I’ve been thinking a lot about pettiness lately. I live in the U.S. and right now, the American media landscape is all blah blah incivility blah anger blah blah hate. But it feels to me like the great fever of rage-mourning prompted by the 2016 election has now settled down into a less intense, more pervasive atmosphere of snark and slights, subtweets and sarcasm. SNL spoofs rapists. Twitter memes hate crimes. And then there’s the hilarious string of alliterative names for white people losing their minds over black people existing. We’re squarely in an era of pettiness, the Age of the Drag.
Petty comes from petit, the French for small: Think small-minded, mean, snide. Pettiness might seem to trivialize social issues, but it doesn’t necessarily diminish them, at least no more than bad-faith grandstanding does. Plus, intense emotions like love and hate can get you killed. You might lose money or pride off of petty, but nobody’s dying from a subtweet. To mock hateful things like racism, misogyny, and elitism lets us think about them with some distance, without getting caught up in self-seriousness, fury, or despair. If nothing else, it makes them survivable. I’d say “y’all trifling” and strut off with a fluttering hand, but I kinda love pettiness: It’s witty and clever and often contagious.
For example: I’ve wanted for a while to teach a graduate course on everything Roland Barthes ever wrote, as an excuse to read it. (Most professors are just perennial students: We teach the courses we wish we could take.) So I mocked up a syllabus. I titled it, “Everybody Loves Roland.” I was inordinately excited. But then I was asked to teach another course I’d proposed as a second choice, “American Genres,” because it would help students fulfill a program requirement. Well. OK. Fine. I scrapped my syllabus of American Genre-ish fiction by high literary authors—Toni Morrison and Hannah Crafts as “Gothic,” Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler as “sci-fi,” Raymond Chandler and Walter Mosley as “noir.” And I went full bestseller: Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, Iceberg Slim’s Pimp, Stephen King’s Carrie, Charles Portis’s True Grit, Danielle Steel’s The Gift. It was a petty move over a set of novels that are themselves often considered trifling—the fast food of fiction.
And so, given my usual reading habits, and the black sci-fi class that I taught again last year, this was My Year of Reading Genre Fiction. I wasn’t alone. Genre is all the rage—this is especially clear in television and film—though it sometimes feels less like a key ingredient and more like a spice that contemporary artists have started shaking over their works (to say nothing of the disavowals). The thing is, it has always struck me as bizarre that professors mostly teach students how to read (and imitate) the “literary canon”—essentially the same one I was tasked to ruminate over as a student. You’d think this recycling project would be less tenable now that some of our greatest living writers (Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) have publicly embraced genre fiction. Haven’t we diversified the syllabus, if not decolonized it, by now? Maybe, but let’s be real: Even the non-white, non-male, non-rich writers on our reading lists are still mostly “literary”; as Du Bois might have put it, they “sit with Shakespeare and wince not.” Our anti-elitism is still elitist.
The question of how and what we (ought to) read is political for me in this sense: If we believe in democracy and equality, why are our aesthetic priorities shaped by an elite minority? Why do we dismiss our engagement with genre works as “love-hate,” “hate-watching,” and “guilty pleasure” when we spend so much time doing it? Why do we refer to these works as “low” or “lite” when they are read by millions more people than the classics? In short, why don’t the numbers matter? Maybe these texts aren’t read much in academia because they don’t require scholars to explain or analyze them: The story we tell ourselves is that they aren’t difficult or ambiguous; they’re self-evident, simplistic even. But maybe that’s just some petty nonsense to justify the need for literary critics?
As it turns out, many of the novels I read this year, while they fit the “formula” of genres like crime fiction, the Western, fantasy, romance, the spy thriller, and science fiction, are actually really weird and interesting and worthy of analysis. In fact, I’ve been developing a theory that the most recognizable of these non-canonical texts—the highest of the lowbrow, so to speak—are all deeply interested in their own form. That is to say, they are metafictional—they are self-aware about these genre categories we use to dismiss them. Now, a text’s self-investigation of its own condition is one of the marks of sophistication, of high literary value: Think Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage.” But I found it all over formulaic novels. It’s like they’re formally petty: They draw attention to and even drag the qualities we’re so used to valuing automatically. Let me give you three examples:
James M. Cain’s noir The Postman Always Rings Twice ends with the main character in prison saying this of psychology: “There’s a guy in No. 7 that murdered his father, and says he didn’t really do it, his subconscious did it. I asked him what that meant, and he says you got two selves, one that you know about and the other that you don’t know about, because it’s subconscious. It shook me up…. To hell with the subconscious!” This is a hilarious send-up of the psychological depth of high literature, whether or not it embraces Freud. As it turns out, Albert Camus’s L’Étranger was strongly influenced by Cain’s novel. Why is the absence of conscience, a refusal of psychological complexity, and an action-based philosophy valued in the existentialist classic but dismissed as “brutality” in the crime novel? The very existence of Cain’s novel calls portentous, intellectual fictions into question.
Madeleine L’Engle’s “science fantasy” A Wrinkle in Time dwells on the way time, space, and feeling get enmeshed in the literary setting. Tessering is explained in diagrams—famously an ant crawling along a string—and the setting is strangely book-like: when the characters tesser through a two-dimensional space, they become “flat,” as if they are literally made of the paper on which we’re reading about them. The novel seems to me to spoof the narrative questions familiar to us from Journalism 101 with characters like Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, and the Happy Medium, a jolly clairvoyant with a crystal ball, whose name puns on the equanimity to which Meg aspires while offering an apt description of L’Engle’s bizarro religious novel itself. In this way, the novel offers a metafictional meditation on the use of the objective correlative—using the setting to convey emotion—in the high literary novel. It even begins: “It was a dark and stormy night.”
Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity is a (long-winded) spy novel about, yes, identity, but also about the literary category of the character. The amnesiac protagonist is a blank slate—who happens to have the default unmarked identity of a straight, white male—trying to figure out who he is. But he never really does and neither do we. Instead, the novel gives us a paradoxical refrain that seems to connect his code names with the names of his targets: “Caine is for Charlie and Delta is for Caine.” This odd phrase doesn’t make sense, though—is the character “for” as in substituting for or as in created for? “Spy,” whether it functions as a noun or a verb, comes to invoke metafictional questions about the visibility and identification of characters: Whom are we as readers asked to slip into and why? How “blank” or “recognizable” should characters be? This page-turner suggests the fascinating possibility that character—and perhaps identity itself—might be a matter of interchangeability.
Maybe I’m overreading—this is congenital for me, I admit. But it seems to me that even on their own terms, these genre fictions explore a set of formal questions that take us beyond the usual truisms about the satisfactions of “psychology,” “emotion,” and “the human condition” in literary fiction—which comes more and more to look like just another genre. So what happens if we take this truth to be self-evident: that all genres are created equal? I believe each genre offers its own specific value and way to think through literature, by which I mean both to think about literature and to use literature to think. My own fiction writing has become increasingly informed by this sensibility. My debut novel, The Old Drift (Hogarth 2019) embraces “low” genres even as it ironizes them. Regardless of how my publishers and reviewers see it, for me, genre is a lens—a mode of seeing the world—not a label.
I adore those contemporary fictions, like Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, that sing genre with their whole chests, that don’t pull punches or bleed it of its fun, color, and momentum, and respect it enough to engage with it. I read two books this year that fit this description. Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties reimagines fairy tales and surrealism, and one of its standout stories, “Especially Heinous,” is a set of evolving synopses of episodes of Law and Order: SVU, a genre show if ever there was one. I love the unaccountable weirdness of that story—the girls with bells for eyes, the ubiquitous dun dun—and how it imitates the longueur of watching crime shows: the running jokes, the strange entanglement of voyeurism and misogyny in “hate-watching,” and that thrumming desire for release, however implausible.
After a casual exchange with Victor LaValle on Twitter about the creepy eugenical subtext of one of the animated movies I love-hate, The Incredibles, I plucked his novel The Changeling from the middle of my stack and opened it. Twelve hours later, I closed it, cheeks streaked with tears, throat sore from laughter. A beautiful, moving Gothic/fantasy/fairy tale, The Changeling is a masterful novel that doesn’t try to smooth away any of the dark, rough edges of its genres. It doesn’t shy from realism either, though—as when it literalizes the internet “troll” as a pale gross dude who sits in front of screens and gets paid for webcam views. This is clearly dragging fantasy and its fans, but LaValle has mad love for the genre, too. His novel The Ballad of Black Tom is essentially a love-hate letter to the virulently racist H.P. Lovecraft. It’s next on my list, along with a growing set of recent Afro-fantasy novels. Pettiness is not just a trifling game, it can be immensely generative. After all, we pay close attention to what we “haterate,” and sometimes that attention can yield glorious acts of creation.
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I’d known Monica 20 years when her sister was killed in a hit-and-run motorcycle accident. We spent our childhoods in a tiny Bay Area town that I left at 14. I only went back to visit twice.
In the years between, Monica and I sent each other videos, talking into our phones’ cameras for the three-minute limit. She told me about moving back into her parents’ house, the engagement of a friend from our previous life, earning a master’s degree from her sister’s alma mater. I told her of New York, my job in publishing, how it exhausted me to the point of revisiting the books of our childhood—Anne of Green Gables, A Wrinkle in Time, The Phantom Tollbooth.
What is it? What is it? What is it? I chanted as she began to cry. She told me her sister was dead. I remember watching myself from somewhere up above, wondering if she said my sister and not Marie because she was also dissociating, or if this was an act of precaution in case I’d forgotten Marie’s name.
I bought a plane ticket for the day of Marie’s service. In the interim, I told Monica I would send her a video every morning, with no obligation to reply. Three minutes of consistent comfort seemed all I could offer from the opposite coast. Dispatches from Brooklyn, I called them, recounting various scenes—at 2 a.m. I woke up to “Crazy in Love” outside my window; there goes a firetruck—that I imagined were different from her suburban California life, the one I used to share. I’m also rereading the Harry Potter series, I said.
I’m reading that to the kids I babysit, she sent back.
Monica and I were introduced to the Harry Potter books in the same way: Our second-grade teacher read the first installment aloud to us at lunch. She was forced to stop when the cranky nun assigned to our Catholic school banned the series, citing heresy.
Now, 18 years later, we were reintroduced to the infant with a lightning bolt scar on his forehead abandoned on a stoop in Surrey, England. We knew who he was, but the pages couldn’t tell the difference between us and those who didn’t. Marie was dead, Monica and I on opposite coasts, but this story was the same.
We spent our videos debating plot points that Monica believed Rowling planted early in the series. I disagreed. The narrative was too intricate; Rowling must have referred back to the first three books while writing the last four. I cited how Harry’s best friend Ron is often described holding his pet rat, which by the third book is revealed to be a man disguised as a rat. In the first book, Harry wonders if a dour-looking professor can read his mind. By book five, Monica reminded me, this same professor will teach Harry the art of Occlumency—accessing the minds of others while also blocking yours from intruders.
Monica choked up for the first time during the introduction of a character who will die in the final book. She stopped reading altogether after Harry finds the magical mirror—the Mirror of Erised—that reflects the viewer’s deepest desire back to them. Harry sees his dead parents. Monica knew she would see Marie.
Perhaps because this world felt as familiar to us as each other, we didn’t notice Harry had in fact changed: He left the realm of our shared childhood and took up the form of Monica’s solitary grief.
Though best friends, Harry and Ron are quite different. Ron has both parents and many siblings; he struggles with common teen issues like fear of inadequacy and failure. So when Harry drags Ron out of bed and to the mirror, Ron doesn’t see Harry’s dead parents. In fact, Ron doesn’t see anything he’s lost, but instead goals he hopes to achieve—winning a wizard sport, becoming a leader at the school.
For a long time, Monica and I saw reflections similar to Ron’s—milestones we wanted but hadn’t yet reached. As high school dissolved into college and college dissolved into adult life, our paths remained aspirational: degrees, jobs, life partners.
But when Marie died, Monica’s unachieved goals became secondary. Instead, what she desired most was what she’d lost. This shift in her life’s longing was so obviously different from mine that we could no longer avoid the fact of our 12-year separation; three-minute videos weren’t enough to close the gap between the different people we became. I was just Ron—best friends with a person who knew death in a way I didn’t. I could only stand next to her in the darkness.
After Marie’s service, I drove by my old house. The small cul-de-sac yielded snapshots of the childhood books where I’d recently found refuge: the crabapple tree I crawled up holding my hefty library copy of Anne of Green Gables (all eight volumes in one); the mailbox where I dropped a letter addressed to Madeleine L’Engle (she wrote back); sitting on my mother’s lap as she carefully pronounced “dodecahedron” from a hardcover of Phantom Tollbooth; sobbing alone in my living room over the death of Harry Potter’s headmaster.
I spent 12 years believing this home was a part of my history that was gone in the way a person is gone in death: absolute. Only when I went back as an adult to attend a funeral did I realize I could buy plane tickets and book Airbnbs there just as I did other places. Monica and I needed the familiar world of Harry Potter to close the distance between our deepest wants, different in object of desire—or loss—but similar in their unachievable nature. What is gone—my childhood home, our childhood friendship, her sister—is gone forever. In their place are memories, towns, where we cannot stay for long.
A few months later, Monica comes to New York. One night we have dinner with my friend who tells Monica she’s from Ohio, followed by a quip about how New York is more exciting than the Midwest. Monica says, “Yeah, but it’s your home. That’s what makes it good.”
What we’ve lost is taking up a new form; it’s changing, as all stories—and lives—do. Childhood books and childhood friends are the same in this way: homes we can always visit, companions we drag out of bed to stand next to us in the darkness as we wait for the light.
Throughout her life, Madeleine L’Engle, most famously known for her 1962 classic, A Wrinkle in Time, wrote 60 books. Penned by L’Engle’s granddaughters, Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Léna Roy, Becoming Madeleine: A Biography of the Author of A Wrinkle in Time by Her Granddaughters chronicles her life and illustrious career. The biography offers an intimate look at the late author’s upbringing by fusing together excerpts from her journal entries, family photos and letters, and the memories she shared with her children and grandchildren. Similar to many of L’Engle’s novels, the book skews toward a younger audience, yet contains treasures for older readers as well.
Charlotte Jones Voiklis holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and manages L’Engle’s literary business. Her sister, Léna Roy is the author of the novel Edges.
The Millions: Is it fair to compare a book to a movie?
Léna Roy: Not really. Books and movies are two completely different mediums: a book unfolds a narrative through characters and relationships with description and metaphor, while a movie tells a story in terms of visual scenes. I am in love with books. I love how reading is an intimate act, how I get to use my imagination and co-create along with the author. And I can take my time digesting it! A movie is magical because it tells a story in under two hours, and shows you another vision of the world, so it also has the power to deepen our understanding of it. And Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time was definitely magical in that way.
TM: Having said that, what one word would you use to describe the book, and what one word would you use to describe the movie?
LR: The word for the book is transformative. The word for the movie is visionary.
TM: Why do you love the story so much?
Charlotte Jones Voiklis: It just gives me great hope. And inspiration. It’s the story of Meg, this sort of underestimated and misunderstood girl who travels the universe in search of her missing father, thinking that when she finds him, he’s going to make everything better. And he doesn’t make everything better. She has to make things better. And she learns to trust herself, her skills, and her faults, and discovers that she has the ability to save her brother, save the universe, “be a warrior” is the phrase the movie is using. So it just leaves you with this sense of inspiration that individuals matter.
But I also think what’s so wonderful about it is that it’s not a simple story of self-empowerment. It’s not just about “I can do this.” She does it because she loves her family. She does it because she wants to save her brother, and she wants to find her father. It’s not just a selfish kind of sense of, you know, I’m going to work out and then kick some butt. It’s in relationships that we discover our calling. And it’s in doing for others that we fight the darkness.
TM: Tell me a little bit about your parents.
CJV: So our mother, Josephine, is our grandmother’s first child, but we really don’t talk about our parents in the biography. Because we were reading sort of family letters and journals, we wanted to be careful and respectful of other people’s experience and telling other people’s stories so we focused on our grandmother as a writer, and her development as a writer. We end the biography before we’re born, with the publication of A Wrinkle in Time.
TM: Léna, how long did it take you to write your first novel, Edges, and how long did it take for the two of you to write Becoming Madeleine?
LR: Well with my first novel, once I decided “I’m gonna do this,” the first draft took about three months because I just wrote it beginning to end. I just pushed through it. And then I rewrote it and rewrote it and rewrote it a lot of times. I think it took a lot of time to be published. I kept rewriting it after every rejection, and workshopping it and rewriting it.
So writing Becoming Madeleine was a very different experience, very lucky too because I was working on it with my sister. I had always wanted to write something about my grandmother, but I also knew that I didn’t want to be the only one telling the story. So I was waiting for my sister to be ready, or for our relationship to be ready. So once she was convinced that it was the right thing to do, we started working together, and I think all in all, it took about a year and a half. We were lucky because of who our grandmother is. People are interested. Charlotte, as the executor of the estate, was already in contact with Gran’s publisher, and the publisher was already interested. They just didn’t necessarily have the confidence that we could write it, that maybe we were too close. But then we worked something up and it was awesome, and they were very happy and very excited. So we started working on it.
TM: What did you learn about the craft of writing by writing this book, specifically writing a biography?
LR: Well, when we started, I started fictionalizing because I wanted to hear her voice. Charlotte and I had started brainstorming and we thought, Oh, you start in medias res, you start in the middle of a dramatic scene. So when she was 11, she got abandoned, dumped at a boarding school. We thought, Whoa, that’s horrifying. That really shaped her, so I just started fictionalizing that and imagining dialogue: the way their house looked, and them getting in the car and going off for a picnic, and her having no idea. So I wrote a bunch and I gave it to Charlotte and she said, “Great! But I don’t think this is the way to write a biography, I don’t think we can do this, but keep going.” So then we did it more chronologically and included her in it. She’s infused in it. So by using her journal entries, her voice is really a part of the book, and our forward and afterword—it’s interesting because we built upon stories she had told us and then the journal entries added to it, and then us being older—we felt a deeper connection to her and to her life, the shape of her life. And it was super fun working with Charlotte because I have, even though I am terrified of the blank page, I’ve trained myself to just write that shitty first draft, you know, to just write through the voices in your head telling you you suck, and then so I would write and she would edit and she would write some more and edit. It was just seamless. All of it is the two of us together. I can’t think of a page or a sentence that’s just one of us—that’s all Charlotte or that’s all Léna. It was really beautiful. So it was a different kind of writing, because whenever one of us was stuck, we could lean on the other. And I think when I’m doing my own writing, especially if I’m writing a novel, and I’m stuck—oh boy! I just need to put it away for awhile, and I go back to it with fresh eyes, or I need to have somebody else read it, pick on some poor soul to help me. It’s just a different process.
TM: What fears, if any, did you experience when writing the book?
LR: I had no fears. I knew it was a challenge I wanted to explore.
CJV: We really wanted to be truthful, interesting, respectful, and make her proud. It’s hard to carry all those things when you’re writing.
TM: Charlotte, what did it take for you to be “ready” to write the biography?
CJV: Time! I needed some distance, and then I needed to think about what it would be like for someone else to tell her story. I knew that they’d need my help with primary materials, photos, etc., and I thought if it’s going to be my labor anyway, why not tell the story ourselves?
TM: How did you know when the book was “ready?”
CJV: I still don’t know it’s ready. I always want to rewrite. We just had to trust it, and the editor.
TM: In Becoming Madeleine, your grandmother became your protagonist, so to speak. In what ways did writing about her life change you?
LR: It deepened our connection to her, to each other, and to our ancestors. Being able to incorporate her own voice into her story was very powerful.
TM: Léna, you work with youth, and Edges has a young protagonist. Did your grandmother’s affinity for writing for and about young adults impact your work?
LR: She impacted me in so, so many ways. I too am definitely “every age I’ve ever been.” I’ve always been interested in turning points in people’s lives, and my grandmother helped me appreciate how every moment can be a turning point. I love how kids and teens are constantly having them, so it’s really something to be able to explore the inner life of a character who is growing and changing so fast. And I am so lucky that I get to witness these changes with my students every day at Writopia Lab.
TM: Are there moments where you are tempted to compare yourself to your grandma?
LR: I work on NOT doing that! She was fond of saying: “comparisons are odious” because she too was always working on not doing that herself. We are alike in so many ways, but I am definitely not as prolific, ambitious, or disciplined as she was. I have to believe that she would approve of the person she helped me become.
TM: I have a book-specific question. On page 79 you write, “It gave her her first inkling that her writing knew more than she did.” And I wanted just a little bit of an explanation as to what that meant.
CJV: Yeah, well, she said her books knew more than she did and that, you know, she was a disciplined, skilled writer. She wrote every day. She wasn’t sort of like, “Oh, the spirit will move me.” But she also felt that she needed to listen and the story would come to her. She needed to listen to the story that was being given to her and so, didn’t force things. Like she would say that she didn’t realize until she was finished writing A Wrinkle In Time that part of what the message behind the disembodied brain is that, you know, the intellect without heart is terrifying. But she didn’t consciously set out to write that message. She didn’t sort of plot it out and say, ‘This is gonna be one of the themes of the book,” right? She didn’t do outlines of her work. She sat down to write and she listened to the story that was coming to her.
Another example of that is in a book called The Arm of the Starfish, which was written just couple of years after A Wrinkle in Time but actually features Meg and Calvin as married grown-ups with children of their own. There’s a main character in that book that dies and her children were reading it in draft form and said, “Change it! You can’t let Joshua [the character] die.” And she had to explain to them that, “Well, I can’t change it. That’s what happened.” She wasn’t in control. She didn’t force her characters. They were already living for her and she was, you know, I hate to say, and she wouldn’t use this phrase and this isn’t quite right, she wasn’t just simply a scribe. You know? But she definitely had a sense that she was listening to what was given to her and was available to it. And that because of her discipline of journal writing, and practicing writing every day, the tools were there so that when a book came or a character came, she was able to serve it.
The literary world has been waiting for a Carmen Maria Machado collection for several years, and in October, Graywolf Press will oblige with the release of Her Body and Other Parties, a collection of Machado’s haunting, graceful speculative stories that has been longlisted for a National Book Award. The Internet became aware of Machado in 2014 when her story “The Husband Stitch” was published by Granta. “The Husband Stitch” was something new altogether, and went on to be nominated for a Shirley Jackson Aware and a Nebula Award, among other honors. Every new story by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop grad has further stoked anticipation.
Machado’s stories take place in a version of our real world that has been subtly distorted. Identities blur, women become invisible (literally), and lonely individuals seek intimacy at the end of the world. But these events don’t occur in some alternate science fiction reality; Machado’s spaces are recognizably our own, forcing us into the emotional upheavals of their protagonists. Machado’s writing is both vulnerable and fearless, in complete control even as her characters lose control entirely, and she wields her unique voice to explore identity, marginalization, mental health, and what intimacy looks like in the light and shadow of all three.
We recently had the chance to talk over email about benevolent sexism, urban legends, and her writing process.
The Millions: “The Husband Stitch,” first published in 2014, seemed to be the story that made the Internet perk up and really pay attention to the name Carmen Maria Machado. It’s the story that opens Her Body and Other Parties. What has been the significance of that story and the response to it on your career as a writer and the formation of this collection?
Carmen Maria Machado: I always tell people that they should write the stories they want to see in the world, and that’s advice I try to take as well. I was nursing “The Husband Stitch” in my heart for a very long time—not that structure or narrative specifically, but the emotional arc. I thought a lot about benevolent sexism as a powerful and damaging force, and realized it was a critical note I needed to strike in Her Body and Other Parties. And then, one day, I had the story structure to tell it in a way that felt faithful to my own musings.
Of course, the explosion of interest around that story, and the persistent love of it, is really encouraging to me. I never imagined when I was writing it that it would have that kind of power and longevity. I’m not sure there’s anything more exciting or rewarding as a writer. But I don’t think it has much to do with me as an artist, particularly—rather, I think it was a note that needed to be struck. I think people were hungry for it.
TM: Your comment about benevolent sexism brings up a powerful piece of writing that was one of the first things I ever read by you: your essay “A Girl’s Guide to Sexual Purity” for L.A. Review of Books. My wife and I both grew up in the Evangelical purity culture (and have since left the faith), and the essay spoke to a lot in our own pasts. While Christian purity culture is never mentioned in “The Husband Stitch” (the story takes place well before the emergence of that late-20th-century movement), it grows from the same soil from which that movement would later mushroom. Was that connection on your mind during the writing of this story? How does your background in the Christian purity culture impact your writing?
CMM: I think it serves as a constant reminder to me of what happens when people are not vigilant about the narratives young women absorb about themselves and their bodies and sex and sexuality—how catastrophically damaging they can be. I don’t think I can solve that problem single-handedly or anything, but I can provide an alternate narrative for those who need it.
TM: There’s this fascinating way you intertwine innocence and betrayal in that story without obscuring either. They are separate threads, braided together here—desire that is beautiful and desire that is toxic—and the reader can trace both throughout. Your use of so many old folk tales and urban legends—stories we all passed around among our friends as spooked kids and teenagers—takes the reader back to a more open, unprotected age, and then they’re confronted with the ugliness of patriarchal entitlement. Can you tell me a little about how that story came about? What ties those old legends together, and what made you flip them on their heads here?
CMM: I was a Girl Scout for almost my entire childhood, and when we went camping I really loved the part where we told scary, theatrical stories around the campfire. I enjoyed hearing them, and I was really good at telling them. The version of “The Green Ribbon” I heard at that age—which is the one famously retold by Alvin Schwartz—has stuck with me ever since; I don’t know why. (I’ve been trying to explore this very question in an essay.) It’s possible that I was fascinated by the question of the ribbon itself—how did it get there? How did she go her entire life without disturbing it?—but there was something about the ending that really distressed me. Alfred asking and asking and asking, and Jenny relenting on her deathbed. Was she trying to fuck Alfred up as her final act on this earth? Was she just tired of saying “no?” Why did she give him what he wanted? Like the best folktales, the story was spare enough that a reader could project all sorts of things into it; the flatness serves as a kind of scrying pool for whoever is looking inside.
And, so years later, when I was at a residency in New Hampshire, I sat down and found myself combining several ideas: a sex-loving, midcentury housewife, the story’s title—which I’d learned about from my OB-GYN nurse aunt—and the woman with the green ribbon. I revisited all of those questions, to try and find my own answers.
The secondary urban legends and stage directions didn’t come until later drafts. When I went to go add those secondary stories, I consulted Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark trilogy. I flipped through the pages until certain stories spoke to me as ones that could stand one of her retellings. I think urban legends (and folktales, and fairy tales) have this way of showing us what we already know to be true, and I wanted these narratives to reflect that fact.
TM: For you, the speculative elements in your fiction seem to be a way to subtly tug and pluck at the strings of reality on a very personal level. How did you get started writing speculative stories, and how do these elements play in your imagination as a writer?
CMM: I get “into” stories in a number of ways, but a lot of my ideas come from observing what’s around me and pushing into it a little. My wife and I play this game where we’ll see something and I’ll lean over and suggest a fantastic alteration to it. For example, we’ll see a little kid playing with her reflection in a large window, and I’ll say to my wife, “What would happen if the reflection stopped following her?” I do this in my own head, too, and sometimes I’ll stop talking mid-sentence and my wife will say to me, “Are you getting an idea right now?” as I run for paper and pen. (Or, if I’m driving, I’ll say, “I’m about to say some weird sentences to you, please text them to me.”)
When I teach, I talk to students a lot about “play,” and how that critical part of your young imagination can be snuffed out if you don’t feed it and take care of it. There’s been a lot of good and interesting writing about this idea of nursing one’s creative subconscious—I’m particularly fond of this essay by Kelly Link—and I think it’s an element of craft that doesn’t get touched on enough. Before plot or dialogue or even character, the mind needs to be observant, nimble, playful, and curious around the world around it. Without that, fiction is DOA.
TM: I’ve found Kelly Link’s thoughts (the essay you linked to) about writing from our obsessions, no matter how trivial they seem, to be tremendously helpful. Do you similarly maintain a list of these obsessions for yourself, as Link does?
CMM: I do! I make lists of obsessions, of fears, of images that strike me, of phrases that might make good titles, of potential formal constraints, of stories only I think I can tell, of memories, of sentences that come to me, of settings that give me a thrill…list-making is so satisfying, and such a useful way of cataloguing what’s going on inside my head.
TM: A number of your stories are only one degree separated from our present reality. A plague is wiping out humanity, or women are becoming incorporeal for no discernible reason, but otherwise the characters and settings are, for lack of a better word, normal. They’re what we’re all living every day, and then this awful warping occurs. What does that method open for you when you’re writing a story?
CMM: As a young woman, I did read some secondary world and/or portal fantasy (Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, the Narnia books), but my absolute favorite work presented a familiar world with tweaked fantasy, science fiction, and/or horror elements: A Wrinkle in Time, the work of Lois Duncan, Behind the Attic Wall, all of Louis Sachar’s books, John Bellairs. I was not leaving for another world; instead, I was being shown potential avenues of perception in my own world. I don’t think this is, like, aesthetically superior or anything, it’s just what tickled my own imagination. I think it created in me an acute sense that magic could be just around the corner. And quite frankly, so much of our world is just straight-up surreal—look at the current political climate, for example—that this kind of worldbuilding often feels very natural to me.
TM: Who are some writers, past or present, who inspire you creatively?
CMM: I’m particularly indebted to a certain generation of 20th-century writers: Shirley Jackson, Angela Carter, Jane Bowles, Lucia Berlin, Patricia Highsmith, Lois Duncan, Ray Bradbury, Gabriel García Márquez. But there is also an incredible line-up of contemporary folks who have shaped me into the writer I am: Kelly Link, Karen Russell, Helen Oyeyemi, Alice Sola Kim, Kevin Brockmeier, Nicholson Baker, Bennett Sims, Sofia Samatar, Alissa Nutting. And I’m discovering more every day: I recently finished Anne Rivers Siddons’s The House Next Door and Kathryn Davis’s Duplex—the first novels of those writers I’ve ever read—and I feel like my imagination is firing on every cylinder.
TM: Your book’s title directly reveals a theme that weaves through every story in the collection: women’s bodies, the ways they both serve and betray these women (or are used by others to do the same), the ways they are both pleasured and violated. Can you tell me a bit about that theme and how is defines so much of this collection?
CMM: I am singularly obsessed with the body; even my interest in the mind is rooted in the body, since the two are inseparable from each other. I’d be lying if I said this interest didn’t stem from my relationship with my own body: with moving through the world as a fat, queer, not-quite-white woman, experiencing physical ailments and struggling with mental illness. My mind is housed in my body; my body is flawed and also falls outside of specific culturally-acceptable parameters and is also actively oppressed. It experiences pleasure and brings me joy and it suffers; I fight against it and love it and accept it and loathe it. How better to grapple with these contradictions than write a book about it?
TM: Full disclosure: I have never seen a single episode of Law & Order: SVU. I wasn’t sure what to expect going into your story “Especially Heinous,” which creates a fictional episode listing for the show’s entire run. I found it absolutely fascinating. What was the inception of that novella, and why did you choose such an unusual structure?
CMM: I often tell people that its root was years before, when I’d spent a severe bout of swine flu in front of a Law & Order: SVU marathon, and drifted in and out of feverish consciousness in front of my computer. Whether or not that’s the actual place where it began, during my second year at grad school, I had the idea of writing a story using a television show as its anchor. I initially toyed with idea of taking existing episode capsules from IMDB and simply altering them toward fantasy, but I realized pretty quickly that this format was far too limiting. I did, however, notice that Law & Order: SVU only had single-word titles, which seemed to be as good a jumping-off place as any. The story came together pretty quickly after that—the titles provided a kind of mental springboard, and I bounced between plotlines and pulled everything together. Up until that time it was the longest singular project I’d ever written. (I should add that I intend the story to be readable to folks who haven’t seen Law & Order: SVU; but if you have, there might be some small Easter Eggs you can enjoy.)
I think the structure works for this story for a few reasons. First, we’re very accustomed to marathoning TV nowadays, what with Netflix and other online streaming services, and so in some ways this is like a Netflix marathon from hell. The format also allows the pleasure of cutting one-off “episodes” with continuing storylines, which taps into the reason people enjoy shows with formulas like Law & Order to begin with. This structure doesn’t work for everyone—I received the meanest workshop letter in my entire MFA from a student who very much disliked every element of this story, and derisively referred to it as “fanfiction”—but obviously some folks respond to it very strongly. I don’t mind writing aesthetically divisive work; on the contrary, it’s a real pleasure.
TM: In “The Resident,” you toy with the trope of the misunderstood madwoman forced together with other, “saner” folks (Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House came to mind), but in this case you redeem her from that relegation to insanity. That story seemed to come from a very personal place?
CMM: When I workshopped a very early version of this story, a reader said, reluctantly, “I tire of ‘madwoman in the attic’ stories.” I felt bowled over by this note, because I, too, dislike sexist tropes about mad women, particularly mad lesbians, and here I’d created a story that centered around them. So I asked her, “What happens if you want to write a first-person story about a woman with mental illness? What do you do then?” She just shrugged.
So I had this massive, sprawling story that felt important to me but ran up against this trope, and I didn’t know what to do about it. As someone who has mental illness—acute, debilitating anxiety—I’ve always been very interested in trying to snatch back narratives that have seemingly been taken away from me. So I decided during my many rewrites—and there were many!—to try and address this idea more forcefully. I reasoned, as long as the story took on these tropes, and she had agency and intelligence and context, she could be as mad as she needed to be. (I should add that I don’t begrudge the note that led me down this path—it was, in fact, critical to the story’s development.)
It also helped that I did a ton of editing for this story under my editor Ethan Nosowsky’s guidance. Many of the other stories in the collection were functionally finished by the time Graywolf bought the collection—they’d been published elsewhere, and had already received thorough edits—but “The Resident” had never seen anything except that very early workshop. Ethan gently told me he thought this story would need the most work out of the entire book, and he was right—we went back and forth on it for ages. There was even a period of time I didn’t think it would appear in the collection at all. Ethan is brilliant, and also not prescriptive—he simply looked at each draft and suggested to me where he thought my subconscious was leading me. And then one day, it all snapped into place.
TM: What’s next for you after the release of Her Body and Other Parties?
CMM: I recently sold a memoir to Graywolf—House in Indiana—which will be coming out in 2019, so next year I’ll be revising that. I’m also at work at a ton of other projects—a new story collection, an essay collection, and a few different novels, though whether or not those take is yet to be determined.
Recommended reading: a piece for The Toast “In Which Three Adults Discuss A Wrinkle in Time Seriously and At Length.” Related: A Wrinkle in Time may finally become a (good) movie.
If you like Fall, you like October. It’s the height of the season, the fieriest in its orange, the briskest in its breezes. “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers,” exclaims the irrepressible Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables. “It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it?” October at Green Gables is “when the birches in the hollow turned as golden as sunshine and the maples behind the orchard were royal crimson” and “the fields sunned themselves in aftermaths;” it’s a “beautiful month.”
Katherine Mansfield would have disagreed. October, she wrote in her journal, “is my unfortunate month. I dislike it exceedingly to have to pass through it — each day fills me with terror.” (It was the month of her birthday.) And Gabriel García Márquez’s biographer notes that October, the month of the greatest disaster in his family history, when his grandfather killed a man in 1908, “would always be the gloomiest month, the time of evil augury” in his novels.
Some people, of course, seek out evil augury in October. It’s the month in which we domesticate horror as best we can, into costumes, candy, and slasher films. Frankenstein’s monster may not have been animated until the full gloom of November, but it’s in early October that Count Dracula visits Mina Harker in the night and forces her to drink his blood, making her flesh of his flesh. It’s in October that the Overlook Hotel shuts down for the season, leaving Jack Torrance alone for the winter with his family and his typewriter in The Shining, and it’s in October that his son, Danny, starts saying, “Redrum.”
Can you domesticate horror by telling scary tales? Just as the camp counselor frightening the kids around the fire is likely the first one to get picked off when the murders begin, the four elderly members of the Chowder Society in Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, who have dealt with the disturbing death of one of their own the previous October by telling each other ghost stories, prove anything but immune to sudden terror themselves until they trace their curse to a horrible secret they shared during an October 50 years before — just after, as it happens, another kind of modern horror, the stock market crash of 1929. In the odd patterns that human irrationality often follows, those financial terrors, the Black Thursdays and Black Mondays, tend to arrive in October too.
Here is a list of suggested reading for the month of harvests and horror.
The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1867)
Those planning to celebrate National Novel Writing Month next month can take heart — or heed — from Dostoyevsky, who, having promised a publisher the year before that he’d deliver a novel by November 1866 or lose the rights to his works for nine years, didn’t begin writing until October 4. He handed in this appropriately themed novel with hours to spare.
Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne (1878)
Scholars may argue whether Keats wrote the sonnet that begins, “Bright star! would that I were steadfast as thou art” in October, or even whether it was inspired by his love for Fanny Brawne, but there is no doubt that on October 13, 1819, in a letter that wasn’t published until nearly 60 years later, he wrote to Miss Brawne, “I could be martyr’d for my Religion — Love is my religion — I could die for that — I could die for you.”
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M.R. James (1904)
James had modest aims for the wittily unsettling tales, often set among the libraries and ancient archives that were his professional haunts, that he wrote to entertain his students at Eton and Cambridge. But their skillful manipulation of disgust has made them perennial favorites for connoisseurs of the macabre.
Ten Days That Shook the World by John Reed (1919)
Oddly, one effect of Russia’s October Revolution was to modernize the calendar so that, in retrospect, it took place in November. But wherever you place those 10 days, Reed, the young partisan American reporter, was there, moving through Petrograd — soon renamed Leningrad — as history was made around him.
The Complete Peanuts, 1950-1952 by Charles M. Schulz (1950-52, 2004)
October is of course the month of the Great Pumpkin (whose arrival Linus didn’t anticipate until 1959), but it was also on October 2, 1950, when Shermy said to Patty in the very first Peanuts strip, “Well! Here comes ol’ Charlie Brown! How I hate him!”
Peyton Place by Grace Metalious (1956)
The leaves are turning red, brown, and yellow in the small New England town, while the sky is blue and the days are unseasonably warm: it must be Indian summer. But let’s hear Metalious tell it: “Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle.”
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)
It’s a dark and stormy October night when Meg comes downstairs to find Charles Wallace waiting precociously for her with milk warming on the stove. Soon after, blown in by the storm, arrives their strange new neighbor Mrs. Whatsit, “her mouth puckered like an autumn apple.”
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966)
The October wedding in Jamaica of Edward Rochester and Bertha Mason, which plays a peripheral role in Jane Eyre, takes center stage in Rhys’s novel, in which Rochester greets his doomed marriage with the words, “So it was all over.”
84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (1970)
“Gentlemen,” New York screenwriter Helene Hanff wrote to the London bookshop Marks & Co. in October 1949, “Your ad in the Saturday Review of Literature says that you specialize in out-of-print books,” the first note in a cross-Atlantic correspondence that has charmed lovers of books, and of bookselling, ever since it was published two decades later.
Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl (1975)
The first day of October is the date of Mr. Victor Hazell’s grand shooting party, which means that it’s also the day on which Danny and his “marvelous and exciting father” conspire to ruin that piggy-eyed snob’s plans with the aid of a hundred or so tranquilized pheasants.
The Dog of the South by Charles Portis (1979)
There’s no particular reason to read The Dog of the South in October except that it begins in that month, when the leaves in Texas have gone straight from green to dead, and Ray Midge’s wife, Norma, has run off with his credit cards, his Ford Torino, and his ex-friend Guy Dupree. Any month is a good month to read Charles Portis.
“The Ant of the Self” by ZZ Packer (2002)
Packer’s short story uses 1995’s Million Man March as the backdrop for Roy Bivens Jr. and his son Spurgeon — “nerdy ol’ Spurgeon” — who, on an ill-fated mission to sell some black men some birds at the march, work out a more elemental drama of fatherhood and ambition.
Live at the Apollo by Douglas Wolk (2004)
On a fall night in Harlem, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, James Brown recorded a show that turned him from a chitlin’-circuit headliner into a nationwide star, an event whose abrupt intensity was put brilliantly in context in Wolk’s little book, one of the standout entries in the marvelous 33 1/3 series.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
The landscape McCarthy’s father and son travel has been razed of all civilization, calendars included, but as their story begins, the man thinks it might be October. All he knows is that they won’t last another winter without finding their way south.
Image Credit: Pixabay
“You should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children,” Ruth Graham wrote in Slate last week, stirring the proverbial pot of new adult fans of Young Adult bestsellers like The Fault in Our Stars and Eleanor & Park. A host of YA-defenders rose up to shout her down. “You should never be embarrassed by any book you enjoy,” Hillary Kelly responds in The New Republic, unrealistically (we’re embarrassed by quite a lot). For the Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg cites examples of worthwhile, complex YA fiction we can certainly support: The Chronicles of Narnia, The Pushcart War, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Westing Game.