Buy remedies from men riding giant elephants
Watch monkeys from central casting pick fleas out of the fur on their butts
Don’t steal potatoes
Sigrid Nunez’s fifth novel, The Last of Her Kind (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), was published in January 2006. A new edition of her first novel, A Feather on the Breath of God (1995), was also published in January, by Picador. Nunez’s other books include the novels Naked Sleeper (1996) and Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury (1998), a mock biography of Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s pet monkey. A new edition of Mitz is forthcoming from Soft Skull Press (spring 2007).
T Cooper’s second novel, Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes (Dutton), was published in February 2006 and cannot altogether inaccurately be summed up as the Jewish immigrant-Charles Lindbergh-Eminem novel. Cooper’s first novel, Some of the Parts, was published by Akashic Books in 2002. Cooper is also coeditor of a forthcoming anthology of original fiction entitled A Fictional History of the United States with Huge Chunks Missing (Akashic, August 2006).
T Cooper and Sigrid Nunez first met in 1998, when Cooper was a student in the Graduate Writing Division at Columbia’s School of the Arts and Nunez was working there as an adjunct professor. Their conversation took place in Manhattan over a period of several days this past winter.
18 April 2006
I. MARSHALL MATHERS
SIGRID NUNEZ: I wanted to tell you a funny thing, since you’ve got a book coming out too. This writer I know said the closest experience he’d ever had to having a book come out was chemotherapy.
T COOPER: That’s drastic.
SN: Somewhere in a letter Virginia Woolf tells Vita Sackville-West that a bookseller had asked her if the two of them would sign copies of their latest books, and Woolf said she told him, “Of course not!”
TC: God bless that woman.
SN: Imagine yourself telling them that at Barnes & Noble.
TC: Hell, I’ve been asked for ID twice when I was trying to sign books in stores.
SN: What do you mean? Who did they think you were? Some stranger trying to sign your books?
TC: I don’t think they’d ever seen an author before—these were Barnes & Nobles in the middle of nowhere, and they had a small stack of my books, but they still thought I was making it all up. Even after I pointed to my picture on the back cover, I just got these blank stares, and then the manager was called.
SN: What a bizarre story.
TC: I remember Paul Theroux saying something in a review of Norman Sherry’s biography of Graham Greene about our living in a time when writers get “bullied” into becoming part of the whole marketing machinery and having to participate in a kind of crazy, inane exhibitionism that we now all take for granted. I get what he and Woolf are hitting on, but I have to say that, for the most part these days, I think writers—except for a select few—are mostly ignored by their publishers and booksellers.
SN: That is a common complaint.
TC: I’m thinking of that recent Times Book Review back-page essay about how constantly annoying and tedious authors are to their publicists. Don’t most authors practically beg for more publicity? I can’t imagine someone saying no to doing footwork on behalf of his or her book.
SN: But there are authors who won’t do any readings or signings.
TC: I can’t think of any author I know who’d say no. Name one.
SN: Pynchon, famously. And DeLillo, I believe—
TC: Yeah, and Roth. But I mean authors whose books don’t automatically shoot up the bestseller list.
SN: What I remember thinking when I read that article was that it’s getting harder and harder for a writer to hold on to his or her dignity. Sometimes, it seems to me, it’s not just that writers are becoming increasingly less important to the culture but that they’re seen more and more as desperate and pathetic figures, targets for ridicule. But bringing out a book was probably always hard. Woolf, for example, always had to brace herself because she knew how much she was going to suffer. The fear of being exposed and humiliated just about unhinged her. Some people think it had something to do with this shame she carried around with her from childhood, when she was molested by her half-brother. But I don’t think that was necessarily it. I’m sure lots of writers go through something similar, if not so extreme.
TC: I think I can appreciate that sense of exposure. Like, I just puked it all out for the book. It’s almost embarrassing to say any more about it.
SN: It wasn’t really that with Woolf. She was just so terrified of bad reviews. Did I ever tell you my favorite bad review? It was one of those “Die, Author, Die” reviews, and you only need to know the last sentence: “Nunez can’t even manage that.” By the way, I wanted to ask you about the reviewer who said a character in your book “shares the author’s ambiguous sexuality.” Would you call that crossing a line? Because I don’t think I’d ever refer to an author’s personal life that way in a review.
TC: I’m not upset about it, but I have to admit it was a little startling to read in a review that I have “ambiguous sexuality.” I mean, for several years now, like since I was about eighteen, I’ve been pretty settled in my sexuality, and I don’t know what, if anything, that could possibly have to do with my fiction. And the character doesn’t have “ambiguous sexuality” either, or even gender ambiguity, if that’s what the reviewer meant—he presents as a man in the world, and has a girlfriend. I don’t know. I don’t want to go all crazy New Criticism here, but I thought it was weird.
SN: The character we’re talking about is called T Cooper, “the last living Lipshitz,” and he makes a living impersonating Eminem at bar mitzvahs. What is it about you and Eminem?
TC: I think we are separated-at-birth twins. We were born a day apart in October 1972. He just seemed to fit into the story I was trying to tell about this immigrant family’s assimilation, the obsession with blond-haired, blue-eyed American-ness as represented by Charles Lindbergh. And, to me, Eminem is a sort of modern Lindbergh. But mostly I just like him because he says “fuck” and “shit” and “cunt” a lot, and acts like he doesn’t care what people think, when you know he really does. Plus, he’s incredibly talented—as talented as he is vulnerable. Who knows where he’s going to go next, but at least up until this point in his career he’s used this invented alternate persona to speak his truths and offer a social critique without being gagged by political correctness. And I can really appreciate that. Do you ever listen to him, or know much about him, aside from the negative press?
SN: I’ve never really paid attention to anything about him, positive or negative.
TC: That settles it. I’m making you a mixtape. [Laughter] So yes: bad reviews. But let me ask you, is there anything in particular that someone’s said about your work that you really, really liked?
SN: This wasn’t in a review, but someone once said about reading one of my books that it was like drinking a glass of cool, clear water. I really liked that. What about you?
TC: One time a reader emailed me a photograph of the inside of her forearm, where she’d tattooed the last two sentences of my first novel. That was pretty stunning and humbling, though I have to admit one of my first thoughts was, “Maybe I should’ve connected those two sentences with a semicolon.”
SN: I just remembered the hilarious question your mother asked about advance reviews: “What happens if they’re bad?”
TC: I know. I asked her, “What happens if they’re good?” Nowadays she answers the phone, “Hello, this is Vicki Cooper, née Lipshitz.” She insists it’s her family history in the book. She even asked me how I could have learned so much about her family. I keep telling her, “That’s the point, Ma. Nobody knows the family history; I made it all up from one dubious fact.”
SN: You know what Czeslaw Milosz said? “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.” I first heard that quoted by Philip Roth. It reminds me of how Lily Tomlin used to introduce one of her routines: “The following skit is about my parents. I’ve changed their names to protect their identities.”
II. CHARLES MANSON
TC: Speaking of slaying one’s family, I’ve actually been on a Roth bender lately—The Facts, American Pastoral, and The Plot Against America.
SN: The only one of those I’ve read is American Pastoral, but I read it twice. I didn’t like it as much the second time, which surprised me. It always bothers me when I don’t like a book as much the second time. For some reason I always feel it’s my fault, like somehow I’ve become less interesting. What else have you been reading?
TC: Dennis Cooper’s The Sluts, which is one of those breakthrough books of the internet era, and my favorite of the handful of his books I’ve read. Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, by Jeff Chang, Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. Now I’ve just done what I hate, listed all books by men. That doesn’t represent my usual fare, but I guess that’s just how the chips have been falling lately. I’m also alternating with what I call “candy”: trashy books I can eat up quick on the subway or plane. Ridiculous memoirs like 50 Cent’s From Pieces to Weight. Nothing wrong with learning a little about the ins and outs of the crack trade in southside Queens in the ’80s. And you?
SN: One of the best books I’ve read lately is A Woman in Berlin. It’s one of those books that proves it’s really true: if you find the right tone, you can write about anything. Here’s a woman who was in Berlin when it fell to the Russians in ’45—the book is the journal she kept that spring—and it’s mostly about trying to avoid dying of murder or starvation while being raped repeatedly by soldiers. But because she’s such a good writer, and there’s no self-pity in it anywhere, the book turns out to be incredibly readable and actually uplifting. And because she has such a wry sense of humor, against all expectations it’s even funny. I also read this strange, fierce little novel called The Days of Abandonment, by Elena Ferrante, about a woman unraveling after her husband leaves her for a younger woman. And Ali Smith’s new novel, The Accidental, which is terrific, and Kathryn Davis’s The Thin Place, also new and also terrific—hey, all women. By chance, though, not by design. What other “candy” have you been reading?
TC: True crime books about serial killers—which I literally cannot get enough of, though I have to say that, like most things, nothing will ever beat my “first time,” with Helter Skelter. When I first read it in college, I didn’t know that my family had a connection with the Manson family, through one of the Manson girls, Gypsy [Catherine Share]. She babysat my older brother before I was born. She was the one convicted of armed robbery with five other Manson family members in that plot to hijack a 747 in order to get Charlie released from jail. One time, my father and I were driving around Los Angeles talking about the Black Dahlia and James Ellroy’s mother’s murder, and what it was like in L.A. when my dad lived there during all these killings. That’s when he told me that the FBI called him a few days before Gypsy’s release to let him know that they found his name in her personal effects, and that he should be on alert. He’d never made the connection that Catherine the babysitter was Gypsy the Manson girl with the shaved head and the 747 thing. I couldn’t believe he never told me until I was twenty-five or something.
SN: I read Helter Skelter for the first time while I was writing The Last of Her Kind. I never thought of it as candy.
TC: Candy, like Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, once I get going. You know, after reading The Last of Her Kind, I started wondering: why are the people of my generation so enchanted with the political activism of your generation? SDS and the Weathermen, the SLA, Kent State, and so on. Are we just losers who came of age in the ’80s and wish we had something like that of our own?
SN: Don’t look now, but oh boy, do you have something like that of your own.
TC: True. But we’re too jaded or something to drop out and drop acid and blow shit up in order to make ourselves heard. There’s no way college kids would do that now.
SN: And there’s no reason they should. But those are hardly the only ways to make oneself heard, and it would be such a hopeful sign if hordes of young people were to become politically engaged again. One of the things that made me want to write about the counterculture was hearing the way people who weren’t there talk about it today. Like one of my students who said that at first she was proud that her parents had been hippies, but as she grew older she became embarrassed. And another student said simply, “I hate hippies.” I had to wonder what this meant. And I realized also that, for many of them, the first thing that came to mind when they heard the word “Vietnam” was “the Wall.”
SN: You know what? I feel like going somewhere. I’ve been wanting to go to the Bronx Zoo, where I haven’t been for ages. I just found out it’s open 365 days a year.
TC: No way. I’m still protesting because of Ota Benga, the pygmy who was displayed there after he was at the 1904 World’s Fair.
SN: I don’t know this story.
TC: It’s horrible. They housed him in the cage with the monkeys, and made him walk around the zoo in a white suit. The visitors would trip him and throw stuff at him. After people protested, he eventually went down to Virginia to work in the tobacco fields, where he got so depressed he shot himself through the heart.
SN: This would be very interesting to write about….
TC: Actually, Adam [Mansbach], my co-editor, wrote a story for our Fictional History anthology about Benga’s time at the zoo.
SN: Well, I don’t think you’ll find anything like that at the zoo today.
TC: Yeah, but I’m sure there’ll be something else that bugs me.
SN: I know a lot of people hate zoos, but I have to confess I’ve always been drawn to them, because I can’t get enough of animals. Or, as Schopenhauer says somewhere, “I love all animals, and the sight of any animal lifts my spirits.” When I was living in Berlin, which has two enormous, wonderful zoos, I kept going back because there were so many births. There was a baby rhino and a baby hippo and a bunch of baby elephants. There is nothing much cuter than a newborn elephant.
TC: How big are they?
SN: About the height of a Great Dane, but very sturdy and compact in this funny way—kind of scrunched. They look like small, gray Volkswagens. I was talking about zoos at a dinner one night at the American Academy in Berlin, and I mentioned that Leonard Woolf had said that you can tell a lot about a society from its zoos. And a former ambassador to China who was at my table said, “What? He said you can tell a lot about a society from its Jews?” “No, no. From its zoos,” I shouted. “Its Jews?” he shouted back. When it was finally straightened out he slumped in his chair and said, “I’m afraid I’m getting hard of hearing.” “No! No!” I screamed. And everyone in the room turned to stare.
TC: I have a friend who rescues unemployed elephants in northern Thailand, near the Myanmar border. There’s no more logging for the elephants to do, so they’re trying to save them from being poached for ivory and put them to work in the tourist industry instead. When I was in Cambodia this past summer, the medicine man in the Southern province of Kampot came into town riding a giant elephant that padded through the dirt streets, and all the kids would trail behind, and the old ladies would flood out of the buildings and pass money up for the remedies he was selling.
SN: Now that I’d like to see. So you were in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam—all for the first time this summer?
TC: I was in Thailand for a few weeks in 2001, but I was talking about this past summer when I was traveling in Vietnam and Cambodia for about five weeks, just wandering with no real plan. I ended up at Angkor Wat, which was, of course, mind-blowing, but was also sort of a shock to the system because, unlike most of the places I’d been in the weeks prior, Angkor was so touristy—this massive complex run for profit by a crooked oil company with all these tour buses belching black exhaust into the forest. Even the monkeys seemed brought in from central casting. I wasn’t on a tour, so I could stop by the side of the road and see them. One was bending down dramatically over a rock while another picked fleas out of the fur on his butt. I snapped a picture, but I was scared they’d bum-rush me and scratch my eyeballs out if I got too close.
SN: I think they’re more likely to bite than scratch. By the way, did you make this trip because you wanted to write about it?
TC: Not really, but I know I’ll end up writing about it in some way, some day. At this point, I’m just absorbing and thinking and mulling, writing a couple short essays, one of which is about this man I met in Kampot. His name is Cheangtry, and he told me about how the Khmer Rouge killed his mother and father because he stole two potatoes for them. He had to hide out by himself in the forest for three years until the Vietnamese came into Phnom Penh. He kept telling me that his story was no different from anybody else’s.
What about Berlin, are you going to write about your time there?
SN: I’m already writing about it—or trying to. But what about the zoo?
TC: Why don’t we go to Coney Island instead?
SN: Coney Island! That’s a great idea. I haven’t been there since I was a kid. It’s a place I always associate with my father.
TC: Isn’t that how your first book opens, with the first time you heard him speak Chinese? Wasn’t that at Coney Island?
SN: Yes. And I have this memory from when I was very small and we’re on the boardwalk and I’m watching him eat corn-on-the-cob…. We used to go in the water then, too, which I suppose some people still do?
TC: Yeah, but you have to watch out for the used hypodermic needles in the sand. My first novel opened there too—but at the freak show.
SN: Let’s go tomorrow.
TC: OK. We’re going to freeze our asses off, but it’ll be fun.
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