Episode 577 — David Shields | Transcript


Air date: April 24, 2019


(00:01:50) How’s it going, everybody? Welcome to the Otherppl Podcast, it’s good to be with you. How are you doing? I hope you’re well. My name is Brad Listi, and I am in Los Angeles, and I have David Shields on the program for, I believe, the third time. He has two books out. One is called The Trouble With Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn and Power.  

(00:02:20) That one is available from Mad Creek Books. And the other book is called Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump: An Intervention. This book is available from Thought Catalog Press. So, David Shields. One of our more prolific and provocative and interesting writers. I always have a good time talking with him. You’re going to hear our conversation momentarily. 

(00:02:53) Uh, so, I feel relaxed. You know, my wife has some friends in town. I always call her my wife. Her name’s Kari. Kari has some friends in town, and they have the kids out at the beach, so I’ve been kind of on my own. I went to a yoga class. This is–I’m recording this on a Saturday. It’s actually 4:20. 

(00:03:19) When I am recording this. I am not under the influence, but I am relaxed and so I was like, you know, I’m going to go to a yoga class. I’m gonna stretch out.  And I went in, like unrolled my yoga mat on the floor, and I look to my left and there is a beautiful celebrity next to me…

(00:03:48) Which, you know, when you live in Los Angeles, you go to a yoga class, that can happen. And I’m not going to name the celebrity. I know I should. I know people would, you know, you wanna know who it is, but I feel weird about that. I don’t want to violate anyone’s privacy. I don’t know. I feel like, as a matter of honor, I’m not going to divulge who it is. [canned applause] But I was trying to focus on my breathing, and like stay in the zone, and yet I was like, wow, there’s a celebrity [laughs]. 

(00:04:20) Who is my age. You know, I’m in my forties, and I’m like, wow, like she looks fantastic. She looks a lot younger than I do. Which I suppose is how it should be. And then, you know, after the yoga class ended, I walked to a sushi restaurant–for some reason I’ve been craving like Japanese food. Been thinking about it a lot. 

(00:04:54) And, so I went into this sushi restaurant for a lunch. A late lunch, and the place was empty, and I ordered my lunch and I was sitting there, and I was kind of like looking through my phone and I’m tweeting, and there’s nobody else in there. And the music is playing, and then as I’m sitting there not tweeting, not, you know I’m not doing anything…

(00:05:20) I’m just kind of sitting there, waiting for my food, and the song, “Hello,” by Lionel Richie comes on. [“Hello” by Lionel Richie plays] I don’t know what [laughs], I don’t know what the point is. I just felt like it was kind of like a good moment, you know? It felt, like, very, what’s the word. It was like perfect 4:20 experience, but also just kind of a perfect experience when you’re alone in a restaurant. 

(00:05:50) You’re the only customer. Which, by the way, I don’t have a problem with that. I like that. I like being the only customer. I like being alone in a restaurant. I also like feeling like I’m somehow saving the restaurant, or like making the people who work there feel better. I feel sad for empty restaurants. 

(00:06:20) So David Shields is my guest. Two books out this year. the first one, The Trouble With Men, available from Mad Creek Books. The second one, Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump is available from Thought Catalogue. it is my great pleasure to share this conversation with you. Here he is, ladies and gentlemen. This is David Shields.

* * * 


(00:06:46) David Shields: I mean that’s a whole huge topic, Brad, as you can probably imagine. One, is sort of my standard joke response is, I’m not really that prolific. They’re all brief, collaborative, and plagiarized. So, you know, there’s not like…you know, that’s a joke [laughs]. I hope the audience gets it that it’s a joke. You know, I often do a remix of other people’s stuff, like the Trump book, say, has a lot of quotes. The Trouble With Men

(00:07:17) BL: But the amount of research that you have to do.

DS: Mhm. 

BL: Because I’ve tried, I’ve done some, you know, some collage work. 

DS: Yeah, yeah. You did Board, yeah. 

BL: It’s a lot of work. 

DS: Tell me about it. 

BL: And to make it cohere is not an easy feat. 

DS: Tell me about it. You and I are very interested in whatever you want to call it, bricolage, assemblage, collage. And, you know, I think, I don’t know what to say. One, I would say that my agent, hi Matt, you know, thinks I should slow down. 

(00:07:45)  I think there’s a quality of, you know, as they say, flooding the market. It’s sort of like, okay, another book by David Shields. It’s collage. It might be interesting, it might not, but there might be a quality. Not that I’m, you know, some big commercial entity, so. But, so, I think there’s one thing, is that the books are brief. And they really are focused. 

BL: How do you conceive of them? Like, do you start with a question that you’re trying to answer?

(00:08:14) Like, how do you structure a project? 

DS: I think that’s exactly it. I mean, I have this whole riff I do on how one does a book like this, and in a way, the form of say Trouble With Men, is quite similar, isn’t it, to, in a way, Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump. I really do feel like, without sounding too grandiose, I start with a question that I’m haunted by. I’ve always have loved this idea of W. H. Auden’s…[clears throat] Excuse me…

(00:08:46) “Great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings.” You may have seen me quote that. I always quote it, and my students always roll their eyes when I quote it again. So I take a subject about which I’m very ambivalent. To take these two subjects, even though, politically, I work quite hard, too, and the reign of terror that is Donald Trump. As a performer, I find him extraordinary. I mean, he’s an extraordinary performance art maestro.  

(00:09:17) And I had a guilty pleasure. I thought, he, at the time I wrote the book…I think his chops are going down as he’s getting older, or people…he’s damnedably hard to get a handle on, and I think the chatter class on the left, and media folks, and people on…democratic candidates. He’s very hard to push back against for all kinds of complicated reasons. So basically, I sort of start with a question.

(00:09:47) Um, that I’m…you know, generally a huge question like reality, or race, or sex, or death. Or celebrity. Some big topic. And then I do what I call, shoot a lot of film. Not literally, although sometimes literally, in which I just gather stuff for months, sometimes years. I mean Trouble With Men I was taking, I have been taking notes on that book for probably 15 years. 

(00:10:48) At one point the book was 3,000 pages long. 

BL: Oh my god.

DS: Of just stuff. And then I sort of, I keep on shooting film, and researching, and reading, and emailing people. And then at a certain point I feel like I’m no longer learning anything. All the insights are starting to repeat. At that point, I sort of compress, compress, compress. Winnow, winnow, winnow. By which I mean I sort of get rid of 90 percent of it. 

(00:10:48) I mean, 3,000 pages became a very brief 30,000-word, 138-page book. But, if you want, I can talk some more about it. But I think that you’re exactly right. I begin with a personal, cultural, and human cataclysm. Something which I find I’m obsessed with. And, which I think, in my grandiosity, carries larger human resonance. 

(00:11:16) BL: And then, I think we talked a bit about this the last time you were here, but it’s just about the nuts and bolts of organizing the research that you do. Can you refresh me on that?

DS: Yeah, I mean. In a way, I mean, you know, you and I have talked about it a lot. And I am a genuine fan of your book, Board, which, to me, exemplifies that awfully well. Basically, I, you know, let’s say to take Trouble With Men. It’s 3,000 pages. Eighty percent of it, or 90 percent of it is actually drawn… 

(00:11:46) So I go through and read it with an unbelievably gimlet eye. Like I’m looking to get rid of almost all of it. And that’s the most trepidatious part, in which you say, okay, I’ve got hundreds of pages, or sometimes literally thousands of pages. Is there really anything here? And I basically get rid of anything which I find predictable, safe, uh, corny. Sentimental. Self-protective. 

(00:12:16) Anything that just feels easy. And I try to keep only stuff, frankly, that makes me nervous. That makes…that feels like it’s getting at some uncomfortable stuff. And then, um, a big part of it, there, let’s say I’ve got say 3,000 pages narrowed down to, say, a couple hundred pages. At that point a big question for me is do I cut it vertically or do I cut it horizontally?

(00:12:45) Vertically means mini chapters. You know, say, in Reality Hunger, say a chapter on memory, a chapter on hip hop. A chapter on, um, on reality TV. And then, horizontally would be something like, um, say I think of, say, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. Say two-hundred and forty brief fragments. So basically, is it AAA, BBB, CCC, DDD?

(00:13:16) Or is it ADBCDABCDA? And that becomes, you know, book by book, it varies. And then, a really important thing to me. This might be too much information…

BL: No, no. It’s good…

DS: For you.. 

BL: It’s good. 

DS: And your listeners. It’s really things that you and I are really interested in, I think, both. You know, I’m seeing some books that you have on your shelves, like, Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation, like that’s a classic. That’s a really interesting example of collage. 

(00:13:44) BL: I marvel at that. The compression of that book.  

DS: Compression is what this is all about is someone else could have written that as a 700-page, 600-page, or 400-page novel. But she just…that’s the whole excitement to me of this form, to be honest. Compression, concision, and velocity. Basically, that you’re assuming, and expecting the reader to fill in the gaps. So, if she, say, if Jenny in that book, if she makes a tiny gesture.

(00:14:16) That you can fill in those 10 years of that particular marriage that we don’t need chapter in verse as we might get in, say, a Jane Smiley novel. I mean, Jane Smiley’s a good writer, but, you know, that would be a different gesture. And then the big question, for me, just to finish this rather lengthy discourse, is um, a terribly important thing to me is that you know…

(00:14:46) Collage is not a refuge for the compositionally disabled, as I like to say. By which I mean the book still has to have incredible momentum. And so the whole challenge of it is to get the work so that it doesn’t feel like random hopscotch. But there feels like there’s a beautiful method to the madness as you’re excavating more and more deeply the very material that you’re meaning to explore, and that’s a subjective choice. 

(00:15:21) Like, in my opinion, Trouble With Men, and Nobody Hates Trump have real…a real drive to them. Not a conventional narrative drive, but there’s a, I’m sort of gaining, I hope, new ground, in every chapter. But for many people, probably, a reader who wants to read, you know, a Raymond Chandler novel, the book doesn’t deliver that kind of narrative…

(00:15:53) Gyration, I guess. 

BL: Well, but I think that good collage art, good collage literature, in this case, can fool you in a way that maybe like writing in a minimalist style can fool you. Like you know, the undergraduate English major who reads Raymond Carver and thinks, like, “Oh, you know…”

DS: “That’s easy.” 

BL: “That’s easy.” 

DS: “There’s nothing there, right?”

BL: Yeah, and then you look at collage and you go, “Oh, you just gotta take, you know, chunks and bits of people’s work, and mix in some of your own.”

(00:16:23) And then you got a book. And it’s, like, sit down and try it. 

DS: Au contraire. I mean, I think it’s the hardest. You know, I like to claim, rather peremptorily, that, you know, collage is an evolution beyond narrative, that I think, there’s nothing that’s more exciting. I always remember, I don’t know if you know and like David Markson’s work. 

BL: Sure, yeah. 

DS: Is he a writer that you know? I mean, he’s a huge influence on me. But I remember somebody’s blurb, maybe Sven Birkert’s on the back of a David Markson book. 

(00:16:55) Perhaps This is Not a Novel, or maybe Vanishing Point, and Markson, or Berkert, or somebody said, for a bibliophile, this book is an absolute page turner. Like, I can’t put Markson down. 

BL: Yeah. 

DS: Because, first of all, it’s so exciting on an intellectual, and emotional, and metaphysical level. And second, Markson works in what he calls beats. You know, musical beats. 

(00:17:525) And, that to me, the excitement of that kind of work is that, if it really works, the reader starts to get in rhythm with the author’s beats. And it feels like a really serious conversation, and a very intimate one as well. Um, there’s this wonderful line which I always quote, of David Foster Wallace, who was asked what’s so great about literature and he said that, you know, that we’re existentially alone on the planet. 

(00:17:55) You can’t know what I’m thinking/feeling, and I can’t know what you’re thinking and feeling. And that literature at its best, is a bridge built across the abyss of human loneliness. I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the essence of Wallace’s argument. And I feel like the kind of work I love to read and write and teach, you know, some of the books that we’re talking about. Mary Ruefle, Jenny Offill, David Markson.

 (00:18:23) The stuff that I try and do. To me, if it really accomplishes what it sets out to do, it feels like an incredibly intimate and significant conversation. 

BL: Well, it’s funny that you say that because I feel like the presence of David Markson in those books, while not at surface level, maybe as explicit as one might normally be conditioned to expect if you’re reading memoir or autofiction. You know, you read those books and you start to–

(00:18:54) DS: Which books?

BL: The Markson books.

DS: Yeah. 

BL: And you start to see him in his apartment in Manhattan. 

DS: Utterly.

BL: And you’re just, you know, it’s actually really moving [laughs].

DS: Very moving.

BL: And yet it’s not, um, you know, it’s…there’s not a ton of him there. But there’s enough. And then all of the collaging and quoting that he does of other people’s work. You can feel him as a reader in there. 

DS:  Can you ever. 

BL: His presence is heavy even though it is, like, you know, sprinkled lightly throughout. 

(00:19:27) DS: To say the least. I mean, there’s, I think of, I mean I have reread those last four books of Markson over and over and over again. I just love Vanishing Point, Reader’s Block, excuse me, The Last Novel, and This is Not a Novel. I mean, those are amazing books. And I’m sort of a rarity in not particularly loving, I don’t know if you love Wittgenstein’s Mistress

BL: No. I was just gonna say!

DS: It’s such a bore, right?!

(00:19:23) BL: I’m the same. 

DS: I don’t get people who like that book. It’s him trying to figure out the form, and it still feels very old-fashioned-ly novelistic, right?

BL: This might be one of the most…like this is like peak nerdiness for the Otherppl Podcast. 

DS: I know what you mean. Oh, we don’t like Wittgenstein’s Mistress! Hold the phone! Yes, fascinating!

BL: [laughs] But I’m happy to hear you say that, because I always feel like, and I feel the same way when people talk about David Foster Wallace’s work. I’m like, I love his essays. 

DS: It’s the essays, of course, it’s the essays. 

BL: And I feel like there’s something deficient. 

DS: Not at all. 

(00:20:24) DS: Like, a big part of being a writer for me is finally learning to trust your own nerve endings. I mean, I just know, that for me, say, Wallace’s essays I just love. And when David Foster Wallace killed himself I spent a lot of the next couple of years just reading and rereading those essays to feel his presence. I personally have almost no interest in reading the novels, or…

BL: Did you meet him?

DS: Couple times, couple times. 

BL: You did, yeah. Okay. 

DS: Yeah. 

BL: So you actually…

DS: We weren’t close.

(00:20:55) But I had a fascinating conversation with him once that was just, I just, the main thing that I came away with is that he let you get away with precisely nothing. If you made an assertion, as the philosopher that he was trained to be, he would go, “Well, let’s question that premise.” You know, he was like, the best possible conversational combatant, and I feel like I had to really be on my game. 

(00:21:25) Because he was questioning every premise and it kinda got me questioning every premise of Wallace. Like, you know, I brought him to my class in order to talk about that essay of his on irony in television. I really…as smart as that essay is, I think it’s really wrong. You know, like I just think there’s no such thing as getting past irony. I mean irony is built into the human condition.

(00:21:58) I mean, and you know, anyway. But anyway, in terms of…I think of this line of Markson’s where he says something like…and it’s not always clear with him. Do you agree? That it’s not always clear if it’s his line or if it’s someone else’s, or if it’s a mashup of him and someone else. But anyway, there’s a line in Markson where he says, how dare he think he could pull down…

(00:22:25) …a single leaf from the laurel tree of art without paying for it with his life. Which, to me, is an incredibly beautiful line, and what more do you need to know about someone than that particular line? It doesn’t even matter if he read it and loved it, or wrote it, or remixed it. Like, everything you need to know about David Markson…

(00:22:55) Is in his quotation of that particular line. I mean that’s all of Markson’s project, asking. Basically, he’s obsessed with mortality, and he’s always asking: is art of any use against the onrushing night. And of course, there’s no easy answer, but he’s obsessed with that particular question, obviously. 

BL: Do you have a long-term sense?

(00:23:24) You know, you mentioned earlier when we were talking about how you conceive of your books, and how you get into a project where you start with a question or a big topic that offers a lot of complexity and nagging questions, do you have, like a list of topics that you’re working through? And…

DS: I know what you mean. I’m sorry, Brad, you were about to finish your question. 

BL: That’s basically it. I mean, do you have, like, do you have a list? Do you have, like, a longplan?

DS: [laughs] I know what you mean. Well, you know, it’s so funny that you say that. I mean, in a way…

(00:23:53) I’ve been sort of thinking about, and obviously, I haven’t, you know, I’m just scratching the surface of the universe, but you know, I feel like I’ve definitely have written a book on death called, The Thing About Life is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, which is sort of an attempt to wrestle with mortality in an utterly secular way. Like, I am the least religious person on the planet. I think this is it, this is it. You know, that we’re just slightly glorified animals. 

(00:24:25) Then, as, you know this, I’ve written a very sexually explicit book that is sort of my meditation on sex and power. That book has an epigraph from Robert Michels, who says, “Everything is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.” In a way, the whole book worries that particular question. 

(00:24:55) And you know, I feel like I’ve written a little bit about…I don’t know if you ever got that book of mine called War is Beautiful: The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamor of Armed Conflict.

BL: No I didn’t. 

DS: It’s sort of a critique of New York Times front page color war photography, in which I argue the pictures are outlandishly pornographic in their covert cheerleading for the beauty of war. 

(00:25:25) So I feel like there’s some part of me that wants to touch on some big subjects. War, I mean that book just, you know, it’s just about war photography, but at least, you know, it’s about about war. I’ve done a book on sex and death. You know, I’ve done books on celebrity or mass media. I’ve done books on, you know, vicariousness. 

BL: So what’s left? [laughs]

DS: What’s left? I know what you mean. I’m trying to figure that out. I mean I’m, you know, I’m hardly at death’s door, but I am 62. 

(00:25:56) And I kind of feel like, okay. You know, I’ve done books on, you know, all these subjects. It’s not as if I have some boring checklist like, David, you must write a book on late-market capitalism. Like, I’m not a journalist in that particular sense. I think I do, though, just listen to my own internal Geiger counter. Like, the book I’m working on now is called, you might find this funny.

(00:26:24) It’s called The Very Last Interview: A Novel, where basically I have a cat and mouse game between an interviewer, who’s based totally upon you, of course. No, it’s uh…[laughs]

BL: [laughs] It’s about time you wrote about me. 

DS: Exactly, I mean it’s basically, the book is that I’ve gone back and culled every question that’s ever been asked of me in every interview, going back to my first book, a novel called Heroes, in 1984. 

(00:26:56) And I’ve either transcribed the audio or video tape, or I’ve found the original exchange. And so I found around 2,700 questions in all these interviews over 35 years. And I’m trying to basically use these questions as a launchpad for a man confronting himself. A man being confronted by someone else. 

(00:27:27) Anyway, that is my current, rather, burgeoning project. 

BL: Well one of the things I notice about you is that you’re one of the most honest writers that I read. When I’m reading a David Shields book and it’s, you know, and it’s the not the parts that you’re, you know, collaging or grabbing from someone else. But when I read your writing, especially in the Sex and Power book…

DS: Uh-huh. 

BL: It’s bracing. 

DS: Uh-huh. 

(00:27:53) BL: Like and you have courage to go there on the page. Like is that something that you have to struggle with at all, or work to get there? Or is it something that comes easily to you?

DS: I mean, that’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? That for lack of a better word that’s sort of my…I mean I can’t stand this word, but it’s sort of my brand, isn’t it? Like, it’s the thing that I do. Like, I. You know, I just triple down…

(00:28:23) …on my own psychic stuff and hope that it has resonance for the reader. You know, I’m always quoting that line of Montaigne, who says something like, uh, I’m going to sort of mess up the line, but basically, he argues that every person, if you understand a single person carefully enough…

(00:28:55) There’s the hope that he or she might understand something about the human condition. It’s sort of the essayist’s mantra. If Joan Didion’s writing about her migraines, or, um, you know, St. Augustine is writing about his spiritual impasse, or  Rousseau is writing about his love affair with his, with his nanny. 

(00:29:25) I mean, the whole point isn’t that I’m interested, or those writers are interested in their own terribly fascinating lives. It’s that, you know, the hope is that, you know, this wonderful Yeats line I’ve always loved…”The mirror turned lamp.” If I turn a mirror on myself, with a rigorous enough light, I’m hoping that becomes a lamp of illumination for the reader. 

(00:29:56) And so it seems to me, it’s incumbent upon me, just as a literary strategy, I better be pretty damn candid with myself, otherwise I’m going to be phoning in sentimental truisms and the reader will yawn. I mean, I think the core of the essay form is that it’s a vertical form, by which I mean the reader is waiting to see a deeper and deeper depth charge…

(00:30:27) …from the writer as he or she is exposing more and more of their own emotional life. I mean, that just seems to me the way the essay form works and I guess I might be relatively extreme. I mean, what was that, there was a relatively generous New York Times review a week ago or so, and what did the critic Parul Sehgal said something. 

(00:30:53) She had a very funny line where she said something like, in matters of indiscretion, David Shields goes way beyond the sound barrier, or something like that. 

BL: Well, that’s how I feel. ‘Cause–

DS: And it’s like, what are you doing saying this stuff? It’s so inappropriate, but…Anyway, jump in, Brad. I’ve been babbling on here. 

BL: No, but I’m glad to hear you quote that, ‘cause that’s kind of how I feel. It’s like, I guess reading some of the things that you’re willing to talk about. 

(00:31:24) And they say this, like in books about writing, or in classes that you might take, that the writer is supposed to say the unspeakable things

DS: Right.

BL: That all of us feel, but don’t necessarily have the ability to articulate. 

DS: Right.

BL: And yet, when I read your book, I’m like, and I’m far from the most well-read person in the world, but I feel like I’ve read enough books to know that normally, writers in contemporary American Literature don’t go there. 

DS: Especially, I would say, white, male, straight, late middle-aged writers. 

(00:31:55) Like who cares about that person’s little agonies, like, but anyway. But I mean, I think of a couple things. One, I seem to think in quotations too much, but anyway there’s a wonderful line of Picasso’s, who says, “The enemy of great art is good taste.” I’ve always loved that. And I feel like that whatever I have, I don’t have good taste. Like I’ll say weird stuff like because it’s interesting to me.

(00:32:25) Whether about my sort of guilty pleasure in Trump’s insane antics, and the way that I feel like if he makes me addicted to his carnivalesque antics, then through my own stupid addiction to Trumpiana, maybe that we can understand something about his larger…

(00:32:55) appeal to a general populous. 

BL: Well, he’s a candidate and a politician who I think fuses a lot of interests of yours. I mean it’s like–

DS: Oh that’s fascin–tell me about that. Like, how so?

BL: Well, it’s reality. 

DS: Totally.

BL: It’s media. 

DS:  It’s performative. 

BL: It’s performative. 

DS:  It’s also hugely narcissistic. I mean, like he’s, I actually sort of say in the book, he’s the world’s worst, best, personal essayist. 

(00:33:23) It’s always about himself. To me he’s a cautionary tale of the self-reflexive personal essayist. 

BL: Yeah, I mean he just, he literally doesn’t…There’s not a breath he takes where it’s not all about him.  

DS: Right. I know and that he weirdly owns that. It’s so strange. 

BL: And there is, and this is a hard thing to say, because, like you said, you vehemently oppose [laughs] pretty much everything he stands for. 

(00:33:55) Uh, especially as president. But I remember when he was campaigning, or at some point in the process, I was thinking back to one of his Howard Stern interviews, which appear in your book. 

DS: Mhm.

BL: And by the way, I feel like the Trump quotes, the direct quotes that you intersperse throughout the book are among some of the more arresting passages, where you’re hearing him talk in his own voice prior to–

DS: Right.

BL: His political, you know his…

DS: And that there’s, sometimes he’ll say astoundingly interesting things. 

(00:34:25) Or, I don’t know about astoundingly, but, he has a deeply tragic, very nihilistic take on the human condition. And I think a big part of his appeal, against let’s say, against the anodyne, touchy-feely, uh, vetted, you know, poll material of, let’s say Hillary, or even Obama in a certain way. 

(00:34:55) That someone who seemingly will say what’s on his mind. I think it’s very performative. But in a way, that does circle back. ‘Cause, you know, my whole project is to say, weirdly electric things that you’re not supposed to say. And I can see how, how Trump is that. I mean, you know, again, I’m quite active in, you know, the so-called resistance, but… 

(00:35:24) As a person, a thinker, a citizen, a spectator, you know, I’m weirdly rapt, you know, r-a-p-t, by his amazingly performative stuff. And then, the other thing I was thinking about was that one of my many lawyers said to me, the law is my muse, and I thought that was such an insightful thing, not that any of these books courts legal trouble. But a couple of my books have had complicated legal…

(00:35:56) journeys. 

BL: Which ones?

DS: Well, primarily Reality Hunger, of course, and War Is Beautiful, The New York Times photo book. But I feel like, that she’s onto something in that, I don’t know if the law is my muse, per se, so much as trouble is my muse, like I’m interested in getting into trouble on the page, into making myself uncomfortable. 

(00:36:23) And that, you know, I think part of it is just trying to remain existentially alive, like I’m not riveted by, say, the way I’m supposed to be, by plot or setting or character, or uh, even conventional memoiristic things such as, you know, the long arc of someone’s spiritual journey from, you know, their childhood in west Texas to triumph at the alcohol addiction center. 

(00:36:55) Or whatever, like that whole granular arc, I just, it doesn’t interest me as much. So the thing that I’m…that gets me to the page, is to say alarming things about myself and hope I’m offering something insightful about the human condition. I think people who like my work meet me half way and say, holy Moses, this book is really discomfiting. 

(00:37:27) And I’ve never had somebody say that stuff, but, um, you know, c’est moi. Like, I, too, am confused about the relationship between sex and love and marriage and porn and power and that we’re all bozos on this bus. I think people who don’t like my work, you know there aren’t very many [laughs]. No, I’m sure there are plenty. Because my work is relatively extreme in its strategies. 

(00:37:53) …Find the work, what? Narrowly personal, or too much information. Or all that. And in my view they’re not meeting me halfway, but. 

BL: So here’s what comes to mind, and I speak of your work. I think I speak of some of the struggles I have in my own work. I’ve been trying to write a memoir, been talking about it endlessly on this show but it deals with like my son’s health. 

DS: Right. 

BL: It deals with personal stuff, and I think one of the struggles that I have…

(00:38:24) in trying to tell a story like that is a kind of inner resistance to like the traditional arc of these kinds of books. 

DS: Mhm. 

BL: The victim narrative. 

DS: Sure. And quasi-triumph. 

BL: And quasi-triumph. 

DS: Like victim-slash-triumph, yeah. 

BL: Is that you…I feel like a sense of obligation to resolve things in a way that feels really at odds with the truth. And then I also, I think, temperamentally, and I feel like you share this, have, like…

(00:38:54) A strong inner aversion to rendering myself on the page as any kind of hero [laughs]. 

DS: Right

BL: And it seems like incumbent upon the memoirist, especially if you’re, you know, you’re writing about some struggle. 

DS: Right. 

BL: Or deep wounds. 

DS: Mhm. 

BL: That there’s an expectation in the reader, that okay, we’re gonna resolve this and this person’s gonna triumph and they’re going to be the hero, and they’re going to reach some deep spiritual understanding. And that’s a problem for me. 

(00:39:21) Is that a problem for you? 

DS: Well, I mean, it’s, I hope I far out-maneuver that particular problem. And that’s so much not what I do

BL: Oh no, it’s like the opposite of what you do. 

DS: You know like, I don’t know like where it is. I mean, I would just say bravo that you have resistance to that. Because I know, you know, of your son, and his health, and that there would be a conventional memoir that you could package in which, you know, the last chapter is the family off on a vacation…

(00:39:56) to, you know, palm springs. And your son is walking and writing a brand new libretto or whatever the thing is. 

BL: Yeah. 

DS: And, you know, I think, and obviously there is a commercial imperative out there, and what is it, I mean, that’s really…I don’t know whether it’s the appropriation of the publishing industry by the movie business, or, I mean, I just think there have always been sentimental narratives. 

(00:40:26) Which are commercial. And what is it in us? You know, I think it’s a good thing I mean when you think of literature, doesn’t it tend to tell difficult truths? I mean, like, there’s a line in The Trouble With Men I quote from Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst who says something like, “Love,” I mean this is not stuff you’re supposed to say. 

(00:40:53) But in a way it’s the animating truth of this particular book: “Love is giving what you don’t have to someone who doesn’t want it.” And I tried that line out on my wife, she goes, “What the hell? No, that’s not right.” But it doesn’t mean that one doesn’t love one’s wife and one’s daughter and one’s cat and one’s father. But it means that romantic love is essentially phantasmagorical. That we are dreaming the other person into existence. That we are ships passing in the proverbial night. And the idea that we really, that we are projecting our own huge psychic drama on that other person. And so I’m not sure how well I’m answering your good question, Brad. 

(00:41:46) Other than, you know, I think we have a bunch of fellow travellers. So many of the writers I really admire, and some of them live here in Los Angeles. You know, Bernard Cooper, Sarah Manguso, Maggie Nelson, Geoff Dyer. You know, these are–

BL: But wait. Why are they, why are they all in L.A.? [laughs]

DS: Well, because. I don’t know. Those are just four writers who happen to be here. 

BL: Right. 

DS: I mean, I can think of some other folks that live in L.A. I mean part of it is that, I mean, it’s a good question. I know there’s some other people. 

(00:42:22) I think partly, I mean, again, just spinning out a rather glib theory that, you know, obviously the culture industry in L.A. is dominated by film and television, to a certain degree, music. And that in a way, those are such huge operations. And that, you know, I think there’s a sense in which, because those have to reach such a wide audience in order to justify the 75-million, 150-million dollars to make a movie…

(00:42:53) They’re gonna have the uptick at the end of the film. They just have to. 

BL: They have to, yeah. 

DS: Even if it’s a goodish movie, it’s gonna come up at the end, and so, I mean, I think, you know, I mean, I’m pretty friendly with all those folks. I mean, two people have jobs teaching at USC and, you know, so that, you know, I don’t think it’s like, “Oh there’s some new L.A. poetic essay thing.” Perhaps there is, and Mira Gonzalez is here as well, isn’t she?

BL: She is, yeah. 

(00:43:24) DS: I love her book, Selected Tweets, that she wrote with, with Tao Lin. That’s an incredible book. 

BL: Yeah. 

DS: So, I guess there might be a sense–

BL: That’s sitting right up there [laughs].

DS: Yeah, I’m a huge fan of that book, and actually teach it. It’s a brilliant book. But, and your work as well is part of that. And so, I think there’s a sense in which, you know, I mean, you have to, I mean part of me is really jealous of people who write that goodish, or pretty good book…

(00:43:55) That follows those conventional contours. And I sort of wish, on some stupid level, that I were that mainstream ‘cause, you know, I hope I’m a good writer. I’ve got stories to tell. But it’s like, I’m not, I would, and I’d write that book if I could write that book. I can’t write that book. Not because I’m so brilliant but it’s because that’s not my take on the human condition. You just have to follow your own, your own nerve endings, right?

(00:43:25) BL: That’s right. 

DS: But, I mean, how far along are you? Do you have…You probably have hundreds of pages of notes. 

BL: Yeah. It’s a big, it’s a big mess. I mean, it’s been, like, through multiple versions. 

DS: I’m sure. 

BL: I’m working my way through it. But.

DS: But I think the books that really last are those books that, you know, aren’t just glibly nihilistic. Like, “Oh, you know, my son is battling this serious health thing.” Why bother? Like, it really, it gets in there and gets really messy. But, and maybe doesn’t follow easy narrative arcs. 

(00:44:55) And maybe has a feeling more like Dept. of Speculation. Perhaps it jumps around a bit, but. You know, I think we all write the books that we can write, and then we backform a theory to explain it. And, you know. 

BL: I have a theory that Dept. of Speculation, was originally, like was at some point, like a 4,000-page manuscript. 

DS: We’ll have to ask, ask Jenny. 

BL: I want to believe that. 

(00:45:55) For some reason I find that thought comforting. I’m like how–

DS: Did you have her on the show?

BL: No. I never caught her. I’m dying to talk to her, but, uh–

DS: That’s a good book. I think. I think. I don’t–maybe. Maybe. That would be an interesting…I mean, that would be a wonderful thing in which we, you know, that we looked at various books that have that feel, if they began–I’ll bet you not, but we can see. 

BL: So, I want to ask you about your editorial process. Obviously, you know, like you said, you shoot a lot of film. 

(00:45:55) So you’re reading books. You’re highlighting. 

DS: I’m emailing people. I’m writing my own stuff. I’m curating past stuff I wrote. I’m emailing friends like crazy. 

BL: How do you read the internet? Do you highlight? Are you grabbing copy? Like, do you–

DS: I’m just grabbing like crazy stuff. Like, I’m trying to think of, let’s just take this new book, The Trouble With Men, you know, which is, as we’re saying, a very brief book. A hundred and thirty-eight pages, or something like that. It only has, perhaps, 35,000 words. 

(00:46:25) Maybe of those, words, maybe, I don’t know, maybe 15,000 or so are quotations from other people. I don’t know if it’s that high, but you know some of it’s me and some of it is everyone from, you know, pornstars to, you know, psychoanalysts. And I’m just, I’m grabbing stuff. And, everyone always asks me, like, how do you know what to pull? Because obviously the question of sex, you know. 

(00:46:54) One could endlessly research that forever, but, to me, what’s interesting, and maybe I’m just being lazy, or simply triage whereby I can read a 50-page essay by Leo Bersani called, “Is The Rectum a Grave?”, this amazing essay about AIDS and the Bay Area in the 1980s, and I can just fly through it. It’s this long, dense, academic essay. I’m like, that line. That’s all I want. 

(00:47:24) Like, at this point, I feel like I’ve developed relatively good antennae for, you know, listening to a bunch of Howard Stern episodes with Trump. Or, I literally watched every episode of The Apprentice, you know. 

BL: You did? You watched every single one?

DS: I did. I had some research assistants help. But I basically either read transcripts or Watched them, and I’m just like, boring, boring, boring. That. 

(00:47:55) BL: That. 

DS: And it’s like, at this point, you know, sometimes I think of myself more as a film editor than as a writer, because I’m taking all this stuff, and then remixing it. 

BL: Yeah. 

DS: So at this point, I’ve developed decent scissors, I would say. 

BL: Okay, but the stuff that you do write, and just to kind of circle back to what I was saying about how candid you are on the page, and how you, to an unusual degree, will kind of go there. 

DS: Mhm. 

BL: Is this something that comes naturally to you at this point?

(00:48:25) Or, ‘cause one of the surprising things, I think, about writing, when you get into the editorial process is how, no matter how honest you feel you are as a person, you can sort of, you know, dial it down, you can lie to yourself, even, and you catch it in the edit. And you’re like, oh my god, like…

DS: Totally. 

BL: So do you have those kinds of blind spots. And are you, in the edit, sharpening your language to get it to be maximally candid. Or does–

DS: I think so. 

BL: Or does that, is that how it works?

DS: I think that’s great. 

(00:48:52) I mean, I think, I’m sure I have, excuse me, blind spots. You know, where I think some review of the book, I think it was actually the Times review said, something like, you know, it’s interesting Shields doesn’t spend more time unpacking whether this very project is problematic. Or something, I forget how she said it. But, you know, I’m sure I tell myself I’m honest, but, or candid. 

(00:49:23) But I’m sure I have massive blind spots to things. You know, and people often will point out, like, yeah, you’re honest in these ways, and you’re, you know, you are conveniently blind to this. I mean at this point I kind–

BL: What do people say that you’re conveniently blind to? 

DS: I’m trying to think. I was afraid you’d say that because I think, I feel like the work is relatively candid. I think, I’m trying to think of whether, you know, let’s say Trouble With Men is the most extreme version. 

(00:49:57) Where it’s you know, this remarkably, to me it’s remarkably naked account of one man’s sort of psychosexual, mildly sado-masochistic drives. And. 

BL: ‘Cause, like you know, one of the things–

DS: It’s like, what is he going to say next becomes the energy of the work, I think. But, I mean the only thought I was going to have, Brad, was this idea that…

(00:50:25) at this point, I’ve boxed myself in, such that, in a way, in a funny way, each book has to raise the stakes. Like, I thought after The Thing About Life, where I say, the length of my erect penis. You know, I remember that my daughter was in high school and all the kids like teased her. Like, is your dad crazy or whatever? You know, it’s like, no, he’s okay. He just sort of overshares. 

(00:50:52) And then I was like, I thought, well that was as far as that could go. And then, you know, like each book, I raise…It’s almost like, “what’s he going to say next” becomes…I mean, in a way I’m hugely influenced by standup comedy. Like, you know, I grew up in San Francisco and L.A., and you know, I just, I just love standup. And I, you know, I grew up with a bad stutter and still have remnants of it now, and I feel like a big animating force to me, is…

(00:51:26) I really couldn’t talk as a kid. It was a really bad stutter. And now, as a writer, there’s this, a feeling in me that like I’m not going to waste the chance, when I write on the page. And in a way, if I were to write in a falsely sentimental way, that would be a kind of stuttering. If you see what I mean. Like, here’s my chance to talk on the page exactly how I want. 

(00:51:55) And there’s a sense in which my, sort of, extreme truth telling is a kind of powerful revenge on my childhood stutter, if that makes sense. 

BL: Oh, I think that’s a pretty astute analysis. 

DS: Like, I’m gonna talk now. And, you know, damn you, listen to me. Because I own this platform now. So I’m going to say some weird stuff about Trump. I’m going to say some, I hope, alarming stuff about sex and power, and porn. 

(00:52:24) And it’s like, deal with it. Because I get to talk now. 

BL: So, okay, the Sex and Power book. There’s gender, sex. A lot of hot button issues, especially in this particular climate. 

DS: To say the least. 

BL: How did you navigate that? Did you, did you have to work through fear? Did you have somebody vet it? Or did you, did you just go forward and let the cards fall?

DS: I know. I think I–

(00:52:53) To be honest, I had a, you know, a pretty solid draft, even maybe a near-final draft, way before MeToo. Like it, I think there would be a way of misperceiving this book as some sort of an opportunistic post-MeToo book, in which a guy kind of owns his own complicity or something like his own sexuality. And maybe, but it, it really…

(00:53:21) I had the book, I think, I can’t recall, but I think it was virtually done. And then the irony was, or wasn’t, you know the unfortunate, like that the book was submitted to publishers almost like the moment of the Harvey Weinstein stuff coming out. And I think, you know, I think the small press Mad Creek Books did a beautiful job with it. I mean, I just think it’s got a beautiful cover. And I just think it’s a really gorgeous little physical object. But I think a lot of trade publishers kind of, were like, you’ve got to be kidding.

(00:53:56) Like at this time, of Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, Trump, Harvey Weinstein, blah, blah blah. Like, who, who wants to hear anything about male sexuality? Like, even if it’s maybe a burn all bridges book. No thank you. And like, you know, and so. Anyway, I just, like the book was essentially done by the time all of this happened. But, you know, I’ve worried. I mean, I’m amazed I finished the book. 

(00:54:25) I’m amazed that the book is published. And I’m sort of amazed that my wife is sort of reluctantly okay with the book. 

BL: Yeah, I was going to ask you, about how, like, how does she respond because the book–

DS: She’s been–

BL: It’s very much about your marriage. 

DS: Right. 

BL: To a degree. 

DS: To a degree, it’s about it, yeah. 

BL: I mean a) to a degree, because that’s not all that it’s about. 

DS: No. 

BL: But it’s also candid about the psychodynamics and sexual dynamics of an intimate relationship in a marriage. 

(00:54:55) That I feel like is unusual on the page. 

DS: Thanks!

BL: Especially in non-fiction. You know, you can see this in fiction rendered…

DS: Oh, I see what you mean. It’s sort of easier there. Like, okay, here are some, you know, whips and chains in a novel, it’s like, okay, that’s those crazy characters. 

BL: Right. 

DS: I know like, I have like…I think. I mean, again, I try to be well-read, but I don’t know if I have read, but I’m not aware frankly of anyone else, you know, I’m not aware of that book in Western literature. 

(00:55:25) Where, like, a straight, white male exploring his own emotional masochism. Like, I’m not sure what that book is. Like there’s plenty of gay writers who have explored that incredibly well. Like Michel Leiris’ Manhood. But that’s not, you know…the straight  masculinity is so invested in power. And to me I thought it was just interesting to have the stupidity…

(00:55:55) Or nerve, to say, like, I’m going to explore how I’m drawn toward, in a certain way, a kind of self defeat, or self I don’t know what. Self-destruction in relatively mild ways. 

BL: Okay. So this brings up an interesting question. Because you’re so unsparing on the page, when it comes to depicting your inner life, and your outer life. 

(00:56:24) And you’ve done this across books. How do you feel about yourself? Like, after spending so much time really, like, kind of nit-picking yourself. 

DS: Mhm. 

BL: Over all these years, and through all these books. Like, how’s your relationship with yourself?

DS: That’s such a great question, and I think I actually have the answer in the sense that, you know, that awfully well-rubbed Nietzsche line, you know, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. 

(00:56:54) You know, which has become just this utter t-shirt cliche. But I think, maybe, the surprising punchline is that I’m okay with myself. Like, I really, I’m proud of the work I’ve done as a writer. I’m proud of the work I’ve done as a sort of emotional spelunker of my own psyche. And I feel like, again, sort of knock on wood, like I feel like I’ve kind of come out the other end. Like, I’m like I’m not really that afraid of myself. 

(00:57:26) And I feel like, you know, it is, as they say, cheap therapy. Or perhaps not so cheap therapy. Like, there’s this line of Cioran, E.M. Cioran, the French-Romanian philosopher. He says, “only one thing matters: learning to be the loser.” Which is a very anti-American idea. I think Cioran means that, you know, we all ultimately lose. You know, we lose our actual lives. 

(00:57:54) That we become dust. So it’s kind of a good idea to learn how you’re a loser. Like, to be a winner, to me, is just a very false stance, because we all lose. We all end up dead. And, you know, there is no god. There is no transcendental signifier. Like this is it, we’re just animals. And so, I think that was the challenge of this book in particular, The Trouble With Men, is that, you know…

(00:58:25) My god, I’m sort of amazed that I wrote the book, published it and that the reviews have been sort of, to me, sort of surprisingly generous so far, and positive-ish, in this particular cultural moment. And like, you know, I think it was a kind of, I don’t know. I don’t want to like pat myself on the back, but like I think, just to answer your question in a relatively direct way.

(00:58:55)  Like, I might surprise you by saying I like myself. To my surprise. And I think it’s the work, the writing, actually got me there. Like, like, I’ve owned it so much on the page, it’s like, you know, I’m fine with that. Like I think it’s really important to know yourself, and to embrace your fate. You know, “Amor Fati,” as Nietzsche says. 

(00:59:26) You know, love your fate. And I feel like the project of this book was to find out what my fate is, what my psychic mechanism is. And to really kind of live with it. I feel like that’s a very muscle-building thing. 

BL: Yeah, I mean, I think that you spend that much time working on a project and investigating yourself like that, at some point I feel like you’re going to start to have some compassion for yourself [laughs].

(00:59:54) DS: Right. 

BL: I mean, it’s inevitable. And also, it should be said, compassion for others, ‘cause–

DS: Totally. 

BL: We’re all sort of reflected in one another, and I think that’s part of the appeal of your work, for the people whom it’s for. 

DS: Completely. 

BL: Is that, you know, even though the specifics aren’t exactly the same.

DS: Right. 

BL: To see somebody reckon with themselves–

DS: Right. 

BL: On the page that honestly, for me, anyway, it’s a kind of a relief. 

DS: Thank you, Brad. That’s really meaningful. I mean I think, I mean in some strange way, I think of the book as not the world’s worst marriage manual. 

(01:00:25) In the sense that, you know, it’s really hard to be open with yourself, or your spouse. Not even just about sort of sexual stuff. But, just you know, we all are mask upon mask. But the book, you know, I kind of survived this telling of the book. So far. You know, and I feel like, man, if I could survive this, I can survive anything. 

(01:00:50) Because it was a rather, I remember after finishing the book, you know, a few years ago, I was like, I never had felt so altered by a book, with the possible exception of The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll be Dead. You know, that book really got me in touch with my, sort of, death haunt with Thanatos. You know, with death. And this book, in another way, got me in touch in this really spooky way with, you know, another kind of death haunt. 

(01:01:27) By which I mean, you know, the kind of ways in which, you know, I might be, maybe slightly more than other people, although not hugely more so, you know slightly drawn toward a kind of emotional self punishment. And like, that’s sad. Eeking it like that. But to own it was really interesting. 

(01:01:55) BL: Did it make it even slightly, did it make it maybe slightly less sad [laughs]?

DS: What, you mean? To own it?

BL: The process of owning it. 

DS: Well completely. Like I feel like it came out, and again, I’m not here, you know, to be arguing for the transcendental qualities of spiritual memoir. You know, we’ve already agreed that’s now what we’re about, but, you know it’s like, so what? You know, and I feel like, I guess I have a strong feeling that people who push back against the book.

(01:02:23) And there’ve been relatively…like I thought people would say, dude, you are, you are messed up. Like, get some therapy or something. But so far from readers, from women, from men, from reviewers, it’s sort of like, you know, so far people said like, yeah, so what? You know? Or not so what, but, sort of like yeah, these are difficult things you’re exploring and I promise you I have my own versions of these. 

(01:02:55) I won’t tell you what they are [laughs], but. I mean, it was a very gratifying thing for me when I published, you know, the book, I don’t know if you ever saw this book of mine, from 2015, I think it was called, That Thing You Do With Your Mouth: The Sexual Autobiography of Samantha Matthews… 

BL: Yeah, yeah.

DS: As told to me, my cousin who had been abused in childhood, and she and I collaborated on a book…

(01:03:25) That explored how she had been, what she called, formatted, psychically and sexually by that very early sexual abuse that she suffered, ages two to five, and how in a variety of ways, her entire life has been a revisitation of that. A transcendence of it. An embrace of it. Very complicated. But what’s terribly important is that we avoid the Oprah narrative recovery story.

(01:03:56) I mean, no offense to Oprah. But, you know, that we want not to say all things are really neatly wrapped up. But anyway, it was terribly meaningful to me that Samantha read this book. And I feel like she, you know, has suffered a lot in this area. And she liked the book a lot, and that was very, I mean, I’m not sure I have anything to add other than, I feel like that she is a bit of an expert in this psychic territory. 

(01:04:24)  Far more than I am. And she thought it got to some really important thing. 

BL: Yeah, well I think when the truth is in the room, people recognize it, even if it’s not necessarily their truth. If somebody’s really being honest with you, it’s hard to act with outrage, if you’re–

DS: Right. 

BL: …a honest broker. 

DS: Thanks, no, I think that’s really it. And I, it’s an interesting thing I’ve fallen into. You know, as you may not know, you know, I started out as a relatively conventional novelist. 

(01:04:53)  I wrote a first novel which the Los Angeles Reader called almost a parody of the conventional novel. [laughs] And then a second novel called Dead Language, it’s kind of a growing up novel about a kid with a speech impediment. And then I wrote a book called A Handbook for Drowning, a novel in stories. And then basically, you know, I was, those are not all that conventional of a novel, but those were sort of existing in a relatively safe space of kind of literary American contemporary fiction. 

(01:05:27)  It was like, okay, they would have some rather odd elements of it, but they, you know, they were that thing. And then, with my first book of nonfiction, this book called Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity, I started writing in this very personal way. An essayistic way, and often a quasi-confessional way. But always marrying the confession to a larger cultural and human conundrum. 

(01:05:55)  That’s become my go-to thing. And it’s really influenced heavily, I don’t know if you share my admiration of Ross McElwee’s documentary movies. I don’t know if we’ve talked about McElwee. 

BL: Like Sherman’s March, yeah. 

DS: Yeah. I remember seeing that film on PBS in, I think, 1989, it just blew my mind. I just am hugely influenced by Renata Adler’s Speedboat, which, you know, as I’m sure you can see, is, you know, a pretty clear template for some of my work. 

(01:06:24)  But also hugely McElwee, Sherman’s March, that, that thing that he does in that, that film. Some of it is confessional. Some of it is comedy. Some of it is cultural investigation. Some of it is reportorial and quasi-journalistic. And it all comes together very subtly into a sustained meditation on, basically, the male gaze. And I just, I remember seeing that film, and just saying that’s what I want to do. 

BL: It’s nice to have an epiphany moment like that. 

DS: It really was. It was like holy Moses, that’s like, Ross, thank you. That’s, and you know, that’s, and I think it was helpful that it wasn’t in my field exactly. I think that if a writer had done it, I’d be like, uh-oh they’ve stolen my thunder. Whereas, with McElwee, and he’s continued to make amazing films, like…

(01:07:22) What’s that one about a tobacco farm in North Carolina, this extraordinary movie as well, I’m forgetting it’s title right now. But again, he’s, to me, just a really helpful model for, you might call it the anti-memoir essayistic gesture. By which I mean he often explores something with a personal element, as you might if you were writing about your family and son, or as I might in writing, say, a book like The Trouble With Men. 

(01:07:54) But, the thing that McElwee does, he always keeps a strong pedal tone on this is not narrowly and granularly microscopically personal. He’s always exploding it out so it does what I call rotate out toward metaphor. It’s like, yes it’s about me, but me as a vector on this larger philosophical grid. 

BL: But that makes sense to me though, to like, ventilate it a little bit.   

DS: Exactly. That’s a wonderful term. 

BL: Because it gets exhausting to just–

(01:08:24) DS: I know

BL: Be about you…That’s how I feel when I’m like, I can’t, I don’t want to keep talking about myself [laughs].

DS: I know what you mean. And I think, you know, I don’t know your project. But that like, and yet, the culture is telling you, in this rather culture of narcissism way, just give us, you know, play-by-play of everything with your son and your family. And it, you know, it might as well be, you know, what’s it called?

(01:08:55) Lifestyles movie. Like, what’s that channel called?

BL: Lifetime. 

DS. Lifetime movie of the week. You know like that’s, you know and again, there might be some really charming Lifetime movies of the week, but like, you know, here’s our one chance to tell difficult truths. That’s the whole burden of literature to me. It’s like, when we think of amazing works, and you know, they might have joy in them, and comedy, and ecstasy, like, I don’t know, whatever that is. Emily Brontë or Virginia Woolf. Or Shakespeare. Or whatever. 

(01:09:24) But that, like, the reason that we go back and read, you know, Petronius, The Satyricon, whoever it is, it’s like, holy Moses, they didn’t hold back. They brought, you know, they brought difficult knowledge to bear on the situation. And you can tell it. As you say, they weren’t lying. Yes, there was probably some element of artifice. There might even have been a cultural arbiter who prevented, say, Petronius, from publishing certain things. 

(01:09:55) But, you can tell there’s a big difference between quasi-truth telling and scorched earth truth telling. And I’m really interested, obviously, in the latter. 

BL: Well, and, you know it should also be said that there are people who can write about authentic spiritual epiphanies. People do have–

DS: Totally. 

BL: Very elevated human experiences and–

DS: Like, you’re thinking of say, Annie Dillard, or Anne Lamott, or Barry Lopez–

BL: Yeah. 

DS: Or someone who, I know what you mean, they just are on a different psychic register than I am. 

(01:10:28) BL: Yeah, but it just, I guess like, what it makes me feel like is I feel a certain pressure. It’s like, wow, I gotta, I gotta somehow occasion one of these epiphanies [laughs].

DS: Exactly. 

BL: It’s like, I don’t know if I have it in me. 

DS: Well, I think if you want those epiphanies, showers are really crucial. 

BL: Yeah. 

DS: Take a lot of showers, I think. But and I think, you know, it’s sort of what, in a way, what both of these books are about a bit is like…

(01:10:54) Trump, for all of his awfulness, his whole appeal is that he seems to be speaking, which I think is actually nonsense, but he’s very good at performing a quasi-sincerity. Or, you know, like after Charlottesville, like yes, you can say it’s awful. And I don’t agree with anything he said. But he phrased it as, hey, I’m just telling the truth. It didn’t seem vetted. That’s a rather extreme example, because it was so grotesque. 

(01:11:25) But in smaller ways, where he’s, and I’ve forgotten exactly where I was trying to take this, other than, you know, Trouble with Men, the Trump book, your project, my projects in general, you know, they’re going all in on emotional turbulence and emotional difficulty. 

(01:11:55) And I think in my view, those are the best books. I mean, again, I’m just, I’m looking at some books on your shelves, I don’t know all of them, but I know some of them, and the ones I really love, you know, Mary Ruefle, Jenny Offill, Mira Gonzalez. You know, Tao Lin. It’s like you can feel a kind of impulse toward what would you call it?

(01:12:26) Emotional, psychological, philosophical, damn-the-torpedoes nakedness. I find that really exciting. Not everyone does, but that’s my thing. 

BL: Have you ever done therapy?

DS: You know, you would think I would have, given [laughs] all of my manifest many issues. You know, I’ve done very little. I’ve had a lot of speech therapy over the years. You know, just to gain some control over my speech, which has been helpful. But not, I mean just a smattering. And you know, I sort of, I’ve always loved that Rilke line, you know, “if they take away my demons, they’ll take away my angels as well.” Like, you know, I do think that whatever issues underpin my psychic stuff…

(01:13:25) Is clearly wedded to my writing mania. You know, I’ve been, you know, somewhat maniacally productive. 

BL: How many hours a day do you work on your writing?

DS: Well, it’s more like how many hours a day do I not work on my writing. ‘Cause I’m sort of, I’m always working on it. But, you know, at this point I’m not the kind of writer who says, you know I’m going to write from 9:15 ‘til 3:15. It’s more like, I’m writing on my phone as I’m walking to school. 

(01:13:54) I’m emailing a research assistant to find this document. I suddenly have some hours at night where I’m writing. So I would say in general, on most days I write from 10 in the morning ‘til two in the afternoon, and then again at night I write from 10 at night until two a.m. You know, those are hours in which I’m largely around my computer. I turn off the web, to a certain degree. 

 (01:14:23) And try not to check email, etcetera. And that I’m kind of trying to make some kind of progress. 

BL: And what about your reading diet? Do you have like, can you see patterns? Are there certain kinds of books that you’re drawn to? And because of the nature of your work and because you’re always kind of like looking…

DS: I know

BL: …and grabbing, are you reading books through? Are you reading books quickly, and finding those golden nuggets and like extracting them? 

DS: Right. [laughs] Well, I’m guilty of literally tearing out pages of books. Like I’ll be reading a book I don’t particularly like, or whatever, and I just find a page I like and I just rip it out. 

(01:14:57)  You know, I don’t feel any sacred sense. You know, Sarah Manguso says she’s not a completist. You know, like, in the sense that you know, there’s no reason to read all of Kafka. Just read the Kafka that you’re really interested in. You know, and I don’t tend to love authors. I love individual books. Like, you know, I like a little bit of Nabokov. A few books. 

(01:15:24) But it’s not like I’m a Nabokov scholar or whatever. But I probably, right now I’m a little bit trapped. And I reread certain books over and over and over and over again. You can probably guess who they are. 

BL: Sure. 

DS: You know Simon Gray, David Markson, J.M. Coetzee. Certain people, but I’m trying to break out. I’m trying to think of what I am reading now. But you know, as do you, you get a lot of books in the mail. I don’t get quite as many books in the mail, but I certainly get some. 

(01:15:56) And, you know, some of it is that, some of it is student work. Some of it is research. And so, you know, I wish I were going back and rereading Proust. But I’m, you know, I’m mainly, I do read somewhat vampirically, in a sense that I read stuff that feeds me. So even though I’ve reread Simon Gray’s Smoking Diaries, you know probably 10 times, it’s a book I just absolutely love, and I think you would like a lot. 

(01:16:24) If you haven’t tackled it. I read it ‘cause it weirdly gives me traction on my own work. That voice of Gray’s is in my head. It’s both very relaxed and very poetic, and it just gives me a certain tonality I really find helpful. 

(01:16:45) BL: I get that. And I can get the same way from certain music. It gets you into the frame of mind, you know, and it kind of gins you up to speak in your own voice. 

DS: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly. That he’s so funny. And so honest and so smart. I’m like, yeah, I want to try to sound like that. And also, I’m very, you know, it’s that line of Camus? Something like, you know, “if you’re a real writer, you ought to be able to read the first paragraph of a book and know whether the person is, in your view, a good writer,” or something like that. 

(01:17:19) And I just, you know, I don’t have, either I’m very impatient or very demanding or both, but basically, I, to me, I give a book maybe like 300 words. Like, if I’m not absolutely riveted on the first page, again, not by plot of beautiful language, but like sheer intelligence. Like, I read for intelligence, alas, and so that’s really the essay form. Intelligence, humor, and vulnerability are some of the things. 

(01:17:51) You know, comedy, you know, intelligence, and vulnerability. Those are my sort of gestures I really care about. And so, I probably, you know, I read in that realm an awful lot. 

BL: I’m like now thinking, like wow. I would love to read a book by David Shields where like–

DS: [laughs] That was a conventional novel?

BL: No, I mean, no I was actually, I had that thought before you came over. I was like, you know what, I think the arc of David’s career is that he’s eventually going to come full circle, and like the last book he writes is gonna– 

(01:18:23) DS: That’s my fantasy. The Corrections by David Franzen. That would be a beautiful fake out in which I wrote some really goodish epic conventional novel. I’m not sure that gesture’s available to me. But you were about to say something else, Brad.

BL: I was just going to say, because of your skepticism around religion, and your kind of conviction that, like this is it, we’re just, like, glorified animals. 

(01:18:49) I would love to see you interacting with like, new age. The new age community. Like, experiential research. 

DS: You mean, like people who are interested in, what is it called? The New Singularity and all that?

BL: Well, that or like, ayahuasca circles or silent retreats. And like all this kind of stuff. 

DS: Uh-huh. 

BL: Like for somebody who’s as skeptical as you, and for somebody who…‘cause you have kind of a comedic presence in your books. 

DS: Thanks, it’s meant to be a little funny. It’s so over the top. It’s meant to be a little funny. 

BL: Well, and also, like, you know, you’re the butt of the joke. 

(01:19:421)  And like it’s self-deprecating. 

DS: Totally. 

BL: But to see you in like, as a fish out of water tale, engaging with this stuff, and then reflecting. 

DS: It’s not a bad idea. My god. I’ve been trying to find what my next, after the current project is. But somehow that you imagine me sort of going from pond to pond of new age answers. 

BL: And just and like experimenting…

DS: And try to hang with it. 

BL: Try to hang with it. See how it tests your expectations, and your–

DS: God. You’ve just written my next book proposal.

BL: [laughs] Well, thank me in the acknowledgements.

(01:19:56) DS: It’s not a bad idea at all. 

BL: I just–

DS: I mean, I don’t know if I could…It would be a good challenge to me because mere skepticism isn’t all that interesting. Like, to try to find some kind of religiosity or something. 

BL: Or yeah, or just to participate. You know, to actually participate and to put yourself in these environments and to see how you respond. 

DS: God, it’s a great idea.

(01:20:23) BL: Anyway, I say this as a fan of your work. I know you got to get rolling. And I just want to congratulate you on both of the books. 

DS: Thanks, Brad. 

BL: And to thank you for making time during your swing through town to come talk to me. 

DS: Thank you.

* * * 


(01:20:38) All right, that is David Shields. His books are called, The Trouble With Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn and Power. It’s available from Mad Creek Books. And Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump, available from Thought Catalogue. You can find David Shields online at DavidShields.com. You can follow him on Twitter. His handle over there is @_DavidShields. Thank you to Kill Rock Stars, and the band Stereototal for the theme song music as always. Thank you to Tiger in my Tank for the interstitial music. And if you would like to support this program, you can do that at patreon.com/otherpplpod.

(01:21:22) If you would like to write to me, if you have something to say, the email address is letters@otherppl.com. Don’t forget about the Otherppl with Brad Listi app. It’s the official app of this podcast. It is free. It’s available wherever apps are available. Go get the app. It’s free. 

(01:21:49) Uhhhhh…who do I have coming up? I’ve got Balli Kaur Jaswal coming up. She’s the book club author for April. Next week. I might do two episodes next week. We’ll have to see. If time permits. But I’ve got some good ones in the can and some more in my calendar that are due to happen, that I am excited about. So stay tuned. It’s been a nice day. I had a good lunch [laughs]. Quiet, solitary lunch. I enjoy that. I have no problem with that. I’ve always been that way.

(01:22:49) It was a good yoga class. I try to do it once a week. I have this theory that it’s gonna like, I don’t know. It’s gonna do good things for me. I just need, I feel like I need to be flexible. I don’t want to get all, like, I don’t know, immobile. I want to be able to touch my toes. There’s nothing wrong with that. 

(01:23:16) Life’s hard enough as it is. It’s good to be flexible. Namaste, douchebag!