I Married Joan (of Arc), or
My First Former Ex-Wife was
an AngryTeenage Butch Lesbian:
March 8, 2000
SCENE: Jack Danielson's Resturant and Pub
Cortland, NY (A small college town in central NY)
Late Evening, early March
JG. (Jan Galligan) and J. (his friend) are having
late dinner and drinks, decompressing from their
2 hour and 20 minute drive from Albany, and considering
their next move(s)...
JG: Well, at least you didn't get a speeding ticket.
J: I suppose; how are those porkchops? This chicken breast
is pretty dried out, and what's that sauce they put
on your chops?
JG: Some kind of liquid garnish, but I have to say, it's
thick I can hardly find the porkchops. Mine are kinda
Waiter: How's everything here?
J&JG: Oh, fine, thanks.
W: Can I get you anything else?
J: Some more water would be good.
JG: I could use half-a-dozen more napkins please.
JG: So, J., what's new in the world of heteropatriarchial
J: You know, same-old-same-old, though we did have this interesting
case the other day with one of our psychology professors, a
woman who was doing funded research exploring the uses of
technology for monitoring and control. She was getting money
DOD and NSA to look at implant technologies. Recently she was
investigating something she called RATT, for Radio wave, Auditory,
Assualtive, Transmitting implants. Her idea was that short wave
operators could transmit signals to implants, or scan the implants
which would then allow them to hear the victim's thoughts and
speech. They could do this remotely. It only depends on the
range of the short wave transmitter. Plus it allows the
operator to talk to the victim via the implant, remotely
and anonymously. Kinda like having voices in your head which
can respond to what you say and what you think. Not too different
than the old Joan of Arc "I hear voices" thing. Well, anyhow,
got a little too far out in her ideas, so they suspended her
and transferred her courses and grad students to other faculty.
JG: What was the big deal?
J: You remember a few years ago, a student took a roomful of
hostage at gunpoint, right?
JG: Yeah, vaguely.
J: He was an undergrad. Thought
that the government had planted microchips in his body and
they were talking to him. Giving him ideas he didn't want
JG: Exactly, now I remember. What happened to him?
J: Killed himself a few months ago. Hanged himself in his prison
JG: Did he have any classes with this woman professor?
Waiter: Excuse me gentlemen, are you finished here?
J.&JG: Yes, definitely.
J: Let's go to the bar, and have another drink.
They move into the adjoining room, sitting down on stools
next to another man about thier age.
JG: Bartender, two Jack Daniels, on the rocks please.
JG: (Turning to the man on his left) Excuse
me, aren't you
NB: Why yes, I am. How did you recognize me? I usually don't
get noticed much out in public.
JG: Easy, I've been to your website a few times. My name's
Jan, Galligan and this is my friend, J.
NB: Nice to meet you, Jay and J.
J: You're the guy who wrote the book that Monica Lewinsky gave
Clinton, right? JOLT, or JOCKS, something like
NB: VOX. Right, but I have to tell you, I really dislike
associated with those two.
J: Sorry. Look, I really liked that other book about being
in a shopping mall, going up and down the escalator. What
gets you so wrapped up in non-sequitors like that?
NB: I do seem to be attracted to things I think are unsung. Or,
writing about literary figures, I prefer to write
about the guy Alexander Pope copied from, rather than celebrating
Pope, since he has plenty of people making a
fuss over him. I'm still by nature a contrarian. There's all
excitement about online search engines and therefore
it really is time to take a close look at the card catalog and
the ways in which it does certain things better.
Then you start to feel a little perverse and think that the sung
things are really so sung that they've become unsung
and therefore my job to is to celebrate the over familiar. You
get yourself kind of knotted up over what is
commonplace and what is forgotten, what is neglected and what
Finding the things that people haven't talked about and then
about them is what writers and poets have
always done. There are just different routes to doing it. I
felt that I had more chance to say new things
about the escalator than to say new things about the chrysanthemum
because the escalator has been around for a
shorter period of time. Although it's mighty exciting when you can
come up with something new about the
chrysanthemum. Then you're up there with the Big Boys.
JG: Yeah, right.
NB: I felt I had all these little
private discoveries. Of course they weren't. They
were discoveries that every fairly normal human being
makes -- for
instance, that it is very satisfying to write on
the blade of a Rubbermaid spatula or the little door seals
refrigerator with a ball-point pen, especially when
you're talking on the telephone. But once you've written about
becomes part of the common currency, the
vernacular, and it's no longer a private joy. I hoarded all
things up, observations that I'd made and typed
out, that I'd thought about, and didn't want to give away. But
we had a baby, and I quit my job and I had to
write a book. Naturally I turned to this little bank of observations
and produced "The Mezzanine," and decided
that the whole idea of keeping things rare would simply not
me as a writer because I'd never make a living.
J: Not with so many secrets.
NB: No. So since then I've tried to tell
as many secrets as I possibly
could and get them out there, in bulk, to the
J: Do you ever worry about running out
NB: Well, there are all different kinds
of them, different emotional
flavors. I went through that little sex phase, you
know. There were lots of big secrets
there. And it felt like a big
enough subject that there were lots of subsidiary
things that, as I was writing them,
felt a little under-talked-about.
But then again, I don't want anyone else to write
about sex. That's how sick I am. I would
like to tell these little
things and then have it be the final statement.
Nobody ever again would write about
sex because I'd written these two
books. But it doesn't really work that
way, does it?
J: No, I guess not.
NB: Ah, but that was the question. In
the case of writing on a rubber
spatula, I can write that and someone can say,
"Oh, yeah, I enjoy that, too," and I can think I'm a normal
and part of humankind having the same
meditative, idle thoughts that everyone else has. With "Vox"
Fermata", it hasn't been quite so clear,
especially with "The Fermata". Half the people who read it just
me. So I didn't have quite the same feeling
of being part of the chortling mass of humanity.
With "The Fermata" I also felt I was writing the textbook
private method. What I was trying to do as a
novelist was to cause interruptions in time that were long enough
do justice to whatever piece of the world was
before me. To think about it, to find out where it was
beautiful and then to put it on the page. That takes
a lot of time. When you're writing and things are going well
you're thinking about something hard, it really
does feel as if the rest of the world is in a state of suspension.
was a novelistic fantasy. But somewhere along the
line, it also became important to me to be true to my own early
for this fantasy, which dates from the fourth
grade and which was definitely sexual. I thought of stopping
fourth grade class and taking off my clothes and
taking off the teacher's clothes.
JG: (Aside to J.) Jesus, doesn't this guy ever shut up.
NB: It's bewildering to write about sex
because you get this chorus of
horrified people who say, "What has he done,
what has happened to our little Baker who used to write about
earplug and now he's writing these 'grisly sex
scenes,'" which was a phrase from a review. Especially in England.
It's interesting to watch reviewers. You can
see them on the page thinking, "How can we really put his eye
How can we hit him so hard that he bleeds
from the spleen? I know how we can do it, we can say that it
as if his early books were interesting, but
really they were symptomatic of a mental deviation that now
with 'The Fermata.' We can say not only that
'The Fermata' stinks, but that it invalidates all of
work." Maybe it was in part because the book sold
really quite well there and was number one on the bestseller
seemed to cause a sort of teeth-clenched hate
over there. So I had this shocked, disgusted reaction on the
hand, especially with "The Fermata." Then, on the other
there are all these cool people around, who are pierced like
and say "Oh, tame, tame." And I think, Gee
I've done my best not to be tame. This is as untame as I can
be. I am
just not temperamentally into things that are
considered now trendily untame. Any sort of violence or simulated
violence or anything like that is an automatic
turn-off to my imagination. Much as I would have liked to deliver
what would be taken as a shocking book by the
really cool San Franciscans who know about these things, I can't
JG: I was in San Francisco, last summer. My friend J.C. Garrett
lives there. I went...
NB: "Vox" was very nice because they're both talking and
can stop talking
at any time, a consenting situation. "The Fermata"
is about a sneaky guy who goes around taking women's clothes off
without asking them. Obviously, that is a
regrettable thing for him to be doing and he should not do that.
is this something that has crossed people's
minds? It turns out that it is. I really don't like talking
sex at a dinner party in a yo-ho-ho
way. Having published two books that are fairly
dirty, I find there's a funny thing that happens, especially
J: I see.
NB: They think, "Nick Baker is one of those horny
guys who likes to talk about sex, so I'm going to tell sex stories."
The conversation suddenly becomes sexualized
and everybody's kind of squinting, and waving their arms around
thinking "Let's not be here." And it's all Nick
Baker's fault. But I don't want any of that to happen because
it all to happen in the book, while the reader
is in a state of receptive, imaginative sympathy with the character,
or maybe horrified fascination, but somehow on
his or her own and able to think about it in private.
JG: You know anything about Napster?
J: Nick, what about your family?
NB: With "The Fermata," there was a moan of unhappiness
from some family
members. . .well, notably from my
mother, when it became clear that there was going to be another book
that she wasn't going to be able to read.
That makes sense. Do you as a parent really want to know all
about your kid? No. Margaret, my wife, liked
"Vox," so I thought I was OK there, then I tried out the
"The Fermata" on her and she said, "No, that's a
terrible idea and it doesn't do a thing for me." So immediately
became an "underappreciated idea" and I could
think to myself that I would give it the treatment of all treatments
and even Margaret who thinks it's extremely
unpromising will see how truly great it is as a subject for
And it almost worked. But she still sometimes
gets pissed off at me when we start talking about "The Fermata."
J: Actually, my first ex-wife is a writer. Playwright. More exactly
a former teenage angry butch lesbian turned author and performer.
She's doing a one-woman version of the Joan of Arc story here
on campus tonight, called "The Second Coming of Joan of Arc".
JG: Yeah, that's why we're here.
NB: Hmmm. Well, anyhow I didn't tour for the hardcover of "The
Fermata" because I didn't want to go around
reading this thing that would upset people. I did tour when the
paperback came out because I figured that anything
that was going to happen had already happened. I found that getting
up in front of people -- and it's not like I
haven't done readings before -- I would not just blush, but
kind of mahogany color. I could feel myself
radiating this massive blushing force into the room. By nature
the sort of person who's going to blush. When
you write a novel, of course the page is black and white. There
change of color. Maybe with the newer
novel on screen, as we got to the dirtier passage, the background
could kind of shade to suit it.
JG: Mr. Baker. Why are you here in Cortland?
NB: Oh, Women's Studies brought me in to do a reading from my
book about my daughter.
JG: I've got a daughter.
J: So Nick, what about all this sex stuff, doesn't it bother
NB: I don't think that anyone gets upset when reading about
anymore. It's so much read about, written about that, if anything,
fails to be upsetting enough and it's kind of exhausting. Nobody
upset really when reading Vox because it's a kind of congenial
conversation between two people who want to be talking together.
they got upset about The Fermata because, well obviously,
this sneaky guy is going around and he's doing things to these
they haven't said he could do. And that's very upsetting. I
mean, it's upsetting if it really happened to one, I suppose.
it's physically impossible. It could be interesting to think
for six and a half hours. That was my thought. Apparently I was
J: So what would you say to the obvious feminist argument
is objectifying women and therefore it's evil.
NB: Oh well, I don't have a good counter argument to that.
clearly the book is objectifying women. But when I asked people,
men, what they would do when they stopped time, they came up
some little scenelet that involved the objectification of women.
And it seemed somehow pressingly important for me to capture
complicated and interesting way I could this obviously
widespread adolescent urge that men have and put it down on
Then we can all sort of buy it warily and sort of make sense
out of it.
J: Well, the thing that I noticed about it is when you
same women who were upset about it a couple of drinks, they
volunteered that at least one of the things
they would do if they
could stop time would be sexual. I felt like that that answered
NB: Is that true, really, that when you plied them with
said, I would take out a shirt sleeve and I would unbutton
the....What would they do?
J: Mostly it involved the same thing, looking at them without
clothes, or putting themselves in a place so that the guy
couldn't see them.
NB: Where more could be seen than was permissible.
NB: Where my character errs is simply that he does it too
much. I mean,
that seems to be what ticks some women off. Yes, sure they would
break the law five times, and pull a man's pants down and check
out. But not a hundred times. That's what's so wrong. But I
never really was convinced by that argument from quantity.
J: Morally, what's the difference?
NB: Well, I suppose morally there is a difference. It's
worse to steal
a lot than it is to steal a little bit. There is a difference;
it's not quite as strong an argument as I first think I'm
going to get
when a women says, 'Well, that's horrible. That's a revolting
thing to do
and I would never do that.' And I kind of think, okay, then,
I'm on very weak ground. But then later on they say, 'Well, I
would do it,
but not so much.' And that doesn't
quite have the umph somehow.
J: What's the difference between pornography in, say, Hustler
Fermata? How are they different?
JG: Hustler! Do you know Paul Krassner, Mr. Baker? He
edited Hustler right
after Larry Flynt was shot and he got religion from Jimmy Carter's
NB: The first thing is, it must be 15 years since I've
seen Hustler, so
you're asking the wrong guy, but you mean the written porn in
Hustler? The standard Penthouse Forum porn and
Fermata? Gee, I
hope that it might have some of the same effect, that it
might be sexy. I certainly think that some of those Penthouse
are not to be underestimated.
JG: I wrote a letter to Penthouse once, but they never
J: The argument I'm trying to get at is when people said,
you read that? That's not Literature! That's pornography!'
NB: The risk is that you run down Penthouse letters
as this pathetic
form. It's actually a sophisticated achievement that's been
developed and honed for decades to come up with this strangely
rarefied vocabulary. But what The Fermata is is, I just wanted
be funnier and more intellectually complicated. I wanted it
to have a
Another man (JN) saunters over
to the bar.
JN: Hey! What's all this shit about Hustler and Penthouse.
in both of them. It ain't no biggie.
JG: Whoa. Aren't you Jack (The Mayor of Hollywood) Nicholson?
JN: Listen, don't give me that "Mayor" bullshit.
JG: Oops. Sorry.
NB: ...verbal surface. That's why I spent time thinking
of new words for things, you know, naming dildos and all that.
to figure out what the right plural of a dildo might be in an
overexcited sexual state. Maybe dildos plural wouldn't be an
i, as if
it were a masculine noun. Maybe it would become neuter or a
feminine plural, or maybe it would become a Germanic plural,
were really turned on.
J: Of course! It makes perfect sense!
JN: Dildo's? Those things are for sissies and old women.
NB: I was trying to get at that confused, but cheerfully
that some of us can sometimes hit when things are going right.
I can't piece out or spell out what the difference is between
standard Penthouse letter, say, and the short story about
on her riding mower. But mine is just, I hope, stranger and I really
do like that confused...
JN: Lawnmower? What fucking woman is gonna write a letter to
about her lawnmower, and which fucking guy is gonna read it
NB: ...state where you might be laughing but
afterwards remembering it as sexy or you might be aroused and
remember it as funny. Sometimes Penthouse letters do that, but
don't quite do it, I think.
J: But what you did instead is you got the use of language
think you're more artful in using language, that somehow
transcends or parodies porn.
NB: Yes, see we've got all this porn floating around, video
junk e-mail coming all the time and Penthouse letters and
everything and the novelists' job is to adjust to it and take
next step and help figure out how we really think about that
In other words, The Fermata would be impossible without plain
pornography. It's an attempt to leap beyond, while tipping its
hat in pornography's direction.
J: That's true.
NB: Thank you! I'm standing on the shoulders of giants!
JN; Yeah. And I'm sitting next to a bunch of assholes. Listen,
guys coming to the screening of my film tonight?
JG: What film?
JN: "As Good as it Gets". You know. The one they were
"Where's the Kitty Litter". The Psychology department
me here to show the film and do a little song and dance after.
What are you guys drinking?
JG: Jack Daniels.
JN: Jackie. Set these guys up with another round of doubles,
give me a couple for myself too.
JG: Listen, Jack. Thanks for the drink, but can I ask you
JG: Is it really true that you sister is your mother?
JN: Well, that's the price of fame, people start
poking around in your private life, and the next thing
you know your sister is actually your mother.
But it wasn't what I'd call traumatizing. After all, by the time
found out who my mother was I was pretty well psychologically
As a matter of fact, it made quite a few things clearer to me.
anything, I felt grateful. About the only lasting effect it had
was it sort of polarized my feelings about abortion. I think
it would be comically incorrect for someone in my position to
abortion. But I am pro-choice. People always say, 'How can you
pro-choice and against abortion?' Well, I tell them, this is
of the ways."
NB: Well, I did used to read those letters in Penthouse
and things, I
mean I am a more visual person than verbal, or at least I was
an adolescent. When I first thought...
JN: Penthouse? Shit, it was Hustler that first
told the public
about my sister. That asshole Krassner's the one that did
it. Then for some fucking reason it showed up in Penthouse,
in the letters section, then the whole goddamned world knew
about it and I started getting letters. I thought I'd write
'em a goddammed letter myself...
NB: ...I would like to be a writer, and I thought about genres,
of the things I thought I would like to
do was pornography. But I had the same problem that Arno in
book has, which is, you know how he talks about how simply
starting the story, typing capital s-h-e, you know 'SHE walked
the room,' and knowing that all kinds of naked stuff was going
happen was too much for me. So it took me ten years to finish
paragraph, in some sort of coherent form. I guess I finished
outgrew my wish to add my little contribution to the grand
pornographic tradition after The Fermata. I'm done for
JG: I wrote a letter to Penthouse once, but they never answered.
NB: A guy came up to me in Portland the other day and said,
'I need to
talk to you about that passage when you're pre-bunching
your socks.' He went into this thing about what he does is lie
bed when he gets out of the shower and he does a little dance
and sort of wipes his feet off on the bed clothes. And
he says, 'I just
don't understand why you didn't...
JN: Who gives a shit about your fucking socks?
NB: ...talk about that. Couldn't you
have? I always wanted to tell you that.' So that's a nice thing.
get letters from people who kind of want to go on with their
additional tricks and adjustments to these things. Sometimes
things I've thought of and thought, well I'll spare the reader
one. But sometimes they're things I haven't thought of, like
ever really tried to lie down on my bed after the shower and
a little dance. I don't think our bedspread...well, it's gray,
it would be okay, but, I don't think my wife would go for it
wouldn't really either.
J: And then again, it might get those little marks on it
your feet were everyday.
JN: I'd leave some tracks in your bed, alright.
JG: Hey, anybody got the time?
NB: I see now the problem is needing to slow the world down in
for my prose to catch up with it. That's kind of what I do in
The Mezzanine. A footnote in a sense was kind of a preliminary
at time perversion, in that you stop in the middle of a
sentence, something that talks about straws, and then you switch
off and drop down to the bottom of the page, and then have
this whole secret life of straw thoughts that the sentence doesn't
about. So that is how to do time perversion given an
JN: (aside to JG) What the fuck is he talking about? It's
NB: ...realistic set of assumptions. But what The Fermata
tried to do is say, okay what is something you like doing?
You like having these secret reservoirs of intellection that
go on in
the midst of life. Why not assume that it could actually happen
and imagine the switch that could really turn the universe off.
would that really involve? What would happen to the sensation
of water if you swam through it with time stopped? What would
you got out of the car if it was driving fast? So it's an
extension of the earlier interest in the manipulation of time,
brought up its own problems. Part of the fun of the book was
to decide about those problems.
J: What about rain?
JN: What rain?
NB: I only treated rain briefly at the end when, finally,
poor Arno found a kindred spirit somewhat and he then takes her
back to her apartment so that she'll have this abrupt transition
between being in the restaurant and being naked in bed with him.
was raining when he stopped time, and so the whole trip through
city involves his creating this path through the halted drops.
And then they could retrace that path if they wanted.
Say if you shined
a flashlight over the halted rain, assuming the light was
working properly, you would be able to see
that darker tunnel that you
had created in the drops. This is what interested me when I was
writing it...that you would get less wet in
the frozen universe as you
were walking than if you were walking in a normal rainstorm,
because you were only passing through the
raindrops that are already
there, not the ones that continue to come down. I think that's
true. Now that I think of it, I'm wondering.
Anyway, those kinds of
little puzzles were much of what was fun about writing the book,
that is when I wasn't so beside myself with
arousal that I could
actually write. There's another characteristic the book seems
have--it follows a kind of smut curve. It
just gets dirtier and dirtier
as you go. Do you find that?
NB: Well, why not, right?
J: In a way you become more and more tolerant as it goes
JG: Listen, J. It's getting late. Jack said it's 8:16. I think
may have started already.
NB: Yes, I'm wearing the poor reader down!
J: Wouldn't it be interesting to plot the blood pressure
of the irate
feminist as she pages through the book?
NB: I think really that a lot of the people who disliked
didn't read it, and that's a good thing. I don't want people
to be made
angry by the things I write. I'm honestly
not that kind of writer. So,
I don't think that the people who really disliked it read it,
maybe the people who had to out of duty because
they were writing a
review. The idea so turned them off that they hated me from
the outset. That's sort of what's supposed
to happen. If you as a
reader hate the idea, don't read the book and everything will
right. And the other thing that's maybe heartening
about the way things
work now is that I know that a number of producers at NPR
hated the book because I heard this from several
people who are
inclined to do what publishers do, which is get me interviews
radio shows. Producers at NPR are women, and
there certainly are a
great number of women who don't like this book. So thirty years
ago if those same women disliked this book,
nothing would have
happened. But now, because women have power, real measurable
power in this culture, I don't get on the
radio. And I think that's
very encouraging. It wasn't so perfect for me or maybe my publisher,
actually it was a relief for me because I
want to do as little
publicity as I can. But it shows that now women have the ability
taste in way that they might not have had
thirty years ago. NPR is
really the most important outlet from the publishers point of
I think. So, anyway, I think that's encouraging.
JG: J. We gotta get out of here, right?
J: Yes. Actually, I hope you, Nick, and Jack, will excuse us.
have to get over to Old Main. My former first ex-wife butch
lesbian is performing her one-woman show and it may have already
started. I haven't seen her in almost thirty years...
JN: Yeah. All my former ex-wifes are butch lesbians, or most
JG: So long Jack. See you later, Mr. Baker.
JN: Right. So long you guys.
JN: Say Nick. What's up with your books regarding movie
NB: Oh, I've gotten a few offers for The Fermata,
but nothing that
quite made me think I wanted to do it yet. It would just have
done so carefully. Otherwise, the images wouldn't
work. The way you
present this halted universe is very tricky. It has to be this
sort of rich frozenness. It can't look like
the single frame of a
movie. I don't know, I guess I just haven't had the right offer
But I am much more willing to sell The Fermata than Vox.
It seems as if it
would be a completely different final product, whereas with Vox
it's really as if I would then have written
the screenplay and that
they would shoot. I wanted it to be private. I like the idea
thinking about the reader reading that book
and imagining the two
voices and having it be that kind of telephonic experience
between the book itself and the reader.
JN: Come on, Nick, cut the bullshit. Maybe we can work out a
Fermata, right? What's that? Time stops. I can see myself
as the main
character. Zappo, I've whacked time, right in the kisser. Everybody's
frozen, and I'm walking around. I go up to the first sexy broad
I pick up her skirt. I pull down her panties. She's mine, and
even know it. Nick, this is some great idea you got here. Come
Talk to me; let's make a deal.