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Friday, June 12, 2009

Ted Pelton Interview, Part 2

This is the second of a 2-part interview with Ted Pelton, author of Endorsed by Jack Chapeau (Starcherone) and Malcolm & Jack (and Other Famous American Criminals)(Spuyten Duyvil). This part focuses on the novel Malcolm and Jack.

Here are the reviews posted on Amazon:

An audaciously entertaining and insightful creation myth about the genesis of the late 20th century's counterculture and political liberation movements in the so-called birth of the cool in New York City jazz clubs at the end of World War II and dawn of the bebop era.... The overwhelming strength of this novel lies in its ability to dramatize the precise moments in consciousness when both Malcolm Little and Jack Kerouac cease to be criminals and become visionaries instead. --The Buffalo News

At all times Pelton's work is filled with political saavy, an empathy for societies' outcasts, and a frustrated awareness of the writer's limited ability to effect change upon the events he or she records. Malcolm & Jack is not the book you might expect it to be.... Instead, with immense talent, Pelton has attempted to weave implicit cultural critique, reflective internal monologue, three love stories, and a whole bunch of well-wrought character sketches into a series of progressing narratives that harmonize as much as they juxtapose. --Jacket Magazine (Australia)

Malcolm & Jack is a moving, hip, and complex journey into not only American cultural, social, and political history, but also into the meaning of history itself. --American Book Review

1. I respect your determination to assert the power of the novelistic imagination over rigid identity markings. Nonetheless, were you nervous as a white male speaking in the first person voice of Billie Holiday? of assigning feelings and words to Malcolm X, one of the great voices of black liberation?

Yes, I was nervous. My first drafts of the book had long defenses of and discussions of the politics of representation, because you’re right, here I am, this white guy, starting sentences in 1st person, “Brothers and sisters…” this or that, in mimicry of black religious discourse, to give one example. I’m clearly pulling from a tradition or traditions or voices that belong to someone else. But the defenses, while important for me to write, to understand my own ideas about the subject, weren’t good fiction; various readers that I trusted told me I should remove them from the book. They were preachy and lengthy and belabored. So I did remove them from the final version.

Basically, to give you this defense, I see it in two ways. First, while Malcolm X and Billie Holiday are identified with so-called black folks, and especially in the case of Malcolm, would almost belong to black people, I thought that in a certain sense I had some claim on them too. These are people who have inspired me, who are fellow citizens of my country, who describe to me parts of what I feel to be my own identity. I feel that my representations of them are respectful, on the whole even worshipping (although they are also both rendered in unflattering ways at moments in the book). I saw what I was doing as something that’s seemingly much more of a problem in literature than it is in, say, music. The Rolling Stones played Howlin’ Wolf; it wasn’t their lives particularly; but then, in a way, it does become about their lives, the Stones, that is. As a line in the old PBS History of Rock and Roll has it, someone says something to the effect of “The Rolling Stones wanted to honor Howlin’ Wolf, and would have loved nothing better than to sound like Howlin’ Wolf, but when they played Howlin’ Wolf, they sounded like The Rolling Stones.” To me, that’s art, of any sort – pulling from the materials of the world you find and in doing so reflecting who you are, even if it’s by the vehicle of some other tradition. Then, secondly, it occurred to me that I could hardly do otherwise and be a fiction writer. Fiction writing is an art form predicated on representation. You can’t NOT represent, as a fiction writer. The question then becomes, are your representations fair or are they abusive? I cannot say that what I have written cannot be accused of some sort of abuse, and I am always very interested in how my work is read and if someone sees that in there. But as a blanket prohibition, I didn’t think I could swear off using anything as material or point-of-view by its very nature. That seems to me antithetical to what fiction in fact does.

2. Were you also nervous addressing both male and female homosexuality?

Less so. “What else can I say / Everyone is gay,” sang Kurt Cobain. This is probably just as true ultimately of cultural significances, but certainly it seems to me anyone can imagine what it’s like to be same-sex oriented, even if it’s not in them to act upon it, or they aren’t hard-wired in such a way. Besides in a “Beat” book, which it seemed to me I was writing, there’s going to be a certain fluidity to the sexuality. I very much wanted the novel to be one of voices which at the same time privileged no particular perspective – so there’s narrator’s in the book who are gay and straight, black and white, male and female. I am interested in a fiction that’s more complicated than the identity-based fiction of the present moment, which it seems to me is largely market-driven

3. One 44 page chapter is in the form of a play. Why did you choose this, and what did it open up for you (or for your supposed reader)?

I wanted to get a kind of camp sense into this very gay-themed plotline, the story of David Kammerer’s stalking of Lucien Carr, and Carr’s retaliatory murder. I couldn’t really get the entirety of the stage musical I had in mind into the book (I had themes composed in my head for the songs in the final musical number), but it just struck me as a kind of play. And as I worked in that form, I was able to do things that I liked – character asides, monologues of characters walking into and out of scenes, scenes (like in the bar) where dialogue was foregrounded, etc.

4. This book examines the relationships between biography, history, fiction, voice and literary genre / form. Why do these relationships interest you and what did you discover about them in the course of writing this book?

The novel has always interested me as the great catch-all narrative form, where you can include all manner of discourses – history, monologues, as you say biography, etc. I think the postmodern novel is commonly misunderstood these days in being seen to be experimenting just for form’s sake. Form is an extension of content, as we know, when it’s done right and integrally, and postmodern fiction’s play with discourses is a strategy for reflecting upon how language is used and misused in all manner of ways, in public and political life, in constructing fantasies about history, etc. This is a notion I’ve heard expressed by critic Marcel Cornis-Pope, among others, that postmodern fiction foregrounds the problematics of history that depend on narrative, and therefore should not be said, as it often is, to be merely formalist or concerned with aesthetics alone. My book is about the 1940s, which we have been told for years was “America’s Greatest Generation.” Well, they were also Jim Crow racists who exported racism to England during the war, suppressed stories of racial oppression at home as dangerous to the war effort, tolerated lynching, oppressed women with severe double-standards, allowed California produce growers to profit from internment of Japanese-American competitors, etc. So all of these things in the end are competing stories; fiction, at its best, rids the world of the lies of assumed objectivity, which are dangerous and oppressive. That “Greatest Generation” myth has been the underpinning of every failed American war effort ever after, Reagan, Bush I & II, you name it.

At the same time, I think what I discovered anew was the seductiveness of voice. I’d be reading a lot of Malcolm X or Kerouac and after a while I’d start to speak like them, hear their voices in my head. Narrative is extraordinarily powerful because it can act upon you in ways that you believe are yourself behaving independently. Nor is there any way entirely out of this. Self-consciousness is your best bet, being aware of the echoes behind your words or the words of others. But seductions are always occurring, where you get taken with narratives you find sexy and go along unwittingly with unexamined forms of oppression.

5. I really enjoyed the comedy of Kerouac being stuck with his preppy wife in suburban Detroit living in the home of his society mother-in-law.

Thanks, it was fun to write, once I got Edie’s voice down. I hadn’t really known all of the Kerouac biography stuff until I started into the book, from the basic premise of two drop-outs in the popular 1940s war, Malcolm Little and Jack Kerouac, later becoming iconic rebels, larger than life in their embodiments of freedom. But Kerouac lived this bizarre life, all by his mid-20s – football player, accessory to murder, unsuccessful husband. It was fun, too, to play historical characters like Kerouac against characters I’d entirely made up, like Edie’s mother, who I make into this Phyllis Schlafly conservative matron kind of character.

6. The last section deals with the Kinsey Report. It is fascinating the way you were able to intertwine the clinical and the carnal.

Kinsey is fascinating, and it wasn’t until the 1990s, when I was starting this book, that this stuff started to really come out. I didn’t exaggerate any of that, and in fact probably underplayed some of it. Can you imagine having paid employee orgies, as a part of the research agenda of a major university – and in Indiana, of all places!

Part of what the novel is about is the roots of the 1960s liberal and even libertine society being nascent in the 1940s. Kinsey, like Malcolm and like Kerouac, was ahead of his time in imagining freedoms that didn’t yet exist in American society. Imperfectly, to be sure, in all three cases, but heroically, to my mind.

7. Each chapter of this book examines a different aspect of 50's America: jazz, drugs, beatniks, suburbia, prison, race, sex, celebrity. What about the 50's fascinates you? What does this book show us about the 50's?

I always cast it in my mind as the 1940s and the 1960s, as I’ve described it above. The 1950s were that period of transition and error and experiment in between.
Malcolm and Jack is also about American Empire, and the 50s is the first decade of true American Empire. American Imperialism, of course, had begun in the late 19th century. But the we-can-do-no-wrong superpower mentality, which reached its psychotic apotheosis in the Guantanamo-Abu Ghraib Bush years, began in the 1940s. It’s something of a parable of why war is so dangerous and insidious. Hitler obviously was someone who had to be resisted and defeated. But the narrative it spawned was too intoxicating, so much so that the son of a combatant of those days, Bush Jr., was entirely absorbed by it to such an extent he felt it as a vision, stronger than facts themselves, the “reality-based community” he felt free to disregard, so possessed by glory did he feel himself to be. The national euphoria of war victory created that; anxieties persisted throughout the fifties and a full-scale rebellion tried to resist it in the sixties, but the narrative stuck around.

Maybe it’s a pathetic kind of fantasy in itself to think that a novel can oppose the most powerful people in the world. But you use what you have. And as fantasies go, it’s not a particularly harmful one.

But why the 50s also has the answer that children are drawn to correcting the mistakes of their parents’ generation. I grew up in the late 60s and 70s. My wife and I are about to have our first child, who will probably someday construct stories of my own wrongheaded, dangerous, misguided ways.

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