NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
566 La Guardia Pl.
October 11-12, $35-$45, 7:30
“I like to move people. That’s my job, to move people. I’m not an entertainer; I’m an engager,” performance artist extraordinaire John Kelly told me in a phone interview earlier this week as he was hunkered down, preparing his latest show, Underneath the Skin, for its world premiere October 11-12 at NYU’s Skirball Center. For four decades, Kelly has been creating shows in which he takes on the persona of other artists, including Egon Schiele in Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte, Caravaggio in The Escape Artist, Joni Mitchell in Paved Paradise, and Antonin Artaud in Life of Cruelty. In the multimedia Underneath the Skin, Kelly, who is also a visual artist, filmmaker, dancer-choreographer, vocalist, songwriter, and author, explores the life and career of poet, professor, tattoo artist, novelist, diarist, and “sexual renegade” Samuel Steward. The Ohio-born Steward, who died in Berkeley in 1993 at the age of eighty-four, left behind a highly influential legacy despite constant systemic roadblocks because of his sexuality.
“Misfortune to a degree followed him, but maybe misfortune followed every gay man in those days,” said Kelly, who did extensive research for the show, which he wrote, directed, choreographed, produced, scored, designed the set and costumes for, and did the video editing. The piece, which is completely constructed of Steward’s words, also features Chris Harder, Alvaro Gonzalez, and Hucklefaery (ne’ Ken Mechler). “Every hour at this point is crucial,” Kelly noted, but he was still very generous with his time as we spoke about Steward, the AIDS epidemic, cultural amnesia, recalibration, and autobiography. Kelly will also be appearing at the Neue Galerie’s Café Sabarsky on November 26 in a cabaret concert of original music as well as songs by Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, Charles Aznavour, Danny Elfman, and others.
twi-ny: Since the mid-1980s, you’ve been taking on the persona of other artists. What initially attracted you to do these kinds of character studies? As a child, were you doing impersonations, or were you drawn to artists?
John Kelly: I grew up assuming I’d be a visual artist. I could draw — I got that gift from my father. But then I switched to dance and ballet training, and modern when I was about seventeen. I came upon Schiele in art school and he became one of my early inspirations. So my performance work about him was a way of merging my dance background with my visual art practice, literally to embody an artist onstage, to see what that would look like.
The thing about the niche in my career focusing on the character of artists — my work has been fifty-fifty autobiographical or semiautobiographical or metaphorical, and then fifty percent focusing on actual characters from history, whether it was a real person or a mythological character like Orpheus. And I guess the reason with that is that when I do the autobiographical or metaphorical or semiautobiographical works, there’s an urgency in me that is wanting to get out. And then when I focus on an existing character, there’s something in their life story and work that speaks to me, and I’m able to embody them to some degree and also satisfy my need to express certain parts of myself and what I’m going through at any given moment.
twi-ny: When you were doing the autobiographical Time No Line, did you learn anything about yourself that you hadn’t realized before?
jk: I’ve been keeping journals since 1977, and I started scanning them because I wanted to get another copy, with an eye to an eventual memoir. But one of the things that fueled Time No Line was that I’m a survivor of my generation. My generation was pretty much wiped out by the AIDS epidemic, and I’m watching a couple of things: I’m watching the absence of my tribe in the world and the absence of those voices and the absence of our intergenerational dialogue between my generation and younger generations, and also I’m seeing my generation’s history being written by younger people who weren’t there and who probably had no way of really getting it.
I imagine they’re highly educated and well-intended — I just hope they get it right because they’re accessing the dead heroes, like David Wojnarowicz and Marsha P. Johnson; they’re not accessing the live heroes or the last survivors necessarily. With the world the way it is right now, there is a focus on activism in the kind of street sense of activism, but I embody a different kind of activism. I decided my place was on the stage, not on the streets, and that said, I made many pieces directly or tangentially about the AIDS epidemic and issues of survival and grief and all that.
It’s exacerbated by digital technology, it’s exacerbated by short attention spans, it’s exacerbated by a culture of narcissism and entitlement. Half the youth generally doesn’t really care to look back; they just assume that the ground they are standing on is solid and has always been there.
twi-ny: And they can like something on Facebook or post an article and then they’re done.
jk: Exactly. So it’s an uphill battle, and I do what I can to connect the dots. . . . But the upside of technology is that you can be on a platform like Facebook and connect and have dialogue and be reminded that our lives are still valid.
twi-ny: That leads us right into Underneath the Skin, about Samuel Steward, who, like you, was a diarist. What inspired you to take on his persona?
jk: I had read Justin Springs’s book [Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade] about four years ago and I really loved it. Then Jay Wegman, who runs Skirball, said, “I want to commission you to make a piece about him,” and I was like, “Whoa. Hey, let me think about this.” So then I went to Steward’s actual writings and drawings and the rest, and I avoided Springs’s amazing take on Steward because I had to formulate my own relationship to this man and his work. And also to witness it in context; probably the most profound aspect of his whole thing is that he prevailed and he took enormous chances at a time when literally if you went to a gay bar, you couldn’t even face the person next to you; you had to face front, and there were police outside waiting to arrest you if you didn’t have payola. And if you were arrested, your name and address were put in the newspaper. Those were the decades in which he was functioning and flourishing, albeit behind closed doors.
twi-ny: A lot of people still don’t know about the cops waiting to arrest gay people, in bars right around where Skirball is now.
jk: Exactly. That’s cultural amnesia; it’s a sad history to be reminded of.
twi-ny: What do you think Steward would have thought about what’s going on today?
jk: From his vantage point between 1950 and 1984, he was already speaking to younger audiences and saying you have no idea what it was like. So to imagine him now, and maybe if he had survived the AIDS epidemic — he died December 31, 1993, at the height of the epidemic — I imagine he’d by joyful in the advancements that have occurred.
twi-ny: Do you think he would have taken quickly to the internet, which could have provided a forum for his different kind of works?
jk: The thing is, he wanted to write authentically and he couldn’t. I mean, he did, but he eventually maybe wrote most authentically when he wrote as Phil Andros for his erotic literature. I don’t call it pornography; I call it erotic literature because it’s beautifully written.
He wrote a novel, Angels on the Bough, in 1936, and he got fired from a teaching job for it because he had a positive presentation of a prostitute. He couldn’t be out. I think he might have a low tolerance for the minutiae of policing ourselves and the immediate vilification of any wavering from abject correctness, even with people who are coming from two generations earlier. He might have a hard time navigating that, or maybe he would endorse it. There’s no way of knowing. He was a smart man.
twi-ny: I don’t know if you’ve seen Dave Chappelle’s latest comedy special, but he does a bit about the LGBTQ community and how it overpolices itself, and some people find it very funny and others think it’s highly offensive.
jk: Basically, the whole planet is recalibrating; the whole culture is recalibrating. And we’re in the process of recalibrating what really wants to happen and what does not want to happen anymore. And it’s a learning curve. . . . Especially on the internet, where there’s maybe no real consequence attached to a response, which could have a ripple effect and have enormous consequences.
twi-ny: Do you see anybody today continuing his legacy?
jk: When I think of Samuel Steward, I think of a gentle soul who had to put a hardened shell around himself because he wasn’t able to — he lived life freely, but he couldn’t live his life completely freely. . . . His greatest contribution was that he kept all this stuff, and it comes down to us, and that the ephemera and the archives are what speak to a life pretty fully lived in a time when it was illegal to do any number of the things that he did.
Nearly twenty years ago, I worked a day job with singer-songwriter and freelance journalist Jim Allen, a gracious and friendly man who has a never-ending thirst for music old and new, obscure and popular, with a vast knowledge of his chosen discipline. Allen is a solo artist in addition to being leader of the country band the Ramblin’ Kind and the rock outfit Lazy Lions; this month he has released his first solo record in sixteen years, Where the Sunshine Bit You, a tasty confection of eleven tunes that showcase Allen’s sweet-sounding acoustic guitar and trademark turns of phrases.
Recorded live, the album opens with the swampy folk-blues instant classic “All the Way Down the Line,” in which he sings in his deep baritone, “Yeah, the sign said stop, it was only a suggestion / The dead end sign was really meant to be a question / Where’s that map when we need it most? / Are we christening a country or following a ghost? / Well, the train’s on time all the way down the line.” Jerry Garcia would be proud of “The Day After Tomorrow” (“When the worst of all your dreams decides to call your house a home / Then the arctic freeze is just a breeze compared to where you roam”), while Leonard Cohen would get a kick out of “Wedding of the Dead” (“Here comes the groom all dressed in doom / He’s got a bloodstain on his tie”), Richard Thompson would be honored by “Going Under” (“This hole has got a boat in it, it’s all that I can do / To find a way to float in it till something else comes through”), and Hank Williams is smiling somewhere at “What I Deserve” (“Oh, I was high and dry but now I’m low and drowning / I only hope God’s grading on a curve / When the cotton meets the clay underneath the milky way / And the time arrives to get what I deserve”). Among Allen’s other influences are Tom Waits, Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, and Johnny Cash. It all concludes with the foot-stompin’ “High.”
A DIY effort, Where the Sunshine Bit You was recorded live in the studio and mixed by Magic Mike Jung; it features Matt Applebaum on guitars, Joanna Sternberg on bass, Steve Goulding on drums, and Libby Johnson and Jung on vocals. On June 2, Allen will be hosting a record release party at the Treehouse at 2A with a litany of special guests. Below he explains some of his process, his collaboration with his son, and his love of LPs.
twi-ny: What made you decide to do a solo album at this time? Your last one was 2003’s Wild Card.
jim allen: After that album I concentrated more on being in bands than doing the solo singer/songwriter thing, but I would never abandon it. Maybe the singer/songwriter-type material eventually reached — or more accurately, surpassed — critical mass and I felt like I had to do something more concrete with it. Also I began to realize how alarmingly long it had been since I’d last put out a solo album! So I started to envision a predominantly acoustic album of these songs. I think hearing Joanna Sternberg playing standup bass helped spark my imagination of how the songs could work in that setting. Fortunately, Joanna was available for the session.
twi-ny: You are also a singer/songwriter for the Ramblin’ Kind and Lazy Lions. What is your songwriting process like? Do you set out to write songs specifically for one of the bands or yourself, or does the song just come to you and then you figure out where it belongs?
ja: I never start out with any particular direction in mind; it just goes where it goes, not to get all hippie mystic on you or anything. There’s some overlap between my solo stuff and the Ramblin’ Kind, but a lot of the songs will obviously not fit in a country-oriented band. And the Lazy Lions stuff is much more separate; it’s an entirely different set of blocks we’re playing with, so there’s rarely any confusion about which belongs where with them. Occasionally I’ve tried out songs with them that we determined were more Jim Allen songs than Lazy Lions songs.
twi-ny: You have two kids who look like they’re a lot of fun. Are they into music? What do they think of Dad’s albums?
ja: Yeah, they’re possessed of an almost unnatural amount of joie de vivre. They like to hear music, and they love to have ad hoc dance parties at home, with me or my wife playing DJ. But they haven’t made a lot of their own specific preferences known yet. They love to hear my music, though. When I first got copies of this album, my son, who’s seven, wanted to hear it right away and just sat in rapt attention staring at the speaker for the entire thing, which was pretty damn adorable. Actually one of the songs, “The Day After Tomorrow,” began from something he said to me one day, that’s why you’ll see his name co-credited on it. Not that I’d necessarily be so magnanimous as to extend that same courtesy to a non-relative in the same situation.
twi-ny: You recently wrote that you have a “strategic approach” to the WFMU Record Fair. What does that entail?
ja: I’ve been a crate-digger since my teens, but I’ve always taken an open-ended approach to it. I figure if you’re only looking for a specific set of things, you’re gonna have a hard time finding what you want and you’re gonna miss out on a lot of other stuff in the meantime. So I just gravitate to whatever looks good, and inexpensive.
twi-ny: Is there a specific LP you’ve been on the hunt for and have been unable to find?
ja: If I ever encountered the first couple of Butch Hancock albums in the wild for a reasonable amount, I might begin to weep.
twi-ny: We often see each other at shows, by Steve Earle, Richard Thompson, and others. Who have you seen live lately that you love, and what’s coming up for you as a spectator?
ja: Let’s see. Well, most recently I saw my buddy Wes Houston play; he’s been performing longer than I’ve been alive and he sounds better than ever, so I find that inspiring. The last thing before that was Chick Corea in an all-star trio with Christian McBride and Brian Blade, which was blindingly good. I’m never sure exactly what I’ll wind up making it to see, but the next few shows on my docket are Barre Phillips, the jazz bassist, and the Masqueraders, an old-school R&B group that’s performing again, and my old friend Simon Joyner, a great singer/songwriter from Omaha who’s playing at Alphaville in Brooklyn. That’ll be five dollars for the plug, Simon.
twi-ny: In addition to being interviewed about your own records, you have been writing about music for several decades. Who are some of your favorite subjects?
ja: I always say the nicest person I ever interviewed was Jimmie Dale Gilmore; the guy just oozes genuine sweetness and conviviality, even over the phone. Recently I got to talk to Jon Anderson, which was huge for me because I’m an enormous Yes fan, and it was all the more enjoyable because he turned out to be a super-nice guy; he really is the sort of twinkle-eyed hippie prince you might imagine him to be.
twi-ny: If you could choose to write the liner notes for any album or artist, new or old, what/who would it be?
ja: Very interesting question. I got to write notes for some great records. I guess the ultimate would be Leonard Cohen, because he’s had the biggest effect on me.
twi-ny: Who would you most want to write the liner notes for your next record? Feel free to choose a writer no longer with us.
ja: As far as someone to write notes for my album, let’s see. This is a dangerous question because I have a lot of great music journalist friends, you know. So I’ll play it safe and go with someone I’ve never met instead, the British writer Allan Jones, just because he’s so howlingly funny.
twi-ny: On June 2, you will be hosting a record release party at the Treehouse, with such guests as Mike Fornatale, Emily Duff, Libby Johnson, Wes Houston, and Pete Galub. What can you tell us about the show?
ja: I’m taking over the joint for the night. We’ll be playing two sets, from 8:30 to 11. The first set will be the new album in full. And the second set will be some of my old songs plus a bunch of surprise covers and special guests, including the people you mentioned. Matt Applebaum, Paul Foglino, and Steve Goulding, who also happen to be in the Ramblin’ Kind with me, will be playing with me. The Treehouse is above the bar 2A on the corner of Second St. and Ave. A, where Tom Clark, who’s a great musician himself, has been running a great Sunday series for a good while now.
twi-ny: You were born and raised in the Bronx. What did that instill in you?
ja: I guess on one hand, growing up as a weird, arty kid in the midst of the very blue-collar, kind of conservative neighborhood where I lived, I developed a sense of otherness pretty early on. But at the same time, growing up in one of what Manhattanites charmingly refer to as the “outer boroughs,” I also developed an inclination towards lurking around on the periphery of things and sort of observing the hullabaloo from a safe distance. Unfortunately, it did not instill in me the ability to smoothly segue from that into the shameless hucksterism of reminding people that my album, Where the Sunshine Bit You, can be found in both download and CD format at www.jimallen.bandcamp.com. Alas.
I first saw Ian Hunter perform on July 5, 1980, at the famed Malibu nightclub in Lido Beach, a memorable show and a formative part of my teenage existence. Last month, nearly forty years later, I was in awe as Hunter, who I’ve seen play many times over the decades, led Mott the Hoople ’74 through a blistering set at the Beacon. Sinewy and lithe, he was as active as ever, making his way all over the stage, posing at the mic, playing electric and acoustic six-string razors, and teasing the crowd, ever the glam rock star in his trademark shades and curly golden locks. During the show, original Mott guitarist Ariel Bender made joking comments about age — “I’m happy to be here. . . . I’m happy to be anywhere,” he declared more than once — but with Hunter, it was as if time had stood still. He has never rested on his laurels, relentlessly touring while carving out a prolific career as a solo artist in addition to his time with Mott.
On June 3, he’ll be turning eighty — he’s also been married to his wife, Trudi, for nearly fifty years — and he’s celebrating the occasion with a four-night residency at City Winery, joined by his longtime backing group the Rant Band. On May 31 and June 2, they will be performing Mott the Hoople tunes; on June 1, the focus will be on Hunter’s solo work, which includes such outstanding albums as 1979’s You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic, 1983’s All of the Good Ones Are Taken, 2009’s Man Overboard, and 2016’s Fingers Crossed. And on June 3, there will be a gala party where anything can happen. In honor of the milestone, I asked the members of the Rant Band what impressed them most about Hunter’s remarkable youthfulness.
Paul Page, Bass
“I always love seeing Ian at the baggage carousels after a long flight. While the rest of us are scattered, maybe a couple of us are in the restroom, or someone’s on the phone or out getting some fresh air. There’s Ian, right up front, picking bags and guitar cases off the belt, lining them up and nodding ‘Is this yours?’ ‘Here’s another.’ He puts us all to shame.”
Steve Holley, Drummer
“I have had the distinct pleasure of playing drums with Ian Hunter for over thirty years and can say in all honesty that everything he does at the moment is beyond the reach of most people his age. However, age really has nothing to do with it; he just continues to write and perform at a level that we can only dream of.
“Happy birthday, Ian! And here’s to many more!”
Dennis DiBrizzi, Keyboards
“What continues to amaze me is Ian’s integrity and dedication to rock and roll. He’s still relevant because he’s still passionate about singing, songwriting, and performing. Age is no issue when you still have that.”
James Mastro, Guitar, Saxophone, Mandolin
“Centuries from now scientists will be studying the genetic makeup of an anomaly that straddled the twentieth and twenty-first centuries known as Ian Hunter and try to figure out what made him rock so well for so long. I wish I knew. Put him in the category of the Grand Canyon, the Nile, the Acropolis, the Cyclone at Coney Island: all wonders of the world that never cease to amaze or disappoint. I’m just glad I’ve gotten to witness this force of nature up close.”
When Random House vice president, copy chief and executive managing editor Benjamin Dreyer agreed to do a twi-ny talk in conjunction with the publication of his phenomenal new book, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style (Random House, January 29, 2019, $25) I knew the interview had to be done via e-mail and not over the phone or in person, since Dreyer makes his living with the written word. (Yes, there is at least one error in the previous sentence; please see the paragraph below in bold to find out why.) Just like Ben, Dreyer’s English is a thoroughly engrossing read, both funny and expertly knowledgable. In the book, he covers such general matters of style as grammar, spelling, and punctuation along with more specific looks at what he calls “peeves and crotchets,” “confusables,” and “trimmables.” He lends insight to plural possessives, the serial comma, initialisms, parentheses, common mispellings, capitalization, and the “hoi polloi,” exploring certain items farther, more in depth, begging the question, “Do I need more than just autocorrect and spellcheck to write well”?
In the main text and detailed footnotes, Dreyer references such literary giants as Dickens, Fitzgerald, Hans Christian Anderson, J.R.R. Tolkien, George Bernard Shaw, and James Joyce; an avid theatregoer and old movie fan, the book also includes examples involving Katharine Hepburn, Liza Minnelli, Noel Coward, Joan Crawford, Abbot and Costello, Zoe Caldwell, Lon Chaney Jr., and Ingrid Bergman, among many others. The fact that Dreyer reserves his most deepest admiration for Shirley Jackson, the 20th century author of such novels as the Haunting of Hill House and such short stories as “The Lottery” is not surprising. Dreyer actually got a chance to copy edit previously-unpublished pieces by Jackson; in one of the best footnotes in his book, he admits to typing out the complete Jackson short story, “The Renegade” — “to see whether doing so might make me better appreciate how beautifully constructed the story was. It did.” I’m considering typing out some of Dreyer’s paragraphs to remind me of some of the style elements he espouses so entertainingly in the book, especially “lie/lay/laid/lain.”
A legend in the industry, I’ve known Dreyer since 1995, when I was a managing editor at Random House imprint Ballantine Books. He really sums up the primary responsibilities of a copy editor at the very start of Dreyer’s English (which has received praise from such literary stalwarts as Elizabeth Stout, George Saunders, Jon Meacham, Amy Bloom, and Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon): “I am a copy editor. After a piece of writing has been, likely, through numerous drafts, developed and revised by the writer and by the person I tend to call the editor editor and deemed essentially finished and complete, my job is to lay my hands on that piece of writing and make it . . . better.” He also recorded the audiobook, joined by his good friend and two-time Tony nominee Alison Fraser. (You can listen to a clip here.)
Dreyer will be at the Barnes & Noble at Eighty-Sixth & Lexington on January 31 at 7:00, signing copies of the book and speaking with award-winning Random House author Peter (Ghost Story) Straub. Its a great opportunity to join the Dreyer cult we’ve all been apart of for decades. He’ll also be taking copyediting questions on Twitter on February 1 from 12:30-1:30.
SIGNED BOOK GIVEAWAY: In the paragraphs above are at least a dozen grammatical errors that Dreyer deals directly with in his book; whoever correctly identifies the most will win a signed copy for free. Just send your name, daytime phone number, and list of mistakes to firstname.lastname@example.org by Friday, February 1, at 3:00 pm to be eligible. All entrants must be twenty-one years of age or older; in case of a tie, one winner will be selected at random.
twi-ny: How long has this book been percolating inside you? Was there a final impetus that helped you go ahead with it?
benjamin dreyer: Back in the 1980s I’d written a bit of short fiction and was a regular contributor to Chicago’s then premier gay newspaper, Windy City Times, writing mostly on film and theater. Those writing aspirations fell by the wayside — I developed awful writer’s block, particularly insofar as writing fiction was concerned — and as I fell into freelance proofreading and then copyediting, I, happily, felt deeply satisfied that I was making a contribution to writing, even if I wasn’t writing myself, and I let the writing thing go. (As a friend said, “It’s too painful to be in a constantly anxious state of Not Writing. Better to let it go than to make yourself miserable on a daily basis.”) After I joined Random House as a production editor in 1993 and eventually became copy chief and managing editor, I pretty much stopped copyediting — there are only so many hours in the day, after all, and I have a lot of job. But: About six years ago I found myself invited to copyedit a novel — Elizabeth Strout’s excellent, to say the least, The Burgess Boys — and simply setting green pencil to paper again filled me with real joy; I’d forgotten how much I like to copyedit. And that sense of joy somehow rekindled my desire to write. I guess I was having a moment. So one afternoon I rather barged into the office of Random House publisher Susan Kamil and began to, well, burble at her about my desire to write a book about copyediting. She interrupted my burbling, suggested that if I wanted to write and particularly publish a book I might do well to have an agent, and — to make a longish story shortish — a few months later there I was, under contract to write the book that’s just now going on sale.
twi-ny: You have spent your entire career working on other people’s books, but now you’re the one whose words are being line edited, copyedited, proofread, and designed. What was that experience like? Did you enjoy being copyedited, or was it painful?
bd: That thing about “I hate writing, I love having written”? Well, if I didn’t quite hate writing, except when I did, I loved being edited. I’ve had the support of three great editors at Random House, plus my agent’s keen oversight, and they were all wonderful at encouraging me and challenging me — with of course a healthy dose of “Could you just finish it, please?” The funny thing is, it took me an awfully long time to find my voice, but once I found it, once I really let my writer freak flag fly, they were all “Yes, yes, yes, go, go, go.” Of course they asked me to expand on things they thought I wasn’t addressing fully enough, and occasionally I was asked to dial it down a bit. (If you’ve read the book, your response to that might be “And apparently you didn’t.” But truly, I did.) As to the copyediting, well, that was just amazing. I did request a particular freelance copy editor I used to hire constantly back in my production editorial days — I conceal her name here only to discourage people poaching her from RH, but she’s honored in the back of the book if you care to look in the acknowledgments — and she was superb, as I knew she would be. She called me out on any number of my bad habits, including a tendency to insert massive amounts of digression into the middle of a sentence, laughed at my jokes (in the margins, that is), and periodically would offer helpful/necessary rephrasings of text in such a precise imitation of my voice that I’d just pick up her suggestions and stuff them into the manuscript. In short, she did everything for me that I have always tried, as a copy editor, to do for the writers I was copyediting. I felt honored and protected and looked after and properly prodded, and she certainly substantively improved the book. (To answer a question you didn’t ask: A copy editor cannot turn a bad book into a good one, but a copy editor can certainly take a competent or better manuscript and make that thing shine. I think she polished me quite nicely.)
I’d also like to add that the book’s text designer — a colleague of mine for as long as I’ve been at Random House — absolutely, I think, nailed it. Writers often have lots of quibbles over and requests about their text design, but the first time I saw the proposed text design I almost cried, it was simply everything I had envisioned it might be. As a physical object, I think that the book is freaking gorgeous.
twi-ny: Your longtime colleague, Dennis Ambrose, who works for you, served as the production editor on your book. Did that make the process easier or more difficult, being so close to it, as opposed to it being handled by a different publishing company?
bd: Once we established departmentally that a lot of things I do for all our books as managing editor and copy chief I obviously couldn’t do for my own book, it was mighty smooth sailing. Dennis is an absolute pro and managed it all beautifully, and between the two of us we kept me in my lane. Of course it was easy to relax and know I was being taken proper care of because I’ve worked with Dennis for decades watching him take care of the likes of Edmund Morris and Jon Meacham, among others. He knows what he’s doing. And though indeed it’s a bit peculiar to be published by your own house, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I’ve gotten a lot of love, from all departments, and I’m deeply grateful for it.
twi-ny: Was there a specific item that you really wanted in the book but either your editor editor, the production editor, or the copy editor convinced you otherwise?
bd: Everything’s basically as I set out to write it, and I never felt strong-armed to cut anything (or to add anything, for that matter). Maybe my agent and editors encouraged me to trim some of the book’s voluminous lists, and they were usually right, though every now and then my response to “Can we cut this?” was “Nah,” and there was no brawling about it. Though in typeset pages I did cut some things that even I was bored reading, and I’m glad I did.
twi-ny: In the book, you point out numerous cases in which you don’t follow such publishing bibles as the Chicago Manual of Style, Merriam-Webster 11, and Words into Type. You also noted in a 2012 Random House video that your department does not have a house style. As the copy chief, do you have one favorite choice that goes against generally accepted book publishing style?
bd: We really truly really truly don’t have a house style — except for the silent, don’t-query-it-just-do-it mandating of what some people call the Oxford comma, some people call the serial comma, and I call the series comma. And that doesn’t come from me; that was in place when I arrived at Random House. And that’s scarcely unusual: Almost everyone in book publishing favors that comma, even as many/most journalist types detest it. Maybe once a year, if that, an author objects post-copyediting to the comma, and you just grit your teeth and defer. But otherwise — and again, this is good copyediting practice as it was taught to me — every book gets the copyedit it specifically and uniquely needs, in support of what the author is attempting to do, not in support of what the copy editor or the house thinks is Good Writing. The thing I’m pleased to say about Random House books is that you can never tell by the copyediting that they’re Random House books — except that they’re well copyedited. To perhaps slightly misuse cardplaying terminology: We don’t have any house tells.
twi-ny: The book teaches the reader about grammar, punctuation, spelling, and style, and you often boldly, and with humor, defend your preferences. However, in the acknowledgments, you thank the copy editor for “calling out my worst habits.” Can you share one or two of them here?
bd: Aside from the aforementioned habit of overstuffing the middles of sentences so that on occasion by the time you get to the end of a sentence you can’t recall the beginning, I also violently overuse parentheses. And OK, their overuse reflects the way my brain works — constant digressions and by-the-ways — but after a while, enough is enough. All my editors encouraged me to take things out of parentheses; similarly, there’s a lot of stuff I’d initially relegated to the book’s ocean of footnotes that got moved up into the main text.
twi-ny: In the late 1990s, Random House had an in-house chat room called the Water Cooler on the company intranet, and, in retrospect, it was like an early iteration of social media, complete with controversies over language and political correctness. Since the forum was in a publishing house, the posts tended to be fairly well written, but in today’s world, grammar, punctuation, and style have taken quite a hit on social media. You are an avid user of Facebook and especially Twitter; what are your thoughts on social media’s impact on written language?
bd: Facebook is . . . well, it is what it is, to use a phrase that as a copy editor I’d throttle a writer for using. But I find the language of Twitter — and truly, it speaks its own language — endlessly amusing, and when I’m there I like to speak it. Questions without question marks (or, often, any terminal punctuation at all) make me chuckle, ditto all-cap shouting to express manic enthusiasm or mock alarm. To be quite honest — or, if you prefer, TBQH — as I worked on the book, and for a long time I couldn’t quite figure out what my writerly voice was supposed to sound like, I eventually realized that the voice I was cultivating on Twitter in my self-appointed role as Your Pal the Copy Chief was precisely the voice I wanted to bring to the page: succinct (ish), joshing in the service of making valid points, and mocking my own sense of seriousness, all in an attempt to, simply, try to get people to listen to what I was trying to say, and perhaps to appreciate it and learn something from it without their feeling they were being nagged or hectored.
twi-ny: With that in mind, you also aren’t shy about including your thoughts about our current spelling-challenged, Twitter-happy president in many examples in the book. Are you afraid that such references will date the book or anger readers who lean more to the right than you do?
bd: I think that there are so many things to despise about the current administration — everything, now that I think of it — and its degradation of the English language is, I suppose, scarcely the worst of it, but of course the English language is what I do for a living, and I take personally his (you know, that person whose name I’d just as soon not type) subliteracy and, worse, the endless lying and base distortion of the very meanings of words to suit his poisonous agenda. He has dishonored everything I hold dear as an American and as a human being, and I see no reason to dissemble to avoid angering his cult. Perhaps if we all live long enough and I’m given the opportunity a few years down the pike to revise the book for a second edition I’ll change things up a bit, but for the moment, here in the winter of 2019, I’m quite happy with what the book says, and about whom.
twi-ny: You’re a theater aficionado, and the book is filled with theatrical references, particularly regarding musicals. What have you seen lately that you’ve loved or hated?
bd: I saw Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery a few months ago and was riveted. For one thing, it’s a first-rate script, as one expects from Lonergan, and as a person of a certain age whose parents are of a certain age plus a few decades, I found it harrowing, and I like theater that’s harrowing. For another thing, Elaine May gave a titanically good performance. She’s so good at portraying a woman who’s losing her mental moorings that in the opening scene I found myself anxious for her as an actress; soon enough, to be sure, you realize that she’s doing what she’s supposed to be doing: She’s acting. (I was told afterward by people who were highly familiar with the play that she’s line-perfect down to the very commas.) Looking forward, I’m pleased that Lincoln Center Theater is about to mount a new John Guare play. I think that his Six Degrees of Separation is one of the greatest plays of my lifetime, and I’m always keen to see what he has on his mind.
twi-ny: The other night I saw a show called Say Something Bunny!, the title of which desperately needed a comma, especially since the script, which was given out to everyone as part of the show, has a comma when those words appear in dialogue. What theatrical grammatical error makes you the most crotchety?
bd: Everyone likes to make fun of Alan Jay Lerner’s inability to distinguish between “hanged” and “hung” in My Fair Lady, so let’s not do that one again. OK, the other day I was listening to the original cast recording of Hairspray — and of course we all know never to refer to theatrical cast recordings as soundtracks, right? — and as happens every time I listen to “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now” (did I just google it to make sure that it’s not “Momma”? yes I certainly did), when Tracy sings that she “could barely walk and talk so much as dance and sing,” I mutter “No, not ‘so much as’; it’s ‘let alone.’” I mutter a lot. As my husband says — lovingly, I’m reasonably certain — “It must hurt sometimes to live in your brain.” Well, yeah.
twi-ny: At your book launch on January 31, you will be in conversation with one of Random House’s most successful authors, Peter Straub. How did that come about? What are your thoughts on his writing?
bd: When Ghost Story was published in 1979, I remember reading the review in the New York Times Book Review and literally — and by literally, I mean literally — running to my local bookstore to get a copy. And I think that it’s one of the great horror novels of our time. Cut to the mid-1990s, and I’m Peter’s production editor at Random House, first on The Hellfire Club, then on four subsequent books, including Black House, his second collaboration, after The Talisman, with Stephen King. And he’s simply the loveliest man, and a delight to work with and for, and very sharp and funny, so when I was asked with whom I’d like to be In Conversation, he immediately leapt to my mind. And he graciously agreed to support me for the evening. I’m looking forward to it hugely; I haven’t seen Peter in a few years, so it’ll be lovely. And I’m rereading Ghost Story right now, and good Lord I’d forgotten how scary it is.
PROFESSIONAL BULL RIDERS MONSTER ENERGY BUCK OFF AT THE GARDEN
Madison Square Garden
31st - 33rd Sts. between Seventh & Eighth Aves.
January 4-6, $28-$226 ($506 for PBR Elite Seats)
When twi-ny was first offered the opportunity to interview PBR veteran Sean Willingham, the focus was going to be on his farewell tournament, the Professional Bull Riders Monster Energy Buck Off at the Garden January 4-6. After a storied nineteen-year-career, the eight-time winner and twelve-time world finalist was hanging up his boots. But a funny thing happened on the way to the World’s Most Famous Arena: Willingham has had such a productive season that he changed his mind. “I am just old,” he told PBR.com in November 2017 when he announced his retirement. “I have been riding bulls for a long time. Man, it ain’t easy. That is for sure. Bull riding is all I have ever known since I was fifteen years old. I live, breathe, and sleep it. It is hard to realize I am going to give it up.”
The thirty-seven-year-old Willingham, who was born in Norman, Oklahoma, and raised in Georgia, where he still lives, has suffered such riding injuries as a cracked skull, a dislocated hip, a torn groin, and a broken neck. So no one was shocked when he called it quits so he could spend more quality time with his wife, Kayla Leigh, and their two young children, daughter Lani and son Conlee. But then came the 2018 season. “I definitely want to go out on top; who knows what the year brings. This may be the best year I ever have. I don’t know. Nobody knows. Only time will tell,” he told PBR.com last November. Time has told, so Willingham is sticking it out for at least one more campaign and discussing with twi-ny what his suddenly different immediate future holds in store for him.
twi-ny: Last November, you announced that this would be your last PBR season. How has the year gone?
Sean Willingham: The season went very well, with no surprises. I accomplished everything I wanted to, including making the PBR World Finals, the richest and most prestigious event in our sport. I had such a good year, I decided that this will actually not be my last PBR season. If the Rolling Stones and the Who can retire and unretire, so can I, right? I’m going to ride for another season to see if I can have an even better one than my comeback year in 2018. My goals are, first of all, to win New York City, and then qualify again for the World Finals in Las Vegas in November and win the Finals event. Ultimately, I want to win the world title. If you don’t think you can win it, you shouldn’t be in it.
twi-ny: The Duluth competition in March didn’t go quite as planned. What was that experience like, in what you thought was your last event in your home state?
SW: The experience was good; a lot of fans were there. It didn’t go as good, but I love Georgia and the fans. But now that we’re going another year, I’m pretty excited to be competing in front of my home-state crowd again with another chance to win the event for myself and the people in Georgia. The hardest place to win is in your hometown.
twi-ny: You initially chose Madison Square Garden as your farewell appearance. Why New York City?
SW: I originally chose New York City because of the history of Madison Square Garden and what it’s known for — championships, legendary concert performances, even event rodeos back in the ’50s. The atmosphere is totally different here, and the fans are great to us. They love a good show, and PBR is a great show to watch. New York fans are very involved and feed off us riding. The Garden would be a great place for athletes in any sport to finish their career. You know, I’ve never won this event; 2008 was my best year, finishing fourth, and ten years later I’m still here competing. And twelve years ago, I was here to introduce our sport to New Yorkers. Nobody expected to see bull riding in New York City. We even set up an arena on Broadway in the middle of rush hour, which made all the commuters stop and check us out. Every year since, it’s been a little more successful and keeps growing and growing.
twi-ny: Will you be able to perhaps spend some extra time in New York as a tourist, and if so, what will be on the agenda?
SW: I plan to see the sights. We’ll probably do a little touring after the fact. I am going to go see the Statue of Liberty and hopefully some late-night shows. I don’t know if they’ll be coming or not, but the kids want to go see the World Trade Center Memorial. We’ll probably do some shopping and also go to Central Park and feed the ducks. I’d love to go to Rockefeller Center and put on some ice skates.
twi-ny: You’ve spent more than half your life as a professional. When you started as a teenager, did you think you’d still be riding more than twenty years later?
SW: Yes, I sure did. I knew I was too lazy to work and too scared to steal! Joking aside, I definitely figured I would still be riding, but not at this level of competition. I’ve been fortunate enough to stay at the top for this long, which is very unheard of in the sport of bull riding. They say I’m the longest-tenured rider at the top of the PBR. That means a lot to me. With all the injuries that can happen in this sport, most people don’t last more than ten years at this level; luckily for me I’ve been able to keep my body in a good working manner to stay competing.
twi-ny: When you thought this would be your last season, what did you envision doing next? I’m going to assume it wasn’t going to be something in which you could suffer such injuries as a broken neck, which you did in 2015 in Montana.
SW: Well, you can break your neck getting hit by a car crossing the street. But to be fair, I guess the big difference is the car then won’t chase you down like in bull riding.
twi-ny: Will you be continuing the Sean Willingham Invitational?
SW: I’ll still be promoting my event, running my pressure-washing business, and hopefully doing some work on the television side of things for PBR, commentating at the events.
twi-ny: What about golf?
SW: I plan on playing a lot of golf, that’s for sure! I’m looking forward to going to ball games with my kids and watching them grow up, helping them and supporting them in whatever they decide to do.
twi-ny: When you do eventually retire, are there any specific bulls you’re going to miss?
SW: I’m going to miss SweetPro’s Bruiser. His ability to buck at the top of his game for three years is incredible. It’s the same for him as it is for me as a rider; to be able to perform as long as he has and be the Bull of the Year the last three years like he has is pretty impressive.
twi-ny: What is your favorite memory from your PBR career so far?
SW: My favorite memory is winning Duluth in 2014. I had been competing at that event for twelve years before finally winning it in my home state. The hardest one to win is in front of everyone who has such high hopes for you.
twi-ny: What will you try hardest to forget?
SW: The hardest to forget is a tough question. Sleepless nights and breaking my neck are two of them, along with a long list of other injuries I have had to deal with throughout my career, including having six anchors put in my groin to reattach it to my pelvis. Other than that, there’s not really much in this sport I don’t want to remember. I enjoy all of the memories and opportunities this sport has given me.
twi-ny: You enjoy water sports, and you recently went on a cruise with your wife and kids. How was that?
SW: The cruise was good. We got to experience our first hurricane on the boat, going right through Michael. But the cruise was very enjoyable, very relaxing, and I love the Grand Caymans.
twi-ny: What other family-friendly things do you expect to do once your career is over that you couldn’t do while on tour?
SW: I want to show up at more games my kids are involved in, more cheerleading competitions that my daughter does, and play more golf with my friends. And most importantly take my wife out on a date.