Interview with Jan Herman

Reconciliation Acts

November 14th, 2015


“A TIME CAPSULE MADE OF WORDS” is how Jan Herman describes his collection of profiles of literary figures, The Z Collection. This is an adequate if underselling description, as his book doesn’t just vividly plop the reader back into the Beat era and the decades that followed, but also offers a fun, crunchy reading experience, full of warmth and insight.

A longtime journalist at newspapers such as the Chicago Sun-Times, New York Daily News, and the Los Angeles Times, Herman began his peripatetic writing and editing career at City Lights bookstore in the 1960s, where he became an active member of the San Francisco experimental poetry scene of the time. In The Z Collection, he gives “portraits and sketches” of 21 writers, from the legendary (Mailer, Michener, Cheever), to the obscure (Ben Hecht, look him up) to the obscurely legendary (Herbert Huncke). Herman also provides a light glazing of his own life as he’s moved through the lives and works of the writers who’ve fanned his love for literature, which you feel on every page.

Herman and I emailed over the course of a week. He quickly responded to my questions, and I loved how he repeatedly told me to “shitcan” drafts of answers that had typos.


AARON SHULMAN: Which of the pieces included in your collection was the most enjoyable to report, and why? I’m also curious as to whether the most enjoyable to report was also the most enjoyable to write.

JAN HERMAN: It’s hard to pick the most enjoyable one. The ones that were the most fun, both to report and write, were the pieces on Algren and Burroughs. They’re each about a writer I admired long before I met him. Meeting them was a bit like fulfilling a fantasy. I was first turned on to Algren back in 1961 or ’62 when I read about him in Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself. I had never heard of Algren before. Mailer said he was unique. So I read The Man With the Golden Arm, and it blew me away. Getting to know Nelson years later, in the late ’70s, was a kick. My first impression of him was surprise. Surprise that such a great writer was living so obscurely, not in Chicago but in New Jersey, of all places. Surprise that he seemed genuinely uninterested in the literary glory that naturally attaches to a writer of his caliber (and by the time I met him no longer attached to him, though he’d once had it in spades). Surprise that he was happy to make me his friend, especially since he had the reputation of a tough loner who was choosy about people he cottoned to. For some reason he enjoyed my company. Maybe it was because I liked listening to his stories. He could be immensely entertaining. The fact that I had a car might also have had something to do with how easy it was to become his friend. Hackensack was off the beaten path. A car made visiting him convenient.

The two pieces on Burroughs represent a good chunk of the book, and the pleasure of reporting them has to do with the fact that they recount my own history in the underground literary scene back in the ’60s. Burroughs had been an obsession of mine from the time I just missed meeting him at the Beat Hotel in Paris in 1962, when, as I say in the book, “I was 20, just out of college, and barely conscious.” My encounter with Naked Lunch can only be described as unadulterated, uproarious laughter. Then when I heard him on his LP album Call Me Burroughs, it sealed the deal. I wore out the grooves and still have that LP. When I started a little magazine in San Francisco, I was hungry to publish him. It was great to get his texts into the magazine (about a dozen in all), and it was a coup in the first issue to publish his “Word Authority More Habit Forming Than Heroin,” which was a classic cut-up illustrating his central idea that language is an instrument of control. Later I got to make an experimental video with him at his flat in London. Reporting on that collaboration was doubly pleasurable for the experience of it and because he took it seriously as a demonstration “even with primitive means,” as I write in the book, “of how to create a televised witch’s brew” of disorienting control propaganda.

I should mention, by the way, that Algren and Burroughs were not at all alike as personalities. What they did share, however, was a no-bullshit interest in low life.

Is there not necessarily a relationship between these two parts of the process — reporting and writing?

Well, if the reporting is engaging, it certainly helps the writing. Whether it’s a matter of doing archival research on primary and secondary sources or getting material firsthand before anyone else has had it, the writing naturally comes easier when you like telling about it. Sometimes the excitement comes from discovering a story you never knew you were interested in. So you communicate your excitement that way. For instance, I was not much interested in James Michener, who was one of the most widely read mainstream authors of his time. His books didn’t appeal to me, still don’t. But on meeting him I discovered someone who was not to be dismissed lightly, who in fact was personally appealing. He had what seemed to me real modesty in combination with unfathomable confidence. I had no idea of where he had come from, no idea that he was an orphan — a foundling actually — and even less than that, I had no idea of how late in life he began his writing career, especially for so prolific an author. Learning all that, despite initially having little interest in him, made the encounter worth reporting, and it was easy to write up.

Were there any memorable moments/details from your encounters with all these literary legends that ended up on the “cutting-room floor” — i.e., any things that didn’t make it into your profiles but are worth telling here?

Several come immediately to mind. My portrait of Mailer refers to the fact that, in contrast to his cramped writing room, his actual living quarters in the Brooklyn brownstone he owned for years was a large apartment with a breathtaking view of New York harbor seen through a vast wall of glass. And I mention in passing that above the living room there were “rope ladders leading to several lofts beneath a 20-foot ceiling, as well as an enormous model of a futuristic ‘vertical city’ he once assembled in a fit of architectural ambition.” At first I thought of exploring the origins of that spectacular contraption and its meaning as a physical representation of his vaulting ambitions, but I decided against it because it would have been a distraction from the main thrust of the portrait.

In my sketch of Paul Theroux, I point out that he went to Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer, spent much of his life living in Third World countries, and in Uganda met V.S. Naipaul, who was older than him and a more experienced writer. He described how Naipaul became his mentor, giving him all sorts of helpful if sometimes peculiar advice. Almost as an aside, he mentioned that although he adored Naipaul, they had abiding differences about Africa. This could have been an inflection point to go into the bitter feud that erupted between them later. They didn’t speak for many years (and only recently have reconciled, according to news reports). But I chose to cut material I developed about their feud because the feud resulted from personal insults that had nothing to do with Africa. Theroux has said, and I believe him, that Naipaul’s second wife disliked him, and therefore Naipaul treated him badly, which caused the rupture. It’s a riveting story — Theroux later wrote a whole book about his conflicted relationship with Naipaul, which is terrific — but putting that material into my sketch would have been too much of a digression.

The best example of material that hit the cutting-room floor, though, had to do with Kurt Vonnegut and the dispute between him and Kay Boyle over Nelson Algren’s legacy. I don’t mean to linger on Algren, because there are nearly two dozen other portraits and sketches in the book. But since you ask, the story is too good to ignore here. I suppose I could have used it as an extended footnote in the Algren portrait, as I did for his overhyped love affair with Simone de Beauvoir. But that romance has been central to Algren mythology. The Boyle-Vonnegut contretemps, as fascinating as it is, is more of a sidebar.

Vonnegut was a staunch supporter of Algren’s, as I note in the book. He had even acknowledged that Algren was the better artist. But after Algren died, Vonnegut refused to contribute to a fund Kay started for a short story prize named for Algren. Kay was livid. She revered Nelson as a writer, of course, but also as someone whose refusal to sell out cost him more, she firmly believed, than it would have had he not wanted recognition and all the perks that went with it. Having enlisted me to help her raise money for the prize, Kay wanted me to see the scathing letter she wrote Vonnegut and sent me a copy.

Boyle, if you don’t know of her, was a major writer and peace activist, a bohemian expatriate in the 1920s and ’30s who knew just about everybody on the expat literary scene (adored Beckett, disliked Hemingway); a European correspondent for The New Yorker (until she had a falling-out with the editor William Shawn, refusing ever to appear in its pages again after Shawn wouldn’t help defend her husband, who was persecuted by the McCarthy Committee and who lost his State Department job as a result). Nelson dedicated his 1973 story collection The Last Carousel to her. Although she had deputized me, it was she who almost singlehandedly raised $10,000 to fund the Algren prize by getting contributions from, among others, John Cheever, Donald Barthelme, Studs Terkel, John Irving — even from Dustin Hoffman.

When Vonnegut balked, that was bad enough. Worse, she wrote me, was that he wasapparently advising people in Sag Harbor [where Nelson was living just before he died] not to contribute to the fund, as Nelson “would not have liked it,” suggesting (as he wrote me) that Studs and I would do better to give the money we have collected to one of the writers’ “pension funds” which now exist.

“If such funds for needy authors do exist,” she added in her letter to me, “I have no knowledge of them.” She said she and others had already “tried to inaugurate such a fund” at the Academy of Arts and Letters, “but it met with no success.”

In her letter to Vonnegut, written a few months after Nelson died in 1981, Boyle let him have it with both barrels:

You say you knew Nelson “fairly well.” I knew him very well for over 15 years. In your letter to me, you have reduced Nelson to a one-dimensional figure who “adored real bums.” But Nelson was a four and even five dimensional man. I feel I must stress this because I am so familiar with the image he projected to those he didn’t know very well. He wanted recognition, he wanted to be accepted by other good writers, almost more than any good writer I’ve ever known. He was an actor, and he put on a number of very convincing acts. … It is easy enough to respect him as a person who had “no use for badges of rank.” It is far more difficult to understand that he needed those badges to give him faith in himself. …

You have clearly missed the depths of Nelson’s despair, and, in missing the complexities of the man, you have not understood that he would wish his name to be remembered. The money put in anonymous funds would have meant nothing to Nelson. In giving this particular fund his name, the winners of the award throughout the years ahead will be made aware that a remarkable man and writer once lived, and they will perhaps be moved to look for his books. Nelson would have wanted that. Good god, can’t you realize that the last thing Nelson ever wanted was to be anonymous? Had you so little understanding of his pain?

The prize got off to a prescient start. The first winner was Louise Erdrich, an unknown writer at the time. But the money we raised, which Kay hoped could be combined with funds from the PEN American Center and elsewhere, was hardly sufficient to keep the prize going (not with annual prize money of $5,000 for the winners). Fortunately, after some rough years finding various benefactors to step in, the prize is now sponsored by theChicago Tribune, which seems interested in keeping it alive. Kay would be thrilled to know it still exists.

You seemed to have led a very successful “mainstream” career as a writer and editor at national publications, and yet you have some very experimental/subterranean proclivities, especially back in your San Francisco years. How have you balanced these two poles of your literary interests in your professional life and personal tastes?

Precariously. In fact, trying to balance them at this stage of my life was what motivated me to do The Z Collection in the first place. I felt a need to reconcile those two aspects of my identity precisely because they seemed so much at odds.

I got into journalism late, and by necessity — that is, I started out with literary ambitions but 10 years later discovered I needed to pay the rent. The only thing I knew how to do was write. One noted scholar of such things, after reading a youthful poem of mine that used nothing but medicotechnical terms, was foolish enough to declare in print that I was a leading avant-garde poet. So to put it perhaps more accurately, the only thing I knew was that I wanted to write.

There I was, at 33, living in Vermont in the so-called Northeast Kingdom, among the most rural places on the Eastern seaboard, in a village of 56 people about 15 miles from the Canadian border. I was the editor-in-chief of Something Else Press, a prestigious vanguard publishing house that had relocated from Manhattan. The press had published John Cage and Merce Cunningham, reprinted Gertrude Stein, produced books by Claes Oldenburg and Emmett Williams, was home to a large contingent of Fluxus artists and writers. But for reasons not worth detailing here, the publisher went nuts, called it quits, and suddenly I was out of a job. I looked around and thought, “Who will pay me to write?” In those days, believe it or not, the answer was newspapers.

You know of course that Hemingway, who started out as a journalist, famously said that being a reporter is very useful for a writer because it forces you to craft words. It teaches you how to let the words flow. It requires you to shape them into a coherent story. But Hemingway also famously said that staying too long in journalism can be damaging to a writer. It uses up the writer’s time. It also uses up the writer. The act of writing becomes so routinized that for all the required craft, you can’t help phoning it in, and the words themselves go begging. They lack emotional force. And that is exactly the opposite of what you want from literary writing.

While on staff at the Los Angeles Times, I tried to bridge the gap between journalism and literature — forget the chasm between avant-garde and mainstream — by writing the definitive biography of William Wyler, one of Hollywoods greatest directors. His movies were the touchstone for an entire generation but were later dismissed by auteurist snobs. A big commercial publisher in New York brought out the book with a snappy title, A Talent for Trouble. It got all kinds of raves, went into a second printing, made it into paperback, and is still in print. And you know what? Like most books, it has yet to earn back the advance. But at least now it’s also an affordable, self-published ebook that earns me a small yet steady income. And I believe the renewed attention that Wyler has received, most recently in Mark Harris’s terrific bestseller Five Came Back, can be traced to that biography.

Thus when I say it’s been precarious balancing my literary ambitions and interests with my professional journalism, all it really means in the end is that during my career I made an effort always to write well and keep a lookout for worthy subjects. Several years ago I reconnected with a Dutch painter-publisher living in France, Gerard Bellaart, whom I’d actually published back in the ’60s when he was writing poetry. He asked me to produce a series of “lives” for his handmade Cold Turkey Press editions. I wrote several portraits for him based on my journalism. The Z Collection from AC Books enlarges on that idea. So I feel like my divided writer’s soul has managed to come full circle.

Oddly enough (or perhaps not), your profile of Alistair Cooke seemed to me to speak to the present perhaps more than any other piece in the book, as it sort of foretells the resurgence of radio as a major narrative form with the cultural prominence of Serial and other podcasts. Any thoughts on this?

Glad you glommed onto Cooke. He made a great point about writing for radio, calling it “literature for blind men.” You don’t have to be blind to appreciate that. But a survey he cites from the era “when television came roaring in” nicely illustrates the point. One little boy, asked his preference for TV or radio, said he liked radio “because the pictures were better.”

I’m a sucker for good storytelling, whatever the format. I think we all are. Whether it’s a season-long podcast like Serial or an old-fashioned radio drama like the BBC production of five John le Carré novels (which takes up 12 audio CDs) or the British poet Heathcote Williams reading “American Porn,” his polemical series of “investigative poems” (which I recorded in his kitchen in Oxford in 2013, and which Sea Urchin Editions issued as a retro vinyl LP), it seems clear to me that good storytelling rules — and always will.

You’ve lived a half-century as a passionate observer and participant in American letters. Having seen what you’ve seen and read what you’ve read, what’s the most important change or thing going on today you think we should notice?

The biggest single change, obviously, is the internet. It has so transformed publishing, bookselling, and the technology of writing itself, that you read about the revolution almost daily. Well, so what? Technology has always been part of telling stories. Even when they weren’t written down they required language, and language is rooted in the cellular technology of our DNA.

If good storytelling rules, it follows that the leap from the oral tradition of Homer to the latest anthology of modern poetry is more interesting for the changes in content than for differences in the recording technology, interactive or otherwise. When it comes to the art of avant-garde writing, though, when you get to something like Finnegans Wake, or Dada, or concrete poetry, or cut-ups, or sound poetry, or any number of revolutionary “styles” like language poetry and conceptual poetry, the rules have been upended for what makes a good story.

The case of so-called conceptual poetry is worth singling out because its most notorious practitioner is the subject of a recent profile in The New Yorker. For him, the very idea of story is worse than absent — it is vehemently rejected. He brags that he is “the most boring writer who ever lived,” that his books are “horrible to read.” He calls what he does “uncreative writing.” I don’t doubt it. A more accurate if less quippy term would be “mindless transcribing.” His best-known work, as the magazine profile points out, consists of 836 pages of a typed-up copy of the complete edition of The New York Times for one randomly selected day, including “nearly 200 pages [of] financial tables.”

Yet he is taken seriously by some influential academics, has gained sufficient acceptance to appear at the White House, and a couple of years ago was named the first poet laureate of the Museum of Modern Art. Really. That he’s a MoMA darling tells you something. What it tells you is that he’s a calculatedly outlandish dandy in person who is reported to put on a good show. As he says, his writing is unreadable, but it’s “performable.” In other words, he’s in showbiz.

“This article was originally published in the Los Angeles Review of Books.”

Aaron Shulman is a freelance journalist who has written for The New RepublicThe American Scholar, and The Awl, among other publications.

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