I count Elisa Gabbert among the essayists I would eagerly read on anything. It happens to be the case that the things that tend to interest her—translation, literary style, and disasters, to name a few—tend to interest me, too. But the real pleasure of reading Gabbert is in letting oneself be carried along in her thinking, which is cuttingly clear and delightfully digressive. The Word Pretty—Gabbert’s fourth book, following two books of poetry and one book of very short prose pieces—collects 22 previously published essays on a wide variety of themes. The subjects range from notebook-keeping to the guilty pleasure of reading only the front matter of books to the TV adaptation of Anne of Green Gables. Each is a journey through some of Gabbert’s idiosyncratic interests by way of her formidable intellect. Gabbert generously answered my questions about The Word Pretty over email. The Millions: On Twitter, you described The Word Pretty as “a collection of [your] critical essays, rarities, & B-sides.” I love that description, in part because of the way it uses the language of music rather than literature. I’ve been wondering about the way that collections function as books, which seems different from the way that book-length works do. The Word Pretty is a good case for thinking about this, because you acknowledge its heterogeneity, and the book itself makes no claims to, say, thematic unity, yet it does feel to me like a whole. Does it feel that way to you? If so, is it in a different sense than your previous books, which are also wholes made of isolatable parts? Elisa Gabbert: I often feel that where books start and stop is essentially arbitrary. I start to think of something as a book when it’s clear to me that I’m repeatedly returning to a certain set of concerns and a certain shape or structure or form as an approach to those concerns. Once I’m able to describe the concerns and the form to myself, it’s fairly easy to imagine the shape of the finished book. But it could always be a little shorter or longer, or arranged slightly differently and so on—at some point I just decide it’s done, maybe only because I get sick of the project and want to work on something new! The Word Pretty didn’t quite make sense to me as a book until I figured out the three sections. Then, if I wanted to add a new piece, for example, I knew which section it would go in, and I didn’t have to rearrange the whole table of contents. Sections and structure are important to me. I don’t write fiction, but I’m really interested in chapters, too, and I have a fantasy course mapped out in my head called “Chapter Studies.” In any case, after the fact of writing, I find that a book feels like a book partly because it’s time-delimited: I started it in a certain month of a certain year and finished it in a certain month of a later year. So whatever the genre, the book feels to me like a record of my thinking during that period. TM: You told me, also on Twitter, that this book is “the kind of thing [you] always wanted to do but thought you had to be famous first.” What did you mean by that? And how did the book come about? EG: I tweeted once—not that long ago actually, in early 2016—“I want to do one of those books of random bits and bots of unrelated prose that only famous people get to do.” I was thinking of these collections that come out by J.M. Coetzee or Siri Hustvedt or Zadie Smith or, when they were living, John Updike or Gore Vidal—basically people who are some combination of “working writer” and “public intellectual” so that every few years, they’ve published enough essays or criticism to be packaged up into a book, and the fans buy it because they’ll read anything by that author, they just want the point of view. But debut collections of essays are usually not that freeform, unless maybe they’re on a small press. As it happens, later that same year, I had a small press approach me asking whether I had a manuscript of essays they could consider. Around the same time, I learned that my poetry publisher planned to launch a nonfiction series. So I got my wish via the small press route. TM: I’m curious about the sequencing of the book. The essays are divided into three unnamed sections. Resonances abound, but there’s no clear thematic demarcation. In at least some instances, it seemed as if the ordering of essays within a section might be guided, in part, by shared references. For instance, “On the Pleasures of Front Matter” follows “The Inelegant Translation” (though there’s a section break in between), and both mention Lydia Davis’s introduction to her translation of Madame Bovary; “On the Pleasures of Front Matter” is followed by “Seeing Things,” both of which mention Howards End; “Seeing Things” is followed by “Impossible Time,” both of which mention The Catcher in the Rye. Am I right that you had this in mind? What other priorities guided the sequencing? EG: In my mind, the middle section is made up of all my little “I noticed a thing” essays (a term I borrow from my friend Catherine Nichols) in the literary criticism category. Most of those started when I noticed a thing in a book I was reading (an idiosyncratic use of paragraphs, say, or a kind of POV), then thought about that thing as a thing, then started noticing how other books handled or achieved that same thing. Within that section I tried to sequence them in such a way that you might get a hint of an idea in one essay and then read an expansion on that idea in the next essay, as you suggest. That said, I’m not one of those people that tries every conceivable order of parts in a book to see if one permutation turns out better than the others—not that that’s actually possible. (Google tells me 12! ≈ 479 million—can that be right?!—and that’s just the essays in the second section.) I think on some level I’m just letting the juxtapositions do their own work. The first section and the third section could really be one section, but I wanted to split them apart, so there’s a more personal voice at the beginning and again at the end, with the more pure (-ish) criticism in the middle. Really, there’s plenty of I throughout. I got thoroughly sick of myself while proofing it. TM: You began your career as a poet. How did you come to write essays? Do you think of your poetry and your essays as related or overlapping projects, or as discrete? EG: I think essays are basically chunks of prose (nonfiction prose to be a little more exact), and I’ve been writing chunks of prose my whole life—papers, reviews, blog posts, whatever, they’re all essays if essays involve thinking about something for a while and then writing about it. At some point I decided to be more purposeful about calling them essays, and calling myself an essayist, probably around the time editors started asking me to write essays. Later, when I was working on a book proposal (not for The Word Pretty, but for the book I’m writing now), my agent asked me if I was committed to calling it essays—rather than, just, you know, a book—and I decided that yes, I really wanted to align myself with that tradition specifically. I think you approach a book of essays differently than a nonfiction book in chapters, and I wanted people to approach my essays as essays. (Incidentally, my second book was a collection of chunks of prose, and because, as you note, I started off as a poet, many people think of that book as prose poetry. It was actually marketed as a book of essays, but regardless of how it’s officially catalogued, it’s very obviously made of chunks of prose, and I think it reached a much larger audience than my collections of pro-forma poetry for that reason. More people read prose than poetry! No question!) But to get back to what you asked—I think my poetry and essays do have overlap in terms of my voice and sensibility and obsessions. But it feels very different to write prose versus poetry. It’s kind of like, I can either think in sentences or lines, in poetry or prose, but they’re distinct and exclusive modes. And my default mode is prose. Poetry is harder work. (At least in the drafting phase.) TM: While I was in the midst of reading The Word Pretty, at a moment when I wasn’t actually reading it, I had this thought (which I considered tweeting, but decided not to): People talk a lot about overwritten prose, but what about the more common problem of underwritten prose? When I returned to The Word Pretty, I was surprised to find, in your essay “Writing That Sounds Like Writing,” first a discussion of overwritten prose, and then this: “of late I’ve read a few books I thought of as underwritten.” This could be a coincidence, or maybe I had read this essay of yours before (I can’t remember if I had) and was anticipating it. But another explanation would be that your essays so effectively convey your style of thinking that reading them helped me to have an Elisa Gabbert-style thought. What do you think of my hypothesis? Is that at all in line with what you think your essays accomplish, or what you intend them to? EG: Oh, I love this story. It’s hard for me to think of a better compliment than “recognizable style of thinking.” But yes, what I look for in essays, and what I try to do in my essays, is interesting thinking. And sometimes I like when writers really show every step of the proof, as it were. Maybe they’re revealing all their missteps or false starts or the bad ideas they had on the way to a better idea. Or maybe they aren’t missteps exactly, but a series of small but necessary steps to get to something more profound. That level of thinking can be so interesting, even if you don’t really know what the writer is talking about! Like this paragraph I read yesterday, from a brief essay about Shostakovich’s 15th symphony by Tom Service: Weird. Yes, Shostakovich has set up a sort of pre-echo of the William Tell tune in some of the rhythms we've heard; but when the trumpets play the tune, it's a shock. So is it ironic? Not really, there's a genuine musical connection, a reason for it being there. A parody? Again, it's not that simple; Shostakovich doesn't frame this moment as a separate kind of discourse from what we've heard so far, this quote isn't in quotation marks. And in fact, I don't actually think this is a quotation at all: what I mean is that the effect of hearing this music at this point in the symphony is so utterly removed from the original function, expression, and associations of Rossini's tune that it becomes, in fact, a totally different object. Instead of infectious operatic cheeriness, we're in a place of existential symphonic crisis. If anything, you hear the disjunction in meaning and context even more precisely because the pattern of the notes is so familiar. Make sense? Possibly not - but these are the kind of labyrinths Shostakovich's symphony leads you into… (Even Shostakovich himself couldn't properly explain the reason for the quotes in this symphony: “I don't myself quite know why the quotations are there, but I could not, could not, not include them,” he told his friend Isaak Glikman in a tortuous bit of triple-negativity.) I know almost nothing about classical music (does Shostakovich even count as classical?) but I read this three or four times. It’s such a great example of attention, representing the act of attention within the text, along with the uncertainty that follows attention, the questioning of what you thought you knew. Also, your story makes me think of that bit at the end of the Anne of Green Gables essay, where I talk about binge-watching TV and then feeling like I look like a character from the show, like looking at a face so much has warped my self-image. It sounds like you experienced a version of that! [millions_ad] TM: It’s clear that your writing is informed by a robust reading life, in which you take seriously the choice of what to read when as a part of living. Is developing a certain kind of reading life something you’ve worked at, or has it come naturally? How is your reading life related to your writing life? EG: I have worked at it! I’ve loved reading all my life, but I made a conscious decision about five years ago to be more disciplined about it. I felt like approaching my reading in a haphazard, undisciplined way wasn’t cutting it anymore. So I made all these little, or in some cases not so little, habitual changes in order to make reading more central in my life. I started going to the library all the time—this has at least two positive effects. One, there are always stacks of unread books around, so there’s never the problem of having “nothing to read.” Two, due dates are deadlines, so I can’t put off reading a book forever. I also pretty much stopped watching TV. I know it’s supposed to be the golden age of prestige TV blah blah, but for me, good TV still isn’t as good or rewarding as a good book, and even bad TV is addictive. It’s just too easy to get sucked into, so I avoid it entirely. Another thing I started doing is documenting all the books I finish, then publishing little mini-reviews of all of them at the end of the year. I like writing them and I like when people read them so it gives me extra incentive to finish books. As for how my reading life relates to my writing life, it definitely feeds it, but lately I feel like the balance is a little off. Too much writing and not enough reading! TM: I love the way the essays in The Word Pretty ground the acts of reading, research, and citation in your life and in the world. For instance, you thematize the act of finding something to quote in “Meditation on the Word Pretty”: You write, “I flipped through my copy of Terry Eagleton’s Ideology of the Aesthetic from grad school; I had not recalled that it paints Edmund Burke-ian sublimity as practically a loathsome side effect of testosterone,” and then you quote it. I think this is related to the way, in “Seeing Things,” you write about picturing characters and spaces in novels by drawing from people and spaces from your life. Essays that engage texts often give the impression that the essayist is a brain in a vat encountering texts in some abstract way. Yours never do that, even when you don’t explicitly dwell on or dramatize the physical or imaginative encounter. Is this grounded textual engagement a way of achieving a certain effect? Are you writing against a tendency in essays or criticism? EG: Ah, this is one of my signature moves, incorporating notes on the process of writing an essay into the essay itself. It feels more authentic, or maybe I should say truthful, to reveal that process, which can involve chance and randomness, or cursory, passing interest in things. I don’t want to create the false impression that every time I cite a book, I’ve necessarily read the whole book or that author’s whole oeuvre. (But I’m trying not to do this move reflexively or let it turn into a tic. There’s a danger of understanding your own style too well, and then imitating yourself.) I think I’m also using, in a sense, critical or topical essays to write about my self in the world. I’m always trying to situate who and where and when I am in relation to the books or other things I’m writing about. Partly it’s an ethical position, a way of highlighting my subjectivity, and partly it’s just ego. TM: Do you have a favorite essay from the book? EG: Yes. My favorite essay is the last one, “Time, Money, Happiness.” TM: I know you’re working on a new book. What can you tell me about it and how it’s going? EG: I just finished the penultimate essay, so I think I’m allowed to say it’s almost done. Writing it while also working a pretty demanding full-time job has been incredibly stressful and difficult, but it’s a good kind of pain, I guess you could say. (As I just tweeted the other day, writing it is taking years off my life, but seeing as it’s about disasters, it’s making me want to die sooner anyway.) Working on it is giving me forward movement and purpose at a time when it would be easy to succumb to the whole “LOL, nothing matters” ethos. Nothing does matter, but also this book is important to me. I want to finish it, and I want people to read it.
In early 2016, during a monthslong relocation to Barcelona, I fell under the spell of three contemporary masters of Spanish-language fiction: Javier Cercas, of Barcelona, Javier Marías, of Madrid, and Álvaro Enrigue, of Mexico and New York. Even now, back in the U.S., I feel with these writers the special connection you get when your reading life and your life-life come close enough to touch. And over the last couple years, I've managed to track each of them down for an interview. The first piece in this series featured Cercas and the second Enrigue; the finale, though the first of them chronologically, features Marías. The internationally bestselling author of novels including A Heart So White, The Infatuations, and the trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, Javier Marías has often been called "Spain's living greatest writer." His new collection of essays, Between Eternities, is his first to appear in English in a quarter century and features meditations on lederhosen, soccer, Joseph Conrad, and "Why Almost No One Can Be Trusted." I sat down with him at the 92nd Street Y in late 2016 to discuss his "literary thinking" on the occasion of his novel Thus Bad Begins (video of the event can be found at 92y.org). What follows is a slightly condensed version of that discussion. The Millions: I read an interview where you talked—I’m not sure how facetiously—about writing novels for the purpose of including a few paragraphs or sentences that wouldn’t stand up on their own ... where the novel is a sort of arch to hold up this one capstone. The example you gave in the interview was Tomorrow in the Battle, Think on Me. I’m wondering if there is similarly a core passage or image or set of paragraphs or images in Thus Bad Begins that you felt yourself writing around or toward ... or that you began with. Javier Marías: Well, if there is, I won’t say which one! But what I meant then, and maybe it’s true sometimes, is that most novelists … or, that would be presumptuous on my part, at least the kind of novelist I am, and maybe others too, often think (of course, you’re never able to judge what you do) that there are a few paragraphs or a couple of pages that are better than the rest. In my case, I usually think—and I may be mistaken, of course—of some paragraphs which are slightly lyrical, or they contain a digression or a reflection or a short meditation, maybe it’s even half a page or something, sometimes a little more ... and you are rather satisfied with that. You say, "This is the gist." The gist of the novel? You can say that? TM: I think so. I think you can say that: the gist. JM: I mean that when the novel is more or less finished, there is sometimes the thought, “Well, now I realize”—at least, in my case; I’m speaking always for myself, obviously—“that because of these paragraphs, I wrote this novel. Because of this couple of pages, for instance. I realize that now.” And then sometimes you think—because I’m not a poet, I don’t write poetry, never wrote poetry, not even when I was a young man or a teenager—you say, “But I had to surround this with something else, with something huge, with an architecture to hold it, to make it acceptable. What I want is the reader mainly to look at these pages, but I have to distract him or her with stories, plots, dialogues—” TM: All that stuff. JM: All that stuff. But that is something you realize when you finish the novel—it’s not something that you have in your mind previously. TM: I see. So you’re speaking of those paragraphs for which you realize, in the end, “All along I was moving toward this …” JM: In a way, yes. But it’s not a premeditated thing to do. That would be ... vile, I suppose. But sometimes you say [later], well, yeah, the justification for this whole thing is these two pages. TM: You you spoke of plot and character and “all that stuff” … and I wanted to talk about one of those things, one of those novelistic things that keeps readers reading, which is the degree—especially in your novels—the degree of suspense generated. Often when I’m reading you, even before I know what the question is, I feel myself waiting to get to the answer. I remember reading The Infatuations, the moment when Maria is going to the door to eavesdrop, and I was reading as though I were in a movie theater, covering my eyes. You know, “Don’t go to that door!” I’m wondering how cognizant you are of the pulse of suspense as you’re writing—whether this is something that just comes very naturally to you, or whether it’s an epiphenomenon of your style, or whether you actually do a lot of editing and revising—of scheming. JM: Oh, no, not really. My method for writing is a very suicidal one. TM: All methods for writing are suicidal ones. JM: Probably, but you feel more suicidal over the one you chose. Or the one that chose you ... You know, one of the problems with novelists is that we never learn the job. We never learn it! I mean in the sense that other people do. A professor goes to give his lesson after 40 years—as is my case; I published my first novel when I was 19, which was over 40 years ago—and the teacher knows he will give a good lesson, or at least a decent one. And he will do it with ease. And the carpenter who’s been making tables for 40 years or whatever knows he will succeed with the next table. But a novelist doesn’t know that at all! TM: Do you have a moment where you sit down to write the next book and you think you must have learned something last time? JM: No, no, you learn you haven’t learned anything! And even if some of the previous books have been praised, and people have enjoyed them and all that, not even that is reassuring, in my case, because it’s “Oh, well, yeah, I was lucky with that one.” Or “People were misled!” Or something. But that doesn’t guarantee anything for this one that I’m starting now. But what I was going to say is that my usual way ... Well, as I’ve said on many occasions, there are of course all kinds of writers, but ... There are some who write with a map, as it were. That is, they know exactly ... or with a chart. [millions_ad] TM: I hate those people. I don’t understand them at all. JM: No, no … why should you hate them? I mean, all methods depend on the result … But before they start a novel, they have the full story in their mind, they know exactly what’s going to happen to every character, and when, et cetera, et cetera, which is certainly not my case. I think that if I knew a complete story before I started writing a novel, I wouldn’t write it, because I’d say, “What a bore!” I like to find out as I write. I’ve mentioned on many occasions before that the word “invent,” which is the same in English and Spanish and many other languages, “inventar” in Spanish, comes from Latin, “invenire." And “invenire” originally, in Latin, meant to find out, to discover. And so to invent—in our sense, in English or in Spanish—has to do, etymologically at least, with the idea of finding out—which is what I like to do. I start writing with a compass. I don’t have a map. I just have a compass. So I’m heading north, as it were. I know more or less where I would like to go, but I don’t know the way, not at all. And I don’t even know whether I shall find a desert in the middle or a cliff, or a river, or a jungle, or what. I must cross them as I find them. Whereas the one with a map knows that he will find the jungle and the desert and the cliff—but he knows beforehand, and he knows very well when and how. And then the thing is that I don’t know exactly how I do my novels. Every time, I realize I don’t know how a novel is written. I don’t know how other people write them, and in fact, I don’t know how I write them myself. All of a sudden you happen to have 300 or 400 or even 500 pages, and say, “Oh. This looks like a novel.” But I work page by page. I never make a draft of five or 10 pages in a row. Never. I make one page, I work on that—I still use a typewriter—and then I take out the piece of paper and I make corrections by hand and erase things, add arrows and suppressions and additions and everything. Then I retype it again, once, twice, three times, four times—five times, sometimes—until I think, “Well, I can’t do it better than this.” Or “I’m tired,” which is also possible. And then that page generally goes to the printer like that. One page after another. And I never reread the whole thing until the novel is finished. Because I’ve been saying, “Oh, come on. I have 200 pages now. Shall I reread them? What if I found them awful? Now the whole thing would be ruined. And I wouldn’t have the faith to go on.” So I won’t read them. And just one by one, one by one, each as if it were the only one, I concentrate on that one page, I do it as best I can, but it has no real relationship to the next one or to the previous one, so to me it is rather mysterious that in the end, as some readers, very kind readers, have told me—some of them even say, “I couldn’t put it down”—“Your novels are so seamless!” And I say, “Oh, dear me, it’s exactly the opposite.” TM: I think the reason I said I hate the map people is that I have this idea that the map people aren’t suicidal. And that it’s the compass people who are going, I have no idea how to— JM: No, they are [suicidal], too. TM: OK. Well, that’s reassuring. JM: No, they are, too, because there is one thing that plays against them, I think. Which is, because of their knowing exactly what’s going to happen throughout the novel, or what suspense they will need at a given moment, they are more predictable. And sometimes they don’t realize that, because they already know the ending, the reader can get the ending much easier than in the novels of the writers with only a compass, who have improvised, who didn’t know the ending, even 30 pages from the end. I remember I wrote a short novel in 1986, in which I was 30 pages from the end and didn’t even know who was going to die, or if anyone was going to die. And I had to decide: “Shall I make him die?” Now it seems impossible that someone else would die instead of the one who did die, but of course, a long time has elapsed … And by the way, if you’ll allow me, I think it’s worth talking [more] about that. I think it’s one of the reasons why we still write and read fiction … I wrote a few years ago a speech that was on telling, and what I said was that telling is very difficult, and that telling actual things is almost impossible—for a historian, for instance. A historian tells facts, as much as he knows about them, but some other historian may come along and contradict him or her, and say, “No, no, no, you’re not right.” Or say, for instance, “We have just discovered a bunch of letters from Napoleon, and that makes the story completely different …” Even when we tell something that we just witnessed, an incident that happened this morning on the way to our job, on the subway, for instance … and you say, “Well, I saw this man striking that other man,” and you start telling something very simple, and then if someone else is with you who witnessed the scene, they say, “Wait a minute, you came late to the scene, because what you didn’t see, I saw. I had a better angle. It’s that the beaten man provoked the other one,” and so on. So nothing is very certain …Telling with words is very difficult. Everything can be denied, everything can be contradicted. And I think that one of the reasons we write and read novels is that in a way we need something, even if it’s fictional, even if it never did happen, to be told once and for good, once and forever. And the only thing that no one can contradict or deny is fiction. I mean, Madame Bovary died the way she did. And no one can come and say, “Oh, I disagree. She didn’t die.” Or “She stabbed herself.” TM: “She faked her death.” JM: No one can say that. So Madame Bovary did die, died the way Flaubert decided, and that’s the end of it! No one can contradict it. And even if it’s fiction, even if she didn’t really exist, we need the security, or the comfort, of something told for sure, once and for all. And something not told forever, as well—for you must have in mind that what is not told in a novel shall never be told by anyone … What is told is told forever, what is not told shall never be. No? TM: No, this sounds plausible to me. It’s like: The only thing we can believe in is what’s completely made up. JM: Yes. But at least we have a full story, you know? TM: And your father was a philosopher, is that right? JM: Ortega y Gasset’s main disciple, yes. TM: And so I wanted to ask you finally: There’s almost a philosophical world in which your fiction takes place, preoccupations with eternity, and infinity, and variation and the impossibility of variation, with, you know, what’s about to happen, what can never happen, everything has already happened. Have you been thinking about these things more or less your whole life, or was there a moment in your writing life where you thought, a-ha! “This should come into my work.” JM: I don’t think my novels are philosophical at all, precisely because my father was a philosopher and I know … that there is a huge difference between what a novelist can do and what a philosopher does, to begin with. What I do, I think, is a different thing, and I’m not the only one to do it—in the past, many of us did it—which is what you might call, and what I have called often, literary thinking. Which has nothing to do with thinking about literature, that would be boring, it’s thinking literarily of things. I mean, you have all kinds of thinking, religious thinking, scientifical thinking, philosophical thinking, of course, psychoanalytic, whatever …all kinds of thinking. There is a literary way of thinking, as well. And it has some advantages, in comparison with philosophy, for instance. One of those things is when you all of a sudden say something in a novel that the reader recognizes as something truthful … I’ve often used the word “recognition” for novels. I think one of the things that moves me most as a reader is when I find a scene or a meditation or an observation in a novel and I recognize it and say, “Yes, yes, this is true. I have experienced this, but I didn’t know that I knew it, until I’ve seen it said by Proust.” Of course, he’s the master of that, or Shakespeare, as well. And then, [in a novel] you can say these things in a very arbitrary way. They are like flashes. Whereas philosophers—or at least the old philosophers—need to demonstrate the principle, need to demonstrate step by step what a novelist doesn’t. On the contrary, a novelist just throws something, throws a true sentence, or a true observation. Someone who reads it may feel it’s true precisely because he recognizes something he didn’t know he knew. But he recognizes it and says, “I’ve experienced that.” And I think that’s quite a different thing. To answer your question, it’s not something that I already decided, “Oh, this could be useful for my novels.” No, I don’t look for subjects for my novels. For the last 30 years, I usually write on the same things that concern me in my life. And the things that make me think. And some of them are, for instance, secrecy, treason, friendship, betrayal … the impossibility of knowing anything for certain.
Very few short stories have grabbed me by the collar and shook me like “The Finkelstein 5.” Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s debut collection Friday Black opens with the story that has a vividly grotesque image of a young girl whose head has been sawed off. It’s not for the faint of heart; however, neither is most of reality anymore. Adjei-Brenyah’s collection is filled with tough passages, but it is one of the most vital collections in recent memory. The author was an undergraduate student when Trayvon Martin was murdered by George Zimmerman, and the shooting—and subsequent acquittal—was a turning point for him. He grew up in a suburb of New York and was raised by immigrant parents for whom reading was a focal point. He told stories but never saw himself as much of a writer until his early 20s. From there he obtained his MFA from Syracuse under the tutelage of George Saunders. It’s not as if his entire life was preparing him to write a necessary and sharp collection of stories that dissects our world; but that’s where he ended up. Throughout Friday Black, he uses graphic realities combined with surreal settings to explore racism, identity, consumerism, and family. The work is timely, but Friday Black was also timely a decade ago. Two decades ago. Three decades ago. You get the picture. I spoke with the author just after he was announced as a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree about radicalizing imaginations, crafting realism through the surreal, and coping with tragedies both large and small. The Millions: This is your debut collection, you have a few stories published already, and you were just named to the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35. How are you handling it? Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: When I was writing these stories for a long time, my main concern was to be acknowledged as a writer. Being legitimized by other people. Part of me still has that for sure. That 5 Under 35 was something I of course wanted eventually, and to get it the way that I did with a debut is great. I hoped to have an impact like other writers, but I didn’t know what that would actually look or feel like. It’s just getting a bunch of emails and tweets. It can get overwhelming. TM: Were there writers of color or writers who were children of immigrants that you read and were inspired by? NKAB: When I was growing up, I read anything that was around me. I read some not-great fiction with simple plots. It wasn’t until I was in college that I started reading with intention and seeking out authors. My parents did make reading a priority. They would drop me off at the library and pick me up close to closing. My older sister made reading cool in my house. I started off reading anything that hooked me and excited me. Whatever that looked like. TM: So you started reading with intent in college; did you start writing then as well? NKAB: I had written for a long time for myself. My friends and I kept stories up orally. We traded these serial fictions by memory. I wrote fantasy-like stories because that’s what I was into at the time. Writing was my safe space. It was something I could do that was free. It was something that people could not take away. In early high school, I was writing. I was encouraged by my English teachers. Those were my strong classes in school. They told me I could write and I felt like I was good so I worked on my writing. It wasn’t until later on in college that I wanted to be a writer. I was never around other writers so I didn’t know that’s what a human like me could be. TM: These serialized stories you told with your friends and those fantasy stories, is that where some of your futuristic tinges in this collection evolved from? NKAB: I like creating premises that serve my purposes. Whatever I need the world to do, I create something to do it. Sometimes that needs to be way far in the future; sometimes it needs to be right here and right now without any surrealism. I try to imagine a space that would squeeze absolute emotion from my characters. I have no qualms stepping out of the bounds of strict reality. I don’t feel that’s a prerequisite for having to engage with politically charged moments in writing. TM: Throughout this collection, I kept coming back to real-life examples of a young black man being murdered by a white man. Especially with “Zimmer Land” and George Wilson Dunn in “The Finkelstein 5.” Did you draw from anything specific or take the emotions from the countless senseless murders that continue to happen? [millions_ad] NKAB: I very intentionally named that story “Zimmer Land.” The name in “The Finkelstein 5” was intentional. I did draw from Trayvon Martin. That happened when I was in college and was a big shifting moment in my consciousness. It was a moment for me that planted a seed that would grow into some of these stories. I also think “The Finkelstein 5” draws emotionally from all of these murders. People might think of it as hyperbole that there is a constant fear that any black death’s [perpetrator] will be acquitted. All of these people get shot or killed with a chainsaw, you’re not any less dead. The brutality that comes within my stories is an accumulation of all of these events that happen again and again and again. People might think of it as surreal, but my stories connect that constant state of emotion. TM: You and I are basically the same age—I had just finished my undergrad when Trayvon Martin was murdered. I feel that people in their late 20s have had a constant rotation of major tragedies. Not to say any other generation didn’t. We lived through Columbine and 9/11 as children. The Iraq War and war on terrorism dominated my teen years. We went from Bush to Obama to our current president. Natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina seem to pop up every year. Did you use writing to cope with things like this? NKAB: I use writing to cope with everything from national tragedies that are too big for me to grasp to the fact that I embarrassed myself in a music class in 6th period. Short fiction lets me put a macro-micro feeling into it. This bad thing happened to me in my personal life, but these big events are happening as well. I rarely wrote to cope with the big picture when I was younger. My work now is a response on a personal level to help me cope and respond. TM: I feel like a lot of people are going to say this collection is “timely,” but in reality, you were probably working on these stories for half a decade or a decade. I can’t call it “timely” because is there ever going to be a time when these types of stories won’t be timely? NKAB: I had a recent interview that asked me what word I hate the most to describe my writing. I used “timely” for exactly the reason you said. Everyone always refers to our current political moment. A lot were written five or six years ago. They’re all pre-Trump. These problems are pervasive and inherent to our society. I do think there is something purposeful in writing. I do think it can be helpful and employed to help us learn. We can challenge each other and help each other be better. These are problems that have been internal. I hope my writing can radicalize people’s imagination. My writing is almost a surreal negative. It’s the worst version of what we can go through. The resistance that some people feel to my stories is natural. Hopefully they’ll start to think about how they can do better. It’s a reality of life. Young black men are being murdered. Women are being sexually harassed. I think fiction can help us ask questions about what we can do. Some people haven't even gotten to the point of acknowledging a problem exists. Fiction can help make people empathetic. Fiction is not the answer to the world’s problems but I believe fiction can help make the world better. TM: Every story in my copy of your book has notes. Not only about the writing, but as talking points I can share with my conservative family members or friends. Or even my super liberal friends’ little siblings who are beginning to pay attention to the world around them. Since this is so “timely” (and was two decades ago but hopefully not two decades from now), where do you take your writing from here? NKAB: It’s hard to think about. It means a lot you would say that about this fiction. It means a lot that people who aren’t my Facebook friends will read my stories. It’s still so early on for me in the writing world. I’m learning to not let this moment affect my writerly growth. I need to stay grounded. There is still such a far way to go. I’m going to try my best. I want my fiction to influence people in positive ways. To not feel alone. To try to be better. I hope these stories make people feel it is not impossible.
In early 2016, during a monthslong relocation to Barcelona, I fell under the spell of three contemporary masters of Spanish-language fiction: Javier Cercas, of Barcelona, Javier Marías, of Madrid, and Álvaro Enrigue, of Mexico and New York. Even now, back in the U.S., I feel with these writers the special connection you get when your reading life and your life-life come close enough to touch. And over the last couple years, I've managed to track each of them down for an interview. The first in this series was with Cercas; the third will be with Marías. But the middle panel of the triptych is Álvaro Enrigue. His internationally acclaimed novel Sudden Death is a dazzling synthesis of fact and fiction in which a single tennis match ties together the fate of indigenous Mexico and the cultural revolutions shaking Europe at the time of the Conquest. Enrigue is also a scholar and the author of Hypothermia. I sat down to talk to him at a packed Greenlight Bookstore in 2017, on the occasion of Sudden Death's paperback release. (The audio can be found at Greenlight's website.) What follows is a lightly edited version of our discussion. The Millions: Your novel, for all that it’s about a tennis match between Caravaggio and Quevedo, is also about exile and empire and vagabondage and translation, and of course, Mexico. So to start with, I’m wondering if you had any initial reflections you wanted to offer on immigration, cultural exchange, or Mexico itself at this particular moment in U.S. history, for which your book seems so suited … Álvaro Enrigue: It’s interesting, because the seeds of this ugly thing that we’re seeing now were planted precisely when I was writing the novel, which were the years just immediately posterior to the crisis of 2008. I think it is obvious in the novel that I was really, like, politically angry at the time. It was the moment in which Northern Europe had begun to articulate this awful discourse about Southern Europe … as if England or Germany or Denmark could be anything without Greece, without Italy, without Spain, without the freaking South of France, without the material of Mediterranean culture. Like, what would be of the European culture without that nuts Roman citizen who was St. Paul? What would be of Europe without tomatoes, which are Mexican? Without chocolate, which is Mexican? Without pasta, which is, quote “Italian,” which these Chinese Italians eat, before people begin to move around the world? TM: You’d have a bunch of white guys in helmets just banging into each other. AE: So this idea of calling the Mediterranean countries that can be considered the birthplace of whatever we have of culture … the idea of calling that accumulation of countries thieves just drove me crazy. But now [in 2017] I can see that my indignation [of 2008] was really cute. [Laughter.] Because subsequently we saw the stadiums, you know: "[Who's going to pay for the wall?] Mexico!" It’s millions of guys that pee and poo and eat like me, shouting the name of my country, Mexico, as if I were stalking their children. Now I’m used to it, because one gets used to things, you know? But when it began to happen, we would turn off the TV at home so the children couldn’t see. So … TM: This is so interesting to me— AE: I don’t know if I have a posture; postures are for politicians— TM: Postures don’t make for good conversation. But something you said that I hadn’t thought about is that while you were starting this book, you happened to find yourself in a place of political anger … and I mean, I remember writing in 2008, feeling this same sort of sense of political rage, and thinking there could be a connection between fictional history and present-day fact, like, somehow, oh, I know, I can talk about 2008 via the ’70s, 1977. And then I go flipping back through your book today, and you have a moment where Quevedo sort of bids goodbye to the Apollonian side of himself, and it’s like he embraces the dark half of himself where everything is bad, and one of the things you say is, he’s a nationalist, misogynist, homophobe— AE: He became a monster. TM: And I’m wondering if in some way you were writing, you know, the present moment in 2008, and also seeing its roots in the 16th century. AE: Well, very obviously, you know? Not that it’s obvious in the novel or anything, but these ideas come from ... well, that may sound too much like a seminar, which I don’t mean it to become by any means—but the first globalization happens precisely in that moment [in the 16th century]. What stood between Europe and China was Mexico City, Tenochititlán, What would make world commerce possible was the fall of Tenochtitlán. Because to cross through the south of Africa was incredibly dangerous, no? Once you passed the Canary Islands, that part of the Atlantic becomes tremendously difficult— TM: And there are dragons, I think— AE: Well, people remember that Magellan was eaten, you know? Like, the first guy who circled the world died, eaten by people. So it was not easy. [Laughs.] It was not an easy world. In a moment when Christopher Columbus was completely crazy, in the letters to Queen Isabel of Spain, he says that the purpose of crossing the Atlantic is to reconquer Jerusalem. Which is fascinating. "If we go the other way around," he thinks, "and we cross this little thing, which is China—" TM: "We’ll sneak up on them from behind." AE: Yeah, yeah, "We arrive from behind and surprise them!" [Laughter.] But there happened to be a little mass of land there. Anyway, when [the Europeans] stand in front of the Americas, they discovered that maybe they could really make it to China that way. Of course, no one was thinking about Jerusalem—except Christopher Columbus, who had a pass from some monk. What everybody wanted was to connect Europe to China. So when Hernán Cortés is sent to map the coast of Mexico, what they are thinking about is that: opening up commerce with China. Of course, history must be more beautiful than that, to be told to the children. So the conquest of Mexico becomes an epic in which men who are very manly defeat men who are very manly—what you write an Iliad about. But what they were after, really, was money. And when Mexico City falls, you just have to go a little bit more, to the Pacific Ocean and then you can cross it to China, with no storms, with no problems. There’s a reason why it’s called the Pacific, no? So what they were thinking about was that, and I think that many of the problems of the world we live in now, and more than anything, many similitudes (if that word exists) between that world and ours, come from the fact that there were these moments in which the world kind of crunched and the bad guys imposed a discourse. Francisco Quevedo wrote a fantastic novel when he was young, called Vida del Buscón, which is very fun, very open, very politically critical of empire … and which shows this very fluid sexuality that was the usual trend in the 16th and early 17th century … and yet when he died, he would be writing this incredible text that we would call fascist. What happened in the middle there? Greed. That was the generation that discovered, "Huh, we can own the world. The world is something you can handle. We can circle it, and we can just extract all the gold we want." TM: And one of the ways that you’re binding all this stuff together in the novel is that you’re sort of tracing the movement of objects and people that seem to be connected. So that Anne Boleyn’s hair becomes a tennis ball, the ball gets used in the match … I don’t want to give away the game, as it were, but if you actually follow the objects in the book, part of what you start to see is that this enormous explosion you were just pointing to in Southern Europe, of culture, of ideas, of ambition, is in fact funded—economically but also culturally in some way—by the contact with North America. I mean, you were just talking about this big sort of myth about manly men beating up other manly men and then taking their stuff. But it seems like in a lot of ways what was taken from Mexico becomes a much more dynamic and subversive and transformative element [for Europe] in the book than does the conquest itself. Like, as you write it, Caravaggio doesn’t become Caravaggio without an encounter with Mexico. AE: Which was an obscenely nationalist gesture! TM: Yeah, no, I love it. "No Mexico, No Caravaggio!" AE: But the thing is, Caravaggio could have seen that mitre [an iridescent feather headdress that, in the book, inspires some of Caravaggio’s greatest effects]. He was in that environment, it was true that he painted these paintings for the owner of the mitre. So he could have seen it, or not. They were certainly miraculous objects. TM: Can you talk a little about the mitre and the feather art used to make it, for people who haven't yet read the book? AE: Well, after the conquest, the Nahuatl artists of Mexico were not used to paint. Or they would make paintings, but instead of paint they would use tiny little bird feathers and put them together and produce shades of color, and create with that. It was a type of art that became very popular in the 17th century. It was very expensive to buy a piece made like that—you can imagine why, you know? It was incredibly demanding and difficult to do. And most of this art also is religious art, and I think that point is important, because for centuries those pieces went into museums, and were only there. And if you see these paintings, they are very, very impressive. More when you learn that they were not made with paint, but were made with feathers. And there was, in 2006, maybe, in Mexico City, at the international museum of art, a big global exposition about these things, pieces of feather art that had been recovered from all over Europe and all over the world. The creator of that exposition is a friend of mine, a professor of art at Columbia University named Alessandra Russo. She was working with other researchers and historians, but she was in charge of certain parts of it. So she was one day having lunch with the workers who were setting up the exposition, and they were sitting on the floor of the museum, and the guys tell her, Have you seen the paintings from here, now that you are sitting down here? They were eating a torta. TM: Naturally. AE: A torta, a tamale, surely. And she turns to the pieces and discovers that if you are under them, looking up, they shine. They stop being a painting and become something that produces its own light. The feathers, even at 400 years old, were still capable of projecting the light of the window, reproducing it. And everybody becomes excited with the discovery, and puts some candles on the floor to see what happens, because that’s how those paintings were intended to be seen. And what they discover is that these things become simply hallucinatory. TM: I can’t believe you didn’t put these workers in the novel! That’s a great story: “Look at that, up there!” AE: [Laughs.] I have put them in a dozen interviews instead. It’s amazing. TM: And so in the book … I don’t even know that “spoiler alert” is apposite to this book, but I will just say that Caravaggio has an encounter with this feather art, which is— AE: You already spoiled it! [Laughter] TM: Oh, it’s spoiled? AE: I have been moving around all over the place with the book now for four years, and no one ever noticed that the book is not about people but about objects. That the characters are the objects, not the persons. It’s a novel in which you can have Galileo and Cortés and Caravaggio and Charles the First and so many important characters, because they are not really the characters. The true characters are the tennis balls … so you already spoiled it. TM: I think you’re selling yourself a little short, though, on character. I think that Caravaggio is a fascinating character in the novel, and so is the daughter of the emperor, who has three names, one French, one Spanish, none of which I can pronounce. But what I was going to say is, the description of the featherwork is so extraordinary … I read the book when I was in Europe, and I found myself in Milan like three weeks later, and I kept saying, "It says right here in the book that this [featherpiece] is in the Duomo!" and no one knew what I was talking about. And it occurred to me that it could have been entirely fiction, a sort of Borgesian game. So I’m wondering, for example—actually I don’t want you to answer this question, but—you allege that the Anne-Boleyn-hair tennis ball is in a department of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, the Archives of Historic Sporting Equipment. I’ve spent a lot of time in that library, and I’ve never stumbled across these archives. [Laughter.] So I wanted to ask you: Clearly a huge amount of research went into this, but how much did you just make up? AE: [Pause.] I don’t know anymore. [Laughter.] I don’t know anymore, but my editor is amazing, and the most patient human being ever, and she can give testimony of how many notations were in the last edited version of the book. It was by that time a nightmare. I hope she never tells about this, but I will tell it before she can, and be revealed as a clown: There were many times I would defend historical points that were completely imaginary! [Laughter.] I am a novelist; I have that privilege. But most of the weirdest stuff is real. It is real that Galileo and Caravaggio were roommates—it’s absolutely real. It’s absolutely real that Galileo was writing his theory of the parabola as he saw Caravaggio playing tennis in the plaza. Many of those things are real. And in the novel, when there are conflicting versions, all of the lists come together. That is the wonder of the novel, you know? It is the great lesson of Cervantes: that you can put in whatever you want, and as long as it somehow relates to the story, it works. TM: The novel has a very peculiar relationship to facts, just as a form. You can put real facts in a novel and they somehow become fictional, and you can make shit up in a novel, and if you put it across with conviction, it starts to seem more true than truth. And so, you know— AE: There may also be generational deformation at work here, too. I did a Ph.D.—it’s one of those mistakes that writers make. TM: Because you think, "Ah! I’ll have lots of time to write while studying for my Ph.D."? AE: Exactly. And: "It will not deform my incredibly innocent way of reading!" I did my Ph.D. in the ’90s. We would read historical books, as fictions. If you were going to become a professor, it was fantastic, because—this sounds like fiction but is real—fiction was forbidden in the Spanish colonies [of the 17th century]. You could publish and read fiction in the metropolis, but if you were outside of that, you couldn’t do it, it was illegal to write fiction. Of course, fiction was always written; the way the writers found to express themselves was writing historical fictions. So once this was established— TM: Like the travel journals? AE: Yeah, the travel journals, and these incredible histories of Latin American countries, this history of Paraguay that speaks about the Greek gods … they were obviously fiction books, but they were presented as history books, and the author could be giving fake stories, as I do, and readers saying, "No, no, no, this is real, this happened." So I think that I have this period as formation; I don’t think that what comes from books is much more trustworthy than what comes from your head as a novelist. I just think that the historical data ... statistically, you can prove it. That is the only difference. But the privilege of a novelist is that you can put things together in a way that the historian can’t. You don’t have to prove it statistically that people smoked cigars in Cuba in the 18th century; you can just put them there. But if you had everything in front of you, it’s quite probable that they would, you know? And I think that that’s the importance ... See, I feel really guilty about writing novels, because they’re useless. TM: You should feel virtuous. The world needs more useless things. AE: Yeah, and we would never accept that they are part of the industry of entertainment. It’s so elegant to be a novelist. Anyway, that would give a sense, a reason, to create novels: In them, you can still propose things to understand the world, without having to offer statistical information. TM: So was the germ of this novel, Sudden Death, a particular factual discovery that you made, or was it a particular imaginative impulse? I had a fantasy as I was reading … there were a couple of times when I was reading that I came across something I wasn’t sure if you made up or not, but I thought: If that’s true, and he found that in a book, he must have thought, “A-ha! There’s a novel!” AE: This is it: It was seeing one of the mitres, one of these feather-art mitres. I had been circling the idea for the rest of the novel for a long time, but it would be such a European novel, you know? And I don’t know, but I think Americans have as pretentious a relationship with Europe as Latin Americans do. I now find kind of antipathetic this Eurocentrism of Julio Cortázar, for example. The je ne sais quoi of the characters of Julio Cortázar—I find it annoying. It’s like, lily white. TM: Not only the ennui, but also the je ne sais quoi! AE: So the novel [I had in mind] was a very European novel. And the idea of how you introduce Mexico into that mess, that had a lot to do with everything at that moment. But the way you put your question, it was the mitres. And the idea of Caravaggio being a tennis player. For years, I had been researching to write a novel about Caravaggio, because as you say, this character, you could write novels all your life about him. He was such an extreme person. TM: He’s almost an allegory for the novel as a form in some way, you know? He’s polysexual, he’s in many ways a brute and very unrefined, and in other ways he’s a genius. AE: He’s sophisticated in his brutality. TM: His attraction for the novelist as a figure to tell stories about just seems very intuitive to me. AE: And he drinks from the water of the poetic theory of the Renaissance that demands a certain amount of reality in artwork. Since, like, immediately after Petrarch, there were these moral writings in Italy demanding that art stop being so affected—that art should be real, should represent life as it is, and no one had found the key to do it. I think that it’s not casual, not just coincidental, that at the moment when Caravaggio is inventing modern art, Cervantes, a few miles away in Madrid, is inventing the novel. I think that they are ways of portraying the world that are very similar in their craziness, in their sophistication, in this, like, moral fury, you know? Cervantes is a furious character. He’s as angry at everything as you are! As is Caravaggio. This resentment—of the poor man who will become important as an artist during his life but who, anyway, will never stop being angry—all of that is there in both of them. TM: And the trick, and sort of the crux, is that somehow the anger doesn’t swallow up the style. Like, they’re both geniuses enough to preserve the stylistic impulse in the middle of this moral fury. You know? And they’re great stylists. And I think that’s in your book in a way, too. It’s a very political book, and I can see in it the skeleton of the very European book it almost was, but you’re such a great stylist—or else you’re a mediocre stylist but you have a great translator—that it turns into something that’s very warm and very human and very real. AE: I am a great stylist. [Laughter.] There is this thing that I think is essential, and that doesn’t always go well, and that is that modern art shows its structure. The Quixote is still the most postmodern book, even when it is the first modern book. Remember the beginning of the second part? Quixote gets a copy of Quixote, the first part, reads it, and says, “This was not like that!” [Laughter.] Right? “I don’t know who wrote this, but it was not like that! I defeated those guys. Everything’s wrong here, and everybody’s reading this? Let’s go out again to fix this problem.” So in the Quixote, the threads are completely visible, as they are in Caravaggio. And I think this is inherent to art.
In early 2016, I had a chance to take my wife and kids to Barcelona for a few months. It felt like a great time to be out of the U.S. in general—primary season!—but especially to be there on the Mediterranean, where winter is what we here call “spring.” I'd been abroad only a handful of times before, never for more than a couple weeks, and now I surrendered giddily to food and architecture and people, a whole different tempo of life. Perhaps not coincidentally, I fell in love with pretty much every book I opened there. I read Open City. I read Spring Torrents. I read Mercè Rodoreda, Catalonia's answer to Clarice Lispector (and a shamefully neglected writer here at home). I read Isherwood and Saramago. Especially, though, I fell under the spell of three contemporary masters of Spanish-language fiction: Javier Cercas, of Barcelona, Javier Marías, of Madrid, and Álvaro Enrigue, of Mexico and New York. Even later, back in the U.S., I would feel with these writers the connection you get when your reading life and your life-life come close enough to touch. Over the last couple years, I've managed to track each of them down for an interview. The second in this series will be with Enrigue; the third with Marías. The first is with Cercas, author of the international bestseller The Soldiers of Salamis and the acclaimed "novel with nonfiction" The Anatomy of a Moment, as well as the novels The Speed of Light and Outlaws. His new novel with nonfiction, The Impostor, tells the true story of Enric Marco, who passed himself off for a quarter century as a Holocaust survivor and leader of the resistance to Franco's dictatorship. In her New York Times review, Parul Seghal wrote of the book's "hot, charged energy" with the thrill of one discovering Cercas's work for the first time. It's a thrill I remember well myself. The Millions: I wanted to start with a curious discrepancy. This summer, I picked up a copy of The Speed of Light in a used bookshop, and I was struck by the self-portrait you've embedded at the beginning there. As in many of your books, there's a Javier Cercas character, and here he's a young man in his mid-20s, a kind of writer manqué, but with no sense of what he might want to write. But then in Roberto Bolaño's nonfiction collection Between Parentheses, he has an essay about you ["Javier Cercas Comes Home"] where he says, in essence, that he's known you since you were 17 and you were always hunting big game, always going to write a masterpiece, and now you've come home to Gerona to do so. So which, I guess I'm asking, was the real you: the schlemiel or the focused, ambitious artist. Javier Cercas: This is very easy, in fact. I was always an outcast. I'm an immigrant, a child of immigrants, from Extremadura. A guy without roots. TM: Even in language, right? Your parents would have spoken Castilian, and now they've landed in Gerona, this city in Catalonia, where everyone speaks Catalan. You're like the character Gafitas, in Outlaws. JC: Yes. And I wanted to be a writer from the very beginning, when I was 14, I think. But because I was an outcast, it was like wanting to be an astronaut ... a very weird thing to be. In fact, Bolaño was probably my first friend who wrote a book in Spanish—and he was something like 47 when he wrote that piece, 10 years older than me. And he still wasn't famous yet the way he is today. I'll tell you a funny story about Bolaño. We were always on the phone, like boyfriend and girlfriend. One day, around the time when he began to be known, he calls me and says, "Javier, there is this anthology of young writers called Yellow Pages that's just come out, and you're not in it. You must have made a big enemy somewhere." I told him, "No, no, that's not true. The problem in fact is that no one even knows who I am!" TM: As in "I should be lucky to have such enemies!" JC: Well, a lot of that is just the way Bolaño saw the world, and it comes through in the piece you mentioned. He had that wonderful sense of literature as a fight. TM: The novelist and the critic fencing on the beach in The Savage Detectives ... JC: Exactly. Anyway, for me, at that time, I knew I was a writer, or wanted to be a writer, but I was a complete outsider. I was completely outside of any literary milieu. TM: Which is not such a bad way to be. So basically you were writing fiction for yourself while scraping by with journalism as a day job, like the Javier in your books, until Soldiers of Salamis came along and changed your life? JC: No, I was in the university. Because I needed to earn my living, you know? This was my idea: being in the university, writing my books, and no one reading them. No one except Bolaño, my mother, and some friends. Which is normal! I have readers now, but that's not normal. I had gone to America for a couple of years to study, and then I had been writing. But at the moment in my life when Bolaño wrote what he wrote about me, I was in a strong depression. I had come back to Gerona, you know, from the States, then Barcelona. At that moment, his piece was very important to me. And it was all lies! TM: Prophecies, not lies. JC: But yes, in any case, Soldiers was the book that changed everything. TM: How did you come to the story of Rafael Sánchez Mazas? I mean, was it all at once, or was it something you had been carrying around? Or a combination: something you had been carrying around for a while that was then catalyzed suddenly by some other thing—the way the Sánchez Mazas story in the first half of book is catalyzed by the story of you and Bolaño and the search for Miralles in the second. JC: The last of these, I think. I had the Sánchez Mazas story originally from his son, Sánchez Ferlioso, as the Javier Cercas character in the book gets it. I should say that all the characters in that book are real. It's a false chronicle, so of course everything has to be real. Except for one character, who you'll never guess. TM: I surrender. JC: The fortune teller, the girlfriend of Javier Cercas, who is completely made up. And of course—and this is completely true—that's the one character who sued me. A real fortune teller in the town where the book is set sued me for using her in my book! The Bolaño part of the story, though, is a little different from the Sánchez Mazas story. Bolaño had told me that part, the story of Miralles, a long time ago. And it occurred to me that I could use it to tell the first story. I went to him and asked him for permission, expecting him to turn me down— TM: Because in your mind it's literary gold— JC: Exactly. And of course he said, "No, no, this is not much of a story," and he allowed me to have it. TM: I sometimes think this is how books come about—that you discover you are the only one who sees the fictional value in a thing, and you almost have to write it because if you don't, no one else will. Anyway, since before Soldiers, from your first work Relatos Reales, all the way up to The Impostor, you've been drawn to this borderland between fiction and nonfiction. What attracted you to it? JC: Well, I thought from the beginning, pure fiction is always a lie, you know? In some way, the fuel is always reality. I wrote about this recently in an essay called The Blind Spot: that the novel is a wonderful genre where you can invent anything you want—that's how Cervantes gave it to us. But that the fuel is reality. As for how to mix the two, each book has its own rules; it all depends on the book. To write a book is to create a game. You have to find the rules, to formulate the question in the most complex possible way. As in The Impostor: "Why did this guy, Enric Marco, the false Holocaust survivor, lie about the worst crime in history?" I'm always trying to write what I don't know. And the first thing the writer must do is figure out the unique rules of the game. If two books have the same rules, one of them is bad. TM: Naturally. JC: In the case of The Impostor, one rule was that it would be redundant to write a fiction about another fiction. Instead, I thought, let's organize the book as a battle between the lies and the truth. And if people ask me, like the man on the radio [NPR's Ari Shapiro] just now, "Why 'novel without fiction?'" I think, "why not?" TM: The "why not" is the freedom. And the rules are the constraints. JC: Yes. You choose your constraints. And then you become a slave to them. There's a moment in the book, I've been interviewing Enric Marco, picking apart his lies, and then at this one moment, this last lie, Marco says, hands on head, "Please leave me something." But I couldn't, because I was a slave to the rules. This was a difficult moment. And yet when I actually sat down to do the writing, I was incredibly happy writing this book—which is not always the case. TM: I wanted to ask you about heroism. We've talked about the method, but at least from Soldiers on, heroism is the subject—even in The Impostor, where it's the image of the hero, or some debased idea of heroism, that seems to hold Marco captive and prod him into his many lies. Kitsch heroism, like the story he tells about playing chess with the concentration camp guard and refusing to lose, even though he knows it may cost his life. Are you aware of this as a through-line, heroism? JC: I don't know where it comes from. Probably my reading as a boy, adventure books. Stevenson. Verne. The Odyssey and The Iliad. But it's a specific kind of heroism I'm interested in. Once Le Monde asked me and some other writers a question: What single word is most important for you? It's a strange question, but the moment I hung up the phone, I knew the answer: the word "No." Sort of quoting Camus: "The Man Who Says No." My novels are about these kinds of heroes, people who say no, or try to say no. TM: What you call, in The Anatomy of a Moment (following Hans Magnus Enzensberger) the "hero of retreat." Like Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez there, who appears in that one moment or period as a very complicated sort of hero, and was far from heroic in all kinds of other ways. JC: There is only one pure hero in all the books: Miralles in Soldiers of Salamis. He has to kill an enemy—a bastard—and still he says no. As for me, I would be among the members of parliament in The Anatomy of a Moment, ducking for cover. And then Marco in The Impostor, of course, is the man who says yes. He would love to be a hero, but can't. TM: Why do you think that is? JC: Virtue is something secret, I think. When it becomes public, it's no longer heroism. Yet Marco had to constantly be saying "I'm a hero, I'm a hero, we're all heroes." And of course, Marco is everyone. We are all, in a sense, this guy; he's a perfect mirror of our time. This book says something awful: We prefer lies to the truth. Lies are beautiful. TM: Sexy, maybe. Pretty. But not beautiful. Beauty is like virtue. Or is virtue. JC: My question all along was, Why don't people call him on his lies? And the answer is that people prefer pretty lies to the truth. The truth about Nazi camps is complex, dirty, and not beautiful. Claudio Magris wrote about Marco something like "He lied, yes, but for a good cause." But that's bullshit. What he was spreading was adulterated, romantic, heroic kitsch. And we prefer that. That's why Donald Trump is in your White House. TM: And in Spain, what was the reaction to this book? I knew when I first heard about it that American readers would be interested in it. We have the kind of relationship you're describing with dirty parts of our own history, with slavery and exploitation, but we have this less complicated relationship, at least publicly, with the fight against Naziism. But in Spain, part of the "historical memory" movement you contributed to with Soldiers and write about in Anatomy and The Impostor has to involve negotiating the complicity of ordinary people with Francoism, with fascism. Marco, you suggest, offered a heroic version of "historical memory" that helped ordinary people feel virtuous. So what was the reaction domestically to your writing about Marco, and in a sense calling out the lies? JC: The answer is quite easy. I have my readers in Spanish. So with them, I have no problem. But many other people were resistant to what I am saying in the book. Don't get me wrong, "historical memory" is essential. What's Faulkner's line? The past is not dead. The past, of which we are living witnesses, is part of the present, without which the present is mutilated. The Spanish Civil War is the present. Francoism is the present. But the truth is, necessarily, that most people accepted Francoism. And that most people adulterate or erase the worst part of their history. I recently read this suggestion by Tzvetan Todorov, that de Gaulle convinced the French people they were all Resistance: "Les français n'ont pas besoin de la verité," he said. People tend to mask ... and I understand that. But now, it is not possible. The movement for "historical memory" in Spain was insufficient, and became fiction: "We were all anti-Franco. We were all heroes." It's completely false—bullshit! The reality is more complex and ugly: Fascism was supported by many people. And I don't blame them. To be a hero is very difficult. You go to jail and die, is the usual outcome. Yet it shows a lack of respect to lie about it. If you lie about the past, you lie about the present. Another Faulkner line, from a letter, I think: "There is no such thing as was." A lot of Catalans and the Left, in particular, were mad at me for The Impostor. But it's a national problem. We're drowning in lies. TM: Especially you, it seems. There's a moment in the book, early on, that's a curious one. You're at a dinner, in Madrid I think, with Mario Vargas Llosa and some others, and the discussion turns to the just-unmasked Enric Marco, and someone suggests you have to write about him because he's so much like a character in your books. You say something like, "Well we're all impostors," and someone says, "But especially you, Javier." You don't return to this line for many hundreds of pages in the book, but it seems to form some secret connection between you and Marco. Why are you, uniquely, an impostor? JC: I'm going to tell you a secret, and it's very interesting: There is one chapter in this battle between truth and lies that is invented. It's a dialogue ... I don't know, a daydream or something. And the answer is there. Because there Marco can say what he really wants, can attack me. He says, OK, I lied. But you did, too. In fact, Marco wanted to be Miralles. But he tells me "You married fiction and fact, you became famous, a millionaire"—which is not true, of course—"But I did the same and I was a pariah. And remember," he's saying, "You are me. I am you." Of course, he's lying. TM: In the midst of a chapter you've invented. JC: But that's the idea. The book, really, is a fight between impostors.
Q: Why does a Jew always answer a question with another question? A: Why shouldn’t they? —Anonymous Reading Wild Milk (Dorothy, a publishing project, Oct. 2018), Sabrina Orah Mark’s new collection of short stories, I couldn’t get that joke above out of my mind. It’s not only because the stories themselves are infused with the Yiddish sensibility and domestic humor of the Borscht Belt comics, but also because all of these small tales are not so much told as they are posed. Beyond their narrative snap and ingenious conceits, Orah Mark’s stories—rich in language, synaptic leaps, and, yes, humor—resonate into the larger questions of our lives and, indeed, become an interrogation of our specific cultural moment. The questions in Wild Milk beget further questions, which in turn beget … well, you understand. I was glad to speak to Orah Mark over the last few months about her new book, jokes, puzzling presidents, and how writing fiction is like eating a complicated sandwich. The Millions: I read a blog post from 2017 in which you write about the frustration of attempting to sell a short story collection without “a commercially viable novel” alongside it. Can you talk about what happened between then and now, and specifically your experience with Dorothy a publishing project? Sabrina Orah Mark: About two hours and 37 minutes after posting my “Notes on Rejection,” I received an email from Dorothy accepting Wild Milk. It was eerie and wonderful. At the end of my post, I wrote: “Maybe in one thousand years, a small boy who has the face of my sons will find my manuscript which by then has turned into a pebble. And he will swallow this pebble. And the boy with the face of my sons will realize swallowing this pebble has given him the power to fly. And so he flies and sees lands he would’ve otherwise never seen had he not swallowed my manuscript that is now a pebble that is now in his belly. That would make me happy. Even if I never know.” And as much as I believe Wild Milk still has the chance to one day turn into a magic pebble, I am so grateful Dorothy is giving it the opportunity to first be a book. Arriving from the Land of Poets, the phrase “commercially viable” was a strange-sounding cough I’d hear and cringe and back away from. I mean, I get it. We need to eat. But it’s boring and depressing to imagine my stories wandering around with price tags around their necks. I heard over and over again: “We love it, but we don’t know what to do with it.” As if Wild Milk was an odd child, growing older and older in the living room, eating snacks and studying a dying language. “This one,” I imagine a mother might say, “is a miracle going nowhere.” But Dorothy knocked. Dorothy said, “Come with us.” TM: In the same post from 2017, you talk about a story from Wild Milk called “For the Safety of Our Country,” relating it to a question you got from your son’s school principal about how the current state of our country has affected your surrealism. Has it? SOM: The current state of our country has pierced a hole through my surrealism, and when I look through the hole I can now see my own face staring back at me. Problem is, the face staring back at me now has a hole through its forehead. Whether this hole is for planting or just an abyss I’m not at liberty to say. What I can say is that these days I’m writing from less of a distance. My first collection of poems, The Babies, was haunted by the Shoah. By something that seemed to be over, and far away. Wild Milk knows the present is thick with the past, and has seen what’s Impossible suddenly holding Possible’s soft hand. Sharing its water. Reflecting its face. Speaking its language. Sleeping in its bed. TM: In that story, a whole new batch of presidents enters the White House. There are thirsty presidents, humming presidents, beautiful presidents, see-through presidents, presidents with faces as blank as almonds. It’s a riot of a story, but I feel like one can’t even say the word “president” anymore without invoking anxiety, heartache, anger, etc. Inherent in the principal’s question is the assumption that the state of things will change the stories we write, but I’m interested in the flip side of that question: how you think the stories we tell might change the state of things, specifically thinking about a story like “For the Safety of Our Country,” which, while it’s a comic gem, I also see as a creature with a defiant sword thrust into the air, a little hero. What might it do? SOM: Oh, thank you. I love thinking of stories as these little heroes, gathering slowly to make a beautiful army. A glowing resistance. As the news grows woolier, crueler, I do believe stories and poems in all their shapes and sizes, colors, and accents can change the atmospheric pressure, complicate the human party, and nibble at the rope. It’s hard, of course, to know how or when or why a story might take hold and change the air, but if we don’t (at the very least) sharpen visions and use their points to puncture the status quo, we risk everything that is worth being human about. TM: I’ve heard your stories described as fiction with the hearts of poems, and there’s certainly a sneaky subversive quality to these, an interruption and maybe even a corruption of narrative. But another form I can’t help thinking of is the joke, a form you also seem to be subverting throughout this collection. Jokes often set disparate elements (Mr. Horowitz and his bag of dried apricots in “The Very Nervous Family”; a maid and a collection of snails in “The Maid, The Mother, the Snail & I”) on a course for collision, which becomes the punchline. You often begin along those lines, laying out the elements and establishing trajectories, but most of these stories don’t “wind up” in the way we might expect from a joke or even from micro-narratives. Of course, this, too, is a sort of tension, the way we’ll follow two parallel lines to where they seem to meet on the horizon, but it isn’t what we generally expect from a joke. Were you thinking a lot about jokes as you wrote these stories? SOM: No one in my family laughs out loud. When my mother and I, for example, are laughing, it’s this gigantic, breathless silence punctuated by sucking gasps. My son Noah says I laugh like Marge Simpson. To an onlooker, I imagine it’s an ugly scene. But inside, it’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to something I can only describe as a beautiful truth. A good joke should take the breath away. I’ve always believed if you’re not trembling, and a little afraid—as one is when trying to survive—the joke’s not funny. TM: I also kept thinking of Jewish jokes, the kind my Uncle Larry used to tell at every gathering, where the punchlines are often less of a relief of tension than an acknowledgement that the state of suffering will continue, is endless; and also an acknowledgement of the fact that Judaism is built around questions, not answers. I’m wondering where you see the stories in Wild Milk fitting into this comedic tradition? SOM: As a child, I studied Talmud and one thing I was taught to understand is that there is no answer, or if there is an answer the answer is marked with an answerless-ness so vast it’s reminiscent of that place in laughter where you can hardly breathe. A good punchline leaves you off at a stop you never imagined existed. The end, in other words, is just the beginning. And whether you’ll be able to find your way home is anybody’s guess. And maybe that’s one essential key to Jewish humor: It gives us this breathlessness—this ha ha holocaust—of a wanderer, of a woman laughing and laughing, doubled over, and crying stop I can’t breathe. TM: Do you have a favorite joke? SOM: Here’s one of my favorite jokes. It’s in the last story of my collection. So one old man says to another, what’s red, hangs from a wall, and whistles? I don’t know, what? A herring. But a herring isn’t red. OK, so you paint it red! But a herring doesn’t hang from a wall. OK, so you get a nail and a hammer and you nail it to the wall! But a herring doesn’t whistle. OK! So it doesn’t whistle! I love this joke because it’s a joke that seems to wonder mid-self what it is, what it is even doing here. Is it a joke, or has it veered off in the direction of another form, like the herring which is and isn’t the punchline to a joke it too has found itself lost inside? This is my relationship to story and to poem, too. I like my stories to discover halfway through they have the heart of poem, or maybe even the lungs of a prayer, or maybe even the eyes of a very, very old animal, or the hat of a missing boy. Here’s a joke my son told me this morning: Why was the broom late for school? Because it overswept. What’s even better than a great joke is a simple joke told by a little kid because inside the telling is the realization that language can get slippery, dislodge a whole world, turn a broom human-like and late for school. It is like in Waiting for Godot when Vladimir and Estragon find a hat (“now our troubles are over!”) and swap it with their own like jugglers. The hat they find looks as similar to their own hats as overslept looks to overswept. I love that Beckett scene with all my heart because you can feel Vladimir and Estragon trying to know (through the hat) the unknowable parts of themselves, as if wearing a hat that could so easily be mistaken for your own but is not your own hat could shift your perspective ever so slightly so that what keeps not appearing (inside and outside yourself) might suddenly appear. [millions_ad] TM: I want to halt the proceedings, just for a moment. Inspired by the stories in Wild Milk, I’d like to present an interview-inside-an-interview in the form of interrogatives. Answer these however you see fit. Why? SOM: They had come into our home and rearranged all the furniture. What other choice did we have? TM: Who? SOM: Edith, Edith, and Edith. TM: When? SOM: The year August never turned into September, and just stayed August for 30 extra days. TM: Where? SOM: Father’s house. On the corner of Orange and Old. TM: How? SOM: We waited three months until it began to snow and then we used the snow. TM: Thank you! OK, back to the previously scheduled programming. Two-pronged question: Are there other writers primarily identified as poets who have written or are writing fiction that you’re following these days? And are there writers of micro-narratives/flash who you’re interested in? SOM: When I first read Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers I thought holy God, because it’s a novel but also it’s a poem but also it’s a wail but also it’s a prayer but also it’s a transcription of two boys’ hearts missing their dead mother, but also it’s the impossible translation of Crow who is grief. I love poets who trap themselves in unpoetic spaces, like Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s, like let’s see what the poet looks like under florescent lighting opening a packet of ketchup. I love contrast and unlikely spaces. At the heart of the Surrealists is this simile: “as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table” (Comte de Lautréamont), and I guess it’s a simile at the center of me, too. James Allen Hall and Rachel Zucker and Jenny Boully and Maggie Nelson and Anne Boyer and Carmen Gimenez Smith are some of my favorite poets writing not fiction exactly but really gorgeous, poem-marked prose. I’m waiting for Heather Christle’s The Crying Book (forthcoming from Catapult), which sounds like a magnificent collision of tears/forms. TM: A teacher of mine once described micro or flash fiction as stories which contained something that burns really brightly but, by their nature, burns quickly. Your stories are full of what I’d call “image germs” (the lice in “Spells”; the drawing of a mouse in “The Stepmother”) that align with this idea, but there’s also something “slow” contained in them. I don’t always see these “burning” as much as I see them rippling or refracting the way that longer stories or even novels do. I’m wondering, now that you’ve begun writing fiction, if you’re thinking about writing a novel, and if so what that might resemble? SOM: When I write fiction, I feel like I’m slowly sneaking up on myself in the middle of a cafeteria, and there I am (a poet) quietly eating a terrible and complicated sandwich, and I am like hello, and she (who is me) is like hello, and eventually The Napkin Lady will come by and ask, “Would you like a napkin,” and we will both say yes. We will both say thank you (we’re both polite). I will watch her (poet) eat her terrible and complicated sandwich for a long time. I’ll watch her for practically a whole month to tell you the truth. If I’m patient enough and lucky she’ll give me a bite. Sometimes even an idea or two. Neither one of us will ever use the napkin. When I write poems I feel like I’m bursting into flames. As a mother of small children, it has become harder and harder to burst into flames. And so right now I’m sticking to the “slow” (as you so beautifully put it) “refraction.” I will say this, though—there is for me something much, much more dangerous writing fiction. Maybe because for me it’s a radical departure from a form that once kept me very safe (the prose poem). I often think of my stories as what happens after the bottom of a prose poem drops out. It’s like I think I’m standing on solid ground, but no, it’s a gigantic, gaping hole, and in the hole is my whole family and everybody is hungry. And all I have is one bite of the terrible and complicated sandwich. And I’ve already swallowed it. So I better start making something out of nothing and fast. Something to feed everyone I’ve ever loved. Chances are, when it’s over, everyone will be mad at me. If I ever write a novel it will probably be called The Grandmothers. Some of it is already written. TM: When I first read the story “My Brother Gary Made a Movie and This Is What Happened” in Kate Bernheimer’s anthology of modern fairy tales, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, I started laughing at the title and didn’t really stop except to gulp, here and there, at how poignantly you get at sibling and family dynamics. I’m hoping you’ll take me through the writing of this story, talk a little about its genesis and how you wrote your way to its end. SOM: Oh wow, you’re asking me for the only secret I have left. What I will give away, though, is that you really can get pregnant by eating leaves stuck to a tin can.
“Many writers are very bad communicators in life, but they are great writers. The writers I know are fucked, wrecked, destroyed: Not all of them are aware of it themselves,” Karl Ove Knausgaard says, over a mid-afternoon glass of water at an Auckland hotel. Not just Scandinavian writers? “No, there’s a lot of fucked up people all around the world.” Despite the unrelenting detail of his 3,600 page “indiscreet” memoir My Struggle, Knausgaard has a rep for being less than forthcoming in conversation. The “existential loner hero with four children,” Zadie Smith said, has “many contradictions.” “I tried desperately to think of something to say. We had to have something in common,” Knausgaard recalled his awkward lunch at Jeffrey Eugenides’s home. “But no, I couldn’t come up with a single topic of conversation.” Knausgaard is jaggedly handsome and sharply dressed, six feet, four inches tall and firm of handshake. Scandinavia’s leading literary figure of the last decade has things to say, seasoned with gesture and glance. He can be minimalist with his responses, though: Some questions and observations elicit “Yeah” or “Yeah. That’s true,” accompanied by a nod, a raised eyebrow, or─most tellingly—an affirming smile or laugh. Knausgaard is a fine exemplar of Scandinavia’s dry, deadpan humor. In My Struggle, he can be very funny. He writes about being a teenager doing a creative writing course, surreptitiously looking at Peter Paul Rubens and Eugène Delacroix nudes in a library art book. The comedy of trying to get laid for the first time, and dealing with premature ejaculation. And writing graffiti like “U2 stops rock.” Knausgaard is attracted to New Zealand (and the Auckland Writers Festival) by the remoteness and the similarities with his native Norway. “The fjords look the same.” His frankness writing about everyday challenges through My Struggle’s six volumes and the Seasons Quartet─someone close to you being seriously depressed or an alcoholic─resonates with many readers worldwide. “The loving care she sought was bottomless,” he writes of his Swedish ex-wife’s depression in Spring. Spring, and its lyrical descriptions of nature─“the smell of wet snow in winter,” “the beauty of the world means nothing if you stand alone it”─aims to inspire. “The great and terrifying beauty does not abandon us, it is there all the time,” Knausgaard concludes, “in the sun and the stars, in the bonfire and the darkness.” He is passionate when asked to elaborate about Spring’s message. “Life can be incredibly hard, life can be incredibly difficult, but it’s always worth living. That’s the book essence ... Writing a novel is nothing other than making a place where it’s possible to say something simple and true. That message is such a true thing, it’s very banal too, you need a novel to say it so then it becomes true, you understand what it is.” The 49-year-old father of four says Spring is especially for his youngest daughter, who was in utero when her mother attempted suicide. “It was such a fantastic, idyllic summer. The sun was shining everyday. The children were laughing and swimming. My then-wife was so depressed that she was in bed all the time, and drew all the energy in there. It was so hard to understand, how is this possible to be so disconnected from the world? To not see that happiness and joy, that it just does not mean anything. I have had friends and people I know been depressed and kill themselves. If you just stay there for three more weeks it would be OK. Your life would have been better.” Knausgaard confides that he himself can still find life a profound struggle. “Life is so hard that you think, ‘what’s the use? Why should it be so fucking difficult, everything?’ I want my daughter to know that life is always worth living.” Humor is one of the things that can make life worth living, the drummer and soccer enthusiast agrees. “Books Four and Five are especially funny to me, tragic but in a funny way. It’s a deadpan humor. I have friends who think Book Four is the most terrible thing they ever read because they identify so much with it they don’t see the humor. My editor always says to me: In life and in writing, take one step aside and everything looks differently. And humor is that step. When you are there, it’s not funny at all, but it is funny. And it was fun to write about.” In Summer─among odes to “Barbecue,” “Dogs,” “Ice Cream,” “Bicycle,” and “Repetition”─he praises Monty Python. “A [teenage] revelation,” he adds. Further comedies enjoyed include Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Seinfeld. Like Seinfeld, My Struggle is about everything, though it has been said to be about nothing? “Yeah, that’s true. I’ve also thought that about Seinfeld, that there is a relation somehow,” Knausgaard smiles. Though his English publishers describe My Struggle as autobiographical novels, the self-dubbed workaholic (“writing to escape myself”) says that they are “novelized autobiographies,” poetic truth. Literature should go for the hurt and fear and be ruthless, Knausgaard adds. “You’re not a real writer until you have enemies.” My Struggle: Six, released in English translation during September, caused controversy in Scandinavia for its coverage of Adolf Hitler and Anders Breivik. Knausgaard—now in a relationship with his U.K. publisher Michal Shavit─counters that he dislikes Sweden’s journalistic and academic cultures. “It’s so monological. It’s very one-sided. I wrote an essay about it called “In the Land of the Cyclops.” There’s a monopoly of meanings. If you have an opinion outside of that it’s impossible. I’m being compared to Nazism and Breivik because of that. It’s very different than Norway. My English is not good enough to explain. You can see it now in the crisis about the Swedish [Nobel] Academy. That’s a very interesting thing that’s happening. It’s only one version [of events] that’s dominating. There are other possible versions, but they’re just not present.” Knausgaard (recently in The Other Munch) is currently adapting his debut novel Out of This World for cinema, and greatly likes films such as Ruben Ostlund’s Force Majeure and The Square. He is intrigued by Lars Von Trier’s serial killer movie, The House That Jack Built. “One hundred people walking out [at Cannes debut]. I think he’s a genius, absolutely brilliant. I hope I will never meet him.” He double-checks a new Von Trier quote on his phone: “‘I’ve never killed anyone myself. If I do, it will have to be a journalist.’” That sly smile again. “I don’t think he means journalists like you.” Photos: James Black
I met Feroz Rather one verdant summer in Kashmir, almost a decade ago. We got talking on a bumpy bus ride while passing neon green paddy fields and had a far-reaching conversation about Michel Foucault, poetry, and our approaches to writing. At the time, Feroz was an MFA student at Fresno State, and I was an anthropology Ph.D. student doing my fieldwork on trauma and violence in Kashmir. Since then, we have both remained engaged—from adjacently appointed genres, fiction and ethnography—in questions of violence, writing and the politics of representation, ethics, and justice. Our conversation that day, one of many, was always refracted from the contextual specificity of Kashmir: a place that has been under military occupation by the Indian state since 1990 and is currently the most militarized place on earth, but which also has a much longer history of colonization that stretches back to 1586, when the last Kashmiri king was deposed by a Mughal invader. Despite facing brutal military and counterinsurgency repression in the last few decades, including the loss of approximately 70,000 people, the disappearance of 8,000, and countless other violations registered and unregistered through human rights documentation, Kashmiri demands for national independence and political self-determination have not ceased; in many ways, they have crystallized and deepened. Across the built landscape, overwriting the ugly infrastructures of occupation are scrawled stinging phrases designed to unsettle the occupiers: “Go India Go Back” and “We Want Freedom,” written in big, bold, unequivocal letters. Earlier this summer, Feroz published his first book, a collection of short stories called The Night of Broken Glass (Harper Collins, India). The book arrived in my mailbox with a short note from Feroz, and I began reading, soon, feverishly, as if the book might explode in my hands. The short stories are compact, but they bleed into each other, much like the “tentacular” nature of state and military violence Feroz describes. The narrative spillover—a mirror vessel for the subject matter of violence itself—also shows how grievous forms of vulnerability and harm ripple through the social topography of one village in Kashmir. I am still working on my ethnography on violence, subjectivity, and trauma, and the questions below reflect some of my pending concerns and questions. The following conversation, which we had over Skype one August afternoon, pivots on themes of import to writers interested in political violence, oppression, and existential struggles of all kinds. Feroz reminded me that stories are not meant to be redemptive but reflective. The Millions: I want to start by asking about the nature of the violence you describe in the book. The violence seems multidirectional—it is rhizomatic, on many different scales and registers. The village and its social topography become really important to this project. Was that something you intentionally wanted to convey? Feroz Rather: I think that if you really inhabit a zone that is occupied, then it is not just the physical violence but the violence of the language of the order that has been imposed, so violating and violent, that one wants to register. There is a semiology of violence so pervasive that one can escape it only with an extraordinary intellectual or artistic effort. In my own small way, I was interested in rupturing this pervasive semiology. This proliferated in writing about the violence comprehensively: not just the violence inflicted by the state or military—though that remains the dominant theme of the book—but the violence of caste, and violence against women. Early in the book there is a scene where the ghost of Ilham looks at Inspector Masoodi and the former feels that Sarnath lions would jump out of the metal buckle of the belt and gnaw at his bones. That is a perfect example, now that I think about it, of the pervasiveness of the violent semiology of occupation. Later, in “Rosy,” the radar shifts toward caste and gender. When Jamshid steals figs for Rosy, her father and grandfather take Jamshid out into the yard and beat him with a willow switch until there is blood on his forehead. Earlier, in the same story, a girl gets groped in an overcrowded bus, something that happens quite often in Kashmir. I suppose it’s the willingness to write about violence comprehensively—not just the institution of state but other forms of institutionalized violence, and what happens to the body when the forms of violence converge and intersect. But you’re asking me a different question: How is it that the village becomes a territory of violence? TM: Yes, state violence, but also intimate violence, gendered, and caste-based violence. Women’s bodies are violated in different ways. The social relations in the village sometimes register state violence but they also transmit it, sometimes unintentionally. You seemed to be showing violence as a social phenomenon, as a form of sociality. FR: I didn’t do that consciously. I just wrote the stories from different points of view. There is Rosy’s point of view in “Rosy,” but then we get Jamshid’s point of view in “Robin Polish.” So if you do that, it fleshes out the different interactions that happen in the social. You narrate something from the point of view of the father, who is a cobbler, and you narrate something that comes closer to the point of view of the son, who is a charismatic preacher. Then the school-going girl. I think when you string together all these different narratives, they create the social whole. In terms of technique, William Faulkner does this masterfully; he delves so deeply into his characters by probing them through their own point of view. It brings a restlessness to the overall structure. It proliferates into different directions like in The Sound and the Fury. When you put all these different chapters together, the reader is the one who makes them whole. Or perhaps the structure is reflective of the writer’s quest for unity or his failure to achieve it. But one is not really conscious of all this when one writes. TM: In what ways did you reach into your own experiences to write these stories, and how did your own experiences subconsciously inform your technique? FR: Well that’s what it is—somehow letting your unconscious come out! But I have one peculiar memory, as far as the Bijbehara massacre [in which “at least 37” people were killed on October 22, 1993, on the way home from mosque] is concerned. The day after it happened, my brother happened to pass through the town. When he came home, I asked him, “What did you see?” He said, “Nothing but the shoes.” That’s what I had. That’s all I had. TM: The shoes— FR: The shoes. So I had to weave a narrative around that and how, for Gulam [the cobbler], his relationship with shoes is so intimate. For him, the shoes are the person. So after the massacre, he hangs the shoes on the walls of his room, making a gallery of the shoes. It’s his way of memorializing what happened. TM: What is the relationship between writing and violence for you? FR: I think that the act of writing in a way involves wreaking creative violence. When I think of James Baldwin, I think of a fearless progenitor who, with a fierce mastery and out of some deep necessity, bulldozes the pre-existing edifices of language to create his own. That is what writing is for me. Every writer who is original, who is at the head of a tradition, what they do is that they represent a rupture, an experience through language when the magnitude of the experience exceeds language. Violence, in the case of Kashmir, exceeds the limits of language. Occupation has choked us inside and none of us can breathe freely; none of us can be happy. And that’s what I felt while writing The Night of Broken Glass, as the violence could not be contained in the narrative. That is also reflected in the writing itself, which becomes jagged and, at times, deformed, raw, unprocessed. Although editing helps, I know it is not smooth. Toward the end of the book, I—or the figure of the writer—go into Gulam’s room and ask him to narrate the story of the Bijbehara massacre, and Gulam says that what he saw was like being inside the mouth, the fangs, of death. I felt like using this violence in the book to bulldoze the semiology of occupation. I felt like rebelling, sometimes through digressing, sometimes through poetry, sometimes by being messy with the narrative; it can take different forms. I want to use language in a way that feels dislocated, to use adjectives in a way that feels improper but also creative … While writing, I was very close to the scenes of violence. I had some physical distance from it, but not really [all the short stories were written in Tallahassee]. I feel like a successful piece of fiction, as they define it in America, is the one that measures the impact of violence, which happens in a very short time, as it spreads throughout the narrative. I think that in my book that happens sometimes, but at other times, we are colliding with it. TM: The other thing I thought you did so beautifully was the temporal attention you gave to showing violence and trauma as intergenerational and sedimented through history. There were moments when you talked about the longue durée of colonization in Kashmir and the traces of violence, the way the Sikhs [who ruled Kashmir till from 1819 to 1845] used to hang bodies off the bridges, for example. It’s a subtle background hum that’s always there ... FR: Yeah, I don’t see the present as something unrelated to what has happened before. I think that whether it was the Dogras, Sikhs, or Mughals—who are also talked about in one of the stories—I see that we have been constantly occupied. It’s an occupation in continuity and violence in perpetuity. I won’t say that history is repeating itself, but I feel like outsiders are inflicting violence on us. But you know, in a structuralist view, I don’t believe in circular notions of history, as if today’s violence will give way to a peaceful tomorrow. History has been perpetually unmerciful towards us. History is perpetually cruel. The powerlessness of the powerless constitutes the power of the powerful. TM: There’s no progression necessarily. FR: Yeah. And that’s why it was important to find out … we have been here before. We have been occupied for many centuries now. But I’m glad you picked up on that; no one has talked about it in relation to the book yet. TM: I found it really interesting that you were also probing the subjectivity of the colonizer. Of course, there’s such a rich history of this—from Frantz Fanon to Baldwin to V.S. Naipaul. In “The Pheran,” you have a line where you describe a soldier as living between “the fear of getting exterminated and the terrible duty of exterminating.” Those who are perpetrating violence in this book are also haunted, literally … FR: I would like to have the chance to write a novel which meditates on this question, a book that is dedicated to exploring the grooved psyche of the colonized in its variegated complexity. In the story “The Boss,” we see the protagonist has achieved a position of power but is reluctant to recognize that he’s colonized. That tension within, that reluctance, that I’m not subjugated—that should be the subject of a novel about Kashmir. That will be a ruthless but an astute and honest observation of our society. Here is a society that has been colonized for centuries; what has it done to us? How has it made us capable of being brutal to our own? The character of “The Boss” was not always brutal; he had an idealistic youth. He’s deeply traumatized as well. I think that’s a very healthy tension to explore … That’s what Naipaul did very successfully. Reading A Bend in the River helped me greatly, but also, “The Lagoon” by Joseph Conrad. Both shed light on the ambivalence of the colonizer and colonized in a zone of occupation … Naipaul is the most brutally honest writer, and what he does is what you were talking about: explore the scars in the psychology of the oppressed. The worst kind of violence was inflicted by our own, by the renegades or the former rebels who were coopted by the state [known in Kashmir as ikhwaen]. How is it possible? Naipaul himself became a bit of a renegade—he was wounded, because of poverty, because of the lack of institutions and a vibrant literary tradition—but he crossed over to the side of the oppressor and looked at the oppressed from that perspective. In “The Boss,” I have just begun to explore that. TM: What you just said reminds of a recent New York Times article about Kashmir by Jeffrey Gettleman. One of the things he’s talking about in that article is that the scale of violence has changed in Kashmir—that it is much more intimate and closer and has turned in on itself. Is that something that you were consciously or unconsciously trying to write about? FR: Gettleman’s framework is rather inaccurate. Kashmir is not a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan. Kashmir is a people that predates the existence of these two nations. And as long as Kashmiris are not allowed to exercise their political choice, there won’t be any peace. This war is about the agency of the people of Kashmir. I am conscious of what is happening now. The decision to be violent—to be immediately violent—has strengthened. I know there’s a feeling of implosion of violence that you are talking about. We can describe it like that: We’re in a zone where violence is imploding, because what does it mean that there are 200 or 300 rebels in Kashmir in total and there are more than 600,000 troops? Or let’s think about what happens during an encounter between Indian forces and rebels. There are maybe two rebels hiding in a house, but there will be 1,000 people throwing stones at the same time trying to protect the rebels from the soldiers. Many young people have been shot this way and killed. In terms of the book, what does it mean that Kashmir is imploding? I think my pursuit was to save the narrative from completely imploding! At times it felt like the entire book would fall apart. My pursuit was to somehow contain myself, not be swayed by it. I somehow managed to do it. Initially, when I started writing the last stories, I felt, This is not going to work. It will lose all its structure. TM: Was there a particular scene that you felt would cause it to implode? FR: The implosion happens in the mind of Tariq when he goes on a rant [in “The Miscreant”]. Tariq is a young man who has gone out in the world. He has had the ambition of being a historian but is rejected by the universities in New Delhi and Islamabad. When he returns home to Kashmir, he rants about what it means to live in the besieged city of Srinagar. I tried to distance myself from the violence. I didn’t tell the story of massacre directly. It is told through the character of Gulam … Similarly, the most brutal incident of violence in the book—I did not approach it directly but through Rosy’s mother’s elegy, which was an allusive way of storytelling. Later in the writing process, I wanted distance [from the scene of violence] … but there are points where it seems to implode. I didn’t want to control myself always. TM: I don’t like the word redemption because it has a salvation logic to it. But what about the moments of tenderness and care in the book? Those felt extremely important to the texture of the stories. FR: There’s a moment when Ilham is about to strangle Inspector Masoodi’s grandson, but when he puts his hands on his throat, the boy giggles. He is so close to committing an act of violence, but he doesn’t. Or the nameless narrator in the first story. Instead of killing Inspector Masoodi, he wipes his spit and takes care of him while the man dies. These moments tell us that violence pierces the terrain. It can subvert and disrupt the rhythms of personal and civilian life. It can desecrate the body, but the humanity of the subjugated is not completely lost. In war, one encounters extraordinary courage, love, endurance … You’re making me think more about those moments now. TM: Endurance is really important—and those small acts of kindness are what allow people to endure. Even the nameless narrator enduring this killer, Inspector Masoodi, and allowing him to die a natural death—that is a remarkable act. FR: That’s the role of an artist, to alter reality through language. It is the artist’s stubbornness—to be just, to not let go, even if violence and darkness are pervasive, at least in the fictive realm ... and it can swing both ways. On the one hand, it is about preserving the humanity of the characters, but it is also about exposing their vulnerabilities. When Major S. is fortifying the camp, he’s imposing an order of harsh solidity. He cuts all the grass and replaces it with sandstones, sandstones so close together that not a blade of grass can grow—cannot even intend to grow. Writing is about subverting that order, that solidity, and preserving the idea of justice in whatever rudimentary or minuscule form. TM: Now that you’ve shown the pervasiveness of violence, what’s the remainder? What’s left? FR: I guess the whole idea of this book is reflection. At some level, there’s reflection on moments, individuals, institutions, societies. I do not think … there’s enough reflection. I don’t think there’s enough reflection on the part of the society about what they’ve done, for instance, to the life of a soldier who is posted in Kashmir. While imprisoning, the soldier himself is in the prison. What kind of life has been given to him? Do you think you’ve done a favor to someone who is so indoctrinated with the idea of the unity of the nation and upholding that? Writing is a deeply personal thing. But the humbler objective is to produce some space for reflection in my own society. I think with the way technology is penetrating societies, we have become less reflective in general. I was reading an essay by Milan Kundera about what mass media will do to society—it will desensitize them and make them less reflective. It will destroy individuality and human capacity to be unique and creative. It will create a whole new sensibility that will be unthinking and consequently oblivious and violent. You can see how there are mobs of people on Twitter and Facebook who are baying for our blood. Do you remember, some time ago, a couple of former Indian cricket players called for another massacre in Kashmir? That message was sent out and distributed, entertained and consumed, in the world through mass media. There’s more darkness in the offing if there’s no reflection. A novel for me is a space to introspect and inquire: This book is a messy meditation on violence.
“Stand on the hyphen,” Octavio Solis says to me in our interview. “Complicate the border.” The son of immigrant parents, Solis grew up in El Paso, TX. He watched migrants cross over the Río Grande in the light of day and under the cover of night. His mother arrived with papers, while his father did not. Solis spoke a broken English as a child, neither a native speaker in the States nor in Mexico, when he visited communities like Juárez. It’s these liminal spaces—physical, emotional, memorious—between the neither and nor, that he invites readers to enter in Retablos: Stories from a Life Lived Along the Border. And it’s in these in-between places where Solis introduces you to the people who populate them, complicating the border many have tried to simplify. A renowned playwright and director, Solis records his memories in these written retablos, devotional paintings on small, repurposed metal that depict a dire event. His brief retellings—two to three-page vignettes—are raw, vivid, and sometimes violent. They function like timeless doors that, once opened, deliver both you and Octavio to a scene that has never stopped replaying in his mind: “This is me in my old room, unpacking my bags on the bed I slept in more than thirty years ago, hearing my mother titter at something on the TV while my dad is stirring the caldo de pollo on the stove.” We arrive at the same time as him, the episode immediate, written in present tense, still happening. Solis builds a personal mythology throughout Retablos, which begins with his childhood and ends with his adulthood, where he listens to his mother tell him stories about his growing up in the border community. If he touches on the political, he challenges you to look at it first through his eyes and then through the community’s. You’re left with a complex of people in difficult situations making difficult decisions. Landing somewhere between Neil Gaiman and Juan Rulfo, Solis secularizes the mythological by turning men and women into saintly figures—like their criada, Consuelo, and a white priest who shows his family empathy—and monsters: border agents who take his friends away and school bullies. The schoolyard is a battleground where classmates pressure Octavio to fight his black friend, based on rumors of racist remarks made against him. A crowd of students, flanked by mob mentality into two groups, begin to yell at each other: “Don’t let him get away … Show that monkey … Get that spic.” The two sides turn into a Greek chorus that could translate into protesters screaming over police barriers in the ’60s, people coming to blows at political rallies in 2016, or hate exchanged on social media today. Solis exposes our human need from an early age to organize people into opposing sociopolitical groups, even when those at center stage don’t fully understand the what and the why of clawing at each other. By making the political personal, he suggests Americans should embrace racial and ethnic differences rather than divide through physical and metaphorical walls. Solis loves to talk, he says, and warns me he might just ramble on. We laugh and tell each other stories. It’s not until we reach about an hour into our conversation that he falls silent, when we get to the heart of what contemplating episodes of his life and writing them down felt like. After a few moments, he responds: “The act of remembering is a painful one, but it gave me the permission and responsibility to tell the truth through a fictionalized version of myself.” And the truth is, it’s complicated, he says. Like when he noticed Chicanos becoming border agents in the ’70s, but they didn’t speak native Spanish and joined for the benefits. One of them stops Octavio on the street because he’s wearing a red T-shirt like a reported suspect border crosser. Octavio stands firm that he’s American and he’s left alone, but he later realizes: “I am hating these [border agents] and thanking them at the same time ... I am the guy in the red tee. I am him and he is me.” This identity crisis reaches its climax when Octavio travels over into Mexico with his friends to meet women and drink. But no matter how cool they act or how smooth they think their Spanish is, locals wall them out. When he and friends try flirting with a group of women, one of them responds: “No te metas donde no te llaman, pinche gringo.” Don’t stick your nose where you’re not wanted, you damn gringo. This is what Solis means when he says we must learn to stand on the hyphen. He’s Mexican-American, which, in other words, means neither-nor. Locals in the States didn’t feel comfortable with him looking different, while locals in Mexico didn’t with him sounding different. But that hyphen should act as a bridge, not a wall, literal or figurative. At the end of this compact collection, we realize the genius of Solis when he visits his hometown and encounters a large mural depicting Pancho Villa sitting at a table, a beloved priest riding a bicycle, and La Virgen de Guadalupe lighting the way for border crossers at night. This isn’t only the story of Octavio, but of El Paso, and to a greater extent, of the United States, exploded onto this mural—a community of retablos that tell the myth of the American dream that continues today and never stopped.
Ten years ago, Kirsten Lunstrum was leading a life many young writers would kill for. Having published two well-regarded story collections before she turned 30, Lunstrum landed a tenure-track teaching job in the creative writing program at State University of New York at Purchase, the arts campus of the SUNY system. But in 2012, homesick for her native Seattle, Lunstrum and her husband Nathan, also a professor at Purchase, chucked it all and moved back West with, she says, “no jobs, no real plans for how to make life in the Seattle area work.” For nearly two years, the couple and their two children lived at her parents’ home as Lunstrum took adjunct teaching gigs at local colleges and her husband left academia altogether to become an electrician. Six years on, the move seems to have paid off. Lunstrum, now 39, teaches at a small, progressive high school near Seattle, and this week she's published her third story collection, What We Do with the Wreckage, winner of the 2018 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. In an exchange of late-night emails, Lunstrum talked with The Millions about her loyalty to the short story form, the strains of writing while parenting, and the many ways her experiences as a mother of small children informed and deepened her fiction. The Millions: You published your first two story collections, This Life She's Chosen (2005) and Swimming with Strangers (2008), while you were still in your 20s. Now, a decade later, you're publishing a third collection. So tell us first: What have you up to during those 10 years? Have you been writing all along? Did you stop for a time? Kirsten Lunstrum: The most succinct answer to that question is that I was simply living my life. Like a lot of people, the period of time between my mid-20s and mid-30s was a radically turbulent (but great) stretch of years. Between my first two books and today I finished a graduate degree, held something like 15 different jobs, moved house eight times, and became a parent. Of these changes, parenthood was probably the biggest. Actually, my son was born just three weeks after I turned in the final edits on my second collection—a well-timed entrance into the world, for which I thanked him in that book’s acknowledgments. Three years later, my daughter was born. It makes me laugh now, 12 years into parenting, but before my son was born I had a vision of myself writing away the long hours of his infancy while he napped in a baby-wrap on my chest. I had no idea (clearly) how all-consuming parenting would be. As I say this, though, I’m feeling aware of the flak I’m likely going to get for acknowledging that parenting played a role in the long silence between my books. There’s been a kind of literary applause recently for those mother-writers who refuse to discuss the effect parenting has had on their writing, and—to be honest—I find that refusal endlessly frustrating. The fact is this: Motherhood is life-shattering. I don’t feel it diminishes my voice as a writer or necessarily narrows others’ respect for me if I say those things out loud in a conversation about my writing life. Writing around the demands of my children’s needs—and my own desire to be with them (because I love them and enjoy being part of the daily and familiar routines of their childhoods)—has slowed my production of new work more than my pre-parenting self could ever have imagined. But being a parent has also completely reconstructed my sense of wonder, my sense of attention to the world and its details, my understanding of relationship and identity and vulnerability, and all of that shows up in my work now. I write less than I might have if I hadn’t chosen to become a parent. That’s just the truth. But my fiction has deepened because of the experience of raising other humans. To be fair to my kids, though, the other love competing for my time and slowing down my fiction writing has been my work life. I'm not a writer who can just write. I need to work a day job. I didn’t always know this about myself, and for a period I believed that what I really wanted most of all was the luxury of devoting all my working hours to my writing, but that was a misunderstanding of myself. I love to work. My work is teaching—which I did at the college level for about a decade, and then six years ago I became a high school English teacher at a progressive, independent school near Seattle. Being in the classroom gives me a sense of clarity and purpose and connection to community that writing doesn’t, and I’m daily happy to go to school and see my students and colleagues. But between teaching and parenting, my time is pretty fully consumed during the academic year, and so I get very little writing done during those months. This is all to say that it took me a long time to get this book written because I was busy (and happy) living. I never stopped writing, but I did write inconsistently, fitting my writing hours around my other responsibilities and loves. The stories in this collection were written in the very early hours of morning, before the kids woke up for the day. They were written late at night, in my dark bedroom, after everyone else in my household was asleep. I wrote these stories sitting in the backseat of my car during piano lessons, perched on the top bleacher at the natatorium during swimming practice, and locked inside my own bathroom (where no one could bother me). These stories feel hard earned in a way that those of my first two books didn’t, and I’m kind of proud of that, actually. [millions_ad] TM: I’m interested in this idea of a writer’s role as a parent enriching his or her work. Can you point to an element from a story in the new collection—a scene, a character, a plot point, whatever—that you couldn’t have written before you had kids? KL: I think the influence of my family is everywhere in this book. In a very direct (but significant!) way, the book owes its cover image and first story to my daughter. A couple of years ago, when she was a first-grader, she did her school “interest project” on the Tasmanian tiger, an animal most people (but not all—which is part of the animal’s intrigue) believe became extinct in the 1930s. In helping my daughter gather information for the project, my own interest was sparked, and I ended up reading several articles and a book on the extinction of the tiger, as well as sort of obsessively watching a YouTube video my daughter and I found—black-and-white footage of the last tiger (Benjamin) pacing his cage at the Hobart Zoo. In the video, Benjamin looks anxious and trapped, and the image of him circling his little cement paddock stuck with me for months. Then later, when I couldn’t get beyond the first couple paragraphs of a story I was working on, I remembered Benjamin, and the story (“Endlings”) came together. In the end, the story is about two characters who (like Benjamin) are “endlings”—the last of their line—and about how they navigate through the world carrying the trauma of that isolation with them. Like Benjamin, both of the story’s central characters bear their isolation very literally in their bodies, but their isolation is also defining in less visible ways—in how they see the world, themselves, and their relationships with other people. In a less direct, way, though—and maybe more to the point of your question—there are so many moments in these stories that came out of my experience with the daily reality of parenting. The story “Matter” is about a woman who becomes a mother through an international adoption, and then brings her son home with her to California. When the story takes place, her city has been evacuated due to the threat of encroaching wildfires, and she’s wrestling with how best to protect her son—to evacuate with him, though she knows that doing so will upset the very fragile stability she’s just managed to create in their new relationship; or to stay in place, keeping the routines that have proved essential for them both, but risking their safety. I researched and wrote the story in 2009. My own son was 3, and I was pregnant with my daughter. I felt—to be honest—worried about how I’d manage life with two children. During those early years of my children’s lives there were definitely moments at which I felt totally ill equipped to mother. Periodically, I’d experience a little fit of terror over what I’d committed to in parenting. How can I manage this? I’d think, overwhelmed. How will we make it to the other side? These aren’t the sort of thoughts mothers are culturally allowed to voice, though, and so I had a lot of guilt about them. The complexity of that, then—the incredible, fierce love of parenthood lived side-by-side with the real fears I felt about successfully raising my children—was what became the heart of that story. The other story I think of in response to your question is one titled “Tides.” It, too, circles the frustrations and—the word coming to my mind right now is suffocations—of parenthood and family life, but it’s actually about deep, committed love. And I suppose that’s really the best answer to what you’ve asked me here. What I could not have written before experiencing family life are these explorations of deep, committed love. I don’t think parenthood is necessarily the only entry point for writing the complexity of that love—not at all—but for me, motherhood has radically altered my identity and perspectives, and that’s been central to how I process everything, both as a person and as a writer. TM: This is your third story collection without a novel in between. Do you see yourself as primarily a practitioner of the short story or are you drawn to stories because you can write them in shorter bursts while keeping all the plates in the air in the rest of your life? KL: I love the story form above and beyond all other forms. As both a reader and a writer, I gravitate toward story first. I love the story’s ability to be precise, to push the boundaries of space and time and memory and point of view, and to lean a little closer (in its attention to imagery and use of repetition and play with structure) to poetry than a novel (with its heavier burden of plot) generally can. I love all of that. Stories are exciting reads—urgent and intense; and as a writer, stories never give me time to get bored (which I’m too prone to do). In the back of my mind, I admit, I have a fantasy about finally finding that novel I just have to write and then sitting down to write it. In almost 20 years of writing I’ve never gotten around to doing that, though, mostly because new stories keep interrupting me, diverting me. And also because when I have attempted novel-length drafts, what I’ve really ended up with have been linked story collections. That might be a product of my limited writing time, but I doubt it; plenty of novelists write around jobs and families. I think I’m simply a story writer. I’m solidly in the middle of my career, and I’m no less interested in discovering new ways into and through story—no less ambitious about improving—than I was when I began writing, so I suppose that says something, too, about where my heart is. TM: What a perfect segue to my last question: What’s next for you? What are you working on now that What We Do With the Wreckage is out in the world? KL: Like a lot of writers, I stopped writing altogether for a while following the 2016 election. I felt as if the breath had been knocked from me, and I just couldn’t put words on a page for a long time. I got involved in organizing with the Seattle branch of Write Our Democracy and volunteering with a couple of social justice groups in my local area, and most of my creative thought and free time in the last several months has been directed there. I’m slowly coming out from under the shadow, though, and I’m in the very early stages of a new story collection. I’d love it if this one could come together faster than Wreckage did—under a decade would be great!—but I’m going to be patient and see how it unfolds.