Literary Ashland Radio Interviews Tod Davies

Last week on the KSKQ radio version of “Literary Ashland” Michael Niemann and I interviewed Tod Davies. You can listen here. Tod Davies is the author of Snotty Saves the Day and Lily the Silent, both from The History of Arcadia series, and the cooking memoirs Jam Today: A Diary of Cooking With What You’ve Got and Jam Today Too: The Revolution Will Not Be Catered.

And don’t miss our radio roundup of future literary events in southern Oregon, including

the latest on the Weisinger Family Winery has begun a monthly series of literary presentations featuring authors from the State of Jefferson, Friday Words and Wine. Next up: M J Daspit reads from Lucy Lied on September 19.

on September 5 from 7-8, Bloomsbury Books in Ashland, will host a reading by Port Townsend poet and memoirist, Sheila Bender, and Jonah Bornstein, of the Ashland. Sheila’s memoir, A New Theology, explores poetry as a path to healing from loss. Rumor has it that Jonah will unveil a portion of a memoir-in-progress.

Friends of the Ashland Public Library invites you to a reading by Peter Sears, Oregon Poet Laureate on Friday September 12 from 7:30-9pm in the Ashland Public Library. Free and open to the public, Sears will read from his book, Small Talk: New and Selected Poems published by Lynx House Press in 2014. Chautauqua Poets & Writers invites you to a workshop by Peter Sears, Oregon Poet Laureate called “Ways of Revising” Saturday, September 13, 2014, 9:30 to 11:30 am at the Ashland Public Library. The Cost: $20 and it’s limited to limit: 20 participants.

And don’t forget the Ashland Book and Author Festival, September 20 at the SOU Hannon Library.

We’d like to recognize the passing of Kay Atwood who died on May 26 this year in Ashland, Oregon. Atwood was much loved for her scholarship and writings on regional history. Her many works include Illahe: the story of the Rogue River Canyon, Blossoms and Branches: A Gathering of Rogue Valley Orchard Memories and Mill Creek Journal, a history of Ashland, Oregon. Atwood’s last work was Chaining Oregon published in 2008.

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An Interview with Mary Z. Maher and Alan Armstrong

In their just-released book Oregon Shakespeare Festival Actors: Telling the Story, Mary Z. Maher and Alan Armstrong interview a baker’s dozen Oregon Shakespeare Festival actors talking about their process and telling some behind the scene stories as well.

Mary Z. Maher has a PhD in Performance Studies from the University of Michigan, and is professor emerita at the University of Arizona in Tucson. She has written Modern Hamlets and Their Soliloquies on an AAUW fellowship, Actor Nicholas Pennell: Risking Enchantment at a residency at the Centro Studi Liguri in Italy, and Actors Talk About Shakespeare (Limelight/Applause Books). She was in the NEH seminars directed by Bernard Beckerman and Michael Goldman at the Folger Shakespeare Library and was a researcher on the Time/Life BBC’s The Shakespeare Plays series. Maher has interviewed Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Stacy Keach, Zoe Caldwell, Martha Henry, Ben Kingsley and Simon Russell Beale, among others.

Alan Armstrong has PhD in Renaissance literature from Cornell University and served as Director of Shakespeare Studies at Southern Oregon University from 1986 until 2008. He has also been a senior scholar for the National Endowment for the Humanities national institutes for college professors at the American Shakespeare Center in Virginia and Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London, dramaturg for seven Oregon Shakespeare Festival productions and co-editor of the journal Literature and History.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival Actors: Telling the Story is available from Wellstone Press.

EB: How did you come up with the idea this book and why did you call it Oregon Shakespeare Festival Actors: Telling the Story?

AA: Mary has done a couple of interview-based books, and once she retired to Ashland, it was natural to think about one on OSF actors. Conversations with actors had always been an essential part of the Shakespeare Studies programs I directed at SOU, and I had published interviews with Dan Donohue and Robin Goodrin Nordli. We kicked the idea around for years before the right moment—when we both had time to pursue the project—finally came. The main driver of the project, of course, was the fact that we have an extraordinarily large and talented company of actors here in Ashland, some of the best in the country. They deserve more recognition.

MM: My philosophy about titles is that they should be straightforward and should duplicate the inquiry that is going on in the mind of a Googler or an Amazon searcher: “Okay, I want a book where actors are talking about performing Shakespeare.” How about Actors Talk About Shakespeare (the title of my third book). There. You got it. Done. Actors say frequently, “My job is to tell the story.” So the actor’s goal in life can be found in the title of our book. I submitted several ideas and Alan arranged them into one neat and comprehensive title, Oregon Shakespeare Festival Actors: Telling the Story.

EB: How did you pick the actors to focus on? It must have been difficult to choose?

MM: One would think so, but it wasn’t. We’d both flirted with this book idea, and when push came to shove, we decided to meet for coffee on the Starbucks on campus, and each was to bring a list of a dozen actors. It was astonishing how close we were. Even wilder was that we split the list in seconds, and both of us were happy with our choices. There are always a couple on your partner’s list that you were drooling to interview, but life being what it is–full of surprises–sometimes you stay jealous, and sometimes you say, “Whew. Glad I didn’t get that one.”

AA: Mary remarks in our introduction that choosing the actors was easy, in the sense that the lists we brought individually to that discussion overlapped so much that we could agree on a final list. But it was hard to settle on any list of a dozen actors, knowing that there were dozens of others we’d be just as eager to include. Practical considerations also narrowed the field. It made sense for me to interview actors I had worked with and known, in some cases for decades. We wanted a mix of veterans and new faces, and of different kinds of actors. Some of the actors we admire hadn’t been doing Shakespeare recently, or were leaving the company, or were busy with other projects. Any OSF playgoer who reads the book is likely to say, “Why isn’t X here, too? What were they thinking?” I would, too—but we couldn’t do a 600-page book. What we could do is make sure that at least twelve of those beloved actors are there, in print, forever.

EB: Who did you have in mind as the audiences for the book? OSF afficionados? Students training to be company actors? Theatre historians?

AA: All of the above. But playgoers were first in our minds. OSF has such a large and loyal and knowledgeable audience that we felt sure they would want to read a book like ours. The actors we interviewed are not just respected but loved; they have followers, who are eager to know more about their stories and their skills. At the same time, since conversations with actors have been part of my classes and symposia and NEH institutes here since the 1980s, I was very conscious of the book’s value for teachers and students—especially theatre arts students. The actors’ chapters are full of hard-earned, practical advice to those just beginning in the profession, about learning lines, building a character, handling Shakespeare’s verse, etc. And for me, the interviews are also an important contribution to theatre history. Theatre is still an ephemeral art. Any evidence that we can preserve of how theatre is made—especially the direct testimony of the actors at its heart—is priceless.

MM: This question answers itself once you have to write a book proposal. It is the premier question every writer needs to clarify at the outset of the project. Our book proposal lists as potential readers novice and wannabe actors, master actors, teachers of actors, Shakespeare buffs, retired teachers (of both theatre and literature), and those many dedicated patrons who visit the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Defining that audience also conveys a sense of the local-ness of this project. It might not sell well in New York, could pick up a few buyers at Utah Shakespeare Festival, but the truth is that our audience comes to us from the West Coast, the fans that frequent this festival. They’ve had favorite performances for years, and now that their children and their children’s children also visit the festival (or already live here and reap the benefits of fantastic artists like Michael Hume or David Kelly or Barry Kraft teaching at the high school and SOU), they are eager to hear from these gilded actors who strut and fret their hour upon the stage. The entire theater community benefits, and the actors benefit because there is now a documented career for a dozen of them, their own story told. Of course we as authors benefit—not just from the quality of the information these artists provide but from the imagination and breadth of experience they offer in the book.

EB: The interviews give a sense of just how hard the OSF actors work in preparing their roles. Were there some common themes that you identified in their process?

MM: Absolutely. We asked about training and early mentors and how each actor got the acting bug, which varies from actor to actor, something I’d noticed in my other books about Shakespeare in performance. Topics that came up regularly were how each actor handled memorizing the lines (which is vastly different if the play is by Shakespeare or by Schenkken); the amount of research done and what kinds–travel, books, film and TV-watching, seeing other actors’ versions played. Several reported on the three different performance spaces at the Festival and handling each one, also referencing directors, lighting, stage, and costume designers and valued colleagues. Most of the actors had a bias against miking the stages, a revealing dialogue, with facets I’d never thought through.

I hear lots of variety in these actors’ methods of preparing a role. This subject also has a time factor, e.g., what did the actor do in his/her earlier days; and how does s/he do it now. Role preparation depends on one’s perspective and ideas, and most importantly of all, on the playwright. Ours is a Shakespeare festival, one with a very high caliber of master actors at work with years of fruitful experience in performing classics. That is the foundation stone and true power of OSF. You don’t find this quality of acting talent across an entire cast or across the U.S.

Who could have imagined the tutorial power of Will Shakespeare? As I sat in The Cocoanuts for the fourth time this season, I couldn’t help thinking about three of our actors–Bedard, Kelly, and Tufts—as they dished up truly divine madness onstage, yet were propelled with a legacy of performing the King of Navarre and Launcelot Gobbo, Richard II and Benedick, Henry V and Puck!

AA: One common theme: there’s no single path, not just one right way, to become an accomplished actor. Each story is different, and even individual actors use all sorts of different techniques, depending on the role—whatever they can find in their toolbags to do the job. All our actors all talked about how they marked up scripts, researched a role, memorized lines, built a character, worked in the rehearsal room, spoke Shakespeare’s language, dealt with the physical demands of acting, met the vocal challenges of the Elizabethan Theatre. And on some of these points, they disagreed completely. Some actors like to have every line memorized when they walk into the first rehearsal; others don’t, because it constrains their choices. Some like to do a lot of external research for a role; others find that a distraction from the script.

All our actors talked about what it meant to be part of a repertory company, what made an ideal director, what kind of training young stage actors need (but increasingly don’t get), what opportunities when seized made all the difference to their careers.

EB: I understand there are some never-before-told behind-the-scenes moments. Can you share one or two?

AA: I’ll defer to Mary here.

MM: Once you accept that Ashland is a small town, you remember Shakespeare’s advice on this subject: “Open your ears; for which of you will stop the vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks?” “If false or true, I know not.”
That’s telling my story and I’m sticking to it.

EB: Mary has done earlier books interviewing actors. How are the interviews in this book different from the usual question and answer format?

AA: We started out in the conventional way, with a loose set of questions (focused especially on actor process), which we expected to be part of the book. But the interviews themselves made us start doubting the wisdom of the traditional format. Each of us, independently, remarked that our questions actually seemed to interrupt the flow of the interviews and disrupt the actor’s train of thought—not always a straightforward track, but always an interesting and illuminating one. I mentioned one day that all that was really required of us, at this stage, was to turn on the tape recorder and let the actors’ words flow. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but Mary and I both learned as we went along not to worry about “getting through our list” of questions so much as turning to them as prompts when the vein ran dry. But that didn’t happen often. Somewhere in the midst of our interviewing I ran across Holly Hill’s Actors’ Lives, which prompted us to wonder whether we, too, couldn’t in some way sieve out the questions and keep only the answers. Eventually, that’s what we did, by crafting the interview material into chapters or essays in the actor’s voice. That required cutting and some re-arranging—nobody’s conversation is perfectly linear and thematically organized—but the result was something that expressed better than a Q&A format what actors actually had to tell us about how they do their jobs.

MM: I’ve never used the question-and-answer format in any of my books because that method never tells the full story.

I’ve interviewed a number of hallmark actors–Kevin Kline, Derek Jacobi, Ben Kingsley, Kenneth Branagh, Stacy Keach–but I’ve never felt that a book about the subject of performance was comparable to the kind of feature you see in The Sunday Times Magazine. For one thing, the language actors use when talking about process is esoteric and abstract and often needs clarification for a reader who likes to explore this subject. The material needs context and framing throughout the chapters. People assume that an author does this very simple thing: asks people questions; writes the answers down. That part is actually the simplest and the most fun but far, far away from an effective, finished product.

I’ve used a number of formats, and I think Actors Talk About Shakespeare and Modern Hamlets and their Soliloquies guide the reader carefully through the interviewee’s methodologies and choices, but those books took years to write. There is a phrase you will hear once an actor has outlined how s/he actually works, how s/he completes the job: “That’s my aesthetic.” This pronouncement already tells you that there are several ways to shape a performance, and that each individual actor has figured out what works for him/her. As an interviewer, you accept that and you honor all those methods. In the actors we chose, the performance is proof of the actor’s process.

EB: Can we hope for more interviews in the future, perhaps a sequel?

MM: One hopes so. It really is too soon to tell.

AA: Certainly there are many more OSF actors whose voices and stories should be heard. But at the moment I’m satisfied to have had a part in capturing twelve of them. I’ve got other projects in the fire now—an essay related to the book, about using contemporary actors as evidence; an essay on doubling of roles in The Comedy of Errors; and another on Prospero’s hat. But first I’m going to spend some time in my kayak.

EB: What surprised you most in the course of the interviews?

MM: I was surprised and delighted at how many actors responded positively. Not just in terms of all of the individual personalities that a company brings to the table, but the eagerness with which each spoke, and how freely they wanted to share their work creating characters–the whole idea of process within the actor’s art form. These are consummate artists and wonderful story tellers. Even their most outrageous moments onstage were often divine inspiration. We sought to capture both the artist and the artist’s voice, which was truly the crux of the project and demanded discipline, judgment and many conversations about what would work in the book.

Two other story tellers, actor Stacy Keach, an alumnus of OSF, and playwright Robert Schenkkan surprised us both with lovely testimonials for the book’s cover.

AA: Not so much what the actors had to say—because I’ve worked with all but one in the rehearsal room, so I went into the interviews knowing something about them and about their processes, and that’s what we wanted to share with our book’s readers. What did surprise me was their saying that they rarely got the chance to really talk, reflectively and candidly, about how they do what they do. They talk to groups of playgoers or students about their roles, or about the plays they’re in. But the invitation to speak directly about the mysteries of their craft, to try to explain what happens when they’re up there on stage, and all the preparation that goes into making it happen—that’s an opportunity they really welcomed. And that confirms my original conviction that each of these actors is a kind of neglected treasure. As a Shakespeare scholar I’m conscious of the gaps and omissions in our knowledge of how Shakespeare’s plays were acted originally. I hope these interviews will make it easier for someone a hundred years from now to understand the theatre that existed in this moment in this place.

EB: What was the writing and planning process like?

MM: Frankly, we just dove in. I know 10 minutes into an interview whether or not the information is rich, like running your fingers through gold coins. All of these were.

In retrospect, we could have been a bit more cautious about stylistics from the get-go. But Alan turned out to be the Mastermind of Proofreading and shepherded that whole phase through the mire. You never forget that you learn how to write a book by writing the book.

We were forging a new process in removing the authors from the story on the page. That meant we were learning as we journeyed through our own process. Some actors were surprised to see that they were the single public voices in the book. But our outside readers adapted very quickly and with positive responses, so we were relieved that it was working. That did not, however, eliminate our own learning curve—but it certainly sharpened it.

AA: Long, sporadic at first, and always invigorating. We figured out the details, solved the problems, as we went forward. The last six months have been the hardest, pushing toward publication. Earlier, the interviewing was certainly time-consuming, 3-4 hours with each actor (never failing to appreciate that 3-4 hours of their time was a greater gift to us). Transcribing those interviews was incredible donkey work. Imagine how long it would take just to get down correctly the 30,000 words of one interview—and each of us had six to do. My wife, whose sociological research involves a lot of interviewing, kept asking me why I didn’t just pay someone to do the transcriptions. But the kind of intense listening I had to do just to get the words down is what really got the interviews—and especially the actors’ voices—into my head. And that’s what I needed for the next phase, which was arduous in a different way: distilling those 30,000 words into the 7500 or so that would represent, e.g., Danforth Comins. Our focus on actor process guided our choices in this phase, but it was still hard to cut the interviews. I can assure you that Danforth didn’t speak 22,400 boring or irrelevant words to me, words that I could just throw out without thinking. At each stage of editing, pruning was hard, because we had to sacrifice good stuff—e.g., Danforth’s account of his film work—in the interest of even better stuff, like how he prepared to play Hamlet for the second time. When we thought we had done this job as well as we could—at around nine or ten thousand words per interview—it turned out that we were really just beginning the hard work of editing. It took several more rounds of agonizing edits to make the chapters that you’ll find in the printed book. It was a challenge to keep seeing the interviews with a fresh eye, to imagine yourself a reader coming to each chapter for the first time.

EB: Do you edit each other’s work? Fight over commas?

AA: We did read each other’s interviews and make suggestions, but I don’t think either of us is dogmatic enough to have started a comma war. We’re both professionally trained to recognize that grammar and punctuation and syntax and style are often about conventions and preferences, not absolute rules. So we expected that our “rules” and preferences would differ, and that Mary’s interviews would have a different style of punctuation from mine (how much we used dashes or semicolons, or how we chose to emphasize words—italics? boldface type? capitals?). We were able to negotiate conspicuous differences, thinking mostly about how our choices would affect readers. No accent mark in Moliere, for instance, or footnotes, or citations—it’s an informal book. What made editing easier was a special circumstance of this book: we weren’t trying to impose our individual styles and voices. What we both were trying to do was to capture the actors’ individual voices—their rhythms, their vocabularies, their conversational styles. That goal trumped grammar and punctuation. We didn’t want to be “correct”; we wanted you to hear those voices in your head as you read the interviews, as we heard them when the tape recorder was rolling. I realized just now that I was starting to channel Jonathan Haugen there, except that he would have said: “We didn’t want to be correct. #%$!@&* correctness! Who cares? We just wanted you to hear those voices.”

MM: We fought over virgules (Alan won) and we fought together for colons, which neither of us won.
And yes, we edit one another’s work. You really have to, or you lose perspective if you only write in your own little cubbyhole all year long. I value Alan’s suggestions very much, and I suspect I am a different kind of editor to him than he is to me. I am sure that we both benefit greatly from one another’s point of view. The editing process is hugely long and complicated, and we pride ourselves on having a sense of decorum and even a sense of wonder about the quality of the material we got in interview.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

AA: Thanks, Ed—always a pleasure to talk with you.

MM: Thanks.

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Literary Ashland on the radio

Robert Arellano, Ed Battistella and Michael Niemann at KSKQ

Last week Literary Ashland teamed up with KSKQ community radio in Ashland to broadcast the Literary Ashland radio show. A monthly round up of literary events in the Rogue Valley together with an interview. Our first guest was Robert Arellano, a 2014 Literary Arts Fellow and author of Curse the Names and several other books.

Listen to the first show here and find out about Arellano’s “Dinner at Omar’s” and more:

Robert Arellano at KSKQ

Some of the upcoming events are:

•Ashland Book and Author Fair, September 20 at SOU’s Hannon Library (application deadline August 1)

•Friday Words and Wine (3rd or 4th Friday of the month) with Molly Best Tinsley, Broken Angels, Aug. 22

•Barking Moon Farm in the Applegate is hosting a benefit reading with a lineup of 14 writers on August 16th reading short selections from their work. All proceeds will go to Rogue Advocates, a local organization dedicated to preserving open space and productive farmland.

And congratulations to our friends in the mainstream media. The Medford Mail Tribune finished first in General Excellence and won 29 other awards in the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association’s 2014 contest. The Mail Tribune‘s sister publication, the Ashland Daily Tidings, claimed eight awards in the daily division of 10,000 circulation or less.

At the control board

On the air

Photos courtesy of Maureen Flanagan.

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An Interview with Michael Baughman

Michael Baugman, with his grandson Billy and a zombie friend

Michael Baughman, a freelance writer, has contributed to Evergreen Review, Sports Illustrated, National Wildlife, Honolulu Magazine, and many other publications. He is an emeritus professor of English at southern Oregon University and the author of Boat: A Memoir of Friendship (Arcade Publishing, 2012), A River Seen Right: A Fly Fisherman’s North Umpqua (Lyons Press, 1995), Mohawk Blood (Lyons Press, 1995), and (with Charlotte Hadella) Warm Springs Millennium: Voices from the Reservation (University of Texas Press, 2000). His latest book is Money Sucks: A Memoir on Why Too Much or Too Little Can Ruin You (Skyhorse Publishing 2014).

EB: Why did you write this book? Did you have a particular goal or audience in mind?

MB: Unless I have an assignment from a magazine or newspaper, I never have an audience in mind, so I suppose that makes most of my writing largely self-indulgent. For me writing books is a way to force myself to deal with an idea, an issue, a problem, a place. The goal is to produce something that seems to make sense, to clarify something, to work as writing. The typical American obsession with money – making it, spending it, wasting it – has fascinated me since I was a child.

EB: You also wrote Money Sucks for your grandson. What was his response when he read it?

MB: My grandson Billy called me from Denver late one night to tell me he’d read the book straight through and liked it very much. We’re close, so of course he wouldn’t have admitted he didn’t like it, but I believed him.

EB: What do you suppose shaped your attitudes toward money the most—having enough or not having enough?

MB: Three things come to mind:

I think a frantic quest for money ruined my father’s life. He was a successful businessman who, despite his success, was never satisfied. He could never stay in the same job, or town, or house, or apartment very long. When I was a schoolboy between the ages of ten and seventeen we moved from Pennsylvania to Texas to California to Hawaii and back to California again. But he never found happiness, or even satisfaction, and smoked and drank himself to death at age sixty-one.

At Punahou, an expensive private prep school in Honolulu, I established friendships with many boys and girls who were either born rich or became rich, and these friendships have lasted more than sixty years. Some of these men and women are fine people, but I’ve seen nothing in any of them that suggests they’re more satisfied with their lives than most middle-class people I’ve known. In fact, the miseries of the rich are often phenomenal.

After dropping out of college I bummed around the country: forty-eight states in a year-and-a-half, working odd jobs and sometimes homeless. True poverty is horrible, but I found that so-called working class people often seemed like more substantial human beings than the very rich.

EB: One lesson of the book is that there is more to a good life than money. How would you characterize a good life?

MB: As I tried to suggest in the book to Billy: live in a place you want to be, and do work you truly want to do. The Hawaiian beachboys I knew growing up were the happiest group of people I’ve ever seen.

EB: What should we be teaching about money in the schools? If you were designing a personal finance curriculum, what would it be?

MB: I’m not sure exactly what we should be teaching. What I am sure of is that what Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America remains true today: “As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?”
So I suppose schools should expose students to such sentiments, and the exposure should lead to serious discussion and thought.

EB: I once heard someone characterize having too much concern for money as hoarding. Would you agree?

MB: I’ve known money hoarders, such as the couple I call “The Texans” in the book. They hate to spend it, but they love having it. That strikes me as a form of mental illness. Also in the book, I quote a retired CEO who surprisingly admits that the pay received by CEOs is obscene, and that competition is at the heart of the grotesque ratio between CEO compensation and average worker pay. If the boss at Corporation A gets twenty million a year, the boss at Corporation B wants twenty-five. That’s a form of mental illness too.

EB: Have you heard from any of the folks you profiled? Rich and not so rich? What did they think?

MB: I’ve heard from some of the not-so-rich. They were all right with the book. I sent the retired CEO a copy, but, even though I quoted him accurately, I never heard back from him. That doesn’t surprise me.

EB: It was interesting for me to learn about your work as a professional writer for Sports Illustrated and other publications. How is that writing different than the academic writing that we teach students?

MB: I was a Special Contributor at Sports Illustrated for several years, and wrote mostly on outdoor and environmental subjects. I think I was covering significant material that SI readers wouldn’t normally have been exposed to. Nowadays the magazine is pretty much for hard sports only. I don’t like to distinguish between different kinds of writing. All writing should be clear, economical and well organized, and it should deal with a significant and/or interesting subject.

EB: You also spend some time in the book discussing sports and athletics. What is their role in education?

MB: I played major college football, and I don’t have anything good to say about big-time college sports in general. Just as there are fine people among the rich, there are fine young men and women among college athletes – but the sports programs at the big schools are ridiculously overemphasized. I don’t see how anybody could deny it. And here we are back with money. Look what happened at Penn State. The sexual abuse of children was tolerated for years because of the money earned for the school by the football program.

EB: You are officially retired from academe, yet you continue to write. Does one ever retire from being a writer?

MB: I can’t not write, and I’ve been writing more than ever since I retired. It’s a necessary part of the day for me, as necessary as anything I do.

EB: What’s your next writing project?

MB: I have a novel coming out next spring, tentatively titled Growers Market. It’s about combat veterans growing illegal marijuana, with many subplots included. I’m working on another novel now, and also on an Afterword for a new edition of A River Seen Right.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

MB: Trying to answer questions about my own work gives me a better understanding of what I’ve done. Thank you.

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An Interview with Diana Maltz

Dr. Diana Maltz is a specialist in late-Victorian literature and culture. She has been a professor at SOU since 1999 and served as Chair of the Language, Literature, and Philosophy Department. Dr. Maltz received her BA in Literature and History from Bennington College, and both her MA and PhD in English from Stanford University. In addition to about twenty published essays and articles, she is the author of British Aestheticism and the Urban Working Classes: Beauty for the People, 1870-1914, published in 2006 by Palgrave Macmillan. She is recently back from a UK-US Fulbright Fellowship in England and we sat down to talk about her new book, a critical edition of Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago, published by Broadview Press this past fall.

EB: What is A Child of the Jago about?

DM: This Victorian novel tells the story of Dicky Perrott, a boy growing up in the Jago, a squalid, impoverished, violent slum, based on the notorious Old Nichol in London’s East End. Dicky acclimates to the ethics of the Jago and becomes a skilled thief, working for the neighborhood fence and dreaming of his ultimate ascent into the High Mob. But he also has leanings toward respectability, and these are cultivated by the local priest who would save him from Jago ways.

EB: How did you get interested in Morrison?

DM: I was lucky enough to study Morrison’s Jago and some of his short stories as a grad student in the mid-1990s. Peter Miles’s excellent paperback edition of Jago had just come out through Dent/Everyman in 1995. I like to think my cohort was the first generation to read Jago in a classroom setting. Everyone was very struck by the novel. Several friends from that class teach it now that they are professors.

EB: So you committed yourself to a critical edition of it. What is a critical edition, exactly?

DM: In a critical edition, an editor frames the original novel with a critical introduction, a timeline of the author’s life, footnotes to clarify terms in the main text of the novel, and a bibliography of recommended readings. Sometimes editors include maps and illustrations. If the novel is written in a dialect unfamiliar to the general reader, the editor might add a glossary, as I did. An editor of a critical edition also works to even out variations in spelling or correct typos through “silent edits.”

Many of us are familiar with the Penguin Classics editions from college: these are standard critical editions. However, the Broadview Editions are special because the end of each edition includes cultural appendices, which are excerpts from relevant texts written around the same time as the novel. These include reviews of the novel, but they also extend to thematic writings beyond it. Depending on the novel, you might find a mix of religious tracts, medical treatises, or parliamentary reports, just to name a few.

For A Child of the Jago, I built up a selection of appendices relevant to slum life. I underlined the topics that haunt the novel and that preoccupied Victorian social reformers seeking to cleanse and reform the city: eugenics, hooliganism, women’s sweated labor. I also documented late-Victorian efforts in cultural philanthropy – that is, efforts to teach slum-dwellers higher values and tastes. These charitable schemes are parodied in the novel.

EB:
What in particular prompted you to develop Jago as a critical edition?

DM: I started teaching it my first year at SOU in 1999. By then, the only available edition was the Academy Chicago edition, which is very bare-bones: no footnotes, no appendices, only one map, a very short biographical introduction, and a short bibliography of recommended readings at the end. I started bringing in my own additional texts to class as teaching supplements: photos, maps, non-fictional testimonies about the neighborhood. These would later form the basis of some of the cultural appendices of my edition.

It seemed the natural next step to write to Broadview and ask if I could do an edition of the novel for them.

EB: Who is the audience for the work? It seems ideally suited for classroom use.

DM: Yes, Broadview Editions are marketed as teaching editions, primarily for the undergraduate classroom. One of the most positive aspects of the experience was that SOU awarded me a President’s Mini-Grant through which I was able to hire an SOU student, Carly Dreyfus, as an editorial assistant. Carly was a tremendous help. She gave me insights into what modern student readers would want footnoted and what they would find interesting as appendices.

EB: How does A Child of the Jago compare with other slum literature?

DM: We can situate A Child of the Jago in a couple of literary and social contexts. It frequently gets allied with the late-nineteenth-century literary movement called Naturalism, famously advanced by the French novelist Émile Zola. Zola was interested in the dire combination of industrial urbanism, poverty, addiction, and violence. He framed Naturalism as a kind of literary science that sought to represent the lowlife methodically and objectively.

But Morrison was himself very resistant to being pulled under the umbrella of any one movement. In fact, my edition includes his Preface to the Third Edition of Jago, where he upbraids a critic H.D. Traill for labeling him as a “Realist” and for then saying his Jago is too foul to be genuinely realistic. Morrison found himself at the center of a public debate – trying to defend his creative practices as an artist while also asserting the truthfulness of his representation of the Old Nichol slum.

In the 1890s, there was also a small school of writers who were experimenting with writing phonetically on the page in order to recreate Cockney speech. They included Morrison, Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling, and other authors who are largely neglected today, such as Edwin Pugh, William Pett Ridge, and Richard Whiteing. Morrison also tends to get paired with the English novelist George Gissing because both wrote on London poverty, and certain aspects of Morrison’s Jago resonate with Gissing’s earlier novel The Nether World (1889).

EB: What was the most challenging thing about preparing the work?

DM: I was intent on selecting appendices that professors would really want, and so I sent out a survey to about 20 people who teach the novel. I included my provisional table of contents in the email, urging colleagues to suggest additions and also replacements for my original texts. Everyone had new appendices to suggest, but no one questioned my original choices. So the appendices ballooned. At one point, I had written introductions to about 40 of them, and then I bit the bullet and emailed my editor to ask what my allotted word count was for that section of the book. I had more than double the permitted word count! So I spent a very dark January hacking away at my sources and reducing the appendices to 20 sources.

But in the long run, it was a very good thing that I did ask people, since I arrived at more diverse and interesting selections than I would have on my own. Professor-friends gave me permission forego more predictable, canonical sources in order to make space for lesser-known writers. I have more texts by women than I originally included. I have two excerpts from the oral history of Arthur Harding, a gangster and ex-con who had grown up in the original Old Nichol slum. The Hardings were a notoriously powerful local family, something like the feuding gang families of Ranns and Learys in the novel.

EB: Tell us a bit about Arthur Morrison. He seems to have been quite a colorful character—a journalist, novelist and art collector. He even wrote detective fiction—he’s been compared to Arthur Conan Doyle.

DM: Morrison was by all accounts a shy, reserved person who kept a low profile. He grew up in the respectable working class in Poplar, East London: his father, an engine fitter at the docks, contracted tuberculosis and died just before Morrison turned eight. Morrison’s mother then took on the management of her mother’s sewing goods shop (“haberdashery” in British English). Morrison went to local schools and, as a teenager, left school to work as an office boy for an architect for the London School Board. He rose to the status of Third-Class Clerk before he left in 1886. His next job was as a secretary to the Beaumont Institute, which administered the People’s Palace, a philanthropic cultural center in the East End. While working for the People’s Palace, Morrison served as sub-editor of The Palace Journal and published short sketches there about London life.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Morrison’s biography for the modern reader is his reticence about his working-class roots. When Traill and others questioned his representation of the Jago, he might have silenced them by asserting his identity as an East Ender, but he did not. In my book introduction, I suggest at least a couple of reasons for his reserve. First, his home neighborhood of Poplar was at least a 45-minute walk from the Old Nichol. So Morrison never identified with his Nichol subjects at all, but positioned himself as an observer, recording their ways almost anthropologically. Morrison’s further silences and prevarications in other contexts — during author interviews and census investigations — indicate a general reluctance to confess his working-class origins. But we shouldn’t consider this mere snobbery on his part: it was the survival strategy of an author trying to make his way in late-Victorian culture. He had a wife and child at home, and, given that he was a self-employed writer, his class position was a vulnerable one.

He had begun his writing career by contributing columns to magazines. To be a good journalist and earn a living by his pen, he had to be versatile. The detective fictions you mention were a lucrative venture, especially since he began his most famous series, the Martin Hewitt stories, in the wake of Sherlock Holmes’s descent over Niagara Falls. He did so at the urging of his editor, who saw there was a new gap in the market. His detective fictions have a following among readers today.

Morrison had grown up close to the docks of East London, where curio shops sold items from the Far East. He collected prints and paintings from Japan long before they were valued as rarities. He eventually gained prominence as an authority of Asian art, especially after publishing The Painters of Japan in 1911. The sales of his collections were the basis of his fortune – not his royalties from fiction writing. He worked as an art consultant (and unofficially as an art dealer) long after he ceased writing slum fictions.

EB: Was Jago controversial? Well-received?

DM: The novel was controversial and well-received. It went through several editions relatively quickly. But the critic Traill was not the only one irked by Morrison’s representation of the Jago. Morrison’s fictional slum is the site of vivid brutality, with spontaneous outbreaks of large-scale gang violence. Crowds rampage through the streets brandishing street railings and pokers as weapons. Women and children join in the fighting. One female character gnaws the napes of her victims like a dog; another uses a broken bottle to slash the face of her enemy. The actual residents of the Old Nichol slum and several philanthropists and school administrators at work there took umbrage at this portrait of their district as a zone of barbarity. Morrison’s friend and mentor, the local minister, Rev. Arthur Osborne Jay, felt compelled to back up Morrison’s claims in a letter to the press. It had been Jay who invited Morrison to visit the slum in 1894 and who urged him to write on it. In my footnotes, I trace places where Morrison seems to draw on Jay’s own published writings for statistical information and anecdotes.

The verdict today is that Morrison was selective in the facts that he appropriated for the book. It is true that there were terrible street fights and clearly some historical figures were violent alcoholics whom the locals feared and avoided. Like Dicky, children did steal tobacco off the back of vans (“van-dragging”). But Morrison omitted the presence of civilized institutions within the boundaries of the slum: a savings bank, a cloth warehouse, schools, chapels, and a strong network of charitable organizations serving the community. One philanthropist provided children with country holidays away from the city. There was an active association for tenants’ rights, which sought to expose absentee slumlords. Morrison ignores all of these in order to portray the slum as hopeless and impermeable by the wider society and, in some scenes, he represents the inhabitants as unselfconscious, atomistic, and avaricious.

In her excellent history of the Old Nichol, The Blackest Streets (2008), Sarah Wise also notes that by the time Morrison arrived on the scene to research and write his novel, demolitions had already begun on the slum and the social fabric of the neighborhood had been transformed. Original residents had moved away and squatters had arrived from other parts of the city to camp in the buildings about to be torn down, in the hope that they could get compensation from the London County Council. So, in essence, Morrison was recording a moment that had already passed into history.

EB: I know that the book has a lot of interesting slang.

DM: Yes, this novel is unusually immersive: it pulls you into its own universe because of the intensity and allure and comprehensiveness of the Jagos’ language. My students talk about getting “into it.”

For instance, in one passage in the book, the High Mobsmen have gathered to lay odds on a neighborhood fistfight, and the locals identify each Mobsman by his crimes: “Him as done the sparks in from Regent Street for nine centuries o’ quids” [the man who stole the diamonds from Regent Street for £900]; “Him as done five stretch for a snide bank bill an’ they never found the oof” [the man who served five years in prison for a counterfeit bank check and they never found the money]; “Him as maced the bookies in France an’ shot the nark in the boat” [the man who swindled the bookmakers in France and shot the informer in the boat (probably the channel boat back to England)]. These lines are pretty intensely Jago and denser than most. But it is almost uncanny how only a few pages into the book readers almost-unconsciously acquire enough fluency to read along in a gallop (although the footnotes help!).

One of the great early lines in the novel occurs when Dicky’s mother warns him that if he steals, he will be arrested and sent to prison. He dismisses her, saying, “It’s the mugs wot git took” (it’s the fools that get caught).

While I was working on the edition, I used to joke that I was “in the Jago,” and like Dicky, I might never get out. But one of the pleasures of being in the Jago was that I had people to talk to who were just as absorbed in the book as I was. My editor in Canada and I never met, only communicated by email, but I loved that someone else was deep in details of the novel with me and wanted to produce the best possible edition of it.

EB: Can you tell us more about the slang?

DM: Many of the 600+ footnotes define Cockney terms and thieves’ cant in the novel. I am going to leave you with a few words and phrases to share with friends in the hope that we will all be talking broad Jago one day.

    Peter-claimer: a thief who steals luggage from train platforms
    Snidesman: a counterfeiter
    Lob-crawler: a thief who robs the cash register
    Click: robbery
    Yannups: money
    Hook: a pickpocket
    Toy and tackle: a watch with its chain
    Pogue-hunter: pickpocket dealing in purses
    To flimp: to steal by having one person bump into the victim from the back, while another robs him from the front
    In stir: in prison
    To cut one’s lucky: to make a getaway

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

DM: Thank you.

Posted in Ideas and Opinions, Interviews, Language | Comments Off

Dot, Dot, Dot, a guest post by Celia Johnson

Celia Johnson will be starting her Masters of Arts in Teaching program this summer at Southern Oregon University.

Dot, Dot, Dot

“It doesn’t say Molly and Roger, Forever. It says Molly and Roger Forever… dot, dot, dot! Like maybe it’s forever, maybe it’s not.” – The Truth About Forever, Sarah Dessen

The most fascinating part of the ellipsis is that at its most basic definition it means a lack of something, or nothing at all. When looking into the classical uses of this piece of punctuation I was shocked to find almost no reference to the current uses of the ellipsis in a formal style guide. However, as the quote above demonstrates the ellipsis has taken on new meaning in the speech and writing of today. This change is not restricted to the youth and new generations, but by an entire network of technology using writers.
In order to understand how the ellipsis has taken on new meaning, it is important to know the definitive rules of usage that have been used throughout writing history. Although there are some slight variations between style guides the most concise definition came from Grammar by Diagram, “An ellipsis of three dots indicates that words have been omitted from the direct quotation. No ellipsis is needed at the beginning or end of a direct quotation if it is clear that words have been omitted” (Vitto 305). Although Vitto and some other authors go on to examine more carefully the usage and placement of the three dot ellipsis, and even four dot ellipses, there was never more than a page of detailed examinations of the punctuation mark. That might not seem odd with a period or even a question mark which are incorporated into the basic grammar lessons of young elementary classrooms, but the ellipsis is not taught very often and has a much more complicated use. In fact, even the name of the ellipsis is fairly unknown. It is most often referred to as the “Dot, dot, dot,” or the three periods.

The ellipsis does not have the large sweeping history of usage change, or even of usage. Until recent shifts in daily usage, the most controversial arguments that surround the ellipsis is whether it was three dots or four, spaced or grouped, and how to pluralize the word. There is a difference between three and four dot ellipses. The three dot ellipsis is used at the beginning or middle of a sentence when a period is not also essential. A four dot ellipsis is more common in the middle of a quote or at the end of a sentence when an omission and the end of a sentence are occurring simultaneously (Vitto 306). A good example of correctly used three and four dot ellipses is in dialogue when only on side of the conversation is being written: “Hello, may I speak to the manager please … Oh, OK, can you help me? … Please send the bloodmobile right away … Have you got a pen ready? … I’ll give you the address….” (Taylor). There is a serious of three dot ellipses in use because the speaker is either ending statements as questions, or is being interrupted on the other half of the conversation. However, the last line in cut off and the end of the statement requiring the four dot (ellipsis and period) ellipses.

Unlike other punctuation marks which are single characters, the ellipsis is made up of three dots, but how do you type out an ellipsis? Do you put spaces in between the dots? The answers to those questions are not as straightforward as one would assume. Some style guides show a preference for no spaces because it can take up too much space on the page, or even cause your reader to forget the information at the beginning of the sentence. The Elements of Typographic Style, author Robert Bringhurst suggests using dots right next to each other or inserting a special character that utilizes spaces smaller in width (305). Some typing programs are programmed to insert that special character whenever the user inserts an ellipsis. However, additional style variations may completely disagree. The Chicago Manual of Style suggests typing out three dots, “there is the potential for character-mapping problems—the ellipsis could appear as some other character across software and browser platforms—an added inconvenience. So it’s best to type three spaced dots, like this: . . .” (“Chicago Manual”). The spaced version is most accepted by schools and official writing styles such as MLA and APA. All ellipses are automatically changed to that version in Microsoft Word and Google Documents. Finally, the plural of ellipsis is ellipses, which is extremely confusing when typing a paper about them.

Although the ellipsis has found its use in the world of formal writing, it has been carving an entirely new niche in informal writing. Media such as texting, posts, tweets, and emails have all been affected by the introduction of the ellipsis. Even the users are confused as to how they picked up the habit of adding those three little dots at the end, or middle, or beginning of almost every communication. Lukeman in his grammar guide, A Dash of Style, warns against the overuse of the ellipsis and how its use becomes a writers addiction ““In an amateur’s hands, though ellipsis points can be a problem. They can become a bad habit a crutch to use whenever a writer doesn’t know how to firmly end a sentence. Worst of all… some writers think that merely because they conclude with (…) it will force the reader to read on” (Lukeman 189). Used sparingly the ellipsis can help lead a reader through a time jump, quotation, dialogue, and even into the emotion of uncertain. But informal writing has reinvigorated the punctuation mark into the queen on a chess board instead of the king. In this faction of communication an ellipsis can move in whatever direction she chooses, and become the agent of emotion, inflection, and implied meanings.

The ellipsis has ensnared more than just teenagers; there are countless blogs and articles written by writers who have found themselves entangled in the ellipsis revolution. “Recently it struck me that I have been using ellipses (. . .) quite a bit in my informal writing. Like most people I compose at least a few emails each day and while, by most standards I am an infrequent texter, I do send out a modest amount. In both of these formats I’ve been dot, dot, dotting left and right” (Sacasas). Teenagers, parents, college students and even professional writers have been affected by the trend of inserting ellipses. There are many different uses for it, each with a slightly different effect which has become second habit to read and comprehend. And it is not always easy to figure out why.

Some might suggest that it is out of laziness, but typing three dots takes more time than one. So why has this piece of punctuation taken over our writing? The theory that seemed most prominent and logical is that we are using ellipses more often in messages that still convey our personal voice. In formal writing we can avoid usage, but when we want the audience to read it with our inflections they start to appear more frequently. Matthew J.X. Malady, a writer and editor for Slate Magazine, noted his own usage: “I was delivering drifting, whiny telegraphs of emails: ‘Hey… this is great… I don’t know when I’ll get to an edit but… one thing is you should think about the ending there… but maybe I’ll find one in the middle for you, so don’t worry too much… okay more soon!”’ (1). While Malady found that his usage made him sound less authoritative in tone, the quote does read conversationally. Adding a more inviting conversational tone to texting, emailing, and updating statuses is a trend that has been evolving for some time. Teenagers have been dropping declarative sentences instead opting for phrases and patterns that display humility and the possibility of being wrong. A comedy sketch replicated this pattern perfectly using the ellipsis as the punctuation of choice: Declarative sentences … so called, because, they used to you know … declare things to be true … ok … as opposed to other things that are like totally … you know … not … They’ve been infected by this tragically cool and totally hip interrogative tone … as if I’m saying, “Don’t think I’m a nerd just ‘cuz I’ve like noticed this okay … I have nothing personally invested in my own opinions … I’m just like inviting you to join me on the bandwagon of my own uncertainty …” (Sacasas). Once again, this style of writing and speech is allowing for the input of others, allowing the speaker to not take a strong position and avoid offending anyone else. While this style of usage is prominent it is not the only one, and can sometimes even be reversed with the usage of ellipses.

Many text messages read with more emotion when adding the ellipsis. Some people use them to indicate flirting, while others use them to show worry or sincerity. A phrase that changes drastically in meaning with the addition of an ellipsis is the simple phrase ‘hi’. When an ellipsis is placed before the word ‘…hi,’ it can indicate a reluctance to start the conversation. The parties involved might have been fighting and the person sending the message is the one angry. If you reverse the order ‘hi…’ it indicates that the sender might be worried that the other party is angry. Using of the ellipsis to display emotion allows the user to communicate how they are feeling without being too harsh or overwhelming. One example is the statement “I had a really great time…” by adding the ellipsis there is an implied flirtiness that can be ignored without causing humiliation to the sender.

Of course in order to make the usage of an ellipsis successful the reader needs to understand the implied meaning. The ambiguity can be confusing if the reader does not know the sender very well, or projects their own meaning to the text instead of the intended. Malady did a small experiment by sending out ten random texts to his friends and family with no meaning behind them. The results were ten completely normal responses, thus demonstrating how the receiver will fill in meaning when an ellipsis is in use. “Next I sent an even vaguer text to my mom: “All Star Game………….” Who knows what I meant by that one. I didn’t, certainly. Sure, the All-Star game was on TV at the time, but beyond that, what was I getting at? Mom wasn’t fazed in the least: “I’m falling asleep…Really tired” (2). When the intent can be discerned by the reader the ellipsis can be a great writing tool to show emotion, invite conversation, ask a question, or even just demonstrate a lack of a response.

The ellipsis is being repurposed, and in some cases writers have developed an addiction to the usage. It is versatile, takes little thought, and runs the least amount of risk of offending someone. However, when the usage starts to interfere with professionalism and clear communication an intervention might be necessary.  

Works Cited

Bringhurst, Robert. The Elements of Typographic Style. Point Roberts, WA: Hartley & Marks, 2004. Print.

Lukeman, Noah, and Noah Lukeman. A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. Print.

Malady, Matthew J.X. “Why Everyone and Your Mother Started Using Ellipses Everywhere.” Slate Magazine. 29 July 2013. Web. 28 May 2014.

Sacasas, Michael. “Dot, Dot, Dot.” Web log post. The Frailest Thing. N.p., 10 Aug. 2011. Web. 28 May 2014.

Taylor, Luke. “Grammar Grater®.” Minnesota Public Radio News. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 May 2014.

“The Chicago Manual of Style Online: Chicago-Style Citation Quick Guide.” The Chicago Manual of Style Online: Chicago-Style Citation Quick Guide. 28 May 2014.

Vitto, Cindy L. Grammar by Diagram: Understanding English Grammar through Traditional Sentence Diagraming. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2009. Print.

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An interview with Tod Davies, author of Jam Today Too

Tod Davies is the author of Snotty Saves the Day and Lily the Silent, both from The History of Arcadia series, and the cooking memoirs Jam Today: A Diary of Cooking With What You’ve Got and Jam Today Too: The Revolution Will Not Be Catered. She is the editorial director and publisher of Exterminating Angel Press and has worked as a screenwriter, film and television producer, social activist, radio show host, actor, and amateur cook.

Davies lives with her husband Alex, and their two dogs, dividing their time between Colestin, Oregon, Boulder, Colorado.

We sat down to talk about Jam Today Too.

EB: Jam Today Too is a memoir of great meals, and it’s revolutionary, spiritual, and funny. What were you aiming at?

TD: Wow, those are great targets! I don’t think I was consciously aiming at any of them, although come to think of it, they’re all combined in what I WAS aiming for: to really encourage everyone (and this includes myself most of all) to realize and act on the fact that any kind of positive change in the society at large has got to start with the individual. We all have, not just a stake in the world around us, but a responsibility to try to change things for the better. And we can do that. We can! I meet too many people who think the whole landscape is just too overwhelming, there’s nothing to be done, let’s just give up. Completely wrong, and, if I might be so bold, lazy, too. What we can do, every one of us, is become ever kinder, ever more knowledgeable about who we actually are and what we are actually doing. And then, most of all, what each one of us can do is learn what truly makes us and the people around us happy…and then get doing it! Honestly, a truly happy, balanced life is the single best contribution you can make to the polity. It’s contagious. Really. And food can help us find that happy balance.

EB: I like the way you’ve organized things into different life events: food for disasters, grief, home, friends and feasts food for oneself and, of course, food for thought. Where do you think our food associations come from?

TD: From our bodies, of course! What our bodies are trying (sometimes, these days, almost desperately) to tell us is who we are, and what are our real, authentic human needs. The more the poor body’s messages get drowned out by frantic media stimuli, drugs (recreational or otherwise), and/or commands that counter what the body needs, the farther we get away from what food really means to us. And since food is nourishment, and nourishment is what keeps us healthy and alive, we can see where obliterating that message is going to get us.

EB: How do you keep track of meals? Are you a food diarist?

TD: I used to be. I have a whole book chock full of menus from meals I particularly enjoyed with (sometimes hilarious) notes attached. Now I just find when a new recipe really impresses me, I want to sit down and write about the circumstances surrounding it. Hence the Jam Today series.

EB: You’re an advocate of cooking without worrying too much about recipes. Why? Do strict recipes get in the way?

TD: I think there’s a place for ‘strict’ recipes. They are terrific as a benchmark of a certain kind of excellence…if they’re good recipes. Certain cookbooks are great for this. Julia Child, of course—if you follow one of the recipes in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” you are going to get an undeniably excellent result. James Beard. Deborah Madison. And for every day cooking, Marion Cunningham. But what I’m trying to get across is the art of strengthening one’s personal autonomy through the meditation of cooking every day. If you interact with a recipe, instead of letting it dictate to you, you’re already starting to change your way of interacting with other authority sources as well—mass media, for example. You’re questioning, you’re interposing who you are into the stated ideal, you’re ACTING. That’s what I’m after. That’s what I’m always interested in supporting.

EB: Do you have a favorite non-recipe from the book? I’m personally excited to try the dried tomatoes.

TD: Really, my favorite non-recipe is the cup of tea. I make that every day of my life. And tea gives me more pleasure than red wine, even. Imagine that! (But I do have to admit, that dried tomato recipe is hugely useful in my kitchen. In fact, I have a bowl of them in the fridge even as we speak.)

EB: You’ve listed the cookbooks in your kitchen. Do you have a favorite or two? What are some must reads for cooks or eaters?

TD: I have a short bibliography in the book about both the cooking memoirs I love, and some of my favorite cookbooks. But there are so many. The ones I like best are the ones where you get a clear picture of the character of the person writing them. These are not necessarily always those that have a lot of prose attached to the recipes. Deborah Madison, for example, who I think can be called the Julia Child of vegetarian cooking. You just know from her recipes that she’s the kind of friend you would want to have if you were hit by some kind of personal disaster. She’d be right there, and she’d be able to give you the best advice. I love reading her recipes. Fergus Henderson, of St. John Restaurant, is another one where you just know you would love to sit down with him and a couple of glasses of wine. There are others.

Obviously M.F.K. Fisher is a must read for ANYONE, let alone anyone interested in food. And Elizabeth David is always a pleasure, though I must say, reading her you know she would probably look down on any “little person’s” efforts. That is a bit annoying of her. But she so loves what she’s doing that I tend to forgive her snobberies.

EB: Your husband is a vegetarian. How does that complicate your omnivoracity?

TD: It just adds another dimension to the never endingly fascinating game of deciding what we want to eat today. And I am really grateful to Alex for being a vegetarian. Twenty years ago it opened up a whole new world of cooking to me. He’s the one who got me onto brown rice. Which I now adore to the extent that I think white rice is an active bore. Thank you, Alex!

EB: You mention some bad meals you have had in restaurants. Do you have a favorite worst meal?

TD: We ate a meal in Hull, in England, that was so spectacularly awful, as well as poisonous, that I still remember it with something approaching awe. It was at a chain restaurant that shortly thereafter went bankrupt, and no wonder.

While the poisonous part of the meal is best left unmentioned, the bizarre part was the salad, which was composed of: Diced avocado. Canned tomato pulp. Partially defrosted frozen raspberries. And a blueberry-honey vinaigrette. It was the most astonishing desecration of the noble avocado I have ever come across. To this day I cannot get over how someone would do that to an avocado, when all you have to do for maximum enjoyment is cut one in half, take out the stone, squeeze a lemon over the whole thing, dab it with maybe a little soy sauce, and ENJOY.

That salad was so memorable, I wrote it into the script of the film we did later: THREE BUSINESSMEN. One of the businessmen orders it in the restaurant in Liverpool. He is exactly the kind of fool who would, too, that character.

EB: There seems to be a lot of umami. Is that a favorite flavor?

TD: They do say that people are one or the other: those who enjoy savory foods, and those who enjoy sweet. I’m definitely one of the former. If you give me a choice between blue cheese and chocolate, it’s blue cheese for me every time. Although nothing against chocolate.

EB: After a flood, your kitchen was remodeled. What’s new?

TD: It’s pretty much the same kitchen—only better. It always had the perfect triangle for me of refrigerator, stove and sink, and it has always had a pretty view out the window of a meadow. But now the cabinets are actually beautiful and designed for my own uses. And best of all, oh heaven, the countertops are now granite. Before they were the weirdest, most useless display of tiny one inch avocado green tile. This kind of counter is impossible to keep clean. As well as being hideous. It was almost worth having a flood to get rid of it.

EB: You also have a section on the portrayal of men in the kitchen. Why are they portrayed as either geniuses or bunglers?

TD: For one thing, because both those images are of individualists unconnected to anyone or anything around them…and this is one of the major myths of our culture, the myth of the individual who triumphs or fails ALL ALONE. Both of these stereotypes come out of an idea that we all act in a kind of ideal void, separate from the actual web of community and event we are truly embedded within.

Most men I know—and certainly the ones I know who enjoy the arts of the kitchen—understand this. They understand that food is an opportunity for mutual celebration, rather than individual aggrandizement. It’s ‘look at us!’ rather than ‘look at me!’ I do think that attitude should get more acknowledgements in the mass media than it does.

EB: Thanks for talking with us. I’m off to try your recipe for “The World’s Best Upside-Down Adult Hamburger.”

TD: It’s fabulous, I promise. And don’t forget to fry more onions than you think you’ll actually need. You won’t regret it.

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Summer 2014 — what are you reading?

This summer I’m planning on catching up on some reading: Tod Davies’s Jam Today, Too: The Revolution Will Not Be Catered, a bunch of books by Megan Abbot and Wallace Stroby and whatever is new from John Sanford and James Lee Burke. And I’m hoping to get to José Saramago’s The Cave (suggested by Robert Arellano, Ivan Doig’s This House of Sky (suggested by Les AuCoin),

I asked some soon-to-be SOU grads what they were planning to read, once their course work was behind them.

Haley May is looking forward to Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit, Confessions of an Eco-Sinner by Fred Pierce, Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris, and The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins.

Julie Kanta recommends Adulting by Kelly Williams Brown, which she has already read but says has lots of great information on what to do after college. And it’s funny. She’ll be reading some books based on some of her favorite films: American Psycho, A Clockwork Orange, A Good Year, Out of Africa, and Stephen King’s short stories (Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and more).

Kristy Evans is going to read The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman and An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin, among (many) others.

Celia Johnson will be reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace and Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris.

Lefty Barber would like to start The Game of Thrones series and work through the Collected Essays of David Foster Wallace.

Holly Deffenbaugh can’t wait to read is A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving and The Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts.

Daniel Alrick will be reading The Other America by Michael Harrington.

New dad Randal Lee will be reading Christianity and Liberalism by John Gresham Machen and All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque.

Matthew Kent will be tackling Midnight’s Children and The Silmarillion.

And I heard from a few faculty colleagues too about their summer reading plans. Diana Maltz will be reading the Life of Pi, since she is planning on teaching a new class on The Animal in Literature in the fall.

Charlotte Haddella is planning to read both of Mary Szybist’s books: Incarnadine and Granted (Mary Sazbist will be the Chautauqua Poets and Writers headliner in the fall).

For fun, Bill Gholson will be reading All I Did Was Shoot Your Man: A Leonid McGill Mystery by Walter Moseley. He plans to read lots of nonfiction too starting with I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts by Mark Dery.

Margaret Perrow is looking forward to What is the What? by Dave Eggers and also hopes to finish The Kite Runner this summer.

Bobby Arellano is hitting the Oregon books with Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey and The Klamath Knot by David Rains Wallace.

How about you?

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The Food Blog, or the evolution of the online culinary narrative

Published in 2005, Digital Dish compiled culinary bloggers’ notes, reflections and recipes before blogging was as huge a home industry and commercial tool as it is today. Linderholm says in his introduction, “At the time this book begins, in the summer of 2003, there were fewer than 50 food blogs that were easy to track down. By the time the book ends, in the summer of 2004, there were several hundred.”

Today it seems as if sites like Grub Street, Foodista, FoodNetwork, Christopher Kimball’s empire and Eater dominate, but no, the power of individual influencers reign: here’s Saveur’s vote, here’s HuffPo’s, here’s the Weblog Awards, now in it’s 14th year, the International Association of Culinary Professionals gives firsts to blogs in several categories, and there are several pretty big conferences dedicated to food blogging, among them: Foodista’s International Food Blogger Conference (bloggers get in for $95 watta deal!), BlogHer Food (food is just one of BlogHer’s content areas), and IACP (more professional, mixed culinary professions).

But back to Digital Dish: Five Seasons of the Freshest Recipes and Writing from Food Blogs Around the World. Organized by season and indexed by blog, recipe and main ingredient, the work provides a fascinating perspective on a transitional period in culinary narrative, as the web evolved into a more personal form populated by WordPress and at the same time more commercial, fueled by advertising. Digital Dish is text rich, with long musings, detailed recipes and comments by Linderholm. Brand names are almost never noted in ingredients or in the narratives. The urls of the blogs are convoluted typepad and BlogSpot addresses and are not optimized. There are few photos in Digital Dish, though the actual blog posting probably had more. Today, photos rule and text often takes a back seat or is even a no-show in blog entries. Bloggers are courted as paid brand ambassadors, their blogs openly promoting brand partners.

Researching each of the blogs noted in Digital Dish, and their bloggers would be a really interesting project; understanding the evolution and transformation of early influencers.

Sadly, some of the blogs cited in the work are no longer active – checking Spiceblog, hitting a domain for sale page.

Some of those that are active have migrated to later software with updated templates and contemporary color palettes, though again, for some, posts are infrequent or not current. Looka! last posted in 2013, commenting on the use of “weblog”, some distain resonates as he mentions the clipped, contemporary form, “blog”.

Some bloggers may have migrated to other digital platforms, as Sasha Wilson (A Girl’s Gotta Eat) seems to have done: “dudes, i moved to instagram. find me there. blogging regularly is totes too difficult for these crazy times. but i’ll update this here and there…”. And others may have moved to digital platforms managed by others, to share the work of keeping content current.

At least two stalwarts are still active, Cook Sister and Domestic Goddess.

Ultimately, blogging is a huge investment of time and energy and so we have a debt to these early bloggers who made such an investment to an early digital narrative form. They paved the way for all who followed. My thanks too to Owen Linderholm for preserving these early writings in print, many probably now lost to time.

First posted to Goodreads.com in April 2014.

 

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An Interview with Robert Antoni, author of As Flies to Whatless Boys

Robert Antoni is the author of five books: Divina Trace, Blessed is the Fruit, My Grandmother’s Erotic Folktales, Carnival, and As Flies to Whatless Boys. He earned an MA from the Johns Hopkins University and a PhD from the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. Among his honors are Guggenheim Fellowship, the Commonwealth Writers Prize, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the NALIS Lifetime Literary Award from the Trinidad and Tobago National Library.

Antoni lives in Manhattan and teaches in the graduate writing program at The New School University. We recently had an opportunity to talk about his latest book, As Flies to Whatless Boys (Akashic Books, 2013).

EB:What prompted you to write this book?

RA: I was leafing through an old Trinidadian memoir, and in the Appendix I came across three paragraphs on John Adolphus Etzler, his machines, and his Tropical Emigration Society (TES). I was fascinated. But what struck me as still more amazing was a footnote to the description of Etzler: that despite the tragedy that ensued with his experiment, several well-known families were established in Trinidad. And last among the list was my mother’s surname, Tucker. Yet my mother had never heard of Etzler or the TES. The only story she knew was that our first relative to arrive from England in Trinidad, William Sanger Tucker, settled the rest of his family in Port of Spain, and left immediately with his fifteen-year-old son, Willy, into the jungle—she had no idea why. And six weeks later young Willy brought his father back to his family in a makeshift stretcher carried by himself, an African, and two Warrahoon Indians. He was dying of yellow fever, to which he succumbed following morning. That was all my mother knew. But suddenly I realized that my mother’s bizarre and horrific story made sense if the Tuckers had been part of Etzler’s experiment. I was determined to find out. So I went to the National Archives in Trinidad, and to the British Library in London, and I gathered together everything I could find about Etzler and his society—including his own published treatises, complete with mechanical drawings of his machines. And I began to pour through the mountain of photocopies, looking for the surname, Tucker. Eventually, I stumbled across it, again and again, and I realized that the Tuckers were indeed counted among Etzler’s first group of Pioneers to land in Trinidad. Not only that, William Sanger had been instrumental to building the Satellite, Etzler’s agrarian mechanism powered by the wind that would have planted the crops and performed all the labor upon the land. But the culmination of my research was the discovery of a letter, fished out of William Sanger’s pocket on his deathbed, and addressed to the editor of The Morning Star—the journal published in London that followed the progress of Etzler’s society, where the letter was mailed and eventually appeared. That letter is the only description we have of the settlement where Etzler’s great plan for humanity came to fruition, and met with its tragic end in a matter of weeks. Once I’d fond that letter, I was hooked. No turning back.

EB:I was fascinated by Willy’s language. How did you fashion Willy’s voice, with its particular cadence and creole-like grammar?

RA: That’s the language I grew up with. It’s the language of my grandfather on my mother’s side, who in his last years, lived with us in our home. He was also named William (a popular Tucker name—my own middle name, too). Having said that, Willy’s language is also an invention, a fabrication, including the grammar. It is an attempt to get that spoken language down on the page, in a way that is both readable and convincing—hopefully, even for readers who have never traveled to the West Indies. It’s the most agonizing and enjoyable aspect of my writing. And all of my books, to greater or lesser extent, are written in some form of West Indian vernacular—or vernaculars. It’s what I live for, as a writer anyway.

EB:Willy also used a lot on wonderful expressions like “What the arse” and terms like “to mongoose” “boobooloops” and “cockspraddle.” Are they authentic or a product of literary license?

RA: They’re both: a combination of well-known Trinidadian colloquialisms and invented words (which Trinis do as a matter of habit). “What the arse” comes from the contemporary “what the ass”—my attempt to make it feel both slightly archaic and British. A mongoose is of course that small rodent common in India (there are lots of East Indians in Trinidad who were brought initially as indentured laborers, and have contributed substantially to the culture and language). So a “mongoose” is commonly used by Trinis to mean a sly, shrewd, conniving, and artful scamp—like Etzler. The calypsonian, Lord Invader, had a popular song called “Sly Mongoose”. But as far as I know I’m the first person to use it as a verb. “Boobooloops” is a popular expression for an over-weight, ungainly, clumsy person—it’s one of those wonderful words that looks like its meaning. Finally “cockspraddle” should really be “catspraddle”, and anyone who has ever owned a cat will know exactly what that means. The thing is, I had already used two cat metaphors in that same paragraph, so I had to think of something else: I half-invented “cockspraddle”.

EB:The theme of language is all through the work. What did you have in mind by having Marguerete born without vocal cords? What is it she is unable to say?

RA: There is nothing she is unable to say in her silence. And in her curt notes to Willy, she says it more succinctly, perceptively, and profoundly than anybody else. But that’s precisely the point. That’s how she knocks Willy off his feet. Etzler and everybody else is all talk. But one of the reasons I wanted to make Marguerite mute was to have her contrast Miss Ramsol, the Director of the Trinidad National Archives who, in the contemporary strand of the story, is assisting the “author” (named Mr Robot, her pronunciation of Robert) with his research—which also turns into a romance. Miss Ramsol communicates to Mr Robot via emails written in what I call a “Trini-vernacular-cellphone-textspeak” (meaning that it contains lots of numerals, abbreviations, and not a single full stop). Miss Ramsol’s emails spill off the page, just like Etzler’s speeches and his own writing. But Miss Ramsol was the easiest character I have every written, and Marguerite was definitely the most difficult. For so long she felt contrived. I just couldn’t make her believable. Eventually my partner and first editor, Ali—an amazing writer herself—told me that Willy has to fall in love with Marguerite not in spite of the fact that she is mute, but because of it. That was exactly what I need to hear. It was the key to bringing her to life.

EB:The parallel love story between the writer Mr Robot and the archivist Ms. Ramsol, who lets him “subjuice” her. That seems to have been a lot of fun to write and an interesting commentary on evolution of language. What did you have in mind?

RA: The only thing I had in mind was to have fun.

EB:Is “subjuice” a real usage?” If not it should be.

RA: All mine, and thanks.

EB:The title alludes to the line from King Lear “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods. They kill us for their sport.” Why “whatless”?

RA: It’s a fairly well known West Indian colloquialism meaning worthless, useless, eagerly destructive—basically without what. Contemporary spellings are wotless and wutless. But I wanted to go back to the origins of the word, almost as a way to suggest in that word the evolution of language (even though I knew that to spell it that way would piss some Trinis off—they’d say I got it wrong). But I wanted the word to appear familiar and at the same time a little strange to all of my readers, including my fellow Trinidadians. Also, I wanted to let my readers know, right from the title, what they were in for—language-wise at least. It’s like saying, right from the title, read at your own risk! Nobody who picks up the book can tell me I didn’t warn them! Of course, there are a million reasons for using the quote from Lear in my title, one being that there are parallels to Shakespeare’s play throughout the novel—including Gloucester’s blinding, the character who speaks the line of the title. I’m also, somewhat underhandedly, attempting to elevate the stature of my own story simply by association with the master. But Lear is Shakespeare’s history play that is also a family saga, and it is a tragedy, with ample comedy (thanks to the Fool and others), just like my own story. Last, I am constantly rewriting Shakespeare, and Walcott, and all of my mentor-masters-and mistresses, just as they did. What else can a writer do?

EB:What is your next project?

RA:R & R.

EB:Thanks for talking with us.

RA: Pleasure.

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