Contemporary Reviews of Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Dracula first edition

(First Edition – Archibald Constable and Company, 1897)

I’ve been perusing and enjoying The Bela Lugosi Blog all afternoon. I just discovered it today and highly recommend it to anyone interested in Bela Lugosi, Dracula, horror films, or film and television in general. 

Here are some reviews written about Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula, when it was first published in the UK in 1897 and in the US in 1899. Fun reading, and interesting.

The Daily Mail, June 1, 1897

Review

It is said of Mrs. Radcliffe that when writing her now almost forgotten romances she shut herself up in absolute seclusion, and fed upon raw beef, in order to give her work the desired atmosphere of gloom, tragedy and terror. If one had no assurance to the contrary one might well suppose that a similar method and regimen had been adopted by Mr. Bram Stoker while writing his new novel “Dracula.” In seeking for a parallel to this weird, powerful, and horrorful story our mind reverts to such tales as “The Mysteries of Udolpho,” “Frankenstein,” “Wuthering Heights,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “Marjery of Quether.” But “Dracula” is even more appalling in its gloomy fascination than any one of these.

We started reading it early in the evening, and followed Jonathan Harker on his mission to the Carpathians with no definite conjecture as to what waited us in the castle of Dracula. When we came to the night journey over the mountain road and were chased by the wolves, which the driver, with apparently miraculous power, repelled by a mere gesture, we began to scent mystery, but we were not perturbed. The first thrill of horrible sensation came with the discovery that the driver and the Count Dracula were one and the same person, that the count was the only human inhabitant of the castle, and that the rats, the bats, the ghosts, and the howling wolves were his familiars.

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The David Roberts Interview

Crawfish of Love Septober Octember

No one knew what to think when we first saw a band called the “Crawfish of Love.” The stage was strewn with surreal artwork, a manikin head, several TV sets turned on to random channels or static, guitar amplifiers, drums, and five musicians that looked like they were conspiring mischief among themselves.

Andy King on bass and Scott Sisson on drums were such a formidable rhythm section that they were, and still are, often sought out to work as side-men for other bands and recording artists. Pat Ogilvie was lead guitarist extraordinaire. I remember after one fiery, tone-perfect, feedback-fueled guitar solo, Dave Roberts proclaimed from the stage, “Pat’s been listening to Blue Cheer!” Pat, too, has been sought by area band leaders who need a professional guitarist. The Crawfish line-up varied from time to time. I remember some impressive acoustic guitar fretwork by Steve Pruett at some of the Applejack’s gigs. I’m told that Michael Pearson played some swirling, spiraling electric guitar at some shows I didn’t get to see.  Brian Barr spiced the music with bongos, chimes, maracas, and other percussion. In his tie-dyed shirts and long blond hair, Brian looked like a surfer bohemian straight from 1967 San Francisco.

David Roberts

David Roberts – late 1980s or early 1990s

David Roberts

David Roberts circa 2012

The band was always evolving and full of surprises. On one hand, they were top-notch musicians. Their musical bag included rock, jazz, reggae, and folk. But they also did weird stuff. How can I describe it? Between covers of Minor Swing by Django Reinhardt or I’ll Sleep When I”m Dead by Warren Zevon, the the Crawfish sprang songs on us about a living inside of a green bell pepper, or the Creature From the Black Lagoon looming toward you on Little Talbot Island, or “singing through bread” with actual slices of bread on stage to sing through. Some people I brought to see their shows didn’t like it. They didn’t get it. Among those of us who liked it, there was no need to explain. And there were a lot of us who loved it. At a Crawfish of Love concert, people from all around who had never met each other could share their taste for, not only good music, but a bizarre experiences. Sometimes they headlined shows, other times they became the back-up band for some big-name performers. We’ll talk more about that later in the following interview I did with the Crawfish of Love band leader David Roberts::::

Bill: I remember you telling me that one of your influences was the “cut-up” writing technique used by William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin.

Dave: What I liked most about the Burroughs Cut Up stuff was the absurdity and nonsense of the word flow. I know Burroughs, Bowles, and the others thought eventually the cut ups lead to profound mystical messages but I never had that experience. I’ve just always been tickled by human voices speaking in normal voice tones saying things that violate all rules of syntax. Actually, more than the Burroughs cut ups I was highly influenced by the speech patterns of schizophrenics, particularly undifferentiated schizophrenics, to which I was exposed during viewing training films and doing my internship to earn my master’s degree in psychological counseling from the University of North Florida in 1978. I interned at the old University Hospital Mental Health unit on 8th street and we saw a daily flow of fresh schizophrenics. They speak in a pattern called “word salad,” which really is almost impossible to ad-lib. I was also influenced by the old party game called “Bloopers” where you would fill in a story full of blank spaces with words you had chosen prior to seeing the story. They came printed on pads and there were several series of them. The pre-chosen words sometimes led to hilarious sentences. This goes way back to the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. I’ve also always been able to hear the taste of food in words since I was about 5 years old. For example, the word “example” tastes like the meat filling from Chef Boyardee’s canned ravioli. The word “work” tastes like oatmeal cookies and coffee to me. The word “tape” tastes like butterscotch. Not all words make me taste tastes in my mind. The word “computer,” for example, doesn’t taste like anything but there is a certain “orange” smell to it. I was thinking these thoughts long before I knew who Burroughs was. But I guess the streak of urban discomfort and darkness in my stuff is most greatly influenced by Burroughs sidekick junkie raconteur Herbert Huncke. His book The Evening Sun Turned Crimson from 1975 is the ultimate account of the underbelly of the beast. Look for that one on E-Bay if you can find it. It’s the book Jim Carroll wished he could’ve written. Huncke led the life Carroll tries to capture in his vanilla trust-funded accounts of addiction.

Bill: Your CD, Septober Octember, seems to mythologize North Florida the way Faulkner did with Mississippi, Tennessee Williams with New Orleans, or Jack London and Robert Service did with the Yukon. It’s also got some very funny moments.

Dave: I wanted the CD to reflect the geography of North Florida more than mythologize the region or it’s people. I wanted the slow syrupy water from the swamp-water runoff mud trail. I wanted the heat from a moonless 2 a.m. August moment staring across Trout River at Jackie’s Seafood. I wanted the decayed horseshoe crab shell placed on my head like a helmet while standing in the dunes at Talbot Island…not up to anything in the dunes…just standing. And yeah, sure, there’s Winn Dixie stuff on it too but it relies on the things one might see out of the corner of your eye around here while looking at something else. Like you’re looking ahead at a carousel in the forest but you find yourself noticing the bandannas lying along the edge of the soccer practice field next to the forest…really more interested in the bandannas than the carousel. Septober Octember is not meant to be a comedy CD at all. It’s meant to help you smell the beauty in the vapor coming from a small pot of macaroni as the ice cold wind blows and mixes the vapor into your nostrils blowing across a highly-polished wood floor in a Riverside apartment. It calls to those times in my life when I could pay attention more to the edge of tape grass on a February swamp bank than to a trailer full of lawn mowers following me constantly draining what’s left of my zeitgeist like little gas-powered Draculas. Septober Octember was my celebration of stuffing and gravy, new green onions in the spring, and the weird Gideon’s Bible Dr. John holds on the cover of his seminal 1969 album, Babylon. Recording it was an absolute joy.

Bill: Didn’t you follow the Grateful Dead on tour one summer?

Dave: No. I have a bunch of friends who did, though. Indeed, I was and to a small degree still am a Dead fan, but no, I couldn’t stand to do something like that. The Dead could be disappointing sometimes in concert, particularly toward the end when Garcia was consumed for the umpteenth time with drugs. I also resented the “rules” of the Deadhead world, a supposed “free thinking” group of folks who have very strict rules for behavior, appearance and comportment. But, to be sure, between the years of 1968 to 1995 I was a major appreciator of the Gratefule Dead’s improvisational excursions on their “space” instrumental passages. I was actually consumed by their music from 1973’s Wake of the Flood album up through the last days of the performing Crawfish. I would go running in those days with 90 minutes of Dead on my Walkman and Crawfish shows started to get very Dead-like due to that subconscious influence. Andy King complained about it back then. I disagreed with him then but now I think he was right. When I listen to Crawfish tapes circa 1988 up to the end in 1998 it does sound too Deadish. It kind of ruined the originality thing we debuted with in 86 and 87, probably the heyday of the Crawfish. I remember you up on stage with us at Applejack’s in 1987 singing Let’s Cook the Dog, which I think was your tune. Those were the early days when I had a clearer vision for the band.

Bill: Dave, you’re a teacher. What’s the deal with algebra? I mean, who uses that stuff except people going into science or engineering? Why can’t it be an elective?

Dave: Algebra requires 3rd-level intellectual thinking because it utilizes the problem-solving areas of your brain. Humans hate algebra for the same reasons that humans hate physical exercise…it’s hard, not fun, requires dedication and actually calls for increased challenge. Also, third level operation increases the likelihood for failure and humans fear failure. But the fact is, utilizing this third level of the brain ( called “application” by the way ) forces the brain to function in ways, problem-solving ways, that “pave the way” for future problem solving, and not just in mathematics. You need experience in third-level cognition in everything from changing a flat tire to performing a delicate surgery. It’s like a mental workout for future needed performance the same way that physical exercise prepares one for future needed performance. Algebra is good.

Bill: Well, fine, then. Now that you put it like that…okay. Let’s get back to music. You guys have managed to play with some legendary performers. Tell me about working with those big-time collaborations.

Dave: By “big-time collaborations” I guess you mean the seven shows the Crawfish of Love did between 1996 and 1998 with three of the San Francisco psychedelic Haight-Ashbury luminaries: Gary Duncan from Quicksilver Messenger Service, David LaFlamme from It’s A Beautiful Day, and Sam Andrew from Big Brother and the Holding Company. They were all wonderful and they were all horrible and every shade in between. The Crawfish burned with such intensity of devotion and discipleship in learning and performing the repertoires of all three bands that I’m afraid it burned us up. I did all the financing and lost a small fortune, so that ultimately is the strongest stamp it all placed upon me. Yeah, it was great to play with those guys on a certain level, but what I went through to do it was enough to cloud over the fun. Now, if someone else was paying for it all I could’ve enjoyed it more. My mood and level of crap I was willing to take steadily disintegrated from the first gig with Duncan up to the point where when Sam Andrew showed up to do his shows with us in 1998 I wanted absolutely none of his shit and before long he and I were not really on speaking terms, although technically the Sam Andrew shows were the best of all. He was real hard to deal with and I was real hard to deal with too. I had had it at that point with egos and temperaments and I could tell people had it with mine. We all felt relief when those gigs were over and it really was the end of the Crawfish. Pat (Ogilvie) didn’t even play the Sam Andrew show anyway and if Pat isn’t there it can’t really be a Crawfish gig to me. At that point, in 1998, we were invited twice a year to play Beth and Randy Judy’s Magnolia Fest and Spring Fest on the Suwannee River and Pat and I decided to scrap the group and play acoustic tunes from our 1973 repertoires. It was a period of great cleansing and refreshment to both of us and we formally stopped playing any gigs except the festivals. We developed quite a little following using the Crawfish of Love name but not doing Crawfish material. We turned our backs on it. We recorded what we felt was as perfect a CD as we could record in Septober Octember. It was just what we wanted. No need to do it again. We also hated playing music in bars late into the morning hours so we just went with the festival gigs. We were invited to play the festival up to 2002 and then we stopped getting invited. So our course had been run and now we exist only on the most special occasions. We did reunite the original band last August at Brenda Walker’s Chinacat Festival and played a set of the original 1987 Applejack’s repertoires. It went over well with the hippies old and young and it was great fun but it was enough to keep me satisfied for a long time.

Bill: Would you ever consider more Crawfish of Love concerts?

Dave: The only gigs I really miss are the Magnoliafest and Suwannee Springfest gigs. I loved playing under those mossy oaks lining the Suwannee River. I would gladly reconvene the Crawfish under any format to play on the Suwannee again. But basically, I dislike playing music in bars late at night hanging around a bunch of drunks and drug users and cheaters and club owners and managers and band members who can’t make it tonight and all the absolute shit that goes with trying to play music on this very low rung in which I abide. To me the biggest names I’ve played with are Scott Sisson, Steve Pruett, Andy King, Pat Ogilvie, and a couple more.

Bill: I need to get a petition started. “Bring the Crawfish back to Magnolia!” Seriously.

Some of his former students from Terry Parker High School with David Roberts (front & center with black shirt)

Some of his former students from Terry Parker High School with David Roberts (front & center with black shirt)

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An Interview with Sohrab Fracis

Sohrab Homi Fracis

This interview first appeared on Literary Kicks, September 8, 2011

“Imagine you have a friend named Rob,” says our instructor at the University of North Florida Writer’s Conference. “If you want to ask your friend a question, you might begin by saying, ‘So, Rob…’ and that is how to pronounce my first name.”

Sohrab Homi Fracis (“Fray-sis”) is the first Asian writer to win the prestigious Iowa Short Fiction Award. He received it in 2001 for his collection of short stories, Ticket to Minto: Stories of India and America, published by University of Iowa Press. He resisted advice from publishers to combine the thematically related stories into a single novel, which they thought would be easier to sell. Fracis believed passionately that the stories stood strong and worked best as they were.

“And I was proven correct,” he says.

India Magazine calls the book, “Stunning in its breadth and scope of language and description … a fresh voice in South Asian fiction,” and adds, “One can grow tired of Rushdie wannabes, mother-in-law stereotypes, and village parodies. Fracis’s writing is brutally honest, exposing sinew and nerves and getting at the heart of the matter.”

Lenore Hart, author of Waterwoman, says Ticket To Minto “evokes the snaky path to adulthood, exposing all those hitchhiking demons at the intersections. From Caulfieldesque schooldays in Bombay, to assimilation amid the seductive consumerism and residual racism of American culture, a powerful, serio-comic look at two worlds, inside and out.”

Sohrab is currently writing a novel called Go Home, which he says he has been pitching to publishers as “Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake meets Kerouac’s On the Road”. An excerpt from the novel, published in Slice Magazine, was nominated for a 2010 Pushcart Prize. Another excerpt appeared in South Asian Review.

Sohrab Homi Fracis was born in Mumbai (then called Bombay), India. He first studied engineering, then computer programming, then became a systems analyst, which brought him to the United States. He went back to school for an M.A. in English and creative writing at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. He taught literature and creative writing at this college from 1993 to 2003, and is now retired from teaching except for his participation as an Instructor for the annual University of North Florida Writers Conference. A few months ago, I went to an open-mic prose and poetry reading at one of Jacksonville’s most popular independent bookstores, Chamblin’s Uptown. At that time, I knew nothing of Sohrab and his awards, but his reading of a selection from Ticket To Minto motivated me to buy the book. I enjoyed every story, and a couple of months later attended the UNF Writer’s Conference.
Sohrab’s Critique Workshop was, for me, the educational highlight of the experience. The man is serious about the craft of writing, somehow amiable and intense at the same time, and reads aloud with an agreeably expressive resonance. One student said, “He reads like Paul McCartney sings.”

I didn’t want to wait another year to ask him questions, so I arranged to interview Sohrab for Literary Kicks.

Bill: The ending of your book’s title story, “Ticket to Minto”, left me unsure as to how I felt about the aggressive actions of the Mintoan students. The uncertainty was a not altogether unpleasant, but rather felt akin to the enthusiasm I felt as a teenager for movie anti-heroes like motorcycle gangs and western gunfighters. Did you intend to elicit this feeling?

Sohrab: I didn’t mean to portray the Mintoans as anti-heroes (though I’m fine with your reading/experiencing/enjoying them that way), so much as almost ridiculously complex men: excessively polite and generous under certain circumstances, but crude and murderously violent under others. As a result, the story’s narrator is ambivalent about them, and in conveying the story through his perceptions, I do intentionally impart that ambivalence to the reader and a strong sense of their complexity. At roughly midpoint of the story, the reminiscing narrator says of the Mintoans, “Something in me has always said that if I could understand them, I could understand myself; if I could understand them, I could understand our country in all its callow bombast and hoary wisdom; if I could understand them, I could understand the world.” He’s getting at that wide-ranging complexity in the central clause, and extending  it to all of us. Underneath our socially constructed veneers, we’re genetically and biochemically complex creatures, capable of a wide range of characteristics in response to the relevant stimuli (short-term and long-term). I used to say to my lit students at University of North Florida: “Show me someone you think is ‘a simple man,’ and I’ll show you that still waters run deep. Show me someone who thinks of himself as a simple man, and I’ll show you someone who’s deluding himself.” That goes for women too, of course; I was just bouncing off the commonly used phrase.

Bill: What are some projects you worked on as a computer programmer?

Sohrab: Let’s see, I first programmed in Bombay, India, for an overseas Swiss project, before Bombay was renamed Mumbai and outsourcing was even a word. Next, I was contracted to HON, a Fortune 100 office-furniture manufacturer in Muscatine, Iowa, which would later become the setting for my story, “The Mark Twain Overlook.” The name of that scenic point overlooking the Mississippi stuck in my head long before I became a writer. Then I was contracted to Ford, in Detroit, coding for the Plymouth
Assembly Plant. That later gave me the settings for a couple of stories in Detroit. And finally, I developed systems here in Jacksonville, Florida, including an online system for the School Board. Soon thereafter, like the aspiring writer in “The Mark Twain Overlook,” I “left the writing of code to go write my own stories.”

Bill: Does India have any fiction genres not found in America, or conversely, are there genres in America that you rarely or never find in India?

Sohrab: Well, there are the ancient Indian epics, in particular the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, but others as well, from an oral storytelling tradition, originally, and transcribed first in Sanskrit, I think. That’s a fiction genre not to be found here (and one that can no longer be created), unless there are American Indian epics (not just the briefer, separate legends) that I’m not aware of. Even if there are, the difference would be that almost every Indian knew those culture-molding stories, so they were common
fiction ground easily referenced in any conversation or story, as in my story “Matters of Balance,” which plays off the Mahabharata. Also, there’s Indian fiction in various indigenous languages: Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Tamil, etc.

In Campion School we read some Hindi stories as well as English, though mostly the latter. I believe that early multilingual experience helped my writing ear. There again, most of America reads and writes in only one language, English. I think experimental fiction, where form takes priority over content, may be a genre as yet unexplored in Indian fiction. But it seems to be a dead or dying genre, now.

Bill: How do you see the role of literature in bridging gaps between different cultures?

Sohrab: It’s hard to tell the degree to which it does that, without a study through surveys, etc. Clearly, it has done so to some degree, and continues to do so, but I think the way it does that has been undergoing a change. Used to be that, wherever we were from, we’d come to know about, say, the Russian or French cultures through reading their respective stories, often in translation, about Russians interacting with other Russians in Russia or the French interacting with other French men and women in France. And they in turn would read stories about us interacting with our fellow Americans or Indians or Englishmen, as the case may be, and they’d learn about our cultures that way. So the literature wasn’t about characters bridging cultures, just about characters immersed in separate cultures. Whereas now, more and more, we have international or global or, as I like to call it, cross-national stories about, say, Jamaicans and Pakistanis interacting with Englishmen in England, as in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. And the multinational characters are themselves in the process of trying to bridge the cultural gaps between one another.

Take that a step further and we have such stories taking place in more than one national setting, even across the continents. I discussed this as visiting writer in residence at Augsburg College, Minneapolis, in a 2004 craft lecture on “Multiple Sense of Place in Contemporary Fiction,” as opposed to the traditional strong single sense of place exhibited by, say, William Faulkner. The more our lives play out globally in this age of globalization, the more our literature will reflect that global setting. So the subtitle of my
collection is “Stories of India and America,” reflecting an alternation between the two countries all the way. The novel I’ve been working on, Go Home, which gets its name from a phrase yelled at foreigners in the aftermath of the Iran hostage crisis, features an Indian character of Persian origin in America searching for his place in the world.

It would be interesting to track the roots of this expansive international literature: colonial literature, such as E. M. Forster’s work, expat writing, such as Hemingway’s, and postcolonial lit, such as V. S. Naipaul’s and Jamaica Kincaid’s, all come to mind. Of course, war stories, inherently cross-national, go back all the way to the ancient epics: Greek, Persian, Indian, Irish, British. But they weren’t exactly bridging cultures.

Bill: How did you receive the “Most Beautiful Books” award?

Sohrab: When my book’s German translation, Fahrschein bis Minto, was released at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2006, it was selected to a list of fifty “Most Beautiful Books” of the year. As far as I know, that was quite literally meant as an award for the artwork and design of the German edition at Mitteldeutscher Press, not anything to do with the book’s content. Funny story, though: the cover design etc. at first had been quite different, more humorous than artistic, to go with a new title they’d envisioned: Minto Hostel.
Apparently, that was meant to ride the wave of popularity of a movie called Hostel. But when I explained to my translator-editor Thomas Loschner at Mitteldeutscher that Ticket to Minto functioned as a metaphor for the reader’s passage to a destination straddling East and West, they went back to the original title and redesigned the cover.

Bill: What was it like reading at the Zoroastrian Association in Houston, Texas? What year was that?

Sohrab: It was a great event! The year was 2003. The ZAH had recently built and opened its lovely new cultural center, and the event was part of an inaugural series. I reunited with old friends, who put me up for the weekend. There was a nice buildup, with a reading at the River Oaks Bookstore the evening before and an interview on an Indian radio show, “Music Masala,” in the morning. As a result, the center’s reading room was packed. I read “Holy Cow,” a story about Parsi characters in Detroit, then fielded some
great questions and signed a bunch of copies. All of that, and I got to see a great new city too.

Bill: You write about tennis players — do you still play? Have you won any tennis championships?

Sohrab: I had to stop playing tennis years ago and turn to table tennis, because of chronic tendonitis in my playing arm. Though I played inter-collegiate tennis briefly in India, it came second to inter-varsity badminton, where I captained my college team. The only tennis tournament I remember winning was the inter-hall tournament at IIT. My sporting accomplishments were modest, all at a college or city level. But I came from a sporting family, as I describe in a piece about my late father, “Flicker Fracis is Alive,” for
FEZANA (Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America) Journal. As I wrote in there, “it enriched my life,” and “my stories would reflect [my father’s] love for sports, a love he passed on to me.” Though only peripheral to a few stories, sport was a rich field to mine for metaphors about the game of life.

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Hettie Jones: Prisons & Poets

Hettie Jones on Prisons and Poets

This article originally appeared on Literary Kicks, May 1, 2008

 In New York’s Greenwich Village, from 1957 to 1963, poets Hettie Jones and her then-husband LeRoi Jones (who later changed his name to Amiri Baraka) published a magazine called Yugen, showcasing poetry and writings by Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Philip Whalen, and others. Hettie also started Totem Press, which published poets such as Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Frank O’Hara, and Edward Dorn. Jones is currently involved with PEN American Center’s Prison Writing Committee and teaches writing at the New School in New York. She also runs a writing workshop at the New York State Correctional Facility for Women at Bedford Hills. The Bedford Hills workshop has published two books of poetry, More In Than Out and Aliens At the Border. I purchased a copy of Aliens at the Border and I agree with Bibi Wein of the PEN American Center when she says, “Each of these women has a unique voice, and the writing is luminous, surprisingly lyrical, tender, and hopeful as a candle in the dark.”

You can enter Shelby’s Coffee House from the Laura street, or through the new Downtown Public Library in Jacksonville, Florida. I arrived early, hoping I could meet Hettie Jones in person before she took the podium. It paid off. Hettie arrived an hour before the event was scheduled to begin, accompanied by a guide from the city. I introduced myself and she invited me to sit at her table while library staff rearranged the chairs and tables to face the microphone.

“This is a beautiful library,” she said. “With a great children’s section.”

When I gave her a brief summary of the revitalization projects of downtown Jacksonville, Hettie’s first question was, “Has anyone been displaced by all the new construction?” I told her I didn’t think so, but didn’t know for sure.

I said I was interested in her prison writing classes, and wanted to if she would be talking about that aspect of her work. Jones said she wasn’t really supposed to talk about anything but the Beats.

“That’s what they brought me here for,” she said.

“Will you take questions from the audience later?” I asked.

“Sure,” she said.

“Well, then, if I raise my hand and ask about Bedford Correctional, they can’t blame you for talking about it.”

“True!” she said.

I apologized for being a pest, but I wanted to talk some more, in case we ran out of time later. Hettie is as cool as anyone I’ve ever met.

“No, it’s quite all right,” she said. “I like talking about the prison workshop. It’s important to me. The thing about teaching in a correctional facility is, you accept people for what they want to become, not what they have done in the past. I got my start in 1988 when I got paid $50.00 to teach a prose workshop in Sing Sing. It went well, but the funding ran out. Soon after that, I got the chance to teach at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women, and I did that for about a dozen years.”

“Is that through PEN?” I asked.

“No, PEN is different. I was elected to PEN in 1984, and because of my involvement with prisons, PEN insisted that I join their Prison Writing committee.”

Aliens at the Border, Edited by Hettie Jones   Doing 70 by Hettie Jones

  By now, most of the chairs were filled and it was time for Hettie Jones to speak to the audience. She gave a brief introduction to the Beats, and spoke about several key players individually, reading a sample of each writer’s work.

“I first met Allen Ginsberg,” said Hettie, “When I was 24 years old. Allen needed to hear the Jewish prayer called the Kaddish, to help with the poem he was writing. He had never learned it. LeRoi brought me over to Allen’s place because I knew the Kaddish. And here you have a good picture of how the Beat movement mixed people from different backgrounds together. Here I was, a Jewish girl disowned by my parents for marrying a black man (LeRoi Jones), chanting the Kaddish to a homosexual poet who would later become a Buddhist!”

Speaking of Kerouac’s spontaneous prose, Hettie explained that Jack didn’t say that writers shouldn’t rewrite or keep journals. The best thought may be the best thought, and you write that thought in a journal, but you still must “Edit, edit, edit. And that is a hard lesson to learn.”

Asked about LeRoi Jones’ relation to the other Beats, Hettie said, “The fact that he was a black man was less important than the fact that he and I were publishing people.”

Someone wanted to know about William S. Burroughs. Hettie said that Burroughs was a loner, didn’t hang out at parties, and was hard to know. “Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, although gay, still had female friends to whom they showed love. Burroughs seemed to have no use for women at all.”

I raised my hand and asked if there were any paid positions for teachers in prisons.

“Nobody wants to pay you to do it,” said Hettie. “You have to raise your own funding. That’s what I did. Prisons are like little fiefdoms. It’s hard to get in the door. Most prisons have an Office of Volunteer Services, and that would be the place to start. If you teach at a university, it’s a good antidote to go teach at a prison for a while. The poetry is as good, sometimes better, than poetry written elsewhere. It’s rewarding. You go in with the attitude of accepting people for what they want to become, not what they have done.”

How I Became Hettie Jones    Hettie Jones detail from book cover

The last questioner asked if their were any writers today that Hettie would compare to the Beats.

“We have one running for President,” she said, to a smattering of applause, referring to Barack Obama.

“We have many good poets today,” Hettie continued, “And a lot of them are not coming from universities. In New York, we have the Bowery Poetry club run by Bob Holman, a dear friend of mine. We have the Internet. We have Hip Hop. We have Def Poetry on television.”

After the event, I had one more question. A friend of mine wanted to know if there was ever a rivalry between Hettie Jones and Diane De Prima. This was a sensitive subject because both women had been involved romantically with LeRoi Jones during the fifties. I got up the nerve to ask.

“You should just tell your friend to read my book, How I Became Hettie Jones,” she said. “I tell all about it in the book.”

 

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Inside the Head of D. Harlan Wilson

D. Harlan Wilson Peckinpah Goatheads

 It is harder than you might think to write good Bizarro fiction. Practically anyone can conjure up a weird scene about people with goat heads or a beard crawling off someone’s face, but few can write about it with the crisply entertaining panache of D. Harlan Wilson. Wilson’s novel, Peckinpah  (2009, Shroud Publishing), is described by the legendary Alan Moore as “a bludgeoning celluloid rush of language and ideas served from an action-painter’s bucket of fluorescent spatter.”

Read reviews of Wilson’s books and you’ll see phrases like Cyberpunk, surrealism, irrealism, wicked humor, believe the hype, rollicking splatter flange, funhouse mirror, unnerving celebrity, clothes-lining tombstones, crazed precision, brain stem, Franz Kafka, guaranteed to never win the Pulitzer, Philip K. Dick, flashing LED sign hat-band, William S. Burroughs, and sci-kung-fi (hyphens mine). I especially like the Peckinpah review by JoSelle Vanderhooft in The Pedestal Magazine:

Wilson’s blood-bucket descriptions and wild imagination together would be enough to make Peckinpah a delightful Bizarro novel, and a pretty good parody of Peckinpah’s style (at least, as I understand it). But Wilson does not stop there; rather, he mixes camera angles, stage directions, and, most astonishingly, digressions into film criticism to make his novella not only a gleeful send-up/homage to Peckinpah’s work, but a thoughtful study of it. In fact, film school graduates (and first year English literature students) will probably note that Wilson has ingeniously woven a lampoon of the infamous “five paragraph essay” into his book, through five chapterlets about the “Theory of Ultraviolence.” At the beginning, these appear to be little more than aimless scene descriptions or puzzling non-sequiturs. But in the fourth theory, he pulls the theories and the entire book together.

Peckinpah: An Ultraviolent Romance

Wilson has a Master’s Degree in English from the University of Massachusetts-Boston, a Masters in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and a Ph.D. in English from Michigan State University. He is a professor of English at Wright State University-Lake Campus.

Cue the interview.

Bill Ectric: I really got a kick out of the video, The Cocktail Party. Can you tell me a little about the making of it, the collaboration between you and Brandon Duncan?

D. Harlan Wilson: The film is based on a story of the same name from my first published collection of short fiction, The Kafka Effekt. I can’t remember how Brandon and I got together. I think my publisher, Raw Dog Screaming Press, hooked us up. Yes. He illustrated the cover for my fiction collection Pseudo-City, a futuristic rendering of Rene Magritte’s Golconde, back in 2004, and thereafter we decided to collaborate on a short film, which he made for his MFA thesis in graphic design. The Cocktail Party had a lot of weird, visually dynamic potential. I wrote the screenplay for it and then Brandon and I did some editorial back and forth. He finally went to work. It took him a year or two, and the end product is a surreal, black-and-white, rotoscoped picture that, in my opinion, far outshines my story. It won a bunch of awards at various film festivals in 2007, among them an official selection at Comic-Con. There are more details at http://www.dharlanwilson.com/films.html. The film is also available on YouTube. Originally Brandon and I planned to collaborate on another film based on a story in Pseudo City, and I wrote a full screenplay, but it never happened. We both got too busy and the project slipped away. Brandon, however, has done a lot of other stuff for me, including illustrated author photos and book cover designs. And right now he’s doing some artwork for the third and final installment in my scikungfi trilogy, The Kyoto Man. A very talented guy. Check him out at www.corporatedemon.com.

Pseudo-City by D. Harlan Wilson    The Kafka Effekt

BE: As an English professor, do you tell students that before they write bizarro or irrealism, they first need to develop a solid foundation in writing basics? Or does it not work that way?

DHW: I actually don’t teach many creative writing courses. There’s only one right now, in fact, where I currently work, “Introduction to Short Fiction” and it’s purely online. Mainly I teach composition and American literature. In the short fiction course, I expose students to some transgressive stories, but I don’t require them to write in that vein. That’s the last thing beginners need to do. I try to give them a taste of everything and then encourage them to focus on the basics, as you say. They have considerable freedom and can more or less do what they want, but I’m concerned with instilling a command of things like description, character and plot, in that order. If nothing else, I want them to recognize the value of SHOWING over TELLING, i.e., using imagery and descriptive passages to propel their narratives, rather than exposition. Baisez-vous, Exposition!

BE: Something of yours was published in Japan recently. How did that happen? Have you been published in any other languages?

DHW: It was one of my stories, “Digging for Adults,” which originally appeared in my fiction collection Stranger on the Loose, published by Eraserhead Press. It came out in Japan in the August 2010 issue of Hayakawa’s Mystery Magazine. The folks at Eraserhead Press set it up. If I’m not mistaken, some of their other authors had been translated into Japanese and they pointed the editors of HMM in my direction. I’ve had stories translated into a few other languages – mostly Dutch, Spanish and Polish – but it was neat to see a Japanese translation of my work. I haven’t had a full book translated into another language yet. In 2012, a Mexican publisher, Verdehalago, will publish a Spanish translation of The Kafka Effekt.

Hayakawas Mystery Magazine

BE: Some of your stories, “The Arrest” and “Chimpanzee,” for example, seem to point out the transient, arbitrary nature of authority. Is that what you had in mind? Would you consider this a Kafkaesque notion?

DHW: Absolutely. I’ve always been interested in the vicissitudes and whimsical tyranny of the Law, à la Kafka. Virtually everything I write is about the misuses and abuses of power. It’s rampant. It’s always been rampant. Even in the most prosaic contexts, the absurdity of power exerts itself. For instance, the other day I was driving down the road past Walgreens, an American drug store. In the parking lot, tethered between two lampposts, was a giant banner that read: SHINGLES VACCINE AVAILABLE HERE. The fact that there’s a banner like that waving in everybody’s face indicates that there’s some sort of shingles outbreak or epidemic, right? So maybe I have shingles. So maybe I have to get a vaccine. So maybe I should go into that Walgreens and pay to get well . . . The Law. It’s ubiquitous and rears its head in all kinds of ways. It’s not just about G-men showing up at your door to inform you that you’re on some shit list. I guess I’s human nature, and that’s why I’m preoccupied with it. We want to maintain a sense of control and yet we want to be controlled, by words, by images, by bosses, by bureaucratic assholes, by whatever. For me, the human condition is endless abyss of dumb absurdities waiting to me mined.

BE: Do you now, or have you ever, used the Gysin/Burroughs cut-up method in your writing?

DHW: Not formally. That is, I’ve never vomited words onto a page, folded the page over and attempted to connect the dots, etc. I was inspired by Burroughs when I began writing. Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, etc. I had never read anything like that. The style of his writing appealed to me more than the content. Still, he functioned as a kind of gateway drug for me, introducing me to new possibilities and modalities of narrative invention. Like the cut-ups, my stories and novels employ significant fragmentation and alinearity and often function like cinema, in some cases even adapting the jargon of cinematic movement and spectacle. But as I get older I much prefer Burroughs’ later works (e.g. Cities of the Red Night), which exhibit such a crisp, fluid and rich use of language. When I go back to those formative cut-ups, all I see are artful renderings of sex acts.

BE: Have you ever read an old obscure text and been amazed at how it relates to a subject are interested in? Especially if you’ve only recently turned your attention to the subject?

DHW: Maybe, a long time ago. I used to be so enamored with literature, and I remember being in awe of virtually every book I read, new or old. That doesn’t happen much anymore. With a few exceptions, I’m hardly ever piqued by something I read. It’s all the same shit, the same formulas and/or artifices. I’m talking about fiction. Philosophy and literary theory still holds my attention. But I’m more interested in cinema and far likelier to be rapt by a film than a book. There’s more innovation and dynamism in cinema. Most books are just hundreds of plodding, empty pages punctuated by a few interesting passages. Bile.

DrIdentity   Kyoto Man

BE: Why do you think so many satirists, from Voltaire to Steve Aylett to you, use humor to such a degree, even in the midst of depicting the grievous condition of the human race?

DHW: Humor has less to do with the material than the author’s personal taste and desires. Humor can be tricky, too, because it’s so subjective, and there are so many different kinds, and it can be found anywhere, even in the most dramatic contexts. I think The Lovely Bones is hilarious, for instance. The film, I mean (I didn’t read the book). The premise is so fucking dumb, yet it’s treated so gravely from beginning to end. That’s high comedy, in my eyes. Anything with Marky Mark in it is funny, too. Of course, lots of other people disagree. As for combining humor with, say, dystopia, as in my novel Dr. Identity or Steve’s Novahead (among others), it’s a matter of pushing the limits of narrative and doing new, interesting, entertaining things. Steve and I both have a penchant for slapstick (viz., splatterschtick) comedy as well as a love of language, wordplay and world-building. We have different styles and means of execution, but I think the same key interests lie at the core of our author-flows.

BE: What is your favorite Sam Peckinpah film?

DHW: (answers without hesitation) Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.

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Interview With Steve Aylett

AylettFlash-386x283

This interview first appeared on Literary Kicks, May 26, 2006

Postmodern novelist Steve Aylett was born in 1967 in the Bromley Borough of London, England. His first book, The Crime Studio, was published in 1994, and his later works include Bigot Hall, Slaughtermatic and his most recent tour de force, Lint. Aylett’s work has been variously described as cyberpunk, slipstream, postmodern, bizarro, or, in the words of Grant Morrison: “The Matrix choreographed by Samuel Beckett for MTV.”

Steve Aylett’s new Lint is to literature what Spinal Tap is to heavy metal music: a brilliant send-up of anecdotal, cult-of-personality biographies. The parody swings freely between the sci-fi genre, the Beats, and classic pulp magazines. We follow a comix legend named Jeff Lint, who lived in the age when “dozens of new magazines appeared, with titles like Astounding, Bewildering, Confusing, Baffling…Useless…Appalling, Made-Up … Thrilling Wonder Stories, and Swell Punch-Ups” and editors would order up “an octopus, a spaceman, and a screaming woman” for the cover of a typical issue.

Lint Cover Snowbooks     Slaughtermatic book cover

I like to call Aylett’s work a combination of science fiction, satire, and psychedelia. His sentences are not only sublimely expressive; they are beautiful in and of themselves. It’s like opening a pop-up book to see gemstones and charms strung together on bracelet chains, rising to display the black noir onyx, the blood-red ruby, the diamond center of the mind, the flaming gold-leaf giraffe trinket of surrealism.

Karloff’s Circus (book 4 of The Complete Accomplice) lights up the town of Accomplice with an anarchic assortment of demons, clowns, factory workers, zombies, politicians, and giant Steinway spiders. The action seems absurd until one realizes that the real world is no less freakish. Even today, we have people kept alive in hospitals against all laws of nature, connected to machines by tubes. We see self-mutilation in the form of extreme piercing and grotesquely overdone plastic surgery. Our children are sent to war by incompetent politicians. Well, you get the idea. Once we establish that our world is crazy, it makes no difference whether Aylett is using surrealism to parody reality, or if he is writing a straightforward story about paranormal creatures in a parallel universe.

Aylett cites Voltaire as an influence, and the influence shows. “Organised religion added Jesus to the food groups,” he tells us, or “Pause any country and you’ll spot subliminal torture in the frame.”

Jacque Derrida maintained that all words have varying shades of meaning to each reader; therefore, every reader brings a certain amount of the story with them to a book. Maybe that is why I like Steve Aylett’s prose so much — he gives us plenty of raw material to process.

I asked the author some questions by email:

Bill Ectric: It seems like you establish patterns of phrasing that are independent of the plot but that the reader can “pick up” on while reading.

Steve Aylett: Yes, there are several threads of sense going through it at different depths. I think the mind picks up which bits link in to which other bits. Some’s almost a subliminal sort of thing going on, and then at the simplest level there’s the running gags or repetitions like the “Snail, Sarge” conversation, which is just so stupid I really like it. And if you don’t like all that there’s always the story to fall back on.

BE: Even though Lint is a parody, I find that you throw in some semi-profound ideas. Like, commands materializing from thin air where someone’s mouth happens to be. The opposite of cause and effect.

SA: The parody thing was secondary to the meanings I was putting in there. I enjoy parody and stupid stuff, but more often than not I’ll use it as a housing for old-time satire, politics and bitter axe-grinding. That thing about authority was about the fact that authority is actually quite arbitrary, and doesn’t manifest any inherent quality. Traced to its root it’s the result of luck, happenstance, crime and the sustaining of a set-up over many years as people hold on to power. It has no moral weight that stands up to a moment’s scrutiny, and is enforced by the threat of violence. Reduced to its constituent atoms authority doesn’t really mean anything. It’s all just people.

BE: When you refer to Karloff Velocet as the “Fall Marshall” is this a reference to the idea of the “fall of man?”

SA: As far as I can recall this was mainly from The Fall’s album The Marshall Suite — and he is marshaling the various falls and collapses in the circus. His circus is all about entropy.

Aylett Karloff
Click here for more Accomplice trading cards

 

BE: Which is better — for countries to worry continuously about other countries’ ability to build nuclear bombs, or the “stalemate effect” of each country already having nuclear bombs?

SA: As long as America has the ‘preemptive’ policy of attacking non-nuclear countries without provocation, it’s probably better that other countries have nuclear weapons also, as a deterrent to the U.S. (which doesn’t like an even fight) — but in any case there will be a nuclear catastrophe at some point, either through psychotic panic or a technical error. It’s inevitable.

BE: Did you ever hang out with the Krays?

SA: No, I never met the Krays, but I knew their lawyer, and Ronnie liked The Crime Studio.

BE: Now I’m sort of freaked out because I’m not sure if you are serious. The Crime Studio was published in 1994, Ronnie lived until 1996 … are you serious?

SA: Yeah. Actually, Ron liked it so much he wrote a story of his own, which he got to me via a mutual acquaintance. Unfortunately, it was crap. I think I’d got the book to him because the small publisher that did The Crime Studio originally wanted a quote from a ‘name’ of some kind, and I didn’t know anyone in the literary world back then. Unfortunate things used to happen to people when I sent them books for cover quotes. I sent the re-print of The Crime Studio to William Burroughs and he died a week later; I sent Bigot Hall to Stephen Fry and he went insane — temporarily.

Victims of the Aylett  CurseVictims of the Aylett Curse: The Krays, William S. Burroughs, and Stephen Fry

BE: Uncanny! Speaking of insane, did you do the artwork for The Caterer? It is so classic.

SA: It all started out as samples from a lot of 1970s comics — that blonde grinning jock appears throughout those comics. Then I flipped them, changed colors, changed expressions and body positions etc, blended them into different backgrounds and with different characters, muted the colors down again, then added dialogue. Often I was doing so much re-drawing I was virtually drawing the character from scratch, by the end.

The Caterer comic book    The Complete Accomplice book cover

BE: Near the end of Karloff’s Circus we read, “On the bluff behind them an angel landed, fragile as a feather made of bones. Under a sky deep as grief it closed its silent white wings.”
Is Mike Abblatia the angel? And, at the beginning of the book, when Mike Abblatia jumps off the bridge, is everything that happens in the rest of the book happening in the instant that Mike falls?

SA: No, the book doesn’t occur in Mike Abblatia’s mind/dreams or whatever — it happens, after he jumps. Regarding the mystery angel at the end, I wanted to make the suggestion that it might be Barney.

BE: On some level, Bigot Hall made me think of Kerouac’s Doctor Sax, even though they aren’t all that similar. Did you ever read Doctor Sax?

SA: Yes, I’ve read Doctor Sax. Used to be a big Kerouac fan. That one was different from his others of course, being sort of cinematic and constructed.

BE: You write a lot about other dimensions; did you ever read Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott?

SA: I have read Flatland, though I still believe he cribbed it from Charles H. Hinton, author of The Fourth Dimension (who I mention often in my books).

A Plane World by Charles H Hinton    Heart

BE: If they made a Lint movie, who should portray Lint as an old man — Patrick McGoohan or Christopher Lee?

SA: McGoohan is more grouchy, so I’d go for him.

BE: I knew it! That would be my pick as well. So, do the English really say variations of “isn’t it” all the time? For example, in reply to my last question, you might say, “Well, Lint is American, isn’t he?”

SA: English people say isn’t, aint, aren’t, innit, wot, and other things.

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A Philosophical Conversation With James Morrow

James Morrow

Originally appeared on Literary Kicks, May 5, 2008

As teenagers, James Morrow and his friends made short 8mm movies based on Coleridge and Poe stories. Morrow went on to earn a master’s degree from Harvard University, then published his first novel, The Wine of Violence, in 1981. His latest, The Philosopher’s Apprentice, prompted the Library Journal to compare Morrow to enlightenment luminary Denis Diderot, “A man who believed that literature and philosophy marched hand in hand and who was not afraid to discuss serious matters in a comic tone.”

For his numerous books written between 1981 and 2008, Morrow has received the World Fantasy Award (twice), the Nebula Award (twice), the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (once), and the 2005 Prix Utopia at the Utopiales SF Festival in Nantes, France.

Morrow and I discussed his latest two novels. The Last Witchfinder concerns a brave 18th century woman who teams up with Ben Franklin to discredit her zealous father’s persecution of witches. The Philosopher’s Apprentice is the fantastical tale of a graduate student hired to teach morality to a teenage girl with a blank slate for a conscience.

Bill: You once said it took eight years to develop The Last Witchfinder. When you are writing a book, do you ever worry that someone else will have a similar idea and “beat you to the punch”? Is there a battle between taking your time to get it right vs. getting it published before someone else does steals your thunder, like Tesla vs. Marconi?

James: For me, the greatest pleasure of novel-writing is living inside the same fictive world for several years running, playing with its possibilities. The composition process normally finds me drawing inspiration from the cultural mood of the moment, though by the time the book actually sees print that same cultural mood will have shifted. I can easily imagine some posthumous biographer noting that James Morrow always managed to be slightly out of phase with the zeitgeist.

My satire on the Reagan-era arms race, This Is the Way the World Ends, followed in the wake of a half-dozen Armageddon novels. That’s probably one reason my publisher released the novel with no particular fanfare. I like to think my treatment of nuclear war was unique, but Henry Holt never figured out how to make booksellers understand what set This Is the Way the World Ends apart from Riddley Walker or The Postman or Warday. Had the manuscript landed on my editor’s desk a year earlier, it would almost certainly have generated more in-house excitement.

A similar fate befell The Last Witchfinder, which features an unusual fictive take on Benjamin Franklin. While I was writing that novel, the country in general and Philadelphia in particular were gearing up for a Franklin tricentennial — he was born in 1706 — and I had high hopes that these celebrations would offer me some promotional opportunities. Alas, by the time the book appeared, late in 2006, Philadelphia had been “Ben Franklined out,” or so my publicist was told by an impresario who’d spent the past two and a half years organizing Franklin festivities throughout the city.

Presently I’m writing an historical novel about Charles Darwin, who’s been in the news lately. I’m thinking of both the landmark “intelligent design” court case in Dover, Pennsylvania, and the Darwin exhibit that’s been traveling around among the major natural history museums. Once again, I’ll probably miss the critical period for capitalizing on the media attention being accorded my chosen subject. The Darwin brouhaha will peak early next year, in honor of his 200th birthday, and yet my novel won’t be ready until 2010.

Of course, any serious novel is intended to live outside its time, and the writer who rushes to capitalize on the zeitgeist is probably committing artistic suicide. For whatever reasons, This Is the Way the World Ends remains in print, and it’s still taught in several college classes, to students who weren’t even alive when Reagan was rattling his nuclear saber, so in a sense I’m having the last laugh. And I believe that both The Last Witchfinder and the Darwin novel (tentatively titled Galapagos Regained) touch on universal themes, so in theory they’ll attract future generations of readers who won’t especially care how popular these books were when first published.

Bill: You mentioned on your blog that The Philosopher’s Apprentice is, among other things, your homage to Frankenstein, both Mary Shelley’s original novel and the various movies from Universal Studios and Hammer Films. Which of the Hammer Frankenstein films is your favorite and why?

James: When I read your question, Bill, my answer was immediate and instinctual — and yet I’m prepared to defend it. The Revenge of Frankenstein is not as scary as The Curse of Frankenstein, as cleverly plotted as Frankenstein Created Woman, or as emotionally wrenching as Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, and yet it has a cadaverous elegance not found elsewhere in the cycle. Director Terence Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster suffused The Revenge of Frankenstein with a graphic sense of the unhallowed Nietzschean bravado, at once diabolical and darkly glamorous, through which the medical profession established itself in the Regency and Victorian periods. This is a wholly subjective reaction, of course, doubtless informed by the fact that I first saw The Revenge of Frankenstein when I was only thirteen, an age when horror movies are especially resonant.

Bill: In his book The Art of the Novel Milan Kundera speaks of “the truth that is to be discovered,” by which he means that, beyond a writer’s conscious realization of their novel’s theme, there is also, as Kundera says, “The poem hidden somewhere behind.” Kundera calls this discovering of truth in one’s own novel “the dazzlement.” Do you experience this dazzlement when you write a book? That is, of discovering a theme or a variation on your intended theme, which you didn’t anticipate?

James: I regard most of my novels as “thought experiments,” analogous to the Gedanken calculations –unstageable demonstrations conducted entirely within the confines of one’s skull — routinely performed by physicists, cosmologists, and philosophers. It’s never enough simply to ask “What if?” You must actually run the thought experiment. You need to write the damn book. And that usually entails being surprised by the outcome.

No matter how carefully I outline a novel, it will normally get away from me during the composition process — and that is all to the good. If there’s “dazzlement” in the writer, then there will probably be “dazzlement” in the reader. Indeed, the only reason I go to all the trouble of writing fiction is the expectation of discovering some hidden but astonishing potential in the themes and premises with which I’m experimenting.

One of my favorite James Morrow novels, Blameless in Abaddon, finds the hero, Martin Candle, trekking though the brain of a comatose Supreme Being in search of counter-arguments to the great theodicies, a theodicy being a rational explanation for God’s apparent indifference to human suffering. Martin needs these anti-theodicies so he can successfully prosecute the Almighty before the World Court in the Hague. Strangely enough, God proves perfectly willing to make the case for his own depravity. And as I was writing those scenes, I said to myself, “Of course, wow, damn, yes, that’s exactly what a Supreme Being would do. This is God, after all, not some cleric or politician or demagogue. God’s not out to defend his reputation. God’s out to be God.”

The Last Witchfinder involved a similar moment of dazzlement during its gestation. When I outlined the plot, I knew that my heroine, Jennet Stearne, would write a book that effectively critiques “the demon hypothesis.” But I didn’t realize that, to advertise her argument, Jennet would end up posing as a witch and arranging to be put on trial for Satanism in colonial Philadelphia. I was delighted when I stumbled on that idea, because it elevated Jennet to truly heroic stature.

Kundera has evidently articulated all this better than I could. Thank you, Bill, for drawing my attention to his insight.

Bill: We can both thank Jamelah Earle for hipping us to Kundera’s book on novel writing.

Besides the 8mm movies you made in high school, you also made some 16mm films as a young adult. Could you tell me about those films?

James: Most of these films were sponsored efforts celebrating the Philadelphia Cooperative Schools Summer Program, which ran for four successive summers between 1966 and 1969. The idea was to bring together adolescents and pre-adolescents from the public, private, and parochial schools — students, in other words, whose formal educations had heretofore allowed them to interact only with people from similar backgrounds. Nobody was claiming that the racial, economic, and religious diversity of the PCSSP students would prove enlightening per se, but the program’s directors did believe that if you led such a heterogeneous group through a carefully structured humanistic curriculum, they would learn as much from each other as from the formal lessons. I would describe the movies as poetic documentaries that attempted to show how the students grew in self-knowledge over the course of each summer. You’ll find vestiges of my PCSSP experience in The Philosopher’s Apprentice.

But I also made my own independent films during and after this period. The one that springs to mind is a comedy called A Political Cartoon, which I produced with two of my best friends from high school, Joe Adamson and Dave Stone. I suppose this 16mm short foreshadows some of the more outrageous social satire found in This Is the Way the World Ends and The Philosopher’s Apprentice, though it’s a much gentler, less sardonic endeavor than those novels. A Political Cartoon combines live action with animation to tell the story of Peter President, a cartoon character who gets elected to the highest office in the land. It was ultimately released on a VHS anthology from Kino on Video called Cartoongate!, and it’s easily available via various dealers at Amazon.com. By the way, both Joe Adamson and Dave Stone went on to success in Hollywood. Joe won an Emmy for his PBS documentary called W.C. Fields Straight Up, and Dave received an Oscar for cutting the sound on Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula.

Bill: Do you think The Philosopher’s Apprentice fits into the “cyberpunk” category? Do any of your other books fit into the cyberpunk category?

James: I must confess to a certain ambivalence toward cyberpunk. On the one hand, the movement was certainly a breath of … not fresh air, exactly — gritty air, I guess. Gibson, Sterling, Shirley, Cadigan, and company recognized that, for most citizens on planet Earth, the future was not going to be a gleaming utopia of domed arcadias linked by hyper-efficient monorail systems, nor would it be characterized by off-the-shelf jackbooted dystopia. Something else lay in store for us, something urban, grungy, corporate, computer-driven, world-weary, hardbitten, and alluringly noirish. The cyperpunk vision was a real breakthrough, and I salute it.

That said, I have always been much more in the romantic-rationalist camp. It’s difficult to find much affirmation in cyberpunk. I felt that the movement contained the seeds of its own enervation — a kind of unearned cynicism verging on adolescent whining. Nihilism, I find, is often sentimentality by other means. Of course, I’m as vulnerable as anyone to the glamour of the abyss. Several critics have argued that my second novel, The Continent of Lies, features some Gibsonesque conceits, most especially in its use of what we would now call virtual reality. As for The Philosopher’s Apprentice, while it indeed contains some hi-tech cyberpunkian imagery — the ontogenerator is the most conspicuous example — I would say that its sensibility is ultimately humanistic.

Bill: In The Last Witchfinder, when Jennet finds herself surrounded by bottles displaying embryos with birth defects, in the wagon of Dr. Cavendish, it made me think of being down among the unfortunate “unblessed” people, those who would tell the Church, “We are human, too.” It reminded me of the story of when the Buddha left his safe kingdom of his father and walked among the common people. It also reminded me of the bottled people in The Bride of Frankenstein, although I know it’s not the same idea.

James: I’ve always been wary of Christ figures in fiction — it’s too damn easy to create parallels between your protagonist and the hero of the Gospels. Much as I love John Irving’s work, I really thought he dropped the ball with A Prayer for Owen Meany. Beginning with that inversely symbolic name (get it?), in the very first chapter, that damn kid jumps in your lap like a puppy, licks your face, and says, “I’m so eccentric, I’m so vivid, I’m so wise, I’m so pure, I’m so Jesus-like, love me, love me, love me,” and it never lets up, for 543 pages. I much prefer The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules, two edgy masterpieces that never try to sell us on the presumed transcendent truth of the Christian argument. These are strange words, I know, coming from a man who would write a novel like Only Begotten Daughter, which at one level is a sequel to the New Testament. My only defense is that I had some dark, sardonic, passionate, and satiric things to say about the ministry of Jesus, and I could dramatize these ideas only through a kind of low-key allegory. As for The Last Witchfinder, I swear to God, I never thought of Jennet Stearne as a Christ figure until well after the first draft was written. But I think you’re on to something, Bill. My heroine’s fascination with Barnaby Cavendish’s Museum of Wondrous Prodigies, her embrace of those poor bottled freaks – those unblessed people, as you say – does indeed suggest Jesus comforting the damned and the downtrodden. I’m also realizing, for the first time, that Jennet’s love for the deformed embryos parallels a scene in which Julie Katz, protagonist of Only Begotten Daughter, journeys to hell and helps her half-bother, Jesus, give the gift of oblivion to damned souls. I love James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein, so I imagine that Dr. Pretorius’s bottled homunculi may have influenced Barnaby Cavendish’s museum, though I wasn’t conscious of this parallel at the time. It just now occurs to me that the Last Witchfinder embryos foreshadow the immaculoids – the “adult fetuses” in Philosopher’s Apprentice. I guess a novelist is always stealing from himself.

Bill: That mangrove tree still haunts me! For those who haven’t read The Philosopher’s Apprentice, here’s an excerpt from the book about a tree named Proserpine:

 Just then a mild tremor passed through the mangrove’s limbs and roots. Edwina and I exchanged freighted glances.

“You didn’t imagine that,” she said. “I couldn’t excise the entire nervous system without causing death. Every so often, Prosperine shudders.” Curious, I rose and picked my way across the salt water pond, one stepping-stone at a time, then leaned toward the mangrove’s trunk. “She’s breathing,” I said. “Her heart is beating.”

“Vestigial reflexes,” Edwina said. “She’s no longer sentient, I promise you.”

Later, when Edwina encourages the young philosophy student to intervene in her amnesiac daughter’s moral development, the mangrove shudders again, exposed roots vibrating “like the plucked strings of an immense lyre.” Fascinating and chilling. Was the mangrove mainly a mood-setter, or a metaphor for something? Forbidden fruit? Still sentient? Maybe a foreshadowing device? Or just an interesting and creepy addition to the story?

James: You’ve done a great job of articulating every notion that ran through my head when I was drafting the Proserpine scenes. So great, in fact, that I feel no need to answer your questions beyond offering a succession of yeses, and inviting our readers to revisit what you just wrote.

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