Pixelated is the digital, double-blind, lit-inclined conversation series.
In each episode we put two writers on a sort of blind-date, and have them interview each other. The result? Who the hell knows. All conversations are 'manuscript-first', meaning they were typed as you see them.
Both NEVERHOME and SHORT CENTURY dip into the well of history, and both do so from odd, fresh angles. Both feature protagonists that are at once alone in their surroundings and deeply embedded within them, bringing their eras to life with real, tangible, madly restless personality. In NEVERHOME, we go back a bit further than SHORT CENTURY. Laird tells of Ash, a Union soldier and, improbably, a woman. While she goes to fight, her husband stays home. Ash bypasses hero status straight to legend, and we’re left with a voice both uniquely American and like nothing else that came before it. David brings us from the 60s to today, constantly boiling down the political climate into characters and magnifying characters to the scale of the nation’s crises. Like Laird, David writes intimately, and in doing so turns history into reality.
Before we get started, first things first: would you each a) kindly describe where you are and what you see, and b) confirm whether you’ve met?
Laird: I am at my desk in the basement and can see my neighbor mowing his lawn. I don't think we have met!
Laird: And I don't mean the neighbor!
David: I am at the Oracle Club, a writers' space in Queens. I've never met Laird, but Laird does share the last name of my protagonist, so I think that means we're already friends
David: Or enemies, maybe...
Andrew: the Oracle Club sounds too good to be true
David: Franemones at the Oracle Club will be the title of my next novel
Laird: For a number of years I worked at the Writer's Room on Astor Place... Gone now for quite a while I think...
Laird: It has a ring to it!
Andrew: I'm very curious about the research that went into both of your most recent works, and how that sort of research must have differed.
Laird: My favorite part was walking library stacks and pulling down crumbling volumes of letters and journals published after the war. One of the books, not checked out since 1945, was called Dearest Susie and was the letters home of an infantry grunt to his sweetheart. He survived the war and went home to set up a florist shop.
Andrew: (Also, I'm looking up the Oracle Club, and I see it's run by Julian Tepper, who's novel 0s&1s sells—in addition to David's)
Laird: Well, visiting battlefields was good too. I went to Gettysburg last summer and it was a madhouse. Battlefield meets carnival. At least on the day I visited. Antietam and Bull Run were much quieter. More solemn. I'm betting Gettysburg in the winter/off-season has more of that solemn thing going on.
David: Arthur Hunt is supposed to have been at Yale in the late 1960s, so I went to Yale and read every issue of the Yale Daily News from when he would have been a student. And I read a lot of war punditry, because Arthur is a war punditry in the present day
David: I still read the war punditry stuff, but now it's procrastination and makes me mad for no reason
David: Gettysburg as carnival is interesting!
Andrew: Well, there's probably a reason
Laird: The last main line of research was talking to descendants of soldiers. The northerners I spoke to had plenty to say but it was in the main not something that they seemed to feel deeply. The southerners in the main REALLY seemed to still feel it.
David: I bet a lot of people take selfies at Gettysburg, but you don't see anything like the rage you see directed at people who take selfies at the 9/11 memorial
Laird: Still reading: it's hard to stop with that kind of research. Gets into the bones of your eyes.
Andrew: David—why do you think that is?
Laird: Has Yale's campus changed much since the 60s? Did that figure in your research?
Laird: They take selfie's with Kepis on. There are a lot of selfies happening. Yeah, I'm betting it's very different at the 9/11 memorial. I haven't been yet. Though I was in lower-Manhattan that day.
David: Obviously 9/11 is still raw. But I wonder how far an event has to be in the past in order for selfies not to enrage people
Laird: Yes, I suspect it's event dependent. And no doubt pretty generation dependent too. I mean the getting enraged part.
David: Any differences in Yale's campus didn't factor in. The general aura of seriousness that makes you feel qualified to make decisions about wars in far-off places is definitely still there
David: The President who will be leading us to war in 2040 may have been on campus while I was doing my research
Laird: Or sooner. As some candidates get younger and younger.
David: I think a lot about getting enraged, because it's such a huge part of our culture. And a novelist needs on some level to be calm and also see other sides of things, maybe especially when writing about what enrages us. Or at least that's true for me. Laird, is that true for that for you?
Laird: I studied writing at a school that advocated some measure of participation (Naropa -- the writing wing founded by Ginsberg and Anne Waldman), allowing yourself into the rage, but I was never very good at it. Definitely a lurker and watcher.
David: It sounds like you're saying the descendents of southern soldiers still felt enraged, 150 years later
Laird: Let's just say that when I brought up the Civil War, even with people I know quite well, their accents got more pronounced and their cheeks could in some cases be seen to flush. I can't speak about All southerners or course. But it was interesting to register this difference.
Andrew: Any regional differences in that effect?
Andrew: i.e. southern Georgia vs. eastern Tennessee vs. central Mississippi?
Laird: I'm interested in the idea, generally, of pundits and specifically in writers who become pundits. There is a tradition of writers speaking out forcefully on the issues of the day in Europe and Africa. We have lost some of that in this country.
Laird: Ah, my southern friends have told me many times about the pronounced differences in accent and comportment from region to region so I must be very careful when I speak about southerners (again I count many friends among their number) as some mass entity as I do not have the eye or ear to tell the difference. Hence, probably, my northern protagonist!
David: Yes, although I have mixed feelings about writers speaking out forcefully on the issues of the day. In some ways the job of a writer, or at least of a fiction writer, is to step back and not take a position, or take a position and then double back on it
David: And of course I'm tempted to double on THAT position
David: *double back
Andrew: That's an interesting take, though I don't think everyone would agree
David: There's this tension in the writing I really admire between communicating the feeling of being certain and passionate, and also having a sense that that certainty is completely wrong
Andrew: Which writers do that well, do you think?
Laird: Yes, mixed feeling here too. Though in many contexts there is some sense of there not being any choice about it. About speaking out. For myself I metabolize things so slowly that I do best not to immediately start holding forth. Comes from long experience. Alas.
David: Yeah, like I say, *I* don't necessarily agree
Laird: I like that "certainty is completely wrong". There are different kinds of fire.
David: Philip Roth, particularly in The Counterlife and Operation Shylock, does this extremely well. And there's the sense that Thomas Bernhard's narrators, as persuasive and riveting as they are, are total fools
David: I often feel total certainty and then read an essay that convinces me I was completely wrong, then go back to my original position
Andrew: I think the product of an active mind is the ability to rethink positions, but I also believe there's a premise underlying a lot of nonfiction which says the opposite
David: But sometimes I find myself trying to block out my doubts, which is not to my credit as a person and which I'm interested in as a writer
Laird: Funny I was about to mention a book I translated by a young French-Lebanese writer named Oliver Rohe. He is highly influenced by Bernhard. The book I translated, Vacant Lot, is marked by a kind of cold fury that I felt throughout the translation even though it wasn't mine.
David: At the same time, at some point you have to block out your doubts and take a position. Or someone has to.
Laird: Rohe lived in Beirut during much of the Civil War. But he generalizes the conflicts he writes about, makes them universal. And the rage of his narrators/protagonists.
Laird: And here I mean the Civil War in Lebanon!
Laird: J.M. Ledgard in Submergence, which I'm rereading, is very good about taking a position, about writing with great power and persuasiveness, without sinking the whole in doing so.
Laird: Sontag was excellent around this too.
Andrew: It's hard for me to tell when one of her opinions wasn't just a massive thought experiment.
Laird: Nadine Gordimer. DFW. Percival Everett (Erasure is a marvel).
Laird: I loved her distinction between what she was thinking about something and what she thought about it.
Laird: And I should say I make a distinction between her essays, which I know pretty well, and her fiction, which I know less well.
Andrew: I've only read In America
Andrew: as far as her fiction goes
David: It's interesting, I often feel like DFW is hitting me over the head wanting me to feel a certain way. Infinite Jest, at least the Don Gately sections, often feels like an Alcoholics Anonymous recruitment pamphlet
Laird: I'm a partisan of his short fiction. And the essays.
David: I haven't read Sontag's fiction, but I love that feeling of nuance and playfulness balanced with combativeness in her essays and it's definitely something I want to capture in my fiction
Andrew: A bit off topic, but do either of you try not to read fiction when you're writing?
David: Don't get me wrong, I love his work, but the opposition of mindful attention/ mindless pleasure-seeking is too stark, even in the amazing A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again
David: No, definitely not. That would be like putting my marriage on hold while I finish a book.
Laird: I sometimes try to stop the fiction drip and never succeed. I seem to always be reading fiction. Even as I slip poetry and essays into the mix.
Laird: David, what are you working on?
David: I'm finishing a novel called The Epiphany Machine, about a machine that tattoos epiphanies on the forearms of its users
David: How about you?
Laird: Love that. A little Kafka in the mix + the whole of our early 21st century! I'm working on a long witch story. Supposed to be historical but it's just as much horror. American witches. But not Salem. Connecticut (where I lived a little as a kid) had lots of witch stuff going on.
Laird: Okay, alas a guy is here to tell us whether this 50 year old silver maple in the front yard needs to be chopped down. It has a family of nuthatches living in it. And some squirrels. Great to chat with you both!
Andrew: Both of these sound fascinating.
Andrew: Thanks you two!
David: Sounds excellent! It sounds like we're both interested in American delusions
David: Yes, great to talk to you too!
Laird: Terrific. Thanks, Andrew.