developing a full-blown drug habit and finding “jobs that needed no skills”, such as cleaning people’s houses and working as an elf in a department store at Christmas.
He also wrote a diary and it was while he was working in his odd jobs that Ira Glass, a host on National Public Radio, happened to hear Sedaris reading from his diary in a club in 1992. Glass immediately hired him to read on the radio and suggested that he broadcast a longer piece about his life: Sedaris wrote about his time as an elf (published as SantaLand Diaries). Suddenly, he says, “I went from having 50 listeners to 50 million listeners.” He still contributes to NPR.
He insists that he never puts himself in strange and unfamiliar situations just for the sake of writing about them. He does, though, love those initial moments when one is in a new place, that “too short space of time when your eyes are keenly and profoundly open” – such as when he and Hugh moved to Tokyo for a few months to help him give up smoking (the dislocation of the move did help him break the habit, although trying to learn Japanese nearly drove him back to it).
Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk takes him to a terrain almost as novel as Japan. As the title suggests, it is about animals as opposed to people, plus it is Sedaris’s first entirely fictional collection. Sort of. Ever since he was in his 20s, Sedaris, now 54, has carried around a notebook in which he records his observations. When asked how it felt to write a book without the help of these notebooks, he replies that it felt “kinda great! That said, there are some things in the stories that came . . . Like, one time this woman in airport security was just being horrible to me.” Again, his face darkens and then, just as quickly, clears again: “And I thought ‘I’m going to turn you into a rabbit.'”
Squirrel seeks Chipmunk is easily his darkest book, featuring baby lambs whose eyes get pecked out by crows and bears who are beaten and captured by circus owners. Yet it is still funny, particularly because it feels as though Sedaris is satirising the kind of sentimentalised anthropomorphism he often sends up in his essays (posters of animals wearing clothes are frequently cited as the nadir of humour).
“I’ve never been so unsure about the reaction to one of my books,” he says. “What I like is that you can’t categorise it. Someone suggested that it’s bedtime stories for children who drink, and I thought that was just great.”
But Sedaris has long been tough to categorise. While his early essays tend to be straighforwardedly funny, his later ones veer between comedy, darkness and something more moving. The member of his family who readers ask him about the most is his younger brother Paul (when I told friends I was interviewing Sedaris, four asked me to ask about Paul, and a fifth wanted to know what Hugh looks like). The essays about Paul are often extremely touching, such as “Baby Einstein”, in which his brother finds out his wife can’t have any more children.
Because of this ability to move between the hilarious and the heartrending, some critics have compared him to Mark Twain and James Thurber. Sedaris himself prefers to invoke early Whoopi Goldberg stand up routines and, in particular, the all-singing, all-dancing American TV show, Glee. “I love Glee. I cry all the time when I watch Glee because I don’t know if it’s satire or melodrama and that makes me feel like the writing is aware of itself, and that makes it OK to cry,” he says.
A somewhat trickier issue about the categorisation of Sedaris’s work arose in 2007 when the journalist Alex Heard wrote an article questioning whether Sedaris’s stories are as true as he claimed. The fact that he wrote the piece for the New Republic – a magazine which became infamous when one of its reporters, Stephen Glass, was caught fabricating news stories – was ironic enough. That Heard pointed out that a hospital Sedaris describes as “gothic” in one story is actually “Tuscan revival” tipped the whole venture into self-parody. Although the furore has since died down it still upsets Sedaris. “I just thought, what do people think this kind of writing is? I’m not a reporter. Do I exaggerate? Boy, do I, and I’d do it more if I could get away with it,” he says, his voice going just that little bit higher.
David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, which regularly publishes Sedaris, is far more sanguine. “As a magazine, it’s important to find a way to publish what David does, or what Thurber did, or what many humorist-memoirists have done, which is to tell the truth even while pushing against the stubborn facts. Our fact-checkers do check his pieces and David cooperates with that. Still, I think readers understand that they should read David Sedaris with a different understanding than the way they read hardcore investigative reporting.”.
“I just think,” Sedaris adds, “that the people who say: ‘That’s not true’ when someone tells a story at dinner are the people who didn’t get any laughs when they told their story.”
In any event, although he might confuse his architectural terms, he gets the important stuff right. Judging from the few instances his father Lou has appeared in the press, his son seems to have been captured him with little exaggeration. When Sedaris appeared at Carnegie Hall in 2002, a reporter from the New York Observer asked Lou whether he had ever expected to see his son playing Carnegie Hall. “Well,” his dad replied, “I expected to see him cleaning Carnegie Hall.”
There is one issue on which Sedaris has recently retracted: technology. Although he still doesn’t have a mobile phone, he recently did what he promised he’d never do: switch from his beloved typewriter to a computer. However, he conflates the words “email” and “internet” and he can’t quite figure out exactly what the white rectangular square in his hand is – “an iPod, no, it’s an iPad, no it’s an iPod”. At one point, he needs to get an address from his iSomething, but finds he can’t operate it (“Well, this is no good!”) and so reaches for his trusty, battered notebook instead. After all, when the authentic option is there in his pocket, there is no need for anything else.
Halloween Mayhem Welcome to our Halloween Writing Contest. This year’s theme comes from the fiendish mind of Snapesgirl. Theme: Halloween Mayhem – the day gone awry, murder, death, dismemberment, zombies…anything goes! Word Count: 500 words min and 10,000 word max Prose/Poetry: either one Deadline for entries: Sunday 24th October 2010 (ie three weeks from today) […]
‘Gobsmacked’ Myrrha Stanford-Smith makes novel debut with The Great Lie
An 82-year-old woman is celebrating after landing a book deal for her debut novel.
Teacher, theatre director and grandmother Myrrha Stanford-Smith, who lives in Holyhead, north Wales, said she was “gobsmacked” to be handed the three-book agreement, which saw her first work The Great Lie appearing in bookshops last week.
Stanford-Smith, who is also a trained actor, has always held a passion for creative writing.
After receiving positive feedback on a short children’s story she sent in to BBC Radio Wales last summer, she secured a deal with publisher Honno for a trilogy based around her swashbuckling Elizabethan hero Nick Talbot.
The adventure reignites, in fictional form, the rivalry between William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. The Great Lie sees 16-year-old Nick, the son of the late first Earl of Rokesby, run away with a troupe of travelling players who take him to London – where he soon comes to Marlowe’s attention.
Stanford-Smith said of the deal: “I was gobsmacked. I had to put the phone down and ring them back as I was so taken aback by the whole thing. I had to pull myself together before I could even pick up the phone to call back.
“It was out of the blue. I’d been waiting for the manuscript to be sent back really, rejected. It was such a wonderful surprise,” she said.
Stanford-Smith was born in Brighton and trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama before working with theatre director and impresario Sir Tyrone Guthrie in the West End and later moving into teaching and directing.
She said: “It was so lovely to have the book in my hand with embossed cover.
“I read it again just for pleasure – to have my book, my words, in my hand as my very own book, it was wonderful.
“It’s on the bookshelves now next to my favourite authors in pride of place with a gap for the next two in the trilogy.”
When Stanford-Smith retired to Anglesey, rather than take a break from the theatre she realised a long-held dream by founding Ucheldre Repertory Company in the early 1990s. She still works with the company as both a director and teacher and is directing a production of Richard III this autumn.
Take Dad’s caustic wit out of the picture, and Halpern’s material is lazy and second-hand
When 28-year-old writer Justin Halpern split up with his girlfriend, he moved back in with his parents in San Diego, California. His father, a specialist in “nuclear medicine”, did his best to be accommodating. “All I ask is that you pick up your shit so you don’t leave your bedroom looking like it was used for a gang bang.”
Halpern Sr had always had a gift for the grouchy apophthegm. On learning that his son was to try Hollywood screenwriting, he compared the job to “being on a merry-go-round, except the horse you’re riding fucks you”. Following an off-the-cuff comment about the family dog (“You can tell by the dilation of his asshole that he’s going to shit soon”), Justin Halpern started posting his father’s sayings online. Then he started a Twitter page, “Sh*t My Dad Says”, and within a short time literary agents were calling, TV producers inviting him on to their shows, and reporters asking him for interviews.
A book came out, and earlier this month it hit No 1 on the New York Times bestseller list, edging out Laura Bush’s memoir. When Halpern told his father this, the reaction was phlegmatic. “Trust me,” Halpern Sr said of Bush. “She doesn’t give a fuck. She could have you killed.” Sh*t My Dad Says is a phenomenon, and at first sight it’s tempting to go along with the predigested narrative: that of the wry, self-deprecating young media hipster and his folksie, foul-mouthed oldster parent. Justin Halpern, claim his publishers, is “a major new comic voice”.
But he isn’t. Take the dad out of the picture and Halpern’s material is lazy and second-hand. “Without you,” he tells his blog readers, “I’m living in my parents’ house, trying to figure out times when they’re not home so I can masturbate.” The book is spattered with these kinds of references; Halpern clearly thinks that, post-Portnoy and American Pie, there’s still limitless mileage in the Jewish jack-off theme. Installed in Hollywood at his parents’ expense so that he can “write”, he hears a couple having sex next door, and “rubbed one out before dozing off”. The next morning he’s disconcerted to discover that his neighbours are both men. Feeling “sexually insecure”, he tells his dad the whole story, who speaks for the reader in telling him that he really, really doesn’t want to know.
From the sparse handful of details vouchsafed us in this glib, self-engrossed account, Halpern Sr comes across as an extraordinary and heroic figure. Born into extreme rural poverty, he qualifies as a doctor, serves in Vietnam and goes on to become a distinguished cancer specialist, whose lectures are attended by oncologists in their hundreds. If his world view is that of a scatalogically inclined Samuel Beckett, he’s earned the right to it, and his pronouncements are anything but shit, or even Sh*t. When he says, of his son’s friends: “I like them. I don’t think they would fuck your girlfriend, if you had one,” you’re hearing the voice of a man who’s seen too much to bother with the niceties.
By contrast, there’s almost nothing to get to grips with in the son’s story. By his mid-20s he’s worked shifts at Hooters, a catering franchise involving greasy chicken wings and waitresses in high-cut shorts, and decided to “try his hand” at screenwriting. Moving to LA, he finds no takers, a fact that will come as no surprise to readers of this book, though it stokes Halpern’s own neurotically inflated sense of victimhood. Back in San Diego, he tries to move in with his girlfriend and, quelle surprise, she dumps his slacker ass.
At which point he posts the dog’s asshole quote and the multimedia phenomenon kicks in, with Halpern Sr, possibly suspecting that lightning will not strike twice, refusing to take a cent of the proceeds. Earlier this week I glanced at Halpern’s blog and was amazed to learn that his father, years ago, wrote a book about his time in Vietnam, which he, Halpern, has not yet read. Was this indolence, I wondered, or the apprehension that a real understanding of his father’s past might expose the whole Sh*t My Dad Says exercise for what it is?
Walt Whitman remains a fine riposte to all the ‘best writer under 40’ lists
When, at the age of 36, the poet first self-published the collection for which he would become famous, it received just two reviews, both written by himself under a pseudonym, but otherwise fell stillborn from the press.
Only now is Walt Whitman generally recognised as the artist who invented American poetry and gave his people an authentic lyric voice with Leaves of Grass as surely as Mark Twain created American fiction with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
The mystery of Walt Whitman, explored in the latest New York Review of Books, goes deeper still. Until Leaves of Grass (1855), Whitman was heroically unpromising – a carpenter, a schoolteacher, a printer and journalist, and the author of a “temperance” novel. In the words of one critic, until well into his 30s, “Whitman was a non-poet in every way, with no mark of special talent or temperament”.
In the absence of an explanation for Whitman’s creative leap forward – was it, perhaps, the fruit of his service in the civil war as a hospital orderly working in terrible battlefield conditions? – most biographers have retired, baffled. Even Whitman’s champion, the sage of Boston, RW Emerson, seems to have understood that this extraordinary new voice had undergone a mysterious and secret gestation. “I salute you at the beginning of a great career,” wrote Emerson, acknowledging Leaves of Grass, “which yet must have a long foreground somewhere.”
There are so many approaches to the mystery of creativity. For the New Yorker, which has just published another top 20 list of “most promising novelists”, it has become slick, modish and briskly packaged for the impatient consumer. “Under 40” is its dominant criterion, pioneered by Granta as long ago as 1983. Inevitably, there have been some unconvincing copycat lists. Leaving aside the taxonomic difficulties of cramming the next generation into a straitjacket, there are larger issues here.
“Under 40” recognises the truth that this column has addressed before: most successful writers have made their mark before their fourth decade. Tolstoy? 35 (War and Peace). Dickens? 38 (David Copperfield) Fitzgerald? 29 (The Great Gatsby). Naipaul? 29 (A House for Mr Biswas).
But the ruthless cut-off of 40 does not address the complex trajectory of creative growth: for every novelist or poet who explodes skywards with a first or second book, there are many who only achieve mastery as they reach the shady side of the slope. The onset of middle age, or the approach of oblivion, is perhaps as sharp a spur to literary effort as the intoxicating self-belief of youth.
Daniel Defoe completed Robinson Crusoe just before his 60th birthday, after a turbulent life as a journalist. Mark Twain published Huckleberry Finn aged 49. Dostoevsky wrote Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov in his mid-40s. Closer to home, Mary Wesley launched The Camomile Lawn at 70. Karl Marlantes, author of Matterhorn, this year’s American literary sensation, a Vietnam novel of astonishing power and insight, worked on his manuscript for 33 years and finally saw it published in his 60s. He now enjoys rather more recognition than the Oxford poet Craig Raine, who has just published his first novel, Heartbreak, aged 65.
The artistic provenance of these late bloomers will be as complex as Whitman’s, but I think Dr Raine’s title gives a clue to one common thread: these books are invariably love stories, in the broadest sense, inspired by a person or a memory – in Twain’s case, of the Mississippi – for whom the writer calls up one final surge of creative energy.
On the very short list of timeless themes, “love” must come near the top. Books with “love” in the title are often winners. Experience, plus maturity, mixed with love, can sometimes achieve the most astonishing results. There can be something poignant, even elegiac, about such novels. Huckleberry Finn is hilarious, but its closing pages might move you to tears. “If I’d a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book,” writes Twain, “I wouldn’t a tackled it and ain’t agoing to no more.” That’s the true voice of the over 40s. I wonder which literary magazine will first have the nerve to publish a list of the top 20 grown-up novels?
“I don’t understand how any good art could fail to be political. Literature is a powerful craft, so we have an obligation to take it seriously”
Barbara Kingsolver, who this week won the Orange prize for fiction for her sixth novel, The Lacuna, spent two years in the early 1960s in the Republic of the Congo, where her American parents were vaccinating people against smallpox outbreaks. For a seven-year-old girl, it was simply a “grand adventure in a forest full of snakes and lions, with cobras on the doorstep”. It was only later that she grasped the historical significance of that moment.
“We were there just after independence, but I had no idea of the political intrigue of that era,” she says. Until, that is, some 20 years later, when she read of the CIA-backed coup against the elected prime minister Patrice Lumumba, his murder in 1961, and the installing of the dictator Colonel Mobutu. “I knew nothing about postcolonial Africa or Europe’s role, or my own country’s complicity in what went on.”
It took another decade before Kingsolver combined her childhood memories of place with her later awareness of history, in a far-reaching parable of responsibility and redemption, The Poisonwood Bible (1998). As an American Baptist missionary drags his family to the Belgian Congo (later Zaire), his bullying evangelism is paralleled by cold-war jockeying for mineral wealth, amid plagues of ants and floods, lethal green mamba bites and blood diamonds smuggled from breakaway Katanga. The story is told through the voices of his wife and four daughters, who are “occupied as if by a foreign power”, and implicated in his pursuits without ever having chosen them. For Kingsolver, it is an “allegory of the captive witness. We’ve inherited this history of terrible things done, that enriched us in the US and Europe by pillaging the former colonies. How we feel about that is the question in the book.”
The Poisonwood Bible, which was her fourth novel, sold more than four million copies, was chosen for Oprah Winfrey’s book club and was voted an all-time favourite of reading groups in Britain. All her later novels have made the New York Times bestseller list.
The broad appeal of her story of a mother and daughters may owe something to its faint echoes of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (loved by Kingsolver as a child) or The Joy Luck Club, the bestselling novel by Amy Tan with whom Kingsolver has played keyboards in a charity rock band, the Rock Bottom Remainders, alongside Stephen King and Carl Hiaasen. Yet although she says books belong to their readers, she clearly hopes to communicate her political views in the palatable form of page-turners. In much the same way, as a biologist and former science writer and journalist, she aspires to tell people in plain English about science. Her fiction is saved from didacticism or sentimentality by a keen ear for speech, an eye that is sensitive to the natural environment and by a cool scrutiny: “I’m a scientist,” she says.
The novelist Russell Banks wrote of Kingsolver’s “Chekhovian tenderness towards her characters” and of her humour as “contemporary American – fast, hip and a little outrageous”. Critics such as Lee Siegel, who waspishly dubbed her the queen of “Nice Writing”, have suggested she appropriates others’ pain in a parade of empathy.
“I don’t understand how any good art could fail to be political,” she says. “Good fiction creates empathy. A novel takes you somewhere and asks you to look through the eyes of another person, to live another life. Literature sucks you into another psyche. So the creation of empathy necessarily influences how you’ll behave to other people. How can that not affect you politically?” It is, she adds, a “powerful craft; there’s alchemy. So we have an obligation to take it seriously – and I do. Perhaps that’s why I’m marked. I’m not pretending to be ingenuous; I know what I’m doing.”
We meet on the morning of the Orange prize-giving. Given Kingsolver’s green convictions, her trip to London was a rare concession to flying. Aged 55, she lives with her husband, Steve Hopp, who teaches environmental studies, and their daughter Lily, 13, on a farm in the Appalachian mountains of south-west Virginia. She writes in a farmhouse whose windows face into the woods.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (2007), was co-written with her husband and her daughter from a previous marriage, Camille, then 19. It recorded the family’s drive to be “locavores”, pledged to eating locally sourced, seasonal food, to combat the ills of agribusiness and environmental profligacy in a “nation with an eating disorder”. The book tapped overlapping anxieties, from climate change to junk food, childhood obesity and dietary health. But its success took her aback. “People responded viscerally; they were so excited about taking control.” She says her own family has kept to the vows they made that year. “It wasn’t so different from the year before or the year after. We marked it out as a project to dramatise our commitment. But what we eat hasn’t changed.”
She was born in 1955, and grew up in small-town eastern Kentucky. “The older I get, the more I appreciate my rural childhood. I spent a lot of time outdoors, unsupervised, which is a blessing.” Her father was a doctor who worked in communities with scant health care, in the American South or on forays to the Congo, St Lucia and Newfoundland. “My parents chose a life of service, rather than enriching their own bank account,” she says. “I admired their courage.” For her, “it’s more important to do what I love than go looking for money. That feels as indigenous to me as my eye colour.” She believes a lack of material excess in her childhood, paradoxically, left her more secure. “I’ve always been a very low-overheads person. That’s the most important asset I’ve had as a writer. I felt I had enormous freedom to do what I wanted.”
She won a scholarship to study classical piano at DePauw University in Indiana, but gave up music for a biology degree. She still loves the piano. “It’s the only time when the words in my brain stop. Music gives me relief from the flood of words that wakes me up in the morning. It’s like a gushing faucet, but it stops when I’m concentrating on playing.” She arrived at college in 1973, towards the end of the Vietnam war. Her knowledge of it was confined, she says, to what she read in Reader’s Digest about the “blood-red hands of Ho Chi Minh”. But her elder brother was narrowly spared the draft. “I was politically naive. Then I got to college, with all the marching, and the war ended, Nixon resigned. I thought, people can yell and make a difference.”
After graduating in 1977, she lived in Greece and France, working on digs and living on communes, until her visa ran out, and she chose graduate school in Tucson to study ecology and evolutionary biology. In Arizona, near the Mexican border, she stumbled on another America. “I fell in with people assisting refugees fleeing war in central America and Chile that was funded by the US government. They were fleeing phosphorus bombs I’d paid for with my tax dollars. I learned Spanish, and a new side of the story, from Chilean refugees sleeping on my floor.”
She worked as a science writer for the University of Arizona, then freelanced as a stringer for the national press. Covering strikes in the local copper mines in the mid-1980s, she interviewed mainly Latina women who “held the strike when the men had to leave town because legal injunctions barred them from picketing . . . I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing – a war zone in my own country.” Her non-fiction book Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike (1989) came out of that experience, as did a short story, “Why I Am a Danger to the Public”.
Kingsolver is outraged by a recent Arizona law targeting suspected illegal migrants. “I’m so glad I don’t live there. It’s shocking, probably unconstitutional, and it can’t possibly last.” But in the next breath, the novelist-scientist steps in. “Times are hard. When people are frightened about going hungry and paying their mortgages, a scarcity model begins to prevail; they fear someone else will get their piece of the pie.”
Her early fiction was based in the American South and south-west. The Bean Trees (1988), her first novel, written during her first pregnancy, was narrated by a Southern woman who adopts an abused and abandoned Cherokee girl and settles in Arizona. In Animal Dreams (1990), a woman moves to Nicaragua during the US-backed contra war against the Sandinistas. Pigs in Heaven (1993), a sequel to The Bean Trees, centres on a custody battle, as a Native American lawyer tries to wrest the adopted girl back to the Cherokee nation.
The Native American writer Sherman Alexie has implicated Kingsolver among “Indian poseurs” who make “claims of authority [as] something they’re not”. Kingsolver says that, when he first made the criticism in the 1990s, “I was surprised, so I called him up. He said he hadn’t read any of my books.” She adds: “I’m very cautious about appropriating or representing a view I don’t have legitimate authority to represent, because I don’t want to take the place of someone who could do that better. I don’t write characters from a point of view I don’t inhabit. My Congo novel is seen through a bunch of white Southern girls. It’s my choice, but I make it carefully.”
She spent a year in the Canary Islands with her eldest daughter in 1991 – their proximity to Africa enabled frequent research trips for The Poisonwood Bible. After returning, she met and married Hopp, and for seven years they lived in Tucson and spent summers on his farm in Virginia – a “marital compromise” – before moving there permanently in 2004.
With Prodigal Summer (2000), she fulfilled a long-held wish to write a “biological novel” (“I thought everybody should know this stuff”). A biologist divorcee with a “hillbilly accent” scours the Appalachian hills for poachers while keeping a fond eye on the local coyotes, till her solitude is disturbed by a young sheep rancher from Wyoming. The novel insists on the shared animality of human beings despite their efforts to subdue nature, within “immutable rules of hunger and satisfaction”. That it is her most erotically charged book was partly a tactical decision: “Though many people are afraid of science, they’re not afraid of sex.” The boundaries erode between wilderness and cultivation, society and the individual. “As a biologist, I can’t think of myself as anything but an animal among animals and plants,” she says.
Kingsolver speaks of a “backlash” after 9/11, when she drew flak for her essay “And Our Flag Was Still There”. Calling for scrutiny of US foreign policy, she wrote: “The last time I looked at a flag with an unambiguous thrill, I was 13.” “Ultraconservatives . . . revile[d] me,” she wrote in Small Wonder. Fear, she says now, “can bring out the worst in people. I saw how close to the surface that defensiveness was, about any self-evaluation on a national scale – among the loudest people, anyway. I was shocked that some people behaved as though I’d said something inflammatory.”
The Lacuna grew out of that period. It moves between the revolutionary muralists of Mexico in the 1930s and the McCarthyite witchhunts of the late 1940s and 50s to probe the relationship between art and politics in the US. Fictional characters are boldly inserted among historical giants such as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky, using real and fictitious news cuttings.
Her ambition was to chart the “birth of the modern American psyche”. She was “interested in national identity, curious about why my country seems so vocally to identify patriotism with completion, perfection, as though we’re a finished product, not a work in progress. Is there an equivalent to being ‘unAmerican’ in France? Yes, – but it’s about cooking, not about being a bad person.” She researched the “period that came to define being unAmerican on a national level . . . It frightened people so badly, we’ve never gotten over it.” She found a contrast in Mexico, which “has such a different sense of itself as a work in progress. It’s useful to explore a psyche from outside or on the borderline: how we got frozen in the US, while in Mexico artists have leave to be political. Why are we so terrified of that word, communism – the anti-Christ? It’s like living in a world where grownups still believe in the bogeyman.”
Some reviewers have objected to what they see as her air-brushed portrayal of Trotsky. It is not a biography, she responds, “but it is an honest portrait of him in Mexico. Everything he says in the novel he did say. It didn’t pretend to be a whole picture. He was ruthless in his teens. He overthrew a monarchy – that’s never going to be pretty.”
The novel was written during George W Bush’s two terms in office. “The growing claustrophobia and manipulation of language with ‘Desert Storm’ were bearing heavily on my shoulders,” she says. “I felt a sense of despair that the world could ever be different.” Just as she was finishing the final draft, President Obama was elected. “I was more excited about my country by his inauguration day than I have been perhaps in all my adult life,” she says. “I thought my book would become irrelevant. But it wasn’t a day before the Fox News howlers took up the cry that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the US, and the cries of ‘communism’, and ‘don’t mess with my health care’. The book’s still acutely relevant.”
The “howlers” in The Lacuna are monkeys (“one howls and the others pass it on, marking out their territories”) that provide a metaphor for a gossip-driven press and its role in the witchhunts. “I’ve worked as a journalist,” she says tactfully, “and have every respect for good ones. But it’s an indictment of lazy journalism. It’s also an indictment of those who listen to the howling and believe it.”
Yet emerging celebrities such as Frida Kahlo take control of their own image. “We’re all required to do that,” Kingsolver says. “I never wanted to be famous, and still don’t.” So, she chuckles, “the universe rewarded me with what I dreaded most.” She created her own website just to compete with a plethora of fake ones, “as a defence to protect my family from misinformation. Wikipedia abhors a vacuum. If you don’t define yourself, it will get done for you in colourful ways.”
Exegesis, Dick’s ‘personal laboratory for philosophical inquiry’ to be issued in two volumes in 2011
A vast set of mostly unseen personal journals in which SF author Philip K Dick “took on the universe mano a mano” has been acquired by a US publisher.
The author of novels including the Hugo award-winning The Man in the High Castle, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Minority Report, Dick died aged 53 in 1982. In 1974, recuperating from having had his wisdom teeth extracted and under the influence of sodium pentothal, the author had a series of visions in which a “pink light” beam of information transmitted directly into his consciousness; these “2-3-74” experiences would inform his writing for the rest of his life, and he would attempt to unravel them in the “Exegesis”.
Although a selection from the mostly handwritten journal was published in 1991 as In the Pursuit of VALIS: Selections from the Exegesis, thousands of pages of Dick’s journal, including autobiographical material, philosophical speculation and analysis of his fiction, have not been published. The author’s daughters, Laura Leslie and Lisa Dick Hackett, said the publication of The Exegesis of Philip K Dick “has been a goal of ours for years”, and they were “thrilled” that US publishing giant Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) shared the goal, acquiring North American rights in the previously unpublished two-volume Exegesis with plans to bring out the first book next autumn.
The journals, which HMH’s Bruce Nichols said served “as the foundation for ideas and themes that would appear throughout the work of this visionary author”, will be edited by critically-acclaimed author and Dick expert Jonathan Lethem, along with Pamela Jackson, author of a PhD on 2-3-74 and Dick’s Exegesis.
“The title he gave it, ‘Exegesis,’ alludes to the fact that what it really was was a personal laboratory for philosophical inquiry. It’s not even a single manuscript, in a sense. It’s an amassing or a compilation of late-night all-night sessions of him taking on the universe, mano a mano, with the tools of the English language and his own paranoiac investigations,” Lethem told the New York Times . “It’s absolutely stultifying, it’s brilliant, it’s repetitive, it’s contradictory. It just might contain the secret of the universe.”
HMH also snapped up rights in 39 titles from Dick’s backlist, which it will publish in autumn 2011. Nichols said the author’s books were “as provocative and cutting-edge today as ever” and that “each generation wants to claim him as its own”.
Charlotte Bronte somehow survived on $1,838 a year, adjusted for inflation, working as a Yorkshire governess. (Lapham’s Quarterly has put together a chart showing what great writers earned in their day jobs.)
Thank you so much for your wonderfully kind comments. I hope to return to the city of canals later this year and I am really looking forward to it. But it must be my week for Dutch connections because a comment on the news this morning strangely reminded me of the Netherlands again. On the […]
This week I find myself in that curiously painful place which novelists inhabit when they have just handed in their latest novel, in my case The Mandrake’s Tale, to their publishers and are embarking on research for the next book. For me, writing a novel is a bit like being the captain of a very […]