Julian Barnes' Recursive Sense of Endings and Beginnings

"This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn't turn out to be like Literature."--The Sense of an Ending
UPDATE: Shortly after Julian Barnes (finally) won The 2011 Man Booker Prize in October, Eleanor Wachtel nabbed a rare in-depth interview with Barnes for her CBC Writers & Co. show. Their hour of relaxed literary chat includes revelations from Barnes on the ideas behind The Sense of an Ending and also some discussion of his previous books, particularly his nonfiction meditation on mortality, Nothing to be Frightened Of. The podcast is a great listen, though a little spoilery if you haven't read A Sense of an Ending yet. (If the main Writers & Co. page link to the Barnes podcast doesn't work, try going directly to the .mp3 link here.)

In The Sense of an Ending Julian Barnes establishes and disputes a man's reckoning of his own life in under 200 pages. The external layer of the novel consists of the ruminations of Tony Webster, a middle-aged English everyman, as he recalls his past 40 years with a comfortable blend of nostalgia and regret. Webster's memories are mildly piquant, and Barnes' prose boosts their vividness just enough to sustain the reader's interest, interrupted every twenty pages or so by a tick-tock musing on the nature of time and memory. Never mind, we are just ruminating along with Tony and his milquetoast confessions and revelations about friends and lovers from long ago. Very near the promised ending, a present-day discovery amplifies the tick-tock and forces Webster to re-assess the whole shebang in real time, and everything the reader has been told begins to wobble and demand re-interpretation. As I wrote in my review of The Sense of An Ending for Shelf Awareness, it's "a sneaky little hand grenade of a novel"--once the pin falls out, one is compelled to go back to the beginning of The Sense of An Ending to see how it was built, and to determine whose complacency has been exploded--ours or the narrator's?

A Novel in a Sextet
Barnes might have as easily titled his novel The Stealth of a Beginning. The opening page, which on first read appears harmlessly lyrical--a poetic sextet of liquid images--on second read reveals that it contains the entire DNA of the novel, yet even this knowledge will not give the ending away, because the ending is as much an interpretation as a refutation. The major of accomplishment of this slender novel is that it uses the actual elements of its own scenes to indict the glibness of anecdote.

Listen to Barnes Read the Beginning of His Ending
The Man Booker Prize Podcast Series has a recording of Barnes reading the beginning of The Sense of an Ending. It begins at Minute 4:40, after an introduction by Tom Sutcliffe of BBC Radio 4 and an endorsement by Gaby Wood, one of the Man Booker Prize judges. The excerpt read by Barnes is an unadorned, highly resonant piece of audio. If you listen to it after you read the book, it will give you chills as you pick up even more clues to the novel's denouement, but you can also listen to it before you read the book without fear of spoilage. (Readings by all the 2011 shortlist nominees are also available for download from the Man Booker Prize Podcast iTunes page.)


How to Interview Anne Enright Live

"The snow will melt, the houses will sell"--The Forgotten Waltz
UPDATE (5/2/2012): John Mullan recently hosted Anne Enright at the Guardian Book Club for an adulterous assignation with The Forgotten Waltz, breaking with the GBC podcast's tradition of discussing an author's most famous book (i.e. they cheated on The Gathering, Enright's Booker Prize-winner). Enright is frank, fresh, witty and sharp, and she makes an amusing observation about American blogger behavior.
A diverting 23-minute podcast that goes by faster than a lunchtime quickie.
Online link for the April 2012 Guardian Book Club with Anne Enright
Downloadable iTunes link for the Guardian Book Club with Anne Enright

"A Bit of a Strap"
My overconsumption of podcasts with favorite authors has taught me that some writers, unless challenged or stimulated by an interviewer, will answer questions with set phrases. These phrases can be charming, as when Anne Enright says that some readers describe Gina Moynihan, the heroine of The Forgotten Waltz, as being "no better than she should be, a bit of a strap," but if you listen to more than one interview, you start to crave a little more spontaneity in the mix.

Jian Ghomeshi, the host of CBC's "Q" podcast, interviewed Enright last June, and his earnest and energetic questioning on what she was trying to say about adultery in The Forgotten Waltz yields a 22-minute conversation that is lively and colloquial, with a particularly good stretch on the power of imagination in fiction, and the difference between emotional infidelity and physical infidelity. After Ghomeshi pushes the point, Enright says, "Anything is possible in anyone's head at any time." The interview evolves into an discussion of morality and biological and romantic love that feels more like a human exchange between Ghomeshi and Enright than a rote book promo, and it's delightful to have the opportunity to eavesdrop on it.

Anne Enright Audio Links:

Portable iTunes link to the Q podcast with the Jian Ghomeshi-Anne Enright interview  (Enright segment begins at minute 19:30, after a segment on circumcision, natch).

Link to the CBC's "Q" web page with the Anne Enright interview.

My short review of The Forgotten Waltz for Shelf Awareness.

My favorite podcast from Anne Enright's promotional tour for The Gathering, her Booker Prize winner, recorded at DC's Politics and Prose Bookstore in 2008 and podcast by NPR Book Tour. Includes readings from The Gathering and above-average audience questioners, including a former schoolmate.

Litagogo post on Anne Enright reading John Cheever's "The Swimmer" for the New Yorker: Fiction podcast.

Link to Anne Enright reading Raymond Carver's "Fat" for the Guardian's short stories podcast.


Andre Dubus III: Talk of the Townie

"Experienced fighters don't do any foreplay"--Dubus III

Radio Open Source host Christopher Lydon sets up his knockout punch barely two minutes into this podcasted interview with Andre Dubus III. Lydon asks Dubus to read the final pages of Townie: A Memoir--the scene of his father's burial. In his softened Merrimack River Valley accent Dubus mixes scraps of "The Lord's Prayer" with townie epithets, imagining a present-day joyride of vengeance while nearly elegizing the tormentors and battle scenes of his youth, a narrative weaving that succeeds in "accelerating after the boys he'd been, hoping he'll find them, hoping he won't." Apparently Dubus, most famous for his novel House of Sand and Fog, has both found and captured those boys in Townie, the memoir he finally wrote after he tried for 25 years and three drafts to base a novel on the same subject.

Merrimack Metamorphosis
Dubus knows how to tell a story without pummeling it, and Lydon is smart enough to let him truncate his own anecdotes. In half an hour's conversation they highlight Dubus's transformation from bullied mill town kid, to buff adolescent pugilist, to mature writer-father-teacher without killing the listener's appetite to read Townie in print. The podcast won't spoil the book for you, but it will add the bonus of storing Dubus's real voice in your head. At Minute 19 he reads aloud the section where he transforms his fighting energy into writing energy, and dramatizes both the surprise and the insight he gains from that transformation. Dubus, who teaches writing at UMass Lowell, also tosses off craft advice from the greats, including a micro-lecture at Minute 35 that builds a formula for fiction from the advice of the poet William Stafford (curiosity+willingness to fail+concrete, sensuous detail+"lean, mean language"=stories about characters in trouble).

Selective Inheritance
Dubus is startlingly forgiving of his late father, famous short-story writer Andre Dubus, who was a minor presence in four children's impoverished childhood after he left the family for a student. He also cites his father as his favorite writer, and rather than mourn the fathering he missed out on, Dubus says he appreciates his opportunity to be a different kind of father to his own kids. For an interview with Dubus about Townie that focuses more tightly on the Dubus family dynamics, listen to this Andre Dubus interview with Eleanor Wachtel on CBC's Writers & Company podcast, which includes an eerie moment when Wachtel plays back audio from 20 years earlier of Andre Dubus the elder talking about the toe-bloodying 11-mile father-son run that also features in Townie (Minute 28).

Lights Out
The Radio Open Source interview ends with Dubus and Lydon talking about the importance of weighting your back foot before you throw a punch. Cute, but effective: you have to credit a guy who knows his street fighting and his Flaubert.

Podcast Links:

Radio Open Source podcast: Andre Dubus III interview with Christopher Lydon (35 minutes), recorded 3/1/2011

Writers & Company podcast: Andre Dubus III interview with Eleanor Wachtel (53 minutes), broadcast date 3/4/2011 


Robin Black's Fascinating (Older) Women

"Late June, the garden was still more beautiful than demanding."

No Fading Away
Robin Black's short story collection If I Loved You I Would Tell You This is full of women the French would describe, with pseudo-gallant euphemism, as being "d'un certain âge," but one of the wonderful things about Black's writing is her characters' unconcern with ageist euphemism--they are forging on and fully entwined with life. Black lavishes vivid prose and rich context on each of her stories, which makes them extremely satisfying, even if you're a reader who usually prefers novels. Because it's almost Mother's Day, I'd like to tell you that this book, just out in paperback, would make an excellent gift for a mother of any age.

Listen to Black
When I listened to Robin Black's interview with Ed Champion for his Bat Segundo Show podcast, posted in April 2010, shortly after If I Loved You I Would Tell You This came out in hardback, I was not surprised to hear her say:

"I think that the most interesting people I meet are older women.... The way that older women are looked at in society, which is to say barely at all, and the degree to which women do become increasingly invisible as they outlive societal notions of what's sexy, and why one might look at a woman--there's a wonderful discrepancy between what people think they're looking at when they look at older women, and what's actually going in that woman's life and in her consciousness. Any time you have characters who are leading essentially undercover lives, you have tremendous fictional potential." (Minutes 29-31)

This is one of the pleasures of the collection--Black reveals the inner thoughts and corporeal reality of fascinating (older) female characters as they experience both loss and joy with intelligence, perspective, and wit. Black's work shows that life as an older woman is not the wan diminishment or the goofy-granny gavotte that popular American culture often projects. Nor does her collection, though female-centric and full of powerful emotion, contain a speck of that acidic quality--stridency--that is sometimes used to dismiss a strong female point of view. And there are also men: one of my favorite stories in the collection, "In A Country Where You Once Lived," is told from a male point of view, and the men in the lives of the female-narrated stories are as human as the women.

The Close-Reading Bat
Like many of Ed Champion's interviews, the Robin Black episode of the The Bat Segundo Show contains a lot of discussion about the writing process based on a careful reading of the text, and Black is both open and articulate about her methods. She talks about "ruminating" at the keyboard, the separation of fiction and autobiography (memoir) in her work, and says, "When you write stories, what you're really exposing are your obsessions, and it's much more like showing somebody your dreams. What you make up I think is infinitely more personal that what you choose to recount from your own life." (Minute 7) The latter half of the 53-minute episode gets more craft-oriented, with interesting exchanges between Champion and Black about: sentiment and sentimentality, the use of gesture and facial description, the defamiliarization of sex, the impact of names on narrative distance, and even Black's strategy to avoid the overused trinity effect: she lists things in twos and fours, not threes.

Black on Black
Here's the link to the post Black mentions at Minute 17 about "Going Long" for The Story Prize blog. Black also regularly posts excellent essays on writing at BeyondTheMargins.com (viz this one on beginnings).

FTC Disclosure: I received a free galley for the hardback publication of If I Loved You I Would Tell You This when I reviewed it for The Book Studio in April 2010 (the review no longer available online). The Bat Segundo Show podcasts are free, but donations are welcome.


Tina Fey Reads From Her Bossypants

Bossypants: Self-Scribed Ode of a Grecian Daughter
So far I've found two podcasted interviews from Tina Fey's promotion of her meteoric memoir, Bossypants. One is gal-pally and sort of skimmy; the other is more focused on the comedy industry. Both are worth listening to if you're a die-hard fan, but if you're short on time, I recommend the first half of the NPR: Fresh Air Tina Fey interview with Terry Gross, followed by the whole spanikopita of Fey's appearance on WNYC's Leonard Lopate Show (permanent iTunes link here).

"She Need Not Lie With Drummer"
One of the best bits of the 45-minute "NPR: Fresh Air" interview (perishable iTunes link here) comes right at the beginning, when Fey reads the entire text of "The Mother's Prayer for Its Daughter" [<-this links to transcript]. The mock-serious poem is just what you'd expect from Fey: a gnarly and zeitgeisty momjacking of William Butler Yeats' "A Prayer for My Daughter" which should do more for young female empowerment than a tweendom of earnest lectures or a drawerful of abstinence panties (said messagewear is probably less effective than "mom jeans" and not a joke; discovery credit to Ms.Magazine blog]. Shortly after the poem Gross also plays the audio from the "30 Rock" episode in which Liz Lemon debates career vs. hot young motherhood with a "sexy-baby" mentee. The rest of the interview is a panoramic cruise through Fey's experiences in comedy writing and performing.

Super Fey
For a more zoomed-in account of Fey's career, listen to her 4/14/2011 appearance on WNYC's Leonard Lopate Show here (iTunes link). Lopate gets a lot of good stories out of Fey about the behind-the-scenes world of "Saturday Night Live," sexism in the comedy industry, and the confluence of Lorne Michaels' doorman and Robert De Niro in the Sarah Palin casting (at Minute 20 Lopate plays the audio for the Palin character's sanctity of teenage/gay marriage joke). Fey and Lopate talk a lot about "30 Rock" at the end, and Lopate plays the audio of Liz Lemon's projectile-sharing toward Oprah on an airplane. Lopate wraps it up with Bossypants, and asks Fey how she adapted her  comedy writing voice to memoir. Fey says, "you have to be as honest as you can and to remember to still have jokes." Excellent choice.


Angela Carter's "The Kitchen Child"

"That was when too much cayenne went in."
Although I've already posted about the Guardian Books short stories podcast, I wanted to single out one episode from the dozen: Helen Simpson's recording of Angela Carter's "The Kitchen Child." This fully-equipped story of belowstairs life provides a nutritional supplement to the frothier kitchen bustling currently being purveyed by the TV drama "Downton Abbey" (a sweet and savory indulgence to which I have succumbed, but it does not stick to the ribs like the Carter). Simpson's androgynous voice animates the young man of the title wonderfully and I can't imagine a more satisfying homage. Her reading, devoid of second-hand authorial attitude, is in full service to Carter's ample prose and she keeps the story's use of repetition fresh. The first time I listened my skin stood up. Simpson also plays the humor in the story just right (the housekeeper's wish for a "spanking" new chef who would "gateau Saint-Honoré her on her birthday" is deliciously but directly delivered). Carter's work is sometimes over-pantried by the three f's--feminist, fairytale, and fabulist--but in "The Kitchen Child" there is only the magic of rich human cravings and transporting sensory detail. Bon appétit.

Listening Links: At the Guardian Books page for "The Kitchen Child" (click the big white triangle/arrow to play the audio on your computer), and also listenable/downloadable on iTunes . (24 minutes)


Listen to 12 Classic Stories for Nuffink

Crystalline Short Stories from the UK
After listening to this December 2010 Guardian Books podcast of 12 contemporary authors reading their favorite short stories, I've come to the conclusion that the schools of the United Kingdom and Ireland must teach elocution as well as they teach Oscar-acceptance speechwriting, because the authors' enunciation and pacing is kilometers beyond your average mumbler. Nor are these writers afraid to "do" different voices for different characters, which isn't to everyone's taste, but I liked it. Whatever the formation of these writer/audio performers, they each do justice to their favorite story, regardless of contrasts in accent or gender, and I recommend almost all of them.*

Lots of Story, Little Talk
The format of the Guardian short stories podcast is similar to that longstanding paragon, the New Yorker: Fiction podcast, though the authors in the Guardian series are not limited to choosing stories that have appeared in The Guardian. The post-story discussions between the readers and Guardian contributor Lisa Allardice last only a few minutes, and I wished they had been longer (for the authors' written impressions, see this roundup page on the stories in Guardian Books). The total running time of the episodes ranges from a brisk 11 minutes (Anne Enright reading and discussing Raymond Carver's "Fat") to 43 ruminative minutes (Rose Tremain reading and discussing Yiyun Li's "Extra"). That gives you some idea of the diversity of the chosen favorites; a couple of the stories were delightfully unknown to me.

How to Listen
The Guardian short stories podcast home page has the complete list of audio (be sure to click on the tiny "Next" at the bottom of the list to advance to the second page of episodes). You can also download the whole lot from the iTunes Guardian short stories page for transferring to your iPod, but you should check out the online pages anyway, just to see the fetching thumbnail photos of authors and readers.

*Not to be coy about the one that didn't do it for me: Anton Chekhov's "The Beauties," the short story which Philip Pullman reads, struck me as more stalkerish than aesthetic, but maybe I'm guilty of applying a 21st century sensibility to a 19th century story.


Free Podcasts Are Great For These ings...

Bulb Planting 
Chairlift Riding
Contact Lens Cleaning
Dog Brushing
Firewood Gathering
Mass Mailing
Not Sleeping
Potato Peeling
Road Tripping
Snow Shoveling
Spring Cleaning
Stationary Bicycling
Window Washing
Xmas Tree De-trimming


Karen Russell Reads From Swamplandia!

Our alligator understudy: the mighty firebellied "toad."

The Gator Pit at Night
The excerpt from Swamplandia! that Karen Russell reads aloud in this NPR "Listen to the Story" podcast delivers a mini panorama of humid Floridian hucksterism in less than 7 minutes. It begins:

"Like black silk, the water bunched and wrinkled."

I had to think about that sentence for few seconds, and then it became indelible--the only way to think of creatures (even mothers) swimming under water at night.

Toothy Text
You don't get sentences like that every day. There's plenty more texture and dense atmosphere in Swamplandia!, and unless you're a dehumidified minimalist, you'll enjoy the lavish scope of Russell's prose. The same NPR.org page that plays the audio includes the text of a slightly longer chunk of Swamplandia!'s first chapter.

It Came From Miami
For a behind-the-scenes sense of where all this Swamplandia! imagination and language comes from, listen to Russell's interview with Ed Champion on "The Bat Segundo Show" podcast. This podcast begins with the best musical intro I've heard this year: a swiveling, snout-on snippet of the "Wally Gator" cartoon theme music. On a more serious note, Champion is, as ever, scrupulously prepared, and in just over half an hour he and Russell gnash over Swamplandia!'s short-story origin, as well as its allegorical nuances, plot structure, and punctuational exuberance. Right near the end (Minutes 33-36), Russell credits her editor, Jordan Pavlin of Knopf, for helping her to calibrate the narrative hesitancy between reality and fantasy in Swamplandia!, and for helping to "echolocate" how a particular character come across to the reader--what an interesting way to describe the editor's role. (iTunes links: "The Bat Segundo Show" podcast, and the specific episode link for the Karen Russell interview.)


Enright Reinvigorates "The Swimmer"

"The only maps or charts he had to go by were remembered or imaginary"

The Overexposed Swimmer
Overexposure can drain the power from legendary short stories like John Cheever's "The Swimmer." The elevation to "classic" can lead to over-recommendation, over-teaching, over-quoting, and over-familiarization. Worst of all, truly great stories about the murkiness of mid-life reckoning, if exposed too early, risk engendering permanent disgust in high school students whose aesthetics are too dewy for such dolor. Even among mature enthusiasts, an overexposed "classic" often starts to float in the litosphere as a concept more than a story, detached by assumptive renown from the thrilling muscle-and-tendon exertions that created it in the first place--i.e. words, narrative, plot.

Westchester Waterbodies
An old proofreader's trick for making text fresh is to read it backward, or to reprint it in an unfamiliar font, but those contrivances seem too hiccuppy for a story that wants to flow across the dorsal muscles of a man who decides to "swim" home across eight miles of suburban pools. Neddy Merrill's odyssey along the mythic "Lucinda River" holds some surprises for both him and the reader, but how to make them new?

A Dublin Defamiliarizer
The answer, for me, was to listen to Anne Enright read "The Swimmer" aloud in this New Yorker: Fiction podcast (iTunes link to Enright episode here). From the moment Enright says "The pool, fed by an artesian well with a high iron content, was a pale shade of green," in her rounded and soft, almost furry, Dublin accent, I noticed more fully the elemental setting of "The Swimmer": its mineral flavor, liquid summer hues, and its al fresco alertness. By the time Enright animates Cheever's tender enumeration of Neddy's physical sensations with her foreign female voice ("he had slid down the banister that morning"), it was all new: I was immersed in the story as if I had never read it before.

Audio Brackets
This podcast includes a pre- and post-story chat between the reader-author and The New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman, in which the issue of over-familiarization is addressed, and Anne Enright makes several tart and charming observations about American short stories. If you're coming to this post in March 2011, you might still be able to download the episode of the PRI: Selected Shorts Podcast in which Mary-Louise Parker reads a tart short story of Enright's own devising, called "(She Owns) Everything," in which handbags substitute for pools (trust me, it works).  (iTunes link here, but be warned that these podcasts expire after about a month.)

More Cheever
Litagogo's review of Richard Ford reading "Reunion" by Cheever, also from the New Yorker: Fiction podcast (with links).


The Once and Future Paris Review

Literary Plush
For a peek under the beret of The Paris Review, listen to this podcast recorded in October 2010 at "Live From City Lights [bookstore]" during San Francisco's annual Litquake festival. (Online City Lights podcast link here; downloadable iTunes link here.)

Le Funny et Les Grotesqueries
In the 48-minute (English) conversation, a dapper two-hander, writer/critic Oscar Villalon gets new(ish) Paris Review editor Lorin Stein to divulge some morceaux about what kind of writing the grande dame of lit mags is looking for within the category of "the best possible new writing." Stein cites "entertainingness," and his taste for realist fiction that contains humor and sex--even a little grotesquerie is fine. "I need to be having fun, all the time, when I read," he says. Reportage is no longer on le menu--Stein sensibly points out the timeliness issues for a quarterly attempting to cover current affairs--but art is making a comeback. The perennial "interviews" with literary luminaries will persist, though I will now read them with a far more worldly eye (see below*).

Le Futur
Stein relates that the board of The Paris Review told him to make it bold, and part of that boldness appears to be a deluxe and energetic online presence, where he hopes to convert browsers to subscribers. Online is also the chosen venue for topical non-fiction, published in a "belletristic" format, under the banner of "the Paris Review Daily,"(with its cute and casual lower-case online "the").  In addition to consuming wide-roaming arts and sports coverage for free, you can also email the editor for advice, as did this would-be submitter of tender years.

*An Interview Is Not An Interview
Maybe I'm the gulliblest long-time reader of The Paris Review ever, but I was shocked to learn from this podcast that those Plimpton-coined Art of X "interviews" are not interviews, but collaborations! The subjects are allowed to edit their responses, and some interviews go back and forth for years before they're published (though the fact that Norman Rush's interview generated 500 pages of transcript is less surprising). Stein explains that The Paris Review relinquished the "gotcha" in order to coax the interviewee into more openness. Once I got over my shock it made perfect sense--it's not like great writing depends on a top-secret soft drink formula that could be accidentally extracted during an interview.

A Portrait of the Young Editor
Finally, for those who think knowing an editor's personal proclivities is useful, Villalon elicits charming biographical details about young Stein's early passions (viz M. Eeyore, above), the effect of Merle Haggard on his literary sensibilities, and his interesting career path. I do not, however, recommend submitting your oeuvre on Winnie-the-Pooh notepaper.