Reading Roberto Bolaño’s Final Wake-Up Call

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Before we get too far, I have to be candid: Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is a book from which one must recover. I’m serious. No book since Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian has left me in such a state of utter, cosmic helplessness. So, if you’re here because you’re trying to decide whether or not to read Bolaño’s 900-page opus, I can only say this: it must be read, but no shame to any person who cannot.

And don’t, I would add, read it when you’re sick. I can say this with some confidence because I read it recently when I was sick, parked on the couch while my little kids played and did homeschool at the dining room table, and the dark fingers reaching up from the pages constituted a private hell to which my cheerful family remained utterly oblivious. 2666 is taxing on the best of days, to say nothing of when you’re all body aches and fever.

2666 was Bolaño’s last book—published in 2004 with Natasha Wimmer’s English translation arriving in 2008—and the grandest realization of his bleak, charged vision. The central thrust is necessarily vague, but basically here it is: For a host of reasons, a cast of seemingly unrelated characters—a scholar, a sports reporter, a celebrity detective, and a reclusive writer (along with the three literary critics who are hoping to find him)—have all come to Santa Teresa, a stand-in for Ciudad Juárez, a city haunted by the mysterious murders of hundreds of women. No one knows how or why the women die. They simply turn up in the desert.

Bolaño’s signature conflation of high and low literature has always been underscored by a palpable sense of dread, but in Santa Teresa that dread builds into a haunting wail that billows across the desert and envelopes his characters and readers. For hundreds of pages. Several times, we feel we’re close to an explanation for the crimes but, of course, an explanation never comes. And central to this tormented stasis is the never-explained 666 in 2666.

It is easy to reduce Bolaño’s vision to a familiar apocalyptic trope: everything’s going to hell, everything’s burning up. But to do so is to misread both Bolaño’s book and the purpose of apocalyptic literature, which, most often, was not written to explain the end of the world or reveal prophecy—though in some notable occasions it does just that. Rather, as Flannery O’Connor once said of the grotesque in fiction, apocalyptic literature offers a cartoonish exaggeration to shock the apathetic. Resisting common misreads, apocalyptic literature traditionally serves to describe a spiritual condition or stasis. The title of Bolaño’s novel represents a stasis that has little to do with the year 2666 but everything to do with the century that was dawning at the time of his untimely death. By blotting out the new millennium’s ever-changing numbers (2008, 2027, 2912…) with the placeholder 666, Bolaño hinted at a horrific—and, yes, apocalyptic—continuum descending upon us. One that we are growing accustomed to and, eventually, will fail to notice.

Humanity is entering its prolonged denouement. Will we make it to the year 3000? With the constant news of daily violence and ecological catastrophe, that sometimes seems hard to imagine—certainly this was the case for Bolaño, who cited the 20th century as a possible explanation for 2666’s deconstructed narrative terrain. The unprecedented horrors of World War I and World War II are where we come from, Bolaño suggests, and the tortured earth of Santa Teresa embodies our not-too-distant future: we are asleep at the wheel, coddled in luxury, indifferent and distracted, and we are largely blind to the many ways in which our world, every day, breaks just a little more.

Even the most dedicated readers, wading through the ceaseless violence of “The Part About the Crimes” section of 2666, will grow tired of the descriptions. The horrific rape and murder begin to blur as our brains, struggling to cope, become desensitized. Bolaño intended this. He lulls the reader into blood-spattered apathy. Then, in perhaps the greatest example of his authorial sleight-of-hand, Bolaño describes the investigating police trading chauvinistic jokes while ending their shifts. Immediately, we realize our own apathy. If the police investigating these inhumane acts can make jokes about the victims—and this is what captures our attention as readers, not the continued violence—then what does it say about us? Sure, we find the jokes distasteful, but our own indifference is worse: in our need for comfort, we stopped caring about the murder victims. Bolaño has called us out—and, as long as such horrors exist in the world, each of us remains culpable by extension. In this way, Bolaño bludgeons us awake with a power few writers possess, and the murders become shocking once more.

Again and again, Bolaño grabs us by the scruff of the neck and pushes our heads into the abyss. For Bolaño, the year 2666 is the symbolic culmination of humanity’s neglect and violence, a state of being that has become our modus operandi. Even our best efforts cannot avert the evil bearing down on victims and the apathetic onlookers alike. For that, Bolaño suggests, is where it all starts: at the very spot where we stop paying attention and slip into deadened stasis.

Enemy of the State: A Tribute to Jamal Khashoggi


Sitting on the balcony at the Izmir Palace Hotel in Turkey, gazing at the silvery vista, the sky is beginning to lift after a storm. Blackbirds, seagulls, and pigeons swoop down and bicker over a crust of bread. Peaceful and quiet, fishermen cast out their lines. The occasional passerby strolls down the path, walking a dog.  I feel happy to have escaped the news. But at the same time, I think of the recent brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and wonder if there are any developments in the case. The nature of the murder is a reminder of the courage needed to speak and write freely, especially under an authoritarian regime. Unfortunately, murders of journalists and writers have become commonplace under Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Vladimir Putin of Russia.  They are also reminiscent of the murders of writers and intellectuals under Joseph Stalin. I think of the poet Osip Mandelstam, who was sent to the gulag in Siberia for writing a sardonic poem about Stalin’s “ten thick worms for fingers.” His wife, Nadezhda, preserved much of his work by memorizing his poems—even writing them on paper was too dangerous.

Two novelists who write extensively about surveillance, interrogation, and the power of the authoritarian state are the prominent Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim and the famous Czech writer Milan Kundera. In Ibrahim’s novel The Committee, the narrator is accused of being disloyal to the state and appears before an interrogation committee to clear his name. In his briefcase, he brings “testimonials” that will vouch for his honesty; however, the committee forces him to strip naked and are not interested in denials or testimonials. The goal is humiliation and intimidation, not justice, or any kind of rendering of the truth. The evidence he carries in his briefcase is useless because the verdict is preordained: he is “an enemy of the state.”

In The Committee, the state has a file on the narrator but its contents are mysterious—and the charges against him are also a riddle. He is followed home by a committee member who monitors his every movement and even watches him defecate.  A commentary on the atmosphere during the Nasser era in Egypt, it is suggested that everything in the flat is being recorded.  Seeing the video of Jamal Khashoggi entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and of two henchman joking after the killing, one realizes how sophisticated today’s surveillance methods have become since the 1960s and 1970s. And if we consider the fact that the Turkish government has an audio recording of Khashoggi’s execution within the Saudi Consulate—which President Trump famously refuses to listen to—one might also reflect upon the pernicious nature of paranoia of autocratic governments.

Milan Kundera, like Sonallah Ibrahim, also explores paranoia and surveillance. In his novella Lost Letters from his collection The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, even the most innocent and personal of documents—love letters—threaten to the state. The heroine in Lost Letters, a waitress named Tamina, is desperate to reclaim love letters from her late husband, which she left in her mother-in-law’s flat in Bohemia. Since he was an opposition figure, the love letters are of particular interest to the secret police. Tamina’s brother attempts to reclaim the letters from the flat in Bohemia, but someone has already rifled through the notebooks and papers. Nothing is private in the authoritarian state, even love letters in a forgotten desk.

For Jamal Khashoggi, the most innocuous and benign of documents—the state’s certification that one can marry a national from another country—turned out to be a trap. It is now early March—three months since I was looking off the balcony of the Izmir Palace Hotel at the bay. I wondered what would happen in the case of Jamal Khashoggi. A few weeks ago, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary killings reported that the “brutal and premeditated killing was planned and perpetuated by officials of the state of Saudi Arabia.”  The view out my window in Cairo is not the Izmir Bay, but a pink palace, a villa, home of a music institute—the occasional rare melody from a talented saxophonist floats up to the fourth floor. Too often it is discord: the repetition of the same note on a piano, the people below quarreling over a parking place, or the blaring of car horns. Pen International and Reporters Without Borders campaign tirelessly for writers and reporters who have been imprisoned or whose voices have been muffled by the state. Whatever the price—and the price is often times, dear: exile, alienation, penury, and even death—writers, intellectuals, and journalists are not destined to be slaves or flatterers of any state, democratic or authoritarian.

“I Could Feel the Poverty”

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I’m the ninth reader in a line-up of 10. Famous Writer will be last, naturally. This is the final evening of an intimate week of instruction, workshopping, and study. During the past six days, I’ve schlepped salads and sandwiches and coffee for the aspiring novelists who’ve come to this rural mountain ranch. Famous Writer has a good following—these folks venture from all over the country.

We read in a dark cabin. Candles shimmer along the rough-hewn walls. Cobwebs hang in ashy bunches from the low ceiling. Hay and the musky scent of pioneer lives tangle with modern perfume and toothpaste. Outside, a shawl of brilliant stars covers the night.

A hundred or more years before, other people journeyed without roads or streetlights or a known destination and landed here, deciding this is the spot to hunker and hope.

I came six months before to housesit while the Writer trekked in Asia. I didn’t really know her other than her first book. It’s a strange arrangement—me staying on, her leaving often for writerly, out-in-the-world duties, to see her phenomenal therapist five hours away, or her budding relationship with a man she met at a conference, me staying in her house and with her many dogs.

One night, when she was home, she swept, and a few coins shone in the pile—two pennies, a dime. She dumped them into the trash, and I bit my lip. In my own writing, I was trying to revise a scene about the time when my father had gone into a store to ask if he could buy bread and milk and eggs with the coins in the Folger’s can he palmed. “Get out of here,” the counter man said. “I throw pennies outside for kids.”

A year before, in a workshop, my fellow writers had said the moment wasn’t believable because “we didn’t have that kind of poverty in the United States.”

I wanted to tell them to get out more.

I understood the scene wasn’t working but I felt robbed—I thought my peers were saying my experience—and that of my family—wasn’t real. My writing stalled out, and I spent too much time in the city with a friend, drinking.

Coming here wasn’t a bad thing, but it’s not a clear thing, either. I wanted to return to my novel. Famous Writer and I first met at another conference where I was her classroom assistant, and I made a comment about mashed potatoes that she liked, so she asked me what I was doing next, and so I am here, ninth in a lineup of 10, and I’m going to read the opening of my book.

My chest thunders with nerves, and I try to focus on the other readers, their wispy stories of heartache and affluent troubles, but I bounce between my own work and the way we are laying our narratives onto the people who’d lived here before. The Ute and Navaho and then the miners.

And it’s my turn. I fumble forward, and the candles waver, and it feels like the lives of the pioneer family who lived on this land somehow merge with my own, and I feel the burden of two narratives, tripping my tongue on the first sentences.

But, I slow myself and then, I’m leaning into the story, how the father character leaves the house in a snowstorm, the lights having been turned off, the family oh-so-hungry, and will he find a deer to get them through the night?

Through the roughest of rough patches in their rough lives.

And I feel good when I’m done, and it seems the applause is real. Famous Writer reads from her novel-in-progress, but I’m not in my body. Instead, I watch a candle flit and flicker and wonder how my parents are.

Afterward, one of the skirted, J. Peterman outfitted women enfolds me. She whispers, “It was so good.” She releases me—partially—and while still holding onto my forearms, says, “I could just feel the poverty.”

I nod numbly, fury sweeping through me, and it takes everything not to punch her in the stomach, where the hunger I bet she’s never felt can curdle and scratch, mewl and moan.

I step back, and the clatter of her Santa Fe silver bracelets follows as I move away, to the dark Western night. The tangle of stories and class and the legacy of wealth as stealthy as anything else I may find out here.

Image Credit: Max Pixel.

Remembering My Parents’ Bookshelf

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Who knows how books get on your shelves? They find their places and wait patiently for someone to pick them up. Sometimes they sit untouched for decades, until their owners move out and unload the bookshelf into packing boxes. Recently perusing our bookcase, I happened on Chaplin and Agee: The Untold Story of the Tramp, the Writer, and the Lost Screenplay by John Wranovics and began reading because I like movies and love James Agee. I don’t know how this book came to reside at our house, but it unexpectedly zapped me back in time, back to my parents’ bookshelf, back to when I began loving books. 

Wranovics tells a convoluted story about film critic James Agee’s meeting and becoming friends with Charlie Chaplin, whom Agee revered as an artist. Through Chaplin, Agee also got to meet the director John Huston. The tale eventually leads to Agee’s screenplay for Huston’s renowned film The African Queen. After Agee suffered a heart attack, he was replaced by Peter Viertel. Viertel subsequently wrote an unflattering novel about John Huston called White Hunter, Black Heart

That’s what did it. That title sent me back in time. 

All at once, I’m looking at my parents’ bookcase, circa 1965. I can picture the spine of that book through the glass door, encased in a green paper cover. Sadly, I can’t picture the books on either side of it. Pretty much all of them dated from the same era, when hard-drinking men like John Huston were making movies.  

I wish I’d taken a picture of those book shelves, but who would think of doing that?  They spoke to me of my parents’ lives, their education, and the era which formed them. I can recall some titles, of course. Betty MacDonald’s The Egg and I.  It All Started with Columbus and its sequels by Richard Armour, whose humor tickled my dad. All of these I read at some point.  

Mark Schorer’s biography of Sinclair Lewis, An American Life, was there, and I felt compelled to read it. I consumed books voraciously, and they were there for the taking. I’d acquired several lists from the library and school of classic books “everyone” should read, and I loved checking off those titles. Hence, I had read Lewis’s Babbitt and Main Street, because back then you were supposed to. Lewis had won the Nobel Prize for Literature, after all, but who reads him anymore?  

I even ploughed through my dad’s massive Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, the old muckraker, whom most people now would never have heard of. My dad was a newspaperman, who graduated circa 1933 from Ohio State University with a degree in journalism. One of his friends at the Canton Repository, where he worked, probably gave him this tome as a gift. Did I enjoy these books? Though they don’t interest me now, I think I did enjoy them then. I was accumulating my 10,000 hours of reading practice. Those books were full of words, and I loved reading words. 

The Readers Encyclopedia, a reference book by William Rose Benét, sat on the mantle, readily accessible as my parents pored over the Double-Crostic in the Saturday Review, which arrived in our mailbox every week. I saved that reference and keep it in our office. Now, of course, if we want to know the definition of “alexandrine,” we use the Internet, and Benét collects dust, as does my parents’ old copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. I have a fond memory of my dad patiently instructing me how to use Bartlett’s. If you knew the writer, you could find a name, such as Sidney Smith (1771-1845), in the Index of Authors. If, instead, you recalled a quotation’s key words, you could search the 600-page index at the end. “Furniture,” or “charming” or “”books” would each lead you to Smith’s line “No furniture so charming as books.”  

My dad liked to read, but he disliked high-falutin’ things and was suspicious of eggheads, as he would have called them. He and my mom watched College Bowl (hosted by Allen Ludden, Betty White’s husband) every week and enjoyed competing with the nerdy college kids who appeared there. They also read lots of magazines, like Commonweal and The New Republic. They weren’t intellectuals, because they didn’t regard themselves as intellectuals. But, like other college-educated people back then, they could recite lines from Longfellow and name English monarchs. My mom had read Ivanhoe. They ordered cocktails when they went to restaurants—a martini for my dad and a Manhattan for my mom. I admired their sophistication. 

I used to gaze at that bookcase a lot, and now, in my memory, it stands for my parents. I scavenged a few other books from their shelves, when we cleaned out the house: Thurber Country, Atrocious Puns, and three old Raymond Chandler paperbacks. I don’t wish I’d hung on to more, exactly, but I do yearn for that snapshot, so that I could occasionally request a title from the library. I want to preserve that mid-20th-century sensibility, which I have so much trouble putting into words and which shaped me.  

Like my father’s shaving brush, the bookcase and its contents have vanished. They remain only fragmentarily in my memory, many steps removed from my own kids’ experience. They’re gone, like the Cold War, the ash trays around our living room, our old dog Abbie, and my parents, Martin and Eleanore. But that bookshelf instilled a love of books and reading and writing which remains.

Previously: “In Our Parents’ Bookshelves“, “Reading My Mother’s Mind: On Packing Up a Personal Library

Image: Wikipedia

A Hidden Corner for the Hardcore: The New Yorker’s Summer Flash Fiction Series


The best part about The New Yorker’s summer flash fiction series is that The New Yorker did a summer flash fiction series. The magazine had already published some of my favorites, including Raymond Carver’s “Chef’s House” and George Saunders’s “Adams.” And flash is an awesome genre with a lot of fans, but doesn’t get too much love in big publications.

The worst part about The New Yorker’s summer flash fiction series is that if you blinked you missed it. I happened to see the first installment of the series (“Elevator Pitches” by Jonathan Lethem) by accident on my daily perusal of the homepage, but none of the other stories were featured there during the rest of the summer. So what could have been heightened visibility for the genre became a hidden corner for the hardcore. And I mean hardcore, because “Elevator Pitches” is not even the best story in the series and would certainly not convert a skeptic.

As for the 10 stories themselves, they vary from the anaphoric nostalgia paean (“I Don’t Need Anything from Here” by László Krasznahorkai) to the traditional story in miniature (“The Hairless Are Careless” by Colin Barrett). There are also the surreal plots with escalating twists made famous by Donald Barthelme in The New Yorker of the 1970s (“The Hostage” by Amelia Gray and “The Boss” by Robert Coover are closest in kin.) Others use the popular flash technique of riffing on a subject. It’s somewhat worn out when used more-or-less alone, as in Ed Park’s “The Wife on Ambien,” but is used in to good effect in “Like a Bowl in a China Shop” by Hilary Leichter.

The title “Like a Bowl in a China Shop” is also a line in the story and seems to set up something silly, but the narrator leads the reader through a catalogue of an adult couple’s anniversary gifts. The tone is straightforward, but the gifts are absurd: “Tradition dictates paper for the first anniversary. Brian gathers all their receipts to show his husband, Jeff, how well he has prepared for taxes…The second anniversary is dust, not to be confused with the fortieth anniversary, ashes.” As the years pass, the relationship changes. Friends come and go. Bitterness rises and transforms into something else, much like the story that drew us in with its humor and took us to a larger, deeper place.

In other words, engaging riffing plus full plot arc equals good flash. Of course, there are lots of ways to pull off a good short short story. The series shows many of them, and there are more that have yet to be discovered. Let’s hope The New Yorker continues to feature it. Check out the full series here, and for a bigger sampling of new flash, I recommend the annual magazine NOON.

An Ode to Reading on Public Transit

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It started with The New Yorker. A few years ago, I learned that I could get a discount to the magazine since I was a student, so I subscribed and began tucking each week’s issue into my backpack, underneath my MacBook and a makeup bag. It was a small but crucial pivot; from my third birthday to the end of my senior year, I was a notoriously voracious reader to the point where I’d get in trouble for reading during class. In college, however, things changed: I’d discovered Tumblr three years earlier, but became deeply embroiled in the burgeoning social justice movement that struck across all major social media platforms at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. I was constantly tweeting, constantly blogging, my attention consumed by the allure of instant opining. It all slowly eroded on my attention span until I looked back during my junior year of university and realized: I hadn’t finished a novel in two years.

The New Yorker was the beginning of my homecoming to regular reading. Despite studying English in college, I always thought I didn’t have time to read. Really read. See, I was a working student, scraping together financial aid to cover tuition and buying textbooks out-of-pocket. While my classmates balanced schoolwork with extracurriculars, I juggled low-paying, part-time work on top of it, waking up at 5 a.m. some mornings to work an early shift, then dragging myself to a Samuel Beckett seminar at noon, and sneaking a quick nap before a College Progressives meeting later that night.

I was poor; I’ve been poor my entire life. And in my social justice circles, I constantly heard the phrase “Poor people don’t have time to read.” But one day, while commuting, I put down my phone and picked out a New Yorker; I’d finished half the magazine by the time I reached work.

If you ride the bus regularly, you likely cut out an hour in your daily schedule for transportation. You must walk to the bus stop, wait for it to arrive, then endure the long route to your destination because others have places to go, too. You likely pull out your phone during these expeditions or, like many, stare out the window and think.

It’s easy in our fast-paced digital age to forget how expansive time can be. An hour can zip by if you’re scrolling through Twitter or drag on for days during an exam. Once I started carrying magazines, my bus rides began to feel longer; the 45 minutes to Station North felt like 45 minutes. Soon, I began carrying books again, a habit that felt as comfortable as muscle memory. My progress was slow at first. I traveled with Swing Time for three months (and wrote a review that you can read here). I carried Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland in my tote during January. I devoured Song of Solomon in a week and God Help the Child after work one night. In the past six months, I’ve finished 15 novels, a record beating last year’s two—excluding every novel I skimmed or never completed for school. My thoughts have since kaleidoscoped; my dreams have evolved; my concentration has slowly but surely fortified over time. My political convictions deepened and expanded like the Texan sky. I use social media less and less each day, all because I stopped looking out the window on the way home.

These days I consider myself anti-car, partly because I live in an urban area, but mostly due to the time lost with a car. It’s difficult to carve out an hour or two for reading when you’re working, studying, or both. Riding the bus provides me with the time to focus on a Bookforum while sipping my morning coffee. Public transit can be a gift—a frustrating, dirty one, but a gift nonetheless. Sometimes the delay in your commute can be a couple extra pages of a Roberto Bolaño novel.

Previously: “Writing in Trains” by Emily St. John Mandel

Image Credit: LPW.

Imani Josey Wants to Tell Black Girls’ Stories


Back in 1996, Imani Josey wrote a 60-page draft of a story she called “The Secret Cave,” about three girls who travel to an alternate universe and discover they are fairie princesses. Josey now cites this the first draft of The Blazing Star, a young adult fantasy novel about three black girls who time-travel to ancient Egypt that she self-published last fall.

For years after that draft, though, Josey didn’t write publicly. She was busy being a student and a beauty queen—she was crowned both Miss Chicago and Miss Black Illinois USA—as well as a dancer. She still wrote, keeping journals, penning stories for her friends, and composing fan fiction that, she says will “never see the light of day.”

She did her writing privately until, around 2011, she felt ready to dive back in. The story on her mind? That same one from 1996, the one that had stuck with her through all the years and would blossom into her debut novel in 2016.

Josey has written before about the importance of black girl magic, and her novel features three black female protagonists, which, in 2017, is still unusual, even while books featuring black girls and women continue to prove themselves in the marketplace (Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, for example, has been on The New York Times bestseller list for 21 weeks now). Josey felt passionately that her girls’ stories deserved to be told. “It’s important to tell black girls’ stories with agency because it normalizes blackness,” she says. “These stories ensure we’re not ‘othered.’” She added that her parents surrounded her, in childhood, with images of black girls being normal, through dolls and books with black protagonists.

“These images showed me that I could be a well-rounded, complex person with likes and dislikes and experiences that matter like anyone else’s, and who knew her black skin was beautiful just the way it was,” she said. “It was my parents’ mission to ground my normalcy in my agency, not in my proximity to whiteness.”

So, in her book, Josey gives her girls agency.

The Blazing Star is the first book in a projected trilogy, with each book written from the point of view of one of the main characters. The Falling Star, its sequel, will be released in February 2018.

The book is published by Wise Ink, an self-publishing company. Josey said she originally tried to go the traditional publishing route, but was rejected by countless agents. Nonetheless, she believed in her story, her characters, and her mission, and says her confidence paid off: the book sold out on release day.

“I was hell-bent on my book series doing what traditional pub is dragging its feet to do—fixing the representation gap—a major component of why I went indie,” she said. “I’m not sure how many other black girls are on the cover of YA fantasy book series, and I’m not sure how many lead their own stories as protagonists. But judging by Lee & Low’s annual research, the number is incredibly low.”

In fact, Lee & Low wrote a blog post in March of this year revealing that, while the number of protagonists of color is increasing, the number of authors of color is not: last year, “Black, Latinx, and Native authors combined wrote just 6% of new children’s books published,” the post reports.

Josey gave a bit of advice for white allies who wish to support the work of black creators: make use of their privilege to ensure black writers get their voices heard: “It means being vocal advocates, suggesting marginalized authors for mainstream events, giving their books as gifts and signal boosting crowdfunding projects,” she said, “as well as supporting marginalized traditional and independent authors.”

Josey said she loves that self-publishing allowed her the “freedom to make [the book] exactly how I wanted,” but adds that the self-publishing road is hard. She said it’s been a struggle, especially when it comes to marketing and large-scale distribution.

But she considers herself a fighter, a tough person, traits she partially attributes to her pageant history. “Pageants made me tougher,” she said. “[They] taught me about scrutiny and rejection…They taught me about marketing. They taught me about chasing big dreams, even when you don’t know if everything will turn out alright.”

Don’t Talk About Your Book Until It’s Published

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When I was a graduate student working in the philosophy department at Rutgers University, an old academic offered some advice: “don’t talk about your book until it’s published.” Like most other English graduate students, I was writing a novel. I offered that information while giving the man a tutorial on using Microsoft Outlook. My job that semester was to teach the typewriter-clinging philosophers how to use their desktop computers (in 2005).

I had started to tell him that my manuscript was a historical novel set in the American Southwest, but he held up his hand and told me to stop. He said the worst thing a writer could do was talk about his work before it was finished. “You’ll talk about it enough after that.” He said this was also true for works of scholarship, even though chapters had to be published on their own. But that seemed like a necessary evil for him. He was adamant that a fiction writer should never talk about his book until it hits the shelf. “Otherwise,” he said, “you’ll kill it.”

When Esquire published a story of mine a few years after that, I offered a proclamation in my bio note: “he’s working on a novel set in southern Vermont.” That was true. I was working on it, in the sense we devote significant hours of our lives to books. I taught during the day, went to an MFA program in the evening, and wrote late into the night. I typed, drafted, revised, printed, tore-up, trashed, and re-started a book.

But I never published that book. Like other ditched efforts, it sits in a folder titled “Vermont Novel” on an abandoned laptop in my basement. It shares that electronic graveyard with the historical novel, hundreds of short stories, and a few poetry collections.

Between 2011 and 2015, I had 7 books published by small and scholarly presses. It is fun to say that you are having a book coming out. It is fun—and more than a little self-affirming—to share images of your book contract, your cover design, and your page proofs. During those years, I was always working on a new book. To have a forthcoming book meant to be alive as a writer.

Publishing is not writing. Writing is what you do at midnight. Writing is what you do, as William H. Gass says, “to entertain a toothache.” Writing is casting your voice into a world already filled with noise. Writing is an act of faith, rebellion, and hope. Publishing is a world outside of yourself. In many ways, that is a good and necessary thing. Writers need editors. Editors help writers turn their ideas into stories; they help writers reach audiences. Yet publishing is also a place where writers must learn to cede control and embrace patience; a place where failure is likely.

Publishing is a marathon, not a sprint. When your book comes out, shout it and sing it from the rooftops. Be proud of what you’ve accomplished. Don’t worry about people being sick of hearing about your book—you’ve scrolled through their daily posts about food and politics. They can handle some literature.

But until your book is published, don’t talk about it. That old academic was right: you risk sucking the life out of your book. If you talk about your book, it stops belonging to you, and starts belonging to the world. You’ll have to explain it to people you sit next to on the train, distant cousins at family reunions, or people at work. When the soul of your book hits the air, it will dissipate without its physical body.

Until then, hoard your manuscripts. Keep your secrets. Delete your tweets about your work in progress. Play coy in your bio notes. Be devoted to your book, and resist the urge to whisper about your relationship to others. Stay committed to that book, and one day—when the time is right—you can tell the world.

Am I writing a book now? That’s between me and my hypothetical manuscript. I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut, hunker down, and get to work.

Image Credit: Flickr/Josh Janssen.

Alternate Writing Residencies for the Trump Era

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My earlier post was about artist residencies, these magical places that take the writer out of her workaday world and into a new place, just for the artist. No need to let answering the phone or procuring and cooking food slowly chip away at one’s day. Because it’s expensive to house and nurture artists, many residencies need public funding, which will be in danger for the next four years.

In case Donald Trump cuts off all public funding for the arts, here are my tongue-in-cheek favorite alternative, quasi-publicly-funded residencies:

The Airport Residency
Airplanes, with their engine-whines and the threat of the seat recline crushing your laptop, aren’t great spaces to work. But once, when I was stuck in an airport for a few days (ironically, on the way to a residency), I had the time to realize how delicious it was to be the still point in a hub of transit. Everyone was so focused on their destination, I was as anonymous and private as if I were in a cabin out in the woods. There was plenty of food, comfortable chairs, even a branch of the Tattered Cover bookstore. Had I wanted it, legal pot was just a cab ride away.

The Volunteer House in Riverside Park Residency
I don’t actually know how to get into this house, but it’s a quiet little hut that overlooks Riverside Park in New York city (which is much quieter than Central Park). And every time I pass this house, it looks so reminiscent of the studios I’ve been in, say, at Yaddo. The place looks like it gets plenty of sun and there’s an Ecuadorian food cart just a few hundred feet away; in the spring summer and fall there’s a bar/ restaurant that operates inside the park. Perfect!

Vermont Rest Stop Residency
I couldn’t have been more charmed by this rest stop, a wood stove, a solarium with its plant powered waste-treatment plant. There were desks and a view, as well as unlimited coffee, and, I was told, sometimes they provided Twizzlers.  Who doesn’t like a little Vermont socialism?

My Home Office Residency
I actually have a nice little office, by New York City apartment standards. Faces a quiet street, expansive desk. Now, if I could just get my spouse to take a break from being a professor and devote his day to making meals that he can tuck into a picnic basket, we’d be in business.

What are your fantasy residencies?

Image Credit: Flickr/Miel Books

An Inside Job: Lessons from Watergate for the Trump Era

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On October 19, 1972, four months after the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters that set off the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, gave the president some shocking news on the source of a series of damaging stories in The Washington Post that had begun to tie the bungled break-in to the White House. “We know what’s leaked and we know who leaked it,” Haldeman told Nixon as the Oval Office tapes whirred in the background.

“Is it somebody in the FBI?” Nixon asked.

“Yes, sir,” Haldeman reported. “Very high up.”

Nearly half a century later, as another American president finds himself engulfed in scandal over claims of election misconduct, his staff may well want to start reading up on the Watergate scandal. Thanks in large part to the bestselling book All the President’s Men, the source for the classic film starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, Watergate is understood in the popular imagination as the story of a newspaper investigation. In this version of the tale, two hotshot reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, fueled by righteous indignation and a burning desire to get the story, nearly single-handedly brought down the leader of the Western world.

But this slant on Watergate is, in many ways, an accident of history. Because Woodward and Bernstein didn’t reveal their prime source, famously nicknamed Deep Throat, until 2005, it has taken historians decades to piece together an accurate account of how the scandal unfolded. In fact, as Tim Weiner details in his recent history of the Nixon presidency, One Man Against the World, one of the principal architects of the president’s downfall was Mark Felt, the second-in-command at the FBI who, as a deep background source to Woodward and Bernstein, leaked incriminating information from the FBI files that he knew would probably never see the light of day in any other way.

Felt held a personal grudge against Nixon. A 30-year veteran of the FBI, Felt believed he was the rightful heir to the job of FBI director after J. Edgar Hoover died in May 1972, a month before the Watergate break-in. When Nixon passed him over for L. Patrick Gray, Felt was hurt — and smelled a cover-up. But Felt was experienced enough in the ways of Washington to understand that a mere FBI agent, even the deputy director, could not take on a president alone. So he used the best tool at hand, a young, ambitious reporter he happened to know at The Washington Post.

In other words, while the Watergate scandal was the product of shoe-leather investigations by a pair of dogged reporters, and later by an equally dogged pair of special prosecutors, Richard Nixon was also very much the target of a palace coup.

This is the essence of the news Haldeman delivered to Nixon in October 1972. The recording of their conversation is now available on YouTube, and it is worth a listen for anyone interested in speculating on the kinds of conversations Donald Trump may be having with his aides as he combats the recent spate of damaging leaks from intelligence operatives and his own staff.

Felt, Haldeman explains in that October 19 conversation, is the source of the press leaks, but there isn’t much the president can do about it. “If we move on him, then he’ll go out and unload everything,” Haldeman tells Nixon. “He knows everything that’s to be known in the FBI. He has access to absolutely everything.”

“What would you do to Felt?” Nixon asks.

“I asked (White House Counsel John] Dean,” Haldeman says. “He says you can’t prosecute him.”

“Oh, no?” Nixon says.

“He hasn’t committed any crime,” Haldeman reminds him.

Trump, of course, faces no such constraint in his own skirmishes over press leaks. Since much of the material being leaked about alleged connections between Trump’s campaign team and the Russian government during the election involves classified national security matters, Trump can plausibly threaten to prosecute the leakers. And, unlike Nixon, Trump has a stalwart Republican majority in both houses of Congress as well as a popular distrust of the media almost unimaginable in the early 1970s.

Still, if there is any truth to leaked claims that Trump’s aides had contact with Russian intelligence officials involved in hacking into the Clinton campaign’s email servers during the 2016 election, Trump and his team would do well to heed the hard lessons of Nixon’s discovery of the Watergate leaker, Mark Felt. On the October 19 tape, Haldeman, grasping at straws, suggests transferring Felt to “Ottumwa, Iowa,” to which Nixon replies: “Christ! You’d know what I’d do with him? Ambassador.” (“He’d like that, you know,” Haldeman says.)

But in the end they did nothing. According to Weiner, FBI director Patrick Gray was ordered to fire Felt five times, but he never pulled the trigger. Eventually, Gray himself was ousted, and Felt retired from the FBI in 1973 after Nixon again passed him over the top job. He eventually moved to Santa Rosa, Calif., where he lived in relative obscurity until Woodward outed him as Deep Throat in his 2005 book The Secret Man.

Felt died, a hero to many, in 2008.