For more than four decades John Edgar Wideman has written novels, short stories, and nonfiction books that have chronicled contemporary American life while considering larger questions—historical, cultural, and existential—that underlie it. His new book is American Histories: Stories, a title could encompass a lot of Wideman’s work. John Brown and Frederick Douglass, Romare Bearden, and Jean-Michel Basquiat make appearances, but the stories are also about suicide and teaching writing, family conflicts, and relationships. The book comes out less than two years after Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File, about the father of Emmett Till. For people of Wideman’s generation, Emmett Till’s story is personal but also universal. Many Americans have talked about growing up with that photo in their houses, and what it meant. Wideman sought to uncover more about Till’s father Louis, who was courtmartialed and hanged during World War II, and to interrogate what his life and death mean for the present moment. That journey and the resulting story, which is ultimately about what our society was–and continues to be–is an example of how Wideman has always balanced the personal with the universal. I began reading Wideman as a teenager and he was one of the first writers whose work forced me to consider structure and genre in new ways, think about how new narrative structures and ideas can be a valuable way to rethink the past. His work taught me to be conscious of the author, reconsider what a novel could be. These two new books are among the best of his career and I would place American Histories as his very best collection of stories. Now in his 70s, John Wideman’s work is as relevant and timely as ever, and he remains one of our best, most important writers. The Millions: Some writers think of themselves as primarily novelists or short story writers. Do you think of yourself or your work in that way? John Edgar Wideman: I definitely don’t think of myself as anything but a writer. Number one, that gives me a lot of license, but number two, that’s really how I think. When I start a piece I don’t start it as a scholar, as a short story writer, as a novelist—I just start writing. I have some things on my mind and maybe I get a couple words down, maybe I get a lot of words down first time through. In a sense, it doesn’t matter. The point is for me to have something that stirs me up enough that I go ahead and start thinking about it and put words down on paper about it. That’s the process. What I come up with, that’s kind of problematic. It depends on where the piece goes. A piece about Nat Turner or a piece about my sister can go in any direction—towards memoir or towards history, and that’s not my choice. I might think I’ve written a piece of memoir and somebody else might think I’ve written fantasy. The labeling is a part of the publication process, the settling in of the work with the public, and I don’t worry too much about that. In fact, I love the freedom of just starting out. That’s the whole point for me. TM: You might sometimes write a book like The Island, which is a nonfiction book about a specific subject, but otherwise you begin by just sitting down and writing. JW: I was speaking to the impulse in me. I have ambitions. If I’m working on a book of short stories and I want to have a couple more, then I’m in that mode. I’m thinking about stories and maybe I go back and read some of my favorites like Heart of Darkness, or Benito Cereno—just to get a little humility and put everything in perspective. [Laughs.] I’m working on a novel. Or I think I have a novel idea. I have a couple hundred pages written so I’m thinking like a novelist. I’m thinking this thing has to have some weight and some heft and direction so it’s a different mindset, a different framework. But it’s the work, it’s the doing it, that matters. Not what somebody calls it. Not even what I call it, for a while. TM: As far as a novelistic mindset goes, I think about your novels and I’ll cite The Cattle Killing, which is both my favorite and I think your best novel, and it does not function and it is not structured the way we think of a novel working. JW: Well, I would hope not! [Laughs.] One of the criteria for me of almost any work is how is this piece I’m reading connecting to similar kinds of material or similar attempts that I really like. How is it pushing those? How is it talking to those other works? What is it doing to try to talk to me about the tradition that I want to be a part of? It’s a kind of community and I want to see signs that the particular work I happen to be reading is pushing at the limits, opening up new doors, opening up new ways of seeing things. I may be paying attention to transitions in the new work that I’m reading or writing. I may be paying attention to characters. What are the boundaries in terms of chronology, in terms of isolation, in terms of context? Is the work I’m reading shifting these things and making them interesting? If not, then very quickly for me, I lose interest in the new work. Or interest in my own work—for a while anyway—until it begins to come into conflict with the borders, with the tradition, and ask questions about limits and tradition. TM: You’ve always been interested in that. One of the short stories in American Stories is a conversation between Romare Bearden and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The way that Bearden used collage and the heart of his work, about changing perspective and ways we think about the work, is important for you. JW: Extremely important. It appeals to me that Bearden could spend a lot of time just holding a piece of material in his hands and looking at it. A literal piece of material, like part of a quilt made by traditional Southern quilt makers. He could hold that in his hand and live with it, maybe put it on the wall and think about it for a long time and daydream. That seems great. How the hell do you get that thing into a collage? Do you make a cartoon of it? Do you cut a swatch of it out? Do you try to reproduce it with a sketch or a painting? And what was so important about that anyway? What about the smell of it? What about the fingers and hands that made this? Is there a place for them in the collage? Maybe that’s what the collage is all about? Fingers and hands. Are they dark hands? Is that a connection? You go from there. I want my interests to be piqued. My imagination is restless. I don’t work systematically. That’s not true; I do work systematically because I work hard. I’m very demanding of myself. I read about Bearden—I read a lot about Bearden—I scrutinized his work, I read biographies of Bearden, though not all in the same week or day. That Bearden-Basquiat story had an early form as an essay for a book about Bearden. For that essay I had done a lot of homework and had been back in Pittsburgh and walked some of the streets he walked, talked to some people who were Bearden experts. Reintroducing me to a part of the city that I thought I knew but had changed over time. Learning all that was fun and eventually some of that got into the story that appears in American Histories. TM: That’s been true throughout your career. There are events and ideas and concerns which you return to in different ways and different forms. JW: I think it’s been that way from the very beginning. I’ve just become more conscious of how my mind and imagination works. I’ve tried to take advantage of that and also prune it and control it and use it to my advantage. And the advantage of the readers. You mentioned The Cattle Killing and it’s a kind of collage. A very ambitious attempt, maybe, to squeeze into one moment the history of two or three cultures and many individual folks and many stories and many epochs in history. [millions_ad] TM: You were saying that your mind may wander and be open to possibilities, but you work in a very disciplined way. JW: Yes, and I expect that in what I read. If not, then very quickly what I’m reading becomes a kind of beach book. All kind of writing is difficult. Any good genre of writing is difficult to do. It takes a certain kind of genius and skill and I respect it greatly. Distinctions are invidious. You read something and it grabs you and you enjoy the hell out of it and that’s that—Thank you, author, thank you, book. You don’t have to put it on the shelf of classics or beach books. It has a lot of qualities that connect it with both classics and books that people read on the beach and have fun with. So I respect good writing, but the stuff that keeps me going, that I want to come back to, has to have an edge. There are certain formulas at work in genre fiction that I get aware of. If you’re in the mood, that’s enough. But I’m more demanding in my reading time. I want to feel I’m pushed. I want to feel that I’m learning something about writing, about expression, when I am taking the time to read books. TM: American Histories is your second book in less than two years. Writing to Save a Life had a collage quality to it. The book was about trying to look at something from multiple perspectives and approaches. JW: One side of it is always the personal. My family background, my history. That’s where I come from. That’s the world I write out of and that is a certain kind of language—or many languages. They connect themselves to that world. I feel comfortable when I go there. And then whatever else happens beyond my mind, whether it’s the Berlin Wall or a sonata by Bach or a question about time, what makes some things visible and some things invisible—all that, it all starts from the personal, from the family. That’s what constitutes me. And then where I take that becomes either a good story or not such a great story or becomes a novel or becomes an essay. That’s freedom. I think I earned that freedom to move in many different worlds by becoming more and more certain about where I come from. My specific world even though that world always is changing. Hence collage. Hence at least two very different kinds of elements, the personal history and the larger history, cultural and sociological and political. The context in which I find myself. TM: Your work has always been very personal. You’re not the narrator of every story in this book or most of your work, but I feel like “you” keep coming up. Are you conscious of that? JW: I think what you see is what you get. I don’t want my presence as a narrator to be oppressive. I don’t want to foreground myself in the same manner with the same intensity again and again. I think that the whole idea of a narrative voice telling stories gives me—gives anybody—infinite possibilities. Like singing or like dancing or how you play a particular moment in a basketball game, it’s always changing. I work hard not to be the only character in my fiction or in a particular story, but when you get right down to it, what is a story? It’s a voice recollecting and putting together a narrative. So you start with that voice and how you erase it is just a matter of what, a matter of convention? I guess what I’ve been suggesting is that because I write narratives from my point of view all the time I’m demanding—demanding of other writers and myself—with this infinitely flexible range of possibilities, what am I doing with it? How do I not become overbearing? How can I avoid the kind of cliched methods of disguising my presence that traditional fiction offers? Any sophisticated reader at one level knows, I’m in the hands of a single person no matter what’s supposedly on the page. No matter what’s on the page, there’s somebody telling a story. We all know that. What’s funny is the range and the variety and how we keep coming back to the written word, how we keep coming back to story. The same way we continue to make love with each other. Even though we know where that’s going. [Laughs.] But you don’t, do you? Because it’s Susie this time and George next time or whatever. We know the game at one level, but good art makes it seem like a new game, a different game. One that we’ve never played before. TM: As you were saying that, I thought of your story "Writing Teacher"where readers might assume the main character is you, but by the end, that doesn’t matter because the story is ultimately about other things. JW: Whatever voice is telling the story of "Writing Teacher"—and it may be the voice of the writing teacher—is a conundrum. The forever receding thing here is that you cannot get to the end of. That was fun to try to play that out and attempt to make that very complicated set of affairs—writing and who’s listening and who’s doing it and how you do it and who’s explaining—which is always at work in fiction or teaching fiction, seem simple. TM: I’ve never thought of your books as simple, but I also don’t think of as hard. JW: Thank goodness. [Laughs.] I want more readers like you! TM: There was a very nice profile of you in The New York Times Magazine last year and part of it was about you being solitary and alone. Do you feel that way? Or is this what random journalists and essayists say about you for whatever reason? JW: Who knows? That’s another sort of writing and another set of conventions that people fall into. I enjoyed the writer of that piece. I enjoyed his company. We had a good time. He was a good reader and respectful and I respected him. We had a good walk, we had a good meal. All that was cool. I think maybe that’s why you liked the piece because it was produced from a sincere conversation that we both contributed to and had fun doing. A demanding conversation, however. But to your question, I am a solitary. I spend a hell of a lot of time writing in a room shut up with just myself. And when I’m not doing that I spend a hell of a lot of time walking alone. Hours. At this stage of my life I enjoy it. On the other hand, I depend very much on my wife, I call my family all the time, I travel to see people. But I think it’s inevitable as you age. Your family and friends are both the living and the dead. That’s kind of the hard truth. People are melting away and leaving all the time. So rather than protest too much, I think I’m just trying to accommodate myself to the way things happen to be. We’re born alone and we die alone and that’s unavoidable. But I like to have fun. I like to talk, I like to hang out, I love the company of my wife and friends. If you read a lot of my fiction, it’s about loneliness. It’s about wanting what is not available a lot of the time—a person, a place, a thing. But it’s also I think about sociability, about playing a game, about a crowd of guys on a playground. The ones who are playing and the ones who aren’t create a community and these communities are very, very important to me. Whether they’re in the past or whether I’m living in them right now. TM: One reason I ask is simply because so many profiles of writers seemed stunned to discover that the job involves being alone so much. There is a lot of loneliness in your work, but as you said, we’re born alone and we die alone. JW: I think the time I spend alone is more unusual than a lot of the time people spend looking at a phone or listening to a phone and talking with it. That’s not my thing. I’m not that generation. That seems to me a much more deeper kind of loneliness comes out of those sort of interactions. If I grew up that way I probably wouldn’t feel that way. Or feel so alienated from that experience of you and your phone or you and your screen. So I take walks. I don’t have earphones and I don’t keep the phone on. But I’m trying to do the same thing people do when they pick up those phones, I guess. Amuse myself and be in the world.
Over the course of three books, Marie Howe has established herself as one of the great poets of her generation. Her first book, The Good Thief, was chosen for the National Poetry Series by Margaret Atwood, and awarded the Lavan Younger Poets Prize by Stanley Kunitz. Her second book, What the Living Do, is about her brother’s death from an AIDS-related illness, and it marked a shift both in what she wrote and how. Since then, Howe has published the poetry collection The Kingdom of Ordinary Time and edited the anthology In the Company of My Solitude: American Writing from the AIDS Pandemic. In her new book, Magdalene, Howe writes about Mary Magdalene, but she’s also writing about all women. The seven devils that plague Mary are devils common to us all and the book depicts Mary raising a child, listening to the news, missing her teacher. She is struggling to be fully alive and to be a spiritual being. Howe writes about growing up in the Catholic tradition, about family, but also about words and the ways that they shape us, sustain us, and can save us. We spoke recently about these issues, The Lives of the Saints, public art, listening in the contemporary world, and how they play out in her new collection of poetry. The Millions: Where did this idea for a series of poems about Mary Magdalene come from? Marie Howe: I was raised in the Catholic tradition, and grew up with the stories and images of what we called the Old and New Testament. As a young girl growing up into a patriarchal world the female archetypes I absorbed weren’t the Greek gods and goddesses but were Mary and Mary Magdalene and the other saints: women who seemed to be the subjects of their own lives. They weren’t defined by a prescribed plot. They were struggling to understand who they were, what they were here for, trying to reach through the muddle of whatever it is we live in to touch something authentic. Like so many young women growing up in this tradition I was presented with two deep archetypes: Mary the Virgin Mother and Magdalene the Repentant Prostitute. The early church fathers had created these myths. They manifest this intended split between the spirit and the body, the sacred from the sensual. Women have been wounded by them for a long time. The wife and the whore—the subject and the object. How can a woman integrate her sexuality and her spirituality in such a culture? Magdalene has carried the burden of shame for the sensuality of women. I feel like I’ve been trying to write through her all my life. Failing—and failing and failing and failing. And then one day several years ago I was walking along the sidewalk and I remembered that she had been possessed by devils. I went back to the gospels and read Luke—Mary called Magdalene from whom seven devils had been cast out. I got to thinking what those devils might have been. That really opened this version of her. For years I’ve trying to write these poems and throwing them out, throwing them out. So many. And suddenly there she was. Well—she, me, who knows—but a voice came. And the devils of course were the devils that beset us all. They’re internal, they’re psychological, they don’t have to be blargh. TM: I remember reading “Magdalene–The Seven Devils” a few years back before the book came out. It opens “The first was that I was very busy” and then you go through these devils and keep revising them. I kept wondering how autobiographical the poem is, which is a question I hate, to be honest. MH: The whole book of course is autobiographical–and yet, not. In writing you use your life like wood and you burn it up to make the heat and the energy for the poem. To point out the details of the wood seems not as interesting as that. The wood is used to transform something into something else. What I can say is that when I read “The Seven Devils,” or many of the poems in the book, people come up to me and say, I know about that. My hope is that people feel more liberated and more identified with each other. There’s a quote in the beginning of the book from the Gospel of Thomas: “When will you be visible to us? and when will we see you? He said, When you undress and are not ashamed.” What a thing to say? When you undress and are not ashamed. I wanted Mary–a woman–who lives throughout time. Not just back then, but alive now. I wanted her to be able to undress and not be ashamed. Undress her consciousness, if you will. TM: One reason I phrased it that way is that in this poem specifically you manage to be so very specific but in a way that so many people can see themselves in it, like a mirror. Stanley Kunitz had a line about art so transparent that you could see the world. MH: “The dream of an art so transparent you can look through it and see the world.” My whole life changed when my brother John grew ill and then died with AIDS because that transparency became really important to me. Because the thing as it was was enough. It doesn’t have to be a simile or a metaphor. The thing as it is. The ice water next to his bed, the glass shining in the shaft of sunlight, John’s hand. That’s enough. It didn’t have to be anything more than that. In fact to make more of it was to diminish it TM: I was raised Protestant–and I’m a guy–so I only know The Lives of the Saints through women who were raised Catholic and obsessed over the book. MH: And I bet you loved those women, Alex. [Laughs.] TM: Well, yes. [Laughs.] MH: Perhaps women were looking for lives of women who led passionate lives and acted on that passion. The truth of the inner lives of women wasn’t available to me growing up. In 1980 Lucille Clifton and Sharon Olds and Audre Lorde began to open the door to poetry. The real stories of women’s lives. In the 1950s, in the early 1960s, I was looking and looking for stories of how women searched for God or searched for meaning. My mother had nine children. All of her sisters had nine or 10 children, so I had 100 first cousins. Their lives were–god bless them–given over to this. The saints weren’t necessarily mothers, they had chosen another way. They had chosen a life that wasn’t necessarily in the service of others–although sometimes it was. There was an excitement in reading about these people who might have entered a monastery or led an army of France and also they were the only stories I had ever read that were about women’s psychological and spiritual development. [millions_ad] TM: In your previous book you wrote a series of poems about Mary, before she was a mother. Did this book grow out of a similar impulse? MH: I used to write Christmas plays we kids would put for our parents My brothers and sisters did not always enjoy this. They grew increasingly alternative. By 1968 the angel carried a machine gun. [Laughs.] The Jewish tradition of midrash, which is imagining your way into the silences of the stories of the Torah–what we call the Old Testament–has existed for centuries. You could actually imagine what Eve and Adam did on the first day out of paradise—did they have sex? did they not? That tradition has long existed and I didn’t know it until I was older, but I feel that the imagination is a way into truth. Wallace Stevens said, “God and the imagination are one.” There are so many silences in the stories and for me, they carry archetypal values. So Mary Magdalene who was in all the paintings the repentant woman in red–that’s nonsense. I wanted to write about a woman’s real life–her sexual life, her psychological life, her interior life, her desire for a teacher, her desire for meaning and peace. The dualism that we all live with in this culture is so much rougher on women. Men suffer, too, but women suffer terribly from objectified dualism: virgins or whores, sexual or sacred. TM: One poem that jumped out at me was “The Girl at 3” and the line “the interiority we create by reading is rich and lonely.” MH: We chose logos over image–word over image–long ago, and there are those who suggest that’s what separates us from ourselves and from reality. I think I was reading into that and at the same time my daughter was learning to recognize letters. And of course I was thinking about the paintings where Mary, the soon to be mother, is reading something in the painting and the angel appears and she holds her place in the book to receive the angel. We know that when any annunciation occurs–no matter what it is–you’re not the same person after it happens. Maybe it’s I no longer love my husband, maybe it’s I no longer believe in God, maybe it’s I’m going to adopt a child. After any kind of annunciation we’re not the same. The notion of Mary reading at all is of course a fiction. Meister Eckhart says that perhaps Jesus is the fruit of Mary’s enlightenment. Isn’t that radical? Jesus is the fruit of Mary’s enlightenment. I love that. He goes onto say that each of us can become the mother of God. And he means that in an almost Buddhist sense. That we are that which we seek. TM: One writer I’ve talked with has pointed out that grimoire, the old word for spellbook, has the same etymological root as grammar. That to write and read and name things is a form of magic. MH: In the beginning was the word and the word was made flesh. TM: The word preceded the world. MH: Or as Meister Eckhart said in his first sermon, every creature is a word of God. The word of God–whatever God is, I don’t presume. When I say God, I wish there was another word. This energy or whatever–every creature is an expression of that. Yes, a spell. But poetry is a spell, isn’t it? That’s what one hopes. A spell that returns us to ourselves. Not that it bewitches us, but I feel like the poetry that I love is the poetry that returns me to myself whole for a minute. It’s so rare to feel that way. TM: Do you think of writing as a spiritual act at its core? MH: I do, because it involves a wonderful contradiction which is in order for it to happen you have to be there and you have to disappear. Both. You know, nothing feels as a good as that. Being there and disappearing–being possessed by something else. Something happening through you, but you’re attending it. There are few other things in the world like that, but writing is pretty much a relief from the self–and yet the self has to be utterly there. TM: People have talked about the relationship between poetry and prayer and how do you think of that relationship? MH: As Bob Dylan says, you’ve got to serve somebody. [Laughs.] Might be the devil or might be the lord. I feel like poetry for me is in service to something greater than myself. Everything is greater than myself. [Laughs.] But [in service] to the great mystery of being alive. So many people I have loved are dead now. And I will be dead one day. How strange is that? To know that we’re alive and that we’re going to die. Poetry can hold that. It holds that knowledge and it holds that dialectical energy field–we’re alive, we’re going to die, this is now, and in a minute it will be past but it will still be now. All of that that occurs when we read a poem. TM: Writing is its own thing, but to read poetry, to recite it, definitely has some of the quality of prayer. MH: I’ve been thinking about the word sacrament lately and what is sacred in our culture. I think poetry is one of the last places where the inner life of someone is held sacred. How it feels to be alive is held sacred. That reading it is a sacrament. Writing it–when one is in the right attitude and position, whether it fails or succeeds–is a kind of sacrament. I studied with Joseph Brodsky the great Russian poet and how do I say this, he thought we were lazy American students. We had to memorize 500 lines a week and come in and write them out for him. He said, you Americans are so naive. He said, you think that evil is going to come into your houses wearing big black boots and climb up the stairs–it begins in the language. Look to the language. He said, in the Soviet Union, nothing is permitted and everything is important. In the United States, everything is permitted and nothing is important. What is important? Especially now that so much is externalized through social media. The inner life, where we actually live most of our minutes of our days, is still a sacred place. That’s where transformation occurs, where all sorts of things occur, but it has to be nurtured. My concern is that with externalizing of experience many, many young people are not nourishing that inner space. It hurts to do so. It hurts to read a poem sometimes. It’s demanding in a way. It calls you to yourself and it’s sometimes difficult. TM: Speaking of language, your last book was titled The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, which is a phrase with religious meaning. Today people talk about real life and real time in a way no one did just 15 or 20 years ago. MH: Remember how it started, when things began to be in quotes? Like “home made” food or “natural” food. When people began to put those words in quotes, what does that mean? Now the quotes are gone. It’s real life, real time. There’s no way we can stop this, but we can drag our inner lives along with it and try to make sense of it. I feel like people are hungry. People my age want to be together and read books and talk. I wish we could spend days talking about what we’re losing with all of this speed. People are lonely. We want to be in the same room with each other. We want to talk and hang out and we’re just so busy. It’s consumerism and capitalism. Capitalism has stolen our sense of time–that truth that time belongs to us. TM: You were the Poet Laureate of New York state, you did a lot of public events, and when you first got the post, you said that you wanted poetry to be as ubiquitous as Gap ads. Which I love. I think that’s my fantasy of a city. MH: Wouldn’t it be great? The Poetry Society of course puts poems on buses and we need more and more and more. People are hungry for it. We just did a huge event called The Poet Is In at Grand Central Terminal. We’ve done this three times now but this one was the biggest. At Central Terminal at Vanderbilt Hall, right next to that clock, from 11 in the morning until 8 at night, there were six desks beautifully produced by the MTA art and design people and a production company called Wizard. There were six poets that changed every hour so you could come and sit down and talk with the poet and the poet would write you a poem after talking to you. Forty-eight poets participated in the course of a day and the line of people waiting for a poem was an hour and a half long. And people waited. An hour and a half. It was so amazing. You would ask a lot of questions and then you would take their answers and transform them and give it back. You would type it out on the typewriter with carbon paper, stamp it, sign it, separate it and you would read it to the person. People cried all the time. The person cried, the poet cried, and then you would give them poem to them–free. I want to do this all over the country. I think we’re not used to being heard. We’re not used to someone listening to us. And somehow transforming what we said to them and giving it back in a way that only poetry can do. It’s so startling. TM: Right now we’re at a moment where rapacious capitalism is running the government and they don’t believe in arts funding among other things, and people are now asking in a very fundamental way about what is important and what do we value. MH: I was just outside Chicago and in Indiana and the world is so big, the country is so big, but everybody wants to read a poem when their father dies. Everybody wants to read a poem at their wedding. Everybody wants to read a poem at these crucial moments in their life. When there’s a ritual. When there’s a sacrament, essentially. They want something that can hold the moment. If people don’t turn to art and they don’t turn to religion, we’re left with consumerism. After September 11th in New York these big sheets of paper would go up and people would write on them. Like by the arch in Washington Square Park. People were reading what other people had written. It was so amazing. People would crowd in and read all sorts of things that other people had written. We need public squares. TM: We need moments where we stop and listen to each other. MH: Poetry stops us and gives us something in common. I still believe that we could get poetry more into the public world. Unfortunately a lot of people believe they can’t read poetry because they were taught in school that it was difficult. Some poems are difficult, but many are not and so people are afraid–they don’t know where to go they don’t know what to do. I feel like we have to ambush them with something to realize that they don’t need to do anything more than just read and they’ll receive it. TM: The last line in your book is “the moonlit path over the un-walkable water.” It’s a beautiful line and I feel like moonlight is an image that comes up a lot in your poetry. MH: I’m in love with the moon. I mean, who’s not? It’s so amazing. To me, what we’ll call the divine is unseeable, unknowable. But we can see a reflection of it. We see it reflected in each other’s faces, we see it reflected in art, we see it reflected in the beauty of the world, the sorrow of the world. My friends actually mock me about this. We spend time in Provincetown every summer and the moonlight across the ocean makes that path, that wide amazing radiant path. It looks as if you could walk upon it to whatever is next. But of course you can’t walk on the water. I was also thinking of Peter who walks on the water when Jesus says, you can do it. Jesus walks across the water to the boat in the storm and he tells Peter, come on, and he starts to, but then Peter says, I can’t walk on water, and falls. It is un-walkable for most of us, and yet it’s so compelling. The sun is the source of life and everything that is, but we can’t look at it. We can only look at it indirectly. The beauty of that indirectness is also the moon and how it falls onto the ground and onto us. I just love the whole physicality of it. What Mary is facing is human limitation, sensing that there’s energies that are beyond us and yet seemingly known, but not being able to utterly participate. It’s what you said early, just there but not quite. TM: I guess in some sense that’s poetry. It’s the word describing something, a reflection of the thing itself. MH: Beautifully said. The word isn’t the thing itself and yet it can be close enough because we have this imagination and we can say apple and we can picture an apple. And the apple is there.
Daniel Mendelsohn is one of the most prominent classicists in America today. A contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, he’s also a professor at Bard College. His 2006 book The Lost: The Search for Six of Six Million, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Memoir, among many other awards, recounts Mendelsohn's attempt to discover what happened to six relatives who were killed in the Holocaust. It is also a book about storytelling and how we construct our identities and our relationship to the past, issues that recur throughout his work, including the memoir The Elusive Embrace. He has also translated the poetry of C.P. Cavafy and established himself as one of the most significant critics and cultural writers of the moment. Mendelsohn has the kind of wide-ranging mind one hopes for from a critic. He ends up writing about topics that one might expect, like the films 300 and Troy, but he’s clearly a pop culture junkie writing about Mad Men and George R.R. Martin and Patrick Leigh Fermor and the meaning of the Titanic. His new book An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic is about his father. At the age of 81, Mendelsohn’s father, Jay, attended his son’s weekly seminar on The Odyssey, and when the class finished the two took a cruise retracing Odysseus’s steps through the Eastern Mediterranean. His father died not long after; the book is about teaching The Odyssey, about the last year of his father’s life, and about Mendelsohn trying to better understand his father. Which happens to be one of the themes of The Odyssey. An excerpt of the book appeared earlier this year in The New Yorker. We spoke recently when he was jet-lagged in Paris on book tour. The Millions: Where did this book start? You wrote a travel article about going on the cruise with your dad not long after it happened. Daniel Mendelsohn: All my books accidentally end up being books. As soon as my dad asked me to take the course, I thought I would do something with it because the experience at a certain level was just so amusing. I may have even called my editor at The New Yorker. When we were on the cruise, I think I started thinking that it was going to be a book. It was after he died that I looked back at what had turned out to be the last year of his life and saw that the whole thing was one story—the classroom and the cruise and the hospital. On the cruise I started to think it would be a book but I didn’t know at that point what the narrative was, what the shape of it was, but I knew I had a story. Several months after daddy died I started thinking, this is the book. I knew that I wanted to map the structure of this book onto The Odyssey somehow and figuring that out took me a while. TM: Anyone who reads you knows that structure is very important to you, and I can only imagine how much time it took to figure out the right structure for the book. DM: That’s a shrewd observation. I had a lot of material. The classroom was so funny at times and also so poignant at times. Then the cruise with the cave and the guy with the scar on his leg—and not getting to Ithaca. I thought, life is handing me a great story. The Lost took me one third as much time to write as did this book, although one could say it’s a much more gigantic story. It took me a very long time to figure out how to map this onto the structure of The Odyssey. It was not easy. It took a long time. People said, it’s taking a long time because it’s your dad and he’s passed away now and it’s so sad and emotional. I said, no, actually that’s not the reason. I love thinking about my dad every day. It was like a nice haunting. It was hard because I wanted to be echoing both the structure of The Odyssey and the development of the themes of The Odyssey. Going from this education of the son to this metaphorical emphasis on recognition at the end of The Odyssey and then at the end of my father’s story. That was not so easy. In my review of the movie Troy with Brad Pitt I began by quoting Aristotle—which is probably too big of a stick to use on Brad Pitt. Aristotle has a very interesting observation about the other so-called epics about the Trojan War that did not survive. Every aspect of the Trojan War had an epic about it, from the judgement of Paris to the death of Odysseus. We only have The Iliad and The Odyssey. Aristotle said some of these other epics just weren’t that good, and the reason why is because they told the story in the order that the events happened, which is a mistake that Homer did not make. I realized about two years into writing this book I was making exactly that mistake. In other words, I told first the class, then the cruise, then my father’s illness, and death in that order. Each element was interesting, but it didn’t have an interesting structure. I never share my work while I’m writing except with my editor and a close friend and mentor of mine, Bob Gottlieb, who used to run Knopf and The New Yorker. This was literally only a year ago. I had hundreds of pages and Bob said, the problem is when you get to the end of the school year, you don’t want to go on. That’s the narrative, the class. You have to think of a way to work everything else into that. Literally the minute he said that I burst out laughing because of course, I need to do this Homerically, which is, to think of a way to fold the other aspects of the story into the classroom narrative. The class is the spine of the book. I have to talk about the cruise while we’re discussing Odysseus’ adventures at sea in the class. I have to talk about the illness and death when we’re coming to the end of the class. Then the whole thing fell into place and I was finished in two months. TM: As soon as he said that, the structure presented itself to you. DM: It clicked into place all at once. He said, you have to think of something and he didn’t know what it was, but the minute he said that, I thought, duh, you have to think like Homer. TM: You make the point in the book that The Odyssey is much more narratively and structurally complex than most people understand. DM: Oh my god, yes. The Odyssey is—in an almost postmodern way—aware of its own narrative devices. In fact it draws attention to its own constructed-ness, so to speak, in a way that is just amazing. I remember reviewing a very good book, that I quite liked, by Zach Mason called The Lost Books of the Odyssey for The New Yorker. I said this book is very clever and interesting, but you’re never going to be more clever than The Odyssey itself because it already anticipated all these games. One of the things I really wanted to make people aware of in this book—through getting to be a fly on the wall in the seminar—is how incredibly structured The Odyssey is and how alert it is to the tricks of narrative. All of my books, starting with my first memoir, are obsessed with narrative and truth-telling and the way that lived history becomes narrated. It’s very interesting to me. It’s a theme that binds all of my memoirs together certainly. TM: I think thats true. Your books are about how we construct our identity through narrative. DM: Precisely. When I was writing my first book, my grandfather, who reappears in The Lost, is sort of the figure of narrative. He is a great storyteller. In both books I become alert to the way in which the self fashioning through narrative can be misleading. Not necessarily in a sinister way. I think quite often people narrate themselves not with the intention of deception but because they honestly believe that this is who they are. That this is their story, if you see what I mean. I’m fascinated by this. It’s also a way of alerting my readers to the fact that even though these are true stories that I’m telling in my book, they are constructed as narrative. The story you’re reading is never the whole story because if you told the whole story, it would just be boring. TM: I know you’ve written about this a lot, and I’ve written about it a little, but the fact that the memoir isn’t a recitation of events; it’s about the psychoanalysis of the self, it’s a consideration of what those events mean, it’s much more complicated than just what happened. DM: The memoir is a highly crafted version of unedited reality. Nobody wants to hear a boring story. The Lost is highly obsessed with the dangers of narrative because I’m trying to get at a historical truth. When I was on book tour for The Lost, a woman in the audience very nicely said, I loved your book and I’m so glad that somebody has finally told the whole story of this one little town. I burst out laughing and I said, if I had told everything that I heard, it would be 2,000 pages long and unreadable. It’s not a matter of fact or fiction, it’s not a matter of you’re making it up or whatever—even if you’re just relating things that happened or things you heard, you’re shaping it, because people want to be enticed by a narrative. In this book I’m doing that very deliberately by evoking parallels with the themes and structure of structure of The Odyssey—which is itself a text which is very alert to the enchantment and seductions of narrative. It’s over-determined in a kind of fabulous way, but of course I don’t talk about the boring parts of the cruise or the days we just sat around waiting to get somewhere or the questions that people asked at the site of Troy that weren’t interesting. You’re always shaping and when you’re writing this kind of thing you are writing in a way to convey what you think are the insights that you have had about yourself. But of course who knows what you’re doing unconsciously, right? That’s for the critics to figure out. TM: I think you were harder on yourself than you were on your father in a lot of ways. DM: I take that as a huge compliment. I think when you’re writing memoir obviously the great danger is to glamorize yourself. Even through a kind of disingenuous negativity by saying, oh I’m so terrible. I think I’m pretty tough on both of us. The Lost was about the search for the identities of people I had never known. So in a funny way even though the subject matter was so painful, it was easier to write. This book was about my father, and for that reason I was bending over backwards to not sentimentalize either myself or my relationship to my father. I thought that was very important and I think it’s something he would have approved of given the kind of person he was. [Laughs.] He didn’t like mush. You’re probably right. I may have bent over too far, but the hero of this book is not me. The hero of this book is my father. It’s like those bunraku puppeteers who dress in black but you only look at the puppet? I wanted to be like those puppeteers, not intruding too much because it is about my father, although obviously through the lens of my relationship with him. TM: I guess what I mean is that you don’t overdramatize anything, you’re not overly sentimental, and you write that when you were young you were embarrassed by him. You make it clear that this isn’t about a distant father and a dutiful son. DM: Absolutely. When you write a memoir, you have an unwritten pact with the reader that you have to expose even the unattractive aspect of your narrative. I’m not talking about, I had a problem or I had an addiction. I mean really embarrassing things that make you squirm and might make the reader squirm, but I think you have to do that because that’s why the reader is on board. In particular, reading a book about a father-son relationship, I just felt I owed it to myself, I owed it to my father, and I owed it to the readers to put those mortifying, uncomfortable moments on the page because that’s the bargain you’re making. Look, no one has perfect relationships with their parents. We’re all embarrassed by our parents at some point in life, but only a few of us get to write about it. That’s the point hopefully when the reader will say, aha, I never really went there or talked about this, but I know what it’s like to have a parent you’re sometimes just mortified by. I don’t think it reflected well on me but I was 14. This is life and you have to be honest about it. TM: As you were writing these moments seemed to present themselves. Like the man on the cruise with the injured leg. The emotional climax of the book is your father revealing himself to you and the class when you’re discussing Book 23, which was echoed in the very last scene of the book. DM: I reflected on this a lot when I was writing The Lost when there were so many extraordinary coincidences. Truly amazing things happened that you wouldn’t believe if it were a novel. I had a long passage in The Lost where I reflect on that and I say it happens because to some extent you make it happen by putting yourself into this story. If you sit at home on your sofa nothing’s ever going to happen. Just by putting yourself out there you make things happen. You know what this is like as a writer when you’re working on a thing, suddenly everything becomes about that subject. Everything becomes irradiated because your perceptions and sensitivities are engaged. It’s not that more things are happening or more coincidences are happening, you’re just noticing things you never would have noticed before because you weren’t writing a book about them. I was just lucky because the one time my father really responded positively to The Odyssey was on the last day of class when he said this amazing thing. If you read the passage it’s not like he bears his soul, but for him...That’s a great vehicle for talking about how you turn experience into a narrative. What I had to do in order for that moment to feel like a climax, which is how you just described it. It is the emotional climax of the book, I would say. What I had to do was to create my father as a character in such a way that for him even to say that feels like a huge climax. Everything before then I have to choose out of everything that he said and did, those things which I thought illustrated his character in such a way so that by the time you get to that I think amazing moment where he started talking about my mother in class you’re like, whoa. TM: And then you play with structure and time so that you jump to you relating it to your father and show her reacting to it. DM: Here also I’m imitating slightly something that Homer does; he gives you reaction shots, as it were. I felt that to be an extraordinary moment in the classroom and I know that some of the students did, but then I choose to narrate the conversation that I had with my mother about that because she thought it was amazing too. It was a way of locking the significance of that moment both when it happened and afterwards. I didn’t have to describe the conversation I had with my mother—although that conversation leads to what I think is the second big emotional moment at the end of the book. I was trying very hard in this book to avoid over-dramatizing and that’s why you get in the conversation with mother as a throwaway remark the information that finally explains why my father didn’t go to the high school he always wanted to go to. For me that was a very big emotional moment, but I bent over backwards not to spotlight because I think it’s more devastating if you experience it the way I experienced it, which was in passing. It’s a throwaway remark from my mother because she’s not thinking about what I was thinking about at that moment. TM: That’s also a narrative tool, to have a great emotional moment but not to dwell on it or emphasize it. DM: That’s a thing that happens in the work that I admire the most. You’re not showcasing the big emotional moments and I think they’re more devastating for that reason. I always think of Proust where you meet Odette de Crécy early on in the novel. She’s a major character and the focus of a lot of narrative attention and you’re led to believe that this fancy aristocratic name that she has is one of these made up names that high-class courtesans gave themselves. I think it’s in the fourth or fifth volume where in passing the narrator meets the Count or Maquis de Crécy and you realize that Odette really was married to that guy. Every time I encounter that I’m just blown away by how brilliant it is. A thing that interests me is retrospective emotion, when you think oh my god that’s what that thing was and you get that kind of pang. I’m fascinated by that because to my mind it has 10 times the power of some big drumroll cymbals clashing kind of climax. TM: It gets at this point, which is at the heart of so much classical Greek literature, that character is destiny. DM: Right. It’s interesting when you think about what is this book about. Yes, it has a plot, which is the classroom and the cruise and the hospital, but like The Lost is a search narrative, the search here is just to know who my father was. You can say, well who cares who my father was, except that we all have fathers and mothers and we never quite understand them. This book I would say what it’s about is a series of gentle revelations about things that I never guessed about my father or why he did them. I thought I knew who he was and then through a kind of odyssey and sequence of events, people saying things—sometimes knowingly sometimes accidentally—reveal the key to major episodes of my father’s life. That’s about character. So much of Greek literature—particularly tragedy, my scholarly specialty—is about how events reveal character. That’s all that tragedy is about, one could say. That’s what this book is about. As with tragedy, you could say who cares about that person’s character, but you want to do it in such a way that it can be enlarged and become a metaphor for a certain type of experience. In this book the type of experience that I’m interested in is a child’s partial knowledge of parents and a child’s partial understanding of his parents' marriage. TM: You get at this in the book that so much of The Odyssey is about this father-son relationship and the education of a son into the wider adult world. DM: I think that’s about as good a way you could put it. TM: You’ve been teaching these works for years, I wonder if there’s been a shift in how students respond to Homer? DM: It’s an interesting question. I don’t mean to be evasive, but I have two answers to that question. On the one hand, I don’t want to call it superficially but certainly the students now are interested in things because they’re being raised in a different culture than I was raised in, so they’re focusing on things that they have been trained to notice. I got here yesterday afternoon and a kid who graduated from UVA who I met and kept in touch with is in Paris so we had dinner together. He had just finished reading The Iliad and I said what did you think? What he was focused on was why aren’t there more female characters, why there aren’t more strong female characters, what is Achilles's sexuality exactly, to what extent is the text explicit about his relationship with Patroclus. I thought well of course because he is a product of contemporary college education where—and I say this with approval—they’re focusing on issues of gender and sexuality. Every generation has its own focuses and lenses, let’s call them. That said, at a whole other possibly larger level, I would say no, there is no difference. [Laughs.] I started teaching as a graduate student in 1989. The fundamental elements are still fundamental and it doesn’t matter what gender or sexuality you are—or what class, something contemporary students are rightly zeroing in on. Who are the slaves? Beyond that I think they’re all finally susceptible to the great power of both The Odyssey and The Iliad in the way they present in the strongest and also most stylish way the fundamental issues of human existence. That’s why they’re classics. I always like to say that the great advantage to teaching great books is that they are great. It’s not like we’re trying to sell you a bill of goods here. [Laughs.] We’re not trying to sell you a lemon and dress it up as a Cadillac, they really are great. I had never really understood the extent to which The Odyssey is obsessed with familial relationships and particularly father-son relationships, as you were just saying. Even people who haven’t read The Odyssey know that it’s a famous story about a guy who’s trying to get home to his wife after 20 years away from home. But in terms of pure real estate, more of the poem is devoted to father-son relationships than to husband-wife relationships. I’ve never done a count, but my hunch is it’s just as much if not more so. The Greeks were obsessed with this as a patriarchal society. Surprise! Odysseus in the book has a double role. He is both a father to a son he doesn’t know and didn’t raise and who has found other father figures to be his father in his absence, but also at the end of the book there’s his old father that he has to reconcile with, come to terms with. As I think I point out in the book, the climactic reunion of The Odyssey is not Odysseus and Penelope, it’s Odysseus and his father. Even structurally the emphasis is clearly on that relationship. I understood this, of course. I taught it a million times, but somehow it just hit me this time around. Look, we all have parents. We all watch them getting old. Those of us who have children watch our children growing up. I think many people feel, did I miss something in my child’s growing up? This is a text that speaks very loudly and clearly and powerfully. TM: One reason I ask is because the military has been sponsoring performances of Greek tragedies for soldiers and veterans and using them as a way to talk about war and trauma. I know The Odyssey is often talked about in a post-traumatic context. DM: I’m not a big fan of those readings. It’s not because I don’t think they’re not true, but I think it leads to the possibility of a reductive reading and I am always militating for expansive reading rather than reductive reading. I reviewed one of those productions, of Euripides’s Herakles, which is adapted as a war hero with post-traumatic stress disorder. I think the danger of that is reducing the complexities of extremely complex works of art for the purposes of contemporary psychologizing. It’s not that I think they’re wrong, but because their emphasis is on trauma I don’t like the idea that people will think that’s what they’re about and thereby exclusive of other readings. Ajax suffers this kind of madness for reasons that are made very explicit in the text that have to do with hubris and Greek theology and the whole system of honor and heroism. I’ve spent my whole career trying to argue for the continuing, vivid relevance of these texts, but there’s more to the story than just this kind of interpretation. I have been certainly been keeping abreast of these performances before veterans and obviously the veterans are responding. If you get a group of soldiers and they’re crying during Ajax, I’m never going to argue with that. But there’s a much bigger picture. I’m a product of a certain moment in classical education when I was in grad school. One was constantly reminded that they were a very different and often strange civilization in comparison with our own. One can go down a slippery interpretative slope if you want them to be a perfect mirror of contemporary experience because they’re not. They had this wacky religion, they had very weird ideas about gender and sexuality, and you have to be careful about how you use them I guess is the point of this digression. TM: When I talk with people who are adapting or interpreting classical stories, we talk about how pop culture stories are often fundamentally different from classical stories. Classically character was destiny, and in contemporary stories that means everything is awesome, I guess. I still remember your review of Julie Taymor’s Spider-Man musical and how she was trying to combine the comic book transformation with the mythical tradition of transformation and they don’t quite match up. DM: Exactly. Listening to you one thing that flashes through my head is that maybe these Greek texts have a kind of hardness and durability because they don’t make a mistake which I think is the great mistake of so much popular entertainment—sentimentality. Modern superheroes are all essentially optimistic visions of transformation. The transformations are always empowering, where you need to only read two pages of Ovid’s Metamorphosis to understand that the ancient transformations are very problematic. The essential vision of life is pessimistic and these transformations are punishments, so [Taymor] was trying to conflate two essentially incompatible visions TM: This is incredibly geeky but Spider-Man always fights people who go through animal-like transformations—The Lizard, The Rhino, Doctor Octopus—and they are flawed tragic characters caught up in this web of hubris and obsession. Who are then defeated by, I guess, a can-do American attitude? DM: I think that’s a brilliant observation. The Greek dramatists would focus on the villain in the Spider-Man stories, not on Spider-Man. That’s so interesting because they’re all grandiose strivers who go wackily wrong—both physically and mentally because of their grandiose ambitions. Those characters would be of much more interest. Back to Taymor, you have made a much more interesting way of stating the issue that I was talking about in the Taymor production—the villains are so much more interesting. Because the heroes are so obviously heroic, the drama about the American hero versus the Greek is they have these double identities. The drama is generated by the necessity of keeping the heroic identity secret. That’s the great anxiety. There is no inherent drama in the way the Greek mind would understand the word drama in these heroes. I’m not saying this is a lesser theme—especially today when we’re so alert to issues of identity and concealment. There is drama in that, but it’s not what a Greek dramatist would be interested in. Obviously identity and self-revelation are very interesting to Homer in The Odyssey. TM: You wrote that great piece in The New Yorker about Mary Renault and your correspondence. I was curious if you planned to write more about it or do something with the piece? DM: I do have an idea for a book. Bob Gottlieb suggested it to me after I wrote that piece and I always listen to him. A book with a title like My Old Ladies. I published that piece on The New Yorker website about this fabulous elderly French lady that I boarded with when I was in college. I could write about [my teacher] Froma. How continually I’ve come under the influence of these very strong older women. As I recall, that Renault piece was probably 14,000 words. I think to amplify it would be a matter of adding more detail but not more structure, so I don’t know that I’m going to revisit that but I would like to assemble some of these ladies in one place. I could write about my mother. It might be a fun book. TM: I also read that you’re working on a book about reading the classics. DM: That’s my next book, which I’ve thought about doing for a long time. When I’m on book tour, there’s a huge number of people who really want to know why these great texts are supposed to be so great. Not in a skeptical way, but a lot of people are like my father, for whatever reason they didn’t get to read the classics or they sped through them in high school and as adults they have some sense that these texts have tremendous amount to say but they need someone who’s going to be the professor. I thought it would be a good to write a book, which in some sense is like these pieces I’ve done for The New Yorker about The Iliad or Herodotus or Thucydides. A number of chapters on different authors or genres, and just say, here’s what it is, these are the issues, let’s sit down and look at them together. TM: The description of An Odyssey sounds like the description of either a new sitcom or an Oscar nominated film, so I have to ask, have you sold the Hollywood rights? DM: [Laughs.] As my grandmother would say, from your lips to God’s ears.
Over the course of her career, Patricia Smith has a reputation for tackling complicated ideas, combining humor and tragedy, and bridging the gap between spoken word and lyrical prose. She’s a four-time National Poetry Slam champion, a finalist for the National Book Award, and has received many other awards for books like Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, Blood Dazzler, and Teahouse of the Almighty. She edited and contributed to the prose anthology Staten Island Noir, and has contributed poems to many anthologies including the recent Bearden’s Odyssey. Smith’s new book is possibly her best work to date, but it’s also a departure. Incendiary Art is a book-length sequence about violence and rage and fear. There is no narrative arc to the book, rather the poems and the sequences of poems function like a mosaic covering the life of Emmett Till, the voices of mothers whose children were killed, fathers who kill their own children, and urban violence ranging from the Tulsa massacre of 1921, the 1985 MOVE bombing in Philadelphia, Los Angeles in 1992, and other events. It is also a very personal book; Smith writes of witnessing the 1968 riots in Chicago following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and many summers spent in the deep South with family. Her mother kept the photo of Emmett Till from Jet magazine on the wall of their house. We spoke about her challenging, complicated book, and why she felt it needed to be written. The Millions: Incendiary Art is an amazing book, but it’s also a really hard book. Patricia Smith: It’s funny you should say that. I’m so used to doing readings to promote a book. You pick out poems and you have your favorite pieces—balancing long poems with short poems, funny poems with serious poems and all that. It’s so hard to read from this without inserting poems from other books because there’s very little light in these pages. That’s not to say there’s no variety in the book, it’s just a really difficult listen unless you can work in a breather somehow. It’s been pretty revelatory because I’ve been reading poems that I haven’t read in years. This book has changed the idea of what a reading is for me. TM: I’ve heard and read your work for 20 years or more now, and Incendiary Art feels very different from your other books. Where did it start? With a single poem? Were you always thinking in terms of a larger project? PS: It started in a very strange place, with the sequence “When Black Men Drown Their Daughters.” I think I wrote “The Five Stages of Drowning” poem first. I had those two news items and I wasn’t sure where they were going to go. I wanted to examine the particular dysfunction that would lead a man to feel so disconnected from his daughter that he would use her as a pawn to punish the mother. My initial idea was to do a book on the many ways–both physical and psychological–that fathers can drown their daughters. For example, there are the stories about fathers in the heartland who “married” their daughters to keep them chaste until they were old enough for their own husbands. I started seeing a lot of things like that. I began to collect a lot of clippings and do a lot of reading about father-daughter relationships—not necessarily just black fathers. Because I had a really special relationship with my father. It started there, but I realized pretty quickly that that was a dead end. Around that time, I was a teaching a class, telling my students they they should always listen for the voices they weren’t hearing. I talk about taking the time to look for an unexpected entry point into a poem. At the time, every two weeks or so there was another shooting of an unarmed man–usually by the police. I had my students look at news stories and I said, what is the voice we’re not hearing? I realized that there was always a very frantic shot of a mother in the beginning of the story and another frantic shot of a mother at the end when the person responsible for the death of her son or daughter was deemed not responsible for the death of her son or daughter. And then after that last frantic shot, the mothers disappeared. I thought about these mothers trying to re-enter their lives and what might be like. And so the “Sagas of the Accidental Saint” poems began that way. They wound up being the center, the focus, of the book for me. I tried to build everything else around that. TM: It is interesting that the Emmett Till poems came later, because those poems and the Incendiary Art poems are really the spine of the book. PS: The Emmett Till poems happened because Mamie Till was yet another mother whose son was gone. And I began thinking about the Incendiary Art poems during the riots after the death of Mike Brown. I realized how many times fire entered the picture, burning the landscape clean. I also heard someone ask, why do they burn their own neighborhoods? That made me think of the riots after the King assassination, which is when my neighborhood burned down. I spent some time trying to mix all these things and find a common entry point. Then I realized it wasn’t the subject matter, it was the fact that I was the one handling the subject matter. The same feelings kept rising to the surface even though I was looking at different topics. I decided that the idea of the changing landscape, the landscape that’s cluttered and confusing but that gets burned to the ground and starts over, was what I wanted at the center of the book. That encompassed all those different parts in my eyes. And hopefully in the readers’ eyes, too. TM: The Incendiary Art poems loosely connect Chicago in ’68 and Tulsa in ’21 and the MOVE bombing, and they’re all about fire and violence and rage, but the connection is in part, as you said, that it’s you telling this. PS: I guess there might be a stronger connection in my head simply because I was right in the middle of the riots in Chicago [in 1968]—and every time I see a riot of that type, it pulls me back to all that heat and chaos. It also makes me think of what it must have been like in Tulsa and wherever. I wrote because the connection felt strong for me and I hoped that some semblance of that connection would come together for the reader. TM: I know people who still talk about Emmett Till in a certain way and it was because he could have been them and they’ve never forgotten that. PS: That’s what my parents felt and that’s what they tried to drill into me. That’s why they had the Jet magazine picture in the house, the picture of Emmett in his casket. TM: How did you come up with the idea of writing about Emmett Till in the style of a “choose your own adventure?” PS: I used to love those books when I was a kid. And I as I get older, I look back on things and think a lot about the role of chance. I had just read about Mamie Till trying to get Emmett to go with her to Nebraska and then giving in and letting him go to Mississippi. I went through his whole story and said, where else could things have changed? I was one of those kids that was sent South. I was sent to Greenwood Mississippi every summer to get away from the city and run and be free and all that, but as soon as I got there I was presented with a whole set of rules. I was told how far I could go down a certain road or what man I should definitely not speak to if I happened to run into him. There were those same types of rules on the west side of Chicago. The South looked freer. It looked like you could run and play and do things you couldn’t do in the city, but it just operated under a different set of rules. My mother probably didn’t think of it this way, but it was so frightening to have that picture torn from Jet Magazine in the house all while I was growing up. My mom believed that the way to get through life was to be as beholden as possible to white people. If she was in a room and a white person walked in, her whole body would get smaller. She tried really hard to teach me how to live like that—not only because she thought that was how to be successful in the world, but because it was the way to stay alive. You don’t talk back, you don’t do this, you don’t do that. If you said the wrong thing to the wrong person you might wind up in a shallow grave somewhere–and you never knew who the wrong person was. I thought about that a lot. TM: “Sagas of the Accidental Saint” is the center of the book in a lot of ways, and you have this long sequence where you have one line on a page–“The gun said: I just had an accident”–and it goes on, page after page. It’s a long and complicated series of poems and those 10 pages with one line each were almost exhaustingly long. How did you decide on that length and that effect? PS: I knew the whole sequence was going to be long. I worried that people wouldn’t know that first long sequence was in the mother’s voice unless I said, this is in the mother’s voice. I really wanted to impose some form on that segment. I assume everyone reads aloud—which may or may not be true—but I wanted there to be something intriguing about the passage outside of the content. A sound that a reader wanted to keep coming back to. A lament. I didn’t want to have names that people necessarily recognized immediately in the cases I cite. I want people to know that while they see these things in the news every once in a while, the tragedy is a more constant and consistent drumbeat. There’s a case in the news and then maybe a case a month later, but no, it’s more often than that. It’s something unfortunately that’s numbing and a certain portion of the population gets used to it. If there’s something very public or brazen about it then maybe it makes the news. Nowadays it makes the news usually because there’s film. I wanted people to say, I don’t know that name, I didn’t know that name, I didn’t know how many times people committed suicide with their hands tied behind them. I wanted it to be relentless, but I didn’t want it to be too much. About the repeated bullet line—when I had it printed out to read, I realized that I would pause a certain number of beats between each repetition of the line—and that it was just enough time for a page to turn. So I then printed it out with one of the lines on each page. There’s something striking about the physical act of turning the page. If you say it and you breathe and you turn the page, people have said to me afterwards, you feel like you’re being held captive. You don’t realize it until maybe the third time, oh my god, she’s going to do that 10 times. Because there were 10 shots. I want you to hear every gunshot—and in order to replicate that feeling, it’s not enough to stay on one page and say this happened 10 times. The time you take to turn the page is enough time for the gun to fire again. I’m always trying to give the reader at least as much of me in person as I can on the page. Whenever there’s something like that, when I can do something to help you hear me saying the poem, I’ll do it. I was afraid that when I spaced those out the way I wanted that the publisher would say, this is too much, this is too long, but they were very supportive. They knew exactly what I wanted to do and we kept it that way. It also helps me when doing readings because if I read the whole “Sagas of the Accidental Saint,” it’s half an hour. It helps me to be able to take two or three of those cases out of Accidental Saint and read them as individual pieces. TM: Have you always written that way? Thinking about sound and meter and trying to replicate the way you read on the page? PS: Almost from the beginning. Because I got introduced to poetry by getting up on stage. The audience can only hear the poem once. Normally they don’t have a copy they can read again. You have to be very cognizant of not only the poem’s content, but the fact that it is able to be received and interpreted relatively easily. I didn’t know I was doing this consciously until I started to really study poetry, but I talk aloud while I write. I say one line over and over until the next line comes and then I say those two lines until the third line comes. Not only will I have internalized the poem somewhat by the time I’m done, but I’m really conscious of the way the words reach the air, how they sound. I think that is the result of me spending so much time doing poetry for an audience, before the idea of the reader was ever really clear to me. When I started to study poetry, I realized that there were poems I go to again and again. I even know them almost by heart. But every time I see these poems I read them all the way through—why do I do that? Because the poet did something technically to help heighten my response to the poem and I didn’t know what it was. I wanted to know what those sounds were called and what was happening with meter. They have to work hand in hand—the content has to be something that draws the reader in, but so does the sound. If I can take something horrible and lend music to it, you have to read it. If I can take something beautiful and add some sort of cacophony to it, you have to read it. Meter is something you have in your toolbox that can really enhance a poem in a lot of ways. It would be overwrought if you did it all with the content, but you can do something that the reader can’t point to right away, and they can leave the poem with the feeling you want them to leave with, without knowing how they got it. TM: You contributed to the recent anthology Bearden’s Odyssey, about Romare Bearden, and I liked your poem in the book, but I kept thinking that the way that Bearden used collage is similar to what you tried to do in Incendiary Art in some ways. Were you conscious of this? Were you familiar with Bearden’s work? PS: Not really. I mean I’d seen pieces of his before, but I never studied his work. I looked at more of it when I was presented with the idea of the anthology. The idea of collage however, goes back to Blood Dazzler. There’s a poem in Blood Dazzler about the 34 nursing home residents who were lost in Hurricane Katrina. People ask me about that a lot. It’s sort of a juncture for me because I so often turn to persona. That was the first poem, and I thought that was going to be the only poem, resulting from Katrina. That’s the poem that I had. I didn’t intend to write a book. Our lives are one long narrative and every once in a while you see something and you take a picture—I want this moment, I want this day. I pictured a camera moving around that room. The lights are out, the water is rising, and people are pushing call buttons and no one is coming. I wanted a camera to scan that room and I wanted it to stop and maybe it only stops for a second, but a second of life is better than none. In Incendiary Art, I felt for a long time that I needed to do more to pull together the sections. It wasn’t enough that we’re talking about different types of loss. That’s overarching. If I think about African-American lives and I think about those long narratives and those snapshots, if you put all those snapshots on the table and someone looks at them, they’re going to have a hard time putting together a story. But if you realize what narrative they came from, then you’ll know what the story is instinctively. That idea of the line of lives and pulling what we need from it—those moments, those instances, those days—whatever you need to piece this life together. One of the things about Incendiary Art is that I didn’t know how to end it. There is so much I felt that I needed to keep in the conversation. This happened with Blood Dazzler, too. I had people say to me, you’ve got to hurry up and get this book out because people are going to forget about Katrina. The idea of someone forgetting about something so huge and important was so amazing to me. How? And now I hear people saying, you hardly hear anything about the men and women who died at the hands of the police—I hate to keep saying that—because of all the political turmoil that’s now piled on top of it. People were paying, or pretending to pay, a lot of attention to that until our very survival as a country became an issue—and now our focus is in a million different places at once. All I want is for someone to pick up Incendiary Art or pick up Blood Dazzler and say, that’s right, this is happening. That’s what I want. Maybe it won’t last long, but for the moment they’re reading those poems I want them to be thoroughly involved in what they’re reading. The idea that things have to be tied together tightly or that they have to lead so directly one into the other, I think I’m walking away from that idea. TM: I could feel rereading those last few poems that you were trying to find a way to close the book. You couldn’t have an Emmett Till poem be the last one because him being alive wouldn’t work, even though you make it clear that only chance keeps him alive. But you seemed to be trying to find some light. PS: It was a difficult book to close. There’s not a narrative arc in the book. I wanted that last Incendiary Art and that last Emmett Till. We talked about the gun said I just had an accident, and that was another way to close the book, with that ellipsis that keeps going. I wanted Emmett to be laughing and alive—which goes back to that idea of chance. Taking this turn instead of that turn. I was in a store here in New Jersey the other day and in the current political climate someone can very nakedly stare and sneer at you publicly, as if they’re daring you to say something about it because they’re emboldened. The question is, because I’m a very impetuous girl, do I say something back? If I say something, does the person get in their car and follow me home? There are dangerous situations in places where I’m not used to being frightened. That idea of not knowing who your neighbors are. Having people who were content to be hateful in private in their basements are now out in the open. When I look back, I tend to say, that’s the way it was, but not the way it is now. To see that again—that’s as much light as the book could find. One of the things I ask my students is can we find beauty anywhere? Can we find humor anywhere? I think there might be a couple of moments where something visually is a little lighter, but there’s no humor in this book. When you said it’s a different book, I think it is. TM: After finishing a book like this, is it hard to let go? Do you really need to spend time with something funny and lighter? PS: It’s a combination. For a while after Blood Dazzler people would come up to me and say, well there was just this major tragedy in you-name-the-place, what are you going to write about it? Well, I’m not going to. I’m not the tragedy writer. I’m not the natural disaster writer. That was what I was moved to write about at that time. When I say that Incendiary Art was a hard book to finish, it was hard to finish because things kept happening that should have been in the book. I would see something and immediately say, I want to write about that but where is it going to go? I’m writing in reaction to a lot of things. I’m writing because I’m angry and I’m sad and I’m trying to make something make sense. If I keep doing that, I’m going to wind up with exactly the same kind of book. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but I do want to be funny and I do want to find ironic things and play off of them, and now I’m frightened politically. If we write to move our lives forward, we’re constantly writing about those types of things. I’m working on some fiction that came right out of Incendiary Art and the mothers of those murdered people. I wonder about the folding back into what an ordinary life should be. How do you do that being a woman who woke up one morning with a son or daughter and went to sleep without one? I have my Guggenheim proposal, which I haven’t started. My husband and I collect 19th-century photos of African-Americans and I want to do a book of dramatic monologues using some of those photos. There could be light in that for me. Luckily I have six weeks of residency this year. I’m not thinking I wrote a dark book so now I have to write a light book. I would like to, for my own psychological health, pull up and out a little bit. I’d like to write a children’s book again. I haven’t done that for a long time. I think of myself as a storyteller and not necessarily a poet and so you look for the best way to tell a story. Hopefully I can get something that lightens the landscape a little bit, but I go with what presses me to be written.
Ann Beattie has been writing short stories for more than 40 years. For some readers, she remains associated with the Baby Boomer generation and specifically the 1970s when she first started publishing. But her style and approach have changed over the years, and even if she’s not as associated with the zeitgeist as she once was, her output in the 21st century -- which includes both new and selected volumes of short stories, novels, novellas -- demonstrates that she has not slowed down, nor has she abandoned new ideas and approaches. Beattie’s new book The State We’re In: Maine Stories is a collection of loosely linked short stories about people living in the state, some more permanently than others. We spoke back and forth over e-mail while she was on the road about linked short stories, Maine, and ending a story. The Millions: Where did the idea for the book start? Ann Beattie: I never have ideas. I don’t plan or plot. My husband was in Europe on vacation with his brother, and I decided to sit down and start writing and see what happened. The month before, I’d written [the short stories] “Road Movie” in rough draft, and “Missed Calls” in more-or-less final form, so maybe I was also slightly in a Maine state of mind...but if I remember correctly, when I wrote “The Fledgling,” I was just seeing what I could write in the first hour after I sat down. Then I remembered how much fun it can be to write. TM: Why do you find Maine an interesting fictional space? AB: I suppose I might feel so much an outsider, or simply so negative about a place that it wouldn’t be something I’d want to visit in fiction, but Maine is like any other place to me. I wasn’t at all trying to define anything about the state. Since I’ve lived here for about 25 years part of the year, of course some things were right there at my fingertips. Had I found the fledgling in the recycling bin in Virginia, I would have set the story there, I guess. TM: There are a lot of people who will read this book who have never been to Maine and only know the state through Stephen King, Richard Russo, Carolyn Chute, and Murder, She Wrote. Were you thinking of this and playing with that knowledge or expectation? AB: Yes, would be the short answer. I hear conversations all around me, I know both people who live here 12 months a year and tourists, and the state also gets tons of publicity, so I think I have many perspectives on how people think of Maine. While I do think vaguely of my audience when I write (though I hope it’s never a predictable audience; I really write for myself and a very few other people, initially), I write whatever I’m inclined to write, because a writer shouldn’t outguess or in any way condescend to her audience. TM: What made this a story collection as opposed to a Robert Altman-esque novel with many central characters–or a Beattie-esque novel like Falling in Place, say? AB: Good question. But I’ve already written Falling in Place, so wouldn’t want to use that exact structure again. Also, at first the stories seemed more unrelated than they turned out to be. In many cases, I fought the impulse to have more cross-overs or walk-ons, or scenes in which this character meets that character (which would have been easy). I didn’t get to the character I think of as most central, Jocelyn, until I had about half the stories in what became the book. Then her story got longer and longer. If the whole thing had been a seesaw, Jocelyn would have easily tipped the balance and sent the other characters up into the air to dangle. That would have been counter-productive, so I didn’t restrain myself from writing so much about her in first-draft, but afterwards -- inspired by my husband’s helpful thoughts (hi, honey!), I realized it might work well to divide the material and intersperse her ongoing story with other stories that were not inconclusive, but best understood in terms of their stand-alone connotations as separate stories. Is that clear enough? What I mean is, her story was too big to stand alone and not interrupt the book, but I hoped that the little stories orbiting her would work two ways: that hers would comment ultimately on them, and that they would add some perspective, etc. to hers. TM: Why did you resist having characters appear in other stories. I ask because I suppose that’s an obvious option when writing stories set in the same place. Even in a book like this, do you want each story to stand completely on its own? AB: One way to answer the question would be that the reason I resist writing related short stories has to do with my writing method, which is not to pre-plan a story. If I knew characters were hovering in the wings that should be incorporated, I’d worry that it would determine, too much, what story I wrote next. That doesn’t seem to me enough of an answer. I’m quite aware that things reappear in my stories, such as Patsy Cline songs. I deliberately take something -- some object -- and see if it looks different, or works differently, from story to story. Like everyone else, I also take the chair in the living room and see if I like it better in the bedroom. That doesn’t exactly answer the question, either. With the disclaimer that there are books of stories in which the characters reappear that I like very much, I tend to be moved by stories in which the writer begins and -- I guess -- in some sense concludes lives. It’s a little like watching someone dance under a strobe light. How you capture what it looks like is the initial difficulty (even sunlight is really no less of a problem), but if you represent the dancer, even if she’s moving through differently colored lights, or waving her arms more than before, then it’s the dance you’re watching, not the dancer. I suppose the argument could be made that that would be just fine. Or the joke: Ah, Beattie’s next collection will be linked stories. I doubt it. TM: I know that you live there part time, but does Maine feel like home to you? AB: No. The house in Maine feels more or less like home, but then I go out. TM: Does that make it easier or harder to write about a place? AB: I honestly don’t know. I think, in general, it helps me to feel comfortable enough in a place, but not too comfortable. TM: Do you write and discard -- or at least not publish -- a lot of stories? AB: I’d say 30 or 40 percent are discarded entirely. TM: How long did The State We’re In/em> take to write and how does that compare to other collections? AB: Not so long. It’s one summer’s stories, though that says nothing about how they were ordered or what time I took discarding individual stories and making revisions. TM: How do your stories typically start? Did it change in any way for the stories in this collection? AB: It did change with this book. I didn’t set out to write a book, just to see if I could write some rather short stories that I hoped would be on some level pretty direct (such as the ones that involve conversations, like “The Stroke” or “Silent Prayer”). It took me a while to realize how much almost all of them were stories about how people tell stories -- whether epistolary (“Missed Calls”), or mostly gossip, or with people trying to write stories but living them instead (“Duff’s Done Enough”). If you look at the book as a collection of women’s voices -- different women, telling stories -- that would seem right to me. That strikes me as more of a common denominator than the state of Maine. As for the first part of the question -- almost everything I write starts with a visual image, even if its position gets rearranged later. TM: Do you write stories with an ending in mind? AB: Never. TM: So how do you know when you’ve reached the end of a story? Because so many of them don’t conclude per se. AB: To me, using a different way of thinking (a different part of my brain, no doubt), I’ve begun to sense, as a story stretches out, where it is going and what small things are operative (motifs, etc.). I try to allow myself messy rough drafts, but that’s different from having good instincts and eventually guessing, as I write, where a story is headed (though the specifics surprise me all the time). How do I know when I’ve reached the end? When there’s a critical mass I could explain, but since any good story is never just a riddle to be solved, nothing would make me articulate that, except in the vaguest sense, to myself -- functioning as writer first, but thereafter as reader. TM: In your Paris Review interview you said that when you started writing, there wasn’t another short-story writer you wanted to emulate. Do you see writers now who have followed what you’ve been doing? AB: No comment. But not unrelated: writers are in dialogue with other writers. Sometimes they’re mimics, rather than originators -- right?