Searching for Clues: The Millions Interviews Lynne Kaufman

I've always been fascinated by intelligent women who subjugate themselves to the egos of their male partners. The now infamous marriage of writer and critic Elizabeth Hardwick to poet Robert Lowell is often interpreted as one such tale of subjugation, a complicated relationship that defies easy explanation. In her slim, new novel, Divine Madness, Lynne Kaufman explores Hardwick and Lowell’s tumultuous relationship in spare prose. Kaufman is first and foremost an award-winning playwright, and before Divine Madness was a novel, she wrote a play under the same title that was performed on Zoom during the pandemic. "I've written dozens of plays, and none of them have tempted me to transform them into novels," says Kaufman. "Lowell's and Hardwick's relationship is so against the tide of feminism, but what pushes against the expected is interesting to me." But with his bipolar swings and overspilling emotions, Lowell dominated the stage—or, rather, the screen—while Hardwick remained a secondary and somewhat vaguely outlined character. To remedy the imbalance of the play, Kaufman’s novel adopts Hardwick's point of view, exploring the myriad motivations that led Hardwick, an extraordinary essayist and cofounder of the New York Review of Books, to stay with Lowell despite his betrayals, infidelities, and volatility. Kaufman’s novel, unlike her play, leaps two decades into the past, when Hardwick was 33 years old and first became intimate with Lowell at Yaddo, the literary colony. It's a critical scene, one that seems to provide at least an early explanation for the longevity of their relationship. Their connection is instant: “The talk is far more lasting, varied, and thrilling than the sex,” writes Kaufman, inhabiting Hardwick. “I am in love with his mind. The mind that creates the brilliant poems I devour.” The rest of their story is told using an episodic structure, reminiscent of Hardwick's novel, Sleepless Nights. Time is often compressed. The first seven years are presented in one chapter. Then another seven years are compressed in one chapter, and soon they are 40. In some ways, the structure of Divine Madness mirrors Hardwick's life, which was constantly disrupted by Lowell's bipolar episodes that required yearly hospitalizations. Yet Kaufman avoids reducing Hardwick to a martyr, or a victim of sexist domination. Many of Kaufman’s playwriting instincts followed her into the novel. "I don't like describing things," she says. "I like brevity, compression, flashes of things. I know what a chair looks like. I don't care what kind of chair it is. I'm impatient. I'm drawn to incisive, tight writing, writing in which you can't miss a sentence. It's how I write my plays." Yet she doesn’t lean too heavily on dialogue, taking full advantage of her new form to explore Hardwick’s interior monologue—her thoughts, ideas, writing habits, philosophies. Which is to say, the woman beyond the marriage. To research the play, and later the novel—both of which were written prior to the publication of Cathy Curtis’s biography of Hardwick, A Splendid Intelligence—Kaufman read as many of Hardwick's essays, short stories, and novels as she could, and often quotes her directly in Divine Madness. And throughout, she attempts to mimic Hardwick’s now iconic voice: “I write an essay for Harpers,” she writes, ventriloquizing Hardwick, 'The Decline of Book Reviewing,' creates a great stir. Although the fates of authors and publishers depend on book reviews, no one has thought of reviewing the reviewers. So it's a first, and I don't spare any feelings. Not even the august New York Times or Herald Tribune escape my scorn. I call the reading of the Sunday morning book reviews a dismal experience, a mush of concession. Sweet, bland praise. A universal, lobotomized accommodation. But repeatedly, the book returns to Lowell, or Cal—as in "Caligula, the cruel and deranged Roman emperor," explains Hardwick's friend, Mary McCarthy. "Cal for Caliban, the spawn of a monster." When he meets Caroline Blackwood and doesn't return to New York, Hardwick understands this is not his usual fling. After seven months of back and forth, she files for divorce. Then a year later, he asks if she wants to see his new collection of poems. She's heard through the rumor mill that it's autobiographical, confessional. When The Dolphin is finally published, Hardwick is devastated to see that Lowell has excerpted Hardwick's letters to him, sometimes even rewriting them for his own purposes. In the end, after Lowell leaves Blackwood, Hardwick takes him back. How? Why? “What I miss most is married life,” Kaufman’s Hardwick writes. “Having a partner. Having a family. Shared meals. Shared talk. Shared money. Shared space. And having Cal read his poems to me. That I am the first person to hear those thoughts. To feel his eyes fixed on my face, hungrily awaiting my approval.” Kaufman isn't done with these two literary figures. She's working on another play, longer, more complex. "I'm not ready to leave it somehow," she says. "They are brilliant, complex, conflicted, driven, and ever so human. I keep looking at pictures of Hardwick and Lowell together, searching for clues. I keep reading their letters, listening to their hearts' revelations. This is very unusual for me." As she did in her novel, Kaufman, steeped in the world of Lowell and Hardwick, is sure to abide by one of Hardwick's credos, as she does in this novel: "The great difficulty is making a point, making a difference—with words." [millions_email]

Our Moment of Collective Rupture: The Millions Interviews Edie Meidav

Edie Meidav’s new lyric novel, Another Love Discourse, publishing June 21, nods to Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse beyond just its title: structurally, thematically, and philosophically, Meidav puts her narrator into direct conversation with Barthes’s 1977 book. Interwoven in this conversation is the intimate unraveling of a woman’s life, encompassing the pandemic and sheltering-in-place with her three daughters, the end of a 20-plus-year marriage, the loss of her mother, and a nascent love. With the myths of marriage and motherhood shattering around her, the narrator’s story provides fertile ground to invoke Barthes. Another Love Discourse is a small yet expansive book, containing passages from Barthes’ work interwoven with the narrator’s reflections on love, memory, child-rearing, death, and more. Her varied interpretations adhere to Barthes’ view that there can be infinite readings, depending on which semiotic system serves as one’s lens. I had the pleasure of speaking with Edie Meidav about Another Love Discourse, which is philosophically rigorous, narratively rich, and a pleasure to read and reread. Barthes would approve. Nina Schuyler: Can you describe the genesis of the novel? Edie Meidav: I began Another Love Discourse at the dawn of the coronavirus pandemic while teaching students online and trying to keep body and soul aligned. When the pandemic began to break over all of us, I was teaching a course called Confessions and Rants in which we discussed Barthes' A Lover’s Discourse.  Because I had just finished a big manuscript, a polyphonic novel on refugees, love, and telecommunications, because our whole world was tilting, I found myself responding to the innovative chapter titles of A Lover’s Discourse and using them as aleatory prompts, if not in their exact sequence. I came to the enterprise because, over these past years of writing and teaching, I began to see that most of us who like to create tread a paradoxical path: what comes most easily to us, whether in voice or form, often appears, at first, as our farthest destination. And yet—importantly—I believe the best art comes from finding that magic path of least resistance, the lens of your true subjectivity, the little song or gift you have to offer the world. During the pandemic, which I view as our collective unhusking, I thought, really, at this point, what do I have to lose? And so I embraced the oddity of the form as it emerged. NS: In the book, you use white space throughout. Sometimes text is aligned on the right, the white space on the left. Sometimes white space connects entire passages, and toward the end of the novel, you splice both techniques. Can you talk about the intention behind this? EM: My hope is that in the act of reading, the reader might feel the freedom of dance. The truth is that I began writing this book in prose blocks, using a more straightforward approach, but at one point my computer, as if a latter-day Helen Frankenthaler, mistakenly right-justified one section, and because I have a deep belief in both the aleatory and the improvisational as important parts of the creative path, because something new started to happen to the meaning with the dance across the page, I kept the format, developing it as I continued. The white space seemed to confess to the intimacy I wanted with you as an ideal reader as well as to our moment of collective rupture and decentralized authority. Deeper into the revision, I grappled with the question of how much to bring forward both the sonic elements and meaning inherent in line breaks, and ended by voting for the breaks acting as more dance than cage. If you as a reader find yourself newly awake or aware of temporality, then the spacing works. And maybe it is also fair to say that the prose blocks work a bit as a code, tending to offer context, background, motivation. NS: You’ve written a lyric novel in which there is great attention to sound and rhythm. Why was that important to you? EM: In college, I studied both painting and British Romantic poetry, lucky to study briefly with Robert Hass, but chose to pursue prose, in which time is less frontal, simultaneous, in which information needs to be delayed. In this book, I wanted time to move so that you, as the ideal reader, could choose whether you wished to linger on the meaning of certain sonic choices or cadence, but wouldn't need to if you wish merely to get to your destination. I wanted the reader to have the fun of travel, a fluid journey, as if on a canal-boat with the narrator, passing lit windows, enjoying moments that are visual, ruptured, and emotionally illustrated, invited into complicity, invited inside if you wish. People have sometimes told me my novels are dense as poetry, which made me wish, at times, to offer more breath and ease in the sentence. My hope with this book remains that as the narrator comes to understand x or y, perhaps the reader feels they travel deeply with her, undergoing some corollary catharsis or revelation. As a kid, I spent hours and hours improvising at the piano, which at the time was my main form of art and a first portal toward entering a flow state related to synesthesia. While playing, I saw stories and shapes, and now still deeply feel writing as music, wanting to give it the same kind of sinuous pauses or robust swells that characterize the music I love. The reason that, by the end of the writing, I called this a lyric novel is that I wanted the story to behave as a kind of Aeolian harp, a moment being played as if wind on strings. I have always loved the root of our idea of the lyrical: that the lyrical is innominate, a guttural, sonic breaking-out, an explosion of feeling on the ancient lyre. The multiplicity of tones in this book also has to do with my deep love for unfinished art—the demo track, the half-sketched Picasso notebook—all that invites us in. With this work, I didn’t want to smooth out creases but rather to invite all voices to sit at the table, even those that embarrass or terrify me, especially since I often find myself advising writers to vanquish the mediocritizing and homogenizing aspects of shame in order to find their most singular voices. Creativity always begs you to vanquish shame. With that concept my talisman, I decided to be that intimate with the reader. NS: In the novel, the narrator refers to Roland Barthes’ term “punctum,” writing:  Roland Barthes, a friend to this text, might tell us: the five cans of beans near the crazed writer’s fire would be the punctum, the detail that punctures the heart of the picture with vulnerability and risk.  As I understand it, punctum is a term Barthe invented for that detail in a photo that pricks you emotionally and viscerally awakes you in some way surpassing your conscious thought. How did “punctum” serve as an organizing principle for you?  EM: Barthes used punctum in contrast to his idea of the studium, which is the more instructive, documentary, intellectual aspect of a photo, the part that lends us cultural information, that speaks with authority of a more static order. The punctum matters to the structure of this book: I tried using a rhizomatic or perhaps fractal structure, hoping the reader might connect with a textual punctum which could then be submerged for a few pages and resurface again, varied with subtlety or not. You know how when you experience a bit of singular music moving into another passage, something happens to your heart in the transition? My hope is the reader can move punctum to punctum through this book, in a kind of textual lily pad dance. You might have had this experience, perhaps, when you feel a punctum in a photo, just as in a text, I think—that the urgency of whatever the photographer felt, saw, and documented can pierce you into the real. To me, this is one of the most important forces in art. And in general, if we create enough moments for a reader to pause and invoke the intimacy of their own lived experience, a reader might go on a ride which, by the end of a book, means some great shift in consciousness has occurred. NS: Thank you so much for speaking with me. EM: Thank you for being such an engaged reader. It is such a pleasure to have this oddly intimate book I wrote—truly as a form of survival, while my own life was threatened by the fun of neuro-Lyme during its writing—find such interesting and interested readers. You are helping me believe all over again in the project of what we try to do with this ancient technology of ours, these books we offer out into the sea of possibility and understanding, our greater imagined community.

In Case I Didn’t Survive: The Millions Interviews Devi Laskar

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In 2010, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation raided the home of author Devi Laskar, after her husband was falsely accused by his former employer of misusing resources for his start-up. With a rifle pointed at her, Laskar watched as the officers confiscated personal files, tax documents, her children’s iPods, CDs of classical Indian dance music, and her laptop. All her writing—poetry, short stories, novels-in-progress—lived on that laptop. In 2014, Laskar re-imagined one of the novels on the missing laptop, essentially rewriting it from memory, and in 2019, The Atlas of Red and Blues was published by Counterpoint Press. It went on to win the Asian/Pacific American Award and the Crook’s Corner Book Prize, and was a finalist for the Northern California Book Award. In 2016, the charges against Laskar’s husband were dismissed, but the couple’s things, including Laskar’s laptop, were never returned. The unfinished works—like all things without an ending—haunted her. With Circa, published by Mariner earlier this month, Laskar attempts to recreate and complete yet another unfinished novel from that lost laptop. Circa tells the story of Heera, an Indian-American teenage whose best friend, Marie, is killed by a drunk driver, an event that reframes Heera’s life. The losses are multiple: the novel is based on the death of Laskar’s own best friend. I spoke with Laskar about the resurrection and reimagining of Circa. Nina Schuyler: I want to start with the raid, which incalculably disrupted your work. How did that experience change you as a writer?  Devi Laskar: As you can imagine, from May 2010 to 2011, I didn’t write much. By the end of May 2011, I realized I couldn’t write at all because I was still so upset. My friend suggested that I watch the movie Julie & Julia, which is based on the true story of the writer Julie Powell, who in 2002 decided to make 524 recipes from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 365 days and blog about it. Because I’m a photographer, my friend suggested I take a picture every day, give it a title, and post it. So that’s what I did, and I still do it to this day. Thanks in part to doing this, slowly my writing returned. In 2012, I was able to write poetry again. In 2014, I got my prose back. Once I started writing again, I first returned to a short story I’d written that had been lost on the seized laptop, “When the Dolls Leave the Dollhouse.” That unpublished story was a nod to the model minority myth that Asians are passive, doll-like, into STEM, good citizens. I’d originally thought it would be one of many stories, in the vein of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. But as I began to enter the work again, I found I’d changed as a person and as a writer. I still liked the main character, but the story felt too small, too focused on family. This time I was influenced by Claudia Rankine’s book, Citizen: An American Lyric. I wanted my novel to explore racism and misogyny, what it meant to be Other in America. What resulted was The Atlas of Reds and Blues, which I finished in 2016, around the time the case against my husband was dismissed. NS: You sold The Atlas of Reds and Blues to Counterpoint Press in 2018, and it came out in 2019. You next turned to reviving your novel Circa. How did the book change from its conception?  DL: Like The Atlas of Reds and Blues, Circa was originally a family story, much quieter and more contained. It was not directly confronting anything controversial. But I wanted the novel to talk about patriarchy, how boys are treated differently than girls. There are three main characters, and the boy character has a lot of freedom compared to the girls. If it had been the male character who died in the story, then the two female characters, Marie and Heera, would have been able to grieve together. But because it was Marie who died, the grieving process for Heera was very different. I’d originally written Circa in flashback, which is also how I wrote The Atlas of Reds and Blues, and I didn’t want to do that again. For Circa, I was inspired by The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka and her use of first-person plural. Originally Circa was in first-person. Then I tried third. But after reading Otsuka’s book, I chose second-person. The second-person point of view does double duty. It’s reflective because it’s really first-person. It also closes the distance between the reader and the character, so the reader is right there in the room with the narrator, experiencing what the narrator experiences. NS: Another important theme in the novel is disappearance. Heera’s best friend disappears through death. When Heera marries, her husband essentially disappears. Heera’s mother undergoes a kind of disappearance, too. How did this theme become important to you?  DL: When the agent pointed his weapon at me, I automatically thought of my family and very close friends in case I didn’t survive. I still vividly remember the day of the raid. I used to work as a newspaper reporter, and I remember one of my editors at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin telling me, if you want to know why something is happening, you have to remain silent and watch and wait it out. During the raid, my editor’s voice came to me. I disappeared. I was very calm. I didn’t fight back. I became a reporter.  This experience and the idea of disappearing also enter the book through the lack of consequence for the drunk driver. In the story, the man who kills Marie is drunk. He’s part of the patriarchy, part of the dominant culture, and it becomes important that he not lose face. In the end, there are no consequences for him. NS: Can you talk a bit about your writing process? DL: I had the good fortune of having Lucille Clifton as a professor in grad school. She told us to read our work out loud. I do that. When I finished writing it, I read Circa out loud twice. When you do this, two things happen: if your tongue trips or stumbles, you’ve found an improper word choice and an opportunity to make the sentence better. I also caught when things were out of place—things revealed too early, for instance. I started out as a poet, then I became a newspaper reporter. I’ve had a lot of people in my life say, keep it short. I give myself constraints, like, Write this in 500 words. I also used to be much more factually based. When I originally wrote Circa, I tried hard to stay close to the facts about the loss of my best friend. But when I rewrote it, I let the facts go and focused on the story of friendship. I’m quite rotten when writing the middle of a book, so I do a pendulum; I write the beginning, then I write what I think is the end. Then, based on the ending, I go back to the beginning and rewrite it. Back and forth until I get to the middle. [millions_email]