Craft Corner: The Millions Interviews Christopher Beha

Christopher Beha’s The Index of Self-Destructive Acts was published by Tin House Books in early May. The seemingly inauspicious timing of the book’s release, in the midst of our present moment of chaos and uncertainty, was in its way perfect—Beha’s novel is set in New York during our last great moment of political crisis, a decade ago, following the economic collapse. The Index of Self-Destructive Acts is a big, rich, complex novel of ideas, and I found it to be enormously soothing to spend time with a serious intellect working through not only a story but through the philosophical problems of our moment. How do we produce real knowledge in an era of overwhelming, infinite information? And how, if at all, might a person live decently in our troubled world? As The Millions’ own Nick Ripatrazone writes, “Beha’s earlier work has been rightfully compared to the work of Graham Greene, and in this new novel Beha does what only Greene and a handful of other novelists have been able to accomplish: make God, belief, and doubt the stuff of serious fiction―even down to the probing dialogue of his characters.”

The Millions: The Index of Self-Destructive Acts is a big book, and unlike many big books I’ve encountered lately, it deserves to be a big book—that is, you could not adequately tell this story, which encompasses the lives of seven principle characters as well as the socio-cultural landscape of New York in the late-aughts, in 250 pages. I wonder if you could talk about the expansiveness of this novel, if it began as something smaller, and when it was that you realized the scope of the project.

Christopher Beha: I take that as a real compliment, coming from a known long-book skeptic. The first thing I’d say in response is that my previous books are all sub-300 pages, so I am not someone whose first impulse is always to go big. In this case, however, I did know before I started that the book would be longish, because I knew I wanted to do certain things that you can’t do adequately in a short number of pages. And I might as well just say candidly that I have always had the ambition of writing a big, thick, doorstopper novel. (This book actually wound up being a few hundred pages short of that; but there were drafts that certainly would have qualified.)

That is probably not a very fashionable thing to say. We are in a moment where slim works of auto-fiction are the standard of “seriousness.” Setting out to write a “big” book feels like a very male—or maybe Mailer-ite—ambition, in the worst possible way. “Have you got what it takes to step into the ring with Tolstoy?” and all that bullshit. I get that. But for me the ambition came from what I hope is a purer place: I love long novels. I love a lot of short novels, too, but a disproportionate number of the novels that have had truly lasting significance for me have been notably long: Middlemarch; Anna Karenina; In Search of Lost Time; Kristen Lavransdatter; Dr. Faustus; JR; Underworld; Little, Big; just in the last few years, My Struggle and Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries: these are the books that have most nourished me. (And, yes, I might as well just be honest and include Infinite Jest on this list, since so many people have come to view it as the embodiment of all that is wrong with the straight white male obsession with length.) To me, there is no better feeling than being three or four hundred pages—a normal novel’s length—into a truly great seven- or eight-hundred-page book, walking around with it in your head, letting it interact with the world outside the page. This thing that happens when you spend a week or two, rather than a couple of days, reading a book, the way it takes over your life, that is to me one of the pinnacles of what literature can do. My ambition was to write a book that might have a shot at doing that for a reader.

Of course, it doesn’t work at all if it’s a bad long book, particularly if its badness consists in its being long for no good reason, or long because the writer felt the need to prove—to himself or anyone else—that he could do it. So I was excited to hit upon material that I thought could sustain a good long book, and I appreciate hearing that you think it did.

TM: I couldn’t imagine it being otherwise. Remaining on the subject of pulling together a large project like this: I think novels tend to be about a problem or subject that nags you, that won’t let you not write it, or create the imaginative space that allows you to explore it. Did you find this to be the case with this novel? The book covers so much ground—probability, destiny, politics, media, race, and baseball, among others—but was there a central issue or problem that insisted the book get written?

CB: I suppose the nagging problem here had to do with the nature of knowledge about the world and how that knowledge ought to be put into action. One of the main characters, Sam Waxworth, believes very strongly in empiricism, formulating a theory and putting it to the test. Another, Frank Doyle, believes in following your instincts, acting with commitment despite the fact that we never have all of the information. In Frank’s view, we are all, in a sense, 1 of 1, and thus no amount of data can make our choices for us. This is the view expressed most elegantly by Kierkegaard: Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward. I was interested in bringing these worldviews into contact with each other. To your point, though, if I’d thought that one of these characters was absolutely right and the other wrong, I would not have been interested in writing a novel about them. It is easy to satirize the mania for quantification that Waxworth exhibits, but its opposite is on its way down the road to the dismissal of experts, the refusal to learn from experience—Trumpism, basically. There is something both appealing and repulsing in both views, which is what makes them novel material.

But I hasten to add that novels—at least of the more or less realist sort I’m trying to write—are built out of people, not ideas. At a certain point, you want your characters to behave as human beings and not just as embodiments of your own preoccupations, which means giving them the freedom to act inconsistently. Then this becomes the nagging problem: figuring out how this particular person (as opposed to a stock character with these particular beliefs) would act in this particular circumstance. This is the hardest part of writing a realist novel, I think, and when otherwise well-made realist novels feel fake and “made up” in the way that realism’s critics complain about, it is usually because this work hasn’t been done.

TM: You are the editor of Harper’s Magazine and were previously the fiction editor. I’m really curious how you think this might impact your writing. I mean, in one sense, all writers are simultaneously writer and editor, creator and critic, so to some extent, I’m sure you work the same way most people do. But I do wonder how the specialized skills you’ve developed might affect process.

CB: My career as an editor has mostly reinforced for me one of the things that aspiring writers are constantly being told by workshop professors and other more established writers, which is that the real work begins once you’ve got a first draft. That recognition, in turn, has freed me up to write looser first (and second) drafts. I used to the kind of writer who really labored over sentences before I had any idea how they were fitting into a larger scheme. I still care a lot about my sentences, of course, but I’ve learned to get something down on the page first and then worry about it making it shapely or beautiful or whatever you want it to be.

You say the all writers are simultaneously writer and editor, but for me the big lesson was to be first one, then the other. Try to turn the inner editor’s voice off while writing, trusting that he will have his say in due course. I think working as an editor, developing a strong editorial sense while working on other people’s writing, has had the perhaps paradoxical effect of making it easier to turn my inner editor off at certain points in the process.

TM: Elaborating on the last question, when you edited a story of mine that ran in Harper’s, you suggested cutting off four pages from the beginning—I was horrified at first, but quickly realized you were dead right. Are you able to bring that kind of editorial mercilessness to your own fiction, or do you have as much trouble killing your darlings as anyone else?

CB: I try to be pretty ruthless with my own stuff. I cut hundreds of pages from this book. This is the flip side to what I wrote above. If you’re going to turn the editor off while writing your first drafts, you have to really give him license once it’s his turn. Once you are in edit mode, you are no longer the person who wrote these words—now that person has been shut off. You don’t even know which ones are the darlings. You’re not thinking about the amount of blood and sweat that went into any particular sentence or scene, you’re just thinking about what’s there on the page. You get to a point where the excitement of cutting stuff is almost as great as the excitement of creation. Because cutting involves a kind of faith that you can do something better. That’s a question I really try to ask myself while reading my own work—almost in a taunting way: Is this the best you can do? To refuse to cut is implicitly to say, Yes, I am incapable of making this any better than it is right now. Which sometimes is the truth! But it is a kind of defeat.

TM: Related, I think the importance of having good readers through the drafting process cannot be understated. Do you have any strategy with this, certain moments when you find reads are most helpful, and certain readers who are best for a particular stage?

CB: I show everything to my wife—who is both a great reader and a great writer—pretty early in the process, and I have a handful of trusted readers I turn to once I’ve got a presentable draft of the whole thing, which usually means after my third or fourth go through. But without exactly disagreeing with you on the importance of readers, I’d like to offer a counterpoint. I’m one of those people who started taking writing workshops the moment I stepped on to campus as an undergrad. I went straight from college to my MFA. I had some really amazing teachers, and I learned a lot, and I don’t regret that time, but I think there was ultimately something a bit damaging to me about it. I developed the habit of writing ten or twenty pages, bringing those pages to a roomful of readers, taking in all their opinions, and going back to rewrite those ten or twenty pages, and that is not, in my opinion, a good habit for a writer to have. Part of it is related to what I wrote above. If you’re trying to write a novel, and you’ve got twenty pages done, you should not be spending a lot of time thinking about what is and isn’t working in those twenty pages, getting them into presentable shape, assimilating fifteen different people’s opinions into a revision. At that point, you should just be piling up more pages.

But there is something more than this. I was a teenager when I started writing fiction seriously, with a real single-mindedness, and I was in my thirties before I published any fiction at all. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first decent thing I wrote was the first thing I wrote entirely outside of the workshop context. I worked for six years on the novel that began as my MFA thesis, a novel that got workshopped to death, and it was very painful to admit that it wasn’t good enough, that it would never get published and didn’t deserve to be published. Once I did admit this, I spent about a year and half writing a draft of a new novel without showing it or even really talking about it to anyone, and there were moments when I thought I might be nuts and wasting time. To do this—to keep showing up at the desk every day, without any real encouragement from anyone else, without knowing whether you’re good enough to do this—you must develop a particular kind of faith in yourself. I came to think that this faith was actually an essential part of being a writer and that, for me at least, the workshop culture was holding me back from developing it. I think often of a line from John Gardner: “A writer must take infinite pains, and finally the pains the writer takes must be his own.”

I should add that of course there does come a time when you have taken things as far as you can on you own, and trusted readers become indispensable. But it’s important to learn how to take your own pains.

TM: I completely agree with this. I remember being so conditioned by year after year of workshop—I also went right from undergrad to MFA, though in my thirties—that it was almost strange to finally graduate my MFA program and suddenly have to answer to no one. Which, of course, is the reality of writing, not the artificial, though often useful, situation of workshop.  As you say, developing faith in yourself and your instincts is a skill you must hone, every bit as much as narrative craft.

Changing subjects: the main character in Index, Sam Waxworth, a statistics nerd who created a predictive baseball model and then successfully turned his abilities to politics forecasting, seems to be inspired at least in part by Nate Silver. I can’t help but ask about this the genesis of this character, as I find Silver to be one of the more continually interesting and amusing figures in public life (going back to my days on a poker forum that he frequented).

CB: A quick caveat: I do not know Nate Silver personally, and I only borrowed the broadest elements of his public-facing life. Indeed, Silver is actually among the more thoughtful of the data journalist—far more thoughtful than Sam Waxworth, I’d say. He is at least as interested in what numbers can’t tell us as in what they can. And he has grown into a fairly high degree of humility about a lot of this stuff, which I admire. So I don’t want to overstate the degree to which Sam is “based” on him. But it would be silly to deny that he was a major inspiration for the broad swathes of Sam’s story.

As far as how that came to be so, there’s a long and a short answer. I’m a lifelong baseball fan, one who has always prized both the romantic, narrative power of the game and the way it allows for a particular kind of precision. And so I was very interested in, to use the common shorthand, the Moneyball revolution. It’s worth noting that numbers have always been important to the game. Indeed, certain numbers—300 wins, 3,000 strikeouts, 500 homeruns—have had an almost magical power to them. Now you had a new crop of people saying we were using the wrong numbers. Plus they were saying that the point of the numbers was not to create this mystical aura, but to cut through all that and arrive at a clearer picture of reality. And that term “Moneyball” is really telling, because the whole point in Lewis’s book was a that small market team that was at a resource disadvantage was using these new-fangled numbers to exploit inefficiencies in the market. There’s so much rich stuff here—metaphysics and epistemology, but also something really elemental about the way capitalism works. So I’d wanted to write about it for a very long time. Then Nate Silver comes on the scene, and he’s such an interesting figure, because he’s come out of this sabermetric baseball culture, but he’s taking those lessons into politics, just as we see the rise of this amazing political figure, Barack Obama, who styles himself as a non-ideologue, a technocrat coming from the legal-academic world, who is going to move us past a lot of the magical thinking about America and its role in the world that had dominated the Bush years, but who at the same time is capable of truly soaring rhetoric and ultimately gets himself elected on the basis of a very powerful story he’s telling about himself and the country. And then in the midst of all that, we’ve got this catastrophic financial collapse that is on a superficial level about the collapse of the American Dream of homeownership and upward mobility, but is really about the evolution of capitalism, and the in retrospect facially absurd idea that you can eliminate risk from the world by way of financial engineering, which is really magical thinking disguised as quantification. So, yeah, a Silver-like character seemed to give me right of the bat so much to play with, which is part of the reason I knew this book would be long.

TM: Finally, I like to end these Q+As with an inane question. So: are you a write every day type that hews to a schedule, or more catch-as-catch-can?

CB: Whenever I’m asked this kind of process question, I think of William Gaddis, who said he didn’t like doing interviews because he didn’t want to be asked which side of the page he wrote on.

I very much aim to be an every day writer, and when things are going well
on a project, I am pretty disciplined about it. For me this is a matter of
necessity: it’s too easy to lose the thread if I go more than a day or two
without writing. So I think of myself as an every day writer. I tend to tell
people that’s what I am when they ask, and I tend to encourage younger writers
to be every day writers. I do believe there is something—something almost
mystical—about the commitment itself.

At the same time, life is life. I’ve got a three-month-old and a three-year-old and a full-time job I’m doing from home and a wife who’s trying to get through copy edits on her own novel—Who is Maud Dixon?, coming in Spring 2021 to your local bookstore! A daily writing routine is so far from my present reality that I would be too embarrassed even to lie about it. At the moment, catch-as-catch-can is definitely the order of the day.

Writing Sideways: Edith Wharton, the Postmodernists, and Social Satire

If things go on at this pace,” Lefferts thundered, looking like a young prophet dressed by Poole, and who had not yet been stoned, “we shall see our children fighting for invitations to swindler’s houses, and marrying Beaufort’s bastard.

This memorable comic sentence comes in the penultimate chapter of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Lawrence Lefferts is a scoundrelly scion of the old guard of New York society, a society that is perfectly drawn—and quartered—in the novel; our protagonist, the passive skeptic Newland Archer, looks on in mute disgust as the hypocritical Lefferts rails against the downfall of their bogus little Eden. In the final chapter, set 25 years in the future, we will find Lefferts’s dire prediction to be more or less accurate: the rules of their world will have irrevocably changed, and the disgraced Beaufort clan will have indeed been forgiven; one of their daughters, in fact, will be engaged to Newland Archer’s son Dallas.

Dallas represents the ultimate victory of Newland’s ineffectual rebellion—the son lives in the “new land” of social laxity and freedom to which the “archer,” his father, has fired his arrow. In this new age, Wharton tells us, young men (still only young men, of course) “were emancipating themselves from the law and business and taking up all sorts of new things…they were going in for Central American archaeology, for architecture or landscape engineering; taking a keen and learned interest in the prerevolutionary buildings of their own country…” If it sounds as though there’s an ironic lilt to this, that’s because there is, and while Wharton paints Dallas and the new generation in a mostly positive light, it is a light shaded with uncertainty. The accuracy of Lefferts’ prediction is a cause for both celebration and consternation, and although Wharton does, ultimately, find the Lawrence Leffertses of the world to be in the moral and historical wrong, it is a wrongness she has great affinity with and sympathy for, a wrongness the book does not so easily dismiss.

Therein lies her power: Edith Wharton would not be a great social satirist if she had not loved the society she was satirizing, if she had not so intimately been of it. Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones, into one of the wealthiest families of nineteenth-century New York. The Rensselaers were cousins, and the Joneses were the original, proverbial family that people try to keep up with. In her lifetime, she was not only a great novelist, but a great designer and interior decorator, and a great entertainer—a pillar of the upper crust of New York society. Aesthetics and social order are the two pillars of Wharton’s old world sympathies, and it is against these pillars that her two great free-thinking protagonists, Newland Archer and Lily Bart, are chained and struggle to break free.

Bart, in House of Mirth, is predominately conflicted on the basis of aesthetics. Lily Bart is a society girl, a beauty raised by her indolent mother to love beautiful things. More than anything, she despises and fears dinginess, and nowhere is her downfall more legibly read than in the charmless, tacky, wallpapered lobby of the boarding house where she finds herself toward the end of the book. Even Lily’s less severe slippage, into the still-wealthy social realm of the bohemian Gormers, is aesthetically intolerable:

The Gormer milieu represented a social out-skirt which Lily had always fastidiously avoided; but it struck her, now that she was in it, as only a flamboyant copy of her own world, a caricature approximating the real thing as the “society play” approaches the manners of the drawing room.

The Gormer milieu should be more congenial to the mercurial,
rebellious, and increasingly penniless Lily, than the straitening, expensive,
and judgmental world of old New York society, but it lacks the latter’s weight
and authenticity, however authentically bad it may also be. Lily is like an
addict who has had a taste of the pure version of a drug and can never go back
to a street knock-off. Much of the authenticity she craves comes in the guise
of aesthetic pleasures. Old stately houses well decorated, free of Victorian
chintz and chinoiserie; women wearing appropriate evening attire; a table
properly set: these things matter to Lily, just as they mattered to Lily’s
creator.

Likewise does the more general established hierarchy and stability of Fifth Avenue society matter to Wharton. This is the stasis that Archer, for all of his discernment and moral intelligence, cannot quite bring himself to upset. Archer’s predicament is both more intelligible and relatable to a modern reader than Lily’s, and also less excusable. Lily cannot break from society because she is a woman with no earning power or agency; Archer cannot break from society because he is a man who would be leaving a world of power and agency behind. Despite his feints in the direction of eloping with the free-spirited Countess Olenska, he is ultimately mired in the intense reality, however small-minded and constricting, of Fifth Avenue drawing rooms and Broadway opera boxes. As it does for Lily on an aesthetic plane, the dense social reality of this world exerts a gravitational pull on Newland Archer, a pull ultimately dramatizing Wharton’s sensibilities. It may be corrupt, hypocritical, provincial, and boring, but it is, above all, orderly, and something will be lost in turning this order over to the new guard. Wharton feels this on a personal, instinctive level yet knows it’s wrong, and the greatness of her novels resides in this tension, between her natural affinities as a social being and her intellectual affinities as an artistic being.

This is axiomatic. The greatest social satirists are the ones most conflicted about the target of their satire, and the greatest satire is written from a position level with its subject rather than from above looking down. Charles Dickens provides a useful example: as a comic writer he is arguably peerless; as a social satirist, at least in the realm of the political/economic, he’s average, precisely because he has no affection (and who really could?) for the inhuman tutelage of Thomas Gradgrind, the pure greed of Ebenezer Scrooge, the poverty and filth of industrial London. Dickens is ultimately a moralist, and moralism is the consommé to satire’s complex soup.

For a genre-wide example of the perils of writing down, look toward the postmodernists. America, broadly speaking, is the postmodernists’ project, and the postmodernists do not especially love America (unlike the Beats, whose work was likewise fixated on the American project, but for whom the country is a locus of both madness and possibility). The famous opening line of Thomas Pynchon’s second novel The Crying of Lot 49 sets the tone for a good deal of the postmodern project:

One summer afternoon, Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.

At the time of its publication, Tupperware parties and fondue (with kirsch, no less) were already lazy shorthand for a kind of middle-American kitsch and Pynchon’s work, as linguistically and structurally complex as it can be, at times bogs down in easy caricatures of post-war American types. This streak of placid satirical condescension runs through the postmodern project, from Pynchon’s Tupperware parties all the way to Jonathan Franzen’s portrait of gentrification in Freedom. Too often, postmodernism offers the dull spectacle of a writer being smarter than the thing they’re writing about, nowhere more so than in the work of Don DeLillo.

Don DeLillo is regarded as perhaps the preeminent postmodern satirist, and White Noise is often regarded as his purest satire. White Noise is posited as a campus and suburban satire, but it has absolutely no feeling for either of these locales. Jack Gladney, the novel’s narrator is a Professor of Hitler Studies which, from the outset, signals the millimeter-deep comic engagement DeLillo has with his subject. Gladney possesses a litter of half-imagined children that the novel is wholly uninterested in, other than son Heinrich, a neuroatypical egghead who plays chess with murderers and who speaks in much the same way Don DeLillo writes. Any time the novel is not focused on the justly famous Airborne Toxic Event, it falters into a kind of somnolent haze—universities and the suburbs are beneath contempt and therefore beyond satire.

Conversely, in Underworld, DeLillo writes stirringly and brilliantly about baseball, and by extension, America. Baseball metaphorizes America’s history—its actual moments of glory, and its faulty, nostalgic self-perception. DeLillo seems to genuinely love baseball, and baseball provides him a lens through which he can view institutions he has no special love for or interest in. Baseball tends to pop up in many of the postmodernists’ better work, not surprising given their makeup as almost exclusively male, children of the thirties and forties, and system-obsessed nerds. Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Henry J. Waugh, Proprietor both anticipates fantasy sports, and satirizes a brand of male obsessiveness that it is central to the postmodern project.

Where postmodern satire most often succeeds is in the way that it satirizes language itself. This is one reason why Donald Barthelme has proven to be the most durable and continuingly timely of the postmodernists. Barthelme’s focus is sociological, and his work investigates the perversion and failure of real, moral communication as practiced in the bureaucratic, governmental, journalistic, and academic institutions of late twentieth century America. Crucially, he never seems to be writing down at his subject—he is as stuck in the morass as his characters and narrators and readers, and even beyond that, there’s a wistful, indulgent appreciation of human frailty as writ large in the society he critiques.

One of the things that makes successful modern social satire rare is, as has been remarked ad nauseum, the already satirical nature of the world. Donald J. Trump is an enormously broad and not particularly convincing version of a tinpot despot—no serious reader could abide a faithfully reproduced fictional version, with the hamberders, the joke ties, the caramel sundae hair chapeau. But the larger problem with Trump is less the ridiculousness than it is the awfulness—he is a person for whom it is impossible to experience anything approaching human feeling, let alone fondness. Even the wretched George W. Bush had a couple of vaguely sympathetic human qualities that could be satirized, however ineptly and fleetingly, in Comedy Central’s That’s My Bush; no such show is imaginable with Trump.

Likewise, so much of our modern moment. What are the aspects of our society for which we feel some kind of affection? Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End manages a fondly scathing depiction of American office culture and its soul-crushing pleasures, though it’s an office culture already vanishing over an unknowable horizon of Covid-19 and rampant unemployment. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout delivers half of a great satire about slavery, though it’s not actually the section about slavery but the first half of the book, an acidly loving portrait of black Los Angeles in the 1990s. Could there be a great satire about police brutality and the rise of fascism? About devastating income inequality, or dying from lack of health care, or climate change? It’s difficult to see the way into the litany of emergencies that comprise our present cultural moment, the empathetic situation that would allow a writer horizontal rather than vertical perspective on it, but maybe. Hopefully, because to truly do our present moment justice will require a writer with a Whartonian satirical instinct. Familiarity may breed contempt, but in fiction it is a productive contempt, the contempt only possible when you write about what you know and hate, but also love.

Craft Corner: The Millions Interviews Samanta Schweblin

Samanta Schweblin’s absolutely terrifying second novel, Distancia de Rescate, published in America as Fever Dream and nominated for the Booker Prize, was among many readers’ and critics’ favorites of 2017. Her third novel, Little Eyes, published in May of this year, is somewhat less frightening, though equally compelling, and has received much the same rapturous praise—as J. Robert Lennon writes in his glowing New York Times piece, “I cannot remember a book so efficient in establishing character and propelling narrative; there’s material for a hundred novels in these deft, rich 237 pages.”

Little Eyes centers around a pop-culture phenomenon, spawned in Japan, called the Kentuki, cute little animatronic animal creatures with cameras in their eyes. For a few hundred bucks, people buy Kentukis, or buy the right to inhabit a Kentuki. In this way, Keepers are paired with Dwellers, strangers who often live on opposite sides of the globe. With this deceptively simple, very creepy premise, Schweblin masterfully intertwines multiple characters’ lives in this slim, audacious novel that speaks with oblique force to our present moment.

Schweblin was gracious enough to answer a few questions about her writing process, via her long-time translator, Megan McDowell.  

The Millions: First, I love Little Eyes. I think it succeeds at something that is very hard to do, namely, to write about our current cultural moment in a way that feels plausible, but just imaginatively different enough to provide perspective on the way we live in 2020. Kentukis are such perfect metaphor for the Internet, and the voyeuristic abuse we willingly participate in every day. I’m sure you’ve been asked this a lot, but can you talk a little about where the idea for Kentukis came from?

Samanta Schweblin: I guess it was the combination of several things. It was a moment of my life when I lived—physically—in Berlin, but really I spent the whole day—virtually—in Buenos Aires and Barcelona. I could spend maybe five or six hours a day in video meetings, and sometimes I’d go an entire week when my only interaction with other people was virtual. In times of coronavirus that seems like a fairly common thing, but three years ago it still felt like a pretty strange lifestyle. The idea of the kentukis emerged from that context, as I thought about the emergence of drones in the cities, about the legal and moral limits of new technologies, and how those technologies seem to work—maybe treacherously—as the new universal language between cultures, languages, and idiosyncrasies.

TM: It always strikes me that the main struggle in writing a novel is figuring out the structure, the specific form that provides you the best angle of approach to the material. Little Eyes takes the form of many different interwoven stories of Kentuki dwellers and keepers. Did you work through other versions of the telling to get to this structure, or did it immediately occur to you as the right way to tell this particular story?

SS: The structure was there from the first draft onward, short chapters that occur in different cities around the world. I can’t imagine this story told any other way besides chorally, as a panoptic window onto dozens of small, mundane private worlds. What did gradually change and evolve along the way was which stories really needed to be told. The kentuki device functioned so easily when it came to telling new stories that it was very tempting to fall into the trap of telling all, of delving into each opportunity and ending up trapped in a kind of exercise of cataloguing possibilities. So at some point in the process there was a big selection and discarding of stories in favor of the large main arc that goes through the whole book, which is the introduction and spread of the kentuki through society, and where it drives its users.

TM: Is there one of the stories that you consider the “central” story of Little Eyes? The novel ends with Alina, so in a way the book presents her narrative as perhaps the most significant. But in the writing of the book, was there a story that felt like the central story that the other stories were constructed around?

SS: Yes, Alina’s story could be considered the main one. Of all the characters, Alina is the one who most thinks about and even challenges the logistical and moral ideas of what a kentuki is. She refuses to actively participate in the master-pet dynamic, and that refusal leads her to another kind of trap. Alina is also a kind of alter-ego of mine. I lived for three months at that residency in the Oaxacan mountains, far from any city and surrounded by the genius and egocentrism of many artists, with disillusionments and existential crises that were very similar. It was an exceptional experience, and much of that adventure became material for Alina’s chapters.

TM: This novel, like Fever Dream, is very unnerving, though perhaps to a slightly lesser extent. Both books, in my reading, involve the idea of inhabitation—in Fever Dream, David, who is seemingly beside Amanda, almost in her head; in Little Eyes, the Kentukis, which both inhabit the living space of their Keepers and are inhabited by their Dwellers. What is it, do you think, that’s so frightening about this idea of inhabitation?

SS: Maybe it’s a great curiosity about the “soul” or “essence” of things, of people and words. Things, people, and words can seem to always be the same, you can touch them, even words. They’re tangible and verifiable. But their essence is a great mystery. What would happen if one day your son looked at you a second longer than usual, and something in his eyes made you certain that it wasn’t him anymore? What would you do if you were confronted with the disturbing and unprovable idea that whoever had been inside your child all that time has suddenly been replaced with someone else? What we don’t see is also what we presume, it’s the mystery where our prejudices nest, our personal ideas about everything, people, and words.

TM: A related question: over the course of a novelist’s career, you begin to see, like it or not, the emergence of persistent themes. For example, in my own work, a theme of suicide appears over and over—I’m not especially happy about this, but I write a novel and there it is. Have you been conscious of this theme of inhabitation in your work, and do you have a sense of where it comes from? 

SS: Yes, it’s not easy for me to escape my subjects either. When I started to write Little Eyes, I felt like I was absolutely outside my comfort zone. I thought, with curiosity but also with fear, am I really going to write a novel about technology? Who cares about technology?—I’m not the slightest bit interested—but then, what is this book about? After the first edition was published in Spanish and I had a little more distance from the book, I saw clearly that I hadn’t escaped anything, there were my same subjects as always: lack of communication, prejudice, the violence of the unsaid, desire, voyeurism, solitude, “inhabitation,” as you well call it…Maybe it’s not so much the problem of the subjects we talk about, but rather our own fears, our pain, and the questions by which we move through those subjects. And these are not burdens that change from book to book, they are big life questions, and maybe answering them takes us more time–or more books—than we would like.

TM: Little Eyes is a dark novel, but compared to Fever Dream, the tone feels a bit lighter, even somewhat comic in places, for instance the Barcelona chapter in the old persons’ home, and the chapter with the two little girls. Both of these chapters are simultaneously terrifying, and yet very funny (to me), almost a kind of slapstick comedy. There’s a real intermittent joyfulness to the book, as well, for instance in Marvin’s quest for snow, and in the short chapter at the concert. I wonder if this tonal difference was intentional after the absolute darkness of Fever Dream, or merely a product of the material.

SS: There’s something in the material that allows for a more lightweight game, but it was also a necessity. All my books have been a little dark up to now, and I felt like I needed a little fresh air, I needed to change the tone, the rhythm, even the narrator. Also, thinking about references as I was writing Little Eyes, I felt oddly connected to Ray Bradbury, who was perhaps the first writer I read with devotion in my first adult readings. Bradbury is dark and mysterious, but also, without a doubt, he’s an optimist. There is always light and air in his stories, there’s always a moment that today we would read as almost bordering on naïveté, when Bradbury says, “I believe in humanity, this will work out.” I thought a lot about that, I reread him carefully, and I realized to what extent that kind of optimism is perhaps one of the most daring—and difficult—movements to make in horror and mystery. In fact, I don’t think Little Eyes achieves that optimism in the slightest. But maybe there’s at least the feeling of a little air, a gesture, a nod toward that brighter zone.

TM: In Little Eyes, Kentukis are described so persuasively as a cultural phenomenon, that I think a reader can’t help but imagine them in the real world, and imagine if they’d prefer to be a Dweller or Keeper. Dweller seems the obvious choice to me, if I had to choose one—I wonder which you would pick?

SS: I had the same feeling when I started to write this book. Maybe because being a Dweller allows you to look at the other, to spy on them and discover who they really are when they think no one is looking. There’s a lot of voyeurism in the Dweller, and I guess all writers have something of the voyeur about us. We want to look at others in order to understand ourselves. But the truth is that over the course of the novel I discovered that being a Keeper, “possessing” the other, was a very interesting condition to investigate through literature. What is really awakened in a person by that desire to possess, by that morbid curiosity, even a veiled form of violence? What is it about certain contemporary devices that drives us toward places we never thought we’d go, but where we suddenly recognize ourselves, caught in the trap?

TM: I like to end these interviews with a stupid question. Do you mostly write on a computer, typewriter, or by hand? If, like most people, you usually use a computer to write, have you ever attempted writing longhand and what was the result?

SS: Practically speaking, and thinking about my routines, I’d say that 90 percent of my writing is on the computer. But there are also times when I get stuck, and I’ll take my notebook and go out for a walk. And that other, more sporadic kind of writing, if it comes to me, arrives as a great surge of information, and I can write pages and pages standing in the middle of the street feeling no shame or physical discomfort. Writing by hand is always, for me, tied to what happens to the body—it’s more visceral and less thought out. I would even say that all my books begin and end with writing by hand. They are notes that come to me very clearly, and that contain the embryos of everything that will be built later (voice, tone, narrator, atmosphere, etc). So, writing on the computer is what takes up the most time, but that doesn’t mean it’s the most important.

Craft Corner: The Millions Interviews Emma Copley Eisenberg

Emma Copley Eisenberg’s The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia was released in January to rave reviews. NPR called it “a masterful work of journalism,” and Melissa del Bosque agreed in her New York Times review: “In the end, The Third Rainbow Girl is not just a masterly examination of a brutal unsolved crime, which leads us through many surprising twists and turns and a final revelation about who the real killer might be. It’s also an unflinching interrogation of what it means to be female in a society marred by misogyny.” It’s a fascinating, dense, and ambitious project that manages to simultaneously work as investigative journalism, true crime, memoir, cultural criticism, and a social history of Appalachia—specifically, Pocahontas County, W.V., where Eisenberg worked after college and where the Rainbow Murders, as they became known, occurred in 1980.

I was excited to talk with Eisenberg and learn how she had approached an undertaking of this size and complexity.

The Millions: Emma, I’ve admired your short fiction for a while, a form with which, in my estimation, you have a great deal of facility. How do you feel your short story/fiction chops informed your work on this project? And, related: as someone best known for, and perhaps most comfortable, working in short fiction, did you have any trepidation about working in the realm of journalism/true crime/creative nonfiction?

Emma Copley Eisenberg: Thanks! I love fiction, particularly short fiction; it’s my first love, my first language. I tried to write this book as fiction at first, but it just didn’t work. I realized pretty quickly that because I’m not from the place where these events took place and where the camera of the book is looking, my imagination would not be able to supply the bone deep details and insights required to tell this story well and truthfully.

In many ways, this book has its roots in genre trouble. I was getting my MFA in fiction at the University of Virginia when I began writing this book and a few things happened around the same time, all in November of 2014. One, I was having a crisis of belief in “fiction”—did it demand a kind of “coherence” that falsely smoothed over and story-ified the bumps of real life? Two, Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus” article came out, throwing UVA’s campus into turmoil. Three, a black student-led protest in response to the failure to indict Darren Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown drew local white supremacy out into the open in Charlottesville. And four, two young women—one white and cis, one black and trans—went missing and were later considered murdered to vastly different community and law enforcement results.

Many of my fellow fiction MFA students seemed to feel these events had nothing to do with them. But I felt I could not go into my room and write from my imagination at that moment. I wanted to participate, in some way, so I opened the door to nonfiction. To be fair, I had also already worked in two alt weekly newsrooms by then, where I had learned the fundamentals of reporting and fact checking. Once the door was opened to nonfiction, what would become The Third Rainbow Girl came tumbling out.

I didn’t think about it as in a particular genre at that point, like journalism or true crime. I just kept letting the sentences pile up. But it quickly became clear that the information I would need to tell this story did not exist on the Internet or in my brain, it lived only with real people and in documents that belonged to real people. Reporting is really just calling people and asking them questions, so I set about doing it. One thing led to another, naturally.

And also: I was absolutely terrified! But most of the terror came later, when I realized and realized again the responsibilities tied to writing nonfiction that we do not attach to fiction, and navigated again and again my positionality as an 85 percent outsider, 15 percent insider to the place. There were a lot of moments of being scared to pick up the phone or send the email, but then I would do it.

I think my fiction training shows up a lot in the book. First of all, I love sentences and playing with language and cramming lowbrow and highbrow words into the same sentence. When I first started writing the book I was writing in “serious nonfiction voice” where I was like “As he perambulated the cobblestone path, an innovative concept appeared in his brain.” I thought that’s what reported nonfiction should sound like. But that’s bad writing! And boring! And then I remembered that I knew how to write sentences and things improved. Also scenes and dialogue. My fiction skills really served me well in taking trial transcript and making it into a scene with human interest and desire.

Once I started working on nonfiction, my fiction improved tremendously; basically all the fiction I’ve published to date was written while I was also writing The Third Rainbow Girl. I think this is because I was trying to tackle big questions of class and race and sexuality in my fiction but it came out clumsy and didactic. Once I had a place to really probe those questions elsewhere, my fiction became so much more fluid, playful, and strange.

TM: Building off that last question, can you talk about the tremendous pressure in writing a book like this, involving a real case with real victims and suspects, to “get the story right” in a sense that doesn’t exist in creating fiction? (In my fiction, I’m personally tremendously unconcerned with factuality and only really care about not being obviously wrong, and reading your book it struck me what a luxury this is.) Did you find this to be the case? And if so, how did it impact the imaginative process?

ECE: Yes, I absolutely felt this pressure, as all writers of nonfiction about real people should. For about the first three years or so of the project I just interviewed, read, wrote, interviewed, read, wrote, listened listened listened. I racked up all this material and felt I was drowning in it. Every time I thought I “had it right,” I would talk to someone new and they would say, “Oh no, that’s not it at all.” Ultimately, right before we sold the book, I realized that was what the book was about—the fact that the story of these crimes and this place have been told so many times and it’s never all the way true. There were two alleged witnesses to the crime who put men in jail with their testimony whose accounts do not include that the other witness was even there. There’s a statement that both suspect and investigator swore the other wrote. Fact itself, storytelling itself, contradiction and multiplicity, these things became the center of my book rather than its periphery, not out of my imagination but because the material and the “truth” demanded that it be so.

That’s one thing I think I learned: that the creative process for fiction and nonfiction is very different. In fiction, there may be (should be) some surprise coming from the elements, the sentences as they are written, but in (good) nonfiction it’s like 100 percent surprise. There are so many things you did not know you didn’t know. Something happens and everything you’ve done up to that point is worthless. It’s very exciting and humbling and woke me up to the hugeness of other people and information and truths I could not ever have created myself.

Then, during the fact-checking process, there were things I found I’d made up or embellished for the sake of scene or coherence as you would in fiction and my wonderful fact checker caught them and I took them out. (Note: nonfiction books are not fact checked by publishers, if you want to be confident everything in your book is factually correct you must hire your own fact checker at your own expense. Because of this, many books are never fact checked). It was interesting to see that my fiction brain could not totally be turned off.

The Millions: One thing that I think is true of almost all full-length books, whether fiction or nonfiction, and regardless of genre, is that they are an exercise in world-building. And part of the challenge of writing a book is figuring out what the boundaries of that world are; or, put another way, I feel like when you understand the boundaries, you often understand the book. The Third Rainbow Girl is such a capacious story, concentric rings of stories, really, that include the crime and investigation, the victims, the suspects, West Virginia, Appalachia, our national history, and your own life—how did you figure out the boundaries of the book?

ECE: Oh dear, indeed! How did I? I really didn’t understand the boundaries for a while, I would say for about three years. As you say it’s a huge story that kept sprawling and my process was very open and organic. My agent, the excellent Jin Auh, read many drafts and refused to take the book out one moment before I knew what it was and for that I am very grateful. I do a little writers festival each May in southern West Virginia in honor of Grace Paley, and in the May of 2017, I sat on this beautiful swath of land near where I used to live there and felt as stuck and mixed up about the book as I ever had. It felt out of control and a mess and I worried it had no story and never would. So I decided to just make a list of everything I knew to be absolutely true, whether it be about the community, the crimes, me in the place, anything. The result was “True Things,” the list that became the book’s prologue, and the thing that convinced my agent the book was ready for sale. That list came to serve as a kind of true north for me, which may be something similar to the boundaries of the project.

The Millions: As mentioned, you include a great deal of your life in this book—it is arguably as much a memoir of your time working for VISTA in West Virginia and living there, as it is true crime. Can you talk a little bit about the way this project presented itself and evolved? To put it simplistically: did it feel like a memoir that started drawing in elements of nonfiction, or nonfiction that started drawing in elements of memoir, or did both sides evolve more or less synchronously in the writing process?

ECE: There are seven parts to the book, my personal story is present in two of them. After I moved away from Pocahontas County, I felt haunted and confused by things I’d done and witnessed and just also super homesick, if you can be homesick for a place you’re not from. It’s the most beautiful place on earth. So there was always some introspective writing, mostly notes towards essays that I was working on in the years 2011 to 2013. But when I began working on the project that would become The Third Rainbow Girl, I thought I was writing a purely reported and researched narrative about Pocahontas County and what became known as “The Rainbow Murders.” But as may be clear by now, I’m not a pure journalist, finding out the answers to factual questions has never been compelling to me, and I knew there were so many aspects to the crimes that would never be fully answered, that could not be fully answered by a purely factual accounting. I felt I needed another element to the book, something that could both offer context to the place where the crimes took place and supply the emotional truth that facts, and particularly legal and law enforcement facts, sometimes lack.

The things I read about the case, the way women in the county got shafted when it came to power and possibility but also were able to survive and connect in much higher numbers than men, and the way some of the men accused of the crimes seemed to carry a particular kind of guilt that seemed to be related amorphously to their bad treatment of women felt familiar, rhymed and resonated with my own experiences as a person living in Pocahontas County. I’d driven that road that used to have a grocery store on it but it was gone now, I’d drank and played music on that mountain where Vicki Durian and Nancy Santomero were killed.

Further, it was important to me not to portray Pocahontas County, W.V., as a place from the past, a historical place, a place where only old and bad things happen. People were thriving and working and struggling in contemporary West Virginia and contemporary Appalachia, though their lives are inexorably tied to, and connected by, their particular history. I wanted a way to talk about how West Virginia is actually a way more politically liberal state than Virginia by most measures, and that Pocahontas County has the highest concentration of crazy talented musicians of any place I’ve ever lived, and the trans guy who’d been a student at the nonprofit where I worked and was still making sense of his time there. I also wanted to talk about the Appalachian diaspora, that so many people from Appalachia don’t live there, and that there are also a lot of people like me—not quite from, not quite away—whose experiences don’t fit neatly inside the insider/outsider boxes. To do all this in the most straightforward and honest sense, I eventually realized that I had to include my own experiences in the book.

The Millions: On that note, I think a really interesting thematic aspect of The Third Rainbow Girl is the consideration of queerness vis-à-vis West Virginia (which, as the book points out, has the highest transgender rate in country). Despite an image people might have of macho coal-mining hillbillies, West Virginia is a diverse place, and one that can also be “read” as a very queer place—full of learned codes of behavior and communication, as well as a sense of belonging strongly informed by its existence outside mainstream American culture. I’m interested in other ways that your time in West Virginia and your exploration of this case might have affected your sense of yourself (and vice versa: the ways your evolving sense of personal identity may have affected/informed your view of West Virginia).

ECE: Thanks for this reading, it was important to me that people see that dimension to the state. West Virginia may be the queerest place I’ve lived in some ways, for just these reasons of coded speech and code switching you describe. Appalachian people are queer in this country; they must literally change their ways of speaking and being to be accepted by mainstream America, as a recent episode of the podcast Dolly Parton’s America points out so beautifully.

I came to West Virginia as a very recently out queer person who was very excited and fired up about feminism and queer theory. I often say Pocahontas County rewired my brain, and its true. I learned there about the ways class intersects with queerness and gender and renders most of the theories I learned in classrooms wholly irrelevant. I participated in real and difficult conversations, sexual encounters, and social encounters, and all of them left me questioning and changed. I saw the way that it is so easy to hide in the costume of heterosexuality if you are even a little bit straight and how having that option afforded me love, community, and access that those without it did not have. I saw how complicated the bonds of family and community were, often trumping (pun intended) all supposed political affiliations. Just because you vote for a white supremacist misogynist (which actually not that many West Virginians did, let us recall) doesn’t mean you won’t stick your neck out at a family picnic for your queer child or show up at your biracial cousin’s house when you’re needed. Things are so much more complicated than colors on a map. That insight has stuck with me and influenced my identities in countless ways—not only will I never jump aboard the band wagon of blaming “poor white people” for Trump’s election (The facts do not bear this out!)—but I am also suspicious of any sweeping liberal opinion that demands absolute fealty or belief. If the queers in my neighborhood all believe one thing absolutely, you can count on me to be very suspicious of it and be researching it late at night. Nothing, I have learned, is ever all the way true.

The Millions: I’m always interested in thinking about process. Having successfully written, revised, and brought The Third Rainbow Girl to publication are there things that, if you had to do it again, you would approach differently? Or put another way, if you were to write another nonfiction book, are there lessons from writing this that you feel you could use?

ECE: I’m almost certain I’ll never write another nonfiction book again, or at least not one at all resembling The Third Rainbow Girl. This story was unique, it came into my life when I was very young and held me hostage; writing it has made me into a different person and there will never be another like it.

If I were to write this book again, I’d do two things differently. Firstly, I think I worked very hard and stressed a lot about thinking through my own positionality as a middle-class educated person not from West Virginia who was writing this story, but I perhaps did not interrogate myself enough when it came to being a memoirist. I was so focused on making sure everything in the account was true and ethical and substantively contributed to the larger story I wanted to tell, that I perhaps did not prepare myself for the personal and intimate revelations that memoir often brings.

Secondly, I wish I had known how psychologically grueling a book that deals with this kind of darkness would be on my mind and body. I dreamed about murder—either murdering or being murdered—every night for about two years. At times I was enraged, and at times I was very sad. Meeting other writers who have gone on similar journeys with their books since mine has come out has been incredibly reassuring that this process is okay, even normal for the material. But how I wish I had known that upfront!

The Millions: I like to end these interviews with one incredibly dumb question. Are you a morning, daytime, or nighttime writer?

ECE: Mostly morning, I need to get those good hours where people haven’t sent me too many emails yet and before the anxiety kicks in. But if I’m honest, many of my best ideas and sentences still happen in the night, somewhere between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. There’s a sign I keep by my bed that says “Trust no thought had after 10 p.m.,” which weeds out most of the truly bonkers stuff, but if something gets through during those hours, it’s usually a true keeper.

Our Work and Why We Do It

“I hate to write, but I love having written” is a quote variously attributed to Dorothy Parker, George R.R. Martin, Gloria Steinem, and Robert Louis Stevenson, among many others. The promiscuity of its provenance is, I think, a testimony to its relatability among writers in general. It’s difficult, in other words, to think of someone who couldn’t have said it.

I first heard this quote paraphrased years ago by a fellow writer in my MFA program, an older student who truly seemed to hate the act of writing. As described, it was torture for him. He claimed to sometimes labor over a single sentence for most of the morning and walk away unsatisfied. Getting together a 10-page draft for workshop was, for him, a task that required Herculean, heroic measures. Having drinks afterwards, he would seem limp and wrung out, relieved at having the experience behind him, miserable at the thought of the next one in a month.

My friend may have been an extreme case, but he is not alone. People hate writing. An informal survey of any group of writers online overwhelmingly yields this sentiment. My Twitter timeline is perennially filled with variations on the theme of what a difficult, sometimes even hateful experience writing is. On the one hand, a great deal of this kind of angst, especially on Twitter, is performative and attention-seeking. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t truth in it, too. Entire forums primarily exist to allay and soothe not just the misery of writing, but the anticipatory dread it seems to inspire. Even when many people are away from their computers or Moleskins, the mere thought of writing, or having to write, seems to exert a depressing power on them.

This is not unreasonable. Writing a novel—or short story collection, or memoir—is an awful lot of incredibly hard work that no one asks you to do. It’s a little like playing the office martyr who voluntarily stays at work after everyone has left, except the office martyr gets paid and might get a promotion for their trouble. Whereas 99.99 percent of the time, you will get effectively nothing. Despite all of this, most people gird themselves and get back on that horse. Why? Why do it, if you don’t like doing it?

Overwhelmingly, the reason why most people keep at it would seem to be the prospect of getting published, the feeling that it will all be worth it at long last, holding that contributor’s copy or freshly minted novel in their hands—that the love having written part will outweigh the hate to write that it follows. But there is reason to wonder if this equation has any basis in fact.

The Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize for his pioneering work in the field of behavioral economics. His research is far-reaching, with many implications about how humans apportion their time and resources, and how they might make different decisions with a different understanding of the mechanisms of happiness. In particular, he divides happiness into two types: experiential happiness and reflective happiness.

These types are what they sound like, more or less. Experiential happiness is the pleasure we take in the moment-to-moment experience of living—moments that, according to neuroscience, last about three seconds and are more or less gone forever. Nonetheless, in aggregate, they constitute the fabric and texture of a life. Reflective—or, variously, in Kahneman’s research, “remembered”—happiness is the pleasure we take in thinking about our lives. This is the happiness that on vacation drives us to visit the Louvre when we would really rather sit at a café drinking red wine. We sacrifice that existential happiness for the prospect of remembering the museum in the future and deriving pleasure from that.

This mechanism also accounts for why we pursue many of our ambitions, and, arguably, for the fact of ambition itself. Ambition, very often, if not always, sacrifices existential happiness at the altar of reflected happiness. What, after all, is something like law school, but a three-year exercise in not having fun, for the sake of living a presumably better life afterward? Paraphrasing Kahneman, for various reasons, some of them neurological and some of them learned, we don’t intuit future experienced happiness as being as meaningful as future remembered/reflected happiness.

Another way of putting it is we want to have done things. We want to have made partner by forty. We want to have run a marathon. We want to have climbed Mt. Everest. And many, many people, it would seem, want to have written and published novels.

The problem with this, according to Kahneman, is that as humans we chronically and radically overestimate how happy reflected happiness will make us relative to experienced happiness. In one of his examples he cites a three-week trip he took to Antarctica, surely, he says, the most spectacular and meaningful vacation of his life. In the three years since he took it, he estimates, he derived reflected pleasure from it for thirty or so minutes. Even, he says, if you are someone more predisposed than he is to dwelling on past pleasures, surely you cannot reminisce sufficiently to make the happiness of remembering equal to the happiness of experiencing.

Generally speaking, according to behavioral research, “wanting to have done something” is usually not a good reason to do it, if the something in question is something you dislike doing. However much pride, for example, a person might feel in thinking about or mentioning that they once completed a marathon, that flash of happiness could never make up for the months of miserable, painful training it took to run 26 miles. That is, of course, unless the runner in question loves training itself: loves 10-mile early morning runs in the freezing cold, loves pushing their limits, loves making schedules, loves incremental success, loves adjusting their diet, and so on. In that case, running a marathon is a pleasure in both experiential and reflective terms, with a quantity of reflective and experiential pleasure gained by running the race that pales in comparison to the months of training.

And so it seems to be with writing. Professor Kahneman, I think, would agree that for a person who does not really enjoy the act of writing—like my old workshop friend—the pleasure of having written a thing could never, for him, outweigh the pain of the writing itself. Novel writing presents a radical example of trading experiential happiness for anticipated reflective happiness, surely one of the most extreme examples of this kind of activity that humans regularly engage in. Yet it is a widely held article of faith that all the suffering it takes to produce—and maybe publish—a novel, will be worth it.

But it won’t. It couldn’t possibly. Getting a novel written and published is a rare achievement and should be a matter of great pride—but pride is thin gruel that becomes thinner by the day. It is not sustaining. What is sustaining—if you are lucky enough to enjoy the work—is the work, full stop.

This seems like a fact worth meditating on, at this particular moment, more than ever. Things that, as an author, you usually take for granted as bedrock facts of your world—a healthy reading public with disposable time and income, or the continued solvency/existence of major publishers, for example—suddenly seem made less of granite than of sand. We are advised to isolate and quarantine, and we have no idea, really, what is to come. Now, more than ever, if you are a writer, there is only you and the work-in-progress. But then, that is really always the case.

I so often have to meditate on this fact, despite counting myself in the fortunate camp of people for whom the act of writing is an act of pleasure, even, at times, joy. I am never really happier than when I’m opening a file in the morning, my first cup of coffee beside me. I am capable of enjoying a years-long novel writing process, excluding possibly the very last draft or two, which are almost invariably brutal slogs.

Nonetheless, like most people, I find myself making the same mistakes, over and over, forgetting that it is only about the work. In the lead up to the publication of my last novel, I was a kite flapping whichever way the wind blew that day. A good review might send me off into the clouds; a bad review would certainly plummet me to the ground, reminding me of the unlikelihood of the book achieving any kind of success.

Success. As I have done many times before, I interrogated this word. What is success in writing? I came to, as one so often does at these times, an unsatisfying bromide that nonetheless possesses the dull and stubborn ring of truth. Tertiary success in writing is actual or “actual” success, what we are conditioned to foolishly hope for: sales, awards, packed readings, a large and vociferous readership. Secondary success is simply getting a novel written and published—again, a huge feat for anyone to accomplish at any level of publication. But primary success—the real success—is the days and weeks and months and years of satisfying, engaging work it takes to produce the book, no matter what happens to it afterward.

We are dust, after all. Most books are dust. Nothing lasts, and short of believing in a conventional afterlife where you are admitted to some kind of successful writers’ VIP lounge, there’s no sound reason to obsess about writing a successful novel. To return to Kahnemann, what behavioral science teaches us, over and over, about happiness is that success does not really make us happy. A minimal level of financial security is a precondition for happiness. Connection with people we love makes us happy. Physical exercise and movement makes us happy. Food makes us happy. And doing something meaningful makes us happy. This is the real value of writing: it is the search for meaning distilled in an act.

Writing is, ultimately, an act of meditation, an act of prayer. It is giving yourself over to sustained concentration, thinking deeply about the world around you, about your life. It is a way of communing with yourself, and even if this regular practice results in publication, the real hard-won value is in the millions of moments that led to the book’s existence. Every day that you sit down, for as much time as you have to work, you should be grateful for the opportunity to do a meaningful thing even if—maybe, especially if—it is only meaningful to you. As much as possible, you should inhabit the act itself, seeing the success in each new word that appears on the page.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Craft Corner: The Millions Interviews Sarah Moss

Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall was published in 2019 to a chorus of near-unanimous praise. Reviewing it at The New Yorker, Margaret Talbot wrote, “[Ghost Wall] is a worthy match for 3 a.m. disquiet, a book that evokes existential dread, but contains it, beautifully, like a shipwreck in a bottle.” The novel tells the story of Silvie, the sheltered daughter of a brutish father obsessed with the ancient lifeways of pre-Norman conquest Britons. Silvie accompanies her father and mother on an anthropological journey through Northumberland with a university professor and group of graduate students. As they move through the countryside and bogs, they move back through time and the journey becomes increasingly harrowing, as it invites the reader to ask, “How far removed are we really from our ancient ancestors and their traditions?”

The paperback edition of Ghost Wall was recently released, and I was lucky enough to have a chance to talk with Moss about her novel-writing process and technique in the first of what will be an ongoing new column at The Millions focused on craft.

Adam O’Fallon Price: One thing I love about this novel is that it’s short! And I don’t mean because it couldn’t be longer, or because I wasn’t enjoying it, but I simply like a short novel, and in my limited publishing experience, it is quite difficult to get a very short novel through. We need short books! Can you talk a little bit about the length of this book and related process?—i.e. was it whittled down from a much larger draft, or did this always feel like this was the right size for the story? And was there any pressure from the publishing side to pad it out more?

Sarah Moss: It really just came that way. I finished it and there it was, short. At first I thought that meant it was an interesting exercise but of no use; I was working on a longer novel anyway and this was the distraction project. But I mentioned it to my agent and she wanted to see it, and then to send it to my editor and so it went. At first I kept protesting that it wasn’t a novel and I didn’t want to give readers short measure, but I was more or less persuaded that people really don’t buy books by weight. Certainly no-one suggested padding.

AOP: On a semi-related note, I think one of the reasons for Ghost Wall’s brevity is it doesn’t muck around with a great deal of backstory or throat clearing. The main narrative puts us right into the reenactment excursion and keeps us there, a perfect choice as it creates a sense of readerly discomfort that matches the unnerving journey of the characters. Was there a temptation to do more exposition and general setting up?

SM: I think all my books start rather suddenly. I like to put the reader behind the narrator’s eyes in the first sentence and worry about setting up later. As a reader I’m patient with exposition and landscape and weather—I rarely read for the plot and like slow books—but as a writer I want every word to be earning its keep.

AOP: I’m also curious about when you really felt you “knew” your main character, Silvie: her thought process and personality. Was there a particular place where she emerged, or was it gradual? I’ve been asked this question before and my best answer is that I tend to feel like I know a character when I know their sense of humor. Is there, generally speaking, a way that you tend to find “into” your characters’ heads?

SM: I think for me it’s maybe about inhabiting the character’s body. Once I can feel her skin and push her hair behind her ears, feel her shoes on her feet, I can start.

AOP: Ghost Wall features a good amount of area-specific (Northumberland, correct? I’m a hopeless American.) flora and fauna as well as a great deal of information about Iron Age lifeways. I wonder how much this background inspired the novel, and how much writing the novel simply necessitated this information. Chicken, or egg, or both?

SM: Yes, Northumberland. I love that landscape partly because I have no history there, no personal or familial claim on it. My desire to be there is simply aesthetic and I feel no need to belong to or own it. I became suddenly interested in the Iron Age before I had any idea I might write about it, which is how it often goes for me; a passion for Japanese textile design or the history of obstetrics grows in my mind and later I find it’s for a book. (Or not; sometimes the fascination comes and goes without producing anything much.) So background first. I always start with a place: weather, birdsong, soundscape. And then history, archaeology, architecture. Characters come later.

AOP: One of the interesting choices in this novel (among many) is the lack of quotation marks, with dialogue embedded in the narrative. It seems right to me, though in a way I find difficult to articulate—something, perhaps, in the way it captures Silvie’s budding, confused consciousness. I wonder what you think it does, and how you feel the book would read differently with standard dialogue?

SM: I’ve been surprised by how much some readers mind about speech marks. After all, different languages do it differently, and I wonder if readers who are upset by the dialogue in Ghost Wall are similarly bothered by French or Spanish. I’d been playing with dialogue and interior monologue in my previous novel, The Tidal Zone, and here I wanted to take it a bit further. It’s all in Silvie’s head anyway; the narrator is older, remembering, so the speech isn’t exactly direct in the first place.

AOP: Were there any moments in the drafting of Ghost Wall that really surprised you? Not asking for spoilers, but were there any character moments or small but significant plot turns that seemed to pop out of nowhere?

SM: I liked the way the animals emerged and made patterns. It wasn’t planned until I saw that it had started to happen, and then I developed it.

AOP: Finally, a very dumb, but perhaps thematically appropriate question to end: in terms of writing a first draft, are you a plan ahead-er or flashlight in the dark walking through the woods-er?

SM: Both! Spend two years making a map and then put it in your back pocket and ignore it while you hack a path through the wilderness. Just remember that you invented that wilderness and, however it feels, you’re responsible for everything from the mining rights to the sunset.

The Subjective Mood

In my 2019 “A Year in Reading” entry, I wrote about the way Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie engages with itself on a moral level. In short: Spark’s controlling headmistress Jean Brodie metaphorizes Spark’s controlling narration, and the whole book serves to—among many other things—interrogate the value of this kind of domineering control in fiction. The novel does not settle for merely telling a story and telling it well; it also on some level considers that story and frames it, in doing so giving the narrative a greater dimensionality, what we might describe as moral depth.

I wrote about the feeling I have had, for some time, that this kind of novel is being written less and less frequently. I don’t mean a novel of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’s quality—novels of that quality have always been written infrequently. And on a related note, I’ll allow for the likelihood of some selection bias here—in other words, that I’m comparing great novels of the past to decent novels of the present. That said, over and over, I find myself reading well-reviewed contemporary novels that seem unwilling or unable to engage with themselves on a moral level. They tell a story, perhaps tell it well. But I finish the book and close it with no sense of what the book thinks about the story it told.

After writing the “A Year in Reading” piece, I found myself unsatisfied with merely diagnosing a (possible) condition. I wanted to consider whether it was a disease or symptom, or both, or neither. And I wanted to think about why—if this is a real change in the way people are writing—it might be happening.

As so often seems the case with questions like this, the most obvious, likely correct, and exceedingly boring answer is: the internet. Two decades of internet usage has rewired (and in some cases, broken) our brains. Since the advent of the internet, more people are writing than ever in human history, and the dominant mode of all this writing is first-person, in the form of tweets, Facebook and Instagram updates, Tumblr posts, Amazon and Goodreads reviews, and so on. I wrote here, about the move from third to first-person as our primary storytelling point of view, a shift borne out by opening any Best American Short Story collection from the last few years, and one from, say, 1995.

But authors have always employed first and third person to varying degrees, and literary tastes and trends are constantly changing. What seems more important here is less the current hegemony of first person, and more what feels like an accompanying change in the expectations of what a piece of fictional narrative can—or should—do. What I’m talking about is a cultural change that has accompanied the internet’s rise: the primacy of the subjective.

This primacy is expressed in a number of ways, large and small, obvious and less so. There is the bespoke, à la carte, curated nature of almost all entertainment, for example. Mostly gone are the days when a vast number of people tuned in, at a certain time, to watch a show they all agreed on. We are now delivered not only the content we want, but content we might want suggested on the basis of previous listens or views, and in this manner our consumption of music and film can be insidiously siloed. I’m not bemoaning the death of network television, and I find streaming services as convenient as the next person, but someone younger than I am (44) might not be fully aware of the paradigm shift this represents, in the way the world has been miniaturized and streamlined to service individual taste.

Our politics have, as well, become almost exclusively subjective. In some ways, for the good—#MeToo, for example, prioritized women’s individual claims of abuse out of necessity, in response to a rape culture that so often denies justice and even a voice to victims of assault. Cancel culture, more trickily—though still understandably—seeks to erase from the public record works of art by artists accused of bad behavior. Whatever one thinks of this, it signifies a stunning change in expectations from most of the 20th century, when, as articulated by the New Critics and their Intentional Fallacy and later by Roland Barthes’s The Death of the Author, the inviolable, objective separation between artist and art seemed more or less a settled matter. Finally, and to the unquestionable bad, the internet has allowed the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories that, like Netflix and Spotify, are curated at the level of individual taste depending on one’s personal cosmology of fear and desire. Trump’s election represented, in many ways, the victory of subjective paranoia and ignorance regarding immigrants, racial politics, and climate change over objective facts that were somewhat more difficult to ignore in a pre-internet era. Fifteen years ago, it felt stunningly cynical, not to mention stupid, for a Bush apparatchik to accuse a reporter of living in the “reality-based community,” but it now feels horribly prescient.

All of which is to say that one feels a consistent, accompanying shift toward the subjective in the fiction of our moment, in what it does and does not do. What it does do: relate intensely personal lived experience, depict trauma, and—maybe especially—project personality. What it does not do: usually attempt any sort of objectivity or try to situate a narrative in a moral framework.

The problem with this is, from my point of view, situating narrative in a moral framework is what novels do better than really any other type of art. No other narrative form can so dexterously tell a story while critiquing it, a sleight-of-hand enabled by the engaged moral interplay of an author/narrator with his or her narrative. The reluctance to engage on this level may become an inability, and this is a loss. Not just artistically, but socially, as well. During times of moral crisis like the one we’re living in, we need books of moral power and daring that challenge us. Books that are willing to take a stand, and in doing so, dare us to do the same.

On a less grand, but possibly more important level, the problem is also that so many of these books are boring. The reluctance to engage on a moral level is closely related to a reluctance to engage on a plot level. This is because the basic mechanics of plot—a character encounters trouble, makes a choice, and endures the consequences (which usually occasion further choices and consequences)—almost unavoidably raise moral questions. Is it good that she chose this thing and not the other? Are the consequences just or warranted? And what does the book think about all this? I suppose it’s conceivable to write plot without placing any moral weight on the character, and by extension the text, but it’s difficult to imagine in practice. Action and choice occasions a moral dimension—even dumb superhero movies usually manage a bit of this kind of depth, however microscopically thin.

Consider, as a refreshing recent counterexample, Adelle Waldman’s excellent The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, a novel published only seven years ago, but one that feels stylistically of an entirely different era. Love Affairs begins as its protagonist, Nate, encounters a former girlfriend on the subway, who calls him an asshole. The entire novel is premised on asking this question—is Nate an asshole?—and the questions that this question raise, among them: What constitutes being an asshole, and is it even possible to not be an asshole in the sexual marketplace? The book offers Nate a real choice, between a more complicated woman and less complicated woman, and he chooses the less complicated with all the consequences that choice brings, good and bad. By forcing Nate to take a stand (several of them), the messy drama of Nate Piven’s romantic life is acted out in a larger moral theater, though Waldman resists easy formulations. In the end, the novel finally seems to ask how fit we—the reader or the narrator—are to judge anyone else’s romantic happiness.   

But in recently published novel after recently published novel, a reader encounters something closer to this: a BIG EVENT happens proximate to the narrator, which makes them FEEL things and might remind them of other BIG EVENTS to which they’ve been proximate in their life, all of which occasions a lot of aimless, if lyrical prose. Various feints may be made in the direction of actual choices and consequences, but in the end, the novel’s imagined space is as safe and padded as a childproofed house. It is all about summoning atmosphere and suggesting the potential for action and choice, without actually having a character make any choices, and, more importantly, without having to dramatize any consequences that might arise from a choice. Again, to do so would risk saying something that might feel like an objective moral position, if only in the context of the novel.

To return to Muriel Spark: in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Miss Brodie acts in a manner that damages her students, and Sandy Stranger, in return, betrays her teacher and brings about Miss Brodie’s downfall. These choices and consequences are important in themselves, in the creation of a dynamic piece of narrative, but also, again, they are important in the way they dramatize a larger point about the dire consequences of authoritarian control, in real life and in the novel—a question Spark is clearly wrestling with regarding her own artistic tendencies. In a broad sense, it’s clear what the novel’s intentions are, what the moral implications are for the characters, for the reader, and even perhaps for the author.

Published today, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie would seem to run counter to the larger cultural mood, the sense many smart people may have that we are past—regrettably or not—creating work that presumes, however obliquely, to tell other people how to live. At first glance, it seems odd to think this might be the case, given the sheer volume and stridency of opinion to be found online. But this is mostly simple moralizing, mostly about creating in-group dynamics within one’s curated political space—an intensely subjective and affirming performance of one’s felt beliefs. It is not about the kind of serious inquiry and deep self-reflection at which novels as an art form excel—a moral dimensionality that complicates, rather than simplifies, our sense of other people and the world. The subjectivity that has characterized our consumption of art and our participation in politics has also begun to characterize our sense of morality, and it therefore may seem quaint to write with the objectivity required to hoist up and secure a fictional narrative in a larger, moral architecture.  

And so it is not difficult to imagine a first-person version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, published in 2020, from the lone perspective of Sandy Stranger. In this book, we would also get marvelous descriptions of Edinburgh and the rolling fields by the river. We would also get tender moments between the girls. We would get, perhaps, an ominous sense of Miss Brodie’s despotic personality, and we might, at some point, get the news that Mary had died on a misadventure to Spain. But we would likely not get Miss Brodie’s manipulation of Rose, we would likely not get Sandy’s affair with Mr. Lloyd, and we would almost certainly not get Sandy’s betrayal of Miss Brodie. In the end, Sandy would graduate from the school, having grown apart from the crème de la crème, feeling a bit wistful and disabused, but not much worse for the wear.

A concluding question here might be, even if one accepts that what I’ve described is true, is there anything to be done about it? That depends, I suppose, on if one sees cultural movements as something inevitable, or something that can be affected on an individual level. In truth, it’s probably both: No, there’s no putting the Me genie back in the internet bottle; yes, we can try to write, and reasonably expect to read, fiction that thinks more deeply about life than the average Tumblr post. What we want, really, is a well-read modern fiction that represents the historical moment we’re in, with all of its solipsism, its confessional honesty and sometimes wonderful theatricality, while remembering the encompassing moral intelligence great fiction is capable of when, now and then, it gazes away from its own navel.

Image credit: Priscilla Du Preez

A Year in Reading: Adam O’Fallon Price

Of all the books I read this year, none stuck with me quite like Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I realize the greatness of this book is not, as they say, new news—my temperament is such that I often come late to long-beloved novels and unnecessarily evangelize them. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is an economical marvel, a funny and sadistic little hundred-page narrative containing, somehow, the entire lives of seven women. Everyone knows this, and everyone knows Spark is a fabulous writer. But hopefully here I can praise Miss Brodie for something less obvious—for something it possesses that it sometimes feels to me so many books these days don’t—that is, the story it tells about itself.

All books are really two books: a first book, containing characters and a plot with problems and complications that make characters do things, and a second book, about that first book. Great books tell a great story, and they tell a great story about that story. They are legible and coherent regarding their own project, which is to say that they possess a moral intelligence, a frame that, however ambiguously or mysteriously, contains and comments on the events of the primary narrative.

Morality in fiction—or maybe better put, talking about morality in fiction—has been somewhat unfashionable for a long time, but nonetheless most great books possess a kind of morality. I’m not using “morality” to mean a lesson, but rather an articulable if complex framework of moral meaning that situates a novel’s events and characters. All novels are miniature, idealized versions of the world (even if the idealization is negative), and a novel’s moral intelligence is what allows the reader to understand how this idealization corresponds with the actual. It is what the book thinks about the book.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a masterpiece already in so many other ways, is finally a masterpiece on the level of moral interrogation. Jean Brodie is a controlling manipulator, a benevolent, fascist-idolizing despot in her little rogue state of loyal young women; Brodie and her girls are, in turn, controlled and manipulated by Spark’s despotic narration. The novel’s odd technique of jumping ahead to reveal character fates is instrumental here—by telling the reader what will happen to this or that girl, Spark closes off narrative possibility, boxes the girls into their destinies just as surely as Brodie’s tutelage boxes Sandy Stranger into a nun’s penitence booth. In doing so, Spark implicitly asks if this degree of control is good. Encoding this kind of intelligible moral inquiry into one’s work is, it seems to me, the highest order of writing.

In my increasingly common fogeyish moments, I do wonder if moral superstructure in novels is something increasingly uncommon. So many modern novels I read lack moral depth and seem uninterested in interrogating the story they tell. Is this a function of the first-person-ization of everything, a shift toward viewing narrative primarily as a means of projecting one’s personality? I don’t know. A widely praised novel I read this year felt representative: It was intelligent and stylish and voice-y, its plot and character mechanics were smooth and inevitable—it was a pleasure to read. But it conveyed no sense of its sense of itself, what it thought of its own story, and so it ultimately felt irresolute and unfinished. I realize that it’s asking a lot, for novels to be as good as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. But that is what I want.

More from A Year in Reading 2019

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A Truth Accuracy Could Never Achieve: The Millions Interviews M. Randal O’Wain

M. Randal O’Wain’s Meander Belt: Family, Loss, and Coming of Age in the Working-Class South is part of the University of Nebraska’s American Lives series, edited by Tobias Wolff. It offers a rich and moving portrayal of O’Wain’s hardscrabble childhood in Memphis and his journey away from his family’s working-class roots toward art and academia. The book has drawn praise from the likes of Patricia Foster and John D’Agata, who says, “For all their poignant intimacy, the essays in Meander Belt are somehow also achingly universal.” I was fortunate enough to get to talk to O’wain about his book, its genesis, and formal challenges.

The Millions: Meander Belt is about your childhood, growing up in a southern blue-collar family, the divergent path you took to become a musician and then writer, and the friction this caused at times. Despite the friction, you note that your father’s work ethic informed your writing—in a heartbreaking scene, you inscribe your debt to him on a self-published copy of your book that you give him for Christmas, that he refuses to read. Besides hard work, how else would you say your upbringing influenced your writing? 

M. Randal O’Wain: Bodies. I’m not sure I would have such a strong pull toward the intersection of emotional stakes within a memory (or character in fiction) and the way we physically move through the world. In part, I think this is because of my father and how in the summer he’d come home shirtless and dirty, smelling of sweat that was as much sawdust as the mushroomy pungency of something organic. I also think of my mother, who contracted polio as a toddler and forever after has had a distinct walk, one that I find impossible to describe but looked as if she needed to use her core strength to swing her right leg forward and yet she raised us to never consider her as disabled. In fact, we saw her as so able-bodied that it was often shocking to witness ways in which strangers treated her in public—cruelly, at times, or with kindness, but each had the same effect of drawing attention to the one thing she consciously avoided in her day-to-day: feeling different. We often did not have AC in our cars and us four siblings would sit close to each other in the southern heat, our skin tacky from sweat and sticking to this one’s thigh or that one’s arm.

TM: What was the original impetus for writing this? Why did this feel like a story that needed telling? And a related question: when did you know this was a book?

MRO: I never wanted to write about my family or myself. Even though there are fantastic memoirs out there, I have always had a difficult time respecting memoir as a genre because there is an expectation established by the more money-minded editors and houses out there that often flattens life experience into a palatable structure where the hero/heroine always gets better and learns a lesson. I am no hero and even if I might have learned lessons along the way, they are rarely teaching moments. Instead I was consumed by grief when I lost my father and brother at age 22 and 25 and I was suddenly faced with this knowledge that I would never be able to out grow my more selfish impulses, never be able to forgive both men for their more selfish reactions, and when this lack of rapprochement suddenly exists when the death of a parent or sibling happens so young it is a special kind of trauma. For me, this trauma told me stories of who I was in relation to home and in relation to the men who raised me and these memories were so horribly fucking bright I couldn’t turn away.

TM: Despite the admission in the preface that the dialogue and details are largely invented, this is a deeply personal memoir. Did you have any reservations about writing this as far as family and friends were concerned?

MRO: What I’m trying to respond to in the preface where I write about using storytelling techniques often found in fiction is an argument popular among essayists, which has specific battle lines drawn around how much detail and dialogue is acceptable. As I said before, it was hard to look away from my memories. It was as if my mind was trying to compartmentalize my past in order to store memory away and each time this mental picture show was presented, I felt it in my guts, man. In my heart. I fully inhabited each instance, and I heard dialogue, and I smelled the rooms and the bodies, saw the chipped paint, and touched the rough-hewn hardwood. From this perspective, I tried to inhabit memory as bodily as I could without worrying over accuracy. I wanted a truth that accuracy could never achieve and the way I felt most comfortable doing this was through narrative storytelling. In terms of family and friends, I often needed them in order to “fact-check” my memory. I relied on my older sister and my mom quite heavily and hounded friends about details of certain events in order to get a broader understanding of the memory. This usually came after I’d written a draft because I really wanted to maintain access to that raw, initial remembering. In short: Everyone was excited to participate. A friend, Parker, wrote me a nice note the other day and I thanked him for reading. He said, “I’m in the book so of course I read the damn thing.”

TM: I’m curious about some of the more unusual choices, for instance the numbered paragraphs in “Superman Dam Fool,” and “Memento Mori Part One,” in which you slide into and out of your father’s head. Talk a little, if you would, about how the less straightforward moves that you don’t always see in memoir suggested themselves.

MRO: A lot of the experimental sections came from a need to deal with large swaths of time and without letting these experiences and memories take over the entire book, or worse, cause the book to balloon to some grotesque page count. “Superman Dam Fool” encapsulates two full years of middle school but manages this in 10 printed pages. “Memento Mori Part One” came about for similar reasons. In this section, I needed to address a three-year period where I lived in Olympia, Wash, and for the first time in my life I had a band that I loved and we owned a van and equipment together, a label put out our record, we had tours lined up, and eventually traveled the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. All the while, my father’s mental health tanked. He developed crippling panic attacks that were not readily diagnosed at the time and doctors often insinuated that what caused him to stay in his room without sound or lights for weeks at a time was somehow psychosomatic, and there is nothing worse for a man who has ambition to be a provider, to be strength for his family, than telling him he is making his ailments up. And so the panic doubled-down. Soon after, discs slipped in his neck and he was fired from his job. Anyway, I needed to figure out some way to tell his side of the story even though I was not at home. I tried looking over photos and letters in a more essayistic style; I interviewed my mom and tried to insert these interviews into the narrative. Both were terrible—really hokey, man. And then, I heard his voice thinking, as I might hear a fictional character think before writing them into being. It was authentically him and so I wrote these sections that are entirely from his POV in just a few days. None of them have really been altered or edited since.

TM: Circling back around to the original question: a complaint many people have about the state of modern writing is that the influence of MFA programs has homogenized everything. While I disagree with a lot of the anti-MFA sentiment, it does perhaps seem true that a few decades ago there were more southern writers and regionalists, and writers from blue collar backgrounds like Raymond Carver that wrote about and from that place. Meander Belt reminds me, in some ways, of those books—I wonder if you feel like there’s any truth to this, if something gritty and regional has been lost in fiction being subsumed into the academy. 

MRO: I’m not sure New York even knows what it likes these days. It seems to me that the big houses are only interested in making money and will jump on whatever train follows the market. Everything is bought and sold at such a high level that it is difficult for most art to have a chance. Some great books slip through, sure, but the trends are obvious. For this reason, I don’t see New York lasting as the seat of the literary world. It has been Paris and London in past. Perhaps Oslo will be the new taste-maker.

I’m so close to Meander Belt, I don’t even know if it is a good book anymore. I’m glad it exists. I am happy to be on this side of the experience. I don’t know if my book was ever going to be widely read, but I always knew that it did not fit the current modes of capitalism and literature.

Edith Wharton Will Teach You Everything You Need to Know About Naming Characters

Character names are a strange aspect of the novel, one E.M. Forster neglected to cover. They are so important, so central to a reader’s experience with a book, and yet so often attended to at the last moment, if at all. From personal experience, character names often adhere early on in a draft, and it is only with an immense conscious effort that an author is able to pry the original handle away from its jealous owner. They run the gamut from the naturalistic and seemingly inconsequential (Patrick Melrose, Joseph Marlowe) to artificial and significant (Oedipa Maas, Thomas Gradgrind); from the subtle (India Bridge) to the obvious (Stephen Dedalus, Becky Sharp, Mr. Merdle); from the very good (Atticus Finch, Veruca Salt) to the very bad (Purity Tyler).

Good names often don’t matter all that much to the reading experience, but bad ones can be not only annoying but counterproductive and unilluminating. Desperate Characters by Paula Fox is one of my favorite novels, but the surname “Bentwood” for Otto and Sophie—as Jonathan Franzen touches on in his thoughtful foreword—is awkward and doesn’t land. It doesn’t speak to Sophie’s preternatural, almost neurasthenic sensitivity—the last thing you imagine her as is anything as solid as a piece of wood—nor does it seem to suggest anything true about the Bentwood’s strained marriage, which is in addled disarray, but is not bent. More importantly, it feels forced. You can hear the author coming up with it, and this precious quality does not serve the book, although Desperate Characters is great enough to weather this minor storm.

An ideal name, to me, conveys as much as possible about the character, while landing on this side of formulaic or self-conscious. It sounds plausible and real, but somehow resonates at a frequency that, at every appearance of the name, alerts the reader to important things about the character that it may take the entire novel to fully reveal. There are many examples of this, but the novel I’ll examine here, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, offers a masterclass in the art of character naming.

Let’s start with the protagonist, Lily Bart. Consider this name as compared to the aforementioned Becky Sharp, from William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. “Becky” doesn’t tell us much about the character, other than perhaps in its lower class frisson. “Sharp” tells us everything we need to know about the character: the novel’s heroine is dangerous, a scheming cheat, and smarter than the procession of vain, dopey aristocrats and society wannabes who populate this teeming novel. In a sense, it’s the perfect name for her, as she is a fairly one-dimensional character, if still wonderful and exciting. She changes a bit through the book, becomes more forgiving by the end, but Sharp more or less sums it up.

Lily Bart, on the other hand, is a subtly great name that grows on you, and her, for the duration of the novel. The two names counterpoise each other and stand in the same opposition as the forces in Lily’s character. The leading edge, the face, Lily: a rare flower, beautiful and fragrant, feminine. The tailing, hidden edge, Bart: abrupt and awkward, and, if not ugly, unlovely and masculine. These are the competing qualities inside Lily, a love of beauty and comfort and a deep appreciation of aesthetics, arrayed against a tough, unsparing honesty. This honesty manifests both in her determination to attain the opulent lifestyle that befits her, and in her submerged doubt about the worthiness of this lifestyle as an all-consuming end. The Lily and the Bart aspects of her personality are always in contention, bringing her close to this or that marriage of convenience, but not allowing her to ever consummate the proceedings. As “Becky Sharp” captures the dominant note of a relatively uncomplicated character, “Lily Bart” speaks to the depth and complexity of Wharton’s heroine.

There are also the symbolic resonances: lilies are Christ’s flower, and by the end of the book, Lily has become something of a Christ figure. The final third of the novel finds her increasingly reduced in finances and social stature, living in shabby boarding houses and refusing to avail herself of the means by which she might regain her former place. This sudden morality, somewhat contrived in a character sense, positions her as a scapegoat who in the book’s schema dies for the sins of the materialistic New York upper crust. Christ is not the only martyr she evokes: St. Bartholomew was flayed alive for converting the king’s brother to Christianity. In art, he has historically been depicted as skinless—most famously, Michelangelo painted him in “The Last Judgment” holding his own skin and the knife of his martyrdom. In a novel obsessed with beauty, in which the 29-year-old heroine obsessively scans her face for any signs of incipient aging, and in which she eventually pays the ultimate cost for being too desirable, this could hardly be read as an accidental reference.

Lily’s paramour is Lawrence Selden. Lawrence is a lawyer, and the name reminds the reader of this in concert with his role as the probing moral intelligence of the book, the attorney who cross-examines New York’s dangerously unserious high society, and who questions Lily’s plan to marry a rich dullard. “Selden” is less obvious, but a great last name for this vexing hero. It summons the word seldom, descriptive of the way he dips into and out of society at his will, and of his related habit of appearing and disappearing from Lily’s life. His interactions with her in the beginning of the novel exert a tremendous influence on her thinking and moral development, but he is never quite there when she needs him most.

The name of Lily’s bête noire, Bertha Dorset, seemed strange to me at first, probably because of that “Bertha,” comically dowdy at this point, but likely fashionable 100 years ago. In any case, the name conveys Bertha’s signal quality, and the structural reason that she serves as a nemesis or counter-image of Lily—namely, that she has secured a berth in society by way of her miserable husband, George, a berth she does not intend to lose. Lily’s inability to, finally, pull the trigger and marry for money is reflected in Bertha’s amoral and remorseless maneuvering, a maneuvering that points her toward the last name, Dorset, with its posh British resonance. (Dorset was, additionally, Thomas Hardy’s birthplace and the setting for most of his books, and in a certain light, Lily recalls Tess, the lovely maiden reduced and ruined by the world.)   

Perhaps the best name in this book full of great names belongs to the main villain, Gus Trenor, an enormous brute of a man who bullies and harasses Lily throughout. “Gus” is the diminutive of Augustus, which perfectly sums up this petty tyrant. He is rich and important among a small group of similarly awful people, but a speck in the grand scheme—a Caesar, or better yet, Caligula, in microscopic miniature. The surname, Trenor, is to my mind, a minor stroke of genius. It manages to connote so many words without quite landing on any of them. Tremor: his presence instills fear in Lily whenever he’s around. Trainer: he would like to train Lily and fit her into the slatternly place he imagines she belongs. Tenor: despite being a huge, gruff man, there is something waveringly high-pitched and desperate about all of Gus’s appearances. Finally, there is the simple oddness of the name. It looks like a name you might have encountered before, but have you? How, for instance, do you pronounce it? I wavered between subvocalizing it as “trainer” and “trih-nor” and never felt confident about either. This uncertainty mimics the uncertain dread that he and his wife Judy, a society doyenne who wields terrible judgmental power, produce in Lily.

A constellation of wonderfully named minor characters sketches out the firmament. Gerty Farish, Ned Silverton, the ubiquitous Van Osburghs. Though these may possess less rich resonance than the leads, there is not a boring name in the whole novel. But at last, let us turn to the famous Mrs. Peniston. What a name, what grandeur. Look at it: Peniston. I do not accept the idea that Wharton, given the attention she clearly paid to the novel’s aforementioned naming schema, somehow missed the joke, and I will not pronounce it “pin-es-ton,” as people with taste superior to mine tend to do. Julia Peniston is a matronly widow possessed of such an exceptional dullness (or dulness, in Wharton’s regrettably preferred spelling) of imagination that it shocks her into illness (ilness?) to hear a rumor of Lily being linked with Gus Trenor. The irony of this woman being named Peniston is obvious and crude, yet somehow the crudeness works, is perfect. The House of Mirth is, on a certain level, all about the crudeness behind society’s thin façade, the mercenary nature of relationships and marriage, and the way society castigates any deviation from these set strictures as a kind of scapegoating for what is plainly a sexual economy. The sexless Aunt Peniston still plays her role in upholding the patriarchal strictures of this world, disinheriting Lily based on false and vicious rumors of an affair. In no other novel would this crude sex pun be less appropriate and more perfect.

It also supports an already legible feminist reading of The House of Mirth, namely that if some of these women, Lily especially, had penises, they wouldn’t face the problems they do. Lily’s worst crime is being a woman—if she were a man, with a man’s career opportunities, she could live her life as she pleased. She could live like Lawrence Selden, who remains infuriatingly obtuse throughout the novel on this key difference in their respective options. She could work as a lawyer, go to parties when she felt like it, have her own place. She could grow the beard denoted by her surname’s German translation, and she could live in peace.  

Image credit: Flickr/Jack Dorsey.