Talk Show #15 with Kevin Brockmeier, Sloane Crosley, Sophie Gee, Samantha Hunt, and Melissa Pritchard
Talk Show #15: Historical Person You’d Like to Meet
Kevin Brockmeier is the author of the novels The Brief History of the Dead and The Truth About Celia, the children’s novels City of Names and Grooves: A Kind of Mystery, and the story collections Things That Fall from the Sky and The View from the Seventh Layer. Recently he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and named one of Granta magazine’s Best Young American Novelists. He lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he was raised. Visit Kevin at www.kevinbrockmeier.com.
Sloane Crosley is the author of I Was Told There’d Be Cake, a book of humor essays published by Riverhead Books. Her essays and criticism have appeared in The New York Times, New York Observer, the Village Voice, Playboy, Teen Vogue, Salon, Black Book, Radar and Maxim. She lives in Manhattan. Visit Sloane at www.sloanecrosley.com.
Sophie Gee is an Assistant Professor of English at Princeton. Her novel The Scandal of the Season, an historical romance, was published by Scribner in August 2007. Visit Sophie at www.sophiegee.com.
Samantha Hunt is the author of two books, The Invention of Everything Else, a novel about the life of Nikola Tesla, and The Seas—for which she was awarded a National Book Foundation award for writers under 35. Visit Samantha at www.samanthahunt.net.
Melissa Pritchard has published six books of fiction, most recently Disappearing Ingénue and Late Bloomer (Doubleday/Anchor). Her work has appeared in The Paris Review, Conjunctions, Pushcart Prize Stories and The O.Henry Awards, among other publications. She is working on a new collection, and her biography of Arizona philanthropist Virginia G. Piper will be published in May 2008. She teaches at Arizona State University. Visit Melissa at www.public.asu.edu/~melissap/.
—Name a historical person you’d like to meet and why.
Brockmeier: James Agee. He wrote one of my favorite novels, A Death in the Family, and a few years ago, I decided to read the Library of America edition of his collected film criticism. It’s a volume of great wit, passion, and clarity, as valuable (to me at least) as anything by Pauline Kael, but my enjoyment of it was hampered slightly by the fact that all of the movies Agee discusses were released decades before I was born, and roughly ninety percent of them I have never seen. I was seized by a fantasy of traveling back in time to show him some more recent films so that I could find out what he made of them. Agee, I recognize, is a relatively recent figure, and even in the circle of modern-American-literature lovers he does not have the cultural currency of, say, Hemingway or Faulkner, but I think it’s fair to consider him a "historical person," insofar as history is ongoing and he’s no longer in it.
Crosley: Guy de Maupassant. First off, he wins the award for Writer with The Most Serious Moustache of All Time. You may even be able to chop “writer” off of that distinction. Beyond that, I think it would be fascinating to meet one of the most prolific short story writers in history knowing what I/we know now: that he is most famous for a single story. And one that’s probably one of the shorter tales he wrote and almost nothing like the rest in form or topic. “The Necklace” is truly amazing and ingenious but it’s also a fluke in a way, wrapped up with a heavy punch line. He’s not the only writer that’s ever happened to, but the irony that “The Necklace” itself is based around a simple misunderstanding… I just wonder how he’d feel about that, if he would see the connection or if he would have picked it out as standing the test of time. Also he grew up with Flaubert as a kindly uncle figure and led a pretty privileged life so if I could go back in time and meet him, I’m pretty sure I’d have a nice French chateau to stay in and some great dinner companions.
Gee: I’d like to meet Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, an eighteenth century English noblewoman who ended up being one of the most brilliant and eccentric figures of all time. She was born at the end of the seventeenth century, and she could have been an idle aristocrat like other women of her class. But instead she became a celebrated intellectual, a poet and an intimate friend of Alexander Pope, John Gay and other famous writers of the time. In 1712 she eloped with a man named Edward Wortley, forfeiting her inheritance, and went to live in Turkey in 1716, where her husband was the British Ambassador. She discovered a form of smallpox inoculation already used in Turkey, and after first having her own children inoculated, she introduced the treatment into England, where she persuaded the King of England to inoculate his children. She was a brilliant, unconventional woman living in the historical period that I find most exciting. Instead of being trapped by the conventions of her social world, she defied them.
Hunt: I’d like to meet dead people from my family. I never knew my mom’s dad. But perhaps that’s not what you mean by historical, maybe historical has to have famous in there also. Then, the inventor Nikola Tesla. I’ve been writing a novel about him for four years and despite his having lived until 1943, I’ve never been able to find a film or recording of his voice. I’d like to hear him speak since he’s been in my head for so long.
Pritchard: One name insists, that of a place, not a person: Netley Abbey, a 13th century Cistercian monastery, now a ruin, inland from Southampton Water in southern England, six miles south of the former site of the Royal Victorian Military Hospital and Lunatic Asylum, and an hour’s ferry ride from the city of Southampton, former eighteenth century resort spa for English royalty, aristocracy and the likes of novelist Jane Austen, painter John Constable, poet Thomas Gray and the great Gothic aesthete, Horace Walpole, author of The Castle of Otranto, and his ‘Committee of Taste,’ all of whom paid homage to Netley Abbey. Chosen for its wild, remote location, an ascetic monastery funded by Henry III and designed by the French Gothic architect, Abbot Suger, Netley Abbey, in its near one-thousand-year history, has adapted itself, reflected and borne every human vagary and longing—for spiritual rigor, wealth, sensation, victory over death, for romance and morbid expression, for theater, paganism, reclusivity and intrigue. A shimmering timeline of English history, including its Kings and Queens, has passed through this place, originally, ironically selected for its isolation, its inaccessibility.
—Under what circumstances would you like to meet this person?
Brockmeier: Scene: James Agee steps out of a cab in front of The Nation‘s offices at Broadway and Fulton. He takes the elevator to the eleventh floor (he would never consider climbing the stairs). It is Friday evening, and most of the magazine’s personnel have already finished their work and gone home for the night. Agee himself is only stopping by to pick up his jacket, which he has left draped over the arm of his chair. He walks down the corridor—it is so quiet that he can hear his shoelaces brushing the carpet—and opens the door of his office. Inside he finds me waiting with a laptop computer and a stack of DVDs.
Crosley: While standing on the street and looking into the window of Cartier. I would spot his reflection in the window as he approached. And then he would say something like: “I can get it for you wholesale.”
Gee: Since this is a game about history, of course I’d like to travel back in time to meet her. Lady Mary wrote a vivid series of letters about the years she spent in Turkey, which include a description of a visit to a Turkish bath, and the splendid meals and receptions that she was part of at the Royal Palace in Istanbul. I’d like to follow her around at those events, not just to see a historical period that has disappeared, but to see the Ottoman Empire in its full splendor too.
Hunt: I’d go back to 1893. We’d have a big dinner at the newly opened Waldorf Hotel, when it was where the Empire State Building is now. His friends Mark Twain, John Muir, Robert and Katharine Johnson would all be there. We’d eat oysters that had been pulled from New York Harbor. After dinner we’d walk slowly through 1893 Manhattan, down to Tesla’s laboratory for a show of the wonders he’d been working on—wireless transmission of energy and information, oscillating resonance, flying machines, lightning.
Pritchard: 1) I would like to be whatever bed Queen Elizabeth I tossed and turned her pale, lithesome, virginal self upon in Netley Abbey, turned grand house belonging to the Earl of Hertford, on August 13th, 1560, when she stayed the night during one of her “royal progresses.” To be the straw and silk-embroidered linen beneath England’s most fretful power, unable to find rest in this or any woodland sanctuary, to be that one fortunate cushion privy to a night of fierce, warring “Queenes Maiestees” thought! 2) I would like to be that fatal stone, arch keystone of the chapel’s East window, which fell upon the eminent Southampton builder William Taylor’s eighteenth century head as he attempted to tear down a part of the Abbey which he had purchased for materials—after he had dreamed of this very stone, of its role in his death. Oh, to be the instrument, the gruesome stone which did Fate’s bidding! 3) I would like to be that gorgeously fleshed woman, masked, but otherwise naked, an eighteenth century reveler on a midsummer’s eve, seduced and seducing in the moonlit, owl-infested Abbey ruins, counted the very next day, in Southampton, among the minor aristocracy, wondrously bejeweled, daintily dressed, demure as a nun, aloof.
—What would you say to this person, and what do expect the response to be?
Brockmeier: "Who is this odd little man," James Agee would be certain to think when he saw me, "and what is he doing in my office?" I’m sure he would be reluctant to believe me when I told him that I had come from the future to show him some movies I thought he might enjoy. But after a few minutes of conversation any doubts he might have would begin to waver, and once I booted up the computer and loaded the first DVD, he would be absolutely convinced by my story. "No," I would explain to him, "people in 2008 don’t do all their movie-watching on these little plastic cases with the flat screens. They’re portable, though, and I had no way of carrying an entire theater back in time with me. I apologize."
Crosley: I think I would ask him which of his stories he personally got the most out of writing. I would probably also ask him about the last days of his life, assuming that he understands me meeting him is an experiment and wouldn’t be offended by me saying, “hey, what kind of torture is it to attempt to kill yourself and them die anyway a few years later?”
Gee: I’d want to ask her how an eighteenth century mother felt about her children, living in a world where childbirth was dangerous and where children might die, what it felt like traveling across Europe in a carriage, unprotected from winter weather and dangerous roads—basically what it was like to live in luxury, and yet be constantly in danger. I don’t know what she’d say—these are aspects of eighteenth century life I can’t get my head around.
Hunt: I certainly wouldn’t tell him that I wrote a novel about him! Though perhaps I would slip a copy under his pillow so he’s find it after I was long gone. I’d tell him that six months after he died the Supreme Court finally ruled that he is the man who invented radio, not Marconi. I wouldn’t tell him that no one pays any attention to that decision.
Pritchard: How fortunate, to have lived nearly one thousand years as a sumptuous, holy whore of English history! How I envy your chapel’s very foundational stone, inscribed H: DI. GRA. REX ANGL. ‘Henry, by the grace of God, king of England.’… envy your witness to centuries of spiritual tediums and raptures, to poetry’s transcendence, to aesthetic fevers, to ambition’s Machiavellian labors. You have been like the greatest of actresses, and the longest lived—you have been and you remain, the mirrored surface, the immortal fragment of glass every novelist wishes to be.
The response: a predictable, contrapuntal, maddening Silence.
—If you could tell this person something about the future, what would it be?
Brockmeier: The whole purpose of my visit would be to show Mr. Agee a number of modern films and listen in on his reaction to them, which is why, in my fantasy, I always find myself restricting my selection to only a handful of movies, few enough that the two of us would have time to watch and discuss them over the course of a couple of days. I imagine myself choosing a combination of critical or popular landmarks (The Godfather, E.T., Titanic, Pulp Fiction, Groundhog Day), personal favorites (Ponette, Running on Empty, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and films that I think would particularly suit Agee’s aesthetic (Matewan, The Thin Red Line, Pather Pachali). I would like him to see how the art of film has developed—if not progressed—since his time, in both its narrative sensibilities and its technical capacities.
Crosley: I would tell him that moustaches are going to be huge in 1970’s America and that they will eventually be associated with an actor named Burt Reynolds. I imagine this would get a rise out of any Frenchman of any century.
Gee: The obvious thing to tell her about the future would be that immunology would turn out to be the most fundamental and life-changing medical field, and that she was one of the pioneers.
Hunt: Rather than telling him about the future I’d like to have him here in 2008, for an afternoon. Sitting in the middle of sunny Central Park, with no wires attached, I’d like to show him my laptop. I’d like to type his name into Google while he watches what comes up.
Pritchard: That your most glittering eras are passed, gone, that you can look forward to a slow dissolution back into the very forces of quarry stone, Hampshire soil and fresh seawater that created you, but that you will always enjoy some form of eternity. I would also warn you of history’s distortions, lapses, miscarriages of truth, stupendous errors and follied projections—that most of your stories, most of the human history you have inspired, absorbed and still draw upon to haunt, remains secret, cupboarded, subsumed.
—What warning would you give this person about his/her own historical era?
Brockmeier: I would be tempted to tell James Agee that he was killing himself with drink and cigarettes and that, in just a few short years, he would suffer a massive heart attack in the back of a taxi and die before he could reach the hospital. My sense, though, is that everyone who knew and cared for him gave him this warning, or one very much like it, time and time again, so why would he listen to me? Instead, then, I would simply let him know how much I love his books, and afterwards I would keep my mouth shut.
Crosley: Hmmm… I would tell him to be wary of tiny emperors in big hats. Then maybe I’d explain how an indoor flush toilet works.
Gee: I don’t think I could tell her anything about her historical era that she wouldn’t already sense; that in spite of the confidence and excitement of the Enlightenment, she was living in precarious times. Perhaps I’d tell her that world revolution was coming, and the Europe that she had known as a noblewoman would be changed irrevocably by the French Revolution in fifty years’ time. She would never see it, but massive social change was on the march. Maybe I’d tell her that the Enlightenment dream that mankind could perfect itself would turn out to be impossible. But it’s hard to believe that someone of her experience wouldn’t already sense that.
Hunt: Tesla lost years of work—inventions that never were—in a fire on March 13, 1895. I’d warn him about that. I’d also tell him, don’t worry, Prohibition won’t last. He always thought he’d live to be 125, 130 years old. He blamed Prohibition—the deprivation of his daily whiskey—for shaving years off his life.
Pritchard: Human beings understand even less than the cows and sheep wandering through your echoing, emptied, verdant spaces and broken walls, even less than the ghosts layering the air, even less than the crows skimming down from the surrounding beech and ash trees, flying through your arched, unglassed windows, that you have consciousness, that you LIVE, that you are God’s own elements, shaped, trembling and finite, into man’s piteous Dreams. I would also warn you that none will every truly know you, that it is only themselves they see, seek, have ever sought, in your construction, destruction, partial resurrection.
Jaime Clarke is the author of the novel WE’RE SO FAMOUS, editor of DON’T YOU FORGET ABOUT ME: CONTEMPORARY WRITERS ON THE FILMS OF JOHN HUGHES, and co-founder of POST ROAD, a national literary magazine based out of New York and Boston.