Contrappasso Archives: Noir Issue

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From the archives: Here is the introduction to our special 2013 issue on Noir in film, fiction, and other arts. It has never previously appeared online.

The issue was edited by Noel King and Matthew Asprey Gear. Contributors include Luc Sante, Suzanne Lummis, Nicholas Christopher, Barry Gifford, Morris Lurie, Dahlia Schweitzer & Toby Miller, Andrew Nette, and Matthew Asprey Gear. We also feature interviews with Dennis McMillan and Adrian Wootton.

The Noir Issue remains available in print form at Amazon.com, for Kindle, and in other ebook formats at Smashwords.

INTRODUCTION: ORGANISING WHAT WE SEE

NOEL KING and MATTHEW ASPREY GEAR

When we decided to do this special Contrappasso noir issue—a grab bag of essays, interviews, and new and classic poetry—we were aware that some time ago two critics whose work we greatly admired, Luc Sante and James Naremore, had expressed fatigue with the term. In 2004 Sante told our colleague Peter Doyle, “noir is a category badly in need of a twenty- or thirty-year moratorium, at least in films.”

Naremore’s wonderful More than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts (1998/2008) ends by saying:

Given the current situation, debates over whether specific films are “truly” noir, or over the problem of what makes up a film genre, have become tiresome. There is, in fact, no transcendent reason why we should have a noir category at all. Whenever we list any movie under the noir rubric, we do little more than invoke a network of ideas as a makeshift organizing principle, in place of an author, a studio, a time period, or a national cinema. By such means, we can discuss an otherwise miscellaneous string of pictures, establishing similarities and differences among them. As I argue throughout this book, every category in criticism or in the film industry works in this fashion, usually in support of the critic’s or the culture’s particular obsessions. If we abandoned the word noir, we would need to find another, no less problematic, means of organizing what we see.

Naremore’s book is now widely accepted as a canonical text; Tom Gunning described it as “the first study of film noir that achieves the sort of intellectual seriousness, depth of research, degree of critical insight, and level of writing that this group of films deserves.” Gunning continues:

The basic paradox of film noir lies in the fact that no one who made the original series of films ever heard the term; it has always been applied ex post facto, in contrast to the way other genres (such as the musical or the western) were used by Hollywood to plan production schedules and distribution strategies. Instead film noir is, as Naremore puts it, a discourse, a way of processing and thinking about films as much as a pattern for their production.

While Gilles Deleuze referred to film noir unproblematically as a “great genre” in Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, and the late actor-director Dennis Hopper felt able to call it “everyone’s favourite genre” while he was directing The Hot Spot (1980), film critics have spent the last forty years debating whether film noir is a genre, a sub-genre, a film style, or a film movement.

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Whatever the case, if film noir was not a genre at the time of its first appearance—if by genre we mean a film industry-recognised way of producing and marketing films—it has certainly become one, in the industry and the academy, in our time. International mainstream movie makers, makers of art cinema, and independent filmmakers alike have their work defined as “neo-noir” or “noir-influenced,” which no longer has to imply corny pastiche; convincing recent Hollywood examples include Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011) and Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik, 2012). Noir, when it rises above a series of clichéd filmic gestures (trenchcoats, fedoras, cigarettes, lipstick), seems to be the language to express the darkness at the heart of our troubled times.

Meanwhile film courses around the world have devoted themselves to the film noir, accompanying the surge of scholarship since the late 1990s. On the film-critical front there has been since that period a deluge of books on classic film noir (roughly 1941-58) and on whatever we call the films noir that emerged from the sixties onwards.

In 2001 Foster Hirsch both published Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir and updated his 1981 account of classic noir Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen. There are many other important new books: a few include those by Edward Dimendberg (Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity, 2004), Wheeler Winston Dixon (Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia, 2009), Vincent Brook (Driven to Darkness: Jewish Émigré directors and the Rise of Film Noir, 2009), Alistair Rolls and Deborah Walker (French and American Noir: Dark Crossings), Dennis Broe (Film Noir, American Workers, and Postwar Hollywood, 2010), Gene D. Philips (Out of the Shadows: Expanding the Canon of Classic Film Noir, 2011), and Mark Osteen (Nightmare Alley: Film Noir and the American Dream, 2012).

Some excellent material was gathered in a special issue of Iris (no. 21, Spring 1996) devoted to “European Precursors of Film Noir”. Fine anthologies of essays include Alain Silver and James Ursini’s Film Noir Readers (1996-2004) and Eddie Muller and Donald Malcolm’s ongoing Noir City Annual (collecting the best of the Film Noir Foundation’s quarterly e-magazine, formerly the Noir City Sentinel). And as the British Film Institute series of Film Classics and Modern Classics (now combined into one series) trundles along it delivers new forays into the world of noir and neo-noir.

Film noir is seemingly everywhere—on our screens, in the academy, and in the hearts of movie lovers. But we’re also interested in looking at how the notion of noir is travelling in other cultural contexts.

We looked, for example, at Lars Nittve and Helle Crenzien’s Sunshine & Noir: Art In LA 1960-1997 (1997), which contained Mike Davis’s essay ‘A Double Funeral’ on the race rivalries and gangs of Latinos, Koreans, and African Americans inside and outside LA jails. Catherine Corman’s photographic book Daylight Noir: Raymond Chandler’s Imagined City (based on her photographic exhibition at the 2009 Venice Biennale) might have had trouble spelling Fredric Jameson’s name correctly but it came in a clear line of descent from Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward’s photographic rendering of the world of Philip Marlowe’s LA, Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles: A Photographic Odyssey Accompanied by Passages from Chandler’s Greatest Works (1989).

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In her introduction to Manila Noir, Jessica Hagedorn said, “it made perfect sense to include a graphic noir since one of the many ways I learned to become a writer was through the Filipino horror komiks of my childhood.” In 2013 we are abundantly aware of Hollywood’s enthusiasm for graphic novels, especially those with a noir slant (Sin City, V For Vendetta). Darwyn Cooke’s recent graphic novel adaptations of the Parker novels deserve a mention, too, because they’re more faithful to the mood of the classic noir novels of Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake) than anything Hollywood has yet come up with. John Boorman’s classic film Point Blank (1967) creates a rather different noir mood—as Adrian Wootton informs us in this issue, Boorman never actually read its inspiration, Stark’s The Hunter (1962)—and Taylor Hackford’s Parker (2013) is perhaps best skipped over entirely.

Recent generations of Batman comics are practically synonymous with noir. Frank Miller steered the comic franchise in this dark direction in the 1980s; the latest collection illustrated by Eduardo Risso, Batman Noir (2013), is a another fine example. We also looked at anthologies such as Dark Horse Books’ Noir: A Collection of Crime Comics (2009). We could have easily devoted an issue to the subject of comic book noir, which attracts many of the best contemporary illustrators and has an enormous fan base.

The noir sensibility has found expression in video games. An Australian contribution was Team Bondi’s hugely successful L. A. Noire (2011), the first video game officially selected for the Tribeca Film Festival. The game inspired a spin-off ebook anthology of noir short stories edited by Jonathan Santlofer.

In noir matters literary and poetic we felt on secure ground.

Noir fiction is now a distinct category within the crime genre. It wasn’t always that way, at least in the United States. Paperback publisher Black Lizard, founded and edited by Barry Gifford in the 1980s, played a crucial role by reviving mostly forgotten mid-century American hardboiled crime novels (which were much more enduringly popular in France, published in translation through Marcel Duhamel’s Série noire from 1945). Moreover, Gifford focused on republishing crime writers with a distinct noir sensibility. Noir fiction turned out to be something slightly different from the masterful hardboiled detective tales of Chandler and Hammett. The prose of James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, and David Goodis was certainly hardboiled, but their narratives focused less on tarnished heroes and more relentlessly on the self-destructive, the hopeless, and the insane.

Luc Sante—who examines a series of haunting New York City police photographs in this issue, revisiting the terrain of his book Evidence, an inspiration for Australian writer-researchers Peter Doyle and Ross Gibson—once wrote in the New York Review of Books of how

[James M.] Cain spawned a genre. The ingredients of compulsion, self-destruction, revenge, and blind chance awakened a kind of poetry in pulp writing, and in the movies adapted from it.

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In 1997 the Library of America, under the guidance of then-Executive Editor (now Editor-in-Chief) Geoffrey O’Brien, published a two-volume anthology of Crime Novels: American Noir, attempting to establish a canon of the subgenre. The first volume (The 1930s & 40s) collected authors James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, Edward Anderson, Kenneth Fearing, William Lindsay Gresham, and Cornell Woolrich; the second volume (The 1950s) featured Goodis, Willeford, Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, and Chester Himes.

To this tradition of American noir fiction should be added writers such as Paul Cain, W. R. Burnett, Richard Hallas, James Ross, Peter Rabe, John D. Macdonald, Gil Brewer, Elmore Leonard, Richard Stark, Lawrence Block, Leonard Gardner, Floyd Salas, James Ellroy, Kent Anderson, Walter Mosley, Andrew Vachss, Ed Gorman, Denis Johnson, Christa Faust, James Sallis, Duane Swierczynski, and Megan Abbott.

Many new noir stories have found a home in independent ebook and print-on-demand journals such as Beat to a Pulp, Thuglit, Noir Nation, and Melbourne’s Crime Factory. Independent publishers New Pulp Press and Stark House Press are doing important work publishing new and vintage noir, respectively. And we decided the work of independent crime publishers Dennis McMillan and Matthew Moring deserves attention; interviews with each appear in this issue and point the way to unjustly-neglected writers in the noir tradition.

We were aware of early American poetic noir offerings, from Kenneth Fearing’s Dead Reckoning (1938) and Stranger at Coney Island and Other Poems (1948) to Joseph Moncure March’s The Set-Up and The Wild Party, both from 1928, which were jointly republished in 1968 in a revised form that removed “ethnic references” thought to give possible offence to a 1960s reader. Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel rendering of The Wild Party (1994) restored those excised textual elements.

We had long admired Nicholas Christopher’s poetry. Two of his early poems, ‘Film Noir’ and ‘John Garfield’, appear herein with his kind permission. Noir has long been an animating influence on Christopher’s work. His verse novella, Desperate Characters (1989) was nicely blurbed as “The Lady from Shanghai as rewritten by Proust,” and his novel Veronica (1996) is in many ways neo-noir. Christopher’s Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City (1997) is his account of noir and the fascination it holds for him, from the initial moment of encountering the great Out of the Past (1947) in a small Parisian cinema off the Rue de Rennes after he had taken some opium, through to his long New York years which saw him diligently work through all 317 films listed in the Film Noir Encyclopedia (1988). In fact, he added extra titles, based on his own viewing, which he felt deserved inclusion.

We had hoped to set alongside Christopher’s ‘Film Noir’ another poem of that title found in Lourd Ernest H. De Veyra’s collection, Insectissimo! (2011) but couldn’t run him to ground in time for this issue to obtain reprint rights (i.e., your editors failed as gumshoes). We also liked Michael Atkinson’s lovely poem about John Garfield in his collection One Hundred Children Waiting For A Train (2002) and enjoyed Kevin Young’s long poem Black Maria (2005). Young’s noir poem series tells us it is “produced and directed” by him and it contains all the right noir props—ashtrays, gunsels, femme fatale, the set-up, the sucker, the speak-easy, the grift, the frame, the dive, the payback, and so on.

LA-based Suzanne Lummis has been running a noir poetry workshop for years; we are delighted to reprint two of her noir-themed poems in Contrappasso.

In short, we have to agree with James Naremore when he says that we now inhabit a “noir mediascape” (he borrows the term ‘mediascape’ from Arjun Appadurai). This is apparent from a casual encounter with the world of book publicity. Recent crime writing is referred to variously as “casino noir” (James Swain’s series of books beginning with Grift Sense) or “surf noir” (Kem Nunn’s Tapping the Source and later books). When he was reviewing a Joe Lansdale book, the great Daniel Woodrell described it as “backwoods noir”; both that descriptor and Woodrell’s self-applied “country noir” fit his own work (Tomato Red, Give us a Kiss, the excellent Winter’s Bone). We have feminist writers describing their works as “tart noir” and lesbian writers self-describing as “dyke noir.” And while we were completing this issue Jim Kitses urged us to read James Salter’s 1956 Korean War novel The Hunters as an instance of “military noir” (he urged us to read it in any case).

So settled is the term in publicity usage that we have noir by national location—”tartan noir” to describe some Scottish crime fiction, even “Australian noir” (see the essays in this issue by Andrew Nette and Mick Counihan). There is noir by US state, as in “Florida noir.” The vibrant series of city-focused noir anthologies from Akashic Books, an independent Brooklyn-based press founded by musician Johnny Temple, has now expanded beyond the US to focus on cities from New Delhi to Havana (Los Angeles Noir and Manila Noir are reviewed in this issue). In each anthology, noir stories and sometimes bits of graphic novels emerge from specific neighbourhoods. The noir sensibility is truly international.

As we finish up this introduction, news comes that Lou Reed has died. The venue seems appropriate for us to remember him for one of his many great songs, ‘Femme Fatale’.

We hope readers of this special issue of Contrappasso enjoy our explorations of noir in its many guises.

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Contrappasso Extra: ‘Literary Prizes and Reviews’ by Noel King

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LITERARY PRIZES AND REVIEWS by NOEL KING

This text is based on a presentation given by Noel King at the Sixth International Philippine Literature Conference held in Davao, Mindanao, on September 20-21, 2015. This version includes some material added after that presentation.

I

The Australian dollar currently is worth around 75 cents of a US dollar, and the average income for a writer in Australia is $12,900 a year, which is why so many writers and creatives, in Australia as elsewhere, drive cabs, work in restaurants, or teach. That amount of around $13,000 is not a living wage (Steger, 2015). Accordingly, winning a literary prize can be a windfall for a writer, permitting him or her to devote themselves undiverted to their craft for a certain measure of time.

On the general matter of writing and money, and using film adaptation as an example, however complicated critical discussions can get concerning the relation of a literary work to its film adaptation, one thing is certain: if the budget for the film is sufficiently large then the author’s percentage after first day of principal photography will permit him or her to feel secure about a comfortable short-to-mid-term future for their writing. Much as William Faulkner’s literary career benefited from the money thrown his way by Hollywood and Howard Hawks, allowing him to stay home in Oxford, Mississippi, to write his celebrated novels and stories, so Daniel Woodrell benefited from the $35 million budget attached to Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil (1999), based on Woodrell’s 1987 book, Woe to Live On. Woodrell’s portion of that money funded his next five years of writing, giving him the time to try different things and directions, one of which was Winter’s Bone, which sold better than all his previous work and also was adapted into film.

In The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circle of Cultural Value, James F. English cites the Nobel Prize for Literature’s beginning in 1901 as the start of literary prize culture. Australia’s only Nobel Prize winner, Patrick White, was privately wealthy and so took the $80,000 dynamite money he received in 1973, tossed in an additional $20,000 of his own, and established the Patrick White Award. Given annually to an Australian writer who is regarded as having made a significant contribution to Australian literature across the body of their work, the prize brings with it $23,000. It is given to an oeuvre rather than a one-off work. The 2015 recipient was Joan London, a writer based in Fremantle, Western Australian. Previous recipients have included Amanda Lohrey, Christina Stead, Randolph Stow, and Elizabeth Harrower. London’s most recent novel, The Golden Age, also won the 2015 Australian Prime Minister’s award with its tax-free amount of $80,000. So, together with her Patrick White award, London will have $103,000 to fund her writing over the next few years, independently of whatever royalties she earns.

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John Berger

We should recognise up front that one sideshow aspect to literary awards concerns scandals, as English notes. Scandals can be a lot of fun. In 1972 John Berger presented the BBC’s Ways of Seeing series, which was accompanied by a little book that must have sold vastly well across decades, being course-adopted in the UK, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, into great numbers of undergraduate degrees in art history, visual arts, and media studies. Berger favoured blue shirts but for reasons of television film cameras and the use of blue screen, that wouldn’t work, so he had to duck outside the studio and buy some shirts without blue in them, as producer Mike Dibbs explains: “He arrived back with what has provoked much comment over the years, a pair of identical cream and reed ‘chain-mail’ shirts, circa 1971. We didn’t give them a second thought then, and now they’re iconic!”. At the height of this paisley-shirt-wearing fame Berger won the 1972 Booker Prize for his novel G. He refused it, saying he would donate half the money to the Black Panthers and use the other half to fund his writing of A Seventh Man, his and Jean Mohr’s study of migrant workers in Europe. In 2015, Verso put up on its website the text of Berger’s speech, and the following quotations come from there:

The competitiveness of prizes I find distasteful. And in the case of this prize the publication of the shortlist, the deliberately publicised suspense, the speculation of the writers concerned as though they were horses, the whole emphasis on winners and losers is false and out of place in the context of literature.

Nevertheless prizes act as a stimulus – not to writers themselves but to publishers, readers and booksellers. And so the basic cultural value of a prize depends upon what it is a stimulus to. To the conformity of the market and the consensus of average opinion; or to imaginative independence on the part of both reader and writer. If a prize only stimulates conformity, it merely underwrites success as it is conventionally understood. It constitutes no more than any other chapter in a success story. If it stimulates imaginative independence, it encourages the will to seek alternatives. Or, to put it very simply, it encourages people to question…

One does not have to be a novelist seeking very subtle connections to trace the five thousand pounds of this prize back to the economic activities from which they came. Booker McConnell have had extensive trading interests in the Caribbean for over 130 years. The modern poverty of the Caribbean is the direct result of this and similar exploitation. One of the consequences of this Caribbean poverty is that hundreds of thousands of West Indians have been forced to come to Britain as migrant workers. Thus my book about migrant workers would be financed from the profits made directly out of them or their relatives and ancestors.

It’s similar to those Hollywood Academy Award moments of refusal of best Acting Oscars: from George C. Scott, who in 1971 refused his Best Acting Oscar for the Francis Coppola-scripted Patton and called the Awards a “goddamn meat parade”, and Marlon Brando’s declining of his 1972 Best Actor award for his role as the titular character in Coppola’s The Godfather, sending in his place a beautiful Native American woman, Sacheen Littlefeather.

If we broaden the notion of “scandal” to include “hoax,” then Australia has a distinguished record in this regard, from the 1940s ‘Ern Malley’ hoax where two Australian writers, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, concocted sixteen poems meant to ridicule then-current trends in modernist poetry, and submitted them to Max Harris in Adelaide who edited a journal devoted to new currents in modernist writing, Angry Penguins. The fake poems appeared in the Autumn 1944 issue of that journal. Inevitably, once the hoax played itself out, Harris’s reputation suffered for a while, but the poems became celebrated and continued to be published, a line from one of the fraudulent poems even giving Australian cultural critic Humphrey McQueen the title for his book on Australian modernist painting, The Black Swan of Trespass: The Emergence of Modernist Painting in Australia to 1944. It’s a bit like a literary version of the ‘Sokal Affair’ visited on the Duke University Press journal, Social Text, in 1996 when a physicist submitted an article to the highly regarded US cultural studies journal in order to demonstrate that C. P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” were no closer to getting together.

In Australia in 1994 the ‘Helen Demidenko Affair’ occurred in which the fraud concerned a University of Queensland student named Helen Darville, whose parents were English immigrants. Darville won the Vogel Prize, the Gold Medal of the Australian Literature Society, and the Miles Franklin Award for a novel whose authorial name was ‘Helen Demidenko’ and whose father allegedly was an illiterate Ukrainian cab driver who had emigrated to northern Queensland. This novel, The Hand That Signed the Paper, purported to be an account of the treatment of Ukrainians by neighbouring Jews during the Ukrainian famine of WWII, and also an account of Ukrainian participation in the Holocaust. Demidenko later went on to postgraduate study at Oxford University.

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In the case of the allegedly Aboriginal writing of ‘Banumbir (or Birimbir) Wongar,’ whose 1977 collection of twelve short stories, The Track to Bralgu, gained international attention from Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and was published in the US in 1978 by Boston’s Little, Brown & Co, the author was found to be Sreten Bozic, a Serbian anthropologist who lived in Melbourne, and who at one point said criticism of his literary-authorial deception should be tempered by the fact that he had been treated as an Aborigine throughout his life, i.e. treated badly. By the way, has anyone ever traced the “real” identity of B. Traven?

And last – but only in terms of random examples from Australia – in 1980 Paul Radley won the inaugural Vogel Award (for an unpublished manuscript by writers under the age of 35) with his book, Jack Rivers and Me, which sixteen years later he said had been written not by him but by his great uncle, Jack Radley. In one sense we should probably align scandals such as these with those routine media stories whereby the work of a canonised author (Patrick White, Henry James, Jane Austen) is sent off to a contemporary publisher and inevitably declined for not being quite what the publishing house is after. I think these instances and the Sokal incident indicate that some people have too much time on their hands, whereas the other scandals are more intriguing.

The US has seen instances of plagiarised or invented pieces of writing succeed in winning prizes, such as Stephen Glass’s journalism, only then to be exposed and shamed, only for that moment of humiliation to generate a further confessional publication in a mea culpa vein which sees even more books sold, this time by a penitent, disgraced author. This puts us awfully close to the stunts used by P. T. Barnum, as reported in Daniel Boorstin’s 1962 book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. Boorstin says, “Barnum was perhaps the first modern master of pseudo-events, of contrived occurrences which lent themselves to being widely and vividly reported.” In 1835 Barnum “exhibited Joice Heth, an aged negress whom he advertised as the 161 year old former nurse of George Washington. For a while he made fifteen hundred dollars a week from her.” Heth later died at the age of eighty but not before Barnum had shown “his mastery of the art of compounding pseudo-events” by writing to newspapers denouncing his own exhibition as a hoax and claiming that Joice Heth was not a human being but “simply a curiously constructed automaton, made up of whalebone, india-rubber, and numerous springs ingeniously put together and made to move at the slightest touch, according to the will of the operator. The operator is a ventriloquist.” Boorstin’s interpretation of Barnum’s exercises in early publicity is to say, “Contrary to popular belief, Barnum’s great discovery was not how easy it was to deceive the public, but rather, how much the public enjoyed being deceived.”

The United States also has tossed up some instances of fictional works masquerading as non-fictional works, simply because non-fiction was deemed a better-selling genre, again leading to shaming and exposure, but of course the book sales had already happened. In 2008 Pete Ayrton, publisher of Serpent’s Tail Press (see short history below) commented on this trend: “Like that woman, Margaret Jones, who wrote about her life with a Chicago gang. It would have been a good novel but it would have got nowhere and she felt she had to re-cast it as non-fiction. And the same thing happened with that life of a boy soldier. Nowadays everybody has to make their story non-fiction and true.” Around that same time Ayrton wrote a piece for the April issue of Author in which he said:

Fiction writers are forced by the pressure of publishers and agents to present their work as non-fiction and are discredited when the truth comes out – Margaret Jones’s Love and Consequences about Chicago gangs would have made a great novel. Unfortunately, she felt the need to present it as fact and was exposed by her sister! Because it is the author that is fêted and not the book, today’s readers are in danger of losing the ability to read fiction.

A rather different, more solemn example of a scandal or controversy concerns the fact that Michel Houellebecq’s most recent novel, Soumission (Submission), was released in 2015 on the day of the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris. The utter coincidence of this overlap of an already controversial writer whose latest novel seemed to share a ‘content’ with ongoing anxieties and debates about Islam, ISIS and terrorism, generated much critical-cultural debate. And this controversy can only have been exacerbated by the tragedy of the recent acts of terrorism in Paris and Brussels.

II

In this next section I will act as a conduit for opinions expressed on some of the topics we have addressed in some of our Davao conference sessions, by quoting some opinions from several of the publishers I have interviewed over the last twenty years. This way you get to hear the opinions of professionals working in the field. One of the questions I asked each of the small-independent presses with whom I was fortunate enough to speak was whether a particular literary prize and/or a favourable book review had led to a spike in their sales. As they gave their various answers they sometimes mentioned other things that had benefited their commercial enterprises, and I mention some of these below.

In 2006 Ray Coffey of Fremantle Arts Centre Press in Perth, Western Australia, four to five hours by plane from east coast Australia, pondered whether the seemingly ever-increasing Australian literary prize culture had helped FACP secure more sales, and concluded:

Prizes have been very important, particularly in the early days. Operating from Western Australia, working away from the centres of Melbourne and Sydney, has always had its difficulties, but there has been some advantage to that. In the early days, particularly, for our size and the small number of books we did, we were really very successful in the number of reviews we got from around Australia. Maybe it was novelty value.

We found with literary prizes, from the outset, that unless it costs a fortune to enter, you enter! Because opinion-makers judge prizes and even if you don’t win, if you are attempting to draw attention to your list and key people are reading for this poetry prize, or that fiction or history prize, then they’re seeing your books regularly. And they talk to other people. And then when you win one every now and then, it helps the editors of the literary pages of journals and newspapers, dailies, weeklies to start looking more closely at your titles. And with some prizes there are advantages in terms of direct sales. Some more than others. In our experience the Miles Franklin is the one that leads to the biggest number of sales. After that it would be the NSW Premier’s and the Victorian Premier’s awards on about a par. In terms of the response from readers, with most prizes sales drop away pretty quickly but you do see an initial little sales-spike here and there. In Western Australia we have the WA Literary Awards and we’ve had several winners of these. While that doesn’t affect Australia-wide sales, it certainly affects the local market. Because, let’s face it, when you walk into a bookshop, you can be overwhelmed by the choice. I’m in the trade and I’m overwhelmed! They’re all saying ‘buy me!’, but it can be the Tower of Babel with so many voices of relatively equal pitch, so you can be drawn to whatever little badge or stripe is on a book, or a to a quotation from someone famous.

The other big prizes are the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year Awards. Even being short-listed there is good because children’s librarians, teachers, parents buy off those gold and silver badges. So even short-listing can lead to a significant jump in sales. And to win means a very big jump. Yes, prizes are important.

In London I have been very lucky, across a couple of decades, to interview Pete Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail Press on a regular basis, getting his changing assessments of how these things factored in to his press at a given moment in its publishing history.

Serpent’s Tail Press was established in August 1986 when Peter Ayrton and John Hampson got together to set up a publishing press based on the models of late 1960s radical political presses in France, Holland, Germany, and Italy. Ayrton was the publisher and Hampson the sales manager. They had met while working at Al Saqi, a leftist press specialising in books on the Middle East and each had experience with other left-leaning presses, Ayrton at Pluto and Hampson at Verso. In the beginning, the press was based at Ayrton’s house and they worked with a team of freelance translators, designers and illustrators, producing their first books in August 1987.

In 1987 Marsha Rowe left her co-editor position at Spare Rib to become Serpent’s Tail’s fiction editor. In 1989 Serpent’s Tail won the Sunday Times Small Press Publisher of the Year award, edging out Verso Books, Bloodaxe Books, and Element Books. By 1992 Serpent’s Tail was publishing about thirty books a year in print runs of up to 5,000, seeking to represent marginal, dissenting voices of various kinds. For example, in the wake of the notorious Section 28 of the Local Government Act (which prohibited local authorities from “promoting homosexuality”) Serpent’s Tail strengthened its list of gay and lesbian writing, publishing Ian Bartlett’s Who Was That Man?, a mixed-genre discussion of cultural shifts from Oscar Wilde in the 1880s to late 1980s British gay culture, and the Simon Watney et al non-fiction anthology, Taking Liberties, a book which showed how various institutions discriminate against people with AIDS.

Serpent’s Tail Press very soon was sufficiently successful to be able to move from Ayrton’s house to a small renovated terrace in Blackstock Mews, a short walk from Finsbury Park tube station. In their first seven years of publishing, they translated innovative fiction from Spain, Germany, and Argentina, instituted a cultural studies list, and experimented with the publication of some books of political photo-journalism. This was the Serpent’s Tail context when I first interviewed Pete Ayrton back in 1992, asking him how he was managing to survive as an independent publisher. He said:

It’s a very exciting business to be in because it must be the only business left in which minnows like us can take on multinationals and have more or less the same chance of getting a lead review in a national newspaper. Whereas, with the other cultural industries, like music or films, you need millions of pound or dollars to start. You can start in publishing by doing one book. For instance, recently there’s been a self-publishing of a Jamaican thriller called Yardie, which has sold 10,000 in a month. They just put it in the bookshops and it goes. That’s what makes it an exciting business to be in at the moment.

The success of that book by Victor Headley, detailing a Jamaican subculture of gangs and drugs, saw its author go on to publish another four novels with larger presses. It is a moment that seems to have come full circle and wound up in New York, where, thirty years on, authors like K’wan Foye and Vickie Stringer have replicated the success of Yardie. As Neil Munshi explains, Foye’s self-published novel Gangsta was sold “out of the trunks of cars, through street vendors, beauty salons and barbershops in Harlem and black neighbourhoods on the east coast” and had sold 80,000 copies “before it saw the inside of a Barnes and Noble.”

Foye hooked up with Stringer by way of the email address she had on the back of her self-published book, Let That Be The Reason, written while she was “serving a seven year sentence for selling a kilo of cocaine to an undercover cop.” Stringer had an imprint named after her former drug crew, Triple Crown Publications, and offered to publish Gangsta. Foye accepted and his next book, Road Dawgz, came out with St Martin’s Press. This sub-genre is called “street lit” and “urban fiction,” and it makes a lot of money, selling in the 100,000s for those who get to the top of this particular pulp pile. But Munshi says that mainstream publishing avoids it. If the success of Yardie recalled the moment of Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (1972), then Gangsta and its world might recall Spike Lee’s early hour-length film, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads (1983).

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III

No doubt you are all aware of the most lucrative international literary awards, such as Dublin’s IMPAC Award, worth 100,000 euros. In their 2013 piece for The Sunday Telegraph, “Top 25 Literary Prizes,” Jon Stock and Kealey Rigden list a host of UK prizes that range from £60,000 (the Man Booker International, offered every two years) to £50,000 (the annual Man Booker) to £40,000 (the David Cohen Prize for Lifetime Achievement, the Folio Award) to £35,000 (the Costa Award) to £30,000 (The Women’s Prize, formerly known as the Orange Prize), and so on. In 2012 Hilary Mantel scooped several of these awards, winning the Man Booker and Costa Book Award for her novel, Bring Up the Bodies, as well as £40,000 from the David Cohen, taking her total winnings to £125,000. In 2015 the BBC adapted Mantel’s first book in this series, Wolf Hall, into a six-part drama series and no doubt more will follow.

Australia has a great many literary awards. Each state has its own set of Premier’s awards with prize money ranging from $10,000 to $100,000. In the case of these state literary awards, the categories are usually the familiar ones of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, young adult, children’s, and a supervening Book of the Year award which can go to any of the winning entries in the sub-categories to give that title a further $10,000. There is also a Prime Minister’s Book Award, alluded to earlier, which carries a tax-free prize of $80,000.

A la the UK’s Women’s Prize, Australia offers special awards for female writers, and an award for writing by women which offers a positive depiction of women and/or girls. These prizes bring with them $23,000. In 2016 the Stella Prize, given to a book written by an Australian female writer that is deemed “original, excellent, and engaging,” was worth $50,000. Writers short-listed for this award received $2,000 and a two-week paid Writer’s Retreat to help them develop their fiction.

In her piece, “On Literary Awards,” for Inside Story website, Susan Lever says:

This plethora of prizes may be overwhelming to readers, but for writers in Australia, an English-speaking country with access to the literary publishing of the rest of the world, they offer a little financial support and, sometimes, help in building a reputation and boosting sales. It remains difficult for a literary writer to make any kind of living from publishing in Australia.

But the relation of prize-author-press-money still requires some teasing out. Courtesy of some national and state autobiography awards, a friend of mine, John Hughes, won $40,000 for his memoir, The Idea of Home. He was also invited across from Sydney to Perth and hosted to some lovely food and wine by Janet Holmes à Court down at Western Australia’s Margaret River region.

It is also true that on some occasions the press which has published an award-winning writer might not see much increase in book sales as a result of the award. We know that it is not always the case that winning the Booker Prize – an award established by Jonathan Cape Press – will generate sales. Famously, in 1994 James Kelman won the Booker with How Late it Was, How Late, written in a Scots dialect, and his book sold scarcely any copies in the wake of his award success. That is, some prizes benefit the writer a great deal and the press scarcely at all, while some other prizes benefit both.

Fiction translated into English is always helped by winning a major award. When Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek became a Nobel Prize winner, Serpent’s Tail sold 100,000 of The Piano Teacher and 25,000 of the other books of hers they had in their list. Prior to that they had sold 4,000 copies of all of her works on which they held English translation rights. So it seems to depend on which prize you win. I remember the year of the Academy Awards when Phil Kauffman’s excellent film of Tom Wolfe’s book about Chuck Yeager and co, The Right Stuff (1983) was up for seven awards. The studio was desperate to win some awards and generate more financial life for the film. But the four awards given were in the technical areas (Film Editing, Tom Conti’s Music Score, Best Sound, and Best Sound Effects) as opposed to gaining awards for acting, cinematography, director and best film. In 2016 we might now see 1983 as a watershed year in Academy Award prize culture. Receiving those awards had a negligible impact on The Right Stuff’s box-office whereas there now seems a much greater general interest among filmgoers in the technical, geeky aspects of filmmaking. As the latest embrace of 3-D by filmmakers and film viewers indicates, most viewers of James Cameron’s Avatar were deeply involved in analysing and appreciating its technical features, as opposed to earlier ineffective, sporadic experiments with forms of 3-D that had accompanied cinema from its birth through to the 1950s.

IV

In Australia two things usually follow on from a book winning a major award or even from being short-listed. First, a host of local state municipal libraries acquire it, as do university libraries. The absence of any strong library system at municipal or university level in the Philippines means that this flow-on factor wouldn’t work here.

Second, in Australia, such prize-winning works sometimes find themselves adopted onto state-based secondary education curricula and when this happens many private secondary schools – Australia’s equivalent of the English “public school” – invite the author to address their students who are studying this text. The text in question is thus humanised and personalised for this elite cohort of student-readers, and the author is healthily remunerated.

A different perspective on these issues of literary celebrity, prize cultures, and book sales comes from a long-time friend and wonderful Australian writer of fiction and non-fiction, Amanda Lohrey (cited earlier as a recent winner of the Patrick White award) who said, in an email:

A few Australian writers have succeeded in constructing themselves as a brand – Tim Winton, Peter Carey, Helen Garner – but for most other Australian writers it’s tough. Buyers of literary fiction are one of the demographics most adversely affected by economic trends over the past two decades – ask librarians who are the real trackers of who reads what and why, and who used to buy and now borrows. Publishing literary fiction continues to be a form of high-class gambling, and you can pass this along to any aspiring young writers you know.

V

In March 2002, when Michiko Kakutani gave a rave review in the New York Times to the Hobart, Tasmania-based Australian author Richard Flanagan for his novel Gould’s Book of Fish, Flanagan was, in very quick succession, interviewed by a Los Angeles radio programme and hurried by his publisher across to the US for a whistle-stop coast-to-coast tour of book readings and book signings – all to capitalise on one review. London-based publisher François von Hurter, one-third of Bitter Lemon Press, which specialises mainly in translated crime fiction, said that a single review in The New York Times had great impact on sales, much more so than any single review in any English newspaper.

Pete Ayrton’s take on this question was:

I think this is more true in the States where a full sized review in the New York Times will cause something to really take off. I don’t think there is one place in the UK so I don’t think that is so much the case here. The thing about the New York Times is that it’s the only national newspaper in the US, apart from USA Today, which is unimportant for books. Whereas here we have the Guardian, the Independent, the Times, the Telegraph, and so on. I think what’s important in Britain is if you can get five or six or seven reviews. Joe Boyd’s White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s, upon publication, was reviewed more or less everywhere, and that causes people to notice. But I don’t think there’s any one place in the UK where one review or interview will crack it.

In the UK and Australia the increasing prominence of TV book shows is another factor granting visibility and prestige to literary works. Everyone remembers that Oprah had enormous impact on book sales in the US, guaranteeing an additional million copies sold for each title selected, and allowing for the scandal in 2001 that accompanied Jonathan Franzen’s baulking at Oprah’s endorsement of his The Corrections, and his reluctance to have Oprah’s stamp on his book.

When mulling over the impact that UK book shows had exerted on Serpent’s Tail titles, Pete Ayrton said that it was the televising of these awards that was having the greatest influence and then added that readers’ groups had become very important to book sales:

Richard and Judy is pretty mainstream. They select good books but they’re not going for ‘edgy.’ Of our books they possibly would have selected Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin but they didn’t. And Richard and Judy are probably the sort of people who don’t like the maternal ambivalence in the book, the fact that a mother could be questioning her role and her love of her children. TV programmes like these have grown enormously in importance, and literary prizes have as well: the Booker Prize, the Orange Prize, the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, they now all have much greater visibility because they’re televised, and they can really push sales. The other thing which has developed on a very large scale since we last spoke is readers’ groups. This is a big, big phenomenon.

People meet in bookshops, libraries, peoples’ homes. It’s almost 95% women and obviously that means certain books will meet the demands of that particular market very well. A book like Kevin is absolutely ideal for readers’ groups. I’ve been with Lionel Shriver to groups of 80 and 90 people, most of whom haven’t read the book, and they are saying, ‘I have a Kevin,’ ‘my son’s like Kevin,’ ‘the mother was quite right, I’ve sometimes felt like that,’ ‘was it nurture, was it nature?’ Any kind of book that poses these kinds of questions is ideal for readers’ groups, and they are a very fast-growing phenomenon.

In the US that is called “the water cooler debate.” At one point Kevin had sold 600,000 copies in two editions and was selling 1,000 copies a week. US writer Shriver has been a long-term London resident and reviews books regularly in the London press. In 2011 Kevin became a film starring Tilda Swinton and no doubt further sales piggy-backed on the circulation of the film.

The most recent big selling success for Serpent’s Tail is their importing of the US book, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves which, as of November 2015, had sold 750,000 copies in print and ebook. Earlier in its career Serpent’s Tail had experienced great success with what Ayrton referred to as “posh porn,” by which he meant English language translations of French author Catherine Millet’s The Sexual Life of Catherine M, which sold 50,000 in trade paperback and 150,000 in mass market. Serpent’s Tail followed this with the translation of another sexual confession, this time by a very young Italian woman, Melissa P’s 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed, and that also did very well, selling 35,000 in trade paperback for Serpent’s Tail, and eventually selling 2 million worldwide.

In respect of television literary chat shows and their place in all of this, from 1975 until 1990, France had Apostrophes as a weekly ninety minute television literary talk show, hosted by Bernard Pivot. The viewing audience was between 3 to 6 million and the show helped generate considerable sales for the books and authors it discussed. According to the New York Times, Roland Barthes sold 80,000 copies of one of his many books after appearing on the programme. Australia currently has Jennifer Byrne’s hosting of the ABC’s Book Club. The format sees Byrne moderate a discussion with two regular guests, Marieke Hardy, granddaughter of celebrated Australian Communist writer, Frank Hardy, and Jason Steger, Books Editor for Melbourne’s The Age and Sunday Age newspapers. Each week these three are joined by writers who might be Australian or might be overseas writers visiting as guests at one or other of Australia’s literary festivals. So it’s a celebrity book chat show and there are clear limitations to the terms in which books can be discussed. Even so, it was from watching this programme that I discovered how brilliant Colm Tóibín, David Malouf, and Richard Flanagan are at explaining a book, contextualising a piece of writing and making a serious case for it, so at its best The Book Show exhibits a flexible format.

VI

To take the notion of “awards culture” in a slightly different direction, in the case of Australia we must mention the widespread adoption over the last twenty-five years of postgraduate degrees in the creative arts, along the lines of the US’s MFA and Doctorates in Creative Writing, and of opportunities for funded Creative Writing postgraduate study in the UK at places like University of East Anglia, set up more than four decades ago by Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson. Now such degrees are available all over the UK. The flourishing in Australian tertiary education of the Doctorate of Creative Arts (sometimes called PhD by Unconventional Format) has permitted many creative writers, across all media (fiction and non-fiction writing, graphic novels, poetry, drama, radio-sonic, film-TV, digital), so long as they are Australian residents, to receive three and one-half years funding at $25,000 a year plus whatever additional funds are available at a given university for assistance with the candidate’s general research needs and occasional need for conference attendance.

When I was pitching this avenue of funding to various writer friends, from the mid-1990s to around 2010 or so, trying to persuade them to come on down, I always characterised it as an “alternative arts council grant,” and this often proved persuasive. This was a perfect storm of institutional and individual self-interest whereby many people who might otherwise have stomped around banging on about “the school of hard knocks,” denouncing the privileged safety of “the groves of academe” while saying “those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach” suddenly were very happy to come in and be funded for three and one-half years. Since the average income of a writer in Australia, as indicated at the start of this presentation, is $12,900 a year, the creative writing doctoral scholarship money was both substantially more than that – almost double – and also more than any book advance the writer was likely to receive. The result was a large number of postgraduate completions in this new area of Creative Studies across all media forms, one of whom was the Filipino Miguel Syjuco who did his doctoral study at the University of Adelaide. And under the Australian system these scholarship holders would have no academic fee debt because that was looked after by the host institution.

International Postgraduate Awards and Vice Chancellor Awards are funded generously at Australia’s “Group of Eight” universities (e.g. Sydney University, Melbourne University, ANU, UNSW, UWA etc.) but of late the Humanities is far less likely to receive this money than are the hard science departments. So this little industry has been complicated by issues of residency/visas, and punitively high tuition costs for overseas students that increasingly cash-strapped Humanities areas of Australian universities are most unlikely to fund. Add in rising costs of medical coverage for overseas students and we have reached a point where this formerly safe harbour now finds itself being ravaged by the rapacious idiocy of neoliberalism that everywhere blights the Australian tertiary education sector, as it does the UK tertiary educational system. The US system is hugely competitive in terms of being able to receive fully funded places in Creative Writing at eminent institutions (only six places available at Johns Hopkins University and so on) but their system, now definitely straitened, always had many other cards to play in this context of funding postgraduate study: from full scholarship to tuition waiver or offering in-state tuition to an out-of-state student, to undergraduate teaching contracts for the duration of the higher degree being undertaken, and so on.

In the wake of Mark McGurl’s book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (2009) – reviewed twice in the London Review of Books – a conversation has started on the history of tertiary education creative writing courses in the US. Chad Harbach’s edited collection MFA vs NYC (2014) introduces the topic of whether being in a major US city (New York, Chicago, L.A., San Francisco) and attending writing classes and literary events might be as worthwhile as incurring a considerable debt to have university letters after one’s name. Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young’s Los Angeles Review of Books article, “The Program Era and the Mainly White Room,” tells us that one of the article’s authors incurred a debt of $27,000 to undertake her MFA, and has repaid $30,000 so far with $13,000 still to go. Her co-author had, the year earlier and twenty years after graduation, made her final payment on a debt of more than $70,000 required to acquit her original loan of $30,000. As they explain:

Creative writing programs really started to take off in the 1990s. Prior to the 1990s, many writers taught in higher education and this shaped the aesthetics of American literature, as the scholar Mark McGurl has shown in his The Program Era. But it is not until the 1990s that the idea that one should necessarily turn to higher education if one wants to become a writer becomes an idea that more than 6,000 people have each year.

They argue that “prior to the 1990s and the intensifying financial pressures that brought about the corporatization of the university, English departments tended to have a studious lack of interest that bordered on disdain about the teaching of creative writing.” This is very similar to the circumstances that obtained in Australia at the same time, when creative writing began to consolidate itself at postgraduate level at most Australian universities. Their meticulous description of the university management practise of shaving margins that sees predominantly adjunct teaching staff used to teach increased numbers in courses like these that are deemed “cheap to run (no studio space or lab space required, low technology needs, very deep adjunct pool) and tuition generating” applies equally to the Australian university context. And the fact that D. G. Myers’s 2006 second edition of his The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880 finds him debating points made by Asian-Australian Paul Dawson in his Creative Writing and the New Humanities (2004), results in a brief, informative sketch of the differences and overlaps between these two national university systems’ embrace of creative writing as a tertiary education money-spinner.

To conclude, an anecdote concerning one person I persuaded to come into PhD study at the University of Technology, Sydney – John Hughes, whose book, The Idea of Home, published by Sydney independent press Giramondo, won $40,000 in literary awards. That was done as his doctoral thesis on full scholarship across three and one-half years (exactly like Miguel Syjuco’s doctorate undertaken at the University of Adelaide). Earlier in his career John had received the Shell Scholarship in the Arts – only one is awarded in all of Australia – to undertake postgraduate study at either Oxford or Cambridge. He chose Cambridge, stayed four years working on his doctoral topic, “Tropes in Literary Criticism from Coleridge to Derrida,” but did not submit his thesis. His supervisor urged him to stay on at Cambridge and work as a postman but he declined and returned to Australia, working as a rural fireman and tutoring in Humanities courses at a polytechnic in my home town, Newcastle, where he had done his Honours degree in English prior to winning the Shell Scholarship. It was in Newcastle that I got to know him and very gradually, over several years, I persuaded him to re-enter the academic world by way of a doctoral scholarship at UTS. He agreed and after a very easy supervision – his prose was perfect – in which I suggested some books and articles, he won the UTS Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Best Dissertation in the Humanities, and that became the book Giramondo published. For a few years after that I tried to lure John from his job teaching English at an all-boys’ school, Sydney Grammar, into a University post. That dance continued a while until John and his wife unexpectedly and late in life had a baby, and his deal at Sydney Grammar meant that so long as he taught there his son would receive a private school education for a tenth of the usual price. He then became the school’s Librarian and his only teaching duty involved running two special tutorials, one on European Literature for a small group of very intelligent boys most of whom would go on to do Law and Medicine at University.

One day, as we were catching up over a beer in a local pub, I asked how much Sydney Grammar paid him as a Librarian and Senior Teacher in order to compare it with my salary as a Senior Lecturer, and see how plausible was my attempt to lure him into the world of Australian tertiary education. He told me his salary and I told him it was what a full Professor in the Humanities would receive at an Australian university. He already knew his work conditions were far better than anything that would obtain in our neo-liberal tertiary education system.

So I left John Hughes to his Librarian duties at Sydney Grammar School, a job which allows him plenty of time to read the work of other librarians- such as Philip Larkin and Jorge Luis Borges – whenever the mood takes him.

 

Texts Cited

Peter Ayrton, “We Need To Talk About Fiction,” Author (UK) (April 2008).

John Berger, “’I have to turn this prize against itself’ — John Berger on accepting the Booker Prize for Fiction, 23 November 1972,” reprinted in a blog by Sarah Shin (November 5th, 2015).

John Berger, Let Seven Men Write Your Poem: A Season in London (London: artevents, 2005).

Daniel Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo Events in America (1962) (New York: Vintage, 2012).

Paul Dawson, Creative Writing and the New Humanities (London: Routledge, 2004).

‘Helen Demidenko’/Helen Darville, The Hand that Signed the Paper (Sydney: Allan & Unwin, 1993).

Mike Dibbs, “On Documentary: Re-Seeing Ways of Seeing,” in John Berger, Let Seven Men Write Your Poem: A Season in London (London: artevents, 2005): 26-30.

James F. English, The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circle of Cultural Value (Harvard UP, 2005).

Chad Harbach (ed.), MFA vs NYC (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014).

Michael Heyward, The Ern Malley Affair (Brisbane: Univ. of Queensland Press, 1993).

John Hughes, The Idea of Home (Sydney: Giramondo Press, 2004).

Michel Houellebecq, Submission trans. Loren Stein (London: William Heinemann, 2015).

Noel King, ‘’The Main Thing We Book Publishers have Going for us is the books themselves: An Interview with Pete Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail Press, Islington, London 12 July 2006,” Critical Quarterly 49, 3 (Autumn 2007): 104-119.

Noel King, “A bridge between all these literatures that we love: Interview with Francois von Hurter, Bitter Lemon Press, London 10 July 2006,” Critical Quarterly 49, 1-2 (Summer 2007): 62-80.

Noel King, “’I Can’t Go on, I’ll Go On’: Interview with Ray Coffey of Fremantle Arts Centre Press” Westerly, 51 (November 2006): 31-54.

Noel King, “An Exciting Business to be in at the Moment”: Interview with Peter Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail Press, Euphoria Cafe Bar, Blackstock Road, London, 25 September 1992.

Susan Lever, “On Literary Awards,” Inside Story, 13 May 2016.

Mark McGurl, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Univ. Press, 2009)

Humphrey McQueen, The Black Swan of Trespass: The Emergence of Modernist Painting in Australia to 1944 (Sydney: Alternative Publishing, 1979).

Neil Munshi, “We gonna make books our hustle,” The Weekend Financial Times (14-15 November, 2015): 1-2.

G. Myers, The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880 Second Edition (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2006).

Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young, “The Program Era an the Mainly White Room,” Los Angeles Review of Books (September 2015).

Paul Radley (Jack Radley), Jack Rivers and Me (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1981).

Jason Steger, “At $12,900 a year literary fiction does not pay: study,” The Sydney Morning Herald (Thursday, October 8th, 2015): 29.

Jon Stock and Kealey Rigden, “Top 25 Literary Prizes,” The Sunday Telegraph (15 October 2013).

“French TV Show on Book’s Ending,” New York Times (September 5, 1989).

“Banumbir/Birimbir Wongar”/Sretin Bozic, The Track to Bralgu (Boston: Little, Brown & Co, 1978).

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

NOEL KING has worked in many Australian universities, in a variety of media and cultural studies contexts: at Griffith University (1977-1980), the South Australian College of Advanced Education (now the University of SA, 1980-1986), Curtin University (1986-1989), UTS (1989-2001), the University of Tasmania (2002-2003), and Macquarie University (2003-2012). He has co-edited two special issues of Contrappasso on Noir and Writers at the Movies.

[Header image: Book by Jan Murin @Flickr. Used under this CC licence.]

CP Goes to the Philippines: World Publishing Today by Noel King

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WORLD PUBLISHING TODAY by NOEL KING

This text is based on a presentation given by Noel King at the Sixth International Philippine Literature Conference held in Davao, Mindanao, on September 20-21, 2015. This version includes some material added after that presentation.

“Most trends in the book industry are accompanied by countervailing ones. As the conglomerates get bigger there is a new optimism among enterprising independent houses … who believe that they can offer distinctive titles that the giants, with their concentration on the mass market, overlook.” – Nicholas Clee, “End of the Book Postponed,” Prospect Magazine 135 (June 2007).

“Sales of physical books rose in the UK for the first time since 2007, with Nielsen BookScan figures for January-November up 5.4 per cent on the previous year. Add to this the British chain Waterstone’s pulling unwanted Kindles from its shelves and Amazon opening a bricks and mortar bookshop and it did seem like the future might not be entirely digital after all. The stuff of fantasy? We will see.” – Lorien Kite, “Books of 2015,” Financial Times Weekend (28-29 November, 2015).

I

First, it’s both an honour and a pleasure to be participating in the Sixth Philippine International Literary Festival, the first to be held outside Manila, here in Davao, Mindanao. This admirable, conscious attempt to shift a little the Manila-centric literary-cultural viewpoint to include other, more distant regions of the Philippines certainly resonates with me and my presentation today.

“I come from the land down under,” Australia, with a population of 24 million, most of whom are clustered in capital cities on Australia’s coastline, or if somewhat inland, on a river. In Australia the publishing industry is concentrated in our largest city, Sydney, where I live, and in our second-largest city, Melbourne. Sydney is said to be the home of international, conglomerate publishing while Melbourne is said to have more small-independent presses (Rosenbloom, 2007). The one exception to that account of Melbourne is that Penguin Australia is located in Ringwood, an alcohol-free suburb of Melbourne.

There is a history of cultural rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne whereby Sydney, with its warmer weather, lovely beaches, its obsessive relationship with real estate and money, is regarded as some kind of aspirational L.A. whereas Melbourne – quite recently voted the “most liveable city in the world” – is regarded as more intellectual, more cultural, certainly possessed of more venues for live music. At one point this civic rivalry was cast in terms of “St Petersburg vs. Tinseltown,” and I will leave it to you to decide which designation goes where.

A few weeks ago Sydney was listed as the third most expensive city in the world to live in, coming up a couple of places from its fifth place of several years ago. Real estate prices are very, very high, as accordingly is rental accommodation, and the everyday cost of living is very expensive. All for no particular reason, beyond opportunity and avarice. Even so, a former Labor Party Prime Minister, Paul Keating, once said, “If you’re not living in Sydney, you’re camping out.”

Further afield from this Sydney-Melbourne duelling capital city duo are three other capital cities, each of which has a significant role to play in Australia’s literary-cultural life. Adelaide, South Australia, now home to South African Nobel Prize Winner, J. M. Coetzee, likes it made known that its original settlement included no convicts, unlike the rest of Australia’s white settlement origins as an English penal colony. Frequently described as a “city of parks and churches,” it boasts a longish tradition of being very cultural, with an International Writers’ Festival, a Fringe Arts Festival, a World Music festival, film festivals, and the South Australian Film Commission, which was a crucial part of Australia’s revived feature filmmaking industry in the early 1970s, producing films such as Sunday Too Far Away, Gallipoli, and Storm Boy. It also has a history of enlightened political lawmaking. It was the first Australian state to legislate against rape in marriage. And it was at the University of Adelaide that Miguel Syjuco completed the PhD that would result in his 2008 Man Asian Prize-winning novel, Ilustrado (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010).

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Stepping further westward, across the long expanse of the Nullarbor, we reach Perth, Western Australia. Perth is a four and one half hour plane ride for those people who aren’t camping out, who are living in Sydney, and is home to celebrated Filipina Rose Hancock and also to Janet Holmes à Court. It is the home state of former Labor Party Prime Minister Bob Hawke, and the Labor Party Education Minister, John Dawkins, who introduced profound changes to Australia’s tertiary education system; home also to the late Alan Bond, disgraced businessman who spent some time in gaol and who will forever be admired by Australians for having, in 1983, wrested the America’s Cup yachting trophy from the US after it had spent 132 years in the New York Yacht Club’s possession. Those races were won to the tune of Men at Work singing “Land Down Under,” and this historic victory obliged the US to challenge – successfully, as it turned out – to regain the Cup by sailing in the waters just off Fremantle, near Perth. Fremantle is home to Fremantle Arts Centre Press, and is where one of Australia’s most commercially and critically successful writers, at a national and international level, lives – Tim Winton.

Fremantle Arts Centre Press was established in 1976 and has as its mission the publication of only those writers who are connected to W.A., either by having come from there, having once lived there, currently living there, or by having moved there to live. In the 1980s this proudly regional, small-independent press surprised itself by publishing two books that went on to sell a million copies apiece. First came A. B. Facey’s A Fortunate Life, a memoir of a hard-scrabble life in Australia in the first part of the twentieth century, published in 1981 and adapted for television in 1985, the money from which enabled FACP to build a warehouse to store their various titles. This TV adaptation came about when a local freelance film-TV worker, Ken Kelso, approached FACP to see if they would allow him to pitch the Facey book to TV people he knew. On the basis of the fact that he was a local they agreed and this encounter with Kelso proved doubly beneficial, leading not only to a goodly sum of money on the first day of principal photography but also to a meeting with a friend of Kelso’s who was struggling to complete her first book. Her name was Sally Morgan and the book this Western Australian Aboriginal artist-writer eventually finished with the help of FACP, My Place, published in 1987, became the press’s second million-copy seller.

The writer who got away from them, through no fault of their own, was Tim Winton whose first novel, An Open Swimmer, won the 1981 Vogel Book Award (for an unpublished manuscript by a writer under the age of thirty-five) which brings with it publication by an east coast press, Allen & Unwin in Sydney. Otherwise, it is quite likely that FACP would have published Winton, much as they published Elizabeth Jolley, who taught Winton briefly in some creative writing courses he took at Curtin University. And speaking of distances from margin to centre, it was always a delight throughout the 1980s and later to see Elizabeth Jolley, from a city deemed the most remote capital on earth, reviewing books in the Gotham-centric New York Times Book Review.

A sixty minute plane ride north of Sydney is Brisbane, capital of Queensland, and home to an important Australian press, the University of Queensland Press, which began in 1948. For many years UQP was lucky to have on its books two highly-regarded, strong-selling authors: Brisbane-born Lebanese Christian David Malouf and Melbourne-born Peter Carey. Carey used to spend time in Byron Bay, writing very successful commercial jingles for Australian television, so perhaps it was Byron Bay’s proximity to Brisbane that saw him fetch up at that press. Certainly, when he took himself elsewhere, to Balmain in Sydney, then to New York, and found other publishing outlets, UQP’s bottom line dropped dramatically, a minor version of the fluctuations experienced by London’s Bloomsbury Press in a non-Harry Potter year.

In the 1970s and 1980s, I taught at universities in Brisbane and Perth and got to know a little of the cultural-political life in each place. When it first opened in the late 1970s, Griffith University in Brisbane had an artists-in-residence scheme which saw Australian writers spend some time on the campus. Two such writers-in-residence were Steve Spears – at that time enjoying international success with his play, The Elocution of Benjamin Franklin – and Helen Garner – whose novel Monkeygrip (which was adapted into an Australian film) brought her a cultural prominence she has maintained for several decades with an output of fiction and non-fiction works. The arts section of the Sydney Morning Herald of March 2, 2016, announced that Garner had received a Yale University Windham-Campbell Prize of US $150,000 “in recognition of her non-fiction writing.”

In Perth one can still buy postcards that depict only the vast landscape of Western Australia and indicate all space east of W.A. as “unknown territory.” And W.A. and Queensland share some similarities, at least in the way they are regarded by Sydney and Melbourne as wilder, more cowboy, frontier environments than the trio of genteel states that separates them: South Australia, Victoria, N.S.W. For example, Queensland has a political history of folksy right-wing rural populism roughly analogous to the career of Huey Long in 1930s Louisiana when he was regarded, until his assassination, as a serious possibility for a tilt at the White House. Long was immortalised as Willy Stark in Robert Penn Warren’s great novel, All the King’s Men. As it happens, the favourite book of Brian Burke, disgraced politician and former Labor Premier of Western Australia, was a biography of Huey Long, so you can appreciate that the broad comparison between W.A. and Queensland and the American Deep South has some purchase. For a few years, in his early time as Premier, Burke’s manipulation of the media to convey, very successfully, his Labor party’s policies and programs made him the envy of east coast Labor Party politicians like Neville Wran, Labor Party Premier of NSW, and Paul Keating.

I’m well aware that no Filipino needs to be advised about the ways of political corruption, connivance, and compromise. Suffice to say that you are geographically proximal to Malaysia, the nation said to have perfected the first instances of credit card fraud. But as you ponder how best to establish important cultural infrastructural works in your country, from Manila to all your regional capitals and beyond, you might like to file away a remark from Huey Long, a line which so far as I recall, did not make it into Penn Warren’s novel, nor did it appear in either of the film versions: “We got graft, but we got roads. The other states, they just got graft.”

II

All I mean by this lengthy preamble is to impress upon you the fact that all Australians are well aware of what one of our historians, Geoffrey Blainey, once called “the tyranny of distance” – and that phrase describes the internal distances within our “wide brown land,” coast to shining coast, as much as it does Australia’s physical distance from its initial northern hemisphere coloniser, England (Blainey’s original point), and its later soft-power coloniser, the US, with whom we share various trade and military alliances.

For the remainder of my talk I will hurry through some features of the international publishing scene as it seems to me to be configured at the moment. I speak here as a non-expert but rather as someone who has, over the last twenty years, interviewed a number of publishers in Australia, London and the US, trying to determine how a series of small-independent presses whose books I liked, managed to survive and thrive in an industry that increasingly conducted itself in a Hollywood, conglomeratised fashion. When I was doing my interviews, probing the idea of “cultures of independence,” I used an analogy that works well up to a point: a comparison of mainstream presses and smaller-independent presses along the lines of contrasting mainstream Hollywood films, blockbusters, to smaller-independent films.

By the 1990s US trade publishing had been completely Hollywoodised. Eighty per cent of book profits came from twenty per cent of the books published. Imagine a Dickensian spread sheet along the lines of “Annual income, one pound, annual expenditure one pound and sixpence, result misery,” as we consider the fact that most films and books don’t make money. In the 1990s, as the chains – like Barnes & Noble – edged towards “superstore” status, it cost $10,000 a month to have your book displayed in the front window of the store, hoping to attract the literary gazes of passers-by. It also cost $10,000 a month to have one’s book placed within an oh-so-casually-and-carefully-disordered array of books placed in the bin just inside the store as one entered (see Lauren J. Miller, Reluctant Capitalists). The somewhat dismaying term for this act of purchasing publicity was “co-op,” a short hand term for “Co-operative advertising dollars.” Terminology aside, these strategies seemed to me very close to Hollywood’s practice of buying saturation TV ads to build what they ridiculously called “pre-awareness” of the blockbuster film about to be released.

André Schiffrin’s memoirs, The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read (2001) and Words and Money (2010), both published by Verso, and Jason Epstein’s The Book Business (2001) from Norton, reveal how, for quite a long time, US trade publishing functioned in a manner that seems to me very close to the model of the mature Hollywood studio system as it operated from the 1930s until the late 1950s and early 1960s. The so called Classical Hollywood studio system practised cross-subsidisation on films such that the profits on a Rin Tin Tin movie would allow the studio to make a historical drama with Bette Davis.

For much of the publishing lives of Schiffrin and Epstein, bestsellers and fastsellers by authors whose names not many of us now remember permitted a trade press to publish a big ‘L’ literary writer who would sell in vastly fewer numbers but who would be an excellent advertisement for the press’s commitment to ambitious, challenging literary writing. Think of an author like William Gaddis in the several decades of, and between, The Recognitions in 1955 and JR twenty years later.

In his pamphlet A Life With Books, Julian Barnes extols the printed book over the e-book, while acknowledging the economic lure of the latter, using the instance of his own most recent novel which was five pounds or so cheaper as an e-book. Barnes recalls a period from the late 1960s to the late 1970s when he was an avid book collector and frequenter of second-hand bookshops and storehouses with job-lots of used books, a time very different from contemporary circumstances with “the ferociously fast turnaround that modern central management imposes,” an insistence that creates a context in which “the average shelf-life of a new hardback novel – assuming it can reach a shelf in the first place –is four months.”

When those publishing conglomerates alluded to above arrived, so did an army of bean counters working out precisely how many copies of front, middle, and back-list titles were being purchased. The patrician, gentlemanly, amateur days of trade publishing were swept aside and when BookScan arrived in January 2001, to do to the book business what SoundScan had done to the record industry back in March 1991, it really was game over for earlier understandings of mainstream trade publishing.

III

US artist-essayist-writer-publisher Russell Chatham lived just outside Livingston, Montana, for almost forty years, having left California in the 1970s when it became too expensive, heading up to Montana to visit his friend Thomas McGuane. In the early 1990s Chatham founded Clark City Press, initially simply to keep in print some of his own books but soon enough he started publishing works by some of his writer friends in Montana, like Jim Harrison and James Crumley. Chatham’s press had very high-end production values and after a while found itself deeply in debt. Rather than go bankrupt or offer one cent in the dollar to his creditors Chatham interrupted Clark City’s publishing side for several years as he slowly sold enough of his backlist to pay off his creditors, and then started publishing books again.

Clark City’s debt had been incurred in part by overly optimistic claims for potential sales from sales representatives and by what Chatham called “very irresponsible buying” from the big chains, safe in the knowledge that they would be protected financially courtesy of a practice developed by Alfred A. Knopf in the Depression era of the 1930s which allowed impoverished bookstores to acquire stock with no initial upfront financial outlay, on the understanding that they would sell whatever number of books they could, and return those not sold. When this practice became industry-standard Knopf is alleged to have said, “This is insane. I call it, gone yesterday, here today.” (Chatham, 2005). (As an aside, having just finished Mia Alvar’s wonderful collection of stories, I’m very confident that the ghost of Mr Knopf will rest easy as In the Country generates very healthy sales, or “moves a lot of units,” as later locutions might put it). Hearing Russ Chatham’s reference to the hyper-optimism of his sales reps caused me to think of an excruciating scene in the Maysles Brothers great documentary, Salesman, where one of the bible salesmen stands up at a group meeting and announces how much better he will do in the coming year, how many more sales he will make. It truly is a cinematic version of the Conradian “fascination of the abomination.”

At a talk he gave in Missoula at the 2005 Montana Book Fair, Chatham provided his gloss on the Knopf “gone yesterday, here today” adage: “So you have 8,000 orders and you send out 8,000 books and you think, wow, we got it, and then a year later, 7, 999 of them come back and you’re done.”

By way of contrast England had a Net Book Agreement in place for almost one hundred years from the 1890s to 1995, and across that historical period also resisted any notion of a “sale or return” deal for booksellers. This “made for cautious ordering by bookshop managers,” as John Sutherland puts it in his little book, Bestsellers: A Very Short Introduction. Since 1995 the English and U.S. systems have become very similar, as the following remarks made in 2007 by Francois Von Hurter make clear:

It’s the only business in the world where a sale isn’t a sale. You’re paying the author, let’s say, or the translator, 5,000 in advance, you’re doing this and that, and a year later your book comes out, then three months later it’s in the store, and then two years later half of the books come back, and you kind of think, who’s financing all of this? A Martian would say, you guys are nuts, and if you really look at the cash immobilised, you end up realising it’s a silly business model, but you have to do it out of love. You know what you know, and occasionally you might be lucky with a blockbuster, but it’s a work of love, it’s not a work in which you make your fortune. The only good publishing business model is that of scientific journals. There, people subscribe to very expensive journals, you don’t pay the authors anything, everyone wants to get in Nature or Science. So it’s the opposite of us. The publisher gets the money in advance from subscribers, and has source material at zero cost. That’s how those guys get rich. Michael Heseltine, he’s in that business.

IV

I will now move in a leisurely manner toward my conclusion by saying why I think the codex book will survive during the era of the e-book and the i-book, and why examples of very impressive literary work will continue to come from marginal, eccentric, unanticipated-by-the-majors areas.

First, the arrival of the e-book and the threat it posed to the codex form seems to have abated. 2014 figures report that hard-copy book sales are on the rise. The tech-head excitement that greeted the 2007 moment of Japanese cell-phone novels (keitai shousetsu) – novels composed in that medium to be read in that medium – was followed by the information that when those cell-phone fictions were published in conventional book form they accounted for 50% of Japan’s best-selling titles. And many here would remember that Stephen King’s e-book venture failed because people chose to pirate it rather than pay him the one dollar he was requesting.

So it is not self-evidently the case that a new publication medium necessarily obliterates an older medium, and writer-publisher Peter Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail press in London is sceptical about drawing too close a comparison between what has gone on with music downloads and what might happen in the book industry. In 2006, Ayrton said:

I think people in publishing are quite lucky because a book isn’t like a CD, where people will just download a couple of tracks. The concept of a CD is almost alien to my kids and their friends, they just want a couple of tracks! I can’t see people who are into books just reading a couple of chapters. They’ll want to read the whole book. So I don’t think we have to worry about the Ipodisation of reading. I think e-books will develop slowly but it will be best sellers and classics. So if you are publishing Jane Austen you might be in trouble, but I don’t think it will be the latest book by Gary Indiana or Lynne Tillman, because the kind of people who are into those books want to be able to put them into their bag or their backpack, they want to hold them, fold them, read them in bed.

The following are some relatively recent examples of critically-commercially successful books that have come from unpredicted, unanticipated spaces.

Paul Harding’s novel Tinkers won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize after having initially been published by Bellevue Press, a small press associated with New York’s oldest public hospital, attached to NYU’s Department of Medicine (this hospital is mentioned in one of the stories in In the Country). Harding’s next book, Enon (2014), was sold to Random House and here we might remember that Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain was published in 1997 by a small press (Atlantic Monthly Press), won the National Book Award in the year Don DeLillo’s Underworld was up for that award, was adapted into a big budget Hollywood film, and sold 3 million copies. After this independent success Frazier’s second book, Thirteen Moons, went to auction based on a one-page outline and fetched $8.25 million from Random House, and $3 million for the movie rights from Scott Rudin. Did we mention earlier some of the consequences of the Hollywoodisation of US trade publishing?

A second instance of eccentric publishing success concerns Melbourne-based Greek-Australian gay writer Christos Tsiolkas who published his fourth novel, The Slap, which was adapted very successfully to Australian television. The book sold 300,000 copies in Australia, where a best-seller is 30,000 copies but no UK buyer wanted the book. So Tsiolkas’s friend, the multi-talented gay Irish writer Colm Tóibín, published The Slap in his boutique press, Tuskar Rock, set up by Tóibín, his friend Peter Strauss, and Hannah Westland in 2011, and now housed with Profile books alongside Serpent’s Tail Press. Tuskar Rock had published “collectors’ editions” of some novels – Tim Winton’s Breath, 350 copies at $850.00 a pop – and Tóibín had said that Tuskar Rock was trying to tap “into the same phenomenon as people listening to vinyl records” in a digital age. At the time Tóibín said Tuskar Rock did not expect to make a lot of money from Tsiolkas’s novel: “Let’s just say that we don’t think we’ll make much money, but it’s not about losing lots of money either.” The Slap went on to sell 1.2 million copies and win the 2009 Commonwealth Writers Prize, at which point the larger London presses that earlier had knocked the book back, came looking to secure it, wondering how they had missed it in the first place. They had also missed another Tuskar Rock success story, Don Patterson’s volume of poetry, Rain, which sold very well. This is not quite of the order of picking J. K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter manuscript out of a waste paper basket but it is a nice example of why small, marginal, alternative publishing spaces continue to be important contributors to international literary-cultural life.

Third, a few days ago I read in The Guardian that a first-time book, The Loney, by Andrew Michael Hurley, was first published by Tartarus, a small Yorkshire Press in a print run of 300 copies. After that it moved to a larger press, John Murray, and went on to win the 2015 Costa Award for First Novel.

These few examples encourage me to believe that small print runs, small-independent presses, small bookstores – that fragile coalition that constitutes such a valuable culture of independence – will continue to exert a positive cultural influence around the world. In respect of small bookstores, think of how one of your diasporic own, Jessica Hagedorn, honed her poetry-writing skills by hanging out in San Francisco’s City Lights bookshop, the book enterprise begun by Lawrence Ferlinghetti that sits a hundred yards or so up a slight street incline from Francis Coppola’s pizza/pasta restaurant that stocks Coppola wines. The restaurant is the street level part of a beautiful, old, triangulated building whose upstairs rooms once housed people like Wim Wenders when he and Coppola were making Hammett (1982) for an early iteration of Coppola’s Zoetrope film company, which, you would be aware, publishes Zoetrope: All Story. In the issue of All Story “designed” (they prefer that word to “edited”) by Wim Wenders, one finds a wonderful story from Vietnamese-Australian writer Nam Le, “Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” that was later included in his best-selling, prize-winning collection, The Boat. Readers who long have been awaiting a second collection or a novel from Nam Le have been delayed by his having discovered a way to make $200,000 a year from casino gambling and since that money would be tax-free it is the equivalent of an annual income of $400,000. Why teach at Harvard?

V

Speaking very much as an outsider it seems to me that three clear publishing opportunities exist either for a university press or a trade press in the Philippines. Each is based on an existing overseas format that simply needs to be modified to suit the Philippine situation. The British Film Institute’s series of small, 96 page books devoted to films deemed classics and/or modern classics was devised by Edward Buscombe in 1992 with a view initially to having the books connect with an archival film restoration project then being undertaken by the BFI of 365 films deemed classics of world cinema.

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BFI Film Classics

The BFI classics volumes were written by novelists like Salman Rushdie and Alberto Manguel, journalists, TV presenters (Melvyn Bragg), film critics and film academics, and were pitched at that famously nebulous entity, the “non-specialist but educated, interested reader.” Eventually Buscombe thought that when, across the course of a year, a screening of the 365 restored films would see the history of cinema flow in front of spectators’ eyes on London’s South Bank, many copies of the supporting volumes would be sold. It was an idea that was quickly ripped off by other countries that duly produced series called ‘Australian Film Classics,’ ‘Canadian Film Classics,’ and ‘Hong Kong Cinema Classics.’ It also generated a range of other iterations of the small format film analyses of a single film. In the ‘Deep Focus’ series published by Soft Skull Press (which includes books on Heathers and Death Wish), Jonathan Lethem writes about John Carpenter’s They Live, while Arsenal Pulp Press in Vancouver publishes its ‘Queer Film Classics’ with books on Death in Venice, Strangers on a Train, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing. Cult cinema is targeted by Wallflower Press’s ‘Cultographies’ series which includes books on Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Donnie Darko, Blade Runner. A ‘Pop Classics’ series from ECW Press has a book on Showgirls, while Auteur Publisher’s ‘Devil’s Advocates’ series has titles on Witchfinder General, Suspiria, Carrie and many others, and a ‘Controversies’ series from Palgrave Macmillan has books on Straw Dogs and Basic Instinct, among others.

The BFI later expanded its original format to publish analyses of celebrated UK and overseas television series (Edge of Darkness, Boys from the Blackstuff, Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

Why not adopt this format here to generate a series of similarly packaged volumes devoted to Philippine cinema? And why not unashamedly define the reach of the series to include films made here by, say, US filmmakers as well as your own acts of filmmaking? For your first volume, contract an appropriate Filipino writer to write on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. You would be aware that this film already is the subject of some film classics series (it was the first volume in Bloomsbury Press’s excellent but short-lived series), along with coverage in studies of Coppola and Zoetrope. Eleanor Coppola’s diary of her husband’s film shoot, Notes, became the documentary Hearts of Darkness, which could be addressed in your putative volume as well. Once published, this volume automatically connects your fledgling series with international film publications and film courses whose libraries certainly would order copies of this distinctively national take on a modern classic, and would link with the fan base that follows writing on certain cult films and television series (UK examples would be Dr Who and The Avengers).

You could also commission a volume on Weng Weng’s pint-sized James Bond activities, as in For Your Height Only (1980: Dir: Eddie Nicart), currently available on DVD in the UK and US, and that volume could also address the documentary made by Australian Andrew Leavold, The Search for Weng Weng (2015). And why not include a volume or two on some of the Roger Corman films shot in the Philippines?

Another small format series could imitate the 33 and 1/3 series – initially published by Continuum Press and now published by Bloomsbury Press – in which a small volume is devoted to an iconic or cult pop album (Pet Sounds, Let it Be, Highway Sixty-One Revisited, Exile on Main Street, The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society) and once you started publishing your Filipino versions of these, they could circulate within the Philippines wherever music and cultural studies courses were taught and obviously would attract interest from overseas fans, musicologists and music teachers. Maybe Freddie Aguilar’s “Anak” could be the opening volume.

And there seems no reason a university or trade press in the Philippines shouldn’t publish a version of U.S. Random House’s Crown Journeys series of little books that have a writer talk about a town or a locale. Sometimes the writer is strongly associated with a city or a neighbourhood – Kinky Friedman writes about Austin, Texas, Ishmael Reed writes about Oakland, Chuck Palahniuk writes about Portland – while on other occasions a prominent writer will write about a locale that means something to them: so former head of the Iowa Writing School and author of Stop-Time, Frank Conroy writes about walking around Nantucket, and Michael Cunningham (The Hours) writes about Provincetown. In Australia we have “borrowed” this idea by having local writers write about our capital cities. As yet, we have not ventured into the “neighbourhood” level of the Crown Series, but it surely cannot be too long before some press asks Tim Winton to take a walk around Fremantle and commit it to paper. Why not ask ‘Butch’ Dalisay to write a similar volume on Romblon and why not approach an appropriate local writer to do a volume on the city in which we now find ourselves, Davao?

One final suggestion. Even allowing for what I sense is a very strong Philippine tradition of privileging high literary forms, poetry, the literary novel, serious historical non-fiction, the fact that you also have a strong tradition of comix – comics or graphic novels – and of late have started to produce very strong contributions to international crime and noir fiction, makes me think you should organise a special Philippine section of the next available Bouchercon crime fiction conference. Bouchercon 2016 takes place in New Orleans from September 15th to the 18th, and in 2017, it occurs in Toronto from October 12-15th. In 2018 it travels to St Petersburg from September 13th to 16th, and in 2019 returns to the US, to Dallas, from October 31st to November 3rd. In 2020 it shifts to Sacramento from October 15th-18th.

Bouchercon delivers you a huge, ready-made audience, much like the Frankfurt and London Book Fairs, so it would be easy to work out suitable representatives from here in the Philippines and from Filipinos living and working overseas, and you would be guaranteed to make a splash as the latest new thing. As you all well know, literary festivals and film festivals are endlessly in search of the new entity, the new hot thing to showcase. There is no reason for the Philippines, with its great range of writers, graphic novelists, filmmakers and musicians, not to benefit from that.

Works Cited

Julian Barnes, A Life With Books (London: Jonathan Cape, 2012)

Geoffrey Blainey, The Tyranny of Distance: How Distance Shaped Australia’s History (Melbourne: Sun Books, 1966)

Russell Chatham, “Gone Yesterday, Here Today”: Presentation on Clark City Press, Montana Festival of the Book, Missoula, 23 September, 2005 (unpublished paper)

Nicholas Clee, “End of the Book Postponed,” Prospect Magazine 135 (June 2007): 72-74.

Frank Conroy, Stop-Time (New York: Viking, 1967)

Michael Cunningham, The Hours (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998)

Jose Dalisay Jr., Soledad’s Sister (Manila: Anvil Publishing, 2008)

Jason Epstein, The Book Business (New York: Norton, 2001)

A.B. Facey, A Fortunate Life (Fremantle, W.A.: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1981)

William Gaddis, The Recognitions (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1955)

William Gaddis, JR (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975))

Helen Garner, Monkeygrip (Melbourne: McPhee-Gribble, 1977)

Paul Harding, Tinkers (New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2001)

Noel King, “’I Can’t Go on, I’ll Go On’: Interview with Ray Coffey of Fremantle Arts Centre Press” Westerly, 51 (November 2006): 31-54.

Noel King, “’Independent, Emerging, and Satisfying’: Interview with Publisher Henry Rosenbloom of Scribe Press, Melbourne,” Metro 152 (2007): 154-158.

Noel King, ‘’The Main Thing We Book Publishers have Going for us is the books themselves: An Interview with Pete Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail Press, Islington, London 12 July 2006,” Critical Quarterly 49, 3 (Autumn 2007): 104-119.

Noel King, “A bridge between all these literatures that we love: Interview with Francois von Hurter, Bitter Lemon Press, London 10 July 2006,” Critical Quarterly 49, 1-2 (Summer 2007): 62-80.

Lorien Kite, “Books of 2015,” Financial Times Weekend (28-29 November, 2015): 1-2. Also available at:

Malcolm Knox, “The Interview: Colm Toibin,” Sydney Morning Herald (May 15, 2010).

Nam Le, The Boat: Stories (New York: Knopf, 2008)

Lauren J. Miller, Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007)

Sally Morgan, My Place (Fremantle, W.A.: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1987)

Robert Penn Warren, All The King’s Men (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co, 1946)

Andre Schiffrin, The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way we Read (London: Verso, 2001)

Andre Schiffrin, Words and Money (London: Verso, 2010)

Steve Spears, The Elocution of Benjamin Franklin (Sydney: Currency Methuen Press, 1977)

John Sutherland, Bestsellers: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: OUP, 2007).

Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap (Tuskar Rock, 2010)

Wim Wenders, Zoetrope All-Story 10, 2 (Summer 2006)

[Header image: ‘Book’ by Sam @Flickr republished unmodified under this CC Licence.]

Writers at the Movies: An Introduction

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WRITERS AT THE MOVIES: An Introduction

by NOEL KING and MATTHEW ASPREY GEAR

[This is the introduction to our new special issue Writers at the Movies. It contains essays by Luc Sante, Sarah Berry, Richard Lowenstein, Richard Hugo, Clive Sinclair, Michael Eaton, Jon Lewis, and Anthony May; fiction by Barry Gifford; poetry by Michael Atkinson, R. Zamora Linmark, and James Franco; and interviews with Jonathan Rosenbaum, Emmanuel Mouret, Scott Simmon, and Richard Misek. The issue is for sale at Amazon.com]

I: Literary Cinéphilia

This special issue of Contrappasso on ‘Writers at the Movies’ follows our special ‘Noir’ issue of late 2013. Once again we’ve assembled a collection of poems, essays, fiction, and interviews—some republished, some appearing for the first time. In this instance, the common theme is ‘literary cinéphilia.’

Over the last couple of decades the notion of cinéphilia has taken flight, with many articles, academic books, and trade collections exploring this concept from the beginnings of cinema to the digital age[1].

But the version of cinéphilia on offer here in Contrappasso is a little different. Our take is probably closer to what was featured in Granta’s special film issue (#86, 2004). Highlights of that volume were Andrew O’Hagan’s memoir of his short stint as a film critic (“Two Years in the Dark”) and Ian Jack’s loving recollection of the cinemas of his youth (“The Best Picture He Ever Saw”). Jack’s essay tells of returning with his elder brother to Farnworth to seek out the sites of its vanished cinemas—the Ritz, the Savoy, the Empire, the Hippodrome, the Palace. For Jack and his young friends:

Cinema names seemed independent of any history. They may have been intended to suggest luxury, romance, good birth and breeding, foreign parts, ancient history and therefore to be fitting vehicles for the films showed inside them; escapist images inside escapist architecture. But how many among their audiences could have connected the Hippodrome to horse racing in Ancient Greece, or the Rialto to Venice, the Alhambra, Granada, and Toledo to Spain, the Lido to Mediterranean bathing, the Colosseum to Rome, the Savoy to the Strand, the Odeon to Paris, the Regal to majestic behaviour? Not me, certainly.

We also feel kinship with Parnassus’s special issue on ‘Poetry and Movies’ (#22, Nos. 1 & 2, 1997) with its poems inspired by Godard’s Le Mépris, and Antonioni’s L’Avventura, and the collaboration between Positif and Projections that generated Projections 4½ (1995), from which we republish Richard Lowenstein’s essay, “Elvis and the Aboriginals.” As it turns out, Lowenstein, a well-known Australian filmmaker, is almost an exception in our line-up of literary cinéphiles; most of the selections in this Contrappasso are by people whose principal creative focus is not cinematic at all but in the areas of essays, poetry, and fiction. You will find writings on film by literary practitioners not usually identified as film critics, and also examples of more recognisably academic-scholarly film writing. We think it’s a happy mixture of some of the best movie writing around.

Some of the pieces collected here focus on a single film: Alfred Hitchcock’s Murder! (1930), Orson Welles’s rediscovered Too Much Johnson (1938), Elia Kazan’s Man On A Tight Rope (1952), Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1955), and Robert Siodmak’s Custer of the West (1968). The approaches vary. Other pieces zoom in on an individual: Eric Rohmer, Jean Negulesco, Claire Danes, the Black Dahlia, Sal Mineo, Montgomery Clift, Elmore Leonard, and Emmanuel Mouret. We also explore the kind of cinéphilia that escapes the page and becomes filmmaking itself—see our interview with Richard Misek on his film essay Rohmer in Paris.

Movie-going, our favourite ritual since childhood, is undoubtedly changing. We assembled this collection at a time when viewing a movie via a 35mm print became a sudden novelty. The Deutsches Filmmuseum in Frankfurt, which has an impressive collection of vintage nickelodeons and magic lanterns, now also displays a 35mm projector as a historical artefact. In 2014 Quentin Tarantino called digital projection, now a fait accompli, the very “death of cinema as I know it.” And he’s not alone in the sentiment. The prevailing nostalgia among cinéphiles is not just for the end of 35mm as an exhibition technology, the disappearance of that comforting flicker of scratchy celluloid through a projector. It’s just another change that has followed the passing of the movie theatre from a space of spectacle, even wonder, into the mundane functionality of the multiplex.

Stephen Barber’s Abandoned Images: Film and Film’s End (2010) powerfully outlines the history of cinema as a social space, in particular the slow fade from the grandeur of the early movie palace to ruin and dilapidation. Barber cites twelve cinemas built in Los Angeles between 1910 and 1931, how their facades, “often constructed with premium-quality stone imported from Italian quarries, and intricately carved and decorated with figures drawn from European or Mayan mythologies, both exclaimed the titles of current films on colossal marquees and hoardings, and intimated that the film-going experience was to be a lavish, cultured one.”

Barber says that Broadway in downtown Los Angeles “holds the greatest concentration worldwide of abandoned, but intact, cinemas.” These “once-lavish and luxurious cinemas represented the zenith of technological innovation in their respective moments of construction.” These buildings present “an astonishing litany of names emblazoned on dilapidated but still prominent marquees and signs: the Million Dollar Theater, the Roxie, the Cameo, the Arcade, the Los Angeles Theater, the Palace, the State, the Globe, the Orpheum, and the United Artists Theater.”

As he charts the shift in the social function of the movie palace from its time screening mainstream films to showing “specialist, cult or martial arts films, and finally, pornography,” Barber argues that these changes place a double temporality on the cinema theatre as a distinctive social space, such that “the moment at which it served as a riotous all-night site for cult-mania or pornography becomes inseparable from that of its prestigious moment of ascendancy as the venue for searchlight-illuminated star-premieres.” For Barber, “abandoned cinemas form landscapes of disintegration.”

That 35mm projector at the Frankfurt museum was appropriately surrounded by an exhibition of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre’s stunning large-scale photographs of the United States’ abandoned picture palaces. Annie Baker’s recent Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Flick (2014), is set in a “falling-apart movie theatre in Worcester County, MA.” Its four characters work, watch movies, scam, endlessly toss out film references and play (in this case) three degrees of separation games linking film actors across recondite films. This ‘smallest picture show on earth’ operates in the full recognition that the days of celluloid and analogue video have been replaced by a (fallen) digital world.

Iain Sinclair’s 70 x 70: Unlicensed Preaching: A Life Unpacked in 70 Films (2014), also bears personal witness to the vanished spaces of cinema. The book is a record of a unique film festival in which sometimes unlikely corners of contemporary London—a city suffering ongoing authoritarian usurpation of public space—become ad hoc exhibition spaces for seventy films that have mattered most to the seventy year old author. As ever, Sinclair’s psychogeographical prowl of London provokes memories, in this case of former exhibition sites where his younger self first encountered particular movies.

We hope some of the pieces we have gathered here resonate in a similar way.

Nevertheless, we also acknowledge there is much for the cinéphile to celebrate in the digital era. Access to obscure films is now easier than ever. One of the most ardent surveyors of international DVD and Bluray releases is the writer Jonathan Rosenbaum. We caught up with him to talk about his recent activities.

II: Novelists and Poets

We find no shortage of fiction writers obsessed by cinema. In his introduction to Writers at the Movies: Twenty-Six Contemporary Authors Celebrate Twenty-Six Memorable Movies (2000), Jim Shepard makes the case that writers “write about movies… not only because we love them but because their cultural power obligates our response.” In Shepard’s anthology we discover that the late, great Robert Stone liked The Krays (1990), Lorrie Moore likes Titanic (1997) and J. M. Coetzee likes The Misfits (1961).

We like Gore Vidal’s engaging book-length essay Screening History (1992), in which he recalls being spellbound as a boy by Mickey Rooney as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) and await an English translation of Carlos Fuentes’s posthumously published Pantallas de plata (2014), a personal study of Buñuel and others. James Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work (1976) offers a powerful commentary on the movies, on black spectatorship and the representation of race in cinema. It begins by recalling

Joan Crawford’s straight, narrow, and lonely back. We are following her through the corridors of a moving train. She is looking for someone, or she is trying to escape from someone. She is eventually intercepted by, I think, Clark Gable.

I am fascinated by the movement on, and of, the screen, that movement which is something like the heaving and swelling of the sea (though I have not yet been to the sea): and is also something like the light which moves on, and especially beneath, the water.

I am about seven. I am with my mother, or my aunt. The movie is Dance, Fools, Dance.

Don DeLillo is a committed literary cinéphile. His fiction is crowded with movie and television references. In one interview he described his cinematic conception when he starts writing: “I think the scene comes first, an idea of a character in a place. It’s visual, it’s Technicolor…” In 1971, when Nelson Algren reviewed DeLillo’s first novel, Americana, for Rolling Stone, he connected it explicitly to the New Hollywood cinema: “Don DeLillo’s swift, ironic, and witty cross-country American nightmare, as seen through a Scoopic 16mm news camera, doesn’t have a dull or unoriginal line. If you dug Jack Nicholson’s role in Five Easy Pieces, or the fables of Donald Barthelme, Don DeLillo is your man.”

DeLillo has said in several interviews that he was most excited by the movies of the late 1960s when he was first trying to make a living from writing. Some of his earliest stories are in fact literary responses to movies. “The Numbers” was provoked by Godard’s Weekend (1967). DeLillo explained, “I consider this piece of work a movie as much as anything else. Not my movie, however. No, the work is an attempt to hammer and nail my own frame around somebody else’s movie.” Another early short story, “Coming Sun.Mon.Tues.,” done in a kind of 1960s European art-cinema shorthand, is now available at The Kenyon Review website[2].

Fiction aside, by now DeLillo has published enough essays on film to constitute a short book. His essay “Woman in the Distance” is a brilliant poetic exploration of Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970), a film also greatly admired by Marguerite Duras (see her 1980 interview collection Green Eyes). In the manner of DeLillo’s novels, the Wanda essay has a great opening:

Early in the film a woman in the shape of a white shadow moves in long shot across the bitter gray landscape of slag heaps and mining equipment. It is a scene of phantom beauty: a spacious moment seemingly displaced in a movie that levels every energy at small and local matters. But the scene is only the first component of an equation in the making. That chalky figure in the distance will appear in powerful close-up at the end of the film, face and heart revealed.

DeLillo wrote a short New Yorker piece on star spotting in Rome—its subtitle ‘Movies and Memory’ could be an alternate title for this issue of Contrappasso—and another long essay in Brick, ‘Counterpoint: Three Movies, a Book, and an Old Photograph,’ which throws together The Fast Runner, Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould, Thomas Bernhard’s novel, The Loser, and a documentary, Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser. He penned elegant capsule descriptions for the three films he selected and introduced as Guest Director of the 2005 Telluride Film Festival. He chose Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (“A beautiful and disturbing movie of remote landscapes, dreamy scenes of childhood and the advancing shadow of the state… Shot in deceptively serene tones, paced in the rhythms of rural isolation, Spirit of the Beehive exemplifies what Erice calls poetic cinema”), Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) (“With its dangling flashbacks, long takes, deep spaces, and hovering sense of violence, The Passenger is one of the strongest films in Antonioni’s enduring study of identity and apartness”), and Loden’s Wanda (“It might be regarded as the unsung herald of the American surge that sent many fine and famous movies coursing through [the 1970s]”). There was a “lost” aspect to all three films. It was the first time in twenty-five years Spirit of the Beehive had been screened in the US. The Passenger had not been screened for a similar time owing to a bizarre legal situation that required either Antonioni or actor Jack Nicholson to be present at any screening. Wanda, shot on 16mm for a mere $160,000, the only film directed by Loden, only found visibility in recent years when released on DVD.

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OF COURSE, literary cinéphilia does not automatically denote the composition of fiction or an essay. Pablo Neruda’s poem “Ode to a Village Movie Theatre,” opens with the invitation: “Come, my love/let’s go to the movies/in the village/ … Old movies/are/secondhand dreams.” The American Frank O’Hara wrote poems about James Dean and penned the marvellous “To the Film Industry in Crisis,” in which the speaker reveals that his main love is not for “lean quarterlies and swarthy periodicals,” nor the Catholic Church, nor for “the American Legion” but rather for “you, Motion Picture Industry.” It is for “glorious Silver Screen, tragic Technicolor, amorous Cinemascope, stretching Vistavision and startling Stereophonic Sound.” The poem lists many Hollywood stars and describes scenes from unnamed films. The speaker refuses to “prefer Johnny Weissmuller to Lex Barker” in Tarzan movies, and ends by saying, “Roll on, reels of celluloid, as the great earth rolls on.”

Readers of our Noir Issue will recall several distinguished poetic responses to the cinema: Nicholas Christopher on film noir and the HUAC-destroyed career of John Garfield; Barry Gifford’s short evocation of actress Terry Moore (a poem dedicated to, and admired by, Elmore Leonard); Suzanne Loomis’s noir poems; and Jonathan Aaron’s response to Out of the Past.

In this issue we reprint James Franco’s poem in honour of Sal Mineo, two poems by R. Zamora Linmark on Montgomery Clift and Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind, and two by Michael Atkinson.

III: The Movie Theatre as Social Space

The British Film Institute’s series of ‘Film Classics’ (soon followed by another on ‘Modern Classics’), began a trend in English language film writing: small books, normally between 65 and 150 pages, on individual films. The ‘short takes’ idea was the brainchild of Edward Buscombe, then head of BFI publishing. The concept now exists in many articulations: series of small books on films that fall into the categories of Classic Canadian Cinema (University of Toronto Press), Australian Film Classics (Currency Press), Queer Film Classics (Arsenal Pulp Press), Pop Classics (ECW Press), and Controversies (Palgrave Macmillan). There are also Bloomsbury Film Guides (now discontinued), Wallflower Press’s Cultographies, Soft Skull Press’s Deep Focus series, and the Cinetek line from Flicks Books. Certain films appear on more than one of these lists. We also find monographs on individual films outside any publishing series: two notable recent books are Geoff Dyer’s Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room (2012) (on Tarkovsky’s Stalker) and Adam Mars-Jones’s Noriko Smiling (2011) (on Ozu’s Late Spring).

With this type of book came a greater emphasis on where and when the authors first encountered the film in question. One example is Geoffrey Nowell-Smith on Antonioni’s L’avventura for BFI Film Classics. His first viewing took place in

Paris, in November 1960. I was a language assistant in a lycée in a small town in eastern France. One weekend I drove with friends to Paris—250 kilometres in a Citroen 2 c.v., maximum speed 90k.p.h.—intending to see Truffaut’s Shoot the Pianist, Chabrol’s Les Bonnes femmes, and other new French films. First, however, I decided to take a look at the Italian film which had caused all that uproar at Cannes the previous spring: Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura. For two and a half hours I sat spellbound in the cinema. I was captivated by the film’s lingering rhythms, its decentered images, its listless characters, and especially by Monica Vitti, the star of the film and incarnation of the director’s vision. No film before or since has made such an impression on me as L’avventura did on that occasion. I saw the film again the following day, and went back to Paris three weeks later to see it again—this time with the intention of writing about it.

Similarly, Nicholas Christopher’s Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City (1997/2006), a very different film book which surveys not one but hundreds of films, orientates the reader with a wonderful description of the author’s first encounter with film noir in a Paris cinema in 1973:

This was a tumultuous time, not just in the Unites States, but also in France, where massive student and labor unrest had emerged that spring. Barricades blocked the steep streets near the Sorbonne, tear gas bit the air, and at particularly explosive city arteries, rubber bullets were being fired into crowds of demonstrators. Still, people were going to work, eating, drinking, making love, and attending the cinema. The theater was located in a narrow side street off the Rue de Rennes in a working class district. Surrounded by tire shops, garages, and a sausage factory, it was improbably named The New Yorker, the letters glowing in indigo neon on the small crooked marquee. So I found myself alone on a hard seat in the rear of a packed smoky theater (with posters of the Manhattan skyline in the lobby) where one could hear a pin drop—so reverential, so congregational was this chain-smoking French audience—and watched Out of the Past.

Jessica Hagedorn’s novel, Dogeaters (1990), features her Filipino characters watching Douglas Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows (1955) in a Manila cinema. In an email Jessica Hagedorn told us, “The Avenue Theatre, which appears in Dogeaters, actually existed when I was growing up in Manila. My description of it in the novel is inspired by the ‘real’ Avenue and other old-school movie theatres in Manila, like the Odeon.” The narrator of Hagedorn’s novel tells us that her group of friends “affect the casual teenage glamour of Gloria Talbott” in All That Heaven Allows. These characters offer an intriguing take on one aspect of Sirk’s great melodrama: why would someone so evidently wealthy as Jane Wyman’s character bother to drive her own car when she could afford a chauffeur?

Hagedorn’s characters watch a great many other films but avoid the cinemas infested by rats. One character, Romeo, a waiter at “the exclusive Monte Vista Country Club,” goes to the movies “as often as his modest salary” allows. Romeo “would see anything: comedies, Tagalog melodramas, westerns, musicals, and religious extravaganzas like The Ten Commandments, which played to packed houses in Manila for what seemed an eternity. Audiences never failed to clap and cheer each time the Red Sea parted on the giant screen.” Mabuhay Studios is cited along with Lolita Luna’s softcore ‘bomba’ movies (A Candle in Burma, The Agony of Love). Romeo also learns from the movies insofar as he models his hair on “Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause. Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock. Or that decadent Nestor Noraliz in Tormented.” As the Hollywood titles suggest, American movies appropriately align with the modernity represented by US pop culture, and in 1960, when a character returns from the US with a batch of the latest rock ‘n’ roll records—”45s, 78s, 33LPs. Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Richie Valens, Chubby Checker, Joey Dee and the Starliters”—the female narrator studiously learns how to do The Madison and The Twist.

Other writers remember other movies and other cinemas. Michael Barker remembers watching Executive Action (1973) “at the Texas Theater in Dallas, a savvy booking if ever there was one—this was the theater where Lee Harvey Oswald was apprehended. The marquee proclaimed NOW PLAYING EXECUTIVE ACTION and underneath in big, bold letters OSWALD CAUGHT HERE. I remember kids taking turns sitting in his seat.” Greil Marcus feels a movie theatre “creates an atmosphere of anticipation, it sparks the feeling that, whatever might be on the bill, something extraordinary is about to take place.” Marcus remembers first seeing The Manchurian Candidate “alone when it came out in 1962, at the Varsity Theatre in Palo Alto, California, a Moorish wonderland of a movie house.” He saw it again in 2001 “in the Castro Theatre, an ornately baroque movie palace with a steep balcony and an organ that emerges from a pit in front of the stage.” Leonard Michaels’s terrific essay on being overwhelmed by Gilda (1946) on first viewing, initially published in the Berkeley broadsheet The Threepenny Review[3], is very precise about where his life-changing act of film spectatorship occurred: “I saw this movie in the Loew’s Theater on Canal Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.”

DeLillo gives a lovely description of his 1960s and early 1970s moviegoing habits:

I went to the movies on weekday afternoons, a movie on a dead afternoon, the merest scatter of people in attendance, always someone reading the Voice in the half murk before the house lights died. In many cases I can recall today where I saw certain movies back then, drifting from The New Yorker Theater one day to the Bleecker Street the next, alert and ever expectant, ready to be taken out of the day, the week, the plodding writer’s one-room life, and into a fold of discontinuous space and time.

In conversation with Lorena Cancela for Otrocampo 7 in November 2002, Jonathan Rosenbaum said that “where and when one is viewing a movie has an inextricable relation to what that movie means, and consequently, no meanings should be regarded as universal or eternal… Movie-going—and therefore film criticism—is a social act.” This is precisely what art critic Lawrence Alloway says in his 1971 book, Violent America: The Movies 1946-1964: “The routine of movie-going is the basis of any criticism of popular movies.”

We think what is happening in our different examples is a merging of two perspectives: the first linked to the long tradition of academic-scholarly and amateur accounts of the history of movie-going and of the cinema theatre as a distinctive social space, and the second which exhibits a very localized, one-off-film-specific cinéphilia. To the extent that some contributors write about a time when going to the movies—the flicks, the pictures—was a weekly or twice-weekly routine, they often remember a specific cinema. In so doing they confirm the adage attributed to Marcus Loew (whose US theatre chain played MGM’s pictures), “We sell tickets to theaters, not movies.” Of course Loew and his viewers knew, as we know, that it is always both.

In an 2003 online interview with Identity Theory, David Thomson spoke of the loss of the tradition of large cinema theaters as distinctive social spaces—or what once were called ‘picture palaces’ in an era when, as the publicity phrase had it, “the show starts on the sidewalk”—in contemporary San Francisco. Thomson doubted whether San Francisco now had more than four cinemas capable of seating 600 or 700 people, and felt that it was important to convey to young people “that feeling I grew up with… that you had to get there early—you might not get in—it would be packed. You would be in the middle of a row of strangers and for me those things are still vital.”

Patrick McGilligan uses the phrase “film craziness” to describe the cinéphilia that, he says, “was endemic around the country, indeed around the globe, in the late 1960s and early 1970s,” and adds that “the mutant strain found at the University of Wisconsin in Madison had something to do with the unique combination of the long, subarctic winters—from which escape was desirable—coupled with the inviting central location of the film archives in the State Historical Society building.” For McGilligan the film archives were “a treasure trove,” the result of the fact that some “unsung archivist had managed to obtain the United Artists collection, which included… 16mm prints of every Warner brothers, RKO, and Republic motion picture dating back from the early 1930s through to the early 1950s.” He describes this particular viewing venue:

Mornings at the archives, the film crazies would gather to watch whatever some graybeard (i.e. graduate student) had put on the schedule—say, three or four William Wellman films, the earliest, most obscure, most topical titles from his Warner Brothers period.

The room set aside on the top floor of the State Historical Society building was a long, narrow concrete bunker with utilitarian chairs scattered around… Once started, the only interruptions were for reel changes, and we often squeezed in several films, back to back, before lunch. Some of us slurped coffee or chewed gum. Some made loud comments about the film in progress, others watched silently, scribbling notes, gazing intently at the rectangle of light dancing on the wall.

Juan Goytisolo’s wonderful essay, “Cinema Eden,”[4] from a book of the same name (Peter Bush’s 2004 translation is subtitled Essays from the Muslim Mediterranean), begins by saying:

There exists an almost extinct species of cinema whose auditorium, dense atmosphere and original setting stand out more strongly, more glowingly in memory than the meandering plot of their films. My childhood experience was decisive in this respect and casts light on my future fondness for flea-pits that recall those first cinemas I patronized in the neighbourhood of the district of Barcelona where I was born.

Goytisolo remembers a cinema called “the Murillo—the Primavera from the pre-war years—a name it reclaimed in the fifties before being closed down for good and replaced by an apartment block at the point where Paseo Bonanova crosses Calle Angli—and the smaller, humbler Breton, right in the heart of the still rather prim and provincial suburb of Sarria.” He mentions many other cinemas, as his essay goes on to discuss the Eden cinema—”an old down-at-heel fleapit” in Marrakesh—and reveal his fondness for Hindu melodramas and karate films.

Italo Calvino’s superb long essay, “A Cinema-Goer’s Autobiography,” written at the urging of Federico Fellini, was possibly Goytisolo’s model. In it Calvino recalls the films and stars he saw in his adolescence, a time “when the cinema engrossed me to an extent far beyond anything that came before or after.” The essay, part of The Road to San Giovanni (1990), begins:

There were years when I went to the cinema almost every day and maybe twice a day, and those were the years between ‘36 and the war, the years of my adolescence. It was a time when the cinema became the world for me…

Every day, walking up and down the main street of my small town, I’d only have eyes for the cinemas, three that showed new films and changed programmes every Monday and Thursday, and a couple of fleapits with older or trashier films that changed three times a week.

Calvino was watching dubbed US films and French poetic realist films in San Remo on the Ligurian coast in his favourite open-air theatre. On the other side of Italy, in Rimini, Fellini was watching films in “the little towns in winter,” where “the movie theatre was like a tiny galaxy, a planet under a spell, a grand passion that seems forgotten today.”

Years later, in Paris, Calvino would go to “tiny, smelly cinemas of the Latin Quarter to dig out films of the twenties and thirties” he “thought he had lost forever,” and also to encounter new films, screenings of contemporary cinema: “I go looking for old films that tell me about my own prehistory or those that are so new as perhaps to suggest what the world will be like after me.”

But of course memorable movie-going doesn’t have to occur indoors. Jean-Claude Carrière’s The Secret Language of Film (1994) opens with a description of a screening in French colonial Africa after the First World War. It deftly conveys elegant ironies of a colonialist moment: “A sheet was stretched between posts, the mysterious device was carefully set up, and suddenly, out in the dry night of the African bush, moving pictures appeared.” However, the “African notables and religious leaders,” although obliged to attend lest their absence indicate an unfriendly or rebellious attitude towards their colonisers, “were for the most part Muslims,” and obedient to the prohibitions of their religion against the depiction of the human face and form. They politely took their seats, and when “the lights went down and the first beams flickered from the curious apparatus, they shut their eyes and kept them shut” throughout the screening. Carrière “often wondered what invisible, soundless film was shown during those few short hours.”

The editors of this issue are both Australians who grew up with the presence of the drive-in. In Australia a drive-in could also be used as a ‘walk-in.’ On hot summer nights, if you didn’t yet have a driver’s license, you could sit near the refreshment building, and have a sound box at your table. You would watch children in pyjamas and dressing gowns play in the playground just under the giant screen in front of all the parked cars until the drive-in’s double-bill started. Before the fading of the drive-in as an exhibition site—when the land on which it stood became more valuable to sell off as housing—cinéphiles would often seek out a drive-in screening as the only venue at which a particular film would find release, much as some suburban/neighbourhood cinemas in Australia became the place for the first-release of Five Easy Pieces (1970), Cisco Pike (1972), and some other offerings from the New Hollywood cinema.

Memories of the drive-in also stir fond thoughts of the so-called “Drive-In Movie Critic” Joe Bob Briggs, whose flamboyant redneck critical posture celebrated movies exhibited at Texas drive-ins. We also recall J.D. Reed’s poem ‘Drive-In’, which vividly juxtaposes teenage sexual moves in a parked car while “giant caterpillars are fighting on the screen/waving monster feelers and spitting/plastic drool.” (It nicely echoes Luc Sante’s essay ‘Enormous Bodies in the Night’, which we reprint here.)

Several other pieces in this issue present readers with a similar evocation of exhibition sites, grounding their cinéphilic explorations in the experience of architectural space.

Readers of our Noir Issue will remember the late Morris Lurie’s essay on his unchaperoned visit to see The Maltese Falcon on its first release in Melbourne. He was five years old. Leaving the cinema by the wrong exit, he became confused, caught the wrong tram, and arrived home late only to be chastised his very worried parents. In this issue we republish Barry Gifford’s short story, “The Ciné,” which relates a narrative of a young boy whose father deposits him in a cinema while he does some work around town. Gifford’s poetry and fiction are filled with allusions to movies; his collection of short essays on film noir, The Devil Thumbs a Ride and Other Unforgettable Films (1998, later republished as Out of the Past) are not just about the movies but peppered with details of his original viewing context. Gifford unashamedly uses the films as launch pads for autobiographical reminiscence, as when his discussion of Robert Aldrich’s Autumn Leaves (1956) prompts the recollection of his mother’s marriage. Gifford’s ‘Author’s Note’ confesses: “Insofar as accuracy is concerned in the following, I guarantee only the veracity of the impression. I wrote these essays as I imagined many of the Cahiers du Cinéma reviews of the 1950s were written, on the café or kitchen table at one in the morning.”

Among the other contributions here that foreground a specific screening venue is Richard Lowenstein’s account of watching an Elvis Presley movie in 1969 in an outback open-air cinema with an audience of Australian Aborigines. We are also delighted to republish American poet Richard Hugo’s ‘The White Line,’ both a beautiful essay on Elia Kazan’s Man On A Tight Rope (1952) and an exercise in poetic reminiscence of a specific cinema: George Shrigley’s White Center Theatre in White Center, Washington.

Abandoned outdoor cinema in Playa Giron, Bay of Pigs, Cuba September 2014 (Photo © Matthew Asprey Gear)

Abandoned outdoor cinema in Playa Giron, Bay of Pigs, Cuba September 2014 (Photo © Matthew Asprey Gear)

IV: Learning from the Movies

Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said, “I have often learned a lesson from a silly American film.” As he sat in his preferred place, the front row, watching Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire films, other musicals, westerns, and detective films, it occurred to him that, “In one regard I must be a very modern person since the cinema has such an extraordinarily beneficial effect on me.” Victor Erice said that during his period of being a young boy watching Hollywood movies, it was always westerns he and his friends loved most. And in Neruda’s ‘Ode to a Village Movie Theatre,’ we learn, “Cowboys/make/Swiss cheese of/the dangerous Arizona/moon.”

In the special ‘Movies and Poetry’ issue of Parnassus, Susan Sontag wondered whether “cinéphilia—the name of a very specific kind of love that cinema inspired” had ended:

Until the advent of television emptied the movie theatres, it was from a weekly visit to the cinema that you learned (or tried to learn) how to walk, to smoke, to kiss, to fight, to grieve. Movies gave you tips about how to be attractive, such as… it looks good to wear a raincoat even when it isn’t raining… The strongest experience was simply to surrender to, to be transported by, what was on the screen. You wanted to be kidnapped by the movie.

In a short piece at the New York Review of Books blog, poet Charles Simic (who has a poem entitled “Double Feature”) describes one of his earliest movie-going memories, seeing a Buster Keaton film “in World War II Belgrade where I grew up… Neither Nazis nor Russian tanks could stop my mother from going to the movies, and taking me along.” And we agree with Simic when he says, “It has always seemed strange to me that writers and poets of my generation and slightly older say little about the influence of movies on their work, and yet our first knowledge of the world came from them.” Barber says that cinema going populations worldwide “learned to remember filmically, within the narrative forms and visual cadences of film.”

The Australian writer David Malouf’s essay “Growing up with Stars” recalls many hours spent in the Lyceum and Odeon cinemas. Malouf’s essay is now available in his new collection, Being There (2015), but it was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1999, as an ‘edited version’ of a talk he had given at the Seymour Centre near Sydney University. That talk was meant to inaugurate a series of talks by various people on ‘Transformations’ but, as it happened, his was the only one to take place. Malouf’s essay begins:

We grew up with the pictures, we little Australians of 50 years ago, and we grew up with the stars. When we were children Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart and Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire were still youthful, like our fresh-faced uncles and aunts. Later we grew old with them and they were like ancient cousins. In no other art do we retain this lifelong relationship with its practitioners, this close, almost family, intimacy with figures who are bonded to us in a special closeness because they belong not to our public lives of industry and duty but to that other life we live in our senses, in our imagination, which is irresponsible and free. As the members of a new and popular audience, we were educated, like all popular audiences, by the medium itself. No-one was there to guide us or tell us how it was done. We picked that up on our own; the movies themselves taught us. And we did not have, afterwards, to describe or account for what we had discovered; it was just for us. There in the dark, with just ourselves to please, and with those evocative images to tempt us and so many “situations” to slip into and identify with, we were free, off the hook; no-one was watching. We were watching. This was another sort of education, and if we learned something, it was on our own terms.

Victor Erice’s La Morte Rouge (2006) is a wonderfully poetic short film about cinema and childhood, rich with detail about a distinctive historical-national instance of movie-going, the Spanish Civil War, the bombing of Madrid, World War II, the utterly terrible real-life images encountered then by children outside their moviegoing world. Don DeLillo, presenting it at Telluride in 2013, said that it “addresses such major subjects as personal memory, the past and the present, history and fiction, and the way in which a movie can assert itself in a young mind as a scary extension of immediate household reality.”

Erice is five years old when he accompanies his twelve year old sister to see a Sherlock Holmes film, The Scarlett Claw (1944). The cinema is within a grand building that had briefly functioned as a casino until the prohibition of gambling obliged the building to find other ways of being in the world. Erice refers to his childhood self in the third person, as “the boy,” someone who is having his first ever experience of the social act of moviegoing, who immediately notices that the adults in the audience comport themselves differently from the way he comports himself. The film is affecting him much more strongly than it is these adults who surround him. He recognizes that “they knew something he didn’t.” The cinematic unknowingness of Erice’s five year old—”But what was an actor? The Boy didn’t know exactly.”—matches that of Lurie’s five year old persona wondering about his viewing of The Maltese Falcon: “Would it have been good if I had understood it?” In the extended interview included on the DVD, Erice says he didn’t see the film again for forty years. This first traumatic experience of cinema caused him to develop a dread of postmen and letters, a fear not in the least assuaged by his sister, whom we presume chose this film, taunting him at bedtime by whispering, “the postman is coming!”

Film posters figure strongly in Erice’s film, beginning with a large wall poster of The Mark of Zorro (1940). Later Erice presents posters of the other films he might have been able to see that particular first week of his filmgoing life. His research revealed what else was on release that week: Gene Tierney in Henry Hathaway’s Sundown (1941) and Hedy Lamarr in Jacques Tourneur’s Experiment Perilous (1944). But it was The Scarlett Claw that changed his life. During an interview exchange (a DVD extra), Erice alludes to the criticism of Serge Daney and the way Jean-Louis Schefer’s L’homme ordinaire du cinéma reverses the phenomenological trope of a child watching a film; instead, these are “films that watched our childhood.” Erice also reveals that the first film that prompted him to write about it was Truffaut’s The 400 Blows—once again a film about childhood and a childhood obsessed with cinema.

In several of his other comments Erice is in synch with Malouf, Sontag, Calvino and Simic on the idea of the movie theatre as a para-educational institution, one which, in Erice’s case, helped a Spanish resident of a country whose borders were closed, whose citizens daily experienced attacks on their liberty, whose experiences of political and clerical censorship were ongoing and profound, discover that moviegoing, with a nod to Casablanca, made them “citizens of the world.” These probings of cinema as an education outside school and its pedagogy suggest a cinematic spin on Bruce Springsteen’s line from “No Surrender”: “We learned more from a three minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school.”

The remarks from Calvino, Sontag, Goytisolo, Malouf, and Erice point towards nationally specific remembrances of the international act of movie-going. Similar offerings are to be found in Serpent’s Tail’s collection Seeing in the Dark.

V: Movies and their Critics

In Maria de Medeiros’s informative and amusing documentary Je t’aime… moi non Plus: Artistes et critiques (I Love You I Love You Not: Artists and Critics, 2004) a wide range of directors and critics are interviewed at the Cannes Film festival and asked what they think is the relation of the film critic to the filmmaker. We learn that in Spain film critics are paid much more than opera or art critics. At one point Gérard Lefort insists that “film criticism is a literary genre.” Inevitably many directors (from Almodovar to Cronenberg) express pugnacity and disdain for the critic, and some Spanish and Brazilian critics tell funny stories of being physically attacked (on the street, in restaurants) by directors unhappy with a review they have received. The late Alexander Walker, to whom the film is dedicated, tells of having his face slapped twice—on both sides—on UK national television by director Ken Russell. Russell used a convenient weapon for the slap, the newspaper that had carried Walker’s negative review of The Devils.

We hope that the pieces we have assembled here avoid those kinds of confrontational oppositions. To conclude by reiteration, what many of these essays seem to us to do is contribute in a positive way to two developed areas of film criticism and film history: on the one hand the concept of cinéphilia, and on the other the history of movie-going as a distinctive social practice with significant historical, regional and national variations. We like the description put forward by Lawrence Alloway in Violent America, and his take on how best to capture the compelling particularity of the act of movie-going or of a specifically memorable cinematic encounter. Alloway says that I Walk Alone and other ‘movies of the second half of the 40s’ were ‘the first movies that I saw that I still remember’. He says he hopes his film criticism will

hold onto its source in the original act of movie-going. The critical notions to be discussed are not those I had as a regular, not to say compulsive moviegoer, but I do not want to lose that early feeling, the capacity for identification, that made me see I Walk Alone several times when it was first released.

ENDNOTES

[1] See for example:

Antoine de Baecque and Christian-Marc Bosséno, “Constructing the Gaze: An Interview with Jean Douchet,” trans. Timothy Barnard Framework : The Journal of Cinema and Media 42 (2000)

Scott Balcerzak & Jason Sperb, Cinéphilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction: Film, Pleasure, and Digital Culture (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, vol. 1: 2009 & vol. 2: 2012)

Joe Bobb-Briggs, Joe Bobb-Briggs Goes to the Drive-in (New York: Delacorte Press, 1986)

Ian Breakwell and Paul Hammond, ed., Seeing in the Dark: A Compendium of Cinemagoing (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1990)

Philip French, I Found it at the Movies: Reflections of a Cinéphile (Manchester: Carcanet, 2011)

Christian Keathley, Cinéphilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 2005)

Martyn de Konig and Matte Hagener, Cinéphilia: Movies, Love and Memory (Amsterdam: Amsterdam Univ. Press, 2014).

Jacques Rancière, “The Gaps of Cinema,” Necsus: European Journal of Media Studies (Spring 2012), available at: http://www.necsus-ejms.org/the-gaps-of-cinema-by-jacques-ranciere/

Rasha Wadia Richards, Cinematic Flashes: Cinéphilia and Classical Hollywood (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 2013)

Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin, Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinéphilia (London: BFI, 2008)

Jonathan Rosenbaum, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinéphilia (Chicago: Univ. Of Chicago Press, 2010)

[2] See www.kenyonreview.org/kr-online-issue/don-delillo-342846/

[3] It is now available at sensesofcinema.com/2002/female-glamour-and-star-power/zipper/

[4] The essay is available at www.theguardian.com/film/2004/mar/06/film

WORKS CITED

Nelson Algren, “Review of Americana,” Rolling Stone (August 5, 1971)

Lawrence Alloway, Violent America: The Movies 1946-1964 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1971)

James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work (1976) (New York: Vintage International, 2011)

Michael Barker (Co-President of Sony Pictures Classics), “Guilty Pleasures,” Film Comment (July-August 2003): 8

Italo Calvino, “A Cinema-Goer’s Autobiography,” in his The Road to San Giovanni trans. Tim Parkes (New York: Vintage, 1994): 25-50

Lorena Cancela, “Jonathan Rosenbaum: A Life at the Movies: An interview,” Otrocampo 7 (November 2002)

Jean-Claude Carrière, The Secret Language of Film (New York: Pantheon, 1994)

Nicholas Christopher, Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City (New York: The Free Press, 1997) (Expanded edition from Counterpoint in 2006)

Don DeLillo, “That Day in Rome: Movies and Memory,” The New Yorker (October 20, 2003): 76-78

Don DeLillo interviewed by Adam Begley: ‘The Art of Fiction No 135’, The Paris Review (1992), available at: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/1887/the-art-of-fiction-no-135-don-delillo

Don DeLillo, “Woman in the Distance,” Black Clock 4 (2005): 56-59

Don DeLillo, “Counterpoint: Three Movies, a Book, and an Old Photograph,” Brick 74 (Winter 2004): 96-105

Don DeLillo, “The Uniforms,” Carolina Quarterly 22, (1970): 4-11

Don DeLillo, “Coming Sun.Mon.Tues.,” The Kenyon Review 28, 3 (1966)

Marguerite Duras, Green Eyes trans. Carol Barko (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1990)

Geoff Dyer, Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room (New York: Vintage, 2012)

Barry Gifford, The Devil Thumbs a Ride and other Unforgettable Films (New York: Grove Press, 1988)

Barry Gifford, Out of the Past: Adventures in Film Noir (Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2001)

Jose Goytisolo, Cinema Eden: Essays from the Muslim Mediterranean trans. Peter Bush (London: Eland Books, 2003)

Jessica Hagedorn, Dogeaters (New York: Penguin, 1990)

Morris Lurie, “Introduction to Adulthood,” Meanjin 59, 1 (2000): 51-53

David Malouf, “Growing up with the Stars,” The Sydney Morning Herald “Spectrum,” (March 13th, 1999) and in Being There (Sydney: Knopf Australia, 2015): 48-58

Adam Mars-Jones, Noriko Smiling (London: Nottingham Hill Editions, 2011)

Patrick McGilligan, Film Crazy: Interviews with Hollywood Legends (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000)

Leonard Michaels, “The Zipper,” in Susan Sontag, ed., Best American Essays 1992 (New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1992): 244-252

Granta 86: Film (Granta Books, 2004)

Greil Marcus, The Manchurian Candidate (London: British Film Institute, 2002): 48-49

Parnassus Poetry in Review: The Movie Issue Vol 22, 1-2 (New York: Herbert Leibowitz, 1997)

Projections 4 and ½ in Association with Positif ed. William Donohue and John Boorman (London: Faber and Faber, 1995)

Tony Maraini, “Fellini Interview,” trans. A. K. Bierman Bright Lights Film Journal 12 (1994): 33-37, and Bright Lights Film Journal 14, (nd): 33-37

Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Movie Lover,” The New Yorker (October 20, 2003): 147, 155-157, 159

David Naylor, ed., Great American Movie Theatres (Washington, D.C.: The Preservation Press, 1987): 18

Pablo Neruda, “Ode to a Village Movie Theatre,” trans. Margaret Sayers Peden

J. D. Reed, “Drive-In,” in his Expressways (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969): 12

Charles Simic, “When Movies Kept Us Awake at Night,” available at: http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2012/jan/18/when-movies-kept-us-awake-night/

Charles Simic, “Poetry in Unlikely Places: Review of The Poetry of Pablo Neruda., ed. Ilan Stavans,” The New York Review of Books (September25, 2003), available at Javous Arcades Project (Monday, May 9th, 2011), http://javous308.blogspot.com.au/2011/05/poetry-in-unlikely-places.html

Iain Sinclair, 70 x 70: Unlicensed Preaching: A Life Unpacked in 70 Films (London: Volcano Publications, 2014)

Susan Sontag, “Century of Cinema,” in Parnassus Poetry in Review: The Movie Issue Vol 22, 1-2 (New York: Herbert Leibowitz, 1997): 23-29

32nd Telluride Film Festival Program (September 1-5, 2005)

40th Telluride Film Festival Program (August 29-September 2, 2013)

David Thomson, “Interview with Robert Birnbaum,” Identity Theory, available at: http://identitytheory.com/people/birnbaum82.html

New Double Issue launch on 10 April!

Contrappasso Double Issue, April 2015

Contrappasso Double Issue, April 2015

*

Roll camera…

Contrappasso starts its 4th year with a DOUBLE ISSUE.

Writers at the Movies, edited by Matthew Asprey Gear and guest Noel King, brings together many kinds of artists who have been captivated by film: its imagery, history, personalities and political edge. Across essays, fiction, poetry, interviews and photography, the contributors are James Franco, Emmanuel Mouret, Sarah Berry, Barry Gifford, Michael Atkinson, Luc Sante, R. Zamora Linmark, Richard Lowenstein, Anthony May, Michael Eaton, Jon Lewis, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Scott Simmon, Clive Sinclair and the late, great Richard Hugo.

Companion issue Contrappasso #8 takes the journal’s adventures in international writing further and wider, with its biggest selection of new fiction and poetry, from nine countries.

There’s an interview with Filipino authors F. H. Batacan and Andrea Pasion-Flores, plus stories by Pasion-Flores, US authors Rick DeMarinis and Kent Harrington and, in a Contrappasso first, a long-overdue translation of Argentine modernist author Roberto Arlt (with translator Lucas Lyndes)…

…plus the most poetry in any Contrappasso issue, with work by Nicaragua’s Blanca Castellón (translated by New Zealand’s Roger Hickin), Spain’s Alicia Aza (translated by J. Kates), China’s Lu Ye and Geng Xiang (translated by Ouyang Yu), New Zealand’s Kerrin P. Sharpe and Mary Macpherson, the UK’s Bill Adams and Richard Berengarten, the USA’s Floyd Salas and J. Kates, and Australia’s Elias Greig, Philip Hammial, Travis McKenna, Sascha Morrell, Tony Page, Sarah Rice, Frank Russo, Page Sinclair, Alex Skovron, Paolo Totaro, Lyn Vellins, Luke Whitington – and one of the last poems by the late, much-missed Morris Lurie.

This Contrappasso DOUBLE ISSUE presents the most writers so far, across the widest range of fields.

And… cut.

from issue #6: An Interview with Jose Dalisay

dalisay

MUCH OF MY OWN FICTIONAL WORK HAS DEALT WITH LOW LIFE:

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.

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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.

SoledadCover

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.

from issue #1: ‘An Interview with James Crumley’

ALWAYS LOOKIN’ FOR A BOOK, LOOKIN’ FOR A TITLE:
AN INTERVIEW WITH JAMES CRUMLEY

Noel King

Missoula, Montana
21st September 2005

KING: Could you say something while I check the sound level is OK and I’m getting it clearly?

CRUMLEY: It’s September 21st, the last day of summer in Missoula, Montana, and I can see the snow in the future!

KING: Your latest book, The Right Madness (2005), takes its title from a Richard Hugo poem, “The Right Madness on Skye,” and a much earlier book, The Last Good Kiss (1978) took its title from some lines in another Hugo poem, “Degrees of Grey in Philipsburg.”

CRUMLEY: I get all my good titles from Hugo poems.

KING: Was there any particular reason for you to return to Hugo poetry references after thirty-some years?

CRUMLEY: The Right Madness is a book I started back in 1975, somewhere back in there, and I was looking for a title. You know, I’m always lookin’ for a book, lookin’ for a title. And I was goin’ through my Hugo collection and somehow that last stanza of “The Right Madness on Skye,” where the poet plays dead, somehow that stanza and the idea that in my book the shrink was going to play dead, got the book going for me. I started the book so long ago that I was still playin’ Flag football instead of softball! I always think it’s a kind of homage to use somebody’s line of poetry or a line from a book as a title. I already had my own voice when I met Dick, because I had half of my first novel done, but I’m sure that the way he handled language and his approach to poetry influenced my approach somewhat. You can’t deny influences. And I love “Skye.”

KING: Did you make a research trip to Scotland for this novel?

CRUMLEY: No. I went to see Dick on Skye when The Wrong Case (1975) came out, and I went back seventeen years later, after Dick was dead, just to go. I didn’t know then that I was going to write this book. I never know when I’m going to write a book! Skye is just one of those places that helps you understand why some of the Celtic twilight myths are like they are. Some of that shit makes you think about magic. So long as you don’t have to believe in it, I guess it’s OK.

KING: Hugo says he started his mystery novel, Death and the Good Life, on Skye, so that’s a nice overlap.

In the prefatory section for The Right Madness you explain that you had a heart operation while writing the book, and thank medical staff, your wife Martha, and other friends for helping you come through it. How far into the novel were you when you had the heart operation?

CRUMLEY: I was about half way through and Martha was out of town, away at a conference. I was mostly layin’ around the house, watching TV and reading. I hadn’t been out much, hadn’t been carousing, and I noticed when I was taking a shower that I was suddenly short of breath. And getting in the car turned out to be a job. I got to the airport to collect Martha and as I was walking back to the car I told her something was wrong. She told me I should go to the doctor immediately, so I went the next day, a Monday, and I guess it was another week and I went into hospital. They couldn’t get the fluid out of my system. My heart and lungs were completely full of fluid and by the time I did go to the hospital the CO2 in my blood was like 70%, which is supposed to drive you insane. There was this wonderful charge nurse in the ER who said, well Mr Crumley, I might have to put you on a ventilator. And I said, what if I don’t want to be on a ventilator? And she said, well, in two or three hours you’re gonna turn blue, and two or three days later you’ll be dead. So I said, OK! It was kind of an unsatisfactory experience because they never found out what really happened. And also, this whole notion of cutting a hole in my heart sheath to let the fluid drip out struck me as silly. In hospital, the nurses are the ones who keep you alive. The hardest part was getting over the paralytics they give you to keep you still when you’re getting the ventilator put in. Those paralytics are tremendously raucous drugs, and they gave me some of the wildest hallucinations I’ve ever had. But a lot of people stood up and helped me at that time, took care of things, because we were on benefit money for about eight months or so.

KING: With The Right Madness you moved from Mysterious Press to Viking. What kind of deal is it?

CRUMLEY: It’s just a couple book deal.

KING: You have your two successful, much-loved characters, Milo and Sughrue, in their separate series, and together in Bordersnakes. How do you know if you are into a Milo or a Sughrue book?

CRUMLEY: I pretty much let the book decide, whichever voice comes up. The Final Country had to be a Milo book. I wanted Milo to go to Texas. And this one, The Right Madness, was always a Sughrue book, I don’t know why. It’s not always clear cut, it usually takes me 100 pages to figure out what the hell’s going on and whether I’m going to finish a book.

KING: Can you provide some time-line information here? The Crumley fan buys a book in 2001, The Final Country, which derives from a much earlier time. You once referred to The Muddy Fork as ‘the endless Texas book I never finished’. How long had The Final Country, been gestating, bumping around in there?

CRUMLEY: A long time! But this process goes way back. At one time The Last Good Kiss was a Milo book, the go-back-to-Texas book. At that time I wanted out of my teaching job and my agent said, ‘this book is more movieable than any of your others.’ And so it became a Sughrue book.

KING: I gather in part that has to do with ownership of the character once a book is sold to Hollywood. You mentioned that you have now given the movie option on The Last Good Kiss to a young person.

CRUMLEY: It’s with this kid, Justin, who worked for Jerry Bruckheimer for years, doing all this stuff, like running a hockey tournament. His father was a student up here, and he gave him a copy of The Last Good Kiss, and by using Bruckheimer’s name Justin was able to get into the files at Warner’s, which not even my agent could get into! And he found out that the rights to The Last Good Kiss had reverted to me in 1998 or 1999. And he said, ‘Let me flog this around, see what I can do.’ So I gave it to him for a dollar. I guess it was two and one-half years later he found someone who said he was tired of seeing John Woo movies, and said this looked like a movie movie. It just seemed like a better chance for it to be made into a movie instead of a piece of Hollywood shit.

KING: You’ve had a lot of dealings with Hollywood over the years, ranging from stalled adaptations of your own books—I’m thinking of the myriad detours of Dancing Bear which saw it go from Tim Hunter to eventually wind up with Robert Towne—and you have also written screenplays. What opinions have you formed about Hollywood after these many years of contact?

CRUMLEY: If you back up into a room in Hollywood with your britches down and something odd happens to you, it’s not their fault!

KING: That’s a nice modification on Raymond Chandler’s comment that one should always wear one’s second best suit in Hollywood. You’ve moved it along to not wearing any trousers!

CRUMLEY: I don’t know how to live in a world where there are people who will sign contracts and then say, ‘I didn’t mean that at all.’ I signed a contract with a guy to do a script from a book I really liked, Yellowfish, about smuggling Chinese. The contract had gone between lawyers and agents and been signed and suddenly, not only does this guy not call me but his office phone has been disconnected. Using some of my less reputable friends I discovered where the guy is. He’s staying with somebody out in Malibu and I called the number and he happened to pick up. And I said, ‘look dipshit, I don’t mind you lying to me, I’m a writer, writers lie all the time, but you also lied to my agent and he’s my friend. So if you don’t call him up this afternoon and apologise I’m going to be on the next plane to LA and break your goddamn legs.’ And he believed me! So he called up my agent and apologised. So that part’s right, it’s fixed up.

Six years later I meet the guy in a bar at Chateau Marmont and he acts like we’re old buddies. So I have to take him aside and say, ‘remember I’m the guy who said he would break your legs, I might have killed you. You have to remember that I meant that and I still mean that, so you’d better get away from me.’ Greed is an ugly emotion. I can’t believe there are people who are like that. They do it all the time in Hollywood. I’ve gotten so I won’t eat with them any more. Every dinner meeting is the same. First you talk about how radical you were in the 60s. Then you get to the part where the cake and coffee are gone and then you talk about the deal. I won’t do any of that. I won’t take breakfast, I won’t take lunch, I won’t take dinner. Do it in the office. It’s a business, and if the chances are good, your lawyer ought to be there too.

KING: Montana now has a fair number of film people living in it, full-time or on a regular basis. I think Wim Wenders shot some of Don’t Come Knocking (2005) in Montana.

CRUMLEY: There’s enough crew in Montana to mount a $25 million movie in a weekend, with just a Montana crew. But I think people who live in Montana live here because they’re attracted to this kind of life, not that kind of life. Jim Cottsdale lives down in Hamilton and Jake Eberts, who produced A River Runs Through It, still lives in Livingston. A long time ago somebody said, everything in America would be better if it weren’t centred in one place. Publishing would be better if it weren’t all in New York, automobile manufacturing would be better if it were all over the country, instead of only in Detroit. I think that’s fair. At least in Montana when you start whining about the movie business you can usually find someone to commiserate with you.

KING: You were mentioning the book tour for The Right Madness. What cities did that involve?

CRUMLEY: It was two nights in San Francisco, and one night in LA, mostly in traffic jams, thirty-six hours in Mississippi, Phoenix, Arizona when it was 109 degrees, and Denver and Boulder in Colorado.

KING: Do you like doing book tours?

CRUMLEY: Nobody likes doing them, you just do them. I took my wife Martha along. We had a good time, we got to eat well, and saw old friends. The last night, in Denver, we sort of wandered into a restaurant in the street down from our hotel, and ran into an old friend of mine who makes low budget movies. So we had a nice meal, a $100 bottle of wine, the waiter joined us! He wanted to be a stand-up comic. That part of it is always fun. It’s just that I’m too old for this stuff. I was always too old.

KING: ‘You were born old,’ as they say of Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life.

CRUMLEY: I was born with a moustache.

KING: Last time we spoke you mentioned that you had enjoyed a book tour of England, going to London and Manchester and other cities. You didn’t tour England with this book?

CRUMLEY: When I went last time I split the expenses with the publisher. It was mostly just an excuse to go to England. Whoever did The Final Country in England, this time Harper Collins beat them by a thousand per cent, so I figured it was time to move on.

KING: When we last talked we mentioned the French documentary made on you, and the publication of a corrected French translation of The Last Good Kiss, which fixed up an earlier version called The Drunken Dog.

CRUMLEY: That first translation was so bad that a ‘topless bar’ became a ‘bar without a roof.’

KING: What other languages are you translated into? Have you been translated into German?

CRUMLEY: They’re not too interested in me. The only time I’ve been in an overseas best-seller list was when The Last Good Kiss was retranslated and published in Italy. It had a pink cover with a broad in a bikini on the front and it was number 5 on the list of best-selling translated novels. The Right Madness is coming out in Italian.

KING: In part I was asking because we now have presses like Europa, Bitter Lemon, Serpent’s Tail, Harvill, all busily translating into English crime fiction from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain, Cuba, Mexico, South America and so on. I was wondering about movement the other way.

CRUMLEY: Most of my books are in Greek, and in Finnish.

KING: Maybe Aki Kaurismaki or his brother Mika will film one of your books!

CRUMLEY: One of the great sculptures in Montana is by a Finn, a guy named Rudy Autio, from Butte, who Peter Voulkes and the other guy found in the brickyards. So he goes to Finland quite often, and he does things like tiled walls for Japanese people who send over a 747 to pick the stuff up; they truck it to Spokane.

KING: You have mentioned that you enjoy the play with literary language as a crucial part of delivering your crime fictions.

CRUMLEY: If the language isn’t any fun, there’s no sense in writing the book. Stories come and stories go, but good language lasts forever.

KING: You have also said you enjoy working playful and flamboyant dialogue into some of your screenwriting work.

CRUMLEY: I have two favourite lines in this last movie I worked on. “I’d rather suck a wino’s sock than eat a lizard,” and “I’d sure hate killing you but I wouldn’t mind blowing your toes off.” I could have had a lot more fun like that if the producer and director had left me alone. They were just idiots. It was a rich girl wantin’ to make a movie for her friends, it was a dead deal from the start.

KING: I see you have continued to blurb some book that you like or some books by people you like. I enjoyed what you said about Daniel Woodrell’s Woe To Live On – “Woodrell knows wonderful and funny and degenerate things that speak to the best of the human soul in the worst of circumstances.”

CRUMLEY: I figure that when someone does you a nice favour when you are a kid, you don’t owe them back the favour, you owe it to the next kid who comes along. So I take time over those things. The last book I blurbed was a book about a soldier in Baghdad, a memoir about a kid who kept getting deployed, and  deployed. It’s called The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell, and it’s a book with no bullshit about it, no heroics, just about doin’ the job, and the true toll that George Bush Jr’s little fuckin’ misadventure is costing our kids. This last book I blurbed came about because my editor has an editor friend at the same conglomerate, I think it’s Riverhead Press, and so it came in the mail, and I was overpowered by it. When I really like a book I take some time and try to come up with something right, I try to figure out what the essence of the book is and then I try to say something that means something.

KING: So how do Scott Phillips, Craig Holden and Daniel Woodrell come to be blurbed by you?

CRUMLEY: I’ve known Scott for a long time…

KING: Not like you knew Craig Holden, who says he used to mow your lawn.

CRUMLEY: Craig was a graduate student here. He used to house-sit for me. His first book was really terrific.

KING: The River Sorrow. I thought it was really good, and I didn’t understand why Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan, also a very good book which became a good Sam Raimi film, would be so readily adapted by Hollywood and The River Sorrow ignored. At that time I think Hollywood was trying not to depict drugs explicitly in its films so maybe The River Sorrow fell by the wayside for that reason. It was around that time that Bright Lights, Big City was adapted and it had problems with working out how to depict cocaine addiction in a restrained, acceptable manner. But you blurbed Craig’s next book, The Last Sanctuary.

CRUMLEY: About the religious people. I didn’t think anybody else understood that book. Again, I thought it was a terrific book. It’s not work to blurb terrific books. But mostly, my blurbing, it’s just accidental stuff. I’m not sure how I came to blurb Pelecanos, maybe it was because his editor was trying to get him to have a cross-over book. George is one of my favourite people and I just love those books of his. I got to interview George in the Bahamas once, and I liked what he said about Shoedog. It was written to be the kind of book a working man could put in his pocket and read in his lunch hour. He has all the great titles. Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go! George is a terrific guy and I just love those books, all that information about music and cars! I’m the kind of pinhead who likes the cytology chapter of Moby Dick, I like information. So I’ve been reading George steadily since I first discovered him. Maybe it was Dennis (McMillan) who put me on to him.

KING: Well, Pelecanos returned the blurb favour with a beautiful, and true, description of The Final Country. How did you and Scott Phillips come to meet?

CRUMLEY: I met Scott when I was working in L.A., staying at The Sportsman’s Lodge in the Valley. Scott was trying to break into the screenwriting business, and he was staying with his aunt who lived not too far away. We met in a bar at The Sportsman’s Lodge and spent some time together. Then he went back to Paris and I saw him in Paris several times. I’d never seen anything he’d written until The Ice Harvest.

There’s a guy over there (in The Depot), Mike Lancaster, sitting in the corner, I’ve known for five years or so. He came up the other day and said he’d finished a novel, would I take a look at it. I said yes. You see, I have a deal in this town, for a six pack of beer, I will read 20 pages, as long as I don’t have to take it home. I won’t put it on my desk, I won’t keep it, I’ll read it and tell you what I think. It’s amazing how few people take me up on it!

KING: Well, in the posthumous Hugo collection The Real West Marginal Way, Bill Kittredge says he had a friend who used to demand, in the 1970s, that he get at least $5.95 for a poem because that was then the price of a bottle of Jim Beam, and a poem had to be worth as much as that.

CRUMLEY: The other thing is, I won’t read anyone’s novel, friends excluded, for less than $5,000, and it’s $10,000 if I say anything about it. I don’t want to spend my time doing that, I didn’t get into this business to be a teacher, although I enjoyed that when I did it for a while. I used to tell my students that if you write seriously, and you take it seriously, and even if you fail, you will walk differently the rest of your life. And if you have any luck you will know those people in your head better than you know your mother and father, your sister, children, wife. Those people live in your head.

KING: As Milo and Sughrue have been in yours for thirty years now, and you are letting them grow old across the books, and sometimes have quite inventive sex as they age!

CRUMLEY: Sex is just for fun. What the hell, old people get to rock! That reminds me of a friend who had a wonderful poem about leaving old people alone so they could fuck. With Milo and Sughrue, I know it’s not the usual way it happens in a lot of crime fiction, but I let the guys grow old. I always think of Milo as the best part of myself and Sughrue as the mean redneck part of myself. In my head, they’re two distinct characters and I happen to know them better than the other fifteen thousand characters that live in my head. With their aging, well, unfortunately it’s a lot like life, the outcome is often unpleasant, you get old and die, and disappear. That’s such a frightening prospect that millions of people spend millions of hours trying to make up some kind of version of life where you get out of it alive! But that’s not true, you don’t get out alive so you might as well try to have some fun this time because there ain’t gonna be no next time.

KING: You only get to go around once…

CRUMLEY: Isn’t that a Schlitz commercial!? I’m not kidding about having those characters in my head. I sit here (at the Depot) in this chair and watch people walk past, and look at their shoes. I never write about shoes, but shoes help create character. When I was first writing I used to do fifty pages of extensive notes to get a character to come to life. But it’s  just the luck of the draw. I’ve always had a knack for the organisation of the written word, and a knack for character, mostly because I’m a psychotic! Most people like me would be institutionalised. I haven’t been institutionalised for many years. I went into therapy about twenty years ago. It was a terrific experience and what I know about therapy is that nobody actually knows why it works. This nice middle-aged woman somehow magically, it seemed like magic, in the space of six to eight months, stopped this endless anger that I’d had for so many years. I used to hate bein’ smart. Into my 30s I would still get drunk and feel bad and beat my head on the board. Luckily I have big bones so I never hurt myself. I hated being smart as a kid, I’d get picked on, and that’s how I learned to kick ass and take names. That’s why I like living in Missoula. It’s so much easier to live in a town with smart people. I read a wonderful essay recently by this Harvard professor, “Democracy and Anti-Intellectualism in America”, and it’s a really wonderful description of why rednecks hate us. We take shit seriously that they don’t think about and we laugh at shit that they take seriously, that’s a bad crib but it’s a wonderful essay.

KING: On you and Texas, there seems to be a long, continuing ambivalence on your part.

CRUMLEY: When I was a kid it was in the constitution that you couldn’t speak Spanish in school, except in Spanish class. Now what does that tell the 65% Mexican Spanish speaking populace of my hometown? It tells you you’re a second class citizen. We hear a lot of idiot talk about freedom but this is a tremendously racist country, always has been.

KING: You were saying that you start the day by reading The Guardian online, as I do. I like it for lots of reasons but one is that it offers perspectives on international issues one doesn’t always find in Australian, or US journalism. I like the London Review of Books for similar reasons.

CRUMLEY: I read The Guardian every day. I don’t know how somebody starts with my background and decides there’s something European about them! This started really early on. I remember coming back from the Philippines and arguing with my dad’s bosses about idiotic religious shit. That’s when I thought I was an agnostic, or more a committed atheist. Back around 1955 I played in one of the first integrated football games in the state of Texas, the reason being that we were playing at the Corpus Christi College Academy, which was the Catholic school, and they couldn’t play on Friday, they had to play on Thursday. We had only integrated because the county had run out of money to run the bus for black kids. This was also during the “one riot, one ranger” line in Cleburne, Texas, a riot about integration. Texas still is not a pleasant place in all of its nooks and crannies. As for writing, something happened to me somewhere along the way, I don’t know exactly what it was. My folks didn’t read but I always read books. I never imagined writing one until I was about twenty-five, I guess.

KING: And you just happened to get into the best creative writing program in the country.

CRUMLEY: They’d let anybody in! I couldn’t get in now! So much of it is luck, but first you have to be talented and then you have to be willing to work really hard. That’s one of the things where I really had an advantage. I was the kind of kid who would keep rewriting, I would rewrite until I felt I liked it. For me, that’s when the good things happen, in the rewrites. You go back to a scene and discover a thing that you missed. Maybe it’s just an aside or maybe it’s just another way to look at it, but for me rewriting has always been the good part. But it’s also the hard part and it’s also one of the reasons I’m such a slow writer.

KING: And many contemporary publishers are keen to have writers deliver books every couple of years.

CRUMLEY: A local writer wrote very tight, readable books, and then she got married, had a baby and moved to North Carolina. She said, “I don’t want to write a book every two years,” and I thought, what a good, brave woman she is!

KING: You have been around the publishing industry for almost forty years now. Do you have any comments on how it is at the moment?

CRUMLEY: I never knew how to deal with publishers until I worked in Hollywood. I treat New York publishers exactly like I treat Hollywood executives. I have no respect for them, it’s all in the cheque, let me see the goddamn money, money talks, bullshit walks. Just in the last two to three years I’ve watched Jon Jackson, Neil McMann, George Pelecanos and they’ve all lost their publishers, they’re orphaned, gone, they didn’t sell enough books. The only reason I’ve managed to avoid that is because I have a reputation, it’s not because of sales. I found out, sort of by accident, that I was the only genre book that my editor was doing last year. She’s new to me, Molly Hollister at Viking, we’ve never met, she’s terrifically hard-working, and it’s quite nice to see an editor who works hard. It would have been better if we had known one another, face to face, that kind of thing. The relationship between you and your editor is a bit like a marriage in that there has to be some give and take and there have to be some places beyond which you cannot go.

KING: Have your experiences of being edited by different people across all your books over the years yielded any ideas about what is constant and what changes?

CRUMLEY: Each has been different. When I finished my first novel (One to Count Cadence) they wanted to cut 160 pages out of it. You know, that’s just not right. I won that one. You have to be willing to listen, you have to deal with these people, they have to deal with their group. I mean, you want your editor to be on your side at the meetings because that’s what it takes to get a book into a salesman’s hands, because the salesman are just salesman, they’re not necessarily book readers. You just have to know when to bow your neck and resist, and when to say, OK, I’ll take another look at it. I’ve always thought that because editors have never had to teach creative writing, they don’t know how to talk to writers about what maybe should happen next. They just know that something’s wrong and they want to fix it. They don’t necessarily know how to fix it.

KING: So you trust their sense that something isn’t working?

CRUMLEY: You trust it to some extent, you have to be willing to look at it again. I always run into this shit because I don’t explain things. I’m difficult to edit but I can be edited.

KING: Does Martha read the works in progress?

CRUMLEY: She can spell, I can’t spell.

KING: Well, they say Scott Fitzgerald couldn’t spell and Hemingway could spell a little better.

CRUMLEY: That’s what Hemingway said! Martha is a good writer and a poet and I trust her judgment. Like I was saying earlier about the Texas book, Martha was the one who talked me out of killing Milo. For some reason it was going to be the Milo book when he died and it wasn’t like, ‘oh honey, here’s a beer, could you think of not killing Milo,’ it was more, ‘maybe you don’t have to decide right now.’ I heard this story about Philip Roth years ago in graduate school who would take whatever he’d written that day, and read it to his wife, and then read it to his mistress. This is not what we do! Martha reads my stuff. Anyone who’s got the guts to marry me, at my age, my fifth time, at her age… She’s also a smartass.

KING: Well, keep those characters alive for a while yet. Your readers love them and want them to continue about their business. Don’t kill them off for a while.

CRUMLEY: Well, in the screenplay for The Last Good Kiss, the dog does not die. The last shot is the poet going out the door, he steps over the dog’s foot, and Fireball has hold of Trahearne’s pants as he’s trying to get away.

KING: Can you say something about how you are finding Missoula now? You have lived here for over thirty years and have seen it grow and change.

CRUMLEY: Well, this is my home. It’s doubled in size since I moved here. You walk past the pawn shops and see what seems like acres of drills and saws, the stuff that shit is made out of, and it’s all in the pawn shops because there’s no basic industry which brings everything together. There’s mining and timber, the motherfuckers would cut down every goddamn tree and blow up every hill. I mean, a football field of rock run through acid will turn up enough gold for a wedding ring. If they’re prepared to do that, there’s something very wrong. This isn’t cattle country, even though I like the way the cattle tastes out here better than back in cattle country. They grow more cows in Georgia than they do in the seven western states, they grow more trees in Georgia than they harvest in the seven western states. The scenery is lovely here and the people are great. We played Vermont or New Hampshire in the playoffs last year and some woman said, the scenery is spectacular and the people are ridiculously polite. In that way it’s kind of a southern town. It’s a very good town to live in, and there are so many writers here. It’s not just the people I know, my personal friends, it’s like there’s another whole body of writers here that nobody knows, but who work here.

KING: What are you reading at the moment?

CRUMLEY: I’m 66 next month and what has happened this last year is that I can no longer read without my glasses on. This has been a terrible discovery. It’s really bitten into my reading. What used to take me three days now takes me three weeks, so I don’t read like I used to. I mostly read what people tell me they like, and I read a lot of history, mostly because I know people are always lyin’ about the history.

* * * * *

Works Cited

In Richard Hugo, Making Certain it Goes On: The Collected Poems  (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1991); “The Right Madness on Skye”; “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg.”

In Richard Hugo, The Real West Marginal Way: A Poet’s Autobiography ed. Ripley S. Hugo, Lois Welch and James Welch  (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1986) Hugo says, “Also got a mystery novel out of it (going to Skye) because I wrote the first drafts of the mystery novel there.” (258)

A transcript of Noel King’s 1996 interview with James Crumley is at Day Labor, the official blog of Crime Factory magazine.

© 2012 Noel King

from Contrappasso Magazine #1, August 2012

James Crumley in conversation (exclusive audio)

Here are three never-before-heard audio clips from Noel King’s 2005 interview with crime writer James Crumley in which he discusses his relationship to editors, the Hollywood jungle, and his respect for writer George Pelecanos.

The full interview transcript will appear here tomorrow, and is also available in Issue #1 of Contrappasso Magazine in paperback or ebook. Enjoy.

from issue #1: ‘Meeting James Crumley’ by Noel King

Noel King’s final 2005 interview with the late crime writer James Crumley will appear here tomorrow, but first King remembers the man.

MEETING JAMES CRUMLEY by NOEL KING

I

In late May 1996 I drove up out of Wyoming, through the top left hand corner of Yellowstone National Park, past the icy beauty of the Grand Tetons, into Montana, the place they call “the last good place.” After a drizzly day driving interstate 90 I arrived early one evening in Missoula, hometown of James Crumley, self-described “bastard child of Raymond Chandler,” and a writer whose most recent novel, The Mexican Tree Duck (1993) broke a ten year silence, sold forty thousand in hardback and won the Dashiell Hammett Award for Best Literary Crime Novel from the International Association of Crime Writers.

Missoula is so full of writers that French television makes documentaries about it. No-one knows why writers come to Montana in general and Missoula in particular, least of all the writers. Crumley suggested they could be attracted to the primeval mud deposited beneath the town. Aside from Crumley, Bill Kittredge and native American writer James Welch lived there, James Lee Burke had recently settled there, staying part of each year Richard Ford had lived there until a few years earlier, David Lynch was raised there, and the wonderful poet Richard Hugo lived there until his death in 1982.

A little north of Missoula are stunning wilderness areas: Glacier National Park beckons and Flathead Lake will keep you looking admiringly for quite a while. Native American sites are nearby, Flathead Indian Reservation and Blackfeet Indian Reservation, and a half-day drive in any direction on the smaller roads will take you through mountains, past meadows, clear rivers and streams, through the small towns and a landscape of beautiful emptiness captured with elegiac affection in Hugo’s poems and Crumley’s novels.

Although I had been drawn to Missoula by Crumley’s writing, on a kind of literary skip-trace, I wasn’t expecting to meet him. I figured he’d be in Hollywood doing screenplays; his novels had been gift enough and the epigraph for one of them, The Last Good Kiss (1978) guided me to Hugo’s poetry (“You might come here Sunday on a whim/Say your life broke down/The last good kiss you had was years ago”) so I owed him that as well.

Later that first evening, sitting in The Depot, a bar-restaurant at the bottom end of the town, near the old railway, I was finishing a nice meal and drinking nice wine, musing that the statuesque clean-scrubbed beauty of the barmaids and waitresses was another reason to call Montana the “last good place,” when a happy, noisy group of six or seven people settled at the table next to mine, one of those high off the ground tables with stool-chairs. They’d come from the restaurant proper and were continuing to smoke, drink and chat. One member of their party had his back to me, a large, powerful torso gentrified into a blue-striped Brooks Brothers shirt. Even though one never means to eavesdrop, conversation carries in those contexts, and I kept hearing the phrase “dancing bear” moving in and out of the conversation. After a while I called over the tall beauty who’d been looking after my food and drink needs and told her I’d heard that phrase, that it was the title of a book by a guy called James Crumley who lived in Missoula, was he one of the people at the table? “Sure, that’s him there,” pointing at the Brooks Brothers shirt.

Immediate problem. How big a dag do you want to make of yourself? Answer, who cares? You’re a long way from home. So I waited until the table had thinned to just the blocky, bearded Crumley and another bearded offsider. The waitress paved the way for me to their table and next thing I’m drinking and chatting with the man whose writing caused me to be in a bar in Missoula in the first place. After talking for half an hour we arranged to meet late afternoon the next day to go to a bar and then do an interview at his place in Whitaker Drive in the hills above Missoula before I headed off to other parts of Montana.

Crumley’s account of his decade’s literary silence was simple: “Shit, man, it just wasn’t happening.” What was happening was a collection of short fictional pieces, novel fragments and journalism (The Muddy Fork) and a series of unproduced screenplays of some of his own novels (The Last Good Kiss, Dancing Bear) and other adaptations (Ellroy’s The Big Nowhere, Judge Dredd). Writing unproduced screenplays can be a lucrative business but it can also be dispiriting: the work is not out there in public circulation.

Even before he went silent for that ten year period, Crumley had not been a prolific writer. His reputation as the finest American crime writer since Chandler was based on three books written across an eight year period: The Wrong Case (1975), The Last Good Kiss (1978) and Dancing Bear (1983). Rock and roll magazines and sophisto rags like The Village Voice had always liked Crumley’s writing but his cult reputation was given a literary imprimatur when Harper’s magazine announced, “What Raymond Chandler did for the Los Angeles of the thirties, James Crumley does for the roadside West of today.” The entry on Crumley in The Encyclopaedia of Crime and Mystery Writers gives a lively sense of his fictional world. “What makes his books live in the reader’s mind and blood is the accumulation of small, crazy encounters, full of confusion and muddley disorder and despair. What one remembers about them is the graphic violence and sweetly casual sex, the coke-snorting and alcohol guzzling, the endless drives through mountain snowscapes and long pit stops at seedy back woods bars, the sympathetic outcasts—psycho Viet vets, Indians, gentle hippies, rumdrums, and love-seekers. He can move us to accept the dregs of the race as our brothers and sisters, to feel the rape of the earth; in short he can write scenes that seem never to have been written before.” The same entry sees the prevailing mood of the books as “wacked out post-Vietnam empathy with all sorts of dopers, dropouts, losers and loonies.”

The Vietnam reference is important. Crumley said that his fiction is as close to the writing of Robert Stone (Dog Soldiers) as it is to any models of detective fiction, and his first novel, One to Count Cadence (1969) was one of the earliest of the “Vietnam” fictions (its reference was the Korean war) that would become such a significant sub-genre in post-1960s American novel and film. References to Vietnam continue across Crumley’s later novels and he told The Armchair Detective that Vietnam was the lie that ruined America. “Most all of my adult male friends were Vietnam vets. About everybody who went to that war came back changed. I don’t think anything has happened in this country since the war that’s not somehow related to it.”

Cadence sold well for a first novel, received good reviews and was bought by Hollywood, temporarily and unexpectedly moving Crumley into a very un-first-novelist tax bracket. There was a six year wait between first and second novel, time for two marriages and divorces and time for a genre shift to detective fiction. The next book came after Crumley’s first stint in Missoula and after meeting Richard Hugo. “Dick was integral to my crime-writing life because he turned me on to Chandler. He couldn’t believe I’d never read any.” They were chatting one day and Hugo expressed his admiration for Chandler’s writing, prompting Crumley to read some on a trip to Mexico. What attracted him to Chandler’s writing was “mostly the fact that it was really wonderful, fun writing; the general sense of fun, the sentences were fun, and that appealed to me. As far as crime writers go, I guess I was inspired by Nicolas Freeling and Raymond Chandler; they’re the two disparate ends of my scale.”

Crumley began writing his first detective novel, The Wrong Case, against the genre only to find himself captivated by it. It remained his favourite novel and his fondness for the book was a fondness for its central character, the hugely engaging figure of Milton Chester Milodragovitch III, a 39 year old veteran of Korea, former police officer in the small Montana town of Meriwether, now working as a private eye. Milo, as he is known, comes from a wealthy Meriwether family but owing to his mother’s perverse will he can’t get at his inheritance money until he turns 52. Given how much drinking and drugging Milo engages in, it’s line-ball whether he’ll make it to inheritance day. Milo’s weary gloom is further explained by the fact that he is the son of two suicides. His father was a womanising dipsomaniac who died in a shooting “accident” while his mother hanged herself in a “fancy alcoholic retreat in Arizona.” Coming from that gene pool, nearing middle-age, being lied to and deceived by most of the people with whom he comes into contact, it’s no wonder that Milo muses much on the fragility of humankind, meeting the world with a beneficent sadness occasionally alleviated by falling in love with the wrong woman. A reader soon understands why Milo would find “even the simplest life was too complex.”

By the time of Dancing Bear Milo is older and a bit sadder, 47, working night shifts for Haliburton Security and keeping the world at bay by doing lots of cocaine and drinking lots of peppermint schnapps. In 1985 Newsweek ran a feature story on the then-and-still-booming world of crime and mystery writing, singling the character of Milo out for particular praise: “He seems to have wandered into the thriller world from a Jack Kerouac pipe dream.” Accolades also came from distinguished peers such as Elmore Leonard. When he reviewed Dancing Bear Leonard had been clean and sober for about six years, and he marvelled at Milo’s capacity for self-destruction. “Milo hits enough lines of cocaine before the last page to tear his nose off. Drinks enough alcohol to explode a healthy liver. But there’s enough energy in Crumley’s writing to keep the reader rooting for Milton Chester Milodragovitch III all the way. There is the hope his reward will be, at the least, detoxification. So he can come back again, soon.”

Dancing Bear earned a different sort of praise by being issued as one of the first package of Vintage Contemporaries (organised by Gary Fisketjon) which saw Crumley placed alongside Raymond Carver (Cathedral) and Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City). Vintage followed up by bringing out a uniform edition of all Crumley’s novels.

Dancing Bear opens with a comic sequence in which a hung-over postman wakes a hung-over Milo and tries to get him to sign for a letter. It is early winter and the postie is wearing ill-fitting shorts and a short-sleeved shirt because his wife has hurled out all of his clothes after an argument. An absurd wrestling match starts and ends when Milo’s neighbour (and occasional bonk) turns a hose on the combatants. Cold, wet, they go inside to share a restorative drink. The letter is from a rich elderly woman who was once the lover of Milo’s father. In it she asks Milo to indulge an old friend by finding out all he can about a couple she has watched meet in the woods near her mansion. Of course, in detective fiction such requests are never what they seem and before long Milo is caught up in a complicated narrative involving drug smuggling and toxic waste despoliation of the north-west countryside, as he travels across the wintry landscapes of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Washington. Milo, Montana and winter form a funny triad. Milo is always dreaming of leaving Meriwether and Montana, a dream that crowds in on him every winter. He dreams of going south, maybe to Mexico, searching for “sunshine and simplicity.” But at the end of Dancing Bear, he only gets as far as California before turning back home, back “into the heart of one of the worst Montana winters in years.”

Crumley had no desire to leave Montana, having spent thirty years in Missoula since coming there to teach in the mid-1960s after getting an MA from the distinguished Iowa Writers Workshop. Over the years he made occasional sorties to LA for film work and El Paso for short-term teaching stints but most of the time was spent in Missoula, writing. Five times married, with five children and five grandchildren and alimony payments that no doubt helped to concentrate the mind wonderfully, Crumley said that he thought he was meant to live in Montana, that he needed empty spaces in his life.

His wife, Martha Elizabeth, is beautiful and a poet whom he said saved him from some Milo-like tendencies towards self-destruction. Martha was off visiting her mother in Richmond, Virginia as we chatted in his lounge-room in the house in Whitaker Drive in the hills south of Missoula, over a couple of six-packs of Labatt’s Blue. At least four cats prowled around the room, fretting for the absent Martha as the TV ran constantly on a sports channel and as background music was provided by the latest tapes of Los Lobos and Steve Earle. The tapes had been given to Crumley by John Williams who had been through town to do a piece on James Lee Burke. Williams has a vivid chapter on Crumley in Into the Badlands (1991), his book on American crime writers, in which he chases him through a series of bars in and around Missoula, winding up wasted and doing a lot of damage to a rental car. As Steve Earle sang, Crumley spoke of the attraction Missoula held for him.

Crumley was 5’ 10” and you could still see the footballer and oil-field worker in the strong body. You could also see the consequences of a lifetime’s attachment to alcohol, for Crumley is what the French call, politely, a “grand buveur.” He’d already told me that Missoula used to be a great bar town (“you used to be able to walk into a bar on Railroad Street and go out back doors, all the way down to the river without getting onto a sidestreet”) and he was straightforward about the relation between drinking and writing: “I’ve always been a hard drinker. My friends are all writers and writers seem to drink hard. The only writers I know who don’t drink destructively come out of a background where it was OK to be an intellectual.”

Crumley didn’t come from such a background and one could sense an uneasiness, still felt at age 57, at being a working-class Texan kid who somehow sneaked into the world of letters. Born in 1939 in Three Rivers, Texas, of Scotch-Irish descent, his father was an oilfield supervisor and Crumley also rough-necked for many years. At the end of the 1950s, after a short stint in the navy on a destroyer in the Atlantic, he shifted to do three years in the army, much of it in the Philippines. Several years of mixing study, football and rough-necking saw him receive a BA in History from Texas A & I. He’d planned to do a PhD in Soviet Studies at the University of Washington but was accepted into the famous Iowa Writers Workshop in 1964 (it was the time that Kurt Vonnegut and Nelson Algren taught there), supporting himself by tending bar and working as a janitor, getting his MA in 1966.

Crumley’s other series character, C. W. Sughrue (pronounced “‘sugh’ as in ‘sugar,’ and ‘rue’ as in ‘rue the goddamned day’”), extracted from a long-unfinished Texas novel, comes from a social locale quite different from Milo’s and shares some of the author’s bio-data. Sughrue appeared in 1978 in The Last Good Kiss, the book that started all the buzz about Crumley being the best thing since Chandler, and he reappeared fifteen years later in The Mexican Tree Duck. Sughrue is Texan, working-class, ex-Vietnam and this was my alibi for asking Crumley if he thought of himself as a displaced Texan. “Well, I was always displaced. I was born in Texas but we went to New Mexico during WW2. We didn’t move back to Texas until I was in the second grade. The part of Texas where I lived is the last place where there’s a great clash between the white minority and the Mexican American majority, where people are still race conscious in a really silly way. It’s an unhappy kind of place, it’s hot and humid, and the wind blows nine months out of the year. It was never a place that I was ever going back to once I left, although circumstances have forced me back a couple of times. I don’t think of myself as a Texan, I’ve discovered that I’m not actually a Southerner, I just thought I was a Southerner.”

Although Crumley’s reputation in the crime genre is somewhere between the cult and the revered senior practitioner, his writing puzzled critics by sitting between genre writing and more literary writing and by mixing laughter and violence in a way the Coen brothers would admire. “I think I confuse people. I’m not writing detective novels and I’m not writing literary novels, and nobody knows what to do with them. That’s a problem I don’t I have at all in foreign markets. In Germany and Italy I’m in a crime series, in England I’m in Picador, a perfectly legitimate literary press. Now the Italians are bringing my books out in hardback after I had been out in cheap paperbacks; the Greeks have just discovered me. The French have always been very good to me, they put me up in nice places, feed me well, put me on TV with Randy Newman.”

The books that had been important to him over the years make for a very literary list. “Dick Yates’s Revolutionary Road was a big book for me. Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet was a really big book in my life, then Fitzgerald and Faulkner, Under the Volcano, and the Russians. Camus, but the philosophy, not so much the novels. In the month I started One to Count Cadence for the last time, I read Anna Karenina, War and PeaceThe Rebel, and The Brothers Karamazov. I finished the book and I remember jumping up and down in the snow in the middle of the night in my shorts in Iowa City, shouting out ‘Hooray for Karamazov, you motherfuckers!’”

Perhaps surprisingly, given the genre in which he earned his fame, but unsurprisingly given that list of his reading interests, Crumley’s prose occasionally recalls F. Scott Fitzgerald and often is very close to the sentiments conveyed in the poetry of his friend, Richard Hugo. Each explores the elegiac moment and constructs classic scenes of regret. When Nick Carraway breaks up with Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby by saying he’s too old to lie to himself and call it honour, it comes close to all of Milo’s hapless encounters with women. Whereas Nick says, “Angry and half in love with her, and tremendously sorry, I turned away,” Milo says, at the end of The Wrong Case, “As I stood there the blunt shadows of the western ridge advanced darkly to the verge of the creek. I sat down, heard the sound of the car driving away, I drank my beer, and forgave her.”

Crumley’s writing of regret also targets the loss of possibilities of another kind, concerning landscape. Part of the inspiration for Dancing Bear came from Michael Brown’s Laying Waste: The Poisoning of America by Toxic Chemicals (1981) and an eco-politics underlies all Crumley’s evocations of the rivers, lakes, mountains and meadows of the Pacific Northwest. In Dancing Bear Milo says, “On a bright sunny day I could have seen Mount Rainier looming like a misshapen moon on the horizon, and even through the fog and rain I thought I could feel its rocky weight.”

When asked what bits of his writing he liked best, Crumley said he liked the part in The Last Good Kiss “when Sughrue recalls the time his father ties him to the back of the motorbike and takes him up to see the snow at Estes peak—I kind of like that.” Who wouldn’t? It’s one of Crumley’s finest evocations of landscape and memory: “On the way home, tied once more to his back with baking twine, I slept, my cold skin like fire, and dreamed of blizzards and frozen lakes, a landscape sheathed in ice, but I was warm somehow, wrapped in the furs of bears and beaver and lynx, dreaming of ice as the motorbike split the night.”

That late 60s, early 70s period of American history involving the transition from Johnson to Nixon, the consequences of the Vietnam War and Watergate, marked Crumley the person as it does the characters in his fiction. We stumbled onto the topic of Nixon when he told me he was working on a new book. It was a Milo book in which Milo has gone to live in Austin but I mistook it for the long-promised Texas novel, then apologised for raising that topic, saying he must get sick of people asking him whether he’s finished that book. “Well, I’m the one that didn’t finish the son-of-a-bitch. I haven’t forgotten about it and I’ve got a frame for it. It begins on the day of Nixon’s resignation.” Crumley chuckled as he recalled how he encountered that historic event. “I was living on Vashon Island at the time, riding bikes with a friend of mine who teaches up there. We walked into a store to have a beer and there was no-one in the front of the store. It was an old hippie kind of place and I hollered out, and they said ‘come in the back here, fuckin’ Nixon’s resigning on TV.’ So we sat there, smoked dope and drank beer while the son-of-a-bitch went to the grave.” I asked whether this opinion had mellowed over the years, taking account of the mini-redemption Nixon achieved in retirement, his part in the recognition of China and so on. Smoke was exhaled and a longish pause allowed some more of a Steve Earle tape to float around the room and one of the four cats to stroll past before an unforgiving reply came forth. “Nixon was the whore-dog of American politics. He had no honour, no decency. I didn’t find anything even vaguely amusing about Nixon. An old friend of mine, Mike Koepf, and I stayed on the phone all through the televised burial of Nixon. We both had FBI files, and I was the Vietnam Veteran’s Against the War faculty adviser at Colorado State, and I was a SDS affiliate.”

In 1985 Crumley had said that he hoped one day to prove that his two series characters, Sughrue and Milo, were distinct fictional entities by “writing a novel using both voices. They like each other; they know each other.” At the end of The Mexican Tree Duck Sughrue describes the day that his “old partner” comes into his bar, Slumgullions, spruced up and ready to go claim his inheritance. Only trouble is he’s a year early. Bordersnakes (1996) is the book Crumley alluded to more than a decade earlier. The book begins with the two old buddies each having something to prove and to find. A lawyer has absconded with Milo’s inheritance money and Sughrue has narrowly escaped being killed in a bar-room brawl that was actually a paid hit. The book is narrated turn-about by both Milo and Sughrue as they go travelling far from Montana.

Since he had waited twenty years to let loose his two series characters in the one book, I asked him what Milo and Sughrue afforded him as a writer. “The older character, Milo, gives me a character with a real sense of moral ethics and an approach to the world which involves kindness rather than violence, although he’s willing to be violent when it’s necessary, I guess. And the Sughrue character is just reckless and crazy and he’s not afraid of anything. That’s one of the things that starts this new book off. Sughrue is afraid now. Something has happened and he’s learned fear. So he and Milo go off on a double-edged jaunt, looking for Milo’s money and looking for Sughrue’s revenge and everything comes up fairly well for everybody, except for the bad guys; it’s almost all set in west Texas and California. Milo and Sughrue go all over the country, their friendship is put to the test and is not found wanting.” He smiled as he added, “I don‘t think there’s any scenes in Montana at all. Everybody writes about Montana now.”

I was heading out of Missoula the next morning to drive around other parts of Montana, so I asked Crumley what parts of the country he had written about so memorably he liked to visit.
“Chico Hot Springs is a place I’ve always liked. We spend a week there in the summer with the kids and another week during the year when we can get away. We try to float the Smith River every year. It’s a four day float over into the Missouri River, White Shell Fish Plains. I still like to drive up to Glacier, go through the park, and I still like Yellowstone. Even with the tourists there, it’s always impressive.” Suddenly the voice brightened into the tone used earlier when giving nostalgic information on what a great bar town Missoula used to be. “There’s tons of little towns in Montana you can stop at, stop and have a beer. You buy the first one, they buy the next one.” I quoted from the opening paragraph of The Last Good Kiss, next thing, you’re “drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.” He smiled and lifted his Labatt, “That’s for sure.”

II

In late September 2005, during the Montana Festival for the Book which was held in Missoula, I was able to see Jim Crumley again, for what would be the last time. I was waiting outside The Depot when he was driven up by a friend (Jim was recovering from some health problems) and it was terrific to see that smiling bulk again, have a guy-hug and head on into the bar for drink, food and conversation. That continued over the next couple of days and evenings, and it was good to meet some of Jim and Martha’s close friends, and also good to meet Martha (see under ‘beautiful’ above) and buy a couple of her poetry books from a Missoula independent bookseller. Jim, Martha and some of those friends were gathered around an outside table when the interview printed below took place.

III

This introduction must end with a sad coda. In September 2008 I was again driving around the Pacific Northwest heading down from Oregon to California, loving how reindeer and elk would dart across roads and highways (and walk all over Ashland during its theatre season) when I turned on my car radio to hear Jim Crumley talking. It was a younger-voiced Jim Crumley than I had encountered in 1996 and 2005, and the interview ended with Jim telling a story about a crime story he had written when he was about eight years old, called “The Brown Case.” As he recalled it contained a sentence that referred to ‘the Brown case’ and the reply came, “The Brown case? What Brown case?” and he felt that offered a neat summary of his crime-writing life to that point. By then the penny had dropped, that I was hearing an archival interview, and the female announcer’s voice duly said that listeners had been hearing an interview with Jim Crumley. That terrible present-past tense usage confirmed the dreadful thought as fact. Jim Crumley was dead at age 68, too young: that blocky strong body, the talent for writing and for conversation, all that ‘other’ reading he did, mainly history but also poetry and also blurbing friends’ books  (and strangers’ if he liked the book). Of course it would hit Martha hardest and his family and close friends but it is testimony to the kind of person Jim Crumley was that hearing this sad information prompted me, an Australian who had met him for about one week across two visits a decade apart (plus a few telephone conversations), to pull over to the edge of the highway and shed some tears.

[And here’s the Interview: Always Lookin’ For A Book, Lookin’ For A Title]

 © 2012 Noel King

from Contrappasso Magazine #1, August 2012
A different version of this piece appeared as
‘Bar and Grill: A profile of James Crumley’ in HQ Magazine July / August 1997

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

NOEL KING teaches film studies at Macquarie University, Sydney. His other interviews with writers include Martin Cruz Smith, William McIlvanney, Scott Phillips, Craig Holden, Barry Gifford and his interviews with publishers include Pete Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail, London (now part of Profile Books), Francois von Hurter of Bitter Lemon Press, London, and Dennis McMillan, Tucson, Arizona.