There Is a Freedom to Being Kept Outside: The Millions Interviews Kate Zambreno

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Kate Zambreno’s To Write as if Already Dead is, in part, a study of writer/photographer Hervé Guibert’s To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life. Guibert’s book, published in French in 1990, is a thinly veiled autobiographical narrative about AIDS, following the protagonist from his discovery that he has the illness through an increasingly severe decline. Michel Foucault features in the book as “Muzil,” a friend who is also suffering from AIDS; so does French actress Isabelle Adjani, as “Marine.” The book made Guibert a celebrity. Zambreno reads it in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and her own medical suffering.

But that’s just the seed of this complex, daring new book. She has written it, Zambreno says, for a contract: her family needs money, she is pregnant with another baby, and her temporary teaching positions lack necessary benefits. Yet the book, which Kirkus describes as a “meta-memoir,” escapes her original grasp. In doing so, it expands, delightfully, to take in a host of other concerns, including literary friendship—and betrayal—motherhood, the pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests, and the brutal shortcomings of our healthcare system.

This interview was conducted over email, shortly after Zambreno was awarded a 2021 Guggenheim in nonfiction. I was finishing up a brutal semester of teaching, and apologetically sent her my questions weeks late. She, doubtless also finishing up her semester, plus dealing with, well, winning the Guggenheim, nevertheless amazed me with a response sent less than 24 hours later, elaborating thoughtfully and carefully on each in my long list of questions.

The Millions: To begin, could you talk a little about the decision to write this book in the immediate present tense? I’m referring here to your literal tense, but also, of course, the inclusion of extremely recent events like Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter uprising. Everyone has heard the advice to wait before writing about an experience, and there was also a hasty wave of pandemic literature published early on, in which, as you observe in the book, “Every writer with a byline publishes a coronavirus diary, even if they are never sick, especially then.” Were you at all unsure about ending the book on a necessarily unresolved subject—a pandemic and political movement still being felt in profound ways around the country and world?

Kate Zambreno: The book is divided into a diptych—there is a story in the first part, “Disappearance,” that takes place in a more speculative time period (there are references to the museums being closed, and the daughter being out of school), and then the second half, “To Write as if Already Dead” is a first-person notebook with the catalyst or impetus of a bodily deadline in which to finally write this study on Hervé Guibert, which has the vertiginous thrust of the novel being circled around, To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life. Guibert’s novel, documenting his AIDS diagnosis as well as the death of his friend Muzil, based on his neighbor and intimate Michel Foucault, has as its frame the actual diagnosis but goes back in time to situate a chronology of his body and the portrait of various friendships and fallings out. Likewise, the second half of my study attempts to figure out how time works in Guibert’s book, and how narrative works in a sick body, and does so by adopting Guibert’s methods. As soon as I set about the project to write a date, as Guibert does, and attempt to move forward in a calendrical way, to write a diary at least as a frame, then it becomes a conceptual work about time, which Drifts was as well, in different modes. I couldn’t ignore the pandemic, and the twinning feeling of it, as I was writing of the AIDS crisis, I couldn’t ignore being in New York during the summer of protests, because that was the frame I had chosen for my book, to proceed forward in time.  Plus thinking of Guibert became a way for me to think through the often-paralyzing intensity of the current moment. I feel lucky that I had a project like this to work on—for a couple hours a day it was another way to feel active, alive.

TM:   Early in To Write as if Already Dead, you refer to your “fascination with how writers have historically made money, and when this desire is expressed nakedly, how it affects the form.” This book, you tell us, is written for a contract. I’d love to hear more about the decision to write about how you make money in this book, and the book itself as money-maker—in direct contrast to the romantic idea of the novel as something born deep within your soul, the book you were born to write, etc. How does it affect your form?

KZ: Well, I made $5,000 before an agent’s cut for this book for Columbia University Press, spread across the three years I was supposed to write it—this was not a money-maker, like basically all of my works, I always spend far more time on them (and then editing them, and then promoting them) than would amount to an actual salary, but also of course I need that extra money, which probably went to a few months of family health insurance, which I pay out of pocket for, as I am an adjunct at the two places I’ve been teaching for close to a decade, or almost two months’ rent in Brooklyn. I also write about needing to sell the novel that is Drifts throughout the span of the second half of the Guibert study, in order to continue living in NYC and supporting my newly growing family. I think that the publishing industry and its adjunct institutions, the university, the MFA program, want to hide the question of money, and make everything about the romance of the writer, to hide the fact that writers, in all of their various ways—you and me having this conversation!—are workers for the publishing industry, and being workers, are precarious and vulnerable and often unpaid. I started being interested in the question of money and writing as I became more interested in the question of labor and bodies. But all of this is fed by Hervé Guibert’s novel, in which he writes openly about needing to make money and selling various books. I do think the speed of his illness books is catalyzed by survival energy, and this energy and speed is something I meditate on and enact in this work.

TM: Relatedly, I was thinking while reading the book that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a writer publicly write about doing research on Google Books, although I can only assume every researcher with Internet access has done so at some point in their lives! Later, you write that you’re reading The Compassion Protocol on a PDF on your phone. There’s almost a sense of the camera zooming out to show the writing and reading process itself as it is taking place. Why was it important to include these moments of radical reveal, banal as they might be?

KZ: I don’t believe in purity, in terms of research methods, and am far more interested in the daily and embodied way that people actually read. Thinking of Moyra Davey cutting her Genet diaries in half and reading them on the train in Burn the Diaries (and reading on the train is also a very Guibert thing), or how Bhanu Kapil performs deleting her epigraphs in Ban en Banlieue. I feel I’ve read a lot of writing that’s not mine that does this—but perhaps this also bespeaks to the community of blog writers from a decade ago that the first half of To Write as if Already Dead elegizes. There was recently an essay by Aarthi Vadde and Melanie Micir about how Heroines restages an “amateur criticism”—they consider it alongside Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas—perhaps I am playfully not trying to be a real scholar. Rephrasing Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, there is a freedom to being kept outside as well. Also, it’s been impossible to get into a library.

TM: To Write as if Already Dead plays with a variety of anxieties and challenges around performing the labor of writing, teaching, and bearing/caring for children all at the same time, from (eminently relatable) anxieties about healthcare and mortality to interrogations of your own fragmentary form. Can you expand on this—the book as Portrait of the Artist as Woman, Mother, Precarious University Worker, and more?

KZ: Yes, I do think this work does this (at least as a portrait of a mother, an artist, and precarious university worker, I also think and hope it plays with gender in more slippery ways) as do the lectures that make up Appendix Project, which I delivered at universities across the country in the first year of my firstborn’s life, bringing her with me. As does Drifts. I think becoming a mother has widened my understanding of the intense vulnerability of precarity, and how it’s a condition of the modern world (quoting Anna Tsing here) of which I am an extremely privileged yet still precarious art and university worker. I’m not interested in erasing that in my work, because so much of my impulses towards writing is a protest or provocation against disappearance or erasure. It’s telling that the thrust of both Drifts and this Guibert study, coincidentally, deal with the labor of pregnancy and intense anxieties of how to pay for it while working and anticipating working without any maternity leave. I will say a lot has been made over how fragmented my work is. I guess I don’t see it! I am interested in form. The Guibert study is a diptych, half fiction, half notebook, and I’m interested in the form of the day, of a paragraph, is a paragraph or passage a day, continuing with Guibert. Or maybe—of course it’s fragmented! I wonder if I read anything that’s not fragmented. What makes, I would counter, a work not fragmented? Isn’t a chapter a fragment? Isn’t a paragraph?

TM: You’ve said, of a previous book, “One of the great heartbreaks of my life is that I love poetry and I identify as a poet, but I’m not a poet.” I love that, and I think it points to an often-overlooked relationship between what’s defined as poetry and some forms of nonfiction prose. I’m thinking of Chris Kraus, for example, whom you mention in the book and who has articulated a similar attitude toward poetry. I wonder if you could talk more about your relationship to poetry and poets in To Write as if Already Dead?

KZ: This was for a conversation I had with the lovely T. Cole Rachel in The Creative Independent, in the weeks after my first daughter was born (I had to look it up). I was being hyperbolic. I don’t think it’s one of the great heartbreaks of my life. I do think I considered Book of Mutter poetry, and wanted it to be considered as poetry, and how much that book got rejected was intensely despairing for me (as I also trace through the anhedonia of Drifts rejections in the current work—can I say I consider Drifts poetry as well? Can it be a poet’s novel if I’m not considered a poet?). There is no one else who would have published Book of Mutter as it was—literally nobody—except Chris Kraus and Hedi El-Kholti at Semiotext(e), who also commissioned Heroines and published Appendix Project. Their publishing project comes from such a place of brilliance and love. I don’t think Appendix Project has sold more than a couple hundred copies, if that. So I am a poet after all! I think TWAIAD traces through relationships with prose writers who are part of the poetics world that I met online, and a banishment I feel from a particular subset of that community. The heartbreak of community, of “The Poets.” But again, I’m being hyperbolic!

TM: Relatedly, how did you ultimately decide to name or not name the writers you engage with in the book, from the mysterious Alex Suzuki to “Bhanu” (the wonderful Bhanu Kapil, I assume) and “Sofia”?

KZ: The Guibert study is dedicated to the genius Bhanu Kapil, and our conversations on caretaking and survival energy form part of the thinking in the book. I’m also playing with referentiality across Drifts and To Write as if Already Dead, so that book continues the conversations with Sofia Samatar, also a genius, in Drifts. I think of both books as friendships, more than any other genre (I reference Thomas Bernhard’s Wittgenstein’s Nephew throughout, also subtitled “a friendship.”) Guibert also plays with names (and facts) across his books, that he sees as linked together—there are some fictionalized names that are consistent, and others that change, and other real-life people (like Mathieu Lindon) whose names are not changed. Alex Suzuki is in many ways a fiction, based on a real-life genius, who was also part fiction—the first half of the book explores the concept of pseudonyms and personas—and “Disappearance” contains a good deal of invention.

TM: I’m interested in the way you often write about the particular nexus of literary success (your shame at publishing books so quickly) and professional precarity (adjunct at an elite university). Do you worry about the repercussions of writing so honestly about the financial arrangements of the “life of the mind”? To what degree do you think the need to obtain a professional position through writing defines what people are publishing now and why?

KZ: I think my shame at publishing books so quickly has more to do with my relationship of writing to shame, which probably involves also the family, without which I would not be a writer. It seems that I am writing constantly, I should also say, but that’s not the truth. I do write in a notebook constantly. But I just wrote an introduction to a book and I feel it’s the first writing-writing, like in a Word doc, I’ve done since giving birth at the end of August, besides revising the Guibert study. I have written a few books in a quicker time frame—Appendix Project over a year, the majority of the shorts that make up Screen Tests over a summer—but everything else took at least a few years, and often much more. Columbia UP is publishing this book months after it was finished, which is lightning speed in the world of publishing. It does seem like I constantly have books out, and I have been writing fairly consistently in the past four years, often because I have been under deadline.

Anyway. Constantly having smaller books out is not actually the key to literary success, at least in terms of major publishing. I am supposed to write a big, coherent book, that can be translated into screen, and have it do well, and then repeat this again a few years later. I should appear on talk shows, and make bestseller lists, and excerpt in big places that want me, and promote the book for a solid year. Instead, I take on things like this Guibert project, like the lectures. I cheat on the projects I’m supposed to write with other projects. My books tend to get fairly ambivalent reviews. And still I keep on, because I do think my desire to write comes out of something insatiable, some internal need to write the kind of book that I will finally feel does what I want it to do…and publishing a book is perhaps a way that I can finish something. I think this is why I take on Guibert, because I’m interested in what appeared to be his hyperproductivity in terms of writing and publishing, and the why of it (what was the exact texture of his ambition?).

You ask about the repercussions of writing so honestly about the life of the mind (I am looking forward to reading Christine Smallwood’s novel of the same title.) I have wondered if there would be repercussions for writing so openly about not having maternity leave at the two places where I work, at least in Drifts, but I think that would involve them reading my work? There might be repercussions for writing about publishing in this new book. I think Philip Leventhal, my editor at Columbia UP, took it very well. I don’t know. It would probably help if my books sold better. Also I could just say it’s like the Ben Lerner baby octopus, or whatever. I did half-wonder if I would be burnt forever for joking about the genius grant in Drifts, like what if I did someday become a genius, would they hold it against me? But I just was awarded a Guggenheim, so maybe the publishing industry likes to feel they’re in on the joke? By the way, thank you Guggenheim committee, this was life saving, I now can pay for outrageously expensive family health insurance for the next two years.

TM: I wonder if you could expand on the relationship between writing, shame, and the family? I find this is so insightful, and certainly so relatable, but I don’t know why. Why is shame so deeply entwined with writing? Is it, at least for you, a productive tension, or a destructive one?

KZ: I almost feel if I could—fully—articulate the answer for myself then I would never have to write again. It is not lost on me that one of the reasons I feel deeply bonded to Hervé Guibert and, for that matter, Thomas Bernhard, whom Guibert is also channeling in To the Friend, and other members of the so-called Vienna Group, Elfriede Jelinek, etc., is because they are writing from and against a society rooted in the prurience and hypocrisy of Catholicism, also as it informed the repressive state and its policies, and as represented by the conservative petit bourgeois family. I recently wrote the introduction to the Portugeuse writer Maria Judite de Carvalho’s 1966 novel, Empty Wardrobes, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, that will be published by Two Lines Press. The novel is set amidst the Catholic family and a sort of deadened interiority marked by gender expectations, the expectation to be the good mother, wife, daughter, daughter-in-law, etc., all the more brutalized amidst the Salazar regime. I became a writer as a way to write out of silence and silencing—whenever I see extended family, I am reminded that nothing has ever been or is still expected of me, I literally cease to exist, except for my role as a mother and aunt and daughter. There is a real freedom, however, to write amidst such invisibility from the family. I believe I write so as to continue to exist, and also to perform disappearance, nonexistence. I write knowing I inevitably shame my family by doing so, by writing at all about an interior life.

TM: You talk about the strangeness of talking to readers about a book once it has been published, writing, “I feel like I shouldn’t be included in the conversation. I am no longer the person who wrote that book, who wrote any of the books, and am not sure I can speak for them.” I’ve heard this from other authors. Of course, you don’t need to have a solution in order to validate a problem, but I wondered if you have a sense of what a better reader-writer relationship would look like? Is there a different conversation you want to be having with readers?

KZ: I like the reader-writer relationship as it is, prickly, intimate, invasive, tender, ambivalent! I’m incredibly grateful that my work does connect. It’s what I deeply desire. Whenever Drifts got a dick review I always hoped there are readers out there who did respond to it, who did deeply connect, even if they don’t write about it publicly, and hopefully the books live far longer than their press cycles. Having Drifts, and this book, come out, it feels like more of a vacuum, because I can’t have conversations with readers in bookstores and at events, which I do love to do. I think the conversation is, hopefully also, in the process of reading the book.  But I also write writers I admire as well. That’s how I’ve formed community as a writer.

TM: I’m having some trouble articulating this question, but I want to ask about the role of fantasy in this book. For example, the ending. I don’t want to spoil anything for readers, but I wondered if it might point to some larger decisions you were making in this book. Was there a feeling that you needed to tell this story in a particular way, a way other than the way you ultimately ended up telling it? Was there a different kind of story you felt the reader might want to hear, about Guibert and about your own life?

KZ: I love the move that Nathalie Léger makes in her book on Barbara Loden, first, she didn’t talk about the book in interviews, so we have to only speculate what’s fact and what’s fiction, and it’s unclear what’s real and what’s fantasy—the whole trip to America that makes up the end of the book. You don’t know whether that actually happened. That’s all I will say!

TM: Speculation and the idea of the speculative also seems important. For Guibert, you write, “his survival was speculative fiction.” I hope it’s not overreading to suggest that this felt like a point of identification between Guibert and you as reader/writer. Guibert’s survival is speculative because he has AIDS in the 1980s, but also, it seemed, because survival is speculative for anyone who becomes a “medical subject.” Could you expand on this? What does that idea of speculative fiction mean to you in the context of this book, and, more broadly, of life as it is being lived right now under the pandemic?

KZ: I also read To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life as structured or framed as a dystopic novel, utilizing some of the tropes of plague fiction, and ultimately it has an open-ended feel to the fate of the “hero” (the narrator) in the conclusion, the speculative survival you refer to, because also, that’s what it was like living with that disease that was shrouded in both secrecy and mystery. There’s no equivalent comparison between me being a medical subject and/or pregnant during a pandemic and the circumstances of dying from AIDS, however, but I do think being a medical subject can be an experience of alienation, and often an experience with the unknown.  I don’t know if this answers your question directly, but life has become and continues to feel very weird, for years predating the pandemic and certainly now. Time is vertiginous, connections are mysterious and superstitious, bodies feel doubled and uncanny. The more my work feels speculative, crossing boundaries, the closer I am to achieving something that feels like lived truth.

Bonus Links:
A Year in Reading 2012: Kate Zambreno
A Year in Reading 2019: Kate Zambreno
The Millions Interview: Kate Zambreno

A Year in Reading: Jacqueline Krass

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This calendar year started, for me, at a small New Year’s
Eve party in Brooklyn with college friends. The most noteworthy thing that
happened was that a friend’s girlfriend blessed me with this zinger: “You
look,” she said, turning toward me suddenly in the living room, “like a sexy Anne
Frank.”

I’ve thought a lot about this comment in the last several
months of isolation – probably too much. Why not? At first, I thought it was a
poached joke. Not long before New Year’s, although technically not in 2020, I’d
watched Jenny Slate’s Netflix special, Stage Fright, in which she
talks about how she’d looked just like Anne Frank as a child – and how she was
“incredibly stuck up about it.” (Cue swish, kick.) But it wasn’t.

Several months later, I read Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, which, if you haven’t read it, is so good. I mean, I laughed, I cried, I thought about the world and … what it means to be human?! No spoilers, but there is an actual sexy Anne Frank in it, rendered as only Philip Roth could, i.e., the Philip Roth character, well, obviously he wants to fuck her. This might not sound immediately appealing to some. But I promise the book is puncturing, hilarious, tragic, also short.

I read a lot of poetry this year. Not at the start of the pandemic, but more recently, and with more enjoyment than I have in some time. Titles I particularly liked included: Leila Chatti’s Deluge, Traci Brimhall’s Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod, Lauren Russell’s Descent, Oliver Baez Bendorf’s Advantages of Being Evergreen, Irena Klepfisz’s A Few Words in the Mother Tongue, Carl Phillip’s Quiver of Arrows: Selected Poems, Tori Dent’s HIV, Mon Amour, Anna Margolin’s Drunk from the Bitter Truth (translated from the Yiddish by Shirley Kumove), Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieu, from Nightboat Books, actually just everything from Nightboat, their whole catalog is wonderful. Also Chase Twitchell’s Perdido, recommended by a poetry professor and so, startlingly good. I reread Natalie Eilbert’s Indictus, which I reviewed for Adroit Journal over a year ago and still think is a perfect book.

I watched a whole bunch of Zoom readings (shoutout to the Wisconsin Book Festival!), and read this conversation on Jewish Currents that made me nod my head saying yes yes yes. That magazine is so good! I read excerpts from Saidiya Hartman’s newest book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments in several different classes (thank you to graduate school), and also her excellent 2007 book Lose Your Mother. Read a Yiddish textbook. Now I can say a dank far di sheyne bikher. Also Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift, with my cousins, mother, and aunt, for a Zoom book club – agreed it was very long and had a lot of characters, but worth the effort – and Fanny Howe’s new book, Night Philosophy. Oh! And Cathy Park Hong’s mixed-genre Minor Feelings was the best new work of prose I read this year; I planned to write about it, back in early spring, but then (everything) happened.

There’s always so much more, but I’ll leave it there.

More from A Year in Reading 2020

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Gravity and Grace and the Virus

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In “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Walter Benjamin famously writes of history as one long catastrophe, an atmosphere we continue to breathe in. “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule…The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical.” In the most often-cited thesis, Benjamin offers an image of catastrophe as physical and devastating, a continuous process of ruin blowing against a body. “This is how one pictures the angel of history… Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.” Our happiness, Benjamin muses, “exists only in the air we have breathed, among people we could have talked to.” The idea, needless to say, has gained new relevance in the age of aerosols and droplets, of mass death and the fears of proximity. The air we breathe in has never seemed so central to our health and happiness. Benjamin and his wife survived the 1918 influenza epidemic, though I don’t know how much was known about transmission in that time.

In the early months of the pandemic, I didn’t know yet to be worried about aerosols. Like the rest of the country, I was still in a deep antagonism with surfaces, wondering whether I could infect myself with coronavirus if I touched a doorknob and then my pillow. But it was clear that something was crumbling, that it would not be solved easily, and (so?) I found myself deep in the work of Jewish philosophers writing during the Holocaust.

It seemed perverse to want to read about historical devastation when there was so much right around me. Why pick now to develop an obsession with the Holocaust? Yet it was strangely comforting to read things that had been written in a time of crisis—our inherited crisis, it always seemed growing up, despite the fact that my own family’s link was indirect and generations removed—and yet one that was not this crisis, this unbearable time. Written under the sign of catastrophe, the works, which included Gershom Scholem’s wonderful biography Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship; Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History”; and Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace—all of which carried with them a newly familiar awareness of devastation and breakdown. It was the same old devastation I’d known as a Jewish child growing up in prosperous America, the endless and yet definitely historical loss that unfolded and unfolded, but now newly strange, because it was familiar. As I read about Benjamin’s despair at the increasingly inflated German mark, my best friend texted me from Brooklyn, our hometown, to ask for flour.

I didn’t read survivors. For some time I’d found it difficult to think or talk about the Holocaust head-on at all. I was struck by an essay-review in Jewish Currents in which Helen Betya Rubinstein writes, of Sheila Heti’s most recent novel, that “Motherhood is a book written around, or about, the Shoah.” Although the novel seemed to conflate a family curse with the Holocaust, Rubinstein noted, it also refused or was unable to make this connection in explicit terms. Could it be that it was no longer possible to write about the Holocaust in this explicit way? Was it necessary to write about it only subterraneously, lightly, glancingly—as though catching something off guard? And is this always true of devastation? (The articles have already been written about the strange absence of the 1918 flu in literature of the time and after.) Rubinstein fears “that the body of literature about the Shoah has too much saturated the culture, and is too full of errors and missteps, to withstand another, divergent attempt;…that it’s impossible to refer to that history without carrying the weight of all the ways the story’s already been told, including the ways it’s been misrepresented, manipulated, and abused.”

I felt these things too. What I hated in Holocaust literature and film was the American heroism so often implicit in them, the way you needed all those bodies to make an audience feel something. I thought it might help to read philosophy and biography, not memoir or fiction, and so to look sideways without looking away. Benjamin, Scholem, and Weil took their own unusual routes, straight through crisis.

Weil, a secular French Jew who longed to convert to Catholicism, died in a sanatorium, starving herself because, she said, she did not want to eat more than the rations available to the people of France. She was an extreme person whose extremity has engendered imitation and inspiration in the work of Fanny Howe and Chris Kraus, among others, and whose life has often been of greater interest to readers than her difficult work. She didn’t have any recorded romantic or sexual relationships, or children. She held people to sometimes impossibly high standards; she did not like Simone de Bouvoir, one of her few fellow female classmates at the elite university Ecole Normale Supérieure, and pronounced her bourgeois. (In this way of course I also find her charming.) She worked in factories, and taught the children of working people, who often found her bizarre and unrelatable (she was herself bourgeois, in a purely descriptive sense, and they were usually Christians) but lovable. In 1942, she’d gone away to New York, where she was safe, but then came back.

In March, I looked through her signature work, Gravity and Grace, for a useful quote, but it was all about detachment, which seemed impossible if not implausible. I was reading everything out of context. Or more in context than I ever had before? Art, Weil wrote, offers the only consolation we should seek or wish to give: “These [works of art] help us through the mere fact that they exist.” About love: “To love purely is to consent to distance, it is to adore the distance between ourselves and that which we love.” This had never felt truer, as I scanned flight schedules for a plane I wouldn’t take to be with my parents in New York, in the epicenter, an apartment with no room for self-isolation.

“Not to exercise all the power at one’s disposal is to endure the void,” Weil wrote. “This is contrary to all the laws of nature. Grace alone can do it.” At the time, I took this an explanation of what it felt like to obey lockdown instead of exercising whatever power I might have to protect myself and the people around me—that is, to rush to Brooklyn. But Weil herself was always keen to go to where the action was. She went to Spain to fight in the Spanish Civil War, although, once there, she quickly burned her feet outside of active duty and had to be rescued by her parents.

Next I moved to Benjamin, who killed himself while fleeing from France into Spain. Another strange wartime death. He and his group of fellow Jewish refugees had been turned away at the border and would be sent back to Vichy France and the camps shortly. Like Weil, Benjamin has been memorialized as physically awkward and ungainly, almost slapstick in his tragedy; a female acquaintance, according to Scholem, once said of him that he was “so to speak, incorporeal.” His was a tragic death, it has been said, because the officials did not, in the end, send his group back. They suggest that he could have lived, or else that his death was what convinced the Spanish authorities of the seriousness of his group’s crisis, that the storm cloud hovering over their heads was real. A member of the group wrote, in a letter to Theodor Adorno, that she had paid Spanish officials in the area for five years for a gravestone for Benjamin, but when Hannah Arendt went to the site only months later, she found no such marking. Later, when visitors began to come to see the grave, a marking materialized. Gershom Scholem writes thoughtfully and compassionately of his dear friend, who always disappointed him with his ardent promises to turn his attention—soon!—more fully to Judaism and the study of Hebrew. “During that year I thought that Benjamin’s turn to an intensive occupation with Judaism was close at hand,” Scholem writes of 1921. It was not.

What did these works offer me? Something about the authors’ ability to live and work in crisis, a personal crisis in some ways, unevenly distributed as all crises are, although in many other ways a global one. Something about their continued commitment to their work, their continued ability to produce great thought—not that I was capable of deep thought in March or expected to be anytime soon. Something about being myself, as I imagine most of us are, the product of crisis and catastrophe, the child (some generations removed) of those who did not die, people who escaped. Or was this self-aggrandizement, a case of American triumphalism? There were Nazis in the streets and I wanted to know why this was so important to me, what it meant to think about disaster. I wanted to know what history is for, especially but not only Jewish history. Could I use it, and if so, how?

“We experience good only by doing it,” Simone Weil wrote, in a completely different world, in a completely different context, that is also and always our world and our context.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Books Are a Place to Put Your Feelings: The Millions Interviews Jami Attenberg

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Jami Attenberg, author of seven novels and recent New Orleans transplant, is a very considerate interviewee. I know everyone starts these little intros with gushing remarks; it just seems polite. But I was her third interview of the day. She asked which publication I was with, again? She told me she’d planned it out so that she would give slightly different answers to each interviewer, so it wouldn’t be just the same stuff on each platform—even though, she added, her publisher reminded her that “there’s nobody who reads all of them. Maybe your mom.” She said she’d once made a spreadsheet, after the breakout success of her novel The Middlesteins, in 2013, to track what she told each interviewer, and then her publisher told her this was insane and there were better things to do with her time. As a fellow listmaker, I was impressed and intrigued.

We conducted this interview over the phone, me in my windowless office in Madison, Wisc., Jami in her house in New Orleans. Halfway through, there was a strange noise and she told me that her dog was humping her leg. Then he started eating dirt. We continued the interview anyway, discussing grief, families, Jewish books, and the post-production side of writing and publishing a novel. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

The Millions: Where does your latest novel, All This Could Be Yours, fit in the line of your previous work? Is it a departure, or a continuation?

Jami Attenberg: It feels different because it’s set in New Orleans. I was writing about a place I didn’t know very well, and through writing this, I got to know it better. My last two books, Saint Mazie and All Grown Up, were in New York, and then The Middlesteins was in Chicago. Even with Saint Mazie, which was set in the past, I didn’t feel insecure or nervous about capturing the city, because I had lived there for so long. So here was my new home, and it was just a real challenge to get to write about something different like that. Also, all my books have dysfunctional families, or families in them, but to have that be the primary focus of the book was something I hadn’t done that in a while. You know, I wrote The Middlesteins in 2010.

TM: What kind of research did you do for the novel?

JA: I went to a lot of places. I wanted to know the landscape, not just of New Orleans but of Louisiana. I think it’s really easy now for people to just look up a bunch of stuff online, but when you really put yourself in a situation, I think, something’s always going to come out of it. I drove to a pecan farm in Alabama, and I was talking to somebody who worked there and I was like, can I walk around the farm? And she said no, it just rained last night, so there’s snakes everywhere. Which I never would have known in a million years, that that’s what happens after it rains on that farm. So it became, like, I’m definitely putting snakes in there! At this point, this is my seventh book, so I’m really in tune with how much I need to do my work, what I need to do in order to write things.

TM: You mentioned you hadn’t written a family novel in several years. All This Could Be Yours shares a lot of superficial similarities with The Middlesteins, but in many ways they’re also very different books.

JA: I think they’re very different books. A lot more happens in All This Could Be Yours, there’s just a much bigger plot. The Middlesteins is a novel, but it feels more like linked stories. Right? Each chapter is kind of its own compact thing. You could have pulled out any of those chapters, and read them and had a complete experience, whereas I think with All This Could Be Yours—some of the chapters could be excerpted, but they work best together.

TM: Something I really liked about the novel is the way the narrative floats in and out of the consciousnesses of different people. You have this claustrophobic family, and then these detours, these offshoots into other characters’ heads. So I was wondering how you came to that, if that was always part of the novel for you.

JA: The intention originally was that it would just be the four main characters. Whatever I intend to do when I start a book, though, I don’t want to say that it falls apart, but it definitely bends to whatever my instincts are. It’s good to have somewhat of a strategy going in, but also, especially with a first draft, I just kind of let my freak flag fly. Whatever’s going to show up is going to show up, and I’m just going to let it go. So these characters just, fairly insistently, demanded to be heard, and I just let them! But they weren’t as strong as they could have been initially.

I have an initial round of readers, and then I was getting notes from another, second tier of readers, and Laura van den Berg was part of that. She’s an incredible reader. She’s an incredible writer too, but she’s really good at giving notes. Very thoughtful. She said, I really think you need to lean in a little bit more to this kaleidoscopic vision. So I had them in there but I hadn’t fully—I knew they were there, but, sometimes you just need a nudge. So I went back and did another round where all these characters got tightened up a little bit.

It’s fun, right? Very fun and very playful, there’s a lot of little, for lack of a better word, tricks that I use in the novel. Times that I’m talking to the reader directly, or where these little characters show up. I’m definitely very playful and experimental with my structure—always. Every book needs to feel different. Even if the subject matter is dark, I still want it to be an entertaining ride.

TM: There’s a lot about criminality and bad men in this novel. Victor Tuchman, the patriarch, whose hospitalization provides an organizing structure to the novel, is so alluring to all the people around him. At one point, a friend of his wife, Barbra, says, “Isn’t there something so sexy about being married to a criminal?” Obviously, there’s a lot about Bad Men and Ugly Men going on right now. What is compelling about this kind of criminality, to you as a writer and to the characters in the novel?

JA: I mean, I personally am not interested in it. I’m not attracted to those kinds of people. What I was interested in was why Barbra was with Victor. This book was about understanding what men like that leave behind, and how it impacts families and communities. There’s a reason why you only see Victor for two seconds, you know. Because I could really give two shits about men like that. I’m done. I’ve heard them enough. I’ve heard enough talking from them. So I was interested in why—how he impacted people, and why people put up with him.

TM: The Tuchmans, like the Middlesteins, are Jewish. The older Tuchmans, especially, socialize and grow up in a space of Jewish community. Is it important to think about this book as a Jewish book?

JA: I think it is. But I definitely did not sit down and say, gonna write a Jewish book. It’s just who the characters were, how they showed up. Writing The Middlesteins, the fact that it was really embraced as a Jewish book was quite surprising to me. I was writing about a specific community, but I thought that they were, and I believe they are, a very universal family, and I feel the same way about these characters. It’s part of who they are, but in a way they could be lots of things.

But I’m waiting to hear the Jewish response to this book. I have one really big Jewish event I’m doing at the very end of my tour, at my mom and dad’s new temple in Florida. [Laughs.] There are enough characters in this book that aren’t Jewish, though, that it does feel like a bigger tableau. Whereas The Middlesteins was very claustrophobically—as it turns out—more Jewish than I thought it was.

TM: Did it feel different to do events for The Middlesteins in a Jewish space?

JA: Yeah. It’s weird because I’m not a practicing Jew, so I had not spent time in any sort of religious buildings. Anyway, I came out of doing all these events in a really interesting place, which was that I sort of embraced my Jewish cultural connections more within myself. I’ve lived in New York for so long, which is, like, the most Jewish place ever, so I didn’t really think about it too much. But then to go and talk to all these people about their families—often, that book triggered conversations about people’s struggles with health issues, or people in their lives who have had those struggles, so it ended up being an incredibly enriching experience for me – and an honor to talk to these people. So I have learned to just take whatever comes my way. Books are a place to put your feelings. I’m just happy when people give a shit! Really. Truly. And get something out of it.

TM: You said earlier that you’ve figured out, by now, pretty much what you need to start writing and get your work done. Does that extend to the publicity side of things?

JA: [Laughs.] I don’t really like it. I don’t think it’s healthy for a writer. I think most writers would agree with me that the hardest part of writing, or being a professional writer, is the actual publication. My first book came out in 2006, and I still remember what it was like when you weren’t counting on the Internet, and you weren’t counting on lists. You were waiting for reviews. And I’m still waiting on reviews, but now it’s like, if I’m not on this list or that list, you know, that’s what so many magazines and newspapers and websites are doing now. And I’m not knocking the list! Please! Put me on every single list! It’s just weird to see it. I’m just going to imagine that it’s really hard for people to break out these days, you know, it’s a real struggle to figure out how you promote your book, and how you get recognized. I have so much sympathy for all my fellow writers, and I try really hard to read as much as I can so I can talk about people’s books and promote things – and I don’t do it unless I really like something.

TM: Since you mention it, then, is there anything you’re excited about right now? What are you reading?

JA: I just started reading Kate Manne’s Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, and I’m very intrigued by it. Let’s see. I just read Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson and it was excellent, I really enjoyed it. A proper book. And I read Morgan Parker’s YA novel, Who Put This Song On?, I enjoyed that, and also Mary H.K. Choi’s Permanent Record, I always enjoy YA. I read and blurbed Jenny Boylan’s Good Boy, I liked that, I thought it was very heartfelt.

But the true pleasure is about to come, in about a month or so, after most of the reviews are in—so I can stop worrying about that—and people will just be reading the book. Once you get to that it’s quite delightful. You’re hearing from people who really liked the book, who are getting in touch with you. The joy is about being read.

Back to your earlier question, the other thing I’ve noticed is that there’s an evolution in your relationship with your work. You have a relationship with the book when you write it, where it’s just yours. Then you get another relationship when you give it to your editor and you start working back and forth and getting copyedits and things like that. It becomes something slightly different and not 100 percent yours anymore, even though you’re doing most of the work on it. And then it gets read and it gets digested and people have questions and people may interpret it—not incorrectly, but maybe not as you would have desired, and that can be complicated. And then, about a year later, I have found that the book comes back to me, and it’s mine again. It’s been altered by all of these opinions, and these experiences, but I can sort of reclaim it for myself. So I look forward to that also, a year from now, when it’s just mine.

Hallie Rubenhold Wins 2019 Baillie Gifford Prize

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The 2019 Baillie Gifford Prize (previously the Samuel Johnson Prize), which celebrates the best in nonfiction, was awarded to The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold.

Selected from a shortlist of six titles, The Five tells the story of Polly, Annie, Elisabeth, Catherine, and Mary Jane, five women who were murdered, in separate instances, in 1888. Their murderer, the man who would be known as Jack the Ripper, became famous; the women themselves faded into obscurity. Rubenhold uses archival material to refocus the story, centering both the women who lost their lives and the larger context of poverty, misogyny, and homelessness in which they lived.

The judges noted The Five’s combination of passion and historical accuracy, as well as its inventive and timely exploration of a well-documented subject. Said judge Frances Wilson, “It’s so urgent and it’s so eloquent and it’s so angry and beautifully put together.” Fellow judge Dr Xand van Tulleken described the book as “absolutely captivating and gripping,” and urged readers to see “how relevant it is to life in the U.K. at the moment.”

National Book Awards Names 2019 Finalists

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The National Book Foundation announced the National Book Award finalists today. Each category—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, young people’s literature, and translated literature—has been narrowed down from the longlist 10 to the shortlist five. While many of the finalists have made the NBA shortlist before, none of them have won of a National Book Award in these categories.

Here’s a list of the finalists in all five categories, with bonus links where available:

Fiction:

Trust Exercise by Susan Choi (Read our 2019 interview with Choi)
Sabrina & Corinas by Kali Fajardo-Anstine (Featured in our Great First-Half 2019 Book Preview)
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James (Read a profile of James)
The Other Americans by Laila Lalami (Read Lalami’s 2018 Year in Reading entry)
Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips (Featured in our Great First-Half 2019 Book Preview)

Nonfiction:

The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom (Featured in our Great Second-Half 2019 Book Preview)
Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom (Featured in our Great First-Half 2019 Book Preview)
What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance by Carolyn Forché
The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present by David Treuer
Solitary by Albert Woodfox with Leslie George


Poetry:

The Tradition by Jericho Brown (Read an excerpt from Brown’s collection)
“I”: New and Selected Poems by Toi Derricotte (Read our 2019 interview with Derricotte)
Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky (Featured in March’s Must-Read Poetry roundup)
Be Recorder by Carmen Giménez Smith (Read an excerpt from Smith’s collection)
Sight Lines by Arthur Sze

Translated Literature

Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa, translated by Leri Price
Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming by László Krasznahorkai, translated by Ottilie Mulzet (Read our review)
The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated by Jordan Stump
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder (Featured in our Great Second-Half 2019 Book Preview)
Crossing by Pajtim Statovci, translated by David Hackston

Young People’s Literature:

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi (Featured in our Great Second-Half 2019 Book Preview)
Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks by Jason Reynolds
Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay
Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby
1919: The Year That Changed America by Martin W. Sandler

The awards will be revealed in New York City on November 20.

National Book Foundation Names 5 Under 35 Authors for 2019

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The National Book Foundation named its 5 Under 35 honorees for 2019. The program recognizes five debut fiction writers under the age of 35 whose work “promises to leave a lasting impression on the literary landscape.” Each 5 Under 35 author is selected by a previous National Book Award-winner or 5 Under 35 author.

Here’s a list of the honorees, with bonus links where available:

So Many Olympic Exertions by Anelise Chen (Read our interview with Chen.)

The Parisian by Isabella Hammad

Such Good Work by Johannes Lichtman (A writer for the site back in the day)

Lot by Bryan Washington (Read our interview with Washington; Here’s his Year in Reading post)

Happy Like This by Ashley Wurzbacher

The Art of the Adaptation

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You might have seen the new Little Women trailer by now. In a series of quick cuts, the eminently familiar faces of Emma Watson and Saoirse Ronan, as well as the faces of Florence Pugh and Eliza Scanlen, flash on the screen: 2019’s wholesome and soft-feminist embodiment of those four famous girls some of us know so well from childhood. Unobjectionable, right? A new book called March Sisters also comes out this year, containing the musings of four well-known writers on their relationships to the book’s protagonists. But what about the latest adaptation of Emily Dickinson’s life, in which Hailee Steinfeld plays a punk-rock, badass Dickinson who writes about “wild nights”—and isn’t talking about religious ecstasy? For The Guardian, Adrian Horton asks how modernized should literary adaptations be? What liberties is it okay to take?

Our True-Crime Obsession

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Rachel Monroe always wanted to be a person who’d written a book, but it took years to become someone who wanted to write a particular book. Her work as a reporter eventually led her to write Savage Appetites, which follows four women who become obsessed with violent crime, either as an investigator, defender, victim, or (would-be) killer. In a conversation with Jonny Auping for Longreads, Monroe discusses this fixation as a cultural phenomenon, saying that she was writing against “that feeling of numbness or checking out or zoning out that sometimes came over me…these stories sort of short circuit the parts of us that know better and have a sense of who is really at risk when you look at the statistical realities of crime versus these stories that make us all feel like at any moment someone is going to come through the door with a knife.”