Sunday, October 28, 2007

Studs Terkel tells his story

Studs Terkel's Touch and Go.

Looking back over ninety-five years of life with an eye to writing a memoir is a daunting task, even for veteran storyteller Studs Terkel. The bestselling, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of a dozen books of oral history, among them Hard Times, Race, The Great War, and Hope Dies Last, Terkel summons up memories redolent with sensuous detail and shaped by his irreverent humor, concern with justice, antennae for drama, and unfailing sense of how the small things unlock the large. Here he is, a boy of eight in a New York café, sensing that “something illicit is going on” between his father and Natacha Rambova, Rudolph Valentino’s wife. But he is a “child pragmatist” attuned to his father’s “burdens,” and willing to enjoy his father’s trust and the sweet drink unperturbed. And there it is, Terkel’s madeline, and a clue to his future success in bearing witness to people’s lives with curiosity, understanding, and respect. Writing with a gruff lyricism rooted in the literature he loved by his friend Nelson Algren, whom he describes bluntly as “nutty as a fruitcake,” Steinbeck, and Flannery O’Connor, Terkel recounts his formative years at the front desk in the working-class Wells-Grand Hotel in Chicago run by his father, his graduation from University of Chicago’s law school, and his serendipitous entrée into radio and early television success. Roguishly funny and candidly self-deprecating, Terkel recounts one atmospheric, keenly detailed, and rousing tale after another of adventures in a life of conversing. His musings on music and theater reveal the secrets of his success in shaping conversations with people from all walks of life, and his recollections of the great movements for workers’ rights and racial equality, as well as his own blacklisting and the FBI’s long surveillance, lead to bracing observations about current predicaments. “Remember,” is Terkel’s refrain, and his dazzling memoir reminds us that in memories personal and collective reside wisdom.

You can order Touch and Go here:

Saturday, October 27, 2007

New interviews, inspiring conversations

We've posted new interviews in fiction and poetry. Some are freshly recorded conversations with three significant and very different writers: Junot Diaz, George Saunders, and Ann Patchett. The others are interviews from our archives with no less remarkable writers. All are worth listening to.

I've had the great pleasure and privilege of speaking with readers and writers this week at two distinctive and, each in their own way, historic venues. The Nineteenth Century Club in Oak Park, Illinois, and the Guild Complex in Chicago. One a venerable, Corinthian-columned philanthropic institution founded in 1891 and dedicated to lifelong learning and community building; the other a vibrant and arty neighborhood literary center established in 1989.

You can learn a lot about a place by visiting its rest room. The ladies' lounge at the Nineteenth Century Club, which was founded by women for women, is a gracious parlor with wall fixtures, Victorian furniture, old photographs and intricate lace under glass made by the founders. And a recently created plaque listing some of the famous women who have used this ladies' room in the past, among them Amelia Earhart, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Indira Gandhi, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ruth Page, and Jane Addams. After reading this illustrious roll call, I corrected my posture, felt like an impostor, and went in to the lovely dining room to partake of a luncheon well-served on good china. The room was filled with a symphony of bright conversation. Then the talkers and diners were transformed into an attentive, receptive, and smart audience of book lovers concerned about the shrinking space accorded books in newspapers, and desirous of an ongoingly vital "culture of the sentence," to use Cynthia Ozick's phrase. How would we know who we are without literature?

The Guild Complex is on busy Division Street in the Chopin Theater. The Chicago/International Writers Exchange was held downstairs in an art-filled, low-light room furnished with vintage couches and chairs. The short description of the exchange is: "A discussion of literary cultures and literary practices between writers from Australia, Bulgaria, Egypt, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Russia, and Chicago." First, we served box luncheons which we balanced on our laps. Twelve incisive writers, one in-awe moderator. More on the amazing conversation anon, but for now a big big thank you to our international guests: Linsday Simpson, Aziz Nazmi Shakir-Tash, Hamdy El Gazzar, Lawrence Pun, Nirwan Dewanto, Ksenia Golubovich, our international guests. And to Chicago's Francisco Aragon, Rosellen Brown, Tom Montgomery-Fate, Tyehimba Jess, Alex Kotlowitz, and Bich Minh Nguyen.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

In praise of reading: Orhan Pamuk

Other Colors: Essays and a Story by Orhan Pamuk

Leave it to Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk––author of the novels Snow and My Name is Red, and the nonfiction work, Istanbul: Memories and the City––to turn what could have been simply a solid essay collection into a beautifully spiraling, meditative sequence of memories, dreams, ideas, and reflections. By gathering some of the brief, quickly written lyrical essays he published in a weekly magazine in the late 1990s, portraits of his family, various speeches, literary essays, interviews, and responses to politics and events, including the terrible earthquake that struck Istanbul in 1999, Pamuk allows readers to get closer to his inner world than the authors of most memoirs. What comes across most hauntingly is the tension between Pamuk’s utter devotion to writing, and his recognition of how very few people share this passion, and of how very few books will stand the test of time. Pamuk is, accordingly, humble about what he calls the “clerkish” aspect of writing, the patience required, the long hours of solitude. But he is also exalted, believing that it is only through novels that we can truly understand what life is like for others.

Put on trial for having “publicly denigrated Turkish identity” by writing and speaking out about the Armenian genocide––a century-old denied crime currently stoking the worsening situation in Iraq and contributing to the controversy over Turkey’s role as an ally to the U.S. and potential member of the European Union––Pamuk is keenly sensitive to the full significance of freedom of expression, and writes with candor and valor about political matters. But, clearly, he is happiest recreating the atmosphere of his beloved Istanbul, reporting on his travels, and musing over the work of his favorite writers, among them Faulkner, Dostoyevsky, Borges, and Camus. There is at wistfulness and grandeur in Pamuk’s essays, a mix of pain and joy that is at the heart of the human experience.

Pamuk writes so unaffectedly about the “pleasures of reading,” listing among them the way a book allows the reader to “escape the sadness of everyday life and spend some time in another world.” Pamuk also writes that reading, especially when he was young, “was central to my efforts to make something of myself, elevate my consciousness, and thereby give shape to my soul.” In comparing words to images and reading to watching a film, Pamuk, who initially dreamt of being a painter, admits that if he could find the same pleasures reading brings in film or television, he would “read fewer books.” But, “words (and the works of literature they make) are like water or like ants. Nothing can penetrate into the cracks, holes, and invisible gaps or life as fast or as thoroughly as words can. It is in these cracks that the essence of things—the things that make us curious about life, about the world—can first be ascertained, and it is good literature that first reveals them. Good literature is a piece of wise counsel that has yet to be give, and as such it has the same aura of needfulness as the latest news; that is mainly why I still depend on it.”

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Just Out: The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates: 1973 - 1982

It’s impossible to write about Oates’ diverse, almost bewilderingly large, and steadily growing oeuvre without expressing astonishment at her productivity. But more significant are her intensity and artistry, spirit and intelligence, deep commitment to truth, and receptivity to discovery and mystery. Since she turned 34 thirty-four years ago, Oates has not only written myriad published works, she has also kept a journal that is now surpassing 4000 single-spaced typewritten pages in length. Greg Johnson, Oates’ biographer (Invisible Writer, 1998), has edited the entries from the first decade with great sensitivity, sustaining a narrative arc and focusing on passages in which Oates chronicles how she works and reveal the forces that compel her.

Oates was already famous as a provocative, category-defying writer and a National Book Award winner for them (1969) when she began her journal. But what inspired what she describes at the outset as “an experiment in consciousness,” was a “peculiar experience,” a “mystical experience” that occurred in 1970 and continued to haunt her in 1973. Much of this volume, in fact, consists of Oates’ musings on the power of the unconscious, the inexplicable, and the intrusion of forces beyond the self. Again and again, stories and novels intrude upon her, push at the gates and prowl the edge of her mind. Here are explanations of her phenomenal creativity.

Oates is so lucid, so intent on explaining her writing process to herself, so fluent in her observations of the world at-large, both human and natural, the reader feels privileged to have access to such a thoughtful chronicle, such revealing disclosures. Oates also writes of her close and loving marriage to Raymond Smith, her heart condition, her love of teaching, and how she protects her privacy and establishes a “pattern of living” that enables her to write. She observes that you can’t force fiction. She analyzes all the elements that go in to a novel, and declares that “the novelist must be on the side of life.”

And how poignant this is: in 1975, Oates writes that she wouldn’t want to be known as prolific; she has already sensed the negative response to her stream of books. And yet, soon after she writes, “I don’t care: I want to write what I want to write.” She records a “burning eagerness to work.” She exclaims, "At times I feel that I could write endlessly, scarcely rising to the surface to eat, or even breathe.” Writing is “voluptuous.” But Oates is driven. As this volume draws to a close, Oates writes of her long-submerged feelings about her family’s hidden past, and her discomfort with the great divide between her lovely, successful life, which she often expresses gratitude for, and the dire deprivation her family endured. Here are the stirrings of the desire to understand, to inhabit, to bring back to life her family’s lost world. And she did so, 25 years later in The Gravedigger’s Daughter, which is based on her grandmother’s story, and a stunning and very recent revelation: her grandmother was Jewish.

Oates' journal begins with a transformation and a new way of
writing, and it ends with another opening, another deepening of her artistic calling. Oates is not merely prolific. She is ravenous for words, stories, truth. Her work will stand as a monumental exploration of the American psyche, the collective unconscious, the parameters of literature, and one woman’s complex inheritance.

The one line among many powerful statements that illuminates Oates the most: “I feel so much.”