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Interviews

A “Baseball” Interview with Josh Ostergaard

The-Devils-Snake-Curve-356x535Last night the Kansas City Royals won their tenth game in a row, which should make my friend Josh Ostergaard pretty happy. He’s a Royals fan from way back, and that comes out in his new book from Coffee House Press, The Devil’s Snake Curve. The 256-page alternative history book is made of five chapters with titles you might not expect to find in a baseball book, such as “War” and “Nationalism.” These chapters are broken up into short sections, which also have titles. The first is “Kansas” and the last is “On the Beach” and along the way there are hundreds more, like “Cud,” “The Value of a Soldiers Life,” and “Another Take on Hair.”

These nonlinear sections weave through numerous subjects, sometimes about the roots of baseball and baseball traditions, sometimes about the strange cast of players and owners. Josh also writes funny anecdotes about his own experiences playing the sport, and the socio-political incidences that have occurred related to the game both in the US and around the world. War comes up a lot, and not just in reference to Abner Doubleday playing rounders in 1861 (or whatever). This is a serious book, heavily researched, and complicated. In fact, referencing the Royals’ current success is misleading, given how little attention Josh pays to the scoreboard compared to the game as cultural soporific or propaganda machine.

It’s interesting how many ways the book is characterized. Publishers Weekly listed it in its Top 10 for sports books while Shelf Awareness called it “a backdrop for American political history.” Epoch Times said it’s “a kind of Fargo of baseball books” (?). I like Eula Biss’s comment, who said it’s “like a box of eclectic baseball cards about our country and our culture—curious, compelling, and disturbing in turn.” 

You worked on this for years and years, right?

I started writing in late 2004. I remember flying to Amsterdam that Christmas to visit my sister and taking on the plane a pile of old newspaper clippings about Lew Burdette, the Braves pitcher who was good at beating the Yankees. But I think the genesis of The Devil’s Snake Curve was the year before, during the months leading to the Iraq war. Like millions of other people I was against what was clearly a war of choice in Iraq, and even in the New York Times there was enough doubt about WMD and about the lack of connection between Iraq and 9/11 that it was obvious our country was about to go off the rails. During those very same months, The Field Museum, where I worked, hosted an exhibition called “Baseball as America.” I went through the exhibit many times, and enjoyed it, but the more I thought about it, the less I was able to reconcile the mythology of the sport and of our nation with the incessant warmongering. Then we started bombing Baghdad. The Devil’s Snake Curve is my attempt to reconcile the darker aspects of American history with the ways professional baseball has been represented. That old cliché about the Black Sox—“say it ain’t so”—well, that’s how I feel, but with regard to the ways the sport has been used as a public relations vehicle for war during the past decade.

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Interviews / 4 Comments
June 19th, 2014 / 5:00 pm

I write to see what is inside my mind: An Interview with Amina Cain

“I’m not sure why I’ve written so many flat male characters. I think it’s more that I have wanted to pay attention to the female characters and so I have.”   

creatureKate Zambreno first changed my life when she wrote Heroines, and second when she wrote on her Facebook page that she can’t wait to read Amina Cain’s new book. I read Creature as soon as it was released and it also changed me, but in a familiar way. I felt instantly connected to Amina’s writing and her characters in particular—the first person narrative, the painted landscape of the mind, the abstract settings. I had only discovered Clarice Lispector a year before, and I felt a resonance between the two. Part of the reason I love Lispector’s writing so much is her ability to reach so far into her characters’ psyches. Amina Cain, in a completely different way, also reaches into her characters’ psyches. Amina’s way feels much more meditative and connected to the earth. Lispector is often very much “above” the earth. Amina’s stories are mysterious, full of curiosity, and very dark and then suddenly extremely funny. When I saw the name Clarice used as one of the character’s names in a story, I knew it was no coincidence. I also knew I had to contact Amina Cain immediately.

***

LW: When did you start writing?

AC: I began writing during my last year of college. I started out as an acting major, which I quickly gave up, switching to Women’s Studies. I knew I wouldn’t necessarily do anything specific with this major, but I was interested in the classes. Then, when I took my first creative writing workshop, I knew I had found what I wanted to do with my life.

from the film adaptation of Hour of the Star

from the film adaptation of Hour of the Star

There are many references to Clarice Lispector in your work and in your story Queen you quote from The Hour of The Star: “forgive me if I add something more about myself since my identity is not very clear, and when I write I find that I possess a destiny. Who has not asked himself at one time or other: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?” When did you first discover Clarice Lispector? Would you say you connect similarly to her themes of the metaphysical experience of “finding yourself” through the process of writing?

I relate very much to the idea of finding oneself through writing, though what “oneself” is I think is malleable. And that Buddhist idea that to study the self is to find the self and to find the self is to lose the self resonates a lot for me. I’ve been curious lately about why I am so driven to write first person narratives (that are both not me and me) as opposed to third person, for instance. It’s not that I want to tell a story of myself, or even of another, it’s that I want to inhabit something—some feeling, some space (physical or psychic, and yes, even just the space of writing), or voice, and the first person, for whatever reasons, allows me to do this in the strongest way. I certainly think that Lispector’s fiction does this too, much more so than simply telling a story. She creates these charged psychic spaces we can walk into as readers. I first read Lispector the second time I lived in Chicago. I checked out from the library Family Ties, a collection of short stories. Then The Hour of the Star.

So many of your stories seem to be about a central narrator. They can be separate and yet they feel a part of a continuous story. Can you talk about the narrator of your stories? Do you consider her a persona? Do you see her as existing in each of your stories? Or is she different, a new character, each time?

I see the narrators in Creature as different beings but as sharing a single heartbeat. I wanted them to be both separate and connected. In Tisa Bryant’s amazing Unexplained Presence a beautiful continuum comes into being, or else a soft light is shone on connections already present between people who existed throughout time but never knew each other, or even knew to know each other. I was so struck by that when I first read Bryant’s book, and I think the idea of the continuum has stayed with me since, though of course in a different way.  

There is a quality of bleakness to your characters, or to quote from one of your titles, “a threadless way” about them. They are very honest about the fact that they don’t know what they are doing or how to connect to others. (And yet, because of this, they do know—like what you were saying about finding the self to lose the self, etc.)

This is a sharp contrast to what we are used to seeing in a lot of contemporary literature. (Of course, “flawed characters” are everywhere—but usually they don’t know they are flawed and when they do, their revelation is fleeting or they step into denial.) Your characters have the ability to speak, feel, and live out their insecurities, distastes, annoyances, melancholy, and this gives them a strange hopefulness and positivity. 

I think that most of my characters are searching for something, are always in process with the world around them, and that much of what gets expressed in the stories are the things that are usually not said, supposed to be said, voiced. In fiction, I’m as interested in an inner life as an outer one, and I want to write that life. I think it can propel a narrative forward as much as plot can. There is drama there, and conflict, and relationship, and even setting. I’m glad that the characters feel hopeful to you. Sometimes there is a focus on the sadness and vulnerability in my stories, elements that are certainly present, but to me there is also absurdity and humor. READ MORE >

Interviews / 2 Comments
June 18th, 2014 / 10:00 am

Noir: A Love Story – An Interview With edward j rathke

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Noir: A Love Story by edward j rathke is forthcoming this summer from Civil Coping Mechanisms, and I had the opportunity to pose Edward J Rathke some questions inspired by his phenomenal book.

***

What’s your real name?

I used to hate my real name. I used to hate it so much. I hated the way it looked on paper and I hated the way it sounded, rolling round my ear, those two stupid hard consonants just a few letters apart. I’ve made a thousand names for myself over the years and most of them nothing like mine. I lived in worlds that only existed inside my head and I made me new. For a long time I hated my face too and I avoided mirrors like they were plagued and I stopped remembering properly what I look like, and this problem persists. The person I see with my name when I close my eyes isn’t the one who smiles back in the mirror. Even my dreams stopped being about this name and this body. I became other men and other women and I dreamt in their bodies, with their names.

Now I’m comfortable with the name I was given so long ago: edward j rathke. I even have a supervillain name ready for whenever I fracture apart and try to take the world apart: Wrath Key.

But is edward j rathke the best at answering these questions? Probably not. He’s a very silly human, though he sort of writes the opposite of silly books. Sometimes he wishes his novels had more silliness, way more zaniness, but we suppose writing is where those heavier parts of him go so that he can go on living silly, lightly, while we write on, Deathly.

What’s the story you always tell? What’s the story you’ll never tell?

I don’t know if there’s a story I’m always telling people. Probably there is, but the ones I feel like people are always asking me about are the ones where I almost died. Like the time I took a 60 foot freefall onto rocks or the time my appendix exploded while I was in Korea and I spent a week in a hospital where no one spoke English. Most of my stories involve me being lost and making bad decisions.

There are so many stories I’ll never tell but not because of fear or shame or regret. There are memories that are sacred to me. In many ways they’re all we have as humans. Our life is just a collection of memories, and memory is largely a creative process of stitching together misremembered moments. When you share a memory, it stops being yours. So when you speak your memory into new ears, that memory becomes theirs, and in that transference, the memory changes twice [first by making it into words and then again by the person hearing those sounds, stitching it to the fabric of their life] and becomes something new. If they share that memory, it again transforms, and so when your memory is shared with others, it stops being yours and becomes something wholly different than who you are, which is a body housing memories. And so I keep the best ones inside and I share them with no one. Not even in my fiction, and definitely not in interviews like this.

Most of them are about love. Those howling bits of time, fraying, hoping.

And maybe Noir: A Love Story is both. It’s full of the story I’m always telling—the unknowable humanity, the howling ache chasming between us, the sublime perfection of existence, the beauty of its ending—and the ones I’ll never tell. All those stories I’ll never tell, those are the ones at the center of Noir: A Love Story. I’ve given you the impressions of lives but told you nothing about what they mean to the people who lived them, and so the reader decides and discovers. In that discovery, they’ll probably find the many mes that I’ve been all these years.

What does desperation make you do?

Desperation’s made me do a lot of things. I’ve lived a strange life full of stranger existential crises. Desperation sent me to Ireland and South Korea. It’s sent me wailing into the night. It’s sent me down roads of destruction, but I’ve also poured it over thousands of written pages. When I was younger I didn’t sleep really at all—still don’t, I guess, though mostly out of habit—and that was something deep and dark gnawing at me all my life. Then while still too young I spent those sleepless nights drinking, causing chaos, writing terrible poetry and screaming it into the sunless sky, breathing smoke on rooftops.

ydde

“Time eats you. Dead or dreaming” What else?

I have strung wires from steeples to stars and tightroped across the sky. READ MORE >

Author Spotlight & Interviews / 2 Comments
June 11th, 2014 / 10:00 am

Alt Lit Diaspora: looking from the outside in with Luis Silva

Luis Silva runs Electric Cereal, a literary site dedicated to sharing the work of new and exciting voices. I like talking to Luis on facebook because we are facebook friends and we both consider ourselves outsiders in the lit scene (which we are totally okay with and even proud of). Like someone said on House M.D., I think it was Omar Epps’ character, “You can see a lot more when you’re on the outside looking in.” I’m unsuccessfully trying to find the exact quote on the House M.D wiki, but I can swear someone said something like that while I was binge-watching on Netflix.

Anyway, I sat down in my bedroom the other night and messaged Luis some questions about alt lit and we had a pretty lengthy and somewhat controversial conversation about the community. Keep reading.

Alexandra Naughton: What is alt lit? What does it mean to you?

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Interviews / 22 Comments
May 29th, 2014 / 2:31 pm

Ethan has nowhere to go, so he killed the author

Today I spoke with Jeremy Hight, the “curator” of a project called Ethan Has Nowhere To Go. What started as a short story became a multimedia online interactive experience once Hight killed the author by removing himself from the project, and handed over the creative reins to a number of artists. You can check out the project at Unlikely Stories.

Alexandra Naughton: Please tell me about your project.

Jeremy Hight: I wrote a 12 page short story called “Ethan Has Nowhere To Go.”  Did a dozen drafts, had a writer’s group workshopping. The whole deal. Then it hit me when it was about be published– invert it.

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May 6th, 2014 / 11:00 am

“3490 people bought something besides the bestseller” — Talking with Pete Mulvihill of Green Apple Books

May 3rd is California Bookstore Day, and some bookstores in California have giant worms for mascots. Growing up, that’s where I tried to buy as many of those “code-your-own-adventure” QBASIC books (what were those called?) as possible. Years later, home for Christmas, I bought a first edition copy of Gordon Lish’s Mourners at the Door and tried to convince the bookstore owner to care. “Oh yeah, Lish,” he said. Being as this was California, it wasn’t inconceivable to take an “oh yeah” a certain way, so I asked him: “Did you know him?” And he said “Not if I could help it” and walked away.

Other bookstores have coffeeshops above them or below them. Some bookstores are in old firehouses. (Even if they’re not really bookstores). Occasionally, an architectural firm will have an empty storefront, and they will let you put a bookstore in there. Some bookstores are famous, and you have to be quiet going up the stairs to the good room because movie people are asking Lawrence Ferlinghetti about gold-plated avocados. If you’re a new bookstore, it might be beautiful to sell only poetry and run the store with your spouse and your baby. If you’re an old bookstore, Adam Robinson will probably ask you some questions about the kids painting outside. When you’re a mighty bookstore with your own highway attraction sign, you might put another bookstore inside yourself, like Grey Matter Books did with Troubador. Sometimes you will eat a lot of cheese in a bookstore and buy the books that Peter Gizzi tells you to buy, as I have done in Amherst Books. Other times you will be stranded waiting for a ride in some commuter town in New Jersey, so you will spend all your time at a bookstore until it closes, and the owner will get on his motorcycle and kick you out but give you a free Javier Marias novel because he feels bad for you.

Remember when it wasn’t stressful to be in a bookstore? And you weren’t guiltily squaring your desire for the world’s eyes on your own goo with the sheer magnitude of book stuff that already exists? And it just seemed where-am-I-going-to-get-enough-hours-and-light amazing that all these books—in their bound and sentenced way—felt like talking? When I think about California Bookstore Day, I think about giant worms, and I think about that feeling.

One bookstore instrumental in starting and sustaining bookstore culture in all of Sweet Cali is Green Apple Books in San Francisco. If you live in the Bay Area, or you’ve made stopovers on a regular basis, you probably know Green Apple. They’re down there in the Richmond district, their store is huge and full of good surprises—used books, new books, LPs—and they’ve got that sweet green guy out front. Publishers Weekly recently agreed with the book-buying elbow patches in San Francisco and smartly awarded Green Apple Bookstore of the Year.

Green Apple was started in 1967 by a former United Airlines radio technician named Richard Savoy, but now it’s owned by two Kevins—Hunsanger and Ryan—and a Pete: Mulvihill. They are the big dream scheme cookers behind California Bookstore Day, which they want to push to national prominence on par with Record Store Day. They’re active in a ton of San Francisco area stuff—check this lovely listy quote from PW: “founding the San Francisco Locally Owned Merchants Association, participating on the boards of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association and the Clement Street Merchants Association, and advising Litquake and the San Francisco Library’s One City One Book program”—and sometimes they give you tacos at midnight when Murakami releases a book called 1Q84.

To find out more about what it’s like behind-the-scenes at Green Apple and to shine some hype on Bookstore Day, I asked Green Apple co-owner Pete Mulvihill a few questions, and he was gracious enough to dish some great answers.

Read the interview below the jump!

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Interviews / 2 Comments
May 1st, 2014 / 12:00 pm