Friday, May 11, 2012

RUNX TALES #3 Preview!

Just finished letterpress printing the cover to RUNX TALES #3. Hopefully, this will inspire me to get crackin' on the contents! Also working out a way to pay for printing costs. The new issue will feature a piece in collaboration with Nora Benson-Glaspey (of "Nora Stories") on the metaphysical underbelly of San Jose. It will also include the story of two less than lucrative sugar-daddy relationships I had. Check out the following links for sneak peeks at a tribute to the old Super Longs drugstore in Oakland and an interview with writer Jincy Willett

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Monkeybicycle features new short story!

In "Columbus Was Named For the Dove," a teacher has an introspective moment in a (haunted? by Thomas Kincaid?) faculty lounge. You can read the story over at Monkeybicycle!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Death On the Highway: An Interview with Ginger Strand

I’ve never been to Niagara Falls, but reading Ginger Strand’s Inventing Niagara made me think I have. The book, which looks at the faded tourist trap that straddles the US-Canadian border, examines the site from every angle: historical, cultural, political, personal, and most importantly, physical. The book is notable for its keen sense of place, a quality that’s rare in this increasingly online world. And it’s a quality that carries over into her new book, Killer On the Road: Violence and the American Interstate (UT Press), which tackles a subject near to my heart: the world we’ve created to accommodate cars.

The effect of cars on our landscape (and our psyches) is vast—something I like to harp on in my Letters from Pedestrianica. And Strand’s book, which mixes true crime and cultural analysis, looks at the various nightmares the US Interstate system has fostered. Not only are its long, lonely, anonymous stretches perceived as breeding grounds for serial killers, it has also irreparably scarred our cities, slashing neighborhoods in half, displacing already vulnerable populations, and making the establishment of long-term urban communities near impossible. I was excited to talk to Strand recently about road rage, the interstate as corporate welfare, and the acquisitiveness of the serial killer.

All photos courtesy of Ginger Strand. See more over at her website!

Matt Runkle: Killer On the Road is much less personal than Inventing Niagara. In Niagara, you relay the experiences surrounding your research, and frankly discuss the way the iconic falls became interwoven with your life. Why did you decide to maintain a more detached point of view in Killer On the Road?

Ginger Strand: Hey, great question! People hardly ever ask questions about form, and it's always disappointing, because form is what writers think about nonstop. Anyway, yes, Killer is far less personal than my last book. In Inventing Niagara, I wrote myself in as a way of giving the book a narrative through-line. And I wanted to convey the excitement of historical discovery—it can be downright exciting to root around in archives! But I used my own obsession as a way of tying the story together. So when I started Killer on the Road, I intended to do something similar, but pretty quickly I realized that I had to get out of the way of this story. The through-line was already complicated enough with the history of the interstates and the rise of the serial killer as an outlaw type, not to mention the serial killers themselves, and having the story of my discovery of all this was just too many threads. So I 86ed myself, because I was the least essential part of the story.  

MR: This book is great, by the way. I love how you make these larger connections that aren’t usually made in true crime. I rarely hear violence explicitly being linked to the car like this—which is weird to me, since it’s such an essentially violent invention. “Behind the wheel, we are all psychopaths,” you write, referencing studies that show that driving makes it hard for us to be perceived as human, and that we, in turn, dehumanize others when we’re behind the wheel. Are there ways, do you think, for drivers to overcome this dehumanization? Your book covers a lot of geographical territory, and I imagine you had to cover thousands of freeway miles in order to investigate each chapter. Did you learn anything about yourself as a driver during your research?

GS: I would say I became much more aware of what is actually going on when I'm driving. Like most people, I have a tendency to get annoyed and scream obscenities at other cars—now I realize that my road rage is actually a response to being deprived of a sort of recognition that we humans crave from each other. That helps actually! I do think that maybe just by recognizing what's happening somewhat, we can resist the dehumanizing effects of automobility. But our cars—getting bigger and smoother and more encapsulated—are not helping us. Everyone's in his or her own world, zipping along at 75 miles an hour, probably texting to boot. But the car is just one of the many, many features of modernity that is making us less humane.

MR: I’m also curious about how the car serves as a sort of prosthesis, and in what ways this might make people feel disembodied. Could this feeling trigger the gratuitous sort of dismemberment so commonly carried out by serial killers? 

GS: I think that a lot of the gratuitous dismemberment or necrophilia carried out by serial killers is about ownership. They want to completely possess another person. And that's not unlike the acquisitive urges often expressed with respect to cars. In fact, Ted Bundy literally said that what he wanted was to own another person the way you would own a Porsche.
MR: It’s interesting that the interstate was originally pitched as something that would break down class barriers, even as it sped up class stratification. From today’s standpoint, as we see the middle- and lower-classes pretty flagrantly under attack by those at the top, I’m curious: do you feel like there was an explicitly sinister intention behind the interstate plan? Or did those who pushed it forward actually have nobler intentions?

GS: This is, I think, one of the key points of the book. The interstate highway system was a stimulus program, but it was not about creating jobs or helping workers. It was about handing big profits to big corporations: General Motors, Ford, Portland Cement, Bechtel, Haliburton. In that way, it was the first top-down entitlement. That sort of corporate welfare has become pretty central in our economy today. And I think it has failed us as a nation. That's not to say that the conservative economic advisors who shaped this program in the Eisenhower era were ill-willed or malevolent. But I do think they were wrong.

MR: Your observations about the class motivations of serial killers are fascinating: the way their psychoses often seem to be fueled by class resentment, and the way victims’ bodies feed an acquisitiveness patterned after consumer culture. You also point out the class disparity between most real-life serial killers and their fictional counterparts (Hannibal Lecter, Patrick Bateman), as well as the way the media exaggerated Ted Bundy’s cultured image. Why do you think the public prefers their serial killers to be upper class?

GS: It's an interesting question. The "upscaling" of the serial killer coincides with the serial killer becoming a recognized type of anti-hero. It makes him easier to get interested in—people are always more interested in hearing about the lives of rich people than the lives of poor people—and it also makes him more fun to hate and fear. So you can have someone like Hannibal Lecter, who is both terrifying but also weirdly admirable—he's so elegant, so sophisticated, so smart.  

MR: The book ends with the observation that the road, due to its anonymous nature, has always been a dangerous place. At an earlier point, you mention the Thuggee, a cultish group of highwaymen who supposedly killed millions of travelers between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries in India. The interstate, through sheer bleakness and velocity, intensifies that intrinsic danger, but I’m curious: How much of the sinister mythos of the road is kind of there in our collective unconscious? I know it’s probably a topic for another book, but I’m wondering if you came across patterns of Dangerous Highway stories in pre-interstate myths and folklore. 

GS: Oh yeah, the road has always been a site of danger. The word "highwayman" predates cars; the ancient Greeks feared crossroads. The road stands for a kind of fundamental unknowability—you don't know where the road goes, you don't know who might come down it. It's a site of mystery. And it's a literal embodiment of the passage of time, and we all know what lies at the end of that: death.

MR: I love the chapter on the way hitchhiking was seen by the counterculture of the ‘60s and ‘70s: as a way to reconnect in the increasingly disconnected world being created by freeways. I pretty naively followed in their footsteps in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, hitchhiking back and forth across the country several times, sometimes feeling vaguely afraid, but ultimately deciding (as someone who wanted to write fiction) the insight I got into people’s lives was worth it. I decided that those who stopped to pick me up were either uncommonly nice or uncommonly crazy or both, and the conversation that was expected of me, while sometimes draining, was always worth it. During the hours I spent waiting at onramps, the absurdity of the interstate system really sunk in. The gap between how much constant movement there was and how long it took me to actually get moving seemed ridiculous. Do you think the interstate system could ever be re-imagined as something that more efficiently conveyed people, as a system whose primary function was patterned after mass transit rather than personal convenience?

GS: You never know what might happen as gasoline inches toward being correctly priced. There have been attempts in the past to institute things like official ride-share programs, and these things might come back. In fact, I was at the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center, a research facility for the Federal Highway Administration, and they had a huge ride-share bulletin board in their lobby! If the FHA can do it, why not the rest of us?
MR: The landscape of the freeway is one of death. Nothing grows there (besides the hardiest of plants, which are a landscaping afterthought). In your chapter on truckers, you detail the lack of nutrients available at truck stops. Is it a leap, do you think, to say that the lack of bounty at the Interstate’s resting points reflects its deathly terrain? And an even bigger leap to say that the killings it hosts are symptoms of a culture that is deprived of proper sustenance?

GS: I don't think either of those statements is too big a leap. The truck stops are helping to dehumanize the truckers who have to use them, and that in turn could very well be encouraging a small subset of them with sociopathic tendencies to go over the edge. They certainly are not creating an environment in which human connection and healthy human life can flourish. One of the most interesting things I learned about while working on this book is the criminological field of "place-based policing," which holds every crime is an interaction between a criminal, a victim and a place. Many of the places we are creating for ourselves—the landscape of the Sprawl is another example—are depriving of us of the humane elements we need to thrive. I might cite Arcade Fire's The Suburbs here.

MR: The book gives a re-cap of the Juarez killings, the series of murders that was an inspiration for Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. Similar to Bolaño’s novel, Killer On the Road looks at these events as a kind of key to the future: as developing countries pattern their economies—and transportation systems—after the US’s, the already gaping class divide is widened even further, which results in violence like that of the Juarez killings. How did you not get depressed during your research, as you witnessed such patterns, and saw the repeated mistakes made at the expense of the disadvantaged, in the interest of those in power? Were there any findings that gave you hope for the future?

GS: I did get depressed!  This book was a total downer to write! So where's the hope? In a funny way, the highway system itself is a sign of one hopeful truth: the world can change. We had a world that was built in a certain way: dense cities and walkable small towns linked by a network of heavy and light rail supplemented by roads. We dismantled that world and built another one—less dense sprawling metropolitan regions surrounded by suburbs and exurbs and large farms, all linked predominantly by highways. We enacted that transformation in less than fifty years. We could do that again.