In Daniel Torday’s latest novel, Boomer1, ex-journalist, bluegrass musician, and failed academic Mark Brumfeld sparks an online movement against the economic tyranny of the baby boomers—all from the basement of his parents’ house. Told from the perspectives of Mark; his ex-girlfriend, Cassie, who is quickly rising through the ranks of an online media company after refusing Mark’s marriage proposal; and Mark’s mother, Julia, a former musician who has lost most of her hearing, the novel takes a probing look at what happens when our best-laid plans falter, our political debate falls apart, and we open doors that can’t be closed again. Torday is the author of the novel The Last Flight of Poxl West and the director of creative writing at Bryn Mawr College. I spoke with him over email about the baby boomers and millennials, Shakespeare, the purpose of fiction, and the political chaos threatening to swallow us all. The Millions: Why are the baby boomers the focus of Mark’s ire? In his situation—unemployed, living in his parents’ basement—I can imagine him veering far left and railing against capitalism or far right and becoming obsessed with keeping immigrants out. What’s so special about the boomers? Daniel Torday: Straight to the white-hot center of things! I like it. I guess I have two answers for this one. The first is the no-beating-around-the-bush fact that this is at heart a novel of contemporary politics. I’d had Occupy Wall Street in mind ever since that movement ultimately failed for not having a clear enough goal or leader. I wondered how to dramatize it. I’d also begun to feel itchy about how identity politics were at times coming to shut down conversation and being increasingly adopted by the political right, picking up on rhetoric that had long been roiling the left. And so the idea of letting Mark Brumfeld take on the baby boomers directly, from his standpoint as a millennial, just felt right. If there’s a clear limit to allowing one’s politics to come solely from identity it’s that there’s just no choice in the matter: In some way you’re always walled into certain aspects of the identity you’ve been given. And what's more intractable than one’s birthday? It also fit for my own vantage point—I’ve had the weird luck of not really being in a generation. I was born in 1978. So I’m not quite a Gen Xer, and they say millennial birthdays start in 1980, ’81, ’82. I feel like that liminal space—one foot in, one foot out—is the best place to be as a novelist. But probably the truer answer is that, apparent or not, Boomer1 is a loose retelling of Julius Caesar. I was reading a lot of Shakespeare for my last novel, and while reading Caesar, it occurred to me that there's something resonant, at least in the first two acts, with the way Cassius and Brutus talk about Caesar’s power—and the way millennials and boomers can be portrayed at odds with each other. So many lines just pointed in that direction. So the characters in Boomer1 map onto Shakespeare: Cassie is Cassius, Mark is Brutus, Julia is Julius. I went back and looked at the original Plutarch source material and it was a watershed. Plutarch’s book, while often read piecemeal, was called Parallel Lives—he was comparing biography from Rome to see how lives over the centuries paralleled each other. Which came to feel a lot like what I was after here, seeing how Julia in her 20s wasn’t all that different from Mark and Cassie. And it turned up all kinds of little flourishes I wouldn't otherwise have hit on myself: Joni Mitchell is quoting Caesar in the line “I am as constant as the northern star” (well it turns out she’s actually Leonard Cohen quoting it to her, but). Caesar was losing his hearing and that opened a door to Julia’s character for me. The FBI agents who come in late in the book get to have the names of Brutus’s conspirators. That kind of stuff. TM: Going off what you mentioned about the parallels between Cassie, Mark, and Julia, I’d like to ask you about the point of view of the novel. We get a third-person-limited POV that shifts between the three main characters, and they frequently describe their experiences of key moments in very different ways. Why show those incidents from multiple viewpoints? DT: Until this book, the third person has always shot me through with abject terror. It just seems so impossibly limitless in what you can do with it. My first two books were told all in first-person voices, which just feels much more natural to me. The boundaries are set. One question I always puzzle out with students is: How much do you want your fiction to sound like speech, and how much should it sound like writing? I think my favorite writers mostly play with aesthetics that sound much of the time like speech—Nabokov, Marilynne Robinson, George Saunders, Alice Munro, Amy Hempel, Barthelme, even Kafka and Beckett in their own ways. But then Anna Karenina is probably my favorite novel and it’s just this kind of tennis-without-a-net free indirect narration. In the opening chapters we move between multiple characters and even briefly enter the head of Vronsky’s dog. So it felt like a challenge I was ready to take up. Then again, as you observe—all three narrators here are very close thirds, so the rules are mostly in place of what we have access to and what we don’t. I’ve actually been kind of pained in early reviews of the book to find some reviewers referring to it as “satirical”—which to me is way off. It’s a category error. I want this to be a funny book, and to reflect the world we live in, but none of the points of view are satirical. They’re just very close to the way three different humans actually think—if that sounds like exaggeration, maybe we’re not listening well. It’s my hope that Cassie sections still sound like Cassie thought, Mark sections like Mark thought. And I really try to avoid flashback, so it felt like by being very close to Julia in particular, we could get back to 1968, say, just by staying very close to her point of view. And it revealed all kinds of things to me—how you can use the third person to tell a story that still sounds like speech, keeping the language alive and vibrant, and accesses a character’s thoughts in a whole new way. TM: Let’s talk about Mark’s thoughts—does he have a realistic view of the world, or are the boomers just a scapegoat for his own personal failures? Or is the troublesome thing that it’s a mix of both? DT: So ... Mark spends a lot of time ranting about baby boomers on YouTube, and in the book it leads to a more or less open revolution of millennials attacking boomer icons. To some extent I just wanted to see what ranting on the page would look like. My dear friend, fiction writer Karen Russell, said to me over lunch once, “You’re such a good funny convincing ranter, you should rant in a book more.” So I had in the back of my mind that would be its own weirdly literary endeavor, getting that live language on the page. I think Mark is both completely right—and totally misguided—all at once. I’ve been thinking a ton lately about how maybe the biggest trouble our culture is in isn’t “fake news” but a version of its opposite. I don’t mean to minimize how awful actual fake news is, but we shouldn’t let it distract. More insidious and widespread is a kind of sophistry that overemphasizes the truth of any particular fact. We have access to so much information. From the pre-Socratics forward, Western culture’s great strength has been that we’ve always known relying too heavily on any single fact can lead us astray—that’s what sophistry is, and that’s why Plato and Aristotle created whole intricate lasting systems of thought to combat it. Our job is to view multiple facts, multiple viewpoints, and synthesize them. As Fitzgerald had it, “to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Right now we view so many things so quickly and with such vitriol that we've forgotten what nuance even sounds like. Did I just get ranty there? Sorry. Allow me to disagree with myself, then. To return to your question: The idea was to let Mark make his case as forcefully and rationally as possible, and then to let Cassie do the same, and Julia do the same, and then back away slowly and carefully. Chekhov has this amazing thing in his letters where he says something like, “It is not for writers of fiction to decide big questions. The writer’s job is simply to describe as accurately as possible people who have been speaking about big questions.” I teach a novel-writing class every spring, where we read like 13 novels in three months, and one realization I always have after all that reading is the extent to which great writers just let each scene, each sentence, do what it’s doing as loudly and convincingly as possible in the moment. When you do that, you can’t escape disagreeing with yourself. Presenting multiple viewpoints. Maybe even ranting! [millions_ad] TM: Mark's ranting on the internet takes him to some places online he's never known about before. And while he may give a dynamic performance in YouTube videos, his other online interactions, particularly with the group known as Silence, are a bit underwhelming for a would-be revolutionary. Where did that dynamic come from? DT: You know, I’m well into work on my fourth book, and I still feel like a novice each time I pick up a pen. I guess if I’ve worked out a bit of a process, it’s to let a character act and ramble for a while—and then to figure out what it looks like when their hopes and desires hit up against the reality of their world. So for Mark that meant setting him free to fuck up his life in Brooklyn, to rant, and then to see what that might mean. So I spent a bunch of time poking around the “dark web” and reading what I could about that world. There’s a Canadian researcher named Gabriella Coleman who's written a ton about Anonymous, and her books gave me a lot of background. I also did a bunch of research about what analogous examples could look like: the Boston Marathon bombers, Anwar al-Awlaki, the guy who founded Silk Road and then was arrested. Then I jumped back to the ’70’s and read a bunch about Patty Hearst, SDS, the Weather Underground. Then I jumped back and read a bunch about Emma Goldman. Then I jumped back to the 1850’s and read everything I could get my hands on about John Brown. You could say that’s my other instinct: jumping back, and back, and back. Which is a long-winded way of saying that once Mark had given what felt to me like convincing rants, when I let my imagination test them against the weird tricksters and hucksters—so, Americans—he would've encountered in the dark recesses of the web seven or eight years ago, I suspect it wouldn't have gone particularly well. He has some real, valid gripes, but I suspect most of the folks he would’ve excited would have been more of the burn-the-motherfucker-down crowd. And not to nerd out too hard, but again, that dynamic felt so in keeping with Marcus Brutus to me. He allows Cassius to convince him to lead Caesar’s assassination, and it’s basically a tragedy of errors from there, from Mark Antony’s famous “I come to bury Caesar, not praise him” speech forward. And shit, living through the last two years of politics feels a lot like that, too, doesn’t it? Well-intentioned people, and some very not-well-intentioned people, and their actions leading to all kinds of awful consequences, intended and otherwise. Tragedies of errors, piling up. TM: Right—no matter his intentions, Brutus has opened the door to political violence, and it’s a door that can’t be easily closed once it’s opened. That’s exactly where Mark’s headed, whether he’s realizing it or not. And with our political situation today, I’m thinking a lot about the doors that can’t be closed once they’re opened. It seemed like the Republicans in the Senate refusing to consider Merrick Garland was crossing a line in a pretty heinous way. Now I’m reading articles advocating for the Democrats to pack the Supreme Court to 15 members to reclaim a liberal majority and split California into six different states to tip the scales in their favor in the Senate. But then does the Supreme Court just keep growing and growing any time a single party controls the executive and legislative branches? It’s scary to play that out. Did writing about Mark, Cassie, and Julia give you any insight into the balance between no-holds-barred fighting it out and trusting in institutions in hope of better days? DT: Nicely put. Like most folks I know, I was pretty despondent after the election. I turned to one of my old mentors over email and he said, “Well, there will still be music, right?” I should say we've been discussing Boomer1 here as a “political novel,” and I'm OK with that, but I’m also tempted to argue that any novel that grants you access to character is political by nature. That’s what I take Chekhov to be saying in his letter, and maybe it’s the opposite of how a first read might take it—not that literary fiction doesn’t take up philosophical and topical material. But that the sheer act of saying, “Here’s the limited, complicated, flawed, emotional, deep, rich way people think, presented in words on the page. Now read it.” And in doing so, you’ll be engaged in a political act. Facile as it might sound, I still trust down deep that if any of the venal, corrupt, autocratically inclined folks in the current presidential administration were really to sit down with a work of art—Tolstoy, Chekhov, Alice Munro, Marquez, Grace Paley—they’d come away less able to enact the evil they’re busy at now. Though, you know, good luck on both fronts. Which, I guess, is to say ... I have not one iota more sense of what’s ahead after writing this book. I feel like I hardly understand what’s behind. I did have the strange experience of finishing this book, selling it, and then having to look at it again after November 2016 and rethinking and retooling a whole lot of it. Things I thought were going to be implausible and inflammatory seemed weirdly tame. Things I thought were innocuous needed a new cast. I struggled a lot over whether it was problematic that the guys in Silence weren’t guided by the bigotry that's taken over much of the trollish web, but I think I settled on a feeling that back in 2010 or so, the Breitbart-ization of those musty corners hadn’t yet taken over or become inevitable. I’m a huge fan of Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World, which I reread while writing, and I thought of the early 4chan guys as being way more like Coyote than anything. But then … Coyote would make a monumentally bad president. Somehow we live in a country where people would’ve voted for him. Poor Melville, not alive to see it. Or to take it one other direction: I felt excited in this book to have much of the revolutionary lens of boomers and millennials be focused on music. Literally, the music of the past 100 years in American life, from bluegrass to psychedelic rock to punk and forward. And that institution sure isn’t gonna fall. Punk rock isn't going to soften to an autocrat’s lies—it’s going to gain new edge. New relevance. I suspect art’s place will grow stronger, be more necessary, the uglier civic and political life gets. Not “content.” Not “vertically integrated media.” FUCKING ART. I think all the time about that great thing from Philip Roth after he returned from Communist Eastern Europe in the late ’70s: “In America everything goes and nothing matters, while in Europe nothing goes and everything matters.” It sure feels like a whole lot matters these days. TM: You share a lot of the same background as Mark: You were a magazine editor and a bluegrass musician—though you ended up with a job as a college professor. What was it like drawing from your own work experiences to put Mark on a path that ultimately led him back to the basement of his parents’ house? DT: Well, I haven't committed any acts of terrorism, domestic or otherwise. So I’ve got that going for me. Which is nice. But you know I was in the middle of a long, complicated job search when I started writing Boomer1, details about which are too boring to get into here. So many of the emotions behind Mark’s character felt close for me. And I think as a novelist there’s always just that need for proper nouns and telling, specific details, and in putting Mark in a Brooklyn and a Baltimore I knew, I felt I could pull it off. Which is to say, with regrets to Flaubert: Sure, Mark Brumfeld, c’est moi. But then Cassie Black, c’est moi, and Julia Brumfeld, c’est moi, aussi. I think to really pull off characters with as close a third person as I've given them, for so many pages, for me at least, there has to be a real affinity there. Weirdly and unexpectedly, I think I came to feel the closest to Julia. There’s this joke I used to think would make a good first line for a memoir: I spent my 20s trying not to become my father and woke up at 30 to discover I'd become my mom. Funny because it’s true. So sitting with Julia's character, granting her an etiology that was kind of my teenage dream—opening for the Dead in San Francisco in the late ’60s, playing in that music scene I idealized when I was a kid—I got to live out a series of fantasies. I mean, in my imagination, imagining a middle-aged woman while sitting in my home office every day for a number of years. Weird wish to have fulfilled, I guess. But it definitely went from having Julia there as a foil, making a necessary counterargument about how millennials might feel about boomers, to her being on equal footing as a main character in the book. TM: Here's a lighter question to end things on: Was it fun to create the fictional media companies and literary journals (RazorWire, The Unified Theory, The Czolgosz Review) that exist in the novel? DT: Yes! Let’s remember that this is a funny book above all. And also let’s remember that I’m a book nerd. So in starting to imagine fictional version of magazines and websites, I had to leave it all out on the field. The Unified Theory was called Les Mots Justes in early drafts, but that didn’t work, so I just left it in there as a joke. And trying to get some little trails of revolutionary breadcrumbs in there felt important, too, with one like Czolgosz, which as we learn in the book was the name of an anarchist who tried to assassinated a president. The RazorWire one was a little more complicated. I found myself sending Cassie on this upward trajectory, and that meant putting her in a kind of “new media” company. Just uttering that phrase, “new media,” hurts my teeth. She ends up fact checking “content” there, and now my whole body hurts. Content! What happened to art? Journalism? The essay! I worked as an editor at a big national magazine for years. For a long time we resisted having much online presence. It was one of the last magazines to publish original work online. There was this fear that doing so would kill print. But then the web really took over, and by the time I was gone, they had a web presence. Everyone did. They created “content” instead of articles, essays, stories. The New Republic bragged about becoming a “vertically integrated digital media company.” (Ahhhhccchchch!!!!) And for a while, a long while, all these moves and the encroachment of social media didn’t kill print. And now. Now here we are: Google Analytics directs us to what’s being read, and so what to read. Most folks I trust feel print will be more or less gone within a decade. Where has that all gotten us? Even the direst jeremiads in 2000 wouldn’t have said, “An autocratically inclined P.T. Barnum of a president.” And yet ... As a famous lyricist once said, “Nothing left to do but smile smile smile.”
If You Have to Go, the new collection of poems by Katie Ford, is a book that conjures powers of possession. I feel that way about all of her books: Her poems bring me to a mystical plane somewhere between language and life. I’m left shaken. Her willingness—we might even call it her essence—to write seeking the untellable makes her work unique. Ford’s new book is anchored by a sequence of sonnets, the first of which begins, “Empty with me, though here I am.” She’s a kenotic poet, and we can feel, in that emptying, an ardent desire to see the knobby and surprising routes of which poetry can be capable. Her books are ones to sit with and contemplate—much the same as I feel about her conversation. Ford is the author of four books from Graywolf Press: Deposition, Colosseum, Blood Lyrics, and If You Have to Go. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, and The Paris Review, and she holds graduate degrees in theology and poetry from Harvard University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She teaches at the University of California, Riverside. We spoke about poetry, theology, and what happens when language fails us. The Millions: You studied theology at Harvard—your first and latest books are dedicated, in part, to Gordon D. Kaufman, who taught you there. Could you talk about him as a mentor? What did you learn from him? How does he remain an influence? Katie Ford: Gordon D. Kaufman was the first theologian—living or dead—that I trusted in a thoroughgoing way. I had been studying Christian theology, mainly, because I wanted to learn how to articulate just where and how particular forms of Christian thinking proceed from flawed and/or injurious methodologies. Kaufman’s An Essay on Theological Method was formative to my thinking, as was everything he’s written from the 1990s onward. He disowned his earliest work. I remember being in his office with him, looking at the massive systematics he published in 1969—Systematic Theology: A Historicist Perspective—and he told me, “Don't read that. I didn’t know how to do theology then.” It wasn’t until he traveled to the East and had conversations with a broader range of religious thinkers and practitioners that he said he understood that all theology and religious language is an imaginative endeavor and a human construct. This may sound obvious to some, but it’s not very widely accepted that all of what has been written—including religious scriptures and normative creeds and prayers—is made by us and is, therefore, limited and flawed. That which is ultimately mysterious and ultimately real (I’m fine calling that ultimate reality “God”), is approached with human language, not a specialized language that is infallible simply because its content is theological. This recognition holds us responsible when that language goes awry, as it often does when it mixes with governmental or ecclesiastical power. We are responsible for creating metaphors and approaches that might remedy wayward, often authoritarian constructs. More than that, though, this recognition begins in reverence for that which, by definition, is mysterious. And just because we are acknowledging human imagination in theological efforts doesn’t mean what we are directing that language toward—the ultimate reality—is “imaginary” or make believe. Some readers miss this point, sometimes willfully so, just to take Kaufman down. I cannot overspeak Kaufman’s influence upon me, nor how dear he remains to me now. When I dedicated Deposition to him, I went to his house for a visit. He was developing dementia at the time, so I asked him, “Did you see that I dedicated my book to you?” And he said, “I did!” as if it had just popped back into his mind. “I scarcely know what to say,” he said. I think a theology that begins with this posture—I scarcely know what to say—would serve us well. If You Have to Go, in part, made me feel like I was behaving as a theologian, and nearly everything conveyed theologically in it can be traced back to what Kaufman taught me, although I think it’s only now—20 years later—that his work has truly been integrated into my way of thinking and being. The last time I saw him, I was with the writer Sarah Sentilles, who also was profoundly influenced by Kaufman. We sat in his back patio. I asked him if he remembered what he and I talked about years back. He said, “No, but I remember it was very important.” And it was. TM: I’m always interested in the routes of poets. You first began writing poetry “seriously” when you were 19, studying under Tess Gallagher, no less, at Whitman College. Had you converted from prose—or was poetry your first writing genre overall? KF: Poetry was my first genre. And only genre, really. I’ve written essays here and there, but prose isn’t my love, and I’ve never written long-form prose. Perhaps you’re thinking Whitman College was named for Walt? I wish. It was named for the Whitman missionaries. It’s a secular school but traces back to white religious colonization. In any case, Tess came to Whitman when I was a senior, and studying with her drenched me in her astounding sense of figuration and the lyric poem’s “singing line,” as she would say, which she likely learned from Yeats (Tess has much Irish in her, and is often living in Ireland), Akhmatova, and García Lorca. She sounds like this: “Terrible the rain. All night rain, / that I love. So the weight of his leg / falls again like a huge tender wing / across my hipbone.” Her mind moves with a brilliant, pure-gift originality, leaping and shifting, but always trustworthy, always returning us to ourselves anew. I was with her once in the Portland Japanese Garden, and we decided to write a poem together. I wrote a few lines, then she did, then I did … at one point she looked at a waterfall and started a gorgeous metaphor about a bear showing itself finally in the water as it fell. I looked at her and said, “How do you do that?” and she laughed and said, “I don’t know.” There was humility in her laugh, a recognition that however the gift comes, it’s the whence that’s inexplicable. TM: What led you to study theology? KF: I’ll let the fraught content of Deposition be the lengthy, 60-page answer to that. The book traces the aftermath of my own short but awful participation in a fundamentalist, evangelical sect when I was 18. When I was 22, I applied to Harvard Divinity School because I had a pained intuition that I needed to study the thinking and methodology that can cause Christian sects to be so devastating. I wouldn’t have said it that way then, but that’s what it was. I went to Harvard Divinity School on that intuition, and then began studying the big guns of Christian thinking: Aquinas; Calvin, Luther, Augustine, Barth, Rahner, and so on. I ended up writing a major paper on how these theologians at times proceed, in their writings, with the same methodology as perpetrators of violence. Perpetrators, for instance, begin by defining the reality of their victim. The victim’s life is redefined by an authority stolen away by the perpetrator. These theologians all begin in this way, defining reality (invisible and visible, the former of which is most problematic) in their own terms in order for others to have their lives defined and explained by a stolen authority. Once you yoke this starting point to image-making that doesn’t acknowledge, as Kaufman stresses, the utter mystery we stand before, I think theology becomes astoundingly misguided. I won’t go into all of what I traced between theological method and perpetration, but that’s what I was working on. I’ve had a desire to actually return to that paper and work on it further ... In short: Disturbance led me to study theology. And disturbance most often leads me to write poems. TM: What were the differences between the lived, experienced Christianity of your youth, and your study of faith through theology? KF: When you study theology and world religions, you can either end up in an internal schism of confusion and turmoil, or you can revere the human history of myth- and meaning-making, their aspirational, perplexed, reaching instincts. For me, a statement of faith would be a confession of not knowing. I believe that the more you admit you cannot know, and do not know, about the divine, the more “faithful” you are, although I don’t often use the word “faith” or “faithful.” The construction is useful here because I’m hoping to subvert its normative use. I was raised in a home that by heritage was Norwegian Lutheran. It was culturally so, even as it was religiously so. Both aspects, I have to say, were deeply good and fruitful—my parents are socially and politically liberal, the ethic was one of service to others, and we had rituals and customs that grounded us (I have a brother and a sister) in repetition and the mythology of our religion. None of my disturbance, as I mention above, was due to my childhood. While at Harvard, I wasn’t known as a person of faith. I was profoundly wary of Christian doctrines, creeds, and interpretations of the world. My own experience had attuned me to how excruciatingly systems of belief can bear down upon one’s internal life. My orientation was toward the lived life—the daily burdens or sufferings—of the person living under Christian systems of belief. I should say, too, that I simply have an innate curiosity about human religion. To me, it is a vast field of fascinating inquiry. And the stakes are very high. I’d like to say, too, that the study of one’s own religious tradition only is able to destabilize that which is inherently unstable, and only needs to be feared if someone doesn’t want instabilities of thought and heart brought to light. Such study can become the depths of religious practice. TM: Your work brings to mind three other writers I adore: Mary Szybist, Fanny Howe, and Paul Lisicky (his prose poems, in particular). Who are writers that you are drawn to (curious about? inspirited by?) on spiritual/liturgical wavelengths? KF: I love all of those writers and am honored to come to mind in their company. Fanny Howe’s lyric essay “Doubt” is a touchstone for me. I think Mary, Paul and I would all love to be in Fanny’s company to listen to her talk and ask her questions for as long as she’d allow. She’s one of the great poets of our time. What she asks of herself, and of all of us, are inquiries of unparalleled depth. I think Paul and Mary are after that as well. If I had to narrow myself to a list of writers who bring a sense of spiritual resonance, I’d say these authors: Simone Weil, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Flannery O’Connor, Frank Bidart, Ilya Kaminsky, Jorie Graham, Linda Gregg, James Wright, Li-Young Lee, Marina Tsvetaeva, Audre Lorde, Robert Hass, John Berryman, and Shane McCrae. I’ll indulge in a few long-dead authors as well, naming John Donne (especially his sermons), Hildegaard of Bingen, and Basho. I’m also deeply nourished by the ancient noncanonical gospels and writings found in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945. Today I finished the book Reading Judas by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King, which includes a translation of “The Gospel of Judas” (by King) and an extended scholarly meditation on how this gospel reshapes our sense of the arguments and debates going on from the very beginning in the early Christian period. It doesn’t matter if someone believes what’s said in these noncanonical writings, at least not for me; what matters is an absorbed understanding that there was no singular “first” Christian community or normative set of beliefs and practices. The communities were wildly diverse from the start. This is a fact that disempowers present-day fundamentalists who argue, inherently, that there is “one true faith.” And it can undercut Christian Nationalism as well, which I find deeply perverse. Every religion, when desirous of or attached to governmental power, goes terribly awry. The subversion of such power is inherently Christian. It’s important for Christians to look this straight in the eye: They follow a politically and religiously subversive dissident who was executed by the state. It ought to be a protest movement of the highest order and intensity, wherever and whenever state corruption and brutality occurs. TM: They appear in Deposition, your first book, but the lines “What you are looking for cannot be / found now” feel as if they permeate all of your work: a palpable sense of longing. Where does that sense come from? Does longing birth your poems, or is it a discovered place? KF: Perhaps the 24-year0old who wrote, “What you are looking for cannot be / found now” should have regarded those lines as her own theological starting point. I suppose I couldn't integrate that idea in its fuller manifestations for quite some time in my own life. Theologically speaking, I align myself with negative theologians who argue we cannot name the attributes of God but can only say what God is not. It simply cannot be found now. One might argue we can find traces, or feel them, or experience manifestations of it (God) via love and service to others, but I believe we are seeing “through a glass darkly.” Yet there is longing, yes. But I have grown more settled in knowing that human illumination is enormously partial. It doesn’t upset me, although during the composition of If You Have to Go, I was painfully startled by lonesomeness, and the suddenness of that—of being solitary after 11 years of marriage—gutted me. I had to build my life up again. And for me, that hollow cannot be satiated by some sense of communion with the divine. I’ve tried that. I need humans, and my longing is mostly reaching toward humans. Longing is somatic for me. I feel it, right now, in my chest, shooting out for something, for someone, to hold onto. When I desire to speak from it, I desire to do so via poems. Emotions aching to attach to an idea, to an articulation—this complex compels me to write. The only requirement for me when I begin a poem is that I feel something deeply, but I don’t know what that “something” is. I’m inside of the poem to find out what it is, what the constellation of images, ideas, and human relationships is that has driven me to feel so upset, or desirous, or, at times, still. Stillness in a poem is more rare for me, but I believe If You Have to Go has a few still points where a reader can rest in a calm. “Psalm 40,” for instance, and perhaps “All I Ever Wanted.” TM: “Belief and doubt on the form of faces. / Ask the faces / which is which?” You’ve discussed the curious reaction to Deposition, the misinterpretations of you as a fundamentalist Christian poet as perhaps being a result of the “deeply secular” world of poetry, how that world can misconstrue the appearance of faith and religion in verse. How do you feel about the secular, the spiritual, and poetry now—years later? How do you think the contemporary poetry world (and perhaps the world of poetry criticism) responds to faith and doubt on the page? KF: Well, I’ll say right away that I know the risks of engaging religious language on the page, but I’m willing to take them. When I use religious language, it’s necessitated by the poems themselves and is a sincere articulation. It has never occurred to me to be ironic in my use of theological language, and what I can say about a reader’s response to faith and doubt on the page is this: I believe readers are tired of ironic renderings of faith and doubt. I think people want to believe the author is sincere. As tiresome to me as Christian fundamentalism is atheistic fundamentalism, which so very often utilizes religious language ironically, or worse, mockingly. Atheists can also succumb to fundamentalist fervor and rigidity of mind but can be unattuned to that risk. But to return to sincerity of religious language, I think readers are often intrigued and even nourished by original lines of poetry that use words like God, Lord, Allah, Christ, Buddha, the gods, enlightenment, and so on. Poetry is in a particularly strong position when it comes to such language, as poetry’s first demand is for original language, acute sensory renderings of the world, and subtle, internal interrogations. In the end, poetry is pressing as far as it can until it hits up against mystery, the unsayable. And coming to that limit, and feeling that limit, is an ecstatic experience. I suppose it’s as close to what I might call “religious” experience as I get. And readers are right to want that, and should put down books that aren’t pressing toward that limit, that are satisfied to offer articulations that are facile, general, or easily won. Such books are insults to the intricacy and subtlety of human experience. When such a book addresses belief and/or doubt in a facile way, it can feel like a higher offense, as the stakes are at a heightened pitch. So the poetry has farther to fall. TM: If I were asked to name my favorite poem of yours, I would say, “All of them!” But if I had to choose, it would be “A Woman Wipes the Face of Jesus.” There’s this wonderful poem, “Rosary,” by Franz Wright, that is so simultaneously narrow and grand: “Mother of space,— / inner // virgin / with no one face— // See them flying to see you / be near you, // when you / are everywhere.” I feel that way about your poem, which in six lines contains almost a hundred variations and vibrations: the woman, Christ, the cross, tenderness, folklore, and more. I return to it like a devotion. This is a longwinded way of saying that you can accomplish an incredible amount in a short space, so: Could you talk about the shorter poems that pepper your collections? Do they “arrive” differently? How do you see them working, or speaking with, your longer pieces? KF: You’re very kind toward my work, thank you. I’m humbled that it might be a ritual piece for you, a devotion. Again, my very-younger self wrote that poem, and if I remember correctly (without going to the garage to rummage through my Deposition box), that poem was extracted from an abandoned longer poem. I often “find” a small poem within the body of a poem flailing about, as it’s very hard to sit down and successfully write a poem of less than, say, eight lines. Eight—the octave—is when, for me, an argument unwinds via detail and the development of a voice, and is simply roomier, more elastic. I’m happy when my books have a variety of reading experiences, and often the very small poem offers a crystalline moment in a collection. “Still Life,” a short poem in Blood Lyrics, was written in one night (as is the rule at the Community of Writers in the High Sierra), and I felt brevity was a confine I needed, as I was deeply fatigued, I had my 2-year-old with me, and I was in my hotel room, a toddler staring at me from her crib, bobbing up and down, and a children’s song, “Down by the Bay,” was stuck in my head. So I wrote the phrase, “Down by the pond ...” and then I asked myself what the most unexpected thing to find down by the pond might be—the farthest thing from “where the watermelons grow”—and I wrote “addicts sleep.” Perhaps showing the whole poem will be easier than explanation: Down by the pond, addicts sleep on rocky grass half in water, half out, and there the moon lights them out of tawny silhouettes into the rarest of amphibious flowers I once heard called striders, between, but needing, two worlds. Of what can you accuse them now, beauty? The last sentence was something I forced upon myself: I was so fatigued (I like thinking of fatigue as a formal constraint!) that I simply said: Stop this poem. Then I had the amazing poem “American History” by Michael S. Harper in mind, which ends with the rather scolding, scalding question, “can’t find what you can’t see, can you?” I borrowed that tone of voice and grammatical cadence to write the last sentence. I knew it was risky of me, as I was claiming I had written these humans into a form of unexpected beauty. But when are people suffering addiction ever rendered as beautiful? So I decided to let it stand. That poem went through almost no revision after the first draft, which is entirely rare for me. Almost never does that happen. Short poems have to have some guts. They are far riskier, I think, than their longer brothers and sisters. In the poem you cite, I remember feeling terribly uneasy with using the word “tenderness.” But there are times when even sentimentality must be risked. And I’ve had more response to that poem than to any other in Deposition. But you know what I think? I think, above all, poets have to guard against becoming cold. TM: I like the occasional literary conversation about poetry and prayer. David Yezzi has said “poems and prayers have different ends: the end of a poem is aesthetic communication, the end of a prayer is God. Liturgy works to tune the soul; poetry works to tune the emotions.” Jericho Brown talks about how “writing poetry has probably been the best teacher for me learning to pray.” More than any other poet I am reading now, I feel like I am sitting in front of prayers when I read your work: They are incantatory, solemn, otherworldly (when you end the poem “Flee” from Colosseum with “I gave you each other / so save each other,” it feels like God is talking—really). Could you talk about the connections, intersections, differences between poetry and prayer? KF: Perhaps what prayer and poetry have in common is that they both must be revised. I think people need to witness what they are actually saying in their prayers. Is what they are asking for ethically sound? Do prayers of gratitude take, as their object, something granted via economic and/or racial privilege? These questions can make prayer fall silent for quite some time. I’m interested in when prayer falls silent, when it isn’t just another form of wanting. Prayers have human motives, and we need to approach them with critical suspicion. Is anyone out there wanting a prayer to say for the next year? Then pray for your trespasses to become known to you, and ask for nothing but the fortitude to bear the revelation and the strength to make amends. It’s a hard thing to ask for. I rarely dare it. It’s intriguing to me that you say my work acts as prayer for you, as I’m very often desiring to subvert traditional Christian thought, although the chastening, godlike voice of “I gave you each other / so save each other” can easily find biblical correlatives. I knew I was taking on a godlike voice in those lines, but I had no belief at that moment that I was channeling. Nor did I feel like I was praying. I was making, and I felt myself to be the maker. At times there is a religious desire to define all things as forms of prayer—art, writing, reading, parenting, walking, thinking, etc. But I resist this. It undercuts the inherent value of those pursuits and doesn’t allow them to stand on their own two feet as necessary human endeavors. I don’t want my mothering to have to be buoyed up in importance by calling it a form of prayer. It’s not. It’s mothering. And my poems are poems. I’m not praying, I’m writing. If a reader takes those poems in as forms of prayer, I’m honored. We all need to find language—as I have, for instance, with a revision of the prayer of St. Francis I’ve grown to love—that we direct outward toward the unknowable realities. But we also need to know that language is fallible, that it’s an effort. Fallibility isn’t necessarily an ugly human fact. It can be a rather beautiful, actually, if we name it as such. But then we have to try again, fail again, try again ... TM: As a reader, your new book If You Have to Go feels like a return to the world of Deposition, a place of spiritual longing, where past and present are joined. It is a fantastic book, grounded in a sequence of sonnets that accumulates so well (as you do with other formal moves in previous books). It feels, again, as a book of longing: “All goes to gone. God of my childhood, / with your attendant monstrosities, / have a little warmth on me, bent and frozen.” When I finished it, I felt physically and emotionally spent; it was a transformative experience. Could you talk about the writing of this new book? KF: I was physically and emotionally spent myself! I felt like that sonnet sequence was going to kill me. Many things articulated in the sonnets came at great cost. At the same time, I felt I was in the middle of something artistic that would never, for me, happen again. It’s a time of my life I don’t enjoy looking back at, but I remember its insomnia, and how, at 4 a.m., I’d wake up, go down the path to the little studio our Los Angeles rental had beneath the main house, and I’d write for three hours, a little more, a little less, until I heard my husband and toddler daughter waking up, walking (and pattering) in the main house, and I’d stop my writing and walk back up to the house. I don’t remember the mornings very clearly after that initial window. The end of a marriage fashions its own dull, pained light. To articulate that light, I realized very easily that, in my writing, nothing could be ruled out or considered out of the question as artistically old-fashioned, tired, dead, worn out, or even archaic. In fact, I landed upon a form (it seemed comic, I remember lightly laughing when I began it) practiced by the poets of the 17th century—the crown of sonnets, a corona, in which the last line of one sonnet becomes the first of the next. I just decided to try it. And each morning, I’d have the last line of the previous poem to start the next. I wrote the sonnets sequentially—meaning I didn’t leave gaps and hop around, or write sonnets and then order them—and the first 20 or so came very fast. Two months or so. Then things slowed a bit, and the fluency of the beginning stage left me. Portions of the sequence were doggedly tricky, and I began to have narrative questions I don’t usually have as a lyric poet. For the sequence to end, I had to wait quite some time. How would it end? I had to wait for my own life to unfold. The poems in the book that are not sonnets were written when I knew I had content that needed other forms. Now that I’m truly done with the book and it’s in the world, I feel a bit bereft. I know I won’t ever be inside of those sonnets again.
As Anne Elizabeth Moore states in her 2017 collection, Body Horror, chronic illness is more common in women than men, so it is no coincidence that these are the diseases society often ignores. This point is in direct conversation with Zoje Stage’s Baby Teeth (St. Martin's Press, July 2018), a delicious literary thriller that debuted last month. If you haven't discovered Baby Teeth, the novel is told from the perspective of two third-person narrators: Suzette, a stay-at-home mother recovering from surgery for Crohn’s disease; and Hanna, her nonverbal 7-year-old. Hanna is an angel when her father, Alex, is around, but left alone, she terrorizes her mother. Seeing her mother’s illness as a sign of weakness, she looks for ways to sabotage her, to damage her. Bottom line: Hanna loves Daddy and wants Mommy out of the way. Permanently. Despite all of this, I felt sympathy for Hanna. I could see where this little girl, though drastically misguided, was coming from, thanks in large part to Stage’s masterful use of language. I reached out to St. Martin’s Press, who graciously gave me a review copy of the novel and put me in touch with Stage for this interview. The Millions: Zoje, thank you so much for agreeing to discuss your novel with me. I hate the word “unputdownable” because it feels like overused marketing copy, but in the case of Baby Teeth, it was true. I started reading around 7 o’clock one evening and only emerged from my couch five hours later—dazed, dehydrated, finished ARC in hand. Baby Teeth has been hyped as a new take on the “bad seed” genre, and while it excels as a summer thriller, it’s also gotten buzz from critical outlets like The New York Times Book Review. With that in mind, I want to explore your novel on the level of writing as craft. First, I have to say, I love your novel’s gray areas. Hanna isn’t 100 percent unsympathetic, and as the reader learns, Suzette isn’t a fully blameless victim either. Do you think this effect would have been possible without the two third-person points of view? Were the earliest drafts told in this alternating perspective? Zoje Stage: Before I started writing this novel I had to figure out how to tell it—and it was the decision to write it in dual POV that set me on my way. If I had told the story only from Suzette's perspective, not only would Hanna have seemed less sympathetic, but I think the one-sided aspect would have derailed some of the sympathy readers have for Suzette, too. In addition, a lot of the tension in the book comes from the dual perspective of seeing how these two characters interpret the same event differently, which makes people question if one of them is more right than the other. TM: So true. There’s something about such different takes on the same event that does it for me. Did the characters’ voices come to you fully formed or more gradually? I’m especially curious about Hanna, who, though mute, has a rich, almost-synesthetic inner life. When she tries to speak, alone in her room, the first chapter says, “bugs fell from her mouth, frighteningly alive, scampering over her skin and bedclothes.” The novel quickly cashes in on a side “benefit” of her mutism—“making Mommy crazy”—but is there a deeper reason Hanna won’t speak? In the opening chapter, Hanna opines that “Words, ever unreliable, were no one’s friend.” (This was the moment I, a commiserating writer, fell in love with your book.) ZS: Hanna's voice arrived fully formed, and I loved writing her chapters. Because she's not the biggest fan of words, I tried to think from the perspective of what things looked like to her. I think Hanna has many reasons for not speaking: an initial dislike of her own voice, a frustration with not being able to say things as "richly" as the images she sees in her head, and the awareness that it gets her a certain kind of attention. That attention goes back and forth between parental concern and annoyance, but it gives Hanna her own way to feel special. Her mutism became a sort of obsession where, after doing it for so long, she truly doesn't know how to stop. To a certain degree, Hanna knows she'll lose her identity if she begins speaking, and that frightens her. Who will she become? And thank you for singling out the "Words, ever unreliable, were no one's friend" line—it's one of my favorites in the book! It makes me laugh every time I read it, because of course I make my living with words. But Hanna experiences words as being inadequate, having found she could never articulate all of her feelings or thoughts. [millions_ad] TM: Let’s talk about setting for a moment. Though horrible things happen outside of the Jensen family’s home, I felt the greatest frisson of fear when Suzette was alone in the house with her daughter. This claustrophobic, oppressive feeling reminded me of the way each night in a horror film offers one more scare, one more piece of the puzzle. I was fascinated by the way the house Suzette and Alex designed together—a symbol of their love, much like their child—could grow into this warped and violent nightmare. Can you speak to any influences you had when developing this mood for your novel? ZS: Once upon a time, the concept behind this story existed as a screenplay I'd written and hoped to direct, and mood was the single most important aspect. I was very influenced by European cinema, which often has a "cool," detached feel, even while delving into realism. The mood in my book was inspired by elements from two particular films: Let the Right One In (a Swedish film from 2008) and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (a 1975 Belgian film). I wanted to have this beautiful, pristine domestic environment that becomes a prison for the woman who's there all day. And the house, in my opinion, with its sophistication and cleanliness, is very "adult," as if neither Suzette nor Alex ever quite made room for a child. TM: I didn’t catch that at first, but you’re absolutely right. There aren’t many (or any) Hanna-friendly spaces in the house. With that in mind, it’s interesting to consider that Suzette sees Hanna as her rival for Alex’s affection and even fears that Alex will side with their daughter over her. I read this fear as not just emotional, but also a very real fear for her financial livelihood. Because of her husband’s career as an architect, Suzette has been able to take years off of work to face motherhood and life with Crohn’s disease. Even so, Suzette frequently worries about “proving her worth,” as though she will be tossed away if she is not beautiful or useful. Does her fear of being left financially alone factor into her more irrational fear of competing with a 7-year-old for her husband’s love? ZS: It is terribly unfortunate that Suzette feels about herself and her life that she would be nothing without Alex. And as her memories in the novel show, it doesn't help that she didn't experience unconditional love from her own mother. Suzette can easily envision a possibility where Alex loves Hanna unconditionally—because that's what good parents "should" do—while his love for her comes with conditions. Her health improved during the early years of their relationship, which undoubtedly was an ego boost for him, but she fears what will happen if her health spirals out of control. There are so many ways that it could impact Alex, from injuring his selfish pride to forcing him into a caregiver role to opening his eyes to how she sees herself: disgusting, on a physical level. And absolutely there is a financial concern. Perhaps of interest to readers is the fact that I've had Crohn's disease for 35 years. I'd hoped that by publishing novels I could improve my quality of life, as I was living on a [federal] disability payment of $627/month. So I'm personally familiar with this scary scenario of trying to keep your head above water while living with a chronic illness and not being well enough to work full-time. Suzette understands her limitations and knows that working full-time may never be in her future. Making things work with her husband is an imperative, and not just because she loves him. Since I like to pretend that my characters exist separately from me, I have to wonder if Hanna, very early in life, caught on to Suzette's imbalanced love: that Alex was the center of her universe, not her child. Is there a possibility that what Hanna once wanted was her mother's love? TM: Yes! I feel this so strongly. Multiple sclerosis, which my mother has lived with for three decades now, can be exhausting for its patients and can make emotional accessibility difficult. To use a common analogy, I now understand that my mother only has so many spoons per day, and some days there aren’t spoons enough for that connection. I wish I had understood this when I was Hanna’s age. Wow. Zoje, thanks so much for this interview. I hope that, if there isn’t a sequel, we can get a film version of Baby Teeth. To close, I have to ask: What is life like now, on the other side of your publication date? Are there any Zoje Stage projects in the works? ZS: The question I am most frequently asked—almost daily, via social media—is if I will write a sequel. I know I disappoint readers when I say no, but I consider the story set in its trajectory. One of the things that is most interesting to me is how each reader brings their own interpretation of that trajectory, and so often what I'm really being asked is "Will you write another book with evil Hanna?" Every once in a while a reader has a different sensibility and a different understanding of Hanna—where she is a troubled girl in a deeply dysfunctional family, but is not without hope. I love that readers are projecting these characters into the future on their own, but because I fall on the minority side—of believing that there is hope for Hanna and her family—it seems unlikely that I could write the satisfying sequel that many readers want. That said, I have a literary horror novel well in hand, with a publication date around winter 2019. And I have another book in progress, a bit more of a thriller. I'll keep it all vague, but rest assured I am a busy, busy writer.
There’s something especially rewarding about befriending someone who is quiet—a sense of finding something special and rare. I met David Wystan Owen a few years ago, when we overlapped in our time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He and I never took a class together, and in drafting this introduction, I tried to locate my earliest impressions of David or recall an anecdote about how we became friends—but I failed. It seems our friendship sprung fully formed from the dive bar we frequented in Iowa City—I.C. Uglies, a dark, scummy gem with cheap whiskey—one of the few places we could meet in small groups without running into crowds of acquaintances. We were seeking a bit of isolation, a bit of privacy, a safe place to talk. That is a bit of the feeling one gets when walking into to the private lives in his debut collection, Other People’s Love Affairs (Algonquin, August 2018)—a feeling of having walked into a quiet space, unseen. David gave me an ARC of his book last spring when I visited him and his partner, Ellen Kamoe, in the Bay Area. I planned to read the 10 stories on the plane ride home to Seattle. I settled in and opened it just before takeoff. Instead of finishing, I found myself teary and pensive at the end of the first story. The plane was still near enough to the ground that I could see texture on the brown shoulders of grass below, and already I needed a break—to save the rest. I found myself spending much of the plane ride turning over just this one delicate story in my head, rereading the ending, tracing back the gestures and movements of each character toward one another, and looking for the origins of the subtle distances that ultimately prove uncrossable. Every story in the collection is this way: It's a book to savor. David’s father is an immigrant from England, and David and Ellen recently co-founded the gorgeous journal of immigrant and refugee writing, The Bare Life Review, along with our friend, writer Nyuol Lueth Tong. Having grown up with an immigrant parent, a sense of dislocation characterizes David’s understanding of what it means to be a person, and each of the stories tenderly examines the ways residents of a fictional British town, Glass, feel their own forms of dislocation. We sit beside them in moments of small humiliation and private triumph that too rarely earn such attention and care. When David and I correspond these days, it’s often about the nosier parts of our world—the headlines, the outrages. In a time of such loudness, it's a comfort to remember that small daily experiences compose the truly memorable parts our lives, and these stories serve as such a reminder. While these characters misstep, hurt one another, reveal their follies, and betray themselves, we get the sense that each of them is deeply known and beloved by the writer, and we come to care as well. I recently spoke with David about his book and his writing life over Skype. The Millions: These stories are set in a small, fictional English town, which you’ve named “Glass.” I know that you grew up in Berkeley—which is not a small town. Would you speak to your relationship with England, both personally and as a setting? D. Wystan Owen: Well, as background, my father is English and met my mother in London. They were married in the United States, and then our family lived in England for about a year when I was 2 years old. When I learned to speak, at least in in full sentences, my first accent was British. So in a lot of ways, my connection to this setting feels linguistic to me, rather than rooted in a familiarity with specific places. That said, I have visited often. My grandparents lived in a town called Preston, which is just outside of Weymouth—sort of southwestern coastal England. I imagine Glass being a little like Weymouth, but smaller—sort of a fading resort. TM: The stories are connected mostly by place rather than by characters or events. How did Glass come to be a home for your characters, and when did you know you were writing a book about people who lived among each other? DO: In drafting, the word “Glass” first appeared in the title story, which I wrote in 2012. The stories started to coalesce around that setting after I’d written a couple more. When I was writing the stories, for a long time I was just setting them in storyland. It wasn’t America; it wasn’t England; it was just in the world of the story. And people in workshops would ask, “Where is this set?” The language felt sort of in-between, because that’s the language I grew up speaking in my house. My dad had lived in the States for a long time, so he didn’t speak exactly like a British person—but he also didn’t speak like an American person. The language of this book and the way characters talk is not exactly how people on the southwestern coast of England would speak, either. If a person who lived there picked up my book, they wouldn’t feel like the language was exactly right. But there’s a different type of truth there. Because the language my father spoke is contained in that “in-between” language, and that’s the displacement of immigration, which is in turn resonant with other forms of emotional disconnection and rupture. That language is the thing that made the book come into being in the first place. TM: In “A Romance,” Abigail says, “Most young people do not stay in Glass,” which made me wonder about the people who do spend their lives there, so isolated and yet so near one another. What do the constraints of a small town environment give you from a narrative standpoint? DO: Yiyun Li has an essay, “It Takes a Village to Tell a Story,” which explores (among other things) the role gossip plays in those settings—the secrets people have in small towns, which they need to have, because if they don’t, everyone will just know everything. I don’t know if my book has that sense of people gossiping about each other, but these stories, for me, are about the secret lives people carry on simultaneously with the lives they present, and that feels like a small town thing. You don’t have privacy, so instead you have secrecy. TM: There’s timeless quality to your style—it feels very classic—and certainly belonging to the same family of writers you admire, like Yiyun Li and William Trevor. It was interesting to hear you say that, in drafting, stories are set in “storyland,” and I wonder if storyland exists apart from time as well. How much does time enter into your idea of setting? DO: At least in drafting, I don’t think about time much as part of setting. I’m most interested in people’s feelings, which aren’t so dependent on that. Sometimes it becomes necessary to consider: in a story like “A Romance,” for example. In that story, the main character, Abigail, has the feeling that it would be shocking if people knew she wasn’t a virgin. That’s not really a thing that would be shocking now, even in a small village, so you have to think a bit in that case about when the story might be set. But this book, for better or worse, doesn’t really gesture outside itself very often, to things like the sexual politics of the world we inhabit. Mostly, it creates meaning internally—whether that’s a strength or a weakness, I don’t know. TM: Would you be willing to share a bit about your relationship with Yiyun Li? I know she’s a mentor of yours, and I wonder what it’s been like to have the mentorship of someone who is also such an important literary influence. DO: I went to the University of California, Davis, for grad school [getting an M.A. in English], and she was my teacher. I was not writing very good work at that age, though many of my classmates were. I was doing what I think a lot of people do as undergraduate writers—just trying shit out. So it wasn’t that Yiyun read my work and thought it was so good. But, I just really liked her, so I set up an independent study with her, where we read together. We read Trevor, we read Graham Greene and Edith Wharton—two other writers I just love. And then we kept reading together after. I would go to her house in Oakland, and we would have agreed upon two or three novels to read and we’d have, like, a book club. I love Yiyun’s work, and I do think about it a lot in writing, but I was even more influenced by the way she read. I had never been taught to read that way. She’s extremely inquisitive. When she reads something, she comes in with a hundred questions. Like “Why do you think this character did what he did?” or “Do you think that character really meant it when she said ...?” And her approach is so much better for writing, because all those questions become things you could write your own book about. TM: After William Trevor’s death, you published an essay on LitHub in which you wrote, “We have so few private spaces anymore. The world is kept so seldom at bay.” I’m wondering if you could expand on your idea about privacy as it relates to the writing life. DO: I think the reason I like books is because you get to enter into this world where you’re alone. You leave behind your life outside that book, and in fact you enter this world where you don’t even exist. There’s this total erasure of yourself. And it’s true of writing, too. One thing I remember distinctly from when I was a kid is the experience of going to the movies. Often my grandmother would take us, and I remember the feeling of walking out of the theater and knowing that, in a minute, she was going to ask whether I had liked the movie, or what I thought of it. I remember dreading that moment, because the experience of seeing the film was something private for me. That private experience was something I didn’t want to give up. [millions_ad] TM: You have a relatively private life yourself. What are some of the ways you protect your own privacy to give yourself space? DO: I’m a bit of a homebody, both personally and professionally. I mostly work at home. Sometimes a library, but I tend not to work at cafés. And the friendships and relationships that I value a lot are, I think, pretty intimate, but I don’t have that many of those. I think some people feel good when they share their own emotional lives with other people, either via social media or by being more emotive in social situations. They want their internal state to be seen and recognized, and that feels comforting. There’s maybe a feeling of solidarity if they find someone else has had a shared experience. I don’t feel that way very often. I usually feel like I’ve lost something, a bit, except with people I really trust and feel close to. When people ask me about stuff I’m working on, I’m not good at talking about it. And it’s necessary sometimes, with agents and editors. I think one reason writers are so bad at talking about our work is that we’re reluctant to give it away. When I see someone post on social media something like, “I finally figured out the ending to that story I’ve been working on,” I want to say, “Well then go write the story—don’t tell me!” I just don’t understand that impulse. I don’t relate to it. To me, the moment I tell you something like that, I’ve given away the thing that was the reason I wanted to write in the first place. TM: I’ve seen reviewers focus on the loneliness of your characters. I think that feels right—they are lonely—but I’m also interested in the other edge: I see many of your characters motivated by desire—a desire to connect, of course, but also a sexual desire. Some of your characters find love in relationships that could be called queer, and some find connection in relationships that aren’t reflected in any of our codified ideas of love. Is the nature of a character’s desire often a starting place for your work? DO: I’m glad you said that. There is something I’ve heard said about the book, or maybe it was something that was true when there were fewer stories and is less true now that they’re all put together: that the book is somehow “sexless.” In workshop, Marilynne Robinson—of all people!—called one of the drafts “chaste.” That’s obviously true when comparing it to, say, [Garth Greenwell’s novel What Belongs to You]. There’s little to no sex on the page here. But I do think the desire for physical intimacy is present and important to the stories. In some cases, that desire developed over drafts. The story “Housekeeper,” for instance has an element of … if not desire, then at least physicality. The scene in the shower is one of the last scenes I wrote. I wrote it after I’d published the story, years ago, without that scene. And the story did feel less without it. TM: We’ve never been in a workshop together, but as I was reading these stories, I noticed that in your movements in point of view and even through time, you break many of what might be thought of as “rules” in workshop. What was the workshop experience like for you? DO: I like workshop. I think it’s good to learn about what your writing is actually doing for readers, because it’s hard to know. So I enjoyed it, and I think it’s a good process for a lot of people, but it also does make people weirdly prim. We had to talk about point of view a lot when I was workshopped. It’s funny because the stories are not avant-garde in any way, and yet it’s, like, shocking to switch point of view. And this is all stuff people were doing 150 years ago. If you read Chekhov or Mavis Gallant, they just do whatever, and it’s always enjoyable. TM: Your stories aren’t particularly long, but they feel novelistic in some sense. We often get a raw moment in a character’s life and then see that moment refracted through later experiences. I wonder if you would speak to the way you manage time within a story. DO: I think I basically picked that up from William Trevor. A lot of his stories are like that; the past and the present are brought into the same plane. And this seems truer to me. We don’t see our lives as beginning here and going in a straight line there. The past and present are with us simultaneously. The past haunts us with its presence and it haunts us with its absence. I am interested in memory and the way characters hold onto things that happened to them—and don’t get over them. From a craft perspective, one of the things that is interesting to me is to put the past and present into the same moment. So instead of having a scene in the present and then jumping to the past, you just describe it at the same time. You can use tense to clue readers in, but readers also just understand the logic of it. And so you can have in the same paragraph a sentence about the present story followed immediately by backstory, and the impression you give is that the person is thinking about those things simultaneously. The memory is present and bearing on the action as it’s unfolding. And I think it reduces the feeling of artifice a story can have, when we’re saying, “Just so you know, this thing happened a long time ago and it’s important, so I’m going to tell you about it now, and then we’ll go back to the present.” TM: Do you feel like there is anything you learned from the process of putting these stories into a book that you can carry into your next book? DO: All of these stories got revised significantly. Some of them hadn’t been touched in years. And so I think I learned, again, about the extent of rewriting. Every time I’ve reached this point where I think, “Now I understand how much you have to rewrite, and how important it is,” I realize I have to do more. TM: Your sentences are just lovely—and I know such elegant simplicity only seems effortless. Just on a granular process level, how do you work? Do you labor over each sentence in a first draft or are you working and reworking your sentences through revision? DO: Sort of both. Either because I can’t get the sentences right the first time—but I try anyway—or because what seems right the first draft isn’t right anymore for subsequent drafts. I do labor over them. They do all get rewritten. But I labor over them in the first draft because the sentences are what cue me into the thing the story is about on an emotional level. I think this comes back to what I mentioned earlier about the way my family talked in my house growing up. It seems a large conclusion to draw from a small thing, but my focus on sentences might be just as simple as having a parent who spoke with an accent. Because then you learn to identify who a person is by how they talk—because the most important person in your life talks differently from other people in a distinctive way. The sound of language, the way the sentences are, the cadence of them … That is who people are to me. TM: Finally, I can’t let you go without asking you about The Bare Life Review. The first issue offered me some of my favorite reading over the past year. Would you speak a bit to your goals with the journal? DO: Our mission with The Bare Life Review is to foreground the talents of our contributing writers, which makes it a bit hard to talk about sometimes, because I am hesitant to put into my own words what their work has already so eloquently stated. We wanted a journal that sort of reversed the paradigm of asylum and refuge, of inside and outside, this troubled notion of “giving voice”—these are among the world's most gifted writers; they already have voices. So the journal is intended simply to celebrate them, and (we hope) to offer some amplification in exchange for the wisdom, the beauty, and the delight they impart.
Elliot Reed explores adolescent loneliness in his debut novel, A Key to Treehouse Living. “This condition of loneliness and isolation is largely universal, and it’s uncomfortable, so young people find lots of ways to cope with it. There are many ways of coping,” he said. Reed’s debut follows the rural midwest adventures of William Tyce, a young character who equally enjoys the outdoors and reference books; it is William’s admiration for these books that gives his story its structure. William learns not only how to survive in a world that is largely absent of others but also how to really and truly live. Reed and I spoke about loneliness, wisdom, imagination, and of course, A Key to Treehouse Living. The Millions: I read A Guide to Treehouse Living as an ode from William Tyce, the young protagonist, to the rural midwest and—maybe even more so—to the outdoors in general. Among other things, William has a love for campfires, rafts, rivers, and his treehouse. Do you share this love of the natural world with your protagonist? Elliot Reed: Yes. When people buy a book thinking it’s going to be about treehouses and find out it’s not really about treehouses, the hope is they will feel some consolation from there being a lot of nature in the book. If you haven’t floated down the Missouri River, I recommend it. Pick a cool day in the fall when there’s not too much flooding going on and beware of the silver carp. These large fish will jump right into your boat. If you want an even better experience, go float the Eleven Point River in the Ozarks. It’s called the Eleven Point because 11 springs pour into it. The water is deep, clear, and flows slowly between nice cliffs. Very few people around. You can still find hellbenders there. I know a fabulous canoe rental based out of Alton, Missouri, I’d be happy to point you to. Whether they provide snorkel gear, I don’t know. TM: The glossary-style structure you implement in A Key to Treehouse Living is incredibly consuming. Why did you decide to write in this unique format? ER: It was an accident. The first entry I wrote was “Bugling.” I don’t know why I wrote it, and I had no character in mind who would be writing it other than me. I liked writing about doing something I knew only a little bit about and making it sound authoritative. This goes back to my brief tenure as the head writer of the blog How to Start Your Own Handyman Business. I am not a handyman. Never have been. I thought what I wrote about bugling sounded funny, so I kept going. TM: As the story progressed, did you find the structure difficult to maintain? ER: Once I realized I was writing something that had volume, and something from a perspective that was not my perspective, I came to understand that I needed a big event. I looked out my window, and there was the Missouri River. The structure was easy to maintain, but I always knew it would feel like the story began flowing in an actual direction once the river was introduced. TM: William is a kid who is wise beyond his years. Whether he’s talking about the importance of reference books in “Annotations,” giving information about the “Eskimo language” in “Athabascan,” or offering solutions to nightmares in “Betta Fish,” William knows a lot about, well, a lot of things. How much did you have to research to give William this kind of insight? ER: I didn’t do any real research. I knew a little bit about the mounds because I was obsessed with the mounds for a while. I knew a little bit about hail-damage repair because I was briefly head writer for the microblog known as How to Start Your Own Mobile Dent Repair Business. I have never repaired a dent except for one time, and that had nothing to do with hail. I would, however, recommend you cite or quote William’s glossary in an academic research paper and then send me your paper. If I’d done research, I think this would be a very different book—I remember trying, once or twice, to consult an outside source, but the process felt untrue to William’s character. [millions_ad] TM: I want to ask about the loneliness William experiences. His mother is dead. His father abandoned him. His uncle isn’t really around. He doesn’t have very many human connections at all. In his own entry for “Luminescence,” he says this: “A person’s skin can also seem to glow, and you may want to be inside of it. Sometimes you may want to have another person’s skin surround you like the walls of a parachute house. Feelings can also be luminescent—physical sensations experienced in the darkness can glow with warm heat and then disappear all of a sudden as if obscured by a cloud.” Do you view his separation from people as being sad, or is it what empowers him? ER: The Dalai Lama says we should be alone for 30 minutes of each day, right? When you follow William as he makes connections to a world in which he seems to be a foreigner, you should absolutely feel empowered. People screw him over or forget about him a lot, but he’d rather write about the ways he keeps moving forward. TM: Do you think this sense of loneliness William experiences is rare in our world for young people, or is it largely universal? ER: This condition of loneliness and isolation is largely universal, and it’s uncomfortable, so young people find lots of ways to cope with it. There are many ways of coping. William’s coping mechanism is he creates a glossary of terms that demystify his existence. If you’ve ever become immersed in a dictionary or a field guide to identifying things in nature, you may have been coping with that fundamental loneliness through the act of getting to know other things. TM: My favorite section is “Making Things Up.” It’s beautiful, and I love how William states the importance of imagination. In his entry, William writes, “The Boy Scouts say you need food, water, and shelter to survive, but they forgot to say you also need to make lists, and you need an imagination. With an imagination, you’re never quite alone, even in a fort deep in the woods when nobody’s around.” As the creator of this character and this story, how important has imagination been in your life? ER: I’m an only child. I had just one person I would describe as a friend my age before fifth grade. Like other children, I played computer games, so my imagination was outsourced that way. Myst is a good game: You’re alone on an island with a bunch of weird buildings, are given no instructions, and there seems to be no real problem. I lived in Prague for a few years when I was a teenager, and I didn’t speak Czech, so I had to use my imagination when trying to decipher what people were trying to say to me. I had to imagine what the signs said at the castles and churches we’d visit; then I’d see there was an English translation and for whatever reason suspect it had been mistranslated. TM: I’m sure you’ll hear mentions of your novel alongside Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time due to, if nothing else, the voices of the young protagonists. Who are some of your favorite young literary characters? ER: I’m ashamed to say I still haven’t read those books, but they’re in the top of the pile on my bedside table. The first book that comes to mind is a children’s book called Andrew Henry’s Meadow by Doris Burn, but that’s just a few pages long and is mostly beautiful drawings of runaway children building their town of forts in the wilderness. They have this town of forts and then a local dog finds them and gives up their location. I prefer Simons Manigault to Holden Caulfield, hands down, though I barely remember anything about Edisto. Then there’s Hushpuppy from the film Beasts of the Southern Wild. Hushpuppy is among the greatest heroes of all time. Scout, from Toni Cade Bambara’s fabulous short story “Gorilla, My Love,” has an unforgettable voice that must have rubbed off on William. Then there are the boys from the movie Stand by Me. I think they spend an afternoon smoking cigarettes and trading baseball cards in a treehouse in that movie. What could be better?
OK, Mr. Field—the debut novel from the South African-born, London-based writer Katharine Kilalea—is the story of a man and a house. Mr. Field, a concert pianist who lives in London, suffers a wrist injury after a performance of Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude.” With the payout he receives, he buys a house in Cape Town that he had read about on the train before the accident occurred and moves there with his wife, to her mild dismay. The house, known as the House for the Study of Water, is no ordinary structure. It’s one of a number of replicas of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, a modernist building that stands outside Paris. As Mr. Field and his wife begin their new life in the House for the Study of Water, their home’s alienating architecture begins to take a toll—first on their relationship, and ultimately on Mr. Field’s grip on reality. Take, for instance, this passage, in which he gazes out a window after a gust of wind blows out the glass: Everything was exactly the same as it always had been, of course it was, but there was something vague about the way my eyes registered the world. Whereas previously I could see things clearly—the trees, even their individual leaves—now when I looked out the low-flying gulls were almost indistinguishable from the white specks that came off the tops of the waves. Things were on the cusp of not being themselves. I had the idea that it wasn’t my vision deteriorating but the very glue which held the objects of the world together growing old and weak. Kilalea’s lucid prose absorbs the reader into Mr. Field’s increasingly uncanny experience of his surroundings and himself. This slow, steady unhinging reveals the strangeness of his world—and ours—anew. Kilalea was kind enough to answer my questions about the novel over email. The Millions: What was the initial impulse behind writing OK, Mr. Field? How did that first idea develop into what the novel became? Katharine Kilalea: Some time ago I visited the Villa Savoye, which most people seem to love, and hated it. I’d already spent over a year writing a dissertation on the perversity of the building—the unnaturally narrow shape of its windows, the coyly hidden position of its entrance—without seeing it in its actuality, so I was surprised to discover that the building, which in my imagination had been something wonderful, was in fact very ordinary. And so unsexy! The stud walls were so porous that I could hear people in other rooms, talking, going to the toilet—presumably, if you lived there, having sex. It reminded me of the overexposed feeling I’d get when writing (or publishing) poetry. I was working for Farshid Moussavi, the architect, at the time. “Why are you writing a book about a building that you hate?” she said. Sometimes it occurred to me that if I could work out why I hated the Villa Savoye I might understand what I hated about writing poetry. Sometimes it seemed like I was using the Villa Savoye to write about a feeling, a kind of desire I suppose, which I was reluctant to write about directly because (in the same way as one ought not to take too much pleasure in an ice cream, say, or a dog, or a question) there’s an element of perversity in it. The building stood in front of that feeling, or stood in for it, as if substituting the words “feeling close” with “being close.” TM: OK, Mr. Field is concerned, in part, with the interplay between outward order and internal disarray. I see that conflict as embodied in the House for the Study of Water, which is this impeccably designed living space that becomes the site for its occupant’s unraveling. It’s a feature, too, of the way you’ve designed the novel itself: Its motion is careful and its prose restrained as the world of its protagonist comes apart. Do you see that tension between order and disorder as an animating force in the novel? Is it a feature of the act of writing? KK: The idea of order in a novel is, I think, quite literally the ordering of events. That’s what animates a novel, the knowledge I have from the moment I open it that something is going to happen, the business of waiting, trusting that one thing will lead to another to some climax or conclusion. It’s interesting; in poetry, “order”—rhythm, especially—guards against disorder, whereas in a novel, order stands against dullness. Which differentiates fiction from life—makes it more sexlike than lifelike—because in life, of course, there’s the possibility that nothing will change, nothing will happen. The tension, for me, is the wedge which this idea of progress drives between fiction and life. Is what makes a novel worth going on reading so different from what makes a life going on living? (What makes me go on living? Nothing. I just do!) I paid attention to climaxes while I was reading. The climaxes of some of my favorite books, instead of being moments of clarity or revelation, seemed to be points of disappearing or dissolving. They had a vague, misty quality. In The Magic Mountain, having spent hundreds of pages waiting for Hans Castorp to finally speak to Claudia Chauchat, their conversation is in French so I can’t understand it. Having spent weeks reading about K.’s quest to reach the Castle, Burghel’s offer to help is met with a smile, not because the object of K.’s desire is finally within reach but because he’s about to fall asleep. TM: Another contradiction that seems to lie at the heart of the novel is the way that structures meant to foster intimacy can instead inspire isolation. As a definition we encounter in the novel has it, a house is “a machine for living in together,” yet it’s the House for the Study of Water that drives Mr. Field and his wife irrevocably apart. Music, too, often functions as a way of bringing people together, but in the novel it works in the opposite way: Mr. Field’s performance of Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude” early in the novel alienates him from his audience, and when he plays it again later, alone, it carries him further into himself. What is it about those structures for connecting us—homes, songs—that can instead cut us off from one another? What makes that an interesting subject to you? KK: I’m fascinated by the difference between loneliness and too much intimacy. The Villa Savoye seemed to think of intimacy as a kind of heightened proximity to other people—seeing each other and hearing each other and being with each other constantly. That much “togetherness” would drive me mad. In fact, Le Corbusier’s descriptions of how his buildings bring their inhabitants closer to nature reminds me of Daniel Schreber (famously analyzed by Freud), whose psychosis took the form of an overly intimate relationship with the outside world: The sun spoke to him, birds read his thoughts. Schreber tried to drown out the voices by reciting poems and playing the piano. So he used music as a way of keeping things out, shutting himself in. That’s my experience of music: The more I’m carried away by it, the more I find myself thinking about myself. [millions_ad] TM: This is your first novel but your second book. Your first was a book of poetry. How was writing this book different from writing poetry? In what ways, if any, do you see the novel as continuous with your poetic project? KK: Somewhere between writing my book of poetry and this novel, I wrote a long poem which I think of as the hinge between the two. The poem is the opposite of prosaic—the images don’t make sense, the syntax doesn’t make sense, some of the words are nonsense. It was written at a time when, for reasons that were never clear, I had great difficulty in expressing myself. I was unable to speak properly; I couldn’t finish sentences and often couldn’t find the right word at the right time. Perhaps the music of the poem supplemented those unfinished thoughts and made sense of them, because I couldn’t write poems after that. Then, after a while, sentences started to appear. I miss poetry, but it’s a great relief to be able say something rather than having to convey it intravenously, as is the way of poetry. TM: Many of my favorite recent novels were written by writers who began their careers as poets—Ben Lerner, Garth Greenwell, Anna Moschovakis, and you. Would it make sense to you to think of the contemporary English “poet’s novel” as a form with certain specific characteristics? What might those be? KK: I’m not at all confident about this, but here goes … I wonder whether Ben Lerner and Garth Greenwell’s novels (I’m looking forward to reading Anna Moschovakis) share a cynicism about instinct, or the naturalness of feelings. There is a sense of feelings behind feelings, thoughts beneath thoughts; you settle on something only to discover, a moment later, something different buried beneath it. It makes it impossible to land anywhere, which is something I recognize from poetry, the sense that everything must be unsettled, that you think of a thing one way, but really … TM: One of the features of OK, Mr. Field I found most compelling is the subtle prominence of animal life, from the sea or sea-adjacent creatures (seals, squid, seagulls) discussed when Mr. Field goes to the restaurant to the spider that he sets on fire to the dog that becomes his companion. What role do you see animals as playing in the novel? KK: It’s not easy to describe feelings. You can only describe what caused them or what it looks like when a person is smiling, crying, etc. The thing about animals is that, since they can’t speak, perhaps, their bodies are very articulate—they seem to register feelings with their whole bodies through tail wagging, head cocking, etc. Also, although animals seem to experience roughly the same feelings as we do—guilt, affection, enjoyment, being left out, etc.—they’re not expected to be moral. For example, whereas people are expected to experience attraction to other people, preferably ones of a similar age, background, and so on, dogs are allowed to hump table legs or handbags. TM: In an early scene, when Mr. Field meets Hannah Kallenbach, he notices a shelf filled with “big books, the kind of grand European novels which concern themselves with the human condition.” I thought of this as a winking way in which the novel both acknowledges the tradition of which it is a part (it’s also a novel that explicitly concerns itself with the human condition) and differentiates itself (it’s not a big book). Elsewhere, you’ve mentioned The Magic Mountain as an influence. What other books do you consider OK, Mr. Field in conversation with? KK: I do miss the modernist project’s ambition to tackle death, love, the meaning of life. I’m still anxious about the meaning of life! There were a few books which were—are—always on my desk while writing: The Magic Mountain, Correction, The Castle, and Peter Sloterdijk’s Bubbles, all of which I treat as odd love stories: for death, a castle, a soap bubble, a foetus, a placenta … Bernhard’s Correction and The Loser were too thematically similar to OK, Mr. Field to ignore, though anyone trying to write while reading Bernhard knows how terribly infectious his style can be. TM: In the novel, Mr. Field moves from England to South Africa, which is the reverse of the path of your own life. What, if anything, do you see as distinctly English or South African about the novel, or even distinctive of the interchange between the two? KK: OK, Mr. Field was initially set in the Alps—as an homage to The Magic Mountain, I think—but I’d only been there once, so halfway through, I transposed it into South Africa, which I knew better. I realized, then, how dominating a presence South Africa can be, because suddenly I felt the need to write in great detail about its sunsets, the seaweed, etc. (which felt wrong: too much looking out, not enough looking in). There is a perverse pleasure in withholding that visual description, because the landscape is beautiful, yet that restraint seems common among South African novelists: Their books have an arid quality; they don’t sing. The changing of countries at the last moment was also willfully contrary, a corrective to the unspoken regulation that a South African writer should concern themselves primarily with South Africa and things associated with South Africa. TM: What are you reading and working on now? KK: I’m about to re-read Lolita. It’s not my favorite Nabokov, but I’d like to write about, and think about, sexuality, in an amoral way.
Bina Shah was introduced to me via Facebook by a mutual friend who is a fine short story writer. She contacted me directly about her first novel, which I published. I don't believe she wrote her new novel, Before She Sleeps, thinking it would become a dystopian thriller, but it was clear to me that her writing was moving in this direction. I, on the other hand, reached a point in my career where I felt I'd said most of what I'd wanted to say, shared my many minute observations about unusual families, complicated relationships, and love between mismatched people. Going by the advice of my then-agent, I began to write tighter narratives, at the center of which was a mystery that needed to be solved. Black Diamond Fall is the second novel that I've written in this new vein, and I like to think that despite the constraints, it is stylistically similar to my earlier novels. We spoke about our books via email. —Joseph Olshan Joseph Olshan: Your first novel, A Season for Martyrs, was a fascinating portrait of Pakistan in 2007 and the last three months of Benazir Bhutto’s life. The novel's narrative was written at a high literary elevation in the sense that the present-day narrative was in counterpoint to a kind of lush, lyrical mythical history of the Sindh region of Pakistan, where Bhutto grew up. Some of the novel's best writing portrayed this history. When you began writing Before She Sleeps, which is set in a future society where the female population has dangerously dwindled, did you have any idea that you'd be writing a novel that would end up reading like a dystopian thriller? Was that your intention? Did you consciously write with a thriller audience in mind? BS: I just read an article called "Stephen King's Top 20 Rules for Writers" (I feel like there are at least a hundred versions of the same piece) where he says that when you write a story, you're telling yourself the story, and when you rewrite, you're taking out all the things that are not in the story. I don't think I write with an audience in mind so directly, not in the way that I'd be mindful of their reactions and expectations if I were narrating it to a group of listeners, or even my 5-year-old nephew. What I am doing when I write is not quite to tell myself the story, a la Stephen King, but to get it down. Any working writer knows what I mean by that phrase: capturing the story, rather than inventing the story. I'm doing what Michelangelo did when he saw a fully formed statue in a block of marble: He used his tools to chisel it all out of the rock. I'm no Michelangelo, but the story already exists in my head as an entity: elusive, amorphous, and fully alive. I'm getting it down on the page before it gets away from me. How I shape it, mold it, form it and direct it is my craft, but it's already there on some plane that I'm accessing as I write. JO: But you ended writing a dystopian novel very much in the vein of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. And sure enough, all the early reviewers are likening your book to hers. In a starred review Publishers Weekly urged fans of Atwood's book to read yours. How much of an influence did The Handmaid's Tale have on your writing Before She Sleeps? BS: I read The Handmaid's Tale in college and while it was a very powerful book, I wasn't able to make the parallels between the Christian fundamentalist society Atwood envisions and the equally frightening one I envision in Before She Sleeps. But when I returned to Pakistan and lived there 20 years among some of the worst conditions for women, I was able to see them. What Margaret Atwood imagined happening in the future was already happening now in the regions of South Asia, East Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Only the cultural and religious contexts were different; the patriarchy, the misogyny, the control over women and their lives was the same. So rather than thinking about The Handmaid's Tale in terms of influence, it was a point of reference for me as I wrote Before She Sleeps. I did reread The Handmaid's Tale while I was in the process of writing Before She Sleeps just to make sure I wasn't over-borrowing specific terms, concepts or plot points. JO: It seems to me that Before She Sleeps is a timely novel in the sense that it tells a story about women taken advantage of and kept in check by men, rebelling and triumphing when they find a higher, more secure ground where they can live more freely. As you know the #MeToo movement began with a kind of rebellion and caught fire. Can you try and relate this new movement to what has gone on in Pakistan, where women have traditionally been subjugated to men? BS: In talking about Before She Sleeps, I feel the need to make the point (somewhat repeatedly) that feminism, rebellion and resistance look different in different parts of the world. I got an early review of Before She Sleeps which basically said the women weren't independent enough, which in my mind boils down to: "They weren't feminist enough." But feminist enough for whom? When you live in a part of the world where honor killings exist, where a girl or a woman can be killed for marrying the partner of her choice, then even falling in love with someone is an act of resistance to that patriarchal system. Also, Pakistani women have traditionally been subjugated to men and the patriarchal tribal systems that operate in my country. They have resisted both directly and indirectly. They find a way to go around obstacles rather than straight through them. The concept of "smashing the patriarchy" is very new to Pakistan; it has been brought into the country by a global wave of feminism, including the #MeToo movement, over the last four or five years. We always thought of finding our rebellions within the patriarchy, and this is exactly what Before She Sleeps portrays: a subversion of the system, not destruction outright, because that seems impossible given the scope of the power and control against the women. It may look like a compromise to more Western eyes, or it may look like women reacting with courage and elegance to an impossible situation. Now I have a question for you: Just as Before She Sleeps is a switch in genres for me—from straightforward literary fiction to dystopia with shades of speculative, science, and technology fiction—you've switched things up with your forthcoming novel, Black Diamond Fall. It's being characterized as a "literary thriller," which I associate with excellent books like The Alienist by Caleb Carr and The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Was it hard for you to make the switch between semi-autobiographical literary fiction and a mystery/thriller? Were you aware of the change in genres, and how did it affect your writing? JO: Well, first of all, all my fiction is semi-autobiographical—even Black Diamond Fall. I don’t have the ability to write a story where some large part has not occurred within the realm of my own experience. A novelist needs to discover what they can and cannot do. If they are unable to make this distinction, then their output will be wildly inconsistent. Having written and published 10 books, I’ve learned what I cannot do. So Black Diamond Fall, while a mystery of sorts, is semi-autobiographical in the sense that its central relationship, its deepest chords resonate with a relationship I had, a relationship that stirred me up in all the right ways for fiction. I spun around that a tale of disappearance and vandalism, both of which were based in fact: A student disappeared from the Middlebury College campus in 2010, and shortly thereafter the Robert Frost homestead (which is open to the public) was vandalized. This is my second effort at suspense fiction, and I’ve learned that readers of this sort of fiction have expectations that must be addressed by the writer. In this sense you might say I was broadening my craft, whereas writing literary fiction is solely about creating a balanced sphere of a world—and sometimes fine literary novels do not take the audience into consideration and can be hard-going. BS: On that last note, on taking the audience into consideration, is the writer really obligated to keep the audience in mind when writing? I've encountered difficulty with questions of a similar nature, asking me if I write for a "Western audience" or a "Pakistani one." I always say that I don't think about an audience like that, but what's your philosophy on this as a writer? JO: Every serious writer has to try and take a step back periodically and ask themselves if a reader can objectively relate to what is on the page. By the time one has written and published a book or two, this process should be pretty rote. But the first and foremost concern is the integrity of book itself, and as I was beginning to say in the last answer, a book is like a sphere, a whole world with a balanced ecosystem, and the writer is the godlike force creating that world. Once the world itself has literary integrity, it should be inhabitable by all different sorts of people. It should be universal. And the reader should be able to recognize this universality and in so doing, find comfort in reading. I am the editor of your novel. I’ve gone through it several times in the editorial process, so perhaps I no longer possess the degree of objectivity toward your work that a fresh reader has. But in my opinion what distinguishes your novel is the fact that you are deeply familiar with the cultures of North America and West Asia and this is brought to bear in Before She Sleeps, a novel that, though located deeply in your native culture, feels American in many ways. Now here is a delicate discussion that I think readers of The Millions will be interested in: the editorial process itself. I’ve edited two of your novels, and I think we’ll both agree that I asked you to do more work on Before She Sleeps. It’s true that by this time we’d built up a trust that allowed you to be very receptive to my editorial concerns—much more so than several of my other writers, some of them first-time authors, who have, in my opinion, given me a remarkable amount of pushback. As an author of several books, can you give a sense of what it was like to go through this intense process? BS: First of all, I'm curious to know how you think Before She Sleeps feels like an American novel! As you know I spent the first five years of my life in the U.S., and then six years in college and graduate school. I'm in the United States this summer in the run-up to the novel, and I keep thinking about the impact of America on my life; it seems to have found its way into my writing as well, as you say. Before She Sleeps was, for me, an ambitious novel. So when I had my manuscript ready to show to you, I knew there were flaws, but I couldn't identify them, let alone fix them, because I had no objectivity at all. I welcomed the idea of my editor as collaborator, someone who would read with a fresh pair of eyes and be able to see what was wrong in terms of structure, pacing, ideas, and so on. I found your role as editor tremendously supportive; whatever you suggested for the novel was done in the spirit of making the book as strong as it could be before it went to publication. I wanted it strong, and because you're not just an editor but also an acclaimed novelist, I knew you were sensitive to my needs as a writer, to be supported but also challenged in the revisions. I think the process of working on the book together, as editor and writer, was exhilarating: You weren't afraid to ask me bold questions; you were very decisive about what you felt needed expansion or cutting back; you were uninhibited in your praise of what you thought were strong passages or characterizations. You also brought a different perspective to my work, as a male, as an American, and as someone who is experienced and confident as a writer. I appreciated that perspective; it gave a richness and depth to the novel that expanded its scope and its power. You infused it with an energy and spirit that is very characteristic of you as a person, too, and in you I found an affinity for dramatic tension and a fast pace that served the novel very well. Because that's what it's all about, in the end: You do what you need to do to make it the best book it can be, and when an editor believes in you and your work, it's very easy to trust them right back and just go for it.
The way I usually tell it is that I met Jordy Rosenberg outside Cafe Express in Provincetown in 1994, we immediately got into a fight about queer theory versus Marxism, we didn’t speak again until the following summer, and we’ve been friends ever since. Now, in a startling and barely believable plot twist, we’ve both come out with debut novels in the past year: Jordy’s Confessions of the Fox (One World, 2018) and my Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl (Rescue, 2017), each of which has been described as “picaresque,” each of which is as queer and trans as possible. At the time of this conversation, we lived in the same apartment building in Northampton, Massachusetts, but by the time you read this, we will have moved into what we have been calling the “queer commune.” Below, we attempt to make sense of this trajectory. —Andrea Lawlor Andrea Lawlor: When we first met—maybe 25 years ago?—we were students (well, you were a grad student) and we talked about science fiction and queer books constantly. Now you’re a scholar, a tenured professor with a monograph about capitalism and religious passion in 18th-century literature. But of course, that whole time, you were also writing fiction … I remember an early novel draft that had lesbian ghosts, is that right? Can you talk about your path to writing this novel, Confessions of the Fox, while also having another career? Jordy Rosenberg: It was 24 years ago, and we were both working food service jobs in Provincetown for the summer. Actually, you were working food service while also party-promoting at the Crown and Anchor. What was your night called? Was it called Boots? I remember one flyer for it which had the word “BOOTS” written in bold, and lots of xeroxed cutout photos of boots. AL: The night was called Pussy Galore. I am tempted to go through boxes and send you that exact flyer. JR: No need. I have that flyer committed to memory. That flyer really, really spoke to me. But the main point here is that I will go to any Lawlor parties I’m invited to—then and now, whether it involves boots or science fiction or being novelists or ... whatever. When we met I was just applying to graduate school and I was really in love with critical theory and philosophy. I wanted to write fiction too, but novel-writing felt to me like a comparatively tremendous gamble compared to academia. A large part of that had to do with queerness and having a difficult relationship with my family where I didn’t receive a lot of support. It was a different time, and the tenure system was more intact then, so I just gravitated toward prioritizing academia, while also writing novels on the side. I also think maybe I had developed a kind of asceticism that I associate with my relationship to queerness at that time—like I was allowed to have my queerness, but I would have to give up some other pleasure or gratification maybe? I think fiction writing is what I decided I had to sacrifice for the sake of sex, if that makes sense. AL: Oof. Yes. That actually makes total sense. JR: Anyway, over the course of 18 or so years, I was writing and then throwing away novels for not being good enough. Being a published author of fiction just didn’t seem like a dream I was allowed to have (or keep). Finally I committed to Confessions. But wow it took a while. To go back to you and the party-promoting and our mutual love of science fiction, can you talk a bit about your own path to writing Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl? I’ve known you through all of it, but we haven’t really talked much about the journey itself, which maybe makes sense because these things only seem to take on a narrative arc once there is the arrival of a kind of endpoint. AL: I know! We know everything and nothing about each other’s writing life. It was ages before you let me read Confessions, and then when I finally read a draft, what was so surprising and compelling is how much of yourself you’d brought to it—in the footnotes of course but also in the form of the novel, and in Jack’s character. It’s funny to read a roman à clef when you maybe have the clef. JR: Good one. You do have the clef. [millions_ad] AL: To answer your question, though, as you well know, I didn’t start writing in earnest until I was 30. I’d made zines and written a little Chandler/Joey slash (did you ever read that?) but nothing else up to that point. My girlfriend, who was in film school at the time, basically said, “Why are you in that soul-crushing job? You’re a writer.” And I thought, if she can go to film school, I can at least try writing a story. I took a night class at Gotham with Carter Sickels and, not long after, took an unpaid leave of absence from the soul-crushing job, got laid off, and got on unemployment—the second-most important thing that happened to me as a writer (the first being my girlfriend’s encouragement). I had a story I wanted to tell about young queers with slightly boring superpowers but had no idea how to start. I began to re-write Greek myths for practice, just stealing the plots, and in my attempt to retell the story of Tiresias, I wrote what became the opening section of Paul. Later I was in grad school, and Samuel R. Delany, my teacher, said, “I think you’re not done with Paul.” So again, I listened to good advice, and I began to try to figure out what Paul would do next. The Tiresias story fell away fairly quickly, and then I was adrift. I tried outlining, tried to understand three-act structure, tried to impose a plot, but kept coming back to my sense that I just needed to follow Paul, that my structure was going to have to be a little queer as well. I finished a draft of the novel as my MFA thesis at UMass (and you were down the hall, professing!) and then sent that out to some very kind agents, one of whom suggested I try to amp up the tension, find more conflicts. I dutifully excavated what I thought was pretty solid three-act structure, but wasn’t able, ultimately, to write a book in which Paul “learns a lesson.” This agent was really sweet about it and said to send him my next book. I ended up doubling down on a more episodic structure because I realized my reluctance had to do with my understanding of how people change, how I’ve changed—really slowly, recursively, making the same mistakes over and over. I was incredibly lucky to know the wonderful Hilary Plum and Zach Savich, who edit the Open Prose series at Rescue Press and encouraged me to submit. Hilary is a phenomenal editor—gentle but incisive—and she pushed me many times but always in order to help me make the book I was trying to write. And now it’s out! Hard to believe. You also have worked with an amazing editor, to whom you’ve dedicated your book! What’s that relationship been like? JR: First of all, I did not read the Chandler/Joey slash. I’m sorry about that. Are you mad? Do you still have it? I’ll totally read it now. Anyway. I totally get what you’re saying about the ways in which sometimes the process of trying to get literary representation can reinforce certain conventions about what a novel is “supposed” to look like. I, too, find this a kind of baffling and often artificial directive. In my case, it wasn’t so much the departure from genre that posed challenges but the way in which I was maybe trying to combine and multiply genres. Confessions is based in research I did on primary source documents about the 18th century’s most notorious prison-break artist: a real person named Jack Sheppard. What I’d noticed about that archival material was that it repeatedly presented Jack as very genderqueer—he was generally described as very lithe and effeminate and impossibly sexy. I came to feel that this genderqueer sexiness was a way for writers at the time to conceptualize the appeal of a life lived outside of the regular rhythms of the capitalist workday. So for example, because Jack was so irresistible, he’d recruit others into a life of crime. Or, his gender queerness was a way to account for how his prison breaks were possible: He was just so flexible and tiny that he was able to wriggle free of prison walls. I wanted to run with this connection I found in the archives between gender queerness and hatred of/escape from capitalism, and sort of literalize it as an explicitly fictional—actually almost science fictional—trans origin story. My amazing editors, Victory Matsui and Chris Jackson, were really essential to all of this. The book is a thriller, but an experimental kind of thriller with a number of parallel plotlines intersecting and weaving through each other. Victory and Chris were a genius team at not only exploding and recomposing these elements of narrative structure, voice, and tone, but also thinking through all of this alongside a number of other questions around trans representation, writing queer and trans sex, and the histories of racialization, imperialism, and the prison system. My relationship to One World became easily the most important and most intimate working relationship of my life. I have a question for you about formal experimentation along these lines. One of the most fascinating elements of your novel, to me, has to do with its incorporation and remixing of what has become a really dominant trend in contemporary writing—the blending of theory and fiction. You can think of Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts as a good example of this, but there are others. Paul Preciado’s Testo-Junkie is another that people may be familiar with, but this practice is perhaps best exemplified in Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands. I see Paul as a new twist on what has been a very queer and feminist genre of blending theory and fiction. But rather than annotating your own text with theoretical elements that lie outside of the plot structure of the novel, you incorporate them into the plot of the text in a way that highlights the characters’ (and the author’s?) desire for theory—and at the same time, you destabilize the authority of that theory. So for example, there’s this moment where Paul and Jane are talking, and Paul tunes out for a second to think about some questions to do with gender and femininity, and when he tunes back in he’s missed something Jane was saying: “He had not been paying attention to the correct thing, in this case Jane’s disquisition on wanting-to-be vs. wanting-to-do, which as it turned out when he made her repeat her point had something to do with Barthes’ distinction between a readerly and a writerly text.” So you’re incorporating theory into the narrative flow of the novel and kind of (could we say?) performing this readerly vs. writerly text distinction (or confounding it) by withholding the actual Barthes quote and surrounding it with the characters’ desire for and disregard of the theory in itself. Do you want to talk a little more about how you felt the book engaged with this scene of queer theory in the ’90s, and how you thought about writing about that? AL: I haven’t thought about this at all, and yet when you explain myself to me, I think you must be right—I did do that smart thing you said I did! As you can see, Paul did not fall far from this tree. OK, but seriously—I don’t think of myself as writing with the intention of engaging with critical theory. Critical theory was a hugely formative part of my life, starting in the early ’90s. I had many questions for which I thought critical theory, specifically queer theory, had the answers. Like many young people encountering such thought, I read in a frenzy of excitement and despair. I tried so hard to read Gender Trouble on my own, for instance (if only I’d had your beautiful essay “Reading Gender Trouble on Mother’s Day” way back then!). I understood maybe a 10th of the Butler or Barthes or Foucault I was reading, but it didn’t matter. I wanted always to be around other queers and other seekers, and the world of queer theory was a world of queer seekers. My heroes were academics—as you may remember, I went so far as to make a Judith Butler fanzine, which I then left laying around casually to impress girls. That was what I knew of being young and queer in 1993, and so that’s what I gave to Paul. It’s been a huge relief to me in my life to realize I don’t have to produce theory—that I can be grateful for the work of scholars and critics without having to participate in that work. I’ve been procrastinating this very email exchange (written from one floor above you) because I forget I don’t have to write like an academic. And because I’ve been excited about the way you think for almost 25 years of friendship and always want to live up to that. JR: Well speaking of living up to, I remember that Judith Butler fanzine (titled Judy! for those readers who want to peek at this magnificence) took my breath away back in 1993. You saw something about the way that queer theory was becoming this object of desire—and also the way that queer street politics were taking shape as a theoretical field that got disciplined in and by and through the academy. I had just graduated from all those years of college where I was supposed to meet people I connected with intellectually, but I didn’t meet anyone whose brain compelled me as much as yours did until that year we were both working in P-town.
When I got my hands on an advanced reader’s edition of Crystal Hana Kim’s If You Leave Me a few months ago, I couldn’t believe my luck. With my own debut novel coming out this summer, I’d been following book coverage closely and making note of titles I wanted to read the most. If You Leave Me, out Aug. 7, was at the top of my list. Over the next few days, I became completely absorbed by the forbidden love story of Haemi and Kyunghwan, their complicated ties to Kyunghwan’s cousin, Jisoo, and a rich portrait of war-torn Korea. This is a novel of epic proportions whose tone shifts agilely over time, following the lives of its characters and the devastating consequences of war. It’s full of longing and hard truths, and when I finished it I was in solid agreement with the buzz surrounding If You Leave Me, naming Crystal Hana Kim as a talented writer to watch. I was surprised to find that If You Leave Me shared some striking similarities with my own novel, What We Were Promised. Set in modern Shanghai, What We Were Promised is also a story of forbidden love, following the lives of three characters bound by family ties. Lina, Qiang, and Wei grow up together in a small, silk-producing village, only to be separated when Qiang disappears and Lina and Wei marry and move to the U.S. The novel opens when the couple is back in China and must face Qiang once again—as well as the reasons he left. Though our novels are very different, both explore the impact of political history on its people, of money and power on individuals, and of the damaging effects of gender roles. It was startling, too, to see minor totems echoed in our novels—a bracelet, a scar on a loved one’s face—which further convinced me that If You Leave Me is the dark sister to What We Were Promised. I eagerly reached out to Crystal, and we became friends. It’s my pleasure to speak to her now about family influences, novel-writing, and the books we’re most excited to read this year. —Lucy Tan Lucy Tan: Crystal, congratulations on the upcoming publication of If You Leave Me! I loved experiencing the world of 1950s-1960s Korea through the eyes of your three main characters—brilliant Kyunghwan, headstrong Jisoo, and the beautiful and fierce Haemi. They came to vivid life and grabbed me from the very beginning. I’d love to know a little bit more about the genesis of this story. I noticed that in the novel’s opening pages, the dedication is partly written in Korean. I’m going to be nosy and ask: What do they mean? Are there hidden inspirations there that you can share? Crystal Hana Kim: The dedication that’s written in Korean says, “I lovingly dedicate this book to my mother and father.” Fittingly, my family was integral to this novel. Both my parents are Korean, and all four of my grandparents survived the Korean War. I’m particularly close to my maternal grandmother, who told me many stories about growing up during the war. As a teenager, she had to flee her home with her widowed mother, which was the genesis for Haemi’s story. I fictionalized Haemi’s life to explore questions I was interested in (of motherhood, gender roles, and how war scars a country and its people), but the seed of my novel is rooted in truth. I’d love to hear about the genesis of your novel too! What We Were Promised centers on the Zhen family—Wei, Lina, Karen, and Qiang—as well as Sunny, their housekeeper. Though the novel dips into rural China in the 1980s, most of it takes place in Shanghai in 2010. I know you grew up in both New York and Shanghai, and I see that you also have a part of your dedication written in Chinese! Can you tell us about your personal connection to this setting? What inspired this story? LT: In writing What We Were Promised, I drew heavily from my family’s experiences during and after the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese words in my dedication are the names of my parents and grandparents on both sides of the family. My parents were involved in this book in an even more direct way—they helped me set up interviews, read drafts, corrected my use of Chinese in the book, and more. I like to think of my novel as a family project. My understanding of modern-day China comes from firsthand experience. I’ve been traveling to China since I was little, but during the two years I spent in Shanghai after graduating college, I finally felt connected to it in a way that I had before. It struck me as a city changing so quickly, both culturally and economically, and I knew I had to write about it one day. At the time, my parents and I lived in a serviced apartment that served as the basis for the fictional luxury hotel in my novel, Lanson Suites. It was there that I met many of the expats, ayis (nannies), and drivers that inspired several characters in the book. It’s so interesting to hear you name the themes you were intentionally exploring when writing If You Leave Me. The word “scar” is often associated with stories about war, but few novels portray the physical and emotional traumas that come from gender roles and motherhood as things that can scar someone permanently. Haemi’s pain was so haunting to me, particularly because as we read, we see her change, slowly but surely, from a willful young woman to someone with fewer and fewer options. How much of this character development did you have in mind when you began writing? More generally speaking, what was the process of structuring your novel like? Did you have the ending in mind before you began, or did you trust that the story and characters would lead you somewhere satisfying? CHK: As a woman, I’ve always been fascinated by societal expectations of gender roles. I grew up hearing my maternal grandmother’s stories about not being able to receive an education because she was a woman, and she very much felt that marriage was one of few options available to her for stability. I wanted to explore what a life like that would feel like, how it could wear you down over the years. I created Haemi Lee early on in the novel-writing process, but I had to write my way to an understanding of how she thought and approached the world. I knew I wanted Haemi to experience motherhood, and I had a sense of the ending, but I wrote my way through the middle, experimenting with different paths. One of the many thematic similarities I found in our two books was of the “arranged” or “practical” marriage. In my book, Haemi faces a difficult choice regarding who she should marry. In your book, Lina knows from an early age that she is betrothed to Wei. For both our women, choices are taken away by family and societal expectations. Can you tell me about your novel-writing process? How did you come up with your characters and this premise? LT: Lina and Haemi do wind up in similar predicaments even though they are such different characters! Lina is less independently minded than Haemi is, and it takes her a while to understand what she wants for her own life. Early on, she conflates her love for her parents with her desire to marry Wei. Arranged marriages were not the norm in the 1980s, but Lina is willing to marry the man her father has chosen for her because she trusts him and wants to make him happy. It’s only later, when she digs into the reasons her father has arranged this marriage in the first place, that she is forced to re-examine everything she knows about love. At its heart, What We Were Promised is about the different kinds of love a person can have for someone, and how that love can change and become complicated over a lifetime. But I didn’t start out wanting to write about love. I started with a single moment of conflict in mind: A bracelet goes missing from a serviced apartment, and a housekeeper is afraid of being accused by the tenants of having taken it. The entire novel grew out of that moment and what little I knew of the characters in that opening scene. For example, I knew something was off about the marriage between Lina and Wei, but I didn’t know much beyond that. I knew Sunny, the housekeeper, was wrapped up in the Zhens’ storyline, but I wasn’t sure how. I write much like I read, uncovering things as I go and following moments of tension until they reveal themselves fully. Our novels are also similar in that they are told from multiple perspectives. Because my characters harbored private thoughts about each other that were important to the storyline, I knew from the start that the novel had to be written this way. And yet I was nervous about it, because there’s always the risk of the narrative becoming disjointed, or for the reader to fall in love with one character over the others and to become impatient to get back to their point of view. I think you pull off the perspective switching in If You Leave Me so well, but did you initially worry about the effects of multiple perspectives, as I did? Can you tell me a little more about your decision to write in the first person for each of these characters? CHK: I’ve always been drawn to novels with multiple perspectives, so it was an easy choice for me. I knew I wanted Haemi to be the center of the story, but in order to understand her circumstances as well as the landscape of Korea during this particular time in history, I knew I also needed Jisoo, Kyunghwan, Hyunki, and Solee’s perspectives. I’ve always loved first-person narration because I think it helps readers emotionally connect to the characters. Also, I just really enjoy writing in first person! It wasn’t until later, when I had a full draft, that I worried about the novel feeling disjointed or of the possibility that the reader would like one character over another. At that point, I had already committed to this structure, so I focused on making my characters as complex and real as possible so that readers would feel emotionally connected. My hope is that If You Leave Me pulls you in, that despite the great difference in time, place, and custom, you can understand what Haemi, Kyunghwan, Jisoo, and the rest of the characters are going through because the themes of love, motherhood, and trauma are universal. I’d love to hear about your decision to use third-person to write from multiple perspectives. Did you decide on this early on in your process? Did you ever have some chapters in first person and some in third? LT: I’m like you; I love the intimacy of first person, and it’s my favorite perspective to write from. This novel, though, had so much to do with the misconceptions characters have about one another, and the secrets they keep, that the reader must have a somewhat omniscient view of what’s going on for the novel to have forward momentum. During scenes where my characters are all in the same room, I wanted the flexibility to present actions and reactions that might convey more information to the reader than it might to any one character. I found it hard to manage this with first person. Close third gave me a little more flexibility. CHK: You mentioned What We Were Promised started with the missing bracelet and the housekeeper who was afraid of being accused of theft. You also said earlier that you wanted to write about the social classes of this period in Shanghai. I think you do such an incredible job of revealing these class hierarchies without feeling didactic. You show the reader how different the lives of those who live in these luxury apartments and those who work them can be. What made you want to explore these class conflicts? Was it difficult balancing Sunny the housekeeper and Little Cao the driver’s stories with the Zhen family’s stories? LT: One of the things that fascinated me about living in a luxury hotel was the way people of so many different backgrounds were forced to spend so much time together, often knowing nothing about one another. For instance, drivers spent most of their work days waiting outside fancy buildings for their wealthy bosses. They knew their employers’ schedules perfectly but rarely conversed with them. What did these drivers do while waiting? How did they feel about the people they drove around? What were their attitudes toward their jobs? These questions were fascinating to me, and I wanted to explore the motivations, misunderstandings and rebellions of people across different social classes sharing the same space. Balancing Sunny’s and Little Cao’s stories with the Zhens’ was challenging from a plot perspective because the overlap between the storylines wasn’t obvious. But being able to imagine my way into their heads felt like a relief because their concerns are so different from the concerns of Lina and Wei. By inhabiting their lives, I felt as though I was making the novel fuller. CHK: I think you balance Sunny and Little Cao’s lives with the Zhens’ so well, Lucy! The novel definitely feels richer because of their voices. Let’s do one last question. What book are you looking forward to reading this year? I’m so excited for Nicole Chung’s memoir All You Can Ever Know and Lydia Kiesling’s novel The Golden State. LT: Those are on my radar, too! I’m also looking forward to A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua, which I hear is one of the summer’s best literary page-turners, and The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump by Michiko Kakutani.
I first met Andrew Martin about a year ago through a friend (whom I had also, basically, met through a friend) at bar in a Brooklyn. I had some questions about my literary future—meaning I had some questions about how to get out of my stagnant present. (Graduate school? A job not in the media? New friends?) He had recently sold his debut novel and short story collection to FSG, and our mutual friend assured me we shared the same sensibility, which I figured meant cracking jokes at the first rumbling of anything serious. I wasn’t wrong. Andrew was there before I arrived, and he was the only one reading a book while drinking a beer. I liked him immediately. Over the course of a few hours (far more than he needed to spend with me), he was a sincere advice-giver, in that he often freely admitted he had no fucking idea what he was talking about. But he did, of course—he owned the struggle, often self-imposed, on the years you waste, or at least think you waste, trying to become a writer. That novel of his, Early Work, came out on July 10, and it’s very much about this time in a young writer’s life: that “early work,” all that effort that may, or may not, pay off in the end. Much of the story is narrated by Peter, a cynical and somewhat jaded millennial who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his longtime partner, Julia, who’s on the verge of becoming a doctor (she’s also a poet). Peter says things like: “I spent so much time on the daily logistics of just staying alive that I often went weeks without remembering that I had no idea what I was doing with my life. I knew, because I’d been told, that passivity was not a quality to aspire to.” He’s comically lost, it seems—or at least has no clue what direction to go in—until he meets Leslie, another aspiring writer who’s staying with her aunt in the city while her boyfriend resides across the country. Peter and Leslie, each in their own fits of complacency and familiarity, fall in love, and their affair leads both of them to question, exactly, how best to lead the life of an artist. It sounds grandiose, but it’s not—it’s a hilarious look, really, about how we evolve into the adults we one day become, creative or not. Below is a conversation Andrew and I first had over the phone but, because of the perils of advanced technology, failed to record when I hit the button. It was had, a second (hopefully better) time, over email a few days later. The Millions: You seem particularly interested in codependent relationships. Take your two stories in The Paris Review, “Cool for America” and “With the Christopher Kids”—especially the latter. Without getting too much into the plot, that one’s basically about a guy on Christmas Eve who, after breaking up with his girlfriend, does a bunch of cocaine at his mom’s house, in the company of his rehabilitated—though constantly relapsing—sister. It’s implied they often exist like this—one of them is on drugs, the other isn’t, and then they swap roles—and they move through each other’s lives, simultaneously helping and destroying the other. Peter and Leslie, you could argue, have a similar companionship—they provide each other almost with a stable instability. What I’m getting at is if you think that’s what you need to create art: not a muse, necessarily, but not a steady partner, a routine life, and so on. Andrew Martin: I hadn’t made this connection before, but I think your question touches on a few things that I’ve tried to think through in the novel and in my stories. It does seem that I tend to write about characters who are deeply reliant on other people for their sense of self, in ways that (obviously) aren’t always to their mutual benefit. As a reader, I’m drawn to these kinds of stories—one of my favorite novels, Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker, is about a woman hell-bent on ruining her sister’s wedding because she’s too in love with their relationship to let her go, and the Christopher kids are kind of less precious, more drug-addled members of J.D. Salinger’s Glass family. In Early Work, I think that Peter, who narrates most of the novel, is in search of the person who might best reflect back the version of himself he most wants to see. That’s especially true of Leslie, the woman he falls in love with, but it’s also true of his partner, Julia, and his friends, all of whom seem, at least to him, to have a clearer idea than he does of how to function in the world. I think, in Peter’s case, his codependence (or desire for it) might be a yearning to fully understand other people, or at least be understood. As for the question of whether one might need that kind of relationship to make art, it doesn’t seem to be the worst option, as long as both parties have a good idea of what they’re getting into. But I think it’s harder to achieve “productive instability” than the characters in the novel would like to admit. Peter—maybe a bit like the book’s author in his younger days—has set up a dichotomy in his head between a Kerouac by way of Jesus’ Son existence, where you drink and drug yourself toward some kind of enlightenment, and a more prosaic, stable life with a reliable partner and dog and decent craft beer. He does seem to realize every now and then, almost despite himself, that there can be more weirdness and intensity in a serious relationship than there is in blacking out in a dive bar, but it doesn’t really stick. In real life, you—I—probably need some balance between hedonism and comfort, but I clearly haven’t figured out how to write about that yet. TM: Do you think your novel, then, is somewhat about a person rejecting, consciously or not, “the regular current of American life”? Isn’t that, really, a “classic American story”? AM: Yeah, I think that both Peter and Leslie are trying to swim against the regular current of American life, though I think they’re pretty hapless at it. Their rebellion is basically romantic—they like to imagine themselves in the Partisan Review scene of the New York of the 1950s or something. I don’t think their affiliation with these olds books and ways of thinking is an affectation, or not entirely one. They’re trying to figure out, like Sheila Heti, how a person should be, and not finding very useful models. One obvious way to reject the status quo that they don’t spend much time contemplating (though many of my friends have, especially recently) is through radical politics. The characters in the novel are basically passive “good liberals,” as a friend of mine refers to anyone to the right of Che Guevara. Since the book was drafted almost entirely before Trump was elected, but then sold and edited in the immediate aftermath of his coming to power, I thought a lot about whether or not I needed the story to reflect the nightmare political situation that we’ve spent the better part of the last two years thinking about and trying to mitigate. The novel takes place mostly in the summer of 2015, and though there are a few references to the coming storm, in the end I decided to leave it mostly as a snapshot of a tiny strata of the country before the deluge. They—we—should have known better, but some of us didn’t, or at least certainly didn’t do enough. I’d like to think the characters in the book have been to a lot of protests since they were last seen on the page. [millions_ad] TM: At the risk of being too broad, I want to chat a bit about your comedic influences, and how you manage to be so funny on the page—it’s no easy feat, and you make it look natural. I’m a huge fan of Sam Lipsyte—and I remember that you are, too—because of his constant deconstruction of the language we use every day. AM: First, Sam Lipsyte was definitely a direct influence on my work, both in his writing—especially the stories in Venus Drive and his novel Home Land—and as one of my first writing teachers when I was an undergraduate at Columbia. He was the first person who explicitly taught me that one could build a piece of fiction from voice rather than plot or theme or whatever else. (It seems hard now to remember what I thought I was trying to do before that.) Maybe even more significantly, he introduced me to the work of a number of writers who became really important to me, especially Padgett Powell, Gary Lutz, and David Gates, the latter of whom became a mentor and friend many years later. I love how all of them, in very different ways, bring “gusto from the get-go,” as Lutz said in an interview. In recent years, my biggest influences, comedic and otherwise (though they set an impossibly high bar) have probably been the stories of Deborah Eisenberg, Lorrie Moore, and Amy Hempel, especially the longer ones. In super-recent years, the mutant story collections, or whatever they are, of Jen George and Claire-Louise Bennett have been the books that most make me want to keep writing fiction. I laugh every time I think about the art school whose curriculum consists entirely of burying dead horses at the Aqueduct racetrack in George’s story “Instruction.” For my own writing, even though my default day-to-day instinct is to be funny in the face of routine misery, it seems like I have to have an epiphany every few months that I can use my sense of humor to get me out of all kinds of jams in my writing. It’ll be days and weeks of trying to address something I want to write about in an appropriately serious fashion before I “give up” and revert to caustic jokes. It still feels like a last resort, maybe because it comes more naturally to me than sustained serious contemplation. I worry about seeming glib, but I try to make sure the glibness is coming from the characters rather the work itself. Which I think is possible? TM: What was the genesis of this novel? I don’t really want to ask you if it’s autobiographical, but some of my favorite authors—particularly Roberto Bolaño—write constantly about writing. Maybe I’m just a sucker for that kind of shit? Are you? AM: The novel initially arose, to some extent, out of a sense of frustration, both with my own nascent career as a writer and, I think more fruitfully, with the sense that no one had quite written the book I wanted to read. I wanted to write something irresponsible, or at least not worry about whether or not I was following the rules of proper conduct and proper novel writing. And I think part of that was writing a book with a character and life situation that looked a lot like mine, in which the main point-of-view character behaves abominably. The basic state of Peter’s life at the beginning of the novel bears more than a passing resemblance to mine when I started the book—I was living in Charlottesville, Virginia, with my partner, Laura, who is a doctor, teaching classes at whatever local institutions would have me, and generally not producing work at the level I wanted to produce it. I wanted to write about artistic ambition and sex and drugs and the somewhat fucked-up and unresolved gender dynamics that exist (or so I’ve heard) in friendships and relationships between writers. I felt an urgency to write about these things honestly. Very little that happens in the book is literally true (though I did waste two hours watching Only Lovers Left Alive), but I freely adapted the story from the questions that preoccupied me during those lean years in Virginia. The two protagonists of the novel, who fall in love, are basically mirrors of each other, and they both have different parts of my biography, so... make of that what you will. But also, yes, all I really want to read about is writers. Bolaño, Philip Roth, Jenny Offill, Sarah Manguso... I’m always very surprised when other people don’t feel this way. TM: To quote Peter: “My sisters and I had turned out artistic and useless despite (because of?) our parents’ emphasis on the value of hard work.” Would you say Early Work is about these types of people? How would you classify who they are? AM: The book is definitely about people who at least imagine themselves to be artists, and a few of them justify that self-conception by actually producing art. I’m pretty much an unreconstructed romantic about the value of making, or even attempting to make, art—the sentence from the novel you quote is obviously kind of a flip, punkish thing to say, not least because actually carrying yourself through the world as an artist, in the face of other people’s skepticism and your own constant self-doubt, is really hard work. I had every educational advantage possible and a decent amount of encouragement, financial and otherwise, when I needed it, and it was still excruciating. I have a lot of friends who didn’t have those things and have still found a way to be poets and musicians, etc., even as people have told them they’re wasting their time. The novel is probably irresponsibly bereft of “real jobs” being done, but I can assure you that Molly and Kenny and the other peripheral characters in the book have worked a lot of shitty jobs in order to earn their right to drink heavily and make pronouncements about things. TM: And then of course: What’s next? AM: I’ve got a short story collection under contract, consisting of some stories that have been published and a bunch that haven’t. There are some characters that move freely between the novel and the story collection, and pretty much everybody in both books would probably get along if they found themselves at the same bar in, say, Missoula, Montana. I like the idea of creating a landscape with characters who can move across different books and stories—you mentioned Bolaño, who is the master of that, and Junot Díaz and Alice Munro and many other writers do it remarkably well. I think the collection will pretty well close out this phase of my writing, the hopes and dreams of the young and reckless years. After that it’ll be mostly post-apocalyptic, by which I mean we’ll probably all be rooting around in the wreckage of abandoned houses trying to survive. And I’ll be writing a book about it.