The Millions Interview

To Question and Be Questioned: The Millions Interviews Azar Nafisi

I first encountered Azar Nafisi as I was preparing to move from California to Connecticut. In Reading Lolita in Tehran, which I read just two months before departing, Nafisi describes her own “strange” feelings before she left Tehran for the United States. Although I cannot claim a move that momentous, that difficult, her thoughts resonated deeply with me. Her latest book, The Republic of Imagination, explores the idea that books are important because when we get a glimpse of another person’s life, we can be made to feel connected to their emotions and experiences, and gain a new perspective on our own lives. Her new work emphasizes the importance of fiction in a country where many have begun to deem it a frivolous luxury or useless exercise, through the perspectives of three novels: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. We spoke over the phone, I from my home in rural Connecticut, she at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Charleston, S.C., on her book tour. The Millions: I wanted to ask you a few questions about what you’ve learned as a writer and a reader, looking at the three different countries you’ve inhabited: Iran and then America and then also the Republic of Imagination as a third country. Of course many things have changed since you first published Reading Lolita in Tehran about 12 years ago. Looking back on that length of time, how have your perceptions of your home country, Iran, changed during that time? Azar Nafisi: Well, you know, they have not changed substantially in terms of what I thought about Iran’s history and culture and the people, also about the Islamic regime, because the changes that have happened in Iran are rooted in what was happening then. For example, you see Tehran’s streets are much, quote unquote, “nicer” and a lot of restaurants and you see women -- of course, the situation of women is like the situation of weather here: you have a little bit of sunshine and then there’s a downpour or a tornado, so you never know. But Iranian women have managed to defy the system at least in terms of appearances. That has changed; if one goes to Tehran today women don’t look the way they did when I left Iran. But the truth of the matter is that the laws have remained the same, and there is no real security until there is real reform and real change. As you can tell from reading Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, the human rights situation in Iran -- the situation of journalists, writers, political prisoners -- that also remains the same. One of the traits I noticed in Iran was this constant defection from within the system. The former revolutionaries and people who were founders of the republic themselves becoming dissidents has accelerated. So for example, the former prime minister [Mir-Hossein] Mousavi, just to give you an example which everyone knows about, and Mehdi Karroubi, our former speaker of the house, are now, they are the ones who are suffering and under house arrest. That tells a lot about this progress towards at least certain segments of civil societies. TM: In another interview you said the U.S. foreign policy should pursue dialogue not only with the regime in Iran but also with the Iranian people. So how do you think they could do this, especially in light of the recent nuclear agreement? AN: First of all, the Iranian people -- and I am not saying that I’m a spokesperson for them -- they don’t really have a spokesperson abroad. That is one problem. So everyone is sort of becoming a self-appointed spokesperson for the people. So I’m not claiming to be that, but the way I see U.S. foreign policy, depending on who is in power, and usually a Democrat or Republican is in power, it sort of vacillates between just sheer belligerence and refusal for any form of dialogue, and then the pendulum goes the other way to sheer compromise with the system. What I really would have loved to see was first of all an understanding of the complexities and paradoxes of that society; and an understanding that in the long run, pragmatically, it is to the American people and American government’s well being to have a more open, flexible, and democratic system in Iran and to really encourage the democratic mind of people in Iran who are now either in jail or their voices are being silenced. You can have a fruitful dialogue with the Islamic regime without forgetting about the rights of the Iranian people. That is not imposition on another culture. Iran, like other countries that violate human rights like China, like Saudi Arabia, are also benefitting from all the advantages of being members of the United Nations. Under the United Nations, nations swear allegiance to certain universal rights, and these are the rights that Iranian people have been fighting for long before Mr. Khomeini had his revolution; it wasn’t something that the shah granted so that the ayatollah can take away. It was something that people fought for and died for in the Constitutional Revolution at the beginning of the century. What I’m trying to say is that the negotiations with Iran, which I support -- there’s this sort of propaganda all around it, people either being for or against it. I don’t see it like that. I see that there should be negotiations, but the U.S. is negotiating from a position of strength, because Iran never comes to a table unless they feel weak, unless they feel that they are really in a bad position domestically. So while the U.S. is in a position of strength, while they are talking to the Iranian government and obviously compromising on certain issues, they should not compromise on the rights of the Iranian people. And they do. Our administration right now is not even talking about the Iranian Americans who are in jail. That is an insight into the weaknesses of the United States foreign policy, be it Republican or Democrat, and being manipulated. So that is what worries. As a writer and a woman who believes in rights of women and personal liberty, I don’t take political sides, but I do have a position on the issue of human rights. I have seen that what makes tyrants afraid is not military might. The first people who are sacrificed in these regimes are journalists and writers and poets, and actually those who teach humanities. Those are at the forefront of the struggle and are targets. TM: I also wanted to ask about how your own experiences under the regime in Iran have then shaped the way you approach American politics and your own level of civic involvement here. AN: Iran taught me many things. One of the first things I realized was that individual rights and human rights are not God-given gifts to the West. This is an illusion some people in this country and in other democracies have; that they have certain traits that makes them deserve freedom of choice and other freedoms. I think that everyone -- and I’ve seen that in Iran in terms of its history and in terms of my own life experiences in that country -- that people want a decent life. Nobody hates, no matter what kind of culture you come from, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. When I talk about Iran, I don’t differentiate between rights in Iran and rights in America. The second thing that the Islamic Republic taught me was that these countries we call totalitarian or tyrannical are only distorted and extreme cases of what we could become in a democracy. What a democracy can learn from countries that are more repressive is to understand that freedom is an ordeal. Coming to the United States I find myself again talking about the ordeals that we all face and the challenges we face here. And the challenge that I am trying to face in the U.S. right now is this complacency and conformity. The last thing is that I realize how important it is to pay attention to culture and history, and that, even if you are thinking about the military conquest, the first thing you have to do is to understand, not to judge. That is why for me fiction becomes so crucial because that is what it teaches us, to first understand and then try to judge. TM: Thinking about America now, you talked a little in your book about how a lot of Americans have become complacent and they’ve given up some of their freedoms, especially since 9/11. Why do you think Americans have become complacent and allowed that to happen? Another phrase you used in your book was that safety is an illusion, and I think in giving up our freedoms we’ve really prioritized this illusion of safety. Why do you think Americans have done that and have let that happen? AN: I think that when we go through periods of too much prosperity and too little thinking, it can very easily be translated into a form of smartness and conformity. Now I was away from America for 18 years, so I am only speaking about what happened in this country in those 18 years from other people’s experiences or what I have read, but it seems to me that especially in the '80s and right into the '90s there was this transformation into the other side of the American Dream, which is a gross materialism. On one hand we have this mindset, on the other hand within the academia actually and among the intellectuals and policy makers we have this ideological mindset, and I think both of these mindsets, although they are very different in terms of positions they take, are very similar. Both of them are lazy. They don’t want to think -- I mean intellectually lazy. To think and to imagine and to genuinely follow the truth or try to understand and reveal the truth is dangerous, it has its consequences. Once you know the truth, then you have to take action. You can’t remain silent. So most people would rather not know. Ideologies always do that. I was so amazed when I returned to the United States and discovered how polarized this society has become, even in terms of the news -- that you don’t listen to the news from people you don’t agree with. Fox News, for example, for me was a very new and strange and gradually scary phenomenon where you negate reality. There is no more news in most of our channels, from left to right. It is an imposition of your own desires and illusions and ideologies upon reality, so reality doesn’t matter. And that makes it easier, because when you and I think that the world is divided into good guys and bad guys, and we’re always on the side of the good guys, it is like Miss Watson in Huckleberry Finn, who believes that the world is divided into those who go to hell and those who go to heaven. And she obviously belongs to those who go to heaven, and in order to go to heaven, all you have to do is not to question, not to understand complexities, not to have curiosity, not to take risks; only see if somebody believes in your set of formulas. That is one thing that really worries me about America. Alongside of that is this utilitarian pleasure-seeking, comfort-seeking mindset. You know, I think it is amazing, elections for us have turned into a sort of entertainment. People were a little happy watching the Democrats’ recent debate because it at least talked about issues. It frightens me when we watch Donald Trump, because we either want to laugh at him or we genuinely believe in him. Americans now, it seems to be a reign of ignorance. How you could think someone could be your president who is so ignorant of your own history and culture, as well as the history and culture of the world? This is no laughing matter at some point. We see that in our universities where our students want trigger warnings; they don’t want to read novels that make them uncomfortable. You keep hearing the word “uncomfortable.” And then the celebrity culture, we talk about Michelle Obama and Jonathan Franzen and Beyoncé and this phenomenon called Kim Kardashian. You are dissolving people’s individualities, what they really do in real life, into this generalized term. Michelle Obama is the First Lady, Franzen is a writer, Beyoncé is a singer, and Kardashian, God knows what she is. It’s this greed for everything that wants to be new. In my book, the second chapter “Babbitt,” Babbitt like Henry Ford believes that history is bunk. Memory is bunk. And all they crave is new gadgets. We have all become like Babbitt, dying to know the latest Apple iPhone or iPad, staying up and queuing in front of the stores to get the new gadgets. The world is going up in flames, in churches people are killing people, our schools are no more secure and we are yet wanting to feel comfortable. I can go on forever, but that is why I said that we need to be able to reflect, to think, to take risks, and to imagine a world not just as it is, but as it should or could be. Otherwise how could you and I vote if we do not learn in schools our own history and the history of the world, our own culture and the culture of the world? How do we have the ability to think and make choices? These are questions that bother me. They are different from the questions that bothered me in Iran where my life was sometimes in danger, but I still feel that something very precious is in danger in this country. TM: Building on that a little bit, one thing that I noticed in your book was you talked about political correctness. Some would argue that political correctness was born out of a need to redress grievances and show respect to those that have been marginalized, but in your book you point out that political correctness leads to “comfortable questions and easy, ready-made answers.” What alternative would you present to political correctness? How can we still show that respect without putting everyone’s ways of thought into a box? AN: All of these matters like political correctness, like multiculturalism, came out of a desire to respect others and be curious about others. But the point is that you cannot create these things into a set of formulas, and you cannot assign people to a situation. I think that is dangerous. That is the difference between what I saw under conditions that were far more difficult; for example when we talk about or see documentaries on civil rights movements, when people were fighting for their rights very seriously, you had a conviction and despite the fact that the others or the society or the law tried to victimize you, you refused that victimized status. Nowadays someone who is wearing that status will condescendingly talk about others: “Don’t hurt their sensitivities.” It is not about hurting sensitivities, it is about changing mindsets. Mindsets are not changed by some thug calling women all sorts of names, or calling minorities all sorts of names, and then tomorrow coming on TV to apologize. Or by forbidding people to talk in a way or punishing them the way we are. All we are doing is not changing people’s mindsets, we are making them just become silent and build resentment and then they’ll come out on the attack when the time comes. As a woman who comes from a particular place like Iran...let me just give you the examples of women in Iran. What women in Iran realized, in comparison with their own past and in comparison with what they desire, was that they were genuine victims of the regime. When you are forced to marry at the age of nine or stoned to death or are flogged, these things make you real victims; it’s not somebody calling you names. But we could have done two things: either just accept that victim status or to actively resist it by not becoming like our oppressors. I think that is the greatest lesson I have learned from James Baldwin. Baldwin talks about the most dangerous thing was not those white racists but the hatred that they stimulated in him, which made him become them. So if we are victims of race or class or gender rather than constantly complaining or forbidding people to talk about these things, we should stand up and we should act so that people know we are not victims. We refuse that status. If I refuse that status, then whatever somebody says is not going to hurt me. That is what I mean by everybody wanting to be comfortable and find solutions by forbidding, but this forbidding has no end, because you’ll notice that the right is constantly bothered and sensitized about whether we will have another Christmas celebration or not or wants to ban Harry Potter or evolution from the schools; and the left might call The Great Gatsby misogynist or Huckleberry Finn racist, and want to make our job easy and kick them out. What I want to say to people is that the domain of imagination and thought is the only domain where blasphemy and profanity can exist. That is where we should be free to roam and to question and be questioned. So my students should not only read those writers who for example were fighting against fascism, but they should also understand what Hitler was all about. That domain is the domain of free thought and freedom of the imagination, and we are limiting it by ideology. That is what I was trying to practice in my classes. I would never begin with theory, because I didn’t want my students to be intimidated or influenced by somebody who they think knows better. So first of all I would have them read the text and talk about the text and come up with their own ideas about the text. Then I would ask them to read theories that I myself hated, but I would not tell them, I would have them read theories from all sides and come to their own conclusion. I don’t want my students to all take the same political positions that I do, but I want them to think and be able to defend their ideas and be able to have that intellectual courage to stand up for their principles. TM: So if you could give a reading list of a few more works important to the Republic of Imagination, what would those books be? AN: There are so many. First of all, I don’t believe I have explained it fully in my book; the point about my book was that I ended at a specific period in time because I felt that the 1960s were a time of transition both in terms of American culture as well as politics and society, and whatever we are dealing with now, both good and bad, is partly because of what happened in the '60s and '70s. The second thing is that I had about 24 people on the list for this book, which I reduced to what you see now. For example, I wanted to talk about Herman Melville's Bartleby; I love that guy who keeps saying, “I prefer not to.” If we talk about before the '60’s, Flannery O’Connor, Kurt Vonnegut, and some of the lesser known, I believe, minor masterpieces, like Nathanael West's Miss Lonely Hearts and The Day of the Locust; I think he beautifully predicts our society today. Of course I mentioned Stoner in my book, but I also love David Foster Wallace, I love Geraldine Brooks, and some of the works by Nicole Krauss. These are writers who are too close to my time and I need to digest them more in order to be able to write about them more. Of course mystery, I would love to write about Raymond Chandler and science fiction like Ray Bradbury or Philip K. Dick. TM: Do you think you’d ever publish a list of those 24 people that you wanted to write about? Because I think you should! AN: I’d love to! You know, one of my problems, and I mentioned it in one of my books, is that in terms of books, I’m very promiscuous. There are so many books that I want to write about. I was in Italy for my book last month and I kept thinking, “Oh my god, I want to write about so many of these books now!” I hope I will at least get a chance to write about some of them. It is so joyous to be able to share the books you love. TM: How would you say that fiction influences and changes the future, from people’s hearts to the changes we make in our societies to even the inventions we create? AN: Well you know, I believe that fiction, telling stories, is essential to our nature as human beings. If you go back to the first stories that are Greek and Roman mythology, to the Bible to the Qur’an, until you come to epic fiction and all of that, you notice that fiction comes out of curiosity, and curiosity is the first step towards change. Both science and literature are very much dependent on this curiosity. Because to be curious means to leave yourself behind and search for something that you don’t know, and enter a world like Alice and her Wonderland, enter a world that you have not visited before. And that experience, like traveling to other lands, learning other people’s languages, it changes you. You might not notice the change in a very concrete way, but it changes your perspective on the world. It expands your perspective; it washes your eyes and you look at yourself through the eyes of other people. So I feel that that is one of the greatest contributions of fiction in terms of preserving our humanity. It also gives us continuity because it is the guardian of memory, and that is why I’m so amazed when I read something that was written some years ago and it seems as if they predicted what we are now. The last thing of course is that fiction touches the heart. It makes you connect to other people through your heart and that experience of connection through the heart is also life changing -- to be able to, for a minute even, become another person and then come back to your own being. TM: You love fiction so much; would you ever consider writing a novel? Or have you decided nonfiction is more of what you want to write? AN: Well, you know, maybe this is my weakness or obsession that I think for me fiction is the highest form of writing. To tell you the truth, sometimes I’m very scared. I mean, I write for myself; I have loads of pages and now computer files of all these things that I have written, but that is one part of it. The other part of it is that I was fascinated -- since I wrote my first book in Iran -- by these intersections between fiction and reality and how reality turns into fiction and vice versa, how they change one another. And I think for as long as I have that obsession, it will be difficult to make the leap. I don’t want to write fiction which is really just disguised biography. So I hope one day I will reach that stage before I die. Maybe I’ll write my last book as a novel and then die. I want nothing, nothing else in the world.
The Millions Interview

The Tortoise, Not the Hare: The Millions Interviews Angela Flournoy

Angela Flournoy is in the midst of a year all debut novelists dream of. She has secured a spot as a finalist for the National Book Award; she was also named as one of the “5 Under 35” writers by the same organization. Her debut, The Turner House, is an elegant and intimate exploration of a large family in Detroit and how the housing crisis of 2008 has affected them. While this generational saga covers a multitude of themes, it feels concise and is an enthralling page turner. We spoke over the phone about her writing process of her debut novel, the current state of diversity in literature, and what she has planned next. The Millions: You’ve been nominated for the National Book Award and were named part of the “5 Under 35.” How have you been feeling about all of the recognition? Angela Flournoy: I’ve been feeling great. For your first book you really don’t sit around thinking about getting on a long list. At least I don’t as a writer because then you’d be perpetually disappointed. I was really excited, surprised, and delighted. I didn’t even think the “5 Under 35” was even possible. Especially on the first go around. There’s a way if you write short stories and you get them placed well [in certain magazines] things happen incrementally. You have this little business card out there in the world. You can get little awards or fellowships with that. When you write a novel you’re the tortoise, not the hare. For four of five years, I was just writing. There was the adjunct position and I was just waiting tables in Iowa, but I was really just out in the world writing. I wasn’t being looked at by people who can help. Everything just happened at once. As a novelist, people told me but I forgot, that if it happens, it will all happen at once. There is no business card, there is no little story out there in the world. The night they announced the “5 Under 35” at a cocktail party in New York, I wasn’t there. I was teaching in Brooklyn. It was a class that night about Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Savage Detectives. It’s weird how everything connects because the first time I read that novel was four years prior in a class taught by ZZ Packer, who was actually the writer who nominated me. It seemed like the right place to be [teaching that class] even though I wasn’t “celebrating.” It felt right teaching about a book that I learned about by the person who nominated me. TM: What was the writing process of your debut novel like during your time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop? AF: I started it there. The idea for the project really came to me when I first moved to Iowa in the fall of 2009. My father’s family is from Detroit, so I had frequent trips just driving from Iowa City to Detroit. It’s about a seven-hour drive. It just seems that people from the Midwest drive more often. So I was driving to Detroit to visit the house my father grew up in and it was the first time ever that no one was living in the house. My grandmother was older and she no longer lived there. It was on the east side of town, which is a depopulated area; I was just sort of bothered by this house. People worked so hard to maintain it and it looked so great, but I didn’t really know what the future of the house would be. So it just stayed there for about 10 months. In my second semester, I had this idea of this woman who was staying in a house. She wasn’t necessarily trespassing, but she didn’t want anybody to know that she was there. That character became Lelah, and that’s how the novel really began. I workshopped 15 pages near the end of the semester, but of course nobody knew it was going to end up as a novel. Once I started writing about her, I didn’t want to write about anything else. Really, in my second year at Iowa, all of my workshops were just chapters of the novel. I wrote about 80 pages and I decided to stay in Iowa for a third year just so I wouldn’t have to move to an expensive city and I could adjunct [teach at the Workshop]. By staying in Iowa for the third year, I got to about 200 pages, and with those pages I got an agent. I moved and continued to work on the book and it took another year to get to the 300 pages that it ended up becoming. The most useful thing about my time in Iowa was just not having high overhead. There’s not a lot to do there, especially in winter, so there’s just time to write. TM: Where did the other pieces come from? There are a lot of different threads winding together to make something pretty concise. AF: My father is from a big family. In my mind, I had to find a reason why Lelah didn’t want people to know she was in this house and I thought about the big family and the fear of judgement. One way I could explore the history of the house and the family’s relationship with the city was to have her be the youngest of a very big line of siblings. So on the other end of the spectrum I needed someone who was the opposite of her, who was Cha Cha. I was able to explore a lot of different aspects of life in Detroit and life in a big family. TM: The novel has five different sections representing a week in 2008, as well as flashbacks to the 1940s. How does a writer come about finding the right structural elements of a novel? AF: The background just lived in my mind as useful information that probably wouldn’t end up in the book. I first started writing the novel as a contemporary Detroit story. When people read anything that has to do with a social issue or an economic issue, if you put it in the past, people don’t really look at themselves. If the book was completely set in the past people would just disassociate themselves with it. They would think this is just how housing discrimination was working in the past and it has nothing to do with them today. So I was hesitant to focus on the 1940s. The more I researched, the more I found interesting things. The part of the city that these people moved to during the Great Migration doesn’t even exist anymore. So I thought this would be a great opportunity to teach a lesson on part of the city’s history. Once I decided that, I knew that I could use it as a piece of backwards information. In the present timeline the question is where is the family going with this house, but in the past the question is how did this house even come into their lives? I thought the two together would play well off of one another. TM: Identity plays a major role in The Turner House. How do you feel about race or identity in current literature? AF: I feel like it’s one of those things that if you seek [writers of different races and genders] out you find it. I find, maybe not on purpose, that I’ve read more of that in the past year. Especially women and women of color. Once you find one writer, you find others like them. I think that publishing is a little behind of what people desire or what they’re gravitating towards. I was on a panel at Decatur [Georgia] Book Festival on Labor Day and a writer discussed how young adult literature is written more like what the country looks like. It’s trying harder to be inclusive; people of various ethnicities or various sexual orientation. I think that’s something that literary fiction is a little bit slower to embrace. I think it’s changing though. I can only hope that it is. There are certain people who only know people who look like them still, but I think it’s become less of the norm. As far as identity in literature, I think we’re coming to a place where readers have so many options. Eventually readers will read about everything and it will happen organically; it wouldn’t even be a thought. There’s so many books out there by such a diverse group of writers that readers won’t have to try hard to find diversity. Hopefully we can get to a point where diversity is the norm. TM: What’s the next project you’re working on? A novel or short stories? AF: I’m working on a book. If you can call it that. It’s the very early days. Being busy is a good problem to have. I moved to Brooklyn to teach in the summer and wanted to focus on writing in the fall. However, I got all of these opportunities to teach and talk about my book. It’s nice because when a debut novel comes out, you don’t think anything like this will happen. I’m looking forward to getting time to focus on the next book. It’s very early days. It’s about family, but it’s more about friendship than it is about familial connection TM: Between teaching, giving talks about The Turner House and working on the next one, do you have time to read for pleasure?  AF: Yes. One thing I like reading are big, sprawling novels. You either love them or hate them. I’m a person who loves them. I’m always on the hunt for the next big book that’s going to take me to all of these places and enter all of these points of view. There may be a few digressions, but they’re going to be beautifully written. I’m currently reading Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam. It is probably not as sprawling as I seek out, but there’s a greatness to it. It’s a book set in the early 2000s in Brooklyn about a family from Bangladesh. It’s a coming of age story, but also familial history.
The Millions Interview

American Witches: The Millions Interviews Alex Mar

Alex Mar is a non-fiction writer and film director based in New York City. Her documentary feature American Mystic premiered at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival and inspired her first book Witches of America (FSG 2015). We spoke over the telephone about her foray into present day paganism and witchcraft in the United States, her evolving friendship with the priestess and diviner Morpheus Ravenna, and the challenges presented by writing nuanced non-fiction accounts of rituals where the unseen occurs. The Millions: As fascinating as I found Morpheus and the other characters who populate Witches of America, I remained most fascinated by you and your unfolding process as a curious observer and, eventually, a participant subject to bouts of skepticism and wonder. Are you a reliable narrator? Alex Mar: Oh, that’s a great question. Go right for the jugular! Well, I can start first by saying when I took on this project I had no intention of becoming such a huge part of the book. I have never been someone who identified as some sort of confessional writer. It had not been part of my work until then. The conversation I had with my publisher had been, “I will be this relatable framing device for this project so the reader can journey along with me and mostly the spotlight will be on everyone I am meeting with.” What I discovered really quickly is that approach rang hollow. It just seemed incredibly unfair to be asking so many people to share with me all the intimate details about their faith and for me to hang back. I realized that I had to be honest with the reader about my own doubts, about my own completely embarrassing existential questions, all of that. And as time went by and these relationships deepened for me, you know, my participation became inevitable as someone who is a persistent and curious person. I mean, you can’t really be surrounded by people who are claiming to practice magic and not push that further and not want to know what might be behind the next curtain. And there is curtain after curtain after curtain in this community. The question of being a reliable narrator is an interesting one. There is a long-standing very American tradition of a certain kind of memoir where someone who has a lot of self-doubt immerses herself in a new world and comes out the other side with all kinds of answers having had a transformative experience. That is an all-American literary form that comes with its own problems and complexities. I never assumed this would be a neatly structured experience for me. I really tried to be as transparent as possible -- about the rituals that I was taking part in and the complicated friendships I was forming with some of the witches I met and my relationship with the occult society in New Orleans -- all of it felt incredibly complicated and confusing after a certain point. I tried to be really accurate about the real messy feelings that came with my level of involvement as opposed to something that would be more easily digestible. TM: And that seems to me to be in keeping with the topic at hand: belief and the occult and the unseen. It’s not math, you know, 1+1… AM: Religion in general, faith, belief, I think it’s got to be some of the most humiliating stuff to write about. I mean I think it’s something that smart, savvy people are wary of talking about unless they are in a very intimate circle of friends. It’s very vulnerable and it exposes you to questions like how do you calculate the value of your life on a daily basis and are you satisfied with who you are when you wake up in the morning. And so to explore that was inherently challenging. And with a real constant awareness that my average reader may be very skeptical and that I can relate to that and yet how can I somehow explain to that person that this is a terrain that I think is worth exploring and worth getting closer to. Any human being who has a pulse has an excited response, on kind of a childhood level, to the word “witchcraft” or the word “magic” -- and as an adult how do you give yourself permission to look at that and turn it over and try to figure out what this community might be about and what part of it might relatable and legitimate instead of easily dismissed. TM: How many people in the United States consider themselves to be practitioners of witchcraft and has the number been growing? AM: Yes, that’s something I include in the first chapter and it’s tricky because obviously you are accounting for a margin of error for people who are practicing in secret and who would not fill out a national survey about their religious preference. Based on the current research, you could responsibly get to between 850,000 and 1 million Americans who are practitioners. TM: I have been thinking about what it means to practice in secret or not. I read an article in the Los Angeles Times that came out during Pope Francis’s visit to the United States and it talked about an increase in young people joining religious orders and wearing the traditional vestments and habits, and how that can create a lot of surprise among family and friends and the general public. And the sense of purpose and clarity this life choice, or calling, brings is expressed through the traditional dress… AM: I wrote a piece for the Oxford American about a Dominican convent in Houston. I was really curious about why a woman around my age would decide to marry God. I also visited a cloistered community about two hours away. And they have a lot of young women in their 20s and 30s and that was so fascinating to me. And I completely agree that there is a through-line. The attraction very much seems to be discovering a belief system that comes with all these traditions and rituals that gives meaning to daily life. I think that people are, on the one hand, intimidated to have all these open-ended choices, and there is great comfort in being able to ascribe to a system. This is something I talk about in the book, that I have a genuine envy for people who are made of a constitution where this can bring them satisfaction. As much as I value my independence, fiercely so, at the same time the fact that I don’t subscribe to a particular religious system does not mean I have solved these questions about why I am alive and what purpose anything I do has in the world. Meeting someone like Morpheus, who is one of the major characters in the book, and in the time that I knew her she really rose up as an important priestess on the West Coast, meeting her was really a turning point for me early on because here was someone who was hyper-smart and really articulate, very funny, who really took her practice seriously, but didn’t expect you to, and who when she wasn’t in the middle of a ritual was really a low-key, laid-back, normal person. And she was so highly relatable to me and we enjoyed each other’s company. There was a real surprise to that. At the same time, she had this spiritual double-life that was really fulfilling to her that seemed so foreign and alien to me. TM: Can you say something about the individual versus the group in witchcraft practice? AM: The thing about the witchcraft community that is so interesting is that witchcraft is a mystical tradition. There is no middleman. You don’t need to go to some priest to help you commune with your god. You can go direct to your source. I think that’s incredibly attractive to a lot of the younger generation. Some of the witches I met would argue that there shouldn’t be any congregants. You should either be a priest/ess or you are not serious enough about your practice. You can also decide which gods or goddesses you have more of a relationship with and that is dependent on the coven you train with or your personal exploration. One of the reasons I called the book Witches of America is not only because it’s about witches in this country, but it’s also a uniquely all-American religious movement that just hasn’t been talked about in enough depth. It’s a new chapter in religious history in this country. Here is a religion that is all about self-realization, there is a kind of pioneer spirit to it, you can transform yourself to the high priestess of such-and-such. You don’t have to inherit the beliefs of your family. A really big issue in this community is that there are so many people who are working class and lower-middle class who are mainly self-taught or who went to a community college and who have jobs where they work at the supermarket or as a receptionist at some office downtown -- they are not people of means. And yet, at the same time, on the weekends, their co-workers have no idea that they have this other dimension to their lives. And I was really impressed by that because it was a way for a number of people who I met to take control of their identity and to have a life that was, in their minds, a lot more enigmatic and in touch with the capital “M” mystery in the universe, while knowing you will probably never be able to afford to rent a bigger apartment or get a bigger car. And that seemed to me so American. To find a way to work around the system to create a new version of yourself and the path doesn’t have to matter and certain factors of your background and upbringing don’t have to matter. You can jump past that and choose to have another dimension to your life. And while it isn’t universal, it was definitely a huge trend within the community. TM: Can you talk a little about witchcraft as a movement, and specifically as a political movement? AM: There are definitely ways in which the pagan movement intersects with politics in this country. It goes back to the 1950s in the south of England and Gerald Gardner, the godfather of Wicca. There were a number of English Royal Air Force vets who were part of the first wave of American witches. There was a bridge between England and the U.S. in that way. But when it really took off was with the rise of counter-culture in the 1960s and second-wave feminism in the 1970s. That is a very clear way in which witchcraft and liberal politics have always had a relationship in this country. As a smart and independent woman, it’s total common sense to me that I would have so many issues with mainstream religion. There really haven’t been many options presented to me where I feel like I’ve been treated as an equal within a religious context. But the witchcraft movement is a totally different scenario. Pagans believe that male and female forces have equal sway in the universe. There was a strong goddess movement that got going in the 1970s around feminism with the idea that a female force had created the universe and that was really essential as a way of correcting social injustice at the time. And moving away from gender, the money question is interesting. You have these various pagan practices and local communities built up around witchcraft traditions and there is no meaningful fundraising because there are no synagogues, there are no brick-and-mortar churches, there is a very firm belief that you have a tree and dirt and a rock, that is all you need for a place of worship. You can build an altar in your home as a serious place of personal worship. Morpheus for a while had a property out in Santa Clara County, in California, where she and a number of pagan volunteers had actually erected a physical henge made out of massive stones they dragged from all around their property. Everyone would get together on the major holidays and they would have rituals outside under the moon surrounded by these huge rocks, but otherwise it was just dirt and people would camp out there. It’s interesting when you remove big money from how you define religious practice because I think in this country that’s really antithetical to a lot of people. It’s a real equalizer. It means that you can be a huge part of how your religious practice is being realized. TM: Can you say something about your transition from outside observer and chronicler to a student of Feri? And specifically can you talk about your struggle with prayer? AM: There naturally came a point at which I couldn’t really hold myself at arm's length anymore. I wasn’t going to get any closer to answering my own questions. There are rituals that people have in large groups and yet more intense intimate practice is saved for when people are within their own coven or within smaller groups in private. That’s a different kind of animal. And I wanted to understand better what was possible when people got together in these more intimate scenarios. A big part of if was getting to know Morpheus so well. She’s a complicated witch. She’s a Feri initiate [and] over the course of me knowing her she started a brand new priesthood -- she had this pagan sanctuary where she held rituals for all the pagans around the Bay Area who were able to come. I wanted to get closer to whatever it was she was tapping into. After a certain point, I just went for it and reached out to her and asked her to recommend a teacher to me, who I could study Feri with. It felt a little scary to me. There is a big difference between exploring witchcraft in an intellectual way as a writer, thinking about it terms of these great portraits I am creating of these pagan priestesses…there is a huge gulf, it turns out, between that and saying in a sentence that you would like to study witchcraft, that you would like to train in witchcraft. I was surprised because I am an incredibly open-minded person and I am not necessarily that conventional or traditional. I realized that the word “witch” has a lot of power for me. It’s a scary word to apply to yourself. There was a little shock to me in the realization that I wanted to go that far. In terms of the prayer thing, it turns out that when you train with a serious pagan priestess you are expected to develop a relationship with the gods. And this was such a foreign concept. I really had to grapple with the fact that I was entertaining becoming a devout person. I was drawn in, to a great degree, by the flashy rituals and the daggers and chalices and the chanting under the moon, but at the end of the day it’s also asking the question of whether or not you are capable of being a devout person who believes that there are forces out in the universe that you can work with. And that was a kind of big leap for me. There are parts of that that are attractive. And parts where the skeptical New Yorker in me had trouble and wrestled with that. TM: Where are you presently in terms of your journey with the occult? AM: I am still very open to possibilities. I would not label myself anything in particular. TM: Do you still have your David Koresh novel in the wings or have you abandoned that child? AM: I kind of taught myself how to write by drafting a novel, which is not that unique as a process. At this point, I very much identify as a non-fiction writer. I don’t really see much of a distinction between the level of artistry that you can bring to fiction versus non-fiction. I do feel much more grounded in my work when I can draw from the lives of people who are living and breathing right now. To me it gives a kind of purpose and drive to the work that I don’t find in experimenting with fiction. And it’s exciting to realize that about yourself. To say, “this is my zone.” There was something wildly ambitious about saying I am going to write this book about this entire community and I am presuming a level of intimacy that doesn’t really exist yet and how am I going to make this happen. For me personally, there is great satisfaction in this book because I believe it’s a very real, palpable slice of the witchcraft community right now in this country. You can read this book and really be immersed in that world in an accurate way. And I love the scope and ambition of that and it’s very much a non-fiction process. TM: I really enjoyed the juxtapositions present in the slice of contemporary witchcraft that you offer -- the spare scene in nature where a ritual is about to unfold versus the big hotel where pagan practitioners gather for the annual PantheaCon conference. AM: Writing about rituals in general I found to be one of the surprise, massive, mind-blowing, back-breaking challenges of writing this book. The onus is on you as the writer to put the reader in that space and that moment in time and give them the feeling of everything that was going on in that room in the dark with all those other people, and, at the same time, you can’t simply list everything that took place, every ritual gesture, every line that was chanted, what everyone was wearing. You really have to be incredibly selective. You kind of have to conjure up this event and truncate it and give the reader enough of a sense of why on earth this is happening, the fact that there is a logic to it, and also the ecstatic feeling of being in that room, that is sort of like the feeling of being at a concert or something -- how do you convey all of that. And, of course, there are a number of different kinds of ritual scenarios in the book, and each one brings something different. It goes from the ritual of about 400 people in a double ballroom in a DoubleTree Hotel in San José, where the floor is carpeted in a room that is usually used for corporate events, and then there are the kinds of really intimate initiation-type ceremonies that Morpheus told me about that I wasn’t even allowed to be part of. With her in particular, our relationship ended up spanning five or six years and to see her supposedly channeling a goddess in a room with 400 people and then to have her show me the scar on her arm from where she makes a cut to make the blood offering when she is alone with her priesthood, getting a sense of her whole range of experience was amazing. I am pretty grateful that she has the patience to stick with me and a sense of humor to put up with these long invasive conversations and also welcoming me into these scenarios. TM: I read your article “Sky Burial” that appeared in Oxford American last year. I found it so interesting and unexpected and bizarre. I was very moved by your discussion about death and excarnation. Is that article connected to Witches of America? AM: Yes. Later on in the book, I mention this question in the pagan community: how do we want our bodies handled when we die. Because this is a community that doesn’t feel necessarily connected to Christian traditions, let’s say. And going back historically there are different pagan communities that had very different funereal rites than what goes on in funeral parlors in America. Morpheus one day shared with me that she has always had this fantasy that when she dies she wants to be excarnated or have a sky burial performed, which is something mostly associated with certain Tibetan monks, where your body is left exposed to the elements or to birds of prey. And your bones are collected and your skull is collected and used in rituals. So her fantasy was to have her body laid out that way and eaten by ravens and other corvids and have her bones made into a beautiful and decorated altar where all the witches she had worked with over the years and had been close with could visit and use her bones to perform ritual and consult her skull as a sort of oracle. I thought this image was so completely amazing. It’s such an exalted way to be preserved, on the one hand, and very macabre, on the other. That actually led me to the question: is sky burial actually technically possible under any imaginable circumstance in this country. Maybe this is one of the ways in which certain elements of the pagan community are more universal than we realize. There is something there that isn’t just about calling yourself a “pagan” or a “witch.” It’s a desire for a different way of connecting to life and to death. TM: Can we talk about your chapter “Sympathy for the Necromancer,” which strikes a different, darker tone. Were you scared by your conversation with “Jonathan” at any point? AM: It was very disturbing to realize that this was the reality of his practice. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to being completely stunned by someone I have spent time with for my writing. The truth is that any religious community will have its extremists. I wanted to be able to address that in contrast to the majority of this community. There is this larger existential questioning that all the people in this book are going through and I am going through and the dark side of that is that our fear of death can warp us. Part of what that chapter is about is a desire for control over life and death that isn’t human.
The Millions Interview

Cogs in an Enormous Machine: The Millions Interviews Paul Murray

There’s a bit in The Catcher in the Rye where Holden Caulfield is talking about the sort of thing he values in a reading experience. “What really knocks me out,” he says, “is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” This line kept floating into my mind as I was reading Paul Murray’s new novel The Mark and the Void, his first since the massive success of 2010's Skippy Dies. Because this new novel -- which is, like its predecessor, a large and generous and furiously funny book, and which intertwines crises in both capitalism and literary creativity -- really did knock me out, and because its author is a friend I could call up whenever I felt like it. But apart from the odd text to inform him I’d just LOL’ed at a particular bit of the novel, I didn’t really avail of that proximity. Strangely -- or maybe not strangely at all -- it wasn’t until I was asked to interview him for The Millions that I actually sat down and had a proper conversation with him about the book, and about his work in general. There aren’t very many contemporary novelists whose work so audaciously mixes rich human comedy and bracing intellectual ambition. Just as Skippy Dies somehow managed to tie together its disparate elements -- string theory, the First World War, the sadness and alienation of middle-class teenage Irish boys -- into a funny and moving whole, The Mark and the Void pulls off an equally unlikely synthesis of arcane financial intrigue, artful metafiction, and ruthless satire. It’s set in a Dublin investment bank during the crazy, stupid early days of Ireland’s economic crisis. For all that it deals with some deeply unfunny material, I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much reading a novel. Having a conversation with Paul is, in a lot of ways, very much like reading him. You need to set aside quite a lot of time, but it will absolutely be worth it; you’ll be led down a great many scenic conversational detours and intellectual byroads, and you’ll see see things in a different way by the time he’s finished talking. It’s also, crucially, a lot of fun, and you’ll laugh a great deal, often in a way that deepens a sense of the seriousness of the things you’re laughing at. The Millions: The Mark and the Void is saturated in an anxiety about the novel as a form, about its waning cultural powers. There’s this serious unease in the book, which manifests as a constant comic interrogation of why the hell a person would write a novel in the first place. This is interesting on its own terms, but particularly within the context you were writing it, by which I mean the pretty overwhelming success of Skippy Dies. Because that novel did on a large scale what people worry the novel is no longer capable of doing: it had a significant emotional and intellectual impact on a large number of readers. Please discuss. Paul Murray: I actually thought that would be the first thing people would ask about this book, but it hasn’t been. The one thing I didn't think would happen with Skippy Dies was that it would be a quote-unquote “bestseller.” Because even aside from the so-called “Death of the Novel,” it just didn't feel to me that the world was that kind of place. But when Skippy came out, people read it who I wouldn't have expected to read it. And that was an interesting corrective to a lot of the assumptions that I had about the world. Old ladies would come up to me and say that they had read it. And old ladies have seen a lot: they've raised children and grandchildren. So they're well equipped to deal with reading something like Skippy Dies. As are teenagers. And you hear all the time about how teenagers don't read books, but teenagers were reading this book. So in a way, it was this weird rebuttal of everything I presumed to be the case about the world, which is that it's in terminal decline and everyone just marches in lock step to these horrific corporate forces. And so that kind of made things difficult. It was actually much easier for me to think of the world as full of empty drones who don't get me. And now it's like, okay, fuck, there are actually a lot of sensitive, engaged, sweet-natured people out there. So that was a wonderful and strange experience. But I'm a total pessimist, obviously, and so if the book had done badly I would have responded to it by berating myself for being a fraud, and telling myself to give up now. And when something good happens, my brain goes, well that's it, you might as well roll up your tent now and move on, because you've had your moment in the sun. TM: The obvious move after a book like Skippy would have been to write something explicitly less ambitious. A palate-cleansing novella or, you know, a tidy little Ian McEwan number. The Mark and the Void is not that. PM: In a sense, Skippy was destructive in terms of the kind of success it had. It was a slow burner. It had good reviews when it came out in the U.K., and that carries a book for about three weeks. But it kept reappearing. Like, it would make it onto the Booker longlist, or Donna Tartt or Bret Easton Ellis would say how much they liked it, or David Cameron would bring it on holidays to Ibiza or whatever. So for a year, it kept sort of reappearing to the public. But that made it difficult to start something new. I tried writing short stories, and I can't write short stories. With any creative endeavor, you put everything into it. And what you feel at the end is this terrible anxiety. And the success doesn't really assuage that anxiety. In fact it reinforces it, because the natural question is the question of what you're going to do next, and all you can see is nothingness. I find nothingness and entropy interesting ideas to think about at the best of times, and maybe working as a writer, you're quite familiar with these things, because you're just looking at your screen, and thinking “I've got nothing, absolutely nothing.” You're back in the old foul rag and bone shop of the heart, you know? So anxiety is a natural condition for writers to be working out of. There's this sort of weird feedback loop with writing, where you can't quite figure out whether the anxiety happens because of the writing or whether you write because you're an anxious person. TM: The economic and cultural anxieties at the heart of The Mark and the Void play themselves out in an interesting way, through a kind of dialectic between the banker and the writer characters, and between the ideas of finance and art. PM: Yeah. Well, the two major characters are obviously a writer and a banker. And I didn't want the book to be just me standing on a soap box ranting about bankers. Because the interesting thing about the financial crash was that bankers were enabled by the rest of the world; to a large degree, everybody started thinking like bankers. From the 1980s onwards, ordinary people have thought in a more and more materialistic way. So we've seen the rise of the economist as public intellectual, of the economist as seer. Theatre and film and literature, and all these things by which we get some bearing on our existence, those are now seen as just sort of frivolities for the middle classes. And there’s this weirdly Stalinist idea now that what we need to be doing is taking our place as functioning cogs in this enormous machine. And so people are increasingly encouraged to self-objectify. And so in Ireland, during the boom years, you were increasingly made to feel that the way that people should conceive of themselves in society was in economic terms. The questions to ask were questions like “What value do I have for the economy?” and “How best can I contribute to it?” There is nothing more noble now, at an institutional level or at a personal level, than asking the question “Where is the money?” It's no longer problematic for that to be the first question to ask. TM: Right. That's now, in a way, the essential public-spirited question. The question of how you can contribute to the economy. PM: That's it. And so to a certain degree, bankers have become scapegoats, the people we like to point the finger at as a country. But the banker's success is predicated to a degree on us all wanting to be bankers, wanting to have that security and wanting to be top dog in this society that has become increasingly atomized by these very forces of corporatism and money. And we're all going, “Okay, that's how it is, and that's fine, as long as I'm on top”. So my book is about this banker who has worked very hard to be on top, and has achieved that, and finds himself feeling very isolated and empty, and without a story. He doesn't really have a narrative. To a certain degree the path to success he's chosen is one that's designed to lift him out of the world. And to a degree, everybody is partly a banker and partly a writer. TM: Right, but those distinctions are very much complicated in the book. Obviously my reading of it is always going to be influenced by the fact that we're friends, but to the extent that I recognized you in the book, it was in Claude (the banker) rather than Paul (the writer). Claude is much more thoughtful and sensitive and politically engaged than Paul, who is more or less a philistine, and solely preoccupied by making a buck wherever he can. PM: Well... TM: I know what you're going to say now. You're going to say there's much more of you in Paul. So let me just say that Paul's not completely awful, that I did have some sympathy for him as a reader... PM: Well, initially this book came from an idea I'd started on ages ago, and never took anywhere. It was a kind of a comic two-hander about those two guys, the banker and the writer. It was much broader, and the banker was this kind of Roland Barthes figure -- I was really into Barthes at the time -- who just went around meditating on existence. And the writer was much more of an asshole than he is in this version. And the setting was the most boring place imaginable, which was the IFSC (Irish Financial Services Centre). And I left it because there wasn't enough to it. I thought it would be easy to write, and funny, and it wasn't. TM: Was it that it didn't feel worth doing? PM: That's it. Writing is already a state of anxiety, just creatively speaking. But to work as a writer during the Celtic Tiger years, in the most turbo-charged super-capitalist place in the Western world, it was a terrifying place to work as a writer at that time. TM: It was like a 51st state of America that seceded because the U.S. wasn't neoliberal enough or something. PM: It was the place all the U.S. companies came to because we'd ripped up the rulebook. It was the frontier, the “Wild West of Capitalism,” as The New York Times called it. Writing had become increasingly irrelevant in the culture, so that was this existential anxiety. But then you also had this other very literal thing of, like, “What? They put up my rent again? They put up the price of milk again?” And at that point, everyone in the country seemed to have so much money that, like, who even knew or cared what milk cost? Well, I was the mug who knew what milk cost. I was the mug who was a writer. And you felt beaten over the head with this idea that you'd taken the wrong turn, and you were pursuing something antediluvian and self-harming. So that anxiety feeds into the character of Paul in the book. Writing about a writer is obviously problematic anyway. It's sort of the last refuge of a scoundrel. You know, you hear about some new movie, and Al Pacino's in it, and he's a writer with writer's block. And you immediately think, well, fuck that. So the only way I could really do it was to ham it up, and to do a sort of Curb Your Enthusiasm thing with it. TM: But isn't writer's block actually paradoxically fertile ground for creativity? So many books and films, so many plots, seem to spring from this sterile situation of the writer who can’t write. PM: Totally. You know, happiness writes white, and writing also writes white. But people can relate to that state of impotence. Of doing something that feels completely at odds with everything else that's going on. People know what it's like to fail, and writers block is just this living second-by-second hell of failure, where you're doing nothing but failing. I don't know of any profession where you experience failing as consistently and unambiguously as writing. TM: And yet there's often this weirdly romantic idea of writer's block in fiction and film, where it's seen as this strangely authentic and pure state of creativity. And you totally subvert that in The Mark and the Void. PM: I read Faulkner's The Wild Palms recently. It's not a great book, but there's this terrific last line: "Between grief and nothing, I will take grief." I don't know that that's a terrible thing. Robert Frost described literature as "a momentary stay against confusion." It's not going to solve all your problems, but it will give you a few seconds whereby you can adjust your stance so that when the hammer falls it will hit you on the shoulder rather than the middle of your cranium. So I think Paul's problem in the book is the problem that every writer has. I set up this guy to be asking himself, Why should I continue working as a writer in a culture that doesn't care about writing. Then I had to try to answer that question, and I don't know that I succeeded. But all you can do is offer yourself temporary answers. Paul is facing the problem of what do you write about? If you don't want to be the Capital W Writer, the sage or the seer figure who delivers these atrocities, these beautiful representations of other people’s pain for upper-middle-class consumers to enjoy, then you're faced with this nothingness of just a bunch of people just swiping their phones. That's all there is, so how do you write about that? Ben Lerner answers that question amazingly in 10:04, I think, which is a great book about there being nothing to write about. But how do you do that again? And why? TM: Some of the funniest parts in The Mark and the Void deal with the shortfall between the bankers' need to see Paul as this seer-like artist figure and the person he actually is. And that made me think about Ireland, and how the banker and the writer are these two poles of the country’s self-perception. PM: I think the bankers like the idea of Paul, but in this very patronizing way. "The meaning monkey," as Paul refers to himself. And that sort of reflects how rich people literally patronize the arts. They don't necessarily like the art per se, but they like the idea of having creativity by proxy. TM: It's possibly a bit like how Irish people generally like the idea of there being a Gaeltacht, of there still being areas where the Irish language is spoken as a living language by people in their everyday lives. We don't necessarily want to go there, or speak the language ourselves, but we feel somehow reassured by knowing that it's out there, that people are still doing it. PM: Totally. I had this bit that I kept trying to put in the book, but it wouldn't fit anywhere. Paul and Claude are talking, and Paul is saying how nobody cares about books anymore, and Claude says that surely writers are more esteemed in Ireland than anywhere else in the world, because you name all these bridges after them and so on. And Paul says that esteeming someone is the easiest way of not reading them. You can esteem someone and name a bridge after them and then get back to reading the Ikea catalogue. The book is very critical of Ireland, obviously, but I do think Ireland is this very interesting place, this very weird and singular place. I still find myself envious of American writers. Because that's the empire, and most of what we think of as modern life, that's where it's happening. But the idea that Jonathan Franzen or whoever is having a more echt experience than we are: that's exactly the mentality that Joyce was trying to interrogate or refute in Ulysses. The idea that life is elsewhere is itself the universal. TM: Right. The fact that Dublin is a minor city in the world is very much part of the point of Ulysses, and what makes it so great and universal. The Mark and the Void is explicitly situated in the most boring and characterless part of Dublin, the IFSC, which is this large area of the city that nobody who doesn't work there ever thinks about. It's a kind of non-Dublin. PM: It's very much non-Dublin. The IFSC is on the one hand marginal, but on the other hand it's very much part of this neoliberal network, that is like the dominant world order. It's an important place because all these multinational corporations are coming here precisely to do all the stuff that's illegal in other countries. They come here, in a way, to express themselves more completely. So it's kind of this weird mix of marginality and centrality. TM: In an economic sense, Ireland is kind of an open city, a surrendered polity. A place where these very powerful supra-state forces are invited to come and do their bidding. And this is sort of reflected in your book by the fact that Paul is the only major character who is Irish, right? PM: Yes. I guess I wanted it to feel like a kind of post-Empire story, where all of these structures and illusions have collapsed. We actually did reach the giddy height, at one point, of feeling like we had a place in the world. And then all those things went from under us, and we're right back to being this sort of marginal state. And, as you say, completely at the behest of these incredibly powerful financial institutions, which nobody on the ground knows that much about. TM: I sometimes wonder whether the main role that Ireland's "Great Writers" play in contemporary culture is that they, or their images, give us a kind of foothold, or a sense of ourselves. The idea of Joyce, or Beckett, or Wilde, gives us something to hold onto in terms of national identity, when the reality is much more nebulous. They make it easier for us to fool ourselves into thinking we know who we are. PM: I think literature is not actually especially important to Ireland. If you go to Germany, people there read like motherfuckers. And if you do a reading there, they charge an entry fee, and you get a couple of hundred people, even if you're not that well known an author. And they want an hour and a half of your time. Because they're serious readers. And in Germany, they have this really romantic idea of Ireland. But without wanting to do the place down, Ireland really doesn't care much about literature per se. I mean, there are extracts of Ulysses embroidered on the seats in Aer Lingus seats. But you have to wonder what it means, other than that you can sit there and fart into this great work of Modernist literature on your flight to New York. TM: I think Joyce might have relished that idea. PM: Maybe, yes. But the old school idea of the novelist as seer -- of, you know, Philip Roth or whoever issuing his edicts from on high every few years -- that's gone. And maybe what’s left is the idea of the novelist as this somewhat abject figure, who identifies with the downtrodden and so on, which is another very old idea. Because I think that is the position you're putting yourself in as a fiction writer now. In a world that's dominated by economics, you’re doing something as childish as making up stories that are untrue, and everyone knows they're untrue. Everyone else is telling you that they're telling you the truth -- the banker and the politician, the priest and the doctor. That's something that I tried to get at in the book, the idea that the novelist is the one person you can trust to be lying.
The Millions Interview

The Fine Edge Between Comedy and Horror: The Millions Interviews Margaret Atwood

The Heart Goes Last -- Margaret Atwood's first standalone novel since The Blind Assassin, which won the Man Booker in 2000 -- is a novel that teeters on the fine edge between comedy and horror. The writing is full of Atwood's wry humor, but the dystopian world in which the characters live, whether they are a sleeping in a car and fleeing thugs or under surveillance in a tightly controlled community, is an alternate world that is full of horror. The novel tells the story of Stan and Charmaine. After a great financial crash, their home is repossessed, their credit is frozen, and they are left to eek out a meager life living in their cramped Honda for shelter. Stan sleeps in the driver's seat so they can flee quickly during the night if need be. With only Charmaine's money from a bartending job, they dumpster dive, eat day old doughnuts, and have no viable prospects for their future. When Charmaine sees an ad on TV for Consilience, a suburban utopia and a 'social experiment,' she signs them up to take a look. Participants are given a home of their own in exchange for going to prison every other month. The idea behind Consilience is that a full prison creates full employment and all prosper. While Charmaine and Stan do their month in jail, they swap places with an alternate couple who live their life, drive their scooters, and sleep in their bed until the month is up and they trade places again. In a set up that recalls a Midsummer’s Night Dream-like mix up, unknown to each other both Stan and Charmaine have chance encounters with their alternates. Confusion, obsession, and mistrust turn into revelations about the truth about Consilience. The more I read, the more I questioned whether I could describe the community of Consilience and the chaos outside its gates as taking place in an alternate world. So much of what happens in this novel, from foreclosed houses to private prisons, is already part of our world. The world of The Heart Goes Last feels more like a twisted version of our current reality. Only small changes would be needed to make it all 'true.' Just as Charmaine and Stan’s lives contort when they seek out their alternates, utopian turns dystopian and comedy bends into horror with, as Atwood says, "one small turn of the wrench." I interviewed Atwood over the phone from her hotel room in New York. We spoke about not having sex with furniture, Pepper the greeting robot, themes in Victorian literature, and quotas in private prisons. The Millions: The Heart Goes Last has your trademark humor, but the circumstances that Stan and Charmaine find themselves in are horrifying. Margaret Atwood: A lot of things are funny to those watching them, but not to the person undergoing them. The person who slips on the banana peel doesn’t think it’s funny as a rule. TM: Charmaine says near the beginning of the book that, “comedy is so cold and heartless, it makes fun of people’s sadness.” MA: It does, unfortunately. Sometimes people make fun of themselves, but if you dig down there’s a bit of that too. On the other hand, where would we be if we couldn’t laugh? I think they’ve always been joined at the hip. TM: At the beginning of the novel, you quote Ovid, William Shakespeare, and a blog post by writer Adam Frucci[1] -- who sets out to test an ottoman with a fake vagina. I have to ask: Did you have sex with furniture to research this novel? MA: I think that piece of furniture is intended only for men? TM: Frucci warned that it was, “no Kleenex clean up, my friends.” Actually, what he endured to test the ottoman is a good example of something that is funny for the reader, but not so for the person going through the experience. MA: One of the headlines of that post is “I did this so you don’t have to.” Frucci has probably woken to find himself strangely famous. A lot of people are reading that blog post. The other thing that has to trouble your mind is -- who had this idea for this piece of furniture? And would you have this in your living room? I have many questions. TM: Maybe you’ve given the ottoman maker a little sales bump? MA: I have a feeling that a piece of furniture with a sex thing built into it came and went fairly swiftly. If that blog post was written in 2009, the furniture has fairly quickly been superseded by the advances in robotics. Do you know about Pepper the robot? Pepper is not a sex robot. In fact, Pepper comes with instructions that say explicitly that you are not supposed to use it for sex, though I don’t know how you could. Pepper is a greeting robot, like one that Stan, the main character in The Heart Goes Last, is working on before he gets fired at Dimple Robotics. Except that Stan’s is a grocery bagging robot. It is supposed to smile at you. Pepper is supposed to be able to read your emotions. They were installing Pepper as a greeting robot in Japan where greeting is a social custom. And then they put him/her on for private sale and he/she sold out very quickly. Apparently we want someone who can read our emotions. TM: At Dimple Robotics, Stan’s job, before he looses it, was working on the empathy module of his robot. MA: Personally, I don’t want someone who can read my emotions, because then you can’t dissimulate, can you? If somebody asks if you are having a nice day and you say yes, but you’re actually not…it spoils your act. TM: It’s the white lies that get us through. MA: I’m afraid that’s correct. They do. “That’s a lovely dress! You look wonderful!” TM: The novel is filled with this kind of joke -- your humor is always close to hand. I love a line on writing from Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?: “You have to know where the funny is, and if you know where the funny is, you know everything.” Do you agree? MA: No, but it’s a good hint. You don’t know everything if you know that, but you know some things. It’s true in a negative way. If something is unintentionally funny, you ought to know. If you intended it to be very serious and dramatic, but actually it’s funny, then you are in trouble. There is a wonderful book called The Stuffed Owl. It’s an anthology of good, but bad, verse. It’s well worth reading. It is full of writers who were aiming for the heights and tripped on the banana peel. TM: As I was reading The Heart Goes Last, I kept thinking back to Survival, your thematic guide to Canadian literature that was published in 1972. In it you said: “I read then primarily to be entertained.” Do you still? MA: Go back to what the ancients used to say, that art should entertain and instruct. They didn’t say to what degree. If it doesn’t entertain, and by entertain I don’t mean just frivolous, I mean engage your attention and keep you going. If that doesn’t happen, you’re not going to turn the page. So there has to be something engaging enough to keep you reading. That is why first chapters are so important. If you can’t get the reader through the first chapter, they are never going to get to your pithy piece of wisdom on page 85. On the other hand, if there is nothing serious in it, you may be entertained on a superficial level and it’s a one time read. Or it’s what we call a "beach read." Or what I sometimes call a "hotel room drawer read." I leave them there for others to enjoy. I did that in Hong Kong once and they were so screamingly honest that they collected the books and mailed them back to me. I thought that was so sweet. TM: The Heart Goes Last is about characters who give up their freedom for comfort. When Stan and Charmaine tour Consilience for the first time they both feel reason to worry about how it runs. However, after experiencing the discomfort and fright of life in a car, they opt for comfort, “the bath towels clinched the deal.” MA: Yes. It’s also about how circumstances cause people to do things that they would otherwise not do. That is a human universal truth. Stan and Charmaine give up their freedom, but of what does their freedom consist? They don’t have a lot of money, they are living in their car, they are subject to every thug and criminal that stumbles across them, so that is maybe “freedom,” but of a very limited kind. TM: Can we expect a scared or thirsty human to make good decisions? MA: You can’t. Self-preservation kicks in. A person will make the decision that you think gives him or her the best chance of getting through. TM: In that way, is The Heart Goes Last a survival story? MA: A lot of people lived that, or something close to it, when the 2008 crash happened. They were thrown out onto their front lawn or living in their cars. That is ongoing. There’s a movie that just came out that I must go and see called 99 Homes -- it’s the story of a man who evicts people from their houses because they couldn’t pay their mortgages. As I said, the situation is ongoing. I was listening to the radio in London, England, and there was a show about people who had moved back into their parents' houses, or parents who have had their kids move back in, because they could not afford to either rent or buy in London. It was too expensive. TM: The set up of your novel felt so real. MA: It is real. TM: But it’s not necessarily your reality. David Mitchell wrote about how he imagines the far past or the far future, that to get in the right mindset he thinks about the things that the characters might take for granted in life. MA: We did a lot of car travel when I was a child. We also did a lot of camping out. So that wasn’t under duress, but I know what it’s like to sleep in a car. TM: There are other parts of the book that could be taken as speculative fiction, but aren’t, like private prisons. MA: There are private prisons in the U.S. The Atlantic just did a huge piece on this. There is nothing in the U.S. constitution that says you can’t make people do enforced labor if they are convicted criminals. There’s a history of that kind of prison as enterprise. The Australian penal colony was one of them. They would send people to work off their sentence. Someone was making money out of it. TM: I also read that in Arizona there are three private prisons that require 100 percent inmate occupancy. MA: You have to keep them full to make them profitable and that is a recipe for creating more prisoners. TM: In 2008, when you published Payback, a book of non-fiction about the nature of debt, it almost felt like the world of finance had collapsed at your feet. The timing was quite something. Tell me about your crystal ball? MA: I don’t actually have a crystal ball, but I do read advertisements when I’m sitting on the subway. I was seeing a lot of them that said “let us help you get out of debt.” I thought, boy, if there are all these enterprises doing that, there must be an awful lot of people in debt. The other thing is that, if you are a student of Victorian literature, as once I was, debt is a big theme. Not only with Dickens, but a number of other writers as well. So is the prison system. TM: In Survival you wrote, "Literature is not only a mirror; it is also a map." Can The Heart Goes Last be read as a map? MA: Maybe a map, but also a door. Open the door and what's inside? Stan and Charmaine are in a planned prison system, a for-profit enterprise. What they don’t know when they go in is how the enterprise is making its money. The thing to ask about private prisons is who is making the profit? And how much are they making. Maybe it’s time to rethink. What should we have instead? __ [1] I contacted Adam Frucci, author of "I Had Sex with Furniture: The Shameful (NSFW) Fleshlight Motion Review," to comment about the honor of becoming an Atwood epigraph: "I didn't really believe it at first -- Ovid, Shakespeare, and my goofy blog post from 2009. I can't say that of all of the things I've ever written that this is the one I want people to remember and attach to my name, but what can you do? All I can really do is be honored and assume that Margaret Atwood is a huge fan of all of my work and looks to me for inspiration all the time. That's about accurate, right?"
The Millions Interview

I’ve Rarely Felt So Free: The Millions Interviews Garth Risk Hallberg

Garth Risk Hallberg first appeared in my inbox in 2009 through the mediating voice of Max Magee, the founder of this site. Max wrote in gentle tones that, while he and his partner welcomed my contributions to The Millions, they both felt that “war is peace, bitches” was not a useful embellishment to a work of criticism (a note so self-evident that I couldn’t take it personally). In the subsequent years I’ve gotten to know Garth a little -- as an intensely committed reader, a generous colleague quick with encouragement, and the proponent of an egregious class of pun. He is also the author of criticism that I hesitate to call forbidding only because I suspect that it wounds him. Garth has a medieval intellect: free access to a vast array of texts, of points and counterpoints, which he is able to call forth from an internal commonplace book at a moment’s notice. This intellect is evident in pieces like  “How Avant Is It?” or “Why Write Novels at All?”; the former references 50 names and nearly as many texts. These aren’t wielded like bludgeons, rather placed deftly and precisely around his writing -- points on a schematic drawing showing in bewildering detail something familiar you'd looked at but never really seen. Garth's intimidating schemata are illuminated by something friendly, though -- the light of a true flashlight-under-the-covers reader, one unafraid to issue calls to arms for capital-A Art: ...we need ways of evaluating a novel’s form and language and ideas in light of, for lack of a more precise term, the novelist’s own burning. We need to look beyond the superfices and cultural hoopla...and to examine the deep places where private sensibility and the world as we find it collide. When Garth wrote the above, in 2011, it’s unlikely he knew just how much cultural hoopla he would himself one day generate. The revelation of the startlingly large advance for City on Fire -- an advance unprecedented for a 900-page debut -- caused a slight distortion in the fabric of the universe. I never expected to see, as I did last week and which it will also undoubtedly wound him to mention, a photo of Garth in Vogue, wearing costly designer items and looking like a goddamned matinee idol. Garth’s previous published work, a novella called A Field Guide to the North American Family, made heavy use of photography and textual fragments to propel a surprisingly tender work of fireflies-and-cigarettes Americana. When City on Fire arrived, I noted the visual elements -- the recreated pages of a punk girl’s 'zine, a journalist’s whisky-ringed article draft, a patriarch’s handwritten letter. Taking these, with the novel’s size, with the $2 million, with the monastic vastness of the author’s frame of reference, I had, frankly, no idea what to expect. What I found was not the terrifying post-modern edifice I feared, but something warm and generous. Something beautifully written, fantastically plotted -- something suspenseful and moving and full of interesting people and ideas. It's a book written to create communion between reader and writer. It is also a book that, despite its frequent appearance in articles on the current popular interest in the New York of the 1970s -- despite its rhetorical signposts, its blighted streets, its Patti Smith soundtrack -- feels contemporary and fresh. There are other big books that have caused people to mention Charles Dickens and for which “accessibility” is actually a subtle neg; this is not the case for City on Fire, which deftly gathers up the stories of over a dozen people, half-a-dozen “scenes,” and one teeming city in careful prose, with a reverence and faith that escape naivete only because they are the things that motivate all great stories. As one of Garth's characters, the veteran reporter Richard Groskoph, puts it What he wanted above all to get right was the web of relationships a dozen column inches had never been enough to contain...He wanted to follow the soul far enough out along these lines of relationship to discover that there was no fixed point where one person ended and another began. I spoke to Garth in the weeks before publication, when he was going to a lot of matinees to kill time and, at his wife’s behest, avoiding pregnancy metaphors to describe the surreal anticipatory state he occupied. No one is more startled by all the hoopla than Garth himself. That said, I think there is a way in which, like any writer, he has spent his life preparing for the contingency (playfully referenced in his character Mercer's imaginary Paris Review interviews, daydreamed when production on the great American novel had stalled). I asked Garth how he went about transforming from critic to novelist, and how he navigated, in his novel, those lines of relationship--those deep places where the author and world collide. The Millions: When we started this conversation via email, you mentioned that you were already writing fiction when you “walked backward” into reviewing: what does that mean? I don’t think I actually know, or remember, how you got started with The Millions. Garth Risk Hallberg: That’s a bit of a long story, but basically I met Max when I was 17, in Washington, D.C. I had grown up in North Carolina, on tobacco road. “Down East.” My town was a college town, but a small one, and such elements of college culture as we got largely involved keg stands and pool halls. Both of which I came to appreciate as a teenager -- but it lacked that density of record stores and plays and paintings or whatever it was that I was probably hungry for. So I was a voracious reader from an early age: novels and nonfiction and increasingly poetry. And then the summer I was 16 I was working in a radiologist’s office, literally typing Social Security Numbers into a computer for minimum wage and spending the proceeds on, um, various forms of contraband, and my mom said, “That is not going to look very good on your college application.” I told her I wasn’t going to apply for college. We went back and forth about it, and she finally in a fit of despair suggested a residential poetry workshop at Duke at the end of the summer. I think her pitch was that it was only a week long. So I went up there, and naturally it was instantly like, “My god, a community!” What’s that line from the end of Jesus’ Son? “Freaks like us?” [Supplies clarification via email: “All these weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them. I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.”] Among them was a kid from Washington, D.C., named Derek, who became a close friend. And I started going up to D.C., which was about a five-hour drive from where I lived. On the weekends and in the summers, I’d drive up and find a place to crash and hang out with Derek and his friends, all of whom seemed bewitchingly well-read and creative. And also very wholesome in a strange way. I should emphasize that the teenage culture where I was from was not one of great psychic or spiritual health. Like, the group of people I’d been ratting around with included, on its periphery, a couple runaways and a small arms dealer. And I think I had a tropism for cities already, but I’d never been to New York, I’d never been to Paris or San Francisco or LA or anything -- so to me D.C. was at that point the paradigmatic big city. Max was a friend of Derek’s. So Max and I hung out a lot. And then I started using D.C. as a jumping-off point for raids on New York. TM: And when did The Millions enter the picture? GRH: I guess that was after I got out of grad school. I’d gone to NYU after having spent three post-college years in the workforce in D.C. and not liking what I’d seen. That’s actually not entirely true, but... TM: What kind of work? GRH: My first job out of college was writing Internet content, which paid shockingly well but was not good for the world. But a couple months into that came September 11. And in the aftermath, I quit that job and went to teach elementary school for two years. TM: Like how some people joined the army. GRH: Well, I’m a lover, not a fighter. In any case, I had surrendered by then to the fact that I was not, or was no longer, America’s Greatest Living Teenage Poet. But I’d been writing fiction steadily, and in the fall of 2001, for inexplicable reasons, the fiction started to feel really alive. All of a sudden, I started to feel like I was good at it. When it got to where I couldn’t split time with teaching, I applied to graduate school, which was also an excuse for my wife and me to move to New York. And then a couple years later, in maybe 2007, Max called and said, “You read a lot of books, and I’m turning The Millions into a group blog -- will you contribute?” So I did one thing, and I think we maybe got an email from the person under review, saying, “I had written off blogs as this hysterical thing, but this piece is actually thoughtful.” I’m sure you’ve gotten those emails, too; they’re gratifying. It’s a very direct connection. So I started writing reviews alongside the fiction. I didn’t really know what I was doing as a reviewer, besides thinking through questions of aesthetics. But I knew what I didn’t want to do. TM: It’s been a couple of years since I’ve read some of those works of criticism -- the pieces like “How Avant Is It?” I remember writing you some cringe-inducing emails in the past asking how you got so smart. I find it astonishing that you can write these dense essays and simultaneously be writing such an expansive and, accessible is not the word, imagine-a-better-word novel. You’re a Pierre Bourdieu in the streets but a, um, Dickens in the sheets. GRH: Well, maybe another way of phrasing your generous response to the novel is that I haven’t yet managed to hit the mark I’d like to in the critical writing. Because to the degree that there’s anything intimidating about the voice of the criticism, then I’ve failed in my attempt to make something demotic and beautiful. And I should also say, about those pieces, that maybe I manage to be more humane and given to levity in the mode of praise than in the mode of attack. It took me a long time to get over “Somebody said something wrong on the Internet” and to just find something to hold up for praise. My favorite piece I wrote for the site is probably the one on Deborah Eisenberg. And of course in the essays you cited above, I’m kind of covertly working out some ideas about my own fiction. But in any case, the rhetoric of fiction is so different. If being a passionate amateur is a rhetorical complication you have to deal with starting out as a critic, it’s an asset, or even a birthright, for the novelist. Or anyway, for this novelist. Or that’s my opinion. Instead of needing to establish you know something, you’re more credible as a novelist establishing that you don’t understand something, that you’re seeking to fathom the unfathomable. There’s more room for mystery. Things can be both true and false at the same time -- true for one character, false for another; right in one context, wrong in another. You have to be willing to be duped, Henry James says. That’s sort of my standard for “irony” in the novel, and I guess it creates kind of a gentler temperament. TM: When you say that the rhetoric of fiction is different than writing criticism -- is there a time when you sit down and say “I’m being too arch right now, I’m being too knowing, I’m using some kind of device that I would use when I’m writing criticism”? GRH: I’m tempted to say, conversely, that the voice of the fiction just comes more naturally to me, but I’d be using the adverb in a very peculiar, almost technical sense. Because writing is definitely not what we typically think of as “easy” or “natural” for the person doing it. You know this as a writer -- it’s mostly torture. You have those days when you kind of light up inside like a pinball machine or something, and all of a sudden everything is feeding back 10 times as much as it did the previous day, and you have this sense of joy and you walk out of the house and run into someone you know, or your spouse comes home and says “How was your day,” and you say, “This was a great day! The writing went well!” And then if you actually paused and walked back through the writing hour by hour you would realize, “No, it was still mostly torture, but it was a kind of exquisite and joyous torture on this day, as opposed to the gray horrible torture that it is on most days.” I tend to forget this about other writers, because I read as if the person doing the writing were speaking. So if an essay takes 45 minutes to read, I have this kind of unexamined assumption that it also took 45 minutes to produce. And then it’s like, “Damn, E.B. White is so natural, he writes with such ease, how does he do that?” But I know from experience that no, no, no, that’s an 18th draft and he spent months and months and months pulling his hair out to get there. What I can say is that fiction is the first writing I do every day. And if there’s a day -- and there have been many in the last couple of years -- when I’m only going to have room for one or the other, fiction or essay, I’m always going to choose fiction. Because writing nonfiction doesn’t make me less crazy in the way that fiction does. For me in a piece of fiction when everything is working, everything is embodied and incarnate, and sometimes ideas that are illogical or I don’t agree with or seem silly to me in real life suddenly become compelling because a fictional person believes in them. And that’s maybe part of the strangeness of the rhetoric of fiction. TM: It’s funny because I kind of think of you just sitting down and speaking the novel to an extent. I think of it as being narrated by a generous late-20th-century god with an extensive vocabulary who periodically zeroes in on the respective consciousnesses of the characters. GRH: That’s sort of what I mean about belief and the fictional person. You dig a little way into that, and it opens up all kinds of bizarre logical problems and mysteries and circles to be squared involving subjectivity and objectivity. This novel is clearly a deep attempt to be “with” the characters, but also to make them meaningful by knitting them together into something larger. So I wanted the narrative voice to be constantly modulating between the poles of total objectivity and total subjectivity -- but only ever actually touching one or the other pole in a few select places. And using a broad vocabulary gave me the room to dial up or down the degree of slanginess or rhetoric or whatever as we move in and out. To send a constantly modulating signal about vector and position. Rather than free indirect style just being a switch you flip -- now in character; now out of character -- I wanted it to have what Kurt Cobain once described as “psychedelic” dynamics. [Supplies Cobain quote via email: “I wanted to learn to go in between those things, go back and forth, almost become psychedelic in a way but with a lot more structure.”] Which is also closer to how I experience life. And somehow the interludes in City on Fire, those first-person “documents,” are related to that. I thought a lot about how the enjambment of Esther’s first-person voice and Dickens’s third-person voice works in Bleak House, even though it “doesn’t work.” Or, like, the letters in Herzog. I’m pretty sure Bellow was frustrated with having to choose first or third person, and kind of wanted the resources of both, us being both inside and outside of Herzog, and just is like, “A-ha! The letters!” As the Dude says, there are a lot of ins and outs, a lot of what have-yous. [Garbled sound of talking with phone covered.] Sorry -- the exterminator and my landlady were walking around. TM: What do you need to exterminate? What do you have? GRH: We’ve got some mice. We’ve got a few mice. TM: Aww. GRH: Which I’d rather not exterminate. Maybe rodent prophylaxis is what we’re trying to practice here. [More discussion with landlady, exterminator.] Where were we? TM: The ins and outs and what-have-yous. Which extend beyond the characters and the voice to the plot. Did you have to create a map for yourself ahead of time? GRH: Well, in a very strange way -- a way that’s almost mystical -- I already had a lot of the book ahead of time. I’d had this sort of vision, which I’ve probably beaten to death in other interviews... TM: The famous bus. GRH: Right, on a Greyhound from D.C. to New York, to scope out places to live, and as improbable as it sounds, in the space of 45 seconds or however long it was, a lot of things -- characters, architecture, images, events, scenes -- sort of all came at me at once. But it was like getting a box of puzzle pieces in the mail. You can tell how big the puzzle is going to be, roughly, and how intricate, and what the color scheme is, but you don’t necessarily know whether the piece you’re holding is the upper-left or the lower-right corner. Nor do you know how everything connects. And mapping it all out ahead of time may close off certain intuitive leaps. I had this dream -- I still have this dream -- of the novel, what D.H. Lawrence called “the big bright book of life,” being as organic as a tree. In order for a tree to achieve its shape, it has to grow and respond to all kinds of obstacles and dry years and wet years. So even in this case of extreme complication I was reluctant to do any kind of formal outlining. If I’m verbally tracing over something that’s already been outlined in schematic or graphic form the words just die. And maybe this is an overlap with how I feel about essays: the feeling of the writer being taken by surprise is a totally enchanting feeling for me as a reader, and the feeling of being taken by surprise is a totally enchanting feeling for me as a writer, because something has just emerged that I was not capable of producing through purposeful thinking. It’s bigger than me. Anyway, I just kind of wrote and wrote and arrived at a process that seemed to work, stitching together pieces and seeing what fit. And some answers would come to me very quickly, and some would come after a lot of trial and error. And some came while I was sleeping. TM: Like what, for example? GRH: Like the design stuff. I had this dream in what was probably spring of 2008, early on in the writing of the novel. And, peculiarly, I saw the finished book. This wasn’t under the sign of anxiety, as much of the rest of my life is -- it was a dream of, like, feeling joyful and at peace. Me handing the book to a reader, a specific person in my life. And inside the book, some of the pages looked a little funny. And I woke up and thought, “Well, that’s odd.” But I guess that’s what it turned out to be. TM: One thing I’ve learned about you from this is that you are kind of a Desert Father, having visions and dreams. Do you have signs and portents all the time, or were they specific to this book? GRH: It may just be that I’m very suggestible. Maybe the delinquent habit reading trains you into is to be highly suggestible, so that if someone writes that Character X is performing Action Y, you say, “Oh, yes, I can see that.” So by the same token, if my son says, “Dad, you’re stepping on the sidewalk cracks!” there’s a very real part of me that wants to call my mother. Opening umbrellas indoors, all that kind of stuff, I’m very superstitious about. I’m tempted to say very California, but I don’t want... TM: I live in California and I’m exactly the same way. GRH: Well, you’re a good reader. So you’re also highly suggestible. Of all the people writing regularly for The Millions you and I probably have the most similar relationship to literature. And superstition is also just a kind of Pascal’s Wager. You know, just in case. But that was part of the attraction to writing for me. I always saw it as intrinsically related to dreams and visions and the whole gnostic thing, the call from the beyond. I’ve basically been writing since I was six, and I think of it as a vocation more than a profession, both because it’s a preposterous profession, which remunerates very few people in ways that allow them to live in the world, and also because it just seemed like...Have you read The Gift? Lewis Hyde? TM: No. GRH: You should read it! You would love it. And not to presuppose that I had any talent as a kid, or do now, but it seemed to me from a very early age that writing was something I had to do. It felt like a gift in the sense that it was given to me, not by me -- it didn’t feel like a choice. I thought when I was a teenager that this meant I would become a poet. And I did not turn out to have a gift in the senses that are required to do that. But I still think of that -- being a poet -- as the purest and holiest and (interestingly) least professional way of being a writer. But the job posting for Poet, in the mind of the 15-year-old beatnik, is like, Duties include: Must spend lots of time walking around waiting for signals from the universe. I think a lot of that stuff has stayed with me, both because I remain inordinately attached to the person that I was when I was 17 and wanted to be Rimbaud, and also because no superior way of making sense of the universe has yet presented itself. So I remember at that age driving around at night and having the streetlights go out right at the moment I drove under them. And the rational explanation is that there was something electromagnetic going on with my car. But how do you then explain that exactly the song I needed to hear came on at exactly that moment on the radio? And I experienced that as a profound moment. No amount of disillusioning can ever persuade me that it wasn’t a profound experience. Two other things occur to me on the question of superstition. One is that the whole writing thing is just sort of magic or alchemy. I was talking to someone last night about questions that make writers groan, and this person pointed to “How much of the work is autobiographical?” and “Where do you get your ideas?” And I was thinking that, yes, okay, those questions are sort of banal (even as they underpin so many higher-order interview questions). But also that maybe there is something of anthropological interest in the fact that people keep asking them and gravitating toward them. Like, maybe one of the interesting things about the question of autobiography is that it remains a mystery -- and the reason it drives writers crazy to be asked it is that they can’t answer. Who the hell knows where the ideas come from? And who the hell knows how much of the work is you and how much of it is not? We live in an age that is mildly allergic to those kinds of mysteries. But if you sort of consecrate your life to something that brings you face to face with those mysteries on a daily basis, you learn to respect them, or leave room for them to just be, and maybe that encourages tolerance for all sorts of other weird behavior. It’s like the baseball player who doesn’t wash his jockstrap. I don’t usually wear a jockstrap when writing, and if I did I’d like to think that I’d keep it in good repair, but I understand the mentality. The second possible account of the superstition would be that it’s less a concomitant of the underlying mysteries than a mask you put on them. I’ve never been very trusting of what writers said about their own writing -- I remember this came from E.L. Doctorow and it might be apocryphal, but something about Lawrence claiming to have finished a draft of Aaron’s Rod or whatever and to have turned it over face-down on the desk and written the next draft never looking at the first one. Doctorow’s surmise was that this was probably bullshit. But in order to leave room for mysteries, maybe sometimes you kind of concoct these fictions about how and why you’re doing what you’re doing, which are not true but you believe them to be true, and they help you not to look at the real reasons or to try to find out what the real reasons are. So I feel like some of that writerly mumbo-jumbo may just be a way of attempting to preserve... I’m sounding really new-agey about this. TM: I’m hearing that writing is a kind of cult, not in the sense of Jonestown, but of Delphi, oracles, gases coming out of vents in the earth and so forth. GRH: I’m thinking more about the double-edged nature of self-consciousness. On one hand, as a writer you have to be really self-conscious. And I haven’t even figured out, and don’t know if I want to examine too closely, whether it’s a constant thing or whether you’re toggling back and forth -- but at least periodically you’re moving into the reader position and becoming conscious of yourself as you will sound to the reader. But then, too much self-consciousness is totally paralyzing. It seems practically, even if it is not empirically, a very weird and mysterious thing. And then you write the book and the book gets published and you sit down to write the next book, and the fact that you’re all the way back at the blank page trying to figure out how you did it last time just speaks to the mystery. TM: There were so many moments when I would think, “Hmm, Garth is somehow now a 24-year-old gay black man from Georgia, or a 36-year-old woman recovering from an eating disorder.” And not in some shoddy “He couldn’t stop being himself” way, but in a way that I could feel some fundamental connection and sympathy with the characters. GRH: I’m flattered, because that was very much how I thought about the ambition of the book. There’s a great Mark Singer profile of David Milch, who’s the creator of Hill Street Blues and Deadwood, and Milch is like emerging from a somewhat dissolute background of addiction and pain via a lot of crazy and superstitious ways of thinking about Art. He’s one of those guys who will capitalize Art and not put it in quotation marks. And it might be generationally just not attainable for me, but I aspire to be the kind of person who can write Art with a capital A and no quotation marks, because that’s how much it meant to me and still means to me. When I was 17 it meant that to me every day, all day -- in a very real way, it saved my life -- whereas now at 36 I fall slightly out of contact hour by hour with all that Art can mean. But when it’s really operating on me it’s definitely a capitalization-with-no-quotation-marks thing. Anyway Milch, in this profile, uses the phrase, which I think he gets from one of St. Paul’s epistles: “Going out in spirit.” And Art-making for me is a going out in spirit. With this book, I thought that -- I don’t even know where the characters came from, but they came to me in this solid form, and I thought, I have to find a way to go out in spirit to them. “Compassion” means suffering with. So I had to compassionate, or suffer, with these characters. And pretty early on, I realized the question I had to keep in mind was “How is this person me?” Because they are all me. They all have to be me, or the book won’t work. TM: The ones for whom you feel that -- or the reader feels that -- it’s all the good guys. There’s a distance between the narrator and the bad guys. GRH: That might be a failing of the novel! TM: No, because structurally it should be that way. Why should the person who is coming out with this narrative -- why should he be able to... Okay, no spoilers. Well, no, I’m not quite right, you do get some backstory for the Goulds, but that’s biography. GRH: It was complicated for me because I think I really want, philosophically, to have the bad guys, the antagonist figures, be as fully human...I think of this as the Dick Cheney Problem. It goes like this: I know philosophically that Dick Cheney is human to Dick Cheney, and to his wife and daughters and friends, and that his inner life is as rich as mine, but I’m not quite a good enough novelist to understand what it might be like to be Dick Cheney. And what you end up with if you subscribe to the Dick Cheney Problem is you have antagonists who don’t participate in the full breadth of the writer’s sympathies. This may feel a little bit 19th-century, and that’s not displeasing to me. I mean, Dick Cheney is a little 19th-century. Still... One of the books that was sort of on my mind as I wrote was Demons, the Dostoevsky book. Stavrogin has great vitality, but I don’t remember him having as much interiority as, say, Ivan Karamazov does. And I think what fascinated me about Amory Gould, the worst actor in City on Fire, is that here’s someone who, if I get inside him, has all the things that I have as his author. He has the means to know everybody’s secrets, and he has the means to plot, like a novelist does, and he is very intelligent, but he doesn’t have...he can’t go out in spirit. He’s spiritually defective. Or rather, I hope we see, damaged. And without the strange ineffable thing that we were gesturing at earlier, all of the concrete talents and drive required to make a fiction won’t work. People won’t achieve their destinies within the story because you won’t be able to understand them. But it’s nice, I guess, that the book is long enough to have problems for me as a writer, things I can’t decide whether they are what I wanted. Though that may be another enabling fiction: the book wanted it that way, and I’m the innocent bystander. Anyway, I’m glad you picked up on that Amory thing, because it definitely stood out for me. Maybe I don’t have enough evil in my soul. TM: There’s the authenticity of character, and then there’s authenticity of, I guess, scene. On that score, did you worry about the punk stuff? Is that a scene you were familiar with, in its contemporary iteration? GRH: My canon at 15 would have been Kerouac, Brautigan...you can fill in that whole canon. Hippies, proto-hippies, and post-hippies. And also heavy doses of Stephen King. But yes, when I was in D.C. and for three years after college I was kind of hanging around the punk scene there, which was still very small. Or not small, but a size where everybody knew everybody. Small enough to have that feeling of being a community. It was also intensely political and creative and just a fascinating contrast to the more louche, symbolist New York punk scene of the '70s. There’s actually a good story about Minor Threat coming up to play New York with Bad Brains and being like, “Screw this place, you guys are all junkies.” The thing that really struck me about the punk scene in the '90s was how creative it was. It was about making things, making your own bands, making your own 'zines, making your own fashions, making your own life -- and judging people not by the aesthetic content of how they presented themselves but by how much effort had gone into creating themselves. But I loved both sides of the music and both sides of the impulse, both the creative and the destructive or nihilist. The sort of Thanatos and Eros -- and those two things seemed ultimately to thread together for me most satisfyingly in Patti Smith. So when I realized I was going to write this book, one of the thrills was knowing that all these feelings about punk and what it had meant to me, the scope and variety of it, would have a place to go and live. And of course that’s just one of many things that found a home in the book. There was also all I’d been feeling about race and class and sex and coming-of-age and marriages...It was the first thing I’d ever worked on where all the parts of what was meaningful to me could find a home. TM: Speaking of marriages, I just read a little snippet of an interview with Adam Johnson. “When I’m writing, I become a terrible husband, I abandon my children.” GRH: That’s what Jenny Offill calls “the Art Monster,” right? TM: Exactly. I’m curious about how your writing works with parenting and how much your wife, who works full-time, has to pick up -- how do the logistics work? GRH: The short answer is that they don’t. The first draft of this I had nearly finished right before becoming a father. In fact, I was close enough that I probably could have finished. But I’d always known that the novel was going to end with the blackout of '77 -- that it was going to have to have this grand finale. And I thought, foolishly, “I’m going to wait and finish it after we have this baby, because that’s going to give me something I don’t already have emotionally.” This idea that the book needs a different writer at the end -- I adapted it from George Saunders, who claims it’s from Einstein, but apparently Einstein can’t be found saying it anywhere: that “no worthy problem is solved on the plane of its conception.” And in fact my older son arrives and I discover that I am different, but not in the way I’d thought. I’m instantly so much tireder and dumber and more impatient and slower. I wrote the blackout that summer. I started waking up at 4:30 or 5 in the morning, so I was writing it in the dark, in the summer, the stifling summer of 2010, and it took forever and it was a totally different kind of writing. The ratio of joy to torture was lower in a lot of places, and it took me a long time to get it right -- or what I thought was right. Maybe it’s not right still. By the time I was finishing the fourth draft and revising, our second son had come along and my wife was finishing her dissertation. So we were like a small publishing concern, only half our staff was under the age of three, and it was insane. There was no sleeping happening at all -- though that did give a kind of visionary edge to the work. I was basically hallucinating from fatigue. And we were completely broke and not happy campers in a lot of ways. It was very, very hard. We kept getting priced out of where we were living and moving deeper and deeper into Brooklyn. And people write these essays, “Why Do Writers Live in Brooklyn?” But even if I didn’t love New York, which I do, my wife was shackled to her job, which was in Manhattan, and my teaching income -- I was teaching four classes a semester at that time -- came from being in a place that has enough colleges to support that kind of adjunct-teaching load. So not to oversell this, but in those years I felt like the schlepping mascot of the new gig economy. And now I continue to wake up really early -- our basic agreement is that whatever happens before 8 a.m., I’m not responsible for. So if I wake up at 4:30 or 5 I can have three-plus hours before everyone’s awake. My brain’s very pliable at that hour, and it’s quiet. Then I take the kids and finish them on breakfast and get them ready to go and take them off to their allotted places, and am back at the desk by 9:30. But by then my brain feels like it’s been the victim of assault with a melon baller, and it can take me a dangerous 45 minutes to figure out where I was and what I was doing. And within that 45 minutes if I succumb to the temptation to glance at a newspaper, there goes the rest of the morning. But then there’s this beast that emerges at the end of every draft. I call it the Crazy Old Man of the Mountain, Jenny Offill calls it the Art Monster, Adam Johnson has his version...It’s a place of not shaving. A place of questionable hygiene, because you’re like, “I could shower or I could keep working on this for 15 minutes.” A place of not eating for long periods of time and then gorging to make up for it, a place of no sleeping. And that creature, the Crazy Old Man of the Mountain, is scary for children. Like Der Struwwelpeter, who might come and eat you out of absent-mindedness. It’s just not a healthy thing to have in the house. It’s not a model of probity or balance. Yet somehow having kids makes the Crazy Old Man worse, because you have to allocate more of your meaningful work time to overheated obsession, since you’re not getting as much done in third gear. Or you’ve been in second gear when you really needed to be in third, so then you have to make up for it by shifting into fifth gear. And fifth gear is crazy for everyone, and the kids are like, “Dad, why are you driving so fast?” So again, the short answer is, it really doesn’t work. But I look at someone like Michael Chabon or our friend Edan Lepucki. Or Dickens and Joyce -- no, wait. They were terrible fathers, so they don’t count. But people have done it. It must be a kind of muddle-through thing. TM: And now you’re done. And now it’s all starting, in a way. GRH: [Laughs.] Yes, I’m having the uncomfortable feeling that some things are being typed as we speak. And I don’t know what it’s all going to be like. I have no scale for what it will be like, how people will react. Having written a 900-page novel is already unforgivable. But in my defense, I didn’t feel like I had a choice. There’s something in the book somewhere about choice and freedom not being the same thing. So: I didn’t feel like I was choosing this. Yet on the other hand, I’ve rarely felt so free.
The Millions Interview

Not Just a Riddle to Be Solved: The Millions Interviews Ann Beattie

  Ann Beattie has been writing short stories for more than 40 years. For some readers, she remains associated with the Baby Boomer generation and specifically the 1970s when she first started publishing. But her style and approach have changed over the years, and even if she’s not as associated with the zeitgeist as she once was, her output in the 21st century -- which includes both new and selected volumes of short stories, novels, novellas -- demonstrates that she has not slowed down, nor has she abandoned new ideas and approaches. Beattie’s new book The State We’re In: Maine Stories is a collection of loosely linked short stories about people living in the state, some more permanently than others. We spoke back and forth over e-mail while she was on the road about linked short stories, Maine, and ending a story. The Millions: Where did the idea for the book start? Ann Beattie: I never have ideas. I don’t plan or plot. My husband was in Europe on vacation with his brother, and I decided to sit down and start writing and see what happened. The month before, I’d written [the short stories] “Road Movie” in rough draft, and “Missed Calls” in more-or-less final form, so maybe I was also slightly in a Maine state of mind...but if I remember correctly, when I wrote “The Fledgling,” I was just seeing what I could write in the first hour after I sat down. Then I remembered how much fun it can be to write. TM: Why do you find Maine an interesting fictional space? AB: I suppose I might feel so much an outsider, or simply so negative about a place that it wouldn’t be something I’d want to visit in fiction, but Maine is like any other place to me. I wasn’t at all trying to define anything about the state. Since I’ve lived here for about 25 years part of the year, of course some things were right there at my fingertips. Had I found the fledgling in the recycling bin in Virginia, I would have set the story there, I guess. TM:  There are a lot of people who will read this book who have never been to Maine and only know the state through Stephen King, Richard Russo, Carolyn Chute, and Murder, She Wrote. Were you thinking of this and playing with that knowledge or expectation? AB: Yes, would be the short answer. I hear conversations all around me, I know both people who live here 12 months a year and tourists, and the state also gets tons of publicity, so I think I have many perspectives on how people think of Maine. While I do think vaguely of my audience when I write (though I hope it’s never a predictable audience; I really write for myself and a very few other people, initially), I write whatever I’m inclined to write, because a writer shouldn’t outguess or in any way condescend to her audience. TM: What made this a story collection as opposed to a Robert Altman-esque novel with many central characters–or a Beattie-esque novel like Falling in Place, say? AB: Good question. But I’ve already written Falling in Place, so wouldn’t want to use that exact structure again. Also, at first the stories seemed more unrelated than they turned out to be. In many cases, I fought the impulse to have more cross-overs or walk-ons, or scenes in which this character meets that character (which would have been easy). I didn’t get to the character I think of as most central, Jocelyn, until I had about half the stories in what became the book. Then her story got longer and longer. If the whole thing had been a seesaw, Jocelyn would have easily tipped the balance and sent the other characters up into the air to dangle. That would have been counter-productive, so I didn’t restrain myself from writing so much about her in first-draft, but afterwards -- inspired by my husband’s helpful thoughts (hi, honey!), I realized it might work well to divide the material and intersperse her ongoing story with other stories that were not inconclusive, but best understood in terms of their stand-alone connotations as separate stories. Is that clear enough? What I mean is, her story was too big to stand alone and not interrupt the book, but I hoped that the little stories orbiting her would work two ways: that hers would comment ultimately on them, and that they would add some perspective, etc. to hers. TM: Why did you resist having characters appear in other stories. I ask because I suppose that’s an obvious option when writing stories set in the same place. Even in a book like this, do you want each story to stand completely on its own? AB: One way to answer the question would be that the reason I resist writing related short stories has to do with my writing method, which is not to pre-plan a story. If I knew characters were hovering in the wings that should be incorporated, I’d worry that it would determine, too much, what story I wrote next. That doesn’t seem to me enough of an answer. I’m quite aware that things reappear in my stories, such as Patsy Cline songs. I deliberately take something -- some object -- and see if it looks different, or works differently, from story to story. Like everyone else, I also take the chair in the living room and see if I like it better in the bedroom. That doesn’t exactly answer the question, either. With the disclaimer that there are books of stories in which the characters reappear that I like very much, I tend to be moved by stories in which the writer begins and -- I guess -- in some sense concludes lives. It’s a little like watching someone dance under a strobe light. How you capture what it looks like is the initial difficulty (even sunlight is really no less of a problem), but if you represent the dancer, even if she’s moving through differently colored lights, or waving her arms more than before, then it’s the dance you’re watching, not the dancer. I suppose the argument could be made that that would be just fine. Or the joke: Ah, Beattie’s next collection will be linked stories. I doubt it. TM: I know that you live there part time, but does Maine feel like home to you? AB: No. The house in Maine feels more or less like home, but then I go out. TM: Does that make it easier or harder to write about a place? AB: I honestly don’t know. I think, in general, it helps me to feel comfortable enough in a place, but not too comfortable. TM: Do you write and discard -- or at least not publish -- a lot of stories? AB: I’d say 30 or 40 percent are discarded entirely. TM: How long did The State We’re In/em> take to write and how does that compare to other collections? AB: Not so long. It’s one summer’s stories, though that says nothing about how they were ordered or what time I took discarding individual stories and making revisions. TM: How do your stories typically start? Did it change in any way for the stories in this collection? AB: It did change with this book. I didn’t set out to write a book, just to see if I could write some rather short stories that I hoped would be on some level pretty direct (such as the ones that involve conversations, like “The Stroke” or “Silent Prayer”). It took me a while to realize how much almost all of them were stories about how people tell stories -- whether epistolary (“Missed Calls”), or mostly gossip, or with people trying to write stories but living them instead (“Duff’s Done Enough”). If you look at the book as a collection of women’s voices -- different women, telling stories -- that would seem right to me. That strikes me as more of a common denominator than the state of Maine. As for the first part of the question -- almost everything I write starts with a visual image, even if its position gets rearranged later. TM: Do you write stories with an ending in mind? AB: Never. TM: So how do you know when you’ve reached the end of a story? Because so many of them don’t conclude per se. AB: To me, using a different way of thinking (a different part of my brain, no doubt), I’ve begun to sense, as a story stretches out, where it is going and what small things are operative (motifs, etc.). I try to allow myself messy rough drafts, but that’s different from having good instincts and eventually guessing, as I write, where a story is headed (though the specifics surprise me all the time). How do I know when I’ve reached the end? When there’s a critical mass I could explain, but since any good story is never just a riddle to be solved, nothing would make me articulate that, except in the vaguest sense, to myself -- functioning as writer first, but thereafter as reader. TM: In your Paris Review interview you said that when you started writing, there wasn’t another short-story writer you wanted to emulate. Do you see writers now who have followed what you’ve been doing? AB: No comment. But not unrelated: writers are in dialogue with other writers. Sometimes they’re mimics, rather than originators -- right?
The Millions Interview

Survival Is Not Guaranteed: The Millions Interviews Bonnie Jo Campbell

The first time I saw Bonnie Jo Campbell, she stood in front of a bank of elevators on the 12th floor of Columbia College Chicago where I taught. It was late, after 10, but a group of students hemmed her in, laughing, asking questions, reluctant to leave. Her height and physical confidence captured my attention. Then I noticed the students’ faces. They were rapt. Enchanted. It very well could have been the fluorescent lights but -- I’m telling you -- their faces beamed. “Great,” I thought, jabbing the elevator button a bit too hard, “another visiting writer.” Then I read Women and Other Animals and I immediately understood what all the fuss was about. Born and raised in Michigan, Campbell attended University of Chicago to study philosophy, traveled the world (including scaling the Swiss Alps on her bicycle), and even sold snow cones for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Baily Circus. During her time at University of Chicago, she became disillusioned with her major and eventually found her way to Western Michigan University’s writing program where Stuart Dybek and Jaimy Gordon taught. Since then, Campbell has published two novels, two short story collections, and a book of poetry. The 16 stories in her third and latest collection, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, dissect the tender, sometimes cruel, and often flawed relationships between women. These stories also capture the beauty and blemishes of small town life -- its silences, its spaces, its struggles, its poverty. A mother on her deathbed admits to knowing her boyfriend abused her young daughter. A woman realizes she’d been raped while passed out at a party. An abused wife exacts revenge on her dying husband. I caught up with Campbell electronically and over the phone to pick her brain about Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. The Millions: It’s officially fall in Michigan. Will the colors turn soon? Bonnie Jo Campbell: Though it’s only September, the leaves are starting to turn. My darling Christopher just hung up the hummingbird feeder full of sugar water and said, “This is the last time I’m going to fill this. They’re heading out.” Autumn is beautiful in my neighborhood, which has a lot of big sugar maples, but I’m going to miss much of it, since I’m heading out on a big book tour for Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. TM: Your short story collection American Salvage was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award in Fiction and the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction. Your body of work includes the short story collection Women and Other Animals, the novels Once Upon a River and Q Road, and the poetry collection Love Letters to Sons of Bitches. This latest collection, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, dissects the richness of women’s relationships. What drew you to write this collection? How did your previous publications inform these stories? BJC: Well, I never have set out to write a collection of stories. I’ve just written the stories I’ve felt compelled to write, and so far those have lumped themselves nicely into my three packages of stories. The stories of my first book, Women and Other Animals, were mostly about women and girls interacting with the natural world, mostly told from the female point of view. Then I found myself writing about men because I saw some interesting and awful situations occurring and re-occurring in my neck of the woods, and through writing I discovered the ways these individual situations reflected a larger problem in society. Many of these situations involved workplace issues and economic troubles. The stories in Mothers, Tell Your Daughters involve many struggling women, but the drama is less about economic troubles and more about troubles within the intense relationships these female characters have with other women, and with some men, too. Many of the women are still reeling from some kind of sexual violation. It’s worked kind of like magic each time -- I fear my wandering mind has no cohesiveness, but then in all three of these situations, it turns out that I was creating bodies of work that belonged together. I should mention that it wasn’t immediately clear what the theme or content of the collection was going to be at the time we sold the book, but gradually my agent Bill Clegg, my editor Jill Bialosky, and I sifted through the work I had and found what cohered. After that, I had to write a couple of new stories to bring it all together. Those final stories were the title story “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters,” and “Daughters of the Animal Kingdom.” I think people will recognize me as the writer of all three of these works, but in Mothers, Tell Your Daughters I’ve experimented stylistically a little more than in the earlier collections. Many of the stories are traditional narratives, but I’ve included four pieces of flash fiction (250 to 300 words each) and several stories that read like rants by women who are at the end of their ropes. TM: You write short stories, novels, poetry. You edit. You teach. You raise donkeys. How do all of these roles influence your writing? BJC: Most writers are doing a lot of teaching, blurbing, contest-judging, reviewing for small presses, etc., but that’s because there’s so much work to be done to create more space and love in the world for reading and writing. The things I do outside the writing world are a great relief. I could spend hours a day in my garden, rather than the 10 minutes I get to spend. I want to hang out more with my donkeys. Sometimes I worry because it is the work outside of the writing world that gives the most life to my writing. Reading feeds it, too, but I need donkeys. And I need long bicycle rides. And I need to laugh my head off with my mom and sister at least once a week. Recently I needed to spend a whole evening with my husband installing red glowing eyes into a ceramic rabbit statue we found at a second hand store. I’m a person who hates to give up any part of my life, but I have had to give up martial arts. For 10 years I studied Kobudo, an Okinawan weapons art, and I earned a second degree black belt. I loved the people at the dojo, and I loved swinging sticks, nunchaku, sai, etc., but I found that I just didn’t have time for the commitment any more. On the bright side, I am able to handle my own security at literary events. TM: Good to know. I can think of a few times when nunchaku would have come in handy at readings. Tell me about the adventure tours you led and organized in Russia, the Baltics, Romania, and Bulgaria. BJC: The bike tours were great, lots of adventure and fun. I use the past tense because I haven’t run a tour in over a decade. I’ve had to give up that kind of travel in order to have time to write, same as I had to give up martial arts. Our tours were long, like eight weeks or more, and we traversed many countries (e.g., one tour went Poland-Czech Republic-Slovakia-Hungry-Austria-Romania-Bulgaria), and by the end of the summer we were gods of the roads, tanned and muscular, ready for anything. Visiting those other countries was a joy, to find so much new in the world, and to see our own American lives from the eyes of others. Often our fancy bicycles and helmets and cycling clothes made us look like aliens to the rural citizens of those countries, so I got a chance to feel like a real foreigner. Our tours were self-contained, which meant that every person carried his or her own luggage and tools, and preparing for the trips was an adventure in itself, figuring out just how little stuff we needed to live. Bicycling and keeping our bicycles going was our job. I’m a person who loves to eat and try new foods, so that was one of the highlights, learning about Czech beer and Bulgarian yogurt, and getting to eat all those extra calories I needed for climbing the Carpathian mountains. I’m still in touch with a lot of the folks who took our tours -- not surprisingly, the kind of people who would sign up for these crazy tours were really great, easy-going folks -- and we often talk about putting together another tour. But then they all go back to work, and I go back to writing. TM: You captured the essence of one of those trips in “Children of Transylvania, 1983” Any good stories? BJC: Once, a dozen people accidentally cycled across a Soviet military base located outside Olomouc, in what was then Czechoslovakia. In past years we’d ridden a particular road without incident, but one year there were war games going on, with tanks and armed soldiers. The group was put in jail, and then driven through the dark night to another jail. It was pretty scary, and I wasn’t even in the group that got captured. A few days later, the American tourists were delivered to the Austrian border and kicked out. TM: Once Upon a River and a number of the stories in American Salvage focus on young women (teens transitioning to womanhood). A number of stories in this latest collection often focus on the minefield that teenage girls and their mothers must navigate. What draws you to these characters? These themes? BJC: I’m just looking around at the world, seeing where the interesting problems lie. I’ve got no daughters myself, but I’m close with my mom, my sister, and a heap of nieces and great-nieces. (And I miss my grandmother all the time). We all tell stories and watch over one another. The mother-daughter relationship feels particularly deep and profound, and sometimes fraught. I would never argue with anyone else, not even my husband, with the intensity I argue with my mom, and it’s fine. We are two very different people, but we’ve learned so much from one another -- of course she has the upper hand, having raised me and all. Oh, and I’m starting to worry my dear mom is not going to live forever. I really hope she does live forever.  TM: Same here. My mom is 93 and she lives with us so she’s such a big part of my life, of my husband’s and daughters’ lives. I can’t imagine not having her here. BJC: Yup, I worry about my mom. She falls sometimes, and I go to her place and find her with bruises, and I think she isn’t eating enough of the right things. And I’m a worrier anyhow. When it comes to my beautiful little nieces, I worry about them being molested in some way, shape, or form -- they seem so vulnerable. In the last few years it seems that the issue of molestation has become more nuanced. Maybe we used to see rape as something rare strangers did to one another. Then we began to accept that rape takes place even within families, even within romantic or marital relationships. Nowadays we are made aware of situations where a girl doesn’t know whether she’s been raped, either because she felt complicit in the molestation, or because she was drunk or drugged. Those situations really press us to explore what rape is all about, in a country where at least a quarter of all women will be raped in their lifetimes. In Detroit alone we’ve learned about more than 11,000 unprocessed rape kits that are now showing that the city had dozens of serial rapists. Camera phones are capturing rapes that the victim is unaware of. And around the world, rape is a weapon of war. There’s lots to think and worry about on the subject, lots to write about. And my own special challenge is that I want to write about rape without writing about women as victims. Readers will have to decide whether I’ve pulled this off. TM: That “nuance” of rape is a huge part of this book. Like you said, these stories reflect how rape isn’t only a random event. It also happens in families, between relatives and friends – at parties while a woman is drunk, when a mother is caught in a no-win situation while trying to provide for her children. Once Upon a River also started with a rape. BJC: This collection is so new that I’m still figuring out what it is about, but many of these stores are about sexual violation and its after effects. TM: Short story collections are on the rise. This is your third collection of short stories. What draws you to the short story form? BJC: That’s just how most of my narratives work themselves out. If I can’t wrap up a story in 20 or 30 pages, then I’ve got a novel, and I’ll go ahead and write a novel, which is to say that my novels are failed short stories. Finishing a story is such a miracle that I’m relieved when I’ve got a short story. The novel is so much greater a commitment. I sometimes say that writing stories is like dating, while writing novels is like getting married. When you’re dating, you don’t have to share every damned thing, but a novel demands you show yourself entirely. Of course, a story sometimes later shows itself to be a part of a larger story, the way “Family Reunion” turned out to be the inspiration for Once Upon a River. One reason I might prefer the short story form is because it allows for experimentation. While a weird point of view or writing style can be delightful in a short story, it might not hold up over a whole novel. TM: Tell me about your writing day, your routine. BJC: I guess I haven’t had a solid routine for a while, because so many things in my life have been changing. My husband’s shift at work was changed from evenings to early mornings and back again, and then I was on a book deadline, and then I was teaching full-time-ish for a semester, and now I’m promoting a book. Oh, and my donkeys, Jack and Don Quixote, got a terrible hoof fungus that required frequent lengthy soakings in oxyclosine -- 90 minutes each hoof. I’m not complaining, but I’m saying these are things that get in a way of a schedule. I do long for a routine, and my perfect one would be: write for a few hours, exercise, lunch with the husband, errands and housekeeping stuff, dinner alone, and some more writing and reading and then a bit of hanging out with the husband. (I’m sounding a little dull here, but that’s what works for me.) TM: I could be wrong but I’m pretty sure that no other author interview includes the words hoof fungus.  It always amazes me that people think writers live glamorous lives. When do they think we write? BJC: In the movies people seem to do it in cafes and during brief spurts of depression. The hoof fungus is sometimes called “seedy toe.” Isn’t that a great name? TM: There's a recurring theme in your work of women being left behind or marginalized. Women in small towns might have it harder than women living in cities or suburbs because there might not be resources for job training, etc. So they start developing survival skills.  It seems like women have more opportunities than ever but many of the women in M,TYD have few options. Can you talk about how these changing times make for desperate characters, how opportunities dry up in the face of so many challenges? BJC: Some of the women in my stories are doing all right jobwise, but struggle in a different realm, but as a rule I am interested in women for whom survival is not guaranteed. Maybe the protagonist of “Play House” is somewhat limited because she hasn’t sought out education and she is drawn to people who are not good for her. Oh, and she drinks too much, and that would be the root of her problems in the eyes of many. The young mother in “To You, As a Woman” has dug her own deep hole, and now she’s in the hole, and there’s nobody to help her -- that story is a call for help from her fellow human beings. In American Salvage, the men were often having difficulty transitioning to the new millennium, which requires workers to be more agile and educated. Many of my women characters are able to make this transition, but they get screwed up in their relationships instead. Some women go through life adjusting when necessary, but never seeing the grand possibilities before them. I think we all know women who make the same bad choices over and over, and I’m interested in why this happens. Maybe I’m even more interested in the cause-and-effect aspect of their situations, how bad decisions (about children, men, drugs, alcohol) lead to bad situations that offer no good options. Sometimes people ask me why I write about these kinds of problems, and I’ll say that the only problems that interest me are the ones that are difficult to solve -- if a problem is easy to solve, there’s no point in writing a story about it. If a reader had a little more sympathy for such folks after reading my stories, I would be very happy. TM: Place plays a major role in your work. In your novel Once Upon a River, place is a character in itself. This latest collection of short stories is set in small towns. But they're not bucolic small towns. People work at Meijer to hang on to health care. Many deal with addiction. Almost all of them struggle to get by. You never idealize small towns. They are rife with the problems and pitfalls of big cities (or maybe they are microcosms for the larger world). And, for some reason, they seem even colder than a big city. BJC: Small town life is the life I’m most familiar with and it’s the place where I’ve been able to observe people most closely. I guess I write about small towns and the countryside because I want to write about the spaces between people. In the city people are piled on top of each other and so loneliness has a different form and feel. In my stories, people are alone both in an emotional sense and in a very practical sense. People in my stories can cry out (and they do sometimes) and nobody will hear them. TM: Many of your characters have simply been left behind by technology and the global economy. This is particularly true in Michigan (but this collection could have been set anywhere in America). How does place influence your process? BJC: Michigan is what I know. Michigan people are the people I understand, the people I want to understand better, and so I focus my attention there. I like to write about landscapes with which I am familiar so that I don’t have to do research to learn what is there. To some degree my characters reflect their landscape, and so I need to have that landscape handy, at my fingertips, embedded in my brain. And it turns out that whatever I need from the landscape, it appears, like magic. Just to set the story “Children of Transylvania” in the Romanian countryside, just to show I can write a story that takes place somewhere else. Now I’m back to Michigan. I think all readers and writers are aware of the mystery of place, that we access the universal truths only by focusing intensely on the particular. So I try to get at all of humanity by focusing right here at home. TM: In an opinion piece by Barbara Ehrenreich in The Guardian America, Ehrenreich writes about how only the rich can afford to write about poverty in America. She says that she had a hard time convincing editors to let her write stories about people who lived in poverty: It wasn’t easy to interest glossy magazines in poverty in the 1980s and '90s. I once spent two hours over an expensive lunch -- paid for, of course, by a major publication -- trying to pitch to a clearly indifferent editor who finally conceded, over decaf espresso and Crème brûlée, “OK, do your thing on poverty. But can you make it upscale?” Then there was the editor of a nationwide, and quite liberal, magazine who responded to my pitch for a story involving blue-collar men by asking, “Hmm, but can they talk?” After reading M,TYD, I thought, “I want every politician, every person who makes policy, every lawyer, every judge, every editor, to read this book because it will give them insight into how hard it is for many people to just get by.” Do you think that, because of this misguided perception about the working poor (and editors' inability to get a handle on it), it makes it even more important for writers to see the working poor as something other than angelic or slovenly? To see all of the varying shades in between? BJC: What a great quote. Boy, you’re opening up a can of worms with that! I’m a fiction writer, focusing on interesting characters in tough situations, so I have to be careful about claiming I’m speaking for the working poor, or for anyone other than myself. However, since I grew up as part of that group, it makes sense that I’m interested in their troubles. I was raised by my mom to never put myself above anybody else, and that helps me see the lives of everyone, including those at the bottom of the economic ladder, not to mention drug addicts and drunks, too, without prejudice. To be honest, I don’t understand why everybody isn’t fascinated with how poor people get by. Every single day working poor people do the impossible. I have a niece with three kids, working for close to minimum wage, and her husband works the same, and every day is a struggle, with work and babysitting, but they find a way to get through it. The car breaks down, kids get sick, things in the house break and need to be replaced. For people with money, these are minor problems, but for poor people they can mean losing a job and having even less. My niece is lucky to have family members who can help -- plenty of people don’t have anyone. Well-off people with lots of resources feel the difficulties of their own lives, so it surprises me that they are willing to discount the profound and essential nature of the problems that others face. People without money have to be very resourceful and clever. TM: What were some memorable past jobs? BJC: I have worked a lot of wonderful jobs, as an egg candler, a typist (on a typewriter, before computers), a tour guide, a teacher, a security guard. I’ve sold scrap metal. Maybe the worst job I’ve ever worked was a restaurant called Schensil’s Cafeteria, run by an old woman named Mrs. Schensil, who resembled Homer’s boss on The Simpsons. The food was overcooked and over-breaded and we had to cut the pies into seven pieces. Not six or eight, but seven. There was lots of sour steam. I lied about my age to get the job. I said I was 16, when I was really 14. TM: Can you tell me about growing up on your mother’s farm? BJC: Growing up on a farm was great because of all the space and the spaces. I loved being able to be alone and to watch people from a distance. Our place had lots of barns and outbuildings, a wash house, tree houses, attics, grain bins. I loved being with animals of all kinds, smelling their breath, feeling their warmth. I loved milking the cow, something I started doing when I was 10. Fresh garden tomatoes have been part of my summers and falls, as have black cap raspberries and big overgrown zucchini squash. A bigger farm might’ve been very different because of pesticides and factory-farming practices. I didn’t love having to haul buckets of water when the lines froze, having to come home from kid parties to do chores, but it all seems fine in retrospect. I didn’t like it the few times we butchered our own livestock ourselves, but I wanted to eat the meat. When people did that work cleanly and surely and swiftly, it wasn’t bad, but a few times it was done sloppily. TM: You have two donkeys named Don Quixote and Jack. Do you have other animals? BJC: In addition to having donkeys, I care for a dozen chickens at my mom’s, and we have a cat who won’t tolerate other cats, unfortunately. I want to have a dog, miss having a dog, but I travel too much right now, and it wouldn’t make sense. Life with animals of all kinds is better than life without them -- I think they’ve even done studies that show folks live longer if they live with animals, and so it makes sense that characters in my story can take comfort in animals or see reflections of themselves or others in those animals. I spend a lot of time watching wild animals, birds, and other critters. TM: I love the way you weave animals into your work. In Q Road, you even have a talking cat. Most of your characters have a very practical approach to animals. What would Don Quixote and Jack say about this collection? BJC: Jack and Don Quixote are gorgeous and smart, but they are not impressed by my writing career. I try to tell them about my awards and publications, but they just he-haw and chew on my jacket. There’s a funny picture I could share with you. Here’s what happened: a friend was interviewing me in the donkey pasture, and a gal was videotaping us, and while we were talking, Don Quixote was eating page after page of my book manuscript, which was sitting behind me on a bale of hay. We did a close up view of the photo and saw he was chewing the page containing the story “My Sister is in Pain.” TM: You have this amazing ability to pair beauty with violence, to connect the intimate moments inside public moments. In "The Greatest Show on Earth," there's all of this beauty within that tough existence. There was the long silver whip of the circus train stretched out on a side rail, heating up in the Arizona sun, and inside of a steel cabinet, two people inhaled each other's breath and sweat. You've said that Carson McCullers, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, and Flannery O'Connor have influenced your work. In what ways have they influenced your work? BJC: I know I’ve said this, but truthfully, I don’t know what work has influenced me. I’ll say instead that I feel a kinship with their work, and I hope they’ve influenced me. It’s funny that I’ve mostly chosen Southern writers, the writers who’ve been described as writing “Southern Grotesque.” I guess I see these writers as showing the bumps and bruises and warts of their characters in the most compelling ways. Michigan has a deep connection with the South, since so many Southerners came up to work in the auto plants after the Second World War, and I hung out with transplanted Southerners in my youth. Nowadays when I get fan mail from somewhere other than Michigan, it’s usually from the south. Steinbeck’s a little different. I guess when I read Steinbeck I fell in love with the way he is a humanitarian, the way he loves his poor and down-and-out characters, especially his male characters -- I’m a little conflicted nowadays about his female characters. TM: I’m originally from Flint. There certainly were a lot of transplanted southerners working at GM...back in the day. Who have you been reading lately? BJC: I’m reading and rereading Flannery O’Connor. I can’t get enough of her, and I’ve been invited to talk about her at the Library of Congress in March, so I want to be fully immersed. TM: I fell in love with Flannery O’Connor the first time I read her, when I was 18. BJC: Lordy, I wish she’d lived longer. She died at age 39. As for contemporary books, let me give a shout out to Elizabeth McCracken’s latest book of stories, Thunderstruck, which is saturated with death but is bright and uplifting. Now I’m reading a beautiful book, Did You Ever Have a Family, by my agent Bill Clegg. TM: Family, in all of its iterations, is a major theme in your work. How has your own family influenced your storytelling? BJC: Yup, we’ve all got ‘em, families! I can’t get rid of mine, wouldn’t if I could. Each new generation of a family turns out to be a reaction against the last generation, and each one redeems the last at the same time. I grew up with hippie-type parents who were reacting to their parents. The set of grandparents I knew best were city folks who dressed and lived conservatively (though politically they were good liberals), and they just couldn’t understand why my mom wanted to milk a cow and butcher hogs, not to mention why she wanted to party all night whenever she got a chance. (My rebelling against my mother is a milder thing, too subtle and boring to get into here.) I used to love listening to my grandfather and mother as dueling story tellers. My grandfather always wanted to tell a story about some cute little misunderstanding and how the reasonable people involved straightened it all out so everything was fine. My mother always wanted to tell the story of people drinking too much and dancing with lampshades on their heads, with somebody ending up in jail or at least asleep in the bathtub. My grandfather looked away from what was obnoxious and antisocial, while my mother enjoyed the hell out of all that. It was good for me to see how the different sensibilities created such different stories, and I had to come to understand my own sensibility, which is different from both of theirs. I loved hearing everybody argue about what really happened when Emil Wentland built a boat in his basement without having a door big enough for its removal. TM: That sounds like a good one. I’d like to hear it some time. You dedicated this book to your mother. In what ways -- in writing and in life -- has your mother influenced you? BJC: That’s probably too big a question to get into here. Let’s meet later at the Old Dog Tavern, and I will tell you some stories. I can tell you that my mother knew what she wanted in life, and though she had only one usable arm -- the other was badly damaged at birth -- she used her body and her mind to create the life she wanted to lead. She had five kids of her own, and she took care of a dozen other kids who lived with us at various times. She reads a lot, and she takes an interest in other people and everything that goes on around her. She’s usually the smartest person in the room, wherever we go. Does she love my writing? No. Does she love me? Yes. In short, she’s just the kind of mother a writer needs.
The Millions Interview

The Most Joyous Part: The Millions Interviews Lauren Groff

Earlier in the summer, I was on a plane that took off from D.C. bound for California, and I read Lauren Groff’s latest novel, Fates and Furies, during the five hours of flight. Not all of it -- I’m a slow reader. But also it was so good I wanted to save the end for somewhere I’d be alone. I did pause for a bit to write in my journal to gush about her. “Lauren Groff -- ” I started, cutting myself off. “When I read her, I am mesmerized. She goes so far into the worlds she creates. How? It must be so difficult and demanding. Or maybe not. Maybe it just comes naturally to her.” I got the chance to talk with her on the phone a few weeks later, and ask her how she does it. It turns out, it is demanding -- but I think it also comes quite naturally. The Millions: Fates and Furies is about the marriage between Lotto, a playwright, and his gorgeous and mysterious wife, Mathilde. The ambition and love between the two of them is fascinating and all consuming -- both for the friends who envy them throughout the novel and for the reader immersed in their lives and secrets. What drove you to write about a marriage? Lauren Groff: I tend to write two projects at once because otherwise I feel as though I’m putting all my hope and work into something that will probably fail. Focusing on one novel for years and years at a time can feel scary. So I wrote Fates and Furies while I was writing my previous novel, Arcadia, and when I got tired of working on one book I would go to the other one. Arcadia is about a utopian community, and it struck me that in fact the smallest, deepest community you can have is within an intimate partnership. In a relationship, you wake up every morning committed to doing your best, every day you fail, but the next morning you wake up and try again. TM: How did you do the work of writing Arcadia and Fates and Furies at the same time? LG: I had butcher paper on the walls of my office at the time I was working on both of the books, and I would write Lotto’s point of view on one big page and then go over and immediately write Mathilde’s on another. I went back and forth like this for a few years, until I felt like I had built up the story enough to know it inside and out. TM: Toward the end of part one of Fates and Furies, Lotto articulates this thought: “Paradox of marriage: you can never know someone entirely; you do know someone entirely.” Do you agree with his assessment? LG: I would say that we all have quiet subterranean rebellions going on at all times. I adore my husband very, very much but not a day goes by that I don’t have thoughts that he’d be horrified to know about. I would say that there have to be things that we keep secret. There’s no such thing as full disclosure. Because if we didn’t have secrets, we would have no internal life at all, which would make for a very sad existence. So I think it’s a beautiful and creative and magical aspect of being human to have these constant internal eruptions. I think those parts of ourselves that exist in a state of pure and selfish personality -- the parts that are not shared -- are actually very beautiful. TM: I loved your most recent story in The New Yorker, “Ghosts and Empties” -- which also hits the same chord in regards to inner lives. In the “This Week in Fiction” interview about that story, you commented that there’s a part of you that has lately been resisting the cause-and-effect impulse in story writing. How did you mature into this next phase of writing? LG: I don’t know if it’s maturing or going backwards! I think as you mature as a writer, you go after what feels most honest and real to you as a human being at that particular moment in time. In the beginning, maybe you train yourself to write stories that are more like stories --something happens, and then other things that happen as a result, you write in terms of cause-and-effect. I do think that life can be perceived as a series of reactions, to an extent. But the more I think about my life as it is at the moment, everything exists in a swirl of confusion. So I was trying to write something that feels more true to my current mode of perception when I wrote “Ghosts and Empties.” I’ve always been interested in the cusp between fiction and autobiography. My senior thesis in college was about that vague space between the two. Also, when I wrote “Ghosts and Empties,” I was thinking about the amazing William Maxwell story, “The Thistles in Sweden,” which is one of my all time favorites. It is a perfect story. I think that’s something you do as a writer -- write in conversation with a work that you really, really love. TM: Your books and stories are all quite different from each other -- I keep trying to find a common thread, and I’m not sure there is one solidly obvious one. One thing I keep coming back to is the concept of home in your work, and how many of your characters -- from Lotto in Fates and Furies to Bit in Arcadia, or even the narrator of the short story “Above and Below” -- are so grounded in the selves that come from their homes, even as they are running, or exiled, from home. Is this something that you think about consciously when you write, or something you see as playing a part in your work? LG: That’s a beautiful way of putting it. I think I am haunted by community. Particularly the pressures of community versus freedom. I think a lot of this comes from being such a homebody. Home is where I’m happiest. Homebodies can survive in the world, but we may not like it very much. I think that’s an artist’s reaction to the world in general: we have to make these safe spaces in order to create things. In truth, I would be very, very bored if I kept doing the same thing over and over again in my work, and so I’m always trying something new and different -- and failing, mostly. But still, no matter what we do when we think we’re trying to be completely experimental in terms of subject matter, in the end, we are whom we are. And so we always end up circling back to the things that are important to us. TM: Do your drafts come out in a trance or is it persistence that’s seeing you through to the end? LG: They don’t come in a trance, though sometimes a short story will come out in a beautiful burst. But most of the time when I write, I sit there day after day, and it’s work, you know? It’s like training for a marathon. You just kind of do it. And most of it is just a mess, and a disaster. But then you just do it again, and something clicks in, and you think, oh, okay, so I have to rewrite everything I’ve been doing. TM: I’ve heard you write many, many drafts, and the first drafts are written by hand. LG: I write almost everything by hand. It works out well for me because I can’t read my own handwriting, and so I don’t go back to read the drafts I’ve just written. I do a draft, and by the time I’ve finished it, I understand the foundational problems that are ruining the book. And then I just start over again. That way I’m building my idea of the world of the story, I’m building the characters. The things that I remember when I’m finished with one draft are the living details, and the living details are the ones that are meant to be in the story, that mean something. My drafting system is insane, and it’s very wasteful, and I’m frustrated for years and years at a time, but it ends up working out for me, because otherwise I would end up polishing foundationally problematic work. My impulse always is to spend all my time playing with words -- that’s the most joyous part for me. TM: Your characters are exceptionally vivid. I’m thinking in particular of Handy in Arcadia, with his grey eyetooth. And in Fates and Furies, both Lotto and Mathilde are carefully and artfully drawn as humans. Can you talk a little bit about how you create the physical details of your characters? LG: I don’t really know people until I can see them; it means a lot to me to be able to envision the world I’m writing about. I just need to know as much as possible, and the physicality of the characters is part of that. So one of the things that I do is to find an image that corresponds to a character and put it up on my wall as I’m writing. Or I think about people that I know, and let them speak to me. It’s all part of building the world of the novel. TM: Lotto is a person who makes things -- he’s first an actor, but then a playwright, and you’ve written parts of his plays and included them as excerpts or scenes. What was it like to write as another writer -- and a different kind of writer? LG: Research can obsess me, and in this case, I became obsessed by playwrights and their plays. I started reading a lot of [Henrik] Ibsen, [Anton] Chekhov, Eugene O’Neill, and then I read their biographies. Playwrights possibly have a different brain than the rest of us. There’s something to be said about being able to edit out the external, visual items in a story and just concentrate on the dialogue and the character. As I wrote Fates and Furies I was trying to figure out what it would be like to be a playwright. I’ve always loved plays as well as operas, in particular, because I find them so beautifully melodramatic and funny and ultimately satisfying. They transport you in a way that almost nothing else can. Though actually, now that I think of it, novels might be the closest literature has to operas. They’re both so big and populous and they both can incorporate so many different musical or tonal modes. TM: In an interview with The Rumpus, you discussed climate change, and said the world was “clearly barreling toward disaster.” You’ve also said that Arcadia came from thinking about utopias -- and that you wrote it as a reaction to the many and various dystopian scenarios that one might imagine. What role does climate change play in your writing, and what, in your heart of hearts, do you think is going to happen? LG: I don’t know what’s going to happen, of course, but I do wake up in the middle of the night imagining terrible things. It all has begun to feel especially urgent now that I have children. They did not ask for any of this, and they haven’t done anything wrong, but they will be the ones to struggle through it. I don’t know if anyone could be prepared for what will happen. All I know is that fiction and poetry and literature that doesn’t even subtly address climate change feels as if it is missing something very fundamental about what it means to be alive right now. What I mean by this is that the novel, through history, it is a text that traces an individual through space and time. Of course wars have always occurred, and there’s always been millenarianism; there’s always been some kind of threat, either real or perceived to the human project. But it’s never been so globally certain as it is now that something very bad is going to happen because of what we have done to the environment; it is all happening right now. And so a perfect book about someone’s love story that, 50 years ago, might have felt incredibly powerful and beautiful has stopped speaking to me at all these days. Escapism is not where I need to be right now if we’re talking about serious art. We have a moral duty and responsibility to speak to the greatest urgencies of our time. Why else would we be writing? Why should we write fiction that doesn’t critique the now? That doesn’t think deeply about the mistakes that we’ve made, the ones that have brought us to where we are? On the other hand, I have developed an equal allergy to apocalyptic fiction, which I know is going to be contentious. I just think a lot of it is very passive. Some of it is really beautiful -- I’m thinking about Margaret Atwood’s brilliant novels, or about The Road by Cormac McCarthy. But some apocalyptic fiction takes for granted the end of things, it’s not interested in pushing back against the now. It seems like a horrible lie, sometimes, to read how, no matter how awful it gets on Earth, the human spirit will prevail! It provides a sort of false catharsis: we read these apocalyptic books in the comfort of our homes with a mug of hot tea beside us; we’re wrapped in our thousand thread-count sheets, and when we finish these books, we feel like we fought some sort of war, that we’ve waged some sort of battle against evil; we’re self-satisfied. But we haven’t fought anything; we haven’t done anything. We’ve read a book. I would never say that someone’s choice to write about any particular topic is wrong, or that someone else’s choice to read or write anything is not legitimate. Personally, though, I’d rather look at climate change more subtly, let it slip in gently, not have it cudgel me over the head. TM: What do you read that does satisfy this criteria? LG: I thought that Kate Walbert’s The Sunken Cathedral did it really beautifully. I would argue that Ben Lerner’s 10:04 did it really well. And then also a lot of poetry does it gorgeously. Maybe it’s easier in poetry because the space is smaller and poets are more radical formalists, I don’t know. Jynne Martin -- who’s also my publicist, full disclosure -- is amazing, and she just had a book come out, and part of it is about climate change, and is done so beautifully. TM: When did you know you were a writer? LG: I was a writer long before I wrote anything interesting. I went into college thinking I was a poet. But I’m a terrible poet! And yet I love it, in the same way that I’m a terrible singer, and yet I love to sing, and I’m a really bad dancer, but I love to dance. There are some things we do with glee because we’re liberated by being absolutely terrible at them. That said, I was quickly disabused of the idea that I was a poet, and I started writing fiction and I spent three years out of college trying to find a way to live and write at the same time. I wrote a couple of atrocious novels, and then I went to get my graduate degree at University of Wisconsin-Madison, because I was so tired of trying to do it alone. At that time I was also writing these Lorrie Moore knock-off stories, which was super fun until the moment I got into Lorrie Moore’s class, and I debated giving her one of these awful stories that was similar to but not at all, really, like hers. But she’s amazing -- she’s warm and gentle and kind -- and not at all intimidating. TM: How has living in Florida influenced your work? LG: I feel a deep ambivalence about the state of Florida. Living here has been fruitful for me, because for a large chunk of the year -- the part of the year that I love the most, the summer -- I barely go outside at all. I can’t handle the heat. So I spend a lot of the summer inside in the dark, with the lights off. I have the summer and winter reversed. I think it’s good to feel like an outsider when you’re a writer. I do find the natural beauty here extraordinary and moving, even though nature here wants to kill you. We have this banana spider living in our backyard right now that’s about the size of my hand. It’s so beautiful to watch. I go out there with my coffee and sit and watch the banana spider in the quiet and heat. There’s part of me that would love to live in Brooklyn with everybody else, but I know that I would be forced to be more social than I am, and my work gets done because I’m not as social as I would be otherwise. I have no readings to go to here, and I don’t teach, so I have a lot of time to dream, and to mess up.
The Millions Interview

‘I Wouldn’tve Had a Biography at All’: The Millions Interviews Hanya Yanagihara

In February, an editor asked me if I’d be willing to read a weighty, new book and review it, since she’d been hearing murmurs that not only was it an incredible read, but that it was also going to be one of the “big deal” books of the year. My editor was right. Recently, A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, hit the longlist for the 2015 Man Booker Prize. Throughout the process of writing about her work, Yanagihara herself remained a mystery to me. I read the reviews and the few interviews, and her publicity team did that thing where they send you a tote bag. But further inquiries eventually allowed me to set up an interview, albeit by email. Having read her books, and having seen that she is a discreet and apparently quite private person (no Twitter account here), I wanted to see what she was like, where she came from, and what her thoughts were on the content she works with in “real life,” that life that stands behind every writer’s authorial magic. The Millions: I’ve read that you were born in Hawaii. Did you grow up there? When did you move to New York, and what was that process like? Hanya Yanagihara: I was actually born in L.A.; from there, we moved to Honolulu, and then to New York, and then Baltimore, and then Irvine, and then Honolulu, and then a small town in Texas called Tyler—I moved back to Honolulu when I was in high school. I came to New York almost immediately after college; like generations of people, I was beguiled by the city. It was 1995, and it wasn't particularly difficult, in part because I was so ignorant that I didn't even know what I should be intimidated by—I just bumbled into town, and within a month had a roommate, an apartment and a job as a sales assistant at Ballantine, which is an imprint of Random House. It was only years later that I truly understood both how lucky I'd been, and how clueless I was. TM: Why did your family move around so much? Did you like the experience, did it teach you something? HY: My father was a researcher for many years, and so we moved for his career -- and because he was often beguiled by one place or another: California, Texas. In general, I liked the experience, though there were places I liked more than others. However, it taught me that I can always find a person or two for company, even in inhospitable environments, and that a life can be created anywhere. Not happily, necessarily, but a life nonetheless. TM: Your “About the Author” page in your most recent book, A Little Life, reads only: “Hanya Yanagihara lives in New York City.” Are you a private person? Or did you assume simply that if people wanted to know more about you they could google you and find where else you wrote online? HY: I just don't think more information makes a difference -- or it shouldn't, at any rate. If you're writing a nonfiction book or declaring yourself an authority on one subject or another, then yes, you probably need to detail your credentials in some way. But for fiction, it's irrelevant. Your book won't be any better or worse than it already is if you've published in a particular magazine or not, and your reader won't appreciate the book any more or less if you have or haven't. I wouldn'tve had a biography at all, except my publisher said I had to. TM: When did you start writing, as far as you can remember? HY: Probably when I was five or six. I was in fact more interested in drawing; words were something to accompany images. My grandfather owned a small print shop, and so there was always lots of thick, cottony paper lying around. I was very fortunate to have parents who encouraged both of these interests -- although there's a long tradition of artists who had to rebel against their parents' expectations in order to pursue their crafts, I've been privileged to have been raised by people who actually spent years hoping I might be a cartoonist when I grew up. They were very naive when it came to money, which was frustrating in many ways but had its benefits as well. TM: Were you a reader as young as you were a writer? What do you think were your literary influences in writing the novels you've written? HY: My parents never skimped on books, but I don't think I was a particularly precocious reader -- I've never asked. And while my books don't have any deliberate literary antecedents, I can tell you that the contemporary writers I admire most are Hilary Mantel, Kazuo Ishiguro, and John Banville. Banville because he just writes so beautifully; no one can craft a sentence as distinctively and gorgeously as he can. But as much as I admire writers who are consistently, recognizably themselves book after book, I also admire those who are constantly reinventing what their novel, and the novel, is. I marvel at how all of Ishiguro's books are united by one or two thematic ideas, and yet are so textually and texturally different each time -- I'm not sure how he does it. Mantel is another of those shape-shifters -- her early work is very brittle and funny, a series of salty confections, and then her style changed completely with The Giant, O'Brien: everything -- tone, language, sentences, rhythms -- became something new, yet remained uniquely and identifiably hers. TM: You’ve written two novels now but you were also editor-at-large for Conde Nast Traveler. How do you differentiate writing fiction from non-fiction? YH: The kind of writing I did for Traveler was largely what magazine editors call "service writing": that is, short, information-dense blurbs. I've always appreciated this kind of writing, and appreciated people who can do it well. The emphasis is less on form than it is on the efficient, pithy, authoritative conveyance of facts; such writing is the bedrock of all glossy magazine journalism. I found it relaxing, as well as satisfying: so much of this type of magazine work is fitting words to space, not the other way around, and is thus a largely visual exercise. I also found it helpful to be able to practice such a different form of writing than I do with my fiction -- you're using language, of course, but the means towards which you're deploying that language are very different. Mostly, though, my work at Traveler -- and now at T magazine, where I started a new job about a month ago -- was as an editor. Working at a magazine has taught me skills (unglamorous ones, perhaps) that've been useful in fiction: it teaches you how to pace and structure a story, whether that story is 500 or 5,000 or 50,000 words; it teaches you about deadlines, and the importance of obeying them; and it teaches you about turning in as clean a first draft as possible, about having respect for the story and for the first person -- your editor -- who'll read it. And finally, it teaches you that after a certain point, you have to just file the piece. It may not be perfect. It never will be. But a few more hours or days or weeks of tinkering and fussing are likely never to elevate it from good to astonishing. TM: I wonder how you feel about “click-bait” titles. Looking through your travel articles for Conde Nast Traveler – though not your current job anymore – the titles are so similar to many that can be found on other, less prestigious, and more bloggy websites. Just for example, the first two: “Three New Books to Bring on Your Next Trip” and “How to Get the Most Out of a Travel Specialist.” How do you feel about the internet readership culture that has made titles like this necessary? HY: Oh, well, this is just part of having a job in any sort of publication whose digital strategy is based on traffic (which is to say, almost all of them). There are some stories you write just for eyeballs, and others that are re-titled by the web team to sound grabbier. It happens everywhere. I suppose I don't have strong feelings about it; when you're working at a consumer publication, your job is to attract readers, which in turn attracts greater traffic, which in turn attracts advertisers, who then give the publication money, which pays for your job. Sometimes there's a nuanced story beneath that clickbait headline; sometimes there isn't. But I understand the need for such reductive titles -- there's too much content online for subtlety. TM: Do you think the internet needs some sort of quality control? Or do you accept that we're just watching the evolution of how journalism and entertainment are conveyed? HY: I'm not even sure how you'd do that. And I don't think it's even necessary: people who want trash will always be able to find it, and that doesn't just apply to the world of online writing -- it applies to print journalism as well. Or film. Or books. Or art. Or food! The dangerous or unfortunate thing would be if trash came to totally eclipse the non-trash -- but I don't think that's happened yet. TM: Returning again to your novel, A Little Life – I wonder what it was like to conceive of, ingest, digest, and then write the characters in the novel, and more specifically, the extremely traumatic events some of them remember or go through. How harrowing was the process, and how did you manage those scenes? HY: The one truly difficult section to write was the part about Jude's time with Dr. Traylor in the fifth part of the book. This wasn't just the fact of the story itself, though; I was in Japan on my annual holiday, and feeling despondent for a number of reasons. Normally, this trip is the most blissful event of the year for me, but that year, it just wasn't. Part of this, of course, was attributable to the book, and what felt like its urgency to announce itself on the screen. So I'd be walking through streets and temples that have never failed to bring me joy, and all I could think about was this section, and how I needed to exorcise it. And so I did, writing it over the course of four nights. I cut my sightseeing short and came back to the hotel at 4pm on each of those days, and wrote until 1 or 2am. It was the worst—the bleakest, the most physically exhausting, the most emotionally enervating—writing experience I'd had. And not necessarily because I think that's the most upsetting part of the book; but it was the time when I felt, and feared, that the book was controlling me, somehow, as if I'd somehow become possessed by it. Much of the process of writing A Little Life was a seesaw between giving myself over to the flow and rhythm of writing it, which at its best, even in its darkest moments, felt as glorious as surfing; it felt like being carried aloft on something I couldn't conjure but was lucky enough to have caught, if for just a moment. At its worst, I felt I was somehow losing my ownership over the book. It felt, oddly, like being one of those people who adopt a tiger or lion when the cat's a baby and cuddly and manageable, and then watch in dismay and awe when it turns on them as an adult. TM: Those nights writing so intensely in Japan - is that your usual process in terms of writing fiction? Having a few days of intense, impossible, yet exhilarating word-production, or do you usually write slower or with a certain method in mind? HY: No, it was unusual. There are occasions when I go on binges, but because my job doesn't really allow time for binges, I've trained myself to use the hours I do have efficiently.