Monday, October 18, 2010

Menus and Memories: An Interview with Ruth Reichl

The sense of taste and our memory are, say scientists, inexorably linked, so perhaps it’s natural that one of the country’s preeminent food writers has made a career out of penning memoirs. Ruth Reichl, author and the former editor-in-chief of Gourmet Magazine and New York Times restaurant critic, will be in Hudson Oct. 9 for a day that incorporates both food and memory.

Since her background is in art history it seems Reichl became a food writer almost by chance.

“I fell into it,” she said, “like most people fall into things.”

She said after graduate school at Michigan State University she moved back to New York City.

“I thought I would just waltz into MOMA and they’d need a new curator,” she laughed. “To my horror they didn’t.”

She was living on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and having large dinner parties for friends. At the time, she said, the neighborhood was still an ethnic enclave with Little Italy still vibrant and Chinatown close by. She began “cooking all these foods and collecting recipes.”

A friend suggested she write a cookbook and the 21-year-old took her friend’s advice.

“In those days you could do that. No one asked me what my credentials were,” she said. “Everyone thought I was a food writer and it went from there.”

Two years after her cookbook “Mmmmm: A Feastiary,” was published in 1972, Reichl was living in California and was the co-owner and cook of the collective restaurant The Swallow. She was part of what would become known as the “culinary revolution,” centered around Berkeley, which focused on using fresh, seasonal and local ingredients in cooking. From this small epicurean epicenter began a mass movement that changed the way many Americans eat.

Reichl said she has happily watched “the great evolution of American food culture and how it has become part of the popular culture. I’m thrilled, but not surprised. My whole career I’ve been waiting for Americans to wake up to food.”

Food has seemingly always played an important part in Reichl’s life as evinced by three of her four memoirs in which food looms large, the overarching theme that ties her life together.

Writing about the people in her life Reichl’s descriptions can often seem unflattering, but, according to the author, she always writes the truth.

“If you’re writing a memoir what’s the point if you’re not going to tell the truth,” she said. “If not, you might as well write fiction.”

Reichl admitted that she probably couldn’t have written her first memoir, “Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the Table,” had her parents still been alive.

Her latest memoir is “For You Mom, Finally,” which explores her mother’s life and how that generation of women were mostly relegated to being housewives.

In a way, she said, it was an atonement for how she presented her mother in the first memoir.

While her earlier descriptions are all true, she said, so are those in the latest book. “It’s just the other side of the coin,” she said. “She was a very difficult and exceedingly generous woman.”

The change in her perception of her mother came about gradually as she read through a box of old letters and diaries her mother had been writing for a better part of her life.

“I didn’t know,” she said of this other side of her mother. “It was a side she kept to herself.”

The impetus for the book began with a speech Reichl had written for what would have been her mother’s 100th birthday.

“I knew from my speech that ... I had empathy for my mother and her whole generation of women,” she said. “I did not expect to find self-awareness. It was a real surprise.”

Reichl said that through writing the book she discovered just how much her mother had sacrificed for her daughter.

“It was a really difficult experience,” she said. “I cried practically every day while writing that book.”

Writing the book, she said, finally allowed her to “grow up fully” and see her parents not just as her parents, but as people. “You let go of them,” she said.

According to Reichl, another big surprise for her was how some of her readers reacted to the book.

She said she discovered that there was a generation of young women in America who seemingly don’t want to have the kind of life her mother’s generation yearned for, that is, a meaningful existence outside of the home in a job that they loved.

In the book’s afterward, Reichl recalls a young woman in her late teens in the audience on one of her book tour stops who told her that she didn’t want to “be Superwoman” and hadn’t yet decided between career and family, apparently believing doing both wasn’t an option.

“I couldn’t believe that this still existed in this country,” said Reichl.

The book went through a name change when it came out in paperback. It was originally titled “Not Becoming My Mother.”

The title was chosen by her editor, but Reichl felt it sounded harsh. When the paperback version was released it had the title that the author had originally pushed for.

Reichl’s next memoir will be exploring her time at Gourmet Magazine, where she was editor-in-chief for a decade before the publication was shuttered in October 2009.

She recently signed a book deal with Random House for the memoir, along with a new cookbook and her first novel, “Delicious.”

When she spoke to the Register-Star, she had just returned from a month-long stint at the MacArthur Colony in New Hampshire where she was working on her novel.

“It’s about halfway done,” she said.

She has also accepted a position at Random House as an editor-at-large where she will be working on her books and looking for new titles, among other duties.

When asked if there were more memoirs on the horizon, Reichl answered that with the next one she’ll be caught up, so “it depends on how long I live.”

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Death of Sanford Gifford

Editor's Note: This story by Andrew Amelinckx originally appeared in the Oct. 9, 2010 weekend edition of the register-Star Newspaper. It has been altered from its original form.

The sun shone through the trees in the Hudson Cemetery and a light breeze carried the smells of summer, on this, the last day of August. Several of the men who bore the remains of their friend were more inclined towards wielding brushes than bodies and represented, along with a number of those in the large crowd, some of the best known painters of America’s first great art movement, the Hudson River School. They were there to bury one of their own, Sanford Robinson Gifford.

Many had come by train from New York City where Gifford had spent a good part of his later life and where he had died two days earlier, on Aug. 29, 1880, of malarial fever. While he possibly contracted the disease during a trip to Minnesota, in mid-19th century America malaria was prevalent across the country, including in New York City.

Writing to his mother while he lay in bed, burning with fever, he told her “he was happy, ready to die and had the consciousness of having done his duty as he understood it” and going on to say that his “faith in immortality was strong and settled.”

Among his friends who bore his body to the grave that summer day was Jervis McEntee, a fellow painter who had traveled with Gifford in Europe in 1868 during a trip that would eventually result in the creation of a painting that Gifford considered his crowning achievement—“The Ruins of the Parthenon.” The painting of the famous Greek temple in Athens brilliantly displays Gifford’s ability to paint light and atmosphere, in a style that would come to be called “Luminism.” The artist himself said the work wasn’t a painting of a building, but of a day.

Like most of his fellow Hudson River School artists Gifford created his larger works based on sketches made out in the field, and also like those fellow artists, he traveled extensively both in America and abroad.

Gifford made several trips with Worthington Whittredge, another well-known artist of the Hudson River School, traveling in Europe in the mid-1850s and the western US in 1870. That sad summer day in 1880 Whittredge would be another of Gifford’s pallbearers.

Gifford had met many of the men he would call friends and artistic peers at the Tenth Street Studio Building, located at 51 West 10th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in Manhattan. Built in 1857 it would become the center of the American art world for the next half-century. Among his contemporaries who had a studio there was Frederic Church, one of the best known of the Hudson River School Artists whose stately mansion, Olana, still stands today in Greenport, NY. Church had also been on the European excursion that Gifford had taken with McEntee and McEntee’s wife in the late 1860s.

Church, called “an intimate friend of the deceased” by the Hudson Republican Newspaper, was in attendance at Gifford’s funeral as well.

The day began with a 3 p.m. service held at the Gifford Family home at 337 Diamond St. in Hudson. Gifford’s father,Elihu, was a wealthy industrialist who in 1823, the year of Gifford’s birth, bought into an iron foundry in Hudson, which he renamed Starbuck, Gifford and Company. He would go on to organize the Farmers’ Bank and serve as its first president as well as founding the Hudson and Berkshire Railroad. His wife was the first director of the Hudson Orphan Asylum and a professor of religion. According to McEntee, Gifford’s mother had hoped that he would have also followed that pursuit. But it seemed Gifford was destined to become an artist.

Born in Saratoga County,NY., Gifford grew up in Hudson, NY., in the proverbial shadow of Thomas Cole, the man regarded as the founder of the Hudson River School who lived in Catskill.

After attending the Hudson Academy Gifford spent two years at Brown University before moving to Manhattan to study art in 1845. His career followed a straight path to the National Academy, the center of American art at the time, where he first showed work in 1847. His life was devoted to art and he continued to paint even as he served in the Civil War. Gifford was a corporal in the Union Army’s 7th Regiment of the New York Militia from 1861 to 1863.

He was a tall, thin, dark-haired man whose character was, as defined by a friend after the artist’s death, “serene and placid, resting on resources within himself,” but whose placid exterior harbored a “depth…that flowed within, whose floods, and swirls, and eddies often caught him from the light and carried him into cavernous depths of shade."

Perhaps McEntee was thinking only of his friend’s exterior when he wrote, “the face of the dead reflected the whole life and bade all look upon Gifford’s serene and hopeful and contented face.”

The funeral service was officiated by the Rev. W.H. Bellows, a well-known Unitarian minister from New York City, who commented afterwards “it was fitting that the painter of the summer should go to his rest on this last beautiful day of the summer.”

The other pallbearers who helped lay Gifford in the ground included artists R.W. Hubbard and John F. Weir. The final man carrying Gifford’s casket was Richard Butler, who was one of Gifford’s major collectors and through whom Gifford’s work can still be seen thanks to the donation of his paintings to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which held an exhibition that autumn featuring 160 of the artist’s 700 known works.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Saddest Music Ever Written

Editor's note: This piece by Andrew Amelinckx originally appeared in the Register-Star's on-line edition Sept. 20 in a slightly different version.

The soldier runs toward the helicopter, which is fast leaving the ground. His comrades look on in desperation at the seemingly hundreds of enemy troops on the man’s heels. The music swells as he falls to the ground, hit by a number of bullets, only to get up again, the action in slow motion.

The music that gives this scene from the 1986 film “Platoon,” written and directed by Oliver Stone, its power and gravitas is “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber.

This piece, written in 1936 as part of Barber’s “String Quartet , Op. 11” was the topic of a lecture at the Hudson Opera House given by Thomas Larson.

Larson is the author of “The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’,” recently published by Pegasus Books.

The book encompasses history, culture and the personal as it relates to “Adagio for Strings,” and seems to have haunted the author and journalist far longer than the 10 months it took him to write it.

“Each book is an odyssey,” he said.

Between the ages of 10 and 32 Larson considered himself a musician and composer and earned a degree in musical composition, but at age 32 he abruptly shifted gears, leaving music behind for writing.

He said he has never fully understood why he stopped making music, but believes it was at least partially motivated by a “messy divorce.”

He eventually returned to music in a different way, through language, but struggled with how to convey the idea of music through the written word.

“Why do so many of us try to explain the beauty of music, thus depriving it of its mystery?” he quoted the famed conductor Leonard Bernstein as saying.

“I struggled with it for years,” Larson said. But eventually he was able to make it work in “Adagio for Strings” through the inclusion of various writing styles — a hybrid narrative, he calls it — from personal memoir to biography and musical analysis. He also included three fictionalized episodes involving his father, mother and grandmother hearing the Barber piece.

“All the facts are true,” he said, “but I also imagined their inner lives ... This was the way I was able to write about music.”

Larson’s relationship with the Barber work stretches back to the 1970s when he heard the piece on a record of orchestral music by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Thomas Schippers.

He said an image of Barber on the back of the album reminded him of his father, a World War II veteran, who had died two years earlier. Barber, he said, seemed to have the same sense of sadness his father had.

He listened to the piece a lot that summer, he said, not sure whether it was from grief or another one of the emotions he was feeling at a time when his life was in flux.

Whether it was grief or not that drew the young Larson to “Adagio for Strings,” the work would, over the course of several decades, take on that role for many Americans, beginning with the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12, 1945.

“That weekend Barber’s ‘Adagio’ played on the radio,” said Larson. “It got into (Americans’) bones...After 1945 the appropriation began in earnest.”

The piece was later heard at memorials and funerals for such notables as Albert Einstein, John F. Kennedy and Grace Kelly.

From there it found its way into a number of films, including 1980’s “The Elephant Man,” “El Norte” from 1986 and another film from that year, “Platoon.”

“It sums up the moral quagmire of Vietnam better than anything I know,” said Larson of the aforementioned scene in the film.

“Adagio” has also been heard in parody form on such television shows as “Seinfeld,” “The Simpsons” and “South Park.”

DJ TiĆ«sto, a Dutch musician, created an electronic version of “Adagio” that was heard by a reported four billion people, due in part to its being played at the 2004 Olympic games in Greece.

Barber, according to Larson, probably wouldn’t be too happy with the results since he was apparently disgruntled by the piece’s popularity in his own lifetime.

“He refused to have it played at his funeral,” said Larson.

Barber, born in West Chester, Pennsylvania in 1910 already knew at age 10 he was going to create music, writing a letter to his mother that year in which he tells her he will never be an athlete, but would be a composer.

Larson drew the conclusion from the letter that there was also an unstated, but inferred reference to Barber’s homosexuality.

Barber created the piece when he was 26 during a summer in Italy with his longtime partner Gian Carlo Menotti, also a composer, who Barber met when they were both studying at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute.

Menotti recalled that the couple “were so happy” that summer, leading one man at Sunday’s event to wonder aloud if “Adagio” wasn’t a love song that had somehow become appropriated as a piece associated with mourning.

“Adagio,” taken from the middle section of Barber’s “String Quartet” was reworked by the composer for the famed conductor Arturo Toscanini as a piece for string orchestra, which was first performed in 1938.

For Larson, one of the greatest performances of “Adagio” was at the Royal Albert Hall by the BBC Symphony, conducted by the American Leonard Slatkin four days after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The piece, which is nine minutes long, said Larson, was stretched out to more than 10 minutes.

Slatkin said it was the most emotional night he had ever spent in a concert hall.

“It commands attention like few works do,” said Larson.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Little Stories: Sedat Pakay on Walker Evans

It was the late 1960s. Walker Evans, a photographer who helped document the Great Depression three decades earlier through his haunting images of the rural poor, was teaching at Yale University in Connecticut.

A young Turkish photographer, who aspired towards filmmaking, convinced Evans to
become the subject of a short film.

“Walker was very modest, very shy,” said Sedat Pakay, the photographer and filmmaker who now lives in Claverack. “I talked him into it.”

At age 21 Pakay had come to Yale to study photography under Evans.

“I was with him for two years,” he said.

During that time Yale didn’t have a separate photography department.

“It was under graphic design,” said Pakay.

Most of the students were graphic artists concerned with magazine work, said Pakay, while he, like Evans, was “obsessed with photography.”

The two men hit it off and it was during this time that Pakay broached the subject of making a film about his mentor.

The first version of the film, completed in 1969, was 20 minutes long and shot on a 16 millimeter camera owned by Yale.

Pakay was living in New York City by then and would edit the film whenever he could find the time.

After the film’s completion there was little interest, he said, due to Evan’s being considered “a has been” at the time, as well as the fact that documentary filmmaking wasn’t popular.

“Documentaries weren’t on anyone’s radar,” he said. “I think I made about 600 bucks from it.”

According to Pakay, it was a time when a number of new feature filmmakers, including Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, were coming to the forefront.

Evans, who was born in St. Louis, Mo. in 1903, took up photography in 1928 and would eventually become part of the Farm Security Administration’s photographic unit.

The FSA was a New Deal agency and under the leadership of Roy Stryker, the photographic unit worked to underscore the need for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s programs as well as document a decade’s worth of national troubles.

According to Pakay, Evans and Stryker had a very tumultuous relationship.

“Stryker didn’t like him and he didn’t like Stryker,” he said.

Evans was living in New York City doing magazine work at the time and considered it a chance to travel and make photographs, according to Pakay.

“It was a major opportunity for Walker,” he said.

Pakay, who loves Evan’s FSA work, believes that the years between 1935 and 1937, when Evan’s was with the agency, were some of his best.

“A lot of artists have shining moments,” he said. “These were Walker’s years.”

By 1938 Stryker and Evans had reached an impasse.

“Stryker would give him an assignment and Walker would ignore him,” Pakay said. “He was doing whatever he wanted to do.”

Pakay said Evans did the same thing when he and James Agee were sent on assignment by Fortune Magazine to do a story in 1936.

“(The magazine) wanted something glorifying American capitalism,” said Pakay, “and (Evans and Agee) chose three families of share croppers.”

The magazine never published the article.

“No one cared,” he said.

The piece was eventually published in 1941 as the book “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” and told in words and images the story of three white tenant families from Hale County, Ala.

Pakay said 1,000 copies were printed and a little more than half, about 600, sold.

“There was little fanfare upon its publication,” he said. “Now they’re almost impossible to find.”

The time in which it was published played a large part in its failure to sell, said Pakay. It was on the eve of World War II when America was still reeling from the Great Depression.

Stryker eventually fired Evans from the agency, but according to Pakay, Evans had said on numerous occasions that he caused himself to be fired.

The year Evans was fired was the same in which he was honored with a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the first dedicated to photography.

Evans later worked for a number of magazines and eventually became an editor at Fortune Magazine.

“He left Fortune (in 1965) and went to Yale to teach,” said Pakay.

This was where the two men met. Pakay had gotten a full scholarship to Yale and eventually received his Masters in Fine Arts there in 1968.

As a teacher Evans never gave assignments but would discuss the subject matter of the work. “The clothing, environment and background,” said Pakay.

Both men were interested in subjects that “were very American,” he said.

Pakay’s teacher was much more interested in the subject than the technical aspects of his art.

“Walker didn’t care at all about darkroom techniques,” he said. “Not at all. Zip.”

Evans, he said, was capable in the dark room, but chose instead to have his work done by professional labs.

During this time Pakay was moving towards filmmaking.

“I was already trying to put little stories into one frame of film,” he said, adding that filmmaking allowed him to incorporate “sound and motion” into his work.

Pakay would go on to make two other documentaries. One was a 2006 film on Josef and Anni Albers titled “Josef and Anni Albers: Art is Everywhere.” The Albers were German born American artists, he, a painter and influential educator, she, a textile artist and printmaker.

Another was a short film from 1973 on the famed African-American writer James Baldwin titled “James Baldwin: From Another Place.”

Pakay had met Baldwin in Istanbul, Turkey in 1964 and became the writer’s unofficial photographer.

“I jumped into it with the vigor and ambition of an 18-year-old,” he said of his photography during that period.

Of the Evan’s film, "Walker Evans: America," it would be nearly 30 years before it would reach its final state.

It wasn’t until Pakay and his wife Kathy bought a weekend house in Claverack,NY., two hours north of new York City, in 1984—to which they moved full-time three years later— that the idea for a longer film came to fruition.

Pakay said he approached WMHT, the local PBS affiliate in Albany,NY., about doing something longer.

“I had the goods,” he said of his earlier documentary.

Evans had died in 1975, but Pakay was able to expand the film through interviews with a number of Evans’ friends and colleagues, including John Szarkowski, the former curator of the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, who was living in East Chatham at the time.

A National Endowment for the Arts grant, as well as funding from the Park Foundation, helped get the new version of the film completed in 1999.

The film was eventually picked up by PBS and shown across the country around the same time that MOMA held a major retrospective of Evans’ work.

Pakay said that in the last decade he has returned to photography and has even, tentatively, embraced the digital age.

In 2008 he began working with Emily Upham of Germantown for a book on aging and loss.

He said he bought a digital camera for the project, “a play camera” he called it, but also brought his 35 millimeter film camera along.

The book contains 17 portraits of women authors and artists who have dealt with loss and aging, including Gail Godwin, Erica Jong, Vivian Gornick, Tina Howe and Sharon Olds. The book contains narratives by the artists and interviews by Upham and is due out from Simon and Schuster this spring.

Pakay said that he enjoys the “instant gratification” of digital cameras, but feels that digital prints still don’t match up to traditional silver gelatin prints.

According to him, if Evans was still alive he would most likely be using a digital camera.

When the SX 70 Polaroid camera came out Evans immediately began using one, he said.

“He spent years with it,” said Pakay.


I interviewed Pakay at his home in Claverack one February morning. As I exited my truck I was greeted by two large poodles who came bounding towards me full tilt. On the porch stood Pakay, a smallish man with glasses and a smile that peaked out from the corners of his mouth.

We drank mint tea at his kitchen table and talked and every so often he would get up to let the dogs in or out. "They're obsessed with squirrels," he explained. They would see a squirrel through the kitchen window, go crazy, be let outside to chase said squirrel and then return inside to repeat the entire process.

Besides discussing Evans, we touched upon Pakay's series of photographs that he did of such renowned photographers as Andre Kertesz and Edward Steichen as part of his graduate thesis.

He also photographed Mark Rothko, the reticent Abstract Expressionist for the project.Pakay said it took months for Rothko to finally agree to sit for him. The young photographer met the older and famously reserved painter at Rothko's Manhattan studio, a converted 19th century horse barn.

The resulting image shows Rothko, his mouth slightly open, standing between two of his smaller works that hung in the hallway of his studio.

Pakay was then invited into Rothko's work space where the artist was in the midst of creating the large scale paintings that would eventually hang in the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas.

Rothko, who was known to consume large quantities of whiskey, offered Pakay his first taste of bourbon.

"I had never tasted it before," he said. "I still love it, even though I'm not supposed to drink it anymore."

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The World She Made: Heller on Rand

Editor's Note: My interview with Anne Heller originally appeared in the Register-Star Newspaper April 30, 2010.

“She was a complex, contradictory character,” said Anne Heller of the writer-philosopher Ayn Rand.

Heller spent five and a half years working on her 2009 biography of Rand titled “Ayn Rand and the World She Made,” published by Doubleday.

Rand, born Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum, in Russia in 1905 wrote a number of works, including the two best selling novels, “The Fountainhead” (1943) and 1957’s “Atlas Shrugged.”

She was also a philosopher whose ideas, which came to be known as Objectivism, continue to be influential today as a wellspring for Libertarianism and other ideologies.

Heller, a magazine editor and journalist, first began reading Rand after Suze Orman — the financial advisor and best-selling author — sent her a passage from “Atlas Shrugged” about money, as a way of illustrating the point of Orman’s essay that Heller was editing.

“I’m not even sure if she is a fan of Rand,” Heller said of Orman. But the passage was enough to pique Heller’s interest.

“The passage surprised me by defending limitless wealth in a way that was logical, original, complex, and, though somewhat overbearing, beautifully written,” stated Heller in her book’s preface.

Soon she was reading more of Rand’s work.

Heller made the leap to writing Rand’s biography after she began “looking around at the work out there” on Rand.

She said that most of the books were either written by Rand devotees or by authors who “dismissed her out of hand.”

“There was nothing objective out there,” she said.

Heller’s biography is based on original research done in Russia, along with interviews with Rand’s friends and former acolytes.

She said that while writing the book she was surprised to discover how determined Rand had been throughout her life.

“Nothing was a coincidence in her life,” she said. “She knew what she wanted.”

In Heller’s book she describes a well known scene in which the famed Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille meets Rand for the first time. It has been said that the meeting, which helped launch Rand’s career as a Hollywood screen writer, was just sheer luck. But Heller, based on her research, believes the meeting was more than a coincidence.

“Of the people I talked to nobody believed that happened (by chance),” she said.

Another aspect of Rand’s personality that Heller was surprised, and saddened by, was how Rand’s ideas became more rigid as she grew older.

Rand had a wonderful mind that changed decade by decade, said Heller.

She believes this was due, in part, to the cult-like atmosphere that surrounded Rand in her later years.

Beginning in the 1950s, Rand, while living in New York City, was surrounded by a small group of acolytes, whom Heller called “gatekeepers” who kept those who disagreed with Rand away from her.

“She let it happen,” said Heller. “She was charmed by flattery like the rest of us.”

Rand’s philosophy which places the individual good above that of the collective continues to be felt close to 30 years after her death in 1982.

“You can draw a line from Objectivism straight through to Libertarianism,” said Heller.

She said the Tea Party movement has also latched on to Rand.

“People use her a lot,” she said. “I don’t know if what they are doing has much to do with her ... she was pro-abortion and anti-religion, ferociously so.”

Alan Greenspan, the economist who served as the country’s chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006, was also influenced by Rand.

“He was a steadfast friend to her until the end of her life,” said Heller.

According to Heller, Greenspan said that Rand put the moral basis in capitalism for him — the idea that capitalism is the only economic system that respects the individual and is determined by the individuals right to produce.

“A couple of years ago,” said Heller, Greenspan repudiated the theory that it was in a business person’s best interest to be honest, a long held Randian belief.

“It’s shocking to me that he lived at the pinnacle of world economics and didn’t realize that people would cheat if they had the chance,” she said.

Rand’s fiction also continues to do well, with close to a million books being sold in 2009. But for Rand there was no line between her philosophy and her novels.

“Rand used her novels as a way of illustrating her ideas,” said Heller. “She always thought that people are much more influenced by stories than by lectures.”

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Interview With a Vampire (Hunter)

Editor's note: My interview with Seth Grahame-Smith originally appeared in the Register-Star Newspaper March 14, 2010.

A new novel set in Rhinebeck reimagines America’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, “the Great Emancipator,” as a vampire hunter and the Civil War as a battleground for the undead.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by New York Times best-selling author Seth Grahame-Smith, follows the life of Lincoln from his early days in Kentucky, where he first takes up his ax to slay vampires, to his death at the hands of John Wilkes Booth, and yes, Booth is not of this world.

The novel opens in Rhinebeck, NY, and tells of how a mysterious man named Henry leaves the narrator, who happens to have the same name as the author, a package containing the secret diaries of the 16th president, revealing for the first time Lincoln’s lifelong quest to rid the world of vampires.

The narrator is an author who has quit writing and is running a five-and-dime in the town when his life is changed by Henry’s revelations.

Grahame-Smith, 34, said he chose to set the book in Rhinebeck and in a five-and-dime based on an actual store—Stickle’s—for a number of reasons.

His wife and in-laws are from there, he said.

“All of our relatives live in the Hudson Valley,” he said, “All within five miles of downtown Rhinebeck. They’ve owned Stickle’s for generations.”

Grahame-Smith was staying in Rhinebeck at the time he began working on the novel.

“I knew it inside and out,” he said of the setting.

The author is originally from Connecticut, but has lived in California for the pat 12 years.

The novel took about six months to write.

He spent the first two months intensely researching Lincoln’s life and times.

“You can’t become a Lincoln scholar in two months,” he admitted, adding that he was able to gain “a solid grasp of his life. I wanted to make it as accurate as possible.”

Grahame-Smith then outlined Lincoln’s life and was able to insert the vampire narrative within it.

“I had a really detailed outline,” he said.

The book subtly combines the real and the fictional and often reads like a true Lincoln biography, right down to footnotes, some actual, some not, and altered historical photographs that accompany the text.

“I wanted to give it the look and feel of a real biography,” he said. “I had the help of some really talented Photoshop people.”

He said he worked hard to get period details correct to add to the illusion, from nailing down the correct street names in 1820s New Orleans to a realistic depiction of frontier life.

“It was fun to write,” he said.

Grahame-Smith began work on “Lincoln” before his first book, the million selling “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” came out this past year.

His first book combines Jane Austen’s classic 1813 novel “Pride and Prejudice” with contemporary horror fiction.

He said it was part of the wave of mash-ups that are becoming popular.

“I don’t know if I’ll do another mash-up,” he said. “I don’t want to be the last guy to jump off the sinking ship.”

He said his next novel would most likely be straight horror. He did hedge his bets while speaking with me, admitting that if he gets an idea for a mash-up that he can’t get out of his head, he would write it.

Grahame-Smith is currently working on a number of other projects, including a new show for MTV: “The Hard Times of R. J. Berger,” which he described as a more mature version of “The Wonder Years,” a television show from the late 1980s.

“It’s coming out in June,” he said. “I’m working to get that ready for air.”

He’s also writing the screenplay for “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” which is set to be produced by Tim Burton.

Burton, best known as a director, has had a string of hit films, beginning with 1985’s Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, right up to “Alice in Wonderland,” currently in theaters.

The film will be co-produced by Timur Bekmambetov, director of 2008’s “Wanted.”

Burton and Bekmambetov recently co-produced the film “9.”

Grahame-Smith came up with the idea for the book after spending time in a number of bookstores.

He said they always seemed to be filled with both Lincoln biographies and vampire literature.

“They were the two things people couldn’t get enough of,” he said. “That’s how it began.”

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Church’s Brushes and Bacon’s Socks

In a light-filled studio at Olana, the stately Persian inspired mansion of Frederic Church, there is a display of the artist’s brushes in a room that includes his collection of exotica from his travels. Church is probably the best known of the 19th century American artists who helped create the Hudson River School, the country’s first internationally recognized art movement. Church and his compatriots sullied forth across the continent—from the polar north to South America—in a time when travel was often measured in months, to bring back images of a wilderness that hadn’t been seen by many city dwelling Easterners. Church especially loved travel, roaming extensively through Europe and the Middle East. So by dint of this, Church’s brushes had been farther than most Americans of the time. Now, they had ended their careers as exhibits—like the other collected artifacts—an artist’s ephemera neatly laid on the shelf. And, yes, these pieces of wood and animal hair are merely tools by which Church’s brain and hand were able to convey the power of a multi-hued and seemingly exploding sunrise over the Catskill Mountains or the pristine and quiet whiteness of an iceberg, but at the point at which they touched paint on canvas they became, briefly, an extension of the artist.

In a grander, and by the same token creepier, gesture the final studio of the towering 20th century figurative artist Francis Bacon was reconstructed in an Irish art gallery, a mausoleum of artists tools. Among the thousands of items transferred were various pieces of clothing, including old wool socks, that the artist used to apply paint to his canvases. Bacon spent his entire career experimenting with various tools in his work. Looking closely at his paintings you can see the vastly different effects he was able to achieve through his use of unusual application methods.

While Church was refining with his tools in pursuit of a believable object infused with the spiritual, Bacon was both harking back to an earlier time before the invention of the modern brush and pushing the envelope in regard to tool use as a way of applying pigment onto canvas for its abstract effects within the framework of a recognizable subject matter.

As a painter I’ve explored both traditional means of applying paint and less usual forms—in graduate school I eventually forewent paintbrushes all together, favoring applying oils straight from the tube or with my fingers—but have of late gone back to the brush and continue to refine my knowledge of each of their strengths and weaknesses. The dizzying array of brush types with names such as filbert, bright, flat, round, angle and mop, more descriptive than sexy, not to mention the different hairs or fibers, from sable to synthetic, were daunting to figure out. I earned my undergraduate degree at a time when theory trumped practice, so it was up to me to navigate the labyrinth of artistic technology. I learned by trial and error, exploring brush shape more than material, since it often came down to what I could afford. Sable was out of reach for a long time, so I made do with synthetic and less expensive animal hair brushes for so long that when I finally could afford the top of the line, I found it to be too soft and supple for my needs.

I’ve come across this conundrum before. Once while bartending a holiday party with an open bar a wizened and bent old man came up and ordered a well brand of scotch. I pointed out that we had a nice variety of single malts and since it was free he might like one of those. “Son, when you’ve been drinking cheap scotch as long as I have, the good stuff just doesn’t taste right,” he told me with a crooked smile.

Through it all I’ve come to recognize that the act of applying paint onto a surface, through whatever means, is more important than the method of delivering pigment, whether a handcrafted sable-hair brush used by Church, Bacon’s old wool sock or a stick used by an Australian Aborigine a thousand years ago. The artist’s choice of a tool is merely a part of the creative process, the same as choosing a paint color or what the image on the canvas will be. But even so, walking into a space where a great artist worked or being surrounded by the tools he or she used is, in a high school fan club way, still an exciting venture.