20 Questions: Mark Kurlansky

[11 April 2010]

By Karen Zarker

PopMatters Managing Editor

Mark Kulansky is the kind of prolific, intelligent, compassionate, multi-talented, cultural historian / generalist that we really admire at PopMatters. That’s a mouthful. In sum: Kurlansky is a Renaissance man, whose skill for penning books on cultural history (but one arrow in his quiver of talents) should be read, learned from, and admired. His latest, The Eastern Stars, which focuses on an impoverished area in the Dominican Republic from which the powerful US has drawn both raw sugar and highly refined baseball talent for decades, releases 15 April. 

Kurlansky tells PopMatters 20 Questions why he’ll take political activists, aka rebels, over saints any day.

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The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macoris

Mark Kurlansky

(Penguin; US: Apr 2010)

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Hard to choose because very few movies of late have moved me. (Shouldn’t Avatar be on the ten most stupid movies list?)

I have been reading a lot of good books. Most recently, Sebastian Barry’s The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty about a simple man from Sligo whose life is sent in wild directions by events beyond his control. McNulty is the ultimate anti-hero. He writes, “Any person putting a shoulder against a life, no matter how completely failing to do the smallest good thing, is a class of hero.”

I think we are drawn to anti-heroes because that is what most of us are most of the time and it is good to see that we are heroic. Barry also writes in a lyrical Irish, with completely original phrases in the rhythms of Yeats. It’s a beautiful book.

I happened to get into an argument with Barry in a pub. I was supporting a group of Irish who succeeded in forcing Shannon Airport to stop allowing troop transports to Iraq to stop there, and he argued that it was creating a hardship for the poor soldiers. I didn’t buy his argument in the least, but was impressed with his humanity. His love for people shines through in his writing.

2. The fictional character most like you?
I think I’m a bit like Ishmael in Moby Dick; a story teller and an observer in his own crisis. There is a sense of destiny to his survival. He survives to tell the story and he had to be the one left behind because he is the story teller. Although, like Ishmael I seek adventure, the role of the observer, the story teller who is always found at the edge of the room looking in – it’s something I have noticed about myself. The truth is I often wish I was more of a Moby Dick, but that white whale thing really isn’t me.

3. The greatest album, ever?
Easy. Jimmy Hendrix, Rainbow Bridge. Best cut? “Star Spangled Banner”. Because he died of an overdose there is a tendency to dismiss his accomplishments as a drug crazed riff, but he was musically very sophisticated and there is a direct relationship between his work and Bach.

He was doing something very like “Toccata and Fugue”; stating a theme and turning it on its head and inside out and really splaying it. Like Bach, what could have been an interesting academic exercise, a clever display of virtuosity, is done with gut-wrenching passion.

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The Food of a Younger Land: A Portrait of American Food

Mark Kurlansky

(Penguin; US: May 2009)

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Now, this is a tough choice because I could be very happy with neither and my knowledge is largely based on having seen a few of the original television series and, I think, the first two Star Wars movies. Why would anyone come back for more?

The popularity of both indicates a lack of mental agility in the general population, but if I had to choose between them, I would pick Star Trek—at least in the originals.  There was a genuine creative sense of humor to them, whereas Star Wars always relied on technical tricks.

In this genre, everyone needs to go back to the original Twilight Zone—black and white, simple single sets, no tricks, small cast, great actors, good script. That’s all you need.

5. Your ideal brain food?
Music. It is the only art form where you can close your eyes and retreat inside yourself. More specifically, Bach. Still more specific, the cello suites, especially the “Sixth Suite” and to nail it down, the Casals recordings. I won’t name a movement. Absolutely no one has ever made a cello sing with the passion and range of colors of Casals. Yo-Yo Ma comes close.

6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
One of the things I am most proud of is refusing to serve in the military when drafted during the Vietnam War. My dumb local draft board so botched my case that I was able to tie it up with appeals until the end of the war, but I sometimes regret not sticking with my original plan and exiling myself in Canada.

Americans and the US government only learned that we lost strategically. They have never understood how profoundly wrong and morally reprehensible we were in the slaughter of some three million impoverished people.

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Non-violence: The History of a Dangerous Idea

Mark Kurlansky

(Random House (reprint); US: Apr 2008)

7. You want to be remembered for…?
Trying to stop war. I have lost count of how many wars I have actively and largely ineffectively tried to stop. I am currently working on Afghanistan. Killing the people of Afghanistan will rescue neither us, nor them.

8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
Gandhi, of course. He was very misinterpreted. He was an extremely pragmatic man. He embraced nonviolence because it is the most effective—albeit the most difficult—tactic of political opposition. He said that he was not concerned with those who said it won’t work because it is like gravity. “It works whether you believe in it or not.” 

Also Martin Luther King, another pragmatic man. It disturbs me the way children today are taught that he was a saint instead of what he was: a great political activist and a true rebel. I’d take that over a saint any day.

Also, the rank and file of the Civil Rights movement. The most courageous people I have ever seen.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
I just signed it. For years I thought Emile Zola’s The Belly of Paris was the book I should have written. It’s set in the Les Halles market when it and Paris were first rebuilt in the 1870s— it’s the human comedy at the intersection of food and politics. I also felt the existing translations missed it, so I translated it myself for Modern Library.

That may be my best book. Too bad I didn’t write it.

10. Your hidden talents…?
My hidden talent is my cello playing.  It is hidden because it is not very good and I don’t want to inflict it on others, but I derive tremendous pleasure from it. It’s like why people sing to themselves.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
This is weird but true. When I was 18-years-old I encountered a seminary student in a bar. I don’t remember his name. I had a difficult decision and he said always go with what your heart tells you and you will never regret it. I always have, I’ve done a lot of things and I have remarkably few regrets.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
The best thing I ever bought must have been my surf casting rod, which was not particularly expensive and has now served faithfully for more than 40 years. 

The best thing I ever borrowed was a handmade cello built by a German named Roth in 1876. That baby was nice to hug and purred deep chocolate tones.

The best thing I ever stole were ideas about writing from Emile Zola, Jack London, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Anton Chekhov, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, and even Waverley Root.  Half of it comes from within you, but the other part was not distilled out of thin air.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?
In fact I have an Armani suit that I like and I don’t own a single pair of jeans. To answer what I think is the real question here, when I am alone by myself writing, which is most days, I wear old khakis and a baggy wool sweater—a t-shirt if it’s warm.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
I would love to have met Gandhi, but he probably would not have been a great dinner companion at the Ritz. 

Hillel, the first century rabbi who revitalized Judaism with clear moral thinking, would probably be fascinating, but he would refuse to eat the food because it is traif.

I would like to meet Abraham Lincoln and talk to him about the cost of the Civil War and if it was worth it and what might have been done, instead, but I’ll bet he was too depressive to be a good lunch.

Hemingway of course was a great lunch: full of ideas on writing, politics, art, and fishing, which are all passions of mine. 

Zola might be even better.  He loved to talk politics while eating copiously.

15. Time travel: where, when and why?
When I was a kid I used to read stories about time machines. Maybe all kids do. I wanted to have one and I still do. It of course would be a great research tool in my work, but it would also be useful for vacations.

I’m not that excited about a trip to Paris right now, but if you could make it the 1920s or the 1880s, I would enjoy that. I would enjoy having that other dimension to travel. I would take a fishing trip to 16th century Manhattan and I would like to see Tenochtitlan before Cortés got there and ruined everything.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
None of the above. Walking along the rocky coast of New England, fishing for striper and blues, fly fishing rainbow trout in a beautiful river like the Big Wood or the Irati, or just going most anywhere with my wife and daughter and on no particular schedule.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?
Fruit, second only to eggs, fruit are the perfect food, naturally sealed in a skin, both sweet and tart and full of delicate flavors, juicy and refreshing. I love all kinds of fruit, eat too much of it, and would like to eat more. The perfect summer peach or tomato is in itself a wholly satisfying meal and food at its best.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
I am an urban person, most at home on the streets of a big city for living or vacation. However, like most urban people, I increasingly harbor fantasies of rural places.

I particularly love to be by the sea—and on or in it as often as possible. I like to smell and hear it. That is one reason why I have roots in Gloucester, Massachusetts. My longest running histories are with the Basque country and the sad and beautiful Caribbean, including the beautiful and ugly Port au Prince, which will never be the same again.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
I want to tell him that there are no military solutions and that recognizing this fact is the first step toward finding real solutions. I also want to tell him that if he needs to cut the budget, there are billions to be saved by stopping the killing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
The Eastern Stars is coming out from Riverhead on April 15th. It’s the story of the Dominican town of San Pedro de Macorís, which has produced 79 major league baseball players. How has this one town produced so much baseball talent and what does it tell us about both baseball and Dominican life?

Edible Stories is coming out in November from Riverhead. It’s a collection of interconnected short stories. Characters appear in different stories. Each story is about a fixation on food. Stories include hot dogs, muffins, caviar, bean curd, menudo and espresso. They take place in Europe and America and all come together in Seattle.

A biography of baseball great Hank Greenberg, a very Jewish book about a man who was made a Jewish icon against his will, this book is part of a series by Jewish writers on Jewish figures, publishing in April 2011 by Yale University Press.

A biography of Clarence Birdseye, the father of frozen food, is being published by Doubleday as part of their great inventors series.

Karen Zarker, Managing Editor at PopMatters, works with a talented array of writers throughout the magazine. She manages the PopMatters Books Series, and also holds many behind-the-scenes operational responsibilities. She can be reached at zarker(at)popmatters.com.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/123406-mark-kurlansky/