debbie harry in the telegraph, debbie harry at the supermarket, debbie harry at glastonbury, debbie harry eveywhere



Frankly, any post which allows me to use a picture of Debbie Harry is a good thing. But meeting Debbie Harry, asking questions of Debbie Harry and then getting to write about Debbie Harry is an even better thing. I spoke to her a few weeks ago, for the Telegraph, and you can read the interview here. This is also a good moment to flag up Wayne Koestenbaum’s predictably delicious essay on her, included in his collection My 1980s, which you’ll recognise by her Warhol-shot face on the cover. “Debbie Harry at the Supermarket”, excerpted in the New Yorker here, includes the greatest, most overblown and sublimity-seeking description of someone’s walk that I’ve ever read.

Her measured equilibrium led me to believe that she had undergone revolutions of belief and doubt, that she had passed through perils in this lifetime (if we are in the mood to believe in reincarnation, and tonight we are in the mood); she had found a peculiar restfulness, and it was her business to express this illumination to passersby on Twenty-Third Street. I elected the contemporary Deborah Harry as my neighborhood epitome of numinous attainment, achieved not by beauty or fame but by the fact that she had survived those eviscerating lures. Fame and beauty remained her possessions, but she ignored them, as she walked to Sloan’s—which now is Gristedes—and waited in line to buy her daily groceries.


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a conversation about music, music journalism and gender



Back in November Jenessa Williams, a music journalism student at the University of Huddersfield, interviewed me for her thesis on gender. It was so good to talk about these things. And I realise these sorts of things make me swear a lot. She kindly sent me the transcript of our conversation.

How did you first get into music journalism?

I guess it began at university. In my first year I was doing a lot of student drama, just because lots of the people I was around at the time were doing it too, so I was kind of swept up in it. I realized I wasn’t very good and by the end of my second year I started getting involved in Varsity [Cambridge University’s student paper]. I had that sense of, oh, these are my people. It’s so cheesy, but I just felt really galvanized and excited. I felt like I was surrounded by people who were a lot smarter than me, a lot more ambitious than me, a lot more talented than me, and that’s invaluable. It spurs you on and makes you pull yourself up. I actually started doing theatre journalism –  I didn’t do so much music stuff to start with, I think because I felt like you had to know everything and have an encyclopedic knowledge of rock and pop to write anything. And of course that’s unobtainable. I mean, I do know people who seem to have it, but it’s one of those things that builds up over years and it’s only one part of being a good critic. I think you have an obligation to be as informed as you possibly can be, but being a good critic goes across genres. It’s about being thoughtful and interrogating the material. But anyway, I was listening to more music than I ever had – I think a lot of people at university experience this when there’s so many people telling you about bands and exciting new music, it’s how a lot of those relationships form, people bond over music. I just got more and more into it, I just wanted to fit it all together to know what sound came from where and how everything informed everything else. I remember there was this book that the magazine The Wire put out called ‘Undercurrents: The Wiring of Modern Music’, which I read when I was maybe 21, 22, and that was so thrilling to me, to read writing about music that was that intelligent, going in so deep.

It’s really interesting actually to hear somebody coming about it from the academic approach straight away, because lots of people I know kind of got into music journalism just on a very basic level of “I like music, I like writing, lets put the two together.”

Oh I don’t want to sound like a knob, I wouldn’t claim that I was going about it academically! – As well as poncy shit by The Wire  I was reading newspaper music journalism and Pitchfork, like everyone else. But yeah, this is one of the things that excites me about music, you can intellectualize it but at the same time it’s just sound. It’s completely valid to just treat it as something to dance to. I love listening to and writing about pop.

What is your favourite type of music to write about? Are there any particular genres or specific bands that appeal to you?

I’m interested in interesting music, and that can be anything. One thing I’ve thought about a lot over the past year or so is the pleasure of writing about music that I don’t find sonically interesting…like Lady Gaga, for example, her music doesn’t do anything for me but I’m fascinated by the cultural phenomena that surround her, or surrounded her. I find that sort of thing interesting in terms of figuring out what we are investing in these figures and what they are reflecting back to us. I end of writing a lot about quite mainstream pop for the Observer, but I think my tastes are becoming weirder. I’ve been listening to this cult Australian band called The Necks, I listen to William Basinski all the time, he’s my absolute favourite. Recently, I’ve been on a Mulatu Astatke bender. He pioneered Ethio-jazz, I found him through Nicolas Jaar who’s one of my favourite current musicians. But the stuff I like to write about…it’s sometimes easier to write about stuff you have less emotional investment in. I think I would find it impossible to write about William Basinski, for example, because I’m so floored by it. It’s kind of beyond intellectualization or putting into words. But I loved writing about Miley Cyrus because she’s fascinating. I am a Miley Cyrus fan, it’s not like a condescending peering down my monocle fascination, I love her. But just not in the same way as William Basinski.

What is it about Miley Cyrus that you like?

Well in part it’s sort of the cultural thing, but she has also just has fucking great tunes. I think the video for We Can’t Stop is extraordinary, one of the best videos of the year. The thing about Miley for me is that she just looks like she is having more fun that anyone else. There is something very real and compelling about her sexuality that I think is glorious. I just think she’s amazing.

That’s very refreshing to hear when the news media is very much taking the approach of  “Miley please put some clothes on.”

I can talk about this for a long time so please shut me up at some point, but that pissed me off so much. The furore over Miley Cyrus naked on a wrecking ball just summarises the fuckedup-ness of particularly British but also American cultural standards, that toxic mix of prurience and prudishness. That whole argument was predicated on this incredibly insidious belief that sexuality is inherently compromising for women, and on some levels even shameful, which is an incredibly sexist attitude. It’s one promulgated by women too, which you can see in that pseudo-motherly approach by Sinead O’Connor. Its infuriating. I don’t think Miley’s responses about mental illness were cool, but I can understand her being really fucked off, because it’s this refusal to grant a young woman sexual agency. Wherever you go, people are frightened by female sexuality; it’s the same old thing.  People can’t cope with the idea that a very young woman might want to be naked on a wrecking ball and enjoy it. That might have been her decision. I’m sure its still the case that lots of women working on major labels and particularly in mainstream pop are coerced into shedding clothes, but it still infuriates me that we are denying these people agency, I can’t stand it. I’ve never watched a One Direction video so I don’t know if they get shirtless, but nobody would fret if Harry Styles took his clothes off. It just perpetuates the idea that men dictate and control sexiness, that it is something women have to be careful of and worry about. It perpetuates the victimization narrative – Miley is not a victim.

The Miley Cyrus example is a really good one for this – do you think maybe female journalists are making this whole sexism issue worse? Because most of the articles I’ve read that are particularly outraged by her do seem to be written by women who want to criticize other women for being “bad” feminists.

I find that whole judging other women’s feminism really wearisome. It does not help us. Let’s just stop doing that. I can understand there being a lot of women writing with passion and fury because stuff is fucked up – I’m not denying how problematic double standards and all those things are in music and pop are – but if I start calling out women on calling out Miley Cyrus, we’re in a vicious cycle of not quite slut-shaming, but feminist-credential-policing. Which is so stupid. I just read an Ellen Willis line about that – the way in which an oppressed group are made to turn on each other. Here’s the line: “To realise other women are not the enemy. To understand as a gut reality the phenomenon of rulers setting the ruled against each other.”

Based on your own experiences working for quite a few different publications, what do you make of the assertion that there are less women than men in music journalism, do you think this holds true?

I don’t know the numbers, but no, I feel like it’s not true. It’s far, far more problematic in literary journalism – I don’t know if you’ve heard of this organization called VIDA, they go through literary publications and tally the male bylines versus female and it’s incredibly depressing, you’d think that half of the population with double X chromosomes were illiterate. So often I scan down the New Yorker, or the New York Review of Books content page and go, “dude, dude, dude, dude, dude, dude, woman, dude, dude, dude, dude.” But for music journalism…I feel as though it was the case in the 70s and 80s, maybe even the 90s, but now I don’t think it is. The Observer’s music critic is female – the wonderful Kitty Empire who I was privileged to work with – and I can name all sorts of prominent women in British music journalism, probably people you’ve been speaking to – Laura Snapes and Lucy Jones, they’re both great. And here in the US, Jessica Hopper, Sara Marcus, Amanda Petrusich, Lindsay Zoladz, Carrie Battan, Emilie Friedlander. So I don’t think it is true. I think hip hop is an interesting area. It’s interesting to me because hip hop in the US is a much stronger cultural force than it is in the UK. But then I do read women who write about hip hop – Ayesha Siddiqi, for example, who’s written great things about Kanye, she’s incredibly astute about the intersections of race and gender and pop culture.

I’m wondering if that assertion has come from the way that men and women talk about music. I’m so wary about making gendered statements because it bothers me how gendered our culture is, but it does seem to me, based on a non-scientific, non-sociological study of my personal experience, that when men talk about music, it’s about how much they know, it’s a oneupmanship. This is the same as when you see men bantering with each other, it’s a trying to out-do each other. By contrast, women seek consensus and are genuinely more interested in what each other think. It’s only in the last couple of years that male friends of mine have actually started asking me what I think of music, rather than just telling me what they think. And in fact, here’s a little anecdote. I ran into a friend’s ex-boyfriend at my yoga studio. I’d only met him once or twice. As we were on and off chatting I got an email through asking me to review the Jay Z record that day so I made my excuses and explained that I had an editor asking me about the Jay Z album. And then! : This guy just starts mansplaining Jay Z to me. It was extraordinary. He’s not a music journalist, he doesn’t work in music, he doesn’t make music, he doesn’t write about music. He was trying to educate me about Jay Z. I thought, this is amazing. And then I just kind of mentally wrote him off as a human.

That’s interesting because that sort of thing happens to me a lot. Like you’ll be sat talking about the albums of the year, and you’ll say something like “Arctic Monkeys was my favourite album” and the guy will turn to you and say “I liked them so much better when they were recording with so and so and making guitar sounds like this” and it’s a little odd.

Oh shit, it’s all coming out now; you’re reminding me of another incident. This was when I was with my ex-boyfriend and we had friends round, these two guys my age who I really love. They’re journalists who write about music, and they were talking about the Solange song “Losing You” and the Sky Ferreira song “Everything is Embarrassing” and one of them says “oh, they kind of sound the same don’t they.” I point out that that’s because they’re both produced by Dev Hynes, and they just don’t hear me. I say it again and they don’t hear me, but then two minutes later one of them goes “Oh, it’s because it’s produced by Dev Hynes” and then they all chat about that. Do you remember that Smack The Pony sketch at the board meeting where a woman says something and no-one hears until a man repeats it? It’s basically that. It is kind of funny, but oh my god it’s also infuriating.

Especially when – not that you’re trying to lord yourself over anyone – but you’re the professional.

Exactly. It can be hard to get heard.

Do you think there are any aspects of music journalism as a career that would seem off-putting to women? Lots of the academic research suggests that some venues are unappealing to young women in their inherent manliness.

That’s interesting. I mean, I love being in a big sweaty roiling crowd with my ears hurting, I don’t think that’s necessarily a gendered thing. But I have had so many experiences of being at concerts and shows where I realise shit, there’s only like three women in the room. I remember seeing Battles in LA and I genuinely couldn’t see another woman there. Which is crazy. So many times at 285 Kent I’ve been there at 1am in the morning and looked round to realise it was about 90% dudes. I don’t know why that is, I can’t work it out.

Lots of the books pointed out that it’s sometimes a parental influence on young girls – parents not wanting them to stay out late, and rock gigs traditionally don’t finish any earlier than 11.

Oh, interesting. I was very lucky in that I have ridiculously, wonderfully liberal parents, who didn’t mind whatever I did, they were kind of pro-sex and drugs and rock n roll really.

Have you ever experienced any other instances of sexism in the workplace or felt as if your gender has affected the kind of stories you’ve been assigned?

I think the professional sexism I’ve experienced has mostly been outside the workplace, and it’s all been a kind of unthinking, insidious sexism from friends, like we spoke about earlier. I’ve been lucky to work at a very liberal and enlightened newspaper that I really love – I think there are at least as many women working at the Guardian and the Observer as there are men. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced sexism at work, I always felt like I’m in a really great place when it comes to that sort of thing. People are just aware of it there, it’s a constant awareness. Before that though I worked at a current affairs start-up website, and there were a few young men who came on board at the same time, they were a little younger, I had more experience and was better educated, and yet there was just this weird assumption that I was going to be the office manager and order paper and make tea whilst they did the interesting editorial work. That was crazy to me – all because I was wearing a dress and they weren’t. I also think there is this other slightly dodgy thing of young women being pushed towards the first person confessional piece with photos of them looking pretty and sorry for themselves – those “my anorexia hell” or “my miscarriage hell’, and young men just aren’t. That wasn’t the kind of journalism I wanted to do and I had to resist that a little bit.

Do you think gender affects the commissioning process?

Perhaps only in that I tend to be more interested in interviewing women than men.

That’s interesting, I spoke to Lucy O’Brien and she mentioned that she often prefers interviewing female musicians because she feels as if it’s easier to strike up a friendship and a rapport faster.

I definitely approach every interview differently, because every person is different. But I do think gender does come into it. One thing I’ve noticed particularly with interviewing bands where all the members are male, I kind of feel like a beneficiary of low-level sexism because there is this kind of subconscious assumption that I’m less of a threat, that I’m not going to grill them. So I do feel like I have got more out of male musicians than my male equivalent might have. It goes back to what I was saying before about men and the way they communicate by point-scoring and showing their knowledge. I think they feel a little less on guard [with a woman], the whole thing feels a little less confrontational. They relax.

Have you ever had any bands be particularly difficult with you because of your gender? To give you an example, I once did an interview with a band, turned up and they said “we expected you to be a guy”…

No way! That’s extraordinary. And were they dicks to you?

Yeah a little. I can’t say for sure that that was because I was a girl or whether they were just difficult or even whether it was because I was a student journalist writing for the uni paper and they thought I was a little beneath them, but it wasn’t the most pleasant of experiences.

That’s rough. I don’t think I have. I actually feel like being a woman puts me at an advantage when interviewing. Again, this is such a gendered statement, I keep making them… but I tend to think women make better interviewers than men.

Do you think this is just because of that more personal approach as opposed to the geeky ones?

Well I think women are better at reading people and picking up on non-linguistic cues. There’s that sexist and very facetious line of “all men being autistic” which is just ridiculous and also fairly offensive to people who are autistic, but, I know where that comes from. I think women are probably better at listening.

It’s good that you’re sharing your honest opinion with me, because I was wary when setting this case study up that people might be a bit reticent and prefer to tell me what they think the politically correct answer is. Do you think that UK press accurately represents male and female musicians in equal footing?

I think there is still this pseudo-feministic tendency when it comes to female musicians, when people think they’re being right-on by saying “look, she plays her own guitar!” or some bullshit like that. They think that’s constructive. Last year when Rolling Stone had their Women in Rock feature which made me fucking cringe, a Seattle weekly called The Stranger ran this piece called “Men Who Rock” which was brilliant and hilarious and threw into light all these clichés that journalists use when writing about female musicians. And it’s not just musicians, it’s everything. A friend of mine was posting lines from Doris Lessing’s obituary and saying can you imagine this being written about a man? – Lines like “as a woman, she pursued her own desires.” Ugh. So I find that really tiresome, I wish we could just get over it. People play music, and those people are men and they are women. In terms of “would I bring the artist’s sex into discussion” I think if it’s something that the band or musician is overtly performing and are visibly conscious of, then it is absolutely worth mentioning. But fetishing female drummers and people thinking they’re being right-on by doing that, no you’re not, get over it. I’m delighted that women are making music, but just because a band has a female drummer doesn’t make them cool and it’s not necessarily worth mentioning. I saw Savages play recently and their support act was this woman who performs under the name No Bra. She performs topless. And that’s totally worth mentioning, because she is obviously very aware of her gender and what it means. If you’re making a statement like that, it’s worth talking about.

Do you think the music press, the way that it’s written, appeals to both men and women? I know growing up, I started reading NME when I was 13 and it sometimes did seem to be a little bit male in its references to boozing and drugs and such.

Yeah, I was just reading Vice actually and there was this line about a book party saying “go! there’ll be loads of hot literary chicks” and I was like woah, you’re assuming that your entire readership is straight and male. I know it’s a small thing, and Vice would claim they’re knowingly mocking brohemia or whatever, but it’s a fucked up thing.

Even in this country, Q, NME, Kerrang, still I find that if you buy them in a supermarket, in lots of places they’re still filed under ‘men’s interest’, next to Nuts, FHM, Zoo, all of the lads mags.  

That’s extraordinary. That’s a huge problem, I didn’t know about that. I kind of want to write about that now…

They’ve stopped doing it in WH Smiths now, it has a ‘Music’ section which is still next to Men’s interest.

That’s infuriating.

It sounds kind of obvious, but it is interesting to hear that you don’t feel as if you’re there to purely inform people, you want to entertain them as well.

Yes! – this is criticism not a lecture – I’m not providing someone with information with which to write an essay. I think it was different forty years ago, pre-Wikipedia and everything, when you did have to spell out a little who people were and what they were doing. I see my job as having to think as hard as I can about a thing and then turn that into something that is honest and a pleasure to read. Criticism is unavoidably personal. Well, actually all writing is. I feel this with interviews as well: you’re constantly told to remove yourself, but I think there’s a disingenuousness to that because every interaction is about both people involved. The other person becomes themself through you, and they become a different themself through someone else. I think over the last few years, I have been allowing myself to creep into pieces a little bit more for that reason.

Do you think the music press has a responsibility to make sure that they are employing both genders? Or do you think that risks tokenism?

I think every workplace has that responsibility, I don’t think its tokenism! It would only be tokenism if women were empirically shitter than men.

This is a bit of a personal question not knowing your age or life plan, but were you to consider parenting or starting a family, what impact do you think this would have on your journalistic career and getting back into the world?

Well, I’m 29. It’s a huge question; it’s more abstract that the pure practicalities of it, it’s about fulfillment. My own time is so precious to me and I adore being freelance for that reason.

Would you not go back to 9 to 5 office work now?

No, never. I couldn’t do it. I mean, I loved doing it then but now I feel like it’s no way to live. Again, this might sound pretentious, but I think as a critic you have an obligation to be reading and listening all the time, it’s your job. When I’m reviewing an album or a book, its not just that thing I should be considering, I should be engaged in a much bigger thing in culture, listening and reading all the time. And if you have a 9 to 5, or a kid that’s really hard to do. And I would hate to give that up.

Do you think being a woman there is a conflict of interest when it comes to reporting on music that is particularly feminist, sexist or sexually charged? Miley Cyrus is a good example, and Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines as well, lots of the journalists upset about it are women, and most of the men are commenting on it musically and how catchy it is. Do you think it’s hard to detach yourself from it?

One of the reasons I love writing about music is that it’s porous, it takes in everything. When you’re thinking about music, particularly when it’s pop, it takes in art and fashion and politics and everything. So, writing about how questionable something is in its gender politics is just as valid as writing about what a banging tune it is. They can co-exist. People with despicable politics can make amazing art, and it’s fine to appreciate that and at the same time call them out on it. I found this with Odd Future, I found them really fun in this adolescent, puerile way, but all those lyrics about rape were just unconscionable. It’s okay to feel those two things.

Do you feel any moral obligation as a woman to point out misogyny and whistleblow sexism?

I absolutely do. But I think it’s a moral obligation as a human, not just as a woman. Similarly if stuff is racist or homophobic – I’m not black or gay but as a human I consider it my responsibility to call people out on it. Whether it’s in their art or in their behaviour.

Would you be comfortable in calling yourself a feminist?

I would be desperately uncomfortable with not calling myself a feminist! I think anybody who rejects that term, male or female, is a cretin. I just do not understand that. The British journalist Rebecca West, I think she died in the 1980s, but she had this wonderful phrase – “feminism is the radical notion that women are people too.” That’s it, it’s as simple as that. I just don’t understand a tentativeness over identifying with that term. It’s like asking ‘Do you consider yourself a non-racist? A non-homophobe?’ What kind of person is going to pussyfoot over that? Racists and homophobes!

Why do you think there is this stigma?

Because we live in a sexist society. It’s still patriarchal and I think there is a fear of female power and agency.  For uneducated men, a woman calling herself a feminist is frightening. I think it’s frightening and depressing and wearying that it’s still a question. You see it a lot in interviews, where the journalist asks the woman, never the man, incidentally, whether they’re a feminist and they um and aah over it like it’s a tricky, delicate thing. My friend Sarah wrote this great piece called “Is Taylor Swift A Feminist?” for the New Inquiry. It’s just a list of names, basically – “is Taylor Swift a feminist, is Hillary Clinton a feminist, is Bill Clinton a feminist” and so on and each question is a link to a piece that asks that question. It’s an absurd piece to meet the absurdity of the ubiquity of that question. I feel like I’ve been a bit blasé or facetious about gender politics, so let me stress I am fully aware of how fucked up shit is. Rape convictions, the prevalence of domestic violence, the pay gap, all this stuff. A friend of mine, a male friend in fact, said recently, “feminism isn’t Miley and Beyonce: it’s cleaners and nurses.” Which I think is so fucking true: we spend a lot of time worrying about famous women’s bottoms, but our priorities are fucked – the socio-economic injustices are way, way, way more pressing. And also, you know, I get the rage about street harrassment or whatever, but then remind myself that in other parts of the world women are stoned to death for getting raped. So…perspective.

What do you think it will take to get there?

I don’t know. I think policy and representation can change, but the more insidious, attitudinal things are harder to change. I’m ashamed to say I can’t even read about reproductive rights in this country because I feel like I’m in The Handmaid’s Tale or something. It just makes me crazy with fury and disbelief, so I don’t engage with it because I can’t handle it. But I am really grateful that bolder woman I know do – Irin Carmon and Hadley Freeman for example.

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conversation with Tracy Letts



I have an interview with Tracy Letts in the Telegraph today and you can read it here. Please do, he has things to say. Too many things to fit the piece, so here is the (only lightly and slightly) edited transcript of our conversation.

So thank you so much for this.

My pleasure. Do you know anyone else here?

Sort of. I just had lunch with a kind of professional acquaintance. Before that I was working in Intelligentsia – I was disappointed they were so friendly to me. I like my baristas in snooty coffee places to be full of disdain.

[Laughs] – Midwesterners.

So perhaps we should start with the movie. I wonder whether you’ve had a degree of detachment creep in – because I know it’s a long time since you wrote the play, movies take a long time to make, there’s a lot of cooks in the broth…

Well I don’t feel [sigh] especially detached – I think it’s just too personal for me to ever feel detached, you know? It’s personal material and it still gets me, it still impacts me when I watch it. People’s reactions to it still matter. So I don’t think I feel that detached. I mean there’s a certain finality about a movie, when it’s done it’s done, when it’s locked it’s locked. It’s frozen. Whereas plays always feel more malleable, more flexible in a way.

Right. And playwrights can be constantly rewriting them.

Though I don’t even do that, because a play only lives as a blueprint for a performance on any given night, it’s never going to be a fixed, set thing, whereas with the movie, it’s locked – ‘ok, that raised eyebrow in that moment will always be that raised eyebrow, it will never change.’ I mean none of my pieces that were written for the theatre were written with an eye toward them coming a movie.

Yes, but this is the third time it’s happened.

I know and it’s kind of odd it’s happened so much. Because they weren’t constructed with movies in mind and they’re not particularly cinematic. They’re contained in a single set and they have a limited number of characters and, like most plays, they’re very talk-y. So they don’t feel especially cinematic to me but people have always said from the beginning, from the first plays, well it seems like a movie and I think it’s because they’re very actable, they’re friendly to actors, they’re…they’re story, right, movies loe story and theatres doesn’t always. And also perhaps the subject matter is contemporary or seems at least in the case of the first two, Killer Joe and Bug, genre exercises. Not to mention sex and violence which is always good for the movies. So I think that’s one of the reasons people thought they’d make good movies but when you’re actually in the process of trying to turn it into a film you have the usual challenges. You’re trying to adapt the piece for film…but in addition I just know how they live in the theatre. I mean they were created for the theatre, I’m very accustomed to the way an audience receives a play, participates in a play, in a way that they don’t participate in a film. There’s a reason you can eat popcorn and watch a movie and you can’t do that in the theatre. Theatre you have to lean in, you have to tune your ear to the stage; the audience affects any given performance. So…they just work very differently in the cinema than they do the theatre and I don’t think I’ve ever been completely reconciled to that. I don’t think I’ve ever been totally comfortable…I always want to say to people after they’ve seen the movie, well it’s very different to the play, it works on you in a very different way than the play does. They are different. But. You know. They’re different, so they’re different.

In this instance what do you think those differences are?

Well one of the amazing things about August is that from the first time we performed it was that we were aware of a kind of…conversation in the audience. People who didn’t know each other in the audience were having a kind of cross talk regarding what they were seeing on star – laughing at the experience and then checking in and saying, oh you’re laughing too, so this is also your experience.

So there were moments of kinship…

And then it becomes just like popcorn, the audience just starts to bubble with that feeling, of, we’re all in on this together. It’s very moving actually and very gratifying as a writer to feel you’ve tapped into that. It works differently  in a movie, you’ve got a distance from them that you’ll always have which allows people to step back from it and say that is me, or that’s not me. And if it’s not me then you sit there and go, ‘these people are crazy, I don’t know these people.’ That’s an early reading of it, you know? That’s one way it strikes me as a little bit different. But then you know…I talk to people who love the play, they’re familiar with the play, they have their problems with the movie, but then I talk to some other people who saw the play just once, weren’t part of the whole business, didn’t feel like they were insiders necessarily, just happened to see the play and now they’ve seen the movie and they say I preferred the movie. I actually….I enjoyed getting out of there in two hours instead of three and a half hours, and, you know, they respond to people like Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts in a way that perhaps they don’t respond to strangers. You know, different strokes.

Do you believe that there is something just more inherently edifying about seeing a good play than seeing a good movie?

Well…maybe. Maybe yeah. It maybe true. It seems to me it’s harder to make a good play than it is to make a good movie. Right? Because…well I don’t know if that’s true or not.

One of the thrilling things about the play’s transfer to Broadway was that it retained – all of its original cast, almost all?

Well, all but two.

That kind of felt like a fuck-you to the star system – it’s very rare that that happens. Did it feel like a triumph?

Well it just felt like we had made the thing in such an organic way here at Steppenwolf that it wouldn’t have made any sense to disassemble then reassemble it with inorganic parts. I don’t think…there were multiple producers looking at the play and I don’t think any of them were thinking well we need to get some stars in these parts. I don’t think we ever heard that. I think even the producers from the earliest moment realised it’s not just a play, it’s also a moment for this theatre company which has somewhat of a national reputation. And so that’s part of the event of the night.

Are there things about the movie that don’t work for you, or that surprised you?

I like the movie.

So do I by the way. I should state that.

Oh thanks. I love the movie. It’s preserved a lot of the play, every word up there I wrote, which I’m happy about. Some of it is straight out of the play. I lost a lot. And I hated to lose a lot because…what happens is in a movie those things that are not part of the central conflict, those things that are a bit more on the margins, they…they’re deemed for the cinema not as essential. I suppose they’re not. And so they get eliminated or they lose some of their depth. And I hated to lose depth. It wasn’t length, it was depth, you know? So when we would get paste notes, for our two hour and ten minute movie, I would say we didn’t get any fucking paste notes when it was three and a half hours long in the theatre. I think this is one of the things we’re sacrificing by losing some of the scope. So I lost things not just because they were dear to me but because I had seen the way the piece worked with that depth so I was loathe to lose that. But, you know, more than one person pointed out, there’s never been a movie made where stuff wasn’t cut, shot and then cut…We had both. We had stuff cut out of the screenplay as well as cut from footage.

I read an interview where someone quoted Hilton Als at you and you said, “Fuck Hilton Als”.


But to go from slightly facetious to more serious: it seems to me that as a white writer you’re criticised if you don’t write non-white characters, but if you do, you’re so often accused of a kind of cultural trespassing. Which isn’t to discredit the legitimacy of those criticisms, but tell me what you think about that. 

I think it’s tough and I think it should be tough. There’s no easy response to that, nor do I think there should be an easy response to that. Our theatre company, when we did August, Osage County, we had maybe 32, 35 members, and we had one African American member of the company. And August, Osage County is about old white people for the most part. I mean that’s what our company was for the most part. We made some changes in the company which were way overdue and diversified a great deal. now we have 43 members and quite a few African American members of the company. I felt as a guy writing for this company, and in the instance of writing Superior Donuts, writing about the city of Chicago, that that was one of the challenges, to try and write about the community I live in. This black and white community. And for the ensemble that I’m not only part of, but a spokesperson for. I thought it was incumbent on me to try and write black characters. And we’re very fortunate to work in a company where I could sit down with those actors who were playing those roles and say what do you think about this. Is this a conversation we can have? Let’s talk about this. It’s hard. It was hard to do. It’s hard to write in that voice. For me. But that’s my job. I can’t just sit around and write 48-year-old white guys, I have to write other people as well.

Yeah. I think if you adhered to that “write what you know” maxim you’d become an incredibly myopic writer.

Yeah. Unless you’re writing from a single point of view. But as a playwright you have to be able to…empathy is one of the big parts of the job, you really have to be able to walk around in other people’s shoes.

And how did you get into Franco’s shoes? What kind of things were at play in your mind as you were writing him?

I don’t know. It’s just pretend. You just make it up! How would I feel if this was my set of circumstances, how would I respond… That’s why they all lined up to see. They’re all some version of me, hopefully some honest version of me so it’s not just an idealised version of me. Versions of me that encompass good behaviour as well as terrible behaviour.

One of the things that really struck me is that his novel is this physical bundle of paper, messy and stained, and obviously there are the references to DVD rental and even donuts themselves being tinged with archaism. And I love that that message was being put across in a <ital> play <ital> , which some people would also say is an outmoded form.

Right, right. Well…

I mean I guess the question is why still write for the theatre.

Well I love it, I’m a theatre guy. I love movies, I have a big collection of DVDs and I love ‘em, but the technical aspect of making movies is very boring, I mean being on a movie set is a very boring place to be. I think that as a writer, talking about some of my detractors finding it’s a bit much, I think as a writer I respond to heat. And blood. And humanity. The cold experience is not for me.

Dionysian  not Apollonian?

Yeah. I’ve always enjoyed all the real people in a room together in the theatre. More so than coolly observing [mimes circumspect smoking of a cigarette] while they smoke cigarettes. And even in the case of Killer Joe and Bug which use certain genre elements as a jumping off point, I think what gives them depth is the humanity, is that they’re some real people bumping up against each other. That’s why I like the theatre. You know when I wrote Donuts I guess I had in mind that I’d written this big thing, three storey house, thirteen characters, and I wanted to write something small for storefront theatre, which is what we have here in Chicago. There are theatres that range from twenty seats to two hundred seats perhaps and they literally are storefronts, some old retail shop that’s now been converted into a place. So that was the idea behind Superior Donuts, but because of the success of August – we did it on the main stage at Steppenwolf, that show went to Broadway and it was one of the more popular shows we’ve ever done in our theatre, it was very successful, people in Chicago liked seeing Chicago on stage, they got a kick out of that. Later, a smaller company here in town did it in a store front and they had a very successful run with it. I was very happy to seem them doing it. And I’m very happy that this company in London is a small, pub theatre, I think. It’s the right fit for the show.

Just to return to things being outmoded. As I was thinking about DVD s and Donuts it occurred to me that culture is moving faster than it ever has before – I wondered how you think that changes the job of a writer. Because I imagine it’s the writer’s job to kind of assimilate what’s going on, digest it, and then create something. But if things are moving so fast, then the thing that you create will already be an outmoded artefact. I mean, do you feel excited to be alive now, dealing with the world now in its…um…velocity.

I don’t know about that. Like most thoughtful people I’m looking around and what’s going on with these goddamn phones and iPads and all the rest – I have all this stuff too – and worry about what it’s doing to us. I moved back to a typewriter a few years ago in fact, because of that very reason – I started taking a hard copy of the newspaper again

-Thank you!

- I got a turntable. I became a little more analogue in my life.

And why?

Because I don’t like what it’s doing to me and my own attention span. I got to the end of a year and looked back over the year and realised I had read…my list of books I’d read that year was really short and I was like, this isn’t good. I’m a writer for godssakes! I gotta read more than this. So I made some changes. But I don’t know….how important it is to reflect that in writing? I don’t know. I don’t know….I never know what the hell I’m writing about, I never know what the next thing I’m writing about is, I never have a plan. They all seem to be very different from the one that came before. I have a new play, hasn’t been done yet. Very different from everything that’s come before.

Can you tell me about it?

Well I can’t tell you a lot about it. I can tell you that it’s…ninety minutes long and has forty characters. So it’s very expensive to produce. So finding production for it’s going to be difficult. I may in fact have to write it again with some practical considerations in mind. You know some of that’s just about the world economy right now. You know when we did Donuts on Broadway it was…2009, fall of 2009. Nobody was buying tickets. I think if we opened that show now it would run for a year. Because I was in the auditorium, listening to audience response to that play and people were loving the play. But in the fall of 2009, nobody was buying tickets, everybody was struggling. So, you know, sometimes the real world…you have to deal with that.

Right, the world deals with you rather than you dealing with it. Tell me about the phrase and the idea of The Great American Novel. Do you believe in that?

I don’t think so. I believe in the attempt. I believe in the idea that you can write something that encapsulates some of the ideas of what it is to be an American and you can do so in a grand or broad narrative. I’m working on Grapes of Wrath right now, I’m doing a screen adaptation of Grapes of Wrath with Steven Spielberg and that’s a great American novel. Might be The Great American novel. So yeah. I believe in the idea of it. I don’t think it gets written very often.

Do you think a 21-year-old could write it?

No. I don’t.

August, Osage County is often lauded with the phrase, “Great American Play” – does that feel like a burden, or an absurdity?

Um. I had a story to tell and I considered for many many years how best to tell that story. It seemed to me that the right container for that story was the big American play, not necessarily the Great American play, but the three act, three storey, thirteen character, three and a half hour long, sort of capital letter, Big American Play. And that it would have big sloppy American feelings and history in it. You know? Great American play no, that’s different. You just gotta..I mean you can’t…I couldn’t as a writer be like, now I’m going to write the Great American Play, I couldn’t do that.

You’ve talked about seeing it as a political parable, do you still see it that way, and you see the movie that way, or do you feel the play has changed with time?

I think they change. I mean they’re written…You know Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf holds up now but it can also be seen as an absolute time capsule of the time it was written as well. We don’t understand what Martha was going through in 1962. And the lack of possibility for a woman like that in 1962, we can’t even identify with that any more. And yet, if you’re going to do the play you better get your head around that idea because that’s something that’s absolutely fuelling the whole thing – that she has no opportunities, no avenues for expression. Similarly, August was written in a pretty dire period, as far as I’m concerned, of decline in this country. And I don’t think you have to be in that moment to know that’s what was going on. Nor do I think when you watch it now you have to be aware of that. The piece exists with or without that, just like Virginia Woolf exists with or without its context.

In reading Superior Donuts I was reminded of a Gawker piece that ran at the end of last year called The Year In Racial Amnesia, which is this horrifying kind of litany of all the young African American men who were killed by police. Would you ever take what is really happening in this country, directly, and make it into a play?

I don’t know. You know my plays have all been personal. Superior Donuts was supposed to be an exercise in writing something no so goddamn personal. August had taken such a goddamn chunk out of me, I was like jesus, some of these other playwright write their play, stick it in an envelope and send it off to their agent and they’re done. And I thought well I wonder if I can do that. Well I can’t. And the fact is Donuts was very personal, as personal as anything else I’ve written. So, I sort of sign up for that. I go, ok, I write about the personal. Hopefully the personal has some resonance beyond it. But in the play Superior Donuts the idea of personal versus political. And Arthur even says at some point, it’s the same thing. So I think that idea…similarly in August, Osage County, when Barbara’s father is talking about, “this place used to have some promise and now it’s a shithole” she doesn’t know if he’s talking about the country or if he’s talking about the family. It’s the same thing. Is it personal or is it political. I don’t know. We don’t write a lot of political theatre in this country. We never have. People talk about the family play like it’s an especially American phenomenon. People have asked me why that is and I throw my hands up and say I have no idea.

I noticed this is the third time you’ve had a young man who’s hunted and in trouble.


With apologies for a straight-up autobiographical question, but….were you a young man who was hunted and in trouble?

Oh. I don’t know. I don’t want to bullshit an answer for you…I’m sure there was…I’m not an easy person. I’ve had years of therapy. Yeah [performative exhale.] So yeah. I don’t know. I was a troubled young man, I’ll put it that way.

I think being in your early twenties is just…

It’s terrible isn’t it?

Hideous. Maybe we should talk about medication. You’ve said we’re a pill-popping nation. That Violet is this metaphor for the rottenness of American society.

I didn’t say that. [laughs]

Well you used the phrase pill-popping nation.

Well it’s true isn’t it?

Do you feel pessimistic about America?

Sure! Sure I do. How could you not. I mean there’s a lot to be pessimistic about. But I mean I…I’m kind of perverse in that I think that’s helpful. [chuckle] I think that pessimism is helpful. My pessimism is my own kind of patriotism. My dissent. I’m also a terrible drunk, I’ve been sober twenty plus years. Certainly that’s in my work. And a part of August, Osage County. But you know most people I know have some relationship to addiction. Or, if not addiction, then distraction.

Yes, and it’s a fine line between the two.

And I don’t know if that’s a particularly American problem. It’s universal.

There does seem to be a tendency to medicating, making everything palliative. I was looking at water bottles in a bodega and there are, you know, waters to help you focus, waters to calm you down and so on.


Tell me about Homeland, were you a fan and what drew you to the show?

Like I say, when you live in Chicago you take a vow of poverty because like I say we don’t make a lot of film and TV here. So, you know, you can work in the theatre but you’re not going to get paid any money. But you can work here. I’m a shameless booster of Chicago theatre, I think it’s the best theatre in the country. There are advantages to New York theatre and one of them is you’re in the marketplace in the cultural capital of the Western World. Apologies to London. [laughs] And the truth is though it has largely priced itself out of the culture business, [New York] is still the marketplace, there’s still a hell of a lot of media there and people who make TV shows like Homeland go see theatre there. I don’t think Alex Ganza who made Homeland ever would have come to see a play here in Chicago, he wouldn’t have had any reason to. But he was in New York, he decided to come see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and he put me on his TV show. It was that simple. I had seen the first season and I had enjoyed it. I’ve never been a big TV watcher but in the last few years with DVRs and the kind of serialised nature of television, I’ve tried to keep up with what’s going on. He approached me, I very quickly watched Season 2 and I actually declined the audition that he originally proposed. It was for the character I played in the first episode of Season 3 and he called me and he said why are you turning it down and I said because it’s a guy in a suit in front of a committee and I don’t think I want to do that, it’s just not what I want to do. And by god there’s no better feeling in the world than turning down work, it’s a great, great feeling. And as a broke-ass actor most of my life I’ve not been in that position so the last few years being able to do that feels great. But we had a conversation about it where he talked about the changes that the character would go through over the course of the season, the kind of theoretical disagreement that would take place between my character and the character Mandy [Patinkin] plays, as being representative of a conversation about our secret service and the way they behave in the real world. Whether or not I embraced that discussion was kind of beside the point, I just wanted to work with a  guy who was thinking along those lines, a guy who wasn’t just making a spy show for TV but was thinking about the bigger world and that his show had some kind of responsibility to it. So I said yes. I auditioned and they asked me to do the thing and I did the thing and I’m so glad I did it, I had a great time. The show’s really well-written and almost all my stuff is with Mandy and Murray; they’re old men of the theatre so we had a great time. Everybody was so sweet. They shoot the whole thing in Charlotte, North Carolina, I’d never been to Charlotte, it’s a great little town. I just had a great time, I’m really glad I did it.

When people talk about this being a great age for TV, that’s one of the shows that tends to be mentioned. Have you never been tempted to write for TV?

Not really. Talking to Alex and the other writers of that show, they talk about the way they create that show as a staff and they refer to this hive state they have to be in in order to write a group, I’ve never written like that. I couldn’t write under that kind of pressure I don’t think. John Wells who directed August is a TV writer and in fact when we were at the Toronto film festival we were going out one night and he had to go back to the hotel room and work on his script for Shameless because episode one was due. He had to write it. He said I have to write eighteen pages tonight and I said my god, how do you write under that kind of pressure and he just shrugged and said sometimes it’s not that good. That’s sort of the mentality of a TV writer and I respect that. So when the juices aren’t flowing you just have to lower your standards and turn it into a script. That’s the nature of television. When I first went to work with Alex I said I’m a big fan of the show, you guys do a great job and his response was, sometimes we hit it out the park, sometimes we don’t. You know. That’s the TV biz. I like it, I like to watch it, I don’t know how lasting it is. But then I don’t know how lasting anything is.

What do you watch?

I watched Top of the Lake recently, that’s Jane Campion with Elisabeth Moss. It’s a six part series that was made for BBC and that was terrific. Oh I watched all of Breaking Bad. I watched it all.

Did you enjoy it?

Yeah, sure.

You said, “I watched it all” as though it was something to dutifully tick off a list.

Well, I have felt a bit like that with some of them. Just keeping up.

I feel like that too sometimes. Especially since we’re meant to believe it’s the foremost medium of our time and all that.

Yeah who knows. I don’t know about that. I get the addictive nature of this kind of serialised television that they’re making these days. And again, because of DVRs…you know before DVRs, I’ve always worked in the theatre, I was working six nights a week – you can’t keep up with shows if you’re working six nights a week. So people talk of the TV shows of the last twenty years and I say I don’t really know what you’re talking about, I was working. Now you can actually DVR that stuff and watch it. And the reach of it amazes me. I mean, I’ve been acting my whole life, I’ve done all this work for forty something years and now I’m in an airport and people come up and say I hate you, or you’re such a bastard on Homeland. People watch that show.

Is that kind of scary?

A little bit, a little bit. William Friedken, who made Bug and Killer Joe – we had lunch in Los Angeles not too long ago and I told him, I said, I don’t know I’m that comfortable about giving up my anonymity and he…[chuckles] he just totally busted my chops and said, well you’ll get over it.

Ha. He wasn’t sympathetic.

Not at all. He said, we’ve chosen public means of expression, that’s part of the deal. He was like, if it bothers you don’t do it any more, but otherwise get over it. He said it’s all about how you deal with the public anyway. Again, I’m from the Midwest – I smile, I’m grateful – it’s automatic.

Yeah, auto-pilot. Autopolite – Sorry.

[laughs] “Auto-polite”.

I just want to know what excites you in contemporary culture, either generally or specifically – what’s getting you going right now?

That’s a good question. Because I’m so fucking critical.

Oh good. Well my next question is what’s depressing you and pissing you off so we can start with that.

That’s such a good question. [long pause] God dammit. You’ve really stopped my brain.

I write about music and every time someone asks me what I’m listening to I draw a complete blank. So…sorry for doing that to you.

I’m starting to get to that age…I have friends and the music they listen to is Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen, people sort of stick themselves at a certain time and place. And I think I’m starting to get to that point myself, where I find myself listening to the old stuff.

To your personal canon?

Yeah and not…you know what I started watching which was helping was Jools Holland’s show, and I started DVRing that and just keeping it on when I was around the house.

Did you follow any leads from that?

I did, but…which is nice, right? I mean, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, I discovered her through Jools Holland actually. So fantastic. So just trying to broaden my horizons a little bit but my god, your question is so…diabolical. The other night I was watching one of the awards shows and I was watching with my friend Bob and as we were watching, I wasn’t even aware that I was particularly critical or sardonic while we were watching the programme but a trailer came on for the new Muppet movie and it was a very clever trailer and I laughed and Bob turned to me and said, see? There’s something you like. And I felt awful! I thought, I’ve become this grumpy guy who doesn’t like anything.

You’ve become the one in the trash can…

[laughs.] Oscar the Grouch….So I don’t know.

I’d love it if your answer to the question, “what excites you about contemporary culture” could just run as “The Muppets.”

[laughs]. Yeah. I don’t know. I don’t gave a good answer.

So what was pissing you off as you watched this awards ceremony?

[long pause] It’s not the work itself. There’s nothing wrong with the work. People talk about this great year of movies. Yknow what’s pissing me off? Lazy journalism is pissing me off. That’s what pissing me off. I’m watching this year of movies and i’m saying I like all these movies. There are none of these movies where I think, that’s terrible. I like all these movies. I think they’re all flawed, I think most of them are pretty deeply flawed, and yet somebody, somebody bothers to write down, “it’s a great year for movies” and then I feel like everybody else just rushes out, “it’s a great year for movies”. There’s no examination of that idea! Maybe it’s not a great year for movies!

But I also feel like every year is a great year for everything and a terrible year. Because what changes are industries and all the stuff around them, but, you know, the quality of human expression isn’t itself going to decline.

Right. I’ve been showing my wife a lot of movies from the early 70s because I’m of that generation that believes that was the great period of expression in American films – all those young directors – Friedkin and Spielberg and Scorcese and Coppola, that was a great period. But what I’ve been finding, is the movies from the 80s, are a lot fucking better than I thought they were in the 1980s. And we found ourselves looking at a lot of movies from the 80s and I’m sitting there going goddamn, this was made in the 80s, it seems so personal. A lot of personal films made in the 80s – Repo Man, Sid and Nancy…. Jonathan Demme…Something Wild…oh god and now of course they’re now escaping me. But it just seemed like everything we were watching was made in the 80s and, you know, independent movies were really reaching their zenith in the 1980s. People working outside the studio system. And so I guess what I really respond to is the personal. I don’t care if it’s art or it’s exploitation, just as long as it’s not commerce. But once something becomes completely packaged and commercialised and everybody’s weighed in on it and you feel this sort of art by committee, then I really start to lose interest.

This is a really important distinction – between art and entertainment, right? Art can be entertaining but pure entertainment probably can’t be art.

Right. Right.

Are you concerned about being entertaining when you’re writing a play?

Sure. Sure I am. I even used to have a quote from Ingmar Bergman over my desk that said, “thou shalt always be entertaining” and that’s Ingmar Bergman for godssake! The truth is, if you’re not entertaining what the hell’s the point. You’ve got to stay hooked in for some reason. You know more than one person criticised August, Osage County for being too funny. They said it’s too funny. For something that was taking on some big ideas, it can’t be that funny or people aren’t going to take it that seriously. And I think that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. I just felt like, but if they’re laughing they’re listening and that’ s how I’m going to keep people hooked into this thing for three and a half hours. And it’s also my sense of humour, it’s a very personal sense of humour. So yeah anybody who manages to pull off something personal and get it out into the world – I’m admiring of that.

I also think with humour it’s like the dart with which you can drive in the message – you can sneak it in there – a vessel for it.

When people would compare my play to Long Day’s Journey Into Night – by the way not a hell of a lot of people compared by play to Long Day’s Journey Into Night – though I’m very flattered by it, I’m not fit to lash Eugene O’Neill’s shoelaces, nor have I ever claimed that. At the same time, if you told me you have to go watch Long Day’s Journey Into Night or August, Osage County, I’m going to go see August, Osage County, because there are no laughs in Long Day’s JOurney Into Night. [laughs] And I like a few laughs! Again, that’s just my own bent. I have to be entertained myself, you know?

What kind of got you going as a teenager or young man? Were there certain books or movies that ignited you?

Yeah I was a pretty macabre sense of humour for as long as I can remember. There’s a story, I caution you about it because it’s been written about in the press more than once.

About you writing a story about a psychopath?

Yes the story when I was a kid. And that holds true. . I was always drawn to horror and the macabre and pulp fiction and Jim Thompson. I got in trouble for having a copy of Clockwork Orange in my desk when I was fourteen years old. My teacher was bothered by some of my influences. My parents were very liberal. I remember them taking us to see Serbico when I was maybe six or seven. The only movie they ever took me out of was Taxi Driver. I was ten and we were at the drive in movie theatre and I think they just got uncomfortable in the car with us. So I always had that…that was always my inclination. And then, coming to Chicago and doing theatre, I liked the gritty, in your face stuff, the stuff that was kind of scary – a little punk in some ways. And Killer Joe I think was written very much with that visceral, in your face, shocking idea. I wasn’t trying to surprise people – we x-rated the play, so people wouldn’t be too…

I mean it’s also called, Killer Joe…

Yeah we were letting people know you were in for a black time. So I was always drawn to that kind of stuff. But then what I found, again, when I started working in those….and every time I sit down and think I’m going to work within this genre, or I’m going to work within this framework, I just think…it’s just less interesting than what’s going on inside of me and what’s personal to me, you know? But I think the best genre pieces do that, the best genre pieces are made personal in some way. So as a teenager, I don’t know, I was a weird teenager, I liked weird stuff.

Did you have comrades in the weirdness?

Not a lot. I was growing up in a small town in south eastern Oklahoma. Twelve thousand people, there wasn’t a lot of outlet for that kind of stuff. You know, this is before cable and before…I guess video stores were just becoming popular, were just in vogue. I was a voracious reader as a kid of course.

What do you particularly remember reading?

Oh I don’t know. I read a lot of the classics. But…I did always gravitate back towards the violent or disturbing…

I sometimes wonder this with actors who play fucked up, frightening characters – when you’re writing scenes like the chicken leg one, do you feel as though you’re in danger of being poisoned by it? As if you have to preserve a sort of distance from this nasty shit – do you know what I mean?

I do know what you mean and in some ways I think it’s kind of the opposite – it’s kind of like, you’ve just got to get the censor out of your head – the person sitting there going, oh you can’t write that, don’t you dare write that, do you know what people will say about you if you write that. You’ve got to get rid of that voice and write whatever the hell’s bothering you. And sometimes, in my work, it does take on a kind of…I was talking to Elvis Mitchell about this, I did his show, The Treatment, on KCRW in LA, and I don’t think this made the cut of his interview, but we were talking about this – something happens in the pieces, in all of them when, towards the end, in the fifth, they hit a kind of new gear that’s a little hallucinatory, they suddenly become a bit more…I don’t know, unrealistic, in a sense. I don’t know what that is. I mean I told him, I said, I haven’t drilled down to what that is, that wants to subvert the moment or take it up a pitch.

I feel like it’s the moment taking itself up a pitch. It feels like that’s just the trajectory.

Right. And suddenly they go a little…


Yeah, they go a little batshit…they get a little schizzy. A little weird. It’s cool because it’s not conscious. All of those things were stumbled upon. It’s in my newest play too. It gets very bizarre at the end.

Speaking of very bizarre. I read an interview in which you mentioned filming your grandmother in a Pscyh Ward on a Super 8. Can you tell me about that.

Oh you’ve done your research haven’t you. Tell me about your name Hermione.

My parents were English teachers and they liked the Winter’s Tale. But I still don’t know why I’m named after a character who’s turned to stone for sixteen years.

You’re the first Hermione I’ve ever met.

Good. I get very territorial about the name.

Uh, what was the question?

Filming your grandmother in a psych ward.

Well she would lose her mind on drugs and she would call the cops and tell them there were people in her back yard and accuse people of stealing, whatever the fuck – she was out of her mind on drugs. And then when she would sober up my mother would tell her do you know what you did. And she would always deny it – laughingly deny it. ‘No I didn’t. That’s crazy, I didn’t do anything like that.’ So once she was totally blitzed out of her head and she was in the psych ward and I’d been making movies with my little Super 8 camera.

How old were you?

Sixteen, seventeen. And again, this is before video cameras – nobody had those. So mom asked me if I would bring my camera to film my grandma. And she said, this isn’t going to be pleasant, I wouldn’t ask you to do this if I didn’t think you could handle it. I took it out and I filmed my grandmother lying in this bed in this horrible yellow light, very dimly lit room, and she’s just making nonsense sounds and doing things in the air with her hands. And uh. It’s, you know, at the time you could only load three minute mags into the thing so I only shot two of them, six minutes worth of material. We never showed it to her, mom backed down from that idea for whatever reason. But yeah, it’s about the most depressing six minutes of film you’ve ever seen. It was purely documentation.

At what point did you move to Chicago?

It was 1986. I first came here in the summer of ’85, liked what I saw, and then came back in the summer of 86. And I turned 21 that summer.

What’s kept you here.

Well. Theatre’s kept me here. I’ve liked making theatre in this town. And it’s also the right temperament for me. You know, probably when I first came here I was scared of New York and Los Angeles, being from a small town in Oklahoma and probably something about still being in the Midwest appealed to me. Something about it seemed more manageable, more liveable, in spite of these ridiculous winters. But I didn’t care so much about the winter. And I found a community here very quickly that I liked and that embraced me. And so I stayed and was here about eleven years before I left and went out to Los Angeles for a few years. But gladly came back, because I was finding in LA, even though I would get a little work on a TV show, a Seinfeld episode there, but I wasn’t expressing myself the way I needed and I thought, jeez, these should be some fertile years as an artist and I’m just kind of sitting around waiting for the phone to ring and I didn’t want to do that. Then they added me to the company at Steppenwolf and I had a real artistic home at that point. So that’s why I stayed. And now I’ve been here so long I’ve just gotten really comfortable with the place. And it’s convenient. Well not convenient, but it’s in between New York and Los Angeles, so I can get to either of those places and can afford to go there and stay for a while but can always come back here and be home here. So nothing fancy, I don’t have a fancy answer to that question. Our audiences at Steppenwolf…wherever you may be making theatre, subscribers will always complain and say, we want to see Streetcar Named Desire, we want to see Shakespeare, we want to see things we know. Our audience at Steppenwolf will complain even more loudly if we’re not doing new plays. They want to see new work. In this weather, right now, people will go out tonight and see a play that they know nothing about, just because it’s a new play. And you can afford to do that here in a way that you just can’t afford to do in New York any more. It’s just too expensive. You know, Scott Morfee who runs the Barrow Street theatre in New York, he’s a dear friend of mine, he produced both Bug and Killer Joe in New York….Bug was a big big hit in New York and it ran for a year – and he broke even. Our Town, was perhaps the biggest hit off Broadway in the last twenty years. It ran for a year and a half. And he broke even. You know…you just can’t afford…so you understand why producers don’t take risks on new work, without guaranteeing it somehow – you know, if we get this person in we can guarantee we’ll get our money back. So the work suffers. The craft suffers. One of the best compliments we heard when we were doing August, Osage County was the actors who’d come see the show in New York and they’d say wow I went to the wrong city – if you were doing work like this I should have gone to Chicago. Now granted, not everything here is as good as August, Osage County, but there’s an ethic about the work here that I’ve always admired.

Well, I’ve got to go get on a plane so I think we’ll have to end there. Thank you.

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sharon jones


On Wednesday I had the pleasure of interviewing Sharon Jones and you can read it on page 3 of today’s Observer New Review. As ever, there was way more wonderful stuff than could fit in the piece, so I thought I’d post the transcript of our conversation. Sharon had a diagnosis of bile duct cancer in June. Her last chemo treatment was last month. Nonetheless, she was chatting, buzzing, asking me questions, before I could even ask her a thing.


I can’t concentrate on my music, I’ve got so much going on. We gotta do an interview right now! I just wanna do this interview! So you left ol’ London and came over to ol’ New York? You like it over here? Oh my god. After fifty three years I’m ready to get the hell outta New York. I’ve been upstate but I live in South Carolina now. New York sucks! The price – it’s just overpriced and overrated right now. The little rooms and the rent you’re paying on em. Just sucks. Too many people, too much. You work jus to pay your daggone rent. Been there, done it.

That sounds familiar. So. It feels like a bit of a reunion today…

You know for me it’s gotta be. I mean the closer we get to this stuff I feel more relaxed and happier but I’ve been getting a little stressed and nervous these last few days. Because what I want to do, instead of all this stuff with the TV, I thought I was going to be home, working out on weights, doing vocal things, building back up my lungs and stuff and I’m not, I’m doing this, so I gotta get past that and focus on this is what I’ve gotta do. Because I haven’t listened to music, I haven’t rehearsed. I just couldn’t get back into it. But maybe today, once I get back into it with these guys, then I’ll stay into it. I’ll feel like I’m back. So I’m looking forward to it. They’re forcing me to get the music back into me.

Does singing usually make you feel - 

- Better, yeah, because music is my happiness. And the last few months the only time I got was in October when I did the church thing and then I did the rehearsal with the band. And then we did the Macys thing but after that, I haven’t…because I couldn’t get back on the treadmill, I lost my energy, I wasn’t able to get back on the treadmill and start singing and rehearsing.

Is it fair to say that this has been the hardest year of your life?

I didn’t think I would be here, I thought I was going to die. I thought that Give The People What They Want…I thought people were going to be buying the album and I wasn’t going to be performing songs from the album because I thought I wasn’t going to be here. So it was pretty deep, you know? When every morning you’re waking up with tubes down your throat and fifteen, twenty doctors standing over you – and you know, you’re in such pain…Just to see yourself. From June to now it’s just amazing, it’s just amazing how I’ve progressed. And the things they did to me – they take your gall bladder and the head of your pancreas. A foot and a half of my small intestines. They had to build me another bile duct and connect it to my stomach. So you can imagine, eating…They cut off a foot and a half of my intestine but thank god they didn’t have to cut off the whole thing. So now I have to take enzymes for the rest of my life. The horror of laying in a bed and night and hearing your stomach. [makes sound effect] And then, not only hearing it, but the pain. It was very painful at night. And getting the hang of enzymes. I got bloated and the food wasn’t going through and I was doubled over in pain. I was in the Emergency Room for twelve hours to find out what was wrong. OOh that was painful. So that was a Saturday and then by Wednesday I was back in the doctor’s office again.

Hearing all this, I guess the question is why put out an album…

Well the album was due out in August. So once the doctor told me I’d have to take six months and my last chemo would be in December, I was like, you know what, I want to wait until next year, June or July to get back on the road. Financially we need it, we’re not well off…I mean if I had to I would have had to, we would do what we had to do. But vocally I’m back and I want to get back into my music, because being away as long as I’ve been away is depressing, I’m losing my joy and I don’t wanna lose it. If I’m vocally able to sing, I knew the strength and everything else would come back. Once the chemo is out of my body it will start strengthening. I wish I could add a couple more months but with the music industry everything is in blocks, so that had to be the month. If you miss that month you have to wait another six months or a year. But the doctors ok-ed it. My concern is just the way I look, you know? Look at my nails, this is chemo. Oh man, look at that. These are not nails. I mean look at that. I don’t know what that is. The hair is gone, my eyelashes, my eyebrows – my eyes are constantly running water. You know. Because there’s nothing to catch this. And the hair, I mean look at the hair, it’s growing, but how is that gonna look, you know, when I’m out on stage? So it’s a lot to deal with, and I’m gonna deal with it. I chose not to put a wig on. I got to deal with this. You can see the grey stuff coming in now.

I have a feeling you’re going to own it, whatever your hair’s doing…

I have a feeling I’m gonna be wearing some hats for these TV shows. Do whatever I gotta do.

The video for Stranger to My Happiness feels so celebratory.

I didn’t want to do it at first and then…I’m glad I did it. The guys was there, everybody was there. I was still taking the chemo – that was in October so I was still in the midst of…I’d lost all my energy.

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But there you are singing and dancing…

Yeah I got up there and I was like, eight hours. Eight hours to do that little recording. I kept telling those guys, when I get tired and tell you I can’t do it anymore I have to just stop right there. And so I was just [mimes singing and then collapsing like a rag doll]. It was just like that: ‘I’m done guys, can’t do any more.’ It just seemed like everything went out my body. And they were like, ok I think we got it. But I was done, I couldn’t sing another note, I couldn’t move.

 You look fantastic in it, but was the decision to appear without a wig a hard one?

It was hard, it was hard, and then also, not only the chemo, but I tried to put on a little foundation to even up my skin tone because right in here is dark, under my eyelids, look at my eyelids. The blotches was crazy and the make up they’d put on me was too light, so I looked pale with the make up, it didn’t look too cool. That was my concern. But they did a pretty good job of, what do they call it, photoshopping – I made sure, I told them to do that. And after that I was pretty happy with the video. And the reason why I chose to come out with the cancer thing is because there’s somebody out there who can see that all sickness isn’t unto death. That it’s something you can’t change at that point in time so you just got to go with it. Don’t be ashamed. Don’t be ashamed of looking at yourself. I mean I’ve looked at myself in the mirror and cried plenty of times because I didn’t like what I see. And I don’t now, I’m cautious about it, but it is what it is.

Amen. And this title, Give the People What They Want – has that sentiment always been a kind of guiding principle?

Well we had titled that and named the song before the sickness came along, so it was just a matter of what we were gonna…usually you name the album after one of the songs. And Gabe just went down the line and he was like, what about Give The People What They Want and we were like, yeah thass good! So we went for that. And some of the songs…Retreat was the first single that we let out and Gabe was like, well you’re in the hospital, what are we doing to do, we’re going to do a video. And they did an animated video. And when I saw it, changed the whole Retreat. When I saw the video, it’s all about my sickness, telling my sickness to retreat. The little wolves are like the cancer running behind me and I overpower them. Pick my mic up, telling them I’m back to give the people what they want. So it had a whole different meaning to when we recorded it.

 Have you felt a lot of love from your fans?

Oh nothing but love. That’s the reason why I chose to let my fans see me go through this. This era in my life, this chapter, so my fans are with me. When I went online, when I finally got my publisher and manager to like…I was like, everybody’s thinking I got bile duct cancer, and no chemo, and people thinking it’s first stage cancer, she’s gonna be ok – they’re going to expect to see me in three or four months. But I need you to tell them that I have to take chemo. And they were like uhhhh, but if you tell them chemo people get scared and they gon think you’re never coming back and you gon lose fans. And I said if I’m going to lose fans over that then I’m going to have to lose fans, they’re not my fans in the first place. How would you like it if the last time you heard from me was in June and then all of a sudden there’s a picture of me in October baldheaded. Like, what the…So I’m like uh-uh. This picture’s gon go up and I’m going to be the one to tell them, I don’t want them to hear this from somebody else. So management finally understood what I was talking about.

 I know for years and years when you were trying to make it someone said to you, you’re too black and - 

- Too black and too fat, too short. And I was past twenty five, so I was too old.

You’re smiling now, but did that hurt at the time?

Oh I smiled then, I smiled then! I smiled then and it hurt, you know, but I went home and told my mother and I always remember her saying, you’re a beautiful black woman and don’t you let anybody tell you any different. And that god blessed you with a gift and one day people going to accept you for you.

 And she was right.

I knew that too. When he told me I was like yeah well that’s what you think right now. He said let me get you some bleaching fluid and you can bleach your skin. I said, that’s ok, one day people going to accept me for my voice, not the way I look.

Do you feel like the industry has got more accepting of women who aren’t twenty one and white and thin?

Nyyyyeh. It’s hard to say with this business. Because I’ve been here nineteen years and still nobody knocking down my door, still nobody recognising me as a soul singer, they’re not even recognising soul music at all. Do you see an award for soul music? No. There’s R n B, funk and hip hop. And what they’re calling RnB is pop. Because Taylor Swift is not an R n B singer. Her music is pop. She’s a great singer. Justin Timberlake is pop, just ‘cause he put on a suit and they do a little duug-a-duug-a-dug and put on a beat, that is not R n B. But. Great singers, you now, and great music, but just give them. You know, keep the category in the category it belongs. And put up a soul category. Even if I don’t win an award. Daptone, we soul music. Going on nineteen years now doing this. Just recognise us, we work hard. I’m a soul singer, Charles Brown a soul singer, Lee Fields a soul singer. There’s other independent labels over in Europe that’s got these young soul singers. You don’t have to be an old black person singing soul music. That’s stupid. Back in the old days, but still, you’d listen to them and then you’d go oh, they’re white. It’s not about colour. Once you can learn it and sing it it’s there, but just recognise that soul music is here, there is soul music of today. That’s one of the goals that I’m striving for now, is to be recognised as a soul music.

 Why soul music, what is it for you about soul that love?

I don’t know, to me it’s just music that we’re doing that we love to do. It has a groove, it’s the sound, it’s the instruments. We ain’t got no synthesisers, wahhhhhhh [does sound effect] crap like that. [beatboxes] – all that kinda stuff you know what I’m sayin’? And so you got real horns and we stepping. That’s how they did it back in the sixties so we’re keeping that trend, using live instruments. And to me soul music comes from the heart and soul. I mean one of the pop singers, we can get them to come over and sing but they have to change it. Soul to me comes from the heart and you just gotta see it. Soul music to me is getting on that stage each night and each night I can make it a little different. Not having a bunch of other dancers up there, not having some music that if you miss your line you go uurp! I mean I’ve been on stage and started to sing and literally forgotten my lyrics. Literally. I tried it three times and the third time I: go to another song. My mind just went numb. It just went frrt. It happens now, I make up a song.

Ella Fitzgerald used to forget her words and do that, right?

And that’s how she start scatting. [scats] That’s soul, that’s live. You don’t panic, you just go somewhere and people appreciate you for being truthful. That’s why when I come out on stage at night I know, like the night my moms died I had to perform. I didn’t have to say anything to anyone but I was feeling. You know? Certain time I wanted to break down and cry and I had to say to my fans, you know my moms just died and I’m doing this show and hey. Tears flow and then I was like ok, boom, now let’s go, we gotta get back to the show. I got that out, now let’s go. And fans wrote me like oh my god you had me crying and then you just turned around and went back to it and I was like, that’s what I had to do.

 I know you worked as a prison guard for a long time,

Rikers. Heh.

 Can you see any similarities between what it takes to command a stage, and what it takes to keep a load of inmates in line?

Only thing I learned in correction is you can’t show fear, that’s the main thing. Fear has to go out the window. I was always singing, but I knew about fear by living in the ghetto and coming up, the little punks. If I let you come up to me one time and start taking stuff from me…you show them that and you’re a victim. So, I didn’t learn that in prison, that’s just all my life, how to survive. I was born in the 60s. I was there before segregation. I knew what it was like to go down south and they have a thing that says “coloured” and “white”, you know? I knew what it was like to go in a restaurant and have them just ignore you til you get up and walk out. Just like, eh, we’re not going to serve your kind so get out. There was one store – matter of fact I live on that block now – and it was a store right on a corner. And there was a what’s that placed called sells hamburgers, Snow Cap. Black people couldn’t go up and buy, they had to drive in. We had to go round to the little window in the back. And the man on the corner who had the store, every time some little black kids would walk up in the store, any black person, he had a parrot, and guess what the parrot would say.

 I don’t want to know, but tell me, I want to know.

“Nigger stealin’.”

Oh jesus.

So I remember this as a little girl – “nigger stealin’” – and this bird, you just want to kill it. So.

 I hope the parrot and the man are long dead.

It is what it is. And now, to be back in the neighbourhood and to have some of my best friends, my best neighbours, these Southern belles, so I’m like man, can you imagine, almost fifty years ago we couldn’t do this, we couldn’t socialise. Different world.

 Does getting through a thing as hellish as cancer make you a better singer?

Oh I don’t know about singing but it just makes me look at life: you could be gone any time and it just makes you realise that all sickness isn’t unto death. It just made me stronger, made me more…people around me, because some people are just there to get what they can out of you, they’re just using you and that’s what happened all my life, that’s why I’m not in a relationship, I’m not married, that’s why I don’t have kids, because everybody that was with me was just there to get what they can out the relationship and then I chose my music. And I couldn’t have three, four, five kids and do my music too, you know. I just had no one in my corner, no man or husband to say ok baby you can go out and do that. It was always a struggle, you know? With the person you wonder who they’re messing around with and they come home and go well who you messin around with and no, I’m not messin around with anyone. You come home and you want someone you can talk to, talk music to and talk about your life, and then all you’re getting is fussing and arguing. You know what? I’d rather do without. So no I’m not in a relationship and maybe in a few years I’ll find someone that I can deal with but I’ll never ever take care of a man again and I’ll never take anything from anyone. And I don’t need a man on my arm to make me more of a woman. A relationship is important and you have to give and right now I can’t give. Because I’m too hard giving in this music. I’m finally getting what I deserve, I’m finally getting my happiness and my happiness is my music. Relationships wasn’t my happiness. You be happy for the first few months and then afterwards you find, uup, happiness gone, time for the relationship to end. And I was always the person to get in a relationship and hold on. I hate switching up. So right now I’m just into my little self. I guess they say that word celibate. And then people like, well she aint got a man, she must be gay. No. People think it’s unbelievable that a lot of people out there chose that in life – I think that’s why my passion comes out there in my music, while I’m out there on the stage I can get all my energy and passion out. I’m giving everything back. I know what I’m doing is catching on because of the feedback from my fans and how I’m growing now. People want to hear about us. If you can’t give me something positive in my life, I don’t wanna be around it. If you’re just here to grab, take, and say bad things…I don’t want anything negative in my life. Surround yourself with positive things.

Let’s end there. Thank you, so much. 

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sufficient violence


“I was now forty-seven, it was thirty years since I had started making my peers laugh; now I was finished, washed out, inert. The spark of curiosity that remained in my vision of the world was soon going to be extinguished, and then I would be as dead as the stones, only with some vague suffering on top of that. My career had not been a failure, at least not on the commercial level: if you attack the world with sufficient violence, it ends up spitting its filthy lucre back at you; but never, never will it give you back joy.”

from, The Possibility of An Island, Michel Houellebecq

So many of my favourite writers are patent bastards. But. Beginning The Year Of Completism (I’ve been feeling ashamed about reading dilettantishly, so 2014′s going to be all-oeuvre all-the-time) with Houellebecq might turn out to be too massive a dose of brutality. January, as a circumstance, is sufficiently extenuating even without Polar Vorticisim. All up for attacking the world, but holding out hope for the kind of violence that yields love not lucre. Or at least, love and some un-filthy lucre.


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the year


A friend has a theory that the thing governing which film stars we fancy has little to do with physiognomy and everything to do with how that person made us feel, as a certain character, at a certain time. I already fancied the shit out of the Darkside album, but then, going to look at an apartment on one of the last nights of the summer, I came to the end of the street and they were playing on a roof in a park on the edge of the water. I’m fanciful, and I can’t help it: it felt like a benediction, take the apartment. I live here now. And I’ve played that record again and again.

The rest: mostly Miley and Marias. The Your Face Tomorrow trilogy was my favourite reading experience, although the passage in Knausgaard’s A Man In Love about his wife giving birth is so extraordinary and beautiful that it nearly made me vomit. And A Naked Singularity did that thing that Infinite Jest does: electrifies and dazzles you with the cleverness, and then, catching you unawares at the end, blindsides you with its heart.

Most pleasurable interviews I did this year: Jeff Bridges, Rachel Kushner, Kelela, Lake Bell, Dev Hynes, Raymond Pettibon.

I also said, “hurry up with ma damn croissants!” about three times a day.

I loved these 2013 albums:

  • Darkside, Psychic
  • William Tyler, Impossible Truth
  • Forest Swords, Engravings
  • Dawn of Midi, Dysnomia
  • Fuck Buttons, Slow Focus
  • Kelela, Cut 4 Me
  • Blood Orange, Cupid Deluxe
  • Josephine Foster, I’m A Dreamer
  • Miley Cyrus, Bangerz
  • Kanye West, Yeezus
  • The Necks, Open
  • John Wizards, John Wizards
  • My Bloody Valentine, m b v
  • Greco-Roman, We Make Colourful Music Because We Dance In The Dark
  • Beyonce, Beyonce

I loved these 2013 books:

  • A Naked Singularity, Sergio de la Pava
  • Red Doc >, Anne Carson
  • Tenth of December: Stories, George Saunders
  • My Struggle, Book 2: A Man In Love, Karl Ove Knausgaard
  • My 1980s and Other Essays, Wayne Koestenbaum
  • Tapei, Tao Lin

I loved these 2013 songs:

  • “We Can’t Stop” Miley Cyrus
  • “Body Party” Ciara
  • “Mirrors” Justin Timberlake
  • “Advanced Falconry”, Mutual Benefit
  • “Easy Easy” King Krule
  • “Water Me” FKA Twigs
  • “Beautiful” Mariah Carey ft. Miguel
  • “The Wheel” SOHN

And I loved these shows, even the man who sat with his back to the stage at Issue Project room and fiddled with his Casio digital watch, bleeping through William Basinski’s holy music.

  • William Basinski, Issue Project Room
  • Savages, Music Hall of Williamsburg
  • Earl Sweatshirt, Bowery Ballroom
  • Dawn of Midi, Le Poisson Rouge
  • Dirty Projectors, Carnegie Hall
  • Kendrick Lamar, Roseland Ballroom
  • Omar Souleyman, Pioneer Works
  • Kelela, Music Hall of Williamsburg


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seasonal leer

Last night, at a party, a writer I’d met once came up behind me and slapped me on the arse so hard that my butt cheek was still smarting an hour later. I was so shocked I couldn’t speak for a moment. “Do you know him?” asked one of the two (male) friends, I was talking to, appalled, as the bestselling author retreated, grinning.

My mum, who was a teacher, tells this story about supervising a school trip to Italy – can you imagine shepherding thirty 13-year-old British schoolgirls through the streets of Rome? She’s in line for something and a man grabs her arse. She spins round, yanks his testicles hard and yells: “how do YOU like it.”

Sometimes, as in, last night, I wish I had her balls.

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7 songs for October

photo (19)

  1. “The Trail of Tears” William Basinski
  2. “I’m a Dreamer” Josephine Foster
  3. “No Right Thing” Blood Orange
  4. “Advanced Falconry” Mutual Benefit
  5. “Paper Trails” Darkside
  6. “Parallelograms” Linda Perhacs
  7. “Caramel” Connan Mockasin


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7 songs for august

photo (12)

  1. “Water Me” FKA Twigs
  2. “Satisfy” Hackman
  3. “Weight of Gold” Forest Swords
  4. “Tezeta” Mulatu Astatke
  5.  ”I’m Not Dancing” Tirzah & Micachu
  6. “Chum” Earl Sweatshirt
  7. “Wenu Wenu” Omar Souleyman
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My interview with Margaret Atwood is in the Telegraph’s Stella magazine today and you can read it here. I admire her and I found her fascinating. I also found her kind of exasperating. Below is the almost-full almost-two hours of our conversation, although it never really felt like a conversation, more like intermittent lecturing and syllogistic correcting on her part. Here she is – infuriatingly dogmatic, impressively erudite.


Congratulations on Maddaddam. It struck me that this must be the longest time you’ve spent with a collection of characters.


So are you missing them now that the trilogy is finished?

Well they’re not entirely gone yet. They’re not gone until you’re not promoting the book any more. So they’re still with you until that time so there’s this kind of penumbra of hovering afterlife in which yes the story has finished but the characters are still with you – you don’t get time off to not think about them. They go off into the other world, the outer world. There used to be the convention of saying goodbye to the little book, you know, as it goes out in the world

Like at the end of The Canterbury Tales.

Yes. Yes. That was a well-known literary convention and lots of people do it. If you look at the end of Vanity Fair he does much the same thing. At the end of The Tempest it’s the same, but we don’t get to do that anymore, we don’t get to say goodbye little book.

I got the impression reading this that you might quite like to be a God’s Gardener…

I think I’d be a pigoon!

Ha. But that perhaps like Toby, you’d embrace the lifestyle while resisting the dogma?

That tends to be my stance in life. Of what’s on offer at that time it’s preferable. If you wanted to be in that world and belong to any thing, you’d probably like to want to them, but it’s a fairly steep price to pay.

Yes all the descriptions made me feel their longing for clean clothes.

You could be a Craker and not have to have any clothes at all.

The Crakers are my favourite creation and I love how both irritating and endearing their need for stories is. Are you intimating that a need for stories is not something you can bioengineer away?

Not if you want people to remain human. It does seem to be something that comes with the kit. So music, stories, an interest in visual images, dancing…anything kids do before the age of five that they do naturally and you don’t have to spend time teaching them. So with reading you have to teach, it’s not just one click, it’s a couple of clicks. Higher math, you have to teach. Seven is apparently the highest group of things we can assess at one glance. And ten of course comes fairly naturally to us. e=mc2, you’re not born with that.

The Crakers aren’t going to figure that out any time soon…

They’re not interested in figuring it out. But they are interested in stories. As soon as you have a language that has a past tense and a future tense you’re going to say where did we come from, what happens next. They’re mostly interested in where did we come from right now. None of them has died yet. Other things have died, they’ve seen dead things, but it hasn’t occured to them that maybe that might be them, that maybe might be then.

The thing I find so interesting is that the stories Snowman and Toby tell them are about where they’ve come from, but you seem concerned not with where we’ve come from, but where we’re going.

Well yes I’m me not them. But where we’ve come from- the answers are multiple, from culture to culture. They do include out of an egg, but they also include out of clamshell.

The storytelling seems to be serving Toby and Snowman as well.

In a way. It situates them. The ability to remember the past is an adaptation, it helps us plan the future. So if we can’t remember the past you’re not usually very good at the future either. Because you can’t situate yourself on a time continuum, you’re in the present.

I had a moment of struggling to orient myself in the time continuum while rereading Oryx and Crake. It was published in 2003, a decade ago, but I found the sections in which Crake and Jimmy are looking at online porn and live execution sites so dizzying because I wasn’t sure if they had existed in 2003, if they existed only now, or whether they were all, to use your phrase, speculative fiction.

Some of them did, yes. Well the porn pretty much does. The executions not in the way they’re described although in some countries they do. Public execution is a spectacle and it’s supposed to be an instructive spectacle – “this will happen to you if you step out of line” – so those are quite public in some countries and they were very public in our country until the latter part of the nineteenth century. In the eighteenth century they were practically street carnivals and Queen Elizabeth the First – everybody turned out to watch them. So it’s not very far back in time, in our own culture, that such things were being done, and they could easily be done again.

Right, so their inclusion in the novel is both backward looking and potentially prescient…

Anything we have done we could do. The human smorgasbord, all of the things on it are things we have done and could do. There’s a lot of things that aren’t on it because we’ll never be remotely interested in doing them so we don’t even think about them. So if I say to you, as it says at the beginning of the Handmaid’s Tale, don’t eat stones, well you’d think well I wouldn’t do that anyway.

Does that mean you don’t really believe in progress?!

No, I don’t believe in inevitable progress. Do I believe that some things can be improved? – Obviously. Do I believe that means everything will inevitably be improved? – No. We’ve seen cultures develop certain abilities that they’ve lost. So the people on Greenland on the Inuit side lost the ability to make kayaks for reasons we don’t know, whereas the ones on the other side retained it.

I’m interested in why you differentiate between “speculative” and “science” fiction.

The divide is “couldn’t happen” – science fiction was not called science fiction until the late twenties, early thirties. Those kinds of books were called scientific romances.

And the word romance is meant to indicate the fantastical element?

The word romance is meant to indicate it’s not a realistic novel, so it’s not Zola, it’s HG Wells, of Time Machine and War of the Worlds. So those things actually cannot happen, though it’s an interesting explanation of human nature to say well what if it could, what if they could. So there are what ifs and where ifs, and there are in speculative fiction too, but they’re possible what ifs and where ifs. So 1984 as you know was 1948 backwards and it was a placed in England transliteration of the Soviet Union. So it was basically what if we went this way – here’s the result of what that would look like. Brave New World was based on Aldous Huxley’s somewhat traumatic visit to Hollywood. So there’s all the perfumed washrooms and these kinds of things. And the little personal helicopters, all of that. All of that was possible, it hadn’t happened but it could happen – it wasn’t in a galaxy far far away in another world. So that to me is the distinction. Now it depends on how people use those terms – if you wanted to you could have a big banner over the top saying, wonder tales, and under wonder tales would be all these different things – include fairy tales and the Wizard of Earthsea and Harry Potter all those things, but you could not call Harry Potter science fiction. So what does science fiction mean? Is is what’s on the cover, is it where you shelve it in the bookstore? What does that mean.

But why is speculative rather than science -

[interrupting] Because I prefer to say “maple tree” rather than “tree”.

Right. I sense that you’re exacting.

Well I prefer to be precise otherwise you find yourself talking about something about which people have different ideas. If somebody says to you well why are you writing science fiction, or, I never read science fiction, you have to say well what do you mean by that. That’s all. It’s a useful distinction that enables us to agree on what we’re talking about. Some people get very prickly about it because they think you’re dissing science fiction. That’s not what I’m doing, I’m simply pointing out I cannot write those books. The ones inside the spaceships, much as I’m a devotee of Star Trek, I’m not good at writing them. And I can’t write dragons either. I’m not good at it. Not my forte. Not my wheelhouse. That doesn’t mean I can’t read them. Can’t write Moby Dick either. Very keen on it. And that’s not a realistic novel by the way.

You pride yourself on the veracity of the science in your novels…

I have to be within the realm of probability, or my brother, who is older than me, will let me know.

Has he ever called you out on anything?

A bit. He thought I was pretty good on the sex in Oryx and Crake but he didn’t buy the purring. My sister in law said that she did and she’s also a biologist, so difference of opinion, but we won’t know until we do it. I don’t think anybody’s working really hard on that one but they are working hard on the knockout transgenic pigs. I think they’ve now succeeded. And the glowing green rabbit, and the silk and the milk, those things have already been done, they were already done by the time I wrote the book. So some of the things were real in 2003, some of them they were working on and now they’re real, and others aren’t quite real but they could be.

I’m sure I’m not the first to tell you that a lot of your fiction seems prescient. Your book on the financial crisis -

[interrupting] Yeah but it wasn’t about that, it was about how people exchange things and how that is one of the building blocks of our culture that we had never thought about in that way. So we hadn’t really thought about the amazingly preponderant role that money plays in the nineteenth century novel. It’s omnipresent, it’s very very important to any character – how much money they’ve got and how they have it. Old money and new money, is it a little bit of money, is it invested in something that then goes bust and nobody knows why as in Cranfield, are they improvident as in David Copperfield. People were just obsessed with it as far as I can tell. All of a sudden there was new money and it had come out of nowhere and nobody knew how it was generated and it was just like, what’s happening.

But when things do come to pass -

Do I feel an “I told you?”

Yeah, a kind of grim pride.

An “I knew it?” Um. Well I don’t think it’s rocket science. And also it’s not accurate. I can’t say that I’m going to predict this and it’s going to happen in a year. If I did know that, number one people would pay me lots of money for that knowledge, number two I’d probably be extremely rich, but that isn’t the area in which we’re operating here. We’re operating along a – so here’s the future, it has many branching paths, this one over here is quite improbable but not out of the question. This one here is extremely likely and then there are some over here which is what I’m writing about.

In lots of interviews with you I’ve come across this quote from William Gibson -

“The future’s already here but it’s unevenly distributed”.

Exactly. That resonates with you?

Yeah I’ve quoted it a number of times. Yeah it’s unevenly distributed.

Have there been specific instances where a particular thing has happened as you’re writing, before publication?

Ok here’s the weirdest thing that happened. We did the opera of the Handmaid’s Tale and it premiered in the year 2000 in Copenhagen. And it opens with a film reel of the events that have lead up to the situation that you’re about to see and there’s this and that and this and that and one of them is the twin towers blowing up. So then we did it again in 2002 and we had to take that part out because it had in fact already happened. But that wasn’t me, that was whoever made the film clip. It came as a bit of a shock.

I always think of the cover of Underworld, with the twin towers and the plane – how that cast DeLillo as prophetic.

Yeah. Well if you saw Star Wars, the plot of 9/11 is in that film. As you can see, you take this plane and you fly it into the death star – in the movie they get out – but in real life let’s pretend you wouldn’t be able to.

I’m surprised you’re a Star Wars fan…

Why would I not be! Remember when I grew up – I grew up in the golden age of Flash Gordon and sci-fi, so when we told stories as children they were always on other planets. Where else would you have it. So we came along in that genre, which in both in cheap magazines and comic books was flourishing quite well thank you very much in the late fifties. Ray Bradbury was publishing his classic works right then and there. I mean you were reading them hot off the press. Him and a number of now considered classic writers, that’s when they were publishing. So…we also had stuff like the collected HG Wells, it was just around, there’s no chasm that has to be jumped there. It’s very familiar territory to me – that doesn’t mean I can write it.

Does your imagination ever disturb you?

In what way – “how could I have thought that”?


The only disturbing thing is, “if I could have thought it so could other people.” So, if I think I’ve thought something up all on my own I’m wrong – somebody else is thinking the same thing. That’s the disturbing thing.

But do you have to overcome a certain self-censorship?

Am I squeamish?

No, I don’t really mean visceral horrors – I mean more psychological ones – the entire world of these three novels is so frightening – do you have to be brave to imagine it?

I don’t really think of it in those terms. I think they’re cheering books because so far they’re only books. And you close the cover – it hasn’t happened yet. There are no zombies. On the other hand, with anything like that it’s no good to say to a three year old, there’s nothing under the bed. What you have to say is, I’m aware of the monster under the bed but I’ve made a deal.

Like talking to a Craker.

In a way, but my point being, people like to walk through in imagination potential disasters, because number one there’s always somebody who survives otherwise there isn’t going to be a story. Number two, they like to think about what they themselves might do – how would I do this. That is why zombie stories are so popular at the moment. In societal collapse, how would I, me, you, make it through with my band of buddies. How am I going to make the lights go on, where am I going to get the food. What about the flush toilets.

Where have I stashed my mushroom elixir.

Yes, what about those bees, where do I get some.

When you’re deep in the writing of a novel is it literally full time – by which I mean, does it occupy your mind even when you’re not writing?

In an ideal world yes. In the real world things interrupt. So in theory yes, in practical life…I think you switch back and forth. Because otherwise there’s going to be no laundry. There are phone calls to make. You can’t just stop having your life.

Would you rather be fully occupied by it and not have to ever do the laundry?

I think that would get boring and claustrophobic pretty quickly. I’m happier coming and going. You always think oh if only I had a little chalet in the mountains and people to deliver me three meals a day and how great that would be and how I’d do all this writing except no I wouldn’t – I’d do the same amount of writing I do now and the rest of the time I’d go stir crazy. If you’re waiting for the perfect moment you’ll never write a thing because it will never arrive.

Do you find you have a foolproof routine?

I have no routine. I have no foolproof anything. There’s nothing foolproof. There are a lot of hints and tips but if you can’t use them then they’re not for you and it doesn’t work. People have their stuff that they do but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s transferrable.

Do you write every day?

I would like to lie and say oh yes of course I do. Who was it, Arnold Bennett, who prided himself on writing a certain number of words every day like clockwork. I actually don’t do anything like clockwork, I’m not a clock!

But I understand that you work in very long stretches – that you can sit down and write for eight hours at a time.

Towards the end. Towards the end, because you know where you’re going. Or if you think the horse race – what you want to do is pace yourself so you keep up with the pack and then make your breakaway at the end and that’s what you’ll see in any good horse race and what you’ll see in any foot race unless there’s somebody way out ahead. So…as you approach the end you speed up because you can see the barn door and it’s open. I don’t know whether you’ve ever been around horses before, but they say always close the barn door because if the horse sees it it’ll make a bolt.

And you map out your characters’ lives – can you tell me about that?

I like to know when they’re born. I like to know what month and year so if you do the months down the side and the years across the top you can pinpoint when their birthdays are so you always know exactly how old they are in relation to each other and then you can put world events if it’s a realistic novel. And if it’s not a realistic novel you can put the events that are in the novel to figure out how long ago this thing happened in relation to that thing. And that’s just a useful, easily referred to thing. So since you have to choose their birth dates in months and years you can look up their horoscopes if you want to. There’s a lot of online programmes where you put in the year and the month and the day and you get their entire horoscope.

So you don’t have to do any work! There’s your character delivered to you.

Well it’s supposed to be their characteristics but as you know with horoscopes there’s a lot of contradictory things. You have a lot of choices but at least you know that this person on a given date is not three years older than that other person but two years older.

What happens if the horoscope really clashes with your idea of them!

I change it!


I can’t remember actually having done that but I would do. The reason I’m conscious of it is that my birthday is in November so people always think I’m a year older than I am, because they’re only looking at the year. But I’m the age that I am which is always the last digit – at least until the middle of the month. I keep having to correct them.

So you’re 73.

That’s right, you gottit, it’s 2013.

Would you consider the world “polemical” a compliment when applied to your writing?

It depends which kind of writing. If it’s applied to my polemical pieces which are usually published in newspapers, absolutely. Absolutely they’re polemical. Applied to my fiction? Not so much. So which piece of fiction, are we going to talk about Alias Grace which is about a Victorian person who got incarcerated – where’s the polemic? It’s not about prison reform. It’s about did she do it.

So do you think it’s the responsibility of fiction to resist polemic?

Ok if you go to my only work that I’ve written of this kind called Negotiating With The Dead and look at the chapter, I think number four, there’s a point where I say to another writer, should the writer put in a moral. And the other writer says pretty much what Chekhov said, which is, the reader supplies the moral. I think what Chekhov said is if you need me to tell you what the moral is you’re not a very moral person. So, you lay it out and let other people make up their minds. And they have a lot of choice and often there are moments of decision in which it’s the reader who decides. So at the end of Oryx and Crake you’re not told whether Jimmy Snowman is going to shoot the other human beings or not. You have to decide what you would do at that moment. And often people can’t decide, they don’t know. But often they can decide. Reading is extremely interactive. The brain is the most active while reading as compared with movies or television because those forms supply a lot for you, whereas with reading you’re doing the set design, you’re doing all the voices, you’re doing whether a person looks like James Mason or not. You’re casting it, you’re essentially building your own inner theatre. So it is very interactive, therefore the reader is a highly active participant. The reader is the performer of the book in the way that a violinist is the performer of the written music. Every new interpretation – every person reading a book is going to be, as it were, performing a different interpretation of that book, just as one acting troupe’s Hamlet is not the same as another acting troupe’s Hamlet.

Or one group’s version of your hymns.

Yes, it’s different. So that’s the moment when the black stuff on the page comes back to life and all of those black things on the page are like musical scores.

As Blackbeard in the novel struggles to understand…

Yes. The voice of this person. So yes you’re hearing the voice of this person but you’re hearing it through your own performance. It’s Mozart, but it’s me playing Mozart. Would he like it? We don’t know. But we know that Mozart is not Berlioz, so that’s what we know.

A friend of mine thinks the book might be the most radical medium there is in terms of it being an art form you can’t put an ad in.

Ohhhh yes you can. When I received the paperback of Surfacing back in 1973 or 4 and it had this honking big ad for menthol cigarettes

What! In the book??

Yes, in the book. And I said what’s this doing in here and they said, you didn’t tell us not to. The publisher had sold ad space in the middle of the book.

What did you do?

Get them to do it again. So never say never, for any form of advertising. Product placement.

Does that horrify you?

I’m too old really to be horrified by these things because they’re part of human nature. It’s like saying are you horrified that there are cockroaches living in nuclear reactors, well no I’m not, because it’s life exploiting every niche. So you may not approve of it. I think the book to read on that subject is probably Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift in which he says there are some things we consider to be out of the commercial world, such as selling babies and peddling your internal organs. We consider that some things should not be bought and sold in the common marketplace and so far we consider that should apply to works of fiction but we may not always consider that.

I often think of that David Foster Wallace essay in which he talks about the difference between art and advertising – that art loves you and ads don’t love you.

Yes. They want something from you. And that’s what we mean by polemical. Polemical is when you want people to take action as a result of your, what is in essence, a sermon. And some novels are like that and there’s a long history of the novel doing that – Nicholas Nickleby was targeted expressly against certain kinds of exploitative boys schools and the result was there was an investigation into them and the worst ones were closed down. So that’s…that’s polemical fiction. We read it now as fiction because we think those kinds of schools aren’t with us any more.

But we are in environmental crisis so…

Yes. But on the other hand what kind of action to take is unknown to everyone. So there is no clear, thou shalt do this, that you can do. So it’s not really the same, quite. I mean, saying, I think we’re in a bad position is different from saying, convert to Christianity. It’s different.

But do you know of action happening in the world because of your novels?

Because of novels yes, because of my novels I can’t say that I do but then on the other hand people come up to you and say your writing has changed my life. You don’t actually want at that point to ask them what they mean. They may not be able to give you a concrete example. What they really mean is, you’ve changed the way they look at the world.

I’ve read that men write to you to tell you their marriages might have been saved had they read your work.

Yes one person did say that to me. No, even better than that, I’ve had people say your book saved our marriage. So I didn’t even want to go there. But yes, I’ve had people say things like that. But I think they say them to every writer. So somebody probably will say that to every writer and it means that something of yours has fit a little niche in their life at the appropriate moment.

I guess out of necessity you don’t take it personally?

I can’t. You don’t know about other people’s lives and if something of yours happens to be of help to them that’s wonderful, but it wasn’t me waving any kind of magic wand. The book is the intermediary. So Chapter 5 of Negotiating with the Dead is about the eternal triangle which is the writer, the book and the reader. There is no direct writer to reader communication. It’s always through the book and the reader identifies with the book. I mean they may think you’re a nice person and all of that and thank you for writing the book but their real attachment is to the book.

You’re very active as an author – you tweet, you do a lot of signings and readings -

That’s a different form of activity.

But is it discomfiting when people approach you and effectively jump that intermediary of the book?

Well what they’re saying essentially is what you say in a gift economy, which is thank you. You know, that is the most basic, most minimal thing that happens in a gift economy, which doesn’t happen in a commercial economy. So if I buy a motorcar, thank you very much here’s the money goodbye, I don’t then come back and say oh the experience of driving this thing, thank you so much for selling it to me…you don’t do that, you’ve done the exchange, that’s it, goodbye. Whereas when people receive the gift of the book they do say thank you because that’s what you do in a gift economy. So when I was explaining this to people, which I do sometimes, I say, so when you open the door for somebody and they go through and don’t say thank you how do you feel. So let’s make it worse, you’re in your car and you let them go in in front of you and they don’t give you the wave, how do you feel. So that’s what it is. Now, with art you’re putting it out there into the world, so there isn’t that moment when you say I’m giving this to you, but nonetheless, people feel bestowed, they feel a gift has been bestowed on them and then they will write you a cute note.

But is that a little bewildering to you?

No, because I understand it. I understand, thanks to Lewis Hyde, the gift economy and how it differs from the commercial economy. They’re two different ways of exchanging things. We’re so used to just the one thing that we think that’s all there is but once you start to think about it you realise that isn’t true at all. There are all these other exchanges that we’re constantly making that come under the banner of, this is a gift.

Yes, and I guess problems arise when people are operating on different economies.

When they’re confused about which it is. So how he sees publication is as a stage – and I understand this because I grew up with an entomologist – it’s a stage a work of art has to go through in order to transform back into the gift. So this thing, that I’m spinning from out of air, and then it gets made into a book and through the hands of several intermediaries including the publisher and the bookseller and it gets into the hands of the reader and then it transforms back into a gift. Various confusions are possible along the way. One of them is: “I should get everything for nothing”, one of them is, “although my Auntie Mabel gave me this for Christmas I didn’t really like it and I’m going to write to the writer and tell them I hated their book. So all these different changes can take place. But essentially you’re making nothing into something, then it goes through a commercial stage that takes it back into something into voice, which is what the reader does with it. If the book is only in a library it’s dead for the duration of the time it’s there. I mean, ok so you write a book, nobody’s reading it, it’s in the library, it’s inert. So books are alive when they’re being read. Music is alive when it’s being played. When it’s not being played it’s potential music, but it isn’t music.

Do you crave the physical presence of books or do you read a lot electronically?

My house is filled with books, up to the rafters. It is a different neurological experience, we are now being told. What people worry about is that young people are losing the ability to read in depth, I kind of don’t think that’s true…it’s based on the belief that once upon a time everybody was intensely literate, which was never true. Anyway, the jury is out – the idea that in the nineteenth century everyone read all these long Russian novels, I mean it’s rubbish, they were mostly reading porn.

Right. But also novels then were thought of in the same way we think about reality TV now.

They weren’t considered art until the last quarter of the nineteenth century and then Flaubert got hold of it and Henry James and Oscar Wilde turned it into an art form and started dismissing lady novelists. Before that time the novel was considered a much inferior form to poetry. So the great artists were Wordsworth, Tennyson, Browning, people like that and the inferior writers were writing novels, for entertainment – crowd-pleasing entertainment. But George Eliot was serious about it but she wasn’t serious about it so much as a form as the content. The person who made it into the high art form was basically Flaubert. You can read about that in Negotiating With The Dead. Which is the great debate about priests of art, high priests of art, and whether you can be a high priestess of art.

I’ve actually read you described as a “high priestess” in one interview.

Me? Yeah well they haven’t thought about it much have they.

So do you read electronically?

I read in every possible way. I experiment with every delivery form, I take note of various desperate measures that people adopt. I am aware of serial reading online and participate in it. So you name it, I’ve done it.

And have you drawn any conclusions?

Not yet, jury is out. Jury is out.

Tell me about your environmental awareness. I know you grew up in a family of scientists, deep in the woods for much of the time, but were there any revelatory moments in terms of realising the crisis we’re in?

No I just grew up with this stuff, it’s been dinner table conversation since 1948 – this is not new stuff and it’s been predicted time and time again and we’re on course for what was predicted before. So give or take a decade, you know? Some things are happening faster than people thought, other things are happening more slowly. But it’s happening. So this is not new stuff. And there have been a couple of near-misses in the past. One of them was the Rachel Carson moment and one of them was the Agent Orange moment that killed the marine algae – and there goes our oxygen. So we almost did that during the Vietnam war because we were shipping vast quantities of Agent Orange across the Pacific and if a couple of those had gone down and leaked that would have been the end of us. That stuff is extremely potent.

Do you feel privileged to have had the childhood that you did?

Well it didn’t feel privileged at the time because we didn’t have any money. What I really didn’t have is a lot of frilly dresses. So no, it did not feel…but any child’s life, if you’re living that life, that’s what feels normal. You don’t think privileged, not privileged, it’s just what you’re doing. So in a way privileged, but in a material way certainly not.

I loved your disavowal of the “pink angora sweater” version of girlhood – does that mean you were quite a tomboy?

Well only as a switch hitter, which I’ve always been. So in the woods yes but in cities I would have quite liked to have the pink angora sweater. Or other forms of angora sweaters. But I think probably people who live dual lives, as I did, are adaptable. You adapt to each one as you’re living it, so you don’t go to the fancy restaurant with the white table cloth in your jeans, running shoes and soot covered t shirt.

And there was a clear moment when you decided to be a writer, can you tell me about that?

In high school, I was sixteen. If you go to Negotiating With The Dead and look at chapter 1. So yes, I came back to writing when I was sixteen and followed that past ever since.

And you wrote in your high school yearbook that your ambition was to write the great Canadian novel.

Yes I wrote all those write-ups for the people in my year, so that little thing that’s written about me I wrote. And the things that were written about all the other people – I wrote them too.

So you were already taking the authorial path…

Well no you got elected to do these things – “who’s going to write our school year book” – “how ‘bout her.”

Returning to the pink angora sweater thing -

[interrupting] Oh I was quite girly, I sewed my own dresses. I was the girliest person in my family but all that means is I was the girliest person in my family, not that I was the girliest person I ever knew. So I liked the decorative arts, I liked dresses, I liked sewing. My mother was a tomboy and only ever went shopping with me once that I recall, she just had no interest. So I did all of that myself and everybody else thought I was quite girlie, everyone in my family did, but of course if I ran into other people who were afraid of mice and other squeamish silly things, that wasn’t me. So was I catching fish and bludgeoning them to death, yes I was.

But you also liked pink angora sweaters.

Yes, it doesn’t have to be one or the other. There was this girly thing in those days where girls were supposed to go “oo! ew!” and I just thought that was stupid.

In this book there seems to be an impatience with women who are overly concerned with their appearance – I’m thinking of Lucerne in particular.

But that is a sexual rivalry. Toby is overly concerned with her appearance as well. It’s like anybody that you’re jealous of and think is a sexual rival – you don’t approve of their clothing choice, you know that from your own experience.

That, as well as all of the plastic surgery in the novel, made me think about the narcissism of this age.

It’s not more narcissistic than other ages.

But do you think it seems that way because social media facilitates that? – I’ve been thinking about Instagram and how socially acceptable it is – more than acceptable – expected – that you post lots of pictures of yourself.

Is it.

And this word “selfie” has entered our discourse…

Yes I just heard about that.

It’s kind of bewildering to me…

I say they should enjoy it while they can. You’ll be happy later to have taken pictures of yourself when you looked good. It’s human nature. It’s very very human nature. Body decoration, decoration of self, sexual display – they’ve all been there for a very very very long time and it does no good to puritanically say oh you shouldn’t be doing that, because people do. So there are ages in which it’s discouraged and there are other ages in which it’s wildly encouraged and we happen to be in the wildly encouraged age at this moment. It’ll change back. It’ll go here, it’ll go back there, it always has. So the puritans in the seventeenth century, very plain. Followed by the restoration, extremely self-indulgent and narcissistic. So end of the eighteenth century, right before all the heads got chopped off, extremely decorated. In comes the revolution, get rid of your fancy white wig and put on the white collar, get rid of the bustle. Moves into the Regency – we’re going to do Grecian. You can see it morphing. If you go through a book of costume, then the waist comes in the sleeves go out. And then we get modesty in the middle of the nineteenth century and then that morphs into extreme decolletage and a great big bustle. So it goes back and forth. And then all of a sudden something happens and the skirts go up. After World War One to the late 20s. Nobody knows what to do about that. Crisis. You’re not supposed to have a bosom either. Flat chest. Invention of the two way rubber stretch girdle. That facilitated the thirties bias cut evening dress, which you couldn’t have worn otherwise.

Yes I’m thinking of the maximalist, outre clothing of the 80s and then how that changed into the minimalism of the 90s and Calvin Klein and so on…

Yes. What are we doing now – just about everything. Look at what’s come back see – [pointing to jeans of woman beside us] – we thought those were gone forever, the skin tight pedal pushers. Capri pants. The other thing that always happens is that new fabrics and pieces of tech facilitate different fashions. So the extreme high heel – you couldn’t have had them before the invention of whatever they’re putting inside of them. Probably some kind of steel.

I’m interested in how your personal definition of feminism has changed over the years.

Ok so there’s all different slices. One of them has to do with the law – what is it legal for women to do – I’m interested in that one. What is it approved of or not approved of for women to wear. Ok, so I say decorate to your heart’s content, because people will anyway and it’s a fallacy to suggest that women dress just for men. It’s just not true. And most of the time men don’t notice what you’re wearing anyway, but women do. They dress for their own self image – this is who I am, this is what I look like. It becomes constraining when they feel they’re being forced to put on stuff that they don’t want to wear. Other than that it’s how about it, it’s fun. It’s fun. I think it’s bad when it’s connected to a lot of anxiety – “I don’t look good in this” – that’s when it becomes bad. And I think airbrushing and photoshopping and all this stuff – but all you have to do is look at the before and after pictures and you know it’s all done with mirrors and lighting so you can make anyone look good, you can make anyone look terrible. Social behaviour. Ok, social behaviour we’re still having a problem with. When you get a woman being essentially kidnapped and raped to death you know you’re handling a big problem. So hunter gatherers, women were more equal and children were less numerous. We get into agriculture and women’s position goes down and hierarchies form and slavery comes in, the number of children go up. The industrial age hits – technology like typewriters and computers comes in and upper body strength is no longer so important – women’s equality goes up. Is there push back? Yes. So, if by feminism you mean all women are wonderful all men are terrible, no, it’s a) not true and you know if you went to school that girls have their own hierarchies and bad behaviour. So that should not be a secret any longer. Do I feel that feminism is a set of human rights? – Yes, because I radically think that women are human beings and therefore they have all the variety that other human beings have and some of them are wonderful, others are terrible and most of them are in between. But just because some of them are wonderful, some of them are terrible and most of them are in between, that should not have any bearing on the laws. Because with men some of them are terrible, some of them are wonderful and most of them are in between. Do I feel that men are hard done by in certain areas of the world, such as child custody? Yes I do. That’s gone too far in one direction, having been very far in the other direction – in the nineteenth century women didn’t get custody, even if the divorce was not their fault. Then it swung all the way over to women and it has to come back more to the men.

One thing I’m seeing is the way that it’s sort of acceptable for women to behave unpleasantly to men and justify that in the name of “feminism”. I’m thinking particularly of domestic scenes in TV ads.

That’s been going on since the forties. But as people point out about humour, if there are two people that are unequal, by structure and law, and the superior one is mean to the inferior one, that’s not funny. It’s the reverse that’s funny and you get them in sitcoms. But being mean to people is being mean to people whoever those people are. That’s why I was saying human rights – women are human beings.

I think a lot of readers come to your work through The Handmaid’s Tale…

There again, it’s not all men having a wonderful time and women not – the men at the top are having a wonderful time, it’s a hierarchy. The women at the top are having a less wonderful time than the men at the top but they’re still doing very well compared to those at the bottom. Think Nazi Germany.

Have you reread it, reappraised it?


What are your thoughts?

That would be another quite long conversation. You don’t get to feel proud of things. That’s not how it works. It just isn’t. I think it’s lazy. In my puritanical way. In my puritanical, workaholic, fifties way, I think it’s lazy. That generation was post-war workoholic. It was the sixties that went into the tune in tune on tune out. Which we just thought was lazy.

I love that a T shirt was made with the quote “every woman writer should have Graham Gibson as a husband.”

He thought it was funny.

How is he your best supporter?

That’s like “when did you stop beating your wife” – I don’t even know he is my best supporter. But nonetheless he’s pretty good – he mostly just keeps out of the way. And I don’t show him my books before they’re in print. I recommend it. Supposing your spouse doesn’t like your work – then you’re in trouble. I show my editors and agents and usually some people who are just good readers.

Who gives you the most joy on Twitter?

Little moments of serendipity happen and they’re really quite silly. People send me things they think I would be interested in and I usually am. I think one of the most fun things recently was this gender flipping of covers, that can provide endless entertainment. I think 10 Scariest Easter Bunnies is pretty good. Look them up. I didn’t realise people dressed up as Easter Bunnies.

And that list is in the book! – So life finds its way into fiction…

Oh yes. I crib from life all the time.

I know you’re a technophile, a great engager with new technologies…

[interrupting] Engaging with contemporary technology and being a technophile are two different things. I’m a techno-experimenter and I feel I’m old enough to do it and report back to the youngers because they could do it and ruin their lives. They might be made to feel inadequate because they don’t like it or they don’t get on with it. So my general thing about it is try it out, but if you don’t like it don’t do it. If it makes you unhappy don’t do it at all. I think it can make you unhappy and it can especially make you unhappy to be told you ought to be doing it and then you don’t like it. And then you feel oh, I’m not doing what I should, if only I did blah blah blah. It’s like anything else, it works for some people and not others.

But Twitter it seems is a pure pleasure for you?

It’s like having a little radio show. It’s also like being at a party. And therefore, although I might pass along stuff that concerns me, I mostly pass along stuff that concerns other people. So you will see things about science, things about other books, things about people’s books that I like, events that I think people might be interested in, competitions I think they might be interested in. And your followers sort themselves out. They’ll go on and off depending on whether they think you’re sending on anything of interest. It’s also like a party in that you wouldn’t go to a party and say, here’s my book! I don’t think that’s the way it works best – you can do that on your website, because people going to your website are looking for that. It’s a billboard. Pinterest seems to be mostly here’s my sofa – a lot of interior decoration, so I’m not sure that it’s for me. There’s various different ones that people have started… Wattpad I support because I think it facilitates reading and writing, for younger people I think it’s an entering gateway, it makes it possible for young writers to put their stuff up without people knowing who they are, it’s pretty friendly, I don’t think it allows a lot of cursing and yelling. And therefore, if you’re looking to see if somebody might read your thing, there it is. Byliner replaces the glossy magazine market for fiction and non fiction so I’m in favour of it. What am I not in favour of…There are so many different ones. If you’re a knitter you might like a site called rabbit thing. If you’re an artist and you’re putting your stuff up to be sold, etsy… And so and so forth. Glossy if you want to make a thing that looks like a magazine. You can go on Glossy and see my brochure for the Happy Zombie Sunrise, where you can send your zombified relative and have them well taken care of.

This is the project you’re doing with Naomi Alderman, yes?

Yes, it’s up on Wattpad. We did it basically for fun and I play the grandmother and she plays the granddaughter and the opener is that the granddaughter phones the grandmother and says, mum has just eaten dad in the kitchen, what should I do. And the grandmother says, I never liked that woman, but she’s family, so we can’t eliminate her. So we’ll have to get her on a plane to England where they have the Happy Zombie Sunrise centre as they would.

Do you take the same approach to technology as you do to contemporary culture -

[interrupting] Stirrups are a technology. Spears are a technology. So the idea of people making things that change the way they can do things is very very very very very very old. And if you go to the presentation I did called Tools Of Change one of the slides says every technology there are three sides – the good side, the bad side and the stupid side. There are plusses and minuses and then just pieces of unexpected stupidity, for everything.

But I wondered, for example, whether you watch much TV.

Do I watch movies, yes, do I watch a lot of television no but I get the boxed set afterwards. So I prefer to watch it when it’s finished.

I know some writers feel like it’s their professional obligation to be very engaged in contemporary culture…

It’s not a professional obligation because I’m too old.

Too old?

Yes. I could sit in a rocking chair and everyone would think I was normal. Instead I get oh my goodness you’re so engaged. But that’s just curiosity, it’s not a feeling that I have to be engaged. Yes I’m afraid it’s my insatiable curiosity. Like Rudyard Kipling The Elephant’s Trunk.

Do the words “national treasure” strike horror in your heart?

I think more horror is struck by the word “icon”. Icons are essentially inert objects made of wood and they lead to iconoclasm. And national treasure…I think all of these things set a standard of behaviour that you don’t necessarily wish to live up to. If you’re put on a pedestal you’re supposed to behave yourself like a pedestal type of person. So pedestals actually have a very limited circumference, not much room to move around. So I prefer to remain the Elephant’s Trunk. He didn’t have a trunk until his insatiable curiosity caused him to have one. It’s how the elephant got its trunk. He asked too many questions and finally they sent him off to the crocodile who seized hold of his nose and pulled and pulled and pulled and that’s how the elephant got his trunk, but it came in very useful to him. Poking their noses into things that are none of their business. Insatiable curiosity. It is very very interesting you have to admit – the world, this moment of technology which is like the Burgess Shale moment of technology. That will be something you can look up on the internet. It’s a geological stratum which a time period captured in some shale discovered by a man called Burgess. In these layers of shale were all these extremely unusual creatures, most of which became extinct – so there were ones with eleven eyes and fifteen and a half legs and things that we just don’t have any more and that’s the period of technology that we’re in on the internet, you can say we’re in the early age of the typewriter, there were very many models of keyboards but only one survived. So people are experimenting with all these different things – how many of them will survive, we don’t know. People have largely failed to solve is how do you monetise a website. So we know – if you go on to the O’Reilly’s tools of change you’ll know that the string which connects a with b – writer – reader – string – the string is the connector, so it’s the telephone, it’s the internet, it’s the bookstore, it’s all of these places that enable you to access what people in the business are increasingly calling content. So the people making all the money are the string and they’d like it very much for the writer not to make any money. They would like for the string to have all of the money – if you do that you’re going to end up with essentially a big wad of string and nothing much being connected. So that’s what my presentation was about.

As a journalist it’s pretty worrying…

That’s why I believe one should pay for subscriptions to newspapers online. You don’t get these journalistic pieces out of nowhere. And there are various schemes coming up now – there’s a new one called cents up in which you’re able to reward the pieces of writers that you have liked. It’s just in its infancy. But newspapers are going into all sorts of different models – they’re rewarding their subscribers and doing this and that and this and that. There’s a reinvention of how you provide that content and how, as they say, it’s monetised.

The phrase “content provider” makes me feel a bit queasy.

And it should. It should make you feel a bit queasy. The idea of profession of any kind goes out the window because a content provider can be anybody. Anybody can do it and they’re increasingly looking for gatekeepers again – so how do I know this is any good -

And I think Twitter is great in that respect – so often the way I’m lead to a piece isn’t, for example, through going to the New York Times homepage, but through five people in my feed tweeting a link to it.

Yes. You can create a news story by having it hit social media first. And it is creating, through Avaaz and Change and some of those kinds of things – the ability to create petitions and get large numbers of subscribers to them. You can actually change political decisions that way.

Did you ever think about going into politics?

No, I would be a terrible, terrible, terrible politician.


I would not be able to lie. Politics is the art of the possible, as you know. You have to be very very pragmatic, you have to be a dealmaker and I just wouldn’t be very good at it. It’s also exhausting – it takes a huge amount of stamina and the hide of a rhinoceros, because much as you may feel that bad book reviews are excoriating, once you’re in politics everybody feels they can have at you – it’s the French Revolution every day.

They’re beheading you constantly.

Yeah, constantly. I’m interested in certain moments of politics and I’m also fascinated by the extent to which modern politicians do not yet get social media. They don’t get it but if somebody catches them with their hand in the cookie jar they should immediately fess up and apologise, otherwise it just looks wriggly. It just looks very squirmy, very dodgy, so their best move is to say I don’t know what got into me, I’m so sorry, what can I do. But they just shouldn’t do it in the first place, because don’t they know yet that everything leaks like a sieve.

As I think Crake says in the novel.

Yeah. Leaks like a sieve. That’s why the God’s Gardeners back in 2009 or whatever it was said you can’t use phones. No phones, we’re not letting you use any computers because it’s too visible.

Do you ever feel email and Twitter become tyrannical for you?

Oh constantly. Well things were tyrannical before – it used to be the typewriter and letters and everything but you had a bit more time – nobody expected an instant reply. So yes, they are tyrannical and you could do very well with a summer camp when you check those things at the door – so you say, I’m away for two weeks, I’m offline. And people are resorting to that more and more. I welcome the fax machine, I thought that was good, but it quickly got discovered by spammers and then the floor would be covered in paper. They’ve given up on that now. It’s a big problem – we want to communicate, it’s a human thing, but we want to communicate when we want to communicate – and then we want everybody to answer our inquiry. We don’t want to answer theirs!

I hate that when I tweet I’m then cravenly checking to see who’s replied – I wish I could just serenely send it off into the world and then ignore it.

That’s mostly what I do. I go back over the ones – I scroll down and see if there’s anything I need to answer or retweet.

But do you find you have to limit your Twitter time?

About ten minutes a day.

That’s lean!

Unless I get sucked into it. Because it does suck you in and it is addictive and so are emails and the reason they’re all addictive is the easter bunny egg – there might be an easter bunny egg for me. I remember the feeling of the old mailbox – oh there might be something in the mailbox for me, and often there is but it’s just a stupid old flier but it’s there. It’s the same thing – you’re rewarded for paying attention with a little bit of adrenaline – oh what has the easter bunny left for me today – oh it’s a pile of shit.

But presumably people on Twitter do send you a lot of easter eggs?

They do, but if they send me piles of shit I block them. If they’re respectfully sending me piles of shit I don’t. But the ranting and swearing – you’ll usually look at that and see they have a followership of about three. So you think oh you don’t get it yet.

Right, learn the Twitter manners.

Yes. And I think it is becoming a lot more mannerly than it used to. Every one of these things when they hit, there’s a moment when people are working out the codes. With cellphones it took a relatively long amount of time for people to remember to turn them off in the theatre. And they had to start giving the warnings, and now people do turn them off. But I remember in the early days they’d ring. If you read early books about etiquette – you shouldn’t lean your chair against the wall and put your hair-oiled head up against the wall, when hair oil came in. All of these things. Spitoons – warnings about spitoons. We don’t have to worry about that any more.

I feel like you’re enacting that within the God’s Gardeners – the way etiquette builds, the way a group of people form codes together.


To return to fashion for a moment – I liked the way in which the women in the God’s Gardeners choose different bed sheets depending on their mood.

You would wouldn’t you!

Of course – the world’s ended but these things still matter.

Yes, well..we talk about the world ending but in fact the world hasn’t ended in this book – human beings have been severely diminished but the world itself – and let me just drive into your head that one of the most flourishing wildlife zones right now is the area around Chernobyl because there aren’t any people there. The second one is the demilitarised zone between north and south Korea. I just got this book from George Monbiot called Feral and I’m looking forward to reading that and I think one of the things he’s going to tell me is that farming areas that have been abandoned because they were no longer viable are growing in again. And that will be very interesting to see how that all plays out – so will we increasingly live in cities, will we start growing vertical gardens, will we conquer the energy problem which is our biggest problem right now – it’s all technically possible. Do we have the political will to do it? – Question.

Do you consider yourself an optimist?

Any writer is an optimist. Why. Number one, they think they’ll finish their book. Number two they think somebody will publish it. Number three they think somebody will read it. That’s a lot of optimism. No matter what the content is, it’s optimistic in and for itself because it believes in human communication and it believes in the possibility of accomplishing that.

That seems like a pretty good note to end on.


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