A Veteran Reflects on America’s Longest War

Erik Edstrom enrolled in West Point in 2004 with the goal to effect positive change in the world through a career in the military. Things didn’t go the way he hoped. His platoon suffered senseless casualties for a senseless, unending war, and in the years since he has examined the War on Terror’s “legal injustices, unforced errors, and gaffes.” Edstrom hopes his book Un-American “can be an antivenom to America’s fetish for war.” Part memoir, part treatise against blind patriotism and war for war’s sake, the book is a must-read for those who believe we should redirect our resources away from endless wars.

The Millions: How did you come to write about your time overseas?

Erik Edstrom: Un-American started not as a book but rather as a combat journal of sorts. In 2009, I began a one-year deployment to Kandahar, Afghanistan. I was 23 years old and leading a platoon of light infantrymen in the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban—a district affectionately known as the heart of darkness. My platoon and I spent a lot of our time playing human minesweeper—either with our tires, or worse, our boots. Roughly 25% of the platoon became casualties.

We lived outside the wire, beyond the relative comfort and security you’d get from being on a large military base, in dilapidated mud shacks. We slept in the dirt and in our vehicles and had little access to satellite phones that would allow us to connect with the world outside. And even when you were at the main base, there wasn’t enough time to speak to everyone you cared about, so I chose to write.

I punched out long emails—about 10 pages per week—and sent them to a thread of about 100 people. After 52 weeks, I realized I had inadvertently created a ream of really emotional, primary source content from the nexus of the “war on terror.” As more time passed, I felt like every life event conspired to tell me that I needed to keep writing. The military provided me, through the medium of the daily news, with a constant stream of atrocities, whipping me to persist.

TM: What broader point are you making in this book about your military experience?

EE: The War on Terror remains one of the greatest crimes of the 21st century, and it’s difficult to recall a time in our past when more was spent to accomplish less.

I want America to reflect on whether we believe in justice, and if so, ask the question: “when do we intend to hold military and political leaders accountable for crimes committed across the Greater Middle East?”  In America, justice is subordinate to the military. America’s relationship with its military is creating a slew of unwanted consequences. Patriotism has mutated into blind support for almost anything the military does. Blind support betrays the American soldier, exacerbates problems the military intended to resolve, devastates people we are allegedly trying to help, and threatens all organized human life on this planet, escalating nuclear tensions while simultaneously diverting assets and attention from far larger threats such as climate change.

Our leaders have deliberately chosen to shackle generations of Americans to trillions in war debt to fight low-value, morally dubious conflicts in dusty parts of the world. This should spark sufficient outrage. The message that America needs to take away is that investing in climate change is an investment in national security.

TM: Your book is part memoir, part policy. How did you balance the two?

EE: I was thinking about it as a ghost-of-Christmas-past structure. If it were possible to be visited by three different visions before supporting another bout of American political violence in some other country, what sort of questions would you ask yourself? First, imagine your own death in the specific war you’re being asked to support. If you’re not willing to die in that conflict, then don’t ask anyone else to. The second part stems from my getting a small taste of what war and conflict are like and imagining the other side. If the birth lottery had allowed you to grow up in Iraq or Afghanistan, how would you think about an occupation of your country by people who are aiming guns at you? Third, imagine the opportunity cost. If you’re an able-bodied 25-year-old combat soldier and you look at a map of the world, you’re physically capable of going anywhere. Then imagine what that map would look like with an overlay of disabilities from battlefield amputations.

TM: What role do you think the military should play in the world?

EE: The role of the military is to defend the borders of the national territory and supplement global intervention when it is agreed upon by a governing body. In nine years wearing military uniforms I only trained to fight offensive wars. My training had nothing to do with the defense of American soil. I didn’t prepare to defend Washington D.C., or a protectorate like Costa Rica, or even a US military base plopped down in a foreign country. I was trained to force people in foreign countries to orient themselves towards the will of the U.S. military. If these people chose to defend themselves from us, it was my job to fight and kill them.

Humanity’s greatest problems will not be solved by the military. The military is not a tool for development and I certainly wasn’t issued a “humanitarian aid rifle” that shoots apples and warm blankets to the needy. To build a better world, I believe that we need to grow our capacity for cooperation, not conflict. This involves the reorientation of our patriotic instincts. We must minimize, rather than expand the scope and importance of the military in society and the world.

Shaun Hamill Has a Scary Story to Tell You

Shaun Hamill’s debut novel, A Cosmology of Monsters, asks what makes a monster. “Is it based on body and appearance? Is it defined by actions, like those of a serial killer or a murderous despot? Or is it an aspect of all of us, our ugly, mean-spirited, spiteful side?” Hamill asked me, adding, “I think it’s all a matter of perspective…”

A Cosmology of Monsters follows the Turner family as they navigate illnesses and hardships. The heart of the family—and the novel—is young Noah Turner. Noah befriends a monster that appears outside his bedroom, and the two of them form a bond that transforms the Turners’ lives. Told with tenderness and brimming with darkness, Hamill’s debut is sure to please readers who have a special literary craving for monsters.

Hamill and I recently discussed the influence of other horror writers, haunted attractions, and, of course, monsters.

The Millions: One thing I admire so much about A Cosmology of Monsters is how it shows appreciation for the horror writers and works that came before it. Among others, your novel mentions Weird Tales, Shirley Jackson, and H. P. Lovecraft. Do you mind talking about your decision to include so many references to other horror writers and works?

Shaun Hamill: I like stories that are in active conversation with other stories, and I always enjoy finding recommendations inside books—when a piece of fiction mentions a book I haven’t read, an album I haven’t heard, or a film I haven’t seen, I feel like I’m being invited into a secret club. With Cosmology, I found a way to turn my own self-indulgence into a narrative asset. After all, this is a story about people who scare other people for a living. They needed to be familiar with their genre, and the characters’ awareness of the horror tradition allows them to grapple with the larger thematic questions of the book in a more direct way than if, say, they existed in a world without Shirley Jackson or H.P. Lovecraft.

TM: The Lovecraft references are especially strong.

SH: Although the narrative shape of Cosmology is sort of a John Irving/Stephen King mash-up, its worldbuilding and philosophy have more in common with Lovecraft. Lovecraft believed that humanity is small and insignificant in a large, uncaring cosmos. Much of his fiction hammers at this idea, with unknowable monsters standing as symbols for a godless universe. When I started reading Lovecraft in grad school, this philosophy seemed a perfect backdrop for a tragic family saga. What was interesting to me was taking that cosmic nihilism as a given, and then saying “Okay, now what? How do you live a life? How do you give it meaning?”

TM: A Cosmology of Monsters is very much a monster story. Did certain literary monsters from the past guide the way you crafted the monster in your novel?

SH: The closest literary relative is probably Eli, the child vampire from John Ajvide Linqvist’s Let the Right One In. I was also inspired by “The Window,” a story in Alvin Schwartz’s More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, in which a young woman sees lights outside her bedroom window that turn out to be the glowing eyes of a vampire. There’s definitely some of Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolf-Man in there, but I also want to mention a real-life monster: my dog, Sheplin, who laid behind my desk chair every morning, sighing loudly while I wrote (he didn’t get a walk until I was done). His body language and personality were a big influence on the monster’s early appearances.

TM: I want to talk some more about monsters. After I met the monster in A Cosmology of Monsters, I felt pity for it. It’s alone in the dark. The first word it makes out to Noah is “friend.” It can’t really write, and it has trouble playing with toys. It’s a pitiful creature really. Still, though, it is the monster—we know it and it knows it. As I kept reading, I couldn’t help but focus on this question that I’ll pose to you: what defines a monster?

SH: That’s the central question of the book, isn’t it? It’s a nebulous term, hard to pin down. After all, Dracula and Grover are both monsters, and while they both have abnormal physical characteristics, they’re completely different in demeanor and intent. So what does the term mean? Is it based on body and appearance? Is it defined by actions, like those of a serial killer or a murderous despot? Or is it an aspect of all of us, our ugly, mean-spirited, spiteful side? I think it’s all a matter of perspective, and it’s something the book’s characters are struggling with. That’s probably less of a straight answer than you wanted, but it’s as close as I can come.

TM: Here is one of Noah’s descriptions of the monster: “My friend stood and stepped back. It extended the talons of its right paw. It felt more like the hand of an adult human than like that of some unspeakable horror, and, as the creature pulled me into its embrace, I felt warmth and sturdiness.” What is it about the monster in A Cosmology of Monsters that makes it be so comforting to Noah?

SH: Noah has a cold home life. Neither of his parents are around to provide physical affection. His sister Eunice does her best to take care of him, but even her attention is diverted early in the story. The monster is big and warm and gentle like you want your parents to be, and it’s a constant presence for Noah—something he can always count on. There’s more to it, of course, but to say more would spoil some important aspects of the book.

TM: Do you think of Noah as being a monster?

SH: He’s worried that he is, but I want readers to make up their own mind.

TM: Noah is an interesting character. He has a tough life. His dad dies when Noah is very young. His family members have mental-health issues. And, well, his best friend is a monster. I’m curious how he came to you and what inspired him.

SH: Noah’s voice has been with me for a long time. I first heard him when I was on a road trip in my early 20s, and had one of those “lightning bolt of inspiration” moments: a novel about a fatherless boy in a house full of women, coming of age working at the family business. The nature of the business changed, and monsters invited themselves in, but all the family characters and mental illness stuff were there from the beginning. As far as the source material for that inspiration, I grew up in a house of women and have spent a lot of my life dealing with the effects of poverty and mental illness. Like many freshman novelists, I built my story from what my wife likes to call “all my carry-on.”

TM: A Cosmology of Monsters is a horror novel for sure with violence and terror, but it’s not only a horror novel. It’s also a rich love story. The novel begins with love. The Turner family stays together because of love. It ends with love. The book is often tender and sweet. What do you think the addition of the love stories adds to the novel?

SH: There are a few ways the love stories add to the novel. First, love is an aspect of monstrousness, potentially a cause and a cure (sometimes simultaneously). Second, this book torments its characters, so it was important that I and my reader become invested enough to endure that torment alongside them. Third, love was the secret sauce that turned Cosmology from a rambling, overlong, confused epic (my first draft was 220,000 words) into a more focused, propulsive narrative. Whenever I felt the story getting too big, or heading in a cliched or overdramatic direction, looking to love (both mine for the characters and theirs for one another) almost always gave me a more interesting scene or surprising moment. It made the book smaller, but better.

TM: I don’t want to make the book seem light because it’s definitely not. In fact, so much of the novel is about how we, no matter how hard we try, can’t truly protect other people no matter how hard we try. It’s a bleak outlook—maybe, but I think it’s true.

SH: Agreed. Life is a slow motion train wreck. Disasters will beset you and everyone you care about and you are powerless to stop it. It goes back to that Lovecraftian nihilism I mentioned earlier—we are cosmically insignificant in an unplanned, indifferent universe. That’s another reason love is so important to Cosmology. If life has no inherent meaning, there’s something romantic about living a good life and caring for the people around you. 

TM: The Wandering Dark, the haunted house the Turner family operates, plays a huge role in A Cosmology of Monsters. I can’t let you go without asking about real-life haunted attractions. Do you have a favorite?

SH: When I still lived in Texas, I used to make pilgrimages to a few local haunts in Dallas-Fort Worth with friends, but I haven’t been to one in years. I am terrified of going alone. My favorite was called Zombie Manor, in my hometown of Arlington, Texas, (they’ve since moved to New Brunswick in Canada). I never went there as a customer but visited after hours for a screening of a short film I’d worked on. The staff told us we could walk through the empty attraction and explore, but they didn’t tell us that there was a single cast member hiding in the shadows. When a piece of scenery in a dark corridor reached out and grabbed my arm, it gave me the fright of my life and started my mind down the road toward the Wandering Dark.

What Is the Value of Being Haunted? The Millions Interviews Randon Billings Noble

Randon Billings Noble values form as much as content. Her new book of essays, Be with Me Always, is a collection about heartbreak and memory, and, in her words “hauntedness.” Consider an essay called “Vertebrae,” which is shaped like a spine, and another, “The Heart Is a Torn Muscle,” written as a cardiologist’s report. Noble does wonderful things with form; she is a beautiful writer, fully in control of her craft. Her essays cover a wide range of subjects—a near death experience, a relationship read through the catastrophic romance of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Stonewall Jackson’s amputated arm, pregnancy, reunions, and silences. Her words are lyrical and, yes, haunting. Among the many pleasures of this collection is Noble’s take on situations that look ordinary to an outsider, but, for the individual experiencing them, are life changing. Noble is not scaling Mount Everest or courting self-destruction; she’s living a life that is as recognizable as it is engaging. And that, perhaps, is the book’s greatest allure: an intimacy that is both welcoming and enveloping.

I had the good fortune to catch up with Noble by email to talk about her process, the impact of form on her writing, her influences, and more.

The Millions: Readers are always interested in process. As we get to know you, can you talk about your writing trajectory?

Randon Billings Noble: I’d always been interested in essays and found myself looking for subversive ways to liven up college research papers. But I didn’t really know that essays could be their own thing until graduate school, and not through the classes I was taking, but the classes I was teaching while getting my MFA at NYU.

NYU taught expository writing (aka freshman comp) in a way that valued personal experience as a form of evidence. You could do research at the library, or interview subjects, or crunch numbers, but you could also use something that happened to you as a child, or an odd experience you had on the subway, or a conversation you had with your best friend to support and explore your thinking. Finally! A name for that thing I’d been doing my whole writing life; I was an essayist.

TM: Many writers have a difficult path to publication. Can you talk about yours?

RBN: With individual essays, getting published was fairly smooth. So I wasn’t prepared for the challenges of publishing a book, which was more like playing “Chutes and Ladders.” My third published essay was in the Modern Love column of The New York Times. A fancy New York agent wined and dined me so I could be her literary passion project. Over lunch at Nobu, we had what I thought was a very frank conversation about who I was (an essayist) and what I wrote (essays). I was over the moon when she signed me! I felt propelled up that one big ladder that launches you. But then came the revision requests. She didn’t want an essay collection; she wanted a memoir. I tried to rearrange the essays more chronologically—but ultimately I couldn’t —wouldn’t—tear out the structures of my individual essays to make a full-length memoir. So my agent and I broke up. Then I was down the long chute that dumps you back to the start of the game.

At the time I was heartbroken. But it turned out to be a very, very good thing. I kept writing essays. I grew as a writer. I reshaped my collection. All the shorter chutes and ladders, the successes and rejections, made Be with Me Always a better book. I submitted it to independent and university presses and was thrilled when the University of Nebraska Press accepted it.

TM: The essay is an art form, and you’re very interested in form. What kind of impact does form have on your book?

RBN: I love traditional essays—if there is such a thing—essays that use narrative, that bring the reader along a consistent if sometimes meandering train of thought. I started writing in different forms without realizing this was a practice. My essay “Ambush,” published under the title “War Weary from a Dangerous Liaison” in Modern Love, started out as a segmented essay. It’s about letting the love of my young life go by telling him that I had married someone else, which felt like an ambush. Each short segment was introduced by a quote from the Army Ranger’s handbook with information about how to construct an ambush—or a counter-ambush. Late in the drafting process I took all the quotes out and the sections fell together perfectly. I didn’t need the trellis or scaffolding anymore.

Later, after my twins were born and my time became extremely limited, I started writing in shorter forms. Then I started to play more intentionally with lyric essays—essays that rely on intuition more than exposition and borrow more from the traditions of poetry than fiction. I love the way constraint paradoxically confers freedom. Robert Frost, lover of metrical poetry, said: Writing without meter is like playing tennis without a net.

TM: To follow up on that, some of your work borders on poetry.

RBN: I don’t consider myself a poet…but that doesn’t mean I don’t strive to be poetic. Lyric essays often borrow more from poetic traditions—image, metaphor, rhythm, but especially form—than from fiction traditions, like scene, dialogue, etc. Traditional essays can use these techniques as well. And why shouldn’t they?

TM: That’s a great point. What would you say is the thread through your collection? You call it hauntedness; memory seems to be a through-line as well.

RBN: Memory is certainly a through-line, but that could be said for nearly all creative nonfiction. As I wrote, I became more interested in the memories you don’t necessarily want to invoke—memories that have a will of their own, that follow you, that haunt you. I started to ask: What is the value of being haunted? Many of the essays in this collection try to answer that.

TM: How did you decide to organize your collection?

RBN: I knew I wanted to begin with “The Split” [about near death experience] and end with “Devotional” [also separately published in a gorgeous edition by Red Bird Chapbooks]. I knew my essays are written in a wide range of forms and didn’t want the reader to be shocked to come across, say, “Vertebrae” (in the shape of a spine) after half a book of more traditional essays. So I made sure that some of the weirder forms happened early.

I printed out a title page for each essay that had its first and last line on it. And then I spread them all out on my dining room table and moved them around, thinking about form, thinking about content, and thinking about how the last line of one essay might resonate with the first line of the next. The essays grouped themselves into different sections—“Whatever Bed,” “Biologies,” “The Red Thread,” etc.

TM: From the references in the collection, it seems clear you read in many genres. What, if any writers, have influenced your work?

RBN: Anna Karenina is one of my favorite books. I reread it every few years and identify with a different character, a different set of circumstances, a different life stage each time. I’m sure it’s influenced my writing, although I haven’t written directly about it (yet).

Years ago, I went through a Proust phase ushered in by one of my teachers, André Aciman—long sentences, rich nostalgias. I think my writing has gotten a little shorter—and a little sharper—since then, but that desire for slowing down, for reminiscing, for expansiveness remains.

Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That” was a vector for my own essays. I read it in graduate school 20 years ago, when I still believed you could stay at the fair for as long as you wanted.

And Cheryl Strayed’s “The Love of My Life” was another vector. It showed me how you could write with rawness and honesty without being apologetic or self-deprecating or diminishing.

TM: What essayists do you admire today?

RBN: Lacy M. Johnson. The Reckonings knocks me out with its sharp intelligence.

Kiese Lamon. How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America grabs me from its very first sentence and holds me in thrall to his voice and rhythm and story.

Eva Saulitis. Leaving Resurrection strikes me as a near-perfect collection. The essays range widely in subject (from playing oboe to dissecting a dead killer whale on a beach) but the way her mind works, the way she combines the thinking of a scientist with the beauty of a poet, makes me strive to be as observant and as descriptive in my own work.

Claudia Rankine. If you haven’t read Citizen yet, get your hands on it today.

Elissa Washuta. The essays in My Body Is a Book of Rules tumble thorough a variety of forms to explore sex, race, identity, doubt, and self-knowledge.

Rebecca Solnit. After reading The Faraway Nearby, I wanted to structure my writing life to have room to think thoughts like hers.

TM: What great reading suggestions! It’s hard to talk to any writer today without asking how their art form fits into this current political moment.

RBN: Essays are more important than ever! By “essays” I don’t mean anecdotes or hottakes (although those are important too). I mean writing that slows down, deliberates, ruminates, and examines its own beliefs even as it states them. Writing that shares experiences of people from different backgrounds. Writing that explores the myriad ways we have of being human. Essays subvert a common narrative that those in power try to impose on all of us. Essays think and wonder and probe and argue and speculate and reveal. We need more deliberate thinking about how we choose to live.

TM: So true! Do you feel a feminist angle in your work, and if so, what?

RBN: Someone at a conference once told me that the only way I’d get an essay collection published was if I wrote fun feminist essays. I thought, what if I write rather un-fun, obliquely feminist essays? Which is what I wound up doing.

TM: What are you hearing from your readers?

RBN: I just got an 18-page letter from a writer I admire that was about Be with Me Always and the way some of its essays led her to think differently about her own work. Wow. I can’t wait to write back—I love a literary correspondence! Others have told me at readings that my stories about longing—especially “The Heart as a Torn Muscle”—have helped them through their own heartbreaks.

These comments are enormously heartening. Writing can be a lonely process. So many times you send work out into the world and hear nothing back. I’m so grateful when my work reaches people, touches them, and in some cases makes them think about their lives in a new way.

TM: What’s next for you? Do you have another book in the works and can you tell us about it?

RBN: Yes! I’m working on two books. The first is an anthology of lyric essays to be published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2021. The second is my next collection, which is about women, shame, and desire. An essay in Be with Me Always got me thinking about it—“69 Inches of Thread, Scarlet and Otherwise. ” There’s so much more to be said…

Little Islands of Faith: The Millions Interviews Tupelo Hassman

Early in gods with a little g, the story’s teenage narrator, Helen Dedleder, describes a night with her friends: “And on one of those early evenings as the light in Rosary was fading, back in the early days when the glow from those first beers still warmed us all the way home, we were christened.” The syntax and sound of the sentence represents one of Tupelo Hassman’s gifts in this novel: her ability to capture the beautiful fragility of those teen years.

That fragility is created from
the novel’s tender route between grief and faith. Helen lives each day with the
memory of her mom’s death—and what that has done to her dad: “he fell right
apart, and I’ve been collecting the pieces of him since.” He begins to date a
woman named Iris, who “is the type of person who ends statements with question
marks. She is the type of person who will use the word love in sentence after sentence until it is empty as a deflated
balloon on a dance floor.” Yet Helen loves her dad—which makes her skepticism
of Iris complicated. Love complicates everything in gods with a little g, Hassman’s second novel. Her first book, Girlchild, received the American Library
Association’s Alex Award. She has written for The Boston Globe, Harper’s Bazaar, ZYZZYVA, and elsewhere. The
first American to win London’s Literary Death Match, she earned her MFA at
Columbia University.

Hassman and I spoke about faith, doubt, and the other ways that we fill the chasms in our lives.

The Millions: I love the way Helen Dedleder, the book’s first-person narrator,
tells her story, and the stories of those around her. Early in the book, she
describes hanging out with her friends at Fast Eddie’s Tire Salvage: “Like
we’re stuck, here with each other. The best and worst of everyone we know,
doing what we must but shouldn’t, becoming who we are and always will be.
Without thinking, maybe.” How did you find her voice?

Tupelo Hassman: Helen is the kind of girl I am still not cool enough to be friends
with, she’s confident and tough and doesn’t fumble (until she does) and if I
get to live in someone else’s head, I’m checking into hers. The moments of
boldness Helen has, when taking dares, when reading dirty books aloud, that’s
when I knew I’d found my girl. Because of what she’s lost, in her mother’s
death, she worries a little less than some might about how she presents herself
and about getting hurt. Having nothing to lose is a magical thing.

TM: gods with a little g is suffused with belief and unbelief. Rosary, California, is full of “Thumpers”—nearly-fundamentalist Christians who regulate everything from tattoos to the Internet (which is not allowed). Helen’s relationship with God is beautifully strained; at Vacation Bible Camp, she would make paper flowers from pages from the Song of Solomon: “Bible pages tear quietly and easily and fold perfectly.” That feels a lot like a metaphor—in fact, listening to Helen made me think of the novelist R.O. Kwon, who fictionalized some of her own emotions and experiences in leaving religion within her novel The Incendiaries. Kwon said writing the book helped her realize “there is no resolving” faith and lost faith. She laments: “I loved God. I loved believing.” It’s a beautiful sense that I think is reflected in Helen’s life. All of this is to say: could you talk about Helen’s idea of God? Of faith? Of existence and meaning?

TH: Helen
is a believer, in an unwilling way. She’s too smart to ignore an organic
instinct for connection to something greater than herself but she’s pretty
pissed at that something at the same time. And she’s too smart to ignore the
hypocrisy around her in the performative connection to faith enacted by the
Thumpers. This leaves her in a no-man’s land, really, water everywhere. But she
has her Aunt Bev’s insistence that there is more to life than meets the eye,
and Helen has her mother’s example. Helen’s mother was a person whose way of
being proved her faith and proved to Helen that faith is worth having. Helen
hasn’t quite gotten to figuring out existence and meaning yet, but she is
beginning to think about responsibility, about serving, and she may find her
answer to those questions, if she doesn’t burn it all down first.

TM: You
have a way to make your readers feel—absolutely, intensely—the emotions of your
characters, especially Helen. The grief she has for her dead mother is
palpable. There’s a great moment when Helen thinks of how her mother would tuck
her in at night: “I’d open my eyes then and watch her go, watching until she
turned off the hall light. Just as she flipped the switch, I’d close my eyes
tight, so the light would burn her shape into the darkness, a blazing pure
white against the black of my eyelids and the night, more real than any
electricity.” Her mother’s favorite Bible verse was Matthew 28:20: “And, lo, I
am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” Her mother is always with
Helen, especially giving her daughter a sense of wonder; Helen even imagines the
shape of a human body forming “in the dirt and weeds of Rosary’s empty lot.”
How do you envision their relationship—and what role does faith (in all its
varieties) play in that relationship?

TH: Losing a mom. That’s a god-shaped hole. Helen’s mom, Evie, was one of those parents able to do the delicate work of instructing her child without damaging her autonomy. Maybe Evie was able to do this because she knew she wouldn’t be there to see the first years of her work done and maybe she was able to take a gentler hand because her parents had driven away her sister, Helen’s Aunt Bev. Of course, when a parent dies early, we have the silver-lined luxury of imagining perfect parenting that would have spanned a lifetime. But what is the relationship between Helen and her mom now? You know those kids who eat paint and dirt because they have a mineral deficiency? It’s brilliant and terrifying how we will try to fill unmet needs without even recognizing sometimes that anything is missing in the first place. The relationship now, for Helen, is a vacuum of need and her work is to figure out what will sustain her. In that process, she’s going to eat some dirt.

TM: Rosary
feels like a place outside of time. I read gods
with a little g in two days, during a heat wave, and it felt like I was
incubating within the book, within this strangely surreal town. One of the many
setting points that really resonates are the telephone poles: “The telephone
poles around Rosary are white with flyers.” Helen adds to the collection, but
the street sweepers take down flyers on poles: “Rosary’s desires are washed
away. In the mornings after, all that’s left are the naked staples running the
length of every pole like the bark of a petrified forest.” It’s a great, sad
image. Rosary feels like a beautifully melancholic place. Did it feel that way
to you during the writing of this book? How do you spatially, geographically
imagine the town (is it inspired by a place? an amalgam of places)?

TH: Rosary’s skyline is inspired by Vallejo, Califf, just north of Berkeley, where there is a…beautiful, maybe, oil refinery right on the edge of the water. You crest a hill and there it is, sometimes in fog. It is out of place, if there even is a place for such a thing, and monstrous, and it has taken my breath away (not an air quality joke) my entire life. The economic disparity in the Bay Area is increasingly segregating and I’m struck by the other kinds of segregation that come with that, purposefully or not, especially for young people whose freedoms are still limited by their age. Just across the bay from that factory and what surrounds it is San Francisco and all of its complicated freedoms. How can a kid cross that water? And what happens to them if they don’t?

I wrote most of gods with a little g after moving to Charleston, S.C. This is my first time living in the suburbs and I was, and still am, unprepared for the pristine desolation of this kind of a lifestyle. People come out to mow but otherwise, the streets are empty. After living in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and New York, this feels like another country, so well kept, and harder to escape.

TM: The
scenes between Helen and Bird—her step-brother and romantic crush—are so
awkward and believable. “When the food is ready we hold hands,” Helen narrates.
“And when Bird’s hand touches mine for those seconds over the table, his middle
finger circles around and around in my palm.” What attracts—compels—Helen to
Bird?

TH: The heart, and various other parts of the body, want what the heart and all those parts want. Bird is shiny. He’s impossible. Bird has that kind of charisma that has to be mastered or it will get him into trouble his entire life. He needs a handler, really. To top it all off, he’s found out that he’s very good at something, sex, and can’t find any reason to stop doing this thing at which he apparently excels. Or, in other words, he’s a teenager. Helen is extremely disappointed in her attraction to Bird and this disappointment makes it harder for her to stop focusing on him. She sees herself as an original thinker, making her own decisions, and here she is, like everyone else, unable to resist being awed by Bird’s parade of sex-appeal. People in recovery have this saying about going to bars, in light of the temptation they hold to fall off the wagon: hang out at the barbershop long enough and you’re going to get a haircut. Even if Helen could’ve kept sidestepping her attraction to Bird, once they start spending even more time together because their parents are dating, well. Shave and a haircut, two bits.   

TM: Catholicism haunts this book. It is like a shadow; something a bit more incantational and mysterious than the rote beliefs of the Thumpers. Rosary was founded as a Catholic town, and a few streets still hold the names of saints. There’s a scene when Bird is at a church service, sitting “in the dusty light coming through the windows and the stained glass colors his face, blushes his cheeks…And he’s beatified, like the Bible promises it will do. If we were allowed saints here, if the Catholics weren’t cursed, I would call this a sighting.” The word and concept of Rosary, of course, are central to the faith practice of many Catholics. Why did you decide to name the town Rosary? What does the word mean to you—literally, as a concept?

TH: I
love those outward symbols of faith. A person with a rosary in her hand, like
someone reading a book, is doing this thing right before our eyes: she is
believing in a world unseen. Whatever the religion, when I attend a service, I
am so moved by what in a theater is called the suspension of disbelief, and in
a place of worship, what is it? The…comprehension of belief? belief’s
un-suspension? Those moments when we remember that this need to connect with
something greater than ourselves is as real as anything else, as real as this
conversation, anyway, there is something essential there, going back, I guess,
to that god-shaped hole. To my mind, Catholicism has many of the prettiest and
most satisfying ways of evidencing faith. Because we want to touch it, don’t
we? We just want to hold this thing in our hands that we feel inside of us so
heavily but cannot manifest. Rosaries meet that need for physical connection to
what is immaterial. It makes sense to me. There are so many gaps in life,
chasms, and we fill them with faith and conceit and whatever else we can find,
rocks, to make it across. For me, I see these chasms everywhere, it’s like
there’s an insurance agent in my head with a fist full of actuarial tables,
running risk assessments for every instance: is the helmet on tight enough? how
many days until the paycheck? how far away are those sirens? here are the 100
ways to give your family salmonella. Each bead on a rosary is a way of managing
those questions and chasms, little islands of faith.

TM: gods with a little g so authentically captures the wild years of high school (and I say this about to start my 16th year as a public-school teacher). Can you talk about those years? Are they particularly ripe for great stories?

TH: Holy moly, Nick. You know a lot about teenagers. If we had a time machine and I was a student in your class, I would be…invisible. I dropped out two weeks into 10th grade and my teenage years were…a mess? a disaster? dangerous…a thesaurus entry for “unseemly adventure.” And, frankly, it is a wonder that I am here. But I had two friends, also living on edges, and though we led each other to the danger sometimes, we ultimately saved each other too, over and over again. That’s the only story there is, maybe. Those friendships we form in our teenage years can and do save our lives. And then we forget. Adult amnesia about the wherewithal of teens is a phenomenon to me. We all made stupid choices in our teens, but we also were quite more capable then most teenagers are given credit for being. How does this amnesia happen? I am guilty of slipping into this too, it’s like being slowly roofied, how as we age we succumb to this idea that teenagers aren’t the actual shit. Some child sociologists note that keeping teenagers in the category of children serves to preserve power for the older generations. Jeff Chang (We Gon’ Be Alright) talks about young people as our primary change agents. Teenage years are ripe for great stories because we make big choices then, with the power of immortality behind them. And this ability seems to escape us as we grow older and then we are suspicious of it, or jealous. We go from ride or die to bide our time in a hot second and then spend all of this old-people energy trying to stop the powerful, young, fire-bellied creatures from doing their actual jobs of fucking up and saving the world while they’re at it. I wanted to write about those kids, the ones we need now more than ever, the ones we once were.

Shane Jones’s Latest Book Takes on the World of Work

Shane Jones’s new novel Vincent and Alice and Alice is about divorce, America, desire, decline, time, money, and work—work, work, work.

Vincent is a Divorced Guy. Former artist, now a state employee. A shady employee-enhancement consulting firm called PER selects him as a test subject for its new program, which will increase his productivity. The program makes workers more productive by allowing them to mentally live their ideal life, while in reality they work quietly without speaking. In Vincent’s case, his ideal life involves him hallucinating that his ex-wife has returned home. A happy Vincent is a productive Vincent. And the PER program requires him to isolate himself from the real world as he becomes further entrenched in the false world where he has what he wants. A happy, isolated Vincent is very productive. It all feels real and he knows it’s not. Meanwhile, it’s 2017 in America and the world is getting worse forever.

Jones’s writing has been called “nearly edible,” and to that I’d add that it’s not just edible, but also tastes good. He’s a stylist driven to explore the questions style can’t answer, the problems before which language is useless.

The Millions: When Vincent tries to impress his ex-wife by teaching painting to a class of refugees, they curse him out. They say, “Big bullshit.” They say art “does nothing.” Do you think that’s right? And if you do, is the “bullshit” of art the whole point? Part of the corporate nightmare here is that everything has to “do” something; useless art seems like a way of pushing back.

Shane Jones: I think the refugees in that situation are right. It’s one of my favorite moments of the book—here’s this aloof white guy thinking he can use his art as a way to help people he knows nothing about. I wanted to expose Vincent here. It’s a subversive moment. And, yes, the bullshit of art can absolutely be the point and have tremendous power. I adore Richard Prince’s cowboy paintings, a project that relies on a certain ironic, black-humor appropriation that is also so pretty. I’m the audience for this. But I’m not sure Richard Prince’s art can help the toddler being pulled away from his parents at the border.

TM: I read parts of this book as an indictment of conventional success. So I was wondering what success looks like for you, as a literary novelist with an independent press?

SJ: Yikes.

TM: Were Elderly’s scenes the most fun to write?

SJ: The most fun and the saddest. He’s based off a guy who lived in my old neighborhood who owned multiple houses but decided to live in his old car instead. He maintained only the outside of the homes and his wife lived in one of them. After he died I saw her drive down the street in a brand new BMW.

TM: PER encourages employees to embrace the mundane and routine. Are you inspired by the mundane?

SJ: Unless you’re totally off the grid, you’re in some kind of system—work, marriage, home ownership—and those systems thrive off the mundane routine. PER takes it a step further and is a satire on modern work, but I’ve certainly felt the mundane and routine kind of putting me into a daze, driving home from work and just totally zoned out. But what if that feeling could be deepened and you could access something else? Maybe the routine and mundane and the boredom is a traveled purgatory leading us to what we want to feel and see. Dorian Blood and his power of PER is a godlike character for a reason: because God is a system too—the routine of prayer leading us toward grace. This is all satire in the book that hopefully readers will pick up on.

TM: The book centers on fantasy and desire, the way people delude themselves. What’s the role of fantasy in an office? In a marriage?

SJ: A major theme in the book is not being able to live in the present moment, in reality. Vincent is always looking to either the past or future, and also fantasy. He chooses reality in the end, but it’s also a future reality (his retirement) and still a version of Alice he thinks he can win back. So it’s not actually real. He’s still delusional. As far as the role of fantasy in an office, it’s a fantasy built on job titles and appearance, making it hard to know where the mask ends and the person begins. In a marriage? That’s all in the book.

TM: The only “community” Vincent belongs to is his coworkers, a group defined by perfunctory kindness (birthday cupcakes) and outbursts of hatred (ranging from petty feuds to vitriolic racism)—it’s a pretty dour view of society. Do you think these social extremes are American or just human?

SJ: For the concept to be believable at all Vincent had to have hardly any connections besides Alice. He had to be isolated, no family, parents dead, no social groups. Elderly is a friend, but he’s labeled as “off the grid,” absolutely not a character that could ground him, rationalize things. I’m not sure it’s so dour because it’s also funny. It’s successful in its pettiness. I think the social extremes are American. I think we’re a country who acts meanly but talks compassionately.

TM: Vincent’s childhood home now belongs to a family obsessed with Family Guy; his old bedroom is filled with Family Guy memorabilia. Contemplating a dying dog, a vet asks Vincent about an episode of Seinfeld. Those shows come from a place of giddy nihilism. It seemed to me that in the novel, those shows are invoked by other characters to erase the potential poignancy from important moments in Vincent’s life. Do you see that as the role of most entertainment? To numb us out? Do novels do this, too?

SJ: The role of entertainment was on my mind a lot during this book. The shows you mentioned I loved 15 years ago but now I can’t watch them for the reasons you just mentioned. Your question is complicated because I do believe most entertainment is passive entertainment, you kind of just sit there and don’t really engage in the show and you can view hours and hours of a show and enjoy it but also feel like shit after watching it. Novels, or a lot of novels, force you to really work with the text, so it doesn’t numb you out at all, but pushes you, engages you. But now a lot of novels are more like TV shows with pretty covers you can put online. One of my goals with Vincent and Alice and Alice was to write an entertaining mainstream novel that also pushes people, feels a little weird and imaginative.

TM: Are there any common goals (or obsessions or attitudes) connecting Vincent and Alice and Alice to your other novels?

SJ: It’s the opposite—I wanted to disconnect. Vincent and Alice and Alice is modern, first person, with lots of plot and character. Something that, to me, feels like a mainstream contemporary novel. The reality/fantasy thing is still happening, trying to mend those together, but VAAAA is very different than the others, which relied heavily on fantasy and whimsy and images. I wanted to change my style and approach drastically, to the point of collapse and failure.

TM: Was Vincent and Alice and Alice always the book’s title?

SJ: Hold on, let me find my list…I had a bunch. What Year Alice was one of them for a long time. Also: Pond of Glass was a holder for a few weeks. Black Hole Vincent. Summer of Ghosts. The Collapse of Alice. Lots of bad stuff. Then, at the end, I wanted the most traditional mainstream love story title I could think of: Vincent and Alice. But a friend of mine made an excellent suggestion noting the second Alice and added Alice at the end. Vincent and Alice and Alice. I fell in love. My Dad thought it was about a threesome.

TM: Given Vincent and Alice and Alice’s preoccupation with resurrecting the past, is there any dead writer you love that you’d like to bring back to life?

SJ: Would be fun to bring back Kafka and take him to the mall.

TM: What’s next?

SJ: Yikes.

Magic in the Mundane: The Millions Interviews Kimberly King Parsons

In Kimberly King Parsons’s debut story collection, Black Light, we see the wide world of Texas, and of her character lives, drawn for us in fine and lovely lines. Their bodies and surroundings, their desires and anxieties are fully rendered, inside and out, in every story. These characters watch and want each other; they touch each other, or try to; they get so close they’re in (inside, in love, in trouble), or close as. And they want to tell you about it. They want to turn their lives over and have a look underneath. They want to see it all as best they can.

Parsons’s gifts all of them with language: beautiful, strange turns of phrase; surprising syntax; real and regional jewels scattered across every page. Everything is so specific. They are defiant, and dirty, this lot, lovers and leavers, and they are telling you the truth. In turns both wise and funny, Black Light takes your breath regularly with its elegant observations. “I don’t know if there’s a word for the ache of missing something when you still have it. I’d kiss her and taste my doom,” the narrator in the title story ruminates. And you can’t but empathize. You can’t but feel you’ve felt something near to that same truth, yourself. Or wanted to.

Not too long ago, Parsons and I had a good, long talk about bodies, secrets, the patriarchy, escaping it, revision, Amy Hempel, and more.

The Millions: The narrators in your short story collection, Black Light, all have a confessional urgency to their tone and telling, there seems to be something that they really need you to know. How do you treat storytelling as theme?

Kimberly King Parsons: There’s a reason that someone is telling you what’s happening, right? I like when you said confessional tone. We’re meeting them at these moments that are critical moments in these characters’ lives. And so they do seem to be very urgently telling something. And not only telling, but trying to make sense and process whatever it is that’s happening to them, even if they aren’t 100 percent self-aware of what’s happening to them. So, in the case of those kids in “The Soft No,” they think that the game is the story, and the narrator is like, “Let me tell you about this game that we play, and here’s how we play it. And this was a really good one, and here’s how it ended.” But the real story is just these kids trying to make sense of this really chaotic home life and uncertainty.

I think that these are the stories that the characters are telling themselves to get through this life, right? “How can I provide some kind of structure or escape from this thing that’s actually a problem for me?” In “Foxes,” this kid wants to tell these stories to her mom, because she is trying to deal with this father that’s gone. How do you deal with that feeling of rejection that every kid must feel when a parent leaves the picture? And deal with the resentment that the daughter has toward the mom, who is left, who is the caretaker. None of these things were [the kid’s] decision.

TM: Bodies are a constant meditation in the stories. Characters are obsessed with their weight, or the weight of others. There’s self-starvation, there’s fat-fetishism, fat-shaming and teasing, and it happens over and over. Both children and adults do it. The too-thin are weak and bad, and the too-fat are, too. The only perfect bodies are observed by the narrators, who are blinded by want when they encounter a sort of physical perfection in another character. How are bodies, and their shapes and flaws, treated through these stories, or by you?

KKP: That’s a beautifully constructed question, thank you. I, as a human being, do not feel particularly embodied in my life. I feel much more like a brain in a jar or something, and I don’t often feel physically connected like unless I’m altered in some way, or unless I’m engaged in something physical. Unless I’m like working out, or having sex, I feel very removed from my body. And yet, I’m fascinated by embodiment, and I also think that I really do find every type of body so appealing, for all of those reasons. And I know that some of the narrators have the idea that the too-thin are weak, or the too-fat, but there’s problems on all sides. All of those bodies are, in the eye of the beholder, really beautiful, right? And I guess you could say it’s fat-fetishism in places, and in a couple stories it’s thin-fetishism, too. It’s this idea of fetishizing the body almost because these characters really want to get below the body. They want to get past it, and so some of that fetishizing happens in a surface way. I think it’s just people really trying to get inside.

TM: Let’s talk about the title story, “Black Light,” which illuminates both the magic and the mundane that course through all of your stories. We see high school students and bowling and Jesus and sexual experimentation—all these things that are very sort of normal, against this black light that takes everything you see and turns it different, kind of grotesque. What draws you to the ugly wrapped up in the beautiful?

KKP: All of these characters, and to an extent I feel this personally, have this idea that there’s some sort of bigger, underlying thing happening. There’s a world underneath this world that we could get to, maybe, if we tried. Or, if you made the right connection, you could be your bigger self, or your best self. So, I think that the idea of the actual black light in that scene is that it’s grotesque, right? Because your teeth look weird in the black light, and you can see the ready whiteheads on people’s faces. The skin is weird. But it’s also magical because it’s underneath, and it’s there all along. It’s always there, but we just don’t see it. It’s getting to the things that we can’t always see. So, when you have a bowling alley, just this mundane place, but then you have this light that shows you these things that aren’t there, but are always there. Like, this will be us, but better. Like, there is this thing, and it’s been there all along.

TM: You mean the better them has been there all along?

KKP: The better them or the different them, or the more true them. Just the real them that’s maybe not able to be their full, whole selves. There’s a moment in “Glow Hunter” where she says, when the mushrooms kick in, something like, “What’s clean looks dirty, and what’s dirty looks filthy.” It’s seeing the minutia of these particles, the things that are there all the time, but we don’t notice or think about them. In “Starlight,” they’re in that motel, and it’s filthy and there’s this long hair on the wall, and she’s sort of playing with this hair and all of this detritus from other people that’s in the room. That to me is not disgusting. That to me is exciting, because it’s connection to those people who were in that space before you were. I want to experience this room and the people that were in it in a different sort of way. And that’s something about bodies too—it’s not about perfection, it’s about all those hairs and the flaws and the scars.

TM: Exploration.

KKP: Yeah, exactly.

TM: In your stories, home is a place fraught with danger. We see houses where characters have to shake out their shoes for Fiddleback spiders, or “anything angry and able to We see mothers whose spirits swing from light to dark, who drink too much. Children who watch their mother’s faces so they know how to feel. What is the danger of home for your characters?

KKP: I think it is dangerous because it’s familiar. All of these stories are set in and around Texas, and a lot of them are set in these small towns. The home is a kind of microcosm for the feelings of anxiety that are in the town itself. And maybe it’s getting back to that whole, true self. If you can’t really let your guard down in your house, and in a lot of these stories, they can’t, then where can you? Then there’s nowhere. It’s supposed to be the place that’s the safest, and it’s stifling. And yet, I feel like these households are pretty joyous, too.

TM: What do you think gets revealed when women write women?

KKP: I like that question. I didn’t know you were going to ask that. What gets revealed when women write women? I think that the male gaze infects everything, always. It affects every woman.

TM: And certainly every woman in literature.

KKP: Absolutely. And so there’s no way to be free of the male gaze. There’s no way. But I feel like when women are writing other women, or women are reading other women, you can try. I don’t think there’s any escaping it—it’s the patriarchy, right?

TM: It feels like a secret, almost, this book. And you’d think, as a woman reading a woman, understanding women, it shouldn’t feel that way, or it wouldn’t. But it does; it’s a little like, “nobody talks about this, nobody says this.” It almost feels a little wrong.

KKP: Yeah! And there’s something that’s interesting about the idea of writing scenes—even if we step outside of gender roles in general—and not being as concerned about these characters being women or men. This is sort of an aside, but another interviewer was like, “Oh, the men in this book are really immature and kind of fucked up.” But I was like “so are the women.” They’re all fucked up. They’re all just trying and failing and making mistakes.

I feel like when I read writing by other women I feel chosen. I feel like I’m being told something, like a secret, like you said. That’s maybe something that we’re not supposed to talk about, or that we haven’t been able to talk about freely up until this point. But we’ve come to it, we’ve come to it. When I read a book by a woman, I have a different feeling about it. And I have a different feeling when I’m writing women, especially women loving other women, because it’s completely independent of the patriarchy in that moment. As much as it can be, because you can never be independent of the patriarchy. Ever.

TM: And when the patriarchy writes women loving women, it’s exotic—like everyone’s a super babe. Your stories are about humans who are attracted to one other. Or, the power dynamic at play between anybody that’s attracted to anybody. And I think that’s part of the secret too, that it’s not that wild. It’s not that exotic.

KKP:  Exactly, exactly! It’s saying, “These are just people in the dark feeling around for each other.”

TM: That’s great. Who are the women that you read that make you feel that secret?

KKP: Maggie Nelson makes me feel that secret. Genevieve Hudson, she wrote a really beautiful short story collection called Pretend We Live Here, and she has a new book coming out called Boys of Alabama next year, I think. But her sentences are just so beautifully composed. Obviously Amy Hempel. I wouldn’t necessarily think of Amy Hempel as “feminist writing,” like there’s no agenda behind it, it’s just a voice. It’s a voice that I can get behind. Heather Lewis’s book Notice definitely feels like this sort of secret story that you haven’t heard before, but it’s made just for you.

Joy Williams is someone who I love, and come back to again and again. People say that Joy Williams has a masculine voice, and you’re like, what does that mean? Or, whenever people say someone has a muscular prose—it’s interesting that’s what valued. I mean I had a person in a workshop many years ago say, “Your writing is just so feminine.” And it was said as a terrible thing, like that’s the worst thing that it could be. It’s interesting to me to think about what that means. It’s essentially saying, “You don’t throw like a girl,” right?

TM: That’s 100 percent what it is.

KKP: So, muscular is just synonymous with men, which is synonymous with good. That’s it, right? Oh, and Mary Gaitskill has this new story in The New Yorker. It’s crazy, you gotta read it. Again, you’re not expecting a woman to talk about sex in that way, or talk about desire in that way. So you do feel sort of chosen to receive that information.

TM: You’ve got two young sons. With all of the energy and noise associated, how have you managed making art and being a mother? Keeping the kids alive, and getting the work done, and well?

KKP: It should be known that I never did a single thing before I had kids. I never was published. I was writing, but it was in a very haphazard, lazy way. I wasn’t confident in what I was doing, I didn’t feel any rush, which is funny now. I know back then a lot of my friends were publishing books at 22 and 25, but I never felt that compelled to do that. Once I had kids, it gave me this motivation, because you’re literally paying someone to do this amazing thing, that before kids, you got to go do every day. So you’re like, I better make this count. The other thing that it did was let me put down some projects that I thought might sell, but that weren’t actually my thing. They weren’t pleasing to me. I had a novel that I had been working on that wasn’t really supposed to be my novel. It was just something that I thought might be good.

TM: The Coney Island one?

KKP: Yeah! So I was like, this is something that I’ve heard back from editors on, and they said they liked the idea. But for a long time I had six hours a week to write, that’s it. And for those six hours I didn’t want to write that goddamn Coney Island book. I wanted to write stuff that was hot and exciting to me, and so I stopped writing the stuff that I didn’t want to write.

TM: And there’s really no recipe or template to follow that you know is going to work, anyway. I think it can be really tempting to try to write in ways that aren’t as true to you, because they seem to be working for somebody else.

KKP: Yeah, and we’re human. We get impatient and we want so much, and we want it now. We want everything now. But, I think that my particular proclivities have worked in my favor. So that means writing these weird, dark short stories about sex stuff and drug stuff and people making bad decisions. That is nothing like the historical novel I was trying to write.

TM: You mentioned Amy Hempel earlier. I know you’re are both really big fans of one another, and very excited to meet. It feels like a real romance is in the making, and I’m excited to see it take place at Books are Magic, in Brooklyn, in September. How has it felt to have such a personal and literary hero really championing your work?

KKP: I mean it’s been the most surprising. And what Amy thinks of my work means more to me than almost what anyone could possibly think. When I was 19, I read Reasons to Live and I don’t think it’s an understatement to say it changed my life. It showed me that there was this whole world of short fiction—this compression and this electric language—and that’s something I did not know was a thing. I felt shattered by it in a really good way, and I felt like I couldn’t believe this person could break my heart in this small space. How did she do it? And I wanted to figure it out. I feel like it put me on this path to find out how to do that to someone else [Laughs]. How can I do that? It’s funny because on the one hand, it’s such a thrilling surprise to see that she has been so supportive, but at the same time, she’s been in my head like half my life. Her actual words from her stories, but also just as a presence, like as an almost “What Would Amy Do?”

TM: We were chatting the other day, and you said, “My favorite revision is always just ‘delete this bit.’” Can you talk a little bit more about revision, and how it helps you get closer to what you see as the final vision for your work?

KKP: I love “delete that bit” because I’m lazy, first and foremost. That is very easy to do, and when you’re done you realize that it was something you weren’t sure you needed to say anyway. But my editor, Margaux Weisman, was really great at finding the places where I could be pushed further and saying, “You know, in the story about women starving themselves, I think it would be really nice to see one of them eat. I think it would be really interesting.” And then she would say, “I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know how you’re going to do it, but wouldn’t that be cool?” And then I’d be like, “I don’t know, do we really need to do that?” And then later, “Of course, she’s totally right.” The deletion is so much easier than any addition.

TM: I feel like we come from a school of take it away, take it away, take it away. Your best advice to me was, “You write one clause too many.” But I find addition to be really helpful advice too. Like, there needs to be more here, or more somewhere.

KKP: I always love revising. My very favorite thing is that feeling of not knowing what’s coming next, which is the first draft part. But then my second favorite thing is sort of chipping away at the block and finding the real story that’s in there.

TM: In each of these stories we can hear how the place sounds. We can hear it through the description of the landscape and through dialogue of the characters. How do you use syntax and language to create such a richness of place and character?

KKP: With first person, everything is filtered through the experience of that narrator. It’s about singular experience and specificity. That urgency of telling, which we’ve established from the beginning, that’s the driving force behind all these stories. There’s also this idea of “let me tell you what you need to know.” And it’s not necessarily everything, right? Third third-person narrators, or stories narrated in third person, can sometimes be like “let me set this scene for you. Let me give you this information.” And I bristle at received information from fiction. To me it’s authorial, and it’s an intrusion, and I don’t like it. So I try to have these characters who give you just enough, and who leave the right things out, so that you get a sense of their space and their world. It’s funny, because these stories are all set in Texas, but there’s not a lot of sweeping, descriptive paragraphs of what Texas is like. It’s a couple of little things, or it’s like a specific detail about a gas station, and you’re like, “Oh I know that town,” or “I know that gas station.”

TM: Right, it’s less Texas than it is a yard, or a car, or a motel, or a body.

KKP: Yeah! Exactly. And if your focus is always on voice, then everything that comes filtered through that voice is specific and precise to the particular story that you’re telling. Hopefully. That’s the goal, right?

Another Other: Gideon Glick on Broadway’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

To Kill a Mockingbird is a Broadway juggernaut. Harper Lee’s classic novel is currently one of the most successful Broadway productions ever, setting attendance and box office records since opening in December 2018. Met with positive reviews and a slew of Tony nominations—and a Featured Actress win for Celia Keenan-Bolger, who plays Scout—this production asserts the relevance of Lee’s work for modern audiences. The play revises the book’s well-intentioned but oversimplified view of racism in 1930s Alabama, offering a more mature perspective on the novel’s themes by casting adult actors in the roles of the book’s children, Scout, Jem, and Dill.

Gideon Glick plays Dill, a newcomer in the fictional town of Macomb. Dill befriends Scout and her older brother, Jem, by inventing stories of intrigue and adventure—often involving the mysterious Boo Radley. With Scout and Jem, Dill witnesses the trial of Tom Robinson, which frames the action of the play.

The Millions spoke with Glick about his relationship with To Kill a Mockingbird, what it’s like to be an adult playing a child, and how he’s introducing a queer voice into this English-class staple.

The Millions: Can you start by telling me about your relationship with the book? Did you read it in high school?

Gideon Glick: I did. I read it in the seventh grade. I had a really profound experience with the book. The book taught me to be a critical reader; it taught me about metaphor and simile and theme. I’ve taken what I learned from the book, from To Kill a Mockingbird, to all the books I’ve read since then, and I’m a pretty avid reader.

TM: How do you think To Kill a Mockingbird taught you to read with a critical eye?

GG: It was my teacher that really highlighted the themes of empathy and the themes of otherness. You know, some people go, “Oh it’s a YA book,” and some people go, “Oh it’s not a YA book,” and I think it can be both.

TM: I think sometimes people mistake that child narrator as making the book for children.

GG: Well, what I find interesting about the narrator’s voice is that it’s a child narrator but it’s also somebody looking back. It oscillates, and maybe that’s where the tension is. It’s a self-reflective book. It’s a book that is someone looking back on their childhood and it’s also America looking back on itself.

TM: That childlike voice can mask the complexity of the book. It’s deceptively simple. But you got so much out of it that’s not really that simple.

GG: Yes, and it continues to yield so much. I’ve read it a couple of times in the last year, and each coming back to it I’ve noticed different things. I mean, how incredible is that scene—I wish we could have had it in our show—towards the end and Scout’s coming back, and you’re seeing the legs of all the women, and they’re talking about what’s going on in the town. Calpurnia’s in the other room, and there’s all this hubbub going on, and it’s from her perspective as a little girl, but it is so profound, and you’re so placed in that space.

TM: That space of childhood, with snatches of conversation, with Scout trying to find her way through those words. You talked just now about empathy, and in the book, Dill sort of personifies empathy. There’s the scene during the trial when Dill cries about how the prosecutor—

GG: His treatment of Tom—

TM: And that seems to me to transcend the social rules of the town. Dill’s sympathy for Tom overwhelms him there. How much do you think about that kind of empathy for Scout, but also for Dill?

GG: Oh yeah. In this adaptation the courtroom and Atticus are kind of the focal point, so I think that, when the kids are on, we’ve really got to make it count. And so, the way that I saw Dill was that Dill is another Other. He’s not from the town, a stranger. I’ve created Dill as a proto-Truman Capote, as young Truman Capote, a young queer boy in the Deep South in the ’30s. So to carry that around you have to have a strong armor, but there’s also a sensitivity that is—to an extent—your armor. For me that was really important in developing, as the show went on. And I think kids have—and this comes with the loss of innocence—kids have a way of seeing the world as kind of so clear about what is right and what is wrong.

Dill comes from a very hard background. Especially when you imbue Truman’s life. His mom used to lock him in rooms and go meet men. I think there is a world where the adults in Macomb, especially in our adaptation, feel this is not going to be an easy life for you because of who you are, but also the way you see the world. And I think that’s a really important cathartic moment for the audience to witness.

TM: I would love to hear more about realizing Dill as a kind of queer voice in the play. How did you make anchors or footholds for representing that queerness in Dill?

GG: Once I found out he was based off of Truman Capote, it opened the world to me. Capote and Harper Lee promised each other that they would put each other in their first books. So Dill is Capote and then Idabel is Harper Lee in Other Voices, Other Rooms. What an extraordinary relationship that has been existing in our literature for so long. So that was really exciting for me. I was really interested in the idea of this kind of relationship between this tomboy-esque perhaps young lesbian and her queer best friend in the deep deep south. I wanted that to become part of the conversation, and I realized: Oh this book is about identity, it’s about intersectionality. Yes it’s about race, obviously, but it’s also about identity. And that’s also race, but here it manifests in many different ways. I was really interested in how the queerness can imbue the otherness and imbue intersectionality and identity.

TM: A lot of the discussion around the Broadway production had to do with the ways in which the book’s representation of race had to be addressed. As much as it’s progressive for 1960, it’s problematic now. So what modern pressures do you feel in terms of representing queerness, and representing the Harper Lee/Truman Capote relationship?

GG: What I find remarkable is perhaps the story couldn’t have been told in this way until now. In terms of pressure, I didn’t feel pressure. I mean, I definitely felt a responsibility to honor this character, and it’s a beloved character, you know, the majority of the characters in this novel are. People come to them in a very transformative time in their lives, in terms of their own development. But again, I was excited about telling this story now. My hope is that this kind of queer narrative is going to be part of how you teach To Kill a Mockingbird, and I would hope that that is something I could help contribute to.

TM: You talk about how so many people come to this book in adolescence, in a formative moment, and you seem to feel an obligation to honor people’s relationship with this story. As an adult, and as someone with such a history with this book, how does it feel to take on the part of this queer child?

GG: First it was about research. We—all the three kids, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Will Pullen—we all went down to Monroeville to make sure we understood this town. We wanted to make sure we knew what it felt like to be completely on our own in the Deep South. It’s hot, there’s no television, what do you do? How do you set about your day? The sense of adventure. The way you leap and bound from one place to another without really thinking is part of the physical vocabulary, because their sense of adventure is their only form of entertainment. The stories that are percolating around the town are their television. They’re really invested in their books and the stories they read. They perform these stories. Reading about Capote’s life and Capote’s literature, that was very helpful too. The protagonist of Other Voices, Other Rooms is a 13-year-old queer boy, and that was really powerful for me. I think when you’re older, you have a preconceived notion of what you are, and what people think of you, and you don’t really have that so much as a kid. You’re kind of creating as you go. And what I said before, your morality is almost more intact.

TM: If the kids have symbolism, it’s in that kind of morality. Scout is all passion, she responds to things immediately with her gut, and Jem is the rational thinker of the three, he weighs all the evidence, but Dill is really imagination—

GG: Dill’s a dreamer—

TM: He’s the source of the dramas they act out, the stories they tell about Boo Radley—

GG: They call him “pocket Merlin” which are my favorite descriptive words for him.

TM: And so even though Scout in the book is the main narrator, it’s Dill’s storytelling that really frames the story, really gets the story moving.

GG: Yeah, he’s the one that comes to town and starts the adventure. This is what we played with with our adaptation and the three kids: you have two kids who are writers, two narrators who also believe in their own version of a story, and they are maybe somewhat competitive as well. Supportive and competitive. And that was really exciting to me. Two of our nation’s best writers, are the characters.

TM: So how do you approach that? How do you approach being a narrator as well as an actor in the story?

GG: At first it was the most terrifying aspect of the story, being an adult playing a kid, but also shifting in and out of the narrative. But we found out that what terrified us the most became what freed us up the most. It ended up being the most theatrical aspect of this adaptation, and thus it kind of divorced itself from other iterations. People come with their idea of what To Kill a Mockingbird’s going to be, and all of a sudden this is not it. These are three adults playing kids and they’re talking to us. And so that really freed everything up. What I was really excited about was this literary agency, people taking agency over a story.

A Pure Life of the Mind: The Millions Interview with Karen Olsson

When novelist Karen Olsson was in high school in Washington, D.C., she checked The Simone Weil Reader out of the library and became obsessed by the French iconic thinker and activist. Later, after studying higher mathematics at Harvard and going on to become a writer, Olsson still found herself enthralled with the thoughts, ideas, and life of Simone Weil, as well as her older brother, André. In her third book, The Weil Conjectures, Olsson weaves together her fascination with the famous siblings and how her undergraduate studies in math eventually gave way to her own writing life. For math-minded and non-math-minded readers alike, Olsson presents a compelling series of questions about the brilliant siblings, and how math can shape and inspire one’s life.

Olsson—author of Waterloo (2005) and All the Houses (2015)—also has worked as a journalist and editor; her long-form articles have been published in The New York Times Magazine and Texas Monthly, and she is a former editor of The Texas Observer. Not surprisingly, Olsson’s journalistic curiosity melds perfectly with her novelistic precision for detail and language in this genre-defying book. Reminiscent of Jenny Offil’s The Department of Speculation, The Weil Conjectures offers a thought provoking portrait-in-pieces of what it means to be a writer and tell stories.

The Millions talked with Olsson via email about her preoccupation with the Weil siblings, mathematics, and the daily struggles at the desk.

The Millions: What drew you to write about André and Simone Weil?

Karen Olsson: I was fascinated by Simone Weil in high school: I was interested in the lives of brainy women, and here was this exotic, brilliant French intellectual in wire-rimmed glasses who could never really be a role model for a 1980s teenager in Washington, D.C.—yet I still found her inspiring in her integrity and purity. It was later that I realized her brother was a mathematician, another remarkable mind. Just the existence of these genius siblings is compelling in itself, but because one was a female public intellectual and one was a mathematician, they embody fascinations I had when I was younger, ones I could revisit through them.

TM: In reading and writing about Simone Weil for this book, did you gain further insight into your attraction to Simone—and her ideas and what she represented—when you were a teenager and first read The Simone Weil Reader?

KO: My early interest in Simone Weil was relatively superficial—I paid less attention to her work than to her biography. I was drawn to the figure of Simone Weil, to the saintly ghost of Simone Weil, who represented something like absolute attention, a pure life of the mind all but divorced from the body. So when I went back and read more about her and more of her writing, I didn’t see my youthful interest differently; I saw her differently. In particular, I saw how influenced she was by her brother the mathematician, how math informs her thinking. She also seems more eccentric, more self-punishing—it’s tempting to see her as crazy, because some of what she did seems nuts, but then again that seems to me a shortcut, avoiding the difficulty she presents. At times she’s been portrayed as crazy or as a kind of saint because she was living in a different register than the rest of us do. To the extent that her way of living demanded more discipline, more attention and engagement than most of us are in the habit of, we could all take a cue from her. But some of her ideas were quite extreme.

TM: How old were you when you discovered that you had “a head for numbers?” Did numbers and language always intermingle for you? Or was it only after college that you begin to understand the intersections?

KO: I wasn’t exceptionally talented in math, but I always liked it, and in junior high—we did a lot of rudimentary geometry in seventh grade and algebra in eighth grade—I realized that it came quickly to me. As the math on offer started to get more abstract, I started to like it more. Meanwhile I had a few teachers who commended my writing or told me I was a writer, and I took their word for it. Sometimes I wonder what would’ve happened if the praise had been more directed to my math side—I think I was pretty susceptible to that kind of encouragement.

TM: How was the writing of this book different from your first two novels (Waterloo and All the Houses)?

KO: I had more fun writing this book than writing a novel. I loved reading and thinking about math after so many years away, and I loved not having to tend to all the narrative machinery of a novel. There’s a way in which a novelist is a kind of beleaguered manager who has to deal with dissatisfied subordinates and equipment that’s not working and low inventory. This book gave me fewer headaches.

TM: Could you talk about the structure of The Weil Conjectures? Was it difficult to determine how the sections would answer each other? Or did it flow in an organic sort of a way as you began to write and revise the narrative?

KO: Because I wrote the book in fragments, and because I wanted to braid together certain subjects and themes, the structure arose naturally as I went along. Once I had a draft I started shifting pieces around, but the book didn’t change radically from one draft to the next.

TM: How do writing and mathematics inform each other in your own creative process now?

KO: For me the words “creative process” suggest something more sophisticated and effective than what actually goes down at my desk—and I wouldn’t say, in general, that those struggles at the desk are informed by math—but I think having studied math influenced me. Math can be difficult (that damn Barbie doll was right!) and I think when you spend time learning math or physics or philosophy or anything complex, you gain confidence that you can learn other difficult things, and that it’s worth trying to solve complicated problems. Also, for writers it can be tempting to let yourself be carried away by some nice-sounding turn of phrase, and while having studied math doesn’t make you immune to that, I do think it can make you more rigorous in your thinking. Then again I’ve wondered sometimes whether rigor is an unalloyed good for a writer, since sometimes it pays off artistically to be fanciful, to spin out notions that wouldn’t necessarily hold up in the face of logical analysis.

TM: Could you talk about how Anne Carson and David Markson inspired The Weil Conjectures? In a recent essay for Granta, you mentioned both of these inventive authors as varying influences for this narrative?

KO: It seems as if there are an increasing number of books now that mash up genres, works that combine elements of essay and memoir and historical narrative. There’s not really a name for this hybrid creature, though I’ve seen the term “lyric essay” used sometimes, in particular when the author is a poet, and Anne Carson is certainly one torchbearer when it comes to books in this vein. I wasn’t thinking of her directly when it came to figuring out the form of my book, but I was thinking about her ideas about the erotics of knowledge in Eros the Bittersweet. (I didn’t realize until after I’d finished the book that Carson wrote about Simone Weil in her book Decreation.) David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel was lurking in the back of my mind as I wrote, but it’s hard for me to articulate the way in which it was hovering—it’s as though there was a voice muttering things I couldn’t quite make out, and that voice was the voice of Markson’s book.

TM: In the Granta essay, you discussed how this hybrid form is a reflection of the Internet era, and how many readers are digesting different kinds of reading in fragmented ways but with hopes of gathering meaning. Could you expand on this?

KO: To the extent that the hybrid/collage assembled from short sections is becoming more popular, I think it reflects the way we read online—a little bit here, then jumping over there, and then on to the next thing—but at the same time makes that experience more satisfying, because there is an underlying design, and the sections are cumulative and reflective. Also there are no ads.

TM: Did you find it more challenging to find time to make the necessary deep dives into reading?

KO: It’s always challenging to make time to read, and when I look back I’m surprised I managed to read as much as I did and at the same time feel bad that I didn’t read much more, since there is always more.

TM: What did you think are the most common misconceptions about higher mathematics and the study of this subject area?

KO: There’s an image in our culture of the great mathematician as a lone (male) genius who is at a minimum autistic and/or very eccentric, or else mentally ill or a hermit—people at the edge of or outside of human society. And that’s an image that serves to reinforce an idea a lot of non-mathematicians have about math, i.e. that it is an occult subject that they’re not equipped to understand, because the people who understand it are crazy geniuses who aren’t like the rest of us. Any field will have its share of unstable or eccentric people, but many great mathematicians live conventional, community-minded lives.

TM: What book would you recommend to a reader who is interested in learning more about higher mathematics (without becoming too overwhelmed)?

KO: One that I like a lot is Remarkable Mathematicians: From Euler to von Neumann, by Ioan James, which is a series of 60 engaging short biographies of mathematicians, which need not be read in order—it’s a book you can dip in and out of. And How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, by Jordan Ellenberg, is the book equivalent of taking a class from a really great teacher, who drops all sorts of funny asides and draws excellent cartoons on the board while explaining why math matters to the world around us.

A Vibrant Sense of Hope: The Millions Interviews J. Ryan Stradal

In his sophomore novel, The Lager Queen of Minnesota, J. Ryan Stradal captures the true essence of hopefulness in the voices of his characters. “Hope is an essential element in both of my novels. I wanted to instill a vibrant sense of both hope and kindness into these characters, who are all from towns smaller than mine, but don’t limit their world view to what they can see from their porch, which can happen anywhere.”

Stradal’s new novel is the kind of book you read and immediately want to share. It’s a story about family, hard work, and goodness. Told from the point of view of three Midwestern women—Edith, Helen, and Diana—who are set on proving themselves, the story takes readers into the world of beers and pies. The result is a charming novel that is sure to affect readers.

Stradal and I spoke via email about, among other things, the Midwest, the culinary world, and, of course, beer.

The Millions: You are a writer whose first two novels, Kitchens of the Great Midwest and The Lager Queen of Minnesota, take place in the world of food and drink. You are also a contributing editor at TASTE. And, you are a producer for “Hot Dish.” The culinary world must be a big part of your identity, right?

J. Ryan Stradal: It’s more of a preoccupation. I think I’m mostly an enthusiastic end user. But I’m improving as a home cook.

TM: What sparked your fascination with the culinary world?

JRS: Growing up in a smallish town in Minnesota, I wasn’t exposed to a great diversity of food, but as I became aware it was out there, I couldn’t wait to try it all. As soon as I had my driver’s license, I spent many weekends chasing down the various ethnic cuisines that the Twin Cities had to offer. My favorite thing to do on any weekend was to try out a variety or style of cooking I hadn’t experienced before. It wasn’t that easy to find new or unusual restaurants before the Internet, though my parents’ friends turned me on to several. Also, many of the restaurants I came to enjoy I read about in magazines and newspapers; anytime there was a “food issue,” I was all in. I’d narrow it down to a few places and plan my visits over a period of weeks based on my level of spending money. Then I’d call and make the reservations for myself and my girlfriend, who was into these experiences as well. There weren’t a lot of teenage foodies back then, if that’s what we were, but I don’t remember the front of house staff treating us all that differently.

TM: Let’s turn to the Midwest for a moment. Eva from Kitchens of the Great Midwest hails from Minnesota. Edith, Helen, and Diana of The Lager Queen of Minnesota are, as the title suggests, from the Land of 10,000 Lakes. What is it about Minnesota, and the Midwest in general, that makes it the perfect setting for your writing?

JRS: It’s the perfect setting, because there aren’t many other places where these people could exist and do the things they do. I was inspired in part to write Kitchens because I just didn’t know any books quite like it, and I badly wanted a book to exist in the world that dealt with the kinds of people and places I knew growing up. They can be tricky to write about. There are qualities to them—endurance, agreeability, a desire to be useful, a resistance to complaining or making a scene—that aren’t always natural fits for effective drama in storytelling. Most people I knew growing up studiously avoided conflict. Yet how they handle it, and what they reveal about themselves when they do, has always fascinated me.

TM: One thing I appreciate about The Lager Queen of Minnesota is the fact that the best brewers in Minnesota are women. This passage describing Helen’s realization that she’s doing something special is one I found myself returning to:
Helen checked out any book from the library that had anything to do with beer. She learned about the thousands of breweries that once filled the country, coast to coast. She’d read as much as she could find about the history of beer, a history that she had no idea began with a beer goddess and was run by women for centuries. The person that first documented and prescribed the use of hops was a woman, for God’s sake. But when the books had photographs, she realized one afternoon, she saw a lot of people who looked like her grandpa, and a lot who looked like Orval Blotz, but no one who looked like her.
Did you know when the idea for this novel first came to you that the story would belong to the three women who are at its heart?

JRS: Originally the story had many more POV characters; I’d set out to write a larger story about the effects of this family’s unfairly divided inheritance. I think at one point there were eight POV characters, three of which were men. Not only was the first draft pretty damn turgid, it was clear to me that the chapters that concentrated on the family members involved in the brewing industry, the spine of the book, were by far the strongest. Those chapters’ POV characters happened to be women.

In fiction, we get to tell the story of the world we want to exist. That’s the way I see it. It doesn’t mean my women brewmaster characters can’t face hardships and challenges, but they are going to be character-specific and setting-specific and not often exaggerated. There are already enough people writing dystopias, and they’re better at it than I would be. I mostly write about people I’d like to know, and create worlds I’d like to live in.

I was naturally inspired by many of the women I’d met in the beer industry. While meeting and communicating with them, I was often told how, more than sexism, what they battled was the sum of its historical toll. They weren’t personally ever told they couldn’t own a brewery or work as brewmasters, but, with notable exceptions like Kim Jordan and Deb Carey, there simply weren’t many female role models already on that level. Now, for the present generation running breweries, there’s an opportunity for women-to-women mentorship that didn’t exist 20 years ago. Considering that women invented beer, I hope they reclaim its creation and management as much as they care to.

TM: I imagine it’ll be hard for most readers to pick a favorite character, but Edith is the one I couldn’t get enough of. She gives the novel so much added warmth and goodness. I love this line about her near the beginning: “Edith was only sixty-four years old, but if she died right then, she would’ve felt the most important things a Minnesotan, woman or man, can feel at the end of their lives. She’d done what she could, and she was of use. She helped.” People like Edith are treasures. From where did your inspiration for her come?

JRS: Edith has some of both of my grandmas in her, but she’s at least 50 percent my mom. I’d think of her most frequently when writing this character. That said, I don’t know that she would’ve thought of Edith as resembling her at all. Certainly my mom was a lot more of a partier than Edith, and was far more social. But she’s there. The heart, that’s what’s there.

TM: I want to go back to the warm feeling this novel emits. The Lager Queen of Minnesota is a kind book. Even when the characters face difficult times—and those come often—they still remain hopeful. Do you mind talking about the importance of hope in your novel?

JRS: Hope is an essential element in both of my novels. I wanted to instill a vibrant sense of both hope and kindness into these characters, who are all from towns smaller than mine, but don’t limit their world view to what they can see from their porch, which can happen anywhere. My brother was also an inspiration here. He’s had a much tougher path than mine, and despite everything he’s battled with, I admire deeply how much he both grinds it out and keeps perspective. To think beyond what you’ve been taught to expect is a form of hope, but where I’m from, acceptance can be a form of hope too, if it prompts someone to rise to the occasion. For Edith and Diana, hope isn’t just dreaming about an unlikely ideal. It’s them believing that they have the guts to change.

TM: Flavor Dave, the intimidating beer critic, gives Edith’s beer a “100 out of 100” review. That moment brought a tear to my eye:
This beer doesn’t make any sense. It didn’t fill any obvious market niche, meet a known customer demand, or pursue any recognizable tend. This beer is merely the ultimate expression of its brewer, a seventy-nine-year-old woman named Edith Magnusson, who has next to no internet footprint, and about one-millionth the social media presence of my neighbor’s two-year-old. What little exists about Edith online indicates that she may have worked at a nursing home in New Stockholm, where her pies were enough of a foodie fetish to turn the joint into a brutal Friday night dinner reservation, but there was nothing to indicate any access to or even interest in brewing. Until, of course, this pie in a bottle, which seems like a smoking gun of a correlation. The actual pie was almost certainly better.
Flavor Dave’s reaction reminded me of that moment when Anton Ego tastes Remy’s ratatouille near the end of Pixar’s Ratatouille. Flavor Dave, like Anton Ego, knows what he’s consuming is made with love—pure, total love. It’s a moving, beautiful moment in the book.

JRS: Thank you. I love the analogy. I wanted someone you wouldn’t expect to respond to Edith’s beer to enthusiastically validate it, not just intellectually, but emotionally. Flavor Dave was inspired in part by one of my favorite pieces of music journalism, Steve Albini’s review of Spiderland by Slint.

TM: With a novel about beer and pie, I can’t let you go without asking: What’s your choice of drink? And what’s the perfect slice of pie to go with it?

JRS: Oh, wow. To have together? I like double and imperial IPAs, and those traditionally don’t go so well with pie. In terms of flavor affinities—maybe a pilsner and a slice of strawberry rhubarb. Can’t get more Minnesotan than that.

An American in Afghanistan: The Millions Interviews James Longley

James Longley makes films and photographs.

Such is the extent of the bio on his website. When you watch Longley’s films or take in his photographs, or when you hear him speak about his work, you begin to understand that “less is more” traces through his life, art, and career. The bio’s compression belies one of the deepest and widest commitments to visual documentary—to capturing the complex dimensions and layers of an entire society, distilling them meaningfully into a two-hour film or single image—I’ve ever encountered. What’s more, Longley approaches his vocation with a simplicity that reminds us how radical a singular focus and commitment can be, in a world increasingly driven by sanctioned impatience and velocity for its own sake.

Longley’s 2006 film Iraq in Fragments was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and an Emmy for Best Cinematography. The film was also honored with awards at the Sundance Film Festival for Best Documentary Directing, Editing, and Cinematography. His 2002 film Gaza Strip was described by J. Hoberman as “A documentary to make the stones weep.” Longley’s short films include Ejaz’s Story, Sari’s Mother, and Humankind—four short films made for Save the Children about refugee families living at Tempelhof Airport in Berlin.

Angels Are Made of Light, Longley’s newest documentary, shot during a three year period, is an intimate portrait of students, teachers, and their families in an old neighborhood of present-day Kabul. The film opens at Film Forum in New York City on July 24th. 

The Millions: Your films Iraq in Fragments (2006) and Angels Are Made of Light (2019) both bring the viewer into the viewpoint of children in war zones—Iraq and Afghanistan. What are the particular questions (and potential answers) you feel you are able to explore through the experiences and voices of children?

James Longley: I will add my short documentary, Sari’s Mother (2007), to the list.

In an ideal world what I want to show is family life. I would like to have an internal family view of the world. As best I can, I try to approximate family; and even though it seems like my films are all about children, you will also see their parents and teachers as characters in my films. (I have noticed a tendency among filmgoers to forget the adult characters and identify with the kids.) I’m making films about real people in the real world, and this is Iraq and Afghanistan we’re talking about. The society at large—everyone around where I’m working—must approve of my filming inside their close-knit communities.

In a more conservative, religious society there is a separation between genders, and also more strict social ideas about modesty. Filming inside houses is almost always out of the question, for example. In practical terms, this generally means that filming women and girls is more difficult for an outsider, particularly if the outsider is a man. In other words, what you get when you combine an American male filmmaker with a conservative religious society is a situation wherein the most practical people to film are usually old men and boys.

Because I wanted to create a well-rounded view of Afghanistan, I took pains to include the voices of women and girls as well, but this material was much more difficult for me to film and record.

All this is to say that, in observational documentaries like mine, the choice to focus on particular people in the film, or a particular age group, is primarily a practical one about filming access. I make the filming process appear so easy on the screen, it’s possible to forget the months of work that went into achieving the access, and the practical limitations thereof.

Happily, children can be magnificent subjects for films. The social memes and ideas of the wider world get caught and simplified into their essence by children. This can help make complex subjects more approachable for the audience. In this case, I’m trying to make Afghan society more approachable by seeing it through the eyes of children.

TM: I would imagine that such practical considerations often shape your process. What are other examples of ways in which constraints have yielded gems or welcome surprises in your work?

JL: In 2003, I was in Mahmudiya, Iraq, filming the material that became my short film, Sari’s Mother. It was a project I was working on alongside the subjects that became Iraq in Fragments. We were filming with a farming family south of Baghdad whose child, Sari, had contracted HIV-AIDS through a blood transfusion during the previous Saddam regime. Because of our filming, his case was brought before the deputy health minister—although I think they did little for the family in the end. Our filming was brought to a halt when masked gunmen arrived at the farm one evening and started to motion me into the back of a pickup truck. Fatima, the eponymous mother of Sari, and her oldest daughter, emerged from their house some 50 meters distant and came running toward us across the field. They were calling out to the masked men that I was a “good man” and that they shouldn’t take me. Everyone knew what it meant if they were to have taken me. She was a woman who had emerged from the safety of her home with her daughter to vouch for me, it was a social signal that the masked men were ashamed to defy. I was saved by the bravery of Fatima, but from that day we were to never visit the family at their farm again. We saw them only later, at the hospital in Baghdad. With filming halted, the material we had collected wound up being perfect for a 21-minute short film that fit exactly on a 35mm cinema reel. When I had started filming their story, I had probably imagined the film as something grander in scope, but the film at that shorter length succeeds in a way that I wasn’t expecting. If you watch it, it’s like a feature documentary’s worth of experience and emotion, but in 21 minutes. That’s economy!

TM: You’ve talked about feeling “relieved” about positive feedback from Afghan viewers to Angels Are Made of Light: “Getting it right is a struggle.” Tell us a bit about what you mean. What are some fears/challenges when it comes to getting it wrong? What has been your journey (lessons learned, and how so) over your career—as an outsider, and a Western person, making films in non-Western places?

JL: I have been very pleased by the reaction of Afghans to my film. It’s easy to become buried in the minutia of the filmmaking process and lose track of whether you managed to make something that is true to the subject; and so the positive reaction I have received from Afghans is a welcome affirmation that we succeeded. The fear, of course, is that you might wind up with a film that Afghans don’t like. I mean, if your film is supposed to transmit Afghan reality and Afghan people don’t think you got it right—that means you failed. I am trying to avoid failure and use my powers for good.

With my films I am trying to solve problems of perception. An Afghan documentary filmmaker (and I know a few of them) is more likely to think about the problems internal to their own country, and how to talk about those problems in a film. By contrast, I am not casting a critical eye on Afghan society. I may be physically filming in Afghanistan, but the real problem I am trying to solve is the misconceptions of my intended audience, Americans, about Afghanistan. I consciously work to create a film that will help to fill in those misconceptions with an accurate picture. My goal is to transmit Afghan reality to the non-Afghan viewer, as much as cinematically possible, in two hours. Arguably, I am better equipped to make this kind of film as an outsider who simultaneously knows the American audience like the back of my hand and sees the Afghan subject with the newness of a child.

TM: Have you always been so clear about both your audience and your goals as a filmmaker? Does the process of reaching this clarity vary from film to film, or is it typically there from the inception?

JL: I’m not particular about my actual audience. I am overjoyed to hear that anyone watches my films, whether they are in Iceland or China or wherever. However, I like to imagine an American audience when I’m making films because I have some practical experience with Americans as filmgoers. I worked for a while as a projectionist in my hometown movie theater, and I got into the habit of watching the audiences watch the films I projected. And I watched many films while seated among American audiences. So it must be that I feel the pressure of an imagined American audience—their levels of tolerance, their interests, their cultural knowledge.

In practice, of course, I’m not doing something that is often done: I’m rebuilding a piece of the world using the film medium. I’m not catering to the ordinary documentary film expectations of my imagined American audience, but rather being mindful of their limits. I’m determined to give viewers the “world”—in this case the Kabul neighborhood of Angels Are Made of Light—in as much detail, and on as many different levels, and from as many viewpoints, as I think they can absorb in one film. I don’t want to lose them in the process. I need the audience to assimilate my prototypical Kabul neighborhood in order for it to fulfill its extrapolative function in their imaginations.

TM: It’s clear that documentary filmmaking requires a lot of patience.  (Our literary audience appreciates this, given how long it can take to write a book-length work.)  You’ve been trying to make a version of Angels since 2007, filming in Iran and Pakistan, for over a year in each case, only to be permanently interrupted by political turmoil.  You spent months scouting in Afghanistan, meeting with locals and filming in various sites, before landing at the Daqiqi Balkhi school.  I guess my question is: where does that patience and commitment come from?  It’s a kind of faith, no?

JL: There is a lot of naiveté that goes into making this kind of film. For one thing it requires a childlike innocence regarding subjects such as financial and retirement planning, and health insurance. You must be ready to pretend that nothing else in the world matters besides making the finest film possible. I have this particular religion, and I take it up anew each time I start a new picture.

TM: Related to that, given your interest in “urgent” subjects—war-torn countries, the West’s involvement/engagement—how do those things go together: urgency and patience?

JL: I feel a sense of urgency to start a film. But once I’m actually looking at the world through my lens, I want to stay that way forever, building a more and more detailed, grand and beautiful cinematic recreation of the subject. Eventually, I run out of money, and that provides the stopping point. If I had unlimited funds, I would not stop filming.

TM: Angels follows three school-age brothers, along with other children, teachers, and administrators, observationally—through a period of three years, when their school in Kabul closed down due to disrepair and they moved to a new school. You recorded 500 hours of picture, and the “text” of the film is made up of unscripted audio interviews—over 8,000 pages of transcript. Talk about patience! Tell us about the editing process, and specifically what was difficult to leave on the cutting floor.

JL: I film observational documentary material in the mode of a storyboard artist laying out scenes. Consequently, it is very easy to edit the material I come back with—at least at the scene level. The first part of editing was simply plowing through scenes: I think with the young Finnish editor, Waltteri Vanhanen, we cut something on the order of 90 or 100 scenes over six or seven months. Then the process became one of arrangement and honing. We had all the scenes on index cards, tacked up to an enormous cork board. For most of the editing, it was going on in the same apartment where I lived. So I would roll out of bed and into the editing suite.

We cut out a lot of good characters whom I liked a lot. In particular there were these two kids who went to the school where we were filming, and they had jobs selling things on the streets of Kabul. So the material following them is really wonderful—all moving camera shots, swooping through the markets. And they were both very sympathetic, interesting characters. Lots of excellent scenes were cut or greatly shortened. But this is the way films get made, I guess.

TM: How do you decide on film format? Iraq in Fragments and Angels Are Made of Light (to the amateur eye) seem to be shot in different formats, and I’m wondering how you negotiate the chicken-and-egg conundrum—discovering/developing the visual language as you go along, and committing to a format.

JL: I want the film to look like I made it in 30 days on a Hollywood backlot with unionized labor. But I have a two-person crew and I’m filming in Afghanistan. So I tend to shoot everything very consistently and I don’t switch the camera in the middle of production. In both Iraq in Fragments and Angels Are Made of Light I used one type of camera/lens the whole way through. In Angels Are Made of Light I even used the same camera to record the 35mm archival material off the flatbed ground glass—so that means the whole film feels like it’s sewn together from one big piece of cloth.

I decided to use 2.39:1 widescreen for Angels for a lot of reasons: I love the way it looks, and because it’s so easy to frame crowd scenes in widescreen. Afghanistan is a country where much activity happens in groups, and so the wide screen actually winds up giving a more precise sense of the group dynamics.

TM: How has the time you’ve spent in Afghanistan influenced/changed your opinions about American policy—or global policies—in Afghanistan? Are there ways in which you hope your films “activate” viewers politically?

JL: I don’t know the answer to Afghanistan’s problems; or even what the United States’ policy should be in Afghanistan. I have my own opinions, but that’s not what I think I can best contribute to the world. Instead, I am trying to give an American audience the foundation of perception and experience through my film that will allow those who view it to imagine Afghanistan and to more accurately calibrate their internal worldview. I focus my films on civilian populations because I think that these are the people who should be foremost in our minds whenever we consider other countries or our own. What will happen to these most vulnerable people if X or Y happens? That’s the question I want to be on the minds of viewers after watching the film. I want my audience to understand the real stakes involved in making decisions in the world, and I want them to see the world as it is. This is the unreachable goal toward which I am working.

TM: The motivation of an “unreachable goal” could be both energizing and depleting. For you it sounds as if it’s mostly a fruitful energy. When/how did you begin to clearly understand that your vocation would orient you toward this unreachability? Or was this something you simply recognized from, say, a young age?

JL: I remember when I was about six or seven my father remarking that “the map is not the territory.” That’s when I understood that it was hopeless. Human beings will never be able to perceive our wider world with true clarity. We’re just not built for it. Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating problem to work on. I get excited just creating these small artifacts, these films, that I think of as little perception capsules. Little time capsules of experience. Like the talking rings of HG Wells’s The Time Machine (1960). Even this activity would be enough to keep me occupied for a lifetime, but I hope to live to see a sea change in the way we think about documentary films; the way they are made, and the way we experience them.

It is enjoyable to think of possible futures of documentary film—new forms that I may yet experience and create—perhaps as something like the artificial reality training modules of The Matrix (1999) or the memory implants of Blade Runner (1982). The function of documentary—at least when I make one—is to augment our vision, understanding, and knowledge of the real world. I look at documentary films in that way—as enhancements, as extensions to human perception. The toolset I use is evolving, but my ultimate goals remain the same.