Shaun Hamill Has a Scary Story to Tell You

Shaun Hamill’s debut novel, A Cosmology of Monsters, asks what makes a monster. “Is it based on body and appearance? Is it defined by actions, like those of a serial killer or a murderous despot? Or is it an aspect of all of us, our ugly, mean-spirited, spiteful side?” Hamill asked me, adding, “I think it’s all a matter of perspective…”

A Cosmology of Monsters follows the Turner family as they navigate illnesses and hardships. The heart of the family—and the novel—is young Noah Turner. Noah befriends a monster that appears outside his bedroom, and the two of them form a bond that transforms the Turners’ lives. Told with tenderness and brimming with darkness, Hamill’s debut is sure to please readers who have a special literary craving for monsters.

Hamill and I recently discussed the influence of other horror writers, haunted attractions, and, of course, monsters.

The Millions: One thing I admire so much about A Cosmology of Monsters is how it shows appreciation for the horror writers and works that came before it. Among others, your novel mentions Weird Tales, Shirley Jackson, and H. P. Lovecraft. Do you mind talking about your decision to include so many references to other horror writers and works?

Shaun Hamill: I like stories that are in active conversation with other stories, and I always enjoy finding recommendations inside books—when a piece of fiction mentions a book I haven’t read, an album I haven’t heard, or a film I haven’t seen, I feel like I’m being invited into a secret club. With Cosmology, I found a way to turn my own self-indulgence into a narrative asset. After all, this is a story about people who scare other people for a living. They needed to be familiar with their genre, and the characters’ awareness of the horror tradition allows them to grapple with the larger thematic questions of the book in a more direct way than if, say, they existed in a world without Shirley Jackson or H.P. Lovecraft.

TM: The Lovecraft references are especially strong.

SH: Although the narrative shape of Cosmology is sort of a John Irving/Stephen King mash-up, its worldbuilding and philosophy have more in common with Lovecraft. Lovecraft believed that humanity is small and insignificant in a large, uncaring cosmos. Much of his fiction hammers at this idea, with unknowable monsters standing as symbols for a godless universe. When I started reading Lovecraft in grad school, this philosophy seemed a perfect backdrop for a tragic family saga. What was interesting to me was taking that cosmic nihilism as a given, and then saying “Okay, now what? How do you live a life? How do you give it meaning?”

TM: A Cosmology of Monsters is very much a monster story. Did certain literary monsters from the past guide the way you crafted the monster in your novel?

SH: The closest literary relative is probably Eli, the child vampire from John Ajvide Linqvist’s Let the Right One In. I was also inspired by “The Window,” a story in Alvin Schwartz’s More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, in which a young woman sees lights outside her bedroom window that turn out to be the glowing eyes of a vampire. There’s definitely some of Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolf-Man in there, but I also want to mention a real-life monster: my dog, Sheplin, who laid behind my desk chair every morning, sighing loudly while I wrote (he didn’t get a walk until I was done). His body language and personality were a big influence on the monster’s early appearances.

TM: I want to talk some more about monsters. After I met the monster in A Cosmology of Monsters, I felt pity for it. It’s alone in the dark. The first word it makes out to Noah is “friend.” It can’t really write, and it has trouble playing with toys. It’s a pitiful creature really. Still, though, it is the monster—we know it and it knows it. As I kept reading, I couldn’t help but focus on this question that I’ll pose to you: what defines a monster?

SH: That’s the central question of the book, isn’t it? It’s a nebulous term, hard to pin down. After all, Dracula and Grover are both monsters, and while they both have abnormal physical characteristics, they’re completely different in demeanor and intent. So what does the term mean? Is it based on body and appearance? Is it defined by actions, like those of a serial killer or a murderous despot? Or is it an aspect of all of us, our ugly, mean-spirited, spiteful side? I think it’s all a matter of perspective, and it’s something the book’s characters are struggling with. That’s probably less of a straight answer than you wanted, but it’s as close as I can come.

TM: Here is one of Noah’s descriptions of the monster: “My friend stood and stepped back. It extended the talons of its right paw. It felt more like the hand of an adult human than like that of some unspeakable horror, and, as the creature pulled me into its embrace, I felt warmth and sturdiness.” What is it about the monster in A Cosmology of Monsters that makes it be so comforting to Noah?

SH: Noah has a cold home life. Neither of his parents are around to provide physical affection. His sister Eunice does her best to take care of him, but even her attention is diverted early in the story. The monster is big and warm and gentle like you want your parents to be, and it’s a constant presence for Noah—something he can always count on. There’s more to it, of course, but to say more would spoil some important aspects of the book.

TM: Do you think of Noah as being a monster?

SH: He’s worried that he is, but I want readers to make up their own mind.

TM: Noah is an interesting character. He has a tough life. His dad dies when Noah is very young. His family members have mental-health issues. And, well, his best friend is a monster. I’m curious how he came to you and what inspired him.

SH: Noah’s voice has been with me for a long time. I first heard him when I was on a road trip in my early 20s, and had one of those “lightning bolt of inspiration” moments: a novel about a fatherless boy in a house full of women, coming of age working at the family business. The nature of the business changed, and monsters invited themselves in, but all the family characters and mental illness stuff were there from the beginning. As far as the source material for that inspiration, I grew up in a house of women and have spent a lot of my life dealing with the effects of poverty and mental illness. Like many freshman novelists, I built my story from what my wife likes to call “all my carry-on.”

TM: A Cosmology of Monsters is a horror novel for sure with violence and terror, but it’s not only a horror novel. It’s also a rich love story. The novel begins with love. The Turner family stays together because of love. It ends with love. The book is often tender and sweet. What do you think the addition of the love stories adds to the novel?

SH: There are a few ways the love stories add to the novel. First, love is an aspect of monstrousness, potentially a cause and a cure (sometimes simultaneously). Second, this book torments its characters, so it was important that I and my reader become invested enough to endure that torment alongside them. Third, love was the secret sauce that turned Cosmology from a rambling, overlong, confused epic (my first draft was 220,000 words) into a more focused, propulsive narrative. Whenever I felt the story getting too big, or heading in a cliched or overdramatic direction, looking to love (both mine for the characters and theirs for one another) almost always gave me a more interesting scene or surprising moment. It made the book smaller, but better.

TM: I don’t want to make the book seem light because it’s definitely not. In fact, so much of the novel is about how we, no matter how hard we try, can’t truly protect other people no matter how hard we try. It’s a bleak outlook—maybe, but I think it’s true.

SH: Agreed. Life is a slow motion train wreck. Disasters will beset you and everyone you care about and you are powerless to stop it. It goes back to that Lovecraftian nihilism I mentioned earlier—we are cosmically insignificant in an unplanned, indifferent universe. That’s another reason love is so important to Cosmology. If life has no inherent meaning, there’s something romantic about living a good life and caring for the people around you. 

TM: The Wandering Dark, the haunted house the Turner family operates, plays a huge role in A Cosmology of Monsters. I can’t let you go without asking about real-life haunted attractions. Do you have a favorite?

SH: When I still lived in Texas, I used to make pilgrimages to a few local haunts in Dallas-Fort Worth with friends, but I haven’t been to one in years. I am terrified of going alone. My favorite was called Zombie Manor, in my hometown of Arlington, Texas, (they’ve since moved to New Brunswick in Canada). I never went there as a customer but visited after hours for a screening of a short film I’d worked on. The staff told us we could walk through the empty attraction and explore, but they didn’t tell us that there was a single cast member hiding in the shadows. When a piece of scenery in a dark corridor reached out and grabbed my arm, it gave me the fright of my life and started my mind down the road toward the Wandering Dark.

A Vibrant Sense of Hope: The Millions Interviews J. Ryan Stradal

In his sophomore novel, The Lager Queen of Minnesota, J. Ryan Stradal captures the true essence of hopefulness in the voices of his characters. “Hope is an essential element in both of my novels. I wanted to instill a vibrant sense of both hope and kindness into these characters, who are all from towns smaller than mine, but don’t limit their world view to what they can see from their porch, which can happen anywhere.”

Stradal’s new novel is the kind of book you read and immediately want to share. It’s a story about family, hard work, and goodness. Told from the point of view of three Midwestern women—Edith, Helen, and Diana—who are set on proving themselves, the story takes readers into the world of beers and pies. The result is a charming novel that is sure to affect readers.

Stradal and I spoke via email about, among other things, the Midwest, the culinary world, and, of course, beer.

The Millions: You are a writer whose first two novels, Kitchens of the Great Midwest and The Lager Queen of Minnesota, take place in the world of food and drink. You are also a contributing editor at TASTE. And, you are a producer for “Hot Dish.” The culinary world must be a big part of your identity, right?

J. Ryan Stradal: It’s more of a preoccupation. I think I’m mostly an enthusiastic end user. But I’m improving as a home cook.

TM: What sparked your fascination with the culinary world?

JRS: Growing up in a smallish town in Minnesota, I wasn’t exposed to a great diversity of food, but as I became aware it was out there, I couldn’t wait to try it all. As soon as I had my driver’s license, I spent many weekends chasing down the various ethnic cuisines that the Twin Cities had to offer. My favorite thing to do on any weekend was to try out a variety or style of cooking I hadn’t experienced before. It wasn’t that easy to find new or unusual restaurants before the Internet, though my parents’ friends turned me on to several. Also, many of the restaurants I came to enjoy I read about in magazines and newspapers; anytime there was a “food issue,” I was all in. I’d narrow it down to a few places and plan my visits over a period of weeks based on my level of spending money. Then I’d call and make the reservations for myself and my girlfriend, who was into these experiences as well. There weren’t a lot of teenage foodies back then, if that’s what we were, but I don’t remember the front of house staff treating us all that differently.

TM: Let’s turn to the Midwest for a moment. Eva from Kitchens of the Great Midwest hails from Minnesota. Edith, Helen, and Diana of The Lager Queen of Minnesota are, as the title suggests, from the Land of 10,000 Lakes. What is it about Minnesota, and the Midwest in general, that makes it the perfect setting for your writing?

JRS: It’s the perfect setting, because there aren’t many other places where these people could exist and do the things they do. I was inspired in part to write Kitchens because I just didn’t know any books quite like it, and I badly wanted a book to exist in the world that dealt with the kinds of people and places I knew growing up. They can be tricky to write about. There are qualities to them—endurance, agreeability, a desire to be useful, a resistance to complaining or making a scene—that aren’t always natural fits for effective drama in storytelling. Most people I knew growing up studiously avoided conflict. Yet how they handle it, and what they reveal about themselves when they do, has always fascinated me.

TM: One thing I appreciate about The Lager Queen of Minnesota is the fact that the best brewers in Minnesota are women. This passage describing Helen’s realization that she’s doing something special is one I found myself returning to:
Helen checked out any book from the library that had anything to do with beer. She learned about the thousands of breweries that once filled the country, coast to coast. She’d read as much as she could find about the history of beer, a history that she had no idea began with a beer goddess and was run by women for centuries. The person that first documented and prescribed the use of hops was a woman, for God’s sake. But when the books had photographs, she realized one afternoon, she saw a lot of people who looked like her grandpa, and a lot who looked like Orval Blotz, but no one who looked like her.
Did you know when the idea for this novel first came to you that the story would belong to the three women who are at its heart?

JRS: Originally the story had many more POV characters; I’d set out to write a larger story about the effects of this family’s unfairly divided inheritance. I think at one point there were eight POV characters, three of which were men. Not only was the first draft pretty damn turgid, it was clear to me that the chapters that concentrated on the family members involved in the brewing industry, the spine of the book, were by far the strongest. Those chapters’ POV characters happened to be women.

In fiction, we get to tell the story of the world we want to exist. That’s the way I see it. It doesn’t mean my women brewmaster characters can’t face hardships and challenges, but they are going to be character-specific and setting-specific and not often exaggerated. There are already enough people writing dystopias, and they’re better at it than I would be. I mostly write about people I’d like to know, and create worlds I’d like to live in.

I was naturally inspired by many of the women I’d met in the beer industry. While meeting and communicating with them, I was often told how, more than sexism, what they battled was the sum of its historical toll. They weren’t personally ever told they couldn’t own a brewery or work as brewmasters, but, with notable exceptions like Kim Jordan and Deb Carey, there simply weren’t many female role models already on that level. Now, for the present generation running breweries, there’s an opportunity for women-to-women mentorship that didn’t exist 20 years ago. Considering that women invented beer, I hope they reclaim its creation and management as much as they care to.

TM: I imagine it’ll be hard for most readers to pick a favorite character, but Edith is the one I couldn’t get enough of. She gives the novel so much added warmth and goodness. I love this line about her near the beginning: “Edith was only sixty-four years old, but if she died right then, she would’ve felt the most important things a Minnesotan, woman or man, can feel at the end of their lives. She’d done what she could, and she was of use. She helped.” People like Edith are treasures. From where did your inspiration for her come?

JRS: Edith has some of both of my grandmas in her, but she’s at least 50 percent my mom. I’d think of her most frequently when writing this character. That said, I don’t know that she would’ve thought of Edith as resembling her at all. Certainly my mom was a lot more of a partier than Edith, and was far more social. But she’s there. The heart, that’s what’s there.

TM: I want to go back to the warm feeling this novel emits. The Lager Queen of Minnesota is a kind book. Even when the characters face difficult times—and those come often—they still remain hopeful. Do you mind talking about the importance of hope in your novel?

JRS: Hope is an essential element in both of my novels. I wanted to instill a vibrant sense of both hope and kindness into these characters, who are all from towns smaller than mine, but don’t limit their world view to what they can see from their porch, which can happen anywhere. My brother was also an inspiration here. He’s had a much tougher path than mine, and despite everything he’s battled with, I admire deeply how much he both grinds it out and keeps perspective. To think beyond what you’ve been taught to expect is a form of hope, but where I’m from, acceptance can be a form of hope too, if it prompts someone to rise to the occasion. For Edith and Diana, hope isn’t just dreaming about an unlikely ideal. It’s them believing that they have the guts to change.

TM: Flavor Dave, the intimidating beer critic, gives Edith’s beer a “100 out of 100” review. That moment brought a tear to my eye:
This beer doesn’t make any sense. It didn’t fill any obvious market niche, meet a known customer demand, or pursue any recognizable tend. This beer is merely the ultimate expression of its brewer, a seventy-nine-year-old woman named Edith Magnusson, who has next to no internet footprint, and about one-millionth the social media presence of my neighbor’s two-year-old. What little exists about Edith online indicates that she may have worked at a nursing home in New Stockholm, where her pies were enough of a foodie fetish to turn the joint into a brutal Friday night dinner reservation, but there was nothing to indicate any access to or even interest in brewing. Until, of course, this pie in a bottle, which seems like a smoking gun of a correlation. The actual pie was almost certainly better.
Flavor Dave’s reaction reminded me of that moment when Anton Ego tastes Remy’s ratatouille near the end of Pixar’s Ratatouille. Flavor Dave, like Anton Ego, knows what he’s consuming is made with love—pure, total love. It’s a moving, beautiful moment in the book.

JRS: Thank you. I love the analogy. I wanted someone you wouldn’t expect to respond to Edith’s beer to enthusiastically validate it, not just intellectually, but emotionally. Flavor Dave was inspired in part by one of my favorite pieces of music journalism, Steve Albini’s review of Spiderland by Slint.

TM: With a novel about beer and pie, I can’t let you go without asking: What’s your choice of drink? And what’s the perfect slice of pie to go with it?

JRS: Oh, wow. To have together? I like double and imperial IPAs, and those traditionally don’t go so well with pie. In terms of flavor affinities—maybe a pilsner and a slice of strawberry rhubarb. Can’t get more Minnesotan than that.

Starting Over Is What’s Hard: The Millions Interviews Mary Laura Philpott

Mary Laura Philpott explores reinvention in her wonderful debut memoir-in-essays, I Miss You When I Blink. “One thing I’ve learned again and again is that starting over can save your soul, but it’s almost impossibly daunting if your only vision of reinvention is the all-or-nothing, blow-up-your-life kind,” she told me. “There are smaller, incremental ways to start over that can save us, too.”

But Philpott’s collection isn’t only a guide for reinvention. It’s the kind of book that shapeshifts into what each reader needs most. Some essays are laugh-out-loud funny; others are affectingly tender. Many are both. Seriously, read “This is Not My Cat” and “I Miss You When I Blink,” and try to explain the reason for your tears. Whether she’s writing about home, work, or family, Philpott’s essays show life as it truly is.

Philpott and I spoke via email about, among other things, cathartic writing, wise words, and literary citizenship.

The Millions: One thing I admire so much about I Miss You When I Blink is how open you are in discussing different parts of your life. Among other topics, you talk about your family, your health, and your insecurities. Did you find being so open about your life and experiences to be cathartic?

Mary Laura Philpott: That’s a great question. I think the cathartic parts of the writing process come early on, at least they did for me, when I was just blabbing things out and getting drafts on paper. But in the stages that came after, when I took those drafts and dug deeper into those personal stories, it became more about finding something bigger than just my own experience, as in Okay, so I hated my first job. What does that say about what it’s like to be that age or the way perfectionists tend to prioritize work in our lives? I wanted to ask and try to answer those questions, so that the experience of reading the book would be somewhat cathartic, too. The challenge was to verbalize those thoughts and observations in such a way that other people would feel like they’d finally gotten the words for something they’d always been thinking.

TM: Were there some essays you hesitated to write because of how open they required you to be?

MLP: There were definitely parts of my life that I hesitated to write about, mainly the parts where my experiences and feelings overlapped with the experiences and feelings of other people. While I don’t feel nervous about being open with the pieces of myself I’ve chosen to share, if there’s a story of mine that’s very much someone else’s story too, I erred on the side of not telling it—or not telling that part of it. In the parts of this book that deal with family, for example, I really tried to keep the focus on my own experience, the adult side of it, not stories about my kids themselves. I mean, they’re hilarious and I could tell you stories about them all day long, but that’s not what this book is. My spouse is a very private person, too, so I initially tried to write this collection without ever mentioning him, which was kind of ridiculous. So, he’s in there now, but as minimally as I could get away with.

That boundary ended up being really useful to the purpose of this book. I wanted to write about the internal conflict, the loneliness, and the absurd private bargains and humor—the inside jokes so “inside” that they happen only in our own heads—of being a person, and how the human experience often feels so solitary, even or especially when we’re surrounded by other people. Staying focused on my own piece of each experience helped me do that, I think.

I’m reminded of something Dani Shapiro wrote in a fantastic essay about the difference between the memoir as a piece of literature and the more private openness of a personal conversation: “My interest is in telling precisely what the story requires.”

TM: Do you have a favorite essay in the collection?

MLP: I don’t know — I’m proud of all of them for making it out of the mess of my mind and into the world. But one of my favorites to read aloud is “A Letter to a Type A Person in Distress.” It’s shorter than the others (which are all pretty short), and it’s a different format from the rest. I wrote the first draft of it in one sitting. It directly addresses the reader, and it was something I needed to hear and suspected a lot of other people needed to hear, too: You’re trying so hard; I see you; you’re doing great.

TM: You pack I Miss You When I Blink with lots of wisdom. Seriously, I feel like I highlighted a quarter of the book. In “Wonder Woman,” you write, “When you internalize what you believe to be someone else’s opinion of you, it becomes your opinion of you,” and just a few pages over, you add, “Even small events can have a formative effect on our lives. Everything sinks into the soil.” Similarly, in “Everything to Be Happy About,” you have this great line about what it means to be fortunate: “But being fortunate doesn’t mean you won’t reach a certain point in life—many points, actually—and panic. It doesn’t mean you don’t periodically wonder how you got where you are and if there’s any way to get out.”

But it’s “Mermaids and Destiny” that I marked up the most. It discusses the ways in which we, especially as young people, develop and dream and create goals for ourselves. It ends with this paragraph: “The picture you get at the end of a connect-the-dots activity really depends on which dots you decide to use. So try things and go through phases. Put down a lot of dots. Later, you can look back and pick any of those dots to create a picture of how you became who you are. And if you don’t like the picture you end up with, you can always choose different dots, which just goes to show destiny isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” That’s so brilliant. I imagine people seek you often when they are in need of advice. Am I right?

MLP: Oh, thank you. I’m so glad those parts resonated with you. People do ask me for advice a lot, which is funny, because I don’t really feel like I know what I’m doing, much less have enough wisdom to help anyone else know what they should do. But maybe that’s what this book is—the scraped-up bits of any wisdom I do have. Sometimes as I was writing it, I felt like I was trying to go back and give advice to my younger selves.

TM: Your memoir offers proof that we don’t have to ever settle on a previously established identity. Here’s my question: Which do you think is more difficult: settling into someone we don’t want to become or starting over to become who we want to be?

MLP: It’s frighteningly easy to settle into being someone you don’t want to be, because that settling can happen so gradually. Starting over is what’s hard. And I didn’t realize until well into putting this collection together that the theme of reinvention ran through so many of these essays. One thing I’ve learned again and again is that starting over can save your soul, but it’s almost impossibly daunting if your only vision of reinvention is the all-or-nothing, blow-up-your-life kind. There are smaller, incremental ways to start over that can save us, too.

TM: Whether I’m thinking of “Lobsterman,” which tells a funny story about your interpretation of a writing prompt when you were in high school, or “Nora Ephron and the Lives of Trees,” which is about your interest in the characteristics of animals, your memoir displays a sincere appreciation of imagination and what it can do to better our lives. In today’s fast-paced world, how do we adults remember to keep imagination prevalent in our lives?

MLP: I think my imagination is my mental safe-zone. As soon as the real world gets too horrific to witness, my brain just flips an emergency switch and goes, “Nope, let’s imagine a squirrel trying on shoes.” Animals are a big part of my imagination, maybe because while we share so much with animals—we’re all breathing, we all need to eat and sleep—they’re oblivious to most of the bullshit of the human world. They’re not listening to politicians bicker, they don’t care who won the Oscar for what, they don’t know to be terrified of the gun violence epidemic. So being around creatures who aren’t focused on all that inspires me to let go of it for a little while. Also, juxtaposing the animal world with the human world in my imagination—like, okay, what would the deer in my yard say if she had a Twitter account?—makes me laugh, and I definitely need to locate my joy in order to access my imagination. So, I guess that’s my answer. Go outside.

TM: At this past year’s Southern Festival of Books, you brought up a topic that I haven’t been able to get off my mind: literary citizenship. Although it’s a concept I have thought about often, I’d never really heard of that phrasing before. Do you mind talking about what you think makes someone a good literary citizen?

MLP: Ah, yes! I love this subject. I was chatting with someone recently who said, “I don’t have time to read every new book when it comes out—am I a bad literary citizen?” No, no, no…literary citizenship is as simple as valuing the written word and the institutions that support it. Check out books from your library or buy them at an indie store; tell a friend about a book you enjoyed; give books as presents; whatever. Show up and sit in the audience when your favorite authors go on book tour. Join a book club. Subscribe to a literary magazine. Literary citizenship, like just plain citizenship, largely comes down to what we do locally—it’s about supporting the groups and businesses that keep literature alive in our communities. Be a part of the cultural ecosystem in whatever small way you can, so it stays healthy.

TM: You work for one of my most beloved bookstores, Parnassus Books in Nashville. So, I have to ask for recommendations. What’s on the horizon in memoir that you recommend?

MLP: Oh man, you’ll have to cut me off on this topic. Just in the next couple of months, there’s Once More We Saw Stars, which Jayson Greene wrote about the aftermath of a tragic accident that killed his little girl; it’s heartbreaking but also surprisingly life affirming. I’m absolutely in love with Out East by John Glynn, which is one of my favorite new entries in the “we’re still becoming who we are, even as adults” category. I really enjoyed Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb, which shares a pub date with my book. Southern Lady Code by Helen Ellis is a brilliant and hysterically dry essay collection. If I may go into summer real quick: My writing group friend Margaret Renkl has a poetic, memoir-ish meditation on nature and grief coming out from Milkweed Editions called Late Migrations. I guess I should stop there? But there are more coming in the fall. There’s also so much good literary fiction coming out this spring. Novels are popping up like flowers. Right now is a great time to visit a bookstore.

I Think of My Stories as Comedies: Josh Denslow’s Sad Superheroes

Josh Denslow’s debut collection, Not Everyone Is Special, follows a cast of memorable characters who have resigned themselves to failure. “I do indeed write about broken souls, but I tend to think of my characters as superheroes,” Denslow told me. “Except instead of courageously moving forward under adversity, they never get past their origin stories. They have already decided they will lose.”

Whether Denslow seeks to capture failed love—as in “Too Late for a Lot of Things”—or shows us how special powers aren’t always so glamorous in “Proximity,” he presents stories with equal amounts of humor and loss. Ultimately, the collected 15 stories in Not Everyone Is Special serve as a heartfelt ode to those living among impossible-to-escape difficulties.

Denslow and I recently discussed the appeal of failing, the importance of humor, and the inspirations behind some of his most memorable characters.

The Millions: When I finished Not Everyone Is Special, I began, almost immediately, to think back about your characters. Whether I was reflecting on the lovelorn Keith in “Too Late for a Lot of Things,” jealous Neil in “Proximity,” or even the current and soon-to-be guilt-plagued group of boys in “Crossing Guard,” I realized just how broken these souls are. What is it about these troubled lives that make them such good subjects?

Josh Denslow: I can’t imagine a more wonderful compliment than knowing you are still thinking about the characters, Bradley. Thank you.

I do indeed write about broken souls, but I tend to think of my characters as superheroes. Except instead of courageously moving forward under adversity, they never get past their origin stories. They have already decided they will lose.

When I begin a story, I usually start with one of these “superheroes” on the precipice, and I find it’s impossible to fill in the backstory without unearthing all the sadness and pain and regret. I mean, who doesn’t have all of that in their past? But one of the real tragedies of life is when we root for someone to succeed and that person can’t quite rise to the challenge. Almost as if our expectations are a curse. That’s the feeling I like to evoke in my stories. Because everyone can relate to failure and disappointment.

TM: With characters such as these, there’s of course going to be plenty of sadness and loneliness. However, there’s also a lot of funny stuff going on here. How important was it for you to balance some of the darkness with moments of humor?

JD: I might even say it’s the most important thing to me. Humor is how we understand each other. It’s how we relate to each other. It’s how we mask our pain. I think of my stories as comedies even though they can indeed be just as sad and lonely as you say. A lot of times when I tell someone what one of my stories is about, I have to follow up with, “But it’s a comedy!”—because it usually doesn’t sound all that funny when it’s broken down into its working parts. There is, of course, what a story is about, but then there is also how it’s about. For me, the humor holds the parts together.

Because real life is a balance of tragedy and comedy, I try to replicate that as best as I can. I usually find if I just let my characters talk, the comedy will find a way in. And that humor has a way of making the truth of the story land harder.

TM: Do you still think of any of the characters from Not Everyone Is Special?

JD: Probably the character I come back to the most is Mark from the story “Mousetrap.” He has an interesting job picking up dead bodies and bringing them to a funeral home. He’s also contemplating suicide. (But it’s a comedy!) He might be my saddest character, but also, the most self-aware and critical, and I find that really interesting. A guy who is critical of himself can learn from his mistakes, and more than anything Mark wants to be a better person. That’s a journey I could easily continue following. Plus, I’m fascinated by his job, and I bet there are a million stories to be told about it. I really like the jobs people choose to do, and I think that manifests itself through the collection.

I actually attempted a series of stories that feature Squid from the story “Everyone Continued to Sing.” He valet parks cars, which is a job I held for many years in college, and his stories were colored by the actual experiences I had during that time. There’s even a character in that series named Cody who might be the closest to autobiographical I have ever written. But ultimately it is Squid who is the most fascinating character, the way he sees life as a contest, and I think about him whenever I’m in a parking garage. Only one of my parking stories made this collection, and it’s because watching Squid deal with grief is fascinating and it fit thematically with everything else in Not Everyone Is Special.

TM: There’s a sense of realness that’s clearly established in your stories. I mean, honestly, I could probably pick any one story out of the collection and see myself or someone I know reflected in some way. But you also use magic at times. “Proximity,” which follows a young man who teleports, is the story that probably takes the biggest leap into the fantastic. What does the addition of magic add to your stories that staying with realism just can’t?

JD: One way to truly understand a character is to thrust him into an extraordinary experience. And since I already think of my characters as superheroes, it wasn’t too big of a leap to start giving them actual superpowers.

But I knew I needed to treat any magical additions as I would any other mundane revelation. “Proximity” was the first story where I attempted this. I wanted to explore what it would be like to have a superpower in the exact world we live in now. I believe that if given a power like that, a lot of people would hide it; scared to take a chance on greatness.

In fact, a unifying theme in the collection is how people squander their talents. So instead of Neil having some secret artistic talent that no one knows about, he’s hiding his ability to teleport across town. But when he does it, it’s incredibly painful, so he has to choose his times carefully. I didn’t want the teleportation to become what the story was about. I wanted to keep that realness you mention. That’s incredibly important to me, that the characters feel real no matter what crazy thing is happening.

“Proximity” turns out to be a fairly sweet story about a guy who is new to adulthood and his relationship with his mother. The addition of his teleportation power makes everything worse than it would be without it, and that’s what I like most. The way powers complicate things.

TM: One story in particular that’s loaded with funny bits is “Too Late for a Lot of Things.” The story is about a small person named Keith, who works as an elf at Santa’s Workshop. He dislikes basically everyone and everything except for Tina, and he’s in love with her. I won’t spoil the ending, but I think it’s such a unique and special story. Do you mind talking about the genesis of it?

JD: There was an actual place near where I grew up in Illinois that was a year-round Christmas-themed amusement park. I never actually went, which makes me a little sad now considering I don’t think it’s there anymore. But for some reason it always fascinated me. There was something incredibly sad about capitalizing on Christmas for an entire year, and so of course, I always wanted to write a story about it.

One thing I like to do, particularly in this collection, is to give my main characters a disadvantage. In “Too Late for a Lot of Things,” Keith uses his diminutive stature to hold himself back in every aspect of his life. Because he dislikes himself, he takes it out on everyone around him. And what is around him is this rundown Christmas park where he works as an elf. It is a form of self-punishment in which Keith forces the world to see him as he sees himself. In fact, when I was submitting this story for publication, the title was actually “How I See Myself,” but I think Third Coast was right to change the title before they published it. “Too Late for a Lot of Things” opens up the theme to encompass everyone who works there. They all missed out on something.

Once I then created an antagonist in the form of the guy who portrays Santa Claus at the park, this story just fell into place. All I needed at that point was a very tall love interest. And a whole sleigh full of bad feelings.

TM: Another standout is “Not Everyone Is Special,” which closes your collection. What made this particularly story stick out for it to be your titular one?

JD: “Not Everyone Is Special” was the name of the collection before there was even a collection. In fact, years ago when Cutbank accepted this story for publication, they also wanted to change the title. But unlike with Third Coast, this time I pushed back. My argument was that I was using this as the titular story of my collection. With the hazy way memory works, I might even say that was first time I thought of collecting my stories. What was apparent though during that exchange, was how much the title meant to me.

Cut to many years later when I was actually putting this collection together. I’d amassed quite a few stories by that point, and that title actually became a litmus test. If one of my stories could theoretically be called “Not Everyone Is Special” then it made the cut. So, in a strange way, to answer your question, it wasn’t anything about the actual content of the story that caused it to be the titular story, it was the title itself and how it tied everything together.

But that all being said, I think the title story is the most hopeful in the collection, and I love having it last because it leaves you thinking there might be a chance for some of these characters if they just figure out what makes them special.

TM: I have to ask about how your music influences your writing. For readers who don’t know, you are in the band Borrisokane. Do you feel like your drummer self helps better your writer self and vice versa?

JD: I would like to think that drumming has helped me with my rhythm in stories. When rewriting, I sometimes add or subtract words just to get the flow right. I give the sentences a tempo by controlling when they appear. I love the musicality of dialogue.

But I don’t know. A lot of writers have great rhythm and don’t play the drums. The one thing I can say for certain is that performing on stage as a drummer has helped me with the more uncomfortable aspects of being a writer. My time spent promoting Borrisokane, including all of our live shows and albums, paved the way toward promoting Not Everyone Is Special.

When you’re in a band, you have to put yourself out there, much more than we do as writers. My instinct is to hide away with my stories because they feel so intensely personal. But my time spent on stage gave me a lot more confidence to get out there and talk about myself. I actually treat my writing like a band now. My output, including my time spent promoting, is a form of branding. It makes it a little easier when I feel like I’m promoting a product and not just me as an individual.

I’m not sure if writing fiction has influenced my drumming, though there is a cohesion I have been striving for in the last few years. Much in the way I try to let my voice come through in my stories, I want to have a voice behind the drums. I love the idea that perhaps someone could recognize my drumming by just hearing a Borrisokane song. I want to have an identity in everything I do.

Fate’s Brutality: The Millions Interviews Chigozie Obioma

Chigozie Obioma explores the thematic power and appeal of fate in his masterful sophomore novel, An Orchestra of Minorities. “I think it’s the question of fate’s unknowingness, its unquestionability, its irrationality, its madness, its unpredictability, its mercy, its brutality, its generosity, its elusiveness, its banality, its vitality, and all the things you can ascribe to it. It is the most metaphysical of all phenomena—if we can call it a phenomenon. I cannot conceive of a greater topic for great literature,” he said.

Narrated by a chi, or guardian
spirit, Obioma’s latest novel follows the life of Chinonso, a poultry farmer,
whose entire world changes when he comes upon a young woman named Ndali, who is
preparing to jump from a bridge. Soon, Chinonso and Ndali find themselves in
love. But, like most things, their relationship proves itself to be more
complicated than either of them could have expected. Burdened and blessed by
the weight of sacrifice, determination, and destiny, Obioma takes readers on a
journey that weaves from the physical world into the spiritual one.

Obioma and I spoke about classic
literature, Nigerian influence, and human limitations.

The Millions: When I
read your novels, I recall elements of myths, epics, and even Greek tragedies.
When you set out to write, do you know you’ll be telling your stories in a
style and language that is reflective of these forms?

Chigozie Obioma: My answer would be that I grew up consuming Greek myth and Shakespeare, and Igbo tales. Across them, there is a tight thread, woven into a knot, which makes it almost impossible to tell them apart from each other. The universality of the archetypes in these stories—whether it is of the murderously ambitious serviceman who becomes convinced he must become king (in Macbeth) or the murderously angry man who becomes convinced that his life’s duty must be to hunt down the man who killed his father (Oedipus Rex) or of the man who embarks on a far journey into the forest of the Living and the Dead to reclaim his male potency (the tale of Ojadili)—make some of the most fascinating stories I have encountered.

So when I write, I’m often drawn unconsciously to these. The only conscious choice I make in this regard is in picking my subjects. I’m more chiefly concerned with metaphysics of existence and essence as they relate to the Igbo philosophy of being. We believe that life is in essence a dialectic between free will and destiny. It is a paradox: that you can make a choice, yet, that everything is preordained? And it is in this space that I anchor my stories.

TM: Do you think
you’ll ever veer away and write another kind of novel?

CO: I’m not sure but I know, by the short fiction I’ve written, that I’m capable of doing that. The issue is, the subjects I have been choosing are often so vast, so expansive they demand to be told in new ways. It is a constant surprise for me, personally. In fact, when the idea of narrative structure of The Fishermen first came to me, I waved it off as crazy. But as I wrote the book, it demanded that Ben tell the story that way. For An Orchestra of Minorities, I resisted the very challenging task of creating the chi. But again, the subject and vision for the novel demanded this structure. We will see what happens in the future.

TM: Your two novels
are both set largely in Nigeria, and there is a clear love and respect of place
in your prose. Do you think of Nigeria as being a character in itself in your
work?

CO: Absolutely, in
both novels. The Fishermen has been correctly read as a metaphor for how
Nigeria was created by the chaos left in the aftermath of the encounter with
the madman (therein the colonialists who insisted we must become this specific
way). Nigeria has a more physical presence in An Orchestra of Minorities.
It is the land that sends its child—Chinonso the main character—away into his
great suffering and is also the mother that embraces him when he returns.
 This is my complex relationship with Nigeria even on a personal level. It
is at once the home that sent me away, out of it because of its lack of
provisions for me, and it is the home that embraces me whenever I return.

TM: From where did you
get the idea to write An Orchestra of Minorities?

CO: I had been thinking for a long time about writing a novel about the Igbo civilization, a cosmological novel that will document for posterity the complex systems of my people. I wanted, in essence, to do what John Milton and Dante Alighieri did for Western civilization. But I didn’t know how to go about it until I moved to the Turkish republic of Northern Cyprus and encountered a Nigerian man who was duped into moving to North Cyprus and, when he discovered he had lost everything, got drunk and died tragically after falling from a three-story building. That became the inspiration for Chinonso. I wrote about that experience for The Guardian in 2016.

TM: I have to ask
about the narrator of An Orchestra of Minorities. A chi, or guardian
spirit, is who tells of the story of Chinonso and Ndali. Is having a narrator
who isn’t restricted by human limitations more difficult to write because of
the unknown boundaries? Or does that sense of freedom make the chi easier to
voice?

CO: The answer would
be both, but I imagine that the latter category will receive precedence. This
is because of the nature of the chi itself and the journeys it undertakes. The
Igbo has a concept of the heavenlies, a place where the afterlife happens. But
various zones and places in the Igbo nation do not have a unified description
of what it looks like. And where the descriptions are present, they are not as
comprehensive as you’d have, say, heaven in the Judeo-Christian tradition. So,
I had to invent something as close enough to what our ancestors would have
believed Alandiichie must have looked like. Things like this were very
difficult to do. But also, as you noted, the chi isn’t restricted by human
limitations so one has some space to write it without any fear of logical
inconsistencies or logistics. But the chi is also limited by a central
cosmological belief of the Igbo people. And it is more than 700 years old, so,
its memory is vast and to keep up with its commentary on life and being, to
continuously give it consistent prelapsarian eloquence—which sometimes allows
it to function as both a first and third person narrator—was difficult.

TM: Most of the
chapters begin with Chinonso’s chi offering wisdom. In one of the early
sections, the chi says, “Fear exists because of the presence of anxiety and
anxiety because humans cannot see the future. For if only a man could see the
future, he would be more at peace.” Do you think that’s true for contemporary
life, too?

CO: I think so, at least as far as I know. There is a constant quest to know the future, to divine into matters we do not know. This is an ancient, almost primal quest that humanity has been engaging in. This is why Americans go to the tea leaf readers and Nigerians to “Miracle Center” churches and traditional priests. Que sera sera—what will I be? Will I be rich? Will I get that job? How about kids, will I have them? Are you sure this is the right man or woman to marry? OK, well, when will I die? And etcetera. I dealt with this fear as the central inciting action in The Fishermen as well.  

TM: Thematically, this
novel looks closely at the value of sacrifice and the limits of love. However,
I want to focus on one theme that I think of most of all when thinking of An
Orchestra of Minorities: how fate shapes our lives. Chinonso struggles
constantly with the idea of his own life’s fate. Ndali and Chinonso’s chi do
too, but with some limits. What is it about fate that makes it such a compelling
topic?

CO: I think it’s the question of fate’s unknowingness, its unquestionability, its irrationality, its madness, its unpredictability, its mercy, its brutality, its generosity, its elusiveness, its banality, its vitality, and all the things you can ascribe to it. It is the most metaphysical of all phenomena—if we can call it a phenomenon. I cannot conceive of a greater topic for great Literature. As we speak, I’m writing an essay titled “Retreat from the Metaphysical” which looks at how great fiction has always tackled these questions and how modern fiction seems to be looking more and more at the self and to become more and more solipsistic because our vision of the scarcity of life is being obscured by the overwhelming abundance provided us by capitalism. Think of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Milton’s Paradise Lost which dealt with the question of foreknowledge and predestination—these are centered around the question of fate.

That said, fate is at the center of the Igbo-Odinani belief system. And if there is anything I have been trying to achieve in my work to date it is to center African philosophical ideas in the world discourse. Look around at the vast oceans of ideologies that mean anything today even to Africans themselves and none comes from us. The agelong erroneous belief that we had no complex systems of thought continues unchallenged, and today, even our intellectuals tramples on our cultural beliefs and philosophy. An Orchestra of Minorities shines a light on many strands of Igbo thought, and one of them is the essence of fate and its place in the cosmology of human existence.

TM: Chinonso is such a
complicated man. He saves someone’s life by sacrificing that which he values so
much. He loves. He tries to better himself. But he is also deeply flawed. He
does things rashly. He has a bad temper. He abandons who he is. I don’t want to
spoil too much, but what do you hope readers take away from Chinonso?

CO: I think this is open to the reader. I completely agree with you that Chinonso is very complicated and he is all of these things. But there is a line about him from the book that I always think about: “He has been vandalized by a spiritual politics into which he had been unwillingly conscripted.” This is my view of him. I think he is changed mostly by the things that had happened to him, and that test his humanity. And sometimes, when our humanity is tested beyond what we can bear, we can fail. This was the central theme of William Golding’s classic, Lord of the Flies.

But also, there is the element of
the physical politics that vandalize him: being defrauded by others and the
international racism he faces in Cyprus, which causes him to be unfairly
jailed. These things shape and reshape him, and his character evolves all
through the story till the last act in which he becomes, himself, a vandal.

TM: Readers fond of Homer’s epic Greek poem The Odyssey will likely view An Orchestra of Minorities as a contemporary retelling of sorts. How heavy of an influence was that text as you began writing? Did you always know your novel would have some similarities?

CO: In a way, yes. As I was plotting, it occurred to me that Chinonso’s journey would resemble that of Odysseus. So, I had him read the book as a child and use Odysseus’s story as a device to encourage him to continue on during times when it feels as though his troubles are beginning to sink him. But this is not a rewrite or re-imagining or retelling of Homer’s tale. There are just similarities.

TM: Book
recommendations are basically what I live for. There are a few weeks until An
Orchestra of Minorities is available, so I want to ask you something a
little different as we close. Are there any books you suggest readers check out
before they pick up your book? Ones that might help put readers in the perfect
place before they get to know the story of Chinonso and Ndali?

CO: I would ask them to read John Milton’s classic Paradise Lost, if they haven’t done so. I would also recommend Dante’s Inferno. For an understanding of some of the Igbo traditions readers will encounter in my book, I recommend Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God. But absent these, great contemporary books I have recently read and loved are Gun Love by Jennifer Clement and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean Dominique Bauby.

Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities is scheduled
to hit bookstore shelves on Jan. 8, 2019. Chigozie will be on tour to promote
his latest release. Be sure to check him out at one of his scheduled events:

1/8/2019, 5:00 PM: University of Nebraska/ Lincoln, NE

1/9/2019,
7:30 PM: Greenlight Bookstore/ Brooklyn, NY with Nicole Dennis-Benn

1/10/2019,
7:00 PM: Harvard Bookstore/ Cambridge, MA with Okey Ndibe

1/11/2019,
7:00 PM: Books & Books/ Coral Gables, FL

1/14/2019,
7:00 PM: Novel Neighbor with the International Institute of St. Louis and
WeStories/ St. Louis, MO

1/19/2019,
7:00 PM: Brazos Bookstore, Houston, TX

1/21/2019,
7:00 PM: Raven Bookstore/ Lawrence, KS

2/6/2019,
7:00 PM: Madison Central Library/ Madison, WI

3/3/13/2019,
6:30 PM: Indigo Bridge Books/ Lincoln, NE

Making Things Up: The Millions Interviews Elliot Reed

Elliot Reed explores adolescent loneliness in his debut novel, A Key to Treehouse Living. “This condition of loneliness and isolation is largely universal, and it’s uncomfortable, so young people find lots of ways to cope with it. There are many ways of coping,” he said.

Reed’s debut follows the rural midwest adventures of William Tyce, a young character who equally enjoys the outdoors and reference books; it is William’s admiration for these books that gives his story its structure. William learns not only how to survive in a world that is largely absent of others but also how to really and truly live.

Reed and I spoke about loneliness, wisdom, imagination, and of course, A Key to Treehouse Living.

The Millions: I read A Guide to Treehouse Living as an ode from William Tyce, the young protagonist, to the rural midwest and—maybe even more so—to the outdoors in general. Among other things, William has a love for campfires, rafts, rivers, and his treehouse. Do you share this love of the natural world with your protagonist?

Elliot Reed: Yes. When people buy a book thinking it’s going to be about treehouses and find out it’s not really about treehouses, the hope is they will feel some consolation from there being a lot of nature in the book. If you haven’t floated down the Missouri River, I recommend it. Pick a cool day in the fall when there’s not too much flooding going on and beware of the silver carp. These large fish will jump right into your boat. If you want an even better experience, go float the Eleven Point River in the Ozarks. It’s called the Eleven Point because 11 springs pour into it. The water is deep, clear, and flows slowly between nice cliffs. Very few people around. You can still find hellbenders there. I know a fabulous canoe rental based out of Alton, Missouri, I’d be happy to point you to. Whether they provide snorkel gear, I don’t know.

TM: The glossary-style structure you implement in A Key to Treehouse Living is incredibly consuming. Why did you decide to write in this unique format?

ER: It was an accident. The first entry I wrote was “Bugling.” I don’t know why I wrote it, and I had no character in mind who would be writing it other than me. I liked writing about doing something I knew only a little bit about and making it sound authoritative. This goes back to my brief tenure as the head writer of the blog How to Start Your Own Handyman Business. I am not a handyman. Never have been. I thought what I wrote about bugling sounded funny, so I kept going.

TM: As the story progressed, did you find the structure difficult to maintain?

ER: Once I realized I was writing something that had volume, and something from a perspective that was not my perspective, I came to understand that I needed a big event. I looked out my window, and there was the Missouri River. The structure was easy to maintain, but I always knew it would feel like the story began flowing in an actual direction once the river was introduced.

TM: William is a kid who is wise beyond his years. Whether he’s talking about the importance of reference books in “Annotations,” giving information about the “Eskimo language” in “Athabascan,” or offering solutions to nightmares in “Betta Fish,” William knows a lot about, well, a lot of things. How much did you have to research to give William this kind of insight?

ER: I didn’t do any real research. I knew a little bit about the mounds because I was obsessed with the mounds for a while. I knew a little bit about hail-damage repair because I was briefly head writer for the microblog known as How to Start Your Own Mobile Dent Repair Business. I have never repaired a dent except for one time, and that had nothing to do with hail. I would, however, recommend you cite or quote William’s glossary in an academic research paper and then send me your paper. If I’d done research, I think this would be a very different book—I remember trying, once or twice, to consult an outside source, but the process felt untrue to William’s character.

TM: I want to ask about the loneliness William experiences. His mother is dead. His father abandoned him. His uncle isn’t really around. He doesn’t have very many human connections at all. In his own entry for “Luminescence,” he says this: “A person’s skin can also seem to glow, and you may want to be inside of it. Sometimes you may want to have another person’s skin surround you like the walls of a parachute house. Feelings can also be luminescent—physical sensations experienced in the darkness can glow with warm heat and then disappear all of a sudden as if obscured by a cloud.” Do you view his separation from people as being sad, or is it what empowers him?

ER: The Dalai Lama says we should be alone for 30 minutes of each day, right? When you follow William as he makes connections to a world in which he seems to be a foreigner, you should absolutely feel empowered. People screw him over or forget about him a lot, but he’d rather write about the ways he keeps moving forward.

TM: Do you think this sense of loneliness William experiences is rare in our world for young people, or is it largely universal?

ER: This condition of loneliness and isolation is largely universal, and it’s uncomfortable, so young people find lots of ways to cope with it. There are many ways of coping. William’s coping mechanism is he creates a glossary of terms that demystify his existence. If you’ve ever become immersed in a dictionary or a field guide to identifying things in nature, you may have been coping with that fundamental loneliness through the act of getting to know other things.

TM: My favorite section is “Making Things Up.” It’s beautiful, and I love how William states the importance of imagination. In his entry, William writes, “The Boy Scouts say you need food, water, and shelter to survive, but they forgot to say you also need to make lists, and you need an imagination. With an imagination, you’re never quite alone, even in a fort deep in the woods when nobody’s around.” As the creator of this character and this story, how important has imagination been in your life?

ER: I’m an only child. I had just one person I would describe as a friend my age before fifth grade. Like other children, I played computer games, so my imagination was outsourced that way. Myst is a good game: You’re alone on an island with a bunch of weird buildings, are given no instructions, and there seems to be no real problem. I lived in Prague for a few years when I was a teenager, and I didn’t speak Czech, so I had to use my imagination when trying to decipher what people were trying to say to me. I had to imagine what the signs said at the castles and churches we’d visit; then I’d see there was an English translation and for whatever reason suspect it had been mistranslated.

TM: I’m sure you’ll hear mentions of your novel alongside Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time due to, if nothing else, the voices of the young protagonists. Who are some of your favorite young literary characters?

ER: I’m ashamed to say I still haven’t read those books, but they’re in the top of the pile on my bedside table. The first book that comes to mind is a children’s book called Andrew Henry’s Meadow by Doris Burn, but that’s just a few pages long and is mostly beautiful drawings of runaway children building their town of forts in the wilderness. They have this town of forts and then a local dog finds them and gives up their location. I prefer Simons Manigault to Holden Caulfield, hands down, though I barely remember anything about Edisto. Then there’s Hushpuppy from the film Beasts of the Southern Wild. Hushpuppy is among the greatest heroes of all time. Scout, from Toni Cade Bambara’s fabulous short story “Gorilla, My Love,” has an unforgettable voice that must have rubbed off on William. Then there are the boys from the movie Stand by Me. I think they spend an afternoon smoking cigarettes and trading baseball cards in a treehouse in that movie. What could be better?

Priceless History, Intangible Richness: The Millions Interviews Lillian Li

Lillian Li uses her past as a server for inspiration in her debut novel, Number One Chinese Restaurant. “I got a taste of the physical and emotional toll that kind of work takes; a taste of the isolation of working six days a week, 12 hours a day serving other people; an understanding of the necessary camaraderie that forms between waiters and other staff to counter that isolation,” she said.

Her debut follows the Hans family and various staff members at the Beijing Duck House, a well-known Peking duck restaurant in Rockville, Md. Food is, of course, a big part of Number One Chinese Restaurant. While praising Ann Hood’s food writing (and “especially her essay on tomato pie”), Li also cites Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and Eddie Huang’s Fresh off the Boat as books about food that have impacted her life.

Li and I spoke via email about food, books, the past, and Number One Chinese Restaurant. 

The Millions: I’d like to begin by asking you about your writing process in regards to creating a family saga. You balance characters as they age; you weave plots; you create entire histories that extend far into the past and point toward various futures. It all sounds incredibly difficult to me. Some writers like to draw their characters to create some kind of tangible connection. Others use charts and different kinds of sorting tools. There are probably even a few out there who wing it. I’m curious to know what your outlining process was like for Number One Chinese Restaurant.

Lillian Li: When I look back at how I wrote this book, I’m just amazed. I had no idea what I was doing, and I had no idea that I had no idea. For the first four months, there was no outline. There was no plot! There were only characters, their relationships to one another, and the restaurant. But I also knew that the relationships, more than even the restaurant, were where my interest in writing the book began (though maybe it’s better to say that I was interested in the kinds of relationships that could only exist in a restaurant like the Beijing Duck House). I think that’s why even though I threw out so many pages in the revision process, I didn’t end up cutting a single character.

Once I nailed down all the relationships in the book, I was able to work backwards. I think that’s why the multiple plotlines and character histories you’ve cited didn’t need to be outlined. The plotlines and histories came about naturally to explain why the relationships are the way they are in the present. For example, why Nan and Ah-Jack have been friends for 30 years, why Jimmy can’t stand his older brother Johnny, and so on. The trick, for me, was finding the realest-feeling part of my book and then using it as a compass for the rest.

TM: To build on that question a little, after you finished your first draft, how difficult was the edit for a novel so complex?

LL: I was fortunate to be in grad school when I started my first draft, which gave me a big pool of readers. This allowed me to write the novel almost recursively. I would write a hundred pages, show a classmate or teacher, then go back and revise. I believe that by the time I finished a full first draft, I had written multiple unfinished ones. I remember telling someone at the start that I was resigned to having to write 800 disposable pages to get to 200 workable ones. This felt less labor-intensive, though, than editing the novel after it had already been built. Then it’s a game of Jenga, where any change had the potential to send the entire structure crashing. I’m getting very nervous just imagining it.

TM: I know you worked briefly as a waitress at a Peking duck restaurant that is similar to the one in your novel. I’m sure your experience influenced your book to some extent. Did you find this experience to ever be a burden in regard to the creation and development of your novel?

LL: Brief is right! I didn’t even last a full month. At the time, I was feeling pretty weak for quitting (I mean, my mom worked at a Chinese restaurant for five years when she first came to America), and then when I realized I wanted to write a novel that took place in a Peking duck restaurant, I was even angrier at myself for not staying longer. But it was actually a blessing that I quit so early. I’d assumed the more time I spent in the restaurant, the more authoritative I’d feel writing about one. That turned out to be both true and untrue. I would be more authoritative…about the real restaurant. Not the fictional one. I think too much reality ends up suffocating the imagination. The few weeks I spent as a waitress gave me just enough information. I got a taste of the physical and emotional toll that kind of work takes; a taste of the isolation of working six days a week, 12 hours a day serving other people; an understanding of the necessary camaraderie that forms between waiters and other staff to counter that isolation. There would be no book without that kind of personal experience. There also wouldn’t be a book, at least not a book of fiction, if I’d spent a much longer time in the real restaurant. Or if I’d come into the restaurant wanting to write about it, instead of just wanting to make some money for grad school.

TM: I was struck in the second chapter by the loneliness the employees at the Duck House feel. When describing the connection between some of the workers, you write, “They were all friends, if one defined friendship as the natural occurrence between people who, after colliding for decades, have finally eroded enough to fit together.” I think this statement is so sad, but I also think it’s incredibly truthful for many of us. How prevalent do you think loneliness is in our current culture?

LL: What a good question! Whenever people say that writing is a lonely process, I both do and don’t understand what they mean. Like, yes, you often write alone, sometimes for many hours on end, and if you’re especially dedicated (I’m not), you eschew social events in order to stay home and write. But for me, without writing, I wouldn’t be less lonely. I’d be estranged from my loneliness. Or worse, I’d be ashamed of it. I think that loneliness isn’t so much prevalent in our current culture as it is universal. To be an individual is to be lonely. Writing, both the act of doing it and the act of reading it, puts us in touch with the loneliness that exists inside all of us. It shows us that loneliness might take a unique shape for each person, but no one is alone in feeling it. I’m not talking about the loneliness of being excluded by others or alienated by society, which is external and awful and should be undone, but the internal loneliness that we’re all born into. I think that kind of loneliness isn’t a problem, unless we either don’t admit to living with it, or think we’re the only ones who are.

TM: In your novel, brothers are upset with one another. A mother and son struggle to get along. Husbands and wives fight to stay together. I mean, a lot is happening on an emotional level. Still, though, there’s so much love and tenderness flowing through these pages. Was it difficult for you to love these characters after some of their decisions?

LL: It wasn’t difficult for me because if I know what compels a person to act the way they do, it softens my judgment of them. It allows me to see how I might have acted similarly if I’d been given the same set of circumstances and history. And when you write characters that are, hopefully, real on the page, that means everything they do, no matter how awful, has an underlying explanation. The bigger issue I face is whether the reader can still love these characters after their decisions. Some probably won’t. That’s understandable. What I love about fiction is how it stretches certain muscles that daily life only stiffens. Relating to someone who acts against how we think they should is one of those muscles. Some readers will be able to stretch with my characters more easily, and others will feel that stretch acutely and hate the discomfort. I know that I’ve been on both sides of that reading experience. But no matter what, those muscles have been stretched, and that’s ultimately what matters. Or so I tell myself…

TM: As I was reading, I began to notice an appreciation for the past. I love how you mention the Duck House’s history: “Before it became a restaurant, the Duck House building had been a pharmacy, a real estate office, and at least a half dozen other businesses in between.” Everything really is built on something.

I think the focus on the past’s richness is probably most evident, though, when looking at the two restaurants. The Glory is shiny and new, with fusion cuisine. It’s attractive, but it doesn’t seem to have much of a heart. The Duck House, on the other hand, isn’t very attractive: “The gaudy, overstuffed decor didn’t help. A deep, matte red colored everything, from the upholstered chairs to the floral carpet to the Chinese knots hanging off the lantern lighting, their tassels low enough to graze the heads of taller customers. Framed photos of famous clientele protruded from the walls.” However, this is the place that has heart. Was this a conscious decision on your part?

LL: Rather than an appreciation for the past, I’d say that I have an appreciation for personal history, for the accumulation of years in the same place, with the same people. I think that is ultimately why the Duck House feels like it has more heart than the Beijing Glory—it’s been around longer, and it’s built a backbone of staff that has seen the restaurant, and each other, through multiple decades. I don’t think the original owners of the Duck House, Jimmy’s parents, intended for their business to have heart. I don’t want to romanticize past generations and give them more credit than they deserve. In the end, Jimmy’s parents were driven by the same motivations as Jimmy: ambition, respect, and financial success. At the same time, by simply existing and thriving for as many decades as it has, the Duck House has accumulated a kind of priceless history. To lose that history, or worse, to throw it away, is a great tragedy. No amount of money or class can give an establishment that same density of spirit, that intangible richness, and that’s the lesson Jimmy ultimately has to learn.

TM: Since you are a bookseller at the beloved Literati, I can’t leave without asking you a couple of questions about books. I’ve really been into books about food recently. I just finished Michael W. Twitty’s The Cooking Gene and thought it was absolutely wonderful. With your novel being set largely in a restaurant, were there certain books based around the food/restaurant industry that you read for research? Or were there other books that inspired your book in some way?

LL: I didn’t read any books for research, but I have always had an interest in chef memoirs. My perennial favorite is Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. I picked it up at a used bookstore when I was a sophomore in college and have read it countless times since. Not on purpose, though. Kitchen Confidential is the book I keep in my bathroom at my parents’ house. If you have not experienced the phenomenon of keeping a book in a bathroom you only occasionally use, I recommend it! As a result of its placement in my life, I read Kitchen Confidential from start to finish every two years or so. By the time I finish the last page, I just turn right back to the first. The bravado and energy of Bourdain’s writing definitely seeped into a few chapters of my book and made certain kitchen scenes easier to access. I also loved the anger in Eddie Huang’s Fresh off the Boat. By the time I read his memoir, I’d already finished a draft of the novel, so the experience of reading Huang was more affirming than informative. I was gratified to see how many parallels Huang and my character Jimmy shared, and the similarities in their emotional landscapes. Finally, I love Ann Hood’s food writing, especially her essay on tomato pie. Her exploration of food, family, and memory very much align with my own interests.

TM: What new or soon-to-be-released books should we be reading?

LL: As a bookseller, I can’t generalize about books! I always have to ask, what else have you read? So here are the books you should be reading…

If you love explorations of the American dream transplanted in Shanghai, generational sagas, and the lives of the newly rich and confused, read What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan.

If you love trippy, experimental ruminations on the intersections of technology and the human condition, read Rubik by Elizabeth Tan.

If you love satirical, hilarious, and ultimately compassionate snapshots of contemporary black life and interiority, read Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires.

If you love atmospheric mysteries full of light and mist, dreams and omens, all set in small-town Japan, read Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan.

If you love lush, historical love triangles where history plays a shadowy, villainous role, read If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim.

If you love short story collections where every story is a contender for your heart, as well as a deep dive into the emotional depths of black boys and men learning how to care for themselves and each other, read A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley.

If you love beautiful and piercing narratives about grief, friendship, the loneliness of a writer’s life, and the love of a good dog, read The Friend by Sigrid Nunez.