Saturday, July 30, 2005

this week's pubs

Four posts this week - a review of Bob Mould's new album, Body of Song, as well as a Nine Black Alps advance (see "Cool Brits") in East Bay Express, a review of Schoolyard Heroes' Fantastic Wounds album in San Diego CityBeat and Cleveland Scene reprinted an abridged version of the 33 1/3 feature.

Next week you can read about System of a Down in Phoenix New Times.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

a conversation with jachym topol - part five

Q: Let me ask you a hypothetical question. Given your interest in both music and literature, if someone forced you to the countryside, but gave you a room to write for three months and you could have five books or five CDs, what would you take with you?

A: Five books.

Q: Do you know which ones?

A: Probably The Memoirs of Nabokov, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, Warfare and Rights of Western Apaches, - I’ve got it at home but I haven’t had time to read it - some kind of Victorian pornography in English so I can better learn your language - I can’t imagine it in Czech or German - and Winnie the Pooh for my daughter.

Q: When you’re in the country, can you write during the day? I would guess that at least the first draft of each of these books, Sister and Angel, was written at night. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of daylight in either of them.

A: They aren’t daylight books.

Q: But you can write in the daylight now, right?

A: I’d love to get up early in the morning and try to start working when I’m fresh but I hate summer. I hate this weather. The birds singing and all.

Q: What I heard was, I would love to, which doesn’t mean that it’s happening.

A: Mostly not.

Q: Can we talk about the difference between the word tribe and the word gang as they’re used in Sister?

A: I’m studying this very thing right here, because we’re in the Department of Ethnology. In my view, a tribe is based on a kinship, that people have no free choice. But you can become a member of a gang if you want to. It’s a voluntary thing. I think that gangs were formed by people who were expelled by the tribe.

Q: In America, the word gang has criminal connotations.

A: It does here as well.

Q: But if we call the characters of Sister members of a tribe rather than a gang then it becomes more of a naturalistic work. The characters don’t have a choice. This is how they must act.

A: There’s still some freedom involved. The crucial thing for the protagonist of Sister is his relationships to and with other people. They’re sort of forming this sort of kinship in order to protect themselves. And there’s a parallel between the protagonist’s relationship with his mistress and his relationship with his sister. Both relationships are very, very strong. For Native Americans, the relationship between a sister and a brother was a sacred thing. They believed that the kinship of siblings could change the weather, for example. That comes from the ancient cosmic myth that the sun and the moon are a brother and a sister. I’m spending some time studying what kinship is here in the Ethnology Department, but I’m a bad student so what’s in the books is my sort of dreams of what kinship should be. I am not a scientist. It’s a matter of feeling or intuition.

Q: I want to ask you about Czech literature.

A: But then I will start to cry.

Q: There seems to be a fairly clear line separating the generations, at least from the America perspective. You’ve got Klima, Skvorecky, Lustig, Kundera and then you have the younger writers. When I interviewed Lustig he talked about how it is time for the older generation to leave the stage.

A: That’s an absolutely absurd notion to me, given the fact that each writer is an individual.

Q: So you don’t see any kind of tradition that’s been formed recently with this group of writers. Surely Czech prose is much more visible now than before World War II.

A: There are some names like Jaroslav Hasek or Karel Capek. I think they were famous writers. Capek was almost awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and Good Soldier Svejk is certainly well-known. Maybe it’s not a line of tradition but they certainly were important.

Q: I don’t mean to diminish the contributions of those two writers but Czech fiction has certainly become more visible the last thirty years.

A: I think it’s because of politics. Being politically persecuted was fashionable and drew the attention.

Q: Sure. Lustig’s writings are going to draw a certain audience, simply because of the subject matter, whether he is Czech, German or Russian.

A: Yes, yes. The specific thing is that there was no generation gap between my generation and the older generation of writers. We all fought together against the Russians. To me, the older guys, like Skvorecky and Kundera, were like the grandfathers of the tribe. They were like my teachers. Maybe I don’t like some of their books but I still take into account that Lustig and Klima were in concentration camps. The history of my own nation is dearer to me than the literature because the nation itself was doomed to extinction.

Q: But what about the Czech tradition? There are stark differences in subject matter and tone between your work and, say, Klima’s or Kundera’s, but were any of those authors, or any of their works, influences?

A: No. It’s interesting that I was always more interested in the writers before them, the writers of the fifties, because the tradition of the literary underground started then. I was very much influenced by the group of Kolar, Hrabal and Bondy. Hrabal died last year, Bondy is now in exile in Slovakia, which is very funny, and Kolar still lives in Paris. He must be seventy or eighty.

Q: Among those three, I’m most familiar with Hrabal.

A: Yes, it’s probably because the other two weren’t involved in the political game somehow. They are very important even for people who are younger than me, for poets twenty or twenty-five. They must know Kolar. They must know Bondy. I have never felt any kind of animosity towards the older generation because we were all fighters. I think there’s going to be a gap between me and the younger ones one day, especially if they keep sending me their shitty work. I’m not particularly interested in the existence of national literatures like Czech literature or Polish literature. It’s not a big deal to me. If there is something specific about Czech literature, then it’s some kind of ironic and sarcastic humor which I haven’t found anywhere else.


END

a conversation with jachym topol - part one
a conversation with jachym topol - part two
a conversation with jachym topol - part three
a conversation with jachym topol - part four

a conversation with jachym topol - part four

Q: I know that some critics have compared you to Kerouac, but I don’t know that I really see that influence. Maybe some Burroughs. Have any American authors influenced your work?

A: A great number. Nabokov and Isaac Bashevis Singer are two. I don’t why people keep asking me about Kerouac and Burroughs. I think their books are pretty much the same because they got into a certain rhythm and kept producing. I don’t want to sound rude but it’s something completely different to read Kerouac when you’re sixteen and when you’re thirty-six.

Q: Exactly. Even though you say that your language is changing, I can read both of these books, Sister and Angel, and still know it’s you. You’re not writing the same thing but it’s still your style here. Both books, for example, contain a lot of anger. In one, the protagonist stomps on a rat. In the other the protagonist takes an axe to a lock and then finishes the job by stomping it into little pieces. There’s a lot of stomping, a lot of anger in both.

A: Neither of these books is an autobiography but both of these instances were.

Q: Is anger necessary for you to write?

A: Yes, because I believe that anger is necessary for my heroes to survive.

Q: These two books were written in the past, though. Maybe anger was necessary to write these two novels.

A: Definitely. I was really surprised by the interest and the positive reviews because when I was actually writing the books I felt like I was spitting into people’s faces.

Q: Is anger always necessary to write? Some people have to get worked up to a certain level in order to put quality words on the page. Is that necessary for you?

A: I’m still hoping to write about some kind of harmony, about some kind of peace, even though every time I experience it, which is very seldom, I don’t feel any need to write anymore. At the infrequent times I feel peace and harmony I don’t feel the need to write.

Q: So despite the wife and child, you still have enough anger to draw up the passion to write?

A: There isn’t much harmony in your life if you have a small child. The fact is I experience the most harmony when I’m a little drunk or stoned.

Q: So you don’t write much when you’re drunk or stoned.

A: No.

Q: You’re smiling, but there are writers who don’t feel like they can write while they’re sober.

A: I’ll admit that a little bit of booze helps me to concentrate but I can’t work when I’m drunk.

Q: Do you ever listen to music when you’re writing?

A: When I was writing Sister I kept listening to hard rock music, some heavy stuff, but I didn’t when I was writing Angel, even though I had a tape recorder. At the moment, now that I’m working on a screenplay, I’m mainly listening to an Egyptian singer.

Q: We spoke earlier about the rhythm of language for this subject, the rhythm of language for this character. Is the music that you listen to, or the fact that you don’t listen to music, carefully selected for each work?

A: Irrationally. I might have chosen it but subconsciously, irrationally. I like these technical questions because these are things that I think about everyday. My biggest problem right now is that I don’t have a room of my own, a place to write.

Q: Even now?

A: Even now. My child is in one room and my wife in the other. My biggest problems are technical ones, when and where to write. So what I’m trying to do at the moment is go to the country, find a place with peace and quiet. I might go to Germany on a scholarship soon and that might help. But the other problem is that I’m in another trap in my life and that’s the kid. I don’t want to be without her.

Q: Does the fact that you have to move around to write mean that you write on a laptop?

A: I have one but it’s not very good. It’s another technical problem. The laptop is very low quality and I can’t afford to buy a better one, so I’m taking the risk of losing all of my material. I’m reminded of Romantic writers burning all of their poems but that was Romanticism. Nowadays these machines are killers.

a conversation with jachym topol - part one
a conversation with jachym topol - part two
a conversation with jachym topol - part three
a conversation with jachym topol - part five

a conversation with jachym topol - part three

Q: I haven’t read all of your reviews, of course, but I get the feeling that you’re being overly modest about your critical reception. When I ask the older writers, Who’s the best among the younger writers, they’re all telling me, Topol.

A: It’s because this is a small country and there are not a lot of people who write books.

Q: But even if there’s only three writers in the whole country, if they’re all saying, Topol, then it must mean something. I get the sense that you are very well accepted, that people are impressed with your work.

A: That’s only another type of trap.

Q: If you start believing the good things that people say about you, then sometimes they change their opinion?

A: Yes. For example, there are some young writers and they think, You know, Topol, he’s published six books so he must be great, but before I published these books I didn’t know anything. The books I’ve published so far have brought me some sort of happiness or fortune but I also feel like my life is like a ball and chain on my foot, sort of dragging me down.

Q: Once you published Sister, then writing became a job?

A: Yes, but it takes many other jobs to make a living.

Q: But being a writer is part of your identity now.

A: I have to get used to it.

Q: Once there’s that expectation does writing become more of a wife than a mistress?

A: According to Jung, first it’s a passion, then it’s a duty and finally it’s a vampire.

Q: Where are you now? Are you at the duty stage? You’re awfully young to be at the vampire stage.

A: This is a question I’m asking myself everyday.

Q: But you still have some passion left, don’t you?

A: Yes, it’s a mix of these three things. Maybe I’m young for a writer, but I am old enough to remember how great it was to be unknown, to sit in the pub and drink with my friends. Now there are pubs that I can’t go to because young female poets bring me their work to judge and it’s a drag. Their work is not good. And there are other small problems. In some ways, Prague is a small town and your neighbors know everything.

Q: Who has a worse problem with attention, you or your brother? In America, most writers, unless they are very, very popular, are ignored, but even the singers and guitarists of local bands get lots of attention. Is his band popular enough for him to be bothered?

A: The band is really popular and my brother, as the singer, gets a lot of attention but I think he probably handles it better because he’s a performer. I think he needs it. He likes it. He’s enjoying it.
I don’t want to complain, but it’s a new situation for me and I haven’t gotten used to it yet. My idea has always been to be at the margin, on the edge, because I come from the underground and so this is different. And the position at the edge has its charm.

Q: But you’re married now, and you have a child, so my guess would be that you don’t take as many risks as you used to because now you have people dependent upon you.

A: This is the biggest risk.

Q: Can you be on the edge as a writer and responsible as a person?

A: I’m undergoing a period of adjustment. Also, thanks to people like you, newspaper people and journalists, I’ve gained more attention and this causes me to have to adjust. It’s sort of profitable for the writer to be on the margin, not to be so well-known.

Q: Profitable in what way?

A: Advantageous. There’s also the desire to escape from the very heavy writer’s tradition in this small area, because traditionally writers have always been fighters for a high standard of the language. And since 1989, the writer, finally, has been able to be an individual, independent. I don’t like the fact that newspaper people and others keep asking about politics and other problems, as if the writer has to speak for others rather than just for himself. Ever since the National Revival at the end of the eighteenth century, the writer has had to speak for the nation. When I was in the underground, I had to speak for the nation because it was expected. The public thinks that you’re not doing your job if you are not speaking for others. It doesn’t matter who you are - a model, an athlete, a writer. You’re simply famous. You’re in the media.

a conversation with jachym topol - part one
a conversation with jachym topol - part two
a conversation with jachym topol - part four
a conversation with jachym topol - part five

a conversation with jachym topol - part two

Q: Well, let’s talk about translations for a second. Which book has been most translated so far? Angel?

A: No, Sister.

Q: Really?

A: Yes, it’s very strange. It’s been translated into Hungarian, which is perfect. It’s bizarre. And it’s published now in German and fifteen or so critics reviewed it there and that’s surprising for me. Sister has been translated into those two languages because the translators like the book. It’s only the personal activity of some people like Alex Zucker in America, for example, or the Hungarian translator or this woman in German that allows me to be translated. Maybe it’s just for people who have some personal interest. I think in Denmark the publisher wanted it but he couldn’t find a translator who would spend two years on the work.

Q: Obviously it would be nice financially to be translated, but other than the money, is it important to you to be translated into other languages. Do you want as wide an audience as possible?

A: It’s very good for the money, but of course it’s very tiring to talk to the journalists and travel to these countries and now I’m sick of it. It’s very new for me because when I was writing the books I wasn’t thinking that they would be published. Well, at least when I wrote Sister, I wasn’t thinking about publication even in Czech. It was very personal. Now maybe that’s changing, but I still don’t want to think about translators or the possibility of being published. You know, Czech writers who are well-known, like Kundera or Klima, for example, I’m sure that they are thinking about a translation. And I see their language. It’s gray. It’s language for translators. My dream is not to be a literary clerk, but maybe I’m naïve. Maybe I will change. But I don’t think I’m able to write a bestseller. I’m not able to think about what other people will think about my writing. For me it’s strictly personal.

Q: You said that Sister had been translated into Hungarian and that Hungarian was a good language for it.

A: It’s a very strange language. I don’t know if it’s good for Sister. The problem with the Hungarian language, for example, is that you can’t simply say sister. You must say whether the sister is older or younger. I spent many hours with the translator. He’s a genius. He speaks six or seven languages. I don’t know why he wanted to translate it. He’s a psychologist. He writes essays about Carl Jung and his hobby is translation so maybe only strange people care about this book.

Q: Have you been to America?

A: Yes. Three times. I spent three months in Arizona and Utah, all over the Southwest. It’s gorgeous, perfect. I went to the Navajo reservation.

Q: Is it important for you to have your books translated in English? Did you feel any kind of connection when you were in the States?

A: You know, I’m very skeptical about the American market. I think being a Czech or East European writer it’s very important to be published in Germany because it’s a neighborhood thing. But, of course, an English translation would make me feel good. I told you that I study Ethnology here and I’m mostly interested in folklore so it was interesting for me to be in this Native American territory but, you know, I’m just a student. I’m unable to talk a lot about it.

Q: But you’ve translated a book of Native American tales into Czech, right?

A: My English is very limited. It sounds very strange, but I know the Czech language very well so it was possible for me to do the translations.

Q: Where did your interest in Native American tales come from? On the surface, it sounds like a fairly strange interest for a young Czech writer to develop.

A: It’s a hobby. I like the cosmology and myth in this Native American folklore. My books, sometimes, are attacked by critics because they are not moral.

Q: Because the bad guys don’t get punished? They’re not telling others to go out and commit crimes but they themselves aren’t punished for their sins?

A: Yes. Perfect. And they are not good people. In our tales, our European titles are influenced by Christianity, and evil must be punished, but in this folklore of Native Americans, there is, for example, the coyote, and he’s the absolutely perfect hero for me. He’s not white or black, good or bad. He’s a mixture. And it was interesting for me to know more about these old myths which are older than Christianity. I found similar things in the folklore of Eastern Europe.

a conversation with jachym topol - part one
a conversation with jachym topol - part three
a conversation with jachym topol - part four
a conversation with jachym topol - part five

a conversation with jachym topol

Poet and fiction writer Jachym Topol was another Prague interview in July of 1998. The interview was conducted in English, in a classroom at Charles University.
Unlike Michal Viewegh, Topol, at the time, functioned as a national literary darling. His father, Josef, is a renowned Czech playwright and poet, while his brother Filip is the frontman for the band Dog Soldiers, a group for which Jachym Topol often provided lyrics.
Topol's first work of fiction, published in the Czech Republic as Sestra (Sister), won the Egon Hostovsky Prize as Czech book of the year in 1994. It appeared in English in 2000 as City Sister Silver.



Q: With your family history, did you always know that you would be a writer?

A: Never. I started out writing lyrics for rock bands and I never thought or dreamt about writing novels.
I don’t know what to say. I woke up at six this morning. I’m writing a script for a movie and today from seven until twelve-thirty I was meeting with the producer and the director to talk about it, so I’ve been talking for six hours.

Q: Is the script finished?

A: Not exactly. A year ago or two years ago I published a novel entitled Angel and they want to make a movie from the book so it’s very new for me, to rewrite it, but it’s interesting.

Q: I assume this is something that you wanted to do.

A: It was my idea before but some people tried to write it and failed so now I’m trying. It’s interesting. It’s a new activity in my life.

Q: You went from writing song lyrics, which you still do, and moved on to poetry?

A: I don’t even remember the chronology. It’s mixed. For some feelings it’s okay to write a poem. For some things it’s better to do a script.

Q: But you published two collections of poetry before the first novel, Sister, appeared.

A: Yes. I wrote a short story before I wrote Sister but it was published after.

Q: So now you work and one idea might be a song and another might be a poem or a story?

A: Exactly. And sometimes it’s mixed. You know, sometimes the poets say to me, You are not a poet, and the novelists say to me, You are not a novelist, but, you know, I don’t care. I know that the form is very important but I hate the theories about what a poem is, what a novel is or what a short story is. That’s for theorists or critics to decide.

Q: I’m not sure that they mean it well when poets say that you’re not a poet but I do mean it well when I say that I can understand the confusion.

A: It’s all so very different. And now I’ve written a script and I also write lyrics for rock bands which is also very different from my poetry.

Q: But the language of your fiction is very thick and dense.

A: My language is changing. Now I’m in the middle of a very serious change, because before, for all my books, the poems and stories and novels, the biggest inspiration was life in the city. Before it was like an injection of inspiration for me and now I hate it. I hate the city. Now I’m sick of it. I must change it. I don’t know how but I hate to live in the city now. It’s too stressful for me. Before it was perfect.

Q: When you say that you’re going through a change in your language, what kind of change is it? Your fiction, sometimes, is like poetry. You have very long lines.

A: In Sister I have long lines but they’re shorter in Angel.

Q: That’s true, but you understand what I’m saying when I say that there’s a thickness, a denseness to your fiction.

A: The hero of Sister is a dancer and an actor so the language of this book is a little bit different from the other books. The life of the writer is something very strange. Imagine it. You publish a few books and you are thinking that you’ve found your own rhythm, that you know what to do, and from this point to the end of your life you are writing similar books with similar language. I would like to escape that.

Q: So your style, the rhythm of the language is changing?

A: Yes. The language changes depending on the subject.

Q: Just like the language for a song lyric would be different from the language for a short story, you’re changing your language to fit the particular subject or character?

A: Yes. I’m thinking a lot about how the characters are talking and my dream is, one day, to write a book where the heroes will be children. They won’t be naïve children or some innocent kids. My heroes were from the city. They were twenty or thirty years old, living very hard and fast. Partly they were gangsters. And now I want to change it. I don’t know why. Maybe because I have a kid now, a one-year-old daughter, and that’s very important.

Q: Of course. Children will change your life.

A: These are questions I ask myself everyday and I have no answer. I don’t know what the future will bring.
And movies, of course, I’m also doing the script for money because you don’t earn enough to live just from books. Maybe when the books are translated into six or ten languages it will be enough to live on but my language is difficult to translate.

a conversation with jachym topol - part two
a conversation with jachym topol - part three
a conversation with jachym topol - part four
a conversation with jachym topol - part five

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

a conversation with michal viewegh - part four

Q: Can you also cite the work of other artists - filmmakers, painters, photographers - as other influences on your fiction? You mentioned your short, film-clip style passages. Do you believe there’s a connection between your books and film?

A: Some people have written that I do write in a film-like style. I don’t do it consciously. Maybe I do it subconsciously, but the scenes are visualizable. I think, in general, that’s just influenced by the way we live today, just the attempt to say something precisely, briefly, humorously. It comes from the fact that I’m aware we live in a time in which no one listens to anyone else, no one reads anything, and every day a thousand different people tell us something. We’re surrounded by millions of words in newspapers and magazines, and if I want to attract attention to my work, I have to say something interesting, make people laugh. I think a good author can’t be a bad storyteller in a café or a pub. If I gave people who were sitting around in a pub ten pages of a contemporary Czech novel they would just get up and leave. They’d be bored. That for me is an important influence. For example, in cafés and in pubs I test the stories which I later use in my books. I test the patience and the attention span of my potential readers.

Q: You said earlier that you planned to write Bringing Up Girls In Bohemia for about a year and then you wrote it in about a quarter of a year. What were you doing at the time? Were you working as an editor or a teacher? How did you fit writing into your schedule? Can you give me an idea of how a typical day was spent while writing Bringing Up Girls In Bohemia?

A: I was working as an editor at the Cesky Spisovatel publishing house. The Wonderful Years of Lousy Living had already sold about twenty thousand copies. It was a modest success. Cesky Spisovatel needed a best seller to make some more money and I said, Give me two months free and I’ll write a best seller. It was an exaggeration, of course, but I wrote the book in two months. Now I know that maybe I shouldn’t have rushed so much and maybe I should have done the end of the novel a little bit differently, but so far it’s sold over eighty thousand copies so it fulfilled my promise, if that doesn’t sound too self-centered.

Q: But they really gave you the two months off?

A: Yes. This is an interesting detail, maybe, for American readers. I got from the Czech Literary Fund, which is a non-profit foundation to support Czech Literature, in lieu of my regular monthly pay, a monthly pay of not quite a hundred dollars, but it was actually enough to pay the rent and it was enough that I didn’t have to go to work for two months.

Q: I assume that you were writing fiction while you were a schoolteacher. Did you only write in the summertime?

A: I wrote all of my first pieces of work while I was at the university. I had a system that for a year in advance I would think about the book and then during summer vacations I wrote it. So I actually wrote The Wonderful Years of Lousy Living in about six or seven weeks during summer vacation, and that was during the time that I was teaching.

Q: I want to ask you, briefly, about the year of planning. Is this researching, taking notes, writing rough drafts or is it more passive, literally sitting and thinking?

A: I’m probably too lazy to go to the university library and study certain streams of literature and that’s also probably why I’m never going to write a historical novel. I have two basic stages for the preparational work. For one thing, I read a lot. I try to read a lot of other writers. I don’t hesitate to interrupt my reading at all when something inspires me. If a mood or a certain scene leads me to certain thoughts, I’ll stop and make notes. And without even planning or organizing for the next stage, I go about it quite pragmatically. I sit down and make coffee. I take two or three hours to go through all of the notes I’ve already made. I might try writing six sentences in first person. Sometimes it’s completely unproductive, those hours, but I don’t complain about it because I know that in the end it will all be for the good of the finished book. Because during the hour that I’m drinking coffee I get seven or eight key ideas for the novel and during that hour I think or invent the scenes that later appear in these anthologies. I wouldn’t say that it’s a muse or anything that mystical, but it’s sort of an hour of fortunate inspiration.

Q: Now that you’re full-time writer, is the procedure the same? Do you take off a year to take notes and plan and then follow it with an eight or twelve or sixteen week burst of actual writing?

A: I’ve always had more themes than time to write about them. I’ve got all kinds of different notebooks full of potential ideas for novels. It usually happens that within a matter of months one of those ideas will start to stand out from the others and become more interesting to me. I try not to rush or hurry it. For example, I just published my last novel in April and so even though I knew that I wanted to return to short story writing, I intentionally put it off. More or less I invent other projects for myself - for example, right now I’m working on the reconstruction of my new apartment - because I know it’s not possible to write two books a year. The theme needs time to mature. I need to leave it for a while.

Q: So even if the next book is short stories rather than a novel, the collection will fit together within a unified theme?

A: Yes. The working title is Stories About Marriage and About Sex, the two being mutually exclusive of course. I read somewhere that, according to the World Health Organization, the average man thinks about sex every eight minutes and that will be the theme of the collection.

Q: I have no idea how quickly Czech publishing works. If Fatherly Love was published in April, when did you actually hand over the manuscript to the publisher?

A: Before the revolution it used to take a year to go through the censors and then another year going through production, typesetting and all that stuff, which placed unbelievable demands on the author’s patience. Even today no one is able to imagine it. They would say, Yes, we liked your novel and we’re going to publish it, and from that point it would take two or two and a half years before the novel was actually published. Today it’s different. It’s a lot more flexible system. My publisher is a private one. I give him the manuscript in February and in April the book is published.

Q: So if you finished writing Fatherly Love in February then you should begin writing the short stories around the first of the year?

A: I don’t have any definite time frame but I’m planning to start writing in the fall and if it’s finished maybe we’ll publish in the spring. And if it’s not, then no problem, we’ll just put it off until the following fall.

Q: Now that you’re no longer editing or teaching, I know you have the advantage of more time to write, but what does it cost you? You said earlier that the novels are made up of your daily life experiences. Do you feel a lack or a void not having another job besides writing?

A: Yes. I realize that that problem does exist. Hemingway was a fisherman and he had a metaphor. The fisherman needs worms for fishing, and they keep their worms in a can. Hemingway said that writers are like worms in a can. They don’t have any earth, background. They live only from their mutual relations and they don’t know anything about real life. They’re closed up in this can and they don’t have a relationship with real life.

Q: Let me ask you two short, biographical questions. Do you own a dentist’s chair?

A: No.

Q: Do you arrange your books on the shelf by the nationality of the author?

A: Yes. It’s an effective method. There’s no hierarchy. It’s not like I keep the Americans above the Germans or anything. It’s just a practical method of arrangement. For me the nationality is just a helpful organizational device. For example, if a book by a Romanian author is published, and he’s a Romanian dissident, then I am able to better visualize what it might be about.

Q: So at least in that respect you view authors by nationality?

A: I do, in that respect, yes.

Q: Do you see yourself as a Czech writer?

A: Yes. Definitely.


END

a conversation with michal viewegh - part one
a conversation with michal viewegh - part two
a conversation with michal viewegh - part three

a conversation with michal viewegh - part three

Q: What’s your most autobiographical novel?

A: I have to admit that I’ve never asked myself that question. Each book, in some way, documents a certain period of my life. The first book, Opinions on Murder, is about twenty years of living in a small town and the newest novel is about the relationship between a father and a teenage daughter, which I’m also experiencing. When I wrote the book Sightseers, I had been on fifteen prior sightseeing excursions. I don’t know how to find a different story than my own but I also can’t say which of my books has the largest percentage of autobiographical material.

Q: Which of your books is your favorite? If you could pick one book and have it translated in every language, which book would you choose?

A: It’s probably difficult for any author to pick just one of his works but I guess objectively I would choose The Wonderful Years of Lousy Living because that was the book that really started my career. That was the fateful one. That was the one that provided my entry into the literary world.

Q: I’ve only read the English excerpts from The Wonderful Years of Lousy Living, but if anything, that novel, or at least that excerpt, seems to be closer to magical realism than post-modernism. Does that mean I read it wrong, I read it right, or that the excerpt isn’t representative, stylistically, of the novel as a whole? I’m thinking, particularly about the multiple generations reminiscent of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and this one paragraph where, after relating how his mother is saved from a dog by a garbageman while pregnant, Quido says, “Of course, I’m not denying I was then like any other fetus in the womb, probably blind, but I must have had a way of perceiving all of this because how else to explain my being so strangely moved every time I watch the dustmen do their job.”

A: I agree that the principle of exaggeration - and exaggeration in some cases does mean more than realism - is most evident in that novel. There aren’t any miracles that occur in the book, like Marquez, but the irony with which certain characters are described is similar. For example, Quido’s descriptions of his grandmother Liba is founded on a real sense of exaggeration above reality. I would say that your assessment is correct. The exaggeration, or the “more than realism” or magical realism, is that which makes everyday or banal situations into something more interesting. For example, it’s not in this excerpt, but there’s a scene in which Quido’s father becomes a so-called political hypochondriac, and starts to feel that he’s being followed everywhere by the secret police. Because he likes woodworking he goes down in the basement and starts putting together a coffin. That’s one example of a gross exaggeration because my father did experience difficulties with the regime but primarily in the fact that he wasn’t allowed to travel to the West and had a limited pay ceiling, but he never, in fact, built coffins.

Q: Bringing Up Girls In Bohemia and the two small excerpts from Sightseers come across as strongly post-modern. Do you consider yourself, now, a post-modern writer?

A: I wouldn’t dare to speak about post-modernism as a philosophy. I can speak about it only in the literary sense. The two or three articles or books that I read about post-modernism which I understood - because most of them I just don’t even understand - for me contained elements or descriptions of things which I’d already, for a number of years, instinctively been trying to realize in my work, without knowing that they were labeled post-modernism. The thing that probably spoke to me the most is something I read in an article by John Barth who said that he understands post-modernism as a synthesis of the readability and the entertainment of the literature of the nineteenth century - for example Dickens - together with the experimental modernism of the first half of the twentieth century, like Joyce. Literature which is entertaining reading but at the same time contains something which captures the attention of a sophisticated, contemporary reader.

Q: But by that definition, you are a post-modern writer.

A: Yes. I agree.

Q: Besides Barth’s article, are there practical examples, a work or works of fiction, that you saw as models or inspirations before writing Bringing Up Girls In Bohemia?

A: Despite my best efforts, it’s not possible for me to name only two or three influential authors. I could name maybe eighty whom I liked a lot. Of course, I read them all in Czech translation. Perhaps a psychoanalyst would be more qualified to say which had the most influence on me. They are often really quite varied in style. German literature like Thomas Mann, Romantics like Turgenev, Raymond Carver, John Irving, Garcia Marquez and so on and so forth. From French literature, Raymond Queaneau.

Q: Can you read while you’re writing or does someone else’s work conflict your own?

A: I never felt it was a problem to read something else while I was writing. On the contrary, I write in the morning and in the evening I am quite happy to read something. For me it’s like replenishing the batteries because each author has to admit that when he writes he’s moving within a limited vocabulary, actively using maybe one hundred thousand words. You have passive knowledge of thirty thousand more that you don’t use. And so when I read other Czech authors, it activates the passive vocabulary as well.

Q: I’m curious about the variety of literary references you call up in Bringing Up Girls In Bohemia. I actually made a list of all of the references it contained. We’ve got Capek, Chekov multiple times, J. D. Salinger, John Fowles, Shakespeare, Borges, Kundera, Hemingway, Lustig, Proust, Kafka, Ken Kesey, William Goldman, Doctorow, Dostoevsky, Saul Bellow, Kurosawa, Updike, Gertrude Stein, Hodrova, Vonnegut, Woody Allen, and many, many others. I found the Woody Allen reference especially intriguing because even though he’s known as a filmmaker, there’s a similarity in the self-conscious humor. Do you just have a passing knowledge or are you a fan of Woody Allen?

A: First, just a note about the number of citations in the text. There is self-irony in there. It’s a story of a guy who’s supposed to help a girl who’s in a difficult life situation and the only thing he knows to call forth for help are books. That’s why there are so many, because in its own way it’s sort of comic or even embarrassing. But part of it is me.
As far as Woody Allen goes, yes, I’ve seen almost all of his films. His sense of self-irony is close to me. There’s something I identify with. When I published my book of literary parodies two or three critics did say that it was written in a Woody Allen style.

Q: Is there a particular film that’s your favorite?

A: In a lot of his films there are literary references or there are texts from literary works. It’s something I really admire, that he’s able to combine serious themes such as death, with a grotesque humor. By grotesque I mean exaggerated, the art of combining those two things so that the film holds together. For both of those elements to work is difficult to do. Not very many people know how to do it. I liked Hannah and Her Sisters, Radio Days. I could probably name ten of his films which I liked.

a conversation with michal viewegh - part one
a conversation with michal viewegh - part two
a conversation with michal viewegh - part four

a conversation with michal viewegh - part two

Q: Do you feel like there’s any jealousy on the part of Czech critics?

A: I firmly hope that there aren’t any of those kinds of primitive emotions, such as jealousy over the number of copies sold, at work here. I think, probably, among those serious critics, it’s a misunderstanding of a different type. For example, I was thinking about writing Bringing Up Girls In Bohemia for about a year. For a year I was working on it, preparing for it, and then I wrote it in about a quarter of a year. I wanted it to include everything that I think is good about post-modernism, whether it be word play with metatextual references, or archetypal myths such as “The Sad Princess.” I really put a lot of work into it and I think you can see that in the text. In one part of the novel I needed a two-page story that would’ve been something written by a twenty year-old girl, so within about twenty minutes I wrote something which I thought would be an average piece of work for a twenty year-old girl - something similar to the kinds of submissions that I received working as an editor at a publishing company, interior monologues by the main character with banal psychological characterisitics. And one renowned critic, an older man, wrote that the entire novel is an intellectual loss, that it’s superificial, that it was just for show, and that the only place that I displayed real talent was in that two-page story. I think that really typifies the type of misunderstanding that occurs with the critics. That just because I’m writing something that resembles film cuts - the scenes change quickly, it’s sort of spliced together - doesn’t mean that there’s not something more behind it, or between the lines. I understand the battle for readership in the era of film clip culture, and I can’t write fifteen page realistic descriptions. I would bore every modern reader.

Q: Let me ask just one more question about your relationship with the critics. Does the post-modern style, the fact that the narrator of Bringing Up Girls In Bohemia has written two books with the exact same titles as your first two books, and the fact that he teaches at the same middle school in the same city where you taught, does this make you any more susceptible to the criticism? Does it make you more tender? Does it sometimes make the criticism a personal thing?

A: Without a doubt, but then again my intention as an author was to play with that border between fiction and autobiography. I myself as a reader am also more excited when I can ask myself the question whether the writer really did undergo that experience or whether or not it really hurt as much as they’re describing it. It’s more interesting for me when I know that the story I’m reading on paper is sort of a bloody or painful part of the author’s life. Understandably a lot of people make the mistake of identifying the narrator of the book with the author. That’s understandable for the lay reader, but not for the critics. I would have to write as a female character to finally make it clear for them, that the narrator is not the same as the author.

Q: I’m glad to hear your answer, because I think with most readers, both critics and lay readers, there’s the temptation to associate the narrator or protagonist with the author, but sometimes when I’m speaking with writers I’m timid about asking whether or not a work is autobiographical. I think it would be a fair question in regard to Bringing Up Girls In Bohemia, but often the underlying accusation, to some, is that the writer is somehow lacking in imagination if the work is primarily autobiographical. In what ways are you different from this novel’s narrator?

A: It’s different in each book. In each book there’s a difference in the distance between the narrator and the author. In some books there’s not much difference and in some books there’s a lot bigger difference. I admit that I take the life that I lead as a natural background or starting point for the things I’m going to write about, but even in those novels which are allegedly the most autobiographical the realistic elements are only thirty or forty percent of my life. Of course, I also like to fantasize, invent, but it works better for me if I start with what I know. I always say that that’s the difference between a novel and a diary. Which of us can say that his life is so interesting that the mere recording of it would create an interesting novel? That’s the reason that I have to invent.

a conversation with michal viewegh - part one
a conversation with michal viewegh - part three
a conversation with michal viewegh - part four

a conversation with michal viewegh


While in Prague during July of 1998, I interviewed Czech writer Michal Viewegh. We spoke through a translator, though I suspect that Viewegh could have easily maneuvered my questions, and his answers, on his own.
At that time only Viewegh's Bringing Up Girls In Bohemia had been translated into English. A contentious relationship between the author and Czech literary critics was already forming, despite the relative lovefest that welcomed his debut, The Wonderful Years of Lousy Living.
Viewegh is now accepted as the best-selling writer in the Czech Republic, his relationship with critics has, if anything, worsened, and despite being widely translated throughout Europe, Bringing Up Girls In Bohemia remains his only full-length English language publication.


Q: Since this is primarily for an American audience, let me start there. If my information’s right, your first trip to the States was last year. Did America - the place, the people - meet with your expectations?

A: I think that anyone who comes to America for the first time has to get over a lot of the myths that he or she has before coming. At least any European who comes to America. Because Europeans all have a lot of myths as to what America is, and it’s your first time to get beyond those. For example, the myth that everyone eats McDonald’s hamburgers, or that everyone hangs a flag out on the Fourth of July and waves at the camera when they’re having their picture taken. Of course, there are a lot of those kinds of Americans but there are a lot of other kinds of Americans as well. So for me it was a matter of getting rid of the preconceptions I had.

Q: Where do these myths about America come from? Do they come from television? I was going to ask about literature but I’m not sure the McDonald’s hamburgers reference comes from there.

A: Well, I simplified it a little bit. A typical myth is that all Americans are superficial. That’s just a typical kind of journalistic myth. It’s easy for people to have that impression. I’m not saying that I thought that all Americans would be superficial, but that’s a typical myth that you hear.

Q: The word “myth” implies fiction, that it’s false. So can I assume that the Americans you came across weren’t superficial? Or is that too much of a leap?

A: Every time I’ve spoken about the U.S., or my experience in the U.S., I’ve always tried to avoid any kind of generalizations because it’s not even possible to generalize about the Czech character and there are only ten million Czechs and there are two hundred and fifty million Americans. I met, for example, typical, open Americans at the airport who would just start up a conversation with you. I also met introverts, incommunicative people, and so on. It’s a very colorful country. Not in the sense of color of skin but just in the color of different types of people. After a two hour plane flight you arrive somewhere where there are completely different kinds of people, different lifestyles, but it would be a mistake to pass myself as an expert on America after two months there.

Q: I’m curious about your use of the word “superficial,” because the term “superficial humorist” appears several times in Bringing Up Girls In Bohemia. You use in it in a self-deprecating fashion, whether the narrator refers to himself as “only a superficial humorist” or he gives the line to one of the other characters, and so I’m interested in that particular word. If you see yourself as even playfully superficial, did you feel any kind of bond or kinship with Americans?

A: The term “superificial humorist” is a label that a lot of so-called Prague intellectuals gave me, or gave my writing. I don’t remember exactly how it was in the text but maybe it was a reference to that. In general it’s a question of your approach to humor in the Czech Republic. Humor here is undervalued and it’s automatically connected with the word superficial. When something is humorous, it’s automatically perceived as being superficial. It even goes so far that often humorous literature is automatically excluded from the realm of high literature, or good literature. Professor Narodil, who translates from English, wrote an article about how, in the American literary tradition, the two things are not mutually exclusive, humorous literature and good, or serious, literature. That they are not artificially divided into two different categories. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is certainly a humorous parody but it’s also a good, serious book about the Second World War.

Q: Before we get too far away from myths, the greatest literary myth in America surrounds The Great American Novel. If there is a Great American Novel, it would be Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn which is quite humorous so I’m honestly mystified by the seeming lack of acceptance of your work by Prague critics simply because it’s humorous. I think the perception of Czech literature is that one of its greatest characteristics is the presence of so-called black humor, and so to be vilified for your humor just doesn’t make sense.

A: Well, the Czech tradition includes such figures as Karel Polacek who is now acccepted as one of the great literary figures of the first half of the twentieth century. There are conferences devoted to his work. In his time he was also dismissed and ostracized. People said that he didn’t belong to the literary world, that he wasn’t a serious literary figure. That’s the disrespect towards humor.

Q: So do you expect to be well-treated when you’re dead?

A: I’d be happy to experience some of that treatment while I’m still alive. As far as the critical reaction, I don’t think that it only has to do with the fact that I write humorous literature. I think the problem, generally, is that there is a certain precedence that what I write lies somewhere between so-called commercial literature and so-called literary fiction. And the thing that provokes and dismays a lot of critics is that it’s not easily categorized as commercial or literary. If it were purely commercial fiction, like Danielle Steele or Jackie Collins, no one would write about it in the Czech intellectual newspapers and magazines. And, of course, not all critics wrote negatively. In fact, my fiction did have a fairly good reaction from the critics at first and, of course, the readers’ acceptance of it has been relatively widespread. But I actually shouldn’t probably speak about it. I shouldn’t be the critic of my own work. Someone else should probably do it.

a conversation with michal viewegh - part two
a conversation with michal viewegh - part three
a conversation with michal viewegh - part four

Saturday, July 23, 2005

blogs and the new york times

For at least the second time in a week, the New York Times published a feature with an individual blog as its focus.
Last weekend Helaine Olen detailed her reasonings for firing her nanny (she read her nanny's blog and was, how shall we say, discomfited by the material (despite identifying with more than a few episodes)).

Today's article revels in "the trysts, triumphs and heartaches of a young New York City woman named Stephanie Klein." Of course, this week there's a happy ending. Though blogging for only a year and a half, Ms. Klein's chronicles have led to both a book and a television deal.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

lopate show post-mortem

Don't really know what to say here. Coulda been better, coulda been worse. But it was very nice to be invited since it's a program I've listened to countless times, most often when I was doing the freelance thing full-time and was home with complete audio control during the day.

I'm not the only interviewer who becomes a bit self-conscious when the tables are turned. When you transcribe a lot of interviews you're very aware of certain verbal tendencies - um, you know, like . . .
I've listened to my segment once and was primarily struck by my overuse of the word "absolutely" (I never say "absolutely," so go figure).

Anywho - for your aural edification - available over the Internet as well as an iPod-loadable MP3: the July 20, 2005 edition of ""The Leonard Lopate Show."

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

song of the day: nine black alps' "cosmopolitan"


Tuesday, after leaving the day job, I drank a margarita in the daylight with some friendly music business types, caught part of Jon Randall's set at The Living Room, then walked a few blocks to see Nine Black Alps play at Mercury Lounge.

An impressive crowd - seemingly half English ex-pats or folks over on "holiday" - for an 8 o'clock start. And while I hardly ever think this way, I honestly don't see how these guys aren't going to be big (like dollars and cents big) one day soon - edgy, guitar-based melodies with strains of Nirvana (sometimes too much - see "Not Everyone"), Oasis, The Strokes and The Walkmen.
You heard it here first.

Their new, aphoristically titled EP is well worth the price of admission.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

song of the day: rolling stones' "happy"


Life, as we know it, is still extremely busy (don't cry for me (insert name of country here)). The only reading I seem to get done has been on the subway and, of course, the 33 1/3 series is perfect for that.

I'm reading Bill Janovitz' Exile on Main St. now (I think it's the ninth book in the series that I've read) and it obviously (or maybe not) causes the album to take a prime position on the iPod.

Janovitz writes: "In many ways, Exile is considered Keith's record: recorded at his house, more or less on his schedule, vocals down in the mix, guitars up."

Long live Keith.

I'm still planning to post, when time allows, interviews with 33 1/3 authors.
And on a similar note - when browsing the hard drive I learned that seven years ago today I was at Gany's Cafe in Prague interviewing writer Michal Viewegh. On first glance it seems to hold up pretty well, so that one will also likely see the light of day.

So don't touch that dial.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

the week behind, the week ahead

This week has been the dictionary definition of hecticity -
last Saturday, the day before she left for her European tour, Michelle Shocked was kind enough to spend thirty minutes of phone time with me (thanks Michelle); Monday I turned in a review of Schoolyard Heroes' new disc, Fantastic Wounds, to San Diego CityBeat; Tuesday morning I interviewed Dinosaur Jr drummer Murph for an upcoming East Bay Express feature; Tuesday evening I spent an hour on the phone with Roger Metzger, a Gold Glove winner in 1973 and the man who has played more games at shortstop than anyone in Houston Astros history; Wednesday night I spoke with Joe Koppe who, from 1958-1965, appeared in 436 games as a major league shortstop; then Thursday evening I missed the Dinosaur Jr show in Central Park because I interviewed System of a Down's Daron Malakian for an upcoming Phoenix New Times feature; plus the day job has reached a new level of intensity.

Up early this morning (album reviews of Bob Mould's Body of Song, the Pernice Brothers' Discover A Lovelier You and a Nine Black Alps advance due on Monday), but so far have few words to show for it.

This afternoon I'll interview Nine Black Alps drummer James Galley following their Siren Music Festival appearance. Tuesday night I'll attempt to catch both NBA at Mercury Lounge as well as Jon Randall's set at the Living Room.
Wednesday afternoon I'll be on "The Leonard Lopate Show" and on Friday I'll be down at the South Street Seaport to see my buddy Will Kimbrough do a mini-set before he plays a full show with Rodney Crowell.

Perhaps, given New Yorkers' tendency to jaywalk, someone should design road crossing signs depicting tired and no long young Southern boys.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

song of the day: dinosaur jr's "sludgefeast"


I interviewed Murph this morning and, of course, did my homework. Which resulted in multiple (multiple) listens.
Not bad work, if you can get it.

Thanks to the fine folks at Merge (hey North Carolina!) we've got a brand new re-issue of a indie classic - You're Living All Over Me.

Monday, July 11, 2005

song of the day: the lemonheads' "into your arms"

A beautiful sunny morning (yeah, I know it was Monday)in New York City, and a somewhat reluctant walk to the subway made better.
Is Come On Feel The Lemonheads really out of print?
The Best of The Lemonheads: The Atlantic Years.

Wednesday, July 6, 2005

the leonard lopate show

Two weeks from today, on Wednesday, July 20th (probably around 12:40), I'll be a guest on WNYC's "Leonard Lopate Show."
The broadcast can be heard live worldwide over the Internet, and in New York on 93.9 FM and AM 820. Podcasts of past shows are also available via free download.

introducing Endtroducing . . . - part two

It’s been said that anyone who watched The Beatles invade The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964 picked up an instrument the following day and started a band. For any music fan with even a suppressed desire to write, it’s nearly impossible to hold a 33 1/3 book in your hand and not think, “What album would I write about?”

“I literally get three or four e-mails, phone calls, letters every day from people who want to write for the series,” Barker concurs. Since that’s not nearly enough to choose from, we decided to lend him a hand – we accosted some of our more literate friends, writers, and musicians, and popped the question: If you had a gun to your head, what album would you/could you write 25,000 words on?

Iggy & The Stooges’ Raw Power
This band was so far ahead of its time that even by its third album -- which completely nails the perfect combination of badass guitar riffs and aggressive vox -- there were still a few years to go until punk exploded. I can't decide if I'd rather be seduced by Iggy the swaggering sex maniac, or just flat out BE him.
- Michelle Laudig, Music Editor, Phoenix New Times

Los Lobos’ Kiko
It was a break from the past without being an abandonment of it, and it was proof that roots rock needn't sound musty and old-timey. Also, there must have been some "interesting" dynamics in the studio, as Louie Perez emerged from behind the drum kit with his weird ideas and expanded role on the guitars and Cesar Rosas, apparently the most conservative musician in the band, seemed to have been pushed aside. (Only "Wicked Rain" and "That Train Don't Stop Here Anymore" made the cut of 16 tunes. Both are among his best tunes ever, as it happens.) Not that I have ever directed so much as a home movie, but "Kiko," “When The Circus Comes to Town," "Angels With Dirty Faces" are all songs that I have long dreamed of making into videos -- I have the scripts for all of them etched in my head.
- John Nova Lomax, Music Editor, Houston Press

The Who’s Live At Leeds
Consistently picked as the best live album of all time, Live At Leeds holds special meaning for me because it’s how I learned to play the guitar. The way it was mixed helped a lot -- the drums and vocals are straight up the middle, the bass is panned all the way to one speaker, and the guitar is panned to the other, so if you turn off one speaker you have Pete Townshend playing guitar live (with no studio overdubs or trickery) on a magical night for you to steal riffs from. It’s the best unintentional guitar lesson of all time.
—Kevin Bowe, producer, songwriter, and guitarist for Paul Westerberg & His Only Friends

Joni Mitchell’s Hissing of Summer Lawns
It’s the record where she started to lose people due to her burgeoning jazzbo streak, but also because she went from the confessional “I” and pulled a Dylan and started using “you.” It’s deep and deeply misunderstood, and packed with feminist narratives she insists are not feminist. It’d be a great one to unpack and untangle.
—Jessica Hopper, editor, Hit it or Quit it

Star Ghost Dog’s The Great Indoors
A beautiful album by a group I’m totally infatuated with -- it’s smart and moody and gorgeous and I love it to pieces. I can’t believe they broke up (there must be a German word for this kind of mourning), but I long for the Parallel Universe Travel Machine to go to the world where they recorded a third and fourth and fifth brilliant album/CD/whatever.
—Geoff Schmidt, author of Write Your Heart Out: Advice from the Moon Winx Motel

Tom Tom Club’s Tom Tom Club
Because I find Tina Weymouth to be completely fascinating, and I’d love to discover how they recorded that many people to make such an amazing album. Also, rehearsing/recording and living at Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas has been an Architecture in Helsinki daydream for years, and if I was researching, I’d have to go there, right?
—Kellie Sutherland, singer/multi-instrumentalist, Architecture in Helsinki

Public Image Ltd.’s Metal Box
Given the turnaround time from punk icon to yesterday’s news, Johnny Rotten created a blueprint for the fusion of house, dub, punk, electroclash, and avant-garde experimentalism long before some of those styles existed... on a major label budget, no less.
—Kevin Chanel, Editor, ChinMusic

The Mekons’ The Mekons Rock ‘n’ Roll
Yah, I get teased for declaring the Mekons as my favorite band in the whole world, since I’m not old, balding, or a man (the band’s been around longer than I’ve been alive). But when Jon Langford yelps I was born inside the belly of rock ’n’ roll!, it seriously has to be one of the greatest rock moments ever.
—JP Pfafflin, publicist, Bloodshot Records

Santana’s Caravanserai
Fusion music has always gotten a bum rap in my book, and Santana’s blend of Latin vibes with jazz licks and hippie peace and love is remarkably beguiling, and feels like the music of a utopia that never happened. At least, it never happened in the world, which is how it usually is.
—Will Blythe, author of the forthcoming To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever, a love story about the Duke-North Carolina rivalry

Geto Boys’ The Geto Boys
The Geto Boys caused so much controversy at the time, it’d be fascinating to navigate the multi-angled stories behind the production, camaraderie, aftermath, shit storm, and resultant lasting influence.
—Todd Inoue, Music Editor, San Jose Metro

Sarah McLachlan’s Surfacing
Surfacing was an extremely special album at an influential time in my life. It influenced me deeply, and it still resonates. She’s got one of the most controlled voices... she’s the Chris Cornell of her genre. Her wide range of melody is ridiculous. The songs are so sincere, you can tell she was documenting something special to her, and it forces the listener to relate even more. It’s so melodic and hooky and beautiful.
—Donald Carpenter, singer, Submersed

Modest Mouse’s This Is A Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About
Because the existential philosophy and the travel writing embedded in the lyrics are just as important as the music itself (which is, needless to say, some of the best I've ever heard in my life).
- Dan Eldridge, Music Editor, Pittsburgh City Paper

The Beatles’ Revolver
I would write on The Beatles’ Revolver (on Apple – first bought at the age of 9) because of the range of songs, voices, styles, and instruments (drums, electric & acoustic guitars, strings, pianos, organ, French horn, tape loops, trumpet, sax, tabla, sitar, the sound effects for Yellow Submarine). As a vision of and from youth and popular music, it is still stunning.
- Paul Burch, singer/songwriter, Paul Burch & The WPA Ballclub

Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds
The only album I could fathom using said word allotment for (without rambling on nonsensically a la generation blog). A psychedelic soundtrack to California sunshine while still retaining a charming self pity... it has never stopped sounding challenging, yet still so friendly to ears of all ages. Plus, how fun would it be to conclude drawing parallels to....Wilson Phillips!
—Robert Suchan, singer/guitarist, Koufax

No Pick
I’d tell them to shoot me. I’ve lived plenty.
—John Doe, singer/songwriter/bass player, solo artist, and founding member of X

introducing Endtroducing... - part one

introducing Endtroducing . . .

(writer's note: this version of Introducing Endtroducing . . . is only slightly longer than the "official" which appeared today in East Bay Express (thanks to my editor there, Rob Harvilla), but the extra room does allow the incorporation of more responses.
I'd very much like to thank series editor David Barker and authors Michaelangelo Matos, Joe Pernice, Erik Davis and Warren Zanes for their singular insight. God willing and the creek don't rise, interviews with various 33 1/3 authors will appear here in the near future. - RT)


Sometime in the late summer, early fall of 2002, David Barker, a friendly young Englishman editing a series of chapbooks on Contemporary American Fiction in his office overlooking Madison Square Park in New York City, decided that it might be nice to produce a set based not on individual novels but on individual albums. A contrasting cluster of musicians, critics, writers, and miscellaneous hangers-on would each devote 25,000 words to whatever record happened to tickle their proverbial fancy, from Dusty Springfield to Joy Division to DJ Shadow.

Not quite three years later, David Barker’s idea has evolved into the 33 1/3 series: a stream of affordably priced (less than $10 apiece) and conveniently sized (they fit in your back pocket) books as individual and idiosyncratic as the albums that inspired them.

Joe Pernice’s Meat is Murder, currently the best-selling of the collection, is a novella. Douglas Wolk’s Live at the Apollo is written against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Warren Zanes’ Dusty in Memphis explores the mythology of the South. Franklin Bruno’s Armed Forces is structured alphabetically (R is for Rock Against Racism), and Colin Meloy’s treatment of the Replacements’ Let It Be operates as a sweet, Huck Finn coming-of-age story with the legendary indie cassette as its soundtrack.

For the initial half-dozen titles back in ’02, Barker, a frustrated musician (“I tried both the guitar and the flute, but I was told that my lips were the wrong shape to play the flute properly.” And the guitar? “It just hurt the hell out of my fingers and I gave it up.”) whose first live concert was The Smiths at Royal Albert Hall, scoured newspapers, books, blogs, and his own record collection in search of the right musicians and critics who might bring his idea to life. But it wasn’t until English journalist Andy Miller’s manuscript for the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society landed on his desk that Barker was convinced he’d found the right track – the editor experienced “an overwhelming sense of relief and happiness that this guy had completely understood what I was trying to get people to do.”

And what’s that, exactly? “Um, well, it varies, doesn’t it?” Barker offers, accent in full force. “I think it’s a mix. I think you’ve got to have research. I would like you to come up with some original material that no one has written about or known before. And a personal angle that kind of brings it to life for the reader. It’s a mix of four or five different things, and I think it’s interesting how some writers do 10 percent of this and 90 percent of the other. And some people do 20 percent of everything.”

And while it might seem a given that any writer willing to take the time to pound out 25,000 words on a single disc would choose their all-time desert island pick, that’s not always the case.

“I think I assumed that most of them would want to write about their actual very favorite album,” Barker says. “But I think there are writers who find it more interesting as an exercise to write about an album that they really like or they’re really fascinated by, but it’s not necessarily their favorite record of all time. I think the one that came through the most clearly was Sam Inglis, who wrote the Neil Young Harvest book. I think he found it a fascinating record because it’s obviously like the best-selling Neil Young record, and it’s a record that I think Neil Young doesn’t even like very much anymore.”

Now, looking back over nearly three years of the series that he founded, Barker can still register surprise.

“I’m still incredibly bad at predicting which ones are going to sell better than others,” he says. “It’s still very, very hard to tell. But I think the main thing I’ve learned -- which probably if I’d thought about it before we started this series I would’ve worked it out -- is about 85 to 90 percent of the writers have written about albums that they became obsessed with between the ages of 14 and 18.”

To date, a total of 23 youthfully preoccupied chapbooks have been published, with four more (on Endtroducing…, Kick out the Jams, Born in the USA, and Low) due out in September, another quartet by year’s end, and ten more contracted for 2006. Beyond that, Barker’s unwilling to plan. “I don’t think we’re going to stop it,” he says, “But I just don’t like taking it for granted, because I think as soon as you start taking a project like this for granted, you just kind of take your foot off the pedal.”

introducing Endtroducing... - part two

Tuesday, July 5, 2005