I was on book tour for much of the year. And when I tour, I read. I'm not sure how many books I got through exactly, but I read about quantum gravity, a few different translations of Beowulf, microbiology, and cave art. I read Elon Musk’s biography, meaning I can now more accurately predict the size and shape the coming apocalypse. I read many, many novels. In looking at my read pile, I decided I needed a focus and narrowed in on Canadian books. But I immediately ran into a problem. What makes a book Canadian? Margaret Atwood published Survival in 1972, a thematic guide to Canadian literature that searched for ways to define our national literature. Back then, American and British novels tended to dominate our bookshelves. Bookstores often had a curious shelf labelled Canadiana, where the local authors were tucked away. We spent the next few decades searching for reasons to see ourselves as distinct. We often did this by pointing out who we were. When I was growing up in the '80s, one of my favorite games was to name famous people who were actually Canadian and I still do this—Sandra Oh, Michael J. Fox, Drake, Pamela Anderson, and William Shatner. We hide so easily among others. Since then, our ideas, our identities, and our writing have all expanded. Canadian literature, or CanLit, has its own hashtag (#canlit), but that’s about the only straightforward thing I can say about it. Now that it undoubtedly exists, we spend our time arguing about what it might be. The central question, as writer Russell Smith asked, "is it a literature that is made here, or set here, or addresses uniquely Canadian themes?" But for many, CanLit also stands for what needs to change. It's a shorthand for an out-dated colonial point of view, structural racism and sexisim, a lack of diversity and opportunity. So after thinking it through, I've decided why the books on my list are Canadian: They have little or nothing in common. Each is different from the other. There are no similar themes that stand out. The authors have their own identities that are best defined by them. If you asked each author if they are Canadian, I think they would answer yes—but likely with some kind of qualification, caveat, or hyphen. They might include a second citizenship, language, culture, or country. And maybe two or three. [millions_ad] I'm aware that this isn't exactly a clear definition. I don't need it to be. And similarly, I don't think CanLit is a particularly useful term anymore. We've grown beyond the need to agonize about what we are. But more, the act of defining artistic work involves creating a boundary. Who gets to draw that literary line? I hope that no person nor group would assume that they have the ability to define our books. I will be wary if they do. So, here are a few of my favorite novels published this year, written by authors who, when asked if they are Canadian, would probably answer, "yeah, and...," and start telling a long and complicated and fascinating story about their identity: The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill When I interviewed O’Neill earlier in the year, I confessed to a certain kind of creative jealously. I’d like to say that I’ve since matured, however I’m a writer. Her prose sparkles, her way with the metaphor is unparalleled, and this, her third novel, has an intricate construction. You know when someone folds paper, cuts little holes in it, and—like magic—smooths out a perfect snowflake? Reading it feels like that, except add in some cigarettes, sex, and swearing. O'Neill often writes about Montreal, which in her words is, “totally funny, it’s wry, it’s dirty.” Also a perfect description of this book. Brother by David Chariandy A perfectly sculpted novel, each word is placed with a heart full of hip hop. It tells the story of an enduring love between two brothers, Michael and Francis, who live in the suburbs of Toronto (though the T-word is never mentioned). The book gives voice to black and brown men with beautiful and complex emotional lives. As said in The Walrus, the novel shows, “a very different picture than what CanLit usually peddles: comfortable and self-soothing narratives about our supposedly progressive cities.” Brother is already out in Canada. It just won one of our biggest awards, the Writers' Trust Roger Fiction Prize. It will be out in July. American War by Omar El Akkad A novel that follows the life of Sarat Chestnut, who is six years old, in 2074, when a second civil war breaks out. Set in what used to be the South, it is told from that perspective. I went to the same Canadian university as El Akkad and asked about this choice. He explained that his work as a reporter often took him to the South. He would find himself talking to a certain kind of person, "incredibly hospitable, would give you the shirt off their back. But also deeply tied to some very old traditions, some of them good, some of them terrible, and god help you if you challenge those traditions." He went on to explain that he was born in Egypt and grew up in the Middle East, "incredibly generous people who are also tied to some very old traditions, and god help you if you challenge those traditions." In my view, that insight lays the framework for this brilliant book. The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall This novel came out in Canada in 2016 and in the U.S. this fall, but in our post-Harvey Weinstein world it feels more timely and urgent than ever. A family saga set in Connecticut, a respected teacher at a prep school is accused of sexual assault. The story follows the people who are closest to him, family and close friends. Without ever getting preachy, it draws an elegant line between rape culture, patriarchy, and privilege. I compared it to The Ice Storm or Ordinary People, but it has more contemporary companions, too, in The Interestings or The Woman Upstairs. More from A Year in Reading 2017 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
I’ve been trying to think how I’d describe The Best Kind of People. The novel has been compared to Judith Guest's Ordinary People for the depiction of an affluent family trying to cope with trauma. I’d add in The Ice Storm by Rick Moody for the close critique of WASP culture in Connecticut. But Zoe Whittall’s novel is also completely contemporary, taking some of Meg Wolitzer’s ability in The Interestings to show the feelings and motivations of a large cast of characters, with Claire Messud’s willingness, in The Woman Upstairs, to tackle discomfort, or Margaret Atwoods's ability, in A Handmaid's Tale, to show how a wider culture influences individual behavior. Reading The Best Kind of People felt like a kind of compulsion—I stayed up way past my bedtime because I had to finish. It tells the story of the Woodbury family. When the father, George, teacher at the prep school and local hero, is accused of sexual impropriety, his wife, daughter, and son face isolation from their community as they struggle to reconcile the accusations with the man they know. “I miss who I thought he was,” says the mother, Joan. The characters are flawed and human as they struggle, some of them achingly so, but Whittall is also generous towards them. There is a warmth and kindness to the story that, at times, make it feels like a gossipy, insider dish about a prominent family—the one who lives in the big house, who seem to have lots of money, but everyone in town is always trying to guess exactly how much. At the same time, the novel takes a big topic: It shows the link between rape culture, patriarchy, and privilege. The balance between these two sides of the book is perfectly judged. I talked to Whittall by email and in person about timely novels, rape culture, selling film rights to Sarah Polley, and what a novel should be. The Millions: The Best Kind of People was first published in Canada in 2016, before the Bill Cosby trial, but just as several high profile sexual misconduct cases were in the media. What prompted you to start writing this book? Zoe Whittall: The book began with the character of the mother, Joan, who came to me after listening to a radio program about a high-profile murder and sexual assault case, where the wife of the killer didn’t know anything about the crimes. After finding out her husband was a monster, she faced so much stigma, because everyone assumed she had to have known. I’m always drawn in by news stories of extreme marital deception or the lives of con men and women. I think that fascination began after I had a year-long relationship with someone who told me they were in remission from cancer, but it became clear to me near the end of our relationship that she was lying—about the illness and a whole lot of other things. It was nothing like Joan and George’s marriage, but the feeling of being blindsided, and loving someone who could be that manipulative, of not knowing what the real truth is while someone you love is looking you in the eye and trying to get you to believe them, that was my way in to figuring out who Joan might be and how she might feel, even though her life is so different from mine. In terms of the timeliness of the book, I had no idea that it would be published at the same time a massive cultural conversation about rape was happening in the media. Women have always talked and written about sexual assault but what’s new is that people are listening right now. The first piece of literary work I had published was a poem about rape culture—though it wasn’t called that in 1995. I was 15 when the Montreal massacre happened in my city, and I was a young feminist who came of age during the era of 1990s No Means No campaigns. Back then to talk about rape was to have conversations on the margins—campus radio, riot grrl zines, with likeminded activists—but the idea of discussing it in the mainstream media, or creating art that could reach beyond the festival circuit or the small press world seemed highly unlikely. My other novels are about queer and trans people, and they have done really well but never beyond the indie literary market. I’m very surprised at how well The Best Kind of People has done commercially in Canada and very happy that it’s contributed to this wider conversation. I’m hopeful it might also be of interest to readers in the U.S. TM: It takes a long time to write a novel. Were you worried while you were writing that you might miss the moment? ZW: I wasn’t worried it would miss the moment, I was just hoping it would have its own moment. It took me so much longer to write this novel than my first two—I thought it was done in 2011, 2012, 2013—each spring I gave it to my agent, and she handed it back with excellent notes and calmly explained it wasn’t quite there yet. By 2014 I wanted to bury it in the yard, I was convinced it was absolute garbage and no one would want to publish it. By the time it was done, I was just grateful that my publisher was interested in putting it out at all. I wasn’t really aware of the moment—that people might want to discuss this book in a way that felt timely and coincided with major news stories—until it was done, and my editor said oh, this is exciting and is going to potentially have a lot of interested readers given what’s going on right now. We were editing it during a big celebrity assault trial in Toronto. So I kind of realized it after it was already finished, but I had so many pre-publication anxieties that I tried not to think about it. TM: And then Cosby was acquitted and here we are. Still. It doesn't feel like much has changed? But the one upside—and I say this with some regret—is that your novel, it is published in the U.S. today, feels every bit as relevant as it did when it came out in Canada. I got so much from it because it shows how rape culture works. Not just as a theory, but in a life. Is this what you set out to do? ZW: I didn’t set out to write a novel about rape culture. In terms of novels about sexual assault, there are crime novels, survivor memoirs, books about false accusations—and I wasn’t interested in writing those. I wanted to look at what it feels to be impacted by the issue from the point of view of the family of the accused and the stigma they face. That was something I hadn’t read before. I did want to explore, through overlapping narratives, how complicated issues of power, youth, and sexuality can be. Andrew’s storyline, the brother, was my way of looking at age and consent through a gay male lens, which cannot be properly understood using heterosexual norms. I wanted Sadie’s crushes, relationships, and sexual experiences to be varied and chaotic in a way that felt true to my memories of what it feels like to be a teen girl. Because of the form, it all had to happen at the level of life. It doesn’t feel like much has changed, no. There’s a lot of hysteria in the media about false accusations as though they are suddenly a common occurrence, when really what is common is what happened with Cosby, or with Brock Turner, or a million other powerful men. They are not held accountable, even when the proof is undeniable—they are on film and there was a witness, or 60 people are accusing someone of the same crime— it doesn’t really matter. So the conversation has changed, in that we’re even having a conversation, but it doesn’t feel like there has been a real shift in how rapists are held truly accountable. What’s different is that young women are able to refuse to take some of bullshit that women of my generation had to live with. It’s exciting to see how willing young women are to speak up about sexual assault and sexism in general. That’s a change. TM: The novel begins with an epigraph: [Rape Culture’s] most devilish trick is to make the average, non-criminal person identify with the person accused, instead of the person reporting the crime… —Kate Harding, Asking for It Did you include this quote at the beginning or end of your writing process? ZW: I included it at the end because I was aware that once your book becomes an object that no longer belongs to you, it is read in ways you cannot anticipate. I had fears about feminists reading the book and being angry or annoyed that it wasn’t what they’d hoped it would be. I had fears that people would read it and get a message that wasn’t intended. (This has happened—a woman approached me to say my novel was “so realistic” because “teenage girls do lie!” and I was so shocked. That is not the book I wrote or the way I hoped it would be read.) Before I sold the film rights to Sarah Polley, I met with quite a few older male film producers who wanted to make a did-he-or-didn’t-he type of film, and it became clear they could only relate to the accused, not the accuser. A young man sent me a long (so long!) email teaching me about feminism, because even though the MRA plotline was clearly meant to be fairly satirical, he interpreted me as someone who was sympathetic to MRAs. But as a novelist, I cannot present characters one-dimensionally, so thus, in the Men's Rights Activist plotline for example, there is a character named Dorothy. Even if we see her through the daughter Sadie’s discerning eyes, Dorothy still has to be a full-blooded person. You can’t create art any other way. It was complicated to do this since the plot involves many characters who don’t believe the young women accusing George, and I didn’t want it to be read, right off the bat, as a book that is about questioning the veracity of teen girls. That book—and article—has been written a million times and I had no desire to write it again. (Though I will say that an excellent book on false accusations is The Blue Angel by Francine Prose, which I think is a masterful novel.) So the Kate Harding quote—who also generously contributed a blurb for the book—was my way of stating at the start that the automatic assumption of who is telling the truth when a man is accused, is part of the problem, and a question I kept in mind as I wrote it. And this is, if you can think about it after the fact, part of why I felt the novel needed to be written. TM: The idea of rape culture can be confusing to some in that can be hard to see. This book lays it all out. I had a frustrating conversation the other day and I found myself tempted to hand over a copy of your book and walk away. But some of my least favorite, heavy-handed novels read like an author sets out to explain an issue. Your book avoids this. How did you write with a light touch, while delving deep? ZW: It was sometimes difficult to pull back on my own beliefs about sexual assault and let my characters have their own thoughts and feelings as the events unfold. You’re right, no one wants to read a polemical novel or a story where the authorial voice intervenes clumsily in order to educate the reader. I learned so much about the world by reading fiction as a young adult, in a roundabout way. The same way I hate exercising but I love dancing or riding my bike. It’s always so much more interesting to learn through story. I approach plot through character and I was interested in the emotional arcs of the family, Joan, Sadie and Andrew, after the arrest of their father/husband, and how it might feel to be the bystander who is implicated by virtue of who they are to the accused. I wanted to write about how it feels to love someone accused of sexual assault and not know what to do, not know how to process it and understand it. I think a lot of the problems we have in situations like this come from having been lead to believe that rapists are strangers, monsters, and not real people in our communities. That they can’t be rapists and also good friends, fathers, teachers, mentors, at the same time. People often say, “Well, he was a great professor to me, so it’s impossible,” even though we have had the hard data on who commits sexual crimes for decades, and it’s mostly people who are known to the victim. We know the majority of women and men who are assaulted never report. We know that those who report rarely ever get justice through the court system, or even get that far in the process, if they report to the police. We know who the police tend to believe. And when white men with power are accused it is customary to believe they are being honest when they say they’re innocent. We owe a lot to the violence against women movement who have done the labor on these issues with no support for decades. We know what we know because of them. It was hard to keep that light touch, as you describe it. In some ways I was attempting to write a social novel, but a non-polemical one. It was my first attempt at literary realism with a close third person narration and I had all sorts of clumsy failures while trying to set the scene and go deep into it that way. Sometimes I look at the book and it looks like a clump of dirt or a bunch of string. I can’t believe it’s an object in the world provoking discussion. TM: The book is a perfect balancing act between an issue and, dare I use the word, entertainment? It feels odd given what the book is about, but that’s what I think when, in her blurb, Kate Harding compares this novel to Ordinary People. This book captures a moment. Issue driven versus entertainment—what do you think a novel should be? ZW: What a novel should be? Some of my favourite novels are long poems or plotless diversions, so I don’t really have an answer for what a novel should be. As a writer who has tried to do different things with each one of my novels, I think I’m still figuring it out. I never feel that they are finished and long to rewrite them forever. The Best Kind of People was my experiment with realism, with a social novel and a family novel, all mixed up. In terms of the art versus entertainment set-up, I’m a literary reader and poet who enjoys challenging books, but I’m also a television writer who loves and appreciates pop culture. I don’t think those two interests need to be in opposition anymore, and I think that is due to a shift in how we consume culture, and the elevated artistry of auteur-lead television, which sounds trite to mention, but it’s really been a gift to storytellers. I think it has shifted how I write. If I had all the money and time in the world, I’d be working on non-linear novels written in poetic fragments, that’s where my heart is. But learning how to write for television has ignited a new love of action and clarity, and that bled into the writing of this novel. So, I suppose I’m a recovering snob. Learning to write sketch comedy (on IFC’s The Baroness Von Sketch Show) has really taught me about tone and sitting in those excruciating awkward moments. I deeply related to the moment in The End of Tour where David Foster Wallace can’t stop watching TV. I don’t drink or do drugs much anymore and my sedative of choice is Netflix, and I’ve developed a real interest in telling stories on screen and the craft of scriptwriting. This has affected my prose, but in a way that has been a gift, in terms of brevity, clarity, pacing. TM: The story centers on a white wealthy family in Connecticut. In many ways, they individuals are harmed by the system of power that they also uphold. We get to see how rape culture works on them, all while they continually struggle to see it themselves. But the story doesn’t undermine the characters. It would have been easy to lay blame, or present a binary balance of power. As I said before, as an author you are generous to the characters. You slowly show the complexity of their situations. Can you tell me more about how you found and held this balance? ZW: It’s funny—I just read a bad review of the book on Goodreads that complains the book contains “mixed messages,” which I kind of like, because who wants a book with a “message?” That’s not a novel, that’s a political pamphlet. I tried to come at each character’s story with compassion and curiosity. Sexuality is not simple, especially not in a repressed world like the one the Woodbury’s live in, especially not for teenagers. Given the complexities of human desire and behavior and problems with communication and honesty, a book with a message is just not what I was going for. It wasn’t a balance that came easy. With third person, you can’t really step in with your authorial voice and lay blame in a pedantic kind of way, it doesn’t work. You can only show what the characters do and say, and through that action, you can understand what their struggle is. TM: Without spoiling the plot, I will say that the end of this novel is an incredible kick in the gut. It drives home everything that came before. Can you tell me something about your thinking around it the end? ZW: I agonized over the ending, and continued to even after I wrote the final sentence, which took a long time to write. It was based on discussions I had with a woman whose father is in jail for molestation, and how her mother feels about him now, what she wishes for her life and their relationship. (My friend the filmmaker Chase Joynt made a documentary called Between You and Me for the CBC about her story.) The circumstances are different, but what Joan does at the end made sense to me. I wanted the conclusion to be realistic, not aspirational, in terms of where the country is at with regards to sexual assault. And a lot of people feel mad about that, but I wanted it to be an accurate portrait of the time we’re living in, and who the characters really are.
How do two writers live and write together? The answer changes through time. In her introduction to The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy, Cathy Porter describes how Sofia laboriously copied Leo Tolstoy's work: "After the baby had been put to bed, she would sit at her desk until the small hours, copying out his day's writing in her fine hand, telepathically deciphering the scribble." When reading Sofia's diaries, kept from age 16 until she died in 1919, it’s hard not to feel her creative frustration. "To each his fate," she writes. "Mine was to be the auxiliary to my husband." Historian Alexis Coe writes that being married helps academics get ahead, but only if they are male. In the Lenny Letter, she expands on her findings from reading the acknowledgements in books, "male historians often call wives research assistants while female historians say husbands were patient/encouraging." Her article is a fascinating look at a selected history of literary couplings, from the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald to Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. Bruce Holsinger, a novelist and academic, also searched acknowledgments and found many examples of male authors thanking their wives for typing manuscripts. People continue to share examples on Twitter using the hashtag #ThanksForTyping. A click shows there are many women of the past century who might find Sophia Tolstoy's words familiar. While a word processor changes dynamics, the way a work is attributed often reflects a power relationship between two authors. When a couple are both authors, the relationship is often colored by the politics of their day. In 2017, many couples are striving for a more equal balance of power in relationships. There are as many ways this can play out as there are couples, but I want to continue the conversation. How does a modern couple balance the domestic with a literary life? Julie Buntin’s Marlena is one of the most energetic and vibrant debut novels released this spring, which Kirkus calls, “as unforgettable as it is gorgeous.” Her partner, Gabe Habash, just published one of the breakthrough debuts of the summer, Stephen Florida. NPR calls it, “starkly beautiful and moving.” I was intrigued to learn that Buntin and Habash are partners and live together. While I assume they both do their own typing, I wonder how this particular modern couple make it work. By email, I asked them about reading each other’s work, egos, money, and solitude. The Millions: Gabe, did you know Julie was a writer when you first met? Gabe Habash: Yes, we met in grad school. We had a craft class together, and I was immediately struck (and probably a bit intimidated) by how smart and perceptive she is. But we didn’t actually have any workshops together so I didn’t read her writing until after I graduated. By then she was starting what would eventually become Marlena. I’m grateful I get to watch how she shapes her work. It’s amazing. TM: Julie, you knew Gabe was a writer when you met. Did you consider this a good or bad thing? Julie Buntin: Soon after we started dating I realized that we weren’t going to have a problem with competitiveness when it came to writing—I’d dated a writer before, and that had been an insidiously toxic problem, but Gabe and I never had that issue. Mostly because of him, I think—Gabe is immune to comparing himself to other people. It’s very strange and I envy it. I am not immune, but am trying to get better. TM: Is Gabe the first reader of your work? JB: He is. It’s a bit of a crutch. When I was deep in revisions of Marlena, after he’d already read it a couple times, I would sometimes send altered drafts to my editor without showing Gabe, but for the most part, he sees everything before it goes out. I’ve delayed submitting things to the point of missing deadlines because I want Gabe’s take first. TM: Is Julie the first reader of your work? GH: Yes, she's always been my first reader. I wrote the first 50 pages of the novel and showed them to her to find out if it was bad. I wouldn’t write any more until I knew she liked it because I respect her opinion more than anyone else in the world—if she says it’s bad, it’s bad. Julie is just as good of a reader as a writer, if that’s possible. There are numerous reasons the book is dedicated to her. TM: Has she or he ever said anything about your writing that you wished she hadn’t? GH: Nope. JB: Gabe’s going to be embarrassed that I’m sharing this, but I showed him the first few pages of a new novel a while back. He said: “You can do better.” In general, I appreciate that we’re at a place where we don’t need to dance around anything, but that work was a little raw for a fully honest assessment—still, I’m glad he told me what he really thought. TM: Do you believe Gabe when he praises your work? JB: I do. Gabe is a bad liar, and I think my answer to the previous question gets at the directness of how we talk about writing. TM: Do you ever feel threatened by the success of Julie’s novel? GH: Honestly, no. Our books are so different and I love Marlena, so it never felt like they were competing against each other. Also, just watching someone work at something so hard, putting years into it and going through really challenging moments with it because it’s a vital part of her life—it's impossible for me to feel jealousy or to feel threatened when I saw that because I knew how much telling the story meant to Julie. TM: Marlena was blurbed by Lorrie Moore, is an Indie Next Pick, and was selected by The Rumpus Book Club. For a debut novel, it doesn’t get much better. Did you ever worry that Gabe’s book might not be as well received? JB: I have never doubted for a second that Stephen Florida would be well received. Even when a number of major publishers passed, I had no anxiety about it eventually finding the right home—Gabe did, but I didn’t. I don’t think it’s blind wife faith either—I hadn’t had that same certainty when his previous novel was on submission. After reading Stephen Florida I felt a flicker of jealousy—he wrote a book that alchemizes his talent and experience and deep thinking about literature into a novel that’s exhilarating to read. If anything, I feel a little smug about all the good reviews it’s getting. Like—told you, world! If anything (please forgive how pretentious this sounds), I worried that his book might be taken more seriously from a critical perspective, because Marlena is about girls and Stephen Florida is about boys. That doesn't seem to have been the case, at least not so far, but I did wonder if that was going to be an issue. I'm still not sure how I would have handled that. TM: Writing and books aside, what do you both love to do? GH: We like to take walks like old people. We watch Game of Thrones and Twin Peaks. Some day, I swear, I will get her to like video games. We both like horror movies, which Julie will point out to you is some study’s number one metric for determining relationship compatibility. TM: You both work in publishing and are writers. Is it ever too much? JB: It can be. Sometimes we get home and we’re eating dinner and we go from talking about our books to talking about books that he’s reading or assigning for review to talking about books on submission at Catapult or something I’m editing or a writer I want to get to teach and we have a moment where one or the other of us snaps and is like, no more books. Please, enough. And so we try to introduce spaces into our lives for other stuff. It can be overwhelming. Sometimes it feels like we’re always sort of working. But most of the time it’s nice to never have to translate why doing this work matters so much to me. TM: What about money? GH: As writers who also work in publishing, we are obviously very rich. Julie, I think, needs writing on a daily basis. I go through long periods in which I barely think about it, and then write all at one time. So having no day job I think is more for Julie—she would use the time, whereas if I weren’t in the middle of a project I would just wander around like a vagrant, wondering how to fill the hours. JB: Oh, this is a hard one. I would be lying if I said I never thought about this. It has occurred to me that in some ways I’ve made my writing life harder because I’m married to another writer, instead of someone with more financially-driven ambitions. Gabe is better at balancing his work life and writing life—he’s more of a daily chipper, less of a binger—and as much as I love my job, I feel like I am giving something up every minute that I am not writing. But maybe I would go crazy if I had that time. Or maybe I’d have finished another book by now! Who knows—like most writers, I’ve always had a job or two or three and squeezed writing in somehow. All this said, I’ve learned a lot about writing from Gabe, from his edits on my work, from the process of editing his. There a lot of writer couples. Maybe once you become accustomed to the benefits of having an in-house reader and editor, not to mention someone who challenges you to think more deeply about how and why you write, I don’t know, those things become more important than a pension. We’ll see if I feel the same way in 20 years. TM: What is the best part about living with another writer? JB: Never having to explain why you don’t want to go out. TM: What is the worst? GH: Whatever plans you might have, they can get eliminated at any time if one of us is in the writing fugue. You just have to accept that your plans are canceled in that instance. TM: Do you understand Gabe’s work better than anyone else? JB: I don’t know that I understand it better than anyone else, but I do think I understand how it came to be better than anyone else. I look at the first page and I can see ghosts of cut phrases, all the thinking that went into making the book what it is—it’s a privilege. TM: Do you understand Julie’s work better than anyone else? GB: I have no idea! You’ll have to ask her. Julie understands my work better than anyone else. TM: What is your favorite thing that the other has ever written? GH: The last chapter of Marlena is two and a half pages. I think about it all the time. It's contains everything that came before but also opens the narrative up; I love how it shows the story is longer than the book itself. JB: I love that first page. It starts, “My mother had two placentas and I was living off both of them…” and ends like this: “I believe in wrestling, and I believe in the United States of America. I am a motherfucking astronaut.”
Historian Yuval Noah Harari first published Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind in Hebrew in 2011. It went on to be translated in more than 30 countries to international acclaim and first appeared in English in 2014. The book has climbed the bestseller lists since. From the Stone Age to modern day, Sapiens explains how modern humans have come to dominate our environment through our unique ability to collaborate. We can organize flexibly around imaginary concepts, like nations, gods, and money. Harari’s new book, Homo Deus, picks up where Sapiens left off and projects forward to imagine what we might become. In addition to nations, gods, and money, the self is also an imaginary concept. As self-made gods, what new world should we create? In an age where making sense of the world feels something like trying to take a sip of water from a fire hose, Harari has a unique ability to construct a captivating narrative while drawing from many disciplines. Those who have read Sapiens may feel that some of the ideas in the second part of Homo Deus are familiar, but I urge you not to skip forward. The review of core ideas, like the value of money and humanism, are a necessary set up for the thrilling third part of the book. And it’s this third part of Homo Deus, where Harari plays a sort of proviso-prophet, that is especially fascinating. Malcolm Gladwell-style criticism will undoubtedly be leveled at a historian who has dared to pluck examples from philosophy, biology, psychology, and other disciplines in order to peer into the future. But much like Gladwell’s "Revisionist History" podcast, the point of Homo Deus is not to make predictions, but to loosen the grip of our past so that we can ask better questions and be more imaginative about the future. This is a brave book for a brave new world. Should you read Homo Deus? I did and it changed my life in a number of ways. Here are the top five: 5) I Feel Assured My History Degree Was Not a Waste of Time Instead of shrugging when my capitalist uncle asks, again, why I bothered to study history, I will tell him this: History can liberate us from the past. If you want people to gain rights or build equality in the world, Harari makes the case that the first step is to retell the history. The new story will explain that, “our present situation is neither natural nor eternal.” Our lives become the stories we decide to tell ourselves. History majors may yet inherit the earth. 4) I Understand Why I Went Through the Torture of Childbirth, Nearly Died, and Then Willingly Had Sex and Did It All Over Again Before the pain became so excruciating that I couldn't think, I spent much of my second labor wondering, why? If my life is a story that I tell myself, then shouldn't the pain I experienced during my first labor stop me from doing this again? Within a larger conversation about how we think and make decisions, Harari explains the peak-end rule. The narrating self, the one that tells the story, has a tendency to remember the most painful moment and the end moment, rather than a detailed play-by-play of what actually happened. Some part of myself did hold a memory of the pain, but I’d since allowed my love of my baby to override the more accurate memories. This peak-end rule also goes some way to explain multiple occurrences of teething and toddlers in my life. No need to re-read Gone Girl, I am my own unreliable narrator. 3) When I Next Get in Trouble, I Will Say My Algorithm Made Me Do It When I started this article, I stole two squares from my cousin's chocolate bar. At the time of writing, I’ve since circled back for two more. Do I have evil in my soul? Why does my mind crave chocolate? Have I evolved in a way that makes chocolate essential to my being? Perhaps my cousin will accept one of these reasons as an excuse. Or, I could tell her that I am an avalanche of electric signals fired by billions of neurons that stimulate glands to secrete hormones and make my muscles contract in such a way that the chocolate found its way to my mouth. Rather than a holistic chocolate stealing entity, I am a combination of smaller parts that have come together and evolved gradually. These parts include a wad of tissue in my head that I call my brain. As a whole, my organism works like any other algorithm. Put an input, like a search query, into Google's algorithm and you will arrive at a given result depending on how the search engine functions that day. Put chocolate in the house and you may find that a chain of electric signals and secretions work the two squares through my algorithm, which results in the chocolate ceasing to exist in its previous form. 2) I Can Now Articulate Another Thing That Has Been Bugging Me About the U.S. Election Since reading Homo Deus, I am no longer am a practicing devotee of liberalism. Many of us might agree that Donald Trump talks nonsense and he has gained popularity by pointing out that his opponents don’t make any sense either. There are times when none of it feels rational. Regardless of what side you are on, our current political imagination is dominated by liberalism. As we don’t believe in a god or politician who is all-knowing, we believe that the best way to find truth and the best leader is at the level of the individual. Our new authority, a clear and consistent inner voice, guides our most important decisions. Or does it? I don't need to do much self-reflection to realize that my inner voice is often conflicted and inconsistent. I dredge up old memories and inflate their importance to justify my current decisions. I say I believe one thing and then do another. So do the candidates. At the core of liberalism is a belief that we are individuals with defined senses of self. But for all our advances in science, we have never found any evidence of a "self." Put Trump's policies under a microscope and all you will find is a chain reaction of biochemical events. At its core, liberalism is an act of faith. In order to believe in it, you need to put rational thought aside, which astutely describes what has been bugging me. 1) I Will Kick Ass When I Next Play Settlers of Catan I’m not going to tell you the winning strategy that Harari lays out for Settlers of Catan, but I am convinced that it will give me a competitive edge. But I have a problem. If you read the book, we might both start using the same strategy, which will significantly lessen my advantage. A third player might also read the book and know both our tactics in advance. Once Harari’s book is widely read, all my advantage is lost. As we live in a data driven world, my best bet might be to build an app that can crunch the strategies and variables and make a recommendation for my next best move. If the app becomes widely used, I can go on to build a networked algorithm that can collect information and become all knowing about the strategies used in Settlers of Catan. With my one winning strategy, I will become just one point of input, whereas my algorithm's power to win, with data collected from a broad range of inputs, will quickly become a far superior player. At that point, do I cease to be the player and become the one who is played? If I sound like a character who from the pages of a Jeff VanderMeer novel, it’s for good reason. We currently use technology to overcome our limitations, but its capabilities may contain the seeds of our irrelevance or downfall. In the more immediate future, however, I plan to kick ass at Settlers of Catan.
One of my least attractive qualities is that, as a writer, sometimes I get pangs of jealousy while reading a great novel. The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill is one that turned me a pale shade of green. In 1914, two babies are left in the care of a Montreal orphanage, though the care includes regular beatings and abuse. Early on in life, the two children distinguish themselves. Pierrot, a virtuoso, can make a piano sing and Rose, with her supple strength, entertains the other orphans with her dancing and humor. When Pierrot and Rose become fast friends they find solace in each other until, as teenagers, they are split up. Pierrot is adopted and Rose sent out to work. With the Great Depression taking hold, they independently struggle to make a life in the underbelly of Montreal. Through their journey toward finding each other again, the novel explores ideas about self-expression, despair, and true love. The Lonely Hearts Hotel should be a sad book, but it isn’t. As Emily St. John Mandel said, “it’s also joyful, funny, and vividly alive.” How does a writer take on the subject of sadness and write about it with joy and wonder? One way is to counter the bleak and grim, as O’Neill does, with stunning prose. All too often, though, novels are filled with stylish language, gilded metaphors, and ornate sentences that don’t hold up thematically or structurally. When this happens, the language starts to feel decorative -- I can’t help but think of the gold drapery that Donald Trump has installed in the Oval Office, fancy curtains that say nothing about grandeur and only obscure the view. But the language in The Lonely Hearts Hotel adds up to much more. Word by word, the metaphors and images allow the author to build an elegant and understated exploration of theme. So what of my envy? It's petty and unbecoming and replacing my Ikea blinds with green curtains will do nothing to improve my writing. That said, I’ve found it’s important to chase after uncomfortable feelings, as they often point toward something I want to learn. I was interested to understanding more about how O’Neill works and asked her for an interview. Going back and forth via email, we talked about how she makes choices, doorbells, Montreal, what she sees, what she thinks about, and how she writes. The Lonely Hearts Hotel is about how two orphans turn difficult experiences into art. It makes a case for sadness -- that it is important because despair contains truths that can lead to joy. It shows how an author can build a sense of wonder using precisely chosen words. I finished both the novel and this interview with even greater admiration for O’Neill’s work. Uncomfortable feelings, like envy, can lead the way to a deeper appreciation. And maybe my Ikea blinds mean I can focus on the view. The Millions: I was struck by your writing when I realized the precision of your choices. Rose, out of the orphanage and looking for a way to make money, walks up to a building. Inside is a studio that makes pornographic films. You describe what she sees, a “descending row of white doorbells, like the buttons on a dress.” My question is specific: How did that image come to you? Heather O’Neill: It’s hard to remember the motivations for that detail specifically. But let me try. Doorbells at the entrance of a building is something that’s been in my imagination for a while. I remember reading an essay once, years ago, where someone said they lived in a building with loads of doorbells. And from that moment, I was in love with doorbells on the page. What I’m saying is that, for me doorbells are fraught and magical. So whenever they are in my text, they are more than what they are. They insist on having meaning. They are put there for me as a general metaphor for the content of a building. They have some much possibility. If there are loads of doorbells, there are all these strange doors you can choose to go into. There’s something inappropriate about having too many doorbells. TM: When you first wrote that sentence, did you already know that Rose would soon be taking off her clothes? HO: I was imagining Montreal as being sexy. So there are lots of feminine details and images. There are buildings that are coy and some that are more forward. The buildings echo what goes on inside them. With that building, the doorbells were a neat white line, like buttons, and buttons are always undone. And what goes on in that building is, of course, erotic. So when I got to the door, I would have wanted some detail that heralded that. So I added that detail. But I can’t recall when I added it. It might have occurred to me at the origin of the scene. TM: When you read the essay about doorbells, did you write your observation down? Or did it come to you while you were writing? HO: Many of my metaphors, imagery come to me specifically for the scene. I do also have notebooks filled with details. Sometimes I will have an image, like a poem that follows me around, waiting to be used. So it might have been a small line that existed before the story itself. Like my dad used to have a sewing box with lots of patches in the shapes of mushrooms etc, that were waiting for the right hole to fit. TM: Do you have an idea of the plot and work back to the language? Or is it the other way around? HO: There’s so much strange intuition in writing that it’s hard to say. I have no idea what the history of that actual line is, but if I tracked it down, I wonder if it would make my writing process make so much sense that I wouldn’t be able to do it anymore. TM: Beyond the doorbell, the buildings are much more than a place to live. When Rose takes a room in a building with thin walls rather than being disturbed by the noise, she feels soothed by the voices of her neighbours as she falls asleep, “it was what the world sounded like to an unborn child.” HO: The buildings in the novel are especially alive when Rose moves further east in the city, to the Red Light District. There were secrets maps of that neighbourhood that circulated in the 1930s and '40s. They had secret back doors and tunnels in the walls and routes over the rooftops, etc. So they were complicit in the lifestyle and criminal goings on. I feel like the inhabitants of every building change it a little bit. The way that every intimate relationship you have changes your personality. And the lives and activities happening in the rooms of those buildings jolted them into life. And I find them so beautiful that it’s hard for me not to see an object of beauty as being animate. TM: And the houses get moody with age, “they refuse to open or shut their windows.” Or a hotel goes up in flames, as if the building had a heart attack. You live in Montreal and set much of your work there. Do you think of the city as a character? HO: Definitely. I always feel that it is alive. When I sit on a staircase, I know the building is aware of me. It’s always watching me. It’s talked me into some of the worst decisions of my life and whispered great words of love and belief into my ears at the same time. I feel sort of giddy when I walk down the streets. Especially in the Plateau, where I’ve spent most of my life, because it knows me. It’s always reminded me of good times we had together. Sometimes I get so taken aback when I see an old familiar building that it’s like running into an ex at the grocery store. I think Montreal, like any city, has its own personality. It’s totally funny, it’s wry, it’s dirty. It is romantic and fickle and philosophical. It always has something to say in every scene I write. It’s a main character, I would say. TM: But then you captured New York in the most fascinating way as well. It is an outsider’s view filled with awe, that the city vibrates with so much energy because of, “all the hearts beating,” and the buildings are like, “ladders up to the heavens.” If you are so rooted in Montreal, how to you approach writing about another place? HO: It depends on the place. I think my interpretation of different cities is influenced by how that place is fixed in the imagination of Montrealers. (My portraits of Paris are always suffused with a moody, existential beauty.) I wanted New York City to seem very big to the characters. Growing up Canadian, as you know, you have a sort of cultural low self-esteem. We’re taught that everybody is more brilliant and bright and interesting than us. That’s why we’re so polite, because we’re afraid of being noticed. We’re so intimidated by Americans, it’s tragic. That’s what the performers were feeling when they step off the train. They are giddy by the heights of the buildings in New York, because they represent the heights of their ambitions, what they’ve decided to try and measure up to. Because it is so big, it makes the characters feel somewhat like children. And much of this novel is about the nature of childhood innocence, and the relationship between who we were as children and who we are as adults. They are essentially living out childhood dreams, so everything seems gigantic in New York, in ambition and scope. Everything is exciting and bold. TM: So much of the observation in this novel happens on the level of the street. I imagine you wandering the streets of Montreal and staring at people for inappropriately long stretches of time. Do you do this? HO: I used to. So much as a child. I definitely had a staring problem. I was enthralled by strangers around me in the city. I thought they were so wonderful. I would watch them as though they were theatrical productions, and I was analyzing their themes. Every nutty thing they said had subtext and layers of meaning. I read people as though they were novels, before I began writing novels. So much of what I wrote, especially my early work, was based on the works of influential writers and the jokers sitting across from me on buses. TM: That is the beauty in this novel, the layers of meaning. Your choices of images and metaphors link the language to the themes. The wonder in the your language, the awe involved in seeing something like a doorbell through fresh eyes, it speaks to how one can cope with the difficult things that happen in life. Can an adult who has lost a sense of wonder find it again? HO: Yes. It comes when you trust your intuitions, allowing yourself to get excited about absurd things. I became smitten with the image of a girl in a Napoleon hat when reading an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel when I was in my 20s. I was so fixated on the image, I was trying to figure out why I was interested in the idea of a girl in a Napoleon hat. In The Lonely Hearts Hotel there is a girl wearing a Napoleon hat in an early scene and then by the end of the book there is a whole troupe of girls wearing Napoleon hats. I realized after using the image that it was because I wanted to bestow on the young girls a revolutionary power. I wanted to make them ambitious, and blood thirsty and defiant. All the while pulling nylons over their toes, wearing lace bras, and shrieking at mice, maintaining their femininity. My chorus girls were an army, like Henry Darger’s drawings of warrior girls, or Marcel Dzama’s depictions of girl scouts with machine guns, or Gisèle Vienne’s dolls with black bandit masks on their faces. When it first appeared to me, it struck me as the most beautiful image in the world. But beauty comes before reason. It demands you look for meaning. It announces meaning in an almost violent way. Living with a sense of wonder, allows the seemingly trivial to insist on having meaning. It is not hierarchical. Children know this. They bestow great importance on a mouse on a counter, or a sticker of a unicorn prancing across a binder. As an adult, the act of judging one’s self and the world around you as insignificant is what leads us to lose our sense of wonder. Reading is an activity that causes the brain to wonder again. I find anyways. Whenever I finish a book, I put it down and the world seems to explode with new meanings. On some level, literature assumes that every reader is a child.
"Don't just read the thing that you think is for you... read the thing that's not." — Lisa Lucas In a bleak year, I found a book that brings me hope. milk and honey is a collection of illustrated poems that was first self-published in 2014. Author Rupi Kaur, who is 24 years old, has a strong visual aesthetic and is well known for her Instagram images. She draws huge crowds at her appearances. The book is now published by Andrews McMeel and has become a staple on the bestseller lists. Before I read it, I assumed milk and honey wasn’t for me. Maybe I had the idea that popular and poems are two things that shouldn’t go together. I took a cue from my stubborn instance on using capital letters in a book title. It’s also fair to say that my reading preferences often don’t line up with the bestseller lists. What I didn't take into account was that this book might remind me of my past in a way that could influence my future. Just before I started university in the early-1990s, more than 15 years before Donald Trump bragged about grabbing pussies, there was a campus rape awareness campaign called “no means no." In response to the campaign, a group of students put up signs in their residence windows mocking it, “no means harder," and "no means tie me up." On Dec. 6 of that same year, a gunman entered the École Polytechnique in Montreal. He specifically targeted women and ended up killing 14. His suicide note blamed feminists for ruining his life. In 1991, the year I arrived at university, for the first time women became the majority (51 percent) of graduates in Canada. The administration had responded to the fear-filled atmosphere by covering the campus in educational posters. Many of them gave advice to women about how to avoid sexual assault and wider dangers, don’t walk alone, don’t drink too much, be careful of dark corners. I remember the posters presenting safety as something that could be achieved through a combination of advanced strategic planning and the suppression of all bodily urges. In keeping with the times, avoiding sexual assault or more became a mission that I took seriously. The consequences, after all, were dire. We all knew victims who had suffered twice. Once from the incident and a second time if or when people found out. “She was raped,” the whispers followed a friend like a dark shadow. If someone asked why, the answer lay in her failure to preform defensive maneuvers. Fault wasn’t assigned. It was an assumption. Of course I didn’t manage to avoid all trouble. Few of us did, but we didn’t talk about it much either. A large part of our tactical maneuvering was about keeping quiet so that we didn’t suffer twice. I didn’t see this as a political decision at the time, though it was. Back then I saw it as surviving intact. I soon entered the man’s world of work and part of my job became using my smarts to figure out how to wedge my ill-shaped body into offices that were never designed to fit. Shoulder pads were the least of my problems. I tucked my boobs into a blazer and dodged, ducked, and dove when trouble found me. It sometimes did. Now that I’m older and the politics have evolved, I speak out, but I'm aware that I’ve left behind a big steaming pile of crap -- in my case that’s a handful of men who might expect women like me to dodge, duck, and dive around them, regardless of how they behave. Some of these men have probably shifted their gaze to a younger generation. I feel sick that my silence might lead to more harm. Many of these memories came back as I read milk and honey. Kaur writes around the subjects of sex and power with an honesty and candor that made it all feel fresh. Not all that much has changed and so much in her book feels familiar, however there is a profound difference in how she frames her story. These are poems I wish for my younger self to read. The arc, told over four parts -- the hurting, the loving, the breaking, the healing -- is different to the world I knew, especially the healing part. It is not a story about fitting into someone else’s world, but about how to imagine your own. What I internalized, Kaur dissects: What I repressed, she releases: What I kept quiet, she calls out: Raur is like many people in the generation younger than I am. They are not dodging, ducking, or diving. Despite a climate full of fear, they are speaking up. They are calling out the behavior that I did not. Their willingness to do this is bringing change -- it's also the brave heart of the many allegations of sexual assault or inappropriate conduct that have been brought forward on so many university campuses in the past few years. It is painful to admit that my silence has helped to create such chaos. I came of age in a world where education and work meant fitting into a someone else's world. I managed to find a way into a room of my own. But while experience can bring wisdom, those same experiences can calcify and create a rigid view. Sometimes it takes a new perspective to flush out our thinking. milk and honey stands out in my year of reading because it reminds me why listening is so important, especially as I grow older. Rupi Kaur's book shows how a younger generation is doing more. They are shaping a world of their own. More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. 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The Red Car, a new novel by Marcy Dermansky, comes with a blurb from Roxane Gay, "I want to eat this book or sew it to my skin or something." As a reviewer, I feel that endorsement alone means my job is done. You should read The Red Car because you will love it. And then you might want to eat it. But maybe you need convincing? That could only be the case if you haven’t heard of Dermansky’s previous novels, the darkly honest Twins or the wickedly twisted Bad Marie. Anyone who has read them will be tempted to lick the cover of her newest at the very least. The Red Car tells the story of Leah. In her early thirties, she has an apartment in Queens, a husband named Hans, and a part-time job that allows her enough time to finish a novel. But none of it feels right. When her old boss Judy dies, Leah goes to her revisit her old life in San Francisco where she inherits Judy’s most prized possession, a red sports car. What follows is a sort of road trip, except that Leah is a terrible driver. She drinks, has random encounters, writes, and stumbles her way through the Bay Area in search of her true self. If a story of a woman going west to find herself doesn’t sound original, it’s Dermansky's delivery that makes this short novel perfectly delectable. As background: Alan Watts was a British philosopher who first gained popularity in California in the 1960s by expounding a mishmash of Zen Buddhaism, semantics, and musings on nature. He’s now commonly found as voice on YouTube set to Terrence Malick clips, but I've been listening to his older recordings. One that caught my attention was his take on the brains. To Watts, we are as successful as human beings because we let our incredible brains do most of the work for us. They take charge of growing babies, make the heart beat, and heal wounds without any conscious input. Our brains are so much more intelligent than we are that we don’t even understand how they work. But who, then, do I mean by "we"? Instead of identifying with our big brains, we identify “I” with a small slice of our conscious attention. I think of that part of my mind, my “self” as a small narrator who runs the commentary of my life. But, is there any self there? When I die, I won’t leave a self behind. I can’t look through a microscope and see my self. The idea that we should or could be a consistent person when our cells and circumstances regenerate everyday is fiction. There is only a story we tell ourselves. So when Leah sets out on a road trip in search of herself, how will she find what isn’t there? Dermansky cracks her character open and lets the runny yolk of Leah’s life spill over the pages. The results are highly entertaining. Rather than confused or scattered, Leah is lonely. Like everyone else I know, she is inconsistent and haphazard as she grapples for a story arc that will help her life make sense. When Leah listens to her sort-of boyfriend reading a dirty passage of Henry Miller in a taqueria, she acknowledges that someday, "I would be old and that I would be mortified at myself, for allowing this to happen." During a shopping trip at Macy's she isn't only trying on a dress, she attempts to slip into a new skin, "I felt like an alternate version of myself and this was the person I would be." Judy, the dead boss, becomes another voice in Leah's head. But Leah doesn’t believe in ghosts and knows that she is only talking to herself. That doesn’t stop her from taking Judy’s good advice: "you shouldn't always believe the things you tell yourself." In what I found the most relatable passage about Lulu Lemon-style yoga ever written, Leah fails to do a headstand, "I was watching woman more beautiful than I was, stretching more deeply than me. And while I had these inappropriate competitive thoughts during a nonjudgmental yoga class, I judged myself for my thoughts." Dermansky seems to write without censure. She hasn’t tried to level Leah’s lack of a consistent self by rolling a forced order over her character. Maybe Dermansky didn’t buckle when an editor asked, “but does Leah’s next move make sense?” and perhaps she didn’t bend when a reader questioned Leah’s motivation. When a character is on a quest to find a true self, the discovery at the end can often feel lifeless. The Red Car pulses, as it gives a twist to the road trip genre. Leah doesn’t find herself, she comes to understand the many people she can be. Leah is funny and insightful and a mess and fantastic. You’ll want this story to seep inside your skin. One reading of The Red Car should do, but the relationship could be more permanent. You may want to follow Roxane Gay’s impulse and eat a few pages. They will become a wet wad in your stomach and some of the ink will leech into your blood stream. The Red Car will become part of you. And you will feel less alone.
Lauren Groff's Fates & Furies, just out in paperback, tells the story of a marriage. The first half of the novel is from the perspective of the husband, Lotto, who sees marriage as, “a never-ending banquet, and you eat and eat and never get full.” The second half is from the perspective of the wife, Mathilde, who says of marriage, "Kipling called it a very long conversation." Fates and Furies shows how two people can misunderstand each other over time. Lotto and Mathilde live their lives together, but they inhabit completely different worlds. In this way, the novel has a similar dynamic to Twitter. People tweet messages at each other while also inhabiting completely different worlds. Though on the social network major miscommunications take only 140 characters to unfold, in both a true connection remains elusive. So what if Lotto and Mathilde were both to tweet? Without the luxury of 400 pages in the novel, Lotto would need to activate all his advantages given the limited space, whereas Mathilde would need to cut short her passive aggressive ways. If you have read Fates and Furies, you might question whether a private person like Mathilde would ever expose personal details in a forum designed for public consumption. Under usual circumstances, she would not. But she's always made an exception for Lotto and his wicked sense of timing. And he, in turn, has made a life of luring her in. But would high-born Lotto join Twitter? I’ll remind you that he is an actor in a playwright’s hide. He’ll never not be vain. ___
By some secret law of lists, “summer reads” often settle on books that are light and fluffy and happy. Like a marshmallow, they are usually too sticky and sweet for my taste. What about a list for us wretched assholes who prefer to spend the summer wallowing in a someone's else’s misery? On holiday, I cut myself off from my regular writing regime to focus on the people I’m with -- I understand this is called “relaxing.” As my real life is relatively drama free, this means I have dangerous spare capacity to obsess over...what? While a happy book might distract me temporarily, it’s far easier to become completely consumed by an epic novel full of anguish. Over the years, I have a developed specific criteria for the books that I want to read over the summer: --The novel must have a high page count, a minimum of 500 but preferably cresting at 800. This is crucial, because I want to have something that I can sink into for a good number of days in a row. --I’ll want to read in 75- to 100-page chunks at a time, because this is precisely how long I need to hide from other human beings on any given day. --I have to be dying to get back to the story. The urgency must be genuine -- this helps make my pleas for reading time feel authentically desperate. --And most importantly, the plot should involve hardship, anxiety, and a certain level of suffering; these hold my occasional bouts of existential dread at bay. So, like a marshmallow caught on fire, please enjoy the burnt crust of my epic summer reads: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry This book is a complete kick in the ass. It’s beautiful, big, and full of empathy. Every single one of your 21 senses will be plunged into the social chaos of India in the mid-1970s. From slums and squalor come friendships, and, in comparison, how could you dare feel intolerant of your own family? The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt Jason Diamond recently tweeted the last paragraph from a 1992 profile on Donna Tartt. “Look at these goldfinches...Goldfinches are the greatest little birds, because they build their nests in the spring, a long time after all the other birds do. They’re the last to settle down...” If you haven't read The Goldfinch, please understand that in this quote Tartt gives a pitch-perfect plot synopsis of the nearly 800-page novel she would go on to write some 21 years later. This is an author who deserves your undivided attention. If you worry that small birds sound twee, rest assured the section of this book that takes place in Las Vegas will sort you out. Fall on Your Knees by Anne-Marie McDonald It was sometime in 1997 that I started to figure out how the world might work. I credit this book with helping me grow up that much faster. It’s devastating and terrible, and funny, a wicked combination. Adam McKay: If you are listening, before writing the script for the Theranos film could you read this book first? I ask for the dose of empathy that can make an ambitious character feel real: Everything in New York is a photograph. All the things that are supposed to be dirty or rough or unrefined are the most beautiful things. Garbage cans at the ends of alleyways look like they've been up all night talking with each other. Doorways with peeling paint look like the wise lines around an old feller's eyes. I stop and stare but can't stay because men always think I'm selling something. Or worse, giving something away. I wish I could be invisible. Or at least I wish I didn't look like someone they want to look at. They stop being part of the picture, they get up from their chess game and come out of the frame at me, blocking my view. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara The only problem with categorizing Yanagihara’s novel as a summer read is that it is hard to read and, on occasion, you might have to take a break. If you do, don’t carry the book around with you! Your cousin will see the cover and feel confused and ask what it is about. And if you tell him, he will then ask, “Why would you read something like that?” Don’t answer. Head back to the hammock and keep reading. You’re on holiday, after all. The Orenda by Joseph Boyden Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, recently gave Barack Obama a copy of Boyden’s first novel, Three Day Road. It’s set in WWI and in the wilds of Northern Ontario and is a great book, but his more recent The Orenda is the book that earns a place on this list. A decent page count, murders, torture plagues, a cut off pinky, and you are good to go. A House For Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul Some people say this isn’t Naipaul’s best novel and they are wrong. This is Naipaul's best novel. It follows the path of a man to middle age as he searches for autonomy -- a house to call his own. This resonates, especially when on holiday. If you wrote as beautifully as Naipaul, you could buy your own house. Or cottage? Or rent a hotel room on the other coast... Barkskins by Annie Proulx If this list sticks in any way, your summer read is Barkskins. Enjoy the burn. Image Credit: Flickr/Ray Bodden.
I've been following Pamela Erens's work since her debut in 2007. With each novel, her reputation has grown; I admit that I expected her new book to land on my doorstep with a resounding thud -- the sound of a weighty third novel announcing its author has arrived. The actual tone was higher, more like a plonk. Erens's third novel, Eleven Hours, is 165 pages long. It is a heart-in-your-mouth, hold-your-breath read that uses one of the most familiar, and possibly underused, time constraints to hold tension: labor. A woman named Lore, in the early stages of labor, checks into the hospital alone. She brings with her a detailed birth plan, which her assigned nurse, Franckline, eyes skeptically. The nurse knows all too well that the only certain thing about birth is that it won't go to plan. As the novel charts the course of the contractions, the relationship between the two women becomes more intense. Their lives and past experiences become briefly intertwined through the deeply intimate process of birth. Why hasn't a novel like Eleven Hours been written thousands of times before? Like storming the castle, slaying a serial killer, or saving the world, the story of a labor has all the elements of a classic plot. An inciting incident, conflicting needs, rising action, suspense, a built-in climax, and a kind of resolution that often feels both surprising and true. Like the structure of Eleven Hours, the outcome of a birth, though often happy, isn't assured. For with every birth, comes the possibility of death. And it’s this natural tension -- as Karen Russell puts it, "the tides of memory, sensation, and emotion" -- that Pamela Erens has caught so precisely. On the eve of publication, I wanted to know how Erens came to this point in her writing career. In an email exchange, I asked her about working at Glamour magazine, the hard slog of doing publicity yourself, getting the rights back and the reissue of her first novel, glowing reviews by John Irving, "big" books, and "small" topics. The Millions: Since your first novel was published in 2007, you have been listed for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, you were named a contemporary writer to read by Reader's Digest, your criticism has appeared in many prestigious publications, and your work has been lauded by The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Guardian. Have you made it? Pamela Erens: Hmm, what is “making it?” On the one hand, so much more has come my way than I could have imagined 10 or 15 years ago. I remember when my second novel, The Virgins, came out, realizing that people I didn’t actually know were reading my novel. That was thrilling! Honestly, I think almost everyone who read my first novel, The Understory, either knew me or knew someone who knew me. Getting to write essays for a place like Virginia Quarterly Review, a journal I'd held in awe for years: that knocks me out. But one keeps moving the goal posts, right? It’s just human nature. You (I) want more readers, more sales, a prize...Sometimes I hate that the mind works like this. TM: You were an editor at Glamour magazine. How did you make the transition from magazines to novels? PE: Actually, the fiction came before any magazine work (I also had stints at Ms., Connecticut Magazine, and a New York City weekly called 7 Days). The magazine work was what I gravitated to after college because I was a huge reader of magazines (still am) and needed to make a living. But I wrote fiction as far back as I can remember. If Glamour shaped my work, it was by training me to be succinct and draw the reader in quickly. In school, you learn to generate a lot of blah-blah in your writing, a lot of what my boss at Glamour called “throat-clearing.” Magazine work cures you of that. TM: Did the success of The Understory surprise you? PE: Very much. For one thing, during the editing process I gradually gleaned that my editor and publisher (it was the same man) was no longer really running the press that was supposed to bring out my book. He was traveling a lot, hard to reach, involved in other business ventures. He was shutting down operations, and there were many months where I didn't think the book was going to come out. In the end he did honor the commitment to publish, thank goodness, but there were long delays, and the press lost its distributor. The book was not in bookstores, period. People rightly criticize some of Amazon's practices, but if it hadn't been for Amazon no one would ever have been able to get ahold of the book without coming over to my house to ask for a copy. There was no publicity for The Understory other than what I did myself. The publisher did print advance reading copies, but I had to figure out where to send them. I ran myself ragged writing notes to newspapers and possible reviewers -- but at the time I knew hardly anybody. A couple of things worked out, including a Publishers Weekly review, which was hugely important in legitimizing the novel. Jim Ruland, a wonderful writer I'd gotten to know via the online writers’ site Zoetrope, did an interview with me for the literary blog The Elegant Variation. It was an L.A.-based blog, so perhaps that was how the Los Angeles Times folks, who nominated it for the book prize, got wind of the novel. I sent the book to several prize competitions, cursing at the steep entry fees, but it led to the short list for the William Saroyan Award. So: a combination of stubbornness and a few contacts and some lucky breaks. TM: Picking up on things working out, Tin House republished The Understory in 2014. How did this come about? PE: By the time The Understory came out in 2007, Ironweed was basically no longer operating except to send copies to Amazon once in a while and bring out one other book they had under contract. I figured that if I could get the rights back, maybe eventually another press would be willing to do a reissue. I was afraid of losing track of my publisher (he was often in Asia) and not being able to contact him if an offer came up. So in 2010 I made a request for the reversion of rights. The publisher was very accommodating about it. Later, when I got an agent for The Virgins I mentioned to her that I owned the rights to The Understory. After Tin House took The Virgins, she sent The Understory to my new editor, who said that he was interested it in, too, but wanted to see what happened with The Virgins first. And luckily that went well, so Tin House brought out a reissue of The Understory about eight months after The Virgins. It was great to see it with a new cover and in bookstores. TM: The Virgins got a rave review from John Irving in The New York Times. How did you swing that? PE: I don't think authors ever get to swing anything when it comes to The Times! The review was exciting for reasons beyond the obvious. I'd been a John Irving fan since the age of 15, when I read The World According to Garp. My early- to mid-teens was the one time in my life I stopped writing. I’d been a massively scribbling kid. I’d written a novel at the age of 10 -- that was published -- I really should refer to it as my first novel. It was called Fight for Freedom and it was about a slave girl who escapes to the North before the Civil War with the help of Harriet Tubman. My mom, always an optimist and a booster, sent it out to a few places and it got taken by a small feminist press in California called The Shameless Hussy Press (this was the 1970s, okay?). But once adolescence hit I guess I just got too busy with trying to be popular and attract the interest of boys. Anyway, The World According to Garp blew me away. I couldn’t believe fiction could be written that way. It was so irreverent and joyful and antic and dark and political. Afterwards, I went out and read all of Irving’s earlier books. They jolted me into writing again (at first very Irving-imitatively), and I haven't stopped since, other than for a brief period when I couldn't sell The Understory and thought, crap, I really don't have what it takes, maybe I would like to be a librarian. Not a joke; I was looking into it. So there was a big kick in being reviewed by one of my first literary heroes. TM: Big books are having a moment. Of the many virtues of novels like The Goldfinch, The Luminaries, A Little Life, and City on Fire, they have also received attention for their high page count. Eleven Hours is 165 pages long, is this a contrarian stance? PE: You've hit a sore spot for me. Some of the novels most dear to me are big and multi-charactered, with wide panoramas. Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, Howard’s End, Angle of Repose. Then I have this other passion for slender, intense, highly concentrated novels and collections, such as Wide Sargasso Sea, Desperate Characters, They Came Like Swallows, Jesus’ Son. But it's the longer, more sprawling books that epitomize "The Novel" to me. Why? I've been pressing myself on this one lately. It has nothing to do with artistry, I'm beginning to realize. It has to do with certain longings for status and, believe it or not, with how I want to see myself as a person. Do I not have enough empathy to write more than two or three or four characters a book? Am I lacking in imagination? I just have to get over those probably false equivalences. Jane Austen famously referred to “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work.” Well, we’re still reading Jane Austen today, while Walter Scott, the “big book” writer of her day, not so much. TM: What is a "big book?” PE: Usually, for me, it's a novel that takes on a lot of the “outside” world, that’s sociological and/or historical as well as psychological. Sometimes a book like that truly does offer a “big” experience, and sometimes it’s just kind of, well, journalistic: doing the work of nonfiction rather than fiction. I think about Kafka, another writer I love. Can you imagine if Kafka sat around saying, "God, why can't I write a multi-generational novel with lots of sociological color and several gripping subplots?”? You could argue that Kafka is one of the narrowest writers around. He barely does description or character. There’s only sometimes a bit of plot. But in plumbing what he plumbs he brings us some of the most potent experiences in literature. He brings us the unconscious erupting into our lives and the dread at the heart of being human. He goes places no one else goes. We authors just have to write what we write and not get caught up in these ideas of "big" or “small." TM: I agree, but know from experience that it's not a comfortable feeling to be told your novel is "small." While there is no set definition of "small," it can feel diminishing? PE: Yes, it can. My other hangup about "writing short" is that long books do often generate more excitement and attention. Though it's not always the case. The wonderful Dept. of Speculation, a novel you can read in an hour and a half, was one of the most lauded books of 2014. There's Garth Greenwell’s book What Belongs to You. There are Ben Lerner's two short novels. These have been among the most justly praised books of recent years. I’ll also say this: When advance reader's copies of Eleven Hours were mailed out, I realized one big advantage of a short book: people are much more likely to get around to reading it. It's not such a huge investment of time. That's a long way around to your question of whether writing short is a contrarian stance. No! Both The Understory and The Virgins started out as longer books. Making them into the best books I could resulted in major amputations. I knew from the start that Eleven Hours would be short, because of the time frame and because there were only so many uterine contractions I could describe without losing my shit, but I kept hoping it would magically pass the 200-page mark. It just didn't want to. Some authors seem to achieve their best effects through expansion. For me, at least so far, it's compression that brings out what I want. TM: What did your editor at Tin House say about the length of the manuscript? PE: I worried about what both my agent and my editor would say about the length of Eleven Hours. I was afraid someone was going to use the dread word "novella." (For the record, as a reader, I love the novella form. I just thought that if Eleven Hours was labelled as a novella it might be tougher to sell or get reviews for.) Neither said anything. When I expressed my own anxieties, my editor mentioned another novel that Tin House had done, even shorter, and commented that the right layout and presentation can make a short book very appealing. That was nice. Tin House does in fact have a track record of beautifully publishing shorter novels. TM: Eleven Hours tells the incredibly tense story of a woman's 11-hour labor. How did it feel to write? PE: I had a lot of false starts with Eleven Hours. I wrote my first two novels in almost complete isolation. With The Virgins, I submitted the first 15 pages to a workshop once; that was it until it was finished. By Eleven Hours, I had a writers’ group, and I was also having trouble getting it launched. Trying to capture the physical and psychological experience of childbirth was so difficult. Not because I didn't remember it well or was spooked by the material, but simply because it was hard to find the language to say much about it. What I was able to get down on paper was fragmentary and rather dreamlike. I would bring in these fragments and my group would be encouraging but also kind of lost. I really felt that this book needed to be in third person, unlike my first two novels, and I just couldn't hear the right voice. Eventually I had a setup and a reasonably workable narrator and I proceeded. Then I didn't show anything more to anybody and completed a draft in about a year. Wow, I'm getting really fast! I thought. This is progress! I sent the manuscript to my agent. When we spoke on the phone, I could hear her trying carefully not to make me feel terrible. She pointed out what she liked and didn't. She didn't like that much, but what she did I gained the confidence to build on. I got some good feedback from her then assistant also. I spent two more years on the book and got regular critiques from my group. They were essential in helping me see where there was a live vibe and where things were going dead. The breakthrough was when some intuition sent me back to Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, two of my favorite novels. That was the voice I wanted, that mobile, poetic, exalted, wry, empathic voice that is distinct from any of the characters. So then I spent the rest of my time figuring out what of Woolf's method I could adapt or steal. In short, the novel didn't get written all in one breath, by any means! TM: Eleven Hours is published by Tin House tomorrow. How do you feel right now? PE: A bit strung out, as always before a publication. But pleased. It’s always sort of a miracle when something that started years ago as an idea, a little thread of words in your head, becomes this independent object in the world. And something that is particularly satisfying to me this time is that the content of the novel brings me full circle to some of my earliest concerns and interests. In college I discovered I was a feminist -- that is, someone who is very interested in how gender shapes inner and outer experience. I studied gender via philosophy, psychology, history, anthropology, literature. Glamour magazine was a continuation of that. Women’s magazines are where you can routinely find some of the most inquiring and informative journalism about women’s physical and mental health, reproductive rights, sexuality, and so on. The Virgins drew somewhat on that vein of interest, in its attempt to be straightforward about teenage female sexuality, but Eleven Hours does even more so. Why are there so few accurate or in-depth depictions of labor and delivery in literature? It’s just staggering. TM: That's a great question. Where is the experience of labor and delivery in our literature? PE: You and I were just talking about “small” books, and it seems as if childbirth, this absolutely enormous event in the life of billions of people past and present, is seen as a “small” topic. It’s absurd. With Eleven Hours I wanted to write this thing that I wasn’t seeing out there. I wanted to do it as both an artist and a feminist. And now it’s out there, and I feel very satisfied.