The Millions Interview

The Millions Interview: Joe Meno

Joe Meno's most recent novel, The Great Perhaps, is a beautiful and entertaining tragicomedy about the Casper family: scientists Jonathan and Madeline, their complicated teenage daughters, Amelia and Thisbe, and Jonathan's father, Henry, who is willing himself to disappear, speaking fewer and fewer words each day. Meno is the author of four other novels, including Hairstyles of the Damned, and his most recent story collection, Demons in the Spring, was a finalist for the fifth annual Story Prize.The Millions: I had this sensation when reading The Great Perhaps that its form was continually unfolding and revealing itself to me. For instance, we've got an elevated third person narrator that also manages to swoop deeply into various characters' perspectives; we've got short narratives about various Casper ancestors; we've got Jonathan's father Henry writing letters to himself about his past - and so on. This sensation of formal evolution was exhilarating, perhaps because it never felt inaccessible. Did you plan to write a book that shifts in these formal ways? And why these particular narrative choices?Joe Meno: When I first started writing the book I had no idea what it was about or how to tell it, other than I wanted to try and tell the story of a family in the weeks leading up to the 2004 election. After I finished the first draft, I realized the book was about complexity, and the need for it, and how terrified we, as Americans, seemed to have become of anything complicated or uncertain. As I started rewriting and organizing the book I realized that in order to get to the complexity of the character's lives, I would need a structure that was also complex, so I started using different forms for each character as a way to develop who they were - Jonathan, a paleontologist, has various abstracts from his published scientific journals, his wife, Madeline, an animal behaviorist, has her chapters structured like field notes, their daughter Amelia, a budding Marxist, has excerpts from her angry anti-capitalist rants in the school newspaper, their other daughter, Thisbe, has these very violent prayers she has made up, and their grandfather, Henry, has these letters he writes to himself as a way to rid himself of his connections to the past.TM: There's a notion in your novel that cowardice and failure can be inherited. Do you think the book supports or disproves this theory - or does it do both?JM: Actually, I did a lot of research looking at the theories concerning the heredity of personality traits, and there's a lot of evidence that our behaviors are not only influenced by role models like our parents, but also by the genes they pass on through these structures called epigenes, which is fascinating and also really, really horrifying. I think, in the end, that all humans, who on some basic level are all genetically related, have the very real potential for stunning acts of cowardice, and at the same time, the possibility for kindness and bravery. When you think about the last eight years of our country's history, you can see obvious examples of both, oftentimes committed by the very same people. The characters in the book all prove they are affected by a real sense of fear, and by the end of the novel, they all have a chance to face their cowardice, which in their own way, all of them do.TM: There's also a theme of familial roles in the book, and for the Casper family, a pattern of going outside of their prescribed boundaries. For instance, Madeline decides to tell her eldest daughter, Amelia, about a sexual moment with a work colleague, and, at one point, Amelia goes to watch Jonathan teach because she longs to see him as a professor rather than as a father. I wonder, starting out, what your notions of this particular family's traumas and dysfunction were. Did these characters change as you wrote them?JM: I think one of the reasons the family in the book is so unhappy is that each of them, in their own way, has decided that there is one thing in life that will help them understand everything - for Jonathan, it's this squid, which he thinks if it can be found, will help prove the theory of evolution. There's Madeline and her ideas about social dominance, and Amelia and Marxist politics, and Thisbe and her troubling sense of religion, and Henry, who is trying as hard as he can to escape the complications of history. It took me a long time and a lot of writing to figure out how they worked on their own, and then together. What becomes apparent is how lonely they are in each other's company, because they're all failing to see how none of those perspectives are mutually exclusive, and how we need all of those ways of understanding to make sense of the complexities of the world.TM: The book's terrific first line, "Anything resembling a cloud will cause Jonathan Casper to faint," echoes throughout the novel, and I found myself noting each varied cloud reference. For example, Madeline follows a man-shaped cloud, and the younger sister, Thisbe, in an exalted, erotically charged moment with a friend, notes the "cloudless field hanging above them." Are all these diverse cloud references examples of "a great unknowable entity" as mentioned near the end of the novel? Am I meant to desire a simplicity of metaphor, or symbolism, and not get it? How conscious of the cloud imagery were you as you wrote this book?JM: I think because the book is so expansive and follows five main characters and several centuries in the family's overall history, I needed something to connect the different family members, and the image of the cloud became the thing that made the most sense. The first line, like the book itself, was definitely influenced by Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. In the intro to his book, he discusses how writing an anti-war novel is like writing an anti-glacier novel. For some reason, that idea haunted me: what was it about a glacier? The more I thought about it and the more I wrote the book, the more I realized that what I think he might have meant is that war, like all human conflicts, is unavoidable, it's part of the way the natural world works, and so it's inescapable. I used a similar image - a cloud - which is also part of the natural world, and is also pretty impossible to avoid. The other thing about the cloud is that it's amorphous, ever-changing, unclear, which speaks directly to the way all of the characters see the world in which they're living. To me, that's what's necessary or beautiful about the image: they're the physical manifestation of the idea of uncertainty or complexity.TM: One of the two epigraphs is by Kurt Vonnegut: 'One of the great American tragedies is to have participated in a great war.' The novel takes place in 2004, during the presidential elections, and Madeline in particular is troubled by the war in Iraq. How and why did you work these real current events into the scope of the story?JM: I actually began writing the book thinking directly about the war and then the book grew from there. For me, as I look back over the eight years of the Bush Administration, what most strikes me is how cleverly they used fear over and over again to push forward their agenda, and how, over and over again, we as Americans allowed ourselves to be manipulated by this fear, especially during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, and then again during the weeks before the election. Like Madeline, I was completely uncertain about the war in Iraq: I was unsure of whether it was right or wrong, like most of the country at the time, and part of me, I think, was hoping not to have to think about it at all. My recollection is that there was very little debate and with some distance, I feel particularly ashamed of how fearful as a nation we had allowed ourselves to become. Writing the book was a way for me to try and make sense of the choices we made or didn't make.TM: One of my favorite aspects of your book is the humor and tragedy with which you depict the teenage lives of Thisbe and Amelia. At one point, Thisbe prays, "Dear Lord... let the wire in my bra poke through my heart," which is just, well, awesome. Are you, in fact, a teenage girl in disguise? How did you get inside these complicated - and very different - young minds?JM: I am not, in fact, a teenage girl. But I am writer which is pretty darn close. Amelia was based somewhat on someone I knew and worked with, at least as a starting point. As I was working on her character, I realized how angry and unappealing she seemed and so I felt like I no choice but to add some humor to temper her rancor. Thisbe, in secret, is kind of my favorite character in the book. Although she is really confused and definitely a kind of zealot, what she really wants is to make sense of her family and herself and her feelings towards Roxie, a classmate. I think she's a pretty fair example of why evangelical Christianity is so appealing to some, because in the end, it's based on a search for understanding through love. This is also why it is so insidious and threatening as well. Like Thisbe, trying to oversimplify the world only undercuts what seems so miraculous about life in the first place.TM: And, because this is a book site, I must ask you: What's the last great book you read?JM: Mickey Hess' non-fiction masterpiece, Big Wheel at the Cracker Factory. It's about an assistant professor who's forced to take all these weird day jobs - ice cream man, house-sitter, actor at a haunted house - while he tries to negotiate the transition from one part of his life to the other.
The Millions Interview

The Millions Interview: Zoë Heller

Zoë Heller's new novel, The Believers, is an enormously entertaining and sharply observed story about the Litvinoff family in New York City. When father Joel, a famous radical leftist lawyer, suffers from a stroke and falls into a coma, his wife Audrey and his two grown daughters, Rosa and Karla, find themselves wrestling with revelations about his identity, and their own. Joseph O'Neill calls the novel, "A moving, intelligent look at intellectual loyalties - to ideology, religion, family--and the humans attached to them." You can browse inside the book here.Zoë Heller is the author of two previous novels, Everything You Know and, What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal, which was shortlisted for the Mann Booker Prize in 2003.The Millions: Early in the book, Audrey's friend Jean wonders if the whole Litvinoff family possesses a genetic "gift of conviction" (26). It's an interesting idea, and throughout the novel we see the female members of the family - Audrey, Karla, and Rosa - grasping onto old or new beliefs, perhaps as a way to render their lives comprehensible, or meaningful. Were you playing with this idea from the beginning, or did it emerge as you wrote these characters' lives?Zoë Heller: I think I always saw this book as a novel about people with a particular aptitude for faith. But the way in which these characters struggle to maintain their beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence is something most people have experienced at some point in their lives, I think.TM: Why did you decide to portray a famous family of leftists? How do their political beliefs shape not only who they are, but how they interact with one another? When you began, were you setting out to satirize leftist politics, or simply strong political beliefs in general?ZH: I don't think my aim was to satirize the left. Actually, I don't think my aim was satire, period. I wanted to write about the way in which beliefs of all kinds - political, religious, conservative, progressive - operate on their adherents. The novel focuses on a family of leftists, largely I think because that is the political culture with which I am personally familiar, but it also deals with a number of other beliefs: Orthodox Judaism, the rigid ideas the characters have about themselves and their relationships. And so on.TM: One of the most fascinating parts of the book is Rosa's interest in Orthodox Judaism, and her struggle to understand what she believes. She is resistant to the religion's tenets, and yet, defends them to her atheist mother. Why did you decide to explore this world, and why did you place Rosa in this conflict?ZH: I think of Rosa as a woman with a particular susceptibility to grand theories of everything. When one God (revolutionary socialism) fails for her, it is only a matter of time before she finds another grand, ideological system (Judaism) to replace it. I am not a religious person, but I wanted to try to write sympathetically about a person finding religion and to point up some of the similarities between political and religious faith.TM: You're British but you live and write in New York. Most of the characters in your book, aside from Audrey (who is English), are American, and you capture their varying voices and habits of speech with great accuracy - and humor, too. The myriad voices in your novel reminded me of On Beauty, by Zadie Smith, another British writer with a similar gift for rendering speech on the page. As a Briton among Americans, do you find yourself particularly sensitive to the ways in which people in the U.S. communicate? What went into capturing these characters' speech habits on the page?ZH: I don't think my immigrant status has much to do with my interest in how people talk. I'm just as interested in the speech mannerisms and dialects of my fellow Britons. Dialogue is the most purely enjoyable part of writing a novel, I think.TM: The novel begins in 1962, when Audrey and Joel meet in London. On the first page we are introduced to "a young woman" standing alone at the window - this woman happens to be Audrey. After reading further in the book, I was curious about this initial anonymity. Why did you decide to precede the story (the rest of which takes place in 2002) with this early history? What does this courtship tell us about Joel and Audrey?ZH: I wrote the Prologue partly because I wanted to show the reader the political climate and culture in which Audrey and Joel started out together. More important, I wanted the reader to get a glimpse of Audrey as a vulnerable young woman, so that later on, when she was being monstrous, the reader might be able to muster some empathy for her. The other thing I was interested in showing was Joel and Audrey's initial misprision of one another. Like a lot of relationships, theirs begins on mutually faulty assumptions. Joel thinks Audrey is an enormously cool and self-possessed woman; Audrey thinks Joel is a man of political virtue, offering her a role as his equal partner in the struggle. And of course, neither of these initial impressions turns out to be quite correct.TM: I read your book twice, and the second time it was totally accidental - I simply could not stop myself! Do you have anything to tell us about readability, about what makes a narrative wonderfully infectious?ZH: I don't think I have anything useful to say about readability. I spent the greater part of my working life as a journalist and it's possible, I guess, that writing for newspapers teaches you a certain succinctness.TM: And, since this is a book blog, I must ask you: What is the last great book you read?ZH: The last great book I read was an advance copy of Colm Toibin's novel, Brooklyn. It is a beautifully rendered portrait of Brooklyn and provincial Ireland in the 1950s. It is also an astute and utterly unsentimental portrait of a young woman's journey into adulthood. Toibin writes about women more convincingly, I think, than any other living, male novelist.
The Millions Interview

The Millions Interview: Margot Livesey

Margot Livesey's latest novel is The House on Fortune Street, an absorbing, beautiful and sad story told from multiple perspectives. Richard Eder of the New York Times remarks, "Livesey's writing is acutely observant; her psychological algebra is admirable and sometimes astonishing," and Alice Sebold says, "her work radiates with a compassion and intelligence and always, deliciously, mystery." Margot Livesey's previous books include Eva Moves the Furniture and Banishing Verona.The Millions: The House on Fortune Street is split into four interlocking narratives that overlap and echo one another. How did you decide on this structure, and what informed the ordering of these narratives?Margot Livesey: I wrote the first part of the novel, Sean's section, in the late nineties, hoping that it would be a novella. I sent it to Robert Boyers at Salmagundi magazine. He wrote back an immensely thoughtful rejection letter which made me realise how much I'd left out of Sean's story. I knew, however, that I didn't want to expand the novella in a conventional way, that that wasn't what I was after, and I put it aside first to revise Eva Moves the Furniture and then to write Banishing Verona. But Sean remained on my desk and almost as soon as Banishing Verona was out in the world I found myself sitting down to write the second section of the novel, from Cameron's point of view. So I can't say exactly when I decided on the four sections, but once I did I knew where I was going and that I wanted to write a novel in which, as in life, the story came to you from different sources. I also loved the idea of replaying events from different angles, not in a Rashomon-like way but in a way that expanded or changed your opinions.TM: At the end of the novel, Abigail says her grandfather always thought "everyone had a book, or a writer, that was the key to their life." This is certainly the case for your characters: Sean refers to Keats, Cameron to Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), Abigail to Dickens, and Dara to Charlotte Bronte. For better or for worse, your characters look to the stories and/or biographies of their favorite artists to help them navigate through life. I wonder if this theme, which seems central to the story in many ways, helped in your conception of these characters. Did it shape their destinies on the page? Were there particular challenges to weaving this real life art into your fictional world?ML: The idea of giving each of my characters what I think of as a literary godparent came to me when I was working on Sean's section. As a graduate student of English he had to have an area of study and I decided that Keats - the poet of erotic love, early death and immortality - was the perfect choice. Then of course it got a little harder with my characters who weren't doing Ph.Ds, but I still loved the idea of how a literary godparent could point to a character's deepest concerns and enlarge the reader's understanding. My rule for picking the godparents was that they had to be well known and nineteenth century and somehow I had strong instinctive feelings about who was right for who - Dickens, for instance, would never have been a good fit for Dara. The biggest challenge was working the necessary information into the plot in a natural way so that the reader could enjoy this aspect of the novel.TM: It seems to me that The House on Fortune Street is very much interested in how our actions reverberate and affect other people, and how relationships, whether they be familial, platonic, or romantic, are limited by our own solipsism. How did you use the book's central event - a character committing suicide - to express the relationships between these characters?ML: One of the questions I was trying to explore in Fortune Street was how damage gets passed down in families, or not. Why do some people emerge from traumatic childhoods relatively unscathed while others are irrevocably marked? Dara's suicide, an ultimately mysterious event, is the deepest expression of this question. The other characters don't really see Dara, in part because she is an excellent listener, in part because they're distracted by their own preoccupations, or, in her father's case, by guilt.I was also eager to examine a long friendship between two women and the complexities of that relationship. I hoped that readers would begin by condemning Abigail for her treatment of both Sean and Dara and end up having a much more complicated response.TM: In one of these sections you portray a man attracted to little girls, and you do so with such compassion and depth that it's hard not to sympathize with his shameful and secret desire. Your depiction of loneliness and isolation is really incredible, Margot. One of the differences between this narrative and the others is that it's told in first person, whereas the other three are told in close third. Why is Cameron's point of view different from the other characters'? How did you go about creating such a complicated character?ML: What a generously phrased question. I was very concerned in writing about Cameron, a man who gazes longingly at young girls, that readers might simply condemn him out of hand. One way to make them more sympathetic - or at least more ready to suspend judgment - was to cast his narrative as a confessional. I think we tend to have a soft spot for someone who is telling us the worst about himself. Using a different point of view also fitted with Cameron being a member of a different generation than the other three characters. I decided to make his best friend gay as another way of commenting on his inappropriate desires. Lastly I tried to make it clear that Cameron judges himself quite harshly. He is confessing but not trying to excuse or mitigate his behaviour.TM: You grew up in Scotland, went to college and worked in England, and, after teaching at an impressive number of universities all over the United States, you now spend much of the year in Massachusetts. How has living in so many places informed your writing - and perhaps more importantly, your narrative voice and style?ML: I am not sure I know how to answer this question in a broader way. I do think that spending so much time in the States has given me a very particular way of looking at life in Britain. In many ways being here is like living in the future; things happen first in the US and then elsewhere. In the case of The House of Fortune Street I did try to replicate the rather fragmentary nature of my own life in the form of the novel.TM: And because this is a book blog, I must ask you: What's the last good book you read?ML: Do I have to answer in the singular? I loved Joan Silber's The Size of the World and Joseph O'Neill's equally cosmopolitan Netherland.
The Millions Interview

The Millions Interview: Nam Le

Nam Le is the author of the debut short story collection, The Boat, which Junot Diaz calls, "an extraordinary performance." Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times wrote that Le's "sympathy for his characters and his ability to write with both lyricism and emotional urgency lend his portraits enormous visceral power." I agree. I went to graduate school with Nam, and in our first week, he called to me from across the bar: "I read your story... you animal!" It felt like a real creative writing buddy moment. It's been great fun seeing him gain all of this much-deserved acclaim.The Millions: Although you capture a wide range of voices and locales in these stories, the prose in this collection feels distinctly yours, from the well-placed sentence fragment to the descriptions of light. Can you talk a little bit about how you craft sentences, and how language creates the worlds you're exploring?Nam Le: There are so many ways to think and talk about this (you're basically asking for my ars poetica!) Here's how I've been thinking about it of late: every sentence carries within it a certain set of charges, vibrations, shapes - and what I try to do is chase down a state that's maximally charged, or shapely. Sometimes that state is more visually concerned - how a word looks - fits - into a sentence, and sometimes more aural; sometimes it treats more with images, other times abstractions. This is what I mean by a text's organic imperatives: these "states" can't be pinned down on a pulled-back level; they're not conformable, in isolation, to describable tendencies (long or short, cerebral or sensory, complex or simple). They have to be dealt with on their own terms, within their own contexts. Of course the effect this has on a technical level is pretty disheartening: it suggests that every sentence that is, on first go, serviceable, efficient - even competent - can almost always be improved, can be brought to a fuller communicability.TM: How long did you work on the stories in this collection, and what was the revision process like, especially once you conceived of these stories as a book?NL: I worked on this book about four years all up. It's tough to divvy up the time because the whole process can be so lurching and spasmodic: basically the first versions of these stories were written over two years, then they were rewritten and revised pretty intensely for the next year (those that got placed in magazines in collaboration with the respective editors), then again, for another year - at times from the ground up - with my U.S. editor at Knopf, Robin Desser, and, to a lesser extent, my Australian editor at Penguin, Meredith Rose - both tough, sensitive and superb editors. As tough as they were, though, inevitably I was my own toughest critic. I wanted to discharge what I knew to be the insane privilege of getting published with the personal undertaking to myself that every word, every choice, would be weighed, tested, spoken for. I wanted to be able to stand behind each story (even if only, at the end, to boot them out of the room).Revision's hard, of course. There's none of the typical pay-off of plowing new turf, it's a constant challenge to fence with different sensibilities as well as to gauge the slippery sensibility of that hypothetical reader, and maybe worst of all, the whole thing's potentially endless. Time and time again you have to convince yourself you're completely done with something - then time shows you again and again you're not. A case in point: "Halflead Bay" arose out of the germ of another story, "The Keeper," the former clocking in at about 20,000 words, the latter 16,000. Not a single sentence made it from "The Keeper" into "Halflead Bay" - that despite the fact that I was at one time convinced (at the end of many drafts) that "The Keeper" was absolutely done. This sort of anticipatory second-guessing can make it hard to knock off a story, let alone a collection of stories (where by the time you're done with one story, you've got all the others to re-contend with as well).TM: In "Meeting Elise", the narrator receives a painful colon exam. Have you ever received this kind of treatment, and if not, how did you go about writing about such a subject? How far will you go in the name of research?NL: I know your game, Edan - you want me to deny this so that later, when I refuse to deny something else, you can infer it's true! Did I undergo a painful colon exam? I'm certainly not going to answer this kind of question and the answer is certainly no.That said, I'm not averse to going as deep as possible in the name of research. In this case, for example, I consulted doctor buddies, looked up medical sites and blogs and checked out photos and videos (which in themselves were plenty painful for me). Generally speaking, nothing's off-limits when it comes to research - it's just a case of from how far into the rough you like to putt.TM: I know that you repeatedly watched the pilot to the television show "Friday Night Lights", at one point charting the various plot points introduced. Why - was it more than mere curiosity? Do you look to other forms of storytelling (television being one example) to help you with your own work?NL: Wow, it's like we're friends or something - like you actually know me! (Either that or you have a hidden recorder on my TV set, which is something I'd rather not think about...) Look, if there's one thing we literateurs like to lament even more than the inferiority of TV to books, it's the implied inferiority - aesthetic, intellectual - hell, political and cultural too - of TV-watchers vis-a-vis book-readers. There's overlap between the groups, obviously, but it's not exactly subversive to suggest that TV, more than literature, caters to society's lowest common denominator. I don't disagree with this, but I do think this lowest common denominator might be higher than we give it credit for. For me, TV (and yes, other forms of storytelling too) can provide instruction in a lot of particulars, but perhaps, especially, in the art of narrative manipulation. Watching the pilot of "Friday Night Lights" - a network, not cable, show, mind you - makes me newly sick with envy of the brutal economy of film. (If a picture is worth a thousand words, how to calculate the worth of a thousand pictures, stitched together to convey continuous real-time motion, and then underlaid with sound?) When it's well done (and in "Friday Night Lights" I think it is) TV serves to remind us how sophisticated even the "commonest" audience is - how many narratives it's capable of holding at any given time, how deftly it can unpack story and character ramifications based on the scantest of cues, how easily it can calibrate plots and sub-plots working at parallel- and cross-purposes. Of course there's massive shorthand at work, and the recognitions evoked are typically shallower, more familiar, less textured, than arise out of literature - but in truth I find the narrative structures of "cheap" TV shows more adventurous and formally emboldened than those of "literary" fiction. Plus TV's often more fun - and I'm sure a large chunk of my own fiction could probably use a primer there too.TM: You were a fellow at Provincetown - a place that would certainly terrify me in the winter, especially if all I had to do was write. What did you do with your time there? Does your writing process change with any of these moves in locale?NL: Provincetown during the winter is a magical place. The most beautiful thing about it is how it coheres with the mood of your work; that feeling you usually have to spend time and energy and luck chasing down before being granted access, that feeling that, in the real world, is constantly short-circuited - by the real world. In P-town, it's as though your creative sensibility is never shut down, is left on permanent standby, and you're always writing, even when you're walking, or watching TV, or cooking, or clamming, or playing ping-pong. On top of that, P-town brings together three elements which make me feel more fully alive - the beach, big weather, and a community of artists not limited to just writers. There was only one downside. I lived in the A-framed top floor of a barn and the toilet was tucked into one of the vertices; I half-sprained my back every time I took a piss.TM: What's your impression of the American literary scene, now that you've had a book published and been on book tour?NL: So far as I can tell: in terms of clout, cash, influence, reach, interconnectedness, and, to my mind, aesthetic ambition and distinction (in all senses of the word), it's still the biggest game in town. I don't mean that as provocative statement (I'm writing this from Australia) but as a surmise based on my limited personal observation. Big is both good and bad. Looked at from a mainstream vantage, the American literary scene can seem oligarchic, self-sustaining, incestuous - the same conglomerations publish the prohibitive majority of books sold and given serious attention - and, too, soulless and numbers-driven. Yes, it's a machine. But now I've been chewed up and spat out by it, I can report that it's a machine with many moving parts, many points of input, potential jams, and built-in redundancies. It's a machine still largely fueled by aesthetic passion and enormously dependent on voodoo, timing, and serendipity. It's a machine still tended by human beings working in something close to a state of faith (or, in another way of thinking, professional negative capability) - because, amazingly, no-one yet knows how exactly the machine works - or how exactly to work it.From a more inside-baseball perspective, the literary scene can actually seem quite decentralised and diverse. This is particularly true on the emerging end, where MFAs teem and thrive alongside literary presses, magazines, journals, zines, blogs, etc, as well as - all the way up the spectrum - festivals, readings and reading series, book clubs and groups, independent stores, and various reviewing and lit crit forums. There's a lot of news about literary culture currently being under siege - and a lot of truth to that - but having felt the community and energy out there I can't help but wonder whether this might be, in fact, the ideal condition for literature.TM: What was the last great book you read?NL: Cormac McCarthy's The Road.
The Millions Interview

The Millions Interview: Joan Silber

Joan Silber's most recent novel, The Size of the World, is sweeping yet intimate, the kind of book that will take you across continents, and deep into characters' individual lives. She is the author of the story collection, Ideas of Heaven, which was nominated for the National Book Award, as well as four other works of fiction.The Millions: The Size of the World is billed as a novel, although it could also be called a novel-in-stories or a collection of linked stories. While the book is in fact short stories that are either tangentially or deeply connected, it has the narrative drive of a more conventional novel. Really, it's addictive. When you were writing the book, did you conceive of it as belonging to a particular genre? How did you balance writing separate narratives while still maintaining such delightful readability?Joan Silber: I did have the idea that I wanted to write a composite fiction more unified than what I'd done before - a hybrid between the novel and linked stories - but I didn't exactly know what I was doing till I was into it. Which is to say, I made it up as I went along but I mostly knew what I was after. It was very gratifying to me to see how certain characters (Owen especially, who has the ending chapter) could come in again and be re-imagined in a way that pushed the story further. I'm very glad if the connections themselves caused a kind of narrative suspense.I knew this form would suit a book about people leaving home, with settings in Vietnam, Thailand, Mexico, etc. But sometimes I think I won't ever go back to writing a single-plotted novel. There's a quote from John Berger, "Never again will a single story be told as if it's the only one." I think that's pretty much what I believe, and this method fits with that, for me.TM: Last month you wrote for The Millions about reading books written by the citizens of the countries you're traveling in. Did this reading prepare and/or inspire you to pen your novel? What other kinds of research, if any, did you do for this book?JS:I love doing research. Well, it's easier than writing. In the early stages the research gives me details - Michael Herr's Dispatches told me civilians in Vietnam were not liked by the military, for instance. Later, I zoom in on what I want - after I had written about an American woman married to a southern Thai Muslim, I went hunting for historical material on southern Thailand. And I found a great memoir by a tin prospector that served as the basis for another section.I'm addicted to online research. While I was writing the book, I hit Google many, many times a day, looking up the Feast of San Giuseppe in Sicily or the rules for Thai monks or the languages of Indian groups in Chiapas, Mexico.TM: I love to teach your story "My Shape" (which appears in Ideas of Heaven and was recently anthologized in the second edition of The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction) because it's a great example of how to tell a story in lush, detailed summary, rather than depicting it largely in scene. This pacing technique returns in The Size of the World, where you manage to capture a character's whole life (or close to that) in a single chapter. Is this is a conscious craft decision on your part? What's attractive to you about this kind of storytelling?JS: I have two somewhat contradictory impulses at this point in my life. I'm a miniaturist by nature - I love the small moment seen intensely. And I love the sweep of time passing. (In real life too, it moves me to see how people surprise themselves by where they end up.) It was a nice discovery for me to see that summary could be written as if it were scene, drawn with details. And this allowed me to get the intimacy of close narration into stories with a broader scope.I do like life-stories. The deepest ironies are in those lurching shifts people make, bit by bit.TM: The narratives in The Size of the World are all told in the first person, as are the stories in Ideas of Heaven. Can you talk a little bit about your interest in the first person? What have been its benefits and drawbacks for you?JS: I came a little late to first person - my first two books were written without it. It strikes me now (I just thought this) that, oddly enough, I came to it as I began to move further from myself. Perhaps third-person at first gave me a distance I needed, and then I needed something else. I'm always trying to capture the emotional logic of characters, what they say to themselves about what they're doing. I like the directness of hearing them sum themselves up. I'm not really trying to capture their speaking voices so much as their inner voices. The sentences are meant as translations of their thoughts.If there's a decision about whether to "style" the prose to sound historical or flavored with vernacular, I usually opt for neutral wording. So, for instance, in the chapter about Annunziata, who comes from Sicily to New Jersey, I avoided inflecting her English (she'd probably think in Sicilian anyway) but I took pains to convey her reasoning."Pains" is right. It takes a lot of trial-and-error to get the voices, especially at first. But the commenting that first-person voices can do is very handy for jumping over spans of time.TM: Ideas of Heaven was nominated for the National Book Award in 2004, and you were one of five women finalists. I was dismayed by the outcry following the nomination announcement; how did you deal with such reactions?JS: I think critics felt left out of the loop, since they'd never heard of us. (I'd heard of most of us, actually.) Their strongest objection was that we weren't famous, which we already knew. I didn't immediately think the criticism was anti-female, but after a while I came to think that some of it was. The good part was that we five got to know each other - we had dinners at my house and at Lily's and have lunched in recent times. Christine Schutt has a terrific new novel out (Kate Walbert and I were at the kick-off reading) and Lily Tuck has a biography of the writer Elsa Morante out very soon. And we all like to think that Sarah Shun-lien Bynum's daughter was named Willa and not Kimberly because of our advice.There were many good after-effects for me. A few months after the nomination, The New York Review of Books ran a great piece by Lorrie Moore, on that book and my others. What writer doesn't want that? I feel that the nomination put me on the map and is the reason I've been getting good coverage on this new book.TM: Jessica on the Written Nerd blog calls you one of the most underrated writers in America, even after your National Book Award nomination. How do you feel about such a title?JS: I was very thrilled to see what she wrote.TM And, because this is a lit blog, I must ask you: What was the last great book you read?JS: I can think of two - Colm Toibin's Mothers and Sons, a story collection, and Margot Livesey's novel, The House on Fortune Street. Toibin (whose previous book, The Master, I unexpectedly loved) packs each story with deft complexity, a resistance to the obvious, and a level of insight that is both cutting and humane. There's something beautifully startling about his work - I'm still trying to figure out how he does it. Margot Livesey's latest, The House on Fortune Street, is a novel with four interlocking parts, quite brilliantly composed. The plot has a center - there is the puzzle of a suicide to be solved - but it spins out in other directions. My judgment of various characters kept shifting and getting turned around. Especially remarkable is the nuanced treatment of a decent man with a Lewis Carroll-like attraction to young girls. A rare and original book.
The Millions Interview

The Millions Interview: Daniel Radosh

Daniel Radosh's Rapture Ready! is a sociological experiment of sorts. What happens if the liberal leaning, Jewish New Yorker embarks on a hands on exploration of the parallel world of Christian pop culture, one that takes him to Midwestern Christian Lollapaloozas, Bibleman appearances, and Christian themed pro wrestling matches? The result is a book that is by turns funny, bizarre, and thoughtful, as it looks for the "darkest corners of this parallel universe" but more often than not finds common ground. Radosh is a contributing editor at one of my favorite magazines, The Week, and frequent contributor to another, The New Yorker. He also pens a funny and eclectic blog.The Millions: A lot has changed in the country in just the last couple of years since you started working on Rapture Ready!, with the politics associated with born-again Christianity falling out of favor to a certain extent. Do you think that the change in the political climate will change the way Christians express themselves through pop culture?Daniel Radosh: I wonder if to some extent you don't have your cause and effect backward. That is, the political power of the religious right is starting to wane at least in part because of some of the changes within evangelical culture that I document in the book. Young Christians, expressing themselves largely through pop culture forms -- music, magazines, books, web sites -- have been challenging the conservative leaders of the church. Even younger Christians who may themselves have conservative politics don't believe that such politics ought to be linked to faith, or that being a Christian means you must be a Republican. Rank and file Christians' dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq and the response to Katrina, in particular, weakened the ability of the more gung ho leadership to continue to rally people in support of the Bush administration.As the political scene in general has shifted, more and more progressive Christians have been liberated to speak up. And I think we'll see more of that. On the other hand, there has also been a backlash -- an attempt to protect "Bible-based Christianity" from the "grace" or "red letter" movement. This rear-guard action also takes pop culture forms, such as the insanely militaristic Battle Cry rallies. So I also wouldn't be surprised to see a return to militancy in some Christian rock, for example.TM: You focus a lot on Christian music in the book. Is this because that is what most interested you or do you think this is the most important segment of Christian pop culture?DR: More the latter. Modern Christian pop culture pretty much began with the Jesus people movement of the 1960s and 70s, and its earliest manifestation was Christian rock. So it's been around the longest, developed the largest audience, and, perhaps most importantly, the scene has grown big enough to reflect the diversity of evangelicalism.TM: In the book, you recount some episodes that offended and angered you during your exploration of Christian pop culture. Was it hard to keep yourself from writing something "angry" as opposed to the funny and reasoned book you produced, or did you find that the reasonable, humane impulses of Christian culture outweighed the aspects of it that offended you?DR: Can't I have it both ways? There are definitely aspects of Christian culture (not to mention individual Christians) that I came to respect, admire and simply enjoy. But they didn't make me hate the offensive stuff any less. Rather, they simply made me realize that the offensive stuff, while it demands and usually gets the most attention, isn't representative of the entire church, so that maybe made me less angry. Also, I'm not a particularly angry guy, so that helped.TM: How much of the book got left on the cutting room floor? Were there any episodes that you wish had made it in?DR: Early drafts of the book were crammed with every strange or funny thing I encountered. But it got repetitive and slowed the narrative down, so I don't really miss it. Some of that stuff ended up in the multimedia appendix on my web site. I do miss a chapter on geocentrism, which got reduced to one paragraph at the end of the creationism section. It was a lot of fun, but didn't fit the pop culture theme of the rest of the book. I'm hoping to turn it into a magazine article at some point.TM: Now that the book is out, what are some of the things you've heard from born-again Christians who've read it? Do they resent it or find it refreshing?DR: Judging from the Christian blogosphere, there's definitely a lot of interest in it, though most of these folks haven't actually read it yet and I'm not sure what they'll think of it when they do. Of those that have, many have really embraced it. I've gotten some very nice e-mails, done a lot of Christian radio interviews, and was even asked to write an article about my experiences for a pretty cool Christian magazine called Relevant. More conservative evangelicals have found it entertaining, but are a little put off by my liberal perspective. I'd be worried if they weren't.
The Millions Interview

A Conversation with Adam Mansbach

Buzz Poole, the managing editor of Mark Batty Publisher, has written for the likes of The Believer, PRINT, Village Voice and the San Francisco Chronicle. He is also the author of Madonna of the Toast, a look at the cultural ramifications of unexpected religious and secular icons. Keep up with his adventures in surprising iconography at his Madonna of the Toast blog.I first met Adam Mansbach a few years ago, through mutual friends in Berkeley, California. Not too long thereafter, he relocated from New York City to Berkeley, where we hung out from time to time, because both of us are talkers, and we both like to talk about big, important, at times unwieldy, ideas like America, politics, writers, writing and jazz. Not too long after Mansbach moved west, I headed east, landing in New York City. The following questions are framed by the many conversations that we have had since first meeting, though they exist on the canvas of the release of Mansbach's third novel, The End of the Jews, and the forthcoming US Presidential election. Like his first two novels - Shackling Water and Angry Black White Boy - in The End of the Jews, Mansbach examines the legacies of race and religion, legacies that demand attention if there is to be any true understanding of today's America - as James Baldwin, a major influence on Mansbach, wrote about time and again. Buzz Poole: More than most authors, your background seems like something readers want to connect to your fiction, as if to validate your work, or perhaps even dismiss it. Is this something that has ever bothered you? In looking through the promotional materials that accompany review copies of The End of the Jews, you acknowledge how your family very much impacted you as a writer. Has there been a shift in your perception of how to reconcile your life with your work in public? Adam Mansbach: There have been a number of shifts. I think with each project the relationship is different, the goals are different, and the interface with the public is different. With my previous book, there was a very clear agenda: to try to jumpstart some dialogue about race and white privilege by discussing these crucial issues through satire, humor, and absurdity. And also to apply hip-hop aesthetics to a novel in some kind of significant way, as I've discussed at length elsewhere. I was clear on who I wanted to reach, how I wanted to do it, and my own willingness to personalize these issues by speaking publicly about my own past, my entrance into hip hop, how it shepherded my race politics, the pathology of white hip hoppers in the 1980s and 1990s, how the landscape has changed since then. Talking about myself was a way to show audiences - especially at colleges, where I do the bulk of my speaking - that talking honestly about these difficult issues can be easier, and more fun, than they thought.The End of the Jews is a totally different kind of book, and you're right, there does seem to be an appetite for some kind of way to connect my life or my family to the plot, the characters. I don't think it's about dismissing the work, but rather enlarging it with some kind of "behind the scenes" angle - for some reason, there always seems to be an appetite for that. I'm still trying to figure out how to deal with it, because this time around it's not so interesting to me. Or maybe it is, but there's a high probability of people misunderstanding, or me failing to explain right, because it's near impossible to explain how life and fiction dovetail in this book. It requires such an involved recounting of the artistic process, the research process, the adaptive process, the speculative process. All of which played out over a five or six year period.The funny thing is that the book itself grapples with these very issues. Some of the main conflicts involve artists cannibalizing each other's lives, and where the boundaries lie, what is art and what is exploitation and what is both - what it means, for instance, when an old man slams his grandson's novel down and says "even the parts he made up are true," and threatens to never speak to him again because he feels so violated. On top of which, he's a novelist himself, so he thinks he understands just what the kid is doing - and on top of that, his wife feels vindicated and liberated by seeing her silent pain find a kind of alternate voice in this same book. Meanwhile, the grandson is still pissed because he feels his grandfather stole some shit from him for his previous book, which is why he felt entitled to put the old man's life on blast. So for me to try to explain this book biographically ends up messy, and already people have taken liberties, like assuming Tristan Brodsky is my grandfather. Some of that is probably my fault, for even mentioning him in interviews. But the true relationship between the man - who I love as dearly as anybody on this planet - and the character is far more complicated. There are stories from my grandfather in this book verbatim - funny ones, mostly. There are wild leaps of speculation, like the relationship between Tristan and Peter Pendergast, which is a kind of ghastly, made-up version based nominally in a fact of my grandfather's life, the fact that he had a WASP mentor who made it his business to open doors for Jews professionally and socially - but he was a man my grandfather had nothing but admiration for, whereas Tristan essentially resents Peter and can't respect him. Buzz:You credit your grandfather for the title The End of the Jews as something he whispered to you while the both of you were attending a garish bar mitzvah. What is that "end?" Is it a loss, or forgetting, of a culture's traditions? Does commercialized spectacle mark the end of reverent history, or is it just a change, an evolution, for better or worse? Is it something that can be spotted in Jews in Europe, or Israel, or is it a distinctly American issue? The fact that your character Nina is a Czech Jew raised in a family where being Jewish is a secret - in the late1980s - leads me to believe that you consider this a global condition. Why is that? Is there a kind of market-driven homogeny spreading through the west? Adam: I have no idea. I've never been to Israel, and my travels in Europe have had nothing to do with Judaism. I thought it was a great line, and I filed it away, and eventually this turned into a book fitting, I think, of the title. I grew up very marginally connected to Jewishness - got kicked out of the So You Think You Might Be Jewish Sunday School and Grill, didn't get Bar Mitzvahed, didn't grow up with religious parents or even grandparents. So for me, it's very hard to talk about "the Jews" because it's not a monolith; I'm very resistant to that notion and even more resistant to the idea that I'd be qualified to speak for them if it were. I can speak for myself, and my characters. That being said, I think the "end" is not so much about homogeny or spectacle, but about community, about the disappearance or the active destruction of traditional forms of identity, of fitting in, of understanding yourself in relation to a tradition in an uncomplicated way - whether religion, history, art or family. I think that for every community there are outskirts, margins. And for every person nestled comfortably in the bosom of community, there's somebody feeling alienated, ostracized, conflicted, marginal, ambiguous - regardless of who is trying to include or exclude him or her. To me, those margins are where art comes from. And to pin it more closely to this book, it's where 20th century Jewish-American literature comes from. That's where Bellow, Roth, Malamud, Mailer, and Kazin were. That's what Chaim Potok wrote about, even though he was deeply religious. So everybody in this book is conflicted and is often surprised at the ways identity, religious and otherwise, is wielded - by them, and against them. The moments at which they claim Jewishness, or refuse to. The ways in which their creativity hinges on remaining on these margins, and the critical distance the margins allow - and also the pain inherent to that. At the same time, the spirit of inquiry at the heart of the Jewish tradition - which I most connect to - is also perhaps most operative from the margins. That's the spirit that gave us a Talmud with no margins - literally no margins, because motherfuckers couldn't stop arguing and rearguing the interpretations of these esoteric, self-generated laws, so they filled the whole page.Buzz: This book links the margins that your Jewish characters inhabit to the margins that African Americans inhabit in this country, and I guess to continue, or butcher, the metaphor, the page is America. After meeting jazz musicians in Prague your character Nina, a photographer, moves to America. Early on in her stay, one of the players tells her: "[T]he legacy of black folks in America is so profound that it functions as a metaphor for all humanity." What is that metaphor? Adam: The metaphor is about survival, connection, and creativity in the face of systematic brutality and deliberate attempts to destroy families, communities, languages, all forms of expression and humanity.Buzz: What works of fiction did you keep close to you while working on The End of the Jews?Adam: The Big Book of Jewish Humor and The Joy of Yiddish were deep-background reading – not so much because there's any Yiddish or any jokes in the book, but because they helped me think about Jewish sensibilities. New York Jew by Alfred Kazin was very important. I wish I remembered who recommended that book to me so I could thank them, but all I remember is reading it on a bus between New York and Boston. I worked on this novel for a long time, and certainly I read plenty, but I guess I don't so much hold books close when I'm writing. I read much more when I'm not writing, before I start, during breaks, that kind of thing. I suppose I made an effort to read or re-read the work of artists in Tristan's age-range, especially the Jews: Bellow, Roth, Malamud. I re-read some of what he'd have read as a young man: Kafka, Fitzgerald. I'm trying to remember some other folks who made an impact on me during this time I was writing this. Denis Johnson, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Russell Banks, James Baldwin, Tobias Wolff. I'm blanking on two-dozen other books, I'm sure.Buzz: The End of the Jews is your third novel in 6 years. What's your writing routine?Adam: I like to work as soon as my coffee's ready in the morning, and go as long as I can. I'm working on a first draft of a new book now, and it's been so long since I've been in that position that I'm kind of reinventing my writing process. I always long for the part I'm not currently engaged in: a first draft seems like the most fun when you're editing, and when you're writing it you can't wait to get to the end and go back and start shaping. I think I'm getting much slower as I age. I used to try to write 2,000 words a day. That amount seems ludicrous to me now. I have a home office, a garage converted into a studio, which I usually write in. But I also love to work in cafes, and I think I'm more focused when I'm not at home. I tend not to be able to work well unless I know I have a nice open vista of time ahead of me: no travel for a week or two, at least. Otherwise, I can only work on short stuff - stories, journalistic pieces.
The Millions Interview

Short stories and the cell phone: An Interview with writer Barry Yourgrau

Although cell phone novels might at first appear to be a uniquely Japanese phenomenon, one of the form's pioneers is a South African transplant to the U.S., writer Barry Yourgrau. Barry's book "Keitai Stories," a collection of short "flash" stories, was released for cell phones by a prominent Japanese publishing house, before making the transition to print.Currently, Barry lives and works in New York City, where he's hard at work on a series of popular children's books (NASTYBooks). He has also released several volumes of literary fiction, performed his short stories in venues as diverse as MTV and NPR and starred in a movie based on one of his books, The Sadness of Sex.The Millions sat down with Barry (electronically, but no cell phones were involved) to chat about his work in Japan, whether cell phone novels can work in the U.S. and how he writes short stories.The Millions: You've been writing short stories for cell phones in Japan. When did you start? How did you come up with the idea?BY: Got the idea when visiting In Tokyo for the first time in 2002, I saw kids surfing the Internet on cell phones (keitai). I thought my stories, which are generally very short, would be just right for cell-phone reading. Especially if I made 'em even briefer. (Which is an interesting exercise: as Woody Allen says somewhere, a general note to improve any comic writing is, Make It Shorter.)I suggested to my Japanese translator and editor that I write a book for first-serializing on keitai. They agreed enthusiastically. I figured I'd hit on a real format innovation; turns out I was part of a huge wave of keitai writing. Though my stuff is literary; most other keitai writing is pretty schematic and manga-derived - and while their individual segments are short too, they're parts of long novels!The Millions: What has the reaction been?BY: Delightful. 100,000 readers accessed the stories (Keitai Stories) online. The book has done well, though not in those same numbers, granted; nor in the millions that best-selling "keitai novels" have sold. My translator (Motoyuki Shibata, a renowned literary figure in Japan) thought it some of my best work! My editor too... Go figure. But we just serialized my kids' book, NASTYbook, on keitai before pubbing in Japan. It wasn't written for keitai, a normal book. But works fine on keitai....The Millions: Do you think it could work in the U.S.? If not, what's different about Japan that makes cell phone novels/stories viable?BY:I don't see why it wouldn't work in US. But there is a difference; namely, that kids and younger folk in US access the Internet on computers and use computers for online reading etc. Japanese and Asian kids use cell phones; online computer connection is costly (I believe) - and there's not much privacy at home, homes and rooms are tiny. People don't coop up at home like in US.The Millions: What's different about writing for cell phones?BY: For me, not much, other than the driving imperative to go shorter. So you really get to experiment with the essentials of what makes a narrative work - from prose poems to script-like description to just dialogue. But what makes the keitai writing in Japan successful in the market place (other than subject matter, material for young girls written by young women) is interactivity - readers can comment and writers will change storylines in direct response. I was thinking of doing something like this, but it's hard from US to Japan, and time consuming.The Millions: Your stories have a tendency to turn to the bizarre or experimental. What are your influences? Where do your ideas come from?BY: Bizarre, sure. "Experimental," hmmm... I think of myself as a quite conventional writer, albeit with a twist.... I riff on established genres and forms the way comedians send up things. I got started writing my own pseudo-dream-journal items. I read Cocteau's remark that in order to make fantasy work, the details have to be extra-concrete. I had been working after college as a newspaper reporter (very slow and disorganized one). So I used some "newspaper" style features in my writing, e.g., having all dialogue "tagged" by speaker, never just standing by itself. My earliest big influence was Raymond Carver, I discovered Will You Please Be Quiet Please in the library I think in 1975? Blew me away. We had a brief correspondence: I wrote a short fan letter, he wrote back a nice short reply (mentioning something about trying to give up drinking...); I cracked open a tall beer and dashed back a single-spaced page and a half outpouring of my hopes, dreams, enthusiasms. Naturally that was end of our correspondence, I never heard back.Isaac Babel I loved too, plus fine crime writing, Hammett and Chandler. And Woody Allen's early standup routines. Lots of short poetry. The crime writing stuff is important: cause it's such propulsive writing. Like joke-writing. Or writing for the screen. Twilight Zone made a big impact on me, I realize. Basically I write like a confessional poet, using surreal narrative and cinematic tools. On a mini scale.My ideas I just get. That's how my brain works. I never have used my own dreams for inspiration - to me that's "cheating." Like I say, I riff fantastically on established things. My book, Haunted Traveller, for instance, is all my riffs on existential exotic far-flung writing, Chatwin et al. I finally read Paul Bowles after writing the book. Jeez, now I know where my ideas came from! (Actually, I had read and been much affected by his Mohammed Mrabet translations - short, semi-fabulous, and marvelously brutal). And I've been reading Borges a good deal recently too...The Millions: In reading other interviews with you, I've noticed you travel a lot. For work, fun? Do your travels provide context/inspiration for your stories?BY: I've traveled a lot in the past few years with my partner, Anya von Bremzen, who writes about food and restaurants around the world. (A happy gig for her, and me, indeed). These trips don't really feed my inspiration. Ok, a bit. But I'm more Raymond Roussel type - he wrote Impressions of Africa by locking himself in a hotel room in Africa and writing without stepping outside. All in the mind.The Millions: How do you write? Is the process different when you write for cell phones?BY: I write my fiction longhand first. I need the pencil/pen in hand to connect to emotions. I then type up. For the first several books I used a typewriter, now I'm (late) on computer. But I find the computer too suited to Flow, not the weight of the individual word. I've half a mind to switch back to a typewriter.... I like to note that I wrote some of my little cell phone stories for Japan while staying in Madrid. I worked in the Grand National library, walking in daily to write little jokey tales about karaoke (say) or haunted vending machines (say) after passing under the big portrait of Borges in the hall.The challenge for Japan cell phone writing was connecting the work to a (1) Japanese and (2) younger audience. So I trolled the Internet for Japanese trends. Most useful.The Millions: So you were conscious that you were writing for a Japanese audience. Did that affect your writing in ways other than your choice of subject?BY: Yes, very aware. I tried to write with simple but flavorsome constructions (always a good idea, no?). And I used details of a Japanese kind. For instance, I made a wizard's spellbinding soup not chicken soup, say, but mushroom soup with big chunks of shitake.... Also, the karaoke story: I had to figure whether Japanese young readers would know who Neil Sedaka is. (Don't how I finally decided...). But not huge issues, as you can see.The Millions: When the recent article about cell phone novels came out in the New York Times, a lot of people suggested that this trend might represent the future of the novel. What's your take?BY: I think it might be part of the future of the novel. Not just the format, but the interactivity. In Japan, these books emerge from pools of people on web pages, all posting and getting notes. But I for one think the "old novel" still has lots of life.The Millions: You mentioned you tend to write short (flash?) fiction. Does this "genre" have its own conventions? How is writing "flash" fiction different from writing novels or other types of short stories?BY: I started writing very short just because it suited me. Then I later discovered a trend called "flash" fiction or "sudden" fiction. I had nothing to do with any movement as such, and always use the term with fingers crossed behind my back. I've always enjoyed compression in writing, and in art. Among my favorite reading are commonplace readers, such as Auden's wonderful collection. Tidbits that enfume the imagination. Regarding the genre of very short fiction, I wouldn't begin to make general pronouncements. I only know how I work. I find the form an endlessly rich sources of possibilities, of narrative gambits. I find very short items, when good, expand in the reader's imagination. I sometimes, say, like to break off a story right before it's resolved - at a surging cliffhanger. Let the reader finish things up. Next step for me will be to link the stories into a larger narrative somehow - without taking away their sense that the universe is starting afresh in each story.The Millions: A lot of people would argue that this kind of fiction is much better suited for our "modern" world, with its short attention spans, etc. Any thoughts?BY: I think that, too, in a hopeful way. And I like the idea of bringing "literary" stuff into the pop world of short attention spans. Stuff based on my stories for MTV twenty years ago, for example. I think getting fiction across multiple "platforms" (pardon the media speak) is great. I always perform my work, and we did a movie version of my book The Sadness of Sex (some of it is online at Spike.com). I used a wonderful line from Jerome K. Jerome for one of my books: "The thoughts we can understand are very little thoughts... All greater thoughts are undefined and vast to our poor childish brains." And just to note: I'm not a "new media" maven or a techno head, at all. I mean, when I wrote cell phone stories for Japan, I didn't even own a cell phone (nor did my translator). But I think my sensibility works sympathetically, as it happens, with techno stuff, certainly the trend to be "short."The Millions: Any plans to bring the cell phone stories to the States?BY: I'd like to. I've started talking to a company that's begun putting a range of books online for cell phones. At this point, my book of keitai stories for Japan, Keitai ("i-mode") Stories, only exists as such in Japan. But I tweaked some of its stories and put them in my most recent kids' book, Yet Another NASTYbook (HarperCollins 2007). I suggested promoting the book by saying it used some cell phone stories from Japan. I was told this wasn't a great idea, people didn't like books that had earlier appeared elsewhere. So we didn't mention the cell phone background. But maybe not a bad idea? Obviously I think so, I'm doing it here.The Millions: We had a review of a book of flash fiction from China on the site about a year ago. Apparently it has a huge following in China and Taiwan. Ever thought about publishing there?BY: Yes, my books (other than keitai one) are well translated in Taiwan. Looked like a mainland China publisher was going to bring one out a few years ago, but then disappeared. But may be time again. My books in general are published in Japan, in the conventional literary manner. I have a wonderful translator, Motoyuki Shibata. His "stable" includes Paul Auster, Richard Powers, Millhauser, Kelly Link, etc. He's a friend and cohort of Haruki Murakami, who's also an influential translator of American lit (did a hugely successful translation of Catcher in the Rye). Now I'd like to get into Korea, that's next on my list.The Millions: And is there anything else you'd like to talk about?BY: Yeah. I just saw MacBeth at BAM. Patrick Stewart is a magnificent powerhouse. But Lady MacBeth was a letdown, to my eyes, and dragged. Emmett White, the young actor playing Banquo's son, was super!
The Millions Interview

The Millions Interview: Kevin Sites

Kevin Sites, author of In the Hot Zone, shed some light to his experiences in an interview with The Millions last week. An edited text of the transcript appears below, please see yesterday's post for more on In the Hot Zone.The Millions: Did you always have the idea of a book when you embarked on the Hot Zone?Kevin Sites: I was hoping that through the course of the journey that all the material we were gathering would transform itself – possibly a book, possibly a documentary. It just so happened that we were able to get both out of the material.TM: How was it different to write the book compared to sending dispatches from war zones?KS: The idea for online reporting was to make it as subjective as possible. For the most part the people I was covering during the journey were front and center in our storytelling: I really wanted to focus on their experiences. In doing the book I was able to look into two story structures: my journey and unique experiences in covering it and the parallel journey of the people I encountered. This was more of a memoir, more of a chance for me to meditate on what I learned instead of just providing observations from all these locations, actually thinking of what they meant in a cumulative sense.TM: Did the book help you put things into context once you removed yourself from those environments?KS: The book allowed me to think of what I had seen, instead of just reporting it. And the truth is, in all these wars, how we define war is really a misinterpretation. We define it as combat, which is probably its smallest component. When really how it should be defined is collateral damage, which is its most dominant feature and goes on for generations. Battles may only last a very short time, but the repercussions rip along for a long time.TM: We saw and read a lot about collateral damage at the beginning of the Iraq War. Why do you think coverage of the greater effects of war are more limited now?KS: We as journalist have a tendency to focus on the inherently more dramatic. We're drawn to the guns and the tanks and the armies and guerilla forces because they are easy to report on. The collateral damage is much more difficult to report on in a compelling way, keeping people interested in refugee camps and the suffering human beings for example – it's our natural tendency to turn away from them because they are harder to see.TM: With so much to cover in Iraq, how did you decide to leave it - albeit temporarily - and go around the world?KS: I'd spent almost the last two years of my life in Iraq, and I hope to go back. But I felt like my mandate was to get beyond the headlines. In most of the places I went, I was the only reporter. The smaller stories also lent themselves to this particular project. I knew I wasn't going to be able to be on the ground very long in any of these locations, so I had to limit my objectives to putting together profiles of people instead of telling the geopolitical story, for which I used the strength of the Web by linking to BBC country profiles.TM: Any odd, uplifting experiences in your travels?KS: I had a chance encounter with the Dalai Lama. That was kind of funny because I was so star struck that I couldn't say anything to him even though he sat right behind me in the plane. Here I am a man covering every war and here's the person who epitomizes world peace in many ways and I couldn't ask his counsel. I felt very sheepish afterwards.TM: You're pretty critical of mainstream media in some of your writing, do you see yourself going back to network news?KS: My major problem with it was the limitations of television news – we had so little time to tell our stories, and more specifically how NBC stepped away from me after the mosque shooting. I don't hate mainstream media and I don't look at the Web as a medium to displace it. I think we're in the same ballgame: we amplify each other's work. I was grateful to do something different, but I still love the impact of television. I would like to continue to be the multimedia reporter that I am, maybe for different sources or maybe one particular company.TM: People point to The Hot Zone as the future of journalism, how was it for you to report for an online outlet?KS: I don't think it's the future, I think it is the present. You see the evolution of this multimedia approach really across the board: every television network has a fairly rich Web site that provides both text and video, and every newspaper is now at a point where they're using still photography in a more animated fashion. Television didn't kill radio, the Internet's not going to kill television or newspapers – it's just going to force them to evolve.TM: Did reporting for a Web publication affect your access to sources, especially in high places?KS: It was interesting because in so many places I traveled as an NBC reporter I had to explain who I was working for. But when I told people I was working for Yahoo! they knew. It also was a double-edged sword because people could access my reporting right away. A Hezbollah source was sort of patronizing: 'What are you, a blog?' And then he goes to the site and the first thing he sees is images of U.S. soldiers because I had just been embedded in Iraq. So it was interesting to face that and explain it.TM: It has been three years since you taped the mosque shooting in Fallujah, what are your feelings about the whole episode – the event itself, the hate mail you received, etc. – now?KS: The hate mail has tapered off. For me that particular incident – I think about it a lot, because I talk about it a lot – I certainly came to peace with what happened there. With one exception: I recently found out by putting in a freedom of information request that one of the insurgents was shot 23 times in the back after I left the mosque and I felt somewhat complicit about it.TM: You write about the U.S. media's decision to self-censor the coverage of the Fallujah mosque event, where are we three years later?KS: It's still going on. When's the last time you saw a wounded or dead soldier or marine? The war has become very sanitized for us in America. There's a problem with that because it doesn't show you the true face of war. I'm not for showing you gratuitous violence but you do have to show that people get killed in war – it isn't a sterile environment and we do have to show the good, the bad and the ugly. When we don't do that, our public and our democracy suffers because the public can't understand what's going on and can't make the informed choices they need to make about those conflicts.TM: Are you yearning to go back to covering conflicts?KS: It wasn't so much conflict that drew me, it's the idea that within conflict you're witness to a lot of different spectrums of human conditions: we struggle with so many different ethical and moral choices within a war, that's fascinating to me. At the same time I don't want become one of these war correspondents that can't come back home again. I think soldiers feel somewhat same way. When you're gone you're constantly dreaming of coming home but when you're here you can't wait to go back.
The Millions Interview

Jeff Hobbs in His Own Words

The Tourists, the debut offering from young novelist Jeff Hobbs, is a book about four college friends at Yale who, seven or so years removed from New Haven, find themselves reconnected in New York City. The tie that binds them is lust and longing, and also a certain "how did I get here?" melancholy. The permutation of sexual pairings among these four individuals is at the heart of the plot - an unlikely twist since the ratio is three-to-one in favor of the men. These relationships, including an ill-begotten marriage of college sweethearts, are governed by power and not love. It's a vision of fading youth, punctuated by the tastelessness of the characters' successes, the inevitability of their failures, and the rank indulgences with which they attempt to stave off their despair. But the book is not without humor, and it is full of observations about the interaction of personality, choice, and consequence. Though things do fall apart, the center, embodied in the unnamed narrator, does his best to hold, and is the one character largely unchanged at story's end (though we are left wondering if perhaps he himself is the most manipulative of the bunch). Recently, the Millions tracked down Jeff Hobbs for an interview.The Millions: Greetings, Jeff Hobbs. Thank you for answering some questions from the Millions.Jeff Hobbs: Thanks so much, Noah. I am completely, sincerely flattered to be included on your site.TM: First of all, I couldn't not mention this: in the acknowledgments of your book you thank your dog, Noah, for the many hours he spent curled up at your feet as you wrote. My ears pricked up at this revelation: I have the same name as Jeff Hobbs' dog. I've always felt that we need more Noahs in the writing world...JH: Thanks for the shout out to my dearest friend, but he would make an incredibly dull character in a book: ever loyal, ever loving, ever ready to lick your face in the morning to get your ass out of bed so he can poop.TM: Now, The Tourists. On the back cover of your book there is a blurb in which someone uses the term "a generation at loose ends" to describe the group to which the characters belong. Is this a fair assessment? Talk a little if you would about these characters: why do their choices lead them away from self-satisfaction? What rolls do talent and privilege play in their "real world" difficulties?JH: I would call them a "generation flailing" - flailing for success, for wealth, for some small measure of renown, and for - like everyone, always - happiness. About eighty percent of current college students list either "wealth" or "celebrity" as their number one goal going into the "real" world. Our particular generation was raised to believe that we can - we should - achieve everything we want in life, and now we find ourselves suddenly deposited in towns and cities without the basic infrastructure to know what we do in fact want (i.e. what will make us happy) or the nose-to-the-grind attitude that our parents and grandparents largely had. With this book, I tried to depict four young people flailing in their own distinct ways. David has wealth but is unhappy with where it's landed (or cornered) him. Samona has financial and domestic security but feels inconsequential in the world around her. Ethan has achieved wealth and fame, he can sleep with anyone he wants - but he's still melancholy and alone. The narrator has achieved exactly nothing that he was aiming for on his first idealistic train ride into the city, and so he lives vicariously through the others. Without giving up too much plot, their interplay is all about people trying to change each other - and in doing so, change themselves - in flailing attempts to angle themselves toward elusive fulfillment.TM: Sex: in The Tourists the characters clack together like billiard balls, then drift away only to be thrown back in with each other when the next game is racked. The only romantic love depicted in the story is between the protagonist (or antagonist as the case may be), Ethan, and the narrator. They had a relationship in college before the narrator realized that he himself was not gay, and therefore could not return Ethan's love. Ethan's unrequited feelings for the narrator seem to be at the heart of his coercive sexual practices thereafter. What was your approach to the portrayal of such complex, and, for many readers I suppose, unfamiliar sexual relationships? (You artfully describe Ethan's seduction of another man, one who is not gay, in one of the books strongest - and arguably most implausible - passages.) What if any are the differences between homosexual and heterosexual relationships, beyond surface anatomy? In what ways does a character's sex life add specific depth to their personality on the page?JH: Another notable difference between this generation and others (at least as far as I can tell, judging from how appalled my family was upon reading this!) is a rather casual approach to sexuality. Sexual fluidity is a firmly rooted part of the culture at this point, at least in urban centers, and I worked hard to approach sexual encounters and relations this way in the book. (Perhaps going a little overboard; a reader of an early draft once advised me that, unless these people are carrying around industrial size jars of baby oil, some of the scenes are physical impossibilities.) Setting off to write a story about whether or not one person can change another person in any relationship, sexuality felt like a solid metaphor.TM: You have an understated writing style, straightforward, almost journalistic (indeed, the narrator portrays himself as simply reporting the events of the summer - with some details filled in, of course), and you are not prone to flights of fancy verbiage. But your observations can be acid, viz. descriptions of the world of high finance and those that populate it, or your sketch of the David Taylor character - how his dream of becoming a prep school teacher and coaching track yielded to spreadsheets and stop-loss orders. The ironies that you present are big ones, such as the narrator, who enjoys no financial security, possessing the largest account of self-awareness and principle of all the characters. I know you have a connection to Bret Easton Ellis; I hesitate to use the word protege without really knowing. Tell us a bit about the development of your writing. How has Mr. Ellis helped you along? What other authors have influenced your work? What are your core literary values when it comes to spinning a yarn?JH: Bret is tremendously insightful, well-read, and he possesses the keenest intellect and (more importantly) instinct of any writer I know (admittedly few, but...). He treated the first draft of the book the way an editor treats it, slashing words and paragraphs that were imprecise or didn't belong, streamlining dialogue, and recommending books that could be useful. I will always feel indebted to his generous aid. I love Michael Chabon, Andre Dubus, Toni Morrison, Lethem, Faulkner. As far as development goes, you just sit alone in a room all day thinking, and you write under the knowledge that ninety percent of what comes out is garbage, and you keep piling up those ten percents until you have a book that feels right. "Spinning a yarn" begins with the structure, which is not to be confused with plot. If your structure doesn't work, then you could have the most majestic prose of anyone, ever, but the book as a whole won't stand. In The Tourists specifically, I felt the book called for a stark, sharp, journalistic voice because it is built as a mystery, and the story and characters are so isolated. So you start with scribbled thoughts and outlines and lots and lots of notes, and you create the structure - and everything else, the voice and style and POV, etc, stems from that first roadmap. So every book should have a different voice, I believe, depending on the fundamental structure the author decides to use for that book.TM: You used to live in New York, and your book is set here, but you now make your home in Los Angeles. A Brooklynite myself, I would like to know, what's up with that?JH: NYers are so snarky about LA; it's really not so bad out there! My wife is a born and bred Brooklynite (Fort Greene), and our heart is and always will be on S. Portland Avenue, but we went west for her work. The people and atmosphere made me pretty miserable and whiny at first (for instance, Rebecca didn't know how to drive - a not-minor problem), and then I snapped out of it by thinking: why are you taking yourself so seriously? You live in a nice little cottage with a lemon tree in the back yard, and you can walk out your door and be on a mountaintop an hour later, and all you need to work is a pen and paper and the a corner of a room. We have very good friends who love to BBQ. And the Philadelphia Eagles can break your heart just as deeply watching them at the Rustic Tavern in Los Feliz as they can at the Dakota Roadhouse in Tribeca. Meanwhile, the dog is very, very happy to be inhabiting a place larger than 300 sq. feet.TM: I'll stick with New York for a minute. DeLillo's Falling Man and a host of other recent works of fiction have sparked a dialogue about "the 9/11 novel." You touched on 9/11 in The Tourists, albeit very briefly. Do you have any thoughts about the implications of 9/11, and the course that America has navigated since then, for writers of fiction? Do you think a young writer like yourself necessarily considers the subject from a different perspective than a writer of an older generation?JH: 9/11 is so tricky for fiction because of what feels like an obligation to address that event in any contemporary story, and especially one set in or around Manhattan. It is so much a part of the national consciousness because it is so visually apocalyptic and globally far reaching. The more successful novels dealing with 9/11 and its effects have been the strictly metaphorical ones, such as The Road - books that explore the primal fear and loss embodied by that day rather than the physical event itself - mainly because it is such a stretch for written words to depict the actions and sensations that we all saw and felt that day. I think this happened with the Holocaust as well: no prose, no matter how riveting, can precipitate the same gut reaction as seeing a photo of a mass grave or going to the Holocaust Museum in D.C. and standing over the room filled with abandoned shoes. Books can take a person away like no other medium can, but horror of this scale can quickly expose the limitations; the visceral impact does not compare. As far as being younger, I can only generalize, and I do not presume to speak for anyone other than myself. Those of us in our twenties are perhaps more removed from the political, economic, etc, implications of 9/11; we as a generation are much more inclined to live day to day, without excess forward thinking, and it is easier to shut out our basic, latent terror that way. Thinking ahead to what the world will be like in fifty, twenty, ten, even five years is enough to drive anyone crazy - and especially those of us in our twenties who are still largely unestablished and insecure. We are friends and siblings with soldiers, not teachers and parents, and it feels hard to conceive of doing anything heroic on the homefront, and so we occupy ourselves by simply getting by. So while we are perhaps well-suited at dealing with the short-term implications - and perhaps to write about them if driven to - we might be less suited down the road, when the long-term implications become more clear and we find ourselves lacking the foundation needed to deal with them. I can say for certain that my attitude and all my sensibilities have changed now that I have a little family of my own. Whereas before, when all I had to worry about was myself, food, and rent, it was so easy to maintain that layer of distance to people and news and, essentially, reality. Now, married and thinking of having children, the fundamental urge to hold loved ones close - to protect and endure in a precarious universe - underlies every single day.TM: Okay, last question. You went to Yale, studied English and Literature, won some writing prizes, etc. And so, Jeff Hobbs, I ask you: who makes the better slice, Sally's or Pepe's?JH: At risk of cutting my already modest readership in half, I'd take the train down to Philly for a Gino's cheesesteak over either, anytime.Thank you.