Friday, September 29, 2017

Interview With Donald Westlake, Author of What's So Funny?

Certain writers have influenced my writing style, for good or ill. Kurv Vonnegut, Lisa Lutz, Molly Ivins, Art Buchwald.

But I can't think of another comic crime writer who is as consistently funny as Donald Westlake. This book, as with many by Westlake, features the unlucky John Dortmunder. Through good intentions and plenty of planning, he tries to show that crime can indeed pay. But his plans often go up in flames, which is to Dortmunder a disaster but to the reader a howling delight.

As with Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake can also write dark, most notably chronicling the adventures of Parker under the pseudonym Richard Stark.

Scott Butki: Mr. Westlake, I want to repeat that it is a honor and great pleasure to communicate with you. First, I am not sure what to call you. Which do you prefer: The comic crime caper captain or master of many (un)mundane mystery masterpieces? Yes, I'm a sucker for alliteration.

Donald: Go with the C string. But how about promoting me to commander?

Scott: What is your latest story about? This is another in the adventures of poor John Dortmunder, right?

Donald: In 1917, in the middle of WW1, Russia had its two revolutions. Chaos. The British had left a large store of munitions up in Murmansk, to use against the Germans if they chose to invade Germany from the east. Now they didn't want the damn Red army to get those arms, so the British & the US sent several hundred troops into northern Russia, where they fought the Red army for 2 years, 1918-1920, unencumbered by any declaration of war, that being the only time US soldiers fought Russian soldiers on Russian soil.
All this is true. Now we invent. What if (which is where all stories come from, by the way) a valuable chess set, gift for the czar, sailed into Murmansk while the war was going on, got lost in the shuffle, found in 1920 by a platoon of American troops, who smuggled it home, where more shenanigans took place, so it became lost again. Now it's been found and descendants of those soldiers want Dortmunder to get it back.
Scott: Which do you consider stranger – reality or fiction?
Donald: Reality is stranger than fiction because God doesn't have to worry about being plausible.
Scott: Do your own ideas, like the concept for the Ax or Hook, ever scare you?
Donald: My own ideas delight me. Why not?
Scott: I won't ask you about your own writing habits, because I previously wrote a piece mocking those who ask authors that question
but I am curious about your choice to use a typewriter instead of a computer. You're probably tired of explaining that choice but indulge me please: Why not use a computer? And if you don't like to use computers how is it that we are communicating via email?

Donald: I learned on typewriters, and still use the make and model I started writing on when I was 17. That means, when I work, I'm thinking about the work and not the equipment. E-mail is a convenience I finally cottoned to in 1999, so that I said I was entering the 20th century just as everybody else was leaving it. The computer is extremely useful for research, if you're careful about your sources. But when I write, or read, I don't curl up with a good computer.
Scott: What question – besides the one about the typewriter and questions about your Richard Stark alter ego- are you most tired of being asked.
Donald: What advice I would give to anybody about anything. Life is a slow-motion avalanche, and none of us are steering
Scott: What question do you wish interviewers will ask that they don't ask? Because this is your lucky day – you get to ask it and answer it.
Donald: I was once -- and only once -- asked if I could have had a writing career without the movies. That stopped me, and I was very happy to have to think about it, and decide I knew the answer. Yes; not this career, but a career.
Without movie money, either from writing screenplays or selling rights to novels, I could still have enough of a career that I could support myself and not have to work at some other job, but it would be, shall we say, a less lavish lifestyle.
Scott: Who are your three favorite living writers and why?
Donald: That is impossible to answer. I like this, I don't like that. Nobody hits a home run every time at bat.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

An Interview With Jim Walsh About His Book, The Replacements: All Over But the Shouting: An Oral History

The Replacements are one of my favorite bands of all time. They were great live though, as this book quotes fans noting, if you saw them twice (as I was lucky enough to do) you may see two very different shows. They were famous for playing while drunk and one of their live albums is pretty much them drunk doing crazy covers of other songs. But they were also brilliant musicians.
And the lead singer, Paul Westerberg, is one of the best lyricists ever. He could capture feelings so concisely and perfectly.
I'm always a sucker for one of their first big singles, "I Will Dare," with Peter Buck of REM on guitar. The song has been included in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.
How young are you?
How old am I?
Let's count the rings around my eyes
How smart are you?
How dumb am I?
Don't count any of my advice
Oh, meet me anyplace or anywhere or anytime
Now I don't care, meet me tonight
If you will dare, I might dare
You can watch a video of them performing the song here.
Another favorite of mine is "Color Me Impressed," which you can watch here. From that song, "Everybody at your party
They all look depressed
Everybody dressin' funny
Color me impressed
Stayin' out late tonight
Won't be gettin' any sleep
Givin' out their word
Cuz that's all that they won't keep
But their mellow songs like" Within Your Reach" were also so great. Just as Nine Inch Nails and Violent Femmes were perfect songs to play when driving when full of angst, frustration and Anger so were songs like "Within Your Reach, " "Unsatisfied" perfect to clam down and feel understood and, yes, more satisfied that someone out there what you are feeling.
Since I'm a fan -with a dysfunctional relationship to music - I jumped at the chance to interview this author. Just as with my interview with Stewart Copeland was as close as I expect to ever get to interviewing Sting this is as close as I'll ever get to interviewing Paul Westerberg but that's ok.
This book is fascinating - it chronicles the bands rise and fall through conversations with fans, musicians who knew and liked them, those who worked with them, etc. And I love some of the anecdotes like how the band members, especially Westerberg, would break copies of their own records while at local record stores.
And now... the interview
Scott: Why did you decide to write this book?
I think they're a great band, and I thought more people should know about them. I thought it should exist, as a document of a musical era that seems light years ago now.
Was the plan always to write it as an oral history? Was that difficult at all? I personally like the style.
An editor at Simon and Shuster suggested it be oral history; I ultimately thought it was a good idea. At first I didn't want to do it at all, because Paul and the other guys didn't want to be involved. I told Paul I wasn't going to write it without some input from him, but he said "unauthorized sells better than authorized," and we agreed it could be a good book with old interviews from him. His instinct was right: like most great artists, he's not good at chewing his cud twice, and the old quotes are very of the moment.
Are you still in touch with all of the band members or just Paul? What did Paul think of the book project and the resulting book?
I'm not really in touch with any of them. I play music with Slim sometimes at a thing I do here in Minneapolis called The Mad Ripple Hootenanny.
You'd have to ask Paul. Another book is being written on the 'Mats at the moment, and he's given the author his cooperation, so I'm betting the band will approve of that version more.
It'll be cool to read what those guys remember about that time. I haven't talked to the author, but there's some good stories out there that should be documented. Jeff Waryan, for example, a great guitarist from Minneapolis, also auditioned for the 'Mats when Bob Stinson left. He wrote me a note about it after the book came out, and it's a good yarn.
Has it been hard for Paul - and fans like you - to hear bands that sound like wanna-be mats having more commercial success than the Mats?
Not really. I think the 'Mats achieved something more important than commercial succes: they're timeless, and you can't say that about all music.
A two parter: 1) Why do you think this band took off? You talk in the intro about how it was sort of championed by many musicians? 2) What led to its eventually ending?
The struck the same nerve all great raw music does. Like Hank Williams or Ray Charles or the Clash or whoever. Personally, they were part of a very influential time of my life, and I wanted the book to read in a way the band played: sloppy with mistakes but also musical, poetic, mythic, factual.
If you had to name your three favorite Mats songs what would they be? Your favorite album?
Off the top of my head: Alex Chilton, Can't Hardly Wait, Achin' To Be, and "Let It Be." We had a big party at First Avenue/7th St. Entry here in Minneapolis when the paperback came out, and a ton of bands and songwriters paid tribute to the 25th birthday of "Let It Be." It was a truly magical night. Those songs are just everlastingly great.
What other writing have you done before this?
I've done everything from journalism to songwriting to poetry. I write mostly columns now, and the occasional hard news and arts criticism and features. I'm working on a memoir at the moment, hoping to get the bulk of that written this year. And I just released a new CD, "Her Tattoos Could Sail Ships," which I'm very proud of. Working on another one that's almost done, too. Very busy at the moment, all good stuff.
Lastly what is the legacy of the Replacements?
They were a band that constantly reminded you that you're not alone in your misfithood, or loneliness, or weird joy. I also think their legacy has to be as one of the great song-oriented rock bands.

Movie Review: Bowling For Columbine

In a nutshell, I think this is a great documentary and Michael Moore is a talented director and editor. My quibble - especially after reading not just the reviews but also sifting through the anti-Moore web sites - is that he plays a little too fast and loose with the facts. And the more factual errors that are made the less credible the rest of the movie is.
I'm talking here about errors/omissions he's copped to - such as implying that Charleton Heston and the NRA went to Flint "soon" after a shooting when it was actually eight months later, at a time when lots of political groups came to town - and not the ones still in dispute.
Overall Moore does a good job of providing an educational, entertaining movie but it's hard to tell when the factual part ends and the fun part begins. He wrestles with a good legitimite question: Why is American society more violent than that of other nations? He shoots down some of the usual theories, using statistics which critics question. The main answer he seems to suggest is that violence is caused by fear generated by the news media. TV news about bloodshed makes people more likely to be violent themselves.
There's one big problem with that theory though - the level of violent crime in America has dropped in recent years at the same time that media coverage of violent crime - especially school shootings - is up. Despite those quibbles, I give this ambitious movie an 8. He may be sloppy, but he's good.
Memorable movie quotes:
Chris Rock: You don't need no gun control. You know what you need? Bullet control. I think all bullets should cost $5000. You know why? If a bullet cost $5000 there'd be no more innocent bystanders.
Michael Moore: If you were to talk directly to the kids at Columbine or the people in that community, what would you say to them if they were here right now?
Marilyn Manson: I wouldn't say a single word to them, I would listen to what they have to say and that's what no one did.
There is something very wrong when Manson sounds more intelligent in that sound bite than most politicians.
Moore has his share of critics, including this site devoted to criticizing his movies. While documentaries are traditionally made by liberals, three anti-Moore documentaries have been made: Michael Moore Hates America, Fahrenhype 9/11 and *Celsius 41/11: The Temperature at Which the Brain...Begins to Die.*
I might check out those movies sometime but meanwhile the irony is he's laughing all the way to the bank. But it's probably not the bank in the movie where you get the free guns.

My Interview With Sarah Vowell Over Her New Book, The Wordy Shipmates

Writer Sarah Vowell is amazing. I could go on and on with praise for her radio essays and writings, including her new book, The Wordy Shipmates, but I will try to contain myself.
I have previously, publicly, admitted my crush on her, something I have never done for any other writer. But ours is an unrequited love. Anyone that smart, witty and literate, especially if they can make history fascinating and funny, is crush-worthy and she routinely hits it out of the park.
One way she does this is with modern cultural references, often musical ones. In the new book at one point she is trying to get across how amazing it would have been had two puritans made speeches at the same time and she said it would have been the puritan equivalent of the time she saw the Breeders open for Nirvana.
Here is an except to make my point, on the topic of theological differences.
Secular readers who marvel every morning at the death toll in the Middle East ticking ever higher due to, say, the seemingly trifling Sunni-versus-Sunni rift in Islam, might look deep into their own semantic lines in the sand. For instance, a devotion to The Godfather Part II and equally intense disdain for The Godfather Part III. Someday they may find themselves at a bar and realize they are friends with a woman who can't tell any of the Godfather movies apart and asks if Part II was the one that had "that guy in the boat." Them's fightin' words, right?
Vowell does radio essays for This American Life, one of the mast fascinating programs on public radio. I will link below to a few of her essays. I first came to know her by reading Radio On which was ostensibly about listening to the radio every day for a year but was really about so much more.
I reviewed her next book, Take The Cannoli.. It was a collection of columns she had written for various publications, including Salon, as well as versions of essays she did for This American Life.
Her next book, the Partly Cloudy Patriot, was more political as she explored issues I have wrestled with, namely the difficulty of loving your country and government at a time when you may not love what is happening in your country and what your government is doing.
That book contained one of my favorite columns of hers, on the topic of how people are/were constantly comparing themselves and others to Rosa Parks. You can read that piece here.
With her last book, the Assassination Vacation, Vowell was getting better known. That book was ostensibly about exploring some of the lesser known presidential assassination attempts (she skips the obvious easy one, i.e. Oswald), but is often about so much more, from comparing past history to present history to a great deal of other issues. As excellent as the book was the audio version was even better because various well known writers as well as members of the Daily Show do the voices for some historical figures.
Which brings us to her new book, which has already received favorable reviews in several publications.
In the publicity material for the book is a conversation with Vowell. This exchange is notable:
Why did you decide to write a book about the New England Puritans?
I can probably pin it down to how I kept thinking about John Winthrop's 1630 sermon "A Model of Christian Charity" during three events between 2001 and 2004—the terrorist attacks, the war in Iraq, and Ronald Reagan's funeral. I write about how, as a New Yorker, I was so comforted by the part of Winthrop's sermon in which he called upon his shipmates to rejoice and mourn and suffer together "as members of the same body."
Then, all of the rhetoric leading up to the war smacked of the American exceptionalism that derives from Puritan notions of New Englanders as God's new chosen people, Winthrop's idea and ideal that Massachusetts should be "as a city upon a hill." And, since no one had adopted that phrase as a personal motto like Reagan, when Sandra Day O'Connor read part of Winthrop's sermon at Reagan's funeral, during a time when everyone in the world had Abu Ghraib on the brain, when she stood there in front of the current president and various members of his administration who got us into that whole mess, when she read the part where Winthrop warns that "the eyes of all people are upon us," it hit home how much Winthrop and his fellows are still with us.
Also notable is this exchange
Where did Ronald Reagan get the phrase "a shining city on a hill," which became so identified with him? And why do you write that the citizens of the United States not only elected and reelected Ronald Reagan, but that "we are Ronald Reagan"?
Reagan got his pet phrase from Winthrop's "A Model of Christian Charity," in which Winthrop, inspired by the Sermon on the Mount, called for New England to be "as a city on a hill." Reagan interpreted this idea to mean that the United States is supposed to be a sparkly beacon of hope. But Reagan pretty much ignored the bulk of Winthrop's sermon—the parts about sharing, about suffering together, the foreboding ending in which Winthrop worries that, come failure, he and his shipmates will suffer the wrath of God, that they'll be a cautionary tale. Much of Winthrop's sermon is Christlike and therefore tough—a call for charity and generosity and selflessness. But charity and generosity and selflessness were not what the Reagan years were about. Just the opposite of course. Reagan just chose to ignore the fine print—a very American thing to do. He chose to focus on Winthrop's pretty, upbeat imagery and more or less ignored Winthrop's sober call for communal responsibility. Americans tend to accentuate the positive. We get snowed by cheerful advertising.
Vowell also did the voice of Violet in the movie the Incredibles, thus a question below about Violet. There is a hilarious DVD extra on the Incredibles where Vowell compares life as Violet, fast and frantic, to that of herself, reading and thinking. Also you may have seen Vowell on television lately. She was on David Letterman a week ago and on the Daily Show last week. You can watch her on the Daily Show here.
In her radio and print essays she will often compare modern political life to that of the Puritans. At one point she talks about TV shows like Happy Days doing episodes about Puritan times:
"Mostly, sitcom Puritans are rendered in the tone I like to call the Boy, People used to be so stupid school of history....
Check out those barbarian idiots with their cockamamie farce of a legal system, locking people up up for fishy reasons and putting their criminals to death. Good thing Americans put an end to all that nonsense long ago.
And then there are zingers like this
From New England's Puritans we inherited the idea that America is blessed and ordained by God above all nations, but lost the fear of wrath and retribution. The eyes of all people are upon us. And all they see is a mash-up of naked prisoners and an American girl in fatigues standing there giving a thumbs up. As I write this, the United States of America is still a city on a hill, and it's still shining-because we never turn off the lights in our torture prisons. That's how we carry out the sleep deprivation.
and this
Reactionary immigration legislation-then and now. "The Bay Colony's reactionary immigration legislation is not unlike reactionary immigration legislation throughout history-it exposes a people's deepest fears. For example, the Anarchist Exclusion Act of 1903, passed by Congress to bar anarchists from the United States after an anarchist assassinated President McKinley. Or the not particularly Magna Carta-friendly clause in the USA Patriot Act of 2001 allowing for illegal immigrants to be detained indefinitely and without legal counsel for up to six months if they are suspected of terrorism or simply have terrorist 'ties.'" [p. 218]
Here is the interview interspersed with some excerpts:
Scott: Did you set out to write a book about the puritans or did it just sort of work out that way?
Sarah: What? I thought I was writing a book about Annie Oakley or something and then one day I noticed the narrative was getting a little too John Winthrop-y? Maybe I should have done that. It would have started out with shoot 'em ups and Sitting Bull and then the reader turns a page and suddenly John Cotton and Roger Williams are engaged in a pamphlet war about the finer points of Protestantism.
Why do puritans get such a bad rap? how could that historical period be better taught? Should part of that involve having teachers stop using the Crucible and Scarlet Letter to teach about that period?
I love The Scarlet Letter. I think Hawthorne is actually a great place to start. There's that lovely scene with Hester Prynne at the death of John Winthrop. I think that would be a fine jumping off point for students who could then back up and learn about the founding of Massachusetts Bay sixty odd years earlier and Winthrop's ideals before the experiment devolved into witch hysteria. Hawthorne is so haunted by seventeenth century New England-he's horrified, but he's also intrigued
and moved by the era, couldn't stop thinking about it. I think one person's passion is always a wonderful introduction to any subject. But a reader needn't stop there. Hawthorne is simply a nifty invitation to the Puritan party. And, oh, what a party it is. Violence! Bickering! Banishment!
I wanted to mention one section from the book about the Scarlet Letter:
The United States is often called a Puritan nation as a lazy way of saying Americans are sexually repressed. Which seems true, because we all read The Scarlet Letter in ninth grade. The Puritans were troubled by adultery, and who can blame them? It is, at the very least, a lapse of common courtesy. But the Puritans were actually quite gung-ho about sexual intercourse for married couples because they believed God came up with it." [pp. 131-132]
In the publicity materials for this book you suggest this book was partially inspired by 9/11 and the weeks after that. Can you explain what you mean?
As a New Yorker, I found comfort in John Winthrop's sermon "A Model of Christian Charity," in which he called upon his fellow New Englanders to "mourn together" and to "suffer together" as if they were "members of the same body." They were to be "knit together" with the "ligaments of love." Manhattan in the days and weeks after the attack was the most
loving place on earth and the sweetness of Winthrop's ode to solidarity was such a solace.

In the book she speaks movingly of life in New York City post-9/11:

"We were breathing sooty air. The air was composed of incinerated glass and steel but also, we knew, incinerated human flesh. When the local TV news announced that rescue workers sorting through the rubble in search of survivors were in need of toothpaste, half my block, having heard that there was finally something we could actually do besides worry and grieve, had already cleaned out the most popular name brands at the corner deli by the time I got there, so at the rescue workers' headquarters I sheepishly dropped off fourteen tubes of Sensodyne, the toothpaste for sensitive teeth.
We were members of the same body, breathing the cremated lungs of the dead and hoping to clean the teeth of the living."

Why did you focus part of your book on Anne Hutchinson? How are you like Hutchinson and how are you different?
Generally, I find reading history provides a useful reminder to count my blessings. Hutchinson was a mouthy, charismatic female leader who was thrown out of Massachusetts for preaching heretical biblical interpretations and sowing unrest within the colony. She was banished from her home for doing something I've gotten paid to do for the last twenty years-sharing her opinions with other people. President Bush is her descendant. I would say that he inherited her sense of certainty and apparent ability to hear the voice of God but not her gift for gab. She really outwitted the magistrates of Massachusetts during her trial. The president, on the other hand, isn't exactly God's gift to repartee.
She also writes in the book in more detail how she is like Hutchinson:
"I wish I didn't understand why Hutchinson risks damning herself to exile and excommunication just for the thrill of shooting off her mouth and making other people listen up. But this here book is evidence that I have this confrontational, chatty bent myself. I got my first radio job when I was eighteen years old and I've been yakking on air or in print ever since. Hutchinson is about to have her life-and her poor family's-turned upside down just so she can indulge in the sort of smart-alecky diatribe for which I've gotten paid for the last twenty years."

What would Violet of the Incredibles say of this book? I love the dvd extra where you compare the life of Violet with your real life.
I would imagine she would appreciate the often wry tone of the book on the off chance she would have time to read it in between doing her homework and battling supervillains.
I'm a big fan of your work on This American Life, especially the one you wrote about the Trail of Tears (Both her parents have Cherokee ancestors who were forced west on the Trail of Tears in 1838) and the one you did about your dad and guns. Do you have a personal favorite?
My favorite radio story I worked on was the one in which I interviewed high school students and their media studies teacher during the New Hampshire primary in 2000, when Al Gore spoke at their school and was misquoted in the national media and how the students and their teacher not only stood up to the New York Times and Washington Post but also had a clear and profound assessment about the relationship between journalism and democracy.
The students and their teacher had asked Gore to speak at the school on the subject of school violence because a student had been killed at their school. And Gore addressed that issue in a way that really engaged the students. But the press corps following him around misheard a word, reported that he was taking credit for discovering Love Canal and it snowballed into this big stupid scandal.
The writer for the paper of record sparked this stupid, distracting and erroneous brouhaha that was totally high school whereas actual high school students were miffed that the media's gossipy sloppiness meant that not only was a falsehood unleashed but, more importantly, the actually substantive topic Gore was there to address went entirely unreported.
The teacher was appalled enough that she had to lead her students in these lockdown procedures in which the whole school would have to rehearse what to do if a student had a gun-locking doors, hiding behind desks, etc. But she was beyond outraged that instead of reporting the discussion about that, an insipid press corps trumped up a moronic teapot tempest. On the bright side, the media studies class got a front row seat to media behavior.
You can hear the ones on guns and the one on Trail of Tears here.I had forgotten she did the Gore media piece but it is one of the best media analysis pieces I have ever read or heard.
Is it hard to switch from the audio format to the text format and back?
I am a fairly conversational writer so stylistically there's not much difference. I will say that I concentrate more and more on writing books because of the expanse. Radio shows are confined to their time slots. The roominess of books, along with the solitude required to write them, suits me better. That said, I think my inner broadcaster does edit my books. That's why they're relatively short. Radio tends to slap the longwinded dithering out of a person. I like the slow pace of writing books but I still want the book itself to be fast-paced for a reader.
Are you drawn to flawed people? Why do you think that is?
Is there any other kind?
A few other noteworthy excerpts:
The wordy shipmates. "The United States is often called a Puritan nation. Well, here is one way in which it emphatically is not: Puritan lives were overwhelmingly, fanatically literary. Their single-minded obsession with one book, the Bible, made words the center of their lives-not land, not money, not power, not fun. I swear on Peter Stuyvesant's peg leg that the country that became the U.S. bears a closer family resemblance to the devil-may-care merchants of New Amsterdam than it does to Boston's communitarian English majors." [p. 13]
The Puritans as killjoys. "I'm always disappointed when I see the word "Puritan" tossed around as shorthand for a bunch of generic, boring, stupid, judgmental killjoys. Because to me, they are very specific, fascinating, sometimes brilliant, judgmental killjoys who rarely agreed on anything except that Catholics are going to hell. Certainly the Puritans believed and said and did many unreasonable things. That kind of goes with the territory of being born before the Age of Reason. Ponder all the cockamamie notions we moderns have been spared simply by coming into this world after an apple conked Sir Isaac Newton in the head." [p. 22]
How the Puritans won out over the Founding Fathers. "In the present-day United States, the Massachusetts Puritans' laughable, naïve, and self-aggrandizing idea that they were leaving England partly to come over and help American Indians who were simply begging for their assistance has won out over the Founding Fathers' philosophy of not firing shots in other countries' wars." [p. 26]
Ronald Reagan and the "shining city on a hill.""Talking about [John] Winthrop's 'A Model of Christian Charity' without discussing Ronald Reagan would be like mentioning Dolly Parton's 'I Will Always Love You' and pretending Whitney Houston doesn't exist. Whitney and Reagan's covers were way more famous than the original versions ever were. Winthrop's sermon, as a supposed early model for the idea of America, became a blank screen onto which Americans in general and Reagan in particular projected their own ideas about the country we ended up with. For a ten-year stretch, the 1980s, Winthrop's city on a hill became the national metaphor. And looking into the ways the sermon, or at least that one phrase in it, was used, throws open the American divide between action and words, between what we say we believe versus what we actually do." [pp. 59]
Not weddings but civil unions. "And speaking of marriage, in colonial New England weddings were 'a civil thing,' civil unions one might say, performed by magistrates, not clergy. Because a wedding wasn't trumped up as the object in life that saves one's soul-that would be God-but rather more like what it actually is, a change in legal status, an errand at the DMV, with cake." [p. 132]
How Hutchinson's shedding of authority led to George W. Bush. "Protestantism's shedding away of authority . . . inspires self-reliance-along with a dangerous disregard for expertise. So the impulse that leads to democracy can be the downside of democracy-namely, a suspicion of people who know what they are talking about. It's why in U.S. presidential elections the American people will elect a wisecracking good ol' boy who's fun in a malt shop instead of a serious thinker who actually knows some of the pompous brainy stuff that might actually get fewer people laid off or killed." [p. 214-215]

An Interview With Joseph Wambaugh About Hollywood Crows

Joseph Wambaugh, 71, is one of the masters at writing police procedurals, both with fiction and non-fiction works, and I'm so happy I was able to land an interview with him about his new book, which comes out today.
I've interviewed some of my favorite crime writers – Michael Connelly, Robert Crais and George Pelecanos – but Wambaugh, unlike them, actually worked as a cop.
Wambaugh has even said one reason he agreed to write Hollywood Station was because of the urging of James Ellroy, who is another amazing writer, to return to writing about his Los Angeles Police Department roots.
Wambaugh, the son of a police officer, worked for the Los Angeles Police Department fo 14 years before leaving law enforcement work to become a professional writer, winning deserved acclaim for crime classics like The Onion Fields and Choirboys.
Wambaugh's new novel, Hollywood Crow, is a sequel to Hollywood Station, which I reviewed here. As I said then there are exceptions to the adage of "Don't judge a book by its cover," and that is the case with Wambaugh's book cover or, more precisely, his back cover. Hollywood Station's backcover contained compliments from Connelly, Pelecanos, Crais and even Ray Bradbury.
As with his older books Wambaugh takes swipes – often well deserved – at how the work of law enforcement has been hampered by politicians and police administrators. For example, the officers are at times ill equipped to deal with certain situations because they of new procedures.
The book is hilarious at times, especially as he describes guys dressed as superheros fighting, often over drugs. I knew Hollywood had a seedy underbelly – I just didn't suspect that that person dressing as Wonder Woman, for example, was actually a man, leading a poor child to shout, "Mommy! Wonder Woman is bald like daddy!"
What was your goal with this book? Did you accomplish it?
My goal with this or any book is to tell a story that is well worth telling and to do it in a lively interesting way. I hope I did it, but the answer to that is in the hands of the readers.
Where do you get the vivid characters you write about? Are they real people? People cops tell you about?
I do more than 50 police interviews before starting any novel. The anecdotes and characters are born from those chats over dinner and drinks.
I noticed you thanked a lot of police officers at the start of the book. How did they help you? Do you let some of them read your book?
Every cop in the acknowledgment helped enormously by sharing with me their experiences, and, more importantly their feelings, and that's not easy for male cops to do. The women aren't afraid to do it. Every one of them gets an advance copy of the book.
What's it like to have some of the best crime writers around – Robert Crais, Michael Connelly – praising your books?
It's an honor and pleasure to be praised by peers and colleagues.
What is the biggest misconception about the LAPD? What's the biggest misconception about Hollywood?
I read the profile of you at Wikipedia and it contains this comment: "The success of the early books happened while Wambaugh was still working in the detective division. He reportedly remarked "I would have guys in handcuffs asking me for autographs."
Can you verify its true and, if so, elaborate on it?
Yes, it's true. I stayed with the LAPD through the first three best sellers, The New Centurions, The Blue Night and The Onion Field, all of which ended up on the big and small screen. I used to do talk shows like Johnny Carson frequently, so lots of cops and crooks would see me on TV.
What question are you most tired of answering?
I am tired of people asking me how my fellow cops responded to my books. The answer is that the chief of police and his staff denounced the early work but the working cops have always loved my stuff.
What question do you wish you would get asked more often?
I wish that I'd be asked specific questions about the plots and characters so that I'd know that the questioner had actually read the book.
What are you working on next?
I am working on a third novel about Hollywood Division making them a kind of trilogy.

Interview with Scott Tinley, author of Things To Be Survived

(from 2007)
Prepare to be blown away by this author and book. This book is amazing and its writer moved me near tears - and that's no easy accomplishment - with his stories, some true, some fiction and most somewhere in that gray area in between. More on that latter thought shortly.
I first heard of Scott Tinley through articles about him in Outside magazine, which I have been reading faithfully since I was about 15. (The magazine itself is one you should definitely be reading even if you, like me, spend more time reading about being outside than you actually do BEING outside.)
Tinley was written about for being a professional triathlete who twice won the Hawaii Ironman endurance race.
I had not heard of him in years until I received an email from him asking if I'd be willing to read his new book and interview him about it. Thanks again to Bill Katovsky, author of Patriots Act, for suggesting Tinley and I connect. 
I agreed to the interview and had the fleeting thought - later proved to be correct - that the book might help me better understand my father and brother, both of whom competed in many athletic events.
As with my brother, Tinley worked as a lifeguard in Southern California. But if your impression of lifeguards is based on shows like Baywatch you will quickly realize that some of these guys are not just strong but also quite intelligent. Read his answers and tell me you are not impressed.
Reading up on him on the Internet I learned that seventh-generation Californian Tinley now teaches sport humanities at San Diego State University, not too far from where I grew up in Southern California.
What has Tinley been up since winning the Ironman in 1982 and 1985? I'll let him answer that with an answer to one of my questions.
Scott Butk: Do you really believe this comment in your book: "Perhaps my career choices were guided by a secret desire to cheat death: lifeguard, firefighter, paramedic, professional athlete and then, at forty, graduate student"?
Scott Tinley: Absolutely. I'm still doing it, trying to get my PhD, working with kids, lying about my age, the whole thing. But I think I'm better about the realities of it now. I've seen enough death to know how I'd like to go, not that I'm in a rush to go anytime soon.
Butki: How did your background as an athlete affect your future work as a writer?
Tinley: For many years I was fortunate to have a job that allowed me to travel the world on someone else's meal ticket. While sport was a great gig, it was merely a vehicle to explore the nature of things, even if they were hiding under my pillow. I spent an incredible amount of time by myself and began writing for what I consider the best of reasons — just to figure stuff out. Sport and games, in their, truest form, transcends all cultural boundaries. If you can run, kick a ball or throw something high in the air, you speak many languages.
The other thing about sport is that while it's not a perfect meritocracy, when in the truth of first light competition, there's a hell of lot less ambiguity than in the world of commerce.
Butki: My late dad, Arnold Butki, used to run marathons and exercise daily. I get bored when exercising and if I try bike riding it's inevitable I'll get ideas that I want to write down. So I can't resist asking a question not totally related to the book: What do you think about when exercising for such a length of time? Did you have my problems where your mind starts thinking about things you want to write down but you can't?
Tinley: Old skool palm pilot—a felt marker on the back of your hand.
Most of the time, I wouldn't try to think about specific things. Ideas would just come to me and I'd give them some amount of purchase and then go back to unthinking. My new school palm pilot for the technophobe is a cheap voice recorder.
Actually, I have a friend who used to run the same loop everyday with a marker in his pocket. When he had some thought he wanted to record he'd write it on the same two or three lampposts set off next to the street. The guy had at least one novel scribed on city property until they painted those poles one Monday while he overslept.
It's not quite Hemingway leaving his only copy of a completed manuscript in a New York City cab but it's cool pathos, don't you think? Who can't relate to that lost "great idea"? The one that got away.
Butki: Can you elaborate on this dedication: "To all the raw and rummaging scribes who pick up a pen because they just don't give a damn."
Tinley: I've always had notion for the underground brilliance, the voice that is never heard, the performance locked away in his or her own cave. In an increasingly celebritized society, the power of the understated has grown. That's why the best writers of "Nam lit" were grunts and third tour journalist, guys who got their @!$%# kicked, came home and unthought about it. Then wrote some mind- blowing prose where no one, not even them, could tell you what was real and what was imagined. I've taught O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" twenty times and still find things that even Tim may not realize he carries. O'Brien, even after great literary success, remains raw and rummaging.
Butki: The piece, "Over her, over me," was quite moving. It seems like a good reminder about how deeply affected paramedics and other emergency workers can be by what they see and do. How do paramedics deal with that? Is your solution music and alcohol or was that just the characters choice?
Tinley: Music? Always. Alcohol? As necessary. That's a story based on a real experience. I was working as a medic that night Lennon was shot and went on a call that, let's just say, wasn't hard to fictionalize. The world of emergency medicine takes a special breed. I was pretty good at it because I have this ability to temporarily compartmentalize things. But I knew that one day the box would be full of demons and they'd come out in an army too strong to fight. So I quit. This story is just one of a few which I'm still trying to chase away.
Butki: Please tell me – and the readers who have not seen your book yet – what led you to make the following statement :
"Although this collection includes both fiction and non-fiction prose, it is not always obvious which is real and which is imagined. It is the author's express desire to let the reader make that distinction if they fell they must, that it places the text somewhere where they can come at it comfortably. And while just a few of the characters are real with real names, the rest are based on the experiences of the author. He makes no claim to their existence and any imagined connection to living persons are left to the full responsibility of the reader."
Tinley: Well, to be honest, part of my rationale for purposely blurring the lines is in protest of the market-driven, overly genre-specific state of domestic publishing. The overt subsumation of art by "those-that-will-profit" is pretty damn disturbing. Its appropriation of things that make us feel human by the means of distribution. The golden rule — he who has the gold… rules.
If a piece of work does not thrill the sales force, include inside scoop on (insert celebrity de jour here) or offer some falsely pacifying antidote for the rampant malaise that bureaucratization has wrought, then it can't be labeled, packaged or sold. Sorry for the rant but it's pretty simple Marxism — eventually even the folks with money in their pocket will suffer at the hands of their own.
As I understand it, Habitus Books was formed as a response to this. And yes, it's a disclaimer of sorts but a challenge to the reader to suspend their beliefs about the real and the imagined, to let the text take them where they will go without pre-disposed interpretation that, "Oh, well, this is what the author experienced so let me compare, contrast and critique accordingly." This is what reader response criticism allows — that there is no single reading of a text, they create rather than discover.
Butki: Maybe it's just me but there seems to be a contradiction between the above statement and then the book being separated into those stories "real" and "imagined." Was that an intentional clarification between fact and fiction or a difference between you and the publisher or what?
Tinley: As the book went into production, I freaked just a bit, and thought for someone unfamiliar or uncomfortable without at least a few simple signposts, they might get lost and frustrated. And so I re-ordered the stories into "imagined" and "real." To clarify, the imagined stories are fictionalized versions of similar events that I'd experienced in real life. And the Real is pretty damn real. In hindsight, I may have made it worse. Now that it's in book stores and selling, even the marketers don't know where to place it, which was my original point about trying to point out the problematic of increased rationality. Certainly there is little financial remuneration in aesthetic subversion.
Butki: Why do you resist letting the reader know what is fact and what is fiction? Is that something you would encourage or discourage if done by some of the students you teach?
Tinley: The best writers I've had in my classes are the iconoclasts, the authentic antiheroes who just don't care about external validation. I'd encourage both readers and writers to first, temporarily forget what they were taught in high school about structure, plot, character, setting, etc. and to approach a text from that place that moves them—existential tectonic shifts, if you will. The challenge is to find that place to begin with. A lot of us have allowed our minds to be filled with sound bite temporality and nothing really resonates because we're rarely alone with our thoughts and our struggles. I resist all types of labels as they can prevent us from finding that cohesion, that communitarian ethos that exists when we approach language as the one true human thing.
Butki: The comment about the "responsibility of the reader" sounds like are placing the onus on the reader rather than the writer. Is that your intention? If so, why?
Tinley: Any text, regardless of its form, can be an opportunity for communicative action. In writing a very personal book such as this, I've felt like I've done my part in sharing. But I would not ask a reader to, as I said, to "compare, contrast or critique." That misses the point of reader response theory. The beauty of plurality in reading is that the text can take you where you let it, not where it's supposed to take you. The best example in the book is the last chapter, a very true story, a letter to my daughter as she left home for college. I've had numerous parents write and tell me it just broke them up. And I've had students respond with, "How could you embarrass your daughter like that?" They've allowed the story to both reflect on their own circumstances but also create a political site; a momentary struggle within their own psyche.
Butki: This reminds me of what Dave Eggers has done with What Is The What, which he calls an autobiographical novel, meaning he wrote about a "Lost Boy" he worked with, but some elements, and it's not clear which, are fictional. Have you read it?
Tinley: Dave is one of the best at craftily and openly blurring the lines. But a non-fiction novel is not a memoir (there's that label thing again), or at least a good one won't act like it, and what Eggers has done so well in that book is climb inside Achak Deng's head to tell his story. I'd imagine the autobiographical nod would be similar to an actor that is naturally subsumed by his or her character in part, due to the intimate similarities in history, experience and personality type.
Often the best art is facilitated by its sharing of psychosocial blood. That's the challenge with young American writers today—too many of them are being bled of their savings by "low-resident" MFA programs instead of hoping tramp steamers and living out of their bus in Oaxaca. Getting your @!$%# kicked will give you something to paint. Eggers, for his part, has always "earned" his stories.
Butki: I know the James Frey fabrication issue has been done to death but your statement brought him to mind, not only because if he had such a statement he might not have run into such problems. What is your take on memoirists who exaggerate or fabricate?
Tinley: Frey would likely be excused, as you note, if he had framed his story as a melding of fact and fiction. But then he wouldn't have been able to sell it either. What mainstream readers want (and publishers know) is the fantastical represented as real. It takes on the form of pseudo-myth. And in a dearth of authentic heroes, popular culture has allowed and contributed to the manufacturing of hero-types. The public (aided by Oprah) projected into Frey's text because they want to see people screw up and then make good.
While Frey clearly crossed the line he is not the first nor the last. Memoirs by default are subconscious efforts to meld the ideal ego with the ego ideal. Most memoirists don't even know when they're embellishing. The more important question might be how do we, as a society hungry for great tales of survivorship, continue to blind ourselves to what heroism is left hiding in the rents and seams of our world? How can we feel heroic while making dinner for a sick friend? How do we look beyond the hegemonic message that states, "based on a real story" and realize the translation is that it's more than 50% fabricated?
Butki: Also, what is the biggest misconception about you?
Tinley: I have no idea. But I always get a laugh when I hear for the 900th time, "You look bigger on TV." I'm sure there's some metaphorical reference there but by now it's just funny. Everybody looks bigger on the little screen, even Tom Cruise at 5' 5".
Butki: No offense but the last person I'd expect to see writing a blurb on the back of your book is X-Files creator Chris Carter. What's the connection between you two?
Tinley: Chris is a friend, a brilliant writer and deeply understated. We surf together and talk of literary things. I think he's been typecast as the "X-Files dude" but Carter retains some eclectic and interesting talents. Before he started in television he used to throw pottery for a living. When I grow up I want to make vases and pots like Chris and sell them at the Farmer's Market in Laguna Beach, California on Sunday mornings.
(More information about the book is available at Tinley's site)

I first wanted to provide two examples of his writing style, both from a piece he wrote about having skin cancer:
This wasn't by-choice surgery. My choice had been to play outside in the sun, all my life, mostly without a hat. Now, this was my price, no-free-lunch and all that. It wouldn't kill me but I could end up looking, well… cut and pasted, bio-photoshopped.
The cultural ideology of youth-centrism is pervasive, a billion dollar industry. The myth of immortality has become its own political economy. Kids who've never heard of The Who don't necessarily want to die before they get old. But they might consider death before looking older.
Okay, on with the interview:
Scott Butki: Is that you on the cover with your son? Or your father with you?
Tinley: That's my dad rowing, me as first mate, early '60s, somewhere in the mountains above Southern California.
Butki: You end your preface with this statement: "Survivors get to suck the marrow, to know that as they die they will not discover that they had not lived." Can you elaborate on that thought?
Tinley: It's a distant paraphrase from a section in Thoreau's Walden. The worst deaths I've seen are with people who aren't ready to go, who feel that they haven't really lived. But people who've survived, vets in particular, count every day as a bonus and are happy to have been given what they were.
Butki: Your piece about your skin cancer really hit close to me, with my dad dying of complications from skin cancer. When did you write this one? Has the skin cancer returned? Has the experience changed what you tell others about skin cancer prevention? Was this written to help you deal with what happen or to warn others or a little bit of both?
Tinley: I wrote that in 1999. I've been hacked up a number of times but only for basal cell carcinomas. That last episode was tough because they really did take the tip of my nose. And I thought about the cosmetic surgery "industry" for a long time. I'm still out in the sun every day but I look like kabuki theater with my white zinc. As for warning others... naw, that kind of thing can't be taught, only experienced.
Butki: I have heard breast augmentation compared to many things but you're the first to make me think of jellyfish. This excerpt is from that story.
I may have appreciated the outline, if not the sculpture of augmented breasts (you really can't say, "fake tits" anymore), but when I felt them, I was taken back to my days on the beach, shoveling jelly fish into plastic bags to clear the volleyball court. (I can hear the collective sneer of men everywhere.)
Tinley: If you pick up a white jelly fish and put it in a plastic bag it feels very similar to the product inserted into augmented breasts. Not very erotic but descriptive for my narrative purposes.
Butki: "Life Be Proud" is the most moving tribute I've read to a dead pet in year, especially this part:
Dog knew she was dying a full day before she laid down on the back deck in the sun, careful to lay her head facing away from the house so that the kids wouldn't have to see her before my wife came home and covered her up.
The morning she died, she had the saddest look of any living creature I've ever seen. Her eyes were trying to capture us, pull us inside of her so that we could see the damage and pain of the poison; the way it might've been eating her alive, one organ at a time. It was a soundless scream for help, 'I'd love to go running with you, dad, but I'm dying and it hurts like hell. You go ahead.'
Butki: How hard was that to write? And why did your dog call you "dad"?
Tinley: I started writing that piece soon after my dog died. As with all the pieces, both real and imagined, yes, it helped me to make sense of the tragedy. I hadn't realized the Freudian slip with my dying dog calling me dad. That's pretty obvious now.
Butki: You almost made me cry with your piece about the death of your father. First, can you tell me about the choice of the title: "In the Name of Our Fathers"? The part that moved me the most was this passage:
"One day, when the moment was right, I told my son that my dad would have really liked him, that he might have become a hero to my father. Nine years old, he turned to me and held my shoulders between his little hands, just like I was supposed to hold his, and said, "Yeah but Dad, I bet you were kinda like his hero too."
Butki: This piece I wrote about my dad will help explain why this moved me so.
Tinley: Your piece is strong. Thanks. The name has obvious biblical references but it also says something to our use of a father's name in order to carry on a legacy. Sometimes fathers will name their kids after them, Junior, but that's not the same as honoring a son or a grandson with the name of a great man. There is an implied responsibility there as well. And I'm not sure that it's fair to ask kids to live up to it.
Butki: "Centering Your Self" is so good that as I was reading it I was making plans to ask others to read and to read parts of it at an open mic nite. What was the inspiration for this piece?
Tinley: I used to watch that sad wisdom of compromise when my kids played soccer with the neuvo-riche, the way the moms in particular seemed so hungry for something authentic. It wasn't Stepfordian but pathetic in a very disturbing way. It reminded me of the Janis Ian song, 'At Seventeen,' when she talks about those 'who married young and then retired.'
Butki: Is there anything you would like to add to this excerpt (below) from "Centering Your Self."
You hold out hope that there must be a wheel's hub somewhere from which you can begin to attach stainless steel spokes; wires, roads, people and maps of truth; red bricks, yellow bricks, dirt and rocks that won't crumble in your hand, a compass with characters; ladders, handles, lovers… life
No. It's not easy being you after you have been you.
All you want is a path that begins at the center. That's all, just a place to move out from, like a drop of blue/green paint on a spin art canvas. Like those concentric circles flowing from that skeptic rock thrown in a deeper pond; a wide open horizonless sea.
That's all.
Tinley: Writing in the second person like that is risky. Parts of that piece work when I can really connect with the feminine mystique. But other parts are too thick. I don't know, I wrote it like I'd imagine a women going out and knowing that she was applying too much rouge but didn't really care because even though she'd look better without it, she had lost control of what she says in the mirror and couldn't even find a towel to wipe it off.
Butki: I'm also going to excerpt this section from "In Search Of the Last Hippy, Approximately."
To think about resistance is to think about acceptance. Not for sale or selling out. Everything is true and nothing is true. And quantum physics never did get you that four-bedroom, three-bath in the burbs. War is hell but heaven has left earth, left the building with Elvis. What we have now is an Ipod zeitgeist, Rollerball come true, Vacuum Vile. Everything is gone but the uncertainty of some goodness. Free love replaced with free downloads, nothing but rising temps and falling forests, endangered species replaced by pocket-pets. I don't want to live in an air-conditioned world and I'll never learn to speak English. I'd gone to a friend's funeral but a lot more has passed.
Can you explain to the reader what brought this story about? Your use of language is very impressive.
Tinley: It's the basic dialectic where the truth of something is found in its opposite. I'd been reading Baudrillard and Camus and Tim O'Brien and I was striving for hope in cynicism. It's essentially a true piece where I'd attended a memorial ceremony for a friend in Berkeley and after awhile I just wandered down Telegraph Ave. looking for a beer and wondering what had happened to all that I had dreamed of in the '60s and geez, here was this great guy with six kids and a good wife and he'd died standing in line at the post office. His heart just blew up. He was in great shape, a brilliant runner and philanthropist who was doing good things for the earth. And now he was part of it.
Butki: And this part from the story is hilarious but oh so true. It reminds me of the time I left a copy of Fast Food Nation at McDonalds, my own tiny protest:
Walking back up the avenue, I was compelled to revolt at the repulsion, disgusted that I was still unable to distinguish the peace agents from the sales agent, unable to speak out against the slick genocide with a Jeffersonian air and plane old Grace. The best I could do was jaywalk into a Starbucks and take a piss without buying anything at all.
I miss the obvious ambiguity of the war.
Tinley: I actually think that as far as multinationals go, Starbucks is doing some good things. I probably should've picked on Exxon or Shell.
Butki: What are you working on next?
Tinley: I'm sitting on a completed novel about a vet who returns from war and wanders the Southwest trying to make sense of his experiences but ends up having more of an effect on those he meets that they on him. It's a long character-driven tome, very ambitious with lots of challenging narrative vehicles. I started it before 9/11/01 and it's become so relevant I'm afraid it will become cliché before it's even published. Besides that I'm working on something semi-academic - how American sports explains our country's current state of affairs.
Thanks so much for your time.
Was my pleasure, Scott. Thanks for all your support. Best of luck.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

An Interview With Jo Scott-Coe, Author of Teacher at Point Blank: Confronting Sexuality, Violence, and Secrets in a Suburban School

Article first published as An Interview With Jo Scott-Coe, Author of Teacher at Point Blank: Confronting Sexuality, Violence, and Secrets in a Suburban School on Blogcritics.
When I heard Obama talk about education during his State of the Union speech I immediately thought of two things: The local school districts here in Texas and Jo Scott-Coe's Teacher at Point Blank: Confronting Sexuality, Violence, and Secrets in a Suburban School. Why? On the news right before I heard the speech I was listening to analysis of the latest reports of layoffs in school districts in Texas, where I live. So while Obama was encouraging people to become teachers, local teachers (not to mention librarians and others) were getting layoffs.
And this book? This book spells out some of the reasons why the government needs to do more than just encourage more people to apply to become teachers — it needs to start making some major changes. Some of the programs put in place by the government, be it No Child Left Behind or, more recently, Race To The Top, are leading to new problems and headaches for teachers.
I could write about my own experiences going from education reporter to educator watching decorated teachers (one of whom was supposed to continue serving as my mentor) leave the profession in frustration. However, this is not a memoir piece, but an interview so let's just say simply that this is one issue where I know of what I speak.
Prior to his speech I was planning an introduction like this: Ever wonder what it would be like to be a high school teacher? Let's take that idea one step further: What would it be like to teach high school at the very same high school you attended yourself as a student? Ever wonder how female teachers are treated? Or what is like to actually teach with all the demands for more accountability as a result of programs like No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top?
After Obama's speech I decided to switch gears, add a question or two and this is what I came up with.
Let me just make one final remark before switching to this interview itself: This book was a hard read for me and I'm hoping it will be a tough read for others too. Let me explain — I don't mean the book is somehow flawed but that rather, as with a good documentary, the author is truth-telling, exposing lies, exploding myths and making the reader at times as uncomfortable as she must have felt. After reading it — heck, before I even finished it — I bought copies of it for two people to say, essentially, "You want to know why I decided not to stick with teaching? This tells some of those reasons."
Jo and I attended the same high school so when she describes what it was like to return to teaching there that was a bit surreal. So surely some parts of this were harder for me to read — and her to write — because of that.
But as she explains in the interview, she intentionally included deeply uncomfortable parts of the story. If you're looking for a simple book that will offer you the usual inspirational clichés about how or why to become a teacher, well, let's just say this is not that book. But if you want to read about one teacher's experience in unflinching terms, by a person who eloquently describes her frustrations with a flawed system you yourself may have participated in — as a student, a parent, or a teacher — then this is the book for you.
Let's start by talking about Obama's speech.
Scott: I feel obliged to add a follow up question after watching the State of the Union speech and hearing his comments about public education and thus thinking of you and your book. What is your reaction to his comments? I'm guessing you liked his focus on giving more respect to teachers, understanding families need to be accountable too but less happy about his support for race to the top.
Jo: I'm not quite sure how Obama could say we value open-ended, thoughtful questions for American students and then, with a straight face, praise Race to the Top policy, which puts primary (and punitive) value on Scantron, multiple-choice test measures of "success" for kids, faculty, and schools. This was a serious disconnect. But to be honest, I absolutely expected him to say something like that. Obama's comments merely reflect the wider dysfunction of our nationwide conversation about education. He didn't invent it.
Did you see the popular Waiting For Superman documentary? What did you think of it?
Yes, I saw Waiting for Superman the first week it came out. Without doing an in depth critique, I would highlight one key problem. Unions don't recruit, hire, or evaluate teachers — whether effective, ineffective, or middlin' — and the movie seems to operate under the fallacy that contracts and due-process for professional educators hurt kids. But when district administrators and principals hire teachers "on the fly" and do annual 15 minute drive-by evaluations, the system becomes a joke. The film ignores this reality. You want serious evaluation reform? Involve teachers in evaluation of their colleagues--and bring teachers into evaluation of administrators.
The publicity that came with the mailing of your book describes it as "remarkably candid and profoundly unsettling" and that sums it up for me though I think I found it extra difficult to read because 1) this was/is my school we're talking about and 2) it reminded me of problems I had teaching and student teaching. Was it hard to decide how candid to make it, how disturbing and unsettling to make it?
At times I was physically ill during the writing process. This wasn't because I was making anything disturbing, but because I had to picture and actually relive things that were dark not only in my experiences with other people but inside my own emotional landscape. Writing about some memories can transport one back to those situations, and that feels naked and painful. But if you're going to "go there," you have to let the pain in to transcend it. I kept thinking about other people I knew who felt alone or disrespected in their work as teachers or their lives as students. What kept me going when I was discouraged were the stories I'd remember from colleagues, family members, students, or virtual strangers I'd read about or had interviewed. Teaching is a human situation, and I wish that it were something we could speak freely about, without needing to whisper, hide, or feel like we're breaking dark secrets — as if in an alcoholic family.
You set the tone early on saying on page 10, for example, how common "hiding the trouble" occurs. Do you think that's always been a problem or is this relatively new? Why do you think it's happening? Is it a structural issue or a response to legal threats?
It's both. Teachers are expected to be magic people, to some extent, and this can turn into a fetish. That means even if something unreasonable is going on — whether it's physical danger, or just a person who's completed less than half the work complaining about a low grade — it can be tempting for the teacher to take on responsibility for everything. This is also a gendered response for many women, and 8 out of 10 teachers are female in K-12. If you pretend that things are fine, maybe the trouble will go away. This doesn't work, of course. Yet whether they're male or female, teachers can experience that denial deeply if there's no backup from their bosses, and if there's no counseling support for students who may need some help other than with academics. (Student-to-counselor ratios across the country are obscenely high, and in California they average over 800 to 1.)
Principals, likewise, can have their hands tied by district offices who fear litigious, wealthy, or influential parents. A key to the whole "hiding the trouble" idea, I think, is this dynamic of fear and suspicion. If you hesitate too much when playing football, you're likely to get injured. Likewise, if you learn not to trust your judgment in teaching, you hesitate too often and may very well simply pass damage forward.
I notice, from your Facebook account, you're still - after leaving high school teaching - following the news and debates about public high schools. Where do you see things headed? Will No Child Left Behind eventually be discarded or changed? Is there something to the argument which I'd hear when I was going into teaching that "teaching to the test isn't necesarily a bad thing because if the test is good then it's a way to ensure they're learning the right things."
Race to the Top is like No Child Left Behind on crack. It's added a competitive element to the "test and punish" policies established by NCLB. It's not assessment that's the problem, in and of itself. Teachers are assessing all the time. Students get feedback and grades in their classes. But now we give annual tests to every child and count them all as "high stakes" for school funding and school "rankings" that influence real estate values and even business investments in communities. We've started to worship and live by some very isolated data points.
Data mining has become a lucrative industry, too. Most of these tests which give us this "sacred" data are Scantron, bubble-the-answer. Not only does this reduce the depth and quality of conversation teachers and students can have in a classroom, but the tests themselves become predatory: unregulated test companies are guaranteed public funds every year because testing is required. It seems like an incredible hedge fund scam, a bet on failure that mostly ensures more need for testing. Lower income kids get more worksheets to prepare for more testing. It's crazy.
By the way, I'd distinguish predatory testing from pre-tests given by qualified faculty to find out what their kids know. It's also not the same thing as comprehensive narrative feedback on student progress, as is used in Finland (a country whose education system we seem to envy). And predatory tests are NOT equivalent to diagnostic testing geared to check for reading, language acquisition level, or learning disabilities. Predatory testing is NOT testing as a learning tool, but testing as a public policy bludgeon and a money-maker.

Was the fact that your/my/our school was so well regarded that some might not think such problems could happen there... was that part of what made this so difficult?
Yes and no. People are often relieved by someone speaking up about things that they already realize. It diffuses the "gaslighting" or crazymaking phenomenon. But as a wise friend also told me, I'm well aware that plenty of people who've survived years of attending or working in schools may have also made extensive efforts NOT to think about some of the themes and subjects I take on in the book. Perhaps they aren't my audience at the moment. Maybe they will be later.
Did you go out of your way to avoid naming the high school in question? Has the school responded in any way to your book or articles about it?
Something I discovered in talking with teachers and in research was that my setting wasn't so unique. The patterns are actually more important than the specific identity of the school, and violence and sexuality seem to be two areas where Americans like to avoid or deny patterns. So yes, I took a great deal of care to render the setting specific without naming it. The idea is for people to see themselves in the setting. There's been no institutional response to my book, and I certainly don't expect one. I have heard from individuals — former colleagues and new readers, former students, people who have said, "That happened to me!" Mostly, the response has been appreciative for witnessing. Opening up a wider conversation was my idea.
How much did the school change between when we attended it together and when you left, both in terms of construction and maintenance changes (you allude, for example, to the bathrooms being improved for students but not for faculty) and in other ways?
The biggest change has been an overemphasis on Scantron testing for students — which in turn starts to strangle and confine the ways faculty can approach classroom work, what kind of teaching tends to garner praise, and over time, how students view the purpose of school and define "learning." Like many schools, the population of our former school has grown enormously, now at nearly 3,000 kids. A larger percentage come from low-income or immigrant families, and some of the latter have very specific language needs.
Recently expanded facilities have been necessary to accommodate kids and faculty who had been previously relegated to trailers out on the back field. That's not uncommon in both suburban and urban schools. But once that painting job, or construction job, gets finished, two or three generations of kids will have to pass through the facilities before things get attended to, repaired, or built again. Unless you're in a very unique school or district, the "new" working environments deteriorate quickly as schools grow.
On page 41 - as well as later in the book - you list incidents where teachers catch flak from administrators and parents. I had trouble telling how many of those were incidents that happened at your school and how many things you heard about in general or read in the news. Did you start, at some point, just writing down incidents like that or did you recall them all when you started the book? That brings up another question, were you considering writing this before you actually leaving the high school?
That was the idea. The blur between settings, between my own experiences and the experiences of other people, became overwhelming in the early stages of writing and research — and even before that. If you did a Google search on "professional development" or "teacher blogs" right now, you might be shocked to see how hungry teachers are for a place to speak about their real-life experiences, and how much overlap there is between what they're reporting on and concerned about. I was very mindful from the very beginning that teachers tend to talk mostly to each other, and the real need is for a discourse that reaches beyond the teacher conversation and gets some of this reality out beyond the classroom walls.
You noticed, I'm sure, that I did leave my job to take time for writing and reflecting on these things. That's really important, actually. Despite all the blab about tenure as guaranteeing a "job for life," many teachers are fearful of speaking on the record in public about what they witness because they fear punishment on the job and unions don't get involved.
Last month, I read When Teachers Talk, Rosalyn Schnall's comprehensive survey of teachers in Chicago, and it didn't surprise me how many of the voices were telling stories that repeated or paralleled material in my book, which was a twinkle in my eye in 2000 and was mostly finished by late 2005. Teachers need to share their stories outside teacher circles and in the mainstream. That's incredibly difficult in our culture, and that challenge weighed on me from the beginning of the whole process.
You speak quite frankly about your parents in this book. Do you think they were an influence in your decision to become a teacher? Both were teachers at some point, right?
Yes, both my parents taught — in and outside the home, formally and informally. They were also active in civic life and cared about politics. I am grateful every day for the organic emphasis in our home on books and ideas, on the arts and music. My family wasn't well off financially, but my sister and I learned very early that reading and writing were dynamic and valuable skills. We also learned that people matter. Whatever troubles I can see now in my family system, these lessons I wouldn't trade. I'm grateful for all my parents gave me.
The statistics about teachers leaving the profession are pretty damning. I remember being told, whole in a one-year masters program for aspiring teachers, that few of us would last more than ten years and then having two mentor teachers leave the profession while I was still in the process of student teaching with them. So two questions: was one reason you wrote this book to explain why so many teachers are leaving? Do you see that flood of experienced teachers leaving changing anytime soon?
While there's high turnover in education when compared to other professional fields, the reasons are complex. I've heard college counselors direct low-achieving students into the teaching field because "it's an easy job" or "kids are totally fun all the time" or because "the schedule is cake." Unbelievable, out-of-touch, disrespectful myths. So sometimes people who sign up to teach for these reasons get a taste of reality and leave. But some people leave later because of what I mentioned in response to a previous question--they get tired of self-censoring and pretending. It can take a serious toll on your mental well-being, your physical health, and your family. High scrutiny and high expectations can ruin morale when people don't really see or understand what's required in the job you do. And that's true even for teachers who stay. We tend to forget about that part.
Now the hard follow-up question: what changes need to be made to fix these problems?
We need to stop with the "managed care" model of instruction where teachers have less and less say about how to educate their specific students while third-party entities run the show, make money, and point fingers. (We've seen how this model deeply eroded doctor-patient relations and health care in our country.) Union protections for teacher labor through contracts and due process have to be maintained, and rank-and-file faculty need to gain a comprehensive, thoughtful role in colleague evaluation as well as administrative evaluations.
We've got to stop ignoring experienced teachers, who are incredible resources of institutional memory and mentorship in schools, and smart voices from rank-and-file faculty need a serious place at the policy table. We need to talk about "student safety" and "teacher safety" in the same sentence. Finally, if bazillionaires want to help kids, I say pay attention to well-established research on books and reading — build, rebuild, and invest money in public libraries that give poor kids access to rich print and media environments, including magazines, hard copy books, newspapers, films, computer news databases, just everything. And NO strings attached.
Did this start as a series of essays and then turn into a book or was it always a plan for this to become a book?
I started with the idea of a whole book and as I worked on it, the form evolved. It helped to work with a lot of writers who were interested not only in stories for their academic significance but for the excruciating beauty of words. I also drew on a lot of inspirations — music from The Kinks, Portishead, The Pretenders, The Clash; writers and thinkers such as Margaret Atwood, Ai, Jamacia Kincaid, Cornel West, Joan Didion, Tillie Olsen, Richard Rodriguez. And of course Johnny Cusack's films were a reservoir of encouragement. I really wanted to write a book that could locate hope, even humor, in the passage through darkness — generating questions and raising a little friendly hell, too.
What are your future plans? More books? Staying at the community college?
More writing, absolutely. Stories help people stay alive, connect with each other, remember why they might want to move forward. I love the community college because students choose to be there. That consensual element makes an incredible difference in the classroom situation, even if the students are starting at a lower level and need to catch up. The community college is a vibrant setting where people get second chances.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Review: The Train To Crystal City

The Train To Crystal City by Jan Jarboe Russell is a fascinating, engaging, sobering look at a military project few know about that took place in Crystal City, Texas and, to this day, the U.S. government hasn’t admitted parts of it.
I’d heard the author do a presentation on the book during the Texas Book Festival about, I think, two years ago. Among those at the session were folks from Texas, including, if memory serves, some from Crystal City, who remember trains going to Crystal City but not knowing until reading her book what really went on there.
I suspect many Americans are like me in that a) Internment camps during World War II are given short shrift in history books and b) what is shared is about Japanese-Americans who were forced to stay in these camps solely based on race.  My visits to Manzanar in California reinforced that personal belief.
But what happened in Crystal City is much worse:  In addition to Japanese-Americans being sent there so were German-Americans as well as some Italians.  The book does an amazing job – through various sources cited – of talking about what life was like day to day in this camp where these different ethnic groups were forced to co-exist.
Once FDR made the decision to open this camp law enforcement began grabbing men, many of them who were listed in FBI Director Hoover’s files, and sending them to camps. Some would go first alone to one camp alone then would be shipped to Crystal City so they can be with the rest of their family.
All of us at a book discussion Sunday were horrified to learn that not only did authorities send specific Japanese Americans from around America to the camp but many Latin America nations sent some Japanese and German and Italians to the camps as well.
As you might imagine, there were many rifts at different levels at the camp. For example, there was an American school, which is where the Americans wanted students to go but there were also special schools for Germans and Japanese schools too.
The book details one point well remembered from those who wrote or talked to the author about life there: A prom. The camp wanted teenagers to attend a regular old fashioned American prom and many of the teens wanted to go. But the Japanese elders said, essentially, no moral Japanese woman would dance. And the generation gap – as well as some culture gaps grew. Some Japanese teens did attend to the horror of their teachers and families.
This camp also had prisoner exchanges. That fact led some to think that those held in the internment camps were more dangerous than those at other camp, which was not the case.
The prisoner exchanges were as fascinating as they were horrifying. In addition to the transfers of actual war prisoners German Americans and Japanese Americans who had never been to their nationalities homeland were given the chance to do so. What they didn’t know, because they were not provided with news there, was just how bad things were in their homelands. Thus some of the Germans who moved to Germany arrived after the U.S. had discovered the concentration camps and the war was pretty much over. Similarly, some of the Japanese arrived in Japan after the bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The closest thing to a hero in the book was Eleanor Roosevelt. This book made me want to read more on her as well as more about Nuremberg. Eleanor was vocal in her opposition to the internment camps, including the one in Crystal City, even after her husband, you know, the president, had told her to quit it. That she kept talking about it impresses the heck out of me.
The final part of the book brings the reader up to speed on what has happened since the camp was closed. Namely the U.S. government did admit, in 1988, it was wrong to hold Japanese in internment camps and gave reparations of $20,000 to each camp survivor.
If you travel to Crystal City, as I considered doing while reading this moving book, most evidence of the camp is gone. There IS a historical marker but it only mentions that Japanese were held there.
All these years later German-Americans, including survivors, are still pushing the federal government to admit they were held too. They’ve told the government: we’re not even asking for money, just admit what you did. As recently as with President Obama they made that request and continue to be denied.
The book was a reminder of many things, such as how if you look into any area of history you will find horrific stories you didn’t know about. Or about how there are American leaders who at first opposed these camps but later worked on them, for the same reasons given by German leaders in Nuremberg, namely: I was only following orders.
So while many folks I know have been learning about Vietnam in recent days, via the PBS series, I’ve been learning about this particularly ugly chapter in World War II. I hope this review will pique your interest and that the U.S. government will, one day, admit what it did to Germans.