The Millions 2021 Gift Guide for Readers and Writers

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It’s time again for The Millions annual gift guide for the readers and writers in your life. If “social-distancing” was last year’s suddenly ubiquitous turn-of-phrase, this year it’s “supply-chain issues.” So, shop early, shop used, shop local, and if your favorite author has a book coming out soon, preorder it!

A Dream LibraryWhat reader hasn’t dreamed of a private library with floor-to-ceiling books? This miniature version will keep the fantasy alive while saving on construction costs. It’s also a fun craft project for writers who need a break from revising. 

A Little Free Library Little Free Libraries were a lifesaver during the pandemic, and are a serendipitous way to find and share books. They’re a great DIY gift for anyone who likes used bookstores, because it’s like having a tiny one right outside your door.  

Magic 8-BallThe writer’s life is one of uncertainty. Let the Magic 8-Ball answer writers burning questions, e.g. Will The New York Times review my book? Will I get a call from Terry Gross? A nod from Reese or Oprah? Does my cat like me? Is it time to water my cactus? Should I have another cup of coffee?

Jekyll & Hyde OrnamentIf the past few months of articles about literary ethics have taught us anything, it’s that writers have a dark side to complement the light. Remind your writer friend (or yourself) of their two faces with this Jekyll and Hyde ornament.

Socks Inspired by a Poem These beautiful, long-lasting socks are inspired by a poem by Shikishi Naishinnō: Still in snow, the mountains are silent, yet the pine trees sing of spring

My Favorite NotebooksI love these slim, college-ruled notebooks from Muji. They are versatile, lightweight, and at $2.99 for five, a bargain. Pair them with a set of freshly sharpened pencils for a budget-friendly gift.


How To Write An Autobiographical Novel I like to recommend a craft book every year, and I recently caught up with Alexander Chee’s 2018 essay collection How To Write an Autobiographical Novel. This isn’t a prescriptive “how-to” guide with writing prompts and time management tips, but is instead a much more personal collection of essays about the writing life. It’s unusually frank about money, publishing, and the unpredictability of the creative process. It also includes a wonderful portrait of Annie Dillard—whose book Living by Fiction is also worth gifting.  

Luxury BathrobeEveryone’s robes have taken a beating from two years of pandemic life. Maybe it’s time for a bold print, cashmere, or zig-zag stripes.

Postcard from a Famous AuthorEvery year, The Common hosts a postcard auction, giving readers the chance to bid on handwritten, personalized postcards from their favorite writers. This year’s authors include Joy Williams, George Saunders, David Sedaris, Alexander Chee, Phoebe Robinson, Jeff Tweedy, and The Millions own Emily St. John Mandel. Bidding ends Dec. 1, so don’t procrastinate on this gift.  

Book Lover’s Advent CalendarThis is another gift to order right now, so you can count down to Christmas with an advent calendar for bookworms. Behind every window is a quote about the literary life. There’s a version for kids, too.

A Bard-inspired PuzzleA friend recently told me that jigsaw puzzles are the perfect companion to audiobooks. For me, they are a welcome distraction when I need a break from the screen. This 1,000-piece puzzle of Shakespeare’s world provides inspiration and productive rest to writers and readers alike.

An Alternative E-ReaderIf you want to give someone an e-reader but don’t want to support a certain online shopping site that rhymes with shamazon, then try the Kobo Clara HD E-Reader. It’s also great for borrowing e-books from the library.

A Forthcoming BookAre you friends with an author who has a book coming out? Do you feel friendly toward an author? Preorder their forthcoming book! This could also be a good holiday gift for someone if a favorite author has a book coming out in the spring. Let them know you preordered the book, and a few months later, when they’ve completely forgotten the holidays, a book will magically arrive in the mail.  

A Little Bit of Good LuckThis paperweight, which contains a real four-leaf clover, might just be the little bit of luck a writer needs to take their project over the finish line.

Diagnosing Billy Pilgrim: On Tom Roston’s ‘The Writer’s Crusade’

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1. A couple of months ago, when I was feeling stuck in a revision of the novel I’ve been working on for too long, I decided to reread Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Slaughterhouse-Five. My reasons for rereading were a writer’s reasons. I was having trouble balancing speculative and realistic elements in my novel and I wanted to see how Vonnegut did it. Vonnegut was one of my favorite writers in my teen years, someone I read and re-read, but at some point in my 20s, I stopped reading him. When I picked up Slaughterhouse-Five, my memories of the book were vague. I knew Vonnegut would use the device of time travel to tell the story of his experiences in World War II; he was taken as a prisoner of war and survived the bombing of Dresden, Germany. I also knew, from Charles Shields’s biography of Vonnegut, And So It Goes, that it was a difficult novel for Vonnegut to write, one he approached from many different angles over two decades. And so, pencil in hand, I opened the book in an analytic spirit, hoping to learn a thing or two from a great writer.

If you’ve read the book recently, you may guess what happened: I pretty much dropped the pencil after a couple of pages. Everything about the book surprised me; it was almost as if I’d never encountered it before. I had completely forgotten that the first chapter is told from the point of view of Vonnegut, the writer, and reads like a memoir. It’s all about how hard it is to write an autobiographical novel, and the misgivings Vonnegut has about turning his war experiences into an entertaining narrative. He claims to have written and discarded thousands of pages, and it feels true; he comes off as genuinely anxious and tired in a way that it surprisingly raw. But the thing that really startled me was Vonnegut’s depiction of Billy Pilgrim’s time travels.

For those of you unfamiliar with the structure of Slaughterhouse-Five, I will quote from the book I’m supposed to be reviewing—and will eventually get to, I promise—Tom Roston’s The Writer’s Crusade: Kurt Vonnegut and the Many Lives of Slaughterhouse-Five:

Vonnegut writes the first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five as if it’s nonfiction, but then the next nine chapters are about a fictional character, Billy Pilgrim, who travels in time and is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, and whose war experiences loosely parallel Vonnegut’s, all of which makes it metafiction, meaning it upends the conventional fictional narrative by blurring the line between the author and the story being told.

Pilgrim’s time travel, combined with the metafictional aspects, are what give Slaughterhouse-Five its extraordinary power. On a storytelling level, the time travel element allows Vonnegut the writer to escape the bonds of linear narrative. I believe he needed to do that for this particular book because he could not bring himself to write a story about a massacre of human life that followed the laws of cause and effect. Instead of building momentum around the question of Pilgrim’s survival, Vonnegut shapes the novel around Pilgrim’s traumatic memory of the bombing of Dresden, inching closer and closer to it until the final chapter, when we get the full picture of what happened to Pilgrim during the war, and why he was never the same afterward.

As a teenager, I took the time travel elements in Slaughterhouse-Five literally and enjoyed them as funny sci-fi elements. Reading it as an adult, Billy’s time traveling immediately struck me as tragic, a symptom of deep trauma. I felt I was in the company of a man so haunted by terrifying memories that he was unable to settle into the present. It’s possible that I’m still taking Vonnegut too literally, reading his characterization of Billy as early reporting on what we now call PTSD. But the parallels are quite eerie.

Here’s Vonnegut, describing Billy’s state of mind, in an opening chapter:

Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next.

And here’s a passage from Bessel van der Kolk’s bestselling study of trauma, The Body Keeps the Score:
Dissociation is the essence of trauma. The overwhelming experience is split off and fragmented, so that the emotions, sounds, images, thoughts, and physical sensations related to trauma take on a life of their own. The sensory fragments of memory intrude into the present, where they are literally relived.

And here’s Roston, again, describing how Vonnegut uses time travel in Slaughterhouse-Five:

By splintering reality, time, memory, and Pilgrim’s identity, Vonnegut aestheticized one of the primary effects of trauma, dissociation, in which there is a disconnection or lack of continuity between one’s thoughts.

One of the most remarkable things about Slaughterhouse-Five is its ending. The war is over, but there are anonymous, brutal deaths right up to the very end. Then, a bird tweets in Billy’s direction and the book ends. There’s no emotional catharsis for Billy, and no feeling of victory for the reader. This was as Vonnegut intended. In a preface to a special edition of Slaughterhouse-Five, (included in the Library of America’s collected Vonnegut, Novels & Stories, 1963-1973), Vonnegut rejects the idea that he gained any knowledge from his war experience. In witnessing the firebombing of Dresden he says he “learned only that people become so enraged in war that they will burn great cities to the ground and slay the inhabitants thereof.”

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When I finished Slaughterhouse-Five, I found myself wondering if Billy Pilgrim could be understood as having PTSD, and to what extent Vonnegut might have suffered from it. That’s how I happened upon journalist Tom Roston’s new book about Slaughterhouse-Five, one in a series of “books about books” published by Abrams Press. In The Writer’s Crusade, Roston argues that Slaughterhouse-Five was ahead of its time, and that “our views of its central themes—war, trauma, and the delicate act of telling war stories—have finally caught up with Vonnegut’s accomplishment, allowing us to see it, and the author, more clearly.” Roston structures his analysis of Vonnegut’s novel around the question of “whether or not Slaughterhouse-Five can be used as evidence of its author’s undiagnosed PTSD.” Although Roston poses the question sincerely to people who knew Vonnegut, it’s also a useful rhetorical device, and one that leads him down different research paths as he delves into Vonnegut’s notes and early drafts and talks with Vonnegut scholars, trauma experts, psychologists, and veterans who have personal experience with PTSD.

In structuring his book, which is a mixture of literary criticism, biography, and a cultural history of PTSD, Roston borrows from Slaughterhouse-Five, with an opening chapter that reflects on the process of writing and researching The Writer’s Crusade, and his ambitions for it. Roston recounts a reporting lead that he chased for some time, hoping to uncover a secret side of Vonnegut. But it’s hard to break news on a writer whose novels, particularly Slaughterhouse-Five, have been combed over by two generations of critics and hundreds of thousands of readers. Reading Slaughterhouse-Five through the lens of psychological trauma is also not a new angle. Roston notes that as early as 1974, the literary critic Arnold Edelstein describe Pilgrim’s time travel as a “neurotic fantasy” to help cope with the trauma of war.

No writer wants to be diagnosed through his work, and perhaps the best thing that Roston does in his book is to give context to the question of whether Slaughterhouse-Five is an autobiographical portrait of Vonnegut’s own war trauma. Roston writes in depth about the novel itself and how it came to be written, including the nitty-gritty of Vonnegut’s literary career before he became famous for Slaughterhouse-Five. (One of my favorite details from this section was just how lucrative the short story market used to be; Vonnegut supported his family on short stories, and even bought a house in Cape Cod.) Roston also provides a history of war trauma and how our understanding of it has evolved over the years. Although the negative psychological effects of war have been observed since ancient times, the symptoms of PTSD were not defined until the late 1970s, when it became apparent that many Vietnam veterans were having difficult adapting to civilian life. In 1980, PTSD was added to the DSM-III, and has now become so well-known that that people refer to it in casual conversation to describe any number of symptoms in the wake of traumatic events. Roston calls it as “the signature mental disorder of our age” and tries to untangle its popular definition from its clinical one. He also brings in the expertise of veteran-writers, such as Tim O’Brien, as well as veterans with an affinity for Vonnegut’s work. He wants to hear how they interpret Slaughterhouse-Five, given their experiences with war and trauma.

It’s with the help of a veteran that Roston finally attempts to diagnose Billy Pilgrim and Vonnegut, using a Veterans Affairs-issued PTSD screener. He brings many voices into the discussion, including Vonnegut’s children, literary critics, psychiatrists, and Vonnegut himself. Billy, being a fictional character, is elusive. Vonnegut, even more so. Those who knew him personally have varying opinions as to the extent of his war trauma and whether it falls under the diagnostic rubric of PTSD. Certainly, Vonnegut could be diagnosed with the loose, popular definition of the term. Speaking for himself, Vonnegut did not regard himself as someone with PTSD, and did not see Billy Pilgrim as an alter ego. In interviews later in life, Vonnegut revealed that Billy was loosely based on a private he knew in war, who died of malnutrition a few weeks before the war ended because—it seemed to Vonnegut—he had lost the will to live after witnessing so much senseless violence. Nor did Vonnegut conceive of the time travel element as a way of representing the symptoms of PTSD. Instead, he saw it as a comic device to lighten the heavy mood of the book. (So, my adolescent reading wasn’t totally stupid.) Roston doesn’t argue with Vonnegut’s analysis, but he does observe that at least some of Vonnegut’s reluctance to dwell on the past is generational. Vonnegut may have gotten in touch with war buddies and made his share of desperate late-night phone calls—as detailed in the opening chapter in of Slaughterhouse-Five—but he wasn’t visiting the VA for help. “To the best of my knowledge,” Roston writes, “Vonnegut never sat in a room with a VA-organized group of veterans to process his feelings.”

Vonnegut also avoided overly autobiographical interpretations of Slaughterhouse-Five because he didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as a writer traumatized by war, or as someone whose impulse to write was related to his war trauma—and anyone who looks at his life and work can see that this isn’t the case. But Slaughterhouse-Five is a special book. To say that it is Vonnegut’s most personal doesn’t seem quite right, in part because I don’t know Vonnegut personally. (If I had to guess, I’d pick Cat’s Cradle as the book closest to his heart.) After re-reading it, and reading Roston’s book, I think it’s actually the novel that has the least to do with Vonnegut. In the strange way of great works of art, it escapes the confines of Vonnegut’s autobiography as well as the PTSD diagnosis. Maybe it even eludes war and instead speaks to a feeling of bewildered pain that is universal to all human beings when confronted with violence. The flights to Tralfalmadore feel like a way to get some distance from the psychic mess we’re all in on this planet. Roston concludes as much in his final analysis: “As much as I’ve tried to pull out the threads on Slaughterhouse-Five to determine its relationship to war trauma, a book can never be just one thing.”

Birding While the World Burns: On Charles Hood’s ‘A Salad Only the Devil Would Eat’

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A few years ago, I became unexpectedly obsessed with mushrooms. It started, as so many unlikely obsessions do, with research for a novel. I didn’t need to know much about the world of fungi to write the scenes I had in mind, but the more I read about mushrooms, the more I wanted to know. I began to see them everywhere: popping up from the mulch of street trees, crouched at the sides of buildings, and creeping across rotting park benches. I was living in Brooklyn at the time, where nature felt scarce and paved-over, but suddenly my eyes were drawn to vacant lots, construction sites, and the narrow strips of unclaimed land between buildings. Where I once might have focused on the unsightly pieces of trash and felt depressed about microplastics and chemicals in the soil, I was more inclined to lift a soggy piece of cardboard to see what was growing underneath it. Even though nothing had changed, New York City became more alive to me, and I became a little bit happier in my day-to-day life.

Looking for mushrooms in rotting park infrastructure is what Charles Hood would call, “the joys of ugly nature.” His debut essay collection, A Salad Only the Devil Would Eat, is a book that celebrates the nature that we can access every day in our own backyards—and if we don’t have backyards, then in a parking lot, garbage dump, or whatever scarred, imperfect spots are nearby. Writing from his home in Palmdale, Calif., Hood has learned to embrace a landscape that he describes as “sections of creosote edgeland that collectively are not quite original desert, not quite exurban wasteland, but an in-between zone of once-grazed, sometimes-trash-filled, always fascinating possibility.” Hood acknowledges that for most people, this area looks like it “has been hit about ten times with the ugly stick and left for dead,” but his ongoing thesis, which he returns to throughout his essays, is that our vision has been clouded by fantasies of empty, pristine wilderness and nature writing that “too often drifts into High Church rhetoric.” Hood’s own writing is a tonic, full of specific, weird details. If find yourself consulting a dictionary as you read, it’s because Hood is a widely published poet, and brings a poet’s magpie vocabulary to his prose. The title of his collection comes from his assessment of his local plant list: bitterbrush, burro weed, creosote, jumping cholla and Mormon tea, i.e. “a salad only the devil would eat.”

Everything I’ve quoted from in the above paragraph comes from Hood’s opening essay, “I Heart Ugly Nature,” a witty meditation that sets the stage for the 13 essays that follow. Hood’s conversational, personal writing examines his obsessive-compulsive relationship with bird lists, his addiction to field guides, his mixed feelings about taxidermy and zoos, his awe of whales, and his love of pine trees, palm trees, and penguins. A handful of pieces are more journalistic in tone, delving into the history of Los Angeles’s water supply, Aububon’s Birds of America, and the red dye that is harvested from cochineal, a parasite that grows on the prickly pear cactus and “make the cactus pads look like they have been spackled with crusty toothpaste.” I learned a lot reading these essays, but in an offhand way. It’s a book that celebrates the delights of amateurism, the facts that you stumble upon when you’re reading for something else, or the rare bird you happen to notice when you’re out on a whale watch.

Embracing contradiction is an important part of Hood’s credo, and a theme he revisits often. In his essay, “Love and Sex in Natural History Dioramas,” he admits that he loves dioramas even as they obscure reality, observing that there are never any pieces of trash in a diorama, or airplane contrails in the painted sky; the only evidence of human influence is that fact that the animals are arranged with the male animal cast as protector, in order to present a narrative that is pleasing and familiar to visitors. “They [dioramas] are useful, attractive, artistic, but also colonial and limiting and laden with daddy issues.” Another contradiction Hood leans into is his love of list-making, a hobby that is both second nature and “darkly addictive.” He has to quit his bird list because it was taking the fun out of hiking: “Too often I came back from a trip unhappy over something stupid—like not seeing the suchity-such, which Joe Money-Wad had seen only a month earlier. Never mind all the other things I had seen.” Instead of birds, Hood now counts mammals, a hobby that takes him all over the world to collect sightings. Does he feel guilty over his carbon footprint? Oh, yes, but at the very same time he relishes his adventures, and feels pride for his mammal list, which is creeping up to 1,000.

There are writers who would dwell in their climate anxiety for a beat longer than Hood does, and I couldn’t decide if I minded that he didn’t. Mostly, I felt relieved. Over the past decade, I’ve read many books and articles that detail the current climate crisis, and while I think it’s important to know the extent of the damage, and to investigate strategies for repair and restoration, we also need writing that looks for the bits of joy amidst the profound losses. It’s crucial, of course, that Hood is honest about what has been destroyed. If he reaches for optimism, it’s only for his own sanity, not because he’s in denial. In “Fifty Dreams for Forty Monkeys,” an essay about the futility of wildlife management (among other things) Hood writes about the necessity of accepting nature as it exists in reality: “Because the thing is, I live when I live, and while I can yearn for the passenger pigeon or the truly stupendous and entirely extinct Carolina parakeet, that won’t help get me through the day. I have to love what the day allows me to love.”

Maybe the difference between Hood and journalists like Elizabeth Kolbert, Bill McKibben, and David Wallace-Wells, whose recent books Under a White Sky, Falter, and The Uninhabitable Earth anticipate future catastrophes, is that Hood stays very much in the present, looking at what animals and plants are doing now to cope with the changes at hand. He’s not particularly interested in technological or political solutions that humans might employ to deal with the climate crisis and believes that “our best action on behalf of nature may be inaction: stand back and let it do its thing, see what happens.” Investigative journalist Cal Flyn makes similar insights in her recent book, Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape, which looks at the way that nature has rebounded in toxic spaces abandoned by humans, such as the exclusion zone in Chernobyl, and Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. Her reporting backs up many of Hood’s casual observations about the hidden virtues of “ugly nature” and the folly of human interventions. I don’t mean to suggest that either writer recommends that we continue to burn fossil fuels or destroy wildlife, only that both writers observe how nature can thrive when left unbothered.

I suspect that off the page, Hood is a lot more pessimistic, but in his writing, he’s trying to keep the darkness at bay. He also tries to keep the human perspective at bay, nudging us to remember that it’s just one point of view, among many. One of my favorite throwaway lines in this collection comes after Hood shares the pet names that zookeepers gave to four captured penguins: Mo, Smo, Andy, and Mandy. Another writer might have commented on the inanity of the nicknames. Instead, Hood observes, “what the penguins named the keepers, we do not know.”

FOMO, but for Books

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We were getting ready to go to the community pool last weekend, packing all the things we needed: towels, sunblock, water, change of clothes, etc. My husband glanced in the bag to double-check everything and then casually asked if there was a reason I’d packed two books and a magazine.

“To read,” I told him.

He looked at me. We have two children, one eight and one three. The three-year-old cannot swim. The eight-year-old can and requires an audience. There is perhaps a 10 minute window when I might be able to read uninterrupted. And yet I had to bring those books. Because…what if I did have time? And what if, when I got there, I just wasn’t in the mood to finish Elizabeth Kolbert’s Under a White Sky? (But what if I was?) What if, instead, I wanted to dig into Daniel Okrent’s history of prohibition, Last Call, which was due at the library very soon. Or what if I was in the mood for fiction, and I felt like reading the literary magazine that had just come in the mail?

“You never read at the pool,” he said. “You stay in the water and swim.”

This is true. My husband is the one who reads near bodies of water. He also has a realistic grasp on the number of hours in a day. He always brings one book with him on vacation, and he reads that one book. Sometimes he brings a book he’s already read, to guarantee that he will like it. This summer, he’s been bringing The Sun Also Rises to the pool, a novel he’s read at least three times before. It’s a great summer read. I love the part where they go fishing and have a picnic and keep the wine bottles cold in the stream. Just thinking about that scene makes me want to read that book again.

Sometimes I think I have FOMO, but for books. It’s particularly acute in the summer. When I go on vacation, I always take too many books with me. On my first big trip with my husband—before we had children—I packed five novels and then bought magazines at the airport. I read the magazines on the plane and the novels languished in my bag. There was no time to read. We were traveling around Spain, walking and eating and talking. And I knew that would be the case. Yet I packed the books. In my mind, we were traveling to a place where we would somehow have time to see all the sights and also relax for several hours every morning, and to read books. A place with 30-hour days.  

I ask myself where this fantasy comes from and I think—as with so many things—it goes back to childhood. When I was 10 years old, my family moved from New Hampshire to western Maryland. It was the year of Brood X, and I remembered the thick whine of the cicada song in the air when we arrived. I was bewildered by the humid weather and I didn’t know anyone. The kids down the street invited me to Vacation Bible School, so I went there, where I read the Bible and learned the Lord’s Prayer while my mother unpacked. When that was over, my mother took me to the library and told me to get out as many books as I wanted. When we got home, she gave me a glass of lemonade and the foldable wing chair and told me to find a spot outside in the shade to read—preferably a place where she could see me from her office window.

And so began a summer ritual that lasted through middle school. I loved how unrestricted summer reading was. You could read as much as you wanted, and whatever you wanted—there was no one interrupting you to do homework in other subjects or to get ready for soccer practice. You could read more than one book at once, dipping into one and then another and back again. You could skim over the sections you didn’t like; nobody was going to quiz you. You could read books you were too young for—hello, John Irving!—and books you were too old for—hello, Anne of Green Gables for the 10th time! You could read comics and sci-fi and celebrity biographies alongside the classics. You could go ahead and read the books that you might be assigned in high school—Ethan Frome, The Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Stranger—because what if you weren’t assigned them and then you didn’t get to read them?  

Henry James once wrote, “Summer afternoon, summer afternoon—to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” I’ve always assumed this quote refers to reading. I doubt James was hanging clothes out on the line or preparing dinner. He definitely wasn’t sitting by a pool and rating a cannonball jump on a scale of one to five at the request of a small child. I don’t begrudge James his summers, but I do assume that he, unlike most people I know, was able to hold onto them well into adulthood. My leisurely afternoons began to disappear midway through high school, when I started to work in the summers, and were gone by my 20s—though I did have more empty afternoons for reading in my 20s than I do now. But in my 20s, the Internet began to encroach on my time, and I also began to read with greater purpose—to learn the craft of writing or to gain knowledge to think critically about a particular issue. Of course, I read to be entertained, too, and to be absorbed in another person’s way of seeing things. That has never gone away. But the haphazard reading of my childhood summers is gone, and sometimes I think I’m chasing it, when I pack too many books.

Then again, maybe they’ll return to me, sooner than I realize. Just last week, our local library branch finally opened for browsing. My son headed to the children’s area and returned, 20 minutes later, with a tall stack. My pile was more modest—just two books. But as we walked home together and my son chatted about what he would read first, I took vicarious pleasure in his excitement. I wish I could say that I read alongside him, but the truth is cleaned up, attended to his younger sister, made lunch, and then finished up some of my own work. But summer isn’t over yet, and with a little planning, I may yet sneak in a few afternoons.  

Bonus Links:—A Summer Reading List for Wretched Assholes Who Prefer to Wallow in Someone Else’s MiseryAlternate Routes: A Summer Reading ItineraryThe Problem with Summer Reading

Image Credit: Pixabay

How to Get the Muse to Visit

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A classic piece of writing advice is, “Don’t wait for the muse.” But I’ve always felt this is dismissive of muses. You need the muses to write. The trick is, you have to show up for your muse, the same way you show up for your friends and family. This hasn’t been the easiest year to show up for anyone, let alone muses, and I’ve noticed there are a lot of suggestions floating around on the Internet about time management and productivity and setting boundaries with your children. This advice isn’t about that. This is about you getting more time with the Muse. Maybe you two will make something great, or maybe you’ll make something absurd and ridiculous. The Muse doesn’t care if your work is worthwhile and neither do I. I just want you to have more fun. And I want to have more fun. I wrote these for myself, obviously. 

How to Get the Muse to Visit

Send an invitation. Designate a specific time and place.You have to put out treats. She’ll like whatever you like. Salted almonds. Triscuits. Apple slices. Sunflower seeds. She enjoys a pot of tea or a cup of coffee. But not too strong. No booze. She’s not a drinker and doesn’t appreciate chatting with people who are tipsy.Tell her she can arrive whenever she wants, and that you’ll be doing some pre-writing exercises to get warmed up while you wait. Then do some pre-writing exercises. Ask your characters some simple ice-breaker questions, nothing too heavy and nothing that you need to know for the fiction you’re writing. Things like, “What’s the best meal you ever had?” “Who was your first crush?” “What songs do you like to listen to when you’re cleaning up?”Don’t make a fuss when the Muse shows up. Just say, “Hey, you want to sit over here by me and trade gossip?”Have some gossip ready. Tell her something about yourself or someone you know that you would never write down because you wouldn’t want it getting back to you. If you don’t have any gossip, read her poetry.Do not read her anything you wrote the day before, even if she helped you write it. You’ll bore her. She hates being bored.Do not invite the Editor. The Editor has offended her many, many times. She will clam up if the Editor is around, or just get up and leave. Do not invite Envy and Jealousy. I know there are times when you want to entertain them, but if they show up at the door when you’ve invited the Muse over, just politely ask them to come back another time. The Muse doesn’t like them because they monopolize the conversation, telling the same stories over and over again. Do invite your relatives and friends who have passed away. The Muse loves to talk to the dead. Don’t go on the Internet, even if it’s to jog your memory or to fact-check something you or the Muse has said. You can fact-check later with the Editor. That’s the kind of thing editors like to do. Don’t talk about the publishing world, review coverage, marketing strategies, Twitter threads, or “best-of” lists. Save that for your pity party with Envy, Jealousy, and FOMO. If you’re working on a particular project and you would like the Muse’s help, say to her, “Hey, I’m just working on this little thing—it’s no big deal, if you don’t have time, I understand, I’m just mentioning it because I think it might be fun for you, and you’d get to work with these really interesting characters, what do you think?” And then just start telling her about the project and see if she says anything. If the Muse doesn’t say anything, don’t panic. She’s listening. Maybe you gave her a hard problem. Or maybe she’s testing you. Have you been inviting her around enough? Invite her to come back the next day. And the day after that. And the day after that. Ask her specific questions. Give her puzzles to solve. Tell her she can try anything. Eventually, she’ll start talking.If the Muse has nothing to say about the project that you’re working on, and you really are stuck, ask her what she wants to work on. Tell her it can be anything in any genre. Tell her you aren’t going to try to sell it and that it will just be between the two of you. She can say anything she wants and you will never tell anyone. She needs to know that she can tell the truth. And she needs to know that she can ask you anything and you will tell the truth. Lastly, and this is the most important thing: if the Muse isn’t showing up for weeks on end, double-check to make sure the front door is open. Or at least a window. She really wants to talk to you, but you have to let her in.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

Year in Reading: Hannah Gersen

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Looking back on my reading list, I was shocked that the year began with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. I re-read it in January because I was writing about Greta Gerwig’s film adaptation of the novel. Does anything seem more unlike the doomscape of 2020 than the joy and optimism of Gerwig’s Little Women? To be honest, rereading Little Women was a bit of a slog, especially the first half, when Marmee gives so many lectures. But the second half, which was originally published as a second volume called Good Wives, was unexpectedly modern, with many scenes devoted to the business of writing and publishing. A few weeks after I read the book, I watched the first two episodes of My Brilliant Friend on HBO and was surprised to see the girls passing Little Women back and forth — a detail I had forgotten from Elena Ferrante’s novel. But it makes perfect sense. The book is a talisman for girls who want to be writers. 

I never finished watching My Brilliant Friend. It was a year of not finishing a lot of things — TV shows, books, manuscripts. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was drawn to dense histories: Russell Shorto’s The Island at the Center of the World, Adam Higginbotham’s Midnight in Chernobyl, and Tony Judt’s Postwar. I guess I was trying to get some perspective. But I never finished any of them. 

What I did get through were memoirs. Before the pandemic started, I read Ruth Reichl’s Save Me The Plums, about her time at Gourmet magazine, which was abruptly shut down by Condé Nast in 2009 — one of the many casualties of the financial crisis. I enjoyed it so much that I went back and read Reichl’s previous memoir, Garlic and Sapphires, about being a restaurant critic for The New York Times. If Save Me The Plums felt like a nostalgic look back at the magazine world, Garlic and Sapphires felt retro to an almost Mad Men-degree, taking place in a quiet, internet-free world. In contrast to today’s never-ending news cycle, Reichl’s busy, deadline-driven life actually seemed pretty chill. If someone didn’t like her column — and they often didn’t — her editor got letters in the mail. Can you imagine? Me neither. And I grew up in that world. 

I followed Reichl’s memoir with Cat Marnell’s How To Murder Your Life, which I thought was going to be an addiction and recovery story, but turned out to have more in common with Little Women and Save Me The Plums. Marnell’s memoir is as much about becoming a writer and working in the magazine business as it is about drug use and addiction. She and Reichl both show how precarious print media always was, with magazines getting by on corporate advertising budgets and a labor force of young people willing to survive on perks — a business model that proved to be completely unsustainable after the arrival of digital and social media. Their memoirs aren’t marketed as works of history but they both captured the end of an era.

As New York locked down, I read Good Talk by Mira Jacob, a graphic memoir about talking to your kids about race and identity and family and other complicated subjects. It’s the kind of memoir that makes you feel close to the author, and the whole time I was reading, I was wondering how Jacob and her family were doing in the pandemic — I knew they lived near me, in Brooklyn. Shortly after finishing it, I received an answer to my vague worries in the New York Times in the form of a fresh comic from Jacob. They left the city. 

In May, I joined the exodus and relocated to the suburbs of New Jersey. As we drove back and forth to New Jersey, looking for a new apartment, we kept our kids entertained with an audio book of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in Big Woods, narrated by Cherry Jones. Children weren’t allowed inside the empty apartments, due to COVID restrictions, so my husband and I took turns looking while the other waited in the car, listening to Cherry Jones describe all the delicious foods Ma was making. Little House in Big Woods turned out to be the perfect pandemic read, since Laura and her family are basically in quarantine all the time, with no one ever coming to their isolated homestead and Ma always undertaking elaborate baking and craft projects. 

I hate unpacking. It feels so anti-climatic after you’ve done all the work of packing. After we moved, I had a procrastinator’s appetite for reading and tore through two West Coast memoirs: Miss Aluminum by Susanna Moore and Stray by Stephanie Danler. Both were haunted by trauma and tinged with glamour. I read Sea Wife by Amity Gaige, which was also haunted by trauma — and by the dream of escape: escape from marriage, escape from land, escape from domestic life. It was a good late-night read. 

In July, our library started doing curbside pick-up, so I ordered Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley after re-watching the movie on Netflix. I didn’t think the book could be any better than Jude and Gwyneth bathed in the golden light of Southern Italy, but I found a novel that was darker than the movie, and more coherent. In the movie, Ripley kills in passionate moments, out of jealousy or fear; in the book, he’s calculating, killing out of self-interest. He wants a good life for himself, with nice clothes, and nice furniture, and good things to eat and drink. He doesn’t take pleasure in murder but he’ll do what he has to do to maintain his standard of living. As soon as I finished the first Ripley novel, I started the second one — Ripley Underground — which wasn’t as good but delivered the same ice-cold truth. There was a moment when I was convinced that I was going to spend the rest of 2020 reading Ripley novels, because they seemed like the only thing that could capture the chilling superficiality of the Trump Administration, but when I started the third one I realized I’d had my fill — for now. It’s a perverse comfort to know that Ripley’s always there for me, wearing his elegantly tailored clothes and sipping Pernod.

After Ripley, I craved emotion. I read a bunch of first-person novels, one after the other: Writers & Lovers by Lily King, Want by Lynn Steger Strong, Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld, Weather by Jenny Offill, Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead, and What Are You Going Through? by Sigrid Nunez. Nunez’s book was the one that really got me, and the one I would recommend for this year in particular. It’s a book about trying to control death, but you can’t, the most you can do is acknowledge the suffering of other living things. It’s a heavy insight but Nunez delivers it lightly; the novel feels spacious and conversational and there’s a scene with a cat that I want to spoil but won’t. I’ll just say that the scene — and the novel — is a worthy companion for the dark winter ahead.

More from A Year in Reading 2020

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The Millions Annual Holiday Gift Guide for Writers

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I’ve written and erased at least 20 introductions to this year’s gift guide. I don’t know what to say except: we all really need a holiday this year. And with many of us staying close to home and avoiding family gatherings, a thoughtful gift may be more appreciated than ever before. So, here’s a guide with a little something for everyone. Although this list uses affiliate links, I encourage you to buy from local, small businesses whenever possible. Most independent bookstores will order books that are not in stock and many will ship gifts for you. 

A Laptop Stand2020 was the year of WFH and it looks like 2021 will continue the trend. A laptop stand will encourage good posture and help avoid back pain and eyestrain. I use a simple platform that raises my laptop up a few inches, but my husband, who spends his day on Zoom, recommends this adjustable platform from iLevel, which is easy to reposition up or down for optimal camera angles. 

A Portable DeskWhen you’re not at your desk—when, say, your children are using it for remote schooling—a portable lap desk can help you turn your bedroom, sofa, or comfy chair into a work space. This bamboo model from SongMics comes recommended from my sister, who has been using it throughout the pandemic.

Wake Up & Work NotepadThis daily notepad strikes me as more approachable than a bullet journal or even a daily planner. To me, this notepad says, “I’m here for you on the days when you’re feeling productive, but no pressure!” It also includes a place to note daily water intake and meal plans.

Drinking French by David LebovitzIf your friend ends her writing day with a cocktail, I recommend this charming cookbook. Even if you never get around to making its excellent recipes, they’re worth reading for Lebowitz’s descriptions of life in Paris. Combined with the beautiful color photographs, it’s easy to imagine whiling away an afternoon in a French cafe. 

So You Want To Publish a Book? by Anne TrubekThis nuts-and-bolts guide to publishing aims to draw the curtain on the publishing industry, defining terms and processes that are generally only known to insiders. Author Anne Trubek founded her own press, Belt Publishing, six years ago, and this guidebook makes an argument for the importance of small presses to writers and readers. 

Freewrite Smart TypewriterI often use Freedom, the Internet-blocking software, to help manage the daily distractions of email and “research” rabbit holes, but the Freewrite Smart Typewriter takes Internet-blocking to a new level. Available in either desktop or traveler size, the Freewrite looks like a cross between a word processor and a small electric typewriter. It allows you to save everything you type to online cloud storage such as Dropbox and Evernote, but does not have web-browsing capabilities. It also has limited editing features, so that writers are forced to keep writing instead of fussing with a particular sentence. This machine would be ideal for early drafts, and for working from home in a small space.

A Potted PlantPlants are beautiful and quiet companions, the perfect audience when you need to read your work out loud but aren’t necessarily looking for feedback. You can’t go wrong with a pothos plant, which will grow anywhere and doesn’t need a lot of coddling, but if you really want to go low maintenance, you can get your friend a cactus. Planet Desert delivers potted cacti and succulents, and Bloomscape is great for leafy green plants, and also ships plants directly to your home.  

A Postcard from a Famous AuthorYou have to act fast for this gift, which will not be available after today. Every year, The Common holds a postcard auction, allowing readers to bid on the chance to receive a handwritten, personalized postcard from acclaimed authors. This year’s auction includes Ann Patchett, David Sedaris, Min Jin Lee, Anne Carson, and Edmund White—to name just a few. Online bidding takes place at charityauction.bid/postcards and ends today, Nov. 30.  

A Literary FacemaskEtsy has tons of book-themed facemasks, and your local independent bookstore probably also has a bin of them near the cash register. My personal favorite is from Litographs, whose products I have recommended in previous gift guides. As with their t-shirts and tote bags, their mask is printed with famous literary quotations in a tiny font. 

Making Comics by Lynda BarryThis self-help book teaches you to draw and write your own comics and helps you to establish a daily creative practice. I think this would be a wonderful gift for a writer at any stage of their career, because it’s the kind of book that opens your mind and gets you thinking in a different way. Its drawing and writing prompts could help you to get out of a rut, kickstart a new project, or simply provide an activity to help get through pandemic life.  

White Pens & Black PaperReverse the contrast with a black paper notepad and what have been consistently rated the best white pens. Novelty may not be the mother of invention but it’s definitely the fun aunt.

Literary Postage StampsBack when paper submissions were still a thing, stamps were something that writers bought by the roll. Now, they’re more of a special occasion item, which is all the more reason to choose ones with flair. Encourage your friends to write you some letters with these literary-themed stamps, including “Voices of Harlem” forever stamps, and Walt Whitman 85-cent stamps. There’s also a “The Snowy Day” stamp, which looks lovely on holiday cards. 

An Extremely Comfortable Reading ChairEver since the fall weather set in, I’ve been looking for the comfy chair of my dreams. We have comfortable-enough chairs in our apartment, and even two bean bags, but I’m looking for the kind of chair you can read an entire novel in, the kind of chair that embraces you, the kind of chair that your children will want to sit in but you will not let them because it is YOUR CHAIR. This might be a gift you need to buy for yourself, and that’s okay. You deserve it.  

Meander, Spiral, Explode by Jane AlisonThis craft book looks at the patterning of non-linear narratives. It invites readers and writers alike to think about storytelling methods that don’t fall within the classic Aristolean ideal of beginning, middle, and end. Writing for The New Yorker, Katy Waldman described it “a deeply wacky pleasure,” which sounds like what we all need right now.  

Literary Tarot CardsThese Rumi and Emily Dickinson “Divining Cards” feature quotes from the great poets to “Inspire, Provoke, Contemplate and Answer Life Questions.” Perhaps they can also help writers with thorny manuscripts. 

When Things Fall Apart by Pema ChodromThis recommendation comes from my older sister, who teaches wellness classes as part of a work readiness program. She describes it a classic book for turbulent times and one that might help to conquer writer’s block. 

Letting the Days Go By

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Back on Feb. 29, the extra day in this year of years, I stayed up to watch Saturday Night Live and saw David Byrne’s remarkable performance of “Once in a Lifetime.” I know the song well, although I usually get the title wrong, referring to it as “letting the days go by” or “same as it ever was,” which, along with “once in a lifetime,” are lyrics from chorus. My husband Mike has pointed out to me that both of my misremembered titles have a meaning that it opposite to “Once in a Lifetime.” But one of the reasons I love “Once in a Lifetime” is that it is somewhat at odds with itself, not only lyrically, but musically as well—although I didn’t really understand that until I read this article on NPR, watched this video, listened to multiple versions of the song on Spotify, and finally, after years of having it on my to-watch list, saw Jonathan Demme’s concert film Stop Making Sense. Yes, I fell down a “Once in a Lifetime” rabbit hole. This was in early March, before quarantine had even started. But a certain anxiety had set in. At the playground, parents were standing farther apart during after-school chats, and everyone had stopped sharing snacks. I happened to have two annual check-ups scheduled for the first week of March: my doctor and dentist. My doctor assured me that the new coronavirus was nothing to worry about, while my dentist advised me to come in immediately for a follow-up appointment to fill a cavity. The day after I got my tooth filled, I went into Manhattan for a morning screening of Crip Camp, a documentary that I was planning to review for my blog. I could have asked for a screening link, but I wanted to go into Manhattan. Maybe I knew, in the back of my mind, that it would be the last time. I wore gloves on the bus and subway, and a lightweight scarf over my nose and mouth. I got off the train at Eighth Avenue and walked four long blocks to the Landmark 57, a new theater that I’d never gone to before. I didn’t realize, until I got there, that it was in the silver, triangular building that my son refers to the as “the cake slice” whenever we drive up the West Side Highway. I took a photo of it with my phone before I headed home.The photos that follow the cake slice building are mostly of my kids, stuck inside, in crowded messy rooms, or of my kids, outdoors, in wide-open empty spaces. One of our favorite places to go for our daily Cuomo-approved constitutional was the parking lot of the shipyard, a place that is usually pretty empty, but which had become totally barren of cars, pedestrians, and commuters. Gone were the cruise ships and the ferries and the water taxis. My kids scootered past piles of empty shipping containers and yelled as loud as they wanted. Then they went home and watched Disney+ while Mike and I tried to figure out where we should go. We had been planning a move from Brooklyn to Queens—a future I was so certain of at the beginning of this year that I had begun to research nursery schools in our new, chosen neighborhood. I was concerned about the timing of everything, and I feared I was too late for the school I wanted, and too late with the camp sign-ups, and I was annoyed with my anxieties because I never wanted to be the person who was worried about getting her kids into a particular school or themed day camp. I first listened to “Once in a Lifetime” when I was a teenager. I heard the lyrics as description of mindless acquiescence to the status quo: “You may find yourself in a beautiful house/with a beautiful wife/and you may ask yourself, ‘Well…how did I get here?’” Byrne’s performance of the song in Stop Making Sense seemed to support my interpretation. Halfway through the song he dons a bizarrely oversized suit, making him look like a child in adult’s clothes, or an overstuffed puppet. His dance moves suggest sleepwalking as he stumbles backward and repeatedly hits himself on the forehead with an open palm, as if trying to wake up —or realizing a terrible mistake. To my teenage ears, even the chorus was damning: I thought the phrase “letting the days go by” was a kind of accusation, a way of saying, You’re wasting your life. I hear the song a little differently now. Now, it strikes me as a description of how we get through life: we let the days go by, riding on the backs of accumulated habits. But sometimes we stop and wonder: how did we get here?  I’m having one of those moments now. Maybe you are, too. The pandemic has had a way of slowing everyone down. Also, we moved to the suburbs. So did several of our friends. And so we are literally finding ourselves in strange houses. We’re part of a wave of New Yorkers that you may have read about the newspaper: people who left the city in the wake of the virus, seeking more space for home offices and classrooms. Mike and I are now renting the first floor of a house in Montclair, New Jersey that is at least twice as big as our old apartment and a lot cheaper. We’re kicking ourselves that we didn’t move out here years ago—except that we never would have, because all of our friends were in Brooklyn and Mike could walk to work and I didn’t have to drive anywhere. I can’t drive, by the way—I mean, I can, but it’s been 20 years since I’ve gotten behind the wheel. Montclair, fortunately, is very walkable, but the simple fact that I’m going to have to start driving again—that I won’t get everywhere on my own two feet or in the company of strangers on public transportation—is what leaves me really feeling the question: How did I get here?  When Byrne was on SNL in February, he was promoting his limited-run musical, American Utopia, which was a kind of a career retrospective for him. You can see it now on HBO; Spike Lee filmed it shortly before Broadway was shut down. I watched it last weekend and that’s what led me down the “Once in a Lifetime” rabbit hole a second time. Byrne has always struck me as a slightly detached performer, but in American Utopia he seems much more emotionally present, or maybe just more expressive. He sings more forcefully now and he dances with more precision. He’s older, too. You hear the strain and age in his voice as he aims for higher notes; maybe you worry a little when he executes a back-bending dance move—as he does frequently for “Once in a Lifetime.” When I saw Byrne on SNL, I thought he had the look of a mad, prophesying preacher, someone who’d come to a new realization of the divine late in life. The mystical imagery of the lyrics jumped out at me: had there always been so much water? Had the color blue always been so important? Above all, had it always been an ecstatic song? The joyful version of “Once in a Lifetime” was always there. You can hear it in Angelique Kidjo’s cover, which she sings melodically, at a slight faster tempo, with a horn section and back-up singers. And you can hear it in the instrumentation of the original. But I don’t think you can hear it in Byrne’s early vocal renditions. When he was young, I don’t think he really knew what he had on his hands. I think he was just following his intuition and trying to make the song work.  My personal theory of “Once in a Lifetime” is that the song has a will of its own, and that it wanted to exist in the world. It came together very slowly, starting with a bass line that The Talking Heads recorded during a jam session inspired by the music of Fela Kuti. Bassist Tina Weymouth gets credit for coming up with the riff, but she claims that her husband, drummer Chris Frantz, yelled it to her during rehearsal as and adjustment to what she had been playing. When the song was ready to be arranged, producer Brian Eno misheard the rhythm of the riff, adding a rest at the beginning of the measure. When he realized his mistake, he decided he liked the odd arrangement, and wrote a call-and-response chorus to go with it. The band thought the chorus sounded like a preacher leading a prayer, which led Byrne to the weird world of televangelists. He found his now-iconic lyrics—“And you may find yourself…”—by imitating their Biblically-tinged cadences. Borrowed beats, borrowed lyrics, misheard bass lines, bad transcriptions: the basis of this song about the unconscious way we move through life was made without much conscious thought. And yet it is probably one of The Talking Heads most beloved songs, the kind of song people know without even realizing they know it. A few weeks after we moved to our new apartment, my landlord, who lives above us, filled me in on all the local lore. Apparently, Montclair used to be a weekend destination for Broadway performers. She tells me that the house down the street from us hosted marvelous parties, and that Marlene Deitrich was a frequent guest. How my landlord knows this, I don’t know, but I was able to fact-check the next bit of ancient gossip she shared, which was that the house across the street was once occupied by a musician and composer named Herman Hupfeld. You’ve probably never heard of him, but in 1931, he wrote “As Time Goes By”—one of those songs you know without knowing, and may find yourself humming every once in a while.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Fate, Capitalism, and Football: The Millions Interviews Katherine Hill

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Katherine Hill has always been an omnivorous sports fan, someone who can get caught up in March Madness, World Cup soccer, Wimbledon, and the Olympics. But football was the sport she wanted to explore in her second novel, A Short Move, which follows the life story of Mitch Wilkins, a high school football star who makes it all the way to the NFL. For Hill, football was the perfect sport for thinking about fate: “There were so many formal aspects of the game that were interesting in terms of thinking about a lifespan—the stopping and starting of the clock, the specificity of each position and what each particular player’s skills are, what they’re good at, what their job is on the field. And with the intensity of its collisions, with its demands—it’s such a physically demanding sport—it really felt like kind of the perfect metaphor for life under capitalism.”

Told from a variety of perspectives, A Short Move begins when Mitch is in utero, and his parents are deciding whether or not to have him. (Spoiler Alert: Mitch is born.) The reader then meets Mitch at different points in his life, sometimes seeing the world through Mitch’s eyes, other times inhabiting the perspectives of Mitch’s parents, coaches, wives, and teammates. It’s a kaleidoscopic approach that looks beyond one man’s individual talent to the ecosystem of people, places, and industries that both nurture and exploit an athletic gift. 

Hill is a friend of mine, our connection forged in part by the fact that we both have school administrator parents, an occupation that entails a certain amount of moving around. Born in Washington D.C., Hill grew up in Manhattan, small-town Ohio, central Virginia, and suburban Maryland. A Short Move hops all over the country, but the heart of the book is in central Virginia, where Mitch is born and raised. It’s a region that Hill remembers well, maybe because she left it at a formative age, in her early teens, to go to high school in the suburbs of D.C. “When you move a lot, you notice differences in culture. Amherst, Virginia, and Bethesda, Md., are just three hours apart, but the climate is different, the people are different, the politics are different. It’s night and day.”

I had hoped to interview Hill in person, in her Brooklyn home, but in these times of quarantine, we ended up talking over the phone. The following interview has been edited and condensed.

The Millions: Tell me how you came to write this particular story, a cradle-to-grave
story about a football player.

Katherine Hill: It started with a short story that I wrote that was about a woman who drops out of college and finds herself working in retail. Her name is Alyssa, and her father, a minor character, is a former NFL football player. I wrote that story, thought it was a one-off, and published it in n+1. The editor asked me if it was part of something larger, and it actually wasn’t, but sometimes you just need someone to ask you that question. I was really interested in the father, so I wrote another story about him, when he is basically the same age that Alyssa is in the first story. He’s 18, about to go to college, and he has an awareness that he’s about to become the person he’s going to become, that he’s on the cusp of some new self. In that story, I met his mom and his girlfriend and I wanted to know more about all these people. I also found it interesting to think about the huge changes in his life, from his late teens to his early 40s. I wanted to fill in the gaps knowing I could never actually fill in the gaps. But I wanted to plot out his life and its trajectory.

TM: What
do you mean you wanted to fill in the gaps knowing that you couldn’t fill them
in?

KH: Well, one of the really important features of this book is the absences, which is something I’ve always been interested in, artistically. In theater, it’s the stuff that happens offstage. In visual art, it’s the negative space. And in novels, it’s the stuff that’s off the page or between the lines. From the beginning of this project I was attracted to the idea of a novel that would invite the reader to supply a lot—the actions and events that are not put into words by the author. I thought this structure made a lot of sense for a story about an athlete who wears many different identities, who experiences blackouts as a matter of course, and whose body develops rapidly, and also falls apart rapidly within a compressed period of time. He’s a retired old guy in his late 30s. For most of us, late 30s is prime.

TM: You use
a lot of different points of view in your novel: Mitch, Mitch’s wife, his
father, his coach, his teammate, his mother. I wondered how you decided which
points of view to include?

KH: I centered the book on the family: I started close and then moved out. I was really interested in his mother, first of all, who raised him on her own. And also, the absent father. And then his first wife. Perspective from the family seemed really important, because it’s a life narrative, not a classic sports story. It’s a family novel. Some of us grow up and have our full story from womb to tomb without family being a huge part of it, but for most of us, the family that you leave, the family that you raise, the family that you work hard to build—in many ways that is the plot of life. But Mitch also has an important public life, so I had to include some perspectives from that world. And I think, in a way, the perspectives I found there were also familial. His teammate, D’Antonio Mars, is like a brother, a fellow traveler. So there’s a family quality to those sections of the book, too.

TM: Were there points of view you attempted and then decided not to do?

KH: I
considered doing something with a reporter, and someone involved in the corporate
sponsorships of athletes. But in the end, I just went deeper on the family. Even
though I was interested in gaps and leaving things out, it’s inevitable—for me,
anyway—to want to get to know my existing characters better. And so I worked
that out by going very deep in short sections. You get to know the characters
very well during a particular moment in time.

TM: Was
there a character who surprised you?

KH: They
all did. One of the bigger surprises for me was the solidarity between Mitch’s
mother and his first wife. They clash in the beginning, so realizing that they
might find a way to get along was a lovely surprise and kind of a
counter-intuitive one—but one that I was really committed to once I realized it
could be true. The more standard and more boring story is one of rivalry and
irreconcilable differences. In this case, that seemed like the direction it was
headed in, but it emerged in a different way.

TM: Do you
think of this book as linked short stories? Can they stand alone?

KH: I did think of it as a novel in stories, or an episodic novel. A book that was really important to me when I was writing was A Visit from the Goon Squad, which is a novel but also kind of a collection of stories. I just admired so much of what Jennifer Egan did, the way we had to imagine what had happened to characters between what she calls point A and point B. I actually think you have to fill in a lot more with her book because she has so many characters, whereas with my book, Mitch is always there at the center. He’s the spine of the novel. His life is the structure.

TM: I think A Visit from the Goon Squad has been pretty influential to writers, it gets mentioned a lot. I think it gave people permission to think about how to structure things in a different way.

KH: Agreed.
Permission is a great word. I think many of us are looking to bust out of the
current conventions of novel structure, which somehow feel so fixed. Which is
interesting to me because the novel is actually a pretty unregulated form,
unlike the sonnet or the tragedy. It’s a kind of wonderfully lawless form.
Maybe it’s something about the commercialization of it, or the institutionalization
of creative writing as an academic discipline, that’s tricked us into thinking
the novel has a set form. But Egan reminded us that the form has so many
possibilities—that it’s actually defined by its infinite possibilities. The
only one standard feature being: figures over time.

TM: This
is your second book. How did it compare to writing your first book?


KH: My first book, [The Violet Hour], is the one that taught me how to write a novel. And it felt very exciting because I was doing this big thing. I was writing a novel—it was so ambitious! But it also felt scary because I had no idea what success was going to look like. I mean I sort of had an idea, because I’d read a lot of novels, and I was trying to enter their company. But until you’ve done it, you haven’t done it. So there was this kind of incredible relief and elation at the end, and I started the second one on the high of having completed the first. I thought, I know how to do this now! I’ll just do it again! It got off to a great fast start. Much faster than the first one, which required a lot of wrong turns and starting over and re-outlining and all that. But the second one, once I had the first two moments in time—the daughter and the father—was easy to outline.

The first novel had a very
complicated structure of going forward and backward in time, and it was also a
family novel. So there are similarities between the two. But the structure of
the second novel is more radical. I’m not sure it’s more ambitious, or harder
to pull off. It’s just aesthetically more radical from what we consider to be
the standard form. And as I was making it, I had to have a lot of faith that
the choices I was making were good ones. Because once you start building
something, it becomes more itself and harder to pick apart and rearrange. It ran
into a lot of trouble getting sold. I was tested on that front, and it hurt,
but I always believed that I had made the right choice.

TM: What
was the trouble you had in selling it?

KH: It’s a pretty typical story. I actually think what happened to me is what happens to many novelists writing their second books. My first novel was published with a major press, and got some nice review attention, but it didn’t light the world on fire and it wasn’t a bestseller. So when the time came to sell my second novel, and it was more formally daring than the first one—which happens a lot, too—my first publisher declined to publish it. That was a big blow. They had an option on it, and I thought once you’re in, you’re in. Which is so naïve. But I had to believe that to write it. That kind of stupid confidence is really necessary when you’re working on a big, risky project.

My agent was like, it’s fine, this book is amazing, it will sell. I made a few revisions because I always have to revise after rejection, and then he took it out pretty widely in New York. They just all rejected it. I don’t even know how many. It was probably 30 or 40—a huge number of publishers. I was numb at first, then I was devastated, and then I was determined. It was a very emotionally volatile time, because I had devoted my entire artistic and professional life to this book. I’m a professor, I teach writing, and I had to get the book published to keep my job. But I’m also pretty stubborn about my creative work. My agent and I had some hard conversations. He still believed in it but had felt pretty discouraged by the response.

The one theme that emerged
was that people weren’t into the structure. But for me, the structure was the book. It’s a life narrative,
chronological, from before our protagonist’s birth to after his death, and it’s
told episodically through a relay of perspectives. I was so committed to the overall
effect. I didn’t want to write a different football novel, and I didn’t want to
write a different family novel. And so I went out in search of independent
presses that would be more open to formally challenging projects. I got a
couple of offers and Ig was really enthusiastic. They got it right away and
were excited about it. It was all the affirmation I needed.

TM: How
has it been coming out with a book during this strange time of Covid-19?

KH: Well, fortunately for me, it’s corresponded with the strange and wonderful time of having my first baby, so I was home all the time anyway. I knew at some point during the first months of her life that I would turn my attention back to promoting the book. And that is all still true and the same as I imagined. But one difference is that everything physical has been canceled. I was going to have readings in several places, a mini book tour. So that’s a bummer, because I love the chance to do big readings in the cities I’ve lived in—D.C., Boston, Philly, and New York. But, I guess because I have this wonderful baby, it doesn’t really feel like a loss. If anything it’s like, oh well, I don’t have to worry about the trip. Maybe that’s short-sighted. But a book lives for a long time, so I’m hopeful there will be opportunities in the future when we can gather again. Which I do believe will happen, maybe not as soon as everyone wants, but at some point.

I think a lot of publishers
have been cancelling and postponing or moving their books, whereas we just
stayed the course. So it remains to be seen how affected we will be by that
decision—to be coming out in June when people are still at home or only
tentatively going out. I’m hopeful that one of the things people do at home is
read. And maybe they’re sick of screens, so maybe having a book with pages will
be appealing to more people in this moment. I think if it had come out in
March, when everyone was getting used to this new life, that would have been
worse, but with June I’m bizarrely hopeful.

TM: Since
this is a football book, I have to ask you about football: What team do you
follow?

KH: I follow Washington. I can barely say the name out loud. So yeah, we have a racist name, it’s really bad, and we should change it. But I said it for many, many years before the current effort to stop. So, that’s my team. It’s a terrible franchise, the owner is despicable, and the team has been a disappointment for, I don’t know, 20 years? They last won a Super Bowl in the early 1990s.

D.C. is the closest thing I have to a hometown and I married a D.C. local. I followed them obsessively throughout the 2000s, in my 20s, especially in the years I lived in Philadelphia. Every Sunday my husband and I went to this ramshackle sports bar called Cavanaugh’s and watched the team play. We had to go out because unless you have Direct TV, you can’t follow anyone but the local team on television. And the local team was the Eagles.

On the one hand it was it was kind of nice because we couldn’t just stay at home and have our private obsession; we had to go out to a communal space, which is what sports want. And in Philly, we had all these wonderful fan friends. They were friends from, I think, a Quaker camp in Maryland. Many of them had gone to college in Philly and stuck around and they were all involved in social justice in some way—just the most decent, best people you could ever meet, and all die-hard Washington fans. Not only that, they were our kind of fans: in love with the players, optimistic, and really faithful. So we would watch with them. We literally met just sitting next to them at the bar.

I think that experience was something that led me to write this book, just that kind of die-hard fandom in my 20s. And, as I think often happens when we devote ourselves to a subject, the process of writing the book or going deep on the subject actually cures you of the subject, a little bit. I’m now watching less football than I ever have in my life. It’s not because I’m protesting the treatment of the athletes or anything like that; they’d want me to watch. It’s just because at this time in my life, I feel like I did football. Though I’m also pretty sure it’ll always be there for me to come back to. I have a daughter now, and I’m sure watching the game will be something we do together, which is something I did with my parents.

TM: What
was your research process like for the book?



KH: I read a lot of football memoirs and journalistic accounts of football seasons. It’s sort of a classically clichéd genre, so I had to work hard to find the ones that would be illuminating and interesting—that would spark my imagination in some way. I have a shelf of pretty good books that got me thinking about the day-to-day experience of the athlete. I read Warren Sapp’s memoir, Sapp Attack, which is really outrageous but has a terrific voice; and Tony Siragusa’s memoir, Goose; and Nate Jackson’s memoir Slow Getting Up. He’s a pretty decent writer, and he wasn’t a star, which is such a valuable perspective. There’s also a really wonderful book by Nicholas Dawidoff called Collision Low Crossers, about a single season with the New York Jets—that’s full of really great details. So, books like that, that’s where I started. I also watched a lot of old game footage and did some in-person interviews. I spoke to a few former players, and I found this really wonderful YouTube show called The Real Rob Report, with Michael Robinson, who was a fullback for the Seattle Seahawks. It’s really hard to find now, you can only get little bits and pieces of it, but it was basically a behind-the-scenes perspective. He just had so much great locker room footage, which was the one thing I was never going to get access to. I toured one practice facility, the Baltimore Ravens, but they wouldn’t let me in the locker room.

A lot of the research was
just armor I needed to convince myself that I could write about this world that
I had never participated in myself. I had to make sure I got the football
details right, or right enough, and I had to make sure I was representing a
possible truth about our world. The harder stuff was the emotional and
psychological stuff that no amount of research can teach you. You just have to
let the characters discover that themselves, and you have to discover that with
them.

Returning to Books After Climbing Peak TV

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In 2016, I started keeping track of the television shows I watched, along with books and movies. That was the year I started taking television a bit more seriously, I guess. Or maybe I just wanted to see where all my time was going. This year, when I was looking at my books list to compose my annual “Year in Reading” post, I noticed that the amount of TV I’d watched had dropped dramatically. I started a lot of different series, but hardly finished any of them. Suddenly, it seems, I’m a lot pickier about what TV shows I watch, as picky as I have always been about books.

It used to be that I would try to watch what everyone else seemed to be watching. I grew up in a household where the television was mostly off-limits, so as an adult, I’ve relished the opportunity to stay current. The Sopranos, The Office, Mad Men, Friday Night Lights: These are a few of the mid-aughts shows I started watching because of the cultural conversation around them, rather than my personal interest in the material. I continued to watch them because I liked them, but for the past few years, the social pressure to keep up with a particular show has dissipated. I’m hardly the first person to observe that everyone seems to be watching their own version of TV. In the same way that I never expect anyone to be reading the same book as I am, I don’t have any expectation that other people will be watching the same TV shows. There are some things that I watch that are so obscure I’d be shocked to find another viewer. (Is there anyone besides me and my seven-year-old who watches PBS’s Monstrum, a series of mini-lectures about famous monsters?) With the recent exception of Succession, I can’t think of the last show that I tuned into because it was What People Are Watching.

Without the social pressure to try a particular show, I’ve been choosier. There’s more TV than ever before, yet I find myself listlessly scrolling through the options in the same way I sometimes gaze at my bookshelves, wondering what I’m in the mood to read next. Where I once would have stayed with a better-than-average TV series because my friends and family were into it, I now have to feel personally compelled to watch a show. Basically, I hold TV to the same standard that I hold books—not a higher one, necessarily, but more idiosyncratic.

When I think about how I choose what to read, it’s either nonfiction about a subject that I’m curious about, or it’s fiction with a voice that speaks to me, for whatever mysterious reason. It’s still hard for me to guess what fiction I’m going to adore. Earlier this year, I stayed up until the wee hours to finish Ling Ma’s Severance, a zombie-office novel that I was not expecting to be my cup of tea. I had a similar experience with HBO’s Chernobyl, a show that didn’t initially sound like something I wanted to dwell on, but once I started watching, I eagerly awaited every new installment.

In this era of Peak TV, I try to approach a new series with the same open mind I have for contemporary fiction—and with the same critical gaze. I’ll try more shows than I used to, but I’ll give up more quickly, too. Sometimes that means I’ll enjoy and genuinely admire a couple of episodes but don’t feel the need to continue (The Bold Type, Lodge 49, Queen Sugar). Five years ago, I think I would have given those shows more of a chance. I remember someone telling me that I had to watch about seven episodes of Mad Men before it got good. I actually followed that advice, but I can’t imagine doing it now. Life’s too short, and there’s so much more TV out there anyway. But also: the other night I re-watched a random episode from season six of Mad Men because I couldn’t decide what new thing to watch.

I choose books with the resigned sense that I will never in my lifetime read all of the authors recommended to me. It’s strange to have that feeling with television. As with classic unread novels, certain TV shows have begun to carry with them a hint of obligation. There are so many shows that people assure me are really good, really smart, really fun, shows like Breaking Bad and Borgen and Schitt’s Creek. Then there are the documentaries that promise to teach history: Ken Burns’s Vietnam, Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, Ken Burns’s Country Music, OJ: Made in America—actually, I did watch OJ, and it was incredible. I would like to watch it again. But then I’d like to read Middlemarch again, too.

I don’t want to overwork this comparison or to suggest that I’m pitting books against TV. (If I’m pitting books against anything, it’s the internet.) Books and television are fundamentally different. TV is theatrical and collaborative, with stories concocted by a room full of writers, and influenced by producers with varied motivations. Even showrunners with distinctive and quirky visions, such as Donald Glover (Atlanta) or Amy Sherman-Palladino (Gilmore Girls, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) depend on their cast, crew, and production team to make certain narrative decisions. In contrast, the author of a book is in charge of all its narrative effects. Editors and publishers have their influence, but when you read a book, it’s you and the author in conversation. Books give a cozy feeling of privacy that I’ve always appreciated. TV never feels private, but it can feel lonely.

It’s possible that this essay is nothing more than a diary of my own exhaustion, of a new discernment brought on by children who leave me desiring quiet at the end of the day and news sites that shred my attention. There may be something generational going on here, too. Having come of age in an era where people tuned into the same shows, I could be bringing expectations to the medium that a younger generation doesn’t have. From what I gather from my nieces and nephews, TV shows are just one part of their daily dose of streaming entertainment, something that gets mixed in with YouTube clips, Instagram stories, memes, and other kinds of social media. This seems to be the future of entertainment, and maybe my recent choosiness regarding television shows is a reflection of the many, many things competing for my attention. As always, I feel overwhelmed. More often than not, I seek the comfort in a book.

Image: Scheier .hr