The Millions Interview

The Masks We Wear: The Millions Interviews Edan Lepucki

Edan Lepucki's Woman No. 17 is the story of Lady, a mother of two recently separated from her husband, Karl. She hires a nanny named S to watch her toddler son while she works on a memoir about raising her teenage son, Seth, who can't speak. S, who until recently went by Esther, has decided to start acting as she thinks her impulsive, hard-drinking mother would, as an act of performance art. As Lady feels the growing distance from her sons, she becomes close to S, who herself is warming to her put-on personality and finding a friend in Seth. Got that? Lepucki and I are both staff writers for The Millions. We have collaborated before on pieces about Gillian Flynn and Tana French (both of whom come up in this interview) and casting a Goldfinch movie. I was thrilled to read her insightful, funny, sometimes unsettling book, and get to ask her about it. We talked about eyebrows and makeup, performing gender and trying to control one's narrative, secret online lives, and characters with dual identities. The Millions: It seems to me like in the last few years beauty rituals have come out of the closet. Rather than just taking orders from women’s magazines, we’re all talking about what we do to ourselves to look the way we do. I know you and I are both big fans of the “Beauty Uniform” column on Cup of Jo, and I noticed in the book a lot of the characters describing their beauty rituals, or noticing other people’s. Why do you think we’ve become so upfront about it, and why did you want that in the book? Edan Lepucki: I like that this is the first question. Well I’ll say first I’ve always been really open about that kind of stuff in my life. It’s easy for me to be naked with people and talk about my body. I think the human body’s really funny. I’ve always gravitated to the other girls and women who are also like that. I’ve always been kind of shocked when someone doesn’t want to communicate about that kind of stuff. I personally find it really fun to share -- I color my hair, get my eyebrows down -- I think it’s fun to talk about that. In my book, it’s not like I set out to do that, but I also really wanted to write a book that felt exceptionally contemporary. There’s one point when Lady on Twitter talks about getting a Brazilian. When I thought of it I was so pleased by it but also really embarrassed. It’s so private and ridiculous, but if I put it in the book it feels courageous in this absurd way. One way to make the book feel contemporary was to talk about those things that are super private that are becoming more and more public. The whole book, too, is about representation and the masks we wear and the performance of our identity in all these ways, and obviously that includes gender and the ways that we put on ourselves and put on our femininity, and I wanted to show that. TM: I sort of think women got to the point where they thought, if I’m gonna go through all this and spend 20 minutes on makeup every morning and have all these expensive appointments, I want you to know why I’m doing it, or that I’m making intelligent decisions about it. People love explaining to you why their products work for them, and by talking about it we’re refusing to let it be trivialized. There’s a line in the book where you say being a woman is a lifelong education, and it’s like it takes so long to get good at this stuff, that once you have a handle on what your beauty identity is going to be, you’re so proud of it. EL: I think it is a badge of honor. I also think that when I document any beauty rituals I’m saying I’m aware that I’m spending three hours to work on my hair, and the awareness of that oppression sort of liberates me. I’m comfortable with the burdens of my gender. TM: Lady is also frequently giving spontaneous advice to S about grooming, and thinking about the advice her mom gave her. Like talking about beauty rituals is an intimate form of female communication. EL: I think one of the main qualities of Lady is that she is carrying a lot of resentment towards her mother. She believes her mother damaged her, and she’s carrying that damage into all her other relationships. She’s sort of playing out the same relationship with S that she had with her mother, so I was really interested in how she’s repeating those cycles. It’s sort of the only way she knows how to be. She’s totally barred, she won’t really let anyone in, and at the same time she’s critical of everyone else. It’s especially heightened with other women, because she lived with a mother who criticized. TM: The main reason I’m obsessed with the performative femininity in the book is that Lady and S and Kit (Lady's sister-in-law) all ostensibly have artistic projects that they’re focused on, and this is what they would tell you is their work, but in Lady and S’s cases it’s faltering. Meanwhile how they’re performing their womanhood is speaking so much more loudly. They’re trying to express themselves through these specific projects, but they’re really expressing themselves so much more clearly through the roles they play. EL: I think you’re right. Lady in particular -- her artistic project is a story of her motherhood, and it’s a story of connection and triumph, and it’s not the narrative that is true. It makes sense that the way that she’s actually coming through is not through that story, but through every day you see in the novel. Her story is really everything she’s trying to avoid. S is interesting because the question for me while I was writing was "who is S?" She’s so young and it allows her to be really reckless in what she does and she’s not fully formed, she’s like a ball of clay. At the beginning of the book she talks about how she’s a girly girl, but you never see that in the novel. She’s very ordered in her life, and then she tries to enact her mother’s version of motherhood, which, besides being drunk all the time, means that she doesn’t wear make up and doesn’t care what people think. As I was writing I realized that there were a lot of ways in which S wanted to be like her mother -- these qualities that she did not have herself -- and by becoming her mother she was able to become this different kind of woman, one who can say what she means, the first thing on her mind, and I think she gets a thrill from that. I don’t know if the disconnect between who she is and who she’s playing is causing a tension in her. TM: This is something I also ask authors who have a character who’s very secretive or is hiding something. With S, most of the time she’s a person pretending to be a different kind of person. It’s like in movies where somebody is acting like they’re a bad actor. As the author, how well do you have to know Esther, S’s “natural self,” before you can layer S on top of her? EL: It’s a similar question to how do you write a repressed character -- how do you write a character who is unable to think certain things when you as the author know what’s motivating them. Esther to me was really slippery, as she is in the book. I have a real sort of love for her. Her core for me is a real longing -- firstly, for her to have something with her mother that she doesn’t have. Immediately I could feel that from her. And secondly her heartbreak -- what really sets her off on this whole thing is that she’s getting over her dumb boyfriend. Describing her boyfriend Everett’s art projects, I could feel S -- even if she was writing them off -- I could tell that she really admired Everett. That also felt very true to her. And her relationship to her father -- every time she was talking to her dad, immediately I could lock in to S. But at other moments I was like, there isn’t a real S. I did reread The Talented Mr. Ripley, which is a book I love, because I wanted to read those moments when Tom Ripley becomes Dickie Greenleaf, and those moments when he locks into the next persona. I love those descriptions and I used them as a model. There is a blankness to S, but part of me thinks that’s just because she’s so young. Is part of that because her parents are divorced and don’t communicate and are so different that she’s had to be two different people already? That’s something that I identify with personally. My parents divorced before I was 5 and I went from one house to the next and they never spoke to each other, and I really did have two different lives with them, so I wonder what part of that slipperiness or blankness of her will always be there. I do think there’s a vulnerability to her that I sort of get, and maybe that makes me more compassionate to her than other people. TM: The characters in the book are frequently expressing themselves in different modes. With Seth it’s so literal because speech is a form of expression that’s cut off from him, and so he gets so good at communicating with facial expressions or condensing a conversation into three sentences. Do you feel like everybody in the book is doing that in their own way? Nobody else has an avenue cut off from them in such a literal way, but they’re finding ways around what they’re unable to communicate. EL: When you’re writing a book, you don’t know what you’re doing. I personally try to avoid any understanding of the themes of the book until I’m done, but then you stop and go, oh I see, the whole book is about communication and representation, feinting and dodging. Seth is such a literal version of that, he cannot speak so he has to express himself in these very specific ways. He can’t communicate and yet he’s so adept at communicating, whereas other people can talk and talk and not say anything that’s really true. Somebody who read the book pointed out that everybody is using either art of the Internet to either hide or emerge. Lady is definitely hiding in her memoir, yet weirdly with @muffinbuffin41 (her Twitter handle) she’s kind of emerging. There’s this sneaky self of hers that’s true that’s online. Esther is literally hiding behind S, but there are moments when she doesn’t know if it’s S or Esther who’s feeling something, so the attraction to Seth is really fraught because she knows she’s crossing a boundary, but she knows her mother would be really into it. Everyone is either jumping right into something -- whether a photograph or the Internet -- or they’re completely using that to shield themselves. The trick is to figure out when they’re being real and when they aren’t. TM: As soon as she decided to have a secret Twitter account, I was like, oh no that never works. EL: [Laughs.] Do you speak from experience, Janet? TM: Not personally, but in college we found a teammate’s secret LiveJournal, which she used to talk about all of us. A secret Twitter account is like a gun in the first act, somebody’s reading it by the end of the book. But what was Lady’s motivation to start a secret Twitter -- is it as simple as being lonely? EL: When I was done writing California, I was like, the next book I write is going to have technology. I want to have technology be a part of not only the everyday life of the characters, but be thematically important. My goal was to have it be part of the plot. If I was going to have Twitter in the novel, things had to be revealed in Twitter. There’s so many novels that take place in the '90s because nobody wants to deal with the Internet issue. It’s hard to write anticipation and romance and spontaneity with the Internet. I thought, I need to put this into my novel and use it to the benefit, like how does the Internet amplify all our issues, and make things more suspenseful? And one of those ways is making your Internet presence a secret. TM: Seth is diagnosed with selective mutism. Is that a common condition? EL: It’s not a perfect diagnosis. I once read Gillian Flynn or Tana French talking about doing research with homicide detectives, and she said, I don’t need this to be common, it just has to be plausible. That’s sort of how I thought about Seth’s disability. In my story he just doesn’t speak, that’s the end of it. The way he has it, I don’t know if it’s possible. I wanted to emphasize his humanity in all ways while also emphasizing that there is something he cannot do and that affects his life. I didn’t want to be like it’s not a big deal, and I also didn’t want to make him only his disability. As he tells S, he’s not a metaphor. I wanted to make him a full human character. That was one of the biggest struggles of the book: how do you write Seth? How do you write a scene with someone who doesn’t speak, how do you write dialogue with someone who doesn’t speak? How do you look head on at disability and also recognize that its not his story, it’s two people who don’t have his disability talking about his disability? So they’re going to get things wrong, they’re not going to represent him properly, they’re not going to see him full at all points. The failures of that was what I was interested in. TM: Your first book was titled California, but this book is also definitely a California novel. EL: It was such a relief to be able to describe the world as it is now. I had not been able to do that for years when I was working on California (a post-apocalyptic novel). It was almost as if I had been writing a sestina for a long time and then suddenly I got to write free verse again. I didn’t feel constrained, there was no speculation going on. I just got to look outside and describe what I see.
The Millions Interview

The Internet Was Built as a Weapon: The Millions Interviews Jarett Kobek

Jarett Kobek’s writing resists categorization. It swerves between fiction, personal nonfiction, and cultural critique in a fashion whose closest antecedent is probably the New Narrative prose of writers like Kevin Killian. Novels like 2013’s BTW toggle between modes: the novel rhapsodizes over Los Angeles in lyrical prose that evokes the city’s ephemeral quality, but lyricism is the velvet glove in which Kobek cloaks his acerbic wit. With 2016’s I Hate the Internet, Kobek cast off the lyricism in favor of trenchant social criticism that seemed capable of sparking class warfare. Kobek’s focus on technology continues with this year’s Soft & Cuddly, but this time he foregoes fiction altogether in favor a tale of neoliberalism’s collision with early video game culture. Using the controversy 1987 video game “Soft & Cuddly” -- which was developed by teenager John George Jones -- as a case study, Kobek unfurls a story of society’s panic over representations of violence and a youth-based subculture whose only goal is to undercut that society’s social mores.  I spoke with Kobek about thinking of the Internet as a weapon, social media’s role in the 2016 election, the aesthetics of male adolescence, and seriality in fiction. The Millions: The last time I saw you was at that City Lights reading… Jarett Kobek: Yeah, you were there for me being Bernie Bro’d. I feel like everyone who was there should have a reunion at some point, we all went through something. TM: Especially after the election -- like, the bro ended up being right about Twitter. JK: Yeah, ultimately he was right about Twitter. He just had the wrong candidate. TM: I wonder, in light of the election, if your thoughts on the nature of the Internet, but especially Twitter, have shifted at all. JK: The underlying critique of all this stuff just making money for people hasn’t shifted, but I think it’s impossible to look at Trump’s rise and feel like we haven’t lived through a profound shift in the way politics is conducted. For all the hand-wringing that accompanies every election cycle over sinking to new partisan lows or how politics used to have dignity, I do think that what Trump essentially did was adopt the emotional and intellectual frequency of the Internet flame war, and turn it into presidential politics. Turns out it works very well! The thing is, if you’re the annoying person in the flame war, someone else has to be putting forth the reasonable, well-crafted argument about some issue. And all your response has to be is, “You’re a bag of dicks.” Then you watch them slowly collapse in response trying to figure out how to respond to this thing. But of course you can’t respond to someone calling you a bag of dicks without looking like a bag of dicks, and that’s what Trump did to all of his opponents. It’s bizarre seeing the Internet crawl into presidential level politics and be effective. TM: I’ve been reading a lot of Hannah Arendt after the election, especially Origins of Totalitarianism, and she describes how totalitarian politics thrives on the suspension of the reality effect. It’s weird to think that that dynamic has always been embedded in the Internet, and that it might be an inherently totalitarian space. JK: Yeah, what’s always struck me as weird is that not that long ago, there was a lot of rhetoric around the Internet as an instrument of peace, and if not as peace, then the expansion of human rights. But the thing is, basically it was built as a weapon. It was built by the Department of Defense to facilitate communication in the event of a war, to have this really decentralized network that allowed you to launch weapons. I think something about the decision in how that architecture was designed has really facilitated the moment that we’re in now. I tend to think that technology never escapes its genesis, and those engineering decisions made in response to the ideologies of the creators just persist. So there’s this way in which you can look at the underlying architecture of the Internet, which did not prioritize a specific type of communication, so that data could go in any direction as growing into what we have now: any idiot can say any bullshit, and it will have the same priority as things that are true, or things that are just. So, it comes out of this moment, and it comes out of decisions made decades ago. So I do think there’s a weirdly authoritarian impulse embedded in the Internet. TM: So did Trump just actualize something that was always lurking in the Internet? JK: Yeah, I think that’s right. TM: Let’s talk about the book. When did you start writing Soft & Cuddly? JK: I started thinking about it about a year and a half ago, and I thought it’d be an interesting article, because there was something so strange about the game. but I couldn’t figure out what the article would be. I started to do more research into it, and then Boss Fight Books had an open call for pitches in May 2015. These people seemed like they might be willing to make a mistake on something that’s much different from what they usually do. Then I started writing in the fall of 2015, because I had the sense that I Hate the Internet was going to eat a lot of my time. I turned in a draft, and it was like the worst thing I’d ever written. TM: So you were writing it simultaneously with I Hate the Internet? JK: I Hate the Internet was done in October 2015, and Soft & Cuddly was written in snatches of time while I Hate the Internet was exploding. TM: I want to get back to the stylistic connections between those two books, but can you say more about where the interest in writing about a video game came from? JK: There was a really interesting moment when people had personal computers, a hobbyist moment when people could get a computer and tinker with it. My father was this guy who just bought a Commodore 64 in the early ‘80s and was immediately entranced with it, so my childhood was watching this Turkish immigrant chain smoke while programming this computer. I have an enormous fondness for that moment. The second thing is, there’s something about the game “Soft and Cuddly” and its predecessor, “Go to Hell,” that I find really fascinating. There are these cultural moments, every once in a while, these moments of openness when for some reason a 15-year-old is able to exist in something like a professional context, and their work is just incredibly weird -- because they’re 15! “Soft and Cuddly” looks like someone’s high school notebook from 1990, like someone’s drawing of Metallica logos come to life. There’s something really fascinating about how unpolished and immature that stuff is when it enters the wider world. I didn’t write about this in the book, but when the underground comics scene was really happening in the Bay Area, there was this one kid that was hanging around named Rory Haze who did a handful of comics, and his work is just crazy. They were publishing a maladjusted 17-year-old! There’s something about those moments that I find endlessly fascinating, and “Soft and Cuddly” was one of the few times that happened with video games. Activision was like, yeah, why would we not publish a game by a 15-year-old? And then there was this controversy that grew up around the game, so that was interesting to write about as well. TM: Those moments when these teen boys can exist in that professional capacity -- are they moments when those boys are reflecting a sentiment in society that no one else is seeing. Are these boys cutting against Thatcherite social mores in a way that might only be possible for a teenager to do? JK: One of the many tragedies of the teenage boy is the ability to see things in the world that are horrible, and to want to stand in opposition to them, while simultaneously embodying those tendencies. No one has ever accused teenage boys of being hallmarks of progressive thought. So you have this really weird crudeness that, because of that tension, that push and pull, is weirdly fascinating. I think you can see the opposition to the thing percolating up through its representation, like it’s trying to think through the circumstances they’re surrounded by. TM: That makes me think, you describe the creator of “Soft and Cuddly” as being a “writer,” but narrative and plot aren’t really these games’ strong suit, at least not in the way that we recognize in literary fiction. Oftentimes, these games’ stories were written by the publisher. So what is he a writer of? Is he writing an attempt to think through his circumstances, or is something else going on? JK: That’s a really good question! But I actually don’t know. It’s difficult -- one of the things about this book that’s been really weird is that the creator, Jones, has been very supportive of the project, but there’s always this tension: I’m describing something that he did as a teenager. It’s awkward to say this stuff because I’m describing a human being who is 30 years older than the character I’m describing in the book. I can’t say much about motivation. TM: If video games aren’t doing narrative or plot very well, then what do you think they’re providing? What’s the aesthetic pay off? JK: Well, I think that’s hard to answer, but I think there are different functions. There’s been a very long argument about whether or not video games are art, and I think they clearly can be. I don’t think they often are, but they can be. That describes most cultural products. Most films and books aren’t art, they’re just products people put together. But I think where video games really can move into what we call for lack of a better word “art” is by putting us in the mindset of a totally different person. It’s a visitation into another’s person’s subjectivity that is relatively unprecedented. One of the things with video games that is only starting to become apparent is, like every other cultural product, the way to figure out if something is art is whether its appeal extends across decades. With something like “Soft and Cuddly,” people have been very interested in the game as time has gone on, and it’s inspired derivative works, including my book. That’s not something that you get with most of these games. No one really knows what the parameters are for determining whether or not a game is art, but you can start to see those parameters forming. You start to see it in the fact that people are still thinking about these games, which no one played at the time but which continue to inspire thought. The more I dig into the history of this game, the stranger it got. I had no idea that these derivative works existed, but as I did my research, they kept popping up. This game that no one played somehow managed to inspire all of this stuff, and my book is one of those iterative works. TM: Near the end of the book, a reproduced interview with British politician and novelist Jeffery Archer makes an assertion that playing video games is more dangerous than simply watching violent television, because it makes you “powerful.” What kind of power do you think he’s talking about? JK: I do think there’s a certain power to it, but it’s the power of a certain kind of…there’s something weirdly liberating about the stupidity of the teenage boy’s notebook. There’s something hilariously freeing about seeing this thing come to life. I don’t think that’s the power he’s talking about! I suspect that because he was and is a very dark person, that power is something else. It probably says more about him than anything else—that’s a man who chased power his entire life, and maybe he could only see the game through this power of acquired political power, at the expense of anything else this experience might present us. TM: I’m intrigued by the structure of the book, because it moves from doing case studies of life under a “postmodern” Thatcherite government, to the FalklandS War, to anthropological chapters on computer programming. It reminded me of both BTW and I Hate the Internet because there’s a sense of this roving consciousness weaving these strands together into a hybrid cultural history, narrative, and polemic. This occurs in all your books—what about that mixture of registers appeals to you? JK: It’s funny, because it’s not even appealing so much as unavoidable. It’s something I developed unintentionally, and it’s something I keep returning to. In the case of Soft & Cuddly, when I conceived of the book, it wasn’t supposed to be like that— TM: What was it going to be originally? JK: I thought it would be much more straightforward in that it’d focus on John George Jones, the history of the game, etc. There was going to be a lot of information about how the game was created, its reception, and its afterlife. It was very linear. It turned out that the research I did for the book was useless. No one really remembered the games or had any information on the aspects of the game that interested me. There was a limit to the amount of useful information I could collect. But where the research did pay off was in the contemporary press accounts. I found this really remarkable article, where I got the Jeffrey Archer thing from, where British video games creator Mel Croucher did this round table with a who’s who of the British establishment. It’s crazy to think that they’re talking about a video game released on a system that no one was even using at the time the game came out. The more I try to get away from cultural context, the more it bleeds into my stories. The game’s social context just kind of bubbled up to the surface. That very quickly became the clear structure, because the other stuff just wasn’t that interesting. TM: What are you working on now? JK: I’ve got a book coming out through Viking at the end of the summer, in August. I just got their edits, and I’m also writing another book that is shaping up to be profoundly disturbing…we’ll see how it goes. The novel with Viking is a prequel to I Hate the Internet, written before I Hate the Internet. It’s Adeline and Baby in New York in the ‘90s. When I started writing the Internet, I thought there was something fascinating about the idea of Adeline, whom I’d conceived of as a Gen X in the decaying remnants of punk New York, having to deal with the Internet, and being thrust two decades forward. So much of my publication history is weird and out-of-joint because the book that was originally written is being published after its sequel. TM: How did that happen? JK: No one wanted to publish me! This is the hilarious back story to all of this. I wrote this story in 2012, and its been revised since, but I could not get anyone to look at it. It’s a very long book, so that precluded getting it published by an indie press because of cost and logistics. With Internet, it was the same story -- it was hard to get anyone to pay attention to it. So when the book came out and became successful, much to everyone’s surprise, I had this other manuscript. In this process, because foreign rights offers started to come in, I had to get an agent to negotiate contracts in other countries. The agent read the manuscript and sent it out to major publishers, and Viking ended up with it. But it’s very strange, as is everything with me, a little out of order and all over the place. TM: Is that a validation of independent publishing for you? JK: Yeah, definitely! The virtue of having Viking do this book, other than not being able to do it on an independent press, is that I don’t have to deal with micromanaging every aspect of marketing and publishing another book. But if you do that, it can work out. So Internet’s success is a validation of this idea that you don’t need mainstream resources at your disposal to get these books out into the world. TM: It’s funny -- I’m in the Bay Area, and so when Internet came out it was everywhere when it came out, just because of the nature of people’s disdain for tech culture. But the book also blew up in part because of the Internet, right? How do you feel about that? JK: Everyone who’s doing this has to make a series of moral compromises, and the question these compromises center around is, How big of an audience do you want to have? There’s a way to get your work out there that is legitimate, valid, and enviable, where your ethics aren’t compromised -- but the reality of that is that you sell to 500 people. Having been published in small presses prior to this, I came to the conclusion that the problem as I see it with that model is that you end up communicating with people who are very similar to yourself. There’s not a huge amount of dialogue back and forth. So I made this decision that I would try to go as wide as possible. In so doing, you have to embrace the Internet, because that’s where the conversation is occurring. So you find yourself in bed with Amazon. TM: Something really intrigues me about your work—you know, I read Internet after I found BTW in Skylight Books, and it was funny to me that Adeline is actually a minor character in BTW. I’m intrigued by the role that seriality plays in your writing. Why do you return to these characters and this world so often? JK: The short answer is that I’m lazy! But the longer answer is that when you live with these characters -- and with Adeline in particular -- you end up learning something new about them as you write about them. So when I finished the Viking manuscript, I put it aside. Then I was revising BTW, there was a hole in the middle because I excised a chapter. I thought, why not have Adeline return? There was no reason I couldn’t have her return, so she did! I found it to be really interesting to think about. So when I started doing Internet, I had recourse to her again. The more I’ve done it, the more I’ve begun to think that it might be a solution to the serious novel in our moment. It’s really hard to ask casual readers to pick up a one-off novel. A lot of the casual readers are adults who grew up reading Harry Potter, books that were multi-volume series. That’s actually what people want to read! They want to feel like each book counts beyond itself, and that there is some overlap or connection, some depth and weight beyond the individual book. That’s why people read 10,000 pages by George R.R. Martin, because even if it gets strange and incomprehensible by the last book, there’s still the weight of the characters growing through time, and you can’t get that through a one-off novel… TM: It’s a common thing to video games and science fiction novels, right? This idea of world building? JK: Right, and it used to be something that mainstream literary writers did all the time. It’s fallen out of fashion, but Salinger, Updike, and Vonnegut did it. When you think about works that have become inescapable fixtures of the post-war 20th century, so many of them featured reoccurring characters. So it seems to me that there’s something worthwhile that we can return to, and I don’t know why it’s fallen out of favor. TM: I’ve been thinking about Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, which is very entertaining for a novel about slavery and Jim Crow. But part of what makes the book so riveting is that every chapter takes you to a new decade and a new character, but every chapter is rooted in a world that she’s built, so that past characters continue to appear. That episodic dynamic is intriguing, and it’s something that’s key to the American literary heritage. JK: Yeah, and it’s very odd that it’s receded into genre fiction. It really used to be a fixture of the culture. TM: It feels like the pretentiousness of literary fiction strangling itself. God forbid literary fiction resembles George R.R. Martin… JK: [Laughs.] Yeah, that sounds about right.
The Millions Interview

Books as Constant Companion: The Millions Interviews Pamela Paul

I once knew a Holocaust survivor, a Russian non-native English speaker with a thirst for learning, who kept a wonderful book: a logbook of obsessive reading with highly particular summaries. "War and Peace," the survivor notated, "a bunch of people, war, and countries -- can’t anyone get along?" "Madame Bovary," she wrote,  "a fancy lady spends a lot of time dreaming until all is lost for love." We are deep into a moment in which authors write of lives, often their own, through the habit of reading. Hearing of the trend from afar, a person could ask: does the practice  signify a retreat to a self-reflexive cave? A recherché activity, a hall-of-mirrors exercise, a willed innocence? And yet, these last 15 years, books on reading have proliferated at the same time that newspaper space for discussing the magic of reading has shrunk. Consider Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book, a hundred others. Such authors share the same gleam you find in the self-portrait of Diego Velázquez in "Las Meninas" in which the artist depicts himself as the aware but lowly court servant  painting the aristocratic family. The artist supersedes his content, eyes leaping out of the frame at us, becoming our proxy for understanding a given milieu. With similar esprit, in many of these books, the authors gaze back at us reading them, showing how at a crucial point in life, a book or series swayed them unalterably. Reader, I was never the same, these books whisper, confidingly. The earth moved. These books on reading often also move earth, however subtly, achieving what Aristotle demanded for drama: both recognition and catharsis. In Pamela Paul’s fifth book, My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, she takes us traveling through a landscape of childhood aspiration and adolescently blind romanticism, the accruals and loss of adulthood, all told from a temperament with a fierce, passionate allegiance to principle. Her Bob is a logbook of reading and also a rueful, joyful autobiography of interests and selves, an elegy fond and bittersweet. Bob in its physical form -- even when a mate, soon to be ex, actually writes in it himself -- survives courtships, marriages, and the most Aristotelian of reversals. On first reading, I felt the book created a new genre, the polemic picaresque, in which readers get to wander happily with a Michel de Montaigne-like narrator through varied realms while picking up bits of advice as buried treasure. Imagine a guide who seems at first to speak only of her small village and family while showing the reader a local tower, who meanwhile, subtly, persuades us of the greatness of the parish. On my second reading, Paul’s book seemed to be in conversation with Boswell’s travels with Johnson, Sei Shōnagon, or The Canterbury Tales, in which we roam aesthetic terrain with a hapless and memorable group of individuals, the world rich with surfaces while belying the deeper moral conviction and instruction to be had. The journey is as good as the guide, and one of My Life with Bob’s pleasures is the humorous and affectionate light cast on the narrator’s strong convictions. As a young girl, Paul begins with reading as a quirky hagiography, finding lives to learn and emulate, the horizon of her worldliness as wide as her last book read. Older, she shows great, impulsive agency in making book-inspired choices while becoming increasingly nostalgic for an earlier temporal freedom, leaving her reader to understand that a life too far from books is not just unexamined, but unfelt, unknown, unarticulated. From the joy-filled vantage of someone illuminated, and even dominated, by books she has read, Paul inspires her reader to revisit works canonical and unsung. As the best memoir writers do, the witty persona Paul creates for her narrator is not so much heroine but more in the spirit of Paul Klee’s "Hero with a Broken Wing": gifted and burdened by aspiration, she lives the paradox of being the obedient rebel and contrarian student who delights in having a mind with a thousand pockets. If August Wilson says everyone should wake to see the face of our own god in the mirror, in this case, for a very singular reader, the mirror itself is literature. Below, Paul speaks of seeing her recollection of Bob emerge. The Millions: You were a reader with a great understanding of privacy. What is your experience of My Life with Bob, an exegesis of such an important relic of the self, traveling out in the world? Pamela Paul: A certain amount of trepidation. I never thought I would write a memoir, and in fact, didn’t think of this book as a memoir until Publishers Weekly announced the deal and called it one. My first thought was, “Oh, no -- but they’re right! I guess it is a memoir.” To my mind, it was to be a book about books, a book about travels, a book about storytelling. But of course, it’s not really about those things. It’s about the intersection of books and life, and about how what we read infiltrates, influences, reflects, expands on, and colors everything else. When we read, even when the book is temporarily put down with a bookmark firmly in place, the stories from inside the book don’t entirely recede from our consciousness. They become part of us. My stories are part of me, and therefore a lot more “me” had to be in this book that I am used to putting. My previous books were all journalistic investigations that had one or two first-person sentences in the introductions before firmly leaving that voice behind. This book is not only about me -- it’s about (I hope) all readers and the way all of us experience stories. But it’s obviously quite personal. TM: What are you reading -- or hoping to read -- now? PP: I choose my books on a gut level, to match a strong mood or an urge or even a need. But it’s not a one-step or simple process. That’s one of the reasons I ask what books people have on their nightstand in my By the Book interviews: I’m curious about how people narrow down and make their choices among all the possibilities. Personally, I keep a large pile on my nightstand -- on the wide edge of my platform bed, actually -- and then a few other piles across from the bed on a room-length wall of built-in bookshelves. Like all readers, I have so many books that I’d like to read, that I intend to read, that I feel I must read, but I never truly know what I’ll read next until the moment I finish the previous book. This doesn’t mean I don’t plan. I do all kinds of planning! And then I cast those plans aside. Right now, for example, I was planning to be reading Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena because the reviews were strong and so many people I respect have recommended it. The glowing praise for his follow-up collection of short stories pushed that book further to the top of the list. So it was on my shortlist. Then I did something I’ve never done before: I enlisted my two older children to help me decide between reading the Marra, Émile Zola’s The Belly of Paris or Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop next. I read the back covers and inside jackets aloud to them. My daughter voted for Marra and my son for Zola. I read the Zola first, and so had turned to the Marra next to be fair. But a few chapters in, I found that it wasn’t quite matching my mood. This isn’t to say I didn’t like it -- thus far, I like it very much and I plan to go back to it. But it just wasn’t what I needed at the moment. What I needed, I realized, and this is what had drawn me to all three of those books, was a book that was engrossing and serious and relevant to my life right now, but also an escape. And that was accompanied by an urge to read about an earlier era in journalism. Scoop wasn’t quite the right book because I didn’t want humor (I’ve kind of been adverse to comedy, overall, since the fall -- read into that what you will, though I hope it means I haven’t permanently lost my sense of humor). “Scoop will be read one day…I do love Waugh. Then, on a shelf I keep devoted to books about writing and about journalism, I noticed Ben Bradlee’s memoir, A Good Life: Newspaper and Other Adventures. I’ve been wanting to read this book since it was published, which to my embarrassment was in 1995, therefore making it a book I’ve meant to read for 22 years now. I adored Katharine Graham’s Personal History, which I’d read as soon as it came out. I picked up the Bradlee and it fits every need I have at this moment: Serious, yet also entertaining. Relevant to my life (journalism), yet also a departure (journalism back when it was strictly about print). Plus, Bradlee is a terrific narrator. You can hear his distinctive voice, his infectious personality. And the part I’m up to now is very much a different world: His experiences in the Navy in World War II, his early days at a startup weekly newspaper in New Hampshire, his experience as a press attaché in Paris. I’m just now getting back to Washington and his Newsweek years. It’s a delight on every level. Do other readers go through a version of this elaborate mood-matching process when considering what to read next? I suspect many do. To me, it’s one of the great decisions we get to make in life, and we get to make it again and again: What to Read Next. TM: What is the relation of risk to your practice of writing? And what was your process in sequencing and editing this book, and did it differ from your others? PP: This book was completely different from any other book I’ve written. My previous books were essentially argument books: journalistic investigations that set out to explore a subject through research and reporting, marshal the evidence, and make a case. My first book, The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony, came out of personal experience -- an early marriage and divorce -- but I quite adamantly didn’t want the book to be about me, so after the first paragraph, the first person dropped out. That book still felt personal. I discovered and learned through other people's answers and lessons that I was seeking to help make sense of my own experience. What did these other young divorced people know that I didn’t yet know myself? What had they learned two or five years after their marriages ended that they didn’t know at the point of rupture? The next two books came out of reported stories that I wrote for Time magazine and expanded on issues around consumer culture that I thought worth further exploration. For all of those books, the driving goal was to prove a point. By contrast, I had nothing to prove with this book. I am not trying to persuade anyone of anything. So the underlying motivation is altogether different, and that fundamentally changes the writing process. This book isn’t probably not going to change anyone’s mind about anything (except perhaps about the wisdom of writing down what you read). So it has to want to be read for other reasons. If I had a driving sense of purpose with this book in terms of its relationship to readers, it was to write something that was a pleasure to read. Because I get so much pleasure from books, and from my Book of Books. When people have told me they’ve read my previous books, my knee-jerk response has always been, “I’m sorry.” That may sound ridiculous and self-defeating, but I don’t think my earlier books were particularly fun to read. Enlightening, in certain ways, perhaps. But not enjoyable. I wanted to write a book that might be an actual enjoyable reading experience. And that made the book an actual pleasure to write -- even when I was writing about embarrassing or frightening or upsetting experiences, like the end of my first marriage or my father’s death. But I like that you compare it to a journey because that’s how it feels to me. Like a journey through life with books as constant companion. With little discoveries made, both within and outside of books, along the way. TM: Having also encountered Thalia Zepatos’s book of advice for the independent woman traveler at a young age, to my detriment or advantage, I was nonetheless happy to see her mentioned. Yet what makes your suitcase so singular  is the manner in which your narrator, like a lover or devotee, brings books as an offering to beautiful environments, most notably in an outdoor scene in China. Similarly, a landscape can be ruined for your narrator by the errancy of the particular author you happen to be reading, your mind infected by a particular voice. Books similarly permeate the courtships with men you end up marrying. In such moments, you do a great deal to erase the binary of life versus art, the dichotomy that Cynthia Ozick felt she misunderstood as a dictum from Henry James: "Life! Life, not art!" Was there something not mentioned in your  book, whether in early environ or temperament, that may have led to this happy erasure, a habit of convergence? The curiosity the reader has -- having traveled with you through travel, jobs, marriages, divorces, children -- is whether your narrator would say her highest self, her best part, was formed by reading rather than life? PP: For me, reading Thalia Zepatos was inspiring in the most concrete sense of the word: It inspired me to something I didn’t feel capable of or well-suited for. I read her book and then did something that was highly unlikely given the cautious, ambitious, responsible, fearful person I was at that time. I threw aside all my life and career goals and set out to do something that I knew I might hate. Something that terrified me. Something that nobody like me would do. As I put it in the book, it was as if 5 percent of me made a decision and dragged along the other 95 percent. It ended up being the best decision I’ve ever made.  TM: Your narrator is similarly remarkable in the complexity of being a success-driven rebel: she is both the child who early on learns not to procrastinate, getting her work done first so she can with easier mind enjoy the poking of her pencil into the carpet, and the principle-driven rebel. Within aspirational milieus, in equal measure, she passionately protests and excels within received dictates. One of the abiding sub rosa questions in the book has to do with the quirkiness of free will and self-determination against given legacies: your narrator finds herself shooting out of a particular set of birthright assumptions. How does this complexity inform your relation to your life in writing and reading these days? PP: I just wrote a piece adapted from the book called “The Joy of Hate Reading” in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times that describes one of the key ways I’ve come to read and write, which is to challenge myself through words. It’s a way to remind myself of how little I actually know. As a writer, with this book, I set out to write the kind of book I never thought I’d write -- a memoir. And as a reader, I am always pushing myself to try out books I don’t think I’ll enjoy. I have a kind of perverse urge to constantly test my own assumptions. To a certain extent this has always been there. I was a supremely unathletic child, always picked second-to-last for sports teams in elementary school (an excruciating experience that I wrote about in my college application essay). But when I got to college, I ended up joining the rugby team. It was an entirely absurd decision to make -- I have never once hit a ball with a baseball bat in my life. But I joined the rugby team and I loved it. I still have near-zero interest in sports, but I recently read The Throwback Special because it’s about football. (I loved that too.) TM: “Without imagination of another’s mind there can be no understanding of that other and hence no love,” Sherwin Nuland writes in relation to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “A Defence of Poetry,” a quotation you cite in your book when talking of a first love. How would you relate BOB to that very same imagination? PP: Reading is ultimately about empathy -- about experiencing another person’s story, his version of events, his voice, his way of viewing the world. To me one of the beauties of literature is that two different people from very different worlds can read the same book, and share that experience, even as if in different variations. You can have a 16-year-old girl in India read The Underground Railroad and a 45-year-old stay-at-home mother in Indiana read that same book. They will read it in different ways, but also, in similar ways, sharing a version of the characters’ experience, both with each other, and with the author. That’s connection. TM: Everyone who has ever worked in publishing or known anyone with a foot near the industry knows something about towering piles of books that have arrived over the transom. Does your delighted, curatorial rapture about books remain intact or has it shifted emphasis? You speak movingly about your almost physical pain as, in an early bookstore job, you had to tear covers off books to be remaindered. Has the status of books as beloved fetish objects begun to alter or have you become just more focused in your pursuit? PP: I feel like I live in a castle of riches at The New York Times Book Review. Not a day goes by when I don’t feel giddy by the unopened cartons of books awaiting me, eager to see the contents inside, excited by the galleys on the shelves and delighted and slightly stunned that I get to take finished copies home with me. Books to me are still treasures. I’m still greedy and I’m extremely grateful. I am not nearly as focused in my acquisitiveness as I should be and have towering shelves of books at home to attest to that weakness. Image Credit: Marcia Ciriello.
The Millions Interview

Life-Long Obsessions: The Millions Interviews Claire Cameron

The focus of Millions staffer Claire Cameron’s forthcoming novel is the poignant journey of a dwindling family of Neanderthals, diminished by hardship, nature, social taboos, and finally, Darwinian reality.  The Last Neanderthal shines a mirror into our own humanity by featuring a family in peril, whose communication through rudimentary vocabulary is nevertheless sufficient to express the full range of human emotion.  Meeting basic survival needs is more than a full-time job for these Neanderthals -- not so different, then, from the vast majority of families in today’s world. Against this spare background, an ambitious young scientist feverishly toils to untangle the story of Neanderthal remains recently discovered in a French cave.  She works against the ticking clock of her advancing pregnancy and the shifting power dynamics in her professional field.  The time period in which she lives may be infinitely more complex than that of the Neanderthals, yet we are clearly meant to find parallels between her challenges and the subjects of her research. Why and how did Cameron land on this topic?  What are we to take away from The Last Neanderthal?  The author’s insights into how she mined this subject will enhance the reading experience of this unusual book. The Millions:  The Last Neanderthal is a book with a very unusual premise -- the end of the Neanderthals.  How did you come up with it? CC: I have life-long obsessions, like many people do, but I didn’t realize the consistency of my obsessions until I started keeping notebooks. The ideas in my notebooks are often visual; there is a lot of cutting and pasting involved. A page doesn’t make any sense and I often can’t articulate why I’m collecting certain things. Pictured is an example of a page where I combined marks possibly made by Neanderthals in Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar with desert sand, feminism, and a domestic looking Will Oldham with a dog and a Volvo. All the big themes of my novel are there, though I didn’t know it at the time. Evidence of Neanderthals in my notebooks traces way back, but my notes got more pointed in 2010 when a team of scientists found out that many modern humans carry genes from Neanderthals. People of European and Asian descent have between 1 percent to 4 percent Neanderthal DNA. This is a sign of interbreeding between modern humans and Neanderthals, something that had only been in the realm of speculation before then (though to be fair, the people who write Neanderthal porn on the Internet already knew). That was the premise that intrigued me, how did the two groups make contact? TM:  How did you research/learn about the Neanderthals? CC: A recent wave of research has helped to revise the scientific view of Neanderthals. Much of it, including the Neanderthal genome, shows they were more like us than we previously imagined. I wanted to write characters inspired by this research. I did a lot of study on my own, but the most important step I took was to work with John Shea, an archaeologist and paleoanthropologist at Stony Brook University in New York. When I first talked to Dr. Shea, he told me about reading an older Neanderthal novel. As a scientist, the story frustrated him so much that he tossed the book over his shoulder, scoring an accidental perfect hit into the wastebasket. We agreed that he would look for wastebasket moments in my work. There were many wastebasket moments but his notes gave me a framework. I started to think of the science like a creative constraint. When I read convincing research, I used it as a rule that I had to work within. TM:  Although highly emotional, the Neanderthals’ story is told within a limited vocabulary, starting with their names -- ‘Girl,’ ‘Him,’ etc. -- presumably reflective of their brain capacity.  Is this how you think of it, and can you tell us about how this kind of simplicity affected your writing process? CC:  When David Mitchell talked about writing in the future or past, he said he looks for what a character might take for granted. I want to see through the eyes of the main character. I develop a set of beliefs for her and, as part of that, imagine what she takes for granted. That is how I get immersed to the point where the story dominates my work—the character becomes big enough to crowd out the writer. One of the things I decided is that my Neanderthals didn’t believe in talking all the time. They lived in a small family group and had intimate knowledge of each other. Every thought didn’t need to be said out loud. In fact, if they could hear me now, they might think I was a crowthroat -- the crow being the worst offender when it comes to constant, mindless squawking. Also, I speculated that this was part of their culture because talking took more effort in the physical sense, they had to force out each word. So the cost of each word was considered carefully before it was spoken. Once I shut up in my mind -- or taking more silence for granted -- I could hear all the thoughts I have that I don’t articulate. If you want to move a chair to a different part of the room, as one example, you do a silent calculation. It would be difficult to put into words what you are thinking. And if you practice keeping your trap shut, your senses wake up. You start to notice new things, like a bird that often calls when I step outside. I imagine she is an early warning system to let the other critters know, maybe, “Hey everybody, the squawking long pig is on the move!” So, I don’t see the Neanderthal language as a reflection of a simpler thought process, but as a sign of a different kind of strength. TM:  There is a leopard that seems to have a similar level of cognition to the Neanderthals in the book.  Can you talk about that? CC:   My story is told through the eyes of a Neanderthal. We see the world much as she does. One of the things she believes is that there is little distinction between herself and the land around her. There is a glossary of Neanderthal words at the beginning of the book. One of the words, deadwood, expresses this idea. Deadwood: A body on the other side of the dirt; used as an equivalent to our idea of death, though it expressed a change of state rather than a permanent end. I developed the glossary as way to get inside the head of this particular Neanderthal, another attempt to uncover what she took for granted. If she saw herself on a continuum with other animals, rather than distinct or special in some way, it followed that she didn’t see much of a physical difference between her body and the land. She might also blur her mental identity. If she is interested in hunting or tracking, she assumes that another animal thinks in much the same way. TM:  Nature plays a critical role in your fiction.  Your last novel, The Bear, opens with a tragedy at a campsite -- two parents killed by a bear -- and their two young children left to fend for themselves in the wilderness.  We are outdoors for most of The Last Neanderthal as well.  How do you think of the role of nature affects your storytelling? CC: I often write about the place I am not. I lived in London, U.K., for about eight years and one day I got out of the tube at Oxford Circus. It was busy and as I tried to exit, I got stuck in a human traffic jam. There were too many people squished into an underground corridor. It became a gridlock of hot bodies pressed against each other. My inner Canadian quietly panicked, but this was London. Everyone remained calm and reserved. A message passed along the corridor until enough people backed out at one end and there was room to move again. Shortly after I started to write my first novel, The Line Painter. It was about Canada and specifically the vast, empty-of-people north of Ontario. I wrote out of a longing to be there, like it might be the antidote to being stuck in a human traffic jam. If I write from that place, of longing, then the place I am writing about becomes like an obsession. I feel intense homesickness and idealize it in the same way. The place is mine and I can imagine it as an intense version of itself. That also means that I use the setting to serve the story and forget any urge to create a faithful portrait. Right now I live in an urban neighborhood in downtown Toronto. I miss the access to Europe that I used to have from my London base. I miss the mountains. Though I get outside as much as I can, the life that I used to live, the one where I spent months in the wilderness, now resides most predominantly in my imagination. That’s why I write about it. TM:  In each of these novels, you are making keen observations about parents, even if they are absent.  Can you comment on that? CC:   I love what Alexander Chee said, “you write to describe something you learn from your life but that is not described by describing your life.” My father died when I was young. I struggled with grief for many years. First I was locked in and couldn’t talk about it and after a while I got angry. I went through all the steps, but as I did, I held fast to the idea that I would eventually get over it. That’s how we talk about grief, that it is something to overcome. I was surprised to find that when I had kids, I went through a stage of grief again. This time I grieved for my dad. I understood what it must have been like to know you are dying and to leave small children behind. Grief doesn’t go away, it’s something you live with. And hopefully it becomes something that makes you stronger. I suppose that’s why it keeps coming up in my work, because I’m trying to figure it out. TM:  The stark vocabulary of the Neanderthals is especially marked in contrast to the parts of the novel that takes place in the present when we are in the company of archeologist Rosamund Gale, or Rose.  What role does Rose play in the narrative, including her impending motherhood and her professional struggles? CC:  In 1921, H.G. Wells wrote a short story about Neanderthals called, “The Grisly Folk.” He described them this way, “a repulsive strangeness in his appearance...his beetle brows, his ape neck, and his inferior stature.” This was very much the thinking of his day, that a Neanderthal was like the archetype for an ogre. Since then our view of them has evolved, but we’ve really used them as a foil to ask questions about ourselves: What makes humans special? Asking questions in a self-centered way hasn’t given us much insight into them. I wanted to focus on Neanderthals. In some ways, Rose is a foil for the main Neanderthal character, Girl. While Rose’s experience are important, she is also a way to gain insight into what a Neanderthal might have been like. Girl is the star of the show. TM:   Given today’s sense of -- or lack of sense of -- community, is there a message embedded in the relationships between and among members of “the Family” of last Neanderthals, and similarly, among the characters who live in the present time? CC:  I think of a novel as a question that takes the length of a book to ask. I was not searching for a message so much as thinking through the implications of how our modern family structure works. I got interested in this question when my neighbor, a private, quiet person, told me about growing up in Newfoundland without central heat. He slept piled in a bed with his brothers, the youngest a bed wetter. My neighbor remembers getting up in the morning with a wet leg. When he stood, his pajamas would freeze and crackle. As he is so private I assumed this must have driven him mad, but when I asked he looked at me like I was crazy. Without his brother’s body heat to keep him warm, it was his body that would have frozen. So I started thinking about that, what if we thought about family like that -- the people who literally keep you alive? Grocery stores, electric lights, and central heat change how we think of our physical needs. Do they also change how we think about families? And what do we need to survive, both physically and mentally, in modern life? TM:  Rose is a scientist who seems to have an instinct to “go it alone,” even though she is close to nine months pregnant. In that sense, she relates to her subject of study -- Girl.  How did your sense of female independence inform your development of these characters? CC: Rose gets pregnant and assumes this is a fairly natural and ordinary thing to do. As baby starts to grow, the timeline for her project gets crunched. Her pregnancy gives her a sense of impending doom. When she becomes a mother she will be sidelined, whether by herself or by others, so she needs to get shit done. There is a group of women scientists on Twitter, many with an interest in archeology, who are posting photos with the hashtag #pregnantinthefield. I love the photos because seeing the possibilities helps us all believe them. Polly Clark, author of Larchfield, wrote eloquently about this, “I wasn’t a reluctant mother at all. But I had no notion of being simply a vessel: I stubbornly continued to think that, as an individual, I still mattered.” The women in these photos matter. But the other day I said a quiet apology to Rose for giving her a sense of urgency about her work -- I know she is the kind of female character that might be criticized. I had to write about her though, specifically how her professional interests and personal ambition sits at odds with parenthood. This was my experience. This is the experience of so many parents. TM:  What can we learn from the Neanderthals in thinking about our own humanity? CC: We can fall into the trap of thinking that the way we do things now is normal, but it’s important to look back for context. As the always quotable Winston Churchill said, “The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.” We are Homo Sapiens, a self-obsessed people who like to tell stories. I’m really writing about modern humans, aren’t I? A novel becomes a way of looking at history to think through our inheritance. TM:  Do you have a new novel in process, and if so, can you tell us about it? CC: My obsessions sometimes turn into novels and sometimes they don’t. Or sometimes they combine to become something I didn’t expect. At the moment, I’m trying to understand the advances in physics, specifically how ideas about quantum gravity have completely changed our understanding of reality. I’m also comparing translations of Beowulf, what does the Irish poet Seamus Heaney do with an Old English poem, versus J.R.R. Tolkien’s handling of a similar passage? I can only hope that these two interests don’t combine.
The Millions Interview

Writers and Money: The Millions Interviews Manjula Martin

The grim economic prospects of being an artist are well-established, but the cold, hard numbers behind writing and publishing -- particularly in the digital age -- are mystifying even to many of the people who are trying to make a living doing it. Anything that illuminates the financial realities of the writing game becomes a precious commodity; essays featuring frank money talk tear through the internet, g-chats and Slack channels hum, aspiring novelists desperately glean what they can from Publishers Marketplace before their (tax-deductible) $25 runs out. Enter Manjula Martin, the woman behind Who Pays Writers?, a hugely valuable resource for freelancers trying to figure out the numbers behind bylines. Martin established the site in 2012 to bring transparency to the woefully opaque writing business using crowdsourcing: writers anonymously offer up the rates they were paid by various publications. The following year, Martin expanded the territory with Scratch, a magazine about money and writing co-founded with the writer Jane Friedman. This spring, Scratch the magazine became Scratch the book, an anthology on "Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living," with contributions from writers including Roxane Gay, Jonathan Franzen, Kiese Laymon, and Cheryl Strayed (we excerpted Sari Botton's fascinating essay on ghostwriting here at the site). Martin lives in San Francisco, where she writes and edits in addition to her full-time job as Managing Editor of Zoetrope: All Story, the literary magazine founded by Francis Ford Coppola and Adrienne Brodeur. Martin and I are friends -- coworkers, too, as all freelancers are coworkers -- and she agreed to speak with me about the numbers behind her book and the contradictions of making art under capitalism. The Millions: You are currently nearing the end of a book tour that has you working a full-time day job during the week and hopping a plane every weekend to a new city. Is this bonkers? Manjula Martin: Yes. But geographically and plane ticket-wise, it actually made no sense to do the tour dates all in a row. It's not cheaper. TM: And you're paying for this out of pocket. MM: Yes. TM: Is it customary for publishers to not pay for a book tour? MM: I'm told that it's common, unless you're a very big investment for the publisher. But while the publisher has not paid for it, they have been incredibly helpful in terms of booking the gigs -- the PR department has surpassed my expectations in that regard. TM: I guess that’s a form of money. MM: That is a form of money. That's labor. A lot of authors don't get book tour help at all. I was fortunate enough to get some free advice from Lauren Cerand, an amazing (not free) independent publicist. She told me, "Just do a book tour, put it on your credit card if you have to. It'll be great." So far, it's been great. She's right. TM: Could you share the numbers of the book as a whole: what you were paid, how the contributors were paid or not paid, and all of that? MM: I went into the anthology with a really solid table of contents; the book proposal I wrote had pretty much the same table of contents as the book did once it was done. The essays weren't written, but I had gotten buy-in from most of the contributors, and I had a well-developed topic. I'm convinced that this is what sold the book: the editors could see how the contents would inform the topic, and they could understand that I had access to very high-caliber contributors. There were a lot of emails right when I was first doing the book proposal along the lines of “Hey, I'm thinking of doing an essay collection. Would you like to sign onto this not knowing any of the details or timing or anything?” People said yes, which was wonderful. My agent sold the book. I got an advance. The advance was $30,000, paid in three different installments. As of this writing I’m still waiting for the last installment, the installment “upon publication.” The way my contract was set up gave me the majority chunk, on signing; a smaller chunk upon delivery and acceptance of the manuscript. (By the way, this is not when you turn in the manuscript, it's when the manuscript is done. It's not like, “Hello, editor, here's the first time you've seen it.” It's like, we've been working on it for six months and now it's done and they're going to send it into production.) Then the final installment upon publication. The way my contract is set up is, I am the "Author" of the book. My contract is with the publisher. Then I have basically subcontracted with all of the contributors. The contributors and I have separate contracts. My agent just found me a template for that contract language. TM: What were you left with after you paid all the subcontractors? MM: Each of the contributors were paid between $100 and $400 for their essays, depending on whether it was a reprint. Everyone who wrote a new essay got more. The reprints were less and usually between $100 and $200, depending on various situations including whether or not they did additional work on the piece. What anthology contributors get for that few hundred dollars: they're in the book. They can sell second serial if they want to. That’s basically it. In this particular situation my publisher owns the first serial rights. That's pretty common. We don't have a royalty agreement with the contributors. TM: So how does this all break down in the end, money-wise? MM: The advance was $30,000. Agents take 15%. That's $4,500. Contributors were $7,050 total. That leaves $18,000-ish before taxes. For 2015 and 2016, the years that cover that income, I will have paid about $8,500 in taxes. All told I will have paid probably a third of the advance in taxes, but it's been spread out over a couple of years. I can write off the agent commission and the contributor fees. That should leave me with about $10,000… TM: That's not too shabby. MM: … before book tour costs, which will probably be around $3,500, I'm guessing. So I think I'm going to end up with $6,000-$7,000 for two years of work. Plus the prior two years of unpaid work I did on Scratch mag and Who Pays Writers?. TM: That’s not a living wage. MM: No. But I also don't know what the P&L for Scratch looks like, so I don't know how much money Simon & Schuster is going to make off of it. TM: What's P&L? MM: Profit and loss statement. It’s what an editor at a publishing house does to figure out how much to pay for a book, what it’s worth, what they think it’ll make. It's how an editor pitches a book to the rest of the team; a P&L is the way they figure out, “If we pay the advance this much and then the royalties are this much, and it costs this much for the book, this is how many books we have to sell to make a profit.” Actually, Scratch just went to a second printing. TM: So you should get royalties soon! MM: [laughs] That doesn't mean that it's earned out the advance. It's a highly relative statement. TM: I went to one of your readings, where three contributors spoke. That reading became a conversation about workers’ rights and empowering women writers -- there was a lot of counsel from participants not to write for free, that you should always be paid for your work. But then [our mutual friend] Caille Millner gave advice along the lines of, "If you want to be a writer, you should expect to have a day job," which in some ways obviates the other elements of the discussion. I mean, both pieces of advice can be correct, but her comment was a tacit acknowledgment that even when you are paid for your work, it’s not enough. I don't know many writers who don't have a day job. MM: Particularly writers who don't have other support. TM: And from freelancing myself, and particularly from my years with The Millions, I have confronted the harsh truth that your/my/our work often has very little or no market value as it is assigned by our cultural and economic system, particularly as it plays out online. It certainly does not usually translate to a robust income (or big revenue for this website, for example). MM: And there's no meaningful correlation between monetary value and quality. TM: One of the contributors to the Scratch anthology, who wasn’t present at that reading, talks about this problem, and describes how she wrote for free... MM: Yes, Nina MacLaughlin. TM: ...and then got a book deal as a result. MM: Directly from that free piece. Yeah, there’s not really an answer to these contradictions, but I do think we should start airing these financial realities. And to your larger point, it’s perhaps as it should be that great writing is not necessarily something that someone wants to click on and pay for. I don't know. As you were saying before the interview, the kinds of essays that I want to write, the kinds of novels I love to read, are probably the kinds of things that are not going to be viral hits or whatever. A small number of people will read them, but they are still valuable, because they will really fucking matter to that small number of people. And hence to humanity. They way I've been thinking about it is that art doesn't necessarily fit into capitalism. There's no real profit motive in literature, even great literature. I think what we discover when we all start talking about this is that, first of all, there are tons of contradictions, as you just stated. But what concerns me is that the position of art in capitalism typically means that people, myself included, with slightly (or vastly) more economic privilege, are the only people who are writing. I am middle class (although right now in San Francisco, where I live, I am probably the very bottom of the lower middle class, but San Francisco is crazytown). I can work on a book for two years and only make $7,000 from it, because I also have a job that I work at all the time. I'm not exactly rolling in it, but I'm okay. I’m not going hungry. I don’t have to stagger which utility bill to pay every month. Not everyone is like that. Some people cannot afford to work for free, and so it becomes a real problem when an entire industry is set up that way. This works across art forms, by the way -- you see the same thing when you talk with painters. It’s maybe even harder for painters, because they have to have a physical studio and expensive equipment. So on the one hand I'm like yeah, people who do work should be paid. On the other hand…there is a way in which artistic value cannot be quantified. These two things can be true at the same time. But I think where things become far less ambivalent is when it comes to writing for publications and companies that make a lot of money off your work while you're not making money off your work. TM: Certainly. MM: Exploitation is a lot more clear-cut, and that's why I encourage people to understand where the money comes from in media and publishing (which is not to say that I myself entirely understand the deep economics of both those industries!). That's why I think Choire Sicha’s essay in the book is really great, because it breaks down the way websites actually make money. We should know this. We work for them. When I started doing Who Pays Writers?, people said "Yay, everyone's naming numbers." But I wanted more context. Why did you only get paid this much? What was the situation? Did you pitch, or did they approach you? That need for context evolved into Scratch mag. Then again, I also hear the flip side a lot, which is that freelancers just want numbers to figure out how to conduct their business. Naming numbers is a radical act and it is important to have transparency, particularly in a business where nobody knows how it works because it doesn't really work any one way for any one person, and there isn’t a set career path. But I realized pretty early on that if we restrict the conversation to just the numbers, there's a lot that we're ignoring. If you only talk about numbers, you're not talking about all of the cultural and historical, and economic, and emotional issues around money that actually really do affect how -- and whether -- people make money. TM: There are so many things about the digital economy that seem to invite exploitation, but then you also hear that many books never earn back their advance. As if the publishers are doing some sort of charity work. MM: Ha. Well, publishing isn’t a charity; someone must be making money. And, much like nonprofits, the publishing industry tends to attract people who already have financial resources. If you don't happen to come from the middle or upper classes, or an Ivy League-adjacent school, and you’d like to work in publishing -- or start out as a full-time writer -- you're fucked. Because the pay is awful. And I'm very interested in how all that affects the stories we end up reading, with journalism as well as with books. This was very much on my mind as I was doing the anthology, obviously. I wanted to make sure that I was compensating people enough for their work. I've been told that $400 is actually a really high amount to pay for an anthology essay, which is horrible and sad. TM: You’re now the “writers and money” person. Is that your forever beat? MM: Maybe? I’m not sure how I feel about that! I’m writing a novel! This wasn't a topic I set out to be an "Expert" in, or really focus on. This project evolved very organically in different ways. A lot of it was just based on me noticing that people really wanted to talk about it, and going, all right, let's roll with that and see what happens TM: You followed the market! MM: Ha. I remember when I had first had the idea to do Scratch magazine and was talking about it with Jane Friedman, who co-founded it with me, I actually thought of doing an anthology. Then I thought, No, that seems like a lot of work for no money. What if we made it a paid subscription thing and it was a magazine? There were enough stories to have it be a periodical. Then cut to a year and a half later. [laughs] I suppose for me this project could be chalked up to that cheesy “say yes” thing. While I think it can also be very powerful to say no, for me, this whole experience was very much an exercise in saying, “Well this isn't really the thing I set out to do, but it seems to be that I have a take on it that people value. Sure!” Not like, the masses are clamoring, but there was obvious interest. In terms of my expertise, all it takes to be an expert is experience. And confidence. I’ve always felt like writing is my hobby, but I have in fact made my living as a writer for many, many years -- copywriting, journalism, freelance essays -- up until now, when I'm working as an editor. At some point recently I was bemoaning my lack of Expertise to my partner, and he said, "You've been making a living as a writer for 10 years. You are an expert in this." I was like, "Oh, right. Yeah, I guess I am." TM: You didn't think of yourself necessarily as a capital-W writer. MM: Exactly. I like to tell that story because there is no capital-W writer when you're in it. Few people think they're a capital-W writer. There are so many different ways of doing it. TM: And now you’re writing a novel that takes place in Santa Cruz. MM: Yes, in the dystopian near past, also known as the late 1980s. MM: And doing a second book. MM:  Yes! A seemingly random topical departure: I am writing a gardening book with my dad, who is an expert on organic gardening and farming. We're writing a guide to growing fruit trees for Ten Speed Press. Alice Waters is writing the foreword! It will be in stores in 2019. TM: I know that we've just talked about contradictions, but is there one major thing that you wish were different about the writing economy? MM: I think it's pretty clear that writers should be paid more. I don't know where that money comes from, because I don't know how much money publishers are making off of books. But, as I said, publishing isn’t a charity; someone must be making money. It’s just not always us. TM: And now there’s probably no more National Endowment for the Arts. MM: I feel that increasingly there’s no concept of how art is important in this society, even without the funding. I think that’s really scary and I think that it makes it even harder to break down some of those access barriers that we already have. TM: Your day job's model is basically one of patronage. Is that our best worst option at this point? MM: I would say it's not an option to rule out. You know, every model has its flaws and patronage is no more flawed than other models. It certainly is a long-lasting model, which Colin Dickey talks about a little bit in his essay in Scratch, where he looks into the Greek patronage system and the first Greek poet to ask to be paid by the word.  But we've seen recently with places like Medium that even if you have a benefactor, the benefactor can withdraw their goodwill at any moment. That happens all the time with media companies that have venture capital funding. We need the guys who have no profit motive and want to replace the NEA out of the goodness of their rich bastard hearts. There's also the reality of writers who are funded by their spouses, and that gets into a whole other level of micro patronage, I guess you would call it. Right now my boyfriend is doing the laundry, and it was my turn to do the laundry this week, but I was like, “I have this interview.” My partner and I are also beneficiaries of a government patronage system called rent control. That's a big deal. I think about that a lot at this political moment too, that there are a few benefits left that self-employed people get from the government. And they didn’t get many in the first place! At our recent Scratch event in Texas, contributor Austin Kleon talked about having his entire family on the ACA and being really freaked out about what will happen. And he makes royalties. I guess while I think that everyone should get the money -- go get the money, please get the money -- I do fundamentally think that the arts are not necessarily a thing that should be profitable. That's not why the arts exist in our society. Part of a healthy society is one that understands that and finds ways to support its artists. With money.
The Millions Interview

Thinking Another Person’s Thoughts: The Millions Interviews Brit Bennett

Brit Bennett’s debut novel The Mothers (Riverhead Books) tells the story of a religious African-American community in Oceanside, San Diego, and the emotional fallout that ripples through the community when young Nadia Turner decides to seek an abortion. The novel, which examines black women’s interiorities with rare insight, became a New York Times bestseller upon its release last fall. Bennett’s good fortune continued earlier this month when actor and producer Kerry Washington (of Scandal and Confirmation fame) announced that she is working with the author to produce a film adaptation. I spoke with Bennett about adapting the film, the importance of the novel in telling black stories, and the politics of representing abortion. The Millions: Congratulations on the film adaptation! I've just been thinking about what might have to change in order to turn the novel into a successful film. What does cinema demand of the story that the novel doesn't, and as you work on the screenplay, what changes do you think you'll have to make to satisfy those demands? Brit Bennett: Well, I’ve never written a screenplay before so this entire process is new to me. The biggest change I’m anticipating is that the story has to become more visual. I’m generally a pretty scenic writer, so I think that will lend itself well to film. But I’ll have to think about aspects of the book like the narrative voice, for example, and how to translate that to the screen. TM: So much of the drama in The Mothers depends upon the tension you build not just through dramatic irony, but through the slow unearthing of your characters' psychologies. It's an unearthing that seems peculiar to the novel, since it gives you the time, space, and language to explore your characters. Do you worry about that not quite translating to the screen? BB: I think my biggest concern is finding ways to translate character interiority onto the screen. But I think about a film like Moonlight that conveys a character who actually speaks very little yet the viewer still understands who he is and what he wants. It’s a quiet film that relies little on actual dialogue, but there’s still interiority. So it feels like a big challenge but also an exciting one. I’m looking forward to learning a new form and a new way to think about storytelling. TM: Speaking of next projects -- you’re writing about the black South for your next book, and that’s a very different context for writing about blackness. What does setting a novel in Southern California lend you when you’re writing on the black experience? Does your approach change when you think about black Southern California? BB: The setting has been one aspect of the book that readers -- particularly white readers -- have been startled by. I think focusing on a black community in a Southern California beach town has been very novel to readers. That’s interesting to me, because I grew up in Oceanside. I grew up 15 minutes from the beach, and I had friends of all races -- this was not anything unique to me. But people expect black stories to exist in the South or urban North. I wasn’t aware of that when I wrote the book, so I didn’t write with that in mind, or anticipating it as a conversation I’d be having with readers. Oceanside is a beach town, a military town, so there’s a lot of racial diversity and a lot of people who are constantly coming and going. I never thought that was interesting until I went to college. I’d tell people about wildfire season and people would go, “What?” I’m like, “Yeah we would get a week off from school, we were so excited!” I went to college in the Bay Area, so aspects of life like that weren’t familiar to people in every part of California, and certainly not to people in other regions of the country. I think for me, I wanted to write about where I came from, and I was thinking about the experiences of black people as diverse, whether that’s geographical diversity or something else. People’s shock over the setting says more about what people expect from a black story than about anything I’ve written. TM: How does setting it in a beach town subvert what people expect from a black story? BB: My working theory on this is that what people expect from a black story is a racism-driven plot. I gather that, and my book is a story that is inflected by race, but the plot points don’t hinge on racism. That’s one way I which my book upends expectations. People think because it’s about a religious community it must be set in Mississippi… TM: Not knowing that we have Baptist churches in Southern California too… BB: Right! So there’s that sense. People think that San Diego is just beaches and golf courses, but Oceanside is known as the blight of the county. So I was interested in the aspects of the place that weren’t just beautiful beaches and golf courses. Then, California in general is a place where so many people come from elsewhere -- it’s a bunch of communities of transplants. So this assembling of black identity, or any racial identity, is about mixtures of people from the rest of the country ending up in this place. What gets made from that? TM: This makes me think, part of what’s so special about a black SoCal story is that it might seem unhinged from some of the histories that haunt black communities in cities like Chicago, for example. Not to paint California as a post-racial society, of course, but how does that inform your writing? BB: I think that’s true -- there’s a newness to the black California narrative. These are not communities where generations of your family lived. For some people that’s true, but my mom’s from Louisiana, my dad’s mom is from Arkansas, and because of that there is this sense that we’re dealing with a new history. We’re also dealing with the mythology of the West as this new frontier, which the Second Great Migration bolstered, with people leaving the South for defense jobs. So there are these stories that aren’t as cemented as stories from Chicago, for example, or the American South. There’s a potential freshness from writing about black California, particularly black SoCal. When I was writing the book, I had a professor who said they’d never read a book on black San Diego -- and I hadn’t, either! TM: You seem a little surprised by people’s reactions to how the novel represents blackness. How much has your perspective on the novel changed since it came out? Have you discovered new things about it that you didn’t expect to know by reading reviews and doing interviews? BB: I’ve thought a lot about process since I’ve been going around talking about the book. Process wasn’t something that I thought about very deliberately when I was writing, but now that people ask me about it, I have perspective on why I made certain choices. I’ve mostly reflected on the lack of certain types of stories. I’ve had young black women tell me that this is the first book they’ve encountered that portrayed young black women with emotional depth. I’m glad people are responding that way, but that also makes me deeply sad. I had that feeling when I read The Turner House, for example, and it’s strange that these are such remarkable experiences. It’s sad that there’s something unique about depicting black girls who have interior lives. I think that’s telling of the state of literature. That’s not to say that I’m the only person who does this, but the fact that there are so few of us bums me out. Showing black people with complex emotional lives in the contemporary moment, not during slavery, or the Civil Rights Movement…the fact that this is unique reveals a lack of certain types of stories in the literary world. That’s been the most shocking thing to me, but I’m also excited to be writing in a moment when black writers in all media are challenging the idea of a single black narrative. Whether its Moonlight, Insecure, or Atlanta, or books like The Turner House, black people are writing about the diversity of their experiences, and I’m glad audiences are responding well. TM: I’m so glad you mentioned Moonlight, Atlanta, and Insecure. Obviously there’s a place for the novel and the narrative essay in telling our stories, but so much of the work of telling black stories these days is being done on television, or film, or in music. In a media environment where there are so many venues to tell black stories, what makes the novel special? BB: Novels simulate the experience of thinking another person’s thoughts. I love television -- I watch probably way too much -- but when you’re watching TV, you’re not thinking the same thoughts. There’s no other way to do that than reading fiction. As close are you are to people you love, you will never think their thoughts or feel their feelings. That’s something the novel does that other forms cannot. I also appreciate the language of novels, and the fact that novels are a slower way to experience time. In the politically fraught moment we’re experiencing, it’s been refreshing to turn off a screen or step away from a constant influx of insane news. TM: You mentioned earlier that we’re in a cultural moment where our stories our proliferating, and it seems like maybe that was a moment peculiar to Obama’s America. Something about his presence created the space to tell those stories, and even though it was an era of racial strife, it also set up new horizons for black storytellers. What changes now that Trump is in office, for you? BB: That’s a really good question. It’s complicated for me, because on the one hand the best writers write towards the moment they find themselves in. Burying your head in the sand and pretending we’re not living in this moment will not serve your fiction. That being said, I resent the idea that what I write has to be a response to a person who resents me so deeply. I rankle at this idea that I need to spend my mental and emotional space writing in reaction to Trump. There are ways in which the moment we’re in will filter into our work. I was thinking about this because the book I’m working on is in a lot of ways an Obama-era novel, because it’s about fluctuating identities, multiculturalism, a lot of these questions that seemed so pressing these past eight years. When I think about it, it feels like a response to Obama rather than to Trump or Trumpism. I don’t want to ignore the moment we’re in, or abdicate responsibility to respond to it, but I don’t even know what a fictional response to Trump would even look like! Writing about black people who have humanity is already pushing back against Trumpism. Just asserting that black humanity matters, black bodies matter, black love matters, and black joy matters. That’s my general project. To write about black characters is to assert black humanity. By doing that, you’re pushing back against the forces of white supremacy, which have existed before Trump and will continue to exist long after him. I don’t what else engaging Trump would look like, but I guess we’ll have four years to see. TM: Hopefully less than that. BB: Lord willing. TM: Part of what I enjoyed about the book is the fact that it does the unfortunately extraordinary thing of portraying black women’s interior lives. But I also enjoyed the fact that you do a great job of portraying a masculine vulnerability, and subverting the stereotypes of black masculinity that permeate our culture. How conscious were you, while writing the novel, of subverting these images that trap black men and women? BB: It’s something I was definitely conscious of. In the case of Nadia and her mother, I was thinking about the “strong black woman,” which is often meant as a compliment. People have applauded me for being strong, and it’s something that I am deeply skeptical of. What happens when black women are weak or vulnerable? As far as black masculinity, it was important to me to create black male characters that are complex and have interior lives, which they’re not afforded in our culture. Particularly, Luke was someone I wanted to humanize. Originally, he was a character who would abandon this girl he got pregnant—that was it. But I started to think of him as a character that reacts to this unwanted pregnancy in a way people would not expect a young man of any color, but particularly a young black man, to react. I wanted him to feel vulnerable, to feel these things people wouldn’t expect him to feel, and that he often couldn’t express to anyone. TM: Let’s talk about the abortion. Many of the reviews and profiles I’ve read have portrayed it as something that doesn’t dominate the novel, and to many critics it seems revolutionary that you can have this abortion, and then move on from it in short order. It’s similar to how people praised Obvious Child. But it seems more complex than that: the event happens and they move on, but the abortion’s emotional impact permeates the novel. How do you think about the tension between the liberation modeled in portraying the abortion, but also the lingering psychic and emotional impact? BB: Narratively, abortions are often depicted as events that will end a person’s life, or just a background detail. Politics or anything aside, both of those options were boring to me as narrative choices. I wanted to think about Nadia as a character who made a choice that didn’t dictate her life, and freed her to live her life. But at the same time, I wanted it to have implications and some type of emotional resonance. I didn’t want to write a story about damage, but I also didn’t want her to never think of it again. Of course on a personal level, those are perfectly fine ways to feel. But from a storytelling point of view, they’re not interesting. I wanted to move towards what was complex, so that was a story where she made the right choice for her at the time, but continued to think about what her life would have been like if she had chosen differently. She feels that she made the right decision, but regrets that she was in the position to make the decision in the first place. TM: The complexity of human emotion here supersedes politics. BB: Right. TM: How do you feel about people appropriating The Mothers as a pro-choice advocacy novel? Of course there’s no problem with that, but the actual novel is more complex. How do you feel about people reducing the complexity of Nadia’s story? BB: It just shows how insufficient “pro-choice” and “pro-life” are as political positions. They’re useful categories, but they’re oversimplified and flattened. They don’t reflect how complexly people actually feel about this topic. I had a few people criticize the book because they thought it was pro-life! The fact that Nadia still thought about the abortion signaled regret, which must mean the book is pro-life. The fact that you have to diminish the unwieldy aspects of actual life in order to fit into one of two categories is unfortunate. What’s been really interesting to me, in going out and talking to people about the book, is getting to see how complexly people actually feel about this issue. It’s very different from the polarization we’re presented with when we discuss it politically. I’ve had people -- men and women -- talk to me about their experiences with abortion. I’ve had people tell me that their mom is pro-life, but she likes the book because Luke shows regret. People find different characters to identify with politically or emotionally, and that’s gratifying; I set out to write a book where characters have complex feelings, feelings that are representative of the American public. I wanted to represent that complexity, so when I see people trying to put the novel into a camp…that’s fine if that’s the way you choose to read, but it’s not the way that I want to read. It’s boring to me. TM: What does that say to you about how political partisanship has changed how we process nuance? BB: It’s one of those things…I understand that for something to be politically viable, you have to simplify it. If you are for reproductive choice, or believe that abortion should be illegal, it’s useful to have two camps. If your answer is, “It’s complicated,” you can’t advance an agenda. What’s been revealing to me is that in a moment when reproductive rights are under attack at the state level, if you write a book where a character has an abortion and continues to think about it, people react to it as a pro-life message, just because exactly that sentiment gets manipulated and weaponized politically. So I have people on the left who conflate Nadia’s regret with a pro-life political maneuver. Reproductive rights are under so much attack that people have a knee jerk reaction to anything that resembles a pro-life argument. That’s revealed a lot to me about the state of our political discourse: any nuance can be mistaken for a completely separate political position. But that’s the good thing about literature as opposed to politics. Literature lets us live in nuance, in that discomfort. I think there are a lot of things in this book that will make people uncomfortable, and that’s not a bad thing. I like reading books that challenge my beliefs, that make me uncomfortable intellectually and politically. I hope other people can have that experience too. TM: I doubt there was ever any period in American history when nuance was a political virtue, but it seems like we’re in a moment when nuance is just beyond the pale. BB: Well there’s a way in which, because the Trump side is so against nuance that responding with nuance almost seems counterproductive. I worry about that too -- replicating the thing that you oppose politically. But when there’s one side that just disregards facts, how do you respond to that with a nuanced, reasoned argument, if you can’t agree on what’s objectively true? Then perhaps nuance only muddies the water. But who wants to be part of a discourse that has no place for that nuance? TM: It seems like you perform a similar complexity when it comes to racial politics, if there are racial politics in this book. You’re invested in providing these characters with a certain amount of nuance around racial identities, and you portray a situation where race isn’t the organizing principle of these characters’ lives. There’s that one moment when Luke’s mother tells him that reckless black boys are dead black boys, and that’s a moment when anti-blackness comes to the fore. But then it recedes, and the drama around the abortion surmounts it. I know you were working on the novel while simultaneously writing your essays on Black Lives Matter. How do you toggle between those two modes, between politically inflected nonfiction and literary fiction? Do you see them as being two different modes? BB: Yeah, in a sense, but I approach them the same way: opening with a question that’s interesting to me. I never want to know how I feel about something, because if you do that, it’s boring. I always want to sit down and think. I wrote the [Paris Review] essay on American Girl dolls, in particular Addy, the black girl who is a slave. As I got older, I thought that was kind of weird! Wow, I was playing with a doll that was a slave, what does that mean? That doesn’t mean Addy was bad or good -- it’s just a question. I always want to write from a place of trying to figure something out. I also want to write with empathy. That’s one reason why I’ve not written anything about Trump. I was in Houston, and this woman asked me if I had an empathetic thought about Donald Trump. I really had nothing! I was just like, I cannot…I have nothing to say about this person. That’s why I have not addressed him, because my feelings about him are very flat. Maybe over time they’ll gain some complexity. I don’t foresee that, but maybe. But I always want to write with empathy. The thing with nonfiction is that you have to make your thinking clearer. With fiction, you can make a lot of leaps between ideas, and your readers are willing to meet you there. With nonfiction, you have to be more explicit, to show your work and thinking. TM: I was really impressed with how you deal with the lingering racial fear or pain that’s always in the vicinity of black life, even if it doesn’t structure blackness at all times. Was it difficult to address that fear without giving it pride of place in the novel? Were you afraid of making it too prominent? BB: Something that I began to think about further on was that I was writing a novel about a woman who decides not to be a mother to a black child, in a time when we’re discussing Black Lives Matter, and the precariousness of black youth. So that was on my mind, but…I never want to downplay the institutional and emotional impact of racism on lives of color, but I reject the idea that racism dictates your every action and thought. The idea that all your interiority is dedicated to thinking about white racism…there’s something so insulting about the idea that my life revolves around whiteness. It doesn’t! I think about race a lot, but it’s not as if you walk down the street and a burning cross falls on you. The sense that that is what it means to be black is often something that white people think -- that all black people do is think about white people. I reject that as a reality. It’s not real, and it’s politically troubling. That’s one thing I love about Toni Morrison: she’s not interested in writing about white people. She writes about black communities, and whiteness will linger or influence the story, but her characters are thinking about other black people, their own problems, their own lives. That notion of decentering whiteness from a narrative was important to me and felt realistic to how I experience life as a black woman. That was something I kept in mind while writing. The fact that that’s surprising says a lot about how people think black people experience the world. TM: There’s a moment in I Am Not Your Negro when Baldwin proclaims, “I am not a nigger,” and he makes it very clear that the outsized image that white people assume they have in black people’s minds is more about the outsized image that we have in the white mind… BB: Right, 100 percent… TM: I wonder if you feel like that has an effect on how people have received your book? Is part of the surprise you’ve hinted at about white people encountering black people who live in a multiethnic society, but who aren’t always focused on white supremacy? BB: Absolutely -- there were moments when we were editing the book when I got to the part when Nadia is at a “white people party.” And you know what I mean when I say that…a lot of black people will know what I mean when I say it’s a “white people party.” That was something that my editor pushed back against. For me that wasn’t a comment about racism. That was a way to describe the make up of the party: who’s at the party, what the vibe is… TM: Do they have a keg or not… BB: Yeah! To me that was a detail about the world she was in. One of my best friends grew up around Irvine, and he was like, yeah, we went to the white people party at the beach! That’s what you do when you go to a beach town. Invoking race raised questions for my editor on the role of racism in that scene; but to me it was just a way of describing a party, because when you’re a black person you immediately recognize who’s in that room with you. You walk in and you notice that everyone is white -- that doesn’t affect the scene, it doesn’t affect what happens between Nadia and Luke, and it doesn’t affect the choice that she makes. But it does affect her perception, because that’s how you experience race and the world in general when you move in a black body. I think that feels real about how we experience the world, but that doesn’t give race or white supremacy a larger role than it actually occupies. TM: It’s about racial categories as describing certain cultural differences, but not determining how one behaves with other people. BB: Right. I think often white people will assume that if you invoke race, it has to be connected to racism. If I’m telling someone a story and I say a black dude walked in, a friend might think that the guy’s being black means something racist is going on. But no, it doesn’t mean that at all! People live in raced bodies, and it’s important for me to acknowledge that. Especially if a character is white, because if a character is not raced, then I know readers will assume that character is white. So it’s important to me to race characters, even if it doesn’t affect the plot in any tangible way. So yeah, we live in raced bodies, and race is something that we notice as we move through the world, especially people of color, in a way that maybe white people don’t notice as much unless they’re in a space with non-white people. So it’s important to name and see race. Otherwise, in the absence of a racial description will be a stand in for universal humanity, which gets read as whiteness. I don’t like that absence. TM: Then maybe the discomfort around naming race for white readers or viewers is about disturbing that universality? BB: I think that’s part of it. Within the framework of whiteness, there are few ways to talk about race that aren’t associated with hatred. Within a black context, you can express racial pride because it’s pride that arises in conflict with white supremacy. There are people who would disagree with that and say that being proud to be black is racist, and…fine. But the idea of racial pride for black people has arisen in a very different context than white racial pride. I think that if you invoke race, white people will associate it with hate, because within a white context that’s usually what it means. There’s not really a pleasant way of evoking whiteness. In I Am Not Your Negro, Baldwin says that whiteness is a metaphor for power -- we don’t have a framework for invoking whiteness that isn’t a way of wielding power. So I think that for white readers, the red flag of racism gets raised because that’s the only way they can think of race within a white context. TM: I was struck by your description of the novel as a way to practice empathy, because it seems that so much of your novel is about how people struggle to develop empathy and intimate bonds. The Greek chorus of the church mothers is ground zero for demonstrating that struggle -- you have women who should be omniscient, but never really have a perspective on or empathy for Nadia’s mother’s mental illness. How important was this chorus to you as a way to explore the limits of empathy? BB: As far as empathy goes, so much of the novel is about gossip, which in a lot of ways is antithetical to empathy. We’re at our least empathetic when we’re gossiping, because we’re reducing people to a story, and we’re not that interested in what they were thinking or feeling. We’re only interested in them as a narrative device. So the mothers are definitely guilty of that. I’m also interested in the way of how generations are guilty of speaking past one another instead of speaking to each other. That’s something that happens a lot as the mothers discuss the younger characters -- instead of connecting with them or helping them, they often judge, in the same way that the younger characters often dismiss the mothers. So I’m interested in the way that people try to create bonds but often fail -- it’s just one of the facts of being alive. We often fail to connect with people even though we want to. In the case of Nadia and Aubrey, for example, those girls are close friends who keep huge secrets from one another. That’s a sad thing, but that’s the way we create connections between ourselves.
The Millions Interview

Encouraging People To Fail: The Millions Interviews Patty Yumi Cottrell

The first story of Patty Yumi Cottrell’s that I encountered was about a harsh school mistress chastising her students during a trip to the zoo. Her voice struck me as singular, her characters, haunted, abject, and captivating. They still do. But don’t take my word for it, read her “Young Robert,” read her “Peace.” She has said that when she writes she pictures herself “as a lonely old man who has just taken a room in a decrepit boardinghouse. He sits at a desk and tries to write himself out of the present moment. Anything can happen.” Yes, anything can and does happen in her stories, but also this lonely old man stands beyond time. There are switches of wood, bedbugs, and pitiable schoolmistresses. Her first novel, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, has garnered comparisons to Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, and Robert Walser. Patty Yumi Cottrell and I spoke at length via email about her novel, her fascination with Thomas Bernhard’s houses, and the “grotesquely strange” human soul. For our correspondence, we agreed on a prearranged process: each message would be written after having taken a walk, and each message would contain an image. What follows are are the results. Dear Patty, Before my walk today I put on a jacket I haven’t worn in ages because it’s 70 degrees in February -- in Chicago. I detest the long winters here and relish this interjection of warmth, but I also can’t escape how obscene it is to enjoy this first wave of global warming. When I put on the jacket, in the pocket I found a fortune from last year. It says “You will be awarded some great honor.” And I thought, what an auspicious beginning to our conversation. Of course I am thinking of your novel, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, and how each time I read the book it succeeds in both destroying me while making me laugh and my heart swells with empathy for Helen as she attempts to piece together the reasons behind her adoptive brother’s suicide. I’ve never read such a delightful yet devastating novel about suicide and loss. I would posit: I think Helen would hate the phrase “my heart swells” -- she wouldn’t want it. I do think she wants to be seen, and she isn’t by her family. She is in her 30s, shares a cramped studio apartment in Manhattan with a roommate, and is estranged from her adoptive family. When her adoptive brother kills himself, her parents don’t reach out to her, they let her Uncle Geoff make the call and he emphasizes that no one expects her to come home for the funeral. She does return to Milwaukee, to seek out clues to her brother’s suicide, attempting to keep her grasp on the universe, it seems? She’s unhinged and, yes unreliable too, yet as I see it she’s perhaps the truest, sanest person in her family: unable or unwilling to play their games of social propriety, keeping up appearances, she’s blamed for not forging a connection. For her severity toward her family she was once called admiringly "a coldhearted bitch." Perhaps this ability to tell the truth, or at least her truth, and cause (their) displeasure is where Helen is/was divergent from her adoptive brother? Anne, I like what you've said here. Thank you. I don't know what's the truth or insane or sane. I wrote the book in a state of feeling unhinged and uncertain about reality. Life was unraveling. In a way, it was the perfect moment to write a book. Or to begin writing. Helen is a fairly resourceful character despite all of her flaws. Her investigation is about discovering the truth, but even that seems problematic, as if anyone can ever know the truth about a person's life and death. I think that's impossible, so the search itself is flawed. I can empathize with that choice though. She does the best she can considering the circumstances and who she is. That's pretty admirable even if she's kind of an asshole at times. Her brother is my favorite character though. He's tender, delicate, and strong. Right now I'm in the desert. It's clearing to come out here. The plants are special. Two men just walked by me and one of them said, "It's very Chinese." I kind of hate overhearing other people's conversations. Patty, I love eavesdropping, the glimpses into other conversations, intruding on an intimacy you haven’t earned, briefly, then falling out. I like peering into windows of houses for the same reason, imagining how the lives within intermingle and part. Today I walked past a large modern structure under construction, the house looks like a series of connected boxes and has large desk in the front window -- but from my vantage point the window appeared to contain another smaller, cozier house. I have been thinking so much about houses and dwellings in relation to your book: what a house means to Helen’s adoptive parents, Helen’s own shared studio that her brother thought suited her, the homeless woman in Helen’s chapbook: “How to Survive in New York on Little to Nothing.” Helen admires doorways, and her brother too says he wants to keep doors shut -- metaphorically. Can you talk about the houses in your book, what a doorway offers, the threat a door poses? What does one’s dwelling say about them? And also of your fascination with Thomas Bernhard’s house? Anne, The space of the house is one of inertia and avoidance. The furniture is off-putting, the rooms are suffocating and at the same time places of rest. No one in the house knows how to communicate with one another. I don’t know what the doors represent. It’s weird to talk about doors without thinking about the band The Doors. They’re not that cool, but when I was in high school I used to love them. A friend and I would try to smoke really gross weed and drive around and listen to them. What a recipe for disaster and trouble! I was just telling a friend how sometimes I Google street view some of my houses from childhood. I walk around the neighborhood and look at the plants and trees. I have no idea if that’s normal or not. In my favorite house, which was in suburban Pittsburgh, I had my own bathroom. There was a skylight above the toilet. I always thought that was weird. It’s my favorite house because there I was the most miserable. Every day I can wake up grateful I don’t live on Wedgewood Drive anymore, so that’s kind of a gift. I love looking at images of Thomas Bernhard’s houses in Austria, how their exteriors seem harsh and weird, like his writing. That mirroring between his houses and his writing appeals to me, maybe because I’ve been a lifelong renter, scrounging around for scraps to inhabit. You never saw where I lived in Brooklyn, but my bedroom was windowless, the walls were curved, there was a foot of space between the bed and these dressers that had been in the bedroom for years before we moved in. One day, I was cleaning behind them and I found a few bullets. Patty, Childhood misery can become such an attachment. It’s a conundrum. I just saw that Whistler’s "Mother" is on view in Chicago -- I was forced to stand in line to see it as a child, and when I actually saw it I thought people were crazy. It was so overrated, so muted. My first thought hearing of its current tour was disbelief that it’s still this thing -- but also, that I want see it. Will I have a different experience? It was the first piece of art I detested. Helen’s childhood misery is demonstrated as one long act of refusal. Makes me think of Bernhard’s misandry, but then also it’s Bernhard I think of with the balding European white male apparition. I sense an anxiety of influence but also of disconnect, that Helen isn’t his heir, can't be. He may be Helen’s father’s wet dream but as the biological daughter of a Korean woman, there's so much distance. The balding European man, too, is helpful in some way isn’t he? How do you see his role? What does Helen need? I’m also curious about writers you read as a child, and now, who are your influences/guides? Anne, I feel certain you will love that painting as an adult because it will remind you of that exact moment you realized it was possible to detest a piece of art. I like what you’ve said about anxiety and disconnect. I tried to see clearly this balding European man, but from where he came or what’s his role, I can’t say. I don’t know. I think it’s okay to admit that. Brandon Shimoda linked his appearance to whiteness and suburbia. I think the European man could be an accumulation and materialization of those suburban experiences. But I don’t really know. For me, writing this book was about freedom. I wanted to work with a voice in which anything could materialize at any point. That freedom is the main thing that compelled me to continue on, even when I had trouble. So Helen is sitting on a chair, starting to freak out a little at her inability to communicate with her parents, and a balding European man appears. In my opinion, that's perfectly reasonable. Let’s see, when I was little I liked Anne of Green Gables. I related to her situation as an orphan and outsider. As an adult I’ve probably been the most influenced by my friends who are artists and musicians. Many of them live in Milwaukee and Chicago. I admire people who have figured out a way to navigate the madness of this world. Russell Westbrook, Bill Callahan, Jesse Ball, Fiona Apple, Renata Adler, Kara Walker, etc. Patty, When put that way, I see the balding European man as a kind of proxy for Helen in her adoptive parents' house, whether imagined, hallucinatory, or not, he is a needed (albeit aloof) companion in her investigation, and an injection of Western rationality. As in, he assures her there are clues and thus a logic behind her brother’s suicide. Though I guess there is, really: Helen discovers he orchestrated his death in a way that he didn’t engage in his life. For me the suburbs surface in the blandness Helen’s brother attempts to hide behind: the white rice, the vanilla ice cream, the ways he hid his difference. I’m thinking too of lies he tells to appease: the interest in fly-fishing, the professor he told Helen he assisted. It’s generous and tragic, this denial. He’s very good at keeping secrets. To me, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace is very much about navigating the madness of a world where more time and energy is spent in denying or mitigating the extent of its madness. Beauty lies in acknowledging this, and finding a way through it? I just saw Annie Baker’s adaptation of Uncle Vanya, and I was so relieved and frustrated to see Uncle Vanya fail at any attempt of ordering his life. It was cathartic. He couldn’t even hit, let alone kill, the man he took shots at! Helen’s adoptive brother is perhaps as forlorn as Vanya, but he has agency, and, well, he succeeds. This navigating the madness of the world: is this process ever past tense? Perhaps the beauty of finding a way through it lies in showing that it’s possible? How is anyone supposed to live with anything? Helen asks this of Elena and now I ask it of you. Anne, The navigation of the madness of the world is endless. I agree with you, that Helen’s brother does have agency, and perhaps integrity, too. I don’t know how anyone lives with anything. I do the best I can, but there are days I just want to zone out and watch the NBA and listen to Royal Trux and smoke a cigarette, if I smoked cigarettes, which I do not. I used to smoke a lot. I remember Jesse Ball suggested lucid dreaming an impossibly large cigarette, to cope with the effects of withdrawal. In my opinion, the way through the madness is to see things clearly, to allow yourself to be surprised, and to have a sense of humor. Now that I’m looking at what I just typed, it sounds like advice for a marriage. Not that I’ve ever been married. Maybe another way to navigate the madness of the world is to not get married. This is what I’m thinking today. It might change tomorrow. Oh, Patty, I loved smoking too. I had my first cigarette on my 14th birthday; later that year I was caught smoking in the graveyard at school. As I recall my mother was pissed but amused -- something in line with: “The continuous work of our life is to build death.” That's Simone de Beauvoir quoting Montaigne in the opening line of her Ethics of Ambiguity, which I just started rereading. As soon I read the sentence I was struck by how it's a defining tenet in STDTP. And maybe life is like a long marriage? I feel like Helen needs new coping strategies, the waterfall coping strategy is soothing, but like bad self-help, the Fiona Apple coping strategy was perhaps more effective? Your narrators can be so severe, abject and so gripping. I’m thinking of Helen, but also the narrator of your recent story in The White Review. I know you spoke of freedom being significant to writing the novel, but what draws you to a character? Anne, That quote from Montaigne reminds me of the Bernhard phrase from his novel Correction: “deathward existence.” A page after “deathward existence” appears, there is, "The question has always been only, how can I go on at all, not in what respect and in what condition.” Out of context, that line seems dramatic, but when I came across it, I remember finding it dry and funny and serious. In general, I am repulsed by my characters, and yet, I’m drawn to them, sometimes I even admire them. I like characters who are engaged with their world, their circumstances, their flaws. I have a fondness for neurotic and delusional humans, so why wouldn’t I write about them? I think my short stories are closer to poems and drawings in terms of content and form, rather than traditional short stories with fully developed characters and plots. I draw my short stories with thin, ugly, haphazard lines. So the characters themselves can be thin and flat. They stay the same, because there’s not enough space in the stories for them to change. Patty, I’ve passed a number of sidewalk lending libraries during our exchange, and whenever I have I've peeked inside. Perhaps because I’m already thinking of your novel, I’ve been surprised by how the titles engage: Twenty Things Adopted Children Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew (I could see Helen’s adoptive parents having this book, but also it failing to bridge their distances) Contribuer à votre succès (a French, bougier version of Helen’s guide: How To Survive in New York on Little to Nothing) Esmé Wang’s The Border of Paradise (opening with a passage about never having known someone who killed themself, never having read a suicide note) Franz Kafka’s Letters to Milena This last book I took. Most of the correspondence is one-sided, Kafka’s letters published in a series without Milena's responses. He writes of lung health and sanatoriums and Milena’s critiques of German spas. One of Milena’s essays in the appendix concerns whether letters of notable people should be published. She chastises those who are disappointed by artists lives —--“If you are disappointed by an artist, my dear girl, this is only because you haven’t understood how to find him, and don’t know how grotesquely strange the human soul is.” The grotesque strangeness of the human soul! This is what you’re saying about character, no? I then thought of Egon Schiele, the way he conjures this too. Perhaps your work is neo-expressionist?  It made me wonder, which books, which visual artists/movements do you feel your work shares an affinity with? Anne, I love Esmé Wang’s The Border of Paradise. You should go back to the sidewalk library and get it. Go, immediately! I’m excited for her next book, The Collected Schizophrenias on Graywolf. I own Letters to Milena, but haven’t opened it. I don’t know if I’m afraid to, or what, but that line you’ve quoted makes me want to read it. It makes me sad that Milena’s responses do not exist. Isn’t that sad? You’re right about the grotesqueness of the human soul. I like Egon Schiele. I don’t think I’d align my work with any artistic movements. I pick and choose the artists I like, disregarding time or movements. So I like Brueghel, Kara Walker, José Lerma, Glenn Ligon, Allison Schulnik, Mark Bradford, Tintoretto, etc. I think my work has a lot in common with Tyson and Scott Reeder and John Riepenhoff, and many other artists from Milwaukee. They were all part of this scene at The Green Gallery, one of of my favorite places in the world. We would play basketball on the weekends and have dance parties in attics. All of this informs what I write about and how I see the world. There’s a lightness to what goes on at The Green Gallery. It’s never heavy-handed, it’s playful and fun. John Riepenhoff and his brother Joe were some of the first people who acknowledged me as a musician and artist. So I would align myself with them. Of course, I was a failure as an artist and musician, and that’s why today I write. But I’m in debt to them because they encouraged me to fail. And that’s a beautiful thing to do for another human, to encourage him or her to fail. Painting by John Riepenhoff.
The Millions Interview

You Can’t Go Wrong With Heart: The Millions Interviews Jami Attenberg

I'd been hearing about Jami Attenberg's latest novel, All Grown Up, long before it went on sale. Early readers loved it, and their praise produced a kind of roar across the Internet, one full of joy and ferocity. People were grateful for this story and this character: Andrea Bern, a single woman who doesn't have kids, and doesn't want them. When I finally got my hands on a copy, I saw what everyone was talking about; Andrea is like so many women I know, and yet, she is unlike most female characters in fiction. She is also more than her demographic (as we all are). Through a series of droll but big-hearted and compassionate vignettes, Attenberg depicts a profound and authentic portrait of a woman as she moves through this beautiful yet often unjust world. In All Grown Up, there is joy, loneliness, pleasure, despair, grief, hope, frivolity, and matters of great import. Jami Attenberg is The New York Times bestselling author of five other books, including The Middlesteins and Saint Mazie. She was kind enough to answer my questions via email. The Millions: All Grown Up is told in a series of vignettes about Andrea's life -- there's one terrific, pithy chapter early on, for instance, called, simply, "Andrea," about how everyone keeps recommending the same book about being single. There are a few chapters about Andrea's friend Indigo: in one she gets married, in another she has child, and so on. Some are about Andrea's dating life, and others focus on her family. I'm curious about how working within this structure affected your understanding of Andrea herself, seeing as she comes into focus story by story, but not in a traditional, chronological way. I also wonder what you want the reader to feel, seeing her from these various angles, some of which overlap, while others don't. Jami Attenberg: I made a list -- I wish I could find it now; it’s in a notebook somewhere -- of all these different parts of being an adult. For example: your relationship with your family, your career, your living situation, etc. And then I created story cycles around them, and often they were spread out over decades. As an example: what Andrea’s apartment was like when she was growing up versus how she felt about her apartment as an adult in her late 20s versus her late 30s, and how those memories informed her feelings of safety and security and space. A sense of home is a universal topic. And then eventually more relevant, nuanced parts of a specifically female adulthood emerged as I wrote, and little cycles formed around those subjects. So the writing of this book in terms of structure was really an accrual of these cycles. The goal was to tell the whole truth about this character, and why she had become the person she was -- the adult she was, I guess -- so that she could understand it/herself, and move on from it. The fact that it’s not linear is true to the story of our lives. The moments that inform our personalities come at us at different times. If you were to make a “What Makes Me the Way I Am” top 10 list in order of importance, there’s no way it would be in chronological order. And to me they’re all connected. I’d hope readers see some of their own life challenges in her, and if not her, in some of the other characters, even if they happen at different times. Everything keeps looping around again anyway. (We can’t escape our pasts, we are doomed to repeat ourselves, we are our parents, etc.) TM: In my mind, and likely in the minds of others, you lead an ideal "writer's life" -- you're pretty prolific, for one, and you also don't teach. You now live in two places: New Orleans and New York City -- which seems chic and badass to me. Plus you have a dog with the perfect under bite! Can you talk a little about your day-to-day life as an artist, and what you think it's taken (besides, say, the stars aligning), to get there? Any advice for writers who want to be like you when they're all grown up? JA: It took me a long time to figure out what would make me happy, and this existence seems to be it, for a while anyway. I’m 45 now, and I started planning for this life a few years ago, but before then I had no vision except to keep writing, and that was going to be enough for me. Then, after my third winter stay in New Orleans, I realized I had truly fallen in love with the city. And then I had a dream, an actual adult goal. I had two cities I loved, and I wanted to be in both. So it has meant a lot to me to get to this place. I worked so hard to get here! I continue to work hard. No one hands it to you, I can tell you that much, unless you are born rich, which I was not, and even then that’s just money, it’s not exactly a career. And I think the career part, the getting to write and be published and be read part, is the most gratifying of all. Unless success is earned it is not success at all. My day-to-day life is wake, read, drink coffee, walk the dog, say hi to my neighbors, come home, be extremely quiet for hours, write, read, look at the Internet, eat, walk the dog, have a drink, freak out about the state of America, and have some dinner, maybe with friends. Soon I’ll be on tour for two months, and that will be a whole different way of living, though still part of my professional life. But when I am writing, it is a quiet and simple existence in which I take my work seriously. I have no advice at all to anyone except to keep working as hard as you possibly can. TM: I've always loved the sensuality of your writing. Whether the prose is describing eating, or having sex, or simply the varied textures of life in New York City, we are with your characters, inside their bodies.  What is the process for you, in terms of inhabiting a character's physical experience? Does it happen on the sentence level, or as you enter the fictive dream, or what? JA: Well thank you, Edan. I’m a former poet, for starters, so I’m always looking to up the language in a specific kind of way. I certainly close my eyes and try to be in the room with a character, and inside their flesh as well, I suppose. I write things to turn myself on. Even my bad sex scenes are in a strange way arousing to me, even if it’s just because they make me laugh. It’s all playtime for me. All of this kind of thinking comes in the early stages but also in my final edits of the second draft.  Most of the lyricism of the work is done before I send the book out to my editor. Her notes to me address the nuts and bolts of plot and architecture, and often also emotions and character motivation. But the language, for the most part, she leaves to me. TM: My favorite relationship in the novel is between Andrea and her mother. It's loving and comforting even though there are also real tensions and conflicts between them. Can you talk about creating a nuanced, and thus realistic, portrayal of mother and daughter? JA: It is also my favorite relationship! I could write the two of them forever. I am satisfied with the book as it stands but would still love to write a chapter where the two of them go to the Women’s March together, and Andrea’s mother knits her a pussy hat and Andrea doesn’t want to wear it because she only ever wears black. I have pages and pages of dialogue between them that I never used but wrote anyway just because they were fun together, or fun for me the author, but maybe not fun between the two of them. Their relationship really comes from living in New York City for 18 years and watching New York mothers and daughters together out in the world and just channeling that. These characters are very much a product of eavesdropping. I try to approach these kinds of family relationships like this: everyone is always wrong and everyone is always right. Like their patterns and emotions are already so ingrained that there’s no way out of it except through, because no one will ever win. But also there is love. Always there is love. And that’s how I know they’ll make it to the other side. TM: This novel has so many terrific female characters, who are at once immediately recognizable (sort of like tropes of contemporary womanhood, if that makes sense) and also unique. Aside from Andrea and her mother, there is Andrea's sister-in-law, Greta, a once elegant and willowy magazine editor who is depleted (spiritually and otherwise) by her child's illness; Indigo, ethereal yoga teacher turned rich wife and mother, and then divorcée and single mother; the actress with the great shoes who moves into Andrea's building; Andrea's younger and (seemingly?) self-possessed coworker Nina. They're all magnetic -- and they also all fail to hold onto that magnetism. Their cool grace, at least in Andrea's eyes, is tarnished, often by the burdens of life itself. Did you set out to have these women orbiting Andrea, contrasting her, sometimes echoing her, or was there another motivation in mind? JA: These women were all there from the beginning -- all of them. I had to grow them and inform them, but there were no surprise appearances. I never thought -- oh where did she come from? They were all just real women living and working in today’s New York City, and also they were real women who lived inside of me. I needed each of these women to be in the book or it wouldn’t have been complete. And also I certainly needed them to question Andrea. For example, her sister-in-law in particular sometimes acts as a stand-in for what I imagine the reader must be thinking, while her mother acts as a stand-in for me, both of them interrogating Andrea at various times. And also always, always, always in my work the female characters are going to be the most interesting. Most of the chapters are named after women. I had no doubt in my mind that I wanted a collective female energy to buoy this book. We’re always steering the fucking ship, whether it’s acknowledged or not. TM: Were there any models for this book in terms of voice, structure, tone of subject? Are there, in general, any authors and novels that are "fairy godmothers" for you and your writing? JA: Each book is different, I have a different reading list, but Grace Paley is my mothership no matter what, because of her originality, grasp of voice and dialect, and incredible heart and compassion. As I began writing All Grown Up, I was reading Patti Smith’s M Train and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, and when I was halfway done with the book I started reading Eileen Myles’s Chelsea Girls. I was not terribly interested in fiction for the most part. I wanted this book to feel memoiristic -- not like an actual memoir, that one writes and tries to put in neat little box, perfect essays or chapters, but just genuinely like this woman was telling you every single goddamn, messy thing you needed to know about her life. Those three books all feel like unique takes on the memoir. Patti Smith just talks about whatever the fuck she wants to talk about, and Maggie Nelson writes in those short, meticulous, highly structured bursts, where you genuinely feel like she is making her case, and in Chelsea Girls Eileen has this dreamy, meandering quality, although she knows exactly what she’s doing, she’s scooping you up and putting you in her pocket and taking you with her wherever she wants to go. So all of those books somehow connected together for me while I was establishing the feel of this book. And when I was finishing I read Naomi Jackson’s gorgeous debut, The Star Side of Bird Hill, which is also about family and a collection of strong women and coming of age, although the people growing up in her book are much younger than my narrator. But it was just stunning, and it made me cry, and the emotions felt so real and true. So I think reading her was an excellent inspiration as I wrote those final pages. Like you can’t go wrong with heart. TM: Since is The Millions, I must ask you: What was the last great book you read? JA: I just judged the Pen/Bingham contest and all of the books on our shortlist were wonderful: Insurrections by Rion Amilcar Scott; We Show What We Have Learned by Clare Beams; The Mothers by Brit Bennett; Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, and Hurt People by Cote Smith.
The Millions Interview

Laird Hunt Grapples with the Past: The Millions Interview

1. I read a lot, and so do you.  We read books, and we read about books.  Still, with surprising frequency, a writer comes across your screen, and you’re surprised you’ve never encountered his or her name or work previously. This was the case for me with Laird Hunt, whose seventh novel, The Evening Road, was published by Little, Brown last month.  Having followed the controversy around Lionel Shriver’s remarks at the Brisbane Writers’ Conference last fall (and having commented myself on the process of writing across race and gender in interviews), when I learned that Hunt, who is white and male, has written three novels featuring female first-person protagonists, two of whom are black, I took notice. And wondered why I hadn’t come across consideration of his work in this context earlier.  In an interview about his 2012 novel Kind One, a Pen/Faulkner finalist, Hunt had said: My approach to writing about people who are, in different ways, unlike me...is to speak of not for. In other words I’m not talking about appropriation here, but about acknowledging and actively advocating...a larger, truer, more exciting sense of our shared humanity. Five of Hunt’s novels were published by the venerable and very indie Coffee House Press in Minneapolis (only recently has he published with a corporate house); this struck me as possibly contributing to his quietish presence in the literary media.  In any case, with the release of The Evening Road, Hunt’s work may begin the shift to center stage. 2. Seven novels.  In addition to being specifically interested in the above-mentioned two, I am struck by Hunt’s range -- subject matter, setting, form, voice, conceptual and moral interests -- over a long career.  The earlier novels -- The Impossibly, The Exquisite, and Ray of the Star -- form a loose group: experimental in form, set in current times and urban environments, engaged in relational and conceptual puzzles.  Laird himself suggested such a grouping in a 2006 interview, and included his second novel, Indiana, Indiana, an elegiac, Midwestern family saga: I think of The Exquisite more as a brother or sister of The Impossibly, rather than as a son or daughter. Looking at it that way, I might suggest that Indiana, Indiana is a cousin of those two texts, a cousin that would have had more fun playing with The Exquisite than The Impossibly...even if The Exquisite wouldn't, I imagine, be caught dead with it. The Evening Road and Kind One are set in the periods of Jim Crow and slavery, respectively.  In Kind One -- inspired, says Hunt, by Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, which plumbs the little-known history of black slaveowners in the antebellum south -- a white woman named Ginny Lancaster narrates her past story as both abused and abuser; we hear later the first-person voice of Zinnia, one of two slave girls (sisters) whom Ginny tormented, directly and indirectly, and who subsequently revolted, shackling Ginny in a shed without food for long periods.  Neverhome features a nontraditional female -- a married woman who pretends to be a man in order to soldier for the Union during the Civil War. In The Evening Road, we hear two distinct first-person accounts -- by a white woman named Ottie Lee and a 16-year-old black girl named Calla Destry -- of events surrounding a lynching in a fictional Indiana town called Marvel. What I admire, and what is simultaneously difficult, about The Evening Road is its portrayal of the contradictions that riddle human nature and that ultimately fuel systematic acts of violence and injustice. White characters condone, participate in, find “festive” the spectacle of a lynching, while at the same time digress from that sanctioning in moments of more evolved humanness.  There is a critical scene in which a group of white characters steals a wagon from a black family, and two of the white characters express their sincere regret: He had served in the war and seen cornflowers [black men] fresh up out of Africa stand up and fight the kaiser with their bare hands and American cornflowers stand up to fight when no one else would…No one ought to have taken a wagon and left folks trying to get to a prayer vigil to set in the dark by the side of the road. Yet those characters go along and board the wagon, and their giddiness about the lynching returns soon enough.  It’s an affecting portrayal of sincerity and complicity together, disturbing -- and too familiar -- in its plain accuracy.  In addition, these white characters have painful stories of their own: Ottie Lee, the white female narrator, was the strongest voice for stealing the wagon, and we learn shortly after that as a child she was nearly killed by her mentally unstable mother on multiple occasions. Laird’s recent novels remind us that within the tradition of historical fiction, approaches to telling historical stories are diverse.  A review at Vulture of The Evening Road describes the novel, admiringly, as “More bonkers Americana than straight historical fiction.”  In a New York Times review, Kaitlyn Greenidge -- whose NYT Op-Ed piece about the Lionel Shriver controversy last fall became a lucid and important rallying voice for many writers of color, myself included -- criticized The Evening Road for being unrealistic; specifically for “attempt[ing] to prettify the violence” of a lynching, for example inventing terminology  -- “cornflower” -- for racist epithets (Hunt has spoken about this particular choice as both part of his writing process and ultimately an expression of the novel’s “alt world ontology”). Greenidge’s critique implies a belief that a novel concerning true acts of injustice -- acts that have been systematically minimized or ignored in order to dehumanize entire groups of people -- has a responsibility to the hardest of hard facts.  And while Greenidge doesn’t say so explicitly, her critique raises for me the question of whether that responsibility is heightened when the writer is a member of the racial group who committed and has benefited from the acts. Hunt is a white man more or less from Indiana. His varied, peripatetic background -- stints and partial education in Singapore, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Indiana, The Hague, London, and Paris as a youth and young adult, then New York, where he worked for the United Nations, and on to Denver for most of his adult life -- amounts to an unusually heterogeneous map of influences.  For five years, he worked as a press officer for the United Nations.  As a translator, French is the non-English language most in his ear, yet a crafted, lyrical 19th-century American dialect(ish) makes the music of four of his novels. Hunt engaged in this robust exchange with me, in the midst of a busy tour schedule.  We talked about inventing literary language, whiteness and complicity, historical surrealism, and the dual challenges of reviewing and being reviewed.  The Millions: Your seven novels cover such a wide range of subject matter and style.  I’ve suggested -- as have you -- that your work might be “grouped” into two phases.  When you consider your novelistic journey, what do you see in terms of continuities, kinships, pivots, departures, etc? Laird Hunt: My split trajectory as a writer is absolutely informed by my split trajectory as a person. I did seventh grade in London and eighth in rural Indiana.  Even after I had settled in then, on my grandmother’s farm, I spent my summers in Hong Kong, which is where my stepmother is from and my younger sister grew up. When I set to writing seriously I kept going deeply into the distinct archives my mind had built around these two sets of experience.  Still, just as I was keeping my hand in with Indiana during the years I was mostly publishing city novels set in something much like now, I am continuing to draw on my lengthy and varied urban experience in projects that are growing up quietly but insistently as I spelunk in the shallower and deeper pockets of the past of rural America. At a reading last night in Denver I announced, in a sudden moment of exhaustion, that with the publication of The Evening Road I had finished this exploration I undertook, for better or worse, of crucible moments in individual and national life. Almost as soon as I said it I remembered that the novel on witches I am currently completing, which is told by a female narrator and touches on questions of race, erasure, agency, and rebellion, will make me a liar when/if it is published. TM: Coffee House Press published your first five books; with Neverhome and The Evening Road, you’re with a larger corporate publisher, Little, Brown.  Some might perceive this as a “promotion,” but I wonder if you do. What has this pivot/departure meant for you -- professionally, creatively -- if anything? LH: Coffee House is one of the most amazing literary presses on the planet, and I wouldn’t trade my years of having had the honor of appearing on their lists for anything.   The move to Little, Brown has been exciting and in all ways quite seamless. I am still writing exactly those books I feel I need to write and am being fully supported as I do so. Support of course means receiving tough edits and essential feedback off the page too. Having friends in Minneapolis AND new ones in New York is an awfully pleasant side benefit. TM: In response to an interview question about Kind One and writing female characters in a context of racial injustice, you said: “[I]t’s time to do better. It has been time for a good long while now.” Four years on, and in the midst of heated cultural-political polarization -- are we doing better?  Worse?  Both? LH: We are far, indeed very far away from where we need to be as a country. I believe very deeply that we stand a better chance of getting there, if individually -- with care and determination -- we do our best to grapple with our past. And to own up to what we inherit from said past and how we perpetuate it. I do these things with fiction. Others do it other ways. Or plough some intriguing middle ground between essay, poetry, history and fiction. Do I think we will get there? Wherever there is? I am somewhere between “I don’t know” and “I do.” TM: Whose work in particular would you cite as inspiring? LH: There is a great deal of passion and brilliance at work out there. See Renee Gladman’s recent Calamities. Or John Keene’s Counternarratives. Or Karen Tei Yamashita’s Circle K. Cycles. Or a curious little book like The Correspondence by J.D. Daniels. TM: Given your wide and varied background and work as a translator, tell us about your sense of home, and language, and the voices in your writerly ear. LH: At just this moment the voice, so to speak, of the pianist Girma Yifrashewa is in my ears and rare is the occasion that I don’t have something equally extraordinary and transporting coming through headphones or earbuds as I write.  This has been the case for me almost since my earliest days as a writer, and I’m certain it has impacted on this question. Also, I went through a long period of reading a lot of poetry and even publishing work that wasn’t quite poetry (let’s be very clear), but had some linguistic charge, in poetry magazines, so some residual sonic eddies live on in my ear. Add to that the fact that I spent years living in places surrounded by people who didn’t speak English the way I do or speak English at all, then went to live with someone who had a very marked Central Indiana accent. My best friends during the five years I spent working as a press officer at the United Nations were from Kenya and Guyana, and just about everyone in the English press service (colleagues from Ghana, Nigeria, the Gambia, the Netherlands, England, New Jersey, the Bronx, Brazil, etc.) had their own way of shaping English. Which is to say the meaningful layers have accumulated as they do for all of us. When I’m digging in on voice it always feels like there is a lot to draw on. And it should be stressed, especially in the case of these three most recent books, that because the voices are composites and constructions, rather than faithful imitations of actual speech patterns from the past, it is useful to have more than just one way of getting things said in my ear. TM: Is there a sense, then, that you are creating a language/vernacular -- not so unlike what, say, Tolkien did in Lord of the Rings?  Tell us a bit about that approach, as opposed to actually attempting to imitate speech patterns? LH: There is a precursor to the voices I am working with in these novels in the character of Opal in Indiana, Indiana. We know her in the novel as the great love of the main character, Noah, and get direct access to her mainly through letters she writes him. These letters are adaptations of prose poems I wrote years ago in the wake of traveling to San Francisco and Paris. Something about their almost giddy, forward-rushing quality and the melancholy hiding in their corners, made them perfect for Opal.  Still, you wonder if you have gotten something right. In this case I had a kind of answer when I visited a museum attached to the Logansport State Hospital, the real-world equivalent of the hospital where Opal is for many years in the book. One of the exhibits was comprised of the letters of a brilliant young woman, an aspiring composer, who found herself at the hospital in the early 20th century.  The letters are not Opal’s but, wow, they were awfully close both in tone and content and even in some of their constructions.  It wasn’t the same but it felt the same. All this to say you can get to something that richly evokes the past for the 21st-century eye and ear by going at it otherwise. I have rarely felt more sunk in the past than I have in the pages of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels, and they are extraordinarily unlike the past as we would encounter it by reading diaries and other documents from that time. Then there is an approach like Paul Kingsnorth’s in The Wake. Kingsnorth creates what he calls a “shadow tongue” that is neither modern nor old English and the resultant hybrid brings the world most vividly to life. This is the sort of thing I am going for, trying for, failing better at. TM:  White characters like Ottie and Ginny are compelling in their human dimensionality, and also disturbingly complicit in racial violence.  Is your ultimate vision of white conscience a dark one? LH: In one of the scenes in Kind One, the ghost of a murdered slave returns to the narrator, Ginny Lancaster, as she lies in a misery of her own making. Before Ginny, the ghost dances a terrible dance in which eyes and ears and mouths sprout in frightening profusion from his body. He calls this dance “The Way of the World.”  In the wagon-stealing scene in The Evening Road, Ottie Lee makes an awful, self-damning choice that speaks pretty loudly to this “way” and to how unambiguously she is a part of it and is perpetuating it.  This doesn’t mean, and it almost never does, that she isn’t capable at other moments of compassion and doing the right thing.  Her companions are all stretched along this spectrum and slide back and forth depending on the situation. I don’t know how we get off this road of whiteness and onto some other. I do know that it’s real and we can’t afford abstractions when we discuss it and think about it and fight it. TM: In these combative times under this new political regime, some on the progressive left would say that empathizing with oppressors -- trying to understand where Trump supporters are coming from -- is folly.  Tell us about your specific hope/interest in alternating between white and black narrators in these novels about slavery and its legacy. LH: I think more than “folly,” as you put it, what I have heard or at least understood from the progressive left, of which I am a part (so we’re not all the same) is that it’s best not to undertake this sort of endeavor at all.  As in just don’t do it.  As soon as I start to hear proscription of this sort, especially around the arts, I want to get in there and see what’s going on.  How much great work would be gone if its author had not tried to go into the bad as well as the good? Think of all the characters in Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad who would have to be zapped because they are flawed, complex, and on the wrong side of things.  Even some of the worst of the worst in that novel, the relentless slave catcher, say, are allowed a story, a narrative, a past.  They aren’t just unexamined caricatures. Their dimensionality doesn’t let them off the hook: to the contrary. It’s just that instead of being told they are bad, we readers get to understand the textures of that badness and draw our own conclusions. TM: You’ve been writing in the tradition of historical fiction for some time now. How would you describe your fiction’s relationship to historical truth?  Is Kaitlyn Greenidge correct that certain situations would have been much more dangerous for black people in 1930s Indiana than is depicted in The Evening Road? Are the benign, sometimes harmonious encounters between black people and white people fantastical creations born of “a sort of reconciliation fantasy?” LH: Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go; Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren; Toni Morrison’s Beloved; Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier; Octavia Butler’s Kindred; Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior; Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber; George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo; Paul Beatty’s The Sellout; and Whitehead’s already mentioned Underground Railroad are just a very, very few of the novels that have effectively used the tools of fantasy, sci-fi, fable, allegory, satire, and humor to look at very serious subject matter.  These are the kinds of sources of inspiration I have gone to as I have written or considered the implications of my own recent novels. I would have thought The Evening Road, with its giant pigs; corn-based vocabulary; impossible prayer vigils; flag forests; a town called Marvel at its middle; hallucinations in foul beauty parlors; conversations with angels over breakfast; and bloodhounds wearing neckties, would have made clear its method and its lineage very quickly. Just as, to greater or lesser degree, the previous two novels did. I do the work I do then put it out there. Others get to critique it.  I review more than enough to know how much time and effort goes into writing a thoughtful take on something. That’s an act of generosity. If someone has taken the time to read one of my books, and has issues with it, I’m always ready to listen.
The Millions Interview

Whole Lives Are Dedicated to Not Thinking About Something: The Millions Interviews Dan Chaon

In the year 1999, Dan Chaon became my creative writing teacher. He was very young, and had just one book so far, a story collection called Fitting Ends, published by Northwestern University Press. I was basically a freckled zygote in red clogs who had no clue how to write a scene, much less a series of them. Dan showed me what was what, and he also said, Hey, read some Joy Williams, read some Lorrie Moore, do you know who Alice Munro is? Dan read everything, it seemed, and I was inspired to follow his example. In the years since, he has gone on to publish a second story collection, Among the Missing, which was nominated for the National Book Award, and two novels, including Await Your Reply, and then a third collection called Stay Awake. After reading his new novel, Ill Will, I can say, without reservation, that he is one of my favorite writers, living or dead, right up there with Edith Wharton and Margaret Atwood. His work is ambitious and weird. His characters are complicated and usually damaged, they make the wrong choices, they feel real. His prose is musical, and his imagery is at once startling and accurate. He writes stories that are compelling: stuff happens! Ill Will is about a man named Dustin whose boyhood testimony sent his adopted brother, Rusty, to prison for killing their parents, aunt, and uncle. Now, 30 years later, DNA evidence has exonerated Rusty, and Dustin is forced to face the past he's so diligently pushed out of his mind. But since this is a Dan Chaon book, there are other, equally striking and dark narrative threads. Dustin's wife is dying. One of his sons is losing control of his life. One of his therapy clients is obsessed with a string of drowning deaths, and he draws Dustin into his amateur investigation. This is a novel about grief, about being unable to accept reality, and about the myriad ways we trick ourselves about our selves. Dan was nice enough to answer some questions I had about the book via email. He said the first one felt like "a trap." Read at your own peril. The Millions: I was reading your book on Election Day and during the aftermath, too, when I have honestly never been more terrified for the future...and I wrote a post-apocalyptic novel for god's sake! The night of November 8th, I actually willed myself away from the TV and the Internet and went to read in my bedroom, trying to calm myself. It worked, for a while, because your novel is wonderfully immersive -- as a reader you want to know what exactly happened to Dustin's parents and aunt and uncle, and you're so deeply inside the characters' consciousnesses that it's impossible to think of any world but theirs. Can you talk about creating an immersive experience on the page? Dan Chaon: Edan, this is one of those lead-ins that feels like a trap. Like, you ask me: “What makes you so immersive?” And I’m like, “Uh…you tell me?” Cuz I don’t know. I know that there’s definitely some people who are disappointed and bored by the crap I write, and then there are people who like it, but I don’t have any control over it at all. All I can say is that I personally fell into this story and that it managed to colonize my imagination for many years. As a teenager in the 1980s, I was fascinated by the serial killer novels that were popular then, and I’ve always been a fan of the thriller genre, so as a writer I wanted to try my hand at it. At the same time, Ill Will is a deeply personal project, and I found that having the framework of the genre allowed me to write about grief and loss and self-deception more directly and honestly than I would have if I’d been writing a more autobiographical book. For some reason, the two things hooked together, and I had a “fantasy world” that was powered by my real emotion, which I think is the exact vehicle that you need when you’re writing fiction. In terms of an “immersive experience,” readers’ mileage may vary.  I was trying to find a balance between writing a straight-up Silence of the Lambs style procedural, and something more personal and idiosyncratic.  I hope that there is enough here to satisfy readers of both genres.   TM: I wonder if you feel if your writing has changed, or will change, in this Trump era. Do you have a different job, as a writer of fictive worlds, than you did before he took power? DC: This is such a hard question to answer.  I’m writing this on Feb. 8, 2017, and it’s only a few weeks into Trump’s presidency, so I have no idea where we’ll be when this interview is published.  I have never experienced this degree of destabilization before -- I don’t have any idea what shape the world will be in when my book comes out next month. We might be at war.  There might be riots.  I’m guessing, though, that everything won’t be fine.  Hi, people of the future!  From Dan, in February 2017!  YOLO! But to answer your question from my current innocent position, I don’t know.  I think we create fiction from the sewage that we are swimming in, and that whatever the world feels like at the moment will always infuse the fiction that we’re writing, like a tea bag in hot water. I wouldn’t have anticipated that the concerns of this book—self-deception,  fake news,  manipulation,  denial—would be so pertinent when the book came out.  There may be a slight case of prescience in it,  but I wouldn’t call it luck.       TM: This world you immerse your readers in is also a bleak one: four people were brutally killed decades earlier; Dustin's wife is dying of cancer; Dustin's son Aaron is addicted to heroin and floating through his grief; Cleveland is in post-industrial rot. But it's also funny. I laughed out loud quite a few times, especially during Aaron's millennial narration. Stuff like: "I never understood why people from the 1980s thought there'd be flying cars. It just seemed really dangerous and impractical to me, but they all talked about it, so it must have been a thing. Meanwhile, my dream for the future was that it wouldn't involve mass extinction and large-scale water shortages and cannibalism." Your work has always had this strain of twisted amusement, but it feels amped up here. Was this deliberate? DC: I’m always cautious about the word “deliberate,” because so much of the tone of a piece feels outside of my conscious control.  I actually found myself kind of unnerved that, for some reason, large stretches of the bleak and horrible landscape of Ill Will were hilarious to me.  Maybe some degree of levity was necessary for me, as a writer, in order to get through some of the darkest parts of the book.  Looking back, I can see that the Aaron and Rusty sections of the book were definitely inspired by the rhythms of stand-up comics, and the mordant tone of certain writers I find funny -- like George Saunders and Sam Lipsyte -- was also an influence. TM: I've never read such a poignant and visceral depiction of grief before -- you show how it dislocates and obliterates us, and you often do that formally, by stopping a sentence midway, for instance, or including many spaces between sentences. A couple of times, you place scenes in columns, so that they appear side-by-side, occurring separately but simultaneously. This formal play surprised and exhilarated me, and it was effective: it truly felt like lived experience to me, and how our brains process trauma. Did you feel like the novel, as it's traditionally written, simply couldn't express what you needed to express? Where in the writing did this experimentation occur, and can you talk about the various approaches and why you took these leaps? DC: I have a classroom exercise for my creative writing students called the “Box Exercise.”  I have students create a table with three columns and two rows, exactly the size of an 8 ½ x 11 sheet of paper.   The assignment is that each of the six boxes contains a scene of a story.  I wanted to force them to be concise, and to think about the way scenes work together like building blocks. It’s useful for the students to be able to see all the scenes together at once. I was inspired to create the exercise by a couple of things. Firstly, I spent a little time working in a writer’s room for a (failed) TV show, and the process of “breaking story” was fascinating to me, the way we put each individual scene on an index card and pinned it to a bulletin board, so that the story was represented not just in words, but graphically, visually.  I was also inspired by a chapter of Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit from the Goon Squad called “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” which is rendered as a powerpoint presentation. In any case, I loved the results I got from the students when they did this exercise.  By forcing them to work in these very tight, elliptical spaces, the exercise seemed to give them a creative jolt, and I was so taken with it that I started using the exercise myself, during free-writes.  Eventually, it became so deeply embedded into the texture of the book that I kept the weird formatting. My editor was a little doubtful about it at first -- and it was an incredible pain in the ass during the typesetting process --  but I’m really happy that we were able to retain it, because I do think it conveys something that couldn’t be expressed in a different way. TM: There were so many memorable names in the novel, like Dustin's cousin named Waverna, who is called Wave when she's younger, and Dustin's son's friend, nicknamed Rabbit, and my favorite: Xzavious Reinbolt, who also goes by...Amy. These names were endlessly delightful to me, and also realistic (I mean, my own name is crazy, right?) Can you talk about naming these characters and how they contribute to the overall tone of the book? DC: I steal names from my students, as you know -- there is a character named Eden in one of the stories in my collection Stay Awake, for example.  I also steal from friends and acquaintances, and from my children’s friends, and from random websites. Dusty and Rusty were two kids I knew in grade school, and Rabbit owned a bar that my parents liked to go to.  The last name Tillman was taken from the musician Joshua Tillman, who sings under the name Father John Misty.  I stumbled across the name Xzavious Reinbolt when I was doing a Google image search for arrest mugshots. Names are weirdly important to me.  I want them to be realistic in a way -- to evoke a certain social class and region and time period and mood -- but I also need them to have a music to them, to evoke something that has the quality of a dream or a fable, hopefully without being too cartoonish or distracting. I don’t know if it’s superstition or magic or what, but for me a name somehow breathes life into a puppet, gives shape to an abstraction. The characters often refuse to perform unless they have been properly christened. TM: You were raised in Nebraska and live in Cleveland now, and these are the landscapes in your work. I'm pretty sure I'm one of those latte-drinking, kale-eating coastal elites, and while reading your novel I was reminded that there aren't that many contemporary literary novels set in the places you write about. Or I'm not reading them. There's also a lot of class stuff. There's a great moment when Dustin recalls his wife saying that he wasn't merely unlucky, as he believes, just raised poor -- she says that bad stuff happens to poor people. What's the role of place in your fiction? And how present is class for you, as you're thinking about a character and their sense of themselves in the world? DC: I like kale too, Edan!   Especially baby kale, in a smoothie with mango and bananas! But it tastes different in Cleveland than it does in San Francisco. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that social class is actually my big subject.  It’s often a dirty word in political discussions, and easy to dismiss when compared to its companion, race. Generally, race is something that can’t be escaped or hidden; class, on the other hand, is a marker that’s far more nebulous, and part of the American delusion, for both the left and the right, is that it can be left behind, slipped out of like a suit of clothes. This is true to some extent, I think.  I’m a good example. I was raised in a working class family, and many of my relatives existed below the poverty line -- rural poor, trailer park poor.  My mother’s parents lived in a house without an indoor toilet.  They had an outhouse. But I am very distant from that world now.  I went to college at Northwestern, and the majority of my adult life has been spent in one form or another of middle-class or upper-middle-class life. I’m a college professor, and I earn a good living from my writing as well.  I’m a plump, privileged white liberal, and I don’t think you’d be able to tell that I’ve ever been any different. But I feel different.  I feel like an imposter a lot of the time. Class means many different things beyond income. It’s an attitude, too: there are people who are “classy,”  there’s a way of moving through the world with confidence,  an unknowing entitlement. There are people who come from “good families,” whatever their finances say.  Class is an invisible tattoo that marks your spirit, and I thought it would eventually go away, but now that I’m in my 50s I’m starting to think it won’t. Dustin’s right: it’s about luck.  People who are born comfortable are lucky, but they don’t know it.  I have lived among them for more than half my life, and my observation is that there is always a part of them that feels like they deserved it.  They don’t even realize how deeply the idea of “meritocracy” is built into their worldview.  Even if they would never admit it, they secretly feel that they earned their advantages somehow: poor people were not as smart, not as sensible, not as well-bred. If they just tried a little harder. Well. I did try harder. I threw away everyone I grew up with, gladly. I left for college and never went back, and I pretended to be my own creation, no nature or nurture either, just a self-invented person. See? I’m just like you, readers of The Millions.  My life is so different from some of my cousins' lives that we may as well live in different universes, but I achieved that by chopping off big parts of myself. I think those severed limbs are the ghosts that haunt my writing.  They come in the form of Rusty, the enraged, dangerous foster kid who is smarter than you, but who was doomed the minute he got dumped out of the womb; they come in the form of Aaron, who has everything he needs for a good, happy life,  but runs toward the arms of disaster as if it’s his only true love.  They are parts of myself that I have murdered, but they won’t stay buried.  They come in the form of Dustin, a man so split from his past life that he can’t even remember it. Whole lives are dedicated to not thinking about something.   TM: I usually ask writers in these Millions interviews what the last great book they read was, but since I know you consume not just books passionately, but also music, television, and movies, can you share with us what art and pop culture, of any kind, you've been enjoying lately? DC: The most recent good books I read are Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh and The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead by Chanelle Benz.  I just bought John Darnielle’s Universal Harvester.   My favorite albums of last year were Frank Ocean’s Blonde and Angel Olsen’s My Woman.   I loved the movie Moonlight, and am looking forward to seeing Get Out, directed by Jordan Peele. I am still faithful to the television show The Walking Dead, even though it is often disappointing.  I also watch Vikings and the Netflix show Sens8, and yes, Westworld.   My favorite podcast of last year was called "In the Dark," produced by APM Reports. As far as video games go, I played Dark Souls III for a while in 2016, but now I am back on Skyrim again.