The Guardian on the lives of British mid-list authors, who used to be able to make a living writing, and since 2008… have struggled. “Welcome poverty! Welcome misery, welcome houselessness, welcome hunger, rags, tempest, and beggary! Mutual confidence will sustain us to the end!”
I hate hipsters, I hate liberals, I hate rock’n’rollers, I hate the counter-culture, I hate movie people. I want to go somewhere quiet, peaceful and decorous, and be radical in my mind. I have fatuous American ideas about Britain. I want to go to the moors. I want to buy a shotgun from Purdey for a lot of money, but I understand it’s tough to buy a gun – you can’t just walk in and say, “I’m an American, give me that gun.” … The potential nightmare for me is I go to Britain and all I see is like in LA; meth labs, white trash and women with tattoos.
Meanwhile, while James Ellroy contemplates leaving sickening America, Martin Amis has already left England for America, because England sickens him. The grass being greener, and all.
I first heard of Nathan Graziano from long-time Air in the Paragraph Line contributor Daniel Crocker; the two of them are long-time friends who have collaborated on various projects over the years. Graziano submitted a story I published in AITPL #13, but I’ve spent more time talking to him about baseball. So to make this interview more fun, I’ve arranged it into nine “innings” of questions, with the top of each inning being a writing question, and the bottom inning being a baseball question. And because I’m a Colorado Rockies fan and he’s a Boston Red Sox fan, and given what happened in the 2007 World Series, some of my questions were slightly biased…
Top of the first: You recently finished your MFA. How was your experience? Did it help you learn more about writing, or was it more about making connections?
I’m not going to trash-talk MFA programs, which can be the tendency with those in the indie-lit scenes who claim they produce vacuous, cookie-cutter writing. In my opinion, MFA programs take some time off the learning the curve. In other words, by having the opportunity to be around other writers and working with professional writers, you almost learn through osmosis. While MFA’s are anything but necessary in the writing world, they’re a great opportunity for those who have the privilege of taking three years out of their life to write. I went part-time, and it took me five years to complete the degree. It was worth the time, definitely.
Of course, it’s no secret that the writing industry is all about connections, and it does give a certain breed of sycophantic writers an opportunity to do some serious ass-kissing.
Bottom of the first: So do you actually like the song “Sweet Caroline”? I mean, do you hear it in the off-season and tear up a bit and get eager for April, or is it one of those annoyances like the pink baseball caps?
Thank you for asking. I hate that fucking song! “Sweet Caroline” is NOT a Fenway Park tradition. They started playing it in the 8th inning of home games somewhere around 2004. It was the Pink Hats (the affluent Boston urbanites who wouldn’t know a baseball from a tit, yet drive up ticket prices for Red Sox games to the point where no real fan can afford to go anymore) who embrace that song as a Red Sox tradition. These are people who were nowhere to be found pre-2004, before the Sox became sexy in Boston social circles. I guarantee you, the real Sox fans were not singing “Sweet Caroline” in 1998, when we got head-faked by a walk-off by Mo Vaughn on Opening Day.
Top of the second: You’re a teacher by trade. What do you teach?
I teach high school English and have been teaching for 11 years. Currently, I teach senior elective courses, including advising the school newspaper (interesting stuff). I love my job. While I realize a lot of writers scoff at high school teachers, especially those looking for that golden ticket in academia, I don’t share those sentiments. I’m fortunate to be able to do what I do.
Bottom of the second: There were rumors of a Todd Helton/Manny Ramirez swap in the 06/07 offseason. If that happened, do you think Boston still would have made the Series, or would we have been watching a Yankees/Phillies fall classic? Were you for or against that rumored swap?
Listen, Todd Helton, while a dangerous hitter, is no Manny Ramirez. When the Sox traded Manny to LA for Jason Bay, everyone knew Jason Bay was also no Manny Ramirez. Manny is like an idiot savant with a baseball bat, and aside from A-Rod and Pujols, probably the best hitter of his generation (asterisks included). When the Sox dealt Manny, there was no choice. Like Nomar Garciaparra in 2004, he had become a cancer in the clubhouse. But still. You never replace Manny Ramirez. Not with Helton, Bay, Howard, or anyone really.
Top of the third: How do you manage your time, divided between a full-time teaching career and a writing career?
I also have two kids—Paige, 6, and Owen, 4. First and foremost, I’m a father to them. But I try to make time for everything. I teach during the day, hang out with my kids in the evening, and write later in the night. While it would be nice to be able to devote all my time to writing, it’s not the reality. And the reality is also that I’m going to make much more of an impression as a teacher and father than I ever will as a writer. It keeps me humble.
Bottom of the third: What’s your opinion of Coors Field post-humidor? Is it still an advantage for the Rockies, or has the famed hitter’s park lost the advantage? (Especially given the current launching pad built in the Bronx.)
The stats don’t lie. Coors Field has definitely been an advantage to hitters. But the whiffle ball field they just built in the Bronx is an absolute joke. Fly balls to the second baseman are traveling over the right field fence. Of course, as a Red Sox fan, I always suspect the Yankees of cheating.
Top of the fourth: Do your students know about your writing?
If they know about it, it’s because they’re seeking it out on their own. While I certainly don’t hide the fact that I’ve published books, and I think it’s important that my students see that I practice what I preach, I don’t pass out my own work or draw any attention to it. When they ask, I tell them honestly: “There are a lot of other, better writers I’d rather discuss.”
Bottom of the fourth: If Boston could somehow magically trade for any current Yankees player, who would you take and why?
Good question. This forces me to look somewhat objectively at the Yankees. My answer would be Robinson Cano. He’s going to be one of the best hitters in the game, if he isn’t already. I would love to see an infield and line-up with Pedroia, Youkalis, Cano for the next five years or so. The Sox also need some pop with the bat. Yup. Give me Cano. Please.
Top of the fifth: Can you tell us the story behind your story “The Tao of Dolton” that appeared in AITPL 13?
Yes. “The Tao of Dolton” is part of a collection of stories I’m writing about the misadventures of a semi-autobiographical narrator named Hamlet Burns. They’re loosely-based on some of my own college experience when I was an undergraduate and in a fraternity. At the time, I knew a couple of guys who had a contest to see who could go the longest without changing their underwear. It was truly disgusting, and “The Tao of Dolton” stemmed from that; although I like to think it’s about a little bit more than dirty underwear.
Bottom of the fifth: What the hell is the deal with the pink cap anyway?
See above. They’re a bunch of posers that have made impossible for the real Red Sox fans to afford tickets at Fenway Park. They’re the Red Sox fans who had these amazing epiphanies during Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS and realized that they loved the Red Sox—when The Sox were winning, that is.
Top of the sixth: You’re pals and a frequent collaborator with Daniel Crocker, who also appears in #13. How long have you guys been friends?
Dan and I met about eight years ago. At the time, we were both being published by the same small press in New York City, a now-defunct press called Green Bean Press. I went on a road trip with the publisher to visit Dan in Michigan, and we instantly connected. We wrote a trilogy of chapbooks together and still keep close correspondence. Our wives suspect we’re homosexuals.
Bottom of the sixth: Boston was 8-0 against the Yankees, but things went south toward the end of the season, ending with that 3-game sweep. What happened?
The Sox didn’t have the pitching depth they thought they had at the beginning of the season, and they didn’t have the bats to slug with the Yankees. Of course, I could point out the obvious: The Yankees spent $80 million more than The Red Sox and fielded an All-Star team, but what’s the point in that? The Yankees buy championships in today’s game with Selig’s consent. When they win, it’s almost like celebrating after scoring with a prostitute. Good for them. The Yankees paid, fair and square, for their rings.
Top of the seventh: What are your biggest influences and favorite writers?
This largely depends on what I’m reading at the time, but the writers I seem to be constantly revisiting are Tom Perrota, Tim Sandlin, Steve Almond, Russell Banks, and with poetry I like David Kirby, Jeffrey McDaniel. Kevin Sampsell just published a kick-ass memoir titled A Common Pornography. Rusty Barnes is another guy who continues to impress me. I tend to like realism, narrative poetry, honest writing without any tricks or gymnastics.
Bottom of the seventh – Who do think is going to win the NL West in 2010?
[Ed note: wrong answer.]
Top of the eighth: What are you currently working on right now?
I just finished a YA novel and a memoir, and I have a couple of collections of stories that I’m fiddling with at the moment. At the moment, however, I’m between projects—writing some poems and stories and whatever interests me when I sit down to write.
Bottom of the eighth: Would baseball in Boston be better or worse if they divided the AL into north/central/south divisions, with New York being in the central division and Boston in the North, along with Toronto, Detroit, Seattle, and maybe Chicago? Would the lack of competition and rivalry make the game boring?
I love the competition in AL East, and I think the Sox and Yankees in different divisions—with their payrolls—would be an unfair advantage. Watching the Sox and Yankees slug it out 18 games a season is a lot of fun for baseball fans. Although I would love to see a salary cap strictly enforced in baseball, like it is in the NFL, I couldn’t imagine the American League without the AL East pummeling each other.
Top of the ninth: Any other recent appearances or things you’d like to plug?
I had a new book of poetry titled After the Honeymoon published by sunnyoutside press last September. I’d encourage people—especially baseball fans—to check out my blog: www.nathangraziano.blogspot.com I’m terribly insecure, so check me out on Facebook, or add me as a friend, or follow my fan page, or just send me a love letter.
Bottom of the ninth: If you were forced to sleep with either A-Rod or Nomar’s wife, which one would you pick?
Hey. Hey there, Mia. How you doin’?
We’ve had some Air in the Paragraph Line contributors with strange and varied day jobs, but Hassan Riaz is the first doctor to join the group. When not practicing medicine, he’s writing fiction, most notably his recent project in the novel-by-twitter realm. A USC graduate, he hails from Southern California. His work has appeared in Slice Magazine and nominated for inclusion in 2010 Best New American Voices.
Hassan contributed the story “Welcome Aboard Monstrosity, Jack” to Air in the Paragraph Line #13. I asked him a few questions about writing, medicine, twitter, and roller coasters.
1) In addition to being a writer, you’re also a medical doctor. Have you always been a writer, or is this something you took up later? How do you juggle a medical career with writing?
Oddly enough, I was a creative writing major in college, and somehow, I’m still not sure how, I ended up in medical school. Good fortune? I went to USC for college and when I applied to USC for medical school, which was the only school I applied for, they accepted me. I didn’t write much of consequence during medical school because I was too busy studying but after finishing my schooling and training, I picked up writing again, and have been at it for the past couple of years.
My patients don’t know about my nighttime life, the one that involves sitting in front of a computer and pounding out words, although if they read this, the secret’s now out. Sometimes writing can be a dirty little secret, especially when people realize that you write out of passion and not for money. Most people don’t understand why you spend all that time in front of a computer screen when you could be watching The Bachelor.
2) Who are your biggest writing influences?
I’ve always considered Herman Melville to be a cool literary dude. Moby Dick remains my favorite book. I’ve recently admired the work of Cormac McCarthy, David Foster Wallace, and TC Boyle. I read a ton of Stephen King growing up.
In terms of actually motivating me to write, it’s all fear and anxiety. When I don’t write for a while, I start having a dream in which I’m back in college and I’m supposed to take the final exam but I’ve been absent the entire semester and not only don’t I know where the exam is being held but I have no idea what the test is supposed to be about. Scary, huh?
3) Can you tell us about the writing project you’re doing on twitter?
We’ve all heard about the death of traditional publishing and the short story because of new media. Well, I’m trying to contribute to this death. If you can’t beat them, join them. I write almost nightly microfiction, which is under 140 characters–not words–on Twitter. This project revolves around the lives of Jack and Jill. But instead of going up a hill, they’re dealing with life with each other. They argue about dinner–he wants steak, she wants sushi, that kind of stuff. A recent tweet:
They both got the flu and argued about who should take care of whom. They stopped fighting when they barfed on each other.
So by the end of the year, we’ll have an idea as to what life is like for Jack and Jill. Hopefully they haven’t driven each other crazy by then.
You can catch my Jack and Jill microfiction at: twitter.com/hassaninla
4) Have you found any other similar approaches to writing fiction using twitter? Or do you follow any other writers on twitter?
The best thing about writing microfiction on Twitter is that no matter how busy I get with patients and life, I can usually make time to pound out 140 characters at the end of the night on my phone or PC. It keeps me writing, which is what all writers aim to do, even if we have trouble doing so. By the way, I like the microfiction of Ben White: twitter.com/midnightstories. Good stuff.
5) Tell us more about the story you submitted in #13. (As a side note - for whatever reason, it reminded me of the first time I visited LA and went to Magic Mountain to ride the rollercoasters and started thinking about how to design them. I was reading a lot of Mark Leyner back then too, so maybe that imprinted on me, too.)
I rode a ride called X2 in Six Flags Magic Mountain here in Southern California last year, and it scared the heck out of me. Wow, I thought I was going to die. It had me twisting upside down and the thing shot fire at us. Really bizarre, head banging stuff. I’ve always been a coaster junkie but this X2 ride was King of Coasters, unlike anything I’d ever ridden before. So after riding it, I started wondering how could a ride possibly get more scary than X2? What can the coaster world do to top that one? And out popped “Welcome Aboard Monstrosity, Jack.”
Just thinking of X2 at Six Flags makes me want to go back. Anyone want to go this weekend?
6) Where else can people find your work/find you on the web? Do you have any other big projects in the pipeline?
I have a short story called “Away,” which was nominated for inclusion in Best New American Voices 2010, coming out in Slice Magazine this spring. It’s a different kind of story compared to “Monstrosity.” Much more subdued. About a girl who is having an affair with her surgeon while simultaneously losing her memory. And no: it’s not autobiographical. After all, I’m not a surgeon, I’m just a family practitioner.
7) Anything else?
Thanks for putting this together, Jon. Will the Raiders finally win more than 5 games next year? Can they hire me as the next coach?
Kurt Eisenlohr is a writer, painter, and photographer, hailing from the Portland area. He’s contributed stories to Air in the Paragraph Line for issues 11 and 12, and did the cover art for issue 13. Kurt has a blog called Easy to Use, and his book Meat Won’t Pay My Light Bill was recently republished by Rose City Publishers.
Kurt answered a few quick questions for the blog about the cover painting and his work.
1) You painted “money tree”, which is the cover art for AITPL #13. What’s the story behind that painting? Is there any particular theme or thing that influenced it?
That was something that was lying around my apartment for awhile, a bad and unfinished piece of business I saw every day out of the corner of my eye. One night I starting painting over it, painting it out, because I had nothing to paint on and wanted to paint, you know, and landlords always get pissed when you paint on the walls. I started to paint it out then thought, Oh to hell with it, this is tedious, and I’ll use up too much paint getting back to ground zero. I’ll just leave my old painting peeking through, and use bits and pieces of it, see how that works. I’m kind of lazy, I hate prepping canvas and all that. I’ll paint a suitcase, or on a piece of wood, if that’s what’s lying around. I just tagged it, really. I defaced a piece of trash and made it better.
I like Pop Art; Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers, Roy Lichtenstein, Keith Haring. I like outsider art, people like Howard Finster and Daniel Johnson. I also like Picasso and Matisse, Basquiat, Robert Crumb, Ron English, Rothko, de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and photographers like Robert Frank and Diane Arbus and Gary Winogrand and Robert Capa and…there’s more, there’s many.
I’m happy that my painting found its way to the cover of your magazine. It’s all about hydrocodone and sea monkeys, I’ll have you know, and mercury in the water and domestic terrorists and death and taxes and x-ray specs and genetics and plastic oceans and mutated frogs and people turning into robots and consuming and being consumed by all these things. All of us gobbled up and eaten alive by capitalism, old comic books and painkillers. The painting is currently hanging above my kitchen sink. It’s for sale.
2) You’re a talented artist, but you’ve also appeared in AITPL in the past as a writer, and you’ve written your own book and have a blog. Do you consider yourself an artist first and foremost or a writer? Which one do you enjoy more, or have you had more success with?
Writers are artists, when they’re good. I enjoy doing both or all three–I’m a photographer, too. It helps you as a writer, I think, to be able to compose a photograph properly, get the exposure right, nail a moment down, to be a good colorist and know how to use a paint brush, twist it this way, then that way, put it over there instead of the other place. Words are paint; they’re light, shadow…right?
I’ve not been particularly successful ($) in any of the mediums I work. I have shows and I get published but I consider myself first and foremost a forty-six year old bartender/waiter/tap dancing two-way mirror with no other marketable skills, which is fairly frightening. It doesn’t matter as much when you’re seventeen, or twenty-six or whatever. I recently found a bunch of old negatives I shot in the late seventies and early eighties. I printed a selection of those, as many as I could afford to, for a show back in October. Looking at them, I thought, Wow, I was really good back then, a teenager living in a small town, shooting whatever was around, family members, neighbors, people I’d meet in the street and follow home. In many ways, I was better then than I am now. I did it more, and had less to draw on, as far as subject matter, and fewer distractions.
I also didn’t have to worry about things like rent and groceries and my teeth falling out—I blew all my money on film and processing and figured I’d photograph my way past death and out of dying, I’d just freeze everything on film, and my family and friends would live forever…not the case, sadly. See how the romantic youthful mind works? My camera died recently. I need a new one. I like shooting with actual film, and that’s really expensive (the camera that died was digital.) Painting can be expensive, too. Writing, of course, is free. It’s hard work, though, more so than painting for me. It’s like diamond cutting. I get tired just thinking about it sometimes. But I find it the most rewarding.
I like to think of myself as writer, but I wouldn’t walk around calling myself that. Maybe if I write a few more books. I can’t even really call myself a painter, even though I’ve done hundreds of them. My paintings are more like doodles than fully realized works of art. I try to be as creative as I can be, despite my limitations. I like working on things. It’s something to do. It’s that or watch America’s Biggest Loser, you know? Or sit in a bar. And I’ve sat in enough bars to last me a lifetime or two.
3) Are you a self-taught painter, or did you study it?
I am a self-taught painter, a self-taught writer and a self-taught photographer. That doesn’t mean I didn’t study, or that I no longer study. I study everyone whose work I admire. I study everything, even the bad stuff I sometimes subject myself to—you learn what not to do, or at least you try. I not only study the work, I study the lives, as well. This began around the age of thirteen and continues. I had a shrink once tell me long ago, when I was a teenager, that I was living vicariously through the lives of others, reading so many biographies. I asked him if fictional lives counted. He said yes. I was in a psychiatric hospital at the time. And I was rereading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. (Wouldn’t you be?) “I must be crazy to be in a loony bin like this,” I told him, quoting Kesey’s character, Randall P. McMurphy, trying to lighten the mood a bit, because it was necessary in that fucking place. The guy didn’t think it was funny, or he just didn’t get it. But maybe he was right. Either way, my own writing is largely autobiographical.
4) What kind of stuff do you read and what are some of your favorite authors?
I read a wide variety of things, both fiction and non-fiction. Some of my favorite authors are William Burroughs, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Kafka, Bukowski, Flannery O’Conner, John Fante, Henry Miller, Emmanuel Bove, Camus, Denis Johnson, Larry Brown, Raymond Carver, some of Kerouac’s stuff, Nathanael West, Jeff Stewart, Mike Daily, Michael Ondaatje (I recommend “The Collected Works of Billy the Kid” and “Coming Through Slaughter,” both are works of historical fiction, and pure poetry.)
There are so many writers I like, and people I still need to read. I really like Kevin Sampsell’s new book, “A Common Pornography.” It’s a memoir, and it’s structured a lot like his fiction, simple, short, economical vignettes that are vivid yet don’t tell the whole story. He gives you these glimpses and leaves enough space for you to pursue your own thoughts or even memories of your own adolescence, trusting you to fill in the blanks. It doesn’t sound like writing. And it certainly doesn’t sound like any other memoir out there. It appears effortless, which is the hardest thing to pull off. He doesn’t tell you how to think about the events he’s relating or what to feel, or even what he was feeling necessarily. The feeling is just there, it’s a given, he doesn’t have to point it out or wave a flag. It’s a memoir but he somehow stays out of the way of his own life story—an amazing feat, really. He’s a master stylist, and I love the way the book is structured. Sampsell knows how to use a camera. Not a digital camera with 14 mega pixels, more like a pinhole camera, and the print is sometimes really clean and clear at the center, but gets fuzzy around the edges or just fades to black. I should tell you that he published my book, “Meat Won’t Pay My Light Bill.” He has a press called Future Tense, and he’s been doing that for about twenty years now. But I’m not making this up, as a friend of mine would say. He’s the real deal. I guess I’m running on about it because I read the book twice and just finished the second go around yesterday while on the train home from work. It’s stuck in my head like a song. Good art does that.
Thanks to Kurt for answering my questions, and for such a great cover for #13. Check out his blog at http://www.kurteisenlohr.blogspot.com/ and his book. You can also download AITPL 11 and 12 to see his stories.