Black Landscapes: The Millions Interviews M Shelly Conner

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M Shelly Conner’s debut novel everyman, out now in paperback from Blackstone, tells the story of Eve Mann, whose quest to learn about her past launches a multigenerational story set against the backdrop of the American South and the Great Migration. A temporally vast exploration of identity, inheritance, and liberation, everyman puts Conner in conversation with such literary forebearers as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. We talked with Conner about the journey to publication, the personal inspiration behind the book, and negotiating the oft-competing demands of academia and literature.
The Millions: What was the genesis of everyman? Can you walk us through the journey from the novel’s inception to its publication?
M Shelly Conner: My mother, a retired Chicago public librarian, has always been a curator of our family history and stories. Collecting everything from obituaries to census records, she’s traced our maternal ancestry back to the early 1800s. I’ve always felt an incredible sense of pride in the repository of information that she’s gathered for us. As a young Chicago public school teacher, I wanted to share that experience with my students. I knew they wouldn’t get as far as my mother had, but I hoped that they would gather enough information from their relatives to feel their place as part of something bigger and unique to their lives. I was unprepared for some of the pushback they received from their families. I thought of the decades that my mother spent interviewing relatives and combing through records and wondered why some would work just as hard to do the opposite. Who are the names that are erased from family bibles? What are their stories? I wrote the majority of everyman as my dissertation during my PhD program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It took an additional three years of revisions before I secured an agent, but it was acquired by a publisher rather quickly.
TM: You’re known as a multi-genre writer. Do you gravitate more strongly toward certain genres or find certain genres harder to tackle? Where does the genre of the novel fall for you? 
MSC: I’ve written more pieces of creative nonfiction than any other genre. It’s probably because there’s a quicker turnaround to publication. I spent years writing in various genres by taking advantage of immersive experiences: playwriting with Chicago’s Black Ensemble Theater; sketch writing with The Second City theater; scriptwriting for television and web series opportunities; and most recently, writing a podcast episode for America’s Test Kitchen. I’m fluent in various storytelling genres, but fiction has always been my native tongue.
everyman took 16 years to come to fruition. It was my longest WIP even as I explored the other genres. I’ve now started my next novel and it feels strangely wonderful to write at this level—as a published novelist. All of my novel-writing skill set emerged through everyman. I’m finally getting the opportunity to apply those skills, as well as incorporate new technologies in creating new work.
TM: Eve, around whom everyman revolves, is such a well-rendered and dynamic character. When it comes to your characters, do you have them fully developed in your mind before you set pen to paper, or do you learn about them as you’re writing? Do you think any parts of yourself spilled into Eve?
MSC: Thank you for that. Eve thanks you for that. My characters are developed in my mind as far as traits, identity, their main goal/need, and their main conflict. But they definitely grow and teach me about themselves as I write them. If I’ve set them up with strong initial development, their subsequent thoughts, choices, and actions flow so freely at times that it feels like dictation.
Eve contains parts of myself—as do all the characters. People’s choices are based on their circumstances. In order to write empathetically, I first start imagining myself in different circumstances. Different parentage, lineage, geographic location, gender, orientation, et cetera. Eventually, you come to have a character that isn’t so easily recognizable as yourself, making choices that you would never dream to make in unimaginable circumstances. And yet, I do imagine them.
TM: Though part of the novel is set in Chicago, much of everyman feels like it belongs to—and pushes forward—a large and rich canon of Southern literature. The novel’s prelude, for instance, begins with a reflection on Southern life: “Small southern towns change slowly… It’s best represented by the southern drawl, like golden honey dripped onto biscuits.” Were you at all conscious of other writers and novels of the American South, of how the region has been traditionally portrayed and how you wanted to depict it? 
MSC: At the time of writing it, most of my literary inspirations were products of the Great Migration, like myself. Our parents had left the South, yet we remained connected to it through stays with relatives in the South, our continued traditions, and our cultural continuity. everyman is a love letter to the home-south, Chicago’s southside, and the Great Migration that connects the two.

Toni Morrison’s parents were from Alabama and Georgia. Her novel Song of Solomon—a strong influence for everyman—is a reverse migration narrative. Milkman’s journey of self-discovery is geo-genealogical, like Eve’s in everyman. An early literary inspiration was also Zora Neale Hurston, and not just for her storytelling and multi-genre work. She was a fierce advocate for Black southern stories and dialects when other Black writers were distancing themselves from it and proving themselves capable of standard English. As Morrison notes, “The very serious function of racism is distraction.… Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do.”
From Hurston to Morrison, we’ve seen what happens next. Black stories gain value but become represented by non-Black curators in major institutions like academia and publishing where there are shortages of actual Black people. I wanted to portray the South as I know it—as its grandchild. As the one who spent summers on her grandmother’s porch in Memphis. I wanted to capture so many nuances in the novel and dig beneath what has become cliché notions, one of the oldest being that the South is so slow that it is actually backward. So the very first paragraph tackles that notion and, hopefully, renders it beautifully—even seductively.

I didn’t know it at the time, but writers like Kiese Laymon, Regina Bradley, and others were doing the same thing—rendering nuanced Black landscapes of the South. Bradley’s work Chronicling Stankonia does this through the lens of Outkast and southern hip hop. It uses a key moment when the Atlanta-based rap duo Outkast upsets the traditional NY/West coasts rap landscape by winning Best New Rap Group at the 1995 Source Awards. Group member Andre 3000 famously said, “The south got something to say.” And it still does. Especially from Black folk. Even those who grew up bouncing between it and Chicago like children in dual-custody households.
TM: Kiese Laymon said that it “feels like Morrison and Walker guided the hand of the characters” in everyman—an incredibly high compliment! You were obviously conscious of Walker’s influence, as the novel begins with a quote of hers. In fact, each chapter begins with a different epigraph; one is from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, another from Julie Dash’s film Daughters of the Dust. How did you channel all these influences into the writing of everyman? Who are some of your other literary influences?
MSC: Being likened to my greatest early literary influences (Morrison and Walker) by my greatest contemporary influence (Laymon) is mind-blowing. At times I can’t tell whether I channeled them or they channeled me. In any case, I am a grateful devotee of such communion.
I read Invisible Man as an undergraduate at Tuskegee University. To read such a powerful work in the place of its own inspiration activated something within me. Writing everyman was the nexus between my literary influences and my own experiences. Other early literary influences are Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Cherry Muhanji, Edward P. Jones, and Audre Lorde. My contemporary influences are Kiese Laymon, Deesha Philyaw, Dawnie Walton, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, Mecca Jamilah Sullivan, and Robert Jones, Jr. to name a few of the many whose works have really informed my writing in recent years. I want to name them all and hope to have a chance to do so. Because there are so many of us that are doing the work and not being featured.
TM: You currently work in academia, as an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas. How do you negotiate the dual, and sometimes conflicting, demands of working in academia and writing literature? How do you negotiate your professor-self and writer-self?
MSC: I went into academia for the purpose of merging those aspects of self. I believe in the cyclical nature of learning and growth—one moves from novice to practitioner to mastery as best demonstrated by teaching and learning new insights from those with whom you’ve shared your knowledge, thus completing the cycle of learning craft. But that’s very philosophical. In reality, there are demands in academia that sometimes conflict with my writer-self. They sometimes even conflict with my professor-self. Academia is very much a business of education that neither my professor- nor my writer-self is predisposed to entertain.
Yet it’s where I must be for the work that I need to do. It’s not just about reaching a certain level of professional recognition. It’s about ensuring that the works of Black writers, Black queer writers, and marginalized voices are in these spaces and are being taught by those of us with these experiences. Compared to the dualities that I experience as a Black queer woman marginalized in academia, the writer-professor negotiation is negligible.

Find That First Sentence: The Millions Interviews Christopher Amenta

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The Cold Hard Light, published this week from Blackstone, is Christopher Amenta’s debut novel. Set in Amenta’s hometown of Boston, the novel follows Andrew, who goes by H—a new father who becomes obsessed with the man who assaulted his sister. The drama plays out amid the indignities of urban life, touching on racial and economic injustice as well as H’s own thirst for vengeance. The result is taut and gritty—a heavy dose of reality and scathing indictment of American cities. We talked with Amenta about the journey to publication, writing high stakes for his characters, and how his bike rides through Boston shaped his writing.

The Millions: The Cold Hard Light is your debut novel, so I’d love to start by asking you about the path to publication. What was the book’s genesis? What was the publishing process like?

Christopher Amenta: I began working on a version of this book in 2010. I’d had the idea to write about a young man who became obsessed with the guy who had assaulted his sister. However, I couldn’t seem to find the right tone or the right character to put at the center of this story. I put the idea aside for a few years. Then, in November 2017, shortly after a gunman murdered 60 people at a concert in Las Vegas, I started working again. I finished in March of 2020, a few weeks before George Floyd was murdered. The Cold Hard Light isn’t a novel about mass shooters or racially-motivated police violence, but tragedies similar to—and all together unique from—these two were happening throughout the years that I was writing. Some of my frustrations and anxieties and questions began to seep into the work.

When I finished, I passed the pages to my agent Christopher Vyce at the Brattle Agency. He and I had been working together on another manuscript, and he immediately began to pitch this new book. We got a few rejections, but Blackstone Publishing acquired the book in early 2021, less than a year after we put it up for sale. I was extremely lucky to sign with Christopher, and he deserves all the credit for matching us with Blackstone. Years ago, he was good enough to read a manuscript of mine from graduate school, and we’ve been working together ever since. The pages we delivered to Blackstone were pretty polished, and though we went through an editorial review process, the team didn’t request any significant changes.

From there, it’s been a surreal year and a half as their team has designed a beautiful book jacket, reviewed and edited and strengthened the prose, enlisted the very talented Chris Ciulla for the audiobook, and began connecting me with readers and outlets. I’ve been incredibly lucky. Many, many terrific writers never catch a break. I’m grateful to the people who have taken a chance on this book.

TM: What is your process for writing fiction generally? Do characters come to you fully formed, or do they reveal themselves to you as you write? How and where does a story start for you?

CA: I do my best writing when I can find that first sentence that sets the tone and gives voice to the work. But that’s not to say I sit around and wait for one sentence to arrive. I usually take a lot of missteps before things come together. I’ve changed narrators. I’ve tossed off entire drafts and entire novels. And, in the case of The Cold Hard Light, I put the idea down for about five years until I could hear it more clearly in my own head.

I like to chase the characters across the page. I tend to learn, through writing, how they talk and what they might do. Some of the best moments in this novel, I think, are passages I didn’t plan to write and bits of dialog or action that seemed to spring from the characters themselves. The good stuff surprises me. And it’s only after a first draft that I can step back and start to understand what the book’s problem is, where all the little devils are, and whose soul is at stake.

TM: You’ve previously published several works of short fiction—how does the experience of writing a novel compare to short stories? Are there unique challenges to each? Do you prefer one over the other?

CA: Great short story writers are able to distill a whole life into a few pages so that the reader steps away knowing that nothing will ever be the same. A novel achieves a similar result, but the pressure is really on in the short story. Lots has to be done by implication. What happens, I think, becomes critically important. Conflict and resolution have to come in scenes because we haven’t the time or space to expound. I still have plenty to learn about the art of writing short stories, though I’m not sure I would return to the form any time soon. I prefer to write novels. The stories that seemed to turn out best for me started with a very clear sense of character and voice and a very well-defined problem that I could explore. I’ve brought that framework to writing longer fiction.

The novel works by addition, so starting in the right place seems important. This is partly because it takes so long to write. I work in the mornings, before heading to my office job, so The Cold Hard Light was assembled in something like 45-minute increments over a stretch of years. Each day’s work depended on what preceded it. Once I had it all down, I leaned on the skills I developed while working on short fiction to refine the book into something more focused. The Cold Hard Light deals with a single narrative arc and a handful of characters. The questions that are being asked in the first chapter are being answered in the final pages. When I was revising the book, I would create a new blank document for each chapter and try to form each segment into something like a short story with a setting, a few characters, and in which something irrevocable happens that steers the book onward. This process helped tighten the story into the novel it became.

TM: I think a lot of readers might be surprised by how many iconic novels are, like The Cold Hard Light, set in Boston—Infinite JestThe Bell JarWalden. Do you see your novel fitting into a larger canon of Boston literature? And how do you approach the work of conjuring place, of honoring a city’s specificity while exploring universal experience?

CA: There are so many great novels set in or inspired by Boston or New England, all of which are to be admired and many of which I could have learned from. For me, though, the most instructive examples came from books that, regardless of setting, conjured a specific tone and employed a contained, dramatic arc. Mine is a gritty, little thing that had to feel real—not just that it could happen, but that it might be happening right now, somewhere nearby, for all we know.

Setting was an important part of making this world feel lived in. I borrowed a lot. It’s wonderful to be in a city like Boston where so much is happening, where there’s interest everywhere. When I was writing this book, I was riding my bike to work on a route that cut right through the neighborhoods in the novel. I noticed places and people and interactions. Watching and listening gave the book its specificity, but what makes it feel universal, I think, is how H feels about this setting. Boston had been his home, and then it changed, and he’s surrounded by evidence that it continues to change right around him. He doesn’t recognize anyone, anymore. He feels like an imposter. That’s something that anybody in any place can relate to. So though this book is about a Boston that’s inspired by what I saw and heard, the reader is hopefully experiencing a sense of alienation which we all have felt at some point in our lives.

TM: Boston is more than a setting for the novel, it’s also your hometown, so you have a unique perspective in terms of portraying the city authentically—as well as critiquing some of its faults. The Cold Hard Light deals explicitly with the inequities of urban life, racism in the justice system, and gun violence, in Boston and in the U.S. as a whole. How did you approach writing from this vantage point and about such urgent social issues? 

CA: These terrible headlines were everywhere when I was writing. Another mass shooting? Another Black man murdered by police? Whatever nonsense was happening in the White House this week or that. On every street corner I saw cranes and development. Every ad was for luxury condos. When did we all start demanding so much luxury? I’d see these massive SUVs rolling through the city, in which gig workers were shuttling around the business class. Everybody had their faces in their phones all the time.

These things are part of everyday life in this city and in countless others. Some may seem benign, others are outwardly nefarious, but they all seemed of a piece to me. If I was going to set this book in Boston, and I wanted the story to feel real, then I needed to try to capture how these circumstances would matter to someone like H, someone like Billy, someone like Williams. It became clear to me that a city like this could stack up on a person, could start to feel lonely and inescapable, could make a person feel like they’d be lucky to get out alive. I was always trying to work from that point of view, which belonged to my characters, as I was writing about this city in this country.

TM: One of the challenges of writing a novel that contains social commentary is how to balance story and critique. How did you approach this balance when writing The Cold Hard Light? And how do you think fiction can deliver social commentary differently from nonfiction? 

CA: Flannery O’Connor wrote an essay in which she argues that the task of fiction is to tell “how some specific folks will do.” This feels like the right way to go about it. I think it’s risky to start writing fiction to try to make a point. But if you start writing about people and what they might do, perhaps some wisdom or truth asserts itself. In the case of this book, if those people are inhabiting a world that resembles our own, that’s troubled by some of the issues that we deal with, then, suddenly, the story can contain a critique. That’s nice. It feels organic and, therefore, more true.

I don’t think anyone would be interested in an essay from me about a broken criminal justice system or the absurd relationship this country has with its guns. I’m certainly not an authority on any of that. But I did think I could write about a couple of people bumping into each other as they try to make their way through a world where unequal and unreasonable circumstances can lead to extreme behaviors and violence. And the result is pretty dark. But maybe that’s appropriate, especially if some readers get to the end and think more critically about how an America like the one in the novel might drive some folks to live and behave as these characters do.

TM: The Cold Hard Light is characterized by a tense and gritty realism—characters confront job insecurity, postpartum depression, violence, incarceration. What draws you to writing in this mode rather than, say, more escapist fiction? What value do you feel readers derive from stories that closely mirror reality—even, perhaps, uncomfortably so?

CA: I like to read stories that are tense and gritty and realistic. One of the advanced readers, author Thomas O’Malley, called the book Doestevskian, likening H to a modern day Roskolnikov, and another, author Jack O’Connell, wrote that the book reminded him of George V. Higgins and Raymond Carver. These comparisons flatter the novel and are more than generous, but I saw those blurbs and thought, yeah, that’s the sort of thing I was hoping this might be.

When I finally finished writing the book, I handed the draft to my wife—who is always my first reader—hangdog. It’s not a lot of fun, I warned her. But at the end of the day, I wasn’t trying to write something fun. Not everybody gets the opportunity to say something. Were I to get mine, I ought to stand up and speak clearly. If this novel feels tense and gritty, and if its world seems authentic and familiar, and if you believe that these characters might exist and behave as they do, then maybe there’s value in reading and feeling a little uncomfortable. Escapist fiction can, of course, be as beautiful and powerful and transformative as any realism, but it’s just not where my interests lie.

TM: You received your MFA in fiction from Boston University, so I’m sure you’re asked not infrequently to weigh in on the great debate about the value of an MFA. What was your MFA experience like and how do you think it shaped both you as a writer and your writing career?

CA: I owe the publication of this novel to the MFA program at Boston University, without a doubt. There, I learned several invaluable skills, the most important of which, and arguably the least cited in the great MFA debate, is the ability to read my own work as another might. Like everybody else, I went into the program thinking I would learn to write great, important things. Thankfully, I was quickly relieved of that misconception. The program I attended focused on writing a lot, as clearly as possible, in a very short amount of time. Through that process, I learned about craft. I feel as though the program rinsed my prose clean. One of the critiques of the MFA is that everyone comes out sounding the same, but I don’t think that’s right. My education helped me distill and clarify my writing, and then, in the years since, I learned how to layer voice back in—not mine, but that of my characters. Learning the craft gave me a very good foundation.

But the reading is the useful part. You spend all your time critiquing others’ work. Your own writing gets dinged around the room while you sit there and bite your tongue and wait for your turn to defend your own poorly realized vision. That’s good stuff. It helps you learn to write for an audience. If it were up to me, I’d make the fiction workshop a requirement for all first-year college students because it’s in there that the writer begins to work on behalf of the reader. And that’s the big thing I got out of the MFA. Before I went into that program, I would read fiction and ask, “What does it mean?” Now, I understand that the right question is, “What does it do?”

The MFA doesn’t work for everyone. Don’t go in expecting a big break right away. Don’t spend very much money on it (unless you’ve got it). But, if you can do it like I did—find a well-funded program, work while you go to school, take on no debt, and practice what you learn for years, seriously, after the fact—then I doubt you will regret it.

TM: You’re currently at work on your second novel—is there anything you can share about it? 

CA: I’ve finished a novel that’s set in the fracking fields of North Dakota in the dead of winter. It follows a young father, separated from his wife, as he tries to cope with the very difficult, very lucrative job of being a roughneck. It seems like an interesting place to focus some attention right now as we perpetuate our dependency on fossil fuels.I also started working on a novel that tells the story of an emergency room nurse who, exhausted and emotionally drained from the pandemic, quits her job, and moves in with her boyfriend, an eccentric, brilliant, and very successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur. I’d read about a number of wealthy individuals who bought up helicopters and land in New Zealand so that they can live off the grid when global warming finally and at last results in mass migration, food scarcity, war, and suffering. And I thought: how callous. I wondered what’s going on in the heads and the hearts of these people. So I thought I’d dive in and see what I could find.

The Magical and the Mundane: The Millions Interviews Alanna Schubach

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Alanna Schubach’s debut novel The Nobodies, out June 21 from Blackstone, tells the story of Jess and Nina, two best friends with a secret: by touching their heads together, they can swap bodies. This supernatural power allows them to inhabit each other’s lives; self-conscious Nina can enjoy Jess’s bold and assertive persona, while Jess revels in the safety of Nina’s stable family. But the ability to body-swap also brings to the fore questions of intimacy, trust, and betrayal and puts the mechanics of female friendship under a microscope.

Schubach’s short stories have appeared in Shenandoah, the Sewanee Review, the Massachusetts Review, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. We caught up with her ahead of the publication of The Nobodies to chat about composite characters, the drafting process, Elena Ferrante, how to juxtapose the magical and the mundane, and much more.

The Millions: This is your debut novel, so I’d love first to start by asking you about your path to its publication. What was the novel’s genesis, and how did it come into being?

Alanna Schubach: The novel began as a short story, specifically the section that takes place when the main characters, Nina and Jess, are in high school. The story began at a point when they’d already been using this secret power to swap bodies and building up a lot of baggage around that for some time, and ended with a rupture between them. When I shared the story with my writing group, the reaction was unanimous that there was a lot more to explore, enough for a novel, which I had also sensed but felt intimidated about, so that gave me the push I needed.

The writing of the initial draft took about three years; I was juggling multiple freelance writing and teaching gigs, so I had to carve out little snatches of time and sometimes it was a struggle to stay motivated. Doing a writing residency helped, and so did the encouragement of my writing groups. I was very lucky to be connected with my agent, Robert Guinsler, who wholeheartedly believed in the novel and was not deterred when quite a few publishers passed on the initial submission. I was also fortunate to win an emerging writer fellowship with the Center for Fiction, part of which included being paired with a professional editor, Meg Storey. I asked her to evaluate the manuscript, because the feedback from publishers who passed was all over the map. Meg understood what I was trying to do with the story, both practically and thematically, and came back with a really insightful and thorough developmental edit. I did a substantial revision based on that, and then Robert took the novel out again, and finally, a few months later, it found its home at Blackstone. My path to publication is a story of both my perseverance (or stubbornness) and very good luck in finding the right people at the right time. And also of the support of family and friends, without whom I’d have thrown up my hands and given up at some point.

TM: The storytelling device of the body swap been explored by such writers as Anne Rice, Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, H. P. Lovecraft, Mary Shelley, and Julio Cortázar. Did you read any body-swapping stories while you were writing the novel? Why did you feel this device was vital to telling Jess and Nina’s story? Did you at all want to turn it on its head?

AS: Funny you mention Anne Rice—I had forgotten about her body-swap novel, but I did read it years ago. I was a huge devotee of her Vampire Chronicles series when I was a teenager, so it’s possible that was in the back of my mind. Speaking of vampires, there’s an episode of Buffy­—which I was also obsessed with—in which Buffy swaps bodies with her nemesis, Faith. I remember being really affected at the time by how Faith reacts with rage and horror when she’s confronted with her own image, Buffy in her body. Something about that rang true to me, that if we could perceive ourselves from the outside, closer to how others perceive us, it would be very destabilizing.

I didn’t read any body-swapping stories while I was writing the novel, but I did read the work of a lot of writers who blend or defy so-called realistic and genre fiction, like Kate Atkinson, Ted Chiang, Brian Evenson, Kelly Link, Helen Oyeyemi, and Karen Russell. Also Kobo Abe, Italo Calvino, Shirley Jackson, and Ursula LeGuin. They all opened my eyes to the capaciousness of fiction and its ability to exist outside traditional categories. I think by not reading fiction specifically about body-swapping, I wasn’t preoccupied with adhering to or defying its conventions and could focus on what made sense for my story.

TM: The conceit of The Nobodies feels very much in the tradition of magical realism, in that the narrative is very realistic, with fully fleshed out interpersonal relationships. Yet this supernatural element is organically woven into that narrative. Can you talk a bit about where you situate the novel within—or outside of—the constraints of genre? Was magical realism at all on your mind?

AS: I try to avoid thinking much about what my place might be within a larger tradition—ultimately that’s out of my hands. And during the writing process, I had a lot of uncertainty about whether I’d finish at all, let alone how I’d classify the novel. What I did consider important to the story was that Nina and Jess’s power be limited—that it be a miraculous, incredible secret, but also a closed system. They can only swap bodies with each other, and no one else ever seems to notice when they’ve done it. It was also important that they wield their power within an otherwise recognizable setting. This contrast seemed to me the way to capture that feeling of sharing a private, magical but also claustrophobic world with the person you’re closest to. And I found there ended up being some drift between the supposedly “magical” and “mundane” elements of the novel. The more the girls use their power, the more matter-of-fact it felt; the more I dug into the book’s “realistic” settings and situations, the stranger they became to me.

TM: The Nobodies is set against the vibrant backdrop of New York City, as so many great contemporary novels are. It’s a cliché now to say that New York City is basically a character in the story—but it never fails to be an interesting character! How does the city factor into your novel, and how did you want to depict it within the vast canon of literature set in New York City?

AS: My perspective on New York City may be a bit unusual as far as NYC-set literature goes, because I grew up on Long Island, about 30 miles from Manhattan physically, but light-years away culturally and temperamentally, it often seemed to me as a kid. New York City was not so much a glamorous, fantastical, far-off dreamland but a real place I traveled to on the Long Island Rail Road and was desperate to get to permanently. And when I did get there, it felt like I’d made the right decision, but it wasn’t like the city had just been waiting for me to arrive. I had plenty of fun, but it was a slog for years to just scrape by, and there was also the strangeness of living there in the aftermath of two disasters, 9/11 and then the financial crisis. It was important to me that the slog of it came through in the novel, and the sense of being totally unremarkable in a remarkable place. Nina and Jess share an incredible power, and they expect that it’s going to unlock the city for them, that they’ll rise to power within it, but they don’t. They don’t have money or connections; they’re not part of any exciting scenes. They muddle through, too. And there are other settings that are also significant to the novel, which jumps around in time and space: Long Island, where the girls grow up, and Japan, where Nina moves at one point. I hope these locations also feel real enough to be like characters unto themselves.

TM: The relationships in the novel feel so authentic, so fully fleshed out and lived in. Did you draw any aspects of the novel, or its central relationships, from your own life or experiences?

AS: Another way in which I’m very lucky is that I’ve known my two closest friends since junior high and high school, and we’ve maintained a bond with enough room to allow us to grow individually and together in all kinds of ways. A relationship is like a life, in that it goes through many phases. Fortunately whatever periods of tension we’ve weathered together have not been nearly as dramatic as what Nina and Jess go through, but the ups and downs, and some of the ways my friends have challenged or encouraged or surprised me, did serve as inspiration. I drew upon my experiences for probably all the relationships in the novel, with parents, teachers, boyfriends, co-workers, et cetera, but they’re never as simple as one-to-one analogues for real-life ones. Characters are composites of aspects of many people, real and imagined. And there’s probably at least a bit of me in every character, because I don’t see how there couldn’t be—they all came from me, my particular lens on events, interpretations of behavior, and imagination.

TM: In recent years, the subject of female friendships has finally been treated as worthy of literary attention and exploration, thanks in part to authors like Sally Rooney and Elena Ferrante. How would you describe your approach to writing about female friendships—what, for instance, makes them different from other kinds of friendships?—and how do you feel about the long overdue literary attention now being paid to them?

AS: For a period of my childhood I was only friends with boys. I had a falling out with some girl friends and decided girls were too complicated and unpredictable. Of course boys are too, which I eventually learned. But generally, I think women are better at maintaining relationships long-term, because they’re allowed access to a broader range of emotion and a deeper intimacy with each other than most men are. This may be changing; young men now may feel more able to be vulnerable and confide in each other than they used to. But when I was coming of age, it was way more common to see (ostensibly straight) girls in intense entanglements with each other that were not quite the same as heterosexual romances.

I think the shadow side of that infatuation is jealousy. There’s the external pressure of male attention, as both a potential threat and something to compete for. And there’s the belief you can easily succumb to: that your friend already has whatever seems to be missing in yourself or your life. Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels loom large in terms of depicting this, as does Sula by Toni Morrison. What I wanted to do in my novel was take that jealousy and apply it to this magical device of body-swapping: what would happen if you could step into your friend’s skin and take what she had for yourself, literally possess her? Would that finally make you complete and worthy?

I’m glad female friendships are getting their due now. There’s way more to explore. I hope that we can also honor, in literary and other artistic depictions, the positive role female friends continue to play in each other’s lives as they age. Even if you’re married, have kids, whatever, those relationships remain unique and important, and there is room in our lives for them.

TM: In the novel, you explore the depths and gradations of betrayal, which is often viewed as quite a cut and dry action. How does the story of Jess and Nina complicate common notions of betrayal, and how did you approach writing about betrayal with nuance?

AS: In a workshop, another student who read an earlier draft of the novel told me she saw Jess as evil. I was horrified to hear that! I hope at this point that isn’t the takeaway. To Nina, Jess often feels challenging and antagonistic, but Jess probably feels that way about Nina at times too. From each of their perspectives, they’ve been disappointed, failed, maybe even betrayed by the other. But even the most straightforward villain doesn’t believe they’re the villain. They have elaborate systems of justification in place for their actions and, if you look close enough, comprehensible reasons for their behavior, as we all do. The person I am when reading or writing feels like a better person than who I am moment-to-moment in the everyday. I’m able to extend to characters a level of understanding that’s difficult to deploy with real people in real life, who I can’t observe in the way that fiction allows.

TM: Last year, you were a fellow at the MacDowell Colony, where you worked in a cabin previously occupied by such writers as Ann Patchett, Karen Joy Fowler, and Lynne Tillman. What was that experience like? Did you work at all on The Nobodies while you were there?

AS: I had already finished final edits on The Nobodies by the time I got to MacDowell and was working there on a second novel. MacDowell is so legendary that I kind of couldn’t believe I was there, among very seasoned artists and writers whose work I admired. After an initial period of feeling out of my depth, being in that cabin helped me locate the faith in myself that I could do this again, finish another book. A friend recently shared with me something Neil Gaiman said about how writing a book only teaches you to write that one book. So each time you start a new one, you once again have no clue what you’re doing. But the fact that MacDowell seemed to believe I was capable made me think that I could figure it out.

Always Present, Sometimes Deadly: The Millions Interviews Matt Bondurant

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Matt Bondurant’s latest novel, Oleander City, published earlier this month by Blackstone, vivifies a lesser-known but vital piece of American history. In 1900, the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history converged on Galveston, Texas. In response, Clara Barton and the relatively nascent Red Cross traveled to the Lone Star State to provide relief, and famed boxers Joe Choynski and Jack Johnson crossed the color line in a match to benefit the recovery effort. Against this backdrop of tragedy and tumult, Oleander City traces three intersecting lives, each subject to forces beyond their control. Bondurant, whose previous novels include The Night SwimmerThe Wettest County in the World, and The Third Translation, weaves together each story with characteristic sophistication and intricacy, as historical figures and fictional characters collide amid the chaos of unprecedented natural disaster.

The Millions spoke with Bondurant about his research process, the moral obligations of novelists, and how historical fiction can help bridge the gap between the past and the present.

The Millions: Oleander City is based on the true story of three lives converging in the wake of the 1900 Galveston hurricane. How did you discover this little-known piece of history, and what drew you to it as a story worth novelizing?

Matt Bondurant: About 12 years ago, my wife was doing research for her Ph.D. dissertation on immigration through Galveston around the turn of the century. She started unearthing all kinds of interesting historical anecdotes and events surrounding the 1900 hurricane, including the boxing match between Jack Johnson and Joe Choynski. I immediately saw the fictional possibilities of this amazing true story, as it contained a lot of elements that I often work with in my fiction: challenging physical environments, athletic contest, violence, desperate circumstances, and unique historical and cultural anomalies. But it wasn’t really until I went to the Rosenberg Museum in Galveston and found the picture, which I include on the last page of the book, of Jack and Joe being released from jail—and the mysterious little girl and the old dog in the corner—that I knew this was a compelling story. Who was this girl? How did she come to be in this picture? What was her role here? That was my catalyst, the mystery that I could write toward, that faint glimmer of light on the horizon that drew me onward.

TM: What kind of research went into writing Oleander City? When writing a historical novel that is based on a true story, how do you decide which facts to keep and which aspects to fictionalize?

MB: I spent about a decade reading about the Galveston hurricane of 1900, slowly working through all the pertinent available books in my university and public library. About four years ago, I began to devote myself to boxing history, from the bare-knuckle period of the late 19th century to the rise of Jack Johnson in the early 20th century. Besides reading books, I spent a fair bit of time on the internet looking at any images and film of early boxing matches that I could find, as well as diving into the biographies of Jack and Joe Choynski. Concurrently, I read books about Clara Barton and the American Red Cross as the character of Diana began to unfold.

The decision process of what to keep as true to the historical record and what to fictionalize is difficult to summarize. I would say that in most cases it is fluid, organic. Clearly the most compelling details, like the arrest and incarceration of the two boxers and what we know about their experiences together in jail, are the things that I am most likely to keep “as is.” But even in that case, so much “fictionalizing” is happening as I attempt to portray the day-to-day moments, thoughts, dialogue, and actions of these men. So even as the basic facts of the situation are historically accurate, there is always a lot that is fashioned by imagination in a historical novel. There is really no such thing as absolute historical truth; every fact of history is at least incrementally recast or adjusted in the retelling. And this doesn’t even account for the impact of style, organization, tone, and a multitude of other writing craft elements. Then, once I have a feel for the central components of the story, I can be somewhat selective, choosing incidents that support or feed this dynamic or the plot line while leaving out others that don’t “fit” or needlessly overcomplicate or confuse matters.

TM: What about the historical fiction genre interests you?

MB: I’ve always liked the feeling that I’m learning about something, a culture, a historical moment, a person, a place, when I’m reading fiction. I also like the task of researching things that I find compelling. In fact, I would likely spend all my time reading and researching the things that interest me if I could, and as it is I take three to four years to finally put it together in a book. But most of all I like the challenge of attempting to accomplish a rendering of what the writer Tim O’Brien called “story truth”—the kind of truth that lies beyond the objective facts and actualities of a historical moment. This is about capturing the essence, the spirit of the people and the story. The history of a place and time like Galveston in 1900 is obviously massively incomplete; what we do not know far outweighs what we do. Those spaces, the dark matter between the few points of light of recorded history, is the imaginative space that I live for. My intention is to create a story that honors this time, place, situation, and people through this method—even if large parts of it are made up.

TM: At the heart of the novel is this boxing match between boxers Joe Choynski, who was Jewish, and Jack Johnson, who was Black. I can imagine in 1900 Texas, this fight took on outsize significance because of the ethnicity of its participants. Can you describe why this fight was so important and how it reflected—or perhaps transcended—the racial attitudes of the time?

MB: It was a tremendously important boxing match. Despite the fact that it is not well-known or common knowledge, many boxing historians consider it one of the pivotal matches in boxing history. The “color line” in boxing was very real and was often enforced through law and extrajudicial methods. The majority of white fighters simply wouldn’t fight a Black man. As a Jewish boxer, Joe Choynski also had to deal with enormous obstacles in his career, especially rampant anti-Semitism. But he also was well known for crossing the color line, and he developed relationships and worked with Black boxers at every point in his career. Clearly he felt a kind of kinship with the plight of Black boxers like Jack Johnson and their struggles with systemic racism.

Jack was a fairly popular local citizen of Galveston, already an outspoken young man, and Joe was a storied veteran who had been in the ring and beaten many of the best fighters in the last decades of the 19th century. So it was a highly unusual fight in many ways, but when you add in the arrest of the two combatants and the three weeks they spent in jail together, much of that time spent sparring and working out, sometimes for a paying audience, and then young Jack Johnson’s meteoric rise after this incident, you get a definite watershed moment in the history of American boxing.

The dark space, the unknown here is what actually went on in that jail cell. What did they say to each other? What was their relationship like? What did Joe teach Jack, and vice-versa? Johnson would say many times over his career that it was the time he spent with Choynski in jail that really taught him how to box, especially his defensive technique. Jack went into that fight a raw 20-year-old pug with estimable physical gifts, but he emerged as a defensive wizard who was nearly impossible to hit cleanly, combined with an overpowering physicality in the ring. Clearly this match and its aftermath had a lot to do with the emergence of the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time. In this book, I tried to account for how that might have happened.

TM: White supremacists play a role in the novel’s central conflict. How do you as a novelist approach writing characters who are morally despicable, and why do you think their stories should be told? (Interestingly, the Texas Senate recently removed the requirement for public schools to teach that the KKK is “morally wrong.”)

MB: The fact is that morally despicable people are often powerful agents of history, and I feel the historical novelist has some obligation to wrestle with this conundrum. In most cases, I try to provide a compelling background or reasoning for these “villains,” though that is not always possible due to craft-related constraints, including such basic things as time and space. With three principal characters and points of view in Oleander City, plus “secondary” characters like Johnson, Clara Barton, and the Rabbi Henry Cohen, I didn’t feel like I had the space and attention to really develop characters like Craine as much as I would like. Certainly a different kind of book—a much bigger one—could do this and do this well.

I feel like I transmitted a more developed sense of the bad guys in my previous historical novel The Wettest County in the World, but the specific characteristics of that novel made it not only possible but necessary. I didn’t feel the same way here. Perhaps this is due to the level of brutality and evil in the villains, but I think it is more about perspective and focus. The orphan girl Hester provides an important perspective, so I wanted to keep a sort of childlike view of the villains, which is less nuanced perhaps. I also wanted to keep the focus on our three principal characters and hope the reader would be fully invested in them.

I also want to note that I don’t actually mention the Ku Klux Klan in the novel or use that title for the kind of racist vigilantism that actually occurred in the aftermath of the storm. People who have studied the KKK know that the movement had three principal surges in their popularity and cultural influence: Reconstruction, the 1920s, and then again in the 1950s. Direct references to the Klan aren’t really found in the research materials for the period around the hurricane of 1900. Was the KKK in Galveston in 1900? Probably, in some form or another, but it was not likely the formalized, public KKK that we know from those other periods. What we do know is that masked vigilantes on horseback—which were present everywhere throughout the South in the time after Reconstruction—were “policing” Galveston after the storm and performing extrajudicial justice. Lynchings, essentially. There is an account of the children of a popular Black preacher being killed in a suspicious manner like this, along with reports of people stealing rings and jewelry from the dead.

I think you could describe the vigilante group in Oleander City as related to the KKK or sharing similar principles, including some rituals and attire, but it is also not necessarily the KKK. Look, a bunch of ignorant bigots on horseback assaulting people of color has been around since the inception of this country, but they are not always the KKK. Does it matter, this label? I don’t know. The moral cowardice of the current Texas legislature (and unfortunately many others around the country) creates an unfortunate echo for events and attitudes in the book, and I think it is clear to any reasonable person that while progress has been made, many of the same issues that plagued our society in 1900 still exist today.

TM: I love that Clara Barton is an important character in the novel—I remember reading about her as a kid. During the events in Oleander City, she would have been 78 years old, yet she joined other Red Cross volunteers to travel to Galveston and administer relief to the storm’s survivors. How did you approach entering the consciousness of such a significant historical figure, and particularly of a woman who was running a nonprofit at a time when she couldn’t even vote?

MB: Clara Barton is one of those astonishing, larger-than-life superhero figures in American history, and it was a real pleasure to work with her character. But because of the historical spotlight on her—like on Jack Johnson—being a figure known to popular culture and with a lot already said and written about her, I made the decision (unconsciously, I think) to subordinate her position in many ways and instead focus on the completely made-up character of Diana, her assistant. So we get the view of Clara through Diana, like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. It’s a common method of displacement for novelists. This is similar to the fully imagined Hester, who is based solely on that one photo and the true tale of the drowned orphans, which gave me a lot more freedom not only to explore their lives but to present the world from their perspective.

So you might say that I approached Clara’s consciousness warily, with caution, as I did with Jack’s. I didn’t want to try and fully reimagine these major figures of history or to speak for them. Rather, I wanted to work with either fresh, new characters like Diana and Hester, or with someone like Joe Choynski, who while an important figure in boxing history remains a relative unknown to the general reader. Joe was a perfect historical novel character for me in this way—enough rich and compelling information about him is available, but he is enough of a “blank canvas” that I could impose my own imagination upon his character. Without that element, the novel turns into mostly reportage or simply an attempt to reframe historical events and people.

I hope that I was able to present some of Clara’s attitudes and feelings—about the cultural position of women, for one example—with some nuance and delicacy, indicating that here toward the end of her career, and her life, she would be engaged in a bit of reflection and perhaps even bitterness about the unequal treatment of women in the United States. I know that a central part of her character for me was formed by thinking about the anger and regret one might feel after a lifetime of selfless service to any and all who needed help while at the same time being relegated to a second-class citizen status.

TM: One of the novel’s main characters, Hester, is a survivor of the Sisters of the Incarnate Word orphanage, where 93 children perished in the hurricane. You’ve mentioned that today at the site of the orphanage stands a Walmart, where there have been reports of laughter, footsteps, and toys falling from the store’s shelves. This is a quite literal haunting—but how else do you think history can haunt us in the present day?

MB: For me the most powerful method for history to reach through time and grab hold of us is through stories, mainly narratives like historical novels and similar types of books. I know that I am haunted by McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, by Melville’s Moby-Dick, and by many other tales based on historical events and people. This is especially effective when some aspect of the book seems particularly apt for today, or some connective element clearly tethers that story to my (the reader’s) life. I hope that a tale like Oleander City has a similar effect on the modern reader, in that characters, situations, and themes in the book will resonate as applicable to our present age. Hopefully I was able to do this artfully and with some nuance, rather than clumsily announcing: Hey, racism and anti-Semitism are still a real fucking problem! I hope that these ideas don’t intrude upon the plot or characters in an overpowering way, instead functioning as something reverberating in the background, always present, always pertinent, sometimes deadly.

TM: There are so many things that will be forever lost to history—conversations that were had, relationships that were shared. Even in historical photographs, there might be people who remain unidentified. How do you think novelizing historical events can help us bridge that gap between the knowledge we have and that which we’ll never know?

MB: When my wife was working toward her Ph.D. in history, her professors would sometimes pair historical novels with the academic textbooks for the historical period of study. I think this is becoming more common, because history professors and the rest of us understand that novels and other imaginative renderings of history (including films, poems, etc.) can sometimes help fill in the gaps that persist in these stories. For example, you could read every historical document that pertains to Clara Barton yet still be in the dark about what she might have been thinking as she packed her bags, preparing to depart Galveston in 1901, her last voyage as the head of the Red Cross. What the novel can do is give us possibilities. It can provide plausible, interesting, and hopefully perceptive glimpses inside that poorly understood and recorded world of actualities.

This relates to a theory of narrative construction that I call “The Constellation of Possibilities.” A constellation in the sky is made up of singular points of light that we can see and know objectively; then imaginary lines are drawn connecting the dots and creating a new image of something, a story. So as a novelist I work from those “points” of light that we know—the boxing match between Joe and Jack, their incarceration, the tragedy of the orphanage of the Sisters of the Incarnate Word, et cetera—to create compelling and plausible narrative threads that connect them and make some kind of new, complete picture. A new story. It isn’t a presentation of objective truth; rather it is an exploration of story-truth, which as I’ve argued, along with novelist Tim O’Brien and others, is often more real, more true, than what actually happened.

Writing the Jersey Shore: The Millions Interviews Daniel H. Turtel

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Earlier this week, Daniel H. Turtel published his debut novel, Greetings from Asbury Park, which in 2020 was awarded the Faulkner Society’s Best Novel Award. The book, which is set on the Jersey Shore and follows three half-siblings as they deal with a family death, has received praise from the likes of Junot Díaz, Julia Glass, Tom Perrotta, and Rae DelBianco, who called Turtel “our next Philip Roth.”

The Millions caught up with Turtel—who is pursuing an MFA at The New School—to chat about Greetings from Asbury Park, his process, New Jersey fiction, and a whole lot more.

The Millions: You have a degree in mathematics from Duke and are currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing—and your first novel publishes next month. Tell us a little about that trajectory. Did you always want to be a writer?

Daniel H. Turtel: My first creative writing course was a poetry seminar taken purely to satisfy a humanities requirement. My professor, Deborah Pope, was really inspiring, and I started branching out from poetry; by the end of the year, I had enough material that I felt comfortable applying for a novel-in-progress course with Oscar Hijuelos (The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love). Oscar completely changed the way that I thought about writing and I could not have asked for a more fantastic mentor as I began to consider fiction as a career and not just a hobby. He accepted me for a one-on-one independent study to coach me through writing my first novel which, rightfully, never saw the light of day, but had elements of what would later become Greetings from Asbury Park.

TM: How did Greetings from Asbury Park come about? What was the genesis of the book?  Isn’t that the title of Bruce Springsteen’s first album—what’s the relevance to your book?

DHT: Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson was one of the first books I read that made me really want to write. In a sense, it’s an investigation of a town’s worth of disparate characters as they push another character through the universe of Winesburg and, ultimately, onto a train that leaves it forever. So, I started with this framework in mind for a non-traditional narrative that jumps around in perspective in order to give shape to some common underlying element that sits at the intersection of these different experiences.

Daniel H. Turtel

The novel started as a group of short story-ish standalone vignettes which were not explicitly connected, but all revolved around a common set of events. In beginning to think of it as a novel and not just a set of short stories, I knew that I wanted to make use of the music that Asbury Park is so famous for. So, there is meant to be an improvisational aspect to the shifting perspective, which, in some sense, is meant to imitate the jazz that shows up over and over again in the pages.

As for the title itself, it’s less a nod to the album than an acknowledgement of the way in which these bright, shiny words (usually printed on bright, shiny postcards) have come to define and dominate the way that a messy, complex town is seen from those outside it. There’s a sense of dramatic irony to the upbeat phrase.

TM: Tell us a little about the book, and the way focusing on a specific family—one with a few issues, to say the least—allows you to explore larger issues.

DHT: I remember reading Arundhati Roy’s wonderful The God of Small Things in high school; most readers were put off by the incest at the end, but the twins’ love scene was absolutely critical. We cheer for the cultural transgression represented by an intercaste love affair, but when it comes to a transgression that is morally problematic for us, that enthusiasm goes away entirely. Which is to say that American culture glorifies the transgression of boundaries that we deem unjust, but it is remarkably slow in examining the notion of what makes a boundary unjust in the first place. Few people who oppose the moral admissibility of a love affair do it because they want to erect an unjust barrier; to be cognizant of that would defeat the basis of the opposition. Instead, people really feel that they have some moral obligation to prevent something from transpiring, or some boundary from being transgressed, and that is a much more dangerous type of opposition, because it is born not necessarily of cruelty but of misguided moral compulsion.

Contemporary American fiction is filled with strawman controversies, and the experience of reading these is less challenging than affirmative. Most readers today are not pushed into a moral quandary when they come across an interracial or homosexual relationship; this is, unequivocally, a good thing for society, but it also means that in reading stories which focus on such relationships, as many of our stories today do, we are not so much being asked how we would respond to something that makes us morally uncomfortable, but rather we are reading a somewhat pure story of overcoming what reader and writer agrees is injustice. That’s fine, but it makes it difficult to ask: who gets to decide if two consenting adults can do something in private that you personally disagree with morally? Specifically, who gets to tell two consenting adults that they are not allowed to love one another? While most incestuous cases come with a litany of legitimate issues (growing up in the same house allows one to influence another, etc.), Casey and Gabrielle meet for the first time as fully formed adults, armed with developed psyches and capable of making their own decisions. This comes to a head in the chapter “Greetings from Asbury Park,” which spotlights Gabrielle as she grapples with the question of whether certain boundaries ought not to be crossed, and who can cross them and why, which is really what the whole book is about.

TM: Greetings from Asbury Park is set on the Jersey Shore, where you grew up. Can you talk a bit about your relationship to that area and why you chose to set the book there? What’s your message for people who only know that area from reality television programs?

DHT: I grew up right outside of Asbury Park, and returning there each summer from college was eye-opening in several ways. For one, I slowly went from year-round local to “Benny” (those taking the train from Bayonne, Elizabeth, Newark, New York) and had the feeling of becoming a tourist; for another, the changes evident in the area were stark when separated in time by absence. As kids, my brothers and I used to ride bikes or play in the abandoned and empty Convention Hall—the building on the cover—which now hosts several boutique clothing shops, two clubs, a gelateria, an oyster bar, and a coffee shop. But just as its once-decrepitude was contained, so has the revitalization and change in demographic been specific to Asbury Park. The unique communities that border Asbury—most relevantly to the novel, the United Methodist community in Ocean Grove and the Syrian Jewish enclave in Deal—remain largely insulated and have largely resisted change. It all makes for a fraught, tense setting with genuine explosive potential.

TM: If you were to situate your book among other novels set in New Jersey, which titles do you think it’s in conversation with? Which other New Jersey novels influenced your book?

DHT: There has been no shortage of good fiction about New Jersey, from Richard Ford to Junot Díaz to Judy Blume to Philip Roth. But, for whatever reason, the Jersey Shore has been largely overlooked, which is a shame—it’s a fascinating, complex, multicultural behemoth that squeezes hundreds of unique communities into a very narrow space, and then erupts each Memorial Day as the summer crowds come. I’m hoping to see more fiction about and from the Jersey Shore in years to come.

TM: What, if anything, do you want readers to take away from Greetings from Asbury Park?

DHT: As mentioned before, there’s an experimental, improvisational style to the novel, and I’m hoping that it’s read as much for this as it is for its traditional narrative. I’m a little bit rhythm-obsessed as I write, and I really love the craft on the level of the sentence. So, I’m hoping that comes across.

Aside from that, I’m hoping that some of the moral questions posed don’t just ruffle feathers, but actually get people thinking about some difficult questions.

TM: Tell us a little about your process. And does your study of mathematics inform your writing process in any way.

DHT: I don’t think my studying of math does much to inform the way I write, but my study of music certainly does. The cadence of the sentence is critical to me, and I read everything aloud as I write it.

As for process, I take a ton of notes throughout the day. I feel like I’m supposed to carry a mysterious leather-bound journal, but I actually just use the notes app on my phone. The first thing I do when I sit down to write is type out all the notes that I’ve taken, separating them into different categories and tweaking the sentences as needed. The idea of sitting down and doing all my thinking in front of a blank page really terrifies me, so I try to minimize that—mostly because I just don’t feel that it is a productive way to go about writing. So, I feel like I do a good chunk of my writing while walking around or reading or doing anything but writing, and then I clean it up when I’m actually in the document.

TM: In the writing world, people seem to either be pro-MFA or anti-MFA. How has your experience at The New School been? And how do you view that odd divide over MFA programs?

DHT: I’ve had a really great experience at The New School. Coming from a non-creative writing background, this was my first real opportunity to participate in workshops, and I found the feedback invaluable. It just takes all the guesswork out of writing for yourself, and its enormously useful to find out if some specific style is or isn’t working.

That being said, I think it’s important to take all criticism with a grain of salt so that you don’t end up sounding like everybody else; I think the foundation of the anti-MFA side is that it transforms what should be a generation of individual American writers into one big, conglomerate fiction-making machine that produces cookie-cutter fiction. I haven’t come up against any sort of prescriptive approach to fiction at The New School, and that’s a great thing. I also was mostly remote during my time there, which—who knows?—might be an effective built-in tool for checking the collective influence that a classroom of critics has on your work. There’s a protective/insulating element to interacting only through Zoom, and there could be some value in that, from the perspective of avoiding formulaic fiction.

TM: What are you working on now? Another novel? Short stories?

DHT: I have a second novel coming out in February of 2023. It’s a retelling of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Greco-Roman myth as a multigenerational Jewish family saga (called Morfawitz, obviously). It’s very, very different than Greetings from Asbury Park. And I’m finishing up another novel now which is pretty different from both of those. Coming to creative writing relatively late, I feel that it’s only within the past few years that I’ve escaped having my fiction sound like whatever it is that I’m reading at the time, and really begun developing a voice of my own. It’s an exciting time for me, and I’m honing or making up new little tricks of craft every day.

TM: I have to ask, are you still using that math degree?

DHT: Not even a little bit.

Evolution Is Never a Straight Line: The Millions Interviews Douglas R. Burgess Jr.

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In his latest book, When Hope and History Rhyme: Natural Law and Human Rights from Ancient Greece to Modern America, jurist and historian Douglas R. Burgess Jr. offers up an incisive exploration of natural law for our current era of deep political divisions, while also charting the long struggle to protect human rights.

Burgess, who is a broadly published writer and professor of legal history, covers everything from the Greeks and the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, the Nuremberg Trials, and the 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The result is a book with historical sweep and great contemporary significance that’s a must read for anyone concerned with the future of democracy.

The Millions caught up with Burgess to discuss the book, the connection between natural law and democracy, and being hopeful for the future.

The Millions: Can you explain the connection between natural law and democracy?

Douglas R. Burgess Jr: Natural law states that there are certain universal, inalienable rights which supersede any man-made laws: namely the rights to life, liberty, security, and property. Theoretically any government which exists to uphold these rights is just, whether it be a democracy, monarchy, or whatever. As a practical matter, however, democracies—which base their existence on the consent of the governed—have proven more likely to uphold natural law rights. Many, including the United States, base their entire system of laws on these foundational principles.

But that does not mean democracies hold some form of moral superiority when it comes to rights, nor that democratic government is a necessary precursor to a rights-based body of law. Those assumptions, which have underlaid U.S. foreign policy for decades, are cancerous to future progress because they chain the U.S. to securing universal democracy before universal rights. On the contrary, we should be primarily concerned with the question of whether each nation protects these basic rights for its citizens, and only secondarily consider their political rights.

TM: Can you briefly chart the course of natural law and human rights—how have these concepts evolved and how has that evolution impacted our lives? And where do you see them going?

DRB: The rights to life, liberty, property, and security are to be found in almost every body of laws, ancient or modern, Western and non-Western. Their very universality across time and space is perhaps the strongest argument that they are indeed natural rather than man-made. In the West, the concept of natural law began with a recognition of universal justice emerging, as Cicero wrote, “from the mind of Jupiter.” This Platonic idea of a perfect law outside human creation was wedded in medieval times to Biblical law: the mind of Jupiter became the mind of God. Just as we do not know all of God’s mind, we only know as much of universal law as reason allows us to discover. In the late Renaissance and 17th century a transformation occurred from the concept of universal justice to universal right. The individual rather than the collective became the focal point of law in the writings of Hugo Grotius, John Locke, and others. This led, in the 18th century, to a radical reconsideration of the very purpose of governments: from collective security to upholding individual rights. The 19th century added an imperial perversion: natural rights were bundled up with Western dress, technology, religion, etc. in a package deal called “civilization” that was imposed by fiat by the West on its captive colonies. This, in turn, led to a postcolonial reaction against such “Western” concepts of right that becomes the core of cultural relativism today.

TM: How should American domestic and foreign policy be decided? And who or what should guide that policy?

DRB: Every nation has a moral responsibility to consider the welfare of its own citizens when formulating foreign policy. That said, nations in a global community also have the responsibility to encourage behaviors and practices amongst themselves conducive to universal harmony. Since 1945 we have recognized that certain crimes committed by a state—even if only against their own people—threaten the stability and future of the entire world. As Robert Jackson said of the Nazis, “The real complaining party at the bar is Civilization…The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated.”

The very term “civilization” has been corrupted to mean Western-democratic society, but at its core it is a natural law idea: that all humans exist under the same basic principles of justice and right. All nations have the responsibility to protect those rights in their citizens. If they fail to do so, the greater community—humanity itself—must compel them to do so. Not just for the sake of the victims, but for civilization and progress.

Progress, like civilization, has also become a dirty word. I am not speaking of technological or political progress (nor even whether those concepts have validity). I am speaking of progress towards a distant, utopian goal: universal human rights. This is the idea that we do not merely exist, but evolve. Once described as knowing more of God’s mind, it is now better understood as the “upward path” Franklin Roosevelt spoke of when articulating a vision of global justice. He committed the United States to following that path and ensuring that others did the same, and every president—with one glaring exception—has accepted that mandate.

TM: How did you come to write this book?

 DRB: Twenty years ago, in July 2002, my partner David Gritz was killed in a terrorist attack at the University of Jerusalem. He was there on a fellowship studying the philosophical foundations of international human rights. His death left that project unfinished, and for years—even as I completed my JD and eventually received a PhD in legal history—my mind returned again and again to the problem of universal right. It seemed to me that even those promoting such rights had little understanding of where they came from, or what they were. The rights to life, liberty, property, and security were bogged down or obscured by a plethora of other “rights”–all important, but not all equally so. This made it easier for other states to deny their validity, or cherry-pick which rights to favor and which to ignore.

It also disturbed me that foreign policy under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, especially the former, preferenced democratic government over rights, parroting the Reaganite assumption that one was predicated on the other. I began assembling materials for a book examining the natural law foundations of human rights in early 2016, intending it as a kind of scholarly policy guide for the next administration.

Then came Donald Trump. I watched with horror as the American president cossetted dictators, advocated (and exemplified) cultural and moral relativism, turned a blind eye to the most horrific human rights abuses, withdrew from nearly every international covenant, and even attempted to rewrite natural law itself out of existence through an Orwellian “Commission on Unalienable Rights.” My scholarly project took on new urgency. I began writing for a post-Trump world, when the U.S. would have to reassume FDR’s mandate after four (or potentially eight) years of desuetude and disgrace. While Trump himself would inevitably depart the stage, I wanted to scotch out every trace of his racist, nativist, isolationist, and amoral “America First” foreign policy, lest it burrow itself like a parasite in the body politic.

TM: What do you want readers to take away from the book?

DRB: First, the existence of natural law rights, what they are, and where they come from. Second, the necessity for restoring the U.S. and other nations to the “upward path” of legal progress laid out by centuries of scholars and heads of state, and articulated most cogently by FDR. Third, a sense of hope and optimism that such progress is not only possible, but inevitable.

TM: How do you see the concept of natural law playing out in our current political climate, both in the U.S. and abroad?

DRB: The project of reestablishing America’s place in global human rights has already begun under President Biden. To some extent this is a return to the mean: his conflating of political and personal rights–and arguing for a demo-centric view of those rights–places him squarely among his predecessors, excluding Trump. This is good and bad: good that we are again adding our voice to the cause for universal justice, but bad that we are trumpeting the same tired tropes of Western-centric democratic rights that much of the non-Western world has already rejected as a legacy of imperialism.

Moreover, we remain reluctant to call out abuses unless it is to our advantage to do so, or use all the means at our disposal to combat them. The most glaring example is China, which is currently pursuing a genocidal policy against the Uyghur minority. Our ongoing trade relationships, and our participation in the Beijing Olympics (admittedly with a diplomatic boycott) undermine any meaningful attempt to condemn or curtail these abuses.

My hope is that this book will present an alternative to the Western democratic vision of human rights, and a new (old) way to articulate basic rights for all people, everywhere. By asking the U.S. to recommit to that upward path, it also recognizes that the American people and their government must be willing to sacrifice something to the cause—economic hardship, strained relations with both allies and enemies, even the possibility of military conflict in the most extreme circumstances. But a great deal can be done simply by reawakening Woodrow Wilson’s “moral diplomacy,” binding the U.S. to its pledge to promote basic human rights around the world and backing that pledge with real sanctions.

TM: Considering the many challenges to human rights, are you hopeful about the future? Why or why not?

DRB: More than hopeful, certain. I’m always reminded of when Winston Churchill arrived in Washington in Christmas, 1941. At that moment London was on fire, Soviet resistance was collapsing, half the U.S. Pacific fleet was sunk at Pearl Harbor, and the Japanese were on the march throughout Southeast Asia. “Mr. Prime Minister,” a journalist asked, “how long do you think it will take for the Allies to win the war?”

“It will take exactly half as long if we manage it well, and twice as long if we manage it poorly,” Churchill replied.

So too with human rights. That “upward path” is not a mirage or a pipe dream; it is very real, present, and easily identifiable. It is simply not possible to look at the history of humanity for the past 1,000 years and not recognize the existence and evolution of human rights. This trick of perspective gives historians an advantage: we can think in terms of centuries and remain relatively untroubled by present events. Not discount them, certainly: Donald Trump remains one of the greatest threats to human rights and human progress since Adolf Hitler. But he is also an old man who will die soon. What matters most is that we do not allow the contagion of his nihilism to infect our foreign policy, or that of the international community. If that were to happen, it would be a classic example of “managing it poorly.” The cause of human rights would still advance, but more slowly and under different leadership.

Evolution is never a straight line. Nature itself makes mistakes, suffers reverses, scrubs the board and starts again. So too with the evolution of human society. The greatest advocates of universal human right also in the same breath warned us that the path is rocky. “The arc of the moral universe is long,” said Martin Luther King. It is. But it also bends towards justice.

Living History: The Millions Interviews Jason Sommer

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Most readers know Jason Sommer from his poetry. But the author of five poetry collections—mostly recently Portulans—is publishing something a little different this March: Shmuel’s Bridge: Following the Tracks to Auschwitz with My Survivor Father, a memoir that documents Sommer’s relationship with his father while exploring his painful family history.

The book, which Sommer began, in part, due to his father’s failing memory, also documents a trip the father and son took to Eastern Europe in 2001: from the town where is father was born to the labor camp he escaped to Auschwitz. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly praised Shmuel’s Bridge, saying “This stunning tribute isn’t to be missed,” while Kirkus said, “The author provides an undeniably intriguing tale of travel and remembrance, filled with fascinating characters and places caught between the war-torn past and the post–Cold War future.”

The Millions caught up with Sommer to talk about the genesis of the book, the importance of preserving memories, fathers and sons, and a whole lot more.

The Millions: Can you tell us a little about the genesis of the book and your desire to preserve your father’s memories of the events that defined his life?

Jason Sommer: This book’s immediate beginning was in the imminent threat of loss. It wasn’t just my father’s mortality—he’s 98—or mine, but the mortality of memory. Dad had begun to forget, to confuse his personal history. What he had told me had changed perhaps in emphasis over years of telling, but never in substance, but now details were getting alarmingly muddled, and significant incidents were vanishing utterly, beyond anyone’s prompting. Besides his memories, I wanted to preserve the record of our experience together, our 2001 trip through Eastern Europe that had further illuminated the things he had spoken of for such a long time, reviving memories for him, and making me a better preserver and conduit for them.

But in a very real sense this book has been on its way much of my adult life, certainly since I began to write. The events of my father’s life, his memories of them, also did much to define my own life in a family where narrative was dominated by the Holocaust. I felt compelled to do my part in preserving what are, after all, extraordinary accounts for their own sake, and for my sake I needed to understand what they had made of me. That need is at the heart of this book and its inception.  So, what my father, as well as my aunt and uncle, had gone through had been the subject of poems of mine over the years. These survivors had charged me, sometimes quite explicitly, to write about these things.

TM: Your father’s life story is remarkable and documents the horrors of the Holocaust—and it’s probably a story you heard many times during your life. How did hearing these stories from your father impact you, both when you were younger and today?

JS: Around my family was an aura of story even before I began hearing the specifics of his, a sense of mysterious things at the margins, things that had happened that were not addressed directly, at least not near children. My father often seemed angry and didn’t sleep well. There was a recurrent, if intermittent, sense of unease around the family, a kind of haunting. Eventually the ghosts, and the demons, were named.

At a fairly young age, almost randomly, I was getting a sense of the general dimensions of the catastrophe—I had seen pictures, glimpsed newsreel clips on TV; I’d gleaned information, furtively, from the adult section of the library. I was drawn to what was barely comprehensible to me and frightened me. My father began speaking in my presence, often to adults, sometimes to other survivors, but to me, too. I overheard and heard what he went through as a child, the anti-Semitism around him that gave what followed—the massacres, and the camps—a terrible logic.

He spoke about what happened to him and others more frequently, feeling the responsibility of witness as his contribution to “never again.” So, often, I was present for accounts of suffering, endurance, and accomplishment, accounts of a life that therefore had more authority and authenticity than mine might ever have. Certainly, in my adolescence I began to feel, on top of its ordinary resentments, the pressure of the stories, which reiterated, reaffirmed, how inhospitable the world could be for Jews and how people could literally do anything to one another—and had. Any torture that could be imagined had been imagined and applied. This is what I learned and could not unlearn but, at times, simply wanted to escape. It made an ordinary life and ordinary pleasures seem trivial.

But I came to understand, as an adult, how significant my father’s narrative was, in part because it was so various: he’d escaped from a labor camp, been in hiding, had been coerced into the Russian army. Though I could admire and appreciate the courage and tenacity he had mustered to survive, and his subsequent achievements in America, I also had a better idea of how his difficult experiences had marked and scarred him. While I had been drawn deeply into his story, it had also been a barrier between us. The trip we took together promised the possibility of more authentic communication, to arrive where we are now with each other, with a clearer path between us, a less complicated love.

TM: Can you speak to the importance of preserving memories of this sort—the importance of not letting individual stories of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust be lost to history?

JS: Of course, we must preserve these memories, they are the testimony of witnesses. My father’s experience, in fact, is a chronicle of some lesser-known aspects of Holocaust history as concerns the Hungarian contribution to the war against the Jews. The Hungarians had their forced labor battalions, were effectively brutal in their roundups and deportation of Jews. What German Nazis instigated was not accomplished without allies like the Hungarians. But in a sense the larger history is the background of often remarkable individual stories. But that history lives with vividness when we focus on the person in the midst of it. It’s a sort of commonplace to speak of the human tapestry with each thread a person’s life story. I’d alter the metaphor a little and think of the threads as nerves in a neural net that bind us all together in one feeling body. Because that’s what the individual stories do, make us feel for each other, move us a little closer to feeling for the other as we do for ourselves.

TM: Did the current political climate in both the U.S. and in parts of Europe play a factor in your writing the book?

JS: The political climate during the writing of the book certainly lent something to my determination to do what I was doing. It’s hard not to feel added purpose given what I was writing about when around me, nationwide and worldwide, authoritarianism was rising and encouraging the old hatreds. One of the oldest hatreds gave us the 11 dead at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and evidence of more threats at every monitoring. In Hungary, Orbán is driving the rewriting of history and the whitewashing of Hungary’s enthusiastic collaboration in the Holocaust. In Poland, too, the so called “politics of memory” has seen scholars brought to court for examining the facts of Polish cooperation with the Nazis in wholesale murder of Jews. The assault on history is a sign of something already well underway in Europe just as the big lies and the smaller ones undermine us here. That said, it’s hard for me to believe that whatever summons to memory is implicit in my book contributes much to the resistance. Maybe I can imagine the book as a single voice seeking to join a chorus of those who support the truth, or at my most hopeful, I might think of it as I do of poems, moving through the culture almost secretly, headed to individuals and inward, aiming to exert some force for good.

TM: Can you tell us a little about the trip to Eastern Europe you took with your father in 2001 and the role it played in writing the book?

JS: The trip is at the root of the book, but obviously that root and this book took a while to come into being.

In the writing of the book, and in the living of our lives together, my father’s and mine—there is this pilgrimage that had turned quest, so important to both of us. During our travels I had no book in mind, as focused as I was on the purposes of the trip, personal ones. I thought the experience might come into my poems and I certainly took notes, but I had never written book-length nonfiction and wasn’t considering it. Initially my father proposed a sentimental journey of a sort, where some of the sentiments would be quite dark.

Dad had been eager to have me visit his homeplaces for some time. He wanted to go to his mother’s grave and to have me with him. He also wanted me to see the site of the labor camp from which he had escaped, and there would be other places in Eastern Europe, too, along the way. He had been on the run in Hungary and later traversed the region as a translator with the Red Army. He had asked me to go before, and I had found plausible reasons to refuse. I finally felt able to go, and I wanted to. But I also wanted—with a little trepidation—to add something else to the trip.

My father’s greatest loss was his younger brother’s murder in 1944. The fact that Dad’s family homes, a hut in Kustanovice and then a basement in Munkacs, would be among our destinations would naturally bring us to where Shmuel had lived, too. My father’s love and admiration for him was evident every time he spoke about him: the youngest brother but physically imposing, a protector, and as devoted as Dad was to their mother and to the labor that allowed the family a bare subsistence. He was attuned to nature and adept with animals. Moreover, Shmuel had resisted deportation, attempting to escape from the train to Auschwitz. He’d become a hero to me, almost a mythic figure. Yet my father would tell me on occasion that I resembled him. I supposed it was some physical resemblance. Around the survivors in my family I’d learned an etiquette: one didn’t probe in painful memories. And here I was, in 2001, urging what hadn’t been in Dad’s plan, something that could be seen as more for me than him, for whom it might be distressing.  Still, I asked that we arrange an itinerary that included a search for the place that Shmuel had died. We could visit all the places that my father had detailed, and from Munkacs follow the tracks through Slovakia and Poland to Auschwitz. Though pointing out the difficulties, my father agreed. And that is what we did and what I wrote about, which gathered to it and tended to so much of what mattered to my father and me, and so much that was the matter.

TM: Your book is about memory and history but also about the relationships between fathers and sons—relationships that can often be fraught. Can you tell us about your relationship with your father and how it has changed over time?

JS: I believe the book is most about the father-and-son relationship in it, though it’s a relationship greatly impacted by history (and long enough now to think of as having a history of its own).

I want to start by saying that we have arrived at a good place in our relationship, and that continuing gift, as I indicated, was at least in part granted by our travels. I arrange for his homecare; he is relatively strong and well in body, but his memory has become very impaired. He knows me, but when I visit, if I leave a room for a moment and return, he is likely to be surprised to encounter me again.

I’ve said that my father seemed angry when I was a child, and on occasion his anger at me was expressed physically. It was not merely the disciplining that so affected me then, but that the eruption of rage during felt almost out of control, gigantic. Those incidents colored my relationship with him, though I think I had some sense even then that there were other forces working in him. I had witnessed similar episodes with my cousins; my aunt and uncle were also survivors.

Conversations among those survivors in my family were an important part of my introduction to the Holocaust and what my father and others had been through. Those grim revelations, his pain, also dictated the character of the relationship. We children—seen as gifts, compensation for suffering—tried not grieve the parents who had grieved enough.

Yet, I was proud of my father. A penniless refugee, he’d arrived in America in 1948, and holding down menial day jobs and going to night school, he graduated from Brooklyn College in 1956. I was there. I remember. It took him only eight years in America, though I wouldn’t have done the math then. Later, I would remind myself through the math—in 1945 he was still in danger of his life in Europe, in 1950 I was born. Five years. I made an effort to keep that math in mind.

The omnipresence of his difficult personal history, which made such a claim on my awareness, seemed to require a curb on happiness. On and off I would avoid the subject and therefore him. The trip central to the book marks a change in our relationship and changed it further. I suppose I felt I had enough substance in my own life that I could manage, and be open to, such a full immersion in his past.

TM: The title of the book stems from your father’s brother, Shmuel, who was killed on the way to a Nazi camp. Can you talk about how the book’s title came about?

JS: I wrote a long poem in the mid-90s that had a section entitled “Speaking of the Lost,” and it was about Shmuel, from what his brothers—Dad and Uncle Harry—had told me. In it I made a sort of promise—“I have a plan to follow rivers/ if only on the maps until they intersect/ the lines of track, and I will have the place/ How many trestle bridges can there be…/.”

The hedge to the promise was “if only on the maps.”  I left myself an out, as if I might never make the effort in the world the maps represented. But I registered my desire there. I had a “plan.” In the event we hadn’t followed the rivers, but the tracks themselves.

It was strange that I hadn’t immediately thought that the centrality of Shmuel to the memoir ought to be reflected in the title. But I hadn’t. The working title had been “Joining the Story,” from a poem of mine with that same title. It had a lot of resonance for me, which probably derived principally from my own associations with the poem, which concerned a survivor and his child in America. But my editor, Kevin Stevens, in his customary wisdom, pointed at its almost generic quality. I could see that I needed a title that led the reader more directly to something essential in this book.

The bridge was Shmuel’s because it was the place he attempted his escape: a railroad bridge over a river in Eastern Europe that my father and I had been determined to find. We were guided mainly by one story: the account of Shmuel’s girlfriend who had been with him in the boxcar and she had survived. Other survivors added a few additional details about that transport and I had done further research. So, Shmuel’s bridge was, indeed, at the heart of the narrative. But that was the literal bridge. How could it not have occurred to me earlier? It was a figurative bridge too, a bridge between my father and me.

TM: Your previous work has been poetry. How was the writing process for a memoir different? Do you prefer one form over the other?

JS: The power of poetry most often depends on compression, getting a great deal of meaning into a relatively small area. So, typically for me there’s a first wave of language—call it inspiration—that touches the poem off and carries it along as far as I can ride it. That might be an image, a detail, a fragment of speech, something that happened. I might be going over that same ground, a few hundred words perhaps, for hours and hours. It’s not just words that need to be managed, but the way words are formed into lines: lines to be rewritten, lines to be excised. A poet will pay all kinds of attention to sound, and I might be refining for a pattern of rhythm, too, and of stress, the traditional five stress pentameter for example. And I sometimes use rhyme. I’ve written sonnets. There seems to be lots of subtraction in the process and, for me anyway, lots of times I put an entire poem away for a while, or forever. A day might end with very little to show beyond the respite of my having had the self, in that ego-y version, disappear into the concentration of the act of writing—even if I am writing about myself. That, happily, was just as true for the memoir.

The language of a memoir, as opposed to that of poetry, seems to have more to do with accretion and impetus, what keeps a reader going onward to get to more of the story. I felt very aware of crafting motion, as I pushed forward, intuiting and planning where I needed to be next at each point in the entire narration. Working with events distributed over so much time made the memoir a very different proposition even to a narrative poem. Attentive as I had to be to prose rhythms, they are different rhythms than poetry, at the sentence-level and over the course of a whole work. So much energy goes into detail, above all the rendering of scene, with the people, with the surroundings, the inclusion of what’s been called the furniture of the world in as much tangibility as can be managed. And that’s the immediate writing process: there were also hours of research—done in years past and more recently—hours and hours with maps, histories of the region, films, testimony of various kinds. I loved it, though. If the labor was considerable, the satisfactions were also great. I could work just about every day, which never happened with poems. The pages grew—and remained—survived the editing process even if scenes sometimes ended up moved around in the book.

In the end I can’t say, shouldn’t say, I enjoyed writing the memoir more because the process was easier. (Four out of the nine muses have to do with poetry of one sort or another. I wouldn’t want to risk their displeasure.)

TM: What do you hope readers take away from Shmuel’s Bridge?

JS: I want my readers to have come along with me: to marvel at how people, a person like my father, can endure, survive, and prevail—can go on to outlast evil and make a worthy life. I do want them to remember what happened to him, to remember how many were lost and maybe sniff the air for danger even now.

I’d like my readers to remember some of the names—to remember Shmuel for his courage—and if the names themselves are not retained, then I’d have them hold onto the idea that there were names—and to keep in mind the places, that there were particulars, a world of particulars just like we live in now where what happened was allowed to happen.

I also would have them understand how history, even the most truthful of histories, can intrude and distort what should be the closest of relationships, and to see how important it can be to push toward whatever understanding that can be reached. I’d also want my reader to take some pleasure in the story, and to feel the language I tried to find for it served well.

TM: What are you working on now?

JS: I’ve been doing several different sorts of writing since completing Shmuel’s Bridge. I’ve returned to poetry in a way I hadn’t been able to do for several years. After I had completed the work for my latest volume of poetry—Portulans, published in 2021—I became totally absorbed in this memoir and had attempted very little poetry. But I think the intense revisiting of the time with my father—and my late mother—has sent me back to some wells of psychic energy, evidenced and impelled by some pretty vivid dreaming, and that has lately been channeled into poems, specifically about my parents. But writing nonfiction was such a good experience for me that I have been looking for ways to do it again and have tentatively begun some trial pieces about estrangement. I believe it’s a commonly unspoken feature within many families that hasn’t been well explored as a subject.

Sponsored by Charlesbridge.

Dance or Die: The Millions Interviews Ahmad Joudeh

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Ahmad Joudeh, an internationally renowned ballet dancer, was a stateless refugee growing up in the Al-Yarmouk camp in Syria. Despite the dangers of the civil war and death threats from religious extremists, Joudeh was determined to become a dancer, which he did, first with the one of Syria’s top dance companies and later in Amsterdam with the Dutch National Ballet.

His memoir, Dance or Die, tells this remarkable story—looking back on his childhood in the Al-Yarmouk camp and following his journey to Europe—and has been called “heart-breaking and life-affirming in equal measure.”

The Millions caught up with Joudeh to talk about the book, his journey from a refugee camp to the stage, and what he’s working on now.

The Millions: Can you tell readers about your experience in in the Al-Yarmouk camp in Syria: how you ended up there and what life was like?

Ahmad Joudeh: Both my father’s father and my father’s mother were born and raised in Palestine. They were children when the conflict broke out there in 1948. Their families escaped from the battles and ended up as refugees in Syria, where they later met each other. My grandparents got settled and raised a family in Al-Yarmouk, a refugee camp in Damascus, where I was born and grew up. The social atmosphere was harsh there, but I had an amazing childhood being loved by all my family members. I wrote about my exciting days as a child there in the book.

TM: Certain organizations and groups threatened to kill you if you danced or taught others to dance. Can you talk about the forces working against your dancing: why it was forbidden and how this was enforced?

AJ: In the culture of my neighborhood, it was not acceptable that a man should be a dancer. As my father did not approve that I should be a dancer, we had serious conflicts, which are described in my book.

When the civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, religiously fanatic extremists came into the country. They started targeting me, as I was a dancer and as I was teaching dance to children. In their thinking, I was leading the children to a wrong direction.

TM: Can you talk a little about the tattoo on you neck: when you got it and why?

AJ: The tattoo “Dance or Die” was my response to the threats by the extremists. Giving up dance was a not an option for me. I got the tattoo on the back of my neck, where the sward would fall in case of decapitation, to ensure that they would see it just before killing me. I chose to have it in the Indian language to pay respect to Shiva, the dancing God.

TM: How did you, in the end, manage to dance?

AJ: My mother supported my pursuit of my dream all the way through. When I was 16 years old, I joined Enana Dance Theater, the major dance company in Syria at that time. I also studied dance at the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts.

TM: As a kid in the Al-Yarmouk camp, did dancing, in a way, save your life?

AJ: When I was eight years old, I saw ballet for the first time in my life. It was a group of girls dancing to a music from Swan Lake at a school event. The moment I saw them dancing, I started moving my body with them and felt a beautiful feeling. This life defining experience is described in my book.

I wanted to have that feeling all the time. Dancing alone in secret in my room gave me a peace and grace.

TM: How did you manage to get to Europe?

AJ: In 2014, I participated in the Arab version of So You Think You Can Dance, which took place in Beirut. The videos were uploaded to the social media. Roozbeh Kaboly, a Dutch journalist, found me through the social media. He wanted to make a reportage of my life in Damascus. I refused first because it would be too dangerous for him to come to Damascus. But he insisted, as he was a war correspondent. We worked together, and the reportage was broadcasted in the Dutch national television in August 2016. Touched by the reportage, the Dutch National Ballet organized a “Dance for Peace Fund” and invited me to The Netherlands. I moved to Amsterdam in October 2016.

TM: Your story is both very personal and, at the same time, universal. Can you talk a bit about displaced people and refugees in general?

AJ: I know, from the stories of my family, both in the earlier and the current generations, and myself, what it is like to lose the home due to a conflict, to move to another country with another culture, to try to establish a new life in a society where you are regarded as a stranger classified as a “refugee” and/or “stateless.”

We are all human beings and have the right to be treated with respect and to be successful.

I should like to serve as a voice of millions of “refugees” and the “stateless,” who are mostly voiceless, through my activities as an artist. I want to be a living encouragement for them that there is a hope and that they should believe in themselves. I also want to draw the attention of the world to the struggles of the refugees and the stateless people.

TM: How did the book come about?

AJ: As I wrote in the book, Mr. Roberto Bolle, the principal dancer of Teatro ala Scala in Milan, Italy, has been my idol. By a pure coincidence, I could meet him at the Dutch National Ballet right after my arrival in Amsterdam in 2016.

Mr. Bolle was kind enough to invite me to dance with him in his first new year ballet television program “Roberto Bolle Danza Con Me” on Jan. 1, 2018, on Rai 1, the Italian national tv. We danced together to “Inshallah,” played live by Sting. Apparently, this performance had an impact on the Italian audience. An Italian publisher, DeA Planeta Libri, offered an opportunity to publish my memoir. At that time, there had been a lot of interview articles about me. But I wanted to tell my life in my words in my way, so I accepted the offer. The Italian version Danza O Muori was published in November 2018. Mr. Bolle was kind enough to write the preface.

TM: What was the biggest challenge you faced as a writer?

AJ: Since I was child, I loved describing things in words. I started writing when I was 16. I loved to write poetry in Sufi style. Already before the offer by DeA Planeta Libri, I had started writing about my life, some parts in Arabic and others in English. I collected all my writing and had a good collaboration with the Italian editor. But, as we had a limited time available, the process was hectic.

I am happy that Imagine has offered to publish it in English.

For the preparation of this version, we had good time available. I went through all the texts once again. I could take an “advantage” of the free time imposed by the lockdown under the pandemic of Covid-19. I had a good collaboration with Kevin Stevens, the editorial director.  With his encouragement, I added some important details to this edition. Going through my past once again was hard emotionally, but after all, it was a good process opening my eyes to see the world from different angles. It also helped me to work on the culture shock that I had been experiencing without realizing and to understand the process of my integration into Europe.

TM: Will there be another book? What are you working on now?

AJ: I should like to establish a choreography method that combines classic ballet and Arabic tradition. It is my dream to write a book of a new method of choreography.

TM: Tell us a bit about your current work fighting for human rights of children and refugees?

AJ: When I was Syria, I held dance workshops for children with Down syndrome, and for the children orphaned in the civil war living at SOS Children’s Villages in Syria. I tried to let them feel like artists. When you are creating, you can live in a world in which you can exist in a different way, however your situation is. I could see that their souls were having good experiences. I saw that the orphaned children became better at coping with their situation. This experience was repeated, after my moving to Europe, when I had an opportunity to have a workshop with children at SOS Children’s Villages in Italy in 2018. In 2019, I was appointed as an International Friend for SOS Children’s Villages International. Unfortunately, the pandemic has prevented me from working fully. I do hope that I can soon make further contributions for SOS Children’s Villages.

I have been also involved in events for raising awareness for refugee issues. In 2018, I performed at U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Nansen Refugee Award Ceremony. I hope to be able to make further contributions to UNHCR.

TM: Do you have a message for children in camps like Al-Yarmouk right now?

AJ: If you believe in yourself and keep on working, you can be a person what you want to be, no matter which label is placed on you, “refugee” or “stateless.”
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Healing America: The Millions Interviews Manuel Hinds

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With his latest book, In Defense of Liberal Democracy, Manuel Hinds examines a fractured United States and offers optimism and a framework for healing today’s divided America.

Through a combination of historical, political, and economic analysis, Hinds illustrates how rapid technological advances have led to the current crisis of divisiveness in America. Examining political and social polarization in the United States, Hinds, a former finance minister of El Salvador and a winner of the Manhattan Institute’s Hayek Prize, weighs the dangers of populism and shows how only liberal democracy can restore national stability—as it did during the Industrial Revolution and Great Depression.

Manuel Hinds, who is also the author of The Triumph of the Flexible Society, Money, Markets, and Sovereignty, and Playing Monopoly with the Devil, talked with The Millions about partisan politics, cultural divides, the rise of Donald Trump, the dangers facing the United States, and where we can go from here.

The Millions: Can you explain how technological advances have lead to our current political and cultural divisions? Was this a gradual process? Did it accelerate at a certain point?

Manuel Hinds: Profound technological advances, while opening the road for a better future in the long run, are terribly disruptive in the short term. They render obsolete the capital accumulated in physical assets; in human knowledge and skills; and, even more fundamentally, in the shape of the institutions linking the fabric of society.

These effects, however, are not symmetrical. Some people adjust to the new changes rapidly while others are left behind. Some people gain while some others lose. These asymmetries create divisions where they did not exist and reinforce old divisions that already existed, particularly in the case of a technological revolution that, like the one we are living through, privileges people with higher education. The current revolution, which goes in the direction of creating a knowledge economy, accentuates those differences. The asymmetrical disruptions delay overall adjustment and create resentments that evolve into divisiveness.

What we are seeing is a progressively open conflict between change and resistance to it. The resistance is embedded not just in the owners of the physical and human capital that is losing its value, but, more prominently, in the attitudes of all of us, who would like to obtain the benefits of the revolution but without the disruptions they are causing in the short term. This fundamental ambiguity is an additional source of divisiveness, this time inside all of us.

This process started almost imperceptibly in the 1980s as the income of the unskilled stagnated while that of well-educated people increased fast. Then it accelerated very rapidly as changes accumulated and people became aware of them. Now we are in the real fast portion of the curve, where lags are becoming shorter and more complex.

The solution to this problem is not stopping change. The current revolution is bringing about marvelous inventions that will improve our lives beyond belief. Instead, we must diminish the divisiveness it is eliciting, in two main ways: first, attenuating the asymmetry of its impact through investment in human capital and, second, reviving the spirit of compromise that has always characterized the country.

TM: You write in the book that our current era of partisan and cultural divisiveness isn’t so different from three past eras of instability. How are those historical periods similar and how are they different?

MH: They are similar because all of them have posed severe challenges to the country’s social order. They are different because the challenges have evolved from problems posed by nature or external enemies to problems presented by society to itself through the increasing complexity posed by the relationships between its members.

In this way, the first crisis found what today is the country as a set of 13 colonies, independent from each other, dependent from an external power, and left them converted into a single, democratic country based on the respect of individual rights.

The second crisis found this country deeply divided by an internal threat that Abraham Lincoln defined with his immortal words, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” The country, which defined itself in terms of freedom and individual rights, was defiled by slavery. The crisis left the country united in the most basic of its foundations, freedom.

The third crisis found the country transforming itself from an agrarian to a powerfully industrial society. This new world was, however, subject to fluctuations that could leave millions of people unemployed for considerable periods and destitute at the end of their career, without the family attention that was usual in the agricultural society. A solid social security network was needed to isolate people from these inevitable fluctuations. This was the great creation of the New Deal. Creating it required a shift in mentality.

A similar change of mentality is needed in our times. The country must find a way to invest in its own citizens to ensure the maintenance of a strong economy in the new knowledge society that is emerging, and, to ensure the return of the cohesive freedom that has been the mark of the country, it must defuse the divisiveness that has been growing in the last several decades.

Regarding the first point, in the industrial revolution, added value depended on machines; social expenditures were seen as a complementary activity, undertaken not to improve production but to take care of fellow human beings. The idea was: let’s produce first and distribute later. But in the knowledge economy, you cannot produce without high levels of human capital. Only a healthy and educated labor force will produce high added value. So, in the new world the ordering of activities is the reverse. Investment in human capital is necessary, which could then be used to produce wealth.

The true wealth of the United States is its highly educated population. As a society, however, its networks of educated people have enormous voids. In those voids, the United States is wasting opportunities and creating pools of divisiveness and resentment. Overcoming this problem requires going back to the principles of social interest that are the basis of liberal democracy.

TM: The book asserts that liberal democracy is what is needed to heal our nation, as it has done in the past. How did this function past eras and how do you see it playing out in our current era.

MH: There are two fundamental ways of organizing the enormous diversity of a modern society to attain a sustainable social order: you can either subject it to a vertical command that would eliminate diversity, or you can create order out of diversity through democratic compromise. The first is tyranny, the second is liberal democracy.

Authoritarian regimes are attractive to many people because they think they are more direct and effective: they rely on a single will and a simple plan and are not distracted by the checks and balances of democracy. But our world is too complex, too contradictory and too uncertain for that. To adjust to a transformation as deep as the current technological revolution you need a free and creative society, capable of fixing its own mistakes, of changing day by day through millions of free, small individual decisions, not through rigid enormous political commands. Rather than one single tyrant, you need as many active adjusters as possible, laboring under a common, democratic framework. To have them, you need liberal democracy, and to have the latter, a culture of compromise.

For this reason, strongmen like Hitler, Mussolini, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao failed to lead their countries to harmonious adjustments to the industrial revolution. In their efforts to repress diversity they became destructive and genocidal. In contrast, all the liberal democracies created unity out of diversity and succeeded in their adjustment to the industrial revolution. The United States was created on this basis. This is the meaning of E Pluribus Unum, the motto that the Founding Fathers legated to the country. A revival of the culture of compromise would resolve the two problems we are facing today: it would heal divisiveness, and, through this, it would turn society more flexible as well.

The ability to compromise requires understanding that all people in a society are in the same boat, that to reach a compromise you need empathy to understand the needs and desires of the rest of the population, and that you need self-control to honor your side of the compromises. All these requirements can be summarized in one: the social interest that must complement private interest to form a harmonious society. In the recent past, the United States has forgotten the need for this combination, believing that a successful society is the realm of self-interest exclusively. But self-interests are naturally divisive. If society is abandoned, if no one cares for it, if people refuse to compromise, as it is happening today, society will die, as it is happening today. To revive it, a spirit of compromise must substitute for the uncompromising attitudes of today.

TM: The subtitle of the book is: What We Need to Do to Heal a Divided America. What do we, as citizens need to do? And what can everyday people do to change a situation that seems so entrenched and immutable?

MH: The United States became a great country because its population met all these requirements, which were put to the test in the three big crises I mentioned in a previous question: that which led to the creation of the country, that which kept it united while eliminating slavery, and that which turned it into a modern industrial society in the first four decades of the twentieth century. In all these cases Americans adapted their institutions to new requirements and did so while keeping in place liberal democracy. This required a difficult exercise of self-discipline to understand how to reform institutions while firmly keeping in place the principles established by the Founding Fathers. In all cases, this self-discipline has paid enormous dividends. Americans not only remained free and protected in their rights but also led the world into increased creativity and riches.

The work that should be done is mainly internal to each individual. It is there, in the values of the Americans, that the incoming battle to eliminate divisiveness while keeping in place freedom and individual rights will be fought.

TM: How does a figure like Donald Trump fit into all of this? Do you see him as an aberration or a symptom of a larger social/political/technological shift?

MH: He is a symptom of a larger social/political/technological shift, but not one of what would be coming if the United States adjusted harmoniously to the new revolution. Rather, he is a symptom of the angst of the confrontation between change and resistance to it, a product demanded by people who think that social order can only be restored through authoritarian vertical commands—a social order that is consistent not with what the future is offering us but instead to what restricted progress in other countries in the past and could restrict it in the United States if the commanding attitude prevailed.

Thus, he is a voice of the past in this crucial intersection of history: politically because he is for the arbitrary government of one person that the Founding Fathers rejected to establish a liberal democratic government almost 250 years ago, and economically because he wants to go back to the mercantilism that they discarded in those times—a system in which economic success is obtained not by producing more efficiently but by having good contacts with the government, which decides who will be protected and who will not. Characters like him appeared at the height of the industrial revolution, people like Huey Long and Father Coughlin, only to disappear as the country overcame its transformation and integrated industry within a free and efficient society.

The damage that he, and many others that will appear, can cause should not be underestimated. If any of them attains new power, they can turn the clock back and deviate the country from the path of freedom and progress it has walked since its creation.

TM: Looking at our current divisions, partisan politics, and brush with an authoritarian leader, do you see parallels between the United States of 2020/2021 and other nations during the 20th century? You write about Lenin’s Communist Russia and Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Are we headed down a similar path?

MH: We are far away from those destructive regimes. But we have to understand why. The distance is not in terms of circumstances. Many people would be scandalized by this assertion because we cannot compare what we see as chaos today with the true chaos that destroyed Tsarist Russia in 1917, or with the chaos that overtook Germany one year later, leading it to the brink of a Bolshevik regime, or with the chaos that preceded the escalation of Adolf Hitler to power 15 years later.

Yet, circumstances may change very rapidly during technological revolutions. Germany, for example, was seen as one of the most stable and powerful countries in the world in 1913, just five years away from its Bolshevik revolution. The same was true of 1929 Germany, which was divisive but stable, just before the Great Depression. Within the next three years Germans turned divisiveness into chaos and then tyranny. That is, even if our circumstances seem to be much calmer than in those times, they may worsen very rapidly. Any external factor, like a serious prolongation of the Covid-19 pandemic, or incontrollable violence in the United States, could lead to a sudden chaos.

Thus, the real security is given by the existing liberal democratic institutions, the reason why I said that we are far away from the destructiveness of those regimes. They would never allow disasters like those of communist Russia or Nazi Germany. But institutions have power only because people give it to them. People could give it to an authoritarian leader. Thus, the strength of the United States is within its individual citizens—their values and their courage. History will say if we are right in trusting that they still keep in place the values of the Founding Fathers.

TM: In the book, you write, “Today we are faced with our 1776 moment. Our challenge is to create the pillars that will structure social life during the twenty-first century without knowing what challenges this century will pose.” Can you talk about that parallel with 1776 and what we can learn from the founding of our country.

MH: In their 1776 moment, the Founding Fathers understood that their task was not just founding a nation but also giving it a social order that would sustain it through times they could not foresee and through crises they could not predict. Their raw material was a population full of contradictions and divisions, which were seriously considering going, each of them, their own way.

Their great achievement was discovering that the only way to manage a reality that is both contradictory and uncertain is to design a system that can correct its course, finding the right response by trial and error. This is precisely what liberal democracy does. The advantage of democracy is not that it produces the best policies from the start but that it has the ability to correct itself. British liberals, the Founding Fathers of the United States, and the shapers of the most developed societies did not produce a plan, or a program, or a theory to attain the results they eventually attained. To manage the contradictions, they created not one unified framework, but instead a superposition of frameworks that checked and balanced one another, and gave the nation, through their own example, values that would lead to compromise and respect of the rights of each other. They didn’t know what policy decisions would come from this system when confronted with problems, centuries later, they could not even envision. They only trusted that their construct, based on democracy and individual rights, would tend to produce the right solutions. The history of the country proved they had been right.

The Founding Fathers reached their 1776 moment because they were willing and able to rise over their short-term interests and compromise. This is what we need to do in this moment: rise to the occasion and compromise with one another to recreate the nation with renovated institutions and based on the same principles established by the Founding Fathers. This is what the generations of Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt did when they renovated the institutions that give life to the country, based on the principles of democracy and individual rights. Now it is our turn.

TM: In the midst of a political crisis, we faced another crisis: a global pandemic. How did those two things play out together? Did they influence one another? In what ways?

MH: The pandemic is having many interactions with the processes that were already weakening the social order when it started. Initially, many people thought that it would mark the end of globalization because the global supply chains broke as people panicked and lockdowns multiplied all over the world. They thought that this showed the vulnerability of a globalized economy. Yet, with time, the economic collapse actually showed what could be expected from a world economy comprising countries isolated from each other. This changed the attitude toward one of embracing the new technologies rather than rejecting their most visible economic result, globalization. Thus, the pandemic accelerated the transformation to a more connected world.

Enterprises discovered that these technologies were useful not just to coordinate complex tasks on the other side of the planet but also within the same city. Many enterprises changed radically their business model as they learned to work more efficiently without being together physically, thus reducing, for example, their need for office space. These developments, in turn, have affected in a very asymmetric way different groups of the population, adding reasons of divisiveness.

At the same time, the pandemic showed that national and international coordination is needed to deal with global problems in a pragmatical rather than ideological way. The United States paid a high price for trying to avoid involving the federal government in the approach to the problem for what seemed to be ideological reasons. Contrarywise, the European Union is paying a high price in terms of vaccination supplies for trying to coordinate everything under a rigid central government. Other countries, like Israel, have obtained excellent results by combining government and private interventions in a pragmatic way.

TM: How hopeful are you about the future? And what would you tell readers who feel overwhelmed and powerless when faced with our current political and cultural divides?

MH: I am quite hopeful because Americans have done it before. The United States is one of the few countries in the world in which political power has flowed from the people to the government, from the local to the national, from the individual to society. Democracy was not given to its population, much less imposed on it. The people impressed it on the government.

Many people may think that the identity of the origin of this creative movement is immaterial, that what is important is that the link between the individual and all the levels of government was created. Yet, the direction of this movement is crucial. It shows where the creative power is located, and, comparing such power with the momentous creation, it shows how effective the grass roots and the individuals can be. This is why I ended the book saying that this is our 1776 moment.
Sponsored by Charlesbridge

Finding Hope at 18,000 Feet: The Millions Interviews Jeff Belanger

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Jeff Belanger’s latest book, The Call of Kilimanjaro, chronicles the author’s journey to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, a mid-life adventure that honored the memory of his late brother-in-law and allowed him to test his grit and step outside the routine of everyday life.

Belanger, who is the author of 16 books and has written for The Boston Globe and USA Today, sat down with The Millions talk about his trek to the top of Kilimanjaro, how the journey changed his life, and his next adventure.

The Millions: After the death of your brother-in-law, you set out to climb Kilimanjaro as a way to honor him. How did that decision come about and why did a trip to the top of Kilimanjaro seem like the perfect tribute?

Jeff Belanger: Kilimanjaro had been steeping in my teacup since childhood when I heard Toto’s song “Africa” as a kid. In college I started hiking. I loved getting to the tops of New England mountains. The views, the workouts, and getting away from civilization for a short while became a hobby. The more mountains I conquered, the desire for more altitude only increased. Also in college, I flunked French. I barely passed Spanish (because I often confused the two languages). I was lamenting to a friend that I still had to fulfill my language requirement, but needed a language different from French and Spanish. She suggested Swahili because the professor was amazing. She was right. I took Swahili I and II—the language of east Africa. Kilimanjaro has bobbed up to the surface of my psyche again and again throughout my life.

About seven months after I lost my brother-in-law Chris to cancer, I found myself hosting a fundraiser event at a local historic home when I ran into my friend Amy who worked for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS). A year earlier, my family raised some money for them participating in their “Light the Night” walk. Amy told me LLS had a new fundraising program coming up. Just as I started making excuses about how busy I was, and how I’ll help if I can, she said, “We’re climbing Kilimanjaro.” I stopped in my tracks.

I’m in my mid-life, just a few years younger than Chris was. I felt my own mid-life rut all around me. I’d already been reminded of my own mortality when he passed, so when the universe sets a bucket list item out for you on a platter, there’s nothing to do but accept. I get the opportunity to go to Mt. Kilimanjaro and raise money to fight cancer in memory of Chris? I looked at Amy and said, “I’m in.”

TM: The trip was also about your pursuit of clarity about your own life and goals. What was unclear at the time? Did the climb bring clarity? What did you come to realize and how has it changed your life?

JB: The “pursuit of clarity” is something my publisher put in the press release. I’m not sure anyone does anything in “pursuit of clarity,” but if you’re lucky enough, you just might trip over clarity on your journey someplace. As a 42-year-old dad, husband, and employee, my life was in a rut. I recognize it’s a rut of my own design, but still a treadmill of waking up, getting my daughter off to school, working, taking care of my home, getting maybe an hour to myself at night, and then repeat the next day.

Hiking anywhere is a break from that treadmill. A moment of clearing one’s head. We took the Lemosho Route up Kili. It’s six days to the top, and two days to get back down over 42 miles. The first day on the mountain, my mind was scattered worrying about the work I was missing, emails, phone calls, wondering how my family was doing. Sometime around the third day, that endless buzzing of wonder in my brain started to fade. I was finally unplugging and just doing what humans do: walking, eating, sleeping, and adventuring on to the next camp.

The experience changed my life because I know I’m a person capable of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. I get to keep that forever. When it was summit night, three o’clock in the morning, 18,000 feet in elevation, subzero temperatures, and I’m fighting for every molecule of oxygen, I had the temptation to give up and turn back, but I didn’t. I love knowing here in my mid-life, I still have that grit when I need it.

TM: At what point did you know the trip to the top of Kilimanjaro was going to be a book?

JB: Throughout my training I was taking pictures and keeping a journal. That continued on Kilimanjaro. As the pages filled, and I felt myself changing, I knew this was a story worth telling. The question was: what medium? I had given several talks on my experience, and the audiences showed a lot of interest in wanting more. So I started combining the words with some of the hundreds of photos I took in Tanzania. Pretty soon, a book began to take shape.

TM: What was harder: climbing the mountain or writing the book?

JB: Writing the book! Kilimanjaro only took eight days. Writing this book took me a year and a half and many drafts.

TM: The subtitle of the book is Finding Hope Above the Clouds. Can you talk a little about the hope you found—and how the book might give readers a similar sense of hope?

JB: I can do better than tell you about the hope I found. I can show you. On summit night we started around midnight from Barafu Base camp at 15,000 feet to head 3.1 miles to the summit at 19,341 feet. It will take about 8 hours. It was about 3 a.m., and I was the coldest and most exhausted I’ve ever been in my life. I could hardly breathe no matter how slowly I moved my body, and I was almost out of hope. But just as we reached the volcanic rim of Kili, at a place called Stella Point, I turned around to see the sunrise. The world had warmed significantly with the sun now shining, and in that singular moment I felt judged and deemed worthy by God, the spirit of the mountain, the universe, or whatever term you wish to use. I felt the presence of Chris by my side. I raised my camera and clicked this picture. I call it “Hope.” Something as simple as a sunrise changed everything.

TM: From when you were making the climb, what is the most enduring memory and why? Also: did you feel like your brother-in-law was with you as you made the trip?

JB: The sunrise at the rim of the volcano was the most enduring memory. Though we still had another 500 vertical feet to go and half-a-mile of distance to the summit, I knew in that moment that I would make it. Any doubts I had been carrying for days and weeks, vanished. Chris was with me every step of my journey. I carried photos of him in my backpack, I thought about him each day, and I felt him there at Stella Point.

TM: There are a good number of books about trips to the tops of great mountains. What sets yours apart from the rest?

JB: I’m no one special. I’m not a mountaineer, not a star athlete, not some guru. I’m just a dad, a husband, and a guy from New England who wanted to do something story-worthy in the middle of my life. When you travel well, you let it change your very DNA. My goal with telling this story is to sing the praises of a mountain that gave me so much and changed me for the better, and maybe inspire others who want to face their own Kilimanjaro.

TM: The act of climbing the mountain brought with it realizations, fresh perspectives, insights, lessons, and spiritual transformation. Did the writing of the book also deliver those things in a different way?

JB: When I was on the summit, I feel like the entire moment was like a black-and-white line drawing. An event like Kilimanjaro takes weeks and months to fully sink in, for that line drawing to fill in with colors and textures.

Writing down every detail of my journey was part of filling in that picture for me. On paper, I can analyze the experience from multiple angles. I’ve written books about other people’s experiences, but this is the first time where I was the subject. Part of the reason the writing process took me so long was that I needed to walk away from the drafts for a while to gain some objectivity. Writing a memoir means you have to strip naked and stand in front of an audience showing all of your own flaws and shortcomings. You learn a lot about yourself when you can step outside of your body and study yourself from a distance.

TM: What’s next for you? In terms of new books and new adventures?

JB: There are still mountains to climb. Thankfully, I’ll never run out of those. Covid-19 sidetracked a lot of my planned adventures this past year, but I’m optimistic that the world will open up again in the coming year and we get back to doing what humans do: explore, wonder, and share stories. I have no doubt I’ll find the next great adventure (or it will find me). Until then, I’m still producing my weekly New England Legends podcast and giving many virtual programs about my experience for libraries and other organizations until I can get back in front of live audiences.

How’s that for a non-committal answer?