Seven Interviews for a Cold November Afternoon

This week, Emily recommends some insightful interviews to keep you company on a slow autumnal afternoon.

If April is the cruelest month and July is the most exuberant, then November, I think, is the most introspective. It’s cold outside, and the days are getting shorter, and everyone’s looking forward to getting together with friends and family for Thanksgiving (here in the States at least) and then the holidays. It’s not so much a time of going out to picnics and barbecues and meeting new people — it’s a time of huddling up with a good book or album (see our list from last year for recommendations!) and checking-in with yourself.

It’s no surprise, then, that the main November-y quote that’s been going around my social media feeds this week is from Famous Introvert Emily Dickinson:

It is also November. The noons are more laconic and the sunsets sterner, and Gibraltar lights make the village foreign. November always seemed to me the Norway of the year.

(Note: that link is TOTALLY worth your time. Not to over-promote my own curatorial attempts or anything, but seriously. It’s awesome.)

Whatever Famous Introvert Emily Dickinson might have to say about it, though, introspection isn’t just about sitting alone, though. It’s about good conversation and meaningful dialogue and emotional intimacy. It’s about thinking about yourself, but not in a totally narcissistic way. It’s about taking stock. So this week, in honor of good conversations, and meaningful dialogue, and grey November afternoons, I’m recommending seven interviews to keep you company as you cuddle up with wool blankets and kitty cats and long novels and all of the other accoutrements of slow autumnal days.

1. Joel Lovell Interviews Stephen Colbert for GQ

Lovell turns a gorgeous interview with Colbert (about the then-forthcoming Late Show) into a profile that covers show biz, politics, silliness, Tolkien, religion, and grief.

“The next thing he said I wrote on a slip of paper in his office and have carried it around with me since. It’s our choice, whether to hate something in our lives or to love every moment of them, even the parts that bring us pain. ‘At every moment, we are volunteers.’”

2. Marilynne Robinson and Barack Obama Converse, in Two Parts

Obama and Robinson interview each other — or maybe just chat — for the New York Review of Books.

“And it [Hamilton: An American Musical] is brilliant, and so much so that I’m pretty sure this is the only thing that Dick Cheney and I have agreed on—during my entire political career—it speaks to this vibrancy of American democracy, but also the fact that it was made by these living, breathing, flawed individuals who were brilliant.”

(Sorry, you guys. I’m really really not done connecting everything in my life back to Hamilton. But, in my defense, Barack Obama isn’t either.)

3. Matt Gourley Interviews Stephen Tobolowsky on I Was There Too

On a film podcast dedicated to interviewing people who were also in famous moments in cinema history, Matt Gourley sits down to talk with Stephen Tobolowsky about Groundhog Day, Harold Ramis, and Deadwood.

4. Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton Interview Hillary Clinton on Another Round

The hosts of the excellent podcast Another Round talk to Hillary Clinton about politics, sexism, Black Lives Matter, and squirrels.

5. Miranda July Interviews Rihanna

Miranda July turns an interview with Rihanna — in which they talk about Instagram, guys, and race — into a meditation on what it means to feel connected to celebrities.

“‘Rihanna. I’m going to meet her, to interview her. That’s where we’re going.’’

‘‘You kidding? That’s my girl,’’ he said. ‘‘I love her. She’s so down-to-earth. She always keep it cool with her friend and her family. Her and Melissa, I think they are the best celebrity friends. I always say that.’’

6. Susan Burton Interviews Terry Gross for The New York Times

Susan Burton talks to Terry Gross about what it means to have an intimate conversation with a stranger.

‘‘I try not to confuse the two. I try not to equate the interview with real life. But at the same time, there’s an intimacy in the interview — like, I’m telling you things that people I work with probably don’t know, because it doesn’t come up. I would tell them if they asked, but it’s just not a part of what you talk about in day-to-day work life necessarily.’’

7. Terry Gross Interviews Maurice Sendak on Fresh Air

Terry Gross, the Queen of Interviews herself, talks with Maurice Sendak about life, death and children’s literature.

“Live your life. Live your life. Live your life.”

Happy Reading!


The Venn Diagram of Our Fandoms is Basically Just a Circle: A PSA about The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

This week, Emily takes a brief hiatus from her ongoing Hamilton-related excitement (and, lets be honest, all of those grad school things she probably should be working on) to make sure that you know about the awesomeness that is Sydney Paduas The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage.

Okay, real talk. I’ve spent basically all of my pop-culture-related free time this week being excited about Hamilton. Because Hamilton SO rewards the attention that you pay to it. And is completely wonderful. I kind of had to talk myself out of writing a Ten-Fandom-Commandments-style blog for this week (with due apologies to both Biggie Smalls and Lin-Manuel Miranda). But I’ve already told you to go listen to Hamilton.

This week, then, I find myself thinking about why fandom is important and why we invest in it — thinking about the importance of sharing things we care about and finding community when we get super excited together about silly French accents and inside jokes and all of the minutiae of the pop culture properties that we love. At the same time, Hamilton’s also gotten me thinking about the awesomeness of stories that inject silliness, modernity, and a whole lot of energy into eighteenth- and nineteenth-century history. So today I want to briefly alert everyone to a phantasmagorically awesome (and amusingly nineteenth-century-history-centric) graphic novel that I’ve just started to read this week: Sydney Padua’s The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage.

There are very few things in this world that are cooler than steampunk-y alternate histories about kick-ass ladies in floral dresses having adventures and doing science. Especially when said alternate histories have a wickedly smart sense of humor, a high degree of research and footnoting, and a strong sense of the absurdity of Victorian life.

And, perhaps more importantly, when said alternate histories are about Ada Lovelace

*the SUPER smart daughter of Lord Byron who kind of invented computer programming*

and Charles Babbage

*the grumpy mathematician who basically invented the computer in the first place*

having lots of adventures.

I’ve only just begun reading Sydney Padua’s graphic novel The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage*: *The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer (which is based on her webcomic), but golly it’s delightful.

Not only does Padua show us the aforementioned geek duo getting super excited about Analytical Engines and differential calculus, but she’s also being wonderfully geeky with period-specific title pages and wonderfully researched footnotes and endnotes that maintain the book’s sense of whimsy while also providing awesome historical context. (Holy Mary Wollstonecraft. This book definitely has fun with moments in which truth is stranger than fiction. Ada Lovelace as a child apparently had a math tutor who was so conservative that he didn’t believe in negative numbers. Who knew that was even a thing??)

I haven’t actually gotten very far in The Thrilling Adventures yet. So honestly, this is less a review than a PSA. Because I can’t tell you much about it yet. But this book lines up SO WELL with my fandoms and with the collective interests of TTLP, that I just had to make sure that everyone else knew that they should be reading this in all of their free time!

We may return to this book at greater length when either Kazia and I has a chance to actually finish reading Padua’s fab book. But in the meantime, remember to take some time this week to get unironically enthusiastic about something silly — and maybe check out Lovelace and Babbage while you’re doing it!

…Because having lengthy conversations about Romantic poets and steampunk and theoretical mathematics is always a fine way to spend an afternoon.

Happy Reading!

Music for the Revolution

This week, Emily encourages you to take a break from your current Netflix binge so that you can share her excitement about a new Broadway musical.

Hercules Mulligan was a total badass. Angelica Schuyler was a brilliant socialite, writer, and proto-feminist. And the guy on the ten dollar bill? He was an extraordinarily ambitious, hot-headed idealist, determined to make his mark on his country.

The original cast recording of Hamilton is streaming on NPR’s First Listen, and my God it’s good.

Hamilton is, fundamentally, the story of the birth of a new nation. Beginning in 1776 with debates about the practicalities of colonial revolt and ending in 1804 not long after Thomas Jefferson is elected president, this is a musical about what it means to be an American. But this isn’t Schoolhouse Rock telling you about the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” No, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new hit musical has a fascinatingly specific perspective on Americanness, filtered through the very particular story of self-starter, political theorist, and ladies’ man, the eponymous Alexander Hamilton.

Tracing Hamilton through the Revolutionary War and the birth of federalism, up through his death in a duel in 1804, Hamilton becomes the story of one flawed, brash romantic, who’s willing to give his life for his nation — but who still manages to pick fights with just about all the other founding fathers.

How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore / And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot / In the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor, / Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

With love triangles, resentments, battles, duels, powdered wigs, and some recognizable historical figures, it’s perhaps not surprising that someone decided to make the life of Alexander Hamilton into a musical. But what makes Hamilton so awesome isn’t just the facts of this one man’s wild life. It’s the energy of the show, the liveliness of the writing, and the political perspective that Miranda and his collaborators bring to this very twenty-first-century musical.

Hey yo, I’m just like my country, / I’m young, scrappy, and hungry, / And I’m not throwing away my shot.

Hamilton’s an extremely energetic and fast-paced show, drawing from contemporary hip hop, R&B, and pop music as well as Broadway and musical theater tradition. We totally still get traditional musical theater chorus numbers. (There’s a second act song that keeps reminding me of The Lion King’s “Be Prepared.”)

But we also get General Washington presenting rap as the evolution of the patter song. (He is, after all, the model of a modern major general.) And King George singing Britpop-esque break-up songs to the colonies. And congressional arguments about federalism being staged as rap battles. The music’s awesome, as is the writing. Everyone’s got fantastic lines, and while the tempo of the show does of course shift from song to song, the sense of dynamism and potential in this era of American history never really cools off. Hamilton is funny, smart, and genuinely excited about eighteenth-century America.

Ive been reading Common Sense by Thomas Paine, / So men say that Im intense or Im insane. / You want a revolution, I want a revelation / So listen to my declaration:

We hold these truths to be self-evident / That all men are created equal, / And when I meet Thomas Jefferson / Imma compel him to include women in the sequel!

Also, this is a show that sets up a proto Mary Wollstonecraft being super awesome. Can you ask for anything more??

Hamilton is intensely aware of the political upheaval and idealism of the late eighteenth century, as America and France each tried to begin new nations, and disenfranchised peoples fought to let their voices be heard. And Miranda and his collaborators are only too aware of how the struggles of idealism versus pragmatism — of federalism versus states’ rights, of dominant voices versus the disenfranchised — are echoed by the tensions in contemporary American politics. So one of the fascinating and fantastic things that Hamilton does is cast actors of color in all the major American roles. (Jonathan Groff does play King George, but he’s over across the pond chewing scenery in a velvet and ermine cape.) Casting the founding fathers so that they match the demographic makeup of twenty-first-century America just highlights the idealism, the radicalism, and the powerful optimism of the men and women who created America in their image in the first place. As the (awesome) Marquis de Lafayette and the Caribbean-born Hamilton cheer when it looks like they’ll be able to win the Revolutionary War,

Immigrants! We get the job done.

It’s a gorgeous, catchy, energetic show about ambitious men and brilliant women and the new world that they are trying to create. It highlights the individualism, collaboration, and diversity at the heart of the American experience, even as it points out that America was practically founded on arguments about the nature of federal government and resentments within the two-party system. It resonates powerfully with modern American debates about women’s rights, immigrant rights, the representation of people of color, and the purpose of government.

But to be honest, the reason I’ve been listening to this show non-stop this week (when I probably should have been doing grad school things) is the intimate, vulnerable portrait of the two men at the center of this story: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

The opening number serves as a sort of Greek chorus, setting up the action of the play, with Burr lamenting near the end,

Me? Im the damn fool that shot him.

If you know anything about early American politics, chances are you know that Burr killed Hamilton in a duel in 1804. And Hamilton doesn’t remotely try to pretend that the death of Alexander Hamilton is going to be a surprise to its audience. Instead, it exploits the tragic potential of these two powerful, intelligent men who couldn’t get over their pride and resentment enough to work and live side by side. Throughout the musical, we trace the parallel — or perhaps intersecting — histories of Burr and Hamilton.

Neither man is perfect, but both men are good. And as they find themselves unable to reconcile their differences time and time again — as they find themselves drawn towards conflict and cynicism and disenchantment — Hamilton takes on a valence of tragedy. Early in Act Two, Hamilton imagines himself as Macbeth.

‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day.’

I trust you’ll understand the reference to another Scottish tragedy / Without my having to name the play. / They think me Macbeth, ambition is my folly. / I’m a polymath, a pain in the ass, a massive pain. / Madison is Banquo, / Jefferson’s Macduff, / And Birnam Wood is Congress on its way to Dunsinane.

But this isn’t a play about the evil of ambition. It’s a play about the difficulty of governing and the clashes between cynicism and hope that define the experience of being in power. It’s a play about idealism and regret and what it means to become a nation. Hamilton’s not in Macbeth — if anything, he’s in Julius Caesar.

We have two tragic heroes in Hamilton and Burr. While Burr doesn’t die on stage, he hits the same beats of hamartia and anagnorisis as Hamilton does (if I can get all grad-school on you for a second). Burr and Hamilton both make tragic mistakes and come to recognize what they did wrong. This is what makes Hamilton so powerful: it humanizes both Hamilton himself and Aaron Burr. We get a story about men trying their hardest but still sometimes making bad decisions.

Hamilton isn’t a story about the awesomeness of federalism. (Although seriously. You’ll never have so many feelings about the Federalist Papers.) Nor is it a story about the charisma of Thomas Jefferson and the aforementioned badassery of Hercules Mulligan. (Despite the fact that I’ve totally been daydreaming about the hardcore awesomeness, sexiness, and radicalism of the founding fathers.) It’s a story about the importance and difficulty of forming a new nation. It’s about diversity and collaboration, and about individualism and ambition. It’s about why we write in the first place, and why we valorize certain historical moments. Hamilton is fundamentally a story about what it means to be American. And it’s completely amazing.

From my current home in the Midwest, I haven’t been able to see the show live, but I highly encourage any and all of you near New York to go see it immediately. For the rest of us, the cast recording is currently available as an NPR First Listen as well as being available for preorder wherever fabulous Broadway albums are sold. Please do listen!!

In the meantime, if you want to get a taste for the show, here’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton’s creator and star, performing an early version of the first number at a White House event back in 2009:

Happy listening!