Recommendations, Writing

talking reclamation blues with Elise Blackwell, author of ‘The Lower Quarter’

No Comments 19 December 2015

I met novelist Elise Blackwell through the Rich Roll Podcast earlier this year, the fount from which all good things seem to come. Her email was phrased carefully so I wouldn’t have to respond… which of course, made me realize both that she was a writer and that she had fielded more than one unsolicited email herself. We started corresponding and, when I asked, she agreed to send me a galley for her forthcoming novel, The Lower Quarter.

I started reading The Lower Quarter at a moment of peak chaos in my life—about to move across the country, struggling to finish my first full-length memoir, living out of my van while touring across the country and around the world, butting up against the limits of my sobriety, obsessing (as usual) about the best way to salvage a life I’ve abused worse than a rental car. The Lower Quarter is a dense book, crammed with emotional information and cerebral information. It’s about a lot of dark things—Post-Katrina New Orleans, art theft, Internet trolls, the evils of affluence, loss of autonomy, addiction, rough sex, rape, enslavement, murder, revenge. A gloss of the plot—a body has turned up in New Orleans, a possible clue to the whereabouts of a European painting missing for years—in no way prepares you for the spectrum of human experience that awaits. The novel is intense but it never becomes bogged down by the darkness that is its main concern. Ultimately, I found The Lower Quarter to be about recovery, about living with damage, and about reclamation. I’m an unabashed fan of the book (I already bought a copy for a friend) so I was pretty excited to Gchat with Elise about it.

M: Apologies if you’ve answered these a million times but… run down for me what the book is about. I could do it, but I’ll probably butcher what you had intended…

E: It’s a literary noir set in post-Katrina New Orleans. The plot spins about a body that is found in a hotel in the lower French Quarter and a painting that’s been missing from Europe for a decade or so. These cause the lives of the four main characters to intersect.

In thematic terms, it’s about restoration and recovery as well as various forms of power relations.

I’d say, too, that it’s also about what it means to live in a body, particularly one subject to power relations and boundaries.

M: “Thought-provoking” appears on so many jackets of books that really aren’t… but I spent a lot of the time I was reading this book actually not reading it, but thinking about it. “The discovery of a body” is an idea that reappears many times in the text in different forms.

E: There are ideas in there, to be sure, though I hope that a reader who wants to read for just story can do that. But, yes, embodiment is definitely one of the book’s ideas.

M: There’s the body of the murdered man. Then Johanna is just a body when Clay first encounters her. Marion is a body worker who seems to discover her own body… but it never feels like you’re cramming ideas into a story or warping the narrative in order to shoehorn these themes into it. It’s sort of a pedantic question… but how the hell did this story come to you? What was the germ?

E: Of course bodies are subject to power of various forms, and the book covers some of them: political, geographic, and sexual. I tried to explore this from different angles with different characters. For instance, the character of Johanna has, in the past, been subject to involuntary sexual power relations as well as confined by political boundaries. Eli has been incarcerated. Marion dabbles in the voluntary exchange of sexual power and is very much a physical being–from riding her bike to receiving tattoos. Clay has a tormented relationship with his own body, which is marred by a physical defect.

The book came to me while on book tour for my second novel, which was set during the Great Flood of 1927. It was a book whose publication history was interrupted by Katrina, and I wound up rewriting it after the storm. When it finally came out in 2007, my book tour started in Biloxi, and there I went on a morning run on the beach and was hit hard by the boundary between the part of the beach that had been cleaned up (near the casinos) and the part that was still a disaster area. The tour continued on to New Orleans. I stayed in an offbeat hotel in the lower Quarter that felt like it could have been in a noir movie, and I had the strong (but possibly totally false) feeling that someone had died in my room. Then it accumulated from there. Johanna was one of the earliest characters, or rather her art restoration studio was. I have a cousin who is an art restorer, and I was drawn to the idea of what it would mean to be someone who restore water damaged things in a water damaged place.

M: None of it feels like riffing on bodies or the idea of the body, though. It’s thinky, but it doesn’t feel flashy. It sits nicely with the themes of restoration/ damage/ ownership/ identity. Johanna’s sense of self is tied to a stolen painting. As an art restorer, she has to walk a fine line between restoring a painting and transforming it. What ‘damage’ becomes essential to a painting or a person? What needs to be undone and what needs to remain?

E: That’s a fabulous question. Johanna’s identity was born during the worst thing that ever happened to her. I’m pretty sure she would give up her identity to undo that thing, but of course she can’t. But I don’t believe in simple psychological formulas. Just about the worst thing I can think of to say to someone who has suffered a tragedy is “Things happen for a reason.” That’s moronic and insulting. Yet people do incorporate their damage and move on.

M: I love that you said that. Probably my greatest gripe with the world right now– more than ISIS, more than fast food restaurants that don’t give you free soda refills– is the phrase “Everything happens for a reason.”

E: A key question in art restoration, particularly of historically important paintings, is whether to hide their damage, to paint over a problem, for instance, and that works as a human metaphor. In the novel, at least three of the characters are what a friend of mine who has been in therapy would call “in conversation with their own damage.”

M: I’ve been listening to too much Dylan recently. Two lines came to mind when thinking about The Lower Quarter. “The executioner’s face is always well-hidden” as we learn almost nothing of the man who arranged for Johanna’s kidnapping and subsequent rape/ forced prostitution. And the line “I can’t be good no more/ honey, cause the world gone wrong.” The people in this book aren’t broken, but they are damaged, living in a damaged world, often damaging each other… but also, seeking something greater, whether it’s freedom or revenge or just forgiveness.

E: I think I didn’t want to make that man important, and Johanna certainly wishes he weren’t important. You’re right that the characters aren’t broken. Clay is probably the closest, and certain readers have loathed him, but I actually have some sympathy for him. He is trying to make something right, in his own way. He has a sense of penance. So, yes, I think each character is trying.

I don’t think that people who have suffered can go back, can restore themselves to what they were before. Transform is a good word, though of course sometimes it’s a negative transformation. Usually, for most of us, it’s mixed. So if you wind up liking yourself, you know that the scar tissue is part of it.

M: I have a tattoo of a woman’s name on my clavicle, a woman who happens to now be married to another man. I haven’t covered it up and I won’t because it would just be cosmetic and it would be in bad faith: oftentimes, our missteps and our bad decisions become who we are. Or at least part of who we are.

E: I think the most dangerous people are those who aren’t frank with themselves. I’m in favor of keeping secrets from other people (or at least there’s a lot of stuff I don’t want people to tell me!), but not from yourself. As for your tattoo, that makes a lot of sense to me. You know who you are.

At the novel’s beginning, Marion doesn’t have any tattoos. When asked if she’s afraid of the pain, she says no (and she’s definitely not), that it’s the fear of commitment.

M: Tattoos are always a little terrifying. Even if it’s something small, you’re absolutely a different person after it’s done.

I feel like I should be grilling you with tougher questions, but most of my questions are just variations on “interesting choice– great job!” I found your decision to keep the villain anonymous or at least undifferentiated to be mimetic of reality. In my experience, people who do horrible, dehumanizing things are rarely snarling, moustache-twisting villains, but normal-appearing people. And they seem to live their lives indifferent to the pain they’ve inflicted.

E: I think that is often the case, which is what makes Clay a more salvageable human than the full villain. As for the villain, I agree. It’s also the case that even people who do really horrible things are complex, and to write the character as a full-fledged character would mean engaging sympathetically with him. He also plays a minor actual role in the book, and what’s important is the action Clay takes and not who the bad guy is. The guy is a rich bad guy. He may well also be nice to elderly people and give to charity. If I wrote a book about him, I’d have to figure out if he had a dog or not–I’m guessing no–but it’s not about him.

M: This is a central question to writing any character, I think: dog or no?

E: Yes, it strikes me as an important distinction. When I found out Rafa Nadal “doesn’t trust dogs,” my tennis allegiances were upset.

M: Genres collide in TLQ, to great effect. In some ways, it’s straight-up detective fiction with a massive wounded-and-bleeding heart. What books or authors do you feel this novel is descended from?

E: I definitely set out to mess around with the tropes of noir, and so Chandler and Hammett were on my mind. I know a guy here who is a great Hammett collector, and I got to meet Elmore Leonard when he came to town ahead of donating his papers to the University of South Carolina library. But in a noir, the detective would have to tell the whole story in some hard-boiled voice, and Eli’s not really the kind of guy to look up Johanna’s skirt without asking. But there are definitely a lot of nods to noir–the setting suggested it strongly–and I did want the story to work at least sort of as a mystery. Not the what, really, but the why. And, to some degree, the who. It’s funny, the book was reviewed in a “mystery roundup” in USA Today, and I tweeted appreciation but also that it wasn’t a mystery. The very kind and generous reviewer tweeted back “But there’s a body! And a missing painting!” And I can’t argue with that. I think there’s also a strong debt, though, to some of the novels of Howard Norman, which blend elements of mystery into literary fiction.

M: When I think ‘Mystery,’ I first think of it as an outdated genre– hand-me-down airport paperbacks, etc. But it’ll always be resonant. So many of us are searching for something lost or stolen. I think what prevents TLQ from being ‘just’ a mystery is that what Johanna is searching for– autonomy, revenge, herself– can’t be carried in a briefcase or hidden under loose floorboards. And it couldn’t be told from one perspective because each of the four major characters is seeking something. Something different, but something lost or stolen, like Johanna.

E: Plenty of folks still read airport mysteries, but I wonder if the choice to read even those isn’t about something deeper. All of the characters in TLQ have been robbed of something. Marion has lost tangible things, including some of her own art and a (very small) inheritance, but also a sense of family and background. She’s searching for a way to belong to a place and a way to connect to other people outside of sexual power. Clay wants redemption, among other things. Eli has either lost or been robbed (depending on your perspective) of some serious time and also the possibility of love. Anyone who is self-reflective is trying to solve key existential mysteries.

M: What’s next for you?

E: I’ve just started working on a new novel, tentatively titled Spa, of all things, and set at a “wellness spa” in southern California. It’s about contemporary relationships with time and money. It started as satire but has become something more serious.

M: “Contemporary relationships with time and money” sounds innocuous. But, having read TLQ, I suspect it’s anything but…


Buy The Lower Quarter here

About the author:

Elise Blackwell is the author of five novels: HungerThe Unnatural History of Cypress ParishGrubAn Unfinished Score, and The Lower Quarter. Her work has been translated into several languages, and her books have been named to numerous best-of-the-year lists, adapted for the stage, and served as the inspiration for a Decemberists’ song. Originally from southern Louisiana, Elise now teaches at the University of South Carolina. Her favorite Bob Dylan song is “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.”

Recommendations, Running, Writing

A meat eater for The PlantPower Way

2 Comments 29 April 2015

Do you know Rich Roll? If you don’t, you should. I met him two years ago and no one else I’ve met in my sobriety has had a deeper, more lasting, more positive affect on who I am and who I want to be.

His story is incredible. Like me, he is a recovering alcoholic. He’d been sober for years but, on the eve of his 40th birthday, he realized that he was deeply unsatisfied, 50 pounds overweight, and heading for a heart attack. He knew he had to make food his medicine, so he adopted a plant-powered diet (no animal products, no refined foods, all organic and GMO-free) and undertook a radical transformation, culminating in his creation and completion of The Epic Five: five Ironmans on five different Hawaiian islands in less than a week. Incredible? Just short of impossible, I’d say.

Rich is an impressive physical specimen and, knowing his accomplishments, I was expecting a Type-A, performance-obsessed, go-go-go neurotic asshole. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Rich was humble and unassuming, perceptive and thoughtful, so relaxed his presence was nearly hypnotizing. Behind his down-to-earth demeanor, though, was a fierce, probing intelligence and an unrelenting drive. Rich wasn’t satisfied to have unlocked a better, more authentic version of himself. He had an undying commitment to service and he wanted to share what he had learned. Not just with other ultra-athletes or other sober alcoholics, but with everyone.

I fell in love with Rich right away (a love that’s only deepened over the years) so I tried to go plant-powered. Having grown up in a meat-and-potatoes household, I was clueless about how live on a plant-powered diet. I knew what I couldn’t eat, but I had no idea what I should eat, and how to prepare it. I failed, tried again, and failed again.

So I’m really excited about his new book, The Plantpower Way. I’ve already bought two copies as gifts. It’s a cookbook, but it’s much more than a cookbook: it’s about how to live plant-based, how to prepare and enjoy vegan meals, how to achieve complete nutrition from only plants. At its core, the book is about how to eat well—for longevity, for health, for performance, for happiness—and, most importantly, how to enjoy eating well.

Yes, I have mocked vegans. I will continue to mock vegans. But I am genuinely excited about this book and, if you’re like me and you enjoy the occasional bacon cheeseburger and maybe a mountain of Twizzlers, you should buy it. Why? Because we know that cheeseburgers and Twizzlers aren’t good for us (Twizzlers are pretty much the opposite of food). Because we know that we aren’t eating enough plants—fruit and vegetables, but especially greens. And because we know that kale by itself tastes like crap. I’ve had the pleasure of eating Julie’s cooking several times and it’s hearty, satisfying and out-of-this-world delicious. I don’t know if I can bring it the way she can, but I’m going to give it my best shot.

I’m not plantpowered and I doubt I will ever go all the way. But just by trying a plantpowered diet, I’ve learned so much about how I eat and what I should and shouldn’t be eating. If you’re a vegan, obviously, you should buy The PlantPower Way. But I’d argue that if you eat meat and cheese, if you eat candy, if you eat delicious Nacho Cheez-its, it’s even more important for you to buy this book and soak up the wisdom within. No, it won’t make your diet perfect, but it will make it better… and isn’t ‘better’ what we’re all aiming for?

Here it is again: The Plantpower Way

Recommendations, Videos, Writing

Arrgh! My CBS 3 Audition Vid

No Comments 01 August 2012

Damn you. You gave me 20 five star reviews and now, as promised, here is the ridiculous audition vid Damien and I cobbled together. Oh go ahead and laugh, you heartless bastards.

Recommendations, Writing

jed collins, my pet genius

No Comments 19 July 2012

I first met Jed in Athens, Ohio when I blacked out at his house. Like most of my favorite folks, we didn’t immediately hit it off. I thought he was just a weird bird of a guy. After a while, he ended up being one of the people I sought out when I went to Athens. I remember sharing a nice bottle of Cold Duck with Jed on the street one night after he had gotten kicked out of The Union.

Flash forward a coupla years. Jed moves to Queens and happens to be looking for a new place to live when the apartment below me opens up. So he and then his excellent girlfriend Marseilles move in downstairs. Turns out Jed is a pretty awesome cartoonist. Here’s a coupla images he illustrated for a comic version of Are You Lonesome Tonight? that we ended up abandoning. I hope to collaborate with him on a comic book version of one of my unpublished story if he ever gets his shit together. Jed, get your shit together! And get mine together while you’re at it…

Recommendations, Running

My Two Cents on Five Fingers

No Comments 19 July 2012

If you run, you have an opinion on Vibram Five Fingers. Has there been anything more divisive in the running community in recent Memory? The message board of my local runners’ group, North Brooklyn Runners, is regularly taken over by pissing contests between heel/ forefoot strikers, all convinced that their way is the only way. Vibrams are a godsend/ they’re an abomination/ they will cure all your running problems and injuries/ they are so hideously dorky that they may cause the human race to stop breeding and go extinct. I can’t promise to deliver some elusive truth on the subject as we all run for different reasons with different goals—indeed, one of the reasons we love running is that it’s as specific and intimate and personal as love itself—but here’s my take.

Like many newbies, I was introduced to ultrarunning and minimalist footwear by Christopher McDougall’s excellent Born To Run. We value good running books for their power to inspire us to run. Born To Run is powerful and exciting enough that I wanted to throw the book down when I finished it and go run 50 miles in my boxer shorts in January in the middle of the night. Obviously, that would have been a horrible mistake. While it’s not as obvious, snagging a pair of Five Fingers after a lifetime of running in ‘traditional’ running shoes and banging out an eighteen miler would be an equally horrible mistake.

Vibrams are clearly a radical departure from what we understand as a running shoe. As such, they’re an invaluable tool but I don’t think they are the end-all, be-all Greatest Of All Time. I grew up a barefoot kid, was a drunk for nearly twenty years and comfort has always been my guide—my shoes come off the minute I walk in the door and my pants immediately after—so I didn’t have to transition from a lifetime of running in huge-heeled running shoes. I know my experience is atypical, though, so if you are just starting to run barefoot (or “barefoot”) GO SLOW. The more time you take to transition to the barefoot style of running, the less likely you are to injure yourself and the more likely you are to stick with it.

Use your Five Fingers wisely. Twice, I’ve started trail races in Vibrams and switched to more traditional shoes halfway through. The first race started on beautiful, dusty single-track… and transitioned quickly to jeep trails strewn with golf-ball sized rocks that had me hopping and cursing for miles. The trail on the second race was riddled with roots and kicking a couple of those in a row just about ruined my day. Hell, I was following a guy in Five Fingers at Virgil Crest and every time I heard the soft ‘thunk’ of him kicking a root, I winced on his behalf. Though I love the unfettered feeling of running through the woods in Vibrams, ironically, I use them more for roadrunning. Though most people think of them as a trail shoe, I find them to be a better road shoe. On trails I don’t know or trails I know to be rocky, I default to New Balance MT-101s or, my old standby, Montrail’s Mountain Masochist, which is a far cry from a barefoot or even a minimalist shoe.

Still, my Vibrams and real, nothing-on-my-feet, actual barefoot running very much inform how I run and why I run. I run to feel free. And running in Mexico, down dusty streets, narrow jungle paths, on and off the beach, in and out of the surf, wearing only a pair of flyweight shorts, I feel gloriously animal, almost completely naked, free of all human concerns. So I wholeheartedly recommend investing time, effort and maybe even a little money in barefoot or ‘barefoot’ running. It’s good for you, like patting a smelly old dog is good for you, and it’s also good for your running. Now, even when running in my heavier trail shoes, I occasionally accidentally sneak up on people. I used to sound like an elephant falling down the stairs. Just match them to your purpose and to the terrain you’re running. And for God’s sake, do not wear them when you are not running—you make us all look bad.


unstoppable death machines

No Comments 14 July 2012

these guys are my favorite new band. two handsome troll brothers, bass, drums and no bullshit. def looking forward to their new record.

Music, Recommendations

hilarious & bleak new vid up

No Comments 02 July 2012

My pal Jack Anddino cut this cool video to one of my old songs, “The Only One Drinking Tonight.” It features my friends Andy Andrist, James Inman and Norm Wilkerson, all of whom are great, funny guys and horrible drunks.

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