Christopher Buckley and Sara Paretsky on Reinventing Genre
In Conversation with V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell
In this episode, acclaimed modern crime writer Sara Paretsky and political satirist and novelist Christopher Buckley join Fiction/Non/Fiction co-hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell to talk about pushing against the boundaries of genre writing. Buckley discusses how political satire has been redefined in the era of reality-television-star-turned-president Trump, and why his new novel Make Russia Great Again is a faux memoir. Then, Paretsky speaks about making the male-dominated detective fiction genre her own with the best-selling V.I. Warshawski series, and reflects on her recent collection Love & Other Crimes, which also features the iconic character.
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Selected readings for the episode:
Make Russia Great Again · But Enough About You · They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? · Losing Mum and Pup · Supreme Courtship · Boomsday · No Way to Treat a First Lady · Florence of Arabia · Little Green Men · Wry Martinis
V.I. Warshawski novels · Indemnity only · Fallout · Fire Sale · Hardball · Love & Other Crimes: “Acid Test”, “Miss Bianca”, “Flash Point” · Anatomy of Innocence
“Christopher Buckley’s ‘Make Russia Great Again’ is the Trump satire we’ve been waiting for” by Ron Charles · “Sarah Cooper Doesn’t Mimic Trump. She Exposes Him.” by ZZ Packer · Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare · “Fawlty Towers” – Television series · “‘Art of the Deal’ co-author: Trump ‘couldn’t care less tens of thousands are people are dying’” – MSNBC interview with Donald Trump’s ghostwriter Tony Schwartz · “This Be The Verse” by Philip Larkin · Hilary Mantel · Too Much and Never Enough by Mary L. Trump · Fiction/Non/Fiction interview with Curtis Sittenfeld · Fiction/Non/Fiction interview with Jabari Asim · Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld · Anna Katherine Green · S.J. Rozan · Raymond Chandler · The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett · Dorothy L. Sayers · Raymond Chandler · John D. MacDonald · Rex Stout · Jabari Asim · John Conroy · Lee Child
With Christopher Buckley
Whitney Terrell: Let’s back up a little bit, prior to the age of Trump. Your first novel, The White House Mess, is a story in which Ronald Reagan refuses to leave the White House, and in this book, we get this story of Russian election interference and you’re depicting a president who paints himself with a broad brush. Can you talk about how you decided on this plot in particular? And also how you decided to write from this point of view of a White House staffer for the second time around, because we’re talking about how to reinvent genres in this episode.
Christopher Buckley: I’d worked at the White House. I was [George H. W. Bush’s] speechwriter when he was Vice President, and I started reading White House memoirs then, and they’re really a fascinating subgenre. Everyone who works at the White House for more than five minutes, writes a 500-page memoir. And they tend to have the same two themes, these White House memoirs. One: it wasn’t my fault. And two: it would have been much worse if I hadn’t been here. After two years at the White House, I wanted to do something. But no one wants to read the memoirs of a vice presidential speechwriter. That’d be really boring.
So I had the notion to write a parody of a White House memoir. It starts with the new president. It came out in 1986, but [the book] starts on January 20, 1989, at which point Mr. Reagan will be leaving office after his second term. And the motorcade arrives at the White House to escort Mr. Reagan to the Capitol. Word comes out that he doesn’t want to leave. He’s still in his pajamas. He’s gone a little gaudy. It’s not malevolent, he’s not clinging to the Resolute Desk, it’s just cloudy outside, he’s tired, he just doesn’t want to leave. So, the new president has this really monstrous problem, and he hasn’t even been sworn in. That was the prologue of the book and it turned out to be a racy premise in 1986. It got the book a lot of attention. I was interviewed by the Washington Post and I confessed to some anxiety that the Reagans, whom I had known since I was 13 because my dad was close to them, might not find this at least as amusing as everyone else was finding it. And four days later, I got a letter from the White House. I thought, ‘Uh-oh.’ I opened it up, but it was a handwritten letter from the President of the United States, saying that he was delighted to have played a small part in the success of your novel. So, when, in 1994, he wrote his farewell letter to the American people saying that, as he put it, “like millions of other Americans, I’ve been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s,” I read that letter with moist eyes as did millions of other Americans. At the end of this book, flash forward 34 years and here is Buckley writing another faux or fake White House memoir by a chief of staff also named Herb. I’m bracing for a reviewer to say that in 34 years, Mr. Buckley’s imagination has traveled the distance between A and B.
WT: Was that parallel delivered? Did you give them the same name purposely?
CB: Yes. It’s a bookend and why not, ‘Herb.’ There’s something about it. It’s an inherently funny name. You say Herbert Hoover and it almost sounds comic for no particularly good reason. Anyway, I gave up political satire about four or five years ago on the grounds that American politics had become sufficiently self-satirizing. It didn’t need me to come along and poke fun at it. So, I wrote a couple of historical novels, and they did okay, but they didn’t knock Hilary Mantel off the mantlepiece. And people kept saying, “Why aren’t you writing about this?” And I said, “Well, I’m not really sure I know how to write about it.” As an object of satire, Mr. Trump is both a low hanging fruit and a challenge. He’s a challenge, I think, precisely because he’s a low hanging fruit. The book got a rather nice review in the Washington Post earlier this week. And the reviewer said, it’s not so much that I’m shooting fish in a barrel, but that I sound instead “as delighted as a fly discovering the world’s largest pile of manure.”
V.V. Ganeshananthan: I read this review. We actually have had Ron [Charles] on our show, and he’s wonderful.
CB: He’s my favorite person in the universe right now. I wrote him a thank you letter offering him my firstborn child, my second born child. I love the fly circling the manure image. If I ever have a coat of arms, that’s what I’m going to put on it. But, I’d written two drafts of this book and not only were they not very funny, they weren’t very good. And I was about to give up, because rewriting a novel is kind of a drag. But my longtime editor, my beloved Jonathan Karp, who’s now CEO of Simon & Schuster said, “Why don’t you recast it as another White House Mess?” And the scales fell from my eyes, the light bulb appeared over my head, I felt the earth crumble. It was a liberating insight, and that draft was much more fun to write. There’s something about, if you have a sympathetic narrator who’s in over his head. Herb is a decent guy in a swamp of indecency, and he’s trying to hold on to his dignity and his integrity, even though he knows exactly where he is. I once watched an interview with John Cleese, and he was talking about Fawlty Towers, his brief, limited series about a manic crazy hotel owner. And he said it’s more fun to watch someone go crazy, than just to show the person going crazy directly. And that’s the conceit here.
VVG: One of the interesting things about this position is — this is a figure that I think I’ve been fascinated by the Trump administration all along—the circles of complicity that surround the president. And Herb strikes me as part of this, like he’s an insider, but he’s also an outsider. He’s trying to, as you put it, that dichotomy of the presidential memoirs: It’s not my fault, it would have been so much worse if I weren’t here. And Herb seems to fit into that really precisely. Throughout the book, you can see Herb sort of saying, “Well, I don’t want to say this, but…”
You were talking a little bit before about thinking that Trump presents a distinctive challenge to satire and one early take on Trump was that he might single-handedly ruin this whole genre, because he’s already such an exaggerated figure. But now there are all these imitators. Alec Baldwin, of course, Steven Colbert, Anthony Atamanuik and Sarah Cooper.
CB: Sarah Cooper has pioneered an entire new genre. I think it’s really the most brilliant thing I’ve ever seen. I don’t know how she does it, technically. I think she’s the funniest satirist to come out of this. Although Stephen Colbert is relentlessly brilliant, and Trevor Noah, and J-L Cauvin. You can see these new stars being born out of all this.
With Sara Paretsky
Whitney Terrell: This is a very Midwestern collection. The V.I. Warshawski stories are set in Chicago, of course. But I was also thrilled to see a story like “Miss Bianca,” which is set at Kansas University. I’m in Kansas City, so it’s just up the road for me, and my dad went there. And you went there. When people think of detective fiction, they think of LA or New York a lot, so how come you ended up writing a lot about the Midwest?
Sara Paretsky: That’s my home. I grew up in Kansas, I was born in Iowa, and I’ve lived in Chicago my entire adult life. It took him [my agent] a year to find a publisher. And we were lucky, because that was back when there were still quite a few independent publishers, unlike today when there are like five conglomerates controlling the state of the printed word. But one of the rejection letters I got said, “There are not enough people who read in the Midwest to make it profitable to publish a book set in Chicago.” It is just such a New York attitude. I’m so petty and I operate often with a chip on my shoulder. So, I was at a dinner party—I long for those dinner parties—with some very New York New Yorkers. You know, they’re very sophisticated, but they’re also very provincial. It was my agent and his wife, and my editor and her husband, and a couple of other people I don’t remember. One of them turned to me and said, “Isn’t New York wonderful? Aren’t you happy to be here?” And I just couldn’t resist—I said, “It is! I forget, because I think of it as flyover country between Chicago and Paris.” And they were like, but “New York is like this! New York is like this!” And I thought, yes! That was my revenge for the editorial rejection all those years earlier.
WT: We love that. We’re a very Midwestern podcast, and Sugi is in Minneapolis, so we know what you’re talking about.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: I do feel like this is a recurring thread on this podcast… We should get a flag that we wave.
WT: There should be a Midwestern solidarity flag!
I just want to talk about where you grew up in Kansas real quick before we move away from Kansas, because I’d like to stay on Kansas for just a little while longer.
SP: I grew up outside of Lawrence. So my dad was, I think, the second Jew hired for a tenure track position at the University of Kansas. And it was an experiment to see whether Jews could really fit in. And in those days, I don’t know if they were written real estate covenants the way they were in Chicago, but there were unwritten covenants that specified where people of color and where Jews could live, and that was in the mud flats along the Kansas River. So my parents bought a house in the country, and that was how I ended up going to a two-room country school—a very formative experience because my brothers and I were incredibly clumsy, not good athletes, but there everyone had to play on the sports team so that we had enough people to field the team and so I got to play second base or third on the Kaw Valley District 95 baseball team, one of the highlights of my life.
WT: So “Miss Bianca” is set at KU, and you have an after note for the story. This is a story about a young girl who’s tending mice in a lab and gets involved in a mystery. So, you say in essence that you’re in the background of that story, or you’re one of the children of the scientist who’s one of the main characters of the story. Could you just talk about that a little bit?
SP: My dad was a cell biologist and worked on an organism that’s kind of halfway between a bacterium and a virus. It’s the same organism that causes typhus, which was the second biggest killer on the Eastern Front in the Second World War behind actual gunfire and slaughter. So the Soviets were trying to make it as a biological weapon, one of the variants of it, and my dad wanted to see what they were working on. I’m sure the Department of Defense was curious, too. But he was not allowed to travel behind the Iron Curtain. In Washington, they wouldn’t let him go because my father’s family had come from Eastern Europe, and some of them were communists, and they were sure that he was going to sell the United States’ biological secrets to the Russians.
The Russians wouldn’t let him come, because my mother’s brothers were all career Army men. And the Russians were sure that he just wanted to steal secrets from them for the U.S. Army. Anyway, he suddenly had a chance to go to Czechoslovakia for a conference. And he persuaded one of the Czech lab technicians to inject him with their version of this organism, so that he could take it home with him and culture it. And he flew home, he landed in Kansas City with a fever of 104, but he wouldn’t start antibiotics until his lab tech came and took a blood sample so that he could culture the Soviet version of rickettsia, this organism. I want to say that no one on the plane was at risk. It’s carried by tick bites, so unless the plane was filled with ticks people around him were safe. It wasn’t like traveling with COVID. But, I still, when I think about it, and I don’t know why I never asked him about it, but why did he do it? I don’t know if he was crazy or brilliant or some of both, I mean he often seemed crazy, so I go with crazy.
But I love that story. The little girl Abigail, she’s looking after the mice because her mother’s a single mom, and she has to go up and be with her mother who’s the scientist’s secretary. She has to stay there after school, so the lab puts her in charge of feeding the mice just to give her something to do and make her feel she’s on the team. Then I turned it into a novel called Fallout.
VVG: V.I. Warshawski also has deep family ties in Chicago. And in this collection, her ex-husband is a character, and so is Marie Ryerson, who’s a reporter who she’s known for a long time. And when she meets with the police captain Bobby Mallory, who’s a friend of her father, she says, “My Jewish mother was godmother to Bobby’s eldest Catholic daughter.” There’s her bartender friend Sal. Her world is kind of like Winesburg, Ohio more than the isolated loner private eyes, like Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade. She’s got this really populated world, this deep community. Can you talk about that a little bit?
SP: Yes. I think that the first time I read Chandler, I was struck by the sexual politics, the way that the women characters were portrayed. But the second time I read his books, the loneliness really hit me. It just cuts into you in a way that I think really everybody who’s experiencing quarantine home alone—or even home with someone else that they wish they could have a little separation from—is feeling these days. That loneliness is so palpable. And I didn’t think it through consciously, it’s just that I couldn’t stand to live that way, and so V.I.’s community grew up around her. I think if I’d had confidence in my writing voice from the beginning, which I didn’t, I would have given V.I. her family. I wouldn’t have made her an orphan. I might have made her an only child, because I had four brothers, and it’s nice to be an only child if you have a lot of siblings. You think, “You get all of that attention, and you don’t have to share the last piece of lemon pie with anyone!” But I wouldn’t have left her without living family the way that she is. It’s just I was following the conventions of the form, and they are all loners. And then her milieu grew up around her because loner is not how I like to live.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Andrea Tudhope and Dylan Miettinen. Photo of Christopher Buckley by Katy Close. Photo of Sara Paretsky by Steven Gross.