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Jul. 30 2010 — 10:03 am | 185 views | 2 recommendations | 7 comments

How will True/Slant be remembered?

This is my final post, so let me say quickly what a pleasure it was to write, read and discuss on True/Slant. Thanks especially to the True/Slant staff, Kashmir Hill for getting me here, ebizjoey for his tips and comments and all the great commenters on this site. Also, let me offer my sincere appreciation for the professionalism, verve and intelligence of my fellow contributors.

If you would like to keep up with my work, please follow me on twitter.

* * *

On a Saturday afternoon I walked into one of the nation’s most impressive collective brains – the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman building, the branch with the lionized front steps. I was there to understand something about death and memory, but not on the usual, personal level. When something social dies – a magazine or a website, for instance – how is it remembered? If we dig deep into the back of the collective mind, what would be there? Those questions led me to the Independent, once a venerable magazine that lived 80 years before dying in 1928. I had never heard of it before, but it was both inspiration and competition to magazines that defined an era — The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic to name a few.

It remains to be seen whether there’s a lasting memory of True/Slant, the brilliant experiment of Lewis Dvorkin, Coates Bateman, Andrea Spiegel, Michael Roston, Steve McNally, 300 contributors and tens of thousands of engaged readers. It certainly competed with, and may very well inspire, those publications that will define this era. But finding the Independent is also a reminder of how ephemeral this business is, as it is meant to be. And yet ….

Deep in the recesses of the human brain, enzymes keep old memories stored for occasional retrieval by the conscious mind, which is usually preoccupied with the present and recent past. Collective memory works the same way – older memories are pushed further and further away from the hustle of the moment.

The microforms room is deep in the recesses of the Schwarzman building, far from the grandeur of the main reading rooms and picture galleries and elegant staircases. Drop ceilings and fluorescent lighting give a greenish tint to the walls, which are neatly decorated with watermarks of logos famous publications. The microfilm you can access in the room itself cover the current New York newspapers. Everything else has to be ordered from a back room.

I found the Independent after looking through a long index of publications in the American Periodical Series, a set of microfilm created in 1941 by the University of Michigan to, “document the origins of American magazine journalism which began in 1741 with Benjamin Franklin’s General Magazine and Andrew Bradford’s American Magazine.” The Independent stood out to me for its long life, it’s consistent weekly publication schedule and it’s sudden demise.

I wrote down the reel numbers and handed them to a microfilm clerk named Charles.

“It will be about 20 minutes,” he said. “Those are stored in the basement.”

Sadly, the first two years of the magazine, 1848 and 49, are not part of the series. But it’s safe to guess it didn’t grow quickly – in January 1850, the Independent is a feisty four-page broadsheet published in New York City. It’s filled with Protestant piety, strong anti-slavery convictions and a pre-occupation with Catholicism. “Religious liberty in France is again trampled under the feet of the Jesuits,” declares the unnamed writer under the title, “The State of France” in the January 3, 1850 edition.

Another article tells the cautionary tale of a boy who refuses to submit to Christ’s laws despite the fact that his salvation is not guaranteed and a boy down the street not much older had just recently died. A sermon printed in full warns the readers that disobeying the civil law is a Christian duty and a prayer is nearby asking for strength to abide by the Fugitive Slave Law: “I am liable to be called on to assist in restoring a miserable fugitive to his bondage … Blind my eyes to all the evils of his state; may I disregard his sighs, his tears and his supplications.”

By the turn of the 20th Century, the Independent is a sophisticated magazine. Gone are the preachers and prayers, replaced primarily by college professors and editorials about the state of the world. The Jan. 7, 1903 edition includes a reprint of Count Leo Tolstoy’s “Science and Money,” the first time it was published complete in English, according to an editor’s note. The international desk has also become more sophisticated, though a broad brush is still applied: “The year in South America has been no more turbulent than South American years usually are.”

In 1924 the magazine is bought by a company in Boston and moved there. It has many elements that readers of modern magazines would recognize – a strong books section, long-form pieces from writers around the world, an in-depth 1928 piece by Harry L. Foster about Haiti’s conditions since U.S. Marines took control of the “Colorful Black Republic.”

The penultimate issue notes the magazine’s demise – The Independent was being consumed by The Outlook. “The next number of The Independent, that of Oct. 13, will be the last which we shall publish …”

The last article, “How Shall we Muzzle Monopoly,” ends the book with this: “Monopoly is the great problem of civilization. It is the problem to which Lincoln referred when he said: ‘There has never been but one question in all civilization; there is but one question now; and there never will be but one question in the future, and that is: How to prevent a few men from saying to many men, you work and earn bread and we will eat.’”

Jul. 30 2010 — 1:36 am | 893 views | 1 recommendations | 19 comments

Did Anne Rice just suck the blood out of Christianity?

Anne Rice

Image via Wikipedia

There’s something kind of vampirish about Anne Rice’s faith dilemma as it plays out. To wit:

Anne Rice, on Facebook, Wednesday at 1:36 pm:

For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being “Christian” or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to “belong” to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.

Anne Rice, Chapter 1, Called Out of Darkness in 2008:

If this path to God is an illusion, then the story is worthless. If the path is real, then we have something here that may matter to you as well as to me.

And so, it’s worthless and we can all move on. But wait (Facebook):

As I said below, I quit being a Christian. I’m out. In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.

In the name of wha… But maybe we could see this coming (Called Out of Darkness):

Is it not possible for us to do with gender, sexuality and reproduction what was long ago done with the stars? To realize that…new sources of information on them may be as valid as the information given us long ago?

Probably not anytime soon with the Catholic Church, so (Facebook):

My faith in Christ is central to my life. My conversion from a pessimistic atheist lost in a world I didn’t understand, to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God is crucial to me. But following Christ does not mean following His followers. Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been, or might become.

But of course (Called Out of Darkness):

…my concept of God came through the spoken words of my mother, and also the intensely beautiful experiences I had in church.

Which leaves us with a Body that once sustained Anne, but is now dead to her. However, the life source of the Body has somehow been extracted. So is it still real? Or is it an illusion? This can get a little creepy if you think about it late at night.

Jul. 27 2010 — 10:51 am | 1,685 views | 0 recommendations | 18 comments

‘Ground Zero mosque’: How close is too close?

Ground Zero view

Image by SpecialKRB via Flickr

In writing about the mosque/Ground Zero flap today in The New York Times, Clyde Haberman brings up a point that has been bothering me too:

…we have learned that many people must have been out sick the day the teacher taught prepositions. The center is routinely referred to by some opponents as the “mosque at ground zero.”

. . . There’s that “at.” For a two-letter word, it packs quite a wallop. It has been tossed around in a manner both cavalier and disingenuous, with an intention by some to inflame passions. Nobody, regardless of political leanings, would tolerate a mosque at ground zero. “Near” is not the same, as anyone who paid attention back in the fourth grade should know.

This elicits a question: How far away must the mosque be before the Newt-Sarah-Jihad Watch brigade would be satisfied? Richard Land, who heads public policy for Southern Baptists, played games with the at-near difference in a recent column for the Washington Post. He provided a most interesting comparison.

Having a mosque at Ground Zero would be the equivalent of having a Japanese Shinto shrine built next to the USS Arizona. Do the followers of Shinto have a right to have a shrine in Honolulu? Yes. In close proximity to the USS Arizona? No.

From what I could tell on Google Maps, the closest Shinto shrine to the USS Arizona is 6.7 miles away. The closest Baptist church (not strictly Southern Baptist, mind you, but neither was Truman) I could find in Hiroshima was .5 miles away from their Ground Zero.

Yes, the proposed ‘mosque’ (Haberman points out that it’s probably not what you imagine) would be closer than both of those examples, but not ‘at.’ Here’s the map of the where the Islamic center would be in relation to Ground Zero, as provided by the developers’ web site.

And one reminder: The distance between Ground Zero and Al Qaeda headquarters, where the attack was planned, is over 6,000 miles.

Jul. 22 2010 — 9:48 am | 120 views | 1 recommendations | 5 comments

Science(ish): Gorging on ice cream DOES help you forget heartbreak

Chocolate ice cream

Memory eraser? Image via Wikipedia

Why is this not on every front page in America? Instead it’s oil spills and the economy. But this item actually affects lives:

Diana Kerwin of Northwestern University and colleagues studied 8,745 normal post-menopausal women ages 65 to 79 who participated in the Women’s Health Initiative, a massive federal study examining a host of health issues.

For every one-point increase in a woman’s body mass index (BMI), her score on a 100-point memory test dropped by one point, the researchers reported last week in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society.

via the The Check Up: Washington Post

Unfortunately, most of the reports covering this story missed the real news. Just read NaturalNews.com’s conclusion: “Either way, experts recommend that overweight people strive to lose weight as part of a healthy overall lifestyle.” Yeah fine fine, but think about what’s really been proven in this study: Gorging on ice cream does indeed help you forget heartbreak.

Now, this won’t be cheap and it won’t be easy, but here’s the formula. Let’s say you score 80 on your memory test, which means you remember that time your ex promised to always be honest about his/her feelings, so that if any real problems in the relationship started to arise for him/her, it would not come as a surprise. In fact you can’t stop remembering that, right?

Okay, let’s say you’re 5 feet 5 inches and weigh 145 pounds. Your BMI is 24.1, according to the NIH, unless you are a man and then it’s another number. Your memory is going to need a lot of degrading, at least a 10-point drop. So get serious. Häagen-Dazs chocolate ice cream is 540 calories per cup. If you sit still all day, eat three regular meals that cover the base 1,380 calorie intake needed, you could get to a 34.1 BMI index in a month by eating about 16 cups of chocolate ice cream per day. (I am not a medical professional, please consult a doctor to verify these numbers.)

If you are a post-menopausal woman, that is.

I am not, which might explain why this study does not apply to me. As I have mentioned before, I spent the past year losing weight. I am now 72 pounds lighter than I used to be, which means I’ve dropped 11 points on the BMI. That has not stopped me from getting three parking tickets in a MONTH because I keep forgetting to re-park the car after the street sweeper goes by.

But I’m being the typical killjoy blogger now. And you’re probably feeling like this did not help your heartbreak at all, but you’re wrong there. I bet it never occurred to anyone before to eat ice cream after a bad breakup and that’s got to be good for something.

Jul. 19 2010 — 9:23 am | 534 views | 2 recommendations | 1 comment

Is Frank McCourt really in purgatory? A literary impact report

Frank McCourt at a reading in Cologne, Germany

Image via Wikipedia

Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes, died one year ago today. Soon after his death a series of blog posts and articles looked at the impact he had on the memoir genre. This article tries to both quantify and qualify just what effect he had on literature and whether it has waned.


“F***ing Kansas City,” Frank McCourt complained inside of my 1996 Volkswagen Jetta. “I’m never coming here again. I won’t survive it.”

It was the fall of 1997. I was a 28-year-old newsletter editor for the public library, driving the literary sensation from his hotel room at Crown Center—a shopping and hotel district owned by Hallmark—to a Unity church where he would soon enchant a crowd of more than 1,200. The author of Angela’s Ashes, the anointed Pulitzer Prize winner and yearlong bestselling author at the height of his fame…was cussing out my hometown. In my car! I should have felt triumphant, but I was sick with nerves and keenly focused on two goals: don’t wreck and don’t say anything stupid. He was already tired and displeased—not unreasonably so—I didn’t want to add to it.

“It’s a lovely city,” McCourt continued, kindly, “but I’ve never been worked so hard in my life.”

By the time he arrived in Kansas City, the buzz around McCourt was deafening. Everyone wanted a piece—schools, Irish societies, literary societies, donors to the library. The evening he landed, we whisked him to a fundraiser at an Irish bar. The next day he was booked for five appearances before his big speech that night.

“Kansas City might be the end of me,” he predicted.

His trip in a way was a beginning for me, because one short telephone interview the week before he arrived altered my writing career. Here’s a recap: I wrote a small profile about him for the library newsletter that was placed on each seat in the Unity auditorium. The mother of Molly Rowley, a speechwriter for then Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, sent the newsletter to her. Rowley, a former journalist, sent me an email a week after McCourt’s talk, wondering if I ever considered being a journalist. I responded that I had just left journalism after working at a string of small-town newspapers in the rural Midwest. Rowley called and said I should be writing for her former newspaper, The Kansas City Star, and then she let one editor know that. First I wrote book reviews, then event previews and finally full-length feature stories for the Sunday magazine. Out of the blue, I was doing what I had actually set out to do with my life.

I know Molly is the real hero, but if not for McCourt and his book, I have no idea where my career would be today. And I sometimes wonder how many other writers could say the same, whether they realize it or not. If Frank McCourt had not written Angela’s Ashes, and had it not launched into the stratosphere, how many no-name authors would have had their memoirs published in the past 14 years? Which brings up another question. What hath Frank McCourt wrought? Is he responsible for what Oregon Public Radio called “Memoir Nation”—the overheated desire to expose one’s own life for fame or money, sometimes disregard certain nuisances such as facts?

Soon after McCourt’s death last summer, critic Lee Siegel drew a straight line from the Irishman to James Frey, the falsifier of life stories and the embodiment of all that is wrong with modern memoirs.

Wherever Frank McCourt is now,” Siegel wrote in the Daily Beast, “and whatever sins he has to answer for, one will surely be that he bears much of the blame for the endless waves of memoirs that have been engulfing us since Angela’s Ashesappeared in 1996. … ”

Was Siegel right? Did McCourt open the floodgates?

The 15 minutes start ticking

After 30 years of struggling with his story in various forms—a play, a novel, a revue—McCourt finally found his form. The result was a memoir with a modest printing and little publicity. No one was predicting the international sensation Angela’s Ashes would become. Ben Yagoda, author of Memoir: A History says it was fortuitous timing for McCourt.

“Trends, social forces, whatever is happening at the time all played a part when Frank was trying to figure out how he would write his book,” Yagoda says.

The year before, Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club and Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It found big audiences by recounting childhoods on the edge of sanity and safety, but nothing on par with McCourt. Yagoda says the confessional culture was taking hold, “with shows like Oprah and Fresh Air. There was a desire for writers with unusual personal stories to tell. And they could tell their own stories.”

The memoir genre was suddenly open not only to celebrities and dignitaries, but to anyone with a story they once wouldn’t dare share at a dinner party. Now they were spilling it all over the page. Is it a coincidence that blogging and reality television would soon become part of the lexicon? But without McCourt, the publishers might have never opened those floodgates for anything more than a trickle.

Look at the Nonfiction Best Seller List the first week of 1996, the year Angela’s Ashes was published:

THE ROAD AHEAD, by Bill Gates with Nathan Myhrvold and Peter Rinearson.

MY AMERICAN JOURNEY, by Colin L. Powell with Joseph E. Persico.


SISTERS. Essays by Carol Saline. Photographs by Sharon J. Wohlmuth.

DAVID BRINKLEY, by David Brinkley.

Three journalists, one army general and the richest man in the world commanded the top five. Those are safe bets to sell books relative to no-names. In the first six years of the 90s, not one Publishers Weekly’s yearly Top 10 Best-Selling Nonfiction slot was held by a memoirist, unless already famous. It’s hard to see this now, but the odds were long that McCourt would rise to the level he did.

On September 22, 1996, McCourt made his first appearance on The New York Times Bestseller’s List, quietly, in the 15 slot. In December of that year, the book hit number 1—ahead of David Brinkley, Tim Allen, the Duchess of York, even Dogbert.

By the time McCourt came to Kansas City, he had been on the list for 51 weeks straight, often on top. Just below him was another no-name-come-bestselling-memoirist Monty Roberts, who McCourt jokingly referred to as, “that asshole that talks to horses.” McCourt ended the year atop the PW Best-Seller list for 1997. His brother Malachy joined the Times best-seller list in 1998 with A Monk Swimming. They were sharing the limelight with Sebastien Junger’s storm and Jon Krakuaer’s thin air, but a memoir hurricane was brewing. The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote in March, 1997: “Now we are in an exhibitionist era and publishers are frantically signing up the hampers. We have revenge memoirs. Good mommy memoirs. Bad mommy memoirs. Bad daddy memoirs. Very bad surrogate daddy memoirs. …”

What caught Dowd’s attention was an astronomical payout for the memoir of a 98-year-old central Kansan named Jessie Lee Brown Foveaux. Warner Books backed up the $1 million Brinks truck during the auction for Foveaux’s “Any Given Day,” the recounting of an abusive marriage to an alcoholic. The book’s existence came to light when her writing teacher Charley Kempthorne sent the manuscript to the Wall Street Journal, which published a story about it. Would a bidding war have ensued if not for McCourt’s astronomical success at just that time? It clearly did not hurt Ms. Foveaux’s chances.

Not long after McCourt visited, I started a program in several public library systems around Kansas City called “A Thousand Stories,” a memoir-writing class for retired-age people. The point was to teach them simple journalism techniques so they could share their life stories with family. People showed in droves—but they had bigger plans than family bonding.

“I want to publish my book and I don’t mind if they pay me a million dollars for it,” said Virginia, the first woman to walk into my first class.

The second woman arrived with more realistic financial goals.

“I’m too old to worry about getting rich,” said Margaret, 89. “I want to publish something in The New Yorker.

No pressure.

Piper Kerman, recent first-time author of Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Woman’s Prison says that if any floodgates had opened, it was within writers themselves.

“I think there’s a sense of ownership of our stories that has evolved over the past few years,” Kerman says, “we realize they are valuable.”

Was this realization a good thing for the publishing industry or was Siegel right that McCourt is dangling in literary purgatory?

A few at the top

No one topped or even matched McCourt for success. But after scanning every New York Times Bestseller List from 1997 to the present, I counted 47 memoirs by non-famous people that reached for at least one week. That’s not storming the gates of literature, but it’s no trickle either.

Some of those books became institutions in their own rights—Augusten Burrough’s Running with Scissors spent just a month on the list, but later became a movie and made the former PR writer a literary celebrity. Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead has a similar story, including the movie. The range of quality and of topics are vast: “An American runs a beauty school in Kabul”—“A former child soldier from Sierra Leone describes his drug crazed killing spree”—“A young woman recalls her excessive drinking”—“The widow of a state trooper becomes a chaplain on search and rescue missions in the Maine woods.” If sales are the test—and they are—it does appear plenty of bets on obscure memoirists paid off.

Cruise over to Amazon.com and the trend continues. Three Cups of Tea, which Greg Mortensen co-wrote with journalist David Oliver Relin, has been an Amazon.com bestseller for years. He followed up with his own Stones into School last year. A London inner-city ambulance worker, writing under the pseudonym Tom Reynolds, parlayed his blog into two top sellers under the series, “Blood, Sweat and Tea.” Julie Powell did the same with Julie and Julia. Randy Pausch, a computer professor at Carnegie Mellon, became an overnight literary sensation with Last Lecture, his reflections about life after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. Jill Bolte Taylor turned her stroke into a New Age phenomenon with My Stroke of Insight.

Laura Munson is perhaps the latest beneficiary. A column she wrote, based on her memoir This is Not the Story You Think It Is for the Times’ “Modern Love” column caused a firestorm of reaction. She explained on her site: “My agent, Tricia Davey went out with the book version that Monday morning, and after writing for twenty years, having completed fourteen novels and endured countless rejections…within forty-eight hours, I had a book deal.”

In hunting for the obscure, I found another impact of McCourt’s book—the rise of the semi-famous memoirist—which accounted for 58 more bestsellers in the past 14 years. It started with Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie and continued with Eat, Pray, Love and Commited by journalist Elizabeth Gilbert, several raunchy, unrepentant best-sellers by Chelsea Handler, The Glass Castle by journalist Jeanette Walls, who has had a four-year run near the top of Amazon’s best sellers list.

So Siegel is right about the “waves” of memoirs—thousands were printed and hundreds prospered. But just looking at what has done well, has it really been all that insidious?

Drivel or more?

Poet and playwright Nick Flynn turned the memoir into his own form with Another Bullshit Night in Suck City and The Ticking is a Bomb. He told me memoir is another method of doing his work—he doesn’t even see the forms of poetry and memoir being that distinct.

“The things I try to do in poetry, the different ways of approaching language, I try to do that through memoir—they line up well,” Flynn says.

If memoir is a form where great writing can happen, then what is Siegel’s complaint? Certainly fiction, for instance, provides a solid tonnage of crap each year and we don’t condemn Mary Shelley for that. Not that McCourt has been matched all that often for critical laurels either.

Reading through lists of best nonfiction books of the decade, I found only a handful of memoirs. Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which he says was slightly fictionalized, was the most consistent choice. Eggers is also the only moderately obscure memoirist (he was a journalist in San Francisco) to be nominated for a Pulitzer since McCourt won in 1997. The National Book Award has a similar record and memoirs in general didn’t fair well in The National Book Critics Circle Award after McCourt won—despite having a Biography/Autobiography category. In 2005, the critics split the categories so that a memoir wins each year. Established writers Francine du Plessix Gray, Daniel Mendelsohn and Edwidge Danticat won the first three. Ariel Sabar, a longtime journalist, won the next and the British novelist and editor Dan Athill won the most recent.

That may change if it’s true what Priscilla Painton, editor in chief at Simon & Schuster, says: “We’re looking for beautifully written stories that compel people to read. Who’s writing it doesn’t matter so much as that is really fine writing.”

That probably won’t calm Siegel’s indignation over McCourt’s legacy, because his real problem is with the frauds.

Will Frey be the last word?

“When James Frey was discovered to have fabricated the events of his life that gave his memoir such picaresque piquancy, the foundation of the entire nonfiction world was shaken,” Siegel writes, “not just the book industry, but every corner of print and broadcast journalism.”

But the Frey scandal sparked another conversation about the relativity of truth when memory is involved. Writers like David Carr (The Night of the Gun) and Flynn address that issue directly in their works.

“I don’t have a very good memory at all,” Flynn says. “I don’t pretend this is a perfect memory. The important thing is to try to get the memory down imperfectly and ask yourself why you remember it that way. And then find out exactly what happened at that moment, investigate your memory by asking others. And see where you misremember.”

Of course Frey had a different agenda–hopping up his story for dramatic effect, then naming it a memoir because publishers weren’t biting on it as a novel. And Frey’s indiscretion didn’t stop the lies. Since his Oprah-anointed fiction was outed, writers Margaret Seltzer, Nasdijj and JT LeRoy (all pseudonyms ) gained critical acclaim for their memoirs before they were exposed as fabrications.

“There’s nothing new about this,” Yagoda says. “Since the beginning of so-called true stories, there have been questions about their authenticity.”

Is the McCourt era over?

Yagoda senses the frauds have put the brakes on the memoir surge.

“That’s not a scientific study, by any means,” he says, “it’s just a hunch that publishers are moving away from the memoir a bit.”

It does appear that 2007 and 2008 (32 bestsellers for non-celebrities) was better for memoirists than 2009 and 2010 (on pace for about 20). The big-splash memoirs lately are going back to known names—such as Christopher Hitchens now, George W. Bush and, amazingly, Mark Twain in November. That star power feels an awful lot like the list pre-McCourt.

Some of that energy to reveal private lives is being absorbed, and perhaps fueled, by the social media. SMITHmag.net offers a publishing tool specifically for memoir-writing, but what is going on at Facebook, Twitter, WordPress and many other sites is also allowing obscure memoirists to unravel their lives in any form they want, without the restrictions of editors and standards for factuality, but also without any financial reward.

Does Painton think that obscure memoirs will sell in the future?

“How should I know?” Painton laughs. “Who would have guessed that vampire love stories were going to be hot five years ago?”

So a memoir from a vampire in love?

“If you hear of one, let me know,” she says, before considering the implications of that statement in print. “No, never mind.”

A life exposed

Speaking of vampires, when McCourt finished his rousing talk in Kansas City, he looked like all the life was sucked out of him.

“Do you need a drink?” I asked.

“God no,” he said. “I want to go to bed.”

I did ask McCourt one incredibly stupid question, about whether he ran into Steinbeck when he hung out with the literati at the Lion’s Head in Greenwich Village.

“He lived on Long Island for Christ’s sake,” he said. “That’s two hours away.” But I also asked him a question he loved—about whether he was embarrassed writing about all that masturbation he did as a youth. “Ah, yes!” he laughed, “Instead of ‘Cool Hand Luke,’ they could have called me ‘Tired Hand Frank.’”

Exposure was the nature of the business and McCourt understood that as well as anyone. Did he ever get tired of the exposure? “Not when the royalty checks arrive,” he joked over the phone, during the interview.

If he helped usher in a Memoir Nation, McCourt did so happily. What he exposed about his life, through three memoirs in total, made him one of the most popular writers in America for a decade.

But why do people want to know? Why do they care about the intimate details of another person’s life? Actually, Flynn says, the point is not the writer at all.

“You begin to realize that no one really cares about your life,” he says. “It’s what they see in your writing that reminds them of theirs. And that’s exactly how it should be.”

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    About Me

    About 10 years ago, this lady in her 80s told me a childhood story about the day her mom tied her to a post on the porch. It was punishment for riding her tricycle past the curb at the end of their block. In the middle of the story she said to me, 'Wait, mom didn't tie me to the porch, she tied the tricycle to the porch. I just remembered that.' I've been fascinated by memory ever since.


    To make a living during those 10 years, I wrote about religion, politics and people for The Kansas City Star and National Catholic Reporter. I also delved deep into memory by teaching over 2,000 retired Midwesterners how to write their life stories. Now I am putting those two things together -- I'm reporting on memory from science, social and personal perspectives. I am also earning my MA in Journalism at NYU.

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