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? [millions_ad] 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.
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.”
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. [millions_ad] 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.
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. [millions_ad] 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.
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.
Jesmyn Ward hadn’t realized it’s been more than half a decade since her National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones made her a literary star. That’s because she has been extremely busy, both professionally and personally. Since her Hurricane Katrina-centric novel, the author wrote the raw and emotional Men We Reaped, a memoir about losing five family members and friends to drugs, suicide, and accidents that can only happen to young, poor, black men. She also edited The Fire This Time, an essay and poetry collection about race and identity written by this generation’s brightest talents. She also moved with her husband and children back to DeLisle, Miss., the small, poverty-stricken town where she grew up. She lived there and survived Hurricane Katrina before going to Stanford and the University of Michigan to pursue higher education. Even though Ward was busy producing non-fiction, readers anxiously awaited her fiction followup to Salvage the Bones. Ward’s third novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, returns to similar settings and themes as her previous works, but is wholly original. Set in modern Mississippi, the novel follows Jojo, a 13-year-old of mixed race, and his drug addict mother as they drive to pick up his father from state prison. The mix of harsh reality and magical realism create a sense of wonderment that makes readers question what they know about identity. Ward and I spoke via phone about racial tensions, why history is so important, how hurricanes effect those who survive them, as well as what she hopes readers will remember about her novels. The Millions: I wanted to start our conversation with Salvage the Bones. It came out in 2011 and won the National Book Award. It’s been a little more than half a decade, and I was curious about how your relationship with the book or the characters has changed since the book’s release. Jesmyn Ward: I didn’t realize it had been so long. That’s so crazy. My characters remain with me in one way or another even after I’m done. I don’t know if I’ll ever return to those characters in a sequel, but I definitely still think about them. Especially now with Hurricane Harvey and Houston or whenever we encounter another hurricane and we witness the kind of devastation we are witnessing right now. I think about them lately because I wonder if people who read the book and read about this family who couldn't leave see what is happening currently and think about Salvage the Bones and those characters. Those characters still live with me. I still think about Skeet, Esch, and Big Henry, I actually roped them into the end of Sing, Unburied, Sing and it was nice to see them again. Part of the reason it’s been a surprise to me that it’s been so long since Salvage was published is because whenever I think about those characters, I can only age them by a couple of years. It’s hard for me to think of where they’d be now, 11 years later after Hurricane Katrina. That showed up in Sing because when I was writing that moment when Esch showed up, I felt she was two years older than she was at the end of Salvage and my editor, of course, caught it. She pointed out that the character would need to be 10 years older now. She hadn't aged at all in my head. Maybe that’s a deficiency on my part because I can’t age them. They live with me though as they existed in their books. TM: Were you working on Sing, Unburied, Sing during the entire time since Salvage? JW: No, not really. After I finished the rough draft of Salvage the Bones, which was in 2009, I began working on Sing, Unburied, Sing, but it was a very different book then. When I say I was working on it, I meant I was working on unsuccessful first chapter after unsuccessful first chapter. Jojo’s character was the only character that was present and real to me at that time. I didn’t know anything about his mom, his dad, or the rest of his family. In the beginning his mom was white [as opposed to black in the final version]. My understanding of who the members of his family are changed a lot. I couldn’t write a good first chapter when I didn’t have a clear understanding of who the other characters were. I spent a good four of five months writing bad first chapter after bad first chapter. Then I decided I should work on what would become the memoir Men We Reaped. I just put those bad first chapters away. I set Jojo aside and worked on the memoir. Following that, I edited the collection The Fire This Time. While I was working on The Fire This Time was when I started working on this novel again. I did take a substantial break but I came back to it again. It was very hard with me for Sing to find a successful entryway into the story. I think part of the reason it was difficult was because I couldn’t figure out who the people around Jojo should be and who they were. That’s where I start: I need a vague understanding of who the most important characters are and what their motivations are. That was very hard for me to pin down with this book. It took me a long time. After I finished Men We Reaped was when I returned to Jojo. I threw out everything I had before and I just started again. Once I figured out who Leonie, Pop, and Mam were I gained some traction. I used the momentum to move into the second chapter. Then I was able to move through that first rough draft. TM: This novel has a very serious, realistic undertone, but it also has this notion of ghosts and magical realism thrown in. When did that come into play with the story? JW: From the very beginning, I knew that Leonie was seeing a phantom. In the very beginning, she was seeing a phantom of Michael. For the first four chapters of the rough draft she was seeing a phantom of Michael and it just wasn’t working. I figured out it wasn’t working because his presence didn’t add to the understanding of who she was. Leonie was a very difficult character for me to write because I couldn’t figure out what was motivating her to be such a horrible parent and sometimes a horrible person. All that told me about her was that she was in love with this man and perhaps she was hallucinating because of the drugs she was using. It didn’t tell me anything that I already didn’t know about her and who she loved and valued. It felt like something was wrong. Then I began rethinking that phantom of someone she actually lost; not just a man she loved who was in prison. What if it was a family member she lost. That’s when I stumbled upon the fact that she would have lost a brother and that it was his ghost she was seeing. Instead of going back and correcting that in the first four chapters I had already written, I wrote going forward with that idea that the phantom was her brother. I wrote with that assumption and suddenly she began to work for me as a character. She took on new life. I understand her motivation. I understood the pain in her heart that she carried with her. By her not dealing with that pain, it feeds into how selfish and egotistical she is. It makes her a worse parent because she’s so wrapped up in this pain that she isn’t able to resolve. That’s when I knew there was one ghost: the ghost of her dead brother. At the same time I was working on the beginning of this, I read about Parchman Prison. I came across this bit that there were black boys as young as 12 that were charged with petty crimes and spent time in Parchman. I read that and I knew how brutal the prison was and that fact was heartbreaking. I wanted a child to be part of my novel and be present in the moment. I figured the only way I can make that happen was to make him a ghost. I wanted him to exist in the present moment and not just exist in a flashback. I wanted him to be able to interact with Jojo. TM: When I was reading Sing, I thought a lot about The Turner House and Swamplandia. Is this idea of ghosts, ghost stories, and the past as part of everyday life in southern or black culture? JW: I think that ghosts are embodiments of the past. Especially here in the South because we’re so close to the past. So much of the past lives in the present. We live with the ramifications of the past that might not be as clear or feel as present in the rest of the country. I sit and think of the furor we live with regarding Confederate monuments and the endless debates about whether or not to take them down. I think about all of the advocacy and opposition. We’re still dealing with monuments from a war that happened 150, 160 years ago. The violence that surrounds that history is still very present. In the South, we may not talk about it or it may not be a part of public conversation around these issues, but the underlying understanding is that the history of this region bears very heavily on the present and informs our actions. I think the ghost story form is a great way to explore and express that. TM: You’ve been very outspoken about racial tension in America. I know the media is discussing this more, but I think there is still a disconnect where most of the country doesn’t really understand what it’s like to be in these situations. Do you think about this when you’re writing? JW: I do. It influences my work because my awareness of history and the legacy of racist violence in this country bears heavily on my thinking when I’m casting about for ideas for my novels. I’m always thinking about race, violence, the history of the South, and how that history bears on the present. I saw Ann Patchett speak 10 or 15 years ago and one thing she mentioned in her speech was that how she thought writers write the same book over and over again because they’re obsessed with the same ideas. Those ideas always surface in each story they write. As I’ve written more fiction and creative non-fiction, I’ve found that is true in my case. I’m always thinking about how black people survive. How people are marginalized in the South and the way they still survive that oppression. I do have to say that when I’m writing and I’ve immersed myself in that world with those characters, then I am just thinking about the characters in the story and who they are and how they are evolving. I’m trying to find the important moments in their lives—moments beyond which nothing is the same. That’s what I’m thinking about when I’m writing. I’m not thinking about themes or symbolism. When I’m actually writing I’m just thinking about the people. I think about the issues and big ideas when I’m thinking about novel ideas, but once I begin writing I throw that all out the window because the work is able to come alive and these people are able to live when you immerse yourself in the world. TM: Earlier you mentioned how devastating Hurricane Harvey is to the people of Texas. I know you were still living in the Mississippi Gulf Coast when Hurricane Katrina hit. If you don’t mind, I was just curious what life was like for residents after the media and most of the country move on from these tragic events? What do families go through? What is it like having to restart? JW: It’s really difficult. Donations do make a difference because they help people who are attempting to rebuild their lives. Habitat for Humanity did a lot of work here after Hurricane Katrina. They rebuilt a lot of homes. It’s a hard question to answer because a lot of people had house insurance and made house insurance claims, but that didn’t work for everyone. Some claims were denied on technicalities. A lot of the rebuilding that people had to do down here was out of their own pockets. It was a slow process. They rebuilt as they were able to slowly save the money that they needed to rebuild. That’s one of the reasons a hurricane appears out in the Gulf—and I don’t want anyone to go through the pain we went through—but I’m always grateful when the hurricanes don’t come for us. I still feel like a decade after Katrina, we’re not ready. There was just extreme flooding in New Orleans two or three weeks ago from just a bad rainstorm. The streets were flooding and homes were damaged. It’s a hard question for me to answer because it’s still a continuous process. TM: Your memoir came out between Salvage and Sing. Do you ever think about more memoirs on different topics? JW: Right now, no. I really don’t want to write another memoir. There are many reasons for that. Men We Reaped was the hardest book I’ve ever written. It required that I make myself vulnerable. It required that I make the members of my family vulnerable. I had to tell the truth and reveal all of these secrets about our lives and that was very hard to do. I don’t know if I can do that again. It was important to me because I had to write that book to tell my brother’s story. I had to tell the story about my friends and my cousin. Men We Reaped came out before Black Lives Matter was a movement. I almost feel like at that time I was trying to express the sum of the opinions that Black Lives Matter has expressed, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to do so. That book was difficult to write because I didn’t have that vocabulary to write about these people that I loved and lost. Fiction is easier than creative non-fiction for me. Creative non-fiction is hard for me in general whether it’s essays or a book-length memoir because I tend to shy away from the pain of what I’m writing about. It makes me write around my subject instead of focusing. Creative non-fiction is a lot of work for me and my editors because they have to make me focus on whatever I’m trying to avoid in the piece I’m working on. So, no, I don’t want to tackle another non-fiction book, but who knows in 20 years? TM: Is it going to be another half decade before your next work of fiction comes out? JW: I have something percolating, but it’s probably going to take me some time to finish. It might be another four or five years before it comes out. I’m writing the first chapter of the rough draft. I’m at the very beginning of the process. The novel is set in New Orleans at the height of the domestic slave trade during the early 1800s. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever written before. It’s definitely challenging me as a writer and as a human being because the main characters in this are people who were enslaved. It’s really hard to sit with that. The subject matter is making it hard for me to write this novel. Hopefully it will be done in four or five years. That’s including the rough first draft and multiple revisions of that. TM: What is your hope of what people walk away with after they finish Sing, Unburied, Sing? JW: I hope that the characters stay with them. That Jojo, Leonie, Kayla, Ritchie, and Pop stay with them. That next time readers encounter an older black gentleman in the grocery story or the next time they unfortunately see a 14- or 15-year-old black boy like Jojo dead from police violence that maybe it’s a bit more painful and a bit more prevalent for them because they’ve seen the humanity in the characters I’ve written. Maybe that makes it a little easier for them to see humanity and personhood.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon gets stuck. Sometimes plans don’t go according to the outline, if he even writes one. Sometimes an idea just pops into his brain and a book comes out. Both are the case with Chabon’s latest release, Moonglow. Presented as a memoir about a grandfather, the novel weaves together the history of a man and his family during the 20th century. Like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay or Telegraph Avenue, this new novel features an interesting cast of characters, linked physically and thematically. The author spoke to us at length, after a day of errands that took him around Berkeley, about his new novel, outlines, why memoirs are bullshit, and screenwriting. The Millions: When Telegraph Avenue came out, you stated in an interview that with every book you wrote there was this collapse where you either didn’t think you would finish a book or that it wouldn’t turn out the way you wanted it to. Did that happen with Moonglow? Michael Chabon: Yeah, that usually happens as soon as I start writing the first sentence. It’s already begun to diminish from what I envisioned in that glorious split second of imagination. Telegraph Avenue was much harder to write. It took over a decade, really, during its gestational period. From a pilot to a television series and then laying completely dormant for years before I revived it. I thought because I had written the pilot that it would be easy to novelize it, but that turned out to not be the case at all. I really struggled with Telegraph Avenue. I really struggled with The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. I really struggled with Kavalier & Clay. All in ways that I did not really struggle with this book at all. In fact, this book -- I’m not saying it was easy to write -- but it had the same kind of magical birth as Wonder Boys, which is the only other book of mine that had this magical birth where I had no idea that I was going to be writing it until the day I sat down and the first sentence emerged. In both cases, I thought I was going to be working on a different book. With Wonder Boys, I thought I was beginning the fifth or so draft of what was supposed to be my second novel; a book called Fountain City. I thought okay, I had the outline for this new draft to be doing. I sat down and all of a sudden I was writing about Grady Tripp, growing up in this small town in Pennsylvania, and a pulp writer before I had any idea where any of that came from. It wrote itself fairly quickly, whereas this one took longer to write. It started off very much the same, though. I thought I was going to be starting the first draft of another novel that was meant to be the follow-up to Telegraph Avenue and I didn’t have an outline, but I had definite thoughts of what it was going to be. I had been doing reading and research, but I found myself beginning to re-envision this moment of history from my family. A family story I had heard over the years about one of my grandfather’s brothers who was a salesman selling commercial office supplies and was fired one day from his job to make room on the payroll for Alger Hiss, who was just released from prison. I had not been thinking about that story until the day I started actually working on the book. It just popped into my mind. I started following it. I didn’t get into any other weird nightmarish corners I had got into with other books. TM: You briefly mentioned an outline for stories. Was there an outlining process or a plotting process for this book then? MC: Typically, I’m not a big outliner. When I’m doing screenwriting work -- like right now my wife and I are working on a script for this proposed series for Netflix that is a miniseries -- when you’re doing that kind of work you have to outline. Of course, outlining makes your job easier, but you actually have to outline because the people who are writing your checks insist on seeing outlines. They want to see a full outline for the first episode and partial outlines for all of the remaining episodes. You have to generate your story ahead of time. So, I know how to outline, I’ve done it, I completely see the value in doing it, and I’m completely grateful for one when I actually do an outline; however, when it comes to doing novels, I find the more detailed I try to get in my outline, the less interest I have in the story. For me, part of the process of writing the novel -- a big part -- is finding out what happens. I like to find out what my story is about. There are two kinds of aboutness, too. One kind is on the plot level: what happens. I find out along the way and suddenly I think, Okay this will happen and that will happen and now I have to go back and throw away 200 pages doing that because now I know this is going to happen. Sometimes I have to completely add a new character because it appeared to me after two years of work. I have to proceed by groping and finding my way without really knowing what is going to happen. It’s a process of discovery and as much as it is torturous and incredibly inefficient when compared to working with an outline, it is part of the mystery that keeps me going. If I don’t have it, I sort of lose interest in the project. Then there is the other kind of aboutness. There’s this question of what is the story About with a capital A. Thematically, that is. And I don’t even know the answer to that until I am almost done with the book. So many times, and it really happened with Moonglow, I didn’t fully understand what the biggest, most important things about Moonglow were. Especially the story about the grandmother. Not what happened to the grandmother, but what it meant to her, what did it mean to the grandfather, what did it mean to the family? What does that say about memory and history and madness and insanity? A lot of the things about the nuts and bolts about the structure changed right in the last four to six weeks of me working on the book before I turned it into the publisher. It was like, “Oh my god, I see what my book is about now.”...In this magical period right at the end of writing, which was one of the most magical experiences I have ever had, I just started focusing on the grandmother and realized there was this constant motif throughout the book of dualities. People concealing other people within them. All of the imagery just started to click into place, including the moon imagery: with the dark side of the moon, the lunar eclipses. It was this idea of being half something and half something else. It was all there. I had the wiring, but it wasn’t hooked up to any battery until I hooked it up to the grandmother and the entire book just lit up. I couldn’t have outlined that. If I had tried to outline something like that I think I would have lost interest in the book long before or, and this happens when I write outlines, I begin to hate the outline and the person who wrote the outline. Like, four years ago there was this smug asshole who wrote out this dumb-ass outline and he thought he knew so much but he didn’t know shit. Why would I even listen to him? He had no idea how wide ranging this book was going to be. I get into this place of resentment with the things I thought I knew. If the story about the grandmother and duality was there from the beginning, I would have told myself “fuck you” and I wouldn’t have done it. Outlines are wonderful tools, but they only do what they do in the proper context. Which is similar in the book with the rocket. In one context rockets take you to the moon, and, in other, they rain down terror on innocent people. TM: Even though you didn't outline this one, was it always meant to be a faux-memoir that was closely tied to your life? MC: No, it was... As soon as I started to tell the story of the assault... Well, all I actually know is that one of my grandfather’s brothers was fired from his job to make room for Alger Hiss. I should add that the uncle I thought it was, I asked his daughter and his granddaughter, and neither had heard this story. I was so sure it was that uncle and not the other whom I can’t really ask about, so even that is a little dubious. Whenever I hear “Alger Hiss,” I think of this story. At some point, I did hear this story. That uncle did sell office supplies. Ah! It had to be him. But that’s all I know. As soon as I made it my grandfather and not my great-uncle, I am in the territory of fiction. There was no deliberate decision on this point for me, but almost immediately as soon as I had those words, “my grandfather,” I was writing in a reminiscent first person narrator who wasn’t giving his reminiscences but was giving his grandfather’s reminiscences. As soon as I had that structure it clicked immediately with this actual experience I had sitting with my actual grandfather when he was dying in my actual mother’s house. He did tell me a lot of stories. Maybe he did tell me the story about his brother getting fired; maybe that’s where I heard it for the first time. As soon as I had that in place, it was immediate that it was going to be the framework of the novel. It was very quickly and wasn’t a conscious strategy in mind that this was going to be a memoir. It’s going to be my memoir of the week I spent with my grandfather and the story he told me that is going to end up being the story the reader ends up reading. At that point, I thought that’s going to be fun. That’s going to be a fun structure. Part of the thing that I have to do when I’m starting a book -- I mean, everything has been done before -- so all I can do is try to find a new approach to it. To find a different avenue for it. With Moonglow, it was that I wanted to tell the story of this man’s life. It was a very 20th-century, East Coast, Jewish family story, but what’s my angle? What was my way to make it fresh to readers and fresh to me? This memoir angle immediately presented itself. Then I actually had this more conscious, higher level of thinking of potential pleasure about the book being something I wanted to do. It derived from my feelings about the literary memoir. TM: How do you feel about them in particular? MC: [Some people have claimed] that memoirs are more appropriate to the time we live in, but also superior to fiction. Listening to that kind of talk and seeing situations like the James Frey incident...The thing that made everyone upset was the fact that he had lied, you know? That he passed this thing off as true when it was a work of fiction was wrong. What pissed me off as a novelist was that he wrote it as a novel and nobody wanted to publish it. Then he relabeled it as a memoir and suddenly everybody wants to publish it and everyone wants to read it. That offends me because I’m a novelist and writing novels is what I do. I take that personally on some levels. It also offends me because it’s bullshit. Memoirs are bullshit to some degree. I don’t mean memoirists are liars; some might be, most are not. I know memoirists try to be scrupulous and try not to deviate from what they remember. It’s the last few words of my sentence where the bullshit comes in. Of course what you remember is a lie or a distortion. It’s inaccurate, there’s conflation, there’s elision. There are gaps, there maybe things that you’ve deliberately forgotten and then forgotten that you’ve forgotten so that you sincerely think they didn’t happen. Some of my favorite books, some of the most beautiful books that have been written in the past quarter century have been memoirs, like Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time or Tobias Wolfe’s This Boy’s Life. There are people who have written beautiful works of literature that are memoirs. I’m not trying to impugn individual writers at all. I’m not even necessarily impugning the form of the genre. It’s just the claims that are made. The esteem that is given. The memoir seems to have a higher value because it claims to be the truth. Obviously it just simply can’t be on some level the truth. As a novelist, I much prefer, and am much more comfortable with a self-declared lie that is invited by the person being lied to. TM: Building off of that, did you feel there needed to be a lot of research or were those lies something you could live with? MC: You can’t tell a good lie without research. Not a really good one. TM: I want to shift from Moonglow to all of your works. You have these reoccurring topics of family, of history, of Judaism, and many more. Why do you keep coming back to these ideas and feelings that you write about? MC: I can’t help it. That’s the honest answer. I have no choice in the matter. That’s how it works with compulsive behavior. It’s a kind of compulsion. I wrote a piece about this in my book Manhood for Amateurs about a family heritage of OCD. The piece is called “X09” because it’s about a boy, who at the time his brother was struggling with OCD, called it X09. I do have it in my family. My paternal grandmother was clearly compulsive, especially about germs. My dad had these strange obsessive compulsive, ritualistic behaviors. I don’t see it in my own behavior or my thought processes, but I do think it is expressed in this return to certain subjects or themes or motifs that are beyond my control. It doesn’t seem to be hurting me, and I think it’s true in a lot of writers, though I wouldn’t be qualified to talk about it. TM: Are you writing habits compulsive? I once read you always wrote at night. Is that still the case? MC: I still do, yes. More than ever. I work very late. I still report for duty between 10 and 11pm. Sometimes as late until six in the morning. I get a lot more done in the last few hours than I did the entire time before. TM: Are you already onto the next idea? MC: I’m writing a children’s book for middle readers. It’s essentially a follow-up to Summerland, although it’s not a sequel in any way. TM: What about that Netflix series that you’re kind of working on with your wife -- MC: More than kind of. TM: More than kind of then, that’s great. Did you take a lot of time off from screenwriting, or did nothing just come to fruition? MC: [laughs] It might seem like I took time off, but in fact, it’s just a series of failures to launch. TM: What about screenwriting appeals to you so much on top of writing novels? MC: I used to automatically just say the money, but when it comes to screenwriting for movies in Hollywood that would be better if [just the money] was the case. It’s so heartbreaking and so hard to get things made. While I was writing Moonglow, I took time off to work on a screenplay for a proposed Frank Sinatra biopic that Martin Scorsese was going to direct. Working on something that could have been directed by him and working with Frank Sinatra’s work was just so great. I just got into it and loved working on it. I think I wrote a pretty good script, and it just seems to be completely done. I got paid and it would be easy to say, “Oh, I got paid well and that’s showbiz,” but unfortunately I became pretty invested in that project. It hurts to think it all was a waste of time. With TV it’s a little different. On one end, the money up front just isn’t that good, so you can’t just be all about the money. Also, it seems more gets made and there is more opportunity to do a lot more work with a lot less interference. Though I don’t have any shows on the air, I seem more successful there because I actually had a couple of scripts make it to the screen. It doesn’t quite feel as well... I don’t know. It’s hard to say. I actually worked on this earlier proposal for a show for HBO that was supposed to be called Hobgoblin that was really good; it would have been amazing. We actually wrote three scripts for that. So now I take it all back: it’s all equally heartbreaking and soul crushing. Anyway, I’m doing it. I’m still writing scripts. The thing we’re doing for Netflix could be really good. I hope it happens, but you never know.
Nell Zink has been a writer for most of her life, in venues ranging from a DIY zine about punk musicians and their pets to German newspapers. You might not have heard of the 52-year-old writer prior to 2014, but there’s a good chance that you recognize her name now. She released two of the best books in 2014 and 2015: The Wallcreeper and Mislaid, respectively. The Germany-based writer’s third novel, Nicotine, out this week, is easily the author’s best work. If that weren’t enough she also published two early novellas -- Sailing Toward the Sunset by Avner Shats and European Story for Avner Shats -- in the collection Private Novelist on the same day as Nicotine. Zink is a wordsmith’s wordsmith. She’s sharp, wry, and might be a genius. I spoke with her over the phone after she arrived in America for a book tour and discussed how Nicotine came to be, her relationship with Israeli writer Avner Shats, and so much more. The Millions: First, before we get into your new novel, I’m fascinated by and wanted to ask about the DIY zine you had about musicians and their pets. Nell Zink: It was about five years long. At the time I had moved to Washington, D.C. and I met somebody and we got married and moved to Richmond, Virginia, and then he got a job in New York. So, in the spring of 1990 we moved to Hoboken. I was very interested in music, but never had the money for records. He was a real suburbanite who had an allowance as a child and worked stringing rackets when he was older, so he had records like you wouldn’t believe. He introduced me to all of this music. I always played guitar and started playing electric. He was into this improvised music and it drew me in because it related to the aesthetic of how I was writing then. Like writing entire novels and then throwing them away. Similar to Yuri Khanon -- the Russian composer -- currently destroying all of his work at the rate of one piece per week. Anyway, we were playing this improvised music and that’s enough detail about the background of what was happening. I really enjoyed zines then and it was clear to me that my favorite ones weren’t just about music, but also about something else. I thought, I like animals. To me, as a serious writer, I thought there is no way greater to reach human beings other than to talk to them about something other than human beings. There’s a reason people look at kittens on the internet. And that’s how it came to be. TM: You mentioned the composer who burns his work. Was that you? Did you have a considerable amount of material that you just purged? NZ: Occasionally I would search an old computer and realize that is what I was doing. I wasn’t doing it consciously because I legitimately forgot that stuff. I’m not entirely demented, but I certainly don’t have a photographic memory. I would write a story about an obsessive shut-in who falls in love with a box of Tide because of the colors on the labeling. I remember I wrote this story, I forgot about it, I found it again and then I lost it again. It was just called “Box of Tide” and it was about this guy’s passionate -- and not sexual because I didn’t write anything sexual until I started writing for publication, because you have to give the people what they want -- love for his box of Tide. TM: So you have published three novels in back to back to back years, plus a collection of two novellas. Does that mean you’re going to keep churning out novel after novel each year? NZ: No. If I release another one, no one will believe it’s great. So I need to take a break. At least my editor thinks so. She told me to take my time. I asked her what the optimal time was because I will write it to order. I asked her what the absolute ideal time would be: three years, three and a half? She kept naming people who took seven or ten years to write their next novel. I joked that she needed more time in between because she didn’t want to pay me another advance for another decade. I really don’t know. It’s going to be big and more of a brick. You know when people are spending $27 for a new hardcover they expect a brick. I think they’re justified. And I know now how to write longer and in the more ambitious style. If you read The Wallcreeper, it’s written like how people write short stories. It just goes on for 200 pages. It’s very elusive and dense with very tiny scenes instead of chapters. But I can write a long novel. It could happen. TM: All three novels have been short, but with such beautiful language and story. I need a longer novel to immerse myself in. NZ: Well, thank you. I feel now that I know how it’s done. I figured out the secret of going long. TM: I won’t ask for the secret. I only want you to have it. NZ: Most people have no problem. Especially men that I know. They all have 1,000 page novels. TM: It does seem that everyone is obsessed about these sweeping sagas now. Whether it be a generational familial saga or a long coming-of-age about a group of friends leaving college and navigating adulthood. With you, however, you find these offbeat stories that are completely unique? NZ: I just try to come up with figures in a situation that irritates me in a way. Something I can’t quite get my head around; just almost but not quite. Something about it needs to trouble me. There are sort of difficult and unresolved positions taken and abandoned with gender and racial material in Mislaid and even in Nicotine there are things people do that I couldn’t tell you myself whether it was right or wrong, or if people should be allowed to do what they do. To come up with those situations, I have to be a little bit creative because it’s not like life hands them to you on a plate. When it does come up you don’t want to think about. My own life is not one I want to wallow in; maybe that’s why I get creative. I can imagine having a happy adolescence where I can write about my travails of life at an Ivy League school and how I suffered being a wallflower on Facebook or whatever. But that’s not the case. TM: When did the creative force for Nicotine come into your life? There was an interview around when Mislaid came out where you said you already sold this book. Was this an old idea just waiting to be published? Or did you churn it out recently? NZ: Don’t say churn! TM: Sorry, I don’t think I’ve ever used that word to describe writing a book and I think earlier today I read an interview where either you said it or the interviewer said it. NZ: Well, you know what? What happens is that if I say, “I don’t churn them out. It took me a year to write Nicotine,” then the headline will include “churns them out.” For instance I had an interview with The Guardian yesterday and I talked endlessly about Keith Gessen and then I was asked about Johnathan Franzen. Now the headline has Jonathan Franzen’s name in it. I cannot win. Apparently Keith Gessen is not clickbait. He’s not the teen idol I think he is. We’re going to have to work on that. TM: We can talk about him as long as you want. NZ: No, no. I got that out of my system the other day. Nicotine was first conceived in about December 2014. I remember when I first got the idea. I was at lunch with my German publisher. Well, he’s not my publisher, but he had to keep jumping up to go outside to smoke and he was missing everything. He was really addicted to cigarettes. I had this image of cigarettes and the interesting way they change people. Right around March 2015, when Kathryn Schulz interviewed me for The New Yorker, my agent dared me to write something fast enough for her to sell it before Mislaid came out because she said I would have market value spike before The New Yorker profile and the book publication. So, that’s what I did. I drafted it in a few weeks. I beg you to appreciate the fact that is how most writers write. If you ask them how long it took to write a book they just look at the simple arithmetic of when they released their last book and they tell you they have been working on the new book since the day their last book came out. If you actually met them you’ll know they spend eight years doing nothing, two months outlining, then they sell a partial, and then they go to the MacDowell Colony and write the book in three weeks. That’s what everybody does. They all have kids and jobs that they can’t work the way that I do. TM: I love your prose so much. You chose to write Nicotine in present tense, which your last novels weren’t in. Why that decision? NZ: My reason to make it present tense was this long standing cynical-sounding idea. It’s very clear what people go for when reading a book and the ways you can draw them in. You really can legitimately call me a post-modernist. I’m not very often playing games with the medium itself in a way that has to do with form and words like a language poet. That’s not what I’m up to. In this post-modernist sense, it’s clear for me and Avner [Shats, an Israeli writer and close friend to Zink] that people go for this young adult fiction even when it’s passing for something else. Jane Austen has been read all of this time because she reads like a popular genre. Do people read Stern? He’s like Melville; nobody cracks those novels. But Austen has been huge. She was huge the moment she started publishing novels. In any case, I wanted to emulate this popular genre, young adult fiction, which is almost always in the present tense. I wanted to get the breathless quality of the sort of run-on-sentenceness of an entire book. It’s similar to a TV series: you can’t figure out when to turn it off so you binge-watch. I just wanted to emulate young adult fiction and TV because TV is in the present tense even if it’s set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. You’re seeing it unfold as it happens. It is in realtime You’re observing the events. I’m simultaneously smart enough to be interested by that and dumb enough to be challenged by that; so, I was able to take the idea and run with it. TM: You seem to like to be challenged whether it be meeting a deadline set forth by your agent or writing in a young adult-esque present tense… NZ: Once when I was organizing a classical piano concert, this wise old secretary asked me, “You always take the path of maximum resistance, don’t you?” And I thought, “Hmmm, she has a point.” TM: The reason I bring that up was because you are also releasing Private Novelist which contains to early novellas that were both sort of a challenge in a way from Avner Shats. Unless I’m mistaken? NZ: When I wrote Sailing Towards the Sunset by Avner Shats it was after I had gotten back from a prize ceremony that Avner won and my husband Zohar, the poet who is also in the book, also won a prize. In my jokey, mental life I told them that I am not going to get a job and that I would just write a novel and get a $5,000 prize. That’s all I was doing and people indulged in me. So that’s why the story goes immediately into these writing prizes and how worthless they are. That’s how Sunset came to be. I liked Avner a lot, I didn’t know him all too well, but I knew he was a post-modern writer and I couldn’t read his novel [the yet-to-be-translated Hebrew Sailing Towards the Sunset] and I heard Zohar complain about it, “Avner is not a literary genius, he’s a shallow smartass.” And he’s such a nice guy, but I felt I could relate to being a shallow smartass. But he’s not shallow at all. TM: So, you mentioned Franzen and how everyone mentions him when talking to you. But I’m more interested in your relationship with Shats. Does he read your works early before most people? NZ: He reads everything first. Especially because he reads it overnight. We’re truly friends and if I send him a novel it takes about three days for feedback. Which is considerably different than other people. TM: Does he provide edits and notes or just broad generalizations? NZ: His feedback is always that I’m a beautiful genius and that he loves me. That’s one of the The Wallcreeper. He said, “I hate this character, where did you get her? Is she in your mind because I worry about you now.” It was just funny because he was used to reading the things I wrote for him. The Wallcreeper, I wrote for someone else -- “He Who Shall Not Be Named” -- and it was written in a very different style. TM: So after it goes to Avner does it go to anyone else? NZ: I let everyone read everything. If they want to. If I know that a novel will offend a certain person, I won’t send it to him or her. If people are interested I hand them out like candy; especially if I have galleys. TM: And what about your editing process? I know Nicotine was challenged to you to write in a certain time. Was editing fairly quick? NZ: The editors made suggestions, but at this point they kind of figured out that I know what I’m doing. They mostly just pointed out continuity errors. It was actually Franzen, when he read it, who had very good suggestions. Nothing specific, he just saw problems. He just told me what was wrong and it was actually very productive. TM: What was one big thing that Franzen felt needed to be changed in Nicotine? NZ: Well there was one character -- and this isn’t a spoiler, you can print this verbatim without spoiling anything. In the original draft, the character of Matt drowns in a pool of toxic waste. It was a really cheap way of getting rid of somebody. It felt like South Park. TM: It could have worked. NZ: It had no need to work. It allowed Matt to go to an entirely different place. He’s a lovable character. He’s so damaged and so pitiful and there is hope for him. There just is. He had to get a chance, and it was enjoyable writing those moments where I gave him a chance. TM: I’m glad Nicotine turned out the way it did. I was blown away by it. NZ: I love Nicotine. I’m optimistic. TM: I also can’t wait to read Private Novelist. NZ: The story why it got published isn’t because they wanted to publish it. It took major arm twisting by me. It was very important to me because of my friendship with Avner. Because our lives are an elaborate literary hoax. he was described as a hoax in the pages of The Jerusalem Post. People were claiming he didn’t really exist. He joked about that’s when you know you’re really obscure. So it’s been this longstanding joke that I would publish Sailing Towards the Sunset by Avner Shats so that it would inspire someone to translate his novel so that I can finally read it. I realized we had to do it when I was young enough or else I would have to delete those files. So I made someone publish them. TM: I hope that does happen so that we all can read his novel. One final question: I know it’s been jokingly suggested that you take seven years off, but I hope not. Do you have your next creative idea? NZ: I have a vague plan that will take a bunch of research. Something I’m interested in right now for reasons I can’t justify right now involves soil erosion. To my horror I know Franzen is interested in that as well. It might be a battle of the novels, but he’s like, “No, yours will come out first no matter how many years you think you’re going to take. Yours will come out first.” Ask me another question so I don’t close with Franzen. TM: Oh, well, what are some novels or writers that fascinate you right now? NZ: I very recently The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. Have you read it? TM: No. NZ: No one has read it! It really blew me away. I think it’s beautiful, it’s brilliant, it’s magnificent! It had never been recommended to me except once thirty years ago by this sort of confused young theatre person. It’s the most rigorously brilliant novel that I have ever read. The idea behind it is that there is this women writer living in London, very on the left and very involved in politics, living her life, raising a kid and trying to reconcile these things. She keeps these diaries in notebooks, but she can’t keep just one because these ideas are incompatible. It’s the idea that these topics can’t fit into one head at once, or can they? It’s a profound novel like none I have ever encountered before.
Samantha Hunt won critical acclaim for her first novel, 2006’s The Seas, capturing a National Book Award “5 Under 35” nod. Her follow up, 2008’s The Invention of Everything Else, earned her a spot on the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist. Her fans have waited seven years for her new novel, Mr. Splitfoot. Mr. Splitfoot is about Ruth, a foster child turned con artist turned mysterious mute. Two parts of her life are told in alternating chapters. The first is from her youth: she meets a fellow foster child named Nat and the two become as close as siblings. The second is years later, when she mysteriously returns to her long lost niece, Cora. Ruth refuses, or is unable to talk, yet convinces Cora to walk across upstate New York on a life-altering pilgrimage. We interviewed Hunt early one morning over the phone and talked about researching religion, mediums, and ghost stories. The Millions: Let’s just start off with genre. Your last book really blended historical fiction and science fiction, and Mr. Splitfoot is a modern, gothic ghost story. What draws you to certain genres and styles when it comes to writing? Samantha Hunt: Hmm. I can’t say that it’s originally part of my thinking. I mean the interest in Tesla one was just him. So, I was surprised that I ended up writing historical fiction. In fact the first time I got invited to a historical fiction conference I was like, “Me?! What?!” But they told me like, yeah, I did write a historical fiction novel. With this one, I think it’s different. Who isn’t interested in ghost stories? Maybe there are some people, but I find it hard to imagine. The most natural interest in the world is death. So that was I guess the idea from the start. Really, the start of this book was a record that I cut off the back of a box of Honeycombs when I was probably six years old that was given out at Halloween. It was really scary. First of all, it was amazing that they were giving out records on the back of a cereal box. I was totally obsessed with it. It was a recording of the story of the [vanishing] hitchhiker. It’s in the book again and again. I keep telling that ghost story in Mr. Splitfoot. So that was the real start. You probably wouldn’t even notice [the use of the story]. In my own thinking I notice. There’s one very obvious retelling of it and then I keep on coming back to the hitchhiker story. TM: I don’t know much about ghost stories. I never sat around a campfire trying to scare people or be scared. Yet that initial early use of that tale that Ruth tells really struck me. And then she says that every story is a ghost story. Do you personally believe that sentiment? Or did you just attribute it to Ruth? SH: I think that I definitely believe that. I don’t think I would have said that when I was younger. Now, you know the longer you live means the more people that die, and it’s like every story is a ghost story. Everybody’s dead. It’s not in such a bleak way. It’s just that everybody, every character, will die eventually. Everybody’s life is a ghost story. Wow, that’s totally bleak. I’m trying to convince you that it’s not, but it totally is. Maybe I just like to think about ways to use the hauntedness of life in a different way. To think about “haunted” is not necessarily a bad thing; to think about our dead in a different way. To use them in some way. Even though the people using the dead in this book are total con artists, it does give some shake and hope to [the people they talk to]. Part of the reason for me going up to Lily Dale [a camp and meeting place for spiritualists] was because there is a spiritualist community there. I live in upstate New York -- maybe you can tell that from the book’s setting -- and Lily Dale is in another part of the state. It’s kind of this wonderful, creepy spiritualist community. They have mediums there all of the time. A lot of the people there were parents of dead children. I understood it. To me, it seemed like a really hopeful thing. That they would go and try it, even if it meant paying these con artists to “talk” to their children. It seemed like such a hopeful thing, because how could you go on if your child died? You couldn’t. You would need some understanding about why something so sad could happen. TM: Did you research these con artists yourself? SH: When I was researching this book I did go to mediums. I never believed them, but I was definitely affected by them. TM: What do you mean by you didn’t believe them, but they still affected you? SH: Well the first lady I went to, I went in and was very skeptical and cynical. That was in Lily Dale. She tried contacting this older women with emerald rings on, but I was like, “Oh I see how you go there: girl with red hair, Irish girl, emeralds.” So immediately I realized she was a complete con artist. But it didn't matter, because the next person she tried she said to me, "So there’s a man here and he wanted you to know that in life he would have never walked through those gates." My dad is dead and he's a total skeptic, but even though I didn’t believe him I was in total shock and tears. I couldn’t stop. She asked what I wanted to say to him and so I sat there sobbing and sobbing on her couch even though I wasn't falling for this. It didn’t matter at that point. It affected me that she was able to cut through a lot of bullshit and ask me to talk to a dead person. I was pregnant with the twins at that time, but she didn’t pick up on the two other people in the room. (laughs) So immediately after I talked to my mom and she said how the lady tried a lady first in case my mom was dead and then when I didn’t respond she tried a male. But it didn't change anything. After the book was complete I went back and asked that medium to give me a blurb from Charlotte Brontë. And she did. (laughs) TM: When I saw that in the press packet I thought "What the hell is this?” But now it makes sense. This is Charlotte talking to me. Let’s talk about the genesis of the entire book. So you’re a kid and you get a recorded version of a ghost story on the back of a cereal box and you decided to write this decades later. There are two stories in this: Ruth and Nat but also Ruth and Cora. Which came first? SH: Ruth and Cora came first. I was pregnant with twins when I started writing this book. I couldn’t walk much and was pretty immobilized because of the pregnancy. I also just moved to upstate New York, so the idea of walking across the state was interesting. I was in a place I didn’t know and wasn’t able to explore. So I just sat there and had time to work. I fantasized about walking across the state to see what it was about, but couldn’t because of the immobilization. After the twins were born, I took the family on the road and we went all over upstate. One of the most startling things -- and I grew up down by the city and lived in the state nearly my entire life -- but I knew so very little about upstate. It was kind of amazing and how shocking about how many American religions were founded up here. Like the Spiritualists and the Mormons were like 15 miles from each other. I kind of liked that idea that there was a time where this could happen. That someone could shout at people that god was angry at them because of a solar eclipse. Out of that came the idea to build my own religion to see what kind of con artistry I could work into it. The way I did that was that I just sat down and thought about what I would throw in. I threw in all of the good things that I like. I studied geology as an undergrad so I added some geology. I was watching the new Cosmos with my girls and I watched the original one as a girl. I remember what that meant for my family; it was a communal event. It was so amazing. So I added outer space to it too. And I have a really big record collection, so that became the third part of the religion. That was it: outer space, geology, records. TM: So you came up with these ideas, and then how did research evolve? SH: I started researching Mormons in New York. I lived in Vermont for some time and I lived right down the road from [Mormon leader] Joseph Smith’s birthplace. I became interested in him then, and the idea of an American-made religion always interested me. So, once a summer in New York they throw a pageant in Hill Cumorah where he found the Golden Tablets. Mormons from all over the world come to this really remote place. I went, and it’s basically hundreds and hundreds of Mormons in costumes. I loved it. It was an amazing spectacle. It was a 10-story stage. They had ships flying through the air. Lightning bolts and Jesus flying in over the hill. I just visited a lot of religious sites across upstate New York. It’s funny. Every time I say that, my husband says that it doesn’t have anything to do with my book. Which maybe it doesn’t, but it definitely got me there. TM: I think you needed to have that deep understanding of the foundation of what it’s really like up there to have a story like this unfold in that realm. I definitely felt the religion. So all of this deals a lot with Cora and Ruth. When did the younger Ruth come into the scene? SH: I wish I could tell you exactly when. I should be able to tell you this, but I think that relationship that Ruth and Nat has, that platonic girl-boy relationship is always in everything I’ve written. I don’t know why that is. I just have to keep exploring it. It’s like Hansel and Gretel. It’s the portrait of true innocence: starting off with this young boy and young girl and then see what the world does to them. TM: Structure is really important to me when I read, and this one alternates past and present. When you were writing this, did you have two different documents and just decided to piece it together or how did that process work for you? SH: I always had a vision in my head from the start that I wanted to have them bound back-to-back. I had done a lot of book making when I was younger so that seemed like no big deal, but I was really surprised that every single press said they couldn’t do it. So it was at the end when it came together that my vision had to be changed. So I like thinking of them as two distinct books. Even the idea that a person would read one story and then another would be interesting. Although, my idea of having them bound back-to-back was that both stories involve climbing the mountain and they were going to meet in the middle. It would all be solved in the middle at the top of the mountain top. I hope that structure still exists even if it’s in more of a traditional alternating chapter way. TM: Which story would you want people to read first if it were bound that way? SH: I think I would still start with [Ruth and Nat] in the foster home. If you were just going to read one and then another. TM: I found it interesting when I was reading it because I wanted to skip ahead to learn more about Ruth and Nat or Ruth and Cora, but thought I shouldn’t because that would be cheating in a way. Now maybe I should have just done that. SH: I like that it’s sort of left up to the reader. One person could read one book first and how different that experience would be if someone read the other book first. I mean there’s the fact that you can’t unread it once you’ve read it. TM: I’ll officially tell people to read it different ways and get some research for you. SH: (laughs) Sounds good, sounds good. TM: I love that you get so immersed in your research as well as the narrative. Are you already onto the next book? SH: Yeah, I started. The next one is more memoir based. A lot of it comes from the research I did for Mr. Splitfoot. I was just thinking of ways people get haunted. It’s still dealing with the idea of the ghost story very much so. I love the research part. It’s so much easier than the writing part for me. Maybe that’s the one common theme throughout the books. I could research Tesla for a long, long time. I could research ghost stories and religion for a super long time. It’s a lot less painful than writing books.
Michael Cunningham has long since established himself as a prolific novelist. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for his 1998 novel The Hours while others received critical acclaim as well as a loyal fan base. His last novel, 2014’s The Snow Queen, was influenced by a fairy tale, which led him into his latest project. A Wild Swan and Other Tales is a short collection of folklore set in the modern world, retelling classic stories “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and “Snow White,” among many others. The tales offer the same thematic warnings that those classics of the 19th century provided. The author spoke over the phone from his writing space in New York City just before the release of the novel to discuss why he chose to write his first story collection and his writing habits. The Millions: After writing numerous successful novels, why write your first story collection at this point in your career? Michael Cunningham: You know, this one came about in a slightly funny way. Penguin did a collection a few years ago with the incredibly odd title My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me. They asked 40 different writers to write fairy tales. I obligingly did and I wrote my own version of “The Wild Swan” by Hans Christian Andersen, which is different in my own collection than the Penguin collection. It was fun. I got a kick out of it. In the years since...Well, sometimes when you’re writing a novel, you get stuck. It happens to everybody. You don’t know what to do next and I have learned just to let it sit for awhile. Don’t panic, don’t force it, just let it go until it starts to suggest its next step to you. But you don’t want to just not write, so I started writing these little fairy tales for fun. Believe me, I don’t often write for just fun. After about five or six [of these stories] throughout the years, I thought that maybe this was sort of a collection. I wrote a few more and, poof, suddenly it’s November of 2015 and there’s this collection that is coming out. It’s the only book I’ve ever written without really expecting to write a book at all. TM: You alluded to not writing for fun, but writing as a job. What does a normal writing day look like for you? MC: I am very regular in my writing habits. I need to be. I get up in the morning. I get up, get dressed, and come to my [writing space] just like a regular citizen with a regular job. Then I get to it. Some days are better than others. I sit here for at least four hours. Sometimes there are five pages, sometimes there is one lame sentence. I always sit here for at least four hours. On a good day, when I’m really cranking, I can go for about six hours. Then I’m done; my brain has turned to mush. Always in the mornings, first thing. It’s five or six days a week. It’s a little unglamorous, but it works for me. TM: What’s unglamorous? The space where you write? Is it bare bones or filled with inspiration? MC: I have a lot of stuff. I have 10,000 books. It’s sort of an object sanctuary. It’s souvenirs and talismans and all kinds of things. My desk faces a wall with a window. Every new project, I sort of put different things on the wall. It’s very intuitive; it’s sort of whatever objects I think I should be looking at while I’m working on whatever I’m working on. Like right now I’m staring at the wall. There’s a cow’s skull, there’s a little paper rocket ship I made when I was a kid, there’s a picture of the moon, there is a little strand of rosary beads. I couldn’t tell you why those objects, but it just felt right. TM: Speaking of what feels right: why did these specific fairy tales feel right to interpret? MC: There was no real organizing principle. There are certainly the ones I love the most as a kid. I asked myself why did I love these more than others. I realized a couple of things. I liked the stories that don’t have rigid, Christian morals like some of them do. I never liked those stories. I like the ones that are a little less finger wagging. I also realized that when I was a kid I was a story junkie. I always had questions about the stories [my parents] read. One persistent one was when we got to the “happily ever after” ending. I would look at my mother or father, whoever was on story duty that night, and ask them to finish the story. They would say that’s the end: that they lived happily ever after. No! What was castle life like? What were their lives like? Happily ever after isn’t enough. One of the ideas behind this collection, some of them anyway, was what happens after “happily ever after.” The other question that I never tired asking my parents was why would the characters do that. Like in “Rumpelstiltskin” the daughter was forced by the king to spin three looms full of straw to get gold, and if she didn’t do it she would be executed. As a reward, he marries her. I remember at the age of six asking my mother why the character would marry someone who would murder her if she didn’t do this impossible thing. It was this underlying theme of these reconsidered fairy tales about what happened after they got to the castle and why would the characters do what they do. TM: Did you want your writing style to mirror that of these traditional fairy tales? CM: It just depended on what the story needed. In the original fairy tales, there isn’t much dialogue. I used this new slangy dialogue, but I wanted to be faithful to the original. They’re meant as homages. They’re not this wise-ass reconsidering of silly little stories. I took these stories seriously. I wanted to honor their forms to some degree. TM: And how much of it was your choice to put these stories in this specific sequence? CM: It’s entirely my choice. I’m open to suggestions. I rearranged these stories several times. I wanted tonal shifts. I finally came up with what felt like the proper order. The only one that isn’t a fairy tale, the one I made up, was the one with a really happy ending. That was always going to be the last one. I kept tinkering with it, but that was always in. TM: I think the opening was perfect. “Dis. Enchant.” just really struck a chord with me. You write “Most of us are safe...” and relate it to the idea that the average person isn’t what fairy tales happen to. CM: It was something I realized as I reread the fairy tales. I mean, the forces of evil never bother with ordinary citizens. It’s always maidens and princesses and the well favored. Those are who attract the attention of the forces of evil. TM: It’s why these stories are so intriguing. It’s about the what happens “ever after” when they are just average again. CM: Exactly! TM: You briefly mentioned rereading these. Was there a lot of research involved? CM: I absolutely went back and reread all of them. I wanted to be familiar with the originals. In a few cases there is more than one version kicking around, so I read both. Yeah, I wanted to be thoroughly familiar with the originals, but once I reread them I put them away. I didn’t go back looking at my version and then checking back to the original. I worked from memory. TM: A version of “A Wild Swan” was what kicked this whole thing off, but what was the final piece written for this collection? CM: It was the Snow White one, “Poisoned.” TM: And what was the most challenging for you? CM: The most challenging was the “Steadfast; Tin.” It’s difficult to say why. I really wanted to do that one right. It took more drafts than the other ones did. I wanted to find a way to retell the story but stay close to the spirit of the story. That was the toughest part. TM: Let’s shift away from A Wild Swan to not spoil it for those who haven’t read it and talk about writing in general. A few authors have mentioned to me that they don’t necessarily care about plot, but how it’s delivered. More importantly they care about the characters. What’s your take on this? CM: It’s always about the characters. One of the things I’ve learned, and, I teach in spring semester, it’s something I always tell my students, it’s that you have fully imagined characters. You know not only what their lives are like, but what they want and what’s getting in the way of what they want. They always, always will produce a story. If you do it in reverse where you have a plot and insert characters into it, it tends to be a little wooden or artificial. The characters don’t feel like real people, but instead employees of the plot. TM: So what excites you about writing or reading literature today? What are some things you like to see or that you try to include in your works? CM: It’s a really good question, and a difficult one to answer. It’s never been entirely clear to me. The fundamental composition; the idea of taking ink and paper and the words in the dictionary that are available to everybody, and somehow using those elements to produce something that feels like life is endlessly interesting to me. It was from the moment I started writing. I’ve come to suspect that what we call talent is a little hard to distinguish from this other thing that is this bottomless interest by the problems posed by paint or astrophysics or whatever it is. I was in an MFA program and there were tremendous writers there. One difference I noticed was that I would sit in a chair and write a sentence thirty or forty times until it seemed less bad. TM: Do you normally get sparked by a specific sentence? Or are you working on a 1,000 ideas and hope one sticks? CM: I’ll get an idea: a character or a situation or a vague notion of what people might do and where their lives might take them. I have a number of ideas, not tons and tons of them. What normally happens is that I’ll walk around for a couple of months with these people and their situation, and if they still seem compelling to me after several weeks, I’ll figure that these are my next people for my next book. TM: Do you have that next idea now? CM: Oh yeah. I’m about 100 pages into a new one. TM: What’s the idea? CM: I’m afraid I can’t [talk about it]. I don’t mean to be coy, but I found it’s never a good idea to talk about a novel at this point of it. TM: It is a novel and not short stories though? CM: Oh yeah, it’s a novel. The fairy tales were sort of a fluke for me. I love short stories and I read them all of the time, but I don’t ordinarily write them. It’s difficult for me to make something happen in 15 to 20 pages. I need the bigger arc that the novel provides. Even the short stories of mine that have been published have been chapters from novels. TM: Let’s move on and talk about Hollywood for a bit. You’ve had a few experiences with it. What’s your overall experience with it? CM: There have been experiences with it that have been great, and there have been experiences that have been less great. I wouldn’t want to name names, but it’s very different. It’s a business. Publishing is a business, but not on the same level. Publishers are very happy to produce a huge bestseller, but it’s not required. Your editor knows that most books don’t sell a lot of copies. Whereas a movie producer or a TV producer wants to do something good, but they also want it to be a hit. There’s not much interest, at least not with studios, in producing some little oddity that hardly anyone is going to want to see. You’re just working in a more popular form which I get kind of a kick out of. I always going running back to fiction where the expectations are different. It’s kind of a kick to every now and then to write something that will speak to a broader audience. I especially love TV right now. It’s just an amazing period in television. TM: How much do you want to spend working in television then? CM: I’m taking cracks in television. I wrote one episode of Masters of Sex. That was kind of a fluke. They don’t usually invite [outside writers in]. I sold a pilot to Showtime, which I don’t think they are going to make. One thing if you want to write for movies and TV is that most things don’t get made. It’s a gamble. I’ve got a couple of pilots currently in the works, and fingers crossed. You just can’t tell if it’s going to go somewhere or not. Image courtesy of Michael Cunningham.