Joel Deutsch (1944-2011)

December 11th, 2011 by

The world lost a great writer recently, and I lost a good friend. Joel Deutsch — poet, essayist, novelist — died in Los Angeles. Joel devoted his life to learning and writing. Thanks to a grant from The National Endowment for the Arts, he edited and published a highly regarded journal, Meatball. Later, he wrote intensely personal essays about going blind that appeared in the Los Angeles Times. His piece about introducing Russian immigrant friends to American culture, Exits and Entrances, was featured on World Hum.

A number of his friends gathered last night to remember him. We read his poetry and shared memories. This sketch of Joel was made by an old friend of his, writer Charles Bukowski. It makes me smile.


Bry Webb: ‘Rivers of Gold’

December 4th, 2011 by

Love the spare sound of this.

Rivers of Gold by Idée Fixe Records


Talking Travel with Henry Rollins

November 2nd, 2011 by

Henry_Rollins_300_1This week I interviewed Henry Rollins — punk rock icon, spoken-word performer, writer, actor, DJ — about his new book, Occupants, which features his photographs and observations from war-torn and troubled places around the world. It’s a powerful book. I loved what Henry had to say about travel and the kindness of strangers and how his journeys have humbled him over the years.

Here’s a taste:

Humbling to the point where you have major regrets about some of the stupid things you said, some of the things you thought were right. You keep going to these countries, and it’s like, you forgot the lesson from the last time. Because the first person you encounter kind of bitch-slaps you upside the head in the most wonderful, innocent way and you realize, God, I’m still an asshole. And this guy, by doing nothing except being broke and so incredibly polite—it takes you aback, you realize, I’m still not there yet. I still have like eight miles to go before I can even get into the parking lot of humility. I have to keep going back. It’s like going back to a chiropractor to get a readjustment.

Read more here.


Pilar and Ernest Hemingway’s Prose

October 2nd, 2011 by

Ernest_Hemingway_Pilar_300Ernest Hemingway bought his beloved boat, Pilar, in a shipyard in Brooklyn in 1934. Could the ensuing time he spent on the boat have altered his writing style? At least one writer thinks so. Paul Hendrickson is the author of the new book, Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961. (Given all the ink that has been spent on Hemingway’s life to date, I love the notion of framing a new biography around his boat.) NPR’s Rachel Martin interviewed Hendrickson. She asked, “What did he [Hemingway] want from the boat?”

Hendrickson had an intriguing reply:

I think he wanted escape. I think he wanted to get away from shore. In fact, I make the case in this book that Pilar helped broaden out, so to speak, his prose line. When you say Ernest Hemingway, what do you think? You think of these simple declarative sentences, these magical and yet very short sentences, free of the subordinate clause. What happens, Rachel, from the mid-’30s onward, the Ernest Hemingway sentence gets longer and longer and longer. Why is this? I like to make a case that aboard Pilar, getting away from shore, getting away from the sniping critics, getting away from all the petty little literary games, he can get out there in the Gulf Stream and he can free himself in some way.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons


DFW on Not Listening to His Editor

September 30th, 2011 by

AlthoughOfCourseYouEndUpBecomingYourselfReally enjoying David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. It’s mostly a transcript of conversations between Lipsky and DFW over five days in March 1996, while Wallace was on a book tour for “Infinite Jest.” As you might expect, DFW comes across as brilliant but very human.

He made it clear during the trip that he wasn’t altogether happy with his first novel, “The Broom of the System.” He regretted arguing with his editor, Gerry Howard, about proposed changes, and apparently getting his way. At one point before “Broom” was published, DFW sent Howard a 17-page letter explaining his objections. Having edited more than a few writers myself, doing that editor-writer dance that’s different every time around, I couldn’t help but feel for Howard.

Lipsky asked Wallace if he’d re-read the letter since the book came out. To which DFW replied:

Oh, sure. It talks about how the entire book is a conversation between Wittgenstein and Derrida, and presence versus absence. I mean, Gerry [Gerry Howard, Broom's editor] didn’t want the book to end there. We have a cast of characters who are afraid their names don’t denote, word and referent are united in absence, which means Derrida… you know what? It’s a brilliant little theoretical document, unfortunately it resulted in a shitty and dissatisfying ending, right?

And in fact it was a very cynical argument, because there was a part of me–this was a year and a half after I wrote it, and I know that the ending, there was good stuff about it, but it was way too clever. It was all about the head, you know? and Gerry kept saying to me, “Kid, you’ve got no idea.” Like, “We wouldn’t even be having this conversation if you hadn’t created this woman named Lenore who seems halfway appealing and alive.” And I couldn’t hear. I just couldn’t hear it. I couldn’t hear it. I was in… Dave Land.

I had four hundred thousand pages of continental philosophy and lit theory in my head. And by God, I was going to use it to prove to him that I was smarter than he was. And so, as a result, for the rest of my life, I will walk around… You know, I will see that book occasionally at signings. And I will realize I was arrogant, and missed a chance to make that book better. And hopefully I won’t do it again.


‘We Have to Re-Think the Human Narrative’

September 24th, 2011 by


Words on the Waves at Litquake 2011

September 5th, 2011 by

Words-on-the-Waves_250I’m looking forward to my first Litquake in San Francisco. The 12th annual literary festival takes place Oct. 7-15 and features writers like James Ellroy and Thomas McGuane. It culminates in a big Lit Crawl around the Mission District.

I’ll be reading Oct. 15 at Words on the Waves, an afternoon of events on Sausalito houseboats. I’ll be joining Peter Delevett and Daniel Duane. The theme: “Out to Sea: Writers on Travel.” It should be great fun. Who’s ever been to a reading on a houseboat? Space is limited, and so are tickets.


Stephen King: ‘On Writing’

August 23rd, 2011 by

Just read Stephen King’s On Writing. Loved this bit about the craft of writing fiction and, well, something else altogether:

At its most basic, we are only discussing a learned skill, but do we not agree that sometimes the most basic skills can create things far beyond our expectations? We are talking about tools and carpentry, about words and style…but as we move along, you’d do well to remember that we are also talking about magic.


A Day in California

August 7th, 2011 by

A Day in California from Ryan Killackey on Vimeo.

Beautiful. The backstory from the video’s creator: “I worked on this project on and off for over a year and a half. It is composed of over 10,000 photos shot in California by my wife and I.” I love the tilt-shift sequences, among others. Be sure to click on the little arrows to blow the video up to full screen. (Via LAObserved)


Talking Travel Writing This Summer

June 30th, 2011 by

TBEX2011_Jim_Benning_300My summer kicked off with a great weekend at the TBEX travel blogging conference in Vancouver. In addition to hanging out with a fun group of writers and sampling a surprisingly tasty seaweed-topped hot dog (thanks, Japadog), I taught narrative travel writing with San Francisco Chronicle Travel Editor Spud Hilton and New York Times contributor David Farley. (That’s Farley on the left and me on the right.) Next year’s conference will be held in Keystone, Colorado.

I’m looking forward to a couple of other travel writing events this summer. I’ll be a guest speaker at a one-day travel writing seminar led by Orange County Register Travel Editor Gary Warner at UCLA Extension July 23.

And Aug. 11-14, I’ll be back on the faculty at the excellent Travel & Food Writing & Photography Conference at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. I’ll be co-teaching an online travel writing and blogging track with Pam Mandel. The conference is evolving in the digital age, but at its heart is a celebration of storytelling. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more knowledgeable, passionate and nurturing group of teachers. They include conference co-chair Don George; Outside magazine founding editor Tim Cahill; “An Irreverent Curiosity” author David Farley; San Francisco Chronicle Travel Editor Spud Hilton; Afar magazine Executive Editor Julia Cosgrove; Los Angeles Times Travel Editor Catherine Hamm; Travelers’ Tales co-founder Larry Habegge; and many others.

Photo: Andrew Evans