The Millions Interview

Trouble in Paradise: The Millions Interviews Julia Fierro

Novelist Julia Fierro has an eye for spoiled paradises. In her first novel, Cutting Teeth, a satirical look at parenting customs in Brownstone Brooklyn, a group of angst-ridden, citified parents spend a fraught Labor Day Weekend in a shabby Long Island beach house ironically named Eden. Fierro's second novel, The Gypsy Moth Summer, a darker, more ambitious book, is set on Avalon Island, an idyllic islet off the coast of Long Island beset by an infestation of gypsy moths and, more troublingly, by toxic waste from an aviation plant that may be poisoning the local water supply. The Gypsy Moth Summer, which came out in June, is at heart a tale of two women: Maddie LaRosa, whose family straddles the class divide between tony East Avalon and working-class West Avalon; and Leslie Marshall, scion of the town’s most prominent family, who returns to the island with her African-American husband, Jules, and their two biracial children. Maddie falls in love with Leslie’s son Brooks, upsetting the delicate balance of race, class, and deeply held secrets that have held Avalon together while poisoning its culture—and its children. Fierro and I recently exchanged emails about the real-life inspirations for her novel, the intersection of race and class in America, and the growing toxic plume spreading underneath her native Long Island. The Millions: Writers often start a book with a line of prose or a visual image. Was that the case for you with The Gypsy Moth Summer? What started you writing this story? What sustained you once you got started? Julia Fierro: The Gypsy Moth Summer's first seed, so to speak, was planted many years ago with the character of the Colonel, based on my maternal grandfather who was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. Like the Colonel in the novel, my grandpa was a tough son-of-gun and inspected our bedrooms wearing his white military gloves once a year (we got a dollar if we passed and a talking-to if we failed), but my grandfather was not as tyrannical as the Colonel in The Gypsy Moth Summer. In my first creative writing class at college, I wrote a sketch of the Colonel who, two decades later, became the patriarch of Avalon Island in The Gypsy Moth Summer. That sketch sat ignored for years until I was a graduate student at the Iowa Writer's Workshop. I tried to turn the sketch into a story titled "The Gypsy Moth Summer." I rewrote that story many times over the next decade—from the Colonel's perspective, from teen Maddie's perspective, even, I am ashamed to admit, from the caterpillars' omniscient point-of-view (I'm laughing at myself). Eventually, I realized this was no story but the opening chapter of a novel. After my first novel, Cutting Teeth, was published, I looked at that pile of pages (hundreds of pages of various opening chapters all for the same book) and tried again. This time, all those details and characters, and, most importantly, the story, fell into place. It would be easy to look at all those pages as a waste of time, but I was fully informed when I sat down and wrote the novel. TM: You speak of the Colonel, and of your granddad on whom he is based, as tyrannical, but as a reader, I found him more pathetic than frightening. He's slipping into dementia, he yells at the TV every time Bill Clinton appears, and his worldview seems almost comically out of date. I read him as a symbol of the broader rot that you seem to be saying existed at the heart of the Reagan-Bush-era U.S. war machine, which in the novel is producing bombs that kill American women and children by spreading carcinogenic toxins. Was that your intention? JF: I was raised by two devout Roman Catholics, and although I'm an atheist now (the doubt which makes me a decent fiction writer makes me a bad believer), and I don't necessarily believe in "karma" (if only the universe was so just), I wanted to write about an island's sins catching up with its sinners. It was my intention to expose what you call "the rot" at the heart of an island whose bread-and-butter is the making of killing machines. But I thought of it as a poison, similar to the real-life toxic plume that is growing under Long Island. The Gypsy Moth Summer's Grudder Aviation is loosely based on Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation, a major producer of military aircraft from 1929 to 1994, when it was acquired by Northrop. Grumman was a half hour east from where I grew up. Many of my cousins, aunts and uncles lived near the factory, and several of my school teachers. The breast cancer rate in this area is triple that of New York State. Throughout my childhood, at any time, I knew multiple people who had cancer—family members, neighbors, teachers, even school friends. Most survived with treatment. I knew I wanted to address the cancer rates on an island that, like Long Island, gets its drinking water from wells. I grew up on an idyllic islet (like Avalon) but my parents forbade us from drinking well water. We made weekly trips to my grandparents' home "in town" where they received water from the town supply. We filled plastic gallon bottles—my father called it "Holy Water." When I first began researching cancer on Long Island, I read about the toxic plume under the island stretching south to southeast—4.5 miles long by 3.5 miles wide. This plume is growing. Its origin is the now-closed Grumman Aviation factory in Bethpage. Why didn’t I know about this plume of Trichloroethylene, classified as a human carcinogen by the EPA, that had been growing, thriving, under the island I’d believed so beautiful? Why hadn't I been paying better attention? TM: Wow. So, many of your friends and family from near where you grew up have had cancer? What's happening in the real-life counterpart of the fictional town of Avalon? Have people turned against the factory? JF: Avalon Island is an amalgamation of different parts of Long Island. The east side of Avalon Island is modeled on the wealthier towns of Cold Spring Harbor, Laurel Hollow, and Lloyd Neck. When I was eight, my parents moved from a working class town mid-island to a wealthier town on the North Shore. They found a house that had been abandoned by its previous owners. My father fixed up the house as best as he could. My parents moved so my brother and I could attend the prestigious public school. They wanted us to grow up around wealthy kids in the hope, I imagine, that pedigree would rub off. They worked multiple jobs to pay the astronomical taxes. ​T​he west side of Avalon Island, where the fictional Grudder factory churns out aircraft,​ is based on towns further east, like Bethpage, former home to Grumman and most affected by the toxic plume. Why hasn’t the toxic plume and its connection to Grumman been covered in national news? Perhaps it is due to geographic isolation. Or is it an issue of class? The pollution affects working class and middle class towns stuck between the tony western towns of Nassau County closer to the city and the summer vacation areas out east in the Hamptons.  Still, the demographics of these towns are mixed—there are working-class families, but also white collar professionals. Perhaps, the answer is the close ties Grumman has to the military. ​ ​It wasn't until 2012 that the issue was fully covered in the press and only in 2016 did Governor Andrew Cuomo order the Navy and Northrop Grumman to provide the state and a local water district access to test for toxicity. The resulting numbers are abysmal—drinking water at risk for 250,000 people; clean-up costs "between $269 million and $587 million," which could take "up to 100 years to clean." When my younger brother graduated from high school, my parents moved further east—closer to the pollution but with a fraction of the taxes. They noticed immediately the unusual number of people with cancer. Out of 50 homes on their road, 10 had one or more family members who had cancer, had died from it, or who were in recovery or in treatment. TM: Some writers find it hard—and risky—to write characters from outside their own culture and experience. In the case of Jules, he's male, black, and from a working-class background. Then there are his biracial kids, who are figuring out their own place in the world. Did you ever find it tricky to write these characters? What experiences did you draw on as you were writing their chapters? JF: Writing outside my perspective often feels far more rewarding. Maybe this is why I write fiction. I find myself feeling more comfortable writing from a male point-of-view, and I imagine it’s the distance that allows me to escape into another person's consciousness. Jules is the character I care most for in the novel. Perhaps, because I felt a great responsibility to do his story justice, aware that his story is not my own. It’s essential for writers writing outside their narrow perspective to be mindful that it is a great privilege to do so, and he or she must be open to and accepting of criticism. Writing and reading is how I practice my humanity and to write (and/or read) only within my limited experience seems counterproductive, and cowardly. I read many memoirs by African-American writers, specifically books focusing on the experiences of young black men, like Jesmyn Ward’s memoir Men We Reaped and the recent essay anthology she edited, The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race; Ta-Nehisi Coates’s memoir The Beautiful Struggle; D. Watkins’s The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America. I reread books that had shattered, and then rearranged, my limited perspective as a young reader, the most important books in a reader’s life—Richard Wright’s Native Son, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby, Sula, and Beloved; and James Baldwin’s nonfiction, especially his book of letters, The Fire Next Time. TM: One of the central relationships in the novel is the marriage between, Leslie Marshall, the white daughter of one of the factory's founding families, and Jules. Why did you decide to add that layer of racial and class complexity to the novel? JF: I do not think one can, or should, write about class without also writing about race and the intersection of the two. The Gypsy Moth Summer is very much an "anti-revenge" revenge story and I knew Jules had to be black in order for both sides of Avalon Island, the wealthy white easterners and the working class white westerners, to unite in their need to make him the scapegoat for their own crimes, ultimately absolving themselves (only in their bigoted minds) of their racism, and their responsibility for the terrible tragedies of that summer. As the child of an immigrant, I’ll always be interested in the competition among Americans to advance in status. There is a vast difference in privilege in my life versus that of my father who spent the first 18 years of his life in poverty in Southern Italy. He was eight years old when the Allies liberated his region from the Germans and he hid with his village in a cave for weeks as the bombs fell. Only recently, after becoming a mother, was I able to accept the reality of his early life. The poverty, the disease (they had no access to healthcare—his sister died at four because of a cut on her foot), the lack of education. No running water or electricity. My life is so privileged in comparison—it often feels as if there are two or three generations between my experience and my father’s. Yet, because my parents moved us to an affluent area for the good schools, I often felt like an outsider next to my wealthier classmates. I need to write about this impulse to look "above" and "below,” to aspire to rise in status, even if (as those on Avalon Island do) it means stepping on the backs of those “below.” My father's favorite show was Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and we'd watch it together every week. I can't remember if there was an episode focused on Donald Trump—but how could there not have been? I grew up watching my father worship, envy, and, sometimes, detest the rich. Is this juxtaposition of idolizing and loathing the elite intrinsically linked to the American Dream? I write to examine that question.
The Millions Interview

Finding My Way into a New Form: An Interview with Teju Cole

Teju Cole can seduce you a dozen ways. As a writer who refuses to be boxed in by the conventions of genre, he blurs the boundaries between fiction and memoir, sprinkling in just enough tidbits from his own life to leave you wanting more. His essays cover an astonishing range of subjects, from favorite writers like W.G. Sebald and James Baldwin to photography, travel and the politics of race and nationality. His interests veer between aesthetics and politics, and he writes about both as the photography critic for The New York Times Magazine. The pleasure of dipping into Cole’s work is encountering an extremely fertile mind.  He seems instinctively drawn to creative work that’s fragmentary in nature rather than fully-formed worlds. Perhaps it’s no surprise that he turned Twitter into an art form. But just when Cole developed a huge Twitter following, he abandoned it. “I try to find out what I can do in that space,” he told me, “and then without any compunction or regret I move on.” His latest experiment is Blind Spot, a strange hybrid of photography book and essay collection. Cole has traveled everywhere and come back to tell us what he’s seen, and it’s all filtered through his distinctive perspective - part Nigerian, part American and thoroughly cosmopolitan. He recently came to Madison to speak at the University of Wisconsin, and shortly before his lecture, he stopped by my recording studio for an interview.  Like he always does, Cole was carrying a camera. This one was his small Fujifilm X70 digital camera, one of nine cameras he owns. I asked if he uses them all. “Yeah. It’s helpful to have different tools,” he said. “Each one makes you shoot a little differently and opens up another seam in your head.” We talked about what he likes in photographs, his dislike of artistic boundaries, the complexities of racial identity, and his roots in both Lagos and New York. Steve Paulson: You always seem to be looking around and taking photos of the places you go, but you’ve called your new book Blind Spot. What does that title refer to? Teju Cole: Well, if you're looking a lot, at some point you become aware of the limitations of looking. It's just like being a writer. At some point you understand there are things that words can accomplish and then there's a moment when words cannot help you. Looking has been so central to my way of being in the world that it goes a little bit beyond the conventional. But I was also very much into art as a kid. And I've got three university degrees and they're all in art history. Art history is basically about looking closely and trying to give an account of what you're looking at from the art tradition. Then I got into photography more than a dozen years ago. And not long after that I really got into writing about photography and that entailed even closer looking than just taking photographs because now I have to interpret other people's photographs. SP: It sounds like you're saying the more you look, the more you realize what you don't see. TC: Absolutely. You realize that in everything you're looking at, you're missing something and it becomes a haunting question. The other thing that happened was that sometime around 2011, just after my first book, Open City, was published in this country, I had an episode with my eyes. I woke up one morning and was blind in my left eye. I wasn't in pain. I just couldn't see and it was like a veil had fallen over my vision, and my right eye wasn't doing so great either. So of course this is a nightmare for anyone. SP: Especially for you, since you’re a photography critic. TC: An art historian and a photography guy. This occlusion went away over the course of a couple of days. But doctors could not quite figure out what was going on. Eventually I got a diagnosis from this top specialist on retinal problems. He said I had something called Big Blind Spot Syndrome. It's something I kept thinking about afterwards. Later, I had some surgery. The problem has come back again but only rarely. But I kept thinking about the blind spot. And it changed my photography SP: How so? TC: I was already looking intently, but I started to look more intently, more patiently. My photography got a bit more meditative and mysterious. I began to pay attention to the ordinary in a more focused way. SP: What’s striking when I look at your own photographs - of back alleys, side streets, a tarp hanging over a shack - these aren’t the usual tourist photos we see. TC: That's right. Having eye trouble made the ordinary glorious. It's just the way the sun falls across concrete or, like you said, a hanging tarp. It's almost like William Carlos Williams’s poetry. I'm not the first person in photography to pay attention to such simple scenes, usually devoid of people and excitement. Certainly in American photography we've had pioneers like Lee Friedlander or Stephen Shore or William Eggleston, but the discovery for me was finding out the highly personal way I wanted to do this. Simply to make images out of the ordinary and then to draw the extraordinary narrative that might be lying behind that terrain or city if it was a place I was visiting. SP: Does your approach to photography match how you look at the world? Is seeing the same thing as taking a picture of it? TC: It's getting closer. This aspect of my work -- writing for the public and making images -- has been going on for about a dozen years, and in that time I've understood more and more that all of it is of a piece. I used to think they were really separate. Now I realize that looking at the world, making images, writing about images, writing about things that are not images, all of it is an attempt to testify to having been here and seen certain things, having looked at the world with a kind eye but an eye that is not ignoring questions of justice and history. And that's why Blind Spot is a book of text and images. SP: Nearly every page of this book has one image and an accompanying bit of text that you've written, often just one paragraph. Sometimes you reference the picture you've taken, sometimes you don’t. What's the connection between text and image? TC: I wanted to make a book that was a little bit novelistic but with none of the things you expect from a novel. This book is not made up. These are stories drawn from real life -- personal experience, philosophy, essayistic-type of speculations. Novels usually don't have 150 color photographs. And yet I wanted to give it the energy of a novel or a documentary film, just a very peculiar one. So in one sense it was about the excitement of working in a new genre -- a genre I was developing myself -- the rhythm of text and image. But if you look at just the images all by themselves, they have a common visual language. They’re in color. I shot everything in film in 25 different countries. They usually have streetscapes or interiors, not a lot of people. When we have people, they’re turned away from us, so there's a quietness that connects all the images. And if you read all the text in sequence, they have a kind of philosophical temperature that unites them. So this adventure was finding my way into a new form that I hope has a coherence. So if somebody goes through the book, they feel they've been through something strange and marvelous. It's a strange album, a strange movie, a strange novel, but it's none of those things because it's actually just texts and images. SP: What can text do and what can an image do? TC: Text is very good at being explicit. When you write, you're saying something in particular about the world.  Images are specific about what was seen but not about what it means. When you put them together, you have the opportunity either to explain, which is usually not what I'm doing, or to create a kind of poetry. So you put the semantics of text together with the description of the image and they meet at an interesting angle. And out of that angle, I’m hoping and praying that some kind of poetry happens. SP: And there's a third thing you do. Often you're not just describing the picture. You refer to favorite books and writers and artists. There are layers upon layers. Nothing is ever direct with you. TC: [Laughs] Not really.  Well, it’s all part of my world.  This library contains The Iliad and The Odyssey. It also contains the Bible. I'm very interested in Christian theology. I think this is my most personal book to date and Christian teaching was a big part of my formation.  And the moment I start thinking about how much I am seeing, how much I am missing, all this Christianity just comes in -- not as an explanation but as a lens to understand it. Stories like Jesus healing the blind, and religious faith as a kind of seeing, as a form of prophecy. Religious faith is something I drifted away from because I realized that some of the claims it made about special vision did not hold true. Having believed was a kind of blind spot. SP: Is your project to remove the blind spots, or to acknowledge that we all have blind spots? TC: It’s really about acknowledgement. To go back to these very old texts was also a way to acknowledge the antiquity of these questions. There's something elemental about a person walking down a street, so I talk a lot about walking in the book because walking is connected to photography but photography is connected to seeing. The kind of seeing we do has to do with us being upright creatures whose eyes are flat on our faces. We're not like dogs close to the earth, with eyes on either side of the snout. So these are very old questions. At some point we were on all fours and then we stood up. Of course the book is haunted by frailty, eventually also by death. I wanted this book to be very contemporary but also to deal with what it means to be a human creature upon the earth. Somehow thinking about theology and Homer gave me access to that. SP: You’ve taken these photos all over the world. I started jotting down some of these places: Lagos, where you grew up, Nuremberg, Tivoli, Nairobi, Auckland, Tripoli, Milan, Berlin, Zurich, Copenhagen, Seoul, Bombay, Sao Paolo, Brooklyn, Beirut, Bali. The list goes on and on. You must like to travel. TC: I get to travel a lot. I take a lot of pleasure from it and I get a lot of productive discomfort from it. I only included photos I felt were relevant to the project of the book. I only included places where I made film photographs because I wanted a consistency of effect and appearance. Not because film is better than digital. For example, on this visit to Madison, I've only brought my small digital camera. SP: So I have this image of you. You land in a new place and just start walking with your camera, not necessarily to any particular destination. Is this what you do? TC: That’s pretty accurate. You know, what's missing from this book is I don't have any pictures of Iceland because when I went there, I didn't take a film camera. I took a digital one. I have no pictures from South Africa. I have no pictures from Australia. SP: What does film give you that you don’t get in a digital picture? TC: I think it affords a certain kind of slowness in the thinking.  I have only 36 shots on this roll. Do I really want to take this picture? SP: You have to be more selective. TC:  Yes. But having shot with film for many years now, I think that has also started to affect my digital shooting. I'm not so happy-go-lucky anymore. SP: I know people who deliberately do not take cameras when they travel because they worry they're always going to be looking for the good shot rather than just having the experience. Does that resonate at all with you? TC:  I understand where that thinking comes from. One of the most wonderful writers on photography was the English writer John Berger, who died earlier this year. He was somebody whose work I very much cherished. And I got the opportunity to ask Berger about why he didn't take photographs and he said he tried it very briefly -- maybe in the 80s. He had a photographer teach him how to take and develop photos and then he realized that when he took photos of a scene, it kind of foreclosed the writing he wanted to do about that situation. His attention to detail went to the image rather than to the writing he was able to do about it. So he preferred to observe and draw and write. But I find that I'm able to do both. SP: Do you carry around a notebook as well as a camera? TC: I always have a notebook, a pen and a camera. These are my tools because the world is always giving you various phenomena. You’ve noticed that some of what I'm writing about is different from what I photographed. Sometimes they coincide. I don't want my photography to be an illustration of the text. I want the photograph to hold its own. What is the light doing? How are the colors working? How do things balance?  The narrative also has to meet the demands of storytelling, of obliqueness, of compression. It has to detonate in a certain way that might actually be adjacent to the photograph, not sitting right on top of it. Which is why I don’t really call these texts “captions.” They are voice-overs. They are running parallel. Each has to emanate its own energy. SP: You’ve talked about these elusive and mysterious photos that you like to take.  Is that also what you like to see in other people’s photography? TC: I like a very wide range of things in photography.  This is important for me as a photography critic not to be closed-minded. So I like photos of the kind that is related to my work. I particularly like Italian contemporary photography. But I also like spectacular street photographers who can nail a decisive moment.  I sometimes do that but not a whole lot of it. I also like a good portrait. SP: Even though you rarely take portraits. TC: I love strong portraits. I think it's a challenging art form. Irving Penn was a great portraitist but I would rather look at a portrait by Gordon Parks. It seemed to have more import. And I think Richard Avedon, whose style is not so far from Irving Penn’s, was a more successful portraitist. But Henri Cartier-Bresson was an even better portraitist. There was something about what was happening around his portrait that gave it more energy.  The young contemporary photographer Christopher Anderson is an extraordinary portraitist and he gets a lot of magazine work because of this extraordinary ability to work with color and appearance when making images of people. I like conceptual photography. And at the same time I like photojournalists and spot news reporting. So I like all sorts. But this applies to writing as well. SP: You also seem to be fascinated by memory. TC: Memory is often a layer. A lot of my language can probably be located somewhere around 1915, between Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. I have a lot of faith in what can be achieved with a well-polished English sentence. Not that I try to make the language old- fashioned, but I like a clean sentence. But a lot of the reading I do is fragmented. One of my favorite authors is Michael Ondaatje and he uses sentence fragments a great deal. SP: Why do you like fragmentary sentences? TC: Because they can evoke the present in a very powerful way. SP: So you don't want a narrative that's too self-contained and wraps everything up? TC: But sometimes I do. Look at James Joyce's short story "The Dead."  Excellent sentences and they're somewhat formal, even though the narrative is not formal. You get your epiphany at the end and you have these very powerful feelings.  But if you read Running in the Family or The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, it's jazzier. Those sentences are all over the place. Or if you read Anne Carson, who is a modern master of the fragment. A fragment is very often about mastery as well. It's about saying I need just this much to convey. That can just be a delight. For me it's about recognizing that great art comes in all kinds of forms. In Blind Spot I actually use more fragments than I've tended to use you, though I also still use a lot of well-polished sentences. SP: There's one page in Blind Spot that I want to quote because it raises some interesting questions. It’s about Lugano. You have a photo of a park bench, a statue of a horse and some buildings. And here's the entire text that accompanies that image: She said to me: Europe is getting worse. I still don't understand why you want to move to Switzerland. I said to her: I don't want to move to Switzerland. Quite the contrary. I like to visit Switzerland.  When I'm not there, I long for it, but what I long for is the feeling of being an outsider there and, soon after, the feeling of leaving again so I can continue to long for it. There's so much in that passage: your love of travel, your feeling of displacement, wanting to be an outsider but probably also experiencing the cost of being the outsider. TC: Yeah, but some very profound pleasures in it. Why is that text in Blind Spot? Because it encapsulates a misunderstanding. “Oh, you talk about Switzerland. You must want to live there. You want to be a Swiss citizen.” No. So I’m thinking through that response. What is another possible reason for wanting to be in Switzerland? Well, one way is to enjoy visiting without the desire to live there. It also fits in this book because Switzerland is one of the hidden themes of the book. And I keep going back there. SP: It made me think of an essay you wrote about James Baldwin in Known and Strange Things. He lived in a tiny mountain village in Switzerland in the 1950s, basically in exile. He was the only black person in that village, and that's where he went to finish writing Go Tell It On the Mountain. Maybe he had to go there to be able to finish this book about America. TC: Precisely. There's a way that outsiderness either in your own person or in your location can help you understand what you're an insider to.  Being a Nigerian-American in America helps me to understand Nigeria in a more intense way. SP: Is it easier to write about Nigeria when you're in the U.S.? TC: No writing is easy, but it affords me a certain insight while looking at it from a distance. Being in Nigeria, having grown up in Nigeria, also illuminates my understanding of America even though I'm an American. That outsiderness helps. But the peculiar thing about having a couple of Switzerland essays in Known and Strange Things is that it's a perfect illustration of the way that each of my books hands on the baton to the next book. So Known and Strange Things becomes a kind of prequel to Blind Spot. The final essay in Known and Strange Things is called “Blind Spot.” SP: Which is about the experience of losing your vision. TC: Yes. And then in a weird kind of way this blooms out into an entire book of photographs. But Known and Strange Things takes up in essayistic form many of the concerns that have been raised in novelistic form in Open City. What does it mean to live together? What are the responsibilities of looking at art? What should migration look like?  Meanwhile, Open City itself is a kind of expansion on the out-of-placeness of the narrator who was at the center of Every Day Is for the Thief, which is the first book I wrote.  So I dream of this organic flow of books. SP: Even though the format of each of these books is really quite different. Some are fiction.  Some are nonfiction. One has a lot of photographs. You seem to enjoy playing with form. TC: Not only are they four books in four different genres, but each one is also considered peculiar within the genre that it's supposed to be. Open City is strange for a novel. It's a novel without a plot. And 400 pages of an essay collection that’s curiously personal and still you don't know too much about me [laughs]. SP: There's one other form that you’ve mastered. You turned Twittter into an art form and developed a huge following. TC: Thank you. It was a creative space for me and I enjoyed it very much. SP: You wrote a series of tweets that got a lot of traction called the White Savior Industrial Complex. This was in response to the Kony 2012 video that was all the rage a few years ago, about the African warlord who had an army of child soldiers. TC: So many things were coming together publicly and I wondered, what's my response to this?  It allowed me to think about what we do when we do charity. What do we owe to the people to whom we're doing some kind of mercy or favor? How much of it is tangled up in our own ego for wanting to be the savior? How much of this is actually racialized? If white Americans are going to Africa to go save, how is this related to the history of colonialism? How is this related to racial politics here in the U.S.?  How is this related to being a white person and how you view black people? Does equality have any role to play if we're helping people who are desperate, or does desperation absolve us of the need to treat people like equals? I thought these were good questions to ask.  Yes, the title was provocative. The White Savior Industrial Complex got people's hackles up a little bit. SP: Because you were calling out people, including New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who writes a lot about this kind of thing. TC: Right. I was calling people out. But the interesting thing about justice is that unless somebody pushes, nothing really happens. If black people don't push and speak out, nothing changes in race relations. If women don't speak out and make a fuss and make things a bit uncomfortable, gender relations don't really move. As we say, it's the person who wears a shoe that knows where it pinches. And so the person whose shoe is pinching has to make the complaint. So there's a space for complaint. And Twitter was an interesting place to put those ideas out there. SP:  Are you still on Twitter? TC:  I'm not on Twitter. I've not tweeted in about three years. SP: Why did you let it go? TC: That's exactly what I do with each of these genres.  I try to find out what I can do in that space. I try to do good work there, and then without any compunction or regret I move on. And I try to find the next place to continue my exploration. SP: What was it about the Twitter moment that appealed to you? TC: An instantaneous public. The conveyance of compression and sentences into the minds of others. How much can we fit into this form? I think what any artist has to offer is really freedom. Freedom can be contagious. I chafe at excessive convention but I love to work within conventions and then try to push them and stop somewhere before the breaking point. So perfectly good English sentences but then I’m pushing against what is permissible. So with this new book, what does the photography book look like? Well, not like this, which has a lot of text. So is it a selection of essays? Is it a memoir? SP: Your personal history has clearly shaped your writing. You were born in Michigan, but within a few months your family moved to Lagos, where you grew up.  How long were you in Nigeria? TC: For 17 years. SP: Why did you come back to America? TC: I came back to the Midwest, to Kalamazoo, for university. My father was deeply unimpressed with the state of Nigerian universities in the early 90s and he wanted me to go back to the U.S.  I didn't mind that, but I certainly did not arrive in the U.S. as a desperate and eager immigrant. We had very little money, but the privilege of choice was there.  I got some scholarships and loans and then I had to start learning what it meant to be here as an American who was Nigerian. It was almost as if for the first time I was also learning that I was black.  That did not need to be stated in Nigeria because everybody else around me was black, but I had to learn the racial politics of the U.S. and then I had to start experiencing in my own body the variegations of racial prejudice. SP: So at first, you did not have the experience of most African-Americans? TC:  I did not. But I've been in the U.S. for 25 years. I'm a black guy in America, so within those first couple of years, there are many things I did not have a narrative for. What does it mean if I'm strolling around in a small town in Michigan and a car slows down, the window is wound down and someone shouts the N-word at me?  And what does it mean in a university setting where somebody says to me, “Oh, you're not like those other blacks”?  All of this stuff had to be understood as a black person in America. In fact, I'm an American African but I'm also an African American. SP: Wasn't it years before you actually went back to visit Lagos? TC:  Yeah. It’s a little bit different from the narrator of Every Day Is for the Thief but there are some similarities. I went back to Nigeria after three years, but then I didn't go back again for another dozen years. There was a big mental distance. I kept not having the money. I kept not having the time. I kept worrying about whether I would be able to go.  I went back in 2005 and I've been back every year since then. It became a priority and I reestablished roots there. SP: But you live in Brooklyn now. TC: I live in Brooklyn. I live in the U.S. SP: Do you consider Brooklyn home? TC: Yes.  That's where my wife is. My brother lives there. My friends are there. My books are there. My office is there. So that's home. I also consider Lagos home. My parents live there. It's where I grew up. If I go to Nigeria, my room is there. The two most spoken languages in Lagos -- Yoruba and English -- are languages I’m fluent in. So there's an at-homeness, but a home is also wherever there's good wi-fi. That connects me to the world in a way that is irreducible and essential to my experience of the world. SP: Do you consider yourself more Nigerian or more American? TC: Neither. Split right down the middle. Or rather 100 percent of both. I feel very invested in Nigeria's future. There's a book I've been working on for a long time about Lagos, so I think a lot about Nigeria. I'm American and America is in crisis at the moment and I feel invested. Open City was definitely an approach to this question but I feel invested in what this country ought to be.  I'm a citizen who is not a patriot.  I'm a citizen in the sense of being invested in what we owe each other. What do we do to protect each other's rights? What do we do about people who break our mutual agreement? What do sanctions and punishments look like?  Those philosophical questions are very interesting to me. Our borders are interesting to me. If my money's being used to kill foreigners in the theater of war, that's my business. So I'm very American and I'm also very Nigerian. SP: The two cities where you’ve spent the most time are Lagos and New York. Are they totally different experiences for you or do they have certain similarities? TC: The commonalities are extensive. It is the experience of cosmopolitanism, which is maybe the fourth definition of home for me.  And this is what I find in spaces in Lagos. And it’s what I find in New York -- restaurants, clubs, bookshops, shopping malls, traffic, crazy people on the street, high fashion. Cities as a kind of problem-solving technology. If there are 16 million people in the same place, then we have to use resources in a way that makes sense in such a compressed space. SP: What are the biggest differences between Lagos and New York? TC:  New York is much richer. Lagos might have 25 buildings of monumental scale and New York has 300. The sheer physical scale of New York never ceases to surprise me. And then there's that thing of New York being a world capital. Lagos is the capital of Africa. Don't let people in Cairo or Johannesburg tell you different. Lagos is the place where the pop culture of Africa is being made.  Lagos is the capital of Africa but New York is the capital of the world.  So there is something about encountering this expansive, complex mutual togetherness in conversation. It's possible in New York. So New York is almost not an American city. It's a city that's a vision of what the world looks like if these borders are not as they are right now. This interview was conducted through the radio program To the Best of Our Knowledge. An edited radio version will air soon. 
The Millions Interview

Books & Mortar: A Day in the Life of Judy Blume, Bookseller

I'd like to present to you a semi-regular column: Books & Mortar! Which will look at the fabulous world of tucked-away independent bookstores, a pulsating nationwide constellation of literary delights that, heaven forbid, you might walk past without knowing it's there. For instance, Key West, the southernmost point in the U.S., is the home of Jimmy Buffett, tarpon fishing, turquoise waters (and drinks), spring breakers, pirate stories, great Cuban food, and crazy-beautiful sunsets. But it also has a storied literary history, with residents including Elizabeth Bishop, Ralph Ellison, Tennessee Williams, Richard Wilbur, John Williams. It's where Wallace Stevens famously attempted to punch Ernest Hemingway at the Sloppy Joe's bar, with mixed results. And more recent writers have called Key West home: Ann Beattie, Tom McGuane, Joy Williams (also, her book The Florida Keys: A History and Guide is one of the most masterful works of travel writing that you'll ever want to read). And now it has Books & Books Key West, a locally owned independent that opened in 2016 and is also (voluntarily—haha) nonprofit. This 1,200 square foot store is housed and affiliated with The Studios of Key West, an arts and cultural organization that, among other things, runs an artists' residency. Books & Books Key West thus also carries a terrific selection of art supplies. Oh, and one of the cofounders and owners is someone you may have heard of: Judy Blume. The Millions: What was the genesis of this amazing store? Judy Blume:  George [Cooper, Blume's husband] and I wanted a full service indie bookstore in Key West.  When we came to town 20 years ago there were five bookstores.  Four years ago we were down to one used store.  We tried to get Mitchell Kaplan of Books & Books, the great Miami area bookseller, to open a store in Key West.  He wanted to but ultimately he couldn't make the numbers work.  Rents in Key West are very high and we're more than three hours by car from Miami.  Finally, Mitch said, "If you and George can find a way to make it work I'll be there for you."  George is on the board of The Studios of Key West, a non-profit arts center who had just renovated a beautiful art deco building in Old Town with a 1200 square foot corner storefront.  The perfect place for a non-profit indie bookstore! We (George) convinced the board of the Studios it was worth a shot.  Everything happened so fast it feels like a dream when I look back.  We opened in February 2016.  I laugh now at how little we knew about running a bookstore.  We learned on the job.  We're affiliated with Mitch's stores but we're non-profit and financially independent.  We call Mitch's Coral Gable store our "Mothership."  They do our buying (though we can order or reject any books we want.)  They set up our store with handsome refurbished fixtures from one of their stores.  Their staff came down for two weeks to set us up with our initial order and to train our staff, including George and me (we have three paid employees now) and our volunteers.  During "season" our volunteers are especially important to us.  They are great readers.  One knows poetry.  One worked in a bookshop in London.  I miss them terribly when they leave for their summer homes but we are so lucky to have our three hardworking, loyal, friendly, fun employees.  Our first season, George and I worked seven days.  This past season we were able to take two days off a week, and we're thinking of working four days a week next season. TM: Does your bookstore have a mascot? A bookstore cat? JB:  The idea of having a bookstore cat is appealing but because we're on a busy corner we're concerned about any animal—cat or dog—running out into the street.  One day, when we first opened, a hen came into the store.  Chickens are protected in Key West and roam freely around town.  We stayed calm, though we were thinking, OMG, if that chicken gets scared and starts flying around she's going to poop on our books!  Lucky for us, she wandered around, then with some gentle urging, walked out the way she walked in.  Maybe she was looking for a good book?  We leave our door open in nice weather.  Customers bring in their own dogs. We keep a water bowl outside and treats by the register. This works best when it's one dog at a time.  Usually they ask if it's okay and usually we say yes (if it's a nice dog).  So far only one has peed on our floor and the customer, a tourist, walked out before we knew it.  Good our floor is concrete. TM: What's the most surprising thing you have found about being a bookseller? JB:  How much there is to learn, how hard you work every day, not just with customers but in the back room.  The number of boxes that arrive weekly is staggering.  We see our UPS delivery guys almost every day.  Receiving new books and returning others (I had to learn to be tough because, as a writer, I never want to return books) takes us a huge amount of time.  One of our two managers is always on that.  Then there's keeping up with the dusting.  Everyone is expected to dust.  If we had a cat, I'd give her a cloth, too.  The time flies by.  I usually go home exhausted but very happy and can't wait to go back again the next day. TM: You and your husband George are co-founders. How do you divide up the duties? JB:  I'm on the floor, chatting with customers, helping them find the right books, even working the register (not my strong point but I'm very proud of what I've learned to do).  Every day I "pet" the books, move them around, change the window displays. Tuesdays are "new book" days.  That's when I get to put out the books that are date-sensitive, which means moving around all the books on the new and notable table. George is in the office most of the time.  He's our CFO, making sure it's all going well.  And so, far, fingers crossed, it's been a success. TM: Authors are beginning to open up bookstores all over the place: Louise Erdrich in Minneapolis, Ann Patchett in Nashville. Larry McMurtry is a long-time bookstore proprietor.  Do you think you're part of a trend? JB:  I didn't know about all the authors opening bookstores when we started, but it's good news! TM: What's a day in the life of Judy Blume, bookseller like? JB:  Rush, rush, rush—to get to the store.  We're open 10 to six, seven days a week.   I ride my bike unless it's rainy.  Tuesdays and Thursdays I come directly from the gym.  When we opened the store, we thought our customers would be 75 percent locals and snowbirds, and 25 percent tourists.  In fact, it's about 80 percent tourists and 20 percent locals.  The tourists have been great.  They sometimes buy a stack of books and send them home.  They ask for restaurant recommendations.  And they're always—always—thrilled to be in Key West.  Of course we love our locals, too.  So there's a lot of chatting about books, Key West, and whatever else is on their minds.  By the end of the day I'm exhausted (or did I say that already?).  All I want is to eat dinner and go to bed. TM: Do people freak out when they find out the lovely woman who just hand-sold them a novel is the beloved Judy Blume? JB:  Yesterday a couple came in and George and I were chatting with them about their used bookstore in another Florida city.  George (that devil) asked if they carried Judy Blume books and before I could stop them from answering, always afraid they'll say something like—I would never carry those books!—she said "Oh yes, a lot."  At which point I said, "I'm Judy"—and she was so taken aback I was worried she might faint.  But all ended well.  In the beginning, before there was so much publicity, people did freak out.  Once I had to prove who I was by showing the customer my photo on the back of In the Unlikely Event.  She studied it, studied me (I admit I was having a bad hair day and I'm often red-eyed and itchy nosed from something—the books, the dust, the building? It was clear she didn't believe me and I was sorry I'd gotten into the conversation in the first place.  Now, people come in because they've heard it's my store. The trolleys, the tour buses, the concierges at the hotels, all let them know about Books & Books @ the Studios.  And we're grateful. George and I joke that I'm the Southernmost (everything in Key West is the "southernmost") Shamu. You know, have your photo taken with Shamu (remember the whale, the one time star of Sea World?) Because we're a non-profit, I don't do photos unless the customer is actually buying something. It doesn't have to be my book but it has to be something. People have been very understanding. Still, it embarrasses me to have to tell a customer our rules. TM: What's the best kind of bookstore customer? JB:  Anyone who's friendly, loves to read, and finds a book or three to buy. Or maybe it's a young person who says she doesn't like to read who leaves the store with her nose in a book. TM: The worst? JB:  Let's say the most challenging.  That would be a customer who wants a certain book but can't think of the title or the author's name.  The cover is blue, or has a spot of blue, or maybe the type is in blue.  She/he will think it's new, will remember seeing it on our table last week, but it could have been she/he has just read about it.  We'll go around together looking at all the places that book might be.  Sometimes we'll actually find it. Hallelujah! TM: What book do you want to tell the world about right now? JB:  Right now it's What to Do About the Solomons, by Bethany Ball, a first novel I loved.  It's funny, sexy, and original.  I'm also talking up Edgar and Lucy, by Victor Lodato.  Emily (one of our managers) and I both loved it.  And, of course, my favorite book of the year, The Nix, by Nathan Hill.  You don't want to miss this debut novel.  George agrees. TM: Are there other staff who are also writers? JB:  George has published two non-fiction books, both based on historical crimes.  He's a big help when someone wants a non-fiction book on a certain subject.  That's because he's a reader.  It's more important to have staff who know and love books than staff who writes them. TM: One of the great things about a bricks-and-mortar store is not only the individualized book picks, but also the author events. What were some of the fun ones this year? JB:  We had our first big events between January and April this year.  Jami Attenberg, Kay Redfield Jamison, Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt.  We had kids' authors Meg Cabot and Rachel Vail.  Since summer is our slow season we won't have any more events until next fall/winter. TM: What's a favorite bookstore—NOT YOUR OWN? JB:  We visit bookstores wherever we go these days.  In Santa Fe we're fans of Collected Works.  But, of course, our absolute favorite is Books & Books in Coral Gables. And their food (they have a cafe) is scrumptious!
The Millions Interview

Capitalism Is a Very Successful Cancer: The Millions Interviews Eugene Lim

Eugene Lim will not choose between superheroes and soliloquies. His new novel, Dear Cyborgs, shifts between quick bursts of pulpy action and long philosophical monologues. Characters kidnap, shoot, and poison one other, then weigh the merits of protest and relay brushes with gentrification. Capitalism looms over the book like one of Marvel’s Sentinels -- inescapable, maybe indestructible. Low art sits next to high, smudging the hierarchy. The term “thoughtful dystopian romp” comes to mind. The year or universe is hazy, but we can make out some of our less fine hours, our targeted ads. Two worlds slide together and a third comes into focus. Is this how people write in the future? Lim and I exchanged emails about the value of protest, the act of reading as resistance, and the death and rebirth of the novel. The Millions: Do you consider Dear Cyborgs a piece of protest art, or rather a means of “unveiling life” (as advocated by Tehching Hsieh)? Eugene Lim: I half-quote a piece of self-admonition associated with Antonio Gramsci on the first page of my book: “Pessimism of the intellect; optimism of the will.” For me, this captures a pretty common contemporary state of cognitive dissonance. So I'm not sure if the book is an act of protest as much as it's an attempt to articulate this emotional state as well as look into what it’s like to try to constantly maintain it and what it’s like to live within its turmoil. There’s a directive made by the left that hopelessness and despair are to be avoided as they are emotions of some luxury. And furthermore, it’s bad for morale, so if one were to actually speak and so spread one’s despair, well, then the masses won’t come out, the public won’t march in the streets, and people will just give up. I think there’s a great deal of practical wisdom in this line of thought. (Here’s an even better articulation, by Pablo Iglesias of Podemos, of the near-null practical value of despair as well as that of t-shirt Marxism -- and furthermore a definition of politics as necessary and terrible.) However, one can’t observe the ongoing situation and, on one level, not allow the stirrings of despair and hopelessness. To deny these emotions in the face of war crime, violent structural racism, climate destruction, etc. is to be intellectually dishonest. And we all live with this schizophrenia (a parallel one to our moment of apocalypse-always and simultaneous techno-futurist utopia), which is so pervasive that we barely allow ourselves to acknowledge it. TM: Is protesting an effective way to bring about change in 2017? Or does it just allow the individual protestor to “make a moral world in which she can abide” (a line from your book)? EL: I don’t know. I think mass movements and demonstrations have been very important. Historically it’s very important for people simply to show up. Take the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam War protests, or the first Earth Day gathering in 1970. Nixon saw the crowd and supposedly said something like, “Some of those people are Republicans,” and went on to pass major environmental legislation. Or you could look at the large flash protests at JFK and other airports after the announcement of SCROTUS’s Muslim ban. The counterexample cited in the book is the February 15th, 2003, worldwide day of marches to protest the US invasion of Iraq. Some call it the largest protest in human history,* but the Bush administration was undeterred. Other cynical counterexamples could include every Earth Day march of the past decade. Reductively, but not entirely inaccurately, one can argue that the state has learned that if a clear majority of public opinion runs counter to its will and the synonymous will of its corporate masters, the state can ignore this majority because it can manipulate elections and regulations so as to remain in power. And yet and yet… protests can and do matter. The Black Lives Matter movement is a key example. Another: the ruling for same-sex marriage as recent fodder for the argument that history “bends toward justice.” Importantly, you don’t know how this is going to happen. Chomsky says that prior to Occupy Wall Street, if you were to ask him if taking over some downtown street block would make a big difference, he would have said of course not. But OWS crystallized, framed, and popularized an analysis of class inequality that is still resonating today. Who knows which act will become significant, so arguments about effectiveness are riddled with uncertainty -- still one has to act. But how? It’s a question less answerable with a prescriptive response than with the spirit and unpredictability of art, of some flash of insight or opening. TM: A piece of graffiti in Dear Cyborgs reads, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Is it easier for you? If so, why? EL: That was a memorable line I’d chanced upon and which I remembered because it seemed to state the issue rather perfectly. It’s an unattributed quote found in an essay by Fredric Jameson (though others have identified its source, and a certain slovenly Slovenian I believe retweeted it). In our season, where bestseller lists and blockbusters seem to be monopolized by competing visions of dystopia and apocalypse -- but where the idea of successful collective action to combat the destruction of our planet by Big Oil remains impossible -- it would seem to me a line of some persuasive accuracy. Why is this so? Probably someone with more relevant experience than a novelist should be asked, but I’ll venture that capitalism is a very very successful cancer because it’s extremely hard to not want to keep up with the Joneses.  TM: Hua Hsu writes that you have “an uncanny sense of what it’s like to be alive right now: constantly distracted, bounding between idealism and cynicism, ever conscious of the fact that we may never bring the size and complexity of our world into focus.” Do you consider this a fair characterization of what it’s like to be alive in 2017? Is this what you were going for in the book? EL: I think Hsu’s description is a fair characterization of our times. Perpetual distraction and multitasking seem absolutely the norm, the result of the information overload and the fast-paced, shifting landscape of the attention economy. And the simultaneous intellectual cynicism/pessimism and willful idealism/optimism comes from a desire to rebel against complicity only to have ourselves discover our very existence encoded with it. But that diagnosis is not exactly news. One thing I would like to do -- and perhaps Dear Cyborgs does a little of this -- is to approach the novel without the locus of character as its main technology. I’d like to describe the chaotic matrix in which we’re living through some other narrative device, some new way that supersedes our dependence on character as empathy avatar and our traditional use of plot as an arc about conflict resolution, and furthermore a method that accounts for the intense mind-boggling complexity we live in that somehow must be apprehended by our puny individual minds. In Dear Cyborgs, the method I tried was a kind of monologue-fractal, which is why all the characters in the book may seem empty or unrealistic, and yet their speeches seem familiar and hopefully poignant and/or meaningful. It would be odd -- in this singularity-approaching data-flooded contemporary world, one where wild algorithmic financial transactions create hidden transnational empires and where we daily use machines the majority of us have no idea how and why they really work -- for this almost vestigial not to mention necessarily linear art form, the novel, to be the one best suited to manifest, depict, and perform our world. But maybe it’s so. TM: How and why did you decide to end the book with these words: “…mourned and was chased and chased and fought and mourned and mourned and mourned and mourned”? EL: I’d rather let others speculate on the meaning of the book’s ending, but I will say something about the several kinds of grieving that are undercurrents to the book and which, on a personal level, I feel are entwined. Perhaps the primary one is the historic loss, from one point of view, of even the possibility of effective protest. Or at least the loss of protest as it once was framed and done. This is a kind of loss of innocence. Then, in terms of cyborg culture, there’s also this weird grief of going through a very particular inflection point, i.e., I’m from the last generation that grew up without the internet. This makes for a rather epic middle-aged feeling of loss, which is a bit aggrandizing because my generation’s loss of youth was simultaneous with this huge cultural shift. In addition, there is another loss that only a few may feel but which nonetheless is very intense, that is: the ongoing eroding of deep reading and the loss of the novel’s supremacy in culture. However, I believe -- and in some ways have tried to show -- that the meditative act of reading is a kind of resistance to a persistent and insidious dissolving of agency and our alienation by the forces of capitalism. Also, finally, I have tried to show that if the old narrative ideas of a Freytag plot path of redemption or self-discovery or epiphany are stale, at least there may be other possibilities. That is: the novel is dead; long live the novel.
The Millions Interview

Two Writers, One Marriage: The Millions Interviews Julie Buntin and Gabe Habash

How do two writers live and write together? The answer changes through time. In her introduction to The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy, Cathy Porter describes how Sofia laboriously copied Leo Tolstoy's work: "After the baby had been put to bed, she would sit at her desk until the small hours, copying out his day's writing in her fine hand, telepathically deciphering the scribble." When reading Sofia's diaries, kept from age 16 until she died in 1919, it’s hard not to feel her creative frustration. "To each his fate," she writes. "Mine was to be the auxiliary to my husband." Historian Alexis Coe writes that being married helps academics get ahead, but only if they are male. In the Lenny Letter, she expands on her findings from reading the acknowledgements in books, "male historians often call wives research assistants while female historians say husbands were patient/encouraging." Her article is a fascinating look at a selected history of literary couplings, from the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald to Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. Bruce Holsinger, a novelist and academic, also searched acknowledgments and found many examples of male authors thanking their wives for typing manuscripts. People continue to share examples on Twitter using the hashtag #ThanksForTyping. A click shows there are many women of the past century who might find Sophia Tolstoy's words familiar. While a word processor changes dynamics, the way a work is attributed often reflects a power relationship between two authors. When a couple are both authors, the relationship is often colored by the politics of their day. In 2017, many couples are striving for a more equal balance of power in relationships. There are as many ways this can play out as there are couples, but I want to continue the conversation. How does a modern couple balance the domestic with a literary life? Julie Buntin’s Marlena is one of the most energetic and vibrant debut novels released this spring, which Kirkus calls, “as unforgettable as it is gorgeous.” Her partner, Gabe Habash, just published one of the breakthrough debuts of the summer, Stephen Florida. NPR calls it, “starkly beautiful and moving.” I was intrigued to learn that Buntin and Habash are partners and live together. While I assume they both do their own typing, I wonder how this particular modern couple make it work. By email, I asked them about reading each other’s work, egos, money, and solitude. The Millions: Gabe, did you know Julie was a writer when you first met? Gabe Habash: Yes, we met in grad school. We had a craft class together, and I was immediately struck (and probably a bit intimidated) by how smart and perceptive she is. But we didn’t actually have any workshops together so I didn’t read her writing until after I graduated. By then she was starting what would eventually become Marlena. I’m grateful I get to watch how she shapes her work. It’s amazing. TM: Julie, you knew Gabe was a writer when you met. Did you consider this a good or bad thing? Julie Buntin: Soon after we started dating I realized that we weren’t going to have a problem with competitiveness when it came to writing—I’d dated a writer before, and that had been an insidiously toxic problem, but Gabe and I never had that issue. Mostly because of him, I think—Gabe is immune to comparing himself to other people. It’s very strange and I envy it. I am not immune, but am trying to get better. TM: Is Gabe the first reader of your work? JB: He is. It’s a bit of a crutch. When I was deep in revisions of Marlena, after he’d already read it a couple times, I would sometimes send altered drafts to my editor without showing Gabe, but for the most part, he sees everything before it goes out. I’ve delayed submitting things to the point of missing deadlines because I want Gabe’s take first. TM: Is Julie the first reader of your work? GH: Yes, she's always been my first reader. I wrote the first 50 pages of the novel and showed them to her to find out if it was bad. I wouldn’t write any more until I knew she liked it because I respect her opinion more than anyone else in the world—if she says it’s bad, it’s bad. Julie is just as good of a reader as a writer, if that’s possible. There are numerous reasons the book is dedicated to her. TM: Has she or he ever said anything about your writing that you wished she hadn’t? GH: Nope. JB: Gabe’s going to be embarrassed that I’m sharing this, but I showed him the first few pages of a new novel a while back. He said: “You can do better.” In general, I appreciate that we’re at a place where we don’t need to dance around anything, but that work was a little raw for a fully honest assessment—still, I’m glad he told me what he really thought. TM: Do you believe Gabe when he praises your work? JB: I do. Gabe is a bad liar, and I think my answer to the previous question gets at the directness of how we talk about writing. TM: Do you ever feel threatened by the success of Julie’s novel? GH: Honestly, no. Our books are so different and I love Marlena, so it never felt like they were competing against each other. Also, just watching someone work at something so hard, putting years into it and going through really challenging moments with it because it’s a vital part of her life—it's impossible for me to feel jealousy or to feel threatened when I saw that because I knew how much telling the story meant to Julie. TM: Marlena was blurbed by Lorrie Moore, is an Indie Next Pick, and was selected by The Rumpus Book Club. For a debut novel, it doesn’t get much better. Did you ever worry that Gabe’s book might not be as well received? JB: I have never doubted for a second that Stephen Florida would be well received. Even when a number of major publishers passed, I had no anxiety about it eventually finding the right home—Gabe did, but I didn’t. I don’t think it’s blind wife faith either—I hadn’t had that same certainty when his previous novel was on submission. After reading Stephen Florida I felt a flicker of jealousy—he wrote a book that alchemizes his talent and experience and deep thinking about literature into a novel that’s exhilarating to read. If anything, I feel a little smug about all the good reviews it’s getting. Like—told you, world! If anything (please forgive how pretentious this sounds), I worried that his book might be taken more seriously from a critical perspective, because Marlena is about girls and Stephen Florida is about boys. That doesn't seem to have been the case, at least not so far, but I did wonder if that was going to be an issue. I'm still not sure how I would have handled that. TM: Writing and books aside, what do you both love to do? GH: We like to take walks like old people. We watch Game of Thrones and Twin Peaks. Some day, I swear, I will get her to like video games. We both like horror movies, which Julie will point out to you is some study’s number one metric for determining relationship compatibility. TM: You both work in publishing and are writers. Is it ever too much? JB: It can be. Sometimes we get home and we’re eating dinner and we go from talking about our books to talking about books that he’s reading or assigning for review to talking about books on submission at Catapult or something I’m editing or a writer I want to get to teach and we have a moment where one or the other of us snaps and is like, no more books. Please, enough. And so we try to introduce spaces into our lives for other stuff. It can be overwhelming. Sometimes it feels like we’re always sort of working. But most of the time it’s nice to never have to translate why doing this work matters so much to me. TM: What about money? GH: As writers who also work in publishing, we are obviously very rich. Julie, I think, needs writing on a daily basis. I go through long periods in which I barely think about it, and then write all at one time. So having no day job I think is more for Julie—she would use the time, whereas if I weren’t in the middle of a project I would just wander around like a vagrant, wondering how to fill the hours. JB: Oh, this is a hard one. I would be lying if I said I never thought about this. It has occurred to me that in some ways I’ve made my writing life harder because I’m married to another writer, instead of someone with more financially-driven ambitions. Gabe is better at balancing his work life and writing life—he’s more of a daily chipper, less of a binger—and as much as I love my job, I feel like I am giving something up every minute that I am not writing. But maybe I would go crazy if I had that time. Or maybe I’d have finished another book by now! Who knows—like most writers, I’ve always had a job or two or three and squeezed writing in somehow. All this said, I’ve learned a lot about writing from Gabe, from his edits on my work, from the process of editing his. There a lot of writer couples. Maybe once you become accustomed to the benefits of having an in-house reader and editor, not to mention someone who challenges you to think more deeply about how and why you write, I don’t know, those things become more important than a pension. We’ll see if I feel the same way in 20 years. TM: What is the best part about living with another writer? JB: Never having to explain why you don’t want to go out. TM: What is the worst? GH: Whatever plans you might have, they can get eliminated at any time if one of us is in the writing fugue. You just have to accept that your plans are canceled in that instance. TM: Do you understand Gabe’s work better than anyone else? JB: I don’t know that I understand it better than anyone else, but I do think I understand how it came to be better than anyone else. I look at the first page and I can see ghosts of cut phrases, all the thinking that went into making the book what it is—it’s a privilege. TM: Do you understand Julie’s work better than anyone else? GB: I have no idea! You’ll have to ask her. Julie understands my work better than anyone else. TM: What is your favorite thing that the other has ever written? GH: The last chapter of Marlena is two and a half pages. I think about it all the time. It's contains everything that came before but also opens the narrative up; I love how it shows the story is longer than the book itself. JB: I love that first page. It starts, “My mother had two placentas and I was living off both of them…” and ends like this: “I believe in wrestling, and I believe in the United States of America. I am a motherfucking astronaut.”
The Millions Interview

California Wrapped in Gauze: The Millions Interviews Daniel Riley

I was hooked on Daniel Riley’s debut novel from the moment I heard the premise: Suzy Whitman graduates from Vassar in 1972 and heads to the beach town of Sela del Mar, California, to follow her married older sister, Grace, into life as a stewardess for Grand Pacific Airlines. My mother grew up in the South Bay, the part of California that Riley has lightly fictionalized in Sela del Mar, and I knew I would eat up every detail of a beachside, Watergate-era coming-of-age. But Fly Me, for all its period trappings, tells a much darker story than its sun-soaked setting would lead you to expect. Suzy soon finds that Grace’s new marriage to Mike, an unemployed journalist desperate to found the next great American magazine, is already rocky. Meanwhile, her parents are facing challenges of their own back in upstate New York. Determined to help the people she loves, Suzy finds herself drawn into a life of running drugs between the coasts -- just as the nation-wide epidemic of skyjackings reaches its peak. Riley met me at a bar in Williamsburg that obliged us by playing a steady stream of seventies rock, including many songs referenced in the pages of his novel. We talked about southern California, USC football, and subtle sexism in our parents’ generation (and also, spoiler alert, in our own). AB: I wanted to ask you about the original seed for this book, because there are so many different things I could imagine as your entry point. Did you begin with the place, or the era of skyjackings, or the character of Suzy? DR: My grandmother’s cousin, basically my “third grandma,” was a stewardess in the late fifties. She grew up in Los Feliz, went to USC, flew for United, and then worked in PR for LAX for decades. She helped establish the Flight Path Museum in Los Angeles. It’s a cool museum; all the volunteers are former flight attendants. I went for the first time right after I graduated from college, and I got to screw around with all these great books and resources they had there. That was sort of the very, very start of the book. Looking back at some of the notes and ideas I had back then almost feels like looking at cave paintings. AB: So it felt like that trip to the Flight Path Museum was your way in? DR: It was really a confluence of things. There were all these women who had flown around when I was growing up. I would always play in the annual Clipped Wings Classic golf tournament with former stewardesses. Those were mostly women who were one generation older than the characters in the book, but that younger generation was around, too. They were the moms of kids I went to school with. And my mom and her two sisters were not stewardesses, but they all worked as travel agents for long stretches. Everybody around was involved in the airport and flight and travel, in some way. AB: One of my favorite images of Suzy from the novel’s opening is the image of her planting her skateboard in the sand and watching the airplanes. DR: In a way the book really started for me because I used to be that person plunked down in the sand, watching the planes take off over the bay, seeing if I could guess the destination for each one. My mom always knew the flights by their numbers because she would book the tickets, and you could tell by the color of the tail. When you grow up in California, especially in these places by the beach, the late sixties and early seventies are not far, at any moment. That stuff is in the trees, it’s in the air. Everything is an Instagram filter already. Also, certain parts of a southern California beach town look exactly like they did then. The beach doesn’t change. So you start stacking all of that up, and you think, okay, I can build a story out of this. You start with what is familiar. It also came from feeling that nobody writes great books about the beach communities in southern California! It’s under-served by literature, this place that’s perfectly served by television and film. And then, I had the fact that 1972 was the heaviest year of all for skyjackings. AB: I’m surprised that isn’t talked about more. Maybe it is, and I’m just ignorant, but especially given the fact that airline security has been a huge issue for most of my adult life. DR: Oh, yeah. It was that specific moment, when 1972 became 1973, when they basically said, we have to start instituting some sort of security. And guess what: all the skyjackings stopped! Because people couldn’t just walk onto a plane anymore with guns, bombs, and knives. It was sort of sporadic and then all at once, because of the copycat effect. I read some excerpts from a sociological study by David G. Hubbard called The Skyjacker: His Flights of Fancy that discussed the psychological profile of the people that did this. In all cases, it’s people who feel that all of their options and lanes and lines have been severed. AB: You have Suzy reading a quote from Renata Adler’s story in the 1972 fiction issue of The New Yorker: “I think when you are truly stuck, when you have stood still in the same spot for too long, you throw a grenade in exactly the spot you were standing in, and jump, and pray. It is the momentum of last resort.” DR: Exactly -- it drives these people to whatever they’re looking for, whether that’s to go to Havana to be with Castro, or needing some sort of retribution for something that happened in Vietnam. There were a lot of vets who did this, actually. It’s that idea of the push to the edge. And in that sense, then -- of course this time period is populated with dozens of people like this. AB: Did you chart the book’s plot in advance, while you were writing?  DR: I find it completely mystifying, writers who say that they write without sort of a destination in mind. That would be a total disaster for me. It has to be driving to something so that you can thread in whatever you need to do to earn the end, hopefully. So that if you go back and start from the top again, it hopefully feels completely surprising and also entirely inevitable. The other challenge while I was writing was that I was changing so much as a writer. I mean, in your twenties you’re probably changing more than you do at any point, I think. I feel like six or seven different Dans wrote this book. AB: There’s a quote from Keith Gessen about watching Chad Harbach re-write The Art of Fielding over a period of years: “With a long novel…it might take six months or a year to go through and re-write the whole thing to your satisfaction. By then you’d have changed again and want to start re-writing the beginning. The book could begin to swallow itself.” DR: It’s like the guy who paints the Golden Gate Bridge. When he’s done with it he just starts over again, because it’s already corroded. As recently as September, in my last pass before the galley, I was rewriting. There was just stuff written across nine years, and I wanted it all to fit together, to bring it all to a uniform place. AB: The book is full of period detail, but I’m curious what research you did into the daily professional routines of a stewardess in 1972. DR: That really goes back to my visit to the Flight Path Museum. They had diaries there, and even the super cheesy ones that were really vague -- “it was the best of times” kind of stuff -- even those were useful. Every once in a while, you get a great detail. There was a book that was a bestseller in 1967 called Coffee, Tea, or Me. It was allegedly written by two stewardesses, but it later turned out they were fictional and it was written by a man. It was a lot of cliched, exaggerated stuff, but you can at least get a feel for what was in the air. There was also a great book called Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants, by Kathleen Barry, that was more about the legal history. After the time period of the book, during the mid-seventies, all of the things that are the most egregious and haranguing in terms of equal rights in the workplace are brought to the Supreme Court. All the things that they can be fired for: height, weight, makeup. The stewardesses not being allowed to get married. AB: There are a lot of period set-pieces in the book, especially the 1973 USC Rose Bowl game. Were those in there from the very beginning? DR: Well, for me to write a truly authentic story about southern California beach towns, even though it’s seemingly irrelevant, I couldn’t write about that without writing about USC. It’s just the most pervasive thing there is. My parents didn’t go to USC, but everyone we know did. So, you can pick at things you actually know about. But no one’s going to mistake my life for this life. I didn’t set out deliberately to not write a book about Dan in the nineties in the South Bay. But I’m really relieved, in a way, to just let the book be another thing. No one’s saying, you know, oh, you must be Suzy. AB: Are you getting questions from people who assume that Suzy is based on your mother? DR: A little bit, but I explain how little they have in common biographically. Suzy’s a combination of a few things. I had never explicitly thought of it before this, but while I had a great dad -- the opposite of an absentee father -- I was really raised by a lot of women. My mom had two sisters, and their mother was a single mom. She was divorced in 1960. I was surrounded by all these independent women, and I think a lot of that stuff fed into Suzy’s character. She’s going to work on cars, she’s going to build things, make things. She’s going to take control of something. I didn’t realize how unique that sort of collective of women was until I started thinking through this character. So Suzy doesn’t feel exceptional to me, but she does clash with your more traditional type. I was interested by what happens when you manipulate a character who has never at any point in her life had complete control of something. And then you tease her with that control, until you slowly have all the men in her life take that away, prod her, push her over that edge. AB: I was wondering how you saw that interplay between Suzy and men. In the book, she’s often being circled in a somewhat predatory way. DR: In many ways, if I put myself in my mom’s or my aunt’s shoes, or in the shoes of any woman who’s told a story from that time, it’s obvious that major, terrible things can happen. But it’s the more subtle things that I feel personally most distanced from. It’s still that way today. The part that’s most obvious to see is when someone is profoundly sexist. It’s a different thing when there are just other, really subtle things going on. Even something like her father trying to protect Suzy from the news -- things that are little, more subtle digs. AB: You repeat one image twice – the idea of being able to taste someone else’s blood in your mouth. When you use it for Mike, he’s discovered that Thomas Pynchon lives nearby and it has to do with thwarted ambition, jealousy. But with Suzy, you use it during a moment when she might be in actual mortal danger. It’s a really economical way to show us that, you know, Mike being backed into a corner is a very different thing from Suzy being backed into a corner. DR: Yes. With the character of Mike, it was fun to think about what happens when you dial him to the worst type of that guy. When you have somebody who feels like he was on the right career path, but it’s beginning to slip away. And then you put Thomas Pynchon writing Gravity’s Rainbow in Manhattan Beach in 1969 -- he was living in what was then El Porto. It’s part of Manhattan Beach now, and it’s the most still-untouched part. They actually filmed part of the movie for Inherent Vice there because you can find houses that look exactly the way they did then. Nobody knew he was a writer. He was just a former Navy guy, living there, buying his meat at the meat market. But for Mike, that’s just the ultimate thing that guts him. I am suffering here, telling everybody that the reason I’m failing is this place where nobody could possibly get anything serious done. And then this doorstop novel comes out, and it was written right there. AB: I was reading this book the week that James Comey was fired, which was a bizarre experience since the book unfolds in the year before the Saturday Night Massacre. I wondered about the shadow of Richard Nixon that looms over the novel. How did you strike that balance, making sure that the political turmoil of that year was brought to bear on the characters but also kept in the background? DR: I tried to create this condition where Sela del Mar sort of had this bubble built around it -- where only news that affected one personally might seep in. The beach towns in southern California can still feel that way -- a little separate, a little apart. A town like Sela del Mar can yank you away from the news a little bit -- draw you into a warm bath, drain the tension out of your shoulders, and recalibrate your priorities. I’ve noticed that this year, even, when I go home to visit. The way in which folks I know in my “regular” life pay attention, minute-by-minute, to breaking news -- that watchdogging and hyperventilating just seems a little less present at the beach. People go outside, they put their phones down. It’s possible to disappear into some different rhythms. It’s not complete indifference; everything political just feels a little distant. I think Suzy’s father says it in the book when he visits California -- the news feels wrapped in gauze. I think part of it, too, is just an overwhelming confidence in the protections provided by the state -- the size and strength of California then and now allows one to feel not so caught up in the national narrative. I wrote a piece about the California secession movement this winter, and though there was obviously plenty of anxiety in that deep blue state about the Trump Administration, there was also this feeling among secessionists and non-secessionists alike that what was happening in Washington was just further proof of something many Californians had believed for a long time: that what happens way over there has nothing to do with what’s happening here. I recognize only in retrospect how removed I was from the news at times growing up. We were three hours behind, way out at the farthest edge. AB: I loved that they get free beers at the bar on Election Day, if they can prove they didn’t vote. DR: That detail was not something I’d ever heard, but it made perfect sense. It fit perfectly within the logic of all this. It is interesting though, because I feel like a lot of this stuff still rang true when I was growing up, but I don’t know if it does anymore. It feels like it would be impossible, now, for it to feel quite so disconnected out there. AB: Well, Manhattan Beach is also so much ritzier, now. DR: Oh, it’s way ritzier. Hollywood is now down there, all the athletes live down there. It just doesn’t feel like it’s at that same sort of remove. But growing up, I didn’t know anything about the rest of LA. We would go to museums or to Dodger games once in a while, but I had no idea what the map looked like. But you don’t feel isolated in the way that you might if you were in a prairie town, or somewhere like that. When I would hear that people had family in Virginia, as an elementary schooler, I was like…What? Why? And if anybody left, it was so strange. It was so cordoned off. There’s a reason that most of the books written about beach towns that are really good are often crime or murder mysteries. Because it’s so easy to shatter that thing that anybody feels, when they’re just hypnotically looking out at the water.
The Millions Interview

Molding Something in Our Image: The Millions Interviews James Sturm

I’ve become transfixed by the golem. This figure from Jewish folklore -- a man made from clay and brought to life by a mystic -- raises central Jewish questions: How can human beings participate in the creative power assigned to the divine?  What are the limits of human endeavor? What role do power and rage play in the history of a marginalized people? Whose body gets to be seen as human and whose as a soulless monster? In his 2001 graphic novel The Golem’s Mighty Swing, out in a new edition from Drawn and Quarterly, James Sturm brings a golem to life to animate questions about the meaning of Jewishness in America -- and the meaning of America. The Golem’s Mighty Swing follows the Stars of David, a barnstorming, Depression-era Jewish baseball team, as they travel through rural America. To make ends meet, they accentuate the spectacle of their otherness, playing into the figure of the nomadic “wandering Jew.” When car troubles put them in sudden need of a big payday, the Stars of David accept an offer from Victor Paige, a sleazy baseball promoter, to outfit one of their players in the golem costume from the hit film The Golem: How He Came Into the World. The poster for their next match proclaims: “The Jewish Medieval Monster! See Him With Your Own Eyes!” The story the team tells about themselves becomes a story about the monstrosity of their irreducible otherness. As the team settles into the next town, tensions mount. An editorial in the local paper declares, “The excitement of Saturday’s game should not disguise a simple fact: The Golem is not Putnam’s most dangerous adversary. There is a greater threat that the Putnam All-Americans must vanquish, the threat posed by the Jews.” The game eventually erupts into a violent riot. The uncontrollable rage often associated with the golem emerges, though here the golem is not its source. The Golem’s Mighty Swing poses central questions about what America has been, what it is, and what it might become. Sturm spoke with me over email about the novel and the broken America into which it has been rereleased. The Millions: The questions that The Golem’s Mighty Swing asks about racism and xenophobia are perennial American questions, but they seem newly relevant today. Do you see the book differently as it reemerges into today’s political climate? Has it been strange to revisit your work during the rise of Trump? James Sturm: I do see the book differently. In writing it, it felt more personal; I was trying to work through my own issues of identity and relationship to being a Jew to America. Rereading the book in preparation for the new edition, what struck me is how this story is basically an anatomy of a race riot that strongly evokes current events: a race-baiting, crass salesman manipulating the media for profit. The character of Victor Paige wasn’t a character I took that seriously in writing the book -- now that character is president. TM: In his introduction to the new edition, cartoonist Gene Luen Yang writes, “James shows us what America wishes it had been, and what America actually was. By rubbing the rose tint from our memories, he uncovers our nation’s truest self.” Was this your intent? How do you think the novel engages with the interplay of those two Americas -- the one it wishes to have been (and perhaps aspires to be) and the one it truly has been? JS: Most of the book’s Jewish characters are immigrants or first-generation Americans -- they fled from pogroms, hostile empires, and emerging nations. They desperately wanted to believe in the ideals of America. For the team’s black player, Henry Bell, his view of America is far different -- his family came to America in chains. A baseball story set in the 1920s is especially susceptible to evoking that rose-tinted strain of American nostalgia. I did want the book to challenge this view. I keep coming back to the present political moment and this creepy notion of “making America great again.” Talk about rose-tinted glasses! Who was it great for? And if so, on whose backs was that “greatness” generated? TM: In that introduction, Yang mentions a lecture in which you called comics the intersection of poetry and graphic design. Could you say more about that? How do you find that narrative emerges out of that intersection? JS: I think of comics as images you read, not just illustrations. With every panel I am trying to communicate something specific. Or several things and in this case there is thought given to information hierarchy. This to me is graphic design. And when I think of poetry, I think of conflating language and then artfully positioning text on a page, which is what a cartoonist does when filling caption boxes and word balloons. TM: The golem is a figure from Jewish folklore that has captured imaginations far beyond the communities in which it originated. I love how The Golem’s Mighty Swing activates various moments in the history of the golem, from its origins in Jewish mysticism to its popular depiction in the 1920 film The Golem: How He Came Into the World. What initially drew you to the golem? What do you find compelling about it? Did the story you wanted to tell come out of the golem, or did the golem present itself as a way to tell the story? JS: Marvel comics initially introduced me the golem legend (The Invaders #13, to be specific). Though now it is obvious that the Marvel universe is a very Jewish universe, that was not apparent to me at age 12, and seeing the Golem and knowing it came from my religious tradition made me take note. I think most artists and writers relate to the golem legend as we attempt to mold something in our image (or collective image) and try to imbue it with life. TM: In his book The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity, historian Eric L. Goldstein writes about “how Jews negotiated their place in a complex racial world where Jewishness, whiteness, and blackness have all made significant claims on them.” The Golem’s Mighty Swing carefully thinks through Jewishness in the American context as it relates to whiteness and blackness: the Stars of David play for segregated audiences, and the player who ultimately takes on the role of the golem is black and not Jewish. When writing the novel, how were you thinking about navigating this complex history of American Jewishness and racialization? JS: In the first half of the book, the Stars of David were presented as Americans first and foremost. Their position in society is precarious, but they are never seriously threatened. In the second half of the book, they are seen as Jews first and foremost, and being seen through that lens leads to the violence. I was also trying to call attention (and to counter) prevalent stereotypes with the mention of Joe Hush, the chatty Native American. TM: In The Golem’s Mighty Swing, the Jewish baseball players occupy a space between assimilation and otherness. The narrator -- manager and third baseman Noah Strauss -- says, “My father would be gravely disappointed knowing we are playing on the Sabbath...His imagination lives in the old country. Mine lives in America and baseball is America.” Yet the success of the team depends on playing up their exoticized Jewishness: they’re advertised as “the bearded wandering wonders,” Strauss goes by “The Zion Lion,” and ultimately the golem embodies the perceived monstrosity of their otherness. What do you hope the novel says or asks about diasporic Jewish experiences? JS: When you become an American, what does it then mean to be Jewish (or Irish or German or Chinese)? What part of one’s identity has to be sacrificed to be part of the “melting pot?” And who ultimately decides whether you are an American or not? There are cycles of history where Jews can wear their heritage proudly on their sleeves and other times they will be beaten and murdered for doing so. As good as America has been to Jews, we know that can change quickly. There’s also a mention in the book of black ball players dressing up as Zulus that isn’t all that much different from what the Stars of David do. What is one’s “authentic” identity? This was a question I took seriously in writing the book. TM: Two pivotal scenes in the novel center on baseball games, which are the site where a lot of the novel’s underlying psychological drama occurs. As someone who isn’t much of a sports person, I was particularly impressed by the way you brought those scenes to life on the page -- they’re incredibly absorbing. How did you think about how to represent the drama, motion, and suspense of those games in the medium of comics? JS: I learned most about depicting baseball in comics from Japanese Manga. Though I couldn’t read the Japanese, I could follow the action very clearly. The storytelling through the artwork was so clear and precise. I could tell when a batter was expecting a fastball and got a curveball. There would be pages of a pitcher trying to pick a runner off of first base. Each character had a very specific body type and body language. Japanese baseball manga was light-years ahead of any American baseball comics. TM: What are you reading, thinking about, and working on these days? What’s next for you artistically? JS: I recently read Amos Elon’s The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933 and a recently translated Korean graphic novel, Uncomfortably Happily by Yeon-Sik Hong. I also just read Eleanor Davis’s comic book, Libby’s Dad. All of these books were excellent. And after 30 years, I reread Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund. I’m currently working on my next graphic novel, Off Season. It’s contemporary fiction about a father of two young kids recently separated from his wife against the background of this past election season. Excerpts of the book were published in Slate. It is hard not to keep thinking about politics these days.
The Millions Interview

A Moment of Grace: The Millions Interviews Helen Garner

Helen Garner was born in Geelong, Australia, in 1942. She’s been a key figure in Australian letters since 1977, when she published Monkey Grip, a short novel that confronted readers with the grit and lyricism they’ve since accepted as Garner’s trademarks. It was an appropriately bold start -- Garner had reaped a whirlwind of controversy in the early ‘70s when she gave frank answers to high school students she taught when they asked questions on matters of sexuality. She lost that job and launched herself as a writer, though she’s said that even with the publication of her first book, there wasn’t some grand shift in her identity. She wrote, then as now, to figure things out, to probe and test her ideas and preconceptions. She’s kept at it through four novels and half a dozen books of nonfiction, through awards -- most recently the Nonfiction and Premier’s Awards at the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards -- and controversy, as in the aftermath of The First Stone, which so aggrieved “the academic feminists and the Women’s Studies people.” She writes before we meet to say I will know her, “by [her] unfashionable appearance.” It’s charming if unnecessary, this bit of self-deprecation, not least because she’s standing front and center on the cover of her most recent book, Everywhere I Look. I’d recognize her anywhere, I think, and sure enough, she’s dressed much the way she is in that cover photo when I find her in the hotel lobby. She’s small and neat, with a direct gaze and soft-set, intelligent eyes behind steel-rimmed glasses, her hair swept back from her face. There’s a moment just after I sit down across from her and introduce myself when she stiffens, as if to brace for the unpleasantness to come. I’ve maybe surprised her -- she’s on a sofa, reading and doesn’t see me approach -- and whether it’s for that reason or not, I can’t begrudge her the moment’s instinctive caution. I’ve read past interviews and profiles beforehand, as one does, and I’m prepared for the prospect that I’m entering the den of Helen Garner: Grouchy Literary Lioness. That prospect strikes me as vanishingly slim, based on her work. I think in particular of a moment’s reflection in “Suburbia,” when she writes of coming across a documentary about Barry Humphries, of Dame Edna Everage fame, on TV several years ago: It showed black and white footage from the 1950s: a man in tightly rolled up shirtsleeves polishing his new FJ Holden with exaggeratedly vigorous arm movements; a bunch of unsmiling middle-aged women in horn-rimmed spectacles and hats like meringues. These people were offered to us viewers for our mockery. But in the 1950s I was a provincial Australian schoolgirl. I lived back then, in a suburb in Geelong. In that documentary footage I saw nothing to sneer at. What struck me was the man’s cheerful pride and energy. I saw the woman’s shyness, their anxiety about being no longer young, their uncertainty about whether they would be considered fashionable or attractive; and my heart cracked. And so, I’m more expectant that I’ll meet Helen Garner from Geelong, a provincial girl who moved to the city, made a big name for herself, and has seen something of the world, all while searching for ways to afford the people she meets the same dignity she wants for herself. She doesn’t disappoint. The Millions: I saw that someone called you “a counterculture Joan Didion.” There’s another comparison I like better: Colette. Helen Garner: Colette! I’ve hardly ever read Colette, to tell the truth. I must’ve read some many, many years ago. I’ll try again. TM: The reason I say this is, you read Colette’s things and you think, maybe it’s an occasional piece, maybe it’s a short story, and you really can’t tell the difference a lot of the time. HG: That appeals to me greatly. It was funny, the other night in New Haven, we had a reading on the last night of the [Windham-Campbell] Festival. When I stood up to read, I read “The Insults of Age,” and I was the last one to read, and I stood up and I said, ‘I’m going to read an essay and it’s called--” and I thought, “Is this an essay?” And I had this moment of thinking, “Shouldn’t I have said ‘story?’” And I thought, ah, fuck it, I’ll just read it. And I read it, and everybody roared with laughter, so that was really nice. TM: Aleksandar Hemon says there are no words for fiction or nonfiction in Bosnian, Croation, and Serbian. He had to call [The Book of My Lives] “true stories.” But the takeaway seemed to be that the line [between fiction and nonfiction] is porous and not all that important. HG: It’s a strange thing to feel at ease in something that isn’t really a form and that you don’t know what it is. And so people say to me, ‘What do you write?’ People I haven’t met before, they say, ‘What sort of things do you write?’ And they just automatically assume that you write novels. And I say, ‘Oh, well, I used to write fiction, but now I write, um,’ and I go blank. If you say nonfiction to people who haven’t thought about all this, they don’t know what you’re talking about. TM: It’s fascinating, because the novel has such great cultural power imaginatively, I think, and the writer is a romantic figure to people, but as far as people reading a novel and being invested in who the specific writer is, and the arc of an individual’s career, I’m not sure that’s so anymore on such a broad basis. HG: I’m interested in this because I used to be married to a writer called Murray Bail. He was a kind of autodidact, and a very severe person, like autodidacts sometimes are. They apply strictures to things, and he thought that the novel was the absolutely preeminent form in literature, better than poetry, better than anything, and anything else was really kind of not worth doing. And so this caused difficulties between us, and it’s probably one reason why I shifted away from fiction, and I didn’t do this with conscious intent, but firstly I wrote The First Stone, which got me in a lot of trouble, but at that point I was thinking I was going to write a magazine article, but it kind of blew out into something bigger. And suddenly, bang, I was on the bestseller list week after week, and started making a lot of money, and people were coming up to me in the street, you know, some abusively and some favorably, but I think this wasn’t much fun for him, and there was some difficult stuff around there. But the thing was, I realized I was comfortable in that form, writing like that, and I’d always written between books, I’d always made a living by writing features, so it was just a matter of taking two extra steps and there I was. I sort of wish I didn’t have to argue, that I could just write a book, and say ‘This is a book by Helen Garner, and maybe you’ll enjoy it and this is what it’s about.’ But bookshops like to know if it’s fiction or not. TM: I was thinking about The Spare Room, and the Helen character, how people found her unlikable a lot of the time. There were a couple of things that came to mind. You I’m sure saw Claire Messud had written The Woman Upstairs, and this interviewer asked her about the character being so unlikable, and she said she felt like it filled a void in the sense that there are probably a shortage of unlikable woman characters, and often we expect women not to show anger. HG: That’s the exact point. That book, The Spare Room, it really interested me that a lot of men criticized the book for its anger. Not many women did. I think I know why, I mean here’s my guess, that women who are supposed to be looking after somebody, well obviously they just fall into a maternal archetype. And I think men, especially older men, younger men didn’t seem to have this problem with it, but for example, David Malouf reproached me for the amount of anger that was in the book. He said it was too angry. I do know him, I mean we’ve known each other for years, but he reproached me, and I was shocked. But I can’t help thinking there are men who still somewhere deep inside them have an unconscious fantasy that one day they’ll be helpless again. And they don’t want the person who’s going to be looking after them to be thinking, ‘Fuck you, I wish you’d die in the night.’ Nobody wants that, they don’t, but then, I was terribly taken aback by this. You know, the critics would say, this is great writing, it’s really wonderful, she’s at the peak of her powers and all that kind of shit, but there’s this awful anger and I hated it and it was ugly and how could she have been so cruel? But around this time, I was invited to speak at the annual general meeting of an organization called Carers Australia, and I don’t do much of that sort of speaking, but I got this letter from them saying, would I address their general meeting, and I thought, hey, there’d be people there who know what it’s like to look after somebody long term. I walked in and I thought, I don’t know what i’m going to say. I walked in and I just looked around, and in that room there were scores of people, most of them women but some men, who had the kind of look of weary endurance. And I’m talking about people who’d had, say, a [special needs child] who was now, like, 6’4”, and that was their life. And there were people there who had children in wheelchairs, anyway we’re talking long term care. People who’ve gone to hell and they haven’t come back. They’ve got to live there and they’ve got to make a life, and it’s terribly impressive. Anyway, so I thought in this company, I can talk about this. So I basically said that, and I said, I’ve been criticized for this book, for the anger in it, and they laughed. They didn’t laugh uproariously, but one of them came up to me at the end, and she said, ‘Helen, never be ashamed of the anger.’ She said, ‘We all feel it. We all feel it. Don’t ever be ashamed, and don’t feel guilty about it.’ TM: There seem to be a lot of women, readers and writers I mean, who are very invested in you. You’re someone’s Janet Malcolm, as it were. HG: Yeah. Well, there are also lot of women who are invested in hating my guts forever, and that’s what came out of The First Stone, when I kind of crossed the academic feminists and the Women’s Studies people. There were some people who never got over that, but that doesn’t worry me anymore, because I get quite a lot, well not a lot, but I have had letters from people who’ve said, I was a student when your book came out, and I put shit on you, and I refused to read the book because I knew what it was supposed to say, and now I’ve been out in the world, and I’m really sorry. They were really quite funny letters, saying, “What an idiot I was!” And one woman said, “We all ran around town blowing the shrill whistles of outrage.” And I thought, great, you just have to live a few more years for it to pan out. TM: What about the people who are a bit overawed, a bit too fervent? HG: That’s kind of embarrassing, but by the same token, every now and then people, especially this latest book, Everywhere I Look, I’ve had these really sweet letters from people. Not adoring, worshipping ones, but ones saying, “I’m sending you this little scarf that I knitted. I think you might like it.” This other woman sent me, after The Spare Room came out, I had a little parcel from this woman, and I open it up, and there’s a note in it that says, “Dear Helen, I read in The Spare Room that when your friend was sick, you gave her a hot water bottle and it was wrapped in a tea towel,” she said, “so I’m sending you two hot water bottle covers that I made,” and she said, “I made them out of old Japanese kimono material. These are things that I make.” She’s obviously an artist. These two glorious things, with little ribbons around their neck, but there was something kind of dry and funny about the way she did it. She didn’t say, “Aw, I adore you, and here, please use these.” TM: What have you been reading where contemporary writing’s concerned? How about Australian writers? HG: I’ve been reading Svetlana Alexievich. She’s fucking awesome. I spend a lot of time reading that kind of stuff, but I read novels from the ‘40s and ‘50s by English writers. I’ll tell you a terrific Australian novel that was published last year, by Joan London, it’s called The Golden Age. I loved it. It’s very, very good, but she’s a quiet person, she lives in Western Australia, which is a component of the story, and she’s a beautiful writer. TM: You’d written that David Malouf writes a paragraph and keeps it as a tuning fork for the tone of a piece. HG: That makes me think of a writer that I absolutely adore, Charles Portis. He was a journalist, and some of those novels of his, they’ve got this perfect voice. I’ve read True Grit about a hundred times. When he’s got that Mattie Ross talking, I read somewhere that he used to have to coordinate the stringers, people in the furthest flung parts of Arkansas or wherever they were, and a lot of them were women, and that’s where he must’ve gotten that voice from, that sort of rather strict voice but full of this kind of gutsy contempt for falseness. TM: I did want to ask you about your diary because you’ve published parts of it, and obviously if you’re keeping a diary every single day, which is what you’ve said, there’s a lot more. HG: Yeah, heaps. There’s crate after crate. TM: I had talked to James Salter, who did the same thing [kept a daily journal], toward the end of his life, and I said, “Are you thinking about doing anything with these?” And he looked back at them, and he said he couldn’t publish them yet because there were so many people’s names in there who are still alive, and the things he’d written about them weren’t meant for public consumption. And he said, the big thing he came away with is thinking how much life he wrote down and just didn’t use in fiction. HG: Same. There’s so much there that I don’t know what to do with it. But I’ll think about it. You know, it’s very tempting to do something super rational, like burning everything. I have had two big burnings. TM: You’re making me think of the Writers’ Pyre, which came up in one of your diaries, where a group of writers got together and read a piece they’d written and wanted to do away with for one reason or another. HG: They didn’t invite me to the Writers’ Pyre, but I wish they had. But I burnt all my diaries when I left home to go to university, when I was 18. I just burnt the lot, but there wasn’t very much, just a few exercise books, and I didn’t want my mother to read them. Then, about 10 years ago, I burnt a whole lot up to, well, what happened was,  I was thinking about this particular political [event], the Labour government in what must’ve been 1975, and it was quite radical, and it did all sorts of fantastic things, but it was economically hopeless, and the other side got organized and basically, there was a double dissolution and they fired them, and it was called “The Dismissal,” and it was a great wound in the modern political la-di-da. So, I was just thinking about it, and I said, “I wonder what I wrote about that at the time.” I thought, I’ll go and get it out, so I dived into the pack, I found the date, and I hadn’t even mentioned it. And I thought, ‘Oh. This is worse than I thought.” And again I started reading all around, and the whole thing was just so whiny and adolescent, and you know, I was 30 or something. So it was like the worst sort of diary keeping that women and girls do, which was “He did me wrong, and I’m sick of it, and he’s wounding me,” and all this crap, so I just kept reading slightly forward in time, and I got to a part where there was a switch, and suddenly it was like I opened a door and the world came in. So I burnt all the bits up to then. I just kept a few things that my daughter had, little drawings she’d done and little stories and things like that, I kept all that in a folder. Also, Monkey Grip came out of that period, so I have never regretted this act, not for a single second, but now I wouldn’t. But it was almost like [the change in tone] was from one day to the next, and I don’t know what made it change, but suddenly there were dialogues written out, or there were descriptions of places and strangers that I’d met. TM: So suddenly it became sort of a writer’s diary. HG: I guess, yeah, that’s what it was. So you’ve put your finger on it, because maybe that was the turning point. That was after I’d published a book. TM: Well you’ve said that the first book happened and you still didn’t feel consciously like anything was different, or that it had set you on some path that you absolutely had to stick to. HG: Not consciously, no, I didn’t. But I think perhaps it did. Yeah, that’s interesting. I’m going to tell you something really shocking that happened the other day in New Haven. Do you know a woman called Amy Hungerford? Anyway, she was chairing this session, and there was me, Tessa Hadley and Hilton Als as part of this panel. We were talking about why you write certain books and how you don’t know why you’re writing them, and I said I don’t know why I chose to write a book about a man who chose to drive his kids into a dam and left them and ran away. And she said, but don’t you remember? In The Spare Room, she said, the narrator is driven so insane by her sick friend that she’s driving along the street and she has this fantasy that she’ll drive the car into a tree, the friend will die, and she’ll get out and run away? I was so shocked. But I kind of felt relieved, because strangely, when I look back on it, the two books kind of overlapped slightly in time, because I’d started going to the Farquharson trials when my friend came to stay. So anyway, there, that gave me a terrible shock, and there must be more of those traces that I’ve left behind. TM: Do you read other writers’ diaries? HG: The last one that I looked at was Witold Gombrowicz. Well I read about it, you know in the TLS, or, “What I Plan to Read This Summer.” I always like that better than the ones that say, “This is what I read this year.” This woman, whoever she was, said “I’m going to read Gombrowicz’s diary,” and she put a little quote from it, it said, “I felt hungry, so I went downstairs and I went to the shop and I bought myself a sandwich and I ate it,” and she said, “That’s why I’m going to read these diaries.” And I thought, “Yes!” and I rushed to the shop and I bought the book and of course it’s like a doorstopper of a thing, and I’d never read any of his work. I didn’t know anything about him, how he went to Argentina and lived there right during the war, and he was in torment all the time, but he’s very kind of like, The Angry Pole. I dip into them, but I don’t read straight through. And I’ve looked a million times over the years at Virginia Woolf’s diaries, of course. Who else have I read? Probably heaps but I can’t think of any right now. No, I don’t go looking for them, no. TM: I’d go letters, then diaries. HG: Oh, you read writers’ letters? TM: Yeah. Actually, I wish people still wrote letters.  HG: My diary’s all handwritten, and I like to write letters. I’ve always loved writing letters, and I know that the landscape is thickly coated with letters from me, up until about 10 years ago, when i started to do email. But I really miss it. I love to get a letter. TM: There’s a different charge to that than an email. HG: Yeah, totally. The only person I correspond with, in letters -- no, there’s two -- is Tim Winton, he lives in WA [Western Australia], so we write to each other. He’s the sort of guy, though, who can write a 14-page letter without turning a hair, and the other is a painter friend of mine who lives in Sydney, a guy called Tom Carment, and we write to each other, too. He writes in pencil on little scraps of paper when he’s out. He’s the sort of artist that goes out and draws and paints outdoors, and he does quite small, lovely works, beautiful painter. I love his work and I love his way of seeing things. He likes to tell what’s happened with his kids, or he tells who just walked past. He’s a lovely letter writer. TM: Nobody does that anymore. It just doesn’t fit [emails] somehow. HG: No, it’s a great loss. It’s just very intimate. I think people don’t want that sort of intimacy. I’m shocked by how, oddly in New York it’s not like this -- people tend to greet you, strangers will give you eye contact and nod -- this is something that seems to be dying out in Australia. You find that people just act as if you’re not there, quite often, and that’s part of the insults of age factor, I think, if you’re outside that erotic part of life, erotic in the broader sense, it’s not like they trample you. It’s just like they walk past without giving you eye contact. TM: It seems a lot of people find those granular, day-to-day interactions are easier to skip over. HG: I think old people, that’s a privilege of getting older, is that you can actually strike up conversations and people aren’t threatened by you. You know, there’s something I love about where I work. I just have an office in a little office building in a suburb of Melbourne, and it’s right opposite the big central hospital, the Royal Melbourne Hospital, and in the basement, the ground floor of it, there’s a great big cafeteria, and I often go there at lunchtime just to get a sandwich. TM: People watching in the cafeteria? HG: Yeah, but not just watching them. You can strike up a conversation with anyone in a hospital, because everyone’s in extremis or they’re really worried or else they’ve got their arm in a sling, or they’ve got a drip in their arm and they’re sitting there. TM: It takes you out of regular life. HG: Yeah, and so you can say, Oh, what happened to your arm?’ ‘Ah, I come off my tractor,’ and then they tell you the whole story and I love it, I could spend hours in there. But I get the same feeling from that, being there, I recognize from being in the court. When I walk into a court, there’s this zing of adrenaline, because people around you are in a state. And when people talk to you, they don’t just bide the time. TM: Well, there are stakes attached to what they’re talking about. It’s a world unto itself. I’m trying to think of what other situations would be similar. HG: Those are the only two that I know. I must’ve experienced it, but restaurants, it’s not the same. It’s just that those are places of trauma, I suppose, where you can be a stranger there and not be in trauma yourself, and you can just be there. TM: It’s acceptable to be vulnerable there. HG: Maybe that’s what it is, yeah. I remember once having to go and get a mammogram, and there were a whole bunch of women, and we were all sitting around, and you’d go and get the mammogram, and then you’d wait for the results. So there was maybe six or seven women, and we’re all strangers to each other, and we’re sitting around this waiting room and we all got to, everyone was talking quite intimately. And I guess I was there for three quarters of an hour, and every now and then the nurse would come out and call your name, and you’d go and she’d say, ‘You’re okay, you’re clear,’ and you can go home. And so, when my name was called, I got up and she says to me, ‘All clear, you can go home.’ And I looked around to say goodbye to the women and they all looked and they all reached out and they all touched me. It was kind of like they wanted a piece of my luck? But it was so lovely, they smiled and said, ‘Oh, fantastic! That’s such good news.’ TM: That’s a gracious moment, what with you all also being so worried about yourselves. HG: Yeah, it was a moment of grace, exactly.
The Millions Interview

The End of Touch: The Millions Interviews Courtney Maum

Courtney Maum’s first novel, I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, landed her on a slew of “Best of 2014” lists, and her latest, Touch, continues her exploration of relationships and love by telling the story of Sloane Jacobsen, one of the world’s top trend forecasters, who is hired by tech company Mammoth to lead their annual conference applauding consciously childless couples. They hope Sloane will push them into new technological directions, but she instead begins to question the use of devices, deciding consumers will soon rally against them. This causes her to butt heads not only with Mammoth’s owner, but also with her lover, Roman, who considers himself a “neo-sensualist” and predicts the death of touch in sexual encounters. It’s a warm, smart, funny novel that’s bound to create conversation amongst readers. Since Touch speaks to the importance of face-to-face conversation, Courtney and I decided to meet at her home in northwest Connecticut one cool, rainy afternoon to discuss her writing, beliefs, and how we can all do a better job of paying attention. The Millions: I know your first book had a long life before it was published. What was the genesis of this novel? Courtney Maum: When I looked back two or three years ago, I noticed that for all of my friends, without exception, our friendships were being devastated because of our cell phones. We’d be out at a café and our phones were on the table. I became friends with my friends and also their phones, which were always there. And then gradually over those two or three years the phones were held upright, and they were taking photos and branding our interactions and we were on people’s timelines and Instagram feeds. Not that I’m perfect. Not that I go around everywhere with a typewriter or something. I’m a modern person too. TM: You don’t carry your record player to the café? CM: I do carry my record player to the café. [Laughs.] But I think what led me to write the book, what really drove me nuts -- more than that we were all distracted -- was watching people who were bright and creative -- fashion designers and photographers and painters -- people who were creative and paid to make decisions become incapable of making decisions. If they were hungry, they went for their phones right away to tell them what to eat and where to eat it. My single friends, instead of looking around at a bar and feeling things out, would instead be staring into their phones, swiping left and right and giggling about what someone looked like in their photo. And I started wondering: what is becoming of human instinct? I tried to find a structure and a way to turn my question into a book, and it didn’t happen until I found the main character’s job, which is a trend forecaster, a job I used to do. Once I gave myself permission to tap into those memories of what that job had been like, then things started to come together. TM: How does the timeliness of the book play out, considering our political climate and failure at day-to-day interactions? CM: Having any published work out post-November 2016 feels like a huge risk. You never know what’s coming. But if there’s a silver lining to having a book about smartphone addiction under this current political reign, with a president who is addicted to his smartphone, is that it may make people who don’t consider themselves interested in technology take a second look at how they’re using their own devices, as well as the role of cell phones and the Internet in our personal lives. I think it’s pretty clear that it’s actual face-to-face connection that’s going to change things going forward. If you look at the success of the protest marches that have occurred -- and by success, I don’t mean necessarily that they’ve changed things politically -- but it takes a lot to get an American out onto the streets. I say that as someone who lived in Europe for five years, where it takes nothing to get a European out onto the streets. More Americans are marching, and that’s a big deal, so it’s a good time for people to begin reevaluating their relationships with their smartphones. Especially as we arrive in what will be known as the era of AI. TM: It’s funny, because every semester I have my students write a paper about their relationships with technology, and whether they think their devices impact the ways they function face-to-face. When I first started, I assumed that every paper would be about the merits of technology-- CM: Why’d you think that? TM: Because they’re always on their phones. But the essays were all pretty negative about technology… CM: That’s so interesting because I feel like our assumption is to look at people on their phones and to assume that they’re having a positive experience. Even if that’s rarely true! Yesterday, I was writing by hand, (because I now write by hand in the morning in order to not be online), and after 90 minutes of writing I let myself check social media. And inevitably what ends up happening is I come out of that social media rat hole feeling bad about something, and when I go back to my writing, I end up abandoning it, because I’ve lost whatever magical private world I was in when I woke up, whether it’s the news cycle, or it’s something happening within my social circle. TM: Is it also that immediate influence of other people’s thoughts? CM: Yeah. It’s so weird that I think of my social media break as a reward. I would never invite a friend over for coffee at 11 in the morning. I try to have my workday run from nine to at least two in the afternoon, so I would never, ever, invite not just one person, but 3,000 into my house to start rattling off at me what they’re doing with their lives. That’s my idea of a nightmare, but I do it virtually. TM: Many of us do, and now, because I’ve read so many of my students’ negative social media papers, I see them on their phones in a very new way. CM: That’s interesting. I mean, they could be sitting there with needles in their veins. It’s not necessarily a good thing for them, but they’re doing it anyway. We’re doing it, anyway. TM: Sloane, your main character, is a trend forecaster. Do you see trend forecasters and storytellers in a similar light? CM: No, not really. Storytellers seduce you with a narrative, and trend forecasters just announce an outcome, without seduction (although the best ones craft some pretty powerful PowerPoints). You either believe what they’re saying to you, or you don’t, but a trend forecaster is not going to take 300 pages to tell you that off-the-shoulder tops are going to be the big thing for this summer. They’re just going to show you a picture. It’s more immediate, whereas storytelling is slow. But there is a build-up, though, with trend forecasting. This thing you’re learning about…it might not come for many, many years down the road. So you hear about it. And then you have to wait. So I think I’m changing my opinion. There’s a slow seduction to both arts. TM: Maybe it also has to do with how one views storytelling? Like, are you trying to create something everlasting, or are you driven by something you want to talk about in that moment? CM: Right. By nature of the job, trend forecasting is seasonal and is rarely told with words; instead it uses film and texture and photography and textiles as accessories. I used to work on trend books, which are these very expensive, giant tomes that look like a crazy person’s scrapbook. Maybe they don’t look like that anymore, but when I started out in the early aughts, these books would have actual swaths of fabric and rubbers and plastics, because they cover not just fashion but also home design. So there’d be chips of porcelain and fans of color and paint swatches, and that’s how they’d tell their story. Now things have changed and you can have a Pinterest board, but when it comes time to tell a company that all the accessories for fall of 2018 need to be charcoal gray, you want to touch things. It’s not enough to go up and tell a story, whereas a storyteller can sway people with words and nothing else. TM: As someone who works in branding when not writing, how do you brand this book? Did you have the title Touch from the beginning? CM: No, actually. That title was my editor’s suggestion. Originally it was called The Future, but someone came out with a book using the same name. Then I liked The End of Touch, but my agent thought it was too sad. [Laughs.] My editor suggested Touch, and I liked it because it was short. My first book’s title was so long. When I first started to think about it, I was a little intimidated, because it felt a little Jonathan Franzen-ian. It’s ballsy to have a one-word title. But I gave myself a pep talk and thought, well, this is what the book is really about: touch screens versus tactile touch. So it’s a perfect title. I’ve been really lucky as a female novelist that no one at either of my publishers tried to push cheesy-ass covers on me. With both books, the first PDF they showed me was the cover that we have. They just got it right away. In this case, they hired Rodrigo Corral, who’s a demigod in graphic design, and he totally nailed it. I really love the cover. So the branding is really thanks to my team at Putnam. I wrote the book, but they instinctively “got” it and did a great job. TM: Another sort of branding: how do you name your characters? CM: That’s a good question! Sometimes it comes right away and it can’t be anything other than that. Sloane was always Sloane. Roman, for a while, was Romain, but my agent kept calling him “Romaine Lettuce,” and I realized nobody is going to understand what “Romain” sounds like, so he became Roman. In this book, everybody’s name came easily, but in the thing I’m working on now, no one’s name will stick. I have this terrible manuscript where I’m writing “MC” for “main character,” or “Last Name” because I don’t know what their last name is yet. Nothing’s continuous throughout the manuscript. It’s a hot, hot mess, but I believe names have power. I went through a phase where I had this mug from a college where I’d attended a writing conference that had the names of graduates I didn’t know, and I’d keep it on my desk and mix and match those names. I moved recently, and that mug is gone. None of my characters will ever have a name again! TM: You often create worlds within worlds. In Touch, all of these fake products, Roman’s New York Times op-ed, and the porn video Sloane watches are quite detailed. The reader experiences the media that these characters consume in a very real way, which isn’t something you see all of the time in fiction. Why are you drawn to include these kinds of elements? CM: It would feel completely unnatural for me to not write that way, partly because I do a little screenwriting on the side with my husband, who’s a filmmaker. And I really do love film as a storytelling medium. Sometimes it helps me to understand where the plot is going by watching the film in my head. I specifically remember, when working on the first novel, that when Richard was getting his installation ready, I was watching him, almost as an employee in a hardware shop as he bought this and that. I watched him go into the public Laundromat to try everything out, and I watched him make a mess. I let the reel unspool. For me, writing that way is partly an aid to help me figure out plot. TM: Many writers could gloss over the storyline of, say, the porn video Sloane watches, yet you take the time to explain it in detail. CM: Sometimes I go too far with it. It’s awful to say how many hundreds of thousands of words I cut in the different drafts. I can go too deep into the world building. For example, I wrote up corporate structures for the company “Mammoth” in Touch. All of that was cut because it wasn’t necessary, but to not have written, or included, say, Roman’s op-ed would have been a major disservice to the plot. For me, I hope that the layers have purpose and that I’m not simply proving I can do the layers upon layers thing.   TM: Roman’s op-ed, in particular, is a huge character moment. CM: I didn’t want him only to be a jester. Whether or not you agree with him, I wanted to prove that he’s a thinker. TM: In Touch, you tie in actual products with those you invent. Is there a balance you have to find to make that work? CM: There are sometimes legal reasons why you can’t use a company’s name. People writing about Disneyland aren’t calling it Disneyland. Most times, I’ll change the name of something if it carries too much weight, if it has too much of a monopoly of significance. I don’t ever call the phones in the book “iPhones,” for example. I’m trying to create a world where you can imagine whatever you need to, because it’s just a smartphone. If I called it an iPhone, all of a sudden it could feel like Apple owns my book, or that I’m directly criticizing Apple, which I’m not. Also, in Europe, more people are using Androids, and I want it to be ”democratic” in terms of product names. On the flipside, though, there might be a scene where someone uses Arm & Hammer toothpaste, for example, because using that brand name wouldn’t distract too much from the narrative and it has such a distinctive flavor. It comes down to whether something monopolizes the pace. It’s true that there are a couple of real apps included in the book, like RunPee. That’s a real thing, and I also include artist Craig Ward, who makes photographs out of bacteria. I used these because reality here can’t be topped. I have a real Davy Rothbart quote in Roman’s op-ed about dating our own computers, which was said incredibly well and fit in the time setting of the novel. The blending of real and imagined is incredibly fun for me. TM: Does it assist in creating a reality for the novel’s invented products? CM: I hadn’t thought about that, but it might give some validity to the products discussed in the book. Like, “OK, I recognize some of these.” I never mention Uber. That was a conscious decision, and I’m glad I did that because look what happened with Uber since I wrote the book. Mentioning a current brand time stamps what you’re writing, but with today’s culture, brand value is mercurial. If I had a character drink Pepsi, and it was published right now, instead of being engaged in the chapter, you’d think, “Oh God, how can this character be drinking Pepsi after that awful ad?” TM: Staying with the theme of connectedness within the book, I want to talk about how you’re trying to embrace these ideas. CM: I believe in In-Personism and face-to-face interactions and calling people on the phone. I truly think if we had less smartphone addiction, Hillary Clinton would be our president. The fact that we all have these curated realities because of algorithms and preferences means we read what we want to read. We see only posts from our friends. We’re not exposed to things we don’t want to see. With The Cabins, a creative retreat I’m running for the second time this year, I purposely try to find places with shitty Internet. It’s become a luxury to sit around with others for three or four days to talk about whatever -- art or writing or pop culture -- without the interruption of our phones. We don’t understand what’s happening with our neighbors anymore. We need to all pay more attention to each other and take the pulse of what’s happening, because we’ve misunderstood a lot.
The Millions Interview

Building My Own Strange Machines: A Conversation with Jonathan Lethem and Christopher Boucher

Time flies. Six years ago Jonathan Lethem published The Ecstasy of Influence, a sprawling collection of essays, sketches, interviews, and fiction, knitted together with candid autobiographical notes. Since then, he’s brought out his ninth and 10th novels -- Dissident Gardens and A Gambler’s Anatomy -- as well as a story collection, Lucky Alan and Other Stories, and apen monograph on the album Fear of Music. A new year, another book. More Alive and Less Lonely collects literary essays, introductions and book reviews from the last 20-plus years. The book was edited -- or curated, rather -- for Melville House by Christopher Boucher, whose two novels (How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive; Golden Delicious), as I recently read them, significantly altered my perception of language in fiction, reminding me of when I first encountered Lionel Essrog, the compulsively lyrical narrator of Lethem’s now classic New York crime novel, Motherless Brooklyn. In the spirit of generosity and of abundance, both author and editor agreed to participate in a roundtable conducted recently over several days of emails. Unlike in the humorous essay “The Counter-Roth” included in the new book, which details Lethem’s attempts to entertain Philip Roth at literary functions, I made it clear up front I had abandoned any hope of making either of these writers laugh. The Millions: This collection caught me completely by surprise, even though I'm an avid reader of Jonathan's work and previously hunted down several of these pieces online. The editor's introduction states that a framework and coherence were evident early on among the 60 or so short essays in this book. Were there other breakthroughs later in the process? Christopher Boucher: It's fun to think back to the very beginnings of the process, when Jonathan started sending me contenders for the collection. I'd loved The Ecstasy of Influence, and so these uncollected essays seemed like a gift -- my own “lonely book” (see “The Loneliest Book I’ve Read”), if you will. As I remember it, we came to the idea of a “book on books” early on -- during our first meeting at Melville House. I was thrilled with this direction, because that was the book I wanted to read. As a diehard fan of Jonathan’s fiction, I gravitated towards his essays on books and literature -- I found them addictive, sneakily-instructive, and full of the same joyful inquiry and insight that’s so prevalent in Ecstasy. What’s more, these essays made me want to read -- to drop everything and read for days. I liked the idea of trying to create the same experience for the reader -- to curate a book that served as a readerly “wake-up call.” That said, though, we left a lot of wonderful material out. Along the way, too, I found myself lobbying for a rather broad definition of "books and writers” so that we could include as many essays as possible. I remember really wanting to include Jonathan's fictional exchange between his character Perkus Tooth and director Spike Jonze (“The Original Piece of Wood I Left in Your Head”), for example. While it's unlike anything else in the book, it's just so poignant and funny. Jonathan Lethem: For me, the image of this book emerged in the negative space described by my two earlier essay collections -- The Disappointment Artist, and The Ecstasy of Influence. The first one, Disappointment Artist, is really a memoir of my teenage life and self-invention as a writer, disguised as a cycle of cultural essays. It's about losing my mother and understanding my relationship to my father and concealing my vulnerabilities behind movies and pop music and books. The form is exclusive and everything I wrote in that mode is included in that short book (arguably, the Cassavetes piece doesn't really belong). Ecstasy of Influence is a baggy monster, full of writing in different modes, and on different occasions. There's even fiction in there, and a poem. It's a deliberate -- and obnoxious, I'm sure -- attempt to measure the space I'd blundered into as a "public intellectual," which wasn't a plan I'd had for myself. It's modeled, for better and worse, on Mailer's Advertisements for Myself. What was excluded from those collections created the possibility that became More Alive and Less Lonely. I'd written more often on books and writers than on any other topic, in the form of reviews and introductions, largely. And "appreciations." Writing about books was the first thing I did besides writing fiction, and the first thing I published in any venue (in the Philip K. Dick Society Newsletter, when I was 22). I reviewed a few books for Salon in the mid-'90s -- one of those earliest examples is included here, on Jill Robinson's Past Forgetting. And the first book I was ever asked to introduce was Walter Tevis's Mockingbird. That's here too. It's really the heart of my activities, the center of my life, as a reader, bookseller, and "author." It's a book of devotions, basically. TM: Were there specific collections (by other writers) that occurred to either of you during this process? JL: By way of comparison, I thought mostly of books by British writers -- things like Anthony Burgess's Homage to Qwert Yuiop, or Penelope Fitzgerald's The Afterlife -- books that are full of things like introductions and "appreciations." I think the ways my bookishness manifests itself are more like a U.K. writer than like an American one, honestly. But I didn't shove any of these comparisons at Chris. I preferred to let him find the form and the tone, and to do all the heavy lifting here. I really let him wade through the morass -- and there was more ass than you'd think. He covered it, for the most part. TM: I'm curious, how were the pieces received? How many at a time? Over what period of time? Were there any changes or cuts made to specific essays, or other issues or obstacles that came up in bringing this work into book form? CB: Conversations about this project began in December of 2015, when a mutual friend put Jonathan and me in contact by email. Jonathan sent me 60 or so pieces to review, and we met to discuss the project in early 2016. It was during that meeting that we first talked about the idea of a “book on books.” With a preliminary theme in mind, I dug in and started looking for threads in the essays that could inform their sequencing and the book's scope and shape. These pieces were published at different times and in a variety of venues, so our reader was going to have do some time travel. And I didn’t want them to feel “unstuck,” or mapless. So I searched for ways for the book to stake out its range and territory early on -- that was certainly my goal in the first chapter, “Engulf and Devour,” which shifts from a “devotion” on a book from Jonathan’s childhood to pieces on Moby-Dick and Philip Roth. Later in the book, the essays focus in on specific writers (Kazuo Ishiguro, Philip K. Dick), link thematically (as in the last chapter, “Fan Mail”), or connect via what I think of as “channels” -- inquiries or enthusiasms that reappear in different garb. I love the various forms of nostalgia expressed in the chapter “It Can Still Take Me There,” for example -- there’s a piece on the character of Batman, and further on, an essay about Jonathan’s encounter with the beat hero Herbert Huncke. As the book took shape, Jonathan sent along other pieces that might fit. To my delight, he also wrote some new essays that helped round out the chapters and complete some of the narratives therein. One of my favorite pieces in the book, for example, is his “Footnote on Thomas Berger,” a new piece that follows two previously-published essays on Berger. I won’t spoil it, but it’s an astounding story. Editorially, most of the heavy lifting took place last summer. Since most of these pieces were previously published, I saw my work as a sort of literary forensics: I read the manuscript version against the published version, and sent Jonathan edits that catalogued all editorial discrepancies and suggested a way forward. I sent these to Jonathan in batches of 10 or so and he returned finalized versions. Overall, my edits were modest -- these essays were already in fighting shape. We settled on a preliminary structure and title by July, and the manuscript was submitted a few weeks later. JL: I'm fighting the temptation to satirize Chris's scrupulous account of all his due diligence with claims of my having handled the perimeter defense, or being the one in charge of bringing the ziplock bags of trail mix. "First I built a bonfire hot enough to melt down the horse's hooves," etc. But the truth is that I did nothing so comprehensive or thoughtful even as that. I really just dumped that initial catastrophe's worth of pieces on Chris, by means of Dropbox. Then, to make matters worse, I sporadically discovered pieces I'd missed or forgotten about entirely that were hiding either in dingy corners of the Internet or of my own hard-drive, and sent those along as well. As Chris began to settle on pieces -- which didn't happen all at once, but in sequences -- I periodically flew into a panic of rewriting. I think I did a bit more "improving" -- or at least triage -- on these clumsy old sentences than Chris shows signs of being aware of. Mostly I tried to simplify tormented thoughts into merely agitated ones. I really like hearing about Chris's concerns about the risk of "maplessness" and the way he thought of his solution in terms of "channels." I find the design and flow he arrived at consistently surprising and delightful, nothing I'd have managed myself. That feeling extends to the title of the various sections, and the title of the book itself, which are all Chris's discoveries. TM: Readers now can go over the trail themselves to find a discarded ziplock, map in hand. The Hawkman trail? To borrow language describing two kinds of Pynchon novels (in the essay "Pychonopolis") this new collection teeters between Comparatively Stable and Utterly Centrifugal. Not because it is chaotic but because there is narrative drive and so many plot threads. The time-travel aspect, far from disorienting, is gratifying. What was lived, and sometimes suffered through, for decades, we see transpire in a few pages. I'm wondering if Jonathan's attitude toward collaboration has changed at all since the famous Harper's essay and his "Promiscuous" Internet project, where material he authored was made available for filmmakers and music bands? JL: Well, I'm in no way repentant, if that's what you mean. All of my impulses -- my yearnings -- are still in the direction of a gift economy.  It seems even more urgent to me now, more bound up in our political lives, all this stuff: acknowledging intertextuality, breaking the spell of "property" over our expressive cultural lives, find ways to reclaim a commons or create a "temporary autonomous zone" wherever possible. Locating versions of mutual aid for artists and artworks. Distinguishing corporatist imperatives from life imperatives. Not that I have some coherent political plan on offer! The Promiscuous Materials site is in disrepair -- I need to rework it, and freshen it up, make it inviting again. I'm not web-savvy that way, and there are only so many hours in the day. Still, people still do find their way to those stories and texts and song lyrics and make their own things out of them from time to time. I'm glad about that. I should say that it wasn't some major experiment, I don't make any such claim for it. The project was more a gesture -- a mild provocation, combined with a sort of playground. Like a community garden in a vacant lot. My main job is writing novels, and as I get older I know I've got to exclude a lot of other involvements. Too often that means missing chances to collaborate, and locking myself in my room. But I'm still really dedicated to breaking down the dull imperial notion of the novelist-as-Prometheus. Finding ways to introduce apertures or slippages in the mask of authority -- both inside the text, and around it. CB: My response here skims the surface of your question, Chris, but for me this project has been wholly defined by Jonathan’s generosity. After the briefest of introductions in late 2015, Jonathan invited me to help steer this ship; I’ll always be grateful for, and amazed by, the trust he showed in me from the get-go. Received en masse as they were, too, these essays felt very much like “uncommodifiable surpluses of inspiration” -- like gifts, in other words. This seems like a good time, too, to note that Jonathan’s donating all of his earnings from the book, and that half the proceeds are going to the charity Doctors Without Borders. Jonathan included this proviso in the initial book proposal, and I think it set the tone for the entire project. While I know I’m speaking of a different currency now than the one that drives the gift-economy, the creation of this book was certainly driven by a “Give All” sensibility. TM: That kind of generosity is inspiring. Now pet theories are kicking around in my mind. Did the choice of Doctors Without Borders have anything to do with the list of doctors acknowledged in last year's A Gambler's Anatomy and the convincing, or convincingly imagined, medical research involved in that book, or does the association go back further? JL: I'm sure it would be easy to overthink it. The fact is that I've always just been astonishingly moved by what they do. Which is no knock on, say, The Southern Poverty Law Center, or The Center for Biological Diversity, or many other possible destinations. But you have to pick one. Doctors Without Borders might seem to me -- I've never thought about this, exactly, before -- like the ultimate opposite of the kind of indirect politics practiced even by the most righteous of us artists and writers (I don't mean myself). That's to say, where we're by definition operating in the realm of the figurative and the intangible, in my case also the hesitant and ambiguous. While they are literally rushing bodily into zones of violence and crisis and putting bandages on other human bodies. So it was the least I could do. Let's leave it at that. Oh, but I should confess here that the doctors acknowledged in A Gambler's Anatomy aren't all doctors! By the time my list of acknowledgees had four or five doctors on it, it seemed fair -- I mean, it seemed funny -- to award the same title to Chris Offutt, and to my wife. Doctors of my spirit, and doctors to my book. TM: The acknowledgments reminded me of the dedication, also funny, in Stanley Elkin's The Dick Gibson Show. A list of radio hosts and their stations -- Jean Shepherd; WOR...etc -- ending with Joan Elkin; WIFE. I guess compared with the earlier discussion of a cultural commons, I was struck in this new collection by more traditional roles of authorship, for the reader respecting what great authors do on their terms. Which of course is a different matter, although I admit conflating them a little. One of my favorite pieces is the essay on Joseph McElroy. It does a great job anticipating a reader's objections while full-throatedly supporting a big league writer's craft. Are there some artists that, more than others, represent some kind of line or limit? With McElroy, "narrative 'sense'" sums it up. Have you experienced any conversions during your reading lives? This essay does much toward recruiting me to the McElroy camp. JL: Elkin's WIFE, I'd forgotten that. Genius -- I wouldn't try to compete. But my own wife regards my honorary doctorates as embarrassing jokes, so I took my revenge by awarding her a bogus one too. As for the opposition you suggest between "authors doing things on their terms" and the cultural commons, I'd say nah. My whole point, if I had one, was that to wade into the cultural commons was my description of what authors do when authors do what they do -- on their terms. Anyway that's how it feels to me. Whether conscious or semi-conscious or unconscious of the fact, we're all intertextually polymorphous-perverse in the end. As Dr. George Harrison wrote, "text goes on within you and without you." I'm glad I rallied your curiosity about McElroy -- he'll gratify it (though, honestly, I probably wouldn't pick up Ancient History as an entry point. Try Lookout Cartridge first.) But since I've gotten started picking apart premises lurking in your questions, let me do it again, and protest the terms "big-league," "conversion" and "recruit." Because I know McElroy is generally associated with "difficulty," and so what I hear in those words of yours is a kind of reader's hierarchy of striving, as if reading him or someone like him is a matter of stepping up to some higher realm or duty. I'm not into it. Too much Protestant work ethic in there, and status-seeking, and a hair shirt too. Read hedonistically instead. McElroy offers a delicious blast of oxygen -- it's fun to be in his brain, that's the reason to go there. I mean, if it turns you on to think of your reading of great novels, whether canonical or modernist or postmodernist or translated or just loooong, as some kind of sacrificial devotional act or military campaign or mountain-climbing expedition, go ahead. But admit that that's what turns you on! Life's too short to be intimidated by the books that are waiting only to be picked up and encountered, and then devoured, if you like what's on offer -- it's like being intimidated by food. CB: I’ll resist the urge to go literal here and steer us towards the last piece in the book, “Books Are Sandwiches,” and say instead that I love this answer because it reminds me, as a reader, to eat what I like and all that I can -- to follow my instincts without regard for anything that might obstruct my engagement with the page. Some of my favorite moments in the book, too, are those when Jonathan finds vitality in places I wouldn’t have known to look for it -- when he hails Chester Brown as a “a citizen of the timeless nation of the dissident soul,” for example, or sees in the work of Gilbert Sorrentino “a mind whose only way of handling a first introduction is to blurt out ‘Don’t we know one another already?’”, or praises Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments as “an object in furious motion, humming with its own energy, and all you might wish to do is touch it, alter its trajectory barely, so as to nudge it into universal view.” TM: One other term that probably does more to activate a reader's resistance, if the book doesn't conform to the reader's preconceived notion of said term, is novel. It's understood that this is the reader's problem, the reader's loss. Although, also it's a cultural loss if the book or author goes out of print, which lends an urgency to what’s said about the lesser-read authors praised in this book and elsewhere. In The Ecstasy of Influence, Jonathan calls the dip in John Barth "terrifying.” This collection nonetheless concerns novels, second only to the unmitigated joy of reading anything. It's largely a novelist's bag of novels and novelists. What draws you to writing novels? CB: What I love about the novel, both as a writer and a reader, is that it lives with you for a while, imprints itself on you. The novels that first invited me to write one, though, were particularly strange machines: The Age of Wire and String, for example,and Trout Fishing in America. I remember well the experience of reading the latter for the first time, and how the world continued buzzing for me even when I wasn’t reading it; it felt like having a pair of anti-gravity boots stowed away in my backpack. No other object has informed my life quite like my favorite novels have. From a craft perspective, the novel caters to the kinds of risks that I like to take in my writing. Because of my early influences, perhaps, I’m drawn to building my own strange machines. Also, I don’t think novelistically, as I know some writers do. I have to think small, write small, and I only find my novels once I’m inside them. I began my second book, for example, with one stand-alone piece about a piano that changes your point of view, and another about a character who has a sentence for a pet. It wasn’t until a year later, maybe, that I admitted to myself that these should be part of the same narrative. At the core of my process is a certain unease or anxiety about the form, and I’m glad for that -- I think it’s a good place to write from. Even so, I marvel at those writers who seem to have an easier relationship with the form. Jonathan’s one of my favorite living novelists, and for me his novels are built like tanks -- each one different from the last, and yet always dizzyingly inventive, uniquely ambitious, and expertly constructed.  Reading A Gambler’s Anatomy, for example, I was amazed by its grand design -- the way that the narrative arc, pacing, and sentence-level music all work together. I’m curious to hear what he has to say about a form to which he clearly brings such mastery. JL: "A novelist's bag of novels and novelists" -- you make it sound like a sack of cats! Yet one also being carried around by another, larger cat. Or a smaller one who is struggling with a very large sack. Well, I doubt I could write a more impassioned love letter to the novel than Chris B. has done here, so instead I'll play the feisty elder, and remind you young whippersnappers what Norman Mailer said when someone played devil's advocate about the viability of his chosen form (some of which devil's advocacy I think I hear in your question). I quote: "The novel will be at your funeral!" Maybe me and Boucher have our heads too far up the wazoo of the novel to realize that the world has moved on to other, better things...the human attention span having suffered irreparable damage,,,I doubt it...but even if so, it has been a pretty good place to spend my life. What I really think is this: the novel is the least airless, the least restrictive, the least solipsistic of wazoos to have climbed up. It is a wazoo with a view. Okay, to be a bit more serious, I really have come to understand that the humbling mystery of my chosen practice is how capacious the damn thing is. It holds together impossible things (like life itself). It even makes room for the anti-novel -- for those always turn out to be novels, too. It models human consciousness in any number of ways -- by its involvement simultaneously in narrative and language and also sensation, dreaming and projection and fear, and with our feeling of duration -- time, that is.  It concerns itself with concurrence of being-in-our-heads (that's the siren call of solipsism) and being-in-the-herd (the basic fact that we're social creatures, wandering among others every day of our lives). The two are simultaneous immersions, never resolving their permanent juxtaposition. The novel actually captures this! How incredible. And even the shortest and simplest novel is oceanic, confusing, too big to get your head around, or see all at once (again, like life). Anyway, this here bag of cats -- it's got other things in it, I swear. There's my mother-in-law, in the "Footnote to Berger." She's no novelist! There are cameos by any number of others -- painters, poets, children, and teenaged pre-novelist me. It's less lonely because it's fungible to human beings. As are novels. Whereas bags of cats are just -- well, cats, all the way down.