Archive

Archive for the ‘Kurt Andersen’ Category

Kurt Andersen’s new novel “True Believers” revisits 1960s through reformed radical breaking her silence

July 28, 2012 2 comments

Kurt Andersen‘s gift with words and ability to distill complex issues and ideas into engaging narratives has served him well as journalist, essayist, author, radio host and commentator.  His third and latest novel, True Believers, is getting the kind of ciritcal love that writers dream about but rarely ever actually receive.  This is a sneak peak at my story about the book, based on a recent interview I did with Andersen, to appear in a coming issue of The Reader.  His book really is a great read and it manages to do what he set out, which is to take the measure of a tipping point decade through the lens of a character whose life intersected with some of the very movements that made the ’60s so potent.  This blog contains a full-blown profile I did on Andersen some years ago, along with profiles, interviews, and features on many other top writers with Nebraska ties, including Ron Hansen, Richard Dooling, Timothy Schaffert, Rachel Shukert, and Sean Doolittle.

 

 

True Believers

 
Kurt Andersen’s new novel “True Believers” revisits 1960s through reformed radical breaking her silence

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

With his new novel True Believers (Random House) Kurt Andersen takes stock of the roiling 1960s through the eyes of a fictional woman whose coming of age then unfolded in predictable and inexplicable ways.

Through his narrator, attorney and law dean Karen Hollander, he explores the psyche and culture of holding secrets and coming clean in the modern era of relativism. This accomplished older woman is writing a tell-all memoir reviewing her own revolutionary life forged from social awakening and feminism.

Andersen, always the sage observer and commentator, analyzes the social-psychological-cultural imperatives of whatever era he writes about. The dawn of the new millennium in Turn of the Century. The mid-19th century in Heyday. The 1960s this time around. His elegant storytelling rises to his witty critique and thorough research. Its warm reception matches that of his previous two novels.

“One of the things I wanted to do I hadn’t seen done in novels about the ’60s,” he says, “is have the long view, have it not entirely set in the ’60s but also have like, OK, what do we think about it now? And also see it in all of its thrilling, exciting ways, not just the kind of romantic established ways of seeing it. Seeing it in its problematic ways as well.”

Andersen agrees with the general perception of the ’60s as a watershed decade.

“I think it was one of those historical inflection points certainly in the United States and in the West generally. Absolutely it was. As I thought about it and really since I’ve written the book and continued thinking about it, the ways in which it is popularly imagined to have been – as the moment that changed everything – those are true but I think that only tells part of the story. I think we are only now seeing the various impacts and I cant pretend to say them all.

“But certainly in my lifetime there was nothing and probably will be nothing like it.”

It marks the first time he’s used a first-person narrator and female protagonist. He has Hollander grow up a James Bond nut and his author’s conceit uses her adolescent pretend spy romps as primer for a rash act.

A Bond fan himself, Andersen hosts a 7 p.m. Film Streams screening of the first 007 film, Dr. No, on August 17. He’s doing a post-screening Q&A and book signing.

Andersen being Andersen, he views vintage Bond through a considered lens.

“The Bond films were version 1.0 of so many of the blockbusters of today,” he says. “Obviously the Bourne and Mission Impossible films, but all big, hyper-marketed movies with automatic weapons and explosions and ultra-villains, like the new Batman. Before the Bond films, adults didn’t go to comic-book-y movies. And as with Karen Hollander, I think their influence runs deeper and more subtly than their influence on other movies. The way we think about international travel and airports and gadgets and brands and even national security policy.”

His book’s not an espionage tale but he’s winning praise for integrating elements of that genre with others. Animating it is Hollander’s disclosure of the high crime she and her accomplices schemed as radicalized college students caught up in ’60s’ protest fervor. The title proves ironic as she discovers some comrades were not the true believers they appeared. Besides, she and her fellow survivors occupy a far different mental-political space today than four decades before.

Moving back and forth from the near future to the past, the book overlays the reflective nostalgia of her memoir with her angst-ridden investigation into her and her coconspirators’ motives. Their impassioned choices had unforeseen consequences then. As she peels back the onion skin 40-plus years later, new consequences arise. Just as the plot she helped devise was fraught with danger, so is breaking the secret’s silence. Thus, the story sometimes reads like a thriller.

Her decision to confess, Andersen says, is about “ending cowardice rather than achieving courage, if you get that distinction.” It’s part assuaging guilt and part taking responsibility. He’s often asked if her mea culpa is his way of blasting the in vogue social media impulse to put everything out there.

“People are revealing lots of information about themselves but I kind of doubt people are keeping fewer secrets today than they did 50 years ago. I don’t think for all the sense of transparency and self-exposure that has changed so much.”

Memoirs can be something all together different though.

“To the degree this is a tell-all memoir she’s definitely in this era of revealing all, yet on the other hand people like Hilary Clinton who write memoirs don’t really reveal much, you know. So in some ways this is a dream version of a memoir that a real person of Karen’s stature would write and probably never will.”

 

 

Kurt Andersen

 

 

He has Hollander try hard convincing us hers is a reliable voice because “she genuinely considers herself to be reliably truthful and because the novel to come is so much about the inherently fragmentary and incomplete nature of what any of us believe to be true,” adding, “Also because it was fun for me to play from the get-go with the idea that all first-person narrators are inherently unreliable.”

Understandably, he says “trying to channel this woman for the 2 1/2 years I was writing this was interesting,” particularly since he modeled Hollander after real life women he admires. For example, she’s pushing 70 but enjoys an active sex life and still gets off keeping alive intrigue.

“There have been feisty, interesting, vital women of a certain age written about in the past God knows but I think probably there are more of them of her age, of this first generation of Baby Boomers. One of the good things the ’60s did was allow people not to decide at 30 or 40, OK, I’m old now and therefore I live according to certain protocols of how old people are supposed to live. I wanted to convey that.

“One of the reasons I wanted to tell it through a woman is that, yeah, men’s lives have changed in the last 45 years, but not like women’s lives and not like ambitious educated women like her. I mean, it’s changed dramatically. She’s essentially the first generation of women in this new feminist era, and it was really tough.”

Andersen says he’s partly to blame if some read Hilary Clinton into Hollander, though that wasn’t his intent. “Once I finished the book and people asked me what’s the book about they would say, ‘Oh, like Bernadine Dohrn (Weather Underground terrorist).’ and I’d say, ‘No, not at all, not like any of these famous radicals.’ Then I would say, ‘She’s more like Hilary Clinton if Hilary hadn’t married Bill,’ and people got that and that became my shorthand for her.”

At least two women did serve as models though.

“Not to drop her name but I was friends with Nora Ephron and when she died a lot of her friends and I got together talking about her and marveling what she was able to do. She was always a hero of mine and indeed when somebody asked me the other day ,’Who inspired you to write Karen?’, I realized I had thought of her while I was writing. She’s definitely one of the two or three women who inspired me as a figure, as a woman of that generation who’s lived this extraordinary life.

“The other person who’s lived a very different life is the writer Susanna Moore, a woman of that age who has lived this extraordinary life and done these extraordinary things and is no way a conventional old person. She still is as vital and funny and sometimes outrageous as when I first met her 20 years ago.”

Andersen’s satisfied he’s fully made the transition from journalist to novelist.

“With a third (novel) I feel that I can be legitimately identified as a novelist, and a lot of people have liked all three of these books, so that’s good.

“Also there’s that now famous 10,000 hours thing where, you know, when you do something for 10,000 hours you achieve mastery. I don’t know about mastery but it suddenly occurred to me right before this book came out, Yeah I’ve spent more than 10,000 hours writing novels at this point, so I hope, I think I’m better at it.”

The Soderbergh Experience: Director Steven Soderbergh to talk shop at Film Streams Feature Event

February 10, 2011 3 comments

Part of the cast of the 2001 film Ocean's Elev...

Image via Wikipedia

UPDATE: So, I went to the An Evening with Steven Soderbergh event that the following post previewed, and it proved every bit as engaging a program as I expected.  Alexander Payne handled the introductions with low-key aplomb.  Kurt Andersen was his usual studied and witty self as the moderator or interviewer. And special guest Steven Soderbergh was cool, intelligent, frank, and surprisingly self-effacing.  He even confirmed reports that have been circulating for awhile now that he plans retiring from filmmaking in a few years.  If he does indeed go through with walking away from his film career, it would be an unprecedented move considering his A-list status and relatively young age — he’s only 48.  He just completed Contagion and he has a couple more projects in the pipeline that he’s obligated to complete, Liberace and The Man from Uncle, but after those, he said, he has nothing more scheduled  to hold him down. He said he’s been turning down every project offered to him for some time.  His reason for wanting to abandon filmmaking?  He said it’s a case of feeling like he is more and more retreading the same ground and he no longer wants to feel trapped into repeating himself. He didn’t say what he might do in place of making films, though there was an allusion by Andersen to Soderbergh wanting to paint and perhaps write.  Speaking of writing, Soderbergh described one of his best decisions as coming to terms with the fact that his best potential lay not in writing films but in directing them.  He started out writing his own scripts, including the project that first brought him fame — sex, lies and videotape.  But he increasingly turned to other writers to flesh out his ideas.  I also discovered that Soderbergh ahas for some time now acted as his own cinematographer and editor on his films, often using a pseudonym rather than taking screen credit under his own name in those categories.  All in all, it was a night of stimulating conversation and judging by the packed house at the Holland Performing Arts Center this fund raiser for Omaha’s art cinema, Film Streams, was a resounding success.

Omaha’s downtown art cinema, Film Streams, is presenting a Feb. 20 program featuring one of cinema’s top directors, Steven Soderbergh, who will be interviewed on stage at the Holland Performing Arts Center by author-Studio 360 host Kurt Andersen.  Filmmaker Alexander Payne, a friend of Soderbergh’s, is introducing the program.  The event’s a fund raiser for Film Streams.  I didn’t get the chance to interview Soderbergh, which was a bummer, but  I still had a good time writing the following piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about the filmmaker and his work.  I interviewed Andersen and solicited comments from Payne, from Film Streams founder/director Rachel Jacobson, and from film historian Ton Schatz.  I look forward to attending An Evening with Steven Soderbergh.  This is the third big fund raiser for Film Streams featuring a major cinema figure. Laura Dern was the special guest year one and Debra Winger last year.  Payne interviewed each on stage.  These are the kinds of cinema events that almost never used to happen in Omaha, and now thanks to Film Streams and the Omaha Film Festival they happen on a regular basis.

The Soderbergh Experience: Director Steven Soderbergh to talk shop at Film Streams Feature Event

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Steven Soderbergh may not generate the snobby, effete buzz of some name directors, yet he’s arguably the most prolific and accomplished American filmmaker over the past 20 years. As special guest for the Feb. 20 Film Streams Feature Event III, An Evening with Steven Soderbergh, he headlines Omaha’s must-see cinema event of 2011.

Skeptics must concede he has the juice to qualify as an elite director. There are the awards (the Palm d’Or and the Oscar), the glowing reviews, the productive collaborations with mega-stars (George Clooney) and the clout or charisma to get both commercial (Erin Brockovich) and fringe (Che) works produced.

He did one early game-changing film (sex, lies, and videotape) and he’s followed with some prestige mature projects (Traffic). Yes, naysayers point out, but he can’t claim a seminal work like The Godfather or Taxi Driver as his own.

What he does possess is a supple technique he applies to a broad canvas of genres he crosses and bends with equal amounts of restraint and respect and reinvention. He’s not even 50, and his oeuvre may ultimately contain more stand-the-test-of-time credits than any of his flashier contemporaries or senior counterparts.

Yes, but is he an auteur? That may be among the things novelist and Studio 360 host Kurt Andersen explores with Soderbergh during their on-stage interview-clip program at the Holland Performing Arts Center.

For now, Andersen ventures while it’s hard to instantly identify a Soderbergh film the way one can a Scorsese or Allen or Tarantino or Coen Brothers film, or for that matter a Tony Scott film, “he is an incredibly ambitious artist, and that’s an interesting combination.”

Count Andersen an admirer.

“He’s done television as well as feature films, he produces (Syriana, Michael Clayton) as well as directs, he does documentaries, he does these big kind of pure entertainment features as well as these very strange little features, and all of that range continues,” he says. “It’s not as though he did these little movies and then graduated to payday movies. That he continues to be as diverse at age 48 as when he was 25-30 is really singular.

“When you look at the body of work and career there’s nobody of his generation who comes close I think in having all of that, as well as the half dozen or whatever master works you can argue about and point to.”

Before the auteur theory messed with cinephiles’ conceptions of where ultimate film authorship lies, name-above-the-title directors were rare. Today, even hacks are accorded that once privileged status. Soderbergh is anything but a hack. Indeed, Andersen calls him “the anti-hack.”

Alexander Payne, who approached Soderbergh to headline the Film Streams fundraiser and will introduce the program, summed up his fellow artist with:

“I count Steven as a friend and colleague, and I have tremendous respect for his career and his purity — and certainly for his work ethic. He admires the directors of classical Hollywood who honed craft through continuous work, and he has miraculously enabled himself to equal their prodigious output. Some hit, some miss, but craft sharpens and roves. And he supports other filmmakers without question.”

A great filmmaker doesn’t have to also be a screenwriter like Payne. John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock produced great art with recurring personal themes and motifs without scripting a word. Soderbergh has writing credits on a third of his features.

Neither is a clearly defined style a prerequisite for a great director. Witness John Huston and Elia Kazan, whose subtle styles changed from film to film in service of story while their own preoccupations shone through. Soderbergh is in their chameleon tradition.

The fertile mid-1960s through 1970s era saw personal filmmaking flower in and out of Hollywood with Cassavetes, Scorsese, Coppola, Ashby, Altman, et all. In the 1980s this trend retreated in the face of mega pics, sequels and special effects.

Soderbergh is a bridge figure who helped usher in the independent film movement with his 1989 debut feature sex, lies, and videotape. A searching period followed that film’s breakout success. Since the mid-‘90s he’s evolved as a director of high gloss studio projects, including the Oceans series, that win critical and industry praise — and also make money — yet also as the maker of art pieces that exercise other creative muscles.

University of Texas at Austin film scholar Tom Schatz says Soderbergh’s arrival one the scene marked a turning point.

“1989 was perhaps the most important year for Hollywood in the past half-century,” says Schatz. “It was the year of the Time-Warner and Sony-Columbia mergers, which began the trend toward conglomerate control that now defines the movie industry. It was the year of Batman, the first modem blockbuster. And it was the year of sex, lies, and videotape, which ignited an indie-film movement and alongside Batman set a dual trajectory that continues to this day.

“Interestingly enough, Soderbergh is among the very few contemporary Hollywood filmmakers who can move effortlessly and successfully from one of these tracks to the other, segueing from modest, innovative, character-driven films to big-budget franchise blockbusters. In the process he has steadily produced a body of work that is unmatched in contemporary American cinema.”

Andersen says Soderbergh shook things up around the same time the Coens,Tarantino, Gus Van Sant and Spike Lee emerged as a brash new guard.

Andersen wonders how sex, lies, videotape plays to 2011 eyes inured by YouTube, Web cams and reality TV. When the film came out, voyeurism was not the ubiquitous leisure activity it is now.

“It was the germinal moment of a certain era of American films that were strange and singular and idiosyncratic and that everybody was suddenly talking about in a way they hadn’t since the ’70s,” notes Andersen. “What’s so kind of heartening and praiseworthy about Soderbergh’s career is he continues really risky formal experiments.”

Take the director’s choice of revolutionary Che Guevara as the subject of a four-hour-plus, two-part film in Spanish. The sheer length and scope leaves Andersen wondering, “Why do you do that? It’s almost a different thing than a conventional feature film. At one point in the process did he decide this needs to be this epic thing?” He plans to ask Soderbergh that very question.

Andersen’s also fascinated by Soderbergh’s take on the ferment of that time.

“I’ve just written a novel, much of which is set in the ‘60s, and about politics. I’m eager to talk to him about how we’re maybe now just getting far enough away from the ‘60s, with all their power and electricity and iconic resonance, where we can make interesting art about them and talk about them in ways that are not quite so hot and bothered.”

Film Streams director Rachel Jacobson says she appreciates Soderbergh’s “transparent awareness of the commercial pressures that “compromise the art of film” by his jumping back and forth between the two extremes of feature filmmaking.

She adds, “He’s also interested in challenging traditional distribution channels. Both Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience were released On-Demand and on Blu-Ray the same day and date they were released theatrically. His visit is such a terrific match for us as an art house theater dealing with these issues from the other end.”

Film Streams Feature Events I and II guests, Laura Dern and Debra Winger, respectively, discussed acting and offered anecdotes about projects and collaborators. Alexander Payne, who directed Dern in his first feature Citizen Ruth and admired the commitment Winger made to her roles, conducted soft interviews with the stars. This time, with a director in the spotlight and a veteran journalist asking penetrating questions, a different dynamic is in the offing. Both Payne and Andersen serve on the art cinema’s Advisory Board.

“Having had two terrific actors at past Features, I feel like the acclaimed director’s visit is a terrific way to mix things up,” says Jacobson. “Everyone has seen a Soderbergh film but not everyone pays attention to the director. It’s really important to our mission of promoting film as art that people think about the artist with the vision behind the work, the decisions that go into every shot, and the talent it takes to create a good movie.

“We’re thrilled that Kurt is coming to do the interview this year.”

The balancing act of Soderbergh, who’s publicly bemoaned the unwieldy, antiquated system for getting films made and released, intrigues Andersen. He says he’s eager to ask “how he convinced-persuaded the money guys to let him do what he wanted to do” in that limbo period following sex, when the perceived failures of Kafka, King of the Hill, Underneath and the TV series Fallen Angels seemed to signal a fall to irrelevance.

Then came five films that made Soderbergh not only relevant again but gave him cachet: Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven. From then till now Soderbergh’s moved from obscure projects like Solaris and The Good German to star-vehicles like The Informant and the forthcoming Haywire.

As Andersen says, “there’s talent and luck and then there’s the personality-temperament things that allow you to make that Hollywood ATM machine cough up the money.” Andersen’s curious to kknow how artists like Soderbergh “actually manage to have other people pay for the courage” of their “private, quirky convictions.”

 

 

Even when Soderbergh has played it “safe” with forays into genre themes and variations, whether the caper buddy pic (Oceans) or the romantic suspense flick (Out of Sight) or the revenge story (The Limey) or the underdog-against-all-odds chestnut (Brockovich), he’s made the conventions his own.

“He’s broad enough in his vision of interesting material that he can take something that’s been seen a thousand times and make it a memorable thing,” says Andersen.

The Good German finds Soderbergh taking the duplicity and intrigue and look of Casablanca or The Third Man and at once remaining true to it and tweaking it. His black and white milieu and mis en scene boast mystique with a modern edge.

“You see him setting up a particular kind of obstacle course for himself. He’s doing not just a modern version of a film noir,” says Andersen, “but he’s actually trying to do it in a virtual simulation way — to try and figure out how movies were made then in ways that we don’t now, and yet trying to make it work as a film that comes out in 2006.

“It’s interesting to me to talk to an artist about the kinds of puzzles he sets for himself.”

Andersen admits to being a sucker for spy stories anyway and he says Soderbergh’s riffs with the well-worn form made it a must-see for him.

“That’s interesting in a personal way for me,” says Andersen. “I’m fascinated by the intelligence agencies. In this new novel of mine the serious research I had to do was about how the intelligence business works, so I actually was thinking about The Good German. I rewatched that film in anticipation of talking to Soderbergh.”

Traffic is another example of an overused, often cliched subject — illegal drug trafficking — that in the hands of an imaginative filmmaker becomes a kind of elegiac opus about human greed and frailty told in overlapping storylines.

“A really interesting film,” says Andersen. “It’s the kind of movie that in description could be such a hack work thing. If in a blind taste test that film was simply described to you, you’d think, Yeah, maybe, but you’d expect it to be mediocre. But again with this kind of genre material he brings both this interesting, complicated structure — TV-like in a way because of course it’s an adaptation of a television series — and turns this pulp material into something so much better. Into a work of art.”

Andersen says The Informant portrays business management’s “moral ambiguity” and “murkiness” in a way “that fiction and film seldom do. It’s so unpigeonholable. Is it a comedy? Is it a drama? What is it?” He likes too the improvisational and enigmatic qualities of The Girlfriend Experience.

In the end, Andersen says, Soderbergh distinguishes his work above the fray.

“There’s so many like big tent pole movies that get made just because the deal was made,” he says. “He’s s one who clearly takes seriously the fact that somebody’s going to pay 10 bucks and spend two hours of their life, and so I better try to entertain them. He kind of gives more than necessary. When any artist over-delivers in what they’re strictly required to do, it makes for a great artist and for a career that really lasts.

“You never get the sense he’s phoning it in in any sense, which isn’t to say it always works. I mean, he has lesser movies and greater movies, but he’s always trying. His work never goes off the rails. There’s always a sense of rigor about it.”

Tickets for the 6:30 p.m. concert hall interview are $35 and available by calling 933-0259 or visiting www.filmstreams.org. A post-party and private reception cost extra.

Culturalist Kurt Andersen wryly observes the American scene as author, essayist, radio talk show host


Although he’s lived in New York longer than he lived in Nebraska, author Kurt Andersen was born and raised here and maintains close ties here.  He is best know to some as a journalist and to others as a public radio show host, but he’s lately established himself as a fine author as well.  If you have not read his work I encourage you to do so.  It is thoughtful and entertaining.  He is another in a long line of superb literary talents from Nebraska.  His books include The Real Thing, Turn of the Century, Heyday, and last year’s Reset, a meditative piece on the current American crisis of confidence he adapted from an essay he wrote for Time.  He is a much-in-demand essayist for leading publications.  Andersen is also a top-rate journalist, pundit, and interviewer. He’s a great interview himself.

The following piece appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) soon after the publication of his second novel, Heyday. I eagerly await his next.

 

 

 

Culturalist Kurt Andersen wryly observes the American scene as author, essayist, radio talk show host

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The world is Kurt Andersen’s oyster.

In a media career of dizzying variety this Omaha native, who co-founded the irreverent Spy magazine and was fired as editor-in-chief of New York magazine for being a provocateur, has become a hip observer of the American cultural scene. He dishes up his wry musings as a columnist/essayist for haute New York pubs, as a novelist, as host/reporter for Public Radio International’s Studio 360 and as a co-founder/contributing editor for the new online content site Very Short List. His earlier cyber foray, Inside.com, was short-lived.

Two new projects find him fixing his discerning eye on an epoch in the nation’s past and on a watershed moment for his hometown. His new novel Heyday (Random House) explores America at a threshold moment in history and his March 25 New York Times magazine piece examines the cultural boom underway in Omaha.

Whatever the medium, he displays a deep curiosity for and broad knowledge of subjects across the cultural landscape. His vantage point is the center of all things — New York. He’s been there now nearly twice as long as he lived in Omaha, which he left soon after graduating Westside High School for an Ivy League scroll.

“Kurt is a cultural journalism icon in New York City. I can’t think of anyone who’s thought of more highly in the realm of cultural commentary,” said Film Streams Director Rachel Jacobson, who got to know Andersen when they both worked at WNYC in New York. “He’s certainly brilliant, but he’s also incredibly easy-going and wonderful to talk to.”

His brilliance long ago marked him as one of those most-likely-to-succeed types. The magna cum laude Harvard grad soon made good on his promise by rising fast up the journalistic ladder in the ‘80s-‘90s, as a Time magazine writer, critic and editor, as a New Yorker columnist, as editor-in-chief of Spy and New York magazines. He’s been a contributing writer to the New York TimesAtlantic MonthlyVanity FairRolling Stone. He still does a weekly column for NY magazine.

With its look at the excesses of the 1980s, from New York’s garish party scene to bogus health gurus to the elitist Bohemian Grove camp’s weird goings-on, Spy tapped into the ironical Zeitgeist of the time. Its success was a rush.

“Very heady indeed,” he said. “We didn’t know when we started Spy quite how tough it would be to do, and how long the odds against such a thing working were — the classic too-stupid-to-know-better situation. It was heady and intensely fun, but also draining and occasionally terrifying.”

His firing from NY magazine was “more stunning than painful,” he said, as “it came so entirely without warning — circulation…advertising was up, the magazine was reinvigorated…lots of positive buzz. It felt like getting shot out of a cannon in the middle of Times Square, and I hadn’t even known I was inside a cannon.” He felt better when staffers “quit in solidarity” and press accounts unearthed the reason for his firing. “The magazine’s coverage had pissed off various associates” of then-owner Henry Kravis, “who had asked me to stop covering Wall Street,” Andersen said. “I came out of it feeling OK about the whole affair. Plus I got more than a year’s severance pay. And it made me decide finally that if I was going to write novels, as I’d always thought I ought to do, now was the time to try.”

It’s hard to imagine this one-time enfant terrible is now a doyen in New York media salon circles. Read one of his columns or listen to one of his reports though and you find he’s lost none of his youthful urbane wit or acerbic bite.

In recent years he’s taken a longer view of things as an author. His first book, The Real Thing, was a collection of humorous essays. With his best seller first novel, Turn of the Century, in 1999, he proved he could apply his smart, funny, insider’s take on social-cultural trends in the digital media age to the extended format of a book and tell a rousing good story in the process.

With his well-reviewed new novel, Heyday, he looks back to the 19th century at a defining moment in America’s past, when, from 1846 to 1848 a remarkable confluence of events unfolded to usher in the nation we recognize today. He looks through the eyes of well-drawn characters swept up in the American Experiment to reveal a world in flux and speeding toward modernity. The story is ostensibly centered in New York, London and Paris. but these teeming, messy capitals of progress are really the launching points for a cross country trek that allows the paths of its main characters to intersect with the currents and movements of the times. The wide open frontier, the spartan utopian communities, the makeshift settlements in Kanesville and the Great Salt Lake, the rough-hewn town of San Francisco and the wild northern California gold diggings all become key locales.

Heyday goes on sale March 7.

Andersen’s also throwing his attention these days to Omaha, where he researched that Times piece about “the cultural moment” the city’s enjoying thanks to some nontraditional movers and shakers. Since the 2004 death of his mother he has no family left here, yet he finds himself drawn back to this place and its people.

He sat down with The Reader at M’s Pub in December to talk about his new book, the radio show, life after mags and his take on Omaha’s urban renaissance. The tall, graceful man cuts a cosmo figure with his stylishly casual attire and suave air. He’s a careful listener who answers questions thoroughly, eagerly. He wears his ironic intellectualism without affect. His connect-the-dots way of analyzing subjects makes for good conversation.

In a 2003 interview Andersen spoke about facing down the fear of making the leap from journalist to novelist with Turn of the Century.

“I was confident I had the basic level of craft to put together sentences in different ways. Not having the tools, foundations, crutches…of journalism was completely liberating, especially the first two months,” he said of this first turn at novel writing, discounting “a feeble effort” years earlier. “But then it was completely terrifying because writing a long form thing of anything is terrifying, but also because it was this thing I had never done before. And, frankly, part of the attraction to me of trying new things is the scariness. I find if I know how to do something too well I get bored or it’s just not interesting.”

Century’s present-day milieu of New York media wheelings and dealings found Andersen on familiar ground. But Heyday’s 19th century setting meant getting-up-to-speed on an era far removed from today.

He said “to write a historical novel has a whole other set of horrible, technical challenges. You know, I’d read ‘em, but I’d never really thought about, What version of 19th century language do you invent?”

He steeped himself in the times.

“I spent about a year-and-a-half doing nothing but research,” he said, “and it was bliss. I never went to graduate school, so I felt like this is what graduate school in its ideal form would have been like. I had the basic idea for the story and everything, so it was work, but it was the best kind of work because I didn’t have to write anything.

“I read a million books, lots of diaries. Especially I found the diaries very useful because it gives you a sense of the colloquial manner of speech rather than the kind of Hawthorne, Dickens formal literary language which is how we imagine everybody spoke in the 19th century all the time. Obviously it wasn’t. And so in…just immersing myself in all kinds of diaries, it gave me a sense more of how the language was actually spoken.”

To commune as it were with some of the places that comprise his novel he trod the very areas in Paris and in northern California he writes about.

Once he got down to writing, he found a sense of period vermisilitude in the upstate New York home he kept until recently. The isolation and tree-lined fields of this country home “fed the dream” of 19th century life, he said, “in a way that living in New York doesn’t quite as easily.” Still, he wrote more than half the book from the office he keeps upstairs in his Brooklyn home. One advantage to being in the city, he said, is that Studio 360 is recorded in Lower Manhattan, “within blocks of where the Five Points were and where all the Lower Manhattan life in my book is set. It was fantastic walking past these things almost every day.”

He tried hard to avoid a pitfall many novelists fall into. “The thing with a historical novel is you do all this research and it’s tempting to show off your research and contrive the story to go here and contrive it to go there,” he said, “and that’s a real thing I found myself having to watch.” He’s happy with the modicum of “celebrity cameos” he integrated into the story, including “plausible” meetings between select characters and such famous personalities as Charles Darwin, Walt Whitman and Alan Pinkerton.

The whirlwind period at the heart of the book is one that’s held him enthralled.

“I’d had the very germ of the idea for this book for a long time, before I even wrote the first novel (Century),” he said. “And I think it began when something I read made me realize that in this one month of 1848 so much happened that I’d never seen connected before. In the biggest sense, all these revolutions in Europe, gold discovered in California, our winning the war against Mexico, the Communist manifesto published. Of course, I was already aware of the golden moment in literature of Whitman and Poe and Thoreau and all the rest and the beginnings of modern newspapers and photography and all that.

“So before I even decided to write the book I started researching and the more and more I discovered about this moment — of the telegraph and the railroad and feminism and communes, I thought, Why has no one ever said that this was the threshold — that this was when modern life as we know it began? And once I started going down that route, I just became obsessed and then started inventing a story I could use as the armature to tell that larger story.”

If Andersen has his way, scholars and historians will view 1846-1848 in a new light.

“We think of 1776, 1782, 1787 as the birth of America, but I’ve really come to think that in a more holistic cultural, economic, political way this moment bears looking at as when the prototype was getting made,” he said. “I don’t know of any other moment when so much stuff that you can look at from today and say, Yeah, I see where this thing we now experience — the seed of it was there. I mean, beyond the sort of three-branches-of-government-in-civics stuff.”

He said never has America been as swept up in so much change as it was then. The challenge for him as a storyteller, he said, was to “try to make palpable…just the sheer excitement of this and terror of this moment of incredible change and newness.” For him, there’s no comparison between the social-cultural explosion of 1846-1848 and that of, say, Height Ashbury or the digital revolution. The birth of America, the birth of the modern age is a long affair, but I honestly can’t imagine a better couple of years to look at…the sense of world turned upside down.

Andersen also likes the fact he takes on a swath of American history not oversaturated “in fiction or in our popular imagination” the way “the Indian Wars, the Old West and the Civil War” are.

“One of the reasons this period appealed to me, in addition to my thinking it’s an amazing time, “he said, “ is it’s more virgin territory. People saw the Indians were fucked but the Indian Wars were still on the horizon, 20 years hence. It’s the moment before slavery became this thing that busted America apart. Most people didn’t yet have any sense it was the fissure that would explode 10-12 years later. It’s another kind of germ of potential waiting to explode in the same way that all the good things or the new technologies were germs about to explode.”

He also felt pulled into the era by the extant photographs of the time, when the earliest such images on record were produced.

“When I started looking at period photographs I realized that we who live in this highly photographic, video-mediated age today can feel a connection to a period where photography existed in a way we can’t quite feel a connection to ten years earlier, when it didn’t. I just think that’s true,” he said. “When it’s all about drawing, that’s the old days, whereas, when I see these early photographs of the streets in Paris during the revolution, it’s alive. It was amazing to mere there were photographs of that. It gave me this sort of visceral sense of connection because it was real, it was a photograph, rather than simply an account in prose or drawing.”

Then there’s the inventions and innovations the era heralded in that anticipated today’s information age technologies and tools.

“When you look at photography or the telegraph, I mean to me everything from daguerreotype to television, that’s just a refinement,” Andersen said. “This mechanical, instant picture was the big change. The same with the telegraph. The telegraph to the Internet, it’s all just refinements of instant communication.”

There are other reverberations with today he found compelling.

“As I was doing my research about the Mexican War, our first foreign elective war, I was like, Hmmm, what does that sound like? I began writing the book in 2002,” he said, “when Bush was preparing to invade Iraq because they might attack us essentially. That was James K. Polk in 1846. In effect, Polk said, We’ve got to invade Mexico or they’re going to invade us. The Mexican War is a war people don’t know much about today, but so interesting because this was an imperial war…a foreign war…a war we chose to fight. I already had all these other ways in which I thought this time had resonances with that time, but that was yet another.

“It’s just a fresh view of a piece of American history. Not that I made it fresh, but I think by kind of depicting it, people might just realize, God, I never thought of it this way before or I don’t know much about this time.”

The primary characters in Heyday are emblematic of the great enthusiasm and anxiety of the new age dawning.

Ben Knowles is a young, idealistic Brit of means who turns his back on the Old World for the promise of the New Arcadia. His departure for America is hastened by a misadventure in Paris, where he’s both witness and unwitting agent of revolution. In the figure of Ben, Andersen provides a prism for viewing America from a “foreigner’s eyes…seeing “it for all of its ugliness as well as excitement. I wanted somebody who was thrilled about the idea of America and who would then be disappointed or not,” he said. Through Ben we see “this thing being made up as it went along” — what Andersen calls “the early adolescence of America.”

Ben finds an incarnation of the new nation’s spirit in Polly Lucking, an emancipated woman from a luckless family. She, like her late dreamer father, is enamored with all that is new and possible, only more practical about it. As a female of independent persuasions but poor straits she pursues two professions open to feminists then — prostitution and the theater.

Duff Lucking is Polly’s “wounded soul” of a brother. A disgraced veteran of the Mexican War, he’s a fireman with a suspect knack for always smelling out a good blaze. Haunted by the Lucking family’s many tragedies and his own wartime trauma, he sees mendacity all about him and anoints himself avenging angel, like a 19th century Travis Bickle, to cleanse the unholy land.

Timothy Skaggs is a bohemian, bon vivant, journalist, daguerreotyper and would-be astronomer. This cynical commentator on his times, is also a hedonist who indulges his huge appetites for life. The oldest of the bunch, he is at once friend, mentor, devil’s advocate and surrogate father figure to the others.

There are Dickensian overtones to the book, from the harsh class system to familiar types that embody the best and worst of human kind. Among these archetypes are sweet urchin Priscilla Christmas, repulsive b’hoy Fatty Freehorn and the sinister aristocrats, the Primes.

The villain of the piece is Gabriel Drumont, a Corsican whom we meet serving in the Paris national guard. An ugly encounter at the start of the book propels Drumont on a journey half way around the world to avenge his brother’s death. Each character is escaping some aspect of his or her past. Each is pursued by a specter of fate. Drumont is that Angel of Death. He also serves as the old guard counterpoint to what he considers the anarchic, libertine, insurrectionist actions of Ben and Co. A restorer of order to a “disordered world.”

“He (Drumont) is a very different human being than the rest,” Andersen said. “A hard person, driven by honor and duty. To an extreme degree. But I don’t regard him as mad or even evil. As I read and read and read into the period I came to believe this idea of honor and duty was a much more potent presence thing in life 160 years ago than it is today. I just think that’s true.”

Andersen spent three years writing and another year revising his “big tapestry” of a novel. He’s now “trying to figure out” what he’ll make the subject of his next. “I had given myself until the end of the year, (2006)” he said. I have a couple of different novel ideas…I will be onto.”

Meanwhile, he’s busy with Studio 360, the omnibus program that works from the digressive edges to tie the threads of complex subjects. An installment of its “American Icons” series, which explores American works of art, won a 2005 Peabody Award. The honored show considered the search for the Great White Whale in Herman Melville’sMoby Dick. An upcoming “Icon” looks at the Midwestern perspective of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s melancholic The Great Gatsby.

He swears he doesn’t miss the magazine game. “No, I really don’t get a twinge to do that. Various things, including Studio 360, slake that appetite,” he said. “I had ten years of kind of like an unbelievably fantastic magazine-making experience, so I feel like, Why push my luck? Maybe I could do another magazine gig that would be fun, but I kind of don’t think so. No, I’m very happy writing books, doing the radio show. And I’m involved in this little Internet thing….called Very Short List (www.veryshortlist.com). We recommend one movie or one book or one piece of music or one web video a day…”

He also doesn’t miss being the boss. “I’m happy frankly not managing a lot of stuff and people,” he said. “You know, I get to have my ideas, talk to artists and filmmakers for radio and write my books, and other people are sort of in charge of the operations. I like having as small a part of my life as possible be about management, deciding how much people should get paid and all that crap.”

He has the freedom to discover his hometown’s emerging new face and persona. “I find it really heartening and hopeful about urban life in a frankly improbable place like this one,” he said, “where like a real vital set of scenes are happening. You know, there’s the Bemis art thing happening…the Old Market-retail-condo gentrification thing…the film scene…the music scene with Saddle Creek Records, Timothy Schaffert’s Lit Fest…It seems as though there’s a kind of critical mass of this stuff developing. I think it’s fantastic. I’d find it delightful and charming if it were in Dayton, but I didn’t come from Dayton, so I find it really nice this sense of it being a really livable place.”

He has more than a passing interest in Film Streams as a member of its advisory board. FS director Jacobson got to know Andersen when she worked at WNYC, which co-produces his radio show.

He has been such a great friend both to me and to Film Streams,” she said. “I’ve felt like I can call on him to ask his opinions about anything, from lobby décor to press ideas to programming choices. He’s also planning to curate a series of regional movies…in the fall…I am thrilled that he’s still interested in having a connection to Omaha, and couldn’t feel more fortunate that his affiliation with Film Streams might play some role in that. ”

What his Times piece and a recent Studio 360 segment reveals is that Omaha’s cultural boom is driven by a new matrix of artists-entrepeneurs, not the Great White Fathers of the past.

“It’s this literally alternative history that I think is important for making it a city that feels pleasant and interesting and civilized to me. I mean, yeah there is the canonical history of Omaha and then there’s this other one, and I find it’s this other one not decided in board rooms…necessarily that’s key.”

“You can point to a relatively small group of individuals starting in the late ‘60s, with the Mercers and Ree Schonlau, up through Robb Nansel and Rachel Jacobson today, who for whatever combination of altruistic, aesthetic reasons made certain choices that made things to my eye and taste nicer here than they could have been. This could all have been knocked down as well as Jobbers Canyon,” he said, meaning the Old Market. “I could point to other cities around America where that is what’s happened.”

Omaha’s emergence as a cool urban center, he said, proves “individuals actually can make a huge difference and that’s part of the story. I’m really happy it happened the way it did and I’ll tell you, it has worked out better for Omaha than probably anyone would have predicted. I think Omaha is very fortunate.”

The Omaha model reinforces a lesson he said he’s learned: “That large risk-taking can work out OK if you really have a singular vision and stick to it and work hard and have fun doing it.”

Studio 360
is carried by many public radio stations. Check your local listings.  Heyday is now in fine bookstores everywhere.

%d bloggers like this: