Episode 611: Sarah Rose Etter, murder ballads, Walter on Walter: ’48 Hrs’

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Sarah Rose Etter talks about her surreal novel, ‘Ripe.’ Also, visual artist Kristine Potter shares the haunting reality behind murder ballads. And film critic Walter Chaw returns for another installment of ‘Walter on Walter.’ Today, he talks about Walter Hill’s film, ’48 Hours.’

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  • Sarah Rose Etter's 'Ripe' explores the high cost of working at a Silicon Valley start-up

    If you’re looking for a novel that is not like any other novel you’ve ever read, look no further than Sarah Rose Etter’sRipe.”

    It’s a surreal novel about a young woman named Cassie who is working at a Silicon Valley start-up. She was hoping it would be her dream job, but it turns out to be a nightmare. Cassie has to deal with long hours and toxic bosses.

    She also has to deal with a miniature black hole that she believes has been part of her since birth.

    “Ripe” is beautifully written, incredibly immersive and has tremendous energy, flow and pace.

    Etter draws on her personal experience working in tech to ensure that she gets all the details right. She talked to Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA” about her novel.

    This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

    Doug Gordon: How similar is your own work experience to Cassie’s?

    Sarah Rose Etter: I would say her experience is really a composite of things I’ve seen in tech. Not necessarily for companies where I work, but from stories I’ve heard. It’s kind of taking all the worst things that you’ve seen and combining it into one company. And so it’s really a composite. I think this book, rather than being based on my “reality,” is really making sure that it’s based on the truth of tech and also just business in general. I mean, honestly, most of these are not new behaviors. They just take a different shape.

    We’re kind of in this era of conspicuous consumption where, for the first time, people are hiding wealth and status. And so that always fascinates me because it’s really the same sort of behaviors, it’s just dressed up as a company that’s your friend. It’s low-key, it’s casual, but all of the same things are sort of happening under the surface.

    I think that part of my experience and Cassie’s do intertwine, where I thought I was making this huge life change and things were going to be improved.

    DG: One of the things that makes Cassie different from everyone else is her miniature black hole. What is the origin story of this black hole that is always with her?

    SRE: I think the black hole for her represents depression. And I wanted to personify this human emotion that can take on so many shapes and forms. And for the reader, I hope it can mean anything, whether maybe you struggle with anxiety or anger issues or, you know, whatever we’re all trying to manage every day as we go to work, as we make money. The black holes were meant to be a stand-in for that. And of course, it was the hardest part to write because we don’t fully understand black holes in regular life, let alone turning it into this sort of fictional element.

    So I think if you’ve asked me how many times I had to revise that area, I would say it’s a lot. But yeah, I do feel like a little bit of an expert in black holes now. Like if you sent me to a black hole convention, I think I could talk, like in the basement.

    DG: Can you give us an example of what kind of knowledge you would share?

    SRE: The most fascinating thing to me is the research was so ongoing that I would rewrite the ending of the book a lot because during the time we were sending it to the printer, they were starting to make new discoveries, and that’s when they discovered that there were potentially wormholes in the black holes.

    And that really changed the whole ending, right? Because it suddenly went from, oh, she’s going to be ripped to shreds in this black hole to, hey, there’s actually another option. I don’t know. I read so much research. It’s hard to say.

    There was one really nice academic paper that I read about the way we personify black holes. Since we can’t understand them, we have to use language like “they spit” or “they consume” or “they ingest.” They always have to be doing something that feels human to us because we really can’t understand them.

    It’s one of the only things in science that has that, where we have had to give it a layman’s term and try to make it understandable just to a regular person. So that part always fascinates me.

    DG: And I understand that the black hole was a symbol of your grief. Can you tell us about that?

    SRE: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I really don’t know if I would have written this book.

    I thought to myself that San Francisco has kind of been done to death. There’s been a ton of tech books, you know, so it’s not usually my wheelhouse. But when I lived in San Francisco, I used to call my father all the time, and he would talk me through my struggle with the city and with the industry. And he kept asking me to write a book about it.

    He passed away shortly before we went into lockdown. And I really found myself just with my grief and very isolated. And I fell into this book as a way to sort of remember him. So the parts about the father in the book are certainly the things about him I wanted to remember.

    DG: You’ve said that you want to leave space for the reader to show up. I love that sentence, that thought. How do you do that?

    SRE: I think you have to let the surrealist element do that. If you think about surrealism as an art form, it’s almost more important what the viewer sees in the artwork than what the intention of the artist was. And I do want some of that in my book.

    People always say, “What was the ending?” And I’m like, I don’t care what the ending was for me. I know what it was for me, but I’m far more interested in how the reader sees it ending. And the same is true for the black hole or the knot in ‘The Book of X’ (Etters’ Shirley Jackson Award-winning debut novel). I’m much more interested in how the reader engaged with those elements than what my intention was.

    DG: I was intrigued to discover that you don’t consider your competition to be other writers or other books. So what do you see as your competition?

    SRE: Twitter, Netflix, your phone going off. We’re in an attention economy at this point. And so I do think every page of a novel has to be doing something. Sometimes in my head, I think of it as like acrobatics on the page. I need to be doing one really cool trick on every page, or you have every reason to just not read.

    You know, it’s silly to think of myself in competition with other writers because as we all know, people don’t read a lot. And so my competition is the real world and a million devices. And the fact that you have to actually invest hours in order to read a book.

    So I do try to play to the reader’s attention span so that it feels — I mean, people have jokingly called this a beach read. And I kind of laugh about it because it’s a sad book for sure. But I did try to pace it in a way that the reader would be compelled to finish it.

    DG: And you definitely did that. So when Netflix comes calling to ask you to turn “Ripe” into a streaming series, that means you’ll be competing against yourself. How will you handle that?

    SRE: I’m not having those conversations until the strike is over.

  • Murder ballads: Violence down by the river

    Murder ballads made their way to the United States as emigrants came from Scotland, Ireland and Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many settled in the southeastern part of this country.

    The songs were shared over the years, and the lyrics changed and evolved to fit the southern environment. Many of those songs were first recorded in the early 1920s and still get new treatments to this day.

    Even though the lyrics have been changed, the theme remains intact: A woman was murdered by her lover for some slight that he found inconvenient. Her body was later found floating in the river.

    Cover of Kristine Potter's photo collection,
    Cover of Kristine Potter’s photo collection, “Dark Waters.” Courtesy of Kristine Potter

    Songs like “Pearl Bryan,” “Omie Wise,” “Banks of the Ohio” and others are featured in the monograph “Dark Waters,” created by photographer Kristine Potter. An award-winning photographer, Potter talked with Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA” about her current book of mostly black-and-white landscape photos of southern United States rivers and forests and printed excerpts of song lyrics from these famous ballads.

    She used the images and the songs to make a point about violence against women by men throughout history.

    “I was thinking about the history of violence in the southern landscape and the cultural tendencies here — the Southern Gothic tendencies in literature and cinema, which often portray these dark, macabre sorts of things happening in the South,” she said.

    “I started by moving through the landscape, asking myself whether an echo of the violence that was perpetrated here, whether that still lives in the landscape today, whether we’re affected by it,” she continued.

    The result is a book featuring stark photos of landscapes, some with people, some without, that begin to tell a story of violence and places where it might happen, often near water.

    “I thought, I’m going to follow bodies of water with violent names. The provenance of those names is often not known, but things like Murder River or Bloody Creek were an architecture to put me in a place and to begin making pictures,” Potter said. “The murder ballad thread came in about a year later and felt wholly related to this question.”

    Black and white photo of a street sign,
    Photo of a street sign, “Bloody Fork,” from Kristine Potter’s “Dark Waters.” Photo courtesy of Kristine Potter

    The photos only loosely connect to the songs featured in the book. Potter was more interested in creating an unsettling feeling of fear and anxiety.

    “I chose ballads where this gendered violence occurred,” said Potter, “where a man has killed a woman for whatever inconvenience she’s representing to him in his life. I just took excerpts from those ballads and tucked them into the sequence of the images, reminding you of the potential in the landscape, reminding you of what we carry psychically in our minds (as) women — the potential for violence — and hopefully not drawing too direct a relationship between any one photo and the lyrics.”

    “Part of what I hope people realize, even though these ballads feel of another era, is that these stories are still incredibly contemporary.”

    The song excerpts are printed on a single page with no photos. Specific phrases are lined out but still readable. Potter explains why she did it that way.

    Photo of a woman from Kristine Potter's collection,
    Photo of a woman from Kristine Potter’s collection, “Dark Waters.” Photo courtesy of Kristine Potter

    “I thought, am I just perpetuating this violence by writing these lyrics? What is my role here? And working with my editor, Leslie Martin at Aperture, and our designer, Julia Shafer, we went through dozens of ideas of how to respond to that violence in a sophisticated way, in a knowing way, and with purpose,” she said. “So, the phrases that are crossed out are overt acts of violence. There’s a strike through in them, and that’s me disempowering those words, acknowledging them, but disempowering them simultaneously.”

    In addition to the landscape photos are studio images of women looking defiant and possibly frightened, but also like they will not submit to their fate.

    “They’re made in a studio, and the women are wet, and we had to use strobe lights. It’s all very orchestrated,” Potter said. “But inside of that orchestration, there are things I couldn’t predict, gestures or expressions that I can’t tell them to do.”

    “So, there’s still much exploration for me there photographically. We spoke a little bit about defiance but also fear and power,” she continued.

    A photo of fishermen next to a lake from Kristine Potter's collection
    A photo of fishermen next to a lake from Kristine Potter’s collection “Dark Waters.” Photo courtesy of Kristine Potter

    The design and layout of this book is a tour de force. It conveys a more profound meaning with each look. The images and song lyrics plunge the reader into another world, and each viewing reveals new secrets about the history of violence against people who may find themselves in one of Potter’s landscapes.

    “I wanted to offer an experience. I want people to reflect on the beauty and the possible fear that can exist simultaneously. I want people to consider the commodification and celebration of violence against women,” Potter said. “I want them to consider the contemporary circumstance and how we participate in it. And, to consider there could be different outcomes to those stories.”

  • Walter on Walter: A look at the legacy of '48 Hrs.'

    If you search the internet for the best “buddy cop” movies, any link you land on is likely to have Walter Hill’s 1982 film, “48 Hrs.” on it. Many consider it the film that formulated the film genre, if not at least popularized it.

    Fueled by the star-making performance of then-SNL superstar Eddie Murphy, the film is often remembered as a comedy. “48 Hrs.” gets lumped in as a part of Murphy’s early ’80s takeover of the comedy scene when he followed it up with blockbusters like, “Trading Places,” “Coming to America” and “Beverly Hills Cop,” along with several stand-up special masterpieces, like “Delirious” and “Raw.”

    However, film critic and author Walter Chaw says that if you revisit “48 Hrs.,” you see more hallmarks of Walter Hill’s oeuvre and a more tragic statement on toxic masculinity and race in America.

    Chaw is the author of “A Walter Hill Film.” He joined Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA” for another installment of “Walter on Walter” to discuss the legacy of Hill’s iconic film.

    “’48 Hrs.’ is remembered by people as a comedy,” Chaw says. “It’s really about this tense relationship — this tense racial relationship — this violent crime film. It’s a lot of things, but a comedy, it’s not. And a movie about friends, it’s not.”

    Chaw’s relationship with the film dates back to an illicit screening of it when he was a kid. He and his friends snuck into the R-rated film because of all the buzz around Murphy. It was during this viewing that Chaw saw something deeper in Murphy’s performance.

    “I was particularly drawn to the Eddie Murphy character in ’48 Hrs.’ for maybe not obvious reasons. He’s obviously the energy, the lifeblood of that film, but there’s something about Eddie Murphy and the way that he handles the racism that really spoke to me even as a 9-year-old,” he says.

    Chaw says that he marveled at how Murphy’s character of the temporarily released convict, Reggie Hammond, was never surprised by the overt racism he faces in nearly every situation he and surly detective, Jack Cates (played by an equally surly Nick Nolte) find themselves in, but instead is able to weaponize it.

    “People are constantly surprised by Reggie Hammond throughout the course of ’48 Hrs.’ That’s because they don’t see him as smart. They don’t see him as able. They judge him instantly based on what he looks like and what he sounds like and how he chooses to act. And it’s to their own detriment,” says Chaw.

    Chaw, who is Asian-American, had an epiphany moment of realization while watching.

    “My parents are Chinese. I was born in Colorado, and I never thought of my race as an advantage until I saw ’48 Hrs.’ And so in more than just the illicit sense, it was a watershed for me to see that film at 9 years old,” he says.

    Fans of the film are forgiven for mistaking it for a comedy. Much of the blame for that can be laid at the hands of a showstopping and widely talked about scene where Eddie Murphy dresses down an entire redneck bar called Torchy’s.

    “It’s a huge moment because it’s such an unexpected moment, I think, in American film in the ’80s. That’s the moment that Eddie Murphy becomes a star,” says Chaw.

    The scene famously almost didn’t make it into the final cut of the film. Chaw says that it was because Hill and the writers viewed it as such a tightrope scene that had the danger of polarizing audiences.

    “They tested it a couple of times and one screening audience hated it, and the next screening audience loved it. And then at the end of the day, Hill and (writer) Larry Gross said, ‘You know what? Let’s just go for it.’ And it became such a huge scene and such a huge cultural moment,” says Chaw.

    In many ways, Chaw says, “48 Hrs.” has morphed from a comedy staple to a dangerous conversation about race and identity in America. He says that while Walter Hill was never accused of being overly progressive, he was more interested in and very good at reflecting society back on itself in his films.

    “I think what you get in Walter Hill’s films is a guy who is very open-eyed, very clear-eyed about the way that the world is,” he says.

    “The use of racial invective in ’48 Hrs.,’ and in many of his other films in this period, is extraordinary because it’s not only the way that these men are needling each other, are starting fights with each other, but it’s also the way that they’re becoming friends,” Chaw continues.

    This dovetails naturally into Hill’s interrogation of the paradox of toxic masculinity.

    “It’s all part of this thesis, I think, that Hill has, that men are essentially violent. Men are essentially born of this place of conflict. And men are only taught in our society to express themselves in certain ways. It’s not OK for guys to cry in our society or hold hands or hug or give each other kisses on the cheek. We’re not allowed to do that. We are allowed to be angry, to be rageful,” Chaw says.

    Chaw points to a scene in “48 Hrs.” where Hammond and Cates physically fight as one of the most powerful because it demonstrates how this toxic violent nature and expression can be used oddly as a sign of respect.

    “They express their love for each other ultimately through this big fight in the middle of the street. And even at the end of the fight that Reggie was about to win, Jack says, ‘You know what? Whatever. Write up the report. I’m going to say that I won.’ Because he’s reasserting his power institutionally over Reggie,” Chaw states.

    “It’s been called the prototypical buddy comedy, but it’s neither,” he continues. “They’re not friends at the end of this movie. They’re, if anything, kind of coconspirators. They’re still on the opposite sides. And they always will be. There’s no real bridging of that racial gap. That’s the tragedy of it, I think. And that’s the tragedy of a lot of Walter Hill’s movies.”

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Steve Gotcher Interviewer
  • Sarah Rose Etter Guest
  • Kristine Potter Guest
  • Walter Chaw Guest

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