Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Elif Batuman on "The Possessed"

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Newark Star-Ledger
March 7, 2010

In her delightful debut nonfiction book, “The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $15 paperback), writer Elif Batuman explores the eccentrics, the obsessives and the romantics like herself who study the dark works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Pushkin.

In 2001, Batuman was a recent college grad struggling to finish a novel. A broken arm and several other occurrences led her to enter a doctoral program in comparative literature at Stanford University, where Batuman became immersed in the melancholy world of Russian studies. Mixing hilarious personal stories with astute observations on the world of academia, Batuman chronicles a California symposium on the murdered writer Isaac Babel, whose elderly daughters are fighting tooth and nail; a conference at Tolsoy’s farm in Russia filled with professors and lunatics; and a trip to an ice palace in St. Petersburg. Batuman recounts the comic summer she spent in Uzbekistan, as well as the psychodrama of graduate students at Stanford acting out the tortured love stories in Dostoevsky’s “The Possessed.”

Batuman, 32, was raised in New Jersey. She earned her doctorate in comparative literature at Stanford, where she teaches. She spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from her home in San Francisco.

Q. Could you tell us what draws people into studying Russian language and literature?
A. By the time I got to college, the Cold War was basically over. Even for my generation, the appeal was that Russia was the only place in the world that was exactly like America, but everything was opposite and everything was secret. The difficulty of the language attracts ambitious people, but also people who are attracted to things that will always be hard and challenge them.

As for the literature, the darkness and depressing nature is a big part of it. I grew up in Florham Park and Summit. In high school, my friends and I were always phenomenally depressed, even though we weren’t Russian. There was something about “The Three Sisters,” where the sisters were trapped: “Oh, someday, I am going to go to Moscow.” (In that Chekov play,) there was something very familiar to me about growing up in the suburbs. It was a very strange place, where nothing was accessible. New York was very close, but it was also somewhere else.

Q. You won a grant to study the Uzbek language in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, but found out the language wouldn’t help your academic career. You were told if you rejected the grant, you would never get another one, so you and your soon-to-be ex-boyfriend went to Uzbekistan for a summer. Why?

A. There is a Henry James line, “You should never regret a generous error.” That has been a policy of mine. When in doubt, it is better to do the less conservative thing and to err on the side of the more colorful, possibly terrible mistake. That comes from thinking of yourself as a writer.

Even if I have a completely horrible time, I will have some material I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

The mid-20s is also such a bad time in your life. You will probably be depressed and miserable anyway. If you are in a breakup, you might as well go all the way and spend the summer in Samarkand, with no air-conditioning, learning a language you have no use for. At least it adds some romance to a depressing situation.

Q. Led by a charismatic Croatian grad student, you and a small group studied Dostoevsky’s “The Possessed” and accidentally mimicked the unhealthy love triangles in the book. What happened?

A. We were all very young, but we were all graduate students and used to analyzing and overanalyzing everything. The creepy quality was how we all played out our roles, even though they were potentially very damaging, and even though we knew better and knew what was happening.


Friday, April 22, 2016

Wesley Stace's Bedside Reading

Wesley Stace Bedside

Recording under the name John Wesley Harding, English singer/songwriter Wesley Stace has fifteen pop and folk  albums under his belt. His debut novel, Misfortune, the story of a 19th century boy orphan raised as a girl, has just been published to critical acclaim. Stace, 39, spoke to freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Q. What books are you reading now?

I am not always reading a lot of contemporary fiction. One of my favorite book and the book to read now is Hadrian VII. It’s by Baron Corvo, whose real name was Frederick Rolf. It’s in a nice, new paperback edition by New York Review Books. “Hadrian” is an important book right now. Rolf was an eccentric English Catholic, who was thrown out of the Catholic Church. The book is about his fantasy of being chosen as pope. At the beginning of the novel, he’s sitting in his living room, saying how annoyed he is with the world. He goes to Rome and is picked as pope by some strange turn of events. It is a great book to read right now because of the pope’s death, and it has some of the most purple prose of any book ever written.

Another writer I love is Patrick Hamilton. He wrote the movies “Rope” and "Gaslight.” He is a fantastic novelist. It turns out that nobody reads him now, but he has one great novel, “Hangover Sqaure,” about a schizophrenic. I am reading his trilogy, which is called “Twenty-Thousand Streets Under the Sky.” His world is a world of thwarted dreams in the 1920s and ‘30s. His writing is phenomenally good.


There is a modern novel I’ve really been enjoying called “How to Be Lost,” by Amanda Eyre Ward. It is a funny and moving book of a family haunted by the kidnapping, disappearance of one of three sisters. I think it is a terrific novel.

Tom Bissell on his short-story collection "God Lives in St. Petersburg"

(Originally published in the Denver Post)

Desperate Times in Central Asia

By Dylan Foley

“The worst feeling is when you are robbed by a cop,” says the writer Tom Bissell of his experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan in 1996. “It would usually start with a negotiation on how big the fine was. Once a cop reached into my wallet, grabbed a big wad of the local currency and said, ‘This is your fine.’”

The chaos, insanity and crime of post-Soviet Central Asia infuses Bissell's vivid debut story collection, “God Lives in St. Petersburg” (Pantheon, $20). The book is full of tales of isolated Americans acting badly from Kyrgyzstan to Afghanistan. In a sense, the stories are a twisted, gallows-humor version of Mark Twain’s “Innocents Abroad.” Culture clashes are a given, and for some characters like the callow war photographer and an unfaithful and depressed missionary, events turn deadly.

Bissell’s own experience in the Peace Corps was a disaster. “I had a nervous collapse,” he says from his Lower Manhattan apartment where an observer can see a sliver of Ground Zero. "At the time, quitting the program after seven months was humiliating and mortifying, but I am really glad that I got things out of the way. Failing at something when you didn’t expect to early in life is pretty helpful, as is seeing a part of the world that is filled with suffering, just plain flat-out suffering.”

The 31-year-old Bissell, a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine and writer for McSweeney’s, eventually went back to Central Asia, and wrote the 2003 travel book “Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia,” which chronicled his visit to the Aral Sea, the most polluted body of water in the world, a toxic gift from the old Soviet Union.

It was Central Asia that also formed Bissell’s fiction. “I wrote four novels in the past 12 years,” he says. “I didn’t really feel that I was saying anything different than any number of writers. It wasn’t until I came back in 1996 that I started writing these stories. I felt like I was writing stories that I hadn’t read.”

Isolation and loneliness are the primary themes. “That was one of the mainline of emotion that these stories hit, that sense of feeling totally alone in a place that doesn’t feel all that welcoming all the time,” says Bissell.

In each story, Bissell uses small fragments of his own autobiography. “The Afghanistan story was based on my brief, miserable career as a war correspondent,” he says. “I was sent there by a magazine that never published my piece.  I wanted to create a memorable character, a short, kind of fat lothario who has lucked into a plum war correspondent thing and is untouched by it.

“Just about every story has some screaming neon autobiographical detail, like the story with the guy who’s wearing a Green Lantern t-shirt,”says Bissell, pointing to his own chest. Bissell’s shirt du jour is an Aquaman t-shirt.

Bissell puts in the searing dance of a couple breaking up at the zoo, not pulling punches at himself. “That story is as nakedly autobiographical as you can get,” he admits, where the woman ending the affair draws the man close and pushes him away in the same sentence. “There is a choreography to breaking up. That story captures it, at least how I experienced it. The guy is kind of a jerk. I wanted to write about a side of me that is kind of unpleasant.”

Countries like Uzbekistan are full of American Christian missionaries. Though banned by the local governments, they try to convert Muslims and atheists. “I met a lot of missionaries in Central Asia,” he says. “I got the idea of writing about the missionary experience, but also about the question of religion and sexuality.

Central Asia turns American missionaries on their heads. “For a missionary, you grow up in your suburban Atlanta community or in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and your church is the center of your life,” says Bissell, who hails from Michigan. “Suddenly, you go to a part of the world where there are no Christians. You think, ‘This doesn’t make sense. There are millions of people, and none of them are Christians.’

“Traveling, at least for me, was a process of learning that reality is not in English, that truth is not American, and that Christianity is not the emotional and religious atmosphere that exists everywhere. For someone whose whole life is based on adherence to a certain series of articles of faith, to go to a place where they are entirely in absence is mind-blowing and hard to deal with.”

Bissell’s missionary characters comes from his own infatuations. “I have an obsession with religion,” he confesses. “I was a Catholic. One of the novels I tried to write was about the 12 apostles. I have an intense religious infatuation with religious arcana, and an interest in fanaticism. I am one of those people who when a Jehovah’s Witness comes to the door, I invite them in.”

The most compelling story in the book is “God Lives in St. Petersburg,” which won the Pushcart Prize a few years ago. The story starts as a farce about a gay missionary grappling with his sexual desires. It quickly turn into a dark tale, when a desperate ethnic Russian woman offers her 14-year-old daughter to the missionary, to get the girl out of the country where she has no future. The mother offers up the title of the story in a bitter rant about being an ethnic Russian in godless Central Asia.

“It is probably the most ambivalent thing that I have ever written,” says Bissell. The chilling ending leaves much room for interpretation. "I wanted that ambiguity and ambivalence in the ending. A lot of people, including  my family, want to know where the hell that story came from.”

The roots of the story come in a desperate circumstances of Central Asia and Bissell’s own trauma as a Peace Corps volunteer. “I had a friend who was offered a 15-year-old girl by her mother,” says Bissell. “It was so stunning. Also, I had a little girl named Susanna that I was teaching in Uzbekistan. She was 13 or 14, a very sweet little girl. Obviously, there was no romantic attachment, but she had these big tears in her eyes when I told her I was leaving. I was haunted by leaving her behind.

 “There were two forces of desperation,” Bissell notes. “One is the desperation of people to escape bad conditions, and the other is the Westerner’s inability to deal with all these valid needs. These two experiences, the profound failure and the sense of what I would be getting into if I tried to help people, really stayed with me. What is helping someone? Missionaries are great until they actually start making converts.”

Dylan Foley is a book critic in Brooklyn, N.Y.


Porn-Star Picture Book: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders on the Adult Film Atcors in XXX

(Published in the Newark Star-Ledger in September 2004)

XXX: 30 Porn-Star Portraits by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (Bullfinch, $35)

With porn star Jenna Jameson’s memoir tearing up the bestseller lists and adult film actors packing the Howard Stern Show, the American porn industry has reached new heights in mainstream culture.

Now porn has achieved more legitimacy with its own high-end photography book, with famed portrait  photographer and filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ having just published “XXX: 30 Porn-Star Portraits.” Greenfield-Sanders, known for shooting Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, Lou Reed and Madeline Albright, has photographed adult stars like Jameson, Nina Hartley and Peter North, both clothed and in full-frontal nudity. The poses range from heroic to proud, confrontational to tired. The photos are backed by controversial and witty essays by Gore Vidal, Salman Rushdie and performance artist Karen Finley, and other writers. Greenfield-Sanders’ “XXX” project explodes this month with a Chelsea gallery show of the photos,  an HBO documentary he directed called “Thinking XXX,” a CD of music from the film, and a DVD.

Greenfield-Sanders, 52, spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley on the line between art and pornography.

Q. How did you get interested in shooting porn stars?

A. It all started with “Boogie Nights” in 1997. Porn stars struck me as a group that would be fascinating to photograph. I did nothing about it until 1999. A friend called and said, “I met a porn star. Can I bring him over?” I’d rather not say who he was. He didn’t end up in the book. He posed for me clothed, then said, “Okay, let’s do the nude one.” I was really taken aback. I said “Gee, sure, let us do the same pose.” In my mind I was thinking of the famous Goya paintings (of the same woman naked and clothed). The pictures were amazing. They were revealing on so many levels, because of the nudity and the way you looked at someone clothed, how the body posture changed and how comfortable he was nude.

Q. How did “XXX” turn into a book with essays?

A. I didn’t pick up the project again until (“Deep Throat” star) Linda Lovelace died in 2002. That spurred me on. I’d ask writer friends about it, and they’d say “I’ll write something for it!” John Malkovich, who is a friend of mine, said he’d write something. Then Gore Vidal came on board, which helped bring the level up to get other great people.

Q. Did you know much about porn when you started?

A. No. At the beginning, I knew who Nina Hartley was, and maybe Tera Patrick. That was about it, but one name leads to another. I was trying to balance it ethnically, as well as young and old stars, for that was more interesting. You could do a book with 100 blondes with big breasts. That would probably be a bigger seller. But that’s a different book.

Q. In your photos, Nina Hartley looks very proud, Reina Leone looks confrontational, and Peter North looks tired. What were you looking for?

A. I am always looking to make the person look how he or she sees him or herself. I hope I achieved this. You also try to get a sense of who the person is. When you meet a porn star, there is a certain proudness there. Reina Leone might have been posed the way she is because she was holding up her gigantic breasts. I’d shoot the clothed photo as they were when they came off the street, without make up. Jesse Jane literally looks like the girl next door. The nude shots were more glamorized.

You get the best picture by putting people at ease. For me, it was difficult at first, because they were naked and I wasn’t used to that. As a photographer, you have to get over it.  I had to learn the language like, “You look fabulous” and “Your breasts are great.”

Q. What is the difference between shooting Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison and porn star Jenna Jameson?

It is very different. The people in this project are very comfortable with the camera. That is not the case with writers. It was harder to do Donna Tartt, Madeline Albright and Jack Welch.

Q. With nude photography, what is the line between art and pornography?

A. There is an old joke with two punchlines...What is the difference between art and pornography? Focus and lighting. I don’t really have an answer. What I do is art. These are portraits of clothed and nude people. So much about porn is objectifying the performers.
This book humanizes these people.

Q.  How does “XXX” fit in your career path?

A. It is still all about portraiture. My first book “Art World” was about all the people I’d shot during 20 years in the New York art world. It was artists, critics and collectors. The next book was a monograph on celebrities, politicians, actors and writers. If you look at the work, who are the people I photograph? They are very accomplished, driven people, and many of them are celebrities. Porn stars fit right into that. They are the best at what they do, which is screwing on film.  And they are fascinating. I came to this with very cliched conceptions about who porn stars were. I came out of it with a very different understanding. Many of them are very smart and use porn in different ways to make something of themselves.