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PhotoMarinSardy4In the aftermath of Robin Williams’ suicide, a plethora of articles and blogs have been published on the topic of mental illness and depression. As a writer whose work often directly or indirectly addresses mental illness, do you think this sort of mass response is helpful?

In some ways, yes, absolutely, the mass response is very helpful. The cultural silence around mental illness, without a doubt, made my experience as a child of someone with schizophrenia far worse than it needed to be. I had no one to talk to about it and no vocabulary for it even, and so that silence stunted my ability to even do my own thinking about it. In a culture without open conversation around mental illness, I was cut off from social support that could have helped enormously. So I’m pretty much glad across the board whenever anyone is openly discussing it. But with this I’ve also been glad that most of it seems to be aimed at educating people and fighting stigma.

Screen Shot 2014-07-09 at 7.37.52 AMEdan Lepucki’s characters in her debut novel California are living during a time of duress. When I met the author, so was I. Cal and Frida coexist alone in the woods after the collapse of civilization. When Frida gets pregnant they go in search of others, but the community they encounter is full of secrets and peril. My catastrophe occurred when my writing mentor committed suicide. Personally, I was devastated, and professionally, I was lost, until a friend led me to Edan. She gave me a safe place to write again. I signed up for classes with Writing Workshops LA, the company Edan founded and runs from her home in Berkeley. A staff writer at The Millions, she previously published the novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me and her stories have appeared in magazines like Narrative and McSweeney’s. While being smart, witty and outgoing, she is kind and generous to emerging writers. I promised Brad Listi this interview would entail “two blonds talking about death and destruction,” since California takes place in a post-apocalyptic world. He was all for it. Don’t tell him, but when Edan came over to my place for Brown Butter Peach Bars (like Frida, I like to impress people with my baking skills), the conversation never grew dark. In fact, we hardly quit laughing. This is that interview.

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Leslie Jamison is the author of The Empathy Exams, winner of the 2013 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. Jamison and her book are currently gaining some much-deserved attention, and we’re fortunate to have had a dialogue with her regarding not only her new book, but also the crafts of cultivating empathy and writing nonfiction.

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Walter Kirn’s newest book, Blood Will Out: The True Story of Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade, is a riveting, chilling, and sometimes funny real-life psychological thriller about Kirn’s fifteen-year friendship with a man whose life story eerily parallels Tom Ripley’s in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Kirn is a witty, sharp observer who will flay himself with the same X-Acto knife precision that he uses to flay his characters. I couldn’t stop reading Blood Will Out—it made me want to dig through my bookshelves, pluck out and reread everything Kirn has ever written.

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Scampering through Cape Cod, searching for an outhouse, looking out for Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Secret Service…

So I’m staying at the Kennedy Compound because I’m writing a biography on Sargent Shriver, the guy who started the Peace Corps. Bill Clinton is there, sailing with Ted Kennedy. Arnold is there. I’m out walking around town when suddenly the anxiety hits. Anxiety leads to a certain gastric distress so I’m rushing back to the house, sweating, looking out for celebrities and the secret service, wondering if I can make it back. I get there—and the toilet breaks. Sewage rises around me, ruining my pants. I mop it up with towels just as the dinner bell rings for some sort of fabulous Kennedy soiree. I sneak out and race up the stairs, half-naked, wrapped in a towel and run straight into JFK Jr. “Oh hi, Scott,” he says. He was totally unfazed. We had met the day before.

JesseOkay, Mr. Walker, just say the first things that come to your mind.  KKK. 

Church’s Chicken is a front for the Ku Klux Klan, and it prepares its food in a special way that makes black men sterile. Or that’s what a tenacious urban legend said, anyway. When the folklorist Patricia Turner heard that story in the 1980s — a time when the real Klan had been reduced to a bunch of squabbling splinter groups — she asked her informant why the FDA didn’t stop the chain from doctoring its chicken. Aha, came the reply: How do you know the KKK doesn’t control the FDA too?

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A summary of I Fear the Black Hat’s conclusions about Chevy Chase: an arrogant, assholish monster of medium talent who consciously risks nothing and refuses to take himself seriously. 

I suppose I do sort of describe him in that way in the book, yeah.  Although I wouldn’t say I’m not a fan.  I fucking loved the first three seasons of Community.

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So your Baptist preaching Bible College professor father totally flips out over your purchase of the soundtrack to Pretty Woman.

Totally.

MBW revisedErika Rae:  So, James Michael Blaine, AKA 11:59…how does it feel now that you’re about to be outed?  I mean…now that you are publishing your first book, you are going to let us see your face, aren’t you?

James Michael Blaine:  Thank God, yeah, you know?  Sometimes you get saddled with a gimmick and you’re glad to get rid of it.  In 2006 I decided I really wanted to try this writing thing.  I’d been turned down for Vandy’s MFA program (we’re looking for talent more along the lines of Shelley or Yeats, ha ha ha ha ha)  – but I was trying to find a place to get better.  If I have any talent, it’s tenacity, to just hammer away until something breaks loose.  I figured TNB would be a good place to start hammering.  It takes awhile to find your voice so I thought it might be good to stay nameless, faceless.  By the time I was sick of it I had the book coming, so I thought I would wait until now.  You ready?

0-2Peter Trachtenberg, author of  Another Insane Devotion: On the Love of Cats and Persons (DaCapo Press) explores love, marriage, death and longing through his relationships with both cats and people. The narrative begins when his cat Biscuit, the golden kitty, goes missing while his wife is abroad and he is teaching in North Carolina. While Trachtenberg deliberates whether to travel the 1400 miles round-trip to search for her (spoiler alert—he does) he begins to unravel the beginning of the end of his marriage.

13220410_originalWhat’s the difference between a work and a shoot?

On the surface level, the difference between a work and a shoot is simple. In the parlance of the professional wrestling industry, a shoot is something that is real. A work describes any time the fix is in. Initially these terms were used to describe the matches, to distinguish between real contests and wrestling shenanigans — but from the very beginning wrestling was crooked as a snake. Shoots all but disappeared from the sport in the ring very early on. But language is flexible. Soon enough it was a term used to describe anything real. Truthful comments, a fight in a bar, any comments prefaced by “Let me be honest…” These were all “shoots.” It’s a term that has to make anyone associated with the wrestling industry smile if they stop and think about it for a minute. Only in wrestling would you need a word to let people know that, just this once, you are telling them the truth and not spinning a tale.

Move the mouse or scroll your iPad screen to the space at the close of Amazon.com “Editorial Reviews” section for Daniel Levin Becker’s excellent Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature (Harvard UP 2012).

There, you’ll find a repetition of the “Book Description,” from earlier in the page, now inflected with all-too-common Amazon character errors:

The youngest member of the Paris-based experimental collective Oulipo, Levin Becker tells the story of one of literature’s quirkiest movements—and the personal quest that led him to seek out like-minded writers, artists, and scientists who are obsessed with language and games, and who embrace formal constraints to achieve literature’s potential.

“’s” is html code for a right singly quote, and “&mdash,” of course, is the em dash (—). These reverse-engineered impregnations of the Descrption are certainly errors, but also candy-store windows for those who take a sly delight in the structural underpinning of how words on a web page may be “put” there, so to speak, in the first place.

So, I’m sitting here on my swing reading Devangelical

It’s too cold!

 

No, I’m inside.

You have a swing inside your house?

 

Yeah.  I always wanted one. 

Like a playground swing?

You’ve got a new book out, Lincoln’s Battle, the Spielberg movie is hot at the box office — why are we still so fascinated by Lincoln?

I think Lincoln is beloved because he dealt with such massive issues. What other president faced the complete dissolution of the Union? The enslavement of millions? Ordering men into battle on that scale? More men died in the Civil War than all the other American wars combined. And, in one sense, it’s Lincoln’s doing. At least partially. When a president contends with war and other huge issues, he’s usually considered a great president. Truman left office with the lowest ratings ever, but now he’s considered a hero because history is kind to those who had to battle titanic issues. But I think there are two other issues that make him beloved. First of all, he’s got what I call the “Kennedy factor.” Most people tend to impose their own values on Kennedy. So if they are pro-defense or social justice-oriented or if they just like a stylish, imperial presidency, they look to Kennedy. Lincoln’s that way. You want the humorous Lincoln? You got him. You want the liberal, big government Lincoln? You got him. The Constitutional, conservative Lincoln?  Poetic Lincoln? You got him. Second,Lincoln is so incredibly fascinating, so incredibly flawed, so incredibly tragic — that he is endearing to us.

You’ve got a brand-new book out called True Strength, talking about the series of strokes you experienced while shooting the Hercules series.  Give us an update on your condition. 

Doing fine.  Staying busy.  Just finished a movie in Baton Rouge.  Got to go to the LSU game.

 

I went to my first game in Death Valley when I was about three.

Oh man, there’s nothing like that stadium there.  One for the bucket list.

 

You continued to shoot Hercules after the strokes and were even able to keep your illness a secret.  How did you pull that off?