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?

Diversifying the Workplace, One Company at a Time: The Millions Interviews Jodi Ecker Detjen

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In their new book, The Next Smart Step, co-authors Jodi Ecker Detjen and Kelly Watson offer tangible ways to root out workplace gender bias and inequity and implement successful strategies for building inclusive organizations. The book argues that equality is not just a moral or ethical imperative but a sound business decision as well. Companies are ultimately more successful when there’s diversity—of gender, culture, and experience.

Detjen recently spoke to The Millions about the barriers to workplace gender equality, what we stand to gain from achieving it, how the pandemic has affected working women, and much more.

The Millions: The Next Smart Step isn’t just another statistic-laden book about gender equity in the workplace; it’s also a guide and toolkit for addressing our unconscious bias and making positive, enduring changes. Can you speak to the method outlined in the book?

Jodi Ecker Detjen: Our previous book focused on women—women’s careers, what interrupts them and what women can do. This book we wanted to go further—what men and organizations can do to help.

Our next smart steps are all about taking a strategic approach to the challenges that face organizations as they work towards inclusion. When we move beyond the fear around this, actually most organizations know how to tackle this problem—like any other business challenge:

Create a vision or strategic goal for what inclusion means to your organization and the impact it will have. Be sure to bring in voices from across the organization so that the process itself is inclusive.
Measure where you are today—for example, what are the demographic numbers in terms of hiring, promotion, performance evaluation? Where do the barriers exist within the processes? How is the culture experienced and how does it differ by group?
Create a plan for reaching the vision. Just like we do every time we create a strategy. It’s really just that—creating a strategy on inclusion. Whether that’s changing the promotion process so that all the preparatory support is shared across employees to changing the hiring process across each step to remove bias.
Ask people to speak up who aren’t. Give people a minute to think before they speak. Sit on decisions. Go back and evaluate decisions. It’s really not that different pre- or post-Covid
Pilot. For us, piloting these changes in particular area gives the organization an opportunity to learn what works and what doesn’t. To try it out.
Roll out—systemize and then measure, measure measure. Rinse and repeat.

TM: There are so many positives—for employees, workplaces, and the economy—that come with achieving gender equity in the workplace. Why do you think there’s still resistance (either passive or active) in trying to achieve that?

JED: I think in large part this resistance is because people are afraid of losing something. People look at inclusiveness as a fixed pie—if we get more women in leadership, there will be less men in leadership. But what we know from a lot of research and financial modeling is that the more we open up roles to more people, it actually grows the pie.

Here’s an example: If a woman becomes a senior leader, she will make more money. That means she has more money to spend. She might eat out more (more restaurants), need more help at home (more cleaning companies), pay more for clothes (more clothing companies), need more technology to manage (more tech companies), etc. This all creates more demand to which there will be more supply, thus creating more businesses. Result: A bigger pie.

TM: The pandemic has forced so many women—especially women of color—out of the workforce. Do you think this is a temporary setback, or something with more far-reaching implications?

JED: It’s both. Temporarily because many of the jobs lost will come back once the pandemic ends. More jobs because the industries that lost so many like restaurants and events—both women-dominated—will return.

But there are many far-reaching implications. Why is it that so many women have had to leave with children under six? Why is it that childcare was such a secondary concern? And why is it that women are the ones that are shouldering this? Where are the fathers?

This she-cession is showcasing the gendered roles both at work and home we have in this country. It’s time for these to be reframed. Time for us to face the assumption that women are the ones who are solely or mostly responsible for raising kids and realize this is something we are all responsible for. It can’t be an individual problem anymore. But it’s also something that companies really need to consider. Why is it that childcare isn’t a standard benefit? As companies start to think about how to return to work, will they consider the implications for families? Will they consider how to help moms not shoulder the main burden? To help daughters not to shoulder the majority of eldercare? Or will companies design the new way of working that benefits just a few?

TM: What makes you most hopeful about the direction of the gender equity movement?

JED: Women’s voices. I’m hopeful because the costs of the way things work is incredibly high. Just think about the women who were involved in the landing of Perseverance on Mars. Or building the Covid vaccine. If these women’s voices had been lost, imagine the cost! We can no longer rely on the ideas of the few who happen to be demographically similar.

I’m hopeful because as more voices are included into the system, more ideas will come. More solutions. More positive impact on the world. No one—not even the most biased person—would want another person to not realize their potential as long as they got to realize theirs too. We have been living in a fixed-pie view of the world, where as more women get power, say, less men do. It’s time to reframe this and start to imagine a world where so many more get to have a say in their and others’ lives. Wow. Can you imagine?
Sponsored by Charlesbridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deborah Fleming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This piece was sponsored by The Kent State University Press.

Love Your Bookstore: Greenlight Bookstore

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

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

The Alley of Fireflies and Other Stories by Raymond Roussel

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

6:41 to Paris by Jean-Phileppe Blondel

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

The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt

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

Last Things by Jenny Offill

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

In the Next Room by Sarah Ruhl

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

Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan

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

Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

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

Safari Honeymoon by Jesse Jacobs

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

Garments Against Women by Anne Boyer

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

A Twist in the Tale by Jeffrey Archer

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

Ocean of Sound by David Toop

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

People in the Room by Norah Lange

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

Blue Self Portrait by Naomi Lefevbre

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

Love Your Bookstore: Books Are Magic

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

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

Wild Milk by Sabrina Orah Mark

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

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi

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

Geekerella by Ashley Poston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons

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

Working by Robert Caro

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

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

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

The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang

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

Love Your Bookstore! The Millions Interviews Valerie Pierce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

R.L. Maizes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book of the Month’s 3 Most Popular Books

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

1. The Nest

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

2. The Queen of the Night

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

3. The Verdict

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

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

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