Is Baseball What’s Wrong with America?

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, I managed to vanish unnoticed from my day job in an office in midtown Manhattan and materialize in the lovely little ballpark on Staten Island, where a minor-league affiliate of the New York Yankees was taking on the Lowell Spinners, a Boston Red Sox farm team. Beyond the outfield wall, the Statue of Liberty rose green and glorious out of the harbor and, in the distance, the glass forest of downtown Manhattan shimmered in the afternoon sunshine. The outfield grass sparkled, the foul lines glowed. This was heaven—or at least a major upgrade from my 9-to-5.

The crowd that afternoon was thin. It was, after all, a workday. The box score would claim the attendance was 1,664, which struck me as optimistic, and as I scanned my fellow diehards, I noticed something peculiar: Nearly every fan, myself included, was white. Among the wannabe Yankees and Red Sox down on the field, about half were white and half were Latino. There was only one black player on the field that day.

Maybe I wouldn’t have noticed this imbalance if I hadn’t recently read a column in the New York Times under the headline “With a Loud Ovation, Baseball Shows Its Whiteness.” The column told an unsettling story. During this summer’s All-Star Game in Washington, D.C., it had come to light that one of the participants, a 24-year-old white pitcher with the Milwaukee Brewers named Josh Hader, has a Twitter account laced with ugly statements written when he was 17 and 18, including “White Power, lol” with a clenched-fist emoji, “KKK,” “I hate gay people,” and repeated use of the N-word. Confronted with the tweets immediately after the game, Hader sort of apologized: “I was 17 years old, and as a child I was immature, and obviously I said some things that were inexcusable.”

The Times columnist, Michael Powell, rightly pointed out that no 17-year-old qualifies as a child. Then Powell delivered his kicker: When Hader strode to the pitcher’s mound in Milwaukee in his first appearance after the All-Star Game, thousands of white fans rose to give him a standing ovation. Powell went on to point out some facts that seemed to jibe with what I was seeing in the Staten Island ballpark. Baseball has fewer and fewer black players, few people of color in its executive offices, and it has the oldest and whitest fan base of America’s three major sports. Black and Latino players are routinely excoriated for wearing a cap backward during practice or flipping a bat in celebration after hitting a home run, while a white player receives a standing ovation after making racist and homophobic remarks. “For far too long,” Powell concluded, “too many baseball controversies have centered around older, white baseball men complaining about so-called insults to the game.” And, by extension, too few baseball controversies have centered around insults like Josh Hader’s—and fans’ reaction to them.

The problem, of course, is that so many of those fans are white and, more to the point, so willing to excuse an offense like Hader’s. Powell quotes Curtis Granderson, a gifted black outfielder now with the Toronto Blue Jays, who sees on a daily basis what I saw that Wednesday afternoon in the Staten Island ballpark: “We play this game, me and other black players, counting the black people in the stands who weren’t working at the game. ‘I see one! No, he’s Latino.’ You’re panning, panning, and sometimes it would take us seven innings to count ten.” With the jury stacked like that, what kind of verdict do you expect for infractions, large or small?

At the time I was learning about Josh Hader, I came upon a book called Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, which provided unexpected context for my uneasy thoughts about baseball’s whiteness. One of the book’s contributors is Ayana Mathis, author of the acclaimed novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. In an essay called “Against Unreality,” Mathis revisits her first encounter with the writing of James Baldwin—the long essay “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind” from Baldwin’s incendiary 1963 masterpiece, The Fire Next Time. Baldwin asserts that the only fact humans have is the fact of death, and that humans should rejoice in the fact of death, should earn their death “by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.” Then, stunningly, he adds: “One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return… But white Americans do not believe in death.”

Mathis points out that Baldwin is using white America’s denial of death as a metaphor for a larger and more complex denial: “the denial of reality, racial and otherwise.” And this denial leads to deaths of an even worse sort than physical death because these deaths continue to afflict the living: “political death, spiritual death, psychic death.” This larger denial, Mathis posits, leaves white America prone to nostalgia, which I define as the misguided yearning for a time that never existed. We’ve come, unexpectedly, back to baseball. “The country is prey to nostalgia,” Mathis writes, “which is the ultimate, backward-looking unreality. And also prey to a kind of preservation of a status quo that is also based on a fantasy of the past: a moment in time in which you could keep your factory job forever, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and life was all baseball and Cracker Jacks. Well, that was never the reality of America, certainly never for all Americans. But we move forward, politically and psychically, as though that nostalgic reality was in fact real.”

Yes, that’s precisely how we move forward. This was brought home to me during the seventh-inning stretch at the ballgame on Staten Island. After the fans stood and belted out that harmless bit of doggerel, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” the announcer asked everyone to remain standing and remove their hats. Everyone, players included, turned toward center field, where an image of Old Glory started fluttering on the Jumbotron above the outfield wall. Suddenly we were being bombarded by that blast of jingoism, Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America.” This sent me over the edge. I left my hat on and bolted for the nearest beer stand and stayed gone until the game had resumed. I couldn’t stop the nonsense, but at least I could refuse to participate in it.

As I rode the ferry back across the harbor after the game, I performed an autopsy on my day, which had begun in high spirits and ended in something close to despair. It occurred to me that it was inevitable—and almost too easy—to see the day in the context of our national moment. The standing ovation for Josh Hader comes at a time when the president of the United States refuses to condemn murderous white nationalists—and urges the owners of NFL football teams to fire any player who kneels during the playing of the national anthem to protest police killings of unarmed black people. That president has declared that poverty no longer exists in America. The millions who lap up his exhortation to Make America Great Again are the people who yearn to preserve a status quo that is based on a fantasy that never existed, a time when “life was all baseball and Cracker Jacks.” I have loved the game of baseball all my life, and still do. I object to the uses the game is now being put to—as booster of patriotism, as a smokescreen for “traditionalists” to treat people unequally, as a safe haven for abhorrent behavior. Meanwhile, beyond the outfield wall, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and the nation is mired in the two longest wars in its history.

So this is what we as a nation have come to, I told myself as the boat slid past the Statue of Liberty: a nation lost in dreamtime. James Baldwin and Ayana Mathis nailed it. Nostalgia is the ultimate unreality, and yes: The nostalgia-drenched game of baseball is definitely a symptom of what’s wrong with America. But it’s just the beginning of a much larger story.

Image: Flickr/Andrew Malone

Eroded Tropes and Fears and Consequences: The Millions Interviews Alyson Hagy

It’s been 18 years since Alyson Hagy and I both won a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Nested within the list of grantees was a scattering of addresses. I wrote to Alyson. She answered.

We’ve seen each other just twice in all these years. Our correspondence is legion. “I’m buried in a fat, loosely written Minette Walter crime novel just now,” she’ll write. “But Alice Munro and Madison Bell are next.” Or “I’m going to have to tweak the dramatic arc of the book in a significant way, but I think it’s the right way to go.” Or, “We have had a little cold rain here, and the skies have been huge and glowering—enough to tinge the aspens in town just a little.”

Her notes are like miniature novellas. Her gifts—shells, cards, carved stones—populate my windowsills. Her emoji choices can be quite hysterical, and once the sound of her voice on the phone insta-cured a migraine. When an Alyson Hagy book makes its way into the world (Ghosts of WyomingSnow, Ashes; Keeneland; Graveyard of the Atlantic; others), I try not to read too fast, for I know that with all the other things Alyson does in the world—her teaching and leadership at the University of Wyoming, her hiking and fishing, her tennis and travel—it will be too long before the next new Alyson Hagy comes my way.

A few weeks ago, Alyson’s new book, Scribe (Graywolf Press, October), arrived. I read this slender novel while storms pummeled the lily lake near a vacation cottage and before Kirkus, in its starred review, called it an “affecting powerhouse.” Rooted in Alyson’s Appalachia and yet otherworldly, bound by symbols and held just slightly out of time, Scribe is a storyteller’s book about the radical power and responsibility of words. It’s about a woman who believes she has nothing to offer but the words she can put on a page, and about those who ask for the favor. It’s about dogs, too, and tribal politics in a bartering culture. It’s about power and who wields it and who loses it, too.

I asked her questions.

The Millions: In a leaking red pen that has left my fingers looking bloody I began to circle all the places smell becomes story in your book: “the peppery scent of her best ink,” “the torched scent of sugar,” “the air-burned hints of lightning.” Why does that sense become so crucial in Scribe? I guess I can’t help but think about how dogs come to understand and navigate the world, and how large a role they play in your book. Is it the same for these characters? That they smell their way toward knowing?

Alyson Hagy: I suspect smell is vivid in Scribe because the story is set on the farm where I grew up, and I experienced that world as smell and sound as much as sight when I was a child. My parents and neighbors were extremely attentive to the natural world and how it expressed itself. They marked the arrival and departure of birds. They read their gardens and their fruit trees as if they were books. They knew what the neighbors were up to—harvesting, burning, fertilizing—based on smoke or stink or sweetness. I’m lucky I grew up around such attentiveness.

I’ve also lived with dogs my whole life. There is nothing like watching animals navigate the world to remind you what you’re missing. Being with animals makes real how many layers there are to the world—layers that aren’t visible but are true and essential. Dogs do smell stories. And they hear them, too. I am probably more obsessed with that kind of “story radar” than I realize.

TM: There are circles of evil in this book and circles of redemption. A rise and fall and meshing. Did you map these deliberately as you wrote? And does redemption always necessarily win in story?

AH: I didn’t map much of anything when I was writing Scribe, not until I tried to balance a few things out in later edits. The idea for the novel came to me in a flash as I was driving from Charlottesville, Virginia, to my home in Franklin County on the back roads. That country is beautiful and verdant and littered with the remnants of small family farms. People could live there sustainably again if they had to. So I began to wonder what the post-Civil War barter culture must have been like—and what might happen to women who didn’t have a practical skill or trade in an economy like that. I immediately imagined a woman who had nothing to trade but her literacy. I saw her as both mysterious, because of her power with words, and vulnerable.

Redemption does not always win out in stories. And it shouldn’t. I’ve tried to write about the costs of belief in books like Boleto and Snow, Ashes. I wanted Scribe to be a tale right from the get-go, something that reflects the inventiveness and mystery of the stories I grew up hearing, those Appalachian remnants. A lot of the strangest tales I absorbed as a child come from the Christian Bible. Evil and redemption are big things in rural brands of Christianity. So I probably plugged directly into those rhythms without even thinking about it much. I didn’t know what the scribe would find at the end of her journey until late in the first draft of the novel.

The work of other tale-tellers definitely hovers behind Scribe, too, books like The Long Home by William Gay and almost anything by Louise Erdrich.

TM: The sections are brilliantly labeled as the parts of a letter. Did the section titles come first or the story? In other words, did the titles bind you, shape your imagination, or did you discover that superstructure only in the wake of early drafting?

AH: The first working title for the book was The Letter Writer, and the word “Salutations” came to me almost right away. It was a blast from the past, from the days when girls at my high school took Typing (I kid you not) and boys took Shop Class. Anyhow, as I recalled the parts of a letter, I thought I might be able to use them. I tried not to let them dictate too much. I wanted the “Alphabet” section to contain only 26 segments, for instance. But it wasn’t working. So I drafted as many segments as I thought I needed and kept the title. It was definitely fun to mess around with concept of enclosures.

TM: The dangers of authoritarian rule are made abundantly clear in Scribe. Did current political fever shape the tale? Is compassion the only fix for now?

AH: Believe it or not, Graywolf accepted Scribe in December 2015 before the political fever spiked, at least in this country. But certain anxieties and evils made their way into the book, probably because they have been stewing in my home culture (and elsewhere) for a very long time. Appalachians are tribal, and tribes often take comfort in authoritarian rule. It makes defining who is “in” and who is “out” simpler. Christianity, as defined by some folks, can exacerbate the tribal, too. Also, the evils of slavery still haven’t faded from that land—and instinctive distrust of outsiders or migrants of any kind remains very high. I want Scribe to be universal in the way tales are. I hope it translates beyond the Blue Ridge. Billy Kingery is the kind of leader who appears to make life easier. He’s an eloquent populist. And he will take all the power you are willing to cede, just like any devil will.

Compassion? If we cannot find it, we will see those who aren’t like us as “other,” as enemy. Literature—all art—is essential to human empathy.

TM: How and when did you discover the Jack tales that rustle to the surface in this tale? Certainly we all know “Jack and the Beanstalk” as children. But I did not realize there were so many of those Jack tales, and that they had arrived to the Appalachian region in the ways that they did. Can you talk about them?

AH: First, may I mention how cool it is to get that question from someone related to the incredible Horace Kephart, a man who pioneered the preservation of Appalachian landscape and culture?

I grew up near the Blue Ridge Institute at Ferrum College, one of the region’s first centers for all things Appalachian. The inventive Roddy Moore made sure school children, and adults, were exposed to productions based on the Jack tales. I loved seeing the past brought alive. I was never able to hear the tales told by an old-timey storyteller. They were all gone by the time I was born. Yet vestiges of the stories were embedded in anecdotes told by my father and superstitions relayed by neighbors. When I saw a play or eventually read the collected texts, I recognized eroded tropes and fears and wonders—and that fascinated me. I love how stories fall apart and morph and arise again. When I was a kid, folks would tell strange stories about certain crossroads. And every once in a while, an older person would remind you not to play cards with the devil, literally or figuratively. I have twisted and mashed up Jack tale fragments for my own use in Scribe. Yet I hope I’ve conveyed just how enjoyable a good story can be. And how fluid stories are even while they, sorry for the pun, inscribe our culture.

TM: Thank you for mentioning Horace Kephart, who left his gilded library life in St. Louis so that he might spend the rest of his time learning and then advocating for the culture, geography, and future of the Appalachians. You and I are perpetually unburying family. Speaking of which: Your family lore is mentioned in the acknowledgements. I have to know which lore found its way to Scribe.

AH: The “Enclosure” story, the myth about the soldier with the coin, is based on a family story from the Civil War. As my grandfather told it, a solider fleeing the Battle of Antietam sought food and shelter near the Potomac River where my great-great-grandmother had been left alone on the shambles of a tenant farm that had been plundered by troops on both sides. She fed him. He gave her a gold coin he earned when he saved the life of Colonel Jeb Stuart, the flamboyant Confederate raider. He didn’t believe he would live very long, and the coin was all he had save his firearm and his horse. The coin was etched with Stuart’s name and Latin motto. It’s still in the family, although there is no evidence Stuart ever truly handed out such things.

I also borrowed some names and other incidents. My kinfolk will recognize them.

TM: Sisters. You render the complexity of the relationship beautifully. How have you come to understand that relationship and its tugs on the soul?

AH: I have a sister, and she is a remarkable woman and was one of the very first readers of Scribe. I needed her eyes on the story because she’s an avid reader but also possesses a more intuitive heart than I. My mother had two sisters—grand souls who were, nonetheless, very different from her. I’ve been watching sisters all of my life. Yet parsing the relationship between the scribe and her sister was the hardest part of the book for me. The scribe possesses many of my own weaknesses. She misses important opportunities for connection in the world. So how do you get a character like that to make the right leap when she needs to?

TM: “All a writer can do is lay out the consequences of a person’s choices,” you write. I love that. It shifts, for me, something I have been trying to name myself. How did you come to this knowing?

AH: That line came to me late in the writing of the novel. It took me a while to figure out what Scribe was really all about. That’s usually the case for me. I get going with a character and a situation and events begin to spool out in front of me if the writing is going well. But in the end, the how and why of storytelling is at the heart of Scribe just as the how and why of art is at the heart of a great novel like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. I didn’t read that book until I had grappled through the second draft of Scribe, but it affirmed for me my hope that art can, and must, survive any disaster we bring upon ourselves as humans. No matter how digital the world becomes or how far we fall into our most brutal, tribal instincts, stories matter. Story makers are pivotal in all cultures. The consequences of human choices as we lay them out are important to building and maintaining societies.

TM: You will never write the same story twice. What released you to write this dystopian fable? When did you know that you could not not write it? Where lay the struggle?

AH: It probably says a lot about me that I didn’t think of Scribe as dystopian until I began to share it with early readers. The Appalachia I grew up in was beautiful and deprived, although I occupied a privileged place in it. Folks still spoke of polio and measles quarantines as if they were recent. Tragic tales are the coin of the realm in the South. Relaying death and destruction is second nature. I thought I was writing a slightly altered post-Civil War history of the hills where I grew up. I ended up with something different. I felt like I had to write it once I envisioned that besieged and lonely woman standing next to that faltering brick house with her dogs. The struggle was in trying to maintain its strangeness, to not explain too much, to trust that readers can and will shape some of the tale on their own.

It’s OK to Be a Writer and a ____

There are many essays on the “five habits of successful writers,” or “how to get your writing done when everything else is crowding in on you.” This isn’t one of those pieces. It is, however, an essay about continuous identity in a world which constantly asks us to align the self with its occupation.

I currently work as a college president. I also write poetry. If I had true courage, I used to tell myself, I would be “only a poet.” But I don’t say that anymore, since after much introspection I have accepted the fact that I love to build and make things, including institutions. Despite all of the criticisms (both deserved and undeserved) that have been leveled at liberal arts education these past few decades, it’s still one of the best gifts American culture has given to the world. I am daily inspired to lead a liberal arts college, with all the academic politics, long term resentments, and bureaucratic entanglements such work entails.

I frequently hear the question, “How can you do both things?” The question is usually friendly, uttered by a colleague or a student who is waiting for me to reveal a secret superpower. Sometimes it is skeptical, as in “You might want to make up your mind which you want to be.” Very rarely, it is subtly hostile. In these moments I am reminded that some poets did not meet the multiple identity challenge, and only worked in multiple careers sequentially. While he was a French diplomat, St. John Perse refused to write creatively, believing as he did that it might be inappropriate for a public service officer and perhaps even dangerous to the state. But others did not. T.S. Eliot rejected a fund that his Bloomsbury friends set up for him, preferring a routine bureaucratic income and life at Lloyds’ Bank, and later at Faber, as more conducive to poetic work. Wallace Stevens remained an insurance man his entire professional life. Pablo Neruda served in the Chilean Foreign Service for most of his career.

Even with such examples, it is hard not to succumb to the idea that there should be a bright line between the two activities. Once, when I was going through a writerly dry spell, a fellow poet suggested I write a book of poems with bureaucratic themes, such as “budget” and “reconciling the numbers.” She suggested later that even a budget could be seen as a poem, with its condensations and juxtapositions of meanings. I laughed and instinctively recoiled at both suggestions, because they seemed so impossible. But I later realized she was only asking me to put into practice the ideas suggested many years ago in Scott Buchanan’s Poetry and Mathematics, a book I reread frequently for its open embrace of the common properties of geometry and verse.

And such a book of poems about things bureaucratic could be a real opportunity for social commentary. Amy Lowell’s “A Ballad of Footmen” is one such early brave attempt—a poem composed in protest of war and its oppressive proceduralism: “It is folly to think that the will of a king/Can force men to make ducks and drakes of a thing.” Vladimir Mayakovsky’s “My Soviet Passport” depicts a deeply ambivalent relationship with the workings of the state: “I’d root out bureaucracy once and for ever. / I have no respect for formalities. / May every paper go to the devil/But for this… / This little thing, so dear to me, / I withdraw from my loose pantaloons, / Read it and envy me: I happen to be / A citizen of the Soviet Union.”

But for me, writing these poems about bureaucracy will have to wait. They will have to wait partly because to undertake the project would be acquiescing to the idea that there still must be a unified identity of the writer in order for any writing to be comprehensible.

Because these identities might be irreconcilable to the outside world, I think it is worth invoking the the Tanpura Principle in response. The tanpura is a long-necked, lute-like instrument in Indian music that sustains the other instruments by providing a drone. Tanpura players do not provide their own melody, but pluck the instrument’s four strings in a continuous loop of rich tones, to provide a base from which the soloist can draw in singing or playing the raga melody.

The Tanpura Principle in writing is the idea that much of writing occurs while doing something else, because the base of poetic inspiration, the supporting drone, is always there. It’s what my friend meant when she quipped that even a budget could be a poem. She did not mean that one had to ruthlessly integrate identities in order to make oneself intelligible to the outside world, but that in poetry there was a kind of harmonic listening that could occur anywhere, and in any way.

There are times when we don’t hear the drone, because we are too tired or too overwhelmed with other emotional, spiritual or even logistical challenges to know it. But the point is not then to “cultivate inspiration,” rather, it is to remember that the drone is always there, perhaps even especially there, in the fatigue and frustration of our “other” work.

Poet Maxine Kumin writes of such a moment as she describes finding the house that would eventually become her farm and home in New Hampshire:
The downhill side of the barn opened onto a barren patch that might have been at turnout area for livestock. Behind the tumbled-in back end of the barn the remains of a small stony pasture were visible. I suddenly realize there were no other houses on this nameless road. No sound of vehicles in the distance. No voices. The silence filled with bird calls.
She goes on:
I didn’t know it just then but this poem, “Country House,” was brewing. It opens:

After a long presence of people,

after the emptying out,

the laying bare,

the walls break into conversation.

their little hairlines ripple

and an old smile

crosses the chimney’s face.
Kumin had the experience of looking at the house in 1961, and the poem was published five years later, in 1966. In her brief description of discovery, she intimates a theory of creativity, in which small moments of pause, or perhaps even of frustration or panic, can also be forms of insight that come to fruition in a poem years later.

My own recent book of poems, House Crossing, was also about homes—but losing them, not finding them. It was dedicated to the memory of Gaston Bachelard, whose work, The Poetics of Space, was deeply influential. My elemental experience of domestic architecture was like the drone of the tanpura. The geometry of a house became the basis of poetic insight that would sometimes only appear to me decades later.

For writers, there is continuity of perception across multiple forms of labor, multiple choices of career, multiple explorations of identity, and even the multiple identities that might be given at birth. That capacity for perception, for insight, enables the harmonic resonance that might come in the form of a piece of writing created years and careers later, across marriages and sexualities, moods and masks.

My answer, by the way, to how to write when we are overwhelmed by other work is simple: Write for an hour a day, no matter what. But the far more important thing is who we think we are during that hour. The most important thing we can do when we are asked to be One Thing is to continue on in our puzzling multiplicity.

Image: Flickr/streetwrk.com

The New Periphery: Sergio De La Pava Discusses His Artistry and Sense of 21st-Century Fiction

In early July, I was able to sit down and interview Sergio De La Pava, the explosive, encyclopedic author who heralds a new era of the novel. A public defender in New York City, Sergio wrote his first novel on the commute to and from court cases, self-publishing the nearly 700-page A Naked Singularity in 2008. When it was republished by the University of Chicago Press, it received the PEN/Robert Bingham prize for Debut Novel. Since then, his second and third novel, Personae and Lost Empress, received similar acclaim from readers and critics alike. A writer on the periphery of the American literary scene, Sergio De La Pava’s response to art is electric, charged and ready to jolt complacency with the art form.

The Millions: What did literature mean to you before you began writing? In a public conversation with other authors, you explained that your interest in writing began at around seven or eight. In your latest novel, a young boy loses his father and, during that morbid transition from winter to spring, he discovers Emily Dickinson, titling a personal essay “Emily Dickinson is Saving My Life and I Can’t Even Thank Her,” and while I know that’s the intimate relation each reader has to literature, each of your novels contends with the moment an individual receives such profound experience with literature that they in turn become an artist. In A Naked Singularity, you’ve got the protagonist Casi working on an immense project; in Personae, we as readers discover the fragments of a man’s oeuvre after his death; in Lost Empress, it’s Nelson De Cervantes with Emily Dickinson and Dia Nouveau with Joni Mitchell. What was it for you?

Sergio De La Pava: I think initially, my relationship with literature was something similar to what Nelson De Cervantes experiences in the terms of, I don’t want to say initial experiences with literature, but ones the ones that persist and remain memorable, it feels like a life-raft, it feels in some sense like saving your life and allowing you to continue to navigate what has been to me a very confusing and ultimately frightening experience, meaning life. I think what I depicted, with respect to Nelson, is that means by which you find nothing so blatant as guidance, but almost consolation, such that x, y, and z may be true, but it’s also true that these poems or this novel or work of art was created.

When I refer to the seven or eight-year-old thing, I was referring to that age when I spent a summer in Colombia, and I remember kind of missing the English language above all things. I remember coming across Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea in English in my grandmother’s house. I devoured that, I distinctly remember that being the first time I made this leap between the fact that something like that exists and the realization that someone had to have created it, an individual behind this experience. It seems obvious now, but when you’re seven or eight it’s not, something like clouds, something you don’t question how it exists. But with this book, it was the first time I realized a guy like Hemingway is the reason this book exists, and it was probably the first time I remember thinking I wouldn’t terribly mind if I was the reason one of these books existed. That’s something that’s always stuck in my mind. It wasn’t so much about the artistic experience of the book, though for a 7-year-old it was intense, it was more about the realization there’s these people that identify as writers and they’re the ones responsible for books that exist or don’t exist. A lot of my novel Personae deals with that earliest question, of who gets to be called writer, who decides to dive into an activity in this more intense way than readers could experience.

TM: In the end of that public conversation I mentioned, you were asked to give a book that summarily defines the experience of being in New York, and you give Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, you described the novel as being able to “marry aesthetic concerns while still having a more revolutionary message to it… all [your] novels are trying to ferment nonviolent revolution.” Each artist, I believe, must engage in what that marriage means to produce. Whether they end up producing such as work as Invisible Man is not as important for that artist as their asking how they will use literature to advance aesthetic and cultural concerns. What works or authors became for you that marriage of aesthetic and political concerns you would place your work alongside?

SDLP: Do you think every novelist has political concerns? It would seem that—well, what book is popular right now?—it would seem that the author of The Marriage Plot did not have political concerns. But you are right that I pretty clearly do, right? I will say that all the aesthetic concerns that I have when I sit down to write a novel absolutely trump any political concerns. They are by far more paramount, more important. Because I am engaging in an activity where there is no reality, and nothing can exceed the aesthetic achievement. If my political concerns were paramount, then I would write an op-ed or a nonfiction book as many have done and very skillfully. In those situations, my concern would be those political realities I’m resisting in, what I’m agitating for, those options are open to everybody. When I’m functioning as a novelist, the demands of the novel have to be paramount. The reason I brought up Invisible Man is that it clearly has to me a political purpose but at no point do I feel that that political purpose overrides the aesthetic achievement of the novel. As somebody who has this whole other career that is almost all political purpose, I have to be more careful, maybe, than most, in writing the novel. I have to be more careful, that it doesn’t become a didactic piece of journalism because that’s a preexisting category I can feel free to engage in whenever I want to.

TM: And you have!

SDLP: The kind of concerns that build up and overflow in my mind, that cause me to write a novel, are rarely political. They feel more philosophical or poetic. Those feel to me the driving force of the novel. The politics of it, the radical agenda or whatever you want to call it, is quite often a function of the setting where the philosophy and poetry is happening.

TM: I think that act of achieving a political statement as a result of the aesthetic work connects well to what Ellison was about. I’m interested to know which American authors, like Ellison, might’ve provided a framework to search for truth, and who you eventually had to move past to develop your own work.

SDLP: Well I don’t necessarily identify with someone because they’re American. I go by language, I go by writing in English. To me a country is essentially an invented, if not meaningless, then low-meaning thing. I don’t take particular meaning from the fact I was born in the United States. English, now that’s a different story. English colors everything that happens in the work. The language colors everything. Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, to name writers who wrote in English. Certainly a lot of translated works have been important to me, but those were the seminal figures, always tempered by the thought that “great, they did what they did, but it’s time for an updating.” Those are all writers who stopped writing at least 80 years ago. In a lot of ways, I think the distance of time makes those influences more useful than looking to contemporaries or colleagues or doing the same thing you are and looking for inspiration there. It’s never worked that way for me.

TM: So it’s not necessarily the questions proposed in say, To the Lighthouse may not provoke today; it’s that enough time has passed that you feel them worth revisiting? Do they serve greater inspiration because of their distance?

SDLP: I suppose I don’t have a good grasp by what we mean when we say “inspiration.” Everything has “inspired” me to write but that’s not the same as saying I’ve found joy in or found profitable every single thing I’ve read. Often times, I receive negative inspiration, where I say “I don’t like that, I don’t think that’s what the novel is for, that that’s how you execute a novel.” And that can be more useful than sitting there and going “well, that novel’s as close to perfection.” When you think about it, in many ways, we as humans act out with dissatisfaction a lot more often than we do with satisfaction. A lot of the times when I’m reading, I receive this dissatisfaction, a wanting, and a highly critical response, and those serve as more useful than something that is masterful. When something’s masterful, to me, it’s done. There’s nothing left to say. There’s nothing left to do in response. I often wonder: If I were insanely impressed by the majority of novels I’ve read, would I even write? I probably wouldn’t. I think it’s the opposite. Part of the reason I write is because I find modern novels so lacking.

TM: It seems your latest novel, Lost Empress, was the attempt to bridge two very distinct styles of novel together. In a previous conversation, you used Invisible Man and Pride and Prejudice as examples of these two styles. I’m wondering, using this term of translation, how did you translate the experiences of previous novels into this work?

SDLP: The novel is limitless, there’s more than Invisible Man and Pride and Prejudice. I think what I meant was that I was inspired to take two conceptions of the novel that seemed like they will not mix and so Invisible Man and Pride and Prejudice are two seemingly different novels in a way no other two novels could seem as different. The challenge was this: If the novel has the ability to subsume any category into its form, can you prove that by marrying these two wildly different concepts, without the infrastructure showing? That challenge can excite you, make you go “yeah, I can do that,” and that excitement can carry you for the next four years. I have a lot more freedom with that challenge than, say, translation, because there’s a hardcap to how much I decide Anna Karenina is before it no longer fits into the idea of translation. When I do this, I’m doing it with my terms and nobody’s going to tell me it doesn’t fit.

TM: I would say that while each of your work contends with reality, Lost Empress questions what is real and how we define that. Not just translating experience but transcribing it. We have this character, Sharon, a CO for paramedics, who breaks down after decades of listening to calls in which children are maimed and assaulted. But her coworker doesn’t console her, she says “that’s as real as realism gets.” I’m wondering how you can talk about the act of writing as a series of freedoms but also have your characters confront and rebel against the tragic fictions you pit them against. Is this perhaps where you attempt to bridge the two conceptions of the novel, the fantastical reproduction of reality and reality’s strenuous subjugation?

SDLP: I’ve always had this weird sensation that the world depicted in the novel is as real as ours; it’s just a matter of perspective. I feel that the conclusions I draw from immersion in a fictious, well-done novel can easily be applied in this world, with a reality that hits us every day. I don’t make distinction, I get upset about things that happen in novels and I don’t find any consolation in being told they’re a fictitious character. When I would write Sharon’s narrative, it would upset me as much as if she were like any other person I knew in life. That’s probably not the healthiest attitude, but that’s part of the reason why I inject things that are uncontroversially true of our world, such as a Rikers Island inmate guidebook or Joni Mitchell or Salvador Dali, because the facts about them are verifiably true. Part of the reason I don’t draw distinction is because convention would have us place the fiction below reality. whereas I think that fiction should be placed alongside reality.

TM: When you say you have a visceral reaction, it’s well understood. In that public conversation, someone brought up the fate of the character Nuno in Lost Empress and you looked like you were sucker-punched, you said “well, I care a lot about him, and I’m sad that it ended.” It’s this character you spent a lot of time with, but even though you say you’re with this freedom to write the novel, your characters actively protest their existence within the novel, shouting “truth in everything!” On this idea that characters are aware of what’s happening, could you say something on where you think the novel heads in the 21st century? Throughout your work, you’re referencing pop culture and pop media such as TV, the novel Lost Empress begins with the decree “let us enter into peals of laughter,” and the opening scene is in the form of a sitcom script. Though the structure of the script disappears, the kinetic quips remain in stark contrast to the looming darkness that bridges the novel’s first and second act. I’m wondering if you did this in respect to new media that competes with the novel, or if this was an aesthetic concern.

SDLP: I don’t care about the new media, I really don’t. I don’t accept that television is the new novel, that’s silly. It’s just as dumb as it ever was. I’m not competing with that stuff because I will lose, I will lose in a first-round knockout. My novels are asking that you enter into a completely different space than the one you’re in when you binge-watch Breaking Bad. I mean I watched all of Breaking Bad and The Wire and I enjoyed that but it’s not the same as when I read Mrs. Dalloway or Moby Dick or The Confidence Man.

TM: And yet your novels interject that media constantly.

SDLP: My novels, I hope, attempt in some way that just because you’re in the world where you read The Confidence Man or Bartleby The Scrivener doesn’t mean you have to forsake all the pleasures of a quick one-liner like you said. The narrator at the beginning of Lost Empress says “we’re gonna keep this pretty light,” and then, clearly, he fails to keep it light. Sharon’s abused, people are kept in isolation by the Grand Jury. But the attempt was there in the beginning, like a screenplay for a screwball comedy, and then reality keeps interjecting to the point where it can’t sustain. And you see there’s this thing where privileged people can keep it light, but ultimately none of us can keep it light, because this commonality of experience of that desolating experience will win out, or simply time’s up. There’s a character in Lost Empress, the Theorist, who describes two timelines: that of the reader and that of the novel. You know he’s experienced our reality because he describes the David Tyree catch, and he’s the only one who’s been in our timeline that’s also in Nuno’s timeline, so he says “this timeline that we’re in is ending,” and that’s verifiably true by the fact the novel’s ending, but that’s also true for the reader’s timeline, regardless of the world you’re in. And that’s not necessarily the most salient fact of your life, I hope not, that’s not that productive. But it’s there and it colors the events of life, in Personae especially, the fact that life is so fragmentary and fast.

TM: As a reader of these narratives, we can pick and choose where and when we pick up and drop off, but then what does that do for the truths of your characters? Sharon decides to remain in an abusive relationship with her husband to ensure her son’s success, a quarterback decides to suffer terminal brain damage to win a football game, Nuno escapes prison only to realize his world is ending; what makes them matter? Not in the moralistic sense you object to, but what is the saving grace for theirs and our lives by the novel’s end?

SDLP: Nuno lays this out for us at the end of the novel rather explicitly. Despite the fact there is an ending, he finds merit in all things by the fact they happened. He lays it out for us, when people say “oh, humanity’s but a speck of dust in the history of the universe,” well that’s a dumb thing to say! It’s never been about how long we’ve been around or the value of an uninhabited planet. He tackles this sense of insignificance head on because that desire to be heard is the value. Not because what we’re going to say results in x, y, and z, but because we could manage to do something. And there are people who will disagree, who say that because life has an end renders everything meaningless. That’s a view. I don’t think that’s a logically impossible view, but I don’t share that view and I don’t think anyone in that novel shares that view. Sharon decides to create meaning from her life by ensuring her son’s survival, and she could be wrong of course, but that’s for everybody to decide for themselves. That’s what we do as human beings. Why did I put a suit on today and come into my office? Because I decided that helping someone within the machine of the criminal justice system has meaning. I could be wrong, I guess, because that seems unlikely. When you experience that meaning, such as when I’m raising my two-year-old, that doesn’t feel meaningless, it just doesn’t. It feels like meaning irrespective of the entire fate of humankind.

TM: It makes me wonder about the kind of person who is satisfied by meaninglessness, or whose fear of meaninglessness is correlated to a lack of morality. These people seem to lack the experience of meaning made by living a full life.

SDLP: Right. It’s like pessimistic authors who take these works where everyone is evil and wrong and the world is mean. That’s a weird proposition, that I think is done by infantilized writers who take on this worldview and get praised for their “honesty.” But those type of people ignore the other half of humanity, like that guy who volunteers on Sundays to bathe the elderly. You’re going to tell me that that person’s evil, that their actions are meaningless? Those writers who suffuse their work with meaninglessness have to categorize and ignore the others. I feel like it is just as intellectually dishonest to find everybody good as it is to find everybody bad. Neither one feels fair.

TM: So your fiction is an attempt at something more honest to life.

SDLP: I don’t think these are optimistic works, but I don’t think they’re pessimistic works either. I’m attempting to grapple with the fact that humanity is capable of terror and greatness.

What the World Demands of You: The Millions Interviews Margo Jefferson

I meet Margo Jefferson for breakfast at her hotel in Boulder, Colorado, where she’s speaking at a literary conference. She’s energetic in both her speech and movement, gesturing, reaching, illustrating with her hands—artifacts, I think, of her years immersed in theatre, where her criticism earned her a Pulitzer.

After our interview, I watched her at various panels during the conference and even in the face of confusing questions, she was smiling, gracious, witty as she discussed her upbringing and Negroland, her 2015 memoir of life in 1950s and 1960s America within upper-class black society.

We spoke about that book, its implications within today’s political context, her advice for young women of color, and what she’s working on now.

The Millions: Negroland is a cultural memoir. I had the feeling in reading it that you’re quite strategic in the places and times that you show us your emotions and motivations versus the times that you present yourself quite objectively, even clinically. How did you go about making these choices?

Margo Jefferson: It was a big breakthrough for me working on it, when I realized that certain ways in which I was brought up—always presenting a certain strategically composed self—and the fact that these things were sometimes competing, and sometimes collaborating. I had to both write about it and embed those contradictions in the writing.

Also, I’d spent my writing life as a critic. My initial feeling was that those kinds of tones and voices had to go; this was memoir. But then, I realized, no, that was as much a fixed part of my identity as other things. I realized I had to include the critic who is diagnosing, who is assessing, who is judging against a kind of backdrop that is aesthetic, cultural, political.

Third, I’d been brought up in the world of Negroland, a world where you might have to switch persona at any moment, depending, for example, on what my mother’s needs were, here’s what Betty Anne down the street needs, here’s what my teacher needs. In this situation, I have to confess to a certain awareness, a certain kind of knowledge. In this [other] situation, I have to play innocent. That’s theatrical, but that’s also psychological and factually accurate, this constant construction of different performing selves. Those were my guidelines.

And there was also a kind of raw emotional drive–I really did find that I couldn’t get at certain of the passages when I was in high school until I put them in the third person and I thought that once I did that, I could rewrite it in first person, but then looking at it on paper, I realized that it could work the way it was because adolescence is such a peculiar and isolated story. It’s almost fantastical, getting through adolescence!

TM: Yes, it seems that you were playing around not only with form, but also with perspective and point of view.

MJ: That was really interesting to me. I thought, if I’m trying a new form, then let me try strategies and devices as a writer that I haven’t before. I wanted dialogue, I wanted scenes, I wanted confessions, I wanted lists. So, it had to be more collaged in terms of form, style, strategy.

TM: You had a habit in your book of stating your intentions. At various points, you write, “let’s unpack this,” “I’m going to change my tone now,” “I’m going to begin in a quiet, clinical way.” What was the reasoning behind this?

MJ: Yes, it was deliberately disruptive, almost like a placard. I believe that began when I wrote the introduction, when I said “I was raised not to do certain things”—essentially, not to write memoir. That was a huge breakthrough for me because I was giving myself license to write, to struggle, with this writing. And those announcements were a kind of externalization of those little “clicks” where I had to re-adapt my persona in real life as the situation changed, as who I was with changed. I liked them as a theatrical device, too—you interrupt the dramatic action with an alienation effect.

TM: You wrote, “white people wanted to be white just as much as we did. They failed just as often. They failed more often.” That’s a really interesting statement in today’s political context. Do you think those competitive urges among white people—for everyone in society to live up to the ideals of whiteness while making sure that non-white people did not outdo whites—played out in the 2016 elections?

MJ: The Obamas embodied the dreams of minorities and everything that was impressive and traditionally thought of as white, but they showed it could also be acquired by black people. When Obama was at his best, he signaled that those ideals were not purely white. The best of Obama came in part from intellectuals like W.E.B. Du Bois—there were black and “third-world” intellectual and cultural and political traditions informing him. To see how those combined with “Western training”—that was impressive. But many of us knew there would be punishment—“there will be blood,” as the saying goes!

TM: When you appeared in the Still Processing podcast a few days after the 2016 elections, you pointed out that you and Hillary Clinton were born in the same year and that you both had to make yourself into “serious” women. How do you think those processes differed for the two of you?

MJ: For one thing, I became a writer; I got involved with the arts, and that demands in some way—even from a critic—a certain expressivity. Even as a little girl, I wanted to be a pianist, then I wanted to be an actress—I think all of that kicks in. I was fortunate that I didn’t enter politics in that mood of the sixties and seventies—anti-war, Black Power, civil war, feminism, gay rights—because I could act up and act out more. And Hillary has said that she wished that more of the “cracks,” vulnerabilities—or even if they’re not vulnerabilities—she wishes that she’d behaved less… “properly.” You know, it’s inhuman when Donald Trump is moving around behind you, prowling. If you just pretend it’s not inhuman, to people watching, that registers as mechanistic, as not to be believed and that gets converted to not to be trusted.

TM: There’s one part of the book when you’re in college and you object to play a maid in a theatre production, but eventually you gave into your desire to be onstage and eagerness to not appear as touchy. I think a lot of women, especially women of color, struggle with such choices: taking steps to realizing their artistic ambitions combined with the reluctance not to appear to touchy, versus some level of humiliation, whether that’s a stereotypical casting, or tokenism. What have you learned since your college days about making these kinds of choices?

MJ: This is what I remember so gratefully from the early days of the women’s movement—first, feminism and then black feminism—is finding or forming a band of women you trust, who have the same basic principles, beliefs and passions, or at least whose passions overlap. The personal is political and the political manifests itself in the personal. Women need to talk, confide, confess, and strategize. Of course, you’re always going to struggle it out with yourself but you can’t always get it right alone. To know that there’s a community, that you’ve got your constituency—that has been a huge help to me.

TM: You write that “starting in college and in the years following, to become a person of inner consequence,” you had to break the self that existed prior into pieces. What did that process and the end result mean to you?

MJ: By the time I graduated college, I became aware that “inner consequence” meant really living to act out my deepest passion and needs, but it also meant to meet the demands of this broiling, bracketing society we were living in with black people, women of color, gay people. And I would add with anti-war and environmental concerns. You know, I wasn’t suited for that; I wasn’t prepared for it. My parents were honorable and they did care about my sister and I having “good characters,” but that was still within the framework of being ladies and behaving well. And that was where bringing a critical lens in the book was useful—I could openly critique my own acts of snobbery, for example, when I told my friend who’s a working-class girl that she should shave her legs. A person of inner consequence—it’s the alignment of your own desires and needs with what you feel the world demands of you, and should demand of you, as opposed to what it shouldn’t—it’s being able to make that distinction: What’s the world asking of me, what is my job asking of me, what is the person I’m dating asking of me that is wrong, that shouldn’t be asked? How will I find the right ways to respond? Getting to that place is a long process but it does seem to me that many of the young women I meet are much bolder than I was at their age, and that’s heartening.

TM: You take a lot of care in protecting people you mention in this book, including some childhood friends and your parents. The responsibility of essayists and memoirists to those they write about is hotly debated. How did you come up with guidelines for yourself on this?

MJ: I just kept thinking and feeling my way through it. I also have a couple of close friends who’ve written memoir. You also look at your own responses to the memoirs you’ve read—what do you admire about the boldness, the violation of so-called codes of behavior? What are the consequences within your world of people? You think through all that and you weigh it against what you’ve got to say. My father was already dead. My mother died before the book came out—I think she would have had mixed feelings but been proud. My sister was very helpful and I wasn’t worried about her reaction but she also died before the book came out. I had to be more careful with friends and peers I wrote about. My protection was largely by not using their names. I believe I said their stories are mine but their names are theirs. But still, I did get some harsh letters from people that I didn’t expect, and some chilly silences.

TM: Your memoir came out in 2015. Would you have changed or added anything if you’d written it or if it had come out after the 2016 elections?

MJ: Claudia Rankine brought up the same lines you did about white people’s efforts and failures at being white, and she said, “Oh, I wish you’d developed that more!” So that certainly would have deserved to be pushed. And in many ways, performatively, Trump is such a clown, such a type of what would’ve been called “the black minstrel,” the buffoon, the boaster. I think I would’ve done a whole portrait of that. It’s very much a minstrel show—his greedy children, parading—and I would have talked more about the below-the-surface resentments and competitiveness.

I also might have talked more about biracial black people. It was easier for my generation—not necessarily psychologically for mixed-race people—but politics and sociology simply said you were black if you were mixed race. Obama fell into the old world of that by identifying as black, yet he talked about his white parent. But there was never any discourse in journalism or politics that said he is our first biracial president—what does that mean? When I wrote about Meghan Markle for The Guardian, I deliberately called her “black and biracial”—I always kept those phrases together.

TM: In that article for The Guardian about Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s wedding, you wrote that Meghan could be considered as “marrying up,” but so could Harry: He was marrying into “all the possibilities of postmodernity.” Can you speak more about that? What do those possibilities look like?

MJ: On the most superficial level—we start always at the most superficial!—this man is gaining access to glamor, excitement, styles of being in the world. Serena Williams was at the wedding, Oprah was at the wedding! He’s meeting all these fascinating cultural figures. His involvement with Africa is taking on a kind of honorableness as opposed to looking like just a kind of white-boy dabbling. He’s entering new lines of aristocracy as well as political dynasty. He’s saved from being a relic. Choosing Meghan and choosing the world that she has access to takes him out of the museum of the royals. It bestows a kind of daring on him. It’s almost like someone who’s been in a sitcom or a drama comedy playing the same role all their lives and they get a chance to stretch, they get another script, they get to act in ways they haven’t before, they get to show other aspects of their character.

Post-modernity is multiracial (I hate the word diversity; I’m so sick of it!), it’s multicultural—aesthetically, politically, sociologically.

TM: I felt a lot of solidarity in your descriptions of your family as “third race”—not white, not stereotypically black—and I imagine a lot of other non-black women of color felt the same sense of solidarity. Is this something you anticipated when you wrote the book?

MJ: I noticed in England a lot of South Asians would say that to me and in America, a number of East Asians have said that to me. I didn’t anticipate it, but from teaching and from readings I’d assigned, I sensed that this possibility existed. And I was really pleased, it made me really happy to get those reactions. The racial conversation in America at this point is too centered on white and black. That would’ve been another interesting thing to take on if the book were coming out now. If you say today that Trump is a racist, you have to consider at least as much the implications for Mexicans and Muslims as for black people. How does that affect relations—which are sometimes competitive—between people of color? I think that’s fascinating.

TM: It is, very much so. As a last question, what are you working on these days?

MJ: I’m working on a new book; I just signed the contract for it. It’s again going to be a combination of memoir and cultural criticism but more experimental—it won’t a Volume 2 of Negroland. It will explore, for example, my encounters with political, cultural, social situations through an aesthetic text. I’ll be writing more about the female and the black female body as experienced through someone like Ella Fitzgerald, or the Tennessee Tiger Bells who were sort of forbearers of Serena except they were totally genteel and gentrified. There was a tone of anxiety hovering over them that hovers over Caster Semenya, the black South African runner that the Olympic committee found to have “higher estrogen,” that sense of “are they men? Are they women?”

Essentially, the book will be centered on cultural objects, fetishes, passions, obsessions tied to memoir, but also read on their own.

Thomas Ligotti’s Horror Doesn’t Give You an Easy Out

“It’s peculiar to me… that everybody pays so much attention to living and so little to dying,” Gloria Beatty says in the third chapter of Horace McCoy’s 1935 novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? “Why are these high-powered scientists always screwing around trying to prolong life instead of finding pleasant ways to end it?” Though the first chapter already reveals that Gloria was shot dead by the novel’s narrator at her request, the line still shocks the reader, like the alarm of a ship that has just hit an iceberg. Even in the Great Depression, this was simply too much.

“The ending of McCoy’s novel is what the average mortal would call bleak. Naturally the bleak-minded readers… swoon with relief when the gunshot has done its work.” So writes Thomas Ligotti of the novel in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, his 2011 survey of pessimism, republished this year by Penguin Books. “Yet even the consolations of bleakness have their limits,” he continues, “for those who treasure philosophical and literary works of a pessimistic, nihilistic, or defeatist nature as indispensable to their existence. And should bleakness itself fail them, they have been failed indeed.”

Thomas Ligotti has been a “best kept secret” in literature since he began publishing in the 1980s.

As a writer of horror fiction, he eschewed the basic tenets of concrete storytelling in favor of lyrical and atmospheric “weird tales.” Imagine Kafka on Creature Features. “Best-selling horror fiction,” Ligotti said, “[is] like network television. I’m your local cable access station.” It was only recently that this started to change. Concepts from Conspiracy, his only nonfiction book, began to seep into the zeitgeist. “The only honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, and march hand-in-hand into extinction,” Matthew McConaughey spoke playing miserablist cop Rust Cohle in True Detective. Creator Nic Pizzolatto acknowledged Ligotti’s influence—some claim not enough—on Cohle’s character, whose musings io9 described as “drunken atheistic dorm room philosophy.” But four years removed from the show, and seven from its original publication, Conspiracy can now be judged on its own merits.

And Conspiracy is not a screed but a copiously cited, elegantly argued examination. Consider it the literary equivalent of an offbeat wax museum, the kind found off a blink-or-you-miss-it highway exit, with one proprietor and startlingly uncanny tableaus of human ghastliness. Ligotti, with the wit of a decadent and the eloquence of a funeral organ, guides us confidently through the grimmer corners of intellectual and cultural history. It is gothic nonfiction in the tradition of Sir Thomas Browne, Thomas De Quincey, and Montague Summer.

“This is the tragedy,” Ligotti writes. “Consciousness has forced us into a paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious of what we are—hunks of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones.” This is his gloss of what he calls “Zapffe’s paradox.” Peter Wessel Zapffe, a minimally translated Norwegian philosopher, concluded that humanity’s uniquely acute consciousness merely altered it to “the brotherhood of suffering between everything alive,” and so sought to avert its consciousness as a way of surviving. Zapffe is perhaps the most cited author in the entire book—Ligotti strings the ideas of other philosophers, authors, religions, neuroscientists, ethics, and others back to Zapffe’s thesis, and he tests conventional optimism against Zapffe’s ultimate conclusion. “The sooner humanity dares to harmonize itself with its biological predicament, the better,” Zapffe said. “And this means to willingly withdraw in contempt for its worldly terms, just as the heat-craving species went extinct when temperatures dropped.”

As Ligotti notes, anti-natalism is not a popular field of study. But Conspiracy falls chronologically between two other recent books: David Benatar’s Better to Never Have Been and Sarah Perry’s Every Cradle Is a Grave, published in 2008 and 2014 respectively. While these are more ethical studies, Conspiracy is a bit more multifaceted. Indeed, Ligotti is effectively intertwining two theses. Much of the first half of the book is taken up in bringing the reader up to speed on all the ways people have concluded that “being alive is not all right.” Going forward, Ligotti then shifts to aesthetic matters, and specifically to horror.

Supernatural horror was one of the ways that would allow us to live with our double selves. By its employ, we discovered how to take all the things that victimize us in our natural lives and turn them into the very stuff of demonic delight in our fantasy lives. In story and song, we could entertain ourselves with the worst we could think of, overwriting real pains with ones that were unreal and harmless to our species.

This passage is a familiar to any committed horror fan and anyone who’s had to listen to them. But Ligotti’s lead-up to it shows that it is no casual truism. He exposits on horror’s themes and its canon with practitioner’s grace. Ligotti describes the uncanny as “a feeling of wrongness. A violation has transpired that alarms our internal authority regarding how something is supposed to happen or exist or behave.” He lauds Sweeney Todd as a celebration of the human propensity for tragedy: “[Sweeney Todd] is as edifying as any sage when he sings ‘We all deserve to die,’ given that none of us can remake our making.” He contrasts character and supernatural possession in William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, in which good characters triumph over an evil intruder, against H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, in which characters—good or bad—are at the mercy of the same “wall-to-wall nightmare.” “Apart from vulgar mortality,” Ligotti writes, “supernatural literature also centers on the death of sanity, identity, ideals, passions, and hand-me-down conceptions about the universe and everything in it.”

In Danse Macabre, Stephen King describes the viewing of horror as “reintegration” of confronting a fear and having it excised. He likens it to the “feeling that comes when the roller coaster stops at the end of its run and you get off with your best girl, both of you whole and unhurt.” Ligotti’s horror—amoral and pervasive; a feature, not a bug—offers no such thrills, easy outs, or escapism. It is the thing from which to escape, if you can. Lovecraft “strove to the end of his life to do what no horror writer had done before him nor will ever do: lay bare his consciousness in an artifact.” He “existed in a no man’s land of disillusionment” and walled it off with his own “earthbound illusions” of his aristocratic pretensions and virulent racism.

The pessimism Ligotti details may, as he is aware, forever be too bleak to be palatable to most people. Yet the cultural landscape has shifted toward his strand of horror since Conspiracy was first published, preferring pervasive dread to narratively and morally coherent thrills. “Horror films dominated the cultural conversation this year,” goes a New York Times Magazine video feature. “Scary movies had an unusual hold on the collective imagination in 2017. Maybe it’s because reality was pretty horrifying, too.”

“No other life forms know they are alive, and neither do they know they will die. The curse is ours alone. Without this hex upon our heads, we would never have withdrawn as far as we have from the natural.” Perhaps this is “dorm room philosophy” after all, and perhaps Matthew McConaughey’s voice on the audiobook will be its spoon full of sugar. But as Ligotti shows, this very thought has haunted our species to such an extent that we’ve committed endless imaginative power to just barely comprehend it. The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, in sum, corrupts Reinhold Niebuhr’s line: “Man’s capacity for paradox makes horror possible. Man’s incapacity to resolve its paradoxes makes horror necessary.”

Then Again, Maybe I Will: The Reads I Kept Hidden in My Youth

1.
I found the paperback on a metal card table at my neighbor’s garage sale: Judy Blume’s Then Again, Maybe I Won’t. I was 8 years old and already loved the author for books like Blubber, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, and Superfudge. The well-worn paperback cost a quarter, which I handed over to my neighbor and babysitter, Cheryl. The cover held an image of a boy with binoculars. Color me intrigued. I was already engrossed in the story (about spying on a female neighbor as she undresses in her room across the street) when the doorbell rang. Cheryl conferred with my mother: that book I’d bought? It wasn’t exactly appropriate for a kid my age. I was summoned to the door. This babysitter/traitor held out the quarter in one hand, and we undid the deal. Sold out by the very one whose ranks I had hoped to join.

She tossed her feathered hair and all but wagged her finger at me. Maybe she thought her babysitting job was on the line. Maybe my mother wouldn’t have cared what I was reading. But my mom trusted Cheryl, and the two of them were conspiratorial, chuckling at my choice of reading material. Isn’t she precocious! I seethed inside, mortified. Did they think I was interested in spying on people as they undressed? (Was I?)

I vowed to read the book anyway. At the library I gulped down the whole thing in one sitting. Later I read every Judy Blume book I could find. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret was my introduction to the realities of menstruation, a puberty bible for girls growing up in the 1980s. When I found out that the book was frequently challenged or banned, all I could think was, “Why? Why would people want to prevent me from knowing about myself?”

As readers, we get to decide whether to accept or reject the knowledge that books contain. My youth was spent reading novels like they were life manuals for some future me, divining what was to come, even if I couldn’t see or imagine it yet. Even if my babysitter didn’t think I was ready. I didn’t want anyone’s laughter or condescension at my choices, so I read covertly, sneakily, my stack of library books bookended by less controversial titles. I love you on your own merits, Ramona Quimby, Age 8, but with the most gratitude for acting as my cover story.

2.
Preteen years, late 1980s mall era, bangs shellacked with hairspray. Saturday nights, I’d go with my family to Waldenbooks or B. Dalton Booksellers. I could pick out three or four books at a time, depending on the price, and chip in my allowance if I wanted more. Browsing bookshelves with my family is one of my happiest childhood memories, no doubt one reason I wanted to become a writer. “Ready to check out?” my dad asked one Saturday, holding his stack of scholarly writing on King Arthur. I handed him two of the latest in the Sweet Valley High series, while slipping a third book behind my back. “I’m going to browse some more,” I lied. If he saw my copy of Girltalk about Guys by Carol Weston, he mercifully pretended not to. I’d been scoping out this book for weeks, visiting it, my footsteps muffled on the tan carpet. Standing with my back to the aisle, I’d read and reread the section on how to talk to guys. How to be confident. Not unrelated, the sections on looking and feeling your best.

All of it was urgent and mysterious and not-something-I-could-talk-about. If puberty was a transitional time from caterpillar to butterfly, I was still trapped in the cocoon, gawky limbs pushing to get out. I’d had enough skulking around the bookstore: This was a book I needed to own and read privately. Avoiding eye contact with the cashier, I made my purchase. After, we went to Sizzler, but my mind was elsewhere. I wanted to spend the rest of the night reading in my room, which I did as soon as we’d finished our steaks and baked potatoes and salads. The book promised real questions and real answers, and the Q&As revealed the best truth of every good advice column: that many, many other people out there shared similar problems. People like me, more comfortable asking a stranger to explain what was going on with zits, extreme emotions, body hair, and social life. Not to mention tampons: What the hell? I was filled with questions I didn’t know how to ask, and questions I didn’t know I had. Weston already knew, understood, and answered. Life thus far had taught that these were taboo topics, so I kept the book hidden in my closet, swaddled in the blankets of my old doll’s bassinet. I took that book baby out as often as possible, always with my bedroom door shut, the book’s open pages like some kind of new door.

3.
A few years later, my older sister Katie bought a copy of I’m With the Band by Pamela Des Barres, which she stashed under her bed to keep me from hogging it. This memoir of a 1960s-70s rock groupie was clearly not my property. I noted when Katie would be at band practice (marching, not rock, at a Catholic high school), and raced through the racy pages. There was sex and rock and roll and pining and more sex and drugs and tons of gossip about musicians I loved. One of the rock stars who blurbed the book was Robert Plant, offering “again a thousand apologies for the premature ejaculation.” Not just entertainment, but education. Sex ed aside, this was a time period I wanted to learn more about. I was born six years after Woodstock but taped a concert poster to my wall as if I’d been there. I read everything I could about the era, especially related to music. Des Barres, obsessed somewhat differently, set out in Los Angeles to unapologetically conquer as many rock stars as she could. I was miles away from this lifestyle in every possible sense: geographically, emotionally, physically. But vicarious experience was, to use the parlance of Des Barres, delectable. By turning pages, you could run the gamut of experiences (and yes, the STDs) without having to face any emotional consequences or itching.

I read the tell-all at least a dozen times. “Give it back,” Katie said when I admitted I’d pilfered her paperback again, because she wanted to reread it. Not surprisingly, there was fallout for the author: On the talk show circuit, Des Barres defended herself from would-be slut-shamers. What of the male musicians she became involved with, I wondered? The power balance might’ve been skewed, but this was the memoir of a woman who controlled her own choices and went after what she desired. She was candid about her heartbreaks, too, airing her life for all the world to see. That took guts. That bravery inspires me now, some 25 years later, writing about books that once seemed worth hiding. Books that could’ve been banned from libraries or by family and kept out of my hands. Books that helped me understand the world and myself, both in constant states of change. Women writers who inspired me to write my own books, about topics others may want to challenge. Look. I want to show you.

2018 5 Under 35 Authors Announced

The National Book Foundation has announced their 5 Under 35 honorees! The program recognizes 5 debut fiction writers under the age of 35 whose work “promises to leave a lasting impression on the literary landscape.” Each 5 Under 35 author is selected by a previous National Book Award or 5 Under 35 author.

We’re pleased to note that the list this year includes our editor Lydia Kiesling, whose novel, The Golden State, came out earlier this month!

Here’s a list of the honorees, with bonus links where available:

Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Sonora by Hannah Lillith Assadi

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling (Our interview with Lydia; more of her writing here)

Sadness is a White Bird by Moriel Rothman-Zecher

 

Martin Riker Discusses Fatherhood, 19th-Century Literature, and the Beastie Boys

Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return, which marks Martin Riker’s first book-length foray into fiction, is a book that I imagine has been simmering for a long time, and one that likely has taken a back seat to Marty’s many other pursuits. As one of our most perceptive critics—I’ve made it a rule to read books he reviews favorably—and publishing do-it-alls (at Dalkey Archive and now, with his wife, novelist and publisher Danielle Dutton, at Dorothy, a Publishing Project), Marty has been one of the great champions of daring, innovative fiction. This, of course, leaves little time for other things.

And so it was with great excitement and pleasure that I read Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return, which is characteristically subtle, funny, and well-seasoned. To say it’s a novel about identity or parenthood or our collective fixation on television may be partially true, but as with all significant works of fiction, those descriptors may be in the ballpark but miss the game entirely. For the game, you’ve got to read the book.

The Millions: As I was reading Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return, I couldn’t help thinking of the television show Quantum Leap. The differences between the time-traveling, body-jumping hero of that show and the eponymous character of your novel are vast and in that gulf is a world of possibilities, which you mine to great effect. What is it about the trope of inhabiting another body or consciousness that appeals to you?

Martin Riker: I actually don’t know that show! In fact I’ll admit right out of the gate that even though the novel contains a whole narrative history of television programming, I don’t own a TV. Growing up I was a TV kid, not a book kid. In the eighties I loved network television with all my heart. But I stopped watching in the early nineties and didn’t look at screens at all for 10 or 15 years. Having a kid of my own brought TV back into my life, but our son doesn’t watch much. I mean, we Netflix. We’re not hermits.

Anyway, the trope: The logistical answer (there are two answers) is that this novel was originally conceived as a modern retelling of Robert Montgomery Bird’s 1836 Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself, which is a picaresque novel narrated by a man who’s died and whose soul travels from body to body, uncovering the reality of lives across the socioeconomic spectrum of early America. I loved the playfulness of that premise, its expansiveness, but beyond that I loved its democratic ambitions, the Whitman-like project of trying to sing America from the inside out. My own version took some pretty radical digressions from Bird’s original; for example, I abandoned very early any attempt to be “representative” of the diversity of modern America, which is just too broad, and instead focused on points of commonality and difference, themes that define life for all of us (media, family, solitude).

The more general answer is that I am a lifelong admirer of the Menippean satire, a 2,000-year-old literary genre the particulars of which I won’t go into here except to say that one of its 13 attributes (according to Mikhail Bakhtin in his Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics) is the transgression of boundaries between this world, heaven, and the underworld. Starting around the “Myth of Er” in Plato’s Republic, there’s a long line of writers playing with these boundaries, and specifically with the idea of metempsychosis—the transmigration of the soul through bodies. The point, from an art perspective, is that it allows the writer (and reader) to step back from everyday life and look at our human experiences from a distance. The pettiness of human endeavor is revealed for what it is, etc. The oddity of my narrator is that, despite how separated he (mostly) is from the world he witnesses, he can’t seem to attain anything like a comforting objectivity. Death gives him “perspective,” but that’s almost all it gives him. It doesn’t free him from human concerns. He’s still as frustrated and petty as anybody.

TM: I suspect rendering one of those consciousnesses almost helplessly passive was a great challenge. Did you set yourself any formal limitations in the composition of the plot?

MR: Yeah, that was what made me want to write the book in the first place, that challenge. For years I had been thinking about how to write an adventure novel in an age when modern transportation and telecommunications have left us with pitifully few unexplored places and when a life of “action” feels like a movie cliche. You could set it in space, or inside the earth, I guess. Cyberspace feels more Kafkaesque than adventurous to me. So what I saw in the premise of Sheppard Lee was the possibility of an adventure story in which the protagonist lacks agency—a passive action novel! And then immediately I realized it would be a book about media culture as well.

As for plot composition, I have an almost embarrassingly specific answer for this. Edgar Allan Poe reviewed Sheppard Lee when it first came out. He liked it, but cited among its problems that Bird couldn’t seem to decide when or to what extent his protagonist (Sheppard Lee) should control the bodies he inhabits. My interest in writing about media sort of solved this problem for me—my protagonist would have as much control over what he sees as you or I have over a television program—but it raised a different problem, which was how to make that into an interesting book. I wasn’t excited to write something boring and hopeless. My Samuel Johnson had to be able to (and forced to) make decisions with moral consequences, even if he tended to make very bad ones. So I had to have a narrative device by which my protagonist might gain control of his existence (under certain circumstances), and the invention of that device is another reason my novel took a very different direction from Bird’s. The device itself, and the emotional possibilities it opened up, took me to unexpected places, and that element of adventure (compositional adventure) was one of the great pleasures of writing this book. Fortunately, sticking to the plan was never part of the plan.

TM: There is perhaps no way of answering this, but I’m going to ask to see where an answer might lead: Could you have written this novel before becoming a father?

MR: I don’t think I could have, but not for the obvious reason (that I now know what being a father is like). The actual reason is much more personal, and I doubt I can articulate it very well. It has to do with how having a kid changes what you care about, where you invest your emotions and your aspirations. I’ve written fiction for many years but not much of it was very sharable, because I was constantly getting in the way of myself (don’t ask me what I mean by that). One of the biggest changes for me, in becoming a dad, was that I stopped caring very much about myself. I like myself just fine, but my emotional attention is now directed elsewhere, toward my son and my wife but also outward more generally. And for some reason that change in myself had a tangible impact on my ability to craft sentences and paragraphs. It’s not the only change that mattered for writing this book, but it’s maybe the most interesting.

TM: Am I correct in reading SJER as a satire?

MR: Not in the conventional sense. I’m not out to attack anyone. There’s no target. I mentioned Menippean satire earlier, and one of the funny things about that genre is that despite the name, it isn’t really satire as we think of it. Where satire attacks one point of view from the perspective of a different point of view, the Menippean satire is all about copia, plentitude, the diversity of ways of seeing the world. The only thing it attacks is the presumption that any single worldview might constitute “truth,” and this it often attacks viciously, if comically. Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly, for example, or Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel. Bakhtin admires menippea (as he calls it) because he’s all about polyphony and the idea that a novel is not a political statement but rather a space in which many different voices and ideas and ways of seeing are constantly mixing and contending with one another. This is what I like about it as well.

TM: When we met, you were still at Dalkey Archive Press, and you are now the publisher, with Danielle, of Dorothy, so I must ask the question of influence. Which writers and/or schools influenced this novel? Who are you reading or what excites you in contemporary fiction?

MR: I don’t know about influence, but I start to salivate at the opportunity to make book recommendations. But first I’ll try to answer about influence.

Aside from Bird’s novel, it’s hard to say precisely what influenced SJER. I was rereading Dickens when I started writing it, and I’m sure he’s in there somehow—the voice, maybe. Georges Perec is probably the most important, and in some ways that influence is clear: the mixing of an adventure story with other genres, the almost schematic breadth of subjects, Perec’s passion for telling tales. There’s a lot of linguistic parody in SJER, and some of that might be coming from Fran Ross’s Oreo, which is in my all-time top five. Ross’s parody has more satirical punch, though. I’m just interested in all the cool things language can do (so was she, of course). More generally, I think my ideas about art and literature were shaped from a very early age by the Beastie Boys, whose work I see as fundamentally about friendship, first, and, second, about the endlessly various ways a bunch of stuff can be thrown together to make something wonderful. That’s the quality William Gass meant when he called Donald Barthelme—quoting Barthelme himself—“the leading edge of the trash phenomenon.” It was a compliment.

Lately I’ve been rereading a lot—for my classes and for fun—and it’s been a great joy to revisit Flann O’Brien and Nikolai Gogol and people like that. After the fact, I saw a lot of Dead Souls in SJER, even though it wasn’t in my mind while writing. In fact, I find that writing a book causes you to see your own book in every other book you read, or at least in a lot of them. Other books I’ve been loving but that have nothing to do with SJER include everything Dorothy is publishing (!) and quite a number of the books I’ve been reviewing. Best in Show goes to Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones, which I think you and I both liked a great deal. McCormack’s novel made me feel loose and ready, like a boxer. It made the question of “the novel” feel suddenly up for grabs again, which for me is the best thing a book can do.

TM: You mention that when writing a book you start to see your book in every other book. This is such a simple but revelatory statement! It also speaks to something apparent in the novel: a current trend (that’s too light a term for it, but it’ll stay for now) that is all about the… if not the dissolution, then at least the fragmentation or break-up of the idea of a concrete individual who is bound by gender, age, demographics. I love how SJER’s shifting forms reflect this pivotal moment in Western culture. All of which is to ask: What good is the individual in fiction? Does he/she have a future in literature?

MR: I’m not sure he/she even has much of a past! Or at least that past is admirably patchy. It seems to me literature’s been ahead of the curve when it comes to complicating or fragmenting or subverting received ideas about the cleanly coherent self for at least a couple hundred years. Maybe not so much in the outwardly visible ways we’re seeing now in the culture, not until books like Orlando, or Brigid Brophy’s 1969 In Transit, or Anne Garréta’s Sphinx—but those books seem to me natural extensions of the novel’s essential polyphony. Once the menippean values I mentioned earlier got mixed up with the idea of character, which was happening at least by the time of Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew in the mid-18th century, the instability and multiplicity of identity became what novels—some novels—were all about. Dostoevsky, whole swaths of modernism, etc.

In comparison to that stuff, my Samuel Johnson is pretty simple. He starts off without much self to speak of, so he’s relatively unpresumptuous, and comfortable in the role of sponge. What interests me most is that even though he inhabits all these other lives, and forgets himself and “becomes” these others, still he doesn’t often feel that he knows these people very well. He knows them as well as you could possibly know someone, but that turns out to be: not that well! In part because they don’t know themselves, or are too human-messy to be easily defined, but mostly because he doesn’t have access to their thoughts, and so there’s this invisible wall, consciousness.

I do get put off (this is a different way of answering your question) by writing that doesn’t allow room, formally, for experiences of instability, possibility, surprise, change. A lot of commercially successful fiction makes me feel constricted in that way. It takes itself too seriously, or doesn’t take me (reader) seriously enough. But maybe that’s just a way of saying that uninteresting books aren’t interesting. Whereas identity as a site of possibility or contention, the individual as an ongoing dialogue—those ideas I hope have a future, because literature would be pretty dull without them.

TM: Your reference points for the book are, for the most part, 19th century and earlier, though of course there are more modern influences. What is it about these forms that allows them the plasticity to be continually reinvented and to feel so fresh?

MR: You are my dream interviewer. I think all literary forms have the plasticity you’re talking about. Forms come with some basic characteristics (e.g., a “list” contains “items”), but they don’t come with any prescribed values or freshness potential—that’s all in what you do with them.

If I were going to really do this question justice I would go on a longish rant about friendship. I would talk about the sense I have in reading certain 18th-century works—for example, Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist—that they were written long before the idea of the “professionalized author” was even conceived. I would then attempt to describe the pleasure I get—with Diderot—from feeling that what I am reading is written not by a “professional” but by an incredibly smart and interesting friend. Wayne Booth makes the argument, in his The Company We Keep, that the idea of friendship as a literary value falls off somewhere in the 19th century. In fact, he says the idea of friendship as a subject worthy of critical attention falls out of intellectual life entirely, even though for the longest time the notion that books were like friends was the primary way of seeing them. He doesn’t mean we’ve lost friendship itself, even in books; he just means we don’t really think or talk about books in those terms.

I’ve noticed that the books I feel the greatest friendship toward tend to resist the veneer of professionalization in one way or another. I mentioned earlier Fran Ross and Georges Perec. Alasdair Gray is another. Also Joanna Ruocco, whom I publish, though I don’t know her personally very well. Not long ago I interviewed her, primarily because I wanted to confirm for myself that she was actually as cool as I thought she was (she is). There are others, but not very many. It’s a specific feeling, not a common thing, more a recognition of shared values than “liking” or admiring or even loving the work. For example, I don’t feel this way about David Foster Wallace’s work, even though David was my real-life friend, someone I cared about quite a lot. I love his writing, too (well, I love about half of his writing), but I don’t have that “friendship” feeling toward it.

All I mean to say is that I’ve always wanted my own writing to be friendly, approachable. Meaningful, but in a manner completely in step with everyday life. My favorite writers read like they might easily live next-door to you. You can go over and borrow their lawnmowers, plus they write these wonderful, interesting things. And maybe 18th- and 19th-century storytelling devices appeal to me—to try to loop this back to your question—because things like conversational narrators and tale-telling and “then fate took an unexpected turn!” are very approachable and are as likely as anything else to produce interesting art.

TM: I really like your take on the question about fatherhood. That fatherhood provides an out from yourself that opens up a whole set of possibilities that open up whole avenues previously untraveled or at least infrequently visited is a refreshing take—especially for a writer, since so many male writers have been aloof or absent from the lives of their children. I wonder if the passivity of the narrator is a reflection of what must feel like occasional helplessness in viewing the life of a child.

MR: That’s a really ideal way to read it. The book thinks a lot about feelings of helplessness, both with regard to parenting and more generally to life. The idea that we are stuck in our own heads and there’s little we can do for one another has been a staple of existential comedy since Beckett at least, in addition to being a painfully obvious fact of every parent’s daily reality, and I like seeing those two seemingly distinct anxieties—one existential, the other mundane—as not so different.

As far as my narrator goes, I would stop short of saying his passivity is caused by his helpless-parent feelings. He is modern man! He’s passive from way, way back.

TM: I don’t want to talk about the ending, but I do want to ask, in a general way, one of those craft questions about the structure of the novel and how it came to you. Were you writing toward that ending? At a certain point, the narrative picks up momentum and you can see where it’s going, and my hunch is that it was lurking there all along, but I’m curious to know if that’s accurate.

MR: When I first conceived of the book and had written the opening two chapters, I had a particular ending in mind. Danielle wanted to know what it was, but I wouldn’t tell her, and she said “Well, I just hope that…” and then said the thing she hoped would happen, which was not the ending I had in mind. I wanted my wife to be happy with my book—it was quite possible she would be the only one reading it—so I thought, maybe I can have both endings? It took me a while to figure out how to make that work, but the result is that the book really has two endings, and this is essential, I think, to how and what the story “means.” We talk of stories having happy endings or sad endings and I very much dislike those being the options. I’ve always loved the start of Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, where the narrator says a good book ought to be allowed to have three entirely different openings. I didn’t want entirely different endings, though; I just wanted the ending to “mean” in several directions at once. I can’t say more without saying too much. But if there’s anything I’m particularly proud of in this book, it’s those last two chapters.

Tuesday New Release Day: Atkinson; Vasquez; Park; Ackerman; Stallings

Out this week: Transcription by Kate Atkinson; The Shape of Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vasquez; The Caregiver by Samuel Park; Waiting for Eden by Elliot Ackerman; and Like by A.E. Stallings.

Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.