Machines Made of Words and Making Trouble: The Millions Interviews Lacy M. Johnson


In her “ferociously beautiful and courageous” 2014 memoir The Other Side, Lacy M. Johnson recounted how she was kidnapped, held hostage, raped, and nearly killed by—as she describes him—a man she once loved: a man who also got away, avoiding prosecution, and is now raising a family in Venezuela.

In the title essay of her new collection, The Reckonings, Johnson writes that when giving readings from that memoir, she was frequently asked, “What do you want to have happen to him, to the man who did this to you?” Her audience assumes that she wants him dead; some even offer to kill him for her because, as Johnson writes, “they want suffering for him. They want blood, guts, gore. Now that would be justice, they think.” But this brand of justice is not what she wants at all. What Johnson wants is “a long line of reckonings … the truth told back to us … the lies laid bare.” And in this collection, Johnson goes on to do just that, exposing our broken power structures; elucidating misogyny’s repercussions in “Girlhood in a Semibarbarous Age,” examining her own privilege in “Against Whiteness,” and calling out the environmental destruction of which we are ignorantly and knowingly a part in “What We Pay” and “The Fallout.” But to suggest that each of these essays tackles a single topic is misleading, because The Reckonings is a collection that converses with itself and the reader, asking us to question our beliefs and our roles in a system that perpetuates violence.

Lacy answered my questions about her process, political art, the curation of the Houston Flood Museum, and her advice to fellow assault survivors.

The Millions: The epigraph to these essays is a quote from Djuna Barnes’s novel Nightwood: “The Unendurable is the beginning of the curve of joy.” How and when, in the aftermath of trauma, did you find yourself no longer wanting—if you ever did—a vengeful justice? And when did you sense your capability to curve toward joy?

Lacy M. Johnson: I don’t remember any point in the past when I wanted to take revenge on the man who kidnapped and raped me. Maybe there were times when I thought I might have to kill him, but that came from a fear he might show up and try to kill me first, not out of some thirst for revenge. I do remember, in the first several months after the kidnapping, being really upset that two people I was close to at that time had hired a bounty hunter to try to kidnap him from Venezuela and bring him back to the United States—or maybe the point was for that person to kill him all along. That wasn’t what I wanted. It still isn’t. Even now with all we know about the political and social upheaval in the country where he is living, it doesn’t make me feel happy or satisfied to imagine that he is in peril, that he is trapped in a situation from which he can’t escape. Justice, for me, is not a zero sum game. I don’t need to make him lose in order for me to win. I don’t need him to suffer in order for my joy to become a possibility again. That has come somewhat recently—from almost two decades of heart work I’ve done on my own.

TM: In an interview with Publishers Weekly you said that when you sat down to write The Other Side, you did so with the intent of changing how you felt about the past. What was your intent in assembling this collection?

LMJ: You’re right, I did write The Other Side to change how I feel about the past. Specifically, I wanted to change my relationship to the particular memory of being kidnapped and raped by a man I had loved. I had spent 13 years of my life feeling trapped inside that story, and writing The Other Side made me realize that all I needed to do to escape it was to believe that it was over and write an ending to it. It seems so simplistic to say it out loud, but it really did work. I wrote The Reckonings to change how I understand the present; in particular I wanted to know why it is that we continue to define justice according to 5,000-year-old laws. What is it about vengeance and retribution that allows them to continue to masquerade as justice? And what is it about our present moment that is relevant to ancient law? These were the questions I considered as I began this book. Perhaps next I’ll write a book to change how I feel about the future.

TM: Regarding our present moment: Given the momentum of the #MeToo movement and in the wake of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, with so many survivors of sexual assault feeling called to speak their truth, I wondered, as someone who found solace in articulating her story, if you have any advice for those speaking up or for those who don’t feel compelled or safe enough to speak.

LMJ: I write in The Reckonings about how I tend to dislike the term recovery, which implies a return to the way things were before, or a redemption, or a retrieval of everything someone has lost. Through the process of writing about what happened to me all those years ago—and, more recently, through the process of writing myself into a new understanding of what justice might mean—one thing has become clear to me: There’s no going back for me, and no re-becoming the person I once was. I will never again be a woman who has not been kidnapped and raped by a man I once loved. That woman is gone. Finding language for the story I had kept silent for so long has helped me to grieve that loss, maybe, because it not only forced me to fully acknowledge the ways that recovery is not possible, but to understand that discovery is possible. Telling our stories, difficult as they are to articulate, helps to move our focus from the impossible task of returning to the past toward all the possibilities we can encounter in the future.

TM: In “Art in the Age of Apocalypses,” you write about your students at Rice University returning to class after the 2016 presidential election, how the last thing in the world they wanted to do was workshop. How have your students responded since? Do you have to get beneath a new cynicism or do they feel a call to activism?

LMJ: I currently teach at an elite private university and, to my great dismay, most of my students appear to feel no particular call to activism. They are called to take challenging courses and to conduct ambitious research, and they also feel called to professions where they can make a lot of money. I don’t think it’s apathy they suffer from—not exactly—but rather that they’ve been trained all their lives to believe that one wrong choice will ruin all they hope to achieve. There’s a lot riding on their success, they tell me, and they’re under a lot of pressure from their families and communities back home. They don’t want to stick their necks out. They’re reluctant to speak out of turn or step out of line. I consider it at least part of my job to help them also feel the pressure of social responsibility that their immense privilege would make it very easy for them to dodge or ignore, and I can show them from the example of my own life that you can actually get into plenty of trouble—and, more importantly, you can make trouble—and do just fine.

TM: So many the systemic injustices you touch on are rooted in a fear of “the other” and our subsequent need for control. If you would, tell us why you prefer “the stranger?”

LMJ: I don’t like “the other” as a term because I think it confers on the dominant culture a primary status. It places all the burden of difference on the person who embodies it and fails to challenge that primacy of homogeneity in any kind of productive way. I prefer Georg Simmel’s theory of “the stranger” because I think it flips the critical gaze back to the dynamics at work in a group the stranger seeks to join. “The stranger,” as a theory, helps us to see how the group is created and maintained by its failure to incorporate people who arrive from outside the group and remain; in fact, the group will pretend the stranger’s “strangeness” is the only kind of difference that matters, and this creates cohesion in a group by allowing all the differences within the group to seem to fall away. The theory allows people in any group to challenge these assumptions by making ourselves unfamiliar with what we believe we know, and to insist on our own strangeness by becoming strangers again in all the places we are assumed to belong.

TM: You were trained in poetry and that background feels evident in the structuring of your nonfiction. In your first book, Trespasses, as well as The Other Side, you utilize vignettes and play with chronological time until the whole has an orchestral resonance. The Reckonings is equally resonant, yet it is a different kind of book in that each essay stands on its own—still, you’ve managed to make them speak with one another. Tell me about your process in assembling this collection and how it differed from your previous work.

LMJ: Everything I know about making essays I learned first from making poems, and really I don’t think poems and essays are such different things. ”A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words,” says William Carlos Williams. Essays are also machines made of words. Machines work for us, and on us. A poem has turns, like essays. Some poems rhyme and essays also do this, except we call it a “recurring motif.“ (My essays often rhyme-rhyme because I like the bell it rings in my brain.) What is the logic of a poem? Often association, same as in essays. What is the form of a poem? Anything, same as essays. A poem can be a list, a lesson, a meditation, a takedown, an ode, a critique. Essays can also be these things. When I called these things I write “poems” they functioned like tiny tesseracted versions of the things I now call “essays,” and my “essays” are more roomy and sprawling versions of what I used to call “poems.” But in truth, I’ve only ever written one kind of thing, and that thing tries to make the world more visible (to myself and others), because only when we can see a thing can it be changed.

TM: In “Art in the Age of Apocalypse” you write about the politically motivated art that has informed your trajectory as an artist. Many of the works mentioned are performance or installation based. In what ways have these works helped you to find your voice?

LMJ: I don’t know that these works helped me to find my voice so much as they have clarified my thinking. One of my areas of specialization is in interdisciplinary art, specifically in art that is socially engaged. People might have heard of an art form called “social sculpture,” a term that comes to us from Joseph Beuys, who coined it in the 1970s to suggest the idea that anything can be approached creatively, and that the artist’s life can be the form of her art. Social sculpture has evolved in all kinds of ways in the 21st century, most of which don’t interest me at all, but I feel very compelled by the particular branch of social sculpture that combines these ideas of art-as-anything with social justice. There are specific artists whose practice involves organizing their communities around an issue and working to solve it in ways that create a more just and sustainable future. I’m thinking in particular of Rick Lowe here in Houston working on Project Row Houses; Theaster Gates working in the south side of Chicago on the Dorcester Projects, and the work Mark Bradford does in Los Angeles with Art + Practice. Encountering the work of these artists has inspired me more than any particular writer has, and has completely changed the way I think about my role in this world as an artist, and the ways that I can carry the work I do on the page into my own community. 

TM: In “The Flood,” you describe how your family and the surrounding community weathered Hurricane Harvey, how it brought people together. You’ve since curated the Houston Flood Museum. Tell us about the motivation behind this project.

LMJ: During the storm, while my husband was rescuing neighbors out of their flooded homes, I was stuck at home with our kids and could think of nothing useful to do, so I started writing about what I was seeing, about rescue efforts and the experience of being stranded in our home—which did not flood in the end, but the water at its highest came about 15 horizontal feet from the house. I tried to write every day, and posted the essays on Facebook, where they were shared sometimes thousands of times. Those posts were a way of letting the outside world know what was happening here on the ground, and I used that platform to help connect people who wanted to help with those who needed it.

After the storm, when the flood waters had receded and the recovery had, for many, only barely begun (if at all), I was approached by the Houston Endowment (which is a local foundation committed to improving quality of life in Houston) to ask whether I might be interested in doing a Harvey story-collecting project—the aim of which would have been to preserve narratives of the storm that hadn’t really been heard and to lift up communities who had been inundated by this catastrophe. I told them I’d think about it for a minute—because I was trying to finish The Reckonings at that time—but ultimately it seemed too important to pass up. The idea I brought back to them was the Houston Flood Museum, which is a project of communal remembering about the catastrophic flooding that increasingly affects our region. The museum brings together stories of disaster in an effort to weave that traumatic event into the fabric of who we believe ourselves, as a community to be, and from that new understanding to try to imagine ways to move together into the future. 

TM: In “Speak Truth to Power,” you write that we have fostered “a culture of men who hate women because they have learned to hate the feminine in themselves.” As a fellow parent, of a daughter and a son, I wondered about the smaller, daily ways that you have found to subvert this narrative. What can we all be doing?

LMJ: The narrative of violent revenge is powerful and ubiquitous, and it arrives in the lives of my children through the various media they consume—movies, television, comic books, novels—as well as through their relations with peers. As a parent, and one who is committed to nonviolence, I feel like it is my responsibility to show them other ways. Where do we look for these? Where are the stories of people who solve problems through healthy, non-violent means—through peaceful resolution, and ceremony, and mediation? Those stories are harder to find because peaceful resolution doesn’t make a blockbuster movie: There are no explosions, no fight scenes, no blasting musical montage. Violence is big business in this country, and in my house at least we try to restrict the spectacle of it. There’s no television on school nights; they don’t have tablets or phones. We eat dinner together as a family and each evening we talk about the challenges each of us faced—and I include myself in this. Whether my challenges are intellectual, or interpersonal, or physical, talking about my approach to resolving problems gives me an opportunity, each evening, to teach both of my children—my daughter and son alike—the lessons that I hope, over time, can become just as powerful as that one about violent revenge: that we should move through the world with love, that vulnerability does not mean weakness, that an open heart is sometimes wounded, but that feeling pain is never an excuse for inflicting it.

TM: If you could press The Reckonings into the hands of one particular person or group of people today, with the guarantee that it would be read and absorbed, who would that be? And what is the first discernible change you hope they would make?

LMJ: This is a really hard question to answer, because whenever I start out on a book the person I really want to change is myself. I’m a very selfish writer in this way. I started on this book because I found the fixation on an ancient definition of justice so troubling, but I was baffled about what to install in its place. The question of justice is a personal one for me—and not just because I’m a writer and need something to write books about, but also because this is something I’m working through in my real, actual life. The man who kidnapped and raped me, and tried to kill me is alive and well and a fugitive living in Venezuela with his new family. Does that mean there’s no justice for me? I refuse to center my happiness and well-being on anything that happens or does not happen to him. So what is the alternative? Of course, this is also not just a personal question. We see this questions playing out in contemporary culture in a thousand different ways—ecological injustice, racial injustice, economic injustice, sexual violence, mass violence. I think one of the reasons we see so little progress in each of these huge systemic problems is because our definition of injustice and justice are basically the same thing: they’re both based on doing harm to another person or group of people. That feels like a trap, and I wanted to write my way out it. That’s what this book is. The first discernible change—and it is a big one—would be reorienting our definition of justice away from that ancient one that requires mutual suffering and toward a new one that creates the possibility for mutual joy.

Fiction is a Power Trip: The Millions Interviews Eleanor Henderson


In June 2011 Stacy D’Erasmo wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Eleanor Henderson “writes the hell out of every moment, every scene, every perspective, every fleeting impression, every impulse and desire and bit of emotional detritus.” D’Erasmo was referring to Henderson’s much lauded debut novel, Ten Thousand Saints, but Henderson’s passion and skill are equally evident in her follow up novel, The Twelve-Mile Straight. In her latest, Henderson has taken a significant dogleg in subject, time, and locale, leaving behind the straight-edge movement of 1980s New York and delivering us with equal skill into Cotton County, Georgia in the acutely troubled era of the early 1930s. It is into this dusty, highly charged tableau that Elma Jesup, the teenage daughter of a white sharecropper, gives birth to an unusual set of twins—one light-skinned and the other dark—born of different patrimony and quickly coined the Gemini twins. In the rush of the book’s opening salvo, Elma’s father, Juke, accuses Genus Jackson, a black field hand, of Elma’s rape, and Juke, along with Elma’s fiancé, Freddie Wilson, lead the mob that lynch Genus from the gourd tree. Freddie, adding insult to murder, subsequently drags Genus’s body down the unnamed road known only as the Twelve-Mile Straight. It is on the other side of this tragedy that the novel slows and deepens, exploring the irreparable damage done by family secrets; secrets made all the more damning by the fact that family provided the only stability there was to be had.

I talked with Eleanor Henderson about her writing and research process, if the film adaptation of her debut altered the way she works, and the particular challenges of writing a novel of historical fiction that is perhaps unexpectedly relevant to our current cultural conversation.

The Millions: Let’s begin with how you began this book. I understand the seed of it actually grew from stories of your father’s childhood in Ben Hill County, Georgia.

Eleanor Henderson: I’d wanted to write a book set in Georgia for a long time. For all of my childhood I’d heard stories about my father growing up on the farm during the Depression, but I didn’t know what to do with them. Meanwhile, I was beginning to think about a novel about newborn twins with different paternity—I was amazed to know that such a phenomenon exists!—and I wasn’t getting anywhere with that book, either. It wasn’t until I married the two ideas together that I found that the Georgia story and the twins story were the same. What would it be like, I wondered, to share a childhood with someone who is supposed to be more like you than anyone else, and yet that person might look and be very different than you? When I imagined that situation in the context of the Jim Crow South—a place that would be very intolerant of those differences—I began to see the shape of the story. That’s pretty common for me—I work on two different ideas for a while, get nowhere, and then smash their atoms together. At that point I was ready to explore but also move past the stories about the farm, and to write a novel that confronted the horrifying injustices of that time and place–injustices that of course are still with us today.

TM: This is your second novel about a very specific time and place and I know a good deal of research went into getting 1930s Georgia accurately on the page. Do you enjoy the research process?

EH: It’s my favorite part! I think one of the most rewarding parts of writing historical fiction—I think of both of my books as historical fiction—is that I get to live in another world for a while. Research for me is an attempt to know a time and place with an authority that I can never achieve in my own world. Of course, it’s an impossible task, and so it’s endless. I spent about five years elbow-deep in archives and newspapers and books, immersing myself in the music and the photography and the language and the culture of the place. After a while I began to recognize the hubris in that kind of research, and I began to worry about appropriating history for my own design. It was something I had to accept in order for the project of the novel to work, and I had to acknowledge that I could never get to the bottom of the research well. In the end, the place I’m writing about is an invention—Cotton County doesn’t exist—but I hope that readers who are old enough to remember Georgia in the Depression would recognize some piece of their realities there.

One of those people is my dad. I’ve found that I’m drawn to the stories of people I’m close to—in my first novel, I wrote about the world my husband grew up in, and this one, I wrote about my dad’s. So I spent a lot of time talking to him about daily life on the farm and in town. For several years, I was waking up early to write before my young kids were awake, and my dad, always a child of the farm, was up early, too. So I’d send him emails about whatever scene I was stuck on. Did you have a sink? How did you wash your clothes? Did the country doctor visit you, or did you go to town? How did you get there? It was a great gift, getting this daily dose of insight into my father’s life, a life that had seemed distant until then.

My father was also my fact checker. I was greatly relieved when he gave most of the novel his approval, but he had some corrections. One detail that stands out is the way different crops were harvested. There was a sentence in the novel that read: “The peanuts wanted picking first, then the cotton.” My dad shook his head and said, “You don’t pick peanuts. You take them out of the ground.” Lesson learned.

TM: While researching, what did you find the most illuminating? What surprised you or stayed with you?

EH: A couple things come to mind. When I first started writing the book, I had a vague sense that it would take place during the Depression; my father was born in Georgia in 1932, so I thought it might begin there. Then, early on, I read a book called The Tragedy of Lynching by Arthur Raper, published in 1933, which looks closely at lynchings that took place in the South in 1930. Between 1927 and 1929, no recorded lynchings took place in the state. I came across a Georgia newspaper headline in the microfilm at the Georgia Historical Society, dated December 1929: “Lynching to Be a Lost Art.” Then, in January 1930, a horrific lynching took place in Irwin County, just ten miles from where my father was born, in which a thousand white people killed and dismembered a young black man who was accused of killing a white girl. Five more lynchings followed in Georgia that year. What the hell was happening? I wondered. What kinds of social forces had resurrected that kind of violence? It shook me up and gave the book a shape. I decided to open the book with another Georgia lynching, a fictional one that takes many of its characteristics from those real cases.

Then, when I was walking through the Georgia Museum of Agriculture in Tifton, I saw a gourd tree for the first time, looming over a cane field. I asked my friend and guide Brian Brown what it was, and he explained that the hollowed gourds were thought to keep the mosquitoes away. It was an alien sight to me, both beautiful and practical, and then chilling, when I imagined that, like the telephone poles of that era, it might also serve as an instrument of hate and terror.

TM: At what point in the process did the book take on a life of its own? In other words, when did it transcend the gathering of information and manifest the more specific voices of the ensemble cast—especially Nan and Elma?

EH: I struggled with early drafts of this book. I wrote about a hundred pages in Nan’s voice, imagining her as a kind of removed observer. She was, even in those early drafts, mute—her mother cut out her tongue when she was a baby—so I thought it would be clever to give Nan a voice in the narrating of the story. I sent the draft to a good friend, and she had the good sense to tell me that it wasn’t working. She felt toyed with as a reader, and Nan felt more like a device than a person. That wasn’t what I wanted. What the story needed was a truly omniscient narrator, someone who could access all of the characters, black and white, victim and villain, with empathy, and who could absorb their voices as well. So I had to abandon cleverness and reckon with Nan’s voice in a more direct way.

But I couldn’t imagine what her voice would sound like. Again, I worried about appropriating experience. Who was I to speak in the voice of this young black woman, whose worries I’d invented but couldn’t understand myself? It seemed a violence to deny her voice and a violence to assume it. So I wrote through that uncertainty, and tried to raise those questions in the book itself. I tried to transfer them to Elma, the young white woman in the book who feels she must speak for Nan, but who does so incompletely and sometimes inaccurately. What is the white woman’s role in speaking for black women? How are we complicit in injustice? How are we allies? What is our responsibility to other people’s stories?

TM: I’m sure you’re aware of Lionel Shriver’s much rebuked 2016 speech at the Brisbane Writers’ Conference in which she lamented the idea of appropriation, wishing the notion of it were a passing fad, and arguing that it threatened to be the end of fiction. In that speech she stated that fiction “is a disrespectful vocation by its nature – prying, voyeuristic, kleptomaniacal, and presumptuous. And that is fiction writing at its best.” Personally, this description of fiction “at its best” exemplified much of the problem with her assertions, believing as I do that a writer’s aim ought to be empathy over voyeurism, respect and research over presumption. Since you wrestled with embodying Nan’s experience and wrote through these anxieties, ultimately manifesting an interior voice for her, I am wondering if you might reflect on your own final question above: what is our responsibility to other people’s stories? And how does that responsibility manifest itself in terms of craft?

EH: This is a question I think about a lot, in my writing and in my teaching. While I object vigorously to the carelessness of Shriver’s position, I do recognize myself in her description of fiction as “prying, voyeuristic, kleptomaniacal, and presumptuous.” I think we have to acknowledge that fiction does have that dangerous allure. Is it presumptuous? Sure. It’s a sacred enterprise, it’s the best means of empathy and understanding we have, and it’s also presumptuous. It’s a power trip. And we have to check that power, just as we do every other day in the world.

Last spring I taught a graduate seminar at Syracuse University on narrative distance and point of view, and next spring I’ll teach a senior seminar at Ithaca College called Writing the Other. Both classes focus on how the writer’s subject position facilitates or inhibits our narrative access to characters and their worlds. In politics, we talk about privilege, and I think it’s a very apt term in fiction as well. Which characters do we have access to, and how, and why? As Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda write, we have to “change the terms of the conversation… So, not: can I write from another’s point of view? But instead: to ask why and what for, not just if and how.”

For me, those questions are best answered through narrative distance. (David Jauss’s essay “From Long Shots to X-Rays,” which I read as a grad student, changed the way I thought about point of view.) Will the camera remain outside the character? Will it have interior access? How can I approach my subject with respect? How close do I want to bring my reader to the subject—and who is my reader, anyway? The analogy of the photographer is helpful but limited, because of course the fiction writer has the power to go inside, which is a presumptuous act. And honestly, after watching Get Out and reading Zadie Smith’s review in Harper’s, I won’t ever think of getting inside the “skin” of a black character in the same way. It’s perhaps the most presumptuous move a white writer can make.

Ultimately, I did make that move, and I have to own it. I tried to adopt a kind of mythic narrator who could access all of the characters’ interior lives, while also revealing the limitations of that narrator’s moral knowledge. I do have faith in what Toni Morrison calls “a shareable language.” That phrase gives me hope.

TM: Your reference to the camera perspective has me thinking about the cinematique quality of both your novels. You move so deftly from the panoramic to the close-up (and yes, the interior) in each book, but did seeing Ten Thousand Saints being made into a film have any effect or place any new burden on your process when you sat down to the blank page again?

EH: I was in the middle of writing The Twelve-Mile Straight when the movie came out, so it didn’t fundamentally change my thinking about the book. But when I was struggling with Nan as the narrator, it did occur to me that that conceit—a mute character telling the story—would not work on the screen. While it ultimately didn’t work in the novel, either, thinking about the power and limitations of both forms probably helped me to see the story more clearly.

TM: Since this particular story is so relevant to our current cultural conversation, illuminating racism, sexism, and the reverberations of poverty from generation to generation, I’m curious if at any point in the writing you were propelled more by obligation than curiosity? In other words, was the process of writing this book more emotionally complex than the first?

EH: Even though the material of the books is very different, the same kind of curiosity led me to both. In this novel, I was drawn to writing about the world my father grew up in, and in my first novel, I was drawn to writing about the world my husband grew up in—the straight edge hardcore scene in New York in the eighties. But when I finished writing Ten Thousand Saints, I wanted to move out of my comfort zone and explore more historically complicated material. It was a more emotionally taxing project, but mostly my anxiety was about not doing emotional harm to my readers (or my characters). I didn’t feel obligated to write either novel; on the contrary, I worried about whether readers would be interested. When I began writing The Twelve-Mile Straight in 2011, I was ignorant to just how relevant it would feel six years later. Do we need another novel about the Jim Crow South? I wondered. Now I think it’s clear that, sadly, we do.

TM: As a teacher, what piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers who are struggling with a larger manuscript?

EH: No matter how big it gets, find a way to see it all on one page. I’m a visual person, so I used whatever tools I could—a map, an outline, a family tree—to keep me focused and keep the moving parts clear. My father’s sketch of his family’s farm, as well as a sketch he did of a peanut plant on the back of a paper plate, hung above my desk as I wrote. (I really should have known that peanuts aren’t picked but taken out of the ground.) I also kept a Pinterest board with photographs, advertisements, and songs from the 1930s. (Thank you to the writer Katherine Howe for this idea!) That page helped me organize some of my research and also remain in that world. When I taught a workshop on historical fiction, I had my students create their own Pinterest boards and present them to the class, and the results were really fascinating.

TM: We’ve discussed Nan and Elma, but there are so many rich and fraught relationships in this novel. It is often Elma’s father, Juke Jesup, and the Wilson family who catalyze tragedy for others. If you could undo one situation for one of your characters, relieve them of one burden, what would it be?

EH: I’d have Elma take back her nod. It’s her silent consent that gives her father and Freddie Wilson permission to kill Genus in the first chapter. I’d undo it because it might save Genus’s life (perhaps not—they were bent on killing him anyway, she reasons), but of course, the story would be a different one. Instead Elma spends the novel trying to undo that action herself.

A Year in Reading: Kate Milliken


So, it seems that I am late to the party. Not only am I late to the party, I resisted going because everyone was going and word on the street was so loudly proclaimed, “Best Party of the Year,” that I felt sure I’d be disappointed. But, finally, only one year late (honestly, I am often far more behind than this), I slunk in the door and, low and behold, Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins is indeed bumpin’.

I have been hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t already read this book, but hopefully you are out there, another foot-dragger (how great could a literary breakout be, anyway?), and now I get to tell you at least some of what you’ve been missing: A Richard Burton that’s better Burton than Burton himself, a flawlessly executed high wire act of narrative time travel (no, there’s no worm hole; maybe another selling point?), a playful yet swift elbow to the ribs of our cultural priorities, characters that—when not reading—you will find yourself fondly considering, profound insights into parental and romantic love, a hopefulness about humanity that is both refreshing for a literary novel and reassuring as a human animal, dialog that is practically audible from the page, and a wit and humor that will one minute have you smiling inwardly and the next minute slapping your knee, teary-eyed, and snorting. In public. But it’ll be okay, because you can just explain that you are finally, finally reading Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins and everyone on the bus/train/boat/plane will likely understand.

Or, don’t read it. I get it. Just go ahead and assume that I drank the punch.

More from A Year in Reading 2013

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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