Breathing New Life into Old Books

Books are constantly being made into movies, but rarely is a movie actually about books—let alone the people who sell them. Earlier this month, The Booksellers, a documentary on the antiquarian book trade and the buyers and sellers of rare books, hit theaters to overall acclaim, and while the film is very much about its characters, it’s also about the trade as a whole, and how it’s surviving in an era of dizzying technological advancement.
We spoke to the film’s director, D.W. Young, about how the movie came about and what the future of the rare book world looks like to him.
The Millions: How did this project come about?
D.W. Young: The very first idea for the project came from our producer Dan Wechsler, who is also a prominent rare book dealer. He has also done some film work, and he and Judith Mizrachy, our other producer and my partner and my wife, and we’ve worked together on lots of things over the years. She had worked with Dan on something, we’d all kind of worked together on some projects like eight or nine years ago and become friends. We were talking about future projects and he mentioned he’d always thought a documentary about the rare book world would be a great idea. It had never been done. And from his perspective from inside the book world, he had a lot of ideas. And Judith and I immediately agreed that it was a great idea. We each had some peripheral sense of the rare book world, we’re both people who love books. So we enthusiastically agreed. But we were all tied up in other projects at the time and we didn’t really get to it until about three years ago when we were actually working on something else which hit a standstill. So at that time I said, you know what, I think this would be a great moment to pursue the rare book idea. And so we did.
TM: How did the process of reporting it go?
DWY: Dan provided some shortcuts. He got us to some people sooner and easier and kinda got the ball rolling faster than it might’ve. I think we would’ve gotten to the same place in a lot of respects left to our own devices. But it would have been more work and taken longer. And in a few cases he helped get some people on board who might’ve been reluctant or taken a lot more cajoling. But in terms of the reporting, I think with something like this, it’s a kind of organic process where you have things in mind but you also need to be receptive to it being a learning experience and kind of discovering things as you go. I was doing research on my own and, and talking to people also, and that’s kind of how I was acquainting myself with this world. So first, I think we wanted to talk to a certain base of people and from there, certain connections started being made about what was possible and a sense of how many aspects of the trade we could fit into a movie started to clarify. Then it gets a little more interesting when you start to try and fit people in a more specific way. That became about thinking of a further set of dealers—certain collectors who would be complimentary to what we already had, and a few external voice, Fran Liebowitz being one and Susan Orlean being another. It’s a building process.
TM: What was one of the things that you learned along the way that surprised you or changed the way that you were looking at the rare book world, or even just how you would frame it in the film?

Rare book dealer Adam Weinberger appraises books at a residence in Manhattan in The Booksellers.
DWY: One thing that I really was not so aware was how much the trade handles material that’s not just books or paper, although that’s still the dominant component of what people in the rare book trade transact with. But I didn’t realize how much ephemera and other historically relevant material could fall under the umbrella of the rare book trade. We saw 19th-century board games from France and enigma machines from World War II, certain photography, and other material.
TM: Did you find the breadth of the trade surprising?
DWY: Absolutely. I was super enthusiastic when I realized that hip hop magazines and that kind of material was starting to become part of the rare book world. And I was very excited to bring it into the film, because hip hop is an enormously important cultural factor. But I think the very key point is that it’s not albums themselves as musical collectibles, as music, that it’s relevant to the rare book world. It’s historical significance. The magazines that Syreeta Gates collects, many of them haven’t even been digitized yet. You would think they would be, but even so, they haven’t. The understanding of the historical context of say the eighties and the nineties is important. To further enhance the context of our historical understanding of that period, there’s great value to collecting that stuff. I needed stuff like that for the film, the more recent stuff, the zines and stuff like that. It seems like it was just yesterday, but it’s kind of in the rear view mirror already. And it weirdly falls into the rare book trade.
TM: The rare book business is heavily white and male, even today. But the types of books being collected are obviously not just about the history of white culture, but about the history of everything. Knowing that, do you think there’s a possibility for more diversification in this side of the business?
DWY: I think so, and I think that’s really the position of a number the younger dealers, who are very smart, and they really advocate that belief, and I think it is expressed in the film. From what I’ve seen, I think it seems to have a lot of merit. The rare book trade is not an institution. No one’s in charge of it. It’s comprised of just a bunch of individuals. Most of them have a shop that’s just them or maybe one other person or a couple of helpers. So there’s no clear path to adding diversity to the trade at the higher end. We focused on established dealers who were generally fairly established in the higher echelons of the market. Adding more diversity there, it’s not like some of those dealers who are now older have not been at the forefront of providing access to a lot of interesting material that is diverse. They’ve helped bring new collectors and new institutional interest to all kinds of material. That said, I have to clarify that I feel like I’m still very much an outsider’s perspective on this. But I think that’s one of the things with Syreeta collecting hip hop magazines, or some of the stuff that Arthur Fournier collects in the film, that’s clearly speaking to a different generation than your traditional model collector from the past. I think that there’s good reason to believe that the more that material stretches out into encompassing more and more kinds of things that will hopefully lead to some more diversity in the trade. There’s a potential I think for a broadening of the trade—who engages in it—that could go hand in hand with a broadening of what’s collectible.
TM: What’s something you weren’t able to explore in the film that you wish you could have?
DWY: One thing I never got a satisfactory answer to, and I don’t think there is a right answer, but I kinda think is really interesting as far as institutions are concerned—and also collectors, but even more so institutions—is, to what degree do the dealers influence what’s considered new and interesting and collectible, by being at the forefront, and what degree are they responding to the institutions and the collectors and their own groundbreaking interests. I think, ultimately, it’s a two way street. Both things are happening simultaneously, and each instance is different of why and to what degree. The dealers of course probably feel a little more strongly about what they’re bringing to the table, and I’m sure the librarians feel the opposite. But I think it’s interesting that there’s a kind of dialogue that’s going on there. It’s kind of too complicated a thing to get into a documentary, but in other kinds of discourse, it would be interesting to delve into further.
In terms of a specific scene, one dealer who appeared in the film, Dave Bergman, showed me these amazing catalogs from the late 1800s, I’m guessing, of fittings—like, the brass and other fittings—for caskets and funeral materials. It’s just an entire catalog of brass fittings and stuff. There’s no comparison for today. That doesn’t exist anymore, a lot of what’s in this catalog. And no one 30 years ago likely thought that this was very interesting at all. But we’ve changed our appreciation for how that could speak to us historically, or be collectible. I looked at that and thought it was really interesting how something can go from being literally something someone would throw on the fire to having value. It’s just a question of people seeing it differently.
TM: At the end of The Booksellers, the rare book sellers weigh in on how they see the future of the trade—some are hopeful, some are not. How do you feel about the future of rare bookselling?
DWY: I feel like I’m somewhere in the middle. That said, I choose to feel positive, insofar as it is a matter of choice. I think at the end of the day, having to go one direction or another, I would choose to take the positive approach. If your experts are that down the middle, sometimes I think just the act of believing is what tips the scales. What’s more interesting to me is how little anyone agree on this point in the book trade. You could get book dealers talking about this endlessly. The degree of uncertainty in the moment is kind of the most compelling factor in the end. We’re really in this moment where everyone is so uncertain about this. It’s reflective of the technological zeitgeist as well. Everything in our world is in flux at an increasingly rapid rate. The rare book trade is certainly not a mirror of society as a whole, but it’s undergoing many similar changes to those that are happening elsewhere. It’s interesting, I think, to compare that experience of this one very specific world to the larger world beyond. Where are they similar? Where do they diverge in their responses to some of these changes. Regarding diversity and the book trade, for instance, I think it’s interesting to see how that relates to questions and issues of diversity in society at large, and the push for that. For the younger dealers, there is a great sense of passion and importance placed upon that. One of the functions of a documentary is to exist as a historical record of the time and place in which it’s being made. Obviously that’s something we hope the film does.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Noah Van Sciver Bids Farewell to Fante Bukowski

Cartoonist Noah Van Sciver has created three graphic novels about Fante Bukowski, a fictional writer whose comical delusions of literary greatness are matched only by his lack of talent for anything but drinking. Apparently, three books weren’t enough.
This month, Van Sciver and Fantagraphics have teamed up to publish The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski, a hardcover compilation edition that includes the three previous works along with a cache of bonus new material. This new book is an authoritative, albeit tongue-in-check, account of the life, works, and dubious character of the fictional Bukowski.
The new volume includes Fante Bukowski, Fante Bukowski Two, and Fante Bukowski Three: A Perfect Failure, all published by Fantagraphics. There’s also a cheeky, passive aggressive foreword by novelist Ryan Boudinot, and a section of visual tributes to the character by cartoonists Box Brown, Nina Bunjevac, Ed Piskor, Leslie Stein, Simon Hanselmann, and others.
Created in deference to the character’s self-proclaimed literary genius—born Kelly Perkins, he renamed himself for legendary tough-guy writers John Fante and Charles Bukowski—the new volume is tricked out to look like an iconic Library of America hardcover edition. The parody volume features LoA’s distinctive black cover jacket, the famous type font, and red/white/blue ribbon marker (running vertically down the cover rather than horizontal), as well as the aforementioned mock appreciation by Boudinot.
The Millions talked with the Ignatz award-winning Van Sciver about the many qualities of Fante Bukowski.
The Millions: You’ve written three books about Fante Bukowski, a delusional, arrogant, and slovenly character. Do you find something admirable in his belief in his own greatness?

Noah Van Sciver: I’m always interested in people who are obsessed with one thing, like people who become obsessed with comics history. I think it’s admirable to dedicate your life to this role. But now I have to think about it. Is he admirable? He’s dedicated to being a drunken writer. I don’t know if that’s admirable, though.
TM: Do you think deep down he may actually be a good writer?
NVS: He doesn’t have an interest in it. He doesn’t have an interest in learning the craft. He has an interest in being a writer and just having that title. He has an interest in being an alcoholic. He thinks that seems really cool. He would never go to a writing workshop or anything like that. Because in his mind he doesn’t need that. He’s already a great writer and he’s not going to work on that.
TM: So he’s more alcoholic than writer?
NVS: Actually, no. He doesn’t have the disease of alcoholism. I just think he thinks there’s something cool about being downtrodden. But he’s not. He’s someone who drinks and likes the typewriter.

From The Complete Fante Bukowski by Noah Van Sciver.
TM: You use his megalomania as a comic foil. But can writers actually relate to his poverty and desperate need to be published?
NVS: Sure. But I wasn’t really trying to make a character that writers would relate to but a character that writers would run into. Like this was somebody that I knew in Denver, Colo., this self-obsessed writer, the person who’s like “I’m a genius.” Absolutely. I mean, I have [met people like him] in real life. But they wouldn’t see themselves as that.
TM: The books also lampoon the publishing industry via the character of the literary agent Ralph Bigsburgh. Does this reflect your publishing experiences?
NVS: Yeah. A lot of that came from me. When I was in my 20s, I was a big self-promoter and it felt like I wasn’t getting a fair share of attention, I wasn’t getting the attention I wanted. So, in self-defense I had an attitude of, “They can’t handle what I’m doing, it’s too raw for people.” That agent reflected how I felt people were dismissing me in my twenties. It was all about self-preservation. But if I hadn’t had that dumb ego at that age, the kind of ego that blinded me to how bad my work was, I would have stopped doing comics and done something else. I needed that. It was almost like beer goggles for seeing the world. A lot of Fante comes from my own self-delusion.
TM: An artist’s self-delusion can be a form of armor that helps them survive the rejections. It must be especially tough as a graphic novelist.
NVS: As a graphic novelist, it’s like, anybody can do it but the hard part is spending 10 years creating really bad work until you get to something that is passable. I had to build up that armor where it was like everybody was against me just to get through those years where I wasn’t producing anything valuable or interesting.
TM: At first glance the new book looks like a Library of America edition. Would Fante approve of being a part of that list?
NVS: Fante always felt like he deserved to be in it. But if he was actually given that kind of prestige, he might find some way to sabotage it.
TM: You’ve said this will be the last of the Fante Bukowski books. Is that part of your creative career in the past?
NVS: I think that’s fair. I don’t have the drive or desire to focus on that kind of character anymore. I’m done analyzing that part of my life.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

The Vitality of Opposing Energies: The Millions Interviews Paul Lisicky

There’s a refrain of naming in Later: My Life at the Edge of the World, the new memoir by Paul Lisicky. The book follows Lisicky’s life in Provincetown, Mass., during the 1990s. A fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center brings Lisicky to the town, but his life as a young writer becomes intertwined with a search for identity and love.

Lisicky’s prose style is enticing, rhythmic in its route toward emotional authenticity. He tries to identify how his relationships could be named or described. “Do I simply want to own him,” Lisicky wonders, “Or do I want to be owned by him…I wonder if intimacy and attachment are possible without the roof of a category.”

One reason Later is so compelling is that Lisicky mines this difficult space of intimacy so well: allowing the possibility that we might never truly name our deepest desires.

The author of The Narrow Door, Famous Builder, The Burning House, and other books of nonfiction and fiction, Lisicky is an associate professor in the MFA Program at Rutgers University-Camden. He has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Tin House, and was a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow.

We spoke about the symbolism and sense of water, how writing can be a way of saying goodbye,  and our mutual admiration for Joy Williams.

The Millions: Among epigraphs from Henry David Thoreau, Mary Heaton Vorse, Eileen Myles, and others, there’s a great paragraph from Denis Johnson’s novel Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, which includes the lines: “we are more water than dust. It is our origin and destination.” This hit me before I read your book, but after Later, I’m even more drawn to the sentiment. Could you talk about being water; being surrounded by water? And about origins and destinations?

Paul Lisicky: I spent a large part of my childhood in a house on the water. There wasn’t any way to ignore water. Our living room faced it, we always heard the sounds of it in our kitchen, it softened the air and our skin. Whenever we dug a hole to plant a tree outside, even if it was just a few feet down, ground water leaked into the hole. I loved being near and over and around that water, and I couldn’t wait to get back near it whenever we drove inland. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to live on a mountain or in the desert.

Of course water was also ominous, as we associated it with storms and hurricanes. This was years before anyone talked of climate change, sinking land, and rising seas. Our little ranch house was probably no more than a couple of feet above sea level. And maybe the magnetism of all that water was knowing that it could turn on you, take your beautiful life without warning. It was something that had to be respected, you were going to be corrected if you tried to control it. And it was always in motion. Maybe that motion was the most important thing. Not just on its surface, but in the action of the tides, which left a foam stain on the bulkhead two times a day. I think what I really craved as a young person was the idea of shifting and becoming and evolving into another form, though I never would have put it that way back then.

Would Provincetown have appealed to me if it were dropped down in the middle of a prairie, hundreds of miles from the sea? Probably not, even though the water’s not so visible the way it is in most other places built by the beach. It’s hidden by a wall of stores, and even the beaches of Herring Cove and Race Point must be accessed by crossing a salt marsh or a path over high dunes. Still, you feel it everywhere, you taste it, smell it. Sometimes, if it’s windy, you can hear the open ocean roaring into the West End of town, and that certainly conjures up destination, a physical sense that none of us are here for long. Water is mystery, even though human bodies are technically 45 percent to 75 percent water.

TM: In the book’s first scene, you are standing with your mother in a driveway, your seven-month residency in Provincetown a 21-hour trip away. “She puts her arms around me,” you write, “so I will feel the consequence in my body, the consequence of her losing once again.” It’s the perfect way to describe such separation, and it happens so quickly in the book—as if this story has been building in you. When did you know Later had to exist as its own book, its own story?

PL: It’s interesting that you point to this goodbye scene, as the first draft of the book was written just a few weeks after my father’s death. It had been a tough year. He had been unnervingly healthy and strong through his 80s. I think he even went horseback riding in Uruguay on his 90th birthday. Then, without warning, he came down with pneumonia over the holidays, and long story short: his last months were pretty awful in their rounds of grave illness and recovery. I think I was too close to it all to write about him directly, but I needed a vehicle in which to say goodbye in the largest sense.

I’d been trying to write about those early days in Provincetown for years, when, among other things, it was a refuge for people with HIV and AIDS, but the perspective never felt right. I couldn’t get down the right combination of ominousness and the absurd humor that many of us found ourselves summoning up on a daily level. And I was very conscious of trying to write about emergency—how do people survive when they can’t take for granted they’re going to be around in the morning? What does extremity do to our sense of time, our relationships with friends, romantic attachments, family? How does community happen in the midst of crisis? How do we manage feeling, and are there costs to getting to be to be too good at that: a gold medal winner of denial? When I started the book I must have sensed multiple, overlapping emergencies on the way. And as of today there are so many it’s impossible to list them all: the climate crisis, the brute racism, the destructive politics, the opioid crisis, the crisis at our southern border, and the one that’s swallowing our attention right now…The coronavirus. I must have felt an urgency to look back on another period to see how we managed those days.

TM: I love the description of your walk, or your imagined walk, down the street of Provincetown: “my heels strike the pavement as if I’m possibly damaging my feet. This is what power feels like, but only when power is spread evenly, or when queerness isn’t othered but is central.” Later you write that “the transgressor needs the Puritan. How could a gesture even be experienced as transgressive if there weren’t the possibility of someone with folded arms, a hard, indignant face?” I’m interested in this tension of power and restraint; to be seen and to be watched. Did it remain for you throughout your time in Provincetown? Did it extend beyond your time there?



PL: I think any form of vitality is born out of opposing energies. It needs that push-pull if it’s to be an ongoing force. For some reason that conjures up Blake: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Or better yet, The Songs of Innocence up against The Songs of Experience. If we just had the Lamb and not the Tyger then—would the Lamb be as compelling a figure? That’s not meant in any way to be an argument in favor of tyrants, despots, dictators, or devils—definitely not. But it’s just to say that animation depends on contrasts.

TM: As in much of your work, faith and doubt are never quite distant from the cadence of your prose. One favorite line among favorites: “Nothing I’ve known about the world feels permeable anymore, and the surfaces it gives back—trees, water, the sky—feel as hard and opaque as the bottom of a frying pan.” Was there a spiritual experience to writing this book?

PL: There was, but I wanted to make room for a spirituality that wasn’t simply soothing or comforting—not that comfort should ever be undervalued or disrespected. Especially in these insane times. It seemed important to think about what God might be in these circumstances—why would God be silent, allowing people who were just becoming themselves—people their 20s and 30s—to be crushed and often ostracized from family, work, the larger culture around them? The book doesn’t have answers, but the divine is constantly in the atmosphere, sometimes known as God, at one point known as “Day up against the night.” There’s at least one passage that’s meant to be read as a prayer. There’s another passage in which I recount Ingmar Bergman’s film Winter Light in which a priest loses his faith and thinks about that before celebrating mass. At the most extreme point in the book, I think about the perils of representation, especially of a complicated place like Provincetown: “Looking at those changes straight on? Imagine trying to look at God, and if you think you can do that, God will find a way to break you.” So the spiritual energy is definitely there, but it’s more cold water than warm.

And yet? Honestly? I might be simplifying things because the book becomes something else in “Afterlife,” its final section. Its energy shifts, and there are bursts of optimism amid the recognition of damage. An opening up to the idea of a future. As to whether that shift is spiritual? If it’s experienced as such, it’s not a move I ever determined, and maybe that’s just the work deciding what it wanted to be, not me.

TM: You read Breaking & Entering while in bed with Noah, under the “lousy light.” You quote her sharp lines elsewhere in the book. What does the work of Joy Williams mean to you?

PL: I first came upon Joy Williams’s work when I was in my early 20s. I think it was the story “Skater” from Taking Care, which I came across in some anthology. Its language was sparse—mostly. It wasn’t out to dazzle or impress. But I felt the incredible animation of its descriptive life. They carried terrific weight in the work; they were occasionally strange, and broke the simplistic rules that are often bandied around in workshops. I loved the territory of the work: unnervingly wise children, lost adults, drunks, animals, trees. Not just trees in the general sense, but, say, jacaranda. Jacaranda mattered. The precision of it. It often poked fun at human arrogance and complacency, but there was an evident love for the non-human world, for mystery. The world of animals and trees came across as signposts for the unsayable, and any reader or reviewer who focussed on the work’s misanthropy was clearly missing half of the story. Maybe the whole point of the story.



I also loved what the work did with place. Places always felt like emotional states, in their mixture of junk and beauty and sublimity. She set her work in places that I loved, Florida or coastal New England or Arizona. At that time, Florida and Arizona were underseen in literature, and I loved reading work that managed to see both the beauty of those landscapes while capturing the cost of human ruin upon them. When I was in grad school, I fell in total love with her novel Breaking & Entering, which cast its spell on me. I wrote a whole novel inspired by that book before putting it aside. I think you can also hear her influence on Lawnboy.

I continued to go back to her work. About 20 years ago, I was at a noisy party at a writers conference in Key West about when I saw her walk into the room with Rust Hills. I literally started to tremble. My ex was with me and he laughed. He said, do you want to meet Joy Williams? I’ll take you to meet Joy Williams. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to meet Joy Williams, but it was too late! He was leading me by the elbow across the room, and the next thing I knew my ex left us, and the two of us were talking. She was friendly and polite until I told her that I named the grandfather character in my work after the dog Clem in Breaking & Entering. Her face got very bright. “Now we’re talking,” she said mischievously.

We’ve become friends over the years, and when we’re together at a conference, we’re very good friends. We once got lost together on a walk in Key West. Another time we went to evensong together at an Episcopal church in Amherst, Mass., on a June afternoon when we were the only congregants aside from the choir, and we held one song sheet and sang together. This was preceded by getting martinis at the bar down the street and going to see about getting tattoos. I sat next to her at a dinner party on the night my ex and I broke up. I’m astonished at my life when I narrate these things….

Her work changed my life, taught me how to see and revere animals. I love everything she’s written, but maybe my favorite book right now is Ninety-Nine Stories of God, which I just taught to my MFA students. Anything I’ve said above about her work applies to that book too—it’s Joy Williams concentrated.

TM: “The time line breaks, scrambles.” It’s a sentence late in the book, but it also feels like a compass to much of your work. I think there’s a unique sense of time in your books—it feels accurate in a way that seems more effective than chronology—and I’m trying to find the word to encapsulate it. There’s a fluidity, a recursivity to your sense of time, but maybe there’s a better way to capture it—perhaps a way it especially feels to you. How do you conceive of time in your work?

PL: I know time is crucial in my work, but I never think of it intellectually as I’m writing. I know when it’s working and when it isn’t. It doesn’t seem to move in a straight line (clock time) and refuses it whenever I try to make it behave. But that’s not to say that there isn’t a kind of chronological narrative in Later. It just steps aside from our human construction of time, and it plays out in poetic time. I wish I had a word that wasn’t potentially distracting or obscuring.

On a gut level I want to capture simultaneity, so time, at least in the memoirs, is operating in both the present and the past at once, even though the literal present isn’t often directly acknowledged. I suppose the work is trying to use the tools of the present to capture the heat of the past. There’s nothing terribly new about that. That strategy is a hallmark of lyric poetry, and I’m just allowing myself to write all the way to the right-hand margin.

Some of my work has been interested in connection-building—I think you can see that playing out in The Narrow Door: images, lines being repeated from section to section—another way to suggest simultaneity. I think there’s less of that in Later. Because of its subject matter, this book insisted on fragmentation. Things not lining up, images misbehaving, water flowing outside its channels, unraveling, unraveling.

Laying Cromwell to Rest: The Millions Interviews Hilary Mantel

With the publication of Wolf Hall—the first book in what was to become a trilogy chronicling the life of Thomas Cromwell, the lowborn man who became one of Henry VIII’s closest advisers—in 2009, novelist Hilary Mantel became a global superstar. Three years later, its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, cemented the deal. Now, Mantel wraps up the most critically acclaimed and widely-read historical fiction saga of the 21st century with The Mirror and the Light, which begins with the death of Anne Boleyn and ends with the death of Cromwell himself. On the eve of the book’s publication, we asked Mantel about the challenges of writing historical fiction, what it was about Cromwell she found so fascinating, and what tricks of the trade she relied on.
The Millions: You recently told The New York Times that, now that you’ve finished telling the story of Thomas Cromwell, you’ve finished with historical fiction and will pivot to writing plays. What is it about Cromwell that made his story irresistible where others were not?

Hilary Mantel: I’ve had Cromwell in view all my writing career. It seemed like a story with endless ambiguity, which is what sustains a writer. You can’t completely account for Cromwell and you can’t add him up. There’s so much we will never know, and what attracts me as a novelist is the combination of documented fact—the heavily-inked paper—and what’s missing and unknown—the white space.
TM: Which characters in the Court of King Henry VIII were you surprised to find yourself drawn to throughout your research, besides Cromwell?

HM: I try to see my characters through Cromwell’s eyes—that’s the essence of the enterprise. So I find Thomas More endlessly intriguing. Among less famous figures, I’m drawn to Rafe (or Ralph) Sadler, Cromwell’s apprentice, who grew up in his household. Rafe survived Cromwell and survived Henry, and was still working for the Tudor dynasty in his 80s.
TM: What do you think it says about your readership in the U.S. that so many were drawn to a nearly 1,800–page trilogy chronicling 16th-century English politics?
HM: Perhaps it shows that it’s about more than 16th century politics—that it addresses certain lasting truth about power and sex and love, public image, and private dreams.
TM: Setting aside the work of Mary Robertson, which you’ve often cited as a major influence, what sorts of works did you find yourself drawn to: primary or secondary sources? narrative or scholarly histories? historiographies? Why?
HM: I found myself drawn to the sources. I like to get as close to the 1530s as I can. One of my tasks was to reappraise Cromwell, who has not been well-served by biographers or popular historians till very recently. Now there has been a new interest in him, a return to source, and an end—I trust—to the rolling forward of some of the old mistakes and misperceptions.
TM: What’s a skill you developed over the course of writing the series that is specific to adapting a historical saga into a work of fiction?

HM: I think I developed my skills in handling information when I wrote my first big historical novel, A Place of Greater Safety, set during the French Revolution. I’m old-fashioned, and believe in a card index—or a series of them, as needed. The making of them is what puts the data into your head. But only time and imagination makes that data personal and useful.
TM: What are some works of historical fiction you find extraordinary that have flown under the radar and that you hope readers of your series will find and read?

HM: Barry Unsworth had a robust historical imagination, and won the Booker prize for Sacred Hunger, but less famous is his novel Losing Nelson, where a present-day observer interrogates the legend of the 18th-century admiral, and has to rethink his hero worship. It’s this questioning attitude that speaks to me.
TM: This book was initially due to publish in 2018, and the British press hasn’t let you forget it. Is this a case of journalists not understanding how, or the pace at which, novelists and historians work?
HM: The press has all sorts of fantasies about dates when books are due. (I have even seen announcements of books I have not started, and perhaps never will.) But as you imply, novels take their own time, and my publishers in every country were willing to let me have the time I needed. But it is mildly irritating to be told you are “blocked,” when you are writing every day of the week.
TM: What’s harder for you: finding the right fact, or turning the right phrase?
HM: The first needs some luck and the second needs plenty of practice.
TM: What one fundamental aspect of history do you wish readers, or the culture at large, knew that you now know after years of researching the period you’ve fictionalized?
HM: The past has to be respected and valued for its own sake. It is not a rehearsal for the present, and its people are not us in a primitive form.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

The Spirit of Community and Collaboration

When it comes to my favorite writers, I keep up to date with what they’re writing, winning, saying, doing—you get it. Yes, I’m the type of person who has Google alerts set up for multiple writers (Claudia Rankine, Renee Gladman, Amina Cain, and Tiphanie Yanique, to name a few) and, if they are on Facebook, I receive notifications when they post, which is how I found out about Chicken of the Sea.

On June 13, 2018, Viet Thanh Nguyen posted: “Ellison’s first, and hopefully not last, co-creative effort with me. He came up with the title, story, and illustrations, while I wrote it…I believe he was inspired by his time at the Djerassi residency with illustrator Thi Bui, who gave him a lot of attention.”

I thought, If I were an editor at a press, I’d publish that book.

A couple of weeks later, he posted again: “On an otherwise bleak day, let me just note that Ellison Nguyen, 4 years and 11 months, has obtained a literary agent to represent him (and me) on his book CHICKEN OF THE SEA, which I mentioned here on Facebook and which led an editor from a notable press to express interest in said book. More details to come on this collaborative project with artist Thi Bui and her son Hien providing the illustrations, and Ellison and me working on the story (which was his idea).”

Damn, what a cool book project! I thought.

When I read Chicken of the Sea, written by Viet Thanh Nguyen and his now six-year-old son, Ellison Nguyen, and illustrated by Thi Bui and her now teenage son, Hien Bui-Stafford, I remembered the years I worked with students at the literary nonprofit 826 Valencia and 826LA. Students wrote stories often paired with illustrations by professional, local artists, and the stories were often wild and absurd. Their stories surprised and delighted me, they brought me joy. These days it is rare for me to encounter stories that delight and surprise me, that bring me joy. Chicken of the Sea, a wild, action-packed story in which farm chickens become pirates and sneak into the enemy territory of Dog Knights, is one of these rare stories. What’s more: the multigenerational collaborative book project has the potential to inspire artists, writers, parents, and children to collaborate with one another.

I had the opportunity to interview Viet Thanh Nguyen, Ellison Nguyen, Thi Bui, and Hien Bui-Stafford, and sent them questions via Google documents. Viet typed out Ellison’s responses, and I edited questions and answers for pacing and coherence.

The Millions: Ellison created Chicken of the Sea shortly after his time at a six-day writing residency where 10 Vietnamese diasporic writers gathered at Djerassi Resident Artists Program. Viet, you described the residency as a “huge moment” for Vietnamese diasporic writing. Can you elaborate on why it was a huge moment?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Vietnamese diasporic writing is flourishing in many countries, and yet many Vietnamese diasporic writers feel as if they’re writing alone, or at least in isolation from other Vietnamese diasporic writers. I think it was important to bring a group of them together so that they could have conversations with each other and build a community, and also to demonstrate to outsiders that such a thing as Vietnamese diasporic literature exists.

These 10 writers are only part of a larger group of writers with books published and awards won. The residency was the first of six events (three of which have taken place) that will bring together more than 40 writers from the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, France, and Vietnam. We were building on momentum and hoping to further that momentum for Vietnamese diasporic writing, and we did so in the spirit of community and collaboration. We wanted to help these writers and have them help each other, rather than treat writing as only an individualistic practice (which it most basically is, but it also flourishes in the space of movements). There’s no doubt that Chicken of the Sea, itself a collaborative project, was sparked by this collaborative space.

TM: Thi, how would you describe your time with Ellison at the retreat?

Thi Bui: Viet and I had just presented The Displaced at BookExpo in New York, where Hien met Viet for the first time, and then we flew back to San Francisco, Hien went home with his dad, and I went straight to Djerassi. That’s where I first met and spent time with Ellison (along with some literary heavyweights like Nam Le, Monique Truong, and Hoa Nguyen and reconnected with writers I already knew like Bao Phi, Aimee Phan, and Nguyen Phan Que Mai). I love having a little kid at writers’ or artists’ retreats—while it’s harder for the parents, it’s a wholesome addition for everyone else and pure joy for me to have someone to play with when I need to escape from my brain.

I showed Ellison how to do fake kung fu moves and gave him a lot of piggyback rides. Like, a lot. I also drew him in the copy of A Different Pond that Bao Phi and I signed for him.

TM: How was this collaborative project different from previous artistic collaborations you’ve done? (I’m thinking of A Different Pond, and how different it is from Chicken of the Sea.)

TB: I knew that Hien would have good instincts for illustrating Ellison’s ideas, and that his quickness and spontaneity would be a better match. My adult carefulness would fill in the gaps in the preplanning and finalizing of the art. It was kind of awe-inspiring to watch how casually Hien approached the compositions and the character designs. I want that kind of freedom.

TM: I read that you decided to color Hien’s illustrations. One of the things I enjoyed about Chicken of the Sea is the color scheme. The colors are bold and bright; they are loud. Why did you choose these colors for Chicken of the Sea? How do the colors complement both Hien’s illustrations and Ellison’s story? I especially loved the illustration of the Dog King’s heart.

TB: Hien and I chose general colors for the mood of the pages when we were laying out the text and the first thumbnail sketches. The action sequences called for exciting colors! And the page where the Dog King’s heart grows is a homage to the 1966 animated movie of Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas!.

TM: Hien, I find that the illustrations pair so well with the story. The facial expressions and body language of the chickens lend to a comical and playful tone. Is this normally how you illustrate, or did Ellison influence your style?

Hien Bui-Stafford: Ellison definitely influenced my style. I was also influenced by the playfulness of little kids. For this book, I drew fast and didn’t really look at anything to copy; I just drew from my imagination. For other drawings I do, I actually look up a lot of reference photos and take more time.

TM:  What would be your ideal, dream art project?

HBS: Designing a robot.

TM: Thi and Hien, based on your experiences, do you recommend artists and writers and/or parents and children work on collaborative creative projects?

HBS: Yeah.

TB: It’s a lot less lonely working with collaborators, especially when you can work in the same place at the same time. It’s also nice to wear a slightly different hat than I normally wear as a parent.

TM: I read that you spent a day making and looking at art in Rome. Can you describe that day in Rome and how Chicken of the Sea fit into it?

Hien: My mom was coloring that day. I was just drawing random stuff and giving my mom advice.

TB: I am always behind on my projects, partly because I try to do too many things at the same time, and partly because I always have more to add to what I’m working on. So we were juggling a research month in Greece where I was learning about the refugee crisis there, a mother-son summer vacation, finishing Chicken of the Sea, and killing time because we missed our flight from Rome to Athens. Hien had had enough of the crowds of tourists visiting ancient ruins in the heat, so we found an outdoor cafe with shade across from the National Gallery of Modern Art. Hien gave me guidance on the Dog Knights’ clothing and armor. We had at least a couple of iced cappuccinos and then we went to look at some art, and I was pleased with how much Hien responded to modern and contemporary art.

TM: Ellison, congrats on receiving your first advance at such a young age!

VTN:  An advance is the money you got for your book.

EN: Where is it?

VTN: I kept it.

EN: Give it!

VTN: You owe me money.

EN: No.

VTN: You’re expensive.

TM:  Ellison, can you tell me about what it was like working with your dad on your story?

EN: It was great.

VTN:  Exclamation point?

EN: No.

TM: Viet, can you describe your experience co-creating a story with Ellison?

VTN: It was a real joy. I love watching Ellison create his own stories, which are comic books.

EN: I don’t do comic books anymore.

VTN: You did.

EN: I’m not selling anymore comics. I’m not making any more comics.

VTN: Your agent will be sad.

EN: Okay, okay!

VTN: Does that mean you’ll make more comics?

EN: Dogs of the Air.

VTN: What’s that?

EN: Dogs make a hot air balloon and fly up into the sky but then the hot air balloon blows up and they find treasure in the water. We done here yet?

TM: [Laughs.] Almost! I am curious: what was the last book you loved?

EN: Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man: For Whom the Ball Rolls.

TM: What book (or books) are you reading now?

EN: Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Roderick Rules

VTN: On Audible.

EN: Disney Frozen 2: The Magical Guide.

TM: Viet, you wrote that June 26, 2018, the day Ellison obtained literary representation, had been “an otherwise bleak day.” Did this news help offset or alleviate the sense of bleakness? Do you believe that art and community as well as fatherhood can function to do so?

VTN: Art, community, fatherhood all bring challenges, but if they are done right, they also bring great joy. As a writer and a reader, I find joy in literature, and of course I want my son to enjoy what I do. We spend a lot of time reading books together, and so it was wonderful for me to see him become an early reader and then, surprisingly, a writer and artist, although as he points out above, that may be ending soon. Even if his writing career goes no further, however, he’s had fun, and it turns out he’s pretty good in front of an audience reading from his book. Hopefully he’ll remember the experience. And the memory of the joy remains. Even now, I remember the fun of how this book came into being, and I don’t remember what was so bleak on June 26, 2018 (Don’t remind me.).

TM: Lastly, what are two or three of your favorite children’s books and why?

VTN: I loved the Curious George series and the Tintin series, probably because both had a great sense of adventure in their own ways, as well as unlikely plots with surprising twists and turns. They were also marked by distinctive visual styles that charmed me and remained consistent over the series. Curious George and Tintin also never changed or aged. They knew who they were, they pursued getting things right in their own ways, and always solved the challenges they faced (even if, in the case of Curious George, he created them himself).

As an adult, I can certainly see some of the possible problems at the heart of these stories’ conceptions, which are inseparable from colonialism, but reading them with Ellison, I can see their enduring power. But while part of the pleasure of sharing storytelling with him is about seeing how entertained he is, the other part of the pleasure is trying to help him understand the complexities of the stories he loves. We’ll have to wait and see how successful I am.

Bonus Links from Our Archive:
Unsettling the American Dream: The Millions Interviews Viet Thanh Nguyen
A Year in Reading: Viet Thanh Nguyen

Nightmares, Dreams, and God: The Millions Interviews Jeff Sharlet

Early in This Brilliant Darkness, the new book of essays and profiles by Jeff Sharlet, we see a photo and short profile of Mike, a 34-year-old night baker at Dunkin’ Donuts. This is his final shift. He’s going to paint the walls of a church, high up on a ladder: “You can’t be afraid up there.” A tear, tattooed by his right eye, is for his son—”who died when he was two months old.”

These moments fill Sharlet’s fascinating, heartfelt book. He has a knack as a writer, as a person, for capturing people in image and word. Sharlet has always been interested in the way the stories we tell shape and reveal the meanings in our lives—with good and bad results (see The Family; and the Netflix series version, for an example of the latter).

Sharlet teaches at Dartmouth College, where he is associate professor of English and creative writing. He is an editor at large for Virginia Quarterly Review, and his writing has appeared in Rolling Stone, Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, Mother Jones, The New Republic, Oxford American, and The New York Times Magazine. The Family, a celebrated Netflix series, was based on his book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.

We spoke about belief, sharing stories, and bearing witness to this world.

The Millions: Early in the book, there’s a scene of you driving “over the Green Mountains, to Schenectady” to visit your father. It’s a frequent trip, and you almost always drove at night: “It seemed easier, the steep twisting road more likely to belong to me alone; the radio, when I could find a station, less clogged with news and yet more alive with voices. Night shift-voices.” Those voices, you write, believe “in God, or aliens, or blue-green algae.” You wanted to believe “in other people’s nightmares and dreams, projected onto the black night-glass of the car windows.” It’s beautiful writing, and it makes me wonder: now that the book is finished, do you believe in those nightmares and dreams? What do you believe the night does to them, to us, to you?

Jeff Sharlet: I believe in nightmares and dreams the way I believe in God—what matters most about stories, I think, is what people do with them, how they shape our lives. Whether they’re “real” or not matters, too—I’m a journalist, I love that creature we call “a fact”—but I’m moved by the great modernist poet Marianne Moore’s definition of poetry as “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” The stories we tell with those “real toads,” the facts, are the imaginary gardens in which we live. Night is a fact, but my experience of it, then and now, is the imaginary garden for which I’ve attempted to write a geography. In the book, I write that darkness isn’t the absence of light, it’s the presence of ink, the stuff from which letters and words and stories are made. I’m not such an insomniac anymore—making this book maybe cured me of that—but I still see night in those terms.

TM: Late one night you stop to see Larry, owner of Treasure Center—“a grackle’s shop of shiny pop culture detritus, samurai swords, and Franklin Mint collectibles.” You say his store also has the best “religious kitsch” that you’ve seen in a while, but he doesn’t like that description. You buy plastic hands—”painted pink matte over veiny knuckles and long pointed fingers, as if they’d come from a horror model kit repurposed for prayer”—and when you think of them later, you write the “faith that put them in a glass case” was “as free of irony as I am of the divine.” Here—and elsewhere in your writing—you often come back to God and absence. Why the frequent return to these subjects? Why—if the perceived irony of Larry’s kitsch exists—are you still drawn to belief?

JS: I think of something my writing students sometimes say, about a book or a story dealing with some reality very different from the way they understand their lives. “I can’t really relate to it,” they say. To which I respond: we read, we look, we try to perceive the world because whether or not we can relate to any given reality, it may well relate to us. That is, the story—broadly speaking here, belief—matters to my life whether or not I believe. I’d better try to understand it. But that’s just being pragmatic. I’ve always been drawn to belief as a nonfiction writer because to engage with it you have to reach beyond the stack of facts that comprise ordinary journalism. Who-what-where-when-why does not account for what Larry saw in those prayer hands, which matters as much or more than any kitsch I might perceive.

TM: In one photo, a man is on the ground, spread in front of a gated archway, smothered in birds. It’s an almost impossibly perfect shot: some birds are mid-flight, others scurry toward him, and one faces the camera. Early in the book, you write that phone cameras can capture a state of reality that the technological perfection of more advanced cameras cannot. Phone cameras, you describe, capture “sort of what it looked like, something like what I saw, something like what I felt.” Like so much of This Brilliant Darkness, this is really worth pondering. What is that space between reality and artifice? Is it art? The man smothered in birds—is that moment real?

JS: The pigeon man—he preferred not to use his name—a sort of St. Francis of Dublin, where I met him, is real, and that moment—that snapshot—is as real as any other moment that’s past. The snapshot is its memorial, its echo, its ghost. A friend calls these pictures+words “ghost poems,” and adds, “only, these ghosts show up in photographs.” That feels right to me. The space between reality and artifice—which is, of course, the only means we have to attempt to represent reality—is what we speak of when we speak of documentary art. I’m drawn to work that accounts for the approximation, the mediation of the one who looks and listens and tries to understand. I think there’s a transparency—a hopeful transparency—in recognizing that I can’t tell the pigeon man’s story, or anybody else’s story, any more than I can be a “voice for the voiceless,” an inadvertently arrogant bit of phrasing. These people’s stories, and voices, are their own. What I can share is my story about the moments between us, stories that are made up of bits and pieces of both of us. There’s an idea that empathy is something you extend to another. I don’t think that’s quite right—I think it’s something that happens, usually in brief moments—maybe only the duration of a snapshot, a conversation—between people. Maybe it’s a process of seeing and being seen, that vulnerability like a flickering current between you.

TM: Mary, a 62-year-old woman who lives in a motel, cracks open her door when you knock. “You want to interview me,” she says. “Why? I don’t have any power!” She finally invites you inside. Why did she let you in? Why did people—strangers—talk to you during the years you worked on this book?

JS: Because I asked? I don’t know. As a journalist, with an assignment and a notebook in hand, it’s easy for me to break the fourth wall of daily life. That’s my job. This book was different. I told people I was working on a book, but nobody cared one way or the other about that. I wasn’t on assignment. I found it awkward and embarrassing, sometimes, to approach people who I hoped to talk with often for reasons I myself didn’t yet understand. And those people opened the door, when they did, for as many reasons as there are people in the book. We speak of “taking a photograph,” and some writers thank “subjects” for allowing them to “take their time.” But those manners obscure a much more interesting and often more intimate exchange. I can’t “take” Mary’s photograph, unless I’m sneaking up on her, which I’d never do. For better or worse, we made those images together. Mary wasn’t much interested in them—she’d glance at them—but maybe that was because her contribution—her body, her self—was already so vast. Likewise, I can’t “take” her time. She’s not really my “subject,” I have no authority over her. She opened the door for her own reasons, and this is my story about the time we spent together. Maybe that seems limited, but I don’t think so—I keep coming back to this beautiful line from Leslie Jamison’s brilliant book The Recovering—“the saving alchemy of community.” Leslie’s writing about the recovery community, but I think that alchemy is possible—I think I felt it, anyway—in the smaller exchange of stories that make up this book. This is sentimental, I know, but here I embrace that—there’s a poem in the book my daughter said when she was very little. She’s sort of a quiet current throughout the book—there are ways in which it was written to her and her brother, though they may not read it for years (or ever!). She said: “The night I was born / you were born / we were born / we were born together.” That to me is what the book is about. I think it can be true far beyond the bounds of family.

TM: “Sensation is what’s possible when seeing won’t change anything, when you don’t know enough to bear witness, when all you have is the fact of your eyes, the fact of the camera: a record of things, seen and unseen.” What a fantastic line. Bear witness, seen and unseen, there’s the vocabulary of belief (almost liturgically so). Do you still take photos? What sensation remains now that the book—these stories, these images—is out in the world?

JS: I do still take photographs, though since the heart attack at the end of the book—mine, three years ago—not as many. I’m fully recovered, healthy, I move more than ever, but I do feel sometimes as if even just the fact of my eyes is enough, that the fact of the camera is sometimes more than I need. That line accompanies an image of a burning car, [which I believe] is the same as is on the cover. There’s a body in the car. I was second on the scene; shortly after a young cop arrived. There was absolutely nothing he could do—the car was an inferno. But the next day in the news the police said he had tried to rescue the burning person. That broke my heart a little. I thought that shamed the cop in a way that was terribly wrong, because the undercurrent of that false statement was that somehow he had failed because he had not incinerated himself to recover a body from which any soul was already smoke. I get where the impulse to tell that untrue story comes from, I think. We don’t like to admit the damage done, we’d rather believe it’s never too late than learn how to live with hurt and loss. Bearing witness is, I think, a big part of how we live with hurt and loss. Sometimes when we insist on greater powers than we possess, we obscure powers we actually have. You ask what sensation remains. I think witness remains. The book—originally I subtitled it “a memoir of other people’s lives”—is just a marker of what I saw. Like any book, really. A snapshot. As real as all the other moments that pass and still linger.

Bonus Links from Our Archive:– The Jeff Sharlet Memorial Award for VeteransJeff Sharlet Revisits The Fellowship

Living in a Way That’s True: The Millions Interviews Jaquira Díaz

When I’m in a slump, I have friends who know how to put me back on track. Last fall, the state of the world and my place in it—and, by extension, my writing—had reached a low point. At just the right moment, a friend handed me an advanced reading copy of Jaquira Díaz’s Ordinary Girls, a debut memoir about family, queerness, identity, and being seen.

I wasn’t ready for this book. Yet all my life I’d been waiting for this book. In Ordinary Girls, Díaz writes about vital subject matter with a brilliance I wanted to understand. It’s not hyperbolic to say that, at times, I literally had the breath knocked out of me reading Díaz’s words on the page. I asked myself over and over again how she did this, and then I thought, what if I asked her?

I was thrilled when she agreed to the interview. When we got on the phone together, we talked about grief, complicated relationships, craft, and just whom Díaz is writing for.

The Millions: I love on the last page of Ordinary Girls you talk about the girls you wrote the book for. Why is it so important that the book reaches these girls?

Jaquira Díaz: It was important for me throughout the process to remember whom I was writing for, because otherwise I would have stopped writing. It was so difficult to get this book out. And to be honest, the book wouldn’t let me go. I had to get it out of the way before writing other things, before moving on to writing fiction. And, in order to do that, to finish the project, I needed to remind myself whom I was writing it for. So it helped to keep returning to the opening. I kept thinking about all the books I needed when I was growing up, when I was in school, and all we read in class were books by cis, straight, white men. And I kept thinking about how this book might be the first time a queer Latina, a queer Afro-Latina, sees herself in a book, and how that would have been important to me growing up.

TM: This was one of those books I read that made me feel seen in a lot of ways I hadn’t before, and I could imagine how impactful it would have been if I had this book when I was younger. You write about carrying the weight of intergenerational trauma and the history of your people no matter where you go. Do you feel that writing this book has changed the feeling of that somehow?

JD: Yes, absolutely. It felt like in all these years of writing, I had been avoiding writing this book, avoiding talking about sexual violence, colonialism, trauma. I felt that in some ways by being silent I was contributing to the violence and erasure that is so prevalent in our communities, that haunts our communities. Talking about sexual violence and colonialism and other kinds of racialized violence—how not talking about it can feel like a burden. The process itself was grueling, but being done with it felt like such an accomplishment. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It took 12 years to finish the book, and I’m definitely changed after having written it. I have more faith in God now. I have more faith in myself. I feel much stronger, definitely much stronger than I was right in the middle of writing it. The book literally made me sick. I had the worst insomnia of my life while writing this book. I gained weight. I lost weight. I gained weight again. I had to go to the hospital because I wasn’t sleeping. It took a real physical toll on my health; so being done with it feels like such an accomplishment.

TM: You write about very complicated relationships with your family and chosen family in super difficult situations. And I feel like you do so without anger or bitterness. Instead, you do it with fairness. How did you do that?

JD: First of all, I needed to be honest about my role in all of this, about who I was and who my family was. It was very important to me to write about the real people, to be as close to the truth as possible. I needed to interrogate not just everyone else’s role, but myself and who I was. The project of this book became much more about making connections and interrogating things about the larger world than it was about telling a story. Which is why I keep returning to certain themes of girlhood, of sexual violence, of silence, of secrets, of monsters. And it became much more about making those connections and speaking out than it was about following one linear story. For years, I avoided writing about my mother, for example, because writing about my mother was so painful. She was one of the hardest people to write about because, in so many ways, she broke me.

I also thought, If I am not honest, readers will be able to tell. In that process of digging for the truth—for me, but also for my family members and my friends—I started thinking about forgiveness. In the middle of writing this book, I was able to forgive my mother, and we have a very different relationship now than we did back during the years that were covered in the book. We’re very close now. We have a loving relationship, and I think part of that was definitely forgiveness. You know how they say that when you forgive people, it’s much more about yourself than it is about them. It’s for you. And being able to forgive all the people in my life, and myself, that made all the difference. I definitely wanted to write something without pity or glory or anger, something that was honest. That spoke to a factual truth but also a larger truth.

TM: How did you write about grief when it came to complicated relationships? You talk about when your maternal grandmother passed away and you had not seen her for a while, but the grief hit you so viscerally. And it’s such a complicated relationship because there was a deep family bond, but there was also distance out of self-preservation. Can you talk more about that?

JD: When my mother’s mother—she died by suicide—when I found out that she died, I didn’t really understand what I was feeling because our relationship in life had been so painful. She was abusive. She was racist. She was homophobic. She was abusive in more ways than one. Physically, emotionally, psychologically. And I didn’t even know that what I was feeling was grief. During the years she was alive, I spent so much time telling myself that when she died, I wouldn’t feel anything. And when she actually died and I was finally facing the reality of it, I was actually questioning whether or not I was feeling grief. I wasn’t sure. I had this limited idea of what grief actually was, because of my experience with it, which had been mostly dealing with my paternal grandmother’s death. That was painful. But then I realized after Marcy died that grief was more than just one feeling. Grief was painful, but it was also joyous. And it was anger. And it was depression. And it was anxiety. Grief was like experiencing every single emotion you’ve ever felt all at once. And navigating that when my maternal grandmother died was much more difficult because I didn’t know what I was feeling.

TM: I’ve always had this question of what we are allowed to feel when it comes to grief and complicated relationships.

JD: I definitely felt that when Marcy died. Because I was sad and because I felt pain, I felt I was in some way betraying myself— she had inflicted so much pain on me and on my family.

It took a few months for me to feel like it was okay to feel what I was feeling. That it would never truly make sense but that that was fine.

TM: Near the end of the book, you wrote about the differences in how you processed the grief for both of your grandmothers. With your paternal grandmother, what do you feel like she would be most proud of?

JD: I think she would definitely be proud of the book, but she would be prouder of the way I live my life. That I have faith. That I found love. That I’m living in a way that’s true to who I am, that I’m not pretending to be someone else.

TM: Is there something about writing—about the kind of things that your book has—that you wish you would see more of in memoir?

JD I definitely wish that there were more writing about girlhood and navigating a certain kind of home. I definitely wish there was more writing about girls growing up in poverty. Queer girls, black and brown girls. I didn’t have any books like that growing up. I mean, I certainly looked for them. I went to a library and what the librarians handed me were books about white people written by white people, written mostly by white men. I wish that there were an abundance of books about brown and black girlhood, about girls who grew up working class or in poverty. I also wish that there that there were just more books about Puerto Ricans, both in Puerto Rico and in the diaspora. When I was writing this book, I mean, I searched out almost every book written by a Puerto Rican in English that I could possibly find. And there weren’t that many.

TM: Yeah, I feel like when Lilliam Rivera’s novels (The Education of Margot Sanchez and Dealing in Dreams) had come out, I had similar thoughts.

JD: If only Lilliam had been writing when I was a girl—that would have changed my entire world.

TM: And I felt similarly about T Kira Madden’s memoir, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, and then I felt the same thing with your memoir. There are so many different elements for me that resonated like being mixed race and what that means and how you’re looked at in this world. Why was it important to include writing about being mixed race?

JD: Well, one of the things that I always knew growing up was that we definitely were not white. We definitely did not belong. We were made to feel—and by we, I mean my sister, my brother, and I— like we didn’t belong in my mother’s white family. We definitely didn’t look like them. Also, my black grandmother made it clear to us that we were a black family, and that no matter how we looked to the world, we were a black family and we would be treated like one. Those are things that in our families I knew, but when I went out into the world, when I went to school, nobody saw me as black. People didn’t know unless I told them. And sometimes people didn’t believe me. It always made me feel like I was both invisible and hyper-visible, living in some liminal state where no one really saw who I was. And it was very important to kind of get that through to the reader. How much of my childhood and adolescence and even much of my adulthood was spent without really being seen. And also how exhausting it is to go out into the world and have people look at you and not really see you, never really understand who you are.

TM: Do you feel like writing this book was also a way to bring some of that together?

JD Yeah, in some ways. We all have to have some sort of reckoning with race. Being biracial, being a light-skinned black person, also means that you might be racially ambiguous, that you walk in the world with a certain amount of privilege that other black people don’t have. And for me, I definitely feel like it’s my responsibility to use it to open opportunities for other black people who don’t have the privilege of being racially ambiguous or treated the way that I’m treated. I definitely feel like I’ve had access to a lot of things that some of my friends haven’t had access to. And there have been moments in certain organizations when I realize that there is a possibility that I got this opportunity because they didn’t know I was black and it certainly made me feel like shit, but also made me feel like I had a responsibility to try to open doors for other people.

TM: I know this was very hard to write, but what was a joyful element of writing your memoir?

JD: God, that’s a very difficult question because it was so, so hard. One of the most joyful moments, to be honest with you, was to be able to write the acknowledgements, to thank people who have meant something in my life and have helped me, even if they just helped in very small ways. And to show them how that very tiny thing they did was very important in making me who I am, in helping this book become a reality. That was probably the most joyful moment.

Bonus Links from Our Archive:

‘Ordinary Girls’: Featured Nonfiction by Jaquira Díaz
A Year in Reading: Jaquira Díaz

Craft Corner: The Millions Interviews Sarah Moss

Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall was published in 2019 to a chorus of near-unanimous praise. Reviewing it at The New Yorker, Margaret Talbot wrote, “[Ghost Wall] is a worthy match for 3 a.m. disquiet, a book that evokes existential dread, but contains it, beautifully, like a shipwreck in a bottle.” The novel tells the story of Silvie, the sheltered daughter of a brutish father obsessed with the ancient lifeways of pre-Norman conquest Britons. Silvie accompanies her father and mother on an anthropological journey through Northumberland with a university professor and group of graduate students. As they move through the countryside and bogs, they move back through time and the journey becomes increasingly harrowing, as it invites the reader to ask, “How far removed are we really from our ancient ancestors and their traditions?”

The paperback edition of Ghost Wall was recently released, and I was lucky enough to have a chance to talk with Moss about her novel-writing process and technique in the first of what will be an ongoing new column at The Millions focused on craft.

Adam O’Fallon Price: One thing I love about this novel is that it’s short! And I don’t mean because it couldn’t be longer, or because I wasn’t enjoying it, but I simply like a short novel, and in my limited publishing experience, it is quite difficult to get a very short novel through. We need short books! Can you talk a little bit about the length of this book and related process?—i.e. was it whittled down from a much larger draft, or did this always feel like this was the right size for the story? And was there any pressure from the publishing side to pad it out more?

Sarah Moss: It really just came that way. I finished it and there it was, short. At first I thought that meant it was an interesting exercise but of no use; I was working on a longer novel anyway and this was the distraction project. But I mentioned it to my agent and she wanted to see it, and then to send it to my editor and so it went. At first I kept protesting that it wasn’t a novel and I didn’t want to give readers short measure, but I was more or less persuaded that people really don’t buy books by weight. Certainly no-one suggested padding.

AOP: On a semi-related note, I think one of the reasons for Ghost Wall’s brevity is it doesn’t muck around with a great deal of backstory or throat clearing. The main narrative puts us right into the reenactment excursion and keeps us there, a perfect choice as it creates a sense of readerly discomfort that matches the unnerving journey of the characters. Was there a temptation to do more exposition and general setting up?

SM: I think all my books start rather suddenly. I like to put the reader behind the narrator’s eyes in the first sentence and worry about setting up later. As a reader I’m patient with exposition and landscape and weather—I rarely read for the plot and like slow books—but as a writer I want every word to be earning its keep.

AOP: I’m also curious about when you really felt you “knew” your main character, Silvie: her thought process and personality. Was there a particular place where she emerged, or was it gradual? I’ve been asked this question before and my best answer is that I tend to feel like I know a character when I know their sense of humor. Is there, generally speaking, a way that you tend to find “into” your characters’ heads?

SM: I think for me it’s maybe about inhabiting the character’s body. Once I can feel her skin and push her hair behind her ears, feel her shoes on her feet, I can start.

AOP: Ghost Wall features a good amount of area-specific (Northumberland, correct? I’m a hopeless American.) flora and fauna as well as a great deal of information about Iron Age lifeways. I wonder how much this background inspired the novel, and how much writing the novel simply necessitated this information. Chicken, or egg, or both?

SM: Yes, Northumberland. I love that landscape partly because I have no history there, no personal or familial claim on it. My desire to be there is simply aesthetic and I feel no need to belong to or own it. I became suddenly interested in the Iron Age before I had any idea I might write about it, which is how it often goes for me; a passion for Japanese textile design or the history of obstetrics grows in my mind and later I find it’s for a book. (Or not; sometimes the fascination comes and goes without producing anything much.) So background first. I always start with a place: weather, birdsong, soundscape. And then history, archaeology, architecture. Characters come later.

AOP: One of the interesting choices in this novel (among many) is the lack of quotation marks, with dialogue embedded in the narrative. It seems right to me, though in a way I find difficult to articulate—something, perhaps, in the way it captures Silvie’s budding, confused consciousness. I wonder what you think it does, and how you feel the book would read differently with standard dialogue?

SM: I’ve been surprised by how much some readers mind about speech marks. After all, different languages do it differently, and I wonder if readers who are upset by the dialogue in Ghost Wall are similarly bothered by French or Spanish. I’d been playing with dialogue and interior monologue in my previous novel, The Tidal Zone, and here I wanted to take it a bit further. It’s all in Silvie’s head anyway; the narrator is older, remembering, so the speech isn’t exactly direct in the first place.

AOP: Were there any moments in the drafting of Ghost Wall that really surprised you? Not asking for spoilers, but were there any character moments or small but significant plot turns that seemed to pop out of nowhere?

SM: I liked the way the animals emerged and made patterns. It wasn’t planned until I saw that it had started to happen, and then I developed it.

AOP: Finally, a very dumb, but perhaps thematically appropriate question to end: in terms of writing a first draft, are you a plan ahead-er or flashlight in the dark walking through the woods-er?

SM: Both! Spend two years making a map and then put it in your back pocket and ignore it while you hack a path through the wilderness. Just remember that you invented that wilderness and, however it feels, you’re responsible for everything from the mining rights to the sunset.

Only the Lonely: The Millions Interviews Teddy Wayne

Teddy Wayne has an interest in loneliness. “I’ve always been most drawn to novels about protagonists who are deeply alienated; it’s where I’ve felt artistic empathy the most intensely, with both the character and, often, the author, in that the character’s attempts to break free of his or her solitude can be mirrored by the attempt of the writer to connect with the reader, or vice versa,” Wayne told The Millions. “It seems as worthy a subject of artistic exploration as any, and possibly the one to which literature is best suited.”

Wayne’s latest novel, Apartment, which brims with desperation, brilliantly captures the complex and complicated layers of loneliness. Set in the 1990s and largely inside and around Columbia’s MFA program, Apartment follows the lives of an unnamed narrator and his budding friendship with classmate Billy, a man with a background far removed—by politics, class, and geography—from the narrator’s own experiences. Once the narrator offers Billy the opportunity to live rent-free in his apartment, the pair’s friendship begins to change. And not for the better. What follows is a subtle, sly page-turner about disconnection and its impact.

Wayne and I spoke recently about loneliness, desperation, and, of course, Apartment.

The Millions: When I see that a new Teddy Wayne book is on the way, I feel like I know to expect a novel that’s going to be about loneliness in some measure. Kapitoil, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, Loner, and, now, Apartment each explores what it means to be lonely in such profound ways. What is it about loneliness that attracts you as a writer?

Teddy Wayne: I’ve always been most drawn to novels about protagonists who are deeply alienated; it’s where I’ve felt artistic empathy the most intensely, with both the character and, often, the author, in that the character’s attempts to break free of his or her solitude can be mirrored by the attempt of the writer to connect with the reader, or vice versa. To get highbrow, loneliness is the emotional equivalent of Wittgenstein’s private language argument: a language incomprehensible to anyone other than the speaker is therefore not coherent even to the speaker. In reductive, more metaphorically social terms: without other people, we can’t know ourselves. It seems as worthy a subject of artistic exploration as any, and possibly the one to which literature is best suited.

The other main focus in each of these books is psychological life under capitalism. There are numerous spokes radiating from this, but the intersection with loneliness is the one I’ve been most interested in—how the scrabbling for resources in a finite world divides us up, whether into individuals or tribes, amplifying our distance from one another.

TM: Contemporary culture has a tendency to blame technology for why so many people feel lonely, but Apartment, which is a perfectly realistic story set in the mid-’90s without really any reliance on technology, serves as a good reminder that loneliness isn’t an exclusive characteristic of the technologically-focused 21st century. Did that have anything to do with why you chose to set your novel in the ’90s or did you make that choice for an altogether different reason?

TW: I wanted to set a novel about friendship in the last pre-Internet age, when we were forced to turn to the people nearest us for companionship rather than to a screen. The Internet, of course, has been as much a balm for loneliness as an accelerant, rendering physical barriers immaterial and aiding people who do better at a keyboard than a party. But the bigger themes on my mind for choosing the mid-’90s were the post–Cold War politics of the era—the start of the contemporary culture wars and the rightward movement of the country, Clinton’s re-election notwithstanding—and its shifting notions of masculinity and gender (to cite one popular culture example used in the book, it’s hard to imagine a unisex fragrance like CK One gaining mainstream appeal in the ’80s). The narrator and Billy are emblematic of these dynamics; it was the last time two guys from the “two Americas” could have realistically become friends, as these fault lines have become canyons during the Bush, Obama, and especially Trump years.

TM: Apartment is a complex character study, and the narrator and Billy are both dynamic and complicated characters. I want to ask about their friendship. (I think I can call their bond that.) Loneliness is what brings them together. What do you see as being the reason they stay together for as long as they do?

TW: It certainly starts off as mutual loneliness, in that the narrator has been physically isolated as an adult (since his sublet is illegal and he can’t take the chance of harboring a roommate) and never had a truly close relationship of any kind. And Billy is a newcomer to New York and hasn’t breached certain levels of intimacy, either; they end up genuinely connecting across their differences. But then money enters the equation more perniciously—the narrator lets Billy live in his spare room rent-free, in return (at Billy’s insistence) for some cleaning and cooking—and soon Billy is something of a kept man, tethered to the narrator’s patronage. Why the narrator keeps Billy around is up to the reader’s interpretation, since the narrator himself refuses to answer the question honestly.

TM: Did you find one character to be more difficult than the other to write?

TW: Billy had gone through several iterations before the final version. He’d always been more of a man’s man than the narrator, but his autodidactic skills were more polished in previous drafts, and his politics were far more liberal. He was a little too perfect, in all ways, and striking the right balance of plausible strengths and flaws was challenging. The narrator changed, too, especially in one central way (that’s never explicitly spelled out in the text) that helped define him for me. In a very early draft, that element didn’t exist at all, then after a revision it was front and center; neither extreme worked well.

TM: Do you mind talking about your decision in keeping the narrator nameless?

TW: There have been a lot of semi-autobiographical novels lately in which the narrator is unnamed as an intimation that he or she is the alter ego of the author (with the real name on the cover of the book), or out of some conviction that character is inherently unstable and thus we shouldn’t ever attempt to create fictional personages, so why bother naming them. For Apartment, I thought of anonymity as the narrator’s permanent affliction: he’s a background figure, an observer rather than a participant who, it’s suggested, won’t leave behind any kind of legacy, and even in his own story he doesn’t get the honor of a name.

TM: Apartment is a dark novel, but it’s also darkly funny in sections. When the narrator’s story “Camp Redwood” finally gets published and he realizes his classmates won’t see his success without some added action on his part, he says: “Columbia’s library didn’t carry the journal, but I planned to put one of the contributor copies that I would receive in its magazine rack so everyone could see what had become of the story they’d spurned.”

With a novel that’s so focused on loneliness and desperation, did you intentionally set out to add in a few moments to lighten the story a bit?

TW: As an example of how subjective humor is, I didn’t intend for that passage to register as comic, but as, in fact, lonely and desperate—though now, seeing it out of context, I can see how you might have read it that way. (At the same time, his desire to show off the literary journal in the library isn’t that different from the modern urge to tweet “My latest, in the ____”.) But that is, at least, the kind of comedy I like best: humor that is twinned with sadness, one the temporary absence of the other but marshaling power through its missing cousin. Apartment has the most understated humor (read: is the least funny) of my books, and I’ve noticed that I, unfortunately, have become less funny as I’ve gotten older, too, whether through an attrition of wit or, I hope, greater contentment and less of an antic need to entertain. As I personally dislike books that have no comedy to them whatsoever, and because I was going for an overall elegiac, poignant tone, I did consciously sprinkle in lighter moments, mostly via secondary characters (especially Robert Stockton, a hard-drinking, self-mythologizing writing professor).

TM: So much of the book revolves around writers and their work, so I want to ask about artists. The narrator and Billy have an interesting conversation—in the middle of a political argument by the way—about what kind of people become artists. The narrator says, “I suppose it’s people who have something to say, with the talent and discipline to express it, and the empathy to see other viewpoints.” Billy replies, “And also the people who have enough of a financial cushion to fall back on in case they don’t make it. Which means not many people like me.” From a 2020 lens, do you think both perspectives are still pretty accurate?

TW: Yes, likely more so now, given the increasingly marginal financial rewards of these fields and the skimpier safety nets below. We justifiably talk a lot about race and gender concerning the arts, but surprisingly little about class. Some of this is because it’s less visually conspicuous an identity and it’s harder to pin down one’s precise status on the continuum of money, but mostly, I think it’s because there’s a lot of shame attached to the privilege that enables most artistic lives. No one wants to admit that they’re a successful writer, filmmaker, painter, or musician (or successful anything, really) in large part because they had a financially stable background. Talent and hard work certainly have something to do with where you end up, but zip code is still destiny; it’s a lot easier to spend eight years writing a first novel or take an unpaid internship when you know that you have an upper-middle-class parachute you can open in an emergency. The irony in Apartment is that the narrator is not only ashamed of his upper-middle-class provenance, but thinks it’s an artistic detriment, since he has nothing worth writing about, whereas he fetishizes Billy’s Midwestern working-class authenticity.

TM: Near the very end of Apartment, the narrator admits, “But solitude, I’ve discovered, isn’t so bad once you come to expect it.” At first, I was feeling all optimistic about his future, but, then, I stepped back and reprocessed his statement and—well, I felt like I’d been punched it the gut. It’s a sad, beautiful ending to an equally sad, beautiful novel.

TW: Thank you. I always aim for an emotionally ambivalent climax, what Robert McKee calls ironic endings. The epilogue that follows the sentence you quoted complicates that sentiment a little, in ways I won’t spoil. Like many people, I read the last page of a book slowly (I vaguely recall an Onion article making fun of this practice), wanting the emotional dam the author has been building to break in the closing sentences, and the novels I’ve loved most reward that: the tone of the final words seems to spill over into the empty space below them, the textual sign that you’ve returned back to your own life, its own pages still unwritten—hopefully changed, maybe a little less alone.

The State of #MeToo

Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings from the Me Too Movement, a multi-genre anthology of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry that I compiled and edited for McSweeney’s, was released in September and is now headed toward its third printing. Recently, after returning home to Brooklyn from book-event travels on behalf of Indelible, I invited two of the book’s contributors—Mecca Jamilah Sullivan and Diana Spechler—to discuss the current state of the #MeToo movement and their experience writing on this topic.

Shelly Oria: Had you written #MeToo before or was this your first time writing about this topic?

Diana Spechler: The #MeToo movement has given me a new lens through which to see so much of my past, including my past writing. Sometimes the lens makes me wince. For example, years ago I wrote fairly straight journalism about pick-up artists, giving very little thought to how gross “pick-up art” is. Please don’t Google that! Or, if you Google it, please say aloud to yourself, “Well, Diana has certainly matured since 2009!” I now realize how much my experience as a woman in a patriarchal society has impacted my writing, my life, my preoccupations, my fears, my sense of accomplishment, so perhaps it’s fair to say that everything I’ve ever written has been a #MeToo piece; I just often didn’t realize it.

Mecca Jamilah Sullivan: Exactly. I’ve never written about sexual violence expressly in the context of #MeToo, but the movement has absolutely awakened me to themes of sexual harm, power, and vulnerability, both in my work and in the writing I love. I have always known sexuality and power to be important concerns of my work, and of feminist and black feminist literatures, but #MeToo has really brought these themes into a kind of focus in ways that are challenging but crucial. Or crucial because they are challenging. This movement has shown me how true it is that we can’t think about, for example, coming-of-age fiction, or what people call “domestic fiction”—or really any story that wants to deal honestly with the experiences of women and people of marginalized genders—without thinking about vulnerability to sexual violence and sexual power. It’s there in the novels, the stories; we just haven’t all been talking about it.

DS: Shelly, I know that your writing has explored power, gender, identity, and sexuality for a very long time. How did #MeToo (at least as it reemerged a couple years ago, more than a decade after Tarana Burke started it) impact your work?

SO: I had this moment when I was asked in an interview for Indelible if I was also working on my own #MeToo story collection, and I started and restarted my answer a bunch of times—luckily this was over email—because I kept thinking of another story of mine and another that is actually about sexual violence in some way…I started with an answer that could be summed up as “not really,” and ended with some like “I’ve been writing a lot of MeToo fiction.” So I very much relate to what you’re both saying here. I think it’s mostly my thinking about my work that has shifted in the past two years, as the cultural context for everything being written and made has reshaped itself.

This change affects what’s being published, and it affects how readers are receiving these stories. If you’d written about this topic prior to October 2017—pre-Harvey—did the experience feel different in any way? Was the reception of the work different?

DS: So much has shifted since the rise of Trump. We couldn’t have gotten to Harvey had Trump not already begun contaminating the air. And I would say that that contamination has made everything feel different.

I’m not really answering the question, am I? I think that’s because what’s more compelling to me than changing reactions to my own work is how reactions to other writers’ work have changed. For example, in 1998, Joyce Maynard published her memoir At Home in the World, about how J.D. Salinger preyed on her when she was a college student. The response to that publication was ostracism from much of the literary community. I met Joyce a couple years ago at a writers’ conference and gushed about that book to her and then we talked about how different the reception would likely be today, how awful the reaction was back then, and how fascinating it is that a book that once made her a pariah could have 20 years later made her a hero. Since that conversation, I’ve seen a bit of a revival of that book. People are reading it differently now.

An even more fascinating example, though it’s not a literary example, is how the world has begun treating Monica Lewinsky. In the ’90s, she was Public Enemy No. 1. Now that seems totally absurd. Why the hell were we blaming her? Today she’s one of our spokeswomen.

I keep wanting to apologize for going off on tangents instead of answering the question, but that would be ironic since Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump have rested their careers on never apologizing and they are rapists, while I am just a lady with an imperfect attention span.

MJS: But also, it makes sense to resist a linear narrative of time and “attention span,” as Diana puts it so well, in this conversation. I think it’s important to acknowledge how even imagining the public conversations on Weinstein (or Trump) as a kind of catalyzing or originating moment in the #MeToo conversation ends up enacting (or at least permitting) another kind of narrative violence that not only erases the labor of black women and women of color organizers like Tarana Burke, who founded the #MeToo movement in 2006, but that also centers these men and their actions, rather than the cultures of power that have allowed these stories and billions of others exist as open secrets—or at least as secreted, as objects of a rigorously selective hearing—for decades or more, and the many women writers around the world who have been telling these stories for just as long, often only to be ignored or punished or both. That’s a harder set of questions to grapple with, and one that a singularly-focused origin story can’t really accommodate.

DS: Shelly, this makes me think of this line from “But We Will Win,” your short story in the anthology: “My point was to bring attention to the larger issue.” In the context of the narrative, the sentence is very funny, but when I read it, it jumped out at me because it also could have been a summary of the activism you did by compiling this anthology. It makes me misty-eyed to think that all of our stories and poems and essays might “bring attention to the larger issue,” might help us to one day “win.” How do you view our responsibility as writers and artists in this critical moment?

SO: Working on Indelible—compiling the book, editing the pieces—felt like an effort to “bring attention to the larger issue” for sure, yes. And that effort presented itself in my life at a time when I was desperate to do something that might “matter.” Having grown up in Israel, I find protesting hard, at times impossible; I grew up believing this type of action mattered, and while my brain still believes that, my body hasn’t in many years. So putting together this book felt like the type of protest I could show up for again and again.

But really—and this may sound…hokey—I think our responsibility as artists is only to truth and vulnerability. When we meet that responsibility in a real way, the rest takes care of itself. So while conceptualizing our writing as activism is generally a bad idea, sometimes some form of activism will happen through the work nonetheless. Honesty is radical. Especially right now.

I see Indelible as part of a wave of books that are coming out now, at the two-year mark of the movement in its current incarnation and the one-year mark of the Kavanaugh hearings, and that’s been making me think a lot about this question, and specifically about the role books like Indelible play, both in readers’ and writers’ lives, in shaping the larger conversation.

Were you already working on the piece you contributed to Indelible when I reached out to you, or did the solicitation from McSweeney’s inspire the work?

DS: When you solicited me, I had a complicated reaction. Reflecting on men who have bulldozed my boundaries generated an elixir of pain, shame, and fury. Simultaneously, I was excited to contribute to such a beautiful project and terrified that I was going to fail. (To be fair, my initial reaction to every assignment I’ve ever gotten in my life is that I’m going to fail.) And then within a week or so, the voice of the piece popped into my head. It was the voice of an interrogator—a man demanding that a woman prove her allegations against her various sexual harassers. It was a silly voice, a caricature, like the collective voice that yells about “due process” these days without having any idea what it is.

That’s how writing works for me: Someone whispers a line into my ear and that’s the seed. It’s planted. Then I have to sit down and…I don’t understand gardening, so please don’t make me continue this metaphor. But eventually there’s a big, published plant?

MJS: That’s really interesting. I had mixed feelings too, actually, though I think for different reasons. I have taken issue with the way #MeToo has often been framed as a kind of spontaneous eruption of voicing catalyzed by famous or well-off white women. So, I thought it was really important to contribute, and I was honored to be invited. At the same time, it was important to me to be able to be clear about this erasure. So when we did our Philly launch event in October, It was important to me to read from Burke’s piece, “MeToo is a Movement, Not a Moment,” instead of sharing only my own writing. I appreciated the chance to center her voice in the conversation.

But your initial email about the anthology got me thinking about my writing (and, again, the literature I love and teach) in a different way. As a fiction writer, I thought at first that I didn’t have a “MeToo story,” proper, to contribute; I’ve only written a few stories that I think of as dealing directly with sexual violence, and they had been published already. But when I thought more about it, I realized that so much of my work is tinged with the specter of sexual vulnerability and sexual harm in complex ways. The story I ended up sending narrates a similar experience. The character, a thick black girl who has fought hard to lose weight, does not see herself as having experienced sexual violence—at least not at first. She doesn’t have language to describe her experience, just as she doesn’t have language to describe her body. We catch her in that search for words and context. It’s a complicated thing to grapple with, and I was glad for the chance to do it.

DS: Have either of you felt emboldened as writers because so much of the misogyny that used to be confined to whisper networks is now out in the open? How so?

MJS: In some ways, I think I have tended to be a little…what…oblivious, or maybe irreverent, when it comes to sex and power and bodily experience in my writing, and how it will be received. For better and for worse. So I don’t know that my writing has changed, but it is interesting and, I think, heartening to imagine that there is a widening readership for candid, direct, work on these subjects. How about you?

SO: I think touring with the anthology has emboldened me: meeting and talking to many people in different parts of the country who shared their stories with me, who came to our events because—whether they feel empowered or not—they are dedicated to speaking up and reading and in many cases writing, too, about this issue. I think it’s necessary. I think that in our lifetime, it will never not be necessary, and never not radical.

I, too, have been focused on the exclusion and erasure that were part of the phenomenon of the past two years, and much of making Indelible has been a response to and a conversation with these big problems. Through the book events, and before that, through planning these events—especially the ones in cities I couldn’t go to myself, where local writers stepped up to celebrate the anthology and what it stands for—I got to feel the true power, and grassroots power, of this movement in this moment in time.

Relatedly, sort of, you’ve both heard me talk about why making Indelible a multi-genre anthology felt important to me from the start. In short: I believe that it’s our responsibility as a society in times of crisis to encourage and receive art in all the forms it takes, and I believe multi-genre is a form of inclusivity we should strive toward. I’m always curious to hear other writers’ thoughts on this issue.

DS: I love that this book is multi-genre because that in itself is a political statement. The feminist movement today, or dare I say one goal of the whole Left today, is to dismantle boundaries—to embrace gender fluidity and racial equality, to open borders. Categorizing a book as one genre or another used to be a dogmatic practice, but ultimately who does that serve (other than people shelving books at bookstores)? I’m not suggesting that it’s okay for a writer to say, “Here’s my true book about surviving a genocide,” if she did not in fact survive a genocide, but I do love writing that might be poetry or might be creative nonfiction or might be a lyric something-or-other. I love that Indelible is an anthology of woman-identifying and non-binary writers writing whatever the hell they want to write. It’s an example of structure reflecting theme.

MJS: Yes. I was so excited to learn that this would be a multi-genre anthology. I think unsettling genre is crucial for literary conversations about power. You know, I nerd out on languages, and I talk with students about this all the time—how in Spanish and French (and, I imagine, other Romance languages), “gender” and “genre” have the same pronunciation and spelling. In French, “Genre” is a polyseme that takes on both meanings. (It also means “type” or “kind”). In Spanish it’s “género.” On one hand, I think that speaks to the Western impulse to divide and categorize, as Diana points out—and how that impacts all of our discussions of gender in ways we may not acknowledge or even see. But, as writers, I think paying attention to literary genre also allows us to undo those categories, and break down the boundaries, as you’ve both said. And when we mess with genre in discussions of gender and/or race, class, ability, embodiment, sexuality, nation, and more, I think we have the chance to pierce those structures as well.

DS: Shelly and I nerd out a lot on language together, too, Mecca! We both speak (and often live in) our second languages, and making comparisons between English and other languages, not to mention between American culture and other cultures, is endlessly fascinating. Comparison is like a black light, illuminating issues of power and privilege that are otherwise hard to see.

And like you said, that impulse to categorize (and organize?) is particularly Western. It’s a method of control, one that art, ideally, acknowledges and messes with or ignores completely.

When I first moved to Mexico, I couldn’t stop noticing how much the dogs were barking. No one was shushing them. Noise regulations in Mexico aren’t enforced the way they are in the States, but beyond that: in Mexico, there’s a respect for nature that struck me as novel. Dogs are allowed to be dogs. I love that. That’s what I want from art. Let it bark all night if it needs to. Let it be what it needs to be.

MJS: I find myself thinking and talking a lot about my students in this conversation we’re having. I wonder what your experiences have been talking about #MeToo with generations other than your/our own.

SO: I love this question, Mecca. I was hyper aware of age in curating the book; it felt crucial to also invite writers who were dealing with this bullshit before I was born, whose perspective was much broader than mine could ever be.

Something that brought me to tears while I was touring with the book was seeing mothers and daughters at our events. It happened often, and it wrecked me. Or even just a young woman asking me to sign the book for her mother, or the other way around, which also happened quite a bit. I felt a very specific kind of pain around these interaction every time—the realization of how this societal illness of ours connects generations of women—alongside a careful, gentle hope that maybe we are beginning to heal.

DS: I like that you’re thinking about age as a determining factor, Mecca. The younger generation seems smart and open and I’m so relieved. I see Greta Thunberg and Malala and Emma González and I think…maybe we’ll be okay?

I guess I find myself thinking less about generational responses to feminism than about how the conversations vary from country to country. In many parts of Latin America, for instance, feminism is exploding. But the strength of the resistance to it is quite powerful, too. Femicide statistics have risen in the wake of the #NiUnaMenos hashtag—a movement to call attention to Latin America’s alarming rates of femicide—so some draw the sloppy conclusion that activism doesn’t work, that feminism is bad for women. Some further conclude that feminists are hypocrites because if feminists hated murder so much, they wouldn’t fight to legalize abortion. And on and on. I don’t mean to single out Latin America, but it’s an interesting microcosm of resistance-to-resistance. I try to trust that things have to get worse before they get better. I also try to trust that the death rattle of harmful and antiquated ideas, institutions, and practices is loud and grotesque.

SO: Indelible features a significant array of voices and backgrounds; this felt not just crucial, as it always does, but urgent, since at the time we were hearing predominantly from white, straight, beautiful actresses. How do you feel about the inclusivity of the #MeToo conversation in 2019? And would you say we’ve successfully shifted the cultural perception that appearance affects whether or not a woman gets harassed or abused?

DS: I don’t take kindly to the implication that I’m not a “beautiful actress.” Jeez.

MJS: I am definitely a beautiful actress.

DS: I peeked at your website. You are!

SO: I apologize and take full responsibility for not realizing you were both beautiful actresses. Someone else ask a question, then.

DS: I’ve seen a lot of cool art in recent years that challenges the notion that the gift of shitty male behavior is bestowed only on certain types of women. A couple off the top of my head are Shrill (both Lindy West’s book and the Hulu series based on it) and Orange Is the New Black. But no, I don’t think we have successfully shifted the cultural perception yet. In June, the president of the United States rejected a sexual assault allegation against him by arguing that she wasn’t his “type.”

MJS: I agree that that perception has not shifted. I think writing by Ntozake Shange, Toni Morrison, Gloria Anzaldúa, Janet Mock, June Jordan, Dionne Brand, Jamaica Kincaid, Lenelle Moïse, Suzan-Lori Parks, Cherrie Moraga, Carmen Maria Machado, Nina Sharma, Roxanne Shanté, Roxane Gay, Queen Latifah, Sapphire, Reina Gossett, Bushra Rehman, Aishah Shahidah Simmons, Darnell L. Moore, and many others has been doing that work.