This month’s State of the Thing, LibraryThing’s monthly newsletter of features, author interviews and various forms of bookish delight, is on its way to your inbox. You can also read it online.
I forgot to include in SOTT a very neat interview our friends at Random House passed along: Jennifer Egan, the author of A Visit From the Goon Squad, did a Q&A with Dan Barden about his new book, The Next Right Thing. You can read the interview here, and thanks to Random House for sharing it with us!
Like your first novel, Arcadia is set in upstate New York, where you grew up (as did I). How do you think the area has shaped the things and people you write about?
I find that I can only write about places after I’ve been absent from them for a while. I’ve lived in Florida for six years, now, which only makes me love upstate New York more. I grew up there, and it seems that when I want to write through or about a childlike sense of wonder, I reach for the place I remember as a child. Also, I miss the lilacs and the icicles and the rolling hills and the cold lakes in the summer, and this sense of loss makes me long to return there when I sit down to work in my hot and humid studio.
You’ve set one section of Arcadia in the future, 2018 specifically. Did you find writing scenes in the future any different from writing scenes set in the past, or in the present?
It was strangely exhilarating to write scenes set in the very near future: it wasn’t as pure an imaginative leap as writing a hundred years in the future would be, and it required research and thought into where we are in the world right now. It was as if I had a photograph of the present, and my job was to paint beyond the bounds of the frame.
Tied up in Arcadia is the fascinating and elusive idea of utopian communities: did you find yourself doing much research into historical views or depictions of this topic as you wrote? If so, was there a particular source that you enjoyed or found most useful?
There are many books about both philosophical utopias and real-life attempted ones on my shelves. I find the utopian urge to be a deeply American one: in fact, in the first half of the nineteenth century, there were over forty utopian intentional communities created (and lost) in America. The two that were among the most successful, and therefore the most devastating when they collapsed, were Oneida in central New York in the nineteenth century, and the twentieth century community called The Farm in Tennessee. I visited both places for overnight stays and loved them both.
When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you make
it a reality?
I’ve always been passionate about books, but to become a creator of the things I loved most in the world seemed impossibly difficult, and possibly even narcissistic, when I was little. I didn’t know any writers. I didn’t know that they were normal people and not gilded demi-angels selected by the gods. It began to dawn on me that I could do this, too, when I took a writing class in college, taught by a real, live novelist. After I graduated, I made my poor parents suffer a little because I declared that I was going to be a writer, and I did many terrible jobs for a few years to be able to teach myself how to write fiction. Then I went to graduate school, which gave me two years in which I wrote as much as I possibly could, and learned a great deal.
I also talked to Taras Grescoe, the editor of Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile, coming soon from Times Books.
Tell us a bit about how the idea for this book came about, and how long you spent making all the trips it took to research the different cities you profile. What was your best experience (transportation related or otherwise) while researching the book? Your worst?
For the last decade, I’ve been thinking about writing a book-length examination of how cars changed our lives, and how car-centered thinking has transformed our cities. But I didn’t want to contribute another angry screed against the evil motorcar to the literature. There are so many people thinking differently about transportation, and so many amazing initiatives happening in cities around the world, that I figured I could combine a little righteous anger and a lot of hope and optimism in the same book—which is why I detail how we got into the mess of sprawl and congestion, and how a lot of committed people are finding ways to get us out of it.
As much as I loved riding funiculars, rattly old subways, and high-speed trains in Asia, Europe, and South America, the best experience was meeting people around the world who are committed to making their cities better places to live for themselves and their families—a lot of those people have become friends. The worst part: when I was looking at sprawled and congested cities like Phoenix and Moscow, being stuck in endless traffic. Hours I spend in a car always feel like hours I’ll never get back.
You write that Straphanger is, “in part, the story of a bad idea: the notion that our metropolises should be shaped by the needs of cars, rather than people.” How and when did this idea take hold, and can you tell us a few of the ways this bad idea has manifested itself?
Streets in North American cities belonged to the people of those cities until at least the ’20s. Kids played in them, pedestrians crossed them at will, streetcars and horsecars and cable cars used them, bike-riders enjoyed them, vendors sold food from carts. They were anarchic, and alive. Though Americans accepted the new technology of the automobile, and it became ever more affordable thanks to Ford’s mass production, it took a concerted effort on the part of automobile industry lobby groups to manufacture the concept of the “jaywalker” and convert city streets into speedways for cars. At first, police resisted, citizens resisted: tens of thousands of kids were slaughtered by Chevrolets and Fords, and there were giant demonstrations against “death drivers” in almost every major city in the 1920s. A great portrayal of the process in action is Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, published in 1918. (Tarkington was clearly ambivalent about the coming of the automobile to the city, but he brilliantly portrays the way that new technology unstitched so much of what old walkable cities used to be.) Later, technocrats like Robert Moses in New York City consolidated power and streamlined the process of building cities for cars, rather than people. Car culture really did its job well: now nobody finds it strange that so much precious public space—the streets of Manhattan, Chicago, San Francisco, Toronto—should be occupied by two tons of privately-owned of plastic, fiberglass, and metal.
Do you recall what first interested you about the life of Clover Adams?
I vividly remember the moment I got interested. I was still in graduate school, working on my dissertation about how nineteenth-century women represented themselves in letters and diaries, when I read a five-page scene in Blanche Wiesen Cook’s brilliant first volume of her biography of Eleanor Roosevelt. Cook describes how Mrs. Roosevelt would go every week to Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C., to sit in front of the seated bronze statue by Augustus Saint-Gaudens that marked Clover’s grave. She found comfort there in the months after her discovery of her husband’s affair with Lucy Mercer. But why? I became fascinated by the woman who fascinated Mrs. Roosevelt.
You write in the prologue “Clover’s life has remained half-illumined, a reflection of how others viewed her but not how she saw herself.” But, you argue, her photographs “invite the viewer to stand not on this side of her suicide, but on the other, the one she lived on.” For those who might have not have yet had the chance to see Clover’s photographs, what is it about them that’s so compelling? Do you have any particular favorites?
Clover’s photographs, when I first saw them, struck me as interesting and extraordinarily beautiful. Packed with a lived life. There are photographs of friends, of the seashore, of her dogs perched at chairs around a table as if “at tea.” There are carefully composed photographs of her women friends that have great clarity and style and portraits of children that confer an enormous dignity. She got down on the same level as the children to take their photographs, so the viewer sees them eye to eye. And she was meticulous about the sequence in which she put her photographs in the albums, one image per page. I suppose some of my favorites include her gothic-like picture of her summer home, Pitch Pine Hill, on Boston’s North Shore; her portrait of Elizabeth Bliss Bancroft, wife the historian George Bancroft; and her portrait of three women standing on rocks at the seashore, with two of the women turned away from her camera.
Catch up on previous State of the Thing newsletters.