Now I know how the Archangel Michael felt

In case you missed the excitement: was compromised again. Although the attack was less dramatic than the Russian pharmaceutical hacking of 2008, it took more time than expected for us to get everything back up and running. Some of the posts still look a little buggy — garbage where quotation marks and emdashes should be, images aligned strangely, etc. — but I’ll do my best to fix them in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, if you maintain a website and are running an old version of WordPress, update now, even if the switchover borks your stylesheet. Trust me on this. Also, if you’re relying on Dreamhost for hosting, get the hell out while you can. I should have gone to Media Temple years ago.

Many, many thanks to Lowell Allen for painstakingly extracting and cleaning my files, and to Max for quickly adapting this new format to my purposes. Still contemplating a full redesign, but I think I’ll sit with what you see here for a while.

After more than a week of panicking like the unicorn in the hunt, I’m feeling kind of like Michael vanquishing the Antichrist. (Our holiday festivities included a trip to The Cloisters.)

Fears, impulses & dangers I’ve been sensitized to

I’ve written plenty of autobiographical essays, and I’m sure I’ll continue to write them, but at the LA Times I try to explain why I’m working on a novel rather than a memoir, even though I’m mining my own life for the book. I’m fascinated, in general, by the relationship between truth and invention in fiction, and have posted on the subject often. See, for example, Welty v. Maxwell on autobiography in fiction; On the importance of what is culled; On the melding of fact and invention in fiction; and On the melding of fact and invention in fiction II.

And it’s been weird, over the years, to watch my experiences and the people from my past morph into completely different episodes, completely unrelated characters, so that fact has given way, I hope, to some kind of deeper emotional truth. In case anybody unearths my old Story South story, which has made its way (in significantly altered form) into my novel, for instance: I feel compelled to say that the churchgoer I mentioned in the LA Times essay, the one who showed up at our door naked, has transformed into “Luke” — a character who is far, far less like the man himself than he is like my friend Rocky, A/K/A Robert Moak, A/K/A a churchgoer and crack addict who later perished in Hurricane Andrew when he tried to weather the storm in an abandoned houseboat.

The real naked guy actually did make the news for stealing a cop’s car to get to us, though. The St. Pete Times (left) and other papers around the state picked up the story.

Here’s a slightly expurgated version of The Miami Herald article:


ANN MACARI Herald Staff Writer

Coral Gables Officer Ron Greene said he was only trying to do his job and shield residents from a full-fledged display of human anatomy. But police and city officials say that is no excuse for what happened. No doubt about it: The naked man who stole Greene’s patrol car has caused the policeman some grief.

Continue reading…

Susan Ramsey interviews Bonnie Jo Campbell

Poet Susan Ramsey and I have been corresponding for years, since she worked as a bookseller and I actually had time to answer my email, and she’s been urging me to read her friend Bonnie Jo Campbell almost that long. When I finally do crack the spine on American Salvage, I’m sure I won’t be disappointed. Ramsey is basically never wrong.

The National Book Awards judges might agree. Last month Campbell was named one of the 2009 fiction finalists.

Below, in advance of the final prize ceremony, Campbell talks with Ramsey about writing, mathematics, obsession, Flannery O’Connor, killing characters, drinking the Eastern European equivalent of Everclear, and untrustworthy chickens.

When nominations for the National Book Awards were announced in October, there was a double-dark-horse contender, Wayne State University Press’s nominee Bonnie Jo Campbell — a university press nominating a little-known writer. Though reports of her rookiehood have been greatly exaggerated (her collection Women and Other Animals won the AWP award and her novel Q Road was published by Scribner), A.S. Byatt hasn’t been sitting up nights worrying about her.

Still, the six-foot tall blonde in the Carhartt coveralls is, as Mel Brooks almost wrote, world-famous in Kalamazoo and when Maud invited me to interview her for the blog I jumped at the chance. I’d pulled garlic mustard with Bonnie Jo, I’d de-stemmed elderberries with her and argued books with her, but I’d never interviewed her. We met at  Eccentric Café, usually a quiet place on a Sunday evening, but that night we’d hit their All Stout’s Day, and it was standing room only. We managed to score a couple of caustic red wines and huddled at a picnic table in the beer garden to talk about writing.

N.B. In order to shorten the transcript by half I have usually omitted the aside [laughter]. Imagine it preceding and following most questions. Tone is a truth like any other.

SR: You got a B.A. in philosophy followed by an M.A. Mathematics. How did an M.F.A. in Creative writing slip in there?

BC: Well, I always wanted to write, but writing is one of those fields where you come up against a lot of obstacles, and it seems like the writing isn’t going to pay off.

As opposed to mathematics?

Mathematics can pay off, actually — good jobs in mathematics. I always wanted to do creative writing, but I was just insecure about it, because everybody wanted to do it. It was like the handsome guy everybody wanted to have for a boyfriend — that was creative writing. And if they all wanted him, I didn’t want him. So I decided I would do math; that would show how smart I was.

But I always wrote, and I wrote all the time. I wrote essays, I tried different things. But after a couple of years in graduate school mathematics — I was in a PhD program, I took my preliminary exams and I did okay, I was in good standing, but I found I was just weeping all the time. Just weeping — every time I sat down to do some proofs I would just weep. Continue reading…

Aunt Maude: teacher, car dealer — and Twain fan?

Maud is a nickname now, one most of my friends call me, but it started as a pen name. I chose it years ago as a sort of homage to Maude Newton, my great-great aunt, a woman nobody wanted to answer questions about.

For the longest time, I only really knew about her marital separation by peppering. Then census data told me her husband’s last name: Simmons. And in a letter earlier this fall, my granddad’s cousin mentioned that Maude was a schoolteacher.

Now here she is, above, at 92, in her King Midget, The World’s Lowest-Priced Car. The photo is taken from James Dickerson’s May 1977 story for the Delta Democrat-Times.

Apparently Maude had seen the company’s ad in National Geographic and called up to say that she’d like to be the Midget Motor Corp dealer for Sunflower County, Mississippi. The top brass were amenable.

When her first King Midget arrived on the train from Athens, Ohio, more than 12 years ago, Mrs. Maude Simmons, 92, of Drew said that Main Street was filled with curiosity seekers.

“It was my first car,” Mrs. Simmons said. “And I couldn’t drive an inch. The man who taught me was a driving instructor at the local school, and he taught me all I needed to know in about two or three days.”

Although she got a deal on the car, which cost her $500, Maude told Dickerson “it was not an easy decision to make.”

“‘My family didn’t want me to do it,’ she said. ‘So I listened to them for about a year. Then I wrote the company anyway and told them to send me a car.’”

As for the King Midget itself, Dickerson reports:

Not everything has worked out the way she planned, though, over the years she has been unable to sell a single King Midget…. But there are also advantages of a unique sort.

“I ran off the road once,” she said. “I wasn’t sure what I was going to do about it, when some fellow came along and helped me out. It wasn’t any trouble at all. He just pulled it out of the ditch by hand.”

The article also reveals that Maude’s house was filled with books and magazines, and that she met Simmons in Indiana, where she had a job in an architectural office. “‘I learned how to do house plans there,’” she explained. “‘In fact, I did the plans for this very house I’m living in right now.”

She also remembered teaching in southern Mississippi “‘when we had Halley’s Comet.’” “‘That was 1910, the year Mark Twain died,’” she adds. “‘When the comet came over we all went outside to have a look.’”

Twain was born shortly before it passed, and died the day after its return. “It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet,” he reportedly said. “‘The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’”

Like most people, Maude, who was born in 1885, got to see the comet only once. She died in 1981, at the age of 97.

Did Theodora Keogh, a favorite of Patricia Highsmith, write a novel satirizing The Paris Review?

Theodora (Roosevelt) Keogh, the mysterious novelist, ballet dancer, wildcat owner, chicken farmer, and president’s granddaughter whose fiction inspires comparisons to Colette, was living in Paris with her first husband, artist Tom Keogh, when The Paris Review started up in the early fifties.

As I mentioned in The Week this summer, Tom’s drawing of Keogh (at right) appeared in the first issue of the magazine. Her own work, however, was never published there.

My favorite of Keogh’s novels, My Name is Rose, depicts a talented woman and unfaithful wife who, rather than focusing on her own art, has married a would-be novelist who works as a cultural critic. Like the new magazine that employs him, the husband has little native aesthetic judgment but is attuned mostly to the way the wind is blowing. His editor is likewise preoccupied with tracking all things hip.

After I found out about Tom’s drawing, and read what information is available about the doomed marriage, I began to wonder if Keogh wrote My Name is Rose partly to satirize the upstart Paris Review and its acolytes.

Joan Schenkar, author of the forthcoming Patricia Highsmith biography The Talented Miss Highsmith, became friendly with Keogh, one of few female writers Patricia Highsmith praised, while researching her subject. “I wanted to know,” Schenkar told me, “who could have produced a novel that impressed [Highsmith].”

The Talented Miss Highsmith arrived in the mail earlier this week. One fascinating passage — in which Schenkar revisits Highsmith’s praise for Keogh’s Meg, and explains why the book would have resonated with the steely Mr. Ripley author — incidentally lends credence to my intuition that Keogh didn’t care for The Paris Review.

It was in Queens, too, where Pat [Highsmith] joined a girl gang, another faintly delinquent experience she remembered with great pleasure in the last decde of her life. It was the “activity” of the gang — “they mostly ran around and had meetings, a lot of physical movement” — that Pat liked: the same active life she was later to admire so much in men. Her gang memories undoubtedly colored the wonderful review she gave to Meg (1950), a first novel by an ex-ballet dancer who also happened to be the adventurous granddaughter of a U.S. president. The ex-dancer’s name was Theodora Roosevelt Keogh and she lived in Paris with her husband Tom Keogh, resolutely refusing to give her publisher, Roger Straus, permission to trade on her illustrious name. A favorite of her formidable aunt, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Theodora shunned The Paris Review crowd (they ignored her work as well, as they ignored the work of most women writers), and went on to write novels of such piercing sensual perception — a marriage of Colette and L.P. Hartley — that composer and diarist Ned Rorem remembers her from 1950s Paris as ‘our best American writer — certainly our best female writer.’

Pat wrote her review of Keogh’s novel Meg for The Saturday Review in April of 1950. It was Pat’s first published piece of criticism — one of the few reviews she would ever write about a work authored by a woman — and it is probably the most favorable review she ever published. The novel about which Pat was so untypically excited is a wayward work, with just the kind of heroine who would appeal to Pat: a preadolescent, androgynous prep school girl from the Upper East Side of Manhattan who carries a knife, dreams of being suckled by lions, blackmails her lesbian history teacher, runs with a wild gang of boys from the docks, and has a distinctly undaughterly reltionship with the father of one of her friends. In the last sentence of her critique of Meg, Pat left no doubt about how much of herself she saw in Theodora Keogh’s young heroine.

“Such an admirable personage is she with her banged-up knees, her dirty sweaters, her proud vision of the universe that, remembering one’s own childhood, one wishes one had kept more of Meg intact.”

See, previously: Keogh’s The Double Door; Keogh’s My Name is Rose; Highsmith on writing; and Highsmith’s snails.

Can’t get enough of The Paris Review Interviews

My appreciation of The Paris Review Interviews I-IV is up at NPR. An excerpt:

The advice on offer to aspiring writers is vast– and sometimes contradictory. In his introduction, Orhan Pamuk recalls discovering Faulkner’s interview while he was holed up with his first novel after dropping out of architectural school, and finding the answer to the question that seemed most urgent: “What sort of person should I now become?” An artist, in Faulkner’s view, is “completely immoral in that he will rob, beg, borrow or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done. … The writer’s only responsibility is to his art.” Toni Morrison would disagree. “Why should I get to steal from you? I don’t like that. What I really love is the process of invention.” These strongly held opposing views, bound between the same covers, give the volumes immense energy.

You can read the rest here. In related news, The Paris Review’s third editor, writer Philip Gourevitch, announced last week that he’ll be stepping down next spring to focus on his own writing.

For previous Paris Review interviews-related posts, see On running guided tours through your work; too far down: on writing and the emotions; the voluble Ms. Porter; literary quotes 5 and 7.