Author Archives: Julia V. Hendrickson

The New York Stories: An Interview with Ben Tanzer and Laura Szumowski

Artifice loves it when our friends get up to interesting projects, and we especially love projects that include non-traditional book tours, fantastic illustrations, and a weird, dark sense of humor. This post concludes a month of virtual book tours for The New York Stories, which is a collection by Ben Tanzer, illustrated by Laura Szumowski. The New York Stories was recently published by the Chicago Center for Literature & Photography (CCLaP) as a hand-bound, special edition (vellum illustration pages, faux-suede covers, and external Coptic stitching, oh my!), available now for $50.

The type for The New York Stories is creatively laid out in a condensed square format, with the text running like a magazine: two justified columns set close together. Szumowski’s illustrations leading into the stories are apt, tone-setting introductions to Tanzer’s acerbic, dark texts. Kids watch Mermaids and get into trouble, while adults ignore their problems at Thirsty’s bar. The New York Stories hits you with a never-ending series of gut-dropping moments; when you think that something awful might have happened but you try and hope for the best, Tanzer shows that it’s probably better to expect the worst. It’s a dark world where parents can’t be trusted with their friends’ children, and the children can’t be trusted with each other.

We hope you check out a few more of the interesting book tour stops (e.g. you can hear Ben reading a story over at Curbside Splendor, or listen to Ben and Laura chatting with Another Chicago Magazine). Here at Artifice, though, we give you a conversation about book production, comics, illustration challenges, the paranormal, and inanimate objects with personality.

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N.B. This interview is compiled from separate email correspondences, and was conducted between Chicago and London.

Artifice: Ben and Laura, can you describe the process of working with each other to develop the illustrations? How did you get in touch? How much contact did the two of you have before getting started?

Ben Tanzer: I would really like this answer to be so much cooler than it is. But, I sort of knew Laura personally from different readings and other events, had compulsively zipped around her website, though not in any stalkerish kind of way, really, and was a fan of her and her work and style. That said, it was CCLaPs idea to bring our work together and I think it was a terrific one. For me anyway. Laura may find herself increasingly dismayed by the whole thing and is merely keeping-up a happy face for our public appearances.

Laura Szumowski: I was originally approached by Jason Pettus, the publisher, about an illustration project he had in mind. He sent me one of Ben’s stories, The Babysitter, and I loved it.

Originally, Jason wanted me to do something along the lines of Jay Ryan, style wise, but when I talked with Ben, he mentioned Deer Hunter and First Blood as visual inspiration. My instincts from reading the stories agreed with Ben, so I did a few drawings to see what he thought. He said great, keep going– it was as simple as that. Not a whole lot of interaction, nothing too specific. He was comfortable with me taking artistic license, and I think was interested to see what I would draw from his writing.

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“Undoing the mindless bellowing.” (A.S. Byatt and Sjón)

Earlier this week I wandered over to Bloomsbury from Holburn, weaving the opposite way through the crowds of hunched and trenchcoated commuters who were finding their separate ways home. It was an intensely grey evening. Sometimes I think that each subsequent day in London without direct sunlight simply adds a darkening filter upon the last, making it increasingly harder to see every time I leave the house. The London Review Bookshop, one of my favorite bookstores in this city, was cozy, however—filled with people, the comfortable intimacy of millions of white cotton pages pressed closely together, and a warm tan light, one that can only come from the reflection of worn wooden floors.

That evening, Booker-prize winning English novelist A.S. Byatt read and spoke for a bit with Icelandic poet Sjón on the subject of mythology in their respective recent works; Byatt’s latest novel is Ragnarok: The End of the Gods, and an English translation of Sjón’s The Whispering Muse came out this month from Telegram Books. Not having read either of the works yet, I was there more for the conversation and the company. It was oddly inspiring. Byatt was calm and  self-possessed, with a thick mop of unruly white hair. She sat with her lips pursed and her hands in her lap, occasionally nodding and thoughtfully commenting on the conversation. Sjón was quite restrained, and sleekly professorial. He crossed his legs when making a point, when reading, knocking the unsteady table in front of him that held books and glasses of water, carefully placing both hands palm down on the surface of the table to steady it.

Both writers spoke passionately about their love of Norse, Greek, and Icelandic myths. They pointed to the fact that myth is a tool for a writer, for using the pre-existing narratives, characters, and concepts of myth gives the reader a place to begin before opening the book.  Sjón noted his struggle when confronted with writing about a rape myth involving Poseidon, and revealed that in order to find the voice of Poseidon’s victims, he sought out the language that tsunami survivors used to describe being overwhelmed by the all-encompassing force of the sea. Byatt addressed issues of intertwining personal biography and mythology. She said she always carried a book of Norse mythology in her bag. She argued that mythological characters should remain as non-human as possible, even within realist writing, to maintain a narrative layer of otherness, distance, and mystery. She told a story of an ash tree that had freely grown in her backyard, untouched, survived the war, but was too wild for the city—her father cut it down.

When asked how she dealt with working with stories that have been retold countless times, Byatt chuckled and said that for her, writing was a way of “undoing the mindless bellowing.”

Very Nice, Very Nice (1961) – Arthur Lipsett

Created by Arthur Lipsett (Canadian, 1936–1986), Very Nice, Very Nice (1961) is a disjointed collage of sound, personal photographs, magazine clippings, and fragments of moving image that Lipsett collected during his employment at the Canadian National Film Board, where he worked between 1958 and 1978. Lipsett has been described as the “hyper-anxious William Blake of cinema,” [1] and he said of the film himself: “It was initially a sound experiment – purely for the love of placing one sound after another.” [2] Very Nice, Very Nice was nominated for an Academy Award in 1962 in the Best Live Action Short category.

Stanley Kubrick described Very Nice, Very Nice as “one of the most imaginative and brilliant uses of the movie screen and soundtrack that I have ever seen,” [3] and asked Lipsett to direct a trailer for Dr. Strangelove (1964). Lipsett declined the offer, but Kubrick’s own work on the trailer shows the influence of Very Nice, Very Nice.

Lipsett’s subsequent films THX-1138 and 21-87 also had a major effect on Star Wars creator George Lucas, who noted in an interview, “there’s no one better than Arthur Lipsett.” [4]

A new biography of Lipsett, Do Not Look Away, was released this year in Canada, and was written by Amelia Does (who also worked in Remembering Arthur, a 2006 documentary about the artist).

You can see more of Lipsett’s films in high res over at the National Film Board of Canada.

A love affair: Tom Waits and John Baldessari

I have the distinct feeling that this will make you smile, if you know what’s good for you.

The many splendored sites of Jason Foumberg.

Critic and Newcity Arts Editor Jason Foumberg has been busy lately in Chicago. Over the last few weeks he’s unveiled two new creative “curios” sites as well as a snazzy new personal website designed by the talented Ryan Swanson.

Foumberg’s personal site, a portfolio of sorts, is the cleanest and most well-organized website that a writer that could ever wish for.

My advice: take some presentation tips from this, oh ye electronically fractured pushers of pens. If you’re offering your writing en mass to the public, make sure it’s easy to navigate, simple, and direct.

Rainbow Vomit is exactly what you’d expect, but still hilarious.

Michelangelo (1475–1564). Pieta Rondanini (unfinished) 1564.

End Piece is a poignant collection of the last works of many great modern and contemporary artists, often left unfinished. If you have suggestions for End Piece, or you’ve found a great last work, you can contact Foumberg here.

Foumberg—who has an incredible, wide-ranging grasp of artists making interesting work in Chicago—recently released this year’s picks for Newcity‘s Breakout Artists, which is definitely worth a read. He and Ryan Swanson are collaborating on writing/designing a few upcoming exhibition catalogue projects, and be sure to keep a sharp (stink-) eye out for Foumberg’s forthcoming chapbook, Where the Trees Smell Like Semen.

VARIOUS NECESSARY THINGS FOR APPROPRIATELY CHRISTENING THE ARTIFICE BLOG WITH RECKLESS AND TOTAL ABANDON, or, A SELECTION OF TABS THAT WERE ALREADY OPEN.

[Sub-linguistic mumbling.]

1.) AMY SILLMAN JOKES ABOUT PHILOSOPHY.

“Painting is a physical thinking process to continue an interior dialogue, a way to engage in a kind of internal discourse, or sub-linguistic mumbling.”

—Amy Sillman

2.) MARU.

3. MORE CATS (MASON JOHNSON’S FREE CAT)

Mason Johnson has a cat for you to have.

4. VARDA, LA POINTE-COURTE (1954).

5. DAVID LYNCH’S CLUB SILENCIO, PARIS.

6. MORBID CURIOSITY // CONTEMPORARY PSYCHOPOMPS IN DIALOGUE

Photo: Caitlin Doughty, writer and mortician at Order of the Good Death, which is excellent.

A conversation (May 4, 2012, 7:00pm, Chicago Cultural Center) with five guests who in different ways are moving death from the cultural periphery to the center, rejecting the comforts of speculation in favor of direct engagement with the unavoidable facts of death. The panel includes John Ronan, an architect transforming the idea of the urban cemetery; Caitlin Doughty, a mortician practicing alternative funeral practices; Tony Pederson and Margaret Pasquesi, thanatologists who provide music vigils for the dying; and Jessica Charlesworth, a designer who has recently made a collection of contemporary aides for mourning, currently on display at the Chicago Cultural Center.