The Millions Interview

Our World Is Straight-Up Surreal: The Millions Interviews Carmen Maria Machado

The literary world has been waiting for a Carmen Maria Machado collection for several years, and in October, Graywolf Press will oblige with the release of Her Body and Other Parties, a collection of Machado’s haunting, graceful speculative stories that has been longlisted for a National Book Award. The Internet became aware of Machado in 2014 when her story “The Husband Stitch” was published by Granta. “The Husband Stitch” was something new altogether, and went on to be nominated for a Shirley Jackson Aware and a Nebula Award, among other honors. Every new story by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop grad has further stoked anticipation. Machado’s stories take place in a version of our real world that has been subtly distorted. Identities blur, women become invisible (literally), and lonely individuals seek intimacy at the end of the world. But these events don’t occur in some alternate science fiction reality; Machado’s spaces are recognizably our own, forcing us into the emotional upheavals of their protagonists. Machado’s writing is both vulnerable and fearless, in complete control even as her characters lose control entirely, and she wields her unique voice to explore identity, marginalization, mental health, and what intimacy looks like in the light and shadow of all three. We recently had the chance to talk over email about benevolent sexism, urban legends, and her writing process. The Millions: “The Husband Stitch,” first published in 2014, seemed to be the story that made the Internet perk up and really pay attention to the name Carmen Maria Machado. It’s the story that opens Her Body and Other Parties. What has been the significance of that story and the response to it on your career as a writer and the formation of this collection? Carmen Maria Machado: I always tell people that they should write the stories they want to see in the world, and that’s advice I try to take as well. I was nursing “The Husband Stitch” in my heart for a very long time—not that structure or narrative specifically, but the emotional arc. I thought a lot about benevolent sexism as a powerful and damaging force, and realized it was a critical note I needed to strike in Her Body and Other Parties. And then, one day, I had the story structure to tell it in a way that felt faithful to my own musings. Of course, the explosion of interest around that story, and the persistent love of it, is really encouraging to me. I never imagined when I was writing it that it would have that kind of power and longevity. I’m not sure there’s anything more exciting or rewarding as a writer. But I don’t think it has much to do with me as an artist, particularly—rather, I think it was a note that needed to be struck. I think people were hungry for it. TM: Your comment about benevolent sexism brings up a powerful piece of writing that was one of the first things I ever read by you: your essay "A Girl's Guide to Sexual Purity" for L.A. Review of Books. My wife and I both grew up in the Evangelical purity culture (and have since left the faith), and the essay spoke to a lot in our own pasts. While Christian purity culture is never mentioned in "The Husband Stitch" (the story takes place well before the emergence of that late-20th-century movement), it grows from the same soil from which that movement would later mushroom. Was that connection on your mind during the writing of this story? How does your background in the Christian purity culture impact your writing? CMM: I think it serves as a constant reminder to me of what happens when people are not vigilant about the narratives young women absorb about themselves and their bodies and sex and sexuality—how catastrophically damaging they can be. I don't think I can solve that problem single-handedly or anything, but I can provide an alternate narrative for those who need it. TM: There’s this fascinating way you intertwine innocence and betrayal in that story without obscuring either. They are separate threads, braided together here—desire that is beautiful and desire that is toxic—and the reader can trace both throughout. Your use of so many old folk tales and urban legends—stories we all passed around among our friends as spooked kids and teenagers—takes the reader back to a more open, unprotected age, and then they’re confronted with the ugliness of patriarchal entitlement. Can you tell me a little about how that story came about? What ties those old legends together, and what made you flip them on their heads here? CMM: I was a Girl Scout for almost my entire childhood, and when we went camping I really loved the part where we told scary, theatrical stories around the campfire. I enjoyed hearing them, and I was really good at telling them. The version of “The Green Ribbon” I heard at that age—which is the one famously retold by Alvin Schwartz—has stuck with me ever since; I don’t know why. (I’ve been trying to explore this very question in an essay.) It’s possible that I was fascinated by the question of the ribbon itself—how did it get there? How did she go her entire life without disturbing it?—but there was something about the ending that really distressed me. Alfred asking and asking and asking, and Jenny relenting on her deathbed. Was she trying to fuck Alfred up as her final act on this earth? Was she just tired of saying “no?” Why did she give him what he wanted? Like the best folktales, the story was spare enough that a reader could project all sorts of things into it; the flatness serves as a kind of scrying pool for whoever is looking inside. And, so years later, when I was at a residency in New Hampshire, I sat down and found myself combining several ideas: a sex-loving, midcentury housewife, the story’s title—which I’d learned about from my OB-GYN nurse aunt—and the woman with the green ribbon. I revisited all of those questions, to try and find my own answers. The secondary urban legends and stage directions didn’t come until later drafts. When I went to go add those secondary stories, I consulted Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark trilogy. I flipped through the pages until certain stories spoke to me as ones that could stand one of her retellings. I think urban legends (and folktales, and fairy tales) have this way of showing us what we already know to be true, and I wanted these narratives to reflect that fact. TM: For you, the speculative elements in your fiction seem to be a way to subtly tug and pluck at the strings of reality on a very personal level. How did you get started writing speculative stories, and how do these elements play in your imagination as a writer? CMM: I get “into” stories in a number of ways, but a lot of my ideas come from observing what’s around me and pushing into it a little. My wife and I play this game where we’ll see something and I’ll lean over and suggest a fantastic alteration to it. For example, we’ll see a little kid playing with her reflection in a large window, and I’ll say to my wife, “What would happen if the reflection stopped following her?” I do this in my own head, too, and sometimes I’ll stop talking mid-sentence and my wife will say to me, “Are you getting an idea right now?” as I run for paper and pen. (Or, if I’m driving, I’ll say, “I’m about to say some weird sentences to you, please text them to me.”) When I teach, I talk to students a lot about “play,” and how that critical part of your young imagination can be snuffed out if you don’t feed it and take care of it. There’s been a lot of good and interesting writing about this idea of nursing one’s creative subconscious—I’m particularly fond of this essay by Kelly Link—and I think it’s an element of craft that doesn’t get touched on enough. Before plot or dialogue or even character, the mind needs to be observant, nimble, playful, and curious around the world around it. Without that, fiction is DOA. TM: I've found Kelly Link's thoughts (the essay you linked to) about writing from our obsessions, no matter how trivial they seem, to be tremendously helpful. Do you similarly maintain a list of these obsessions for yourself, as Link does? CMM: I do! I make lists of obsessions, of fears, of images that strike me, of phrases that might make good titles, of potential formal constraints, of stories only I think I can tell, of memories, of sentences that come to me, of settings that give me a thrill...list-making is so satisfying, and such a useful way of cataloguing what's going on inside my head. TM: A number of your stories are only one degree separated from our present reality. A plague is wiping out humanity, or women are becoming incorporeal for no discernible reason, but otherwise the characters and settings are, for lack of a better word, normal. They’re what we’re all living every day, and then this awful warping occurs. What does that method open for you when you’re writing a story? CMM: As a young woman, I did read some secondary world and/or portal fantasy (Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, the Narnia books), but my absolute favorite work presented a familiar world with tweaked fantasy, science fiction, and/or horror elements: A Wrinkle in Time, the work of Lois Duncan, Behind the Attic Wall, all of Louis Sachar’s books, John Bellairs. I was not leaving for another world; instead, I was being shown potential avenues of perception in my own world. I don’t think this is, like, aesthetically superior or anything, it’s just what tickled my own imagination. I think it created in me an acute sense that magic could be just around the corner. And quite frankly, so much of our world is just straight-up surreal—look at the current political climate, for example—that this kind of worldbuilding often feels very natural to me. TM: Who are some writers, past or present, who inspire you creatively? CMM: I’m particularly indebted to a certain generation of 20th-century writers: Shirley Jackson, Angela Carter, Jane Bowles, Lucia Berlin, Patricia Highsmith, Lois Duncan, Ray Bradbury, Gabriel García Márquez. But there is also an incredible line-up of contemporary folks who have shaped me into the writer I am: Kelly Link, Karen Russell, Helen Oyeyemi, Alice Sola Kim, Kevin Brockmeier, Nicholson Baker, Bennett Sims, Sofia Samatar, Alissa Nutting. And I’m discovering more every day: I recently finished Anne Rivers Siddons’s The House Next Door and Kathryn Davis’s Duplex—the first novels of those writers I’ve ever read—and I feel like my imagination is firing on every cylinder. TM: Your book’s title directly reveals a theme that weaves through every story in the collection: women’s bodies, the ways they both serve and betray these women (or are used by others to do the same), the ways they are both pleasured and violated. Can you tell me a bit about that theme and how is defines so much of this collection? CMM: I am singularly obsessed with the body; even my interest in the mind is rooted in the body, since the two are inseparable from each other. I’d be lying if I said this interest didn’t stem from my relationship with my own body: with moving through the world as a fat, queer, not-quite-white woman, experiencing physical ailments and struggling with mental illness. My mind is housed in my body; my body is flawed and also falls outside of specific culturally-acceptable parameters and is also actively oppressed. It experiences pleasure and brings me joy and it suffers; I fight against it and love it and accept it and loathe it. How better to grapple with these contradictions than write a book about it? TM: Full disclosure: I have never seen a single episode of Law & Order: SVU. I wasn’t sure what to expect going into your story “Especially Heinous,” which creates a fictional episode listing for the show’s entire run. I found it absolutely fascinating. What was the inception of that novella, and why did you choose such an unusual structure? CMM: I often tell people that its root was years before, when I’d spent a severe bout of swine flu in front of a Law & Order: SVU marathon, and drifted in and out of feverish consciousness in front of my computer. Whether or not that’s the actual place where it began, during my second year at grad school, I had the idea of writing a story using a television show as its anchor. I initially toyed with idea of taking existing episode capsules from IMDB and simply altering them toward fantasy, but I realized pretty quickly that this format was far too limiting. I did, however, notice that Law & Order: SVU only had single-word titles, which seemed to be as good a jumping-off place as any. The story came together pretty quickly after that—the titles provided a kind of mental springboard, and I bounced between plotlines and pulled everything together. Up until that time it was the longest singular project I’d ever written. (I should add that I intend the story to be readable to folks who haven’t seen Law & Order: SVU; but if you have, there might be some small Easter Eggs you can enjoy.) I think the structure works for this story for a few reasons. First, we’re very accustomed to marathoning TV nowadays, what with Netflix and other online streaming services, and so in some ways this is like a Netflix marathon from hell. The format also allows the pleasure of cutting one-off “episodes” with continuing storylines, which taps into the reason people enjoy shows with formulas like Law & Order to begin with. This structure doesn’t work for everyone—I received the meanest workshop letter in my entire MFA from a student who very much disliked every element of this story, and derisively referred to it as “fanfiction”—but obviously some folks respond to it very strongly. I don’t mind writing aesthetically divisive work; on the contrary, it’s a real pleasure. TM: In “The Resident,” you toy with the trope of the misunderstood madwoman forced together with other, “saner” folks (Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House came to mind), but in this case you redeem her from that relegation to insanity. That story seemed to come from a very personal place? CMM: When I workshopped a very early version of this story, a reader said, reluctantly, “I tire of ‘madwoman in the attic’ stories.” I felt bowled over by this note, because I, too, dislike sexist tropes about mad women, particularly mad lesbians, and here I’d created a story that centered around them. So I asked her, “What happens if you want to write a first-person story about a woman with mental illness? What do you do then?” She just shrugged. So I had this massive, sprawling story that felt important to me but ran up against this trope, and I didn’t know what to do about it. As someone who has mental illness—acute, debilitating anxiety—I’ve always been very interested in trying to snatch back narratives that have seemingly been taken away from me. So I decided during my many rewrites—and there were many!—to try and address this idea more forcefully. I reasoned, as long as the story took on these tropes, and she had agency and intelligence and context, she could be as mad as she needed to be. (I should add that I don’t begrudge the note that led me down this path—it was, in fact, critical to the story’s development.) It also helped that I did a ton of editing for this story under my editor Ethan Nosowsky’s guidance. Many of the other stories in the collection were functionally finished by the time Graywolf bought the collection—they’d been published elsewhere, and had already received thorough edits—but “The Resident” had never seen anything except that very early workshop. Ethan gently told me he thought this story would need the most work out of the entire book, and he was right—we went back and forth on it for ages. There was even a period of time I didn’t think it would appear in the collection at all. Ethan is brilliant, and also not prescriptive—he simply looked at each draft and suggested to me where he thought my subconscious was leading me. And then one day, it all snapped into place. TM: What's next for you after the release of Her Body and Other Parties? CMM: I recently sold a memoir to Graywolf—House in Indiana—which will be coming out in 2019, so next year I’ll be revising that. I’m also at work at a ton of other projects—a new story collection, an essay collection, and a few different novels, though whether or not those take is yet to be determined.
The Millions Interview

Fiction is a Power Trip: The Millions Interviews Eleanor Henderson

In June 2011 Stacy D’Erasmo wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Eleanor Henderson “writes the hell out of every moment, every scene, every perspective, every fleeting impression, every impulse and desire and bit of emotional detritus.” D’Erasmo was referring to Henderson’s much lauded debut novel, Ten Thousand Saints, but Henderson’s passion and skill are equally evident in her follow up novel, The Twelve-Mile Straight. In her latest, Henderson has taken a significant dogleg in subject, time, and locale, leaving behind the straight-edge movement of 1980s New York and delivering us with equal skill into Cotton County, Georgia in the acutely troubled era of the early 1930s. It is into this dusty, highly charged tableau that Elma Jesup, the teenage daughter of a white sharecropper, gives birth to an unusual set of twins—one light-skinned and the other dark—born of different patrimony and quickly coined the Gemini twins. In the rush of the book’s opening salvo, Elma’s father, Juke, accuses Genus Jackson, a black field hand, of Elma’s rape, and Juke, along with Elma’s fiancé, Freddie Wilson, lead the mob that lynch Genus from the gourd tree. Freddie, adding insult to murder, subsequently drags Genus’s body down the unnamed road known only as the Twelve-Mile Straight. It is on the other side of this tragedy that the novel slows and deepens, exploring the irreparable damage done by family secrets; secrets made all the more damning by the fact that family provided the only stability there was to be had. I talked with Eleanor Henderson about her writing and research process, if the film adaptation of her debut altered the way she works, and the particular challenges of writing a novel of historical fiction that is perhaps unexpectedly relevant to our current cultural conversation. The Millions: Let’s begin with how you began this book. I understand the seed of it actually grew from stories of your father’s childhood in Ben Hill County, Georgia. Eleanor Henderson: I’d wanted to write a book set in Georgia for a long time. For all of my childhood I’d heard stories about my father growing up on the farm during the Depression, but I didn’t know what to do with them. Meanwhile, I was beginning to think about a novel about newborn twins with different paternity—I was amazed to know that such a phenomenon exists!—and I wasn’t getting anywhere with that book, either. It wasn’t until I married the two ideas together that I found that the Georgia story and the twins story were the same. What would it be like, I wondered, to share a childhood with someone who is supposed to be more like you than anyone else, and yet that person might look and be very different than you? When I imagined that situation in the context of the Jim Crow South—a place that would be very intolerant of those differences—I began to see the shape of the story. That’s pretty common for me—I work on two different ideas for a while, get nowhere, and then smash their atoms together. At that point I was ready to explore but also move past the stories about the farm, and to write a novel that confronted the horrifying injustices of that time and place--injustices that of course are still with us today. TM: This is your second novel about a very specific time and place and I know a good deal of research went into getting 1930s Georgia accurately on the page. Do you enjoy the research process? EH: It’s my favorite part! I think one of the most rewarding parts of writing historical fiction—I think of both of my books as historical fiction—is that I get to live in another world for a while. Research for me is an attempt to know a time and place with an authority that I can never achieve in my own world. Of course, it’s an impossible task, and so it’s endless. I spent about five years elbow-deep in archives and newspapers and books, immersing myself in the music and the photography and the language and the culture of the place. After a while I began to recognize the hubris in that kind of research, and I began to worry about appropriating history for my own design. It was something I had to accept in order for the project of the novel to work, and I had to acknowledge that I could never get to the bottom of the research well. In the end, the place I’m writing about is an invention—Cotton County doesn’t exist—but I hope that readers who are old enough to remember Georgia in the Depression would recognize some piece of their realities there. One of those people is my dad. I’ve found that I’m drawn to the stories of people I’m close to—in my first novel, I wrote about the world my husband grew up in, and this one, I wrote about my dad’s. So I spent a lot of time talking to him about daily life on the farm and in town. For several years, I was waking up early to write before my young kids were awake, and my dad, always a child of the farm, was up early, too. So I’d send him emails about whatever scene I was stuck on. Did you have a sink? How did you wash your clothes? Did the country doctor visit you, or did you go to town? How did you get there? It was a great gift, getting this daily dose of insight into my father’s life, a life that had seemed distant until then. My father was also my fact checker. I was greatly relieved when he gave most of the novel his approval, but he had some corrections. One detail that stands out is the way different crops were harvested. There was a sentence in the novel that read: “The peanuts wanted picking first, then the cotton.” My dad shook his head and said, “You don’t pick peanuts. You take them out of the ground.” Lesson learned. TM: While researching, what did you find the most illuminating? What surprised you or stayed with you? EH: A couple things come to mind. When I first started writing the book, I had a vague sense that it would take place during the Depression; my father was born in Georgia in 1932, so I thought it might begin there. Then, early on, I read a book called The Tragedy of Lynching by Arthur Raper, published in 1933, which looks closely at lynchings that took place in the South in 1930. Between 1927 and 1929, no recorded lynchings took place in the state. I came across a Georgia newspaper headline in the microfilm at the Georgia Historical Society, dated December 1929: “Lynching to Be a Lost Art.” Then, in January 1930, a horrific lynching took place in Irwin County, just ten miles from where my father was born, in which a thousand white people killed and dismembered a young black man who was accused of killing a white girl. Five more lynchings followed in Georgia that year. What the hell was happening? I wondered. What kinds of social forces had resurrected that kind of violence? It shook me up and gave the book a shape. I decided to open the book with another Georgia lynching, a fictional one that takes many of its characteristics from those real cases. Then, when I was walking through the Georgia Museum of Agriculture in Tifton, I saw a gourd tree for the first time, looming over a cane field. I asked my friend and guide Brian Brown what it was, and he explained that the hollowed gourds were thought to keep the mosquitoes away. It was an alien sight to me, both beautiful and practical, and then chilling, when I imagined that, like the telephone poles of that era, it might also serve as an instrument of hate and terror. TM: At what point in the process did the book take on a life of its own? In other words, when did it transcend the gathering of information and manifest the more specific voices of the ensemble cast—especially Nan and Elma? EH: I struggled with early drafts of this book. I wrote about a hundred pages in Nan’s voice, imagining her as a kind of removed observer. She was, even in those early drafts, mute—her mother cut out her tongue when she was a baby—so I thought it would be clever to give Nan a voice in the narrating of the story. I sent the draft to a good friend, and she had the good sense to tell me that it wasn’t working. She felt toyed with as a reader, and Nan felt more like a device than a person. That wasn’t what I wanted. What the story needed was a truly omniscient narrator, someone who could access all of the characters, black and white, victim and villain, with empathy, and who could absorb their voices as well. So I had to abandon cleverness and reckon with Nan’s voice in a more direct way. But I couldn’t imagine what her voice would sound like. Again, I worried about appropriating experience. Who was I to speak in the voice of this young black woman, whose worries I’d invented but couldn’t understand myself? It seemed a violence to deny her voice and a violence to assume it. So I wrote through that uncertainty, and tried to raise those questions in the book itself. I tried to transfer them to Elma, the young white woman in the book who feels she must speak for Nan, but who does so incompletely and sometimes inaccurately. What is the white woman’s role in speaking for black women? How are we complicit in injustice? How are we allies? What is our responsibility to other people’s stories? TM: I’m sure you’re aware of Lionel Shriver’s much rebuked 2016 speech at the Brisbane Writers’ Conference in which she lamented the idea of appropriation, wishing the notion of it were a passing fad, and arguing that it threatened to be the end of fiction. In that speech she stated that fiction “is a disrespectful vocation by its nature – prying, voyeuristic, kleptomaniacal, and presumptuous. And that is fiction writing at its best.” Personally, this description of fiction “at its best” exemplified much of the problem with her assertions, believing as I do that a writer’s aim ought to be empathy over voyeurism, respect and research over presumption. Since you wrestled with embodying Nan’s experience and wrote through these anxieties, ultimately manifesting an interior voice for her, I am wondering if you might reflect on your own final question above: what is our responsibility to other people’s stories? And how does that responsibility manifest itself in terms of craft? EH: This is a question I think about a lot, in my writing and in my teaching. While I object vigorously to the carelessness of Shriver’s position, I do recognize myself in her description of fiction as “prying, voyeuristic, kleptomaniacal, and presumptuous.” I think we have to acknowledge that fiction does have that dangerous allure. Is it presumptuous? Sure. It’s a sacred enterprise, it’s the best means of empathy and understanding we have, and it’s also presumptuous. It’s a power trip. And we have to check that power, just as we do every other day in the world. Last spring I taught a graduate seminar at Syracuse University on narrative distance and point of view, and next spring I’ll teach a senior seminar at Ithaca College called Writing the Other. Both classes focus on how the writer’s subject position facilitates or inhibits our narrative access to characters and their worlds. In politics, we talk about privilege, and I think it’s a very apt term in fiction as well. Which characters do we have access to, and how, and why? As Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda write, we have to “change the terms of the conversation... So, not: can I write from another’s point of view? But instead: to ask why and what for, not just if and how.” For me, those questions are best answered through narrative distance. (David Jauss’s essay "From Long Shots to X-Rays," which I read as a grad student, changed the way I thought about point of view.) Will the camera remain outside the character? Will it have interior access? How can I approach my subject with respect? How close do I want to bring my reader to the subject—and who is my reader, anyway? The analogy of the photographer is helpful but limited, because of course the fiction writer has the power to go inside, which is a presumptuous act. And honestly, after watching Get Out and reading Zadie Smith’s review in Harper’s, I won’t ever think of getting inside the “skin” of a black character in the same way. It’s perhaps the most presumptuous move a white writer can make. Ultimately, I did make that move, and I have to own it. I tried to adopt a kind of mythic narrator who could access all of the characters’ interior lives, while also revealing the limitations of that narrator’s moral knowledge. I do have faith in what Toni Morrison calls “a shareable language.” That phrase gives me hope. TM: Your reference to the camera perspective has me thinking about the cinematique quality of both your novels. You move so deftly from the panoramic to the close-up (and yes, the interior) in each book, but did seeing Ten Thousand Saints being made into a film have any effect or place any new burden on your process when you sat down to the blank page again? EH: I was in the middle of writing The Twelve-Mile Straight when the movie came out, so it didn’t fundamentally change my thinking about the book. But when I was struggling with Nan as the narrator, it did occur to me that that conceit—a mute character telling the story—would not work on the screen. While it ultimately didn’t work in the novel, either, thinking about the power and limitations of both forms probably helped me to see the story more clearly. TM: Since this particular story is so relevant to our current cultural conversation, illuminating racism, sexism, and the reverberations of poverty from generation to generation, I’m curious if at any point in the writing you were propelled more by obligation than curiosity? In other words, was the process of writing this book more emotionally complex than the first? EH: Even though the material of the books is very different, the same kind of curiosity led me to both. In this novel, I was drawn to writing about the world my father grew up in, and in my first novel, I was drawn to writing about the world my husband grew up in—the straight edge hardcore scene in New York in the eighties. But when I finished writing Ten Thousand Saints, I wanted to move out of my comfort zone and explore more historically complicated material. It was a more emotionally taxing project, but mostly my anxiety was about not doing emotional harm to my readers (or my characters). I didn’t feel obligated to write either novel; on the contrary, I worried about whether readers would be interested. When I began writing The Twelve-Mile Straight in 2011, I was ignorant to just how relevant it would feel six years later. Do we need another novel about the Jim Crow South? I wondered. Now I think it’s clear that, sadly, we do. TM: As a teacher, what piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers who are struggling with a larger manuscript? EH: No matter how big it gets, find a way to see it all on one page. I’m a visual person, so I used whatever tools I could—a map, an outline, a family tree—to keep me focused and keep the moving parts clear. My father’s sketch of his family’s farm, as well as a sketch he did of a peanut plant on the back of a paper plate, hung above my desk as I wrote. (I really should have known that peanuts aren’t picked but taken out of the ground.) I also kept a Pinterest board with photographs, advertisements, and songs from the 1930s. (Thank you to the writer Katherine Howe for this idea!) That page helped me organize some of my research and also remain in that world. When I taught a workshop on historical fiction, I had my students create their own Pinterest boards and present them to the class, and the results were really fascinating. TM: We’ve discussed Nan and Elma, but there are so many rich and fraught relationships in this novel. It is often Elma’s father, Juke Jesup, and the Wilson family who catalyze tragedy for others. If you could undo one situation for one of your characters, relieve them of one burden, what would it be? EH: I’d have Elma take back her nod. It’s her silent consent that gives her father and Freddie Wilson permission to kill Genus in the first chapter. I’d undo it because it might save Genus’s life (perhaps not—they were bent on killing him anyway, she reasons), but of course, the story would be a different one. Instead Elma spends the novel trying to undo that action herself.
The Millions Interview

Charlotte Mandell Lives Immersed in Words and Sound: The Millions Interview

Charlotte Mandell lives immersed in words and sound. She translates French to English; she loves music and books; her husband is the poet Robert Kelly; her spiritual practice, Tibetan Buddhism, involves extensive chanting. One of her favorite ways to relax is to feed songbirds, including a cardinal so tame he’ll hop up in her lap for a handout. Paradoxically, a quiet presence envelopes Mandell, perhaps an emanation from the heart of her spiritual practice, meditation that cultivates inner silence. Both an ear for the rhythms and music of language and a receptive quiet interlace with Mandell’s translation work. Mandell’s facility with the French language took root during childhood summers in the French Alps. Her parents, Marvin and Betty Reid Mandell—both professors, activists, and founding editors of the journal New Politics—brought up their daughters in Boston, where Mandell attended Boston Latin High School. There, a young French teacher, Michèle Lepietrem, fired Mandell’s love of French, and she went on to major in French and film theory at Bard College, translating for her senior project a book of poems by Jean-Paul Auxeméry. She spent her junior year in Paris studying semiotics and film theory at Université de Paris III. Her published translations span French literature, from classic to contemporary, from fiction to poetry to nonfiction. Years of esteemed obscurity ended with the English edition of Mathias Énard’s Goncourt Prize winning-novel Compass. Mandell’s translation, called “a feat of great beauty” by New York Journal of Books and “resoundingly successful” by The New York Times, put Compass on the short-list for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize, co-awarded to author and translator. The London festivities for MBI included bookstore appearances and a radio interview leading up to the live-streamed awards dinner—a daunting agenda for Mandell: "I like writing as other people,” she says. “I don’t think I have much to say as myself.” As it turned out, London “really was like a fairytale,” she said. Most rewarding, she got to meet Mathias Énard face-to-face after nearly 10 years translating his work. On her return, we had a chance to talk about her translation process, and about Compass. Like the narrator of Compass, Mandell carries her past in her surroundings, though with more joy than aching nostalgia. Her office is cluttered with memorabilia: many, many stones and crystals; bird feathers; sea shells; religious paraphernalia and images of Buddhist saints and gurus; family photos; love poems from her husband; souvenirs from her travels. Bookcases are packed with books in French and English, including her translations and her prized complete Le Grand Robert French Dictionary, in six volumes—though for work she uses a digital edition of Harrap’s Professional French-English Dictionary. The Millions: What is your work rhythm? Do you have any rituals that help get you started or keep you going? Charlotte Mandell: I work best in the late afternoon to early evening. I’m not a morning person, though I wish I were. No rituals except coffee or tea. Music, classical always, opera usually. Oh, actually, I do burn incense. I work a lot with aromatherapy, and it helps if I can smell something good while I’m working. Usually it’s Japanese cedar or sandalwood, and frankincense and myrrh. TM: Are those scents in particular conducive to intellectual and creative work? Or is it just personal preference? CM: I find those scents very calming and conducive to intense concentration. In ancient times, sandalwood was associated with the intellect. I also diffuse lemon oil to wake me up if I’m feeling sleepy. TM:  What are the “nuts and bolts” of your process? Do you write by hand or on computer? Go sentence by sentence? Paragraph by paragraph? CM: I always work on the computer—it’s faster, and I try to work quickly—and I work sentence by sentence. I try not to think too much as I’m translating. “First thought best thought,” as Chögyam Trungpa said. [Chögyam Trungpa was one of the first Tibetan Buddhist gurus to teach in the West.] If I come across something particularly difficult or challenging, I leave it in bold face and come back to it later. Depending on what I’m working on, I try to translate about 10 pages a day. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but translating is mentally draining, and I can’t do much more than that if I want it to sound like good English. Then I read over what I’ve just translated, change it to sound more fluid. The next day I enter the changes into the text. When I finish the entire book I read over my translation very carefully and enter more changes. Then I read over that. I keep editing until I’m happy with it. Revision is an important process to me. TM: How do you get a feel for a work as you embark on translating it? CM: It usually takes me a week or two to really inhabit the voice and to feel it coming organically from within. Since I don’t read ahead, the voice has to sort of come on its own, as I translate. If I stay faithful to the text, and translate it as literally as possible, the voice usually comes on its own. Starting a translation is always the most difficult thing for me. It gets much easier when I’m about 50 pages in. TM: Translating is a creative process, yet a translator is bound to adapt to each author’s work. For example, your translation of Marcel Proust wouldn’t be like your translation of Mathias Énard. How do you negotiate the unique demands of each work? Each author? CM: I trust the text to tell me what it wants. I think the sign of a good translator is the lack of a particular “style.” You shouldn’t be able to guess who translated a particular work. Each work should sound unique and different. The less the translator inserts himself or herself into the work, the better it will sound. I try to let the work speak for itself. TM: You’ve said that you translate as you read. Among ordinary readers, this is a very unusual experience: to translate while reading. Can you describe in some way the effect of it, how the words mix in your mind? CM: When things are going well, you sometimes forget you’re translating—you feel as if you’re writing and reading at the same time, if that makes any sense. You become completely absorbed in the narrative until you’re inside the words and they’re flowing on their own. It’s a wonderful feeling, mesmerizing and addictive. I very often lose track of time when translating an absorbing book. TM:  How does being married to a poet inform your translation work? CM: One of Robert’s favorite sayings is “All language is translation,” and I agree with him. Whenever we speak or write anything down, we’re translating our inner thoughts into language; we’re finding the right words to convey our thoughts. Robert’s command of language is extraordinary. He can read a number of languages—his first job was as a translator, actually. He was also raised with Latin and Greek, so we have similar backgrounds. My appreciation of beautifully wrought sentences and complex grammar is due in large part to Robert’s poetic use of language. He’s also my best editor. He reads all my translations and makes excellent suggestions to improve the English. TM: You use the words “sound” and “voice” and “speak,” terms usually applied to spoken, not written, words. It brings to mind Karl Ove Knausgaard’s praise for Don Bartlett’s translation of My Struggle—that Bartlett captured the “voice” and “rhythm” of the original. For Knausgaard, that seems to be the most essential quality in a translation. CM: I agree, the narrative voice is the most important aspect of a translation, especially in the cases of Zone and Compass, where the voice is all-pervading. Once you get the voice, everything else—rhythm, syntax, grammatical structure—falls in place and flows naturally. TM: There’s the sound, the voice of the translation. And there’s the technical side, grammar, vocabulary, and such. But you’re also charged with capturing the meaning of the text, the author’s intentions. Do you ask the author what the work is about before you begin? CM: I don’t ask the author anything at all! I just start right in, translating. That’s the way that works best for me—the work will tell me what it’s about. I love that feeling of the unknown before I translate a book. It’s what a reader feels when starting to read a book for the first time. You have no idea what’s in store for you, but you’re eager to find out. And invariably you find yourself changed by the time you reach the end. TM: Some authors don’t get involved at all in the translation process; they just leave it up to the translator. Again, we can cite Knausgaard and Bartlett. Other author-translator pairs are much more enmeshed. Take, for example, Paul Celan and Michael Hamburger. Before their unfortunate falling out, they corresponded extensively. Can you describe your interactions, your process with Mathias Énard? CM: I prefer to translate the whole book, then send the final draft to the author for comments or revision. Mathias doesn’t interfere during the translation process, and he doesn’t usually change very much. He trusts me, which is gratifying. Since he translates Arabic texts into French, he knows the issues involved in translation. If I have questions, I text him via WhatsApp or send him an e-mail, and he answers right away. Before meeting him, though, I was hesitant to bother him. Now that I’ve seen what a lovely and generous person he is, I won’t worry about disturbing him. I feel more free to ask him questions. TM: How have other authors inspired your process? CM: Working with Jonathan Littell was very instructive. He’s completely bilingual, raised speaking both French and English. Often he had a particular phrase in mind that he wanted to use in English, and though it diverged wildly from the literal French, it conveyed the same meaning.  He helped me to be freer in my translations and to be unafraid of taking liberties when necessary. TM: You share the practice of Tibetan Buddism, as it turns out, with Mr. Énard’s wife and with Sarah, a central character in Compass, and with me. In fact—I don’t know if you remember—we were on a retreat when I first learned that you’re a translator; you were working on Mathias Énard’s Zone. Did you advise or discuss Buddhism with Mr. Énard? CM: I didn’t advise Mathias about Buddhist matters, but I did, with his permission, insert some Tibetan words for ceremonial instruments—radong [also transliterated rag-dung, a long horn somewhat like an alphorn] and gyaling [a double-reeded woodwind somewhat like an oboe]—into one of Sarah’s letters from India. I also added the word bardo after barzakh, since they both point to the same thing, and I thought those were words Sarah would use. [Tibetan bardo means, literally, interval; it usually refers to the phase from death to rebirth. Arabic barzakh means, literally, separation, and refers to a purgatorial phase from death to resurrection.] TM:  How does the practice of Buddhism affect your work? CM: I find Buddhism very conducive to translation. When you meditate, you empty yourself of a “self,” a sense of ego, just as when you translate, you forget about yourself and become someone else: the narrator, the author’s voice. I think that’s why I enjoy translating so much—I like not being myself for long stretches of time. TM:  Do you identify with any of the characters in Compass or in other works you’ve translated? CM: I felt very close to Sarah, and to her descriptions of her Buddhist practice—but then, I identify with all the characters I translate! When I translate a book I end up inhabiting the characters in a very intimate way, so that I often dream as them. This was a problem when I was translating The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell. I had recurrent dreams—nightmares, usually—as Max Aue, the Nazi narrator. With Franz Ritter [the narrator of Compass], it was more a case of inhabiting his melancholy state of mind, and identifying with his longing for Sarah, the long-lost beloved. One of the perks of being a translator is that I get to inhabit a male character and see how his mind works. I think that might be one reason I enjoy translating male authors: it’s a window onto the Other, another way of not being my “self.” TM:  Before you left for London [for the 2017 Man Booker International awards], you were looking forward especially to meeting Mathias Énard for the first time. CM: It’s such an interesting thing to meet for the first time an author whom you’ve been translating for almost 10 years—like meeting an old friend for the first time. TM: What did you two talk about? CM: We talked about lots of things: sailing, which we both grew up doing; the Lebanese restaurant Karakala in Barcelona, which Mathias co-owns; Buddhism, a little bit. Strangely, we didn't talk about Compass. TM: What do you think Compass is about? CM: Compass is not really “about” any one thing. The pleasure in reading it comes from the language itself more than from the plot. For me, the experience was similar to that of reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. You see the workings of the narrator’s mind, how it jumps from one thing to another and back again, how it obsesses with one thing—Sarah—while recalling others—books, scholarly papers, music, faraway places. Mathias described the book once as “a Thousand Nights in One,” and I think that’s as good a description as any. TM:  At the end of the joint radio interview of you and Mathias Énard [BBC World Service, 12 June 2017], he said: “Compass is not a cemetery, you know. It’s not about lost places. I think it’s about the hope that we can have those places again.” For me, the book’s arc didn’t lead that way. I wouldn’t call Compass “dark” by any means, but hope was introduced late—not only in the romance but concerning the narrator’s health. So the book itself left me unconvinced by Mr. Énard’s statement. My take is that the book has an open and ambiguous trajectory, and a bittersweet ending—but let’s start with, “Compass is not a cemetery.” CM: I think Mathias was saying in the interview that Syria isn’t a cemetery. We see the devastated parts of it, but there are still huge swathes of it rich in culture and alive with people. TM: Do you agree with the rest of Mr. Énard’s statement? I guess my question is, where’s the hope, in Compass? CM: There is an ancient saying, by Antisthenes of Greece, which I grew up memorizing: “To the wise nothing is foreign.” The hope in Compass is the hope of openness to the Other, a certainty that there is no “us” and “them,” there is only “we.” The East permeates and influences the West, and vice-versa. The hope lies in the narrator’s curiosity—which should be ours as well, in his thirst for knowledge. Compass is a love letter to the Other.
The Millions Interview

Writing for the Moment: The Millions Interviews Zoe Whittall

I’ve been trying to think how I’d describe The Best Kind of People. The novel has been compared to Judith Guest's Ordinary People for the depiction of an affluent family trying to cope with trauma. I’d add in The Ice Storm by Rick Moody for the close critique of WASP culture in Connecticut. But Zoe Whittall’s novel is also completely contemporary, taking some of Meg Wolitzer’s ability in The Interestings to show the feelings and motivations of a large cast of characters, with Claire Messud’s willingness, in The Woman Upstairs, to tackle discomfort, or Margaret Atwoods's ability, in A Handmaid's Tale, to show how a wider culture influences individual behavior. Reading The Best Kind of People felt like a kind of compulsion—I stayed  up way past my bedtime because I had to finish. It tells the story of the Woodbury family. When the father, George, teacher at the prep school and local hero, is accused of sexual impropriety, his wife, daughter, and son face isolation from their community as they struggle to reconcile the accusations with the man they know. “I miss who I thought he was,” says the mother, Joan. The characters are flawed and human as they struggle, some of them achingly so, but Whittall is also generous towards them. There is a warmth and kindness to the story that, at times, make it feels like a gossipy, insider dish about a prominent family—the one who lives in the big house, who seem to have lots of money, but everyone in town is always trying to guess exactly how much. At the same time, the novel takes a big topic: It shows the link between rape culture, patriarchy, and privilege. The balance between these two sides of the book is perfectly judged. I talked to Whittall by email and in person about timely novels, rape culture, selling film rights to Sarah Polley, and what a novel should be. The Millions: The Best Kind of People was first published in Canada in 2016, before the Bill Cosby trial, but just as several high profile sexual misconduct cases were in the media. What prompted you to start writing this book? Zoe Whittall: The book began with the character of the mother, Joan, who came to me after listening to a radio program about a high-profile murder and sexual assault case, where the wife of the killer didn’t know anything about the crimes. After finding out her husband was a monster, she faced so much stigma, because everyone assumed she had to have known. I’m always drawn in by news stories of extreme marital deception or the lives of con men and women. I think that fascination began after I had a year-long relationship with someone who told me they were in remission from cancer, but it became clear to me near the end of our relationship that she was lying—about the illness and a whole lot of other things. It was nothing like Joan and George’s marriage, but the feeling of being blindsided, and loving someone who could be that manipulative, of not knowing what the real truth is while someone you love is looking you in the eye and trying to get you to believe them, that was my way in to figuring out who Joan might be and how she might feel, even though her life is so different from mine. In terms of the timeliness of the book, I had no idea that it would be published at the same time a massive cultural conversation about rape was happening in the media. Women have always talked and written about sexual assault but what’s new is that people are listening right now. The first piece of literary work I had published was a poem about rape culture—though it wasn’t called that in 1995. I was 15 when the Montreal massacre happened in my city, and I was a young feminist who came of age during the era of 1990s No Means No campaigns. Back then to talk about rape was to have conversations on the margins—campus radio, riot grrl zines, with likeminded activists—but the idea of discussing it in the mainstream media, or creating art that could reach beyond the festival circuit or the small press world seemed highly unlikely. My other novels are about queer and trans people, and they have done really well but never beyond the indie literary market. I’m very surprised at how well The Best Kind of People has done commercially in Canada and very happy that it’s contributed to this wider conversation. I’m hopeful it might also be of interest to readers in the U.S. TM: It takes a long time to write a novel. Were you worried while you were writing that you might miss the moment? ZW: I wasn’t worried it would miss the moment, I was just hoping it would have its own moment. It took me so much longer to write this novel than my first two—I thought it was done in 2011, 2012, 2013—each spring I gave it to my agent, and she handed it back with excellent notes and calmly explained it wasn’t quite there yet. By 2014 I wanted to bury it in the yard, I was convinced it was absolute garbage and no one would want to publish it. By the time it was done, I was just grateful that my publisher was interested in putting it out at all. I wasn’t really aware of the moment—that people might want to discuss this book in a way that felt timely and coincided with major news stories—until it was done, and my editor said oh, this is exciting and is going to potentially have a lot of interested readers given what’s going on right now. We were editing it during a big celebrity assault trial in Toronto. So I kind of realized it after it was already finished, but I had so many pre-publication anxieties that I tried not to think about it. TM: And then Cosby was acquitted and here we are. Still. It doesn't feel like much has changed? But the one upside—and I say this with some regret—is that your novel, it is published in the U.S. today, feels every bit as relevant as it did when it came out in Canada. I got so much from it because it shows how rape culture works. Not just as a theory, but in a life. Is this what you set out to do? ZW: I didn’t set out to write a novel about rape culture. In terms of novels about sexual assault, there are crime novels, survivor memoirs, books about false accusations—and I wasn’t interested in writing those. I wanted to look at what it feels to be impacted by the issue from the point of view of the family of the accused and the stigma they face. That was something I hadn’t read before. I did want to explore, through overlapping narratives, how complicated issues of power, youth, and sexuality can be. Andrew’s storyline, the brother, was my way of looking at age and consent through a gay male lens, which cannot be properly understood using heterosexual norms. I wanted Sadie’s crushes, relationships, and sexual experiences to be varied and chaotic in a way that felt true to my memories of what it feels like to be a teen girl. Because of the form, it all had to happen at the level of life. It doesn’t feel like much has changed, no. There’s a lot of hysteria in the media about false accusations as though they are suddenly a common occurrence, when really what is common is what happened with Cosby, or with Brock Turner, or a million other powerful men. They are not held accountable, even when the proof is undeniable—they are on film and there was a witness, or 60 people are accusing someone of the same crime— it doesn’t really matter. So the conversation has changed, in that we’re even having a conversation, but it doesn’t feel like there has been a real shift in how rapists are held truly accountable. What’s different is that young women are able to refuse to take some of bullshit that women of my generation had to live with. It’s exciting to see how willing young women are to speak up about sexual assault and sexism in general. That’s a change. TM: The novel begins with an epigraph: [Rape Culture’s] most devilish trick is to make the average, non-criminal person identify with the person accused, instead of the person reporting the crime… —Kate Harding, Asking for It Did you include this quote at the beginning or end of your writing process? ZW: I included it at the end because I was aware that once your book becomes an object that no longer belongs to you, it is read in ways you cannot anticipate. I had fears about feminists reading the book and being angry or annoyed that it wasn’t what they’d hoped it would be. I had fears that people would read it and get a message that wasn’t intended. (This has happened—a woman approached me to say my novel was “so realistic” because “teenage girls do lie!” and I was so shocked. That is not the book I wrote or the way I hoped it would be read.) Before I sold the film rights to Sarah Polley, I met with quite a few older male film producers who wanted to make a did-he-or-didn’t-he type of film, and it became clear they could only relate to the accused, not the accuser. A young man sent me a long (so long!) email teaching me about feminism, because even though the MRA plotline was clearly meant to be fairly satirical, he interpreted me as someone who was sympathetic to MRAs. But as a novelist, I cannot present characters one-dimensionally, so thus, in the Men's Rights Activist plotline for example, there is a character named Dorothy. Even if we see her through the daughter Sadie’s discerning eyes, Dorothy still has to be a full-blooded person. You can’t create art any other way. It was complicated to do this since the plot involves many characters who don’t believe the young women accusing George, and I didn’t want it to be read, right off the bat, as a book that is about questioning the veracity of teen girls. That book—and article—has been written a million times and I had no desire to write it again. (Though I will say that an excellent book on false accusations is The Blue Angel by Francine Prose, which I think is a masterful novel.) So the Kate Harding quote—who also generously contributed a blurb for the book—was my way of stating at the start that the automatic assumption of who is telling the truth when a man is accused, is part of the problem, and a question I kept in mind as I wrote it. And this is, if you can think about it after the fact, part of why I felt the novel needed to be written. TM: The idea of rape culture can be confusing to some in that can be hard to see. This book lays it all out. I had a frustrating conversation the other day and I found myself tempted to hand over a copy of your book and walk away. But some of my least favorite, heavy-handed novels read like an author sets out to explain an issue. Your book avoids this. How did you write with a light touch, while delving deep? ZW: It was sometimes difficult to pull back on my own beliefs about sexual assault and let my characters have their own thoughts and feelings as the events unfold. You’re right, no one wants to read a polemical novel or a story where the authorial voice intervenes clumsily in order to educate the reader. I learned so much about the world by reading fiction as a young adult, in a roundabout way. The same way I hate exercising but I love dancing or riding my bike. It’s always so much more interesting to learn through story. I approach plot through character and I was interested in the emotional arcs of the family, Joan, Sadie and Andrew, after the arrest of their father/husband, and how it might feel to be the bystander who is implicated by virtue of who they are to the accused. I wanted to write about how it feels to love someone accused of sexual assault and not know what to do, not know how to process it and understand it. I think a lot of the problems we have in situations like this come from having been lead to believe that rapists are strangers, monsters, and not real people in our communities. That they can’t be rapists and also good friends, fathers, teachers, mentors, at the same time. People often say, “Well, he was a great professor to me, so it’s impossible,” even though we have had the hard data on who commits sexual crimes for decades, and it’s mostly people who are known to the victim. We know the majority of women and men who are assaulted never report. We know that those who report rarely ever get justice through the court system, or even get that far in the process, if they report to the police. We know who the police tend to believe. And when white men with power are accused it is customary to believe they are being honest when they say they’re innocent. We owe a lot to the violence against women movement who have done the labor on these issues with no support for decades. We know what we know because of them. It was hard to keep that light touch, as you describe it. In some ways I was attempting to write a social novel, but a non-polemical one. It was my first attempt at literary realism with a close third person narration and I had all sorts of clumsy failures while trying to set the scene and go deep into it that way. Sometimes I look at the book and it looks like a clump of dirt or a bunch of string. I can’t believe it’s an object in the world provoking discussion. TM: The book is a perfect balancing act between an issue and, dare I use the word, entertainment? It feels odd given what the book is about, but that’s what I think when, in her blurb, Kate Harding compares this novel to Ordinary People. This book captures a moment. Issue driven versus entertainment—what do you think a novel should be? ZW: What a novel should be? Some of my favourite novels are long poems or plotless diversions, so I don’t really have an answer for what a novel should be. As a writer who has tried to do different things with each one of my novels, I think I’m still figuring it out. I never feel that they are finished and long to rewrite them forever. The Best Kind of People was my experiment with realism, with a social novel and a family novel, all mixed up. In terms of the art versus entertainment set-up, I’m a literary reader and poet who enjoys challenging books, but I’m also a television writer who loves and appreciates pop culture. I don’t think those two interests need to be in opposition anymore, and I think that is due to a shift in how we consume culture, and the elevated artistry of auteur-lead television, which sounds trite to mention, but it’s really been a gift to storytellers. I think it has shifted how I write. If I had all the money and time in the world, I’d be working on non-linear novels written in poetic fragments, that’s where my heart is. But learning how to write for television has ignited a new love of action and clarity, and that bled into the writing of this novel. So, I suppose I’m a recovering snob. Learning to write sketch comedy (on IFC’s The Baroness Von Sketch Show) has really taught me about tone and sitting in those excruciating awkward moments. I deeply related to the moment in The End of Tour where David Foster Wallace can’t stop watching TV. I don’t drink or do drugs much anymore and my sedative of choice is Netflix, and I’ve developed a real interest in telling stories on screen and the craft of scriptwriting. This has affected my prose, but in a way that has been a gift, in terms of brevity, clarity, pacing. TM: The story centers on a white wealthy family in Connecticut. In many ways, they individuals are harmed by the system of power that they also uphold. We get to see how rape culture works on them, all while they continually struggle to see it themselves. But the story doesn’t undermine the characters. It would have been easy to lay blame, or present a binary balance of power. As I said before, as an author you are generous to the characters. You slowly show the complexity of  their situations. Can you tell me more about how you found and held this balance? ZW: It’s funny—I just read a bad review of the book on Goodreads that complains the book contains “mixed messages,” which I kind of like, because who wants a book with a “message?” That’s not a novel, that’s a political pamphlet. I tried to come at each character’s story with compassion and curiosity. Sexuality is not simple, especially not in a repressed world like the one the Woodbury’s live in, especially not for teenagers. Given the complexities of human desire and behavior and problems with communication and honesty, a book with a message is just not what I was going for. It wasn’t a balance that came easy. With third person, you can’t really step in with your authorial voice and lay blame in a pedantic kind of way, it doesn’t work. You can only show what the characters do and say, and through that action, you can understand what their struggle is. TM: Without spoiling the plot, I will say that the end of this novel is an incredible kick in the gut. It drives home everything that came before. Can you tell me something about your thinking around it the end? ZW: I agonized over the ending, and continued to even after I wrote the final sentence, which took a long time to write. It was based on discussions I had with a woman whose father is in jail for molestation, and how her mother feels about him now, what she wishes for her life and their relationship. (My friend the filmmaker Chase Joynt made a documentary called Between You and Me for the CBC about her story.) The circumstances are different, but what Joan does at the end made sense to me. I wanted the conclusion to be realistic, not aspirational, in terms of where the country is at with regards to sexual assault. And a lot of people feel mad about that, but I wanted it to be an accurate portrait of the time we’re living in, and who the characters really are.
The Millions Interview

Pushing the Envelope: The Millions Interviews Alex Gilvarry

In recent years, three novels have caused me to gasp, “No!” while riding the New York City subway.   The first two were The Mayor of Casterbridge and Portrait of a Lady.  The third was Alex Gilvarry’s Eastman Was Here, the often comical story of Alan Eastman, a Norman Mailer-like writer who, as the novel progresses,  displays increasingly appalling—and oddly amusing—gasp-inducing behavior. Eastman is an almost pathological philanderer and liar, who in an effort to win back his wife and un-stall his literary career, accepts an assignment to report from Vietnam just before Saigon’s fall.  Eastman is a selfish, narcissistic, womanizing blowhard—Mailer minus the charm and the literary genius.  Gilvarry’s success at creating such a delightfully disagreeable anti-hero is an entertaining rebuttal to the notion that the protagonist of a novel ought to be likable. Gilvarry’s first novel, From the Memoirs of an Enemy Non-Combatant, is the story of a young fashion-obsessed Filipino immigrant who is arrested and sent to Gitmo after he’s mistaken for a terrorist.  Memoirs manages to be both funny and serious while depicting a shift in American ideas about freedom.  With Eastman Was Here, Gilvarry delves into the past, but the new work is also a comment on how sensibilities have changed in the literary world—and the country as a whole. Gilvarry and I were both fellows at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony, and we’ve run into one another at various Mailer-related events over the years.  Our interview touched on the strengths and weaknesses of post-World War II American male novelists; Gilvarry’s good luck with mentors (Gary Shteyngart and Colum McCann); the research required to depict wartime Saigon; and why Gilvarry felt compelled to grapple with the legend of Norman Mailer. The following is an edited version of our conversation. TM: This is your second novel.  Is the experience of being published different the second time around? AG: A little bit. You kinda know what to expect. You don’t want to get your expectations too high.  You’re more protective. TM:  Alan Eastman is clearly inspired by Norman Mailer.  As I read the book, whenever there was a biographical similarity, I wrote Mailer’s initials: NM.  I did this at least a couple of dozen times.  The way I read it, Eastman is Mailer, but also not Mailer. AG: Yeah, I think that’s a good read. Eastman is inspired by Mailer and is a little closer to him in biography at the beginning of his life: childhood, Harvard. They share those biographical details. I wanted him to be like Mailer and not be Mailer too. Probably when the action of the book begins, it splits. Then I fill him with an imaginary emotional life, not Mailer’s at all. TM: There’s the presence in the novel of a second Maileresque figure, Norman Heimish, who is Eastman’s rival but in many ways seemed almost more like Mailer than Eastman. Why include Heimish in the book? AG: I thought a character like Eastman needed a rival, somebody who he thought had it all who he had to measure himself up against.  I feel like Mailer early on had that with James Jones. I get a lot of mileage when a character is angry.  You know, to walk into a book store and see that somebody he despises is selling really well would really burns this guy [Eastman] up. TM: You’re very interested in writers of the post-WWII generation.  What draws you to them? AG: I like the way novels are written in that period, the fifties, sixties, and seventies America. They’re written differently. They use language that’s taboo, that we don’t use any more.  They don’t hold back in the way that my generation will sort of hold back a little. TM: So there’s something fearless about those postwar writers? AG: Yeah.  Absolutely. They were pushing the envelope. If you just use the example of sex in their books. It’s done kind of fearlessly and shamelessly.  And not always in a good way—but sometimes in a really good way.  I wanted this book to feel like that, like it was written in that time. I didn’t live in the seventies.  So I thought, How am I going to capture the feel of that period without doing all those cheesy period details?  But if it could sound like a book from that time, I thought it would help the reality of the read. TM: I thought also that you captured the philandering of the seventies male writer. AG: Yeah.  The scandals and the philandering—that’s a juicy period for that kind of stuff. Writers don’t really act like that anymore, or at least not in public.  I liked writing about that and the incestuous publishing world of that time. TM: And writers felt like they mattered more during that time. AG: Yeah. You couldn’t really set this book now because writers aren’t as heralded as they were during that time. So it’s really like a time capsule that a man like Eastman could be like that. TM: Of course, it’s a mistake to think of that as the good old days.  But what I particularly enjoyed was that Eastman was so incredibly unlikeable and selfish. Every time you think he can’t be more selfish or betray another person, he just goes ahead.  And you start to look forward to those moments of appalling behavior.   But today we’re in a moment when it’s considered a valid piece of literary criticism to say of a novel, “I didn’t like the main character.”   So I wonder if you had any internal voice—or any outside voices—who told you not to make Eastman such a wonderful bastard. AG: Yeah, yeah. It’s a tough thing to do because you don’t want to lose your readers because of someone who is so unlikable.  But I thought if I keep liking him, if I keep liking writing these scenes, then I think you’re going to like to read about this unlikable person.  I was always thinking: Am I having fun with this scene? Is it entertaining at least in some way? That was sort of my guide.  There were some places where I think the character went too far and maybe I had to edit it back.  I had two great editors on this book—Patrick Nolan and Beena Kamlani, who is amazing.  She was Saul Bellow’s editor for the last years of his life--a great, great editor. She was a really good voice for taming Eastman in certain places. TM: So to ask the obvious question, what kind of research did you do for the scenes in the novel set in Saigon? Have you ever been to Ho Chi Minh City? AG: I did go there while I was writing this book because I wanted to set the book in the hotels where all the correspondents stayed: the Continental Hotel and the Caravelle Hotel.  And so I went to Vietnam and I kind of just stayed in the hotel where I was setting the novel and got a lay of the land. And I read a lot of great literature set in Vietnam. Gloria Emerson’s Winners and Losers--I really loved that book, and I’m really glad it’s now still in print because it was hard to get for a while.  Norton has reprinted it. TM: Your father is a Vietnam Veteran. AG: Yeah, I’m probably drawn to the subject because of him. He was there and I heard his stories of being in Saigon. That city to him, it’s like a mythology. He remembers it in a great light, the way Saigon was. He would tell me all sorts of stories about what would go on there. So in some ways I was writing this for him, too. TM: Has he read it? AG: He did. He really loved it. He wants me to write a sequel.  He’s said, ”I want to find out what happens to these characters. Please write a sequel.” TM: I wanted to ask you about  a passage that fascinated me.  At one point you write, “The need to enlighten the world with Eastmanisms was exhausting and erroneous.”  And Eastman realizes that “his urges were totalitarian.” To me, this seems like a criticism of Mailer as flawed by his narcissism.  Did you intend it that way? AG: Yeah, I think so.  I think that’s a pretty good read.  But not just Mailer.  Many of the writers of that period were narcissists. I was really writing about Eastman first, but it is critical of that behavior for sure.  And subconsciously, I felt that writing about a Norman Mailer-like character I have to make some judgements.  There are things in Mailer’s life that are hard for me to reconcile. I think all of his readers who like his work, there’s something that’s a little tough to get around. I have that with Mailer. TM: The character of the woman reporter Channing in the book was, I thought, very successful, and you did something that I don’t think Mailer ever did very well: created a female character. AG: Thank you.  I needed a strong female character to counterbalance Eastman, and one of the biggest criticisms of Bellow and Mailer and Roth is that they have very thin female characters. So I really needed to reach deep and develop a character that I liked. I think in my first novel I didn’t pay too much attention to the women characters.  It came out a little flimsy.  I agreed with that critique whenever I got it, so I wanted to correct that about my storytelling and my writing. I wanted to be aware of it. TM: What was it like being this literary-minded kid growing up in the only borough in New York that voted for Donald Trump? AG: When I was a kid in Staten Island, I hadn’t even discovered novels. I discovered novels really late; I wanted to write screenplays and write for television because I thought that’s what writers did now.  I went to Hunter College in Manhattan.  I have a lot in common with Eastman, I think, because growing up in Staten Island, I sort of grew up with a chip on my shoulder, with that feeling that I’ve got to prove myself to people—to people from Manhattan, the Upper East Side. I think I even came into the book business with a chip on my shoulder, like I had to prove myself somehow. It drove me.  But you’ve got to realize it. Otherwise, this kind of thinking can destroy you. TM: And you’ve got these great literary credentials: you worked for Gary Shteyngart and studied with Colin McCann. Can you talk about how this affected the way you write a novel? AG: Gary Shteyngart was actually the first writer I ever met. He was a teacher at Hunter College when I was an undergraduate, and he had just come out with his first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, and I didn’t know novels could be that funny.  I didn’t know people still wrote novels until I met him. I thought all the great writers were dead. I was much more of a film buff.  And I got to meet Gary at a really great time in my life. His work inspired me and I wanted to write just like him. TM:  And you got an MFA, right? AG: I took a number of years off after I graduated from college and I worked in the publishing industry. And then when I started thinking of a novel of my own, I really needed help. I didn’t know what I was doing. So I went back to Hunter to get an MFA, and I was lucky to meet Colum McCann and he really dug my work. He really believed in what I was doing and thought it was important and gave me a lot of confidence and a lot of support. [Shteyngart and McCann] are really important in my life because I look at them as sort of outsiders. I had something in common with them. They were two outsiders, but they both had an incredible desire to write well and make it. That might just be my impression of it, but they were always going to get there.  Their careers were inspiring to me.  Their work was inspiring.  I learned the most from Colum McCann on a sentence level. And then when I got to work for Gary [as a research assistant] for his book Super Sad True Love Story, I learned the most from Gary about how to research a book and how to fake what you don’t know. I learned the way he can make something seem real. I learned so much from him, things like descriptions.  Do descriptions have to come from yourself? No, you can actually research that stuff too. TM: Well, your descriptions work. As something of an old Jew myself, I thought you captured that mentality in Eastman very nicely. AG: Well, you know, I’m a New Yorker, so I feel like it’s the same kind of thing.  This might not count for anything, but this Christmas I had a DNA test and it turns out that I’m one percent Ashkenazi Jewish. And it’s what I always wanted to be. I wanted to be a New York Jewish writer.
The Millions Interview

Haunted by Ghosts: The Millions Interviews Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward hadn’t realized it’s been more than half a decade since her National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones made her a literary star. That’s because she has been extremely busy, both professionally and personally. Since her Hurricane Katrina-centric novel, the author wrote the raw and emotional Men We Reaped, a memoir about losing five family members and friends to drugs, suicide, and accidents that can only happen to young, poor, black men. She also edited The Fire This Time, an essay and poetry collection about race and identity written by this generation’s brightest talents. She also moved with her husband and children back to DeLisle, Miss., the small, poverty-stricken town where she grew up. She lived there and survived Hurricane Katrina before going to Stanford and the University of Michigan to pursue higher education. Even though Ward was busy producing non-fiction, readers anxiously awaited her fiction followup to Salvage the Bones. Ward’s third novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, returns to similar settings and themes as her previous works, but is wholly original. Set in modern Mississippi, the novel follows Jojo, a 13-year-old of mixed race, and his drug addict mother as they drive to pick up his father from state prison. The mix of harsh reality and magical realism create a sense of wonderment that makes readers question what they know about identity. Ward and I spoke via phone about racial tensions, why history is so important, how hurricanes effect those who survive them, as well as what she hopes readers will remember about her novels. The Millions: I wanted to start our conversation with Salvage the Bones. It came out in 2011 and won the National Book Award. It’s been a little more than half a decade, and I was curious about how your relationship with the book or the characters has changed since the book’s release. Jesmyn Ward: I didn’t realize it had been so long. That’s so crazy. My characters remain with me in one way or another even after I’m done. I don’t know if I’ll ever return to those characters in a sequel, but I definitely still think about them. Especially now with Hurricane Harvey and Houston or whenever we encounter another hurricane and we witness the kind of devastation we are witnessing right now. I think about them lately because I wonder if people who read the book and read about this family who couldn't leave see what is happening currently and think about Salvage the Bones and those characters. Those characters still live with me. I still think about Skeet, Esch, and Big Henry, I actually roped them into the end of Sing, Unburied, Sing and it was nice to see them again. Part of the reason it’s been a surprise to me that it’s been so long since Salvage was published is because whenever I think about those characters, I can only age them by a couple of years. It’s hard for me to think of where they’d be now, 11 years later after Hurricane Katrina. That showed up in Sing because when I was writing that moment when Esch showed up, I felt she was two years older than she was at the end of Salvage and my editor, of course, caught it. She pointed out that the character would need to be 10 years older now. She hadn't aged at all in my head. Maybe that’s a deficiency on my part because I can’t age them. They live with me though as they existed in their books. TM: Were you working on Sing, Unburied, Sing during the entire time since Salvage? JW: No, not really. After I finished the rough draft of Salvage the Bones, which was in 2009, I began working on Sing, Unburied, Sing, but it was a very different book then. When I say I was working on it, I meant I was working on unsuccessful first chapter after unsuccessful first chapter. Jojo’s character was the only character that was present and real to me at that time. I didn’t know anything about his mom, his dad, or the rest of his family. In the beginning his mom was white [as opposed to black in the final version]. My understanding of who the members of his family are changed a lot. I couldn’t write a good first chapter when I didn’t have a clear understanding of who the other characters were. I spent a good four of five months writing bad first chapter after bad first chapter. Then I decided I should work on what would become the memoir Men We Reaped. I just put those bad first chapters away. I set Jojo aside and worked on the memoir. Following that, I edited the collection The Fire This Time. While I was working on The Fire This Time was when I started working on this novel again. I did take a substantial break but I came back to it again. It was very hard with me for Sing to find a successful entryway into the story. I think part of the reason it was difficult was because I couldn’t figure out who the people around Jojo should be and who they were. That’s where I start: I need a vague understanding of who the most important characters are and what their motivations are. That was very hard for me to pin down with this book. It took me a long time. After I finished Men We Reaped was when I returned to Jojo. I threw out everything I had before and I just started again. Once I figured out who Leonie, Pop, and Mam were I gained some traction. I used the momentum to move into the second chapter. Then I was able to move through that first rough draft. TM: This novel has a very serious, realistic undertone, but it also has this notion of ghosts and magical realism thrown in. When did that come into play with the story? JW: From the very beginning, I knew that Leonie was seeing a phantom. In the very beginning, she was seeing a phantom of Michael. For the first four chapters of the rough draft she was seeing a phantom of Michael and it just wasn’t working. I figured out it wasn’t working because his presence didn’t add to the understanding of who she was. Leonie was a very difficult character for me to write because I couldn’t figure out what was motivating her to be such a horrible parent and sometimes a horrible person. All that told me about her was that she was in love with this man and perhaps she was hallucinating because of the drugs she was using. It didn’t tell me anything that I already didn’t know about her and who she loved and valued. It felt like something was wrong. Then I began rethinking that phantom of someone she actually lost; not just a man she loved who was in prison. What if it was a family member she lost. That’s when I stumbled upon the fact that she would have lost a brother and that it was his ghost she was seeing. Instead of going back and correcting that in the first four chapters I had already written, I wrote going forward with that idea that the phantom was her brother. I wrote with that assumption and suddenly she began to work for me as a character. She took on new life. I understand her motivation. I understood the pain in her heart that she carried with her. By her not dealing with that pain, it feeds into how selfish and egotistical she is. It makes her a worse parent because she’s so wrapped up in this pain that she isn’t able to resolve. That’s when I knew there was one ghost: the ghost of her dead brother. At the same time I was working on the beginning of this, I read about Parchman Prison. I came across this bit that there were black boys as young as 12 that were charged with petty crimes and spent time in Parchman. I read that and I knew how brutal the prison was and that fact was heartbreaking. I wanted a child to be part of my novel and be present in the moment. I figured the only way I can make that happen was to make him a ghost. I wanted him to exist in the present moment and not just exist in a flashback. I wanted him to be able to interact with Jojo. TM: When I was reading Sing, I thought a lot about The Turner House and Swamplandia. Is this idea of ghosts, ghost stories, and the past as part of everyday life in southern or black culture? JW: I think that ghosts are embodiments of the past. Especially here in the South because we’re so close to the past. So much of the past lives in the present. We live with the ramifications of the past that might not be as clear or feel as present in the rest of the country. I sit and think of the furor we live with regarding Confederate monuments and the endless debates about whether or not to take them down. I think about all of the advocacy and opposition. We’re still dealing with monuments from a war that happened 150, 160 years ago. The violence that surrounds that history is still very present. In the South, we may not talk about it or it may not be a part of public conversation around these issues, but the underlying understanding is that the history of this region bears very heavily on the present and informs our actions. I think the ghost story form is a great way to explore and express that. TM: You’ve been very outspoken about racial tension in America. I know the media is discussing this more, but I think there is still a disconnect where most of the country doesn’t really understand what it’s like to be in these situations. Do you think about this when you’re writing? JW: I do. It influences my work because my awareness of history and the legacy of racist violence in this country bears heavily on my thinking when I’m casting about for ideas for my novels. I’m always thinking about race, violence, the history of the South, and how that history bears on the present. I saw Ann Patchett speak 10 or 15 years ago and one thing she mentioned in her speech was that how she thought writers write the same book over and over again because they’re obsessed with the same ideas. Those ideas always surface in each story they write. As I’ve written more fiction and creative non-fiction, I’ve found that is true in my case. I’m always thinking about how black people survive. How people are marginalized in the South and the way they still survive that oppression. I do have to say that when I’m writing and I’ve immersed myself in that world with those characters, then I am just thinking about the characters in the story and who they are and how they are evolving. I’m trying to find the important moments in their lives—moments beyond which nothing is the same. That’s what I’m thinking about when I’m writing. I’m not thinking about themes or symbolism. When I’m actually writing I’m just thinking about the people. I think about the issues and big ideas when I’m thinking about novel ideas, but once I begin writing I throw that all out the window because the work is able to come alive and these people are able to live when you immerse yourself in the world. TM: Earlier you mentioned how devastating Hurricane Harvey is to the people of Texas. I know you were still living in the Mississippi Gulf Coast when Hurricane Katrina hit. If you don’t mind, I was just curious what life was like for residents after the media and most of the country move on from these tragic events? What do families go through? What is it like having to restart? JW: It’s really difficult. Donations do make a difference because they help people who are attempting to rebuild their lives. Habitat for Humanity did a lot of work here after Hurricane Katrina. They rebuilt a lot of homes. It’s a hard question to answer because a lot of people had house insurance and made house insurance claims, but that didn’t work for everyone. Some claims were denied on technicalities. A lot of the rebuilding that people had to do down here was out of their own pockets. It was a slow process. They rebuilt as they were able to slowly save the money that they needed to rebuild. That’s one of the reasons a hurricane appears out in the Gulf—and I don’t want anyone to go through the pain we went through—but I’m always grateful when the hurricanes don’t come for us. I still feel like a decade after Katrina, we’re not ready. There was just extreme flooding in New Orleans two or three weeks ago from just a bad rainstorm. The streets were flooding and homes were damaged. It’s a hard question for me to answer because it’s still a continuous process. TM: Your memoir came out between Salvage and Sing. Do you ever think about more memoirs on different topics? JW: Right now, no. I really don’t want to write another memoir. There are many reasons for that. Men We Reaped was the hardest book I’ve ever written. It required that I make myself vulnerable. It required that I make the members of my family vulnerable. I had to tell the truth and reveal all of these secrets about our lives and that was very hard to do. I don’t know if I can do that again. It was important to me because I had to write that book to tell my brother’s story. I had to tell the story about my friends and my cousin. Men We Reaped came out before Black Lives Matter was a movement. I almost feel like at that time I was trying to express the sum of the opinions that Black Lives Matter has expressed, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to do so. That book was difficult to write because I didn’t have that vocabulary to write about these people that I loved and lost. Fiction is easier than creative non-fiction for me. Creative non-fiction is hard for me in general whether it’s essays or a book-length memoir because I tend to shy away from the pain of what I’m writing about. It makes me write around my subject instead of focusing. Creative non-fiction is a lot of work for me and my editors because they have to make me focus on whatever I’m trying to avoid in the piece I’m working on. So, no, I don’t want to tackle another non-fiction book, but who knows in 20 years? TM: Is it going to be another half decade before your next work of fiction comes out? JW: I have something percolating, but it’s probably going to take me some time to finish. It might be another four or five years before it comes out. I’m writing the first chapter of the rough draft. I’m at the very beginning of the process. The novel is set in New Orleans at the height of the domestic slave trade during the early 1800s. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever written before. It’s definitely challenging me as a writer and as a human being because the main characters in this are people who were enslaved. It’s really hard to sit with that. The subject matter is making it hard for me to write this novel. Hopefully it will be done in four or five years. That’s including the rough first draft and multiple revisions of that. TM: What is your hope of what people walk away with after they finish Sing, Unburied, Sing? JW: I hope that the characters stay with them. That Jojo, Leonie, Kayla, Ritchie, and Pop stay with them. That next time readers encounter an older black gentleman in the grocery story or the next time they unfortunately see a 14- or 15-year-old black boy like Jojo dead from police violence that maybe it’s a bit more painful and a bit more prevalent for them because they’ve seen the humanity in the characters I’ve written. Maybe that makes it a little easier for them to see humanity and personhood.
The Millions Interview

Getting Out of Her Own Skin: The Millions Interviews Nancy Pearl

Fans of Nancy Pearl know her as many things—renowned librarian and former executive director of the Washington Center for the Book, author of the Book Lust/Book Crush reader recommendation series, originator of the One City One Book initiative, and featured books reviewer for NPR’s Morning Edition. Now, readers can experience Pearl’s love for the written word in an entirely new way: she’s written her first novel, George & Lizzie, out this week. Pearl’s debut revolves around the two titular characters, who embody temperamental opposites and yet find themselves falling in love. George comes from a loving childhood and approaches his adulthood, and marriage to Lizzie, with the same intense affection and forgiveness modeled in his family. Lizzie’s own history is one riddled with cruel rejections, starting with her parents, Lydia and Mendel, and evolving into a self-loathing that lingers well into her adult life. Even as George’s love continues to deepen for Lizzie, her sexual history—particularly a time in her life she labels as the Great Game—leaves her burdened with a shame that limits her ability to give and accept true intimacy. As readers move further into George and Lizzie’s story, Pearl asks us to consider the odds of love triumphing where self-love never existed. George and Lizzie’s story remains true to Pearl’s own self-professed reading preferences: description and exploration of the characters drives the plot. George & Lizzie achieves this through vignettes that circle back across the timeline of the narrative, with each separate piece united by Pearl’s ability to recognize humor in even the most devastating of circumstances. I spoke with Pearl about her new novel and her fascination with the stories people have to tell, whether in literature or in life. The Millions: George & Lizzie provides a unique narrative structure—scenes unfold as vignettes, remembrances, or something akin almost to diary entries told in third-person. What led you to choose this type of structure for your novel? Nancy Pearl: That happened accidentally. First of all, I wanted to write a novel that I would love. I was going through a time when my favorite authors weren’t writing fast enough for me and I needed more books that were smart and funny and that was what compelled me to take these characters I’d been thinking about for a long time and start writing about them. And so I would sit down and I would just write a section of their lives, whatever was at the forefront of my mind. I came to see it as snapshots of their lives at different times. Even the chapter headings were just notes for myself. I would save them and remember what was in that particular section. I’m not naive enough to not know that I was writing a novel, but my motivation wasn’t to get published but really that I wanted to spend more time with the people in my story. The order of the book and the back and forth was even more random than it is now in the sense that, when I submitted the book for publication, it was in the order that I wrote the chapters. And so you might read the results of the Great Game before you knew what the Great Game was. But my wonderful editor at Touchstone, Tara Parsons, spoke with me about the George and Lizzie plot arc, and then we fit everything else around that. See, plot is not that important to me. I think what’s always important to me in life and the books I read are the people involved. I could never write a mystery, for example. It’s always about exploring the characters and, for me, it’s the characters that need to stand out. And a sense of humor. I think in all my favorite books, characters are the main focus and I want the plot to arrive out of the characters, rather than having the characters live within a plot that’s been devised. TM: So let’s talk about the Great Game.  Lizzie’s obsession with her ex-boyfriend, Jack McConaghey, is a strong source for her own self-loathing. She can’t seem to move past her belief that his love for her was erased by her revelation of the Great Game, where she slept with the starting members of her high school football team. Which aspects of female sexuality did you want to explore through Lizzie’s story? NP: I think society has these morés set up for teenage girls, especially. And to break those taboos can really cause you to doubt yourself and to not forgive yourself. It’s interesting that both things she can’t forgive herself for have to do with her sexuality. The fact that Jack leaves and doesn’t say why gives her added reason to go back and not forgive herself. She also never tells George about this part of her sexual history.  TM: Lizzie’s character feels very much halted in her adolescence—that stage where we begin to consider complex and ambiguous concepts, like love, truth, and identity—three issues that Lizzie struggles with throughout the entire book. Lizzie’s conceptualizations of these are categorical—You love or you don’t. You are good or you are worthless. You are honest or you are a liar. And it’s this style of thinking that limits Lizzie’s engagement with life. What interested you in creating a character with this form of primary struggle?   NP: I should preface by saying that in many ways this novel was my discovering George and Lizzie rather than my inventing them, so it almost seems like they really existed. I know I made them up, but it seemed throughout the whole process that they were real people and I was just uncovering things about them. I absolutely see that immaturity in Lizzie—there’s a point in the novel where George comments that Lizzie has the emotional age of a 13-year-old and Lizzie agrees, as do I. It wasn’t that I sat down and tried to figure out who Lizzie was—I mean there were things that I had to figure out, like her parents—but it just seemed so natural for who I saw Lizzie as that she would be stuck in that period, partly because of the Great Game. Maybe this is the place to say this novel is not autobiographical. TM: Yes, unfortunately there’s this assumption that any time a woman writes a novel where a female protagonist engages in risky sexual practices or experiences some form of trauma that it must be autobiographical. NP: Lizzie’s behavior doesn’t come from a story someone told me. The Great Game is just something I imagined someone like Lizzie might do. The hard part having to do with that—I mean my editor kept saying "Why did she do it?" and I had to figure that out, but I also had to figure out how to tell that part of Lizzie’s story. Being a writer, you have ideas in your head and put them on paper and they seem so stilted. I describe myself as a very critical reader of the books I read, and I feel I was even harder on myself as a writer. TM: Lizzie, who begins the novel as a high school upperclassman and ends it as a woman we assume is in her late 20s, is never clearly described. Given that these times in a woman’s life are especially riddled with doubts about physical appearance, I found it very interesting as a reader that Lizzie’s physical self is never a point of concern for her. Her self-criticism stems from flaws she sees in her character, especially due to the Great Game—why did you want to have your female protagonist so comfortable in her skin and so uncomfortable in her self? NP: I think it was something that I discovered. I didn’t describe Lizzie because I really wanted readers to make their own picture of her. It seemed like I couldn’t have this one character who is so wrecked emotionally and feeling terribly about her body. I wanted to give her a break. In most of my own reading, I don’t care how characters look, I care about how they feel. TM: Lizzie’s parents, Lydia and Mendel, are psychologists who ascribe to the Behaviorist approach focusing on reinforcement and punishment and they take this to an extreme in their own parenting of Lizzie, which is cold and distant. Was your choice for her parents to be Behaviorists just reflective of the popular ideas at the time the novel was set, or do you have a viewpoint on this particular field of therapy? NP: My husband is an academic psychologist. But he’s neither a Behaviorist nor a Freudian. He’s a Humanistic-Transpersonal psychologist. You get a good sense of him from George. The Dr. Kallikow that influences George reflects much of Joe, my husband. Though Joe does not wear earth shoes. Or a beret. I knew right away that Lydia and Mendel would be academic psychologists. I wanted Lizzie to have an unhappy childhood, but not the typical unhappy experience. I didn’t want there to be physical abuse or poverty—I wanted this unhappiness directly attributable to her parents. In the beginning I considered having them be Freudians, but I thought that’s such a cliché: such a large part of our daily existence in our culture acknowledges Freudian issues. Once I decided that, Behaviorists seemed the next best option. And there’s no room in Lydia and Mendel’s relationship for Lizzie. That’s why I did that entire background for Lizzie’s family tree. When Tara, my editor, got the manuscript I wondered if she’d like it to be taken out, but I feel George and Lizzie’s story needs this backdrop, especially Lizzie’s. That part was fun to write too, because it was entirely invented. That whole thing about Minsk and Pinsk—all of those things were a lot of fun. Some chapters were much harder to write. TM: Which were harder to write?   NP: I mean everything is hard—I have trouble sitting down to write. I don’t have a place to write besides my dining room table and it’s hard because I see things to do in the house, so I would go to the library. They have a quiet room there with a shelf going around it at computer height. Two hours and that was it. I’d have my Diet Pepsi, turn off Internet access, write for two hours, and then go home. I’ve also been a morning walker for a long time and basically go for a long walk—6 miles or so—every morning. I stop halfway to get a Starbucks tea and I continue my walk. It’s a lovely ritual and George and Lizzie would always be percolating in the background. I walk to the University of Washington campus and on the way back I walk down a street with lots of fraternity and sorority houses. As I walk I’ll think about different things, like what my life would have been like if I’d joined a sorority at University of Michigan, or what if I’d married this guy I dated when I was a junior. When I was stuck on something or couldn’t figure something out, the answer would frequently come to me on my walk, even though I wasn’t concentrating on the characters or the problem I was stuck on in the novel. I’d smell bacon cooking and think, oh, Elaine—maybe that’s her favorite breakfast. Everything just related back to my characters. TM: Almost 20 years ago, you began the movement that became One City One Book through your work as Executive Director at the Washington Center for the Book. What other initiatives do you hope to see realized for America’s (and/or the world’s) readers in the near or distant future? NP: I had this life-changing experience in Bosnia where the cultural attaché with the U.S. embassy there invited me to teach teachers how to lead book discussions—this was about four years ago. In Bosnia I saw how powerful books could be to bring people together to talk about important things like identity and how a book could help people think about their lives in a different way. That was my motivation when we developed One City One Book. I wanted to get people who might not think they have anything in common with each other to see that common humanity. Bosnia was an amazing place to see Serbs and Muslims coming together and finding out that they share many things—they are both mothers or that both sets of parents are mixed ethnicities, for example, and that linked them despite the fact that one was a Serb and one was a Muslim and they had the war behind and between them. I think reading is such a wonderful tool to develop empathy. We spend so much of our time in our own skins and we just think about our mind and our body, yet when we’re reading we are experiencing the lives of other characters and I think that freedom—that escape from ourselves—is the beginning of developing empathy. TM: Are you working on another novel already? NP: No, I have this obligatory novel that I wrote when I was 18—the kind people write when they want to be writers and are unhappy, which I definitely was at age 18. I read some of it recently and it was painful. It was just so earnest, there was no leavening in it. I mean, you could just see who I was as an 18-year-old. The little bit of the manuscript that I managed to read reminded me of interesting things I’d forgotten about that I’d put into that novel. It was also very stream-of-consciousness, which is quite different from George & Lizzie. I did start writing a short story about Maverick, Lizzie’s boyfriend her junior year of high school, as he turns 50. I don’t know if he becomes a sports commentator—I think he has a sports podcast instead. But for me, it’s always going to be that same narrative voice—that close third person narrator. I don’t know if I can access another voice, or if it’s always going to be this way. I mean, I started out in elementary and certainly high school and college writing poetry. I always defined myself as a writer. I thought I would be a writer and when I was in my 30s all of the lines that started to come to me as poetry started coming to me as prose instead. I wrote a short story that was published by Redbook in 1980 and they said they loved that story and "please send us all your writing." I did just that, but they said although they loved it, my writing was too depressing for their readers, and then I just sort of stopped writing and I didn’t start again until I began George & Lizzie. TM: There are many literary references in the book—as you wrote George & Lizzie, did you have any beloved novels in mind that you wanted to use in representing your characters? NP: It was really hard to narrow it down to which book Lizzie would be reading when she met Marla—it was easy to give George books, but with Lizzie there’s so many other books I wish I could have included and have her reading. I have this fantasy of George & Lizzie being illustrated and having a picture of Lizzie’s bookshelves and the Christmas tree of Elaine’s or the family jewelry store in Stillwater.  There are so many smart and funny books I’d like to have included and I’m so glad I included I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.  I think Lizzie needed to be a reader. It was something that brought her pleasure when she was a child. That’s what reading did for her and it continues to sustain her, as it does for so many of us, including myself. *** In line with Nancy’s love for characters and their stories (and backstories), she’s kindly provided us with a recipe that features in George & Lizzie. Elaine’s Mandel Bread Recipe (which she got from her cousin Marilyn) Preheat oven to 350 degrees Ingredients: 4 eggs 1 cup canola oil 3½ to 4 cups flour 1 cup sugar 2 tsp baking powder 1 tsp vanilla ½ cup chopped nuts Mixture of equal parts cinnamon and sugar, for sprinkling Beat eggs until foamy. Add rest of ingredients. Divide dough into 4 parts. Make a long roll of each part and put it on a greased baking sheet. Bake for 30 minutes. Slice each roll while still warm. Put back on cookie sheet, sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar mixture and bake for 8 minutes or until brown. Then turn over each piece, sprinkle again with cinnamon and sugar, and bake for 8 minutes. Elaine often adds dried fruit in addition to nuts—cut up dried apricots, cranberries, or raisins. Sometimes she adds part of a package of trail mix.
The Millions Interview

Transgression Has Become So Banal: Chris Kraus and Jarett Kobek in Conversation

Chris Kraus’s After Kathy Acker is one of the best books of the year. A biography of an elusive, and barely understood, literary figure, it’s also a secret history of a certain time and place. When I read an advanced copy, I couldn’t stop talking about the book. This included a conversation with Kraus’s Semiotext(e) co-editor Hedi El Kholti. He suggested that Chris and I should have a conversation about our two books. I hadn’t even thought of it, but it made a certain sense: my new novel, The Future Won’t Be Long, is concerned, roughly, with the same time and place as Chris’s book. Which is to say New York. The dirty New York. Before Giuliani and gentrification. And, besides, Chris Kraus changed my life. Literally. She was the editor on my novella ATTA, which Semiotext(e) published back in 2011. It’s all gone weird from there. A few weeks ago, we managed a conversation about our new books. Here’s the result. Jarett Kobek: I guess the best place to start is to explain our two books and then move forward. Your book, After Kathy Acker, is a formidable biography of a foreboding figure, Kathy Acker. As you know better than anyone, it’s impossible to summarize the whole of Acker’s life in a sentence, but to give an ultra-uninformative biopsy: writer, artist, performance artist, minor-literary celebrity, with a deep connection to New York and its era of transgressive art. My book, The Future Won’t Be Long, is a novel about (amongst other things) the East Village in the mid- to late-‘80s and early- to mid-‘90s, and is concerned with lives and secret histories in the aftermath of the real heyday of the transgressive moment. If I were to give a snippet summary, I could do worse to say that its characters exist in a world that came after Kathy Acker. A few months ago, I read Angela Nagel’s Kill All Normies. I don’t know if you’ve gotten to it, but it’s supposed to be a book about the rise of the Alt Right. But it’s curious, because her book ends up being a meditation on the value of transgression as a strategy, and how the Alt Right succeeded on a roadmap of co-opting and adopting this strategy. This would seem to be the entire methodology of the presidency: transgress all social norms and then, while the world plays catch up, transgress again. So now everyone’s like the characters in The Future Won’t Be Long. We’re all living in a word that comes after Kathy Acker. All of this is a very long-winded way of asking you to do the least envious of things, which is to iron out the ambiguity of your title. What does it mean in 2017 to be after Kathy Acker? Chris Kraus:  Matt Fishbeck suggested that title, and frankly, I didn’t think about it that much.  It just sounded right.  Mostly, I guess because, as you say, it evokes the distance between her era and the one we’re living in now.  And my approach to writing the book was to write through that distance. Transgression has become so banal.  Even within Kathy’s lifetime, by the time she left the East Village, a new generation of people like Richard Kern and Nick Zedd had far surpassed her transgressive capital.   I mean, Joe Coleman was biting the heads off of rats in his performances, and how do you compete with that?  If you have any sense, you don’t even try.  Kathy was actually quite critical of that work, in some of her letters. Your book is an incredibly precise and inspired evocation of a decade, 1986 to 1996.  Without seeming to be one, or taking history as its literal subject, it captures the difference in consciousness, the texture of life, that’s emerged since those years.  For one thing, the characters -- who, as they themselves admit, aren’t all that remarkable, they’re lumpen-creatives, more or less -- are formidably informed, as only savants are today.  There’s a great line in Gary Indiana’s Resentment where Seth, the narrator, observes during a night-long group adventure, how each half-generation seems so much less informed than the last.  Were you consciously trying to depict the difference in culture between then and now? JK:  We've entered an era in which, in theory, anything goes and yet everything is so much more restrictive than it was 20 years ago. The rules are subtle until you bang up against them. You have an excellent example of this in After Kathy Acker, when you write about the case of the writer Janey Smith and his fuck list, a moment in which it became clear what aspects of Acker's work had been adopted and repurposed and what's been rejected. The idea was with Future was, exactly as you suggest, about making a contrast between then and now. I have officially reached a point in my life where I've started sounding old, but I have an inescapable sense that we're in an era of calcification. The 21st century has turned everything that was even remotely interesting from the 20th century into a kind of religion, completely with dogmas and priestly castes. I thought it would be interesting to take a look at what turned out to be a transitional moment before the hardening had fully set in. As lumpen-creatives, the characters are haunted by a past that was much more interesting than the one they're living (at any given moment, New York is always better 10 years before, but in their case it's true) and they're also haunted by a future that's about to hit them harder than they can imagine. With one exception, none of them are even particularly good with computers! Which reminds me: towards the end of Acker's life, it's a different story. You paint a portrait of someone, just before her death in 1997, who is totally addicted to her computer and the nascent online world, a place where almost everyone would end up 10 years later. Do you think this was a result of her own exhaustion/disappointments with the role she'd found herself in, or was it an expansion of her previous work? CK: By the mid-'90s, Kathy hit a wall, both creatively and in terms of her career, that must have been very painful.  Her last two novels, Empire of the Senseless (1988) and In Memoriam of Identity (1990) had not been well received, at least not critically or within the literary world, in NY or London.  She was living in San Francisco, drifting further to the margins of what she’d previously considered central.  To me, the great poignancy of Acker’s life was that she’d outlived her dream.  Literature, capital L, was no longer important in the same way.  The time when writers could be cultural heroes was already over.  Her publisher, Grove Press, was bought and sold twice in the last few years of Acker’s life…publishing had already become corporatized and hegemonic. Her writing had become somewhat repetitive, and so non-narrative that it was unreadable by many, and she hadn’t figured out another way.  But she was trying.  Rather than change her writing style, she looked to aspects of internet culture as mirrors of her own interests: avatars as a means of escaping fixed identity in gaming; the intricacies of coding as a metaphor for consciousness.  Still, she wasn’t stupid. She already saw the limits of the internet, and I’m sure if she’d lived longer, she would have pursued entirely new directions. I agree with you about the calcification, and the rules.  The present’s very puritanical.  In both our books, there’s an ethos of self-destruction, of losing yourself however possible, that’s been replaced by rigid self-protection.  But at the same time -- there were definitely winners and losers in that game.  Towards the end of the novel, you have that beautiful passage: This is how the world works…in talking about who does, and doesn’t take the blame for Angel Melendez’s murder.  I always thought the double standard between self-destruction and self-advancement was one of the hypocrisies that’s been edited out of memoirs and other histories of that era.  Do you agree? And, I’ve got to ask - what about the murders?  Really, two of the most central events in The Future are the grisly murders of Monika Beerle and Melendez -- murders “shared” by their communities. JK: Future was intended to be a much shorter novel, purely about the Club Kids. As I wrote, the book kept expanding. I remembered Daniel Rakowitz and Monika Beerle. For the readers who don’t know about either of the killings: Daniel Rakowitz was a guy who wandered around the East Village in a religious delusion. He was considered a more-or-less harmless nuisance. Then he moved in with Monika Beerle, who was a dancer at Billy’s Topless, and very shortly thereafter killed her. Because of the grisly circumstances, the story was one of those New York infamous crimes. Rakowitz dismembered Beerle’s body in a bathtub, boiled the head on his stove, and then apparently served the broth to homeless people in Tompkins Square Park. When he was finally arrested, Rakowitz brought the cops to a locker in the Port Authority, where he’d stored Beerle’s skull in a tub of kitty litter. Angel Melendez was Michael Alig’s drug dealer. Michael was King of the Club Kids, a loose group of kids who hung around the city’s nightclubs and performed all kinds of outrageous antics, and who ended up getting a huge amount of media coverage. In 1996, Angel went to Michael’s apartment and ended up killed by Michael and a guy who called himself Freeze. Angel’s body was dismembered in a bathtub. Then Michael and Freeze dumped Angel in the river. The story played out in the press for months and months until Michael was arrested. What I didn’t know until I started doing research is how much the two murders paralleled each other. Much like Michael Alig’s murder of Angel, everyone knew. Possibly an even greater number than knew about Alig killing Angel. Alig at least hid the body from his friends and played coy, sometimes saying he did it, sometimes saying he didn’t. Rakowitz showed people the remains. He told a ton of people that he had murdered Beerle. And like the murder of Angel, it took forever before there was any official involvement. With Michael, everything was fabulous. Even murder. But Rakowitz was just squalor. So it seemed absolutely vital to include. To strip away the glamor. No one posts to Tumblr about Rakowitz being fabulous. There’s an easy narrative about these killings -- a story about how excess ends in horror. I don’t subscribe to that, but I do think the killings speak to something about the social scenes that end up lionized in books like mine. It sounds horribly dated describing it like this, but if you try to create a lawless society of outsiders, essentially a world without critical judgment, then the real temperature of that scene is taken when someone’s actions force you into a situation which manifestly demands judgment. And nothing does that like forcible death. This gets us back to the question about self-advancement and self-destruction. Because I agree, it’s almost always hidden. But there are always winners and losers. And I think it may be the same conditions which produce a blindness about it. CK: Yes, that’s really interesting.  Your book describes a period of total decadence, the last days of the underground empire, before the fall.  I didn’t see that before, but the way these ‘communities’ react to the killings puts everything into focus.  I was very aware of Monika Beerle’s murder - horrified by it. In my film Gravity & Grace, her killing kind of a secret subtext…the character Gravity has made a kind of stained-glass graphic novel depiction of it, installed on the panes of the French doors in her slummy apartment.  Although mostly during that period, I remember the hordes of people selling their belongings on blankets in the street, and the rash of break-ins and petty crime in the East Village.  You couldn’t park a car in the street without it being keyed or broken into.  You write about the destruction of the Tompkins Square Park bandshell -- the way someone painted over the Billie Holiday mural.  I remember when that mural went up -- my then-boyfriend Bud Hazlekorn helped to paint it.  We’re seeing the same thing now in Lincoln Park, Boyle Heights, and MacArthur Park in Los Angeles.  Vandalism is the last gasp of resistance.  In The Future, Baby and Adeline and their friends are just living their lives, but of course they’re part of the force of gentrification.  And people like the drag queen Christine/Christian in your book just disappear in the most sordid, but wholly predictable ways.  There’s a whole population that becomes the collateral damage of “the democratization of lust,” as Baby puts it, or excessive freedom.  As the former Urizen publisher Michael Roloff told me, when I interviewed him for the Acker book,“What looked like the ‘greening of America’ in that neck of the woods metamorphosed into the wildest kind of neo-liberalism down in Tribeca and the East Village.” JK:  Speaking of complicity. It sounds absurd, given that Future is populated by historical figures, but including Beerle (as necessary as I found it) has sat poorly with me. That’s a human being whose murder has reduced her to a story about Rakowitz. Which is one that I have used and now participated in. What I’ve done is in some ways the antithesis of what you’ve done with Kathy Acker, but I wonder if there was any hesitation on your part in taking on a biographical project of someone who (I assume) you personally knew? Not so much in terms of the exposing Acker, but exposing yourself, linking yourself to the story? CK: I didn’t know Kathy at all, and I think that made it easier to work on the book.  As I wrote diplomatically in a publicity piece for the book, “our two brief social meetings were tinged with antipathy.”  That is: she reflexively disliked me because a) I was no one, and b) I was married to Sylvere, who she’d been close to.  For those reasons, and others, I thought it best to leave myself out of the story.  But Kathy and I knew many of the same people, and we shared the same cultural influences.  Writing about Kathy became a way of writing a revisionist history of New York in the 70s and 80s, just as you do in The Future for the following decade. But getting back to “the democratization of lust” and neoliberalism: Your first novel, ATTA, is a nuanced and unsentimental psychobiography of the 9/11 suicide bomber.  The book never justifies Mohamed Atta’s actions, but it steps back far enough from reflex moral condemnation to consider his rationale and motivations. Atta’s master’s thesis critiqued the introduction of Western-style skyscrapers in the Middle East and called for a return to the “Islamic-Oriental city.”  Your radically propose that, at least in his mind, the destruction of the World Trade Center was a form of architectural criticism.  Do you think your background as the son of a Turkish Muslim immigrant has given you a different perspective on the value of “freedom,” and how these values play out psychically and geographically? JK: I think the hardest thing to talk about when it comes to neoliberalism is how, particularly in the era of the Internet, everyone is to varying degrees complicit in its relentless process of change. You literally cannot live in the US without exhibiting some complicity. There’s obviously different degrees in this assessment, but that’s been my life experience from the moment that I moved to NYC. The changes of the Giuliani era were performed, essentially, for my benefit. So it was very important to make sure that the characters in Future were situated in a time when they couldn’t be anything but gentrifiers, but who (perhaps with the exception of Adeline) see themselves as existing in resistance to the surrounding society. But they are of course key components of society’s forward march. The future really won’t be long. The moment for me of brutal awakening (the process is ever ongoing) was 9/11. As you mention, I’ve got a personal connection, which is that my father was a Muslim immigrant to America. What happened on 9/11 was this: the least interesting thing about the man suddenly became the most important. He went from 20+ years experiencing literally no animus or prejudice to someone who climbed down a fire-escape at 5 a.m. to avoid his neighbors beating the shit out of him. He eventually left the country, which has been hugely damaging in some ways. If nothing else, his apartment in Turkey has given me a staging ground for travel around the Middle East. But yes, I think that 9/11 and ensuing years of an endless American dialogue about Muslims -- one which creates endless wars despite the political party in office and which on all sides has nothing to do with the lives of any Muslims I know or to whom I related -- has caused me to become increasingly obsessed and skeptical about almost everything. So that’s the reason, really, I was interested in writing a revisionist history. You mention that you used Acker’s bio for the same purpose. Why did you think it was necessary? CK:  Richard Hell’s memoir, I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp, mentions Kathy in passing, a reference to some kinky-sex episode they had.  And of course Richard wasn’t writing a book about Kathy, but I thought she deserved better than that.  All of these memoirs and novels, photo exhibitions and films, were coming out about that era, the romance of the last avant-garde.  And I found those depictions false.  They necessarily edit out the texture of life: the boredom, the small competitions and rivalries.  If you can’t tell the truth about an era you witnessed and lived, you can’t tell the truth about anything.  Initially my motivation was to tell the truth about that era, in some small way, by tracking one person’s life.  As I did the research, I became more interested in Kathy’s writing.  Reading it closely, understanding her process, I came to admire her in ways I hadn’t before. Do you think people will ever be done with New York?  In a way, I think we’ve both tried, in our books, to finish with that romance. When will people be done with New York?
The Millions Interview

The Spaces In-Between: The Millions Interviews Rachel Khong

Rachel Khong has trouble telling her life story. To her, life happens in the tiny daily interactions, and so to have a tidy narrative ready—the sweeping story of how she got from A to B—doesn’t accurately take into account how mysterious everything is. Khong says that she “didn’t want anything big” to happen in her debut novel, Goodbye, Vitamin, but instead wanted it to exist in the “space in-between.” Written in a series of diaristic entries, the novel starts around Christmas and spans a year. Thirty-year-old Ruth Young, fresh off a broken engagement, has moved home after learning that her father, Howard, has Alzheimer’s disease. The book follows her as she tries to care for him while dealing with her breakup and career ambivalence. Khong and I spoke by phone about the relationship between food and control, the process of editing her novel, and the odd things your exes remember about you. The Millions: You’ve mentioned before that you don’t think Goodbye, Vitamin is necessarily about Alzheimer’s, and that it’s more a novel about memory. I’m curious, what do you mean by that? Rachel Khong: Well, it’s obviously not not a novel about Alzheimer’s. That’s absolutely a component of the book and it’s a really important dynamic in the family. The fact that her father's been diagnosed with it is the reason that Ruth comes home. But I’m hesitant to have it be labeled a novel specifically about Alzheimer’s because I don’t think that’s the main struggle. I think it would be disappointing to someone who came to this thinking, “this is going to tell me a lot about Alzheimer’s and what it’s like to take care of someone with the disease.” It’s more about this woman who is having to come to terms with her own life as she has narrated it until that point, and also navigate these relationships with family members and with friends and obviously with her ex-fiancé. TM: Right, the novel takes place at the very early stages of Alzheimer’s. We can see the effects, but it’s not yet about tropes like “my father doesn’t recognize me” or “should I put him in a nursing home.” He’s not really in the worst of it. RK: Yeah, her dad is in the beginning stages and it’s not quite as bad as it will be. It’s still a more pronounced version of the memory loss that, really, we all experience. I think Alzheimer’s was just a way to talk about memory that was more explicit for people to understand. I think I err on the side of subtlety and not saying things really directly. That’s the kind of thing I like to read and I think more can be communicated sometimes in the space between words. That sounds so pretentious, I know, but I think more can be said by not directly going, hey, it really sucks that Alzheimer’s wipes away your whole life and it destroys the relationships in your life. That was not something that I felt needed to be explored because it was almost too obvious. I wanted to write about the day-to-day memory loss that we all experience because that was just more interesting to me. TM: What drives this interest in memory? You said that Alzheimer’s was a way to explore memory, is the theme of “memory” a way to explore something else? RK: I have always been interested in communication and how faulty it can be between people and trying to understand the reason for that, and I think I pinpointed that to memory. Memory is everywhere, in the ways we think of ourselves and tell our stories. There are certain kinds of people who have more of a sense of who they are and their whole life story. They could tell it to you at a campfire. I think that I have never thought of my own life in that way. Does that make sense? TM: Yes, definitely. I know people who have an “elevator pitch” version of their life that’s very coherent and that they have down flat. RK: Exactly. I’ve never been able to completely narrate my life from like from start to finish because that’s just not the way that my brain operates. And so I was interested in, what’s the difference between these two approaches—not that there are only two—and trying to understand what makes us think of ourselves in a certain way, how we as individuals think about our own lives and how memory figures into that. TM: So what do you say when you do get asked that question about your life story? RK: Immediately, I just am deeply skeptical. It doesn’t feel accurate to narrate your life in that elevator pitch way, so I just feel kind of squirmy. I know the things that have been consistent in my life. I know that I have always wanted to be a writer, for example, and I’ve always been somebody who likes to make stuff up and imagine things and wants to know more about other people and get inside their brains. But that’s not what people necessarily are asking. They want to know how you get from point A to point B. I think life is so much more mysterious than that and it feels really fake to me to try to make sense of that and that’s not what the book does. TM: The book takes place over a year and it uses this very diaristic form. What made you choose that span, and that format? And have you read Elif Batuman’s The Idiot? That’s the book that I was thinking of when I was reading Goodbye, Vitamin. RK: I have not. TM: I think they’re similar, not necessarily in plot or theme, but in that they’re both written in these short entries, and they’re both very—I think “observant” is the word that comes to mind. Just made up of these little moments. RK: Yeah. I wanted the book to be a reflection of life, I think, and so I didn’t want anything huge to happen. I didn’t want anything terrible to happen to Howard, I didn’t want anyone to die, I didn’t want anyone to get married. In that big life story that you tell somebody—that myth that you tell people—you wouldn’t talk about things that just happened quietly every day and yet those things are the very material of that big sweeping story. Those little moments, those little interactions are who you are; every day is what makes up your life. I think I just wanted to explore that space and to not have those big events and those things that would normally get told in the big sweeping story to be part of this book. I wanted it to exist in the space in-between. TM: One of my favorite scenes was this really small moment. At one point Joel, Ruth’s ex-fiancé, calls her and tells her that he learned that goats have square pupils and that this is something he thought she’d like. It’s such a small, sort of useless thing to know about someone, but it’s special that they remember it about you. And knowing that other people remember these small moments about you, to my mind, gives all of these day-to-day moments more power. RK: Yeah, I think you have it exactly right. The fact is that Ruth has sort of been waiting for this call. She’s been waiting for a call or some word from him, she’s been quietly agonizing when she knows she shouldn’t be and then the thing he calls about is square goat pupils. Which sounds silly, but it’s also something really intimate to know about a person, that they care about that sort of thing. But it’s also sort of arbitrary and that’s how things are. TM: Yeah, there’s a line where Ruth talks about how Joel did “half the work of remembering.” And I remember reading Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World, which is a memoir about her husband’s sudden death, and she says something very similar, about how in a relationship you divide up the labor of who remembers what. RK:  Two people can have a whole list of shared things and shared experiences and when that, when a relationship ends and you no longer have those shared things, it’s almost like your identity has changed. You have to learn how to be the person and do the work of remembering your own life again. I think it’s easy for people to tell you when you’re mourning the end of something, it’s easy to say, you’ll get over it and it’ll just take time, you’ll get over it. There are still things that remain in your brain that you have no power over and will always take up space there. TM: In the novel, Howard is a university professor who’s had affairs in the past. At one point, we meet one of Howard’s current students, Joan. Ruth thinks that Joan has had some sort of affair with her dad. Joan says something like, “he doesn’t remember me,” and Ruth goes, “what doesn’t he remember?” That was really poignant. On the one hand, it’s sad that he can’t remember because it’s a disease, but on the other hand, him not remembering almost absolves him and makes their family life easier. But Ruth won’t forget. RK: Having Joan in the book to me was a way for Ruth to have to confront this version of her father that she didn’t really know that much about and see it in action and up close. And she has to process it and be forced to deal with it and to see what her brother had seen all along.  Unlike him, she left home because she got to really see her father’s flaws close up. It was really important to me to have Howard be this flawed character, not this shining, amazing history professor who was blameless and was a perfect father and now having tragic things happening. I really want to explore all the ways in which we all kind of fail one another and having Joan be there and just sort of having her be there for Ruth to deal with was a way to do that. TM: Did she have to confront this directly? She couldn’t really believe her brother’s memories or take his word for it? RK: She didn’t want to have her bubble burst. Some of us are more able to just take someone else’s word at things and then others of us need to experience things more empirically and experience the heartbreak firsthand. For Ruth, of course she believes her brother, but it’s hard to really take someone else’s word for something so big when all you know of that person is their more loving side. She is obviously throughout pretty conflicted. She wants to hang onto this previous memory of her dad. You do kind of want to believe the best about people. TM: I’m also interested in the role of food and health in the novel, especially given the title. Ruth becomes obsessed with making her dad eat “cruciferous foods” like broccoli because she reads that they ward off dementia. That made me think about how, culturally, we really want to believe that if we eat enough acai berries, we can protect ourselves. Then, near the end of the book, Howard refuses to eat the cruciferous food and Ruth is just like, “okay.” Is this her acknowledging that she doesn’t have much control? RK: I think the sense there is just that maybe happiness is more important than food. Even as the book spans a year and nothing huge happens, there is this small shift in the way that Ruth and her father kind of come to think about, well, just living and the time that they have. They sort of start to learn more to live moment-to-moment, be content in moments and just be able to observe something and have that be completely fulfilling. For Ruth, it would make sense for her to want the future to come quicker, in her own life personally. She wants things to be better, she wants to get over this breakup, she wants to have a job that she loves, she wants things for her own life. But I think because she knows that wanting the future for herself means wanting a worse future for her father—a future in which he will necessarily be in a worse mental state—she’s learned how to think less about, or obsess less about, the future, to just live more in the present. So, back to the question about food, I think that’s just an offshoot of that. She’s kind of surrendered some of that control, control of obsessing over the diet, the control of whatever her own future will be personally. TM: What was the process of researching this book like? How much of it was biographical—you’re also from southern California, where the novel takes place—versus a lot of research? RK:  I don’t think any element of the book was either straight-up from my knowledge or straight-up imagined. I was reading a lot about California history, about Alzheimer’s as a disease. Some of the characters are really some amalgamation, others are a blend of things I’ve stolen from people. TM: What sorts of things did you steal? RK: There’s this journal that Howard has kept for Ruth and it’s full of entries about days when she was younger. I made a lot of those up, but I did have a few of those that my friends told me about their kids. I have one friend that was telling me about her son Darwin, and he had said the line in the book about asking what nerds are, and then getting them confused with nerves. Then I asked her for permission to reuse that in the book because I thought it was so wonderful. TM: What about the process of editing? RK: It was a really very haphazard process. I wrote the beginning, middle, end as a draft and then I sort of would attack really randomly. I had a day job too and just having to revise when I had any spare moment led to this really random way of approaching the revision process. It helped that the book is formatted in the way that it is. I would open the book up at random and see what needed to be fixing, and then fix it. Sometimes I’d just think of a new scene and stick it in there and try to arrange it or deal with it later. The book is a lot about the layering of emotions and dynamics between people. So revising was just this really gentle layering and layering on of emotions, but also of people’s characteristics and things like that, spending lot of time with these characters and thinking about what their motivations were and what they would do next was a big part of revising. TM: So this book is out, and you’re writing another novel! Can you tell me a little about it? RK: Not quite. I am definitely working on a novel, but it’s I’m a little stuck right now and I’m trying to figure out what’s happening next, so I can’t jinx it.
The Millions Interview

Patricia Smith Wants You to Hear Every Gunshot: The Millions Interview

Over the course of her career, Patricia Smith has a reputation for tackling complicated ideas, combining humor and tragedy, and bridging the gap between spoken word and lyrical prose. She’s a four-time National Poetry Slam champion, a finalist for the National Book Award, and has received many other awards for books like Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, Blood Dazzler, and Teahouse of the Almighty. She edited and contributed to the prose anthology Staten Island Noir, and has contributed poems to many anthologies including the recent Bearden’s Odyssey. Smith’s new book is possibly her best work to date, but it’s also a departure. Incendiary Art is a book-length sequence about violence and rage and fear. There is no narrative arc to the book, rather the poems and the sequences of poems function like a mosaic covering the life of Emmett Till, the voices of mothers whose children were killed, fathers who kill their own children, and urban violence ranging from the Tulsa massacre of 1921, the 1985 MOVE bombing in Philadelphia, Los Angeles in 1992, and other events. It is also a very personal book; Smith writes of witnessing the 1968 riots in Chicago following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and many summers spent in the deep South with family. Her mother kept the photo of Emmett Till from Jet magazine on the wall of their house. We spoke about her challenging, complicated book, and why she felt it needed to be written. The Millions:  Incendiary Art is an amazing book, but it’s also a really hard book. Patricia Smith:  It’s funny you should say that. I’m so used to doing readings to promote a book. You pick out poems and you have your favorite pieces—balancing long poems with short poems, funny poems with serious poems and all that. It’s so hard to read from this without inserting poems from other books because there’s very little light in these pages. That’s not to say there’s no variety in the book, it’s just a really difficult listen unless you can work in a breather somehow. It’s been pretty revelatory because I’ve been reading poems that I haven’t read in years. This book has changed the idea of what a reading is for me. TM:  I’ve heard and read your work for 20 years or more now, and Incendiary Art feels very different from your other books. Where did it start? With a single poem? Were you always thinking in terms of a larger project? PS:  It started in a very strange place, with the sequence “When Black Men Drown Their Daughters.” I think I wrote “The Five Stages of Drowning” poem first. I had those two news items and I wasn’t sure where they were going to go. I wanted to examine the particular dysfunction that would lead a man to feel so disconnected from his daughter that he would use her as a pawn to punish the mother. My initial idea was to do a book on the many ways–both physical and psychological–that fathers can drown their daughters. For example, there are the stories about fathers in the heartland who “married” their daughters to keep them chaste until they were old enough for their own husbands. I started seeing a lot of things like that. I began to collect a lot of clippings and do a lot of reading about father-daughter relationships—not necessarily just black fathers. Because I had a really special relationship with my father. It started there, but I realized pretty quickly that that was a dead end. Around that time, I was a teaching a class, telling my students they they should always listen for the voices they weren’t hearing. I talk about taking the time to look for an unexpected entry point into a poem. At the time, every two weeks or so there was another shooting of an unarmed man–usually by the police. I had my students look at news stories and I said, what is the voice we’re not hearing? I realized that there was always a very frantic shot of a mother in the beginning of the story and another frantic shot of a mother at the end when the person responsible for the death of her son or daughter was deemed not responsible for the death of her son or daughter. And then after that last frantic shot, the mothers disappeared. I thought about these mothers trying to re-enter their lives and what might be like. And so the “Sagas of the Accidental Saint” poems began that way. They wound up being the center, the focus, of the book for me. I tried to build everything else around that. TM:  It is interesting that the Emmett Till poems came later, because those poems and the Incendiary Art poems are really the spine of the book. PS:  The Emmett Till poems happened because Mamie Till was yet another mother whose son was gone. And I began thinking about the Incendiary Art poems during the riots after the death of Mike Brown. I realized how many times fire entered the picture, burning the landscape clean. I also heard someone ask, why do they burn their own neighborhoods? That made me think of the riots after the King assassination, which is when my neighborhood burned down. I spent some time trying to mix all these things and find a common entry point. Then I realized it wasn’t the subject matter, it was the fact that I was the one handling the subject matter. The same feelings kept rising to the surface even though I was looking at different topics. I decided that the idea of the changing landscape, the landscape that’s cluttered and confusing but that gets burned to the ground and starts over, was what I wanted at the center of the book. That encompassed all those different parts in my eyes. And hopefully in the readers’ eyes, too. TM:  The Incendiary Art poems loosely connect Chicago in ’68 and Tulsa in ’21 and the MOVE bombing, and they’re all about fire and violence and rage, but the connection is in part, as you said, that it’s you telling this. PS:  I guess there might be a stronger connection in my head simply because I was right in the middle of the riots in Chicago [in 1968]—and every time I see a riot of that type, it pulls me back to all that heat and chaos. It also makes me think of what it must have been like in Tulsa and wherever. I wrote because the connection felt strong for me and I hoped that some semblance of that connection would come together for the reader. TM:  I know people who still talk about Emmett Till in a certain way and it was because he could have been them and they’ve never forgotten that. PS:  That’s what my parents felt and that’s what they tried to drill into me. That’s why they had the Jet magazine picture in the house, the picture of Emmett in his casket. TM:  How did you come up with the idea of writing about Emmett Till in the style of a “choose your own adventure?” PS:  I used to love those books when I was a kid. And I as I get older, I look back on things and think a lot about the role of chance. I had just read about Mamie Till trying to get Emmett to go with her to Nebraska and then giving in and letting him go to Mississippi. I went through his whole story and said, where else could things have changed? I was one of those kids that was sent South. I was sent to Greenwood Mississippi every summer to get away from the city and run and be free and all that, but as soon as I got there I was presented with a whole set of rules. I was told how far I could go down a certain road or what man I should definitely not speak to if I happened to run into him. There were those same types of rules on the west side of Chicago. The South looked freer. It looked like you could run and play and do things you couldn’t do in the city, but it just operated under a different set of rules. My mother probably didn’t think of it this way, but it was so frightening to have that picture torn from Jet Magazine in the house all while I was growing up. My mom believed that the way to get through life was to be as beholden as possible to white people. If she was in a room and a white person walked in, her whole body would get smaller. She tried really hard to teach me how to live like that—not only because she thought that was how to be successful in the world, but because it was the way to stay alive. You don’t talk back, you don’t do this, you don’t do that. If you said the wrong thing to the wrong person you might wind up in a shallow grave somewhere–and you never knew who the wrong person was. I thought about that a lot. TM:  “Sagas of the Accidental Saint” is the center of the book in a lot of ways, and you have this long sequence where you have one line on a page–“The gun said: I just had an accident”–and it goes on, page after page. It’s a long and complicated series of poems and those 10 pages with one line each were almost exhaustingly long. How did you decide on that length and that effect? PS:  I knew the whole sequence was going to be long. I worried that people wouldn’t know that first long sequence was in the mother’s voice unless I said, this is in the mother’s voice. I really wanted to impose some form on that segment. I assume everyone reads aloud—which may or may not be true—but I wanted there to be something intriguing about the passage outside of the content. A sound that a reader wanted to keep coming back to. A lament. I didn’t want to have names that people necessarily recognized immediately in the cases I cite. I want people to know that while they see these things in the news every once in a while, the tragedy is a more constant and consistent drumbeat. There’s a case in the news and then maybe a case a month later, but no, it’s more often than that. It’s something unfortunately that’s numbing and a certain portion of the population gets used to it. If there’s something very public or brazen about it then maybe it makes the news. Nowadays it makes the news usually because there’s film. I wanted people to say, I don’t know that name, I didn’t know that name, I didn’t know how many times people committed suicide with their hands tied behind them. I wanted it to be relentless, but I didn’t want it to be too much. About the repeated bullet line—when I had it printed out to read, I realized that I would pause a certain number of beats between each repetition of the line—and that it was just enough time for a page to turn. So I then printed it out with one of the lines on each page. There’s something striking about the physical act of turning the page. If you say it and you breathe and you turn the page, people have said to me afterwards, you feel like you’re being held captive. You don’t realize it until maybe the third time, oh my god, she’s going to do that 10 times. Because there were 10 shots. I want you to hear every gunshot—and in order to replicate that feeling, it’s not enough to stay on one page and say this happened 10 times. The time you take to turn the page is enough time for the gun to fire again. I’m always trying to give the reader at least as much of me in person as I can on the page. Whenever there’s something like that, when I can do something to help you hear me saying the poem, I’ll do it. I was afraid that when I spaced those out the way I wanted that the publisher would say, this is too much, this is too long, but they were very supportive. They knew exactly what I wanted to do and we kept it that way. It also helps me when doing readings because if I read the whole “Sagas of the Accidental Saint,” it’s half an hour. It helps me to be able to take two or three of those cases out of Accidental Saint and read them as individual pieces. TM:  Have you always written that way? Thinking about sound and meter and trying to replicate the way you read on the page? PS:  Almost from the beginning. Because I got introduced to poetry by getting up on stage. The audience can only hear the poem once. Normally they don’t have a copy they can read again. You have to be very cognizant of not only the poem’s content, but the fact that it is able to be received and interpreted relatively easily. I didn’t know I was doing this consciously until I started to really study poetry, but I talk aloud while I write. I say one line over and over until the next line comes and then I say those two lines until the third line comes. Not only will I have internalized the poem somewhat by the time I’m done, but I’m really conscious of the way the words reach the air, how they sound. I think that is the result of me spending so much time doing poetry for an audience, before the idea of the reader was ever really clear to me. When I started to study poetry, I realized that there were poems I go to again and again. I even know them almost by heart. But every time I see these poems I read them all the way through—why do I do that? Because the poet did something technically to help heighten my response to the poem and I didn’t know what it was. I wanted to know what those sounds were called and what was happening with meter. They have to work hand in hand—the content has to be something that draws the reader in, but so does the sound. If I can take something horrible and lend music to it, you have to read it. If I can take something beautiful and add some sort of cacophony to it, you have to read it. Meter is something you have in your toolbox that can really enhance a poem in a lot of ways. It would be overwrought if you did it all with the content, but you can do something that the reader can’t point to right away, and they can leave the poem with the feeling you want them to leave with, without knowing how they got it. TM:  You contributed to the recent anthology Bearden’s Odyssey, about Romare Bearden, and I liked your poem in the book, but I kept thinking that the way that Bearden used collage is similar to what you tried to do in Incendiary Art in some ways. Were you conscious of this? Were you familiar with Bearden’s work? PS:  Not really. I mean I’d seen pieces of his before, but I never studied his work. I looked at more of it when I was presented with the idea of the anthology. The idea of collage however, goes back to Blood Dazzler. There’s a poem in Blood Dazzler about the 34 nursing home residents who were lost in Hurricane Katrina. People ask me about that a lot. It’s sort of a juncture for me because I so often turn to persona. That was the first poem, and I thought that was going to be the only poem, resulting from Katrina. That’s the poem that I had. I didn’t intend to write a book. Our lives are one long narrative and every once in a while you see something and you take a picture—I want this moment, I want this day. I pictured a camera moving around that room. The lights are out, the water is rising, and people are pushing call buttons and no one is coming. I wanted a camera to scan that room and I wanted it to stop and maybe it only stops for a second, but a second of life is better than none. In Incendiary Art, I felt for a long time that I needed to do more to pull together the sections. It wasn’t enough that we’re talking about different types of loss. That’s overarching. If I think about African-American lives and I think about those long narratives and those snapshots, if you put all those snapshots on the table and someone looks at them, they’re going to have a hard time putting together a story. But if you realize what narrative they came from, then you’ll know what the story is instinctively. That idea of the line of lives and pulling what we need from it—those moments, those instances, those days—whatever you need to piece this life together. One of the things about Incendiary Art is that I didn’t know how to end it. There is so much I felt that I needed to keep in the conversation. This happened with Blood Dazzler, too. I had people say to me, you’ve got to hurry up and get this book out because people are going to forget about Katrina. The idea of someone forgetting about something so huge and important was so amazing to me. How? And now I hear people saying, you hardly hear anything about the men and women who died at the hands of the police—I hate to keep saying that—because of all the political turmoil that’s now piled on top of it. People were paying, or pretending to pay, a lot of attention to that until our very survival as a country became an issue—and now our focus is in a million different places at once. All I want is for someone to pick up Incendiary Art or pick up Blood Dazzler and say, that’s right, this is happening. That’s what I want. Maybe it won’t last long, but for the moment they’re reading those poems I want them to be thoroughly involved in what they’re reading. The idea that things have to be tied together tightly or that they have to lead so directly one into the other, I think I’m walking away from that idea. TM:  I could feel rereading those last few poems that you were trying to find a way to close the book. You couldn’t have an Emmett Till poem be the last one because him being alive wouldn’t work, even though you make it clear that only chance keeps him alive. But you seemed to be trying to find some light. PS:  It was a difficult book to close. There’s not a narrative arc in the book. I wanted that last Incendiary Art and that last Emmett Till. We talked about the gun said I just had an accident, and that was another way to close the book, with that ellipsis that keeps going. I wanted Emmett to be laughing and alive—which goes back to that idea of chance. Taking this turn instead of that turn. I was in a store here in New Jersey the other day and in the current political climate someone can very nakedly stare and sneer at you publicly, as if they’re daring you to say something about it because they’re emboldened. The question is, because I’m a very impetuous girl, do I say something back? If I say something, does the person get in their car and follow me home? There are dangerous situations in places where I’m not used to being frightened. That idea of not knowing who your neighbors are. Having people who were content to be hateful in private in their basements are now out in the open. When I look back, I tend to say, that’s the way it was, but not the way it is now. To see that again—that’s as much light as the book could find. One of the things I ask my students is can we find beauty anywhere? Can we find humor anywhere? I think there might be a couple of moments where something visually is a little lighter, but there’s no humor in this book. When you said it’s a different book, I think it is. TM:  After finishing a book like this, is it hard to let go? Do you really need to spend time with something funny and lighter? PS:  It’s a combination. For a while after Blood Dazzler people would come up to me and say, well there was just this major tragedy in you-name-the-place, what are you going to write about it? Well, I’m not going to. I’m not the tragedy writer. I’m not the natural disaster writer. That was what I was moved to write about at that time. When I say that Incendiary Art was a hard book to finish, it was hard to finish because things kept happening that should have been in the book. I would see something and immediately say, I want to write about that but where is it going to go? I’m writing in reaction to a lot of things. I’m writing because I’m angry and I’m sad and I’m trying to make something make sense. If I keep doing that, I’m going to wind up with exactly the same kind of book. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but I do want to be funny and I do want to find ironic things and play off of them, and now I’m frightened politically. If we write to move our lives forward, we’re constantly writing about those types of things. I’m working on some fiction that came right out of Incendiary Art and the mothers of those murdered people. I wonder about the folding back into what an ordinary life should be. How do you do that being a woman who woke up one morning with a son or daughter and went to sleep without one? I have my Guggenheim proposal, which I haven’t started. My husband and I collect 19th-century photos of African-Americans and I want to do a book of dramatic monologues using some of those photos. There could be light in that for me. Luckily I have six weeks of residency this year. I’m not thinking I wrote a dark book so now I have to write a light book. I would like to, for my own psychological health, pull up and out a little bit. I’d like to write a children’s book again. I haven’t done that for a long time. I think of myself as a storyteller and not necessarily a poet and so you look for the best way to tell a story. Hopefully I can get something that lightens the landscape a little bit, but I go with what presses me to be written.