A General Truth Through a Particular Lie: An Interview with the Creators of the Podcast Penknife

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Not all influential writers were good people. In fact, many of the twentieth-century authors I grew up reading were horrible people, who committed acts of violence against their family members, strangers, and other writers. Further, many of their texts reflect—and are limited by—their brutality and egotism. In order to fully contend with previous generations of writers, we need to recognize their artistic failings as well as their artistic successes. We need to deflate their mythologies and romanticizations. We need to be willing to lay bare their many crimes.

This is precisely what Corey Eastwood, Santiago Lemoine, and Ramona Stout set out to do in their podcast, Penknife. Incorporating literary criticism, cultural history, and true crime, the show works through the fictions to locate the cold, hard facts of crimes committed by writers. Season Two of PenknifeCrimes of Passion: The Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell Story—is coming in August. Season One, Liberty and the Pursuit, was released this past winter.

Fittingly, one of the three writers Season One focuses on is Norman Mailer, whose 1979 nonfiction novel The Executioner’s Song helped establish the true crime genre. Mailer himself brutally stabbed his second wife, Adele Morales, with a penknife at a party he held to announce his candidacy for mayor of New York City in 1960. Mailer’s story is intertwined with that of his one-time protégé, the incarcerated memoirist Jack Henry Abbott. Abbott enjoyed a brief period of literary celebrity in 1981 before returning to prison for killing a waiter and actor named Richard Adan. Lurking behind every corner of the story (often literally) is Jerzy Kosiński, who is remembered today mainly for his ostensibly-autobiographical 1965 Holocaust novel, The Painted Bird. Kosiński’s many crimes range from plagiarism and fraud to far more violent and disturbing actions.

Eastwood and Lemoine are both writers and booksellers based in Valencia, Spain. Stout is a writer, researcher, and producer based in Chania, Crete. I corresponded with the three of them from New York using a shared online document. We discussed the craft challenges of writing for audio, the value of writing collaboratively, and the dangers of fetishizing authenticity.

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The Rumpus: At the start of each episode, you [Corey Eastwood and Santiago Lemoine] identify yourselves as booksellers and writers. Considering your lives are focused around books, it makes sense that you would create a project about literary history. The audio form seems less obvious. Why is Penknife a podcast, rather than a book?

Corey Eastwood: About a decade ago a friend and I had an idea to write a nonfiction book about writers who fought each other, be it duels like Ben Johnson or Lermontov, headbutts like the one our guy Norman Mailer gave Gore Vidal, or more contemporary examples such as Richard Ford spitting in Colson Whitehead’s face in retaliation for a negative review. In terms of subject matter, it wasn’t so different from Penknife. I did some research for it but got too busy writing a memoir about street bookselling and the brawling writers book took its place on the ever-growing imaginary bookshelf of the books I’ll never write.

Fast forward seven years, and after countless hours, drafts, and rewrites, I was really losing faith in the bookseller memoir when Santi approached me with the podcast idea. I couldn’t start another book without finishing the one I spent a decade working on, but I was able to put it “on hold” while I tried my hand at another medium. What I liked best about the first season of writing Penknife wasn’t so much that we were writing a podcast, but that I wasn’t writing a book. It was a much less personal and therefore a less high-stakes endeavor, and as a result, it alleviated a lot of the self-imposed pressure that had been weighing down both my writing and my life.

Santiago Lemoine: I don’t mention it on the podcast, but I also make music and have worked in sound engineering, and the audio format has been a part of my life for almost as long as books. Also, to be perfectly honest, over the last few years I’ve definitely spent more time listening to podcasts than reading, so it made sense to try and make one—especially once I realized nobody was making the podcast I wanted to listen to. And, sadly, I’ve also been stuck with my collection of short stories for almost as long as Corey with his memoir, and a change of air and pace was definitely welcome.

Rumpus: What is different about writing for audio than writing for the page?

Ramona Stout: I’ve been involved with music and sound for a long while and had some experience with telling a story this way. Although I didn’t do any of the original writing for Season One, I did do some edits, and, as a writer, I like the way in which writing for audio changes the way in which you think about language and storytelling. You think more about the rhythm of words. And I think you tend to leave out extraneous detail. It’s like telling a story to friends at a dinner table, as opposed to your therapist.

Eastwood: Santi and I were completely new to this type of writing. The first idea for the podcast structure was to make it epistolary, sort of modeling the correspondence that Abbott had with Mailer and Kosiński. We thought we’d write letters to each other about the lives, literature, and crimes of Mailer and Kosinski and read them on air. Santi would read a page and a half about his findings on Mailer, and I would respond with some comment about what he told me, then read another couple pages about Kosinski.

I think it’d be pretty clear to anyone with any experience in radio or podcasting, that this is a very difficult path to follow if your intention is to create forty minutes of compelling listening. Somehow though, we didn’t see that and it took us over a year of trial and error before we arrived at the structure we used in Season One.

As for language, yes, there are big differences; the main one being that colloquial writing is not only okay, it’s necessary. If you narrate like you write—or like I write, at least—it’s going to sound way too stuffy and formal. Putting prose into podcast voice is a good excuse to eliminate overly intellectual or baroque sentences, but at the same time, you also can’t be too informal.

Lemoine: There was lots of trial and error. The first epistolary format was downright unrecordable and terribly boring; I then tried to condense Mailer’s nine-hundred-page bio without skipping a single event in his life, no matter how irrelevant, and the result was probably even more boring than the letters.

I think we only got on the right track once we started meeting and reading our material out loud to each other. From that point onwards there were endless rewrites and edits, and ruthless cuts. The style became more economic and direct. We got rid of useless adjectives, switched almost every sentence to the active voice, simplified the vocabulary, etc.

Rumpus: Many history-oriented podcasts cover a different subject each episode. Season One of Penknife, on the other hand, is composed as a cohesive ten-part work, with the three subjects’ narratives braided through different episodes. How did you come to this structure?

Eastwood: We planned to do one subject per episode. Jack Henry Abbott’s was going to be the first story we were going to tell, and obviously we had an idea that the Abbott episode could tease a Mailer episode. But as soon as I started reading about Abbott I learned that his original famous writer pen pal was Jerzy Kosiński, another author on our short list of subjects.

The deeper we got into the research, the more it became obvious that there was no way we’d be able to say all we wanted to in one episode.  So, it became three, then six, then eight, and in the end we chopped lots of relevant, interesting bits just to fit it all into ten episodes. The moment I knew we needed plenty of space to tell this story is when I read about how important the Abbott affair was in Kosiński being outed for using ghost writers. I recognized they weren’t just parallel stories but inextricably connected ones.

Lemoine: We’re not journalists and we’re not used to talking and improvising in front of a microphone, so we had to think very carefully about the way we were going to tell these three guys’ stories before pressing the record button. As Corey mentioned, while doing our research the story kept growing and getting more interesting, and I think that’s when our literary background did come in handy. We tried to keep the presence of Mailer and Kosiński balanced and to give each episode a theme or at least a thread that would weave both narratives, while also attempting to have the season’s main themes present throughout.

A podcast that greatly influenced the way we approached the first season of Penknife was Death at the Wing, especially the way it uses individual narratives to paint a bigger picture of a particular place and time. When telling Mailer, Kosiński, and Abbott’s stories, we always kept in mind that they were also a vehicle for us to have a glimpse of the US—and particularly New York— throughout the sixties, seventies, and early eighties.

Rumpus: Each episode contains multiple modes of storytelling. You differentiate between Stout’s role as “narrator” and Eastwood and Lemoine’s roles as “hosts.”  Listeners are used to hearing two hosts discuss true crime, but imagined narrations are more unusual. What was the process of writing these scenes? To what extent did you feel obligated to stick to the archival record or feel free to fictionalize?

Eastwood: In each of those creative nonfiction passages we tried to be as historically accurate as possible. This meant imagining the characters’ thoughts within the confines of everything we knew about their personalities, the environment in which they were living and, of course, the incident we were recreating. These scenes were all fun to write but I have mixed feelings about how they work in the narrative.

I tend to think that those that are most directly connected to the main narrative—e.g., the Mailer party scene in episode six and the characters’ accounts of the night of the Adan murder in the first couple episodes—are the strongest, while those scenes that are more tangential might divert from the narrative.

Lemoine: They were the parts I had the most fun writing. I love writing fiction under ridiculous formal constraints, so having to imagine what William Burroughs, for example, might have thought and felt that night in 1962 in Edinburgh while witnessing a drunken Norman Mailer tossing a translator down the stairs was a very exciting challenge.

Stout: Though I wasn’t involved in the writing, I did do most of the reading of these creative nonfiction passages. And it was a real challenge, partly because I’m not an actor, partly because I’m a woman with a British accent who can’t pull off “ain’t” and a host of other Americanisms, and partly because I found the close third-person voice challenging to get my head around.

I think I did far better with some characters than others. Mailer, actually, was the toughest (because I disliked him so thoroughly) but, after very many takes, I discovered that recording under a blanket (for sound quality purposes) in one-hundred-degree heat in Greece will get a person pretty close to the kind of frenzied feeling the writing of his parts aims at.

Rumpus: The topic of collaborative writing comes up throughout the season. This challenges the idea of literary writing as a solitary, individualist act. What was your process of writing the podcast collaboratively? Was it a new experience for you?

Eastwood: Our bookshop in Valencia is connected to a café. A writer friend of ours, who was working on a novel, suggested that we schedule a “write together” every week where he, Santi, and I—and potentially other writers—would meet in the café Thursday morning before it opened and write for a couple hours. Very shortly after our “Write Together” was launched, we started calling it the “Write Alone.” No one else showed up, our friend often missed it or showed up late and, to pick on my dear partner Santi, he also wasn’t the greatest at waking up early. But whine as I might, it didn’t really matter. Even if you’re sitting next to each other silently, you’re still writing alone. That work was important, but it was nothing new for me.

What was new was the collaborative work Santi and I did every Tuesday when we sat together in our closed bookshop for sometimes six, eight hours at a time and read through the script drafts.  That’s where the structure, the voice, and all of our best ideas developed. Santi and I might have grown to hate each other during that process, but it was the only way Penknife could have been made; I’m convinced that alone, neither one of us could have come up with something half as good as what we did together. And after we thought we were finished, those scripts changed significantly—and immeasurably for the better—when Ramona got her hands on them.

Stout: I have written collaboratively before. In fact, I really think all writing is actually collaborative and that this whole idea of writing as a solitary, individualist pursuit is the stuff of myth, bandied about largely to serve writers’ egos. I mean, it would be strange if you went to a painter and told him or her to change the color of a vase, or told a sculptor to alter the curve of a limb, but if we’re realistic, there’s nothing strange in a reader or an editor telling a writer that a word, a turn of phrase, or a structural element is off and needs to be changed. I think it’s integral to the process of building a good story or an argument.

Sure, the initial impetus comes from one person but, with the stories and essays I write, I have no hesitation in saying that they would not only be entirely different, but also worse, if it weren’t for the feedback of trusted readers and editors I bring them to (of which Corey is one). I also think readers and editors help you to resist falling in love with your own voice, getting too attached to turns of phrase that serve you rather than the reader (or the listener, in this case). I like to think my editing of the Penknife scripts helped in that regard.

Lemoine: I’ve written screenplays with other people, and I’ve always found the experience very challenging and ultimately extremely rewarding. I think that bouncing ideas off each other, trying stuff out loud, being told off, and finding a democratic way forward can often improve the writing and help avoid some of the lazy decisions one makes by inertia when writing alone.

Penknife was very much the same: Corey and I often left our marathonic sessions nearly hating each other, but also convinced that the thing we were creating was only possible because of this collaboration. 

Rumpus: “Authenticity” is a recurring theme throughout the season. Mailer was obsessed with the Hemingway-style cult of being a writer based in authentic experience, and the idea of authenticity is part of what made the incarcerated writer Abbott so appealing to intellectuals.

Corey, you and I come from a subcultural background where people did things like squatting buildings, hopping freight trains, and street vending, not because those were the only accessible forms of housing, transportation, or income, but because they seemed most authentic. How did working on this podcast affect your own ideas of “authenticity,” or what it means to be an “authentic” writer?

Eastwood: The myth of authenticity is one that I can’t kick. When you attempt to pinpoint the definition of authentic experience you realize the absurdity of the endeavor. Authenticity is a myth. Intellectually I can recognize it as such, yet still, it’s a myth that I live by. For instance, writing today that incorporates slang from Twitter creates in me an immediate bias. Why? Because I equate social media with inauthenticity.

The truth though is that a writer can hop trains, live in squats, and sell books on the street and still be a complete fraud, while the person writing in tweet slang can say something profound and true. I think we tend to conflate authenticity and honesty. Honesty is really what makes good writing (and people who I wanna spend my time with).

Mailer was “authentic” in the sense that rather than spending his life sequestered in the ivory tower, he was out there doing some crazy shit, but he was also extremely self-deluded and that shows in his work. In his novel An American Dream, for example, he spends two-hundred-and-fifty pages flexing his muscle and trying to show what a big man he is because he clearly feels very small and insufficient. It’s all based on the facts of his life yet there’s not an ounce of “authenticity” in that book.

Anyhow, try as I might, I can recognize all this intellectually and still I’m likely to trust the rail rider over the Twitter writer.

Rumpus: Ramona and Santiago, not being from the US, is this obsession with authenticity also familiar to you, or does it just seem like US bullshit?

Stout: The obsession with authenticity has been exported to the entire world at this point. Even in Greece (which is, in many ways, blissfully behind the rest of Europe), in tiny villages, you’ll hear people criticizing the folk music being played, or the food being served, for its lack of fidelity to what once would have been the real thing.

In England, the whole idea of common grit is almost fetishized. Corey’s Twitter/freight train comparison could be adapted to the UK, only Twitter would be a private school education with attendant accent versus one at a local comprehensive with attendant regional accent. I like to think I don’t fall for it in any culture, but I’m sure I’m as guilty of it as Corey admits to being.

Lemoine: The question of authenticity is difficult. It was central to the works of our three writers and the way they interacted with the world, and the quest for authenticity is arguably what often led them to make terrible decisions, and even to commit criminal acts.

I personally find this myth of authenticity extremely insidious and damaging, because it often leads to purity tests and the constant need to prove one’s cred (what could also be called “dick waving contests”), rather than leading to constructive thought and action—and I’ve seen it at work pretty much everywhere, from popular assemblies to conversations between booksellers, both in Buenos Aires and the other places where I lived in Europe. With respect to literature, I think that the US’s cultural imperialism and its influence on the twentieth-century have done a lot of damage by imposing a certain view of what can be considered “authentic.”

In terms of my own writing, I always try to apply Fernando Pessoa’s dictum (the bad translation is my own): “Art is the expression of a thought through an emotion or, in other words, of a general truth through a particular lie.” Authenticity is irrelevant if the art speaks to the reader, the listener, or the viewer.

Rumpus: Season One of Penknife is focused on the culture of the twentieth-century United States. Kosiński was a Polish Jew, but his arrival and rise in New York are very American. Considering the centrality of incarceration to US life, Abbott’s narrative is extremely American. However, the podcast was made mainly in Europe. Will you continue to focus on US writers, or turn to international writers? Will you stick with English-language literature, or look at Spanish-language literature as well?

Eastwood: Santi and Ramona—especially Ramona—hate the US and, well, the fact that I mostly don’t live there is evidence that I’m not the biggest fan either. While writing Season One Ramona and I were constantly clashing over Americanisms vs. Britishisms.

Season Two was supposed to be just like Season One was supposed to be: One writer per episode. But again we’ve failed and Season Two is about only one writer, Joe Orton. Well, actually it’s also about a second writer, his boyfriend and murderer, Kenneth Halliwell. It’s a tragic story that’s been told a number of times, but during our research we uncovered a particularly dark and difficult aspect of the story that no one’s really talked about.

While there are definite similarities to Season One, one big change is that the majority of characters this season are English, which means that this time around Ramona won all the fights over US/UK language choices.

Stout: “Hate” is a very strong word. I don’t hate the US, but I don’t think it’s a very healthy place. I’m a mixed pickle. Three nationalities (US, UK, Greece). And I have to point out that I don’t live in the UK either, which speaks volumes.

However, I am glad that we’ll be crossing the pond this season. Not just because I’ll be able to win arguments, but also because I think the country gets off very lightly when it comes to a lot of the issues we covered in Season One, when in many respects it is an ersatz US in socioeconomic and political terms.

Lemoine: I don’t hate the US, I just hate cultural imperialism—and sadly the US is very good at it and often very bad at culture. While Season One has been created mostly during lockdown here in Valencia (special mention to Diego Sanchez, sound designer and editor, who works with us from La Pianola Studio in Buenos Aires) with a focus on the second half of the twentieth-century in the US, moving forward we want to move around as well, not only geographically but also through time.

Besides the second season Corey just mentioned, we’re also starting work on a season about an Argentinian writer, which might be written in Spanish, and will not only focus on his literature and crimes, but on the tumultuous history of Argentina throughout the last century.

Beyond that, there’s sadly a very long list of writers who have committed crimes, so hopefully we’ll be expanding our horizons and looking at other parts of the world soon enough!

 

 

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Penknife hosts’ photo courtesy of Corey Eastwood, Santiago Lemoine, and Ramona Stout.


Ben Nadler is the author of The Sea Beach Line: A Novel and Punk in NYC's Lower East Side, 1981–1991. He is a Ph.D. candidate in English at SUNY Albany. He can be found at bennadler.com/. More from this author →