My conversation with Alison Bechdel

“People ask me, was writing Fun Home therapeutic? And I feel like, yes it was, but that’s kind of like asking somebody if swimming the English Channel was a good workout for them. That’s not why they did it — of course it was a good workout.” The great Alison Bechdel and I spoke on the phone a couple weeks ago about her new book, Are You My Mother? An edited transcript of our interview is up at Barnes & Noble Review.

R.I.P. Harry Crews, my former teacher

In his fiction and in his life, Harry Crews empathized most with the people who needed it most: the freaks, the fuck-ups, people who’d been broken by loss of one kind or another. Crews died yesterday, at age 76. As his son Byron told The Daily’s Claire Howorth, “[he] put more miles on the Chevy than most of us.”

Amended to say: Now that I’ve pulled myself together, I wrote about him for The Awl. And of course, there are the archives.

Image courtesy of the University of Georgia’s Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library; you can also find a podcast of Crews teaching a creative writing seminar.

Upcoming: In Indianapolis and New York

I’m finishing up some longer projects and running around for the next little while. Wednesday night, March 28, I’ll be speaking at Butler University, in Indianapolis.

On April 10, I read with the amazing Alexander Chee for KGB Bar’s nonfiction series. And I might as well be living at my favorite bookstore in April. On the 4th, I interview Madeline Miller (of the wonderful The Song of Achilles). On the 17th, I’ve got your daily double for FSG’s Nerd Jeopardy. On the 25th, I talk with the venerable Ron Rash (Serena, The Cove). Details for these events and others reside here.

I’d love to see you and talk for a second in the midst of the whirl.

Image Credit: Downtown Indianapolis from the Canal, by Matthew Rogers.

Headed back to Faulkner Country tomorrow

The last time I visited Oxford, Mississippi, at the end of a trip through ancestral haunts in the Delta, I stopped by Faulkner’s grave, Rowan Oak, and Square Books, and consumed my weight in sweet tea and fried catfish with my favorite aunt.

I aim to do some of the same things this weekend, when I’m in town for the Oxford Conference for the Book to talk online publishing with Jack Pendarvis, Anya Groner, and Michael Bible. Other speakers include Barbara Epler, Josh Weil, Steve Yarbrough, and Ken Auletta, to name just a few.

I found a new polka dotted dress for the occasion, and managed to rope my dearest Carrie Frye into meeting me there. I wish I had an extra day or two to get over to Eudora Welty’s house and my Great Aunt Maude’s official state archives (really!) in Jackson, but I fly back Sunday for a couple days before heading to speak at Butler University next week. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to Gulf Coast oysters, mint juleps in their native habitat, and good company.

Book-giving serendipity

Last month I sent Darin Strauss a copy of Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori after he overpaid for his part of a cab ride home from a party. In return, he introduced me to the Essential Stories of V.S. Pritchett. And then, poking around online, he discovered that Pritchett (pictured) had once written an introduction to an edition of Memento Mori. We were excited as any two book nerds could be.

So far I’ve only found a few tiny excerpts, but they’re great. “Only one other novelist and playwright of consequence — Samuel Beckett — had looked at Mrs. Spark’s subject: the corruption of the flesh, the tedium of waiting to die,” Pritchett said, praising her for taking on “the great suppressed and censored subject of contemporary society, the one we do not care to face, which we regard as indecent: old age.”

Now if only someone will get permission to republish the full text online . . .

Sven Birkerts on loss and change

other-walk“Lost things have their own special category. So long as they’re lost, and felt to be lost, they belong to the imagination and live more vividly than before. They make a mystery.” — Sven Birkerts, The Other Walk.

Birkerts’ best personal essays are steeped in an anxious nostalgia that is, in intensity if not in focus, all too familiar to me.

The Pump You Pump the Water From,” on his wistfulness for the writing processes of his younger days, is online at the Los Angeles Review of Books. If you like it, pick up The Other Walk, and read that, too.

H.L. Mencken on insect terminology: U.S. v. U.K.

My latest New York Times Magazine columnlet draws on a passage from H.L. Mencken’s The American Language (1921) about the word “bug.”

“An Englishman,” he says, restricts its use “very rigidly to the Cimex lectularius, or common bed-bug, and hence the word has highly impolite connotations. All other crawling things he calls insects. An American of my acquaintance once greatly offended an English friend by using bug for insect. The two were playing billiards one summer evening in the Englishman’s house, and various flying things came through the window and alighted on the cloth. The American, essaying a shot, remarked that he had killed a bug with his cue. To the Englishman this seemed a slanderous reflection upon the cleanliness of his house.”

In a footnote, Mencken elaborates: “Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Gold Bug’ is called ‘The Golden Beetle’ in England. Twenty-five years ago an Englishman named Buggey, laboring under the odium attached to the name, had it changed to Norfolk-Howard, a compound made up of the title and family name of the Duke of Norfolk. The wits of London at once doubled his misery by adopting Norfolk-Howard as a euphemism for bed-bug.”

Even today, slang guru Jonathon Green confirmed when I asked him on Twitter, the UK “does use ‘bedbug’ but otherwise, I would say UK still mainly [uses] ‘insect.'” A British friend of mine agrees. Nowadays, though, she says, “bug has no connotations of uncleanliness, it’s just not used. The only time an English person says bug to mean insect is ‘don’t let the bedbugs bite’ and no modern British person’s ever had bedbugs, so it’s just a saying, not an insult! We know that it’s a general American term for insect, but we tend to call insects by their species, generally — fly, beetle, ladybird, etc — or, if we need a catch-all euphemism, we’ll say ‘creepy-crawly’ or in Scotland ‘beastie’ (or ‘wee beastie’).”

As the plague spreads, visitors to the UK may wish to make linguistic adjustments.

Talking with Ellen Ullman about By Blood

Ellen Ullman’s By Blood is a dark, brooding, and marvelous novel that doesn’t really resemble anything else, though disparate elements of it remind me of so many stories I love. The book combines a disturbing confessional intensity, as in Coetzee’s Disgrace, Lasdun’s Horned Man, and Tartt’s The Secret History, with a paranoid claustrophobia akin to that of The Conversation, Coppola’s surveillance masterpiece. Surprises from strange and terrible historical alleyways bring to mind Schlink’s The Reader and Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s The Informers. And the philosophical underpinnings recall, in their unobtrusiveness and urgency, the best of Iris Murdoch.

Don’t miss Parul Sehgal’s admiring (and profound) review in the weekend’s New York Times Book Review.

I talk with Ullman on Thursday, March 1, at Book Court, at 7 p.m. She will also read, and we’ll celebrate the release of this wonderful book into the world. Join us if you’re free.

Cabbing it with Charles Dickens

My latest New York Times Magazine mini-column is on London’s taxi drivers, who memorize 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks to obtain a license; they emerge from the training with a larger hippocampus. In the smaller city of his day, Charles Dickens also mastered the city’s roads — to avoid being overcharged. But eventually, as he explains in an essay published in 1860 in All the Year Round, an interview with one man left him with “a more charitable view of the business and trials of cab-driving.”

My wife, accompanied by a servant, and our first-born, an infant, aged three months, had started, one November afternoon, to visit a relative at the other side of London. The day was misty, but when the evening came, the whole town was filled with a dense fog, as thick as soup. I gave them up at an early hour, never supposing that they would attempt to break through the black smoky barrier, and accomplish a journey of nearly nine miles. In this I was mistaken, for towards eleven o’clock the door-bell rang, and they presented themselves muffled up like stage-coachmen. The account I received was, that a four-wheeled cab had been found, that they had been three hours and a half upon the road, that the cabman had walked nearly the whole way with a lamp at the head of his horse, and that he was now outside awaiting payment.

I felt a powerful struggle going on within me. The legislature had fixed the price of cab-work at two shillings an hour, or sixpence a mile, but it had said nothing about snowstorms, fluctuations in the price of provender, or November fogs. There was no contract between my wife and the cabman, and she had not engaged him by the hour, so that, protected by the Act of Parliament, I might have sent out four-and-sixpence for the nine miles’ ride by the servant, and have closed the door securely against the driver. Actuated, perhaps, as much by curiosity, as a sense of justice, I did not do this, but ordered the man in, and gave him the dangerous permission to name his own price. He was a middle-aged driver, with a sharp nose, and when he entered the room, he placed his hat upon the floor, and seemed a little bewildered by novelty of his situation.

“If I am to, I am,” he said,” but I’d my rather leave it to you, sir.”

“This is a journey,” I replied, “hardly within the meaning of the act, and whatever you charge, I will cheerfully pay.”

“Well,” he said, with much deliberation, “I don’t think five shillin’s ought to hurt you?”

As you probably know if you encountered any news source of any kind last week, February 7 was the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth. In honor of the occasion, the Guardian filmed Simon Callow on Dickens’ London, the British Council sponsored a readathon, A.N. Devers visited London, Sam Anderson recalled a visit to Dickens World, and Ralph Fiennes introduced the Morgan Library’s special exhibition and signed on to play Dickens in The Invisible Woman.

Coincidentally, I’ve been gearing up to re-read my favorite Dickens novels: Bleak House and Great Expectations. Several years ago I visited his only surviving house in London.