Love in the Anthropocene

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‘There Should be More Words Like Bittersweet’: A Conversation

Ramona Ausubel and Bonnie Nadzam met in 2012 in New York City at the One Story Ball. Though they have shared California and are each navigating a world of writing literary fiction while raising small children, they were struck by the similarities in their latest novels and wanted to discuss the process, themes, and uncanny coincidences. They corresponded via email during their respective book tours, and from places in the American West, which looms large in the lives and imagination of their latest fictional characters.

Ramona Ausubel: Can you say where you are you in the pages of Lions?  I’m not asking about nonfictional details or tidbits taken from your life, but rather what questions or wishes of yours you were writing toward or from. What made this book necessary for you to write?

Bonnie Nadzam: I had questions. What if the pursuit of comfort and (existential) consolation is exactly the wrong way to live? What if we are not meant to gather into our lives all the people and things we like while excising the people and things we don’t like, but to stand right in the middle of whatever is? What if traditional narratives of progress are corrupt? What does it mean to be poor in spirit? Crushed in spirit? That God is close to the crushed in spirit? What if a life is an American life because it is mediated by communal fantasy and perverted belief systems? How do we enact and thereby incarnate the stories we tell and other forms of art we witness? Is there any part of the colonization of North America and subsequent development of the American West that isn’t fundamentally destructive? How should a person live?

RA: I love this list.  What if we are all questions?  What if we are a wild, forceful gust of asking? I feel like writing fiction is a dance between existing in that endless open unknown and then, on the other hand, trusting your own steady compass, your own “knowing.”  Does that feel paradoxical to you or does it make sense? 

BN: What if we are a wild, forceful gust of asking. What if, indeed! On my better days, that’s what existence feels likes. It’s the bad days when I have some fixed or rigid belief or idea — some “answer” — that causes me to be in conflict with other people, even those I really love, and to make totally baseless and unfair assumptions about nonhuman life, too. I totally agree with you, Ramona, that writing fiction is a dance between doubt and faith, between total openness and some will and purpose that I’m trying to channel without getting too much in the way. If it’s a paradox, I think that’s only because it’s a lot like life itself. It never gets any easier!

Speaking of big questions: Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty is in many ways about money and fortune, who deserves it or doesn’t — but it is also a book about that funny term white privilege, i.e. racism. There’s a lot of discussion in our culture right now about what it is (and from some corners, whether it exists) and in my experience, it’s a difficult “topic” to navigate — not just culturally but personally too. How conscious were you of diving into these things? Would you share a little bit of your understanding of the issues? About your own complicity?

Do you think it’s important for writers to write about money and class? Do you think it’s possible not to?

RA: When I set out to write this book I knew it was going to be about money and privilege, but the world changed (or I should say that racism became much more visible to a lot of us) during the course of writing this book.  I heard Claudia Rankine read when I was somewhere in draft three or four and during her remarks she said, “Every book is a book about race.” I made a choice after that not to allow whiteness to be neutral on the pages, but to be charged and complicated and in relation to other racial truths, also complicated, also charged.  This was scary.  Because we’re all implicated somewhere.

I teach in an MFA program with Sherman Alexie and he gave a talk, also while I was in the middle of the book, in which he told the story of visiting two different classrooms — one at a fancy east coast boarding school and one at a poor high school on a California Indian Reservation.  Afterwards he received thank-you notes from both classes and within the package (one set on cotton paper with gold embossing and the other on printer paper in a recycled envelope) were two notes from two students, each of whom was writing about the experience of being trapped in their place, of being trapped by the expectations of their culture.  This story smacked me hard. There are as many ways to be entrapped as there are to be supported.  I wanted to write toward the idea of freedom and its opposite.  I wanted to look straight at that in this world that we think of as very privileged.

BN: That’s funny, Aimee Bender, who I know you know, once told a class that “Every book is a book about money.” Both statements seem true. And what an interesting story from Sherman Alexie. There were moments reading your novel when I actually did feel a little empathy for the “trapped-ness” of the wealthy, how very diminished their lives are in a way I still don’t think I could articulate. Even so, as the text says, no one would really willfully turn away from having more money (voluntary poverty, despite the prevalence of Christian Evangelists in this country, still seems to be an under-supported movement). I was amazed when reading this novel how similar some of these issues are to those in Lions: its exploration of whiteness and racism, of escaping into the West, of irresponsible adults, of genocide of natives and a corresponding persistent belief in and fascination with make-believe, cartoon “Indians.” This might be a silly or impossible question, but, why do you think that is? Zeitgeist? Weird coincidence?

RA: I thought about that, too. Probably because we’re secretly sisters or because in another life we were birds with nests on the same cliff.  You know that thing where you’re working and working and the story-land you inhabit is so thick with fog, so blurry and your whole soul is out there, up in the trees and you really don’t know if you’ll ever make it out of the wilderness?  I love that it turned out that if I’d called your name in that place, you might have heard me.  I love that in the vast, deep privacy of writing we were both circling the same darknesses.

BN: Thank you for saying that. I think I’m going to put that on my wall. It’s sometimes hard for me, especially when reading the work of a peer, not to feel envy, or that little flutter of competition and anxiety. But this amazing image of yours is a beautiful reminder that we’re all in the same dark room looking for light. We’re allies, utterly, sisters, yes.

Did inhabiting that place for a while change you? I mean, did writing about wealth at all change your ideas or feelings about your own relative wealth or lack of? Do you find that making a piece of art — writing a story or a novel — generally changes you?

RA: My family (on one side) used to have lots and lots of money and were well established as part of the upper class, but by the time I came along the money was gone.  The stories, though, remained.  We had all these old tattered silk dresses and leather trunks that people had used to travel to Europe but none of the dollars.  All my life I’ve thought about the ways in which I feel fortunate that I am alive apart from that very structured world of the upper class with the expectations and customs therein, and that I really am grateful that I’ve had to make my own way.  And then five minutes later I fantasize about a secret trust fund that kicks in when I’m fifty so I can put my kids through college and buy a house.  Writing the book reaffirmed the idea that money can be a resource and a freedom but it can also be a weight and a prison.  Anything can, right? Love can, family can.  I don’t know if I came out any different than when I started but I am incredibly grateful to have had a few years where I carried these questions with me every day, where I worked them on the page, where this piece of my self got some air and light.  Even though I haven’t lived almost any of the events of this book, it’s so much about me.  Every character is in me.

I want to ask about lineage.  Like all good Westerns, Lions begins when a stranger comes to town.  Where did you stay loyal to the traditions and where did you decide to depart?

BN: This is funny. You’ll never believe it, especially because some of my favorite Westerns begin with this motif, but I didn’t do this consciously. What I needed was a disruptive burst of energy, and I saw the image of this tall, ragged man in a black coat blowing like robes in the wind as he walked along the highway. So I went in for it. Where I consciously departed from convention was just in structure — in embedding stories within stories within stories. Although even the most subtle of embedded stories — back and forth shifting between an omnscient point of view and a close third to create a mystery — is something I picked up from Jane Austen’s Emma. I don’t think there’s really any departing from tradition unless I learn a new language. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? To fully escape the mistaken notion that all these familiar English words have any meaningful relationship to the mystery that surrounds us?

Why do you think up to this point your work has taken the form of fiction? Why not write a memoir, or an essay or work of nonfiction around the topics your work has explored?

RA: I sat in on a mini-workshop with Melissa Febos on writing nonfiction and I was struck by how fearful I was, where when I’m writing fiction there is almost no topic that scares me to the point where I can’t proceed.  Even still, I depend upon the long quiet years of thinking and working in private where that hard, dangerous material can churn around and around and around before any other human sees it.  Someday maybe I’ll find a way to move through a long piece of nonfiction with integrity and without trying to protect myself and everyone else.

You have two new little babies and now a new book (good job!).  Has either one taught you anything about the other in regard to creation and effort?  I remember being so incredibly sensitive to anything bad happening to anyone on or off the page when my son was tiny and I worried that I would never be able to read or write again.  A few years in I am able to create enough distance in my mind to come up against sadness in literature again, and in fact I feel like I need it more than ever.  Loving and protecting tiny people is a study in the vast range of emotions possible and I now find it incredibly comforting and necessary to go to those places.  Have your first months of motherhood changed the way you are thinking about stories? Has either motherhood or the process of writing and publishing Lions taught you anything about the other in regard to creation and effort?

BN: Yes, Ramona, yes to this. Everything makes me cry. Everything is so fragile, and hurts me, and fills me with aching. I have to pull over if I see roadkill, and put my head in my hands. The pregnancy came along with the early, unexpected death of my father, so it’s a little hard to parse out which is influencing this state I’m in more. But the coincidence of the events is itself instructive — a reminder that creation and destruction arise together, simultaneously. This isn’t a spiritual belief but more like the observation of a theory of energy and matter. I’m more than ever aware of the shortness of life. Awareness of death shifts everything in this strange culture back into its proper proportion and value. I don’t think I’m yet in the space you came to, and I’ll be interested in catching up with you on this in the next couple of years.  I can say now, however, that I think the making of a life — and a month, and a week, and a day, and an hour — is as much a work of art as writing a story or a novel (or attentively making a pot of soup, or washing a dog). Probably much more so. I’m not worried and never have been about children “disrupting” the artistic process. They’re part of it, and I’m so grateful.

RA: I think that we write from the fullness of life.  This summer I was in my family’s funky little vacation cabin and there were mice that we had to kill with traps because they were shitting all over everything and eating the snacks and I didn’t want my kids to get whatever mouse diseases might be present, but I remembered the year I was there, in that same place, at age twelve and my best friend and I found a dead mouse in the grass and we spent the entire day — hours and hours — burying it up on the hill and decorating the grave with scallop shells and holding this full ceremony and crying and crying until finally, on the way to dinner that night my mom (who is the  feelingest person I know) pulled the car over to the side of the road and told us that now it was time to stop mourning the mouse or she wasn’t going to buy us lobster.  I thought about those two scenes, both so true, both fully felt and real, the same person with two different results.  Writing comes from thinking and from feeling and those things come from being smashed up against another life, another sadness, another beauty.  Parenthood is that, and so is every other –hood.  Technically life is a distraction from writing (just think of how much time we’d have if there were no other obligations!) but it’s also the entire substance of our work.

Can you say something about joy and pain in the writing process?  Where is the pure pleasure and where is the blood?  Where are the rolled-up-sleeves?

BN: I have no process; if I did have a process, I would have no confidence in the process. I didn’t do any of the things you’re supposed to do when writing. I didn’t a have an office or separate room in which to write. I didn’t have a desk. I sat on the floor, or on a zafu on its side, or on the porch, or out back, or at the coffee shop, or at the wine bar. I didn’t write every day and certainly not at the same time every day. I was working full time and sometimes more than full time at a job unrelated to art or teaching or writing. I didn’t go to any retreats or residencies or conferences. I checked my email in mid-sentence. Frequently. I didn’t write straight from my gut, so-to-speak — I thought as deeply as I could about the book on every level — sentence, theme, character, overall structure, and still, I might add, ended up surprised by the results and making discoveries I cannot explain and that I’m relying on readers to tell me about. I re-read and studied carefully my favorite novels. I listened to a couple of them on audio, when I needed my hands free to do things like laundry or painting. I read a few dozen other novels, too. I simultaneously worked on another book (Love in the Anthropocene, cowritten with Dale Jamieson). I interrupted myself continually to garden, make elaborate dinners, renovate the house, go running, and tend my own dying father. I got pregnant. I slept on my side for 18 hours a day during the last three months of the pregnancy and didn’t write or read a thing, I mostly just drooled. Then I had twins. I moved twice, once selling and once buying a house. I had way too many people looking at early drafts. I just kept swimming in the mess until it all felt more or less right. And then it was time for it to go into production and I had to stop.  It’s all a mystery and a mess and that’s why I do it. This is both the source of and the salve for all the anxiety involved. It’s awful and wonderful. It’s like when you’re crying so hard you start laughing. There should be more words like bittersweet.

Surprise Me!