Sunday, July 17, 2011

Kate Christensen on a Marital Downward Spiral in "The Astral"

In her sublime and devastatingly witty new novel The Astral(Doubleday, $25.95), Kate Christensen follows the story of Harry Quirk, a poet who is thrown out of his apartment by his paranoid and controlling wife for an imagined adultery with his best woman friend.

Harry is a middle-aged minor poet, a kind and spineless man. Drinking too much and living two steps from homelessness on the cold streets of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Harry tries to put his life back together while obsessing on ways to win his furious wife Luz back. Meanwhile, one of Harry’s adult children is a Dumpster diver and the other is in a cult. Christensen’s biting and comic satire addresses what it means to be an artist and how marriages unravel for good.

Christensen, 47, is the author of six novels, including the acclaimed “In the Drink” and “The Great Man.” She spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from her home in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Q. What made you write about Harry Quirk?

A. Harry came from Greenpoint and my observations of solitary men in their fifties walking around. I became obsessed with the Astral, a large apartment building near my old house. Harry would be someone who lived their, raised children there and was kicked out. He views it as his lost Eden.

I conceived of the book before my own marriage ended. I felt like Harry was me. In the aftermath of a marriage, you feel helpless and hapless. I think Harry is a fool and an everyman. I definitely felt very human, very flawed and very sad.

Q. In your book, adulteries real and imagined play an important part. Why?

A. I’ve always written about adultery, because it raises the question of transgression and trouble. There is a kind of drama inherent to adultery, and it’s also an external manifestation of a marriage, like a scab or a rash.

Q. Do you see this novel as satire?

A. I never see myself as writing satire. I think I write about people as they really are, without make them better or worse.

Q. By losing his breadwinning wife, Harry is tossed out of the middle class. What interested you about his struggle?

A. With my friends in Brooklyn, many of them started out as artists. I saw many of these friends move into late middle age, still struggling without health insurance or a cushion. I saw people who had given up being artists. Being an artist necessitates a compromise or living on the edge.

Q. Pushing 58, Harry has the devastating line that time determined that he wasn’t as great as his ego thought he was. What were you addressing?

A. It was one of the key ideas in the book. Harry can’t lie to himself anymore. It’s like an alcoholic hitting bottom. His wife destroyed his last book and that wakes him up. I think my book is tragicomic. When you are 22, you say and think what you are going to do. Time has a way of revealing the truth. When you are 57, it’s an age of reckoning. What you are at 57 is what you are.

Q. In one devastating scene, Harry and his friend James stab each other with verbal knives, mixing real and fake compassion. How did you capture men with such unflinching comic accuracy?

A. That comes from years of watching men. Women are much more subterranean. They mask their manipulations and blows with smiles. I think women are scary. I like they way men have that surface competitiveness, know where the lines are and whether they will punch the other person in the solar plexus or not. I am one of five girls. I was the boy in the family. I have an inner guy, though I am straight and to all appearances female. Harry is an alter ego to me.

Jon Ronson Tracks Down the Psychopaths Among Us

In his bestselling book “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” the British journalist Jon Ronson took on a goofball U.S. military program where officers thought they could be trained to run through walls and to kill goats by looking at them. In his new nonfiction work, The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry (Riverhead, $26), Ronson digs into the creepy world of psychopaths, the psychologists and psychiatrists who study them and the police agencies in the U.S and England that try to keep violent offenders off the streets.

In the past, Ronson has used his signature participatory journalism technique to hang out with groups like the Ku Klux Klan and write about them. In the new book, Ronson takes a course with the psychiatrist Bob Hare, who has invented the controversial and widely used “psychopath checklist” to identify psychopaths. Ronson interviews a Haitian death squad leader in a U.S. prison who wants people to like him for manipulative purposes and a former CEO named “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap, who loved firing people. Ronson finds out about a Canadian program that tried to cure psychopaths with LSD and “naked therapy,” but only turned out to be a finishing school for killers. Ronson’s book is both witty and very scary, exploring the twisted minds of murderers, rapists, lying business executives and political leaders who have psychopathic traits.

Ronson, 44, spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from his home in London.

Q. What is your thumbnail definition of a psychopath?

A. I think it is no remorse and a total lack of empathy, which are the most important things. Everything follows from that. If you are a violent person, it frees you up to be violent. It frees you up to be manipulative. It frees you up to win the stampede to the top. Psychopaths become CEOs and religious leaders. Their brain dysfunction is the brain dysfunction that rules the world.

Q. How did you structure the book?

A. I didn’t want to write an academic book about psychopaths. I came up with the idea of becoming a psychopath spotter using the Hare checklist. I went and took Bob Hare’s course as a complete skeptic and came out a complete convert. As much as you can turn psychology into a science, Hare has done that with his checklist. The problem was that I became drunk with power. I started seeing psychopaths everywhere--in my literary rivals, in a person giving me a hard time on Twitter.

Q. You interview Al Dunlap, the former CEO who gutted the Sunbeam appliance corporation and took joy in cutting jobs and destroying lives. How did he handle the psychopath test?

A. Dunlap turned a great many things on the psychopath checklist into business positives. Inability to feel a deep range of emotion? “Why get weighed down by emotions?” he asked. A grandiose sense of self worth? “Believe in yourself!” Manipulative? “I describe that as leadership, getting people to do what you want them to.”

Q. What was the 1960s program at Oak Ridge, a Canadian prison, to cure psychopaths?

A. There was this psychiatrist named Elliot Barker who thought that it would be lovely to have his psychopaths, violent men who had committed murder, naked together and off their heads on LSD for days at a time in rooms with no windows. When the men were released, there was carnage. The program had taught the psychopaths how to fake empathy better.

Q. Can you root out psychopaths in society and what do you do when you find them?

A. The answer to the first part is yes, if you do it in a scientifically correct way. The second part is more difficult. Actually, you don’t do anything. You become aware and it gives you knowledge. If you are married to someone who has psychopathic traits, it’s good to have this information on the back burner.

Rebecca Makkai on her debut novel "The Borrower"

In her witty debut novel The Borrower(Viking, $26) Rebecca Makkai tells the story of Lucy Hull, a children’s librarian trapped in a dead-end job in Hannibal, Missouri, who inadvertently kidnaps one of her charges to save him from his religious zealot parents.

Ten-year-old Ian Drake is an eccentric and precocious lover of “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing” and Lucy’s favorite patron. Lucy finds out that Ian is being forced by his evangelical Christian mother into a homosexuality prevention program, headed by the ominous Pastor Bob. Ian runs away from home, hides in the library, and then forces the lethargic Lucy to take him on a bizarre road trip, where the two see Lucy’s Russian émigré father in Chicago, who wants her to deliver a mysterious shoebox to his mobbed-up friend in Pittsburgh. As the police hunt intensifies for the missing Ian, Lucy drives Ian north to Canada without a plan, but with moral qualms over taking the boy.

Makkai, a 33-year-old elementary school teacher, spoke by telephone with freelance writer Dylan Foley from her home in the Chicago suburbs.

Q. How did you develop Lucy?

A. A lot of her issues come from being a first-generation American. My own father escaped from Hungary during the 1956 revolution. That’s the one thing I had in common with Lucy, growing up in America and feeling privileged by that fact, but feeling in my genetics and in all the stories I’d been fed that I was prepared for a life of fight or flight. Lucy is sitting in a life that does not have the adventure she expected. She feels insignificant and hasn’t done anything important because she hasn’t had a major crisis yet. She subconsciously creates that crisis.

Q. How did the accidental kidnapping evolve in the book?

A. That’s what I started with. I heard about these [evangelical anti-gay programs] and I was infuriated by them. They are well organized and well funded, and they make it their mission to rescue people from homosexuality. I thought there was a story to be told. I wanted an outside figure in the child’s life. I went through different possibilities--could she be a neighbor, could she be a family friend? I finally realized I wanted her to be in possession of a space that Ian would see as a sanctuary. The relationship was between Lucy, Ian and the library. Nothing works in fiction unless there is a triangle. In order for it to be a story, Lucy had to do something rash.

Q. Do you think Lucy’s idealism could have disastrous consequences?

A. Lucy is not inculpable as the narrator. In the opening line, Lucy admits she may be the villain of the novel. She has a blindness in her rightness, and to the fact that Ian’s parents have a right to raise him as awfully as they are doing it. It would have been easy to make Ian’s parents monsters, but I didn’t. The moral complexity is what made it a story for me.

Q. How did Ian become the complex, often manipulative character he was in the novel?

A. When I talk to my gay friends about what their childhood was like, a lot of that was inspiration for Ian. My friends all knew, to a person, that they were different as children. For me, Ian became a really amazing child, someone in possession of great talents that were being squelched by his community and his parents. He started talking and became alive in a wonderful way. Ian became so real for me in the writing that I have to remember that he’s not real.

Q. What does Lucy gain from her perplexing road trip with Ian?

A. It’s Lucy’s coming of age story more than Ian’s. There is the fundamental change in her that she has realized that she can take action in her life.

Scott Carney on the Grisly World of Body Trafficking in "The Red Market"

In his debut nonfiction book The Red Market: On the Trail of the World’s Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers and Child Traffickers(Morrow, $26) the journalist Scott Carney plunges into the world of grave robbers, baby thieves and international sellers of human eggs and kidneys to explore how human bodies and body parts have been turned into profitable commodities.

In his fascinating and macabre book, Carney goes to West Bengal, India where seemingly few graves are left unrobbed and skeletons are provided to medical schools in the United States and Europe. He doggedly tracks the case of a 2-year-old boy snatched out of an Indian slum and sold into adoption, winding up in a home in Wisconsin. Carney travels to a clinic in Cyprus where the eggs of Ukrainian beauties are harvested for European and Israeli in vitro fertilization. He finds a village of tsunami refugees on the east coast on India, where most adult women have given up a kidney for their family’s survival. In his vivid prose, Carney exposes the mostly exploitative and usually illegal red markets that are built on the backs of the world’s poor.

Carney, 33, worked and reported from India for a decade and is now a contributing editor to Wired Magazine. He spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley via Skype from his home in Long Beach, California.

Q. How would you define the “red markets”?

A. Red markets are what happens when we commercialize the human body. There is a certain hypocrisy with what we are doing. We say we are we are “donating” body parts like kidneys, not selling them. Red markets are different because the transactions never really end. When you buy a body part, you are indebted to an individual who may have literally saved your life.

Q. How did the chapter on bone trafficking evolve?

A. That was one of the first articles I did, in 2007. I wanted to know if bone trafficking was really going on. I spoke to bone dealers and a cemetery guard. My sense of fascination outweighed my sense of the macabre.

Q. Your child theft story in India that resulted in an American adoption was upsetting. How did the American authorities and the adoptive family respond?

A. This story was the hardest to report. I actually felt a sense of duty to the Indian family and I still do. That child, taken from Chennai, may have a materially better life in America, but does that give Americans the right to kidnap children from poorer parts of the world? Once we notified Child Protective Services in Wisconsin and the FBI, they were like, “That’s terrible, but it’s already happened.” Since my article appeared in Mother Jones, there has been a DNA test (under FBI jurisdiction) that was a proof-positive match. The child is the one that was kidnapped. Nothing has happened. The adoptive parents keep willfully denying they are complicit in this crime.

Q. What was the situation in “Kidneyville,” where tsunami refugees in India’s Tamil Nadu province were half-swindled for their kidneys?

A. We are using money as a moral force, to create ownership over someone else’s body. Because someone is poor in India, their kidney is a last-ditch safety net. The rich in India see their money as giving them the right to get that kidney. What moral landscape gives an old, dying rich person the right to a young person’s kidney?

Q. Your last chapter is how Indian hair is harvested, from religious rituals to garbage picking, making hair extensions and food additives for the West. Why did you cover hair?

A. I went into the story looking for the ethical problem, but this is a situation where people have their heads shaved for religious reasons, giving away their hair for altruistic purposes. It cannot be duplicated in the other markets I’ve covered. In India, there is no altruistic kidney giving.

Ann Patchett on her new novel "State of Wonder"

In her new book State of Wonder(HarperCollins, $27), the novelist Ann Patchett explores the staid life of the medical researcher Marina Singh who works for a pharmaceutical company in Minnesota. Marina’s world is broken open when it is reported that her officemate Anders Eckman has died of fever in the Amazon while tracking down the fierce and mysterious Dr. Annick Swenson, a research scientist.

Marina’s boss and the dead man’s widow demand that she travel down to the Amazon to find both Ander’s body and Swenson. Swenson is living with an Amazonian tribe where women give birth until the end of their lives, doing research on the holy grail of fertility drugs. Marina’s quest is personal-- twenty years before, Swenson destroyed Marina’s career as a doctor. In a wild tale inspired by Werner Herzog’s film “Fitzcaraldo”, and Henry James’ novel “The Ambassadors,” Marina is stripped and battered by the jungle in her quest for the truth. In her lowest moments, Marina finds sources of great resilience and even triumph.

Patchett , 47, is the author of six books of fiction, including the bestselling “Bel Canto.” She spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from her home in Memphis, Tennessee.

Q. Where did the book come from?

A. I wanted to write book about an adult student who finds the teacher who shaped her life years before. Everything that happened to Marina was set in motion by her teacher, and that teacher doesn’t remember her. Their meeting was the germ of the book. It went from there. What did they do for a living, where did they go?

Q. Did you go down to the Amazon for research?

A. Yes, I was there for 10 days. It was frankly for the visual. I just wanted to see the leaves and the birds. I loved it for three days, but by the tenth day, I would have sold my soul to get out of the Amazon. The jungle was claustrophobic and oppressive. In his memoir, Werner Herzog wrote just how murderous the jungle was.

Q. In the Amazon, Marina is stripped of her possessions several times and faces numerous hardships. What inspired you to write about her transformation?

A. What interested me was this idea of what can you lose, how far can you go? Marina just loses and loses. At every “giving up,” she comes closer to her strengths, her own self-definitions and knowledge of her own ability.

Q. What were your role models for the brutal Dr. Swenson?

A. My husband’s a doctor. I’ve spent 17 years listening to these colorful and horrible residency stories. Medical education is based on fraternity hazing and there are fantastical stories of cruelty which you fully participate in. Dr. Swenson was very available to me as a character.

Q. Swenson’s decades-long research aims to develop a drug where women can give birth into their seventies and eighties. Was this a commentary on America’s recent infatuation with fertility and in-vitro fertilization?

A. This is not an autobiographical book. I knew I never wanted children. I’ve spent my whole life having people tell me I was wrong, “Get on board, the train is leaving.” The nice thing about being 47 is that people don’t ask anymore.

We as a country refuse to realize that we are making choices. If your choice is that you are going to have a big career and marry later, you are making a choice. At some point, not having a child means you’ve made the choice. What if you got exactly what you wanted, what if the door was open forever? Is that what you want? It doesn’t look very good, having a child at 70.

Q. You are embarking on a big national book tour. Do you enjoy doing them?

A. No. I’d rather go down to the Amazon for a month than go on this book tour.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Rick Moody on the Stories in "Demonology"

(This interview was originally posted on in April 2002)

In an apartment filled with natural light high above Brooklyn, New York, Rick Moody spoke to writer Dylan Foley about the unintentional themes behind Demonology, the experimental freedom of short stories, and how he put his life on tape.

Barnes & How long did it take to put Demonology together?

Rick Moody: Some of these short stories are on the older side. The title story "Demonology" itself is five years old. "The Carnival Tradition," the long story, was finished a week before I turned the collection in. Some of the stories were finished before Purple America. They just fit around what I was doing.

B& At times you were working in two different mediums?

RM: Yes. Maybe it was out of boredom or a short attention span. I guess I need to try to come up with projects that create uncertainty, and that gives me some impetus to solve creative problems.

B& The themes that appear to be at the center of Demonology are loss, death, mental illness, and social satire. What was your intention with putting this collection together?

RM: The truth is that some of these stories that were published serially were pretty popular. "Demonology" and, to a lesser extent, "The Mansion on the Hill" were being picked up for anthologies. I wanted to have them someplace where people interested in my work could find them. I simply gathered up stuff that had been lying around, but it turns out there were these themes that had been kicking around during this period and crept into things.

It is no secret there was a death in my family and some of the work is about that. There are even stories that aren't about that, where that kind of calamitous event creeps into details as though there were parts of me that were still processing the material.

B& You put "The Mansion on the Hill," which has a sibling death, first as a farce, and then you put "Demonology" as this piece about your sister at the end. Why did you do this?

RM: The story of my sister kept getting into the work, whether I wanted it or not. If you put "Demonology" first, people would just throw the book across the room. It's a devastating piece. I wanted the collection to rise up to the challenge of it, rather than you get through "Demonology" and it is all warm and jokey after that.

B& Where did you get the inspiration for "Wilkie Fahnstock: The Boxed Set"?

RM: It started right after I finished The Ice Storm, and while I was writing the stories in The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven [for which Moody won the The Paris Review's prestigious Aga Khan Prize]. I needed a break. I decided to embark on this project, to get totally away from narrative for a while. I decided to assemble every song I'd ever liked in my entire life and make cassettes of them. So I started crazily buying all these CDs that you really don't want to have, like Machine Head by Deep Purple, and once I made the list, the list started to kind of iterate a character, so Wilkie was born as another character for whom this might be the list. Then once I had him, the list started changing, and Wilkie's list started to be different from my list.

B& So you made the tapes first?

RM: Yes, before there was any text. There's an actual metal box that has the entire anthology.

B& What kind of different musical tastes do you have from Wilkie?

RM: He likes more bad metalish stuff. The most coherent section of the tapes are the early section, because I liked all that music, and the end of the tapes, the weird experimental stuff. I like that, too. I love Brian Eno. He's one of my heroes. Music for Airports has been a major accompaniment to my work. I play it for days at a time when I am working.

B& You've said in the past that you don't want the label as a "suburban" writer. Have you continued to move away from this?

RM: Readers from all over the country can find something in my work, and it is not regionally bound. The whole idea was not to get pigeon-holed in this one neighborhood. I don't know if I am a New York writer. Certainly the Northeast is the preeminent locale, but there is a story in this book that is set in California, and some other sites spring up. The truth, however, is that if you know someplace well, you can bring something to the imagining of it.

B& I see a touch of your history in the new stories, especially in "The Carnival Tradition."

RM: The first half of that short story is more autobiographical than the second. I did live in Hoboken, and I did live with a dancer for a while, but obviously I don't have any broken bones.

With "The Carnival Tradition," the idea for me was to have a two-part story that was sort of a farewell to my first two novels. The first half is about New Jersey, where Garden State was about New Jersey, and the second half was about Connecticut, like The Ice Storm is about Connecticut. I recognize in myself having grown beyond the writer who wrote those two books, but I wanted to go back, to see if I could recreate the time and the mindset that produced that work. I can write better than I could write then. I've matured.

B& How would you compare the experimentation of your short stories to your novels?

RM: I think the stories are much more recklessly experimental and they're that way because you can try an experiment with a short story, and if it doesn't work, you've only wasted two months. Whereas if you wade into a novel and you find that the very premise of it is unworkable, you are in a disastrous spot. I wrote 100 pages of Purple America and tried it in the first person, and found out it really didn't work. I threw out 96 of the 100 pages and started over again. That was a heartbreaker...that was six months worth of work.

With the stories, I can try something and monkey around and amuse myself. If it works, great. If it doesn't, there is always another short story around the corner.

B& I took "Demonology" to be an elegy to this sweet person who lived a flawed life, but a good one. Was it an accurate depiction of your sister?

RM: Yes, it is, or at least the people who knew her felt it is. Clearly, I wasn't there when the events happened, but the story was assembled, and it is a writer doing what a writer does, to try to see into things, to try to understand why they happen.

The truth is, I could not have not written the story. I would have loved to have not written it. But that's the only way I know how to get through stuff like this, to make sense of what happened. When I had finished it, I was very conflicted over whether it was worth publishing. I published it in a little quarterly and people have been so responsive. I let it continue to be published.

B& In "Demonology" there are the tragedies and the random acts of violence -- Gerry's car accident, a woman driving into a gunfight or a brain seizure -- that significantly alter people's lives. Where do these moments of inspiration come from?

RM: Once you have suffered a calamity, you never feel safe from a calamity, under any circumstances. Even if nothing horrible has happened in the year 2001 so far, I feel that I could be hit by a bus, or tomorrow I could be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. So that sense of vulnerability to traumatic events has become part of me as a writer of these stories. I just can't conceal it.

B& What is your next project going to be?

RM: It is a nonfiction memoir called The Black Veil. It's almost done. It's supposed to come out in 2002. It's real point of origin was that there was a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne called "The Minister's Black Veil," which is loosely based on the life of a distant relative of mine, Joseph Moody, who had a breakdown in his later life and began wearing a veil in public all the time.

The book is really about the fact that my family claimed we were related to this guy. Isn't it interesting how families create mythologies about themselves to explain who they are? This book is about my life only as an example of how someone grows up feeling about himself after being told they are related to a crazy person.

Ted Conover on his brilliant "The Routes of Man"

In his new book The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today(Knopf, $27), the journalist Ted Conover takes his readers on an international road trip going from the illegal mahogany logging camps of Peru to walking a 40-mile long, frozen-solid river in India with young students leaving their isolated mountain village for the first time. By traveling the highways of the world, Conover examines roads as both economic saviors and destroyers of ancient civilizations.

In his breathtaking dispatches, Conover hangs out with an ambulance crew in the mayhem of the megacity of Lagos, Nigeria. He revisits Kenyan truckers who he first met in 1992, where their long-distance driving and numerous sexual encounters may still be a major vector for spreading AIDS through Africa. He travels through the West Bank, meeting with crack Israeli troops stopping suicide bombers and the Palestinian professionals fuming with rage at the daily humiliations and harassment of life in an occupied territory. By riding through the Amazonian jungles on top of an oil tanker and driving on the dangerous highways of China, Conover explores how roads create that essential human connection, bringing societies together with both great and horrific consequences.

Conover, 52, was raised in Denver, Colorado, and is the author of the award-winning book “Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing.” He met with freelance writer Dylan Foley in a coffee shop in Manhattan.

Q. Where does your obsession with roads come from?

A. I imagine that growing up in Denver had something to do with it. Unlike coastal cities, Denver was originally connected to other places only via roads. It was where [Beat writers] Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady came to. It was before my time, but somehow it got into the air and I must have breathed it. Travel was a means of having adventure, and in an almost wholly American way, it was a route to transcendence.

Q. You open the book by visiting a Park Avenue apartment using miles of rare mahogany moldings, then go on a rough jungle road to illegal lumber camps in Peru where impoverished workers cut down mahogany trees. Why did you travel both high and low for this story?

A. It’s a privilege I have being an educated person. I have access to the highs, but the important thing is linking it to the lows in a meaningful way. Part of me has a perverse interest in unintended consequences. Humans have grand ideas and a road through the jungle is a grand idea. The cost is not just labor and tarmac. It is wildlife and the quality of life, with so many unintended results. I acknowledge the value of roads. Civilizations need them, but like so many things, they show our fallibility in a dramatic way.

Q. You revisit a convoy of truckers in Kenya that you first met two decades ago. What happened to the 12 men you knew?

A. Six are known to be alive. Six are dead. Did they die of AIDS? Some likely did. AIDS has devastated that part of the world, putting the society under great pressure. In this case, roads are the veins that travel through a continent. They carry both nourishment and the viruses. In Kenya, you still hear horrific ideas like you can cure the disease by having sex with a virgin. Consciousness has risen, but it is too late for many people.

Q. How would you describe your experiences immersed in the violence, corruption and hope of Lagos?

A. We are accustomed to reading about megacities for their pathologies, their crime and lack of planning, but for the people from the countryside, the slum that awaits them is better than where they came from. That was the surprise of Lagos. There was Dickensian poverty, but there was energy and ambition, and a refusal to die quietly in the countryside.

(Newark Star-Ledger, April 2010)