Sy Montgomery Interviewed by Laura Clark Rohrer

Sy Montgomery’s vibrant writing life has been forged from an awe-inspired curiosity about Earth’s animals. A naturalist and documentary scriptwriter who has penned over twenty books for adults and children, Montgomery has peered into the hidden world of the Amazon’s pink dolphins; gone searching for man-eating tigers; been lovingly assaulted by the globe’s only flightless parrot; and taken an expedition into the “Tarantula Capitol of the World.” A master of decoding scientific complexities, her work focuses not only on animals, but also the individuals who study them. Her adventurous spirit and poetic prose prompted The Boston Globe to describe her as “part Indiana Jones and part Emily Dickinson.”

In The Soul of an Octopus, Montgomery becomes enraptured by the New England Aquarium’s resident octopuses and the cluster of aquarists and volunteers who care for them. The cephalopods’ extraordinary intelligence and distinct personalities propel her both into the water and into a nuanced exploration of consciousness in which she examines “what it means to think, to feel, and to know.”


The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery book cover, 2015Laura Clark Rohrer: The Soul of an Octopus is built around the question, “What is it like to be an octopus?” How did you approach writing a book in which you seek to understand the unknowable?

Sy Montgomery: Well, I think I have a wonderful capacity for ignorance. (Laughing) And I’m exploiting my own hunger to know. The things we want to know most are probably unknowable. That curiosity can give us an almost octopus-like elasticity to our mind.

LCR: Is there something unique about octopuses that allowed you to connect with them so deeply, or do you find yourself connecting with other animals on that level?

SM: Oh yeah, I have always felt deeply connected to different animals because, as a child, I didn’t feel there was a separation to start with. Most of us as children don’t feel that separation. Most of us as children, our dreams are filled with animals, and we can still feel the connection to our own past as hunter-gatherers who had to pay attention to the natural world and feel part of it. So that’s who we are, and to embrace the rest of animate creation is our own destiny as humans. And it is extremely dangerous for us to lose that. We’re now seeing the results of what happens when we lose that. We get pollution, we get overhunting and deforestation, and it starts to come back and bite us.

LCR: It almost seems to be rooted too in selfishness, where we forget about the other entities that we share the world with. You point out in your book that the underwater world of the octopus actually dominates much more of the Earth than humans do. It’s convenient, it seems, to ignore that other beings have feelings.

SM: Oh yes, because then we can do all kinds of things to their habitat and to them. It gives us license to treat them badly if we pretend that they don’t think, feel and know. And we’re starting to realize that when we do that we’re poisoning ourselves, we’re poisoning our own world, and we’re poisoning our own spirit.

LCR: So have you gotten any flack from the scientific community for arguing that a cephalopod has a soul?

SM: Interestingly, no. Nature reviewed my book and gave it a fabulous review. But the Wall Street Journal did not. I was thrilled they reviewed it, but it was the Wall Street Journal that said, We can’t know about this.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Sy Montgomery” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]The things we want to know most are probably unknowable. That curiosity can give us an almost octopus-like elasticity to our mind.[/pullquote]

LCR: Do you think that shows that some scientists are more open to the possibility that animals are thinking, feeling beings than the public is?

SM: The public, I think, is ready to embrace that. Take, for instance, your own dog, your own cat. These are creatures who are experiencing the world in a vivid and important way. They love their lives as we love our lives and [we think] that their lives matter and that if we have a soul they have a soul.

But there are now scientific conferences about animals’ emotions and animals’ intellect. Science is looking at this. I mean, not all of science is, and some scientists work very hard to maintain what they see as a right to cut animals up and look into their brains and squash them and then look at their juices.

Animals are such great teachers for us. We’ve known this, you know. Part of what it means to be human is recognizing the connection that we have with other species. So I think when we reconnect with the rest of animate creation it makes us better creatures.

LCR: Would you say that’s the environmental message within this book?

SM: Yes, yes. It’s the environmental message, it’s the spiritual message, that’s what it all boils down to. It’s the how-to-be-a-happy-person message.

LCR: Having octopus friends helps you become a happier person?

SM: Absolutely. I would go home every day from the aquarium every Wednesday singing in my car, top of my lungs. I was filled with elation, just bubbling with elation. I loved those days.

LCR: Were you at all surprised that an octopus could have that effect on you?

SM: Yeah, I guess I was because, here is somebody separated from us. We shared an ancestor half a billion years ago with this animal. And they just are way on the other side of the divide. They don’t have any bones at all. They can pour themselves like water through tiny openings, they can taste with their skin. They are as alien as you can get. If you look at made-up space aliens, none of them are as strange as an octopus and—could I be friends with someone like that? Well, yes, I could and I could care for them very, very deeply.

I look at probably one of the greatest ethologists of all time and that is Jane Goodall. And how did she study chimpanzees and reveal to us the lives of these animals in a way so startling that it caused us, pretty much, to re-define humanity? Well, yes, she used objective methods but she also was unafraid to use her empathy, her intuition, and her emotions. She used her relationship with the study animals as a tool of inquiry and I did that too. I’m not a scientist. I don’t pretend to be a scientist, but I’m a writer and I have eyes, and I have a heart, and that’s what I used.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”Sy Montgomery” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]I think when we reconnect with the rest of animate creation it makes us better creatures.[/pullquote]

LCR: It seems you used that same approach to understand human characters in this book. Did you expect to tell both the stories of the animals and those of the humans that connected over the aquarium tanks?

SM: I didn’t. I had no idea, frankly, that the people would be so great. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a situation that everyone I met connected with an institution was somebody who I just loved. It’s an extraordinary situation. These are great people. Their stories were kind of like the setting for the jewel that is the octopus’s life because you could see so many parallels. It was great to be able to look at these different situations that people and animals both were facing.

LCR: Some have framed your book as a really good argument against trapping wild animals in zoos and aquariums. What do you say to that?

SM: Well, there are very forward-looking people who can see a day when we don’t keep animals in captivity against their will. But when you think of the world as it is now—in the wild, [octopus] lay 100,000 eggs. Now, why is the ocean not full of octopus? It’s because every one but two of those tiny babies are killed, and in most cases someone eats them alive. So the life that you might have in captivity as an octopus might start to look pretty good if you’re being kept in a place where you are not only safe but there’s something interesting for you to do every day.

So from the standpoint of the individual, probably an octopus lucky enough to live in the New England Aquarium is having a better life than the typical Giant Pacific octopus in the wild who, every single day, has to worry about being torn limb from limb. So, I don’t feel that the octopus that’s kept at a good aquarium is being subjected to horrible cruelty. I think that they can have a very good life in captivity, but at the same time I totally applaud the leaders who are looking at a day when we really look at what the animals want and the value of their lives to them and not just the value of their lives to us.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Sy Montgomery” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]I’m not a scientist. I don’t pretend to be a scientist, but I’m a writer and I have eyes, and I have a heart, and that’s what I used.[/pullquote]

LCR: You had never gone scuba diving before working on The Soul of an Octopus. Had you done any kind of underwater research before?

SM: No, I had stayed tethered to the air. I love to swim and stuff, and I’d done a book on pink dolphins, but I’d never done scuba. And since then, I’ve done a book which is coming out next year for younger readers on great white sharks [The Great White Shark Scientist], and I got to dive in the shark cage and that was just fantastic.

LCR: And you came back with all of your legs and everything else?

SM: I was in a cage. In fact I was interested whether I would be frightened. Not only was I not frightened, but I felt an enormous sense of tranquility as the shark approached. The shark was not menacing at all, none of them were that we met. But the feeling I had when this animal was approaching when I was in the cage was the sea had gathered itself in this shape of a shark and was coming toward me.

It was like John 3:16, “And the word became flesh and dwelt among us.” That’s what it felt like, the sea became flesh and came swimming towards me and all I could feel was this great sense of … of tranquil awe as this beautiful creature, as lovely as a knight in white satin, came effortlessly swimming towards me and it was just a privilege that I had, to be in the company of this beautiful fish in his world. That was great.

LCR: It sounds like all of your work becomes spiritual on a level. Is observing animals in the wild your own form of religion?

SM: Well, I’m also Methodist! (Laughing) I still do The Lord’s Prayer and all that kind of stuff. But there’s more than one way to God, and one great way to get to know someone is by studying their works.

LCR: Lovely! What were you doing when you found out that you were a Finalist for the National Book Award?

SM: Oh, this was funny—I was playing with my puppy! But what is more interesting is when I found out I made the longlist. That was when I was in the car with Wilson, driving to the aquarium. I was giving a talk that night about the children’s book [The Octopus Scientists: Exploring the Mind of a Mollusk] with Keith Ellenbogen, and when I was introduced for the talk, person introducing me got to tell 200 people that our aquarium was starring in a book that was longlisted for the National Book Awards and everyone just erupted into applause. It was unbelievable.


Laura Clark Rohrer is a writer and magazine editor based in Pittsburgh, Pa. Her science writing has appeared on She is the senior editor of Pitt Magazine.

Carla Power Interviewed by Merritt Tierce

If the Oceans Were Ink is an introduction to the Quran, to Islam, to the extraordinarily devout and humble Sheikh Akram, and perhaps most importantly to a rare effort: Carla Power’s attempt, as a secular American, to read and understand the text that shapes the lives of more than a billion people in our world. She approaches this endeavor with great diligence and respect, and never takes the less strenuous path when it comes to difficult conversations about gender roles, cultural divides, jihad, stereotypes, and the nature of faith itself. With a journalist’s mind for the story, a born traveler’s heart for the adventure of crossing borders, and a seeker’s yen for the poetry and mysticism of belief, Power creates an exceptional record of a timeless quest.


If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by Carla Power book cover, 2015Merritt Tierce: The Sheikh points to what he calls the laziness of obsessing over details in the Quran rather than investigating its heart, and of avoiding the challenges of thinking for oneself. You write “Gore and absolutes always grab people’s attention faster than poetry and nuance,” a reality you’ve come by as a journalist; your book points to the laziness in media coverage that privileges the sensational over the subtle. But when the object is to sell papers or generate clicks or increase ad buys, rather than save one’s immortal soul, what exactly is the path (or impetus) toward what might be more honest portrayals of Islam by Westerners? That is—you specifically dedicated a year to the poetry and nuance, and a book’s worth of words. Is there a way to calibrate this more probing, respectful approach to the frenetic pace of the 24/7 news cycle, and did your time with the Sheikh give you any insight into what that way is?

Carla Power: It comes down to what we define as “news.” Geopolitical realities today mean you have to report on groups like ISIS and the Afghan and Middle Eastern conflicts. The economic realities of the news business mean you need clicks, since competition for readers’ attention is stiffer than it’s ever been. But we’ve got to rethink what constitutes “news,” because if we don’t, and we just see it as reporting on blood and explosions, then the extremists of both stripes—ISIS and Boko Haram in Islamic societies, and Islamophobes in the West—have won.

It’s a tough balance. Since the rise to prominence of ISIS, the media have been locked into a kind of ghastly dance with jihadis, where it is these violent outliers who are presented, over and over, as representative of Islam. The extremists have figured out ways of staying in the Western headlines, and the rest of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims haven’t. Let’s face it: quietism is a yawn.

We’ve got to find compelling ways of telling other stories. By focusing exclusively on violence or the worn and predictable narratives of Scary Violent Muslim Men and Muffled Oppressed Muslim Women, we choke off any hope of hearing about other currents in Islamic societies. It’s these internal debates that are crucial to combating not just the image of extremism in media, but for combating extremism itself. The crazies have thrived on the oxygen of publicity. If we figured out a way to give the quiet men and women challenging the crazies near the same exposure, that in itself lends life to their arguments.

I once pitched a piece about a group of top Muslim women thinkers who had come out with the first comprehensive analysis of the Quran’s famous verse, 4:34, which has been used over time to make men authorities over women. It’s the verse that Muslim feminists have called “the DNA of patriarchy” in the Muslim world. So to me, as a journalist, watching Muslim activists across the Islamic world struggle to reform marriage, divorce and inheritance law, this seemed a critical publication, an event arguably more newsworthy of coverage than yet another suicide bombing or hate crime.

The piece came out, but not as news. It was posted in the relatively quiet backwater of the Ideas section. I get why, but I also see the irony: if these women had blown something up, instead of attacking the status quo using classical sources and carefully plotted arguments, they’d have made it to the news section.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Carla Power” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]Getting people with divergent views sitting down over lattes and agreeing to disagree is a long way from signing peace treaties. But it’s a first step.[/pullquote]

MT: I love the point you make about equality for women when you say “Akram could content himself with a just God who would even things out after death. Yoked as I was to this life, I couldn’t afford to see my justice deferred. I needed it now, in this world, in my own kitchen and bedroom…” Are you satisfied with Akram’s assertion that the Muslim practice of male guardianship is (or can be) just?

CP: No. Or rather, yes, having the man being the provider for the household can potentially be just, if you’ve hit the jack-pot and you have a just man doing the providing. But without readings of the Quran allowing for true gender justice, assuming that men are guardians of women opens the gateway for massive abuse of power. Muslim feminists around the world are arguing that the medieval definitions of ‘guardianship’—the ones that underpin constitutions and legal codes in many Muslim countries—need revising in light of 21st century realities. They’re doing this from inside the Islamic tradition, not by importing ideas from outside of it.

Akram believes men should be a support for women rather than an authority over them; that said, he’s not as worried about reforming the old notion of the husband being the provider, and thus having the final say in household affairs.

Akram’s more sanguine about potential abuse of power than I am. As you point out, he’s convinced that abusers of power in this life will get theirs in the next one. But he’s a quietist: lots of Muslims are much more eager to see justice—whether gender justice, or economic justice, or political justice—in their lifetimes.

MT: One of the Sheikh’s major refrains is that, for many who claim Islam, there is too much of a focus on being Muslim, as an identity, rather than practicing piety; I feel exactly the same is true for the rampant and ramped-up jingoism many Americans have exhibited post-9/11—not only private citizens, but, dangerously, our government and military. At least the Sheikh has the Quran on his side when it comes to underlining Islam’s call to practice patience, purity, and pacifism, and ignore what distracts from one’s personal submission to Allah. Any thoughts on what a corollary for taming rabid militarized patriotism might be?

CP: Jingoism’s one thing; patriotism’s another. We’ve got to chip away at the notion that being patriotic means supporting imperialism, whether domestic or overseas. After 9/11, Muslims have watched extremists define the global image of their religion, while millions of Americans have watched the notion of what it means to be an American hijacked by post 9/11 wars overseas. If it’s up to ordinary Muslims to remind us that Islam is something bigger than beards and veils, it’s up to all Americans not to let the term ‘patriotism’ become the property of flag-waving jingoists.

The struggle for a pluralistic Islam has much in common with the struggle for an American patriotism that’s more than jingoistic chest-thumping. Just as Akram is urging his students to think about being Muslim as being about actions rather than a matter of beards and veils, we need to do the same. If the Sheikh goes back to his Quran, would-be patriots ought to go back to the Constitution, and its idea that to be an American is to struggle “in order to form a more perfect union.” I think of Obama’s speech last spring, on the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches, where he talked about patriotism as recognizing that America was not a finished thing, but an action—a non-stop struggle to reconcile realities and ideals.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”Carla Power” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]If it’s up to ordinary Muslims to remind us that Islam is something bigger than beards and veils, it’s up to all Americans not to let the term ‘patriotism’ become the property of flag-waving jingoists.[/pullquote]

MT: Your willingness to engage in earnest with the Sheikh, to try to understand Islam and the Quran from his vantage, and in person, feels so necessary in the age of the Internet’s faceless echo chamber. And yet you are a secular humanist, and the Sheikh is a person who, though it’s hard to imagine a more consummate scholar, believes in an actual fiery hell. Was it difficult to grant the whole set of truths that are unequivocal to the Sheikh’s worldview, and perhaps impossible in your own? (It seems eminently plausible for secular or non-Muslim religious Americans of relatively tolerant mindsets—and relatively stable socioeconomic situations—to take a “live and let live” stance toward Islam, but your position as a seeker is not one of neutrality. You choose instead to deliberately work at understanding what you don’t understand. I’m interested in hearing about how you have a conversation with someone when you know going into it that there are some things they just believe and you just don’t?)

CP: There were days that I sat across a cafe table from the Sheikh, but felt that I was staring out across the Grand Canyon. I was genuinely shocked, the day that I learned that he believed in a hell with flames and chains. It was one of the things that I couldn’t quite understand, requiring a leap I just couldn’t make. Indeed, he didn’t expect me to understand it, as a non-believer—he thought belief in such things crept up on one, and didn’t fall from a great height onto you. It hasn’t crept up on me yet, and the hell issue is one that I couldn’t understand.

We could still keep having a conversation, since he wasn’t trying to convert me. I sound like a marriage counselor, in saying that it was mutual respect that allowed us to keep talking, but it was.


MT: Through your conversations with the Sheikh, the reader comes within reach of an understanding of how individual pious Muslims and individual respectful secularists (or Jews/ Christians/Hindus) can co-exist, and even enrich one another’s lives. But how can carefully wrought truces between individuals become institutionalized peace among tribes, clans, religions, nations? Did you and the Sheikh ever arrive at a position of mutual hope for that reality?

CP: You’ve asked the great question of our age—and the answer is way above my pay-grade. Everyone from Obama to parents working to stop gang violence in Rio has pondered it: how do you move beyond individual efforts at peace to group ones? Sitting here in Europe typing, I’m struck by the huge gaps at play during the migrant crisis: individuals opening their homes to the refugees, but governments and EU institutions being much slower to act—and in some cases, outright hostile. The best I can say is that it’s a slow process, particularly in a world where, for all the claims about connectivity and the global village, economic pressures mean that we’re increasingly likely to be hanging out in cultural ghettos. In the West, we’re increasingly likely to live near people who think like us, send our kids to school with people “like us”, and interact online with folks whose views echo our own.

Getting people with divergent views sitting down over lattes and agreeing to disagree is a long way from signing peace treaties. But it’s a first step. The Sheikh would tell his students to go round to their non-Muslim neighbors when they’d cooked biryani and offer them some, and start talking. That’s ad-hoc, low-tech, and will take generations to resonate in a political sphere, but it’s a recognition that peaceful and genuinely pluralistic societies hinge on people mixing.

In the current climate, even these tiny steps mean taking risks. The Sheikh had guts to invite me to speak at his madrasa in a tiny village in Uttar Pradesh. By having an American, Jewish, woman journalist speak in a madrasa in a town where even Muslim women don’t go out in public, risked offending his community in all sorts of ways. He was worried that the more conservative Deobandi madrasas in the area would label him a “liberal”—the prevailing smear among his peers. He was breaking with the town’s traditions of segregation of men and women. But he asked, and I spoke, and perhaps something shifted.


Merritt Tierce was born and raised in Texas and received her MFA in fiction writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The National Book Foundation named her a 2013 “5 Under 35” honoree, and she was a recipient of a 2011 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award. Her first novel, Love Me Back, was shortlisted for the PEN/Bingham award and won the Texas Institute of Letters’ Steven Turner Award for First Fiction. She has been a fellow at the Yaddo artists’ colony and Omi International Arts Center, and lives near Dallas with her husband and children.

Sally Mann Interviewed by Diane Mehta

Sally Mann’s reputation exploded in the nineties with the publication of her book Immediate Family, which depicted, first with unembellished clarity and then more theatrically, the lives of her children on her Virginia farm. Since then Mann has published 11 books. After Mann was asked to deliver Harvard prestigious Massey Lectures, she turned to the boxes in her attic to figure out what to say, a process that led to her eloquently smart memoir Hold Still. What you learn about Mann in 6Hold Still is that she is a provocateur in the best possible way. She is whip-smart: Her mind takes in the world in ways both blunt and slant, and her obsessions are keenly felt. Threading through the memoir, which probes family secrets, long-lasting love, horses, raising children, the legacy of slavery in the South, and her father’s art and influence, is an alert curiosity about the world. She is sharp on the slippery role of memory, how photographs obscure it, steal it. We spent a week talking, over email, about everything from how it feels to photograph the dead to her love of endurance horse-racing.


Hold Still by Sally Mann book cover, 2015Diane Mehta: In the prologue to Hold Still, you say, “I knew that a tarted-up form of reminiscence wouldn’t do, no matter how aesthetically adroit or merciful.” The book is frank and playful, sometimes fully exposed and other times wonderfully wry. Did you achieve what you set out to do, did you capture “memory’s truth?”

Sally Mann: No, I hope I didn’t capture it. “Memory’s truth” is a lie. The phrase comes from a paragraph in Salmon Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, in which a character, Saleem, contrasts his vivid memory of a tidal wave in the Sundarbans with the actual facts of that time. Saleem’s fictional version, his memory’s truth, is just as strong as the actual truth of this particular moment, and, as is sometimes the case, more desirable.

In Eric Ormsby’s poem, “Childhood House,” he describes the writer’s sense of being unmoored from his past after his mother’s death. That poem delivers a sledgehammer blow to any delusions of fixity or solidity in memory’s relation to the past. It “flits, occludes, is variable, sidesteps, bleeds away, eludes all recovery; worse, is not what it seemed once, alters unfairly,” Ormsby says. Writing and photography are, at best, coarse-mesh sieves for catching memory’s particles. For me, “memory’s truth” is best likened to that mathematically proven line that draws infinitely nearer its object but never arrives.

DM: You refer to Zola’s idea that memory is elusive: “With each photograph I was forgetting,” you said. What moments between the topics you’ve chronicled do you think about most? Do you wish you photographed them?

SM: I think about so many things, unwritten, un-photographed, much of it as entertaining and complex as what I wrote about in Hold Still. I used to envy writers their technical and temporal freedom:  If they want to grab hold of something, they don’t need sixty pounds of camera equipment right then and there; they can just shamble to the Olivetti and start typing whenever the Muse checks in. In a way, the writing in Hold Still is my effort to honor the many important moments, and personalities that escaped my camera, ones that, in many cases, like, say, the moment with Gee-Gee—the woman who raised me—at Putney graduation or Cy Twombly laughing at the roses “up against the wall,” are un-capturable except by words.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Sally Mann” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]Writing and photography are, at best, coarse-mesh sieves for catching memory’s particles.[/pullquote]

DM: There was a scandalizing response to the nudity of your children when Immediate Familycame out in 1992. How is it different, as you’ve argued, for a woman and a mother than it has been for male artists who have photographed children nude?

SM: The few depictions of children by men, from Balthus to Lucian Freud to Jock Sturges, have been met with consternation and concern and, in the case of Sturges, the threat of legal action. I think my work was treated less harshly because I was a woman and a mother than if I had been a male, even a father. But, all the same, the release of Immediate Family just happened to coincide with a moral panic about the depiction of children and that brought the whole question to the fore.  It was unpleasant for a while but, as a country, it would appear we’ve moved on to other sources of paranoia. I sure wouldn’t wish my particular travail on anyone else, but am pleased we weathered it as well as we did and I’m now delighted to leave that episode to the historians (and the tireless Terry Gross).

DM: You’ve said you were blindsided by the controversy that emerged out of Richard Woodward’s 1992 article about you in the New York Times. It was worsened by debate around the 1990 Mapplethorpe exhibit at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center that included, among its 175 photographs, five photographs of men in sadomasochistic poses and two of children with their genitals exposed, provoking widespread discussion about what constituted obscenity in art. Is there obscenity in art?

SM: I’m not qualified to comment on the legal application of the word “obscenity,” being more in the camp of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who famously said, in 1964, “I know it when I see it.” But I know for sure its moral meaning is debased when demagogues, who think nothing of bombing hospitals or clear-cutting rainforests, presume to apply it to pictures.

DM: Tell me about the difference between a photograph of a person and the person being photographed. Why do viewers want to overlap the two?

SM: There’s a fundamental urge to equate the man-made image with its real-world referent, which probably goes back to shamanistic efforts to control a frightening environment: Be nice to the rain god’s effigy and maybe the rains will come. But I am not so far removed from that impulse and remain troubled by the relationship between the depiction and the reality, or the perceived reality.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”Sally Mann” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]Obviously there are brilliant photographers working in all media, and far be it for me to preach a single method for artistically exploring the South, which remains for all of us a fascinating, paradoxical, infinitely inspiring place.[/pullquote]

DM: Can you talk about your influences? In Hold Still, you mention Wynn Bullock, W. Eugene Smith, Lewis Carroll, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, and Norman Sieff.

SM: There are 100 more, and from all disciplines. I’m a magpie image-gatherer. As we say at auctions, items too numerous to mention: literature (Whitman, Rilke, Faulkner, Proust), a picture clipped from a newspaper of a firefighter trying to resuscitate a child, an Odetta song about a woman slipping a chained man some corn bread, the sight of a dog crazed with pain by the side of the interstate, Larry drifting in the current below the rapids at the cabin, the sombrero on Cy’s bookshelf, a ransom letter made from cut-out letters from a newspaper, Ezra Pound’s Canto 81, almost any poem by Sharon Olds or W.S. Merwin.

DM: What interested you in 19th century photography and why do you prefer it?

SM: Cataloging the Michael Miley (1841-1918) archive at Washington and Lee University hooked me on the nineteenth-century photographic idiom: I printed thousands of his glass negatives, many of them taken literally in my backyard, and grew to love the odd juxtaposition of specificity and mystery. But do I prefer it? Not always. I’ve certainly seen some contemporary work that gives me a similar frisson.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Sally Mann” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]I absorbed my father’s fascination with Death, which he regarded without fear or loathing but as a kind of awkward, late-arriving guest at life’s banquet who has amazing stories to tell to anyone who can listen.[/pullquote]

DM: You’ve said, “When shooting with collodion, I wasn’t just snapping a picture. I was fashioning, with fetishistic ceremony, an object whose ragged black edges gave it the appearance of having been torn from time itself.” Why is the wet-plate collodion process, with what you’ve called its freedom of expression and the satisfaction of the ceremonial process, perfect for what you call the “nostalgia-drenched deep South?”

SM: I’m inclined to label as “holistic” those old-time, folksy, soulful, artisanal processes that slicker technologies have displaced. There’s a correspondingly rich theoretical discourse asserting the superiority of that holistic process. But, for me these older processes are simply more congenial for a whole host of personal reasons, not least their openness to accident and undirected distortion. Obviously there are brilliant photographers working in all media, and far be it for me to preach a single method for artistically exploring the South, which remains for all of us a fascinating, paradoxical, infinitely inspiring place.

DM: You’ve talked about making art a kind of childcare. Included in your 1984 family portraits series is “Damaged Child,” a photograph of your daughter Jessie swollen with gnat bites. Your shots gradually became more stylized as you added props and created more elaborately conceived portraits of your children’s lives. What did that transition feel like?

SM: That 1984 photograph of Jessie marked the starting point of the Immediate Family series, which began, as you say, simply by documenting the everyday joys and woes of childrearing: playtime, bloody noses, wet beds. The element of theatricality was a natural progression, effected with the collaboration of the increasingly sophisticated kids who were themselves using role-play as a means of trying out the world.

DM: You cite as influences Margaret Bourke-White’s You Have Seen Their Faces, about sharecroppers in the Deep South, and the Steichen-curated 1955 MOMA exhibit The Family of Man. What is it about these that so affected you?

SM: Those are among the foundational texts, if you will, of my particular aesthetic. They somehow spoke to me both on the deepest, most universal level of human compassion and, as well, depicted the unforgettable everyday scenes I saw from the passenger window as I drove with my father on his house calls.

DM: You’re currently photographing African-American men whose ancestors were slaves. What drives your fascination for Emmett Till and what impact has this had on this series?

SM: Till’s murder, which somehow lodged deeply in my young brain, and the unreformed aspects of Southern society which it represents, must necessarily preoccupy any non-Neanderthal Southerner, artistic or not.

DM: Your father had a huge influence on you; he even gave you your first Leica. What skills did you take from his renegade, artistic sensibility, and how do you see them in your work?

SM: I’ve dedicated a quarter of my book to discussing this man and his influence on me, but the thrust of it is that, among other things, I absorbed my father’s fascination with Death, which he regarded without fear or loathing but as a kind of awkward, late-arriving guest at life’s banquet who has amazing stories to tell to anyone who can listen. He listened, and I hope to be doing the same. And, more than that, I think I learned to not turn into that boatman he thought himself to be, yearning, as I say in Hold Still, to go with the current of desire (his largely unrealized passion for art and literature) but rowing toward another destiny (his career as a physician).

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”Sally Mann” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]No cinematic imagery can prepare you for the olfactory and tactile and visible assault on the senses at death’s own acreage.[/pullquote]

DM: I’m fascinated by the shots you took of bodies decomposing naturally at the Tennessee Body Farm, published in What Remains. How did you feel about doing this work, and was it in any way an evolution or response to the evocative, dreamier imagery of Deep South?

SM: It was a natural segue from photographing the blood, sweat and tear-soaked soil of the Deep South, then the Civil War battlefields, to working at the Body Farm. In all cases the landscape was death-inflected, but, oh my, did the Body Farm make the carnage of the Civil War easily imaginable for me. No cinematic imagery can prepare you for the olfactory and tactile and visible assault on the senses at death’s own acreage. But just as at the battlefields, here the fundamental opposites of human experience—death and life—were brought together. Like the battlefields, like the Delta, death is the fatal yet fertile mother: What devours also creates.

DM: You’ve pointed out that few sister photographers have appraised and studied a man’s body the way you have with your husband Larry Mann, in the ongoing series Marital Trust and in Proud Flesh. You said: “I joined the thinly populated group of women who have looked unflinchingly at men, and who frequently have been punished for doing so.” How does your female gaze differ from the male gaze that we are so used to?

SM: I’m not sure it’s possible to make comparisons on the basis of two such unequal datasets.  Walk in to any museum and you find room after room filled with images of women as appraised, desired and judged by men. This is the civilization we’ve all grown up in.  The answering voices of women are, as yet, barely audible. It’s difficult to contrast the female with the male gaze when the latter has such an advantage in cultural saturation.

But I’m working to remedy that. The act of looking appraisingly at a man—making eye contact on the street, asking to photograph him, studying his body—has always been a brazen venture for a woman. For a man, these acts are commonplace, even expected. But it has been especially difficult to photograph this man I love with the same degree of calculation and unconcern that I have seen reflected in the parallel work of so many male artists. It is a testament to Larry’s tremendous dignity and strength that he allowed me to take the kind of truly candid pictures that others might find awkward or even shaming.

DM: How do you manage and reconcile this power and responsibility for photographing your husband, even as you say muscular dystrophy and age has ravaged his body? How does loving him affect the photographer-subject relationship?

SM: Photographing what I love is second nature to me, so my work with Larry continues a long-practiced habit.  His trust and patience, and absolute lack of insecurity, continue to amaze me— remember the distinction that Richard Avedon made between the professionals and the innocents? Let’s hope that Larry won’t some day wake up and realize he was an innocent. Joking aside, we have a pretty clear understanding, not that dissimilar to the one I had with the kids: He and they have all believed strongly enough in the work to make their risks worth taking. Of course it’s also more interesting than that; they learned the difference between being a subject and being oneself, and the complicated, intimate relationship between the two.

DM: Given your love for horses and endurance riding, and the 2006 riding accident that broke a vertebra in your back, why haven’t you done a book exclusively on photographing horses?

SM: When I ride, especially the fast-flowing-as-one with the galloping horse on the mountain trails—not to be overly poetic but, yes, it does happen like that—I feel a freedom like no other. It’s basic and primitive and in no way relates to the life of my mind or of my aesthetic sensibility. I keep the two parts of my life completely separate.

DM: Do you feel you have truly captured yourself in any of your self-portraits?

SM: I defer to the myth of Tantalus, in which the desired object is always out of reach.


Diane Mehta’s essays, articles, and poems are in the Paris Review Daily, The Literary Review, Prairie Schooner, The Believer, BOMB, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, Fast Company, and the New York Times. She has a small book about poetry and is writing a novel about a mixed-race Jewish-Jain couple set in 1946 Bombay. Twitter: @DianeMehta

Ta-Nehisi Coates Interviewed by Jason Diamond

Even though he tells me, “You aren’t really conscious of what you’re doing always,” it’s hard to read 2008’s The Beautiful Struggle, Ta-Nehisi Coates‘s of growing up in a tough Baltimore neighborhood and his 2015 book Between the World and Me, which starts off addressed to his son, and not think of the deeper connection between the two books. His memoir was about the things his own father taught him as a young growing up in Baltimore, while Between the World and Me is Coates bridging what came before him and what’s happening today to give his son some context and understanding of the black experience in America. Both books are about parents teaching their children about the world, and it’s that very personal nature of the father talking directly to his son that makes Between the World and Me impossible to put down once you open it up.


Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates book cover, 2015Jason Diamond: When you were starting to plan out Between the World and Me, did it initially start out with the idea to address it to your son?

Ta-Nehisi Coates: No. I had the idea to do it after that. I tried to write it, and I wrote like four different drafts of it, and went back and fourth with my editor. Once we had a pretty decent draft, Chris [Jackson, Coates’s editor] really felt like it was still missing something, and that was where I came up with the idea for the letter. If I recall, we were going to write a straight essay, and then I was going to have a letter to my son after that, but it never got to that. I have some scraps of what that letter would have looked like, but that ended up in Between the World and Me because when I thought of it, I was like, ‘hell, why don’t I angle the whole thing to the boy.’ The dangerous thing about that is that I didn’t want to be corny, like that can be really corny. One of the things that Chris told me, many people had tried to take the ball from Baldwin, to do some sort of impression of The Fire Next Time because it’s such a seminal essay, and most of them had failed. I was really conscious of that. I thought about that, that It could be syrupy, it couldn’t be the talk in any cliche form. It needed to be something bracing, direct, and aggressive, and at the same time reflect how I actually talk in my house.

JD: How do you handle being compared to somebody with a legacy like James Baldwin’s? Does it take you by surprise to hear people say things like you’re “the next Baldwin” or this generation’s version of him?

TC: To be honest, I had heard it before. There were people that said that about my other work. I actually think his influence in my writing was there before Between the World and Me. Baldwin–excuse my language–didn’t give a fuck. He just didn’t care, and I mean that in the best sense of the world. He just kind of said, ‘this is what I see.’ And he’s seemed so stripped of all the kind of maudlin bullshit that you have to do when you talk about black people or America. He didn’t play, and that as a writer is such a radical declaration of your humanity, and I really wanted to do that.

JD: And that comes through in his writing just as it does when you watch something like his 1965 debate with William F. Buckley…

TC: Well Buckley’s just full of shit. He’s just blowing hot air. It’s the enemy of writing, the enemy of any sort of truth seeking, the enemy of trying to actually understand something.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Ta-Nehisi Coates” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]It needed to be something bracing, direct, and aggressive, and at the same time reflect how I actually talk in my house.[/pullquote]

JD: I read that Toni Morrison was one of the only people you reached out to for an endorsement. What did it mean to you to get that endorsement from her?

TC: I didn’t want anybody else, I mean there was one other person, E. L. Doctorow, but he was sick. Doctorow because of the way he interacts with history, but Toni Morrison is the goddess of black literature right now. There’s a tradition that’s behind Between The World and Me that I’m really trying to evoke, and it’s not just Baldwin, it’s Richard Wright, it’s Sonia Sanchez, it’s [Amiri] Baraka; all of that is in there, it’s all baked into that text even though Baldwin is the most obvious one. And our greatest living representation of that tradition is Toni Morrison.

JD: One of my favorite quotes in the book is, “I have spent much of my studies searching for the right question by which I might understand the breach between the world and me.” Do you get any closer to understanding that breach by writing?

TC: Yes. That’s the primary reason to write. You just understand more and more and more, and you just begin to get it. You see the architecture. It’s the sky slowly revealing itself, and suddenly you can see the stars and how they relate to each other, and you can see Mars and Venus. Yes, that’s the reason to write.


Jason Diamond is the author of the forthcoming memoir Searching for John Hughes (William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2016). He’s the founder of Vol. 1 Brooklyn and an associate editor at Men’s Journal.

Norman Mailer Accepts the 2005 Medal for Distinguished Contribution in American Letters

Presented at the 2005 National Book Awards Ceremony and Dinner
November 16, 2005
New York Marriott Marquis, Times Square, New York, New York

Garrision Keillor (host): Toni Morrison has won so many awards and prizes it is easier to talk about the ones that she has not won like the Heisman Trophy, the Cy Young Award. To the best of my knowledge, at least, she has not. She has won this prize and the other one and the one named for Joseph Pulitzer and she has, of course, won the prize where the phone call comes in the morning from the guy with the Swedish accent. You must wonder which of your friends would be capable of doing this to you. This year it is 35 years since the publication of her first novel, The Bluest Eye. Please welcome Toni Morrison. [Applause]

Toni Morrison (introducing Norman Mailer): Thank you. Thank you. Actually, several people ought to be standing here next to me to complete this recognition of Norman Mailer’s career. No one perspective can voice or even successfully accomplish it. Certainly, there should be someone who experienced World War II. There should be another with very keen memories of the Vietnam era. A third who fell under the sway of Muhammad Ali. There should be a fourth who understood the interior void of a death row inmate, how attractive death is to a killer, even or especially if it is his own.

Such a collection of readers and writers who prize the carnivorous intelligence accompanied by huge and provocative talent would underscore what I believe to be simply undeniable, that the history of American literature in the 20th and early 21st century would be both depleted and inaccurate, minus the inclusion of the work of Norman Mailer. [Applause]

In fiction, nonfiction, polemic, literary criticism, he has plumbed war, Hollywood, the CIA, death row, politics, moon shots, his gaze as wide as his intellect is passionate. Well, loud and justifiable praises of his prowess as a writer, however, competes with some rather violent objections to some of his views. I have to say I have my own list of objections that I can peruse at my leisure, not least of which is an almost comic obtuseness regarding women and race, [Laughter, applause] which I have to say even he admits to.

But at the very least, excoriating this particular writer’s view is a battle worth engaging. It is not a pseudo-struggle with a sly dissembling antagonist who hides behind the pale pose of the mediocre. Norman Mailer is nothing if not a worthy adversary. If one thinks of America as a charged field, Mailer is one of its tallest lightning rods. It has always seemed to me that the body of his work is very much like the America he loves and chastens. Like the country, the man, the writer, is fascinated by the romance of violence. Like the country, he is confrontational in his despair of American military confrontations. Like the country, he is routinely disrespectful of borders, trespassing literary genre and classifications with glee, innovative, creating new vocabularies as he merges the traditional with the new. He is willing to dissect the imperial demands of his own ego while he deplores the demands of the national ego, endlessly confessional, offering his feelings and experiences to help educate and shape those of others.

Generous, intractable, often wrong, always engaged, mindful of and amused by his own power and his prodigious gifts, wide spirited. Like the nation itself, sui generis, a true original. I think you would agree that for a writer this prolific, this able with language, he should have the last word. So let me quote it. If, as he has said, “Writers are the marrow of the nation, its nutrient,” then as a nation, as readers, we are healthier, stronger, smarter, more resistant, perhaps even more honest because of him. Ladies and gentlemen, Norman Mailer.

Norman Mailer: It’s a curious night. First I was cursing Larry Ferlinghetti because he was saying all the things that I’m going to say and then I was being honored by Toni Morrison whose gift, I think, was to show me, since she was talking about me, her gift was to show me that I am obtuse about women. [Laughter] Which reminded me of my wife because my wife can hear 50 paeans of praise and one small criticism and all she will ever remember is the small criticism.

So I’m obtuse about women but wary of them. At any rate, I thank Toni Morrison for her prodigious generosity. On my best days, I have that high an opinion of myself but not on my worst ones.

Now, here comes the speech, the speech for which I cursed Ferlinghetti. Something interesting happened with this speech on the way to the occasion which is that I forgot it. We were ten minutes away from my home and I shrieked and said to my wife and one of my sons, “We have to go back. We have to go back. I put my speech in the wrong suit jacket.” It never happened to me before. May it never happen to me again.

All right. In these years, I’m feeling the woeful emotions of an old carriage maker as he watches the disappearance of his trade before the onrush of the automobile. The serious novel may soon be in danger of being adored with the

same poignant concern we feel for endangered species. There is all but unspoken shame in the literary world today. The passion readers used to feel for venturing into a serious novel has withered. Indeed, how many of you even in this audience do not obtain more pleasure from an egregiously cruel review of a good novel in the New York Times than from the art involved in reading that good but serious book?

Meanwhile, we are told that literacy is improving and more novels are being read than ever before. That may be true. It is just that the vast majority of such successful fiction is all too forgettable. The purpose of a great novel is not, however, to cater to one’s passing needs but to enter one’s life, even alter it. So the great novel will kill no time on airplane trips. They are not good page turners. They are in danger of becoming a footnote to our technological, cybernetic and advertising worlds.

Nature’s rude beast has appropriated the marketplace. The good serious novel, and most certainly, the rare great novel, is now inimical to the needs of this marketplace. The most dedicated novels of the future are lucky, therefore, to have the same lack of relation to the ambitions and greed of the world as fine poetry offers today. So too will the serious novel be seen as doing little harm provided it is kept on that high shelf we save for family whatnots.

If these gloomy predictions are correct, let us look at least at what we may be losing. Civilization has become a dangerous vehicle, hurtling toward a fate that could be dire. Is it not by now a giant who can no longer see? It is too blind in its ambitions and blind in its wars. Its great limbs do not coordinate with each other. Theology is one of those limbs, is helpless before the unanswered questions of the holocaust, even as formal religion insists on an all good and all powerful God. While fundamentalists are gung ho in their manic rush to godly judgment, liberals are in a state of woe before their increasing powerlessness.

The great light of the Enlightenment which fortified their sense of entitlement over the last three centuries is now a flickering light. The military would do well to become familiar with the works of Max Ernst or Salvador Dalí since war has become surrealist.

What then can a great novel offer such a world? It is possible that the novelist, if his or her talent is deep, may even unravel enigmas that major disciplines are not ready to approach. Our field, our ground, our illumination does not derive from disciplines which have hardened over the centuries to advancing one chosen field of inquiry at the expense of others. We are bound to no discipline but the development of our own experience or, if we are fortunate enough to find it, our vision. So a gifted few may even be ready to explore experience far into moral advances that are not available to other professions.

On the other hand, novelists are rarely heroic. Gawky, half formed, shy, perverse, spoiled, vain in their youth, so too can their vision be astigmatic. Nonetheless, the best do look to honor the profound demands of their profession by offering insights with which goodreaders can enrich themselves on the meaning of their lives. Whose comprehension of society is not more incisive after reading Proust?Who does not know more about language once James Joyce is encountered? Who says that compassion has not been deepened by living in Tolstoy’s novels?

So where are the future Tolstoys, the future Joyces, Dostoevskys, Prousts? In the interim, let me salute the award winners who are yet to be honored on this evening. May they startle us with the breadth and power of their vision. May there be a Theodore Dreiser or a Herman Melville among them. I would say thank you for this award you are giving me tonight and I would add one coda: Would the English nation have been as great in surviving without Shakespeare? Would Ireland be entering a period of prosperity today if not for James Joyce? Thank you.



Studs Terkel Accepts the 1997 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

Picture credit: Robin Platzer

Don Logan: Good evening to all of you. I was afraid that when Wendy said there was something wrong with the microphone that she was going to blame it on CNN because Ted Turner is in town, and as you know, since he’s in television business, I thought maybe he was throwing a little jab at us here since we’re the print side of the business.

It’s a great pleasure to be up here tonight and see the faces of so many good friends and colleagues. Seeing you here in record numbers, I must add, proves that what the media has been reporting is true. That all that our industry cares about is the bottom line. Only the bottom line tonight is books. Great books. The thrill of discovering them is what drew us to publishing in the first place. And the challenging of publishing them is what keeps us going. That’s why it’s so gratifying to be a part of this splendid celebration because The National Book Foundation is all about great books. The great books that have been honored tonight with the National Book Award, and the great books yet to be written.

It was to nurture these books that the Foundation was established nearly nine years ago. Our most visible task has been the stewardship of The National Book Awards which today, I am proud to say, are regarded as our nation’s preeminent literary prize. Once more, thanks to the support of so many publishers and booksellers, the National Book Award back list is not only thriving, it has become a unique literary legacy accessible to readers everywhere.

With less fanfare, but equal success, we have been pursuing another mission as well. Nurturing the books that are waiting to be discovered by people like you and me. To that end, our Foundation works with dozens of partners across the country to bring together National Book Award authors with readers of all ages and backgrounds. In inner cities, and rural communities, at settlement houses, at Native American reservations, in elementary schools and libraries. These programs provide opportunities for thousands of ordinary adults and children to do something extraordinary, to participate in the world of books. Invariably they discover what all of us already know, that reading a great book can change your life. Even more important, some of these readers make another thrilling discovery, that they have the power to change our lives as well by writing great books of their own.

Of course, great books can also change the life of a nation, which is one of the reasons we are here tonight, to honor Studs Terkel and his twin legacies to American letters – the invention of the genre known today as Oral History, and perfection of the genre in a series of books that give voice to ordinary people living in an extraordinary time, 20th Century America.

Now Studs Terkel doesn’t call himself an oral historian, and he’s far too modest to claim a record of unparalleled achievement. So that’s why I’m giving this speech tonight, because Studs Terkel’s contribution to American letters have changed forever the way we view our history and ourselves. No one has produced oral history that speaks to the human condition with the same insight as Studs Terkel. No one has dared explored with the same empathy the social, racial, economic, and generational issues that so often divide our nation. And no one has challenged us with the same fervor to consider who truly makes history and what their place should be in the life of America. It is to celebrate these achievements that The National Book Foundation honors Studs Terkel tonight. But first, a few words about the man.

Studs, you must know, is not his real name. (laughter) You know, I have to tell you this because he’s been around so long that they are kids who think that James T. Farrel, named Studs Lonnigan after him. In fact, he came into the world as Louis, here in New York City some 85 years ago, whose parents were immigrants. His father a tailor and a man of few words. His mother, a fiery entrepreneur who dreamed of something more than dressmaking. When Louis was nine, his mother moved the family to Chicago where she became the proprietor of the Wells Grand Hotel. And he became Studs Terkel.

Of course, becoming Studs Terkel was more than just of moving and assuming a new name. His transformation began in the lobby of his mother’s hotel where at the age of nine he discovered, which is probably his greatest gift, the ability to listen. It was there that he first began listening to the conversations of his mother’s guests: tool and die makers, coppersmiths, chefs, boomer firemen, and master carpenters. Sometimes drunk, sometimes sober, almost always impassioned. They argued the great issues of the day, politics and poverty, war and work, race and the racing form.

Now any boy would have found these debates entertaining, the boy who was becoming Studs Terkel found them enthralling. In his ears the words resonated with the rhythms of real life, with the truth as they had experienced it. The more he listened, the more he wanted to hear. And the more he heard, the more he wondered why some people are embittered, and others are redeemed by the same difficult circumstances. He wondered why again, thirty years later, when he recorded some interviews in South Africa for WFMT, the radio station in Chicago, which has broadcast his daily programs for the past 45 years.

Andre Schiffrin, who had just published Yon Midrol’s Report from a Chinese Village, happen to read these interviews and he was immediately possessed by one of the truly brilliant ideas in the history of post-war publishing. He asked Studs Terkel to write a report about an American village, namely Chicago. That book, Division Street: America, published in 1967, was unlike any work of history or journalism that American readers had ever encountered because unlike other writers, Studs chose to tell his story in the words of working men and women, and in their words alone, no data, no analysis. Just unvarnished conversation about the events and the issues that shaped their lives. What’s more, his book made no claim to objectivity. By his likes, in fact, objectivity seemed undesirable because it is so often synonymous with received notions and official truths.

Instead, what Studs aimed to reveal is the unofficial truth about 20th Century America. A truth best expressed, as he has written, by the non-celebrated one on the block who is able to articulate the thoughts of his or her neighbors. As documents of the experiences and perceptions of non-celebrated people, each of the oral histories that’s followed Division Street: America is unparalleled.

Where else but in his Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece, The Good War can we gain so many profound insights into World War II? And where, but in Working, a finalist for the National Book Award, can we find a sharper focus on what we do all day, and how we feel about it.

In fact, ordinary people voice extraordinary observation in all of Studs’ books. We hear their painful recollections, and hard times. His classic oral history of the depression. We share their regrets and longings in both American Dreams and The Great Divide, books that chart our nation’s changing notion of success. We empathize with our confusion and fear in Race, his landmark report on the American obsession. And we embrace their embattled but unbowed spirit in Coming of Age, his study of the elderly.

That Studs Terkel’s books recount the history of this century through the voice of ordinary Americans is a single achievement in itself. That their voices are so vivid is another. A tribute to his uncanny ability to connect with others and to transform their conversations into unforgettable narratives. But what makes Studs Terkel’s oral histories so riveting and so deserving of a place of prominence in American letters is not just their power to reveal the unofficial truth about our history, it is their power to reveal the unofficial truth about us all. For as everyone here must know, it is virtually impossible to read a book by Studs Terkel without recognizing within its pages the very essence of ourselves. That is the power of all great literature.

And it is to celebrate that power that The National Book Foundation honors Studs Terkel tonight. Ladies and gentlemen, it is my privilege to introduce Studs Terkel and to bestow upon him tonight on behalf of my fellow board members of The National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, which comes with a $10,000 dollar cash award from the Foundation’s board of directors. Thank you, Studs.

Terkel at the National Book Awards. All photos: Robin Platzer

Studs Terkel: Thank you very much. Thank you. I’m glad that Don Logan mentioned Andre Schiffrin because he’s the man who turned my life upside down. I was in Chicago 30 years ago minding my own business. I got a phone call from Andre Schiffrin suggesting I change my line of work. That was unusual, since I was 55-years old at the time. And I was engaged mostly as a radio disc jockey, and as a Chicago gangster in soap operas. And Andre suggested early retirement from those endeavors and a new line of work. And so, in the words of Jack Jefferson, in Great White Hope, he says, “Here I be for better or for worse.” And it simply proves that if you hang around long enough, anything is possible.

And so I was thinking, listening to Don Logan, I thought that more than a touch of irony to this pleasant occasion. I am, after a fashion, being honored for celebrating the lives of the non-celebrated. For reputedly lending voice to the face in the crowd. Now this is much of what oral history is all about, it’s been with us long, long before the feather pen and ink. Long before Gutenburg and the printing press. I guess it’s been with us since the first Shaman, for the first communal fire called upon the spirits to offer a tribal tale, to reveal a hidden truth.

No accident that Alex Haley in working on Roots, visited the lands of his forebears, Gambia, to meet the Greeos, the tribal storytellers. It was Henry Mayhue, a contemporary Dickins, who sought out the needle workers and shoemakers, the street criers, the chimney sweeps, all those et ceteras. And one year, 1850, he put forth a million words, their words, in the Morning Chronicle. He gave voice to these groundlings who were so often seen like well behaved children, seldom heard in the respectibles of London, Manchester, and Birmingham. In reading that morning newspaper they were astonished, they had no idea these et ceteras, who had for so long submissively and silently served them, thought such thoughts; and what’s more, felt that way.

E.P Thompson pointed out that, may you reject the tempation to “varnish matters over with sickly sentimentality, angelizing, or canonizing the whole body of workers of this country.” Instead of speaking of them, as possessing the ordinary vices and virtues of human nature. And listen to Mayhue, it’s a public gathering in October, 1850, a gathering of tailors, and he says, “it’s easy enough to be moral after a good dinner beside a snug sea coal fire, with our heart’s well warm with final port.” It’s easy enough for those of us to enjoy these things daily, to pay that poor’s rates and love thy neighbors as themselves. But place the self-same highly respectable people on a raft without sup or pipe on the high seas, and they would toss up who would eat their fellows.

Morality on 5,000 pounds a year in Belgrave Square is a very different thing than morality on slop wages. It’s no action on Nelson Algren, who won the very first National Book Award for Fiction in 1950, always expressed his admiration for Henry Mayhue, especially for his classic, London Labor and the London Poor. Now to me this book has been scripture and Mayhue has been my North Star, in a way he has. Nor was he the last one so engaged in this adventure. It was Zora Neil Hurston who has been established already as an anthropologist and folklorest. She was a disciple of Franz Foaz, who during the great depression, was a member of the WPA, Writer’s Project in Florida, at the pay of $27.50 every two weeks, engaged in a similar adventure. She was getting the words of former slaves, children of slaves, and their children’s sharecroppers. She celebrated their lives in their own words.

And there were scores of such writers working on the project back in those days doing similar work under the auspices of Big Government. And here then is another ironic touch, parenthetically. It was the Works Progress Administration of the New Deal, best remembered by the much maligned acronym WPA, and other such alphabet agencies that saved self-esteem, the livelihoods, in many cases, the lives, of the daddies and the granddaddies of those who most condemned Big Government today. In the case of a stunning forgetfulness, sort of a case of suffering from a national Alzheimer’s Disease.
Now what distinguishes the work, the work we do today from that of our pioneers, is the presence of machine, the ubiquitous one, the tape recorder. I know of one other person who is as possessed by the tape recorder as I’ve been these past 30 years. A former president of the United States. (laughter) Though our purposes may have been somewhat different, the two of us have been equally in its thrall. Richard Nixon and I could be aptly described as neo-Cartesians. (laughter) I tape, therefore I am. (laughter) And I hope that one of these two so possessed me maybe further defined by a paraphrase, “I tape, therefore they are.” Now, who are they? Hardly worth a footnote in our histories. Who are they whom the bards have so seldom sung? Who built the seven gates of Thebes? When the Chinese Wall was built, where did the masons go for lunch? When Caesar conquered Gall, was there not even a cook in the army? And here’s the big one, when the Armada sank, you read that King Philip wept. Were there no other tears?

And that’s what I believe oral history is about. It’s about those who shed those other tears, who on rare occasions of triumph laugh that other laugh. Now consider some of the heroes of our day, whom I’ve had the good fortune to encounter. There’s an arbitrary few I’ve chosen, about four of them, out of a multitude of such heroes. Florence Scala, a Chicago housewife. Now Florence is trying to save her rainbow colored community. The very neighborhood where Jane Adams had lay down, or cast down her bucket many years before, fighting to save the soul of her city. And she lost to the power brokers. And now there are miles of cement where the cars whiz by like crazy, where once there was a place which like Molly Malone was alive, alive-o. Yet Florence Scala in her defeat experienced a revelation of sorts. “That’s when I lost the feeling of idolatry,” she says, “I had for some people. I felt because they were nice people they could never make a mistake. I found out that they are the ones that can hurt you the most. That we prepare at all times for imperfections in everyone. We, people like me, have to feel equal to everyone. I haven’t become cynical, simply realistic.”

E.D. Nixon. Former Pullman Car Porter, President of the NAACP, Montgomery, Alabama chapter. It was who chose Rosa Parks as secretary to do what she did that summer afternoon. It was he, E.D. Nixon, Pullman Car Porter, who chose that young pastor from Atlanta, Martin Luther King, Jr., to become the head of the Montgomery Improvement Association, thus drum major of the bus boycott of 1954. The rest, as they say, is history.

C.P. Ellis, former Grand Cyclops of the Klu Klux Klan, Durham, North Carolina chapter. A poor white all his life, having a hard time of it. One piece of bad luck after another, barely making it one day to the next. He said, “I worked my butt off, never to seem to break even. I abide by the law, go to church, do right, live for the Lord, everything’ll work out.”It didn’t work out. Kept getting worse and worse. And he’s starting to talk to me quicker and quicker, more emotionally. “I began to get bitter. I didn’t know who to blame. I had to hate somebody. Can’t hate America, cause you gotta see it to hate it. You can’t see it. You’ve gotta have something to look at to hate, so I began to blame the Black people. So I joined the Klan. My father said it was a savior to the white race. I’ll never forget that night. They put the white robe on me, and my hood, and I was led down the hall and knelt before an illuminated cross. It was thrilling. Me, this poor little ol’ boy, Claybord Ellis, a nobody, felt like somebody.”

Except that funny things were happening on his way to these forums. “One day I was walkin’ down the street and a certain city council member sees me comin’ and I expect him to shake my hand because the night before on the phone he told me I was great, breakin’ up that demonstration. And then he sees me comin’ and he cross to the other side of the street. Oh, shit, was I being used? Then I see a Black man walkin’ down the street as raggedy as me. Is he the one givin’ me a hard time? That’s when I began to wrestle with myself. It was one daily revelation after another.” And he worked, C.P. Ellis as a janitor at Duke University. And he became a member of the union, very active. The union 80% Black, mostly women. He decides to run for a full time job as business agent of the union. He begins his campaign speech and the Black women shout him down. “Sit down, Clayborn Ellis, we know all about you.” And that’s when he whispers to me, his voice takes on a note of awe, he says, “They elected four to one. Would you believe that,” he said. “They didn’t know me.” And then he says, “Today, I walked in where these women, these Black women, and we sat, we faced these professional union busters, college men, and we hold our own against them. And now I feel like somebody, for real.”

And lastly there’s Jean Gump. Jean Gump, middle class, suburban grandmother, devout Catholic, head of the local PTA, head of the village’s League of Women’s Voters. One day, Good Friday, 1986, she did something respectable people just don’t do. She and three young companions, young enough to be her grandchildren, disciples of Dorothy Day. She says, “We commemorated the Crucifixion of Christ entering a missile site near Holden, Missouri. We banged at it with a hammer, poured our blood over it and sang hymns. We hung a banner on the chain link fence we cut through; swords and a plowshare, an act of healing. We’ll study war no more.”

Terkel delivering his remarks upon receiving the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

She was arrested, refused to recant, refused to pay her fine, and for a couple of years, she was number 03789-045 at a Correctional Institution for Women in West Virginia. Free at last, she is still at it. She explains it so matter of factly, with a great deal of humor. She said, “What I did on Good Friday in Holden, Missouri is only expressing my Christianity. This is God’s world, okay? We’re stewards on the earth, aren’t we? I think we’re pretty bad stewards. Call it a legacy if you want, I want to offer my grandchild life, that’s all. We all want a crack at it, I think he has a right to have a crack at it too.” And then she says a crazy thing. “You know, many think I’m crazy,” she says. “I have never been so hopeful in my life. If I can change my way of thinking, anybody can.”

Now in none of these cases was there one overwhelming moment of epiphany. There was no Damascan Road they traveled nor was any struck by a blinding light. No, it wasn’t that. It was a accretion of daily revelations and the discovery where the body was hid, moments of daily astonishment. The stories told of Diogalof, you may have heard the stories. They’re gay Diogalof, the Bally impresario who’s never satisfied, always discontented. And poor Nimschinski, he may have been cocktoe. He would say, “What do you want of me, master?” And Diogalof, in a world-weary tone, put his monocle deep under his eye, says, “Umtanunwa, astonish me.”

Well, my moment of ultimate astonishment happened about 25 years ago. It was at a public housing project, a young mother, and I don’t recall if she was white or black, because it was mixed. I remember her as young, as pretty, skinny, bad teeth, I remember that. The first time she’d ever encountered a tape recorder. These little kids are hopping around and about, they want to playback, a replay, ‘wanna hear their mama’s voice in the machine. So I press the button and they howl with delight, but she suddenly puts her hands to her mouth and gasps, “I never knew I felt that way before.” Bingo. Jackpot. Not only was she astonished, but I was overwhelmed and astonished. And such astonishments have been forthcoming from the et ceteras of history ever since the year one. And there’s more, much more where that came from.

Excerpt from Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett by Jennifer Gonnerman 

Copyright © 2004 by Jennifer Gonnerman. Published in March, 2004 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.


An Easy $2,500


Twenty-six-year-old Elaine Bartlett cracked open the bedroom closet and surveyed her options. She picked out a T-shirt, a pair of Jordache jeans, a leather belt, and a brown knit sweater with suede patches on the elbows. She fastened a thin chain around her neck and slid a pair of gold hoops in her ears. Then she checked herself in the mirror. The day before, she had gotten a wet and set; the plastic rollers were still in her hair. She picked a beige silk scarf out of a drawer and tied it around her head.

Barefoot, she headed down the hall. She loved how the plush carpet felt between her toes. People had told her she was crazy to put carpet everywhere in her apartment, even in the kitchen, but she had been dreaming of wall-to-wall carpet for years. She had not been able to afford an interior decorator, of course. Instead, she had studied photos she had ripped out of glossy magazines. After seeing wall-to-wall carpet in the pictures of every celebrity’s home, she had been determined to settle for nothing less.

There had not been enough money to buy furniture for every room, but she was especially proud of the living room, which she had done all in white: three white leather sofas, a white leather bar (even though she didn’t drink), and, of course, white carpeting. Around the perimeter were statues: a tiger, an elephant, a giraffe. There was also plenty of glass. The record player had glass doors, and there were two glass tables. Not long ago, there had been three glass tables, including one with a zebra statue atop it. Then one day, her younger son, Jamel, had decided to play cowboy, jumped on top of the zebra, and crashed through the glass.

Friends had warned her about decorating her apartment with so much glass when she had four young children, but she hadn’t listened. She thought her home looked glamorous. Anyone who saw a photograph of it certainly would not think she was broke, and that was precisely the point. Reality, of course, was a different story. Her apartment was located in the Wagner Houses, a large city housing project in East Harlem. Her rent was only $127, but she scrambled every month to make the payment.

To support her family, she collected welfare and worked off the books at a beauty parlor. Some nights she also poured drinks at a local bar. Still, the cost of caring for her four children—of buying food, clothes, and diapers—regularly exceeded her income. She got a little help from her boyfriend, Nathan Brooks, the father of her two daughters, but he was often in jail. As for the carpet and furniture, she hadn’t actually paid for them all by herself. She’d had them on lay-away for almost two years, then convinced her best friend, a drug dealer named Littleboy, to pay the rest of the bill.

Every year, her scramble for money intensified in the weeks before Thanksgiving. Today was November 8, 1983; Thanksgiving was only sixteen days away. Organizing a huge feast was a Bartlett family tradition, and this year she wanted to invite everyone over to her place. Now that she had all this new furniture, she was eager to show it off. The party promised to be expensive, but in recent weeks she had stumbled upon a plan to earn some extra cash.

All weekend long, Nathan had told her that her plan was a mistake. “It doesn’t sound right,” he’d said over and over. But now she did not have time to discuss the matter anymore. She dressed her daughters, three-year-old Satara and one-year-old Danae. Then she took them over to Nathan’s mother, who lived next door. Her sons, ten-year-old Apache and six-year-old Jamel, were already at her own mother’s apartment downtown. It was nearly 8:00 a.m.: she had to hurry. As Nathan watched, she grabbed her pocketbook and marched out.

Most mornings, she headed to work, walking north three blocks, then west on 125th Street until she reached the 125 Barber Shop and Beauty Shop. Often she had at least two children with her. She could never make it down those four long blocks on 125th Street without sparking a small commotion. “Hey, Big Red!” the country boys would shout when she strolled by, “See her calves? She got good strong calves. She’s a breeder. She can have some more kids. She ain’t finished yet.”

The men on the street always called her “Big Red”—the same nickname they gave every big-boned, light-skinned woman. The name stuck. Everyone at the beauty parlor called her Big Red, too. All day long, customers appeared in the doorway and asked, “Is Big Red in?” Fou barber chairs filled the front of the shop, and a row of shoe-shine stands lined one wall. Elaine’s customers knew that to get to the beauty parlor, they had to walk through the barbershop and into a back room.

She had been working here for nearly nine years, though she did not have a hairdresser’s license. She rented a booth for fifty-five dollars a day, then kept everything else she earned. On a good day, she left with two or three hundred dollars.

While she worked, her children played at the arcade next door, with the older children minding the younger ones. Whenever they needed more quarters, they sprinted through the barbershop to find her. And whenever she got a break, she went next door, joining them in a game of Pac-Man or Frogger.

The barbershop was always buzzing with the news of the day. Nicky Barnes, the notorious drug kingpin, had been testifying recently in court, squealing on his former business partners. One year earlier, the movie 48 Hours had opened, and some people were calling Eddie Murphy the new Richard Pryor. And now Jesse Jackson had just announced that he was going to run for president. To most people here, he was far more appealing than the current crop of politicians: Mayor Koch, Governor Cuomo, and President Reagan.

Like many businesses along 125th Street, this barbershop was a magnet for anyone trying to make a dollar. Numbers runners stopped in all day long, taking bets from employees and customers alike. Boosters parked a van out front and walked in with armloads of stolen goods: sneakers, boots, underwear, cosmetics, socks, radios, even slabs of meat. Elaine rarely had to go shopping anymore; everything she needed, she could buy here for discount rates.

Almost everyone who came into the beauty parlor was black. One of the few exceptions was Charlie. He was the friend of a coworker, and he stopped in all the time. Elaine figured he had some sort of hustle, just like everybody else. Maybe he was a numbers runner; maybe a small-time drug dealer. She had seen him at parties, and he was always getting high. Although she’d known him for only a few months, she considered him a friend.

Charlie knew Elaine was always looking for a way to make some extra money. Four days earlier, at 10:30 on a Friday evening, he had visited her apartment to talk about a deal he wanted her to do for him. While her boyfriend Nathan was in the back room, Charlie had spelled out his plan. He knew a couple of people in Albany who wanted to buy a package of cocaine, but they didn’t want to come to New York City. If she carried the package to Albany, a two-and-a-half-hour train ride away, he would pay her $2,500. The way he described it, the plan sounded perfectly simple.

Joan Didion Accepts the 2005 National Book Award in Nonfiction

The 2005 National Book Award in Nonfiction goes to The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.
Joan Didion. Photo credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images

BRENDA PINEAPPLE: Unfortunately, I was asked to say a few words about the process of choosing the nonfiction finalists. Fortunately, I can think of only four words: Five hundred and forty-two. That was the number of nominations this year, the most, I’m told, ever. Terrific biographies, eloquent histories, riveting memoirs, erudite and charming books about physics and physicists, about mathematics, about rock musicians and paintings and painters, heart piercing books about Iraq and Vietnam and veterans of yesteryear, about immigrants and travel and the myriad peoples of America, about American presidents and power, about women prisoners in courtrooms and crossword puzzles and illness and trees and religions and rugs, as well as books about marriage, about mountains, about lightening and, of course, about that most exciting of all endeavors, the writing life.

With such variety of subject matter and style, ours then was a daunting, humbling, often demoralizing task, true jury duty. After a certain point, I talked to no one, saw no one, went no place and for sustenance depended completely on the four enormously talented writers who for several months were the only people on earth except my husband who knew, understood and forgave the manic obsessiveness that our task entailed. These extraordinary judges are Mark Bowden, Dennis Covington, Tony Horwitz and Gregory Wolfe. [Applause] I thank them for their passion, their conviction, their stubbornness, their equanimity, their incredibly hard work and, best, for their ability to articulate over and over what good writing means, what it can do, how it changes us.

Together, we congratulate our five outstanding finalists:

  • Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion by Alan Burdick published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius by Leo Damrosch, published by Houghton Mifflin.
  • The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, published by Knopf.

    Jeanne Birdsall and Joan Didion. Photo credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images
  • 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, published by Times Books.
  • Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves by Adam Hochschild, published by Houghton Mifflin.

This year’s National Book Award in Nonfiction goes to The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.

JOAN DIDION: There is hardly anything I can say about this except thank you, and thank you to everybody at Knopf who accepted my idea that I could sit down and write a book about something that was not exactly anything but personal and that it would work. Thank you all. [Applause]