This year, for research, I read a lot of bad science (a textbook on Eugenics, anyone?); for pleasure, my habits were scattershot, although I turned to many old favorites, often in audiobook form. After seeing it in drafts over several years, I finally read my friend Mona Simpson’s brilliant, highly entertaining Casebook between covers, with charming illustrations. A year ago, my excellent husband had Hermione Lee’s Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life shipped to me from England when it was published there; that led me to reread The Blue Flower, Gate of Angels, and The Beginning of Spring. I listen to audiobooks throughout the day, as I garden and cook, clean the kitchen and drive, and I have a contemporary child’s delight in listening to my favorites as often as I please. I keep Juliet Stevenson’s version of Persuasion on a pretty much permanent loop, but after reading Anna Keesey’s marvelous essay, “Simple Girl: the Improbable Solace of Mansfield Park” in the Los Angeles Review of Books, I moved on to Stevenson’s audiobook of that Jane Austen. (I also read Keesey’s lovely historical novel set in Eastern Oregon Little Century.) I then re-listened to Amanda Root reading Jane Eyre, but am presently back to Juliet Stevenson and her stunning reading of To the Lighthouse. I admired Carlene Bauer’s intelligent and deft Frances and Bernard, an epistolary novel based on an imagined passion between Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell that dealt with so much of great interest to me: religious identity, passionate love [with the wrong person], and the ongoing struggle for women of doing one’s work. I enjoyed Christopher Bollas’s peripatetic novel, Dark at the End of the Tunnel, a series of intense conversations a psychoanalyst has with his patients, friends, and wife. That primed me to pick up Becoming Freud by Adam Phillips, whose epigrammatic style is always invigorating and thought-provoking; in this short biography, he focuses on Freud’s Jewishness and early career, when he was formulating his great theories about children and families as he himself was having and raising kids. Partly because so many people recommended Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree in their reading lists last year, I read it this year and found it, chapter by chapter, continuously revelatory and incredibly moving. More from A Year in Reading 2014 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
The following is adapted from the keynote address Michelle Huneven gave at Writing Workshops LA: The Conference, which took place on June 28, 2014 at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles. I would qualify to speak to the trouble with writing based on the sole fact that it took me 22 years to finish my first novel. In those years of trying and failing and trying again, and failing again, I even gave up writing fiction altogether and went back to grad school to train for a new career. But I failed to embark on a new career because writing, and all its attendant troubles, wouldn’t leave me alone. In those twenty-odd years, in which I tried and failed to write a book, and left writing and then came back to it and became a working writer who wrote books and also supported herself by writing, I grew intimately acquainted with many forms of trouble inherent in the vocation. And many of those troubles dog me to this day. 1. Trouble the Word Trouble. Trouble is a great dustpan of a word. Its roots are found in Latin in the verb turbidare, to make turbid; and in the adjective turbidus, meaning disordered, turbid. Turbid, of course, means unclear, muddied, obscure, and roiled up. We see its root in perturb, disturb, turbulent. Trouble branched off to mean that quality or state of being in distress or annoyance, of having malfunctioned; it’s a condition of debility, or ill health, a civil disorder, an inconvenience, a pregnancy out of wedlock. The trouble with writing is that it’s awfully like having baby after baby all by yourself. To get out of trouble, means to clear up, calm down, come out of confusion and distress, and function once again. When I first sat down to write this piece, I made a list, like a Joe Brainard poem, where every sentence began, “The trouble with writing is-------.” After about 5 pages, single spaced, I thought, well, there is my speech. Writing trails trouble in its wake like a long train of quarrelsome camp followers. I decided to talk about some of the troubles that I personally have encountered over the years, namely some the mental and spiritual troubles associated with writing as an activity and writing as a way of life--the ways we writers can malfunction and find ourselves confused and roiled up. Writing is difficult. Writing is difficult in the beginning, difficult in the middle and difficult at the end. And then, when you’ve finished, there is a whole new raft of difficulties having to do with publication—but I will save those issues for a much longer speech entitled The Trouble with Publication. Writing itself is a series of problems to be solved, problems that constitute the hard work of writing and being a writer. Sometimes you can be surgical and rational in solving various difficulties, but it is the peculiar distinction of writing and much of the creative life that the inherent difficulties of writing have a propensity to become internally, personally disturbing and confusing, agitating, and otherwise psychologically problematic. When I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I discovered that, by spending a long time on a short story, I could make it pretty good. But all around me, people were turning in truly terrific short stories and saying, “Oh, I wrote it the night before I turned it in.” There was so little talk of process back then, I really thought that I was the only writer there whose work went through an ugly stage. For years, I thought with deep shame that I was a fraud, up against the truly talented. It took me about twenty years to realize they were lying, and just armoring themselves for the criticism to come, and pretending not to be as invested in the work as they were. Thus does the difficulty of writing morph into confusion and perturbation. The trouble with writing is that we writers are often scared to death. 2. The Trouble with Writing is Writing A few months ago, I was interviewed by a 3rd grader whose assignment was to interview someone with an interesting job. Her father’s work, running two physics labs at Cal Tech, apparently was insufficiently intriguing. She had only three questions, one of which was, “What do you write about?” I knew I had to keep it simple. I said, “I write about people who get into trouble and then get themselves out of trouble.” Of course, that describes a great many books, but it strikes me that this also describes my writing process. I’ll take an assignment, or start a short story or a novel or an essay, and soon enough it feels exactly as if I’ve gotten myself into trouble. I actually feel like a bad person, guilty and a little ashamed, like, I’ve gotten myself into this thing, and now I have to do it, and I’m not sure if I can pull it off. I know too that, even if I manage to write my way out of this hole, it will take time, and cause me aggravation and pain along the way—pain in the form of self doubt, frustration, and one more time, hitting the limits of my capabilities. I was a restaurant critic for a dozen years, turning in one column a week, 52 weeks a year. Not once did I sit down and just knock one out. Every single review was a tumble into trouble, and a climb back out. You could say, I took the trouble to do the best I could. 3. It Never Gets Easier The trouble with writing says the historian who lives next door to me, is that no matter how many times you do it, you start out every time with the sick sense that you don’t know what you’re doing. The trouble with writing says a novelist friend, is that it never gets any easier. If anything, it gets harder. And if it starts to get easier, you’re probably slacking off or repeating yourself. 4. Getting Down to the River Dylan Thomas said that he knew he contained a river of poetry within him. The trouble was getting down to that river, and bringing a bucket-full back. The difficulty is getting down to it. Down to the desk, to the work zone, down to enough quiet and calm that we can even leave for the river. And once we’re there, the difficulty is locating access to that gush or trickle of material we contain. We range back and forth along the banks of the river, wondering where to plunge in. The great late radical feminist theologian Mary Daley wrote in an introduction to her first book about the trouble she had just getting around to writing it. Everything else—cleaning the house, buying groceries, taking the dog to the vet—took precedence over this thing that she wanted to do more than anything else. Write a book. Daily life was constantly eclipsing her creative life, and eventually she determined that she would have to reverse that, and put her creative life in the foreground and everything else in the background. She came up with a mantra: “I have to turn my soul around.” I have to turn my soul around. And after a number of weeks, slowly, it turned. To write, you have to turn your soul around. And then you have to turn it around again, and again, because there’s always slippage. Even after dozens of years of writing, there is slippage. 5. The Writing Life is One of Interruptions Writing is a solitary occupation requiring intense concentration, large blocks of time, and all of one’s mental capacities. The trouble is, there are frequent interruptions and constant distractions. The writing life is a life of interruptions. I used to listen to my friend the novelist Lily Tuck complain about her husband who often traveled for work. Edward wants me to go with him to Madrid…to Athens…to Hong Kong. I was a poor struggling wannabe writer and I would have gone to any of those places at the drop of a hat. Now, it’s me telling my husband, I don’t want to spend three weeks in Italy and the south of France! Interruptions are inevitable, part of the fabric of the writing life. We must learn how to navigate them. There are meals, and sleep, and family; there are holidays and special occasions—weddings, graduations, funerals. We have to accept the fact that there will be interruptions, and develop our abilities to get back into writing a little more swiftly each time. It’s like meditating. In meditation, you return your attention to the breath. Your mind wanders and when you catch it wandering, you return your attention to the breath. You return your attention to your writing. You go off to your nephew’s graduation, you go back to your desk, you get back to work. At the same time, you have to know your rhythms, and allow them. I teach every Monday. The day after, I am never fully back to my writing. Tuesdays are the day for sinking back in. I know this and don’t beat myself up that I’m squirmy and unfocused. Everyone is different but it takes me a day or two to sink back into full writing mode. There are even more pernicious attacks on the solitary and quiet thing we do. 6. The Trouble with Writing is that it is Fraught with Self-Loathing, Shame, Grandiosity, and Pride I told you I quit writing at a certain point and embarked on another career. That career was to become a UU minister. In that process, I had to undergo a psychological evaluation—essentially, two psychologists determined my weak points and poked at me for a couple of days. One psychologist asked why I had quit writing. I told him that I’d grown up with parents who were highly disapproving and critical, and I must have internalized all that, because I lacked the confidence and self-esteem to write. The shrink said, “You can blame a lot on your parents, but not that--that kind of self doubt and low self-esteem you’re describing is just part of the creative process.” This was a revelation to me—that those terrible feelings actually signaled that I was IN the creative process and not that I was failing at it. Of course, low self-esteem and self-doubt are not requirements—Picasso never had many doubts, and nor does Alexander MacCall Smith who can knock out a No. 1 Ladies Detective novel in three weeks. But a great many of us do battle with self-confidence and doubts. Because writing is so personal, or, more exactly, because its prima materia, or primal material, is the self, many, many writers do experience various troubling, vexatious states around their writing. Recently, I have heard Donald Antrim and Karl Ove Knausgaard and Edward St. Aubyn all talk about the shame they feel around their writing, and I have read that John Banville, whose arrogance is singular—he freely admits this—also admits to feeling a terrible sticky shame about all his work and cannot bear to reread it. I am constantly bolstering my female writer friends, and they me, about the quality of our work, and even its right to exist. Of course, even as the writing process tends to kick up doubt, fear, and self-loathing for some temperaments, it also kicks up the opposing states of grandiosity, entitlement, arrogance. Some writers think their work can’t be improved, or shouldn’t be edited at all. More of us pingpong between grandiosity and despair. This is a terrible failure of a book, we tell ourselves, and I should really get an enormous advance for it! One writer I knew periodically had to stop working on his novel to compose acceptance speeches for the major awards the book was going to win. (He did actually win several awards.) The trouble with writing is that it is often a roller coaster pitching us between grandiosity and despair. As troublesome as they are, these uncomfortable emotional states, can serve to our advantage. Self-doubt humbles me sufficiently, so that I can improve and revise, and accept editorial assistance. And a certain stubborn pride serves me well in the face of awful editing or bad reviews. 7. The Trouble with Writing is that Little Happens the Way You Think it Should Writing requires an investment of time and thought and the self. In making this investment, we can’t help but kick up a few hopes concerning the returns this investment might give us. When I was writing my first novel for all those years before I quit writing altogether, I had these vague, unarticulated ideas—assumptions, really, that once I published my novel, I would move into a new financial zone, I would be able to find a good job, but mostly, that I would be inducted—indeed welcomed-into the larger literary community and conversation of my generation. The trouble with writing is that, although rewards do come, and your life does change, these things often don’t happen when and how you imagined them happening. The year that my first novel was published—and sold overseas and to the movies and got fantastic reviews in slick magazines and newspapers all over the country and was nominated for a few awards--I was completely unprepared for the psychic transition from solitary, intense writing life to the more outward routine of selling myself to readers, and having my work misunderstood--oh, I mean reviewed--in public. I had no idea what to do with the good news I got—you don’t want to call up your struggling writer friends and say, I just sold my book to the movies for a big pile of money! As it happened, my best friend, who could not sell her novel, dropped me anyway, and I ended up the year filling a prescription for antidepressants. It’s a tricky business we’re in. We work with various parts of the self: our memory, our experience, and emotions, the conscious self, and the unconscious which includes the patterning parts of the brain, and the imagination. These are all skittish entities, not always cooperative. Over time, we get better at accessing our imagination, our knowledge, our storehouse of anecdotes and perceptions, vocabulary and beliefs. We learn to trust that, if we set to work, the structure, direction and shape of a work will reveal itself, and that a character eventually will accumulate enough traits and coherency to come to life. We learn how to get down to that river, and to bring back buckets. But even experience can’t guarantee that we can do all these things every time. 8. Writing is Not Always Trouble and Disturbance When it’s going well, there is little to match it. Creation is a mighty power--you might even call it divine. The psychologists tell us that creativity is an adult state of play. When you’re deep deep in it, in the state of flow, when there is clarity and absorption, and the clock hands twirl, that is writing at its best. Flow: to get there takes time and effort—you could say, you have to take some trouble to reach flow. It’s like getting an endorphin high when you’re running—according to a friend who lately has become a runner, it took her running almost daily for three weeks before she experienced her first endorphin high, and even then she only began to feel it when she was three miles into a run. Three months and three miles…The same timetable, roughly, could apply to writing in a flow state. You don’t just sit down to it. You can’t induce it by swallowing a pill. No drug, prescribed or illicit, can get you there. Only steady, regular work can get you there. To create the ideal circumstances for writing, and to protect those circumstances, to keep our soul and body properly positioned to write, you would think, would be the great aim of our life. 9. Writing is an Act of Faith, and Delaying Gratification The trouble with writing is that it’s a weird, lonely occupation with only intermittent and unpredictable satisfactions and rewards—except for the satisfactions and rewards that come from the struggle itself, and they, too, can be elusive. Writers have to be able to delay gratification. To work without immediate pleasures. To delay gratification in general is the great sign of maturity. In writers it is absolutely essential. If the ability to delay gratification is the great sign of being a mature human being, with the internet we have all regressed, because the internet gives us everything that writing does not: it gives us what we dream about when sitting alone at our desks: contact with our tribe and the sense that we’re in a community; for posting mere snippets, we get liked, retweeted, favorited, shared, tagged, and notified; we get emails and instant messages and invitations to chat online. We read daily what our friends and also some of our most esteemed writers have to say about writing and life. That great conversation I thought my first book would induct me into? Here on Facebook are some of the great writers of my generation tweeting away, offering links to articles, vaunting their politics, singing the praises of their colleagues’ work. The internet reminds me of smoking—which I gave up almost 27 years ago—but whenever someone talked about cancer or heart disease it made me want to light up. Just talking about the internet this way, makes me want to check my email or log onto Facebook. Excuse me for a minute… I am not an isolationist when it comes to writing. I believe in writing groups and in exchanging work with friends and there is nothing more compelling than in-depth literary conversation. I also believe in leaving my desk and going out in the world to observe and research in service of book and soul. I have to replenish, refuel. Yesterday, I finally went to see the new permanent display at the Huntington: a illuminated, hand-copied edition of The Canterbury Tales; a Guttenberg bible, an original quarto of Hamlet that’s four hundred years old. And then we walked through the cactus gardens there which, as I like to say, is one of the few psychedelic experiences you can have without ingesting a drug. Somehow, this felt more generative, more like a part of writing to me than the same amount of time spent on Twitter and Facebook. The trouble with writing is that it’s a dynamic balancing act, we are always seesawing between concentration and interruption, grandiosity and despair. The trouble with writing is that there are long dry stretches in the ugly stage, and the rewards, when they come, may not come when we need them the most. The trouble with writing is that even when some of our dreams and hopes and expectations do come true, they don’t relieve the difficulty of writing, or the solitude of writing, or the weird rollercoaster emotions of writing. The trouble with writing is writing. So keep going. Keep the faith. Go home to your desks and get yourself into some deep deep, trouble. And then write your way out of it. Image via aukirk/Flickr
I read and admired Leslie Jamison’s The Gin Closet when it first came out --and was immediately curious about its author: How could someone so young (Jamison was 26 at publication) write a book so lyrical, dark and knowing? As she and I both found ourselves in Iowa City this last spring, Jamison, now 28, agreed to sit down for a chat. This was Jamison’s second stint in Iowa City; she’d received her MFA from the Writers Workshop five years ago, and is presently a PhD candidate at Yale. Now, she was accompanying her boyfriend, another Yale PhD student, while he got his MFA in poetry at the workshop. On a cool spring day, before the cornfields were plowed or the leaves of the trees had unfurled, Jamison and I drove to the small town of Mount Vernon twenty miles north of Iowa City. Our destination was a coffeehouse called Fuel, a standard-bearer among coffeehouses with nooks and comfortable chairs, ample table space, amusing oddments to look at and buy, not to mention great coffee, and cookies baked in small batches all day long. (Jamison works part time in a bakery and has developed, she says, a snobbery about cookies: Fresh from the oven or none at all!). Fuel is one of Jamison’s natural habitats; she reads and writes there for hours at a stretch, so it seemed the ideal spot for a good long chat into the digital recorder. Also, as Jamison herself pointed out, The Gin Closet, which came out in paperback this month, is concerned with three generations of women and Fuel is run by three generations of women. Today, the granddaughter served as barista as the grandmother baked. Stella, The Gin Closet’s protagonist, joins a long line of literary heroines, very intelligent young women on the cusp of adult lifewho willfully make bad choices (think Emma Woodhouse, Dorothea Brooke, Hester Prynne, Isabel Archer). At loose ends in her mid-twenties, Stella works for a famous, abusive boss and has fallen in love with a married man. In part to console herself, Stella moves in with her grandmother Lucy only to discover that Lucy is dying. Jamison’s prose is lyrical, with the frank blare of youth: Every night I said things like: Today my boss and I got drunk at lunch. Today my boss was on Oprah! Today I spent a thousand dollars on gift baskets. Today I used the word “autumnal” twice, and both times I was speaking to tulip salesmen…I compressed my days neatly into appetizer courses. I worked as a personal assistant for a woman with a reputation for treating people like shit, and she treated me like shit. I couldn’t spin witty versions of the rest. In the darkness I began caring for my collapsing grandmother. She wasn’t being inspirational or having sex or treating anyone like shit. She was just getting old. As Lucy dies, a secret emerges: Stella has an aunt, Matilda, who was cast out of the family before Stella was born. After the funeral, Stella sets out to find this Aunt Tilly, ostensibly to deliver a letter but really to set things right. Tilly is found in a trailer in the Nevada desert. The novel alternates between Stella’s first person and her aunt Tilly’s limited third person narrations. Tilly is a late-stage alcoholic and ex-prostitute whose difficult past Jamison renders fearlessly. Tilly’s one son Abe, a banker, has been sending her enough money so she can quit turning tricks; he wants her to live with him in San Francisco, but only if she’ll stop drinking. Stella convinces Tilly to take up this longstanding offer and the three of them—Stella, Tilly and Abe—set up housekeeping together in the city. The center, if there ever was one, doesn’t hold. As I suspected, Jamison is whip smart, articulate and intense—a terrific conversationalist. Michelle Huneven: What got you started on this book—what was the germ, the seed? Leslie Jamison: The short answer is my family I was working on a different novel and was stuck--I didn’t understand how stuck. I moved into a family home with my grandmother who was very sick. My life was taken over by her declining health. Trying to take care of her was completely beyond what I understood how to do. I realized when I woke up in the morning that there was no way I could work on this other novel, it had no claim on my heart or thoughts, so I just started writing with no particular plan about what was happening with my grandmother and how it was bringing up a lot of feelings about our family, a lot of old wounds that hadn’t been repaired. I had a fantasy that they could all be repaired before she died. It didn’t happen that way. But I was left with these pages about how I wish things had been different in our family, in particular with an aunt who had been estranged for a long time. I started to write a novel that explored bluntly what if-- what if my aunt came back into the conversation of my family. That scenario had a lot of emotional weight with me and really drove the first draft of the novel. It took many more drafts to get further in--and further away from my family. MH: I particularly liked Stella’s mix of naieve hopefulness and her blind confidence that she could repair the familial breach and somehow accomplish what her mother and grandmother hadn’t managed to do. LJ: Yes, Stella has a dual feeling of guilt and superiority. I shared some version of that, myself. You feel responsible for what your family has done, even if you weren’t alive for it, but you also feel like, I’m better than that, I would never do that to somebody, and what’s more, I can go fix it. Stella thinks "I can do what my mother wasn’t capable of doing, which was to love the damage in another person." MH: In a way, Stella’s a classic young heroine. She’s smart and deep, but she’s not yet fully-formed, which makes her ripe for demons—in the beginning of the book, she has a terrible boss, she’s deep in it with a married man, then she’s in over her head with her sick grandmother. A flick on the back of the head is all that’s needed to send her down some misbegotten path—like saving her aunt. LJ: Which lets you in on the dirty secret of what altruism really is, which is saying I don’t know how to deal with my own stuff so I’ll immerse myself in somebody else’s stuff, so I can feel like a hero in their life. MH: Yes, but there are times when nothing can touch your low self esteem except getting out of yourself and being of service to another person. LJ: We can do good things out of flawed motives--which doesn’t make them less good. But you can also show up for a certain situation only to discover that the situation is bigger than you are--you’re really signing up to lose control. MH: One scene really haunts me. Stella goes to her aunt’s trailer in Nevada and sees the gin closet, her aunt’s drinking room. It’s a terrible womb-tomb place, bottles, flies, a turkey carcass of all things, a stool in the corner—truly the nightmare version of a tuffet. Appalling! But the next thing you know, Stella and Tilly are drinking together. Reading along, I was thinking: No! Don’t do it, Stella--you’re giving too much ground! I knew she wanted to help her aunt and bring her back into the family. While I never thought she had a chance of succeeding, I really didn’t want her to sink to her aunt’s level. LJ: I wanted to destabilize Stella’s hero complex from the start to show it as confused. She wanted to connect with her aunt and build a sense of trust and to not be just another voice saying, “you’re a fuck up and we want your problems far away from us.” The short cut to that was to get low with her, get shamed with her. That’s as opposed to saying I’m here, in a better spot, and I want you to come here too, which imposes a boundary and a separateness that requires a lot of moral fortitude and a kind of caring that’s willing to be patient. MH: And drinking with her aunt is like taking food in the dark realm, like Persephone eating the pomegranate seeds—it compromises the mission, prefigures its doom. The novel also plays with a universal orphan fantasy: you’re a little girl and you’re mad at your parents and then you think, Hey! what if I had another, secret family which was my real, true family. Even the happiest child imagines at some point that she actually belongs with the fairies. LJ: (Laughs) Yeah! Drunken fairies! Absolutely. Stella replaces her mother with a woman she can be a mother to. She has trouble recognizing all the ways that her mother has been a mother for her, and wants to instead focus on what she resents her for and to replace her with a relationship that can make her feel good about herself, where she can occupy this nurturing role. What Stella’s mother has given her is complicated, but there’s a lot of good in it. And that, I think is ultimately the reckoning in the orphan family fantasy--where you have to come back and say, maybe I didn’t want the fairies after all. MH: It’s Coraline—suddenly your busy, hardworking mother seems infinitely better than the one who wants to replace your eyes with buttons. LJ: Or Where the Wild Things Are. Suddenly, your cold porridge in your room doesn’t look so bad after where you’ve been… MH: I was interested, too, in how, when the new family forms, when they move into Abe’s apartment, closeness doesn’t follow. The two educated young people don’t really know how to find common ground with Tilly, who is white-knuckling it through her days working at a new job that’s essentially busywork, and trying to put her stamp on the loft by decorating it with cheap little trinkets she finds on her wanderings. The three don’t even enjoy a honeymoon period together. LJ: Yes. It’s strange to suddenly be family with someone with whom you don’t have that whole backlog of quiet awkward shared family experience. Tilly and Stella are family but there’s no territory that they share beyond a feeling that it’s wrong that they hadn’t been family so far. So there’s kind of a rabid good intention coming up against, well, what it looks like day to day. MH: Here’s a question all the bookclubs will ask you: How did you write so convincingly about prostitution? LJ: I did what every self-respecting PhD student does...which is to say, I went to the library. I checked out 20 books from the Yale system and spent a month doing little but reading them. The main thing I remember feeling from all these womens' stories was that, yes, many of them were stories of incredible hardship, but they weren't about soul-erasure or the effacement of dignity--they weren't black and white Before and After stories. There was a tremendous amount of dailiness; not quite so much melodrama as I'd imagined. I remember thinking, I'm not qualified to imagine my way into this. And then thinking, I'm just going to have to get over that. MH: What writing, what literary models conditioned you for writing The Gin Closet? LJ: I distinctly remember reading--over the course of two long, lonely, completely engrossed days--the entirety of Yates' Revolutionary Road. I'd reached one of those points where I'd forgotten what the point of a novel was--why the world was better-off for having it, I guess--and why I was writing my own; and I read Yates and felt such deep humanity and honesty and richness in his world, and felt myself so changed--I thought, if I can do this for anyone, the book will be worth it. The deep geneology of my conditioning had been going on for a long time before the draft, as is true for all writers: Faulkner and Woolf are my twin gods; Plath has always been important to me, Anne Carson, the many beautiful and talented writers I'm lucky to call friends. MH: What’s the next book? How is it different or the same from The Gin Closet? LJ: I am working on the second draft of a novel about the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaraugua. I feel like The Gin Closet was a gush of consciousness. I wrote it from pure feeling. I followed it intuitively. I’m not sure if any of my other books are going to be like that. The process of writing since then has been much more deliberate-- not that my heart isn’t involved. But I’ve been extending out of myself much more, whereas with the first one, I was dredging stuff out from inside myself. That’s not to say it’s totally autobiographical. MH: Who are you looking to now, for the new book? What writers do you reach for to “prime the pump” so to speak—to make you want to write? LJ: There are some writers who make me want to write, and other writers who make me feel as if I can write--as if I have it in me--and these circles aren't entirely overlapping. Shirley Hazzard makes me want to write--in fact, she makes me want to write exactly like she writes--but this is usually bad, because I end up writing second-tier Hazzard instead of any-tier Jamison. I usually read poetry when I'm trying to write--it makes me swollen with beauty and possibility, with honesty, but it doesn't call up the urge to imitate. Lately I've been reading Carson's Nox, and Berryman's Dream Songs. The new book is about history, which gives me a rich well of reading that isn't fiction. I've been reading a lot of Sandinista memoirs--they are just so fucking interesting; full of the physical world and translated curse-words and a surprising (maybe not so surprising) amount of sex and humor. MH: You seem to have a penchant for poets…how has living with/among poets affected your writing and your attitudes toward fiction and poetry? LJ: I've always thought "A penchant for poets" might be a good title for my memoir, if I ever publish one. I've dated a few of them, and--as you point out—I have been living with one for several years, in a house so laden with books in multiple genres it's creaking at the seams. As I've mentioned, poetry gets me inspired to write--I love getting close to the minds that make it. I love having conversations over scrambled eggs about line breaks and refrains, because I get to think about making without thinking about my own making. Sometimes it's hard because I feel like Practical Peggy juxtaposed against the infinite and infinitely disorganized energy of a poet--short attention span, fickle production, wild strokes of genius. MH: So which side are you going to root for this year at the Writers Workshop softball game? LJ: I'm going to have to root for fiction. Genre before love. Plus, my boyfriend loves to argue, so I think this will suit him just fine. MH: How has it been being back in Iowa City for two years, when you’re not at the workshop? LJ: Yeah! (Laughs and squints at the iphone on the table between us) How much time do you have left on your little recorder there?
This was my year of reading alcoholically. I didn’t plan it that way. But in book after book, the disease flourished and triumphed, not a recovery in sight. In Gerard Woodward’s remarkable trilogy (August, I’ll go to Bed at Noon and A Curious Earth) alcoholism (and some maternal glue sniffing) is not the unacknowledged elephant in the Jones family’s living room, it’s the unacknowledged elephant rampaging throughout their house and generations, not to mention the homes of near relations, and all the nearby pubs. Woodward’s depiction of a middleclass family riddled by unmitigated addiction is horrifying and hilarious, unsentimental and virtually untouched by medical or recovery jargon. The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy surely has one of the most astonishing first chapters in literature: Michael Henchard with his young wife and daughter come to a fair in a small town and decide to have a kind of milk drink. Michael pays extra to have his spiked, and proceeds in short order to get drunk and belligerent and then to sell his wife and child to the highest bidder! Sold! The next morning, the remorseful Henchard takes an oath not to drink for twenty-one years, but even abstinent he is the epitome of the dry drunk white-knuckling his way through life: he’s paranoid, self-important, has a terrible need to control; inwardly fragile, outwardly he’s a tyrant and a vengeful bully. Henchard, though tragic, is a mild case compared to Frederick Exley, whose A Fan’s Notes is perhaps the first novelistic addiction memoir and remains a masterpiece of the genre. Exley’s book is a gorgeously written drunken quagmire; booze—and the New York Giants—are his only allegiances; his sense of entitlement, grandiosity and chronic lying are breathtaking. Incapable of keeping a job, he mooches off family and friends, abandons a wife, lives on his mother’s sofa, and rotates in and out of mental institutions. His courses of electric shock and insulin therapies, described in excruciating detail, don’t even begin to mitigate his alcoholism or wildly disordered personality. This book gave Exley some measure of what he thought all along was rightfully his: literary stature. I chased Exley with Charles Jackson’s The Lost Weekend, a slim and almost perfect novel whose alcoholic narrator, Don Birnam, goes on a weekend bender of such epic proportions and degradations, this reader was exhausted a quarter way through. It’s a laborious full time job to drink the way Birnam does. He must come up with money—the maid’s pay is easy pickings, it’s harder to cadge cash from the uptight neighbor, and pawning his brother’s heirlooms proves impossible (the pawnshops are closed for Yom Kippur). Birnam also jungle swings between grandiosity and despair, lies continuously, blacks out, passes out, falls down a flight stairs, spends a few hours in the alcoholism ward, breaks everyone’s heart. Yet, come Monday morning, he’s eager to start the whole cycle again. It’s excessive, I admit, but I capped off this literary binge with Under the Volcano in all its lush, hellbent, whirlybending glory. Lowry—like Exley and Jackson—knew whereof he wrote. But this chronicle of the last days of Geoffrey Firman, a former British consul in Quauhnahac Mexico, is more interior, with a strangely hallucinogenic verisimilitude—the reader at times resides so deeply in the Consul’s consciousness, she feels drunk. Enough! In all these books, alcoholism is the nightmare from which nobody wakes up. It wears a reader down. And incites some year-end gratitude for—knock wood—the tenuous, fleeting gift of a clear mind. More from A Year in Reading
Alice Munro's Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage is a book I return to for sustenance, for instruction, and for pleasure. The title story is a masterpiece, a miracle of structure, character and plot, in which two teenage girls write prank letters to a housekeeper and thus set off a chain of events that changes and creates lives. Munro is a realist of profound and subtle comprehension whose great subject is women's lives. She is not a romantic, not sentimental, nor does she work the other end of authorial power and put her characters through excruciations and misery simply because she can. Instead, she writes with the clear, rigorous dispassion of a spiritual master. Because literary convention so often nudges narratives toward familiar outcomes--happy endings, redemption, tragedy--Munro has retooled form to suit her nuanced purposes. Her stories have the range and depth of novels; their structures are intricate and unusual but completely lucid. Her pace is leisurely; she lingers on physical descriptions of trees, geology, and faces, and on gradations of emotions. Yet somehow the stories often span years, even decades, and cover vast tracts of ground. She makes all this seem effortless. Alice Munro has taught us to find literary pleasure in leaping over time, in the odd swerves life takes, in the unexpected sources of comfort and sustenance, and in the idiosyncratic arrangements made for human happiness. In Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, she is at the top of her powers, each story, one after another, a stalwart, shimmering beauty. Read an excerpt from Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. More Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers
Hiking is the only form of exercise I actually enjoy. Luckily, I live a mile from the San Gabriel mountains with their tangle of steep trails. In the last year, as I’ve hiked, I have begun listening to stories and novels on my iPhone, and this has transformed an enjoyable pastime into a deep pleasure. Recently I described my new habit to another novelist, who recoiled, shaking her head. “I’m a firm believer in the imaginative space created by the printed page,” she said. So what about the imaginative space created by the audible page? Of course, sitting and reading, lying down and reading, chaise lounging and reading are lovely; the body is still, eyes scan the page, the brain avails itself of the printed words, interior worlds bloom. Scientists tell us that, when reading, we have the same, if muted, responses to described or dramatized experience as we do to the real thing. Muscles tense. Hearts pound. Tears well. If I am seated or reclining and still, I much prefer reading the printed page. Being read to is too passive an activity, I’m apt to get restless or, worse, fall asleep. Walking, however, my listening capabilities are enhanced; simple physical activity, I believe, sharpens concentration by occupying the senses just enough to allow a purer attention to the narrative. In this sense, walking is like doodling and knitting, which busy the hands and free the mind. (I always wondered why my grandmother loved to knit as she watched TV.) When hiking, I’m watching my step, I’m noting wildflowers, poison oak, the view; I’m keeping an eye on the dog, looking out for snakes; meanwhile, my deeper attention is engaged with the story leaking from my ear buds. I have listened to news podcasts, and interviews, but these tend to make me mutter and twitch. Narrative and walking—as Chaucer knew—are a fortuitous match. They twin beautifully; listeners follow the plot, the thread, the branching path. Words and heartbeats, sentences and breaths, steps and plot align in ever new, complementary rhythms. And there is another result: the landscape becomes festooned with fictional memories. I remember, always with a pang, exactly where, on the trail, Katherine Mansfield’s valiant, plucky fly finally succumbed after his fourth bath in ink. A series of uphill switchbacks evokes the astonishing description of a young man’s madness in Nabokov’s "Signs and Symbols" read sentence by perfect sentence by Mary Gaitskill: Clouds in the staring sky transmit to one another, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His inmost thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees. I don’t remember where I read the physical books I read. I must have read them somewhere—in bed, on the couch, in chairs about the yard. On the other hand, I recall precisely how I climbed up and down a steep fire road as the Earnshaws and Lintons moved back and forth between Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights. And right where the road curves behind the mountain, I became so maddened by Catherine Linton’s hysteria—today, she’d rate as borderline—that I pressed pause and stamped down the mountain in far preferable silence. (I recovered and later listened to the end, although I will always associate the book with a certain prickling of irritation—whether at the dry dusty summer heat of the hike or Nellie Dean’s meddling.) A rocky switchback on a different trail recalls "Lawyer Kraykowski’s Dancer,"Witold Gombrowicz’s obsessive stalker who responds to insult as most of us respond to tender endearment. That madman shares those uphill miles with the more benignant huffing and sputtering Mr. Panks—not to mention the debtors prison and the Office of Circumlocution, the mild Mr. Clennam, the sweetness of Little Dorrit, the Madoff-like ruin of Mr. Merdle—40 hours of hiking with Little Dorrit claims a broad swath of ground. At the gates of an old estate I wept at the last paragraphs of Alice Adam’s "Roses, Rhododendron." By a one-mile marker, I wept as Tobias Woolf read Stephanie Vaughan’s "Dog Heaven." And here in my own neighborhood, a green-tiled house is inextricably tied to the moment when, on a quick walk, I listened as Michael Henchard, bedeviled by rum at a country fair, sold his young wife (and child) to the highest bidder in the very first chapter of The Mayor of Casterbridge. Thus, miles are walked, books are read and the landscape is littered with dialogue and description, desolation, striving and love. Literary moments are overlaid on views, scattered along the trail, and hung like ornaments on the rocks and bushes, the slow clouds and darkly gesticulating trees. Resources for reading and walking: Miette’s Bedtime Story Podcasts, New Yorker Fiction Podcasts, and Audible Books.