Monday, April 21, 2008

"The Mayor's Tongue": Nathaniel Rich

Nathaniel Rich came to Kepler's on April 19 to discuss his new book, The Mayor's Tongue. Our brilliant bookseller, Terry Meagher, hosted the event. In case you missed it, here's what happened in Terry's words.~
Nathaniel is one of a cadre of emerging literary novelists hailing from NY; judging from his age (around 30), position as a Senior Editor of The Paris Review, his well-received book of film criticism San Francisco Noir, and quietly confident demeanor (not to mention a slightly unruly mop of black hair), he kind’a fits the bill.

Nathaniel began by sharing an anecdote during which he received a tip on how best to conduct an author reading. A couple years ago at a Paris Review event, the host approached “Nat” wondering if he could help an elderly, wheelchair-bound attendee who had arrived an hour early and appeared somewhat disoriented. The guest turned out to be The Naked and the Dead author Norman Mailer, who struck up a conversation with the aspiring author (The Mayor’s Tongue was then a work in progress). “You a drink’n man, son?” Nat, who sure was now, quickly fetched a pair of gin-and-tonics and chatted with the literary icon for over an hour. Perhaps flustered by the notorious provocateur, Nat didn’t recall much other than Mr. Mailer’s “sage” advice that if your book has a “sex scene”, by all means, be sure to read it at your event.

So, Nathaniel read an excerpt (funnier though less steamy than what Mr. Mailer probably would have preferred) during which the female protagonist, Sonia, courts lead character Eugene, luring him with two passes to the local mud spa “My Name is Mud”. The music issuing forth during this romantic interlude is overwhelmed by the cacophony of clanging pipes in the place and the overbearing presence of the stern, pock-marked, staff attendant, Stanka. Nat freely admitted that the scene was in fact inspired by his own quirky family outing to a similar mud spa. While the others found the place a near despicable pit – dated, odd, creepy even - Nat, ever the writer, found it strangely fascinating.

Nat also cited another real-life situation as inspiration for the relationship between Eugene, a young college grad and his fellow Dominican co-worker Alvaro, who speaks a Cibaeno dialect no one comprehends, instead relying strictly on physical gestures and an amazing elasticity of facial expression to communicate. Years ago, working as an intern in Italy, Nat suddenly found himself desperate for housing. A fellow worker kindly offered to put up the stranded American at his place. Though forced to sleep on a fold-out contraption in the cramped, rear kitchen (I’m thinking here of some portable device from that in-flight, Sky Mall catalogue), Nat thought the arrangement a “win-win”: both roommates could learn the other’s native tongue*. The Italian, while speaking only a “horrible” Pidgin English, instead insisted on conversing only in English. The upshot for Nat: his Italian improved not an iota, while his own command of English only worsened. Though for Nat the whole experience did point up our need as humans to communicate with one another, however desperately.

In a self-deprecating nod to the less than packed house, Nat began Q&A with a question to himself (“Better that way, you’ll get an answer you’ll know you’ll like!” laughingly piped up an attendee to my immediate left). He spoke of his current duties at the Paris Review, which include a ton of time wading through the slush pile of short stories; some are “really bad” but, his face brightening, “that rare “gem” of a story does eventually surface”. He is heavily involved in editing those famous Paris Review author interviews. He especially enjoyed working on an interview with poet August Kleinzahler and is currently at work editing an interview with Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk (Snow, My Name is Red).
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To read Terry's post on Russell Banks, click here.


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