A Hundred Years of Norman Mailer

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In 1971, when J. Michael Lennon was a graduate student writing his PhD thesis on Norman Mailer, he began a correspondence with his literary hero. It was the start of a lifelong relationship that led to Lennon becoming Mailer’s archivist, biographer, editor, collaborator, and close friend. That relationship is at the center of Mailer’s Last Days: New and Selected Remembrances of a Life in Literature, a combination of memoir and literary criticism which charts what Lennon calls, “the rising action of my life in literature.” Lennon’s book weaves together his career in academia—he is now an Emeritus Professor of English at Wilkes University—with recollections of his rather idyllic childhood in Massachusetts, as part of a large Irish Catholic clan, many of whom worked in the local  textile mills. So we meet Lennon’s beloved grandmother and her pet crow Martha; his mother, a voracious reader and reciter of W.B. Yeats and Gerald Manley Hopkins; and his father, a highly intelligent and frustrated blue-collar polymath with an impressive knowledge of music, as well as the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joseph Conrad, and Charles Dickens. We also learn how Lennon solved the mystery of his grandfather’s disappearance, a closely guarded family secret because, as he puts it, “the Irish know how to bury things.” Lennon turned to the study of literature after a five-plus-year stint as a naval officer, and in 1972 he met Mailer for the first time. “These essays,” he writes, “attempt to explain why and how I became Mailer’s putative son, and how I became, for a time, less of a son to my actual father.” At the age of 80, Lennon has lived long enough to see how writers’ reputations change over the decades. Since his death in 2007, Mailer’s reputation is still undergoing a transformation. To writers of my generation, Mailer was like a member of the family, in the good and the bad sense: omnipresent, sometimes disappointing, sometimes appalling, often brilliant, always calling attention to himself, and impossible to ignore. But to many younger literary types, Mailer is close to anathema, for his trafficking in misogynistic and racial stereotypes and the near-fatal stabbing of his wife Adele Morales, among other reasons. I talked with Lennon about his relationship with Mailer, Mailer’s contemporaries, and the challenges he faced as an academic and critic writing a highly personal memoir. Ronald K. Fried: The last time I interviewed Martin Amis he quoted his Spanish publisher who said that after writers die, they are in purgatory in terms of their literary reputation. So my question is: As we approach what would have been Norman Mailer’s 100th birthday, is he now in literary purgatory? JML: Well, the four places that Catholics talk about are heaven, hell, purgatory, and the fourth is limbo. Mailer’s view was that when you die, if you’ve been a successful author, there is a brief efflorescence after your death and then, after that, a slow sinking into obscurity, into limbo, only punctuated if there is some event in the world that causes you to be revived like, say, the Black Lives Matter movement resuscitated Baldwin. Mailer also felt that 30 years after an author dies, you will know whether they are going to survive. Either something will pull you back into the public eye, or there is a long, continuing simmering interest in your work, which means that at the end of 30 years, you will go to what he called “the Blessed Isles of Posthumous Investiture.” RKF: Do you think that the some of Mailer’s peers, certain white male post-war novelists, are becoming somewhat passé now? They certainly don’t seem as meaningful to younger readers as they were to me. In your experience, are they even read?  JML: Yes, they are read, but they’re not read as much. And this is partly because most of them have been kicked out of the anthologies that are often taught in colleges. So the Norton Anthology and other major anthologies have less and less Saul Bellow, less and less John Updike, less and less Philip Roth. Mailer too. Writers are always being dropped and added. In Mailer’s case, I think the thing that's going to help keep him alive is he was one of the founders of the New Journalism, and also his political writing about fascism coming to the U.S. But some wonderful writers are being forgotten. For example, James Jones’s 100th birthday passed almost unnoticed. RKF: You write that Baldwin, Joan Didion, and Gore Vidal will be remembered more for their nonfiction than their fiction. Does this prediction have to do with your thoughts on the relevance or the future of the novel? JML: Well, it doesn't speak well for the future of the novel. The novels that tend to last into the future you can put into two categories. One category is where there is a stylistic advance or something exceptional about the style—for example, The Sun Also Rises, which survives because of its understated style. Or, in the case of The Great Gatsby, it’s the definitive portrait of the Roaring Twenties, so it captures an historical period. RKF: And if Mailer is to be credited with a stylistic breakthrough it has to be for his journalism, and the device of writing about himself in the third person. JML: Yes, exactly. In the Armies of the Night, he’s got the definitive book about the anti-Vietnam War movement. You have to look at that book if you're talking about the war in Vietnam and the rallies against it. But at the same time, in that book, you've got Mailer using the third-person personal, using himself as a prism to understand that event. So it's important stylistically as well as important historically. So it’s a double whammy. That book, in my opinion, will be the one of all of his books that lasts. Today more historians and journalists read Mailer’s nonfiction than do literary people. RKF: You met Mailer when you were a graduate student. What drew him to you? JML: There were a couple of things. The first is that he saw that I knew his work intimately. He saw that I'd read everything, and I knew more about his minor works, his interviews, and his forgotten essays than he did. I could give him page numbers. And so it became a reflexive line: “If you want to know when I wrote something, where I published it, contact Mike Lennon.” So I became his bibliographer, as well as his archivist. I was relentless in ferreting out his obscure writings. The second thing is that he always liked the Irish people. He had so many Irish friends, including Jimmy Breslin, Brendan Behan, and Pete Hamill. He liked their blarney, their gift of gab, their joking ability, and their weaknesses for drink. You could say he had a narrow view of the Irish, but I haven’t heard anyone complain about it. RKF: I want to talk about E. L. Doctorow because it seems to me that reading Ragtime gave Mailer the idea of putting historical figures into a work of fiction. And that seemed to really open up something in Mailer because his great gift was to describe real people, and when he was able to do that in a work of fiction like Harlot’s Ghost, there was a new excitement in his work. JML: I agree. Ragtime really turned Mailer around. He felt that Doctorow had created something new by writing scenes of probable conversations between historical characters. Doctorow has that great scene with Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan talking about the Egyptians and their beliefs and so forth, and Mailer thought it was beautiful. He said if it isn't true, it should be true. It’s so good. It's so characteristic of those two people. And of course he does exactly the same thing in Harlot’s Ghost. He’s got Frank Sinatra, Sam Giancana, James Angleton, and JFK. He’s got all of these great characters all meeting and talking. And Mailer always said that when a writer sees a technique they like, they steal it. RKF: Mailer thought that Don DeLillo was his most important successor. Can you talk about why that was? JML: Mailer had great admiration for Libra, DeLillo’s novel about Lee Harvey Oswald, and he said, “It gave me the push I needed to write Oswald’s Tale,” which was Mailer’s nonfiction book about Oswald. Mailer said, “I thought DeLillo did a magnificent job of explaining Oswald’s consciousness.” But the other thing that Mailer liked is that in books like Underworld, DeLillo was writing about the psychological basis of American character and America’s traumas. DeLillo was writing about the dream life of a nation in much the same way that Mailer was. TM: You wrote that DeLillo has “a sense of something extraordinary hovering just beyond our touch and just beyond our vision.” And I think Mailer felt that as well. JML: Yes, he and Mailer share that. They had intimations of forces that were just out of the reach of our consciousness that are impinging on us. They both had this terrific sense of the dread of being an American, the dangers to democracy and to language, and the fears and the guilts that all Americans share. That’s what drew them together, the American experience, the feeling that it was ghost-ridden. RKF: Most writers of Mailer’s era held onto the notion that the ultimate achievement for a writer was to write a great novel. Do you think that notion has disappeared from our consciousness? JML: No, I don't think so. I don't think it's disappeared. I think it's been pushed back by memoir to some extent. But you know, the novel is like a mountain—it’s like trying to climb Mount Everest—lots of paths up. Mailer said that the great irony of his writing life is that he dashed off his journalism, and yet this work was his most successful. He said, “I wrote the nonfiction at a white heat, but those are the pieces that people revere, while the novels that I killed myself on don't get much recognition” The Armies of the Night he wrote in six weeks. And he spent 11 years on Ancient Evenings, and it’s largely overlooked. It’s not a successful novel. Harlot’s Ghost was more successful because it's American, and he really knew what he was talking about. RKF: We haven't talked about Mailer stabbing his wife in 1960. If that happened today, would any major publisher continue to publish Mailer? I don’t think so. JML: Oh yeah. I don't think that Mailer paid the price. He was on probation for several years. A total of about four years, and he had to call his probation officer. But he would have paid a much, much greater penalty today. The Me Too movement has heightened awareness of how women have been brutalized, assaulted, and all those horrible things that were previously brushed under the table. Mailer got off lightly. RKF: Your new book is part memoir. Were you uncomfortable writing about yourself? It’s a lot different than being a scholar or a critic or a biographer. JML: It was difficult. I had a lot of trouble getting started. The idea of a memoir always seemed to be a little self-serving. There was something tawdry and gossipy about it. So I was resistant. But once I got into it, I was very surprised at how much came back to me that I had completely forgotten. RKF: You end the book with a series of diary-like entries about the final days of Mailer’s life. But the final chapter is “Fathers and Sons,” which is about your own father and his troubled life, his drinking, his relationship with you, and revelations about your father’s father, your grandfather. Why end it there? JML: The big question my editor, Bob Mooney, and I wrestled with was where to put “Fathers and Sons.” Finally, I thought for structural Integrity let’s end the book with the subject that keeps calling to me: my father and the mystery of my grandfather. It's an homage to my father, to what he had to live through in the Great Depression. RKF: So would you say that Mailer became a kind of surrogate father for you? JML: Norman was curious about everyone he met, but more so about people who knew him longer, more deeply. It was no surprise to him that I considered him to be a father surrogate. But he took on the role and offered advice on my career choices, my ideas, my writing. He never hesitated to give me paternal counsel—he said once that he was “a born meddler.” [millions_email]

How Rachel M. Harper Unravels Her Characters

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Rachel M. Harper's most recent novel, The Other Mother, tells the story of musical prodigy Jenry Castillo as he tries to figure out how he fits into a complicated family. Raised by a single mother in Miami, discoveries about his late father and estranged paternal grandfather explode his world and confront him with questions about race, class, and sexuality. Harper is also the author of the novels This Side of Providence and Brass Ankle Blues. We chatted over email about motherhood, music, and treating writing as work. Julz Savard: Let's begin with the novel's origins. What inspired you to write The Other Mother, and how much the story was drawn from your own life? Do you feel at all that The Other Mother is your story, too?  RMH: Definitely. I wouldn’t have tried to write The Other Mother if it weren’t my story, to some degree, but I think it’s a story that can resonate with a lot of people. Not just other queer moms or people of color, but anyone who has felt “othered,” and has tried to navigate their place within a complicated family; anyone who has struggled to define their role or identity in a community that doesn’t recognize their value. [Writing the book] was a personal journey; though it’s fiction, the story was partially inspired by my younger years—failed romantic relationships, being raised by a larger-than-life father, and my own complicated journey through motherhood. JS: The novel's structure is ambitious: it's told from multiple perspectives and divided into seven sections, each with a different POV. What was the thinking behind this approach? RMH: The story and characters came first, before I figured out the structure. I spent a lot of time developing the novel's central conflict, which led me to discover different, earlier conflicts within each of their families—so next thing I knew I had this big cast of characters to deal with, each with their own opinion, and each holding a piece of the puzzle as to how Jenry came to be. I knew I needed them all, to tell the best version of the story, or at least the one that held the most truths. I had used multiple narrators in my second novel, This Side of Providence, so I was comfortable shifting perspectives, but this one also has jumps in time, so I decided on separate “books.” I started with three, then five, then seven—my lucky number. The fun part was figuring out how the stories overlapped, and when to reveal each secret. I didn’t even know them all when I started writing, but I kept looking for more conflict and leaning into that. JS: Music is an important part of this novel, not just in the plot but also the prose—in your lyrical descriptions, the musical metaphors, all so beautiful. Are you musically inclined? Why use music to unravel the interiority and conflicts of your characters?  RMH: I studied several instruments growing up—piano, violin, cello—but I wasn’t gifted; it was something I had to work at. But I love music—of all types really, but jazz really has my heart. My father was a poet, and one could say that jazz was his muse, at least in his early books; we grew up with jazz records playing all the time: Coltrane, Miles, Bird, Dizzy, Bud Powell, McCoy Tyner. They weren’t just names, they were gods in our house. Writing about music just feels natural, and it’s a great way to have characters express themselves without using language. Sometimes it’s easier than talking. I like your phrase “unravel the interiority,” which is exactly what I’m trying to do; it’s like these characters are made of yarn and their histories are woven into the thread. When we meet them, they’re these big, knotted balls of experience and the process of writing the novel is trying to unravel that. Then I get to stitch it back together into something recognizable, an actual garment that the reader gets to try on and wear. That’s the goal at least! JS: Grief undergirds the novel's narrative. Did your own experiences with grief affect how you wrote about it in The Other Mother? RMH: Absolutely. Writing this novel forced me to grow, and that meant facing my grief and trying to move through it, so I could release it and get to the other side. I thought I had accepted some of those earlier losses, but I hadn’t really metabolized them fully. It might sound cliché but helping my characters work through their grief helped me work through my own. JS: I like to ask this of every author I interview: Are you proud of your work? Do you think it has accomplished what you wanted it to accomplish? What’s next for you?  RMH: Yes, I am proud of my work—and that’s what it felt like most days, work—so I appreciate your phrasing. It took me a long time and a lot of energy to get it right, and mostly I’m proud that I never gave up. I wanted this book to find all types of readers, and for them to see these characters as fully realized human beings, to empathize with their struggles and value their voices, despite their mistakes and shortcomings. Based on the responses so far, that seems to have happened, so I’m thrilled. A passionate reader is my favorite type of person, and I’m grateful so many of them have found this novel. Right now, I’m in the beginning phase of a new book, so I’m doing a lot of research. I’m not sure what it will be yet, but it might be a love story, and perhaps my first period piece—a much-needed excuse to take a break from the present.

Amina Cain Writes Toward Authenticity

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A Horse at Night is Amina Cain’s first book of nonfiction, an essayistic rumination on the practice and philosophy of writing. The book mostly focuses on Cain’s own writing life—or, at least, the sort of writing life she would like to have. Throughout A Horse at Night she looks to the fiction of her literary foremothers (Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Clarice Lispector) and contemporaries (Rachel Cusk, Renee Gladman, Claire-Louise Bennett), always finding something to admire or emulate. Cain is the author of the short story collections Creature and I Go to Some Hollow, as well as the 2020 novel Indelicacy, which feels an apt companion piece to A Horse at Night. The narrators of Indelicacy and A Horse at Night are equally concerned with what it means to live and work as a writer, and Cain’s fascination with landscape painting—and its intersections with writing—finds its way into both books. Cain lives in Los Angeles, where she’s at work on her second novel. She and I talked about authenticity, Annie Ernaux, and what writing A Horse at Night taught her about writing fiction. Sophia M. Stewart: Early in A Horse at Night, you talk about how you’ve just recently read and fallen in love with The Possession, by newly-minted Nobel laureate Annie Ernaux. Was this your first encounter with Ernaux?  Amina Cain: It was, yes. I came to Ernaux late. I'd meant to read her for a long time, but only did so a few years ago, and was immediately blown away. Why had I waited so long? The Possession was translated into English by my friend, writer and translator Anna Moschovakis, so it seemed like a good place to start. SMS: And what has your relationship with Ernaux’s work been like since?  AC: After [The Possession], I read HappeningExteriorsSimple Passion, and I Remain in Darkness, all along the way struck by the clean directness and almost severity of her writing, a longing or appetite that is shaped like a mallet. I'd never read anything before quite so pristinely uncouth. As a person who also writes slender books, I'm endeared by her ability to pack such a punch within slimness, with precision and an economy of words. There's something so tough about what she's doing with language, with sentences, with narrative voice, and she does it all with a light footprint. I still haven't read The Years, which is heftier, of course, and written in a different form and style than the others, but I'm looking forward to it. SMS: Ernaux of course is a celebrated diarist. In A Horse a Night you mention that you’ve never kept a diary. I think keeping a diary helps some people parse their own thoughts, but writing fiction can do that too—do you find when you write fiction that it, to borrow Didion’s phrase, help you find out what you’re thinking? You say in the book you don’t like to “write ‘emotionally,’” but have you ever used fiction to work out questions or ambiguities in your own life?  AC: It's only now that I'm beginning to do that, in the novel I'm currently writing, work out questions in my life, especially of the emotional kind. The ambiguities I've always been interested in, and I suppose they've come in all along the way in what I've written, but they've changed in that they're more directly related to my life than they've been before. I've known for a long time that writing fiction allows me to see what's in my mind, which is not unsimilar to what Didion said about her writing. Through fiction, I come to know on a deeper level what my preoccupations are. Even if I haven't been writing directly about my own life in a short story or book (i.e. I'm not a character who appears there), it is in a sense my life still, and sometimes I have used it to look back on or explore experiences I've had. As for emotion, I don't want to ignore it anymore, but neither do I want it to take over what I write, take over my sentences. I'm finding my way through that in this current novel-in-progress. I'd say Ernaux does quite well with writing emotion: honest and unflinching with nothing to romanticize or cloud it. SMS: You're sort of obsessed with the concept of authenticity. Do you think there’s a difference between what it means be an authentic person as opposed to an authentic artist—for instance, to live authentically versus to write authentically?  AC: I want to say no, that they’re the same thing and that they can't be separated. Yet even when I have felt my most inauthentic as a person I've still felt authentic in my writing. Sometimes I catch myself writing inauthentic sentences, sure, but those are easy enough to eventually see and excise, even if I don't recognize them as such at first. I don't think I've ever written a whole story or book that is inauthentic. Usually, I am getting closer to some truth when I'm writing rather than further away. My own definition of authenticity is fairly simple: that how I feel and what I say and do are aligned. It's not that I've gone around lying or have been insincere, but I've not always expressed what is actually inside me, instead performing a certain kind of cheerfulness or politeness, not in my writing, but in my life. I realized it was destroying my relationship to who I am. SMS: Throughout the book you put writing and art forms like painting and drawing into conversation with each other. Can you talk a bit about you understand the visual arts in relationship to your own writing practice? You clearly have such admiration for visual art—why do you think you became a writer and not, say, a painter?  AC: Well, first of all because I don't have that kind of aptitude or talent, but I also don't have the desire. Sometimes when I listen to music, I do wish I could sing and play an instrument, but otherwise, all of my desire is toward writing. What I want is to reach toward what visual artists, or dancers, or performers do, but through language, through sentences. I am always trying to figure out the place where they can meet. I probably really need art in order to write; I understand that it's crucial. Art is what makes me feel the most, it's what compels me. Last night I got to listen early to my friend Josephine Foster's new record, Domestic Sphere, which will come out this coming March with Fire Records, and it is so good, so haunting, it cut through every frustrated or bad feeling I'd been having, showed me in a clear way what I want my life to be, and sent me into some other realm that is the realm I want to live in always, the kind I love best, which is art itself. It makes me want to live in art and for art, which for me translates to writing. I can't listen to Josephine's music without wanting to write. SMS: As you’re at work on your second novel right now, have you noticed any difference in how you’re approaching this one versus how you approached Indelicacy? Did writing A Horse at Night, which is very much about craft and the philosophy of writing, had any influence on you? AC: On one hand, the way in which I'm approaching the new novel feels similar to how I approached Indelicacy in that I started from an open place, with setting and atmosphere, and with narrative voice, and I'm finding my way through it as I go rather than following a plot. This is how I've always come to my short stories too. On the other hand, as I say above, I am in fact working through questions in my life in this new novel in a way I haven't before. I think it's possible that raising questions in a nonfiction kind of way in A Horse at Night has led me to this, led me to more directly write about my own life. This isn't craft, but the truth is that I don't think about craft when I'm writing or as I'm approaching a book. SMS: In the book you also wrestle with the internet, specifically Twitter, and how it coexists with your work. You don’t come to any grand conclusions about whether it impedes your writing but you do wonder about its value. In the past I’ve described Twitter as being a sort of modern-day literary salon, except instead convening at an appointed time it just goes on forever. How are you feeling right now about the commingling of your online presence and your writing life?  AC: Yes, it is a salon that just goes on forever. That's a good way to describe it. I very regularly consider quitting Twitter, quitting social media, but haven't yet done it. Ultimately I think it's worse for me than better, especially Twitter. I look at it too often, feel hurt and offended if a writer I've met doesn't follow me back when I follow them, and am deflated if no one responds to something I've posted. For someone who admittedly likes attention and hates feeling invisible, it's not a healthy situation. I can take a bad review, I can take criticism—invisibility is much worse. Sometimes Twitter reflects back what you don't want to see. There are lovely people I've met on Twitter, other writers, for instance, with whom I've gone on to become friends, that have slightly balanced this out—I met Sofia Samatar on Twitter, though she very wisely left years ago and has never come back—and I enjoy some of the conversations I have, especially of the literary kind, and ways of being in touch. That's what keeps me there, that and the addiction. But I want to leave. Social media keeps me focused on the wrong things. And though I don't think it ruins my writing, necessarily, but it slows it down, takes me away from it. SMS: I felt a jolt of recognition when in the book you mention all the jpegs you have saved on your laptop of paintings of women reading—I also have a folder on my computer with images of women reading and writing, also women with cats. You say that these images relax you. Can you talk more about the feeling they give you and the value you get from them? Do you think you’ll ever turn them into an actual salon wall?  AC: I like this connection! And I like cats. Though last night when I was trying to do a virtual event [mine] were swarming me, jumping around and making noise—not relaxing. But the images of women reading, they are. I'm someone who can very easily become stressed out, I am prone to it, but things like looking at paintings and drawings, especially when they themselves contain something within them I find soothing, like women reading. I think they're calming because they're pleasurable, to see women doing something quiet and absorbing, and that pleasure does a great job of relaxing the body and mind, as does absorption. Pleasure is good for us physically and mentally, as is aesthetic experience, the enjoyment of resting our eyes on something beautiful or otherwise pleasing, which is why it's important for all of us to experience it. I will probably never turn these images of women reading into a salon wall, just because I'm very minimalist in my house, in the ways that I live—not unlike in my writing.

John Hendrickson Tells the Truth

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Two stutterers walk into a bar.  No, really. John Hendrickson and I arrive at The Library in the East Village on a Sunday afternoon. We wave hello to the bartender and claim a shadowy booth in a tucked-away corner, underneath a projection of the 1958 remake of Dracula. This is the last stop on our tour of John’s old haunts from his salad days in New York City. Earlier we walked through Tompkins Square Park, where he used to spend Saturdays on a bench with a stack of magazines, and grabbed a bite at B&H Dairy, where he used to sit at the counter and flip through the Village Voice. (He likes to read.) And now we’re here, at The Library, the dive bar where he celebrated his 25th birthday. All the while, we’ve been talking, and by talking I mean stuttering.  John and I are both stutterers. We stutter differently, of course, as no two stutterers stutter the same, but we both share a tendency to block—that is, we get stuck on sounds, rather than, say, repeating or prolonging them. When we first meet up I tell him that I’d been feeling the same pre-interview jitters I always get—I was anxious that I would stutter. “Isn’t that so dumb!” I say. If there was ever an interview where I could feel I had full permission to be disfluent, this would be it. He smiles.  Like many people, I was introduced to John by way of his 2019 profile of Joe Biden, in which both author and subject speak candidly about their experience with stuttering. The story went immediately viral upon its publication in The Atlantic, where John works as a senior politics editor, catapulting him into the public eye. In the days that followed, he was flooded with messages from fellow stutterers. I was one of them. On November 29, 2019, I wrote John an email: “My name is Sophia,” it began. “I’m an undergraduate at UC Berkeley and a regular reader of The Atlantic. I’m also a person who stutters.” I proceeded to pour my heart out and thank him for writing the story, and for the televised interview he gave shortly after. He responded with characteristic humility, gratitude, and generosity. It turns out, John responded to every single one of the roughly 1,000 messages (emails as well as DMs on Twitter, Instagram, and even Linkedin) that he received from stutterers after the Biden piece was published. For months, he received a steady stream missives, many of them beginning with the words “I’ve never told anyone this, but…” He was deeply moved by these strangers’ trust in him and now corresponds regularly with many of them. The response from stutterers left him “completely overwhelmed,” he says, but it also made him realize “that there was something here to be explored, that there was an appetite for more writing about the topic of stuttering.”  So he set to work on an outline that became a proposal that became a book, Life on Delay: Making Peace with a Stutter, out today. Writing intimately about himself for public consumption was challenging. (Of course, he says, “that’s writing a memoir—that’s literally the assignment.”) He often writes about his own life like a reporter, using interviews and other primary sources like old journal entries, AIM chats, homework assignments to piece together his childhood and adolescence. He talks with his family, his friends, and people from his past whom he hadn’t spoken to in 30 years. To his astonishment, most of them, including his kindergarten teacher and his sixth-grade girlfriend, were happy to talk; even more amazing to John was the vividness of their memories. “The things they remembered—that blew my mind,” he says. “It’s one thing to conjure your own memories from your own eyes. It’s another thing to get a different camera angle on the same situation.”  Throughout the book, he also has several meaningful conversations with his family who, like most families with a child who stutters, did their best to support him and sometimes struggled to figure out what that support should look like. John’s parents faced all the same questions my parents did when I was growing up: Do you take her to speech therapy? Do you order for her at restaurants? Do you bring up the stutter at all? There’s no manual for this stuff. Sometimes mistakes get made. Misapprehensions can linger. Writing the book, he says, “was the perfect excuse to carve out time to have what in many cases were life-changing conversations,” with his own family as well as an array of perfect strangers. He knew from the beginning that he wanted the book’s scope to extend beyond himself. Life on Delay isn’t just about John’s stutter but the experience of stuttering, which isn’t monolithic. One percent of the population stutters: in the U.S. alone, that comes out to more than three million people, all of whom have their own unique relationship to disfluency. He conducted more than 100 interviews for Life on Delay, talking with other people who stutter, the loved ones of people who stutter, speech therapists, activists, doctors, and researchers. As the book progresses, you see and feel John learning in real time.  John is still fairly new to the stuttering community. The 2019 Biden profile was the first time he had ever written publicly about stuttering; he attended his first National Stuttering Association meeting in 2020. Though he’s spent the past few years in the spotlight speaking about disfluency, he demurs when it’s suggested that he’s any kind of spokesman. “I’ve only been writing about this topic—and I don’t just mean stuttering, but the larger topic of disability—for three or four years,” he says. “I’m very much learning as I go, and I’m very much learning from people and writers who are far more entrenched and experts than I am.” It wasn’t until he began talking with other stutterers and learning more about disfluency that he even began to situate himself within a larger community. “I never conceived of myself as a disabled person,” he says. “I never allowed myself to think that. I never identified that way. And only when I learned that, yeah, this is a neurological disorder and that people do consider it a disability—that reoriented my sense of self.”  Photo: Matthew Bernucca Writing, on the other hand, has always been integral to his sense of self. In school, he found that writing allowed him to “glimpse that clarity and control that eluded me when talking,” he says, “and to know that I could just write and express myself the way it sounded in my head.” The way he sees it, we all have “three voices”: the voice in our head, the voice we speak with, and the voice we write with. “When you’re a person who stutters, two of those voices are at war with each other,” he says. “So writing was like the secret linchpin.”  The “linchpin” possibilities of writing have drawn many stutterers to the form, myself included. Such authors as Elizabeth Bowen, Lewis Carroll, John Gregory Dunne, Margaret Drabble, Edward Hoagland, Philip Larkin, Somerset Maugham, and John Updike all had well-documented stutters. Some of them even made explicit connections between the frustrations of disfluency and the allure of the page. In a 1985 essay, Hoagland wrote, “Being in these vocal handcuffs made me a desperate, devoted writer.” And Drabble, in a 2001 address to the British Stammering Association, wondered how many writers who stutter “take to text because of their difficulties with parole?”  The question of whether disfluency affects how you write—or can even make you a better writer—is up for debate. For John, there’s no question that stuttering has shaped his writing style, and for the better. When he writes, he tries to construct sentences and convey ideas as efficiently as possible, which is, incidentally, also how approaches speaking. “When you’re a person who stutters, you’re so conscious of time—taking up other people’s time, trying not to lose someone’s attention, trying to keep them from walking away” he says. “And all of those end up being great writing skills.” Life on Delay benefits tremendously from John’s clean, clear, and often reportorial style of prose. “The last thing I want this book to do is to feel like a Hallmark movie,” he says. The book isn’t engineered to tug on able-bodied heartstrings, nor is it a rallying cry to change able-bodied hearts and minds. He’s not trying to convince you of anything. He’s simply trying to find out, in the words of Joan Didion (whom he cites as an influence), what he’s thinking and what it means. It’s not always very uplifting. The book tries to capture as fully as possible the reality of stuttering, and that reality often sucks. “I think I’m constantly calibrating the extent to which I want to depress people,” he says. “Because I don’t want pity. No disabled person does.” He knows that describing hardship might prompt pity from readers no matter how he presents it. But he hopes this isn’t their primary takeaway. “I just want to give people the realest impression, and if it’s sad, it’s sad,” he says. “But I hope that people understand the totality of it, which is that there’s a lot of beauty and a lot of upsides as well. It’s not all sad and it’s not all happy. It’s a round, messy thing.”  The book’s subtitle, “Making Peace with a Stutter,” subverts the traditional “overcoming”-oriented framework for disability narratives. Stuttering can’t be cured, so it can’t be overcome; facing the anxieties, frustrations, and feelings of inferiority that come with stuttering, on the other hand, is a continuous and nonlinear process of overcoming. John is mired in this process throughout the book, just as all of us stutterers are mired in it our whole lives. Though Life on Delay smartly replaces the language of victory with the language of acceptance, I still expect many reviewers will describe it as “inspiring,” a word which John and I agree has a fraught connotation when applied to disability. He doesn’t fault anyone for using the word; he knows it’s well-intentioned. At the same time, being a source of inspiration has never been a part of his project. “A lot of times if anybody writes about any sort of adversity, the first thing that comes to mind is ‘inspiring,’” he says. “I did not sit down and say, ‘I want to write an inspiring book.’ I wanted to write a real book that is true and authentic and honest to my experience, and in the case of all the people I interviewed, my goal is that it’s authentic to their experience.” Life on Delay is certainly authentic to my experience. There is an entire chapter, for instance, titled “The Look.” The moment I saw that phrase in the table of contents I knew what it meant: a listener’s look of pity, confusion, impatience, and/or discomfort during a moment of disfluency. In other words, it’s the face you see when you stutter. It’s a visage that’s become a permanent part of my brain, both for how much I’ve seen it and how much it hurts to see. At one point in the chapter, John notes that anyone who stutters already knows all this: “Someone gave you The Look earlier this morning. Someone else will give you The Look before you go to bed tonight.”     After John and I wrap up at The Library and part ways for the day, I take a short walk around the Village to reflect on our conversation. I realize that when John listens to you talk, he gives you the opposite of The Look. He looks at you warm and open, with interest, appreciation, regard. Reminds you that what you are saying matters more than how you’re saying it, and that how you're saying it doesn't detract from what you're saying. Gives you a look that, even in the middle of a protracted, spasming block, grants you dignity. Because you do have dignity; are entitled to it, in fact. Disfluency and dignity can—and do—coexist. John taught me that, and without saying a word.

Kelcey Ervick Brings an Athlete’s Discipline to Writing

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In one of my favorite pages of The Keeper, Kelcey Ervick's graphic memoir about her time as a goalie in the early days of Title IX, Ervick is, at this point, no longer a teenage soccer player. Time has passed, and she's now a wife and a mother trying to take herself seriously as a writer and artist. On this page, Ervick has drawn herself as a loopy contour of lines, writing at her computer—you can see right through her body to the furious scribble of her hands working her keyboard. Her figure is transparent, but effervescent; we're witnessing her in a moment of transcendence. "I was getting angry," she writes at the top of her page. "I was finding my voice." [caption id="attachment_147311" align="aligncenter" width="375"] From The Keeper: Soccer, Me, and the Law that Changed Women's Lives by Kelcey Ervick, published by Avery, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Kelcey Ervick.[/caption] I love this illustration for how it captures that moment of being so deeply inside yourself that you begin to disappear; what a relief for the identity that dictates so many of one's experiences to recede just a little. Title IX, the civil rights law that prohibited sex-based discrimination in education programs receiving federal assistance, and which just celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, led to a sharp rise of women in sports. Ervick, who played on a top soccer team in the 1980s, was one of those athletes whose participation in high school and collegiate soccer was made newly possible. "My teammates and I didn't know of any of this," Ervick writes. "But [Title IX] shaped our entire lives." My favorite page also perfectly exemplifies what cartoonist Alison Bechdel has called Ervick's "loose and exuberant" style. Ervick's hand moves flawlessly between different visual mediums and styles—gouache, watercolor, collage, newspaper print, photographs. Sometimes she paints people in great detail and other times she depicts them as stick figures rushing down the field, as if, in their athleticism, they’ve shed all the particulars of their bodies. She also flits between different modes of nonfiction, weaving memoir with a history of women's soccer, literary analysis, and culture writing. It is an exhilarating book to read and to look at. Ervick refuses to stay within the lines of any category, any image, any self. By the time one finishes The Keeper, one realizes that the title refers to so much more than just a goalkeeper—Ervick has proven herself to be a keeper of archives, of memories, and of undertold histories. I spoke with Ervick about the challenges and rewards of turning to graphic narrative after three other books of nonfiction and fiction, the relationship between athleticism and art, and balancing research and the personal. Lena Moses-Schmitt: You've written three previous books—a book of short stories, a novella, and a genre-bending work of biographical collage)—but this is your first book of full-on graphic narrative. What was it about this story that made you want to transition into fully graphic nonfiction? What was your learning curve like, if you had one?  Kelcey Ervick: I think I've basically been scheming to make a book of graphic nonfiction since I first read Alison Bechdel's Fun Home and Maira Kalman's Principles of Uncertainty nearly 15 years ago, but I knew I had a long way to go. For a while with this book, I thought I had an essay collection developing. I was writing individual essays about the different threads: being a soccer-player-turned-soccer-mom, being an athlete-turned-artist, experiencing sexism in sports and literature. Separately, I was making comics, primarily about women artists, athletes, and activists throughout history. At some point I realized I could bring them together—the personal narratives, the history, and the comics—and, more importantly, that I was ready to do it. I describe myself as a writer who started drawing, and when I first began working with visual storytelling, I definitely had a writer’s learning curve. As I floundered with some early attempts at comics, I worried that I was over-pruning my sentences and merely decorating them with an image. I also felt like I couldn’t get any narrative momentum because I was laboring over a drawing of lettuce leaf on my character’s salad fork. I feel like I’ve put myself through a second PhD program trying to learn how to make graphic narratives: I’ve spent years taking comics workshops (at Tin House, Sequential Artists Workshop, the Center for Cartoon Studies, etcetera), I teach graphic narratives in my own classes, I practice through daily drawing, and I am even co-editing a book with Tom Hart on making graphic literature! (The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Graphic Literature is coming in 2023.) LMS: Yes! I can totally relate to the worry that I’ll slip into drawing images that might simply decorate or even just illustrate what I’m already saying with words—for me I think that’s a risk that comes along with losing energy, or when I rely primarily on text, rather than also letting myself daydream visually. How did you keep your stamina up for both words and images throughout such a long project?  Did you tend to “think” in text first or in images? KE: I love that phrase, “letting myself daydream visually”! In terms of stamina, one thing that was both a blessing and a curse was my fairly tight deadline. I quite literally didn’t have time to separate the tasks of writing and drawing as I imagined and drafted. I put in what felt like a zillion hours making the book, but instead of spreading it out over several years, as would have been my preference, I compressed most of the work into one year. This allowed me to keep better track of the overall arc and story than if I’d stopped and started with long gaps in between. At this point, I’m not even sure I think so much in text or image as through text and image. Many writers quote the familiar line (I’ve seen it attributed to Didion, Faulkner, and O’Connor) that says something like, “I write to find out what I think.” This has always been true for me: I do my thinking through the act of writing. And now, after a lot of practice and retraining my brain, I can say that I think through both text and image: I figure out what I want to say through the act of doing it. To paraphrase Lynda Barry: “The pen knows what to do.” When in doubt, I start moving my pen and wait to see what words and images emerge. [caption id="attachment_147312" align="aligncenter" width="564"] From The Keeper: Soccer, Me, and the Law that Changed Women's Lives by Kelcey Ervick, published by Avery, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Kelcey Ervick.[/caption] LMS: What was your outlining process like with this book?  KE: I love thinking structurally about my books and stories. What will be the overall shape? How will I juggle the narrative threads, the movement in time? Will there be chapters? Will they have titles? I make a bunch of notes and then I test and change them as I go. For example, in my book proposal, I said there would be three sections to the book: “Girlhood,” “Womanhood,” and “Sisterhood.” I didn’t think it would have individual chapters. But as I drafted the book, chapters emerged—separated by individual teams I’d played on and life events—and the three larger sections fell away, though the book still follows their implied arc. Sometimes finding the right title of a chapter helped me find its focus. For a long time in the drafting stages, the only title I had for my chapter about my high school years was, well, “High School.” As I added more lines from my high school diaries along with the notebooks I exchanged with my friend, I landed on its current title, taken from the title of a Joan Didion essay “On Keeping a Notebook.” The new title gave more weight to the themes of writing and friendship—and echoed the idea of keeping/goalkeeping. LMS: You use a number of different graphic mediums—some pages are digitally illustrated, others feature watercolor drawings, some pages are collaged, and there are also full spreads of gouache paintings. The way you balanced all of them felt very expansive and exciting to me. How did you decide which style to use for which images, and what was it like to merge these different mediums together? KE: I came to visual storytelling not so much through traditional comics as through other forms of image-text art like calligraphy, collage, and mixed-media art, all of which shaped my loose, expressive style. I’m always exploring new mediums, and I usually let the content inform the style. In The Keeper, for example, when I wrote about the “lady footballers” of the Victorian era, I found myself using a deeper palette (maroons and darker greens) than when I was writing about my 1980s soccer team (with our red uniforms and brighter green fields). Or I included a gouache painting to add a bit of texture or contrast to a sequence. It felt somewhat risky to combine a variety of mediums in one book, but all I had to do was look to some of my favorite books as an example that it could be done: Maira Kalman’s books are dominated by her gouache paintings but also include her photography and embroidery; Nora Krug’s Belonging alternates sequential art scenes with found images, collage, and illustration; and Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? has a thoughtful array of cartoon sequences, snapshots of her parents’ apartment, and tenderly drawn portraits of her dying mother. LMS: I also love how your combination of different mediums speaks to the collage of different threads here, as well as the hybrid of selves you’re exploring—goalkeeper, writer, artist, mother. What were some of your biggest challenges (or excitements) you faced writing a graphic memoir which wove your personal story with history and literature? I’d especially love for you to talk about the process of drawing parts of the book that aren’t active “scenes” per se—where one character is talking to another—but where you draw on archival and historical research, or where you have to illustrate “thinking” and “reflecting.” Those are the parts of graphic work I often find the most difficult.  KE: I love archival materials and find them aesthetically beautiful, whether it’s my own memorabilia or photos and documents from distant times and places. It’s just a joy to draw them and pair them with historical context or my own musings. Beyond that, when I interpret a black-and-white photo with bold color or with stylized lines, it’s a way, I hope, of making the image and text interaction more active and alive. One of my challenges in blending my personal story with literature (such as Vladimir Nabokov’s writing about his love of playing goalie) or with the fascinating discoveries I was making about women’s soccer history going back to the late 1800s was that I would get so interested in the research that I ran the risk of losing the story. I know there’s a lot of history and literature woven in the book, but believe me, there’s a lot I cut! LMS: What are some things that surprised you most, as you were doing research for this book? KE: So much surprised me—that’s the joy of research! I was surprised to learn that 100 years ago during WWI in England, there were women playing soccer and drawing crowds of thousands of people. It was so popular that in 1921, the British Football Association literally banned women from play on the grounds that the sport was “quite unsuitable for females.” That ban lasted for 50 years! I was surprised—though maybe I shouldn’t have been—that the issues women athletes face today are exactly the same ones they faced a century ago: public debates about their bodies, looks, and clothes; critiques of their play; concerns about their sexuality and gender; inequities in facilities and compensation; etcetera, etcetera, forever. I was also surprised to learn how much literature there is about soccer and especially about goalkeeping, mostly by men and mostly outside of the U.S. like Nabokov and Albert Camus and Eduardo Galeano. And I was surprised how painful it was to read my high school diaries. LMS: In one chapter, you write about doing The Artist’s Way as an adult, trying to rediscover who you are, now that you no longer play soccer—“At the time,” you write, “I believed that a person could be an athlete or an artist, but not both.” When The Artist’s Way prompts you to identify your enemies to creative growth, you write: “Sports!” But as the book demonstrates, it’s of course not so simple—can you talk a bit about any connections you see between athleticism and writing/drawing, and how being an athlete enabled you to be a writer who draws?  KE: Yes, I was surprisingly wrong when I thought that sports were the enemy. In fact, The Artist’s Way has a section on the “Zen of Sports,” where Julia Cameron stresses the importance of physical movement in the creative process: “We need to move out of the head and into the body.” The poet and former basketball player Natalie Diaz writes elegantly about the body as the locus for both poetry and basketball: “I have a crafted and earned intimacy with my body. I know and trust it differently than a nonathlete can. It’s the way I make sense of the world, a lover, a book, the earth.” I recently got to attend a reading by Hanif Abdurraqib, and I also love how fluidly and frequently he references his experiences as an athlete when talking about his life as a writer. Often it’s in connection with a sense of competition or with the ability to push himself through a challenge. All of these ideas resonate with me deeply: We feel art and literature in our bodies, whether reading or creating it. I know that I developed a healthy sense of competition and drive from sports, and I also learned how to deal with disappointment. When you play game after game after game, you win and you lose, and as a goalkeeper you get scored on! You have to train yourself psychologically—and are trained by coaches as well—to keep going. I definitely applied this discipline to my life as a writer. [millions_email]

Allie Rowbottom: “When I Write, I Leave My Body a Little”

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“There’s no procedure, no pill, no person,” writes Allie Rowbottom in her piercing debut novel Aesthetica. “Salvation is incremental, a smattering of small braveries.” Set in the not-so-distant future when Instagram is as irrelevant as Facebook and the age of the influencer is fading fast, Aesthetica tells the story of Anna Wrey, a former internet celebrity who, on the eve of undergoing a risky cosmetic surgery,  is confronted by a part of her past that she thought was long buried. I had the pleasure of talking with Allie about navigating social media as a writer, the intersection of beauty and aesthetic, fiction and nonfiction, controlling your public narrative, and much more. Mila Jaroniec: Aesthetica is your second book after the memoir Jell-O Girls, and it’s your fiction debut. In both your nonfiction and fiction, your narrators engage in similar moments of micro-reflection, where their thought processes and motives are revealed through what feel like intimations. Do you think writing with that type of awareness is more difficult in fiction or nonfiction? Or is it about the same, because you can’t write nonfiction about yourself without also turning into a character, in a way? Allie Rowbottom: I think it’s way harder in fiction. Emotional exposition is the purview of the memoir form—feelings can be told in nonfiction (though I personally try to “scene” them as much as possible), whereas in fiction they should be shown. In other words, fiction should leave less space for characters to narrate their own motives, and more space for the audience to deduce those motives by interpreting the characters’ actions, which is satisfying and makes readers feel smart. So yes, the old “show don’t tell” adage is one I do find helpful in a general sense. Often I read novels that are great but could have benefitted from translating summarized material into shown material. I think the places I get away with expository self-awareness in Aesthetica have to do with the structure of the novel, inasmuch as there are two timelines and in one of them, the character is looking back on her girlhood and thinking about what she knows now that she didn’t know then. MJ: Reflecting on online irrelevance, Anna remarks, “Only gone a day and I felt myself slipping, felt how easy it would be to simply fade away. Focusing on my platform was another protective measure. If I lost @annawrey, I would be one step closer to entirely alone.” How do you think this might apply to the writing world? As writers, we’re increasingly pushed to “engage,” and while it’s a useful tool for promotion, it can be a mental and emotional strain. It can also unintentionally damage our careers—we all have that one writer whom we’ve stopped reading or following because they’re annoying on the internet. How do you see this unfolding in the future of literature? AR: While publishing both my books I’ve been assured by my team that I should engage on social media only to the extent that I’m comfortable, which is very kind and does take into account that not every writer is a natural-born Instagram or Twitter personality. But at the end of the day, I’m not one of the few writers plucked by the National Book Foundation or chosen by that secret PR person I keep hearing about who charges six figures to get you on the prize lists and elevate you to literary stardom. I’m trying to sell a book here—of course I’m going to post about it. And I’m going to build a social media platform that feels authentic to me in order to promote my writing. It’s a lot of work. But I feel best when I’m using social media to control the narrative around my book. The online aesthetic of most publishers isn’t the same as mine, and I’m not going to let Aesthetica exist on Instagram only in posts with someone’s cat or pumpkin spice latte or knitting needles. Bottom line: the imperative to post is a new thing inasmuch as social media is new. But it’s not like writers (many of them famous and widely read) weren’t show-boaters or hypertrophic personalities in the past. Like, would Mark Twain be on Instagram if he were alive today? Yes! Obviously! He would be twirling his mustache on TikTok! MJ: What do you think the future of social media is, in the next decade and beyond? AR: In the future-tense timeline of Aesthetica, I hint that Instagram has become an app for old folks and CGI influencers and has been replaced by the “next thing.” I keep what that “next thing” is vague because I thought speculating too much would take the book in a dystopian direction I wasn’t aiming for and feared might be distracting. But generally, I think that when it comes to image-based platforms, the next thing will be more of the same, with slight twists, over and over again, developing in some ways but never straying from the core ideology of image and therefore objectification. Yes, all these apps say they are for people, but we all know they’re for the market. They’re performances of capitalism which will adapt to suit the cultural moment but will never stop trying to sell. And bodies sell. MJ: In the literary world, so many of our friendships and relationships are conducted almost exclusively online. I’m often tempted to delete all social media (and have before, temporarily), but it’s become almost indispensable both personally and professionally. Are you ever tempted to go entirely offline? Do you ever do social media detoxes? How do you meaningfully engage without losing your mind? AR: I don’t start my day online and that makes a big difference. I write first, or work on stuff for my students or editing clients, then I post and answer DMs. I don’t do strict detoxes, because I try very hard not to get to a place where I need a strict detox. I try not to binge on social media, and the most helpful tool I have for not binging is remembering how bad it makes me feel when I do. Previously in my career I’ve felt certain that what I’m working toward is the privilege of being entirely offline to the point of near invisibility, like Ottessa Moshfegh. Hers was an invisibility that extended to her books themselves; go look for an author photo on any of her novels. This to me was why I’d gotten into writing in the first place—when I write, I leave my body a little and I wanted that freedom from embodiment in the business part of my career too, a freedom I imagined Ottessa had. And, most importantly, she was taken as seriously as male writers. But then, she started modeling, doing more podcasts and readings, and people discovered her Depop. I felt a sort of despair. She’d had a privilege few women attain, that of intellect disconnected from corporeality and the ceaseless cultural reminders of our corporeality as a defining factor in our worth. She was respected for her mind and her talent and even her absence from social media felt like clout in and of itself. Then she gave it up. I imagine she got bored of life behind the scenes. I imagine she wanted to be seen and, in some ways, objectified (and I don’t mean that negatively), though maybe I’m projecting. But either way, the desire to be seen is human. And who among us can just opt out of the cultural messaging we all internalize from early childhood? Who wouldn’t want to enjoy the perks of fame, or engage with readers and enjoy their enjoyment of the art you’ve so carefully made for them? MJ: You’ve mentioned before that you were somewhat disappointed with the media coverage of Jell-O Girls. What have you learned about book promotion since your first publishing experience? What sort of treatment are you hoping for with Aesthetica? AR: I learned that you can’t expect anyone to do anything for you. Sounds harsh, but I think there’s a common misconception among writers who are just starting out that your agent, or your editor, or your PR team, will take the reins for you in a meaningful way. This was a mistake I made with Jell-O Girls. The thing is: all those people are wonderful and well meaning, but they have many books to support. They’re your crew, but you’re the captain. You’re steering this yacht. With Jell-O Girls, I remember feeling like if I advocated for myself in a certain way, or worked to control the narrative surrounding my book, I would be branded “difficult,” and my book deal would be rescinded. Looking back that sounds crazy—that’s not how things work, at least not in present-day publishing. But I was green and overwhelmed. I had expected that book to go to a small academic press; instead, it sold in a big deal to Little, Brown. Put bluntly, I had extreme imposter syndrome, which I think is very common with debut books and can have a paralyzing effect on first time authors who are so concerned with expressing their gratitude for even being in the game that they don’t push for more. Now—especially having fought for Aesthetica every step of the way—I know I belong here. I know I’m the captain! [millions_email]

Caroline Hagwood: “I Fight for My Writing”

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Caroline Hagwood and I hop on Zoom because we cannot find time to meet in person. My son started Pre-K and immediately got sick, so we’ve been hanging out and watching Lily Hevesh make domino structures for the past three hours. Caroline has just gotten back from teaching a full class schedule, and she’s on the “second shift,” parenting two energetic kids. Sometimes it feels like there is no room for art in our lives. For this interview, I’m sequestered in the bedroom while my husband keeps our son from barging in and our baby from banging her head on the table. Caroline’s kids keep barging in too, adorably, to see what their mom is doing. This is what it means to be a mother and a writer—finding the time to talk about art in a chaotic environment. I met Caroline in grad school, in awe of the fact that she had a book of poetry published and a famous person had talked about it. Damn, I thought, she’s really got it together. As we became friends and cried together about our never-ending dissertation dramas, I was delighted to discover that Caroline was just really weird in a true, deep way—not a manic pixie dream girl way—and that we had a ton in common. When I read her latest book, Weird Girls: Writing the Art Monster, I was excited to see her grapple with the imposed borders between the experience of motherhood and the practice of being a writer. Any mom who writes knows what it’s like to steal moments for creativity—and to feel guilty about it. Patricia Grisafi: I love seeing people’s writing spaces. Can you tell me about yours? Caroline Hagwood: I do have a designated space, but what’s funny is that it’s an all purpose room. Somebody was putting out a broken down desk, like an old and ugly one. They put it out on the street on front of our house. I pushed that against the wall in here. My kids are still too afraid to sleep in their rooms, so we have mattresses on the ground. So this is the room where both my kids sleep, the only room that all the books fit in, and this is the room where I do all my work and writing. PG: The room where motherhood and writing merge! Did you write Weird Girls like this? CH: It’s the only place I could write! At work, I used to have a “room of one’s own” that was the only place in my life I had my own space. I would stay there until 7pm on Friday. But now they’ve restructured the department, and I lost that space. My kids play in this room, and I could keep an eye on them while I was working. My son is interested in writing, and he asked me tons of questions while I wrote Weird Girls. PG: You made the best of it. CH: I am a glass-half-full person because my glass has been half empty so much. It’s the only way I can function. I mean, did we not live through a dystopia and see that we were the heroines of our own stories? PG: We’re still living in a dystopia! CH: True! PG: It feels so long ago, but when I first met you in grad school, you had a book of poetry out. Now, you’ve written Weird Girls, which is a mixed genre book, and are at work on another project. How was your writing evolved and why do you think you’ve gravitated to this hybrid form you’ve been working in? CH: My brain will always think in poetry. But I read everything and I read a lot. My favorite books are like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. Like the stuff coming out of Graywolf. My favorite genre of all is the lyric essay. Once your body is blown open [in childbirth], you see things differently. PG: It’s been this way in horror films, talking about motherhood in this primal, bloody, and violent way. You touch on that in your book. CH: Horror movies are always ahead of the curve. And stand-up comedy. If you want to see any aesthetic trend emerge, go see horror movies, go to comedy shows. In grad school school, the same professor who taught composition and pedagogy also taught the horror film class, Moshe Gold. We would talk about the aesthetics of writing and then monsters. It just fit so well together. PG: I took the monster course, too! One of my favorite classes and teachers ever. CH: They [monsters and writing] really merged in my mind. I think of creativity and writing being so much about monsters. Moshe was fantastic. He had a huge impact on me. PG: How did becoming a mom affect your approach to writing and genre? CH: There’s this idea that there’s a fragmented kind of writing associated with motherhood. You’re always getting interrupted. You write on grocery lists, on the way to birthday parties. By the way, there are lots of cool dads who probably understand me more than some moms. I think stay-at-home dads are so sexy. PG: What is hybridization but interrogating boundaries and destroying them? Like, you write a lot about the boundaries between motherhood and teaching and writing.  CH: I showed up to class one day in a fancy black shirt, and there was some kind of child-related goop on my back. I had to stop trying to control how I appeared to people. PG: When you have a kid, you’re always apologizing. How does the art monster liberate you? CH: The art monster is the sense of creativity and getting rid of all the notions of being a woman. These feelings have been inside, that whole sense of people pleasing and caring for everyone… I felt like if I didn’t give my art monster life, I was going to disappear. I was going to lose my mind. I fight for my writing. I will be so tired and drink espresso at midnight because I need to get writing done. I will run myself into the ground. PG: Monsters are not always about badness.  CH: They’re about hybridity. PG: I mean, you named your son after the kid from Where the Wild Things Are! I love that. Kids love monsters. My son is obsessed with Bigfoot. CH: Even though I’m teaching my kids how to be in the world, I want them to hold onto their wildness. I’m trying to find this space, especially with my daughter. How can she stay wild while navigating a world not made for her? I can say to my husband, please take my kids to the playground because I am writing, and that matters! And that is what can feel monstrous—it can feel monstrous to just say, Can you make dinner tonight, I'm writing. PG: Speaking of dinner, if you could share a meal with three writers, who would they be? CH: One of them would be Claudia Rankine, then Virginia Woolf, and Audre Lorde. Virginia Woolf is on my wall, she means a lot to me. Her diaries and all of her books. She’s such an art monster. And Audre Lorde, her poetry and essays—she moves between genres and her activism and vision of a more inclusive and creative world. I love the way she shows things to me in new ways.

Toni Ann Johnson: “It’s More Complicated Than Forgiveness”

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Toni Ann Johnson and her collection Light Skin Gone to Waste, tells the story a young Black family’s arrival to the blue-collar town of Monroe, New York, in 1962. Through linked stories following the Arrington’s through the years, Johnson casts critical lens on race, class, and colorism. “If you’re born Black in Monroe, New York, in the 1960s, it doesn’t matter if your daddy gets rich, if your mom is good-looking, or even if you’re almost light enough to pass,” writes Johnson. “You’re an alien, always, even if this is your hometown.” Through its multiple narrators, Johnson’s Flannery O’Connor Award-winning book mines conflicting identities and the complexity of being Black in America. I had the pleasure of chatting with Johnson about her wonderful book, her approach to structure and point of view, the Los Angeles literary community, and more.  Ashley Perez: We are both alumna of the same MFA program at Antioch University in Los Angeles. I found that the program introduced me to the concept of a literary community. Can you talk a little about what the literary community means to you? How does it serve your writing process and how does it enrich your writing life? Toni Ann Johnson: Our L.A. literary community, which you’re a part of, is incredibly supportive, interesting, and fun to be with. I’ve been lucky to find community among my L.A. lit friends. We comprise a bunch of smaller communities that intersect. We show up for each other’s events. We share critiques of our work. We give and take each other’s classes. We promote one another, review one another’s books, recommend agents and publishers, and appear on each other’s podcasts. I’ve been in a few creative landscapes over the years, but I’m happier than I’ve ever been with the literary community that surrounds me in Los Angeles. Many of us are awkward introverts and yet it works. We come together often and celebrate each other and it’s quite lovely. AP: Pivoting now to Light Skin Gone to Waste, let’s talk about the character of Maddie, who we watch grow up over the course of the collection’s linked stories. The stories are presented from multiple points of view, but I keep coming back to Maddie in particular because of her distinctive voice and the way she sees the world. What was it like writing from her perspective as opposed to, say, her parents, Phil and Velma? TAJ: Light Skin Gone to Waste is a work of autobiographical fiction based on my own Black family’s experience in a predominantly white town in the 1960s and ‘70s. The stories are inspired by my memories and by events my parents shared with me. The character of Maddie is based on me. When I’m writing from her POV, I’m both reconnecting with my memories and recreating an old world anew. I’m writing through the lens of adulthood and with a deeper understanding of race, class, and race relations than I had as a child. At times, it was more painful for me to write from Maddie’s POV because the events I returned to through her remain tender. It was always a more interesting experience to write from Phil or Velma’s POV—I was forced to discover things I didn’t know or hadn’t considered.  AP: A question that is often asked with this kind of collections is why linked stories and not a novel? How do you think the stories are served better as a linked collection as opposed to a novel structure? TAJ: My original concept was stories. The first iteration of the book was my final manuscript for my MFA at Antioch University—same title, same idea. I never conceived of this as a novel with an overarching question or issue that the book examines, answers, or resolves by the end. I envisioned an episodic structure that looked at events in this family’s experience over a period of time, where the reader has an emotional experience through the way the stories fit together and played out, not by the characters’ trajectories. Though the book does have a kind of resolution, it doesn’t deliver on the expectations that a novel typically presents wherein the main characters arrive at a point of self-awareness, and the reader understands that they’ve changed and will be different going forward, having resolved whatever issue was causing discomfort in their lives. In my collection, some of these characters don’t change or evolve to any higher consciousness.  In real life, narcissists rarely change for the better or come into awareness of their flaws. I was asked to reconsider this book as a novel, and against my better judgment, I tried that. The stories were “chapters” in this novel version and the book brought in many more points of view. It was nearly 500 pages. It contained two novellas. That version went out to editors at large presses and all of them passed. One said it was “unwieldy” and I agreed. I took my book back, returned to my original concept, prioritized the character of Maddie, submitted it to the Flannery O’Connor Award, and won. That’s how it got published. It didn’t work as a novel, because it was never conceived as one. However, I’ve heard from a few readers that they read it as a novel. That’s fine with me. I think there is some similarity in linked collections, especially one as linked as this one, to novels. And if readers want to think of it that way, I’m glad. But structurally, the book does not do what most novels endeavor to do. AP: I’m always curious about the work that goes into a project. It’s daunting to be sure. What would you say was the hardest part about writing this collection? What was the most rewarding?   TAJ: The hardest part was revisiting some of the memories that I based the stories on. There was a sexual assault, and the story “Lucky” is the only time I’ve ever written about it. It was excruciating to recall the sensory details which I felt was necessary in order to write from young Maddie’s POV. As hard as that was, I felt it was time to look at the event as directly as I could in order to be done with it. Another memory that was really hard to revisit was what happens in the story “Make a Space,” when Phil’s infidelity blows up in Maddie’s face. Finding the character’s voices was rewarding. In particular, Velma’s voice and the voice of Maddie’s cousin Suzy. They were fun to write, as well as to read. I just finished recording the audiobook yesterday and reading their first-person POV stories is probably one of the greatest creative pleasures I’ve ever had. Their voices have a rhythm that I draw immense joy out of experiencing as I read aloud. And, as an aside, it’s also rewarding that I was given the opportunity to narrate my own book. I fought for that, and even though I’ve done the audio narration for both my previous books, it was not easy to get them to agree.  AP: I don’t want to spoil the ending for folks, but the last story in the collection is especially poignant. There is a lot there about how the past informs the present, especially for Maddie, which is in many ways a central theme of the book. Can you talk about how that concept plays into the book, and also about how it relates to the idea forgiveness?TAJ: Yes, the last story, “Time Travel,” is a payoff to the second story, “Claiming Tobias.” Maddie makes her first best friend in her neighborhood, a white boy who, when they’re very young, doesn’t realize she’s Black. When he does realize, it ends their friendship. The last story reunites them in adulthood when they’re in their twenties. Maddie is still hurt and angry. The story imagines a time when she can let go of that anger. Some readers may see that as forgiveness. I think it’s more complicated than forgiveness. I was once asked on a podcast: Do you believe time heals all wounds? My answer is no. I don’t believe time heals all wounds. My wounds remain and I’ve become who I am in response to some of them. However, time has softened me and given me perspective and the ability to extend grace to those who have injured me. I don’t see that as the same as forgiveness. I have not let the person off the hook for the injury they caused. I hold them accountable, because what they did affected me for life. I simply recognize that what they did is over and done, and I forgive myself for clinging to useless anger that only impedes my life and my happiness. If there was something good, I received from the person who hurt me, then I can reconnect with that good once I let go of the anger I held. But I’m very clear—I don’t forgive what they did. Releasing my anger allows me to see the entirety of the person, rather than define them forever based on one event. 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Personal Minutiae: The Millions Interviews Sasha Pearl

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Author, artist, and bus driver Sasha Pearl recently republished an extraordinary book of poems with McSweeney’s. Pearl’s tender observations of the world come filtered through the eye of a lover. There’s humor in our bad behavior and grace that emanates from the steel box of Pearl’s bus.  Samantha Hunt: Can you tell me the birth story of Bus Poems1 and II Plus. How did you come to write this collection? Sasha Pearl: I was driving a school bus in Albuquerque, New Mexico, as a job, and every morning after dropping off the high schoolers, I had about 45 minutes to kill before picking up the first student on the middle school run. The bus company called this "staging"—when you wait somewhere in the bus before starting a route. I went one of two places: the Blake's Lotta Burger parking lot (usually to use the restroom) or the Lobo Stadium parking lot. The break was from 7:15 to 8AM. I tried different things to take up the time. I watched a lot of TikTok. I did Pimsleur language lessons. Then my friend Annie Bielski, who is an Albuquerque-based artist and writer (and now a professor at UNM) suggested writing poems, so I tried it. When I showed people the poems they laughed, which was very encouraging. So I made little Xeroxed books of them to send to friends. SH: I was lucky enough to receive one of these books and was struck by so many things, including the way Bus Poems captures the ghostly presence of the children who rode your bus. Their insecurities, personalities, bravery and odors populate the space even after they have disembarked. As a bus driver, what did you notice, or learn, about young people and the ways they operate?  SP: People in elementary school are incredibly honest and emotionally accessible. They trust you right away and will be very direct. Little kids will talk to you about head lice, astrology, what kind of dragon you would be, and then ask you if you have a house. I also thought it was so interesting when people this age (five to nine years old) start to figure out how to lie, and start to try that on. In middle school they start to be hyperaware—of themselves, of everyone else. They put on little airs, and also seem sort of afraid. People always ask me if high schoolers act bad, or if I ever had to punish anyone or break up any outlawed activities, but high school students don't make a peep. They want to be left alone on their phones. SH: I suppose that age—high school—has a lot of thinking to do about the self. Bus Poems is internal too but also glows with your deep, nearly scientific observations of the outside world with moments that are both singular and universal, like: “They are always calling/ Mr. Toncho (bus number 135)/on the radio / and he never responds./ They say his name/over and over/with exasperation/like an angry mother/ to a child who leaves/dirty socks on the kitchen table.” Did these poems arrive more from the inside or the outside?  SP: I think I'm sort of lucky to be easily amused and so I think a lot of really ordinary things are very funny or have unintended significance or meaning. I'd say all the ideas for the poems come from the outside—somebody says or does something normal but it dings a little bell in me that resonates for a long time. So much of real life is poetic or made-up-seeming. I don't know how to explain truth being stranger than fiction without sounding like a nimrod Pollyanna. SH: No nimrod Pollyanna at all—you are a truth teller. I first read your poems during the pandemic when a microscopic virus was making huge waves. With poetry in general and Bus Poems in particular, I feel the might of the miniature. These tiny pieces, written under a time constraint, have a wholeness, a largeness though some are tiny as haiku. “My car won’t start/the traffic flow,/these things that make me late./ My old lead foot,/the spring winds blow,/and still the children wait.” You zoom a reader from the micro, say the small enclosure of the bus or specific rules, “no friendly waves or salutes/to buses with numbers starting with ‘11’” all the way to the macro, say, the Han Dynasty, childhood bullies, desire. Is there something magical about the small space of the bus that permits large contemplation? SP: I don't think for me it had to do with the physical confines of the bus so much as having a routine and a route doing something very practical—and frankly very boring. My world was small. It made me look for drama and notice all the small variations: so-and-so not wearing a jacket, tiny slights or acknowledgments between students, passing daily a rose bush or a billboard advertising cemetery plots, the weather. Everything seemed important and powerful and allegorical. Then the pandemic happened and they closed schools. My world got even smaller, while the world got even bigger, even more tempestuous. And then you have to hold both the shared reality of earth and the hive mind, and the extremely personal minutiae of living, and synthesize them somehow. SH: You've had many jobs beside writing poems and driving a bus. You’ve worked as a sign painter, a cook, an artist, musician, bartender, film projectionist, rug hooker, truck driver, flower farmer, not to mention, you are an incredible dancer. Where do labor and art intersect in your life?  SP: I've also worked as a lighthouse keeper, an inn keeper, a postal worker, I've made a lot of pizzas, road managed bands, been a janitor, a shoe girl, a food stylist's assistant, drove truckloads of art, done field and green house work and run equipment at farms, washed dishes, waitressed. I never considered art or music or writing or making anything to be jobs or ways to earn money. I have always worked since I was 13. I have always made art meant to be given away. Both things were encouraged and/or expected of me. When I was 14, I was a janitor at a movie theater and I would draw little comic books, Xerox copies of them, and leave them around the theater for people to find. In my twenties I did the same thing with short stories about my family, jobs, and people in my village. I worked to earn money but also to learn how to do things. Like dancing—you learn to dance by dancing with as many people as possible, learning little moves and style and steps from each partner. Anything I've learned in the way of job skills, people, or the meaning of life has been from listening to people tell me about themselves or the world while we chop lettuce or plant potatoes for 10 hours. And those things add up and carry over—being formerly a bartender would make someone a better doctor. SH: I agree. I was a waitress for years and always say that only people who have been servers at some point should be allowed to eat in restaurants. Years ago I had worked at the Village Voice and spent a lot of my time there at the Xerox, making tiny little books I’d hide in around the bars of New York City. I am a devoted admirer, maker, and distributor of cheap art, so I cherish my original handmade copy of Bus Poems, but at the same time I’m glad McSweeney’s wanted to collect your work into this beautiful volume, with cover art by Yann LeBec. I am glad your work will find a larger audience and be read by people all across the country. What has it been like to have your handmade book printed and distributed by a small press? Have you heard from other poets or bus drivers or poet bus drivers?  SP: I couldn't be prouder or more honored to have my silly little poems in a real bound book with beautiful art work and compiled with real writers. I'm so grateful to you and to Claire Boyle for working with me and for seeing something in the poems. To me it's unreal. I was tour managing my friend's band (Chris Acker—a wonderful songwriter) in Portland, Oregon, when it was released and got to go buy a copy at the big downtown Powell's Books where I got to ask a bunch of sales associates where I could find it in the store. I have heard from some McSweeney's readers that they enjoyed the poems, but none have revealed if they were bus drivers. SH: I love Chris Acker! “I want to feel you on my skin like Coppertone.” His lyrics make me glad. Also, how do you get to do so many things?  SP: Probably important to note that I don't do any of the things for very long. I am more curious than ambitious. I like the momentum of change and I like exciting instability. I'm a quitter, or I get bored easily, or I like to learn new things—depending on who you ask. I don't have any debt or dependents, or a partner which all set me up to change my mind a lot, change direction a lot. Generally, I have a lot of doors open to me because of various privileges. SH: What are you reading? Listening to? Looking at these days?  SP: I love American hot-rod and low-rider art and truck painters from all over the world, traditional story quilts, classified ads like Craigslist, Want Ad Digest and Yelp reviews (Yelp reviews are the greatest free verse poetry). Art forms which are personal, autobiographical, ordinary things which become extraordinary when lovingly and wildly embellished, and often art forms that don't recognize themselves as art forms. I listen to a lot of classic truck-driving songs, old country, doo-wop, and R&B. And I am reading Mark Baumer, Morgan Parker, and Dennis Johnson. SH: You already have a new book poems, one after Bus Poems, called Untitled Feelings. Tell me about it.  SP: Untitled Feelings is a xeroxed book of poems I made this spring. Some of it draws from bus driving or miscellaneous job experiences, love, living as a woman, and other things I have mixed reviews of. SH: The new Yelp review category: Life as a Woman. Three stars. Mixed reviews and untitled feelings. McSweeney's 64 [millions_email]

Ryan Lee Wong on the Inextricability of Language and Activism

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At the beginning of Ryan Lee Wong’s debut novel, Which Side Are You On, our narrator Reed wants to drop out of his Ivy League college to become a full-time activist in New York City’s Black Lives Matter movement. On a visit back to his parents in L.A., he goes to his mother for her advice—and is surprised by what he discovers. Which Side Are You On is a portrait of the activist as a young man, a coming-of-age story with activism at its center; it is both a biting satire of contemporary politics and a poignant family drama. As a novelist, Wong draws upon a wealth of resources—from his experiences as an activist and research into Asian American movements to his own family history, which includes his mother’s work with Black-Korean coalitions in the 1980s. I had the opportunity to connect with Wong over the phone, where we chatted about the role of pleasure in activism, the state of Asian America, and why nobody walks in L.A. Jaeyeon Yoo: Where did this novel begin?  Ryan Lee Wong: The story came first. I wanted to tell a story based on my experiences and the activist’s role during the time of the first Black Lives Matter movement, and to also tell something based on my mother’s life story around Black-Korean organizing in the 1980s. I wanted to focus on the cycle of history that those two moments represented. I knew that fiction was the outlet because of how emotional and personal the topic was—and how, even though it involves politics and history, the heart of the story to me was ambiguous in a way that I felt only fiction could capture. I really learned to write fiction in order to write this book. I tried a few different versions of the story, some of which were much more focused on the character of the mother. One version was even set in the 1980s, which was much more traditional historical fiction. But then, I also wanted the book to be about an activist’s coming-of-age. A certain turn that I made, and I think a lot of activists make, is from seeing the world in very stark, unforgiving terms to allowing a little more ambiguity and compassion, more of a heart-connection to the work and to other people. This turn is why Reed started to become a major part of the story. JY: I know your other work also includes curating exhibitions which share clear themes of Asian American activism. Could you talk more about how your artistic practices interact with one another?  RLW: In a way, all my work is a form of self-discovery—of finding the histories that shaped me. With my curatorial and archival work, I explored this question of “What is Asian America?” Asian American is the term that I most identify with; yet, even 10 years ago, the kind of collective understanding of Asian America had been stripped away of its political roots. Most of the people I talked to, myself included, didn’t really know this story of radical Asian America, or Asian American activist history—which quite literally gave us the term “Asian America.” Just as this book was a way for me to tell the story of a personal and political activist history, my curatorial work was a way for me to tell the story of the bigger political formations that made me. JY: What does being Asian American mean to you, then?  RLW: That’s a question I’m always asking and I’ll always be asking. I think that if there’s one simple answer on what Asian America “is,” there’s something missing. For me, Asian America only makes sense in terms of a political identity. It doesn’t mean anything unifying in terms of culture or language; it really was a term chosen by a group of activists. I take that as an invitation to re-examine the identity again and again, in each historical moment. The political situation now mirrors what was happening in 1968, but it’s obviously not the same. Asian America is a living, breathing legacy. JY: You gesture to clear historical and political influences within the novel; what were some major aesthetic influences for Which Side Are You On?  RLW: I kind of came into this whole lineage of these Jewish leftist women writers. I think that might be because there are many parallels between the way Jewish folks were radicalized in the 50s through the 70s, and then how Asian Americans came into political consciousness in the 60s to the 80s. So I was reading people like Vivian Gornick, Natalia Ginzburg, Grace Paley. Then, as a Korean American with a mother who came over from Korea as a teenager in the early 70s, I was interested in how to capture that unique kind of voice. My mother went to Berkeley, then quickly picked up this mix of Marxist language, Black vernacular, and activist college students’ speech—alongside a Korean accent and a whole lot of cussing. A lot of these characters in Grace Paley’s stories, for example, were mixing Yiddish and Bronx socialist language, and they’re really smart, really funny. That was one aesthetic lineage. Another aesthetic interest were these quiet first-person stories, like Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, in which the action happens over a matter of days. I found it an interesting formal device. I’ve always found it fascinating, how my experience of learning about historical trauma almost always happens in these very middle-class settings. We’ll be driving a car and someone will say, “Oh, you know what happened with your auntie and her first husband?” That was just true to my experience, so that’s why I had to leave behind the more traditional, third-person historical way of telling things. JY: You mentioned the funniness in some of these voices—I really enjoyed the humor in your novel. Reed realizes the importance of fun, particularly within activism, during the course of the novel; I wonder if you had more to say about the role of pleasure within revolution.  RLW: We’re in this exciting moment where ideas like pleasure and self-care and joy have really entered the toolkit of activism. For examples, Rebecca Solnit just wrote Orwell’s Roses, and adrienne marie brown’s Pleasure Activism. Most frontline activist work is incredibly hard. It’s hard on the mind, it’s hard on the emotions and the body. Ten years ago, I definitely valorized people who were good at enduring difficulty. It was something that I aspired to, but this can (although not always) turn into a sort of martyrdom complex of valorizing the people who suffer the most. In the novel, one of the main lessons the mother learned from her intense experiences in activism, was that level of difficulty is not something you can face over and over again for years—and come out okay. JY: How about happiness? Does it play a similar role that pleasure does in revolution, or is it something a little different?  RLW: This is where the activist conversation gets mixed in with the diaspora conversation. There’s a fine line between pursuing happiness and receiving joy, and those things can get very mixed up very quickly. I think pursuing happiness can become this individualistic, materialistic, capitalistic gain: a kind of consumerist adoption of the American Dream. This is something that I see as a pattern in my family and many other immigrant families, where part of the whole reason for coming to America becomes the accumulation of material comfort, which becomes a way of proving one’s happiness. In the novel, even as I want to show the mother’s wisdom in learning to care for herself and accepting fun and joy, I think there’s also a bigger conversation of when that tips a little bit into materialism. A lot of the conversations between the three generations—the grandmother, the mother, and Reed—are about trying to navigate these remarkably different subject positions; each of them has a completely different idea, on the right balance between joy and self-denial, aestheticism and materialism. The grandmother is the most materialistic of the three and maybe also had the most painful life. Reed keeps wanting to slot people into these categories—this person either understands or they don’t—but the more he learns about his grandmother, the more it complicates his desire to do that, because her life story is so outside of his ability to comprehend. JY: It sounds like you worked a lot from your mother’s stories as you wrote the novel. I appreciated the line you walked in the novel, of showcasing how Reed’s desire to learn from his parents’ activism has this dual aspect: one is of “commercializing” (the social capital, if you will, such as how he first kept thinking of ways to package his mother’s stories), the other is a genuine need to learn from one’s history. How do you deal with this tension, of writing about something and also feeling the pressure of “marketing” it?  RLW: That’s so real. I think it comes down to a question of intention. On the one hand, Reed has a real personal desire to learn his mother’s story and to make sense of his own life. At the same time, there’s this other part of him that’s watching and seeing how he can turn this into a toolkit that he can share with his activist friends. Of course, this is a metaphor for the writer’s dilemma: this desire to transform everything in your life, especially the painful things, into our way of making meaning of it, making it legible to yourself and others. Potentially, it can even turn that art into something commercial. Reed has to struggle with there being no perfect ethical way to navigate this, as does the writer. Reed’s intentions, in the beginning, are a little unskillful. He’s trying to extract his idea of the right story. And if that is one’s intention, then it’s going to lead to people getting hurt and betrayed. But I think the more he’s able to be receptive and feel the full complexity of heartache and failure and joy—the more that complexity will lead him to the right answer. Similarly, by publishing this book, what I really aspire to is to let the reader have their own takeaways and their own conclusions. To be perfectly candid, when I started writing this book in about 2016, I definitely wanted the reader to agree with me. I had a very particular viewpoint—in that sense, I was much more like Reed. JY: On a sort of meta level, your author’s journey mirrored Reed’s! I was interested by the linguistic trends that you point out in the novel, such as how Reed and his mother have different activist “dialects.” What, for you, is the role of language within these waves of varying activist cultures?  RLW: When you look at many activist movements, if not most, poetry is almost always in the mix, whether it’s activist leaders reading poetry or activists writing poetry. Poetry is essentially the creation of new language, or new formations of language, to name things that haven’t been. That’s very similar to activism, which is often trying to bring visibility to or to change things that haven’t yet been named. In that sense, language and activism are inseparable. They’re almost two expressions of one thing. And that’s why—especially now—movements are synonymous with their language: Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, the 99%. It’s because we need that language to help us make sense of the world. I’m a Zen practitioner, and there’s this quotation from Zen teachers, which goes something like, “Birds live in the air, fish live in the water, and humans live in language.” Language is the substance of our lives, and activism is a way to reform that language, to help us see the possibilities. There are a lot of jokes about activist language in the book, but it’s because every generation has to find its own language. One generation’s language will probably sound a little strange or foreign or funny to another generations, which is actually appropriate, because it is a different language and different political moment. JY: You’ve mentioned the emphasis on conversations and the timeline—were there other specific like formalistic choices that you made, to heighten the themes of what you're trying to do in this book?  RLW: I’ve always admired novels that are built on the flaneur tradition—of someone walking around, often men, in public spaces. There’s a whole joke in the novel about Ulysses and James Joyce. Part of the reason that’s in there is because I realized that Ulysses couldn’t happen in L.A.—no one walks there! I don’t know if you’ve spent much time in L.A., but if you walk for any long stretch of time, people look at you weird, you feel weird, and the sidewalks are so empty. You’re on these big streets that are pedestrian-unfriendly under the sun. It just feels like you’re doing this insane desert crossing. So my question to myself was, How do you have a character struggling with ideas and conversations, with minimal external action in this car-driven culture? That’s why there’s so much about cars, meeting up in cars, and these really weird in-between spaces that are particular to L.A., like the strip mall. There’s a lot of time spent in parking lots in the novel, because that is where life happens in L.A. This was my response to the flaneur tradition. JY: Yeah, I appreciated the James Joyce reference, especially Reed’s reflection: “Maybe, though, I’d turned that fight [against white authors] into a sort of laziness. I was used to saying damning about the great white canon and everyone else in the room nodding, whether or not I or they had read it.” In that vein: how do you engage with the canon? How do we build on other works of art that already exist, without lazily condemning everything?  RLW: Around the time I started this book, I did this little experiment where, for a whole year, I only read books by writers of color. It was extremely useful because it helped me reorient my entire idea of literature. Here was the thing: I didn’t feel like I was missing anything. And then, what happened after that experiment? I was able to go back and really ask the question: What would it mean to read one of these great writers in the canon? What was great was that I was able to see them not as enemies or people on some pedestal, but as resources. These writers are often people who had the privilege to sit there, to really think through and play with questions and form—in a way that I could learn from. One summer, I read the first two books of Proust in this way, and it was great. This dude really played with sentences all day. If I could learn from the way one’s interiority might be shaped by that kind of experience, I could sidestep the whole question of Is this the best thing ever written? Or is it just some oppressive, self-indulgent white man? Those questions seemed less relevant, when I was just really reading to learn. JY: That’s really helpful. Your novel does embrace ambiguity, as we discussed, but I guess I’m going to be a little bit like Reed and ask, for the final question: do you have any advice for aspiring activists? Anything you didn’t get to say in the novel?  RLW: This is something that’s maybe not explicit in the novel, but self-knowledge is the key to activism for me. Activist figures that I really resonate with and admire the most were effective and inspiring because they had done an immense amount of inner, quiet, and reflective work to understand their particular role in history and their community. If you don’t have that kind of self-knowledge, you quickly spiral into the very neurotic position of “Oh well, the world is burning, and do I focus on the environment? Or focus on abortion rights, or on racial oppression?” And then this spiral makes people freeze. But more people understand their particular seats and the greater picture, they understand where to act from.