Wednesday, May 31, 2017

MONSTERS AND MEMORY by Eleanor Lerman

I’ve been a great admirer of Eleanor Lerman as a writer, poet, blogger and brave soul who has overcome serious illness without complaint, and who can turn adversity into lyrical memoir, such as this current blog. There is incredible honesty in her work and it’s been a privilege to have published her and count her as a good friend. I think you will be equally impressed by this piece.  —Martin Shepard
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Monsters and Memory
by Eleanor Lerman

In 1970, when I was eighteen, I answered a want ad in the Village Voice that said, “Person needed to sweep up in harpsichord workshop.” I figured I could do that job; after all, I had grand ideas about being a writer and scorned the alternate path of going to college or getting a “real” job which, at that time, would have meant putting on a demure dress and typing letters in an insurance office. (Well, that’s how I pictured a girl’s life in those years and what my typing course in high school had prepared me for.) So, I took the A train from my parents’ house in Far Rockaway to the Village, got off at Sheridan Square, walked down to 161 Charles Street near the Hudson River and—not that I knew it then—found the place that would change my life forever.             

That day, Michael Zuckermann hired me to work at Zuckermann Harpsichords and also gave me the keys to a tiny apartment upstairs so I became not only his employee but also his neighbor and eventually, his friend. Yes, I swept the floors but I also made harpsichord kit parts. I drilled pin boards, spun wire into coils, affixed tongues into the plastic jacks that help pluck the harpsichords’ strings. By the time I was nineteen I was managing the place so Michael could be free to pursue his real passion: making movies that starred his girlfriend, Rosalie, running naked down Charles Street at night as a tape-recorded recitation of “She Sells Sea Shells” played in the background. The reason for this eludes me now, but I’m sure it all made sense at the time.

Michael once told me that he hired me because I had a soulful look, which meant I had achieved exactly the look I was going for: long hair, kohl-rimmed eyes, rags and glitter. Sort of half Cher, half Egyptian tomb painting. What better qualifications could anyone have for working in a harpsichord kit factory at that time, in those years, in that place?

So, Charles Street and Charles Lane behind it, along with the harpsichord workshop and all the people I met through that place—including a movie producer who lived in a carriage house on the Lane along with art historian wife—shaped who I was and who I am. I didn’t realize it then, of course, but I know it now. I was an angry, resentful, unsophisticated and uneducated kid with a dead mother and a fractured family so I didn’t know how to really relate to any of the people I met, but I did know how to watch them from somewhere deep inside myself. The people whose circle parted just a little to let me in—movie stars, Great American Writers, once-famous musicians suddenly and famously down-and-out, comedians on the rise, but mostly the writers, all men, all extraordinarily talented—filled me with jealousy (I wanted to be them), with rage (I hated the idea that I believed I couldn’t be them, though they were all extremely kind and encouraging to me), and even, once in a while, inspiration (what the hell, if some of these acting-out-all-the-time and raging-drunk types could write books, then why not me, too?). Anyway. When I was 36, I moved away from the Village and all things Zuckermann. There were a lot of reasons, including the fact that I thought I was failing as a writer (I had published two books of poetry but couldn’t find anyone to buy a novel I’d written) and so it was time to give up and try to live a normal life. That didn’t work out because I am not a normal person—at least, not the demure dress and typing kind of person who I thought I was sentencing myself to become by leaving the Village, moving to Queens, and getting a more conventional job. So, years got lost, bad decisions got made, etc., etc. Lots of time passed. Lots.

But actually, all that is prelude to what I really want to write about here, so let’s start by my saying that now, as it turns out, I am not quite the failure I thought I was. I am still not where I want to be as a writer but, at the age of 65, I have finally learned a few things about how to do my job better, be more discerning about the angels and oddities walking through the front door. And one of the things I’ve learned about my job is that different people who do the same thing do it differently. Some people who write stories start with developing their characters, some start by working out the plot, some just begin with a particular sentence and follow where it leads them. For me, stories start with a place. In my last novel, The Stargazer’s Embassy, Greenwich Village was an important setting for a good part of what happens. In a book I’ve just begun working on, the story began to reveal itself to me when I was riding on the Long Island Railroad and through the window, glimpsed a winding, lonely looking street that seemed to lead off to nowhere. I was on the train because, after a sudden and near-fatal illness, I was in the process of recovery, which involved traveling to a physical therapy facility some distance from the small Long Island beach town where I live. So, day after day, on the train, that deserted street with a fence on the corner and an empty lot lined by tall cattails, began to exercise a kind of pull on me. It was autumn; the sky was gray and mackerel-striped. The wind pushed around the clouds above the street and blew sand across the weedy lot. In my mind, that glimpse of scenery became a place called Satellite Street and it became mine.

So, back home, sitting on my purple couch, in my imagination I began to walk down Satellite Street and what I found there was a woman with short-term memory problems and her friend, falling into dementia, who can only remember experiences from long ago. There are a lot of things I intend for these women to do, but one important task is to make a brief visit to the Village because I want them to help me say good-bye one last and final time.

Maybe it’s because as we—as I—get older, the longing for people and places in the past grows stronger, as if by going back to those years we could cast off all the bad choices, the disasters, the illnesses and grief that came to visit afterwards. But for me, I know that I have to find another way to live and to write that is not constantly referencing the past. My life was pretty scary for a while but it’s much better now, and I have to find a way to work from that better place.

In my new story, a woman named Mara develops a mild obsession with the movie Godzilla—the old one, from 1956, with Raymond Burr. Mara thinks, at first, that her obsession stems from an affinity she feels with Godzilla’s atomic rage: she’s been very sick (who can she represent here, hmmm?), she’s lost her job, is living on Satellite Street in a middle-of-nowhere area surrounded by marshy inlets and highways to better places. She’s also very angry about the turn her life has taken and so she’d like to stomp out a few cities herself, smash up some skyscrapers and blast away an army of puny soldiers with her radioactive breath. But what she’s going to find out is something quite different: that while it takes a monster’s strength to survive this life, it also may require a monster’s heart—full of wandering atoms and stardust and ancient memories about human creation—to stomp on into the future. Wounded, maybe, but still breathing fire.

So, on I go. On we go. I recently received an email from someone I’ve never met, telling me that he’s a friend of Wallace Zuckermann, the original owner of Zuckermann Harpsichords and the older brother of my boss/friend Michael Zuckermann. Michael passed away many years ago but Wallace, who I didn’t know well, and whose real name, apparently, is Wolfgang, is an elderly fellow now, living in Paris in near poverty. (I know, that sounds like a novel all by itself.) The person who wrote to me is trying to get some folks together to find a way to chronicle Wolfgang/Wallace’s life (he was born in Germany, became an American soldier, created the harpsichord kit business and wrote a volume of bizarre, erotic fairytales which he once sent me and I am now trying to find among my books) and I told him I would help, if I can. Such an odd time to receive a communique from my Zuckermann-addled past but maybe it’s just the right time, as well.  Maybe it will help me say good-bye in my story, knowing that the girl with the kohl-rimmed eyes still gets to live a little longer, roam around her old haunts for a while longer and then go to sleep. Like Godzilla, she can drowse under the sea until roused again to stalk a new world. Angry. Happy enough. Certainly strong enough. Finally free.


Eleanor Lerman is the author of Radiomen (The Permanent Press, 2015) and The Stargazer’s Embassy, which will be published by Mayapple Press in July.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

MAKING IT HAPPEN by Kathleen Novak

Kathleen Novak has written two novels for The Permanent  Press The first, Do Not Find Me (February 2016) received wonderful reviews and excellent sales. Her second, Rare Birds will be published near the end of June.

Living in Minnesota, we’ve asked her to describe how she approaches marketing and this is well worth reading. Every author we publish has written an interesting book, but success depends on having a solid marketing plan, and Kathleen’s approach is a very successful one. What follows is her blog, MAKING IT HAPPEN.

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A bag of tricks is it?
            And a game smoothies play?
If you’re good with a deck of cards or rolling the bones – that helps?
If you can tell jokes and be a chum
and make an impression – that helps?
            from Honey and Salt by Carl Sandberg

I quote one of my favorite poems to begin the discussion on promoting our books. It does often seem like a game smoothies play. And I’ll say that after a year of doing readings and book clubs that telling a joke and being a chum do help. Everyone wants to laugh, even at a literary reading. Maybe especially at a literary reading!

I believe that those of us who publish a book in today’s environment need to face the reality of promoting our own work. To make something happen we have to augment what the publisher does and take action on our own behalf. That’s where “the bag of tricks” comes in. I’ve gathered ideas and advice, observed other authors and added my own discipline to the mix. I make a plan, give myself deadlines and keep adding to the plan as events evolve.  The following list is not the be-all. But it helped me on my debut novel, Do Not Find Me, and I am now doing all this again for my second novel, Rare Birds.

Here’s what I suggest:

    1.   Schedule a book launch party and invite everyone you know or think you know. Have something to eat and drink and sell your books.
         2.   Use TPP’s preview copies where they will help you the most. Send them out with a personalized letter to local publications, media outlets, large and important bookstores, even library systems in your area.
         3.   Put up an engaging website. I recommend photos or graphics, excerpts, links, etc.
         4.   Volunteer to do book clubs.
         5.   Ask friends, family and other colleagues to host readings – salons, as one of my friends calls them – either in their homes or at their neighborhood library.
         6.   Use social media to announce events and keep people interested. (I had the idea to pull in music clips and quotes too, but chickened out on the first novel. Maybe I’ll be more bold this time around.)
         7.    Go to an inexpensive printer and make business cards with your book’s cover on one side and your contact info/web address on the other. I hand these out generously.
         8.    Let regional book store owners know you’re interested in doing readings.

Much of this does not come easily for me. I love to write. I want to be in my corner with papers strewn about, not asking book store owners to maybe, if you don’t mind, please carry my book. I bombed on at least half of my outreach. But then I scored on the other half. Some stores carried the book, newspapers reviewed the book; based on the reviews, I got contacted by organizations and did events. I was a state book award finalist. I feel like my efforts worked.


Luck is also an element, of course. That’s where “rolling the bones” comes in. But by doing all the above, we can certainly deal ourselves into the game. What helps make something happen? To quote Sandberg, they all help.

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Information about Kathleen and her two books can be found on her website, https://www.kathleennovak.com/, and her books can be ordered on Amazon or on our website, thepermanentpress.com. We encourage you to leave your comments on this page, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter! Happy reading (and writing)!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

WRITING RULE ONE: NOBODY KNOWS FOR SURE by Chris Knopf

I hate so-called rules of writing, even though I gobble them up like hot hors d’oeuvres off a silver platter. Hemingway’s, Vonnegut’s, Elmore Leonard’s, Stephen King’s, E.B. White’s, Anne Lamott’s – I’ve read them all. If I had to recommend one, Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird is a joy. I never found myself quibbling with her advice, which is not only compelling in substance, but loaded with charm and wise humor. I feel Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is also essential, though I just can’t abide the prohibition against starting a sentence with “however." Nevertheless, they provide wise counsel, delivered both in form and content.  


Everyone raves about Stephen King’s On Writing, but it’s really just a memoir masquerading as an instruction manual. I can offer an abridged version: Be Born With Hypergraphia by Stephen King.  

Marty Shepard and I share a deep regard for Elmore Leonard, but his rule against starting a book with weather is ridiculous. I set one of my novels in the beach town of Southampton during the winter. How long should I wait to tell the reader that it’s snowing outside Jackie Swaitkowski’s window? I also think the word “suddenly” is very useful if used sparingly. As with “all hell breaks loose." After Leonard condemned this expression, you hardly ever read it. So go ahead, if called for. The competition has been suppressed.

Vonnegut heaped derision on the semicolon, saying “they are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing.” On the other hand, Dr. Lewis Thomas, a brilliant essayist sadly overlooked these days, wrote “with a semicolon you get a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; to read on; it will get clearer.”

Most of what Hemingway reportedly wrote about writing was written by someone else. So much so that a book just came out titled, Hemingway Didn’t Say That. I still think his imitators are worth paying attention to, since the misattributions are useful (check out my prior Cockeyed Pessimist blog post.)

I’ve listened to hours of writing instruction over decades, leading me to believe most of it is a double-edged sword. It can help you avoid doing dumb things, but if you slavishly adhere to the prescriptions, you’re likely to choke off your creativity, your own special take on the pursuit. However, being a frequent imitator myself, I naturally made up my own ten rules of writing. Though I prefer to call them guidelines. Mostly to be ignored, since at the end of the day, the only rule is there are no rules.  

1. Never write drunk. Like a conversation in a bar, it all seems so brilliant at the time. You’ll regret it in the morning  
2. Write when you feel like hell. You’d be amazed at what you can create with a fuzzy head. You can always throw it out the next day (see above).
3. Ignore advice. It’s worthless.  
4. Listen to good advice. It’s priceless.  
5. Know the difference.
6. Get a comfortable chair. You’ll be spending a lot of time in it.  
7. Be filled with uncertainty, free-floating anxiety and existential fear. If you don’t know what this means, ask a successful writer.
8. Kill your beloveds. Cut when you have to, no matter how painful. Better you than some whip-smart editor half your age.  
9. Write for yourself.  If you care what other people think, you’ll write what nobody cares about.
10. Read. You’re not the first person to do this. You can learn from the ones who figured it out, even if they had no idea what they were doing at the time.  

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This is the third bi-monthly blog Chris has been posting, sharing his thoughts about the art of writing with other writers—be they published or unpublished—that might be helpful. He’s had a successful career as a wordsmith, starting with a career in advertising and moving on to write a string of highly successful mysteries. His 15th, Tango Down, comes out in November. Chris has won innumerable awards and has had dozens of rights sales around the world, including audio sales to Blackstone Audiobooks. Do pass this on to others you know, post comments on the Cockeyed Pessimist website, and feel free to share your thoughts with Chris via View my Blog The Cockeyed Pessimist, or email Chris directly ChrisK@mintz-hoke.com or Martin Shepard at shepard@thepermanentpress.com

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

WHAT MADISON AVENUE CAN TEACH YOU ABOUT WRITING BETTER DIALOGUE by Chris Knopf

I’d already spent about thirty years in ad agencies writing copy before my first novel was published. I’m often asked if copywriting benefited my fiction, and I always say yes, in every way possible. This is particularly true as it relates to dialogue.  

And even more true for writing mysteries and thrillers, inhabited as they usually are by tough guys, crack pots and regular joes. It’s hard to convince your reader of gritty realism when your characters talk like 19th century elocutionists.  

Writing to a fixed increment of time is another important discipline copywriters have to master. A TV commercial (we call them spots) is usually thirty seconds. Radio usually sixty. Of the two forms, I think radio is the best exercise for fiction writers. TV spots are little movies, fictions for sure, but as in the big movie business, the visual elements often dominate. In radio, words matter, and like a book, there’re usually no visual aids. Radio, like fiction, relies on manipulating the theatre of the mind, using language to engage and seduce the audience into buying an artificial reality. Unlike fiction, however, you need to tell your whole message in sixty seconds, or less. This teaches you how to prune, condense and telegraph your story, which almost always makes for a more energetic mystery or thriller.  

We’re taught in advertising to keep our copy conversational, to write the way people speak. Which is usually in sentence fragments. Sometimes only one word. Honestly.  

Grammatically iffy. But highly readable.  

Speech is far more economical than written exposition. Even the most voluble blowhard will tend to drop unnecessary verbiage, frequently skipping things like pronouns to get right to the action verbs.

“Watcha’ doing there, Joe?”
“Catchin’ fish. You?”

This example also points to another reality of spoken English. We often drop the ‘g’s’ off gerunds and other ‘ing’ words. Even the well-educated and erudite will do this, only more sparingly (e.g. Barack Obama). Also, we nearly always use contractions whenever available. Few things will mess up conversational speech more than using “do not” or “cannot” when “don’t” or “can’t” will do.  

(Just don’t overdo it. Informality can’t sound ignorant.)

There’s a place for monologue in advertising and fiction, but when two or more people are speaking, there’s little in the way of long dissertation. Rather, they tend to pass phrases back and forth like a pair of tennis players. Especially in great crime fiction (e.g. Elmore Leonard).

When writing radio and TV commercials, you’re not only drafting copy, you’re casting potential talent, framing out the type of people you’ll need to fulfill the spot’s objectives. So you need to literally hear your characters’ voices in your head. Which leads to seeing them in your mind’s eye. And placing them in a context – eating breakfast, driving a car, leaping off a cliff into a pool of water.  

And before you know it, you have a novel on your hands.

Published by permission of  Now Write! Mysteries.  

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Chris Knopf’s 14th thriller, Back Lash, came out last year, and his 15th , Tango Down will be published in November. This is the second in a series of bi-weekly posts concerning the art of writing that should appeal to both published and unpublished writers alike. We welcome your comments on this site, and we hope you share this post everywhere and with everyone you can. You can also reach us by email at shepard@thepermanentpress.com or at ChrisK@mintz-hoke.com.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

WRITER WRITES ABOUT PEOPLE WRITING By Chris Knopf

Somebody once said — I used to think it was Ernest Hemingway, but now I'm not sure — "Writers are people who write."

This was the sort of seemingly moronic minimalism that got the big guy in a lot of trouble. The political climate within the arts and academia in recent decades has been hostile to Hemingway's legacy, especially since he's rightly perceived to be a tad misogynistic.

 
That Ezra Pound was an out-and-out Nazi sympathizer —  as were Charles Lindberg and Joseph Kennedy, father of Jack — and F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot and James Joyce all had wives who were actually committed to mental hospitals, with barely a whiff of censure, I guess is beside the point.  Though it does raise questions of intellectual honesty.  But I think no writer of the modern period was more able to summarize gigantic truths, especially when writing or talking about the writer's life.

Part of the problem with the quote above is it usually leaves out the next sentence, which was, paraphrased, "People who aren't writers are those who only talk about writing." This gets at the main reason why most people who have both the talent and aspiration to write betray their potential. They don't write enough.

There are a few reasons why they don't write enough, though the most common is fear that what they write won't be any good. Worse, it will incite derision, ridicule or disinterest. So, they are inhibited from starting the actual act of composing thoughts on paper (these days, monitors.) They console themselves by spending a lot of time and energy thinking about writing, under the rationale that they are simply formulating the big ideas in their heads, which will, once properly constructed, fall effortlessly through their fingers and onto the page. This is a fallacy, of course. For a couple reasons.

Writing is, in great part, a type of thinking. It takes inchoate feelings and inarticulate thoughts and expresses them in a transferable form. Words make thoughts and feelings concrete, but also, the very act of forming structure inspires thought. Sometimes, there really is no idea until the words start to form.

Ergo, the only way to know if you really have a thought worth communicating is to put it into words. You have to actually write it down.

The other reason is more practical. You have to practice the trade. You can no more become a good writer by thinking about writing than you can become John Coltrane by imagining yourself playing the sax. Professional writers are obsessed by things like sentence structure, word count, punctuation, literary voice, style consistency and concentration. Just like world famous woodworkers are obsessed with things like router bits, bench dogs, chip out and finishing oils. You can't write a book or make a Chippendale highboy thinking only about the grand vision. They're both products of millions of little visions manifest in little acts of craft.

And it really doesn't matter what form you're writing in. Your heart may be committed to poetry, but your brain gets almost the same benefit from writing billboards. To extend the music analogy, a familiarity with Bach gives a jazz musician a killer advantage. It's the practice that counts, and the knowledge and experience that comes from practicing within a variety of formats and protocols.

Hemingway also said that "Writing is rewriting." This is also a simple statement pregnant with complex meaning. Many failed writers who write too little do so because they think they're supposed to hone and perfectly render every little piece of description or exposition as it's written. Very bad approach. Much better to disgorge everything you can onto the page, to get yourself into a chatty monologue with your presumed reader, and just let it go wherever it's going to go.

The next day, it might be all for naught. The work might be unsalvageable. But probably, there is something there. Now, with an objectivity developed over time, you start to rewrite. You lop off big chunks of unworkable babble — often the first things you wrote down — and start to shape the words into something more elegantly and originally expressed — or, just as important — something persuasively, clearly expressed.

None of this is possible if you aren't writing. You've got to pile up your own mother lode in order to refine the gems.

Hemingway, that wordy guy, also said that he strove to write something that "was true."

True, in the sense that it was as close to real as humanly possible. Honest to his mind, and not contrived. But also true in the sense of a picture hanging true on the wall. In the sense of your aim being true. Even, balanced, harmonious, artfully composed. He believed that both definitions of the word true were mutually generative. Honesty encourages symmetry and vice versa.

To quote the last line in The Sun Also Rises, "isn't it pretty to think so."


Originally from How I Got Published: Famous Authors Tell You In Their Own Words

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Chris Knopf’s 14th thriller, Back Lash, came out last year, and his 15th, Tango Down will be published in November. He’s had multiple sub-rights sales for all of his titles, has won several awards (including the Nero Award) and is also co-publisher at The Permanent Press.
This is the first of two postings he has addressed to writers that should sharpen the skills of many who would like to be published and already published writers interested in polishing their craft. We urge all of you to send this blog to everyone you know, and we welcome your comments. You can also reach us by email at shepard@thepermanentpress.com or at ChrisK@mintz-hoke.com. Happy writing!


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

HARPOONING DONALD TRUMP

How would I describe Tom LeClair’s latest blog? As part of an important democratic movement to rid ourselves of an illiterate President (he has said he doesn’t read books), a con-artist, a man with a thin skin, a compulsive liar, ill-tempered, and in the service of fellow millionaires and billionaires.   

Bram Stoker wrote Dracula in 1897 in which he described how this blood-sucking vampire was finally eliminated by driving a sword through the fiend’s heart while he slept in his coffin during the day. This is not a plan of action I would recommend today, though Donald poses a far greater threat to us than Dracula. It’s easy to acknowledge he had been a great television showman in the Barnum and Bailey tradition, and it seems to me the only civilized way to rid ourselves of him is by verbally pricking him countless times—like letting the hot air out of a Thanksgiving Day float.

And so I take particular pleasure in publishing Tom LeClair’s contribution to exposing this dreadful creature whose ratings are now the lowest in American history—down to 37% after three months in office.

Marty

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HARPOONING DONALD TRUMP
by Tom LeClair
In which the author interviews himself

From a novel about Lincoln and his law partner to essays about Donald Trump and his literary opponents—that’s quite a jump.

Not really.  William “Billy” Herndon of Lincoln’s Billy was a highly literary man who spent 20 years of his life trying to publish unsavory truths about Saint Abraham. The “research” for Harpooning Donald Trump: A Novelist’s Essays was much easier, and I didn’t have to invent anything because Trump and his politics and his crooked friends are unsavory through and through. The challenge was finding new ways to understand and discuss Trump. My decades as a literature professor helped me out with that—from Homer’s Iliad to Coover’s The Public Burning, Pope’s The Dunciad and Melville’s Moby-Dick. But the book would never have been written if I hadn’t spent most of November and December holding signs in front of Trump Tower.

You’ve said you went every day. Why?

I’m a writer. The only things I could write after Trump’s election were my protest signs. From the very first one, RAGE TRUMPS HATE, which played off the usual ones I was seeing, I suppose I was seeking some creative outlet for my anger and disgust. The protest became a kind of contest: my imagination in writing signs versus Trump’s ignorance, his hateful clich├ęs and dog whistles. So I tried to write inventive signs that responded to his actions, particularly his appointments of people like Scott Pruitt at the EPA and Betsy DeVos for Education. Of course, I was going to lose because Trump has what my Jesuit teachers called “invincible ignorance.” After more than a month of displaying signs, I started to write the essays in the book.

What did you hope to achieve as a solitary protester on the street?

During November and December, there was a series of mass protests, usually on weekends. I wanted to be in front of Trump Tower on weekdays and weekends to demonstrate with my modest example that Trump’s election was not normal politics, that this fact needed to be expressed day in and day out to the thousands of people who passed by the Tower. If I was sufficiently enraged to stand in the cold for six hours, I hoped my example would inspire citizens to stay angry, refuse to normalize the demagogue, resist in whatever way they could. My purposes changed some as I understood my demographic. Many of the passersby were foreign tourists. I wanted them to know that Trump and his Tower did not represent America or, at least, the best of America. The Tower was Babel, a construct of pride and greed. Out on the street, I hoped to use the social media that helped Trump get elected against him. I invited people to take photos of my signs and post them on Facebook and Instagram—and thus extend the protest of a solitary enraged old man.

Do you think you were successful?

Maybe the N.S.A. could answer that with some kind of universal image scanning for my signs. They did get me interviewed by television networks, radio stations, and print journalists—almost all of them from outside the United States. Japanese national TV interviewed me twice, even showed the covers of a couple of my books including Lincoln’s Billy. It’s possible my spoken words reached more people than my written words ever did. That’s kind of discouraging for a writer, but I’m still happy to be speaking with you about the written words in this book, which wouldn’t exist without the experience of protesting on the street.

So how is this book of essays different?

I rarely had long conversations with people on Fifth Avenue. The essays give me a chance to explain why I was protesting and how to understand Trump the man and phenomenon in more profound ways than daily news reports give us. Probably the central essay in Harpooning is the one entitled “Donald Trump Won’t Read This” where I apply the insights of the anthropologist Walter Ong to Trump. In his book Orality and Literacy, Ong contrasts the cognitive processes of preliterate humans and those of literate humans. Literacy created what we now call “thinking”—linguistic precision and logical analysis. Before literacy, cognition was through story-telling and bombastic display. Trump admits that he does not read. He therefore does not “think” as literate persons do. He reacts, he blurts and blusters, he uses the oral language of a third-grader, he lies as if his words disappeared into thin air. You can see him as the insult-obsessed Achilles in Homer’s Iliad, a poem about pre-literate warriors that was composed before writing. In this essay, I contrast Trump’s mind and language with the discourse of President Obama, who continued to be a reader despite the pressures of the White House.

Why do you feel this essay about literacy is “central”?

A working title of the collection was “Literature Against Trump.” Literature is literacy on steroids, the highest achievement of literacy. By its very nature, literature offers an alternative to the vacant mind and vapid expression of Trump. But not just an alternative. Literature can also be a weapon, a harpoon as my title has it. Since Trump’s election, journalists have written about the value of dystopian novels such as 1984.  My interests are in what that harpooner Captain Ahab calls “the little lower layer”—literary works that provide psychological, historical, even anthropological insights that help us understand and, perhaps, undermine the demagogue. Historians and other scholars can place Trump in appropriate cultural contexts. Literature is a weapon because it elicits emotional responses. You might call it “demi-goguery,” half demagogic, half rigorous thought.

Do you think of yourself as Ahab?

No, because Melville “harpoons” the monomaniac Ahab at the end of Moby-Dick. I know this is not a popular recommendation, but try reading Moby-Dick as a political novel, and you will have a new understanding of and fear of Ahab’s—and Trump’s—aggressive narcissism that now threatens our ship of state. For a more recent and remarkably prescient novel read Robert Coover’s The Public Burning to learn how demagogues use the scapegoating sacrifice of “un-American” others to satisfy the masses. My argument is encapsulated in my epigraph from William Carlos Williams: “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” If you step back a bit from the daily news cycle, if you see Trump through the eyes and words of profound imaginative writers I think you will understand his ignorance and his threat in new and deep and useful ways. Not just understand but feel.

You’ve published six novels. Why don’t you write a harpooning novel?

Homer, Melville, Coover, and other recent writers I mention in the book—they are tough acts to follow for an old man. But I have written a tale about Uncle Sam and Donald Trump, two angry old white men, as an appendix to the essays. It’s a small sequel of sorts to Coover’s magical realism novel that describes an unusual way in which Uncle Sam “incarnates” the power of the presidency in each new office-holder.  One reader called my fiction a “scabrous satire.” That’s fairly accurate. Consider this a “trigger warning.” Or is it a solicitation?

Have you taken some heat for this fiction?

Yes, but some readers don’t see that it’s ultimately somewhat sympathetic to Trump. While writing the essays, I wasn’t able to understand how he became the enraged person he turned into as an adult, so I invented a plausible cause. Trump tells Uncle Sam of a childhood “wound” that explains—for Sam—Trump’s treatment of women, but Sam misses the larger effects of the wound—Trump’s fragile ego and his need to assert his power in ways both sexual and not. If Trump weren’t such a danger to the Republic and its citizens, I’d feel sorry for him because he is pretty obviously acting out obsessions and compulsions over which he has little control, the reason he is so often depicted as a child.

Are you still protesting at Trump Tower?

I took some time off to write the essays, but now I’ll be back a few days a week signing and selling my books, completing the loop from displaying signs to offering extended semiotic commentary on the target of those first signs. I think of the book as everything I couldn’t fit on pieces of cardboard. I’m looking forward to being back, interacting with citizens and tourists, hoping that one day Donald will come down and engage this Ancient Mariner. One of the many cops around the Tower asked me what I’d do if Trump showed up. I told the cop I’d say, “I don’t talk with liars,” and I’d turn my back on him, just as one of my signs says: TURN YOUR BACK ON TRUMP. The weather should be warmer now than when I began, but I still hope Trump will do something so stupid that he will have to resign and I can go back to writing.

So you’re still outraged?  What outrages you the most?

As a former professor, I think I’m most outraged by his willful and smug ignorance. He’s every teacher’s recalcitrant dunce. I believe this ignorance is the root of his amorality, his treatment of women, his lying, his fraudulence. Trump’s ignorance is his harpoon, and he holds it dear. In the realm of policy, I’m most outraged by his environmental policies and appointees, the three men—polluting Pruitt, Exxon Rex, and numb-nuts Perry—that I call the “Fossil Fools.” Some of the damage Trump’s other policies will do may be repaired in four years, but his effect on the air and water will be difficult to repair. The British poet Alexander Pope wrote an epic satire called The Dunciad in which he called his time “the Age of Lead.” I fear that under Trump and his climate-denying dunces we will become the United States of Flint. Harpooning Donald Trump is dedicated to my two granddaughters. I’m enraged on their behalf, on behalf of a future polluted literally and figuratively by the First Fool and his family of greedheads.


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I ASK ALL OF YOU to send this blog on to everyone you know, both here and abroad. I particularly welcome your comments on this cockeyed pessimist site. You can also reach me by email (shepard@thepermanentpress.com), or reach Tom LeClair by email (leclaite@ucmail.uc.edu).  Let us all spread the word in every way we can, given the perilous days ahead.

Marty



Saturday, February 25, 2017

AN ANTIDOTE FOR DESPAIR


“In times of political turmoil, books can become more relevant than they ever have. Frederic Hunter’s new novel, Love in the Time of Apartheid, paints a grim picture of what racism and dictatorships can do on a personal level. Hunter’s discussion of the sixties in South Africa seems closer than ever when put into perspective with our own tumultuous climate. To see two individuals kept apart because society dictates that they are from two very different worlds is devastating but very much a reality for Petra and Gat, Hunter’s main characters. Today in the aftermath of our political campaigns, we have seen opposing viewpoints break apart families, tear apart relationships, and irrevocably damage the personal lives of others. It is no different for Petra and Gat. They go so far as to try to out-run the oppression and the violence that surrounds them, only to be stopped by the overreaching hand of Petra’s father, who heads the Bureau of State Security. It is their love for each other and their personal moral compasses that rescue them. We can only hope that in the wake of our political uproar that something as good as the love Petra and Gat share comes out of it.”   —Emily Montaglione, Managing Editor    

                                *             *             *

“I share Emily’s concerns but have less faith that things will work out given our recent elections where two very unpopular candidates faced one another. In the end, like the actor Viggo Mortensen and many others, I decided to avoid voting for Trump or Hillary, refusing to choose between two flawed major candidates, instead, writing in Judy Shepard’s name on the New York ballot. Nor do I see any relief in sight.

But I do cast a similar vote for the reading of books for there is artfulness out there in the literary world. While a strong majority of politicians are bought and sold by lobbyists, no one has yet been able to stop us from reading quality fiction or non-fiction, which removes us from the bickering and heat that runs rife in our political system. A good book can take us into a ‘better world’ without leaving us enraged by things we clearly haven’t the ability to fix right  now.

Politically I would say America got what it deserved this time around. Now is surely the time to say ‘God Save America,’’ for Americans and their candidates do not seem capable of bringing back wisdom. But a good book can surely bring back a sense if comity and convey a different perspective when it comes to seeing how different our lives might be.  —Martin Shepard
co-publisher

WHICH BRINGS US TO Love in the Time of Apartheid which was widely praised in the following Kirkus Review that appeared on September 15 and will be published at the end of November.

“A quasi-political thriller and love story set in 1960's Africa. Gat, aka Adriaan Gautier, has been given instructions by his Belgian superiors in the Congo: "disappear." With $2,000 American and a forged passport, he flees to South Africa to reinvent himself and shrug off the demons that haunt him from his soldiering in Prime Minster Patrice Lumumba's new Congo. The lonely Gat eyes an 18-year-old beauty from an Afrikaner and English family, and he begins a promising courtship. But Petra is the daughter of a racist Cape Town police colonel, and Gat abhors apartheid. Gat, who is guilt-ridden and fighting nightmares of murder, helps Pet see beyond her family's prejudices. When a black woman is struck by a car, however, Pet's rushed conversion to fervent good Samaritan-ism may be a bit too convenient. The lovers skip town and marry, but Pet's enraged father won't let them go easily. This novel's hodgepodge of subplots—hiding spies, thwarted romance, systemic racism—ultimately coalesces. Hunter (The Girl Ran Away, 2014, etc.), a former Africa Correspondent of the Christian Science Monitor, ably captures South Africa. Plain prose and dialogue keep the pace motoring, and the simply told espionage storyline may appeal to Ian Fleming fans. There is daring, intrigue, and an ugly current of racism, but make no mistake, this is a love story at its core. Austere and well-told; an unlikely mix of espionage, apartheid, and love on the run.”


Or this blurb from Joan Baum, NPR reviewer, who will likely expand her review after publication.

 “With a nod to Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Apartheid, Frederic Hunter beautifully explores the subtle and sensual power of love as a counter force to the diseases of racism and war. Though set in South Africa, with nightmare flashbacks to the Congo when Lumumba was assassinated, the suspenseful narrative resonates with deeply moving timeliness.”

Click the link below for Fred Hunter’s Love in the Time of Apartheid. May you pass it on to others. 

Thursday, February 2, 2017


A SOCIOPATH IN THE WHITE HOUSE?
by Jacob M. Appel MD JD

As both a practicing psychiatrist and the author of the forthcoming The Mask of Sanity, a novel that features a high functioning sociopath, I find myself asked with increasing frequency about the mental health of our incoming President.  Readers inquire:  Is Donald Trump mentally ill?  What is his diagnosis?  Could he truly be a sociopath and what does this bode for our country? 

 Even if I were able to answer these questions—and my sense is that you do not need a fancy medical degree to answer the first two—I may not.  Since 1973, section 7.3 of the American Psychiatric Association’s code of ethics, colloquially known as the “Goldwater rule,” has prohibited headshrinkers like myself from offering “a professional opinion” about “an individual who is in the light of public attention...unless he or she has conducted an examination” of that person “and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.”  So I am prohibited from commenting on Mr. Trump’s mental health based upon his public behavior—at the risk of losing my hospital privileges or even my medical license. 

 Similarly, I’d be remiss to claim that Charles Manson or the “Son of Sam” suffers from mental illnesses, as I have never evaluated either of them personally.  In the early 1990s, the APA adopted a more lax approach regarding deceased historical figures, so I am at liberty to suggest that the Roman Emperor, Caligula, was troubled, and to offer general comments on the mental health of Joan of Arc and Vincent Van Gogh.  But Fred Trump’s pride and joy is clearly off limits.  

The “Goldwater rule” arose out of a specific set of disturbing historical circumstances.  In the lead up to the 1964 Presidential election, a magazine called Fact published an issue on “The Unconscious of a Conservative” that focused on the psychological makeup and alleged pathology of Republican candidate Barry Goldwater.  The magazine’s editor, Ralph Ginzburg, included a survey of psychiatrists in which 1,189 out of 2,417 respondents declared the conservative Arizona senator unfit for the nation’s highest office.  Some of the comments published alongside the survey proved damning, even by modern standards.  

One anonymous critic wrote:  “I believe Goldwater to be suffering from a chronic psychosis.”  Another observed:  “I believe Goldwater has the same pathological makeup as Hitler, Castro, Stalin, and other known schizophrenic leaders.”  And a third:  “A megalomaniacal, grandiose omnipotence appears to pervade Mr. Goldwater’s personality giving further evidence of his denial and lack of recognition of his own feelings of insecurity and ineffectiveness.”  

Understandably, a backlash arose—both inside and outside the professional.  Bioethicist Jonathan Moreno makes a persuasive case that much of this handwringing among shrinks stemmed from fears that “amateurish psychological assessments and poor political prognostication” threatened the credibility of psychoanalytic psychiatrists.  Rather than an anomaly, concern over attacks on Goldwater followed similar reactions to A.A. Brill’s diagnosis of Abraham Lincoln as “a manic schizoid personality” and preceded William Bullit’s controversial “necro-analysis” of Woodrow Wilson.

During the recent presidential campaign, a number of leading psychiatrists and psychologists—myself included—called for the repeal of the “Goldwater rule.”  (APA President Maria Oquendo has led an impassioned public defense.)  Other thought leaders in mental health have circumvented the rule by offering “image” assessments without formal clinical diagnoses, an approach noted forensic psychiatrist Paul Appelbaum derided in the New York Times as “splitting hairs.”  As I have argued elsewhere, the cases where the “Goldwater rule” proves most harmful are not those involving politicians or celebrities, but criminal prosecutions of deranged spree killers like Gabrielle Giffords shooter Jared Loughner and Aurora movie theater gunman James Holmes. 

 In many of these cases, psychiatrists could offer a likely diagnosis based on public documents and courtroom “performances,” diagnoses that might help the American people understand these tragedies and could lead to both to more appropriate punishments and better prevention.  (Certainly, these killers should never walk the streets again, but many belong in psychiatric facilities, rather than prisons.)  Instead, the experts most fit to comment are unable to do so, ceding the public forum to uninformed talking heads.  In contrast, whether the political process truly suffers because I cannot comment publicly upon my congressperson’s sanity is not so readily apparent.

 What is rather clear in hindsight is that the late Barry Goldwater was not mentally ill.  While I disagree with many of the five-term senator’s political stances, nothing in his conduct over more than four decades in the public eye—including as a military pilot during World War II—suggests anything other than a noble, well-adjusted servant of the commonweal.  As a liberal myself, I fear one of the repeated canards of the American Left is the claim that political conservatives are mentally ill, rather than merely misguided or wrong.  From painting Ronald Reagan as a madman in 1980 to questioning John McCain’s temperament in 2008, the myth of the “crazy” right-winger has become a consistent theme in progressive politics. 

It is the meme that cried wolf.  (As far as I know, the only major party candidate who suffered from a mental illness between 1945 and 2016 was 1972 Vice Presidential choice Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, a fine United States Senator who had undergone shock treatment for depression, and who was rapidly pushed off the Democratic ticket by George McGovern when this became known.)  Only through the lens of the current political situation does the damage done by those false claims against earlier Republicans become fully clear.

Up to a certain point, of course, all presidents—and many successful people—have narcissistic and antisocial traits.  A bit of narcissism helps a psychiatrist get through medical school; a dose of sociopathy helps Presidents send American soldiers overseas to risk their lives.  But traits are not the same as pathologies.  Nobody wants a psychiatrist who does all the talking or a trigger-happy leader for the Free World.

This might be a good moment to make an observation that is not a popular view in liberal circles where I travel, nor presumably in conservative ones either:  By both international and historical standards, the differences between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, in terms of policies and values, were rather small.  So too of Bush and Gore, even Reagan and Mondale.  All of these men believed in certain fundamental norms—norms that are outliers in a world where half of the global population lives without basic civil liberties or political rights.  Among these common norms are the belief that if you lose the election, the other side gets to assume office.  No tanks or martial law involved.  And that if you disagree with your opponents, you are welcome to denounce them on television or the Internet—but not to poison them with polonium.  And, most important, that leaders of the other political party are opponents, or rivals, but not enemies.  None of these men ever conflated the elected officials seated across the aisle with the foreign operatives across the Bering Sea.  These are enormous commonalities, ones that dwarf any differences regarding tax policy or abortion rights or the wisdom of the War in Iraq

Certainly, the policy differences between the parties will affect the lives of ordinary Americans in countless, meaningful ways.  That is why we have elections:  For voters to determine the direction of these policies.  But the shared values of our recent political leaders in both parties far outweigh their disagreements.  Anybody who scoffs at the importance of these shared beliefs should spend a few weeks in Eritrea or Equatorial Guinea—or read a history of the Weimar Republic.  When someone challenges these common values, as Mr. Trump has arguably done, both sides need to step back from the brink and acknowledge their importance.  As Grandpa Vanderhof observes in the Kaufman and Hart comedy, You Can’t Take it With You, “Got all worked up about whether Cleveland or Blaine was going to be elected President—seemed awful important at the time, but who cares now?” 

The Goldwater rule prevents me from answering the question:  Is Donald Trump a high functioning narcissistic sociopath?  I must allow readers to evaluate that matter on their own.  What I can say is that high functioning sociopaths are dangerous.  Highly so.  They are often unable to accept criticism and incapable of adjusting their conduct to circumstances.   Great presidents are rarely judged by their Supreme Court appointments or infrastructure programs, but by their responses to cataclysmic challenges like Pearl Harbor, Soviet warheads in Cuba, or 9-11. 

 Had a   high functioning narcissistic sociopath been president during the Cuban Missile Crisis, we would all likely be dead.  Food for thought.  (I highly recommend that book on Weimar, by the way, for the next fool who declares, “Mike Pence would be worse.”)  Alas, I cannot comment on Mr. Trump’s mental health—either to bury it or to praise it.  But if I were a reader, I might ask myself what distinguishes Mr. Trump from Bernie Madoff or Martin Shkreli other than circumstance?


When George W. Bush was first elected president, I used to joke that the great thing about America is that even the son of a President can grow up to be President.  But I never doubted that George W. Bush was sane or rational or genuinely believed he was serving the public good.  Maybe the question we should be asking ourselves is not, Is the President a high functioning sociopath?  A better question might be:  How did we ever reach the point where anyone might even have to ask whether the President is a high functioning sociopath?  Once you’ve asked that question, does it really matter whether the clinical answer is yes or no?

Friday, January 20, 2017

AN INTELLECTUAL FAILURE OF MASSIVE PROPORTIONS

*                      *                      *
from Chris Knopf   

The political establishment, in which I include government officials, party apparatchiks, consultants, and commentators, is acting like a wounded elephant, after running headlong into a tree—dazed and confused, and lumbering around wondering what the heck just happened.


 In the ad agency business, when the buying behavior of potential customers is directly counter to all the predictions of planning and research, we euphemistically call this a “disconnect”.  Our clients tend to use other words, like “you’re fired.”

What we have in the political world is a disconnect of massive, historic proportions.  I consider it a total, systemic intellectual failure.
             
By intellectuals, I don’t just mean PhD.s or other brainy sorts in various walks of life. I mean anyone who has an active mind, kept enlivened by lifetime learning and intelligent discourse.  If you could find one of these folks who thought a year ago that Trump would be elected president, or Sanders would emerge as a tight second for the Democratic nomination, you’d call them intelligent, but sadly misguided.
            
And yet here we are. 
           
Doubtless thousands if not millions of dollars were spent in recent years on pollsters and opinion researchers that should have revealed what we now know to be demonstrably true:  a huge percentage of voters hate the political establishment, and are in such emotional pain, they’d vote for anyone who said the American system is rigged against them, no matter how it was said. 
            
My experience with market research tells me two things:  all that money was spent asking the wrong questions, or the researchers totally misunderstood the answers they got.  A third possibility is that the people interviewed gave false testimony.  This happens all the time, which brought us New Coke, and why even gifted pollsters like Nate Silver can get it terribly wrong.  Only the deep heart of the respondents knows what they’ll actually do at the moment of decision.  In this case, in the voting booth.
             
I think that’s part of the explanation, but I’m inclined to believe experts heard what people were saying, but didn’t truly understand what they were hearing.  Any researcher will tell you that data means nothing unless properly interpreted. 
            
This misunderstanding worked its way from the information gatherers to the information disseminators—journalists and other commentators—who stirred in their own biases and vested (intellectual)  interests, resulting in a national frame of mind that was diametrically opposed to what was actually going on.
            
Confirmation bias is the scourge of the digital society.  We have so much information flooding our brains, unreliably curated, that we naturally embrace those bits that conform to our view of the world.  This extends to the media we gravitate to, which I’d include regular face-to-face conversations, as our social lives become more and more tribal—economically, ideologically, intellectually. 
            
So it should come as no surprise that the information gatherers, who mostly come from one social class (relatively well off) would unconsciously process the agony of another social class (working people in both parties facing declining circumstances) through their personal filters, however earnestly they believe in their own objectivity.  
           
 I’m reminded of the scene in The Big Short when Steve Carell’s character went to Florida and met a stripper who had something like five sub-prime mortgages.  It was a great Gestalt moment.  Economic catastrophe was about to land on our heads and almost no one anywhere would see it coming. 
           
 I didn’t see it coming either.  Neither did I think for a second that Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders would be realistic candidates (for the record, I hoped Bernie would prevail).  Though I had one moment at the beginning of the campaign listening to an NPR talk show, where a caller from Kentucky wondered about the media fuss over Jeb Bush when everyone he knew was excited about Trump.
          
 I wonder if there was a researcher moderating a focus group of middle-class people in Kentucky, or Michigan, or Connecticut, who heard everyone say that the American system had failed them, that they were frightened and angry, and fired up to do something about it. 

And if the moderator said to herself, uh-oh, these people are going to vote their hearts.  And nobody’s paying attention.

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