Curiosities

Jon Clinch at Bloom

At Bloom this week, check out the feature on novelist Jon Clinch, and the accompanying Q&A, where Clinch talks in-depth about his decision to self-publish his fourth novel after having his first two published by Random House.   He says that his second novel, Kings of the Earth, "was set up for success: Oprah’s magazine put it at the top of their summer reading list, and it went on to be named one of the best novels of the year by theWashington Post. But the Oprah nod came six or eight weeks before publication date, and Random House either couldn’t or didn’t capitalize on it. By the time the book hit the shelves, it was already forgotten. I simply couldn’t bear the possibility that The Thief of Auschwitz might slip into the abyss."
Curiosities

Video Interview with Dar Williams and Spencer Reece

At Bloom this week, check out the multi-part feature on Spencer Reece's poetry project at an orphanage in Honduras, which includes a documentary film for which singer-songwriter Dar Williams is composing/performing the soundtrack.  Watch an exclusive two-part video interview with Reece and Williams about their friendship and collaboration.
Curiosities

BLOOM Seeks Social Media Intern and Editorial Assistant

Bloom, the new site that grew out of our Post-40 Bloomers series, is seeking to grow its staff.  Check out the two position descriptions here.
Curiosities

“Beyond Geography” Event at The Center for Fiction

Tonight, 12/4, in New York, The Center for Fiction, hosts "Beyond Geography," a discussion of the role of place in the art of fiction with Jennifer Haigh, Hari Kunzru, Jennifer Acker, and Sonya Chung, co-sponsored by The Common.
Essays

Confessions of an Analogian Writing for the Webs

1. I have to wonder how it happened. In early 2009, I wrote on my newly-minted blog: It’s a pretty weird time on the planet — the economics of everything, the tools of mass communication, the rise (rise? emergence? triumph? hard to say...) of self-publishing and DIY arts production and distribution. Everything’s spinning and turning — exhilaratingly for some, nauseatingly for others. I was leaning toward nausea at the time. In all things, I was analog. I worked slowly, and I liked material, concrete things. Like books, pens, paper. My first novel was a year from release, and I’d been told, by everyone I knew in the literary world, that I should start a blog. Reluctantly, awkwardly, I did. In 2010, in an essay for the anthology The Late American Novel, I wrote: Realistically: the printed book, in hard cover at the least, may well go by the wayside. By all accounts, digital technologies and the market are pushing print, as we know it, to the margins [...] All this may well be the reality of the moment [...] My hope, on the other hand is that the above trajectory is not a foregone conclusion; or if it is, not a permanent one. I also wrote that I hoped the pendulum swing toward digital would swing back, to a future time where “Those of us who write will write better books. We’ll pare back on blog-blabbing, will be freer from self-consciousness, quieter in our heads, slower and less distracted, more imaginatively limber and inventive.” It is now the dusk of 2012, and I am going on my fourth year writing regularly for a major online literary site — the one you are reading right now. And in a few weeks, I will be involved in launching yet another digital literary venture... but more on that in a moment. How did it happen? Mine is an unlikely Web byline, and yet, more often than I ever would have imagined, I have been “recognized,” at a party, or in an email exchange, even at an artists’ colony, for my essays and reviews at The Millions. You’re the one who wrote that piece about... Seriously? I think. You read that? Part of me is still in 2009, dizzy and disoriented from all the spinning and turning. 2. Back then, along with being told to start a blog, I was told to read blogs. At the time, I still had a paper subscription to the NY Times, and an iBook that had maxed out on hard-drive space (and thus loaded Web pages very slowly). I can’t remember exactly how I started: there was maybe one literary blog I knew about, so I poked around there. That blog led to another blog, and that to another. About a week into my explorations, I landed at The Millions. This was back when the format was still a single post daily, in vertical scroll. I found myself revisiting the site: something about it clicked (so to speak), it seemed to me both erudite and unpretentious, a place where I could hang out for a while. The content was interesting but not overwhelming, the pace of it rigorous but unhurried. It was the first blog on which I ever commented. I kept coming back. I didn’t bother reading other blogs; I thought, okay, I’ll just stick with this one, it’s what I can do. About a month into my new and exciting blog life, I posted something on my own blog about former New Yorker staff writer Dan Baum’s Twitter-essay, wherein he had described (in Tweets) being fired by David Remnick. I didn’t really know what Twitter was (I still don’t have an account), but I’d read the essay (via The Millions?) and was intrigued. It took me about a month, however, to get some thoughts together; which was, and still is, typical of me, i.e., I may have joined the digital commentariat, but no form of technology was going to make me a faster thinker. I was no breaking-news journalist. Nonetheless, within an hour of posting, a comment appeared — from Dan Baum. I stared at it. Really? This was my first experience with actual social networking. He wrote: Sonya, a lot of words have been spilled about my New Yorker twitterpost, but this one was the best. Thank you. I remember the rush, that thrill of being winked at from across a crowded (cyber) room. In that moment, I got it — what all this fuss about social networking was about. Give the tools a try, just be yourself; write what you care about. Weird things will start to happen, some of them might be good. Even weirder: Baum tweeted my post, and instantly, my little blog of 50 daily visitors was flooded with close to 1,000 visitors. I felt like a crowd had just burst into my home, where I hadn’t vacuumed or done the dishes, and I was wearing an ugly bathrobe. But the light bulbs started to go on. I wrote first to Dan Baum, to thank him for his comment (and confirm it was in fact him); he was gracious and friendly. Then, I wrote to the editor of The Millions: Dear Max, I’m a novelist/blogger/fiction teacher and frequent reader of The Millions. I recently posted on my blog a response to Dan Baum’s much-read Twitterpost about the New Yorker, and then received this comment from Dan Baum himself. I copied and pasted the comment, then suggested that the readers of The Millions might be interested in the post as “a curiosity.” To which Max replied: Very cool! I'll throw a link into our next roundup Best, Max Emboldened, I wrote back, asked Max if by chance I might write for The Millions sometime. He replied that I should submit a draft of something, which I did. He worked with me on editing it, then published it, then a few others. After a couple of months of guest posting, I became a staff writer. 3. Two years ago, at a panel on publishing that I coordinated for the creative writing students at Columbia University, someone asked how important did the panelists think blogging and social networking were for one’s literary career. A couple of the panelists said that they thought it was very important, that these days authors were more responsible than ever for their own publicity, not to mention connecting with editors and agents, and that social networking was the way to do that. One of the panelists, a well-published fiction writer, offered an opposing view: “That stuff can be very distracting,” she said. “If you’d rather focus your energy and time on your novel or stories, you should do that.” Afterwards, I thanked the panelist for her words. “The students need to hear that,” I said to her. “That no matter what, their creative work is most important.” At the same panel the following year, which I also moderated, a published writer in attendance asked if the panelists had any thoughts for someone who didn’t write short-form. “It seems like a lot of publishing connections get made through blog-writing, but what if you’re really a long-form writer, and you’re working on a book, and that’s really all you’re doing?” I found myself interjecting thus: “I’m that kind of writer, as well. In an ideal world, I would be living in the woods, writing novels and long stories and nothing else. But at some point, I realized that I didn’t have that luxury; that it was a good idea to take advantage of all these outlets for short-form publishing.” My reactions to these two authors are not in direct opposition, but the nuances have shifted. I still believe that long-form creative writers must determine and do what works best for them; to learn what is distracting versus what is nourishing; to make choices that get them to finish and publish their books. Over the past few years, there have been moments when I’ve considered ceasing to write for The Millions, so that, in addition to teaching (where I earn my living) I can focus exclusively on fiction. But I’ve come to realize that, for me, engaging in both long-form and short-form, analog and digital, work well together. Strictly speaking, yes, the time I spend writing for online publication is time not spent writing my second novel; and yet it is still, for me, time spent nourishing my writing life. There is, it would seem — needs to be for most of us in this publishing environment — more to the writing life than manuscript word counts and book deals. One must be mindful of the stamina, and the supportive community, required for the long haul of long-form literary writing; which is, even in the case of relative “success,” increasingly divorced from a viable livelihood and voluminous readership. Being able to write and publish short-form work, on a somewhat regular basis, has energized me to keep showing up at my fiction desk (mornings, no internet), which is, more accurately — and perhaps appropriately in light of this notion of complementary activities — not really a desk at all, but a spiral-bound notebook in which I write long-hand. I should say, too, that I spend relatively little time on either Facebook or Twitter. If a Tweet is 140 characters, and this essay is 11,000 characters, then you could say that this is what I do every month, alongside novel writing, in lieu of 80 Tweets. Writing short essays and reviews are also a way for me to think. This past summer, I worked for two solid months on a long piece about psychic homelessness, i.e., geographic mobility, an unstable sense of place. The piece ranged and roamed, encompassing the essays of Emerson, the novels of Wendell Berry, the memoirs of Kathleen Norris, Jimmy Carter, and Donald Hall, the “anxiety of influence,” reflections on my marriage and divorce, meditations on the legacy of immigration, questions of social class... it was a mess, and I trashed it, heavy with a sense of failure. This fall, I’ve had a chance to resurrect the piece — fragments of it, that is — in short form, in an online column at The Common, called “Annals of Mobility.” I can think out the issues one at a time and, perhaps a year from now, look at them in the aggregate and understand what it is I feel and have wanted to say. In this way, ironically, Web writing has slowed me down and allowed me to take my time with a complex idea. 4. Which brings me to Bloom. In September 2011, The Millions graciously allowed me a platform for highlighting a group of authors, and, perhaps more significantly, a varied way of looking at and engaging in the writing life — that of zig-zag paths, a slower pace, living multiple lives; and ultimately “succeeding,” one way or another, in one’s own good time. I am referring to the “Post-40 Bloomers” series, which I’ve been honored to write and edit over the past year. In a few weeks, you’ll be hearing about Bloom — a new site, originating from “Post-40 Bloomers,” carrying on and expanding the series, with support from The Millions. Instead of monthly, you’ll read about a “Bloomer” weekly, along with other great features related to later-life blooming. So far, Bloom is scheduled to feature Donald Ray Pollock, Peter Ferry, Deborah Eisenberg, Bram Stoker, W.M. Spackman, Kate Chopin, Shannon Cain, Karl Marlantes, George Eliot, Samuel Richardson, Penelope Fitzgerald, Joseph Kanon, Pauline Chen... this exciting list goes on and on. The irony of it all delights and humbles me. Bloom is about taking one’s time, sometimes off the beaten path. We’re claiming the technology of fast-and-instant and using it to talk about the many different ways of living, working, creating — fast, slow, direct, indirect, prolific, sparse. I won’t be moderating that publishing panel again this year, but if I were, I would say to the anxious student who asks about blogging and digital publishing — who is worried about money and family, his messy creative process, and his prospects for literary “success” — I would say to him: Just be yourself. You will bloom in good time. Image via aussiegall/Flickr
Post-40 Bloomers

Post-40 Bloomer: Susan Starr Richards Escapes the ‘Southern Boy’ World

Click here to read about “Post-40 Bloomers,” a monthly feature at The Millions. 1. I’m not sure why certain regional writers remain regional; why someone along the way -- a publicist, a reviewer, perhaps even the author himself -- imagines that only those familiar with the setting, or particular sorts of characters, will “connect” with the work. Someone once said, “The more particular the detail, the more universally it strikes us” -- it may have been a well-known author, or a student in one of my workshops (or both), I'm not sure. Regardless, I’ve been repeating this idea, to myself and to others, along with its converse -- that generalized descriptions, and familiar or broadly-painted characters, are in fact harder to connect with as a reader. In a brief blurb about Susan Starr Richards’s story collection The Hanging in the Foaling Barn -- on a site called KentuckyLiving.com -- the reader is told: “Those in the racing industry in particular will enjoy her writings on the horse world in Kentucky.” I found this site after reading the collection, while attempting to do research on Richards (and finding very little online); and it may have been that narrow idea of who “in particular” would enjoy this collection that confirmed my inclination to feature Richards in this column. 2. “Joel came around a curve on Sorter Ridge, hauling a mare to the breeding shed, and found the local murderer trying to choke a pony.” There is pretty much nothing about this opening sentence (to the story entitled, “The Murderer, The Pony, and Miss Brown to You”) that is personally familiar to me: I’ve never lived on anything like a ridge; I’m not at all sure what happens in a breeding shed, technically speaking; and I’m even less sure what sort of community spawns and maintains a “local murderer.” I may have seen a pony once, at a grade school jamboree, but who knows if what our suburban town was calling a pony wasn’t in fact a large dog wearing a wig and a party hat. My point being that I found this opening sentence masterful in its humor, particularity, menace, and mystery -- even as (perhaps because) the world she is introducing is quite obviously going to be one with which I ostensibly have very little in common. About half of the stories in Richards’s collection are immersed in the world of rural Kentucky and horse breeding (the other half might be described as dark romances). These characters are portrayed in predictable ways on the one hand—as simple, hard-working folk whose lives are closely tied to the land and the animals in their care. At the same time, it’s the complexity of their moral reasoning that strikes the reader, and reminds us urbane sophisticates that moral hazard -- which is to say blind, unsophisticated non-thinking—occurs more often in complicated systems than in simpler ones. “In Clarence Cummins and the Semi-Permanent Loan,” James Petrie, a level-headed foreman on a wealthy man’s tobacco farm, is faced with reconciling a conflict between his tenant farmer, the eponymous Clarence Cummins, and his employer, the money-minded Bud Finnell. Clarence is good-hearted but a simpleton, prone to self-delusion and wobbly judgment; James mostly humors him, seeing no harm in enjoying Clarence’s eccentricities. But Clarence is also proud, with a fierce sense of his own dignity, so when Bud Finnell accuses him of stealing his wife’s pony cart, all hell breaks loose, and Clarence threatens to shoot Finnell. The misunderstandings that led to the crisis comprise a jolly comedy of errors; but what interests me about the story is James’s interior considerations of whether he could have prevented the conflict: Maybe he should have made Clarence sign an affidavit that he would never sell, try to sell, or let anybody else try to sell the pony cart. Maybe, earlier, he should have made it clear that he was running the farm, and not Clarence. Maybe he should have even pointed out to him that mares always have longer legs than their babies, and that Clarence was the one who thought the fence would hold. In other words, maybe a man should not be allowed to be self-deluded, no matter how harmless he seems or how happy it makes him to live in his own reality; maybe this man is harming himself, if not others. Maybe it is one’s job, as friend and neighbor, to speak hard truth, and to encourage conformity of mind, for the other’s sake. And yet, the story ends on both a lofty and complex note (humorous, too): Clarence’s defense against Finnell’s accusation was that he loaned the cart to his shopkeeper friend to help draw in more business, which the friend desperately needed. It was the shopkeeper who then tried to sell the cart, to Finnell’s wife herself. When James asks Clarence if he made clear to the shopkeeper that he could not sell it, Clarence answers, “'Why no?  I never told him that?' Clarence looked over at James, a mild, amazed glance.  'Don’t you know?  That would have broke his spirit?'" It’s an ending reminiscent of Chekhov. 3. When Finnell asks James if he thinks Clarence would really shoot him, James answers, “On the subject of Clarence it doesn’t pay to think. He’s a loose horse.” Other loose horses -- human and equine—abound in this collection. In the title story -- the O. Henry Prize-winner for 1994 -- the nightman in a foaling barn calls the breeder in the middle of the night to announce that he is planning to hang himself in the barn. After a bit of banter, Luther, the breeder, preoccupied with the horses that are about to foal, says, “You got to call up and want to kill yourself here in the middle of May. Couldn’t you wait till June, at least, when foaling season’s over?” He slammed the phone down. Then sighed. It’s the sighing -- it’s own full sentence in that passage—that speaks to the dramatic, and literary, gravitas of a story that opens rather wryly. We laugh nervously at Maurice the nightman’s ridiculous threat, and yet at the same time we understand, as Luther does, that the tragic often comes in ridiculous packages. Maurice is dead serious about his despair, just as Clarence was about his rage. People’s lives are at stake, right alongside their livelihoods: Luther’s preoccupation with the foaling mares in the face of Maurice’s announcement is on the one hand ironic comedy, and on the other straight-faced reality. Which is to say that Richards is not sentimental about the difficulties of rural life and of human-animal relationships. But foaling -- that is, the birthing of these creatures who are as engaging and lively as the humans -- is also a deep reality of this world, a kind of cyclical imprint. It’s the direct experience of a foal’s birth, orchestrated and witnessed by men, in both “The Hanging in the Foaling Barn” and the aforementioned pony murderer story, that offers powerful narrative and emotional opposition to the sheer physical grit of farm life and the rough-around-the-edges characters it engenders. 4. Two of the collection’s romantic stories, “Man Walking” and “Gawain and the Horsewoman,” are fantastical tales of not-quite-human passion. Of the two, the latter for me was more absorbing, fully immersed in the genre of myth (the story is based on Celtic legend), as opposed to the more cerebral, and a bit confusing, mystery-solving drive of the former. From “Gawain:” The most beautiful mare he’d ever seen, he said to himself, and not a sign of a saddle or bridle on her. Pure white. A fine head, high withers, a strong shoulder; and she was long and deep, all her lines flowing together smoothly. A step like a dancer; neck drooping, easy. Following the mare now through twilight meadows. It was a matter of faith to see her -- the almost-shape, as if the mist thickened a little, there. If he looked hard at what he saw, he wouldn’t see it any more. He, Gawain, follows the mare and comes upon its siblings, along with its mysterious, laconic mistress -- “slim and brown, her dark hair clipped straight across by her ear.” This magical story of a stormy, sea-cliff horse race between Gawain and Dana the Horsewoman unfolds not only into lush, lyrical fantasy (“did you never see the horses’ heads, with their manes all silver, rising above the great combers on full-moon nights?” Dana asks) but also creeps up on you deliciously as feminist fiction: He found himself, sometimes, almost wishing for some threat to the quiet life of the little farmstead, so that he might be of use in defending it -- for a big cat preying on the foals? […] for an awful giant trying to carry off the younger woman on his horse? but […] What giant could catch her? […] The two women [Dana and her sister Maude] seemed to have no curiosity about him. It was as if his life had begun, as far as they were concerned, when he appeared at their place […] If women were confusing to him before—and they had been -- now he was lost indeed, presented with a woman who apparently wanted nothing in the world from him but that he would ride in a race against her. Something in him warred with the idea of doing anything against a woman—he’d always been taught to do things for them. But he meant to oblige her in this way since he couldn’t in any other. 5. Richards doesn't seem to have referred to herself publicly as a feminist per se, but in a 2004  interview with the Journal of Kentucky Studies, she did speak of the “fairly sexist environment” of writing classes in the late 1950s, “the ‘Southern boy’ world -- that’s what I was thrown into, and […] that’s kind of a brutal world for a woman. Some of your sensibilities are ridiculed; you’re afraid to have them.” Born and raised in Florida, Richards and her husband moved to Kentucky when she was in her 20s. She had a job teaching at the University of Kentucky, but they also quickly got into the horse business, starting as market breeders and then both breeding and racing their own horses (from which they’ve since retired). In an interview with her publisher Sarabande, she said: I’ve walked the mares’ field in the dark, in the fog, checking to see if some mare’s decided to foal on the wrong night […] I’ve stayed up all night for nights on end with my husband, milking a mare out every two hours and lifting a sick foal up onto its feet, till it could get back to nursing on its own again. I’ve been kicked, I’ve been knocked down and jumped over, I’ve been shoved around innumerable times, I’ve been exhilarated by what just happened, I’ve been terrified by what just happened, I’ve been euphoric about what just happened, I’ve been in desperation about what just happened. All these things in one way or another have influenced my life. My time was always fairly equally divided between the horses and my writing, the difference being that the horses always came first, and the writing had to be fitted in around their needs and their schedules. But in my imagination, there was always a confluence of visions. You don’t take up the horse business unless horses have already captured your imagination -- it’s an abstraction to you before it becomes a reality. Richards published a collection of “Horse Fables” in 1987, when she was 49, and began publishing her stories after that, when she was in her 50s. A poetry collection, The Life Horse, was published in 2005, and The Hanging in the Foaling Barn came out in 2006, when she was 68. Other than a few classes with Andrew Lytle at the University of Florida, she has not studied fiction writing formally in a workshop or conference setting. Her husband Dick, who was also in that class with Lytle, has been her primary reader. She has said that she is more influenced by her life in Kentucky than any particular author, but names Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, and The Odyssey as influences. Richards’s first novel, Chapel of Carnal Love, will be available as an e-book later this fall on Amazon.  She is now 74 years old. Listen to Susan Starr Richards read an excerpt -- recorded in the shed on her farm where she writes -- from the O. Henry Prize-winning story, “The Hanging in the Foaling Barn.”
The Millions Interview

All You Have Is What You Remember: The Millions Interviews James Salter

In January 2010, I wrote a piece here about sex writing – specifically, sex writing by the “representative” males of two distinct literary generations. Katie Roiphe, in a New York Times Book Review essay, had asserted that today’s young literary men have lost their belief in the power of sexuality to ignite, and to immortalize. Her observations resonated with me, and I argued in response that we should look not to Roth/Bellow/Mailer/Updike (Roiphe’s touchstones) for this lost potency, but rather to James Salter. Of Roiphe’s Great Male Narcissists (the GMNs, as David Foster Wallace coined them), only Philip Roth is still alive, the kid among them, now 79. Jim Salter, on the other hand, turned 87 this year; and what a year (or two) it’s been: in late 2010, Salter received PEN USA’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In the spring of 2011, he was presented (by Robert Redford) with the Paris Review’s Hadada Award about which Salter said in his acceptance speech, “This is my Stockholm.” A month later, James Salter: A Sport and a Pastime – a documentary focusing both on that most well-known of his novels, as well as his lifelong love affair with France – premiered in New York City. Last summer, Salter was announced the winner of the Rea Award for the Short Story – an honor he shares with Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Grace Paley, Donald Barthelme, Alice Munro, Deborah Eisenberg, Mavis Gallant, Eudora Welty... and, well, just about every modern master of the form you can think of. Last but not least, Salter was the recipient of the 2012 PEN/Malamud Award, in recognition, again (and again, in good company), of high excellence in the art of the short story. For many years, Jim Salter has been deemed a writers’ writer – a dubious branding – but now, finally, it seems he is receiving his due respect in the broader literary community (Stockholm notwithstanding). And all this while continuing to maintain a busy speaking/travel schedule, as well as write critical essays for the New York Review of Books, an introductory essay to Jacques Bonnet’s Phantoms on the Bookshelves, and (drum-roll) the final draft of All That Is, his sixth novel, due out from Knopf in April 2013. When Open Road Media contacted me about conducting a Q&A with Salter – on the occasion of the release of A Sport and Pastime and Solo Faces (Salter's fifth novel, about a talented, disillusioned rock climber) in e-book format this past June – I did not hesitate to say yes. They wrote: “Our focus is on the lasting resonance of his writing.” I’d been corresponding now and again with Salter (I interviewed and wrote a profile of him in 2011, published in Tin House, and also spoke about his work in the Sport documentary), and all this talk of “lasting resonance” made me think back to that first email I received from him, shortly after my 2010 essay was posted: Thanks very much for your essay, which I just read, a bit late – apparently we're deeper in the woods here than I thought. I was also interested in the responses [comments], especially the references to other books. I agree with the comment about Hemingway always writing about sex, or something to that effect, meaning it was a subtext. He wrote a startlingly sensual English, very male and very sensual, alive to the senses, and sex, as we like to call it, is sensationally alive, both in the flesh and/or in the mind. I don't like Hemingway, in part because he looms and also I don't like the man. He's a type you run into. Women have more or less tipped the cart over -- you probably don't realize that because you're, I assume, just a kid -- and some confusion is the result. I don't mean that it shouldn't have been tipped, there is no should or shouldn't. I always liked Robert Phelps's citation -- he must have been quoting someone -- first the flesh, then the spirit. Again, with thanks. JS Two-and-a-half years ago, being new to the literary community (my first novel was published in March of that year), an email from the likes of James Salter came as a shock. Was it really from him? I read it over a few times, and clearly it was – the impeccable manners, the gorgeous compression of idea and sentiment, the wry humor. I responded immediately, awkwardly, and a kind of unlikely correspondence began -- between me, “just a kid,” and JS. Only now has it occurred to me to wonder what made him write that first email; or, rather -- with simple good manners as the obvious explanation -- what that essay might have meant to him at that particular time. That a young writer (and female -- many of Salter's acolytes, I've noticed, are male), engaged in online literary conversation, had elevated him to an eminent place in the canon – above the writers who’d out-famed him, strictly speaking – must have spoken directly to his ambitions. Were there others like me -- young women and men, and generations after that -- who would continue to read, and write about, his work? he may have wondered. The mounting evidence of the last two years would suggest a resounding yes. Without further ado, following is a brief account, on the occasion of celebrating his work’s “lasting resonance,” of what James Salter thinks these days about literary ambition, the relationship between life and art, heroes, and contemporary literature. The Millions: In your 1993 Paris Review interview with Edward Hirsch, you said that if you could choose, you would want to be remembered for A Sport and a Pastime (1967) and Light Years (1975). Open Road Media is releasing Sport and Solo Faces (1979) in e-book format, so that your work “can be introduced to new generations of readers and digital audiences.” How did they decide on those two titles, and how do you feel about the selections? James Salter: Open Road wanted to publish A Sport and a Pastime together with Light Years in a series called or regarded as modern classics, but Light Years wasn’t available -- Vintage was already publishing Light Years as an e-book -- and was replaced by Solo Faces. TM: I know Solo Faces began as a screenplay – do you have a different sort of feeling for it as a result? JS: The novel, I think, overcame its humble beginnings and there are things in it that could not have been expressed in the dialogue and action of a script. TM: I was struck by this description of mountain climbing in Solo Faces: That you come to these places and say to yourself, I can’t do this, I know I can’t do this, I’m certain I can’t do it, but I have to do it, I know I have to. You would give anything to be somewhere besides there, but there’s no use thinking about it. You have to go on. In the end it uplifts you somehow. Some might describe writing a novel in this way. Do you find writing very difficult? (If climbing isn’t the right metaphor for the difficulty, is there another one you’d employ?) JS: There’s wide agreement that writing is difficult even for very good writers. Sometimes it’s more difficult, sometimes less. In climbing the difficulty defines the achievement. In writing it doesn’t have anything to do with it. TM: Both your stories and novels have been critically acclaimed. Other than the obvious — pace of work, for instance -- are there differences in the way you approach novel-writing versus story-writing? Do you feel more at home or confident in one form or the other? JS: A story is an engagement although it can be protracted. A novel is a campaign. It’s easier to begin a story. I find it easier. There’s also the consideration of what is it that you’re writing? What length and depth does it deserve? It’s also harder to write a story because there’s no room for anything that doesn’t belong in it. In a novel there’s room for anything. TM: Recently, on the New Yorker fiction podcast, you paid homage to your friend, the late Reynolds Price, thus: “He wrote numerous books, more than 20, and yet one single story in the New Yorker, and that fact appealed to me somehow.” This struck me, because I’ve been thinking lately about common, current notions of “literary success,” and how myopic and limiting those notions can be. You yourself have also had just one story published in the New Yorker. Am I projecting, or were you thinking the same thing about narrow measures of success? JS: It wasn’t meant to reflect myself. Anyway, what is literary success in the New Yorker? Three stories, five stories, five in one year? The answer is probably whatever number gets you known as a writer published in the New Yorker. That’s a big step up, but it’s probably not going to support you. TM: How have your own ambitions as a writer evolved over the last 50-some years from the time you first started writing seriously? JS: They haven’t evolved. Even at the beginning my ambition was to write something that people would go on reading. TM: Both Vernon Rand, from Solo Faces, and Viri, from Light Years, explicitly engage with/meditate on the nature of fame, as do characters in your story collection Dusk. How important are these things – notoriety, recognition – in relation to true greatness, excellence, or heroism? Do you have any feeling for how or whether they “should” be? I am thinking of Viri’s idea, which he retracts: “Greatness, like virtue, need not be spoken about in order to exist.” JS: I think he was right to retract it. Virtue can exist without being known about but greatness can’t. If [Walter] Bonatti had climbed the southwest pillar of the Dru alone and for the first time, as he famously did, and no one ever knew, that act would lose its significance. TM: Speaking of virtue... in speaking of other writers – both peers and forebears – you seem interested in and concerned with both the quality of the work, and the character of the man. For example you’ve spoken highly and/or affectionately of Irwin Shaw, Robert Phelps, Ford Madox Ford, and Isaac Babel – along with Reynolds Price – among others, and you’ve also mentioned that you find Hemingway’s personal character distasteful. Does your estimation of a man, or woman, affect the way you view/experience the literary work? JS: There are a lot of writers that you read without knowing anything about them. When afterwards you do know something, it doesn’t really change things that much. It’s nice to think that you’d like the writer if you liked the book, which is why you want to learn about or meet certain writers. TM: More generally speaking, do you think there is some undeniable relation between a writer’s life and his art? JS: Life = art. TM: Can you say more what you mean? Is that formula an ideal, or a reality? JS: Everything you know, nobody else knows, and everything you imagine or see belongs to you alone. What you write comes out of that, both in the trivial and deepest sense. TM: What did you mean when you said (in Open Road’s biographical video), “I admire myself more on the page than in life”? JS: That’s only saying I like what I’ve written more than what I am. TM: In the Paris Review interview, you said: “I believe there’s a right way to live and to die. The people who can do that are interesting to me. I haven’t dismissed heroes or heroism.” Have you known/encountered many true heroes in your lifetime? JS: You mean known personally – perhaps two. TM: Who are they and/or what defines them as heroic to your mind? JS: I’m talking about life and death, not just courageous struggle – Royal Robbins and James Kasler – a legendary big-wall climber, and a famed combat pilot. TM: Are your characters generally more courageous and heroic than the real people you know/have known in life? (I’m thinking of Vernon Rand, who seems to strive for a kind of purity of soul, and maybe a little bit of Philip Dean in Sport and Chappellet from Downhill Racer; but really, nearly all your characters strive for the pure, the heroic in some way.) JS: Yes, a little purer, I would say. But not Chappellet, who’s only ego-driven, or Dean, who’s just a figment. TM: Is fiction-writing a way for you to reach for those heroic characters, to somehow insist on their existence? JS: A certain kind of fatalistic figure, doomed to fail, interests me. Especially doomed to fail because of ideals or admirable flaws. TM: Does this imply that your vision of life is somewhat tragic, i.e., idealism often dooms one to failure? JS: I’m really referring to a ruinous sense of obligation or honor. TM: You often employ an omniscient narrator that also has a tone of omnipotence — a voice that declares Truths. It’s a particular narrative tone, which I noticed especially when re-reading Solo Faces — There is something greater than the life of the cities, greater than money and possessions; there is a manhood that can never be taken away. A human face is always changing but there is a moment when it seems perfect, complete. It has earned its appearance. It is unalterable. Did you ever hesitate to use this sort of narrative voice, or did it always come naturally to you? JS: Seems natural. TM: How and when did you begin to recognize what kind of writer you are/aren’t? JS: Books were what made me want to be a writer, certain wonderful books, wonderful then, anyway. I did what everyone does, I kept trying. Gradually it began to become a little clearer. I wanted to write books of a certain kind, books that weren't cheap. There is a lot of failure involved. TM: Do you mean discarded drafts (failure in your own estimation)? Rejected manuscripts (failure as judged by publishers)? JS: Failure in various ways, failure to get started, failure to go on, failure when you realize what you’ve written is no good, failure to come to that realization. All that is part of it. TM: Did you imitate other writers before finding your own distinct relationship to language and character? JS: I didn’t really imitate anyone at the beginning, but I didn’t have much of an idea who I was, and I didn’t know how to write, how to begin and end, what to leave out. I didn’t know any writers or readers, for that matter -- a good reader or two is invaluable. TM: When did you start having readers? Have they been the same person/people for many years? JS: Robert Phelps was the first person whose opinion mattered to me. That was in the 1970s. Then Bill Benton and a neighbor named Peggy Clifford who is a journalist. Benton is a poet and novelist. At present, none of these, only my wife [the writer Kay Salter]. TM: You said once of Nabokov, “Of course, here’s a poet. You say to yourself, Vladimir, let’s be honest. You are a poet, and you’re just writing a lot of prose.” Your own prose is often lyrical, as inventive and surprising as poetry -- could the same be said of you? JS: That was a sophomoric thing to say. TM: In the years since A Sport and a Pastime was published, in 1967, you seem to have taken more time (8-9 years) to finish and publish a book. Did something slow or quiet down in your process, or was it more to do with circumstances? JS: I’ve wasted some time. Some of it was with [writing] movies. TM: The epigraph to Light Years is a quote from Renoir: “The only things that are important in life are the things you remember.” And you recently said, “You realize that everything is a dream; only those things that have been written down have any possibility of being real. That’s all that exists in the end: what’s been written down.” Does this mean that, for you, the things that you remember are more in the realm of art than in the realm of life? JS: All you have in life is what you remember. It’s the one filament connecting you to the void. It doesn’t necessarily become art. TM: It’s been 15 years since the publication of your memoir, Burning the Days — what might be the remembered bits, the memoir fragments, from this most recent time period? JS: The death of various people, the world without them. TM: Do you think you have another memoir – a book or long essay – in you? JS: One memoir is more than enough. I might write an essay. TM: Back to Open Road’s digital releases: is there anything – good, bad, neither – that you see or notice about the way today’s readers engage with literature, especially given how much of literature is delivered digitally? JS: I don’t think all of this is clear yet. TM: Do you read e-books or other literary material on a computer or e-reading device? JS: I read on the computer occasionally. I don’t have a Kindle or ipad. TM: What, if anything, do you feel hopeful or excited about in contemporary literature? JS: The energy in it. The virtuosity and daring. TM: What do you feel troubled by? JS: The threat of great crowds. TM: Given your history in the movie business, and your once-strong sense that movies “are unquestionably the enemy of writing, and this is something that is unresolvable” -- what has it been like for you to be the subject of multimedia projects – a feature-length film, videos, etc? JS: I am retracting all bitter statements about film. TM: What can you tell us about your new novel? JS: All That Is, Knopf, pub. April 2, 2013. An intimate story about a life in New York publishing. TM: Ten years or so in the making? JS: About ten.
Post-40 Bloomers

Post-40 Bloomer: Mary Costello’s Immaculate Sadness

Click here to read about “Post-40 Bloomers,” a new monthly feature at The Millions. 1. Fifteen years-plus in the making, Mary Costello’s first story collection, The China Factory, is the work of a serious and talented writer. The experience of reading it was a curious one, which is to say compelling: I found myself not wanting to put the book down, and when I did, it was difficult to pick it back up. The resistance was emotional – there is much sadness, of the starkly honest and lonely variety, in Costello’s stories. She gets it so right – achingly right – how love and loss are indistinguishable. Every time I girded up and continued, however, I was rewarded, and without delay; there is little warm-up period when you enter each of these stories. You are there, on the underside of a character’s skin, in her mind, behind his sightline, swimming pacifically in the underwaterness of their emotions, somehow muted and color-sharp at once. If there is something that ties these stories together, it is not so heady as a theme, like “the existential state of aloneness.” It is more that loneliness envelops the world of each story like a living, moving thing, and in the opening sentences, a kind of emotional atmosphere opens up, like a tiny mouth, where the reader enters, slips in quietly, whereupon the mouth closes, seals the reader in. If this description strikes you as sexual, then it’s not far off; these stories want all of you, mind and body and soul, like a consummation. 2. Mary Costello is not a formally trained writer of the creative-writing-program ilk. Now in her mid-40s, she has been a primary school teacher in Dublin for the last 20-some years. She started writing stories in her early twenties – before that, it had never occurred to her in any serious way that she might be a writer – and had early success with two stories, one published in Ireland’s (now-defunct) Sunday Tribune, the other shortlisted for the Hennessy Literary Award. She enrolled in a creative writing class back then, and attended a writers’ conference; but then her full-time work as a teacher took precedence, and, as she puts it, “life intervened,” she was not connected with a literary community, and she didn’t publish another story until 2010. It was The Stinging Fly literary magazine – champions especially of new Irish writers and the short-story form -- that accepted her stories, and subsequently The Stinging Fly Press (founded in 2005, with four titles in print) that approached her about publishing a collection – which was released this past spring. It’s a wonderful Cinderella story, to my mind: the book received an enthusiastic review in The Guardian from the likes of Anne Enright. 3. As an autodidact who has labored, slowly, quietly, over the years, Costello demonstrates impressive story craft; her stories' openings strike me as wonderfully instructive examples – classroom worthy -- of getting right to it. Outside my room the wind whistles. It blows down behind our row of houses, past all the bedroom windows and when I try to imagine the other bedrooms and the other husbands and wives inside, I hear my own husband moving about downstairs. ("Things I See") He left behind the warm waters of the bay, the seaweed, the blue of the Burren. He swam in a current of his own and hovered, like a skydiver in the dark. He would swim out far, underwater, to the Continental Shelf. He no longer felt man, but marine. He had a need to reach the depths, to glide to the silent darkness and feel the cold brush of luminous sea creatures [...] In the shelter he dressed and wrung out his swimming trunks. He combed his hair and felt himself coming back to the world. Mona would be in the kitchen at that moment, clearing away the breakfast things. ("Sleeping With a Stranger") The summer I turned seventeen I worked as a sponger in a china factory. I walked to the end of our road every morning to catch my lift to the city with Gus Meehan, and every evening I came home with a film of fine dust lodged in the pores of my skin. From the back seat I had a view of Gus’s broad shoulders and the china clay caked in the creases of his neck and in his grey hair […] Gus was shy and deferential to everyone […] He had a slight stammer and drew his meaty hands close to him on the steering wheel, as if they might cause offence. ("The China Factory") He hears music when he wakes these mornings. The notes float up from below, pouring softly into the room, and for a moment he thinks it is Miriam, Miriam perched on the piano stool with her legs swinging and the purple-flowered wallpaper swirling around her and the notes spilling from her fingers […] He says nothing to Marie because, of course, there is no music, the music is in his head and Miriam is in Canada, a grown woman living alone in a beautiful glass house set into a wooded hill above Vancouver. ("Little Disturbances") I give these to you in succession like this because we can see, cumulatively, Costello’s gift for storytelling: expertly, simply, she lets us know, in these first words, both what the story is going to be about, and, beneath the surface of place and players and events, what the story is going to be about. The intimacies and dissonances, longings and losses, they are all here, plainly, in these first sentences; if emerging delicately from the shadows. And it’s that understated, umbrous quality that draws us in and forward: the sense that ordinary lives are filled with extraordinary desire and disenchantment. In “Things I See,” a woman and her stay-at-home husband live together in persistent tension, while they also carry the shared, unspoken memory of his making a pass at her younger sister years before. In “Sleeping With a Stranger,” a man remembers a one-night extramarital intimacy, never confessed, and clings to it, while at his mother’s deathbed. In “Little Disturbances” an elderly man has the (correct) premonition of terminal illness, and his regrets begin to haunt him, the limitations of love both given and received. And in the title story, a woman looks back on the working-class life she escaped, via memories of the tragic death of a neighbor -- a distant relative and factory co-worker who once acted heroically and prevented a mass murder. 4. Of the 12 stories in the collection, five feature male protagonists, either written in first person or close-third. I was interested to note that my three favorite stories were among these five. If Costello sometimes falters, for me it was evident in a pattern of narrative overreaching – forcing emotional exposition -- toward the climax and conclusion in a few of the stories, particularly those featuring female protagonists. From “This Falling Sickness,” a story about the death of a woman’s ex-husband in a climbing accident, the shock of which brings back to her the death of their young son and the subsequent unraveling of the marriage: She wanted to flee the graveyard and find their island out in the bay and run all day over the long grass and the dunes until she reached the pristine beach with the immaculate sands. There she would lie down in the dark. She would whisper his name to the sands; she would tell him there is no giving like the first giving, that what is given first cannot be regiven, what is first taken cannot be retaken. She would tell him she would never be the same again, or give the same or receive the same or love the same, that it was in him that all possibilities were first encountered, all beauty, all hope concentrated, that he had gone now and taken something and it could not be recovered and she left here, now, impaired, diminished, she was left wanting. This passage reads like a bit like an exercise, an author’s note to self -- the answer to the question, “What’s the emotional takeaway of this story?” It is the articulation of what wants to be evoked through action and detail, what the reader should feel – what the reader might well feel – at this late point in the story, if we weren’t so explicitly told to feel it. 5. I wrote to Mary Costello with a few questions. About her male-centered stories, she said that, for her, a story “usually starts with a character, or a character at a particular moment. It makes little difference to me if the character is male or female [...] I find that when it comes to things of the heart we are amazingly similar and I write the male character’s story no differently to the female’s." So perhaps my observation about emotional exposition is simply coincidental. One wonders, though, if there isn’t something to the notion that when we have a bit of distance from a character, we can see him, and his journey, more lucidly, can render with a lighter touch. I also asked her about marital relationships in the stories. In her review, Anne Enright observed that “Costello’s characters are lonely, especially when they are in a relationship,” and described their sorrow as an "immaculate sadness." This theme – of deep loneliness within marriage – is indeed evident throughout the collection. The layering of time, familiarity, unfulfilled hopes, and sometimes tragedy, erects walls between spouses that can neither be cracked open nor abandoned. From “Things I See”— And I think this is how things are, and this is how they will remain, and with every new night and every new wind I know that I am cornered too, and I will remain, because I cannot unlove him. And from “Insomniac”— ‘When did you grow this cruel?’ She is talking into the dark. He wonders what time it is. He thinks of time like a small worm crawling across the earth. He opens his mouth and whispers, ‘Go back to bed.’ These are not couples for whom parting ways is on the horizon; rather, these are men and women who will live inside their estrangement, who will bear it, and continue on. “I wasn’t at all conscious of this theme,” wrote Costello, “or of attempting to say anything about marriage – or anything else! These threads simply emerged, unknown to me. The stories were written over many years – some over fifteen and more years ago – and there was little awareness of anything other than writing each story when it needed to be written.” Costello herself was married for 10 years, when she was in her twenties. Are the stories in The China Factory hopeless? I ask this question often of literary fiction; the answer is important to me. Interestingly, the question doesn’t seem quite right in Costello’s case. Strictly speaking, perhaps yes, there is a sense in which these characters are suspended in a state of unchanging melancholy and loss; but as Costello herself says, she is most interested in moments of “heightened states of fear,” which can bring “great awareness and clarity” – which is, you could say, a kind of hope. “Sorrow and grief are very present,” she went on, “because most people encounter these emotions and I cannot imagine not examining them - a fully lived life demands that we pore over them.” And as to whether this melancholy is in some way an “Irish thing” (something I wondered about), Costello is of two minds: I don’t know if there is something uniquely sad or tragic about the Irish voice? I think a great melancholy pervades the stories of many writers from many nations. But the Irish are or were often regarded as inward looking, as having an introverted nature. Perhaps it’s our troubled past, our history, the legacy of oppression and famine and loss – loss of our language as well as our land – that has carved itself into our psyches and laid itself down in our blueprint, causing the melancholy to attach itself and linger. I don’t know. My own feeling is that it’s the writer’s own inner landscape, her own personal unconscious rather than the collective unconscious of the nation, that shapes the stories and imbues them with their particular qualities. 6. Currently on hiatus from teaching to focus on new stories and a novel (or two), Mary Costello is hitting her stride. She has blogged about her fears as a debut author, the daily struggles of writing; further evidence, to my mind, that she is now firmly walking in the shoes of a writer, blooming in good time.
Post-40 Bloomers

Post-40 Bloomer: Anna Keesey’s Little Century

Click here to read about “Post-40 Bloomers,” a new monthly feature at The Millions. 1. I'm a greenhorn lover of Westerns, and am thus tempted to open this review with, “If you liked Deadwood, you’ll like Anna Keesey's debut novel Little Century.” I am a fan of both, and surely such a declaration would win Keesey, an Iowa grad who recently turned 50, some instant readers. In truth, though, the comparison would constitute a bait-n-switch. Yes, Little Century is set in the frontier West; yes, it is rife with violence and greed, brimming with action and romance; yes, you will come to know, and love, a tight-knit community of misfits (hero-types and villain-types, speculators and busybodies, sinners and prophesiers), each with secrets and fatal flaws; and yes, this fictional Wild West, where only the fittest survive, will reveal much to you about human nature -- about good and evil, loyalty and courage, and the complex morality of love. But the similarities may end there: where Deadwood is gritty, Little Century is lyrical. Where Deadwood gives us South Dakota in the 1870s -- a world of rough-and-tumble men (in which women mostly make sour lemonade out of sour lemons) -- Keesey gives us the high desert of Oregon at the turn of the century, primarily through the experiences of women. And where Deadwood creator David Milch often rivets his audience via shock-factor (slit throats, raunchy sex favors, human pig-feed), Keesey crafts for her readers a rich and satisfying tale of restraint. 2. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that there is something distinctly Pacific-Northwesty about Little Century. I am not native to that region, so I may again be treading on thin ice here; but I did live there for several years. Before that, my first introduction to the Northwest was through a friend from Seattle, whom I met in college in New York City: she was tough and can-do, more willing than anyone I knew to get her hands dirty (literally and figuratively); the sort of person you’d want with you if ever you were lost in the woods or took a wrong turn down a dark alley. She was also a bundle of positive energy: I distinctly remember walking down Broadway and noticing that random people would make eye contact and smile whenever I was with her (which almost never happens in New York). In our grown-up years, through real-life tragedies and losses, this friend of mine was the person I felt I could tell anything -- my ugliest failures, my worst fears -- and nothing would faze her. She was both temperate breezes and dark nights, green grass and stormy skies; and knowing her pretty much prepared me for what it would feel like to live in the Northwest. Little Century is a book I’d recommend to my friend, and to anyone who embraces the dark and bright sides of life with equal gusto. 3. Our protagonist, Esther Chambers, recently orphaned at 18, leaves Chicago for Century, Ore., where her only living relative -- a distant cousin, 30 years old, named Ferris “Pick” Pickett -- raises cattle. There’s plenty of land, it’s homesteading country, and charming, laconic Pick asks Esther to squat in an abandoned cabin near a sometimes lake (it dries up half the year) so that he can add the land, and the coveted water-source, to his already estimable holdings. Pick seems trustworthy and kind (to both Esther and the reader), and Esther is alone in the world with no other plans, so why not? With a little help from Pick’s faithful ranch hand Vincent, the cabin is made habitable, and Pick charms Esther into lying to the land clerk about her age -- she needs to be 21 -- so that they can pull off the deal. ‘It has to do with fooling someone who deserves like the devil to be fooled. Maybe you played at pretending not so long ago. You ever try to fool someone? […] If we pull the wool over his eyes, we’ll have a good joke to take back with us to Century […] What do you say Esther?’ he asked, smiling. This smile was cheeky, mischievous, though the impression arose from the high placement of his neat, pointed eyeteeth and he may have been unaware of it himself. ‘Feel like helping out your old cousin?’ He wanted her help to conspire against a bully. Nelly Bly would leap at such a chance. She smiled back. ‘If I can.’ And with this economical little setup, the seeds of both the plot, and the characters’ essential, conflicted selves, are planted: Esther is young and green and wants to please her cousin, but she also admires pioneering rebel women like the journalist Nellie Bly. Pick is gallant and playful, but also ambitious, pragmatic, and clever. These two characters are tied by blood, and they are also drawn to each other as man and woman, in a quiet, mutually respectful way. Each sparks and clashes with other characters -- Esther with a poetry-reading sheepherder named Ben Cruff, Pick with a dark-eyed, half-Paiute Indian woman named Dolores -- in more typically romantic ways; but it’s the subtle affinity between Esther and Pick, which ultimately reveals not-quite aligned desires and fine-line contrasts in moral fiber, that I think is a real accomplishment of the novel, and the most provocative. Forgive me, but yet another TV analogy seems apt here: think Don and Peggy from Mad Men. Aside from this skillful character/relationship evolution, Little Century offers plenty of page-turning action: it’s cattle ranchers versus sheepherders out on the high desert, for apparently there isn’t room enough for all. The conflict starts with petty window-breaking, builds toward sinister intimidation tactics (Keesey’s restraint shines here -- one subtle but chilling incident involves cutting off a little girl’s braid), and culminates in flock-slaughtering and the murder of a beloved (to Esther) local merchant. In addition to land and water-source grabs, the railroad is coming, and various players seek to influence the company rep, by whatever means necessary, to bring the line through Century. Even with all this hard-conflict action, Keesey builds narrative momentum not via conventional suspense strategies -- in fact, there is a good deal of predictability in the plot, which may bother some readers -- but through character insights, thematic depth, and prose both taut and lovely, which Keesey applies equally to action and exposition. Here, Esther watches from a hidden place as masked cattle-herders send a flock of sheep to their gruesome death: Now the fallen sheep form a gray berm, and those falling hit it and slide off, thick and inert. This sound is quieter; it is like a lull. She rises and darts through the rocks to Duniway, who is rigid at the end of her picket rope, her eyes insane and white. Esther, using all her weight on the rope, tries to pull the mare close to calm her. But Duniway stamps and foams, her hind end clattering back and forth in desperation. In her flailing she strikes Esther’s jaw and nose […] At last they have all fallen. There are hundreds. They lie piled and scattered from the base of the bluff down to within a few yards of the lake […] The tender complexities that animals enclose in their skins are exposed, and the fumes of blood and water and oil make an aromatic colloid that in daylight would have pinkened the air. Some of the sheep are still living, and so with the smell rises a sigh of complaint, a last irritability. Esther kneels and leans against a large, cool boulder and spits a little blood [...] Here, we see an interior moment, i.e. Keesey’s insights into Esther’s coming of age: She, too, has changed her mind […] No, not even that. Her mind is like a tulip in a bank of tulips that have come up red year after year, and in bud it looked like any other – slim, furrowed, and green -- and even began to rosify like all the others, and then, finally, it opens. In the sea of red, this one’s petals alone are dappled with orange and the stamens are black. So the mind has not changed at all, really. It was called red too early, before it ripened into its final character. Little Century is Esther’s story, but for me it was Pick’s character, the subtleties of which unfolded slowly and substantially, that generated the most compelling suspense. Is he worthy of Esther, and of the land he aims to obtain? Yes and no. When it comes out that, years back, Pick fathered Dolores’s child, then abandoned both, Esther confronts him. His response is as undramatic and authentic as any response might be today: ‘I can’t recall all of what I was thinking, because I was young and it was a long time ago. But let me ask you. Would you marry an Indian?’ ‘I don’t know,’ she says, hot but even. ‘And I don’t have to know.’ ‘Well, I balked at it. It didn’t fit my idea of me, somehow […].’ And Esther’s response shows us her “ripening” mind, recalling to the reader the dangers of bifurcating justice and empathy, not to mention the distinct ways in which men and women have historically approached sexual morality: Pick is waiting for her disapproval, but the fact that he waits for her to decry his having loved a woman, rather than his having ignored a child, makes her think he doesn’t know her at all. He judges, and expects others to judge also. He doesn’t know the difference between himself and other people. 4. Is Little Century a “woman’s book?” I asked myself this as I read, mostly lamenting that it probably is, from a marketing perspective. It’s a book about a girl, after all, and far fewer men read books about girls than women read books about boys; the math on that is pretty clear. But it’s also a book about insiders and outsiders, friendship, forgiveness, love of the land, male mid-life ambition, corporatism, journalistic integrity, racial prejudice. (It is not, thankfully, a book about a girl who finds her boy: the ending, which I won’t give away completely, is quite satisfying in the way it allows us to choose-our-own-adventure). It’s a book with both a big heart and a big mind, not to mention a generous soul. Like my Seattle friend, both Esther Chambers and Anna Keesey are not afraid to either get their hands (and petticoats) dirty, or to plunge into emotional depths. In an interview at NW Book Lovers, interviewer Brian Juenemann asked Keesey if she’s “worked a feminist Western on to the shelves,” to which she replied I hope so! I adore those irrepressible nineteenth century women who just went out and crusaded and conducted their business with energy and intellectual authority and healthy doses of ego. Why such a book (and many others) would not appeal to the average male reader is frankly a mystery to me. But maybe it’s a coming-of-age thing for the reader as much as the character: I myself fled the Northwest for New York in my late 20s, feeling restless and creeped out by all that competent spiritedness. Ten years later, a novel peopled by healthy, energetic, authoritative women was just what I needed -- dark and bright, cruel and kind.  Comparisons and gender politics aside: if you like good books, you'll like Little Century.
Essays

On Loneliness: Art, Life, and Fucking Human Beings

1. “I’ve been thinking about whether, on average, people are lonelier in real life than in novels,” Elizabeth Bachner wrote recently in the opening to an essay about (among other things) the novel Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann. I don’t have an answer, but the question makes me think about how much of life is about loneliness and efforts to cure or soothe loneliness, and how much of art is about loneliness and efforts to cure or soothe loneliness; and how loneliness is a word -- easily enough spoken or written, like death or love – but really it’s a deep sadness, which is also a force, driving so many of our desires and actions, and at the same time shameful and hidden and nearly impossible to live with, out in the open, in any authentic way. David Foster Wallace is often quoted as saying that fiction is about what it is to be a fucking human being, and so I guess what I am saying is that there are days – not every day, but often enough – when it seems to me that what it is is to be lonely; to be in this state of deep sadness and estrangement, and to know – not so much on the intellectual, conscious level but on the level where shame and fear live – that there is something terribly wrong about this loneliness on the one hand, and on the other (in knowing the wrongness utterly), something also potentially beautiful. 2. “All I ever really want to know is how other people are making it through life,” writes Miranda July. “Where do they put their body, hour by hour, and how do they cope inside of it.” July's vision of life as relentlessly estranging resonates: we must “make it through” and, hour by hour, “cope,” alone, inside of our bodies. The “how” is where she seems to put her investigative eye, which is to say her hope. In It Chooses You, July tells the story of how she became blocked in the middle of writing a screenplay, and, in an effort to get unblocked – to understand better one of the film’s protagonists (or, at the least, distract herself from having to) – embarks on a project: she begins calling people who advertise items for sale in the LA Pennysaver, asking them if she can come to their homes with a photographer and tape recorder to interview them -- “about your life and everything about you. Your hopes, your fears...” I read it while I ate lunch, and then, because I was in no hurry to get back to not writing, I usually kept reading it straight through [...] Each listing was like a very brief newspaper article. News flash: someone is selling a jacket. The jacket is leather. It is also large and black. The person thinks it is worth ten dollars. But the person is not very confident about that price, and is willing to consider other, lower prices. I wanted to know more things about what this leather-jacket person thought, how they were getting through the days, what they hoped, what they feared. July describes visits with individuals and households all around metropolitan LA. For sale: tadpoles, baby leopards, a large suitcase, traditional Indian clothing, photo albums, Care Bears, hair dryer, Christmas card fronts. July (and her crew of two) meet, among others, an older man living in a flophouse who is undergoing a gender transformation; a 17 year-old boy whose father has been laid off and who’s been inaccurately tracked as Special Ed; a man who reveals his house-arrest ankle bracelet and is both boastful and evasive about the nature of his crime; a childlike 45 year-old man who makes photo-collages on his bedroom wall of babies and young women; a middle-aged Greek woman who for 10 years has lived vicariously through the vacation photo albums of a wealthy couple she doesn’t know. Most of the people July called said no, and so those who said yes, “the ones I met with did not feel random – we chose each other.” July offers $50 for her subjects’ time, and so a number of those who say yes are quite poor. Also, as the Pennysaver takes ads via phone and in-person, most of them don’t own or use computers (“of course they don’t, or they’d just use Craigslist”). All of them have a desire and need to tell their stories, to be listened to and to connect. So much so that, in more than one case, July and her crew have a difficult time leaving: After a long time I began to understand that he would never let us leave. We just had to go. I silently counted to three and stood up [...] We silently walk-ran to the elevator and Alfred hit the down button repeatedly until the elevator doors opened [...] I started to make a polite noise of regret, but seeing her face fall, I realized that refusing was the opposite of polite. I squeezed my iPhone in my pocket. Would it be weird to check my email right now? Or maybe read the news? [...] The fullness of her life was menacing to me – there was no room for invention, no place for the kind of fictional conjuring that makes me feel useful, or feel anything at all. She wanted me to just actually be there and eat fruit with her. I went home and immediately fell asleep, as if fleeing from consciousness. What makes us uncomfortable, what both repels and compels us, is always worth noting, and July is both candid and insightful about this: Michael and Primila and Pauline had exhausted me with their openness and their quaint inefficiency [...] Domingo was [...] the person whom I felt most creepily privileged around. We drove home, in my Prius. If I interacted only with people like me, then I’d feel normal again, un-creepy. Which didn’t seem right either. So I decided that it was okay to feel creepy, it was appropriate, because I was a little creepy [...] It suddenly seemed obvious to me that the whole world, and especially Los Angeles, was designed to protect me from these people I was meeting. There was no law against knowing them, but it wouldn’t happen [...] when I leave my car my iPhone escorts me, letting everyone else in the post office know that I’m not really with them, I’m with my own people. In her Malina essay, Elizabeth Bachner quotes Kafka: “If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it? [...] what we must have are those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply [...]” July’s project is even more immediate than Kafka’s -- not just reading books, but seeking out actual distressing human encounters, encounters with loneliness, in order to be awoken in some way. And yet, her project is still relatively controlled, and measured; she can depart from her interviewee when she has had enough, she can determine the best subject-artist distance from which to extract material, transform it into “fictional conjuring,” through analysis, through reflection. 3. With Jeff, One Lonely Guy, Jeff Ragsdale, David Shields, and Michael Logan engage in a different project from July’s, though with shared interests in the how of coping and in close-ups of lives that repel and compel, that hammer one’s skull with the force of loneliness. The book’s genesis, from Shields’s introduction: In late October 2011, my friend and former student Jeff Ragsdale posted this flyer around New York City: I-f anyone wants to talk about anything, call me. (347) 469-3173 Jeff, one lonely guy. Jeff recently realized he sabotaged his stand-up and acting careers. He was down and out, living in a tiny room in a boarding house in Harlem. Having gone through a painful breakup this fall, he was extremely lonely. The flyer was then re-posted on reddit.com and other social networking sites, and by the time of Jeff’s publication in January 2012, Ragsdale had become an Internet sensation, receiving over 60,000 phone calls and texts from all over the world. The book is a compilation of these texts and transcribed phone calls, “rearranged [by Shields and Logan] into this chorus of voices talking about the searing loneliness of existence in America at this moment.” Short personal vignettes and memoirs written by Ragsdale are threaded throughout the material, which is divided into seven (loosely) topical chapters. “This is the authentic sound of human beings, at ground level [...] trying to connect in whatever way possible,” Shields writes. “This is Occupy Loneliness.” Whereas July reflects on her own flinchiness in the face of too-much raw humanity, giving herself and the reader some breathing space, Jeff's goal, it seems, is to break down all protective boundaries between those who hide, deny, or manage their loneliness and those who act it out; between creepy privilege and fully-blown desperation. The curation, or “rearrangement” of Jeff’s material is thus much less mediated than July’s; the texts are given to us in a barrage, one after the other, with only Ragsdale’s occasional (italicized) interjections, no less raw and searing than the voices of those who contacted him. From the chapter called “Notes on Childhood”: My first memory is of my parents rolling on the floor, punching each other’s faces, my mom’s teeth clenched. The police were always at our house. I had counseling because my mom found out I was cutting myself. Please don’t tell anyone... Smiling makes you live longer... I’m better than I was in the past so I’m really good... In the beginning I got molested by my older stepbrother. I never told anybody for 4 to 5 years. He also rapidly hit my head against a wall and had 2 knives [...] Will you be my friend? I am – it’s just that I don’t have a lot of friends. (Anya, 13, North Carolina) I need a boyfriend that doesn’t want me to stay anorexic. I need a family that actually cares, minus the red tape. I need maturity. And I have Xanax. I don’t want to have to need anything. I don’t. I just want to disappear. (Erica) I hire a sweet old lady to babysit my son and then I put a strap on and do men I meet at sex parties... It usually goes on in locked rooms and takes the guy months before he’ll open up with me... Men like it but feel embarrassed about liking it... My friend and me are a tandem. She doesn’t speak English, so whoever the guy is, he needs to know some Spanish or he’s going to freak out at this screaming Spanish woman. She likes to spank people while I watch. Sometimes she likes to walk on a man’s back, yelling at him, before giving him a blow job and swallowing... (I ask if her friend does intercourse.)... No, she has a husband. (Amy) From the section called “Love Sucks”: If I lived with you in real life would you hit me?... Do you think I’m pretty?... I don’t want to fight with you but I do like your dominance over me... Why don’t you want to be with me?... I can’t talk... I’m in the car with my parents... I know I’m only 17... Kidnap me… Please Jeff… How old are you again?... You’re basically the same age as my dad, that’s why I can’t tell them... If I lived with you I would want to take showers with you... I love you Jeff. You care about me... I will be with you someday Jeff, I know it... As long as you don’t start drama or I’ll blackmail you... I like you a lot but I want to be able to trust you. (Krystal) My life’s all-time low was when I had sex with a 75-pound Asian hooker I knew had AIDS, but I was so screwed up on coke and alcohol I didn’t even care. I actually felt sorry for her because she had to pay for the cab ride over to the hotel I was staying in. She got on top of me and it was like screwing a skeleton. I couldn’t even look at her. It’s a difficult book to read, even more difficult to summarize: 138 pages of continuous confession, desperation, tales of abuse and self-destruction – a deluge of uncensored loneliness. There are blips of exuberance and encouragement, along with the occasional scolding/derision of Jeff’s project (mostly from men). Some people write more matter-of-factly about typical problems – can’t find a mate, confused about my life’s calling, wish I was skinny, lost my job. Jeff’s passages reveal that he actually meets some of the women for sex and dates, ever hopeful that romantic love will cure his loneliness, even as he continues to obsess over Kira, the woman from the recent breakup. At one point he sums up their relationship thus: I know I should have left the relationship. We both should have. I hit Kira in the face once, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. And thus: I remember that first punch. It started when I grabbed Kira’s leg. She sat up and punched me as hard as she could in the face. I actually saw stars. […] Things spiraled out of control after that. Our roommates were scared. They even slipped an eviction note under our door: “We’ve never been around this type of violence. It’s frightening. We know you’re not preparing for acting gigs, like you say.” How are we – and by “we” I suppose I mean those of us who would not be likely to respond to Jeff’s ad – to engage with all these raw, ugly, lonelier-in-real-life-than-in-novels voices? Or is the project of Jeff as a book, as a text, packaged and offered to us as “America singing – singing a dirge,” intended to challenge our very conceptions of beauty and ugliness? Is Jeff meant to make the safe-at-home reader feel creepy about being protected, about the walls we typically put up between ourselves and these “authentic” voices? Or is the argument that all of us are these voices, distancing ourselves from ourselves, and walk-running to the elevator like July’s crew, at our own peril? 4. In life people drift more, there’s less closure, there’s less follow-up, there’s even more murkiness – which is a lot of murkiness. Novels have a terrible intimacy no matter what – because of what’s exposed when you write one. Because of what happens when you read one [...] There are all these people, real and imaginary, breathing against our faces in any novel, not just accidentally jostling us like people in a crowded bar, but knowing us, or making us know them. Bachner is talking about novels, but she could also be talking about Jeff, or about It Chooses You. The “terrible intimacy” that Bachner experiences with Malina, with the unnamed protagonist Ich (I/me), is in identifying with Ich’s struggle to hide her desire to be loved, to play the aloof game with her lover Ivan. Ivan needs Ich to play harder to get, to be less eager, to trot or gallop toward him less. He tells her, You have to stay in the game. She says, “I don’t want any game.” He says, “But without a game it won’t work” [...] “While we talk I can never allow myself to think that in an hour we will be lying in the bed or toward evening or very late at night [...] Extreme self-control lets me accept Ivan’s sitting opposite me at first, silently smoking and talking.” Ich must always hide how much she wants Ivan to love her, she must be ashamed that her happiness is tied up in being with him. She must pretend to be the person who doesn’t need to keep telling her stories or confessing her loneliness in order to feel connected to something. She must mind her boundaries, let the crew leave and run for the elevator once they reach the threshold of discomfort. She must not respond to Jeff’s ad, not pour out either her ecstasy or her devastation. She must be self-composed, her emotional distance always calibrated. Bachner, like Ich, doesn’t want any game, any concealment of her hunger for intimacy: The bad self-help book [she is also reading The Therapy Tapes of Anne Sexton] sees the only measure of my worth in another’s eyes as managing to detach and not want him, to go to the movies alone or with some guy I love less than Ivan [...] to have sex alone or with someone I want less than Ivan, to sit in the bath and [...] think about astronomy or Austrian literature. 5. The last person that Miranda July meets through the Pennysaver is Joe, an 81 year-old retired house-painter and contractor, “an obsessive-compulsive angel, working furiously on the side of good.” Joe and his wife Carolyn have been married 62 years, very much in love; they’ve cared for and buried countless dogs and cats; Joe does grocery shopping for eight elderly neighbors; Carolyn is sick with diabetes; they live on social security. During the interview, Joe invites July over for Christmas, at which point she makes her move to exit, though not unaffected: When we finally extricated ourselves, we just sat in the car, very quietly, and were oddly tearful. Alfred said something about wanting to be a better boyfriend to his girlfriend. I felt like I wasn’t living thoroughly enough [...] And yet this visit was suffused with death. Real death: all those cats and dogs, the widows he shopped for, and his own death, which he referred to more than once – but matter-of-factly, like it was a deadline that he was trying to get a lot of things done before. July writes earlier in the book about how getting married and trying to finish a movie had made her fixated on death and time: So all my time was spent measuring time [...] And now that I had vowed to hang out with this man until I died, I also thought a lot about dying. It seemed I had not only married him but also married my eventual death. July can’t forget Joe and Carolyn, so she casts Joe in her film. Then Joe gets diagnosed with cancer, he has just a few weeks to live. But Joe wants to do the film, despite his illness. The protagonist has his epiphany and transformation via meeting the character Joe; the film, The Future, gets finished. Before its release, Joe dies. 6. Joe and Carolyn were not lonely, and not lonelier than the characters in the film, though many of the people July met through the Pennysaver were terribly lonely; July is the murkier character, drifting between art and life, running toward and away from loneliness. Elizabeth Bachner is living her real life, either at the movies kissing her Ivan, or in the bathtub with a bad self-help book, but still, we assume, finding connection and intimacy in novels. Jeff Ragsdale, from what I’ve gathered, is now both less lonely and more lonely, but it’s hard to say, because in real life, there is less closure, less follow-up. Today, I am having one of those days when what it is to be a fucking human being is to be lonely; but I’m reading a novel that’s just getting good, all these people breathing against my face, and plus, there’s always tomorrow, which is to say the hope of loneliness turning into an authentic voice, into something beautiful. Image courtesy of .v1ctor./Flickr