Alta Asks Live: John Freeman

Author John Freeman joins Alta editor at large Mary Melton to discuss the new wave of authors who have made his must-read California curriculum, talk about his latest book, Tales of Two Planets, and detail the plans for our new California Book Club.

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California has had a hand in shaping just about every cultural moment of the past 20 years—including, and perhaps especially, literature. Author, Literary Hub executive editor, and Alta contributor John Freeman has developed an exciting literary curriculum that reimagines which books define the culture and community of California. Freeman will also help lead Alta’s new California Book Club, featuring a new title and related author event every month. He joins Alta editor at large Mary Melton to discuss the new wave of authors who have made his must-read California curriculum, talk about his latest book, Tales of Two Planets, and detail the plans for our exciting new club.

Read “The New California Curriculum

Buy the book: Tales of Two Planets: Stories of Climate Change and Inequality in a Divided World

Join the Club: California Book Club


John Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s, a literary annual of new writing, and the executive editor of Literary Hub. His books include How to Read a Novelist and Dictionary of the Undoing, as well as Tales of Two Americas, an anthology about income inequality in America, and Tales of Two Cities, an anthology of new writing about inequality in New York City. He is also the author of two collections of poems, Maps and The Park. His work has been translated into more than 20 languages and has appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and the New York Times. The former editor of Granta, he teaches writing at New York University.

This is an unedited transcript of Alta Asks Live: John Freeman:

Mary Melton: Thank you, John, for being here. I’m really looking forward to this conversation, a conversation that really could not be more timely on every front. Uh, I think it would be a natural place to start right here in California given what we’re going through right now with these truly catastrophic fires, not to just right into this but I just think it’s [crosstalk 00:02:23] launching point, right.

John Freeman: No, it’s [crosstalk 00:02:24].

I mean it, it’s what’s on all of our minds here in, in California and all along the West Coast as, as we, we see these record breaking fires and have air that, uh, is the most toxic of any place in the world at some places on the West Coast and that’s some heavy competition as you are all to familiar with, um, in, in the world. So, you know…

Yeah. [crosstalk 00:02:43] in Los Angeles.

It’s, it’s bad. It’s really I, I am trying to be more disciplined about checking my AQI, uh, app that I downloaded because I twas making me so anxious. So I when, when I just go outside to take out the trash it’s, it’s bad and nothing like what, you know, our friends are dealing with in, in Portland and, and in certain areas of San Francisco but it’s, it’s really it’s fiery.

And so much of what this book is about is, is about not only how your book, which I have right here, tail of two planets, um, is about how, how people are dealing with this on a global scale, uh, you know, and, and the history of climate change in certain areas and, and catastrophes and how, and how this feels the way that we live.

So and it’s, it’s, it seems like a place right off the bat to, to start talking about the book.

Oh, um, I’m really sad it’s so, uh, so relevant.


You know, I keep hoping that it, I don’t know, if some of the viewers feel this way. I, I keep hoping that there will be some intervention, you know, that there will be some kind of powerful person or group of people maybe even a government that sort of firmly step forward and say, wait a second. You know, we, we can do dramatic change if we need to, um, and I, I take my hope from that, from just how people are in, in a sad way in the sense that, you know, you just mentioned you check your AQI every day and we’ve become used to some truly dramatic and, and dangerous trends and everyday weather and everyday life.

That’s kind of true the world over is and you can see that in, tales of two planets, but it’s certainly true in California how, you know, that we’ve become used to in California, uh, an all-year fire season, you know, to temperatures that are creeping up. You know, there was 120 the other day, um, in Southern California and, and how quickly that becomes normal, um.

Mm-hmm [affirmative].

And I, the last year I published an issue of Freeman’s on California and the very first piece in it was, was about the, um, aftermath of the, of, of the Paradise fire.


And it’s by writer named [Hymie 00:04:53] Cortez who [inaudible 00:04:55] Alta publishers because he’s got a great book of stories in the works. He came to me through another Californian, Rebecca [Solomon 00:05:01].

Sure, mm-hmm [affirmative].

Um, and, and Hymie had written this piece the very beginning of the issue of this about how you, you really can’t escape the aftermath of the fires in California. Almost everywhere you go it’s, um, you can feel it and you can see it, people that have been affected by it I’ll just read a tiny bit from the very end of his piece because it, it, it strikes me as something very relevant to our permanent, our present moment and it’s not just, wow the air is red. Um, although that is pretty wild, you know. You don’t even need a filter for that but it’s, you know, it, it’s something that I think all of us, uh, feel and that we, we’ve incrementally decided our way into this, um, scenario.

Mm-hmm [affirmative].

You know it’s, um, I stand there for a moment and I’d taken a big breath of smoke tinned air and I am stunned by deeply dystopian the scene is, the dirty twilight, the car people battered by inequity and priced out of proper shelter. He’s in a parking lot, uh, and they’re people living in their cars.

Mm-hmm [affirmative].

The people dazed into the burning eye of climate change and fled for their lives. We did not ask for this but we chose it through our action and inaction we chose fires. We chose that smoke and that, and this displacement and we’re all paying for it. So these people are paying more dearly than the rest of us.

Of course, I’m complicate in this just like everyone else. Of course, I can do better, of course, of course. And I, I think this is one of the, um, very disquieting, uh, feelings of this moment which is that we, we’ve known even though there’s been a great disinformation campaign to try to convince us that climate change and then the climate crisis were fictional things. I think in our bodies and in our instincts we’ve known where, where this is leading.


And that’s the [crosstalk 00:06:56] place I think to, to write and publish into is, is to move around to acknowledge that guilt but then to try to move around and, and observe what, what’s happening and what possibilities are there.

Yeah, so that, that’s, uh, leads into a question about the book and your, your thinking behind the anthology. Is, I was saying to you earlier I, I think for a lot of people, uh, the thought of reading about climate change when you feel like you’re really living in it and obviously if you’ve been living in it, we’ve all been living in it our whole adult lives at least, if not our entire lives, uh, but to actually be confronted with in this way.

But I found in, in reading through the book that not only did these [inaudible 00:07:34] take me to different parts of the world, the places I knew very little about and have very, had, had very little about. But also they, they led me to have a deeper understanding of ways speaking, uh, directly to that passage that you just, uh, read that I feel like I could be taking more action than I do, right, that I could have less of a reaction and more of a plan of action and, and more of a deeper understanding of, of why we’re in this situation and how people have adapted in certain places to this and what are underlying causes of, of what all of this is.

So did all of those thoughts go into informing your, your decisions around what was going to into the book or what your hope was the takeaway would be for readers?

Yeah, I didn’t want to bludgeon people to death with a feeling that the, the, the end is nigh because there is a certain, I think, um, destructive, voluptuous, uh, collusion and apocalyptic thinking. It allows you to just think, oh, we can’t do anything so let’s just…


Let’s just watch a bunch of Kurt Russell movies until this [crosstalk 00:08:30].


So, you know, I’m, I’m wanting to say about the climate crisis and the environment in general and writing is, is it’s, it is everywhere. We are part of the natural world even though we’ve built an environment on top of it, we are as humans part of it.

And, you know, you, you see in fiction and novels and whether it’s realistic or not that marriage for example is, is a part of all of them and no one say, oh yeah, marriage is hard, it’s difficult and, you know, I’m just sick of reading about marriage. It’s just, it just pops up in novels because that’s how we’ve organized the world.

Mm-hmm [affirmative].

And, you know, it, it takes a novel like Isaac Bashevis Singer’s, Enemies, a love story, which the main character escapes the holocaust by sneaking into a gentile women’s, you know, caravan and coming to New York and marrying her out of gratitude and then discovering that his Jewish wife survived the holocaust while he’s also acquired a mistress. And so he spends the entire night, the novel cycling comedically between these three women in typical established singer of passion. And, you know, this isn’t that, that, that’s taking the holocaust and marriage and making a comedy of it.

Mm-hmm [affirmative].

So if you can laugh about those two things you can, you can find humor in something as parable and pressing as the coming climate crisis. So the, the pieces that I, um, collected in here, some of them are quite dire, um, as they should be.

Uh, some of them are angry, um, some of them are very funny, some of them are about helping people. Um, one of the writers writes about helping, um, migrants who live in Belgium, who are like him, this writer, [inaudible 00:10:07], um, escapes, uh, a civil war, uh, in an Eritrean ref, refugee camp and came to Britain with his brother aged 17, 18. He didn’t speak English. He learns English, winds up in Belgium, and suddenly he becomes a writer. And so what does he do, 15, 20 years later he, he starts a writing workshop for, for migrants like him to figure out how to tell their stories.

And so I think a lot of the writers in these pieces are, are, they’re both acknowledging something that, that they hadn’t yet entirely stated which is just how bad, um, climate, the climate crisis is where they are.

Mm-hmm [affirmative].

But they’ve also in the course of doing that sort, sort of, um, articulated some principles, some ideas about how to live within that, without simply just being, um, you know, collectively suicidal.

Mm-hmm [affirmative]. Yeah, and it feels like and, and how to take some more and how to make more informed decisions. It was also one of my takeaways from the book of, you know, I think it sometimes can be in our nature to think oh infrastructure is really good and we should just support whatever projects come along because it’s progress, right.

And you read about some of the, the truly dire situations that have come as a result of misguided, you know, infrastructure projects across the world. Um, but I do like that you, how you, how you do [inaudible 00:11:28] position that there are times, and I really did not expect that in this book going into it where I would actually laugh and finds things and passages very funny, um, you know, as they were making me rethink the way I think about something, um, whether it’s home, home delivery or, uh, or sewerage.

Sewerage, yeah, no there’s one of my, one of the, the funniest pieces but also the saddest and, and its recent context is this piece by the funny Alhena [Manzoor 00:11:54] who lives in Beirut, uh, it’s called, the funniest shit you ever heard, and it’s about the consequences of Lebanese corruption and over development of the Corniche and the, the coastline which, uh, already has way to many building and, um, many, way too many people living along it. But of course you can always probably get more buildings built if you’re, you know, hand someone an envelope which is the result of that is, is a couple of years ago that, uh, the sewers down in that part of the Beirut exploded and sort of, you know, fountains of, of poop were basically…

Mm-hmm [affirmative].

[crosstalk 00:12:32] all over the city and at the end, um, at the end of her essay she writes, and so here we are at the end of this history in a city rotting from the inside out for all the peeling, plumping, pulling and then rejuvenating treatment that has gone into its face. It looks now like any other aging city desperately trying to ignore the inevitable reckoning of nature and time. Its glamor shots taken from the sea to lure in tourists and investors show a staggering, show a stagger of gleaming every higher brightly lit buildings rising from the coast but they can no longer blot out the real city behind the façade, the corruption beneath its surface because we who live in it are drowning in our own shit. We’re swimming in our own shit. We’re eating our own shit perpetually now as it flows back untreated into the groundwater as it contaminates our crops and seeps into our wells, coming back out of faucets and gushing all over our faces, our bodies and then back down into the drains down into the pipes beneath our feet, a rhythmic cycle biblic, biblical in its vengeance.

And one of the, um, the saddest parts about that is that, um, of course some of that, uh, corruption, mismanagement and rot is what led to the explosion that happened recently.

Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Um, I mean, it also is written about and, you know, the, the surprising about when, when writers sit down to write about the climate crisis is, is it very quickly becomes about, um, you know, civic participation.

Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Voting, corruption, um, it becomes not just about the, the environment, it’s about population movements, you know, it, there, there’re so much that’s embedded into it and that. So I think when, when, when, when writers sort of shy from it and think of the climate crisis as that kind of, uh, ornamental topic for virtual, you know, virtuous discussion. It’s kind of like avoiding the, the, the collision of so many important parts of, of everyday life.

Mm-hmm [affirmative]. Yeah, oh, absolutely and these essays really force you to look at so many topics through a new lens and also I think if you, you know, just greater context so when something happen like it did in Lebanon, I think, oh, I’ve, you know, I can, I can relate this to something that feels very tangible.

I think that, that looking through things through a, uh, different lens really field a lot of what your essay was for, for Alta, um, and if you could, you could tell everyone a little bit about how that, that call for a new California curriculum reevaluating what it is that we’re teaching are, are, are in, in schools came to be what your, what your thinking was behind that and did your work on Freeman’s California informs any of that? And because all of this will be to informing what is the California book club and which, which rose out of that asset.

It was absolutely connected because I, I sat down. I came out to the Northern California Bookseller’s Association Annual Conference which is as exciting as it sounds, but the people are super great.


You know, it was in a hotel room, you know, in San Francisco at the bay area right near the airport, um, but I just wanted to explain, you know, why the, why put together this issue other than California’s great and lots of wonderful writers live there.

And I realized growing up in California as I did, I didn’t read Californians. I mean, essentially this is the 1980s, the 1990s, uh, during those [inaudible 00:15:58] way of Chicago literature during an explosion of Asian American literature like Maxine Hong Kingston and, and Amy [Tian 00:16:06] [Gusly 00:16:07], um, during the AIDS crisis when Randy Schultz was basically chronically mad for the San Francisco Chronicle and writing what would be for many years the best book about HIV and AIDs.

We read none of that, um, and as we read about, uh, nature from Emerson, you know, we, we, we read about class by reading Fitzgerald.


You know, uh, and, and California literature was just seen as not cultural enough, it wasn’t seen as serious enough.

Mm-hmm [affirmative].

And, and that there’s, there’s so many reasons why that’s, I think wrong headed but, um, the happy news is that in the intervening 30 years since I was a child [laughs] certain [inaudible 00:16:48] continuous explosion of literature across California by native born people or people who come to California that is both this day and about Western American life, um, that is truly exceptional. And it’s, it comes in all shapes and sizes from, you know, the miniaturization of Maggie Nelson’s essays and Kay Ryan’s poems. She’s been doing those for a while to Javier [inaudible 00:17:14] recent work, you know, um, and his, uh, and, and his debut collection of poetry to Robin Coste Lewis debut book.

I mean, it’s just every single form that you want to work in whether it’s TJ Stiles, across the bay, you know, writing the kind of, um, you know, presidential and, um, and industrialist’s biographies that he’s doing or Rebecca Solomon, you know, with her kind of ongoing exploration of feminism and its, and its battles and its recent essays.

I mean, it’s, it’s an exciting time to be a Californian as a, as a reader and as a writer.

Mm-hmm [affirmative].

And I think, um, that, that has specific dimensions. You know, when you think about what happens when a group of people get together and start talking about a large exceptional space, you know, because California as we know from the history of the state is a kind misnomer from the very beginning, um, and states and nations are, are fictions too. But there’s something useful getting together and saying, we are together in this space, well what are the parameters of it, what does it, what language does it use, what stories do we prize, what parts of its history do we care about. And, and to me that’s a very, um, important part about discussing literature.

And so this book club is, uh, is a thrill because I think some of the most exciting things happening in California literature are bringing back and questioning, and re-narrativizing parts of its history and, and who lives in the state and how they got there. And that, that to me is an essential part of being alive as a Californian.

We talk about this quite a bit at Alta. Why do you think it is that people outside of the state so often get the state wrong or don’t think they quite understand? What [crosstalk 00:19:01]2?

Yeah, well it’s a perception. I think partly it’s the, it’s the distortion of the, of the film industry.

Mm-hmm [affirmative].

California long time like [laughs], I don’t want to blame this all on Point Break, but you know…

[laughs]. You can blame so much on, point break, it’s okay.

Gary Busey was great in Point Break, I have to say. That was, that was one of his finest roles.


But, you know, if you looked at how many people in California actually surf versus the number of people who live there.


Um, you know, you would actually think, wow, oh my God, I have a completely distorted idea but this, this idea of Californian life which was, you know, pumped up by the Beach Boys, put into films and broadcast around the world, has an incredible staying power.

Mm-hmm [affirmative].

[crosstalk 00:19:44] begin in the midst of the state were distorted, you know, you and I were talking the other day about C, um, C Pam Zhang’s new novel, um, How much of these hills is gold, and the, the gold rush and growing up, you know, in this, in the ’80s and ’90s in California, I encountered that as a largely positive entrepreneurial, you know…


Go it alone kind of mode of you just get your axe and go into the hills and maybe you get rich, kind of story.

Cartoony, it was, it was cartoony, wasn’t it?


Yeah, yeah before, before Deadwood or you know, it was, it was a cartoon.

But that’s not the, you know, that, that’s, that’s a cartoon when compared to the actual history.


And, what, what it meant for 300,000 people that come to the States in a little over five years, half of them were from outside the United States, you know, a tenth of them were Chinese, and what that did to the State’s sense of itself as it was developing and becoming a state and…

Mm-hmm [affirmative].

What, what sort of frontier justice, um, non-Americans were, were greeted by, um, you know, American being in pretty loose term at the time anyway.

Mm-hmm [affirmative].

And it’s… So there’s lots of California history that needs to be, I think investigated and retold and that’s a great time, I think, for literature but it’s also a great time for book club because it, you know, we can I think transport and, and be entertained while also, um, breaking broken narratives, you know.


And, and that’s what these books are doing, the ones that we’ve chosen so far, to me [inaudible 00:21:13].

Yeah, well that’s you bring up Pam’s book, which I happen to have right, right here beautiful, beautiful cover. Uh, this is our first selection in the book club, which is launching on October 15th and there’s a button you will see right at the bottom here where you can join the California book club.

Um, let’s just talk quickly about the other two titles we chose and I just want to give people a sense of how it’s going to work, um, and who, who’s choosing these titles, um, and, and, and how this is coming together.

So, yeah, John, this is our second title, I don’t, I think you have that one handy, right? Uh, yeah, you want to just talk just quickly about the, the next two titles?

Um, yeah. This is, um, um, Reyna Grande’s um, memoir, um about, uh, her parents basically dangerous trip from Mexico, um, to the American dream, if you will, and about how differently that broke down for her mother versus her father, about growing up as the child of this experience.

Um, it’s an, a classic memoir of, of coming to America and its costs and, and, and just some of the upsides of it. And it’s a journey that, I think, has been, um, dangerously and, and unfairly stigmatized by, you know, everyone up to the President of the United States which, I think, is unconscionable, um, and incredible and, and this book is really beautiful and, um, parts of it are even funny and, and I think, um, having her on will be exciting.

We’re going to have all the writers of these books on, um, for each book club to talk about the writing of the book and the experience of publishing the book and, and in the case of Reyna, um, the memoir, uh, like the experiences that she’s writing about here.

Great, yeah.

And then…

And our, our December choice is a Walter Mosley classic.

Sorry, [inaudible 00:23:00] because the first edition, which, um, I will guard with my, with my life. Uh, Devil in the blue dress, uh, Walter Mosley’s first book from 1990, um, which started the Easy Rawlins, um, mystery series, you know, set in Los Angeles, uh, you know. It’s like basically a black Philip Marlowe, um, and it maps LA in such a beautiful way, um, both the history and the time, um, and you know, I think Mosley’s publishing his 50th book, um, this week, yeah.


And, you know, I have to say as someone who, um, uh… started late myself, he’s, he published this book, um, when he was 38 and, and in less than, you know, in around 30 years he’s, he’s become… Well this, this month he was also, uh, announced as the winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Book Foundation.

So we’re going to have him on. He’s a wonderful talker and hilarious, um, uh, rock on tour but also just, uh, a deep thinker about, um, black life in Los Angeles, about California, about growing up, you know, the son of a, of a Jewish, um, mother and a black father, um, and what it means to, you know, to inhabit parts of California history and in his body, basically.

Mm-hmm [affirmative].

And, and write mysteries, uh, and crime. You know, crime for, crime has been a big part of California writing but, um, it’s often, you know, we, we go see the movies. We watch TV, we see Bosch, you know, but it’s not created as seriously as I think it aught to be.

Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Uh, because there’s a genre that’s been on the ruptures of life anywhere let alone California has been crime writing.

Mm-hmm [affirmative]. Yeah, I’ve always, I’m such an admirer of his series and I love the way it bounces around with the timeline and how you do, you end up having the similar emotion into all these different periods of Los Angeles history as seen through Easy’s eyes and his just, he’s such a wonderful character.


So Walter will be our December pick, Reyna as our November and Pam in October. And as you said, in conversation with you, free for, for anyone, it’s be streaming on, on Zoom and then the next series, uh, as we, uh, look forward to 2021, you’ve assembled a panel of, of true, like literary, um, I think rock stars in, in, in California, um, who are going to be informing the, um, the decisions on, um, what books that we’re selecting.

Yeah, I can’t wait. We’re going to have our first meeting, Paul Yamazaki, who’s the head buyer at City Lights Books, Oscar [Violone 00:25:36] who’s the managing editor of [Zizova 00:25:38], um, Marissa Lopez who’s a professor of Chicana, Chicana X, um, literature at UCLA, [Ronnel 00:25:46] George, uh, who’s a journalist and writer, uh, longtime, um, Southern California resident, wonderful, um, uh, essayist herself, um, Danzy Senna the novelist and, um, memoirist who is also a professor at USC, uh, David [Hulen 00:26:02] who’s the book editor, um, himself a, uh, California writer and, and anthologist, um. And I think Blaise, is Blaise part of your, um?

But sure he’ll be peeking in and, and, and giving, giving advice, Blaise the managing editor at, at Alta, but it’s, uh, it’s a real powerhouse, uh, panel. I’m just, uh, so, so impressed.


And how quickly all of them said yes because there’s obviously this real need for this to be reevaluating, what we’re teaching, reevaluating what we’re reading and, and, and promoting and the things that we know and don’t know and aren’t taught, uh, in, in school. So I’m, I’m thrilled with these first three titles and, and the panel you’ve assembled.

As in Californian, um, living in New York whenever I come back to California for events, for, uh, if it was not [inaudible 00:26:53] where I used to work or Freeman’s now, I just, I’ve always been thrilled by the feeling that something exciting is happening, you know, talking to writers, talking to people in bookstores whether it’s Santa Cruz with Karen Tay at [inaudible 00:27:06] or, you know, um, TA Powell who has a poem and your current issue at City Lights.

I just feel like, um, uh, that I, I’ve never ever fallen prey to idea that the East Coast is the center, uh, because there’s so much obvious energy when it, when you come to, to California or whether you never left. You know, it just feels like the literature is, is creating a base that’s enlarged.

Absolutely, I mean, you’re talking to a lifelong book lover and former employee of the very beloved Dutton’s book store of which I worked at all through high school and college. So yeah, it is always been this, such a rich literally scene here it’s not just, uh, you know, in, in crime anymore, as you say, and it’s, it’s just really exciting to actually be able to shift, uh, a focus and, and, and really drill down on, on whether really exiting new works and emerging writers that get to know better the, you know, Walter Mosley’s of, of the world and, and reread. I can’t wait to reread, Devil in a blue dress, which I haven’t reread in, in ages.

So, Beth, I know we have a few questions from our viewers. So I want to be sure we open it up to that. Hello.

Beth: [crosstalk 00:28:12] I’m excited to read, Devil in a blue dress, having seen the movie.

Excellent adaptation, by the way. They, they’re not always good, but that one’s really good.

Beth: No, no, I know. Um, okay. Well so let’s see. First question, John, is there a non-fiction history book you recommend for those interested in learning about California, its history, diverse regions, people, et cetera?

Uh, um, I almost want to run away from this coach because I know exactly, um, where the book is and what color it is. It’s a six volume history of California that’s been written by, uh, a Los Angeles academic, um, and it, there was a, a single volume of abridged version of it, um.

I’m going to put a peg in, in that answer because it’s, it’s an incredible sort of year to year, you know, 30-year chunk, um, Kevin Starr, thank you Bob Wolfe, and…

Beth: Yeah, so…

Well this is like, phone a friend, oh, my God.

Beth: Yeah, I was wondering if that, yeah, Kevin’s series is, is really, uh, you know, deep and, and fantastic. The go to one that I always send people to is actually quite old but it’s still fantastic which is Carey McWilliams, Southern California country, an island on the land.


Beth: Um, which is just, uh, a beautiful book, uh, even though it was written six, you know, 70 years ago, at least. Um, it’s still, um, [inaudible 00:29:38]. I mean, you read it and it’s still, the way he, he, the chapters are just so still incredibly relevant and it’s just, it’s a, it’s a really excellent book.

John Freeman: [crosstalk 00:29:48] I just want to mention here because I don’t think, I don’t know if we’ll, we’ll pick it for the book club but I have secret soft spot to it because I grew up in the suburbs in California which is D J Waldie’s Holy Land, which is this master piece about the suburbs.

It is. It’s, it’s and it’s short [laughs] and moves quickly, it’s a good entry, uh, book into Southern California history for sure. He’s wonderful and he just a new ethnology that’s outright now as well. He [crosstalk 00:30:15].

Beth: And he’s contributed to Alta.

And he’s contributed to Alta, yes. Um, well while we’re on the topic of the books behind you, are all of those yours?

Yeah, pretty much. I mean, I, I, I have shared this house with my partner, um, who’s a literary agent, uh, um, who was a former book seller, so the result of that is that these books are all, um, alphabetized which [crosstalk 00:30:40].

Lately, um, because I like to arrange books, um, impressionistically, um, never by color, um, never [inaudible 00:30:48]. Uh, but no, yeah, now every book in my house, uh, it’s A through Z which, um, I used to have categories. I don’t know how you all work but I, I got, I had science, I had history, uh, you know, I had sports and but the problem was that some people, you know, cut across seven categories.

Rebecca Solomon for example, you could have in sociology, natural history, feminism, uh, photography, uh, you know. So but no, it’s now under all S.

Beth: [laughs] Mary, how are your books organized?

Oh, I’m very, I’m very particular about this as well. I’m, I’m category driven, um, but I, but I have a, my, my, my most beloved section is my California section. So California is its whole own thing and then I do categories after that.

Maybe I should, my local bookstore here is McNally Jackson and they have things broken down by regions. It’s like, you know, United States, Canada, Russia. Um, you know, Latin America. I, maybe we should push for a California section within, in this.

Beth: All right, speaking of that section, um, John, can you recommend any obscure, obscure poets, authors, songwriters who have a sense of the absurd, surreal, humor satire um, for these end of days?

For end of days, oh, that’s a really, that’s a, that’s a great question. Not, not California just, absurd in general.

Beth: Sure.


Beth: Something to get through the day.

Well… Actually the, um, it depends there’s, there’s two reasons why this is a relevant answer. One is that there’s a large, um, Danish population, the largest in America, is in California for reasons I, I don’t quite understand but I’m sure we could get to, if we stayed on here long enough.

But, the Tales of two, two planets has a Danish, um, uh, poet in it named [inaudible 00:32:52] um, and he’s translated by a California translator named Susanna, um, [Nied 00:32:58] who lives in San Diego and there, um, you know, there’re poems are just floating around and I just, I just want to read this because it is probably the best, End of days, poem I’ve, I’ve actually read.

It’s about 18 line, 18 lines long, maybe 60 words in total and it just goes like this, um, as the end of, the book is called, um, [inaudible 00:33:24], which is the end of the world as we know it, um, must have been a REM fan.

One year I lived on sandworms and laid down in the dooms, when the disco closed, when the border closed, the interpreters killed immigrants and put the heads on the sticks. I hid my knives in the heather, legs sliced off, lips on the [hammocks 00:33:46] as a sign for others lost in it all. And when the ants came, I followed them down underground where they lived, blocked their exists and plundered their nests, and plundered their stores, minerals, eggs, and dust. Minerals, food, and knowledge and poured saliva into their saliva.

Uh, which poem I’ve read that was sort of took on the perspective of, um, of the polluter, um, but to recommend something that you could probably go to, um, City Lights or, or Vroman’s, or, um, and something in, you know, Santa Cruz bookshop or whatever and walk in and get, uh, um, the writer, um, Samantha Schweblin um, work, I think speaks very much to an out of, out of ordered world.

Um, she wrote a book called, Fever dream, um, and, uh, she has a story collection and a new novel, um, uh, that, that just came out this year and all of them are about, uh, a world that’s sort of mutating kind of out of control.

Yeah, I, [inaudible 00:34:55] [Brekam 00:34:55], her and the, the other poet I picked up, um, was the French, the, um, Portuguese poet, Pessoa. Um, I think there’s a, there’s a real sense of loneliness and isolation in End of days even though everyone’s in it together. Um, I think it, it causes you to think quite a lit, a lot about what matters and, and I think there’s a lot of depression involved in it where you retreat into yourself and, uh, he’s certainly lived that life like a double live where he was, uh, you know, a Kafkaesque, you know, civil servant but meanwhile he was writing under all of these pseudonyms about his, his sense of disquiet.

So, The Book of Disquiet, um, is the book I would pick up of, of his and if you would feel really, um, you know, lonely and alone within how dark you feel then this is your, this is your dude.

Can I just add real quickly, Beth, like, John, you bring back a couple of [Indi 00:35:58], Indi book stores, uh, Book Passage and up in San Francisco and Vroman’s in LA, uh, in Pasadena and I just want to mention, you know, also that of course we encourage all of you to buy books from your local independent bookstores and for this club we’ve actually partnered with a handful of the best independent biggest, I should say. They’re all the best but the biggest and independent bookstores in, in the state, uh, on this venture like Book Passage, like Vroman’s, uh, and with the San Francisco Public Library and the Los Angeles Public Library and I bring those both up as well because most libraries are doing curbside pickups of some kind and most independent bookstores that have not been able to reopen because of regulations are offering curbside pickup as well.

And we’ve also partnered with Bookshop on this. So if for any reason you can’t get to one of those stores, uh, you can go onto Bookshop where there is now an Alta shop on Bookshop’s, uh, actual site that you can shop at for any of the titles that are in the book club and proceeds from all of those sales will go directly to our book partners in this venture.

So you are supporting all of these independents in California if you’re buying through the Bookshop pages as well. So just a shout-out to all of our great partners, uh, who, who are in this venture with us and who are building this community with us, be sure you’ve noted.

Beth: Thank you. Thanks, Mary, for that and that, the links for, um, California Book Club partners. I think I feel like this is a great, we’ve gone a little bit over. I hope that’s, we’ve been having fun. So thanks, guys. Um, and just to wrap up with, um, everything we’ve been talking about, this if you, if you came in late, don’t worry. I will download this and then reupload it to, um, later today.

So we will have the complete video interview there for you. Um, if you were the… Sorry, don’t forget to register for the and if you register you can, you can press the button right below us, um, or just head to and if you sign up for free we’ve, we’ve got a special gift, uh, uh, literary themed gift to mail you. So please consider doing that.

Um, John and Mary are really the big forces behind this endeavor and we’re really, really excited about it. So please do consider, um, coming along on that journey. Uh, if you loved this discussion, next week we will be back with Alta contributor and science fiction author, Steve Ericson. He’s going to join Mary Melton, um, again for a discussion of science fiction on the small screen.

So it’s going to be really fun and, and the last Alta Asks Live about the current issue before we launch into noir with our fall 2020 issue. So that’s Wednesday, September 23rd at 12:30 p.m.

A gigantic thank you to John Freeman and Mary Melton for taking part of this. It was a super fun discussion and, um, I’m grateful to everyone for tuning in today.

Thank you, Beth.

Yeah, thank you so much, Beth. Mary, looking forward to this. This will be fun. [crosstalk 00:38:53].

This is really going to be fun.

You know, we, we won’t let you down. It’ll be, it will be like the book club that you wish your book club was.

Yeah and I, I’d rather we read the first title and I, I can’t wait to discuss it. It’s terrific. So thank you, John, so much for, for this.

All right, take care.

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