The post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor is still, five decades after its publication, one of the best-known books about American Jewish children. Published in 1951 and describing the lives of five sisters growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early years of the 20th century, the books—with their descriptions of noisy streets, religious ritual, tasty food, friendly neighbors, and warm, loving home life—made middle-class girls all over suburbia wish they had grown up poor in the tenements of New York City. Girls who read the books don’t forget the sisters’ escapades: Charlotte and Gertie sneaking “chocolate babies” and crackers into bed and covering their sheets with crumbs; Henny dying the white dress she “borrowed” from Ella with tea, to cover a stain; Sarah stubbornly refusing to eat her soup. Publisher Lizzie Skurnick, founding editor of Skurnick Books, who in 2014 reissued the four sequels to All-of-a-Kind Family, called the series “completely singular. They’re the first series about a Jewish family ever, one that’s not only about the family, but about Jewish culture, New York, the turn of the century, vaudeville, polio, the rise of technology.” Skurnick has called All-of- a-Kind Family the Jewish Little House on the Prairie. Although the series is considered groundbreaking because of its focus on the lives of Eastern European Jews, little has been written about the books’ author—the dancer, actress, and writer Sydney Taylor. Fortunately, a biography, tentatively called From Sarah to Sydney: The Woman behind All-of-a-Kind Family, by Professor June Cummins with Alexandria Dunietz, is now in the works, and set to be brought out from Yale University Press in the next few years. Much of the information in this article is culled from work recently published by Cummins. Though readers may not know much about Taylor, the story of the writing of the first All-of-a-Kind Family book is a familiar one. Many of the best children’s books begin as bedtime stories. One evening, Taylor has written, her daughter asked why all the children in the books she read were Christians. Taylor also saw that her daughter, an only child, was sometimes lonely: When she was a little girl she would say: Mother, I hate going to bed. It's so lonesome. Won't you stay awhile? I would look around the room with its solitary bed, and my mind would go back to my own childhood. Once again I would be living in the flat on New York's Lower East Side where five little girls shared one bedroom—and never minded bedtime. Snuggled in our beds we would talk and giggle and plan tomorrow's fun and mischief. Later, Taylor wrote, she found that her daughter liked the stories she told at bedtime so much that she decided to write them down “especially for her ... Satisfied I promptly put the manuscript away and the years rolled over it.” But one summer, the story goes, when Taylor was away, her husband unearthed the manuscript. He had seen the announcement of a contest organized by the publishing company Wilcox & Follet. He sent his wife’s manuscript in. In Sydney Taylor’s words: No one was more surprised than I when I received a letter from Mrs. Meeks, the Children’s Book Editor of Wilcox & Follett, telling me she wanted to publish All-of-a-Kind Family. I didn’t know what she was talking about. I told my husband and the whole story came out. Then Mr. Follett telephoned me to say that All-of-a-Kind Family had won the Follett [Award]. This Cinderella story of publishing, which represents the publication of the first book of the series as casual, almost accidental, has been questioned by relatives of Taylor’s, who say that the writer worked on the first novel for at least a couple of years and sent it around to publishers, in hopes that it would be accepted. The more frequently told story suggests that either Taylor or her publishers, in that decade of conformity after the Second World War and before the feminism of the 1960s, did not want to represent the author as a person with literary ambitions. In any case, what is clear is that, at the late age of 46, after successful careers as an actress and dancer, Sydney Taylor began another, important, long and fruitful career as a writer of fiction for children. 2. Born Sarah Brennan on the Lower East Side of New York City in 1904, Sydney Taylor was the American daughter of immigrant Jews. The stories in the All-of-a-Kind Family series are smoothed-over, prettied-up versions of the stories she lived with her sisters, whose names, like those of the girls in the series, really were Ella, Henrietta, Charlotte, and Gertrude. The Sarah of All-of-a-Kind Family is the sister most readers know best, the one whose eyes we most often see through. She is the middle child, the one who tells the library lady she has lost her library book; who learns how to dust by searching the parlor for hidden buttons; who buys hot chickpeas from a Yiddish-speaking peddler; who falls ill with scarlet fever just before Passover, and later invites the library lady to come see the family Succah. This middle child is a representation of Sydney Taylor herself. In a 2014 talk about Taylor at New York City’s Tenement Museum, Professor Cummins explained that, in the diaries she began writing when she was 14, Sarah Brennan began calling herself Sydney. Professor Cummins sees this name change, this taking on of a new identity, as emblematic of life-long conflicts Taylor experienced. Disliking the way gender roles are assigned in our culture, Cummins suggests, Taylor took on a male name; uncomfortable about being Jewish in a mostly-Protestant country, Cummins suggests, Taylor took on a recognizably Anglo-Saxon name. Throughout her life as a writer, Taylor received fan letters that addressed her as “Mr.” Taylor’s parents, Celia Marowitz and Morris Brennan, the Mama and Papa of the series, immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1900, along with more than 2 million other Jews who escaped religious persecution and entered the United States between 1880 and 1920. Celia, born in Russia, had lived a middle-class life in the city of Bremen, but Morris was poor, from a town in Poland famous for making brushes out of pigskin and bristle. After the couple married and moved to the United States, and as Morris struggled to find work, the couple experienced a poverty deeper and more painful than Taylor suggests in the children’s books. Cummins says that this period—when Morris began work as a junk seller, when illness ran rampant through cramped tenements, and when the family lived in a four-room apartment—was particularly difficult for Taylor’s mother, because she was used to a middle-class life. (Signs of her more refined tastes can be seen in Taylor’s description of the front room Sarah dusts, with its piano and china knickknacks.) Soon the family was no longer an “all-of-a-kind” family: Celia Brennan had three boys, one of whom died in infancy. The real Irving’s counterpart enters the world in the last chapter of the first book of the series, as the long-hoped for boy, Charlie. In Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family, the last book of the series, Mama tells Ella she is pregnant with a baby, whom Professor Cummins identifies as Taylor’s youngest brother, Jerry. Soon the ever-larger family’s finances became stabilized and—just like their counterparts in More All-of-a-Kind Family—they moved into a duplex, in the Bronx, with seven rooms. Taylor and her siblings were raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, experiencing, as the family does in the books, the many rituals of an observant Jewish life, their time punctuated by familiar expressions of reverence, history, and culture. Still, as they grew older, “Syd Brenner” (as she called herself) assimilated into the Protestant world. Throughout her two years of high school and after, Taylor went to parties on Friday nights, worked on Saturdays, ate in non-kosher restaurants, and forgot some of the Jewish holidays. She worked for a while in an office, and during that time, because she was blonde and her co-workers did not realize that she was Jewish, experienced anti-Semitism, often in the form of cruel jokes. Still, she lived in a mostly Jewish world. After leaving high school in 1916, she took classes in drama and began attending meetings of the Young People’s Socialist League. This was a heavily Jewish organization, the youth affiliate of the Socialist party. The group, which held social get-togethers as well as organizational meetings, believed strongly in democracy, but also worked for a classless society. They argued for the elimination of ethnic and religious discrimination. At a YPSL meeting, Syd Brenner met Ralph Taylor, and in 1925 they married. That same year Taylor began working as an actress with the Lenox Hill Players. In the last of the All of Kind Family series, the oldest sister Ella joins a vaudeville act, performs on stage, and experiences the difficulties and pleasures of that hard work. Much of this last novel of the series is drawn from Taylor’s experiences with the Lenox Hill Players. In the book Taylor expresses some of the conflict she felt between this not-completely-satisfying career and her desire for a more conventional life with Ralph Taylor. Still, even after she left the world of acting, Syd Taylor worked. From 1930 till 1935 she performed as a professional dancer in Martha Graham’s first dance troupe. Many of the women with whom she performed went on to become famous in the dance world: Choreographer Anna Sokolow later staged works for the New York City Opera, the Jullliard School, and, at Jerome Robbins’s urging, for the Inbal Dancers in Israel. Sophie Maslow, who danced alongside Taylor, later created the company New Dance Group, dedicated to using dance to making social and political statements. Like Taylor, many of these dancers were the children of poor Russian Jewish immigrant families. In 1935, after giving birth to her only child, Jo, Taylor decided to stay home. When Jo was 7, Taylor began working as a dance and drama teacher at the Cejwin (Central Jewish Institute) Camp in Port Jervis, New York, where she was known as Aunt Syd. Her sisters worked there, too: Ella as costume designer, Henny as dining room supervisor. Book lovers like their fictional counterparts, Syd, Ella, Henny, Charlotte, and Gertrude also established the Camp Cejwin library, which some claim is the first camp library ever created. By this time Ralph (who, as Uncle Ralph, also helped out at Camp Cejwin) had become president of Caswell-Massey Company, a firm of chemists and perfumers, and the Taylors’ political views had softened. Still, Professor Cummins says, a photograph of Eugene Debs hung on the wall of their home. Time rolled along, but Taylor had not completely forgotten the answer she always gave when people asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. Despite her interest in the stage, in politics, and in dance, she had always responded that she wanted to become a writer. 3. In Lower East Side Memories, her history of what she calls “an American Jewish sacred place,” Dr. Hasia Diner describes how influential All-of-a-Kind Family was in presenting a romanticized version of the neighborhood to the rest of the world. She explains how, in Milwaukee and San Antonio and Chicago, little Jewish girls, who had never seen representations of their ethnicity in books before, read All-of-a-Kind Family and felt that they were coming home. She suggests that the setting of the book was particularly powerful because so much of European Jewish life had recently been lost in the war. Also, as second-generation immigrants, Taylor’s generation had moved far away from the busy area, out of the city, to places of “lawns and wide-open spaces.” Taylor reminded her peers of a place like the places where they grew up, where the streets were mean but the people were sweet. In her descriptions of the outdoor marketplace in the heart of the city, Taylor “took readers on a sensory journey to a realm of distinctive sounds, smells, tastes, and sights.” On Taylor’s Lower East Side, Diner tells us, no one needed to be embarrassed of their Jewishness, and American patriotism existed side by side with Jewish life. It was partly the editing of the book that made that combination of Jewishness and Americanness clear. Cummins describes how the children’s books editor Esther Meeks “politely but firmly insisted on several significant changes” to the manuscript Ralph Taylor had sent in to the contest. Meeks encouraged Taylor to emphasize the relationship between Charlie and Kathy, two of the few Christian characters in the first book. Meeks strongly suggested that Taylor add a chapter in which the family celebrates the Fourth of July, writing, “I do think it important, too, particularly today, that this family show some signs of being American as well as Jewish.” Cummins also points out that Taylor “never once” mentions that Mama and Papa were born outside of the United States. Though other characters have Yiddish accents, Sydney Taylor’s Mama and Papa do not. 4. The book that came of these edits, out of her daughter’s questions, out of her yearning memory of the place and time of her childhood, was the best that Sydney Taylor ever wrote. She followed it with the four sequels and five other children’s books, the last two published after her death in 1978 at age 73. After her death, her husband Ralph established the Sydney Taylor Book Award. It is presented every year to the author of an outstanding book for children and teens, that authentically portrays the Jewish experience. In 1981, Sydney Taylor’s sisters came together at Camp Cejwin to watch campers perform a play version of All-of-a-Kind Family. The elderly sisters—Ella, Henny, Charlotte and Gertie—sat in the front row together and watched children perform a story of their lives.
This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. In our current moment, a chorus of “nasty women” has flooded social media with grievances. Unfortunately, these grievances recur with grim regularity. But even before modes of communication expanded and modernized, storytelling was the constant, the vehicle to voice oppression. Fiction has always been a means for coding muzzled, transgressive complaints. Codes play both a literal and metaphoric role in Basic Black with Pearls, a brilliant midcentury novel by Canadian Helen Weinzweig. The book has just been reissued by New York Review Books, with an illuminating afterword by Sarah Weinman. Born in 1915, Helen Weinzweig emigrated from Poland to Canada at age 9. She was raised in poverty by a single mother in Toronto. As a child she spent two years recovering from tuberculosis in a sanatorium—where books became her best companions—and at age 17 was reunited with her estranged father in Milan. Their meeting resulted in something close to a kidnapping, in which he didn’t allow her to leave for months, a trauma reflected in a strange interlude in Basic Black. She never saw her father again. In 1940, Weinzweig married the most prominent Canadian composer of his day and spent her married life in service to his career. “At first Helen stuck to traditional roles of muse, helpmeet, mother of sons, housewife,” writes Sarah Weinman. Helen’s husband “was the creative force, the one whose art needed the space for nurturing. (‘Both John and I lived his career,’ she once said.)” Weinzweig published her first novel at age 58. Given her mastery of the form, it is tempting to speculate that in a different era, she might have been able to take her writing seriously at an earlier age. Basic Black concerns a “traditional” Toronto woman, Shirley, married with two children, whose clandestine liaisons with a man code-named Coenraad take place around the world. Coenraad works for an American spy agency and divulges where Shirley can find him (Kyoto, Tikal, Montreal, Scandinavia, for example)—through a series of clues in National Geographic magazines that only Shirley can decipher. The novel opens with Shirley’s first decoding failure. She has flown to Guatemala for an assignation, and Coenraad has not materialized. “Night comes as a surprise in the tropics,” she begins. “There is no twilight, no preparation for the disappearance of light.” She returns reluctantly to Toronto, her hometown, where she relives her stark childhood: “The city is mined, for me, with the explosive devices of memory.” Shirley continues her quest for Coenraad in Toronto, testing the limits of her intuition. She recounts their trysts with specificity and longing, Coenraad’s elusiveness a persistent trope: When he was in danger, he told himself, if I get out of this alive, I will never let her [Shirley] go. But of course he did. Over and over. Still, I have become accustomed to waiting. It’s not so bad: I always have something to look forward to. 2. On one level, Basic Black is an exploration of relationships and their failures. Shirley’s early love for a boy named Max, for example, is broken up by his mother. Later, Shirley hears he has been injured diving and is confined to a wheelchair: [If Max’s mother] had left us alone then Maximilian need not have broken his back and I need not have married a man who reminded me of him. Zbigniew. The fault is not his. ...Zbigniew has done nothing wrong. He never breathes in my face. The fault is not his that I cannot look into his unclouded eyes, that I cannot meet the gaze that once commanded a squadron…Any agitation on my part brings to the bedroom two men in white. Shirley considers Coenraad the perfect lover, but their relationship is not without its ups and downs: I am forced to contrast our meetings in cold climates with those of warm zones. In countries around the equator our love is at its hottest. …Everything we eat is spiced with aphrodisiacs. We have never had a harsh word in São Paulo or Rangoon or Palermo. Nor do we speak about matters that might cast a shadow across our sun: about hungry men, dying women, disfigured children; about arrests at night and executions at dawn. …In the colder regions something goes wrong…we quarrel easily. …In Stockholm, he was so easily irked and I so quickly wounded, that he sent me to Edinburgh ahead of schedule. Coenraad’s views on the relationship are more muted: Coenraad said, Lucky for me I didn’t know you years ago. And I, weak-kneed and seated replied, Oh but I wish we had! My life would have been fulfilled! Exactly, he replied, you would have been fulfilled, but I would never have amounted to anything. Shirley examines her encounters with Coenraad from multiple angles, as if she were selecting choice fruit from a market. She places her meetings with him within a broader canvas. Hearing Greek music, she wonders: Did Theseus abandon Ariadne because he no longer loved her; or, as one legend claimed, because his ship was blown out to sea? [millions_ad] 3. On another level, Basic Black is a tour of loneliness with strong feminist overtones. She considers what happens to women who are prevented from reaching their educational and professional potential, who are forced by societal norms or economic necessity into loveless marriages and involuntary child rearing. The harsh loneliness in Basic Black resonates with Stoner’s isolation in the eponymous novel by John Williams, and with the brutal singlehood of Anita Brookner’s heroines, who lack the chance at love for which Shirley grasps. Shirley finds herself surrounded by loneliness: I began to notice that there were others like myself, as one with crutches is aware of those similarly crippled. I passed an old woman in a tweedless coat and galoshes with metal buckles; I passed a Chinese boy in a quilted black silk jacket; I passed a curly-haired teenager who, despite the cold, revealed nipples under a sheer blouse, I passed a man who must have just come off the boat. …There were more. We solitaries came towards one another, passed… Basic Black also interrogates broader issues such as war, cultural displacement, fantasy versus reality, sanity versus insanity, light versus shadow. Weinzweig brings the full range of artistic tools to her writing, deploying a rich set of metaphors that resonate on multiple planes. Through metaphor she reflects the joys and heartache of human interaction, the impossibility of absorbing life’s challenges: Music, it is said, is the perfect art. It, too, is an abstraction, at the very least, of vibrations, of wavelengths, of such and such frequencies, of so many overtones, of semitones and quarter tones; yet none of these components, as with fragrance for a wasp, accounted for the rising tension I felt as I listened to Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies... …the music is sad, life is sad, the plight of all lovers is sad, but here we are, in the dance, the music urges us on, faster, faster, yet there is no hurry, we can dance our lives away. In addition to these broad themes, Weinzweig layers her personal history beneath the narrative. She explores the world of her childhood—left behind—“In Yiddish a man who kills your feelings is the same as a murderer.” She considers the world of her adult, married life: “I have deduced from Coenraad’s indifference to certain domestic gestures that I have made from time to time that it goes against the grain of romantic love to bring to it the trappings of marriage. When we are together no stockings hang, no shirts drip; no water boils, no bread is buttered.” Finally, she explores the world she would have her heroine, and perhaps herself, inhabit: “After a while I felt I was walking in forbidden territory; I had a sense of danger that comes when one asks why is there no one here but me?” 4. Basic Black with Pearls unfolds with the deliberate elegance of a budding flower. No spoilers here, but it’s fair to say that Weinzweig so fully immerses the reader in Shirley’s mind that it is too late by the end to question the veracity of what has come before. With this expert sleight of hand, Weinzweig delivers a masterpiece of compressed/repressed emotion. Her economy of expression is breathtaking. In less than one hundred and sixty pages, Weinzweig covers the world, while simultaneously remaining laser-focused on who and what Shirley is. Shirley, too, has a code name with Coenraad, which is Lola Montez. But as it turns out, she is far more complex and nuanced than her alter ego. With its quiet, luminous intensity, its relentless questioning of how a woman should be, Basic Black with Pearls is a book for this moment.
The post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. What is now recognized as the “first Thanksgiving” took place nearly 400 years ago, in 1621, when members of the Wampanoag tribe and Pilgrim settlers sat down together for a three-day feast. The Thanksgiving meal is still central to the occasion today, but we also connect it to a range of other associations—from football to potentially challenging conversations with family to the encroachment of Black Friday. There’s no doubt the holiday has changed. Yet, for some, the image of Native people has not. When Marcie Rendon was a child, the only representations she saw of her community were set in a distant past that had no bearing on her present reality. Her debut novel Murder on the Red River (Cinco Puntos Press), which was longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Award, tackles that issue head-on by introducing readers to a young Native woman who is very much an inhabitant of the 20th century. Renee “Cash” Blackbear is a 19-year-old farm laborer and pool shark who finds herself embroiled in a murder mystery. Having entered the foster system as a child, Cash has a long history with the local sheriff, who is happy to have her help investigating the death of an unfamiliar Native man. Désirée Zamorano wrote in the LA Review of Books: “Rendon, a member of the White Earth Anishinabe Nation, masterfully weaves two stories in a seamless, vivid narrative. The first is that of a dead Indian found stabbed in his chest without money or ID; the second is that of Cash’s life, and how she came to be a cue-stick-slinging farm hand, playing pool and sleeping with her married lover.” This is Rendon’s first novel, and her children’s book, Pow Wow Summer, was reprinted in 2014. She is a recipient of the Loft’s Inroads Writers of Color Award for Native Americans. Rendon generously agreed to talk with Bloom about Murder on the Red River and her writing process. Ericka Taylor: Are you a reader/fan of the murder mystery genre? Who are some of your influences in this genre? Marcie Rendon: Yes, I read murder mysteries, psychological thrillers, and action thrillers—what I call airport novels. I have been a longtime reader of Stephen King. In my opinion he is the ‘best’ storyteller. The other authors I gravitate to are John Sanford, Lee Child, and the Kellermans. After reading one book of Henning Mankell’s in his Wallander series, I went online and ordered them all and binge read them all. I love King as a storyteller: the first time I visited Maine I "remembered" being there and had to remind myself I only thought that because of reading King. Sanford’s books are easy to read, even while taking you on a roller coaster ride of murder and chaos. I think (though I don’t know because I’ve never talked to him) his writing is so good because he is a journalist. There isn’t a lot of "extra"—which I find time consuming and annoying—in his writing. I want the story. ET: Murder on the Red River is not a typical murder mystery in that Cash has access to clues and investigative tools unavailable to (or, at least not often used by) traditional law enforcement. She doesn’t only use her dreams and visions to guide her, but also eavesdrops on suspicious conversations and tails potential suspects. How did you decide when to apply the various skills Cash has at her disposal? MR: My writing process is character driven not "format" or "outline" driven so the story evolved as the character evolved. The skills Cash used were determined by the situation she found herself in. ET: What was most clear to you about the character Cash, then, when you started the novel? What traits and experiences evolved as you wrote? Did you “discover” things about her as you wrote? If so, anything surprising? MR: Cash, the character that appeared was, and continues to be, very compelling and insistent on where the story is going. There is the tough bar girl but underneath all that is the vulnerable young woman who survived a lot growing up. She is very smart, both intellectually and with common sense. When I re-read parts of the book I notice how detached she is from much of the heartbreak in her life. In today’s world she would be diagnosed with PTSD. ET: Place is prominent in the novel, and you really ground the reader in both the history and geography of the region. The only chapter headings in the book refer to the setting, based first in Fargo on the North Dakota side of the Red River and then in Moorhead on the Minnesota side. The Red Lake Reservation is also a key location. Could you tell us about your decision to make place central to the book and what you were hoping it would evoke? MR: I grew up on the edges of the White Earth Reservation, in and around the Red River Valley, so it is country and landscape that is home to me and is familiar to me. As Native people we have never left our homeland, we are home—so place is our experience on this continent. We know who we are, and where we are from. We are not newcomers to the idea that the Earth is a living entity. It makes sense that in my writing the land is as much a character as the human characters. Prior to European contact, the state lines we know as they exist in the United States did not exist in Native worldview. I believe the same is true for many farmers. They farm the land and have a relationship with the land and the weather and changing seasons. The place settings of North Dakota side and Minnesota side of the Red River were included to help the reader understand the current demarcation between the two states, the two cities of Fargo-Moorhead and the Red River as the dividing line. ET: Are there also metaphorical/thematic ideas embodied in that dividing line? MR: As always, one can conjecture the divisions and boundaries that exist because of gender, class, and race. There are lines that we can use to divide us or there are rivers and fields of life that sustain us all. I think as humans we need to decide which is important to us—the divisions or the sustenance. ET: When you set out to create this mystery, did you already know whodunit, or was that something you discovered through the writing process? MR: I knew at the beginning that it was a non-Native person who did the killing. I learned as I wrote the number of men involved in the situation and their reason for doing so. ET: Can you say more about that, i.e. the murderer was a “type” of person before an actual person with motives—what was your interest in establishing that from the outset? MR: This story called for this “type” of person to have done the dirty deed. In another story, it could easily be the other way around; or another type of person completely; i.e. a woman killing a man. This story just happened to call for this particular situation. I have a short story that will be published in an upcoming Sisters In Crime anthology here in Minnesota. The murderer in that story is a young, pre-teen, Native girl. I guess for me it all depends on where the muse takes me or asks to be taken. ET: Cash suffered the horror of being raised in foster care with white families who saw her not as a child, but as free labor. How much did exploring that phenomenon, which shifted a bit with the 1978 passing of the Indian Child Welfare Law, shape the timeframe (1970s) in which you set the story? MR: Cash is the one who set the time and place for the story to occur. I, as a Native writer, was not exploring the phenomenon of foster care when I was writing. I was just writing a story, what to my mind was a murder mystery. It was during the editing process when my editor started asking questions about the foster care story in the background that I also realized, yes, that story was there. It is a story that is so much a fabric of the existence of Native people during that time in history that I wasn’t even aware it was something I was writing about. This was “normal” during that time. ET: Would you say that the editorial process made you more “audience aware”? And if so, how else did that awareness shape the editing/revision process. MR: In the editing process I became more cognizant of cultural differences, knowledge bases, and perceptions. Years ago I wrote a play about Sacajawea. During the research necessary for the writing of that play I realized that Sacajawea never had her story told. The story that is told is Lewis and Clark’s story—and as white men who had a written language, everything that has been written about Sacajawea has been written from their white, male perception, not from the mind and heart of a 12 year old girl-child, stolen, raped, beaten and then used as bait to cross the continent. We would know a totally different version of her story if She had had a written language, a way to record Her story. All that to say . . . as my wonderful editor Lee Byrd worked with me, she was able to direct me to places where I was writing from a Native-centric worldview that not all non-Native people have been exposed to, and there were places to expand a bit so the non-Native reader would have a better understanding of the overall story. ET: Do you generally think about or concern yourself with who you’re writing for? MR: My primary goal as an Ojibwe woman writer is to create mirrors for my people. My hope is that I am writing stories that everyone can enjoy. ET: Although Cash is a work of fiction, she, like her creator, has an interest in poetry. Are there any other similarities that you and Cash share? MR: I used to shoot pool, love shooting pool. And as mentioned previously, I grew up in the Red River Valley. ET: Is it as uncommon as it seems in the novel for a woman to be so good at and involved in pool culture where you grew up? MR: I think in the Native community there are fewer gender stereotypes. Women shoot pool, play baseball or softball. There are a good handful of Native American boxers. In this story Cash is the pool shark. If Cash spent more time on any of the nearby reservations I am sure she would encounter other Native women who would give her a run for her money at the tables. ET: You’ve talked about the importance of making sure Native youth see current Native images, rather than only seeing reflections of themselves that exist in the past. How much does that desire shape your writing projects? Were you exposed to literary images of present-day Native Americans in your youth? MR: As a child, it was next to impossible to find a book that featured Native people who were not the stereotypical Indians on the Plains, riding horseback and wearing a headdress. And that is who was featured in movies and on TV. With the exception of learning false stories about Pocahontas and Sacajawea in Social Studies classes Native women weren’t mentioned at all. So one of my primary goals in all my writing is to create mirrors for Native people to see themselves. ET: In addition to being a novelist, you’re also a poet, playwright, and author of children’s books. Do you feel more drawn to one form over another? MR: I do write a lot of poetry and someday will find a publisher for a book of poems. To date most are in various anthologies featuring Native women poets. I do wish I had more time to devote to writing plays. To see characters brought to life on stage is very fulfilling. But I love to write—I love the stringing of words together to create image, story, and life. ET: Could you tell us a bit about your writing process? Do you have an established routine where you write at a certain time every day or is it more catch as catch can? Do you prefer to write by hand or on a computer? MR: In this day and age, I only write at the computer. I am contemplating, but haven’t tried it yet, dictating into the computer to see if that would be a faster process than my fingers. When I am deep, mentally deep, into a story, I aim for somewhere between 1000 and 2000 words a day. I often will stop writing mid-sentence. In Stephen King's book On Writing, he talks about an author who wrote for exactly 30 minutes every day and then stopped—even if in the middle of a sentence. This works for me. I can pick up the idea where I left off. And I write on that story, book, article until I’m finished, or feel like I’m finished with it. I know authors who have a favorite time of the day to write. I think because I have spent so much time as a freelancer, doing work on deadlines, I no longer have a “favorite” time to write. I do need quiet. No TV, no radio, no lawnmower next door. And I absolutely love the opportunity to leave my home for two to three weeks, go to an apartment or cabin away from everyone I know and everything that can pull at my attention; and then I can really crank out the work. ET: Our readers are especially interested in writers who publish their first books after the age of 40. You’ve said you especially encourage other Native writers and writers of color to follow their passions when they emerge and not wait as long as you did to become a writer. You, for example, initially thought you were going to be a therapist. Could you tell us a bit about your professional journey and what compelled you to pursue writing? MR: I have been writing since I learned how to write. But no one ever told me that I could make a living as a writer, or that writing was a legitimate career choice. At the time when I was going to college we were told to get degrees in law, medicine, social work or teaching so that we could “go back home and work for our people.” So I got a degree in Criminal Justice (pre-law) and American Indian Studies and worked for years in Native prison programs and worked as a therapist. And I would write short stories, poems, etc., and stuff them in a drawer. I reached a point where I said to myself, “What I really want to do is write” and I set out to do that. After a year of writing I thought, “I have three children, I better make some money at this.” And that is when I set out to get paid to do writing. I have supported my family since 1991 on my writing. This has included children’s books, writing-work for hire, newspaper journalism, plays, poems, some teaching of writing. Basically, any or all writing that would pay the bills. We need to tell our stories—because if we don’t tell our stories our grandchildren and great-grandchildren are going to read stories written by others about us—and the nuances of who we really are as a people will be lost in the translation. What I would say to folks over 40 – It is never too late, never. If you have a story inside you burning to be written, write it! And then submit, and submit and submit. Don’t obsess about rejection or perfection—just write and submit. To quote my dear friend and author Aurora Levins Morales, “…my mother encouraged me, advising me to not be perfectionist, and go ahead and write a B book instead of an A+.” Take those risks, never tell yourself no, or that it is too late, just get at it. ET: Given your own journey, are you involved in mentoring young writers at all? MR: I teach poetry in the county jails in the metro area here in the Twin Cities. About four to six times a year, a writing partner and myself go into the county jails for two weeks, every evening and teach poetry and help the women create a book of their work. That is the most direct, hands on mentoring I do. The other is mostly encouraging folks to write and to seek publication. I always share writing opportunities and information about them with other aspiring Native writers and women writers. ET: What writing are you working on now? MR: I am working on the second Cash book, a teen book, and hopefully will get to finish my play about a serial killer very soon.
This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. The buzz around Matthew Weiner’s debut novel, Heather, the Totality, began nearly a year ago, with the news of its acquisition by Little, Brown. Such is the advantage of debuting as a novelist after having created, helmed, and written many episodes for the cultural phenomenon that is Mad Men. What we learned last year was that the novel’s inception traced back to a note in Weiner’s notebook about an unsettling interaction he’d observed while walking in Manhattan: “It was a little story where I was like, ‘I wonder what that is; maybe I’ll use it sometime.’” The “little story” involves Mark and Karen Breakstone, an affluent couple living on the Upper East Side; their daughter, Heather, as she grows into adolescence; and Bobby, a young man from a poor area of New Jersey, recently released from prison. It’s interesting to consider that, apart from TV, Weiner has written mostly poetry and plays; and to note Little, Brown editor-in-chief Judith Clain’s comment that “He’s really literary.” I myself have written and spoken about Mad Men’s “novelistic” qualities—how we follow a large cast of characters over time, witnessing both the external (cultural) transformations and internal (psychic and emotional) ones that make for a satisfying dramatic experience. And yet, with Heather, we see Weiner exercising alternative creative muscles: he crafts story and character using primarily a narrative tool unavailable to or little used by the TV writer, poet, or playwright; and that is interiority. What’s more, Weiner uses this tool with such balletic intentionality—the effect of which is as unsettling as it is compelling—that my consciousness of him as “award-winning TV writer Matthew Weiner” fell away quickly as I read. Heather, the Totality—a slim volume that moves swiftly through time and incisively into the minds of its four principle characters—totally absorbed me. 2. I suspect however that mine may not be the unanimous or even prevailing experience; it would not surprise me, in fact, if responses to Weiner’s debut were somewhat polarized. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I am no book reviewer. Which is to say, I like what I like when I like it. I also change my mind and cannot imagine otherwise/would be terrible at the job of making definitive pronouncements about the quality of a work and imposing those pronouncements authoritatively upon The Culture. When recently I was asked to judge a literary award, I accepted on the basis that there would be four others (and thus I could judge unapologetically as myself—as we all would, I presumed). During the process, a friendly conflict arose among us: the basic question of what makes for “excellent prose”—what makes a sentence arresting (or even competent), how does the writer wield language for optimal effect. Some of us were drawn to and praised terse, plain prose. Others found this prose flat and amateur. It is a large nose which cannot be hidden. In addition, his teeth are bad. Are these good sentences? Bad ones? I think they are rather virtuosic—teeming with tension and narrative presence via an exterior glimpse. They plod along and surprise us, despite ourselves. (Why would a nose need to be hidden? If it cannot be hidden, the wearer of it must be at some disadvantage, a particular vulnerability. “In addition” puts a nail in some sort of coffin; what sort of death are we talking about? What permanent status of badness, of denial or dissatisfaction?) Both sentences beg the question, “From whose perspective?”, which is the real mastery here: the reader is inside the layered perspectives of character, narrator, and author all at the same time. These are not sentences our committee judged, nor those of Matthew Weiner; but rather they belong to the late James Salter, to whom Weiner presented the PEN Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010. Weiner said of Salter, “His investigation of the desire or the ambition to be better, to be honest, to find love, to kill one’s enemies, to not be alone, is unflinching and brave.” I am struck by how aptly these words apply to Heather, and by the ways in which the prose styles of both authors—with their plain, seemingly flat surfaces—both efface and suggest so much. And as is the case with both Salter’s and the prose our committee judged, Weiner’s ostensibly homely sentences may excite both passionate fans and ardent detractors. 3. This intentional flattening is evident also in Heather’s structure: narrative shifts from character to character, along with movements forward and backward in time, occur in a seemingly lateral manner: transitions are not marked or flagged other than by a new paragraph. In addition, paragraphs are uniformly half-a-page to a page in length, mostly expository. The “camera” pans smoothly, along the perimeters of a quadrilateral story frame and dipping into each of its four character’s viewpoints. Before they left [Mark and Heather] quickly made a beaded necklace for Karen so she would not feel left out. Mark and Karen got drunk and did it [had sex] again that night while Heather slept in the next room and it was somehow less, but followed by a whispered conversation about how long they’d been together and what a miracle Heather was. The last day the three of them sat far from the breakfast buffet, overlooking the man-made lagoon, so conspicuously happy that a passing woman insisted she take a picture for them. While the Breakstone family was on vacation, Bobby was laid off from the lumberyard. He was told he would get his job back and they had let everyone go for a few weeks only to rehire them to avoid some labor laws and he was happy to spend some of the money he’d been earning or maybe go somewhere. But his Mother had broken up with her latest and Bobby agreed to give her a loan so she could feed her habit, knowing full well he would never see the money again. It didn’t matter because where would he go anyway and wandering around Harrison and Newark would be fine in the spring before it got sticky. Here the narration contrasts The Breakstones as a unit with lone Bobby; more typical in the novel are longer sections narrated through the eyes/emotions of Mark, Karen, and Heather individually, as in Bobby’s second passage above. But in this brief example we see Weiner’s method of flat surfaces—dispassionate clauses belying emotionally loaded statements, and strung together by conjunctions. Weiner also achieves interesting prose textures by dipping into characters’ voices—melding and layering third-person and first-person narration: what a miracle Heather was; where would he go anyway. In the language of writing classes, Weiner is constantly “showing” us his characters’ deepest disturbances, but in the guise of “telling” us what’s happening externally or what characters are feeling in the most simplified terms. Shades of Ernest Hemingway, yes; but it’s the four-perspective, merry-go-round effect that not only reminds us, but creates an actual experience, of just how distant we are from each other when we are ostensibly very much “together.” These slides from perspective to perspective demand the reader to keep moving, to participate actively in both pivots and permeability. One can imagine an editor asking the author to go easier on the reader, provide signals or chapter breaks that allow for full stops and restarts. I like to imagine Weiner refusing absolutely. 4. The Matthew Weiner of Mad Men makes himself known in Heather via sharp and complex character insights. Weiner’s eye for fine, particular details transforms the Type that each character initially incarnates into a real human being. Mark Breakstone is an above average corporate banker, disappointing (insufficiently athletic) son of a high school football coach, lean bodied and chubby faced, with a dead sister (an anorexic who starved herself) haunting the edges of his existential solidity. His ambition is to make “at least enough [money] for a country place and one of those awards people got for being generous.” Mark wins over Karen—a good catch who “had no idea how beautiful she was”—on their first date by saying, earnestly, “People don’t get me sometimes.” In addition to beautiful, Karen is professionally capable: “Deeply behind the scenes, she booked travel and appearances for authors and editors and after once covering for her boss with a perfectly purchased apology of handmade chocolate and ash-striped cheese, she began to design themed gift baskets so specific and exquisite that many urged her to start her own business.” Karen has limited enthusiasm for her work however, and, Unlike her boss, she was incapable of shaking her suburban manners or showing sudden charm to strangers with her sunglasses on her head and thus upon realizing that Mark might insist she change her profession to wife and mother she was pleasantly excited. Karen likes that Mark makes big money. She also does like Mark. Weiner is careful, with both Mark and Karen, to hew the line of messy motives when it comes to love and money: we understand that they both have and have not built every aspect of their lives, and their marriage, on the assurance of wealth. As with all the characters in Mad Men, it is tempting but not-so-easy to either judge or dismiss them. Bobby—who in the second half of the novel joins the construction crew that renovates the Breakstones’ apartment building—comes from poverty, neglect, and addiction. Bobby’s character manifests a precarious if familiar cocktail of intelligence, inflated self-perception, and pent-up physical intensity. In the case of this outsider figure, Weiner presents the facts of his transgressive behaviors matter-of-factly, but also details Bobby in a way that destabilizes both the reader’s, and the other characters’, inclination to dehumanize him: “It was the first time Bobby was in jail and he kept to himself and even got some antibiotics for where the ashtray cut his head, which was already infected.” At a moment toward the end of the novel, when the reader has likely written Bobby off as villainous and unhinged, obsessed with possessing/vanquishing teenage Heather, we get: He could never go back to school but was good at saving money and he could get Heather a house, no a home. She was born rich, so her parents would never want to see her go without and so they would help them out, and happily, because Bobby would be working his hardest and everyone respected that. Weiner does risk failing to transcend Type with each character—Bobby’s down-and-out backstory, Karen’s Manhattan-mom vanities, Mark’s wounded masculinity, Heather’s millennial do-gooder perfection—and at times he falls a hair short. There are moments when the authorial voice limits characters to their prescribed corners of this squared universe. But what saves these moments from addling the novel as a whole is the way in which Weiner’s flattened structure and style begin to pay off thematically: if characters themselves feel intermittently flat, the depiction (I believe) is part of the larger intention, i.e. to expose our shared, primal tendencies to self-preserve, oversimplify, take the shortcut, project and misunderstand, possess others for our own needs and purposes. We recognize the essential democratizing force of the novel’s form when it comes to “the desire or the ambition to be better, to be honest, to find love, to kill one’s enemies, to not be alone.” 5. Tensions mount as Mark’s paternal-protector instincts morph perilously into energized irrationality; Bobby and Heather misread each other in perfectly, dangerously inverse fashion; Karen’s self-absorbed (arguably “feminist”) concerns about Mark shoot so far off the mark, she misses the signs that lead them all to climactic disaster. Our path to this climax exposes perhaps a bit of Weiner’s TV-writing impatience. We sense for example there is more to Mark’s inner makings and outward journey that would knock him so far and so fast from civilized man to all-instinct brute; and I craved this deeper, slower development. The nature and degree of disconnection between Mark and Karen too—as parents of such a beloved child, potentially in danger in these final pages—strains credibility. In its swiftness and manipulation of key moments of character intersection, the ending’s big events, their chilling finality, fall just shy (an itchy, so close kind of shy) of a satisfying inevitability. But the facts of the ending—each character’s fate—resonate resoundingly and along multiple vectors of complexity. In Heather we see clearly, disturbingly, how universally fluid and messy is human development and moral character, across social class and background. Weiner’s scalpel-like access to each character’s interiority reveals their civilized and uncivilized selves, trading and warring from moment to moment: here, Bobby both fantasizes and enacts violence, there he dreams reasonably of the placid, domestic future anyone deserves; similarly—too similarly—Mark and Karen each oscillate between reaching for some version of noble love on the one hand and indulging the persistent underside of possession and self-compensation on the other. Heather’s equalizing form speaks volumes toward its moral center—we are all essentially the same; our fates are not—thus the novel’s success lies in its deceptive orderliness. The story disturbs, sentence by sentence, with incisive intention. Based on Weiner’s existing fan-base, one can anticipate its likely audience, i.e. those who would seem to share more in common with the Breakstones than with Bobby. In this sense the novel transcends the status of a mere sleek, domestic thriller, and contributes meaningfully, unexpectedly, to resistance.
This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. Is there anything more intimate than cleaning out another person’s home—deciding which of her possessions, collected with love or without thought, is important enough to keep; and what, then, to do with the rest? Aside from the fact that it usually comes with some degree of sadness, the process requires a set of emotional gymnastics, a series of shifts from empathy to self-interest and back again: This thing is archival or an important memory marker; this meant something to her so it now means something to me; this did its duty but now can be set free; this has no conceivable use for anyone, ever. Family photographs are easy (keep). Recipe clippings from the 1980s are easy (dump). Books—or rather a library, as opposed to a half shelf of bestsellers in the corner of the family room—are almost never simple. A library embodies the trajectory of a life and intellect, and to sort, Solomon-like, through someone else’s story in books is a responsibility not to be taken lightly. The process, the responsibility, intensifies when this person is your mother. It took my sister and me under a minute to split up the labor of cleaning out our mother’s apartment when we finally moved her to a nursing home. Her dementia had reached the point where even a full-time home health aide couldn’t give her the care she needed, and when mom landed in the hospital after refusing to take a round of antibiotics for an infection, it was time. Fortunately, we found a great facility that accepted Medicaid. Unfortunately, that gave us a hard deadline for selling her co-op: once her Medicare-allotted time ran out, Medicaid would then siphon off all her money, including what we needed to pay the mortgage. We had a couple of months; sentiment would have to take a back seat to expediency. So my sister and I agreed: she would go through mom’s clothes, jewelry, and furniture; we’d split the kitchen; and I’d sort the office and art supplies, general paper ephemera—magazines, recipes, photo albums—and her hundreds of books. This last not only because I’m a “book person,” but because I had a long-term and complex relationship with those books of hers. Which is, I guess, exactly what being a book person means. 2. Books had always been a language my mother and I shared when she was well: we gave them to each other as gifts, borrowed, traded, talked about what we’d read. Then, as her 10-year descent into dementia accelerated, her books took on a separate identity for me, their simple presence becoming a sort of animal comfort. Whenever I found myself at a loss with her—when she snapped at me and told me to leave, or, some years later, would doze off mid-sentence, or, even later, when her aide would be cleaning her in the bathroom as mom screeched and swore and swung—I would stand by the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and read the titles over and over, cataloging them in my mind the way you rub a worry stone in your pocket. Her library was unself-conscious in the extreme—potboiler mysteries filed alphabetically with classics, paperbound galleys next to handsome hardcovers and golden-age, mass-market paperbacks from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Her frayed clothbound sets of philosophy and history ruled the top shelves, with oversized art books stacked horizontally on the bottom. Many were gifts from me. Across the room, lined up on end tables, were more recent acquisitions—offerings to tempt her back to reading after the concussion that started her decline, though I’m not sure she ever got to them. I gave her Geraldine Brooks's People of the Book, Jean-Dominique Bauby's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. From my nephew, Peter Carey's Theft, Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind. From I-don’t-know-who, The Help—which, bless her, mom would have adored. She was a sucker for stories of love and kindness redeeming all, and equally unconcerned with subtexts of class, race, or politics of any kind. In fact, for someone who so loved the intellectual intricacies of philosophy, mom flinched at anything morally difficult. Deeply non-confrontational in real life, she let her various blind spots carry over into her intellectual life. She didn’t like to follow politics, she told me when I was a child, because “everyone is so nasty.” And while she approved of broad-brush liberal issues—civil rights, the women’s movement—she did not like anything that made her uncomfortable: cruelty, suffering, ugliness, the moral conundrum of otherwise good people behaving badly. The notes I retrieved from her philosophy books, scrawled on bits and pieces of paper, stuck firmly with the epistemological: what is reality, what is the nature of consciousness, how do I fit in with the world?—phrases and questions written out in her neat, even script, connected by endless ellipses. For all our lively highbrow discussions, there were places we just did not go. Politics was one; religion another. My father, raised an Orthodox Jew, was a vehement atheist, and religion was something of a dirty word in our house. My mother seemed to have no strong ties to religion, or faith of any kind, even after my parents divorced and she was free to practice what she liked. But I wonder, now, if the enforced nonbelief of her marriage to my father was a loss for her. She grew up in a loosely observant Jewish tradition, but I never got a sense of whether those habits—which carried through to her first marriage but not her union with my father—were a source of comfort or a burden. Even more, I wonder what, beyond her enjoyment of solipsistic thought puzzles, comprised her inner life. For all our shared talk of art, literature, anthropology, science, and the general nature of the cosmos that sparked in me a deep hunger for knowledge as a child and young adult, I don’t recall our conversations going deep. Nor did Mom and I go to the mats, ever, when we disagreed. I regretted this the moment that possibility disappeared with her cogency—what had I been thinking, not to push her to explain her beliefs, not to help me figure out some of my own intellectual lineage? 3. In his recent family memoir, The House of Twenty Thousand Books (New York Review Books, 2015), journalist and professor Sasha Abramsky draws on a similar process of reading bookshelves—as well as books—as a way in to the heart and mind of his beloved grandfather, Chimen Abramsky. The son and grandson of learned rabbis, Chimen was a renowned collector of modern Judaica and socialist literature—“modern” referring to anything published in the past 500 years—consisting of books, prints, and manuscripts. He eventually amassed an enormous private library that included Karl Marx's handwritten letters, an early edition of The Communist Manifesto annotated by Marx and Friedrich Engels, an early 16th-century Bomberg Bible (one of the first printed Hebrew bibles), and first editions of Baruch Spinoza and René Descartes. The London row house where Chimen lived with his wife, Mimi, was double-shelved, floor to ceiling, with books collected over a lifetime, and after Chimen’s death in 2010, Sasha revisited that collection, room by room and shelf by shelf—to paint a portrait of his grandfather as both scholar and family man, to tell the story of his own lineage, and—with evident discomfort—to try and puzzle out the dissonance of Chimen’s decades-long embrace of communism. Even as he and his family fled the Russian pogroms, and despite the eventual accounting of Joseph Stalin's atrocities, Chimen remained unapologetically loyal to the Party until the late ’50s. Though he regretted this in later life, eventually replacing those affiliations with a liberal humanist circle who satisfied his need for voluble dinnertime debate, that willful blindness on Chimen’s part was a sticking point for Sasha. On reading his grandfather’s 1953 obituary of Stalin in The Jewish Clarion (on microfilm at the University of Sheffield, as Chimen had—in a rare moment of contrition—burned his own originals), he recalls: What I don’t realize going in is just how phenomenally awful it really is, just how much he had bought into the cult of the personality. It leaves me gasping for breath, makes me want to run into a shower and scrub myself clean. This isn’t the sweet old man I loved so much; this isn’t the insightful humanist, so suspicious of even a whiff of totalitarianism and who so prided himself on his friendship with the great liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin. A thoughtful cataloging of his grandfather’s personal history seems to have brought him some small closure. It’s important, too, that he achieved this understanding by way of Chimen’s bookshelves. At the beginning of The House of Twenty Thousand Books, Sasha, writing in his early 40s, recalled: From my early childhood days, Chimen taught me how to interpret the world around me, how to use ideas carefully to create patterns out of chaos. And this, perhaps, is why my somewhat obsessive inventory of my mother’s bookshelves gave me comfort in her final years at home. Even if she was now largely the source of the chaos in my life, once upon a time she taught me well. 4. I siphoned books out of my mother’s library for years. Though mostly with her approval: she had boxed up a wonderful collection of art, design, and photography books during one downsize or another, and she gave them to me once I moved into a house large enough to hold them. Periodically, I’d ask and borrow random items. And in later years I just took stuff. Sometimes after an extra challenging day with her, spiriting a book home would be my reward. Sometimes my ritual gaze would turn covetous, and though there was no reason not to “borrow” whatever I wanted, the thought that I was taking from someone else’s shelves without permission felt vaguely transgressive. Still, the need to console myself was stronger than the taboo; my copy of Jo Ann Beard's Boys of My Youth will be forever linked in my mind with one early morning I had to race up to her apartment when, on one of her aide’s rare days off, mom had locked the replacement caregiver out and called the cops. And yet—once I was alone in her apartment with a stack of boxes, tasked with this move, and her books were all mine to do with as I liked, I knew one thing right away: I didn’t want them. In a different world—maybe a better one—I would have incorporated my mother’s library into my own. Not the crap, of course; not the ARCs, the mass-market potboilers, the bad sci-fi. (I did keep a galley of The Da Vinci Code for novelty’s sake, though I doubt it will ever be worth anything since mom, as she did with all her books, wrote her name in it.) But the lovely old clothbound sets, her collection of Modern Library philosophy, the mid-century novels that epitomized her generation of readers—Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike—could have come home with me. I could have bought more bookshelves and absorbed her eclectic collection into mine in a traditional, intergenerational meeting of minds. But I don’t have much sentiment for tradition, and, more practically, I’m not an aspirational reader. (My shelves and iPad give lie to that statement, of course—I own far more books than I’ll be able to read in a lifetime.) What coheres my own collection, though, is that every one of them is a book I might read. Though abstractly the possibility of reading Spinoza or Descartes or The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire lights a little fire in my heart, as I imagine the smarter, wiser, better-informed person I could become, I’m also a realist. I’m not going to read them. So I packed her books up, going through each with an eye out for personal inscriptions, dollar bills, or the photos she liked to use as bookmarks. I filled about 20 boxes from U-Haul, and dropped them off at her local library, five boxes at a time, as per Friends of the Library instructions. It took my back nearly a month to recover. I did keep a few items: a boxed set of books written by my father, none of which I owned; a lovely oversized book of Käthe Kollwitz drawings, given to mom on her birthday the year I was born and inscribed with extravagant love (“For my liebchen”) by my father; a two-volume set of 1967 Gourmet cookbooks, fat and impractical with cracked leather bindings, full of recipes I can’t imagine wanting to cook, but with a marvelously cringe-inducing ’60s inscription, again from my father: “To Rhoda, Feed me! Happy birthday, with all my love;” a trade paperback copy of Susan Sontag’s On Photography. The rest I let go. I was surprised at how easy it was. 5. My mother’s Tarrytown co-op was no house of 20,000 books, and her 600-odd-volume library had nothing on Chimen Abramsky’s. But they shared the same bloodline. They don’t call us Jews the People of the Book for nothing, and although the label is originally about Judaism’s relationship to the Torah, how for millennia it has been treated as a live text that invites engagement and discourse, there’s also a cultural reverence for books and education that—while not unique to Jews—has been a given for generations of Jewish families. My parents were certainly the product of that loyalty, products of New York public schools who passed through the City College system and eventually met at Columbia. In our family, learning—which is to say reading—meant mobility and access. My mother and Chimen Abramsky both loved those little Everyman’s and Modern Library books, with their egalitarian promises of knowledge for all: as Sasha Abramsky says, “They were books produced for every man, at a moment when it was quietly assumed that people in England of all classes and all walks of life were interested in bettering themselves intellectually.” Substitute Brooklyn or the Bronx for England, and you have my family’s intellectual history encapsulated. Like Abramsky’s, my mother's library was aleatory and curated solely around her interests. While his enthusiasms lay along more scholarly lines, and although he collected around themes—Judaica, Socialism, Marx—there was still, in both their libraries, a deep faith that had nothing to do with organized religion and everything to do with the power of the printed word to elevate, expand, and explain. And, as I am doing now, Sasha Abramsky revisited his grandfather’s library through memory only. Other than a few items that he and family members kept, the rest of his grandfather’s collection was boxed and sent off; not to the local Friends of the Library, of course, but to be appraised and sold. Utility took precedence over sentiment for Chimen’s library, as with my mother’s, and the books went on to a new life with new readers. Someday my son will have to pack up all my books and decide what he wants to keep and what goes to the library sale, if there still is such a thing. I don’t need to make his future job harder just because I like the look of an erudite collection on my shelves, or because I want to try my hand at reading what my mother read to see if that makes me any more able to imagine what she thought. It won’t, because I can’t. It’s enough that she instilled that love of far-ranging, inquisitive reading in me. And maybe someone will pick up that battered set of The Great Philosophers for $5 at the Friends of the Warner Library book sale and it will be their gateway to great thought. Or maybe it will go unread and be packed up, someday, by their children, and the cycle will begin again. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. I am the parent of an avid Marvel fan, and this has led me to serendipitous comic and TV discoveries—which is how I stumbled upon the world of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage. With Luke Cage it was more than just a matter of being in the room when the show was on; I transitioned to interested viewer and took notice of the various ways in which the show was pushing the envelope and tweaking expectations. A big part of that was the thrill of the character Connie Lin. In the portrayal of Connie and Jin Lin, a married couple who own Genghis Connie’s, a Chinese restaurant in Harlem, it was a delight to see Asian-American characters normalized—"SO refreshing to see an Asian character in a Marvel show that isn't a ninja or a gangster or has a thick accent,” as a fan pointed out on Twitter. The Luke Cage-Connie Lin bond in particular stands out, and actress Jade Wu earned a whole new batch of fans with that role. Fame and success may seem like overnight miracles, but perseverance and grit are always at the foundation. Wu has been working in the industry for a long time. Her journey reflects the challenges of being an Asian-American actor—finding any role at all, battling stereotypes, and elevating given roles with nuance and depth. Creative professionals always struggle with finding an audience, but the layers of challenges for people-of-color (POC) actors can be monumental. So it’s particularly exciting to see Wu finding more roles in which her ethnic identity is only one aspect of her character. Her presence on both stage and television raises cautious optimism in those of us looking for more diverse representation across the board. I was delighted to have the opportunity to interview Jade Wu via email and learn more about her personal journey, as well as her insights on the entertainment industry today. Wu’s optimism and enthusiasm for what lies ahead, backed by her willingness to shape the conversation, heartens those of us wondering about the direction of creative spaces. Her journey is a demonstration of how to be clear-eyed toward the road travelled, while focused on moving forward. The Millions: Is there variation in opportunity trends across television, film, and theater? I'm talking specifically about opportunities for people of non-white racial and ethnic backgrounds. Jade Wu: The paradigm has definitely shifted since I entered the industry over 45 years ago. I believe I was the first Asian American to be accepted into a U.S. graduate theatre program, my alma mater being UC San Diego and having theatre icons Alan Schneider, Eric Christmas, and Arthur Wagner as my mentors. I had the training and the student loans but no work. People of color barely existed in the theatre, television, and film landscape. If characters popped onto the screen, they were relegated to heavily accented, broken-English speaking, stereotypical roles as slaves, laundrymen, maids, prostitutes, geishas, or gang members. When television and film burst into everyone’s lives in digital format, production became more cost-effective. People of color had an opportunity to tell stories that no one had heard before. Independent platforms like Sundance nurtured untold stories—simple, poignant and real. Playwrights started writing heritage stories, introducing the world to cultural differences. Then, the stories grew more personal, which put struggles and challenges as universal experiences, despite cultural background. People of color became human, like everyone else. Today, the younger generation of actors and artists have roads paved for them to follow and ride. Most recently, I was mindblown by my friend Justin Chon’s 2017 Sundance Award-winning film, Gook, distributed by Samuel Goldwyn and released nationwide. Justin’s passion for storytelling and filmmaking shines in a raw, real and visceral way that audiences can’t help but be emotionally moved. And, that’s true artistic brilliance. Back in the day, we didn’t have the luxury of such creative freedom. We were too busy scrambling to land any role that dropped in the industry breakdowns. Refreshingly today, television continues to expand its casting diversity. On network television this year, for the first time in my career, I play a recurring non-Asian named character, Judge Cara Bergen, on CBS’s primetime episodic Bull. The character does not have an accent and is in a power position. Progress. The episode has re-aired three more times in the same season, an anomaly in primetime network television. There are some projects that warrant accents, but that should only be used to enhance the story that may require cultural flavor or nuance. Stereotyping is not good storytelling. Good stories are about human flaws, triumphs, struggles, uncontrollable consequences, people. And, sometimes those people have accents. In theatre, we are beginning to see a shift, but the move is slower. The writing is much more challenging, in my opinion. The characters require deeper development. I just workshopped a play that I truly adore, The Betterment Society, written by Mashuq Deen, at the well-reputed Page 73/Yale Summer Residency for Playwrights. All female roles, two are older and living away from society atop a mountain. I have an Appalachian accent. I love it. When we had our reading at workshop’s end, I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room. That is good writing. I feel so grateful to live in the creative world today, to experience its growth and be a part of the opportunities ahead. I may never be cast as Blanche Dubois in a Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire or Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but the door is open for me get an audition for those roles these days, because I’ve decades of dues-paying under my belt. I never would have had that opportunity 45 years ago. TM: It was a pleasure to see the way Luke Cage celebrated Harlem. The cast’s diversity felt integral to the story-telling. Do you find this noteworthy? JW: Cheo Hodari Coker, the show’s creator and showrunner, was intent on Harlem’s world—which is rich in history, gentrification and evolution—to revolve around truth, despite this series swimming in a fantastic superhero universe. Harlem is diverse, so Luke Cage had to live in that world. Because Cheo’s background is also heavily seasoned as an iconic journalist in the Hip Hop arena, all the episodes’ theme songs were written and performed for the show, and the episode’s music score title was also the title of the episode. Diverse casting was also paramount. [This is] brilliant and revolutionary for an episodic series. Cheo is a genius. When I auditioned for the show, I was in Washington, DC, acting in the U.S. premiere of Lucy Kirkland’s West End hit, Chimerica. So, I couldn’t physically show up for the audition and submitted a 53-second self-tape that was sent to L.A. Without a callback and physically sight unseen, I booked the role of Connie Lin. This was a role that could have easily shaped into a stereotype, but I was adamant not to have an accent, and the costume designer, Stephanie Maslansky, dressed me in elite designer dresses, a definite anti-stereotype shift. Connie is powerful, vulnerable, yet real and, most importantly, Luke Cage’s friend—another anti-stereotype of black people and Asians bonding, a truthful reflection of the real world. I could not be more proud and pleased that Cheo chose this direction for the character. TM: We have had the conversation about whitewashing—i.e. white actors being cast to play characters of color—for a while now, and it’s good to see it get more air-play. Do you think the debate has had any significant impact? JW: After Ed Skrein's Twitter announcement about dropping out of the role of Maj. Ben Daimio in Hellboy (a character written specifically as Asian), because it's the "right thing to do," I would say the airplay has finally hit its mark and is exactly the wake-up call for studio decision-makers. I find the whole notion of whitewashing abhorrent. The repertory of high caliber, uber-talented Asian and Asian-American actors can fill an Olympic-sized pool. I never understood the whitewashing concept, which stems from fear—too much of a financial risk for a multi-million dollar project to bank its success on an unknown, unrecognizable actor. I fully embrace financial responsibility, but studios need to be reminded that A-listers were not always A-listers. They started as unknowns and were molded into blockbuster commodities. With Skrein's move, we will see a noticeable tectonic shift in studio casting decisions. To drop out of a major studio project with so much income and notoriety attached is a courageous and honorable move. Bravo to him. I'd rather divert from past studio whitewashing faux pas, which all resulted in box office disasters, and move forward, embrace this new direction and authority in integrity and continue to support "doing what is right." TM: How often have you had to struggle with the dilemma of being offered a stereotypical role? JW: In the span of my career, I've taken the stereotypical roles because that's all that was offered. I have no regrets. Without that experience, I would not have grown as an artist. Humility is a key ingredient to success. Many young actors are so entitled. I think struggle is necessary to appreciate opportunity. What I don't relish are times when I have to confront a struggle that I never expected to happen in 2017. My agent sent me out for a commercial audition a few months ago. A cattle call, meaning there were dozens of people, the usual suspects in the green room awaiting their turn. When I was called into the room, the dialogue was hand-written on a large foam core poster board mounted on an easel. The casting assistant's first question to me was, "Can you read English?" For a minute, I was caught off guard. Instead of visibly reacting, I steadied myself and in a composed response said, "Yes. Can you?" Then, I walked out without auditioning. In that moment, I had to adhere to integrity. Another audition, over a decade ago, was less insulting and somewhat comprehensible. It was for a recurring role on the soap One Life to Live. The character's name was Judith Pinkham. I knew that I certainly didn't look like a Pinkham, so realistically I also knew that I would not be cast. When the casting director asked me to repeat the audition scene, but in an accent, I nodded. I understood what "accent" meant. I did the scene in a Southern accent. I already knew that I wouldn't be cast, so I had nothing to lose, except I probably should not have been so haughty about it. That afternoon, my agent called to tell me I booked the role and ABC was changing the name of the character to Judith Chen. Progress. Though changes have happened, the struggle to play against stereotype continues, but the battle these days is less scarring. TM: You are also a playwright. Tell us about your development as a writer. How do you see your dual roles as writer and actor work in expanding diverse representation? JW: I’ve been writing since I could read. In my first year of college, I failed English Composition 101. The professor didn’t like my use of words that required dictionary referencing. In other words, my words had too many syllables and she tired of having to look up the definitions, so my writing in her opinion was atrocious and lacked fluidity and structure, which I’m sure it did then. Despite her degrading reaction to my writing, I continued to write. I have an affinity for the bizarre, theatre of the absurd, the avant-garde art movement, being influenced by the plays from Eugène Ionesco and Jean Giraudoux. When I watched 1920’s films The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Un Chien Andalou, I was hooked on expressionist art and the surreal. I’ve since grown out of that genre, but some of my writing still injects some of the surreal world, which isn’t so far-fetched because much of nonfiction tends to be more incredible than fiction. The only writing in my repertoire that includes me as a character or multiple characters is my solo docu-theatre piece, which is still a work-in-progress. The premise is a montage of women whom I’ve had the fortune of knowing and whose lives have the common thread of violent struggles either in war, domestic relationship, or in the one’s own mind. It’s the most difficult piece I’ve ever tackled. In terms of dual role-playing as writer and actor, I shy away from acting in what I write. However, since acting has been my financial mainstay, I’ve had to hone my writing, directing, and producing skills to maintain a part of the industry’s creative pulse. Reinvention is an understatement for an artist. We have to go with the flow without losing integrity, personal and creative. I have written screenplays, television series, made documentary films. I have grown into a Jill-of-all-Trades, which is something that I believe boosts credibility and reputation in this industry. It’s almost a requirement these days to create work as much as act in others’ work. TM: Tell us about one of your favorite experiences as an actor. Does any one play or show stand out as having been a remarkable learning experience? JW: The most memorable theatre experience was playing one of only four female roles, the farmer's wife, in The Public Theatre's Central Park production of Mother Courage and Her Children (adapted by Tony Kushner, directed by George C. Wolfe, scored by Jeanine Tesori, starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline). I nearly wasn't in contention for the role because my mother had had a near fatal fall and emergency surgery for a fractured femur. I had to pass on two audition calls, but The Public Theatre was intent on having me audition for George. When my mother was out of ICU and in rehab, I took a dawn train from MD to NYC, auditioned, and went back immediately after. Being so exhausted, I never imagined my audition would ever be rehearsed and good enough, but I delivered as best I could. This was a lifetime opportunity to play one of the most coveted roles in the theatre world at the time. A few days later, my agent called. I booked the role. When rehearsals began, I savored every second of watching and learning from Meryl. Her dedication, generosity, and passion for acting were beyond imagination. I learned more in a few months of breathing the same air as she than I had in all of graduate school and my career. It's custom to give your cast mates an opening gift or card to launch the spirit of a successful run of a play. What could I possibly give Meryl Streep? I wrote a poem about her struggles, discoveries, and process for each scene in the play, printed it on parchment paper and had it leather bound. With 33 actors in the cast, I was sure my gift would get buried. Then, in act two, as we both sat on the picnic table backstage of the open stage, awaiting our entrances, a raccoon slithered past us. We screeched and laughed aloud. She embraced me, a tear in her eye, and said, "You are a writer. Thank you." I told her I wasn't a writer. She said, "You are. Don't stop writing." We made our entrances and never made mention of that moment again. I continue to be fueled by her support and will always write, until I can't. TM: What insights would you like to share with other artists, Asian Americans in particular? What are the to-do things you’d recommend? JW: In film and theatre, the biggest support comes from butts in seats. Buy tickets. See shows. As many as you can. For film, the first week of box office determines the life or death of movie. For theatre, it's the same. Make friends. Network. Seek mentors. Social media has become the fog horn for announcing and supporting work. Use it. Spread the word. Get butts in seats. As for television, and now this new media distribution stream, again, advice is to spread the word on social media. Entertainment industry marketers follow these posts. It's the best focus group study for major projects. It's intimate and public simultaneously, and free. Start creating your own projects, writing your own stories. With so many distribution channels, the market is hungry for content. Build your team of collaborators with whom you can work well and seamlessly. Join organizations that nurture those skills, i.e. Asian American Film Lab, Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), Asian CineVision (ACV), all Asian American film festivals, etc., and apply for grants to get your work into the creative, recognizable pool. Swim with those with whom you can learn different strokes. Photos via ZSC Entertainment.
This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. Lidia Yuknavitch’s 2011 The Chronology of Water breathed new life into the memoir genre. It won a slew of awards and amassed a loyal following of readers who will forever champion Yuknavitch’s work. Prompted by a dare from author Chuck Palahniuk—"I’m not a big fan of memoir, but if you wrote one, I’d read it"—she wrote a story that had lived in her body for 20 years. Yuknavitch’s memoir delivers fearless prose and lays bare the truths of survival and its many facets. The opening holds nothing back as we learn that her daughter was stillborn. The memoir ends on a note of real, messy ongoing-ness, along with its profound beauty. The reader is assured that Yuknavitch, once a competitive swimmer, is now learning to “live on land,” a small and tender thing. Rhonda Hughes, publisher and editor of Hawthorne Books, said there are myriad reasons why Chronology went viral. “Number one being talent. Lidia’s one the most talented writers I know. How she played with form, language, and theme in The Chronology of Water was compelling. She writes what we want to say and talk about but are often afraid to. Her words burrow under your skin, lodge in your heart.” In addition, the book’s cover, featuring a naked woman’s body in water, with full frontal nipple submerged, kicked up a “boob book” controversy. Booksellers worried about displaying the nudity and that readers, if they did buy it, would not read it on subways, at parks, or in coffee shops. Hughes handled the clash of censorship and commodification by standing strong with Yuknavitch’s vision. "This is not your mother’s memoir" was a truth, not merely a sales slogan. Hughes added a belly band, a charcoal gray “blanket” for buyers wanting to shroud the breast. The author also responded with aplomb in an interview at The Rumpus, and the book’s opening epigraph by Hélène Cixous clarifies the choice: "Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. Write your self. Your body must be heard.: Lidia Yuknavitch is pure corporeal-centric. She herself won’t be shrouded or placed in a box, especially one she fought her way out of. The Millions: At the age of 48, you wrote The Chronology of Water. Earlier works of yours were published, but this book blew the doors open to a larger readership. Why do you think that was? Lidia Yuknavitch: Well, it’s hard to ever know for certain, but I suspect that it had something to do with the way I wrote about my life experiences. I challenged the traditional memoir by breaking down narrative form. I think the fragmented, non-chronological form put something different into readers’ hands. I also experimented with the authority of voice—I broke that down into physical, emotional, intellectual, narrative, and lyric terms. I also suspect that something about telling the truth about one’s failures and mistakes and fuck-ups without then moving to celebratize the self—without saying I transcended anything or became a magical person—I think at least some readers identified with that. The idea that we endure and keeping going rather than transcend and become unicorns. TM: In a creative writing workshop you compiled a “rush of fragments” that prompted Diana Abu-Jaber to say to you, “I think it’s the story of your life, maybe.” What did Diana’s mentioning of “water” being the common thread within your fragments bring up for you? LY: Oh my god it was a HUGE deal. The workshop had not gone very well because I’d placed a string of lyric fragments together and insisted that it was a story—this was before lyric essays had become so very popular. Diana pulled me aside after class and she said that the fragments might be a book. Frankly I went a little numb and just retreated into my own rage and the self-destruction I was involved in at the time. I did publish the story, but I didn’t dare approach something as terrifying as a book project. I wasn’t even an MFA student. I was an English major infiltrating the creative writing classes because I couldn’t help it. But her words came back to me later in life. Right when I needed them. TM: How did the “kaleidoscopic” rhythm of the book, where chapters swim in and out of focus, or as you stated "work like a kaleidoscope—moving in angles and fragments around things," come into being? Were you mirroring how memory and mind play off one another? And was kaleidoscopic navigation intentionally implemented as a thru line in the book, or did it organically develop as you wrote? LY: Definitely the kaleidoscopic form emerged from the creative process of writing. I did not know that form would emerge when I began. But writing COW is where I learned that a writer can FIND the form from the process of writing—a writer can trust the creative process to yield the shape and patterns. I’ve been trusting that idea ever since. I did however know that I was aiming to reflect how it is that memory works. When my father drowned in the ocean he lost his memory of what he did to us. That crisis in representation and in my life (where does one put murderous rage when the abuser has no memory?) sent me into intense study on the topic of memory at the level of neuroscience and biochemistry. The book is shaped in the kinds of retinal flashes and layerings and synaptic firings of an actual brain. Each reader “resolves” that on their own terms. TM: In an online interview you mentioned “You could probably go through this book and literally chart the moments of emotional intensity by watching where the language—to quote Dickinson—goes strange." How did you develop the trust in “Dickinson-goes strange” language to exist without tampering with it? LY: I started out strange on the page, so that wasn’t very difficult. My difficulty was writing a straight story. A traditional story. Which I did learn eventually. But by the time I wrote COW, I was old enough to see my own practice, my own creative vision and process. So you might say I had something like a “now or never” moment. There simply weren’t any reasons left to hold back. The desire to tell outweighed the fear of telling. Also Chuck Palahniuk dared me. In a parking lot. True story. TM: Is there anything specific that you recall in the editing process with Rhonda Hughes? LY: Rhonda (the great and wonderful) Hughes literally came up with the order of the fragments. She ordered them on the floor of her house. To be honest, especially then, I would never have put them in the order that they are in now. I couldn’t see that. So without Rhonda Hughes, I’d have a pile of mess. Like my life. TM: Sexual abuse by your father is brought up in the opening chapter: "the day my father first touched me." Then it exists within its absence, returning in a chapter towards the end of the book in a scene with your third husband and life partner Andy Mingo. "My father was abusive." When asked what he did to you, "Sexual" says everything we need to know. How did you determine that not detailing specific acts was the best choice for this book? LY: Although I do not believe this is always the best writing strategy with traumatic material, in my specific case there was more energy in letting different narrative modes carry the intense content. Sometimes when you write directly at content or action it flattens it or overdramatizes it. Not always, but sometimes. Or too much pathos dulls and weighs down your page. Think of the way poetry works on us—distilling intense and enormous experiences into poetic language, image, repetitions, accumulation of meanings. Too, I knew that if I could get a reader to feel the truth in their body while they were reading, whether or not the explicit detail was on the page didn’t matter. I was speaking body to body. Because there are legions of us. TM: Each of your books tackles language in completely different ways. Is there something you’re looking to discover in language and narrative that can only happen when it’s unearthed from a new and unfamiliar origin? LY: YES! [Laughs.] For me it’s like jumping into the ocean or into space. Pretty much exactly like jumping into the ocean or space. Like giving over to matter and energy and signification. I will never tire of swimming inside language, or drawing or painting for that matter. I will never tire of entering artistic practice. I wish I could stay there. TM: The Chronology of Water is broken into five sections: "Holding Breath," "Under Blue," "The Wet," "Resuscitations," and "The Other Side of Drowning." For me, these sections represent crucial poetic placeholders. How early on in the process did you establish them? Can you briefly describe what each of each of them means to you? LY: They are my alternative to the so-called hero’s journey. They are my understanding that life and death, creation and destruction, beginnings and endings are always moving inside one another, and not in some line. I learned that the day I held my lifeless daughter in my arms the day she was born. TM: COW was originally published as a short story in The Northwest Review. How does that differ from the book published by Hawthorne? LY: Well you can find the sediments of the short story in the memoir. In fact, you can find the sediments of all of my short stories inside the books I have gone on to write. So I’d say that’s the key, and I teach about this too: we are always working with narrative and poetic sediments. On the page and in life. Reaching for forms. TM: Your interview with Rhonda Hughes at the end of the book felt necessary, as in completing and giving closure to the book. Hughes shared: COW was breaking the usual memoir format. I wanted to address some of the things I felt readers would want to better understand after finishing the book. There were also questions and a discussion I wanted to personally have with Lidia after I read COW, so I thought if I wanted to know the answers to the questions I asked, so would other people. Working with Lidia on COW was one of my most treasured experiences as a publisher and an editor. It was the collaboration of extraordinary measure. [Note: This is the only interview that Hughes has ever done with an author in Hawthorne’s entire catalog.] How do you feel this interview served COW? LY: Holy oceans, I count collaboration with Rhonda Hughes as one of the most important experiences of my life. What you want is an editor who is dying to go with you into your material, to ride the waves, to dive down or kick up, to swim the waters of your imagination. The interview was a chance to show readers that no book happens without collaboration. All books take many mammals and I count my lucky stars I crossed stardust paths with Rhonda. TM: Who championed you on while writing COW? And who was your first reader? LY: Monica Drake, Chelsea Cain, Cheryl Strayed, Chuck Palahniuk, Mary Wysong-Haeri, Suzy Vitello Soule, and Erin Leonard were in the writing group when I wrote COW. Every single one of them helped me to “see.” I will never forget that year for as long as I live. They helped me breathe life back into my life, not just the pages. And yes, the Mingo is my first reader, always and forever. TM: Is there a question you wished someone would have asked, but didn’t, about The Chronology of Water? If so, what was it? What would your answer have been? LY: I wish someone would have asked me what alternative sexualities I was scratching at as I made my way through those body stories. I think that we have very many more sexualities than we’ve discovered so far. Whole planets. TM: Were there advantages to entering the publishing world in your 40s instead of 20s? LY: Holy mother of oceans, yes. Although it’s not true. I entered the publishing world in my 20s. I’ve been working my ass off for 30 years. I mention that because I see the creative labor of women disappeared too often in discussion of their work. We put our whole lives into making art. Our bodies. But I’d still say that there are major advantages to writing in my 40s (and now 50s…I turn 54 in June!). My hunger is toward evolving my own vision, and not toward being liked or accepted or getting attention or fame, for one thing. That’s huge. My hunger. I have whole worlds to create. I don’t have time for the fragmented and displaced energies of youth. You couldn’t pay me money to go back. Youth is good for intense experience, unflinching exploration and discovery, beginning your creative path, learning how to step into your own intelligence and creativity from the whirling chaos and the intensity of emotions. TM: Your upcoming TED Talk book, The Misfit's Manifesto, is soon to be on shelves. Did you approach this book in a different way? LY: Completely. There was a topic or a theme ahead of time. I decided immediately nothing would be more repugnant than having to read me going on and on and on about a topic for that many pages, so I did what had to be done: I multiplied voices and mammalian bodies. Now it’s us. We are the rest of you, reader. The perfect complement to The Chronology of Water is Lidia Yuknavitch’s TED Talk, "The Beauty of Being a Misfit"—ranked as one of the top ten TED Talks of 2016.
This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. Cole Lavalais’s debut novel, Summer of the Cicadas, had me from page one; more accurately, page two. “She sharpened Cecilia’s preferred poultry knife until the mildest touch to its edge yielded a perfectly formed line of blood across her fingertip. The bathtub sat half filled with water.” What follows is a scene both graphic and spare, alarming and lucid. There is something awfully familiar about this opening scene, and yet somehow I knew I was about to read something I’d never read before, enter a world and encounter a character I needed to understand better. “Vi wasn’t a Carver, couldn’t care less about the interworkings of her high school or the leagues of Ivy that would follow. The only thing Vi cared about was Cecilia ..." Cecilia is Vi’s mother. Vi and Cecilia are very close -- in some ways troublingly close -- and yet deep secrets and misunderstandings separate them. Now, miles will also separate them as Vi -- who survives the first pages both scarred and reborn -- leaves her home in Chicago for college at Florida’s A&M, an historically black university. Writes Danielle Evans: “Cole Lavalais brings Viola’s journey to us with her gift for language that is at once sharp and soothing, asking from the very first page that we not look away from what hurts, and that we not stop asking what might heal it.” It’s one thing to “ask” the reader to not look away, it’s another to captivate us -- intellectually, emotionally, even physically -- with said gifts. Lavalais’s rich, concise, confident writing mesmerizes; and Vi’s inner world of truthful confusion and yearning, as she seeks to understand her mother’s trauma and her own emotional and historical untetheredness, seizes us wholly with its intelligence and honesty. As Lavalais drops the reader into the world of A&M, our immersion in Vi’s perspective becomes our lifeline. The Millions: I was so immersed in your prose style -- the voice of the novel -- which I would describe as “propulsive” -- compressed and staccato, while also densely imagistic and at times lyrical. For example, right from the beginning: The air in Tallahassee didn’t move. In Chicago she’d fought to stay on her feet. Lake Michigan’s winds blew hardest through the South Side, pushing one way and then the other, rendering movement agentless. But in this new place, nothing pushed. . . In this new place she would either be self-propelled or static. Her limbs chopped through the thickness like a toddler on new legs. Can you talk about literary influences that may have shaped or inspired this narrative voice? Who have you been reading throughout your formal literary education, and before that? Cole Lavalais: The first piece of literature I can remember reading is James Weldon Johnson's The Creation. The memorization and recitation of the poem was an integral part of my mother's Southern education, so it became a part of mine. I'm not sure how old I was, but I had to memorize and recite it for my mother. The poem was in an anthology called Black Voices, which was chock full of poetry, short stories, and essays by all sorts of black writers, so it really was my first lesson in the depth of black literature, and I instantly fell in love with Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks’s love letters to the black community. One of my favorite fiction writers is Gloria Naylor. Her novel Mama Day changed the way I read. The way she rendered multiple points of view, magical realism, and setting as character was genius to me. I would return to it time and time again, and always, always, the narrative would extend a new and glorious gift to me as both reader and writer. So very early on in my writing journey, I did my best to emulate her, even though I didn't completely understand how and why she made the choices she did. At some point while I was working on my M.F.A. at Chicago State University, my mentor and teacher, Sandra Jackson-Opoku, encouraged me to work to separate my own voice from my influence. I was finally able to do that, years later, while working on Summer of the Cicadas. My voice really was honed out of frustration in my Ph.D. writing workshops. I didn't feel heard, so I stopped needing to be heard, and thus was able to discover my own voice. TM: Can you say a little more about the nature of that frustration with those writing workshops? CL: You may have heard of night blindness. It's an inability to see in darkness or at night. Those workshops were night blind. Anything featuring black people, they reacted as if they needed a seeing-eye dog or special guide to walk them through it. It was really frustrating and tiring. The things I needed them to focus on -- plot, point of view, setting -- you know, the elements of fiction -- came second to their need to know about the "type" of people I was writing about, or the "type" of place. They refused to let themselves enter the particular "fictive dream" I was creating because they were unfamiliar with the surroundings. TM: You founded the Chicago Writers Studio: what do they do differently/better than the workshops you’d participated in previously? CL: The Chicago Writers Studio is dedicated to helping a writer fulfill his or her intention, not the instructor's. My job as a writing teacher is to help writers tell the stories they want to tell, not to censor those stories. No experience is treated as foreign or anthropologized. That doesn't mean we don't challenge writers to move past stereotypes and cliché. Those types of shortcuts don't get you closer to your intention; they move you further away. What it means is that we don't question use of another language because it's not English, and we don't demand explanation for cultural references. I tell my workshops if you don't need mashed potatoes and gravy explained, then don't ask for an explanation of eloté. Google is your friend. Use it and keep reading the story. TM: A central thematic and existential idea in Summer of the Cicadas is legacy. Your protagonist -- an African-American college student named Vi who was raised by a single mother -- is propelled by the question, Where do I come from? Who are my people? This question has been explored in stories about African-Americans before, but often in a white-America context, i.e. the legacy of fractured lineage via forced migration and slavery. Tell us about the decision to explore the people/no-people divide within an African-American context, via the varied backgrounds of students at an historically black university. CL: It really grew out of my tendency to explore the mother/daughter trope. It took me a while to realize how much of my work circled this relationship and the idea of a daughter's obligation to her mother. And I guess I just took that idea and worked the metaphor for all it was worth. At the center of it, that is what privileging history is, this belief that we owe the past something. Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it, but in reality, the jury is still out that knowing actually stops anything. And as a fan of Freud, I'm also really interested in repressed memories, why we repress memories, and our society's insistence on uncovering everything. And the HBCU just becomes the perfect lab to experiment in. History is like a God in African-American Studies and the HBCU. What the African-American people were before our "erasure" by the Middle Passage and everything that came after sits at the center of educated blackness. TM: What did you, personally, discover in the process of exploring head-on this question of whether knowing your history changes anything/prevents repeated mistakes? CL: I discovered that it is all very complicated, and there are strong arguments to be made on both sides, and it depends on the particular situation and particular person. I do believe that there is a reason that memories fade and stories are lost. It's difficult to move forward if we carry every pain and microaggression forward with us, and for black people in America that pain is massive. Sometimes forgetting is the greatest act of self-care, but forgetting can also be the greatest act of self-destruction. So it's all very complicated. TM: Without giving too much away (and hopefully to create some intrigue and suspense for readers)...Vi’s search for a resolved, more whole sense of self via her history does not yield what she thought or hoped. And at the end, the reader learns something that Vi never does -- a sort of “key” to her search’s misguidedness. Tell us about your decision to reveal historical reality to the reader, but not to the character. CL: I struggled with adding the historical information. Part of me felt as if the audience should be left in the same position as Vi and feel the same sense of fragmented knowledge, but I also know the novel is a very specific art form, and it seemed "coy" to deny the audience that small bit of information, especially in my debut novel. TM: A related question -- you do not at all “explain” the culture of an HBCU school, and the non-black reader has the sense of being a sort of voyeur and an outsider. An example is the slave auction event: this seems to be a tradition at the college, with a deep and complex history, to which the non-black reader is not privy; and so it feels both intriguing and unsettling to witness it. How much, if at all, did you think about audience as you wrote? CL: It's funny that you chose that scene, because I believe auctioning off eligible bachelors is something I've seen dozens of times on white television shows, but when the bachelors are black, it changes everything. Everything. And I had fun exploring the intersectionality of what most would see as a harmless and fun charity auction if the bachelor were white. In terms of audience, there is no universal black audience, so I just tried to leave enough room for anyone to climb into the experience and get next to Vi, if they are willing; but I refused to Other Vi or any of the other characters. I wanted to make sure the audience would have to do the work to get to know her, not the other way around. TM: Can you say a little more, then, about audience-consciousness while writing? In recognizing there is no “universal black audience,” pre-empting what you call “Othering” a character, and being aware of the work the reader must be willing to do, there does seem to be some idea(s) of potential audience at work for you. What does it mean to write for “everyone?” And have you received any interesting/surprising feedback from readers? CL: In terms of audience consciousness, I guess I can go back to my graduate workshop experience. It made me resolute and steadfast in my vision. I was conscious of audience in the sense that I ignored them. I wrote from the position of an insider to an insider, but I think that's what most white writers do, and it's never questioned. Does Hawthorne explain? Does Twain explain? Does Poe explain? Nope, but that's the invisibility of whiteness. For me blackness is invisible. I don't see stereotypes. I see people. I present a world, an experience. It's up to the audience, be they black, white, or brown to allow themselves to enter or not. TM: In the acknowledgments, you refer to “Vi’s story in many of its incarnations.” Can you share with us what some of those incarnations were? What were your greatest challenges in telling Vi’s story? And related to that, how long did Summer of the Cicadas take you to write? CL: Because I was working, had a family, and was in graduate school, there were long periods of time when I didn't get a chance to work on Summer. I finished the first draft in about a year, then I went to graduate school, and realized it needed some work, so I finished another draft or two while working on my Masters. Then I finished another draft while working on my doctorate, so from first to final draft it was probably 10 years. Because I was forced by life to take so many long breaks between drafts, each time I returned to the novel, I had grown as a writer, and it was almost like beginning again each time. TM: Are you working on another novel? Is the process similar, or are you able to work more consistently this time around? If the latter, is that a better way of working in terms of character development and revision? CL: I prefer consistency because I'm always growing and changing as a writer, and for a novel I believe a consistency of vision is important. I am currently working on a novel and two short story collections. It's much better for me to completely immerse myself in the world I'm revealing. Right now, I'm prewriting. I'm thinking about structure and plot and backstory. I'll be taking a couple months off this winter to start writing the first draft of the novel. TM: I would guess you work with a lot of young writers. Do you have any thoughts about what it meant for you to debut after the age of 40, versus what it might have looked like to launch a book-length work into the world, say, 10 years earlier? CL: I actually have more over-40 writing students than under-40. Actually most of my students are over 50, and it doesn't surprise me at all. I never really thought of my age as a defining factor in my writing, and I hope others don't either. I wrote a book when I was ready and published it when it was ready. My age was not a factor. I have an aunt who just self-published her first book, and she is a woman of a certain age. I'm not sure who decided 30 to 40 was the prime time to write or publish your first book, but it's all bullshit. TM: There are so many battles to fight right now since Trump took office. Or, perhaps there aren’t any more than there were previously, it’s just that now they’re more visible and polarized? Do you feel any more, or less, devoted to novel-writing given the time, focus, and energy they require to write? CL: I'm a big believer in the old adage "If you stay ready, you don't have to get ready." Constant access to news and social media makes us reactive to each new battle and distracts from the war. There is nothing happening that hasn't been happening for centuries. Find your lane and figure out how to integrate your talents and access every day. Don't be distracted. I'm focused on writing and teaching. It's what I have to give. It's what I'm best at. With every word I write and every would-be writer that I'm able to encourage or strengthen, I'm changing the world.
This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. Confession: I have not marched. Not in any one of the massive protests the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration; not at Kennedy Airport the weekend the executive order banning entry to travelers and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries was announced; nor in the “I Am a Muslim Too” rally, three weeks later. Not in one of the Not My President’s Day rallies. I don’t own a pink pussy hat. Which is not to say I’m aligned, in any way, with the actions of the current administration. I’ve called my representatives, given to ACLU and Planned Parenthood, and as a member of the media -- writing about and advocating for libraries, a progressive and free-thinking American institution -- I’m well situated in the enemy-of-the-state camp. I would rather work for the cause than march for it. Why? For starters, I don’t much like crowds -- never mind that I’m a New Yorker who rides the subways. But mainly I think I’m a good 10 years too young to have truly internalized the power of protests. As liberal as they were, my parents believed that children and politics shouldn’t mix, so very little of the '60s and '70s spirit of resistance seeped into my consciousness. And the demonstrations I do remember -- No Nukes in 1979, 1995’s Million Man March, the endless demonstrations against the Iraq War in 2002 and 2003 -- never translated into real change, and thus tamped down in me some basic belief in the ability of collective anger to move the needle. Yes, I know, there’s reverberative power in action that isn’t always immediate or obvious. But I’m sorry, 2017 makes Occupy Wall Street look like a practical joke on idealists everywhere. I don’t think of myself as jaded. But my outrage has not moved my feet this year. Instead, I think about the protest movements that preceded me: for women’s suffrage, women’s reproductive rights, labor laws, civil rights. What was it about them that had the power to change policy, to change the world? 2. March 25 will mark the 106th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, where 146 garment workers -- most of them recent Jewish and Italian immigrants aged 16 to 23, some as young as 14 -- were killed in a fire that swept through the eighth, ninth, and 10th floors of a Greenwich Village factory. Most of the labor and safety laws we think of as humane and sensible didn’t exist: the exit and stairwell doors were locked to keep workers from stealing or taking unauthorized bathroom breaks, there were no sprinklers, and the single fire escape collapsed mid-fire, killing 20 workers. New York fire truck ladders only reached the sixth floor. Sixty-two of the dead jumped or fell from the windows. Although union rallies and labor law protests had been in full swing since the 19th century, the horror of the Triangle fire fueled a new level of outrage in the fight for unions and better working conditions, as well as building-safety laws and women’s suffrage. (The company’s owners, who both survived the fire by escaping to the roof, were indicted on charges of first- and second-degree manslaughter but eventually acquitted; they were, however, found liable of wrongful death during a 1913 civil suit.) Little was written on the fire until Leon Stein's 1962 account The Triangle Fire; then came a handful of young adult and children’s books in the 1970s. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 21st century -- in the aftermath of yet another New York tragedy that galvanized the nation -- that the Triangle fire took its place in the literary consciousness. Alice Hoffman, Stephen King, and Robert Pinsky have used the fire as an element in novels, short stories, and poems, and Katharine Weber’s novel Triangle weaves the story of the fire’s last living survivor with the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. 3. Now Delia Bell Robinson, a Vermont-based artist, has written and illustrated A Shirtwaist Story (Fomite Press), the story of a slightly more unexpected reverberation. She tells of her friendship with “Peter,” the grandson of one of the factory’s owners, and the family legacy of silence and guilt sprung from the disaster. Robinson also addresses the fire itself, but obliquely, with somber-toned, haunting paintings of immigrants and workers interspersed with colorful illustrations of Peter’s life that would not be out of place in a storybook. In fact, Robinson says, the initial paintings about Peter were done directly on the pages of a children’s book she found in a library discard pile. She began writing his story when the two first met in the 1990s, in Montpelier, Vt., and she was drawn to his tales of growing up a “poor little rich boy” on New York’s Upper East Side -- undergoing surgery as a baby while his parents vacationed in Cape Cod, riding his bike in Central Park, touring Europe with his family. “It was like living in a clever play,” writes Robinson, “lots of smart repartee and some mild clawing for social ascendancy.” In 2001 Robinson walked into her local café and found Peter there, looking bereft. As she tells it: “What’s wrong with you?” I asked. “The last survivor of the shirtwaist fire just died.” “Yes, I heard that on the radio,” I said, “It is sad, but why does that make you so much sadder than everyone else?” “Because my grandfather owned the factory.” Suddenly all my little cartoons were reduced to trivia. The story of the final survivor’s death had been in the news and was already on Robinson’s mind. His admission left her with no doubt that she wanted to tell not only Peter’s story, but that of the fire as well. She began reading up on the event; what emerged was a book’s worth of sumptuous, haunting paintings. “Hours of historical research had resulted in pages and pages of information, yet I didn’t want this to be a book filled with warmed-over facts,” Robinson says. "If I stripped the information down, it read like bad haiku. So how to present it all? I needed a new way to retell an already much-discussed history. Ultimately, I discarded my collected information, replacing facts with paintings." Robinson’s paintings of the people, cityscapes, and factory scenes, many of them black-and-white, are dark and affecting. The artist’s hand is present throughout, in her use of layering and collage -- paint and graphite over type, postcards, photo emulsion transfers, and newsprint, with her own paper-clipped notes making appearances. While illustrators usually work larger than the eventual reproduction size in order to tighten the artwork and hide flaws, Robinson purposely reversed the equation, working on three-by-four-inch to eight-by-11-inch paper “I wanted pen scratches, hesitation lines, brush marks, dirt, and paper fibers to intensify the atmosphere in each drawing. I therefore made small paintings on much rubbed and scrubbed paper,” she explains. “When done, they were enlarged and cropped to my satisfaction so every twist and turn of the pen or brush became heightened, bringing the character of each work forward.” The result is a series of complex images appropriate to a complex story; in the closing sequence of portraits, the victims gaze out from the pages steadily, neither accusing nor letting us off the hook. “Who was responsible?” writes Robinson. “The New York City Buildings Department passed the blame to the State Labor Commission, the fire inspectors, the fire department, the fire marshals, the owners, and finally to no one.” 4. “Our mother believed that children should grow like weeds,” says Robinson of her wildly creative -- and only sporadically supervised -- childhood. "She disapproved of interference or anything shaping creative impulses. In addition she was an Adele Davis food faddist, so delicious food was off the menu. Our beds were as hard as rocks and we were not allowed pillows. This regime would result in true individuality; young Titans with straight backs, healthy bodies, and unique opinions." Although she has painted, drawn, and sculpted all her life (in addition to a nursing career “to live and pay for paint”), Robinson kept her writing, other than essays for Ceramics Monthly, to herself. Her fiction, as she describes it, was not “polished or literary,” but the characters “were present as invisible friends for me during long Vermont winters and years of child rearing.” A Shirtwaist Story, published when Robinson was 71, is her debut book. She had not originally intended to make Peter’s story public -- “Relaying a true story with painful elements and balancing it against a desire to cause no harm is tricky.” -- and although he had no problem with her drawing his childhood story for her own purposes, she understood his need for privacy. When a publisher expressed interest in the manuscript she approached Peter, who “turned away and changed the subject.” But when his mother died a few years later, he guardedly told Robinson that he had changed his mind, and that the whole story should be told. Robinson worked with Fomite Press’s husband-and-wife team of Marc Estrin and Donna Bister to refine A Shirtwaist Story, which she described as originally “a Siamese twin of a book, one topic but two bodies of dissimilar work.” They encouraged her to blend the two time frames, keeping the original tone and texture of each, and approved of her wishes to include the painted-over text of the original library book. Keeping “all the blots, scribbles, and fragments of letters I’d heaped on [the pages]” made for extra work, she added, but Bister and Estrin never complained. 5. Indeed, the fire has affected many more lives than the 146 lost, or the factory owners, or any of their survivors. Anyone who has escaped an apartment building via the fire stairs, or who stood up and took a union-mandated break during their workday, owes at least a part of that legislation to the Triangle fire. But what is it about that fire, or the women who turned out for suffrage two years later, or the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the Selma to Montgomery marches two years after that, that mustered the strength of enough individuals to ultimately change the world? And what is it about an event like the Triangle fire -- so small in the context of today’s numbers -- that still keeps its memory so close to the surface of our national anger? Was the world simply a smaller place then? In a way, yes. “Before the fire, it was generally accepted that ‘the business of America is business.’ Politicians, government -- they were all about helping business prosper,” posits Triangle author Weber (a Bloomer herself, having published her first novel at 39). “The horror of the fire…was maybe the first time there was a feeling that government should ‘do something’ to protect the worker. Laws had not been broken, you know -- the building codes, the safety codes -- nothing at all was a violation -- because nothing was necessary to protect the worker, only profits.” The fire also dovetailed with the beginnings of the women’s movement -- 123 of the victims were women or girls -- and the immigrant narrative was taking on an important life of its own in the national story. “I think everyone was galvanized by the sense of the tragic broken promise that had been made to those immigrants who had accepted the Emma Lazarus welcome and were living their American dream,” said Weber. The fire “woke” people -- including Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945 and the first woman ever appointed to the U.S. Cabinet. She witnessed the fire and saw the workers jumping, Weber noted, and became a lifelong advocate for labor and women’s rights. Perkins was a wealthy woman who was galvanized to make the concerns of the poor her own, loudly and vociferously -- a role filled these days primarily on the back end, by foundations and celebrities, who can let their money do the marching. But where is the one percent who will roll up their sleeves and do the work at hand? Perhaps it is only fitting that the fire should be on our minds, then, as the new administration’s infringements on the rights of immigrants, workers, women, and the poor manifest themselves daily. Marching is good, but so is work -- the process of dredging up what is strong and raw in our collective outrage: writing editorials, lobbying elected officials, calling out untruths where we find them, making a sound where we can be heard. Solidarity is good and valuable, but it is only one step in the process. And that process is something I have not lost faith in -- nor, fortunately, have the many artists working everywhere to make sure that we don’t forget why we are, and should be, angry. For more on Delia Bell Robinson, check out this Q&A over at Bloom. All illustrations © Delia Bell Robinson
This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. Saara Myrene Raappana grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, served as a Peace Corps volunteer in China, and now lives in western Minnesota where she teaches and is the communications director for MotionPoems. Athena Kildegaard: How did you come to writing poetry? What is your genesis story? Saara Myrene Raappana: I like this idea of a genesis story. I’d like to organize the genesis of me writing poetry into a story. Let’s say that in the beginning there was probably just church -- my father’s a Lutheran pastor, so there was a lot of church, which is really just a lot of people reciting or singing the same poems every week, so I think that meter and anaphora and apostrophe and all that stuff just got rutted into my brain. I don’t remember ever not writing poetry, and maybe that’s why. I also read a LOT. I had no discipline (like, people think that I’m just being modest, but I’m actually showing my younger self quite a bit of generosity), and wasn’t huge on school, and the further I got in secondary school the worse I did, but I always read, and I always wrote. And I think all the kinds of writing teach you to write all the kinds of writing. Same with reading. But to return to the conceit. And in my 18th year, I drove to the local university extension and gave them $200 so I could take classes, for I had neglected to apply to college. And I said: let me not study poetry exclusively, for it is impractical. Let me additionally study things marginally less impractical (human development and literature) while devoting time to what’s almost as impractical. And there were punk rock shows, and experimental noise performances in basements and weird indie magazines and a lot of brightly colored hats. And I heard that it was loud. And there was evening and there was bar time -- a second phase. And I said: let me abandon a lifestyle of watching men play instruments with violent, enviable abandon. And I went to grad school and continued to flail around, undisciplined, and then I found myself with a degree. And there was graduation and reading reading reading reading writing writing reading writing. And I saw that it was better. And there was reading and writing and rejection and acceptance and books and books -- a new phase. AK: You grew up in Upper Peninsula Michigan. I’ve always thought of the UP as being similar in some ways to Maine: a place full of hardscrabble storytellers with their own regional twang. Has the UP voice made its way into your poetic voice and if so, how? SMR: Well, yes, but not necessarily in a dialectish sense. I do have some poems where the voice -- meaning phrases or names or syntax that’s particular to the UP -- appears, but the voice of the UP that appears in probably all of my work is, to play on your word, a voice that’s both hardscrabble and gentlescrabble. By which I mean that the UP is difficult -- physically difficult, especially if snow and ice aren’t your jam -- but also that it’s beset by poverty and isolation and the garbage and spindly, empty, unused buildings and xenophobic ideas that tend to flourish in places like that. But it’s also beautiful -- like, inspirational poster/Pinterest board beautiful; I mean, mind-searing, art-defying beautiful -- both physically and in its crazy history and in the very particular, unique cultures (and languages and traditions and economies) that flourish there, in part because of their isolation. I grew up taking the beauty for granted and dreaming of living elsewhere, and I’ve left and lived all over, and now of course I often ache for the landscape and those unique particulars, and they’re in everything I write. Plus, I believe in writing complicated, difficult, highfalutin' poems, but I want them to be accessible -- I always ask myself if my grandparents (who were smart and valued reading but weren’t educated; they were miners and trappers and construction workers and housewives and maids) would be able to appreciate my poems, and if the answer is no, I revise. I believe in beautiful, demanding, democratic poetry, and that’s Yooper as hell. AK: Your first book is the chapbook Milk Tooth, Levee, Fever. Sometimes first books are the result of many year’s work. Is this true of yours? How did it come into being? Why start with a chapbook? Would you recommend this to other writers? SMR: Yes? I guess -- especially if you consider that I did all that wandering around in the '90s and '00s, and those years are very much in the poems. One of the poems is actually a radical revision of a poem I wrote in grad school and two or three others I drafted for the first time soon after I graduated. For years, I didn’t even consider putting together a chapbook. I’d always seen them as self-published and less-than, but either I was wrong or they’ve gotten much fancier -- I’m not sure which. Probably both. But putting together both chapbooks taught me a lot about what differentiates a manuscript from a bunch of poems. Milk Tooth, Levee, Fever happened in one way -- I had a bunch of poems and realized that they fit together—and A Story of America Goes Walking was a series of poems written as a project, and each process was extremely instructive. So in that sense, yes, I would recommend starting with a chapbook if you’re having trouble manuscripting. The smallness of it made it feel manageable to me in a way that a full manuscript didn’t. AK: What do you think that first book announced to the world? SMR: My understanding of that is limited and evolving, but I hope that it announced that I’m for the usefulness that can be found in what’s broken. I’ll stand for that any day. AK: You use form sometimes. For example, “Winter Correspondence,” is a ghazal. Why are you attracted to forms? How does a poem take on a form in your experience -- do you start out knowing you’ll write in a particular form or does the form reveal itself? If the latter, is this surprising to you? SMR: At this point, I start probably 90 percent of my poems in form -- if not in a specific received form, at the very least in meter and rhyme. It most often falls away in revision (or I move the lines around to hide it because I’m a weirdo like that), but I do love writing in received forms. I’m attracted to the way that they limit the field -- without form, I have hundreds of thousands of words to choose from, and I don’t want the burden of that much freedom. I also love the way that writing in form connects me to other poets and the traditions of poetry. And I love the way that a finished line in a received form -- or a line of free verse that’s still very formy -- absolutely must be the line that it is. You can’t move the break or rephrase or remove words. Form reveals poems for the machines that they are. As for how I start, whether I begin with a particular form, it goes both ways. I’ve heard people say that it’s ridiculous to sit down and say “I’m going to write a sestina now” -- that the poem should reveal its form and or that certain forms are best for certain subjects. And I think that’s true -- for example, I love it when an established rhyme reveals new content; that’s for-reals the dream -- but I’m relatively new to form. I’ve always enjoyed it but didn’t start actively writing in forms until after grad school, so I feel like every time I write in a form I’m learning or relearning it. So sometimes I actually do say “I’m going to write a sestina now,” and then I write a lot of bad sestinas, and those bad sestinas teach me that, for example, sestinas expand where villanelle’s contract, that sestinas tend to want to be about circuitousness or obsession. Or sonnets teach me that pentameter can heighten drama -- things like that. And once I’ve written enough bad versions of a form (and some of those bad poems eventually turn into good poems), that form will start popping up, which is usually a fun surprise. Sometimes, if I can’t get a poem to work, I’ll rewrite it in a few different forms, just to try different solutions. AK: Your beautiful book A Story of America Goes Walking is a collaboration between you and the artist Rebekah Wilkins-Pepiton. How did you find one another? How did the collaboration work? SMR: Bekah and I were in Peace Corps together. She and her husband arrived a year before us and lived maybe an hour’s train ride away. She turned two of my poems into broadsides for Shechem Press’s 2012 and 2014 artist broadside series. She’d done cuts and prints for other books for Schechem Press -- Stephen Behrendt’s Refractions is a beautiful book -- but for those, she wasn’t working with each poem individually. She contacted me and said that she wanted to do a project that was more collaborative -- where each poem interacted with a print and vice versa. She’d been reading Thoreau’s “Walking” essay, and she asked if I’d be interested in working with it. I’m actually not very into Thoreau, but I’m about challenges, so yes! We both read the essay over and over and talked a bit about how Thoreau’s vision of America mirrored or contradicted both present-day America and the way we saw America while living in China. We both placed drafts (do visual artists call them drafts?) in a Dropbox folder. At first, she was creating images to go with my poems, but as things progressed, I was responding to her prints. In one case -- “In the Women’s Hospital” -- I had a draft, and I believed in the poem, but I couldn’t crack its form. Seeing her print of an ant trapped in water blight, I realized that it needed anaphora, and the rest of the poem fell into place. A lot of the process was like that -- every time I got stuck on what to do next, the answer was in her work. AK: You are a founding editor of CellPoems. Tell us about that poetry journal. Has this work influenced your own writing in any way? SMR: It started with one of my grad school colleagues -- he had the idea to start a journal of text-messaged poetry. So we text poems to people (140 characters or less, including the title and the poet’s name) every so often. We used to do it weekly, but our technology and budget haven’t kept up with our subscriber volume, so now it’s an occasional surprise thing. It’s definitely influenced my work -- not that I write tiny poems (though I sometimes do), but spending so much time with a Submittable queue has taught me a lot about the difference between a fine poem and a fantastic poem. I’ve learned to always consider both the craft and the stakes of what I’m writing, because one without the other doesn’t work, and if you have neither I’m just not interested, and I’m not saying that I’ve never written something I wasn’t interested in -- I’m saying I try not to. AK: For people who are not avid readers of poetry, how would you describe the “difference between a fine poem and a fantastic one?” SMR: To some degree, of course, it’s subjective and magical -- some poems just grab you for no reason, and you just slip away from others. Like, for example, for years I just couldn’t understand why people lost their minds over Gerard Manley Hopkins, and then one day I heard “Spring and Fall” on a podcast, and it broke Hopkins open for me, and now he’s one of my go-tos. So some part of it is magic and personal, and I can’t pretend to understand that. But the other part, I think, is something we don’t talk much about, which is the stakes of a poem. The ridic brill poet Anna George Meek told me once that someone had talked to her about how (and this is a paraphrase) you can write a perfectly good poem, a publishable poem, but until you enter the wilderness of the poem, it will not be a great poem. And I think that wilderness is where the ice of the poem starts to ride on its own melting or where the top of the reader’s head gets physically taken off or whichever other well-repeated metaphor everyone uses to refer to this unexplainability that I suspect is totally explainable. I know that it’s a combination of craft and stakes, about what the poem is willing to risk.