Back of the Book

thunderstruckElizabeth McCracken will be at Austin’s BookPeople at 7 p.m. tonight, Tuesday, April 22, to speak and sign copies of her new book, Thunderstruck & Other Stories. McCracken holds the James Michener Chair of Fiction at the University of Texas at Austin, and is the author of one previous collection of short stories (Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry), two novels (Niagara Falls All Over Again and The Giant’s House), and the memoir An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination.

McCracken’s new book contains nine stories that explore family, love, loneliness and loss. “Property,” which details a young man’s grief after his wife’s death, was selected for The Best American Short Stories of 2011 anthology. In the title story, a mother and father struggle to be good parents. And in “Peter Elroy: A Documentary by Ian Casey,” the subject of said documentary revisits the filmmaker’s house and comes to terms with his betrayal.

McCracken’s writing is often heralded as both magical and askew, and Kirkus Reviews has called Thunderstrucka powerfully if quietly disturbing volume.” Thunderstruck also marks McCracken’s return to short fiction after 20 years, and demonstrates her power to, as Publishers Weekly puts it, “transform life’s dead ends into transformational visions.”

 

mozartrequiem

 

Austin’s Fusebox Festival will begin with a sort of anti-elegy, a zombie score. “Mozart Requiem Undead”—a re-imagining of Mozart’s “Requiem” comprising new compositions by indie artists including Glenn Kotche (Wilco), Caroline Shaw, DJ Spooky, Justin Sherburn (Okkervil River) and Adrian Quesada (Grupo Fantasma)—will be performed by a full orchestra and a 150-person choir. Graham Reynolds and Peter Stopschinski of Golden Hornet Project will lead the piece outside the French Legation Museum.

The directors call Fusebox a “hybrid art festival,” because it plays host to music, theater, performance art, documentaries, artist talks and round-table discussions. Additionally, Executive Director Ron Berry has begun referring to it as a “festival about festivals,” i.e., an opportunity to measure the impact of a festival on it host community, especially when that community is as festival-happy as Austin.

The performance of “Mozart Requiem Undead” will launch the 10th anniversary installment of the two-week festival (April 16-27 at venues throughout the capital), as well as a new Fusebox initiative called “Free Range Art.” That’s a branded way of saying that all festival events are free. Registration and the schedule are available online at fuseboxfestival.com.

The Observer caught up with Berry to find out why Austin needs a hybrid art festival, what Fusebox can teach about festivals in general, and why, after a decade, Fusebox has moved to a free model.

Matthew Irwin: How would you describe the Fusebox Festival to someone who has never attended or been to the website?

Ron Berry: It’s a 12-day festival of adventurous artists and projects from around the world working in a variety of different art forms. The festival takes place in about 20 different locations around the city. We view the festival as a platform for conversations and ideas.

MI: Can you provide some background on Fusebox?

RB: A lot of the work that was being made in Austin was happening in a vacuum, and we were really interested in creating a platform for that work so that you can live in Austin and make that work and have that work be seen by a much larger audience, and seen around the world, so we wanted to find other artists and other curators and presenters from around the country and around the world to come see the work. Then we also wanted to inject some new thinking into the local community by inviting artists from around the country and around the world.

MI: You mention what you call the Austin vacuum. In your experience, do some of the other communities you visit have a similar experience, if they’re not major artistic hubs?

RB: I think Austin has a pretty rich tradition in both music and film, but I also think that both of those art forms travel a lot easier. You can find a song and download it the same day. I think in regards to the live art—theater, dance, performance, any visual art, things you really need to be in the room with to experience—it is hard to engage with these things unless you’re traveling to New York, Berlin, Buenos Aires and Paris. I don’t think Austin is unique … that’s just inherent in those art forms.

MI: So over the last 10 years, what kind of exchanges have you witnessed by bringing diverse communities together through Fusebox?

RB: We’ve brought in artists who have been in residency here, so you’ve been able to take classes or workshops with them, and some who take the workshop with them actually build the project up with them, and there’s been opportunities for some hands-on work with these artists. There have been artists that we’ve featured that have done gigs that have toured outside of Austin because a curator came, saw their work, and then wanted them to do their work elsewhere—so that was something that was very exciting for us. It helps make Austin a more valuable place to live in as an artist—that you don’t necessarily have to go to New York or L.A. to have your work seen by people.

All of this to me is laying the groundwork [for] switching to a free model, especially if you take from the underpinnings of the festival this idea of exchange and encountering ideas and perspectives from outside of your immediate sphere. We felt like, when we were charging admission, that we were unmistakably targeting people we felt would want to buy tickets, and it would become this very insular conversation and exchange that was happening. We have a core audience, but they go see everything and engage with the festival very deeply, but aside from that, when people aren’t familiar with these artists and we are charging for each head, the likelihood of people going to see anything—because there’s more than one thing—is very low, so we felt like this was a smarter strategy for welcoming these people into the festival. And for me, that’s one thing I really love about this festival—that it’s kind of a place of discovery and you can discover artists that you’ve never heard of. I feel like Sundance, in the early days … was a place to discover independent thinking and voices, so I really love that about our festival and want to encourage people to take a chance on projects and artists.

MI: How might the festival be a place to have this conversation about what it costs to put on a production or hang a show?

RB: Yeah, I think that was another facet of this Free Range Art initiative, that we did want to talk about the economics of this work. Some of the artists I know are generally subsidizing their own work. Ticket sales are 10 percent of our budget, so in the first conversation about deciding to go free, pretty much the first question that everyone asked was, well how can you do that? And we’re like, really, ticket sales are a very miniscule part of our budget, and we needed all that, but we actually might make more money this year by going free. [In addition to private donations and grants, Fusebox successfully crowdsourced funding specifically for Free Range Art.] Or we’ll certainly be able to cover that amount. It’s very low-risk. We’ve actually already hit that number, so financially we’re totally fine… [W]e wanted to separate out the actual art and say, here’s this art that we believe in, we think it’s really important, and we think that everyone should have access to it, but at the same time let’s talk about the real cost of making this work. It’s not free, but it’s also not the $10 or $15 bucks that we usually charge. It’s much more than that, and we felt like in a way the ticket price was obscuring what was really going on.

MI: What does the real cost include?

RB: Our costs of presenting the work. The cost that the artist has put into filming the work, you know, months, years. It’s a real big question that we haven’t quite found the answer to, so it’s something we should talk about and look at.

A lot of this was inspired by a foundation in Brazil whose whole sort of mission is based around access. In São Paulo, they focus on three particular areas: the arts, athletics and dentistry. No one has dental coverage there. So they have this amazing center that runs a theater, an art gallery, they have a swimming pool there, and a basketball court, and a dentist office there. To me that was kind of hilarious, profound and amazing what it’s saying about arts and culture, and that it’s the same thing as going for a walk, or getting your teeth cleaned, brushing your teeth. To me that was such a radically different portrait of the arts in my mind, or understanding of the arts, positioning of the arts. It’s something that I really believe in as sort of the central part of being alive and healthy in the world, to have access to these things. Anyway, that struck me as profound, it was really about the proximity of those things all being in one complex.

MI: So how might Fusebox specifically address some of these issues or start this conversation?

RB: We want to have a sort of public forum there at the festival to talk about these things. One of the hopes is that along with this year’s festival we’re going to have a lot of information and a lot of data that we can compile and report back to the world—like here’s this big experiment that we tried and this is what we’ve found and this is what we think it means, at least in our particular situation.

MI: But will you have some things in the program specifically for table conversations?

RB: Yeah, I would love to do that. I mean, we have to do that. And we want to sort of touch on this conversation frequently, and also start the conversation around the reservation process and how people are learning and reading about the festival schedule. [The work is] not really free, so “free” is a problematic word, [but] it starts the conversation that it’s being paid for by someone else. So it’s almost like it’s a gift, and so there are other ways that we’re going to frame it so that we’re constantly reminding our audience that the attendance part is free … but there’s a whole process of how this conversation came into being and how these artists came into being in the same place and in this city together, and the whole thing is not actually free.

MI: Well, for me, a natural place to go when you start talking about free programming or free attendance is how the funding then determines what art is available, how that creates its own curatorial process.

RB: In many ways, it completely liberates it from any source of constraint. I mean, we’ve always been able to program pretty much anything we want, but when you’re relying on ticket sales, you have one or two shows that you really need to be your box office hits … We’re liberated from having to program these audience-pleasing projects. Not that we’re not pleasing our audiences, but it’s really about ideas and possibilities, and investigation, inspiration, all these things. We really love small, intimate projects and usually have a handful of these, but then you tie up all your ticket sales on projects only 16 people at a time can go see. But those are often some of my favorite experiences, and I really believe in creating the sort of tangible relationship with the work. So hopefully, with this particular model, we are liberated even more.

MI: I want to spend a minute on Fusebox as a festival about festivals idea.

RB: So this is something that we’re very aware of, like last year, I think, there were four or five other festivals going on while Fusebox was going on. It’s crazy. In some ways I think for years there’s been an exploration of a festival as an idea, as a thing, and what can a festival do that other things can’t? Specifically, what can our festival do that these other festivals aren’t? So that’s been central to our mission, and a joyous process.

MI: What, then, is Fusebox’s place in Austin, a city of festivals?

RB: One of the things that we’re doing aside from the specific programming that I think is unique to Austin, is we’ve been interested in using the mechanism of festivals to explore place; so we’re not just doing stuff in Zilker Park, and we’re not just doing stuff in clubs, but we worked with a composer to write a piece of music for his entire neighborhood. He went to the library and checked out a map, then you’d walk through this neighborhood and listen to this piece and the individual instrumentations of the piece were housed in different locations, so like the cello would be in someone’s study and then you would walk a couple more blocks and hear the violin. It was a unique musical experience, and it was also a way to encounter this neighborhood in a way maybe you never encountered it. So that’s an example of using the festival to investigate and encounter place that feels pretty different and unique from a lot of other festivals.

We’ve also been interested in food and the role that food plays; we’ve found it a really creative industry. We’ve partnered with a lot of chefs and bartenders who get really creative with it. Food and drink are such natural facilitators of [conversations]. So how can we use food and drink in organic ways to help facilitate more conversation? Often when I go to a conference or festival, maybe I see something that I really love, but often my favorite part is having a beer with a couple of people that I met and talking about the world.

MI: You talked about gathering some of this information and giving it back, and at the last Fusebox, at one of the round-table discussions, was this idea of what is a festival: Is it just a one-shot, or is there year-round programming? How much have you thought about these things in terms of how you program or organize Fusebox?

RB: That’s a great question. More and more this defines a different sort of relationship between artist and audience. I really do view all of this work as an ongoing conversation. And so the festival is a moment in a timeline where we can provoke and facilitate a lot of questions and conversations, and ideally these conversations continue after the festival and leading up to the next one. I think this is one area that we need to do more work on and put more resources toward helping to facilitate that conversation year-round.

MI: You know Austin is Richard Florida’s favorite town, and in his model, festivals are the jumpstart for the “creative economy,” and they may or may not continue in whatever forms, but the idea that they jumpstart a local culture—how does that line up with your own view?

RB: I certainly think that festivals play a huge part in the cultural landscape and help make Austin an exciting, attractive place to live. But the number, quality, atmosphere, I think, plays a part in the growth of Austin. To me, festivals are particularly exciting in that they provide an opportunity to encounter a bunch of different ideas and perspectives in such a concentrated period of time. They are inherently good at that, in many ways that’s what they are. Even if you’re just looking at a music festival, even at a genre music festival, there are still different styles and personalities and a different sort of message within that festival, and that’s exciting.

MI: I was just thinking that one of the things that I really enjoyed about Fusebox is that you don’t feel like the city is turning itself over to the festival, like with South by Southwest or the Austin City Limits Festival.

RB: We love that about it too. We also like this notion that we have these sort of hubs where we invite people and let the artists hang out, so as an audience member you can hang out with the artists, and I think that’s really cool, and definitely part of what we’re wanting.

lettercomposed
Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting
By Kevin Powers
Little, Brown and Company
112 pages; $23

The experience of reading Kevin Powers’ new poetry collection, Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, is much like combat itself—long periods of calm and reflection broken by frenetic bursts of adrenalized action. Nowhere is this juxtaposition more clear than in the poem “Improvised Explosive Device,” in which Powers explores what was probably the biggest threat to American soldiers in Iraq. Those of us who drove the tattered roads of that nation remember too well the randomness and constant worry about IEDs, inanimate objects to which we had never before given a second thought. In the poem, Powers writes of the quiet moments before potential energy turns kinetic:

And if this poem was somehow traveling
with you
in the turret of a humvee,
you would not see the words
buried at the edges of the road.
You would not see the wires. You would not
see the metal. You would not see the danger
in the architecture
of a highway overpass.

“Improvised Explosive Device” is unsettling, each line teasing out the danger that lurks beneath the ground or in the trash. This theme of things buried—explosives, reality, grief, history—runs throughout Powers’ poetry, as it did in his 2012 debut novel, The Yellow Birds. Powers, a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas in Austin, served as a machine gunner with the U.S. Army in Iraq. His poetry, like his fiction, weaves between Iraq and home.

In the opening poems of Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, Powers’ narrator is relieved that he doesn’t have to choose whether to shoot a young Iraqi boy whose job it is to gather unexploded mortars for the coalition. In later poems, the narrator, back in the States, struggles to find his footing as he discovers that he no longer fits into the community from which he embarked on his tour of duty. He is a remnant of history.

And it is history that Powers explores next, reminding readers that so much of the United States was built with a disregard for the working class. “In the Ruins of the Ironworks” parallels this hazardous disregard—in this case, for coal miners—with that for green soldiers sent off to war. In “Church Hill,” the narrator laments his country’s ability to proceed with daily life despite knowledge of faraway—and even nearby—death. Depicting the called-off rescue of workmen buried in a collapsed train tunnel in 1925 in Richmond, Virginia, he tells us:

At some point
everyone stopped trying
to dig the survivors out and went back
to whatever it was they’d done before …
Everything’s exhausting.
No one should be blamed for this.

Frustrated with the repetitive cycle of destruction and its subsequent whitewashing, Powers’ narrator appears to abandon the theme of history’s significance and our ability to learn from it. Every beginning, he observes, is just a course correction, and each star is just a record of a million cities waiting to be burned and lived in again. “Order is a myth,” he concludes. In “The Locks of the James,” he walks by a statue of Christopher Newport, one of the earliest Englishmen to arrive in Virginia, and dismisses his record as a pirate and “murderer of indigenous peoples,” proclaiming, “If I’m honest, I don’t think I cared. / If I’m honest, mine is the only history / that really interests me, which is unfortunate, / because I am not alone.”

As with The Yellow Birds, Powers is at his best when he homes in on the restrained anger threatening at any moment to shatter the lull and disrupt progress—the narrator wanting to fight obnoxious young drunks in a bar, only to cry because he misses having his weapon; another veteran at the VFW saying he lost his leg, only to be rebuffed and told, “Naw, they took it, the fuckers.”

Powers other times drifts into philosophical extrapolations about humans’ place in the universe, as in “Advice to be taken just before the Sun goes Supernova,” in which he writes that we are just “another piece of sacking added to the swirl / of forgotten objects swinging round / a million little masses we can’t see,” or in “A Lamp in the Place of the Sun,” where he declares that “A complete picture of the universe / as it currently exists / is not impossible, / only difficult.” As a result of these digressions, the collection sparks a desire for more immediate examinations of veterans’ role in war and their troubles reintegrating into communities. This is what hits home—the attempt to throttle the angst built up during a deployment, or simply from years insulated in an aggressive bubble. What is the point of worrying about our role in the greater universe if we can’t even identify it at home? As the narrator tells us, trying to piece together the remnants of his pre-war self, “I am home and whole, so to speak. … But I can’t remember / how to be alive.”

Kevin Powers will talk about Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting with moderator Jake Silverstein as part of the San Antonio Book Festival on Saturday, April 5, in the auditorium on the first floor of San Antonio’s Central Library, from 4:30 to 5:15 p.m. FREE.

Powers will be in Austin on Tuesday, April 7, in conversation with novelist Philipp Meyer, at Stateside at the Paramount, at 8 p.m., presented by the Texas Book Festival. Tickets cost $15.

Texas State University’s Wittliff Collections will host four authors on Thursday, April 3, to discuss Latino literature: where it’s been, where it’s going, and the borders it does, can and will cross. The event is free and open to the public, and those who wish to attend are encouraged to RSVP to [email protected]

San Antonio’s inaugural and current poet laureate, Carmen Tafolla, will moderate a conversation between poet and police officer Sarah Cortez, filmmaker and author Severo Perez, and poet Tino Villanueva.

Cortez has written several books, including How to Undress a Cop and Our Lost Border: Essays on Life amid the Narco-Violence. Perez is best known as the writer and director of …and the earth did not swallow him, which won several awards on the film-festival circuit; Perez recently donated his archives to the Wittliff Collections. Villanueva has authored seven books of poetry; one of them, Scene from the Movie GIANT, recently won the American Book Award.

For her part, Tafolla has published an array of award-winning work for children and adults. Her writing blends English and Spanish, academic jargon and street patois, into verse that’s distinctly Texan. (You can read Observer contributor Nick Swartsell’s piece on Tafolla and her fellow Texas poets laureate here.)

The conversation starts at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 3. A book-signing will follow.

 

The Parallel Apartments
by Bill Cotter
McSweeney's
500 pages; $25.00
The Parallel Apartments
by Bill Cotter
McSweeney’s
496 pages; $25

Trying to describe The Parallel Apartments is like trying to pat your head while rubbing your stomach while reciting the alphabet backwards. In his sophomore novel Bill Cotter deploys a broad and complicated cast of characters, all of whom are riddled with budding psychoses. There’s the aspiring serial killer, the infertile baby-crazed lunatic, the sex-bot madam, the matchmaking hermaphrodite, and, at the center of it all, the collage-obsessed chronic masturbator. These and more come together briefly as residents of the book’s eponymous Austin tenement. Based on their quirks, and the title’s reference to the location of their intersection, it would be easy to label the book black comedy.

That would be a gross oversimplification. Even the weirdest and wackiest members of Cotter’s menagerie play second and somewhat discordant fiddle to the book’s true focus: the estrangement of three generations of Austin women and their paths toward reconciliation.

Charlotte, Livia, and Justine Durant have issues, to put it mildly. Justine, unintentionally pregnant in New York City, finds her way back to her hometown to decide whether to keep her baby. She’s also searching for answers regarding her own origins after a homeless woman cryptically informs her that Livia, who always told Justine she was adopted, is actually her birth mother. Livia and her own mother, Charlotte, are no longer on speaking terms for undisclosed reasons.

There’s a lot going on here, but if a cohesive theme emerges, it’s motherhood. The Parallel Apartments is a bizarre catalog of women who have babies but don’t want them and women who want babies but don’t have them, and how these predicaments leave mothers and daughters and childless women emotionally (and often mentally) crippled. It would be far easier to label the book a farce if these depictions weren’t so heartbreaking, and readers may be left wondering whether Cotter is trying to say something about childbirth (and if so, what?), or if it’s just another of his many fictive obsessions.

The mixture of satire and seriousness is what makes The Parallel Apartments so confusing; Cotter continually convinces us that his characters are jokes, then pulls the punch-line out from under us, leaving readers flat on their backs, bewildered. This constant subversion of expectations is also what makes the book an intriguing, if emotionally disorienting, read.

Every now and then ambition impedes cohesion. Too often the saga of the Durant women is interrupted by supporting characters, rather than complemented by them. And after the 15th scene of Justine masturbating, eye-rolling is justified, if not outright demanded. The book is peppered with self-indulgent geographical nods to Austin, and these unnecessary references to Bass Concert Hall, Airport Boulevard, the U.T. Tower and other Austin icons make the writer seem worried that readers might forget where the book is set, or, worse, that its author is an authentic Austinite.

But even as Cotter labors to present Austin as weirder than it actually is, and even as his characters do abominable and ridiculous things to themselves and to one another, I found myself pitying, even rooting for, his band of bawdy misfits. For each of the plot’s points of despicable nonsense, there’s a counter-instance of unexpected kindness, all filtered through Cotter’s conflicted mix of mockery and compassion. The result is both horrific and heartwarming, no matter how difficult to describe.

Lucha-LibroThe next few weeks will bring a slew of writers to Austin and San Antonio, but don’t expect the usual staid readings. Instead, authors will do battle for the sale of honor, glory, and the competitive literary spirit.

This Wednesday, March 26, at Austin’s Whip In, How Best to Avoid Dying author Owen Egerton will face off against Manuel Gonzales, author of The Miniature Wife and director of Austin Bat Cave, in a duel of writerly wits, or, more formally, a Lucha Libro. Co-sponsored by the Texas Book Festival and the Whip In, the event will feature authors competing for the title of best short-story writer in a series of cutthroat challenges, including (but not limited to) reciting their books’ sexiest sentence and reading their most offensive passages.

Steph Opitz, literary director of the Texas Book Festival, will act as referee. The Lucha Libro is free and open to the public, whose votes will determine the victor. The event aims to celebrate the releases of Gonzales’ and Egerton’s recent work with an evening of beer, readings and good-natured competition.

Though one author will go home defeated, hard feelings can’t last long, since Egerton and Gonzales will reunite on April 3 for another authorial battle. This time Egerton will sit on panel of “celebrity judges” and Gonzales will be one of four contestants in an American Idol-esque Literary Death Match at Austin’s Alamo Draft House-Ritz. Egerton will be judging alongside Austin musician Bob Schneider and Texas Literary Hall of Famer Sarah Bird as Gonzales takes on Jennifer DuBois, author of Cartwheel, A Partial History of Lost Causes and teacher at Texas State’s MFA program; Neal Pollack, author of Downward-Facing Death, Jewball, and certified yoga instructor; and Elizabeth McCracken, author of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination and holder of the James A. Michener Chair in Fiction at the University of Texas at Austin. Each author will read a 7-minute selection from their work and then submit to a ruthless critique from the judges, after which the winner will be chosen in a game show-style final round. You can buy tickets here.

Litdeathmatch

Literary Death Match will then make its way to San Antonio on April 5, where Egerton will compete with Roxana Robinson, author of Sparta; Antonio Sacre, author of My Name is Cool: Stories from a Cuban-Irish-American Storyteller; and Malin Alegria, author of Border Town #4: No Second Chances—all under the inscrutable judgment of Texas Monthly editor in chief Jake Silverstein; Siempre Mujer Magazine editor in chief Maria Cristina Marrero; and chief of engagement for San Antonio nonprofit SA2020 Molly Cox. Produced by the San Antonio Book Festival, the event will be held at the end of the festival itself, which features free public readings from more than 70 national, regional and local authors. San Antonio Death Match tickets can be purchased here.

Both Literary Death Matches will be hosted by Adrian Todd Zuniga, founding editor of Opium Magazine and co-creator of the Literary Death Match Series, which he, Elizabeth Koch and Dennis DeClaudio premiered in 2006. Since then the event has traveled from Seattle to Beijing. Now it’s Texas’ turn.

DeathFernando A. Flores’ Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas, Vol. 1 chronicles a Rio Grande Valley that’s never been known as a haven for the punk rock underground — unless you were part of it. Flores was, as was Observer contributor Dan Solomon, who reviews the new book here.

If you’d like to get a taste for yourself, Austin’s Farewell Books is hosting a book release party tonight, March 19, at 7 p.m.

James Magnuson

Texas Observer contributor Anis Shivani, who writes fiction, poetry and criticism from his home in Houston, reviews James Magnuson’s novel Famous Writers I Have Known in the March issue. The novel centers on a J.D. Salinger-like literary recluse named V.S. Mohle, a James Micheneresque Pulitzer-winning popular novelist/philanthropist named Rex Schoeninger, and an East Coast con man/imposter named Frank Abandonato.

Magnuson, who directs the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas in Austin, spoke with Shivani by email about campus novels, Internet self-promotion, writerly self-doubt, and the utility of MFA writing programs.

Texas Observer: I was fascinated by your description of Rex Schoeninger as a way of understanding the late James Michener. What kind of relationship did you have with Michener, and what did you learn from him?

James Magnuson: I would say that our relationship was mutually respectful. He was anything but a glad-hander. I quickly learned that the last thing you should do with Michener was ask him for something. He was a very shrewd man and knew when he was being worked.

TO: The founders of some of the country’s generously endowed writing programs and residencies would perhaps not recognize the degree to which their original function and rationale have altered. What do you think have been the biggest changes with Stegner, Yaddo, Fine Arts Work Center, and what would surprise the founders the most?

JM: I’m no expert on the history of writing programs, but I have seen how the Michener Center has changed. Twenty years ago we were the new kids on the creative writing block and a bit of an oddity, because we were interdisciplinary. We made lots of mistakes in the beginning, corrected them as best we were able to. Because of the success of a number of the students, we are certainly viewed in a very different way now. That can be unnerving. I’ve tried very hard to keep us from getting too fancy.

TO: In Famous Writers I Have Known, the writing-workshop students have a decent recognition of literary theory. That may be true on an individual level, but my understanding is that on a more systemic level, theory and creative writing function in isolation, even antagonism. Do you regret the passing of humanist criticism in favor of the technocratic language of theory?

JM: When someone showed me a Walter Benjamin article in the 1970s, it felt like a total revelation. A few years later, critical theory was spreading like kudzu. What had seemed so electrifying soon became doctrinaire and disspiriting, particularly to writers. You’re right about the antagonism. It does exist. I do still seek out eccentric and suggestive criticism written by writers like D.H. Lawrence and William Carlos Williams. Zadie Smith is superb writing about books. But I confess, sometimes I will read a book like [Michael Taussig’s] Shamanism, Colonialism, and The Wild Man.

TO: What parts of writing can be taught? What can’t be taught? Are we under a mass illusion when it comes to the teaching of writing, or is something helpful being done with instruction? Do you think the age of great original writers is over?

JM: I think you can teach a young writer to spot and destroy the most egregious cliches, how to use point of view in a consistent way, how to develop a bit of an eye for the telling detail. You can get them excited about reading. You can teach them to prune dead language, even if you can’t really teach them how to make language come alive. But the storytelling instinct is either there or it isn’t. You have it or you don’t, and there’s not much a teacher can do.

TO: What do you think is the biggest con as far as the writing industry is concerned?

JM: A tough question. I think it’s probably instilling false hope. I wince at this, because I’m a natural encourager. But sustaining a writing career is so difficult. My greatest nightmare is telling someone he’s a genius, because I want him to feel better, and then he ends up wasting the next decade of his life.

TO: I like the degree of moral overlap in Famous Writers I Have Known between Frank as con man and the feelings of anxiety and self-doubt—if not feelings of outright fakery—most writers experience. Was the character of Frank the original germ of the story, or was there some other starting point?

JM: I appreciate your point. I spent eight years working on this novel and it was turned down by 30 publishers before it was finally taken. I absolutely felt like a fraud for a substantial part of that time.

As far as the germ of the novel goes, the book sprang from two very different notions. On the one hand I was intrigued by the idea of a low-life passing himself as a world-class writer. I’ve always taken pleasure in farce, in those Danish plays where the beggar wakes up in the king’s bed and everyone treats him as royalty.

But the other seed of the novel was planted as I watched so many people circling James Michener at the end of his life, angling for the remainder of his fortune. My wicked thought was, who could come along to ace them all out?

TO: Did you have any difficulty settling on the tone for the novel?

JM: Getting the tone just right was the hardest thing, and the most crucial. I had to take the utmost care not to impose my literary opinions on Frankie. In one sense I had to dumb him down (smart as he is). I went through and meticulously deleted all the words that I would use and he wouldn’t. I also had to keep from becoming too fair-minded and kind for as long as I could.

TO: We seem to be well past the era where a literary dispute could mean anything to the culture at large, as with the case of Mohle and Schoeninger’s spat on national television, which had dire consequences for both. Yet writers are eagerly enlisting in the latest phase of their own cultural emasculation—namely participation in social media, which really amounts to substituting a fake brand for any sense of individuality. What are your feelings toward the impact of technology on various aspects of writers’ self-understanding?

JM: I’m bewildered by all this. I’m one of the late adapters, one of those people who can never remember their password. It’s a little unnerving. On the one hand, I find some great literary things on the Internet I would never find any other way. But I wonder if it’s turning all of us nerdy literary types into something we’re not. A friend of mine says she feels like one of those clowns with the balloons out in front of Jiffy Lube, hopping up and down shouting, “Look at me! Look at me!”

TO: What are some of your favorite campus novels?

JM: I love the David Lodge novels, Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, Richard Russo’s Straight Man, and Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys.

TO: It seems to me that Schoeninger—with his research orientation—does have a glimmer of truth in his possession, as far as the future of the global novel is concerned, even if his execution, and those of others like him, lacks much literary merit. Have you incorporated research in any of your novels? Do you think there can be a balance between the genuinely autobiographical (represented by Mohle) and the sociological approach (represented by Schoeninger)? Are there writers today who successfully integrate both elements, the autobiographical and the sociological?

JM: I used to do a lot of research for my novels. I loved to go out into the world with a small spiral notebook in my back pocket and just look at things. I learned about rat-baiting in nineteenth century New York, the layout of major league ballparks, the whereabouts of anti-war radicals in the mountains of New Mexico. But then a family and a job curtailed my roaming. I made adjustments.

I love novels with reach and ambition. It seems to me as if a lot of contemporary fiction is way too cautious, as if it’s been put through the rinse cycle one too many times. Peter Carey’s novels are wonderful in the way they blend history and the very idiosyncratically personal. What Salman Rushdie pulled off in Midnight’s Children was amazing. And don’t forget Doris Lessing and the way she shuttled back and forth between the autobiographical and the political in The Golden Notebook. Will there be another Tolstoy? I don’t know. I’d be happy with another Dos Passos.

Support the Texas Observer
Things I’ve Learned from Dying: A Book about Life
By David Dow
Grand Central Publishing
288 pages; $25.00
Things I’ve Learned from Dying: A Book about Life
By David Dow
Grand Central Publishing
288 pages; $25.00

There’s a certain amount of irony in appending the epigraph “I could write a book about what I don’t know” to one whose title foregrounds its intent to share the lessons gleaned over the course of a career, and one walks away from Things I’ve Learned from Dying: A Book about Life wondering if, in fact, there is anything David Dow has yet to learn. Perhaps the real question is: If there are things Dow still doesn’t know, what hope do the rest of us have?

Things I’ve Learned from Dying is an energetic three-part memoir delineated into sections titled “Beginnings,” “Middles,” and “Endings.” Dow, a professor of law at the University of Houston and of history at Rice University, as well as founder and director of the Texas Innocence Network, details his father-in-law’s death from a quickly metastasized melanoma, his family’s beloved Doberman’s death from acute liver failure, and one of his many clients’ final years on death row and eventual execution. True to its title, the book is peppered with sentences structured around the phrase, “One thing I’ve learned,” such as: “One thing I’ve learned is that there is a time to be silent and there’s a time to hold nothing back. What I might not have learned is which is when.”

Taking some liberties with its timeline and compressing legal cases that spanned the better parts of decades, Dow explains how to argue a death penalty case in Texas, along the way bringing to light some of the nuances of the appeals system—and some of the ways in which he longs for even more nuance. He outlines the four stages of a death penalty case: the trial and state court appeal come first, followed by the state court habeas proceeding; after that comes the federal habeas appeal; the final stage is what Dow describes as “all the last-minute freneticism when death penalty lawyers try to think of anything they can to save their client’s life.” In Things I’ve Learned from Dying, we enter death row inmate Eddie Waterman’s case at the third stage. Dow’s ruminations about representing Waterman before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals show him at his most entertaining and opinionated:

People who think bogus legal proceedings happen only in places like Iran or China apparently haven’t been to Texas.

It hasn’t always been this way. … But decent judges have been replaced by bureaucratic hacks who reach results that melt their political butter no matter how much violence they have to inflict on legal principles on the way to getting there.

In the section titled “Middles,” Dow recounts offering advice to a younger colleague who is distraught after the execution of his first client: “Work on developing a cold cold heart, pal,” he says, invoking Hank Williams. But while there is evidence here of professional numbness—occasional decisions based solely on detached experience and expertise—this is not the narrative of someone unaffected by a life spent with the dying. Throughout the memoir, using passages from a journal he kept during his father-in-law’s illness and recreating other scenes from memory, Dow meditates on the instant between life and death. “One thing I’ve learned,” he writes, “is that beginnings are unambiguous, but endings are not.”

His story’s overlap of human, canine, legal and familial loss ultimately leads Dow to acknowledge the difference between the individual and the universal: “The deepest knowledge, I’ve learned, can be awareness of the chasm separating you from someone else.” In convincing prose, Dow shows what such lessons cost.

Houston Rap Tapes

I mean, most poor people don’t even know they can do something… You don’t know. You don’t even know that you have recourse. And people ain’t been educated on fighting’ back unless it’s some street shit, like fighting your neighbors or beating up… fighting your family members, killing your best friend. And nobody like… fightin’ the government, the city. “What the fuck you mean, fight the city? You mean like… Houston against me?” —Willie D., Houston Rap Tapes

“Your city is only as big as the parts of it you allow yourself to see,” writes Lance Scott Walker in the preface to Houston Rap Tapes. Walker will be at Brazos Bookstore in Houston tonight at 7 p.m. signing copies of Houston Rap Tapes, the companion book to Walker and photographer Peter Beste’s documentary photo book, Houston Rap (excerpted in the January issue of the Observer). Walker will also be at Sig’s Lagoon in Houston tomorrow, Feb. 27, at 6 p.m., and at Farewell Books in Austin on March 1 at 1 p.m.

Houston Rap provided a window into Houston rap culture through the faces and stories of the producers, MCs, DJs, radio personalities and community members who shaped it. The photo-heavy book had room for only brief excerpts from nearly 10 years’ worth of interviews, so Houston Rap Tapes tells the rest of the story. The new book’s oral histories illuminate what Walker calls a “cross-section” of Houston hip-hop, and each person’s story reveals something about the larger story of Houston—and about the people and places that too often go unseen.

Though Houston Rap and Houston Rap Tapes offer a big picture of Houston, Walker notes that the picture is in no way complete. “I think there are a lot more stories to tell, and we’re successful if this encourages people to take another look into the history of Houston rap artists and learn more about the city. If you’re from the area or identify with the city, you end up learning about yourself along the way,” Walker says. “The great thing about finishing a project like this is that once it’s out in the world, it takes on a life of its own, and when that manifests in something that’s going to turn people on to the culture and the music, that’s good for everybody involved.”