from Issue #6: An Interview with Judith Beveridge

Image: Devadatta's Hirelings, Jamalgarhi (CC) Photo Dharma @ Flickr

Image: Devadatta’s Hirelings, Jamalgarhi – Photo (CC) Dharma @ Flickr



An interview with Judith Beveridge

Theodore Ell


JUDITH BEVERIDGE was born in London in 1956 and moved to Australia with her family as a child. She grew up and studied in Sydney, where she still lives. After having worked in diverse jobs in offices, adult education and bush conservation, since 2002 she has taught poetry in the postgraduate creative writing program at the University of Sydney. She is poetry editor of the literary journal Meanjin.

Beveridge has published five collections of poetry: The Domesticity of Giraffes (1987), Accidental Grace (1996), Wolf Notes (2003), Storm and Honey (2009) and most recently Devadatta’s Poems (2014). Her work has appeared in many anthologies and has won numerous awards, including the Dame Mary Gilmore Award, The New South Wales and Victorian Premiers’ Poetry Prizes (the latter twice) and the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal.

Devadatta’s Poems is Beveridge’s first collection focused on a single subject. It extends themes that have increasingly absorbed her attention across several collections: the life and spiritual quest of the Buddha and the wider dramas that unfolded among those around him. Beveridge’s first Buddha Cycle of narrative poems appeared in Accidental Grace and was followed by Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree in Wolf Notes. These sequences depicted the wanderings of Siddhattha Gotama across India before his attainment of enlightenment. Devadatta’s Poems takes place after he has become the Buddha and is written from the point of view of Devadatta, Siddhattha’s envious and power-hungry cousin, who joins the new monastic order so as to bring the Buddha down. Devadatta even tries to murder him several times. The new sequence strikes many contrasts with the earlier poems ‘spoken’ by Siddhattha – the calculating versus the contemplative, the sensual versus the ascetic, lust versus renunciation, violence versus tranquillity – but both cousins are bound, ironically, by their longing for Yasodhara, Siddhatha’s wife, whom both have had to leave behind in their distant home city.

This interview was conducted by email in July 2014 in the weeks after the launch of the new book and was reviewed by both interviewer and interviewee before publication.


ELL: Devadatta’s Poems is your first book written only in one voice, telling one story. In the past you have placed narrative sequences among other work on varying subjects. Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree was one of those cases. What was it that led you to set Devadatta apart in this way?

BEVERIDGE: I wanted to give myself the challenge of writing a book-length sequence. I’ve always loved Dorothy Porter’s book Akhenaten and Geoffrey Lehmann’s Nero’s Poems and I felt with Devadatta that there was enough narrative material to do an extended sequence. The trick was in trying to work out how long or short the book needed to be, whether or not I would do a more extensive book. In the end I opted for a shorter book, throwing out quite a number of poems I had initially thought I might include. I opted for a tighter focus.

ELL: In the poem “Dawn” in Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree, Siddhattha reflects, ‘Not yet / am I a sorrowful man. Not yet.’ Was there a sense then that there would be more to tell, that after Siddhattha’s enlightenment there would be new trials?

BEVERIDGE: When I was writing Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree, which traces Siddhattha Gotama’s journey over north India before he became the Buddha, I came across Devadatta, the Buddha’s cousin and thought at the time how that would be a great story to explore. Devadatta caused the Buddha a great deal of trouble and grief by trying to take over the Buddhist Order and by trying to murder him three times, so, yes, in a sense that line can be seen as alluding to future strife for the Buddha, though when I wrote that line I didn’t consciously have that specific conflict in mind.

ELL: Siddhattha’s reflections in the earlier sequence are not all contented – he is, after all, struggling to revise his whole way of living – but his motivation is essentially humane. The new sequence turns that on its head. What did it take to shape the inner life of a speaker whose motives are so much blacker, even murderous?

BEVERIDGE: At the centre of Devadatta’s Poems there’s jealousy, hatred, ambition, lust, cruelty. It’s always easier, I think, to write about flawed characters, mainly because our language for these emotions is so much richer, and because these emotions are so much more dramatic and more embedded in our literary, cultural, social and political history. Every day these emotions make the news and so inhabit our minds and imaginations very frequently, so it wasn’t that hard to depict a flawed and corrupt character. However, I didn’t want to make him so terrible that readers would be entirely repulsed by him.

ELL: Devadatta’s antagonism towards Siddhattha is quite clear (‘Some nights… all I do is scheme / to give Siddhattha schism, infighting, dissonance’) yet both cousins, in your depictions, define themselves, to themselves and to us, in quite similar ways. They are constantly searching in the details of the world about them for some kind of solace or confirmation, and both are quite lucid and self-controlled in describing what troubles them. Did you envisage a family resemblance? How did you approach contemplating that same setting from a new point of view?

BEVERIDGE: The difference lies in the fact that Siddhattha after years of struggle finds inner peace and the path to wisdom. I knew I could never write about Siddhattha after he had achieved enlightenment because it would be fraudulent of me to try and imagine what an enlightened mind might experience. Devadatta is still caught up in all the illusions, in suffering, in the mental traps, and so resembles Siddhattha in those years before he became enlightened. Devadatta too is searching for something, but does not have the discipline to let go of craving or aversion, so he seemed like a good candidate to continue on with. It would be so hard to do justice to the character of the Buddha after enlightenment.

ELL: You mentioned having to ‘throw out’ a number of poems you originally thought of including, for the sake of a tighter focus. What was in those poems that seemed to distract from that? Could you use them elsewhere?

BEVERIDGE: No, I’d never use the poems elsewhere. The poems I threw out were poems which didn’t seem to be strong enough, or that were simply going over ground I had already covered, or they were tonally similar to other poems and weren’t adding a great deal to the narrative. There are a few of those discarded poems I do like, but they will simply have to be forever part of the reject pile. I have hundreds and hundreds of poems like that from previous books.

ELL: The drama of both sequences seems to be almost all internal, with Siddhattha and Devadatta reflecting on events after the fact, in the spaces between the ‘moves’ of their lives. We’re not often inside their minds while they are in action. I’m wondering about the source of that reflective distance from events. Is it a result of how you see the personalities of these figures? Or is it more to do with finding a way into a poem?

BEVERIDGE: It’s probably a reflection of the kind of poet I am. I write reflectively and meditatively and I’m mainly concerned with human emotions. There’s certainly very little action in Devadatta’s poems. It’s mostly thought processes and Devadatta’s plotting and planning how to kill Siddhattha. This was one of the problems I had when writing the sequence: I didn’t want it to become an endless treadmill of thoughts and I was constantly worrying about how to progress the narrative, because in a way the story doesn’t go anywhere much in terms of plot. It’s more a psychological investigation. One of the most challenging elements in writing the sequence was to try to give a sense of movement in a story that essentially has little action. I’m not sure how well I’ve succeeded in creating this movement, however.

ELL: The main exceptions to that sense of distance are the poems in which both cousins long for Yasodhara – Siddhattha’s wife, whom he leaves behind, and who is the object of Devadatta’s lust. What did it take to depict this side of both their natures, this thought that overrides everything else?

BEVERIDGE: Human longing and desire are emotions that most of us feel most of the time, whether it’s longing for a person, a place, a lost time, a lost opportunity or whatever, so all I had to do was tap into that feeling. The hardest part was finding the right language and images. You might have noticed I have used Yasodhara’s hair as an element that represents her beauty, especially in Devadatta’s poems. This was one way I was able to evoke the emotions and give focus to the mood.

ELL: Is Yasodhara a character whose story you’d consider telling, from her point of view?

BEVERIDGE: It has crossed my mind to do so. I’ve not really tried a woman’s voice before, but if I do write it, it probably won’t be for a while. I’ve also thought of writing the story from Rahula’s point of view. He was Siddhattha’s and Yasodhara’s son, so there are still some options and possibilities.

ELL: What is it that draws you back to this drama, to elaborate the various sides of the story? You published the first Buddha Cycle in the mid-90s and the world that it opened up seems to have occupied you a great deal ever since.

BEVERIDGE: It’s true I’ve always been captivated by the Buddha’s story, ever since I was a child. It certainly has a much better ending than the story of Jesus. Eastern religions seem very sensible and attractive to me. I could never accept the Christian idea of original sin, but I’ve always thought that the idea of things being related on a deep level to ring true. I dislike the hierarchical structure of Christianity and find in Buddhism a more harmonious and integrated view that includes a non-exploitative attitude towards nature and animals.

ELL: Can you describe the effect that visiting India has had on you and your work? Have you written much while there, or do you tend to reflect on details after the fact?

BEVERIDGE: I visited India on two occasions, though not for any research or religious purposes. I was married to an Indian and we took our young son to meet his family. I didn’t write a word while I was there, but I tried to absorb as much as I could. I was lucky in as much as I got to experience an Indian family first hand, so I wasn’t a tourist as such, but was able to observe things on a more domestic and intimate day-to-day level.

ELL: How far has your reading taken you? The Siddhattha-Devadatta sequences look to very ancient texts. Are there any Indian writers in particular, ancient or modern, whose work has offered inspiration?

BEVERIDGE: I have read many books on Buddhism and on the Buddha and on life in ancient India, but I don’t like to know too much about a subject because I find it shuts down my imagination. I like to have imaginative room to move, so in the Devadatta sequence, there are quite a few things which are not historically accurate, and most of the scenarios I have simply invented in order to dramatise something about Devadatta’s character. I usually find that something very small, some almost trivial detail might start a poem, such as the existence of ox-toads. I have read some Indian poetry. I am especially fond of the work of AK Ramanujan.

ELL: What is it about his work that appeals to you?

BEVERIDGE: It’s a while since I’ve read him, but I’ve always enjoyed his insights and his precise use of language. He was born in South India, but wrote mainly in English and probed his culture mainly for an English-speaking audience. He died in Chicago in 1993 and there’s part of one obituary I think rings true: ‘In the quiet yet affable wit known best to his extended family of students, colleagues and friends, Ramanujan would observe that he was the hyphen in the phrase “Indo-American”. But to everyone who knew him and the passionate brilliance of his language, he and his poetry were rather a richly evocative metaphor for the human experience wherever it might be found. He was as much at home with Yeats and Tagore as he was with the classical literatures of India.’

ELL: It’s interesting that you should say you prefer not to know too much about a subject, as your range of subjects is so broad. As well as the Buddha sequences there is Driftgrounds: Three Fishermen in Storm and Honey. And in that sequence the poem “The Book” reams off the most bizarre species of fish – hardyhead, toothy flathead, rhinoceros file fish, robust pygmy star-gazer – before the speaker admits he hasn’t found ‘the right one’ to throw back at his fishing-mate when he calls him sweetlips. Is there a sense that your character’s casting about, his gathering-in of names and effects, reflects your own?

BEVERIDGE: Yes, absolutely. I love names for things and part of my interest and love of writing poetry is that you do get to name things. The thesaurus is great for this: it has long-lists of names in all sorts of categories. I am always casting around in my poems for the right word.

ELL: What is it that draws you to such varied subjects? What gave rise to Driftgrounds, for instance?

BEVERIDGE: I am always searching around for subjects, and as I don’t like to write about myself, I cast around constantly for possible characters and scenarios to write about. I think most writers are very curious people and they often have broad interests and obsessions. One of my obsessions is water, so I wrote Driftgrounds partly to indulge my love of seascapes and riverscapes and also to try to explore the brutal subject of fishing and how character and place affect each other. I like using characters in poems as they give you a way into material not your own.

ELL: Your previous collections have usually included both longer sequences, like Driftgrounds or the Buddha poems, and sets of diverse ‘single’ poems, but it seems to me that with each collection the sequences have been growing longer. Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree made up a large portion of Wolf Notes and Devadatta’s Poems is, of course, a single book. Has ‘narrative’ been occupying you more than the writing of ‘single’ poems recently?

BEVERIDGE: Certainly for the last couple of books it has. I find that having a larger project to work on helps me generate poems more easily because I can slot into the character or ready-made narrative, not every single poem has to be begun from scratch because of the established setting or mood. However, for my next book, I am deliberately going back to single, unrelated poems as I want to have the challenge again of a broader range of subjects and forcing myself to start from the blank page with each new poem. It’s uncomfortable, but I don’t want to fall into easy habits.

ELL: What is it about a narrative sequence of poems that attracts you, as opposed to rendering the same story as a novel?

BEVERIDGE: I just love writing poetry. Writing prose doesn’t especially interest me because I like the fine detail and focus that a poem demands and I enjoy working with sound and rhythm and metaphor and texture of language. This is not to say that novelists don’t also work with these things, but they don’t work with the line or the line break and I love working with lines, finding out what they can achieve. I also love the intensity that a single poem can have and a poem can often say in a few words what it might take several sentences to say in prose.

ELL: Another trait one can sense in your work is that often once you’ve settled on a subject, you draw image after image out of it, elaborating the possibilities into long chains. “How to love bats” is one example: you tell the reader to ‘Begin in a cave’ and ‘listen to the floor boil with rodents, insects,’ but before long the poem has brought those sensations into the human world: ‘Visit op shops. Hide in their closets. / Breathe in the scales and dust / of clothes left hanging.’ You use the same technique of elaboration in Devadatta’s Poems as well, especially in conveying Devadatta’s dreams of Yasodhara. I’m wondering to what extent this ‘cataloguing’ and elaborating reflects the way you shape a poem. Do you list different attributes or qualities first and then build them into a shape, or do they trigger and grow from one another, while you are writing verse?

BEVERIDGE: Definitely the latter. For me writing is always a process of discovery inasmuch as I don’t really know what it is I am going to say before I write. I discover as I go along. One thing I do consciously is to try to push my material as far as I can imaginatively. I like poems that have imaginative reach. This means my poems go through many, many drafts before they are finished, as I often take wrong turns or produce material that I end up scrapping before I can discover the true or meaningful poem. But I like this. It makes for hard work, but it gives me a strong sense of vocation when I’m writing, a sense that the poems are quite often hard won, as I believe they should be.

ELL: Is there a sense in which you are also attempting to win over yourself in writing poems? The discomfort you mention in relation to writing about your own life calls to mind another much earlier poem of yours, “Fox in a Tree Stump,” in which the speaker of the poem recounts being forced into flushing out and killing a fox, and recalls, ‘I was nine years old. All my life / I’d stuck close to my yelled name.’ Your work has travelled away from the brutality described in that poem, but it seems to me that ideas of threats to oneself, and of oneself as a threat, have persisted, especially in the case of Devadatta. I’m wondering how you negotiate your degree of involvement with characters. How complete do you think they can be as masks?

BEVERIDGE: There is a paradoxical relationship between myself and the characters I use because they are both masks and not masks. They are masks in the sense that the emotions I give my characters are all emotions I have experienced, and I imagine most human beings have experienced, as they are the usual ones. What I change are the settings and the circumstances and this allows me a distance and perspective I wouldn’t get if I were writing directly from my own life. But I love the idea that I can move away from my own particular experiences and enter them in a more universal way. So, yes, I am attempting to ‘win myself over’ in my poems by trying to understand my own emotions through a more general lens. And what I get from this process is a sense of shared humanity.

ELL: With all your varying characters and subjects, is there a centre to your poetry, something that will set you writing where something else may not?

BEVERIDGE: Always the motivating and centralising factor for me is language. My poems always start with a desire to play with language. It’s the hardest thing in writing, to get the language right. It’s easy to have ideas for poems, but getting, as Adrienne Rich said, ‘the language that’s adequate to experience’ right in a poem is always a challenge. I don’t mean that I play with language in a postmodern sense, such as in L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry, where the intention is to leave the meaning up to the reader, or that I break down syntax, because I do essentially want to communicate and I want to communicate emotion. I still believe the lyric has a lot to offer and still has relevance for the reader and writer, and that inflecting emotion into a poem is a serious task.

ELL: Has your recent turn back to single, unrelated poems altered your working habits?

BEVERIDGE: My working habits have always been pretty much the same, no matter what I’m working on. I need long stretches of time before me. Six or seven hours is a typical stretch for me to get anything done. I’m painfully slow and plodding. I’ve never been able to work at white-hot speed, like some poets. And I do enjoy those long stretches. They give me a strong sense of vocation, that I’ve worked hard.

ELL: How far off may your next collection be?

BEVERIDGE: Hard to say. I think my next book will be a New and Selected Poems, so my intention is to write the ‘new’ section, which is why I’ve chosen to work on miscellaneous poems, rather than a coherent project. But I’ll take my time. Patience is a key ingredient, I think. I’d rather produce a work I’m happy with than rush into publication.


from issue #6: An Interview with Jose Dalisay



An Interview with Jose Dalisay

Noel King

JOSE DALISAY is an English professor and director of the Institute of Creative Writing at the University of the Philippines. He is the author of more than twenty books, including novels, story collections, plays, and essays; a recipient of the National Book Award from the Manila Critics Circle; and was named by the Cultural Center of the Philippines Centennial Honors List as one of the top 100 most accomplished and influential Filipino artists of the past century.

Noel King caught up with Dalisay at the Pan Pacific Manila on 19 August 2013.

KING: Jose, you are a professor here at the University of the Philippines in Manila and a writer of more than twenty books of fiction and non-fiction. How did you come to be involved in this Manila Noir anthology, how were you approached?

DALISAY: I was asked to do a story for this book by its editor Jessica Hagedorn, with whom I’ve had an email conversation of sorts over the past ten years or so, but we have never actually met. I’ve read some of her work and she’s read some of mine, and so when this project came up, I suppose I was one of the first authors she approached to write a noir story. This must have been more than a year ago. And the idea appealed strongly to me because much of my own fictional work has dealt with low life, shall we say, and I’m fascinated by the idea of Manila as a noir or noir-ish city, it’s always had that appeal for me. And so I thought, this isn’t going to be too difficult a concept to execute, and I thought Jessica would have a number of possibilities to work with depending on the authors she approached. She asked each contributor to choose a district of the city that we were familiar and comfortable with and my natural choice was my residence, my corner of Quezon City called Diliman, which is where the University of the Philippines is located. I live on campus, in campus faculty housing. And so I thought, all right, I’ll do a noir story based on campus and involving a professor. So that’s how it began.


KING: That trope of suburb-city-story applies across all of the books in the series so far. When you say you are familiar with noir, do you have any particular noir writers you admire?

DALISAY: Not prose writers in particular, it’s really noir film that’s interested me all these years, because as a graduate student in the United States many years ago I was a Teaching Assistant for a professor who taught film, and many of the movies that he chose were the noir genre, like Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai. And so that stuck in my mind.

KING: Where was this?

DALISAY: This was at the University of Michigan, in the mid to late 1980s, and since we were doing Orson Welles that film came up. I liked that whole idea of something being black and sinister, but also with profoundly human motives behind its workings, not something supernatural. I’ve always been fascinated by the notion of the darkness within people, and how people might seem utterly normal but when pushed to a certain limit that black side of them will emerge. And there’s something very stylish about noir. It’s really an angle or a way of looking at things, and I thought that for me this would be a fun exercise, and that’s the spirit in which I took this invitation from Jessica.

KING: And how was the commissioning process? You were the first writer approached, and the book happened within a year, which is quite fast.

DALISAY: Yes. Actually, we had much less than a year to write our pieces. If I recall correctly, I had about three months or so within which to come up with a story, and I delivered on time. I like deadlines. If I had been given a year I might have done it in the eleventh month! So I recall that I liked it so much that I drafted a story pretty quickly, and there was a back and forth between me and Jessica about some things that had to be edited here and there. That was perfectly fine by me, she is a very capable, sensitive editor. I stood my ground on a couple of points which had to do with how a man looked at a woman. I remember, and I told her, trust me on this, this is how we males see, this is how I would see this woman. And to her credit she accepted my explanation for that.

And we didn’t even talk about whether or how much I was going to get paid. We all did get paid, $200 for each contributor. To me that was really just a bonus, and I suppose I can speak for the others when I say that this was really more of an honour for us, especially having learned that so many world cities already had their own noir books. And we all thought, hey, Manila should have been right up there on that list much, much earlier, like Mumbai and Mexico. I can’t think of a city that reeks of noir more than this place.

KING: So you were familiar with some of the other titles in Akashic’s series?

DALISAY: Just the titles. I’d never actually seen the books. As it happened, last year on a visit to New York, I did stumble on some of those books at the Strand Bookstore, and it was amazing just how many there were, which amplified again the pleasure for me of being part of Manila Noir.

KING: And were you familiar with Johnny Temple, the founder of this independent press?

DALISAY: Not at all, I knew nothing about the publishers. I liked the name, Akashic Press. And the name, Johnny Temple, I mean how much more Hollywood-ish does it get? Johnny wrote to us and he was very nice about everything. The whole project was done very professionally, and with Jessica being on top of it, she made sure that everyone delivered. Some authors, at least one I knew of, were late for delivery and so didn’t make the cut. Jessica was very strict, didn’t care who you were, if you didn’t come up with your story on time, you were out of the project.

KING: I have the US edition of Manila Noir but since arriving here I notice that there is a Philippine edition of the book.

DALISAY: The Philippine edition was produced by Anvil Books, the country’s leading literary publisher. They are a subsidiary of the National Bookstore, which is the country’s largest bookstore chain, so the book was in good hands here. They made sure that we had a kind of splashy rollout for the book, they invited as many authors as they could round up, and we had the launch a couple of months ago at the newest National Bookstore branch in Makati, at a mall called the Glorietta. There was a pretty big crowd. I have been to a lot of book launchings here, and this was pretty sizeable. That particular day, we signed about 250 books, like an assembly line. The launch was advertised to take place from 4 pm to 6 pm and we were there until 8 pm signing books. Many of the people who attended were in their twenties and, as you might already have gathered, the main crowd-draw was the graphic novel aspect of the anthology.

KING: Yes. Well, I imagined that would be the case: Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo.

DALISAY: I’d never met them, I’d heard about their work, so it was a great pleasure to meet them. They are very pleasant, unassuming people.

KING: And that’s not their day job, it’s their night job.

DALISAY: Yes. Actually, there are very few people in this country whom you might call ‘professional writers.’ I might be considered one of those although officially my full-time job is that of a professor at a university. But in terms of my income, most of it really comes from independent or commissioned work, work done outside of the university. I write biographies and histories and that sort of thing. So, like the other contributors, this project was a pleasant diversion for me. There were maybe six of us at that launch, and we all read very short excerpts from our pieces and there were a lot of questions asking how we’d conceived of our particular stories, what were our inspirations?

KING: In your case, you as a young man.

DALISAY: Yes, along those lines. I’m not sure that even half the audience really knew what noir was about, as a concept, but they were willing to discover and learn. The choice of bringing different authors together to bear down on the same general subject probably made the book quite marketable. And also, I think everybody wanted to read what their favourite authors had written for this particular anthology.

KING: I’m guessing it might also have been a little bit to do with specific urban locales. For example, if some young hipsters are hanging out in particular areas of Manila, they might want to find out how that locale is depicted.

DALISAY: Yes. And like I said, a couple of those authors, the graphic guys, and Lourd de Veyra in particular, have strong followings. Lourd has become something of a media celebrity here, partly because he’s on TV, he’s on radio, and he also has a rock band. So aside from being a serious novelist, he’s a huge draw for any kind of cultural event like this.

KING: Which could explain the demographic at the book launching?

DALISAY: Yes. I think this project was very well conceived and of the people they put together, I wasn’t exactly the oldest guy there. But I think it shows in the work too. I haven’t read the whole book, I’ve read about three-fourths of it, and from what I gather, my piece is rather different from many of the others in its sensibility.

KING: It’s also interesting that they chose to use the classical term of noir, rather than get caught up in neo-noir, post-modern noir, and so on.

DALISAY: That’s true. I think if you talked about noir in a Manila context, the first thing that will occur to people is just crime. And it’ll be crime in a very gritty, realist sense. Of course some of the other guys did their own takes on that, the graphic novel piece was notable in that respect. But that’s still, in a sense, hard-core crime.

KING: The description in a couple of stories in the collection of what we in Australia call ‘shopping centres’, and you guys and the US call ‘malls’, intrigued me. The Greenbelt Mall in Makati depicted in Lysley Tenorio’s opening story reminded me of an old friend who died recently, Mike Presdee. Many years ago in Australia, he coined the term ‘proletarian shopping’ to describe the way young people in a suburb called Elizabeth in Adelaide, South Australia, would move around the shopping town there, to be in air conditioning in a very hot summer, or warm in winter, and when it became clear to the security guards that they were not going to purchase anything, they would be moved on. So there was a resonance for me in that respect. And as a boxing fan from way back I loved reading, in Gina Apostol’s story, about the currently run-down state of Ali Mall, Cubao, whose origin dates from the Ali-Frazier “Thrilla in Manila” bout in the 1970s.

ali mall

Ali Mall, Manila. Photo: When Owel Plays

DALISAY: Yes, Ali is part owner of that mall. He invested in it, and recently it’s been refurbished. It had gone down the tubes over the many years since its beginnings, but now it’s like a brand new mall. This is a city of malls. I don’t know if you’ve been to the Mall of Asia yet, which is a five-minute taxi ride from here.

KING: No. Yesterday I walked through Robinson’s Mall, on my way to Solidaridad Bookshop but the bookshop was closed, so I’ll go there tomorrow.

DALISAY: Yeah, well, that would be a teeny weeny mall compared to the Mall of Asia, which is one of the world’s biggest. And Filipinos love malls, because of the air conditioning, it’s literally just a matter of going in there to cool off, you don’t have to buy anything, but of course inevitably you do buy something.

KING: I’ve been to Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur recently for the first time, and it’s the same thing, a story of malls, the presence of famous European brands and local Asian high-end brands and people drifting around. And of course there is the famous US example of the “biggest mall in America” being in the Midwest where at one point Japanese tourists would come to play golf and shop and use it as a sort of one-stop tourist destination. Don DeLillo writes wonderfully about malls in his book White Noise.

DALISAY: But particularly in the Philippines, what sustains our malls is the fact that this is a consumption-driven economy. We don’t actually produce anything much, we just get all this money from our overseas workers, and that’s all to be spent at the malls.

KING: The Lonely Planet guide mentioned that, all those (mainly) female Filipinos working overseas and sending billions back to your economy. To shift to a genuinely productive domain, what do you teach at UP?

DALISAY: Creative writing, Philippine literature in English, and the short story. And when they are short-handed I teach American literature, again particularly the short story, but it’s really mainly creative writing, fiction and non-fiction.

KING: Can you give me a sense of your student cohort, who comes to your university, and whether they do a three year undergraduate degree and then a discrete fourth honors year à la England and Australia, or is it more like the States?

DALISAY: It’s the US system, four years. The University of the Philippines is the largest government university in the country. It’s a university system much like, say, the University of California system, with many campuses, and the English Department is one of the university’s largest departments. I think we have about sixty people full-time on staff, and we also have a large number of creative writing majors. We offer creative writing from the bachelor’s to the PhD level.

KING: How does it work at the PhD level? Do you have an exegesis to go alongside a creative work?

DALISAY: Yes, they are required to produce a substantially comprehensive critical introduction to their own work, locating themselves within a certain tradition and so on. So the doctoral creative writing thesis or dissertation would be a book-length work accompanied by that exegesis, and a slightly smaller version of that for a master’s thesis. Since UP is a rather difficult school to get into, I tend to get pretty good students. Of course, when it comes to creative writing, the whole ball game changes. You might all be good at some basic level, but some of you will be much better than others. That said, at the graduate level, typically I will teach a class of eight to ten people, and about half of them will produce work that is worth publishing.

KING: How many have gone on to publish works as a result of having done the master’s or doctoral degree, turning their dissertations into published books?

DALISAY: Well, I would say that out of about ten thesis projects, eventually three to five are published as books, so it’s not bad at all. This is a country with some talent, and at the moment it’s not all that difficult to get a book published, although ironically nobody really earns much from book sales here except for textbook writers. And the scale of publishing is still horribly low as a ratio to the general population. Let’s say we have a population now of 95 million, close to 100 million, and for most authors, a typical initial print run will still be 1000 copies.

KING: And what number of sales would constitute a best-seller or fast-seller?

DALISAY: Maybe 10,000 books. That would probably be some so-called inspirational book, or a cookbook, not a novel.

KING: In Australia it might be sports anecdotes, or gardening books. An Australian novel is seen as a best seller if it achieves sales of 30,000. And our population is only 25 million. Is there an issue here, a real question, involved in universities continuing to think of creative writing as the novel, novella or short story, when you might now be encountering a generation that wants to do graphic novels, film and TV scripts, music or some hybrid-combination of things? Some years ago I read about the first novel that was composed to be read on an iPhone, a mobile or cell phone, and it did very well, it attracted a readership of 300,000 or so; I think it was Japanese. If those sorts of forces are in the contemporary world, and therefore informing the kinds of subjectivities that you get as aspiring writers, how do you deal with all that?

DALISAY: Well, all I can say is that it hasn’t worked its way backwards far enough to affect the way I write, or my purpose for writing. But I know for some people it does. You might write shorter pieces for the Net and so on. We’re definitely aware that that’s the way the market is going, and many of us have embraced that. I’m kind of protecting myself from it.

KING: Yet your cell phone says you’re available 24/7!

DALISAY: I was the former chairman of something called the Philippine Macintosh Users Group, so I like these new technological things. More and more of our work is being made available in the e-book format and this can only be good for us, if that provides more numerous and more convenient distribution channels. Of course the romantic in me says I’d still like a book that smells, has pages, a cover and that sort of thing. But the kids these days all come to class with iPads, and that’s how I distribute my own reading material. I just have them go to DropBox and use PDFs.

KING: I like the fact that in the wake of Baz Luhrman’s film of The Great Gatsby, not only were there huge flow-on sales of Scott Fitzgerald’s book, but also enormous numbers of e-book sales.

DALISAY: Yes, I think that’s fantastic, that Hollywood was creating this kind of backlash that brings people back to the original material!

KING: I actually liked the film. Once you got past the shift of making Nick Carraway Scott Fitzgerald—which gave an acting gig to iconic Australian actor Jack Thompson—things went along very well.

DALISAY: I liked it too, I enjoyed the film.

KING: Though I did wonder why so many hundreds of thousands of people in the US needed to be reminded of The Great Gatsby by way of Baz’s film!

DALISAY: Luhrman did a great job with that film.

KING: To return to the Manila Noir collection I see there’s another writer in there whose name is F. H. Batacan.

DALISAY: She was my student, at university.

KING: Her story in here involves the two characters that she earlier set loose in a short novel, Smaller and Smaller Circles. I really liked that book.

DALISAY: That book was begun as a project in one of my writing classes years ago.

KING: Well, it was in manuscript in 1999, received awards, was published in 2002, so it must have been a project with you even earlier than 1999.

DALISAY: Possibly. I hadn’t seen Ichi, as we call her, that’s her nickname, for some years, because she was based in Singapore and only recently came home. She was there at the launch, so I was glad to see her there. There were a few people I had known from way back, she was one of them, I had also known Lourd de Vera for some time, and R. Zamora (‘Zack’) Linmark is a frequent visitor to the Philippines, and several others.

KING: It’s really nice to see that people are, variously, graphic novelists plus poets plus playwrights, novelists, non-fiction writers. Another question I wanted to ask concerns publishing in the Philippines; do you have subsidies, is there a sort of nationalist interest in subsidising work by Filipino writers?

DALISAY: Well, there are grants, yes. We have the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, and they release grants on a competitive basis to applicants, authors, who apply to them directly. But mostly the support comes in the form of grants for workshops, for gatherings, for the teaching of writing and of literature.

KING: Does any funding go to publishers?

DALISAY: Not that I know of.

KING: I only ask that because back in the 1980s Ken Worpole in London, long before New Labour, in the time of ‘Red’ Ken Livingstone, wanted the freedom to start funding publishers directly rather than writers. He felt that would be a better way of getting books moving about the culture. I have no idea what happened to that initiative, whether it was adopted and, if so, whether it was successful.

DALISAY: I’m not aware of that being done here. Nothing substantial for sure. The National Book Development Board has recently been very active in pushing, in supporting both publishers and authors. Andrea Pasion-Flores—herself an excellent writer of fiction and also a lawyer—just left the job of Executive Director for that body. It used to be pretty much dormant, and she made a very dynamic intervention. So I think things are looking up, from the Filipino perspective.

KING: Could you briefly say something about how you came to be imprisoned during the Marcos years? Decades later it generated your first novel, Killing Time in a Warm Place, which I see recently has been republished in an edition with your second novel, Soledad’s Sister, becoming In Flight: Two Novels of the Philippines. I should add here for readers unaware of this time in Philippine history that Martial Law was introduced not to protect the people, as one might usually think of its use, but rather to protect the Marcos dictatorship.

DALISAY: Well, I entered university in 1970, and very quickly got involved in the student activist movement, which was both anti-Marcos, anti-dictatorship, and also to some extent Marxist. For all these reasons I got imprisoned in 1973 for a little over seven months, and yes, that experience formed the basis for my first novel that was published in 1992, almost twenty years later. My experience is shared by many others of my generation, coming out of that Martial Law period. I didn’t get back to university until ten years later, so I graduated with my bachelor’s degree pretty late, but as soon as I did, I decided that the university would be the best place for me, to write, study and teach. It’s a great place for writers I think. I’ve done work in both fiction and non-fiction, I actually started out as playwright and as a screenwriter.


KING: You wrote screenplays for Lino Brocka. The Internet Movie Database lists twenty or so stories and screenplays for which you have been responsible.

DALISAY: I did maybe about twenty-five movies from the 1970s until the early 2000s, quite a few of them with Lino Brocka, about fourteen I think, but mostly they were forgettable movies. We had to churn these out. I used to write a script in three weeks, the shortest was three days.

KING: That great old classical Hollywood B movie thing! And in this region you would also have the example of Hong Kong cinema’s mode of production, the Shaw Studios.

DALISAY: Oh, yes, Run Run Shaw, that whole scene.

KING: No union, no overtime paid as shooting days extend.

DALISAY: Exactly, sometimes I’d get paid and sometimes I wouldn’t.

KING: Well, you are in distinguished company. Bernardo Bertolucci tells of how in his early filmmaking days he didn’t get paid properly for his scriptwriting on some spaghetti westerns, one of which involved Sergio Leone!

DALISAY: Basically, I’ve always been writing for a living, and the academic side of me is really just the icing on the cake. I had to do an MFA and a PhD to validate my university credentials.

KING: Were they both done at Michigan?

DALISAY: No, I did my PhD in Wisconsin, at the Milwaukee campus, because they didn’t have creative writing in Madison at that time.

KING: Did Milwaukee have their Centre for Twentieth-Century Studies running then?

DALISAY: I think that was just getting started when I was there, although we didn’t have too much to do with it. When I did my MFA at Michigan, I had a great time, working with people like Charles Baxter. I had very good mentoring there, and I’m grateful for that. I would have been writing anyway, but going to university gave me deadlines to meet, and that was good. I was like a house on fire in my twenties and thirties, that’s when I produced much of my best fiction. Then in my forties and fifties I kind of tapered off into doing basically commercial work, although I’m always at work on one novel or other. And at the moment I’m working on my third one, which again is about low life. It features a call centre agent, call centres being the thing of the day here in Manila.

KING: Can you elaborate a bit more on that, because I see stories in newspapers saying that X spent some time working in a call centre, graduated from somewhere, and went on to become a successful writer; I think in that particular case, the writer was Indian.

DALISAY: Well, we’re right next to India, if we have not actually overtaken them, in the call centre business. Filipinos are fairly proficient at English, so it’s a huge plus for us. Over the past ten years or so the call centre industry has been one of the fastest growing industries in the country. Call centres here service western clients on the other side of the world. Most call centre people work at night, and that in itself is very noir-ish, because it’s created what I call a ‘vampiric culture.’ These kids are up and about, wired at 3 in the morning. They get off work and look towards the nearest open bars, and a whole economy has grown up around these call centres: bars and shops, and little strip malls that cater to nothing but these night-time work agents coming out after their work finishes. And for many young Filipinos, it’s a logical next step after graduation. You make good money quickly until you settle on what you really want to do. My sole remaining vice is poker and I play in all-night binges a couple of times a week, and it’s always 3 or 4 in the morning when a crowd from the call centres comes into the poker room, so that’s the milieu I’m working with in this novel-in-progress.

KING: And how close are you to finishing your version of The Cincinnati Kid?

DALISAY: I’m about a third of the way through, it’ll take me another couple of years to get this done.

KING: It sounds like a great example of what Godard was up to when he was trying to persuade Diane Keaton and Robert de Niro to do a movie with him, a movie about Las Vegas, casinos, the Mob, Bugsy Siegel. Colin MacCabe’s book, Godard: Images, Sounds, Politics (London: BFI/Macmillan, 1980), has a couple of pages where Godard has collaged some images of the two stars, and there is a great sentence where Godard says, in effect, “People have been working all day long for the industry of day, in factories and offices. Now they’re going to work for the industry of night: the money earned during the day will be spent on the night of sex, of gambling, and of dreams.” So why not call your book The Industry of Night and toss in Scott Fitzgerald’s much-quoted remark that “in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.” That could be your epigraph.

DALISAY: There you go, there you go. I am fascinated by that 3am crowd at the poker room. Because you’ve got these call centre agents, you’ve got off-duty cops, you’ve got female impersonators, I mean transvestites, also coming from their shows, and all kinds of, you know, the strangest birds, and you see them gathered in that place at that time.

KING: On this matter of poker and gambling, is Filipino culture as fanatical about gambling as Chinese or, at least, Hong Kong culture?

DALISAY: Not that fanatical. It’s hard to match the Hong Kong people. Here I probably should add that there are many new young Filipino writers coming up, and what we have begun to discover is the international market. I keep telling my younger writer-friends that they really should start looking at finding agents, and going through that whole process, because we’ve been writing in English for over a hundred years now, and surprisingly, in terms of making our presence felt in the international literary market, we have been left behind by the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Koreans, the Indians of course. And I suspect that in some strange way the fact of our writing in English is actually pushing us back rather than forward, because it’s a suspect English. I think people would rather find something in Chinese and then translate that, and that would be more saleable than something written by a Filipino in an English that sounds neither American nor British. So that Filipino proficiency in English could actually be a liability. In any case, I think we have very interesting material here.

KING: Were the Marcos years leading up to Martial Law the defining experience of your generation?

DALISAY: For my generation, born in the early ‘50s, yes, but the defining experience for the Filipino of today is the diaspora of our workers, about a million of whom now work overseas. That’s why I wrote my second novel, Soledad’s Sister (Manila: Anvil, 2008) about that experience. And I think that is also changing Philippine society and Philippine politics in a very strategic way. Some of that experience will be negative in the sense of the social price to be paid for all of these absentees, fathers and mothers, but of course economically it’s a boon. I think in the long run politically that will be a positive thing in the sense that all these people will come home with raised expectations. They’ll say, you know, that if trains run on time in Germany or wherever, then we expect things to happen here like that.

KING: As a Filipino male who is hard working, clearly very industrious, could you, as a closing comment, give me some indication of why the Filipino male enjoys the status of being pretty much a wastrel, dilettantish, in respect of a whole range of Filipino women who do all the work?

DALISAY: The Filipino male is a pampered creature. We all like to think of ourselves as macho men, but actually we are all babies here. And it’s fun if you are a male. I think we are all somewhat ashamed of the fact that we rely so much on our women to do the heavy lifting for us. That’s also a message I try to put through in my own writing, that when push comes to shove, the women take care of the important things in this country, and we Filipino males should be thankful for it.

Contrappasso Extra: Interview with Richard Misek (Rohmer in Paris)

An Interview with Richard Misek

Richard Misek is film-maker, media theorist, and educator. He has a professional background as a video editor and motion graphics designer, and is a former Knox Fellow at Harvard University. His teaching focuses on digital film-making, and encompasses fiction, documentary, and experimental forms. His current research explores the interstices between cinema and digital media, and extends across traditional scholarship and practice-based research/film-making. He is the author of the book Chromatic Cinema (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010) and of numerous articles on moving image aesthetics and technologies.

Misek is also the director of the feature-length documentary Rohmer in Paris (2013), which has screened in five continents and received widespread critical acclaim.

I recently caught Rohmer in Paris at the BAFICI film festival in Buenos Aires. Richard and I swapped some emails on the new documentary.

MATTHEW ASPREY: What was the process of making this film?

RICHARD MISEK: I’d just come out of a very happy four years in which I’d been working on a film PhD in Melbourne, and I was now starting a job teaching film history at Bristol University. It was a miserable wet autumn, and I was in temporary accommodation in a new city, bored and depressed, with just a laptop for company and the university library two minutes’ walk away. Over the course of three months, I watched almost the entirety of the library’s video collection. They didn’t have much, but they did have a complete set of Rohmer’s films, so I watched them night after night, voraciously, and gradually found myself drawn into his weirdly unchanging world.

What most interested me about the films, beyond the fact that they transported me somewhere more interesting than Bristol, was the spatial fidelity that Rohmer displayed towards Paris. He was so loyal to the city’s topography that he couldn’t allow himself to do what most film-makers do, which is to cheat physical space to fit the narrative requirements of their film. So, for example, Rohmer would film a scene that involved someone walking down Rue de Lévis with strict physical continuity. Like his characters, his actors and his camera crew would move step-by-step down the street. It’s such a ridiculous but also admirable constraint for a film-maker to impose on himself, and the result is a kind of spatial ‘truthfulness’ very rare in cinema. I don’t think it necessarily makes the films any better, but it provides an extra layer of interest.

So Rohmer in Paris initially took the form of a straightforward academic project about Rohmer’s relation to the topography of Paris – I presented seminars, and gave conference talks on the subject, and started to draft a book chapter about it (it’s now in a book called Mapping Cultures edited by Les Roberts). At the same time, for a long while I’d been interested in the idea of using film to interrogate film. Given the technology that’s now available, why should film critics and historians still restrict themselves to using only text? So I began to work on a short video essay on Rohmer’s Paris. Within a few months, I’d made a 15-minute work called ‘Mapping Rohmer’ but it felt too short to do justice to the complexity of Rohmer’s relationship with the city, so I just kept on going. Three years later, I finished the film!


MA: Your film isn’t a traditional documentary but rather an essay film on Rohmer, on his vision of Paris, on your obsession with his work, and on the ultimate futility of cinephilia. And it’s also a love letter to the late director; at one moment you stop to confess to him, ‘I love you’. How do you define Rohmer in Paris and did you ever consider a more traditional documentary?

RM: I like that it’s a difficult film to define, so I don’t define it. In fact, for a long time, I didn’t even consider it to be a film, never mind a documentary. But then at some point, I’d spent so long with Rohmer’s footage that my own life as a viewer began to be reflected in it, and what had been a research project turned into something else. I don’t quite know when it happened – maybe after a year or so – that I realised there was a narrative there too, and that what I was actually doing was making a film. But by that point it was already such a hybrid, that it was too late to make it a traditional documentary. I remember there was a moment, after I’d first showed the film to friends and many of them really didn’t like it, that I thought ‘Screw it, maybe I’ll just make a straight doc on Rohmer and try to sell it to a couple of TV stations’. But that would have been a terrible mistake – a compromise that nobody had even asked me to make.

The whole experience does, however, strengthen my belief that we are in a period in which traditional categories (‘fiction’, ‘documentary’, even ‘film’) count ever less. Yes, the old institutional divisions between types of film, and between film and other media, still exist; but speaking as a viewer, I increasingly feel that the most exciting work occupies the liminal spaces between forms, and the most interesting films somehow try to renegotiate what film is. I think that’s what I was trying to do with my film, in my own small way.

MA: What other non-fiction films do you see as antecedents?

RM: Now I look at the film, it seems to fit quite clearly into the ‘essay film’ category, and sometimes even feels like a conventional documentary. But for most of the time I was making it, I really didn’t know where I was going with it, and I certainly didn’t have any models for what I was trying to achieve. I looked at many films – like Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-98), but they typically didn’t help me solve my specific problems. I would say, though, that two works that very much inspire me are Sans Soleil (1983) and Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003). Again, I didn’t draw any specific lessons from them, but indirectly I think Rohmer in Paris owes a lot to both. Without Sans Soleil, I don’t think I’d have had the nerve to include the personal elements of the film, and without the inspiration of Los Angeles Plays Itself I don’t think I’d have had the self-discipline to make a film (almost) entirely out of appropriated footage.

MA: Did you meet the frustration film essayists often encounter when legally or financially prohibited from quoting other films for the purpose of criticism? Los Angeles Plays Itself  – Thom Anderson’s now-classic essay on cinema and a city – was also playing at the BAFICI festival, although its legal status remains dubious, effectively underground, because it was produced without permissions. These are not problems literary critics normally face because of ‘fair use’ provisions of copyright law. Was it difficult or expensive to acquire the rights to use such extensive clips from Rohmer’s films?

RM: If you work with no money and expect to earn no money, there are no constraints to what footage you can use. It would have been impossible to acquire rights to use all the clips that I used – the going rate is about €80 a second, not to mention the many hours for which you’d have to employ a legal expert to negotiate it all. I’d have needed a budget of over half a million Euros! Instead, I took the only option faced by almost all artists who draw on the media landscape – I just ripped DVDs and prepared myself to invoke fair dealing if anyone questioned the critical integrity of my project. As a result of making Rohmer in Paris, I now know so much about Intellectual Property, I’ve actually started writing about it as an academic. In fact, funny you should mention the ambiguous legal status of Los Angeles Plays Itself, as I’ve just finished writing a 10,000 article on just that subject! In short: yes, LAPI has never had a full commercial release, and there are certainly economic reasons for that, but the landscape is rapidly changing. Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film was made almost entirely from ripped DVDs, and sold to over fifty broadcasters without any major problems. I started this project feeling quite pessimistic about artists being able to use their moral right to work with found footage. I was also very pessimistic about my own chances of finding anyone who’d even want to screen it. But the last half year of exhibiting the film, and seeing how many other people are ‘getting away with’ using media in their work, has made me much more optimistic. The cultural ground is shifting, and intellectual property holders only have so much power to resist it.

MA: You explore the notion of Rohmer as a psychogeographical filmmaker. Can you elaborate on that? Did Rohmer have any connection to the Guy Debord and the Situationist International?

RM: No, he had no direct connection to them. I don’t know if he even read Baudelaire or Benjamin. Maybe he did, but he never mentioned them. Rather, my sense is that Rohmer’s spatial/urban project was far more intuitive than intellectual. There’s a great article he wrote for the 50th anniversary of Positif in which Rohmer registers his mild frustration with the fact that the train in Buster Keaton’s The General once travels screen left to screen right, and then travels screen right to screen left. He can’t say why – it just bothers him. Rohmer didn’t analyse psychogeography, he embodied it.

MA: Gene Hackman delivers a famous line in Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975) that watching a Rohmer film is ‘kind of like watching paint dry’. Do you think that is still the general attitude to his work?

RM: Personally, I find watching Night Moves to be like watching paint dry, so to each his own! I’m certainly not trying to champion Rohmer. I’m not even sure that he’s one of my favourite directors. I never made a rational decision that I liked his work, I just fell in love with him. Trying to be objective, though, I think there’s a so much Rohmer’s films to be interested in, and I look forward to future writers and film-makers seizing on aspects of his work that I haven’t even touched. There’s plenty more to explore.

MA: And finally, could you tell us which of Rohmer’s films is your favourite?

RM: L’amour l’après-midi (1972). Or maybe La Collectioneuse (1967). Or Le Rayon Vert (1986). Or La boulangère de Monceau (1963)… or…


A few words with Clive Sinclair on ‘Death & Texas’


Clive Sinclair‘s new story collection, Death & Texas, has just been published by Halban in paperback and for Kindle.

Contrappasso editor Matthew Asprey exchanged a few words with our regular contributor by email.

MATTHEW ASPREY: Clive, it’s been more than a year since our long interview was published in Contrappasso and the Los Angeles Review of Books. In the interim Contrappasso was thrilled to publish two of the stories now included in Death & Texas. Those two stories alone jumped all over the world—Atlanta, Israel, Germany, the USA. Where else does the new book take us?

CLIVE SINCLAIR: As you say, the stories you published in Contrappasso had itchy feet: one rambles from Atlanta, GA, to Brinkley, AL; while the other starts in London, looks in upon New Mexico, then moves to Jerusalem, Passau, Germany, before finally coming to a halt back in London. Other locations in the book include Texas, as you might expect, New Orleans, Machu Picchu, and Shylock’s Venice. Perhaps I am best characterized as a travel writer too shy to embrace the locals, therefore forced to people the exotic locations with my own inventions. This has been my MO for many years now. So that when I glance at my older stories I am no longer certain what really happened and what I made up. Addressing one of the narrators a character sums it up nicely: “Did we really do all the things you said we did, or was it just wishful thinking?”

MA: I was happy to meet Kinky Friedman and Fess Parker in “Death & Texas”.

CS: Not half as happy as me. I first saw Fess Parker on a big screen in a grand old cinema (long since demolished) on Oxford Street, in the heart of London’s West End. In those days there were long queues to see popular movies, which only sharpened the anticipation. Of course movie stars are called stars for a good reason; their images are transported on rays of light, and they live light years away from ordinary mortals. Or at least that was how Fess Parker appeared to me as he defended the Alamo in the guise of Davy Crockett. So imagine my excitement when I discovered that, having quit acting, he ran a winery and a hotel a few hundred miles from my temporary residence in Santa Cruz, CA. How could I not go? And how could I not include the encounter in my story about Davy Crockett? Looking back upon it, the occasion still seems as unlikely as an ancient Greek taking tea with Achilles.

Fess Parker as Davy Cricket

Fess Parker as Davy Crockett

I first came across Kinky Friedman much later, by which time my critical facilities were fully developed. So I felt we both inhabited the same planet at least. Moreover, I felt that our world views had similarities; both of us being mordant Jews of the opinion that our Achilles heel does not reside only in the backside of our foot, but in every pore of our bodies. I visited the Kinkstah on his family ranch, near Medina (the one in East Texas, not Saudi Arabia). Needless to say, after the visit I played his songs all the way to San Antonio: “No, they ain’t makin’ Jews like Jesus anymore,/ We don’t turn the other cheek the way they done before.”

MA: How did you connect with the publisher Halban?

CS: Well, the Adam & Eve of my writing career were Clive Allison and Margaret Busby. We had a lot of fun in those early days, especially with Hearts of Gold and Blood Libels. In a way I’m looking to repeat the experience with Martine and Peter Halban, another bookish duo. When I was with a larger outfit there was an expectation that everything—from book design to marketing—was assigned to professionals, who would handle everything  with the flair of Savile Row’s bespoke tailors. This was not always the case. Now, if the book doesn’t read well or look good I have only myself to blame. I am looking to recapture that sensual experience—that bibliosexual moment—you are never going to get with a kindle.

MA: Still, I’m glad to see the book is available for e-readers. In the last dozen years you’ve published a pair of novellas (Meet the Wife) and a travel narrative in your patented mode of ‘dodgy realism’ (Clive Sinclair’s True Tales of the Wild West). And now you’re back with your fourth book of short fiction. What brings you back to the short story?

CS: I have been thinking more and more that the short story—or the novella, at a stretch—is my natural form. At any rate, it is what I do best. By which I don’t mean better than anyone else—God forbid—but better than my own longer fiction. When I write I try to thread together well-made—even beautiful—sentences. I do this because I remain enamoured of my raw material: viz words. And the way they strike the five senses: the sight, the sound, the smell, the feel and the taste of them. But there is a constant balance to maintain between the felicity of the prose, and the efficiency of the narrative. In the short-story the scales can be more pleasingly biased toward the former. What makes The Great Gatsby so great is that Scott Fitzgerald found a way of so vitalizing his exquisite prose that it actually motored the narrative; each image being not only decorative, but also functional. But The Great Gatsby is a rarity: more often such hyperactive prose in a novel tends to bedazzle the reader, until in breathless admiration or sheer frustration they lose the plot. This is less likely to happen with a short story. The same applies to the intensity of emotion a short story can contain. Put all that in a novel and the poor reader would be in great danger of sensory overload, like Barbarella in the Orgasm Machine. So I write short stories as an act of charity; to save lives and preserve sanity.

MA: You’ve dropped tantalising hints at a detective novel in the works. What else have you been up to and what can we expect in the future?

CS: You know, of course, what happened to the man who knew too much. So I feel a certain responsibility toward both questioner and reader as to what might happen if I were to reveal too much too soon. What I can say is that I have a detective, whose singular vulnerability is his USP (as I learned to say in my Mad Men days). The trouble is that he’s still in want of a client. And he is in want of a client because his creator is short of one master criminal, a Moriarty de nos jours. What I need, in other words, is a suitable crime to solve. So if there are any crooks manqué out there with a seemingly perfect caper ready to green-light please give me a clue. Though I do have a few caveats. A few years ago I taught a course on detective fiction at the University of East Anglia, and took the opportunity to acquaint myself with a few fiends who had achieved both commercial and critical popularity. My response, I confess, was less enthusiastic, prompting me to eschew any thoughts of serial killers, sex maniacs, psychopaths, cannibals, or any other perverted dispatcher of young women, however high their IQ. Such characters invite a form of  erotic sentimentality. All of which is not to say that the book will be over-cerebral. The one thing for sure is that blood will flow.

Here is the trailer for Death & Texas:

from issue #4: ‘The Crate-Diggers’ Symposium’ (4: Mike McGonigal)

Mike McGonigal

Mike McGonigal

Matthew Asprey


Mike McGonigal compiled Fire In My Bones: Raw, Rare, & Otherworldly African-American Gospel 1944-2007 (2007) and This May Be My Last Time Singing: Raw African-American Gospel on 45rpm 1957-1982 (2011); both were released by Tompkins Square. He is also editor of YETI.

ASPREY: Did you grow up listening to gospel?

McGONIGAL: Ohhhh, no. I myself, I was raised Episcopal Lite—my personal churchgoing experience was more about animal crackers and cool stories at Sunday School with I suppose a smattering of sappy white people hymns here and there. I stopped attending regularly before I was ten years old.

My first real musical love was Electric Light Orchestra in the third grade (still love that group—very much, and unironically).

Getting into gospel—that happened slowly. I can trace a lot of my interest to picking up the Fred McDowell LP Amazing Grace: Mississippi Delta Spirituals By The Hunter’s Chapel Singers Of Como, Miss.. I had no sense of the history of sanctified blues. I just assumed that McDowell wrote or adapted these songs by himself. It’s no less powerful a recording later, now that I know that this kind of music dates back to before modern gospel. Thankfully, this Testament recording was reissued on vinyl recently by my friend David Katznelson.

ASPREY: How do you define ‘raw gospel’? In what ways does it differ from the postwar gospel people most people know? And what is its appeal?

McGONIGAL: ‘I know it when I hear it,’ is my first answer — and it’s definitely not the Winans. It’s not even classic gospel acts such as the Caravans, or the latest critically-acclaimed record by a gospel artist from the 1960s who’s now collaborating with Ben Harper and someone from Wilco. I’m interested in feeling like my gut got punched, but that doesn’t need to happen with caterwauling guitar or heavy shouts. It can also happen with something incredibly ethereal and with a feather-light-sounding accompaniment.

I’m definitely drawn to the more rough-hewn sounds of, say, the anachronistic 1950s-recorded street performers the Two Gospel Keys, or the husband and wife team the Consolers (who recorded strictly for Nashboro and are featured on a compilation I produced which is soon out on Tompkins Square). Cole Alexander from the Black Lips—a gospel enthusiast in a popular, skuzzy garage-punk band—he told me that he got into gospel simply because he wanted to find the best shouters on record. I love that. He went on to produce a reissue of ‘Hurricane’ Johnny Jones, an Atlanta preacher/singer, for the Dust-to-Digital label.

One of the things about gospel is that it’s first and foremost a utilitarian music. The purpose is to spread the word—’gospel’ of course translates as ‘good news.’ That’s what it’s actually about. So, while there is an ever-expanding gospel/Christian music industry, which is something of a mirror world to popular music. If one is of a cynical bent, one might state that you can take alt-rock, country, R+B or pop sounds from eight years ago, replace the word ‘baby’ with the word ‘Lord,’ and you will have a hit in the CCM world. That’s fine for what it is, but it’s not raw gospel.

ASPREY: One of the most conspicuous tracks on Fire In My Bones is Elder Beck’s ‘Rock and Roll Sermon’. He’s denouncing the devil’s music but his guitar player is rocking it out. Can you discuss the divide between the sacred and the profane in this era of African-American music? Did the secular stuff simply replace ‘lord’ with ‘baby’?

McGONIGAL: Ray Charles is of course the much trotted-out example for what I said there—’I Got A Woman’ being not at all loosely based on the Southern Tones’ ‘Must Be Jesus.’ ’Rock & Roll Sermon, Pts. 1 & 2’ by Elder Charles Beck is just such a killer song in so many ways. Elder Beck could always swing. He began his recording career as a gospel singer and pianist, later adding trumpet, vibraphone and even bongos to his musical gamut. Beck’s smooth, gorgeous recording of ‘Jesus, I Love You’ is regularly cited as the likely precursor to Elvis Presley’s version, while a song from his very first recording session with Curry, the deliriously rollicking and oft-anthologized ‘Memphis Flu,’ has, ironically, been referred to as an antecedent to rock & roll.

That song—when you get to part two, the flip side, wow. “Rock & roll is filling up the dope dens!” Elder Beck shouts, and from there he gets real gone, hammering home the fate of those who would succumb to the dreaded evil music with impassioned, beyond-hepcat fervor. “Rock & roll… Rock & roll all night long… Rock… One o’clock rock… Two o’clock rock… Three o’clock rock… Four o’clock rock… Five o’clock roll… Roll into the patrol wagon… Roll in before the judge… Rollin ‘out of the courthouse… Rollin ‘into the penitentiary… Rollin ‘into the electric chair… Rollin ‘out to the undertakers… AAAAAWAGGGH! WHOOO! ROCK AND ROLL! YEEEEAAAHHHHH! You better get readyyyy!” Sorry for going off on it like that! And then, just as the band really heads off into raw, revved-up rock, the guitarist peeling off bluesy licks that would make Keith Richards explode with jealousy, the song just fades out. You only get a taste, and you want to hear at least an hour’s worth. It’s the perfect, teasing end to a fiery sermon that ostensibly denounces rock & roll and yet shows that the right church is more raucous than even the heaviest rockers.

I’d argue that ‘Rock & Roll Sermon, Pts. 1 & 2’ is entirely aware of what it’s doing, of its own ironies and contradictions. I’d argue that gospel itself is more of an influence/root of rock & roll than the blues. This song is exhibit A.

ASPREY: Does the music hold a spiritual significance for you?

McGONIGAL: Ohh, of course. It’s so deeply that. You can never forget that gospel music exists to spread the ‘good news’, and that’s the entire reason that this beautiful thing is there for you. I can love it for so many reasons but I never want to disrespect that. My own religious/spiritual beliefs only mean anything to me; I hope I never throw anything onto them.

The Burden Lifters (Collection: Mike McGonigal)

The Burden Lifters (Collection: Mike McGonigal)

ASPREY: Can you give me some idea of the geography of the music you pursue? What kind of regional differences do you find? What are the key cities—or even specific churches?

McGONIGAL: Very loosely speaking, you will find the best music at a medium-sized COGIC (Church of God in Christ) on the outskirts of town. This has been true for decades. So if it’s a self-released 45 and it came from a small church and especially if that church looks to be from the Pentecostal/holiness tradition, then I’ll definitely give it a whirl.

The gospel I’ve been concerned with thus far is from the Midwest (gospel’s birthplace), the Northeast, and all over the South as well. There have been a couple West Coast tracks on these compilations. There certainly is a strong gospel tradition in California, particularly from the mid-1950s onward, but it tends to be centered on Rev. James Cleveland’s booming mass choir sound. I’d love to find some killer gospel from the Pacific Northwest. Outside of Rev. Louis Overstreet spending his last years in Portland, OR (where I myself lived the last 9 years), I’ve found zilch, however.

The best places to look for gospel records are economically depressed areas that are historically black. This is a bit of why I’m moving to Detroit, MI, by the end of 2013—to not only get closer to the artifacts but to the musicians themselves.

ASPREY: What are a couple of the weirder places you’ve found rare records?

McGONIGAL: I’m not nearly as lucky as friends of mine. I don’t find amazing records peeking out from behind a dumpster while waiting for the bus, or in Goodwills. I’ve been to so many Goodwill thrift shops in my life, and I’ve only ever found cool coffee mugs at them. Always look at the records there, but it’s always the usual—Andy Williams Christmas LPs, scratched-up classical, ‘80s country, Barbara Streisand, and maybe Ashford and Simpson.

A lot of the records I’ve gotten are online, but most are just from digging through boxes of 45s stashed in the back of a record store.

ASPREY: When did you realise you were going to be a music anthologist—and were there compilations (in gospel or other genres) that provided you with a template?

McGONIGAL: Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music is so crucial, and its deluxe 1990s reissue really inspired me a lot. I had already done quite a few compilations by then, though. I made my first vinyl compilation in 1986, a 7’ record that came with my fanzine Chemical Imbalance. There were the two best bands from Miami (where I was in high school then)—Broken Talent and the Chant—plus this great indie pop act called the June Brides from London, and Sonic Youth from New York City. I paid for it with a bit of money borrowed from a guy named Rich Ulloa who had a terrific record shop in Miami, FL called Yesterday + Today, while the rest of the money came from mowing lawns.

It took me years to realize it, but David Evans’ vernacular gospel collection Sorrow Come Pass Me Around (recently reissued by Dust-to-Digital) is a 100% perfect record. Evans made the recordings himself in the field, and it’s stellar, flawless. He even manages to have different versions of the same song appear on the record in succession and you do not get confused or tired while listening—that is a total magic trick I’d never try to pull off not even on a mix tape for a friend.

ASPREY: Do you feel that you’re doing something of a historian’s job when you compile your sets? Do your compilations seek to present a kind of secret history (forgive the cliché)? And how do your discoveries challenge the dominant historical understanding of African-American music?

McGONIGAL: It depends on the project, really. In general I’ve been working under different constraints in terms of what can be licensed and what cannot. Some of the projects I’d like to do are more geared towards trying to ‘fix’ certain perceptions, what I’d consider to be misperceptions. Mostly I’ve just been like ‘You have to hear this stuff it’s so great,’ operating from the superfan level.

Certainly a lot of people told me they had no idea that the kind of music on my first CD gospel compilation, Fire in my Bones, even existed, which was nice. It was also a bit strange to me, since that’s the kind of music I listen to so much—and that record was just a weird, scattershot collection. There’s still so much amazing gospel music that’s never been reissued in any form.

ASPREY: Can you walk us through some of your favourite cuts on Fire In My Bones?

McGONIGAL: Sure. Here you go:

‘Swing Low,’ Theotis Taylor. My friend Amos Harvey, who’s been in touch with Taylor himself, turned me on to his music. Brother Theotis Taylor recorded three spellbinding singles of his keyboard playing and falsetto singing for the Pitch label in the mid ‘70s. Keyboards and vocals—that’s all it is, but it’s so ridiculously timeless and lovely. I had to end the entire collection with that song.

‘Power Is In The Heart Of Man,’ Brother & Sister W. B. Grate. This is the best song on the compilation, one whose message is remarkably open-minded and not an ordinary evangelical message. I love the name—reminds me of sanctified singer Rev. I. B. Ware, that name. The record was released on the Port City label, which was likely based in Wilmington, NC.

Rev. Lonnie Farris (Collection: Mike McGonigal)

Rev. Lonnie Farris (Collection: Mike McGonigal)

ASPREY: A large portion of the cuts on This May Be My Last Time Singing were originally self-released 45s. What can you tell me about the economics of these records? How were they produced and distributed?

McGONIGAL: Actually, they all were—that was the main limit I set for myself when I came to assemble that compilation. The music on that compilation was all originally released on small label 45s, mostly in the 1960s and ‘70s. Many of these records were self-released, paid for by a church congregation or the artists themselves. Others were on regional labels (typically run by one single producer) little known today outside of a small circle of collectors. So, I chose to source this compilation entirely from 45s because of their democratic/DIY nature. The idea is that almost anyone could raise enough money to release a 7’ single. It might cost as little as a few hundred dollars to make a 7’ record back then.

I’m obsessed with the vernacular tracks, especially the solo-guitar-or-keyboards-plus-vocals numbers and the a capella songs. Stylistically, those recordings refer to sounds many decades old. On the Fire In My Bones compilation, the tracks in that vein had all been recorded by these great folklorists such as William Ferris and George Mitchell. And if released, it was on preservationist labels. Here, those recordings were presented as commercial artifacts within the local gospel community. And whether they were successful in the marketplace or not, that difference, to me, is huge.

ASPREY: What are your favourite cuts from This May Be My Last Time Singing:

McGONIGAL: ‘God Is Taking Care,’ Deacon James Williams. This one is so rad. A fine example from 1980 of mildly psychedelic drum machine gospel, it went through at least two pressings. Deacon James Fred Williams is the singer, while Brother Eli Taylor plays the organ, on this self-released Midwestern 45. I almost wish I hadn’t included it so that I could assemble an entire compilation of drum machine driven gospel at a later time.

‘Stop Now,’ Willie Cotton. This song is very straight-ahead, but I felt like it really fit somehow. And it often pops into my head without warning—it’s a real earworm. Cotton released a handful of 45s and two LPs for Brother Henderson’s L.A.-based label Proverb, from the mid 1960s until the label ceased operations when Henderson died in ‘72. On this 45 for the Ball label, Cotton was backed by his own brother Harold on drums and Prince Dixon on organ.

‘Stop Living On Me,’ Rev R. Henderson. What a revelation this 45 was! I bought it on eBay based on sound clips. It’s a totally strange, amazing record. Nothing is known about Rev. R Henderson. I now have three 45s by him, one of which is about the most I’ve ever paid for a 7’.

This track, side two, ‘Stop Living On me,’ was recorded really quietly, and is a total noodling guitar driven dirge. Meanwhile the A-side, ‘The Lord Will Make A Way,’ sports a backing band and congregational accompaniment, and it sounds super distorted as it was recorded entirely in the red! The backstory I’ve created for the record is that someone in Henderson’s church got their cousin, fresh out of rehab but still messed up on methadone, to man the controls.

ASPREY: How do YETI magazine and Verse Chorus Press fit into your activities?

McGONIGAL: Steve Connell from Verse Chorus Press is my business partner in YETI. I’ve known him for some time because he used to edit and publish the great ‘zine Puncture in the ‘80s and ‘90s. VCP was already set up with its own book distribution so the first number of titles were partnerships with them. VCP is actually not part of YETI and I’m about to buy out Steve so it will just be me doing YETI. I might rename my label Social Music as just YETI. Not sure? Initially Social Music referred to the third volume in Harry Smith’s Anthology; now, people think ”Facebook?” I started to work on YETI in 1999, a year after moving to Seattle to work as a music editor for Amazon. I spent much of the 1990s as a low level hack writer, scribbling wherever I could for ten cents a word and also supporting myself as a bookstore clerk, museum guard, bicycle burrito delivery boy and a grant writer. When I found myself at a ‘real’ job, even though I was often working ten to eleven hours a day at that job, I found I still wanted to do my own fanzine. I really missed that curatorial thing, the satisfaction I got from putting together an entire issue of a magazine myself—just stuff that my friends and I were interested in, no other considerations aside from that. I’d started my first ‘zine Chemical Imbalance with lawn-mowing money when I was fifteen years-old. YETI needs to be run more like a business and less like a compulsion; we’ll see what happens in the future but it’s been fun to work on. Basically, I always have something to do. I’m always behind in my work; there are dozens of projects at a time.

I remain obsessed with this music, and in 2014 I’ll make my own documentary film working with Jeff Economy. It will be on surviving vernacular traditions in contemporary gospel. We’ll be hanging out with a fellow who owns one of the last surviving gospel-only record stores (New Sound in Chicago) and also covering hard shouting quartets, sacred steel music, preacher/ singers, fife + drum gospel, churches where they sing lining hymns, a capellas sung in various ways, a gospel blues singer, shout trombone groups and what I would call visionary gospel in the guise of Rev. Raymond Branch.

ASPREY: What’s next? Which of your gospel discoveries most needs to be rereleased?

McGONIGAL: The Nashboro compilation is out in two months. It’s amazing music! I’m so glad I got to produce that reissue for Tompkins Square. A licensed collection of Jamaican gospel I’ve worked on for years which was to be on Honest Jons fell apart last month, and that was a big letdown. I’ve done two bootleg LPs, where I only made a few hundred copies of each and when I was able to track artists down later (as happened with the patriarch of the music, Otis Wright) I paid him very well, so that was cool—and will lead to further LP reissues on my own label licensed directly from the artists. But I want this Honest Jons record to be the best it possibly can, and I am disheartened that we now have to work from a smaller pool of talent.

Have you heard Jamaican gospel?

ASPREY: Not yet.

McGONIGAL: It’s really unlike anything else I ever heard. There are clearly Caribbean and Jamaican elements to the songs, as you’d expect. What might be a surprise is how closely the music hews to Southern gospel and country and western music. I’m told that part of the reason for this stems from the fact that radio stations throughout Jamaica used to shut down early in the evening, allowing high-wattage AM stations from the American South to waft in unimpeded.

I hope to produce a handful of Staple Singers reissues on vinyl. The fact that their very best and most important records have incredibly poor availability is very strange to me. Among those projects I hope to reissue their very first 78 from 1952, for the first time.

The first of (hopefully) many contemporary gospel recordings I hope to release is a collection of new and archival recordings by Rev. Branch, who I got in touch with after his 45 from the 1960s was included on Fire in my Bones. His voice is now a lot harsher and he used to have great facility with the guitar but his use of his hands has diminished. So he plays this electric harp thing instead, an omnichord. It has affinities to me with the great Washington Phillips. I find it really lovely stuff. Not sure how much of an appeal it has, but I am willing to gamble. I think the record will have to be named for this song, ‘Radio Television in my Heart.’


from issue #4: ‘The Crate-Diggers’ Symposium’ (3: Marshall Wyatt)

Marshall Wyatt

Marshall Wyatt

Matthew Asprey


Marshall Wyatt is a Grammy-nominated producer and the founder of Old Hat Records, a small label based in Raleigh, North Carolina, that reissues traditional American music of the prewar era. Old Hat is known for its CD anthologies of early recordings, carefully remastered from the original 78 rpm discs and presented in historical context, with extensive notes, rare photographs, period artwork, and full discographical details.

Old Hat anthologies have won the Living Blues Critics Poll for best reissue album on three different occasions. The 2005 album of medicine-show music, Good For What Ails You, earned two Grammy nominations, for best historical album and for Wyatt’s comprehensive album notes.

ASPREY: You’re a North Carolina native. What music did you grow up with?

WYATT: If I said that I grew up listening to my old granddaddy sawing away on his homemade fiddle, I’d be lying. In fact, none of my ancestors were musicians. My early musical tastes were typical of a white, urban, middle-class American upbringing of the 1950s. My listening habits were shaped more by national trends than local folkways, although it’s true that most of the national trends were driven by artists from the American South. I was in the second grade when I became aware of rock ‘n’ roll. That was the year I heard ‘Short Fat Fannie’ by Larry Williams and ‘Great Balls of Fire’ by Jerry Lee Lewis. The first record I ever purchased was Elvis’ ‘Jailhouse Rock’, the 45 rpm single on RCA-Victor. I still own that very disc, which tells you something about my compulsive collecting habits. My older brother was always two steps ahead—his record collection had instrumentals like ‘Run Chicken Run’ by Link Wray, and novelty songs like ‘Flip Top Box’ by Dicky Doo & The Don’ts. When everybody else was playing ‘The Twist’ by Chubby Checker, he had the original by Hank Ballad.

When the British invasion hit, I fell in with Beatlemania, like everyone else I knew, and I was also partial to the Kinks and the Yardbirds. I was aware of the folk revival movement. I certainly remember ‘Tom Dooley’ by the Kingston Trio, but it would be years before I heard the original 1929 recording by Grayson & Whitter. Eventually I discovered Bob Dylan. ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ was considered too long for radio, so the DJs would fade it out halfway through. Decades later, when I read Dylan’s Chronicles, I learned that he’d spent countless hours at the New York Public Library reading 19th-century newspapers. That seemed to make sense. In high school, I became fixated on Andy Warhol, whose aesthetic was so different from Dylan’s. When I saw Warhol’s deadpan face staring through a tambourine on the inside cover of a new record album, I bought it immediately. The Velvet Underground & Nico, the ‘banana’ album, was riveting, and I played it obsessively. It sounded so alien at the time, but as it turns out, that album predicted many of the trends that followed. Even so, I soon began to focus more on music’s past than its future.

I was still in high school when a couple of friends, hipper than I, gave me Sam Charter’s LP anthology on Folkways, The Country Blues. This opened up a rabbit hole that still has no end. The LP was meant as a supplement to Charter’s book of the same name, although I didn’t read the book until much later. I first heard the album cold, with no historical context or biographical information. The music was stunning. ‘Careless Love’ by Lonnie Johnson I played over and over again. To this day I love Lonnie Johnson. There was ‘Fixin’ To Die’ by Bukka White and ‘Statesboro Blues’ by Blind Willie McTell. Masterpieces! These performances knocked my socks off. And Gus Cannon’s ‘Walk Right In’—I remembered that as a radio hit by the Rooftop Singers, only this was a thousand times better. The Country Blues anthology gave me an appetite to hear more of this stuff, and to find out more about these musicians.

I started picking up 78 rpm records at local flea markets. In those days, it was a shot in the dark, because a lot of the research and writing on blues and old-time music was yet to come. If a name or song title seemed interesting, I’d gamble fifty cents and take it home with me. ‘M & O Blues’ by Big Bill And His Jug Busters—that sounds promising. ‘Banjo Sam’ by Wilmer Watts & His Lonely Eagles—OK, I’ll give that a try. I found a record called ‘Beaver Slide Rag’ by Peg Leg Howell & His Gang. The label had a descriptive subtitle that said ‘country dance.’ That record made a deep impression—it was my first exposure to black fiddle music, and it’s still a favorite. I was also fond of ‘Mississippi Heavy Water Blues’ by Barbecue Bob, which must have been a big seller in its day, because it still turned up often in the 1970s.

I went off to art school in Rhode Island and lived there in New England for four years. I’d often take the train to Cambridge, Massachusetts to visit friends, and I discovered that Harvard University had its own record store, the Harvard Coop. This is when I started buying LPs on a regular basis, and most of them were blues reissue anthologies. That store had endless rows of bins filled with labels like Origin Jazz Library, Herwin, Roots, Mamlish, Blues Classics, Biograph and Melodeon. And I discovered the gold standard of blues reissue labels, which was Nick Perls’ Yazoo Records. It was quite an education. After I moved back to North Carolina, I finally discovered the corresponding world of prewar hillbilly music, and that was largely through David Freeman’s County label. Freeman brought back the music of Charlie Poole, and that alone was a great accomplishment. But he also put out countless anthologies of obscure old-time music that were a revelation to a new generation of listeners. I still regard Yazoo, which continued under Richard Nevins, and Freeman’s County Records as the two most important reissue labels.

ASPREY: When did you realize you were going to be a music anthologist? And are there any other compilations that excited your interest in the practice early on?

WYATT: In 1982 I moved to California and lived in the Bay Area for about a decade. It seems like every time I move away from the South, my interest in Southern music is refuelled. Funny how that happens. I fell in with a group of 78 collectors who were passionate beyond anything I’d encountered. There was nothing casual about it. And they exposed me to a lot of great music from the 1920s and ‘30s that had never been reissued. To hear it, you had to own the original 78, or know someone who did. I once spent a week house-sitting for a collector friend who had a fabulous collection of 78s, all thoughtfully and laboriously put together over many years. It was intense, with no dross or filler. There was lots of great and rare string band music, white and black, obscure early jazz, guitar blues, jug bands, ethnic material. And he said, ‘Feel free to listen to records while I’m gone, and if you want to tape any of it, go right ahead.’ So I did. At the end of a week, I took away two cassette tapes filled with tracks that I’d selected from his record shelf. ‘Texas and Pacific Blues’ by Frenchy’s String Band, ‘That’s It’ by Walter Jacobs and the Carter Brothers, ‘When The Moon Drips Away Into Blood’ by Taylor-Griggs Louisiana Melody Makers, and on and on. Without realizing it, I was putting together an anthology of a sort, based on his collection.

In the 1980s it was common for 78 collectors to share material on cassette tapes, favorite tracks distilled from their collections. I started doing the same with my own 78s, and I started to group them thematically. I put together one cassette called ‘I Heard The Voice Of A Porkchop,’ and it included a lot of music typical of the medicine shows. I did another one called ‘Violin Blues’—that title speaks for itself. These homemade cassettes gave me some practice in putting together anthologies. At the time they were mostly for my own amusement, but I’d revisit these ideas in a serious way when I started my Old Hat label.

Just north of San Francisco, in El Cerrito, California, there was, and still is, a record store called Down Home Music, which surpassed even the Harvard Coop. It was an entire store filled with nothing but roots music. Chris Strachwitz operated his Arhoolie label from the same building, and filmmaker Les Blank had offices there as well. That address was an intense enclave of enterprises devoted to traditional music. At Down Home Music there were whole bins containing LPs on the Document label, with those stark white jackets and black lettering. Often the sound quality on those discs was very rough, but the label provided access to a lot of obscure music, and did so in a relentless, systematic way. Often it was The Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order of (fill in the blank). There was usually no attempt at thematic interpretation. The label’s name says it all—it was an ambitious project to document all of recorded prewar blues. Years later, Document reissues would become an invaluable research tool for my own projects. How do you know you’ve picked the very best example of someone’s music unless you’ve heard all of it?

In 1984, a new collection arrived at Down Home Music that was a real game changer. For me, without question, the greatest reissue project of the LP era, the one that would influence me more than any other, was Paul Oliver’s anthology on the Matchbox label, Songsters and Saints. It was subtitled ‘Vocal Traditions On Race Records,’ and it came in two volumes, each volume containing two LPs in a gatefold sleeve. One sleeve was pale blue, the other mustard yellow, each with the same vintage photograph of two black musicians. Even now, I pull these records from the shelf with a sense of awe. It’s a brilliant, thoughtful survey of prewar race music informed by ground-breaking scholarship, and it revealed a much wider spectrum of music than blues alone. Oliver’s book of the same title was published simultaneously. The book and the LPs together opened up genres that had never been subjected to serious study—the worlds of sanctified preachers, gospel evangelists, black string bands, pre-blues balladeers, minstrelsy and medicine shows. This project still serves as a roadmap for ongoing research, and it seems as fresh as the day I first heard it.

I’m aware that Harry Smith’s 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music is generally considered the greatest trail-blazing set of all time, which is probably true. But I missed the boat on that collection—it was already out of print when I started collecting. I never even heard those volumes until the 1980s, when I checked them out of the San Francisco Public Library—and by that time, I already knew most of the music from subsequent anthologies, or from the original 78s. So, for me, Songsters And Saints was the real inspiration.

String band musicians at Blowing Rock, North Carolina, circa 1925. Left to right: Roe Greene, Bert Jenkins, Clay Reed, Ralph Story, Grayson Story. (Collection: Marshall Wyatt)

String band musicians at Blowing Rock, North Carolina, circa 1925. Left to right: Roe Greene, Bert Jenkins, Clay Reed, Ralph Story, Grayson Story. (Collection: Marshall Wyatt)

Once a month, on the second Sunday, there’d be a 78s swap meet out in the parking lot of Down Home Music, open to any collector who wanted to show up with some boxes of records to sell or trade. It was loosely organized, but there was one strict rule—78s only, no other speeds allowed. Ya gotta love that! Another pivotal discovery happened for me in that parking lot. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a discovery that would set me on the path to start my own record label. I pulled a 78 from a box, on the familiar Columbia Viva Tonal label of the 1920s. It was Columbia 15280-D, ‘Don’t Get Trouble In Your Mind’ by Frank Blevins And His Tar Heel Rattlers. The flip side was ‘Nine Pound Hammer.’ The term ‘Tar Heel’ told me that this artist came from North Carolina, and the price was right, so I paid five dollars for the record and took it home. Hearing that music had a profound impact on me. It’s hard to say exactly why. The music had the mystique of a lost world, it was exciting to hear, unaffected and deeply emotional. It seemed very old, but fresh at the same time.

I found out that Frank Blevins had a total of three releases on Columbia, recorded in Atlanta in 1927 and ‘28, and I made it a point to track down the other two. I was not disappointed because they were all equally great. One of them, Columbia 15765-D, is exceedingly rare, but it turned up on an auction list in a periodical called Joslin’s Jazz Journal. I put in an extravagant bid—that record cost me the same amount that I paid each month to rent a one-bedroom flat in San Francisco. But I had to have it, and now that price seems like an incredible bargain. So there I was in California, discovering music from my own home state. Before long, that music would form the basis of my first CD anthology.

ASPREY: What is so special about the traditional music of North Carolina? Who are the important musicians and how did they live?

WYATT: Every state in the American South can claim a great store of traditional music, but none can surpass North Carolina in my opinion, as biased as that may sound. Volumes have been written on the subject, and there’ve been some excellent reissue projects along the way, such as County’s Charlie Poole series. It’s impossible to summarize such a vast body of music, and some of it may defy explanation. To give an example, why did so much pivotal banjo music originate in North Carolina, and not elsewhere? The particular three-finger style that’s so crucial to bluegrass music came from two adjacent counties in the southwest section of the state, Cleveland and Rutherford. Maybe it was due to changing social and economic structures, the migration from farms to cotton mills—just the right combination of rural and urban, of old and new. Maybe it was part luck. Whatever the reason, that style was unknown in the next state over, Tennessee. When Earl Scruggs, of Cleveland County, first played his banjo on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, he said that people stared at him like they would an animal in a zoo!

Frank Blevins is usually regarded as a footnote in the history books, if he’s mentioned at all. But to me personally he was very important. Not long after I discovered his Columbia records, I found out, to my surprise, that Frank Blevins was still living. His music wasn’t from a lost world after all. In 1987, I took a detour on a road trip and headed for Greeneville, Tennessee, where Frank had been living for thirty years. It was the first of many visits. We used to sit out on his back patio where he’d tell me stories about growing up in the mountain wilderness of Ashe County, North Carolina, about learning to play tunes on an ancient fiddle handed down from his great uncle, Noah Barker. His stories gave shape to a whole community of Ashe County musicians who lived in the early years of the 20th century—his friends, his colleagues, his rivals. And some of them made records as well, string bands like the North Carolina Ridge Runners and the Carolina Night Hawks. Soon I was tracking down their 78s as well.

Fiddler Frank Blevins with Marshall Wyatt, Greeneville, Tennessee, 1996. (Collection: Marshall Wyatt)

Fiddler Frank Blevins with Marshall Wyatt, Greeneville, Tennessee, 1996. (Collection: Marshall Wyatt)

I found more than just records. Using leads from Frank, I located other colleagues of his from the old days. Sometimes it was as simple as looking in the phone book. That’s how I found Fred Miller, who played banjo on those Columbia recordings by Frank Blevins And His Tar Heel Rattlers. Blevins had moved on, he’d travelled, seen the world, had a successful business career—but Fred was still in Ashe County, he was still a ‘Tar Heel Rattler.’ When I met him, he lived a stone’s throw from the place he was born. Over the years, he’d made a hardscrabble living as a farmer, musician, coal miner, and distiller of spirits. He told me, ‘I made moonshine likker in five different states, and never spent one night in jail.’ He played music for family and friends, for fiddler’s contests and folk festivals, for sheriffs and politicians, crooked and otherwise, for church picnics and liquor-fuelled dances at the Buffalo Tavern. And he played for Frank Walker, who was Columbia Records’ chief recording director in the 1920s. Fred learned banjo licks from Charlie Poole himself, and he played on a regular basis with the legendary team of G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter. Fred’s stories brought the music to life in a way I never thought possible.

I was still living in California at the time, but I kept making field trips back to North Carolina in order to interview these people and document this music. I finally moved back to North Carolina in 1993 for a number of reasons, including a desire to be closer to the source of the music. After a while I’d collected all of the prewar 78 records from the Ashe County region, I had countless hours of recorded interviews, and I’d gathered an excellent collection of vintage photographs and documents. At that point, it seemed like the natural thing to do—to create an anthology that combined all of these materials in a thoughtful way. I felt like the music and the history was worth sharing. In 1997, I put out Music From The Lost Provinces on my own label, Old Hat Records. That started the ball rolling for me.

ASPREY: Can you tell me about the early North Carolina recording industry? How were these records produced? How were they distributed? Who were their audiences?

WYATT: The recording industry did have a presence in North Carolina in the 1920s and ‘30s, but it was all implemented by companies who were headquartered in the north. These companies sent out field units to the Southern states to record regional talent in temporary studios. In August 1925, the General Phonograph Company sent its Okeh recording unit to Asheville, North Carolina, under the direction of Ralph Peer. This was two years before Peer’s now-famous Victor sessions in Bristol, Tennessee, where he discovered the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. In Asheville he cut masters by significant hillbilly artists like Fisher Hendley and Bascom Lamar Lunsford, and he also recorded four sides by Emmett Miller. Don’t get me started on Emmett Miller! Let’s just say he was a minstrel singer who wielded a tremendous influence on American popular music, although most people have never heard of the guy. These records were made using the old acoustical methods, just before the electric condenser microphone was introduced. The wax masters that Ralph Peer supervised in Asheville were shipped north for processing and manufacturing, then the finished discs were sold by Okeh dealers around the country, although sales of this music would naturally be concentrated in the South. By this time, marketing strategies had become segregated—record companies created one catalog for white hillbilly music and another for race records. Even so, I’m convinced that once records reached the consumer level, there was plenty of crossover. Okeh returned to North Carolina in 1927, this time to Winston-Salem, where they cut hillbilly discs by Crockett Ward and Fiddlin’ Powers, among others, using the electrical process.

After Ralph Peer went to work for Victor Records, he set up field sessions for that company in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1927 and 1931, recording hillbilly and race artists. By 1936, Victor had a new recording director named Eli Oberstein, who helped create Victor’s budget label, Bluebird. Oberstein set up multiple Bluebird sessions in Charlotte over a five-year period, recording dozens of important hillbilly artists. It’s an impressive list, including J. E. Mainer’s Mountaineers, Cliff Carlisle, the Dixon Brothers, Monroe Brothers, Delmore Brothers, Blue Sky Boys, Tobacco Tags, Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, Uncle Dave Macon, and others. Many of these artists also broadcast over WBT radio in Charlotte, the state’s most powerful station. Decca was also making significant recordings in Charlotte, including sessions by the Carter Family. For that span of time, 1936-1941, Charlotte was a vital hub for hillbilly music, just as Atlanta had been in the 1920s. Then, after World War II, the country music industry shifted to Nashville.

ASPREY: What are a couple of the more interesting places you’ve found records?

WYATT: In my own collecting experience, nothing trumps the stash of blues records that turned up here in Raleigh in 2007, right in my own backyard, so to speak. The records had been purchased new by an African-American family in the 1930s, and the collection had stayed in that family for 75 years. For decades, they were stored in a steamer trunk in a mobile home park on the east side of Raleigh. I’d driven by that site countless times over the years, never suspecting what was there. Finally they came to light, and I was able to buy them. I found out that the women of that family were the ones who had purchased the records in the first place, during the Depression years when money was scarce. To me, it indicates the high priority they gave to the music. And they had impeccable taste, I’ll say that! There were records on Paramount by Skip James, Ben Curry, Charley Spand, and Blind Blake—incredible rarities, in the original sleeves. My heart was pounding as I pulled them from the trunk. There was ‘New Stop And Listen’ by the Mississippi Sheiks on Paramount 13134, one of the greatest violin blues records of all time—hell, it’s one of the greatest blues records, period. The trunk’s rarest yield was Paramount 13123, ‘Night And Day Blues’ and ‘Sun To Sun’ by Blind Blake, recorded in 1932. It’s the only copy of that record known to exist. There were records by great North Carolina bluesmen, like Bull City Red, Dipper Boy Council, and Blind Boy Fuller, and female artists were also well represented, including Memphis Minnie, Lucille Bogan, and Bessie Tucker.

ASPREY: Can you take me through your compilations? There’s been a North Carolina focus all along. Has there been an overarching project with your label?

WYATT: I had lunch one day with two of my colleagues, George Holt and Wayne Martin, who are both great champions of North Carolina’s traditional music. George wondered aloud why no one had ever produced a comprehensive CD box set of the state’s early recorded music, and strongly hinted that maybe I was the one to do it. Wayne endorsed the concept, but voiced serious doubts that sufficient funds could ever be raised to make it happen. Later I kept thinking about our lunchtime conversation. I mulled it over. Maybe I didn’t have the resources for a huge box set, but why not continue with a series of single CDs, each devoted to a different aspect of North Carolina’s music? Over time, I could cover the same ground as a box set, or even more. I’d already collaborated with Wayne Martin on an anthology called In The Pines: Tar Heel Folk Songs And Fiddle Tunes. Modesty aside, every track on that CD is a gem, Wayne’s notes are impeccable, and we found some incredible vintage photographs that had never been published. After that, I collaborated with Patrick Huber on a collection called Gastonia Gallop: Cotton Mill Songs And Hillbilly Blues, music by textile workers from the state’s Piedmont region. Right now I’m working on a CD that will showcase hillbilly music on North Carolina radio in the 1930s. I’m also planning a set that will include the state’s blues and hillbilly artists who were discovered by talent scout James Baxter Long. I consider these albums an ongoing series, concurrent with other projects that are not North Carolina oriented.

ASPREY: Do you feel like a historian when you compile your sets? Do your compilations help shape a history or narrative that has otherwise disappeared?

WYATT: My formal education focused on the visual arts. I have no academic credentials as a historian, I’m just a record collector who got curious about the back story. I do have some deeply ingrained tendencies that I got from my father, who was a lifelong collector, archivist, author, and illustrator. His specialty was Western movies of the silent era, and early baseball. He showed me the methods of systematic documentation, and the value of careful research. Since childhood, I’ve always had collecting passions. As any collector will tell you, it’s a disease that has no cure! Collecting prewar phonograph records opened up a fascinating world, and I knew that I wanted to explore it. Producing these anthologies has given me a way to contribute something beyond the mere accumulation of artefacts. If you have compulsive tendencies, at least put them to good use!

I produced an album called Down In The Basement that samples the music of a single collector, Joe Bussard. Joe’s fanaticism far exceeds my own. He not only has a vast and important collection of 78s, but he has the stories to go along with them, and a colorful personality. Another collector once offered Joe a million dollars for his collection. He told Joe that he’d bring the money in cash, in a suitcase! And this was years ago, when a million dollars was really worth something! Joe turned him down, of course. Anyway, making that album with Joe was a chance to juxtapose genres in a dramatic way, jumping from country music to Cajun to blues to jazz to jugband to gospel. It was also a chance to present some of the lore and iconography of record collecting. Private collectors do make a crucial contribution to cultural preservation, and sometimes they recognize the value of things before the higher institutions figure it out.

Combining the written history, the visual imagery, and the music in a thoughtful way is important to me. I still believe in the value of the album, even though it may be an endangered art form these days. A couple of my compilations highlighted themes that had not been widely explored, at least not as CD projects. My fascination with early African-American fiddle music started with my flea market find ‘Beaver Slide Rag’ and finally resulted in the anthology Violin Sing The Blues For Me. There had been many excellent collections of guitar blues, but never a CD that focused exclusively on recorded examples of black fiddling. And when musicians like the Carolina Chocolate Drops cite that album as an early inspiration, of course that’s very gratifying for me. I followed up with a second album of black fiddle music called Folks, He Sure Do Pull Some Bow, which in many ways is better, or at least more fun to listen to. Good For What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows was another anthology that seemed to strike a chord. So many of the prewar musicians that I admired, obscure and famous, all had experience playing in the medicine shows. This included black songsters like Frank Stokes and Pink Anderson, as well as seminal country artists like Jimmie Rodgers and Gene Autry. Even Hank Williams played the medicine shows. The shows comprised a musical patchwork, ‘the mixed and mongrel bloodlines of American music,’ to lift a phrase from Nick Tosches. My album was inspired by Paul Oliver’s Songsters And Saints, minus the saints, and I even included a few of the same tracks that he used twenty years earlier.


ASPREY: Has anybody written an adequate history of this music?

WYATT: No single volume can capture the entire scope of the music, but a good one to start with is Nick Tosches’ Where Dead Voices Gather. On the surface this book is a biography of Emmett Miller, but it goes far beyond the music of just one man. Tosches grapples with the root and the essence of American popular music like no other writer, and his quest to understand Emmett Miller leads deep into the rabbit hole. I would recommend any non-fiction by Nick Tosches, and his books about music in particular. Once again, I’ll mention Paul Oliver’s ground-breaking Songsters And Saints. Then there’s Robert Cantwell’s Bluegrass Breakdown, which is filled with astonishing insights and metaphors. Just read the chapter about Bill Monroe and Dolly Parton! Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff have put out two remarkable compendiums called Out Of Sight and Ragged But Right. These books trace the early history of African-American show business through a detailed examination of newspaper accounts and periodicals of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Reading biographies of individual musicians can also be very instructive, like Nolan Porterfield’s Jimmie Rodgers, or Holly George-Warren’s Public Cowboy No. 1, about Gene Autry. Elijah Wald’s Escaping The Delta is a myth-busting study of Delta blues, and Patrick Huber’s Linthead Stomp proves the vital role of Southern mill culture to the creation of country music. And let’s not forget the discographies—these are some of the greatest history books that we have: Tony Russell’s Country Music Records 1921-1942, Godrich, Dixon & Rye’s Blues And Gospel Records, 1890-1943, and Brian Rust’s Jazz Records 1897-1942. There are many others, but those are the great triumvirate, the ones that really get dog-eared.

ASPREY: Are you tired of the ‘Old, Weird America’ label?

WYATT: Not really. It’s Greil Marcus’ lasting contribution to the lexicon, along the lines of Warhol’s ‘fifteen minutes of fame.’ That phrase covers the greatest body of music this country has ever produced. But the secret is out, and now it seems like everybody and his uncle is producing ‘Old, Weird America’ reissue projects. Which is a good thing, but it’s also ironic—what was old and weird is becoming mainstream!

ASPREY: What projects are in the future?

WYATT: My current CD project is not quite so old and weird, but for me it seems crucial because it focuses on the transitional decade of the 1930s, the decade that changed American music forever. Bob Coltman wrote a brilliant essay in 1976 called ‘Across The Chasm’ that describes that transition. My project is called Crazy Barn Dance, named for a Saturday-night radio show of hillbilly music that broadcast over WBT in Charlotte, North Carolina, and from WPTF in Raleigh, my home town. It’s subtitled ‘Bluegrass Roots on Carolina Radio, 1933-1940.’ Stay tuned.

Fiddler Clay Reed and sons Howard (guitar) and Ray (mandolin). Laurel  Springs, North Carolina, 1949. (Collection: Marshall Wyatt)

Fiddler Clay Reed and sons Howard (guitar) and Ray (mandolin). Laurel Springs, North Carolina, 1949. (Collection: Marshall Wyatt)

from issue #4: ‘The Crate-Diggers’ Symposium’ (2: Jonathan Ward)

Jonathan Ward

Jonathan Ward

Matthew Asprey


Jonathan Ward is the founder of the 78rpm website and resource Excavated Shellac. A compiler and collector based in Los Angeles, his releases include the 4-CD box set Opika Pende: Africa at 78rpm (Dust-to-Digital, 2011), a 2013 Grammy nominee for Best Historical Album, and the Excavated Shellac LP series (Parlortone). His writing can be found on his website, as well as in Cabinet, Perfect Sound Forever, and the ARSC Journal. He works for the Getty Research Institute.

ASPREY: When did you realise you were going to be a music anthologist? What compilations inspired you?

WARD: It’s interesting, because I’ve never considered myself an ‘anthologist’. Maybe by definition it’s true, but it’s hard for me to take that title too seriously. What I do is basically just compile and co-produce—music and research—and I’m perfectly happy with that mantle. My releases seem more like a natural byproduct of my personal collecting interests, a furthering of whatever explorations I’ve done with the Excavated Shellac website, and the desire to share music and contextual information that might be thought-provoking for readers. I’d always set out to do this for free, with Excavated Shellac. I’m lucky that a record company (Dust-to-Digital) has liked what I’ve had to offer, and wanted to release LPs and CDs. It’s an adjunct to my normal career and job, not a drive or necessity. I don’t think anyone would misconstrue my work with the work of an ethnomusicologist, or true scholarly work, and the site and releases were created with that middle ground in mind. I don’t have a release schedule and tend to go slowly. That said, I’ll be the first to admit that I can get pretty tenacious with all this collecting and searching for sounds. There’s a lot here that I’m dying to do something with, in time.

The main inspiration was the music on the records themselves, and sitting and listening to records at fellow collectors’ homes. But, compilations definitely inspired me, and they’re all pretty well known: The Secret Museum of Mankind series on Yazoo, the Times Ain’t What They Used to Be series also on Yazoo, Music of the World’s Peoples on Folkways, anything compiled by Richard Spottswood or Bruce Bastin, just to name a few. Equally as influential to me were articles and books on early non-Western recordings and the music industry by Paul Vernon, Rodney Gallop, Pekka Gronow, and Michael Kinnear.

ASPREY: How did you develop an interest in collecting African 78s?

WARD: Hearing Malagasy 78s for the first time in the 1990s made me utterly flabbergasted at their beauty and, I soon found out, their scarcity. At the same time I was also amazed at how little I knew about both that music and the record industry, and it opened my eyes to the sheer volume of material that was produced and released all over the world on the 78 format, as well as how little access I had to it. These were commercial recordings, not ethnographic recordings. I wanted to hear more, so I began to collect, read, learn, and most importantly, talk to other collector friends and musicians who knew a lot more than I and who were willing to share—they have always been one of the most significant influences for me. African 78s aren’t all that I collect by any stretch, but I seem to have specialized in them mainly because I love much of the music, and the vast majority of African 78s have never been restored and reissued ever, by anyone, so each box that arrives in the mail is a new experience. I’m still occasionally coming across entire labels that do not appear to have been documented in print or online before, not just individual releases.

ASPREY: Where in Africa (or elsewhere) have you searched for this music? What are a couple of the more interesting places you’ve found the records?

WARD: I get asked this all the time. I sometimes wonder if people have this idea that 78 collectors are white-robed saviors, scouring the earth in Land Rovers like post-colonial Indiana Joneses, pilfering 78s from the hands of starving people of color in order to haughtily bequeath them to their audience, treating them like starving children. Maybe the (entirely true) stories of blues collectors knocking on doors in poor neighborhoods in the American south has helped to prop up this myth. But Pat Conte, the curator of the Secret Museum CD series and owner of the one of the most unparalleled collections of historic global music on the planet, admitted in print that he’d never ventured outside the United States. Although it’s true that some collectors, especially 45 collectors, extensively travel, even they, too, have ‘finders’. I think all of this unfortunately props up the myth of the record collector as some kind of modern day sage, which I don’t espouse, and takes us all away from the real focus, which is the music. Beyond developing a core body of arcane knowledge, I’m not sure if it takes any talent whatsoever to be a record collector—just a bank account, patience, and some competitive edge. It should just be fun.

Of course, I’m not a stay-at-home, I love to travel internationally, and I look for records when I do. But 78s of all kinds were dispersed all over the world both because of the location of various cultural diasporas as well as the location of record pressing plants, and they turn up in random places (from junk shops to the bottoms of discarded gramophone players)—very often not at their points of sale—so most of my collecting consists of plain old international transactions with a coterie of friends, other collectors, and fast talking salesmen all over the globe, who know what I’m interested in. I’m an easy mark. But over time, honing and weeding, you can develop something unique.


ASPREY: Can you tell me about the economics of the African recording industry in the period covered by Opika Pende? How were these 78rpm records produced? Where were they pressed? How were they distributed?

WARD: It’s a convoluted history. Commercial recording in Africa began in stages, beginning at about 1902 in Egypt. In the years before World War II, nearly all recording on the continent was controlled by a few European multinational corporations: The Gramophone Company and Columbia in England, Polyphon and the Lindstrom labels based in Germany (Odeon and Parlophon), and Pathé in France. After recording began in Egypt and a dependable, lucrative market developed there, companies moved slowly eastward to Algeria and Tunisia, recording every year or two in Algiers and Tunis especially, proving that there was indeed a burgeoning industry. Commercial recording did not begin in Morocco until about 1911, and few commercial Sub-Saharan discs were issued during this time (there are, as usual, a few errant exceptions). A couple of independent labels active in North Africa also began to appear at this time, too. Usually, sessions were organized by local agents who were familiar with the music and the musicians (sometimes they were shop owners, for example), and European engineers would travel from the home offices and record the musicians onto wax masters. Engineers would often be gone for months, sometimes years at a time. The masters were regularly shipped back to Europe to be pressed at company pressing plants, and then shipped back to Africa to be sold in all manner of shops. Recording was made acoustically by all companies until about the mid-1920s—that is, without microphones or electricity—therefore the recordings, while beautiful in their own right, have a very narrow acoustical range. Electric recording was introduced at various stages by various companies immediately after 1925-1926 or so.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, things happened very quickly from about 1927, as if all these companies woke up to the fact that there was a new music market to exploit. The Zonophone imprint of the Gramophone Company shipped West African musicians to London to record hundreds of tracks from about 1927 until the early 1930s. This was in essence the first serious attempt to extensively record the popular and vernacular music of Sub-Saharan Africa—decades after the first 78s were made in Egypt. The Gramophone Company then began recording East African artists in the late 1920s, then West African artists in the early 1930s, South African artists around the same time. Odeon and Parlophon recorded in East and West Africa ca. 1930. Pathé shipped Kenyan musicians to Marseilles to record in 1930. Singer (later known as Gallotone), the first Sub-Saharan independent label, began recording in the early 1930s. A lot was happening—then the bottom fell out of the recording industry due to the Great Depression (forcing many labels to merge or fold), and recording was much more sporadic in Sub-Saharan Africa (though it continued steadily in North Africa) until about 1937 where it picked up once again…only to grind to a halt once again with the advent of World War II.

Some collectors opine that the best traditional music in the United States was recorded pre-1930s, but you can’t say that about music in Africa. While it’s true that some (but not all) music of urban North Africa got more slick after 1930s, Sub-Saharan recording was really just beginning to launch after 1945. This is when the big multinationals, still licking their wounds from those financial setbacks, more or less sat back and watched smaller, independent 78 labels pick up the slack (and sometimes they licensed their recordings to get in on the action). This is when the amazing Congolese independent labels began issuing the first rumbas, labels like Fiesta began recording in areas of West Africa like Mali and Burkina, Hugh Tracey began making excursions all across Central, East, and Southern Africa and releasing both popular and traditional recordings on Gallotone and Trek labels, and all manner of rural and popular styles were captured by anyone vying for a spot in the industry. Newly available train transportation to locations previously difficult to access by earlier companies now created new markets. The widespread use of magnetic tape made entrepreneurs across Africa as indie 78 labels popped up, sometimes pressing 78s in amounts of 50. A pressing plant opened in Nairobi after WWII, another in Kampala, another in Zimbabwe.

Eventually, 45s began to take over. While 78s were still being pressed with abundance in South Africa until the very late 1960s, and in East Africa until the early to mid-1960s, West Africa gave way to the 45 quite a bit earlier, as did North Africa. After slowly disappearing over the previous decade, 78s appear to have completely vanished in Africa by 1970 or so. The likely reason they stuck around as long as they did probably had something to do with access to electricity and new equipment.


ASPREY: You’ve said you were not trying to “construct or invent a narrative” with Opika Pende, but “there are important connections to be made.” Can you elaborate on that? What were the guidelines for inclusion and creating a structure to the presentation of the music? And has anybody written an adequate history of this diverse continent’s music?

WARD: Attempting to encapsulate the early music of Africa in 4 CDs is an impossible task—I never wanted to pass Opika Pende off as anything definitive in the slightest. Constructing a narrative under those circumstances could be considered hubris. Instead, my goal was just to present something to build upon, a collection that showcased diversity and rare recordings of lesser-known styles in the West, and one that sequentially moved, loosely and circuitously, from North to South, as the recording industry did, during those years. Ultimately, though, the sequencing was my own, and perhaps idiosyncratic. So, my guidelines for selection were simple: I had to like the music first, and second, it needed to add something to my general goal of showcasing a diverse array of styles and from as wide a geographic range as I could (and where recording was made…and from what I had available). As for the “important connections” statement, I hoped that people might hear continuity in styles and song types despite geographic and musical diversity.

There is no holistic history of early recording in Africa. In fact, there are very few histories of any non-Western country’s music that take into account the content and diversity of early commercial recordings, much less an entire continent’s. There are, however, some essential guides to African music from an ethnographic standpoint (the Garland Encyclopedia’s volume on African music, for example). Hopefully, these fields will overlap more.

ASPREY: Is the music featured on Opika Pende still performed and listened to in present-day Africa?

WARD: Absolutely, in some cases. Those particular recordings are probably not listened to that much or at all, mainly due to the unavailability or scarcity of the original records—though there are certainly circulating cassettes of older performers. But, many of the styles on Opika Pende are definitely still performed today, whether it’s praise singing on the one-string fiddles of Niger or Ethiopia, or the music of the Sheikhates in Morocco. A humbling experience when putting together Opika Pende was talking to native language speakers about certain songs, and even finding people who knew the performers personally. A type of music or a song that might seem incredibly obscure to people in the West is often considered commonplace by entire populations in other parts of the world—this was something I was constantly reminded of.

ASPREY: How did you become involved with Dust-to-Digital?

WARD: Dust-to-Digital contacted me a few months after I’d started Excavated Shellac, in late 2007. They enjoyed the site and the music and asked if I had any ideas for collections to release. I immediately pitched them Opika Pende, as I knew they loved to go all the way with design and quality transfers. Since that project would be huge and time-consuming, we also decided to start an Excavated Shellac LP series which would feature tracks around a given theme under the Excavated Shellac rubric (but hadn’t been featured on the website, or anywhere else, for that matter). Strings was the first. Excavated Shellac: Reeds will be the second in that series.

ASPREY: Opika Pende’s four CDs represent a tiny fraction of the African music you’ve rediscovered. Tell me about your other finds and what you are trying to achieve.

WARD: I’m really glad you used the term “rediscovered” rather than “discovered.” I’m always going down one musical rabbit-hole or another, but I keep my collection lean (well, for an obsessive collector type). Lately I’ve been really enjoying Caribbean jazz from Martinique recorded on French labels in Paris in the late 1920s-early 1930s, guitar players from Kenya and Tanzania on small, local labels like Mzuri and Rafiki, cumbias, string instrument soloists from India, and 78s from the Persian Gulf. Eventually, I hope to post more examples on the site, or use these records in projects. Most of what I listen to isn’t necessarily from the 78 rpm era, though. I mean, I like Black Sabbath and the Stooges, too.

I do have a number of ideas I’m working with now, for potential release, and I’m trying to see what sticks. In the meantime, I enjoy collaborating or helping out on others’ projects. For example, I did the transfers for artist Steve Roden’s i listen to the wind that obliterates my traces, and contributed 10-12 discs as well as the 78 transfers for David Murray’s new Longing for the Past CD set of Southeast Asian 78s, both on Dust-to-Digital (and beautiful). Excavated Shellac is ultimately where I’ve unleashed the most music—something like 140+ tracks and counting, though I update it less than I used to. That’s about 7 CDs worth of diverse and sometimes extremely rare material right there, and I can freely get as long-winded, arcane, and as tangential as I want with the text. As long as it continues to be fun for me and people continue to enjoy it, I’ll keep going. I have no goals other than that—the site is entirely personal in that sense.

from issue #4: ‘The Crate-Diggers’ Symposium’ (1: Ian Nagoski)

Ian Nagoski

Ian Nagoski

Matthew Asprey


Ian Nagoski is a musician, writer, and researcher. His compilations include Black Mirror: Reflections in Global Musics, 1918-1955 (Dust-to-Digital, 2007) and To What Strange Place: The Music of the Ottoman-American Diaspora, 1916-1929 (Tompkins Square, 2011). He runs a small LP label called Canary, which is manufactured and distributed by Mississippi Records. He lives in Baltimore.

ASPREY: What music did you grow up with?

NAGOSKI: I’m from a musical family. My mother was a piano and voice teacher. She gave me lessons in those. The family lore is that I learned to count to four listening to her give lessons. She’s been music director at a Unitarian church since I was a teenager, and is finishing her PhD in Music now. Her tastes ran toward M.O.R. 1970s AM radio kind of stuff; my earliest musical hero was, as a result, Jim Croce. One of my sisters is also a PhD, a music teacher, choral music specialist, a writer, and conductor. My father played Van Ronk/Baez type folk songs on guitar from time to time. He also kept a lot of instruments around the house and had an interesting record collection, including Partch, Stockhausen, Raymond Scott’s Soothing Sounds for Baby, etc. (He was also a big thrift store and flea market hound, and I picked that up from him.) My grandfather was an amateur swing-era jazz drummer, who gave me serious, disciplined lessons in that. My sisters and I all took dance lessons of various kinds and, because the family business had to do with taking pictures of dancers, I spent a lot of time around them as a kid.

I fell in love with electro and hip-hop around ‘83 and with the radio generally, and the Beatles in particular around age eight or nine. My older brother turned me on to Peter Gabriel when I was an adolescent.  And an older cousin sat me down and turned me on to ‘college rock’ (Sonic Youth, Volcano Suns, Dinosaur, Dead Milkmen, Laurie Anderson) when I was thirteen or fourteen. My local library had a lot of interesting records—Art Ensemble of Chicago, Television, Weill & Brecht. I started playing in pop-metal (as a drummer) and quasi-shoegaze (as a guitarist) by thirteen or fourteen.

ASPREY: When did you realise you were going to be a music anthologist—and were there compilations that provided you with a template?

NAGOSKI: It’s not a choice I’ve ever consciously made. I was always a mix-tape maker and worked in record stores, book stores, and libraries. I tried to be a composer of electronic music in my twenties—did a lot of gigs and made a few records. When I was thirty my daughter was born, so I gave up my music because it was too time-consuming and only lost me money. But I’d been into 78s for about ten years at that point, and a buddy of mine suggested that I make a CD collection for his label. So that became Black Mirror on the Dust-to-Digital label. Then that lead to a relationship with Mississippi Records and got me interested in doing more research and writing about old music. I saw that there were some great stories not being told and saw a way to deal with some of the same concerns regarding memory and musical meaning that I’d had as a composer in a relatable form, so I started doing that.

By the time I started making compilations, I had a couple of decades of making mix tapes and about a decade of improvising and composing for tape under my belt. I was coming from Cage’s strategy of developing a piece of music by first deciding on a duration and thinking about how to arrange sounds within that time-frame. My initial exposure to early 20th century music was, of course, through jazz collections, which were either chintzy (bargain bin collections of Chick Webb or Jimmie Lunceford) or ridiculously elaborate and thorough (the Complete Billie Holiday on Decca, the Complete Robert Johnson, etc.) In my mid-teens, shortly after buying Lomax’s Folk Songs of North America book, I heard the ‘Social Music’ volume of Harry Smith’s Folkways Anthology (still my favorite volume) and began to take his premise of listening for the Big Picture (the “voice of God”?) seriously. From my late teens through my twenties, I studied the first generation of collector/anthologists of Americana (Pete Whelan’s Origin Jazz Library, Nick Perls’ Yazoo, Chris Strachwitz’s Folklyric and Arhoolie, Don Kent’s Herwin, etc, etc) and came to think of them as artists as much as the performers that they were presenting, as sculptors, bricoleurs, and composers in the same sense as Joseph Cornell, Bruce Connor, Pierre Schaeffer, etc. I was at university and having a very difficult time finding my way when Pat Conte’s Secret Museum series was released and I felt that he had more to say about the truth of music than anyone in a hundred mile radius of the town where I lived. And, of course, there were collections of more-or-less contemporary music (or art or poetry, for that matter, including the Anthology of New York Poets, edited by David Shapiro and Ron Padgett, and Paul Bowles’ collection of Moroccan writers, Five Eyes) that were very important to me…

ASPREY: How did you come to compile To What Strange Place?

NAGOSKI: There was a song on my first collection, Black Mirror, that I thought was especially powerful—a very intense Greek record with heavy Turkish (and, it turns out, Russian) influence from 1919 by a woman named Marika Papagika. I couldn’t find out much about her, so I started trying to figure her out. In the end, there’s still a lot I don’t know because not much of her life was documented, and she had no children. (She died in 1942.) But she left behind two hundred and fifty performances. So I spent a lot of time trying to figure out where she was from, what kind of world she had lived in, and why I had encountered her music but hadn’t been able to find out much about her. To What Strange Place is basically what I learned from that project/obsession as it expanded. I still consider that project ongoing.

ASPREY: What can you tell me about the economics of these rare Ottoman diaspora records? How were they originally produced and distributed?

NAGOSKI: It’s a long story. But in a nutshell, The Gramophone Company, as it was then called (later Victor/HMV/EMI) started recording in various parts of the world in 1902. Other companies joined them over the next decade. Recordings of immigrant musics in the U.S. were made starting in the last decade of the 19th century. In the first two decades of the 20th century, recordings made abroad were issued in the U.S. for immigrant populations, and in the mid-1910s recordings of ‘down home’ style musics from many parts of the world were produced and issued in the United States by the major record companies, Victor and Columbia in particular—hundreds of thousands of them by the onset of the Depression. The purpose of them was to 1) get some money out of the pockets of the immigrants who were flooding the country at a rate of more than a thousand a day for decades and 2) to sell some hardware—record players. Immigrants began founding their own small, independent record companies in the 1910s, and some entrepreneurial folks started importing physical discs that had been released back home.

ASPREY: Can you give me some idea of the geography of the music? What kind of regional differences did you find between performers?

NAGOSKI: Well, the performers on To What Strange Place cover a wide array of language and cultural groups. Of the American performers on the first two discs, there are Greek performers from  inland, coastal, and island Greece as well as Anatolian Greeks. There are Armenians from both eastern and western Anatolia. Assyrians of what is now southern Turkey and Syrians of western Syria are also represented. There are Arabic speakers (probably Christians) likely from present-day Lebanon or Egypt, too. To the best of my knowledge there are no Sephardic or Romaniote Jews, Bulgarians, or Albanians, not because they wouldn’t belong but simply because I didn’t find useable, beautiful records by them in time for inclusion, unfortunately. I’m not aware of any Turks or Druze on the first two discs, partially because relatively few immigrated and those that did hid their identities as non-Christians or -Jews. (America was not welcoming to Muslims.) The third disc, which comprises recordings made overseas but marketed in the U.S. for the immigrant populations, is more diverse and includes not only Jews and Muslims but also both performers of the very highest ranks of the Turkish and Arab classical worlds as well as socially ‘low’ class performers, including Roma women.

Collection: Ian Nagoski

Collection: Ian Nagoski

ASPREY: Tell me about the hunt for rare records. What are a couple of the weirder places you’ve found them?

NAGOSKI: The Greek records that started me down the To What Strange Place rabbit hole were dragged out of an abandoned house in Baltimore, Maryland. I bought that box of records having no idea at all what was on them for ten cents a piece—$5 for the box. They included not only several by Marika Papagika but also a beautiful 1907 performance by a Greek singer in Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey). Some of the best Arab classical (tarab) performances on the set were found in practically unplayed condition at an estate sale in Minneapolis, Minnesota, by my friends Paul Metzger and Elaine Evans. (They refused to take any money for them—bless them!) Those included one of the oldest and best performances on the set—the great Egyptian singer Yusuf al-Manyalawi, recorded November, 1905. A group of Armenian records were literally picked out of garbage left on the street in Boston, Massachusetts, including M. Douzjian’s great ‘High Aghchg, Tchar Aghchg’. Those were given to me by my friend Angela Sawyer. I should say that although I did pay ‘serious money’ for a couple records on the set (and then had to sell them immediately after making transfers of them), the vast majority of them were either given to me or else I paid almost nothing for them. Many of them—including great ones like Kemany Minas’ ‘Eghin’—can be bought at auction for less than $10 in nearly perfect condition. Some are ‘rare’ in the sense of being collectable, but most are basically obscure junk that very few people want and even fewer are willing to pay for. Most of the records I’m most interested in “ride that fine line between priceless and worthless,” as my buddies Dick Spottswood and Steve Smolian say.

ASPREY: Do you feel that you’re doing something of a historian’s job when you compile your sets? Do your compilations seek to present a kind of ‘secret history’ (forgive the cliché)? And how do your discoveries challenge the dominant historical understanding of this music?

NAGOSKI: Primarily, I’m driven by a desire to respect the work of the people who made this beautiful music—to say simply and clearly that their lives mattered. I feel connected to them when I hear them play, and I want to know them and share the quality and meaning of their lives to the extent that I can know it. Secondarily, I want to shake people up a little, Americans in particular, and remind them (us) that we haven’t been told the whole story, that we don’t know enough about who we are, that the world is a big place full of beauty and wonder, and that simply agreeing on a few icons and symbols and songs is not good enough. It leads to amnesia and complacency and ultimately reinforces the devaluing of human life and creativity.

(The ‘secret history’ and, especially, ‘old, weird America’ tropes mean nothing to me. There’s nothing particularly ‘secret’ or ‘weird’ about any of it. It’s all perfectly normal, and the answers could be available if the questions were asked to the right people…)


ASPREY: What are some of your other favourite cuts on To What Strange Place beyond the performances of Marika Papagika?

NAGOSKI: On the first two discs, every track, except for two or three, was chosen because I’d fallen in love with it. (A couple are there simply because they’re good listening and an important part of the narrative.) M. Douzjian’s ‘High Aghchg, Tchar Aghchg’ (one of the discs picked out of the trash on the street in Boston) blows me away every time I hear it—absolutely blazing. A monument. (Also virtually worthless. A perfect copy—on an indie label from ‘28 or so—sold at auction recently for $10 or something.) Achilleas Poulos’ version of ‘Her Yer Karanlik’, a song recorded many times, which like ‘September Song’ or a number of other standards kills me—has moved me to tears many times. Sotirios Stasinopoulos’ ‘O Korakas’ is about as good a record as I’ve ever heard—certainly up there with any of the delta blues masterpieces. I adore Naim Karakand—every note I’ve ever heard him play, from 1912 to 1958. Kemany Minas’ ‘Eghin’ is a great favorite. Zabelle Panosian’s ‘Groung’ is a mind-melting masterpiece and one of the greatest records I’ve ever heard in my life. On the third disc, the three Egyptian vocalists—Hilmi, Murad, and Manyalawi—are artists of the very highest order and leave me gasping for breath every time I invest myself in listening to them. And of course, Cemil Bey—what can you say? Jimi Hendrix, Mozart, Charlie Parker, Abdul Karim Khan…He’s in that category of musician from whom music just flows with such devastating power and imagination that you feel grateful just to have heard him.

ASPREY: An early version of ‘Misirlou’ appears on To What Strange Place—a song that has had a long afterlife in American culture all the way to Pulp Fiction. What are some of the other after-effects or later incarnations of this music in America? Was it debased or trivialised in later popular culture?

NAGOSKI: This is something I’m still learning about all the time. To What Strange Place ends with the onset of the Depression when the major record companies in the U.S. essentially stopped releasing recordings of immigrant folk musicians. In the 1940s, those immigrants started releasing their own records, but they never stopped performing. In New York, a strip of ‘Oriental nightclubs’ (Greek, Armenian, Arab, Turkish, etc.) existed for decades along about ten blocks of 8th Avenue, and it became hip for some folks (particularly after the release of films like Zorba and Never on Sunday as well as Kazan’s America, America) to dip into that scene, and it was definitely a thing for some jazz musicians to go check out this modal music in ‘odd’ time signatures around the time that Kind of Blue and Take Five came out. So you find, for instance, that Naim Karakand, who recorded at the first-ever sessions of Turkish-language music for commercial release for Columbia in 1912, recorded his last sessions with Ahmed Abdul Malik in 1958 at a jazz-fusion session (with saxophonist Johnny Griffin) in 1958, and that Malik recorded just a few years later at the Village Vanguard sessions with John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy.

Meanwhile, two of the most influential American jazz record producers were of the ‘Oriental’ world. George Avakian (who was Armenian, born 1919 in Russia) signed Miles Davis to Columbia and was one of the most influential figures in 20th century American music. And then there was Ahmet Ertegun (Turkish, born in Istanbul in 1923), who not only discovered, championed, or produced scores of the most important artists on Atlantic’s catalog, but also recorded several interesting sessions by, for instance, the great Armenian Udi Hrant (who also recorded jazz-fusion performances for Riverside) and the Italian-American proto-free-jazz saxophonist and composer Joe Maneri, who was deeply influenced by Greek, Armenian, Arab, and Jewish music from his native Brooklyn. Interestingly, Ertugen shelved those sessions. So the ways in which those who knew the music best and then turned away from it are also deeply instructive. Certainly by the 1950s, Sun Ra was paying some attention to the independent and ethnic releases being made in the U.S. Meanwhile, the scenes in Michigan, where there is a huge Arab-American population, southern California, etc, etc, filtered into the consciousnesses of innumerable artists that we have yet to delineate. But there were Greek-oriental clubs also in the deep South—Atlanta, Georgia, for instance, where we know a belly dance scene took root in the 1950s and 1960s. In my own Baltimore, some of the great performers of the 1950s played in taverns catering to sailors, including the bouzouki virtuoso Yannis Pappaioannou….It goes on and on…

ASPREY: Is Baltimore a good base for your work?

NAGOSKI: It’s OK. It’s a small city (600,000) and very poor. I have a hard time finding work in order to simply keep body and soul together, much less to have money to buy records. But there were significant immigrant populations here in the early 20th century—Slavs, Jews, and Greeks in particular. So those records turn up sometimes. It’s close enough to some other major cities, where I can learn more—D.C., NYC, Philadelphia, Boston, etc. I still need to go to Chicago, Michigan, and L.A. to continue the work, but that hasn’t been possible so far. (I lived for a six months last year in Asheville, North Carolina in the Great Smokey range of the Appalachian mountains—very much bluegrass territory. I like that music and culture a lot, but there was not a lot of the left-behind Greek, Jewish, Slavic, or Asian cultures that have come to dominate my internal life. So I’m not sorry to be back, particularly because there are a lot of good libraries here. Libraries are key.)

Collection: Ian Nagoski

Collection: Ian Nagoski

ASPREY: Have you been able to go crate-digging and researching in Turkey or Greece?

NAGOSKI: No. Everything on To What Strange Place arrived to me on the eastern seaboard of the U.S. A few records were found in the mid-West and were sent to me. None came even from the West Coast. I’ll finally go to Athens, Thessaloniki, and Istanbul for the first time in April 2014. (I’d also like to go to Lebanon; Israel; Izmir, Turkey; and Alexandria, Egypt. If anyone reading this can help, please write… a few years ago, I would have added Aleppo to the list, but that’s out of the question now, of course.)

ASPREY: I see you have been raising research funds through Kickstarter rather than through, say, an academic institution. Can you tell me about that?

NAGOSKI: After I toured Europe for To What Strange Place over several weeks in early 2012, I arrived home with a lot of unsold merch. I wound up selling it off by making more merch at home and running the Kickstarter campaign. After costs and two months of full-time work running the campaign, I had turned a profit of about $5,000, which I hoped to use to tour the West Coast of the U.S. and then buy a plane ticket to the Near East. But because I could not find venues that would pay enough for me simply to break even on those trips, I then spent the money paying outstanding bills and moving my wife and I to Asheville, North Carolina, where she wanted to live. But she then rather promptly left me. So I moved again, penniless, back to Baltimore. No hard feelings. Life is just hard.

I received a gift in 2011 from the Kindle Foundation, which nearly saved my life. I will remember that day with gratitude on my deathbed. But other than that, I have received no support from any institution. I have given lectures at many schools, and my fondest wish is to teach some day, but because I am a high school dropout without even an undergraduate degree, I am not qualified to apply for a teaching position at any American academic institution. I have been turned down for numerous fellowships and grants. I support myself by writing and record production on a for-pay basis, and at present, I am working three part-time jobs at near-minimum wage.

ASPREY: Can you tell me about the book project you’re working on?

NAGOSKI: There’s a collection of my writing and interviews on the subject of music from over the past twenty years called Music is a Hard-Working Thing that Transparency Press in Los Angeles has asked me to do. However, the funding that they felt they had when the offer was made has not come through. I hope it does.

I wrote 100,000 words for the notes to To What Strange Place, but Tompkins Square Records had me shorten those to 10,000 words (including the 20 minutes of spoken text at the end of disc 3). I have learned a lot since the publication of To What Strange Place and hope that I can finish the project by writing the book it always should have been. This depends on finding a publisher who can support the project.

ASPREY: What are your future plans?

NAGOSKI: By the end of the year the fifteenth and sixteenth releases on my LP label Canary will be issued. (So that’ll be sixteen LPs in four years.) One is a collection of Hindustani vocal art music from the period surrounding independence from the British Empire—the last of the old court singers and the first of the new public singers, all of them awesome. The other is of the great Greek star of the 1930s, Rita Abatzi. A gospel LP that I made dealing with both visions of the apocalypse and the early stirrings of the Civil Rights movement from the late 1930s to the early 1950s is nearly finished, but I have no one to release it. I’d like to finish that if there were a publisher.

I have definite plans to finish three more LPs for release in 2014. One has to do with laughter and animal imitation as entertainment as they existed on record in the early 20th century—my own entry into the world of hindsight-genre. Another deals with one of my deepest and oldest loves, central Javanese court gamelan. And another addresses the first generations of Arabic-language-speaking women on record.

I need to do biographical studies of two artists from To What Strange Place—the Syrian-American violinist Naim Karakand and the Armenian-American singer Zabelle Panosian, both of whom recorded incredible work in the 1910s in New York City—in the short term.

The great pivotal and colorful Greek-American bouzouxis Ionnis Halikias (Jack Gregory) is a project I wish to take on, and I am awaiting an angel to make that possible.

I mentioned the two books I need to do, my tour in April 2014 including Greece and Turkey, and my fascination with the 8th Avenue scene of ‘Oriental’ clubs and its cross-over into the world of jazz…

I have begun and will continue my studies in cage-bird song (canaries and nightingales in particular), as they relate to human culture. (My initial work on that was exhibited at the Post-Natural in Nature exhibit at the Museum for Naturkunde in Berlin earlier this year and will be published by a small magazine in Connecticut any day now.)

So, you know…everyone needs a hobby…

from issue #4: ‘The Crate-Diggers’ Symposium’ (Introduction)

Fiddlers’ Convention at Blowing Rock, North Carolina, circa 1925. Photo by J. M. Bawgus. From the collection of Marshall Wyatt. Used by permission.

Fiddlers’ Convention at Blowing Rock, North Carolina, circa 1925. Photo by J. M. Bawgus. From the collection of Marshall Wyatt. Used by permission.

Matthew Asprey

This week all four interviews from Matthew Asprey’s ‘Crate-Diggers’ Symposium’, which appeared in Contrappasso issue 4 (December, 2013), will be running at the Contrappasso website. Here’s Asprey’s introduction:

THE DIGITAL AGE has coincided with the widespread excavation of stunning sounds from the past. Just check out the compilations released by such labels as Tompkins Square, Dust-to-Digital, Old Hat Records, Soundways, Now-Again, Mississippi, Sublime Frequencies, Arhoolie, and the Numero Group. The cavalcade indicates the staggering diversity of cultural expression in the twentieth century.

The best of these archival compilations do more than simply make great music available again. Radio presenter (and sometime protest singer) Bob Dylan said of Marshall Wyatt’s Good For What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows 1926-1937:

“I got nothing against downloads and MP3s, but getting this CD with all the pictures and liner notes, well, it’s not as good as having it on the big 12” record, but at least there’s a booklet there, and believe it or not, folks, you can even read it in a power failure—as long as it’s daytime.”

The art of the music anthologist involves the sequencing of tracks, extensive annotations, the inclusion of archival photographs and historical documentation. The final package can be myth-shattering. The most ambitious compilations upset the complacency that creeps into our historicisation of the musical and social past, our desire to lock in definitions and musical genealogies. Some provide an urgent counter-history by alerting us to an obscured genre or style or school of musicians; they can sometimes sketch in the till-now missing explanation for what came later. Others avoid definitive statements altogether, reminding us that the practice of music is too messy to be reduced to a dominant historical narrative, that music-making has always been a promiscuous activity, the fruit of numerous encounters and migrations, and as the decades pass it becomes more and more difficult to assess its true origins and connections.

The survival of music is largely a matter of chance. Of course only a small fraction of the music of the past hundred years was actually recorded; an even smaller fraction has survived to the present; even smaller still is the fraction that makes the leap to a digital format and an audience. We should be thankful for the reappearance of these beautiful ghostly sounds.

Music collectors are often called ‘crate-diggers’, which evokes a romantic image of dusty-thumbed record hunters in stifling basements and filthy flea markets and swap-meets, obsessed characters seeking the eureka moment when the impossible nugget is unearthed—even if these days the most valuable records are often found on eBay. Collector-anthologists are fascinating figures on the fringes of the contemporary music industry and deserve a little interrogation.

This symposium speaks at length to four of today’s most interesting anthologists of rare and otherwise forgotten music: Ian Nagoski, Jonathan Ward, Marshall Wyatt, and Mike McGonigal. Most of these guys work with 78rpm records, although Mike McGonigal’s recent compilation, This May Be My Last Time Singing, is compiled entirely from self-pressed 45rpm gospel records.

I wanted to know about the seeds of this passion for musical discovery, the process of crafting a collection, and the role a music compilation can play in challenging our understanding of the musical and social past.

These interviews were conducted by email in mid-2013.

Contrappasso Extra: An Interview with Lawrence Block


Matthew Asprey

LAWRENCE BLOCK is an American crime writing veteran. He has published more than a hundred books of fiction since the late 1950s. Some of his best known characters are the cop-turned-private investigator Matthew Scudder, the globe-trotting insomniac Evan Tanner, and the introspective assassin Keller. Block was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 1994.

Block’s most recent novel is The Burglar Who Counted The Spoons, which returns again to his genial burglar character Bernie Rhodenbarr.


I had lunch with Block in Greenwich Village on January 13, 2014, to discuss the new book and his adventures in self-publishing.

ASPREY: The Burglar Who Counted The Spoons is your eleventh Bernie Rhodenbarr mystery. It’s a delight. But why did you decide to go with self-publishing as opposed to running with a traditional publisher?

BLOCK: I’d always had a certain amount of interest in self-publishing going back to the mid-1980s. I wanted to sell a book in conjunction with a seminar I was doing called Write for Your Life. I realized that while I might be able to persuade a publisher to do the book, for one thing it would take them a year to get it out. And for another the real market for it was people who were either attending the seminar or would be reached by advertising for the seminar. So it struck me that that book really lent itself to self-publishing because I was closer to the potential market than a publisher could have been.

ASPREY: Right.

BLOCK: That was before CreateSpace, before ebooks, before any of that. I got a production guy from a publishing house who moonlighted doing things for self-publishers. He handled the production. I printed five thousand copies of it and we sold just about all of them. Then I stopped doing the seminar and that was enough of that. But it was an interesting experience. And even though we did just about everything wrong in one way or another—as one does in initial ventures—it was not a failure. It was okay.

After the sudden technological revolution that gave us ebooks and self-publishing for Kindle, I began doing that with some backlist titles. And then it occurred to me that I had just about enough Matthew Scudder short stories for a book. Indeed, I got an idea for another story that would be first published in that book. I knew that my publisher would probably do it, but I couldn’t see it as a big sales item for anybody. I’m sure the publisher would give a minimal advance and it would be in the stores for twenty minutes. I thought this was probably a rather risk-free one to do myself.

So I published that in 2011. It was called The Night and the Music. And it did very well. It’s a slow way to get rich—any publishing venture is—but it was profitable. It was never in stores but it was available online both as a paperback and an ebook. And while the sales were never stratospheric they never fell off, either. It’s been steady. And it’s been about two-and-a-half years now. That was a positive experience. It was a book I was pleased with and continue to be pleased with.


Then I wondered how it would be to publish an A-list title myself.

But I’d actually reached a point in life where I thought I was probably done writing anyway. I’m seventy-five years old. I’ve written God knows how many books. I’m not even sure He’s kept track, but I know it’s well over a hundred. And I can’t really delude myself that the world has not had enough words of mine or that I have something to say that I’ve been holding back all this time. That’s very clearly not the case. I’ve made various attempts at a novel in recent years and nothing really got off the ground. I got bored with it or it fizzled out after a handful of pages. I thought, “No—if I’m done, I’m done.”

But I went on a cruise this past summer and wrote a new book. And what really got it written, I think as much as anything else, was the desire to self-publish a new novel. And I really had to honor that. That’s why I wrote the thing—that at least enabled the writing of it. So let’s not run off and take a hefty advance from a publisher and wash your hands of it, which is in a large measure what you do when you publish.

But I did give it some thought because it was in one of my more popular series, and it’s certainly one my regular publisher wanted to do. And I was in fact contractually committed to show it to them. But I told them going in that e-rights were not on the table. I was just not going to give that to anybody. And that was the deal breaker as I knew it would be. In fact, I was comfortable that it would be.

There was another publisher that really liked it and would have let me keep e-rights. But I really just plain wanted to do it myself.

ASPREY: I get the impression from reading your blog and looking at recent interviews that you have a lot of fun being your own publisher.

BLOCK: Yeah. Absolutely.

ASPREY: I understand. We have a lot of fun doing Contrappasso.

BLOCK: So you know. And time was a consideration, too. I am, I’m pleased to report, in good health. But even so one doesn’t want to wait. My last novel with a publisher was Hit Me [2013], and it was over fifteen months from the time I turned in the finished manuscript until it was out. By the time it was published I could barely recall having written it. And I hate that kind of schedule, you know? With this I knew I didn’t want to wait that long. I got on the boat in the middle of July, and I got off on the 17th of August with a manuscript finished. I thought, when will this get done? A publisher would want to bring it out in the fall of 2014. Except the fall list is difficult and they’ll think it’ll have a better commercial chance if they publish it in, say, February of 2015. And I thought, the hell with that. I’m at an age where a man is well-advised not to buy green bananas. Do I really want to wait a year and a half to see the book printed?

ASPREY: I guess for writers as prolific as you’ve been, by the time a book came out you’d be four or five books ahead.

BLOCK: That certainly used to be the case. And even this year I have two books coming out. I have Borderline, an erotic crime novel which initially came out in 1961 or ’62. I can’t claim that the world really needs to see it again but there’s a publisher who wants to do it and he’ll do a nice job with it. Hard Case Crime does a wonderful job with everything they do.


ASPREY: I like the cover.

BLOCK: Yeah, terrific cover.

ASPREY: I like all the covers from Hard Case Crime.

BLOCK: I think with Borderline the cover may be better than the book requires. And sometime in the late spring or early summer Subterranean Press will be doing an edition of the Ehrengraf stories.

ASPREY: The stories about your lawyer character.

BLOCK: And there’s a new one written for that. They do a beautiful production. They’re a wonderful small press. So it looks as though I’m a lot busier than I am, because all of this stuff from prehistoric times is coming out.

ASPREY: Your bases are definitely loaded.

BLOCK: With the Burglar Who Counted The Spoons I got off the boat on the 17th of August and on October 23rd the book went up for pre-orders on Amazon with the cover done and everything else. And Christmas Day it shipped. And that struck me as a reasonable schedule. I liked that.


ASPREY: And the cover was painted by Emanuel Schongut, one of the original Bernie Rhodenbarr cover artists.

BLOCK: When you self-publish suddenly a lot of things become your responsibility that aren’t otherwise. The first four books in the series were published by Random House in the late 1970s. They used the same cover artist on all four. Then when the series went elsewhere, of course that was the end of that. But I looked at those books and I thought, if only we could get this feel for the covers. Maybe we should even knock this off, have him wearing the domino mask and the checkered topcoat. And I thought—maybe the artist is still around. I managed to find him through Google. And if he’d been, God forbid, deceased, I would have had no compunctions about stealing components of it. But I certainly wouldn’t do that with a living artist. I got in touch with him and found out that although he was semi-retired, he liked the idea of doing this. And he did a beautiful painting for it.

ASPREY: I have the original hardback edition of Burglars Can’t Be Choosers [1977], so I was very familiar with it. You must have had hundreds of cover artists work on your books. You may not have always been impressed by some of the work done.

BLOCK: Well, some are better than others.

ASPREY: What’s your favourite?

BLOCK: I love these covers for the Burglar series. And I thought the various Keller covers were very good. They were essentially type with some design enhancements.

ASPREY: I really like the Hard Case Crime reprint of Killing Castro [1961].

BLOCK: The Hard Case covers are wonderful. Charles Ardai pays a tremendous amount of attention to getting the right artists. One favorite cover was for a book called Getting Off [2011].



ASPREY: Does Hard Case Crime have a relationship with Subterranean Press? Because they seem to share design elements.

BLOCK: They occasionally do things in tandem. Subterranean published Catch and Release [2013], my short story collection, but Hard Case lent their imprint and took orders for a book that was really a Subterranean Press book. There was a double volume that was published, Strange Embrace and 69 Barrow Street [originally 1962/1959]. That was just Charles being impish to package it the way he did. It was the 69th book in the Hard Case series.

ASPREY: I walked past Barrow Street the other day. You haven’t lost interest in writing about New York after all this time?


ASPREY: You weren’t born here, were you?

BLOCK: I was born upstate in Buffalo. We’ve moved away occasionally, but I’ve lived here most of my adult life.

ASPREY: Mainly in Greenwich Village?

BLOCK: More often than not, and pretty much continually for getting on forty years.

ASPREY: I just saw the Coen Brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis set in the Village in the winter of 1961.

BLOCK: I didn’t like the movie. The fellow whose life was sort of cannibalized for it was a very good friend of mine.

ASPREY: Sure, Dave Van Ronk, “When the sacred ginmill closes.” I got the impression, and other people have observed this, that even though it was nicely done in terms of period detail, the movie doesn’t seem to have much connection to what was going on at the time.

BLOCK: It’s not at all like the way things were. Dave Van Ronk’s first wife, Terri Thal, wrote a piece about that. One thing they didn’t get was that everybody involved was having a lot of fun.

Dave Van Ronk

Dave Van Ronk

ASPREY: Luc Sante wrote on the New York Review of Books blog that it wasn’t nearly so difficult to get a tenement flat in the Village for a tiny bit of money.

BLOCK: No, it wasn’t at all. That was the attraction to living down here. The Coens bring their own perception to things. They weren’t here then and they get it wrong. Very few people were as focused on success. And nobody was particularly mean-spirited that way. There were other things that I just didn’t like about the film as a film. That trip out to Chicago and back seemed to be recorded in real time. It was the slowest, most pointless sequence I can recall.

ASPREY: There was also a total absence of left wing politics, which was obviously such a big part of the folk scene.

BLOCK: Yeah, absolutely. That’s completely right.

ASPREY: I didn’t understand why Llewyn was a folk singer because he didn’t seem to have any interest in folk music.

BLOCK: They invented a partner who killed himself. I don’t know where that came from. And the character who I guess is supposed to be a young Tom Paxton is just a jerk, nothing at all like Tom. And if you’re gonna make a film like that, why not make it out of the whole cloth? I was not the film’s ideal audience.

ASPREY: I guess not.

BLOCK: I do think that even if I hadn’t known the people involved I still would have disliked the movie. But not nearly as much.

ASPREY: I liked things about it. Staying in that period, I’m quite interested in your time at the Scott Meredith Agency. Evan Hunter started out at Scott Meredith a few years before you and quickly hit the big time with The Blackboard Jungle [1954] and Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series. Did Hunter appear to you to have the ideal career trajectory? You basically worked in the same job he had started in.

BLOCK: Well, in a sense, I suppose. I was certainly very much aware of Evan and I had always been a great fan of his work.

ASPREY: Ed McBain gets a mention in The Burglar Who Counted The Spoons. There’s a nice line from your cop character Ray Kirschmann, who calls him “the greatest writer who ever lived, as far as I’m concerned, on account of he wrote about cops and got it right. The cops are the good guys in his books, and even the bad ones are okay…”

BLOCK: It was pleasing years later to become good friends with him.

ASPREY: You didn’t know him in the ’50s or ’60s?

BLOCK: No, not at all. I don’t think I met him until the late ’70s.

ASPREY: He started out, as I understand it, at the agency as a staff member.

BLOCK: It was a time when the staff was very small. There was a point where they wanted him to become a principal in the firm.


Evan Hunter

ASPREY:  I like much of Hunter’s other work but The Blackboard Jungle didn’t impress me at all. It’s ridiculously conservative in its sexual politics. The main character is such a square. Evan Hunter never struck me as a square. But he was very young at the time.

BLOCK: Well, he wasn’t writing about himself.

ASPREY: No, but it’s more than just the character. The whole viewpoint of the book is so conservative. But I admire some of Hunter’s later stuff. Candyland [2001] is really good.

BLOCK: Candyland was quite remarkable. That may have been his most personal book.

ASPREY: I get the impression Scott Meredith was something of a roguish character.

BLOCK: Roguish is giving Scott the benefit of the doubt.

ASPREY: What then—a huckster?

BLOCK: Well, he was…he did a lot of crooked things. When Scott died, Evan called up his friends and said, “Did you hear? Scott’s dead! Isn’t that the greatest news? Isn’t that wonderful?” There was a certain amount of ill-feeling there.

ASPREY: Was Meredith your own agent when you started out?

BLOCK: Yeah, for a couple of years. When I was working there I became a client.

ASPREY: Skipping forward four decades, how did you first get involved with Hard Case Crime?

BLOCK: Well, I’ve known Charles Ardai casually for some years. He started in the business very, very young. He was working at Ellery Queen when he was still in high school.

ASPREY: As an editor?

BLOCK: As an assistant’s assistant. As one starts. I’d met him a few times. He got in touch when he was starting Hard Case Crime. I think that a book of mine was the first title they published.

ASPREY: Was that Grifter’s Game?

BLOCK: Yeah.

ASPREY: I really enjoyed that one. Another great cover.

BLOCK: That wasn’t the first book to come out of my typewriter but it was the first book published under my own name in 1960.


ASPREY: The standard of the imprint is so high that you can pick up any of their titles with confidence.

BLOCK: There are a lot of people who find their books collectable and want to have them all.

ASPREY: They’ve reprinted a lot of Donald E. Westlake’s early hardboiled stuff as well. Which reminds me—I’m a big fan of Westlake’s burglar hero Dortmunder. I heard that you once had an idea to do a Bernie Rhodenbarr meets Dortmunder story.

BLOCK: I thought that would have worked well. But Don never wanted to do it.

ASPREY: You wrote a few erotic books together.

BLOCK: Yeah. Back ages ago.

ASPREY: When did you first meet him?

BLOCK: It would have been ’58 or ’59. And we became friends immediately.

ASPREY: At that stage neither of you had published a novel under your own name.

BLOCK: No. We both did before very long. I think The Mercenaries was ’60 or ’61. And Grifter’s Game was ’60 or ’61.

Donald Westlake

Donald Westlake

ASPREY: You were there for the birth of Parker.


ASPREY: It’s nice to see the Parker books are now in print again.

BLOCK: They’ve been very well published, I think, by the University of Chicago Press. I’m not as ecstatic about the graphic novels but that’s just not a medium that I respond to. I’m not contemptuous of it. I just don’t get it.

ASPREY: The adaptations are spotty. I like Point Blank [1967] as a film but it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the Parker of the novel. I saw last year’s Parker starring Jason Statham. It was okay, I guess.

BLOCK: I thought it was pretty good.

ASPREY: But again, I don’t think Hollywood has ever really got the character. Maybe the character’s just too bold for Hollywood.

BLOCK: Well, anything that works that well in print is very difficult to translate into another medium, especially for those of us who are that familiar with it in print. I always feel that when I see something like Nero Wolfe in film or on television. And that’s because everybody already knows what Archie looks and sounds like, and everybody’s image is individual, is different. So there’s no way in the world the actor up there can be what you already know the character to be.

ASPREY: You have a Matthew Scudder movie coming soon. Liam Neeson’s starring.

BLOCK: I think he’s extraordinary in it. When I first heard that he was about to be signed for the role I was ecstatic. I’ve liked his work for ages and thought he would be fine. And of course you get strange reactions from fans—”But he’s Irish, how can he do it? Duh.” What they don’t realize is that actors from the UK or Ireland or Australia are perfectly fine with American accents. The simple fact that American actors are hopeless with English accents is immaterial.

ASPREY: I don’t really know if I’ve ever seen an American actor do a convincing Australian accent. I know Meryl Streep did a movie—

BLOCK: Oh, the dingo ate my baby.

ASPREY: Yeah. I’ve never heard it convincingly done. But Australians seem to be able to convince American audiences. When is the Scudder film coming out?

BLOCK: It’s supposed to be coming out in September, last I heard. I’ve seen a final cut of it, final mix, and I think it’s excellent.

ASPREY: I’m surprised more films haven’t been made of your books.

BLOCK: Well, things get optioned. One problem is that I do books in series so it often leaves rights tied up one way or another to other books in the series. Especially if the contract was drawn up by an agent who didn’t know what the fuck he was doing.

ASPREY: In fact I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film made of your work.

BLOCK: Well, Eight Million Ways To Die [1986] isn’t very good and Burglar [1987] isn’t very good, and a film called Nightmare Honeymoon [1974], based on a book called Deadly Honeymoon, isn’t very good at all. And they’re the only ones that have been made, so….count your lucky stars.


ASPREY: It must be a nice feeling that you finally have a decent film adaptation coming out.

BLOCK: Yeah. You never know how anything will be received when it comes out, but I think it’s great.

ASPREY: Do you have the publishing rights to the Scudder book that’s just been adapted? Which book is it?

BLOCK: It’s A Walk Among the Tombstones [1992]. And remarkably I do have publishing rights to that one.


ASPREY: So how would you as a self-publisher now negotiate a movie tie-in edition? Do you have to worry about that?

BLOCK: Well, I can do it.

ASPREY: You can change the cover.

BLOCK: I’d have to get them to give us a still for the cover. Or I could do it without that. I could do it with type-setting.

ASPREY: “Now a major motion picture.”

BLOCK: Yeah. Is there any other kind?

ASPREY: Maybe you could tag those other books “Once a minor motion picture.”

BLOCK: I think we probably will self-publish the tie-in. It depends on distribution, if we can get it out as effectively. But I think so.

ASPREY: Apart from specialist mystery bookshops it must be very hard to get your self-published titles on the shelves.

BLOCK: In the ordinary course of things, yes. And for a film tie-in, actually, the most important place to get that out is airport newsstands and that sort of thing. My assistant is exploring to see how effectively we can do that. So if we can do that ourselves I’d be fine.

ASPREY: I guess people will buy it on Kindle if it’s easily available.

BLOCK: Yeah. And the book is available right now in our edition in trade paperback. We have done that through both CreateSpace and Lightning Source. All we would do is take the CreateSpace edition and slap a new cover on it.

ASPREY: Which is very easy to do.

BLOCK: Yeah. Actually there’s next to no work involved.

ASPREY: Who does your book design?

BLOCK: I have a woman who does the book production for me for ebooks—she’s brilliant at that—and she does the layout of the POD paperbacks as well. And as for covers, it varies. On some of them, especially short stories that I ePublish, or some of the slower backlist titles that I make eVailable (if you will), I’ll just pay four bucks for a stock photo and cobble it up myself. It’s not rocket science.

ASPREY: I know. I do the same for Contrappasso.

BLOCK: Well, exactly, so you know.

ASPREY: Very easy.

BLOCK: It’s fun, too.

ASPREY: Yeah, it’s a lot of fun. I’m not a graphic designer but it’s fun every now and then to stop writing for a day and just do that.

BLOCK: Yeah, and you look at the early ones you’ve done and realize that you’ve learned a little since then.

ASPREY: In 2011 you did an ebook anthology of your stamp collecting columns, Generally Speaking: A Philatelic Patchwork. That’s exactly the kind of thing which I imagine would have been a hard sell to a publisher.

BLOCK: Oh, yeah. Conceivably Linns or one of those stamp publications might indeed have done it. I’ve never done anything more with it because you need illustrations and really that’s prohibitive. That starts costing and the hell with it. And even if they’re free, there’s the production of it.

ASPREY: But that’s what’s exciting—if you have an idea for a book, it’s very easy to just throw it together and send it out there instantly. Over the years you’ve written a lot of columns for writing magazines.

BLOCK: Most of those have been collected. When I started doing backlist titles with Open Road, an ePublishing house, I realized that there were enough uncollected columns for two more writing books and so I did it with them. I would probably have done it myself if the whole thing had come up about two years later. But at the time it certainly made sense to do it with them. And they’re available. I have other various non-fiction pieces that would fill one or two books that I may get around to sooner or later. But as I said it’s hard to delude myself that this is what the world requires most right now.

ASPREY: Still, it’d be nice to have all your stuff out there, eVailable.

BLOCK: Yeah. I may. And self-publishing with the print editions, too, is so easy now. I told you about my first self-publishing adventure which was Write for your Life. Well, that’s been out of print forever. Some years ago I got Morrow/HarperCollins to do it as an ebook. But that was never an ideal form for it because it’s something one refers to back and forth. It’s almost workbook in style. People who wanted it really wanted a print book. And I found out to what extent they really wanted a print book when I found the last twenty-five copies. They were literally lost, they were somewhere in a store room, and eventually they turned up. So I put them on eBay and I priced them not cheap—at $24.99. I mentioned it in a newsletter and I hit send and within three hours they were all gone. It was limited one to a customer. I have no idea how many people tried to order it after that because it was off eBay. I thought, “Gee, this probably should be in print.” And so my production goddess got busy with the file, and while she was at it she cobbled up a cover for me. And I put it on CreateSpace and now it’s on sale for a lot less, for $14.99. It’s easily affordable for anybody who wants it. I don’t know if it will set any sales records but it’s there and it’s available now as it was not. And that pleases me.

ASPREY: I guess there’s not any great capital investment in making it available.

LB: No! That’s it. I didn’t have to print five thousand books and store them in an attic and see if people will buy them.

ASPREY: It’s an exciting time.

BLOCK: Very much so.

ASPREY: Time for another cruise?