and trashy ladies laid him

Look at the following list, my friend, and see if you can guess what it inspired: Scrabble. A rock star. A dictionary. Rhyme. Em dashes. A Chihuahua. Cartoons.

Got it?

The answer is 101 Two-Letter Words – a book of rhyming poems by Indie rock star, Stephin Merritt, illustrated by The New Yorker’s Roz Chast.

Merritt, of course, is the very talented singer-songwriter of The Magnetic Fields.  The band’s recorded 10 albums, including 69 Love Songs, named by Rolling Stone as one of the top 500 albums of all time.

StephinMerrit_Bryant ParkLast month I spoke with Stephin Merritt about the inspiration behind his new book, his favorite poem (think trashy ladies), and his creative process.

Unfortunately, the transcript doesn’t capture how much we laughed!

Vicki: Stephin, you have a passion for playing Scrabble … which one doesn’t necessarily equate with a rock star (although I was married to a rock musician who also liked Scrabble). But there’s an interesting story behind how you became inspired to write this book.

Stephin: As everyone knows, being a rock star is incredibly boring. If it wasn’t … everyone would do it! My life consists largely of waiting around in airports. You can’t actually read anything, because paradoxically, there isn’t enough time to read anything. Basically, I end up spending lots of time playing Scrabble and Words with Friends online. But I couldn’t remember the two-letter words to save my life because I have a horrible memory. So I started making mnemonics for myself, to help me remember the two letter words … gradually, it just sort of turned into a book. My literary agent liked it and shopped it around.

Vicki: I love that you included “em” dashes in the book for us writers.

Stephin: Oh, yes. Where would modern writing be without the em dash and the en dash, and the extremely subtle distinction?

Vicki: Exactly! Your rhymes and Roz’s illustrations make a wonderful, fun combination. Tell us how this all came together … how did you connect with Roz Chast from The New Yorker, first of all.

Stephin: Thank you. Roz Chast wrote me a fan letter two or three days before my editor at Norton suggested that it was time to find an illustrator. I said, “Oh, no need. Here is Roz Chast’s phone number.”stephinmerrittbook

Vicki: That was very serendipitous. Did you guys meet? Did you have input on the illustration? Did you send her notes and ideas?

Stephin: I had no input whatsoever, except for the suggestion that the word “artisanal” was misspelled on the illustration of the box of “Fe”, meaning iron.  I did go to Roz’s house in Connecticut and met her parrot – which was difficult because I have a phobia of parrots. And and I met her family, which was okay because none of them were children … I also have a phobia of children.

Vicki: Let’s talk about some of the two letter words you’ve included.

Stephin: Yes. Za and qi are the most valuable ones. You often play a word that will produce just that and nothing else.

Vicki: I want to read listeners the one about “em” dashes – because I’m partial to em dashes.

“Em dashes — this just in — are used to interrupt a thought. The use of them is subtle — ha — and it cannot be taught.”

I think you had a lot of fun putting these rhymes together.

Stephin: I definitely had a lot of fun putting them together. I did what I usually do when I write, which is sit around in bars with a cocktail in one hand and a pen in the other. I just covered 3 x 5 cards with possible two-letter word poems.

I used as a template the “axe” from: “Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother 40 whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41.”

I don’t remember which order the mother and father are in that one … but anyway, that poem was my lighthouse.

Vicki: How do you describe your poems.

Stephin: I’d say they’re quatrain. None of them are especially complicated. They’re all essentially the same rhythmically.

 “Please, no Chinese water torture. I confess it freely: one li is, like, .3 miles; a mile is roughly three li.”

They are all in pairs. There’s one poem per two-letter word. There are 101 poems. I try to have recurring characters, obvious ones such as Ma and Pa, and less obvious like Vampire Dog. And some of the words fall into patterns like the Scottish “Ay”.

Vicki: And the English “Oy”. We don’t say, “Hey,” we say, “Oy!”

Stephin: And in America we say, “Yo!” One day when we’re walking down the street we say, “Yo! Yo!” to everyone we see. Just as the British say, “Oy,” to everyone. There are a thousand little patterns in these deceptively simple two letter words.

Vicki: Some of my favorite illustrations are of Vampire Dog, which you mentioned earlier. I think I read somewhere that the inspiration for Vampire Dog was a Chihuahua.

Stephin: Oh yes. My late Chihuahua, Irving Berlin Merritt, or Irving for short. He had especially bat-like ears … looked like a deer with the head of a bat. He was often asleep in my shirt while I was writing my poems.

Vicki: I love it … my dog sits at my feet when I am writing. Let’s talk about your creative process. You say you enjoy constraints rather than just writing whatever you want. I do too. They may get lost along the way, but to begin with, it’s often easier to access creative flow if I put constraints on myself. I might choose a particular word, a phrase, or a color to start me moving forward. Tell me how that works for you …

Stephin: It’s much easier to be told that you have three minutes to write a limerick or a sonnet, than to be told you have three minutes to write an essay or poem in free meter. I think the formulas we’ve had for centuries – that everyone understands – are easier to work within, rather than inventing your own form every time you sit down. It’s much easier to make a particular food than to invent your own dish every time you try to make lunch.

StephinMerritPlayingVicki: Right. Eric Reidar, our producer, is a huge fan of your music and I promised we’d save time for him to ask about your music. I’m going to throw the mic over to him … Eric, come on in.

Eric: Okay. Thank you very much. Stephin, it’s a pleasure to talk to you. I’m loving the new book. Vicki loaned me a copy of it today. I’m looking forward to perusing that this afternoon. As a Magnetic Fields fan, and a fan of some of your other projects like Gothic Archies and The 6ths, I’m wondering what’s coming next for you musically.

Stephin: I’m working on a mini-musical involved with This American Life. It’s an adaptation of This American Life. Hopefully, it will be its own musical This American Life episode. I’m not sure when it’s supposed to air … I have to finish it first.

Eric: I’m a big fan of This American Life as well. I’m also wondering, as much as I love all your albums, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing The Magnetic Fields live several times, and I’ve always thought the live shows were amazing and wondered why there hasn’t been an official live recording out there. Have you ever wanted to put out a live album?

Stephin: Hell no! I hate live albums.

Vicki: I’m with Stephin on that one. I don’t like listening to all the clapping and cheering every time I listen to the music.

Eric: I can understand that, but he’s a great live performer.

Stephin: They’re like real albums, only mixed really badly and with too much reverb, and all the endings and beginnings mucked up by having white noise in between.

Vicki: I love that “Hell no!”   Let’s end on a literary note with my favorite poem … would you read that to us Stephin?

Stephin: Yes, this is also my favorite poem … it’s the poem for “As”.

“As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner’s seventh novel, made him. He got some cash, a Nobel sash, and trashy ladies laid him.”

So now you know!

~  More about Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields at The House of Tomorrow.

~  Photo Credit Bryant Park: Julie Glassberg for The New York Times.

Excerpted from an interview with Stephin Merritt on Seattle’s Conversations LIVE with Vicki St. Clair, Talk Radio, KKNW, September 2014. Edited for clarity, readability, and length.

what writers wear (or don’t) when writing

I prefer to dress lightly indoors; no shoes, socks, or sweaters for me while at home. Weather permitting, my preference for light clothing extends outdoors. And at night I like to sleep as I was born. Before gravity snuck up, I’d snorkeled butt-naked in the warm blue waters off Spain. Gasped for breath as I showered under frigid waterfalls around Ben Nevis. Purred in delight as I lapped up sun rays on the nude beaches of St. Tropez, Cannes, and Poqueroles. And learned the full meaning of wind-burn after sailing around Catalina Island wearing nothing but an itsy-bitsy French thong and not enough sun block.

But my eyebrows shot up, and I stepped back a little, when a seemingly straight-laced colleague asked, “Do you ever write while naked?” And then proceeded to tell me how freeing it was … letting it all hang out … in every aspect.

“Well”, I said tongue-in-cheek, trying (and failing) not to envision the “letting it all hang out” bits, “There are times I’ve written nakedly—exposing, but never completely divulging, my inner most secrets. But no, I can’t say I ever sit at my PC and write while naked.”

We writers are weird. But that weird, I’m not!

However, it got me wondering: If my buttoned-up, brace-wearing, non-cursing, non-drinking colleague (yes, he’s Mormon) gets naked to write, how do other writers dress when they sit down to write?  Or, more to the point, do they undress?

  • VictorHugoVictor Hugo (left) had his servant take away his clothes while he wrote … so presumably, he wrote in the nude or in his underwear.
  • James Whitcomb Riley wrote naked … he had a friend lock him in a hotel room and take away his clothes so he couldn’t go out for a drink until he’d finished writing.
  • John MCPhee wrote in his bathrobe, tying its belt to the arms of his chair to restrain him from leaving.
  • Badyl Hiram wrote in the buff … clothes restricted him and the sight of him naked was supposedly so repulsive that no one ever disturbed him. jane smiley-0540
  • Jane Smiley  (right) often wears a robe … but won’t share what’s underneath.
  • Simon Galleene writes on his beach deck wearing nothing (peepo … nothing!) but a Polynesian sarong wrapped around his waist.
  • John Cheever dressed in a business suit … then walked from his apartment downstairs to a room in the basement where he hung his suit on a hanger and wrote in his underwear.
  • Agatha Christie often wrote naked in the bathtub with a basket full of crisp apples at her side (which she also ate in the bath).
  • Michael Mu writes in just his undershorts. Haynes stretch, denim color, if you please.
  • Jessamyn West wrote in PJ’s in bed.
  • Charles Dickens wrote in a suit while writing… in debtor’s prison.
  • William Maxwell wrote novels in his PJ’s, a visual warning to leave him alone.
  • Benjamin Disraeli wrote his novels dressed in evening clothes.
  • John Keats dressed as if he were going out, clean and smart.
  • Ralph Keyes dresses to write, but prefers to abandon any kind of footwear while at his desk.*

BettyBoopWhen I have a long writing stint ahead of me, I like to get comfortable, and must admit I’m rather partial to kicking off my shoes and rolling up the bottoms of my favorite bright red Betty Boop flannel pants.

So … ‘fess up. What about you?

* Some of the above notes came from The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear by Ralph Keyes.

no pants–no service

“Mind your Ps and Qs … ” she said, inspecting me, my brother, and sister, adjusting the knots in our thick winter scarves and making sure our coats were buttoned, socks pulled up, shoes polished, and gloves on the correct hands, “… and if you’re good, we’ll stop at Lyon’s Café on the way home for a Knickerbocker Glory.”

I made eye contact with my nine and ten year old siblings letting them know I expected to get a Knickerbocker Glory that day, so they’d better listen to Nan. My brother stared back, “Ditto!”

Fast forward a few years, rather a decade or two, and I’m sitting in an American diner known for its pancakes. I order my eggs over-easy with blueberry stuffed French toast, and cupping the chunky brown coffee mug in both hands, inhale my first coffee aroma of the day. That first aroma is always the best … just like the first gulp of steaming coffee is always the best.coffeemug

Savoring the rich dark roast, I glance around the diner while my honey runs out to the car for his wallet.

At the table next to me sits a family of five. Two girls and a boy, just like our family. But unlike our family, no adult ran a quick discerning eye over them to make sure they were dressed to meet the world. With sleep in their eyes and ratty, greasy bed-hair, all three apparently rolled out of bed at the trumpet call of breakfast and forgot to dress. They’re still wearing crumpled pajamas, bed socks, and slippers … and that ratty, greasy bed-hair. Is that a piece of lint?  No, it’s fluff.  Did they at least brush their teeth?  More than one of them needs a long hot shower with a hefty squirt of fresh spring bodywash and a dose of man-strength deodorant.

Lest you’re thinking these are babies, the youngest is probably 12 or 13. The others, around 18 and 20.

I tell myself to live and let live, but mentally sigh. My honey returns with his wallet and slides into the booth, facing me. He leans forward nodding his head toward the booth behind me and whispers, “I think we’re overdressed”.

Two more pajama wearers. And over in the corner, a group of five friends, three of whom sport ratty, greasy bed-hair and yes, those crumpled pajamas.

psj2I don’t get it.

It’s not a “generational thing” because since then I’ve noticed many pajama-wearing adults from Gen Y to Gen Xrs and Boomers … at diner’s, coffee shops, grocery stores. Even in the mall and at the movies.

It’s not a “trend thing” because, in most cases, these PJ-wearers still appear to be in the zombie state of unwashed and disheveled half-sleep.

nopantsnoservice_pajamashoppingIt’s not a “comfort thing” because we’re already a nation that wears stretch garments with elasticized waistbands and oversized sweatshirts – and we’re known worldwide for our preferred footwear of sneakers, flip flops, and Uggs.

Neither is it a “socio-economic thing”. When you drive your sleepy, pajama-wearing-ass home in a Lexus 570L – whether it’s owned, financed, or leased – let me tell you, you can splash down twenty bucks on a pair of pants at Target. (Or that other colossal store that begins with W and plans to take over the world, but that’s another post for another day).

And it’s not a “cultural thing”. My family in Europe sees it too, albeit to a lesser degree.

So what is the deal with wearing pajamas in public? When did it become okay to roll out of bed and not clean up or dress up before heading out in public?

I’m not talking about glamming up to go on the town. Or being obsessive about designer clothing and preening in front of the mirror for hours. Or worrying about having the right accessories. Or dressing to impress.

no-pajamas-no-service-signBut can’t we have enough pride in ourselves to at least clean up before going out? To run a comb through our hair? Splash some water on our face?

Why don’t friends and family say – as I admit I would: Wear what the hell you like. Dress to express. But ditch the PJs and wear something.

Beachside restaurants and stores post signs saying: “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service”.

I say: “No Pants, No Service.” And PJs, my friends, are not pants!

What do you think?