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Me: What’s that up in the sky?

Sesshu: That’s Sergio, trying to learn how to drive one of our dirigibles. Keep an eye out because he might crash anywhere.


Ether, by Ben Ehrenreich, 2011, San Francisco: City Lights

1. What is the purpose of mystery
I am not permitted to reveal it.

2. What is the best goat in los angeles
The mayor.

3. What is the best dumpling in the world
The world is a dumpling: this planet—and us on it—the filling. The skin, what we call space, is out there somewhere. But I can only ask the question: what is beyond the skin? Is there a dipping sauce? Chile oil? Black vinegar? Who will eat it? When?

4. What is yoru secret
Night-blooming jasmine.

5. What is your secret
I hid it so well that I cannot remember where.

6. What is your posole recipe
Mine is mostly bones. Those close to me request that I not prepare it at Christmas time (or any other time) due to the disturbing clacking sounds made by the bare bones in the big stew pot, and to the horrors required for its preparation. (No one gets hurt but myself, so I don’t understand what the fuss is about, but family is often impenetrable.) It is, I will concede, a bit bland. You can add as much chile, lime, shredded cabbage, and oregano as you like, however, and you may wish to bring your own broth.

7. What kind of dumplings do they have in Palestine
They have dumplings made of razor wire stuffed inside the barrel of a Tavor TAR-21 assault rifle stuffed inside a teargas canister stuffed inside the shell from an M8A251 white phosphorus projectile stuffed inside a GPS-guided mortar made by Raytheon (right over there by the airport, just south of the 105 freeway; my old landlady’s daughter works there, leaves for work at 4:30 every morning, to avoid the traffic, she says) stuffed inside a Merkava tank stuffed inside a concrete watchtower and traditionally garnished with more razor wire, thirst and humiliation. Not being Palestinian, I was not permitted to taste these dumplings myself, but I smelled them everywhere. They were there in every pot, steaming away.

8. What are Palestinian toy tank war sculptures made out of plastic
That is a hard story to tell, but I met a young man named Eid Suleiman Hadhalin in a tiny Bedouin village in the south Hebron hills. A black goat followed me around the village like a puppy, nibbling at my shoe laces. Another goat, four days old and born with deformed legs bayed miserably, ceaselessly, dragging its crippled forelegs, its chin in the dirt. The village was half in ruins, destroyed by Israeli bulldozers. Ezra Nawi, the Israeli activist who took me there, had been arrested in one of the ruins when it was still someone’s home. He had refused to leave, refused to make way for the bulldozers. You can watch it on YouTube. The soldiers dragged him out, then bulldozed the house. Ezra went to prison for several months for that. The army has since issued demolition orders on every standing structure in the village, including the toilet and the communal oven. (The villagers, who are very poor, use goat dung for fuel; the Israeli settlers who live behind a fence just yards away claim the smoke is an environmental hazard.) Ezra told me I would like Eid. He was right. He told me that Eid was such a gentle and pure soul that he should not have been born in this world. I cannot judge that, but Eid had bright, glowing eyes and an open, joyful face. He lived with his wife and their two-year-old daughter. He was an artist. He gathered plastic scrap and trash from the landscape, cut it in strips and sewed them together to build small, scale sculptures of attack helicopters and bulldozers. They were perfect, beautiful things, precisely painted. He had put a small motor from a child’s toy in the helicopter so that its rotors actually spun. But he had stopped making helicopters, he told me. “We don’t make war here,” he said, and laughed. Now he just made bulldozers.

9. What are the secrets of Glendale Blvd
There are too many to list. I used to see coyotes running down the middle of the boulevard at two or three in the morning, over by the Jack in the Box. One of the neighbor’s goats used to escape and I’d see it munching the hedges by the Taco Bell parking lot while I waited for the bus and I would see junkies shooting up on the sidewalk behind La Espiga panadería and the guys at the transmission shop next door used to have a rooster, which in the mornings I often fantasized about bludgeoning, but those days are long gone. Now the owners of La Espiga have painted “Like us on Facebook” on the northern wall of the bakery where the Echo Park Locos and Los Crazys used to battle it out in black and red Krylon and I’d much rather talk about Ricardo and Enrique Flores Magón, who moved to the neighborhood in 1915 after their release from federal prison, having been convicted of violating U.S. neutrality laws for their involvement in an anarchist revolt in Baja California in 1911, when about 500 Magonistas and 100 American Wobblies defeated Mexican federal troops, taking and briefly holding Tecate, Mexicali, Tijuana, and San Quintín, in Mexicali establishing a small library into which any campesino could wander, sit down and read Kropotkin. I’ve never figured out exactly where they lived, if it was by the AutoZone and the post office or somewhere on the other side of the freeway, maybe by the new library which used to be an empty lot where they sold Christmas trees, across the street from the yuppie Vietnamese place, but it was definitely not where the Thriftee Storage is, because that was Mack Sennett’s studio in those days, and I’ve wondered sometimes what the Magón brothers thought of all that, if they ever walked down Glendale to the park or to catch a streetcar and if on the way they ever ran into a Sennett shoot, Keystone Kops bumbling down the boulevard, Fatty Arbuckle strutting for the cameras. Sennett’s crews filmed a new short every week and often spilled out into the street and I can’t help but think that if you looked at those old reels close enough for long enough you’d see the Magón brothers’ shadows flickering across the action, making it all seem not so funny really, those silly, silly kops, how inkompetent they are. The cops arrested the Magóns again in 1916, this time for distributing indecent material through the mails, which in their case meant newspaper articles critical of Venustiano Carranza, Woodrow Wilson’s ally of the moment. Ricardo died in Leavenworth six years later. Officially, of a heart attack. More likely he was hanged. I used to swim in the pool on Colton Street, just off Glendale a few blocks south of the park, went there almost every day for years. And I’ve heard that Ti George’s Chicken, which burned down shortly after the Haitian earthquake, is finally open again. Good news.

10. How would you describe Chuleta’s most adroit move
I’ve been working on this for a while, have finally trained her to dip herself in milk, then flour, then beaten egg, then seasoned bread crumbs. Then I say, “Fry!” and she leaps into the pan.

11. If you could grow certain items in your garden what would they be

I would grow a giant, velvety, dark, bluish purple flower so big that it would engulf the world in its folds. This may sound cataclysmic, but it would not be sad for us. It would be okay. There would be hints of melancholy perhaps for a little while, but the giant flower would be so soft and smell so sweet that we would not really mind. We would get used to the new way quickly, and forget about all this foolishness.

13. What kind of chiles are you growing and why not
This year: fatalli chiles, which are orange and extremely hot; chiles de arbol negros, which turn a wonderful glossy black when they are ripe and are also quite hot; Thai dragon chiles, old standbys that I like a great deal but that are relatively ho-hum in such exotic company; red Scotch bonnets, which are not, to my mind, as tasty as fatallis or habaneros; and these little round Chinese chiles that I don’t know the name of but of which I’ve grown quite fond. They’re like peas crossed with crocodiles. I also had a manzanillo chile plant but it only produced a single chile so I dug it up in spite. Last year I had a chocolate habanero that I still dream about. The chiles ripened a deep, dark brown and beneath all that heat they really did taste like chocolate. I wish I had saved the seeds.

14. What’s on the soundtrack to your last novel Ether

Everyone’s asking me this question lately. It’s mainly Humpback Whale Sounds, John Cale, Joy Division and Nina Simone. Plus the snapping sound a roadmap makes when you’re driving through the desert and you’re lost and your a/c is out so you have to keep the windows open and the map is flapping all over the front seat, damn the wind.

14.5. Don’t you have a responsibility as an author to provide dumplings to your characters and if so what type
I tried, but the grease got all over the monitor and they keyboard got smushed with crab and pork and dough. I should clean that up, I know.

15. Which type of dumpling is most appropriate to which type of character
Plum dumplings with melted butter, confectioners sugar.

16. If you were to cast actors to play characters from your novels, who would you get to sew their costumes and how would you arrange that

17. Okay, if you were getting actors to play your characters,

18. All right, say you did finally round up numerous actors to play a bunch of your characters, list them actors and the characters here, each one with a Hunan dish that represents something about them
All characters will be played by Steve McQueen. He will wear a white, asbestos-lined driving suit with silver and gold piping, plus matching crash helmet and various wigs. (Señora Ruiz at the tailoring shop next to the transmission shop has refused to hem it, citing OSHA regulations.) Steve McQueen will eat one Hunan Chile Fish Head for every character he plays and I will reap the leftovers. You’re welcome to come over and help me dispose of them.

19. Which living authors currently in los angeles should we talk shit about
Chester Himes, Louis Adamic, Simone de Beauvoir, Oscar Acosta, Bertolt Brecht. None of those fuckers returns my calls.

20. Why is life and fate by vassily grossman which is about the battle for Stalingrad and the doldrums of Stalinism not more interesting than nausea by horacio castellanos moya where almost nothing happens but it’s still way more interesting and shorter
Because Castellanos Moya is funny. Grossman not so much.

21. What can we do with all these extra question marks ??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????
We are already doing it.

22. Can we insert short chapters about dumplings and Chinese restaurants in the san Gabriel valley and dolphins and porpoises in your next novel and at what point in the novel

Absolutely, so long as all the restaurants are called Hunan Chile King and decorated inside and out with colorful strands of non-chile-shaped Christmas lights. I am enough of an anarchist to believe that it should be up to the dolphins, porpoises, dumplings, and Hunan Chile Kings to decide where their chapters will go. Some of them may choose to locate their chapters outside of the space of the novel itself, maybe high up in Elysian Park, where the hills drop down over the 5 freeway and the rail yards and the river. Readers should understand that they are free to search for chapters there and elsewhere, even if I have not yet written them. In fact, several supplementary chapters of Ether are still hiding up there, not far from the Police Academy shooting range and the endless acres of Dodger Stadium parking lots, pristine in the off-season.

23. Why is time itself faintly whitish
All the bleach.

24. What is your opinion as a widelty traveled journalist of truckee, ca
I was there once many years ago, and remember it fondly. I ate barbecued oysters, though that memory now strikes me as unlikely, and perhaps invented. It was dark, so I can’t say much more.

25. How do you view the future of the orgamaic novel
It is bleak. Have you tried to fold a Kindle?

26. Is there another question and can it be worked on with a hand drill

Ben Ehrenreich (born 1972) is an American freelance journalist and novelist who lives in Los Angeles. Ehrenreich began working as a journalist in the alternative press in the late 1990s, publishing extensively in LA Weekly and the Village Voice. His journalism, essays and criticism have since appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, The Believer, and the London Review of Books. He has reported from Afghanistan, Haiti, Cambodia, El Salvador, Mexico and all over the United States. In 2011, he was awarded a National Magazine Award in feature writing for an article published in Los Angeles magazine. His first novel,The Suitors was published by Counterpoint Press in 2006. Writing in BOMB, the novelist Frederic Tuten called The Suitors “truly a ravishing book.” Ehrenreich’s short fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s, BOMB, Black Clock and many other publications. Ehrenreich also teaches in the graduate writing program at Otis College of Art and Design. He is the son of best-selling author Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed) and psychologist John Ehrenreich, and his sister is Rosa Brooks, the Los Angeles Times columnist.

The streets were littered with tree limbs all over town, and workers cleared split and downed trees. The wind had torn off big swaths of roofing material from our roof and scattered them across the yard. It was still windy when Ben, Arturo and I hiked to the hilltop above Altadena that is Owen Brown’s gravesite. Owen Brown was John Brown’s son, a survivor of the attack on Harper’s Ferry in 1859 when John Brown sought to incite a revolution to overthrow slavery. John Brown was hanged for treason in 1859, and after the Civil War, Owen Brown and his brother Jason lived in a shack in the empty San Gabriel mountains. Owen Brown died of pneumonia in 1889, and he’s buried on a dusty hilltop with the weeds and brush growing after the “Station Fire” of 2009. Two cinder blocks are the only marker—the 1889 marker gone missing after the land was sold in 2002. With Ben’s pit bull Chuleta, we hiked the fire road through the rocky foothills, with a view out to the shining ocean. On our way back, the tremendous sun-filled day behind it, the chilly wind howled through high power lines running across the slopes.

Owen Brown Grave Site Today

Owen Brown Grave Site a Century Ago

December 2011