Posts Tagged ‘books’

Milton Viorst on Zionism

July 29, 2016

zionismWe are privileged to have with us today, renowned journalist, Milton Viorst. His new book: Zionism: The Birth and Transformation of an Ideal has been published this month from St. Martin’s Press.  Milton is a journalist  who has covered the Middle East for three decades as a correspondent for The New Yorker and other publications. I feel particularly privileged to be Milton’s literary agent for this new and important work of Jewish history.

 

AR:  Milton, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed on “Ask the Agent.”  There has been so much written on the subject of Zionism. Why do readers need another book about it?

viorstMV: There has not been a history of Zionism written for half-a-century, during which the Zionist movement has decisively changed.  After World War II, in the wake of the Holocaust, most of the world was sympathetic to the establishment of a Jewish state.  Since then, Zionism has become the object of widespread criticism.  Its moral standing has diminished, even among those who continue to believe in its aims.  This book explores the events that explain why the world’s perception has been so dramatically transformed.

AR:  How have the aims of Zionism changed?

MV: The Zionist movement was founded at the end of the nineteenth century, when anti-Semitism was beginning to rage in Europe.  Its founder, Theodor Herzl, was convinced the Jews needed a state, preferably in Palestine, in order to survive, and history has affirmed his judgment.  But to establish a state, Jews had to overcome the fierce opposition of the local Arab inhabitants.   In 1948, after a  bitter Arab war, Israel was founded in most of historical Palestine.  Then, in the Six-Day War of 1967, the Jews conquered the remaining territory in which the preponderance of Arabs lived, and they have since  refused to withdraw from it.  The oppressive military rule that Israel has exercised over the Palestinian Arabs has cost them much of the international sympathy from which their earlier aspirations once benefitted.

AR: Do most Zionists concur in the current policy?

MV: From its very beginning, Zionism has been sharply divided, not so much on the need for a state as on the nature of the state.   Herzl himself warned of the obstacles created by merging the many and diverse societies in which Jews lived.   In Herzl’s time, the divisions were over how Jewish the Jewish state should be.  Herzl was a sophisticated Westerner who envisaged a secular state, like most states of Europe.  But Orthodox Jews, if they agreed to a state at all, could imagine only one that was ruled by Jewish law;  while a  majority of the Jews of czarist Russia, the most oppressed of Europe’s Jews, insisted on a state  that was not necessarily religious but was richly imbued with Jewish cultural values.  In time these Jews prevailed.

AR: Was  religion the only significant division?

MV: Not at all.  The widest split in Zionism developed between Vladimir Jabotinsky’s belief in the importance of the Jews using  their own military force to obtain a state and David Ben-Gurion’s belief in the priority of building political and economic institutions that would serve as the backbone of the state.    “Of all the necessities for national rebirth,” Jabotinsky declared, “shooting is the most important. ”   Ben-Gurion, meanwhile, was busy organizing a political party based on social democracy, founding a national assembly and creating the Histadrut, a uniquely Zionist organization that was part labor union, part industrial corporation, and part social welfare society.  It was Ben-Gurion’s vision that led to a modern, prosperous Israel.

AR: Where did the Balfour Declaration fit in?

MV: In fighting World War I, Britain believed it had an interest in cultivating worldwide Jewry, and in 1917 it promised a homeland to the Jews in Palestine, then part of the Ottoman Empire.  At the same time, it promised not to violate the rights of the Arabs living in Palestine, creating a contradiction that was never really resolved.

AR: How did the Balfour Declaration play out after the war?

MV: Britain, with second thoughts, retreated on its pledges to the Jews.   Jabotinsky, convinced that Ben-Gurion was wasting his time building institutions, argued for a militance in taking over Palestinian territory.  The two men were bitter personal rivals for Zionist leadership, but their contrasting philosophies were also irreconcilable.  In 1934 Jabotinsky and his followers, known as the Revisionists, seceded from the World Zionist  Organization,  which Herzl had formed to govern Zionism.  To this day, the rift has not been healed.

AR: How did Jabotinsky’s Revisionism and Ben-Gurion’s mainstream Zionism handle their conflict during the struggle for independence?

MV: Jabotinsky died in 1940, but by then he had established his leadership over Betar, a militant youth organization  closely tied to the right-wing regime in Poland.  Betar gave Revisionism a fighting component, which it used to wage a guerrilla war against the British while they were still fighting the Nazis.   Ben-Gurion stayed faithful to Britain until the Nazis surrendered, and his forces attacked only after Britain refused to allow survivors of the Holocaust and their children to enter Palestine.  Even after Britain announced its withdrawal from Palestine in 1947 and Ben-Gurion prepared to declare Israel’s independence, the rival Jewish forces could not compose their differences.  Only after a brief but bloody civil war did the two camps, faced with attacks from their Arab neighbors,  agree to fight together under the government’s — that is, Ben-Gurion’s– command.

AR: What did the Palestinians do to save their land?

MV: Not much.   Convinced Jews had no rights to Palestine, and Britain had made it possible for them to be there,    Palestinians insisted that both leave and allow them to found their own state.  They initiated violence, in which blood was shed, but it was weak.  More importantly, they created no governmental institutions, and organized no effective military forces.  After the U.N. voted to partition Palestine into Arab and Jewish states, they attacked the Jewish militias, but the competition was unequal.   When Ben-Gurion declared independence, the armies of five Arab nations attacked the state, but the results were no more favorable to them. .

AR: Given Ben-Gurion’s success as a state-builder, how did Jabotinsky’s Revisionism wind up in power today?

MV: Many Israelis ask this question.   Part of the explanation is that Ben-Gurion’s creation, the Labor Party, having been deluded by its earlier triumphs into letting down its guard, was held to blame for Israel’s near-defeat in the Yom Kippur war.  But, in the long-term, Israeli politics changed because the Israeli electorate changed.    A new generation of Sephardim– Jews from the Arab world– had now reached maturity, and was resentful that the Ben-Gurion camp had for too long ruled as if by a natural right inherited from Herzl.  There also arose a militant religious movement , composed of observant young people who worked in the secular economy but were heir to the Religious Zionists of the Herzl era.   After 1967, they embraced the doctrine that Palestine was holier even than the Torah, which inspired them to settle Arab land, though it often meant defying the state.

A decade later, Israeli voters transferred their long-standing loyalty from Ben-Gurion’s camp to Menachem Begin, heir to Jabotinsky.   Begin was not just the Revisionist rival; he was the non-Establishment alternative who took Israel on a more militant course, more defiant of world opinion.  With only a few interruptions, it has since remained on that course.   Benjamin Netanyahu, scion of a family long loyal to Jabotinsky, is today the leader of this course.   Jabotinsky would probably approve of it, but the instability of Israeli life seems far removed from Herzl’s Zionist vision of providing peace and security for the Jewish people.

 

 

Mary Mackey Talks about The Village of Bones

May 30, 2016

Today we are going to talk with Mary Mackey  whose new historical novel, The Village of Bones:mackey Sabalah’s Tale was released this month.  Mary is a bestselling author who has written seven volumes of poetry including Sugar Zone winner of the 2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence. She is also the author of fourteen  novels some of which have appeared on The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller Lists. Mackey’s novels have been translated into twelve languages.

 Andy: Let’s cut to the chase, Mary: what happens in this novel? What’s The Village of Bones about?

Mary: Six thousand years ago, bands of marauding nomads from the northern steppes invaded what is now Bulgaria and Romania, bringing horses, male gods, and genocidal warfare to a peaceful, Goddess-worshiping Europe that had existed almost unchanged for thousands of years. This was a real invasion, with real consequences that we are still living with today.

In The Village of Bones I tell the story of a young priestess named Sabalah who conceives a magical child with a mysterious stranger named Arash. Sabalah names her child “Marrah.” Marrah will save the Goddess-worshipping people from the nomad invaders, but only if her mother can keep her alive long enough to grow up. Warned in a vison of the coming nomad invasion, Sabalah flees west with Arash to save her baby daughter, only to discover that she is running into the arms of her worst enemies. In the vast forests of northern France, other human-like species left over from the Ice Age still exist, and they are not—to say the least—friendly.

Andy: There are other best-selling books that take place in pre-historic times.  Is there anything in The Village of Bones that will remind readers of books or films they’ve enjoyed?

Mary: You’ll definitely be reminded of The Clan of the Cave Bear, The Mists of Avalon, and Avatar. Also, there are some scary giant sharks that eat anything in their path, including one another. When I say “giant” I mean really GIANT. I based them on the Megalodon sharks, which. lived 2.6 million years ago, were 45 feet to 59 feet long, weighed 50 tons, and had teeth seven inches long. If you heard the theme music from Jaws playing in your head as you read that, it’s no coincidence. Then there’s the Mother Book, an ancient, sacred text that contains all knowledge, past, present and future, including the knowledge of how to travel through time. As you read about Sabalah’s race to save the Mother Book from falling into the hands of the Beastmen, you may find yourself reminded of The Da Vinci Code.

Andy: You’ve said this novel explores the “original inspiration for the stories of fairies, gnomes, elves, and other magical creatures which appear so often in European folk tales.” Can you explain what you mean by this?

Mary: In the Village of Bones, I choose to imagine that other human-like creatures survived in small numbers in the forests of northern Europe. At present, we know about a number of ancient species that were human-like but not strictly human. The best known are the Neanderthals, who play a central role in The Clan of the Cave Bear. The Neanderthals actually interbred with humans, so we’re all a part Neanderthal. The lesser known Denisovans also seem to have interbred with human beings. Other human-like ancient beings we know about include Homo floresiensis, Homo erectus, and Homo habilis.

 As I began to write The Village of Bones, I came to wonder if perhaps small bands of these human-like beings survived long enough to be the original inspiration for the stories of fairies, gnomes, elves, and other magical creatures which appear so often in European folk tales.

Imagine for a moment that you are living 6,000 years ago, walking through the forest, minding your own business, when you stumble across a little man who is only three feet tall, covered with hair, and not quite human-looking. You might well think he is a magical creature, an elf, a fairy, a Hobbit.

Andy: Would you call this novel historical fiction, science fiction, or fantasy?

The-Village-Of-Bones-Low-ResMary: I’d call it all three. The Village of Bones crosses genre lines the way many of the really interesting books I love to read do.  Like Jack Finney’s Time and Again, and Audry Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife,  it combines historical fiction with science fiction. Like the characters in Diana Gabaldon’s wonderful Outlander Series,  the characters in The Village of Bones move in a world I’ve created by doing meticulous historical research, but they also take side trips into magic, prophecy, and fantasy. I’ve got giant talking snakes; I’ve got Goddesses who walk on water; I’ve got dolphins that will let you ride on their backs. But I’ve also got clothing based on materials found in ancient graves; houses based on the ruins of prehistoric houses; and forests filled with trees based on Neolithic pollen samples.

Andy: How did you become interested in the Goddess-worshiping cultures of Prehistoric Europe?

Mary: I didn’t know anything about them until I got a phone call one day from the head of HarperSanFrancisco. He had read my novel The Last Warrior Queen, which is about the Goddess-worshiping cultures of Prehistoric Sumeria. He told me he was about to publish a non-fiction book that dealt with the Goddess-worshiping cultures of Prehistoric Europe and asked me if would I be interested in writing a novel on the same topic. The manuscript of the non-fiction book he was about to publish turned out to be The Civilization of the Goddess by Professor Marija Gimbutas. Ten pages into it, and I was hooked. I began to write The Year the Horses Came about a week later.

Andy: Will Twenty-First Century readers find the story of these cultures relevant to their own lives?

Mary: Yes and no. Yes, because many of the issues my characters face are issues we face today. For example, the Goddess-worshiping cultures of 6,000 years ago considered the Earth both sacred and alive. We’re slowly killing the planet, and perhaps ourselves, by treating the Earth as a piece of real estate to be exploited instead of as a sacred trust to be tended.

No, because everything doesn’t have to be relevant all the time. Sometimes all we want is to put the troubles and anxieties of our everyday lives aside and go on vacation to some place new and exotic: back to the past, back to a world of magic and adventure where the mortgage never comes due, the computer never crashes, and interesting things happen.

Andy: How do you do research for a novel set 6,000 years ago? How close do you stick to the facts?

Mary: One reason I write historical novels is that the research is so much fun. To write The Village of Bones and the other three novels in The Earthsong Series, I traveled extensively through Europe scouting out locations so I could describe them accurately and visiting museums so I could see what was left from the cultures I was portraying. I saw the Great Nomad Gold Horde in Varna Bulgaria; statues of Snake Goddesses in Bucharest Romania; ancient cave paintings in southern France; Standing Stones in Brittany.

 Contrary to what you might imagine the realistic parts of the novel were actually the easiest to write because I had the extensive research of  Professor Marija Gimbutas to draw on. Professor Gimbutas, who taught for many years at UCLA, devoted her life to studying the Goddess-worshiping cultures of prehistoric Europe. Her two books The Language of the Goddess and The Civilization of the Goddess are gold mines of information. Professor Gimbutas generously helped me with the research when I was writing the first two novels in the Earthsong Series. Without her personal help and her work to draw on, it would have taken me a decade to write The Village of Bones instead of two years. She did all the hard work. All I had to do was pick up the bones she had uncovered, put flesh on them, and make them dance.

Andy: This is your fourteenth novel. Do you plan to write any more novels in this series?

Mary: Yes. The Village of Bones comes to an exciting climax and a satisfying conclusion, but I have  left some loose strings which I intend to pick up at some future date.

Andy: Tell us a little bit about why you write historical fiction. Do you read historical fiction? What are some of your favorite books in the genre?

Mary: I’ve always loved historical fiction as long as it’s meticulously researched, accurate, not preachy, filled with interesting characters, and tells a great story. Some of my favorites are: The Color Purple by Alice Walker; The White Queen by Philippa Gregory; The Eagle in the Snow by Wallace Breem; The Persian Boy by Mary Renault; A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens; The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Roman Blood by Steven Saylor, and The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. The list goes on and on. I’m always looking for new ones.

 

A Book Acquisition Editor Talks About Rejection

February 4, 2016

 

annaWriters spend a lot of time and energy fretting about and suffering over rejection. That’s understandable. As an agent, I get rejection letters every day for my clients’ submissions. It feels a little like going to the dentist. We have a lot of posts on “Ask the Agent” analyzing this painful subject. Today I want to repost   an article by a book  acquisition editor, Anna Leinberger, of Berrett-Koehler Books. It’s good to see what the other side has to say about this.

On Vulnerability and the Submissions Process

Submitting your written work to a publisher or an agent is one of the most terrifying things a writer experiences and, even worse, one that any writer must constantly repeat.  Vulnerability is an inextricable element of the publishing process, and it is not something that humans particularly like, and not one we do well. An author is virtually guaranteed to be rejected most of the time, especially when starting out.  Adding insult to injury, the rejection does not necessarily end once you have been published. Truly, it does not end until you are E.L. James; the editors I work with regularly reject book proposals from authors we have already published if we think the new proposed book is not ready, if their last book did not sell well, or we don’t think there is a market for the new topic (etc.)

Elaborate Constructs

Humans are really good at protecting themselves from this traumatic experience.  We build glass castles around ourselves- elaborate constructions built of justifications, defensiveness, and preemptive strikes.  Query letters are full of flashy language designed to get an editor to take note; letters contain demands: “respond promptly” in an attempt to grasp some power in the relationship.  Here is the thing though- none of those tactics work. Tactics don’t work.  The only thing that is going to catch my eye is a great idea that is plainly stated.  That is it.  There is no secret, no elaborate scheme that will convince me that your idea is great if it is not great.  If it is, and a host of other elements are in place (people know who you are, you have credibility, the market is not already saturated, we did not just publish two other books on the topic, I am personally interested….and on) you will have a shot at being published.

Glass Houses Are Not Actually Safe.

Humans love these glass houses because they offer us the illusion of safety.  “I must have messed up the cover letter!” or “My hook was not strong enough!” or “My idea is genius, it is just that I don’t have a platform and that stinking publisher is only after money!”  But it is a fallacy.  When the glass house shatters, the only thing you are left with is that the idea or your platform  was not ready. It is the most human thing to try every mental trick possible to protect yourself from the idea that your book was not up to snuff. But in blaming it on a typo in your cover letter, rather than facing the cold hard truth, you are losing a profound opportunity to face reality and choose to make your project better.

Be Vulnerable.

Be terrified. Put your work out there. Accept the news that it is not ready yet. Take every piece of feedback you can get your hands on, and be brutal with yourself.  Don’t waste brain power creating elaborate judgments and justifications. As painful and scary as you might find it, face the rejection, look it in the eye, and squeeze every last piece of useful information out of it.  When you have done that, move forward again.  Be vulnerable again, and again, and again.

 

About Anna Leinberger

Anna is a writer and editor at Berrett-Koehler Publishers in Oakland, CA. You can follow her on twitter or Medium for more on writing, editing, and literary witchcraft.

The PEN – Charlie Hebdo Award Controversy

April 29, 2015

I’m so angry I could spit!

This year the PEN America Center, a writers’ organization whose mission is to defend the free expression of ideas in literature decided to bestow it’s Freedom of Expression and Courage Award to the staff of Charlie Hebdo.

In protest, six prominent authors: Rachel Kushner, Peter Carry, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, and Taije Selasi announced that they would not attend the ceremony. Thus began one of those periodic literary dust ups that only we few band of brothers in the book world care about. But, as they say, “ the politics is so vicious because the stakes are so low.”

Low, indeed, but I’m still so angry I could spit.

None other than Salman Rushdie launched the counter- attack. He said, “What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”  Salman got down and became a little earthier on Twitter when he characterized the PEN 6 as “Just 6 pussies. Six authors in search of a bit of Character.”  [hear, hear Salman!]

Francine Prose responded on Facebook by throwing out red herrings expressing her shock that Rushdie would use the sexist term “pussies.”

Meanwhile short story writer Deborah Eisenberg weighed in with a letter to PEN executive director, Suzanne Nossel opposing  PEN’s giving the award to Charlie Hebdo. Depending on how you feel about the subject, her letter was either nuanced or unintelligible. I prefer the latter characterization.

During this entire affair,  when the world rallied in outrage over the Charlie Hebdo murders, when the leader of Hezbollah and the Likud Party in Israel both agreed on something for the first time in history, there was an ugly current among some left wing intellectuals that insisted on defining the offending caricatures in Charlie Hebdo as Islamophobic and undeserving of – well- anything. Most of them, like Deborah Eisenberg, were at pains to point out that they don’t believe in murder. And I’m sure this is true and also beside the point. But, as Salman points out, I wonder how deep is their commitment to free speech.

My favorite comment by an author and the one that I feel most reflects my opinion and feelings was by Geraldine Brooks. She said:” The point of free speech is that it’s free. Free to be offensive, to be misguided, to be crude or wrong. If you start to cherry pick which kind of speech is worthy of defending, you might as well be ISIS. I’m thoroughly shocked that a group of writers I admire have castigated a free speech organization for recognizing artists butchered because of their commitment to free speech.”

I  decided to say my peace on the subject. I wrote this letter to PEN executive director Suzanne Nossel:

“Dear Ms. Nossel,

I want to express my support for PEN in honoring Charlie Hebdo and also my indignation at the authors who have decided not to attend the awards in protest. I read the exchange of letters between you and Deborah Eisenberg. I thought her opinions that she expressed were unintelligible and indefensible.

The issue isn’t just a matter of abstract principle for me. I’m a literary agent. But before that I was the owner of Cody’s Books in Berkeley for 30 years. In 1989, Cody’s was bombed for carrying The Satanic Verses. It was another creative work that satirized religion and was no doubt extremely offensive to certain people. We were probably the first victim of Islamic terrorism in the United States. Afterwards the Cody’s staff had to decide whether we should continue carrying Satanic Verses. It wasn’t an easy choice at all. No one wanted to be martyrs to the cause. But the staff voted unanimously to keep carrying the book. Rushdie and the entire writing community stood united with us, and gave us courage.

I am glad you have honored Charlie Hebdo for showing their courage as well. I’m sorry those six writers have such short memories and such a weak and confused commitment to the values that PEN exists to defend.

I hope you will reaffirm your commitment to those values and to your decision to honor the courage of Charlie Hebdo.

Andy Ross”

Suzanne Nossel responded to my letter by saying: “Don’t worry. We are hanging tough.”

PEN has put up a website, a forum where people can make their own opinions known. I encourage you all to do so.

How Not to Flog Your Product on Facebook

December 5, 2014

Most writers seeking to get published for the first time have to think about  the challenge of developing platform. “Platform” is a big thing for publishers, particularly for non-fiction projects. Before you start having fantasies of speeches by Mussolini, I should point out that we are talking about  the kind of platform that gives you credibility or access to national media. I have said before that platform is either an endowed chair at Harvard or  you’re sleeping with Oprah’s hairdresser.

There are a lot of people out there who will charge  money to tell you that you need to blog, twitter, and have a Facebook presence in order to develop your platform. I do hereby tell you the same thing for free.  But realistically, these tools are not going to help you sell thousands of books unless you have many thousands of Facebook friends and followers of your blog. And even then, those people have to care about YOU, not just whatever it is you are hawking.

You have to be careful about how you use Facebook to promote yourself. I spend a fair amount of time on Facebook. It’s a great way to  waste hours by engaging in errant political bickering, spreading celebrity tittle-tattle,  or viewing cute  pictures of kittens. Most of my 900+ friends on Facebook are associated with writing and book publishing. I  enjoy communicating with them and seeing what they are thinking about. I like to rant about Amazon.com.  Sometimes I try to be funny or gently snarky. I try to be respectful, even when I am utterly contemptuous of an idiotic political position someone is espousing. And sometimes I take the opportunity to promote my business or the books of the authors  I represent. My Facebook friends  tend to root for me when I do.

And then there are people who just want to flog their product. They don’t seem to have much of an interest in me other than as a potential customer. And they assume that I don’t have much of an interest in them except to buy their… whatever. Some of them won’t even post pictures of their kittens, for crying out loud! When I see this, when I get dozens of posts each day  on my Facebook feed that just promote a person’s stuff, I kind of feel manipulated. I kind of don’t want to buy what they are selling. I kind of react to it like I do to telemarketers.[“Please, take me off your call list!”]

I guess what I want to tell you is that people spend time on Facebook because they like to talk to other people, to share ideas, to express their feelings, to be connected. It’s a  personal thing. And when people engage with you on that level, they will be interested in your work and might even be motivated to buy your book or watch your movie. But they don’t like being used. And they probably won’t want to support you if they feel like that’s all you are doing.

In other words,  if you want to make Facebook part of your platform, then remember the platform is YOU, not your product. And when your friends really care about you, well, they might even buy your stuff.

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson On What Animals Teach Us About Human Evil

March 5, 2014

Beast-HC jeff and benjyToday Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson will be talking to us about his new book, Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Human Evil, released this month by Bloomsbury Press.  Jeff has been writing about animal emotions for 20 years. His books, When Elephants Weep (1996) and Dogs Never Lie About Love (1998) have each sold over 1,000,000 copies. Jeff is one of the most brilliant people I have ever had the honor of knowing and working with.  His intellect is both passionate and  wide ranging. Last year, when I visited him at his home in Auckland, New Zealand, he commenced to spend 3 days  ranting at me about the flaws in Hannah Arendt’s concept of evil. (Apparently the fine people of New Zealand don’t have strong feelings about this topic.)

Of all Jeff’s books about animals, this one seems to get to the heart of  the moral boundaries that separate humans from animals. Jeff begins with an observation that illustrates the  puzzle that this book will seek to solve. He says: “There are two major predators on the planet with the most complex brains in nature: humans and orcas. In the twentieth century alone, one of these animals killed 200 million members of its own species, the other killed none. Why?”

ANDY: Jeff, we wrestled with the title of this book for years. And I think we are both pretty happy about it. There seems to be some irony in it though. Can you explain what you mean by “beasts”? How do expressions we use about animals show our basic misunderstanding?

JEFF: Too often, in order to insult somebody, we say that he behaved like a beast, or an animal.  I was reading Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg, about the terrible gulag prisons, and came across this:  “I have often thought about the tragedy of those by whose agency the purge of 1937 was carried out… Step by step as they followed their routine directives, they traveled all the way from the human condition to that of beasts.”  Think of all the times we describe humans in order to demean them as some kind of animal.  So we call someone vermin, a worm, a snake, a wolf, a blood thirsty beast (my favorite), an ape, a bitch, or a pig.

ANDY:  As in many of your books, you try to contrast the peaceable kingdom of animals with the horrors of human behavior manifested throughout history.  But there are numerous examples of animals doing violence to humans and to each other. Perhaps you are overstating your case.

JEFF: They do violence to us and to other animals, for sure.  But not to the extent that we do violence to them and to one another.  The disparity is just mind boggling.  I don’t see animals as saints (human saints are not saints either), but they don’t seem driven to, for example, exterminate all members of a different clan of tigers, elephants or crocodiles.

ANDY: Whenever I tell people about your thesis, they always bring up the example of chimpanzees as animals that seem to engage in gratuitous violence. Isn’t this contrary to your ideas?

JEFF: Yes, to some extent.  In the book I go into this in some detail.   Jane Goodall is the first person to notice the violence of chimps and she would also be the first to acknowledge it is simply not on the scale of human violence.  I guess it’s so shocking because so unexpected.  We expected chimps to be more like, well, bonobos!  They are a different species of chimpanzee, just as closely related to us as the other, but completely peaceable.  They have been studied, but not yet in the same detail as the more violent chimpanzee.  They are led by females, and this may be why (I mean why they are less violent AND why they have been less studied!).

ANDY: One of the themes you talk about here and in previous books is that animals, unlike humans, have no sense of  “other”. To a dog, another dog is just a dog, not a different species. But for humans, the idea of “other” has created all sorts of horror. I’m fascinated by your anecdote about “the last Kantian in Germany”. Can you relate that to us?

JEFF: Yes, it is one of my favorite anecdotes, and it’s true.  And it’s deep.  Emmanuel Levinas, the Jewish French philosopher and survivor of the Holocaust, was in a labor camp for officers on the outskirts of the city of Hannover.  When they were marched out of the camp they were treated with contempt, and looked down upon as “vermin,” not even human.  With one exception:  a stray dog who found his way into the camp.  Each day, when the prisoners returned to their camp in the forest, the dog would greet the line of men with great excitement and friendliness.  He was always delighted to see them.  He was there in the morning when they were assembled, and  “was waiting for us as we returned, jumping up and down and barking in delight.”  “For him,” Levinas notes, “there was no doubt that we were men.” Levinas immortalized the dog later with the title of the last Kantian in Nazi Germany.  This dog, like  the great philosopher, Immanuel Kant, and all dogs, understood that humans are an end in themselves, and not a means to an end.

ANDY: This book audaciously takes on the nature of human evil by contrasting our behavior to that of animals. But you also give the devil his due. Humans have a kind of compassion that we don’t find in the animal world. Why is that?

JEFF: I don’t know, but it’s true.  No animal has become a doctor specializing in humans, or built a hospital to take care of humans.  We can mobilize hundreds of other humans to search for a lost dog.  Individual dogs will search for us, but they wouldn’t implore other dogs to join them.  I’m sure everyone can think of examples of this human quality of compassion, including, of course, thousands of people in the animal rights movement.  Some of us, raised as carnivores, go vegan.  No other predator species in the wild has ever foregone meat for moral reasons!

ANDY: Jeff, one last question. At the end of the book, you take on the ideas espoused by Steven Pinker in his controversial work, The Better Angels of Our Nature. He argues that human violence in the modern world has declined. You disagree. Will you comment?

JEFF: I have an appendix in my book where I address this question at some length. Apart from his distorted version of prehistory, surely it is odd, in a book arguing that violence is decreasing all over the world, that there is little or no mention of Srebenica, the Rwandan genocide, Pinochet in Chile, the junta in Argentina (or Brazil or Greece); no entry under colonialism, the former Yugoslavia, Haiti, Dominican Republic, or Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe; and only one mention of Mussolini and two of apartheid, and with virtually no discussion of the violence in places such as Guatemala.

 ANDY: On March 9 at 1 PM, Jeff will be appearing at Book Passage in Corte Madera in conversation with Daniel Ellsberg. This is an event you don’t want to miss. Two towering intellects who have spent their lives trying to understand how evil manifests itself in human history. You really need to be there.

 

On the 25th Anniversary of the Rushdie Affair

January 14, 2014

nerudaFebruary 1 is the 25th anniversary of the publication of  Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in the United States.  Two weeks after publication, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, spiritual leader of Iran, issued a fatwa (a religious ruling), that declared it permissible for Muslims to assassinate  Rushdie because of the “blasphemous” subject of the book.

Cody’s was bombed on February 28, probably the first incident of Islamic terrorism in the United States.

There was a lot of talk then and I’m sure there will be much written today about the meaning of the Rushdie Affair. Of course, in the narrative of events, the independent bookstores were the heroes. — Well, actually Rushdie deserves some credit as well. — The big chain bookstores pulled Satanic Verses from their shelves after the fatwa. But most independent stores continued selling it. David and Goliath stories are always compelling, and this was no exception.

There was a lot of histrionics in the literary community about how people were willing to take a bullet to defend the First Amendment. But the bookstores were on the street and were particularly vulnerable.

Well, I’m not ashamed to say that I never put the book in the window. Actually, before the bombing, I learned while I was out of town that someone had made a window of the book at Cody’s. I told them to take it down immediately. I had no intention of having a Cody’s employee taking a bullet for the First Amendment or for any other reason.

Still we continued selling the book. The staff at Cody’s voted unanimously to keep carrying it  even after we were bombed.

The only artifact I have of the Rushdie Affair is a copy of The Sea and the Bells, a book of poetry by Pablo Neruda. We discovered an undetonated pipe bomb rolling around the poetry section the morning after a fire bomb had been thrown threw the window. It was too dangerous to remove the bomb, so it was detonated in the store.  As you can clearly see. the shrapnel did some damage to the book, but it didn’t destroy it, not even a single poem.

I can’t think of a better symbol of what the Rushdie Affair was about, of it’s true historical meaning, than the image of this book.

Below are my recollections:

Remembering the Rushdie Affair

On February 28, 1989 Cody’s was bombed. I remember being awakened by the police who informed me a fire bomb had been thrown through the window of Cody’s. The fire department had broken into the store  to put out the fire. The firemen’s efforts at containment did considerably more damage than the fire, itself. I came down to the store at about 2 AM and  waited around most of the night. I made some phone calls to the American Booksellers Association and, I believe, my mother and brother informing them of the incident.

We  assumed then the bombing was associated with the so-called Rushdie Affair, although we  never learned exactly who was responsible.

Let’s backtrack a little. In September 1988, Penguin Books published The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie in the UK. From the beginning it was considered a literary masterpiece and Rushdie’s most ambitious work. Sadly for him, it satirized some themes in Muslim history and theology. In February, 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini, spiritual leader of the Iranian revolution, issued a fatwa, a decree under Muslim Sharia law, declaring the book blasphemous and offering a bounty for Rushdie’s murder.

Rushdie went into deep hiding, although someone said they saw him in Hyde Park in disguise. When asked what Rushdie looked like, the person responded that he looked like Salman  Rushdie with a fake mustache.

The publication unleashed a fire storm, literally and figuratively. There were book burnings all over the Muslim world and fire bombs thrown into book stores in the UK. In the book world there was a veritable frenzy of people issuing pronouncements about defending freedom of speech from terrorists and fanatics. There was a lot of talk about people sacrificing their lives, if necessary, to protect this freedom. Writers’ organizations started handing out buttons that became ubiquitous in publishing saying: “I am Salman Rushdie!.” Of course with the death threats flying around, certain wags started wearing buttons saying: “He is Salman Rushdie!.”

The book was published in the United States at the beginning of February. Several weeks later, America’s largest chains; B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, and Barnes & Noble; pulled Satanic Verses from their shelves nationwide. The writers’ organizations, led by PEN America and just about everyone else in publishing went ape-shit. PEN organized a public reading of Satanic Verses and a march to Dalton’s to picket the store. Susan Sontag was president of PEN. Norman Mailer was the past president. They were everywhere speaking about the outrage. There continued to be much breast beating  by writers and  public intellectuals  pronouncing their  willingness to give their lives for the cause.

I was watching all this with a lot more than detached interest. It was pretty easy for Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag to talk about risking their lives in support of an idea. After all they lived   fairly high up in New York apartment buildings. It was quite another thing to be a retailer featuring the book at street level. I had to make some really hard decisions about balancing our commitment to freedom of speech against the real threat to the lives of our employees. From  my vantage point, this was not such an easy decision.

Then Cody’s got bombed.  I spoke of the firebombing that occurred at 2 AM.  What came later was more alarming. The next morning, as we were cleaning up, an undetonated pipe bomb was found rolling around the floor  near the poetry section. Apparently it had been thrown through the window at the same time as the fire bomb. Had the pipe bomb exploded, it would have killed everyone in the store. The building was quickly evacuated. Lawrence Davidson, who discovered the bomb, ran upstairs to warn me to leave the building. If I haven’t told you before, Lawrence, thanks.

As I walked outside, I was met with a phalanx of newsmen. Normally I was a shameless panderer for media publicity. But there and then, I had no desire to speak. And I knew reflexively that public pronouncements under the circumstances were probably imprudent.

We all assembled across the street facing the building, which had been cordoned  by yellow tape.   The police bomb squad entered  to see if they could diffuse the bomb. Apparently they judged it too dangerous to remove. They decided to pack it with sand bags and detonate it in the store. We heard the bomb blast and watched as the building shook. I remember thinking this was unreal. It can’t be happening. Then I started crying. Of course the media vultures loved this and stuck a camera in my face to record the tears rolling down  for the six o’clock media clips.

We all pulled ourselves together and returned to the store. I called a meeting in the café. Jesus, what do you say after you have just watched your store get bombed? It isn’t like we learned how to deal with this situation in ABA booksellers’ school. We had, after all, just witnessed the first act of international terrorism in the United States. And it had been directed against us!

When the staff had assembled, I told them we had a hard decision to make. We needed to decide whether to keep carrying Satanic Verses and risk our lives for what we believed in. Or alternatively,  take a more cautious approach and compromise our values.  So we took a vote. The staff voted unanimously to keep carrying the book. Tears still come to my eyes when I think of this.   It was the defining moment in my 35 years of bookselling. It was also the moment when I realized bookselling was a dangerous and subversive vocation; because, after all,  ideas are powerful weapons. I felt  just a tad anxious about carrying that book. I worried about the consequences. I didn’t particularly feel comfortable about being a hero and putting other people’s lives in danger. I didn’t know at that moment whether this was an act of courage or foolhardiness.

But with the clarity of hindsight, I would have to say it was the proudest day of my life.

Several years later, Salman, still undercover, came to the Bay Area. A secret dinner was arranged for him with numerous celebrities, politicians, and movie stars. Of course, the booksellers were honored guests. The next day, Rushdie insisted on paying a visit to Cody’s. We were told we could not announce the visit until 15 minutes before he arrived.  It was a very emotional meeting. Many tears were shed, and we were touched by his decision to visit us. We showed him the book case that had been charred by the fire bomb. We also showed him the hole in the sheetrock above the information desk that had been created when the pipe bomb was detonated. One of the Cody’s staff, with characteristic irreverence,  had written with a marker next to the damaged sheet rock: “Salman Rushdie Memorial Hole.” Salman shrugged his shoulders and said with his wonderful self-deprecating humor, “Well, you know some people get statues, —- and others get holes.”

 ***

After the bomb squad detonated the bomb in the store, I hung around for the rest of the day watching the FBI sort through the rubble in their investigation. My wife, Joyce Cole, contacted the media who had been filming all this and told them my life was in danger and they should block out my face. That night we watched the 6 o’clock news and saw the interview of me with my face looking like a  Picasso  painting from his Cubist Period. Like Rushdie’s fake mustache in Hyde Park, this wasn’t going to fool anyone.

The same day Peter Mayer, the publisher of Penguin Books, called us and offered the services of their security advisory agency. The Satanic Verses had been out of stock at the publisher for a week, and almost no one in the country had it. The chains probably did, but they had taken it off their shelves. Peter said because of our courage (or whatever  it was),  Penguin was going to overnight our shipment of the next printing, so we would be the only book store on the street  (and probably in the country) selling it. This was a touching expression of gratitude, but one not likely to help me sleep  more peacefully.

The security consultant provided to us by Penguin had a lot of experience protecting companies against union organizers, but  I doubt he understood any more about terrorist bombings than I did. On his advice my family left home and settled in at  my friend’s house  for a week. Although the Ayatollah had issued a fatwa against me, we felt it was the prudent thing to do.

The next day there was a picture of Cody’s on the front page of The  New York Times. I’d been waiting all my life for this moment. Unfortunately, the picture they decided to use was of a janitor from the cleaning service sweeping up. I thought that was the end of my fifteen minutes of fame.

I was advised by the security people to stay out of the news anyway. Though I ate bitter bile, I told the Cody’s folks to deal with all media queries by saying “Mr. Ross is unavailable for comment at this time.”That’s what they told  Dan Rather. That’s what they told The  New York Times. That’s what they told McNeill – Lehrer. For all I know, that’s what they  told the Pope.

For the next 2 days and nights, I sat at my desk designing a security plan for Cody’s to be implemented when we reopened after the FBI went home. When it was completed, it was a pretty impressive document. But  I knew then, as I know now, it was something of a formality to make the employees feel more at ease. It was going to cost a lot of money and be a big hassle and wasn’t likely to deter a serious or even a casual terrorist. The plan included specific procedures for dealing with “suspicious ” people, evacuation procedures, inspections at the front door, managing the media, and metal detectors in the shipping room.

The first scare we had was when we found a letter addressed to me. The bells and whistles went off when we scanned it with the metal detector. We evacuated the building. The police courageously told me to open it myself. It turned out it was a  cutesy note from Melissa Mytinger, the events manager, with a little smiley face metal foil sticker inside.

We did see a lot of customers with sort of  sinister Middle Eastern looks to them and shifty eyes.  It turns out there were a number Muslim individuals who came into the store looking to buy the book. The shifty eyes may have had to do with the fact they were doing something naughty. But I don’t know.

One of the most poignant  encounters I had was with a group of Muslim students at UC Berkeley who wanted to express their compassion for Cody’s and to tell me they were ashamed of all this. As you can imagine, any Muslim in America was getting a raw deal with the hysteria that was going on. I told them I wanted to apologize to them for what they must be suffering. I realized something important during this encounter.

We still kept getting calls from the media  who wanted six o’clock news clips of the security measures. For some reason, they all wanted to ask me if we were going to put the book in the window, as if I would risk getting by ass blown to smithereens so they could have a sound bite. I think what they really wanted was for me to get up on a soap box in front of the store facing a thousand cameras  and say: “Ayatollah Khomeini, Read…..My….Lips!”

Eventually things settled down. We slowly and in stages phased out the security plan. There was a lot of debate about eliminating each measure. The gist of the conversation at each step was something like: “What do you care more about? Human life or money?” But we moved on. We sold over 700 copies of  The Satanic Verses the week after we re-opened. I think it was more an act of solidarity than a desire to read the book. Some people wanted me to autograph it. I think I demurred. What did they want me to inscribe anyway? “I am Salman Rushdie!”

A few months later, I was called by the National Association of Newspaper Editors and asked if I would be on a panel at their convention to talk about my experiences. I told them I had been trying to avoid the media. They told me not to worry. It was going to be quite discrete. I can’t imagine how I believed  a speech in front of every major editor of every newspaper in the country could ever be discrete. I was on a panel with Larry McMurtry and Robin Wright, a distinguished journalist covering Iran. I should have known there was nothing discrete about the meeting when I saw the prime minister of Israel who was giving the presentation before  us, followed later by the Palestinian representative to the UN.

I got on the podium  and saw the whole show was being broadcast on C-SPAN. I told them my “Ayatollah, read my lips” line and got a lot of laughs. Then I went home and watched myself on national TV. As you can see, I lived to tell about it.

The following summer Susan Sontag was invited to give a speech about the whole affair at the American Booksellers Association  Convention. I went there hoping at last she would acknowledge Cody’s did something special. In the course of her talk, she was extremely critical of almost everyone in the book business who refused to stand up and be counted or who didn’t allow their names to be used in full page ads in The  New York Times. But she did want to acknowledge the commitment shown by independent bookstores. And she wanted especially to single out  one in Berkeley, California:….. Black Oak Books.

I guess this just shows that in real life stories don’t always end the way you would like.

Michele Anna Jordan on Food and Food Writing

September 7, 2013

jordan picVinaigrettesNew200Today we are going to talk to Michele Anna Jordan about food writing. Michele is a James Beard Award winning author and food and wine writer.  She is the author of 18 cookbooks. In 1989, she was voted Best Chef in the Sonoma County Art Awards. She lives and writes in Sonoma County where she pretty much has sewn up the title of  “Sonoma food guru”. Her new book, Vinaigrettes and Other Dressings, was published this year by Harvard Common Press. Right now, it’s the best selling book on salad dressing in America.

Andy: Michele, you’ve been writing cookbooks now for nearly 25 years. How has the market for these books changed during that time?

 Michele: Readers don’t seem to have changed much. They still want what they did when my first book came out, which is to say good recipes with clear instructions accompanied by interesting stories and a context that is both broad and deep. Readers like context–not just culinary, but also geographic, historical, emotional.

But getting a book into a reader’s hands has changed in big ways. Advances are a fraction of what they were a decade or so ago. More of the marketing and promotion work is put onto the author. Some publishers do nothing or next to nothing to promote the book once it’s published. Publishers expect the author to provide photographs and other materials to the publisher free of charge. The kind of high quality food photographs you see in cookbooks can be very expensive to produce.  With my first book, I was offered $2000 for testing expenses. That never happens now.

Andy: Has anything gotten easier?

Michele: Yes.  I no longer print out a 500-page manuscript and send it off by FedEx.  Nearly everything, except for final galleys, is done by email. Of course, that means no more “It’s in the mail” excuses to buy time, either. With my most recent book, nearly all the editing was done digitally.  Quality photographs are, for the most part, much easier to produce these days too. All this speeds up the process and gets  the book to the marketplace more quickly than in the past.

Andy: It seems like celebrity chefs are a bigger part of the food world than ever. How does The Food Network and food TV play into this? How is it manifested in the book  publishing world?

Michele: Chefs and cooks were once simply physical laborers. Early cookbooks were written by doctors and then Fanny Farmer and the Domestic Scientists came along  at the end of the nineteenth century and began to codify home cooking.  This codification also lead to over-manipulation of foods and attempts to deny both appetite and the pleasure we take in eating. This had a pretty devastating impact on the American palate.

Andy: So when did all this start to change?

Michele: Stay with me here a minute, okay?

Fast forward to the Gourmet Revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the back-to-the-earth movement coincided with increased European travel and a re-emergence of pleasure as a pursuit. Alice Waters, herself not a chef but an inspired restaurateur, rode this wave to fame and fortune. In her wake came all that we see today: Restaurants as havens of the best food, chefs as elevated celebrities, home cooks — by definition inferior. Vanity cookbooks–coffee-table books that tell a chef’s story or  a restaurant’s story and offer recipes put together by a kitchen staff of a dozen or more sous chefs — became a huge industry. This all received an enormous boost when The Food Network finally took off.

Andy: So how did putting it all on TV change things?

 Michele: It’s  made cooking a spectator sport,  passive entertainment for a huge portion of the population.  It’s left us feeling disempowered, in the sense that the Food Network makes us believe that it requires some sort of  magical talent  to make great food. I find this sad, since the real skill of a professional chef is management and consistency, the ability to put out plate after plate of reliable food day after day. You don’t need this skill to be a fabulous home cook. You just need to make fabulous food.

Now, back to the codification and over-manipulation of food. Thomas Keller of The French Laundry is often heralded as the best chef in America or even the world. I use him as an example because he’s probably the best known of his ilk. But if you look at his food, it’s over-manipulated to the degree that it is more of an intellectual exercise than a sensual pleasure. He and others like him have brought cooking back to where it was for the Domestic Scientists, who took great pleasure in creating such things as “all white meals,” in which everything was cut quite precisely and cloaked in white sauce, frosting or such so as to disguise it entirely. Pleasure and its handmaiden, appetite, were the bane of their existence. This newest version of their aversion to appetite has had a pretty devastating effect on the American palate.

Anyone interested in this part of our culinary history must read Perfection Salad by Laura Shapiro.

Andy: Michele, explain that a little more. I went to the French Laundry, and the food was delicious. Are you saying it doesn’t taste good?

Michele: I feel like Thomas Hardy after the publication of Jude the Obscure, when he said he’d be a fool to stand up and be shot (he was referring to his decision not to write any more novels). but here I go, I’m standing up.

In all honesty, Keller’s food doesn’t always taste good. When I was there about a year and a half ago, a couple of things were good but not great, some things were mediocre and a few things were not good at all–but most things looked lovely, in a very symmetrical, constructed and often clever way. And I found certain elements offensive. For example, a tower of eight white plates and saucers elevated an espresso cup full of what was said to be carrot soup. Eight plates! All I could do was think about the poor dishwashers and the water they’d need. And the soup? It was hot carrot juice with a leaf of tarragon. I love purity of flavors and the showcasing of single foods grown and harvested perfectly but hot carrot juice is a bit disgusting.

Andy: Yuck!

Michele: Most presentations were like this, cerebral, ostentatious, pretentious and, in the end, not about the food.

What most offended me were  the four dessert courses, each one with several highly manipulated elements. I felt infantilized and, really, just wanted another lamb chop or some such, since there really wasn’t all that much on the savory side. I was embarrassed, too, because neither I nor my companion wanted all those sweets–they were cloying and a bit candy-shoppish. We just pushed them around on our plates so our waiter would think we’d eaten.

And the bill! It was $668 for lunch for two, which included just two glasses of sparkling wine and one glass of pinot noir. Two people could fly to Hawaii and back for the cost of one mediocre, forgettable lunch.

Andy: Boy, I hope your partner grabbed the check! Ok, let’s say that I’m getting started in cooking and I want to have one book that tells me all I need to know. It used to be The Joy of Cooking. Does that book still reign supreme? Or is it just a well established name brand? What are some good alternatives?

Michele: I think the 1974 edition of The Joy of Cooking remains an invaluable resource. The 1964 edition is excellent, too. The 1997 edition, not so much. But nothing has replaced it. Some have tried but none have succeeded, not so far.

Andy: That’s very interesting. How are the editions different? Have they changed because of food trends?

Michele: Yes, the 1997 edition was too  trendy. A group of well-known chefs did the revisions and there was more focus on professional techniques, flavors and ingredients than previous editions, which have so much down-to-earth kitchen wisdom. As soon as I looked through it, I realized it was not going to become a classic. And it hasn’t.

 Andy: So now I have my one standard book. And I want to build a modest cookbook library. What are the next 10 titles that I should buy for my kitchen shelf (after I purchase Vinaigrettes, of course)?

Michele: This is a personal question that depends on your food preferences, how much time you like to spend shopping and cooking, etc. I read cookbooks for inspiration, and I recommend them for this purpose too.  So this is a very personal list that represents a wide range of cuisines. The first book is one I always recommend. Sadly, it is out of print, though you can find it fairly easily on line. It is brilliant but overlooked and underrated.

Unplugged Kitchen by Viana LaPlace

Fish Forever by Paul Johnson

Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison

The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters

The Classic Italian Cookbook by Marcella Hazan

The Italian Baker by Carol Field

The Art of Mexican Cooking by Diana Kennedy

Bistro Cooking by Patricia Wells

Arabesque by Claudia Roden

The Original Thai Cookbook by Jennifer Brennan

Andy: You can get hundreds of thousands of free recipes on line. Just look at Epicurious. Why would anyone need to buy a cookbook any more?

Michele: When it comes to free on-line recipes, it’s a jungle.  So watch out for those pretty but poisonous plants. I frequently peruse the major recipe web sites to see what’s there and I’m appalled by what I find: poorly written and untested recipes predominate. A lot of them absolutely will not work. There is no consistency when it comes to seasonality or quality. Randomness rules. Sure, you might find a recipe you like. But there will be no context, no relationship. Nothing is vetted; there’s no central voice.

A good cookbook has been vetted on many levels. Recipes are tested. There’s a voice, a point of view, at the center of it all. There’s context and, in the best of them, there is depth. A good cookbook is like a friend who joins you in the kitchen. It’s a relationship, not a one-night stand.

Andy: When I think of regions that are important in the food world in California, the places that come to mind are Napa and maybe Berkeley. Last time we talked, you said something surprising.  You believed  Sonoma County is much more important now than either of those places. Care to elaborate?

Michele: I could write books on this topic. Oh, wait, I have! Sonoma County has always been much more important when it comes to food than either Napa or Berkeley. Berkeley has plenty of claim to fame, of course, and launched the Gourmet Ghetto and the food revolution and gave us L.  John Harris, Alice Waters, Les Blank, Peet’s Coffee, Acme Bread, Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant and so much more. It spread the gospel. But look at early Chez Panisse menus: They are filled with foods and wines of Sonoma County.

Napa has a singular focus, wine. It is a long inland valley with temperatures that rise as you head north. It was easy to spread the gospel of Napa because there was a single story, which Robert Mondavi told exquisitely well. The walnut and  cherry orchards and other farms and ranches mostly disappeared as viticulture eclipsed everything. There are plenty of high-end restaurants with world-wide reputations in Napa, which makes sense, given the wine business. But this is about dining, not about cooking or farming or ranching. Napa produces some food, yes, but it must reach beyond its borders for most of its raw materials. The first place they reach out to is Sonoma. Attend any farmers market in Napa County and you see dozens of vendors from Sonoma County.

Sonoma County has five major valleys, with dozens of microclimates within these valleys. It has a seacoast. Our history of farming and ranching extends back to the 1800s, when an olive oil industry thrived here and Luther Burbank called it the chosen spot of the entire planet, as far as nature is concerned. We have some of the country’s finest dairies and the cleanest milk in America. We have extraordinary cheese makers and yogurt producers. Pastured eggs and poultry, the best lamb in the US, glorious duck, succulent grass-fed beef, delicious pork and goat, all come from our ranches and farms. We were pioneers in mesclun, the salad mix that is now everywhere. In the early 1980s, high-end restaurants from Honolulu to New York City had Sonoma County mesclun on their menus. Several local foods–the Gravenstein apple, the Bodega Red Potato, the Crane Melon and Dry Jack Cheese among them–have been taken onto the “Ark of Taste” by Slow Food.

There is a long history of home cooking here, too, with a patchwork of influences that include Portuguese, French, Italian, Swiss and German immigrants. More recently, Asian immigrants have had an impact on the region, too, especially on our agriculture.

According to several recent polls, Sonoma County is the top destination for wine travel, for wine and food travel and for food tourism. Healdsburg has been named one of the ten best small towns in America.

Frankly, I thought this would happen sooner than it has. My first book about Sonoma County food came out in 1990 and my second, a revised and expanded edition, came out in 2000. Both were ahead of the curve by several years. But now, Sonoma County is on the national and international stage, as it should be. It’s both a satisfying and a worrying development. We need to protect and preserve what we have, one of the finest agricultural environments in the world.

Andy: Michele, thanks so much for this. As usual, you are brilliant, provocative and refreshingly counter-intuitive. Gotta go now and make some of your delicious salad dressing from Vinaigrettes.

Beth Kephart on Writing Memoir

August 29, 2013

Handling_the_TruthFINALFINALbeth2Today we are going to talk with Beth Kephart about writing memoir.  Beth is the author of Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir published this year by Gotham Books. She is the author of five memoirs, one of which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Beth teaches creative non-fiction at The University of Pennsylvania.

Andy: Beth, there are a lot of books out there about the art and craft of memoir writing. Why did you decide to write Handling the Truth?

Beth: Handling emerged somewhat despite myself. I was full of this love for the young people I meet and teach; I wanted to celebrate them and what they taught me. I grew intent, too, on sharing my thoughts about the many memoirs that have inspired and instructed me and to liberate this much-tarnished form from some of the damaging mythology. Finally, I felt compelled to save others from the mistakes I’ve made, and to offer cautions.

Andy: Let’s start with the basics. What’s a memoir? Or to clear up a prevailing misconception, how is memoir different from autobiography?

Beth: I think it’s so much easier to define memoir by what it’s not, which of course I do in the opening pages of the book.  Memoir is not a chronological recitation of a life. It’s not therapy. It’s not an accusation. It’s not a boast. It’s not fiction. It’s not gossip. Memoir is a search to understand the human condition—to tell a personal, resonating story. Memoir writers look back with empathy—toward themselves and toward others. They fabricate nothing on purpose. They know what to leave out. And they recognize—explicitly and implicitly—they are not the only ones in the room. Their readers matter, too.

Andy: In my work as an agent, I get pitched a lot of memoir. There seems to be an endless number of projects dealing with dysfunctional families, surviving cancer, interesting travels to exotic places, and the like. You mentioned in the book that Neil Genzlinger called memoir “an absurdly bloated genre.”  And my experience with publishers is that they are pretty cynical about these well-mined themes. Aside from an appreciation of good writing style, do you really believe there’s anything new and important to say about some of these overworked subjects?

Beth: I think we have to stop imprisoning memoirs in marketing categories. The minute we start to think that we are writing an illness memoir, say, or a grief memoir, is the minute that we’ve lost sight of the bigger possibilities of the personal story. It’s never just about what happened. It’s about what it meant. Memoirists must continue to look for new structures, new ways of asking and answering the big questions. Look at what Joan Wickersham does in The Suicide Index, for example. That is a book about the aftermath of a father’s suicide. And it is a story you’ve never seen told like that before. It’s a story that makes you think newly on a familiar topic, precisely because Wickersham has been inventive with structure and smart about elisions and inclusions.

In the end, someone will categorize Wickersham’s book as a suicide memoir—perhaps. But it’s clear that she wrote it with bigger ambitions in mind. It’s clear that she was not suffocated by a label.

Andy: You speak at length in the book about honesty in writing memoir. There’s a tension between telling your story accurately and shaping a story that is artistically true and aesthetically pleasing. Can we really remember a dialogue that took place twenty years ago. Do we really recall our feelings about visiting Gramma’s house for the first time?  How much are memoirists permitted to invent? Or maybe just fudge a little bit?

Beth: I’m a pretty big stickler for telling the truth, as much as possible. I don’t believe in the deliberate fudging of facts, the rearrangements of time, the reassignments of characters, the remapping of locales. You start making it up on purpose and you’ve lost the heart of the matter. Memoir writing is, in some ways, like writing a villanelle or a sonnet. You are bound by the rules of what happened, by what you remember, by what you can research (don’t forget, memoir writers, about the power of research to help support the telling of story). The truth constricts your work. It also shapes it. Find a way. Don’t make it up. And when you don’t remember, just say so. Your credibility matters.

Andy: Sometimes I tell an author that their memoir might work better as a novel, a roman á clef. But writing a novel is very different from writing memoir. Do you have any advice to writers who are undecided about which path to pursue?

Beth: Read books that fall on both sides of the line. Vaddey Ratner, in writing In the Shadow of the Banyan, recreated her childhood but also gave herself room to change some of the personal details. Everything in that book comes from a known experience, from something lived throughout the Cambodian genocide. And yet Banyan is a novel. Ratner never lies, but she still writes from a pure, authentic place.

Writing fiction is just as important and personal an enterprise as writing memoir (I write both). But be clear about what you are doing. Count the trade-offs and decide.

Andy: But even if you are writing memoir, the story has to be compelling or else no one will read it. When I get a rejection from  an editor (which happens far too often), one of the standard explanations is that there is no “narrative arc.” Well, real life doesn’t always correspond to a classic 3 act narrative structure. What’s a memoirist to do?

Beth: Stop thinking chronologically. Chronology can be—not always, but sometimes—the death of memoir. It locks people into saying this happened, this happened, this happened. It can be claustrophobic. Be inventive. Study Howard Norman or Rebecca Solnit. See what they make of their lives. See how they selectively shape the interesting stuff and leave out all the filler.

Andy: In my work with authors, particularly those who write memoir and fiction, I’m always amazed at how little perspective they have. Characters and scenes that have been living in the heart and mind of the author for years may leave the reader cold. And as you said, the reader is always in the room.  I tell my clients that the reader is king and is usually unforgiving. If the first page is boring, the reader will throw the book down and never pick it up again. That seems particularly challenging to memoirists. After all, everyone’s life is a hero’s journey. Why should we care about someone else’s?

Beth: We only care if it speaks to us in an inclusive fashion. We only care if the right questions have been asked. The celebrity memoir is often exclusionary, and in fact, the celebrity memoir is often (not always!) not a memoir at all but an autobiography. Patti Smith and Diane Keaton are celebrities, but they’ve written true memoir—they’ve made their life stories relevant to the rest of us by wondering out loud about the nature of love, the nature of relationships, the nature of fidelity to another. Edna O’Brien is a celebrity author, but her “memoir” is less a memoir than a recounting of events and famous people/places. We are all just people in the end. A memoir’s purpose is to lower gates and open doors. Boring books are self-inflating, self-congratulatory, and, ultimately, self-isolating. If we are boring someone at a cocktail party, we are also likely boring them with our memoirs.

Andy: You write a lot about style in memoir. You have, for instance, a whole chapter on weather. I’m sure you’re aware of the fact that writers seem to look down on the weather these days. Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s immortal “It was a dark and stormy night” is often considered the worst first line in all of literature.  Were you trying to tweak a few noses  at the literary snoots when you wrote that chapter?

Beth: I’m not writing about style so much as writing about ways of remembering our lives. Too often people stare at the events of their lives and don’t stop to think about the ambiance or mood, the meaning, the possibilities in all that “background” stuff. I’m not suggesting that memoirists go out and fill a book with storms and sunshine. I am saying, use everything you’ve got, every sense, to find your personal story. And then figure out what it means, and what is worth keeping. And sometimes weather will signify. And when it does, recognize the opportunity.

Andy: You distinguish between real memoirs and “pseudo memoirs.”  I’ve never heard that expression before.  In your analysis a pseudo memoir is not the same as a bad memoir. Can you discuss this a little?

Beth: Ha! I love the question. Pseudo memoirs are half steps toward the truth. They speak of lives that have not been fully explored, examined, wrestled with. Bad memoirs are bad memoirs. Badly written, badly structured, and published for the wrong reasons. Sometimes all a pseudo memoirist needs in order  to write a real memoir is more time and more reflection.

Andy:  And here’s the $64,000 question: what’s your favorite memoir?

Beth: Can’t do this! Handling the Truth discusses nearly 100 memoirs, many in detail. So there is the first memoir I loved (Natalie Kusz’s Road Song) and the one I most often teach (Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family) and the books I’m still discovering now (Howard Norman’s I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place). But come to my house. See all my shelves and boxes. I’m in love with a lot of books.

Thank you so much, Andy, for these thoughtful questions. I hope anyone who wants to learn more and to read about some memoirs that aren’t in my book (some additional exercises, some additional essays) will consider visiting my blog, www.beth-kephart.blogspot.com, or buying the book.

Andy: And thank you, Beth. As I said earlier, in the business of book publishing, it’s pretty easy to get cynical and discouraged about memoirs. Every once in awhile, you need to remember about those great ones that changed your life. Your book was an inspiration. Oh, yes, and by the way, I just wanted to say that my last book deal was for a memoir. Yes!

Flaubert’s Kettle

June 24, 2013

“Human Speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.” – Gustave Flauflaubertbert,  Madame Bovary

 

I see a lot of writing coming over the transom from people who seem smitten by metaphorical imagery. Unless you can write it like Flaubert, I recommend finding another way to depict whatever it is you are trying to describe. The metaphors and similes I see usually don’t work that well. When you start using these figures of speech, it’s easy to fall into cliché. (I advise writers to “avoid metaphorical imagery and clichés like the plague.”) Editors and agents tend to view this kind of writing as characteristic of the novice and a sign of the writer’s insecurity. Like you’re trying too hard. You don’t have to model yourself after Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver. But still… to paraphrase Freud, sometimes the best way to describe a green tree is to just call it a green tree.


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