Category Archives: people

Junk Talk Interview with James Brown author of This River and The Los Angeles Diaries

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I landed an interview with James Brown, acclaimed author of The Los Angeles Diaries and his newest memoir This River.

I was so pleased to get to talk with him. Jim struck me as a really great guy. He was open, articulate, and really frank about his writing life and his recovery. If you’re at all interested in recovery or memoir, you may want to check out the interview.

Holly and I have found some real success with Junk, the literary magazine we launched last year (tomorrow @ noon PST look for a new issue featuring none other than Joe Bonomo!). Now we’re redoubling our efforts to continue to build community around Junk Talk. We have a few more interviews scheduled in the weeks ahead.

And by all means, read This River. I reviewed it for Internet Review of Books and was really impressed.

I think you will be too.

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Shalom Auslander at Elliott Bay Books

Shalom Auslander appeared at Elliott Bay last night to promote the paperback edition of his memoir, Foreskin’s Lament.

What struck me most is how serious and intense he is. I guess I should have realized this about him from his promotional photo, which simply screams I am a serious and intense author. But his work, which I love, just seems much too funny to come from anyone so grave.

Except for a single man who laughed loudly in all the right places, the reading felt a little like a wake. Despite this, I enjoyed myself. I got a chance to hang out with Matt Briggs and talk shop. And it’s always good to get into Seattle for a night.

Auslander said he considers memoir to be the literary equivalent of pornography. I’m pretty sure he was serious. I guess he only wants to write fiction, but his memoir is really good.

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Gary Presley, Author of 7 Wheelchairs, a Life Beyond Polio, Interviewed on Iowa Public Radio

My friend Gary Presley’s interview on Iowa Public Radio is live. Gary wrote, 7 Wheelchairs, a Life Beyond Polio, which just recently came to press, so now he is doing the marketing thing. I am reading my copy of his book right now.

I also recently got a phone call from Elliott Bay Book Company here in Seattle to say that they just got the book in. I was downtown last week and noticed they didn’t have it, so I asked them to order me a copy, even though I already had mine from Amazon. I’ll sleep easier knowing that a qaulity book store like Elliott Bay has Gary’s book on its shelves.

You can check out the streaming version of the interview or download the podcast.

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Michael Pollan Knows Food

If you want to know more about food, read Michael Pollan. The man knows his food. He’s written at least three great books, one of which I already posted about. I wanted to jot some additional notes on the others.

Omnivore’s Dilemma is a look at the food industry. I got through the first part about corn, but then I had to put it down. He’s a great writer, but the market forces he describes bearing down on the food industry just became too depressing for me to bear. If you want something a little more upbeat, go with In Defense of Food, which describes how best to eat in a world as depressing as the one described in Omnivore’s Dilemma.

But what I like best about Pollan’s work has less to do with food and more to do with his ability to clarify economic and sociological forces that come to bear on an industry. In Botany of Desire he describes how the War on Drugs inadvertently gave us better and more potent marijuana. I haven’t smoked pot in ages, but I remember when it was light green flakes and often cost less than $20 an ounce. Pollan offers an entire history of pot and how the drug crackdown forced pot growers underground, where they tinkered with hybrids until they were able to grow incredibly potent pot indoors. A lot of the hooligans pulling these underground shenanigans were people right here in the Pacific Northwest (Matt Briggs’s, Shoot the Buffalo has characters in the PNW that make a living growing pot indoors).

Fascinating stuff.

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Zen and Writing Memoir

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Went to see Natalie Goldberg Friday night.

I could have sworn I read her book, Writing Down the Bones. But I don’t see how I could have, since until they introduced her Friday evening, I had no idea she was into Zen. According to Wikipedia, teaching writing using Zen principals is Goldberg’s niche. Fortunately for me, I just finished Dinty Moore’s, The Accidental Buddhist, which is a fun exploration of Moore’s experience with Buddhism. So when Goldberg started talking about Monkey Mind and focusing too much on this side of life, I was able to put it mostly in context.

Poor thing lost her mother on Christmas eve. She was talking about the experience of losing her mother and, at one point, she asked, “Where is my mom?” It came out so plaintive. The rest of the night I felt sad, vulnerable. Sooner or later everyone loses their mom.

Goldberg also pronounces memoir funny. She says, “memwhhar.”

And I long for the East coast.

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RIP: Evel Knievel (1938 – 2007)

Remember banana seats and sissy bars?

In the 70s, kids all over America were building ramps and breaking bones because of this guy’s stunts. One of a kind.

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Katha Pollitt has Balls

Katha Pollitt is my latest hero.

I wasn’t even familiar with her work until I heard her on a recent episode of NPR’s Fresh Air. An American feminist writer, Pollitt is perhaps best known for her column “Subject to Debate” in The Nation magazine.

But all that means squat to me. Ms. Pollitt is my new hero because she has balls.

Her new book, Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories, includes essays about discovering her boyfriend was unfaithful and her subsequent response, which included web-stalking him. Her friends cautioned her about publishing these stories. What kind of self-respecting feminist tells stories like these? 

Discussing her motivations for publishing, Pollitt articulates something anyone who writes personal essays or memoir knows is true. Here is Katha Pollitt on Fresh Air (probably within the first 6 minutes of air time):

In American literature now you can tell the most horrible things about yourself — you can be a heroin addict or a sex worker (not that those things are so horrible, but let’s just say) — as long as the arc of the story is, “I used to be bad and now I’m good” [or] “I used to be sick and now I’m well.”

But what you can’t do is really present, in a full detailed emotional way, what it feels like to be in an ordinary loser situation and just tell what it was like.

There has to be a moral in American literature. This is one of the big problems.

I have felt these same things approaching some of my essays. As an unpublished writer with few political affiliations, the stakes are much different for me than for Ms. Pollitt. But even with little name recognition, anyone who writes honestly about their lives puts it on the line in a way that other writers never really do. I am glad Ms. Pollitt had the courage to publish her work, even if she risks losing some of her luster in certain circles.

Of course, Katha Pollitt had balls long before she chose to publish Learning to Drive. Here is my favorite Pollitt story from a quick scan of the Web.

Citing Pollitt’s lack of patriotism, Bernard Goldberg named her number 74 in his book 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America. This was because Pollitt wrote a response to the September 11, 2001 attacks, Put Out No Flags, in which she argued for restraint. As if calling for moderation in autumn 2001 wasn’t gutsy enough, she responded to Goldberg’s criticism by writing, “Memo to self: Must try harder.”

What a great gal.

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Murder She Spoke

Alice Sebold is on tour for her new book, and last night Kennedy and I went to see her.

I read somewhere that writers have responsibilities that go beyond writing, namely buying books and attending readings. Because I feel guilty buying so many books, this idea is immensely satisfying for me. It’s not just another book to pile in stacks on the floor, it’s an investment in my career. Readings are something else altogether. I never feel guilty about going to readings. Instead I feel uncomfortable, especially in the little receiving line to get my book signed. Even though I know Alice, last night was no different.

Alice remembered me, which was nice. I presented Kennedy, but this seemed to baffle Alice. One of the guys I work seemed shocked when he heard I was taking my daughter to the reading. And I’ll admit I wondered if it was the right thing to do myself. Alice’s big theme is violence to women, and her new book even features a matricide. But Kennedy got so excited about our date after I first suggested it, I didn’t have the heart to leave her at home. Lucky for me Alice picked something to read that didn’t require any explaining.

So another reading under my belt. Alice looks pretty much like I remember her, except a little bit older.

Speaking of writer responsibilities, last week I submitted my story, The Solution to All My Problems, to Tin House, primarily because their Spring issue is themed “Off the Grid,” by which they mean “stories about people that function out of the bounds of “normal” society.” It probably behooves me to do more research on journals, but the deadline for submissions was fast approaching, so I just made sure they publish non-fiction and sent it out.

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Tim O’Brien Talks About War

 

I was fortunate to catch Tim O’Brien, one of my favorite authors, at local reading earlier this month. He spoke eloquently about war, how it can shape a young man’s life, and what it can do to our country. But he wasn’t talking about Iraq or Afghanistan. When Tim O’Brien talks about war, he talks about Vietnam.

Beyond his devotion to exploring the Vietnam war, O’Brien stands out for me by his willingness to bend the rules of fiction and narrative. In The Things They Carried, he intentionally blurs the line between fact and fiction by naming his lead character Tim O’Brien, and then making him a writer who returns from Vietnam haunted by the war, subsequently devoting his life to writing about it. In his only memoir (If I Die In a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home), he writes in a straight-forward manner about his tour of duty. It was his first attempt at writing about the war. Although it’s not a bad effort, it lacks the power of his fiction.

O’Brien is at his best when he is searching for the truth, not trying to relay mere facts. He spent most of night discussing the literal truths that were the basis for his fictional account of the war in The Things They Carried. I found it fascinating. You can determine some of this yourself by reading both his memoir and his fiction. Or you can just ask him. Forty years later and he still loves to talk about Vietnam. Maybe as writers we need that same kind of passion about something to get at anything worthwhile. It’s certainly worked for Tim O’Brien.

Most interesting fact discovered: In O’Brien’s fictional account of the war, Henry Dobbins famously carries his girlfriend’s pantyhose as a good luck charm. In real life, O’Brien carried the pantyhose.

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