Conversation with Joe Bonomo, Editor of ‘Conversations with Greil Marcus’

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January 30, 2013 by sw00ds

Last October, the University Press of Mississippi released Conversations With Greil Marcus, edited by Joe Bonomo and featuring 14 interviews with Marcus, from 1981 to 2010 (including, I’m pleased to say, the Online Exchange conducted at rockcritics.com back in 2002). There’s more information about the book on Bonomo’s website, No such Thing As Was, and he was kind enough to answer a few quick e-mail questions, both about the book itself and the process of putting it together. (And, conflict of interest notwithstanding, CWGM is a terrific read, an excellent–dare I say breezy?–way to engage with Marcus’s critical aesthetic, a more casual, if no less caustic, primer to some of his farther-flung obsessions.)

Conversations with Greil Marcus

When did you first discover Greil Marcus’s writing? What was it in his writing that pulled you in, that made you a fan of his work?
I first came across Marcus in the late 1980s, when I was in graduate school at Ohio University. I’d heard of him—I was reading Rolling Stone like everyone else, and I knew Dave Marsh’s and Peter Guralnick’s work, so there were tangential glimpses of him. But it wasn’t until I read Mystery Train that I started to get into him more fully. Then Lipstick Traces and Dead Elvis came out, and I got those and dove in. The book of Lester Bangs’s that he edited, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, was also important. I’m a really big fan of Bangs, and to have Marcus provide historical and cultural context for me at that time was huge.

I’ve always admired his mind. From the start, I loved the way he trusted his instincts that, say, Object A and Person B and Event C, no matter how disparate they are, or appear to be in conventional terms, might share something intangible, might intersect in a way that’s surprising and meaningful. Plus, he obviously gets rock and roll. As the years passed and my tastes in music and art deepened, I recognized that fewer and fewer of Marcus’s and my records and CDs overlapped. I don’t agree with everything he likes, and as someone who tends to look for art in art, not in rock and roll, I’ve been skeptical of some of his explorations, but I’ve never lost my admiration for the way he thinks, the Keatsian “negative capability” nerve of it, that he walks into dark rooms without knowing where the furniture is and may crash into stuff until his eyes adjust. I learn a lot by reading him. And, simply at the levels of sentence, paragraph, and argument, he’s a real pleasure to read, no matter what he’s writing about.

What prompted the idea for this collection of interviews?
While I was at Ohio University a friend and a teacher, David Lazar, edited a collection of interviews with the essayist M.F.K. Fisher, and that’s how I learned about the series. A few years later, around 1995, it occurred to me that Marcus might be a good candidate. I pitched the book to University Press of Mississippi, and after a while they wrote back having determined that Marcus was too “mid-career” at that point for them to take on the book. It turns out that they were correct. I remember that Marcus laughed at that; he liked the idea that someone was considering him at the middle of his career, rather then nearer to the end. So, a few years ago I revived the idea with the press, which at that point had a new director and series editor, and they accepted it.

M.F.K. Fisher

Talk a bit about your selection process — what was your criteria for inclusion in the book?
I strove for balance — among subjects, years, types of interview, whether radio print, or online, and interview format, conventional or unique. I wanted to cover as many of his books as I could without encountering too much repetition, and also to find those interviews where, on his own or at the interviewer’s prompting, Marcus strayed away from the book under discussion and got into related stuff. I also wanted to find interviews where Marcus talks about subjects other than music, which is his admitted starting place for just about everything — but he thinks adroitly and valuably about film and literature and politics, too. The difficulty was weeding out the really good interviews that clustered around his more heavily-publicized books — Dead Elvis and Ranters and Crowd Pleasers, in particular. I had to make tough choices there. I looked for a high level of engagement on the part of the interviewer. Those interviews where the Q’s were smart and challenging, where the interviewer was well-prepared and leading with real commitment and had a stake in the conversation, were the strongest. Breadth was really important. But the manuscript word count was tough, too; several very good pieces missed the cut because of space limitations. I made a point of listing them at the front of the book.

What was the earliest interview you came across–is it the first one in the book?
No, it was interview he did for NPR on December 9, 1980, about John Lennon’s murder. It wasn’t substantial enough to include in the book, but it’s interesting.

What was Marcus’s own involvement in it? Was he originally keen on the idea?
He was, from the beginning. I’m grateful for that. In the first go-around he sent me envelopes full of copies of hard-to-find interviews, from one-off zines and college newspapers and places like that, and cassettes of radio interviews, too, which I transcribed over many, many hours. That was super helpful in helping me to get my hands on the many interviews that were never digitally rescued, where I had to do a lot of cutting and pasting and scanning. He sent me some foreign-language interviews and articles, too. And he fact-checked the manuscript, which was very helpful. Beyond that, he was hands-off. The approach and selections were all mine.

Dead Elvis

Did you use any other interview books as models for your own?
Lazar’s book that I mentioned above is a good one, and the book on the fiction writer Larry Brown was helpful for me to read in terms of approaches to transcribing. But I essentially went with my own instincts.

I thought you did an excellent job of avoiding too much repeated material. I like the Pauline Kael interview book that was put out many years ago, but I find there’s a LOT of regurgitation throughout of ideas, references, etc. I didn’t notice an overabundance of that here, though some is obviously inevitable. Did you have to cut out any good interviews because of subject overlap?
Thanks. Yeah, there were a ton of interviews with Marcus in the early 1990s, and a lot of them are very good. So I had to do some brutal selecting there. As it turns out, I use three interviews from Canadian (CBC) radio, and the same interviewer twice, about which initially I was hesitant, but the conversations are so good and thoughtful and meaty that I couldn’t resist! Again, it came down to well-prepared interviewers who care about their subject and aren’t simply on assignment: they’re careful to avoid bringing up too many of the always-asked questions or topics, and instead try and come in with a novel approach, to engage with Marcus in a way he hadn’t quite been before.

How would you describe the differences between Marcus the interviewee and Marcus the writer? Is the difference subtle or pronounced?
Oh, it’s subtle, if it’s there at all. As I write in my introduction, the man speaks in paragraphs. It often seems as if he’s answering a question for which he’s prepared, far in advance, his answer. I’m really impressed with the way he comports himself in conversations: he’s lucid, thoughtful, never rushed, never betrayed by um’s and er’s or half-baked ideas like the rest of us are. To my ear, he talks in back-and-forth informal conversations as gracefully and as substantially as he writes in his polished books and columns, which is no small feat, and was an unexpected pleasure in editing this book.

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