Listening to the Voices in His Head: The Millions Interviews Jim Gauer

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Jim Gauer’s Novel Explosives, an experimental novel set in Los Angeles, Ciudad Juárez, and Guanajuato, received a starred review from Kirkus, which praised the book for its “verbal and postmodern high jinks.” Originally published in 2016, a new edition, with an afterword by Chris Via, publishes in February.

The Millions caught up with poet and mathematician Gauer to discuss his novel, its enduring appeal, his writing process, literary influences, and much more.

The Millions: Your novel has also been featured in starred reviews, radio shows, and various platforms online, and is immensely popular on social media. To what do you attribute its long-lasting connection with readers?

Jim Gauer: Boy, that’s a tough one, a bit like asking a father to explain why his child has so many friends. Am I allowed to say it’s a great novel, and that anyone who loves it is an exceptional human being? No, I suppose not. Seriously, while I think the book is a lot of fun to read and may have what the novelist Joseph McElroy called “an indelible richness,” the truth is that the book is so different from most contemporary novels that those who enjoy it tend to be loyal to the book. Among other things, the book uses long, intricate sentences, long paragraphs, and an extravagant lexicon, none of which would endear it to corporate publishers, but I think there’s a kind of hunger for novels that aim high, and if they fail, at least fail spectacularly. It’s not the sort of book that anyone could feel indifferent about, so readers who believe in the book seem to be tenacious in their belief. In any case, however I explain it, I’m truly grateful for the book’s loyal readers, as without them, the book would have vanished without a trace.  

TM: Novel Explosives is over 700 pages long – certainly a feat for busy readers and those searching for space on their bookshelves. What would you share with readers about your book who might be daunted by the manuscript length? Can you tell us a bit about your writing process for spinning this many-paged tale?

JG: Indeed, the book is far too long, though it does have a thriller-like intensity and a good deal of narrative propulsive force, and I don’t think it’s quite so long as the page-count would indicate. As for process, the book began when I had just finished another novel, currently in a drawer, and woke up the next morning with a voice and a first sentence in my head. I wrote the first hundred pages or so in one long blast, during which I discovered two more voices. I then spent the next seven years of seven-days weeks following those voices wherever they led, and where they led turned out to be Novel Explosives.

TM: One of the most intriguing and unique elements of your novel is the fact that it’s a three-stranded narrative. When you’re writing, how do you best keep track of timelines, character arcs, etc. to make sure the narratives converge at all the right moments?

 JG: I of course had an outline that took up the entire side of a three-by-five index card, but then I only referred to it a few thousand times. One of the reasons I didn’t take a day off in seven years of writing was that I had the structure of the entire book in my head, and I was afraid that if I took a day off, the book would fall apart or simply vanish. Part of this may have been my training as a mathematician, but I didn’t want to know too much about the writing up ahead, as I wanted the writing to feel as surprising to me as it hopefully feels to the reader. The index card was used to keep the timeline straight, and to make sure that all the narrative ingenuity didn’t turn into sheer incompetence.

TM: What was the inspiration behind setting the story in this particular year (2009) in this particular region of Mexico (Guanajuato)?

JG: For some reason, that voice I woke up with on the first morning was a character preparing to tell the story of how he came to live in Guanajuato, Mexico. He finds that all of his knowledge is intact, but since he has no idea who he is or how came to live in Guanajuato in the first place, he isn’t exactly prepared to tell the story of how he came to live there. In essence, the voice selected the place, as Guanajuato was little more than a word to me, and I’d never been anywhere near there. The book, in retrospect, seems a matter of “presiding over accidents,” as Orson Welles put it. One of the accidents is that the character, Alvaro, was positioned part way up a hill in a small hotel overlooking the Plaza de la Paz, in a very precise location that might easily have been a glue factory. When it came time to visit Guanajuato, my wife and I walked to the Plaza de la Paz, went up the hill to the street that Alvaro lives on, and discovered that his building was not only a small hotel, but that the hotel was called El Meson de las Poetas, The Inn of the Poets. If I had any doubts about completing the writing, the name of the hotel seemed so improbable to me that I knew I would have to finish the book.

TM: There’s been a lot of comparison of your style to that of Thomas Pynchon or even David Foster Wallace. Who do you count among your literary and visionary inspirations, and why?

JG: At bottom, the book is a kind of absurdist quest, so it may have been Cervantes presiding over many of the accidents. The tradition the book is written in includes Laurence Sterne, George Eliot, William Gass, William Gaddis, Pynchon, and the greatest unread novelist of the late 20th century, Alexander Theroux. Out of some sort of anticipatory anxiety of influence, I didn’t read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest until the book was finished, but he certainly would have been an inspiration had I read the book beforehand. While I can’t possibly compare my writing to any of these great writers, they’re all masters of the sentence, and Novel Explosives at least aspires to the same sort of mastery of the sentence.

TM: You’re a self-described “mathematician, published poet, and possibly the world’s only Marxist venture capitalist.” How do these multi-faceted perspectives contribute to your voice as an author, and to this particular plot? 

JG: One of my favorite quotes about writing is from Walter Bagehot. “The reason why so few good books are written is that so few people who can write know anything.” Would Gaddis have been able to write JR if he hadn’t been forced to work in PR and learn about the business and legal worlds? As a poet, I too was forced to work for a living, and much of what I know, beyond novels, math, and philosophy, was the result of having to work for a living.

TM: What’s next for you in terms of writing?

JG: My first rule is don’t write unless you have to. My second rule is to wait until you wake up one morning with a voice in your head, and then follow the voice wherever it leads.
This piece was sponsored by Zerogram Press.

The Wild Has More Meaning Than We Do: The Millions Interviews Deborah Fleming


Deborah Fleming’s essay collection, Resurrection of the Wild: Meditations on Ohio’s Natural Landscape was nominated for the 2020 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award in the Art of the Essay category. The only finalist published by a small press, Fleming’s book is devoted to exploring natural, agricultural, and wild regions of her native Ohio.

Fleming spoke with The Millions recently about wildness and cultivation, the relationship between humans and animals, and much more.

The Millions: As I was reading Resurrection of the Wild, I thought about a quote from Annie Dillard in response to a question asked by Life magazine in 1988: “What is the meaning of life?” Part of her response was: “We are here to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed.” I’m wondering if you might agree with Dillard, or what your response would be to the question.

Deborah Fleming: I couldn’t honestly say what the meaning of life is. I think the wild has more meaning than we do. We have to find our own meaning, but we mean nothing outside of the natural world.

TM: Your fellow nominees for the 2020 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award are all books published by big houses. How does it feel to be recognized as a small press author?

DF: I feel quite honored, overwhelmed, and humbled to be recognized among such distinguished authors from such well-known presses.

TM: An area like rural Ohio is sometimes dismissed as “flyover country.” What are people missing?

DF: They are missing rolling blue hills, deep valleys, lakes, diversity of the eastern deciduous forests, and beautiful farmland in counties like Tuscarawas and Knox. Every place has its own ecosystem and wildlife. The connection to one’s own place restores our connection to the Earth.

Deborah Fleming

TM: You write about John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed. Beyond the mythos, who really was Chapman?

DF: Johnny Appleseed, the man, was much more interesting than the cartoon character he has been turned into. He lived during a very tumultuous and bloody time in history, when settlers sometimes clashed with native people and sometimes got along. He was close to settlers but also native people because he understood them and found a connection to the land. He came from Massachusetts and wandered across Pennsylvania, entering Ohio in what is now Jefferson County. He owned land in Licking County, and stayed with native people at Greentown, about five miles from where I live. He was a horticulturalist and Swedenborgian, a person who believed that everything in the natural world had an analog in heaven.

TM: Domesticated animals are clearly central to the lives of American families, but it seems there is often a fundamental tension between people and wild animals. How can we find more harmony? Or is this conflict inevitable and perhaps necessary?

DF: I feel that, more than ever, we need to do what we can to preserve wildlife, from insects to megafauna. Each one has its place in the ecosystem and when we harm one part, many other parts are affected. We can designate large tracts of land like national parks for wildlife, but we can also allow habitat on farms so that wildlife can thrive. We can, for example, fence off gardens to discourage deer but allow the deer to live in thickets and woods. Some farms can be more productive when tracts of land nearby are left uncultivated and wildflowers and trees are allowed to grow because beneficial insects and birds will move closer. Another example is to attract birds such as sparrows and swallows because they eat insects that feed on cultivated plants.

TM: You speak about returning to your home state after some years away. Can one truly go home again?

DF: I think in some ways people can “go home again,” perhaps with a new attitude widened by experience. Actually I think that “home” never really leaves us even if we leave it.

TM: I grew up on a farm and while I hated cleaning out chicken coops and bucking hay as a kid, now I miss it. In your essay “The Garden,” you speak about the difference between “necessary work versus drudgery.” Can you elaborate?

DF: It seems to me that necessary work means doing those tasks that must be done in order to sustain life. Work becomes drudgery when the worker feels no investment of the self in his or her work and someone else gains all the benefit. There is a certain satisfaction from cleaning chicken coops or horse stalls because the manure can become fertilizer. Putting up hay bales is very hard work, but when it’s done I feel satisfaction in that I will have enough hay for the winter.

TM: In your essay “Inhabitants,” you talk about the nature of “ownership.” The idea of “owning” something can feel so central to Americans. Is the urge to possess and dominate our surroundings a sickness?

DF: I think the urge to own vastly more than we need, especially in order to impress others, is a sickness. To possess something one loves and cares for, such as land, is not sickness but health. To possess something truly is to take care of it and be possessed by it.

TM: In our era of rising sea levels, burning forests, and the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, it’s easy to feel discouraged and deflated. Many of your essays are hopeful, though. Are there reasons to be optimistic about the future of the wild?

DF: Everyone’s life is diminished by loss of natural areas and wildlife, but we have to be hopeful even if we cannot feel optimistic. When people realized how destructive DDT was, its use was banned. In the 1970s, environmental laws were created that helped to clean up lakes and rivers. Strip-mined land was reclaimed with fertilizer and hardy plants. Forests like those in southern Ohio returned when settlers moved on. After replanting by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Mohican Forest was restored. If people had the political will, they could help bring the forests back and solve the problem of pollution instead of fighting with each other and denying the reality that human beings are killing themselves along with the natural world.

This piece was sponsored by The Kent State University Press.

Love Your Bookstore: Greenlight Bookstore


This piece is the fourth in a series of posts supporting the 2019 Love Your Bookstore Challenge, which is sponsored, in part, by The Millions.

For this year’s Love Your Bookstore Challenge—a campaign that promotes physical bookstores and runs from November 8 through November 17—we asked the staff at Brooklyn’s Greenlight Bookstore for their must-read titles.

The Alley of Fireflies and Other Stories by Raymond Roussel

Roussel was an aristocratic dandy convinced of his own literary genius who looked like Hercule Poirot and wrote like Jules Verne on LSD. His work is deliciously strange, reading like schematics for dream architectures, often crafted by employing elaborate self-devised constraints and methods. This collection of his shorter works may be the best place of all to jump into Roussel’s bizarre oeuvre. It’s an absolute treat, making perfectly evident why Surrealists, Oulipians, and the New York School poets had such a lit-crush on him. (Jarrod)

6:41 to Paris by Jean-Phileppe Blondel

If you are a fan of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy films like I am, you will have an emotional calling to this novel. (Dante)

The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt

Sometimes I call Hunt’s style “magical realism,” but that doesn’t quite underline the absurdity of the situations she describes, which can feel either funny or unsettling, depending on how you approach reading them. Here you’ll briefly meet a group of high school girls in a pregnancy pact that demoralizes their town, a young wife who turns into a deer at night and can’t tell her husband, and an FBI-created robot that looks like a model and is stuffed with explosives, among others who will guide you on a full tour of emotions and haunting unforgettable imagery. (Emily)

Last Things by Jenny Offill

Last Things is one of the most striking, impressive, haunting books I’ve ever read. Offill pulls off an incredible feat: a complex book told by an 8-year-old narrator watching the deterioration of her parents’ marriage and her mother’s mental health. The tension and beauty of the novel lie in the reader’s understanding of what the narrator sees but is too young to interpret. This is the sort of book that you can’t put down until you finish, and it will stick with you for a long time after it’s done. (Katie)

In the Next Room by Sarah Ruhl

In the Next Room has been one of my favorites for many, many years running: a poetic examination of intimacy, female friendship, and sexuality that somehow makes you laugh hysterically one moment and weep openly the next. This play will have you in pieces by the time you reach the climax. (Rose)

Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan

At the center of this thought-provoking, suspenseful novel is Judith Carrigan, a transgender woman reckoning with a tragic incident in her past. She could serve as an exonerating witness for an old friend, but to do so she’d have to annihilate the carefully drawn line between her pre- and post-transition selves. As much a meditation on identity as it is a page-turning mystery. (Sarah)

Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

Surviving a terrorist attack will change everything…especially the rules of living on this plane of existence. This book tells two stories: one an inter-dimensional ghost love story and the other about the rising young star who wrote the story and is now trying to make it in New York’s publishing scene. Westerfeld masterfully keeps readers guessing in a thrilling novel that gives voice to fears about everything from falling in love to surviving a mass shooting to learning how to keep friends in the adult world for the first time. (Jackie)

Safari Honeymoon by Jesse Jacobs

Cartoonist Jacobs has long been known for being a leader in the Canadian underground comics scene, and with his release of Safari Honeymoon, it’s easy to understand why. Serving as both a poetic and humorous voice within a community that’s known to break with the conventions of visual storytelling, Jacobs creates work that is well worth pouring over multiple times. His attention to detail in both dialogue and the illustrative form makes for a body work that I always look forward to recommending! (Joey)

Garments Against Women by Anne Boyer

Boyer might be the Baudelaire of the 21st century. Describing feeling and its absence in a world of shock, Boyer gives form to a kind of life that has only emerged recently, a life amid precarity, numbness, and infoxication. (Michael)

A Twist in the Tale by Jeffrey Archer

I discovered this work by (Sir) Jeffrey Archer more than 30 years ago and if you enjoy reading well written short-stories in the vein of Graham Greene and W. Somerset Maugham, stories that have both a literary and cinematic quality with a bit of a twist, you too will surely enjoy this particular offering by Mr. Archer. (Mustafa)

Ocean of Sound by David Toop

Less a linear chronology of ambient music than an excavation of sound documentation throughout the 20th century. Toop—musician, educator, contemporary and friend of Brian Eno—catalogues, in an almost diaristic manner, sonic explorations: from a never-realized collaboration between Edgard Varèse and Charlie Parker to the new-German sounds of Kraftwerk. Recordings of Amazonian frog choirs are discussed with the same reverence as a Tokyo-based radio station where programming schedules are based on tidal patterns. Ultimately, this is a book about the transcendent nature of listening with patience and care—something we should all consider in this age of elaborate distraction. (David)

People in the Room by Norah Lange

Originally published in 1950, this Argentine novel explores the life of a 17-year-old girl who spends her days ignoring her family in favor of watching the people living in the house across the street. As mesmerizing as is it haunting and dark, the narrative builds an oppressive atmosphere of domestic life. A quick read that demands every page to be examined. Perfect for fans of Clarice Lispector and Virginia Woolf. (Oswald)

Blue Self Portrait by Naomi Lefevbre

Fleeing a failed fling by flying from Berlin to Paris (linguistically, culturally, emotionally), a young French pianist recounts where she thinks she went wrong. She pays particular attention to her tryst with a male, supposedly genius, German-American composer, though the range and density of her thoughts is startling in its precision and breadth. Not quite a monologue, all anxious musicality, her all-too-relatable remembrances create a cresting voyeuristic anxiety in the reader, building to an almost unbearable finish. Did I mention it’s laugh-out-loud funny? For fans of Molly Bloom, melancholy Euro-lit, monologues, classical music, and digressions. (Abe)

Love Your Bookstore: Books Are Magic


This piece is the third in a series of posts supporting the 2019 Love Your Bookstore Challenge, which is sponsored, in part, by The Millions.

As part of this year’s Love Your Bookstore Challenge—which aims to draw attention to physical bookstores and runs from November 8 through November 17—we asked the team at Brooklyn’s Books Are Magic for their staff picks and must-read titles.

Wild Milk by Sabrina Orah Mark

These glorious, distilled, funny, and sometimes devastating stories engage with the past, our present, politics, trauma, terror, and love. At the same time, they offer a stunning and close-up portrait of an American family.(Will Walton, bookseller)

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi

Emezi’s prose is poetic and perfect, their worldbuilding is seamlessly engaging, and the images and ideas they evoke in this delicious bite of a book are searing. It’s a critical examination of the society we live in today, of the future we hope to create, and of the constant, enduring need to keep our eyes and hearts open so that we can take care of the most vulnerable among us. (Rauscher)

Geekerella by Ashley Poston

If you’ve ever seen A Cinderella Story starring Hilary Duff and Chad Michael Murray, that’s the exact fluffy, hearth-warm vibe you’re getting with this masterwork of a book. (If you haven’t seen that movie, go ahead and do that right now, because it’s fantastic and you’re worth it.) Geekerella is a 300-page ode to sci-fi, to fandom, to the ridiculous alignment of fate and circumstance that we call love—and the comfort and security that we can find in the support of another human being, no matter how many light-years away from us they may be.  (Rauscher)

All Happy Families by Herve Le Tellier (translated by Adriana Hunter)

This is my favorite memoir EVER, and Adriana Hunter’s translation is flawless. Le Tellier’s upbringing was not particularly sad or tragic, yet he talks (with great humor) about the emotional malnourishment that led him to have a loveless relationship with his parents. (Danni Green, bookseller)

Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform by John F. Pfaff

This book will change your understanding of the current conversation around incarceration in the U.S. (Green)

A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa by Alexis Okeowo

I dare anyone to read this book and not be moved to political action. Okeowo tells stories of moxie, love, and the fight for justice in societies bent on being unjust. (Green)

Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons

Just like turning on a black light in an otherwise clean hotel room, these stories unveil all the dirty secrets we keep hidden in plain sight. Parsons’s sentences are sharp and unapologetically honest, and her characters are so imperfect it makes them ever more relatable. The question remains—do you want to turn off the light or keep staring at the mysterious stains? (Anthony Piacentini, bookseller)

Working by Robert Caro

This is such a smart, delicious, specific book. Caro is a genius biographer and historian, and this book gives us a glimpse of his process, passion, and background. A warning, though: By reading this, you’re committing yourself to reading the rest of his books… (Margaret Myers, assistant buyer)

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

My mom forbid scary stories at home because I had nightmares so dang often, but I am a little nightmare myself, so I snuck them anyway and rarely regretted it because the stories were so visceral, exciting, and worth it. Few books have made me feel that same urgency as an adult, but the stories in Her Body and Other Parties did. These stories are sensual, eerie, and sensitive to so many of the fears and pleasures that vulnerability cultivates. (Maritza Montañez, bookseller)

The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang

There are certain books that expand your understanding so broadly that you can’t imagine forming thoughts on a subject before reading them. Reading The Collected Schizophrenias, I was surprised at my own ignorance about societal misconceptions of the schizophrenias—but this was swiftly corrected by the essays therein. The book describes the author’s own experience with schizoaffective disorder and the difficulty in understanding the complexity of the schizophrenias, exploring the way it’s diagnosed by the medical community and dismantling the terror associated with schizophrenia. I learned something from every single page of this book. (Michael Chin, events director)

Love Your Bookstore! The Millions Interviews Valerie Pierce


This piece is the first in a series of posts supporting the 2019 Love Your Bookstore Challenge, which is sponsored, in part, by The Millions.

Launched last year to draw attention to physical bookstores, the Love Your Bookstore Challenge is back for 2019, kicking off on November 8 and running through November 17.

The brainchild of Sourcebooks Publisher and CEO Dominique Raccah, Love Your Bookstore aims to draw attention to physical bookstores and give readers way to celebrate their favorite stores—via the #loveyourbookstore hashtag on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook—with other book lovers.

To help kick off this years Love Your Bookstore Challenge, The Millions sat down with Valerie Pierce​, the director of retail marketing and creative services at Sourcebooks, to talk about the origins of the campaign, the power of social media, and the importance of local bookstores.

The Millions: Tell us a little about how #LoveYourBookStore got started?

Valerie Pierce: Bookstores are the best places to find the perfect gift for everyone on your holiday list, and we wanted to find a way to encourage readers to visit their local store before Black Friday hit. That’s how #LoveYourBookStore was born. Several publishers and industry folks banded together and launched this massive campaign that touched millions of lives.

TM: Who are some of the partners and how have they helped shape the campaign?

VP: This is such a tough question; we had an embarrassment of riches when it came to all of the partners who joined us. Publishers Weekly was the first partner to sign up, and they have been absolutely instrumental in helping us promote the campaign. They were kind enough to include several stories in their newsletter about the movement, and they dedicated tons of advertising space so that we could really get the word out. Carl Lennertz from the Children’s Book Council was on our steering committee, and helped guide us in the early days of the campaign. Binc was another organization that really supported the movement. They utilized all of their contacts to help us reach authors, booksellers, and other publishers. We had several publishing partners, including Penguin Random House and Abrams who really engaged with the campaign, as did HarperCollins, Grove Atlantic, and Books-a-Million was extraordinary; they really went above and beyond to help us promote the campaign to their booksellers and to their customers. We also had several indie booksellers who championed the campaign and gave us really important feedback like Becky Anderson at Anderson’s Bookshop (she was on the original steering committee), and Kelly Justice at Fountain Bookstore.

TM: That year was the inaugural #LoveYourBookstore. What were some of the highlights, and what’s new this year?

VP: The biggest highlight was seeing how the industry responded in such a positive way. We ended the campaign with 42 publishing partners, which is extraordinary. We also had a potential reach of 14 million-plus people on social media. We’ve seen people continue to use the #LoveYourBookStore hashtag throughout all of 2019. This year we hope to expand the reach of #LoveYourBookstore.

The American Booksellers Association signed on as an official partner this year and has given us several opportunities to promote the event to their booksellers. Abrams has been kind enough to dedicate staff time to help us organize everything. And our publishing partners are back on board for another year, and we’ll continue to offer prize opportunities for people who participate.

TM: Can you talk a little about the importance of local bookstores?

VP: Absolutely! Local bookstores aren’t just a place where you go to buy a book. They’re community centers, safe spaces, and places to discover new worlds. The right bookseller can chat with you and find the perfect book that will change your life. I’ve been in bookstores all across the country, and I’ve watched booksellers teach, aid, comfort, and entertain their customers. Bookstores are the heart of their towns, and it’s important for us to support them and to show them how much we love and appreciate them.

TM: We hear a lot about the problems with social media. But this seems like an example of social media bringing people together. Can you talk about your experience of that as it relates to #LoveYourBookstore?

VP: People love showcasing elements of their personality on social media, and a lot of people really love their bookstores; many people are also very loyal to their bookstores, in the same way that sports fans are loyal to teams. This campaign gave those loyal customers a chance to 1) show their bookstore how much they love them, 2) tell the world how cool their bookstore is, and 3) interact with their friends and see what stores their friends love. Your local bookstore can be seen as an expression of who you are, and it’s fun for people to show that off on social media.

TM: What’s your favorite local bookstore and why?

VP: This is a horrible question! There are way too many bookstores that I love to name one. I’ve lived in several different places, so I’m going to cheat and give you a few! When I visit family in Nashville, Tenn., I always stop in Parnassus—I love their staff recommendations, and I’ve definitely bought and fallen in love with books I never would have picked up on my own. I also love the Books-a-Million at Nashville West; the staff is really friendly, and I’ve had great conversations with them. When I lived in Charlotte, N.C., I frequented the B&N in the Southpark neighborhood because they hosted great book clubs. In Kansas, you could often find me spending time at the Raven. The former owner would always help me find obscure mysteries and special order them for me. And in Naperville, Ill., I’m in Anderson’s Bookshop at least once a week; I’ve seen so many of my favorite authors there!

Outside Looking In: The Millions Interviews R.L. Maizes


R.L. Maizes knows a little about being labeled an outsider. The Colorado-based author grew up in a male-dominated Orthodox Jewish community in Queens, N.Y., an experience that gave her a keen understanding of what it means to feel separated from the wider society. It’s no surprise then that her darkly comic debut collection, We Love Anderson Cooper, features a curious cast of isolated outsiders and outcasts.

Publishers Weekly called the book—out today from Celadon—“delightfully eclectic,” praising Maizes’s “direct manner of storytelling and her imperfect yet unmistakably human characters.”

The Millions caught up with Maizes to chat about the pain of being an outsider, the role of humor in fiction, the importance of writerly discipline, and what she hopes readers will take away from We Love Anderson Cooper.

The Millions: The stories in We Love Anderson Cooper all center on characters who are outcasts and isolated in one way or another—because of things like sexual orientation, racial identity, religious affiliation, appearance. How did that become the overarching trait of your characters and theme of your collection?

R.L. Maizes: I wrote the stories over a period of about 10 years. The pain we all feel at being excluded and our tremendous desire to belong were among my preoccupations as I worked on them. Though I’m no longer religious, I grew up in a male-dominated Orthodox Jewish community. From that experience, I learned what it’s like to be an outsider, both within the religious community as a woman and within the larger society. Given the prejudice outsiders face, especially these days, I thought it would be a good theme for the collection.

R.L. Maizes

TM: Your work is darkly comic—for example, the character in “The Infidelity of Judah Maccabee” is jealous of his cat’s affection for his wife. Can you talk a little about the role of humor in your work?

RLM: I love reading work that’s funny, so it’s natural for me to want to write it, to give readers the enjoyment that other writers have given me. And because some of my work is dark, it helps to leaven it with humor; otherwise, readers might get emotionally exhausted. Humor also allows me to tell certain stories that I couldn’t otherwise tell. In the story you mention, for example, I exaggerate the main character’s jealousy and his bitterness about Hanukkah’s lesser holiday status in a way I hope is funny to take a character who is petty and parochial and make him someone readers will enjoy following around. That’s from the point of view of the reader. From the point of view of the writer, writing is hard, and if you include humor in your work, you can entertain yourself while you’re writing.

TM: Returning to the topic of outsiders, you mentioned you grew up in the Orthodox Jewish community. How did your experiences growing up lead you to write about outsiders? How much of your past is in the book?

RLM: Growing up as an Orthodox Jew meant that I was separated from the larger society. I went to Jewish schools, ate kosher food, and observed a different Sabbath and different holidays than most people. Christmas would come around, and I would long to celebrate the bright music- and present-filled holiday. I craved junk foods advertised on TV, such as Keebler cookies, but the elves, as it turned out, didn’t keep a kosher kitchen. On a more serious note, I grew up learning about the Holocaust, about the genocide and the indifference much of the world had shown. I’ve encountered my share of anti-Semitism. For example, when I was a teenager, my friends were beaten up outside of Madison Square Garden for wearing yarmulkes. Not knowing I was Jewish, a client in my law practice used the phrase “Jew you down” to describe a negotiation. And as a woman, I was treated as a second-class citizen within the Orthodox Jewish community. Women sat in the back of the synagogue and couldn’t lead prayers or study Talmud, and women’s role was to serve men. These experiences taught me empathy for outsiders of all kinds who found their way into my work.

Some of my past is in the book. The story “Yiddish Lessons” examines the culture I grew up in, its attitude toward and effects on women, though the plot of the story is invented. My life shows up in the book in other ways, too. The cat in “The Infidelity of Judah Maccabee” was actually my dog, Tilly. I was terribly jealous when she switched her affections to Steve, my then-boyfriend, now husband, after we began living together. The story features a cat rather than a dog because cats are funnier—I don’t know why—and because we expect less fidelity from cats. Also, I didn’t want Steve to know I was writing about our relationship. He wasn’t fooled.

TM: You’ve spoken in interviews about the importance of discipline in your writing. Can you tell us a little about your process?

RLM: I write for several hours every morning six days a week. That time is sacred to me, and I say no to social invitations, and I try not to take phone calls or to schedule any other appointments then. The morning is when I’m freshest. By writing then, I know it will get done. If I put it off, I risk getting tired or having other things come up. I force myself to take a day off on Sunday, so I don’t burn out. I try to do an hour or two in the afternoons, too. I’ll work on something until I have a complete draft and the plot and prose become too familiar. Then I’ll set it aside for a time or send it to a reader I trust to give me feedback. I had developmental editors critique the collection and the novel I’m working on. Not being as attached to the work, they can see it more clearly. I don’t have an MFA and working with developmental editors has been an important part of my writing education. Some of those editors have become mentors who I turn to with craft questions and questions about the business side of publishing. Taking workshops has been another important part of my writing education.

TM: Who are your influences—whose writing do you see as helping to shape your own?

RLM: I read a lot, and a good deal of what I read influences me. If I see a problem in an author’s work, I try to understand it and to avoid it in my own writing. I’m constantly falling in love with new writers and new books, and I try to learn from them. Like nearly everyone else, I adored Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers. She pulled off a surprise in the book that’s brilliant. Since reading it, when I want to surprise the reader, I think about how she did it and whether I can use a similar approach. As far as influences on the collection, one of the earliest collections I read was Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus. It contains a story, “The Conversion of the Jews,” that’s hilarious and profound. I studied that story as I was writing “We Love Anderson Cooper.” Nathan Englander’s “The Gilgul of Park Avenue” is another story I admire tremendously, its humor and the way it isn’t satisfied with just making the reader laugh. I love Wendy Wasserstein’s plays and aspire to write stories that move as skillfully between comedy and pathos.

TM: What are you working on now? More stories? A novel?

RLM: I have a novel coming out in the summer of 2020 called Other People’s Pets. I’m doing final edits on it now. It’s about an animal empath who was raised to be a burglar, and it shares some characteristics of the collection. Animals feature prominently, the main character is an outsider, and the book contains elements of magical realism. A practice novel I wrote before that one resides on my hard drive. I brought the earlier novel to a summer writing workshop many years ago, and the reception it received was poor enough that I put it away and went back to writing stories. That was a very painful time, but if they had liked that novel, I might not have written the collection. And the truth is, I didn’t have the skills then to write that novel. I love short stories and novels. But the scale of stories makes them less daunting to write, at least for me. For a while, I wasn’t just writing Other People’s Pets, I was wrestling with it. It took a lot of will to keep going in the face of obstacles and setbacks. During much of the process, it wasn’t clear who would pin whom.

TM: What are your hopes for your work: why do you write and how would you like to see your stories affect your readers?

RLM: I write because I have to. When I don’t write, I feel out of sorts. That wasn’t always the case. Though I’ve always wanted to be a writer, I went for years without writing. I was an editor, then a lawyer, and the writing got lost. After my mom died suddenly, I understood that none of us knows how long we have and that if I wanted to write, I had to start and to make it a priority. Now I take advantage of every opportunity I have to write. Nothing equals the satisfaction I get from spending a morning at my desk trying to create something as lovely or funny or insightful as the work I admire. Nothing is as meaningful to me as trying to give readers the gift other writers give me when I disappear into their books, the way my pulse slows and I’m entertained or affected, but not in the way real life affects us, with so much on the line all the time, especially with the way the world is now. I hope the collection inspires readers to be kind to themselves when they don’t quite fit in and to have empathy for people society deems outsiders. I hope it helps people see beyond their differences. But I’d be satisfied, too, if the stories illuminate aspects of our humanity and in doing so make readers laugh or break readers’ hearts a little.
This post was sponsored by Celadon Books.

Book of the Month’s 3 Most Popular Books


The best of of the best: Here are Book of the Month’s most loved titles of 2016 — selected by the club’s judges, and celebrated by its members.  Check ‘em out below, and use code THEMILLS50 to get 50% off a 3 month membership.

1. The Nest

Judge Ellie Kemper chose this debut novel, which follows the nastily fun antics of four inheritance-grubbing siblings. Read Ellie’s essay here!

2. The Queen of the Night

A famous opera singer with a curse, French royalty embroiled in dramatic affairs, and extravagant and ornate gowns. See more here.

3. The Verdict

“A spectacular legal thriller. There’s double-crossing, blackmail, hidden agendas, conspiracies, and danger around every corner.” Check out Judge Liberty Hardy’s purrrrfect essay.

Don’t forget… use code THEMILLS50 to get 50% off a three month membership (that’s just $7.50 per hardcover book — wow!)

This post was created in partnership with The Millions and supports the The Millions’ efforts to be the premier independent online magazine covering books, arts, and culture.

4 Things You Didn’t Know About Book of the Month


1. It still exists

2. Readers love getting their boxes

3. Members can chat directly with authors

4. There’s a special offer for readers of The Millions
Use the code “THEMILLS” to get 3 months for $19.99 (that’s less than $7 per hardcover book)

This post was created in partnership with The Millions and supports the The Millions’ efforts to be the premier independent online magazine covering books, arts, and culture.

Five Millions-Approved Books You Can Read on Oyster

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Oyster is the best way to read books digitally. For just $9.95 a month, you can read as many books in the Oyster Unlimited library (over a million in total, far more than what Kindle Unlimited offers), all within the most beautiful reading app ever designed. It works across your devices—iPhone, iPad, Android, the Kindle Fire, and the web—and it’s the only digital browsing experience that comes anywhere close to the feel of your local bookstore. And since all Millions readers are smart, discerning people of impeccable literary taste, you can try it for free for a month here.

But with a million books at your fingertips, where should you start? Why not start with a few favorites from The Millions.

H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald: “H is for Hawk is not a mystical book, but it is one of those rare works of non-fiction that stand up to a metaphorical reading. The echoes of myth in Macdonald’s writing, however subtle and unobtrusive, lend her book an emotional weight usually reserved only for literature, and a grace only for poetry.” — Madeleine Larue

Speedboat by Renata Adler: “Adler’s brief, punchy wit reads, perhaps, better today than it did 35 years ago. Scrolling through news bits and status updates between passages of Speedboat, I’m floored by how the novel reads as a somewhat verbose Twitter feed. That is, verbose for Twitter. Succinct for anything else.” — Eric Dean Wilson

Young Skins by Colin Barrett: “This collection, winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Guardian First Book Award, wastes no motion in its unsparing look at youth and masculinity in the small towns of the west.” — Garth Risk Hallberg

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay: “[M]oral complexity, its denial of easy schematics, turns An Untamed State into something more than good fiction, which it is, and arrives at something approximating, in a larger sense, truth.” — Aboubacar Ndiaye

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner: “Kushner’s fiction is so stuffed with characters, events, stories, history, information — it is so alive in its own specific imagined worlds — that it seems to want to burst. But it never does. And that may be the main reason why Rachel Kushner is well on her way to huge.” — Bill Morris

And if you’re interested in books outside of the subscription library, the Oyster Store has got you covered too. Purchase new releases—like say titles off the Millions Top 10, like My Brilliant Friend, All the Light We Cannot See, or The Girl on the Train—and they’ll automatically sync to all your devices. It’s just as convenient and budget-friendly as shopping on Amazon, except it doesn’t feel like you’re shopping deep within a desolate warehouse.

This post was created in partnership with The Millions and supports the The Millions’ efforts to be the premier independent online magazine covering books, arts, and culture.