Sunday, December 11, 2011

Art critic Robert Hughes on His Personal History of 'Rome'

Newark Star-Ledger
Sunday, November 13, 2011, 7:10 AM
In 1959, the Australian art critic Robert Hughes was a 21-year-old student on his first visit to Rome. The city blew him away, from the Spanish Steps to the Coliseum, where gladiators fought each other to death 2,000 years ago.
Fifty-two years later, Hughes has written “Rome: A Cultural, Visual and Personal History” (Knopf, 500 pp., $35), in which he gives readers a fluid look at the Eternal City — from the founding myth of Romulus and Remus to the bloodthirsty Roman Empire, the medieval period, the Renaissance and present-day Rome. In Hughes’ intensely intimate view of the city, he delights in Julius Caesar being the biggest slave trafficker in Rome and the church murals of saints being tortured to death. Hughes muses on the relic hysteria of the Middle Ages, when every church had to have a drop of Jesus’ blood and the foot of a saint, and Michelangelo’s brutal journey to finishing the Sistine Chapel.
The 73-year-old Hughes was Time Magazine’s art critic from 1970 to 2001. He spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from his home in Manhattan.
Q. Imperial Rome was incredibly filthy, with garbage and excrement piled up on the street, as well as dead horses. How did the residents dispose of their chamber pots?
A. They would throw the coarse terra cotta pots out the window. There was a law saying that if you brained a passer-by with a night urn, you’d have to pay for their medical fees and lost work time.
Q. Santo Stefano Rotondo is a church famous for its murals showing how ancient saints were sliced, diced and broiled on their way to martyrdom. How did these murals affect you?
A. Being a once-practicing Catholic and suddenly being immersed in this Roman iconography, this stuff was very upfront, showing the hopes and fears of the church. They were much more vehement than the Catholic representations that I knew in Australia.
The murals were meant to be gory, to provoke pity and terror. I’ve thought of it as a Sistine Chapel for sentimental sadists. There is flogging, drowning and even cooking saints in boiling oil, like a Trastevere artichoke. Santo Stefano isn’t one of my favorite churches because I never really liked the art.
Q. If you were taking a nephew to Rome for the first time, what would you insist that he see?
A. I’d insist that any nephew should come with me to the important Baroque monuments. I’d definitely start him off with Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s 17th century masterworks, including the Barcaccia Fountain and the Cornaro Chapel. Rome is truly a Berninian city, par excellence. What Bernini is attempting to do is to ramp you up into a state of wonder, saying, “If this can’t do it, nothing can.”
Q. Can you tell me about the physical and emotional toll that the painting of the Sistine Chapel had on the great artist Michelangelo?
A. He wrote a poem where he said, “I’ve grown a goiter at this drudgery.” Michelangelo experienced fatigue, frustration and inspiration while painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Q. At the end of the book, you go on a rant, comparing the Rome you first saw in 1959 to the Rome of 2011. Now, the museums and churches are swamped with tourists. How can you view art in Rome now?
A. Well, the historical sites are almost inaccessible, but by going repeatedly to them, you can have meaningful visits. The only way you can really appreciate a work of art is in relative silence. I don’t mean there should be an enforced silence, but the artwork should have an opportunity to talk directly to you. You can get this only by going to the same sites multiple times.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Mark Vonnegut on Coping with Mental Illness

In 1971, Mark Vonnegut published his memoir “Eden Express,” a blistering account of his three mental breakdowns in the late 1960s, set against the backdrop of social unrest and hippie communes. The son of Kurt Vonnegut, America’s great cynical novelist, Mark Vonnegut recovered and became a beloved doctor outside of Boston.

Four decades later, Dr. Vonnegut has published “Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So”(Delacorte, $24), a memoir dealing with his bipolar disorder diagnosis, his work and his turbulent relationship with his famous father, who would matter-of-factly mention to his children that he might kill himself. In the 1980s, Vonnegut had his last mental breakdown and found himself restrained in the same Massachusetts hospital were he taught medicine. Vonnegut’s account of his recovery, his family and maintaining his mental health is a humane look at his own situation, as well as the patients he treats with compassion.

Vonnegut, 63, is a practicing pediatrician, and spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from his home in Milton, Mass.

Q. After four decades of swearing off another book, why did you write this one?

A. I wrote the introduction to my father’s book of essays “Armageddon in Retrospect” and liked it. I realized, “I can write pretty well.” My wife and friends have been telling me for years that I should write another book.

Q. How do you compare your experience with a crewcut Harvard psychiatrist in the late 1960s and managed care today?

A. When my psychiatrist and I were in charge of my care, each appointment cost $100. He didn’t have to verify my insurance. There was not a quality-improvement criteria like there is now. He did not have to assign a diagnosis. I am faced with this in my own practice. My true diagnosis for a kid may be “School is not his thing.” I can’t say that. It has to be “attention-deficit disorder with or without hyperactivity.” I cannot get paid unless I give him a diagnosis.

Q. How did your medical colleagues handle your fourth breakdown in the 1980s?

A. There were several sessions between my nervous partners and my psychiatrist. My partners would take me out to lunch, then for grand rounds at the hospital, making sure I was okay.
Q. How does society handle mental illness now, compared to when “Eden Express” came out?

A. It is still stigmatizing. People who can pass for normal do. The thing that is different now, and that will help us deal with mental illness better, is the fact that the mentally ill are no longer warehoused. We now have a day-to-day awareness that mental illness exists.

Q. How was it growing up with Kurt Vonnegut as your father?

A. It was both inspiring and terrifying to have him around, to have him talking to himself, banging on the typewriter and sometimes swearing. He was a big guy, 200 lbs. and six-foot-three inches, who could sometimes be very nice and sometimes be furious because he couldn’t write.

There was a point when I was 15 or 16 that I realized that my father wanted me to be a loner. I decided, “It’s okay to be an introvert, but I don’t want to be a loner. I want a few other people in my life.”

I came across these photos of my father as a teenager. He was smiling boy, always with his arm around a girl. I’ve come to see him as a sweet nice kid who went to war. He was beaten by Nazi guards, he almost starved to death. In Dresden, he pulled dead bodies out of bomb shelters. I think he had post-traumatic stress disorder. It was after the war that he became able to write with depth. It became easy to forgive him, but also he’s not around to pick on anymore.

Please check out my interview with Charles Shields' on his fascinating and tortured portrait of Kurt Vonnegut:

Friday, November 25, 2011

Chang-Rae Lee Skewers American Overconsumption in "Aloft"



 I dedicate this interview to "Black Friday" and the fistfights at Target and Walmart. As a nation, we are swimming in junk.

The Denver Post
March 28, 2004 By Dylan Foley

Chang-rae Lee may be the patron saint of literary novelists who write about emotionally shut-down men. In his acclaimed 1995 debut novel, "Native Speaker," Lee created a Korean-American corporate spy struggling with his ethnic identity and his place in the world. In "A Gesture Life," Lee explored an elderly man trying to forget the war crimes of his youth.

In his third novel, "Aloft," Lee follows Jerry Battle, a semiretired Italian-American landscaping contractor living on Long Island. On the surface, Jerry has everything he needs, from his material wealth to the plane that he uses to fly above the suburbs that are his home. But the cracks quickly show in his facade, with his inability to communicate with all the people he loves - his elderly father, his two adult children and his ex-girlfriend Rita.

"People have asked me about this," chuckled Lee as he discussed his emotionally blocked narrators in his publisher's office in New York City. "I feel it is dramatic the way people like Jerry Battle or Henry Park (of "Native Speaker") go through the world, always mitigated by their inability to express themselves. For me, there is something absolutely dramatic about someone who wants to feel and does, but somehow can't do the things that allows himself to communicate."

As the novel progresses, Jerry is faced with several crises, from the financial ruin of his son, Jack, to the potentially fatal medical condition of his daughter, Theresa. Underlying the present worries is the memory of the tragic drowning of Jerry's Korean wife, Daisy, 20 years before. In "Aloft," Lee has crafted a beautiful novel that is both tragic and humorous, examining a modern family in suburban America.

"Part of Jerry's problem is he's quite self-absorbed," said Lee. "It is his extreme lazy-heartedness. His heart is there, it's beating and he wants to feel vital, but everything has to come to him. He can't initiate the action. Somehow life has to shake him. He needs an intensity, a sharpness."

At 38, Lee is aging gracefully from his role as literary wunderkind, who, at age 29, wrote the mature, finely crafted "Native Speaker," into a respectable academic. He wore a tweed jacket and wool slacks to the interview. He teaches creative writing at Princeton University, where colleagues include novelists Toni Morrison, Edmund White and Joyce Carol Oates. He lives in Princeton, N.J., with his wife and two daughters.

As "Aloft" evolves, it becomes a modern version of Turgenev's "Fathers and Sons." Three generations of the Battle men can't relate. Jerry's father, Hank, looks down on Jerry because he didn't work as hard as he could in the family business. And Jerry was never enough of a role model for his son, Jack.

Lee made Jerry a man on the cusp of 60 for specific reasons. "Many of my friends' parents are Jerry's age, around 60," he said. "In the society we live in, it is the new middle age. They are thinking about retiring, but they have so many choices. They have enough health to pursue second lives."

Today's 60-year-olds are wedged between elderly parents and immature adult children. "They have grown kids who aren't as grown as the previous generation," said Lee. "Because of medical advances, they have elderly parents who are ailing. It seemed to me that this is the time of life for a guy like Jerry Battle, where everything should be coming together, but he has never had more responsibility. Everyone is pulling and prodding him. In terms of a figure in our culture, that is a guy I haven't heard about yet."

For Jerry, flying is a great means of escaping intimacy. "His hobby of flying was the perfect activity for him," said Lee, "both metaphorically and literally. It spoke so neatly to how he wanted to be in the world, but outside of it, too."

Lee was born in Korea and raised in the Westchester suburbs. He decided, however, to set the book in America's first suburbs of Long Island, the ultimate destination for working-class strivers from overcrowded New York City.

"They are the classic suburbs, engineered and planned that way," Lee said. "They are based on privacy and cloistered neighborhoods, so that there is not the kind of commonality, interaction or any of those things we associate with communities. The lots are big enough in that upper-middle-class way that you don't see your neighbors. That's the site of the American dream, as a postwar dream."

It may have been the isolation of the suburbs that helped destabilize Daisy, Jerry's dead wife.

"The suburbs are the worst place if you are an isolated immigrant," Lee said. "The suburbs give no comfort to people who aren't comfortable with themselves. There's no place to meet people. With Daisy, for me her tragedy is not her mental illness or her ethnicity, it is her isolation. That isolation is shared by a lot of women in the suburbs. Women who didn't grow up in the suburbs but who live there have a lot of problems."

Through Jerry's monologues, Lee explores how the overconsumption of the American suburbs has infiltrated all of American society. His son Jack's 6,500-square-foot house makes for a prime target.

"People are making as much money as they can and getting as much space as they can so they can shut everyone else out," he said. "In Jack's house, he has a kitchenette in the master bedroom because it is too far to walk downstairs. Our tastes are getting overrefined. There is a breakdown to the limits of what we own, find comfortable and necessary. Each generation is more invested in 'stuff.'

"If I have any grand idea about this book that is not spoken yet, it is that the suburban life is now our life," he explained. "It is even in the city. If you walk down Fifth Avenue (in New York City), it is just a big outdoor mall."

Despite the gloomy predictions, both novelist and interviewer found themselves laughing uproariously about $1,800 faucets for the home and how all classes seem to crave granite kitchens. "We are starting to reach a point of saturation, where individual consciousness is defined by Nike and bottled water," Lee said.

(ALOFT By Chang-rae Lee, Riverhead, 352 pages, $24.95)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Q&A: Dave Isay on "Listening is an Act of Love"

Newark Star-Ledger
December 2007

14,000 Voices as Historical Record

In 2003, radio producer Dave Isay and a group of six people set up StoryCorps, a nonprofit with the lofty goal of recording the life histories of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of ordinary Americans. A radio booth was built and opened in Grand Central Terminal in New York City. The premise was simple: two people would go into the booth with a facilitator, and one person would interview the other for 40 minutes. The interviewee would be given a CD of the interview, and another copy would be archived at the Library of Congress.

Isay and his crew have struck audio gold. In the four years the project has been in existence, booths at Grand Central and Ground Zero, as well as a two mobile recording booths, have captured 14,000 interviews from people around the country. The booths have captured survivors from the World Trade Center attacks, veterans of the civil rights movement, children of the Depression, homeless people, cancer patients and many more.

In his new book, Listening Is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps (Penguin Press, $25), Isay has edited and presented 50 interviews of great magnitude and grace. From an American veteran who cannot let go of the ghost of a 14-year-old Hitler Youth soldier he killed in Europe in combat to a young man expressing the love he feels for his grandmother who saved him from horrible child abuse, the stories are vivid and riveting. They cover love, death, forgiveness, hope and other aspects of the human condition. From a father accepting the loss of his 10-year-old son to an alcoholic desperately trying to stay clean and a depressed missionary in Los Angeles accepting kindness from a street prostitute, the stories form a history of America as it is now.

Isay, 41, was raised in New York City and educated at New York University. By his early thirties, Isay had become one of America’s most prominent radio documentarians, from his shows “Ghetto Life 101” to “The Sunshine Hotel,” which chronicled one of the last Bowery flophouses. He is the author of “Our America” and “Flophouse” and is married to the investigative reporter Jennifer Gonnerman. Isay spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley at the StoryCorps offices in Brooklyn.

Q. What inspired the StoryCorps project?

A. I’ve been a radio documentary producer for about 20 years. StoryCorps came out of that work. I did a documentary 15 years ago with these two kids in the projects of Chicago. I gave them tape recorders and had them record their daily lives. It became “Ghetto Life 101,” which was the first nationally broadcast citizen-recorded documentary. The microphone gave LeAlan and Lloyd the license to ask people the questions they’d never asked before. In many ways, “Ghetto Life 101” was the beginning of StoryCorps.

Documentaries have traditionally been about creating this work of art or this educational piece that benefits a lot of people in its playing or broadcast. StoryCorps turns this on its head. It is really about changing people’s lives by giving them a chance to participate. We live in this culture where we are surrounded by so many computer screens and Blackberries. StoryCorps is about turning off the screens and looking each other in the eyes. This project is really about taking time out to remember what is important in life, that the stories of the people around us, our families and friends, the people on the subway near us, are valuable and important. It tells people that they matter. These stories make me want to get up in the morning, and remind me how precious it is to be alive.

With “Flophouse,” I’ll never forget the experience of bringing the galley of the book into the flophouse, and one of the guys started dancing through the halls, shouting “I exist, I exist.”

Q. You have set StoryCorps up as a self-perpetuating, money-losing organization. How?

A. StoryCorps is a crazy idea. Each interview cost $250 to make. We give it to you for $10. If you have no money, you get it for free. We lose $240 an hour in every booth We give new meaning to the word nonprofit. We have 14,000 interviews now. There will be many more than that. We are trying to turn this into an American institution and a social movement. For us, StoryCorps is about the experience of the booth, about two people who care about each other, to look somebody in the eye and to tell them you love them by listening. The mission of StoryCorps is to honor and celebrate people’s lives by listening

Q. Did you have any difficulties in the first several years?

A. When we launched the project, it was a very simple idea, but it didn’t fit into any foundation’s (grant-giving) guidelines. Nobody had tried to do anything like this before. When we got about three months into the project, we were within several weeks of running out of money, laying everyone off and closing the project down. At the same time, it was extraordinarily successful. I could see it was working. I’m like a junkyard dog. There was no way I was going to let this thing die. A couple of individual donors stepped up and gave us enough money to get back on our feet, so I could find some foundations to support us. The first 18 months were rough.

There is no fat at StoryCorps. We are trying to build a foundation on which we can grow into a national institution. Everybody who participates in StoryCorps becomes a StoryCorps alumni. We have roughly 30,000 alumni. This organization started with seven people and a budget of $500,000. Four years later, we are now 80 people and have a budget of $6 million. When we have millions of alumni, we hope that there will be some donations ot sustain us, to see to our mission, which is to make StoryCorps accessible to everyone. I’ve done some obscure projects, but this book is all about StoryCorps getting a foothold in mainstream society. I have my fingers crossed.

Q. How did you choose and edit down the 50 stories?

A. A couple of thousand stories were transcribed. What I’ve always tried to do as a radio producer was to be the vehicle through which people tell the story, their stories the way they want them told. It’s about taking something and shaping it, honing it so it becomes the essence of what people are saying in the booth, and the poetry of what people are talking about.

Q. Have you had any “Jerry Springer” moments in the booth?

A. We haven’t, knock on wood. It’s almost like there has been a protective glow around the project. Anything can go wrong, but nothing has with 14,000 interviews. That’s because we take it seriously and the participants take it seriously. People travel hundreds of miles to go to the StoryCorps booths. It takes courage. With the 9-11 stories, we see firefighters who have not been to therapy telling their stories. It is not self-indulgent. They see it as leaving their story for posterity, for future generations. This idea of many voices painting the picture of what we are becoming as a nation, this important historical record, is enough to force some people into the booth.

Rat Watching in Lower Manhattan with Robert Sullivan

The Denver Post

May 16, 2004

By Dylan Foley

Be still," whispered author Bob Sullivan, as he stopped suddenly like a wilderness scout in a garbage-filled alley in New York City. "Can you hear the rustling?"

The sound was like the wind in the trees and it was coming from a massive pile of trash bags. All of a sudden, a rat jumped out and ran along the curb, across the alley and into an abandoned lot. The bags were alive with rats. "You can tell that the rat hole is in that lot," Sullivan said triumphantly.

Sullivan is obsessed with rats. Starting in 2001, he spent a year hanging out in a trash-filled alley in lower Manhattan, watching a colony of rats feed and mate. Along the way, Sullivan explored the history of America's most despised residents, the exterminators that try to kill them and the symbolism of the vermin.

The resulting book, "Rats: Observations on the History and Habitats of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants," quickly moves beyond one group of rats, examining what rats represent to humans in terms of fear and loathing. Sullivan has developed an engrossing, eclectic work by writing a quirky homage to Henry David Thoreau's "Walden" and the nature writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Sullivan digs deep into his rat alley and finds out that Eden and Ryders alleys, an ancient L-shaped passageway near Wall Street, may have been the site of the first battle of the American Revolution. He crosses the country in search of the Elvis of rat control. Sullivan holds rats up as a mirror species: They live with us and they eat our garbage. What can we learn about ourselves by looking at them?

In a freak sleet storm a week before spring started, Sullivan took a writer to Theater Alley,not far from ground zero and the open pit that once was the World Trade Center. The goal was to watch the rats feed.

Sullivan's last book had been about a Native American whale hunt in Washington state. "When I did 'A Whale Hunt,' everybody was talking about how great whales are," said the 41-year-old writer. "What is the opposite of a whale? That's rats. This is a creature that is truly abhorred by man.

"You look at rats, which are so hated by us, but the only reason they are here is because of us. The term used by biologists is commensal, which means 'eats at the same table,"' said Sullivan. "The indicator of wildness is a grizzly bear, which needs 100 miles to roam on its own. The indicator of city and man, of intense human population, is the rat. They are also in the suburbs. They are everywhere there are people."

Steam billowed up through sewer grates as the rats carried off bits of office workers' breakfast muffins from the garbage. "Rats symbolize all the dark things," said Sullivan. "To me, rats are about fear. People are afraid of them.

"Supposedly, I am a nature writer, so I was trying to write something that was not nature, not 'natural,"' he said. "I wanted to see if I could switch the greatest nature writers, Emerson and Thoreau, to writing about rats. The great thing about Thoreau is that everybody thinks that he is going into the woods to commune with nature. He was also going into the woods to figure out how to live in society."

Sullivan got night goggles and a stool, and several nights a week, he watched his rats. He tried to trap them and failed. He met with exterminators. He investigated a company that makes giant inflatable rats used by striking unions at demonstrations. He communed with the rats from dusk to dawn.

"Understanding how an alley works takes time," said Sullivan, giving pointers on rat watching. "The rats get food from here," he said, gesturing to the garbage. "Their nest is over there," he added, pointing to the abandoned lot. "Anyone can become a rat expert if they take the time. The hard part was getting to know the context of the alley, the history."

Sullivan, however, is no stranger to offbeat nonfiction. He is the author of "The Meadowlands," a chronicle of New Jersey's most famous swamp, and went from mob body dumping grounds to burning garbage piles. During the writing of "A Whale Hunt," he lived in a steel shack during the winter, reading Melville's "Moby-Dick" as his only entertainment.

In his new book, Sullivan goes on glorious rat tangents, from anti-Chinese plague hysteria in San Francisco to Harlem rent strikes where rats were used as political weapons. "Tangents are everything," said Sullivan. "You walk into a rat alley and you say to yourself, 'What am I doing here? Where am I going?' I was hoping to see a tangent. The way rats run is kind of like a tangent. They scatter. If you put your foot down, they go all over the place."

After three years watching rats and traveling the country to study the people who try to destroy them, Sullivan came away with a healthy respect for rats. "It's always fun to see them again," he said. "They do a great job at being rats. They know how to survive. Everybody wants to get rid of them, but they stay. Don't get me wrong, but there is a little bit of elegance in how they have slipped themselves into this vile niche."

As the sleet pelted him in the garbage-strewn alley, Sullivan waxed poetic. "When rats run, their tails don't seem to touch the ground," he said. "There is a beauty to that."

Eric Schlosser's "Reefer Madness"

The Denver Post

June 22, 2003

By Dylan Foley

In 2000, Eric Schlosser's book "Fast Food Nation," an exposé of the unhealthy practices and filthy working conditions in the fast food business and the meatpacking world, was published to great acclaim. Schlosser documented the fat-saturated foods that Americans eat and the dangerous, low-wage conditions that workers in those industries toil under.

Now Schlosser has turned his formidable investigative journalism skills to examine three American black markets - pornography, marijuana and illegal labor. The new book, "Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market," is an articulate, often gripping exposé of these three areas.

The three essays in the book showcase three sides of Schlosser's writing. There is the activist/policy journalism in the title essay, "Reefer Madness," that examines the barbaric drug war against the cultivation and sale of marijuana, where nonviolent drug offenders can be given sentences of 20 years to life, and murderers are set free to make room for them in our nation's prisons.

The second part of the book, "In the Strawberry Fields," is about the harsh conditions in the California strawberry fields. Schlosser examines the innocuous basket of strawberries and reveals the blood and physical agony that goes into each pint of fruit from illegal Mexican laborers.

The third essay, "An Empire of the Obscene," shows Schlosser's abilities to build a long, engrossing profile, recording the epic, 40-year career of Reuben Sturman, as he developed his pornography empire. Sturman was a colorless businessman who popularized the peep show and successfully fought obscenity charges for decades, but was brought down by a dogged Internal Revenue agent for his aversion to paying taxes.

The "Reefer Madness" piece has its roots in a brilliant 1994 article that Schlosser wrote for The Atlantic Monthly, which followed the case of Mark Young, who was involved in a major marijuana drug case in Indiana. Young only introduced the main conspirators, but he received a life sentence, while the major defendants, because they turned state's evidence, received much lighter sentences.

The drug laws vary wildly from state to state. In New York, possession of an ounce of marijuana can lead to a $100 fine. In Louisiana, it can mean a 20-year sentence. Then there is the comedy of America's anti-drug critics. Congressman Dan Burton from Indiana had pushed for legislation mandating the death penalty for drug dealers. When his son was arrested for transporting 8 pounds of marijuana, however, he received house arrest and community service, not death.

Schlosser keeps a tight, cohesive argument on the drug laws. He is able to present an articulate case for decriminalization. "A society that can punish a marijuana offender more severely than a murderer is caught in the grip of a deep psychosis," writes Schlosser. "It has a bad case of reefer madness."

Schlosser flexes his investigative muscles in "In the Strawberry Fields," showing that sharecropping is alive and well in the California strawberry business. Major agribusinesses routinely exploit Mexican laborers. Strawberry pickers are offered the chance to become farmers, and are immediately placed in debt to the large strawberry growers. The small farmers do the backbreaking labor while constantly facing bankruptcy.

In his long piece on the pornography industry, Schlosser details the history of economic sex over the past 40 years. He documents how the morality campaigns against pornography have failed. He focuses on the Meese Commission, set up by Ronald Reagan's attorney general, Edwin Meese, which used fraudulent claims to try to prove a link between pornography and violence.

Meanwhile, Sturman was making money hand over fist. As the government tried to get him, American consumption of pornography rose drastically. In 1985, 79 million hardcore videos were rented. In 2001, the number of porno rentals was 759 million, and the pornography industry was estimated to be worth $8 billion to $10 billion a year. Mainstream media conglomerates such as AOL Time Warner have a stake in the porno business, and big hotel chains such as Marriott show dirty movies in their rooms.

The motivation to buy pornography, according to Schlosser always has remained the same. "Largely fueled by loneliness and frustration, the sex industry," he writes, "has never suffered from a shortage of customers."

One of the failings of "Reefer Madness" as a book is that Schlosser tries to present it as a thorough analysis of the American underground economy. He basically takes three very different, very strong magazine pieces that started in Rolling Stone and The Atlantic and presents them as an investigation of the black market. The three pieces are very powerful and worth reading, but are not a comprehensive view of the American underground markets.

With "Fast Food Nation" and now "Reefer Madness," Schlosser has established himself as one of the best investigative reporters in America. Whether he is dealing with horribly abused illegal alien workers or people trampled by the drug laws, he handled his subjects with wit and compassion. Schlosser gets to the heart of his subjects.

(REEFER MADNESS: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market By Eric Schlosser, Houghton Mifflin, 304 pages, $23)

Donna Tartt on Her Exquisite Second Novel "The Little Friend"

The Denver Post

December 22, 2002

By Dylan Foley 

In 1992, Donna Tartt burst onto the American literary scene with her debut novel "The Secret History," a beautifully written story of a murderous society of classics majors at an elite Northeastern college. The book sold a million copies, Tartt was lionized as a new literary star and her keen intellect and a preference for dramatic black outfits made her a media darling.

In the past 10 years, little has been heard of Tartt. Rumors swirled she had bought an island and was living like the James Bond character Dr. No or that she suffered from horrible writer's block.

Tartt actually was writing her second novel "The Little Friend" (Knopf, 557 pages, $26), the tale of 12-year-old Harriet Cleve Dufresnes, a tomboy who lives in a sleepy Mississippi town, where her family has been devastated by the murder of her only brother Robin. Part "Treasure Island," part "Harriet the Spy," it is a demanding novel, full of exquisite images of dying Southern gentry and the class and race turmoil of the 1970s South.

Harriet picks out Danny Ratliff, a local speed addict, as the man who murdered her brother and stalks him with a stolen cobra.

"It is difficult to write a second novel," said Tartt in an interview at a Japanese tea room in New York City. "The way I dealt with it was by trying to write a completely different type of book, taking on new challenges and working on different questions. There is a different idiom in the book."

The 38-year-old Tartt is a tiny woman, with dark hair and light green eyes. She cuts an intimidating presence because she is always impeccably dressed, but she laughs easily and enjoys talking about her new book.

The idea for "The Little Friend" started evolving when she read a footnote about snakes. "I was finishing up the first novel and I was checking my Greek quotes," said Tartt. "Snakes are part of the Dionysian ritual. This footnote said this tradition survives today in the hills of Kentucky, this religious practice of handling snakes. There was a real sense of 'My god, I live quite close to the only place in the world where something like this is still practiced.' This was definitely part of the new book."

For Tartt, her writing process is very old style. "I write by hand," she said. "I write in these spiral composition notebooks, like the ones I used to have in school. They have to be big fat ones, because I write big fat novels. When I can't find a notebook, I'm like Medea, storming through the house: 'Where's my notebook?"'

Tartt's fictional town of Alexandria, Miss., is in the throes of post-civil rights changes, where the old Southern culture is giving way to new housing developments. The dying aristocracy that Harriet's family comes from watches as race relations change. Then there are the Ratliffs, the poor, white criminal family that is cooking methamphetamine in their backyard.

"In the 1970s when I grew up," said Tartt, "you have two things going on - the very slow, ritualistic way of the tea parties, the garden club meetings, then you have the bulldozers coming in and building strip malls and highways. Someone made the comment of making the Ratliffs speed addicts. It was right - the new (world) was about getting it in, getting it done, and driving fast cars."

Raised in the tiny town of Grenada, Miss., Tartt went to the University of Mississippi and Bennington College in Vermont. She lives in Manhattan and on a farm in Virginia.

Though Tartt was mentored by the legendary Mississippi writer and editor Willie Morris, she wasn't influenced by Southern writers. "As a child, I read Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Conan Doyle. The only Southern writer I read much was Edgar Allan Poe," said Tartt. "I learned my craft from those early books, partly because I like 19th century novels better than 20th century writers."

Tartt's childhood reading had a major influence on the new novel. "When I was a little girl, my favorite books were really for boys," she said. "It struck me that if Jim Hawkins (in Stevenson's "Treasure Island") had been a little girl, he would have acted differently. Little girls are craftier, they play with their cards closer to their vests, they hold grudges. I thought it would be interesting to see how a little girl would react."

In "The Little Friend," Tartt develops strong female characters, including Harriet's grandmother, Edie, and Gum, the matriarch of the outlaw Ratliffs.

They are both tough women who come down hard on their families. "It is valid and true that it is a book about two grandmothers who are different socially and culturally, but who have similar attributes," said Tartt. "This is a book about the matriarchy."

Harriet and her young friend Hely expose themselves to a lot of danger in the novel. "My compass, what I used when I felt I was getting off track in the book, was the terror of being a child, when you are caught in the wrong place at the wrong time," said Tartt. "Children don't have any weapons to use against adults, except evasion - running away, lying and hiding. They can't meet in direct combat."

The drug writing in the book is some of the best in the novel. At points, the reader can feel trapped at the table with the paranoid Ratliff brothers as they are strung out on meth. "In Faulkner's time, they would be moonshiners," said Tartt. "Today, they would grow marijuana or make speed."

Tartt found her drug material in odd places. ``The Internet is an amazing thing," she admitted. She found the website for the Washington state outlaw press Loompanics, known for its antigovernment books. The rest became literature. ``I used Uncle Fester's 'Secrets to Methamphetamine Manufacture,"' she said. ``I am a very big fan of Loompanics."

James Frey on "A Million Little Pieces," Before the Fraud was Revealed

Yes, I fell for the James Frey memoir fraud just as the book published. I did ask him why his teeth looked so good, considering the four front ones had been knocked out and allegedly capped. I think the Oprah hoopla was much ado about nothing, though I do like to keep my fiction and nonfiction very separate. I really liked Frey, and would consider interviewing him again--but on a novel, this time.

The Denver Post
May 4, 2003

By Dylan Foley

In 1993, James Frey woke up on an airplane with his nose broken, his front four teeth gone and a hole in his cheek. Coming down from a crack cocaine high, he had no idea how he had lost his teeth or where the plane was going.

Frey's new memoir, "A Million Little Pieces" (Nan A. Talese, 384 pages, $22.95), chronicles his addiction to drugs and alcohol, and time he spent as a 23-year-old drug addict at Hazelden, the famed Minnesota drug rehab program. Frey's stripped-down writing provides a harsh view of his life and battles to become sober while fighting against the traditional drug rehab and 12-step programs.

Frey's writing about pain sings when he undergoes a root canal with only two tennis balls to squeeze on. He takes the reader on a horrific tour of his craving for drugs and his desire to destroy himself. It is a brutal, beautifully written memoir.

The press around Frey and his debut memoir may also be a case study on how literary bad boys can be created in the media. Two months before the book's April publication date, the New York Observer, a Manhattan weekly, published a gigantic profile on Frey, portraying him as a foul-mouthed Maileresque brawler, attacking other writers in his age group, including Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace. In the article, Frey boasted that he wants to be the best writer of his generation.

Though praising his book, the Observer piece was a hatchet job on Frey, more concerned with his tattoos and the quality of the furniture in his Manhattan apartment than the new memoir. "The Observer article has gotten my book a lot of attention," said Frey, initially wary of a writer on assignment from The Denver Post, as they spoke at a Manhattan coffee shop. "Turn off your tape recorder and I'll tell you what I think of it."

On the record, Frey was perplexed and angered by the Observer article. Though they met for a four-hour interview, the Observer writer focused on five minutes of Frey's comments on other writers' books. "The piece seemed to be about me bashing other writers," said Frey. "That happened because the journalist was in my apartment and went through this big pile of books I have, asking me what I thought of certain writers. I gave my honest impressions. He didn't include the books that I thought were great." Frey said his favorite writers include Pat Conroy, Charles Bukowski and his friend Bret Easton Ellis.

Frey's memoir takes place over seven weeks, when Frey is put into rehab by his parents. At first, he is hell-bent on escaping, to go out and destroy himself through drugs. He is befriended by colorful inmates - a major West Coast mobster, a federal judge with a bourbon problem and a former champion boxer. He falls in love with a young woman who was prostituted out by her mother.

In contrast to the self-destructive figure in his memoir and the boastful young writer created in the Observer piece, Frey is actually a soft-spoken 33-year-old.

In a particularly harsh scene in the memoir, Frey recounts ripping off his big toenail to deal with "The Fury," the self-destructive rage he felt at himself and the world. "To write the scene, I actually ripped the toenail off again." He paused. "I could show it to you, if you want."

Frey is the son of a successful business executive. The family moved around a lot, living in Ohio, Japan and Los Angeles. His oblivious parents didn't know he was an alcoholic at age 10. He moved on to crack and was a drug dealer at Denison College in Ohio by 18. A fall down an Ohio fire escape wiped out his front teeth and broke his nose, which starts the book.

(Frey's 1992 Ohio mug shot)

Throughout the stay in rehab, The Fury grips him. "There are a lot of things that human beings feel that there aren't necessarily words for, like sadness or anger and rage. I had a very intense desire to destroy other things and myself. I called it The Fury, which was the closest thing that described it."

At Hazelden, Frey battled with the staff and refused to follow traditional 12-step rehab routes. While there, he cobbled together his own Taoist philosophy. "My own 12-step process is pretty simple," said Frey. "The first 11 steps are crap, and the 12th is 'Just don't do it.'A lot of Taoist ideas are about acceptance. You have to accept that it is difficult to resist this, and you have to accept that the resistance will go away. There is a decision - 'Don't do it."'

In the aftermath of the Observer article, Frey wondered why he was mocked for his ambitions. "I don't know why people are so shocked when I say that I am an ambitious writer," said Frey. "I don't know any writers who get into it to be middling writers. When I dream of being a writer, I dream of being one of my heroes, having the type of influence that Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac or Charles Bukowski had. I did not say I am the best. I say I want to be the best, to be remembered for writing books that changed people's lives."

On the negative publicity, Frey has taken some solace from his friend, Ellis, the sometimes lionized, often attacked novelist who wrote "Less Than Zero" and "American Psycho." Ellis told Frey not to pay too much attention to the publicity.

``All that matters," said Frey, ``is what the readers think when they read my book."

(A MILLION LITTLE PIECES By James Frey, Nan A. Talese, 384 pages, $22.95)