My first book was published on September 4, and I was supposed to interview the writer Karl Ove Knausgaard in front of an audience on September 24. In early summer I obtained the six volumes of My Struggle, and the four volumes of the Seasons Quartet. I put these together in a pile and added the book he wrote about soccer, and noted down the names of his earlier books. I was going to read them all, I told myself, and I also told this to the somewhat incredulous organizers. The writer who first interviewed him for the same program, I suspected, did not read all of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s works to prepare. But that writer had male authority, and I don’t.
The middle days of summer slipped by. I developed a “bit.” “How are you feeling about your book?” someone might ask, and I would say, jauntily, “I’m glad I have this Karl Ove Knausgaard thing looming, because it means I can’t even be anxious about my own book, haha.” This was not entirely true. It is true that my anxiety was more dispersed than it might have been, but it was still there in quantity. The Knausgaard assignment felt like a metaphor for other things in life—everything I have ever enrolled in and then realized, with absolute certainty and invariably too late, that I do not have the constitution for. (This is usually how I feel about good things: The book that I myself wrote, for example, or sometimes, the children I gave birth to.) How had I, a person genuinely awe-struck by people who do half-marathons, so cheerfully signed up for the greatest feat of endurance in contemporary letters?
The waning days of summer slipped by. I started to panic. There was always a volume of My Struggle with me, and thus Karl Ove, or the version of Karl Ove that Karl Ove had seen fit to enshrine on the page, was with me. Karl Ove was with me when I got into bed at night, before my husband demanded that we turn out the lights. He was with me on the bus. He was with me at restaurants and coffee shops. As my own publication date approached, as I had less and less time to read, I read volumes 1 and 2 closely. I was not insensible to the fact that I had taken on an enormous amount of labor for A Man, and that angst about this was going to overshadow my own big day. I noticed that I was developing a little rash on my neck, just under the hairline (it is still there). Karl Ove was with me when I ate two orders of fried chicken wings from the restaurant around the corner, even as I was supposed to be slimming in advance of my publication date. “I was wondering whether you would finish all of those,” the server said admiringly. She was talking about the wings, which I could finish, and not the books, which it had become obvious I couldn’t. I skimmed volumes 3 and 4.
One problem with reading My Struggle is that after each session I could remember almost nothing substantive—certainly no lines stood out in memory, although there were many that stood out as I was reading, many that I underlined and circled and asterisked. Reading the books was a strange, dreamlike experience, a quiet onslaught. When I first started, when I still felt like I had some time, I took notes on almost every page. When I knew that I didn’t have enough time, I started taking only very crucial notes on the endpapers. I told myself I was only allowed to have as many thoughts as there was room on the endpapers of each book.
What do I remember? I vividly remember the part where he and his brother clean the filthy house of his grandmother after his father dies there. I remember that this was one of the parts that incensed his litigious uncle, who loomed over Karl Ove’s own pre-publication period. I remember that Karl Ove seems to hate things involving book publicity, like, for example, being interviewed on a stage.
I spent a lot of time, after delivering my “bit,” hearing people be scornful about Karl Ove Knausgaard. And I understand it, even though I love the books. I am mad, too. The project is amazing in its hubris. But it is also very interesting. The character of Karl Ove who is written in the pages is maddening. But he is also very interesting. When I was reading I thought about how similar I felt to him in some ways, but how I am really probably more like his second wife, with whom I felt less affinity (he wrote her, after all). I felt utterly reproached by his level of involvement in the housekeeping, by his mania for order, by a participation in domesticity that demolished my excuses about my own artistic production and my domestic shortcomings. I have fewer children, and fewer books written or read, and a messier house. Karl Ove writes about how this discrepancy enraged his second wife, too.
It pained me how good his descriptions were of getting children out of the house, or just doing anything with children. One place where Karl Ove was not with me was when I was on my way to or from daycare and preschool pick-ups and drop-offs, when I only “read” my phone as I swayed on the bus. Sometimes I had a baby strapped to me as I did this, one of the cuter babies in history, and sometimes I would forget that she was there for a while and then look down and find her playing peek-a-boo with a grandmotherly figure on the bus. I felt reproached by this, too. “Put your phone down and notice her, idiot,” I imagined these women were telegraphing to me. “Life is so short.” Now I am reading Socks by Beverly Cleary to my older daughter and it makes me feel a little better: Mrs. Bricker sits at her typewriter typing papers while her baby plays on the mat. She gives the baby spoons and other kitchen junk to play with.
I became obsessed with Norwegian and Swedish social policies. Back with Karl Ove, I underlined every part where he scoffed at Swedish sanctimony and hypocrisy. TRY LIVING HERE, I would scream in my head, to no one. I couldn’t help noting that this reading assignment was the corner office in the women’s work of thinking about men who are not thinking about you.
Rather on the nose, right before my book came out, I was afflicted with strange long-term bleeding (27 days) which, after much poking and scanning and taking of pills, was determined to be the result of inefficiently weaning the baby two months before, and resulting hormonal storms.
Book 6 came with me on my short book tour. When it arrived in the mail I laughed because it’s simply enormous, and a peculiar shape. It became its own metaphor. On the airplane, it was my personal item. I jammed it under the Ziploc bag of 3-ounces-or-less toiletries, in a shoulder bag whose straps weren’t up to the challenge. At JFK, I was called for extra screening. The agent removed the book from the bag and wiped its fore-edge with the strip of paper they stick into a machine to see if it’s a bomb. I had to bite my tongue to avoid saying something like, “It’s not a bomb, haha, just a very big book!”
But it was a bomb. It was a ticking time bomb, poised to blow me up on the stage of San Francisco’s historic Nourse theater, the detonation broadcast by my local NPR affiliate. “How do you think Sweden’s social policies have fit in with your life as a working writer and parent?” I would say. “Why do you want to know?” he would say, smoldering and furious. I would forget everything, I would sound stupid, I would look ugly, I would have the wrong outfit, I wouldn’t know how to pronounce Karl Ove Knausgaard, I wouldn’t know how to pronounce Knut Hamsun, no one would buy my book, I would never write a second book, I would be mean to my children.
Meanwhile, I purchased more makeup products so that if someone took a picture of me at my own book readings I wouldn’t look as shitty as I felt. I calculated the number of pages I had to read per day to finish the book and skim the neglected book 5. I wished I could be reading anything else. My book came out around the same time as a huge glut of wonderful books, some of which I decided to read instead of Karl Ove: Number One Chinese Restaurant, The Incendiaries, Boomer1, All You Can Ever Know, A Terrible Country. Before Karl Ove loomed I read Like a Mother, which every person in America should read whether they intend to reproduce or not.
While on vacation I read Severance and have evangelized madly about it to anyone who will listen: a book about work that puts the work in the context of globalization, a book that is mordant and sad and full of quicksilver allegories. I loved that book so much. I also loved A River of Stars, which checks my favorite boxes for fiction—it communicates something complicated about society, you root for the people in it, you see the sights and taste the food and hold the babies it describes. It’s also a great California book. Before Knausgaard I read other books about the American West, city and country. I read The Wild Birds. I read In the Distance. I read This Radical Land, the parts about California. I read Chosen Country, about the Bundys and Malheur. I read There There. I missed these books. I missed reading books that you could finish.
The prospect of going on the book tour was very exciting from a distance, because as a concept it combines “business trip” with “artistic temperament” and everything decadent and slightly immoral that is supposed to go along with those things. I laugh to think about this now because like many things that seem sexy and glamorous from afar, the reality was somewhat different. The reality was me, and my anxiety and my rash, missing my family and feeling guilty for leaving them, and eating roadside muffins and carrying Karl Ove around in my bag. On the train from Philadelphia to New York I thought suddenly about a book I had read months earlier, Fire Sermon, which is a quiet bomb of a book about fidelity and infidelity and desire. I remembered it being about about the spot where desire and reality coincide, and this applies to sex and love, sure, but also to career and art and everything a person might secretly yearn for in the night, every road not taken, every experience of the thing you want and the thing you get being both the same thing and somehow, different things entirely. I thought about that novel with a kind of yearning. I wanted to cheat on Karl Ove. I also wondered if Karl Ove would have delivered me anything like this amount of angst if he weren’t so handsome in all his author photos, if he didn’t cavalierly smoke cigarettes and famously break hearts. (Probably not.)
All this was irrelevant, because September 24 loomed. With seven days to go until Knausgaard Night, I worked on Volume 6 in the subway during a day off on the tour. I went to the Metropolitan Museum. The subway was nice and cool and I had a seat and a pen and the air felt conductive. I didn’t itch, my brain was working: I was getting serious. And as so often happens in the procrastinator’s life, it felt like I was getting serious just late enough to do a less-good job—to have a sense of the job I might have done, and to mourn it. I paused to mourn; I scribbled notes on the nice woven endpapers. I had questions I was going to ask, about politics and national identity. I could feel a woman adjacent watching me. Shortly before we disembarked she asked me if I was a writer and I said, after some hesitation, “Yes.” She said she wished I could teach her to write and I said I wished so too, although there are many people more qualified. In the museum I looked at paintings and sarcophagi and papal frocks and I was so happy, and the bomb felt light in my bag.
The next day, I was standing in the rain outside a subway entrance and checked my phone before descending. There was an email: due to unforeseen events, Karl Ove Knausgaard was regretfully canceling his appearances. The bomb detonated with a fizzle. I had not even gotten to Hitler. The relief was tremendous, but after the adrenaline something else swept in, something bittersweet.
And then I could freely read other things, books on their way to publication: I read American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson, which is about what it says in the title but about so much more—about patriotism and disillusionment and black Americans in federal service and communist panic and American governmental and para-governmental fuckery regarding foreign governments. I read The Trojan War Museum by Ayşe Papatya Bucak, a collection of short stories that finds many terrible and miraculous moments—real and less-real, past and present, in America, in Turkey, in the Ottoman and other empires—and turns them into gorgeous, living, provocative stories and vignettes. I read The Round House, which is not new but which was new to me. I loved these books.
I took a break from Karl Ove, so I have still not gotten to Hitler.
Two months later the organizers of the Knausgaard program, who are lovely people (and who still paid me something for the canceled job), invited me to deliver a brief introduction to Jonathan Franzen as a consolation. This is another man who people are often mad at and whose work I love. This didn’t carry anything like the drama of the thwarted Knausgaard night, because I didn’t have to read anything new and the introduction was three minutes long. It also took place a few days after my father-in-law died, and this had put things into perspective.
Our friends and neighbors cared for my children like they were their own, picking them up and feeding them and putting them to bed while I got my hair blown out and taped up the hem of my formal jumpsuit and practiced saying my three-minute introduction into my phone. Jonathan Franzen was affable, and the writer Kathryn Chetkovich, who was there too, was kind (actually, I did read something to prepare—I read this remarkable essay by her). When I got home I took The Corrections off the shelf. Although the particulars are wildly different it still seemed like a suitable thing to read when you are mourning the passing of a white father from a particular generation in America. My father-in-law, a member of the Silent Generation, was another man with whom I carried on mostly imaginary conversations. Now that he is gone I don’t find myself using Facebook as much, because lately I had mostly used it for these conversations. I had used it to say: “I’m furious about the state of the world.” He had used it to say: “I’m proud of you.” My husband wasn’t home, because he was still with his family doing the much harder work of a grieving son. I kept the lights on in bed as long as I wanted, read a book I knew I could finish, and was briefly consoled.
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As a geologist, much of my work is spent reconstructing the earth’s history, poring over rock outcrops, well logs, and geophysical surveys to understand the evolution of given area through deep time. So while reading Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, my impulse was to map out the series on a timeline of Knausgaard’s life.
For each book, I charted the narrative through Knausgaard’s life, capturing the pages spent at each age and the jumps from one year to another. Seismic shifts, hidden structures, and critical moments reveal themselves, with Book One’s dizzying time jumps and life-spanning energy giving way to the focused romantic/domestic turbulence of Book Two. Knausgaard then settles in, with a more stable narrative proceeding through his childhood, teenage years, and 20s in books Three, Four, and Five. The effect of the series is clear on Knausgaard’s life, with the final volume revolving erratically around age 40 as he grapples with the fallout of the publication of One through Five.
Here, I present the reconstruction of the series book-by-book, with the previous book(s) showed as a gray background. I’ve also included select quotes from each book.
“Many writers are very bad communicators in life, but they are great writers. The writers I know are fucked, wrecked, destroyed: Not all of them are aware of it themselves,” Karl Ove Knausgaard says, over a mid-afternoon glass of water at an Auckland hotel. Not just Scandinavian writers? “No, there’s a lot of fucked up people all around the world.”
Despite the unrelenting detail of his 3,600 page “indiscreet” memoir My Struggle, Knausgaard has a rep for being less than forthcoming in conversation. The “existential loner hero with four children,” Zadie Smith said, has “many contradictions.” “I tried desperately to think of something to say. We had to have something in common,” Knausgaard recalled his awkward lunch at Jeffrey Eugenides’s home. “But no, I couldn’t come up with a single topic of conversation.”
Knausgaard is jaggedly handsome and sharply dressed, six feet, four inches tall and firm of handshake. Scandinavia’s leading literary figure of the last decade has things to say, seasoned with gesture and glance. He can be minimalist with his responses, though: Some questions and observations elicit “Yeah” or “Yeah. That’s true,” accompanied by a nod, a raised eyebrow, or─most tellingly—an affirming smile or laugh. Knausgaard is a fine exemplar of Scandinavia’s dry, deadpan humor. In My Struggle, he can be very funny. He writes about being a teenager doing a creative writing course, surreptitiously looking at Peter Paul Rubens and Eugène Delacroix nudes in a library art book. The comedy of trying to get laid for the first time, and dealing with premature ejaculation. And writing graffiti like “U2 stops rock.”
Knausgaard is attracted to New Zealand (and the Auckland Writers Festival) by the remoteness and the similarities with his native Norway. “The fjords look the same.” His frankness writing about everyday challenges through My Struggle’s six volumes and the Seasons Quartet─someone close to you being seriously depressed or an alcoholic─resonates with many readers worldwide. “The loving care she sought was bottomless,” he writes of his Swedish ex-wife’s depression in Spring.
Spring, and its lyrical descriptions of nature─“the smell of wet snow in winter,” “the beauty of the world means nothing if you stand alone it”─aims to inspire. “The great and terrifying beauty does not abandon us, it is there all the time,” Knausgaard concludes, “in the sun and the stars, in the bonfire and the darkness.” He is passionate when asked to elaborate about Spring’s message. “Life can be incredibly hard, life can be incredibly difficult, but it’s always worth living. That’s the book essence … Writing a novel is nothing other than making a place where it’s possible to say something simple and true. That message is such a true thing, it’s very banal too, you need a novel to say it so then it becomes true, you understand what it is.”
The 49-year-old father of four says Spring is especially for his youngest daughter, who was in utero when her mother attempted suicide. “It was such a fantastic, idyllic summer. The sun was shining everyday. The children were laughing and swimming. My then-wife was so depressed that she was in bed all the time, and drew all the energy in there. It was so hard to understand, how is this possible to be so disconnected from the world? To not see that happiness and joy, that it just does not mean anything. I have had friends and people I know been depressed and kill themselves. If you just stay there for three more weeks it would be OK. Your life would have been better.”
Knausgaard confides that he himself can still find life a profound struggle. “Life is so hard that you think, ‘what’s the use? Why should it be so fucking difficult, everything?’ I want my daughter to know that life is always worth living.”
Humor is one of the things that can make life worth living, the drummer and soccer enthusiast agrees. “Books Four and Five are especially funny to me, tragic but in a funny way. It’s a deadpan humor. I have friends who think Book Four is the most terrible thing they ever read because they identify so much with it they don’t see the humor. My editor always says to me: In life and in writing, take one step aside and everything looks differently. And humor is that step. When you are there, it’s not funny at all, but it is funny. And it was fun to write about.”
In Summer─among odes to “Barbecue,” “Dogs,” “Ice Cream,” “Bicycle,” and “Repetition”─he praises Monty Python. “A [teenage] revelation,” he adds. Further comedies enjoyed include Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Seinfeld. Like Seinfeld, My Struggle is about everything, though it has been said to be about nothing? “Yeah, that’s true. I’ve also thought that about Seinfeld, that there is a relation somehow,” Knausgaard smiles.
Though his English publishers describe My Struggle as autobiographical novels, the self-dubbed workaholic (“writing to escape myself”) says that they are “novelized autobiographies,” poetic truth. Literature should go for the hurt and fear and be ruthless, Knausgaard adds. “You’re not a real writer until you have enemies.”
My Struggle: Six, released in English translation during September, caused controversy in Scandinavia for its coverage of Adolf Hitler and Anders Breivik. Knausgaard—now in a relationship with his U.K. publisher Michal Shavit─counters that he dislikes Sweden’s journalistic and academic cultures. “It’s so monological. It’s very one-sided. I wrote an essay about it called “In the Land of the Cyclops.” There’s a monopoly of meanings. If you have an opinion outside of that it’s impossible. I’m being compared to Nazism and Breivik because of that. It’s very different than Norway. My English is not good enough to explain. You can see it now in the crisis about the Swedish [Nobel] Academy. That’s a very interesting thing that’s happening. It’s only one version [of events] that’s dominating. There are other possible versions, but they’re just not present.”
Knausgaard (recently in The Other Munch) is currently adapting his debut novel Out of This World for cinema, and greatly likes films such as Ruben Ostlund’s Force Majeure and The Square. He is intrigued by Lars Von Trier’s serial killer movie, The House That Jack Built. “One hundred people walking out [at Cannes debut]. I think he’s a genius, absolutely brilliant. I hope I will never meet him.” He double-checks a new Von Trier quote on his phone: “‘I’ve never killed anyone myself. If I do, it will have to be a journalist.’” That sly smile again. “I don’t think he means journalists like you.”
Photos: James Black
When my friend Amelia Morris and I decided to start a podcast about motherhood called Mom Rage, my first thought was, “We need to get Meaghan O’Connell on the show!”
O’Connell’s first book, And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready, recounts her accidental pregnancy at age 29, her harrowing birth story, and the angst and anxieties of early motherhood. She writes honestly and with humor about looking at her own body in the mirror soon after returning from the hospital, about her complicated feelings surrounding breastfeeding, and about the time she fled a library story time, unable to connect with the other moms. When she writes, “I couldn’t figure out whether motherhood was showing me how strong I was or how weak. And which one was preferable,” I nod with recognition, and I cheer when she writes, “What if everyone worried less about giving women a bad impression of motherhood?” Meaghan is a brilliant writer. I am so glad she became a mother so that she can convey on the page all the muck of parenting that seems—while it’s actually happening to me—impossible to convey.
As hosts of Mom Rage, Amelia and I start every show sharing our own struggles and frustrations as parents, and we investigate the unfair expectations and assumptions placed on mothers. We then interview a guest: authors, healthcare professionals, and regular parents just trying their best. Meaghan fulfills two of those three categories. We talk to her in episode 4.
After our podcast conversation, which focused on parenting and her expectations for her soon-to-be-born second child, I sent Meaghan some questions via email. These were about the craft of writing a book like hers; they were my way of asking, “How did this masterpiece come to be?” She was kind enough to shed some light on her process.
The Millions: You were penning regular columns on parenting for The Cut before your memoir came out. Were you writing the memoir alongside these essays? I’m curious how the shorter work informed the book, and how writing about parenting related to parenting itself. More to the point: How does writing help you process motherhood?
Meaghan O’Connell: I was. The book came out of the regular freelance writing I was doing and then became its own, separate thing. I would have loved to only write the book but couldn’t afford to do that. So it was a year or two or three of being completely immersed in this subject, for better or worse. At the beginning it was where my brain was anyway, so it was very convenient in a sense. Like being paid to think about what I was already thinking about in the first place.
Web writing became a sort of farm team for my brain. Some of it ended up being adapted into the book; some just led to deeper thinking; some was about getting things out of my system. It was also nice to publish little things along the way, proof of life, getting to feel like I was part of the conversation, etc.
I thought writing a book would be so much more overwhelming than writing a column, but I was surprised by how much safer it felt. Just spending the time on it, in what felt like a secret document. And then the year of editing that went into it! It is overall much less terrifying than writing 1,000 words in two to three days and then seeing it online with a comments section under it. That is a different kind of fun!
Writing helps me process everything. There is a sweet spot for me with essays where I know I have a lot of ideas about something, but they’re only 60-80 percent formed, and getting to that last 20 percent can happen in the writing. Or maybe it’s just 10 percent more and you leave the rest open because certainty is a lie. That’s what’s been funny about doing interviews. If I could easily talk about this stuff in a way that is neat or cogent, I would not have needed to write a book about it.
TM: What was your process for putting this memoir together? Was each chapter considered a discrete section, planned ahead of time as a separate essay, or was it all in your head as an overall arc?
MO: Well, I will start by saying I never thought of it as a memoir! It’s certainly autobiography, and I wouldn’t argue it’s not a memoir, but the m-word has really only come up now that the book is out.
In the writing (and selling) of the book, it was always “essays.” Granted, some chapters (technically the word “chapter” is not in the book either! But I keep falling back to it, so maybe that is a tell) are more essayistic than others, meaning there is more of an attempt to figure something out, with a central question or a central idea, and others are more story-ish.
So to answer your question, there wasn’t an arc. I thought of the book as a series of distinct essays around different ideas or experiences: pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, sex, gender roles, etc. The list was always changing, and it was never as neat as that. But still.
The structural challenge all along, though, was that the birth is a natural climax. But it couldn’t be at the end. I had a few talks with editors about putting it at the beginning. It wasn’t supposed to matter whether it was chronological. Part of me wanted everything out of order.
But then you write all these words, and I really wanted it to feel like a cohesive BOOK, not just a bunch of essays “packaged” as a book as a career move (you know the sort of book I mean). I wanted it to be its own world. I wanted it to be propulsive. Or I was afraid to want this and resisted it, feeling it beyond me, until I sent the first draft to my editor. I got the sort of feedback that you dread but more so because you know it’s true, that you have work to do, that it’s not quite there yet, etc.
The trick for this particular book was how to have each essay/chapter have a mini-resolution but not enough of one where the book loses momentum. It also took me a long time to figure out how to end it in a way that could carry all the emotional weight that came before but not be false or too tidy or undermining. I think at one point I literally Googled “suspense.” I was semi-resentful initially at having to even think about this stuff—what was I, a fiction writer?—but really, I was just in uncomfortable territory, doing something I didn’t know how to do yet.
Then one day on a walk it came to me as almost a revelation: I could structure the last chapter the same way I did the pregnancy chapter (“Holding Patterns”)—short, numbered sections written in the present tense. This form can feel like a cheat to me, and I think people use it when it isn’t justified, so I hesitated. But when I realized it would solve the bigger problem—of resolution and suspense and so on—I just went for it. It wasn’t as simple as cutting the last few paragraphs of every essay that came before and adding them to this last one, but in many cases that’s exactly what I did. And it still feels like a cheat, but I think it works enough to not matter. I don’t know how else I would have solved the structure of the book.
TM: What books on motherhood and parenting did you look to as you were writing yours? I certainly felt a spiritual connection to Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, which you quote in the epigraph: “Oh dear, they say. Poor baby. They do not mean me.” I’m curious what other books lit your path, and why they spoke to you.
MO: Well, once I started writing mine I actively avoided reading anything too similar, but I read them all already and had the books sort of ringing in my head, spurring me on.
I read all of Rachel Cusk’s other books, for instance. And Maggie Nelson’s. I remember reading a passage in The Red Parts that unlocked something for me—I’m looking through the book now and nothing jumps out, and I don’t even remember what I took away from it. What I remember and miss now, being out of that stage of the writing process, was the feeling of something being unlocked. It was always a little beyond language, just a sense of possibility, a door opening in my brain after I’d been hitting a wall. Despondency giving way to hope.
I read a lot of Sylvia Plath, which I guess is funny. Her journals, her poetry. Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, which is a genius book. Then a lot Anne Sexton poetry. I also read Knausgaard. Book 5 and then reread Book 2.
I mean if Sylvia Plath can write Ariel and if Knausgaard can write My Struggle…
As a person, I am self-conscious and shy and I second-guess myself, but as a writer I am trying to break out of that, to be unabashed and unapologetic (about being abashed and apologetic) in a way I wish I could be in life. I think I turned to writers who really know how to wield and twist the knife, to remind myself that in this realm, I can be that way, too.
TM: It feels like we’ve gotten some terrific mother-centric literature in the past few years. Moms are really enjoying some cultural relevance right now! Any hypotheses of why that is?
MO: I could answer this a dozen different ways and none would be the full picture. But from a publishing perspective—maybe the least interesting but most straightforward way to look at this? My theory is that there were a few breakout hits three to five years ago and we are currently in the next wave of that. Of bigger houses acquiring books that might have seemed like more of a risk before Graywolf published The Argonauts (2015) and On Immunity (2014), for instance. A book of personal essays by an unknown entity about something “ordinary” is a hard sell in publishing, but it’s maybe easier than it’s ever been? Again, look to 2014: Graywolf published the breakout Empathy Exams and Harper Perennial published Bad Feminist—in an interview for Scratch, Roxane Gay said her advance for that book was $15,000.
2014 was the year I had my son. So all of this was happening as I started writing my own book. Whether writing about this stuff was respectable, or intellectual, or ART, felt like less of a question than it had ever been. I imagine other writers had the same experience.
TM: Because this is The Millions, I must ask: What’s the last great book you read?
MO: Well, this being The Millions, I have a very relevant answer: Lydia Kiesling’s forthcoming novel, The Golden State. I love the voice and prose style so much, I could have stayed swimming in it forever. It’s the perfect mix of bleak and funny and angry and desperate and tender. Also motifs such as string cheese, cigarettes, small-town restaurants, road trips, work emails—I JUST LOVED IT.
For more about Mom Rage, be sure to access all the episodes here.