Martin Amis Takes Off His Jacket
Our latest one hour conversation with Martin Amis is now live. (Full transcript and other GIFs included.)
Show #438: Adam Johnson
Show #438, which runs 59 minutes and 48 seconds, has just been released and can be listened to at this link. I met Adam Johnson, author of The Orphan Master’s Son, many weeks ago. Because he and I shared a similar larger-than-life enthusiasm in the way that we described things, I asked him if he was, like me, a native Californian. It turns out that Johnson was born in Arizona. It was certainly rather absurd that the two of us never ran into each other when I lived in San Francisco.
I didn’t realize that Adam had not eaten lunch until near the end of the conversation. To his great credit, he fired through an hour that touched upon Stephen Crane, Robert Coover, Nixon vs. Kim Jong-Il, North Korean propaganda, Soviet refrigerator factories, and Adam’s disastrous (yet very funny) experience in journalism school, where he ended up fabricating quotes. I did my best to curtail the conversation once Adam dropped this regrettable gustatory fact. But we got a good hour anyway. And I remain quite optimistic that Adam, shortly after more off-air exuberance, found a good sandwich somewhere. In any event, here’s the excerpt:
Correspondent: Stylistically, the first part of this book requires a great leap of faith for the reader. I mean, we’re asked to believe that Jun Do, despite the fact that his story does not check out, gets released by the interrogator. That he would also go to Texas with Dr. Sung. I don’t think I’m giving anything away.
Correspondent: But then you have this twist at the end of the first part. Then we are given this surprise and we say, “Oh ho! Maybe the narrative itself doesn’t exactly match up.” Then you have the second part. And the last part almost mimics Casablanca, which of course is a DVD of the world’s best movie that is circulated as well through the text. You have all these references to storytelling. You have Sarge saying, “You think the guys at top don’t know the real story?” You have Commander Ga wondering “if he couldn’t tell a story that seemed natural enough to them now, but upon later consideration might contain the message he was looking for.” So we’re led to believe that storytelling, or perhaps this dim awareness of narrative, is very much the North Korean identity. And I’m curious how you arrived at this involuted solution to North Korea. In terms of why this, of all things, would be their identity.
Johnson: Well, storytelling is my obsession. I love stories. I love to write them and to read them. And I’m really fascinated with how they come out. Especially troubling stories. You know, happy, funny stories are very easy to tell. Stories of success and achievement. And they’re a little boring. But, you know, I’ve studied for some time now how people tell traumatic or painful stories. And the different shapes that they take. And when I started studying North Korea, it made me reconsider how I tell my own stories, the stories I tell myself to feel good. In America, I think, in our literature and in our real lives, everyone is the center of her own story. And our job as humans and as characters is to follow our motivations toward what we want and need to overcome obstacles by looking inward and growing and changing and making discovery towards becoming our best possible selves. But, you know, as I studied the stories about North Korea, because the story there is state-sponsored, I realized that it was a national narrative written by a regime, enforced by a regime, controlled by censors, without another version. And in that, the very few people at top were the central characters. Really, the main character was Kim Il-Sung, Kim-Jong Il, and Kim Jong-un now.
And everyone else in that country was like a secondary character. And this is really borne out by my research and by the testimonials of defectors that, when you’re a child in the DPRK, early on you’re assessed for your aptitudes or certain qualities for the needs of the state. And you’re sent down paths that lead toward becoming a fisherman or a sailor or an accordionist. And in that world, having your own desires and yearnings could run counter to the role that you might fulfill to survive. So I think I started with a character who’s more trapped in a world of North Koreaness, where he must do what he’s told, go where he’s told. He does grim things. And it doesn’t really matter who he is or what he does. It’s just that the role will be fulfilled. Whereas in America, you know, we change our stories all the time. They grow and evolve. And when you go off to a new school or a new job, you just take on a new persona. You change. And I think over the course of the book, because the character meets Americans — he listens to foreign transmissions because he has some encounters; even though he doesn’t defect; even though he keeps maintaining his role — a growing sense of possibility rises in him that he could finally write his own story rather than being conscripted into the state. And in the second part of the book, he does this daring act to try and become his own person. Though there he has to impersonate somebody else even.
Correspondent: Well, secondary characters. I mean, this book is filled with them. And I’m wondering if, from the limited resources you had at your disposal — I mean, you did in fact go to North Korea; we can talk about that in a little bit; I suppose it’s an ineluctable subject — but I’m curious if you could truly, from your vantage point, get a suitable Tolstoyian cross-section when the information you had at your disposal is so thin. I mean, do you feel that there were certain secondary characters you didn’t quite include in the book? That may have actually been included in the previous draft and you would have liked to flesh out further? How do you go about creating a fictive population when the information at your disposal is so thin?
Johnson: Well, I did kind of revel in the secondary characters in my book. I’m glad you point that out. Because I had a lot of fun with them. You know, just in terms of North Korea, what we know and what we don’t know. We know very little about what happens in the secret power in Pyongyang. That the people who are ruling and who are inflicting the power upon others — we don’t know that much. For the lives of normal citizens and the rest of the country — in Wonsan, Nampho, Chongjin, etcetera, we know a great deal actually. Over 6,000 people defected last year. When they make it to South Korea, and that’s a whole journey in itself, they go to a facility called Hanawon, where they’re debriefed. And a real narrative is written about each one of them. And then they go through a kind of school that helps them reintegrate into a vastly different society. But from the information that’s gathered about normal citizens, we know how much they eat. How many hours they work. How their families live. About their housing blocks. About their group criticism sessions. We know how much volunteer labor they have to give to the squads. Etcetera. The mysterious people are in Pyongyang. They don’t tend to defect. They’re all underground. When you go to there, there’s no White House or Blue House. There’s no residence with Kim Jong-Il. He lives in an unseen place in the city. A lot of the big structures are underground. Probably because we bombed them so mercilessly during the Korean War. And there’s an underground society that exists. And we don’t know much about them at all. I saw cell phone towers when I was there, but not a single person on a phone. We have to assume they have the Internet, that they understand about the world, that they watch movies. They probably make international calls, even travel internationally. But because they don’t leave, because they don’t leave any trail, we just don’t know who they are. And what I tried to do in my book was maybe fulfill the human dimension of the normal people outside the city. And, by that I mean, in a place with such self-censorship, in a place where even being perceived to do something against your role in the state could cost you dearly, I wondered how normal people chose to share their inner thoughts. This was the imaginative part. A lot of the factual basis of the book is really accurate. But would a parent tell a child that he thought it was all a lie? Would he transmit that essential knowledge that he accumulated over a life?
Diana Abu-Jaber’s Scandalous Past as a Restaurant Critic
Diana Abu-Jaber’s prose has proven so tantalizing to the taste buds that The Washington Post’s Ron Charles was forced to open his Birds of Paradise review with this cautionary sentence:
Diana Abu-Jaber’s delicious new novel weighs less than two pounds, but you may gain more than that by reading it.
Abu-Jaber is the rare novelist possessed with the power to make her readers drool untold amounts of saliva. It has been reported that those who have read all of Abu-Jaber’s books have been known to get caught up in a monomaniacal cooking frenzy, often baking tasty casseroles and deserts in the dead of night. Here is an author who, between dialogue, will describe characters “splitting open heads of garlic and picking at the papery skin covering the cloves.”
So when Abu-Jaber appeared on Show #419 (which runs a breezy one hour, one minute, and 14 seconds) last November, we had to ask her about all this. We were astonished to learn that Abu-Jaber had a secret past as a food criitc.
Abu-Jaber: I think that a lot of it came up because of being raised by a food-obsessed parent. My dad always wanted to have his own restaurant. As an immigrant from Jordan, he used food as a way of giving his children culture. And so I grew up with a sensibility just informing the very fabric of our days. And then my grandmother was a very serious Irish Catholic baker. And so my grandmother and my father waged this war over our souls — the children — to try and woo us through their separate crafts. And so I grew up between falafel and cream puffs. And between Dad’s wonderful Jordanian cuisine and my grandmother’s incredibly yummy cookies and cakes and pastries.
Correspondent: And no doubt, along with that, came a very imposing exercise regimen.
Correspondent: I mean, that’s got to be terrible. Wooing people through food. You’re wooing your readers with food. Why was food the ultimate axe to wield here? As opposed to, say, fashion or conversation or what not?
Abu-Jaber: It’s something that kind of happened organically in this book. I saw this woman. I was thinking about the book. And I had this image in my head of a woman wearing a chef’s apron. And I could see her back. And I could see that she had these very strong arms and shoulders. So I knew that she was someone who worked with her hands. And it became very clear to me that she was a pastry chef. And I had worked in food journalism for a while. I used to have a restaurant column.
Correspondent: You were a restaurant critic?
Abu-Jaber: I was.
Correspondent: Did you ever tear a restaurant to shreds?
Abu-Jaber: I think…I’m a pretty nice person! I tried to offer constructive criticism.
Abu-Jaber: But you are aware that you’re doing a social service by being a food critic. So you have to help the consumer, as well as the purveyor. And I might have shredded a little bit.
Correspondent: Like…such as what? What kind of constructive criticism was the worst that you possibly endowed?
Abu-Jaber: Oh jeez! Well, you know what I would do? I would try to offer people little guidelines about what to avoid in general. And I remember one of my big ones was that, if a restaurant has a great view, beware of the food.
Correspondent: (laughs) Yeah. That’s actually very true.
Abu-Jaber: Uh huh.
Correspondent: Especially in this city too.
Abu-Jaber: Yes. Exactly. Or if it’s in a railroad car. Or if there’s a gigantic playground in the middle. It’s probably not going to be the best.
Correspondent: Or the infamous revolving restaurants.
Abu-Jaber: Ah, yes! If it moves, don’t chew. (laughs)
Correspondent: Which is a shame! Because it’s such — I’m a big fan of revolving restaurants. Not for the food, but for the kitsch of the experience.
Abu-Jaber: Sure. Sure. Just remember that some people are going for experience.
Abu-Jaber: I am somebody who likes to eat for the food. But I know that for many, many people, atmosphere trumps all.
Correspondent: Did you ever get a restaurant wrong during these early days? Did you get irate readers sending you letters saying, “Diana! You are absolutely off! Who do you think you are?” Anything like that?
Abu-Jaber: I used to get irate letters from restauranters.
Abu-Jaber: From the people who felt that I’d gotten them wrong. I remember that I did a vegetarian roundup once. The vegetarian restaurants of Portland. And one of the local restaurant owners wrote to me irate. Absolutely irate. Because he had some vegetarian dishes on his menu. And he just thought that I should have included him. And he just really wanted to let me know that I had disrespected him.
Correspondent: Be thankful that you didn’t get involved with the vegans. Because they weren’t around back then.
Abu-Jaber: Yikes! Oh, lord in heaven. I think at that time — now this was the late ’90s.
Abu-Jaber: So at that time, there was maybe one vegan restaurant. And what they tried to do was present faux meat. So you’d go and you’d have turkey sculpted out of soy bean.
Abu-Jaber: Yeah. Exactly. So that was a whole other can of beans, so to speak.
Correspondent: So just to be straight here on the food issue, I mean, you would not identify yourself as a foodie, but a more egalitarian food person?
Abu-Jaber: Yeah. I’m sympathetic to the whole foodie idea. But I think that foodieism — if that’s a word — tends to elevate food to this sacred thing. It’s like this exalted object on an alter place, basically. And I just have never felt that that was never the point of enjoyment of any kind of primary activity like eating. That food is something that adds enormously to our lives, but that it’s a simple thing. And that we’re animals and that animal enjoyment is just a natural easy part of our lives. Or it should be.
Correspondent: Well, it went from something that was fairly harmless. Like Brillat-Savarin and MFK Fisher, who offer the perfectly sensible advice, “Well, if we’re spending so much of our time eating, we should probably pay attention to it,” but who are also championing food culture during the Great Depression. And this is the thing. It went from this rather egalitarian place to something that was ridiculously elitist or Ortega y Gasset-like, you know?
Abu-Jaber: Yes. Yes. We have started rhapsodizing about food and nobody wants to make it. People go out and buy cookbooks because they love the images and they love the idea of it and reading the cookbook like literature. But really nobody tries the recipes.
Correspondent: Yeah! I know, that’s the fun part!
Correspondent: Especially when you make it with other people, who are as clueless as you are.
Abu-Jaber: You’re all in it together. You know, as an individual and as a parent, I want to make good, easy, nutritious food. And as a writer, I like the metaphor of food. Because it’s so malleable. It casts light on all these different elements in our psyche. All the different ways that we look at relationships in general. I don’t write about food to stop in food. That’s not the point. It’s more a filter through which to look at experience.
Correspondent: Sure. Have you seen, while you’ve been here in New York, some of our ridiculous gourmet food trucks? It totally defeats the purpose. Where before you’d get a hot dog for a dollar.
Correspondent: Or you’d get some shish kabob or some sort of falafel really cheap. Now they have gourmet food trucks here. You should check these out. Empanadas that are really overpriced. Like six bucks.
Abu-Jaber: Oh really.
Correspondent: It’s now become — they’ve taken our food trucks!
Correspondent: The food trucks have gentrified!
Abu-Jaber: (laughs) Wow.
Correspondent: I mean, this leads me to wonder, just as a fiction writer, whether you may explore this in a future book. This issue of, well, we make our food, but now even the price of food goes up and the experience of eating food goes up.
Correspondent: And even something like white trash cuisine, even the good parts of that, becomes taken away from us. So there is no affordable base. Like there used to be. The traditional kind of food.
Correspondent: I guess I have some feelings on this issue, now that we’ve talked about this.
Abu-Jaber: Yeah. Absolutely. Well, because it’s an economic issue. It’s health and it’s relationships and family and economics, for sure. And that’s part of the problem with the foodie movement. Foodies indulge in a kind of extreme experience. They’re the top of the pyramid. The people who can afford to go into Williams-Sonoma and buy a special strawberry huller. Or just that experience of going into a glorious kitchen in which none of the instruments in the kitchen have been touched. You know, it’s s more like an operating room than it is a kitchen.
Correspondent: It’s almost like the Trail of Tears.
Correspondent: Because you have to find the produce places that the middle-class people have not found yet.
Correspondent: So I’m never going to name them on the air — the places where I get really kickass produce.
Abu-Jaber: Yeah. And you see that in the farmers markets.
Correspondent: Overpriced. Needlessly organic. God, don’t get me started on that.
Correspondent: We will discuss fiction. Don’t worry!