Robert Girardi recently chanced to see what I’d written about his first novel, Madeleine’s Ghost, some time back, and as he appreciated my words, I asked him if he’d be interested in being interviewed for NewsWhistle. We had a long conversation on the phone about his books, his work, and the past and future of novels; here’s what he had to say.
The NewsWhistle Q&A with Robert Girardi
Hometown: Springfield, VA
Current town: Washington, DC
Thank you for taking the time to talk with me about your work. I really enjoyed Madeleine’s Ghost (in fact, I gave it as a gift to a friend who was living in New York and from New Orleans at one point). Since I heard from you, I purchased a copy of A Vaudeville of Devils: Seven Moral Tales, but I have not yet read it, although I look forward to doing so. (I tend to have a very large stack to be read.)
I understand that since your early success that you’ve experienced some personal and career setbacks. I hope you are happier and healthier and in a better place. What are you up to these days? Are you working on a new novel?
Well, I spent the last year ghostwriting a book for an important person who must remain nameless. Let’s call them “he or she who cannot be named.” (I had to sign an NDA, so I really can’t say who it is.) But it was a good experience overall and financially remunerative, so I was able to eat for the year—now I’m hoping to get more ghostwriting gigs! The novelist Madison Smartt Bell, a friend and head of the creative writing program at Goucher College (where I once taught) got me in touch with the ghostwriting agency in question. By the way, he’s one of our greatest undersung American novelists. I heartily recommend all his books—and he’s published a couple of dozen by now.
How does the ghostwriting thing work?
You apply for any one of the various ghosting gigs that come up, along with any number of other hungry writers. Then the client evaluates your samples and proposal and picks one lucky soul. This is my first ghosting gig; I got picked from a pile of about fifty others, so I feel pretty good about that.
Well, now what?
More ghosting, I guess. Caveat: it’s great, because I have my own books on my mind constantly–about twenty novels that I’ll get to write in the next life, I suppose. I have notes for them scattered all around my apartment.
Has your first ghostwritten book been published?
Not yet. The client is looking for an agent in NYC right now and hopefully will find one and get a big publisher. This is a businessperson, used to how things work in the real profit-and-loss business world: you make a product, you put it out there, and people buy it. Sadly, that’s not how the publishing world works. This book might never get published, or it might get published in 20 years, or maybe in three weeks. It’s a crazy life. Look at Jack Kerouac: On the Road took eleven years to get published. Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo was only published after his death, not to mention John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.
I didn’t know all of that.
All kinds of great books were turned down, there’s a long list of publisher-rejected classics which is both hilarious and depressing to consider. Editors in New York never really know what’s good and what isn’t. People in general don’t know what to make of something new.
Here’s an example from my own humble oeuvre: The very day Madeleine’s Ghost got published I received a rejection from an agent that I’d sent it to a year before. The agent wrote the usual “I just didn’t love it” crap and added that he really didn’t see the book getting published at all–the ^%$#&@#! joke was on him.
So much of this is luck!
Yes, it’s luck, but it’s also publishing. On another note: It’s increasingly impossible for a serious writer to make a living these days. Every single writer writing serious fiction will tell you this. In fact, nearly impossible.
What about self-publishing and doing away with the gatekeepers?
That doesn’t work for a writer who wants to make a real living. For me it is a profession and a profession is something other people pay you to do. Time was, you could make a decent living being a writer in America. You were part of the National Dialogue, if you will. Now it’s a somewhat laughable hobby. Think about it, what do hobbyists do? They get clay and make statues of dogs. To become fully proficient at any art form, it has to be your vocation, and your job: it’s a full time occupation. What does Malcolm Gladwell say? There’s the 10,000 hour rule. That’s how long it takes to get really good at something. Hard to spend 10,000 hours on your work and have a full time job as a patent attorney on the side.
Well, I hope the ghostwriting brings you some financial success, and then you’ll have some time to focus on what you want to be writing.
Thanks! As I said, I’m hoping more gigs come my way—and that somehow I’ll be able to balance writing for myself and writing for someone else. But at least it’s writing. If I’m both complaining and whining bitterly here—whinging, the Brits call it–that’s what most of the writers I know do these days.
So what happened to the American publishing market, in your opinion?
If you want my opinion in a nutshell, and I’ve been watching the business since the 80s: Everything really began to change starting around 2000. That’s when massive mergers in the publishing business happened. I was with Bantam Doubleday Bell then, which was then (and now) owned by Bertelsmann (the German publishing behemoth—yes, they were the original publishers of Mein Kampf and have been making money on that book ever since). Random House merged with Bantam Doubleday Dell in about 2002, and just a few years ago this particular behemoth merged with Penguin and became an even bigger behemoth. The average reader thinks there are dozens of publishers in NYC, but no—there are really three big ones, with their imprints on different floors in the same building. They’re huge corporations, doing what huge corporations do: looking for profit. Back in the day, publishing was a respected part of the culture. True, it used to barely break even or only make small profits. The new overlords thought publishing books should be just a lucrative as the pop music they produced in another side of their business. Well, books sell a million copies over ten years, not a million songs in a day, like Justin Bieber!
But really, the elephant in the room is the Internet. That monster really, really kicked in around the early oughts, and people started using their leisure time to shop for things at Linens N’ Things.com or look at porn. (By the way, porn is something like 80 percent of the traffic online!) Tell me something–is Linens N’ Things still around? How about Bed Bath and Beyond? Buying pillows and face soap, playing games, looking at people having sex, together or by themselves or whatever, that’s what people do instead of reading books these days. Twenty years ago, when I’d take the Metro here in D.C., everyone had a book. Now everyone’s on their phones, and they’re not reading novels—Okay, a few of them are, but not many. It’s hard to read a novel on your phone. Ask me, the market for serious fiction in America has fallen down like a building eaten from the inside out by termites.
So combined with the blockbuster mentality of the corporations, the lack of leisure time, and our concomitant lack of ability to focus, that’s where we are. Okay, yes, I admit, I’m a curmudgeon, but say what you like, it’s a crisis in our culture. Am I ranting?
I don’t mind a little bit of ranting! I still read books on paper. I usually take the train once a week, and on the train I read the newspaper (on paper), magazines (on paper), and books (nearly always on paper).
You are my new favorite person.
I do agree that these trends are concerning—they definitely concern me. But maybe it’s a blip? And reading novels may come back.
I don’t know. Okay, here’s another thing—if I may continue my rant: everyone thinks the Internet is wonderful, we’re not cutting down trees, blah, blah, blah. But hey, folks, guess what, server farms use an awful lot of energy. They’re in the desert or up in Alaska near the Arctic Circle, just, acres and acres of warehouses full of servers. That’s what the “cloud” looks like and they use the energy of small cities—this according to an article in the venerable The New York Times a couple of years back. Ask me, this level of technology is not sustainable. Meanwhile, to make a book, a paper book, you can grow bamboo and make paper from that. Heck, bamboo grows in a week. Look at my back yard. Totally renewable.
And to continue the rant–Are you familiar with BookScan?
I don’t think so.
It’s an Internet tool. More like a torture device for writers. Publishers and agents use it, they type in your name and your sales figures pop up in black and white, no ‘splanations, no nothing. So if your career doesn’t fit a certain business model, a certain trajectory, an agent, a publisher won’t even look at your stuff, won’t give it a chance.
Here I am talking about business, not literature. I forget which famous writer said that when writers get together, what do they talk about? Money. Maybe it was Saul Bellow.
There’s recent novel, A Man Called Ove, by a Swedish author, Fredrik Backman. He couldn’t get his book published—all these publishers told him it was good but there would be no market for it. And it turned out to be a huge hit, internationally. It was a best seller in Korea!
Well, there you go. My first novel was submitted to New York publishers in 1986; the industry has changed completely since then, let me tell you. But what has not changed is the following: If you have something different or new, editors perhaps not just in New York, but worldwide, don’t know what to do with it.
So everything has to be “high concept,” then?
Well, fortunately, sometimes good things still get through! On a happier note, which of your books would you recommend to a first-time reader as an introduction to your work?
I would say Madeleine’s Ghost is a good introduction, my first published book. It’s the most youthful and upbeat.
Do you have a personal favorite of your novels, or is that like asking a parent about a favorite child?
I like Madeleine’s Ghost. But I think my best book from a literary standpoint is Vaudeville of Devils: Seven Moral Tales. Also, I’ve got probably ten unpublished manuscripts sitting on my shelf. A couple of them are as good as anything I’ve ever done.
What inspires you as a writer?
You know, every writer cringes at that question. But it’s a natural question, no denying: So where does a writer’s material come from? You get it from your life, stuff you’re thinking about, the news, something your kid or your girlfriend said. Sometimes from an argument you had with the dude who lives next door!
What authors have been the biggest influences on your writing?
I’m a huge fan of James Salter. Do you know his work?
I don’t think so.
He died a few years ago. He was 90. In my opinion, the greatest American prose stylist of the last 50 years. A Sport and a Pastime; Solo Faces; Light Years: the stories, the memoir pieces, especially these. Most people haven’t heard of him, but every writer has. He was a great believer in sentences. Some of the memoir pieces appeared in The New Yorker, by the way, and they’re fantastic.
I’ve probably read his work, then, just without recalling his name.
Salter went to West Point, as did Poe. (As did James McNeill Whistler, the painter, and many others.) But Salter was an exemplary military officer, unlike those other two. He served in Korea as a fighter pilot, in the original jet fighters, and wrote on the side. His first novel, The Hunters, was sold to Hollywood and made into a movie in the 1950s with Robert Mitchum and Robert Walker. So Salter took his winnings and quit the Air Force. People thought he was crazy—he was on the General track, you know. People just didn’t walk away from a good career in those days! But the Muse was calling and there’s no denying Her. Here’s a funny bit: Esquire did a feature back in the day where they asked writers what they’d be if they weren’t writers. A lot of them said they’d be a drunk, or a failure, or insane. Salter said, unhesitatingly: a General.
And he was right about that?
Yes, he was. I went to the Iowa Writers Workshop (which us Workshop grads like to think is a big deal because so many impressive writers went through there—Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, John Irving, Sandra Cisneros, etc.). So I went back to Iowa unofficially after graduation just to sit in on Salter’s class when he started to teach there in the late 80s. A very impressive guy. Writers tend to be scruffy, shambling, but not him: he was still, clearly, an officer.
An officer and a gentleman.
Who else do you like?
I’m a big fan of Raymond Chandler, a great American stylist and one of the best writers of his generation (which includes Hemingway and Fitzgerald!). The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, and Farewell, My Lovely: those hard boiled detective yarns also happen to be great American novels.
I have never read them. My to-be-read list is very long and getting longer. I will have to live a long, long time to get it all done.
So here’s a trade secret: I constructed Madeleine’s Ghost to resemble The Big Sleep, at least structurally. The first paragraph where he goes to see the priest about finding a missing saint for Brooklyn is almost a word for word rewrite of Phillip Marlowe showing up at General Sternwood’s house, when he gets hired to find the missing dude, Regan. Call it a homage.
That’s very cool! Did anyone catch that?
Let’s step aside from “plot” for a moment: It also seems that your work has a message, as you described it in one of your emails to me: “How do you live in the world? The answer is simple–and stolen from Leviticus–and repeated in the last scene of Madeleine’s Ghost: Well, you tend to your goats, so to speak, take your children by the hand and walk humbly with thy God. (I paraphrase) but a disarmingly simple formula that posits an entire worldview.” This question (how to live, how to be happy) and your answer, remind me of those eighteenth century philosophical novels I read in grad school, Rasselas by Samuel Johnson and Candide by Voltaire. Were you thinking about the Age of Reason and the French Enlightenment when you were working on Madeleine’s Ghost?
You know, I haven’t read Rasselas, although I am a fan of Dr. Johnson and his many excellent pronouncements. For example “Learning makes a man fit company for himself.” Or, my favorite: “Only a blockhead writes for free.”
But I digress. Regarding eighteenth century novels, I’m a huge fan of Manon Lescaut by the Abbe Prévost, a troublesome de-frocked and frocked again priest. The novel is great, scandalous. All about sex and all kinds of good stuff. Its moral is that it’s very immoral.
I think I’ve seen a ballet based on it, Manon. About a fallen woman?
Yes, a priest who falls in love with a woman of the streets. I guess my point here speaks more to fiction than to morals. So in the book des Greiux the lover of Manon, and the tasty Manon flee to the then brand new French colony of Louisiana, to escape the long arm of the law. The Abbe Prevost had never been there. He imagined Louisiana like Africa, with lions and a desert. As Manon dies, des Grieux hears lions roaring in the Louisiana desert! Great stuff!
But as to morals, I’m a Catholic, and I believe all great art should have a general moral purpose. Think of Graham Greene, any of his books, but more particularly, my favorite: The Quiet American.
Yes, that’s a really good book. And what’s his novel about making a bargain with God during WWII? I can’t remember the title but it has a moral seriousness to it.
The End of the Affair.
Yes, that one.
Please note, Greene was a Catholic convert. Like another one of my absolute favorites: Evelyn Waugh.
Oh yes, Brideshead Revisited. That’s a pretty serious book, a lot of his earlier ones were more humorous.
Much of his stuff is humorous, but the humor is deadly serious, if you know what I mean. I’m also a big fan of an American Catholic writer, the southerner, Walker Percy. Also a pretty funny guy.
Another Catholic convert, and from New Orleans. I can see why you’d like him.
We now live in a doctrinaire, neo-Soviet era in which irony and humor are no longer understood, or even allowed. Who knows, the wrong joke might get you ten years. But you know, humor, at least literary humor requires faith to work. To me you can be funny and satirical, if you believe in some ultimate truth. The humor is the distance between the weirdness on earth from the ideal, from what the world should be.
Yes, I appreciate the humor and the anger a lot of mid-twentieth century books. Even if I find some of their depictions of race and gender hard to take now, I recognize that there’s a lot of value there. It’s not plainly nihilistic, like some of the humor now. It does believe in something.
I think presentism is a big mistake when it comes to understanding history and literature. You can’t even read Mark Twain because he uses words that are forbidden these days.
Well, there’s a difference between objecting to a novel because its values are not our values now, and a complete failure to understand the novel. Banning Huckleberry Finn because of the vocabulary used isn’t presentism, it’s based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the book.
Agreed. Seems like English departments all over are now filtering great works of the human spirit trough the narrow lens of PC understanding. Great art is truth whether it’s a product of its time or not. Hamlet is Hamlet in 1599 or now and the dude still can’t decide what to do in a timely fashion.
You are also writing non-fiction, is that correct?
Yes, I had a non-fiction book published under a pseudonym. That’s a separate gig. I keep that identity a state secret.
You have said that you feel out of step with American culture, but I think at least in the novel I read (Madeleine’s Ghost) that you captured a certain generational atmosphere pretty well (I am a few years younger than you but definitely what they call “Gen X”). You also, I think, captured the feel of two great American cities, New York City and New Orleans. America is pretty big place. Remember what Walt Whitman said about himself, it “contains multitudes.” I’m not sure football and shopping malls define America. You’re as American as anyone else!
Thank you. I’ve always thought so; here I am, Mr. America. But America is constantly changing, that’s one of the things about that big word and country. I was raised in Europe, my father worked for the CIA; it’s no secret now. We were in Europe in the 60s and 70s, doing unspeakable things to make the world safe for Democracy. We didn’t return until I was in middle school—7th grade at Francis Scott Key Intermediate in Springfield, VA. I think going to school in a minimum security prison would have been a better education and safer. I had gone to fancy Catholic schools in Europe, paid for with a government stipend. I wore uniforms, said prayers every day. Then I was thrust into the hell that was the middle school of 1973. Drugs, fights, prepubescent teens having sex behind the lockers in the hallways, suicide attempts, the cops coming every other day. It was quite a shock. See, my parents had left in 1952; in the intervening two decades, well, things had gone to seed. They had no idea.
Back to that Gen X business…traditionally I’ve been very skeptical of generational analysis, thinking it arbitrary and simplistic…we have more in common with people due to class, ethnicity, region, etc. than when we were born. And generation gaps, I always thought, were largely sensationalistic media creations. But lately…I keep reading think pieces about Generation X and I have to admit they tend to resonate…as part of this cohort or not, they’ve kind of got me pegged.
I got out of UVA in 1983 absolutely determined to be a writer. But it took me eleven years to finally get a book published; meanwhile I was out being bohemian, writing, and washing dishes (and they called me a dish-pig!) and I wrote something like seven novels during that time. All this while my peers were drifting in their 20s and 30s, miserable, making money maybe but saying, I hate my job, really, is this all there is? Of course, they were single, or falling from one relationship after another. So I would ask them what the hell are you doing? Hey, remember, we’re supposed to pair up in the world, raise the next generation! Find someone, settle down. That’s the thing from Leviticus. It’s a prescription for, if not happiness, at least not misery.
I think there are many different ways to have a good life, though. There’s not one and only one right path.
As Bertrand Russell said–one of my favorite, simple, profound quotes: “There is more than one way to live.” But I don’t want to sound like a stuffed-shirt here. Heck, most of all, I seek to entertain, to tell a story that whiles away a few hours on a winter’s night, so to speak. I’m not writing polemics, after all, I’m writing novels. No one likes to read a polemic.
Speaking of your fellow Americans, if you could give all of us a reading assignment that speaks to our times, what book would you have everyone read?
How hard of a professor do you want to be?
Well, when I taught—yes, I did teach for a little while–I was a hard professor. And terrible. The students used to march down to the dean to complain about me. I made them write their first drafts in longhand! Imagine that! But wait, just one book for the times? Okay, it would have to be Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins. Written in 1970, it depicts the nation breaking up into tribal areas, the dissolution of the Catholic Church, the fragmentation of everything, racial tension, class struggle. Also, there’s an environmental disaster about to happen. Appropriate for our present moment, I should think. Not to mention prescient. And it’s funny.
Are there any books that you are supposed to admire, and you just can’t?
Oh, a bunch of them—authors dead or alive?
However you want to answer that! How much trouble do you want to get into?
I can’t do Jane Austen, too much dialogue.
Ugh, I love Jane Austen!
I’m going to have Jane Austen fans after me now.
But you’re asking whom, umm, do I dislike writing today? Anyone who makes more money than me at the game! Which means pretty much every one of the formulaic authors on the best seller list. I won’t name names. Yes, I know the general reading public likes to read the formulaic stuff but I don’t. Which is why, maybe, I don’t have a yacht and a mistress (yet!). I always wanted to make each book different from the last. My second book, The Pirates Daughter, came out–not a ghost story, not a mystery (albeit literary) as the first had been. Needless to say, it didn’t do well. So the publisher said, please, please write another ghost story! Nope, says I, one ghost story is enough! Listen, they said, we’ll give you $90,000… Wait, how much?! So I wrote another ghost story, Vaporetto 13, which takes place in Venice. I’m not all that that proud of it, but I think I did a nice job describing Venice. And because it’s the simplest of my books plot-wise, it’s the one most optioned by Hollywood. Charlize Theron, for example, was interested in the project, with Forest Whitaker to direct. Also Ridley Scott’s brother—I forget his name.
And since we’re on a Hollywood tangent, here’s a Hollywood moral tale for you: I optioned the last novella in my collection A Vaudeville of Devils—Seven Moral Tales to some Hollywood A-listers. It’s called “Sunday Evenings at Contessa Pasquali’s” and was a go project, with the cast and crew on the ground in Naples. Italy. Roland Joffe to direct (hot at the time on account of the success of The Mission), starring Isabella Rosellini, Rachel Weisz, Matt Dillon. Great cast! We were within a week of principal photography: I would have gotten a check for half a million dollars at the end of that week; you get paid when the cameras roll. My ex-wife and I were already spending the money, planning vacations, renovations on the house, etc. And then…the director got in a fistfight with the producer, the whole project folded. I didn’t get a dime.
Ouch! Do you think that would have made a difference in your career? I mean if that novella had been turned into a film?
Yes. If your book gets turned into a movie, that’s a breakthrough. It means you’re not going to starve. I means all of your books will at least be looked at, both in NYC and in LA.
So you seem to have a connection to the film world. True?
I went to film school first. U.S.C. back in the early ‘80s. I originally wanted to make movies; heck, I still want to make movies. But, honestly, I couldn’t stand the process. It’s collaborative, which I really hate; I hate listening to other people’s opinions of my work!
So I never made movies, but, if you will, I did manage to convert the movies in my head into books. I try to be pretty descriptive, visually speaking, which is why producers in LA have responded to my work. But, really, my books are only half visual: the narrative structure is literary; the stories are hard to tell within the two hour feature film time frame. In Madeleine’s Ghost, for example, there’s the present story, a backstory, a historical section, then you’re back to the present tense. That structure is hard to do in a movie. But it could be done in a streaming television series, over six to eight episodes.
My hope (I’ll be optimistic, briefly) is that the real creative core in the culture these days is in these streaming shows on HBO, Hulu, etc. They can be as vivid as the greatest films and approach the complexity of literature, by which I mean you can develop a character over several episodes. And often, you find the writing on these shows is just fantastic.
Which ones in particular do you admire?
I’m a big fan of Stranger Things. The first season, the era of the mid 80s–they nailed it. Also a fan of Ozark. Also of Chance, based on book by Kem Nunn, and of Goliath, with that dude who was married to Angelina Jolie. I’m a fan, less intense perhaps, of Bosch, based on a best-selling series of cop novels. Also I’m a fan of an old show called Terriers with Donal Logue. Of course, I’ve got a dog in this fight: I also write screenplays. And I’ve written a couple of episodes for network television over the years. That’s the best money a writer can make. Remember Judging Amy? That was a network show. I wrote an episode; a friend was the show runner. It took me about ten days, and I got $60K.
Who are your favorite authors writing today?
Let me think. Salter just died, but he’s a contemporary. And I’m just rereading an author from the 1990s, Susanna Moore. She wrote In the Cut, The Whiteness of Bone, etc. Also Jonathan Franzen. (I have some issues with him, but he’s ambitious.) And I just read a great surfing memoir: Thad Ziolkowski’s On a Wave. Truly moving. He’s a poet and when poets write, look out! It sounds so great. Also Ron Hansen, he’s one of the few Catholic writers left. And Madison Smartt Bell, who I mentioned earlier. And James Elroy.
Do you have a favorite movie?
Having gone to film school, well, don’t get me started. But since you asked: I’m a big fan of The Graduate, there’s one funny movie, cleverly done. And, on another note, Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus. And Sunset Boulevard. And Orson Welles: Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil. A big fan of The Godfather Parts I and II. And Peckinpaugh. I’m thinking of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. What a wild ride! And John Ford’s The Searchers and My Darling Clementine. And did I mention… See, I could go on and on.
How about a fan favorite, Casablanca?
Casablanca–it’s a great film! But that one’s more about the actors who are absolutely fantastic. But visually, it’s uninteresting. I’m a huge fan of Fellini, did I mention that? La Dolce Vita is a great film, one of the greatest.
I saw La Dolce Vita on a big screen in Torino, thanks to my sister in law, who took me to see it while we were there for the Winter Olympics. It was terrific.
Oh yes, particularly in black and white Cinemascope. Which brings to mind The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, there’s another film that looks great on the big screen. Recently, I dragged the kids to see 2001: A Space Odyssey. A new, fiftieth anniversary restored print, amazing to look it. If I may wax filmic: to me, film is about the pictures, the images. When I was at film school, at USC, they used to tell you to turn off the sound on a movie and if it’s a good movie, you should be able to get 80 percent of what’s going on. That’s the difference between literature and film. Film is a visual medium and literature is not.
What is the best advice you’ve received (on writing, or on life generally)?
Well, this goes back a ways: when I went off to college, my then-girlfriend and I broke up and I didn’t like my classes or my roommate or the cafeteria food, so I called my Dad and said I wanted to drop out and come home. Well, he didn’t take this too well: “You will stick it out until the bitter end,” he said. And I did.
So that’s the best advice I can give anyone in life, especially a novelist: the process of writing a novel is punishing, but you have to stick it out until the bitter end. You find yourself saying this piece of ^&*%^$ is ridiculous, it’s really bad, the characters are terrible and worse, it sounds bad. But then you have to say to yourself: I don’t care, maybe it really is crap but I’m going to stick it out until the bitter end. And a miserable year later, the book is done and lo and behold, it’s not so bad after all. And you feel a real sense of having done something worthwhile, and that’s a great reward in this life.
What’s something most people don’t know about you?
I’m something of an amateur mechanic. I work on old British sports cars; it’s my one hobby. I’ve always had at least one, even in the worst of times, financially speaking. Right now I have two Triumphs, both junkers. One runs pretty well but is rusting to death; the other was abandoned. I got it off a tow-truck driver and am trying to get it running. It’s a 1957 TR3. Beautiful car, the one Marcello Mastroiani drives in La Dolce Vita.
What’s the best or the worst thing to have happened to you this week?
I got to talk to you! That’s the best thing, by the way.
Well, that’s a nice compliment! Anything else you’d like to pitch, promote, discuss or criticize?
O.K. my current horror, culturally speaking, is the current focus on that misconceived concept called “cultural appropriation.” These days, in literary circles, they say “stay in your lane.” That is, if you’re black, you write about black people; if you’re white, don’t write about black people, in fact don’t write at all, we’ve heard enough from you. If you’re allowed to write at all, you’re only allowed to write about yourself. Now they have sensitivity readers at publishing houses, particularly for young adult books—I’m not making this up—the tempest is raging particularly hard in young adult publishing, where you’re obliged to have a positive trans character somewhere in your story. And if, God forbid, you’re not black and have a black character in your book who has maybe a personal flaw, the sensitivity reader tells you that you’re racist. And the book doesn’t get published.
To me it’s the job of an artist to imagine a life completely unlike your own. This kind of empathetic imagination is one of the greatest achievements of the literary mind. Flaubert famously wrote of Madame Bovary: “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!” If you take away the literary artist’s right to portray the world as he sees fit, with any character of any race or sex being good or bad as the story dictates, then you are taking away what makes that art work.
Life itself is not PC. There are good and bad people in every walk of life, of every race, every gender. If I wrote a novel now in which I had a horrible villainess, (even that word is un-PC these days, as language is not supposed to be “gendered” anymore) it would not be published. No matter how good or perceptive or beautiful that novel happened to be. If I wrote a book with, for example, a bad Muslim character they’d say, You Islamophobic fool! We’re not publishing this! Furthermore, you’re blackballed from publishing until you spend ten years in a re-education camp! I exaggerate, but not by much. Again, humans are both good and bad. All humans. Of all colors, races, creeds, and whatever.
But don’t you think that, for example, someone who takes a tradition, say design work that is native to an area, traditional in a particular region, virtually unknown other places, and copies it, mass produces it, and makes money off of it, none of which goes to help the community or the culture it came from—doesn’t that sit wrong with you?
No, culture belongs to everyone. Or better, it doesn’t belong to anyone, it just is. Take jazz: that’s cultural appropriation! Jazz is part African-American, it’s part German, it’s part hillbilly. Remember, brass instruments came from Europe. As did pants. Culture is about taking elements from different places and putting it together and making something new.
I don’t think that’s the same thing, though—jazz was something new, it wasn’t taken wholesale from some other place and copied, it was a synthesis of styles.
A lot of what you’re talking about comes from the world of food, of restaurants, and egotistical chefs. But if you’re a restaurant investor and put up a million dollars of your money for a poke restaurant (Hey, that’s Hawaiian! How dare you?) you should rise and fall on the merit of the food you sell, whether you’re Hawaiian or not. Because to me, you’re risking your financial welfare to open that restaurant, you’re second mortgaging your home and putting up that money to open the poke restaurant in Brooklyn Heights, so if it succeeds, you’re allowed to reap the benefits. Look at it this way: I’m half Italian. You’d be hard pressed these days to find an Italian restaurant run by actual Italians, particularly a pizza joint. They’re all run by Arabs, at least in New York.
Actually, I think many New York pizza restaurants are owned by Albanians. But go on.
So this absurd concept from the food world has leached into the making of art. And that’s the death of art. How do we empathize with other people? How do we find common humanity? Through culturally appropriating their shoes to walk a mile in, so to speak.
I have to say I’m a flaming moderate on the issue of cultural appropriation. For things where local culture is taken out of context, or traditional designs are copied (and sometimes even copyrighted), I think of that as akin to plagiarism. But I’m not going to worry about poke restaurants!
Neither am I. I just hope we have not reached the death of valid art or great books for political reasons. That is too reminiscent of Stalinism of Social Realism in which all art must have a political point, take a political stance, not just that, the right political stance, the political stance in favor at the time. When you muzzle the artist, for whatever reason, even the best reason imaginable, that’s what you risk—the death of the art. Honestly, I worry about it.
I hope we haven’t reached the death of art and culture and books, either!
Well, not to end on a down note, but from another angle, I do think that the form of the novel has generally run its course. It was a creation of the bourgeois nineteenth century, of leisure time, of people who had time to read and digest long, long narratives.
But here’s the upside: Telling stories is a basic human impulse. And the novel is just another way of telling a story. Remember, before novels were the dominant form, there was tragic theater and epic poetry and puppet shows. Remember that dude Homer? Don’t get me wrong, I love the novel, heck, I’m a novelist! I think it’s a great achievement, the best way yet invented of telling a complex story. But, alas, maybe it’s done!
Then what’s next?
I don’t know, streaming television? At least it has the ability to take on big themes about what makes us all human beings. The streaming series, as I said, can tell a long story in a complex manner. Like a novel.
Well some of those long nineteenth century novels were written as serials. It’s not that different reading those than binge-watching a series. And maybe you’re not such a curmudgeon after all. You’re a disappointed optimist. You have such an idealistic view of art.
I’ll say it straight: art makes life bearable. And it’s very, very powerful. Remember, Hitler destroyed what he saw as “degenerate art”; he burned mountains of paintings after the infamous Degenerate Art show in 1937. Some of the greatest work of the greatest painters of the twentieth century: Emil Nolde, James Ensor, Gauguin, George Grosz, etc. (I’ve got a story about it in Vaudeville.) Why did he destroy those paintings? Not because they were bad, but because they were powerful and because he disagreed with their world view. His destruction of these paintings was actually a vivid testament to the power of art. You don’t destroy stuff that is powerless. Again, I believe in the power of art.
I may be the first person who ever called you an optimist.
Don’t let that get around! I’ll be run out of town after so many years of kvetching about everything. They’ll revoke my curmudgeon card! And to make matters worse here, I’ll end with Faulkner’s famous line, the one from his Nobel acceptance speech: “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.” He said that during the Cold War when things were looking a little grim, and after exploring a variety of human evils in his famous novels. But I’ll second that thought. Why not?
So maybe there’s hope for us all.
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Portrait of Robert Girardi Courtesy of Robert Girardi; and
- Lead-In Art – Partial Image of Book Cover (“Madeleine’s Ghost) Courtesy of Penguin Random House
Other Q&As by Laura LaVelle
* Alexi Auld, author
* Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director, Historic Districts Council
* Eric Bennett, author
*Lydia Bourne, Rastrello
* Victor Calise, NYC Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities
* Alexander Campos, Executive Director, Center for Book Arts
* Mark Cheever, Friends of Hudson River Park
* Yvonne Chu, Kimera Design
*Claudia Connor, International Institute of Connecticut
* Sarah Cox, Write A House
* Betsy Crapps, founder of Mom Prom
* Cynthia Davis, Our Woven Community
* Margaret Dorsey, anthropologist
* Mamady Doumbouya, Jonathan Halloran, & Robert Hornsby, founders of American Homebuilders of West Africa
* Wendy Dutwin, Limelight Media
* Kinsey Dyckman, Board Member, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum
* Rhonda Eleish & Edie van Breems, interior designers
* Martha Albertson Fineman, law professor
* John Fletcher, photographer
* Christopher Fowler, author
*Guy Fraser-Sampson, author
* Bob Freeman, Committee on Open Government
* Les Friedman, Mikey’s Way Foundation
* Alex Gaudelet, INVEST HOSPITALITY
* Carrie Goldberg, internet privacy and sexual consent attorney
* Dr. Ramis Gheith, pain management physician
* Alex Gruhin, co-founder of Nightcap Riot
* Leslie Green Guilbault, artist, potter
* Garnet Heraman, brand strategist for Karina Dresses, serial entrepreneur
* Bill Harley, children’s entertainer and storyteller
* Meredith Sorin Horsford, Executive Director, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum
* Margaret Pritchard Houston, author and youth worker
* Camilla Huey, artist, designer
* Michelle Jenab, anti-racism activist
* Dr. Brett Jarrell & Dr. Walter Neto, founders of Biovita
* Beth Johnson, Townsend Press editor
* Mahanth Joishy, founder of United States – India Monitor
* Alexandra Kennedy, Executive Director, Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art
* Jim Knable, playwright and musician
* Jonathan Kuhn, Director of Art & Antiquities for NYC Parks Department
* Elizabeth Larison, Director of Programs for apexart
* Ann Lawrence, Co-Founder of Pink51
* Jessica Lee, dancer, Sable Project Administrator
* Najaam Lee, artist and sickle cell advocate
* Devoney Looser, English professor
* Chris Mallin, theorem painting teacher
* Melanie Marks, CT House Histories
* Anthony Monaghan, documentary filmmaker
* Ellie Montazeri, Tunisian towel manufacturer
* Heather-Marie Montilla, Executive Director, Pequot Library
* Lorin Morgan-Richards, author
* Yurika Nakazono, rainwear designer, Terra New York
* Jibrail Nor, drummer
* Nick Page, composer, song leader, conductor
* Craig Pomranz, cabaret singer, children’s book author
* Alice Quinn, Executive Director, Poetry Society of America
* Ryan Ringholz, children’s shoe designer, Plae Shoes
*Carrie Roble, Park Over Plastic / Hudson River Park Trust
* Alanna Rutherford, Board Member, Andrew Glover Youth Program
* Deborah Ryan & Frank Vagnone, Historic House Anarchists
* Steve Sandberg, musician
* Bill Sanderson, author, reporter, and editor
* Lawrence Schwartzwald, photographer
* Rose Servitova, author
* Lisa Shaub, milliner
* Marjorie Silver, law professor
* Peter Sís, writer and illustrator
* Charlotte Smith, blogger, At Charlotte’s House
* Patrick Smith, author and pilot
* Juliet Sorensen, law professor
* Jeffrey Sumber, psychotherapist and author
* Diana Swartz, Liger Leadership Academy
* Rich Tafel, life coach and Swedenborgian minister
*Jonathan Todres, law professor
* Andra Tomsa, creator of SPARE app
* Maggie Topkis, mystery fiction publisher
* Pauline Turley, Irish Arts Center
* Vickie Volpano, Goodwill of Western and Northern Connecticut
* Carol Ward, Executive Director, Morris-Jumel Mansion
* Krissa Watry, Dynepic & iOKids
* Adamu Waziri, creator of children’s television program Bino and Fino
* Ekow Yankah, law professor
* Brigit Young, author