April 29: One Story’s ball & Anna North at Chapters

Next Friday night, April 29, I’ll be introducing debut novelist and Jezebel blogger Anna North at Girls Write Now’s Chapters reading at St. John Church. She’ll read from her forthcoming America Pacifica, a dystopian story set at the dawn of a new ice age and narrated by an 18-year-old girl who’s searching for her missing mother and has been addicted to huffing solvent. I know the book will resonate with the girls in our program, who are also reading that night. Join me!

Afterward, I’m rushing off to The Invisible Dog Art Center for One Story’s Literary Debutante Ball, a huge annual party benefiting the excellent and tireless literary magazine. The ball will present five One Story writers who’ve made their debuts in the past year and honor author Dani Shapiro. The host will be Isaiah Sheffer of Public Radio International’s Selected Shorts, and there will be specialty cocktails, music by swing band Lapis Luna, dancing, and a silent art auction.

I’m on the Benefit Committee, as are actors Jamie Lee Curtis and Andrew McCarthy, writers T Cooper, Amy Hempel, A.M. Homes, Leigh Newman, Dolores Rice, George Saunders, and Jim & Karen Shepard, and art world impresarios Mark Hage and Paul Morris. Join me here too!

The auction is curated by the artist David Goodman, and you can see the artwork, including Sarah Aphrodite’s leopards at the top of this post, in the One Story slideshow. You can also support the magazine by bidding remotely.

A talk with Philip Connors, fire lookout


Most of us who threaten to flee the city for a shack in the wilderness don’t get any further than making terrariums and insufferably holding forth in bars, but eight years ago Philip Connors actually quit his job at the Wall Street Journal for a fire lookout post in New Mexico. In the intervening years, he’s written some magnificent essays, and now he’s published the book I’ve been waiting for, Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout.

As his friend Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, recently told the Observer, “Phil only writes about things that are actually of interest, of urgent interest. He’s a very direct writer, and very honest, and free of vanity.” He’s also the kind of writer who forces himself, at every turn, to confront the possibility of failure, and as a result his writing is lean and clean and distinctive: unpretentiously learned, wildly evocative, and often very funny (though not all his jokes go over so well in these parts).

I talk with him today at The Paris Review Daily. Head over there for the main event — and then, if you’re curious, some outtakes from our conversation are below.

I wonder if writing Fire Season was as complicated and emotional for you in its own way as telling — in an also beautiful, but wrenching, n+1 essay — the story of your brother’s suicide.

This was easier, I think, although in both cases I was dealing with an experience very dear to my heart. For the n+1 essay, I went back over years of notebooks and compiled every single entry that dealt with my brother’s death and my feelings about it. I thought that would help clarify the arc of my grief, and maybe I could write an essay or even a book based on what I found. It turned out those journal entries were the story: the arc was there, the story had already been written, it had just sort of happened over the course of six or eight years without my realizing it. In writing about my lookout experience, my notebook entries turned out to be insufficient on their own. I had kept diaries of each fire season for years. There was interesting stuff in them. There was an arc to each season. But it was sort of the same arc year after year, with slight variations in the details, and so much of what I knew was not to be found there: stories about the history of the landscape, mainly. So while the essay about my brother’s suicide involved paring away material to get at what was essential, Fire Season was more about expanding on what was there in my notebooks, shaping and ordering the stories for pleasing effect. It was a much more joyful experience. Continue reading…

Comprehensive slang immersion

Thanks to Jonathon Green’s magnificent three-volume Dictionary of Slang, which arrived yesterday compliments of Oxford University Press, I’ve already learned that the first recorded use of “bad shag” dates to 1788, that to “beat skin”* (1944) doesn’t mean what you think, you pervert, and that the term “dude” was once (1883) considered so offensive that “a vigorous Bloomington woman cowhided a clerical editor for calling her a dudess.” (Eternal disclosure.)

“Courage pills” (1933) are heroin in tablet form. “Coño,” a hometown favorite, gets an entry, as it should; in Miami, it’s actually pretty mild, often used in place of “damn,” but you might want to look it up before you run out into the streets and start yelling it at people. As for “douchebag”: raise your hand if you’d like to see a usage shout-out to Alex Balk, circa TMFTML; has any single man in history worked as tirelessly, and as effectively, to restore an epithet to the lexicon, with so little recognition?

More to come — I’m still making my way through Volume 1 — but for now do read Colin MacCabe’s review for the New Statesman. An excerpt:

In these three volumes, Green has dared to put slang on the level of The Oxford English Dictionary, offering illustrative citations, arranged in historical order, for all of his headings and subheadings.

Such a venture runs into the problem that slang has a particular affinity with the spoken rather than the written language. And, indeed, with the exception of certain 17th-century dramas, the early sources are mainly specialised “canting” dictionaries that promised to furnish the innocent countryman with a guide to the evils of the city. It seems to be impossible to imagine slang without cities, without worlds in which anonymous figures can speak to you in words you cannot understand.

The rise of the novel led to an ever-increasing representation of forms of speech both low and high – and slang is always refreshingly low. The significant burst of written sources comes with universal literacy and pulp fiction at the turn of the 20th century. But then there is also cinema, as well as popular music, television and now the internet. Green, with an industry to match Dr Johnson’s, has ploughed through his sources, and offers, in his Dictionary of Slang, both an extraordinary contribution to our understanding of the history of the language and one hell of a good read. If we take our three underground phrases and consult Green, we find that the use of “pig” as a word for the forces of authority dates back to the end of the 18th century and the struggles that pitted the corresponding societies against Pitt’s repressive state. One further discovers that “get one’s act together” comes from United States black English, probably the single most fertile source of slang in the 20th-century anglophone world and the source of such other staples of the countercultural vocabulary as “heavy” and “groovy”. “Front”, in the sense of to advance money, is first quoted as late as 1961, but “bread” in the sense of money dates back to 1938 – though all the quotations place it in that creative linguistic circle that surrounded black music.

It is here that one might note the main weakness of this breathtaking labour of linguistic love. Green has made his corpus almost all the anglophone world (excluding Indian English and world English), but the links and differences between the various types of English, and between American and British English in particular, are not clear enough. Thus, if you consult the entry for “pussy”, you will find that the word dates back to 1699 and there are plentiful entries from 19th-century British pornography, but it is not signalled that all the early- and mid-20th-century examples are American. Yet when I, as an 18-year-old in Paris in 1967, was accosted by three marines on leave from Vietnam and asked if I knew where they could find pussy in Pigalle, although I understood from context and attitude what they meant, it was the first time I encountered the word, still more widely used in the US than Britain.

If you and I had plans to get together anytime, ever, I’m sorry. You know what I’ll be doing with the rest of my life.

Updated to add: Ben Zimmer praises Green’s dictionary in the weekend’s New York Times Book Review.

*To applaud, to clap; recorded in 1944 Jiver’s Bible.