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Screenwriter Paul Schrader’s papers open for research

By Elana Estrin

In the late 1970s, screenwriter Paul Schrader began writing a script titled Born in the U.S.A., and he asked Bruce Springsteen to write a song for the film. The script sat on Springsteen’s table until one day, while working on a song called “Vietnam,” he noticed Schrader’s script, sang the title, and “Born in the U.S.A.” became the hit title song of one of Springsteen’s best-selling albums. Springsteen eventually wrote a new song for the script, which Schrader renamed Light of Day (1987).

Drafts of Schrader’s Born in the U.S.A. and Light of Day scripts and correspondence between Schrader and Springsteen are just a few of the many highlights found in Schrader’s archive, which opens for research today at the Ransom Center.

From drafts of the Taxi Driver (1976) screenplay to Schrader’s baby book, from an outline for Raging Bull (1980) to letters from Schrader’s parents, the archive encompasses Schrader’s career and personal life.

Photographs abound in the archive. Of particular note are film stills, on-set photos, and publicity shots for Taxi Driver, the film that launched Schrader’s career. One photo shows Schrader and a young Jodie Foster at the Cannes Film Festival, and another shows Schrader, Martin Scorsese, and Robert De Niro laughing on set. Invoking De Niro’s Taxi Driver character Travis Bickle, Scorsese inscribed a photo of him with Schrader: “From one Travis to another.” In an e-mail, Schrader wrote that he felt like a Travis Bickle “at one time.”

Immediately following Jaws’s blockbuster success, Steven Spielberg asked Schrader to write a screenplay for what would become Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Spielberg read Schrader’s script, but they didn’t agree on how the story should progress. Spielberg ended up writing the script himself, but drafts and notes for Schrader’s version are included in his archive.

In the mid-1980s, Bob Dylan asked Schrader to direct a music video shot in Japan for his song “Tight Connection to My Heart.” Unhappy with the result, Schrader later called the video “a source of embarrassment.” In addition to scripts, photographs, and film documenting the video production, Schrader’s archive includes a 2002 letter to an executive at Sony in which Schrader looks back on the project 16 years later:

“It was a disaster. Bob had asked me to do it but I really didn’t ‘get’ the new music video language. He didn’t want to do it and by the middle of the shoot I didn’t want to do it. I remember saying to him at one point, ‘Bob, if you ever hear I’m making another music video, just take me out in the back yard and hose me down.’”

When asked how he felt about his archive opening to the public, Schrader responded, “I hope to be too busy to even give it a thought.”

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In the Galleries: Ogden Nash’s padlocked collection of poetry

By Elana Estrin

One of Ogden Nash's copies of  'Hard Lines' with padlock and chain. Photo by Pete Smith.
One of Ogden Nash's copies of 'Hard Lines' with padlock and chain. Photo by Pete Smith.

“All of these books are worse than opium… I would rather have a child of mine use opium than read these books,” declared Senator Reed Smoot of Utah in March 1930, speaking from behind a desk towering with “smutty” books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Robert Burns’s poetry.

In 1929, Senator Smoot and Representative Willis Hawley of Oregon introduced a tariff bill to Congress that included a section restricting the importation of obscene materials, which inspired the widely repeated news headline “Smoot Smites Smut.” Senator Bronson Cutting of New Mexico led a protest against the proposed ban on obscene literature, and the House approved an amendment that removed books from the list of obscene materials.

But the battle wasn’t over. When the full bill reached the Senate in March 1930, Smoot brought book censorship back into the spotlight. After much debate, the Senate returned books to the list of obscene materials with the exception of “classics” and works of “established literary and scientific merit.” The Smoot-Hawley Tariff became law on June 17, 1930.

In response to the controversy, poet Ogden Nash penned “Invocation” and submitted it to The New Yorker, his first published contribution to the magazine, in January 1930.

The first verse reads:

Senator Smoot (Republican, Ut.)
Is planning a ban on smut.
Oh rooti-ti-toot for Smoot of Ut.
And his reverend occiput.
Smite, Smoot, smite for Ut.,
Grit your molars and do your dut.,
Gird up your l__ns,
Smite h_p and th_gh,
We’ll all be Kansas
By and by.

“Invocation” appeared in Nash’s collection Hard Lines. As a publicity stunt, Simon and Schuster sent out advance copies with a chain, padlock, and key attached.

One of Nash’s copies of Hard Lines appears in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition Banned, Burned, Seized, and Censored, on display through January 22. Nash intended to send this copy to book critic Alexander Woollcott. The inside front cover of the book includes the beginning of an inscription to Woollcott, but Nash misspelled Woollcott’s name (he forgot the second “l”) and inscribed the book to himself instead:

“For Ogden Nash with the very best wishes of the author. This is one of several advance copies equipped with lock and chain for attention-catching which were sent to current celebrities in hope of eliciting favorable comment. I started to mis-spell Alexander Woollcott’s name in this one, so kept it for myself. Woollcott didn’t like the one he got, even though I spelled his name right.*

*It sold nearly 40,000 copies in spite of him.”

"Lisztomania" hits Austin

By Elana Estrin

Print of Franz Liszt, 1841.
Print of Franz Liszt, 1841.

Long before Beatlemania, mid-nineteenth-century European audiences went wild for Franz Liszt, the Hungarian pianist/composer with shoulder-length hair. Women fought over his broken piano strings and collected his coffee dregs in glass vials. One woman retrieved Liszt’s discarded cigar stump from a gutter and encased it in a diamond-studded locket monogrammed “F.L.” To describe this phenomenon, German poet Heinrich Heine coined the term “Lisztomania.”

Liszt took the classical music world by storm. Considered the best pianist of all time by his contemporaries, Liszt essentially created the piano recital. He was the first pianist to emerge onstage from the wings, he introduced the custom of performing in profile because he didn’t want the piano to block his face, and his unmatched technique and virtuosic piano compositions pushed the boundaries of what the piano could do.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Liszt’s birth and the 100th anniversary of the Austin Symphony Orchestra. On November 18 and 19, the Austin Symphony celebrates both birthdays when Anton Nel performs Liszt Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major, S. 125 with the Austin Symphony.

Signed photo of Franz Liszt, not dated.
Signed photo of Franz Liszt, not dated.

Liszt is well represented in the Ransom Center’s collections. The musicians collection contains photos of Liszt, one of which Liszt autographed; two collections hold notebooks, manuscripts, and other materials for two Liszt biographies; and the Carlton Lake collection includes a signed manuscript of Liszt’s Gaudeamus igitur and 150 letters between Liszt and his daughters, Blandine and Cosima.

In these letters, spanning from 1850 to 1862, Liszt comes across as a caring but demanding father. It is clear that his daughters’ musical education is a priority. In an 1854 letter addressed to both daughters, Liszt tells Blandine and Cosima to make the most of the approaching winter, when the only teacher around will be their piano teacher:

“How goes it with your piano strumming? Do you practice? Is M. Seghers giving you regular lessons?… Music being the universal language, and even to a certain extent able to dispense with ideas, it is by no means my intention to end your studies with M. Seghers. But try to learn yourselves what even the best teachers cannot convey through lessons; and, until the day when I try to shape your talents to my liking, I kiss you most tenderly.”

Liszt also discusses the difficulty of navigating his relationships with other composers. In an 1858 letter to Blandine, Liszt writes about German composer and conductor Richard Wagner, who later married Cosima and with whom Liszt had a notoriously tumultuous relationship:

“With his immense genius which becomes more and more indisputable through all the foolish disputes he has to embark on, he unfortunately can’t manage to rid himself of the most trying domestic vexations, not to mention all the disappointments of his fantastic expectations. In this way he resembles those lofty mountains, radiant at their peaks, but shrouded in fog up to their shoulders…Tell me something of him in your next letter, for I love him with all my heart and admire him as Germany’s finest génie-artiste.”

While living in Rome in 1862, Liszt tells Blandine that he’s a little annoyed with French composer Charles Gounod:

“You know what sincere esteem and liking I have always had for the talent of Gounod, and how affectionate our personal relations were. Well! Can you believe that he spent more than six weeks in Rome without taking the trouble to come and see me, and that we didn’t once see one another?”

Through these letters, we catch a glimpse of Liszt’s life as a rock-star pianist, at its height in the 1840s. But Liszt’s letters from the 1850s reveal that he cherished solitude and was tiring of public life. On May 4, 1858, Liszt wrote to Blandine about his visit with Cosima in Berlin:

“The wholly public life (less and less to my taste) that I had been obliged to lead these last two months made me feel all the more, by contrast, the charm and intimacy of her affection.”

On July 19, 1862, Liszt sent his last letter to Blandine, who died two months later at the age of 26 following childbirth: “The fact is, I am comfortable only in my own company and in that of the very small number of those I love with whom I feel at one in thought and feeling.”

Selected items related to Liszt will be on display in the Ransom Center lobby from Tuesday, November 15 through Sunday, November 27.

Two Texas sorority sisters inspire Graham Greene and John Sutro to establish Anglo-Texan Society

By Elana Estrin

On a trip to Edinburgh in the summer of 1953, novelist Graham Greene and producer John Sutro met Margy Crosby Leifeste and Mary Alexander Sherwood, roommates and Pi Phi sorority sisters who had recently graduated from The University of Texas at Austin. Charmed by the young women, Greene and Sutro jokingly established the Anglo-Texan Society. Here’s the story as Mary remembers it.

Mary and Margy were traveling Europe on a two-month group tour. One of their first activities was to see Graham Greene’s play The Living Room in London. Two months later, they arrived in cold, rainy, and misty Edinburgh. Several girls on the trip went shopping, but Mary and Margy decided to stay back at the hotel and drink some tea to “warm our bones,” Mary recalls.

While drinking their tea, a waiter handed them a note reading: “If by any chance you are free, would you come to see The Devil’s General tomorrow night or to have a drink with us to discuss the matter tonight? Signed, Graham Greene and John Sutro.” Mary and Margy figured their friends were pulling yet another practical joke, so they told the waiter he must be mistaken.

“We spent the next 15 minutes saying, what if it was? Oh! What stupid people we are not to have at least said, why sure, and gone to see,” Mary recalls.

As they got up to leave, two men emerged from behind a screen and said: “We didn’t mean to offend you, but my name is John Sutro, and this is Graham Greene, and we would like for you to have a drink with us.”

Mary and Margy accepted the invitation, and Greene fired question after question about their travels and reactions to Europe.

“They were hanging on our every word, asking questions. They really seemed to be interested in our answers, which was sort of a first,” Mary says.

As the evening wrapped up, Greene again invited Margy and Mary to see The Devil’s General. They both declined. Mary had to catch an overnight train to visit a friend in London, and Margy had to attend a farewell dinner.

“I know what we’ll do,” Greene said. “You, Ms. Alexander, pack your bags. You come to the first two acts of the play, we will put you in a taxi with your suitcase, and off to London you go. And you, Ms. Crosby, after your dinner, you come to the third act of the play, and then we’ll have dinner with Trevor Howard and the producer.”

Mary and Margy accepted. In their ship cabin on the return trip were a dozen yellow roses and a card reading, “Happy landfall. Come back soon. Graham.”

“I really think that there is a side to Graham Greene that you don’t know about, that may surprise you. And that is that he’s a gentleman and a very thoughtful, sensitive, compassionate person,” Mary said.

On the train back to London, Greene and Sutro jokingly decided to establish an Anglo-Texan Society, and they ran an announcement in The Times.

“Much to the astonishment of Graham Greene and John Sutro, some people took it very seriously. At one of the first big meetings in London, they sent three steers, Texas’s best beef, and all sorts of barbecue sauce. 1,500 people attended,” Mary said.

Years later, Mary says people often ask whether she and Margy were afraid when Greene and Sutro invited them to the play.

“Absolutely not. We had no fear of anything. I remember thinking to myself at that time, I could live anywhere in the world. I was just totally without fear of any kind,” Mary says. “Though all of this gave the tour leader a heart attack.”

Related blog posts:

Fellows Find: Graham Greene papers lift curtain on author’s psyche


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Commentary Magazine Archive Donated to Ransom Center

By Elana Estrin

Commentary magazine has donated its archive to the Ransom Center. Founded in November 1945, just months after World War II, Commentary magazine was established to reconnect assimilated American Jews and Jewish intellectuals with the broader Jewish community and to bring the ideas of young Jewish intellectuals to a wider audience.

According to historian Richard Pells, Professor Emeritus at The University of Texas at Austin, “no other journal of the past half century has been so consistently influential, or so central to the major debates that have transformed the political and intellectual life of the United States.”

Throughout its history, Commentary has published significant articles on historical, political, cultural and theological issues in addition to fiction and memoirs. The magazine has a reputation for featuring many of the leading intellectual and cultural figures of the time.

Spanning from 1945 to 1995, the archive consists mainly of editorial correspondence, galleys and other records. The collection contains correspondence with a number of writers whose archives reside at the Ransom Center, including Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud and Isaac Bashevis Singer, in addition to correspondence with S. Y. Agnon, Hannah Arendt, James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, William F. Buckley, George W. Bush, Henry Kissinger, George Orwell, Amos Oz, Philip Roth, Elie Wiesel, Tom Wolfe, and A. B. Yehoshua.


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Q&A: Author Nicole Krauss

By Elana Estrin

While studying art history in graduate school, novelist Nicole Krauss spent hours in the library researching Rembrandt, only to find that she preferred imagining the details of his life instead.

“Beyond looking at his paintings, no amount of research would ever take me there. But a novel might,” Krauss said.

Krauss’s vivid imagination has resulted in three critically acclaimed novels: Great House, The History of Love, and Man Walks Into a Room. Krauss was named a National Book Award Finalist for Great House, her most recent novel. In 2010, The New Yorker named her one of the 20 best writers under 40.

On Tuesday, September 20 at 7 p.m. CST, the Harry Ransom Center presents Krauss at Jessen Auditorium where she will read from Great House and speak with James Magnuson, Director of The University of Texas at Austin’s Michener Center for Writers. A book signing follows. A live webcast of the event airs at approximately 8 p.m. EST/7 p.m. CST.

Cultural Compass spoke with Krauss about her thoughts on art, what she’s currently reading, a Rembrandt self-portrait that reappears in her novels, the burden of inheritance, her advice for writers, transplanted rooms, and more.

Nicole Krauss. Photo by Joyce Ravid.
Nicole Krauss. Photo by Joyce Ravid.

Alma Singer from The History of Love shares the same name as the wife of Isaac Bashevis Singer (whose archive resides at the Ransom Center). Your works have been compared to those of Singer. Did you deliberately name Alma after I. B. Singer’s wife?

No, that was a happy accident. I wondered later whether it was an unconscious decision, but I don’t remember ever learning that her name was Alma until after I finished the book. I cast around a lot for names in the beginning; it’s difficult to name a character because almost every name feels artificial. I had chosen Singer because it was the name of someone I knew when I was the character’s age, 14, so it seemed natural to me. Alma just rolled off the tongue in the right ways. And of course it has all these wonderful meanings. It was a beautiful name, and it sat well with me. So I put the two of them together, and that was that.

Strangely, Isaac Bashevis Singer was never a big writer in my life. I still haven’t read many of his works, though I mean to. It surprised me that that book was compared to him so frequently. When David Grossman wrote his first novel, everyone told him that he had been influenced by Bruno Schulz. But he’d never heard of Schulz. He sat down and read him and had to agree.

You mention the same Rembrandt self-portrait in both The History of Love and Great House. In The History of Love, Uncle Julian says “there’s a serenity in his face, a sense of something that’s survived its own ruin.” In Great House, Arthur says he associated the portrait with the phrase “a ruined man.”

That’s interesting. You’re the first person who’s noticed that. I didn’t even notice that, though I knew that I had mentioned it in the other book. Obviously, it’s an important painting to me. It will probably end up in other novels as well.

Rembrandt is an artist whose work I’ve thought a lot about. I did a Master’s in Dutch seventeenth-century art at the Courtauld Institute in London, and I wrote my thesis on Rembrandt. I’ve always been moved, especially, by the late self-portraits as they get more and more honest. In the early self-portraits, you have this painter who’s putting on airs and costumes, modeling himself as a wealthy burgher or a famous artist, but he’s really just a young, scrappy, ambitious guy. And then late in his life, once he’s bankrupt and alone, there come these amazing self-portraits that are quite brutal, frank, and unadorned. You feel a hurriedness in the brushstrokes. He’s scratching into them with the back of the brush. You feel the sense of someone facing his death. Obviously, that’s a position that I am drawn to in my work. A number of my characters have been older people who are confronting the end of their lives, the final calculation of who they were, how they lived, their mistakes and regrets. I lived near that particular painting I mention, which hangs in Kenwood House in Hampstead Heath. I used to walk on the Heath daily, and you can visit Kenwood House without paying. You could go in everyday if you felt like it, which I often did just to see that painting. I guess you could say that I have a long history with it.

In your essay on writing Great House, you say that Weisz came out of your interest in transplanted rooms, specifically those of Freud and the painter Francis Bacon. This strikes a chord here at the Ransom Center, where there are two transplanted rooms: the study of Fleur Cowles and John Foster Dulles’s study and living room in D.C.

I realized at a certain point that there were some preserved rooms that I had always been drawn to in my life. I became fascinated with Bacon’s studio partly because it’s such an extreme example, such a complex room. He was infamously messy. He left everything wherever it dropped, so the studio was full of thirty years of stale sandwich crusts, half-drunk bottles of alcohol, old clothes, garbage. He kept this huge archive of photographs, but they were all crumpled up on the floor. There was a kind of violence to the mess, sometimes literally; he would slash a lot of his canvases. Over time, he wore paths through all of this material. For whatever reason, after he died his studio was moved from London to Dublin. You can imagine the archeological work involved with breaking it down into tens of thousands of pieces and then reconstructing it. I was drawn to the question of whether such a transplanted room retains its original power. Is it even the original, or is it a kind of simulacrum? It’s exactly the same, only it’s been taken apart and put back together, and now it’s in a new place: an uncanniness has been introduced.

That made me think about Freud’s room in London, which I lived near and also spent a lot of time in. It was a comforting place to me, as you can imagine Freud’s study might be for anyone [laughs]. I was thinking about how his wife and daughter tried to make upheaval easier for him by creating a replica of the study he had left behind in Vienna. When he died the following year, everything was left exactly where he last put it down, frozen in time, the glasses on the desk and all that, obsessively preserved until now.

I wanted a room of my own like that to experiment with. I was curious about the urge to preserve or reconstruct such a talismanic room. Weisz’s room—his father’s study in Budapest which is dismantled by the Nazis and which the son spends fifty years reconstructing in Jerusalem—became a way of experimenting with that. I once listened to a graphic artist give a presentation about a book he was working on, all of which takes place in the living room of his childhood house, and the book stretches from prehistoric time into the future. He built a little model of it so he could figure out how the sun would move through it. I remember thinking that that was similar to what I did with Weisz’s room. Only I wasn’t interested in how the light moved through it. I was interested in something else: what does it mean to try to recreate what has been lost, and can one ever recreate it? There remains the question of what’s missing, the imperfection that can’t be gotten around or erased. And what about those who instead reinvent themselves in the face of loss? And is recreation always a form of reinvention? I wanted to experiment with that idea, and I wanted to see what was at the bottom of my fascination with it.

Did you find what was on the bottom?

I found lots of things. One of the things I love about writing novels is that you realize that you’re not all that interested in the bottom. You’re more interested in things that are bottomless. You become fascinated by the questions, and the answers to those questions are secondary, if they become important at all. It’s really about posing questions. Great House is a novel about uncertainty, ambiguity, and doubt almost more than anything else, what it means to commit to a life regardless of those conditions.

The desk in Great House also strikes a chord at the Ransom Center because we have the desks of Edgar Allan Poe, Evelyn Waugh, John Fowles, and others. You’ve said that your desk is similar to the desk in Great House, but you didn’t realize it until later.

Yeah, you want it? I’m trying get rid of it [laughs]. It’s pretty big. It was a desk that was in the house I moved into. It was built by the house’s former owner to his esoteric specifications. It’s a bulky desk, overbearing in every way. It extends all the way up the wall. It has all of these shelves and drawers. But at least for a while I was completely unaware of its echo in the book I was writing it on.

At some point I realized, of course. Not only the physical resemblance, but that I was writing about inheritance. I didn’t realize until much later than I should have because the mind has a way of guarding itself from the origins of what it’s fictionalizing; otherwise it would be hard to have the balls to write about much of anything at all. The mind obscures, especially, the psychological origins of the work, I find. Later one discovers them.

My desk has always been almost comically burdensome to me because in order to get rid of it, which I always toy with the idea of doing, I’d have to have it destroyed (it’s on the top floor of the house and there’s no way to get the monster down the stairs). That always felt too wasteful to me. So there’s the absurd tension of not wanting it but feeling somehow bound to it. On top of all that, the former owner built it around this painted panel which he wrenched out when he moved out, so there’s this large, gaping hole in the desk right above my head, which has taken on obvious symbolic meaning to me [laughs] and which I still, daily, write under. All the same, it did me the good turn of giving me a means to approach a graver concern lurking below, having to do with the burden of the emotional furniture we inherit and pass on to our children. In other words, it gave me a novel, and so now I’m stuck with the thing, unless you want to come and relieve me of it.

In your essay, you described this phenomenon of not realizing until later the origins of what you’re writing about as a “blind spot.” Have you found examples of other blind spots?

I’m not drawn to writing autobiographically because it cramps me and comes at the cost of the freedom that writing otherwise allows–to go places that I haven’t gone, to invent, to experiment, to imagine, to push boundaries. But if I stray too far in that direction, then the work loses the urgency and necessity of the personal, and in the end it doesn’t work or come fully alive for me. So it’s a delicate balance, and there is very often that moment of revelation when I become aware of the ways in which my fiction reflects my own experience, or how it evolved from certain interior conditions or needs. It isn’t always a direct reflection, it’s rarely one-to-one, but there is always a moment where I become aware of the correspondence.

We’ve talked about your interest in transplanted rooms and writers’ desks. What’s your experience with archives?

I’m not a big researcher. When I was in graduate school in England, I found myself always bumping up against the same wall. I’d spend a lot of time in libraries, reading and aimlessly semi-researching, but then my mind would start to improvise. When I wrote about Rembrandt, for example, I found myself wanting to makes claims about interior life, or at least trying to imagine it. But beyond looking at his paintings, no amount of research would ever take me there. But a novel might.

I’m often asked about the research I’ve done for my novels, but the truth is that I did very little. Most of the places I’ve written about I know intimately; in the case of Chile, which I don’t, I went through an intense period of reading about the nightmare of the Pinochet regime long before I ever thought about writing about it. You might say that in the end, writing about it was the only solution for me. A novel grows to fit the author’s concerns.

“The Birth of Feeling” section of The History of Love reads: “Having begun to feel, people’s desire to feel grew. They wanted to feel more, feel deeper, despite how much it sometimes hurt. People became addicted to feeling. They struggled to uncover new emotions. It’s possible that this is how art was born.” How does this reflect your views of art?

There are moments in one’s reading when one encounters a passage that so precisely captures some aspect of existence, great or small, never previously articulated to you, but which you instantly understand and recognize nonetheless. It’s a little shocking, and it’s joyful, and one feels, suddenly, access to the underpinnings of everything. I think art is that–an enhancement, often a spiritual one.

Tell me about your visit to Israel in 2010 for the Jerusalem Cultural Fellowship. I understand you met with Yoram Kaniuk.

This was a pilot program, an academy at a wonderful place, Mishkenot Sha’ananim, where a small part of Great House takes place. It was the first settlement outside the walls of Jerusalem; nobody wanted to live outside the walls of Jerusalem at the time, in 1860, because it was so dangerous, gangs of marauding bandits and so on. In 1973 it became a place where artists were invited to stay and work, and now it’s one of the most beautiful places in the city. All kinds of writers, artists, and musicians have stayed there. [Saul] Bellow had a residency there. It’s likely that Singer stayed there at one point or another. Basically the director had the idea of reviving those residencies. It was a wonderful place to be, especially since I spent so much time in Jerusalem growing up.

Unlike Israeli writers like [David] Grossman, Amos Oz, Yoel Hoffmann, or others I’ve been reading for a long time, I hadn’t been familiar with Kaniuk. I stumbled onto one of his books in a bookstore, as one used to do [laughs]. It was called The Last Jew, and I couldn’t resist the title. I picked it up, and there was this incredible endorsement on it from Susan Sontag who said of all the books in translation she’d read, Gabriel García Márquez, Peter Handke, and Kaniuk were the greatest, or something along those lines. So then I had to read it. It’s an incredibly complex book, demanding in all kinds of ways, but absolutely remarkable; it’s like nothing else I’ve read. After I read everything of his that I could find, I got to know him in Israel. He’s a warm, old, cantankerous, stubborn, complicated soul and an incomparably great writer.

What advice do you have for writers?

It depends on who the writer is. Writing is incredibly hard work. Thinking itself is hard, and growing harder and harder under the tyranny of technologies of distraction. Writing, which is an elevated form of thinking, is even harder, and doing it in a sustained way over the course of a few years isn’t exactly a walk in the park. People often ask about the physical details of how a writer works–where, when, with what mechanism–as if it will reveal some hidden mystery as to how it’s done. But all of that is, of course, largely irrelevant. So, to begin with, writing requires time and tremendous will. Just to do it regularly, to persevere and not give up. The other necessary element, for me, is freedom, a spirited conviction that you are going to allow yourself to do whatever you want to do in the work, however unpromising or ill-advised it may seem.

I sometimes wonder whether the atmosphere in which so many young writers start off, in writing and MFA classes, isn’t problematic for that reason. Before their work is even finished it’s put before a jury of their peers. If I had to submit my work to such a jury once a week, to any jury, I’d have to spend the rest of the week resuscitating the stubbornness that keeps me writing. It takes a certain courage, or perhaps just obliviousness, to pursue things that feel risky or poised to fail. But in my experience, it’s those efforts that lead to the most interesting things, the things that I end up sticking with and which take me places that feel most worth going to.

What are you reading now?

The Sermon and Other Stories by Haim Hazaz, who was the first writer to win the Israel Prize. This summer, I read a lot of Tove Jansson, a Finnish writer most famous for her books for children, the Moomintroll series. But later in her life she started writing books for adults, and The New York Review of Books has recently been publishing them in English. The Summer Book is wonderful. It’s about a grandmother and her granddaughter on a remote Finnish island. This girl’s mother has died, but that’s never spoken of. It’s only reflected through the very unique relationship between this stubborn, unconventional older woman and the young girl, equally stubborn, and the unusual things that absorb their attention. Jansson is also one of the best nature writers I’ve ever encountered.

Who are some of the writers you admire?

Bruno Schulz, [Franz] Kafka, [Samuel] Beckett, [Saul] Bellow, [Georges] Perec. In the last few years, I read all of Thomas Bernhard and became consumed by him for awhile, fascinated, in particular, by his penchant for upsetting or offending people; it runs so contrary to the contemporary American climate of appealingness, charm, lightness, of all that goes down easily.

There are also poets who matter very much to me. Yehuda Amichai and the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert both impacted me deeply when I was younger and taught me something about the kind of writer I wanted to be. To remind myself, I still return to them.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

In good company: Author busts keep watch over scholars in the Reading Room

By Elana Estrin

Busts on the north end of the Ransom Center's lobby. Photo by Eric Beggs.
Busts on the north end of the Ransom Center's lobby. Photo by Eric Beggs.

It’s hard enough to do archival research without the subjects themselves peering over your shoulder. But if you visit the Ransom Center Reading Room to pore over the letters, manuscripts, and papers of James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Robert De Niro, or Edgar Allan Poe, they are all there to supervise your research—or at least their busts are.

Fourteen busts perched in the lobby greet Ransom Center visitors, and 29 busts keep an eye on the Reading Room. Many of the sculptures—such as Walt Whitman, Tom Stoppard, and Ezra Pound—represent those whose collections are housed at the Ransom Center. Figures whose archives are not at the Ransom Center—such as Leo Tolstoy, Albert Einstein, and D. H. Lawrence—are represented in other archives. The sculptors range from the well known, like Jacob Epstein, to the unidentified, to Leo Tolstoy, Jr., who sculpted his father’s bust.

According to Associate Curator of Art Peter Mears, who oversees the busts, such sculptures are part of the English literary tradition.

“The busts are part of the library’s high-end furniture. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. It’s the distinguished look of the library that provides that atmosphere for research.”

If researchers happen to be studying one of the luminaries whose bust oversees the Reading Room, it may behoove them to examine the bust. The sculptures and the stories behind their production often enhance what researchers learn from the subjects’ archives.

For example, the marble bust of Edith Sitwell radiates her formidable personality.

Another example comes from one of the most unusual busts at the Ransom Center: that of Welsh poet and writer Dylan Thomas. Sculpted by Hugh Oloff de Wet two years before Thomas’s death, the bust is thought to be the only sculpture made of Thomas while he was alive. De Wet sculpted Thomas’s disheveled tie to hold the head up high, wrinkles etch his face, and a cigarette dangles from his mouth. Before arriving at the Ransom Center, the bust was missing until it turned up at London’s Festival Hall in 2003. Shortly after, a woman named Peta Van den Bergh wrote a letter to The Guardian saying that her parents were mutual friends of Thomas and de Wet, and de Wet sculpted the bust in his parents’ sitting room. “The idea of having the bust smoking a cigarette came from Dylan Thomas himself,” Van den Bergh writes, “Having walked around and inspected the head, he proclaimed that something was missing and stuck his own cigarette in its mouth. Hugh duly copied and added it.” Van den Bergh recalls that de Wet finished quickly, which allowed him to capture Thomas’s “ruffled, pressurized character.”

In addition to de Wet’s Dylan Thomas bust, the Ransom Center also has de Wet’s busts of Ezra Pound, Edmund Blunden, Roy Campbell, and John Cowper Powys. Mears counts de Wet’s sculpture of Ezra Pound, which he calls “raw and striking,” among his favorite busts at the Ransom Center. According to Mears, de Wet visited Pound at his home in Rapallo, Italy in 1965. As was his practice, de Wet chatted with Pound to relax him while drawing an initial sketch. He then sculpted the bust alone in order to “mould and twist and pinch and knuckle and knead the red mud as fast as [my hands] could follow mnemonic contours extruded from my mind.” When de Wet showed Pound the finished product, Pound said, “You had finished when you began.” In addition to the bust, the Ransom Center also holds de Wet’s initial sketch and a photograph of the wizened Pound posing beside his bust.

The Ransom Center’s busts of Robert Frost, Rudyard Kipling, John O’Hara, John Steinbeck, and William Carlos Williams are all by boxer-turned-sculptor Joe Brown. When he retired from boxing, Brown started making money by posing for students at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Unimpressed by a boxing sculpture the instructor made, Brown gave sculpting a try. He placed his first three sculptures in an exhibition, thus launching a successful career. Brown later taught at Princeton University as both a boxing and sculpting instructor.

In a 1973 Sports Illustrated article, Brown recalls a conversation between his student and Robert Frost when Frost posed for his bust, which is displayed in the Ransom Center lobby.

Student: “How do you go about writing a poem?”

Frost: “Well, first something has to happen to you. Then you put some words on a piece of paper and ride them like a horse until you have a poem.”

Student: “I think I should set myself a program and write two, four, even six hours a day, whether I feel like it or not. Do you think that’s a good program?”

Frost: “It sounds like a good program. I’m sure it’ll improve your handwriting.”

Student (angered): “I’m serious.”

Frost: “I’m serious, too. You want me to give you the truth wrapped in a bundle so that you can put it under your arm and take it home and open it when you need it. Well, I can’t do that. The truth wouldn’t be there anymore.”

Busts sit atop shelves in the Ransom Center's Reading and Viewing Rooms. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Busts sit atop shelves in the Ransom Center's Reading and Viewing Rooms. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.