On this week’s podcast, writers Pamela Paul and Mira Jacob talk with V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell about the literary side of reboots, comics, and superheroes. Editor of the New York Times Book Review Pamela Paul, the author of My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, talks about the relevance and impact of literary retellings and her life as a reader. Mira Jacob, author of the novel The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing and the forthcoming graphic memoir Good Talk: Conversations I’m Still Confused About discusses the role of comics in American mythology, their viability in the digital world, and the intersection of comics and literature.
Readings for the episode:
My Life with Bob, The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony, Pornified, and Parenting, Inc. by Pamela Paul · A View of the Empire at Sunset by Caryl Phillips · Wide Sargasso Sea and Smile Please by Jean Rhys · “Neither a Borrower nor a Lender Be” from The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing by Margot Livesey · The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani · Life After Life by Kate Atkinson · The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, Shondaland column, and “37 Difficult Questions from My Mixed-Race Son” by Mira Jacob · The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon · The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem · Tintin by Hergé · Asterix by René Goscinny, Albert Uderzo, Jean-Yves Ferri · Amar Chitra Katha · The New York Times Book Review Podcast
From the Episode, Part 1 Pamela Paul on teenage diaries and keeping a reading journal
V.V. Ganeshananthan: One place to look for a good definition of the enduring qualities of any book is in your own book My Life with Bob. And this is a book, essentially, about your reading life. So, for our listeners who may not be familiar with it, could you talk to us about “Bob” and the role he played in your life? And maybe read us a passage from the book?
Pamela Paul: Sure. So, Bob is not a person. Bob stands for “Book of Books.” And it’s essentially a journal in which I’ve written down every book that I’ve read since I was 17, which I think was probably the only good idea I had at the age of 17, and probably the only thing I’ve kept for that long. But it essentially came out of the fact that like every other young girl slash aspiring writer, I thought of myself as a “Jo” or a “Margaret” who had to keep a diary. You know, that’s what you did. If you were a bookish little girl, you kept a diary. And then in your deepest inner fantasies, someday someone would discover your diaries and it would be like this treasure trove and it would be collected and published and everyone would read them and treasure them forevermore. And of course the reality—for me, at least—was that my diaries were terrible. I couldn’t even stand to read them. And I would give up writing them.
I would look back at my entries, and they would be full of banal emotional incidents of adolescence—fights with friends and disagreements and notes that I’d read that I wasn’t supposed to read and betrayal and the prose wasn’t even good. There was no sign of any kind of literary gift at all. And they made me feel terrible. And every time I would go back and read these diaries, I would give up that diary and start a new one. And I still have them. I have, like, ten diaries from my childhood that have four pages or five pages. They were abandoned. I was like, “That’s not the diary for posterity. I’ll start a new one and this one will have a unicorn on the cover, or whatever.”
And at the age of 17, I basically abandoned that because I realized what I was writing about in those diaries were the things that were going on in my life that I wanted to get away from. And often the way that I got away from those mundane personal events was to read about other people’s lives. And so Bob became this journal in which after I read a book I would write down the author and the title, nothing else. I started it when I was 17 and I was spending a summer living in France. And weirdly, the first book that I put in there was Kafka’s The Trial, which of course, symbolically, is an unfinished book. And Bob is unfinished. Bob is only about a third of the way filled out. And it’s funny because I used to be really paranoid that I would finish Bob and then I wouldn’t know where to go. But I write really small in my Bob. And so he’s got a way to go. I think I’ll finish up the last page and die.
Whitney Terrell: What is the book made out of? ‘Cause I keep journals, too, and I go and buy these hardcover blank sketchbooks that you can get at art supply stores for not that expensive. What do you use?
PP: Bob is really unappealing looking. That’s a kind of nice quality, to my mind, about him. And really made him the anti-unicorn rainbow diary for me. It’s just like a gray, blank book—like before you had moleskine and bespoke diaries you can get now at a Barnes and Noble.
The only time that he has left my house, in recent memory, is for a kind of special occasion that was really sort of scary for me. And here is what happened: I took Bob to lunch with me with Jeffrey Toobin, the writer for The New Yorker and author of several best-selling books. And it was not my idea, it was Jeff Toobin’s idea, and the way it came about was this: about a year before My Life with Bob was published, I was editing “By the Book,” which is a profile interview we do in the Book Review, and Jeffrey Toobin had just published his book about Patty Hearst, and so he did a “By the Book,” and early in the “By the Book” he revealed that he kept a book of books. And he explained what it was, and I was like, “Ugh! Jeffrey Toobin’s stealing my thunder! You’re writing about my thing and my book has not come out!” It turns out that he and I had been keeping a book of books starting the same year.
WT & VVG: Wow.
PP: Yeah, and so he read My Life with Bob, I saw him at some other event, and he read an early copy. And so he had this idea that we would meet for lunch and each bring our Bob, and I have to tell you, it was really nerve-wracking. It was like—I don’t know what the equivalent would be… It would be like taking your sister whose been locked away in a mental institution and bringing her to lunch with a stranger and that person’s your–
WT: Speaking of Jane Eyre…
PP: Yeah, exactly. And I was really shy because I was like, “How will my Bob look compared to Jeff Toobin’s Bob?” And it turned out it was great. Especially because we had both started in 1987, and there were these interesting parallels. We read a lot in common, surprisingly, and I certainly have my strange book skeletons in my closet because it’s not all Henry James in there, and he had his equivalents. But that was an exception, and since then Bob has been, not locked up exactly, but he’s in a corner in my office at home.
VVG: I also had a number of spiral-bound notebooks that had maybe the first three pages used either with tortured diary entries that were horribly written or plays about orphans whose rich grandfathers would come and save them. And then I had one pink diary that had been given to me at a birthday, and it had a key and everything in this very classic fashion. And every time my family would move, my mother would be like, “You have this stack of notebooks—do you need them?” And I would be like, “I definitely need them, you definitely can’t throw them away, they’re really important.” And she would say, “What’s in them?” and then I would open them and just be horrified by the quality of the prose and everything that they revealed about who I was as a beginning reader. The kind of excess of Commonwealth literature. It was clear I was writing imitation Frances Hodgson Burnett as a play, speaking of literary reboots.
PP: Early writing is so embarrassing. I think about starting—I want to say a Tumblr, which is probably something that probably doesn’t even exist—but like, a website where really famous, high-achieving writers post really early bad examples of their writing.
VVG: There actually is such a website. I was recently on it. It’s called “Early Work.” And you can read my sequel to The Lorax in its entirety.
PP: Oh, wow!
WT: You put something up there, Sugi? We’ll have to link to that.
PP: Yeah, I love that idea, and I want also the bookshelf version of that, where you have Martin Amis’s Guide to Atari Games, and Neil Gaiman, I think, did a biography of one of the people in Duran Duran? There are just really weird early books that people write…
From the Episode, Part 2 Mira Jacob on comic books as American mythology
Whitney Terrell: I have this review sitting here by Jay McInerney of the book that Lethem published after Fortress of Solitude. It was called Men and Cartoons. McInerney in the review says, “Look, I didn’t like that book Fortress of Solitude. I didn’t think it should have the superhero stuff in it—I thought it should be realism.” And I remember whatever you thought of the book in itself—and it’s a very complicated book—but I remember part of it was people weren’t sure (someone like McInerney, who’s a realist writer), weren’t sure you could make people superheroes in a book. Do you know what I mean?
Mira Jacob: Mmhmm.
WT: Like actually do it—put a ring on ’em and make ’em fly. In fact the kids of course talk about the Marvel comics in the book a lot, and it’s an important part of their personal mythology. And that would come back, you know, in like Oscar Wao—that’s an important thing too. And so I felt like that introduction of those two books—the Chabon and the Lethem—were the earliest books that I remember a literary writer saying to me, “Hey, that box of Avengers comics you got, that you’ve read every single one five times, can be a literary artifact too.” And I had not thought of that.
MJ: That’s interesting. I understand how somebody would come to those two books and say, “That was the moment where I realized it too.” But in the way that stories—especially those first stories that we read and the first stories that really live in this deep, deep part of us, that loves them forever in the Linus [blanket] way, loves them in a deep and abiding way and never gets sick of them—I always think that people come to those stories because those were the first stories they knew, and in some ways the reason they return to them and the reason they would want to write them again is because that is the first instance of that kind of magic in their life. Do you know what I mean?
MJ: It’s a return to something that feels absolutely natural, and it’s a pathway that is well worn and constantly surprising.
WT: I guess I’m just trying to pick the point that . . . I feel like literary culture made comics cool in a way that I think was related to, and helped with, this new boom of comics. Now Sugi’s theory is different, which is like, they were always making DC movies, so there never was a boom and this whole Marvel thing is an aberration. . . .
V.V. Ganeshananthan: [Laughs] Hey!
WT: But I’m gonna say there has been a boom since the first, you know, Iron Man movie. We’re making a ton of these and they become hugely profitable franchises, but I feel like before that, actually, literary culture started to think about comics and make them more mainstream.
MJ: Sure. I mean, but also don’t you think comics are in some way the myths of America, in the way that other countries would tie themselves more to religion?
WT: [Laughs] That’s totally true!
VVG: Yes, yes!
WT: I’m laughing because it’s true, not because I think it’s wrong.
MJ: So I feel like that’s partly where this comes from, that kind of need, that need for a creation story. And what does that look like through the lens of democracy, and through the lens of capitalism, and through the lens of fighting through WWI and WWII? And what does that tell us about ourselves? How did all of those heroes come up, and what do they reflect to us about our American soul? That’s where we got all that information. So it makes sense to me that that would be the source material, and we’d have to go back to that again and again. Right?
WT: Yeah, and I mean that feels to me like you’re talking about what Kavalier & Clay is very explicitly about . . .
MJ: . . .Right, absolutely. So I have to tell you, I didn’t get through Fortress of Solitude. It was just one of those books that I understood because my husband was going crazy about it and said it was the greatest thing that ever happened to him. I felt like he had the relationship with it—his relationship was so big that there was almost no room for me.
MJ: Like I tried a couple of times and was like, “’Kay, it’s not taking off between us. I don’t know what’s happening.”
WT: Well you and Jay McInerney: he admits in this review that he didn’t finish that book.
MJ: Oh, really? I don’t know if I feel good about that alignment or not . . . this is hilarious. But Kavalier & Clay, I think it obviously really affected me in the way that it made me reimagine every single corner of the city. And that was a beautiful thing. I think that’s very similar to what comics do for us. But wait: I have a question. I don’t know if this came up with Pamela Paul, but are you guys actively in a DC–Marvel fight?
WT: Oh yeah.
VVG: I . . . I think we are. I mean I fell asleep in Thor: Ragnarok.
WT: Oh my God.