The Ink Runs Dry

L to R: Jay Parini, Salman Rushdie, Amanda Vaill, Christopher Mason, David Gilbert, Jonathan Alter (Photo: Carly Gaebe)

Borgesian understatement, Nixonian analysis, Putinian philosophy, and a rediscovered Kodak disc camera. The ink, the wine, and the laughs were all flowing at Tuesday’s Seriously Entertaining show as another smashing line-up of writing talent mused aloud on the creative process and the terror that one day the ink might just dry up altogether.

Amanda Vaill (Photo: Carly Gaebe)

Amanda Vaill was first in the spotlight with a tale from her new book, Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). When war broke out, the writers who answered the call to arms were all generally afraid that “their ink was running dry”, not least Ernest Hemingway, one of the stars of Hotel Florida, whose writing career in the mid-1930s was far from soaring. “But those who were the new face, the new day,” said Vaill, “were the photographers, the film-makers.” Most famous amongst them were Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, whose philosophy was summed up by Capa’s maxim, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

Capa and Taro are perhaps best known for the image of the “Falling Soldier”, which Vaill contends was a staged shoot gone fatally wrong. Whatever the circumstances, it made their name, and when Gerda was tragically killed later in the conflict, tens of thousands followed her coffin through the streets of Paris. Capa survived the Spanish Civil War only to be killed when he stepped on a landmine in 1954 while covering the First Indochina War. Is this how the intrepid war photographer would have chosen to go? wondered Vaill. Or would it have been better to let the ink run dry?

Jonathan Alter (Photo: Carly Gaebe)

“In 1988, to my mother’s dismay, I launched a project to bring Nixon to Newsweek,” began Jonathan Alter, our second speaker. “Nixon was not a small-talk man,” he recalled; “he was a man who wore his black oxfords on the beach.” Still, what he lacked in social graces he more than made up for in the astuteness of his observations. When asked how he thought history would judge him, Thirty-Seven responded, “You have to distinguish between history and historians, because history is written by liberals.”

Nixon was a notorious user of tape recorders, a habit that contributed hugely to his downfall. But despite their destructive potential, the humble recording device has flourished in the White House ever since. After a tense conversation in 1999 with Bill Clinton during which Alter asked him if he would be seeking psychiatric help — this was following the infidelity-impeachment double-header — the writer discovered that his interview tape was totally blank. “So I called the White House and asked if the presidential limo has a recording device… fortunately it did…”

And a recording device played a key role in the 2012 election, too, as Alter reveals at length in The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies (Simon & Schuster, 2013). He closed his great set with the story of Scott Prouty, the waiter whose secret recording of Mitt Romney’s “forty-seven percent” comment may well have been one of the most significant factors in Obama’s re-election.

Christopher Mason (Photo: Carly Gaebe)

Booker Prize-winning author Salman Rushdie, who won the inaugural Tip of My Tongue competition at the House of SpeakEasy gala in January, returned as host of this month’s quiz, delighting the crowd with three mystery literary passages.

After the interval, satirical songwriter Christopher Mason launched into a new and brilliantly witty take on the crisis in Ukraine entitled “Putin On The Blitz”. “You say Ukraine / I say Mykraine,” says the Russian premier in Mason’s hurlyburly retelling of the currentest of affairs. “Haunting former Soviet republics”, the bare-chested leader goes “advancing in Ukraine” to the tune of “Singin’ in the Rain”. Watch this space for a video of Christopher’s performance, coming soon.

“I really have to follow the fucking piano player?” asked David Gilbert, author of & Sons (Random House, 2013) and the next writer to take the stage. “I was nearly in a taxi!”

David Gilbert (Photo: Carly Gaebe)

Fortunately for us, Gilbert stuck around, unspooling a brilliant story of writerly procrastination and recovered photographs. Writing’s hard at the best of times, but Gilbert would make it even harder for himself by attempting to contrive lines of prose that were exactly the same length. “This was before I discovered ‘Justify All’… But then I noticed the gaps between words, which annoyed me even more than the right-hand margins!”

One day while cleaning out his closet (to avoid writing, naturellement) he came across a roll of undeveloped film from one of the Kodak disc cameras from the early 1980s. “You just know these prints are gonna be terrible,” he said, but set out merrily nonetheless to find out what they contained — “maybe all those fun times, the secret adventures of your teenage years?”

Instead he finds a succession of selfies. “Me looking in a mirror. Me looking to the right. Me looking to the left… Then the first two buttons of my shirt are undone. Then my shirt is off. Then my pants are off… Here I am looking at my selfie self, and I can see this poor kid trying to figure things out.” He grinned. “Then the last picture is of my dog.”

Jay Parini (Photo: Carly Gaebe)

Our final guest of the night was poet, biographer and critic Jay Parini. “In 1968 or so, I was being chased by this fucking government that wanted me to go to Vietnam. So I went to Scotland for seven years and enrolled at St. Andrews.”

There, Parini was given the task of chaperoning the visiting Jorge Luis Borges, a name unknown to him at that time. Unimpressed by this supposedly famous writer, Parini asked Borges why he’d never (even) written a novel. It turned out that Borges had in fact considered doing so for many years — a giant blockbuster epic of a novel, no less. Rather than that, though: “One day I went to my desk and wrote a two hundred-word review of this novel instead,” said Borges. That would do.

Parini later became friends with Gore Vidal, whose biography he is currently writing. When he first met Vidal’s partner, Howard Austen, Howard was introduced as secretary to the great man. “Howard, what does that entail?” asked Parini. “Put it this way, big boy,” responded Austen: “I don’t type.”

Parini closed the evening with some fine words of advice. When working on a novel about Walter Benjamin, he asked Vidal if he could really have two characters discussing Heidegger’s philosophy for thirty pages. Gore’s response was quick and invaluable: “Only if they’re sitting in a railway car and the reader knows there’s a bomb under their seat!”

Watch out for videos from The Ink Runs Dry, coming soon to the House of SpeakEasy website and our Twitter feed.

Re Martin Amis

Martin Amis, photographed by Maximilian Schönherr in a hotel suite in Cologne, Germany, in 2012

Martin Amis was doubled on Saturday night at the New School. He was appearing as part of the tenth annual PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, established by his great friend Salman Rushdie, who had a front-row seat for the occasion. Stage left was the real Amis, head cocked and battle-ready; opposite him sat interviewer and critic John Freeman; and between them was actor Anatol Yusef, who spoke only the historical Amis’s words, taken from interviews conducted since the 1970s in Interview magazine. The concept was simple but rather brilliant: Freeman would interview Amis-past and -present interactively, with Amis-present annotating, approving or contradicting his earlier selves. It was fascinating to watch.

Starting with The Rachel Papers (1973), Amis’s writing was inevitably compared with that of his father, Kingsley, whose most famous books include comic classic Lucky Jim and The Old Devils, winner of the 1986 Booker Prize. “I still think it delegitimises me in a weird way, having a writer-father,” said Amis-present, who’s written thirteen novels, several collections of short fiction and a wealth of criticism and social commentary. “I’m like Prince Charles, who talks with this sort of ex cathedra authority based on absolutely nothing at all. With me, everyone slightly suspects I got where I am through nepotism.” Now sixty-four, Amis has children of his own, but he was resistant to the idea that the family might automatically produce a third-generation writer. “It’s a very complicated thing, to encourage a child to follow your profession,” he said. Meditating on music and art, where dynasties of talent are much more common, he concluded: “There are no prodigies in literature. Only in chess, music and math, which have in common the fact that they have nothing to do with life; they don’t feed off life.”

Amis moved to Brooklyn three years ago but has written about America throughout his career, most notably in his non-fiction collections The Moronic Inferno (1986) and The Second Plane (2008), which deals with the post-9/11 experience, and in his 1984 novel Money. “I feel sort of half-American myself. I sometimes believe I can speak American… although I wonder if that’s an illusion.” Thinking more politically: “Anti-Americanism in Europe is almost automatic everywhere… and I could never sympathise with that. After all, it’s based on the only good revolution that’s ever been.” He was not entirely sans reservation, though. “Money has got into too many areas of American life: health, politics… It’s more like an oligarchy that has elections every four years. All the talk now about inequality is tremendously overdue; inequities are built in and almost ossified.” Quoting Saul Bellow, he commented, “It’s the country where, ‘if you’re so smart how come you ain’t rich?’ If I wrote a novel called Money now, God knows what direction it would go in…”

Freeman also asked about Amis’s famous literary friendships. A recent piece in Vanity Fair on the fatwa taken out on Rushdie twenty-five years ago includes a beautiful snapshot of some of them, photographed by Annie Leibovitz, including Rushdie and Ian McEwan. Going back in time, Granta’s 1983 list of the best young British novelists, many of whom have been Amis’s friends, is remarkable for its prescience. Sadly missing today, of course, is the late Christopher Hitchens, who never strayed into fiction. “Ian [McEwan] said it was because he didn’t have the temperament to sit around making things up.” Rereading his final book, Mortality, though, “if transposed into the third person and the past tense, it reads just like a novel slap-bang in the English seriocomic tradition. But, alas, everything in that book is gospel truth.”

And what was in the water when Amis was starting out that gave his generation the heft they turned out to have? “The great energising thing was the sexual revolution… It was of incalculable value to society.” Referring to Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) on the alleged decline of violence in world history, he pointed out that one of the factors Pinker puts a lot of emphasis on, alongside the state’s expanded monopoly on violence and, flatteringly, the emergence of the novel, is the emancipation of women. “That’s what energised us.”

Looking ahead, Amis’s next novel, The Zone of Interest, will be published by Knopf in September. Like 1991’s Time’s Arrow, it will see him deal directly with the Holocaust. “If you’d asked me [before I wrote Time’s Arrow] who was the least likely British novelist to write about the Holocaust, I’d have said me,” he commented. It went on to become one of his best-reviewed books and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Time’s Arrow is an extraordinary novel because the action happens backwards — not like in the movie Memento, where the scenes are reordered to happen in reverse, but in rewind-motion. “The arrow of time is the arrow of morality,” said Amis, pointing out that, seen in reverse, you can slap a crying child in order to make him stop. The novel’s narrator sees the action in reverse and cannot comprehend its significance; the reader, knowing better, comes to see a well-known horror in a newly terrifying light. The Zone of Interest, which is already one of the most highly anticipated titles on the fall slate, will take a different tack: “it’s social realism of the same period.”

Further reading:

London Fields (1989) is many readers’ favourite Amis novel, a classic in what he calls the “mock heroic style in which we describe low things in a high style”.

Visiting Mrs. Nabokov (1993) is a great introduction to Amis’s non-fiction, and includes great profiles of post-war literary titans J.G. Ballard and Anthony Burgess, amongst others.

Experience (2000) is Amis’s award-winning memoir, though it says as much about Kingsley as it does about Martin. You can read an extract here.

This Is Not A Man

Alexander Pope recited in the style of William Shatner. A French general, born into slavery in Saint-Domingue, locked in a war of attrition with Napoleon Bonaparte. A live link to Hollywood during Oscars week. It could only be the House of SpeakEasy.

“This Is Not A Man” delivered another Seriously Entertaining mix of music, comedy, history and literature in the warm embrace of City Winery in SoHo.


Dana Vachon (Photo: Carly Gaebe)

First out of the gate was Dana Vachon, author of Wall Street satire Mergers & Acquisitions. He kicked off with a couple of thumbnail sketches — “One story that doesn’t work involves my father and a terrorist…” — before setting off on a globe-trotting assignment set by Vanity Fair. It was a tale of data-mining billionaires, early-morning water calisthenics in Singapore, and uber-alpha-male English expats all called Roger MacMillan, topped off with sage words of advice from Don DeLillo. “I asked him what young novelists should be writing about,” said Vachon, “and he said immediately, without hesitation, the destruction of the environment.”


Steve Coogan (Photo: Carly Gaebe)

The comedian Steve Coogan, who stands to win his first Oscar this weekend for his screenplay for Philomena, spoke to SpeakEasy founder Amanda Foreman via Facetime from Los Angeles. Coogan has enjoyed a phenomenally successful career in comedy, but Philomena is his first major foray as a writer into serious drama. Due to technical difficulties on the night, Coogan briefly became a star of silent film — but after some ingenious semaphoring and a pioneering reappropriation of the speakerphone function on a cell phone, we were treated to an insight into how the movie is affecting real lives.

“Our project is to attract attention to this pressure group in Ireland that wants to effect a change in the law,” said Coogan, referring to the work he has been doing alongside the real Philomena Lee to bring justice to other women, like Philomena, who were forced to give up their children for adoption in 1950s Ireland. “I like comedy as a tool, as a device, to use in drama,” he said. “It’s more interesting to use comedy as a device to bring levity to difficult subjects.”

And what about his recent audience with Pope Francis? “He didn’t tell me what he thought of me, but he was very nice about Philomena!”


Susan Minot (Photo: Carly Gaebe)

“Some time ago I went to the coronation of a king in Africa…” So began Susan Minot, our third guest, whose latest novel, Thirty Girls, was published by Knopf this month. “He was crowned not just with the pelt of a leopard, but with the leopard’s head on top. All in his Armani suit…”

The coronation, though, was a mere backdrop to a more intimate story. Minot was accompanied on the trip by a “handsome wreck” of a journalist, “solemn and full of doom about the world… he was right up my alley.” At one stage, the pair meet a wise old woman straight out of a fairytale, who offers them beer — “basically pure alcohol” — and various gnomic pronouncements (“She said you were old but you look young because you are happy…”). The real significance of said meeting would not become clear until Minot was back in New York, irritated by a cold sore she initially attributed to travel-induced anxiety.

“The next day I look in the mirror and my heart drops to my toes. Because the cold sore has moved. There’s something inside my lip… There’s a worm in my lip…”

“If we were out in the desert, I’d just cut this bugger out,” says her doctor helpfully. Charitably he prescribes a course of antibiotics instead, and after six or seven weeks the worm mercifully passes on and disappears. Its metaphorical significance, though, lives on.


Uma Thurman (Photo: Carly Gaebe)

“I later discovered that the handsome wreck, the die-hard bachelor, had gotten married. I like to think I planted something in him that swam up from his heart and planted hope for love…”

Next up, we were delighted to welcome Uma Thurman back as the host of SpeakEasy’s literary quiz, The Tip of My Tongue. This month the mystery passages came from works by George Orwell, Salman Rushdie and Maya Angelou.

Tom Reiss won the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo. A fan of the legendary French writer Alexandre Dumas since he was a child, Reiss was delighted to discover that he’d written ten volumes of memoirs. But what really gripped him when reading them was not the story of Dumas-novelist but the two hundred pages at the start of Volume I that aren’t even about him.


Tom Reiss (Photo: Carly Gaebe)

“They’re about the son of a slave and a renegade French aristocrat,” Reiss said. “It was like reading The Three MusketeersThe Count of Monte Cristo and The Man in the Iron Mask all rolled into one.”

The subject was General Alex Dumas, a gifted swordsman who grew up in Saint-Domingue, modern-day Haiti, and didn’t even travel to France until he was sixteen. A pretty dangerous place, of course, late-eighteenth-century France, and not long after his arrival the revolution was in full swing. Dumas proved to be a superb soldier and strategist and rose quickly to a rank equivalent to today’s four-star generals, in so doing becoming arguably the most successful non-white soldier in the west until Colin Powell.

Unfortunately, his rise coincided with that of another island-born man, an outsider like Dumas but with rather more imperial ambitions, a man by the name of Napoleon Buonaparte.

Reiss’s excavation of this remarkable tale also won the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography last year.

Our musical guest this month was the songwriter Anton Sword, whose dance music translates a range of literary influences into the “darkly pretty” songs for which he’s become well known in the US and Europe.

“This is not a man,” mused Anton. “I say that to myself in the mirror every morning! To answer the question ‘What is a man?’ is to be a person… inbetween, insecure and confused.”


Anton Sword and The We Ours (Photo: Carly Gaebe)

He went on to quote neoclassical giant Alexander Pope, “always best delivered in a Shatneresque style, I feel”:

Know, then, thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused, or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

— From “Essay On Man”, accessible on Project Gutenberg

Anton and his band, The We Ours, closed out the evening with three songs, “The Air”, “Maybe It’s Begun”, and “Here in the Hurricane” — proving that even in our inbetween, insecure and confused states, we can all still enjoy a good old sing-song.

Tickets are now on sale for our March 18 show, “Are You For Sale?”, featuring Stephen Fry, Jay McInerney, Susan Cheever, Michael Friedman and Jeff Kinney, on the City Winery website here!