Bill Goldstein and I met in the spring of 2014 at Ucross, an artists' retreat in Wyoming. Our studios were actually quite far from each other but we became fast friends in part because we shared the same work schedule: every morning we'd meet in the quiet kitchen for a pre-dawn breakfast, both of us eager to get to our desks before procrastination could claim the day. A lot of the time we joked around; my coffee was always sludgy with grounds, Bill said, and I would remark on his debonair bathrobe-and-pajamas combo. Other times we talked novels. Bill not only hosts a segment about books on NBC's Weekend Today in New York, he also went back to school a few years ago to get a PhD in literature, and we'd often sit for longer than planned chatting about Edith Wharton or a contemporary novel we loved. Sometimes we would discuss our works in progress. While I was wrestling with my second novel, Bill was writing a literary history of 1922, specifically, the creative and personal lives of Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, and E.M. Forster. His studio was filled with books about these figures, and I knew that before coming to Ucross he had dug into primary sources at many libraries and archival centers; his book struck me as so much more expansive than mine, and I enjoyed hearing about it. Sometimes one of us would have a breakthrough with our writing. Other days, we were made miserable by a bad paragraph or uncooperative chapter. I distinctly remember Bill worrying he'd never complete what he had begun. Well, he didn't have to worry: The World Broke in Two: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and the Year that Changed Literature was published last month, receiving praise from such varied publications as The Times Literary Supplement, People, and The New York Times Book Review. I myself tore through the book in just a few days. I loved it. Bill renders this history vivid, compelling, and even dishy. It made me want to re-read The Waste Land and seek out D.H. Lawrence's novel Kangaroo. It inspired me to return to my (lately neglected) third novel. It also made me grateful for my own literary friendship with Bill. All of our sprawling, funny, and thought-provoking conversations in Wyoming informed my work and helped me to clarify my aesthetic intentions; I'd like to think that in some minuscule way I was involved in the making of The World Broke in Two. Bill was kind enough to continue our conversation here for The Millions; he answered these questions via email. The Millions: As someone who only writes fiction and the occasional personal essay, I'm interested in the process of writing biography. It strikes me as such a daunting and mysterious task! How do you shape all this history into a compelling—and, perhaps more importantly, intimate—narrative? Tell me about your process. How did you go about researching this material, and then organizing it? Bill Goldstein: I wouldn’t say I was aware that it was going to be either or both of those things while I was working, or even that I was consciously shaping it to be that. The editing process is so different from the writing and the researching (and the researching, at least for me, was so much easier than the writing). I think, at least from the evidence of what my own main subjects were dealing with in 1922, that one thing writers of fiction and nonfiction have in common is the difficulty and anxiety of writing. Poets, too—because I think T.S. Eliot said it most succinctly, when he wrote to a friend in December 1921, just before The Waste Land began to take its final shape, “I do not know whether it will work.” (Being Eliot, he wrote it in French—“Je ne sais pas si ça tient.” I think he turned to French for that one sentence in the letter because it was too frightening to say it in English, and yet he had to confide it to someone.) This was just before he went to Paris, in January 1922, and began to edit, with Ezra Pound’s help, what had been nearly 1,000 lines of poetry into the poem half that length that was published at the year’s end. At almost the same time, Virginia Woolf was editing Jacob’s Room, her first unadulteratedly modern novel, into its final form, and was worried that it was only “sterile acrobatics.” So much of my book is about my main subjects’ insecurity about what they are working on, and their absolute despair that they will be able to do the work they want to do. Whether they will achieve their artistic goals—or whether, physically, they will be able to finish the work. I loved that Virginia Woolf, just before her 40th birthday in January 1922, wrote to E.M. Forster that writing was like heaving bricks over a wall—she had a severe case of influenza—but also cautioned him that even though she was about to turn 40, he must count her only 35 because she had spent so much time sick in bed. But finding lines like that is why the research is the best part of biography. Also because the process is comparatively straightforward, as opposed to the writing or editing. I spent a lot of time in libraries and archives, and it is just wonderful to be able to go through original letters, diaries, manuscripts—you’re actually holding them, and that’s thrilling in and of itself —but then you always convince yourself (and you’re right) that you must look at more. My focus is pretty specifically 1922, but I found so many important things looking in later and earlier archival material. So much depended on how much time you had in any one place. I was lucky enough to have a fellowship at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, where I researched for two months. You don’t have to do the same kind of triage as when you are in a place for only a few days or a week. The New York Public Library was a similarly endless resource, and luckily I live here. You gather this enormous amount of stuff, and then you have to cut most of it. In terms of writing and editing, I found that the thing I most resisted, but in the end most depended on, was simply chronology. You'd think that in the story of a year that would be obvious! But that is somewhat alien to my digressive mind, and I learned I had to keep the story as chronologically clear as possible, and that involved, in the editing, sometimes working paragraph by paragraph. If one paragraph did not follow logically from the previous one, and I was spending too much time working on a transition that inevitably became too baroque or abstract—I gave up, basically, and cut it. It only took me several years, and imminent deadlines, to sharpen my mind that way. I think one thing nonfiction writers can do that is perhaps harder for novelists is that whole chapters can move around—they are much more discrete than chapters in a novel, I would imagine. I don’t know that novelists write in order—I certainly didn’t—but then once I got back to the chronology, I could find the place for things I had drafted, or I could cut. The chapters fit into place because of the time period they covered. Though I remember once many years ago interviewing Ann Beattie, who said that in writing her novel Love Always she didn't want to “tell a story chronologically.” She wrote the novel in pieces, and when she had finished all the chapters, she spread them on the floor of her living room and re-assembled them “like pieces in a puzzle.” What “foiled” her, she said, was “having to fix it technically, to go back and revise the chronology.” Talk about losing myself in research—I just went back and looked up the interview. TM: Was there any sweet little piece of history that you couldn't fit into the book? BG: Do you know the phrase l’esprit d’escalier? Literally, the spirit of the staircase? What you think of saying to someone only after the conversation has ended, some caustic or brilliant reply that only comes to you when you’re on your way out—dramatically—down the stairs? When I do my TV segment, I almost always think more of what I should have said, what I wanted to say, than I do of what I did say. So, in terms of the book—most of what I wanted to get in I had to leave out. I feel almost as much despair now about all that I couldn’t use as I did when I was trying to organize all my research notes into a draft. But there are two quotes I tried to fit in, moving them from place to place, and they just never fit. One was a line of Clive Bell’s to his mistress Mary Hutchinson. Clive Bell was married to Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister. He admired T. S. Eliot’s poetry but did not warm to him as a person. Mary, on the other hand, was close to Eliot, was very sympathetic to him in the many financial and marital struggles that in 1922, as at other times, consumed his life (and which made their way into The Waste Land). I think Clive liked to tease her with his barbs about Eliot, a kind of literary foreplay, almost. Eliot published The Waste Land in late 1922, but also spent a lot of time that year working on the first issue of The Criterion, a literary magazine he inaugurated that year (and which he edited in one form or another until 1939). Eliot wrote the prospectus for the magazine in the summer, and Clive, as he often was, was dubious of Eliot’s efforts. When the prospectus arrived, he wrote to Mary that the morning post brought many letters, “all, except yours, very dull—bills for the most part.” One of the very dull things she had likely seen herself: “the prospectus of The Criterion on which most unluckily, though perhaps prophetically, a swallow shat before I had time to read it. You will lend me your copy I dare say.” The other quote was one of E.M. Forster’s. He read Woolf’s Jacob’s Room in late 1922, and wrote her a beautiful letter about how ecstatically he read it, and what a profound an effect it had on him and, he thought, on the work (A Passage to India) that he was trying then to do. I quote the letter at length. It just didn’t fit to have the wonderful kind of P.S. that he offered to a friend, more traditional than he was, to whom he recommended it highly, but with a caution: “Good. Very very very very very very very—modern.” TM: You rely on diaries and personal letters to provide insight into these writers' careers and domestic situations. There are some real gems here. For instance, D.H. Lawrence remarks that the people in Ceylon would be as "beshitten" there as anywhere else on "this slippery ball of quick-silver of a dissolving world." In her diary, Virginia Woolf describes an evening spent with T.S. Eliot; he was, "sardonic, guarded, precise, & slightly malevolent, as usual." Can you describe what it was like to interact with these personal papers? Did reading correspondence or private writings alter your understanding of these writers, or even change the course of the book as you might have first imagined it? BG: Yes, and yes. When you write a nonfiction book, you usually write a proposal first, for your agent and prospective publishers. That, of course, takes years of work (or at least it did for me). You have to do a lot of research, but in researching that, I relied on published material—Virginia Woolf’s complete letters and diaries are published, and Lawrence’s letters too. But when I began working most of Eliot’s letters of the period were still unpublished, and most of Forster’s letters (and his diaries) were also unpublished. You don’t know, of course, what you don’t have, or even whether you will find it or if it still exists. I knew the story of 1922 I wanted to tell, and knew that there was a story in these people’s lives that I could tell by focusing on one narrow bit of time in which they did important work. A story that by necessity the definitive biographies of all of these people could not tell because they had whole lives to encompass. Each of them had a little about 1922, of course. I knew the story, then—of Woolf, for example, writing “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street” in the spring of 1922, the story that by the end of the year gives rise to Mrs. Dalloway; of Forster’s picking up his “Indian fragment” (which becomes A Passage to India) after nearly a decade. In the same way, I knew where Eliot and Lawrence began and ended the year. In the book, the story is the same—the stories, I suppose I should say—but the details are almost completely different from what I'd planned. What I hadn't counted on was the range of unpublished material by them and about them. The fact that Woolf's diaries and letters, and Lawrence's letters, for example, have been published in complete editions obscures the other salient fact—that so much private writing by and about my subjects is available in archives and libraries and has not been published. There's so much of Eliot's correspondence and Forster's that hasn't been collected yet, and it was all a revelation to me, including much that they wrote later that revealed essential aspects of 1922, and their work—and their private lives—in that period. Even more thrilling for me—because finding it all was completely unexpected—were the diaries and letters of the people who knew my main subjects extremely well, and either loved or loathed them or both. That was a perspective I never thought to have, and discovering them provided me with some of the most juicy and insightful and bitchy and jaundiced raw material (see Clive Bell’s letters to Mary Hutchinson; and there are hundreds of them at the Ransom Center). The trouble, then, was that I had more than I could ever use—which brings us back to the editing paragraph by paragraph. My editor, Gillian Blake, had a very help suggestion (really, directive)—quotations should be ornaments. Perhaps that's something every editor says—but it related very specifically to a dilemma my drafts posed to both of us, and that advice helped me enormously. One other thing about working in these archives is the thrill of holding the original letters. You’re looking for particular things, of course, and you get so used to moving quickly through the papers. Sometimes I would have to scan letters looking only for capital letters—to see if any of my subjects were mentioned. And then every so often you just stop yourself in awe and realize, these are Virginia Woolf’s letters! This is her paper, her ink, she wrote this—it’s not a facsimile. The same thing with drafts. You are holding Eliot’s typescript. You are holding D.H. Lawrence’s notebooks. At the Ransom Center they have Virginia Woolf’s copy of A Passage to India inscribed to her by Forster. And Ezra Pound’s copy of The Waste Land, in which he made not one single pencil notation, unfortunately. The challenge, I think, is to convey some of the excitement in the book. TM: I read The World Broke in Two on vacation, far from my writing desk, and by the time I was done, I was thinking a lot about my new book, eager to get back to it. Part of that is due to reading about these brilliant writers and their artistic processes, challenges, and goals. I loved learning about Woolf's interests in depicting human consciousness, and how inspired she was by Marcel Proust. I've read a lot of Forster but didn't know much about what was happening in his personal life as he returned to the book that would become A Passage to India. And then there's Eliot, struggling to finish The Waste Land, take care of his ailing wife, and go to work as a banker, a job that demoralized him and caused him great anxiety. Last, we've got D.H. Lawrence, giving himself the challenge to start and finish a draft of a novel in six weeks. These could be writers I know personally, in 2017! I felt a connection between their artistic struggles and passions and my own, which was exhilarating. Was that your intention, or was that simply an intriguing part of these writers' lives that you couldn't help but focus on, being a fellow writer yourself? Did their processes echo your own, as you worked on your book? BG: I struggled for a long time with the book, as we’ve discussed. It took me over six years to finish it. And practically every day as I wrote I was immersed in these writers’ despair (which eventually becomes triumph in one way or another by the end of 1922). And I kept thinking of my own difficulties, “But they are Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster! Who am I?” It was comforting on the one hand and intimidating on the other. I mean, what right did I have to struggle? The end result was not going to Mrs. Dalloway or The Waste Land. But at least I had a much smaller goal! I was talking to a friend just after I was finished with the book. He works in politics but admits he is really a struggling screenwriter. When he said something about how hard it was to do it, and even to find the time, I told him about what Woolf, et al were going through in 1922. He said, “Most people think great art just happens—but it doesn’t.” I think that’s what my book is about. It helps goad you forward, at least a little, to know that whatever struggle you are having with your writing doesn’t indicate, by itself, that you are doing bad work or aren’t a good writer. You can recognize you are not Woolf, Forster, Eliot or Lawrence, and still try to do your work. TM: You have a PhD in English and you've written this literary history of 1922. But you're also very much part of today's book culture: you host "Bill's Books" where you review contemporary work, and you were the founding editor of The New York Times books website. I'm curious how it felt, to be immersed in two literary worlds, past and present. What feels different? What feels similar? Do we have modern day counterparts to these brilliant minds? (And who is our modern-day James Joyce—arrogant, uncouth, genius?) BG: It was a relief to move between the past and the present. I mean, each was an escape from the other, though of course having to do so much work in the real world leaves you less time for writing. But if you don’t earn money, you can’t write. It’s not a new dilemma. Forster put it wonderfully (and sadly) about his own journalism, which he was doing in part to distract himself from his failure at his novel: “How fatuous!…Always working never creating.” So much is the same, or at least we seem to feel the same way about some things as the writers in my book felt then—overwhelmed by their own work (of course), but also, as Woolf, who was also a publisher of the Hogarth Press, felt, simply by the number of books published. She made fun of the sheer number of books published, and the hype about them (that’s not the word they used then, but she describes the same machinery for it, both from the publisher’s side, creating it, or trying to, and the public’s side, the press’s side, trying to make sense of it). She wrote an article in 1922 decrying this very thing, part of which was trying to understand what her own place was in that universe, not only as a publisher, but as a writer—where would her own work fit in? How would Jacob’s Room make its way in that world? It was the start of her trying to figure out what role the “common reader” plays in making an audience for a writer—but also a posterity for a writer? Would she be read in later years? She could barely see her way to finishing the work she was doing—but still she was anxious about whether she and it would have a posterity. She and Leonard Woolf conducted a mock debate for the BBC in 1927 about whether too many books were being published. The text survives, but not a recording, unfortunately. As for who is like Joyce—two things. One, I love that you’re quoting Clive Bell’s reaction to him when they met in Paris in 1921, which is from one of his letters to Mary Hutchinson, and which I think he also shared with Virginia Woolf and which influenced her own sense of him as a person (she and Joyce never met) and more vitally as the writer of Ulysses. And two—I think I know too few writers well enough to answer your question. I only know the nicest ones. TM: Since this is The Millions, I must ask you, what's the last great book you read? BG: You mean other than Woman No. 17? I recently read and liked Pachinko by Min Jin Lee; Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout; and My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent (in alphabetical and chronological order, conveniently enough). The last great book I reread is Mrs. Dalloway.
By the time September rolls around, the publicity cycle for my latest novel, Woman No. 17, will be over. That means, unless something totally unexpected happens for the book, there won't be any more press opportunities. It's a little sad (Wait? It's over? I'm already yesterday's news?!) and also: Phew, what a relief. As anyone who's published a book knows, the process can make you feel exposed and vulnerable. You're fragile. Your ego is in overdrive, as is your shame. Once a friend of mine was interviewed on Fresh Air about his novel. I was like, "OH MY GOD! YOU TALKED TO TERRY GROSS! ARE YOU DYING OF HAPPINESS?" He shook his head. He said he'd been doing a lot of weeping. I understood his pain; even when my first novel was a bestseller lauded by a famous TV host, I felt weird and confused. Publishing doesn't feel like writing does, and no matter how your book's doing, you kind of just want to crawl into a cave and pretend it isn't happening. Since Woman No. 17 has been published, I've wondered what would have to occur for me to feel 100 percent satisfied with the book's performance and reception. Here's what I came up with: 1.The book is a New York Times Bestseller for at least eight weeks in a row, but preferably 767 weeks in a row. 2. My Amazon ranking vacillates between #1 and #2 for those 767 weeks. 3. Oprah calls. 4. Terry Gross wants to interview me, and on Fresh Air we have a super deep conversation about my upbringing and my writing process that's better than any therapy. Plus, I make her laugh twice. "Thanks for having me, Terry," I say in a smoky, wise voice. 5. There’s a Triple Crown situation that throws the literary world in a tizzy: the book wins the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. Someone stuffy writes an essay about my wins, which basically boils down to: “Since when did FUN books win awards?” 6. I’m asked to pose in a couture gown, holding a baby goat, for a profile in Vogue. 7. I do events across the nation, all of them packed to the gills, and there is not a single person in the audience asking me to read their as-yet-unpublished paranormal romance. 8. It’s named a best book of the year by every publication that makes lists of best books of the year. 9. The Los Angeles Times decides to review it. 10. My husband pours me a glass of wine (Vinho Verde, maybe?), and begs me to read some of my writing aloud to him, just so he can “hear the words pour over my soul.” 11. It’s adapted for the screen in a collaboration by Nicole Holofcener, Christopher Nolan, and Jill Soloway. Reese Witherspoon is definitely involved, and she keeps texting me, just to say hi. We send Bitmojis back and forth. (Cue to me chuckling privately every time my phone dings.) 12. The movie-version is a huge hit and I get to go to the Oscars and the Globes, where I befriend Chrissy Teigen and Terrence Malick. 13. My daughter realizes I’m an Important Author and stops throwing her smoothie across the room with an evil cackle. 14. Stephen King tweets rapturously about my writing. Lauren Groff retweets his tweet and adds something like, “Oh. My. God. SAME!” 15. I’m invited to do a Beauty Uniform, House Tour, and a Week of Outfits on Cup of Jo. However, it turns out readership for all blogs has gone down in recent weeks, because everyone is too busy reading my book to look at their phones. 16. The Obamas are photographed on vacation somewhere and Michelle’s got my book under one of her perfectly toned arms. When asked about it, she says, “Oh Barry said I had to read it.” 17. My book, or my name, appears in a New York Times Crossword Puzzle. I'm thinking something like, "2 across, four letters, American Author, _____ Lepucki" 18. All of my former lovers find ways to tell me they've never forgotten about my miraculous pussy. This is done in a non-creepy, non-threatening manner. (Maybe friends of friends tell me? Or: One of them (the rich one) hires a sky-writer above Malibu?) 19. No one ever spells my name Eden ever again. 20. I’m invited on The Ellen DeGeneres show. She and I do a little dance routine together in matching white suits and Converse. 21. The New Yorker reaches out. Can I write 200 words about Ocean Isle Beach, or chocolate rugelach, or Negronis, or unicycles, for their upcoming issue? Of course, they’ll take a short story if I have one ready. 22. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop calls to apologize for never offering me a Teaching-Writing Fellowship. 23. That mean British lady who reviewed my first novel on NPR issues a formal apology for not understanding how essential my work is to the next generation of writers and readers. 24. The next generation of writers and readers—in their jean-shorts that show their butt cheeks, with their mysterious internet acronyms—photograph my book with crystals, with bowls of cherries, with pottery they threw themselves. They post these photos with various hashtags, #edanlepucki #thenextjoandidion #butreally #read #it #now, and tag me. 25. My son tells me it’s fine if I go away for book events and artist retreats because he finally understands how difficult it is to be a writer and a mother. He also stops asking me to wipe his butt after he’s “tried” to wipe it himself. 26. George Saunders emails. He has my 2004 application to Syracuse’s MFA program in front of him. He knows they rejected me then, but would I want to come now? Full scholarship, etc. 27. Everyone who reads this list goes out and buys my novel. 28. In the rare event that someone posts a one-star review of the book on Goodreads, an angel dies somewhere. The reviewer understands this angel-loss intuitively. Also, physically: there is a loud, uncomfortable buzzing in their left ear, then a pain in the gut, possibly diarrhea, followed by a loss of hope more extreme than anything felt on November 9, 2016. They decide to re-read Woman No. 17 and it’s on this second read that they get it, the book is actually, really, truly good! Four stars! 29. The Trump pee tape is finally released. It turns out the women are pissing on a copy of my novel. 30. My mom calls to tell me I’m her favorite. 31. Time stops—literally stops moving forward—until everyone has read my book, and loved it, and told me so, and all my suffering is erased forever and ever amen. Modest dreams, no? Image: Envy Plucking the Wings of Fame, Wikimedia
I'd been hearing about Jami Attenberg's latest novel, All Grown Up, long before it went on sale. Early readers loved it, and their praise produced a kind of roar across the Internet, one full of joy and ferocity. People were grateful for this story and this character: Andrea Bern, a single woman who doesn't have kids, and doesn't want them. When I finally got my hands on a copy, I saw what everyone was talking about; Andrea is like so many women I know, and yet, she is unlike most female characters in fiction. She is also more than her demographic (as we all are). Through a series of droll but big-hearted and compassionate vignettes, Attenberg depicts a profound and authentic portrait of a woman as she moves through this beautiful yet often unjust world. In All Grown Up, there is joy, loneliness, pleasure, despair, grief, hope, frivolity, and matters of great import. Jami Attenberg is The New York Times bestselling author of five other books, including The Middlesteins and Saint Mazie. She was kind enough to answer my questions via email. The Millions: All Grown Up is told in a series of vignettes about Andrea's life -- there's one terrific, pithy chapter early on, for instance, called, simply, "Andrea," about how everyone keeps recommending the same book about being single. There are a few chapters about Andrea's friend Indigo: in one she gets married, in another she has child, and so on. Some are about Andrea's dating life, and others focus on her family. I'm curious about how working within this structure affected your understanding of Andrea herself, seeing as she comes into focus story by story, but not in a traditional, chronological way. I also wonder what you want the reader to feel, seeing her from these various angles, some of which overlap, while others don't. Jami Attenberg: I made a list -- I wish I could find it now; it’s in a notebook somewhere -- of all these different parts of being an adult. For example: your relationship with your family, your career, your living situation, etc. And then I created story cycles around them, and often they were spread out over decades. As an example: what Andrea’s apartment was like when she was growing up versus how she felt about her apartment as an adult in her late 20s versus her late 30s, and how those memories informed her feelings of safety and security and space. A sense of home is a universal topic. And then eventually more relevant, nuanced parts of a specifically female adulthood emerged as I wrote, and little cycles formed around those subjects. So the writing of this book in terms of structure was really an accrual of these cycles. The goal was to tell the whole truth about this character, and why she had become the person she was -- the adult she was, I guess -- so that she could understand it/herself, and move on from it. The fact that it’s not linear is true to the story of our lives. The moments that inform our personalities come at us at different times. If you were to make a “What Makes Me the Way I Am” top 10 list in order of importance, there’s no way it would be in chronological order. And to me they’re all connected. I’d hope readers see some of their own life challenges in her, and if not her, in some of the other characters, even if they happen at different times. Everything keeps looping around again anyway. (We can’t escape our pasts, we are doomed to repeat ourselves, we are our parents, etc.) TM: In my mind, and likely in the minds of others, you lead an ideal "writer's life" -- you're pretty prolific, for one, and you also don't teach. You now live in two places: New Orleans and New York City -- which seems chic and badass to me. Plus you have a dog with the perfect under bite! Can you talk a little about your day-to-day life as an artist, and what you think it's taken (besides, say, the stars aligning), to get there? Any advice for writers who want to be like you when they're all grown up? JA: It took me a long time to figure out what would make me happy, and this existence seems to be it, for a while anyway. I’m 45 now, and I started planning for this life a few years ago, but before then I had no vision except to keep writing, and that was going to be enough for me. Then, after my third winter stay in New Orleans, I realized I had truly fallen in love with the city. And then I had a dream, an actual adult goal. I had two cities I loved, and I wanted to be in both. So it has meant a lot to me to get to this place. I worked so hard to get here! I continue to work hard. No one hands it to you, I can tell you that much, unless you are born rich, which I was not, and even then that’s just money, it’s not exactly a career. And I think the career part, the getting to write and be published and be read part, is the most gratifying of all. Unless success is earned it is not success at all. My day-to-day life is wake, read, drink coffee, walk the dog, say hi to my neighbors, come home, be extremely quiet for hours, write, read, look at the Internet, eat, walk the dog, have a drink, freak out about the state of America, and have some dinner, maybe with friends. Soon I’ll be on tour for two months, and that will be a whole different way of living, though still part of my professional life. But when I am writing, it is a quiet and simple existence in which I take my work seriously. I have no advice at all to anyone except to keep working as hard as you possibly can. TM: I've always loved the sensuality of your writing. Whether the prose is describing eating, or having sex, or simply the varied textures of life in New York City, we are with your characters, inside their bodies. What is the process for you, in terms of inhabiting a character's physical experience? Does it happen on the sentence level, or as you enter the fictive dream, or what? JA: Well thank you, Edan. I’m a former poet, for starters, so I’m always looking to up the language in a specific kind of way. I certainly close my eyes and try to be in the room with a character, and inside their flesh as well, I suppose. I write things to turn myself on. Even my bad sex scenes are in a strange way arousing to me, even if it’s just because they make me laugh. It’s all playtime for me. All of this kind of thinking comes in the early stages but also in my final edits of the second draft. Most of the lyricism of the work is done before I send the book out to my editor. Her notes to me address the nuts and bolts of plot and architecture, and often also emotions and character motivation. But the language, for the most part, she leaves to me. TM: My favorite relationship in the novel is between Andrea and her mother. It's loving and comforting even though there are also real tensions and conflicts between them. Can you talk about creating a nuanced, and thus realistic, portrayal of mother and daughter? JA: It is also my favorite relationship! I could write the two of them forever. I am satisfied with the book as it stands but would still love to write a chapter where the two of them go to the Women’s March together, and Andrea’s mother knits her a pussy hat and Andrea doesn’t want to wear it because she only ever wears black. I have pages and pages of dialogue between them that I never used but wrote anyway just because they were fun together, or fun for me the author, but maybe not fun between the two of them. Their relationship really comes from living in New York City for 18 years and watching New York mothers and daughters together out in the world and just channeling that. These characters are very much a product of eavesdropping. I try to approach these kinds of family relationships like this: everyone is always wrong and everyone is always right. Like their patterns and emotions are already so ingrained that there’s no way out of it except through, because no one will ever win. But also there is love. Always there is love. And that’s how I know they’ll make it to the other side. TM: This novel has so many terrific female characters, who are at once immediately recognizable (sort of like tropes of contemporary womanhood, if that makes sense) and also unique. Aside from Andrea and her mother, there is Andrea's sister-in-law, Greta, a once elegant and willowy magazine editor who is depleted (spiritually and otherwise) by her child's illness; Indigo, ethereal yoga teacher turned rich wife and mother, and then divorcée and single mother; the actress with the great shoes who moves into Andrea's building; Andrea's younger and (seemingly?) self-possessed coworker Nina. They're all magnetic -- and they also all fail to hold onto that magnetism. Their cool grace, at least in Andrea's eyes, is tarnished, often by the burdens of life itself. Did you set out to have these women orbiting Andrea, contrasting her, sometimes echoing her, or was there another motivation in mind? JA: These women were all there from the beginning -- all of them. I had to grow them and inform them, but there were no surprise appearances. I never thought -- oh where did she come from? They were all just real women living and working in today’s New York City, and also they were real women who lived inside of me. I needed each of these women to be in the book or it wouldn’t have been complete. And also I certainly needed them to question Andrea. For example, her sister-in-law in particular sometimes acts as a stand-in for what I imagine the reader must be thinking, while her mother acts as a stand-in for me, both of them interrogating Andrea at various times. And also always, always, always in my work the female characters are going to be the most interesting. Most of the chapters are named after women. I had no doubt in my mind that I wanted a collective female energy to buoy this book. We’re always steering the fucking ship, whether it’s acknowledged or not. TM: Were there any models for this book in terms of voice, structure, tone of subject? Are there, in general, any authors and novels that are "fairy godmothers" for you and your writing? JA: Each book is different, I have a different reading list, but Grace Paley is my mothership no matter what, because of her originality, grasp of voice and dialect, and incredible heart and compassion. As I began writing All Grown Up, I was reading Patti Smith’s M Train and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, and when I was halfway done with the book I started reading Eileen Myles’s Chelsea Girls. I was not terribly interested in fiction for the most part. I wanted this book to feel memoiristic -- not like an actual memoir, that one writes and tries to put in neat little box, perfect essays or chapters, but just genuinely like this woman was telling you every single goddamn, messy thing you needed to know about her life. Those three books all feel like unique takes on the memoir. Patti Smith just talks about whatever the fuck she wants to talk about, and Maggie Nelson writes in those short, meticulous, highly structured bursts, where you genuinely feel like she is making her case, and in Chelsea Girls Eileen has this dreamy, meandering quality, although she knows exactly what she’s doing, she’s scooping you up and putting you in her pocket and taking you with her wherever she wants to go. So all of those books somehow connected together for me while I was establishing the feel of this book. And when I was finishing I read Naomi Jackson’s gorgeous debut, The Star Side of Bird Hill, which is also about family and a collection of strong women and coming of age, although the people growing up in her book are much younger than my narrator. But it was just stunning, and it made me cry, and the emotions felt so real and true. So I think reading her was an excellent inspiration as I wrote those final pages. Like you can’t go wrong with heart. TM: Since is The Millions, I must ask you: What was the last great book you read? JA: I just judged the Pen/Bingham contest and all of the books on our shortlist were wonderful: Insurrections by Rion Amilcar Scott; We Show What We Have Learned by Clare Beams; The Mothers by Brit Bennett; Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, and Hurt People by Cote Smith.
In the year 1999, Dan Chaon became my creative writing teacher. He was very young, and had just one book so far, a story collection called Fitting Ends, published by Northwestern University Press. I was basically a freckled zygote in red clogs who had no clue how to write a scene, much less a series of them. Dan showed me what was what, and he also said, Hey, read some Joy Williams, read some Lorrie Moore, do you know who Alice Munro is? Dan read everything, it seemed, and I was inspired to follow his example. In the years since, he has gone on to publish a second story collection, Among the Missing, which was nominated for the National Book Award, and two novels, including Await Your Reply, and then a third collection called Stay Awake. After reading his new novel, Ill Will, I can say, without reservation, that he is one of my favorite writers, living or dead, right up there with Edith Wharton and Margaret Atwood. His work is ambitious and weird. His characters are complicated and usually damaged, they make the wrong choices, they feel real. His prose is musical, and his imagery is at once startling and accurate. He writes stories that are compelling: stuff happens! Ill Will is about a man named Dustin whose boyhood testimony sent his adopted brother, Rusty, to prison for killing their parents, aunt, and uncle. Now, 30 years later, DNA evidence has exonerated Rusty, and Dustin is forced to face the past he's so diligently pushed out of his mind. But since this is a Dan Chaon book, there are other, equally striking and dark narrative threads. Dustin's wife is dying. One of his sons is losing control of his life. One of his therapy clients is obsessed with a string of drowning deaths, and he draws Dustin into his amateur investigation. This is a novel about grief, about being unable to accept reality, and about the myriad ways we trick ourselves about our selves. Dan was nice enough to answer some questions I had about the book via email. He said the first one felt like "a trap." Read at your own peril. The Millions: I was reading your book on Election Day and during the aftermath, too, when I have honestly never been more terrified for the future...and I wrote a post-apocalyptic novel for god's sake! The night of November 8th, I actually willed myself away from the TV and the Internet and went to read in my bedroom, trying to calm myself. It worked, for a while, because your novel is wonderfully immersive -- as a reader you want to know what exactly happened to Dustin's parents and aunt and uncle, and you're so deeply inside the characters' consciousnesses that it's impossible to think of any world but theirs. Can you talk about creating an immersive experience on the page? Dan Chaon: Edan, this is one of those lead-ins that feels like a trap. Like, you ask me: “What makes you so immersive?” And I’m like, “Uh…you tell me?” Cuz I don’t know. I know that there’s definitely some people who are disappointed and bored by the crap I write, and then there are people who like it, but I don’t have any control over it at all. All I can say is that I personally fell into this story and that it managed to colonize my imagination for many years. As a teenager in the 1980s, I was fascinated by the serial killer novels that were popular then, and I’ve always been a fan of the thriller genre, so as a writer I wanted to try my hand at it. At the same time, Ill Will is a deeply personal project, and I found that having the framework of the genre allowed me to write about grief and loss and self-deception more directly and honestly than I would have if I’d been writing a more autobiographical book. For some reason, the two things hooked together, and I had a “fantasy world” that was powered by my real emotion, which I think is the exact vehicle that you need when you’re writing fiction. In terms of an “immersive experience,” readers’ mileage may vary. I was trying to find a balance between writing a straight-up Silence of the Lambs style procedural, and something more personal and idiosyncratic. I hope that there is enough here to satisfy readers of both genres. TM: I wonder if you feel if your writing has changed, or will change, in this Trump era. Do you have a different job, as a writer of fictive worlds, than you did before he took power? DC: This is such a hard question to answer. I’m writing this on Feb. 8, 2017, and it’s only a few weeks into Trump’s presidency, so I have no idea where we’ll be when this interview is published. I have never experienced this degree of destabilization before -- I don’t have any idea what shape the world will be in when my book comes out next month. We might be at war. There might be riots. I’m guessing, though, that everything won’t be fine. Hi, people of the future! From Dan, in February 2017! YOLO! But to answer your question from my current innocent position, I don’t know. I think we create fiction from the sewage that we are swimming in, and that whatever the world feels like at the moment will always infuse the fiction that we’re writing, like a tea bag in hot water. I wouldn’t have anticipated that the concerns of this book—self-deception, fake news, manipulation, denial—would be so pertinent when the book came out. There may be a slight case of prescience in it, but I wouldn’t call it luck. TM: This world you immerse your readers in is also a bleak one: four people were brutally killed decades earlier; Dustin's wife is dying of cancer; Dustin's son Aaron is addicted to heroin and floating through his grief; Cleveland is in post-industrial rot. But it's also funny. I laughed out loud quite a few times, especially during Aaron's millennial narration. Stuff like: "I never understood why people from the 1980s thought there'd be flying cars. It just seemed really dangerous and impractical to me, but they all talked about it, so it must have been a thing. Meanwhile, my dream for the future was that it wouldn't involve mass extinction and large-scale water shortages and cannibalism." Your work has always had this strain of twisted amusement, but it feels amped up here. Was this deliberate? DC: I’m always cautious about the word “deliberate,” because so much of the tone of a piece feels outside of my conscious control. I actually found myself kind of unnerved that, for some reason, large stretches of the bleak and horrible landscape of Ill Will were hilarious to me. Maybe some degree of levity was necessary for me, as a writer, in order to get through some of the darkest parts of the book. Looking back, I can see that the Aaron and Rusty sections of the book were definitely inspired by the rhythms of stand-up comics, and the mordant tone of certain writers I find funny -- like George Saunders and Sam Lipsyte -- was also an influence. TM: I've never read such a poignant and visceral depiction of grief before -- you show how it dislocates and obliterates us, and you often do that formally, by stopping a sentence midway, for instance, or including many spaces between sentences. A couple of times, you place scenes in columns, so that they appear side-by-side, occurring separately but simultaneously. This formal play surprised and exhilarated me, and it was effective: it truly felt like lived experience to me, and how our brains process trauma. Did you feel like the novel, as it's traditionally written, simply couldn't express what you needed to express? Where in the writing did this experimentation occur, and can you talk about the various approaches and why you took these leaps? DC: I have a classroom exercise for my creative writing students called the “Box Exercise.” I have students create a table with three columns and two rows, exactly the size of an 8 ½ x 11 sheet of paper. The assignment is that each of the six boxes contains a scene of a story. I wanted to force them to be concise, and to think about the way scenes work together like building blocks. It’s useful for the students to be able to see all the scenes together at once. I was inspired to create the exercise by a couple of things. Firstly, I spent a little time working in a writer’s room for a (failed) TV show, and the process of “breaking story” was fascinating to me, the way we put each individual scene on an index card and pinned it to a bulletin board, so that the story was represented not just in words, but graphically, visually. I was also inspired by a chapter of Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit from the Goon Squad called “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” which is rendered as a powerpoint presentation. In any case, I loved the results I got from the students when they did this exercise. By forcing them to work in these very tight, elliptical spaces, the exercise seemed to give them a creative jolt, and I was so taken with it that I started using the exercise myself, during free-writes. Eventually, it became so deeply embedded into the texture of the book that I kept the weird formatting. My editor was a little doubtful about it at first -- and it was an incredible pain in the ass during the typesetting process -- but I’m really happy that we were able to retain it, because I do think it conveys something that couldn’t be expressed in a different way. TM: There were so many memorable names in the novel, like Dustin's cousin named Waverna, who is called Wave when she's younger, and Dustin's son's friend, nicknamed Rabbit, and my favorite: Xzavious Reinbolt, who also goes by...Amy. These names were endlessly delightful to me, and also realistic (I mean, my own name is crazy, right?) Can you talk about naming these characters and how they contribute to the overall tone of the book? DC: I steal names from my students, as you know -- there is a character named Eden in one of the stories in my collection Stay Awake, for example. I also steal from friends and acquaintances, and from my children’s friends, and from random websites. Dusty and Rusty were two kids I knew in grade school, and Rabbit owned a bar that my parents liked to go to. The last name Tillman was taken from the musician Joshua Tillman, who sings under the name Father John Misty. I stumbled across the name Xzavious Reinbolt when I was doing a Google image search for arrest mugshots. Names are weirdly important to me. I want them to be realistic in a way -- to evoke a certain social class and region and time period and mood -- but I also need them to have a music to them, to evoke something that has the quality of a dream or a fable, hopefully without being too cartoonish or distracting. I don’t know if it’s superstition or magic or what, but for me a name somehow breathes life into a puppet, gives shape to an abstraction. The characters often refuse to perform unless they have been properly christened. TM: You were raised in Nebraska and live in Cleveland now, and these are the landscapes in your work. I'm pretty sure I'm one of those latte-drinking, kale-eating coastal elites, and while reading your novel I was reminded that there aren't that many contemporary literary novels set in the places you write about. Or I'm not reading them. There's also a lot of class stuff. There's a great moment when Dustin recalls his wife saying that he wasn't merely unlucky, as he believes, just raised poor -- she says that bad stuff happens to poor people. What's the role of place in your fiction? And how present is class for you, as you're thinking about a character and their sense of themselves in the world? DC: I like kale too, Edan! Especially baby kale, in a smoothie with mango and bananas! But it tastes different in Cleveland than it does in San Francisco. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that social class is actually my big subject. It’s often a dirty word in political discussions, and easy to dismiss when compared to its companion, race. Generally, race is something that can’t be escaped or hidden; class, on the other hand, is a marker that’s far more nebulous, and part of the American delusion, for both the left and the right, is that it can be left behind, slipped out of like a suit of clothes. This is true to some extent, I think. I’m a good example. I was raised in a working class family, and many of my relatives existed below the poverty line -- rural poor, trailer park poor. My mother’s parents lived in a house without an indoor toilet. They had an outhouse. But I am very distant from that world now. I went to college at Northwestern, and the majority of my adult life has been spent in one form or another of middle-class or upper-middle-class life. I’m a college professor, and I earn a good living from my writing as well. I’m a plump, privileged white liberal, and I don’t think you’d be able to tell that I’ve ever been any different. But I feel different. I feel like an imposter a lot of the time. Class means many different things beyond income. It’s an attitude, too: there are people who are “classy,” there’s a way of moving through the world with confidence, an unknowing entitlement. There are people who come from “good families,” whatever their finances say. Class is an invisible tattoo that marks your spirit, and I thought it would eventually go away, but now that I’m in my 50s I’m starting to think it won’t. Dustin’s right: it’s about luck. People who are born comfortable are lucky, but they don’t know it. I have lived among them for more than half my life, and my observation is that there is always a part of them that feels like they deserved it. They don’t even realize how deeply the idea of “meritocracy” is built into their worldview. Even if they would never admit it, they secretly feel that they earned their advantages somehow: poor people were not as smart, not as sensible, not as well-bred. If they just tried a little harder. Well. I did try harder. I threw away everyone I grew up with, gladly. I left for college and never went back, and I pretended to be my own creation, no nature or nurture either, just a self-invented person. See? I’m just like you, readers of The Millions. My life is so different from some of my cousins' lives that we may as well live in different universes, but I achieved that by chopping off big parts of myself. I think those severed limbs are the ghosts that haunt my writing. They come in the form of Rusty, the enraged, dangerous foster kid who is smarter than you, but who was doomed the minute he got dumped out of the womb; they come in the form of Aaron, who has everything he needs for a good, happy life, but runs toward the arms of disaster as if it’s his only true love. They are parts of myself that I have murdered, but they won’t stay buried. They come in the form of Dustin, a man so split from his past life that he can’t even remember it. Whole lives are dedicated to not thinking about something. TM: I usually ask writers in these Millions interviews what the last great book they read was, but since I know you consume not just books passionately, but also music, television, and movies, can you share with us what art and pop culture, of any kind, you've been enjoying lately? DC: The most recent good books I read are Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh and The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead by Chanelle Benz. I just bought John Darnielle’s Universal Harvester. My favorite albums of last year were Frank Ocean’s Blonde and Angel Olsen’s My Woman. I loved the movie Moonlight, and am looking forward to seeing Get Out, directed by Jordan Peele. I am still faithful to the television show The Walking Dead, even though it is often disappointing. I also watch Vikings and the Netflix show Sens8, and yes, Westworld. My favorite podcast of last year was called "In the Dark," produced by APM Reports. As far as video games go, I played Dark Souls III for a while in 2016, but now I am back on Skyrim again.
2016: The year my daughter learned to stand on her own and walk away. It's also the year my son learned about the Holocaust, that it happened, and not that long ago. He is five, she is one. If this opening relies too heavily on the metaphorical, please forgive me: I refuse to besmirch my entry with a certain someone's name, he has crowded my Internet and my brain too much already. I also would like to assert the pleasures of this year, no matter what happened in November. Those pleasures cannot be rescinded. I had a good time writing a book, seeing friends, meeting my youngest niece, cooking with my husband, even gossiping via direct messages on Twitter (oh god please don't hack me, Russia!). I watched my son graduate from preschool. He learned to read. When we rang in the new year, his baby sister was a basically a tadpole; now she can amble across the living room and ask for raspberries and point at everything in the room, a perpetual desire machine. Dat, Dat, Dat, she calls out. One day my son said, "Dolls are for girls -- in TV commercials." On another day he said, "Movies and stories usually open with the villain. It's the bad thing to get you interested." Reading isn't just the ABCs. Speaking of reading. There were also books in 2016. Great ones. Like everyone else, Oprah Winfrey among them, I loved The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. I loved it because it does what it wants story-wise, demands you just go with it, but on the level of plot or structure it's not at all messy. As we used to say in high school: it's tight. More quote-unquote ambitious novels need to take note of this book's symmetry and precision. I've long been a fan of Whitehead's work, in particular his graceful and surprising turns-of-phrase. This new one is just as beautifully written, but the power of its prose held me in the paragraphs rather than single sentences or similes. See this one early on, describing the interruption of a rare party among the slaves: The music stopped. The circle broke. Sometimes a slave will be lost in a brief eddy of liberation. In the sway of a sudden reverie among the furrows or while untangling the mysteries of an early-morning dream. In the middle of a song on a warm Sunday night. Then it comes, always -- the overseer's cry, the call to work, the shadow of the master, the reminder that she is only a human being for a tiny moment across the eternity of her servitude. The rhythms here are brilliant, the sentences describing the celebration's end -- "The music stopped. The circle broke." -- as brief as the humanity each slave momentarily experiences before "the eternity of her servitude" takes it away. The cruel assonance of "eternity" and "servitude." There are so many paragraphs like this in The Underground Railroad. The book contains flashes of Whitehead's classic sharpness, that ironic gleam of his that I've always loved, but it peers in at the edges; the subject matter requires sincerity, gravity. The sharpness, though, keeps this from feeling like a safe, milky-glow historical story. This terror feels present, is present. Another book that rocked me was Ghettoside by Jill Leovy, which is about present-day South Central Los Angeles and its epidemic of murder and violence. Like The Underground Railroad, it's about vulnerable black bodies, about our American failure to protect and value black Americans. Leovy is a reporter for the L.A. Times and she covered homicide from 2001 to 2012, embedding herself in the LAPD's 77th Street Division a couple years into this assignment. Her thesis is simple: "When the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic." She argues that "perceived harshness of American criminal justice and its fundamental weakness are in reality two sides of a coin, the former a kind of poor compensation for the latter." She continues: Like the schoolyard bully, our criminal justice system harasses people on small pretexts but is exposed as a coward before murder. It hauls masses of black men through its machinery but fails to protect them from bodily injury and death. It is at once oppressive and inadequate." The book is a tremendous journalistic feat. Leovy is able to make statistics and historical data coherent and compelling, and she depicts the lives of those affected by these traumas with a vividness that can only come when you've truly seen someone and tried to view the world through his eyes. These first two books are clearly defined, respectively, as fiction and nonfiction. Another favorite from this year bled into both categories: Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger, translated from the French by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon. I had never heard of this little svelte book when I bought it from Green Apple Books in San Francisco. I was simply attracted to its square shape and its cover drawing of a blonde woman. I didn't even read the back cover. Turns out, Barbara Loden was an actress who starred in Wanda, the only film she also directed. I am not a movie buff -- in fact, I rarely watch movies, especially the "important" ones -- but I realize I love reading descriptions of film scenes. There's a kind of inert vividness to these descriptions, a scrim between me and the dramatic moment, that I find almost erotic. Léger intersperses descriptions of Wanda with passages about how she came to know this movie, how she tried and tried to understand Barbara Loden herself. Woven into these, too, are autobiographical asides. One begins: "Once upon a time the man I loved reproached me for my apparent passivity with other men." The result of these combined fragments is delicious and mysterious. Aside from these three new favorite books, I also found a new favorite author. I discovered him over the summer, when I was tired of reading what everyone else was reading or had read. What initially drew me in was the vintage Bantam paperback, tucked into a neighbor's front yard Little Library. Lurid red, with the phrase WIFE TROUBLE in big gold letters on the back. The novel was The Barbarous Coast, published in 1956 and written by Ross Macdonald, an L.A. pulp writer who was raised in Canada. Bookseller-friends had recommended his work to me before, but this was my first foray. Macdonald's detective is one Lew Archer, a quippy loner as they usually are, and I didn't care as much about the story -- a beautiful dead girl, a fancy beach club, etc. -- as I did about the writing. The writing! "Manor Crest Drive was one of those quiet palm-lined avenues which had been laid out just before the twenties went into their final convulsions." It's cool and stylish. I love it. I noted the sexist shit, too: "Her breath was a blend of gin and fermenting womanhood." Soon after finishing the book, I bought The Far Side of the Dollar on eBay. I longed to read another Macdonald, but like the first one, it had to be an old dime-store paperback, its pages yellowed and flaking, the jacket copy over-the-top cheesy ("I'm the man women can't forget and some men don't live to..."). Again the crisp language. Lew Archer's assessments of women -- "Legs still good. Mouth still good." -- continued to rankle, and I began to collect these instances...for what, I am not yet sure. Maybe as a reminder that this way of seeing females is historical, at least half a century old. It is also our inheritance. And it persists. I'm going to read The Galton Case next. Now onto 2017. Sometimes I am fearful and despairing about what's to come. Not entirely, though. I won't let that happen. To start, there will be books. 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. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 Save
A little more than 10 years ago I was an MFA student finishing my thesis, a collection of short stories that I had no intention of publishing. I wanted to be a novelist; the stories, I figured, were teaching me how I might do that. After I graduated, I started a book. Between SAT tutoring jobs, bookstore and cheese store shifts, and teaching my own workshops, I would sit down to write -- and also panic. I thought, I have no idea what I'm doing! It was true, I didn't; as anyone who's written both knows, novels and short stories are very different beasts. At these moments, I would hear the voice of my former thesis advisor Margot Livesey in my head. In her sweet Scottish lilt, she'd urge me forward. She was (and is) an author I admire, and I wanted to make her proud. In this way, I put one sentence down, then another and another. Livesey isn't a preachy teacher. She doesn't have little slogans or rules; she isn't the type to ban certain points of view from her classes, or tell you that dead grandmothers are a tired trope. Her treatment of fiction and writing is open-minded and deep, and she considers and critiques a manuscript both on its own terms and against a long tradition of fiction. She is encouraging, and yet her expectations are high. As with the best teachers, she invited me to be the writer I wanted to be, while also pushing me to be better than that. She is also one of the most talented novelists working today. Her gift, in particular, for writing complicated characters is what inspires me most. Through her fiction, she continues to be my teacher. Livesey's new novel, Mercury, is a kind of morality tale, but without an easy sense of right and wrong. It's also a literary thriller, about a husband and wife and the secrets they keep from one another, and the ways in which they fail to see each other truthfully. It's got an eye doctor, a beautiful and powerful horse, an African Grey parrot named Nabokov, and a gun, which does, of course, go off. Livesey was kind enough to answer some questions via email about teaching, reading, and writing her excellent books. The Millions: You spend the fall in Iowa City, teaching graduate writing students at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. In the spring you're in Boston. Can you talk about how writing (and perhaps reading) changes for you, depending on whether or not you're teaching? How has teaching influenced you as a writer, and, conversely, how has your writing influenced you as a teacher? Margot Livesey: Teaching every autumn, I find myself plunged into the varied worlds that my students are creating, and at the same time rereading the stories and novels I’ve assigned for my classes. Both I think, I hope, influence my work. I do reread quite often but rereading with a class in mind, trying to figure out an author’s decisions, forces me to think more deeply, and more critically, about works I already admire and that’s nearly always fruitful. Maybe I can imitate how Jhumpa Lahiri manages her shifts in point of view in The Namesake. Or steal something from William Maxwell’s use of journalistic techniques in So Long, See You Tomorrow. Meanwhile my students offer me maps of the contemporary world, constantly under revision as we debate voice, character, and motivation. In our workshops I get to study those maps in detail and to see how very good readers are responding to fiction. I cherish their voices in my head when I’m teaching and they remain, perched on my shoulder as it were, when I’m not -- avoid that cliche, think about the setting, do you need to mention politics, is the animal too symbolical, is the dialogue going deep enough, can the mother have a more interesting job? My own writing has made me very aware that there are some things I need to write to advance a novel or a story which the reader absolutely does not need to read. I tell my students a good first chapter is a chapter that helps the author to write the rest of the novel. Of course, later, the first chapter also needs to be a good ambassador but being too critical, too early, can sometimes distract the writer from what she really needs to do. TM: Are there any themes or styles that are popular with your students right now? Which writers are inspiring and influencing them? ML: A number of my students are dealing with material that engages with race, class, and gender in interesting ways. They cherish the work of such writers as Junot Díaz , Edward P. Jones, Toni Morrison, and Zadie Smith. Others are interested in the work of Jonathan Franzen, the sweeping panorama of social concerns, or in grittier voices like Bonnie Jo Campbell and of course Raymond Carver. Still others are working on historical material or using texts within texts. Rather than a single popular theme or style I would say there’s a wonderful range of themes, forms, and subject matters being explored. TM: Your husband is a painter. Can you talk about how his work with a visual artist informs your process? Do you talk to each other about your work? ML: Eric paints large abstract oil paintings. He works in layers on seven or eight paintings at once and many of his paintings take well over a year to complete. I don’t know if he’d agree but I think of his work as having a novelistic quality; the colors and composition gradually come into focus. We do spend a lot of time talking about our processes although I am often not very forthcoming when I’m in the midst of a new novel. Happily when I have nothing to say we can fall back on talking about our reading, a passion we share. TM: At a recent event you told the audience that you write on a computer without the Internet, and said this was essential to your process. Can you talk more about this? I also can't stop thinking about how you said that sometimes you read the dictionary during your writing time. I hope this is true! If so, what dictionary are you reading, and what recent gems have you come upon? MG: Research is often a crucial part of my novel writing but it can also be very distracting. And then of course I can so easily fall into checking email. For a while I did try to be disciplined, but more recently I’ve solved the problem by having two computers, one on which I write fiction and essays, and a second one, a laptop, on which I do my correspondence and go online. Sometimes I go back and forth between the two 20 times in a few hours but I still think that this is better for my concentration and my efficiency. I used to read poems or stories when I was stuck, but too often I was fatally seduced. Now I have a shorter Oxford English Dictionary in which I browse, sometimes purposefully, sometimes randomly, as I try to think what to write next. I often treat it as a kind of I Ching, simply opening it at random. I love knowing where words come from -- disaster -- ruin of the stars -- and seeing the examples of usage: “Disaster always brought out the best in Churchill." TM: So much of your work is about morality and Mercury in particular is about life's murky gray areas, when it's not always quite clear what is right and what is wrong. Can you talk a little bit about how morality and making-hard-choices informs the characters you write, and the stories you tell. Your Iowa colleague, and another former teacher of mine, Ethan Canin, used to say in class that fiction writers are "moral philosophers." Would you agree, and why or why not? ML: I do agree with Ethan, but I would also paraphrase John Updike’s comment: The novel is our greatest psychological experiment. I am very interested in what people will do given certain possibilities. And I am very interested in how we are often quite confident in analyzing other people, but surprisingly reluctant to analyze ourselves. I think the best characters in novels combine that confidence with a sense of appropriate mystery and I think it is the job of plot, or conflict, to let us look more deeply into that mystery. I am still a little surprised by how deeply interested I am in moral choices. Clearly I was paying more attention in my Scottish Sunday school than I realized. I remain deeply puzzled -- I’d have to say indignant -- that as adults we can find ourselves in situations where there is no obvious right thing to do. TM: A few friends of mine, all of them women, have taken up or returned to horseback riding lately, and with your book and Mary Gaitskill's The Mare, it seems that horses are...trending! What drew you to write about horses in Mercury? ML: I think horses, and our relationships with them, are fascinating. I knew when I started Mercury that I wanted to write about an ambitious woman and I knew that I wanted the object of that ambition to be something that many people, but by no means everyone, would value. A horse seemed perfect: large, complicated, fragile. I haven’t ridden much as an adult, but I did as a teenager and I felt I knew what it was like to inhabit that passion. Riding around Boston turned out to be very different from riding the Scottish Highland ponies of my youth. I loved visiting the stables and observing various horses and riders. And I loved reading books about horses including Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet and more recently Jane Smiley’s Horse Heaven. TM: And, because this is The Millions, I must ask you: what are you reading? ML: I am currently reading Peter Ho Davies’s The Fortunes. The novel opens with an account of Ah Ling who hopes to strike gold and ends up working on the railway. Part II follows the life of Anna May Wong, Hollywood’s first Chinese film star. Part III explores the racially motivated killing of Vincent Chin in Detroit in 1982. In part IV we learn how these three are connected as an American couple struggle to adopt a Chinese baby. Davies writes beautiful and dangerous sentences, and I love his timely exploration of issues of race and racism.
In her essay "The Getaway Car," now included in her nonfiction collection This is a Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett describes well-meaning readers who approach her at events with ideas for books. To them, it's a simple equation: their premise plus Patchett's prose equals literary gold. Patchett deftly points out that ideas for stories are everywhere and easy to find; it's the sitting down and writing them that takes hard work. Now that I'm finished with my forthcoming novel, I see what she means. Without a long-term project to obsess over, I find myself channeling ideas all the time. A new premise will possess me for a few minutes or hours, my brain asking What if? or Why would that happen?, until, like a fly at a picnic, I alight on another, juicier narrative. Patchett is right: there are so many stories! Alas, I have only one life, and one voice, and only three days of childcare a week to write. But maybe the ideas that don't snag my prolonged attention would occupy another, different writer. Let's try it: Here are a few novels I won't write. Maybe you will. The Doctor Is In When I was pregnant with my daughter I read Birth Day: A Pediatrician Explores the Science, the History and the Wonder of Childbirth by Mark Sloan. There are so many remarkable details in this book, from the cool, weird things a fetus does in the womb, to theories about why labor is so easy for gorillas and so difficult for human beings. I was especially compelled by the story of James Barry, the first surgeon to perform a successful cesarean (meaning that both mother and child survived). Barry, born in the late 1700s, was an Irish military surgeon in the British Army, and Sloan describes him as not being particularly likeable: pushy, without tact. After his death, it was revealed that Barry was born a woman but passed as a man for decades. When I read that I couldn't believe his story hadn't yet been told (or not adequately; whoever does this book right will have a bestseller followed by an HBO adaptation). Because I am not up for the task of writing historical fiction, I nominate my friend Anna Solomon for the job. She would be perfect: her two novels, The Little Bride and Leaving Lucy Pear, explore gender, sexuality, and motherhood in bygone eras; plus, she's the co-editor of an anthology of birth stories called Labor Day (one of mine is in there). Trouble in Oakland This summer, the East Bay was rocked by a police scandal that included officers in Oakland and Richmond, as well as deputies in the Alameda county sheriff's department. As of mid-September, criminal charges have been made against seven officers and Oakland has witnessed one Police Chief after another step down, with Mayor Libby Schaaf struggling to explain the multiple resignations. In June, a sex worker going by the name of Celeste Guap revealed in an on-air television interview that she'd had sex with a handful of police officers, some of them when she was a minor. As the East Bay Express reported: According to text messages between police officers and the victim, at least three OPD officers leaked her confidential information about undercover prostitution stings. One Oakland cop obtained police reports and criminal histories and shared them with the victim, which is against department policy. Guap also said she slept with cops as a form of protection. In a quote from Guap that I keep coming back to, she said that she and one of the officers would hook up "like every Saturday night for three months straight...He had a mattress in his back seat and slept in his car in the OPD parking lot, so we would hook up after work." This scandal exists against a much larger backdrop; it coincided with the release of Stanford University's 2013-2014 research study of the Oakland police department, which found "a significant pattern of racial disparities" regarding who is stopped, handcuffed, and arrested; according to the report, police officers showed implicit bias against the African-American community. For many in the city, this came as no surprise. Mayor Schaaf made relations with the community even more tense when she identified the race of officers involved in a totally different department scandal; according to the Oakland Black Officers Association, Schaaf had never before identified the race of officers involved in an investigation. Fiction has always helped us understand and grapple with the complexities of the real world, and a book like this, in an era of highly visible police violence, feels necessary. Who is this young woman? Who is this young cop? This would be a big, multi-voiced novel, with community members, law enforcement, and savvy political players. I nominate Attica Locke, author of three crime novels that deal with race in American life, including The Cutting Season, about the discovery of a dead body on a plantation-turned-tourist attraction-and-event space. (Though Ms. Locke might be a little busy right now -- she's currently writing for, and producing, the TV show Empire...) Housework In early September, Rachel Cusk published an essay called "Making House: Notes on Domesticity" in the New York Times Magazine that so closely aligned with my interests I was practically levitating with excitement as I read it. First, I love Cusk's writing, in particular her essays about mothering in A Life's Work. Second, I read design blogs daily and enjoy browsing furniture catalogues and real estate websites; if I'm anxious, nothing calms me more than thinking about sectionals in imaginary living rooms. Third, I am interested in the ways women's identities are shaped and influenced, and this line from Cusk felt truer than anything I'd read in a long time: Yet there are other imperatives that bedevil the contemporary heirs of traditional female identity, for whom insouciance in the face of the domestic can seem a sort of political requirement, as though by ceasing to care about our homes we could prove our lack of triviality, our busyness, our equality. Well, that explains my shame at admitting my couch-fantasies here -- shouldn't I be above all that? Cusk's essay led me to think about depictions of household maintenance and design in fiction. I'm usually a plot-lusty reader, but one of my favorite sections in The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman was when its hero...cleaned his apartment. I still remember how gracefully it transported me to the more mundane aspects of life. I recently loved The Stager by Susan Coll, which is in part about a woman who prepares properties for the housing market by changing their furniture, painting a few walls, and so on. I could've read about her work for hundreds of pages! I wonder, could someone write a domestic drama which contained no drama, only its domestic details? Can a novel exist on descriptions of laundry alone, on musings about where to best mount a living room television? I'm thinking the main character wants a "clean" house, like so many of the women on House Hunters. This would be a short and intensely claustrophobic book -- but also, somehow, sexy. I nominate Rachel Cusk to write this book. If she's unavailable perhaps Nicholson Baker wants to take on the challenge. Ice Age Coming A few days before my senior year of college, I did mushrooms with my best friend. Aside from walking into a field of corn shrieking, we also sat in his car and listened to Kid A by Radiohead. When the song "Idioteque" came on, and Thom Yorke began to sing, "Ice Age coming, Ice Age coming..." I had an entire vision about a novel set during a new ice age, with people grappling with the elements, wearing furs, re-purposing ceiling fans as weapons, and turning bathing suits into flags. I thought this idea was so brilliant that I refused to tell my friend about it for fear that he'd steal it. (I hadn't yet gotten the memo from Ann Patchett about ideas v. work.) Sometimes I think about this unwritten ice age novel, and how fun it would be to read. I was going to nominate a Jean M. Auel type to pen such a saga when I read about The Sunlight Pilgrims by the Scottish author Jenni Fagan. Set in 2020, it shows us a world much like our own, but cold, and getting colder. In her review of the novel, Marisa Silver highlights Fagan's poetic prose: "Early on, we are told that in this worst of winters “icicles will grow to the size of narwhal tusks or the long bony finger of winter herself.”" I'm putting on mittens and reading this! Thank you, Ms. Fagan. Crystal Geyser by CG Roxane Have you ever read the label on a plastic bottle of Crystal Geyser water? (Why would you? The graphic design is horrendous.) Well, I did recently, and was struck by the words I found there: Crystal Geyser Natural Alpine Spring Water by CG Roxane Now, I realize I could turn on the magical Google Machine and find out that CG Roxane is a corporation or whatever. But what's the fun in that? Instead I imagined this CG Roxane as a person. He's got on a Stetson cowboy hat and a large-collared Oxford shirt. He's obsessed with water. His mother calls him Charles Gomez, which is what the "CG" stands for. In my mind, this book would be a little like the movie There Will be Blood, or a fictional version of the Robert Caro biographies of LBJ. A story about power, politics, insanity. It could also be a satire -- an absurdist, playful romp. If that's the case, I nominate Mark Leyner to write it. In 2012 the New York Times Magazine described Leyner's Et Tu, Babe as "an adrenalized, needle-to-the-red satire of (among many other things) the derangements of celebrity mass worship in a disjunctive culture-gone-wild." That's pretty much what I had in mind with this story. Imagine Charles Gomez Roxane. He wants to own all the water. All of it! What novels won't you write?
I've been breastfeeding my second child for more than seven months. She eats solids now -- preferring pizza crust to all else -- but those foods are consumed primarily for flavor and fun, and the development of fine motor skills, not nutrition. Until she's got teeth, my child is kept alive with breast milk, and so she and I spend a lot of time together on the glider in the living room, a glass of water within my reach, a burp cloth on my shoulder, her perfect chubby body resting on The Boppy, which, to the uninitiated, is a nursing pillow that looks like a neck-rest for a giant. (That word, Boppy! It's so silly as to be demeaning. At least it's not as bad as its competitor, My Breast Friend. Like I'm just over here, stringing beads onto a necklace or something, gabbing to no one. But nursing is kind of like that: mindless action punctuated by occasional admiration at your own handiwork.) For the first months of my daughter's life, when I was nursing a lot more often and for longer sessions, I depended on TV and books to keep me sane. (Now I worry the TV will rot her brain, and she often grabs what I'm reading; she straight-up ripped a page of Modern Lovers by Emma Straub!) I'm saddened by this turn of events because a couple of times the culture I was consuming reflected my own experience and it felt magical, like an old friend lighting up your cell phone a moment or two after they were in your thoughts. For instance, I was nursing while reading this description of Mrs. Micawber in David Copperfield: "a thin and faded lady, not at all young, who was sitting in the parlour...with a baby at her breast." I remember thinking: Well, that's me all right. I feel about as threadbare as an old pajama shirt. Copperfield goes on to say: This baby was one of the twins; and I may remark here that I hardly ever, in all my experience of the family, saw both twins detached from Mrs. Micawber at the same time. One of them was always taking refreshment. "Taking refreshment" -- my daughter, who is honestly quite elegant for her age, loved that line! The next few times we see Mrs. Micawber, she is indeed a human buffet. It's funny, I'll give Dickens that. It's also from the point of view of a young bachelor, far from a mother's perspective as just about anyone. It was with great delight, then, to watch season two of the very bawdy and funny television series Catastrophe. In the third episode, Sharon and Rob go to Paris to try to reconnect after having their second child. In the hotel room Sharon reports that her "tits ballooned with milk" after seeing a French baby in the lobby downstairs. I love that she calls her breasts "tits" here -- they remain sexualized, and Sharon hasn't traded her racy vocab for stodgy parenthood. When she realizes she's forgotten her breast pump at home, I felt as anxious as she did. For the breastfeeding mother, engorgement is uncomfortable, sometimes painful, and the specter of Mastitis, an infection caused by blocked ducts, can make even the calmest mom panic. (At this year's AWP my boobs grew so rock hard with unexpressed milk that, in the interest of education, I let a few female writers feel me up.) In this episode of Catastrophe, Robs tries, and fails, to explain to the Parisian pharmacists that his wife needs a breast pump; they think he wants to purchase breast milk itself. Hilarity ensues. Sharon tries to help her husband, but she took German in school, not French, and she's freaking out about Mastitis. She asks them in a panic, "Do you know what's gonna come out next time I breastfeed? Not milk." Here she combines German and English, with a French accent: "Blood und puss!" I laughed and laughed, and I also felt grateful that writers are making such honest and tonally sharp art about an occasionally harrowing, not to mention isolating, female experience. This got me thinking about other meaningful depictions of breastfeeding in fiction. The mother -- pun intended -- of all nursing scenes is, of course, in The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. In the final scene, Rose of Sharon breastfeeds a starving man, echoing the Ancient Roman story about a woman who nurses her imprisoned father, sentenced to death-by-starvation. If the memory of my junior year AP English class serves me well, this last scene further proves the Joads' selflessness: the man Rose of Sharon feeds isn't a friend or family member, but a mere stranger. The scene provides a moment of tenderness and connection after so much despair. These two characters are helping each other; the man needs sustenance, and Rose of Sharon, who has lost her baby, needs to connect to and nurture another human being. Or her body does. In Toni Morrison's Beloved, the maternal needs of female slaves are denied, again and again, as their children are treated as commodities. Sethe's own mother had to work in the fields and was unable to mother Sethe, and Sethe remembers being fed by the wet nurse only after the white babies had been sated, remarking, "There was no nursing milk to call my own. I know what it is to be without the milk that belongs to you; to have to fight and holler for it, and to have so little left." She thus places much importance on nursing her own children. One of the central precipitating traumas of the book is Sethe's assault by white teenage boys who drink her milk. (Read this and this for more on Morrison's novel and this part in particular.) Under slavery, Sethe's body, no part of it, not even her milk, belongs to her. Or to her child. To deny a mother this right -- it's painful to even imagine. That Sethe chooses to kill her children can be understood as an act of maternal kindness, a kindness that's been deranged by the horrors of slavery. My Education by Susan Choi, like The Grapes of Wrath and Beloved, also includes a scene of a breastfeeding adult. This time, it's a sex scene between a young graduate student named Regina, and Martha, who is married to Regina's professor. Martha also teaches at the university, but she's on maternity leave. The reader is led to believe that Regina will begin an affair with Martha's husband, but when the two women meet the attraction is immediate, their romance inevitable. In the scene in question, Martha's breasts are heavy with milk and when Regina puts her mouth to one of her nipples and sucks, Martha experiences a spasm of relief. It's sexy, for sure. But not only. It's also a nod to the age difference between the two lovers (more than a decade), with the younger Regina playing the infant, dependent on this life-giving figure to sustain her. Martha, who is ambivalent about the affair from the get-go, experiences the shock of the Let Down. As any nursing mother knows, pent-up milk doesn't flow without consequence. At first, it stings a little -- as the baby drinks and drinks, carefree now that her needs are met. One of the fiercest books about motherhood to come out in recent years is After Birth by Elisa Albert, and it's got plenty of depictions of nursing -- babies nursing, that is. Ari gave birth a year ago and she's still traumatized by her unplanned C-section. Her identity has been turned upside down by motherhood. "I get it: I'm over. I no longer exist. This is why there's that ancient stipulation about the childless being ineligible for the study of religious mysticism. This is why there's all that talk about kid having as express train to enlightenment. You can meditate, you can medicate, you can take peyote in the desert at sunrise, you can self-immolate, or you can have a baby and disappear." When Mina, former rock star and poet, moves to town nine-months pregnant, Ari feels hopeful. A friend! Mina had a home birth, but she's having trouble nursing. She tells Ari, "I had no ideas my nipples could hurt this much! And I used to enjoy light S&M! When he latches I can feel it in my eyeballs!" Even though both my children nursed well from the get-go, there was definitely a learning curve, and Mina's complaints are funny because they're so familiar. This was the first time I'd seen the experience recognized in fiction and it felt like a victory. In the scene, Ari tries to give her new mother-friend pointers, and after cooking her a bowl of pasta, Ari nurses Mina's baby for her. It's not played for shock. Ari says: "He's not choosy; he's goddamn hungry." The scene is perfectly cast as mundane (Mina, like any tired mother, inhales pasta as Ari feeds her baby) and beautiful. Like nursing itself. He pulls off for a second, the abundance of surprise, and right away he's searching for me again, mouth ajar, panting. Open wide. Gulp, gulp. Relaxes into me, eyes closed. The whole room goes all melty. Problem solved. All peaceful and blossomy, like after a good first kiss. Unfold. Bask. I remember this. I can do this. Nothing for her to do but watch. This is a moment of purpose and peace for Albert's narrator. For a parent of a baby, there is perhaps no sentence more powerful than "problem solved." It seems as though I keep coming upon depictions of breastfeeding in fiction. Anna Solomon's beautiful and expansive (forthcoming) Prohibition-era novel Leaving Lucy Pear opens with an unwed mother, Bea, abandoning her baby beneath a pear tree. Before Bea does so, though, she unbuttons her dress and feeds her child for the last time. "She gasped as the mouth clamped onto her nipple," Solomon writes, "but the pain was a distraction, too, welcome in its own way." Bea dislodges the child from her body before the baby is finished eating, and I found that difficult to read, considering the circumstances. Later, the baby, Lucy, is nursed by her adoptive mother. As Emma feeds the child, it feels to her as though Lucy is opening "a new bloody tunnel through her heart." The connection between these two mothers, Bea and Emma, is profound and particular. And, yet, from their separate vantage points, they cannot even fathom it. And here's another example: Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran. By the time it's published next January, my tenure as a nursing mother might already be over. Sekaran's novel is about a woman named Solimar who's come to America from Mexico illegally. She gets caught and is sent to a detention center. She has no idea where she is, or how long she will have to stay there. Her young son has been taken from her. She waits in a cell by herself, and as her breasts get more and more engorged, she grows more upset and scared. And hungry. She does not know when she will eat, or how her child will eat. As in the other scenes I've described, the physical experience of nursing isn't denied. Everything emotional about it is also corporeal. But here it isn't comic, or sensual, or suspenseful. It's despairing. Her son's absence is felt in the body. Without any other choice, Soli bends over and nurses herself. Unlike in The Grapes of Wrath, she is alone. For an undocumented mother, there is no help. When I read that scene, my own daughter was, in Dickens's words, "taking refreshment." I had to put the book down, and hold her closer. Writers who are also mothers are depicting what it's like to care for a child, and that body of literature gets richer with every season. There are so many elements to parenting that I want to see more of on the page, but nursing, at this specific juncture in my life, seems particularly dramatic. Or maybe, at 3 a.m., alone with my child in the dark living room, I want to believe that's true. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
I've been waiting for Rumaan Alam's first novel since 1999. That year, I was a freshman at Oberlin College, and Alam was a senior who existed in a rarefied upperclassman orbit that I could only glimpse from a distance. He worked at The Feve, the town's cool restaurant (and, at the time, its only real bar), he hung out with creative writing professor Dan Chaon (in my mind they are smoking cigarettes together, like, Hey, we're real writers, scram, you runt), and he gave a senior reading at Fairchild Chapel, which is all stone walls and stained glass windows, ascetic and elegant. I don't remember the specifics of what Alam read that evening -- there was something about a painting, and rich people, maybe? -- but I remember being enthralled by both the subject matter and the prose, which was graceful and authoritative. It seemed too good to have been written by a college student. I had this feeling that Alam would be a famous writer. I imagine this is what agents and editors experience when they read something they love: a buzz in the body, a hunch that you have found greatness. I had to wait a few years, but my hunch has turned out to be correct: Rumaan Alam's first novel, Rich and Pretty, is being published by Ecco Press, and many people already love it. Including me. Set in New York City, Rich and Pretty is about two women, Lauren and Sarah, who have been friends since their adolescence. The novel follows them through their 30s and asks essential questions about what keeps us connected to the friends we made in our youth, before romantic relationships (or lack thereof), ambition (or lack thereof), and competing worldviews got in the way. These are two quite different women, and Alam depicts them with such effortless wit that you almost don't notice how poignant the story is. The passage of time is brutal and beautiful, and like the best narratives, Alam's captures that movement perfectly. We aren't who we used to be -- and yet we are. I had the pleasure of emailing with Alam about his book. What follows is our conversation. The Millions: Early readers of Rich and Pretty have remarked how well you, a MAN (gasp!), capture these two female characters and their long-term friendship. I concur; the accuracy here is one of the novel's great pleasures. Here is a terrific example: "At a certain point in her youth, back when it wasn't inconceivable as it is now that she'd be out late, Lauren had decided that if it was after 11:30 she would, by default, take a taxi. She couldn't afford a taxi, but neither could she afford to be raped or vomited on on the subway." One, I love the sad-horror joke of not being able to "afford to be raped," the nonchalant, inconvenienced language set against the gruesomeness and violence of the literal action. Two, you gracefully weave the everyday negotiation of being a woman, in a woman's body, into the narrative, and in this way the reader's understanding of the character deepens. That's what feels true. Can you talk a little bit about inhabiting these women's minds and bodies? Did it come naturally? Rumaan Alam: Let me begin by saying this is my absolute favorite feedback to hear from readers who are also women; that I have successfully captured an experience that's theirs but not mine. The line you isolate is, now that I look at it in this context, a rape joke. The least funny subject, addressed with humor. To me, this just sounds like something a certain kind of woman would think to herself or say to a friend she trusted. It sounds like something you would say, Edan. I don't remember what I was thinking when I wrote this line; I don't remember what I was thinking when I wrote most of the book. It's told in this very close third person that shifts between Sarah and Lauren; the authorial voice is much less me than it is the two protagonists. I would just...go into a weird trance state and write. I do know this: I found it easier to inhabit Lauren than Sarah. This is odd and unexpected. The book as baby metaphor never works for me (babies can't be controlled; books can be) but these two are like my kids. I couldn't choose a favorite but I can't deny a kinship. Lauren's particular self-awareness, her defensive reliance on humor, her pessimism (she'd say realism) are familiar to me. The irony here, without getting into any spoiler alerts, is that my life aligns more closely with the life that Sarah makes for herself. Minus the millions of dollars, alas. TM: I like to write about a place I know well -- Los Angeles -- but with totally made-up scenarios and people and premises. My life is boring, fiction should not be. Do you come from that same school of thought? Can you talk about why you didn't write a more autobiographical first novel? Do people ask you this more than they might ask it of another writer because you're a gay person of color -- as in, why are you not writing about "your people," sir?! RA: I didn't know this was a school of thought, but my life is boring too. But I do have a philosophical answer about writing an autobiographical novel. When you are brown, as I am, there is a convention for how that autobiography is meant to work. There is a template. It is the literature of the immigrant, the literature of the first generation immigrant in my case. I simply could not see myself writing that book, bringing anything to that literature. You could say that my refusal to do so is a profound failure of the imagination; you could say that my refusal to do so is an act of rebellion. Naturally, I prefer the latter, but I realize that's a little self-serving. I do at least have an Indian character in the mix in this book! She's very much a supporting player, but she's there. And gayness is a subject I think I avoid altogether in the book? To live this way -- as gay, as brown -- is neither gift nor curse; it's simply fact. To have to write this way, though, strikes me as something of a curse. Representation is a terrible burden. Black and brown artists are constantly asked to stand for all black or brown people. White artists simply get to create. TM: Another element I loved in this novel was its contemporary gaze. You are so good at writing about the delights and frivolities of our current world, and your gaze is sharp as a knife. For instance, at one point, Sarah, who is engaged to be married, glances at a pile of wedding magazines whose pages she's dog-eared "for reasons she can't recall. It just felt like what she should be doing -- folding down pages and mentally filing away: mason jars for cocktails, Polaroid cameras left with the centerpieces, a basket of flip flops by the dance floor." These are three perfect details for a just-so, cool wedding circa 2016. Can we credit your magazine writing experience for this sharp-eyed cultural perspective? For me, the best writing is detailed and specific. What is your writing process like, for coming up with these delicious, specific lists? RA: Process is such a weird, opaque thing. By the end of the long haul of writing and revising, I just knew these women. They were as real to me as anyone in my life; crazily, and eerily, they no longer are. But I used to think about them all the time, I used to think as them, I used to speak their dialogue aloud. It was a very odd thing. During the revision process, I borrowed a friend's Manhattan pied-à-terre (I've always wanted to say that) and I went out one afternoon to Whole Foods and considered buying the expensive cut-up pineapple and I felt as though I had been...possessed. I was Sarah? I never, ever buy cut fruit in grocery stores. It's a ridiculous waste of money! An entire pineapple is cheaper than a little plastic container of pineapple. Anyway. It's not spiritual or anything. It's more like psychosis, frankly. Somehow it was just clear to me that Sarah was the sort of woman who would plan a wedding in this manner, and that she would find the notion of a basket of flip flops by the dance floor alluring. TM: I asked Dana Spiotta this question when I interviewed her for Innocents and Others, which is also about a friendship between two women who meet when they're younger: Why do you think there's been this surge of narratives about women friendships in the last few years, from the beloved "Galentine's Day" episode of Parks and Recreation, to Ferrante fever, to The Girls of Corona del Mar by Rufi Thorpe, to HBO's Girls? Do you have a sense of why we're so hungry for these stories? Were there any friendship narratives that inspired Lauren and Sarah's? RA: I like to tell myself that this work was accidentally zeitgeisty. I started it in 2009, and I very much live in a weird cultural vacuum. Like, I am still not totally clear on who Taylor Swift is. But to be sure I was aware of these things in the culture, and honestly, I assiduously avoided them. I had never seen Girls until HBO finally unveiled that cheaper version of HBO for cheapskates like me. I absolutely love it, but am sure as hell glad I didn't have it in my brain when I was writing this book (though obviously it's quite different). I'd counter that narratives of intimacy between women have always been very common; it's a theme in much of Alice Munro, it's in Lorrie Moore's Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?.(I have such empathy for the undergraduate writing teachers of the late-1990s whose students had all mainlined Lorrie Moore, as I did.) Many of my favorite works -- Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye, Louise Fitzhugh's The Long Secret -- are concerned with this particular question of the bond between women. I don't know the Bible at all, but don't Ruth and Naomi meet this criteria? When you write about friends, you can take the sex out of the equation, even if there is some lingering eroticism, which is nice. And with friends there's volition; it's different than writing about family, where the bond is a question of context, and more of a given. I have no great answer. Here's a funny story: a long time ago I was at dinner with my husband and there were two men seated near us. Somehow by context we knew they weren't lovers, or brothers, or colleagues. And my husband said, "I just don't understand why one man would be friends with another man." I still think this is the funniest story. Obviously, he's kidding, but he's onto something; the intimacy between men is a lot harder to untangle, at least for me. TM: I really loved the structure of your book because it surprised me. I didn't expect it to cover as much time as it does. Most of it takes place in the span of a few months, and then it covers more time in the final third so that we are moved farther into the future than I expected. It reminded me that novels can do whatever they want, formally. Was this structure clear to you from the get-go? Can you talk a little bit about the drafting of the novel and how it came to be what it is today? RA: I began writing this work as a screenplay. I think you can see that in its reliance on dialogue. There was something, in my mind anyway, cinematic about this treatment. There's a tight focus on this sustained period of a few months, and then two big leaps in time. I knew I wanted the book to end quite far from where it had begun, and the last thing I wanted was to write a 900-page novel, so this structure was also the easiest way to get there. The finished book is at once quite close and quite far from the original draft. There were structural changes, mostly having to do with shuffling the work so we bounce between perspectives more quickly, say every 25 pages instead of every 50. Revising this was by far my least favorite part of this entire process, and the day that I finished I bought myself a really expensive pair of shoes. But you're right; novels can do whatever the writer asks them to. It may not work, but you can always ask. TM: Since this is The Millions, I must ask you: What's the last best book you read? RA: I have been reading so much lately. Part of it is a consequence on transitioning from the business of book writing to the business of book publishing. Suddenly, I have colleagues! I think writers with books coming out -- especially writers making their debut, as I am -- kind of organize themselves into loose coalitions. It's lovely. And that there are so many good goddamn books coming out this year makes me feel not competitive but...reassured. It really does. I was riveted by Jung Yun's Shelter; Lindsay Hatton's Monterey Bay is both evocative and lovely and quietly chilling and unsettling; Jennifer Close's The Hopefuls is a disarming portrait of a young marriage; Nicole Dennis-Benn's Here Comes the Sun is a showstopper that takes on big themes in a most human way; Lynn Steger Strong's Hold Still is this complex story about family that's so honest as to be disturbing. What a great time to be a reader.
In part one of this two-part series, Meaghan O'Connell and I discussed our experience reading David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. At that point, we were a couple of hundred pages into the novel. Now we are back to continue that conversation, and to illuminate for our audience just what it means to read (or not read) a classic in 2016...and to no doubt embarrass ourselves further in the name of honesty, entertainment, and, of course, literature. Edan Lepucki: I'm 80 pages from finishing David Copperfield...and I've given up. I just can't do it anymore. The endless scenes with characters' verbal tics on full display; the moralizing about the beauty of a woman's purity; Mr. Micawber's debts and heart; Uriah Heep's writhing. I just can't. I am so bored! I found that I was barely reading and when I stop reading my life takes on a sad, lifeless tone, like my hair before I get my blonde highlights. My former English professor, the brilliant David Walker, wondered on Twitter why we didn't try Our Mutual Friend or Bleak House. Why didn't we? I guess I wanted a comic novel, a famous crowd pleaser. But I am far from pleased. Where are you in the novel? Are you compelled to continue? I am left with a few thoughts from this project. The first one being, what does "Dickensian" mean? Want to take a stab at defining that, based on what you've read of Davy C.? Meaghan O’Connell: Oh, Edan. When I got this email from you I cheered out loud. I still have 200 pages to go and I can barely remember what it's like to truly love a book. I am so behind and the book is starting to feel endless. Every night I tell myself, "Okay, go to bed early. Read for an hour or more." Then I get in bed, read two pages, and fall asleep at 9 pm or whatever it is. I am still a little invested, mostly in D.C.'s romantic prospects, but I, too, would prefer to never read the name Uriah Heep again. I think I want to finish it, but I need to bring a few more books into the rotation, save it for when I am in a certain mood, I guess the mood to be somewhat tediously entertained? IT'S SO LONG. I wanted to read David Copperfield because supposedly it is the author's favorite, and based largely/vaguely on his own life. And the book does make me curious about Dickens himself, or at least the narrator. Like, hi, D.C., please, step forward, talk to me in like 200 pages instead of 860. Maybe tell a different story altogether? Great Expectations perhaps? I probably should have just re-read that. I love reading things I read when I was younger and understanding things that passed by me then. Dickensian. I think in casual conversation people mean it to be "about poor people"? Things that are bleak. I picture a small boy with soot on his cheeks, begging for bread, maybe a starving cat in the background. It's all very grey. There are waistcoats, which it turns out are simply VESTS, and they are threadbare. I think this is based almost entirely on Oliver Twist? Having read 70 percent of the book I would say that I guess that isn't totally off, but if you said a book was Dickensian, well, for one, I would not want to read it, at least not for a long time. I would imagine it to be bloated but funny, obsessed with class, tragicomic? An orphan? A lot of failed romance but probably some sort of happy ending (I may never know the end of this, but he does reference his future children at some point -- which was weird!) It's been strange to read a book I just like okay, to be missing that big propulsive drive in my life. This book is not really making me think about anything? It's not inspiring, or not in any way that is conscious. I guess I am inspired that Dickens took up so much damned space. Mostly it's felt, much as it did the last time I read his work, like homework. I need a breath of fresh air! I have no urge to write lately and I never thought I'd say this/provoke lovers of Victorian literature in this way, but I blame Charles Dickens. Have you really abandoned poor Davey? (Edan, you know he probably has abandonment issues!!) Are you on to other books? What's it like on the other side?! I'm really left feeling like, God, maybe I should just watch a BBC version of this book and see if he ends up marrying Agnes after all. I really wouldn't recommend it to anyone who is not a scholar of some kind, which seems like a pretty brazen pronouncement, but, you know what, I stand by it. Do not read this book!! Life is short. Edan: What's amazing to me is how many people, when I told them I was reading David Copperfield, said that they had read and loved the book when they were younger. This is startling to me because, while Dickens isn't difficult on the sentence level, there are still quite a few cultural and era-specific references that were unclear to me, as a worldly adult. (For instance, all the stuff around Copperfield's career, before he starts writing for money, confused me.) And the intense moralizing about young women made me worried about all the women who read this as kids. Don't run off with the hot asshole, little girls, or you will never recover! (Well, hey, that's maybe kind of a good lesson to live by...) It did make me consider David C. as a (very) long young adult novel, or even middle grade novel. The reader, for a time, is Davy's age, and can grow along with him. There were a lot of plot turns that I saw coming for hundreds of pages, which might be less obvious to a younger audience. When I think about "Dickensian" I, like you, first imagine waistcoats and soot, a bad cough. Certainly orphans. But also long narratives that rely very much on coincidence. Now that I've read most of David Copperfield, I'd say, too, that the Dickensian style has colorful and immediately memorable characters with distinct names and ways of speaking: Peggoty, Mr. Dick, Miss Murdstone. As much as I began to dislike this novel, I'm in awe of how efficiently he brought these figures to life, and with such joy, it seems. In his terrific introduction to the Modern Library edition of the novel, David Gates does a bang-up job of citing the book's flaws, from Mr. Micawber's anti-semitic one-liner to Dickens's flawed and flat depiction of women, such as Agnes, whom Gates calls “the celestially backlit hall monitor.” He goes on to argue that Dickens "writes best about damaged, dark, and dangerous women." Gates cites the scarred Rosa Dartle in the novel, whom I was also very much mesmerized by. Aside from the needless length of the book, I do think the depictions of women were what made me finally put it down. I started skimming right around when Dora asked Davy to call her Child Wife. Just no. Since you asked, I've given up D.C. for good and I'm enjoying reading again. I ate up Charles Yu's metafictional How to Life Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which is like Italo Calvino crossed with Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure crossed with George Saunders. Then I read the forthcoming debut novel Home Field by The Millions staff writer Hannah Gersen, which was so beautiful and compelling that she and I joked my blurb should be: “Better than Dickens!” Speaking of Hannah, she told me that she appreciates Dickens's influence more than Dickens's work. What do you think this means? Meaghan: It's funny you wrote today because I picked the book back up last night! I'd read enough of Charlotte Shane and then Rebecca Curtis to be ready to reenter the fore. It was very pleasant. If I can keep reading intense lyric memoirs and bizarro short stories between chapters of this doorstopper, I might just finish it. The "my great love is so delicate!" shit is pretty tedious, though I did laugh when he described her to Agnes, making excuses for how fragile she was, how she couldn't be troubled with this or that. Getting relationship advice from the unassuming girl everyone else knows you SHOULD be with felt so modern -- a satisfying set up! If he isn't headed for one in a series of falls and if he doesn't end up with backlit Agnes, I will be bitter indeed. And you're right -- efficient! Who would have thought we'd use that word to describe Dickens? The very name Miss Murdstone makes me so angry. Mr. Micawber evokes dread, awkwardness. They flit in and out of the story so any lasting impression seems like an achievement. There's a sort of necessary hamfistedness? Or if it's deliberate maybe it's just over-the-top, but good over-the-top. He's having fun with it, there seems to be this continual raised eyebrow throughout, and yet he maintains such sincerity with David Copperfield! Maybe that's what feels sort of YA about it? He's so pure of heart and unflagging and "honorable" and so on. He's good-humored but never totally self-aware? It's SO sincere even as it's funny. Poor kids being assigned this book in school. At least with Great Expectations there is the spider cake to cling to. I totally get the influence versus the work thing, what a smart, gentle thing to say, like maybe he might read this. A friend, when I told her I wanted to read some Dickens, was like, "Or maybe read some Nancy Mitford? Or Jane Austen even?" To me "Dickensian" evokes what I was trying to get at earlier, a sense of playfulness (I hate when adults say "play" but there it is), a very kind evisceration, wit, and a noble heart. It is fun, though I think it's more fun to have that foundation and then undercut it. It's thrilling in a way, how tired so much of it feels, while still being full of life. To have him be brilliant but also to feel like we ("we" lol) have made progress, literature-wise! Is that crazy to say? We're better than you now, Dickens, but thank you for your service. Edan: I love your phrase, "a very kind evisceration" -- this is such an accurate description of what Dickens is up to in David Copperfield. I definitely appreciate this gift of his. But gift-appreciation is different from pure enjoyment. Again, though, I circle back to this idea that perhaps we chose the wrong book; certainly we wouldn't say that the contemporary novels we adore are better than, say, Bleak House, which everyone seems to agree is a masterpiece. I would bet that most Dickens scholars and lovers would choose another book of his for us to judge. Maybe David Copperfield is too of its time to truly work for contemporary readers such as ourselves. I get the sense that it was written to be an immersive, rousing text for the readers of its day; perhaps his more "serious" novels were striving for something other than immersion: complication, profundity. All the 18th-century literature I read in college, like Pamela, or Humphry Clinker, were fun to talk about but a chore to read -- their storytelling techniques were just so obvious and clunky. While David Copperfield was a far better read than those novels, I'm still having a better time discussing the book with you than I did reading said book. Back when I was in that 18th-century literature class, I remember feeling that The Novel, as a machine to entertain and move the reader, had become much sleeker and more powerful over the years. But by the 19th century, the machinery had improved considerably. We have Austen, as you mentioned. (Emma was published in 1815.) And George Eliot -- my god, what brilliance! Middlemarch came later in the century, in 1874. David Copperfield, published in 1850, came between those two books. Perhaps some learned person can step forward to tell us why and how novels got so much more refined in the 1800s -- only a century (or less) later. And is Copperfield's episodic/picaresque quality (is it a picaresque?) a throwback to these older books? I wonder, I wonder. I asked Hannah Gersen what she meant by Dickensian influence and she echoed what we've been saying, and she also remarked that Christmas movies owe a huge debt to Charles D. She's right! Will you read more Dickens in 2016? Ever? What do you take away from this experiment in ye olden classics? Meaghan: God. It's just TOO LONG. My edition is 866 pages. Life is too short to read something so plodding. And yet, I'm still reading it. I have a hard time giving up on books. I keep thinking maybe there will be some revelation near the end that will have made it all worthwhile. Like something big will unlock for me, literature-wise. I am still a good 200 pages from the end and I just read the chapter about him marrying Dora (spoiler alert) and he totally elided the sex, while still referring to it in a sentence that manages to be both not quite comprehensible and totally revolting: It was a strange condition of things, the honeymoon being over, and the bridesmaids gone home, when I found myself sitting down in my own small house with Dora; quite thrown out of employment, as I may say, in respect of the delicious old occupation of making love. A run-on, but a lot of nice language I think. "My own small house" is good. "The honeymoon being over, and the bridesmaids gone home," also really good, I'd say! BUT THEN, he ruins it all with "the delicious old occupation of making love." Coming from him, it reminds me of that SNL skit where they eat meat in a hot tub and call each other lover. Also I'll admit I don't quite know what he means by "quite thrown out of employment, as I may say" -- NO YOU MAY NOT SAY, because it makes no sense. Is he fucking too much to go to work or did she fire him from fucking her? Is he just done doing it around the clock and settling into married life? (Probably.) Anyway, not a word about the sex except that it was delicious, which, good for you, but gross. Very Jonathan Franzen. There is a part of me that wants to try a different book because I am so stubborn and I don't want to have given over like six weeks of my reading life to this book that is not as good as Austen! To think they were written around the same time! I am no expert in "what the novel does or is or wants to be" but, wow, the ladies were doing it better (If I may say! And I may!). Maybe if I read Bleak House and it's a masterpiece that opens up my brain, this will all have been worth it? These are the thoughts I'm left with, Edan. I just read Rachel Cusk's Outline and it was the perfect antidote, which is what other books are to me now: antidotes to David Copperfield.