Over the course of three books, Marie Howe has established herself as one of the great poets of her generation. Her first book, The Good Thief, was chosen for the National Poetry Series by Margaret Atwood, and awarded the Lavan Younger Poets Prize by Stanley Kunitz. Her second book, What the Living Do, is about her brother’s death from an AIDS-related illness, and it marked a shift both in what she wrote and how. Since then, Howe has published the poetry collection The Kingdom of Ordinary Time and edited the anthology In the Company of My Solitude: American Writing from the AIDS Pandemic. In her new book, Magdalene, Howe writes about Mary Magdalene, but she’s also writing about all women. The seven devils that plague Mary are devils common to us all and the book depicts Mary raising a child, listening to the news, missing her teacher. She is struggling to be fully alive and to be a spiritual being. Howe writes about growing up in the Catholic tradition, about family, but also about words and the ways that they shape us, sustain us, and can save us. We spoke recently about these issues, The Lives of the Saints, public art, listening in the contemporary world, and how they play out in her new collection of poetry. The Millions: Where did this idea for a series of poems about Mary Magdalene come from? Marie Howe: I was raised in the Catholic tradition, and grew up with the stories and images of what we called the Old and New Testament. As a young girl growing up into a patriarchal world the female archetypes I absorbed weren’t the Greek gods and goddesses but were Mary and Mary Magdalene and the other saints: women who seemed to be the subjects of their own lives. They weren’t defined by a prescribed plot. They were struggling to understand who they were, what they were here for, trying to reach through the muddle of whatever it is we live in to touch something authentic. Like so many young women growing up in this tradition I was presented with two deep archetypes: Mary the Virgin Mother and Magdalene the Repentant Prostitute. The early church fathers had created these myths. They manifest this intended split between the spirit and the body, the sacred from the sensual. Women have been wounded by them for a long time. The wife and the whore—the subject and the object. How can a woman integrate her sexuality and her spirituality in such a culture? Magdalene has carried the burden of shame for the sensuality of women. I feel like I’ve been trying to write through her all my life. Failing—and failing and failing and failing. And then one day several years ago I was walking along the sidewalk and I remembered that she had been possessed by devils. I went back to the gospels and read Luke—Mary called Magdalene from whom seven devils had been cast out. I got to thinking what those devils might have been. That really opened this version of her. For years I’ve trying to write these poems and throwing them out, throwing them out. So many. And suddenly there she was. Well—she, me, who knows—but a voice came. And the devils of course were the devils that beset us all. They’re internal, they’re psychological, they don’t have to be blargh. TM: I remember reading “Magdalene–The Seven Devils” a few years back before the book came out. It opens “The first was that I was very busy” and then you go through these devils and keep revising them. I kept wondering how autobiographical the poem is, which is a question I hate, to be honest. MH: The whole book of course is autobiographical–and yet, not. In writing you use your life like wood and you burn it up to make the heat and the energy for the poem. To point out the details of the wood seems not as interesting as that. The wood is used to transform something into something else. What I can say is that when I read “The Seven Devils,” or many of the poems in the book, people come up to me and say, I know about that. My hope is that people feel more liberated and more identified with each other. There’s a quote in the beginning of the book from the Gospel of Thomas: “When will you be visible to us? and when will we see you? He said, When you undress and are not ashamed.” What a thing to say? When you undress and are not ashamed. I wanted Mary–a woman–who lives throughout time. Not just back then, but alive now. I wanted her to be able to undress and not be ashamed. Undress her consciousness, if you will. TM: One reason I phrased it that way is that in this poem specifically you manage to be so very specific but in a way that so many people can see themselves in it, like a mirror. Stanley Kunitz had a line about art so transparent that you could see the world. MH: “The dream of an art so transparent you can look through it and see the world.” My whole life changed when my brother John grew ill and then died with AIDS because that transparency became really important to me. Because the thing as it was was enough. It doesn’t have to be a simile or a metaphor. The thing as it is. The ice water next to his bed, the glass shining in the shaft of sunlight, John’s hand. That’s enough. It didn’t have to be anything more than that. In fact to make more of it was to diminish it TM: I was raised Protestant–and I’m a guy–so I only know The Lives of the Saints through women who were raised Catholic and obsessed over the book. MH: And I bet you loved those women, Alex. [Laughs.] TM: Well, yes. [Laughs.] MH: Perhaps women were looking for lives of women who led passionate lives and acted on that passion. The truth of the inner lives of women wasn’t available to me growing up. In 1980 Lucille Clifton and Sharon Olds and Audre Lorde began to open the door to poetry. The real stories of women’s lives. In the 1950s, in the early 1960s, I was looking and looking for stories of how women searched for God or searched for meaning. My mother had nine children. All of her sisters had nine or 10 children, so I had 100 first cousins. Their lives were–god bless them–given over to this. The saints weren’t necessarily mothers, they had chosen another way. They had chosen a life that wasn’t necessarily in the service of others–although sometimes it was. There was an excitement in reading about these people who might have entered a monastery or led an army of France and also they were the only stories I had ever read that were about women’s psychological and spiritual development. [millions_ad] TM: In your previous book you wrote a series of poems about Mary, before she was a mother. Did this book grow out of a similar impulse? MH: I used to write Christmas plays we kids would put for our parents My brothers and sisters did not always enjoy this. They grew increasingly alternative. By 1968 the angel carried a machine gun. [Laughs.] The Jewish tradition of midrash, which is imagining your way into the silences of the stories of the Torah–what we call the Old Testament–has existed for centuries. You could actually imagine what Eve and Adam did on the first day out of paradise—did they have sex? did they not? That tradition has long existed and I didn’t know it until I was older, but I feel that the imagination is a way into truth. Wallace Stevens said, “God and the imagination are one.” There are so many silences in the stories and for me, they carry archetypal values. So Mary Magdalene who was in all the paintings the repentant woman in red–that’s nonsense. I wanted to write about a woman’s real life–her sexual life, her psychological life, her interior life, her desire for a teacher, her desire for meaning and peace. The dualism that we all live with in this culture is so much rougher on women. Men suffer, too, but women suffer terribly from objectified dualism: virgins or whores, sexual or sacred. TM: One poem that jumped out at me was “The Girl at 3” and the line “the interiority we create by reading is rich and lonely.” MH: We chose logos over image–word over image–long ago, and there are those who suggest that’s what separates us from ourselves and from reality. I think I was reading into that and at the same time my daughter was learning to recognize letters. And of course I was thinking about the paintings where Mary, the soon to be mother, is reading something in the painting and the angel appears and she holds her place in the book to receive the angel. We know that when any annunciation occurs–no matter what it is–you’re not the same person after it happens. Maybe it’s I no longer love my husband, maybe it’s I no longer believe in God, maybe it’s I’m going to adopt a child. After any kind of annunciation we’re not the same. The notion of Mary reading at all is of course a fiction. Meister Eckhart says that perhaps Jesus is the fruit of Mary’s enlightenment. Isn’t that radical? Jesus is the fruit of Mary’s enlightenment. I love that. He goes onto say that each of us can become the mother of God. And he means that in an almost Buddhist sense. That we are that which we seek. TM: One writer I’ve talked with has pointed out that grimoire, the old word for spellbook, has the same etymological root as grammar. That to write and read and name things is a form of magic. MH: In the beginning was the word and the word was made flesh. TM: The word preceded the world. MH: Or as Meister Eckhart said in his first sermon, every creature is a word of God. The word of God–whatever God is, I don’t presume. When I say God, I wish there was another word. This energy or whatever–every creature is an expression of that. Yes, a spell. But poetry is a spell, isn’t it? That’s what one hopes. A spell that returns us to ourselves. Not that it bewitches us, but I feel like the poetry that I love is the poetry that returns me to myself whole for a minute. It’s so rare to feel that way. TM: Do you think of writing as a spiritual act at its core? MH: I do, because it involves a wonderful contradiction which is in order for it to happen you have to be there and you have to disappear. Both. You know, nothing feels as a good as that. Being there and disappearing–being possessed by something else. Something happening through you, but you’re attending it. There are few other things in the world like that, but writing is pretty much a relief from the self–and yet the self has to be utterly there. TM: People have talked about the relationship between poetry and prayer and how do you think of that relationship? MH: As Bob Dylan says, you’ve got to serve somebody. [Laughs.] Might be the devil or might be the lord. I feel like poetry for me is in service to something greater than myself. Everything is greater than myself. [Laughs.] But [in service] to the great mystery of being alive. So many people I have loved are dead now. And I will be dead one day. How strange is that? To know that we’re alive and that we’re going to die. Poetry can hold that. It holds that knowledge and it holds that dialectical energy field–we’re alive, we’re going to die, this is now, and in a minute it will be past but it will still be now. All of that that occurs when we read a poem. TM: Writing is its own thing, but to read poetry, to recite it, definitely has some of the quality of prayer. MH: I’ve been thinking about the word sacrament lately and what is sacred in our culture. I think poetry is one of the last places where the inner life of someone is held sacred. How it feels to be alive is held sacred. That reading it is a sacrament. Writing it–when one is in the right attitude and position, whether it fails or succeeds–is a kind of sacrament. I studied with Joseph Brodsky the great Russian poet and how do I say this, he thought we were lazy American students. We had to memorize 500 lines a week and come in and write them out for him. He said, you Americans are so naive. He said, you think that evil is going to come into your houses wearing big black boots and climb up the stairs–it begins in the language. Look to the language. He said, in the Soviet Union, nothing is permitted and everything is important. In the United States, everything is permitted and nothing is important. What is important? Especially now that so much is externalized through social media. The inner life, where we actually live most of our minutes of our days, is still a sacred place. That’s where transformation occurs, where all sorts of things occur, but it has to be nurtured. My concern is that with externalizing of experience many, many young people are not nourishing that inner space. It hurts to do so. It hurts to read a poem sometimes. It’s demanding in a way. It calls you to yourself and it’s sometimes difficult. TM: Speaking of language, your last book was titled The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, which is a phrase with religious meaning. Today people talk about real life and real time in a way no one did just 15 or 20 years ago. MH: Remember how it started, when things began to be in quotes? Like “home made” food or “natural” food. When people began to put those words in quotes, what does that mean? Now the quotes are gone. It’s real life, real time. There’s no way we can stop this, but we can drag our inner lives along with it and try to make sense of it. I feel like people are hungry. People my age want to be together and read books and talk. I wish we could spend days talking about what we’re losing with all of this speed. People are lonely. We want to be in the same room with each other. We want to talk and hang out and we’re just so busy. It’s consumerism and capitalism. Capitalism has stolen our sense of time–that truth that time belongs to us. TM: You were the Poet Laureate of New York state, you did a lot of public events, and when you first got the post, you said that you wanted poetry to be as ubiquitous as Gap ads. Which I love. I think that’s my fantasy of a city. MH: Wouldn’t it be great? The Poetry Society of course puts poems on buses and we need more and more and more. People are hungry for it. We just did a huge event called The Poet Is In at Grand Central Terminal. We’ve done this three times now but this one was the biggest. At Central Terminal at Vanderbilt Hall, right next to that clock, from 11 in the morning until 8 at night, there were six desks beautifully produced by the MTA art and design people and a production company called Wizard. There were six poets that changed every hour so you could come and sit down and talk with the poet and the poet would write you a poem after talking to you. Forty-eight poets participated in the course of a day and the line of people waiting for a poem was an hour and a half long. And people waited. An hour and a half. It was so amazing. You would ask a lot of questions and then you would take their answers and transform them and give it back. You would type it out on the typewriter with carbon paper, stamp it, sign it, separate it and you would read it to the person. People cried all the time. The person cried, the poet cried, and then you would give them poem to them–free. I want to do this all over the country. I think we’re not used to being heard. We’re not used to someone listening to us. And somehow transforming what we said to them and giving it back in a way that only poetry can do. It’s so startling. TM: Right now we’re at a moment where rapacious capitalism is running the government and they don’t believe in arts funding among other things, and people are now asking in a very fundamental way about what is important and what do we value. MH: I was just outside Chicago and in Indiana and the world is so big, the country is so big, but everybody wants to read a poem when their father dies. Everybody wants to read a poem at their wedding. Everybody wants to read a poem at these crucial moments in their life. When there’s a ritual. When there’s a sacrament, essentially. They want something that can hold the moment. If people don’t turn to art and they don’t turn to religion, we’re left with consumerism. After September 11th in New York these big sheets of paper would go up and people would write on them. Like by the arch in Washington Square Park. People were reading what other people had written. It was so amazing. People would crowd in and read all sorts of things that other people had written. We need public squares. TM: We need moments where we stop and listen to each other. MH: Poetry stops us and gives us something in common. I still believe that we could get poetry more into the public world. Unfortunately a lot of people believe they can’t read poetry because they were taught in school that it was difficult. Some poems are difficult, but many are not and so people are afraid–they don’t know where to go they don’t know what to do. I feel like we have to ambush them with something to realize that they don’t need to do anything more than just read and they’ll receive it. TM: The last line in your book is “the moonlit path over the un-walkable water.” It’s a beautiful line and I feel like moonlight is an image that comes up a lot in your poetry. MH: I’m in love with the moon. I mean, who’s not? It’s so amazing. To me, what we’ll call the divine is unseeable, unknowable. But we can see a reflection of it. We see it reflected in each other’s faces, we see it reflected in art, we see it reflected in the beauty of the world, the sorrow of the world. My friends actually mock me about this. We spend time in Provincetown every summer and the moonlight across the ocean makes that path, that wide amazing radiant path. It looks as if you could walk upon it to whatever is next. But of course you can’t walk on the water. I was also thinking of Peter who walks on the water when Jesus says, you can do it. Jesus walks across the water to the boat in the storm and he tells Peter, come on, and he starts to, but then Peter says, I can’t walk on water, and falls. It is un-walkable for most of us, and yet it’s so compelling. The sun is the source of life and everything that is, but we can’t look at it. We can only look at it indirectly. The beauty of that indirectness is also the moon and how it falls onto the ground and onto us. I just love the whole physicality of it. What Mary is facing is human limitation, sensing that there’s energies that are beyond us and yet seemingly known, but not being able to utterly participate. It’s what you said early, just there but not quite. TM: I guess in some sense that’s poetry. It’s the word describing something, a reflection of the thing itself. MH: Beautifully said. The word isn’t the thing itself and yet it can be close enough because we have this imagination and we can say apple and we can picture an apple. And the apple is there.
“He knew blood, and could see this man’s was different. Could see it in the way he filled the space, with no urgency and an all-knowing air, as if made of finer threads. Other blood. The man took a seat at a table and his attendants fanned out in a semicircle behind him.” Thus begins Yuri Herrera’s brilliant and brutal debut Kingdom Cons, a story set on a fraught but nameless border where a young songwriter, drawn into a lethal world full of glitz and death, is forced to examine the meaning of loyalty and artistic integrity. The songwriter (Lobo or “the Artist”) is delighted to have found a wealthy patron (“the King”). He becomes the court bard at the King’s lavish palace, but soon finds out that the price he must pay to stay in this elevated world far outweighs what he receives in return. Kingdom Cons is the Mexican novelist's first book but his third to be translated into English, and like his other two slim, impactful novels (Signs Preceding the End of the World and The Transmigration of Bodies) the story he tells reaches out its tendril hands in many different directions. Herrera’s novels are at once evocative of royal court dramas, Greek tragedies, Shakespearean romances, old world fairytales, hardboiled detective novels, and philosophical treatises on the power of art and words. I had the honor of speaking with Herrera recently about silence, power, creation, and translation. The Millions: I want to start by asking you about the things not said in Kingdom Cons, the unnamed countries, cities, and even characters. The book is set on a border, but the border is not specified, the cities are not named, and most of the characters are referred to only by epithets or roles. The main character has a name that sounds more like a nickname, Lobo, and very quickly he becomes simply the Artist, and he is surrounded by the Girl, the King, the Heir, the Commoner, who in the final pages of the novel becomes simply She. Can you talk a little bit about the power of absence and what you intended by not naming people and places? Yuri Herrera: I don’t think everything has to be explained in a novel. Silences are important because they are the most eloquent part of a creative work in how it allows the readers to reveal themselves when they fill them. In the case of the novel, not naming certain places helps avoiding clichés and easy formulations of issues that are much more complex than what the mass media and government speakers say. Regarding the names of the characters, these are like that in order to introduce an element of tension: their names as roles create an expectation of what they are supposed to do, and each character is going to define itself by resisting or obeying that expectation. TM: At one point in Kingdom Cons the news arrives at the Palace that the Artist’s songs have been banned, the DJs get “orders to shut his groove down.” Something similar to this happened across northern Mexico in the early 2000s, city governments implemented bans on narcocorridos, claiming that they would poison the youth by glamorizing the narco lifestyle, a similar critique to one that has been voiced in the United States about gangster rap. The ban in Ciudad Juárez has apparently since been lifted because the new mayor is financially invested in several radio stations and the ban was not good for business, either way it did not really matter because the songs by groups like Los Tigres del Norte only got more popular when they were outlawed. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on the popularity of narcocorridos and their influence and what it means for a society when people are banned from partaking in something? YH: In the case of the corridos, the ban of certain songs is a simplification of a very complex phenomenon. Maybe some singers have worked for criminals, like scores of lawyers, financiers, and architects have done and still do, but the focus of these politicians is on the singers because they are an easy target, it allows them, the politicians, to transfer their responsibility to someone else, to blame artists of their own ineptitude. But corridos are not a genre that emerged with the War on Drugs, it has been around for a long time, and very often has been a way in which stories out of the mainstream have circulated. TM: I’m interested in the influence of fairytales, folklore, and fables on your writing. Kingdom Cons includes lots of recognizable archetypes that appear in fairy or folktales across the globe—the King, the Witch, the Commoner, the Heir—can you talk a little bit about your choice to use these sorts of stock mythic characters? YH: In this specific case it is because although I took for my model a very precise space, the border between Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, and a very precise issue, the criminal stupidity of the “War on Drugs,” designed by different American administrations and followed by several Mexican administrations, the craziness of the powerful was not invented by these criminals, the drug lords, it is something that has always been there. The present day criminals are a very explicit example of that, but the need to have your name in golden letters, to proceed following your testosterone, to not listen to other opinions, to believe that artists are there to promote your greatness, that kind of megalomania can be seen very clearly in the old kingdoms, as well as in decaying democracies with spoiled frat-boys-turned-presidents who decorate their houses with animal skins and golden furniture. As for the other characters, it has to do with the role that the King assigned to them, their names signal the tension between what they might or might not want to do and what power expects from them. TM: You have a very distinctive writing style: charged but very clipped, deceptively simple, with short sentences and not a lot of description. There is a moment in the middle of Kingdom Cons when the Artist is talking about writing corridos and he says “The story tells itself but you have to coax it […] you take one or two words and the others revolve around them, that’s what holds it up. Cause if you’re just saying what happened, why bother with a song. Corridos aren’t only true; they’re also beautiful and just.” When I read this quote I couldn’t help but wonder if your writing process is anything like the Artist’s? YH: I think it is a lot like that. For every story I find a core around which the rest of the text is going to proliferate, sometimes it is a tension between characters, sometimes it is a dramatic line, like a transformational journey, sometimes it is an atmosphere. And I try to understand what kind of language, what kind of landscape, what kind of behaviors are organic to that core that generates meaning. TM: What are your thoughts on big novels versus small novels? All of your books are approximately the same slim size, somewhere around 100 pages. Should more novels be small and distilled? Are big novels just spinning their wheels and wasting everyone’s time? YH: I always think my next novel is going to be as long as War and Peace, because I have many notes and I think that once I develop them it is going to be a long breadth book, but then I discover that my notes look a lot like how I want the story to sound, or that they require not more development but more concision and more versatility. I like words and phrases and paragraphs that do several things at a time. I guess that is why I can’t write long novels. But I would love to be able to create that kind of respiration, to engage with a tempo that depicts a different pace in which emotions develop. TM: Your novels were all written in Spanish and then translated, often by the same translator, Lisa Dillman, into English. I’m curious what your relationship is to your translated texts? I’ve never had my writing translated so I have not yet had this experience and I’m curious how it feels to you to read your words in a different language? I’m also curious about the translation process and how involved you are in it? YH: Translation is a step into the abyss, because it doesn’t matter how “accurate” it is, it will always create a different object, with unexpected meanings. And that is fine, that is something that should be embraced, precisely because it is a way of expanding the life of a text. This is something that has to do not only with the lexicon or the syntax, but with how the new version sounds; sound creates meaning, even if you cannot articulate it in words. So I trust the translators because I assume they know the readership in this other language much better than me, that they know how to activate those new meanings in the text. I participate in the process only as much as they ask me to. In the case of Lisa, we have had a very rich dialogue, with each book we exchanged daily emails for months, and even though I suggested ways to do it, the final decisions were hers, she always found graceful, inventive solutions. TM: There is one word in Kingdom Cons that I kept coming back to and thinking about in terms of translation: the use of the word "tho" in place of "though." To me, when I was reading, it was a visual cue to me to remind me that I was existing in Lobo’s world (similar to the way that the verb"‘verse" made me feel when I read Signs Preceding the End of the World.) The use of tho felt slightly off kilter in a really good way and it seemed perfect because Lobo is someone for whom spelling is probably not a main focus—it seems like a wonderful way to show what a slang culture he is living in. I wondered if there is an equivalent word that you used in the original Spanish or is this something that only exists in translation? YH: There are a lot of words that work as markers of a certain rhythm and a certain character of Lobo, like Simón, which is another word for Yes, but, say, with more attitude. I think this word is a translational device, a compensation, to communicate that same attitude and rhythm, even if it’s not always in the exact same spots. TM: When the Artist’s songs were banned the King comforted him, “He smiled and his smile seemed a protective embrace that said to the Artist, Why sugarcoat the ears of those fuckers? We know what we are and we’re good with it. Let them be scared, let the decent take offense. Put them to shame. Why else be an artist?” When I read this, it reminded me of something that another writer I know, Scott McClanahan, said recently in an interview. He said, “If you’re not asking the question “Could this possibly destroy my life?” then you shouldn’t write it. That’s what I think anyway.” Do you agree with the King and Scott McClanahan. Is risk the main reason to be an artist? YH: I don’t know if it’s the main reason, but it’s something that you are going to have to face if you truly engage with the creative labor, because art implies creating new ways of looking at familiar subjects, and in order to do that you have to disassemble rules, meanings, certainties, you have to look at the arbitrariness of certain aspects of reality, or at the nonsense of cruelty, or at the complications of love, and in this manner you can not only mess with your readers’ emotional stability, but with your own. And this is a necessary step in order to provide a space for critical thinking, or for emotional discovery, but also for madness.
Two years ago I published an essay here called “How the West Was Lost.” In it, a handful of gifted writers—Ivan Doig, Joan Didion, Edward Abbey, and Jim Harrison—offered their takes on how Americans have despoiled their frontier. Harrison and Abbey decried environmental degradation, especially the damming of rivers so cities could bloom in deserts, where no city belongs. Didion punctured the myth of pioneer grit by pointing out that federal tax dollars have underwritten most signature western ventures, including the railroads, the aerospace industry, and big agriculture. And Doig, a product of the “lariat proletariat,” lamented the sacrifice of old ways and individual freedoms on the altar of spurious progress. Now I would like to nominate Deanne Stillman for admission to this distinguished group. Over the past three decades, her nonfiction and journalism have probed the violence Americans have done to the people, wild animals, and lands of the West. Her books include a devastating account of a double murder, Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave (2001); Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West (2008); and the story of a hermit turned cop-killer, Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History (2012). Stillman has just published Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship Between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill. Through the unlikely reconciliation of two adversaries from the Indian Wars, the book explores “the fault line that runs through the national story”—the subjugation and repeated betrayals of Native Americans. Like all of Stillman’s work, the new book is deeply researched, a work of passion and rich insight. She spoke with me by telephone from her home in Los Angeles. The Millions: Let’s start with a stupid question. Where did you grow up? Deanne Stillman: I grew up in Cleveland. I’d been writing since I was a little girl, and I just knew I had to be in New York to start pursuing the creative life and I moved there in the ’70s. I was writing first for the underground press, and then began writing humor and satire and comedy, including working on projects for Saturday Night Live. In the early 1980s I began going back and forth between L.A. and New York because I had gotten a series of television jobs. And then I was hired for a TV series called Square Pegs. I was aboard that train for a while and didn’t like it and in fact at some point it started making me physically ill. One day my personal apple cart collapsed. Writing humor is all about reacting and pretending everything’s fine and everything’s funny, but things had really come to a complete halt in my life and nothing was basically funny anymore. Once I got in touch with that and got back to some earlier desires, my writing moved in another direction. TM: In the introduction to Blood Brothers, you state that all of your books are about “acts of violence, the killing of people and wild animals, assaults on the land that have unfolded on a very big canvas, the American West.” Did you decide to work on this canvas after you moved west, or did you move west to be part of the canvas? DS: All of the above. It all has to do with my upbringing and with my father teaching me to be a writer when I was a little girl. My first submissions were to Mad magazine, actually, under the name Dean Stillman because I saw that they were only publishing boys. The West was an escape for me as a little girl because there was a lot of turmoil in my household, and I was escaping into books about the West. And we grew up around horses, too. My mother was one of the first women in the country to ride professionally on the racetrack, and she taught me how to ride. That had a lot to do with fueling my wanderlust—hanging out at the racetrack and coming into contact with a lot of strange characters. And also moving from the right side of the tracks to the wrong side of the tracks after my parents got divorced, and finding out that there was a working class and that they were kind of persona non grata. When we moved from very comfortable surroundings to the wrong side of town, even some of our relatives stopped talking to us. So I found out at a very early age that America has a class system. TM: So reading and fantasizing about the West was an escape for you even as a girl? DS: Fantasizing and living inside books which my father read to me. That became a landscape I started living in. TM: When did you move to L.A. full-time? DS: The late ’80s or so. When my personal life fell apart, I began spending more and more time in the desert. I was kind of on automatic pilot with my writing because I had to continue making a living, and I had reached a dead end there. And then one day the story I wrote about in Twentynine Palms crossed my path and it took over my life and I knew that I was going to follow it wherever it went. So that’s how the next phase of my writing life began. TM: Your earlier books, Twentynine Palms included, are deeply reported. There are also flashes of fiction writing in Desert Reckoning, where you get into the brains of people, which I loved. But Blood Brothers is closer to straight history. You traveled all over, reading in archives, visiting sites, looking at newspapers. I wonder if you could talk about the differences in researching and writing these different kinds of books—one is reportage, the other is almost straight history. DS: Blood Brothers involved more archival research, for sure. But I do bring elements of fiction into all of my writing. I did have to recreate characters in Blood Brothers, and I did recreate scenes, such as when [Buffalo Bill] Cody and Sitting Bull meet for the first time—in Buffalo, New York, of all places. That draws from actual reporting, but I do weave in other elements, what they might have been feeling and how the conversations played out. TM: So the researching and writing of this book were not all that different from the books that came before it? DS: Most of Blood Brothers takes place in the 19th century, so I was obviously not able to talk to associates of the main characters, which does make things different. I rely on many historical accounts, some of which are from the white man’s point of view and some of which are from the Native American’s point of view. But there are plenty of things that weren’t written down that we don’t know about. TM: I didn’t realize just how vast the literature is on the subjects you write about here. It seems like just about everybody has either written a memoir or been the subject of a newspaper or magazine article, or a biography. I laughed out loud that Tim McCoy, a cowboy turned movie actor, published a memoir ghost-written by his son. What rock hasn’t been turned over? With so much stuff available, I’m wondering if your challenge was finding something new to say—or did you not see it that way? DS: That’s part of what I was dealing with. You’re right, there’s so much that’s been written about many, many characters of that era. But the image that drew me into writing this book was the dancing horse outside the cabin where Sitting Bull was murdered. I always follow my instincts when it comes to my work, and I knew that that image would take me somewhere, exactly where I didn’t know. But isn’t that the allure of writing?—finding out the answers to these questions? I didn’t find very much about that image of the horse tied up outside Sitting Bull’s cabin at the time of his assassination. That dancing horse was in effect taking bullets for Sitting Bull as he was being killed—that’s an insight that came to me from Chief Arvol Looking Horse, who I called to ask about the dancing horse and what it meant. So I couldn’t find out much about that horse or the image because there wasn’t much on the record. That kind of confirmed my instinct that the image could take me through the writing of this book. TM: So that image propelled you to write the book? DS: Totally. It totally propelled me. It haunted me for years. TM: One of my favorite things in the book was that Buffalo Bill got sick of the “sham-hero worship,” as he puts it. Then he sets out to make a movie that captures the real spirit of the West, including the Seventh Cavalry’s massacre of Native Americans at Wounded Knee. But the movie turned out to be a failure because it was too real. People couldn’t handle it—even though he left out the fact that women and children were among those massacred. I thought that was a powerful irony. DS: I’m glad you brought that up. Here was Cody near the end of his life telling people he was sick of this whole thing, referring to the fact that he was trapped in this persona of Buffalo Bill. I think it’s kind of a universal situation—that sooner or later we often find ourselves accepted for being one thing, but in our hearts we’re something else. Here was Cody who’d become this mythological character adored around the world by kings and wastrels. But as he began to feel remorse for his role in the closing of the West, he says many times to reporters that we haven’t done right by the Indians. Even when he was talking about Sitting Bull to reporters, he would make a point of talking about how he was the Napoleon of his people. After the Wounded Knee massacre, Cody wanted to set the record straight by making this documentary, using actual survivors and members of the cavalry. It was so real that some of the Native American re-enactors in the documentary thought that actual bullets were going to start flying. TM: But the movie failed, as I say, because people didn’t want to hear it. DS: We’re such an Action Jackson country. People just wanted to see a shoot-’em-up, they didn’t want to take a look at the victims. But also we Americans have a problem looking at what really happened, period. I think Cody making that film was a metaphor for the fact that we haven’t reconciled our original sin, which is the betrayal of Native Americans. TM: This leads to another thing I wanted to ask you about. There’s a subtext in the book about celebrity in America. Look at Sitting Bull—he’s involved in the battle of Little Bighorn, he has to flee to Canada, he comes back and joins the Wild West show. He goes from fugitive to star. DS: [Laughs.] That’s true! TM: He and Buffalo Bill were superstars. When all else fails in America, you can always become a celebrity. These guys weren’t the first American celebrities, but I think they’re a template for what’s happening to this day in this country. DS: I completely agree. They were hardly the first celebrities, but they were arguably two of the most famous men in American history. Without the Wild West show, our national story may well not be what it is. TM: To go back to your book’s introduction. You mention that you’ve witnessed several recent moments of atonement and forgiveness between Native Americans and descendants of the soldiers who fought against their ancestors. These are contemporary events—the renaming of sacred lands, the fight against the pipeline—and you wrote something that I like: “Perhaps the brief time that Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull were together can serve as a foundation upon which this rift can be repaired.” That’s a wonderful thought. I like to think you’re right, but I wonder if that’s hoping for too much, given our history. DS: That’s a good question. We have choice here: we can hope for too much or scale it back. What’s going on now in terms of Trump’s policies regarding the environment, the rollback of wildlife protections, the assault on the wilderness, the call to euthanize all of America’s wild horses, this nonstop assault on what’s wild—this, to me, is the end game of the Indian Wars. TM: So do you think there’s a chance for this rift to be repaired and for this country to become healthy? DS: Over time, yes, there is a chance. You look at Standing Rock last December—descendants of soldiers who fought at Little Bighorn apologizing to Lakota elders about their role in the decimation of Native Americans, and the elders giving their acceptance speech. That was a very powerful event, in my opinion. It was covered, but it was overshadowed by the politics of the pipeline. Behind all of that, there was this spiritual shift involving this apology. It’s been happening for the past two years in other ways across the Great Plains and the West. Native Americans also apologized for wiping out Custer. The ramifications of that down the line are beyond words. It’s all to the good.
Daniel Mendelsohn is one of the most prominent classicists in America today. A contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, he’s also a professor at Bard College. His 2006 book The Lost: The Search for Six of Six Million, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Memoir, among many other awards, recounts Mendelsohn's attempt to discover what happened to six relatives who were killed in the Holocaust. It is also a book about storytelling and how we construct our identities and our relationship to the past, issues that recur throughout his work, including the memoir The Elusive Embrace. He has also translated the poetry of C.P. Cavafy and established himself as one of the most significant critics and cultural writers of the moment. Mendelsohn has the kind of wide-ranging mind one hopes for from a critic. He ends up writing about topics that one might expect, like the films 300 and Troy, but he’s clearly a pop culture junkie writing about Mad Men and George R.R. Martin and Patrick Leigh Fermor and the meaning of the Titanic. His new book An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic is about his father. At the age of 81, Mendelsohn’s father, Jay, attended his son’s weekly seminar on The Odyssey, and when the class finished the two took a cruise retracing Odysseus’s steps through the Eastern Mediterranean. His father died not long after; the book is about teaching The Odyssey, about the last year of his father’s life, and about Mendelsohn trying to better understand his father. Which happens to be one of the themes of The Odyssey. An excerpt of the book appeared earlier this year in The New Yorker. We spoke recently when he was jet-lagged in Paris on book tour. The Millions: Where did this book start? You wrote a travel article about going on the cruise with your dad not long after it happened. Daniel Mendelsohn: All my books accidentally end up being books. As soon as my dad asked me to take the course, I thought I would do something with it because the experience at a certain level was just so amusing. I may have even called my editor at The New Yorker. When we were on the cruise, I think I started thinking that it was going to be a book. It was after he died that I looked back at what had turned out to be the last year of his life and saw that the whole thing was one story—the classroom and the cruise and the hospital. On the cruise I started to think it would be a book but I didn’t know at that point what the narrative was, what the shape of it was, but I knew I had a story. Several months after daddy died I started thinking, this is the book. I knew that I wanted to map the structure of this book onto The Odyssey somehow and figuring that out took me a while. TM: Anyone who reads you knows that structure is very important to you, and I can only imagine how much time it took to figure out the right structure for the book. DM: That’s a shrewd observation. I had a lot of material. The classroom was so funny at times and also so poignant at times. Then the cruise with the cave and the guy with the scar on his leg—and not getting to Ithaca. I thought, life is handing me a great story. The Lost took me one third as much time to write as did this book, although one could say it’s a much more gigantic story. It took me a very long time to figure out how to map this onto the structure of The Odyssey. It was not easy. It took a long time. People said, it’s taking a long time because it’s your dad and he’s passed away now and it’s so sad and emotional. I said, no, actually that’s not the reason. I love thinking about my dad every day. It was like a nice haunting. It was hard because I wanted to be echoing both the structure of The Odyssey and the development of the themes of The Odyssey. Going from this education of the son to this metaphorical emphasis on recognition at the end of The Odyssey and then at the end of my father’s story. That was not so easy. In my review of the movie Troy with Brad Pitt I began by quoting Aristotle—which is probably too big of a stick to use on Brad Pitt. Aristotle has a very interesting observation about the other so-called epics about the Trojan War that did not survive. Every aspect of the Trojan War had an epic about it, from the judgement of Paris to the death of Odysseus. We only have The Iliad and The Odyssey. Aristotle said some of these other epics just weren’t that good, and the reason why is because they told the story in the order that the events happened, which is a mistake that Homer did not make. I realized about two years into writing this book I was making exactly that mistake. In other words, I told first the class, then the cruise, then my father’s illness, and death in that order. Each element was interesting, but it didn’t have an interesting structure. I never share my work while I’m writing except with my editor and a close friend and mentor of mine, Bob Gottlieb, who used to run Knopf and The New Yorker. This was literally only a year ago. I had hundreds of pages and Bob said, the problem is when you get to the end of the school year, you don’t want to go on. That’s the narrative, the class. You have to think of a way to work everything else into that. Literally the minute he said that I burst out laughing because of course, I need to do this Homerically, which is, to think of a way to fold the other aspects of the story into the classroom narrative. The class is the spine of the book. I have to talk about the cruise while we’re discussing Odysseus’ adventures at sea in the class. I have to talk about the illness and death when we’re coming to the end of the class. Then the whole thing fell into place and I was finished in two months. TM: As soon as he said that, the structure presented itself to you. DM: It clicked into place all at once. He said, you have to think of something and he didn’t know what it was, but the minute he said that, I thought, duh, you have to think like Homer. TM: You make the point in the book that The Odyssey is much more narratively and structurally complex than most people understand. DM: Oh my god, yes. The Odyssey is—in an almost postmodern way—aware of its own narrative devices. In fact it draws attention to its own constructed-ness, so to speak, in a way that is just amazing. I remember reviewing a very good book, that I quite liked, by Zach Mason called The Lost Books of the Odyssey for The New Yorker. I said this book is very clever and interesting, but you’re never going to be more clever than The Odyssey itself because it already anticipated all these games. One of the things I really wanted to make people aware of in this book—through getting to be a fly on the wall in the seminar—is how incredibly structured The Odyssey is and how alert it is to the tricks of narrative. All of my books, starting with my first memoir, are obsessed with narrative and truth-telling and the way that lived history becomes narrated. It’s very interesting to me. It’s a theme that binds all of my memoirs together certainly. TM: I think thats true. Your books are about how we construct our identity through narrative. DM: Precisely. When I was writing my first book, my grandfather, who reappears in The Lost, is sort of the figure of narrative. He is a great storyteller. In both books I become alert to the way in which the self fashioning through narrative can be misleading. Not necessarily in a sinister way. I think quite often people narrate themselves not with the intention of deception but because they honestly believe that this is who they are. That this is their story, if you see what I mean. I’m fascinated by this. It’s also a way of alerting my readers to the fact that even though these are true stories that I’m telling in my book, they are constructed as narrative. The story you’re reading is never the whole story because if you told the whole story, it would just be boring. TM: I know you’ve written about this a lot, and I’ve written about it a little, but the fact that the memoir isn’t a recitation of events; it’s about the psychoanalysis of the self, it’s a consideration of what those events mean, it’s much more complicated than just what happened. DM: The memoir is a highly crafted version of unedited reality. Nobody wants to hear a boring story. The Lost is highly obsessed with the dangers of narrative because I’m trying to get at a historical truth. When I was on book tour for The Lost, a woman in the audience very nicely said, I loved your book and I’m so glad that somebody has finally told the whole story of this one little town. I burst out laughing and I said, if I had told everything that I heard, it would be 2,000 pages long and unreadable. It’s not a matter of fact or fiction, it’s not a matter of you’re making it up or whatever—even if you’re just relating things that happened or things you heard, you’re shaping it, because people want to be enticed by a narrative. In this book I’m doing that very deliberately by evoking parallels with the themes and structure of structure of The Odyssey—which is itself a text which is very alert to the enchantment and seductions of narrative. It’s over-determined in a kind of fabulous way, but of course I don’t talk about the boring parts of the cruise or the days we just sat around waiting to get somewhere or the questions that people asked at the site of Troy that weren’t interesting. You’re always shaping and when you’re writing this kind of thing you are writing in a way to convey what you think are the insights that you have had about yourself. But of course who knows what you’re doing unconsciously, right? That’s for the critics to figure out. TM: I think you were harder on yourself than you were on your father in a lot of ways. DM: I take that as a huge compliment. I think when you’re writing memoir obviously the great danger is to glamorize yourself. Even through a kind of disingenuous negativity by saying, oh I’m so terrible. I think I’m pretty tough on both of us. The Lost was about the search for the identities of people I had never known. So in a funny way even though the subject matter was so painful, it was easier to write. This book was about my father, and for that reason I was bending over backwards to not sentimentalize either myself or my relationship to my father. I thought that was very important and I think it’s something he would have approved of given the kind of person he was. [Laughs.] He didn’t like mush. You’re probably right. I may have bent over too far, but the hero of this book is not me. The hero of this book is my father. It’s like those bunraku puppeteers who dress in black but you only look at the puppet? I wanted to be like those puppeteers, not intruding too much because it is about my father, although obviously through the lens of my relationship with him. TM: I guess what I mean is that you don’t overdramatize anything, you’re not overly sentimental, and you write that when you were young you were embarrassed by him. You make it clear that this isn’t about a distant father and a dutiful son. DM: Absolutely. When you write a memoir, you have an unwritten pact with the reader that you have to expose even the unattractive aspect of your narrative. I’m not talking about, I had a problem or I had an addiction. I mean really embarrassing things that make you squirm and might make the reader squirm, but I think you have to do that because that’s why the reader is on board. In particular, reading a book about a father-son relationship, I just felt I owed it to myself, I owed it to my father, and I owed it to the readers to put those mortifying, uncomfortable moments on the page because that’s the bargain you’re making. Look, no one has perfect relationships with their parents. We’re all embarrassed by our parents at some point in life, but only a few of us get to write about it. That’s the point hopefully when the reader will say, aha, I never really went there or talked about this, but I know what it’s like to have a parent you’re sometimes just mortified by. I don’t think it reflected well on me but I was 14. This is life and you have to be honest about it. TM: As you were writing these moments seemed to present themselves. Like the man on the cruise with the injured leg. The emotional climax of the book is your father revealing himself to you and the class when you’re discussing Book 23, which was echoed in the very last scene of the book. DM: I reflected on this a lot when I was writing The Lost when there were so many extraordinary coincidences. Truly amazing things happened that you wouldn’t believe if it were a novel. I had a long passage in The Lost where I reflect on that and I say it happens because to some extent you make it happen by putting yourself into this story. If you sit at home on your sofa nothing’s ever going to happen. Just by putting yourself out there you make things happen. You know what this is like as a writer when you’re working on a thing, suddenly everything becomes about that subject. Everything becomes irradiated because your perceptions and sensitivities are engaged. It’s not that more things are happening or more coincidences are happening, you’re just noticing things you never would have noticed before because you weren’t writing a book about them. I was just lucky because the one time my father really responded positively to The Odyssey was on the last day of class when he said this amazing thing. If you read the passage it’s not like he bears his soul, but for him...That’s a great vehicle for talking about how you turn experience into a narrative. What I had to do in order for that moment to feel like a climax, which is how you just described it. It is the emotional climax of the book, I would say. What I had to do was to create my father as a character in such a way that for him even to say that feels like a huge climax. Everything before then I have to choose out of everything that he said and did, those things which I thought illustrated his character in such a way so that by the time you get to that I think amazing moment where he started talking about my mother in class you’re like, whoa. TM: And then you play with structure and time so that you jump to you relating it to your father and show her reacting to it. DM: Here also I’m imitating slightly something that Homer does; he gives you reaction shots, as it were. I felt that to be an extraordinary moment in the classroom and I know that some of the students did, but then I choose to narrate the conversation that I had with my mother about that because she thought it was amazing too. It was a way of locking the significance of that moment both when it happened and afterwards. I didn’t have to describe the conversation I had with my mother—although that conversation leads to what I think is the second big emotional moment at the end of the book. I was trying very hard in this book to avoid over-dramatizing and that’s why you get in the conversation with mother as a throwaway remark the information that finally explains why my father didn’t go to the high school he always wanted to go to. For me that was a very big emotional moment, but I bent over backwards not to spotlight because I think it’s more devastating if you experience it the way I experienced it, which was in passing. It’s a throwaway remark from my mother because she’s not thinking about what I was thinking about at that moment. TM: That’s also a narrative tool, to have a great emotional moment but not to dwell on it or emphasize it. DM: That’s a thing that happens in the work that I admire the most. You’re not showcasing the big emotional moments and I think they’re more devastating for that reason. I always think of Proust where you meet Odette de Crécy early on in the novel. She’s a major character and the focus of a lot of narrative attention and you’re led to believe that this fancy aristocratic name that she has is one of these made up names that high-class courtesans gave themselves. I think it’s in the fourth or fifth volume where in passing the narrator meets the Count or Maquis de Crécy and you realize that Odette really was married to that guy. Every time I encounter that I’m just blown away by how brilliant it is. A thing that interests me is retrospective emotion, when you think oh my god that’s what that thing was and you get that kind of pang. I’m fascinated by that because to my mind it has 10 times the power of some big drumroll cymbals clashing kind of climax. TM: It gets at this point, which is at the heart of so much classical Greek literature, that character is destiny. DM: Right. It’s interesting when you think about what is this book about. Yes, it has a plot, which is the classroom and the cruise and the hospital, but like The Lost is a search narrative, the search here is just to know who my father was. You can say, well who cares who my father was, except that we all have fathers and mothers and we never quite understand them. This book I would say what it’s about is a series of gentle revelations about things that I never guessed about my father or why he did them. I thought I knew who he was and then through a kind of odyssey and sequence of events, people saying things—sometimes knowingly sometimes accidentally—reveal the key to major episodes of my father’s life. That’s about character. So much of Greek literature—particularly tragedy, my scholarly specialty—is about how events reveal character. That’s all that tragedy is about, one could say. That’s what this book is about. As with tragedy, you could say who cares about that person’s character, but you want to do it in such a way that it can be enlarged and become a metaphor for a certain type of experience. In this book the type of experience that I’m interested in is a child’s partial knowledge of parents and a child’s partial understanding of his parents' marriage. TM: You get at this in the book that so much of The Odyssey is about this father-son relationship and the education of a son into the wider adult world. DM: I think that’s about as good a way you could put it. TM: You’ve been teaching these works for years, I wonder if there’s been a shift in how students respond to Homer? DM: It’s an interesting question. I don’t mean to be evasive, but I have two answers to that question. On the one hand, I don’t want to call it superficially but certainly the students now are interested in things because they’re being raised in a different culture than I was raised in, so they’re focusing on things that they have been trained to notice. I got here yesterday afternoon and a kid who graduated from UVA who I met and kept in touch with is in Paris so we had dinner together. He had just finished reading The Iliad and I said what did you think? What he was focused on was why aren’t there more female characters, why there aren’t more strong female characters, what is Achilles's sexuality exactly, to what extent is the text explicit about his relationship with Patroclus. I thought well of course because he is a product of contemporary college education where—and I say this with approval—they’re focusing on issues of gender and sexuality. Every generation has its own focuses and lenses, let’s call them. That said, at a whole other possibly larger level, I would say no, there is no difference. [Laughs.] I started teaching as a graduate student in 1989. The fundamental elements are still fundamental and it doesn’t matter what gender or sexuality you are—or what class, something contemporary students are rightly zeroing in on. Who are the slaves? Beyond that I think they’re all finally susceptible to the great power of both The Odyssey and The Iliad in the way they present in the strongest and also most stylish way the fundamental issues of human existence. That’s why they’re classics. I always like to say that the great advantage to teaching great books is that they are great. It’s not like we’re trying to sell you a bill of goods here. [Laughs.] We’re not trying to sell you a lemon and dress it up as a Cadillac, they really are great. I had never really understood the extent to which The Odyssey is obsessed with familial relationships and particularly father-son relationships, as you were just saying. Even people who haven’t read The Odyssey know that it’s a famous story about a guy who’s trying to get home to his wife after 20 years away from home. But in terms of pure real estate, more of the poem is devoted to father-son relationships than to husband-wife relationships. I’ve never done a count, but my hunch is it’s just as much if not more so. The Greeks were obsessed with this as a patriarchal society. Surprise! Odysseus in the book has a double role. He is both a father to a son he doesn’t know and didn’t raise and who has found other father figures to be his father in his absence, but also at the end of the book there’s his old father that he has to reconcile with, come to terms with. As I think I point out in the book, the climactic reunion of The Odyssey is not Odysseus and Penelope, it’s Odysseus and his father. Even structurally the emphasis is clearly on that relationship. I understood this, of course. I taught it a million times, but somehow it just hit me this time around. Look, we all have parents. We all watch them getting old. Those of us who have children watch our children growing up. I think many people feel, did I miss something in my child’s growing up? This is a text that speaks very loudly and clearly and powerfully. TM: One reason I ask is because the military has been sponsoring performances of Greek tragedies for soldiers and veterans and using them as a way to talk about war and trauma. I know The Odyssey is often talked about in a post-traumatic context. DM: I’m not a big fan of those readings. It’s not because I don’t think they’re not true, but I think it leads to the possibility of a reductive reading and I am always militating for expansive reading rather than reductive reading. I reviewed one of those productions, of Euripides’s Herakles, which is adapted as a war hero with post-traumatic stress disorder. I think the danger of that is reducing the complexities of extremely complex works of art for the purposes of contemporary psychologizing. It’s not that I think they’re wrong, but because their emphasis is on trauma I don’t like the idea that people will think that’s what they’re about and thereby exclusive of other readings. Ajax suffers this kind of madness for reasons that are made very explicit in the text that have to do with hubris and Greek theology and the whole system of honor and heroism. I’ve spent my whole career trying to argue for the continuing, vivid relevance of these texts, but there’s more to the story than just this kind of interpretation. I have been certainly been keeping abreast of these performances before veterans and obviously the veterans are responding. If you get a group of soldiers and they’re crying during Ajax, I’m never going to argue with that. But there’s a much bigger picture. I’m a product of a certain moment in classical education when I was in grad school. One was constantly reminded that they were a very different and often strange civilization in comparison with our own. One can go down a slippery interpretative slope if you want them to be a perfect mirror of contemporary experience because they’re not. They had this wacky religion, they had very weird ideas about gender and sexuality, and you have to be careful about how you use them I guess is the point of this digression. TM: When I talk with people who are adapting or interpreting classical stories, we talk about how pop culture stories are often fundamentally different from classical stories. Classically character was destiny, and in contemporary stories that means everything is awesome, I guess. I still remember your review of Julie Taymor’s Spider-Man musical and how she was trying to combine the comic book transformation with the mythical tradition of transformation and they don’t quite match up. DM: Exactly. Listening to you one thing that flashes through my head is that maybe these Greek texts have a kind of hardness and durability because they don’t make a mistake which I think is the great mistake of so much popular entertainment—sentimentality. Modern superheroes are all essentially optimistic visions of transformation. The transformations are always empowering, where you need to only read two pages of Ovid’s Metamorphosis to understand that the ancient transformations are very problematic. The essential vision of life is pessimistic and these transformations are punishments, so [Taymor] was trying to conflate two essentially incompatible visions TM: This is incredibly geeky but Spider-Man always fights people who go through animal-like transformations—The Lizard, The Rhino, Doctor Octopus—and they are flawed tragic characters caught up in this web of hubris and obsession. Who are then defeated by, I guess, a can-do American attitude? DM: I think that’s a brilliant observation. The Greek dramatists would focus on the villain in the Spider-Man stories, not on Spider-Man. That’s so interesting because they’re all grandiose strivers who go wackily wrong—both physically and mentally because of their grandiose ambitions. Those characters would be of much more interest. Back to Taymor, you have made a much more interesting way of stating the issue that I was talking about in the Taymor production—the villains are so much more interesting. Because the heroes are so obviously heroic, the drama about the American hero versus the Greek is they have these double identities. The drama is generated by the necessity of keeping the heroic identity secret. That’s the great anxiety. There is no inherent drama in the way the Greek mind would understand the word drama in these heroes. I’m not saying this is a lesser theme—especially today when we’re so alert to issues of identity and concealment. There is drama in that, but it’s not what a Greek dramatist would be interested in. Obviously identity and self-revelation are very interesting to Homer in The Odyssey. TM: You wrote that great piece in The New Yorker about Mary Renault and your correspondence. I was curious if you planned to write more about it or do something with the piece? DM: I do have an idea for a book. Bob Gottlieb suggested it to me after I wrote that piece and I always listen to him. A book with a title like My Old Ladies. I published that piece on The New Yorker website about this fabulous elderly French lady that I boarded with when I was in college. I could write about [my teacher] Froma. How continually I’ve come under the influence of these very strong older women. As I recall, that Renault piece was probably 14,000 words. I think to amplify it would be a matter of adding more detail but not more structure, so I don’t know that I’m going to revisit that but I would like to assemble some of these ladies in one place. I could write about my mother. It might be a fun book. TM: I also read that you’re working on a book about reading the classics. DM: That’s my next book, which I’ve thought about doing for a long time. When I’m on book tour, there’s a huge number of people who really want to know why these great texts are supposed to be so great. Not in a skeptical way, but a lot of people are like my father, for whatever reason they didn’t get to read the classics or they sped through them in high school and as adults they have some sense that these texts have tremendous amount to say but they need someone who’s going to be the professor. I thought it would be a good to write a book, which in some sense is like these pieces I’ve done for The New Yorker about The Iliad or Herodotus or Thucydides. A number of chapters on different authors or genres, and just say, here’s what it is, these are the issues, let’s sit down and look at them together. TM: The description of An Odyssey sounds like the description of either a new sitcom or an Oscar nominated film, so I have to ask, have you sold the Hollywood rights? DM: [Laughs.] As my grandmother would say, from your lips to God’s ears.
Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Iliac Crest is one of the most fascinating novels I’ve read in years—utterly weird yet deeply resonant in its portrayal of gendered violence. On October 30th, Rivera Garza, Chavisa Woods, and I will meet to discuss the transgressive power of queer horror stories at the Mid-Manhattan Library at 42nd Street. In anticipation of that conversation, I spoke with Rivera Garza over email about the relationship between language and sanity, crossing both literal and literary borderlands, and transforming people of note—in this case, Mexican author Amparo Dávila–into fictional characters. Samantha Hunt: In The Iliac Crest you create a new language, though in the book, the language seems to be less a creation, more an emergence. It appears the way a gathering of mushrooms might spring forth after rain. Central to this language is the word glu. I understand glu to have something to do with water and accordingly the word’s meaning remains liquid. Can I ask what glu means to you? Of course you don’t have to answer this directly. I only long to hear your thoughts around language creation and the mutability of words. Cristina Rivera Garza: Books, real books, produce and reproduce language. Or better yet: they constitute themselves in the territory in which the emergence—the constant emergences—of languages both private and social is thoroughly recreated, registered, and documented. Many have said it before me, but I´d like to repeat it: language is the place of our sociality. We are never lonely in language. We inscribe ourselves in traditions we might agree with or not, so it is always better to be aware of this and position ourselves accordingly. We become social, too, in and through language. The two female characters speaking glu glu—you´re right, the liquid tonality (at least in Spanish) of these letters and, especially, vowels, is central to it—convey both their intimacy and their complicity—can you have one without the other? SH: What is the relationship between language and sanity? CRG: I spent entire years reading and analyzing the files of a large insane asylum—the famous or infamous La Castañeda, out of which grew my first novel No One Will See Me Cry—from 1910 (the year of the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution) to the 1930s, when the early post-revolutionary regime attempted to reconfigure the modern nation. I read insanity there—what these distinct medical and political regimes termed insanity, in any case. Poor men and women from both urban and rural areas of Mexico struggled there to define their condition, often accommodating to the ear of proto-psychiatrists of that time. In those contorted, highly negotiated dialogues surged what came to be known as insanity, and its evil twin: sanity, the other name for modernity. The insane seldom forgot to include their social background through carefully crafted stories in which suffering took a prominent role. You might as well say that sanity, at least in terms of the linguistic exchange taking place within asylum grounds, meant eschewing these experiences—which were an implicit criticism to the causes of their misfortune—out of diagnoses, which by doing so became medical. So, here you have it, language and sanity mediated by concrete relationships of power developing in very tangible circumstances. Something similar happens with language as it becomes Literature (note the capital L), or not. I am prone to the vanishing points. SH: The ocean, rain, and clouds are very present in The Iliac Crest. The book’s concern with language and its setting (a psychiatric hospital) create an atmosphere that is psychological, a realm of the mind. Yet, you title the book The Iliac Crest, a reference to the skeletal body. This bone becomes the sight of seduction and attraction to the narrator. How does this book of ideas, of thoughts, find residence in the skeleton? CRG: Unlike writing that unfolds according to arguments or ideas (as in traditional academic writing, for example), creative writing is bound to bodies. And, as anthropologist Gastón Gordillo once said as he investigated sites of multiple devastation in northern Argentina: bones are the most intimate of all ruins. I am interested in the thisness of my materials. An utter or extreme materiality of sorts. I see myself as someone creating spaces in language in which rubble—non-glamorous ruins—may speak for itself, bringing its pastness with it. In a country in which bodies are made to forcefully disappear, a skeleton is a last remnant of the material life—and a material truth—it held. It all comes down to it. SH: Amparo Dávila, a Mexican writer whose work is often described as uncanny, is all but unheard of in America. She’s transformed into not just one character in The Iliac Crest, but more than one. Some of her fictional characters even appear in The Iliac Crest. What does it mean to have multiple Amparo Dávilas? CRG: Many years ago, when I was a young reader, I came across a haunting short story: “The Guest.” I lost that book and forgot the name of the author, but never quite managed to forget the story. Unnerving and hard to classify, the story became a kind of subtext to what I wrote at that time. Years later, as I was starting what became The Iliac Crest, the story—by Amparo Dávilas, it turned out—came back to me as a gift. A friend mailed the book from Mexico to the United States out of the blue. I realized then that the story was real and not a figment of my imagination. I knew that Amparo Dávila had to become a character of my novel right there and then. I believe “The Guest” was published in English a while ago; and recent translations by Matthew Gleeson have been published in The Paris Review. But you´re right, Dávila's work remains to be fully accounted for in English—and in Spanish too. That quality of her work—and her being—is replicated in the many young Amparo Dávilas that roam in that area of the body known as The Iliac Crest. SH: The Iliac Crest is full of gorgeous language. How do you write? What is primary to your process? Is there a hierarchy (i.e, beautiful language, character, plot, a personal game or joy)? CRG: We all tell stories, at times beautifully, but writers are bound to extricate from them a knowledge—a critical knowledge—to go beyond limits established by the powers that be. As everybody else I am hostage to daily stimuli from my social and natural environment, but I work with those I cannot normalize. The enigma has to be strong and deep enough to keep me from swimming or chatting and sending me directly to writing instead. For years, at times. I believe what Marguerite Duras used to say (I am quoting from the top of my head): writing is what we´d write in case we write. The role of the present and the use of subjunctive—at least in the original phrase in French—underline the aleatory and implacable nature of what we do. I write thus to get to know my materials, and once there, in the process, I try to follow them as closely as I can, as organically too. Language, the specific language for each book, emerges from this operation. As far as I can tell, you know. SH: The book moves beyond borders in so many ways. Life and death are difficult to discern, genders shift, the sane turn insane by a stroke of words. As a citizen of the borderlands yourself, what does border mean to you? CRG: I was born on the border—between Matamoros and Brownsville, cities on the edges of Tamaulipas and Texas, respectively—and have lived on the border much of my life—20 years between Tijuana and San Diego, for example. I've gotten used to eye borders wherever I go, even in places we assume there are none. But they exist—borders of race, language, class, among others. The difference with geo-political borders is that inescapable pair of questions: Who are you? And where are the documents to prove it? Crossing borders, a practice in which so many of us engage across geographies and throughout history, has become a privilege over time. Recent talk about the wall between Mexico and United States is but an example of discrimination and injustice, not to mention plain stupidity. That's why it is so important for writing to attempt to cross borders, be it borders of genre or language (between Spanish and English, for instance), but also larger borders about, for example, our uneven access to the common good. SH: Sarah Booker translated The Iliac Crest. Did you ever consider doing the translation yourself? CRG: I have the greatest admiration and respect for the work translators do. If it is true that writing—true writing—is always written first in translation, then it follows that we all have a bit of the translating bug in ourselves. I have tried my luck at translation and have enjoyed the journey tremendously. But I usually translate works written by others, especially when I am convinced that a translation may take a conversation throughout borders and expand it into new realms. Would you believe me that I find the idea of translating myself redundant? Perhaps a bit dangerous. I have been revising Sarah´s magnificent translation of The Iliac Crest and at times I have not been able to suppress the urge to change entire paragraphs, adding or deleting words more or less at will. Translators are avid and careful readers; they are co-creators of new work.
Kathleen Hill is the author of two novels, Still Waters in Niger and Who Occupies This House. Her memoir, She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons: A Life in Novels will appear in late October and is the subject of the interview that follows. She teaches in the MFA Program at Sarah Lawrence. In conversation with Margot Livesey, her writing friend of many years, Hill reflects on the relationship between life and reading, travel and reading, and the difficulties of writing about family and friends. The Millions: Thank you for the profound pleasure of She Read to Us in the Late Afternoon: A Life in Novels. I love how this book combines the autobiographical and the literary, and how each informs, and interrogates, the other. From the moment I read the opening pages, about the child standing on her head, studying the house supported by its chimney pots, I knew this narrative was going to speak to me, and to many others, at the deepest level. You write about several wonderful novels. Was one of them in particular the inspiration for She Read to Us? Was it hard, after many decades of reading, to choose which novels to focus on? Kathleen Hill: It’s odd, but I don’t think that I actually chose the novels I would write about. It was more that I was visited and revisited by memories of certain times in my life and there, circling in and out of any one of them, was a novel I happened to be reading at the time. For example, when I thought about being 12, I thought of a music teacher and a gifted boy whose life was already marked by tragedy, and all mixed up in that memory was Willa Cather’s Lucy Gayheart. I couldn’t understand why this should be and wrote the story to find out. So I think of this memoir as first of all a story of a life, about certain moments in the narrator’s life, and how that life is shaped and sometimes altered and even transformed by the novel she’s reading during those moments. I suspect that many readers have memories of this kind. TM: I know I do. Your narrative has several presiding geniuses. One who emerges early, and who accompanies us throughout the memoir, is Miss Hughes, your charismatic music teacher. Were you surprised to discover how her words resonate throughout the book? KH: I was indeed! I think one of the reasons her words affect the narrator so powerfully is that art and the struggle to lead a worthy life are for Miss Hughes all but inseparable. She listens to Mozart’s requiem when trying to make an excruciatingly painful moral decision. At another time, she leaves behind an absorbing fantasy of her own to turn her attention to the gifted boy who she knows is suffering in terrible isolation. By example, she instructs the other children on how they are to respond by asking aloud if there’s anything they can do for him. “Because we want you to know that you are sitting in the company of friends.” And she makes a point of telling her students “so that they may not forget it” that for someone else’s suffering they must reserve their deepest bow. For the narrator, at least, her words leave long vibrations. TM: The epigraph for “Things Fall Apart” is a quotation from Chinua Achebe: “The world is like a Mask, dancing. If you want to see it well you do not stand in one place.” Much of She Reads To Us is set outside the United States, first in Nigeria, then in Northern France. Can you tell us about the connection, for you, between travel and reading? KH: I think travel—when you are not simply passing through a place but are there for awhile—leaves you very vulnerable, as if you’re a child suddenly going to a new school in a language you don’t understand. Without your familiar props you begin to wonder who you are, how to live from day to day. And sometimes if a book falls into your hands that book becomes a companion during this vulnerable journey. It may reflect the new world you’re living in that you don’t understand and need to. As, for instance, when the narrator is living in northern France and she reads Madame Bovary not only as a beautifully written novel but as a cautionary tale she means to avoid retelling in her own life. On the other hand, The Diary of a Country Priest, also a novel set in northern France, opens her eyes to the lives of the people she passes everyday on the street, to the students she meets in her classroom, gives her a glimpse of their inner lives. In fact, I think it’s sometimes when we’re most at sea, even desperate, that novels speak to us most strongly, as if our lives depend on learning something from them essential to our own survival. In a novel we actually see and understand people from the inside, as we don’t ever in real life. But it’s sometimes that encounter with a character whose inner life is laid out before us, much like an encounter with a stranger we meet in our travels who tells us their story, that confirms a common humanity, that gives us hope. TM: One of the significant pleasures of She Read to Us is your reticence about other people; for me it makes them more real. We glimpse your husband, your family, your pupils and fellow teachers, your neighbors, but only in the case of Diana Trilling does another person occupy center stage. Did you ever worry about trespassing in the lives of people you love? Was it hard after writing fiction—your beautiful novel Still Waters in Niger is one of my all-time favorites—to be writing as yourself. KH: Well, this is another strange thing. Still Waters in Niger was just as closely based on my own life as this one and it’s called a novel. And I was then, just as much as now, writing as myself. I worried in that case about trespassing on my daughter’s life who figures as a character in it. In this book, I worried about trespassing on the narrator’s husband, C. I try to console myself by remembering that as soon as you write the word “I” you’ve begun to construct a narrator who is different from the self you carry into the world. And so, too, in memoir as well as in fiction, to some degree you make up the characters, the people who appear in your pages. You choose some characteristics of theirs and not others, you find them speaking in ways not entirely natural to them. But that queasiness remains, whether in fiction or memoir, of using the people you know to construct characters. I guess the way you think about all this depends on what you understand by fiction. The Anglo/American literary world, for instance, makes sharper distinctions between fiction and memoir than the European. Think of French writers, Proust, Colette, Duras, and others like them who might not have been published as fiction writers if they were writing for English-speaking readers. Or else changes would have been asked of them. Or think of the German writers: Sebald or Handke who again play close to the line. Or for that matter Joyce in his Portrait of the Artist. TM: Throughout the memoir you describe the act of reading, what it’s like to fall into a book, to be taken both out of yourself and deeper into yourself. All of those descriptions come together in the last section when you describe reading Remembrance of Things Past to, and with, Diana Trilling as her eyesight fails. It’s exhilarating to hear your account of embarking on this great project and to see you, after several years, reach the end of it. For me reading has always been connected to my relationship with time. I wonder if you would agree? And what would Diana say about this? KH: Yes, I think Diana would certainly agree with you! And so would I! When we began together to read aloud Remembrance of Things Past the great unspoken question between us was whether Diana would live long enough for us to complete our project. After all, she was already in her 80s. With the arrogance of youth—I was still in my 40s—I didn’t ask myself the same question. But the great drama playing out in our lives, Diana’s and mine—as we read Proust’s novel in which Time figures so dramatically—was the subject of the novel itself, the furious rush of time. There was Diana’s own struggle with increasing years and the reckoning she was making with her past as she moved closer and closer toward death. And my own struggle, one that I hope is felt in this section, but that I took care not to address directly, was with the imminent loss of a beloved friend. TM: In our secular age it often seems that one of the worst four letter words is “soul,” but I mean it as the highest praise when I say that your memoir embodies Proust’s claim that “Reading is at the threshold of the spiritual life.” KH: I’m deeply pleased that you think so. But Proust is very demanding! I’m guessing that what he meant by the spiritual life is the unmediated inner life where as solitary creatures we strive to rescue our lost selves—or “souls”—from oblivion, to reclaim the past by paying closest attention to hints and intimations. He believed no book could do that for us. We must do it for ourselves. A particular book breaks in and—to use Kafka’s phrase—“serves as an axe to break the frozen sea within.” It disrupts our life, goes against it in some profound way. We’re left thinking: then who am I? how do I connect with other people and their suffering? With my own? How do I live? How do I love? All these questions rise up and our life is changed. It’s different from what it was before.
Bill McKibben planned a strange follow-up to The End of Nature, his bestselling 1989 debut and the first mass-market American book to articulate the crisis of global warming. Working with volunteer customers of the Fairfax, Va., cable television system—at the time, the nation’s largest—McKibben collected VHS tapes of every program and commercial that aired on May 3, 1990. In the months that followed, McKibben watched every moment of television broadcast that day, comparing the world he saw on television to the world he encountered during his time hiking and camping in the woods of upstate New York. The Age of Missing Information beautifully juxtaposes those two distinct experiences, forgoing comprehensive or chronological coverage for a series of linked essays that scrutinize the cultural assumptions that television reinforces. The Age of Missing Information is clearly invested in McKibben’s environmentalist ethic, but the book has more on its mind. Twenty-five years after its publication in 1992, The Age of Missing Information is both an incredibly detailed artifact of American mass culture in the early 1990s and a provocative meditation on the gap between information and knowledge in our current world. This August, I spoke to McKibben, the founder of 350.org, by phone about his memories of writing the book, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, podcasting, and solar-powered television. McKibben’s first novel, Radio Free Vermont, comes out this November from Blue Rider Press. The Millions: In the summer and fall of 1990—27 years ago now—you were watching television eight hours a day, for months and months. Do you remember anything from that time? Is there anything burned into your brain in terms of specific shows or commercials? Bill McKibben: Of all of the 2,400 hours of TV that I watched, really almost the only shows that stuck in my mind as memorable were an hour that Bill Moyers did on some poets and an episode of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, leading me to think that those are probably two of the great broadcasters of our time. TM: I guess that supports an argument that quality television can actually send a memorable message. BM: Beyond that, I have sort of vague impressions; certainly The Brady Bunch is stuck forever in my head, but I have a feeling that has to do as much with adolescence as with that project. TM: So it must have been six or eight months that you devoted to this project, just in terms of the watching television stage? BM: It was actually the better part of a year, because I had somewhere close to 2,000 hours of TV recorded. It took a long time. Of course, I was watching TV like seven or eight hours a day and thinking this was crazy, but as my wife pointed out at one point, it wasn’t that much more TV than most Americans were watching at that point. TM: Did it have an impact on your emotional well-being? BM: Yes—I was grouchy and cranky and out of sorts. One effect was, of course, that I never felt the need to watch TV again, and we got rid of it as soon as that experiment was over. And that lasted for a kind of blissful 10 years or so, until the Internet came along to fill the same mental space. So now too much of my day is spent addictively doing email and Twitter and similar things that I think fill some of the same spot. TM: What do you think the specific connection is there? It seems like your project would be impossible to do today, and in a sense that’s true, but in another sense, as you say, most of us are already spending eight hours a day engaged with a virtual space or some other sort of media. BM: I don’t know if you could do the project today. Even then, we were right at the edge of the end of a kind of agreed, shared idea of a popular culture. And now, that seems…everybody’s got a million ways. One of the things I was trying to come to terms with was that we had gone from the three television stations of my youth to 100, which then seemed an incomprehensible number. Now of course even a mediocre cable system has many more than that. TM: I was a young kid during the period you wrote about, but I do have a pretty clear memory of 1990 and your book really captures my impression of the world as it seemed to a kid watching too much TV. It seems like it would be almost impossible to generalize in that way about “the culture” in 2017. BM: I think that’s correct, but I think it wouldn’t be impossible to generalize about the effect on us. If there’s one message that comes through in that book, I hope, it’s that when you boil down all of the sap—as we do in my part of the world—the syrup that remains is this idea that the message that you get from TV is that you’re the most important thing in the world—the absolute center of the universe. TV was doing that because it was the main organ of a high consumer culture, and that’s the message they wanted to give. But that’s the message even more that one gets from the world of social media—and it’s much better at it. Facebook is forever and forever trying to make sure that it’s tailoring its feed to you so you only see things that are of interest to you. The possibility that you might ever be bored for a moment is impossible—which is why it’s all unbelievably boring. TM: You still use those technologies to engage and advocate— BM: I use Twitter a lot, and it has all the same defects. I wouldn’t use it, but the flip side of this is that I’ve spent much of the last 15 years engaged in full-on activism, and that has been made possible by this connectivity. The virtue of the Internet compared to TV, obviously, is that it does work both ways, and there is this ability to use it to spread, share, and connect. It has a positive possibility that’s not there in television in the same way. But I don’t think we make a great use of that, and the evidence of the kind of loneliness and disconnectedness of people is very, very strong. TM: I’ve always found this book in some ways very bracing and disturbing, but also very funny and entertaining. I’m curious about the process of writing it, and how it compares to some of your more explicitly argumentative writing. BM: It was as much fun as I’ve ever had writing a book, despite the fact that the reporting of it—the sitting there watching the TV—was hard. But the thinking about it was great fun. It was an unusually shaped book; it’s a series of triggered insights, instead of a very tightly built argument. I hope it was funny in parts, because a lot of it was funny to me. TM: One of the more striking arguments in the book is that “daily life has scarcely changed between 1960 when I was born and the present”—referring to 1992 when the book was published. It’s a counterintuitive argument, and one that, when I used to teach this book, my students really struggled with. I’m curious if you think that holds true. How do you assess the changes in daily life since 1990? BM: I think there has been a fundamental shift in daily life triggered by the Internet, just, if nothing else, in the way we spend our time. I know that I spend an enormous percentage of my day on a task that didn’t exist in 1990—answering emails. I do think that something came along that changed the texture of our lives—at least of mine. Now, if people were watching TV seven or eight hours a day and then just switched to the Internet, that would not be much of a change. But I think that the Internet is addictive in an even deeper way. TM: Well, it’s so hard to separate work from pleasure from just wasting time—they all get commingled in a really odd way. BM: Exactly right, and I think in a very damaging way. I just read a tragic story, I think it’s in the next issue of The Atlantic, looking at young people and dating. There have been remarkable changes in their attitudes and behaviors, dating roughly to 2011 or 2012 when the smart phone became ubiquitous. It was powerful and disturbing. TM: One artifact of the 1980s and early '90s that the book frequently references is a widespread cultural discussion of the moral, spiritual, and physical repercussions of watching television. There was a real sense of guilt about watching “trash” on TV. This discussion seems to have completely disappeared; in fact, a few years ago there was a spate of articles that were sort of nostalgic for TV, regretting that families no longer sat around and watched the same show and everyone was on their separate screens. Do we just displace our guilt onto different technologies as the different generations go by? BM: It’s difficult now because the cultural memory of a time before screens has been all but erased. There’s a dwindling number of us who can remember life before the Internet, and there’s almost no one who can remember life before the saturation of television. I’ve been very lucky in that regard. We live deep in the woods, and our first child was born in 1993, before the Internet had reached these precincts. As she grew up, through her early years, there were no screens of any kind—not in a Puritanical way—we just had other things to do. I do remember going to a restaurant to get some takeout food when she was five or so and there was a television behind the cash register. I remember her looking up at it and I asked what she was doing. She said “I’m watching that radio,” which I felt like was a good moment. I will say that two other things that have changed. One, which I understand more in theory than in practice, is that there’s a surge of better television then the stuff I was watching—that television seems to have flip-flopped with the movies in some way, so that if there’s something good you’re more likely to find it on the TV than at the movie theater. The other thing that is very interesting to me and that I’m grateful for is that there’s the rise of this other medium that I really like—radio as transformed by podcasting. I always liked the radio, in part because it allows you to do something else while you’re doing it, which makes it distinctive amongst technologies. There are interesting currents in our media life, but that’s the one I really enjoy. I think people like Ira Glass are heroes of the new landscape. And how odd it is that radio has seen a kind of resurgence. TM: Yeah, the most low-fi, low-tech platform—although podcasts obviously rely on technology— BM: Yeah, but it’s basically just a microphone. You can make them cheaply. TM: One chapter in the book provides a convincing takedown of the old Mutual of Omaha-type nature shows. Is there a way to do nature television right? Or does the platform itself strip out the necessary context? BM: I gather, though I haven’t seen them, that the Planet Earth series was as magnificent as it was possible to get in terms of footage and things. And I’ve certainly seen documentaries that I think were very useful—Chasing Ice,a bout the collapse of the glaciers, is one. I have to say that for me, though, the problem with all of these shows is the insistence that nature is foreign, grand, exotic—that nature is anything except for the thing through which he move on a daily basis. I remain happier to go out and wander around in the woods near me than to look at the grandest woods in the world on television. TM: That reminds me that a lot of the book is a celebration of a disappearing rural lifestyle. But obviously there are all kinds of environmental reasons for people to live in dense places. How can we maintain some sort of connection with or experience of the natural world in these high-density spaces? BM: Absolutely. When I lived in New York City I used to do a regular column called “Urban Naturalist” or something to that effect. New York City is the prime example of an overbuilt city. And yet there you are with incredible parks that are stopovers for amazing migrations at all times. You’ve got this crew of urban park rangers who are out all over the place doing great programs. You are surrounded in New York City by Jamaica Bay with the horseshoe crabs coming in out of the Atlantic for breeding and laying their eggs—one of the great spectacles of the whole natural world. Now you’ve got Governor’s Island, a two-dollar ferry ride away, with all kinds of amazing things to go look at. It’s completely possible, and, in many ways, imperative for people to live in these spaces. And I don’t think that urban settings have ever been the problem really. I think the problem is suburban settings. I think that’s really the world that TV is about. Those are places that the workings of the natural world have been carefully disguised, so that you have no idea what your watershed is, where things go, or where they come from. That’s the world that I grew up in but haven’t spent any time in ever since. TM: You recently traveled to sub-Saharan Africa and wrote about the spreading popularity of solar panels. I was struck when you walked into a Tanzanian village and found that people had bought solar panels to power LED lights, a radio, a phone charger, and a television. MB: Television is the killer app—that’s what the guys who were developing and selling the solar panels said—everybody wants television. Which you entirely understand—everybody wants a connection to a larger world especially for people who live in an isolated condition. A guy said to me very proudly, something to the effect of: we used to sit outside each night and talk to each other, and now we don’t need to do that any more; we each can go to our own house and watch our own television. And I remember thinking, well, I get what you’re saying, but you might want to be a little wary about where that’s going to go. Because that’s about as perfect an explanation of what happened to America as one could ask for. TM: How do you think your students now would react to The Age of Missing Information, 25 years later? MB: I think that they’d be very cognizant…I think everybody has a sneaking feeling that there’s too much noise in their heads from the outside world, that the Internet and TV and whatever else has just put too much noise in our head. So I think that part of it they would completely understand, even if they were unable to make sense of who Richard Simmons is and The Brady Bunch is no longer a common cultural reference. TM: But you start one of your chapters talking about Twin Peaks, and here it is again 27 years later. Richard Simmons was even the subject of a fairly popular recent podcast. BM: That’s true. In some ways, once famous, always famous. That’s how that world works. It feels at once distant and very close.
Attica Locke is the award-winning author of Pleasantville, winner of the 2016 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction, Black Water Rising, and The Cutting Season, and worked as a writer and producer on Fox's Empire. She is also a native of Texas, and descends from two long lines of Texans. It's that history of the black community in rural Texas that she set out to write about in her new novel, Bluebird, Bluebird, about Texas Ranger Darren Mathews. She spoke to The Millions about race, crime, and all the "weird shit" you see on Highway 59. The Millions: I saw you speak about this book at BookExpo this year, and you said you want to write a book that expressed the complexity of the black experience in Texas—that black Texans face prejudice, but also love being there and think of it as their home. Your previous books have also been set in Texas, but is this book different as far as what you’re trying to convey about that experience? Attica Locke: It’s one thing to talk about urban black folks in Houston living a relatively cosmopolitan life. But it has always been true of black folks anywhere in the South—the towns and the rural areas are infinitely more lawless and terrifying than Atlanta or Dallas or Houston. It’s when you get out into the rural areas with a small town sheriff and their version of law enforcement. In the black psyche it’s like, that’s where shit can go wrong. You get pulled over somewhere in the middle of Podunk wherever and nobody ever hears from you again. I do think that writing about the rural area makes this book series different. I also think it speaks to the idea of people who set down agrarian roots, and that was very much my family. My family never left Texas during the great migration. Part of that is class; we owned land, and the sense that you would give that up to move to an apartment building in Chicago was crazy. We hear so much about stand your ground in the lens of the Trayvon Martin tragedy, but the flip side of stand your ground is black folks saying you know what, we built this, we’re not going anywhere. We built this place, we are a huge part of it, and the worst of this state do not get to define the entire state. And I meant for Texas to be a stand-in for the country. I do not believe white nationalists in Charlottesville get to define what America is. They are a very loud and very visible symptom of a big-ass problem, but they’re not the whole of what we are. TM: Randie, the widow of the murdered black man, voices that attitude that you mentioned when she says, why did he come to rural Texas? Of course something horrible was going to happen. And Darren tells her that that’s exactly why he stays. He says being a Texas ranger is a calling, and calls the Jasper murder his 9/11—the moment he decided to stand up and say no, this is our land too, and you can’t make us leave. When I read that I thought, this sounds like what Attica said. Was there a similar moment for you, where you said okay I want to tell this story, we need to speak against this? AL: I will say that there’s a supreme irony that I wrote this book before Donald Trump was elected. After the election I thought, oh my god, my book just changed. I didn’t change a single word, it was already written, but suddenly there was a kind of urgency behind it that I had not necessarily intended. What changed is that now all of a sudden you don’t have to dig down to find these stories, people are walking in the middle of the street wearing their white nationalist pride. I don’t know that there was a specific incident that led me to it. It’s just a lot of things coalesced at once. I’ve thought for a while about why my family never left Texas, and that made me think about what it means to stay and fight. I remember when I realized I wanted to write about a ranger. I knew I wanted the series to go up and down highway 59 and it was my agent who said I think you need a main character to take you through this. And when I thought about the types of characters that could move with that kind of freedom, a Texas Ranger came up. I’d always said my whole career I’d never write about a cop, and then here I was thinking about writing about a cop and remembering having read Ghettoside by Jill Leovy and having read that the flip side of our current conversation about the over-policing of black life is a conversation we need to have about the under-policing of black life. There’s a statistic that in all kinds of crimes, when the victim is black, that is where the prosecutorial system falls apart. That’s when people serve less time. It doesn’t matter if a white person or black person did it—when people of color are victims of crimes, they are least likely to get justice. So that’s the flipside of over-policing, and that was kind of an epiphany, to take a law enforcement officer—a black law enforcement officer—and ask these larger philosophical questions of what are we as black folks to do? When is it safe for us to follow the rules? TM: In the past few years the policing of black lives has become a predominant conversation, at what point during those events were you writing the book, and did that affect it at all? It’s like the book becomes an explainer without meaning to be. AL: This book is so pointedly contemporary. In all of my books it really matters to me that from page one the readers know where they are in space and time. The first book was 1981, The Cutting Season took place three or four years before it was published. This book seems like so right now, there was a sense of having to stay really clear about what you want to say and not letting the news change how a chapter plays out. Where I’ve gotten nervous—I think I put it in the voice of his uncles when they talk about the different approaches to protecting black life. One uncle, who was a ranger himself, believes that the badge in the right hands could be the thing that saves black lives, and protect it. And his identical twin brother, who was a criminal defense attorney, said the law is a thing that black people need protection from. In my writing I said both of these men were holding on to their own creed that held black life as holy and worthy of continuance. It is the most naked statement that I’ve ever made about the fact that black lives matter. It is no surprise that I believe that black lives matter, that I am about that movement. It’s no surprise that I have a problem with “all lives matter.” But it is something to put that down on paper. It was something when I wrote one little bit where Darren nakedly says “I’m here for Michael.” Missy, the other [white] victim, I can get 20 people here for her in about an hour. I can get Dateline here for her. I can get 20/20. But this man needs my help. That’s a bold to write and sometimes uncomfortable. TM: A lot of characters in the book are loosely based on your family. The roadside café is similar to one your great-grandmother ran, the locations are close to where your family lived, and you have twin great uncles. Was writing about an area that is so closely tied to your family, and writing in some ways about your family, at all constricting? AL: No, not at all. I think I felt that more with my first book Black Water Rising because Jay Porter is very clearly a sketch of my father. I think the way in which I’m borrowing my family’s history here is more generalized—the idea of setting down roots, the idea of black women who catered to black travelers on the highway who had nowhere else to go. It isn’t so much that Geneva in the book has the same personality as my great grandmother, it’s just I just grew up with all of this stuff as cultural wallpaper, and so I was just pulling from the familiar. But I didn’t necessarily feel that I owed a representation of my family. TM: Did you know your great grandmother? AL: Oh, yes. She passed when I was maybe 10 or 11, so I spent a lot of time with her. The café was gone, it was just stories and old pictures. TM: I was looking at photos of Corrigan, Texas, on Google Maps when I learned that that’s where your great grandmother’s café was, and I assumed it was a town similar to Lark in the book. Just looking through those photos I was like, oh yeah, this is where the book takes place. I almost wish I had looked through those before I read the book. AL: I’m glad you did that, because the other thing about this book is that it is a window of Texas that is not the classic southwestern big sky country. East Texas is nothing like that. It is nearer to Louisiana—I call it Louisiana’s fraternal twin. They are connected in some way. It’s lush and filled with forests of pine trees, lots of bayous and creeks, it’s not like the arid southwest. Even my editor, when I started sending pictures to give her an idea for the cover, said, oh you know I’ve never been to east Texas and now I get it. The idea that people would be introduced to the very particular bluesy culture of east Texas is amazing to me. TM: The Aryan Brotherhood of Texas (ABT) play a big role in the book. When I read it, I thought, she could not have known that her book was going to come out a month after an enormous white supremacist rally. The portrait of the ABT, especially Keith (Missy’s widower, a man connected to the ABT), ends up being at least empathetic, if not sympathetic, but there are a few moments where you understand Keith and the pain that he was in. How did you approach writing about a group, and even in a few chapters writing from the perspective of Keith, when they have views that are antithetical to your life and characters’ lives and your family’s life going back generations? AL: A couple of things. One—as a writer I believe that villains and villainy have to be complex. I also think it’s important that in Charlottesville what you saw was a bunch of young guys in polo shirts—you need to understand that that is what it looks like. I think writing from that point of view for a chapter is to say this is actually still a human being. He’s not a monster. He’s actually still a fucking human being. I think that for me I’m always interested in getting at the psychological wounds around racism--be they the wounds of the victims of racism, or be they the psychological wounds of the perpetrators of racism--because I firmly believe the unconscious is at play in all of this. Without giving too much away about the ending, I think there is a realization that it’s people’s confused feelings about the other that create this thing that we are mistaking for hate, but that deep down should be called something different. It could be called envy, it could be called love, it could be called fear. I’m always looking to somehow find out what’s going on at the level of the psyche. Yes there are sociopaths or people who are off the rails crazy. But people come in clean, out of the womb, and there are life experiences that begin to shape your thinking about things. I don’t know that human beings’ first fundamental impulse is hate. It doesn’t mean that you don’t circle around and get there, but what I’m interested in is how the fuck did you get there? And maybe in that investigation there’s a way to get to the core of this sickness that has been a part of our nation for so long. For me it’s just deeper than straight hate. I think that at the level of the subconscious there’s a realization for some white folks that you didn’t really do anything by yourself. There’s almost an infantile way that you participated in the birth of the country. You weren’t out there doing the real shit. You could not have survived a new land, swampy conditions in the south, land that you were trying to tame, you could not have done that by yourself. The level of dependence that you had on black bodies makes people’s heads explode. I think people can’t tolerate the fact that that is how we’re connected so deeply, the realization that what you present to the world as a superior race that ran everything is not really true. You could not have done it without black labor, without black bodies, in so many ways. I think that level of dependence, and that unconscious knowledge that you’re not as great at all this as you thought you were makes you black out. TM: Again, without giving too much away, the book explores how what initially appears to be a strictly segregated town is infinitely more complicated than that. AL: I think that for some of the current racists that we’re seeing out and about in the world, racism came from the question, how come I’m falling behind? A lot of it is your own inadequacy. If you tell a certain group of people that there’s such a thing as white privilege, and they don’t seem to benefitting from it at all, and then here’s Barack Obama who went to Harvard, it can make you feel inadequate, and then it morphs into a feeling of hate or the other, but it’s really some shit going on within you. TM: Even though the series will be about Darren, there are three incredible female characters in this book that are so different, and each of them is a version of a familiar black female character. Geneva is a wise matriarch, Bell was an uneducated teen mother who now depends on her adult son for support, and Randie is a beautiful jet-setter in a cashmere coat. But each of these women push back against that character type. Was that intentional? AL: I did mean that for Geneva. I wanted for her to convey—don’t be fooled by this tableau of black maternal warmth and I’m cooking this, I’m baking that. She keeps Darren at arm’s length until he earns her respect. I meant that on purpose, definitely. Bell, I don’t know where she came from, I literally have no idea. I knew his mother didn’t raise him, and I knew I wanted there to be a class element to it, but it wasn’t until I wrote a scene where she was chipping nail polish off of her toe with a beer, that’s when I knew her instantly. And then I just kind of went with it. TM: The richest guy in Lark owns a house that's a scale model of Monticello, and his dog lives in a scale model of the White House. Is that based on anything? AL: The only thing that it’s based on is that you see weird shit like this up and down highway 59. You see all kinds of crazy, I don’t understand what the culture of it is except showing off. I have pictures of people who have a huge pistol in their yard—when I say huge pistol I mean they built an iron 32-foot pistol that just sits in the front yard. You just see all kinds of crazy stuff. It just came from the quirkiness of some of these small towns.
John Haskell's fiction is like little else. Or is it non-fiction? Or is it just magic and not something to be too greatly dissected? In one collection and three novels, he explores the mind's torsions in an uncommon, questioning manner within a first-person sense of orality, like being around a campfire with Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. At times, the wending way of Haskell's narrators—who include a Steve Martin impersonator, a ghost, and those disembodied voices who talk about films and artists in I Am Not Jackson Pollack—are incredible chess-like gambits and logic-chopping suppositions both pre- and post- to frustrate (in a good way), embolden, and prod the reader. In his new book, The Complete Ballet, Haskell again presents a first-person speaker who is trapped by a real-life threat, based on a John Cassavetes film, but muses on the great figures of ballet in an effort to right his present trouble and past grief. We talked about the book, his process, and the Internet, through the Internet, this summer. The Millions: As in American Purgatorio, death lurks in this new novel, the death of a child. Since you have a young daughter, I imagine there was more than a little mining of your day-to-day life. Something along the lines of Julia Kristeva's “The speaking subject gives herself away.” I felt an inkling of that in this book, like the earlier one. Your narrators approach death and grieving obliquely, almost erasing themselves in the process of grieving. The subtitle of this book is A Fictional Essay in Five Acts. Which leads me to ask a naive question, Who is who? Or better, How close are you to your main characters? Do you feel you give yourself away when writing? And if you do, which self do you give away? John Haskell: The whole idea of identity is slippery. It’s not a slope because there is no actual place where a person might slip, or if there is, it’s the place of having no identity, which to me seems similar to inhabiting multitudinous identities, and so, getting around to your question, yes, everything is real because once I’ve pictured it and once I’ve lived inside whatever event might be happening, it feels as real as so-called reality, so that who is who, meaning who am I, becomes a different question. Who I am is everyone. I’m both Haskell the ballet critic and Nureyev the dancer. I’m Cosmo, the character in the Cassavetes movie who kills the Chinese bookie, but I’m also me, the writer and character, and having said all that, the character of me in the story isn’t me. TM: I noticed in this book a breaking up of narration within the sentence, a unique and fast way of pushing across action and scene, as in this sentence, “Whatever chemical causes elation, I was feeling a surge of it, looking around at the men at the table, all of them older than I was, most of them smoking cigars, drinking amber-colored drinks which turned out to be whiskey, and I'll have one too.” That last clause, a brush of dialogue, of which there is barely any in the book, adds a sort of grace note to the details before it. How did you go about writing this way? Was it a conscious choice? JH: Ah, the idea of conscious choice, or unconscious choice. Again, not to seem opaque, I’d have to say that conscious and unconscious, although they’re obviously not the same, seem the same when I’m writing. And maybe that happens because of rewriting. Going over and over, smoothing and simplifying and clarifying, and if I’m not listening to Bach then I’m listening to the continuity of thought that gets sucked into the language, creating a language that, I hope, makes sense of what I’m thinking. TM: Do you mean you listen to Bach when you write? JH: I don’t remember what I was listening to when I wrote The Complete Ballet but lately I’ve been listening to Bach. At the moment I have a flute concerto playing. When I say Bach I’m talking about what is almost a metaphorical music, with phrases that expand and collapse, which join and separate, not beginning because there was no ending to begin with, just flowing, an overused word but like a river flows the words of a sentence or thought can get carried along, sucked into the larger river that comprises the language itself. TM: This book is made up of some plot points of John Cassavetes's The Killing of a Chinese Bookie from 1976. I know you have a love of film (and certainly Cassavetes) and have plumbed other great works from Psycho to Pickpocket to the film noir Detour. What made you take this film as template? Is there a special affinity for Cassavetes's take on an old film noir standby, the gambler who loses and has to make up the mark for the mob? The film itself isn't even a neo-noir really, with its examining the life of the striptease club Cosmo runs. Its cult reputation has grown, with many saying it was Ben Gazzara's best performance. JH: I’d been thinking of working with that movie, partly because of the mood of the movie and partly because of the narrative. And partly because of the way the movie disrupts that narrative. But I had trouble making it work for me. I kept writing and rewriting it, altering my version and getting farther away from the Cassavetes version, my character becoming less and less like Ben Gazarra and more like Cassavetes himself, and when I still couldn’t get it to work for me I thought it was because of the color, the sharp, saturated, contrasty reds and blues, that the color was messing with my plan. So I set it aside. But it didn’t go away, and eventually, after many transformations, I found myself inside the story in a way that started to make sense. And the milieu of '70s Los Angeles started to make sense. Of course it made no sense to juxtapose that story with essays on Romantic ballet, but as I kept revising all the various incompatible elements the more it did make sense, or seemed to, and that’s why I called it Complete, which is slightly tongue-in-cheek because it would never be complete. TM: I cling to what you say about the contrasty reds and blues in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Maybe because there is no color Cassavetes film that seems so memorable in terms of color, which may have to do with the nightclub scenes, but also those eerie daylight scenes. Did the ballet crossover come out of the nightclub act? What is your history with ballet? JH: Not much history with ballet, but it started, I think, with some research I did, many years ago, on Joseph Cornell, an artist and balletomane who worshipped ballerinas with a perverse kind of nostalgia. Then, a few years ago, an ex-ballet dancer started telling me some of the stories of the ballets. That got me thinking, as did conversations I had with a choreographer friend about George Balanchine’s relationship with his dancers. Then, when I was rewriting the book, my daughter, who was about three years old, became a ballet fanatic. Together we watched the videos on YouTube and I began to see the stories of the ballets, including the stories of the people who made them and danced in them, as mythic. And I’m interested in how a story, especially a personal story, becomes mythic. TM: Tooling around the Internet the other day, I found a Goodreads review of your novel, Out of My Skin. “I am not sure about this book. The language isn't offensive-the writing isn't bad-but it just made me feel really awkward. The weirdest part for me was when the main character goes into the impersonator's house to meet his parents and gives them a tour of the neighborhood. It just seemed like too many boundaries were crossed.” The “it just made me feel really awkward” piqued. Are you adverse to writing in a way that would not make people feel awkward? Often we hear about people who avoid a book or movie because they think it will “depress” them. Do you think art can make one feel a certain way? JH: Well, it often makes me feel a certain way. But I don’t have a design for what a person should feel. Only that something happens, a thought or emotion or…and speaking of Cassavetes, I remember the first time I saw Faces, or possibly it was Shadows, another early movie, and afterwards I walked out of Lincoln Center into Central Park, feeling a sense of excitement in my body, and it wasn’t directly about the movie but more about the art that had been revealed in the movie. I could call it beauty or honesty, and as my daughter said when she took her first swimming lesson, I feel excited and nervous, and I certainly don’t mean to make anyone feel awkward, but maybe being awkward is a kind of excitement and nervousness and maybe it was what the person needed. Or maybe that person preferred a different kind of book.
Nisi Shawl’s debut novel, Everfair, reveals a history that could have been—that should have been. Shawl, a prolific writer of speculative short stories, wrote a steampunk alternate history that could just as easily be used as a how-to guide for creating a modern utopia. The novel illustrates how people of vastly different backgrounds can work together toward a common goal. In this case, that goal is to create a safe place (named Everfair) for refugees from the brutality of Belgium’s King Leopold II in late 19th-century Congo. On the surface, Shawl’s characters are so different as to be incompatible. There’s an African-American pastor. A disabled Chinese railroad worker who makes functional prosthetic limbs for maimed and broken runaways. A family built on polyamory. But each contributor to Everfair is driven by the same conviction that Belgium’s colonization of the Congo is destructive and vile. Instead of meeting violence with violence, the founders of Everfair buy some land and set up their own anti-colonial haven. As it usually goes with these matters, the colonizers don’t take kindly to Everfair, but the book is ultimately a hopeful one. In addition to her novel and short stories, Shawl writes a column on science fiction by Black authors for Tor.com, teaches writing, and has written extensively on the topics of inclusive speculative fiction and writing the other. Over the summer, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Nisi Shawl to talk about her novel, why it’s important to write about people from different groups and backgrounds, and what all of us can do to make literature more inclusive. What follows is an edited version of our conversation. The trade paperback version of Everfair is out now from Tor Books. TM: Before Everfair, you mostly wrote short fiction. What was it like transitioning from the short form to the novel? NS: Actually, I wrote three other novels before Everfair, it’s just that nobody bought them. So the transition wasn’t sharp. What I originally started out with was poetry, which is an even shorter format than the short story. So there was a transition, but it was much more gradual, and I was writing short stories at the same time that I was writing novels. When it comes to Everfair I have been accused by some readers of writing a bunch of related short stories rather than a novel. There is actually an arc to the novel. It’s not the arc of a person, it’s the arc of a nation. People who know that going in might have an easier time of it. I do have a couple other series of short stories, one of which I would like to publish—that one will be a bunch of short stories acting like they’re a novel. I don’t think Everfair was. But then, I wrote it. TM: Everfair the place is very much a character in the novel. Can you talk about writing the arc of the nation as opposed to writing a more individual-driven story? NS: I realized as I was writing the novel that I would have to have a macguffin. I would have to have some sort of plot device that people could latch onto and say, “Well, it’s a love story. It’s a love story between Daisy and Lisette,” and then that would satisfy that need. But at the same time I just knew it was about Everfair, it was about the nation itself, about the project. When it comes to creating a place as a character, I’m so glad that you noticed that, because it is a very important thing to me. My go-to guy on that is Raymond Chandler. He was writing in a different genre, he was a homophobe, he was anti-Semitic, problematic in many ways, but man, he could make a setting come alive and be active, and that’s what I study him for and that’s what I was trying to accomplish. TM: Can you talk about your process, and your routine? NS: I seem to write fairly finished drafts, I don’t do a lot of “write everything in 30 minutes and go back.” What I come up with is usually pretty close to what’s going to be going on. I have a critique group that I attend, and they help me with what is not actually on the page, or unintended consequences of what I’m writing. Then I often revise based on what they say and what an editor says. As far as the routine, because I went to [renowned science fiction residency] Clarion West, I generally write in the afternoon. At Clarion West the classes are in the morning. So whereas most people are like, “Get up at five, write first,” no, I have to write in the afternoon. So I spend the morning exercising and taking care of all the other writing stuff that goes on, send a bio to this place—that’s why we’re having an interview here in the morning. Afternoon is writing time. And I do this thing where you do 90 minutes [writing] and 30 minutes not writing. It’s not as fast as a sprint, but I do have timed breaks, and I do push through those 90 minutes. I usually pray before I start writing. Because I practice a West-African tradition, I pray to Eshu or Elegba, any of those [deities] that mediate between the realm of what’s happening and what could happen, and ask for their help in entering and coming back from the world of the imagination. And then sometimes I do additional prayers based on what I’m writing. TM: How does your spiritual practice feed into your writing, and how does your writing feed into your spiritual practice? NS: There is quite a bit of overlap. The West-African tradition is very much about spirituality being bound up in materiality. That dichotomy between spirituality and materiality is false, and writing is one of the points at which that dichotomy breaks down. You’re writing about imaginary friends, as one of my friends put it, you’re writing about imaginary worlds, and you’re creating something physical with it—a related impression, not the exact impression you have, but a related impression in the mind of another physical being. I do write quite a bit that depends on my spiritual practice. In Everfair, for example, one of the characters is a practitioner of a related tradition. Then there are other short stories where people are practicing it. Even when it’s not there on the surface, I think of my characters as related to different deities. We call it, in my tradition, someone is ruling your head. So you could be very much like Oshun, you could be very much like Ogun, and I think of my characters in those ways. TM: What was the most challenging thing about writing Everfair? NS: The most challenging thing was probably trying to do research about a people who had been killed off in the millions, a culture that had been just shredded, and a place that I had not been to and could not get to with the resources I had at hand. So that was challenging. TM: How did you overcome the research challenge? Where did you find your information? NS: I am a proponent of using multisensory research for anything like that. I did quite a bit of reading. I read things online, which led me to books I was able to get deeper into. One of my most helpful books is called African Reflections. It’s basically a catalog of an exhibit of the booty from an expedition to the area I was writing about, the Upper Congo, very shortly after the period I was writing about. That was very helpful because it had photos as well as really important essays. Sometimes I had to pass a side-eye on some of the things I was reading, some of the anthropological texts were obviously written from the point of view of someone outside the culture. I also did quite a bit with music. I was able to set up a Pandora station with music from that region. I’m sure it’s changed over a couple hundred years, but it was so immersive, and that’s what I look for. I did some cooking. There was only one film [The Kitchen Toto] I was able to find, but I used that. Websites of people who were involved in it, people who have descended from it, people who have come to the area in the last 10, 15 years. All of that was helpful. TM: One of the things I loved about Everfair was the truly diverse cast of characters—not just racially, but ethnically, religiously, in terms of sexual orientation and even disability. Was that a conscious choice or did it evolve more organically? NS: I wanted not just to have people represented, but to have them have their own voice. That’s something that I find very helpful in this sort of “writing the other” mode that I’ve published a book about, that I teach about. It’s one thing to have someone talking about a Chinese railway worker, it’s another thing to have that builder speak for themselves. And that’s what I was very conscious of, that I wanted to have people speak for themselves. Nobody thinks they’re a bully or a villain, and I was very consciously trying not to have bullies and villains. When people would talk about themselves, what they saw, what they were doing, their motivations, it became much less black and white. TM: You’ve done a lot of writing and teaching about how to “write the other” in a respectful, realistic way. What would you say to people who are afraid of screwing up when writing about people from different backgrounds? NS: It’s important to do it because it’s good writing. It’s realistic. You have to, of course, do research, and you have to be mindful that you are doing things that could have consequences for the people that read, for the people that are part of a culture you’re trying to depict, but you still have to do it. You can’t just back out; that’s sort of creepy and cowardly if you ask me. The thing to do is remember that you might get criticism and that criticism might actually be helpful. It might be what you need to hear. I have less sympathy for the people who are afraid for themselves, and more sympathy for the people who are afraid for others. In other words, some people are saying, “Well, I will get beaten up on and I will get vilified,” and others are saying, “Well, I could cause someone actual harm.” That I have sympathy for. And to that I could just say, do your best, and learn. TM: Everfair is an alternate history/steampunk story. What drew you to this genre and this particular era and story of colonization? NS: I had been confronted with the idea that steampunk valorized colonization and empire, and I really wanted to spit in its face for doing that. Alternate history, you know, I guess I am really attracted to it just because I just dislike this privileged narrative of “This is the way things are, this is the way things were supposed to be.” Just because something happened doesn’t mean that that’s the way it had to happen. And I think it helps us figure out where to go next if we figure out where we might have been coming from. TM: What role do you see speculative fiction playing in our social and political lives? NS: A major, major role. I think of speculative fiction as basically taking care of all of our needs when it comes to imagining ourselves, imagining ourselves doing better, imagining ourselves in the future, imagining ourselves in the past. To me, speculative fiction makes stories of ourselves in a world that is unknown and in some ways unknowable. There are films, there are games, there are novels, those are all ways that people use speculative fiction to tell themselves a story of what’s going on right now, and what’s going to happen, and what has happened. TM: When it comes to inclusivity, what can writers, editors, and readers of speculative fiction do to make the genre better? NS: For starters, as readers we can look for lists of writing that features inclusivity. Like lists of books by women, lists of books by disabled people, lists of books by trans people—and read them. You can, as a reader, back Kickstarters for projects like this. As a writer, you can work to be more inclusive in your own stuff, and you can also encourage others, in particular those “own voices” writers. For instance, I accepted an invitation to a magazine and was asked who else they should request, and I had a list of all of these people I thought they should be in contact with. As a writer you can use whatever influence you have to get others noticed, as well as doing the best on your own that you can. As an editor, you can look for and encourage the presence of writers outside the mainstream, dominant paradigm. And that includes not just saying your story is perfect so I’ll publish you, but saying your story is really cool in some interesting ways, and you have to revise it a little bit, but I’m going to help you do that and get that published.