Monday, December 14, 2015

James Lough and Alex Stein talk about the incredibly gift-worthy SHORT FLIGHTS: 32 Modern Writers Share Aphorisms of Insight, Imagination, and Wit

Looking for the perfect holiday gift? I love Short Flights: 32 Writers Share Aphorisms of Insight, Imagination, and Wit. So of course I corralled the editors and interviewed them!  And one of the authors, Yahia Lababidi gave me his favorite saying from Rumi: What you seek is seeking you.

Thank you so much James Lough and Alex Stein!

Where did you come up with the idea for this absolutely delightful book?

It was Alex’s idea, but I jumped on it so quickly I’m happy to take credit for it. He and I agreed that it would be a natural, a quick sell, a fait accompli. Six years later, it was. It finally occurred to me to approach my own publisher, Tim Schaffner, he liked it instantly.

 I imagine it was lots of fun curating all the aphorisms. How did you choose the writers and the aphorisms? And which are your favorite and why?  How did you decide how to order them?

It was fun indeed curating the aphorisms. Alex and I both read all of them independently, noted our favorites, then compared our notes. More often than not, we found that we chose the same ones. But if one of us chose an aphorism the other didn’t choose, we’d try to show the other how good it was, and why, but each of us had the power to veto the other’s choice. We only came to blows once, which is pretty good for a couple of struggling aphorists.
Choosing favorites from the book is like parents choosing their favorite children, but here are a few, and the reasons I like them:
The first abuse of power is not knowing that you have it.
            -- James Richardson

I think Richardson’s is sharply relevant in today’s political and economic climate. The next one I like for its lyric charm and wisdom:
-- As the crow flies, it simplifies.
Anne Lauinger
This one for its blunt realism:
Much can be tolerated by condemning it.
--Stephen Carter

And this one because it’s darned funny:
I never judge other mothers, even when they’re doing everything wrong.
                                                                        -- Sara Levine

Why do you think aphorisms are so important to us? (You’ve called them “A little window with a big view”, which I love.

They’ve delighted most of us since we were young enough to understand them, so our own emotional attachment to aphoristic sayings runs deep. A short line of words has helped fortify many of us through challenging times. Who hasn’t used What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger at least once in their lives?
Follow that one up with What does not kill me can hurt me pretty badly, and you have another appeal of the aphorism – they can be subversive and dark. Like jokes, they can express our unconscious, our shadow sides. Aphorisms don’t always recite the pieties of our societies, but can cut hard across them. Who doesn’t feel a whoosh of relief when someone says out loud what everyone else was thinking?

There’s “inspiration, wisdom and wit” in these, which of course, makes it the perfect gift--but expressing something true in a form that we remember--can, I think, actually change us. Do you agree?
Apparently a study has shown that the short sayings most easily remembered are short sayings that rhyme. Early to bed, early to rise… Though Short Flights does include a few rhyming aphorisms, there aren’t many. But most have one thing in common – they startle us. The reader is startled by a clever piece of word play, or by an abrupt reversal in meaning, or some kind of twist. Or even the aphorism’s idea, or message, can be so unexpected, so counterintuitive, and yet so true, that the force of the idea itself startles us:
Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.
– William Blake
I have a theory that little startles can actually change us in a rather subtle way with bit ramifications. I read a book by a literary critic who studied how medieval monks in England and Ireland used riddles. His theory was that a riddle’s surprising answer startles us in a way that mimics, in a small way, a spiritual epiphany. The riddle’s puzzling mystery throws a wrench in the gears of discursive thinking and suspends us an in open, expectant state of unknowing. Then the answer, or the aphorism, shoots a dart of information and imagery into our awareness. There’s something about being surprised and informed at the same time that people like.
Maybe being thrown open for a second, like a tossed ball suspended in air, allows us to grow a little bit, to expand our sphere of awareness. And reading a bunch of aphorisms one after another, forces us to acknowledge a multitude of (disorienting) perspectives on a multitude of topics. That can change you pretty fast. It’s fun to pit two contradictory aphorisms against each other:
Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Out of sight, out of mind.

Two statements making opposite claims, both true at times, nothing absolute about them. It’s hard to think in black and white once you’ve watched the wise ones disagree.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Alex and I think it may be time to update Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
One fun discovery for me was how much of a writer’s personality can be packed into these little messages in a bottle. Read enough of them by one person and you see a distinct voice, attitude, and perspective begin to emerge. You recognize an Ashleigh Brilliant, because it’s sly and ingenuous and usually paradoxical. Contrast this with Charles Simic’s surreal, eastern European feel, or Tom Farber’s world-weary not-quite cynicism. And yet you’ve just read a few little pieces of language by them.

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