The Millions Interview

Whole Lives Are Dedicated to Not Thinking About Something: The Millions Interviews Dan Chaon

In the year 1999, Dan Chaon became my creative writing teacher. He was very young, and had just one book so far, a story collection called Fitting Ends, published by Northwestern University Press. I was basically a freckled zygote in red clogs who had no clue how to write a scene, much less a series of them. Dan showed me what was what, and he also said, Hey, read some Joy Williams, read some Lorrie Moore, do you know who Alice Munro is? Dan read everything, it seemed, and I was inspired to follow his example. In the years since, he has gone on to publish a second story collection, Among the Missing, which was nominated for the National Book Award, and two novels, including Await Your Reply, and then a third collection called Stay Awake. After reading his new novel, Ill Will, I can say, without reservation, that he is one of my favorite writers, living or dead, right up there with Edith Wharton and Margaret Atwood. His work is ambitious and weird. His characters are complicated and usually damaged, they make the wrong choices, they feel real. His prose is musical, and his imagery is at once startling and accurate. He writes stories that are compelling: stuff happens! Ill Will is about a man named Dustin whose boyhood testimony sent his adopted brother, Rusty, to prison for killing their parents, aunt, and uncle. Now, 30 years later, DNA evidence has exonerated Rusty, and Dustin is forced to face the past he's so diligently pushed out of his mind. But since this is a Dan Chaon book, there are other, equally striking and dark narrative threads. Dustin's wife is dying. One of his sons is losing control of his life. One of his therapy clients is obsessed with a string of drowning deaths, and he draws Dustin into his amateur investigation. This is a novel about grief, about being unable to accept reality, and about the myriad ways we trick ourselves about our selves. Dan was nice enough to answer some questions I had about the book via email. He said the first one felt like "a trap." Read at your own peril. The Millions: I was reading your book on Election Day and during the aftermath, too, when I have honestly never been more terrified for the future...and I wrote a post-apocalyptic novel for god's sake! The night of November 8th, I actually willed myself away from the TV and the Internet and went to read in my bedroom, trying to calm myself. It worked, for a while, because your novel is wonderfully immersive -- as a reader you want to know what exactly happened to Dustin's parents and aunt and uncle, and you're so deeply inside the characters' consciousnesses that it's impossible to think of any world but theirs. Can you talk about creating an immersive experience on the page? Dan Chaon: Edan, this is one of those lead-ins that feels like a trap. Like, you ask me: “What makes you so immersive?” And I’m like, “Uh…you tell me?” Cuz I don’t know. I know that there’s definitely some people who are disappointed and bored by the crap I write, and then there are people who like it, but I don’t have any control over it at all. All I can say is that I personally fell into this story and that it managed to colonize my imagination for many years. As a teenager in the 1980s, I was fascinated by the serial killer novels that were popular then, and I’ve always been a fan of the thriller genre, so as a writer I wanted to try my hand at it. At the same time, Ill Will is a deeply personal project, and I found that having the framework of the genre allowed me to write about grief and loss and self-deception more directly and honestly than I would have if I’d been writing a more autobiographical book. For some reason, the two things hooked together, and I had a “fantasy world” that was powered by my real emotion, which I think is the exact vehicle that you need when you’re writing fiction. In terms of an “immersive experience,” readers’ mileage may vary.  I was trying to find a balance between writing a straight-up Silence of the Lambs style procedural, and something more personal and idiosyncratic.  I hope that there is enough here to satisfy readers of both genres.   TM: I wonder if you feel if your writing has changed, or will change, in this Trump era. Do you have a different job, as a writer of fictive worlds, than you did before he took power? DC: This is such a hard question to answer.  I’m writing this on Feb. 8, 2017, and it’s only a few weeks into Trump’s presidency, so I have no idea where we’ll be when this interview is published.  I have never experienced this degree of destabilization before -- I don’t have any idea what shape the world will be in when my book comes out next month. We might be at war.  There might be riots.  I’m guessing, though, that everything won’t be fine.  Hi, people of the future!  From Dan, in February 2017!  YOLO! But to answer your question from my current innocent position, I don’t know.  I think we create fiction from the sewage that we are swimming in, and that whatever the world feels like at the moment will always infuse the fiction that we’re writing, like a tea bag in hot water. I wouldn’t have anticipated that the concerns of this book—self-deception,  fake news,  manipulation,  denial—would be so pertinent when the book came out.  There may be a slight case of prescience in it,  but I wouldn’t call it luck.       TM: This world you immerse your readers in is also a bleak one: four people were brutally killed decades earlier; Dustin's wife is dying of cancer; Dustin's son Aaron is addicted to heroin and floating through his grief; Cleveland is in post-industrial rot. But it's also funny. I laughed out loud quite a few times, especially during Aaron's millennial narration. Stuff like: "I never understood why people from the 1980s thought there'd be flying cars. It just seemed really dangerous and impractical to me, but they all talked about it, so it must have been a thing. Meanwhile, my dream for the future was that it wouldn't involve mass extinction and large-scale water shortages and cannibalism." Your work has always had this strain of twisted amusement, but it feels amped up here. Was this deliberate? DC: I’m always cautious about the word “deliberate,” because so much of the tone of a piece feels outside of my conscious control.  I actually found myself kind of unnerved that, for some reason, large stretches of the bleak and horrible landscape of Ill Will were hilarious to me.  Maybe some degree of levity was necessary for me, as a writer, in order to get through some of the darkest parts of the book.  Looking back, I can see that the Aaron and Rusty sections of the book were definitely inspired by the rhythms of stand-up comics, and the mordant tone of certain writers I find funny -- like George Saunders and Sam Lipsyte -- was also an influence. TM: I've never read such a poignant and visceral depiction of grief before -- you show how it dislocates and obliterates us, and you often do that formally, by stopping a sentence midway, for instance, or including many spaces between sentences. A couple of times, you place scenes in columns, so that they appear side-by-side, occurring separately but simultaneously. This formal play surprised and exhilarated me, and it was effective: it truly felt like lived experience to me, and how our brains process trauma. Did you feel like the novel, as it's traditionally written, simply couldn't express what you needed to express? Where in the writing did this experimentation occur, and can you talk about the various approaches and why you took these leaps? DC: I have a classroom exercise for my creative writing students called the “Box Exercise.”  I have students create a table with three columns and two rows, exactly the size of an 8 ½ x 11 sheet of paper.   The assignment is that each of the six boxes contains a scene of a story.  I wanted to force them to be concise, and to think about the way scenes work together like building blocks. It’s useful for the students to be able to see all the scenes together at once. I was inspired to create the exercise by a couple of things. Firstly, I spent a little time working in a writer’s room for a (failed) TV show, and the process of “breaking story” was fascinating to me, the way we put each individual scene on an index card and pinned it to a bulletin board, so that the story was represented not just in words, but graphically, visually.  I was also inspired by a chapter of Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit from the Goon Squad called “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” which is rendered as a powerpoint presentation. In any case, I loved the results I got from the students when they did this exercise.  By forcing them to work in these very tight, elliptical spaces, the exercise seemed to give them a creative jolt, and I was so taken with it that I started using the exercise myself, during free-writes.  Eventually, it became so deeply embedded into the texture of the book that I kept the weird formatting. My editor was a little doubtful about it at first -- and it was an incredible pain in the ass during the typesetting process --  but I’m really happy that we were able to retain it, because I do think it conveys something that couldn’t be expressed in a different way. TM: There were so many memorable names in the novel, like Dustin's cousin named Waverna, who is called Wave when she's younger, and Dustin's son's friend, nicknamed Rabbit, and my favorite: Xzavious Reinbolt, who also goes by...Amy. These names were endlessly delightful to me, and also realistic (I mean, my own name is crazy, right?) Can you talk about naming these characters and how they contribute to the overall tone of the book? DC: I steal names from my students, as you know -- there is a character named Eden in one of the stories in my collection Stay Awake, for example.  I also steal from friends and acquaintances, and from my children’s friends, and from random websites. Dusty and Rusty were two kids I knew in grade school, and Rabbit owned a bar that my parents liked to go to.  The last name Tillman was taken from the musician Joshua Tillman, who sings under the name Father John Misty.  I stumbled across the name Xzavious Reinbolt when I was doing a Google image search for arrest mugshots. Names are weirdly important to me.  I want them to be realistic in a way -- to evoke a certain social class and region and time period and mood -- but I also need them to have a music to them, to evoke something that has the quality of a dream or a fable, hopefully without being too cartoonish or distracting. I don’t know if it’s superstition or magic or what, but for me a name somehow breathes life into a puppet, gives shape to an abstraction. The characters often refuse to perform unless they have been properly christened. TM: You were raised in Nebraska and live in Cleveland now, and these are the landscapes in your work. I'm pretty sure I'm one of those latte-drinking, kale-eating coastal elites, and while reading your novel I was reminded that there aren't that many contemporary literary novels set in the places you write about. Or I'm not reading them. There's also a lot of class stuff. There's a great moment when Dustin recalls his wife saying that he wasn't merely unlucky, as he believes, just raised poor -- she says that bad stuff happens to poor people. What's the role of place in your fiction? And how present is class for you, as you're thinking about a character and their sense of themselves in the world? DC: I like kale too, Edan!   Especially baby kale, in a smoothie with mango and bananas! But it tastes different in Cleveland than it does in San Francisco. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that social class is actually my big subject.  It’s often a dirty word in political discussions, and easy to dismiss when compared to its companion, race. Generally, race is something that can’t be escaped or hidden; class, on the other hand, is a marker that’s far more nebulous, and part of the American delusion, for both the left and the right, is that it can be left behind, slipped out of like a suit of clothes. This is true to some extent, I think.  I’m a good example. I was raised in a working class family, and many of my relatives existed below the poverty line -- rural poor, trailer park poor.  My mother’s parents lived in a house without an indoor toilet.  They had an outhouse. But I am very distant from that world now.  I went to college at Northwestern, and the majority of my adult life has been spent in one form or another of middle-class or upper-middle-class life. I’m a college professor, and I earn a good living from my writing as well.  I’m a plump, privileged white liberal, and I don’t think you’d be able to tell that I’ve ever been any different. But I feel different.  I feel like an imposter a lot of the time. Class means many different things beyond income. It’s an attitude, too: there are people who are “classy,”  there’s a way of moving through the world with confidence,  an unknowing entitlement. There are people who come from “good families,” whatever their finances say.  Class is an invisible tattoo that marks your spirit, and I thought it would eventually go away, but now that I’m in my 50s I’m starting to think it won’t. Dustin’s right: it’s about luck.  People who are born comfortable are lucky, but they don’t know it.  I have lived among them for more than half my life, and my observation is that there is always a part of them that feels like they deserved it.  They don’t even realize how deeply the idea of “meritocracy” is built into their worldview.  Even if they would never admit it, they secretly feel that they earned their advantages somehow: poor people were not as smart, not as sensible, not as well-bred. If they just tried a little harder. Well. I did try harder. I threw away everyone I grew up with, gladly. I left for college and never went back, and I pretended to be my own creation, no nature or nurture either, just a self-invented person. See? I’m just like you, readers of The Millions.  My life is so different from some of my cousins' lives that we may as well live in different universes, but I achieved that by chopping off big parts of myself. I think those severed limbs are the ghosts that haunt my writing.  They come in the form of Rusty, the enraged, dangerous foster kid who is smarter than you, but who was doomed the minute he got dumped out of the womb; they come in the form of Aaron, who has everything he needs for a good, happy life,  but runs toward the arms of disaster as if it’s his only true love.  They are parts of myself that I have murdered, but they won’t stay buried.  They come in the form of Dustin, a man so split from his past life that he can’t even remember it. Whole lives are dedicated to not thinking about something.   TM: I usually ask writers in these Millions interviews what the last great book they read was, but since I know you consume not just books passionately, but also music, television, and movies, can you share with us what art and pop culture, of any kind, you've been enjoying lately? DC: The most recent good books I read are Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh and The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead by Chanelle Benz.  I just bought John Darnielle’s Universal Harvester.   My favorite albums of last year were Frank Ocean’s Blonde and Angel Olsen’s My Woman.   I loved the movie Moonlight, and am looking forward to seeing Get Out, directed by Jordan Peele. I am still faithful to the television show The Walking Dead, even though it is often disappointing.  I also watch Vikings and the Netflix show Sens8, and yes, Westworld.   My favorite podcast of last year was called "In the Dark," produced by APM Reports. As far as video games go, I played Dark Souls III for a while in 2016, but now I am back on Skyrim again.
The Millions Interview

Mark O’Connell Doesn’t Want to Be a Cyborg: The Millions Interview

According to a recent Washington Post article on so-called Twitter “cyborgs,” political activists are increasingly using automated “schedulers” to blast out wave after wave of pre-written posts, allowing a single user to tweet thousands of times a day. “My accounts will be tweeting long after I’m gone,” one such “cyborg” said. “Maybe in my last will and testament, I should say, ‘Load up my recurring queue.’” Hell is other people’s tweets. The visionaries Mark O’Connell profiles in his latest book, To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death, would not be satisfied with so modest a version of immortality. Adherents of a movement called transhumanism, they dream on a grander scale, marshaling technology in their “rebellion against human existence as it has been given,” an existence constrained by physical and intellectual limitations and needlessly curtailed by death. O’Connell travels to the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a cryopreservation facility in Arizona that houses Ted Williams’s head -- take that, Cooperstown -- where the CEO informs him that “cryonics…is really just an extension of emergency medicine.” He chats with Anders Sandberg, a research fellow at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, who argues that “biomedical cognitive enhancements would facilitate improved acquisition and retention of mental ability.” (Making the world a little less dumber one upload at a time!) A gerontologist seeking to radically extend lifespans describes aging as “a human disaster on an unimaginably vast scale,” and a Buddhist transhumanist prepares for the Singularity by practicing “mind-filling…a daily techno-spiritual observance, whereby you upload some measure of data about yourself.” Finally, O’Connell views the scars of Tim Cannon, who implants technological devices into his body and espouses his deterministic views in a memorably paradoxical way: “The problem is, most people make the mistake of anthropomorphizing themselves.” Fascinated, charmed, and occasionally repelled by these characters and ideas, O’Connell tries to make sense of a world in which humans are becoming more robotic and robotics more human. The Millions spoke with O’Connell, a Millions staff writer and Slate book critic, over Skype. TM: What are the goals of the transhumanist movement? MO: Their goals are blindingly simple, almost farcically simple. They want to never die. They want to be as powerful intellectually and physically as it’s possible to be within the limits of the technology of the future. They want the same thing that we, as humans, have always wanted, which is to find some kind of a release valve for our mortality, some idea for a way out, which is obviously what religion provided, and still does for most people. They want it all, but the difference of course for them is there’s the distinct possibility that this might be achievable through technology. That’s the interesting thing to me. You can’t really dismiss it as complete nonsense, because there’s always the logical possibility that it could happen. I spent a lot of time when I was writing and reporting the book being really stuck on this idea that nothing that I was hearing was completely illogical. Everything seemed to satisfy basic demands of rationalism, and yet the end result was always completely insane. TM: You call their philosophy the “event horizon” of the Enlightenment, the reductio ad absurdum of rationalism. MO: Well, you’re familiar with Beckett, so you know that rationalism is often the handmaiden of complete insanity, a tool of madness in its own way. TM: Didn’t Hugh Kenner translate a Beckett passage [from Watt] into Pascal? MO: I didn’t know that! I wish I had this conversation while I was writing the book. TM: Then there’s Lucky’s speech in Waiting for Godot. MO: Exactly, I kept thinking of that. I actually made several attempts to work Beckett and Flann O’Brien into the book, and I kept thinking there was something uniquely Irish about this idea of rationalism as a means towards insanity. But I could never quite figure out what that meant, or if I was merely being jingoistic. TM: How does a mere user of technology evaluate these claims that technology can be used to direct human evolution, improve the “suboptimal system” of human existence, and achieve “longevity escape velocity,” that is, defeat death? As you point out, the claims are both perfectly logical and perfectly lunatic. MO: That’s another thing I spent quite a lot of time thinking about, because, as made apparent early in the book, I don’t have a background in science. And I was tormented for a while that I didn’t really have grounds to judge the lunacy or otherwise of this stuff. I could approach it on a gut level -- This can’t be true. What this man is telling me is insanity -- but didn’t have the skill set to rationally pick apart these arguments. To use computer language, hopefully this is a feature of the book rather than a bug. I was fascinated by the topic, but part of me felt that I was the last person who should be writing this book, that it needed someone more scientifically literate. It took me a little while to come around to the idea that, well, maybe actually I’m the best person to write the book because I don’t know anything about it. It sounds slightly self-serving, but perhaps a more literary sensibility is what that topic needs. TM: If only to push back against the mechanistic or deterministic caricature of humans and human consciousness, which, as you point out, is generated partly by language, “a cluster of software metaphors that had metastasized into a way of thinking about what it meant to be a human being.” To what extent does language shape how we conceive of the human? MO: I think it’s always metaphors. All of language is metaphorical, and any way that we can conceive of ourselves and who we are is unavoidably going to be through metaphor. So in one sense, the idea that we are a machine or a computer is as good as any we have of thinking about ourselves. Even the “human spirit” is a kind of metaphor. One of the ideas I touch on is that our latest or most pervasive technology is what serves as the metaphor for our minds. For example, in the Renaissance with clockwork, or the Victorian period with steam engines. Psychoanalysis was full of steam metaphors… TH: Releasing pent-up pressures and all that. MO: Exactly. And those might not make sense anymore, but even if we don’t necessarily subscribe to that way of thinking about ourselves, we do tend to accept certain notions of the brain as computational. I instinctively reject those ways of thinking about what the mind is, but at the same, time, I’m obsessed with notions of productivity and getting the most out of my time. Even though I’m a really inefficient mechanism, I can’t help thinking of myself in that way. TM: You bring up [the Swedish philosopher] Nick Bostrom’s thought experiment about a computer tasked with producing paper clips most efficiently. The computer turns the entire universe into one giant manufacturing facility -- a nightmarish vision of productivity. MO: If we’re going to think of ourselves in that way, if we’re going to measure ourselves computationally, think of ourselves as having value in so far as we can compute info and figure things out and be “intelligent,” then we’re always going to lose to machines in the end. And I think that is part of why the logic of capitalism is so disturbing. That idea is not front and center in the book, but it’s running in the background. There’s another computational metaphor. TM: I’m keeping a running tab. MO: It’s a tab that’s open, I’m sure. TM: While the transhumanists speak in utopian terms, there is this dystopian aspect to a ruthlessly efficient, techno-capitalist future. MO: That is a dystopian idea, but I’m not a prognosticator of the future. The book’s message is not, We have to prepare for this. But it seems to me inevitable that the automation revolution is coming, and it’s going to be much bigger than the original Industrial Revolution where machines were obviously replacing a lot of workers. I think that artificial intelligence, when it comes -- and it will come, I believe -- is going to displace huge numbers of workers. And that’s a crisis, but it’s also a crisis that’s inherent in the logic of capitalism. That’s one of the contradictions of capitalism, that it’s striving for the replacement of labor with mechanization. The ownership of the labor force and the means of production seems to be what capital wants, to put it in a slightly mystical way. I don’t see anyone trying to prevent that politically at the moment. Watching your election in the States, it’s apparent to me that the whole idea of bringing jobs back to America, industrial jobs -- it’s so obvious that’s not going to happen. Or if does happen, production will come back from China eventually, but only when automation allows for cheaper labor. TM: To pivot away from economics to aesthetics, in the book you describe some of the artistic efforts of computers. If poetry is that which can’t be paraphrased, can it (or other art forms) be coded? MO: My instinct is that no computer can make art, but I don’t necessarily trust that instinct because there are so many suppositions. What do we mean by art? If we define art as something made by humans, then no. But have you heard any music or the Google AI art that came out a year ago? Google made this machine-run algorithm that was able to make pictures of dogs and various standard scenes, and they’re incredibly weird. They’re like nothing else you’ve ever seen in terms of imagery. You’re obviously looking at a picture of a dog, but they’re deeply uncanny. And the same is true of the music that’s been created by AI. There was a musical that came out in the West End in London, and the lyrics and the music were both written by a machine. And it wasn’t terrible, but it was just off. The same is true for any music I’ve heard composed by a machine. I would’ve expected music composed by computers to sound like Aphex Twin or something, but way more austere. But it doesn’t sound like that at all. It all sounds like ad jingles or radio stings. The music reflects some cheesy vision of ourselves back at us in a way that’s deeply unsettling. But could a machine can ever make art? Who knows? Would you want that? I’d be interested, but I don’t know if I’d want to read a book written by a machine. TM: Or literary criticism generated by a machine? Franco Moretti has claimed that the only way to understand the novel is to stop reading them. We don’t have the computational power to get the full picture. MO: Yes, stop wasting time reading novels! TM: As a literary critic, which contemporary novels do you think fictionalize the human condition vis-à-vis technology most astutely? MO: Most of what I read that fed into the book was genre stuff, sci-fi, which is not an area I was that familiar with. Weirdly the book that clicked that I read close to the end of writing the book is Zero K, which is amazing. Obviously, DeLillo’s a genius, but he’s 80 and not immersed in technology in the lived sense. But I think he gets this stuff in the way that so few contemporary writers of so-called literary fiction anyway do. And I also read White Noise while writing the book. TM: Some of the transhumanists express lyrical visions of immortality in the Singularity. They want to exist as pure consciousness, “a being of such unimaginably vast power and knowledge that there was literally nothing outside…[part of] an interconnected system of interlocking nodes.” MO: Such a weird thing to want. I could never get to the point where I could really emphasize with it, which was one of the challenges in writing the book. I didn’t want to just have my skepticism borne out. I wanted to be won over. And in some ways, these people seemed way more human to me than they were at the start, but I never got to the point where I could say, yeah, I could see why you would want to be data, disembodied information in the cloud. That seemed to me a fate literally worse than death. TM: Especially if you don’t like your disembodied neighbors. MO: Right. We’ll be dealing with the same problems we’re dealing with now. TM: The characters do come across as human, especially a questing soul like Roen, a monkish rider on the “Immortality Bus,” [a coffin-shaped recreational vehicle touring the U.S. and spreading the transhumanist message]. He abstains from alcohol and sex to preserve his body for future bliss. MO: Roen, yes. If I were writing a novel, and he were a character, I’d probably want to tone it down a bit. Too on the nose. But that’s something you don’t have to worry about as a nonfiction writer. Who cares if it’s too ridiculous? The more ridiculous the better. TM: What did you make of this devotional aspect to the movement? MO: That is a huge dimension to the book. And weirdly, when I was writing, I spent quite a bit of time hanging out with Catholic priests in Ireland for a different project that never saw the light of day. I guess because I was doing this other project at the same time, I saw the connections between the two. TM: And then in contrast, you have the “practical transhumanists” at Grindhouse Wetware outside of Pittsburg, who implant devices into their flesh to livestream their vitals, open car doors, etc. MO: Those guys are intense. And that’s why I think what they’re doing, as fascinating and grotesque as it is, is a gesture, a provocation about the future of ourselves and technology. What they’re doing is actually really low tech stuff. What it allows you to do is fairly minimal. I guess I can see the use value of not taking my keys out of my pocket [to open a car door] and having an implanted ID chip, but it’s minor stuff. In a way, it’s closer to screen body modification than actually becoming a cyborg. But their endpoint is the Singularity. Becoming a cyborg is only a step along the way for them. I could never really figure out whether that is a viable future for humans. Most people would not want that or anything close to that, but there are ways in which tech is already very much under our skin already, metaphorically. TM: It’s interesting how transhumanist goals are often framed in the broadest of humanitarian terms, that we all need fixing and thus are all in a sense “disabled;” that we are all trapped in the wrong bodies because all bodies are fundamentally wrong. One transhumanist even attempts to find common cause with the transgender movement using that logic. MO: Yes, though transgender people would look at the claim differently. TM: As would a disabled person. MO: For sure. TM: Zoltan Istvan, the transhumanist presidential candidate whom you profile, suggested that the money allotted to make Los Angeles’ streets more wheelchair accessible would be better spent on robotic exoskeleton technology. MO:  And Zoltan got into pretty hot water over that. It was a slightly dumb thought experiment that I don’t think he thought through the implications of, but was happy enough with the backlash because it got people thinking through his ideas. And in a way, there’s a weird blinkered rationalism to it. Yeah, if you’re going to look at things in a completely, rigorously rational way, then maybe we should be improving all of our bodies and not spending money putting wheelchair ramps around L.A., but that’s not how the world works. That might be how a computer network system might approach it, but it’s not how humans work. TM: There also seems to be a fascist element to this thinking, which reminds me of the slightly creepy spectacle of the DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] Robotics Challenge, “Woodstock for robots” as The New York Times called it. It’s the military industrial complex as family-friendly spectacle. MO: That was one of the must fun things I did on the trips. I went with a friend from Ireland, and the experience itself wasn’t creepy. It was weird and interesting. But it was only thinking about it seriously after that it did seem to say something quite disturbing about America and American’s sense of itself in regards to power and violence and technology. TM: You mentioned earlier that there might be something Irish about logical absurdity, but is there a distinctly American aspect to transhumanism and its audacious drive toward self-betterment. MO: I can’t ignore the fact that so many of the prominent transhumanist are European or Russian, but I also can’t ignore the fact that so many end up in the Silicon Valley. In a way, then, there’s something uniquely American about it, but unique in the sense of America as welcoming of eccentrics and dreamers from all over the place. But there is also a connection culturally to American’s strange optimism about the possibility of technology and progress and individualism. TM: And what about transhumanism’s politics or ideology? MO: There are various strains politically within transhumanism -- various liberal and socialist bents -- but it seems to me that is a fundamentally individualistic, basically libertarian philosophy. And that maps very clearly onto America’s sense of itself, I think. It’s not coincidental that it’s taken hold so firmly in Silicon Valley. It did feel to me when I was writing that I was writing a book about America as much as anything else. In a very oblique, quite idiosyncratic way, it was a way for me to come to grips with how strange I find America. I didn’t put my foot down about a lot of things, but when my American publisher was doing the audiobook, they had initially suggested a bunch of American actors to do the narration. I was very specific about not wanting an American voice to do my narrative voice, because I think a huge dimension of the reader’s experience is my bafflement [as an Irishman] about transhumanism specifically but also about American culture in general. And I think that would not come across in an American accent. TM: I’m hearing Stephen Fry in my head. MO: Perhaps too British, but there is a whole tradition of specifically British writers and being comically baffled by American stuff. And that is an element of the book, but I also wanted to avoid that, “Hey, look at that American. He’s fucking weird. Bunch of lunatics over here.” TM: Like Evelyn Waugh in The Loved One in his satirical take on American death culture. Speaking of death culture, or death avoidance culture, when maverick multi-millionaires describe death as a humanitarian crisis, is this just a Silicon Valley spin on their own desire for immortality? MO: The whole project grew out a kernel of identification with this idea. I started becoming interested in transhumanism 10 or 12 years ago when I wrote about it for a little magazine in Dublin called Mongrel after college. I talked to Steve Coll, who is a New Yorker staff writer, and he told me about this party he was at in Silicon Valley with a bunch of people who had been in on the ground floor of Google and were multi-gajillionaires in their early 30s. They had made all their money and were wondering what to do next. And they all said some version of, “Well, the thing we all want to do is to figure out how to stay alive long enough to spend all our money. So the next frontier for technology, as we see it, is immortality or radical life extension.” That really got me interested in this, because, as I write in the beginning of the book, becoming a father made me start to think about the frailty and precariousness of life. They’re right, it sucks that we have to die! That’s what almost everything is about. Almost all of human culture and religion is a channeling or a sublimation of this fear of death, which we’re all thinking about in one way or another all the time. I know I am, anyway, not directly thinking about it all the time but… TM: Oh, it’s usually in the back of my mind. MO: So I totally identify with that. It’s bullshit that we have to die. Who designed this? TM: Right, this a crisis! MO: So I get it, but I also feel like it’s a really a strange way to approach death, to roll up your sleeves and say, we’re going to sort this. We throw enough man hours and intel units at this thing, and we’re gonna solve it. TM: Or show up at Google HQ with a sign, “GOOGLE, PLEASE SOLVE DEATH” as one transhumanist does. MO: One of the things I didn’t go into in the book was all the potential problems that would arise from solving the central problem of death. Obvious things, like overpopulation, what do you do with your eternal life. I did think about that stuff, it just didn’t make it into the book because it wasn’t what I was most interested in. TM: One of the things you were interested in was how transhumanism -- with its instrumental view of the human -- made you aware of your own body, your own flesh as a “dead format.” MO: Jesus, that’s horrible. TM: Sorry. MO: Yeah, all the reading and grappling with mechanistic ideas and talking with people who thought in that way definitely had an effect on how I experienced my fleshy humanity. I’m not sure how differently I feel about being a human now. I’m not sure I have an answer now about what it means to be a human, but I do think it has something to do with not being a machine. That’s not a great answer to arrive at after two or three years of writing a book on the topic, but I know I don’t want to be a machine. TM: Not even a little? MO: I may change my mind. It’s funny, I’ve noticed that younger people see the immortalism of transhumanism as an out-there, whacky idea, whereas older people find it fascinating. I remember talking to my dad about it, and he said, “Well, I think maybe they’re onto something.” He’s 73 now. Life extension doesn’t seem so crazy when you’re up against the limit of your own natural lifespan. But I fundamentally don’t think Peter Thiel is going to save us.
The Millions Interview

Ethel Rohan Wants You to Know What It’s Like to Be Marginalized: The Millions Interview

Once, 10 years ago, Irish-American writer Ethel Rohan overheard two strangers in a bar discussing a friend who had lost her brother to suicide. “The grief may kill her before her weight does,” they said. That phrase stayed with Rohan, and she started writing a novel about it, drawing on her own experiences with suicidal depression, body shame, and loss, as well as research about the shocking prevalence of suicide in Ireland and around the world. Now, that novel -- her first 00 is finally in the world. The Weight of Him tells the story of Billy Brennan, a 400-pound husband and father in rural Ireland who has just lost his oldest son, Michael, to suicide. But instead of letting grief or weight kill him, Billy decides to use them as motivation to change his own life and the lives of those around him. As it charts his efforts to raise awareness about suicide and repair his relationships with his loved ones and himself, the novel is heartbreaking but never sappy, uplifting but never treacly. It’s the kind of book that promises redemption, but only if its messy, flawed characters work hard for it, failing over and over again along the way. I sat down with Rohan in her San Francisco home to talk about the novel, Ireland, and the power of literary fiction in a world full of political fictions.  The Millions: As a woman, as a feminist, I think of body shame and emotions around weight as pertaining mainly to women, but that’s not really true. How was it writing about the particular issue of weight from a male perspective? Ethel Rohan: Frankly, with Billy, it almost got to the point, maybe out of necessity but almost naturally, where it wasn’t about gender, it really was about the person, the human being. That did cross my mind sometimes. I had so much fear, honestly, and I think that’s another reason why it took so long. I was just very afraid of the subject matter. My struggle with anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, was a secret until it got to the point where “I am going to die, I need help.” And then it became less of a secret, but still to this day, I have really close friends who have no idea. But I’m ready to own that now, and I realize how important it is for me to raise my voice in that regard. Because when I was there, I would look and I would research, and I was checking stuff online, and I couldn’t find myself in anything I read, because, yes, I was suicidal, but I was highly functioning. Yes, I was able to hold it all together, but at enormous internal cost. I just think it’s important to get that narrative out there, because we don’t see enough of it. But the idea of body positivity, body shame, all of that. I could only be true to Billy, and I learned about Billy just like any other author does with their character: by putting him in scenes, putting him in situations. What does he say? What does he think? What does he do? All of that, just getting a level of confidence there, where I felt, “Okay, I can’t speak to the topic as a whole, but I can speak to Billy, whom I’ve gotten to know really well, and I can be as honest as I can, authentic as I can, with that.” I think the added layer of authenticity that I brought to it was also the other piece of me: I am a survivor of childhood physical and sexual abuse. So I know body shame really well -- not in the same way that Billy does, but that also gave me a level of confidence that I can speak to this. I’m coming at it in a different way for different reasons, but...When I was younger, you know, I’m from a working-class Dublin family, we were poor. We did not have a lot. So one of the easy ways for me to access comfort was food. But there was also that element that Billy struggles with: On one hand, it’s comforting, but then it spills over into a form of self-punishment. And I’ve been there, and I know what that’s like. And that’s also how I misused food. So I’ve never been fat, but I do know what it’s like to have an unhealthy relationship with food and with your body. And I suppose that then, if you like, the third piece of it all was that my mother was fat, and did struggle with addiction in various forms, including overeating. It was just bringing all of that and hoping that I could do right by the subject matter and by the characters with that knowledge that I had. TM: You’ve lived in San Francisco now for longer than you lived in Ireland, is that true? ER: Yes. TM: For both of the main thematic issues, obesity and suicide, in this book, it seems like the Irish attitudes that you’re depicting are somewhat different from the American ones. In particular, I was struck by how Billy tries to get publicity for an issue and go on TV, and his family’s reaction was like, “No, we don’t want this attention, we don’t want publicity.” Because from my perspective, that would be a very laudable thing here. That would be the most “useful” thing you could do with your grief -- or that’s how it would be perceived. Could you talk a little more about that? ER: I think it comes down to just how deep that stigma still runs, around suicide in particular, around mental illness in general. I think it does get back to this idea that it’s a weakness, so it would be families not wanting to be seen to be weak, tied up in guilt. Families not wanting to be seen to have done something wrong that led to the suicide. And I think it’s that very Irish and maybe very human survival instinct of “It’s too painful. I don’t want to look at this pain too closely. I want to go on. I just want to try and pick up the pieces as best I can.” I think for [Billy’s wife] Tricia, it was very much like “I’ll never get over this, but all I can do is hope as best I can and just get through each day.” It’s the shame, and it’s the stigma, and the publicity as well. That’s very Irish, this idea of keeping small and not drawing attention to yourself. TM: That was the most foreign thing to me. ER: Yeah! But that rings so true to me. It really is about keeping small. It kind of goes back almost’s a parental ideology, but I think it becomes even bigger if you really want to go back and look at the psychic scars of being a colonized country. It’s just the idea of “Be quiet, don’t cause trouble, stay in your place, knuckle down, just get the work done.” And, as well, I think, an attitude of “If we don’t look at it too hard, it might go away.” I think the Irish are really good with the pain factor, just not looking at things too closely. My father would have been very, very like that: “I can’t look it’s too painful.” And my mother would have been erasing the voice, “be quiet,” that kind of thing. “Don’t draw attention to yourself, and by God, don’t draw attention to us.” So I think those voices were very much in play, and although they kind of came directly from my parents, I think they came from the culture and from patriarchy right across the board. She’s unfortunately an all-too-obscure Irish writer and she died a few years ago, but Nuala O’Faolain was an Irish journalist, and she wrote a couple of memoirs, and she said -- I read it once and it stayed with me for many, many years. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. -- she said, “My Irish childhood took the I away from me. I felt ‘I’ was erased.” Not to point the finger at the Irish, but I think it’s culturally true. It’s one of those hard truths that we need to look at. And I think it does come from being colonized, but it is also like every country in the first world, we’re part of a patriarchal system. And the powerful are controlling everything, and they have the voice, and you just be quiet and stay in your place. And here we are, 2017, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing. TM: On that note, how do you see the role of fiction in our new hellscape? [Laughter.] ER: I have to believe it’s more important than ever. It sounds almost clichéd: What can you do? What should you do? But I have to believe it matters, I really do. Because I know my experience as a reader, and thankfully, there have been studies from way more reputable sources than myself, who have shown that reading does generate empathy. It does allow us to understand, because it humanizes. I read recently, I want to say the University of Oregon, they did a study where they had a large group and they show them some footage of was sort of this idea that “Look at all these thousands and thousands that are starving. Can you donate? Can you help?” And they got very little response. And then they brought in another group, and they show them one child starving, and everybody donated. So it’s the idea of what’s happening right now in the U.S. is so huge. I’m one, I can’t make a difference. Whereas if you looked at one particular person, be it Muslim or whoever else, and they tell you their story and they tell you their fears and say, “Help protect us. Stand up for us.” That, I think, is going to be much more powerful, and I think that’s what books do. A particular protagonist, it humanizes, it makes it very personal, and it just gives you a window into experiences. Because I think a lot of what’s happening now is, whether it’s conscious or unconscious, this idea of “It’s not affecting me, so while I might be upset that there might be lies, there might be collusion, or whatever else, especially if I’m white and middle class, it’s not going to affect me, so let’s just hope.” It’s that deflection again. It’s just: “Hope it all goes away.” TM: “Don’t look at it.” ER: “Hopefully this is just a little blip.” Whereas if you’re directly in the line of know. So I think fiction does have that power to humanize, to generate empathy, and to just make us understand what it’s like. What it’s like to be poor, what it’s like to be marginalized, what it’s like to be terrified, what it’s like to be the recipient, the subject, of racism, bigotry, all of that that we can’t appreciate if we don’t experience it. TM: I think this book in particular is about going from a feeling of powerlessness and in many ways being very objectively, factually powerless -- once Michael has killed himself, there’s nothing you can do to bring him back -- but it is about figuring out, through all your messy emotions and all the things that you can’t control, what you can do. ER: Yeah. And I think that’s something throughout my life that’s helped me survive. As a kid, as an adult: What can I do? Because it would be very easy to buckle beneath all the things I couldn’t control that were happening outside of me and that I was suffering from. I didn’t think this book would be that idea of...because I’m asking that, and so many people I know are asking that: What can I do? And I think we each have to find our answer to that, and it could be something tiny. Like you said, with Billy and the grief, if you can’t bring Michael back -- and I knew that pain, when you just want to bring people back and you can’t -- it’s like, “Okay, what can I do?” TM: I sort of felt that way when Trump got elected. I went into the same sort of magical thinking people have when they lose a loved one, where I was like, “Okay, we just need to make this not have happened. Reality just needs to change.” ER: Yeah, it’s just like, “What is the one thing that would have...?” There’s just so much, and it’s heartbreaking. And part of the grief process is letting go of that incredible ache to just turn back time. How many of us, for many different reasons, would give anything to turn back time? It makes you realize how human you are, and we do have limits, but we are also, for the most part, way more powerful than we realize. And that’s something that I’m really holding onto right now. I remember vividly being a kid in school and learning about the Holocaust, and my question back then was “What would I do? Who would I have been?” And I couldn’t understand it, I couldn’t fathom how it could happen. And now here I am. TM: I know, and it’s like, “Oh, this is exactly how it happened.” ER: Exactly! And I see how messy and don’t know what to believe. Like, your question: How powerful do I think fiction is? Fiction got us where we are. But it was dishonest fiction, whereas hopefully -- I like this! -- hopefully the antidote to that is honest fiction. Or at least one of them. It will only do so much, but it could just keep stoking the fire within each of us, and then we could put it into more actual terms. TM: Narrative does get its hooks into people in a way that facts don’t. ER: And Trump used it. Look how he used it. But that’s the key. It’s dishonest narrative, and it’s such an impure intent and purpose behind it. And I do believe in the power of honest fiction and narrative where the intent is to humanize, to engender compassion and empathy and understanding. Just kind of like a walk in somebody’s shoes. I didn’t know! I didn’t make that connection! But that makes me hopeful that...If we want to know how powerful narrative is, look what he’s doing. One of the first things he’s trying to do is shut down journalism and writers, because he, like every other dictator and fascist before him, they know the power of the written word and of the media and journalism. Because sometimes when you’re down there, you’re wondering what you’re doing. And with this book, I almost gave up so many times, and it was fear. Beyond the usual writerly fear of self-doubt and failure, it was the subject matter. Why am I telling it? What am I going to accomplish? And all of that. But it would not let me be. Billy would not let me be, and all of the characters -- Tricia, all of them, who for some readers may not be likable -- I loved them all. They stay with me, and I stuck with them, and here we are.
The Millions Interview

Heather O’Neill Wants You to Reclaim Your Sense of Wonder: The Millions Interview

One of my least attractive qualities is that, as a writer, sometimes I get pangs of jealousy while reading a great novel. The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill is one that turned me a pale shade of green. In 1914, two babies are left in the care of a Montreal orphanage, though the care includes regular beatings and abuse. Early on in life, the two children distinguish themselves. Pierrot, a virtuoso, can make a piano sing and Rose, with her supple strength, entertains the other orphans with her dancing and humor. When Pierrot and Rose become fast friends they find solace in each other until, as teenagers, they are split up. Pierrot is adopted and Rose sent out to work. With the Great Depression taking hold, they independently struggle to make a life in the underbelly of Montreal. Through their journey toward finding each other again, the novel explores ideas about self-expression, despair, and true love. The Lonely Hearts Hotel should be a sad book, but it isn’t. As Emily St. John Mandel said, “it’s also joyful, funny, and vividly alive.” How does a writer take on the subject of sadness and write about it with joy and wonder? One way is to counter the bleak and grim, as O’Neill does, with stunning prose. All too often, though, novels are filled with stylish language, gilded metaphors, and ornate sentences that don’t hold up thematically or structurally. When this happens, the language starts to feel decorative -- I can’t help but think of the gold drapery that Donald Trump has installed in the Oval Office, fancy curtains that say nothing about grandeur and only obscure the view. But the language in The Lonely Hearts Hotel adds up to much more. Word by word, the metaphors and images allow the author to build an elegant and understated exploration of theme. So what of my envy? It's petty and unbecoming and replacing my Ikea blinds with green curtains will do nothing to improve my writing. That said, I’ve found it’s important to chase after uncomfortable feelings, as they often point toward something I want to learn. I was interested to understanding more about how O’Neill works and asked her for an interview. Going back and forth via email, we talked about how she makes choices, doorbells, Montreal, what she sees, what she thinks about, and how she writes. The Lonely Hearts Hotel is about how two orphans turn difficult experiences into art. It makes a case for sadness -- that it is important because despair contains truths that can lead to joy. It shows how an author can build a sense of wonder using precisely chosen words. I finished both the novel and this interview with even greater admiration for O’Neill’s work. Uncomfortable feelings, like envy, can lead the way to a deeper appreciation. And maybe my Ikea blinds mean I can focus on the view. The Millions: I was struck by your writing when I realized the precision of your choices. Rose, out of the orphanage and looking for a way to make money, walks up to a building. Inside is a studio that makes pornographic films. You describe what she sees, a “descending row of white doorbells, like the buttons on a dress.” My question is specific: How did that image come to you? Heather O’Neill: It’s hard to remember the motivations for that detail specifically. But let me try. Doorbells at the entrance of a building is something that’s been in my imagination for a while. I remember reading an essay once, years ago, where someone said they lived in a building with loads of doorbells. And from that moment, I was in love with doorbells on the page. What I’m saying is that, for me doorbells are fraught and magical. So whenever they are in my text, they are more than what they are. They insist on having meaning. They are put there for me as a general metaphor for the content of a building. They have some much possibility. If there are loads of doorbells, there are all these strange doors you can choose to go into. There’s something inappropriate about having too many doorbells. TM: When you first wrote that sentence, did you already know that Rose would soon be taking off her clothes? HO: I was imagining Montreal as being sexy. So there are lots of feminine details and images. There are buildings that are coy and some that are more forward. The buildings echo what goes on inside them. With that building, the doorbells were a neat white line, like buttons, and buttons are always undone. And what goes on in that building is, of course, erotic. So when I got to the door, I would have wanted some detail that heralded that. So I added that detail. But I can’t recall when I added it. It might have occurred to me at the origin of the scene. TM: When you read the essay about doorbells, did you write your observation down? Or did it come to you while you were writing? HO: Many of my metaphors, imagery come to me specifically for the scene. I do also have notebooks filled with details. Sometimes I will have an image, like a poem that follows me around, waiting to be used. So it might have been a small line that existed before the story itself. Like my dad used to have a sewing box with lots of patches in the shapes of mushrooms etc, that were waiting for the right hole to fit. TM: Do you have an idea of the plot and work back to the language? Or is it the other way around? HO: There’s so much strange intuition in writing that it’s hard to say. I have no idea what the history of that actual line is, but if I tracked it down, I wonder if it would make my writing process make so much sense that I wouldn’t be able to do it anymore. TM: Beyond the doorbell, the buildings are much more than a place to live. When Rose takes a room in a building with thin walls rather than being disturbed by the noise, she feels soothed by the voices of her neighbours as she falls asleep, “it was what the world sounded like to an unborn child.” HO: The buildings in the novel are especially alive when Rose moves further east in the city, to the Red Light District. There were secrets maps of that neighbourhood that circulated in the 1930s and '40s. They had secret back doors and tunnels in the walls and routes over the rooftops, etc. So they were complicit in the lifestyle and criminal goings on. I feel like the inhabitants of every building change it a little bit. The way that every intimate relationship you have changes your personality. And the lives and activities happening in the rooms of those buildings jolted them into life. And I find them so beautiful that it’s hard for me not to see an object of beauty as being animate. TM: And the houses get moody with age, “they refuse to open or shut their windows.” Or a hotel goes up in flames, as if the building had a heart attack. You live in Montreal and set much of your work there. Do you think of the city as a character? HO: Definitely. I always feel that it is alive. When I sit on a staircase, I know the building is aware of me. It’s always watching me. It’s talked me into some of the worst decisions of my life and whispered great words of love and belief into my ears at the same time. I feel sort of giddy when I walk down the streets. Especially in the Plateau, where I’ve spent most of my life, because it knows me. It’s always reminded me of good times we had together. Sometimes I get so taken aback when I see an old familiar building that it’s like running into an ex at the grocery store. I think Montreal, like any city, has its own personality. It’s totally funny, it’s wry, it’s dirty. It is romantic and fickle and philosophical. It always has something to say in every scene I write. It’s a main character, I would say. TM: But then you captured New York in the most fascinating way as well. It is an outsider’s view filled with awe, that the city vibrates with so much energy because of, “all the hearts beating,” and the buildings are like, “ladders up to the heavens.” If you are so rooted in Montreal, how to you approach writing about another place? HO: It depends on the place. I think my interpretation of different cities is influenced by how that place is fixed in the imagination of Montrealers. (My portraits of Paris are always suffused with a moody, existential beauty.) I wanted New York City to seem very big to the characters. Growing up Canadian, as you know, you have a sort of cultural low self-esteem. We’re taught that everybody is more brilliant and bright and interesting than us. That’s why we’re so polite, because we’re afraid of being noticed. We’re so intimidated by Americans, it’s tragic. That’s what the performers were feeling when they step off the train. They are giddy by the heights of the buildings in New York, because they represent the heights of their ambitions, what they’ve decided to try and measure up to. Because it is so big, it makes the characters feel somewhat like children. And much of this novel is about the nature of childhood innocence, and the relationship between who we were as children and who we are as adults. They are essentially living out childhood dreams, so everything seems gigantic in New York, in ambition and scope. Everything is exciting and bold. TM: So much of the observation in this novel happens on the level of the street. I imagine you wandering the streets of Montreal and staring at people for inappropriately long stretches of time. Do you do this? HO: I used to. So much as a child. I definitely had a staring problem. I was enthralled by strangers around me in the city. I thought they were so wonderful. I would watch them as though they were theatrical productions, and I was analyzing their themes. Every nutty thing they said had subtext and layers of meaning. I read people as though they were novels, before I began writing novels. So much of what I wrote, especially my early work, was based on the works of influential writers and the jokers sitting across from me on buses. TM: That is the beauty in this novel, the layers of meaning. Your choices of images and metaphors link the language to the themes. The wonder in the your language, the awe involved in seeing something like a doorbell through fresh eyes, it speaks to how one can cope with the difficult things that happen in life. Can an adult who has lost a sense of wonder find it again? HO: Yes. It comes when you trust your intuitions, allowing yourself to get excited about absurd things. I became smitten with the image of a girl in a Napoleon hat when reading an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel when I was in my 20s. I was so fixated on the image, I was trying to figure out why I was interested in the idea of a girl in a Napoleon hat. In The Lonely Hearts Hotel there is a girl wearing a Napoleon hat in an early scene and then by the end of the book there is a whole troupe of girls wearing Napoleon hats. I realized after using the image that it was because I wanted to bestow on the young girls a revolutionary power. I wanted to make them ambitious, and blood thirsty and defiant. All the while pulling nylons over their toes, wearing lace bras, and shrieking at mice, maintaining their femininity. My chorus girls were an army, like Henry Darger’s drawings of warrior girls, or Marcel Dzama’s depictions of girl scouts with machine guns, or Gisèle Vienne’s dolls with black bandit masks on their faces. When it first appeared to me, it struck me as the most beautiful image in the world. But beauty comes before reason. It demands you look for meaning. It announces meaning in an almost violent way. Living with a sense of wonder, allows the seemingly trivial to insist on having meaning. It is not hierarchical. Children know this. They bestow great importance on a mouse on a counter, or a sticker of a unicorn prancing across a binder. As an adult, the act of judging one’s self and the world around you as insignificant is what leads us to lose our sense of wonder. Reading is an activity that causes the brain to wonder again. I find anyways. Whenever I finish a book, I put it down and the world seems to explode with new meanings. On some level, literature assumes that every reader is a child.
The Millions Interview

Alana Massey Says Bitches: Be Crazy

New York-based culture writer Alana Massey summons ghosts and goddesses in her debut collection of essays, All the Lives I Want: Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen to Be Famous Strangers. It’s the only party where you’ll find Lux Lisbon from The Virgin Suicides sashaying past Fiona Apple and Anjelica Huston. Massey regales readers with essays about these famous women using playful syntax and startling anecdotes to craft a collection both familiar and revelatory. Massey spoke with The Millions by phone about her book, the allure of celebrity, and a reworked battle cry, “bitches: be crazy.” The Millions: How do you feel about this thing that you have been obsessing over for the past year or so in different ways? Alana Massey: I finished it in December 2015. I didn't look at it really again until maybe last summer...Then I didn't read the book in full until mid-November when I recorded the audio book. That was when I sat down and didn't just read it for the first time, but read it for an audience of people in a sound group -- who don't mean to look intimidating [but] they're staring at you talking your own words. Next week it comes out and that's when the bigger kerfuffle around it happens. There are going to be straight reviews that have no emotional connection to it and are going to be completely based on the style and prose and the merits of my authority to tell certain stories this way. I understand that's going to come but the stuff that has happened so far has been so affirming. My second book is overdue. I changed the deadline for it. I want so badly to have the full breadth of reactions to the first book [first] to make sure if there are glaring errors in the way I write or approach things, that I can make up for it in the second book. I do believe in feedback. I do believe that writing is a service in certain capacities. Some people write because they have a story inside them and they want to be creative people. They do it for their own artistic expression. Maybe it’s my Protestant blood for hundreds of years but I'm just like, “No. There should be use in it. It should help people. It should have an action item at the end even if that action item is 'think differently about yourself and others and be kind to women,'" which is a very shortened version of what I hope happens from [this book]. TM: That was sort of my take away with it. This book does tell a lot of different stories. Anything that has a personal element can be a little navel gaze-y. I think that this has an empowering overall message primarily to young women and women who are in their late-20s to mid-30s who grew up with a lot of the book’s subjects. I thought the essay on The Virgin Suicides was really helpful; that story resonated with me too -- their obsession with death, the way they were reduced down to plot devices to bring these anonymous men to maturation. AM: I don't know if you had this experience of The Virgin Suicides, but I was obsessed with it as a teenager. I wanted to surrender to that narrative of just being a fantasy object in a teenage boy’s mind. Watching the movie later, I realized, “Oh no, I shouldn't want that. This shouldn't be written in a dreamy way. This is a tragic, horrible thing these boys are doing -- and not in a cute-horrible way. In a really insidious this-is-boys-in bootcamp-for-being-in-the-patriarchy kind of way.” TM: Why do you think that it is young women are so drawn to these fucked-up characters, be it Lux from The Virgin Suicides or Sylvia Plath — or even Courtney Love? Why do you think we want to find some sort of identity in them? Why do we want to be like that? AM: I think that so many of us feel like we have as much rage inside us as Courtney Love lets manifest in her life. We think we are the saddest girls in the world when we are sad. The way that celebrity functions now...they have this exclusive deal with the elements in that they're special. They're different. Their skin glows differently. There is just something special and anointed about famous people. I feel like there are people -- like the Kardashians or people who get famous of their own volition, like Gigi Hadid and Bella Hadid. Justin Bieber started on YouTube. The idea of celebrity used to be that you could never be like these people. I think now it's more if you just have the right voice trainer and the right tummy tea and you use this makeup, you can absolutely be famous and glamorous and all of these things. I think there is an impulse inside of us that's like if I just got angry enough and met the right rock star, I could be Courtney Love. My thing with Lux Lisbon was: I am definitely as sad as her and probably smarter than her. If I just get skinny enough, people will be in love with me the way they're in love with her -- and that was barrier to entry. The way that people have responded to the book has been interesting in that there's been multiple reviews that say, "Oh, you know there is definitely some filler in these essays." I can handle criticism -- okay yeah, I know that some are stronger than others. But everyone I talk to is so certain that the essay they like the most is the strongest one. That's really heartening because it means people who do have those attachments are really gravitating to particular pieces. I think that that's what's exciting because what I hope happens is you came for the Britney and Winona but you stuck around for the Dolly Parton and the Anjelica Huston. You came for Amber Rose but you learned a lot about Nicki Minaj. That's important. I hope the entire universe of it is an opportunity for empathy and forgiveness both of the self and of the celebrities we have punished for things that are not punishable offenses. TM: I had a couple of different favorite essays. I think that the ultimate favorite was one about the ex-girlfriends. I really, really appreciated the line about, “We like our ex-girlfriends and ex-wives one dimensional. We like them to act alone.” That really does call back to misogyny and the way it demonizes these women. You never hear shit about ex-boyfriends or ex-husbands in the same way that you hear it in the feminine sense. Why do you think that is? Is it just because of misogyny and the patriarchy? AM: In the same way you hear about how women in the workplace are more likely to spearhead a project and credit their friends, their colleagues. "Oh, it wasn't all me. These people helped." I think that happens with women’s relationships, too. They don't lay 100 percent of the blame on their ex in a way that men do and have been taught is acceptable. I do think that misogyny does have this way it functions socially...I think this happens in the Winona Rider essay. Women are supposed to be characters in a hero narrative rather than themselves. Because men are so routinely socially rewarded for basic decency that has always been the responsibility of women, they have a skewed sense of what kind of behaviors they are entitled to. When women butt up against those behaviors and say, "No, I'm not going to act this way. I'm going to assert my power." When we talk about a woman in a breakup, we catch her in her breaking point. We crystallize her in the moment she broke rather than in the long period of time before it got to the point that it got to. We forgive women less frequently. We believe in the validity of male emotions more than we believe in validity of female emotions. We are a society that doubts women who report their own experiences of what a man was like or what an experience was like. That's rape culture, too. It functions across numerous variations on how relationships work. Maybe he's this. He's a good guy at heart...We make excuses for men left and right, back and forth. It's really not a courtesy we do to women... If I was in a relationship and we broke up and I went into my bedroom and cried for a month and didn't eat but didn't bother my boyfriend or didn't talk shit about him...That is like a really unhealthy state of mental health. We don't call that woman crazy. We call her crazy when she calls out a man for what he did. We don't call her crazy if they break up and she moves to Paris and doesn't talk to him. It's only when she says, "Fuck you. You did a horrible thing. I'm getting back at you. I'm doing a thing. I'm asserting my power. I'm taking your money. I'm taking your land. I'm burning down your house because you have wrecked my life," that we consider them crazy because they are breaking the mold of we-don't-talk-about-what-men-do-wrong. We forgive men. We understand masculinity is complicated thing. These women are like, “Nope.” They have crossed this social line that they get punished for. That's why I view that essay as a battle cry. “Bitches be crazy” should have a colon in it. Go buck wild. Make them afraid that you will fucking tell on them -- that you will not go quietly because ill treatment is ill treatment. TM: You said that you are already halfway through your second book. What's that about? AM: I'm working on a reported narrative about the function of emotional language and how it informs gender experiences and perceptions in the workplace and what it could potentially mean for the future of the workplace given today's demographic. TM: I think that the sentiment of men just wanting to be loved echoes in All the Lives I Want, as well -- speaking to your experiences dancing and with other sex work with these men who seem to want to be cradled. They want this intimacy. It was really interesting because like you had said before, society paints women as being the hyper-emotional ones, the ones that are weeping because they don't have a boyfriend. But men are the ones who are willing to even shell out money to have these experiences that feign intimacy while women are finding camaraderie with other female friends or other projects. It's interesting. AM: We are so used to not getting what we want. We are kind of okay with it. We don't panic. I don't want give away everything that is in the upcoming book. Sex work is one of those ones that you have pretend so hard that you're not doing it for the money to the point that it becomes dangerous. You can make the most money pretending you don't want the money or you don't need the money or that, "Oh, it sucks that we met in these circumstances because I would totally be into you -- but we met in these circumstances, therefore, you have to keep paying me." Men really have become horrible about it. Men are much more likely to believe sex work is not work. They don't want to believe that loving them is hard. They don't want to believe that it is laborious to engage with them. They believe their beating hearts are fascinating and that they should fascinate whomever they are fascinated by. They don't understand how ordinary they are. It's really dangerous for the person who encounters that person who has to keep up the lie for as long as they can. They think they're the first person who ever wanted to connect with you. It's like, “Dude. look at me. I'm a hot young girl who can clearly string several sentences together. You're not the first one who thinks they know the real me.” They have such a concept of themselves as special. The same thing happens in [the essay looking at Lost in Translation,] “Charlotte in Exile.” Guys thought, "Yeah. Bill Murray, what a cool, sexy guy that I want to be." I'm like. “He's a horrible husband and father--” TM: Hasn't that also been the status quo, too? A lot of the sitcoms that we grew up with in the '90s starred a blubbering incoherent, overweight, kind-of-old dude married to this hot sharp lady who is just fawning over him. AM: I mean, The Simpsons. How did Marge Simpson end up with Homer Simpson? TM: Because a man wrote it. AM: Yeah. I mean in the same way there's just so many of these stories that you hear about Maggie Gyllenhaal was told she was too old to play -- I think it was Harrison Ford's wife...It was preposterous... I think it's really funny that, as much as I dislike Melania Trump, when she married Donald Trump and they were having a press conference some reporter was like, "Melania, would you be marrying Donald if he didn't have a ton of money?" Without missing a beat she was like, "Do you think he would be marrying me if I wasn't exceptionally beautiful?" She was very aware of that. There's this idea of the gold digger. It keeps coming back to the book where it is like, “Do you think that that old man who came into the strip club and who had been like a sharp business man -- made his billions, was involved with the Koch brothers -- do you think he went in there thinking that, 'Maybe these nice girls will think I'm attractive? Maybe we will really connect.’” That was transaction. A billionaire man always has more power then a young single mother. I don't care how brittle his bones are. He is the person who has power in that dynamic and the optics of it suggest otherwise. TM: We talked a little bit about how you want women to walk away from reading this book feeling empowered, feeling less alone, feeling that they have been understood. How do you want men to walk away from this book? What do you hope that they take from it? AM: It's interesting because I honestly thought men would really hate it. Then I have encountered several men who haven't...I have been using the word “forgiveness” a lot. I think that self-love has a really high threshold but that self-forgiveness is a more gentle way of being with yourself...When it comes to men, I want them, if they were people who have participated in contributing to the narratives of how we talk about celebrities and how we think celebrities but then also how that has been reflected in their personal lives, to see the body of evidence. When they return to relationships with women, whether those are romantic, friendly, professional, familial, and seeing why women felt a certain way, acted a certain way, and trying to better know the interior lives of women. The impetus and expectation for women to be doing the introspection on behalf of themselves and on behalf of men is so unfair. I hope this book can be manual for being...Like case studies in here's why not to tell your girlfriend she could get her body back. Take Britney Spears. Here's why you shouldn't be calling an exceptionally angry woman who has been treated poorly crazy. Maybe anger is a rational response to the world... I think celebrities are our modern-day fables. They don't just have to be cautionary tales. They can be instructions for better living. We know the stories. I think that right now we use the stories really haphazardly and really poorly when we could be using this really well to make the world more gentle and more empathetic and more rich with the full dimensions of women's experiences.
Essays, The Millions Interview

Borges, Burgin, and Infinity

1. The first thing you notice is the books. They line the walls of Richard Burgin’s house. His large foyer is uncluttered and, one gets the sense, rarely used. But just beyond that is a room with a large desk against one wall, a piano against the other. Stacks spill over from all sides of the bookshelves: a Japanese translation of one of Burgin’s books, a candid photo of Isaac Bashevis Singer, a poster in French for a reading Burgin gave in Paris in 2011. This is all evidence of an eclectic, accomplished life. The life is also an eccentric one. Burgin, who has authored nineteen books, does not use a computer. Every few weeks an assistant takes his spiral notebooks of prose and types them into word documents. He’s never learned to drive a car. He’s intrigued by technology but not adept at its use. He occasionally has to call his assistant and ask that she log into his NetZero account and read him his emails remotely. Back in his 20s in New York, he once invited his literary friends to an apartment party but on the day of the gathering a romantic entanglement in Boston caused him to miss his flight home. He called a neighbor who had a spare key to his apartment and asked him to leave the door open. Burgin later heard his party had been a hit. Ask Burgin when his life in letters began, and he’ll tell you that an early pivotal moment was as an undergraduate in a Spanish class at Brandeis University when he was assigned “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges. This was 1967. Borges was read widely in Latin America and Europe, but much of what would make him famous in the United States was not yet widely available in English. “The Aleph” rearranged Burgin’s conscious the way a grenade could be said to rearrange a room. The story, like most of Borges’ work, is fantastical. Its protagonist seeks to write a poem that describes every square inch of the entire planet down to the minutest detail. To do this he utilizes an object called the Aleph, through which he can see everywhere at once. Even if one were able to experience the infinite, the story posits, it would be impossible to convey this experience to another human. Infinity is therefore linked to isolation, and it was this perspective on infinity that most fascinated Burgin. Within weeks he’d read everything else Borges had written that had been translated to English. He considered Borges a literary god. This reaction to Borges had everything to do with the fact that Burgin, only twenty, had already been contemplating the idea of infinity for several years. 2. Burgin’s parents were both child music prodigies. His mother, Ruth Posselt, was a violin soloist and his father (also Richard) served as concertmaster for 42 years for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Burgin’s father used to tell his son that art is the last illusion. He said that artists who acted as if their work would be remembered after their death were fooling themselves. Maybe someone’s work would last a hundred years but not five hundred, not a millennium. It won’t last forever. Artists delude themselves about the impermanence and importance of their work. What artists make isn’t going to endure. It’s not the usual fodder of father-son chats, but Burgin’s father was nothing if not a serious man. And Burgin felt his father had a point. He’d always been a voracious reader and, even as a young man, it irked him that this fundamental truth of artistic mortality went unacknowledged in fiction. The avoidance of the topic seemed proof that art was, as his father said, all based on a lie. Burgin came to think of this as the conundrum of infinity. Then Borges appeared. Finally, Burgin thought, someone writing about the conundrum, rather than writing around it. Then, while Burgin was still an undergraduate, Borges accepted the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship at Harvard, which was only a twenty-minute drive from Brandeis. Upon hearing the news, Burgin was so ecstatic that he ran without stopping all the way from Harvard Square to his student housing in Central Square a mile away. It was a spring day, the warming weather lent itself well to optimism. He’d spend the summer preparing for Borges’ arrival. 3. “These were the days when people still listed their numbers,” Burgin says. “Writers, even famous ones, didn’t hide behind answering machines and caller ID.” As part of the Harvard fellowship, Borges would give six public lectures in Boston -- but Burgin wasn’t content to be only a spectator. He called Borges one afternoon and though Burgin’s memory of that initial conversation is clouded by the excitement he felt at the time, whatever introduction he made worked. He and Borges set a date for a drink. Burgin first laid eyes on the man through a window on the ground floor of the building where Borges was staying. The 67-year-old was being helped into an elevator. He walked with a cane. But despite his age and being nearly completely blind, Borges exuded an easy gravitas. His genius was palpable. He put those around him at ease. As a gift that first meeting Burgin brought a vinyl recording of Bach’s fourth and fifth Brandenburg concertos on which his father played violin. Burgin wrote about this first meeting: “[Borges] always makes you feel that it is he who is the grateful one, and that your company is the only gift he needs.” What blossomed that first meeting wasn’t a friendship, per se, but Burgin was invited back. For the second meeting he brought a reel-to-reel tape recorder, hoping to save some of Borges’s words and create an audio souvenir. The second meeting went as well as the first. The two men discussed Borges’s stories, of which Burgin had a near encyclopedic knowledge. Back at his apartment, listening to the tapes, Burgin realized that Borges’ words, even in casual conversation, were art. The realization led Burgin to subsequent meetings, which he again recorded. Burgin transcribed by hand the interviews and compiled them into a book, Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges, published in 1969. The book runs 150 pages and covers Borges’ thoughts on a host of writers, from Henry James to Kafka to Sartre. He discusses the bombing of Hiroshima and the Nazis. He talks with Burgin about the problem of time and, of course, infinity. The timing of Conversations could not have been better. More of Borges’ works were becoming available in English. Literary Americans were becoming Borges fanatics and regarded Burgin’s book as an important contribution to the understanding of this new preeminent voice in world literature. Borges is accessible, but he is also an endless riddle. Reading Borges tends to begat reading more Borges which eventually leads to reading about him in hopes of finding something that will explain the mind from where it all comes. At the time of its publication, Burgin’s book was practically the only book in English about the Argentinian. It sold well for a book of its kind. It was reviewed positively in Harper’s and The New Yorker and many other outlets. The New York Times ran two pieces on it, one in the daily and the other in the Sunday book review. In 1969, Burgin was only 21, less than a year out of college. “I thought it would always be that easy,” Burgin says. His next book would take him fifteen years. 4. After Boston, Burgin lived in New York before moving to Philadelphia, where he taught at Drexel University. At Drexel he founded Boulevard, an internationally distributed literary magazine currently in its thirty-second year of publication. John Updike, John Ashberry and Singer were in early issues, Joyce Carol Oates in its most recent. Former U.S. Poet laureates Charles Simic and Billy Collins are frequent contributors. In 1996, the magazine moved from Philadelphia to St. Louis when Burgin took a teaching job at St. Louis University. Ranking literary magazines is a fickle business, but on most lists of journals Boulevard can typically be found somewhere in the top twenty. Fifteen years after Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges, Burgin published his second book, also a book of interviews. This time they were with Singer, who had won the Nobel Prize several years earlier. Burgin’s first book of short fiction, Man Without Memory, came out later in the eighties, and the nineties saw two more collections and a novel. He’s published steadily since. Several of his stories have won prizes. He composed music prolifically. His career is a success by any reasonable measure. Still, if you talk to him long enough he’ll mention that none of his books were ever picked up by a big New York publishing house, that innovations in individual stories were never recognized by the literary establishment. None of his books of fiction got the attention that the Borges book did. But, he says with a smile, “I’ve never met a writer who feels like he or she got as much as they deserved.” You get the sense that this lack of recognition gnaws on him, that ambition can turn in on itself and become something like bitterness. However, it needs to be said that this is an aspect of his personality that will only reveal itself if you talk to him over the course of several weeks for several hours at a time. If you talk to him for just a few minutes, he’s going to tell you about his son. 5. Burgin, like his father before, talks to his own son about how an artist should regard infinity and the impermanence of what they make. These conversations aren’t purely academic. Burgin’s son (who goes by Ricky) is a budding filmmaker. In the fall of 2016 the two of them adapted Richard’s story "Do You Like this Room?" into a short film titled All Ears. The story concerns a man and a woman after their second date, back at the man’s house. The woman is a therapist and the man could be easily categorized as someone in desperate need of therapy. He suggests they play “the god game,” in which one person plays the part of god and the other plays the fearful believer. The conversation quickly turns dark and then the action does too. Richard worked with his son in adapting the story into a script and at one point in the writing process the younger Burgin crossed out half the dialogue his father had written. Richard responded by telling his son, “I think you’re extremely talented and I have no doubt your talent will one day eclipse mine. But I’ve published nineteen books and you’re 19 years old. Do you really think you write better dialogue than me?” “Yes,” his son replied. “I do.” All Ears has been received favorably thus far. Ricky has submitted it to festivals and it’s currently viewable on YouTube. The 16-minute film is solid work for a filmmaker of any age, but it’s especially accomplished given the project was helmed by a college sophomore. Ricky recruited the entire cast and used his father’s house as a shooting location. He designed the sets and transformed his father’s unused foyer into a troubled man’s bachelor pad. He hung lights, storyboarded and blocked shots. The first day of filming came. The man and woman leads arrived along with the film’s small crew. Richard disappeared. He wanted to give his son space to direct, though he couldn’t resist eavesdropping. He listened through a wall as his son gave measured, astute feedback. The set was filled with actors and professionals who were all in their late twenties and early thirties, but it was the nineteen-year-old who owned the room for the ten hours of shooting that day. Burgin’s face glowed as he recounted this later. “He was so frighteningly good,” he said. “I could never have done that, had that confidence at his age. I was stunned.” And when he talks to his son about the conundrum of infinity? “He says it makes his head hurt. He asks me why anyone would waste their time with such an idea when there’s so much work to do.”
On Poetry, Post-40 Bloomers, The Millions Interview

Form Reveals Poems for the Machines They Are: The Millions Interviews Saara Myrene Raappana

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.  
The Millions Interview

Free Speech Is a Black-and-White Issue: The Millions Interviews Paul Auster

“One of the Big Apple’s most celebrated sons,” the BBC once described Paul Auster. “A literary giant.” Auster, the screenwriter of four films (and director of three), hit a knockout with Smoke. The 1995 classic is a lovely, emotional look at Auggie Wren’s Brooklyn community smoke shop. The early icon of Brooklyn literary cool is a novelist and essayist, translator and poet, and much more. Over the phone from his Park Slope home studio, Siri Hustvedt’s husband is a generous, avuncular interviewee, speaking musically in that distinctive voice chiselled by a lifetime of fine cigars. The author of five autobiographies brings the frankness his memoirs like The Invention of Solitude are known for. As in his best writing: Auster is cerebral and elegant, passionate and precise. Having inspired younger stars from Jonathan Lethem to Karl Ove Knausgård, he remains a varied, engaging storyteller. (The co-director of Blue in The Face -- starring Lou Reed and Jim Jarmusch -- has film in a number of his novels, like The Book of Illusions.) 4321, his first novel in seven years, runs 866 pages, peppered with traumatic 20th-century American history, from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to the Attica prison riots. It charts four alternative lives for protagonist Archie Ferguson, Newark-born in 1947. Despite America’s grim political moment, Auster is persuasive about humanity’s capacity for imagination and transcendence, and the future of good books. The Millions: Smoke begins with that beautiful, inviting shot of Brooklyn looking back to the twin towers. Paul Auster: I know, I know [elegiacally]. TM: On 9/11 I was in St. Dizier, one of the worst dumps in France. Seeing you on TV, saying that you thought New York was going to be okay, was reassuring.  Now, as your wife Siri Hustvedt put it in The Guardian: “When fascism comes to America, they will call it Americanism,” and “Reality didn’t matter.” PA: Siri’s written some very powerful pieces during and after the campaign. We’re both galvanized, I must say, and we’re digging in our heels and we’re going to try to do as much as we can, and stay as vigilant as we can. Trump ran on division, hatefulness, and the desire to smash everything to bits, which is, I think, unprecedented in American history. We think our institutions are very solid, but not necessarily, and you keep attacking them, then suddenly the foundations are going to collapse, and then we’re in for real trouble. I don’t want to go on and on about Trump and his cabinet appointments, but pretty much everyone he’s picked so far is someone who has made a career out of trying to dismantle the very agency he’s supposed to lead. So, we’re in for a very weird, weird time. The Environmental Protection Agency is there to protect the environment and if the person in charge of it doesn’t believe in it, then how can he be the head of it? This is the absurd impasse we’ve come to now, where somehow it seems legitimate to millions of people in the country to take apart everything we’ve tried to build up all these years. And for what? TM: I like how 4321 is spiced with dramatic 20th-century American history: the Vietnam War, JFK’s assassination, the Attica prison riots, Rockefeller drug laws, ‘68 Columbia University protests. Referring to the Newark race riots in 1967, you said: “I did see that colonel from the Jersey State Police saying those terrible things about ‘wanting to kill every black bastard in the city’. It was horrifying.” Starting with grotesque Birtherism, Trump has unleashed this shocking old racism. PA: It goes back to the very early days of America. The pity is that Obama’s election, I felt at the time, was maybe our finest hour as a country. What a man he is, Obama! Sadly his election created such a reaction among a big swamp of the white population in America: they demonized him from the instant he took office and opposed every single thing he tried to do, and insulted him, denigrated him and he stood up to all of that, for eight years, with remarkable dignity. I’m so impressed by it. The man is truly extraordinary. It’s not that I agree with all his policies, he’s much more moderate than I am, but the human qualities of this man are so admirable. I don’t think we’ve ever had anyone of this stature and moral integrity as this president, Obama. So, I’m going to miss him terribly, I must say. TM: Trumpism, like the traumatic times in 4321, reminds me of an enduring line from William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” PA: Our country is built on these two primal sins: the sin of slavery and the sin of genocide, and I think we can’t really become a fully functioning, mature country unless we own up to how we started. TM: You have a history -- partly in your leadership role through PEN as an advocate for free speech -- of challenging Trumpish authoritarians, like the Turkish dictator Erdoğan. That must have been a real accolade for you in 2012 when he slammed you as an “ignorant man,” after you protested his jailing of writers? PA: A couple of years later, I met one of the journalists who had been in prison at the time, and he had come to New York because he was getting an award from the excellent Committee to Protect Journalists. He told me when my statement was published in the Turkish paper, he and all the other prisoners in the prison where he was incarcerated started cheering. So, it does matter to speak up. It really makes a difference. As part of my response to Trump, I decided recently to take on the presidency of American PEN in a year.  I’m going to do as much as I can do: Speak out about all these things. TM: Under Trumpism, some leftists are rediscovering the importance of free speech. You and Salman Rushdie, unlike some writers, stood in support of the murdered Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. PA: Yes, that was an issue that divided American PEN in ways that I would never have predicted and lifelong friendships were shattered in this dispute. I still don’t understand, I can’t get my mind around the people who oppose giving Charlie Hebdo the award. Seems like such a simple matter: martyrs for free speech deserve to be recognised, but these people had another point of view, which I didn’t agree with. Free speech is a black-and-white issue. There is no grey. Once you start making exceptions, then there is no more free speech. The people arguing against the award said that Charlie Hebdo engaged in what we would call hate speech, but I don’t agree with this. They were just obnoxiously making fun of everybody, and they were never singling out any one group for attack. They were opposed to everything and there’s something healthy about that, I think. TM: “You want to burn up and destroy all your previous work; you want to reinvent yourself with every project...You have to challenge yourself,” you once told Jonathan Lethem. Does that still speak to your creative instinct? PA: I’m happy to hear these words read right back to me. They’re very forceful, true. I still subscribe to them wholeheartedly. You dry up if you keep repeating yourself. It’s useless. TM: Jonathan Lethem, for his part, is sharp on sex: “I couldn’t agree more that the dirty secret of the [American] contemporary mass culture self-image is that we flatter ourselves on being extremely jaded and sophisticated, but we’re awfully prim and censorious and Victorian about so many different things.” For example, a politician involved in a consensual sex scandal, everyone’s so disgusted they need to know every last detail. PA: Siri and I were highly amused when the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky thing broke, how the press seemed to act as if no one has ever had sex before. The disdain that people showed for him engaging in whatever it was he did, really was the height of hypocrisy. As if no member of the press has ever had an affair outside of his or her marriage. It becomes ridiculous and America is a country of tremendous hypocrisy in these matters. More so I think than any other country in the West. I mean Mitterrand, the president of France, had two families and everyone left him alone about that. They knew but they didn’t care. It’s his private business. As long as he’s not sleeping with a, I don’t know, a Russian agent, he can do whatever he wants. TM: Speaking of Siri, in her essay "A Plea for Eros," she wrote that “American feminism has always had a puritanical streak, an imposed blindness to erotic truth.” PA: She’s right. Siri is someone unafraid to talk about these things in her work, and more power to her. TM: There’s quite a lot of sex in 4321. Any comment you’d make on the nexus between sex and creativity? PA: Ooh, what a big question that is. Sex is, of course, fundamental to all of us. It’s probably the most interesting subject in the world. I’ve noticed, over the years, my ability to write about it more fully. In my early novels, not so much. People were having erotic encounters, but I’d never described it at much length. In some books, more recently, I’ve been able to do that. I’ve been fascinated by it, to tell you the truth. Nothing I’ve written could be said to be just about eroticism. But there are erotic components to most of my books. I suppose the most erotically charged thing I’ve ever written is in the novel Invisible, when there’s this affair described between a brother and a sister. But whether it really happens or not is not clear in the narrative. But I remember feeling that I had to go into another zone altogether in my mind and just knock down all fear of squeamishness or prudery and go there, because if I didn’t then the passages would have been useless. I mean it’s not that they’re obscene, these passages. I’m not talking about pornography, but I’m talking about an accurate description, I hope, of erotic experience. 4321, yes there are sex scenes in the book. But all of them are crucial to the story, and because the book’s so complex, because I have a protagonist who’s not just one person but four, there are four of my Archie Fergusons, each one living his own parallel life, having different experiences from the other three. One of them, as a young person, has a bisexual life and I never went into any of that material before and certainly it’s not autobiographical. Writing about violence, too. Things I’ve never done myself, but it’s not hard to imagine how someone can lose control of himself and do awful things, violent things to another person. TM: When The Tortilla Curtain came out, some people attacked T.C. Boyle for appropriation, despite his sympathy and skill evoking the undocumented Mexican experience. PA: Nobody owns the imagination. If we didn’t have the power to project ourselves into the minds and bodies of other people, people unlike us, I don’t think there would be such a thing as society. We wouldn’t be able to communicate. The whole idea of being a person is the fact that once you reach a certain level of mental and emotional maturity, you’re able to look at yourself from the outside. You’re able to see yourself as one person among many. Millions, in fact. Which then you take that one step further and you realize then you have to have the ability to project yourself onto others in order to try to understand them. Either sympathize with them, empathize with them, however you want to define it, but without that quality we wouldn’t be human beings. So, every time I hear someone get up and say: “You can only write novels about people exactly like yourself,” they’re saying that there is no such thing as the imagination. Which means people are not people [Laughs]. TM: “So then only men could write about men, only women could write about women. Only dogs could write about dogs. It becomes a kind of fascism in itself,” T.C. Boyle responds. PA: That’s right. It’s truly absurd.  Getting back to Tolstoy, then he wouldn’t have been allowed to write Anna Karenina. I mean these are absurd arguments and yet people actually do make these arguments, and I’ve always been appalled to hear them. TM: What do you hope 4321 might accomplish? PA: I wrote the book, now it doesn’t belong to me anymore.  I mean, needless to say, every writer hopes that every human being on the face of the Earth will read his book, but that doesn’t happen. TM: It’s heartening that good books and independent book stores seem to be doing well.  PA: Yes, absolutely. The novel has been pronounced dead, I guess, maybe 50 million times in the last 100 years, but it’s still thriving. The novel is one of the only places in the world where two strangers can meet on terms of absolute intimacy. We need storytelling in order to understand our own lives and I don’t think that this impulse to create fiction-- and to read it -- is ever going to go away. Paper books are better technology. It’s more pleasant to read a book and turn the pages than to push buttons on a screen. The novelty of this has died out now and sales of e-books have leveled off now for several years. Paper books are very much alive and will continue to be alive. TM: Do you hope to write till your last day, like Wayne Barrett and George Orwell did? PA: I hope so. Of course, George Orwell didn’t live very long. He died at 46, when I think I’m about to turn 70. It’s quite a difference. Yes, I want to keep going. I don’t see how artists can retire, really.
The Millions Interview

Across the Boundaries: A Conversation with Sonya Chung and Rion Amilcar Scott

Sonya Chung's novel The Loved Ones is the type of book you read slowly, pausing to reflect on the difficult wisdom and the tangibly human characters. I corresponded via email with Sonya (a contributing editor at The Millions) about creating multi-dimensional characters, reader expectations, writing across difference, and more. Rion Amilcar Scott: Part of what I love about The Loved Ones is how believably you render characters who are so different from one another and from you the author. You approach them all with a core of warmth and humanity. Can you talk about how you approached the creation of a Charles, and Alice or a Hannah. You mention in a previous interview that you had to work hard to get to know these characters. I’m wondering what that “working hard” looks like. Sonya Chung: First, I’m gratified to hear that you found the characters believable and experienced warmth and humanity in the writing; of course that was my hope/intention, but in taking major imaginative leaps, one always risks failure on these fronts. With each of the characters you mention -- Charles, who is African American, the youngest son in a large family, fatherless, a former soldier, a reader of spy novels; his wife Alice, who is white and estranged from her privileged, conservative southern family; and Hannah, who is closest to me demographically but odd and isolated in a very particular way -- the “working hard” meant different things. Charles is a composite of different men I’ve either known well or observed closely (from one degree of separation) over the last 20 years. Developing and rendering Charles thus involved both melding the composite elements into a coherent singular person, as well as finding the part of me, the author, that would express itself in him (which is what I think we authors have to do with all our characters).  Or: backing up a little, maybe the most significant work were those 20 years; I could not have written this book, say, 15 years ago, or even 10.  In fact, I tried to write it six years ago and failed; that unpublished novel was a very different story with different characters, but I do think of it as the first try at this one. With Alice, there was some research to do -- campus-protest culture in the early '70s, the Peace Corps in Chile, the Department of Defense educational system, and army-base life in Seoul -- but mostly I had to work at compassion for Alice, to understand that her often alienating behavior was motivated by a series of losses, compounded.  I knew that if I couldn’t connect emotionally with Alice -- especially when her emotions went dark and cold -- then the reader wouldn’t either. Hannah, interestingly, became the most challenging character to access and fully develop. I was a lonely child like her, but my family circumstances were very different; and my childhood world was multiracial but segregated, while hers, by design, collides with Charles and Alice Lee’s world.  What ultimately befalls Hannah in The Loved Ones is quite far from my own experience, so she became a distinctly “write what you don’t know” character for me, and I had to employ all the textbook writerly skills of putting myself in her shoes, really immersing in “what if?” empathy, and investing myself in her way of reacting to the world around her (which is rather unconventional). You’ve talked in an interview about the “work” of writing across gender.  What does that look like for you?  I’m also wondering your thoughts on the institutional power differentials surrounding these identity-crossing issues in fiction.  For example, many people ask me about writing Charles Lee, but you are the first to ask me about writing Alice Lee.  Is this because she is white?  Or perhaps because she is less of a major character? RAS: The “work” of writing across any sort of difference, to me, requires finding what sort of commonalities you, the author, have with that character. When I was writing from the perspective of an 11-year-old girl in “202 Checkmates” I first asked myself what mattered to me when I was 11. I remembered the futile crushes, the play, the curiosity and fear of the adult world, and the burgeoning reality that I was steadily marching into it. All of that is somewhat universal to children at that age. Then I had to think about how navigating these things is different for a girl. I find it interesting that no one asks about how Alice Lee was created. She and Charles are the characters that stick with me most because they are such difficult people, both difficult in their own unique ways. Two theories on why people ask about Charles and not Alice: 1) It’s unusual seeing such a well-drawn black character, at least more rare than encountering a white character who is presented as fully human. Or, relatedly, 2) White is seen as the default in fiction so painting an Alice character is not regarded as extraordinary. By the way, even creating a well-drawn character that does not cut across difference, that is some composite of the author’s own life experiences, is a difficult and extraordinary feat. I’m curious about what sort of responses you’ve gotten about your characters and how that differed from your intentions for them? SC: You know, I’ve gotten positive feedback about the book in general -- its ideas and themes and overall multi/interracial conception -- and about “the characters” being real and dimensional. Most people share your sense that the characters are “difficult,” and a few reviewers and interviewers have commented on how impressed they were to be drawn into rooting for such difficult characters.  One thing I hear often is how much readers cared about “every one of the characters.” On the one hand, that’s extremely gratifying, given the challenges of creating well-drawn characters we’ve just discussed; but I do wonder in what ways different readers connect or attach themselves to specific characters. Some readers have said The Loved Ones is Charles’s story; others have said Hannah takes center stage.  A few readers attach themselves strongly to Hannah’s parents. I don’t hear much about Veda (Charles and Alice’s biracial daughter), which surprises me a little: she’s a secondary character, but sort of the breath-of-fresh-air character.  And again, very little comment on Alice, generally speaking (poor Alice!). I wonder: how much does the reader’s own identity -- race, gender, age, sexuality, etc. -- affect, if at all, connection to/repulsion by various characters?  I also wonder who, in these current times, is drawn to reading a book with a multiracial ensemble cast.  There are a number of high-profile novels that came out this fall that are “Black” or “Asian,” and I sometimes wonder if The Loved Ones is a harder sell amidst them. (I could probably do a little research on all this by poring over Goodreads reviews or something; but I am intentionally choosing not to do that, for my own sanity!) Do you have a sense of who is reading your work and how they are responding to various stories, characters, ideas? RAS: I’m surprised that anyone at all is reading Insurrections.  But people are and the reception has been generally positive, people showing me things I hadn’t necessarily considered about the stories. For instance, students showing me the ways “Juba” -- about a man being mistaken and arrested for being a mythical drug dealer -- can be read as a parable for the mass incarceration era. People like to ask about where the reality in the work lies, which is odd since most of my stories are akin to fever dreams, I think. Ordinary people don’t go out looking for mythical drug dealers after mistaken identity encounters; that’s an insane thing to do and I don’t recommend it. Readers have also asked me a lot about the bigger picture. My book takes place in the fictional town of Cross River, Md., which was founded after a successful slave revolt; I plan to explore Cross River for as long as I’m writing fiction. So I tend to think of Insurrections as one piece in a much larger puzzle. Some readers wanted to see a lot of the stories resolved and I don’t want to resolve anything for anyone, I want readers to ruminate when they get to the end of a story; people tend to be happy to hear the town is coming back and some of the characters are coming back. But when Cross River comes back it’s not to resolve or to provide happy endings, but for us to keep thinking about the ways we access and react to history that controls us despite our dim awareness of it. How about you? What is your sense about how The Loved Ones fits into what you envision is your larger landscape as an author? SC: “Ordinary people don’t go out looking for mythical drug dealers after mistaken identity encounters; that’s an insane thing to do and I don’t recommend it.”  I think we’ve just found the tagline for this conversation.  Or maybe the title of your next Cross River installment . . . But seriously: I love hearing about the stories in Insurrections as “fever dreams” (that rings true for me, as one of your readers) and that Cross River is a place you are continuing to explore.  I recall reading a review of Insurrections in which the reviewer did feel that the place was as yet fully explored, and I appreciate your perspective as the artist, which is Yeah, exactly.  The patience and process-centeredness of that resonates. By the way, when my first novel came out, I was also surprised when people said they’d read it.  You have?  I would think.  Why in the world would you do that?  Recently I walked into an esteemed writer’s vast library (someone I don’t really know, a friend of a friend) and was awestruck -- it was like a mythical Borgesian sort of place -- then I looked over and saw, literally, right there on a shelf by my knee, a copy of my first novel, Long for This World.  It was a little crazy; I mean I’m proud of that book, but it didn’t exactly sweep the nation.  I nudged my friend and asked if she’d given it to the writer whose library it was, and she said no and was as delighted and surprised as I was to see it there. I share that story just to remind us writers -- lest we fall into defeatism or assumptions -- that there is still something magical about the way books and readers find each other. My larger landscape: with The Loved Ones I had the experience of writing (and rewriting and rewriting) a book that felt like a deep and wide and compressed and honed version of who I am -- so much of the best and most difficult stuff I’ve really known in my life.  Not literally, but intellectually, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually. And so I feel like I kind of understand now how the best books -- my best books -- will get written: it can’t be a craft exercise, or an imaginative exercise, or a conceptual exercise, or -- and this feels particularly relevant right now -- a political statement.  I mean, it can, but there also has to be real, personal skin in the game.  And so the next books -- I have two simmering in adjacent pots right now (I like the idea of a work of art as a stew that needs a long time to find its optimal flavor) -- are also both reaching into those most interesting, complicated, difficult-to-talk-about lived life spaces.  Specifically, race, sex, art, religion, family -- the complicated undersides of all these.  If there’s a big-picture trajectory -- and I’m not sure there is -- but if there is, I imagine myself becoming more and more invested and vulnerable in what I’m writing, while also upping (sharpening, experimenting, paring down) my craft to match.  It sounds simple, but writers know how impossible this is.  I like what the sculptor Henry Moore said, that the secret of life is devoting yourself tirelessly to the tasks of your vocation, and the task at hand “must be something you cannot possibly do.” I’d love to hear a little about your forthcoming book Wolf Tickets.  Is it related/connected to Insurrections, or something completely different?  How does the new book compare with the first one -- writing process, publication process, your anticipation of its release and reception now that you have one book under your belt? RAS: Wolf Tickets also takes place in Cross River, but it is a very different book. Much more hallucinatory, much darker, much more relentless. It’s a collection of linked (mostly) flash stories about a wolf hunt that gets very out of control. It’s a time of violence and lacking common decency and resistance. I wrote and submitted Wolf Tickets before Insurrections was completed. For reasons beyond my control it’s been sitting on the shelf for a while now. Things are starting to move with it. The thing I love about writing these two books is all the little things they teach me about Cross River. I worked on them in tandem so they really do speak to each other. Characters in the books do not overlap, but locations and ideas and the common histories do. The final story in Wolf Tickets called on a lyricism I wasn’t sure I was capable of so I learned to write word by word -- often my writing day consisted of just listing words that I imagined needed to appear in the story. This taught me how to write, “Three Insurrections,”  the final story in Insurrections, which had been troubling me for years (it took me three years to write). What about, you? I’m very much looking forward to whatever you’re working on now and/or have coming next. SC: And I’m really looking forward to Wolf Tickets -- writing “word by word” is especially intriguing and exciting to me, as I’m sure it is to all our language-oriented readers here. It’s also interesting about the timing: production and publishing is indeed often out of our control, but I’ll look forward to hearing you tell the “story” of the two books, how they speak to each other and what it means to you for one to precede the other in the world, and vice versa in your process. As for me, I’m working on book-length nonfiction and fiction simultaneously.  I’m finding both really difficult and really absorbing (à la Henry Moore), though in different ways.  I like going back and forth between the two, although each requires serious immersion, so I can’t flip-flop too frequently.  I find I have to really “listen” for which project to be working on, for fear that the simultaneity will forestall completion of either in an unproductive way; my hope is for the projects to feed each other and my writing energy. Trying to publish book-length nonfiction will be a new journey for me.  But I’m optimistic about publishing prospects in general, because of the excellent experience I’ve had with Relegation Books, a micropress/“craft” publisher.  There are so many fabulous small presses right now, and I was able to experience the reality that there are myriad superb options out there outside The Big Five -- that there truly is a best way to publish one’s book, as opposed to the conventional, erroneous idea that there is Plan A (corporate) and Plan B (indie).  I feel we are living in a world now where claiming and investing ourselves in robust democratization -- bottom-up creativity -- is more crucial, and more appealing, than ever.
The Millions Interview

The System Is Rigged: The Millions Interviews Leland Cheuk

I first met Leland Cheuk when he read for Dead Rabbits -- a reading series I co-host in New York City. Thoughtful, charismatic, and passionate about his work and the work of others, he immediately struck me as someone thinking on multiple planes about art and its role within the world. His writing operates in the same way; The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong is at once heartwarming and wrenching, examining heritage, immigrant life, and injustice in America with bite and comedic verve. After publishing his first two books, The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong (CCLaP Publishing, 2015) and Letters from Dinosaurs (Thought Catalog Books, 2016), he’s now moving into publishing. I talked with Leland over the course of a few days via email, discussing his new endeavor, 7.13 Books, the state of modern publishing, and issues of inclusivity, diversity, and more. The Millions: So, tell me about the mission of 7.13 Books. As we both know, there’s a wealth of small presses in the world now. What separates 7.13 from them? What unites it with them? Leland Cheuk: Yes, there are a ton of great small presses out there. In terms of what 7.13 is about, the authors are going to play a big role in determining what the press represents as a brand. The books will be bold, impeccably written. They’ll look great. And there will be no good literary reason why the books aren’t mainstream and award-winning. Their existence as small press titles will be an indictment on the tired traditional publishing model offered by the Big Five publishers, who in reality have been out of the business of publishing literature for years, maybe decades. Three-hundred thousand books each year are published from the Big Five and maybe a few hundred are what any reader would consider literature. An argument can be made that the big houses are really in the business of publishing cookbooks, celebrity memoirs, and adult coloring pads. For authors publishing with 7.13, they’ll be getting no bullshit. I won’t make promises I can’t keep. I’ll set clear expectations about what the press can and can’t do. The books get lots of editorial attention from me, and I give the author tons of control and input over every aspect of the book, from the cover design to the marketing and publicity. TM: I’m interested in knowing about the final straw in relation to 7.13 Books. What pushed you towards developing the press? LC: Like most writers who’ve been at it for 10, 15, 20 years, I felt I had done almost everything possible to get a book published. I’d done the work, gone to top residencies, signed with agents, and had close calls at big houses. But nothing happened. And nothing happened because the numbers are so daunting. Tens of thousands of qualified writers for a couple hundred deals. Every year, it seems like everyone is talking about the same two dozen or so titles as the big literary hits. The system is as rigged as the global economy. My books only exist because of the kindness of a few people willing to lose time and money on my title. The publication offers for both my books came on July 13. A bone marrow transplant successfully engrafted and saved my life on July 13. That’s why the press is named 7.13. Once I made those connections about my life as an author and the acts of radical kindness (from my anonymous stem cell donor to the small press publishers who took a chance on me) that made that life possible, I decided I had to do something to give back. We all need to do something to keep the business of literature alive. You host a reading series. Some people do podcasts. I read for a literary journal (Newfound) as well. Go to readings. Buy books. Support writers. Not every author understands that. You rarely hear about big-time authors doing stuff like this. Teaching is not enough. Hanging out in your literary echo chamber of fawning critics, editors, agents, and other successful authors is not enough. Tens of thousands of writers are doing great work and they’re getting zero. They need a hand up. TM: It can be hard, though -- what you’re saying. Running a reading series, or editing a small-time journal, whatever you do. How do you keep doing it? And for what? Also, to that end -- Kevin Nguyen had a great piece about #booktwitter and the sort of performative white "wokeness" that comes with, say, simply reading a book by a writer of color. There’s a lot to be doing that isn’t just reading, is all. Just reading isn’t enough. LC: It really isn’t enough! We need to be pushing books on friends, family, and strangers in the same way that we talk about TV shows. We shouldn’t even be keeping books in our private libraries. We should be giving them to others. Your Kindle should encourage you to send the book you just read to 10 other people if you liked it. Conversely, #booktwitter should be able to say when a book sucks. I know writing books is hard, but when nearly every book is a “OMG, so good!” and every review says “this is a must-read, tour-de-force,” we’ve just become part of this big, corporate book PR machine. I’m of the mind that authors should be banned from doing book reviews, and that the National Book Critics Circle should be an organization of professional book reviewers only. I know newspapers are slashing book reviews altogether, but we need independent-minded folks questioning the literary art form at all times. This “All Books Matter” mentality that Kevin Nguyen wrote about is contributing to a certain amount of stagnation of literature. Imagine if Alan Sepinwall was also a famed TV showrunner or if A.O. Scott was a renowned filmmaker. How would we trust that their reviews weren’t just propping up a friend of a friend? Then aesthetically, all upcoming screenwriters and filmmakers would be rushing to emulate their aesthetic. That’s where we are in the book industry today, where readers just get wave upon wave of what came before. TM: On another note, your story of fighting myelodysplastic syndrome is harrowing and inspiring, as is your piece in Salon about the process of beating it while trying to get published. How has your story informed your foray into publishing? How does it continue to inform your writing? LC: I hope I’m beating it. I seem to be okay, knock on wood. I think the experience just made me realize how self-absorbed I was before. More than ever, especially since the recent election, we need to take action and give. I think about the nurses who were collecting my stool samples and feeding me ice chips during chemo. I think about my wife, who stopped her life to become my caretaker. There are all these people lifting you up everyday. It’s the same for your writing and my writing. Think of all those people at your book launch. You and the Dead Rabbits Reading Series were there for me when my novel came out. I’m writing some nonfiction around this idea. I don’t know where it’s going, but I hope there’s a book in there somewhere. TM: Yes, for sure. I wouldn’t be anywhere close to where I am without dozens of people who have done both the biggest and smallest of things. How are you approaching writing about such a (I can’t imagine) powerful, life-altering event, especially as someone so used to writing fiction? LC: It’s hard. I guess the simple answer is I try to write about myself like I’m a character in a novel. But the deeper, truer answer is that I just imagine that my audience is my loved ones and the book is the message I would leave them if my health takes a turn for the worse. TM: That’s a beautiful, sorrowful sentiment. Now, the publishing world, as we both know, is often frustratingly stagnant and, at the same time, ever-changing. It responds to pertinent issues at the same time as it perpetuates certain wrongs. Just when I see one thing that’s worth celebrating, I see another that’s worth calling out. What are your thoughts on the publishing world at large? How has publishing your own work altered or confirmed any views you’ve had on the whole wide mess of it, from the Big Five to the indies? LC: Oh lord. How long do you have? [Laughs.] I’ve never been so bored with mainstream literary publishing. There’s an aesthetic sameness to most of the list titles. Naturalism is king. Identity is queen. And the family is the castle. And the castle is, for some reason, often located on the Upper West Side, Upstate New York, Montauk, or the Hamptons. I don’t see risk-taking. I see lots of opportunism. Great work still gets published. This year, I loved Paul Beatty’s hilarious and irreverent The Sellout, Colson Whitehead’s grimly imaginative The Underground Railroad, Kaitlyn Greenidge’s quietly incendiary We Love You, Charlie Freeman, Yaa Gyasi’s expansive, yet concise Homegoing, and Alexander Weinstein’s Black Mirror-esque Children of the New World. But honestly, I read a lot of the fiction that critics and book publicity people fawn over and just shrug. There’s a lot of meh-ness in the indie world too. But there’s no excuse for Big Five publishing companies dropping huge advances on meh books. TM: What do you think accounts for both big/indie meh-ness, to use your term? I know we each have our own ideas about what constitutes a good book. LC: Yeah, I shouldn’t put it in terms of good versus bad or meh versus un-meh. It’s more the lack of boundary-pushing on the form. I’m not a huge consumer of experimental fiction, but when I buy a book or when I’m reading submissions for 7.13, I want to be reading something I haven’t read before. And the older you get, the more you’ve read, so the bar for originality and newness gets higher and higher. I freely admit that I have snobbish tendencies. The general mediocrity at the big houses comes from what plagues the economy as a whole. It’s this short-term, winner-takes-all economic model that doesn’t allow for more books to be successful. Right now, they’re giving huge advances at the top and making those books successful to carry the business. For that author, it’s wonderful and terrific and we all root for and envy his or her success. For hundreds of other authors, they’re screwed because no one in the house, from editorial on down to sales and marketing, cares about their books. It’s just like Hollywood. Everyone sees Age of Ultron, The Force Awakens, and Superman v. Batman. But are those films for everyone? Not really. They’re being crammed down our throats for the sake of the bottom line. The publishing industry is a billion-dollar industry. If they can’t put out a few hundred successful literary books a year out of 300,000, what good are they? On the indie side, there are just so many presses and so many books. Of course, there’s going to be meh-ness. There are a lot of indie authors publishing pretty good first books that would’ve gone to big houses 15 years ago when they were more interested in growing an author’s career. Now it’s just churn and burn, up and out, and you get one chance to blow. TM: The indie world especially has made large strides towards inclusivity. I think of presses like Emily Books and Dorothy and countless others, or some of my favorite journals, like Apogee or Luther Hughes's new journal, Shade (among like so, so many more) -- what is 7.13 Books doing to be an inclusive press? And, further, I’m interested to know your thoughts about the responsibility of presses and journals and readers on this matter. LC: We’ll only be publishing a couple of books a year, but over time, I hope we’ll have good balance in terms of gender, ethnicity, and aesthetics. When I first opened for submissions, I noticed that the writers submitting were rather…blanco. So I put some feelers out on Twitter and the subs got more diverse. An eclectic list on all levels is the second thing I’m thinking about when I go through the slush. But finding writing that I really like is still the first. Everyone loves to talk about inequity for women and POCs, but an inequity no one wants to talk about is that 80 percent of mainstream literary fiction deals are sold to women. Eighty-four percent of editors are women. It’s extremely difficult to sell a male perspective right now. Recently, an agent said he brought that up on Twitter and was trolled to death. The authors I grew up enjoying like Bret Easton Ellis, Kurt Vonnegut, or Thomas Pynchon, would probably be relegated to small presses today. It’s a complex issue. Yes, men historically are more frequently reviewed and win more of the big awards. But if you’re a male author trying to break into literary fiction, you’re shooting for one of maybe two dozen deals each year. I’m going to try for a 50/50 gender-balanced list, which, frankly, is radical by today’s standards. TM: That is a deeply unpopular opinion. Don’t you think that the publishing world needed that shift, to a majority of female editors, among other things? At least to counteract what was once (and still often is, come awards season) a white-male dominated industry? But yes -- the complexity of that issue can be difficult to discuss honestly. You don’t fight for fairness with inequity. But, I mean, what’s interesting to me -- I’ve been co-running this reading series for almost three years and as we’ve grown older our submission queue and our lineups have by nature become more diverse. Like, we’re in New York City. It’s come to the point where if I see a reading with an all-white bill, it’s like -- it’s not that you’re not looking hard enough, it’s just that you’re not looking at all. To me, the issue of “solving the diversity problem” or whatever it’s labeled as can’t be entirely a numbers game. Maybe it has to be, I don’t know. But also, I think about ensuring the inclusivity of spaces -- appreciation, generosity, feeling, listening. LC: Thorny issue, for sure. The numbers don’t lie, though. And there are reasons for them. More women read. But 80/20? Unlikely. I agree with you on not making it a numbers game. It’s helpful to know the numbers, but for me, it comes back to the issue of that aesthetic sameness. For 7.13, I’m hoping every book will be different from what’s out there already. A writer can get to that difference any number of ways. It could be sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, and/or form and use of language. Frankly, I get excited as a publisher when it’s all of the above. I recently read a submission that I just wanted right away. It was written by Farooq Ahmed (remember that name, because he’s going to be huge if he can find a NYC agent and editor with guts). The novel was named Kansastan, and it was set in a dystopic America where Kansas is a Muslim state. The main character was a crippled boy living in the minaret of a mosque and tending to goats. And the Christian Missourians are coming for them. It was absolutely enthralling, written in this Old Testament voice that echoed early Cormac McCarthy with all these allusions to Islamic lore and the Quran. The author hadn’t done an agent search yet, so I let the manuscript go. But that’s the type of book I want to do at 7.13 and that’s the way I want to approach the diversity issue -- from all possible angles. TM: That sounds wonderfully epic. It’s frustrating you had to add that caveat, the whole if he can find an agent and editor thing. That process is just, well, as someone going through it -- it has its moments where you feel like you’ve made it and then those moments where you feel so low, so far down. LC: I know plenty of well-published, acclaimed authors without agents. Both my books were published without one. An agent is a nice-to-have. You can’t make a living wage from your writing without one, but there are, like, 100 American writers total making a living wage from their books alone, and one of them is James Patterson. I tell writers not to sweat the agent search and do their thing. Send out queries like you’re going to the gym. Structurally, something in the traditional editor-agent-author troika needs to change. The transactional model is just not working. Not enough agents are making decent money and authors aren’t making any money at all. I can see a future where the big houses acquire dozens of small presses at a time to bypass the agent thing completely, leaving agents to add value by providing publicity services and career management. TM: You’re fairly active on social media. Which is cool. How has social media altered the book world since you started writing? I want the good and bad. And the in-between. LC: I think social media is great. It’s a way for writers to connect. I’ve often said that writing is not a vocation or avocation, it’s an identification. And social media gives writers a chance to identify themselves so that they can be found by other literature lovers. And social media requires excellent, concise writing. I do think it’s absolutely ridiculous the way Roxane Gay and other authors (usually female) with big platforms get trolled. I also think it’s absolutely absurd the way aspiring or emerging writers flood famous authors with likes when they tweet that they’ve fed their cat or had a good meal. Mr. or Ms. Famous Author isn’t going to blurb your book because you hearted his/her book tour photo. Social media tools don’t help users manage their dignity well. Perhaps a Dignity Warning should be the next thing on Mark Zuckerberg’s to-do list. LM: [Lauhgs.] Yeah. And though the hive mind quality of Twitter is not news, it’s one of those places where there’s this beautiful sense of community, of sharing, juxtaposed with this self-consciousness about what it means to belong, or what it takes to simply belong. I mean, Leland, the amount of times I’ve drafted and re-drafted a basic tweet. It can feel like the curated self at times. LC: But that’s part of writing, isn’t it? We should always be curating our words for an audience. I’m very much pro-social media. Sometimes it’s tiring and tiresome. Sometimes it’s hard to filter what’s real and true. But I feel like the work to be part of a living literary community is ultimately worth it.