“Can a Video Game Really Be Turned Into a TV Show?” Edition
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Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: I’m Dana Stevens and this is the slate culture Gabfest. Can a video game really be turned into a TV show edition? It’s Wednesday, January 18th, 2023. And on today’s show, we’ll be talking about The Last of US, a new series on HBO that is trying to turn around the historically cursed relationship between video game adaptations and good television. The French film Saint Omer, which is now shortlisted for the best foreign film Oscar and which revisits the harrowing true story of a Senegalese immigrant in France on trial for murdering her own 15 month old daughter.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: And finally, we don’t normally devote entire culture Gabfest segments to a single character as incarnated through a series of different books or films. But when it comes to the Trunchbull, the cruel primary school headmistress who is the formidable villain of Roald Dahl’s 1988 novel Matilda, we will make an exception because our guest co-host this week, Dan Kois, has written an entire essay for Slate on this fascinating character in her many incarnations. We’ll discuss that piece and the history of that character’s representation with Dan at the end of the show. But first, let’s welcome our panel today. Steve’s out for this week, so joining us in his stead is, as I said before, our beloved Dan Kois, a contributor writer, a longtime friend of the program, and Slate Eminence. Hi, Dan.
Speaker 1: Hey, I’m happy to be here.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: You are also, as of today, a first time novelist. You’ve written three books before, I believe, but not a fiction book before. And we will talk about that in the Slate Plus segment. But congrats on your PUP day for your new novel.
Speaker 1: Thanks. I can’t even believe that the day has finally arrived after thinking about it for, oh, like 48 years.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: You know, it is a beautiful book and we will be talking about it in our Slate Plus segment at the end of the show. Also joining us today, of course, Julia Turner, the deputy managing editor of the Los Angeles Times. Hey, Juliet.
Julia Turner: Hello.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: And as a guest for our first segment this week on that HBO video game adaptation, The Last of US, we have friend of the program, former production assistant on the program long ago when you were but a budding flower Alex Barasch. Hi, Alex.
Alex Barasch: Hi. Thank you for having me.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: Alex is now a culture editor and writer at The New Yorker, and he’s just written a beautiful, long, deep dive into the Last of US, which is also, in a way, a profile of the creators of of the Last of US. So we’ll start with that topic. So the tradition of adapting video games into narrative entertainment does not have a very auspicious history. There was the 1992 adaptation of Super Mario Brothers, one of the first video game to movie transitions, which it star Bob Hoskins called The Worst Thing I Ever Did and a total fucking nightmare. Since then have become many other disappointing attempts to make very popular games like Assassin’s Creed or Halo into compelling films or TV shows. But the experience of gaming has not typically translated well to either the big or the small screen.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: The new HBO series The Last of US, is hoping to turn that tradition around. It’s adapted from a very popular video game of the same name by that game’s designer, along with Craig Mazin, the writer and showrunner who brought us the excellent limited series Chernobyl The Last of US takes place in a dystopic world 20 years after a fungus based pandemic that turns its victims into brain dead predators has killed off much of the human population. In this clip from the show, we will hear the 14 year old Ellie, played by Bella Ramsey and her reluctant protector, Joel, played by Pedro Pascal. Talking about their impending plans to leave the quarantine zone and embark on a dangerous mission through fungus zombie infested territory.
Speaker 2: I’ve never been on the other side of the wall. I contract it.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: You guys go out there a lot.
Speaker 1: I guess.
Speaker 2: When was the last time?
Speaker 1: Maybe a year. Watch it matter.
Speaker 2: But you know where to go. So we’re going to be okay.
Speaker 1: Yeah. So what’s the deal with you anyway? You some kind of bigwigs, daughter or something?
Speaker 2: Something like that.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: All right, Alex, you’re writing on The Last of US. Approach it from a lot of angles, from the angle of being a gamer who was familiar with the game. Somebody who was curious about the adaptation process and just a critic and someone interested in where our culture is turning. I want to know, I guess, first of all, was it your experience of of playing the game that led you to want to dig deep into the Last of us?
Alex Barasch: Yeah, I mean, I loved the game when it came out. I have loved many of the games that have had truly terrible adaptations. And, you know, I watched a lot of really bad adaptations specifically for the piece, but I also went into many of them at the time of release with genuine hope in my heart, you know, loving the thing that they came from and wanting it to be good. But I was curious about The Last of US when I saw that it was being adapted and felt that it might succeed where a lot of this had failed because I thought it had a few things going for it at the outset. You know, it is kind of an inherently cinematic game. It has this linear structure where a lot of games have a branching narrative that makes them very difficult to translate to a passive linear medium. It has these strong characters, and frankly, it had Craig Mazin going for it. So I think all of those elements together, the sort of inherent strength of the game, the source material and the people making it made me think that this might be the thing that could be the exception to the rule.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: Was there something about the approach that the creators took that made that seem particularly promising? As you say, this is not a narrative that gives you a choice, right? This is not a kind of game in which you you get to turn the playing character into different sort of moral balances. And that seemed like something that was promising for the creators as well as for you.
Alex Barasch: Yes, exactly. I mean, I think one of the major problems of video game adaptations is that so many of these games, the things that people love about them, are things that cannot be replicated outside of games or even outside of like an individual. Say, you know, if you’re playing an open world game that’s totally expansive and you’re choosing which tacks to take. You’re playing a character who is like customizable down to the shape of the eyebrow. You know, it’s this there’s this expectation that the character is a vessel and you will fill in the gaps, you know, not just aesthetically, but emotionally, ideologically. You’re making these choices. You are coloring in, you know, between the lines.
Alex Barasch: And with the last of us, they took a very different approach. They basically said, here’s the character you’re playing. You don’t get to choose who he is. He’s had these experiences. He is this way. There are choices that he would not make. And even if you would, you just have to live with the consequences of what he’s doing and the person that he is and the trauma that’s informing that in all of these things. So I think having those very strong characters at the outset allowed them to narrative. Is it in a way that other games have not been able to do?
Julia Turner: One thing that’s striking about your reporting on this, Alex, is that it almost seems like this might be one of those cases that causes you to hold in your head for a minute. What exactly the phrase, the exception that proves the rule means, which is something that I always struggle with, but like it feels like perhaps this is a game that achieved a particular unique success in the world of Game Doom because it was a little ungainly and a little movie and that perhaps Druckmann and Mazin have not in fact solved the larger metaphysical problem of how to turn a game into a show by by adapting the show, but in fact have picked the correct game to adapt.
Julia Turner: But I’m dying to hear how it worked for you. I mean, my my response to this is deeply torn between two poles a love and respect for the work of Craig Mazin and a deep dislike of zombie movies, because I just can’t handle the stress of like, when’s the thing going to jump out of the thing and how are they going to kill the thing before the thing thing’s the thing. So this, you know, so far the quality is winning out over the zombie dread. But it’s a it’s a tough battle. But, you know, how did you like it?
Alex Barasch: I’m really enjoying it, I think. And I take your point about the sort of zombie apocalypse components. I guess for me, that’s not the central element. I think it has this emotional core that is really working for me. And I think, you know, listening to the clip that we just listened to, it’s possible to think of this in terms of, okay, they’re trying to survive. It’s a walking dead type dynamic. And I don’t think that’s what the show is. I think it’s kind of about the ways in which people rebuild their lives and respond to catastrophe.
Alex Barasch: And, you know, as the show progresses and as the game progresses, you see people who were sort of setting up their own fortresses and not letting one else in. There are people who are trying to create these idealized commune situations. And I think the the character development and the relationships and the kind of politics of it almost it interesting in ways that make it greater than the sum of its parts. Like if you just said this is about a zombie apocalypse, there are people who might rightly have doubts or questions about that. But I think that the dynamics at play are doing something more sophisticated.
Speaker 1: So what you’re saying is it’s it’s about trauma.
Alex Barasch: As the great Jamie Lee Curtis would, but it’s not as difficult. Yes.
Speaker 1: And you’re right. And the core as I’ve always I have not played the last of us, as I’ve always understood. At the core of the story is this relationship between the two characters we heard in the clip played by Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey. And so it’s always been sold to me as a as really about that surrogate father daughter relationship set in this post-apocalyptic world. And to some extent, I am in the same boat as Julia in that, you know, it is hard for me as a viewer to overcome by constant nervousness about when the next zombie is going to jump out to a. And that tends to overwhelm what I see is a potent relationship developing between these two characters and which I trust probably could lead me all the way through the story. But for the fact that at every moment a zombie could jump out of that and that I have to deal with that.
Speaker 1: But I wanted to ask you about how does that compare with the actual experience of playing the game? And I ask because let’s say you’re a person, for example, who, after watching the pilot of a somewhat scary show, does a deep Wikipedia dive to learn everything that happens in the plotline of the the thing that you’re watching so that you can maybe be less scared in the future and you end up on a Wikipedia page designed for people playing the game that runs down the various levels of infected people and the Last of US universe, the the blotters and the stalkers and the clickers.
Speaker 1: But it’s funny to read that because it, of course, is not written from like a narrative perspective. It’s written from a gameplay perspective. So the focus is really on like combat tactics, like don’t allow yourself to grapple with a clicker, but if you have to, a shiv can still be effective. If you have plus to shift points or whatever. And that is not the way I think of a story.
Speaker 1: Exactly. And so to what extent is the game, as Julia suggests, more movie ish than other games? To what extent is it really just about walking through an environment and trying to kill clickers and blowers and whatnot? And to what extent does the show lean into the like, combat part or lean out of it or figure out how to navigate the relationship between those two modes?
Alex Barasch: Yeah, I think The Last of US, the Game does a really good job of integrating and marrying sort of narrative and mechanics, so it sort of helps you throughout your journey. You can press a button and show, you know, retrieve a ladder or she’ll, you know, fit herself through a small space and help you get to the other side of some sort of environmental puzzle. And you learn to rely on her over the course of the game. But there’s a point when she is so traumatized by something that’s happened that she’s no longer responding to your commands. So you’re pressing this button and nothing’s happening. And you feel this powerlessness both because you need her and because you’re worried about her. And it kind of trains you on these expectations and then takes things away from you so that you feel the way Joel is feeling in that moment.
Alex Barasch: And I think that immersion is a really big part of it. And there’s a lot of environmental storytelling that’s happening. You’re sort of piecing things together by finding a file in a library or by finding a letter that was left for someone by someone else. And obviously none of that is going to translate to a show. So they had to find ways to externalize some of these things. And one of the great examples, and I think one of the best episodes in the show is one that breaks that rule of immersion.
Alex Barasch: The third episode with Bill and Frank, Bill is a kind of Don’t Tread on Me prepper played by Nick Offerman. And Frank is more of an astha played by Murray Bartlett, also wonderfully. And it’s about the kind of life that they build with each other. And in the game, because you’re playing as Joel, you’re coming in at the very tail end of this. You’re meeting Bill. You understand that the two of them have had a relationship, but it’s kind of glancing. And in the show, they tell this love story in a kind of bravura bottle episode that spans decades. It’s just like, this is how these people lived with each other and created a home together. And that is just not something that you could get when you were sort of tied to the one protagonist at all times.
Alex Barasch: So I think that they’ve made choices that one could not make in a game, and they’ve made them quite boldly and beautifully. And it’s all true to the themes of the game and it’s, you know, reinforcing the interests that were present in the game. And the game itself has this narrative, sophistication and emotional heft. But you’re finding new ways to do it, and I found that to be very effective.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: Alex When you talk about all the different places the show goes, I feel like I’m not quite qualified to weigh in as a critic because I haven’t seen that far into it. But I will say that I don’t think that the. It did quite enough for me in terms of going somewhere different from where a lot of apocalyptic dystopias have gone in the recent past. And in a way, I sort of felt like the pilot was Station 11, but not as good. And maybe that’s just me looking for something to be derivative, because like Julia, I don’t think that zombie apocalypse is, are my favorite preferred genre of of TV.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: But the first episode was really beautifully done. I think that it is a little bit in love with itself in the sense that it is an hour and 20 minute long pilot that really asks a lot from the viewer in terms of tons of cliffhangers that aren’t resolved at all, you know, literal moments where a secret is revealed and we don’t get to hear anything about it, nor any hint of when we will hear about it. Lots and lots of characters introduced without a lot of background or context. I mean, in that sense it is really I don’t know if this is for gamers specifically, but it is certainly for episodic TV people, you know, people who like a TV show with a deep history and a lot of secrets to be revealed and a lot of cliffhangers and not a lot of satisfaction at the end of that first episode. So I can’t say going in that this is the kind of show that would make me want to keep watching.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: That said, every individual element within it was beautifully executed. In particular, I would say. And this I have to tiptoe around so as not to spoil, but the half hour kind of 20 years earlier, bit of the show where everything that we see before and just as the the mushroom fungus is starting to take over the world was really beautifully done. And I liked that framing so much that I was a little bit sad when we jumped 20 years into the future and not all the same characters were still around. Mm hmm.
Alex Barasch: There’s a lot of setup that needs to be done in the pilot. It’s true. I think it is worth sticking around, I will say. But also a thing that we’ve not really talked about is that the show is funny. Maybe you’ve not got there yet because the pilot is very, you know, here is this catastrophe. But, you know, watching Nick Offerman raid a Home Depot to build his fortress is like very fun. You know, there are these moments of levity and dark humor, and I think it knows the kind of world that it’s built. And I found the payoff to be worthwhile. But, you know, we’ll see whether other people agree.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: I do think it’s early to judge after only the pilot, because, as you say, it’s it’s a show that it’s the whole premise is that each episode takes you to a different way of living, a different way of handling dystopia. Right. So if you don’t like this weather, wait. And some something else will come along. Right. I mean, this type of show.
Speaker 1: Exactly. I will say that that in terms of thinking about how you would yourself deal with an apocalypse, I really recommend watching this show with teenagers because there is a scene in which a father is carrying his his injured teenager in a chase with zombies. And my kids turned to me and were like, You would carry us like that, right? There was a zombie apocalypse, and I had to be like, Kid, we’d already be dead.
Julia Turner: I think I would just say something about the performances of the craft here. Like, I’m both like, Oh God, I’m going to have to watch a zombie show every night for many weeks. And I’m also kind of excited. I mean, the early ratings for this are massive, and the notion of having a weekly conversation piece that is engaging with ideas about survival and human bonds is exciting to me.
Julia Turner: And the performance level is great. Bella Ramsey obviously was incredibly arresting from the minute she walked on set in Thrones, and she’s playing an extremely different character here. Pedro Pascal is quite the repressed cowboy, but I’m assuming he will slowly unclench over the course of the show, perhaps not to the levels he reached in that Nic Cage movie we talked about last year, but at least with a little more air in it. And just the just the craft engendered trust for me. Like I’m interested. I think I’m in despite my zombie distaste.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: All right. Well, if it’s that big of a hit, it sounds like, if nothing else, this show, The Last of US, will be a topic of conversation. So watch The Last of US. Email us at Culture Fest at Slate.com to tell us what you thought. And when you do, watch it while you are watching it. Read Alex Barasch is great piece. Can a video game be prestige TV in the New Yorker talking about the origin and the the process of creating The Last of US. Thanks so much for joining us, Alex.
Alex Barasch: Thank you.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: I hope you come on again.
Alex Barasch: I hope so, too.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: All right. Now is the moment in our show when we talk about business. And the only item on the business slate this week is to tell you about our Slate Plus segment this week, because we are lucky enough to have Dan Kois as our co-host. We’re going to talk to him about his new novel, Vintage Contemporaries, which just came out on the day that we’re recording. We’re going to talk to Dan about the writing process of that book, a little bit about what the book is about, and also about what the experience has been like of bringing out a book with HarperCollins in the very week that HarperCollins is having a lot of labor disputes, strikes, walkouts and and other things that very much affect the experience of an author working with them. Dan will share his thoughts about that, as well as about what it’s like to be a first time novelist, although not a first time author after the show. So if you’re a Slate Plus member, please stick around for that conversation. And if you’re not a Slate Plus member, you can sign up today at Slate.com slash culture Plus.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: Okay, back to the show. In 2016, a Senegalese immigrant named Fabienne Kabbah went on trial in the northern French town of Saint Omer for a horrifying crime, the drowning of her own 15 month old daughter. The French documentary filmmaker Alice Diop, who is the daughter of Senegalese immigrants herself, attended that trial and found herself both profoundly troubled and riveted by Corbus testimony. All the more so because Diop herself was pregnant at the time.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: Now Diop has made her first ever fiction film based on near verbatim transcripts from that trial. It’s called Saint Omer, and it’s a complicated, confounding and in my view, anyway, brilliant meditation on motherhood, daughter hood, colonialism, racial and gender identity and many other things. Saint Omer won the grand jury prize at the Venice Film Festival. It’s now shortlisted for the best Foreign Film Oscar, and we all watched it. For today’s conversation, we aren’t playing a clip because the movie is entirely in French. Thus incomprehensible. This. You’re fluent in that language. But Dan, I’m going to start with you. This is a really difficult movie to talk about. It’s a tough movie to sit through as well. I wonder what your response to it is. It’s, I think, one that it could engender all kinds of complicated responses.
Speaker 1: Well, that’s interesting. I did not find it particularly tough to sit through in for a couple of reasons, some of which increased my appreciation for the movie and some of which frustrated me. But the crime itself, though, people react to it emotionally in the movie, for the most part, what we experienced for long stretches of this movie are the very solemn, polite and somewhat detached remembrances of the woman who is on trial, who in the film is named Lawrence.
Speaker 1: And it’s a very vivid performance. But her effect in the courtroom is one of almost surreal detachment and respectfulness of the space. And and so in the movie, people have very strong responses, including the Alice Diop surrogate character.
Speaker 1: But yet I did not necessarily find myself struggling with the dead kid aspect of this movie the way I might otherwise have thought I would, given the way I struggle with dead kids in any media for any reason all the time. And I and one thing I really liked about the movie is the way that it forced all the other characters from the, you know, the lawyers and the judge in the courtroom to this academic who’s watching from the audience in the courtroom to us, it forces us all to reckon with, Well, what does it mean that she is responding in this way? What does it mean that this is how she chooses to tell the story when other people clearly would rather tell the story in other ways and other movies will tell the story in other ways?
Speaker 1: I also sometimes found that frustrating. It’s a movie that does not reward you with resolution or even really with catharsis, though characters undergo catharsis and maybe you guys had a different response and felt catharsis in this movie. But but it doesn’t seem to be the goal. But so it for me, it was a challenging and rewarding intellectual experience, but not a difficult watch. Exactly. Dana Did did you connect with that emotionally in a way that maybe I didn’t?
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: Yeah, I really did, but maybe not. It wasn’t a hot connection, if that makes sense. It was a cool one. I mean, it’s a very chilly feeling. Cerebral film, as you say. It’s based mainly on court transcripts. There’s not there’s not a narrative arc in a very typical way. There’s certainly not catharsis. In fact, I would maybe argue that the movie is a deliberate refusal of catharsis, because that’s what the trial itself was. And, you know, without spoiling, it’s a strange way to talk about it.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: But without revealing some of the key moments of testimony in the film, I can say that, you know, the primary question of motive, the question that the mother played incredibly, I thought by the actress Goose logy Miranda is asked, you know, by the police and in court and over and over again is why why did you do this? And she herself is never able to come up with a real reason for that. There’s even a moment that she says in a direct quote, I believe from the transcript, I don’t understand why I did it. And I’m hoping that the trial will tell me, you know, So, yeah, it’s it it’s a very unusual trial movie and that it’s not about the revelation of a truth that we’re all waiting on tenterhooks to to see revealed. And it is in some ways about the frustration, the impossibility of arriving at a truth about, you know, certain human experiences.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: I want to go to Julia, because I know, Julia, that you had an especially chilly reaction to this film and that you didn’t really get what the buzz about it is, is about you didn’t really care for Saint Omer Can you talk about that?
Julia Turner: Yeah. And to be clear, I should stipulate that I you know, when all of the film critics I most respect tell me a movie is a ravishing spellbinding. Chamber drama that gets to the heart of questions about maternity, motherhood and colonialism. I’m sure you all are correct. Like like I’m not sure that I would posit that my response to the film is a demerit of the film. But I think that.
Julia Turner: The chilliness and cerebral ness of the film meant that it didn’t have a deep emotional impact on me. I found myself watching it for structure, watching it for production design, watching it for costume design. I mean, there are a number of really interesting costuming choices in it. In particular, the Lawrence Colley character is dressed in the exact same color of of brown as the walls of the courtroom and almost seems to. She’s camouflage. There’s no there there. I mean, which is sort of the point.
Julia Turner: I think the film is really smart about the French society’s response to this particular Senegalese immigrant who is very well-educated, who aspires to be, you know, to study that can survive. And the sort of casual racism and dismissiveness of French culture are put up for scrutiny. But I don’t know. I just was not carried away. I was not I wasn’t that curious about why she did it. I didn’t feel like we were going to know. I felt like I could tell from the beginning that we were not. But like like the inscrutability asserted itself and I did not feel carried along, which, you know, perhaps is not what I should have wanted from the film that I found myself, like checking my watch and thinking like, Wow, we’ve been in this quiet room for 40 minutes and being like, I wonder if that blows from DeLillo ten. Yes.
Speaker 1: I sort of think we’ve alighted the mystery. That is really the most interesting one, though, because like Julia, I sort of assume from the start that we were never going to untangle the quote unquote, actual motive for this terrible crime. But the mystery that the movie is also interested in is the mystery of the relationship between the academic who’s watching this trial and her mother and the relationship between the woman who’s on trial and her mother. And we see both of those mothers. We see conversations or interactions, at least with with both of those mothers. And, in fact, the the Diop surrogate frequently flashes back to scenes from her own childhood in which we see a younger version of her played by a different actress and a younger version of her mother, sort of enacting these silent rituals that are in different ways, slightly reminiscent of the stories that the woman on the witness stand is telling.
Speaker 1: And I found a lot of magic and mystery in those scenes. And those were the scenes where the mystery compelled me and did not, you know, slightly bore me the way I think it also did, Julia, the way it often did in the courtroom. But that interaction between present and memory and the the and the way that those were left unexplained was very intriguing and enjoyable to me.
Speaker 1: And I found myself through the movie, of course, then yearning for a little bit more of that, for Diop to play with the structure of this movie a little bit more and use this very cinematic tool she has at her disposal this kind of reenactment that you can’t always pull off in a documentary.
Speaker 1: I wanted her to use it more and so that the real end of the movie know Not again, to totally spoil, but is not exactly that speech to the camera, but is a long musical sequence afterwards that mixes memory and the present day set to a Nina Simone song that I found the most effective and affecting part of the movie that really had nothing to do with the trial, with the ostensible subject of the film, but was instead sort of the thing I liked most about the movie distilled into an actual cinematic sequence.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: Interesting. I mean, I agree, Diane, that the frame story, the story that is about the novelist and her family and, you know, everything that’s outside of the trial is, is the emotionally capturing part. And that and that everything that happens within the walls of the courtroom is is emotionally alienating. But I found that to be a deliberate and really effective choice. I didn’t sort of wish that the tone of the frame story had invaded the courtroom. I felt that the courtroom was being set aside as this space of, you know, unknowability and in a kind of search for for truth and revelation that is necessarily unfulfilled. And that seems that seemed like the sort of profound point of the movie to me. I think also.
Speaker 1: Just you’re right.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: And yet.
Speaker 1: I just wanted it to be like watching a 6040 split in the other direction.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: Right. I mean, I will say that the language also and part of it, I think also it does kind of help to know French watching this movie, because there’s a lot of particular concern and attention to language. Right. And literature and the way that the witness speaks, which, you know, is sort of startling to her white listeners, because she is an immigrant. She is, you know, poor or on the poorer side, at least it’s implied. I think that she comes from a fairly well-off family in Senegal, but she’s not really living high in France. But she’s incredibly educated and, as Julie said, wants to write her thesis on Wittgenstein, which is kind of snidely commented on by someone in the courtroom. And so her choice of language in the way she expresses herself with this kind of perfect formality, added to that, that chilly fascination of the courtroom scenes. To me, she doesn’t speak the way that, you know, everyday people would speak. It’s a higher register of language. And that makes her even more kind of impenetrable as a as a witness.
Speaker 1: The great news is that’s replicated in the fact that I don’t speak French. So I found her completely impenetrable.
Julia Turner: I mean, I will say, Dana, I did not come away from this movie being like, why does everybody like this filmmaker? You know, like, I, I and I think it’s really interesting to watch someone who is making their first feature after years of a of a much lauded documentary career, because obviously there is a fascination with documents here, with the facts, with the facts of this trial. And I think that is sort of shaping the structure and the rigor of of kind of what is played with and. And how this courtroom scenes go.
Julia Turner: So I definitely came away from the film wanting to go explore Alistair’s documentary work and curious about what she would do next as a filmmaker. Like, I didn’t come away thinking like, everybody’s crazy. This movie stinks. I just came away being like, Whoo! That was grueling. Even more grueling than the zombie mushroom heads for me, which was like two grueling watches in a row. And it had to be candid about that.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: Now, I really want to throw this out to listeners because it seems like this is a confounding movie that is either going to send people, you know, staring at their watch away from the screen or they’re going to be like me and feel like they’re masochistic, fascinated, and want to feel that same sense of alienation all over again. I believe, unfortunately, Saint Omer is only in theaters for now, but it will be coming to streaming no doubt soon. Keep your eye out for it and let us know what you thought. A culture fest at slate.com.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: All right. Moving on. I’m fascinated by the Trunchbull this emblem of masculine femaleness, unfair and sadistic, as inexplicable and immovable as a mountain. Writes Dan Kois, in his reflection on the history of the character of Miss Agatha Trunchbull, the gigantic, sadistic and terrifying head mistress of crunchy Jim Hall in Roald Dahl’s children’s novel Matilda the Trunchbull has now existed on the page, the stage, and twice on the screen. Her latest reincarnation comes in the form of Emma Thompson in the new film adaptation of the 2011 West End to Broadway musical Matilda, which recently started streaming on Netflix and Dan that inspired you to launch into this meditation on the history of this particular character and her representation? I don’t even know where to start. I mean, I think anybody who has read Roald Dahl as a kid or to their kids has a sense of who the Trunchbull is deep within their soul. But for those of our listeners who are not familiar with Ms.. Trunchbull, can you talk a bit just about who she is, where she comes from, what she’s like in the book itself?
Speaker 1: Yeah, she is the the headmistress of Crunch Gum Hall, as you say. The school that or Matilda gets sent to when she finally gets sent to school after years of neglect on her parents part. And she is horrible. She is cruel and mean and she doesn’t understand or even like children. She, as Roald Dahl says often, you know, the head teachers at schools are there because they’re interested in education or in children, But no one has any idea how she got this job because she hates children and hates education and thinks the only way to get children to learn something is to physically batter information into their skulls. She abuses children in cartoonishly violent ways, like straight out of Looney Tunes, like Picking Up a Girl by the Pigtails, swinging her around and throwing her over a wall.
Speaker 1: This comes from her background, which is that she is a was once a world class hammer thrower, and she’s also presented by Roald Dahl as indisputably masculine. She’s huge, but not only huge, she’s muscular. She has the neck of a ball. She competed in a sport supposedly for England in an era in which women did not even do The Hammer wasn’t even a women’s Olympic sport until the nineties or 2000. And in early drafts of the novel, she even like, was described as having like a little black mustache and wearing men’s clothes. And so.
Speaker 1: I found this character fascinating from a gender perspective, from a size perspective, because of the way that she’s presented as immense and enormous. And I was interested in figuring out, Well, how do you play a character like that? How do you portray a character like that onscreen and on stage, particularly? Because, you know, if you know the character well, you probably know that the 96 movie the Danny DeVito directed, where she’s played by a great British actress named Pam Ferris. But then this Netflix movie is an adaptation of a very successful musical that appeared on the West End and on Broadway and in that musical as designed.
Speaker 1: The Trunchbull is played by a man in drag. Bertie Carvel won an Olivier Award for it in London, was nominated for a Tony in every production since then. The touring production, the production, the continued on Broadway. The production still continues on the West End. The Trunchbull is played by man. But in the movie, she’s played by Emma Thompson in a way that is quite different than the way that she was played on stage. And so I was curious and exploring all these different aspects. And the Trunchbull is a rich character who rewards a deep look, I think.
Julia Turner: Yeah. Dan, I’m so glad you wrote this piece because I actually just finished reading Matilda to my nine year olds and, you know, came across the part where we are introduced in the prose to the Trunchbull and introduced in the prose to Miss Honey, who is her counterpoint, the the beautiful young teacher who sees potential in the precocious Matilda rather than wanting to squash her down. And the descriptions made me cringe as I was reading them to my children. They seem to accept constraints of gender performance that I have wrinkled against my whole life and that I did not like decanting into my son’s ears about how ever so frail as honey is. She’s the so slender you think she might snap into. You know, she’s beautiful. She’s listening, she’s willowy, she’s tiny, and she’s so, so, so, so kind.
Julia Turner: And then meanwhile, the Trunchbull is, you know, essentially butch. And the butchery is presented as villainy, you know, and that seems yucky. You know, I did not like it. That was not the part of that book I like best. I mean, Roald Dahl is a complicated man in ways that are beyond the scope of this conversation today. And his books continue to be some of the very best to read to children because of how inventive they are and how good they are at adapting a child’s eye view of the world.
Julia Turner: And I really like where your Trunchbull piece lends because it suggests that the massiveness of Trunchbull is possible to read not as narrow minded gender Yankee ness, but instead as the embodiment of arbitrary adult power as a kind of monstrosity. Which is. You know. True. But couldn’t you achieve that without all the gender yucky ness? Maybe. So this piece came along at exactly the right time for me because I was just thinking about these very issues.
Speaker 1: Well, it seems like, you know, the makers of this movie have similar concerns. That’s one reason to finally steer away from this stagey move of having the church will be played by a man in drag and its cast a female actor in the role. You know, and and the movie also makes a specific choice about who it cast as Miss Honey. It is not casting a tiny, wispy, willowy blonde, but just a normal looking person in in that role. And so the disparity between the Trunchbull and Miss Honey is now mostly about attitude and kindness and is not strictly a a looming monster towering over a tiny, breakable, beautiful piece of China. The way that it is in the book.
Speaker 1: But yet it’s also fun.
Speaker 1: I think the way that the musical onstage uses gender to make the character even a little bit more scary and more physically threatening than it she could ever be in a movie because of the way that the stage musical, which I Dana I know you’re a huge fan of, makes the physical body of the Trunchbull an act of like weapon against the various children onstage in a way that it was designed to with these powerful athletic male actors in the role.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: Yeah, I mean, I only I’ve only watched enough of the Netflix adaptation so far to have this conversation. I wanted to watch some of the Trunchbull big numbers so I could see how Emma Thompson plays her. I haven’t yet watched the whole thing because I really want to watch it with my daughter because we have such a history with with, you know, Roald Dahl in general and with this story. And and I saw Bertie Carvel Dan I don’t know if Nikki, when you saw the show, you saw Birdie Carvel, who originated the role. I mean, I still think we still talk about it. My daughter and I still talk about how that is one of the great stage performances we’ve ever seen. He was just extraordinary. And also, I think this is the case with your daughters as well, Dan, We didn’t know until, I think, the intermission of the musical that that Birdie Carvel was a man. I think we discovered that from reading the playbill and seeing the pronouns in the playbill. So so that was sort of like this pleasurable discovery that at the time also really, really tickled my daughter.
Speaker 1: I mean, it’s fun to think of it in some ways as like interesting tweaking of gender roles for a young audience, although also it’s not fun to think of it as presenting an extremely butch woman as a villain, in part because of her business. Right. But the further away we get from the book, the less I think the embodiment of the character depends on that aspect, and the more I think the people who are embodying her lean into her or her uncaring ness, her stubbornness and her largeness.
Speaker 1: The way I came to think about her is as a kind of opposite of Roald Dahl himself. Roald Dahl, who was also enormous. He was six foot five and who in some ways was Trunchbull in. He was a huge bully. He bullied his family. He bullied his publishers. He bullied complete strangers who he met at dinner parties, who he would infuriate by just casually insulting them while looming over them. And yet.
Speaker 1: Unlike the Trunchbull who tells the children in the classroom, I’ve always been large and I don’t see why others can’t be the same way. And who is simply incapable of thinking like a child, of even thinking that children have thoughts. Roald Dahl somehow, despite everything else that was objectionable and horrible about him, could always, for his entire life, see the world through children’s eyes. Could imagine what it was like to be small and could put that on the page in a way that children instantly respond to.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: Yeah, I think I mean, looking back at why Matilda, the musical was such a so important to my daughter and why that character, specifically of the Trunchbull, who she used to imitate, I remember she used to take ribbons and do try to do the flag dance and sing Miss Trunchbull big number, which I think we should hear a little clip of here. It’s sort of her her I want song, which is the if you want to throw the hammer for your country, it’s her looking back as she as she tells Ms.. Honey about her glory days as a champion hammer thrower. And of course, this will be Emma Thompson playing the Trunchbull.
Speaker 2: If you want to throw the hammer for your country, you have to stay inside the circle all the time. So if you want to make the tape, you don’t need happiness or self-esteem. You just need to keep your feet inside the nine missing children. Tape three for only one thing.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: And hear that song again, which is kind of the big entrance of this character. I’m struck by how much it’s a song about pedagogy and about bad pedagogy, which of course, Ms.. Trunchbull thinks is the model of ideal pedagogy. I love these lines. In particular, if you want to teach success, you don’t need sympathy and tenderness. You have to force the little squirts to toe the line. And I remember my daughter loving that line and singing it over and over. And I just think that no matter how much sympathy and tenderness we may be trying to infuse into education, there is something about sending kids to school to sit in rows and learn things from big people standing in front of them. That that makes that that line and that sentiment resonate with them.
Julia Turner: I mean, there’s there is so much that is spot on about the power dynamics and the particular kind of villainy, villainy that can exist in the administration of a school. But I do, even with Emma Thompson in the role, and I have not seen the stage musical, nor have I seen Trunchbull played by a man. I don’t know. It’s just unusual to see. You know, ugliness as the female grotesque. And Miss Honey is radiantly beautiful in this film. She’s just a less fragile beauty. She seems like more of a sturdy beauty than a kind of breakable beauty.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: But played by Lashana Lynch, we should say.
Julia Turner: Played by Lashana Lynch. Really, really lovely performance. But, you know, it’s like, Oh, that’s Emma Thompson under there and she’s got a mustache and she’s got a hook nose and her skin doesn’t look like she’s been doing a bunch of, you know, spending a lot of time in the k-beauty subreddits. You know, she’s just like, she’s ugly, right? They’ve made her ugly and sort of female ugliness, just the strictures of female beauty. Are as binding as ever they were.
Julia Turner: And this character, there is something that still lands very retrograde for me in the notion that when we think about a villainous woman, we think she is masculine and we think she, you know, does not do the kind of highlighting and contouring that we see on the quote unquote, Instagram beauty that we see around us today. Like, I just it just kind of yuks me out, and I appreciated your tangling with this essay, but I do not think it brought me around to a full embrace of the trench.
Speaker 1: I think the Trunchbull would never want your full embrace, Julia, and would reject it out of hand. Oh, I knew a little secret. And sending you out of the room.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: She would pick you up by the pigtails and around her head like a lesson. I do get the impression from social media that this movie has really caught on with children, because I’ve seen a lot of great clips of kids, you know, in their car seats performing songs from Matilda the way that my kids.
Speaker 1: Once did.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: When they first saw it. And it is, I should say, just the music and the lyrics which are by Tim Minchin are really extraordinary is just it’s a great show and I know that it’s hard to adapt a Broadway show into a movie, but even if it’s just to get to know the songs from Matilda, I think it’s worth giving it a try. Streaming on Netflix right now, so watch it if you want and send us an email about it at Culture Fest at Slate.com.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: All right. Well, we zoomed right through. We’re already at the time in our show when we endorse Dan, what have you seen, heard, experienced this week that you want to tell our listeners about?
Speaker 1: As we mentioned at the top of the show, I have a book coming out this week, which means that I am in just relentless self-promotion mode in a way that really crushes my once vibrant Gen-X sense of self. But it has made me think, Well, there are a lot of other people publishing books this week that are not mine and are maybe even better than mine, so maybe I should read some of those. So I want to recommend two books that are also coming out this week with the same update as mine that I really loved that I think readers should check out.
Speaker 1: The first one is by a writer named Monica Heisey, and it’s called Really Good, Actually. Heisey was a staff writer on Schitt’s Creek for several seasons, so if you’re a fan of that show, you’ll probably be a fan of this anti-romantic comedy about a young woman in Toronto completely failing to deal with her divorce. And I found it very charming, funny and, well, not unexpectedly sad, but sad in an unexpected way, which is to say, sad, but made me laugh anyway.
Speaker 1: And then a really great novel called The Sense of Wonder by Matthew Salesses also out this week, which is basically a novel length Korean drama style re-imagining of the Jeremy Lin New York Knicks story. Do you remember Jeremy Lin, the immensely popular Asian-American basketball player for the New York Knicks, who, for one incredible run during a recent NBA season, took over the league, destroyed every team in his path, and became a folk hero.
Speaker 1: The sense of Wonder is a really fascinating novel that takes a Lin like character, gives him voice on the pages, but also gives voice to a Korean-American sportswriter who covers him and to the player’s girlfriend, who is a producer of K-drama, giving the whole thing a kind of interesting K-drama Shin I really like it a lot. It’s super smart and funny and and takes a really unexpected view of this cultural phenomenon that I remember very well.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: Well, I’m really impressed that you have not only the spiritual generosity, but the time to read to other people’s novels, right, when your own novel is coming out.
Speaker 1: I’m really sick of myself. That’s all I got to say.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: Well, get used to it, right? Because now you’ve got to be. You got to be performing Dan Kois Nice for the next, I don’t know, a few months at least.
Speaker 2: Well.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: You got to throw the hammer for your country. All right, Julia, what about you? What have you got to endorse this week?
Julia Turner: Well, so this all continues on the journey of the chocolate olive oil cake that I recommended, I think, on our last show. So it turns out that that was the recipe I had picked out for Christmas and then just made for my husband’s birthday without really consulting him about what he would like. And it turns out that what he would have liked is angel food cake, which of course he did not share in the spirit that I am describing it. But in his kind, not undemanding way, he was like, You know what? It is my favorite cake, angel food cake, I guess we used to make as a food cake for my birthday with strawberries. It’s like, All right, that’s it. Received.
Julia Turner: So despite the fact that I mean, this is basically a marie Antoinette story at this point because of how expensive eggs are right now. So of all the times in the world to want to make angel food cake, which has about 60,000 egg whites, it’s so it’s a very bad time. But I went out and found a $9 carton of eggs and very carefully separated them all and made a pretty mediocre angel food cake, which was fine. But because of the precious value of the eggs, I saved all the yolks.
Julia Turner: And then I was like, What on earth can we do with yolks? And my husband sent me the Smitten kitchen recipe for seven yolk pasta dough. And it just so happens that one of the birthday presents I had given him was the pasta maker that you can attach to the front of your KitchenAid mixer, which always seemed like an insurmountable, difficult task. But I am here to tell you that if you follow this smitten kitchen recipe and you happen to have the pasta attachment for your KitchenAid or the desire to procure the pasta attachment for your KitchenAid, if you are the sort of person who does big cooking projects and has a KitchenAid, it was so fun. It was like the best kitchen magic I’ve experienced in a while.
Julia Turner: You know, you there’s a technique for making the dough that’s a little bit unusual, but not that hard. If you read about it, you got to kind of like swirl it around on a board. Then you need it for a super long time. Then you let it sit. Then it’s really easy to hook up this attachment and the passengers goes through the roller and makes these beautiful little sheets. And then you put on the cutie roller and just like angel hair comes out. It was so fun. So if you have a pasta attachment rolling around in your drawer and you’ve thought, Oh God, when will I ever do that? That seems like a pain. It’s really not. This Smitten kitchen joke recipe is great. Feel free to poke market until eggs don’t cost $10 dollars because I just happen to have the yolks lying around from the aforementioned angel food cake requirement, but really so worth doing. So fun. It was delicious. It was toothsome. We loved it.
Speaker 1: Great recommendation.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: I love that. I loved Julie. How it was a fake out. I started out ready to note down an angel food cake recipe, which I was excited about. But then you pivoted to the pasta. So there were actually sort of two recipes I.
Speaker 1: Knew Julia would never recommend an angel food cake.
Julia Turner: I mean, I’m going to try and steer him towards like a lemon or an orange chiffon cake over time, which is like the plausible way to make that cake. It’s really dreadful cake.
Speaker 1: Yeah.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: Yeah. That’s my dad’s traditional birthday cake, and I’m all for it. In fact, there was a tradition in his house. He and his brother had the same birthday, although they were born in different years. And so every year his mother would make him an angel food cake and his brother a devil’s food cake. Which I find a really nice parenting joke.
Speaker 2: Jeez.
Julia Turner: That’s like. That’s. That’s. There should be a whole Bleek French film about that.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: All right. My endorsement this week is related to one of our topics, The Last of US In the Last of US. The fungus that turns most of the world into brain dead zombies eating each other. It’s called cordyceps, which I guess is a real life fungus that does something similarly horrifying in the brains of ants, which is described briefly at the beginning of the show. Because of that, I was thinking about mushrooms, and the horrifying nature of fungus is spreading. And I happened to come across this not at all horrifying, but extremely beautiful and adorable Twitter thread about mushrooms that went viral a few days ago. Just at the time that I was I was catching up with the last of us let it.
Julia Turner: Go viral or did it in a.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: Fashion angle. It went fungal. Yeah, it’s. What’s the name of that? There’s a name for that branching system that where fungus is reach underground. And it’s not occurring to me right now. But we have some Mycologist listener who’s going to tell us what it’s called when you know, there’s these huge branching systems of mushrooms that are all connected for four miles. This, though, is about the visible tops of mushrooms. And it’s really just a very cute thread from a micro file about some of her favorite mushrooms, which she also has really great factoids about. Julia You would love it because I just know that you love color and design and shapes and things that look really neat, and that’s essentially her criterion for choosing mushroom.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: She starts off with a picture of the classic fairy tale mushroom, which is apparently called Amanita muscaria. You know, the the white mushroom with the red cap, with the white dots on it that you see in children’s book illustrations. And she starts off saying, yes, this is a cool mushroom and then offers some weird facts about it. But I’m tired of this being the only representation of mushrooms we see. And then she takes us through, I guess, about ten tweets with different photos of of bizarre mushrooms and incredible colors and textures. One of them that you would love, Julia, she says, reminds her of a ball gown. It’s this pink flowing pleated mushroom that it looks like fabric folded fabric. And this person may not be a professional mycologist, but she seems to know a lot about mushrooms and offers some really neat factoids too. So I don’t even think you have to be on Twitter to follow a thread. Right? We can put a link to it on our show page. The user is named and the gnome, as in genomics and and the gnome. So she.
Julia Turner: Should.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: Know exactly frolicking in the forest as gnomes do and learning about mushrooms. So go look at her thread is very pleasing.
Julia Turner: It is funny to have this mushrooms are the villain show at this moment of like oh, everybody’s got a little psilocybin in their day microdosing their sort of microdosing culture. And then there’s also like Etsy culture. Have you guys noticed this that instead of put a bird on it right now it’s put a mushroom on it. Like mushrooms are everywhere. If you have not already noticed this, your eyes are about to like fall out of your head because truly there is no nothing you can buy. Where one of the options is a pattern doesn’t have as one of the pattern options mushrooms.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: But isn’t it? Isn’t it always that Amanita muscaria the red cap with the white dots?
Julia Turner: No. Sometimes you get some like trumpet, like, you know, it runs the full gamut of like Pinterest aesthetic, I think, at the moment. But it’s like very hard to not purchase things that are covered in mushrooms. So there’s this mushroom hegemony that this show is setting up a counterattack against. So we will see the mushroom wars are only beginning is what I’m trying to say.
Speaker 1: Steal yourself listeners. You will soon be drafted in the war against the mushrooms.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: All right. That was a fun show. Thanks so much for coming on the show, Dan, this week. And again, happy pub day.
Speaker 1: Thanks.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: And Julia, as always, total pleasure talking.
Julia Turner: Thank you.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: And to you, our listeners, you can find links to some of the things we talked about today on our show page. That’s at Slate.com slash Culture Fest. You can also email us at Culture Fest at Slate.com. Our intro music is by the composer Nicholas Britell. Our production assistant is Yesica Balderrama and our producer is Cameron Drews. I’m Dana Stevens. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you soon.
Julia Turner: Hello and welcome to the Slate plus segment of the Slate culture Gabfest. Today we’re going to grill Dan on the pub day of his new book and first novel Vintage Contemporaries, which in addition to having a title that is is the name of an old publishing house similar to an old publishing house.
Speaker 1: It’s the name of a paperback imprint, a beloved paperback imprint of Random House in the eighties and nineties.
Julia Turner: Right. In addition to that, also has as many of its early reviews have noted two central characters who share the same name, in this case, the name Emily. One is Emily and one is M, Is that correct, Dan?
Speaker 1: That’s correct.
Julia Turner: And some reviewers have remarked upon this with befuddlement, some with with admiration. But I was so struck by this choice, it struck me as absolutely questioned in its, you know, willingness to break an unspoken convention that everybody silently observes its deep curiosity about the full scope of human experience, which does, in fact, include both having the same name as other people for most people, and also having friends who have the same name. And it is sort of like a Hollywood and writing convention of like, don’t confuse people by having some of your characters have the same name or honestly, even having names that start with the same letter is something that people often avoid. You will notice. And Dan, heedless, plowed straight into the breach.
Julia Turner: So there’s much to talk about with your new book. And among the questions we have for you is what’s it like to write a novel after having written various other forms and stripes of nonfiction? And what’s it like to publish a book in the middle of a strike at your publisher? We will get to those. But I would like to start with Emily and Adam. Come on, Dan, how many people told you not to do this? And why did you do it anyway?
Speaker 1: I had this genius idea somewhat early in the process, right around the time that I figured out that all the different things that I was writing at 10:45 p.m. after my kids went to bed could if I really worked hard at it, be squashed together and made into a novel. And I had these two characters and they had that kind of like symbiotic early twenties friendship you develop in which you, you basically spend all of your time, all of your intellectual energy and all of your emotional energy completely wrapped up in another person.
Speaker 1: And I had friendships like that in my twenties. One of them was, in fact, with a person also named Daniel. And and so I thought, well, what what a great gift that life has given me this extremely blunt and obvious metaphor for how they actually feel about each other, which is that they subsume each other and literally, in fact, have the same name.
Speaker 1: I also thought it would be funny. I also like the idea of doing this thing that novels don’t do because it’s confusing. And that I very quickly discover that it’s completely confusing. And the reason that novelists don’t do it is that it’s a fucking pain in the ass to explain to readers which Emily are talking about at any given moment. So, yeah, and, and I don’t even know now if I have completely succeeded, even in the galley that we sent out to press, I discovered three m slash Emily errors that I fixed at the last second before publication, but surely other ones exist somewhere in that book. And so the answer is that it’s confusing in real life. It’s confusing in literature. I guess one of the goals of literature for many writers is to make the confusion of real life slightly less confusing for the reader. And in that, I think I’ve completely failed.
Speaker 1: I’m happy to say, however, that one of the books I endorse today, Monica Heisey is really good, actually has the main character has in her circle of friends are two Laurens, one of whom they just call emotional Lauren because she’s very emotional, which provides her a great gag throughout the novel of emotional. Lauren Just being very emotional and every conversation that they have. But I think that’s the way that people usually handle it, right? I play soccer with two guys named Kevin. We’ve just started calling them Good Kevin and Bad Kevin because it’s easier than remembering which is which. But yeah, it’s a it’s a problem that plagues real life friend groups. And I’m happy to finally bring visibility to this issue in literature.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: I mean, I feel like it’s a it’s an old it’s an old experience even in literature. I just finished rereading Wuthering Heights last year, and that is is a novel in which about three names are shared among about six characters.
Speaker 1: Every single person.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: Is it is a Katherine or a Heath Cliff. And some it’s unknown just the last name is it. And it’s the first name. And you have to remember what generation you’re in. And it’s nuts. I mean, I will say, Dan, that in the case of vintage contemporaries, once you’ve read the whole novel, you see that the confluence of their names is is really important. Because, I mean, obviously it has to do with the differentiation of identity that is difficult anyway among close friends at that era of your life. Then later in their lives. M goes back to being Emily again, right when she’s an adult in the last, you know, two thirds of the book or so or an older.
Speaker 1: Adult being the version of herself that her friend Emily turned her into when she deemed her the M in the relationship.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: Exactly. So the overlapping name problem is is kind of germane and even even central, I think, to the dynamic between the two friends, which, by the way, I think I’ve told you this in private, but I will say it in public as well. I love this book and it was such a delightful surprise to read your fiction after having read, you know, three books of nonfiction and countless pieces in Slate by you, etc., Just to see where your imagination goes in fiction was was really wonderful. And and it’s a great book.
Speaker 1: Thanks. It is weird to finally write fiction 20 years after doing an MFA in fiction. Thinking of myself as a fiction writer had been performing so poorly in that MFA that I decided that actually I must not be a fiction writer and I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: That’s just sad MFA story. It’s really tragic that you were so traumatized by it, but I’m glad you.
Speaker 1: Did it too early, don’t it? Never do an MFA at 22, folks. It’s just a bad idea.
Julia Turner: Well, tell us a little bit about what it was like and what made you decide to tackle a novel after, you know, writing several different books of nonfiction. Many you know, you’ve written a book of music criticism. You’ve written an oral history of a play, you’ve written a memoir of traveling the world. It seems like you’ve you’ve, you know, got nonfiction by the throat. So what what made it time to turn to a novel?
Speaker 1: It was that I exhaust. I had exhausted all the kinds of nonfiction there are. Those are the three types of books, and I had done them, so I needed to find something else. No, it really was like it was like a minor mid-life crisis, the same midlife crisis that inspired the trip around the world when it was shared by me. And Oliver, for me, also manifested a creative mid-life crisis where I thought I had once thought of myself as a person who made things up and invented stories. And I’ve completely lost touch with that part of myself.
Speaker 1: And I am 40. And this, needless to say, was quite some time ago. I’m no longer close to 40, but I just thought, well, I, I would like to see if that part of me exists anymore. And I had only shortly before that written a profile of Lynda Barry, the cartoonist and eventual MacArthur Genius grant winner who teaches in workshops around the country, this this incredible sort of generative writing workshop that is meant not to make your writing better, but is meant to simply help you figure out how to be a writer when you sort of stopped thinking of yourself as a writer.
Speaker 1: And I hadn’t stopped thinking of myself as a nonfiction writer. If if anything, I was thinking of myself. Is that too often? And too frequently. But I. I had lost touch of the version of myself that could make things up. And so I basically spent several years, you know, as I said it, every night when my kids went to bed and I didn’t have some other thing. I was on deadline for just like sitting down for half an hour or 45 minutes and just doing a Lynda Barry type exercise and writing whatever made up thing that I could come up with.
Speaker 1: And after like four years of that, I thought, All right, well, if this is ever going to be a book, I’m going to need to actually exert some editorial control over it. But I am an editor, theoretically, so that’s something I should be able to do. And so, yeah, I sort of squashed everything together and figured out a frame under which these many disparate ideas could exist and started massaging them and changing them and giving characters the same names inexplicably. And until it started to resemble the the, the frame of a novel.
Speaker 1: And this is not a way I would suggest that anyone else write a book, write a novel, particularly. There was no I didn’t start with any underlying idea or plot or even really a character. I didn’t start with a thing I wanted to explore. I just started with this kind of desperation that I was not writing the stuff I wanted to be writing, and then at some point employed an editorial acumen to try and turn it into the book. I hoped it would be. I think in the future, if I successfully write a novel, I hope it won’t be that way because honest to God, it took eight fucking years and and I don’t have that many novels left in me. If it’s going to take me eight years every time, maybe zero.
Speaker 1: So but still, it resulted in a thing which does seem to me to be to reflect a lot of the stuff that I have been thinking about for the last eight years, about friendship and making art and politics and being a parent. And so in the end, I think I’m happy with it, although I’m unhappy about now talking about it all the time, although I love doing it with you guys, obviously carve out.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: I remember Lynda Barry profiled. And it was really inspiring. And it’s just it’s great that it inspired you, you know, that you were one of the writers who who wrote a book from it. I hope you’re sending Lynda Barry a copy of your book and telling her that story.
Speaker 1: Absolutely. It’s already in the mail.
Julia Turner: Oh, that’s great.
Speaker 1: I don’t imagine you listen to podcasts, but maybe you do. But I think of you as a being of pure creative light who only outputs. But if you’re listening. Thanks a lot.
Julia Turner: Well, tell us a little bit about this strike and that aspect of the politics and economics of publishing.
Speaker 1: Yeah. So the book one of the things the book is about is working in publishing. It’s it’s main. Emily. Main, Emily, as we called her during edits, not other Emily. It works in book publishing. In the nineties, she works as an assistant where she feels very put upon and taken advantage of and abused. And then in the 2000, she works as a senior editor. She’s advanced in her career and is now one of the senior women at this publishing house. She has the ear of the editor in chief who’s, you know, one of those brilliant geniuses with thorny personalities that the creative industries love to employ. And she discovers that at her particular publishing house, the young people working there do not actually really look up to her.
Speaker 1: Exactly. And, in fact, think of her as kind of a tool of the same forces that are that are exerting influence over them and and using them and making them feel like crap at their workplaces. And so it turns out that my publishing house, HarperCollins, which is owned by the despicable corporate behemoth News Corps, is in fact going through labor strife right now.
Speaker 1: The 200 young employees at Harper, including by the assistance of several of the people who worked on my book, including the woman who designed the cover of my book, have gone on Strike. They went on strike in early November after many months of failing to negotiate a contract with HarperCollins. It should be noted that they they are in a union. They’re, in fact in the United Auto Workers for some reason. But they’re the it’s the only big five publishing house whose employees who have some unionized employees and they’ve gone on strike because they would like to be abused less and to have more money and to have diversity be improved within the company and and to not be treated like crap, which they really feel as though they are being treated like.
Speaker 1: And so it is I have real mixed feelings about coming out with this book that I’m very proud of, which is in part about young publishing employees feeling taken advantage of at a moment when the young publishing employees who helped me bring this book out are walking the picket line in the cold, feeling taken advantage of. And so I’ve spent a lot of time, as have a lot of other HarperCollins authors over the last few months, trying to figure out, well, what are my responsibilities as a good citizen and a good union member and a moral person to these people striking it? Should I just not be promoting my book? Obviously, I, I dispensed of that possibility instantly, but what should I be doing? And it is a pretty potent question to think about when the work of your life comes into conflict in some way with other people’s actual lives.
Julia Turner: This is the thing that seems so hard about book publishing to me. As someone who has not published one and does not intend to publish one. Like there’s too much at stake. It’s too many. It’s too many hours of your life. Like there’s too much hope ending up in each book, which means that the you know, you can’t just say, Oh, I’m not going to promote this article because we’re in the middle of a labor dispute. You know, it’s not right. It’s not right. A couple weeks of your life. It’s literally years of your life and the culmination of a midlife crisis and self-doubt that goes back to a program you did when you were 22. Like you it there are limits to political solidarity and you have found them.
Speaker 1: Well, and to their credit, or perhaps because they are not dummies, the union has also recognized that and is not asking HarperCollins authors to not promote their books, to not try to sell their books, to not be proud of their books. They’re suggesting to HarperCollins authors that what they can be doing is tweeting in support of the union. And, you know, if you’re in New York walking the picket lines, as I plan to do when I go up to New York for my event later this week.
Speaker 1: But they also, you know, I think reasonably, they work in publishing. They love books. They, in fact, many of them love this book, or at least professionally love this book because they worked on it. And I don’t think they have any interest in wanting authors who should be in solidarity with them to have to give up the work of their lives to, you know, to dispense with it, without it to let it evaporate into the ether of the publishing world without ever once speaking up. On its behalf for them. And so they’ve been very clear that that’s not what they expect. And yet it still feels like some kind of moral dilemma that I am dealing with by instead writing a large, meta, self-promotional piece for Slate about my feelings about the HarperCollins strike that just happens to link to several places. You can buy my book.
Dana Stevens, Dan Kois, Dan: Dan, You need to get rid of your your guilt about book promotion. You said this to me when I was having the same trepidations when my book came out almost exactly a year ago where you said, I believe you said you have exactly six months to be as obnoxious as you want. I think I extended it a little because I still occasionally obnoxiously post about my book. So please feel free to take your own advice and get obnoxious.
Speaker 1: And you’re right, Julia, That like that is the thing about book publishing that like so much of you and, and what you care about and your work is wrapped up in this one thing which has one chance to live or die in the marketplace and is try, as I might, to become an egoless, shining light of creativity.
Speaker 1: I cannot help but worry about how it will do in the marketplace and will anyone read it? And will I ever get to write a book again? And I sort of thought that, you know, several books in a phrase like I dreamed of saying when I was 20 several books into my career, that that that I would feel less of less anxiety and less less of my self wrapped up in it. But that hasn’t happened at all. And in fact, each book I feel even more of my self wrapped up in it and more anxious about what the result is going to be. And I and so I, I agree that writing and publishing books is completely insane. And I don’t know why anyone would ever do it.
Julia Turner: All right. Well, in conclusion, book publishing, Massive Shrug. Dan’s book is Vintage Contemporaries. You should go check it out. I will go check it out. I have not yet read it, so my lack of praise for it did not come from me. Just not wanting to insult then on air, but merely the fact that I have not yet read it.
Speaker 1: Please feel free to insult me on air in the future when you read it and you turn out to have problems with it.
Speaker 1: I have been asked by the fine people at Slate.com to tell you that not only can you purchase this book in your local indie bookstore or wherever or through the links in my piece, which in which in fact take you to a site where a small percentage of your purchase will go toward the HarperCollins Strykers Strike Fund. But you can also listen to the audiobook using Slate’s incredible technology supporting cast, or rather, it’s its incredible site and distribution center supporting cast. And you can support Slate while listening to other people read this book into your ears. And you can do that at the URL Slate.com slash vintage.
Julia Turner: All right. Thank you so much. Slate Plus members for your support of Slate, for your support of the show, for listening to us and to this bonus segment. We’ll see you next week.