Ferocious and Violent: The Millions Interviews Rachel Yoder

-

At home with her newborn son, the protagonist in Rachel Yoder’s Nightbitch is starting to feel like a dog—that is to say, she’s turning into one, literally. It isn’t a fairytale or a dream. It’s her life. In turns equally dark and funny, violent and satirical, Yoder’s debut novel doesn’t follow any expected route on its way to uncovering what it means to be a mother, to have a relationship, to raise a child. The turmoil, the vastness of the experience, it roils in this edgy, weird, and brilliant book.

Coming to feel more and more akin to her canine alter-ego “nightbitch,” this mother learns to embrace her instinctual nature: the need to paw the ground, to sniff the air, to roam the streets under the moonlight, chasing and snarling. Her husband is rattled but vapid, while the community around her full of mothers who might also be more than they appear. But her son loves this new side of his mom, how she ignores what the world wants and gravitates instead toward what she feels.

Nightbitch is as unexpected as it is poignant, as quirky as it is well-crafted. To start with such a simple and surreal premise and yet create depth and significance at the same time is truly fantastic. This novel snaps at the heels of art and motherhood, of female power and autonomy, of finding your inner instinct.

The Millions: Is being a mother a joy, a curse, or something else entirely?

Rachel Yoder: Being a mother in a society that praises and encourages mothers’ absolute abnegation of the self is the curse. Imagine being told from an early age that it’s right, holy, nice, and proper to abandon your own needs, emotions, and desires. We are conditioning girls and women to believe that psychological and emotional self-harm is correct. That’s the curse.

Motherhood itself is power. Women understand this power in their bodies, especially during unmedicated childbirth. You truly feel how much of a full, vibrant, and uncompromising self you are as a child tears out of you. You are in touch with a profound creative force. I have to wonder if the entire structure of patriarchal control is a fearful reaction to women’s singular power of creation. “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” sure is a convoluted and roundabout way of getting to the much more fitting metaphor of Mother.

So then, how do women move from self-denial into power? This is Nightbitch’s central question.

TM: The toddler escapades—the eating, the sleeping, the pooping—are rendered with the exact right frenetic energy. How did you go about committing those scenes, that vibe, to the page in such a faithful manner?

RY: I hadn’t written in two years when I embarked on this book. Those two years also happened to arrive after my son was born. So we might say there was a lot of material to draw from. I went to the coffee shop for small chunks of time and wrote as fast as I could. It poured from me.

TM: Were other motherhood-centered books a part of your reading and writing practice? I’m thinking of novels like Kristen Arnett’s recent With Teeth, Makenna Goodman’s The Shame, and Sheila Heti’s Motherhood. Or do you abstain from reading anything connective or near your own subject matter during the writing process?

RY: I was incidentally reading books about motherhood in the time leading up to writing and then writing Nightbitch, but it was by no means a concerted effort. I had no plans to write a “book about motherhood.” If anything, I had plans not to write that book because I had accepted the messages that motherhood is boring, unimportant, only of interest to women so not worth writing about, etcetera.

Looking back at my Goodreads, many of the books I read from 2014 when my son was born to 2017 when I began writing had to do either with motherhood or child-rearing in some regard, or else were literary psychological horror or slipstream. I think that Han Kang’s The Vegetarian has as much to do with Nightbitch’s emergence as, say, Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors. The strange postapocalyptic book The Rending and the Nest, in which women give birth to inanimate objects, is definitely a part of the subconscious of Nightbitch, as is Sabrina Orah Mark’s Wild Milk.

TM: Where did this novel start? What was its smallest seedling?

RY: I read Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation years before I began writing this book, and her “art monster” line I consider the very earliest sparkle of Nightbitch’s magic. I copied that passage down in a document on my computer, thinking I would write an essay about it. I eventually wrote Nightbitch instead.

TM: Though there is tension, suspense, and devastation in Nightbitch, there are also frequent pops of humor. How do you manage fun and comedy in your writing?

RY: Comedy is a survival tactic. You can’t let the rage burn bright all the time or else you’ll burn up, too. The comedy comes in to cool you off, to provide a bit of relief. I am reminded of the narrator of Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows, another book I read as I was writing mine. (And, it should be noted, a book by a writer raised in the Mennonite tradition, like me.) That book, its story, is full of such deep darkness, heavy sadness, and repressed rage that the only way you as the reader are able to keep your head above water is the relief that Toews offers you via the voice of the narrator. While not a conscious choice on my part, Nightbitch operates in a bit of the same way, I think.

TM: So the violence—the cat episode in particular—showcases some of this blending, mixing the visceral with the comedic. How fun was it writing this character who could pivot so instinctually toward the ferocious?

RY: I was very scared of my anger in early motherhood. I didn’t know how to relate with it. I was afraid of it getting out of control. I used to joke that anger is not part of my genetic or cultural heritage, since I was raised Mennonite, and perhaps this is why the mix of rage and comedy comes naturally to me: It’s the most acceptable mode in which a Mennonite woman can be angry.

The cat scene is where Nightbitch touches the abyss so to speak. Her anger has become unwieldy, and she suddenly and horribly wakes up to this. She must find a way to wield her rage that’s not destructive but, rather, creative. Her anger certainly has an origin in the forces acting upon her, but her greatest anger is at herself, for the ways in which she has abandoned herself, so she must come to terms with her power, and her capacity for creating the life she wants and needs. She must take responsibility for her own story.

It was immensely gratifying to have a female character who was able to be ferocious and violent. There are so few stories in our culture that show women expressing rage, and I was interested in how a female character might write her own story of rage. What would it look like? How can women perform anger so it doesn’t stay trapped in our bodies?

TM: For as much as art and family are in conflict for the mother protagonist, they are also often in service of one another. Is the crux of art built on or made from relationships?

RY: The crux of everything is relationships! Consciousness is a tool for wielding metaphor, which is just another way of saying that we make meaning by actively and seriously negotiating our relationships. Recently, I’ve been experimenting with curiosity and bringing a spirit of curiosity to troubled relationships, and that really does seem to have cracked something open for me, the process of asking earnest, open-hearted questions in the face of relational dysfunction. And isn’t this truly what storytelling is, an exploration of the relationship of characters, of themes, of ideas?

TM: From a craft point of view, you made an interesting decision to keep most of the characters in the novel unnamed. What led to that choice and how did it shape the book?

RY: The only reason I started out this way is because it felt right. I didn’t interrogate the decision too much. I don’t think I ever considered giving the characters names, or if I tried to, it immediately felt incorrect. Now, it seems to me that I wanted to keep these characters as close to archetypes as possible because I was more interested in the ideas they were animating rather than the specifics of their knowable realities. Certainly they do have socioeconomic and historical and racial contexts, because the book is being written from within those frames, but I wanted the main character as Mother and Artist/Creator and Wife to be front and center, because these features are most salient in regard to the ideas I wanted to explore and animate.

TM: In the mysterious tome your protagonist reads—A Field Guide to Magical Women: A Mythical Ethnography—the “aga” or second life is referenced as passing from “the world of the known to that of the unknown.” What do you think your second life will be? Or has it already happened?

RY: Oh, I think this book was largely about my challenges in coming into a workable motherhood and womanhood. I knew how to be the black sheep, the truth-telling adolescent, the prodigal daughter, but I didn’t have a way of being, or an image for, a wife and mother and a fully-emerged woman in a way that didn’t stifle or oppress. I knew I didn’t want to be a “good Mennonite wife” and I knew I didn’t want to be a “self-sacrificing mother,” but what were the other models for these? I had to write them. How can I be fully myself while also being a mother and a wife, these roles that will absolutely take over if you give in to the scripts that have already been written? So I suppose my “aga” is that I feel I am moving into the world of metaphor and, hopefully, a deeper understanding of the metaphors animating and controlling our stories.

The Tragedy of Self: The Millions Interviews Makenna Goodman

-

In Vermont, Alma and her family tend chickens and sheep, make maple syrup, and harmonize with the land. And while it seems idyllic, when her husband leaves each day to teach at a nearby college, Alma vacillates between raising their children and feeling utterly trapped. She’s constantly questioning if she is good enough, if she is doing everything right, and The Shame is a record of her breaking point. Suddenly, driving furiously away from it all—from her kids, from her husband, from her so-called quaint life outside the city—debut novelist Makenna Goodman gives us glimpses of Alma’s frustrations in a series of remembered vignettes: Her stress in attending collegiate dinner parties, her struggle to pursue a creative career in the face of monetary risk, and her solitude in living apart from society. It is a novel that bears witness to a blearing spiral of self-doubt.

Further complicating the matter, Alma has taken to obsessing over the social media posts of the a woman named Celeste. Celeste is a single-mother of three living in Brooklyn. She is a potter. She bakes. She cooks. She does yoga and meditation. She has impeccable taste, beautiful yet understated fashion sense, and a seemingly limitless well of patience for her children. Initially, Alma revels in the parallels she sees between herself and Celeste. But when she realizes that Celeste has somehow managed to avoid the darkness, Alma’s loneliness, solitude, the ever-evolving bouts of anxiety increase and her obsession intensifies. If only she could meet Celeste, talk with her, become a part of her life, then maybe she could find the key to righting her own existence.

The Shame is a sharp, poetic debut. It touches on motherhood, marriage, creative careers, and social media obsessions in a unique and thoroughly engaging way. We are in the car with Alma, speeding away from her former life. But Goodman also puts us in Alma’s head, as she grapples with each reminiscence and memory, and in her heart, as she works to sort everything out that is haunting and hurting her, everything riddling her with apprehension and doubt. Shame and self-loathing have found an honest, witty, and absolutely relatable ride in The Shame.

The Millions: Let’s start with the idea of shame. What does that word mean to you, what does it mean to Alma, and how did it come to be the title?

Makenna Goodman: It’s hard to pinpoint what one word means to me, because words hold within them such big concepts, and it depends on the context in which it’s being used. Shame is a human emotion, something everyone feels at one point or another, and in some cases is a determining factor in how we interpret the stories about our lives, a metric which we often use without knowing. For Alma, I suppose it means the moment of realizing she is inextricable from a system that she thought she was morally above, that her ethical choices had liberated her from being complicit in. But I suppose I could have called the book many things, and I had a hard time titling it. One afternoon, I was on the phone with my friend, the writer Sheila Heti, and we were talking about the embarrassing truths about what we were looking at on the Internet at that moment. I said, it’s just “the shame, the shame, the shame” and she was like, you should just call the book that. It felt right. But titles are just teasers, or suggestions, and I don’t hold it too tightly.

TM: I love that. Speaking of Sheila Heti, can I assume that her book Motherhood is one that resonates with you?

MG: Definitely, everything she’s written. I find her fiction and nonfiction to veer so beautifully into philosophy; she constantly is transgressing both formally and stylistically. Even though Motherhood was a book about, ultimately, not having children, it could easily be seen as a treatise on art and ethics, if the critical media could see past the word “mother” or its well-trod categorical biases.

TM: What started you writing this novel? What was its genesis?

MG: I had just had my second child and was on leave from work. There was a lot of time to think, but my thinking was blurred by lack of sleep. I would take these long walks up our dirt road with my daughter asleep against my chest. It was around that time I read a book of Jungian psychoanalytic theory from the 1980s that deconstructed the Greek myth of Eros and Psyche; it suggested that each character in the myth was, in fact, a different aspect of an “archetypal” woman—whatever that means. But when I started to consider that Eros could be characterized as something other than the god of love, as, say, a woman’s animas, I began to see that it was possible to interpret everything in life as some kind of projection of the “main character,” and that stories can be re-characterized by those who interpret them based on their own projections. It allowed me to have this kind of narrative distance on social structures I found myself either entrenched in or critical of, and I came up with a loose storyline as a kind of container. And from that story, I began to play with how theory and narrative can allow for a rendition of “truth.”

TM: That notion of a “rendition of truth” is really interesting, especially considering Alma’s contention both with her own truth and with that of her high-brow doppelgänger, Celeste. In terms of our outside influences, do you think we all have that kind of level-up influencer who wreaks havoc with our sense of self?

MG: I think we all engage with projection, which manifests differently depending on the person. It’s easy to say something is a cultural phenomenon and try to come up with a valid theory of why. For example, the Internet is obviously a space that has affected the way our brain works, and, as a result, our subconscious. But to say “we all have our influencer” assumes everyone uses the Internet in the same way. I do think when humans search for meaning, the search in and of itself is telling. When you go into the abyss of the Internet to find a sense of truth or comfort, for example, answers seem to instantly appear. But we are curating the space just as it is being curated by algorithms on what we view, which calculate our desires based on where our eyes rest for any significant amount of time. Our sense of self is being made and remade with our permission, and as such our projections are manifested, because they multiply, and then the whole “Internet” seems to be speaking directly to our individual quests. What is “real” and what is “self” might be changing rapidly, yet how can we determine what is true about either?

TM: When Alma does finally reach out to Celeste, in search of her own sense of self, she phrases it as a chance to “fuck with fate a little.” Between fate and free will, where does Alma exist?

MG: I’d say she exists between fate and free will to the same degree anyone does—waffling between the two. Free will is entirely subjective, though, obviously. Who has the right to it? Who is granted it and at what rate compared to others? And fate also holds a mythology of inevitability, the idea that “everything happens for a reason,” which could be interpreted in various ways. Either as a kind of critical systems analysis—‘it’s a game and it’s rigged’—or something more spiritual. For Alma, I see it as her reclaiming the narrative of her life. She’s given Celeste power over her story—even though Alma’s creating the story, creating Celeste to a degree, she’s projected the idea of free will or fate onto something other than herself. And once she reclaims the narrative from the spiraling path it’s on, what will she do with it? What comes next? In my mind the book is about the tragedy of self, more than anything.

TM: In the end, would you say the novel concludes with a resonating sense of freedom, escape, or something else entirely?

MG: I think there is a palpable sense of awareness. An acknowledgement of a story that needs to change. I hope readers will interpret the ending as a beginning of a new one, perhaps the same story, told again, told differently. Isn’t that the case with life? There’s no neat bow, no solution, just new perspectives on patterns. My hope is that the book asserts itself as a cautionary tale, less a moralistic assertion, although there is a moral question central to it all. It is less about the choice Alma makes at the end, and more how she’ll interpret it in the context of her larger beliefs about the world. Ultimately, the book lays out an exercise for her, a mental and emotional exercise, the kind of thing that could happen in the course of one day in anyone’s life, in various ways. How we choose to reprogram our perspectives. How we might rewrite them. I like the idea of control, giving the tools back to readers, to see engaging in literature as a practice in interpretation of our own consciousness. If books can offer that freedom from the algorithmic status quo, then perhaps there’s hope for art yet.

TM: Absolutely. Well said. And speaking of books and hope, what recent releases have stirred or inspired you?

MG: Mieko Kawakami’s new novel, Heaven, is an unbelievable book. Her writing feels so fresh and different, and I have loved everything that’s been translated into English thus far. Another book I loved recently was Noemi Lefebvre’s Poetics of Work. And this isn’t a new release, but I recently read and loved Cristina Rivera Garxa’s The Iliac Crest. There are many others!

[millions-email]

Sometimes There Are No Good Choices: The Millions Interviews Robbie Arnott

-

A heron made of storm. A squid culled for its ink. A society broken by coup and disintegration. Floods, droughts, hiding in caves, and offering blood to the seas. Robbie Arnott includes it all in his sophomore novel The Rain Heron, a beautifully poetic, hypnotic, barreling ride through symbiotic characters and landscapes, churning its nimble feet with environmental and existential angst. It is as delightfully brutal as it is captivating.

Born in and still residing in Tasmania, Arnott’s debut novel Flames was released to critical acclaim in 2018. The novel was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award, the Queensland Literary Award, the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, and the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize. Arnott was also a 2019 Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelist and won the 2019 Margaret Scott Prize in the Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Prizes.

The Rain Heron is sure to garner just as much attention. It is as pitch-perfect a second novel as could have been anticipated. Bringing darkness with light, chaos tinged with resolution, and a magic and myth-encrusted world that sings and stings, Arnott displays stunning talent on every page. Connected halfway across the world, Arnott and I spoke about the influence of environment, literary inspirations, external versus internal pursuits, and the complicated notion of symbiosis between nature and society.   

The Millions: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me about this brilliant novel. The Rain Heron is a stunning blend of mythologies, grim society, and fatefully interconnected lives, and I’m curious to know, what was the origin of the book? Was it a particular line, an image, an idea?

Robbie Arnott: The writing of the book began with the first section, which details the legend of the rain heron. I was trying to invent my own myth, of a creature that was emblematic of both the beauty and savagery of nature. I tried a few different things until I realized I was trying to describe a storm, and the way a storm can be as captivating as it can be deadly. Once I figured that out, I turned a storm into the only creature that I believed could embody its grace and power: a great, wondrous bird.

TM: Landscape plays one of the largest roles in the story, particularly through weather and environmental changes, which makes me wonder how much you gravitate to the outdoors? How much does the environment around you inform your daily life, or your writing process?

RA: I’m fortunate enough to live in a beautiful, somewhat remote part of the world, where stunning landscapes and environments are all very close, so I spend a lot of time outdoors. If I’m stuck for something to write about, I start describing a landscape I’ve visited recently—a forest, a stretch of coastline, an ocean, a mountainside—and then see if a story or plot line curls off it. It’s not necessarily intentional; I’m just easily influenced by the world around me.

TM: The landscape in the novel is rendered geographically anonymous though—generalized in title as mountains, forests, rivers, seas. Is this to make the plight more universal, to drive the story forward as a more collective mythology?

RA: Absolutely—I wanted it to feel universal, and unanchored to any places in the real world. If I placed the story in my homeland of Tasmania, for example, the setting would bring along all the things that readers already associate with the island. The book would be imbued with an inherent Tasmanianness, and I wanted to avoid that. Instead, I wanted it to feel clean and new, as well as being recognizable, although not as anywhere specific.

TM: In terms of literary influences, I’d love to know what writers and artists inform and inspire your work?

RA: I’m heavily and unashamedly influenced by the descriptive prose of Annie Proulx. I think she’s a wizard. My work is also heavily in debt to Richard Flanagan, Jeanette Winterson, and Susanna Clarke, as well as many other writers. I love the clean and revelatory prose of Kazuo Ishiguro. When writing about landscapes and nature, I think I’m probably inspired by non-fiction writers as well—people like J. A. Baker and Helen Macdonald.

TM: The Rain Heron is built on minimal dialogue. Is that a style particular to this novel, or an aesthetic you cultivate across your writing?

RA: It’s probably both. I generally don’t use a lot of dialogue, probably because I’m naturally drawn more to description than conversation. For this book, I wanted to portray the characters almost entirely through their actions and reactions rather than what they said or felt. It felt right to do it that way—to flesh them out through their behavior.

TM: Does the sparse dialogue tell us something about the novel’s take on internal pursuits versus external influences?

RA: I hope so. I hope it draws out a sense of tension and conflict between motivations that can technically be justifiable, and things we inherently know to be wrong. Sometimes there are no good choices.

TM: Ren, our anchor point character throughout much of the novel, only relinquishes her solitude when the landscape around her is endangered. Is this a commentary on valuing the world itself above the individual?

RA: Yeah, I guess so, although I don’t know if I conceived of it that sharply. Human destruction of the environment is unavoidable in real life, so I thought it should be unavoidable in the book. Yet we still like forests, mountains, and rivers. I wanted Ren to experience a tension between her love for nature and her unwillingness to interact with other people. If that plays out as a commentary on valuing the natural world, then I guess I’ve done part of my job.

TM: That begs the question then: What is the other part of your job?

RA: To entertain, I think. And hopefully to enrich. I love books that both drag me in and mess about with how I see the world. If I wrote anything like that, I’d be over the moon.

TM: Throughout the book, there’s a focus on nature versus humanity, specifically society’s desire, and yet inability, to fully control or dominate nature. Do you think we’ll ever truly see a genuinely understood symbiosis between society and nature on a global scale?

RA: Many communities and groups of people have done it before, for long periods of time. It’s not hard to cast around and find examples of civilizations that existed harmoniously with their environments for hundreds of years, sometimes thousands. I don’t know if it will happen again—at the moment, it seems unlikely. But it has been done before. It’s tempting to hope lessons can still be learnt from the past.

TM: At one point Ren also says that she wishes she’d been “less cold” to other people. Beyond the influence of the environment, how much do our relationships build who we are, affect who we become?

RA: We’re just a sum of our experiences and relationships, really. And we don’t often get a say in how they affect or shape us. It’s out of our hands. I’m not a total believer in determinism, but I do think we are largely molded by forces outside of ourselves, rather than through internal machinations of the mind.

TM: Through some slick and smart perspective shifts in the novel, the notion of antagonist and protagonist is muddied. Do you see that typical dichotomy as outdated or flawed?

RA: Not necessarily—there are lots of books with typical antagonists and protagonists that I love. But I didn’t want to write a book like that. I’m interested in the messiness of people, the hesitations, the self-justifications, the swirl of kindness and selfishness. I wanted to create characters who embodied those things. I don’t think standard protagonists and antagonists need to be done away with, but I do think there’s room to write stories about people who are neither wonderful or evil, and whose singular actions don’t necessarily define who they are.

TM: Have virtual events been any sort of silver lining to releasing a book during a worldwide pandemic?

RA: I’ve met some incredible writers I wouldn’t have otherwise, and have been able to talk about my book to people who never would have been able to make a traditional bookshop or festival event. So that’s definitely been a surprising benefit. Everyone has adapted so quickly.

TM: From your first novel to this second one, what has changed in your approach, style, or intent as a writer?

RA: I still feel like I don’t know what I’m doing, but if my writing has changed, it’s probably because I can figure out what’s not working more quickly. I think my instincts have sharpened through experience. I’ve done away with a few styles I played with in my first book and focused more on what I believe are my strengths. Although my writing process is still a giant mess. It’s chaos. I don’t know any other way.

TM: Can you tell us about some remarkable Australian authors you think might be deserving of more international recognition?

RA: Oh hell yeah. I love the work of Ryan O’Neill, and can’t wait for his next book. Jane Rawson is phenomenal, too—From The Wreck is a work of tremendous skill and imagination. And I desperately hope the world doesn’t sleep on Laura Jean McKay and her remarkable novel The Animals In That Country. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years.

Too Beautifully Sinister Not to Indulge: The Millions Interviews Adam Wilson

-

Adam Wilson’s second novel, Sensation Machines, opens on Michael and Wendy, a couple desperate to eradicate their home of bedbugs, and from there the novel quickly swoops and swarms to include a murder, a corporate conspiracy, a world-changing invention, and the rampant disquiet of global economic pressures. It’s a novel based in relationships that sprawls to a worldly view.

Wilson’s debut, Flatscreen, showcased an intrepid youth fighting through a haze of drugs and dashed sexual hopes, and his story collection, What’s Important Is Feeling, followed a host of pseudo-adults through tough though often hilarious moments. Sensation Machines likewise deals out its fair share of sad people in sad existences, but it also uncovers how much our society informs our behavior, how inundated we are by technology, and how beset we are with problems of our own making.

Wilson’s work has appeared in The Paris Review, Tin House, and The Best American Short Stories. The brilliance of Sensation Machines is in the author’s smooth and utterly believable worldbuilding, even if the future represented here is one to fear rather than embrace, one to work against instead of one to apathetically claim.

The Millions: One of the first elements that struck me about Sensation Machines was the worldbuilding risks you took, blending contemporary life with an invented future. In the novel, people still ride around in cars, but baristas are robots and food is delivered by drones. How tough was it to ride that line, to invent a future setting while staying within a realm that is so (frighteningly) close to us?

Adam Wilson: It was a big challenge, and one that quickly became more challenging with Trump’s election in 2016. I started working on Sensation Machines in 2011, and my original idea was to write a novel set around the 2008 Wall Street crash. The problem was that the more research I did, the less interested I became in writing something grounded in such a specific historical moment. Reimagining the book in a near-future setting felt freeing; I liked being able to make stuff up. But of course, then the world started changing very rapidly, and it became increasingly more difficult to imagine what that near-future might look like. I ended up having to do a lot of re-writing to ensure that my dystopia was appropriately dystopic.

TM: In a similar way, you reference historical events like the #MeToo Movement and the Occupy Wall Street protests to further feed the worldbuilding. Was this an organic development, or was it a calculated move to house the novel’s roots in the very real problems of society?

AW: It was organic in the sense that I tend to be drawn toward the zeitgeist. Fiction, for me, is in part a venue for sorting out my feelings about what’s going on in the culture. And what I like about fiction is that it feels like a safe place to explore those feelings without needing to put forward any kind of concrete thesis or answer. As I said, I started working on this novel in 2011, in the midst of Occupy, and I think I started writing about it just to see if I could figure out what Occupy was and how I felt about it. The same goes for a lot of the material in the book. There are certainly musicians–including other rappers–who have meant much more to me than Eminem has, but I wanted to write about him because I’ve never quite known where I stand on him, or what an appropriate attitude toward his music might look like. It feels inherently fraught to proclaim oneself an Eminem fan, and that makes for the kind of friction that I’m interested in exploring.

TM: In exploring those subjects–Eminem and Occupy–did the novel help you to find where you stand on each of them, how you feel about them?

AW: Well, I think Occupy is a fundamentally good thing, though I’d still be hard pressed to define it. And I’m still ambivalent about Eminem, an artist whose imagination and skill I greatly admire, but whose art will always, on some level, disappoint me. But my hope is that the novel asks more questions than it answers. Which is not to say it doesn’t have a worldview–and one of deep and abiding skepticism at that–but that I’d like to think its spirit is more searching than didactic.

TM: And yet even with all the heavy context, Sensation Machines is laugh-out-loud funny in so many places. How do you navigate the injection of humor into what is a pretty downtrodden backdrop and often despondent characters?

AW: Humor tends to be my default mode, so the challenge for me isn’t in injecting humor–it’s usually the first thing that’s there–but in making sure the humor doesn’t come at the expense of a deeper emotional engagement, and that, in fact, it works in the service of the larger story I’m trying to tell. And it is a challenge—it’s very hard to get myself to cut a good joke! But sometimes it needs to be done. Luckily, outside readers can be very useful arbiters of which jokes don’t warrant inclusion. The book’s editor, Mark Doten, is a joke-cutter extraordinaire.

TM: In the first portion of the book, the perspective strictly toggles between Wendy and Michael, while in the second we get several new characters and their viewpoints. Where did this structure come from, and what was the intent behind holding off on the rest of the cast in the beginning?

AW:  Originally, the book was going to all be in first person a la The Savage Detectives, and in those early drafts the whole cast came out right from the beginning. But navigating between so many first-person voices was a challenge, and so much jumping around at the beginning was an impediment to narrative thrust.

When I started writing the book, I knew that I wanted to use a big canvas to tell an idea-driven story, but I also wanted the novel to feel intimate and human in a way that I’m often disappointed that big canvas novels aren’t. To pull this off, it felt like I needed the novel to somehow both include a big cast of characters and be primarily focused on just a couple of them. Its success is not for me to judge, but the structure I landed on was written with this goal in mind.

TM: The third section “Parentheses” references Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and her notion of a death that is parenthetical or “just announced in parentheses without commentary.” In this section, we see the beginning of Wendy and Michael’s relationship, which took place just after 9/11. How much does 9/11 influence the characters in Sensation Machines? How much does it influence your writing?

AW: I was wary of approaching 9/11, in large part because it’s been written about so much over the last couple decades, and written about so well by heroes of mine like Deborah Eisenberg and Don DeLillo. But the farther I got into the novel, the clearer it became that this event would have been formative for my protagonists, and that to avoid it was a cop-out. But I also knew that I needed to approach it from a fresh angle, and the thing I landed on was this question of what it would be like for 9/11 to occur between this couple’s first and second dates. One of the novel’s big subjects is the relationship between individuals and world-historical events, both in terms of how these events are shaped by the choices made by individual people, and also how these events shape individual lives. Having Wendy pursue a career in advertising because she’s in awe of the media’s manipulation of this national tragedy felt too beautifully sinister not to indulge.

TM: Although you’ve written Sensation Machines into a dystopia, in the final movement of the novel, Wendy’s sleazy colleague Greg says, “We’re living in something very close to a utopia. Food is in abundance. So is medical care. Cars run on sunlight. Meat grows on trees. If you cut off your finger you can print a new one at home and fly in Drone MD to inject you with anesthetic and sew it back on.” Would you want to live in this kind of a world? Do some of us already, in a way?

AW: We’re living in some version of it, yes. The book is meant to be hyperbolic, but not exponentially so.  And certainly technological advancement can be a really amazing thing–I’m not arguing otherwise. But I think what the novel asks readers to be wary of is the way certain changes in the culture–some of which are brought about by technology–are so quickly and skillfully packaged, sold, and integrated before we’ve really had a chance to think through their possible consequences.

TM: Although in terms of characterization and relationships this book bears a striking resemblance to your debut, Flatscreen, the worldbuilding and futurescape of Sensation Machines is new. Is this departure a one-off, or something you’ll chase down again?

AW: I keep trying to make every project as different from the previous one as possible, but I inevitably end up back on my bullshit, as the kids say. It seems hard to imagine writing something set in a near future right now when that near future feels so impossible to predict, and yet, I find myself tinkering with the idea anyway, probably because I’m a masochist.

TM: What are you working on now? What new projects do you have simmering?

AW: I haven’t had any time to write since the pandemic hit. My wife works full-time at a demanding tech job, so I’ve had to be a one-man daycare for our two-year-old son. But before that, I was just finding my footing in a new novel that I’m not quite ready to talk about yet, but that I hope to get back to sometime soon.

Bonus Link:
A Year in Reading: Adam Wilson