“I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Activist creators from around the world tell us what they know with this series of videos, offering excerpts of Laura Albert’s conversations with cutting-edge artists; for each segment, Laura has written an introduction.
Being a Native West Virginian, parts 1, 2, and 3 – speaking with Scott McClanahan
In my conversation with Scott McClanahan, we begin by discussing cultural differences between country & city living as well as his scathing editing technique. Part 2 focuses on the impact of discovering Walt Whitman’s poetry and how writing offers “freedom in story,” where we can inhabit other characters and see the world as they see it. In Part 3 Scott speaks about his novel “The Incantations of Daniel Johnston,” illustrated by Ricardo Cavolo; he also comments about being a native West Virginian and offers insights into his new work.
Pop Culture Is Queer Culture, parts 1 and 2 – speaking with Fenton Bailey
In my far-ranging conversation with Fenton Bailey, we discuss his new book ScreenAge, which examines how television has shaped our reality, and the notion that not just pop culture but ALL culture is queer culture. Fenton calls JT LeRoy a “drag creation,” emphasizing the playfulness and “twinkle” of my literary persona, and speaks about the documentary he co-directed, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, as well as the recent biopic with Jessica Chastain, which his film inspired – and the contrast between her Oscar-winning performance as someone who felt love for all people, and the macho violence of Will Smith punching Chris Rock at the same Oscars ceremony. We also attempt to unravel what Fenton calls the ongoing “war on Pride”: its roots in the anti-gay campaigns of Anita Bryant and others in the 1970s, which energized Harvey Milk’s political career, and the current attempt to fracture the queer community and divide the LGB from the TQ, to appease the haters who equate drag with “grooming.” In the second part of our discussion, Fenton talks about Succession (HBO), the possible adaptation of ScreenAge as series/movie, and Ru Paul’s Drag Race.
If You Want To Rile Me Up, Tell Me To Shut Up And Sing, parts 1 and 2 – speaking with Butch Walker
Proclaimed “one of America’s best singer-songwriters” by Rolling Stone, Butch Walker has been celebrated for his work with the bands SouthGang and Marvelous 3. But he has made an even greater impact as a solo artist as well as a producer (Pink, Frank Turner, Fall Out Boy, Taylor Swift). He’s also a great storyteller, and our conversation ranges from the revival of Marvelous 3 to the devastating fire that gave birth to his record “Sycamore Meadows.”
Last of the Better Days Ahead, parts 1 and 2 – speaking with Charlie Parr
“We all have the story we have to tell, no matter what it looks like to anybody else” – Charlie Parr, musician/songwriter/storyteller. Parr’s soulful blues-infused music can charge as hard as a punk band. Song is his vehicle for storytelling, and he is a master at his craft. This inspired performer discusses recording “Stumpjumper” for a bigger record label, salutes Patti Smith, and asserts, “Without the audience, the show would mean nothing. The hierarchy is fake.” To catch Charlie Parr on tour, check the dates HERE.
Sunday Matinee, parts 1 and 2 – speaking with Brooke Smith
Brooke Smith is probably most familiar as an actor – The Silence of the Lambs, Vanya on 42nd Street, Grey’s Anatomy, Ray Donovan – but she is also an accomplished photographer who spent years capturing an epic social movement: the New York City Hardcore scene of the 1980s. Her iconic photographs have been gathered together with her book Sunday Matinee, which documents not only the bands that played CBGB’s notorious Sunday afternoon gigs but also the young people who followed them and hung out in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Her book evokes the truth of this scene, something that was never discussed openly: how the experience of abuse – sexual, physical, emotional – was common to almost all of us.
Juliet the Maniac and Black Cloud, parts 1 and 2 – speaking with Juliet Escoria
Juliet Escoria is the author of the novel Juliet the Maniac, which NPR called “a heartfelt, raw, powerfully told story about surviving mental illness and learning to cope with inner demons,” as well as the poetry collection Witch Hunt and the story collection Black Cloud. In part 1, we discuss the making of her novel, labels such as “mental illness,” and the pettiness of teenagers. In Part 2, she discusses life in West Virginia, as well as her new true-crime literary project. PLUS she reads from Juliet the Maniac.
We Loved The World But Could Not Stay, parts 1 and 2 – speaking with Gary Lippman
In my discussion with the Gary Lippman, author of the novel Set the Controls for the Heart of Sharon Tate and his collection of one-sentence stories We Loved the World but Could not Stay, we focus in part 1 on how his anthology of microfiction deals with notions of beauty and sacredness. In part 2 he relates an amazing account of being present at a gunfight in Buenos Aires, and how he was moved to express that emotion in one sentence.
I’m Fun!, parts 1 and 2 – speaking with Ben Lee
In my discussion with the wonderful Ben Lee, we begin by talking about the exciting release of Ben’s I’m Fun! as well as his terrific podcast Weirder Together, in which he is joined by the incomparable Ione Skye. Part 2 of our conversation covers a range of topics, including the inspiration Ben has drawn from by Andy Kaufman as well as from Jim Carroll’s Basketball Diaries, and how Ben prepared a meal of strawberry salmon for Billy Corgan!
Is the World Like This?, parts 1, 2, and 3 – speaking with Sean Thor Conroe
FUCCBOI by Sean Thor Conroe: “Terse and intense and new…I loved it.” —Tommy Orange. In the first part of our conversation, Sean gives a new reading of a special excerpt from “Fuccboi”. We also discuss how to balance the lonely art of writing with the demands of the world, and Sean advises aspiring authors and artists on landing an agent. For the second installment of our conversation, Sean and I delve deeper into his novel “Fuccboi,” discussing the editing process and his relationship with editor Giancarlo DiTrapano. “It’s not a recording of someone’s experience. It is proposing a vision of the world and asking the reader: ‘is the world like this?’” In the third part, Sean talks about his time as an editor at Tyrant Press, his collaboration with Giancarlo DiTrapano, and the dangers of the competitive side of creating art.
Your Best Tool as a Writer Is Empathy, parts 1, 2, and 3 – speaking with Jennifer Haigh
Be Your Own Kind of Beautiful, parts 1, 2, and 3 – speaking with Eva Echo
Beauty and Valor, parts 1, 2, and 3 – speaking with Sheila Heti
“If ever you have the rare opportunity to speak with the devil, then do not forget to confront him in all seriousness. He is your devil after all.” – Carl Jung, Liber Novus
As writers, our wish – to have our work be considered by itself—is not possible. No matter how much space we take or control we exert, the imagined author is always dragged along.
As I’ve become less of afraid of how others see me, and more aware of what misperceptions I construct about others from the tiniest piece of information, my voice is freed to write what I need to write. I recently took a workshop offered by the writer
Sheila Heti, titled, “What Do People See When They Read You?” It allowed me more clarity, and I realized that my fears about what other people think is a dangerous mind-reading skill I need to retire.
Part of the appeal of Heti’s work is how she consistently trusts her reader to see or find what they will—because that’s what they are going to do anyway.
For me, the craft of her work is how she edits away the extra, refining to what is true in variable moments. Heti herself won’t fit into anyone’s easy stereotype or trope. And as for trying to categorize her books… Are they autofiction? Memoir? Is she writing a philosophical fable? At the end we are left with our own hot take. Heti is not one to contradict us.
I found an email which I wrote to Heti about watching the critics attempt to define her book Motherhood:
The thing about your book is, unless someone frames Motherhood as fiction (which then forces the exploration/acceptance that Fiction can be very revelatory of a writer’s truths while diverging from the “facts” of the writer’s life, or as Oscar Wilde said, “Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth”) and points out the crafted genius mobile-like art-sculpture structure, it often gets lost. Some critics can’t get that liminal space you are exploring – or exploding.
And for this book, it ain’t the message or the messenger—it’s all of it—needing to step the fuck back and take it all in, the structure and craft, and that is not how we are trained to take in art. We read it like a piece on the internet: Tell me, should I have a baby? Yes or no!
The frustration was mine. Heti understands the futility of trying to war with whatever pronouncements are placed on an artist’s work once it is released into the wild.
Heti’s new novel, Pure Colour, can be imagined as a reader wishes. The story has expansive borders. At one point, the protagonist Mira merges with her recently deceased father inside a leaf. I let go of the need to know if this was a metaphor. Anyone who has grieved the loss of a person dear to them will viscerally be reminded of the way that death separates you from the world at large. I was easily able to project myself into a cocooned conversation with my deceased mother, and in reading, I was able to inhabit my grief and recovery, or lack thereof. The dangling threads hum with a deceptively low voltage in the structure of Heti’s narrative – an array of devastatingly primal and novel conversations about friendship, parental relationships, climate, and what it is to be an artist, critic or even God. Pure Colour can even feel like it could be a therapeutic book. But it is not a self-help book.
Heti’s work reminds me of a child asking a parent where is the end of the universe, asking until they get to that point of unknown. But the parent, instead cutting off the inquisition with, “Because!” or “It is what it is,” answers subtly, weaving in yet another question within a tale. And it’s up to Heti’s readers to locate an answer—or yet another question.
Like many, I’ve struggled to fight an encroaching hopelessness toward the climate crisis and the growing threat of an authoritarian political landscape. The scale of the devastations of Covid, compounded by its imposed isolation, makes it harder to access the community of activism that can provide even provisional empowerment. The fact that the book Man’s Search for Meaning—written by Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl in 1946, about finding a sense of higher purpose in order to survive in a Nazi concentration camp—is number one on Amazon’s Psychotherapy list, speaks to the need for guidance on facing these existential threats.
And within the quiet, unimposing beauty of Heti’s Pure Colour, there is a harmonic of a felt sense of community yearning for connectivity, and I don’t care how cliché or silly as it sounds—as the Tsunami rushes in, or doesn’t, I absorbed a sense of wonder and love.
As Heti asks in our conversation, “How can I transform this situation into something that makes me feel connected to other people—that there is a purpose in being alive, there’s a purpose in being alive now, there’s beauty in it, there’s valor?”