Mitchell Zuckoff on Writing His 9/11 Magnum Opus

The seniors graduating from high school this year know what 9/11 is. They know four planes, two towers, 3,000-plus victims, 19 terrorists, Osama bin Laden. They know all of that because they were taught it in history classes. Because, to them, that’s all it is: history.

With each passing year, the terrorist attacks that happened on the bright blue morning of September 11, 2001 become more of a history lesson than a lived experience. This year, most high school seniors were born in 2001. Eighteen years later, they have the facts memorized, but often fail to understand the emotional and lived experience of that day.

Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11, a new book by former Boston Globe reporter and current Boston University professor Mitchell Zuckoff, aims to fix that. Fall and Rise reports the facts, but Zuckoff also weaves the lives of people affected by 9/11 to create a narrative not frequently seen on cable news channels or in documentaries.

Fall and Rise shares stories about pilots, passengers, and aviation professionals linked to American Airlines Flights 11 and 77, and United Airlines Flights 93 and 175. He reveals stories about Mohammed Atta and other terrorists. Zuckoff also dives into the stories of New Yorkers and other Americans who experienced that day in different ways. The result is a woven story that puts the humanity back into a day the history books won’t forget.

I spoke with Zuckoff about what he was doing the day of the attacks, what followed, and how a Boston Globe feature published five days after the attacks turned into an essential book more than 6,000 days later.

The Millions: What was the day of September 11, 2001 like for you?

Mitchell Zuckoff: I was on book leave from the Boston Globe trying to write my first book. When the first plane went in, I didn’t think much of it. It could have been an accident. When the second plane went in, I ran to the phone and it was ringing as I got there. Globe editor Mark Morrow was on the other line and said my book leave was over.

He told me to come to the paper and it became apparent that I was going to be in what we call the control chair to write the lead story for that day. It became a matter of trying to figure out what was going on by taking feeds from several of my colleagues, working closely with the aviation reporter, Matthew Brelis, who took the byline with me. It was an intense and confusing day.

This was personal, on top of everything, because two of the planes took off about a mile from the Globe office at Logan International Airport.

TM: You mention the confusion. When did it become clear to you that it was a coordinated terrorist attack?

MZ: I think when the second plane went in. I was still home. When the first plane went in, we didn’t know what size it was. There was speculation that it was some sightseeing plane that got confused. Then there was no way, 17 minutes apart, that two planes were going to hit two towers accidentally. When I got in my car, we didn’t know about the flight heading to the Pentagon or United 93.

TM: What exactly were you looking for in real time during an event like this?

MZ: Really, what we do on any story. We were trying to answer the who, what, when, where, why, and how of it in as much detail as possible. I was just trying to process it all. My desk is an explosion of papers and printers and notes from reporters. We want it to come out so our readers can digest it in a meaningful way.

TM: I was in seventh grade and in Arizona at the time, so I had no clue what was going on. I was hours back—

MZ: That’s significant. Really significant. Folks on the West Coast, by the time they woke up, it was essentially over. People on the East Coast were watching the Today Show or running to CNN to watch it unfold. It’s a different experience.

TM: I remember it as my mother waking me up for school. She said something, and to this day I remember it as being “They’re attacking us.” I always second-guessed myself, but as you said it was something being reported.

MZ: That would have been a good thing to say.

TM: As the day continued to unfold, how much of a rush was it to finish the initial report out there?

MZ: The adrenaline is flying. We had a rolling deadline because we knew we had as many editions as we needed. The first probably left my hands at 6:00 p.m. I continued to write through the story as it continued to unfold. There were little details—little edits like finding better verbs—that continued to be changed until about 1:00 a.m. or 2:00 a.m.

You can’t unwind after that. You walk around the newsroom waiting until it comes off the presses. I needed to let the adrenaline leave because I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep.

TM: Then that first week, and this may be a dumb question, but how much did the events consume your writing life?

MZ: Completely. I wrote the lead story again the next day. I came back in and it was understood I would do it again. The next day, on Thursday the 13th, I approached the editors with the idea that I could keep doing the leads, but I had an idea for a narrative I could have done for Sunday’s paper. I needed to dispatch some reporters to help me, but I pitched them to weave a narrative. I wanted to weave together six lives: three people on the first plane and three people from New York: one who got out, one who we didn’t know, and a first responder.

That consumed me all day Thursday and Friday reporting it with those reporters. Then writing it Friday into Saturday for the lead feature in the Sunday paper.

TM: That’s what became the backbone of Fall and Rise. But, at the time, you were already reporting the facts. What was it like going into the humanity of those affected less than a week after the attacks?

MZ: Satisfying in a really deep way. I felt, as much as I valued writing the news, I felt we could do something distinctive and lasting with this narrative. I think all of us—not just reporting the news, but consuming the news—all of us were so inundated with information.

I felt we needed to reflect on the emotion of the moment. By talking about the pilot John Oganowsky and the other folks I focused in on, I felt it could be a bit cathartic. We were all numb and in shock. But this could help.

TM: Did you talk to the people in the narrative or was it strictly the other reporters?

MZ: It was the reporters. I was focused on telling the story of Mohammad Atta. I gave myself that assignment. I was guiding my four teammates to some extent. If someone came up with an important detail or timestamp, I would ask the other reporters to follow up with questions about that particular moment to build around it. I didn’t talk to the families until much later.

TM: When was the first time you talked to survivors or the families of victims?

MZ: I talked to some back then. I was teamed up two weeks after the attacks with Michael Rezendes, who was on the Spotlight team, to write about the terrorists. So, at that point, I wasn’t talking a lot with the families—I did some in 2001 and 2002—but really my deep dive into the families didn’t start until five years ago when I really began working on this book.

TM: What did focusing on the terrorists do to you mentally and emotionally?

MZ: It took a lot out of me. We were really trying to instill the journalistic impartiality to it. But you can’t be objective about this sort of thing. We could be impartial. We couldn’t be exactly sure of who these guys were. We had their identities, but we were aware people use false identities or other’s identities. We had to enforce this impartiality to it. We had to be detached in our work even as we were grieving in our hearts.

TM: With the toll it takes, why continue to write about 9/11 after all these years?

MZ: Exactly that reason: because it does take a toll. The way I process things is to write about them. I didn’t really have a let down for months. I was focused on the work before letting the emotion in. It never really left me. I was still talking about this story to my students. I was still talking about this to my family. There are certain stories that will never leave, but I have to instill something of value into it. I wanted to write something that outlasts me.

TM: You’ve had books come out over the years that weren’t related to 9/11—most notably 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi. This comes out nearly 18 years later. What was the process like throughout all these years?

MZ: I was not writing directly on Fall and Rise during those years. I was working on those other books and projects. It was on a back processor in my mind. The lede story from 9/11 hangs in my office at Boston University. It’s in the corner of my eye. I think it was always playing in the back of my mind.

Once I dove into it in 2014, it was all consuming. It was the deepest dive I have ever taken on a story. As much as I care about all of the work I’ve done, I kind of knew I would never tell a more important story than this. I had to respect the stories of the people telling me about the worst day of their lives. That responsibility was with me day and night for these past five years.

TM: What were the families’ responses to a reporter coming to ask about the worst day of their lives after all this time?

MZ: It amazed me because overwhelmingly people said yes. There were some who understood what I was doing, but told me they couldn’t go there again. They couldn’t revisit that day. The ones who said yes were amazing. I know I was tearing open a wound. A lot of the interviews go for hours and hours. There were moments of weeping and I have no problem acknowledging I did so along with them.

TM: These stories aren’t necessarily widely known and now they’re preserved in this book. It’s so important because now 9/11 may just seem like an event students study in textbooks. Eighteen years…your college freshmen were born the year it happened or the year after, I suppose. How does this generation react to it?

MZ: I teach really engaged journalism students. I’m not sure how the generation as a whole reacts to it. My students approach it with curiosity and a little bit of uncertainty because they didn’t experience it. They are well-read and aware of things, but for them it is a little like Pearl Harbor. They know who was involved and can cite numbers. They can say 3,000 dead, 9/11, four hijacked planes, 19 hijackers. They got the test questions down very well. They don’t have the human connection or that feeling for it that I wish they did. I hope that’s what my book can do.

Anything Goes: The Millions Interviews Chris Rush

 As a painter, Chris Rush is preoccupied with how his subjects interact with light. Like the air, light is a natural phenomenon, but when manipulated, it can reveal hidden layers and tell complicated stories. As a memoirist, Rush has a similar ability: to wrap us into his world and flip us on our heads.
The Light Years begins when Rush is a wide-eyed, church-going New Jersey boy. He’s not yet discovered who he is, though he knows he likes weird art and wearing flashy capes around the neighborhood.
Eventually, due to tensions with his parents, he is sent to live with his older, hippie sister in San Francisco, where he discovers the counterculture and psychedelics of the 1970s. There, he is introduced to a seductive drug dealer. The story goes from New Jersey to San Francisco to a stash house in the desert of Southern Arizona. The particulars seem too farfetched to be true, but believe me: it’s all true.
Rush and I spoke about how Catholicism shaped our childhoods and influenced our thinking for years to come, as well as how his memoir and the relationships with his family unfolded over the years.
The Millions: Your opening chapters start with your childhood and your relationship to religion. Is there a thread that has followed you from your days as a boy all the way to now that has shaped and informed decisions regardless of your current beliefs?
Chris Rush: One of the advantages of growing up Catholic is that the Catholic church is so old that for a kid like myself, it is a treasure trove of old ideas, new ideas, costumes, dead languages, and candles. The whole thing was a grab bag of possibilities.
Not to be too flip about it, but there was lots to sort out as a kid. One of the things the Catholic church prepared me to do was to believe in things that were invisible and possibly even farfetched and totally impossible. As someone who spent my entire life making art, these are not bad working conditions. My concern with the invisible is a really important part of my life because there are many things that are not what they appear to be. As an artist, my relationship was always one of active imagination; I questioned everything. Yet, I never shook my faith in the unseen.
TM: As a child, I went to Catholic school in Pennsylvania, but when I moved to Arizona, my connection with the church vanished. Now, I would never say I am religious, but I feel for a long time I thought about how my actions would be viewed by bishops, teachers, or whoever. As opposed to my sister who diverged from those beliefs fairly quickly.
CR: She has a more cynical view of the church?
TM: I’d say so. I just find it interesting how something like religion and the church can affect people in different ways.
CR: I think one of the good things about the church is that it very much showed me art being used. The church was filled with stained glass, statues, and golden objects of questionable virtue, certainly. As a child, I was dazzled by it. It made me realize that art wasn’t just something you saw in a museum. It was used in life. It was a very important influence the church had on my curiosity and context of life.
I understand how corrupt the church is and how dastardly the history is, but at the same time, I am not bitter at it at all. I’m a gay man and I have a very strange relationship with the Catholic church. At the same time it was instructive, it was bizarre. I am glad I got to see such a complicated piece of machinery at a very, very young age. Some Catholic people are very nice; including my family.
TM: Your family plays an integral role throughout the memoir. How has your relationship with them shifted throughout the years?
CR: As with any family, it changes season by season and decade by decade. I have six brothers and sisters. We are all old and complicated people as well as different than each other in a surprising amount of ways. We do enjoy each other’s company.
My father died about 20 years ago. My relationship with him continues to evolve. In the writing of this book, I had to negotiate the fact that my father left very little in the way of an emotional record. He confided in no one and was a man of few words. There were a lot of secrets.
Literature is particularly adept at getting at the uncertain. At painting, one struggles to illustrate the invisible. Literature is entirely happy to circle a subject and describe a subject but be able to not come up with a conclusion. It’s all in the question rather than the answer.
In looking at my father, I spent 10 years thinking about who he was, why he did the things he did, and what I needed to know to understand him. I came up with a lot, but at the same time as I learned more about him and deduced more about him, I found him to be much more complicated, more interesting, and kinder than when I started writing.


TM: You mentioned thinking about your father for a decade. When did you first start thinking about what became The Light Years?
CR: The book started to write itself. I knew I was writing something. I knew I was veering into a new kind of territory. I’ve written my whole life, but is a very scattered assortment of notes, love letters, or, say, grant proposals.
When I started writing what became this, there was a momentum that I had never felt before. I began writing around 2007, but it was a while before I understood that it was making demands and it got a hold of me. When I first started to write, I had some idea that I was writing about my teen years. I thought I was writing about a raucous road trip of sorts.
Then a few things happened. I was taking a long, endless train trip in India some years after I started writing this. I started telling my traveling companion, Daniel Mahar, what I had been working on and stories of my childhood. His eyes got very big and he listened for a long time. Finally he said, “My god, you have to write this down. You have to write it all down. Especially your family. It’s all incredible.”
I suppose in some ways, I was so busy living a life and I had not spent a great bit of time reflecting on how odd my story was. My partner, Victor Lodato, told me that a great memoir is not about the author. The great and enduring mystery was my family, particularly my parents.
I did extensive interviews with my family and discovered my mother had saved drawings, photographs, and letters from my childhood. I hadn’t seen them in 40 years. That’s when I started to understand that The Light Years wasn’t just a road trip.
TM: What did you learn about yourself through those found artifacts that you may have forgotten or suppressed?
CR: There’s a line in the book in which I say, “I would rather believe in too much than too little.” What I discovered, particularly in the letters, is that I had a breathless belief in the world. I believed in many crazy things, but they motivated me, they agitated me, they took me into the world in very interesting ways.
It’s easy to look back now to say how I was foolish, but it was also fearless that I wanted to believe in a great and interesting world. I populated my world with my fantasies.
I discovered I was really, really starry eyed. I was troubled and had stuff to work out, but I believed in a lot. I was enthusiastic.
TM: What were you passionate about as a kid? What were you reading? What art inspired you? What influenced you the most?
CR: It really changed year by year. As a child, before the age of 10, everything was school. My parents subscribed to everything. I was reading The New York Times. I studied every page of Life and Look. I went to the museum a little bit in New York and that confounded me.
The most exciting thing was when I was 10 in 1956. That’s when Life started to show the hippies, acid heads, and psychedelic art. I thought it was a message from God. It thrilled me. Up to that point, I was drawing what kids draw, but when I saw psychedelic art, I knew.
I was very influenced by album covers and music my sister was listening to. Around this time, music was changing. Style was changing. I discovered art nouveau. I loved it all. I understood that anything goes.
TM: The memoir tracks a large portion of your life. Is there any more story to tell?
CR: There’s another book. I’ve started it and would like to believe it’s my five year book (as opposed to the decade this one took). I didn’t really write this book imagining a sequel, but it looks like there is one. The book essentially ends when I am 22 and my life got really interesting around then.

Bryan Washington’s Houston Is a City of Multitudes

Bryan Washington’s debut collection is an ode to his native Houston and a meditation on what it was like to grow up queer and black in such a white, conservative state. His stories address issues of masculinity, race, socioeconomic status, and sexuality. Each story is set in a specific part of the sprawling city, which, over the course of the book, takes on a life of its own, becoming something of a character.

Prior to publishing Lot, Washington racked up a series of serious bylines ranging from traditional heavyweights like The New York Times, The Paris Review, and The New Yorker to new media outlets like Buzzfeed and Catapult. In every Washington piece there is a sense of tenderness, fortitude, and unguarded honesty.

I spoke with Washington about how his fiction developed over the years and what makes Houston such a character both in his collection Lot as well as in real life.

The Millions: I think it’s easy for people to say this book must be about your life. How often have you been asked about that? I’m assuming it’s not.

Bryan Washington: In this case, the fiction is fiction. I think if you didn’t ask about it, you’d only be the second person to not ask.

TM: I wanted to bring up the fact that these assumptions are always directed toward minorities or women. Never white male authors.

BW: If you’re a person of color or a writer for a marginalized community, it’s definitely a question you’re probably going to come across. There’s so few narratives in American literary fiction by marginalized writers that are actually given high visibility. The narrative you’re putting into the world is the narrative because there aren’t others out there. It’s as if this is the book by a minority queer writer. It’s a very weird tendency.

TM: A book could be complete fiction and in no way based on your life, but people will still want to shoehorn your reality into a novel.

BW: It’s irrespective of how far the author is pushing the bounds of fiction. I think a lot of it is due to the fascination that you are a writer from a marginalized community and there aren’t that many of you so it must be true. We don’t see a lot of y’all writing fiction. A lot of people are just mystified by minorities writing fiction and it not being based on their lives.

TM: How does your Houston differ from the Houston in Lot?

BW: I think mine is a lot calmer. It’s a little less volatile. What’s interesting about the city is there are so many different iterations of it. Your iteration of it is based on how much access you have and what boundaries you find yourself negotiating.

My Houston is pretty diverse because I love living in a city that has so many multitudes. If you want to live in a monocultural Houston, you have that option. I would think that would be pretty difficult. It’s something you would have to go out of your way to do here because there are so many different people from different places.

I was trying to put a few very specific instances of Houston on the page, and the big thing that I was trying to avoid was attempting to pass the stories in Lot off as a comprehensive or definitive Houston because I don’t think that exists.

TM: I just googled “Houston neighborhoods” and, like Phoenix where I live, it seems pretty sprawling with very specific pockets that are different worlds.

BW: I was talking to a friend about this the other day. I think one of the most analogous cities in the States is Los Angeles. You have so much sprawl and the city is defined by a series of hubs. While each of those hubs has very definite characteristics, it’s the combination of them and the fact that they all exist in the same city defines the city itself. The fact that all of these different communities exist in the same place and manage to work with one another.

TM: When did writing seep into your life?

BW: I was 100 percent not a writer. I was very much not doing that. I didn’t really start until undergrad. I studied with Mat Johnson and it helped me with the conception of what a writer could look like, what the process of writing looked like. I definitely started late. Or I should say, I didn’t start early.

TM: What were you exploring when you started writing?

BW: Well, the first course I took was just a general creative writing course. I was lucky that the person I studied with was very engaging and she took her students very seriously. The next class I took was a creative non-fiction course which was great to see the different ways you could mold the narrative.

TM: When did you start working on the stories that made their way into Lot?

BW: It would have been three years ago. Immediately after undergrad. I really seriously started thinking of the stories as a long-term project when I started my MFA at the University of New Orleans.

TM: New Orleans was the first time you really lived outside Houston then?

BW: I sort of had a foot in the door and a foot out. I was in New Orleans for about half the week and Houston the other half. New Orleans was the first time I was based outside of Houston.

TM: What made you write exclusively about Houston in these stories?

BW: When I started writing the first handful of stories, I wasn’t so clued into the idea that these would be so Houston-centric. It was through editing and writing the rest of the collection that I began to see the city itself was a character and how the stories were molded by each of the character’s perceptions of the city.

It was a little over halfway of the entirety of the project that I realized what it was. I went back and honed and amplified the different parts of the city that I wanted to stick out so that it was deeply apparent that the city was something to pay attention to. The locality was something that was always interesting to me. Everyone’s experience of a city is different. It’s not a singular experience that everyone is going to share. I think attaching a narrative to a place allows it to have a mythical quality. Certain places like Times Square or Hollywood Boulevard mean something because we attach a narrative to it. It’s always been interesting to me: what happens when a place doesn’t have a narrative to it and it is nondescript? What happens when you attach meaning to it?

TM: It’s interesting because even here in Phoenix, people can live in neighboring hubs and not really know the truth of the other one.

BW: I think Houston is very much the same. A lot of people who write about Houston talk about how we really don’t have zoning laws. We have high-rises next to strip malls next to areas that have been really hit hard by a generation of neglect to the city’s infrastructure. You very much hear the motif that this area is fine, but two blocks down it’s a really rough area. In reality, it’s just not as glossy.

Gentrification is making a thorough impasse through a lot of Houston’s hubs inside the city’s inner loop. It’s been interesting, but also pretty terrifying to watch how the street a local wouldn’t spend so much time on becomes the street with an ice cream shop or with the Warby Parker with the funky diner. The city is taking a number of terms.

TM: I don’t know much about Houston. What have you found is the biggest misconception of Houston from people outside of the city?

BW: I think the city itself is a giant misconception. The sense that I get when I talk to friends who don’t live in Texas or those who live abroad is the immediate association with whatever their conception of Texas would be. A grandiose white conservatism where everyone is riding horses with a six-shooter on their hip. There are certainly parts of Houston that are like that because we are a city in the Deep South. However, Houston’s cosmopolitan and a very global city. We have a very robust art scene and have for years, and when people come to visit they want to know why nobody is talking about it. We are. The same with our culinary scene. We are a global food city. I think the idea of the city for non-locals is confusing because it is confusing. But that is what makes it so fascinating.

Helen Oyeyemi Wants to Bewitch You

How do you solve a problem like gingerbread? That’s the question Helen Oyeyemi found herself answering while writing her sixth novel, aptly titled Gingerbread. The illustrious author’s follow up to the short story collection What Is Yours Is Not Yours is a challenging book. It was challenging for Oyeyemi to write. It is challenging to describe. It is challenging to read—in the sense that it reads like very few books written this millennium.

It is also a rewarding book. Oyeyemi wrote Gingerbread in two of her favorite cities, places where she says she daydreams more recklessly. The result is a story about a mother who loves gingerbread more than nearly anything and her family’s mysterious heritage.

The book, unlike her loose retelling of “Snow White” in Boy, Snow, Bird, doesn’t directly link to a fairy tale—in this case “Hansel and Gretel.” Rather, it asks why gingerbread was used by the witch to lure the two children at all.

I spoke with Oyeyemi about creating a problem book, what excites her about reading, and how Prague has influenced her career.

The Millions: Whenever most people describe your work, they compliment your “lyrical prose.” What does writing lyrically mean for you? Or is that even how you describe your writing?

Helen Oyeyemi: I don’t know how to describe it. I don’t really recognize the lyrical and am always a bit puzzled by that. Unless it means lyrical in the way that Emily Dickinson writes a lyric, which is that you have a rhythm to it, and you have unexpected or abrupt breaks and it swerves into another image. I’m not quite sure what the other description could be.

TM: I was talking to a friend who is a poet last night and he said critics or fans write lyrical prose when the beauty of the work overwhelms them and they can’t describe it.

HO: I like that people find it beautiful. I worry I don’t do enough to create beauty.

TM: Your work captivates me, and I find myself rereading sentences. Not because it was unclear and confusing, but because it was so memorable. I recall an interview where you said you wince when you think about your future readers because you write challenging structures or themes or plots. Is that your goal? To challenge readers?

HO: With every project, I want it to be something fun to do, but also very difficult to do. I suppose the more books I write, the more interested I am in the process. The sense of exhilaration as I write. I suppose it leaves me less interested in the end result, but what I am hoping is that if I enter that space of exhilaration while writing, that the reader will feel the same way even though it is difficult. I don’t want to say difficult. It’s not the easiest read, but hopefully reading it is freeing for the reader.

TM: How did you want to challenge yourself this time around?

HO: I feel surprised by this book in a good way. It feels to have more heart than the other books. I wanted to write about gingerbread. I wanted to take the symbol of gingerbread you see in all of these stories. The idea of coziness, and it has a certain seasonal aspect to it. I wanted to take that and figure out what it means, but gingerbread was sort of resistant to that.

It turned into a story of all sorts of things like property and the values of what you have to offer. Whether the value is dependent on one person liking it—for example, Gretel liking the gingerbread, or not a lot of people liking Harriet’s gingerbread.

I wanted to write a story about gingerbread, but gingerbread kept shifting to the side, telling me why don’t you write about this instead.

TM: Did gingerbread lead you down paths that never made it into the book?

HO: I just recorded the audiobook and the director and I were talking about the book and the tone I would read it in. I kept referring to things that didn’t make it into the book and the director must have been wondering what I was talking about. There was a whole university I wrote about that isn’t in the book. I suppose it was like I built a gingerbread house and nibbled parts off for my own consumption and just offered the rest.

TM: You mentioned gingerbread is found a lot in stories throughout history. “Hansel and Gretel” is perhaps the most popular and might come to mind with your book just with the title. Especially considering Boy, Snow, Bird was linked to “Snow White.” What draws you to the coziness of fairy tales?

HO: This one was less of a fairy tale and more of a problem book. The problem was trying to figure out what gingerbread means. It does play a role in “Hansel and Gretel,” but the question is why was the house made of gingerbread. What was it about gingerbread that makes it inviting and menacing at the same time? It’s as if we’re saying home is delicious but also scary at the same time.

I wanted to figure out why someone would have gingerbread as their gift to the world. That is Harriet’s gift; she gives gingerbread. She is proud of her gingerbread. The problem of the book is her figuring out whether it’s a good thing, a bad thing, or a neutral thing.

TM: On the idea of home, Prague has been your home for quite some time now.

HO: Six years.

TM: Six years. Does that mean this is your first “Prague novel?”

HO: The last one came out while I lived here. It took a long time for Czechness to come out in my writing. I sometimes feel a bit impatient with that because it always takes ages for where I am to come up in my writing. It’s a long process.

I don’t think this book is all the way Czech. I think the all-the-way Czech book is a little way down the road. This was my first book where I was happy to hold hands with the Czechness.

TM: What does that mean for you?

HO: I tried to find a way to inhabit or give a nod to Czech writers but didn’t want to create something that was not genuine. I have to go slowly with it.

TM: Was Druhástrana—a fictional country that only Czech citizens seem to believe in—always a part of your story from the beginning?

HO: The notion of the country was part of the fun of writing it. Living here, it does seem plausible that there would be a country tucked away in the vicinity of here that only the Czechs know about. The Hungarians as well, but they deny it. That country was always there.

TM: And Gretel?

HO: It is like I was saying about Harriet trying to figure out what her gingerbread is worth. There has to be some sort of market for it. Unfortunately for Harriet, she spends a lot of time weighing Gretel’s opinion against everyone else’s and which to trust and which to value. Gretel had to be in the book. There had to be a lover of gingerbread.

TM: In addition to the mysterious country and Gretel, I felt this book indirectly played with time. It’s a very modern book, but the gingerbread made me feel like I was in a different era.

HO: I think just the presence of gingerbread in the story is what does that. I feel like I am about to start sounding like a documentary filmmaker, but gingerbread has been with us for a very long time. Every time you eat a piece of gingerbread, it is like you’re tapping into a part of this ancient baking tradition.

TM: Earlier, you mentioned this book being a problem book. What is an example of a problem book as it relates to Gingerbread?

HO: There is a book by Barbara Comyns called The Skin Chairs and that is a problem book as well. Nothing really happens except this girl sees these books covered with human skins. Nothing really happens except this girl realizes one day she is going to die and just be skin. That’s what I mean when I call something a problem book. Nothing happens, but everything happens.

As I was writing Gingerbread, I realized it was going to be about Harriet wanting to figure out what she wants for her gingerbread and I understood it was going to be a problem book.

TM: This book is very hard to succinctly describe. Is that how you would describe it then?

HO: I was trying to explain it to a friend then started trailing off and said it was more about how it’s told than the story itself. I think the pitch I am going with for now is that it is a very long bedtime story.

TM: I think that idea of how the story is told rather than the story is the one thing I would come to expect from you as a writer.

HO: That is entirely the point of being a writer. We are all just trying to say what it means to be alive right now. The only invigorating thing is the difference between each writer’s method. I could read anything, like Harriet reads the Farmer’s Almanac. It just depends on how you’re telling it to me.

TM: Do you read publications like the Farmer’s Almanac while writing?

HO: Yes. Tone is just so lovely. There is something that lives on for so long. I was reading Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, which is just what to do as a housekeeper. Her voice still comes across the pages after all these years. I felt strengthened by that.

TM: Where do you take your writing moving forward?

HO: The next book is going to be a train book. I think about the project and I think who I want to inhabit the space and drive the story.

The Good Place: The Millions Interviews Elizabeth McCracken

Over the course of her career, Elizabeth McCracken has written critically acclaimed short story collections and novels. Opening one of her books to page one always brings a rush of excitement because you truly never know what to expect. Her latest, Bowlaway, is no exception. The exceptionally weird and cozy novel set near the beginning of the 20th century opens with an unconscious woman in a cemetery with 15 pounds of gold hidden in a secret compartment of a bag that also contained a small bowling ball and a slender candlepin.

Using a candlepin bowling alley as the backdrop, McCracken tracks the lives of a fictional town in the state of Massachusetts. What follows is an ode to the state, the lineage of townspeople, and how pastimes help shape our society. The novel slowly reveals the sort of dark secrets that can unravel community in an instant. It feels both timely and timeless.

I spoke with McCracken over the phone about place, humor, and community in her writing.

The Millions: What drew you to use candlepin bowling as the backdrop for this book?

Elizabeth McCracken: I used to be a candlepin bowler. I still bowl sometimes now but would bowl a lot back in Massachusetts as a kid. I miss New England. I knew I wanted to write about home, and it seemed like an interesting way in for me.

TM: Massachusetts, and New England as a whole, are very unique compared to the rest of the country. How did growing up in Massachusetts inform your reading and writing in your youth?

EM: I’ve been trying to think about this. I live in Texas now and Texas is its own thing in ways I didn’t realize before. I have kids in the public schools, and they have an entire year on Texan history. Sometimes I have friends here ask me if I studied Massachusetts history as a kid. Well, we did. The Boston Tea Party, the Revolutionary War. It’s just American history! We never devoted a year to learn about the state.

For reading though, I read a lot of Hawthorne when I was growing up. There was Edith Wharton. A lot of New England ghost stories. [With this novel] I was thinking about my love for the cramped, ill-lit rooms of New England now that I am in the wide open, brightly lit spaces of Texas.

TM: You mention New England ghost stories. American literature was very regionalized at first, then writers started to think globally. You book feels very regionalized. Was that intentional?

EM: I was definitely thinking about place more than anything I have ever written before. It was hugely a reaction to living in Texas. I wanted to write an example of Massachusetts literature.

TM: Prior to moving to Texas, you lived in many places including Massachusetts, then Iowa for school. I moved around a lot and ended up back in Phoenix. When I returned here, I felt like an outsider. I was very disconnected to my life here prior. How did moving around impact your writing?

EM:  think you’re right that you leave a place and come back to a shifted perspective. I also lived in France and spent a lot of time in Berlin and England. I don’t know, man, it was broadening. There are writers who are brilliant about writing about their home and can stay home and still find things to write about.

I’m a garbage disposal writer. I need things to put in so I can write.

TM: That makes sense because one thing I love about your writing is that I never know what to expect. A lot of authors, which is great, write about the same themes or settings. You know what to expect. With you I feel I never know what to expect on that first page. This novel starts with an unconscious woman in a cemetery. How early did that image come to you?

EM: Relatively late. There wasn’t a ton of backstory on Berta Truitt. There was some, but mostly about her childhood and she was a very mysterious character. There was a ton of problems with it. I had written an entire draft before I thought of that opening. Even after that, I kept coming back to it.

TM: What drew you to Bertha as a character?

EM: I was going through my grandfather’s genealogy and pulling out names, which is how the book started. I liked the idea of someone who was mysterious, even to herself, but also wildly confident. It was fun to write about a character who believed they could do anything.

TM: Reading through this novel, it feels very Massachusetts. Also, the voice and the tone don’t feel very 2019 but also feel very 2019. It’s a historical-ish novel…

EM: I like that term for it. Someone called it a historical novel and I responded, “well, kind of.” It feels like a disservice to people who write actual, extremely researched, and accurate novels.

Because the novel in the beginning was about genealogy, I am happy to hear it feels very of its time but not of its time. I was interested in how a generation leads to the next generation and how people are unbelievably invested in that.

Here’s this story from a long time ago and [it] ends up in a place only because people have children. It ends with people who didn’t know about that older generation. A lot of people, even if they did research, would be ignorant about how that generation is connected to them.

Even in those ghost stories I read as a kid, a lot of those stories were tied to real places. Then there are stories that sound like myths but were actual events. I wanted something to feel out of time like those pieces.

TM: Building off of that, in the acknowledgements of this book you write: “This book is highly inaccurate.” There is always some humor in every page you write. How important is humor to you?

EM: Vital. I don’t know how to write without it. I’m always telling my students that is impossible to write fiction without using skills for which you interpret the world. I can’t exorcise humor from my worldview. I can’t take it out of my fiction.

Sometimes I read a piece of fiction without any humor in it—and I don’t mean jokes, I just mean fiction that doesn’t acknowledge the fundamental absurdity of life. Fiction like that feels sterile and dead.

TM: Whenever I read or watch something that is supposed to be this big, dramatic, heart wrenching moment, I sometimes can’t help but laugh because life is funny even when it’s awful.

EM: Exactly. I also believe humor makes things sadder. It’s a way to light up your fiction before an event like that.

TM: Looping back to place, I want to talk about writing as a community. I feel the general public thinks authors are competing against each other. I’ve found it to be the opposite and authors are all champions of one another. What does your writing community look like?

EM: My community is really important. Feeling competitive with other writers is impossible to get away from entirely, but it’s such a useless emotion. There’s no way to measure it. It’s not bowling. I teach at the University of Texas at Austin. I feel that teaching has made me a better writer. To teach and read year after year really teaches you how many possibilities there are.

I also have very dear friends who are writers that I give my work to. My husband [Edward Carey] is a writer whose opinion of my work means a huge amount to me. His own work means a huge amount to me. I feel very lucky that I ended up marrying a writer whose work I loved and adored before I met him.

My dear friend Paul Lisicky is one of my first readers. His opinion and own works mean a lot to me. Ann Patchett is someone whose opinions means a lot to me. One of the perks of being a teacher and getting older is becoming good friends with former students. I have Paul Harding and Yiyun Li who are really good friends of mine and they were students of mine a long time back.

TM: That’s what is so amazing about the literary world. You’ll mention a writer and they’ll mention someone else. Then it’s six degrees of separation and before you know it, someone is saying they admire you.

EM: It’s true. Every time I meet someone who is a friend of a friend of mine, it feels like we know each other even though we’ve never met.

TM: How often are you letting your readers read your works in progress?

EM: Very little. The older I get, the more I hold my work closer than I used to. It used to be that I would want to give people my chapters as I went along. Now I feel like in order to have the privacy to write well, I need absolute privacy during the draft. I am the type of writer who does a ton of drafts. I wrote an entire draft before giving it to my husband. Then I wrote another draft before giving it to Paul Lisicky.

I usually talk about the book with people, but the way it works for me is I’d rather not have too much advice. I want to have the problems and go back myself to figure out how to address the problems.

TM: When do you know you finally have it: the final draft?

EM: I never, ever have ever thought “I really have it.” I think about a month ago I thought of something else I should have done with Bowlaway. That’s just how I am. I need to have the book taken away from me. Someone recently said to me that writers should stop working on things when they are aware they are no longer making it better. That’s true for me.

When I wrote the first draft, I knew this had a remarkably terrible end. I knew I needed to put something down. Architecturally, I had to have a big brick there just to hold up the rest of the novel so I could go back and fix things.

I do depend on my readers to help me. I’ll know something is wrong, but I don’t always know if something is right.

Whatever Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah Needs the World to Do, He Creates Something to Do It

Very few short stories have grabbed me by the collar and shook me like “The Finkelstein 5.” Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s debut collection Friday Black opens with the story that has a vividly grotesque image of a young girl whose head has been sawed off. It’s not for the faint of heart; however, neither is most of reality anymore. Adjei-Brenyah’s collection is filled with tough passages, but it is one of the most vital collections in recent memory.

The author was an undergraduate student when Trayvon Martin was murdered by George Zimmerman, and the shooting—and subsequent acquittal—was a turning point for him. He grew up in a suburb of New York and was raised by immigrant parents for whom reading was a focal point. He told stories but never saw himself as much of a writer until his early 20s. From there he obtained his MFA from Syracuse under the tutelage of George Saunders. It’s not as if his entire life was preparing him to write a necessary and sharp collection of stories that dissects our world; but that’s where he ended up.

Throughout Friday Black, he uses graphic realities combined with surreal settings to explore racism, identity, consumerism, and family. The work is timely, but Friday Black was also timely a decade ago. Two decades ago. Three decades ago. You get the picture.

I spoke with the author just after he was announced as a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree about radicalizing imaginations, crafting realism through the surreal, and coping with tragedies both large and small.

The Millions: This is your debut collection, you have a few stories published already, and you were just named to the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35. How are you handling it?

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: When I was writing these stories for a long time, my main concern was to be acknowledged as a writer. Being legitimized by other people. Part of me still has that for sure. That 5 Under 35 was something I of course wanted eventually, and to get it the way that I did with a debut is great. I hoped to have an impact like other writers, but I didn’t know what that would actually look or feel like. It’s just getting a bunch of emails and tweets. It can get overwhelming.

TM: Were there writers of color or writers who were children of immigrants that you read and were inspired by?

NKAB: When I was growing up, I read anything that was around me. I read some not-great fiction with simple plots. It wasn’t until I was in college that I started reading with intention and seeking out authors. My parents did make reading a priority. They would drop me off at the library and pick me up close to closing. My older sister made reading cool in my house. I started off reading anything that hooked me and excited me. Whatever that looked like.

TM: So you started reading with intent in college; did you start writing then as well?

NKAB: I had written for a long time for myself. My friends and I kept stories up orally. We traded these serial fictions by memory. I wrote fantasy-like stories because that’s what I was into at the time. Writing was my safe space. It was something I could do that was free. It was something that people could not take away.

In early high school, I was writing. I was encouraged by my English teachers. Those were my strong classes in school. They told me I could write and I felt like I was good so I worked on my writing. It wasn’t until later on in college that I wanted to be a writer. I was never around other writers so I didn’t know that’s what a human like me could be.

TM: These serialized stories you told with your friends and those fantasy stories, is that where some of your futuristic tinges in this collection evolved from?

NKAB: I like creating premises that serve my purposes. Whatever I need the world to do, I create something to do it. Sometimes that needs to be way far in the future; sometimes it needs to be right here and right now without any surrealism. I try to imagine a space that would squeeze absolute emotion from my characters. I have no qualms stepping out of the bounds of strict reality. I  don’t feel that’s a prerequisite for having to engage with politically charged moments in writing.

TM: Throughout this collection, I kept coming back to real-life examples of a young black man being murdered by a white man. Especially with “Zimmer Land” and George Wilson Dunn in “The Finkelstein 5.” Did you draw from anything specific or take the emotions from the countless senseless murders that continue to happen?

NKAB: I very intentionally named that story “Zimmer Land.” The name in “The Finkelstein 5” was intentional. I did draw from Trayvon Martin. That happened when I was in college and was a big shifting moment in my consciousness. It was a moment for me that planted a seed that would grow into some of these stories.

I also think “The Finkelstein 5” draws emotionally from all of these murders. People might think of it as hyperbole that there is a constant fear that any black death’s [perpetrator] will be acquitted. All of these people get shot or killed with a chainsaw, you’re not any less dead. The brutality that comes within my stories is an accumulation of all of these events that happen again and again and again. People might think of it as surreal, but my stories connect that constant state of emotion.

TM: You and I are basically the same age—I had just finished my undergrad when Trayvon Martin was murdered. I feel that people in their late 20s have had a constant rotation of major tragedies. Not to say any other generation didn’t. We lived through Columbine and 9/11 as children. The Iraq War and war on terrorism dominated my teen years. We went from Bush to Obama to our current president. Natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina seem to pop up every year. Did you use writing to cope with things like this?

NKAB: I use writing to cope with everything from national tragedies that are too big for me to grasp to the fact that I embarrassed myself in a music class in 6th period. Short fiction lets me put a macro-micro feeling into it. This bad thing happened to me in my personal life, but these big events are happening as well. I rarely wrote to cope with the big picture when I was younger. My work now is a response on a personal level to help me cope and respond.

TM: I feel like a lot of people are going to say this collection is “timely,” but in reality, you were probably working on these stories for half a decade or a decade. I can’t call it “timely” because is there ever going to be a time when these types of stories won’t be timely?

NKAB: I had a recent interview that asked me what word I hate the most to describe my writing. I used “timely” for exactly the reason you said. Everyone always refers to our current political moment. A lot were written five or six years ago. They’re all pre-Trump. These problems are pervasive and inherent to our society.

I do think there is something purposeful in writing. I do think it can be helpful and employed to help us learn. We can challenge each other and help each other be better. These are problems that have been internal.

I hope my writing can radicalize people’s imagination. My writing is almost a surreal negative. It’s the worst version of what we can go through. The resistance that some people feel to my stories is natural. Hopefully they’ll start to think about how they can do better. It’s a reality of life. Young black men are being murdered. Women are being sexually harassed. I think fiction can help us ask questions about what we can do. Some people haven’t even gotten to the point of acknowledging a problem exists.

Fiction can help make people empathetic. Fiction is not the answer to the world’s problems but I believe fiction can help make the world better.

TM: Every story in my copy of your book has notes. Not only about the writing, but as talking points I can share with my conservative family members or friends. Or even my super liberal friends’ little siblings who are beginning to pay attention to the world around them.

Since this is so “timely” (and was two decades ago but hopefully not two decades from now), where do you take your writing from here?

NKAB: It’s hard to think about. It means a lot you would say that about this fiction. It means a lot that people who aren’t my Facebook friends will read my stories. It’s still so early on for me in the writing world. I’m learning to not let this moment affect my writerly growth.

I need to stay grounded.

There is still such a far way to go. I’m going to try my best. I want my fiction to influence people in positive ways. To not feel alone. To try to be better. I hope these stories make people feel it is not impossible.

Made a Little Grotesque by Fiction: The Millions Interviews Lauren Groff

Lauren Groff has enjoyed the successes of the literary world since her debut novel The Monsters of Templeton came out in 2008. Her star continued to grow with a short story collection and a second novel—2012’s Arcadia—before becoming a supernova in 2015 with the release of Fates and Furies. Everyone seemed to have a copy—from strangers on the bus to high school English teachers to President Barack Obama.

Whatever was going to come next was sure to come against high expectations and be criticized under a microscope. Groff knew that, so she’s technically still deciding what her full-length follow up should be. Instead, the writer decided to go back and collect her stories, which have been published in a variety of outlets ranging from Tin House to The New Yorker, in new collection Florida.

The collection takes place over the course of decades in various towns and features a variety of characters. The connecting thread is that they all take place in Florida and explore what the state really has to offer. I communicated with the National Book Award finalist via email to discuss what she’s been up to since Fates and Furies was released, why Florida is the perfect state in which to set a short story collection, and how she taps into characters with such precision.

The Millions: First, I was hoping to catch up with what your world has been like since the extreme high of Fates and Furies. A National Book Award finalist. Numerous “Best of” lists. Obama’s stamp of approval. What’s life been like?

Lauren Groff: ​Oh, life has been nice. I’ve been busy. I’ve been protected a little bit from the high winds of Fates and Furies by my extreme self-skepticism. I’ve written multiple drafts of three other novels, one of which went into a bonfire (RIP—you won’t be missed), two of which are still being thought through, one of which may work out someday. We’ll see. Each project needs to, in some ways, obliterate the previous project, so I’ve been waiting for the firepower to arrive.

TM: The majority of these stories were published within the past decade—give or take. How have you changed since the earlier stories (2012’s “Eyewall”) to now?

​LG: I’ve ​somewhat resigned myself to the idea that I may live in Florida for the rest of my life, and that all the other imagined lives for myself have slowly withered away. It sounds sad, but there’s so much about this life that allows the writing to happen, and it’s where the people I love are, and where they’re happy, so it’s all pretty much at a balancing point right now. And I’ve grown a deep love for the resilient, teeming Florida wilderness that people who don’t live here don’t often know about.

TM: I feel like Florida is really this unknown entity to a lot of people who have never been there. There’s Disney. There are hot Miami night clubs. There are Everglades. But Florida is huge. What does Florida mean to you?

LG: Florida is giant. You can’t ever successfully define it because it’s not a single cohesive thing; it’s endless and changing and strange and gorgeous in its contradictory nature. My Florida is a pretty taut spiderweb of ambivalence; I’m stuck here but also lifted somewhat off the ground at the same time. There are things here that I despise; there are things I would lay down my body to protect. I would need the rest of my life to write my way out of Florida, the mental state, not just the actual state of the union.

TM: A lot of times readers assign autobiographical truth to writers’ novels. Your first novel was about a woman who didn’t know who impregnated her and I read in an interview that people asked you about that. I’m assuming people asked about your marriage after they read Fates and Furies. With short stories though, it’s different. Do you want to stop the buck here and answer if there is any Lauren Groff in these stories?

​LG: Just a minute ago I read an excellent Tim Parks piece about this in the New York Review of Books, and now I’m convinced both that there’s no such thing as autobiographical fiction and that there’s no fiction that’s not entirely autobiographical. My answer for this question is the same with every book: There’s not not a Lauren Groff in it—whoever she is has been made a little grotesque by fiction.

TM: Your characters are wide-ranging in this collection. Is there something that you feel connects them somehow?

​LG: Florida—both geographically and as a sense of bright dread—connects them.​

TM: Other than characters, how do you know when a story or a novel is going to work? What is it about a piece that clicks for you?

LG: ​I’ve learned not to write stories when they’re new in my head, unless they’re so loud they need to be written so that I can go back to thinking about other things. A story is an idea that needs to build its layers in the subconscious for as long as it takes, until something sparks the story and it starts to come alive. The process of building a novel, for me, is a more physical and daily and laborious process, though in the end it’s the same kind of building, just out in the open. The difference is that it has to take place day after day on blank pages, instead of in the darkness of the subconscious, because of the scale of the thing. ​And I never really know either are going to work until I catch the tone and color of the prose it needs to be written in.

TM: The past few years have had some stellar short story collections published. What are some collections or just single-released stories in magazines that have caught your attention?

​LG: I really liked Daniel Alarcón’s The King Is Always Above the People​ and am always interested in Ottessa Moshfegh’s work. And I thought Catherine Lacey’s new story collection, Certain American States, out soon, was brittle and brilliant, particularly the story “Violations.”

A Mix of Paean and Elegy: The Millions Interviews Jamel Brinkley

Jamel Brinkley’s nuanced debut A Lucky Man collects nine short stories set in places the author knows very intimately: Brooklyn and the Bronx. The writer grew up in these diverse neighborhoods and years later immersed himself in the lives of men and women to create these powerful stories that have been featured in a variety of publications, including the forthcoming The Best American Short Stories 2018 collection edited by Roxane Gay.

The writer’s work explores many aspects of what it means to be person of color in America today, including masculinity and social class. I corresponded with the author about how the collection evolved, what New York City means to him, and what to expect from him in the future.

The Millions: These stories take place in New York City, which feels like its own character at times throughout the collection. Why was capturing the city you grew up in so vital for this collection?

Jamel Brinkley: I’m guessing here, or trying to make sense of things retrospectively, but I think one thing that must have been in my mind as I worked on the stories in this collection was the violence of gentrification and the way it has been rapidly changing New York City and the lives of many of the people who have lived here. (I’m in New York as I respond to these questions.) The collection begins solidly in the 1990s, and by the end, with “Clifton’s Place,” we come closer to the contemporary moment and gentrification becomes more explicit as a subject, though there are traces of it elsewhere. Also, I’ve spent the vast majority of my years living in New York, so in many ways, this city is all I knew when I was writing the stories. Seven of the nine stories in the collection were written while I lived in the Midwest, in Iowa City, so I think that distance from New York made me long for it. For all these reasons, with respect to the city, I feel like the stories are a mix of paean and elegy.

TM: All of the stories have been previously published. Why did these make it into this debut collection?

JB: Well, at the time that the collection was sold to Graywolf, only two of the stories had been published, both in A Public Space. The rest of the stories were placed at the same time the book was being edited and prepared for publication. During that time, one story was added and another one removed. I think the resulting nine were the stories that spoke to each other in some way and could be arranged into a shape that made sense.  

TM: What about the story “A Lucky Man” is special to you?

JB: I chose to use the title of that story as the title of the collection for a few reasons. “Man” just makes sense because every story features a male narrator or protagonist, though “Wolf and Rhonda” also has a female protagonist. “Lucky” resonates for me in a number of ways. I feel like each story in my collection is about an ordinary person, along the lines of what the writer Frank O’Connor called “the Little Man,” in contrast to the traditional hero of the novel. In the title story, the idea of being lucky is reflected upon and interrogated. We see that luck can vanish or be stripped away in an instant, and that taking the notion of luck seriously means realizing that it says absolutely nothing about the innate character or qualities of the person it happens to attach itself to. In that story, we also get the idea of luck as an empty, haunting presence. The word “luck” also makes me think of the idea of being exceptional or special. Whether we’re talking about kids in school or writers in the publishing world, institutions often regard black people and other people of color by using the scarcity model, which assumes that there can only be “a few.” Only an exceptional few will make it out of the hood and go on to live successful lives. Only a special few will be chosen by gatekeepers to become the representative voices of their people. Stuff like that, ideas that I obviously don’t agree with. So “Lucky” in terms of that story, and in terms of the collection overall, is tinged with irony, under scrutiny, or under erasure. At the same time, that word suggests some kind of happiness, and in that sense I want to embrace it without irony. My hope is that the moments of happiness and joy, however fleeting, feel authentic in the collection.

TM: Though this is your debut collection, your name and stories have been floating around for a while. What lessons or skills have you learned throughout the years that make your writing so special that you wish you knew right when you started?

JB: I wish I knew that experiencing resistance while writing, being stalled in the face of the unknown, is often a good sign, and that lots of easy fancy footwork with prose can often be a warning sign. I’ve always loved language, and I want my sentences to be solid and stylish, but language in the kind of fiction I want to write has to be responsible to character, first and foremost, and to the world that characters I write about inhabit. When I first started writing, I would get carried away with “lyrical” writing and stylistic flourishes and kind of forget about my obligations to the characters and the story. I would get impatient with difficulty. Who knows how many stories I missed out on writing because I couldn’t handle being uncomfortable in that way.

TM: What is it about the short story form as opposed to novels that pushes you to keep writing them?

JB: I like the density or layers of stories, relative to their length and perceived simplicity. I like that you can more or less hold an entire story in your mind and heart. I like that stories exert a constraint of gathering on you as a writer. One of my writing teachers says that stories, from their beginnings, are in the process of searching for their endings or shutting themselves down, and that feels true to me. Novels, by contrast, tend to feel like they are opening up and expanding. I also like that stories feel like they lean towards poetry.

TM: Now that this collection—which thematically explores race, masculinity, and social class—is out, what other parts of society would you like to explore?

JB: I think race, gender, and class, among other things, will always be present in my work because there’s no way of talking about society without reference to them. But my honest answer to your question is, I don’t know. I think I discover what I’m writing about only in the middle of the process of writing it. And that’s a best-case scenario. Sometimes it isn’t clear what I’m doing, or what I’ve done, until after I’ve done it. That’s actually the way I prefer to work. I don’t want to set the thematic cart before the sentence-writing horse.

The Pleasure Is in the Guilt: The Millions Interviews Lucas Mann

Lucas Mann is interested in everything. Sincerely. His first book Class A followed a minor league baseball team in rural Iowa but was really a mediation on small-town Americana. His second book was an in-depth exploration of who exactly his charismatic and ambitious brother was before a heroin overdose killed him. Now, he’s written about his relationship with his wife and how sharing an interest in reality television brought them closer together.

Captive Audience is a loosely structured set of essays that move between time and location and seeks connection and meaning in our lives. Mann has always had a keen eye for what makes people tick and now he turns it inward to explore his own desires. All of his books, regardless of subject matter, have an undeniable wit underlining his writing, and this love letter of a book is no different.

I chatted with Mann about what draws society to reality TV and how watching it is more immersive than watching an Emmy Award-winning drama. 

The Millions: Captive Audience tracks your relationship with your wife and reality TV over the course of numerous years. How did you know this was going to be a book?

Lucas Mann: I didn’t. There was a vague idea in mind about writing a book about watching reality TV. It was almost a challenge to set for myself to write about something I’m very interested in. This was sort of my white whale. A lot of the watching was just reruns we happened to be watching when I knew I was writing the book and some of it was just memories of scenes that were stuck in my mind. Later on, if that scene was sticking in the narrative I could go back to find it. I  debated between going out and finding shows that fit my cultural criticism narrative or just using these things that happened to pop up in my life. I went with the latter.

TM: What is it about reality TV that made it become your white whale? 

LM: The origin story was that when I was still in graduate school in Iowa, an award-winning author did a reading and one of the compliments from the audience was about how it took place in modern times, but could take place in any time because it felt so detached from the modern. The writer said you want your writing to be timeless. He put out an example of not wanting to read a novel about Britney Spears breaking down on TV or something. I was in the audience saying how I totally want to read that novel.

I wanted to write about these things that were so culturally relevant, but how they interact with your own personal narrative. When I looked at it in my own life I looked at how much shared time and meaningful time with my wife has this actually taken up. People say this sort of TV doesn’t resonate, but if it didn’t resonate, then what the hell was I doing?

TM: What do you think draws people to reality TV either as a real pleasure or a guilty pleasure?

LM: I feel like the book was a project the figure out that answer. One of the interesting things is the relationship between pleasure and guilty pleasure. How guilty pleasure is such an easy phrase for people to describe things while others like Chuck Klosterman have pushed against.

For me, a lot of the pleasure is in the guilt. It’s an active pleasure where you passively watch these things happen, but then also question what they are doing. Should I turn it off? Why do I remember this fact about this random person on this TV show? For a lot of people, you’re constantly negotiating what you’re doing and why you like this show. It feels easy to watch, but then, on the other hand, is complex.

Television has been elevated to an art form. You can watch 12 straight episodes of Westworld and feel like you’ve done something important. Whatever this low culture anxiety has been removed. However, reality TV still functions as this lowbrow piece of culture.

TM: For me, I was always hoity-toity with television and never watched anything. I moved in with my sister after not really being close as adults and she said they had to watch Kardashians on Sunday or whatever. Actually, I know it’s Sundays and I don’t know why I’m trying to hide the fact that I can tell you exactly what time it’s on. I ended up getting hooked after a few episodes and had to start keeping up with them because it felt like this endorphin high.

I mean, we have these hundreds or thousands of friends and followers on social media, but who is to say those people I never see in real life are as real as The Real Housewives or whomever?

LM: I think that’s true. Everyone has these relationships with how we get into these reality shows. When people asked me what I was writing about a lot of the reactions were unpleasant, but a few people would say how they don’t watch a lot of reality TV, but there would be this one show. Then they gave this very specific time stamp and a moment they can recall.

We always set the scene for these shows more than we would with other shows. Like, this was a moment in my life, my sister was there, wer’e in this apartment living together. Whether it starts as an explanation, it becomes part of the watching experience. That feels like an enormous part about how anyone talks about their favorite shows. From a writing standpoint, that’s really compelling. We can’t even talk about the show without setting the scene of how we watched it.

TM: It almost starts as a defense mechanism. “I understand Jersey Shore is whatever, but one time I came home while my male roommate was watching a marathon and we didn’t move from our couch the entire day.”

LM: You need to tell the story of it.

TM: I recently read in Psychology Today that more educated people—like PhD students—make up the majority of demographics watching reality because we crave drama as social creatures, but don’t necessarily want it in our lives.

LM: I just saw that. I think that’s part of it. Nothing emphasizes your stasis or boredom more than watching this over-the-top intensity in someone else’s life. Then it also stokes our intellect by constantly making us ask about the implications of what they do and how we would react.

TM: I find it so interesting that people pretend they don’t watch reality TV, but once you crack into one of the shows they love, the walls come down and everyone can rattle off four reality shows they love. 

LM: Right. Then there is always a reason why they watch those shows and not others. When we bought our house a few years ago a realtor mentioned watching House Hunters or those other home buying and renovation shows. The realtor had to follow it up with something like, “…only because it’s so funny because they’re so staged.” That was their thing.

Even when I was interviewing reality producers they would say how they don’t watch the shows they produce in their own time because they like to watch people who are good at something because then it’s art and not gossip. There are always these ways we define footholds into things that are important to us.

TM: What are shows that you hold close to your heart after this entire experience?

LM: It’s weird. I spent all of my life caring about this topic and then researching it was exhausting and stressful. Like I did with baseball after Class A, I am entering a part in my life where I am less interested in reality TV. It’s weird timing. For this book, the things that were always on my mind were always things like Vanderpump Rules. Keeping Up with the Kardashians was interesting to dive into and then out of, then once you were in it again they were still there. They were incredibly compelling and exhausting to think about. I wrote about a lot of The Real Housewives franchises in my book. A lot of that has to do with the shared experiences of my wife and I. Those people came into our marriage for whatever reason.

TM: In the book you, mention loneliness, dissatisfaction, and incompleteness. Are those things you think draw people to being on reality TV?

LM: I think it’s impossible to know for different people. Part of watching is being invited to make these assumptions about that. For me, a lot of it is just thinking about that. There is an implied combination of wanting more than what I have now, but also the justification of wanting someone to see me searching for me. That’s the tension that is compelling to me. That’s how I imagine it happening at least on some level.

One of the things that drew me to write this, was looking at myself after Lord Fear came out where I though, “Holy shit, what did I just put out there about myself and the people I love?” as well as, “Why aren’t more people reading it?” That felt so strange and tense and hard to reconcile with myself. As I was trying to write again after that book thinking about this weird mechanism of self-revelation and then this desire to not be embarrassed in these relationships of things that are intimate enough that they become interesting enough to write about. Especially what you’re willing to give up of that intimacy.

TM: This book is subtitled “On Love and Reality TV” and I have talked a lot about reality TV because I’m single and hate love at the moment. But, this is also a love letter in a sense to your wife and your relationship. Why did you choose to frame it this way?

LM: I loved the idea from a craft standpoint it feels like everything I have written has had the pretense of something happening outside of myself and my personal response to that. I didn’t know if could go inside something. Also, in thinking about reality TV and how it was something I spent my time, it was always rooted in us—in my wife and I. It became part of this challenge because a) it’s hard to write about a happy relationship and then b) if I am trying to be really honest and do it essayistically, can I frame what I feel so genuine about with this background of shared time watching these things that may not be talked about or not valued. Then at the end, there is nothing to be learned; it was just shared time.

TM: With Lord Fear and then this book you play with the chronology of events. In an interview, you said how you think memory just works like that and not in a specific pattern. When you’re writing do you just write whatever and hope it makes sense later?

LM: Yeah, basically. This felt more freeform than anything I have ever written. Each of these three books has been a move away from a cohesive contained narrative. Class A had a season built into it. I could riff off of everything but I knew the scene would pick up with the team. Lord Fear had a chronological process of me interviewing people trying to figure out more about my brother. I could move around time a bit, but there was still that structure.

For Captive Audience, I told myself to take a leap on it and that there wasn’t going to be any structure to this. I had no idea how it was going to look or where it was going to end. It was just to follow this essayist train of thought. I liked the idea of writing these scenes that could be moved around thematically.

TM: You’ve written about a variety of topics in your first three books. Moving forward, what interests you?

LM: Right now, I am trying to write a novel for the first time. I don’t know. One of the weird things about the writing I’ve done, I shot myself in the foot by not finishing something and picking up and moving forward in that direction. At the end of every project, there was always an “oh shit’ moment. I think now after three books, there are larger ideas I am concerned with. Even though these books seem very different on the surface, there are these questions of performance, community, and connection.

Limerence, Lust, and Love: The Millions Interviews Melissa Broder

Melissa Broder was famous before you even knew who she was. In 2012, she launched the anonymous Twitter account @sosadtoday. Armed with a wry sense of sarcasm, Broder wrote poignant and irreverent words of wisdom 140 characters at a time. Now with over 600,000 followers, Broder came out publicly as the voice behind the account in 2015 around the time she started writing her collection go personal essays So Sad Today

Her collection, which explored her depression, anxiety, and personal life, was heralded for being an honest look that broke the stigmas of mental health. In addition to that book of essays, she is an accomplished poet with multiple collections out including Last Sext. Even with all of the bylines, however, she never imagined writing a book. Especially one about having sex with a merman. 

I spoke with The Pisces author over the phone prior to the release of the book as anticipation swirled for her debut about her desire to control the narrative of her depression and writing about merman anatomy. 

The Millions (TM): A lot of people know you as @sosadtoday on Twitter. So I want to start by asking how do you pitch this book to readers in a tweet-length?

Melissa Broder (MB): On the narrative level: It’s about a book about a woman who moves to Venice Beach and begins a romantic obsession with a merman whose tail starts below the D. 

On the thematic level: It’s about the attempts to fill one’s existential hole with the narcotic of limerence, lust, and love. 

TM: And speaking of Twitter, you started the account anonymously and now you’re public with your identity. I think you’ve been public just as long at this point as you were anonymous.

MB: Yeah, I think so. It’s about equal. I was anonymous from 2012 to mid-2015. Then I’ve been out from then until now. 

TM: How has your life and how people approach you shifted in the past three years?

MB: I just had a great conversation with someone about this. It was an article I wrote for Vice with the twitter account Depressed While Black. We talked about the idea of people’s expectations about how depression presents itself in life. People expect me to appear as Wednesday Addams and are probably disappointed that I’m a very smiley person. 

There are expectations of how depression should look and feel. People also assume So Sad Today is a persona. It’s not a persona. It’s a part of myself that I felt was not fit for public consumption. I think some of that has to do with perfectionism and fear of really being seen. Some of it may have to do with being a woman. But for many, many reasons I felt I could not share these feelings of depression and anxiety. Especially anxiety. It can feel very lonely.  

If you’re at a dinner with people and you have a panic attack, you feel so alone. A lot of people don’t even know that I am having a panic attack. They just see the smiling. So, So Sad Today isn’t a persona, but it isn’t all of me. It’s a part of me I felt I couldn’t share with the world. 

I still fear about having a panic attack in front of a person. Or what if depression renders me imperfect in some way. You think I’d cut myself some slack because people know about the Twitter account, but I have not yet given myself that permission.  

TM: Is that permission a reason you return to these themes and topics so much?

MB: Yeah. The thing with depression and anxiety is that it has been very cyclical in my life. I feel like every time it happens that I’m never going to get out. Each relapse of depression feels like it is going to be the one that takes me out, but then I end up on the other side. Writing about it is that one place that gives me the illusion of control over depression. It is the control over the narrative though. It lends itself some meaning to the experience because I can alchemize this feeling and experience that may resonate with other people. 

That’s why I started the account at first. I was in a very bad place even though I was in therapy, on my meds, and doing all of the stuff I was supposed to be doing. It’s like any other chronic illness. You can be doing everything “right” like getting your sleep, taking your meds, and never missing therapy, but sometimes you just get sick. 

TM: After the years of running a popular Twitter, releasing books of poetry, and an essay collection, was this always what you imagined your first full-length piece of fiction would be like?

MB: I never thought there would be a full-length piece of fiction. I never even thought there would be essays. I thought I was going to be a poet forever. I still am a poet, but what happened was that I used to write my poetry on the subway in New York City. Then when I moved to Los Angeles I started dictating in the car and all of the line breaks started disappearing. It became more conversational and that’s how the essays were born. 

After the essays came out and my last book of poetry, Last Sext, came out, I had this desire to annihilate oneself in love or the addictive qualities of love. I was writing poems and felt I was writing the same poems I’ve written before. At one point, I was on the beach and reading this book called The Professor and the Siren by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa who also wrote The Leopard. I was never a mermaid fan. I would have selected Pegasus to hang out with.  

As I was reading that book about the professor in love with a mermaid, I realized how much darkness there was. I thought about what if it was a merman and a woman. I didn’t think I could write a novel, so I approached it the same way as So Sad Today and I dictated. It was three paragraphs a day and within nine months I had the whole first draft. 

TM: The idea of the merman was really what kicked the book off then? It wasn’t Lucy in an existential crisis and the merman came later?

MB: Yes, but Lucy was born right aside Theo. He existed in relation to Lucy’s need for that stimulation. It was why Lucy could see Theo. I was consumed by these themes that Lucy embodies. My first concern was to get this stuff out of me. Then I encountered the siren and human relationship. 

TM: What was it like writing Theo the merman?

MB: I was never a mermaid girl. I was always a horse girl, so Pegasus all the way. If I were going to have a sexual relationship, it wouldn’t be with Pegasus. I would be more inclined to have a sexual relationship with Apollo because he is a twink who would ignore me. Maybe Cerberus the Dog of War. Maybe the Kraken like in the painting “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife.” Who wouldn’t want that? I’ve also been attracted to Ursula the Sea Witch. She’s my sexual ideal. I’d rather fuck Ursula than Ariel. 

So when I was creating Theo, I knew there were going to be merman fundamentalists that were going to ask why the tail started below the D and tell me this is how it should be. For me, it was just there were certain things I needed to accomplish. I knew Theo was going to have a dick. I built him as I needed him to be just as any fantasy we build as it needs to be. 

When people ask me if Theo is real I say he is as real as anyone we are ever obsessed with. How well do we ever really see anyone we’re obsessed with? Right? Theo fulfilled all of our fantasies. 

TM: Okay, so I hate when I ask authors “How autobiographical is this book?” but I am going to ask that. Were you putting yourself in Lucy?

MB: I mean Lucy has a lot of me in her and not a lot of me in her. It was fun writing a character who was a little older than me. The book got optioned by Lionsgate and I am writing the script right now and people would ask me who I would want to play Lucy. To me, Lucy has physically always been this librarian I had in middle school named Mrs. Luccia. Mrs. Luccia would play her in the movie.  

There are experiences I had and feelings I had that are very Lucy. We have a lot in common, but at the same time, there are differences. 

TM: Your Twitter account is this therapeutic outlet for you to talk about mental health and break stigmas—

MB: It’s also an addiction. Let it be clear: it’s also a dopamine addiction. 

TM: What about this book then? What did it do for you mentally?

MB: Similar. Similar. I always need to be writing because just living — and this is probably a fault of mine — living in the moment is not my forte. Sometimes when I am just alive, I forget to live in the moment. I feel like there is nothing is tethering me to the planet. Yet, when I write it makes me feel like — I guess it makes me feel less depressed. It makes me feel like, okay, I can do this. It makes sense why I am here. 

TM: It helps with depression even when you’re writing so much about depression?

MB: Yeah. It gives me control of the narrative. Or the illusion of control. 

TM: You’re also very funny. While reading this and some of the essays or your work on Vice, I notice you walk a fine line between humor and sincerity. How do you manage that?

MB: I first adopted humor to talk about darker things as a defense mechanism. They say to tell the truth but tell it slant. I think humor was a way to get people off my back. I can control the narrative. It’s about control. It’s like I was feeling like this, but I could still make a joke. 

I also believe that when it’s something I have gone through and experienced that there is no proper tone. There’s something very feeling about humor. Stuff doesn’t seem so big or daunting when we can laugh about it. For me, there is no sacred topic that I can’t joke about. It’s my depression and I will talk about it how I want. 

I find myself doing similar things. I love making fun of myself when I’m in the hole because then I don’t have to worry about what everyone is saying because I beat them to the punchline and I was funnier than they could be.  

It’s like if you have a giant zit at a party. I’m not the one to try and hide it. It will be the first thing I say. I don’t want someone seeing something about me and thinking I am not aware. It’s like let me confess to you all my weaknesses so you don’t see them first. Again, it’s the illusion of control, but I’m doing that for me and not anyone else. 

TM: Now that this book is done and you’re addicted to writing, what’s next?

MB: I have written two more novels. My agent has not seen them, but she knows what they are about. One is set in Venice, again. It is about a married couple who move out to Los Angeles in search of healing and the American Dream. They become obsessed with their upstairs neighbor. The working title is The Man Upstairs. The other’s working title is called Milk Fed. It’s about a love affair between two Jewish women. One is a very voluptuous Orthodox Jew who works at her frozen yogurt store. The other is a reformed Jew with an eating disorder. 

The Man Upstairs is on its second to last round of edits I would say. With the other, I’m almost done editing my first round. Since I dictate and don’t edit at all, my first round of edits is going back and trying to figure out what the fuck I was trying to say.