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.
Angela Flournoy is in the midst of a year all debut novelists dream of. She has secured a spot as a finalist for the National Book Award; she was also named as one of the “5 Under 35” writers by the same organization. Her debut, The Turner House, is an elegant and intimate exploration of a large family in Detroit and how the housing crisis of 2008 has affected them. While this generational saga covers a multitude of themes, it feels concise and is an enthralling page turner. We spoke over the phone about her writing process of her debut novel, the current state of diversity in literature, and what she has planned next. The Millions: You’ve been nominated for the National Book Award and were named part of the “5 Under 35.” How have you been feeling about all of the recognition? Angela Flournoy: I’ve been feeling great. For your first book you really don’t sit around thinking about getting on a long list. At least I don’t as a writer because then you’d be perpetually disappointed. I was really excited, surprised, and delighted. I didn’t even think the “5 Under 35” was even possible. Especially on the first go around. There’s a way if you write short stories and you get them placed well [in certain magazines] things happen incrementally. You have this little business card out there in the world. You can get little awards or fellowships with that. When you write a novel you’re the tortoise, not the hare. For four of five years, I was just writing. There was the adjunct position and I was just waiting tables in Iowa, but I was really just out in the world writing. I wasn’t being looked at by people who can help. Everything just happened at once. As a novelist, people told me but I forgot, that if it happens, it will all happen at once. There is no business card, there is no little story out there in the world. The night they announced the “5 Under 35” at a cocktail party in New York, I wasn’t there. I was teaching in Brooklyn. It was a class that night about Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Savage Detectives. It’s weird how everything connects because the first time I read that novel was four years prior in a class taught by ZZ Packer, who was actually the writer who nominated me. It seemed like the right place to be [teaching that class] even though I wasn’t “celebrating.” It felt right teaching about a book that I learned about by the person who nominated me. TM: What was the writing process of your debut novel like during your time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop? AF: I started it there. The idea for the project really came to me when I first moved to Iowa in the fall of 2009. My father’s family is from Detroit, so I had frequent trips just driving from Iowa City to Detroit. It’s about a seven-hour drive. It just seems that people from the Midwest drive more often. So I was driving to Detroit to visit the house my father grew up in and it was the first time ever that no one was living in the house. My grandmother was older and she no longer lived there. It was on the east side of town, which is a depopulated area; I was just sort of bothered by this house. People worked so hard to maintain it and it looked so great, but I didn’t really know what the future of the house would be. So it just stayed there for about 10 months. In my second semester, I had this idea of this woman who was staying in a house. She wasn’t necessarily trespassing, but she didn’t want anybody to know that she was there. That character became Lelah, and that’s how the novel really began. I workshopped 15 pages near the end of the semester, but of course nobody knew it was going to end up as a novel. Once I started writing about her, I didn’t want to write about anything else. Really, in my second year at Iowa, all of my workshops were just chapters of the novel. I wrote about 80 pages and I decided to stay in Iowa for a third year just so I wouldn’t have to move to an expensive city and I could adjunct [teach at the Workshop]. By staying in Iowa for the third year, I got to about 200 pages, and with those pages I got an agent. I moved and continued to work on the book and it took another year to get to the 300 pages that it ended up becoming. The most useful thing about my time in Iowa was just not having high overhead. There’s not a lot to do there, especially in winter, so there’s just time to write. TM: Where did the other pieces come from? There are a lot of different threads winding together to make something pretty concise. AF: My father is from a big family. In my mind, I had to find a reason why Lelah didn’t want people to know she was in this house and I thought about the big family and the fear of judgement. One way I could explore the history of the house and the family’s relationship with the city was to have her be the youngest of a very big line of siblings. So on the other end of the spectrum I needed someone who was the opposite of her, who was Cha Cha. I was able to explore a lot of different aspects of life in Detroit and life in a big family. TM: The novel has five different sections representing a week in 2008, as well as flashbacks to the 1940s. How does a writer come about finding the right structural elements of a novel? AF: The background just lived in my mind as useful information that probably wouldn’t end up in the book. I first started writing the novel as a contemporary Detroit story. When people read anything that has to do with a social issue or an economic issue, if you put it in the past, people don’t really look at themselves. If the book was completely set in the past people would just disassociate themselves with it. They would think this is just how housing discrimination was working in the past and it has nothing to do with them today. So I was hesitant to focus on the 1940s. The more I researched, the more I found interesting things. The part of the city that these people moved to during the Great Migration doesn’t even exist anymore. So I thought this would be a great opportunity to teach a lesson on part of the city’s history. Once I decided that, I knew that I could use it as a piece of backwards information. In the present timeline the question is where is the family going with this house, but in the past the question is how did this house even come into their lives? I thought the two together would play well off of one another. TM: Identity plays a major role in The Turner House. How do you feel about race or identity in current literature? AF: I feel like it’s one of those things that if you seek [writers of different races and genders] out you find it. I find, maybe not on purpose, that I’ve read more of that in the past year. Especially women and women of color. Once you find one writer, you find others like them. I think that publishing is a little behind of what people desire or what they’re gravitating towards. I was on a panel at Decatur [Georgia] Book Festival on Labor Day and a writer discussed how young adult literature is written more like what the country looks like. It’s trying harder to be inclusive; people of various ethnicities or various sexual orientation. I think that’s something that literary fiction is a little bit slower to embrace. I think it’s changing though. I can only hope that it is. There are certain people who only know people who look like them still, but I think it’s become less of the norm. As far as identity in literature, I think we’re coming to a place where readers have so many options. Eventually readers will read about everything and it will happen organically; it wouldn’t even be a thought. There’s so many books out there by such a diverse group of writers that readers won’t have to try hard to find diversity. Hopefully we can get to a point where diversity is the norm. TM: What’s the next project you’re working on? A novel or short stories? AF: I’m working on a book. If you can call it that. It’s the very early days. Being busy is a good problem to have. I moved to Brooklyn to teach in the summer and wanted to focus on writing in the fall. However, I got all of these opportunities to teach and talk about my book. It’s nice because when a debut novel comes out, you don’t think anything like this will happen. I’m looking forward to getting time to focus on the next book. It’s very early days. It’s about family, but it’s more about friendship than it is about familial connection TM: Between teaching, giving talks about The Turner House and working on the next one, do you have time to read for pleasure? AF: Yes. One thing I like reading are big, sprawling novels. You either love them or hate them. I’m a person who loves them. I’m always on the hunt for the next big book that’s going to take me to all of these places and enter all of these points of view. There may be a few digressions, but they’re going to be beautifully written. I’m currently reading Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam. It is probably not as sprawling as I seek out, but there’s a greatness to it. It’s a book set in the early 2000s in Brooklyn about a family from Bangladesh. It’s a coming of age story, but also familial history.