5 Questions with Adam Shatz, Author of WRITERS AND MISSIONARIES

Aug 8, 2023

Adam Shatz is the U.S. editor of The London Review of Books and a contributor to The New York Times Magazine, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and other publications. He is also the host of the podcast “Myself with Others”.

Adam Shatz will be in conversation with E. Tammy Kim to celebrate the release of his new book Writers and Missionaries: Essays on the Radical Imagination, published by Verso Books. The event will take place on Tuesday, August 8 at 6:00pm PST. Register here!

Where are you writing to us from?

I’m writing you at the home of a friend in a village in the southwest of France, but usually I’d be writing you from Brooklyn. I know, it’s a terrible cliché, the Brooklyn writer. I hope there are fewer in my book!

What is bringing you joy right now, personally/artistically/habitually?

Taking my 17-year-old daughter to Paris and experiencing a city I have known for nearly four decades through her eyes, enjoying the pleasures of exhibitions and cafés and Lebanese ice cream and the most Parisian pleasure of all, walking. 

Swimming – I swim, therefore I think. I can’t imagine writing without swimming. 

Lately I’ve been revisiting the work of Henry Threadgill, a saxophonist, flutist, and composer whose music has been a part of my life since I was in my teens and first saw a picture of him in, of all places, an advertisement for Dewar’s. And the marvelous thing is not just reconnecting to composer whose work you’ve loved, but hearing it differently, and with even greater pleasure and intensity. The whimsy, eccentricity, density, and sheer power of Threadgill’s music is blowing my mind — and it’s a perfect accompaniment to his superb memoir, Easily Slip into Another World, co-written by my friend Brent Hayes Edwards, a book I’ll have more to say about in print.

Which writers, artists, and others influence your work in general, and this book, specifically?

Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, John Berger and Susan Sontag for their insights into photography and cinema.

Tony Judt, Isaac Deutscher, Christopher Lasch, Edward Said, Perry Anderson, Pankaj Mishra and Enzo Traverso for their engagement with history.

James Baldwin, for his sentences.

J.M. Coetzee, for his austerities.

Amiri Baraka, for his insistence that music is a way of thinking about the world.

Sartre for his intellectual portraits.

Pauline Kael for her brio.

Janet Malcolm for her analytic detachment, and psychologically penetrating cast of mind.

Hanif Kureishi, who turned my world upside down with his irreverence and fierce candor.

Vivian Gornick, for her fearlessness.

Music is enormously important to me, in some ways more than writing, even if it’s hard to say whether (or how) I’m “influenced” by it. I will never repay my debts to John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday, Shirley Horn, Jeanne Lee, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, Cecil Taylor, Mal Waldron, Don Cherry, Booker Little, Andrew Hill, Ornette Coleman, Paul Bley, as well as Beethoven, Bartok, Stravinsky, Debussy, Shostakovich, Feldman, Schnittke, Ligeti and so many others. 

My first artistic ‘crush’ was Prince, whom Miles Davis compared to Duke Ellington, and who is still one of my musical heroes. 

I acquired a feeling for words and phrasing as much from singer-songwriters (Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, Morissey, Joni Mitchell, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan) as I did from novelists and poets.  And I still listen to a ton of R&B and soul, especially D’Angelo (Voodoo is the Bitches Brew of our time) and the peerless Erykah Badu, and of course Kendrick Lamar, who combines an invigorating arrogance with a touching fragility. 

I’m a mad cinephile. A short list of my favorite filmmakers would include: Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Melville (who’s in this book), Maurice Pialat, Robert Bresson, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Michelangelo Antonioni, Pier Paolo Pasolini, John Cassavetes, Abbas Kiarostami, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Ingmar Bergman, Michael Haneke, Aki Kaurismaki, Agnes Varda, Claire Denis, Gillo Pontecorvo, and, not least, Ozu and Mizoguchi. 

What books are you reading right now and would you recommend any to others?

I DEVOURED Retrospective, by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, a non-fiction ‘novel’ about a wealthy family from Colombia who moved to revolutionary China during the Cultural Revolution. An engrossing and moving chronicle of revolutionary passion in the 20th century, one that honors the commitment of its subjects even as it describes their ultimate disillusionment – and the cruelties of the cause to which they gave much of their lives. 

I was charmed and touched by Fatima Daas’s The Last One, a defiant, and at the same time quite delicate auto-fiction about a queer Muslim woman growing up on the outskirts of Paris. To her credit, Daas doesn’t try to reconcile her divided identities, preferring to remain proudly contradictory. She’s blazing a new path while also carrying on the legacy of writers like Jean Genet. 

I’m still thinking about Alice Zeniter’s multigenerational novel of an Algerian family, The Art of Losing, a primer on French-Algerian history (something you simply have to understand if you want to understand France today), but also a delightful work of fiction.  

Another book that floored me is Emmanuelle Carrère’s forthcoming book about the Bataclan trial, V13, which I read in French last fall. I’d fallen into the habit of dismissing Carrère as an exasperating narcissist – a knee jerk reaction that reflected my disappointment with his recent work. But this book – humane, searching, full of humility –  reminded me just how powerful a writer he is. Note to self: one should never write off an artist of such talent. 

Finally, Raja Shehadeh’s heartbreaking memoir of his relationship with his father, My Father and I, We Could Have Been Friends, a book about fathers and sons that is also a reflection on Palestine in the aftermath of the Nakba. 

If you opened a bookstore, where would it be located, what would it be called, and what would your bestseller be?

Samouraï Books, in honor of Jean-Pierre Melville’s great film — I’d open it in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, my favorite part of the city. The bestseller? Anatole Broyard’s Kafka Was the Rage, one of the most sublime books ever written about literary life in New York City.  

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