Jul 292011
 

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Steven Church is the author of The Guinness Book of Me, Theoretical Killings, and most recently The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst. His essays have been published widely and his piece, “Auscultation” was selected for the forthcoming 2011 Best American Essays.

His latest work of memoir/criticism/personal essay (we’ll get to the issue of genre in the interview), The Day After The Day After, delves deeply into Kansas culture, Cold War paranoia, and Church’s own psyche, primarily using the mostly-forgotten Eighties scare-flick The Day After, which was filmed in our shared hometown, Lawrence, Kansas.

We went to the same high school in Kansas – I was a sophomore when Church was a senior – but didn’t know each other. I later met Church through his writing when Patrick Madden introduced me to his work. I’d written my own piece that mentioned my own memories of The Day After, and Madden must have wondered what kind of hold this film had on an entire generation of Kansans.

The movie’s effects on the youth of Lawrence at the time were intense and twofold. First, anyone who remembers seeing the film will remember the sheer dread of watching the fictional town of Lawrence blown to smithereens and permanently irradiated in the movie. But second, the reality of the movie’s filming left a permanent impression on an entire generation of Lawrencians, as the entire town was involved. Children were dressed up as radiation victims, the downtown was temporarily “demolished,” and a college town that considers itself a shining light of progressive values in the nation’s most conservative state was asked by the film crew to act as downhome and traditional as possible to fit the fiction of the movie’s narrative.

The Day After The Day After is a meditation on this confluence of fiction and nonfiction, giving fictional characters from the film an almost mythical significance in his own understanding of the world. I began my interview with Church with this thin line between fiction and nonfiction in mind.

- John Proctor

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The Day After the Memoir: An Interview with Steven Church

By John Proctor

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JP – One paragraph from The Day After The Day After in particular gave me a deeper understanding of my relationship to Kansas and my relationship to my own work as a nonfiction writer:

“The Kansas I know is like a long novel I finished years ago, a novel of which I remember every word. It was a great story, filled with wonderful characters and compelling plotlines, but it was epic and psychologically cumbersome and, in many ways, mostly fiction.” (180)

SC – Glad you liked that. It took me a while to reach that understanding of home. I think those lines came pretty late in the writing/revision process. It probably took writing the book to realize what I wanted to say about Kansas. Some people in Lawrence didn’t appreciate my “negative” view of home, even questioning whether I’d made up stuff about the Days of Rage,  firebombings, etc. Thing is, I don’t see it as negative, just honest. Lawrence has an underbelly and if it’s going to be a character in my book, I have to make it a well-rounded character, have to expose that belly.

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JP – To me, at least if we’re speaking of the book on a macro level, Danny Dahlberg  seems a logical starting point, as his ghost permeates all four parts of the book, most notably in the “Dahlberg Variations” that serve as interludes from the main narrative and allow you to do some things outside the limitations of your own point of view and story. Perhaps I’ll allow you to describe who Danny Dahlberg is, and how you used him in the text.

SC – Interestingly enough those were some of the first sections I wrote for the book, long ago, mostly just playing around. He is, obviously, a significant character in the film, if only because of the metaphorical significance of his being blinded by the blast [Which can be seen at the 1:10 mark of the nuclear attack scene below - JP]. And he becomes for me both a kind of blind oracle, a Tiresias figure, and an alternate self. I used him initially as a kind of experiment, a fictional device designed to allow me to explore the extreme edges of one’s reactions to the film. And I guess that’s a big part of my process, at least in my first three books, that use of fiction to essay or explore certain ideas. Probably some of that comes from my training in fiction writing.

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Jul 282011
 

In Search of the Author, Barthes Be Damned: A Review of The Selected Stories of Mercé Rodoreda,

by Richard Farrell

The Selected Stories of Mercé Rodoreda
Mercé Rodoreda
Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennent
Open Letter
ISBN: 978-1-934824-31-3

I have a confession to make: Until I began reading The Selected Stories of Mercé Rodoreda, I’d never heard of her. I knew nothing of her literary reputation, was unaware of her most celebrated novel (The Time of the Doves), and had read little (if any) Catalan literature before. This left me feeling both ignorant and eager. It reminded me again of the narrow and somewhat xenophobic breadth of my reading. How much time had I wasted watching television instead of studying world literature? But I was excited, too. It felt like standing on the edge of a literary terra incognita, encountering an unknown writer from a far-flung corner of Spain without any notions of style, taste or theme. This is something of a rare treat in an over-marketed, hyper-publicized world where books and writers are pre-determined for success and sales. Some of the best writing simply can’t be found on the shelves at Barnes and Noble. And here I was, poised to encounter a writer without context, without anything to influence me beyond words printed on the page.

I wondered how many of the thirty stories in this collection I could read this way. Could I trust only what was written? Could I render a fair judgment solely based on my reading? How long would it take before I went scrambling to figure out who Mercé Rodoreda was?

I’ll spare you the suspense. It took exactly four. Four stories before I went searching for more. Four stories before I leaned back on biography, criticism, and that missing context of someone else’s conclusions. Four stories before I reconstructed the narrative of the author. If you listen closely, you can hear Roland Barthes rolling over in his grave.

My need for context—historical, cultural, biographical—says much more about me as a reader than it does about Rodoreda’s work. It highlights the wobbly and tenuous integrity of my own mind. And this worries me. To have become so addicted to someone else’s opinion, to rely blindly on the vetting process of culture, to turn the meaning structure over to the ‘experts’, these are most troubling signs. But I’m a product of a post-literate, ADHD world, a mainlining junkie of shortcuts, useless data and recycled opinions. Someone else judges which writers are worthy of my time, which books I should read, which thoughts I should think.

Barthes, in his famous essay “Death of the Author,” objected to this type of thinking, calling it “the epitome and culmination of capitalist ideology, which has attached the greatest importance to the ‘person’ of the author.”(1) Guilty as charged. I could beat myself up all day, but here’s the thing: In this case, the context really did help.

When I went back and read those first four stories a second time, then continued reading the rest, armed with some background about Rodoreda and about why her work mattered, I appreciated them more. It forced me to read her differently, with a keener sensitivity to what was happening in these stories. Context helped.

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Jul 272011
 

Photo by Emmanuel Albert

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In this amazing story, Mark Anthony Jarman tells the tale of Custer’s Last Stand in a way it’s never been told before–surreal, phantasmagoric, funny and horrid all at once. I put this story in Best Canadian Stories when I was editor of that estimable annual collection. And you can also find it in his collection My White Planet. Jarman is a short story writer without peer, heir to a skein of pyrotechnic rhetoric that comes from Joyce and Faulkner and fuels the writing, today, of people like Cormac McCarthy and the late Barry Hannah. He edits fiction for a venerable Canadian magazine called The Fiddlehead which, in the 1970s, published some of my first short stories (and another story is coming out in the summer, 2011, issue). Mark has written a book of poetry, Killing the Swan, a hockey novel, Salvage King Ya!, four story collections, Dancing Nightly in the Tavern, New Orleans is Sinking, 19 Knives, and My White Planet, and nonfiction book about Ireland called Ireland’s Eye. He teaches at the University of New Brunswick and lives in a very large house fronting the Saint John River. His story “The December Astronauts (or Moonbase Horse Code)” appears in Numéro Cinq’s Best of Vol. 1. See also his interview with NC Contributor Mary Stein here.

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Winter Coat, Winter Count (Assiniboia Death Trip)

By Mark Anthony Jarman

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Each man is fain to pluck his means, as it were, out of his neighbour’s throat.

—Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth

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She buttons up her tiny sweater, not knowing I study her.  She is vanishing like a bridge in fog.  Crow Jane is not a ghost, but I know now she will haunt me.  I want to see her unbutton the same garment for me.  Nothing stays the same in fashions.

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The bridge vanishes in fog and I discover we are fretful devices wrapped in such thin skin.  Or we are ghosts on river ice.  What’s the difference?  Inside the erect palisades of Fort Robinson Crazy Horse sings his death song; Crazy Horse lies on his red blanket on the floor.  Have you met?

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My good friend Private Gentles runs Crazy Horse through with a bayonet and now ostrich feathers are in vogue on our ladies hats.

To our hats we also add veilings, side combs, pompadour pins.

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Her kind sad face by the icy shore, her long wrists.  Does she have any feelings for me?  I think she does, but I cannot be sure.

Did you see me in the bakery? she asks me.

I thought our paths would cross, she says.

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Louis David Riel swings over the shop’s mannequins.  See the fine glass display cases, our high ceilings of slotted tongue and groove, see the snipers on the high ground, tied into trees like hanged men, and our poor young shop-girl run off her feet.

Hat boxes, invoices. O Miss! O Miss!

The bullet passes my head.  You missed!

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