A Room Without a View: The Millions Interviews Thomas Kendall

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With his debut novel The Autodidacts, Thomas Kendall has produced a truly rare work. His words seem to unspool in patterns that from one angle come off as ramshackle, and from another as precise and suffused with intention. Paragraphs thicker than bunker walls transform into these vaporous passages that hover off the page. It’s a text about texts, mystery, and all the liminal feelings that hover beyond the reach of language. I was awestruck when I read it, and I leapt at the opportunity to have a conversation with him where I could hopefully glean some portion of what his process looked like, or at least get to know the guy better.

Meg Gluth: I feel like conversations between writers about writing often default to questions about craft: “How do you capture ideas?” “How do you create a draft?” “How do you edit?” To be honest, these types of topics seem super superficial to me and basically miss the transcendent aspects of writing. I totally have an interest in how writers write, but the interest is more around the creative process than the mechanics that support it. I have this photo of Joan Didion smoking a cigarette while sitting at a desk with a typewriter on it in what seems to be a spare bedroom in what I believe is an otherwise empty suburban house in the 70s—to me that image tells me everything I need to know about her writing. Bearing that all in mind, I’d love to hear what it was like for you to write The Autodidacts.

Thomas Kendall: I also share a kind of antipathy towards questions revolving around craft—maybe it’s something to do with the mundanity of craft as a metaphor. Like, why are you trying to make something less exciting and dangerous than it is? Why reduce it to competence? I think for me, in order to write, what I need—to invert a phrase—is a room without a view. I need to feel that I can disappear. As a kid I never really had many toys, or the toys I had were several generations old and already encrusted with wounds or imprinted with the identity of the relatives who I inherited them from. Consequently, the games I played tended to be in my head and in order to feel comfortable I’d play in the front room or anywhere that was empty. I think I needed to feel that I was hidden from God’s sight in order to be able to play. If anyone interrupted me while I was playing everything fell apart, I’d be paralysed and humiliated. During those games, which would often take on quite frightening aspects, I’d find myself breaking from the fantasy in order to edit certain scenes, to refine the ambience or imaginary setting. The story and characters were always secondary in that way, something inherited from the television and the bible that had to be relit with the emerging and tentative forces structuring my imagination. In a sense writing is the same for me. It’s a serious game. There’s a concept from Deleuze called “becoming imperceptible” that Rosa Braidotti writes about in her book The Posthuman, which I think encapsulates my process and, in some ways, provides a key to the hidden narrative in The Autodidacts. Braidotti writes:
What we humans truly yearn for is to disappear by merging into this generative flow of becoming, the precondition for which is the loss, disappearance and disruption of the atomized, individual self. Becoming imperceptible is the event for which there is no representation, because it rests on the disappearance. Writing as if already gone, or thinking beyond the bounded self, is the ultimate gesture of defamiliarization.
When I read that I felt seen in a way that I could stand. It also neatly summarizes the themes and structure of The Autodidacts. For an external image, well, right now I’m writing and there’s a window but the window just opens onto a brick wall. A lot of the early sections of The Autodidacts were written in a kitchen in Hackney during an ascendancy of mice. I set up a mini desk facing a blank wall. At night in my room beneath the kitchen I could hear the mice trafficking overhead through the floorboards. (Addendum: The rule of mice ended when a rat took over and presumably slaughtered them. However, centralizing power in this single embodied figure was hubristic and the Rat was removed after a brief reign of terror). The Mice and I shared a mutual treaty of non-recognition, we inhabited the same physical territory but operated in two different dimensions. We allowed each other the privacy to be multiple, they were the best tenants for my writing in that sense.

Anyway, is there anything that helps you tune into or intuit your imaginary? I’ve been rereading [your 2014 novel] No Other the last few days and I’m consistently awed by the rhythms and embodied abstraction your writing performs. There’s a kind of phenomenological bent to its perspective that is so unique. I’m wondering how your style developed: Was it completely intuitive or like archeology where you’re sort of dusting off and polishing a kind of half-submerged/-found/-searched-for structure, or the result of a series of experiments, or a choice made from a conceptual point of view? It seems so disciplined and tightly focused but simultaneously metaphysical and abstract that I’m just totally fascinated by it.

MG: All I can say is I usually start a book with a mood or an idea or a sentence and I work on that one thing. Eventually it becomes paragraphs and then more and more. I’m always revising the structure of the narrative, as if you were to build a building one brick at a time, and you spent a lot of time making each brick, and then only planned the building after building a few walls. And then kept revising the structure as you developed different types of bricks. God, does that make sense? To me, the main feature of my books—the main character, if you will—is the narrative structure. The style is all instinct. I just work on each sentence until I’m happy with it. I feel like each sentence should ideally stand on its own outside of whatever context the book provides. I’m not there yet, but that’s my aspiration.

I love that Deleuze line, “generative flow of becoming.” I can totally see how it jibes with your writing in The Autodidacts. To quote a line I’d noted when I first read it:”The cigar smoke is only a mask. There is another physical, weighted, smell pursuing an increasingly territorial policy regarding the car’s subsidiary of air.” It feels like you bring the reader through a sort of stillness. And the moment is transformed in the process. There is movement, or at least a process, unfolding, but you manage to portray it in a way where it feels like a photograph, one that is so clear that you feel like the image is almost moving when you look at it. It feels like you are bending the language by hand or something. I’d love to know how much the effects you achieve are born of intention, and how much comes out of instinctual experimentation? For example, I’d like to say I want my writing to capture the sense of being within this ever-becoming moment, but I honestly don’t really intellectualize or think about my writing process too much, to the point that it feels disingenuous to say I have a stated goal. Either because I’m incapable, or because I’m scared that understanding it will kinda motivate me to potentially take shortcuts or something. I’m going to try to quote Wes Anderson trying to quote Stanley Kubrick: “I’m just trying to do the best possible version of what I’m doing.”

TK: As to the architecture of your books, it makes sense to me, like there’s something that has to be intuited that can only be discovered through the act of writing. It makes me think of that outsider artist [Ferdinand Cheval] that collected rocks and built the “Ideal palace.” How did that evolve? I think my interest with outsider artists is rooted in the organic need to edit, refine, to pursue some invisible structure, some possibility, and draw it into the world without having the framework of the accepted and acceptable representations of the world as a delimiting force. That it’s not about representation ultimately. The edits are a kind of restoration work. Or the whole work is an act of restoration—trying to get to the thing that you had faith was there.

I think my own “style,” if it deserves that term, is at its core not a choice that I have total agency over, but I think recognizing that and trying to challenge it in some way has helped provide the narrative momentum. Because of this, in The Autodidacts at least, there’s a self-awareness that the writing is always trying to simultaneously work out and conceal. But at the same time there’s a desperate need to be real, to experience the suffering moment, and the writing is ultimately real, it does something and so does whatever animates it. That’s the tension that I’ve tried to pull taut with The Autodidacts. At the level of the brick, the sentences are always having to be nudged into reality. I tend to think of metaphors as a form of associative revelation, that there is something ecstatic you can access through their worm-holed connection.

It’s interesting that you mention dialogue. I’d be so fascinated to see how you’d approach doing something dialogue-intensive. Damn, I want to read that! I think you’d come up with something amazing if it ever took your interest. Have you ever read JR by William Gaddis? It’s pretty much just unaccredited dialogue and it’s incredible. I struggle with dialogue too. I think the way I’ve tried to get around it is to realize how often people are talking past each other and that it’s mainly rhythm. I’m wondering if one of the reasons you find it unpleasant is because dialogue, in a way, breaks that flux of inner and outer perception, seems to act as a kind of command to be limitedly present, externalized into socialize space, ordered into the moment in a way that seems to ridicule the possibility of an interior space.

MG: I know and love JR. I guess I have yet to find a way into a dialogue heavy work. It could happen for sure. One thing I’ve been doing in the book I’ve currently writing is building the dialogue into the prose so that it’s just part of the paragraphs and is kinda uncredited and obfuscated. I think my thing about dialogue is how it feels super obvious in my hands, and I’m always trying to alter the text away from obviousness.

You bring up an interesting point: Representation vs atypical or non-representation in work. My writing, to me, has always been non-representative, meaning it’s really just the end product of its writing process, as opposed to being something toward which I consciously worked. My process is always about experimentation, and then reacting to the results of the experimentation with more experimentation, really following my instincts and letting the text take whatever form that process lands on. I feel a representative text comes out of a place of attempting to realize some sort of end goal, and reverse engineering that goal in some sense to map a path to it. My process is this: I have one small idea, maybe a mood, a visual, a concept, a line of dialogue, and I try to explore how to capture it in some way. I write by hand, and eventually there is enough text to type it up and print it out. I then edit the printed text by hand, retype it, etcetera. Each round of editing involves adding, removing, rearranging, and the text ultimately grows during this process. I’d love to know your thoughts about this regarding your own work and to hear what your writing process is like. Aside from the rodents, which weird me out to no fucking end.

TK: You write by hand? That’s amazing to me. I can’t, however much I might want to, partly because my thought is so disordered that I tend to leap around the pages and also because I just can’t believe in my own handwriting. If I see something written in my handwriting, I can’t pretend it’s not mine, I suppose. I need the dissociative, flattening affect of the typed-out word to feel comfortable reading in good faith anything that my brain produces. Also, when I write, I tend to work on several sections at the same time and then try to tune them into one another. Even this answer has been written completely out of sync. It’s a kind of maddening process that I have had to just accept. I’m probably a terrible conversationalist. Otherwise, your process of experimentation sounds similar to mine. I think I’m always trying to think through a concept or something when I write and that concept provides the structure even as the novel documents, on one level, the discovery of the idea. It seems to me an artist is precisely someone who doesn’t understand and that’s the motivation.

MG: Yeah, I write by hand, mostly in cursive, typing it up only to get a clean draft to edit further by hand. I think it does two things. First, it makes the text feel alive to me. When something is typed it feels too “done” to me which is often dissonant to the fact that the text is so far from being done. I get where you need that dissociative effect from a typed out word, but that is exactly what I don’t want. The second thing is it gives another level of editing, another step that I can play with. My thinking is really disordered too. I’m usually working on whatever chapter I’m working on while also monitoring and editing the overall structure of the narrative and ensuring all the elements of the text will fit together in the way I intend them to.

TK: Maybe a good way to conclude this chat would be to discuss a little bit about the experience of submitting work and finding a publisher. I started submitting The Autodidacts way too early and it was rejected a lot. I learned that while I edit intensively at the level of the sentence, I needed to think more broadly in terms of the reader’s experience of its structure. Once I figured that out it started to get a little more interest from places. I’m so thankful to [publisher] Miette [Gillette] at Whiskey Tit for taking a chance on it and being so supportive of the work. How has your experience been?

MG: My experience with finding publishers is probably the same as most. My first book, I worked on intently by myself for four or five years, got it to where I was happy and sent it off to a bunch of places—maybe five or six. They all declined it, and then Dennis Cooper picked it up for Akashic. My second book, Akashic didn’t want it, and Dennis wasn’t working with them anymore, and Ken Bauman picked it up for Sator. Then everything since I kinda just send to Michael [Salerno] at Kiddiepunk, who seems to always want to publish it. I honestly don’t think about a reader, or their experience, or anything. That sounds arrogant and I don’t mean it to be. Just the calculus involved in trying to balance writing as good of a text as I can while also worrying how it will be taken by some potential audience—it’s beyond my abilities.

Balance is really important for me. Writing is one thing I do, but I also have a day job, and a personal life. I would love to hear what your life outside of writing is like. In my job, I do analytical and reporting type work. I work in the west coast tech industry, which is its own vibe for sure. Outside of that, my hobbies mainly center around hanging out with my wife, texting my best friend. I’m a big women’s basketball fan, and the WNBA season runs during the summer in the U.S., so that takes up much of my time right now. I’m lucky to have some good friends I spend time with. I’m also a perfume enthusiast, meaning I read alot about perfume, reviews and such. I also think of perfume as the strangest art form, and I’m always trying to think about how to achieve effects in writing that perfumers achieve in their work.

TK: That’s a good question about balance. I work at a French school in London teaching English literature and I have a three year old kid. Usually I’m up at six, walk an hour to work, get home at five and do the bedtime routine. I’m often flat out knackered. I write in the evenings two or three times a week and whenever else I can. Days off are pretty kid-centric and then there’s the usual mundanity of having to cook food etc. Plus we moved back to London after living in Peru for the last five years so while the cost of living is crippling there are a lot of free exhibitions, public spaces, interesting art to see and most of the friends I have live here too. But I love it. I love hanging out with my kid and my wife. I’m not the most sociable person so to have two people in my life I don’t ever get sick of is something of a miracle for me.

Clearly, God Loves Me: The Millions Interviews Nada Alic

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“Almost anyone can summon a spirit, but almost no one can summon the right spirit at the right time.” This is one of hundreds of achingly funny and profound truths in Nada Alic’s Bad Thoughts, the debut story collection well on its way to becoming a cult favorite among the lucidly spiritual and painfully online. I had the pleasure of talking with Nada about the thoughts behind Bad Thoughts, super sattva syndrome, the magic of mundanity, how to optimize purgatory, and much more.
Mila Jaroniec: Norman Mailer calls writing “the spooky art,” because it allows for soul communion in a way no other art does. You can talk to people, get inside them, without ever seeing them or talking to them personally. You and I haven’t met in person and only emailed briefly, yet after reading this collection, I feel like we’d be good friends in real life. Do you ever feel that way about books, almost like you lose the ability to engage with them critically because it feels like they pulled something out of you that you weren’t able to—or perhaps didn’t want to—express yourself? Which ones made you feel the most connected?
Nada Alic: I love that. What else are we doing this for? The loneliest thing about being alive is that we can only experience reality through our own subjectivity. You’re stuck inside yourself, with yourself, your past, your projections, your fears and desires. The whole point of art is to ask, Are you seeing what I’m seeing? That’s why it can feel like such relief when it clicks. It’s also why you can feel so turned off, or bored, or even angry when it doesn’t. I do think certain books come into your life at the right time, as in they find you. I remember feeling that way with Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? I wasn’t reading a lot of contemporary fiction at that point, I was reading classics or old self-help books I found at thrift stores. It felt like the book was speaking directly to me—at the time, I thought I was the only one who knew about it. I was living in Toronto and feeling so isolated, and here was this book by a woman in Toronto who, like me, also had a best friend who was a painter. There was so much vulnerability and humor in it, it’s the kind of writing that invites you in, whereas many of the books I’d been reading felt unnecessarily complicated, as if the point was to alienate and intimidate the reader, which to me read as a sign of laziness or insecurity. After that, a whole world of contemporary female authors opened up to me: Sarah Manguso, Jenny Offill, Maggie Nelson, Ottessa Moshfegh, Patricia Lockwood, etcetera. I knew I wanted to contribute to that canon in my own way.
MJ: Bad Thoughts deals in synchronicities, parallels. Signs you can’t ignore and doors you can’t not walk through. Equals and opposites that are really two sides of the same thing. The stories don’t end where they end; rather, they leave a talisman for the reader to pick up and walk away with, to start seeing the world through the stories’ lens, grey matter rearranged. I always appreciate that, when a writer lets the reader participate in the story. But when stories are written on paper, they end on paper. Did you ever feel quite done with these? How did finishing this collection change you, as a writer, as an artist?
NA: I’m more interested in voice and character than the unfolding of events over time. Plot is more of a loose scaffolding for characters, so if you’ve got a compelling character, they can hold your attention regardless of whether they’re going to the grocery store or doing something glamorous or exciting (see how little I care? I can’t even conjure a decent example). And so much of life is going to the grocery store. But as humans, we find grocery-store life to be so intolerable or insufficient that we create these fantasies or high-stakes dramas in our minds over nothing. I wanted to capture the ways people cope given their (often banal) life circumstances, especially dramatic or wounded people. The short story format lends itself well to this type of character study, and the restriction only helped to contain the potency. Finishing stories wasn’t the hard part, but finishing the collection was weirdly excruciating. That had more to do with my emotional resistance to allowing it to materialize into an actual book.
There are so few commonly shared events in life that mark the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. You’ve got the bookends, birth and death, then puberty, marriage, parenthood, illness, grief. The rest of your life, you forget that time is this thing you exist inside of and you’re just a frog refreshing your Gmail, slowly boiling to death. Especially in L.A., which is seasonless and no one’s face or body ever ages. I’d created this book-thing that was just an idea in my mind but now suddenly involved worldly things like a publisher and a contract and deadlines. I could have probably edited it forever, but at some point I had to be done and release it, and with it, my image of a perfect version of it. It was so painful, lonely and embarrassing. But once it was released, I felt this enormous pressure release from my body, like a really good massage, or when someone you don’t want to hang out with cancels plans with you.
MJ: Ayurvedic experts jokingly warn against super sattva syndrome, the pitfall of too much cleansing and meditation, the condition of getting and staying too pure for this world. Indeed, your characters in the story “Earth to Lydia” are in recovery from ego death. Do you think there is a risk of poisoning inherent in healing, or whatever our current concept of healing is? How do you know when you’ve gone too far away from your twisted roots? 
NA: Wow, how have I never heard of that? I think about this a lot. Not that I’m at risk of ever being too enlightened—more that the ego is so insidious that it can masquerade as enlightenment and fool us into thinking we’ve reached a state of permanent wholeness because we maybe briefly encountered it or have read a lot about it. The entire wellness and spirituality industry is based on this false premise that there is somewhere to arrive to, and by working on yourself, taking classes, and following special protocols you can get there. A lot of our pursuit of enlightenment is a rejection of our human form for something that is out there and beyond us. It’s preoccupied with the spirit realms, dreams, heaven, even space. That’s why I love Buddhism so much—because it’s spacious enough to include both form and spirit, with an understanding that they are inseparable.
Having a spiritual practice can be a useful tool for engaging with the mystery of reality, but it needs to be uncoupled from the idea that a perfect version of us exists just out of reach, and if we could meditate enough, pray enough, be “good” enough, we can escape our suffering and finally be at peace. In Christopher Lasch’s 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism, he talks about this obsession with self-help, wellness, and spirituality as a symptom of a civilization in decline. When day-to-day life becomes untenable, people turn inward and focus on what they can control, like improving their bodies and minds, or seeking salvation from spirituality, i.e. having a “personal relationship with God.” The absence of community or any real hope for the future makes narcissism a survival mechanism. Knowing this, I’m still clinically addicted to self-improvement and spirituality, because I’m not above accepting my lot as a product of my environment.
MJ: At one point in the story “The Intruder,” the narrator zones out while having breakfast with a friend. “As he talked, I softened my gaze and visualized myself back in my room,” she says. “I’m surprised more people don’t do this—you can think about whatever you want and watch it in your mind like a movie.” Sometimes it feels surprising that, instead of forcibly filling your time, you can just think. But a lot of people have a hard time inhabiting themselves—their brains are inhospitable environments—so they distract themselves ad infinitum. When you feel distant from or at odds with yourself, what helps you find your way back? How rooted in yourself do you need to be to write at your best?
NA: My brain can be very inhospitable, too. I used to think there was something uniquely wrong with me until I read those mandatory artist-books like The Artist’s Way, The War of Art, and The Untethered Soul. When I learned that the brain’s job is not to be happy, but to constantly scan for threats—even when there are none—and that painful early childhood experiences put this nonstop threat-scanning into overdrive, I started believing my thoughts less. They sound so convincing though, right? I’m sure one day they will invent a way to differentiate the sound of that primal, paranoid voice from your true self, but until then, you just have to stay vigilant. I was listening to Duncan Trussell’s podcast the other day and he was talking to one of his spiritual teachers, and the teacher was like, “You must listen for the still, small voice within,” and Duncan said, “Why’s it gotta be so still and small?!” It made me laugh! I always think about that. If your higher self is really trying to send you a message, why not make it a little louder than that annoying default ticker tape of thoughts? I actually have no advice for how to get around it besides the very boring: sleep, exercise, write in the mornings, be kind to yourself, etcetera. Half the time I neglect all of the above, but I still somehow managed to painfully, tediously, over many years, write a book. Anything is possible.
MJ: Do you have a literary predecessor? Is there a writer or artist whose torch you feel you’ve inherited? 
NA: I don’t know how much I’ve inherited from any one writer or artist. I think it’s more about that recognition we were talking about earlier, that feeling that you’re communing with someone in a place that transcends space-time. Beyond writing, I look to other artists to see how they built their careers, their bodies of work and how they’ve sustained their creative practices. So in that sense, I’m inspired by artists like Marina Abramović, Agnès Varda, Marguerite Duras, Nora Ephron, Hilma af Klint, Anaïs Nin, Daša Drndić, etc. But the artist who has inspired me the most, even just through 14 years of osmosis, long phone conversations, collaborative art projects and daily texts would be my best friend Andrea Nakhla, a painter who has introduced me to so much art, poetry, philosophy, so many new books and ideas. She’s an endless wellspring for me and also a mirror to better understand myself. She was the first person who believed in me as an artist and encouraged me to keep going. Imagine having all that in one friend! Clearly, God loves me.
MJ: The stories in Bad Thoughts are separated by lists of bad thoughts, including hilarious and uncomfortable truths like “‘Thoughts aren’t real, let them pass like clouds in the sky,’ but also ‘Thoughts manifest your reality and steer the course of your fate,’ okay, good luck!” I looked forward to them every time. Can you share some more thoughts that didn’t make it into the final draft?
NA: “Only the most powerful person gets to claim the corner of the L-shaped couch”
“God blessed me with very few followers because he wants me to work on my art instead”
“Addicted to saying ‘noice’ around my guy friends”
“My secret talent is that when I pee in my dreams I don’t pee in real life”
“I can’t stop Shark Tanking my richest friends”
“Love to tell a man that I don’t know about a band just to watch them have a full meltdown”
“The violent betrayal of discovering that a dress is secretly a romper”
MJ: Do you have any advice? Not for writing or publishing necessarily, just in general. 
NA: So much of writing and being a full-time artist requires a level of waiting that feels inhumane. There is so much waiting involved. It always takes so much longer than you think it will and during that time, you find yourself waiting for anything to happen. For me it was waiting to hear about a pitch or a residency or a grant application, or waiting to get an email from my agent, or waiting for my book to sell, then waiting a year before it came out, then waiting for people to review it. Even looking at social media is waiting. You’re waiting for stimuli to respond to. Now, if I find myself caught up in waiting, I have to do something. I have to act. Instead of waiting for the world to impose itself on me, I will impose myself on the world. I will start a new project or revisit an old one. I will text a friend I haven’t talked to in months. I will plan a reading or a dinner party or something to look forward to. Sometimes I forget I’m still allowed to participate in life while I wait for my “real life” to begin. Because that is at the core of all waiting: the false idea that the future is real, and the present is just emails and errand time. Doing instead of waiting gives me a sense of agency and puts things into motion. Whenever you get the urge to wait, or feel that restless sense of How come nothing’s happening yet? ask yourself, What am I doing to make something happen? 
MJ: And finally, three words to describe your upcoming novel?
NA: Nathan for You-ish.

Falling in Love with a Mirage: The Millions Interviews Martha Anne Toll

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Martha Anne Toll’s debut novel, Three Muses, published today by Regal House, centers on prima ballerina Katya Symanova and psychiatrist John Curtain, whose love story is troubled by each of their fraught relationships with the past. After losing her mother at a young age, Katya hands herself over to relentless discipline and a manipulative partnership with her choreographer, all in pursuit of balletic excellence. John, who was forced as a child to sing to the kommandant of the concentration camp that murdered his family, helps patients but struggles to confront his own past and tainted connection to music. Throughout, the novel and its central love story are inspired and animated by the Greek Muses of Song, Discipline, and Memory.

A professionally trained violist and lifelong ballet devotee, Toll brings her passions to bear on this sweeping tale of music, memory, discipline, and loss. Debuting at 64, after a career dedicated to social and racial justice, she also brings earned wisdom to the human complexities she explores. This is her first novel, but not her first rodeo. Her fiction and essays appear in a wide variety of journals, and her book reviews and author interviews appear regularly in The Millions, NPR Books, the Washington Post, and elsewhere.

Jody Hobbs Hesler: Let’s start with your inspiration. Can you walk us through the Muse origin story and how these Muses shaped your novel?

Martha Anne Toll: In 2010, I was casting around for a framework for a new novel. Browsing the internet, I discovered the three Muses who were part of the mythology on the Greek island of Boeotia: Song, Discipline, and Memory. I conceived of the character of John—saved and damned by his singing—as loosely affiliated with Song; and Katya with her commitment to ballet as loosely affiliated with Discipline. As I refined drafts, I used language associated with Song to describe John, and language associated with prayer and Discipline to describe Katya. Memory exerts tremendous power over both Katya and John. They are burdened with Memory, but they draw solace from it as well. In Katya’s case, Memory holds the key to her future.  

JHH: John and Katya both carry such heavy pasts. Could you speak more about how memory shapes them?

MAT:  Trauma is ongoing. For many, it’s necessary to plumb traumatic memories and address them head-on. That is certainly the case with John, a Holocaust survivor. John’s role as a psychiatrist is to help his patients investigate their own memories in order to heal. Our first 18 years—our childhoods—contain powerful memories. As we get older, we may interpret or understand those memories differently. I believe we have to reach a certain age and emotional stamina to handle some memories. That is the case with Katya. She has to grow up before she can handle the truth about her mother’s death. As for John, he would prefer not to remember any of his trauma. 

It was common in the camps for people to be desperate to have someone to bear witness. People hid messages in the mud and tried to find other ways to share the horrors of their experience. Bearing witness to that level of trauma and genocide is essential. It is another form of expressing collective memory. As Jews, we have been around for 4,000 years and have been dispersed for thousands of years. We are still being dispersed. Our collective memory holds us together.

JHH: Music and ballet have been formative passions in your life. Can you share some of that background and some of the joys and challenges of translating those passions into the mechanics of story?

MAT: I fell in love with ballet when I took my first class at age four. I worked and studied, but truly had no talent. But I had the immense privilege of watching professional dancers rehearsing throughout my childhood and attended as much ballet as came to my hometown of Philadelphia. I became very serious about viola when I began taking lessons at age 14. My teacher, Max Aronoff, was in the first graduating class at the Curtis Institute of Music and helped found the Curtis String Quartet. He deconstructed how to get the richest sound out of an instrument that is unwieldy and large. He also had a gift for teaching bowing technique. 

When I turned my attention to writing, my primary challenge was to get these two transitory and ephemeral artforms onto the page. I think that that will remain a lifelong challenge. I had three goals: to convey the total immersion necessary for a dancer or musician to learn their craft. There are no “overnight successes”; it is work, work, work, even for the most talented artists. Second, I wanted to convey the euphoria that comes with “nailing it,” as well as the frustration and rarity of attaining that. And third, I wanted to share the joy of the audience experience. 

JHH: The ballets in Three Muses exist only in your novel. What were some challenges, and rewards, of inventing and choreographing original, yet utterly imaginary, dances? How did you choose the music, “map” the dance sequences, and translate it all into words on the page?

MAT: In early drafts, I used well known ballets, such as Swan Lake, and tried to write the story around them. After a couple of drafts, I realized I was too constrained by “real” ballets, so I began making up my own. I didn’t so much “map” out ballets as offer a taste of them. I used my background in music to research and consider what selections would mesh with the particular section of the story. I put a lot of time into choosing titles for the ballets, so that those, too, could lend clues to the story. By providing the opening dance steps and a window into rehearsals, as well as a sense of the music’s mood, I felt—and hoped—that the reader would fill in the rest.

JHH: John and Katya are so driven and determined that their passions sometimes compete against their desires. We want them to choose joy, frivolity, love, and fun sometimes, but we know they’ll suffer for what they’d sacrifice in the bargain. Can you talk about that tension?

MAT: You’re right about the tensions: John and Katya have these tensions on steroids! Katya is someone whom I could never be—her single-minded devotion to dance is something I endlessly admire but could not have done myself. Although she represents an ideal for me, I worry about her tendency to foreclose opportunities for love. For me, these same professional and personal tensions cause work-life balance issues every day. I think they are magnified for women, and that much more magnified for women who strive for the pinnacle of a very rarified artform.

John suffers from a different set of tensions. He feels enormous pressure to succeed in America because he is the only one of his family who survived. His own expectations drive him forward. And as a refugee, he finds it difficult to get fully comfortable in American culture and with American romantic ideals. His early relationship with Ann, the office secretary, is meant to show his awkwardness with his adopted country. For all these reasons, including the violent, early loss of his family and his destroyed childhood, he has unrealistic expectations about love. He falls in love with a mirage—a prima ballerina on stage—and has little inclination to check his fantasies, despite his psychiatric training. 

On the other hand, I believe deeply in the power of love and am interested in its many facets, including when singular passion and drive can be detrimental to partnered love, which is ultimately what I’m exploring in Three Muses.

JHH: Your own interests and identities often overlap with those of your characters, so I wonder if you’d like to share any personal or family stories that may have helped inspire their conflicts?

MAT: I knew and am related to people who survived the Holocaust. There is a kind of osmosis when extended family members have German or Polish accents and come to Thanksgiving with numbers tattooed on their forearms. With virtually no formal Jewish education, the Holocaust was in many ways my introduction to Judaism. My father was a WWII vet and was wounded in the early days of the Battle of the Bulge. The war was a consuming interest for him. My mother’s cousin was from Mainz, Germany—the inspiration for John’s boyhood home—and lost her family in Auschwitz. Her unsuccessful struggle to get her father and sister out of Germany haunted her for the rest of her life. She wrote an autobiography for the family that helped me understand the extent to which Jews were fully assimilated into society. Their life in Germany was like Jewish life in America: exclusion, expulsion, and mass murder were inconceivable. To paraphrase the historian Peter Gay, he did not know he was Jewish until the Nazis came to power. 

As to the inspiration for Katya, she came fully formed into my head. I very much understand the struggle for mastery of an artistic discipline: as a child, I watched dancers practice incessantly. I trained to be a professional violist and am close to many professional musicians. Artistic immersion was a formative part of my youth and young adulthood. There are many parallels between the pressure and disappointments and perseverance in music and those in ballet.

JHH: Researching the Holocaust, and the very specific roles like the one John had in the camps, of singing for the kommandant, must have been harrowing, to say the least. How did you pace yourself? What were some things you learned that didn’t make it into the book but that you wish people still knew?

MAT:  I’ve read extensively about the Holocaust since my early teens. Copious memoirs and historical accounts helped me imagine what it must have been like for John, even though none of us can really understand it. But in my zeal to understand as much as I can, I’ve immersed myself in this material without regard to pacing. I feel compelled to take in whatever I can, no matter how harrowing.

It has been an immense gift to know people who survived, and to listen to their stories and wisdom. But this is the exception. A common fallout from trauma is silence: there is not only pain, but shame and survivor’s guilt. As I got older, I started asking a lot more questions and seeking out more details from friends and acquaintances whose parents and grandparents were Holocaust survivors. It helped me get away from generalities, and think about specific people and specific lives, which is what I tried to create with John. Some of the stories seeped into Three Muses, and others came from my imagination, which was grounded in research. Of course, many things got left on the cutting room floor. For me, the most important lessons are that the Holocaust can happen anywhere, anytime, and so we must guard against any kind of bigotry and racism; and that there is very rarely closure for the victims of such an experience.

This Season of Fresh Loss: The Millions Interviews Katie Runde

Katie Runde is a writer currently living in Iowa who grew up New Jersey, the setting of her debut novel The Shore. The novel does this wonderful trick of both giving the reader the full experience of a summer on the shore as told by those who live there year-round, while also telling a very difficult and poignant story about illness, family, marriage, sisterhood, and love. Katie and I corresponded over email about navigating loss, carrying grief, and making art from heartbreak.

Matthew Zanoni Müller: The Shore is told through multiple points of view, following sisters Evy and Liz, and their mother Margot, over the course of a summer in the town of Seaside after their father and husband Brian is diagnosed with Glioblastoma Multiforme, or GBM. These three women are so deeply and empathically rendered, and I wonder how you came to the decision to use their multiple points of view to tell the stories of their particular experiences. What kinds of opportunities did this open up to you as a storyteller and how did it affect the way you structured the plotting of this novel?

Katie Runde: An earlier draft of this book was only written from one point of view: 17-year-old Liz. But there were so many places where the rest of the family felt like they had more to say, where I wanted to know what they were up to when they weren’t with Liz! It was so clear that their grief, both from what they’d already lost to Brian’s GBM and were going to lose in a different way when he died, and their self-protective responses to it, were going to separate them, and we had to see them out in the world and alone and inventing new identities that gave them all a place to escape. 

MZM: This novel makes great use of inter-textual elements. I’m thinking here especially of the GBM wives’ online discussion forum, which becomes so central to not only the novel’s tension, but also the ways in which we understand the characters in the book. I’m also thinking here of the use of old emails and the text messages that the girls send to their mother, their friends, and their love interests. What possibilities did giving the reader access to these posts, emails, and messages open up in the telling of this story?

KR: More than any part of the book, the GBM wives’ posts felt like they wrote themselves, like I was totally possessed and this voice that just needed an outlet was pouring out. I would bet a lot of people have made up a username and turned to one of these kinds of forums at some point—we go there when we have questions that Google or doctors or our loved ones can’t answer, and when we need to find someone out there going through this same, very specific thing that we’re going through. You can say things there that are vulnerable because it’s anonymous. In The Shore, there’s another layer of tension in the forum interactions, of sadness that these two characters are sometimes writing messages from the same house, but can’t say these things out loud to each other. 

I also loved writing the old emails. I would give anything to have the old IMs and emails I sent in college and my early 20s, feeling so lonely and independent at the same time. I think finding relics and evidence of old versions of yourself, or someone you love and you’re losing, is such a comfort, a reminder that life is long, and there are so many versions of ourselves, and the one in the midst of this season of fresh loss won’t be the ones we are forever.

MZM: The GBM wives forum is just one of the many ways that you depict how illness affects this family: we see how Brian is changed by the diagnosis, how his family and friends must scramble to adapt, and how the process is shown in such clear detail throughout the arc of this novel. What was most important to you in rendering the experience of a family member’s illness in this story?

KR: Definitely the double-loss of caring for someone who is not himself. You lose him twice, first when he changes, and again when he actually dies. And for most of the illness, the caretaking is not at a bedside, but out in the world with this new, different person, arguing and chasing and feeling so vulnerable and confused and exhausted. And a GBM causes different changes, depending where it is in the brain, not necessarily to memory like someone struggling with dementia. 

You absolutely must shut a part of yourself off to make it through caring for someone like this. And then when it’s over, it’s not so easy to just flip back on. You had to transform into a different, all-business, delayed-grief, patient, dark-humor-filled person to get through an hour or a day, years, and finding your way back to turn back on feeling everything is really hard.

MZM: One central tension in the novel is how each character must navigate the difficulty and heartbreak of Brian’s condition while also trying to still live a normal life: seeing friends, falling in love, going to work. Of course, each character manages this differently, and I’m wondering how you approached or thought about rendering the complexity of each characters’ management of this situation as you crafted this story?

KR: Just as our immune systems react to try to protect us, our alchemy of brain chemistry and our own experience goes into overdrive to protect us from pain, from overwhelm, from the unknown. For Margot, that also means trying to protect her girls as she’s imploding emotionally herself. I think more than managing, they’re reacting, and also compartmentalizing, definitely disassociating. In my experience, you have to do this in the acute worst-of-it time and we don’t have any more of a say in how we react than we do to how our body responds to a virus. Scenes with Margot and the girls communicating with each other were both the easiest things to write, in terms of what will these characters do when I throw this at them or put them in this room together. But it was the hardest because of the painful gap you have to create between what’s in their head and what they intend and how much they love each other, and what they’re actually saying and not saying. This is my favorite thing about reading fiction, versus watching a film: the constant negotiation of that space between what we intend and feel, and what we say.

MZM: Brian’s behavior, once his disease has progressed, represents an aberration of social and parenting norms in really stark ways, from running into traffic, to screaming obscenities at Margot and Evy and Liz, to dressing inappropriately. This separates them from their communities in a variety of ways, while also throwing into stark relief how their version of “normal” has been totally upended. This is clearly an inversion that places them in an alienated sphere all their own. I wonder how you have come to think about illness in this context, and what it might teach us about our society, the people in our lives, and of course ourselves? I’m thinking too, for example, of Margot’s need for connection with others who are in similar situations, as in the GBM wives’ forum, the need to inhabit a sort of kinship of grief. This also brings up our society’s relationship to illness, which often seems radically inadequate. What messages about illness are you hoping to send with this story?

KR: Margot has a few moments where she realizes the amount of emotional labor she will have to do to maintain her friendships through this, and she’s like, I know your hearts are all in the right places but I can’t show up and act normal and say I am fine at book club, but I also can’t show up and sob and talk about myself the whole time, so catch you later, keep me on the email list! There are also people who just get it, like Brian’s old friend Robbie who lets Brian “work” at the bar. He’s happy there, there’s access to some part of Brian that bypasses the personality changes at least for a few hours. We had a lot of family and friends like this in my real experience, and I leaned harder into the isolation for this fictional family. This family has a lot of privilege—health insurance, enough money and assets, excellent healthcare nearby, good hospice care when the time comes. But our culture insists on an almost superhuman kind of resilience. 

I think we are finally having a conversation about the carrying of grief and how it changes over time, as opposed to the moving on from it. I actually think for all the awful aspects of social media, it has helped with this one thing. On Mother’s Day, there were so many beautiful posts talking about mothers that might have been gone a long time, but how the person thinks of her every day, right there on the grid or in their stories with whatever books or fashion or food their account is normally about. And I think that’s a beautiful thing to share as often as we can with as many people as we can. 

MZM: Did you have a specific reader in mind for this novel? I can imagine this book as a love letter to coastal communities, as a source of comfort and recognition for those who have faced similar travails with an ill family member, and as odes to first love and the complexities of parenting.

KR: Yes, this is for anyone who sees a place they love and know portrayed in pop culture and wants to tell more of the story. It is for readers who love this complicated both/and space where humor and heartbreak and loss and beauty and memory all exist at once. I hope anyone who’s facing the loss of someone who is not themselves will find comfort in all the characters’ flaws and ways of coping. If a teenager or a mom going through something like this reads it and feels any less alone, the whole project will be worth it. I hope they find me, and I hope they make their own art out of their broken hearts. 

Peace Alongside Unrest: The Millions Interviews Meghan Gilliss

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Meghan Gilliss’s debut novel Lungfish tells the story of Tuck, a new mother residing on an uninhabited island off the coast of Maine, with only her child and her detoxing husband for company. As Tuck watches her husband Paul painfully ween himself off the opioid-like drug kratom, she grapples with questions about marriage, motherhood, and addiction. Experimental in form, Lungfish is segmented into page-length chapters resembling prose poems, mirroring Tuck’s own dissociative response to the isolation and scarcity that constrict her life. I spoke with Gilliss via email about catharsis, nature writing, and her personal connection to her protagonist.

Liv Albright: As Tuck finds with her research, kratom is used to help alleviate symptoms of withdrawal from supposedly more harmful opioids, yet her husband, Paul, is addicted to kratom. How did you hear about kratom and why did you choose it for Paul’s drug of choice?

Meghan Gilliss: My relationship to kratom in real life is very similar to Tuck’s relationship to it, and unraveled similarly, in emotional terms. I began this book in 2016, when no one was really talking about the drug. It was a struggle, writing the novel from Tuck’s perspective—giving the reader enough information about what was going on to feel grounded, while maintaining the sense of her own disorientation and lack of solid information. There were points during the revision process when I thought that it might make more sense to substitute kratom with a substance more readers could easily latch onto, but in the end that extra layer of Tuck’s isolation and confusion felt worth keeping; our problems are never as simple as other people’s problems, and they are always entangled with other unique problems, which means that solutions have to be completely custom-built and don’t come easily. I chose to designate kratom as the drug in the novel because I believed it might keep readers more alert than they’d be if the characters were under the sway of a substance people are more familiar with. It was also cathartic—a kind of revenge against a part of the industry that in my own experience had knowingly cultivated and profited from the addiction of others.

LA: Themes of addiction are balanced with nature in Lungfish. Nature is given as much importance, if not more importance, than humans in the novel. Tuck sometimes senses her family members in the earth, and at times plants and trees are characterized as living, breathing beings. What is your relationship with nature and why does it manifest so strongly in your work?

MG: I think that there are people writers and there are nature writers. And I think which one you are might come down to which community—of people or of nature—gives you that sense of being at ease, of being in your own skin. I think I’m just the second kind—writers who have always known we don’t think or talk fast enough to live in a place like New York, as good as it might be for a writing career. The ability to reflect on the natural world in writing is a huge opportunity, too, in terms of developing selfhood. But also, in this novel, Tuck is grasping at things—whatever is actually there in front of her—to help her make sense of her situation. She happens to be isolated within a very natural setting, so it makes sense that she tries to draw some meaning from it, or even just understand it.

LA: In your short story “Old Money,” published in Salamander, the narrator’s ancestors have built a house on an island, which is central to the story. This is very similar to Lungfish, where the narrator is squatting in her deceased grandmother’s island home. Did “Old Money” at all inspire Lungfish?

MG: Lungfish probably did borrow some themes from “Old Money,” but “Old Money” first borrowed those themes from my life. We have a piece of property like this in my family—a steadily shrinking piece of the land that generations of my ancestors have spent time on, though I do worry about how they came to have it. It’s a complicated place—my deepest home, but at the same time a place that can’t be experienced without the awareness of the huge unearned privilege of having access to it, coupled with the deep and real fear of losing it. Peace is experienced alongside unrest.

LA: In “Old Money” and several other of your short stories, including “A Bush in Harbor View,” poverty is a central theme. This is also the case in Lungfish, where the family gets evicted after Paul, the husband, loses his job. What draws you to writing about the experience of poverty?

MG: I grew up in a family that had been declining economically for generations. Culturally, I was taught to have the concerns of a wealthier class. But practically, I had the concerns of someone living paycheck to paycheck for my entire adult life. I remember being a kid and asking my dad how much money he earned, and he wouldn’t tell me, basically saying it was impolite to talk about these things. I was just trying to understand how much you needed to earn to be okay—we were getting by, but I grew up attending private schools and so ran with a much wealthier crowd, never inviting anyone over to my house. At a certain point in life, it just started feeling better to be open about money, and the lack of it, and the interesting situations the lack of it causes. While I hate the fact that so much of America lives in poverty now, I’m at least grateful for the fact that people talk about their poverty and don’t take such great pains to hide it.

LA: The novel also plays with this idea of women’s bodies being inadequate. Tuck feels like she’s not supposed to feel hunger, and her trouble starting the boat leaves her feeling that “female bodies were just missing something. Some muscle in the shoulder that made the necessary motion possible.” Yet Tuck is an active force, collecting food and caring for her daughter, while Paul is incapacitated in a detox state. What do you make of this gender dynamic? Can you talk more about Paul and his motivations?

MG: I think Tuck is a person for whom passivity had no noticeable consequences until she became a parent. I think that like other heroines—like the narrators in Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays, Ann Beattie’s Walks with Men, and Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever—she is wired as a receiver, a sort of collector and compiler, but less so for action or even necessarily synthesis. But sometimes, even for these people, action is eventually demanded. I think people across the gender spectrum are wired this way, though of course it’s most cultivated and appreciated in women. Certainly, when it comes to Tuck’s internalization of the idea that she should not feel her own hunger, you realize she’s been damaged by societal messaging. And as for Paul, I think he loves his family and is driven away from them by shame as much as by a protective need for secrecy. I think his own deep need for something in order to feel okay—in his case, drugs—overrules all the choices he’d rather make. His brain was hijacked, as addicts’ brains are. Unfortunately, it’s pretty simple and really not the least bit moral.

LA: Tuck spends much of the novel questioning her faith. Meanwhile, you thread religious imagery throughout the narrative. Can you explain your approach to writing about faith and religion? 

MG:  Addiction forces you to face your own ideas about God and all that. Parenthood also makes you feel inclined to revisit your beliefs; you begin to understand, if you didn’t already, why human beings rely on belief systems. For Tuck, who is surrounded by the evidence of her grandmother’s faith in the Christian God, religion and faith exist as alternatives and experiences, potentialities—and even, I think, they represent feelings of being left out, of some understanding that access will be granted only in exchange for self-obliteration. Is it worth it? Mostly, Tuck has to choose, day in and day out, what to believe about her situation, and then has to move forward with that. It takes her a while to learn she has to do that even if it means potentially being wrong.

Mutable Influence: Gabriel Blackwell and Ravi Mangla in Conversation

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Gabriel Blackwell and I have never met in person, but we’ve crossed paths many times in the peripheries of the internet. We published our first books around the same time, around a decade ago now, and I’ve been an avid reader of Gabe’s books ever since. His story collection Correction was one of my favorite books of 2021, and his breathtakingly brilliant Madeleine E., published in 2016, is a book I find myself returning to again and again. Gabe has been generous enough to publish several of my more eccentric stories in the journal he edits, The Rupture. And with each of us having new novels out—Doom Town and The Observant, respectively—I was interested in having a conversation about influence, creative restlessness, and how our approach to the work might have changed over the years.

Ravi Mangla: Doing promotion for my latest book, I’m once again struck by how often the question of influence comes up. It’s always a curious question to me, because influence feels ever-changing—or perhaps different projects tap into different influences. As someone who moves between various forms of story craft, I’m curious to get your thoughts on the mutability of influence. Do you still feel you’re in conversation with the same writers and artists or has it changed from when you started out? Are there influences you’ve shed or left behind?

Gabriel Blackwell: It is a curious question. To me, it belongs to the same category as “Where did you get the idea for your book?”—by which I mean it’s kind of baldly an acquisitive question (e.g., “Where did you get that bag?” “Where did you get that coffee?,” but not: “Where did you get that marriage?” “Where did you get those ethics?”), even as it often seems like a more circuitous way to ask: “How did you do that?” “How can I do that?” Both fair questions! But I basically never have a good answer, I think because I don’t think like that, or maybe because I don’t think about that.

To more directly address your question, though, yes, I’m sure the books with which my work is in conversation have changed over the years, simply because I don’t make a practice of reading the same books over and over. I read much more than I write, and I try to read widely, but that’s not to say I read indiscriminately—there are far too many bad books out there to read indiscriminately.

I also tend to think that, at bottom, the question of influence is a way of asking the author “Will I like your book?” when the inquirer is unfamiliar with the book—or “What other books should I read?” when the inquirer is familiar with the book. I like the latter question much better than the others mentioned here because, again, I read as much as I can but I try not to read indiscriminately. Ravi, I loved The Observant, so: What other books should I read?

RM: Right now I’m reading Mark Haber’s Saint Sebastian’s Abyss, which strikes me—with its Bernhardian humor and cyclical logic—as something you would appreciate. 

Another book I read for the first time this year is Magda Szabó’s The Door, which immediately ranks as an all-time favorite. Those NYRB Classics titles rarely, if ever, miss. I used to be drawn more to deadpan and dark humor in my reading. And while I still love a funny book, I tend to gravitate these days to titles where the author is doing something unconventional with language or structure. What’s piquing your curiosity of late? Anything good to recommend?

GB: Yes, in contrast to the past couple of years—when, for various reasons, I forced myself through way too many prize winners and overhyped books (and so much bad nonfiction)—I’m having a good reading year this year. I finally read Jason Schwartz’s A German Picturesque and John the Posthumous, both of them wonderfully strange and, as Gordon Lish wrote of Schwartz, “complete, as genius agonizingly is.” Initially, I was sort of expecting something more like Ben Marcus because of Schwartz’s endorsements—among them, Marcus and Lish—but no, Schwartz is doing his own thing, kind of nouveau roman-ish and interestingly artifactual.

An especially generous reader of Doom Town compared the book to Stig Saeterbakken’s Through the Night, so I read that and—probably no surprise to that reader—I loved it. And I also recently read Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children and Mark Harman’s translation of Kafka’s The Castle, both incredible, and I’m nearing the end of my project of reading everything Barbara Comyns published.

RM: I’m eager to check out the Schwartz and Saeterbakken books.

GB: Each quite different from the other. But to pause just a moment to consider the obverse of this question of influence: In your introduction, you say the stories of yours that we’ve published in The Collagist and The Rupture are among your “more eccentric” fiction; I can certainly see a different relationship to language at work in The Observant than in something like, say, your story “Giving.” And it’s not just a matter of a different voice; the pieces we’ve published in the magazine have been mostly monologous, and dialogue is quite important to The Observant. Were you consciously trying to do something different with The Observant?

RM: The short pieces in The Rupture are very voice-driven. There’s something a bit askew and perhaps emotionally distant. When I think of some of my favorite story writers—like Lydia Davis or Robert Lopez—voice is such a crucial part of their work. I’m not sure if I know how to sustain those monologues or stretch them to novel-length. For The Observant, I wanted to write it straighter, a touch more earnest, than previous projects. I was also interested in writing a book with an international outlook. My day job is in political communications, and I spend an unhealthy amount of time tracking the news. Subjects like the global rise of fascism, wealth concentration, and the police state are both terrifying and fascinating to me. I wanted to contend with them in my own way, even at the risk of having the book labeled—gasp—“political art.”

GB: I think I know what you mean about sustained monologues—Doom Town is one, or seems like one, I think probably reads like one, and revising it required a different way of thinking than did the revising of my other books.

Having to modulate the voice to accommodate the way the events the narrator is retelling affect him—both at the time they occurred and now that he is retelling them—and the book’s need for an appearance of a single, unified or contiguous telling of those events posed more of a challenge than I expected. I mean that the monologue is the narrator’s attempt at a making of meaning where the book is already that meaning, and managing that disjunct could sometimes seem very clumsy in its execution. After much revision, less so.

The Observant clearly does address issues like wealth concentration, the police state, and global politics more generally, but I worry that to say so sells the book short. I was reminded of Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s The African Shore, which its American publisher describes as “dystopic travel fiction,” and compares to Paul Bowles and Naipaul. Of course, those last two writers are essayists as well as writers of fiction, as are you. Is there something that pushes you to write an essay rather than a fiction, or vice versa?

RM: I haven’t pinned down a preferred way of describing the book, but “dystopic travel fiction” is a new contender. On the nonfiction front, I started playing around with lyric essays when I was struggling with story writing. The essays tend to begin with a curiosity—often the result of going down a Wikipedia rabbit hole—whereas the stories normally begin with an image or some snippet of language. Though I’d love to experiment more with hybrid pieces in the future.

GB: What do you object to when it comes to “political art”? Is it something in the works of political art themselves, or is it the label?

RM: I think the “political” label is sometimes used as a pejorative to relegate a work to some lower rung of literature. For instance, many of Graham Greene’s novels were written off as “entertainments,” despite their obvious artistic qualities. Maybe that’s paranoia on my part. I spent a long time distancing my writing work from my day job. That distance has gotten narrower over time. I think my central preoccupation is still language, but I recognize the political content is more likely than the sentences to take center stage. One thing I always appreciate about your books is the thoughtful construction. I love the way that Doom Town is organized. And I’m wondering how you determine what form suits a specific voice or concept. If I’m remembering correctly, you’ve written a noir, epistolary novel, “commonplace” book, and the opening story in Babel is a parenthetical nesting doll. If I stand back and look at your output, there’s a mad scientist quality to it all.

GB: I may be misremembering, but, with the exception of the intentionally constrained form that I made use of throughout Correction—which I invented, in part, to remove the question of form from my writing process, to make things just that bit easier on myself—I don’t think I ever set out to write in a particular form. I have, on occasion, been asked to work within a particular form for some project or another, but I usually decline those requests, and the few times I haven’t declined them, very much against my better judgment, I’ve been ashamed of the results. I think that’s because, usually, the form of a particular essay or fiction comes out of my consideration of why it would ever have been written down or recorded in the first place. There are exceptions, though, like “(   ),” and maybe to a lesser or less obvious extent, Doom Town, each an exception in its own way. I don’t know. I think about form as an extension of voice, in the way anyone would and everyone does. Type a text on your phone, handwrite a thank you note, give a speech to strangers, blurt something out to a friend—they each involve different strategies, different punctuation or expression, different vocabularies. Different forms. One can overthink those considerations, like directors trying to prevent their movies from appearing on streaming services or writers who resist e-books, but just not thinking about form at all is very alien to my way of thinking and writing.

RM: Well, as a long-time admirer of your work, it’s been a treat to get a glimpse into your process. As a closing question, I’m wondering what keeps you going—making things amid the sundry crises we’re experiencing every day. I know it’s been hard for me at times to feel the urgency and purpose. And maybe I’m grasping for reassurance, but it’s something I wonder about with creative people in this moment.

GB: I’m not adept or skilled at most other things, and that helps, because I’m also extremely restless and more or less incapable of just not doing anything. But I don’t think that’s unique to me; I’m sure that’s the case for most writers, most artists. I also think that, at some level, there must be a suspicion in me that there is a book I want to write but can’t write, not yet, and that I have to keep writing so that at some point I can write that book, whatever that book is or will be. I’ve said before that I write because there are books I want to read but that don’t yet exist, but I don’t read my books after they’ve been published, so I think what I really mean must be that there is a book, a book that I can’t write yet and that doesn’t yet exist to be read but that I very much want to read. I write and keep writing because I’m writing toward that book.

The Worlds of Middle-Earth: The Millions Interviews Richard Ovenden and Catherine McIlwaine

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Beginning with The Silmarillion in 1977, and ending with The Fall of Gondolin in 2018, Christopher Tolkien edited and published 25 books of his father J.R.R. Tolkien’s work. Shepherding J.R.R’s mostly unpublished writings about Middle-earth into the literary canon, Christopher deepened public appreciation of J.R.R.’s elaborate world-building, especially during the eras before those described in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Thanks to his diligent efforts as his father’s literary executor, Christopher was awarded the Bodley Medal in 2016, “for his outstanding contribution to the world of literature.”

In The Great Tales Never End: Essays in Memory of Christopher Tolkien, Richard Ovenden, who serves as Bodley’s Librarian, the senior Executive position of the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford, and Catherine McIlwaine, the Tolkien Archivist at the Bodleian Libraries, have assembled a remarkable anthology about Christopher, who died in 2020. Though originally planned as a festschrift, the book’s scope is both vast and intimate, including memories from Christopher’s sister Priscilla, a eulogy delivered at his funeral by a close friend, literary essays from Tolkien scholars, and an examination of a lost BBC radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings from the 1950s (J.R.R. himself rewrote narration and dialogue for the production, the only known adaptation with which Tolkien himself was involved). I spoke with Ovenden and McIlwaine about The Great Tales Never End, and Christopher’s work to preserve and expand upon his famous father’s legacy.

Lenny Picker: What personal memories of Christopher Tolkien are your most vivid?

Richard Ovenden: I had the good fortune of visiting him at least once a year for about 10 years. Staying in the house, having long conversations. He looked quite like his father. I never knew J.R.R. Tolkien, but Christopher’s memory of Oxford really was quite profound. He was born there, grew up there, and lived there for many decades. But his memory of it is really kind of frozen in about the middle of the 1970s, when the family moved to France. And so having a conversation with Christopher about Oxford was like having one about the Oxford of when J.R.R. Tolkien was still alive. So it seemed to me almost like you were talking to J.R.R. Tolkien. And because he had this immense knowledge of his father’s work and his mentality, there was that sort of connection. Christopher also had a very great sense of humor—a very, very dry sense of humor. And he was a very funny human being. He also was a great reader; he loved reading fiction, Victorian fiction, in particular, Dickens, Trollope, were a great source of pleasure for him. So he was a very literary person, not just in his own field of scholarship.

Catherine McIlwaine: I didn’t know him personally as well as Richard did. I only accompanied Richard once to Christopher’s home in the south of France, but it was a very memorable occasion, as you can imagine. We had some business talk, and then we had a lovely meal outside—cheese and bread and wine, just a simple, beautiful meal, really like we’d had a Hobbit feast. We walked around the grounds, and Christopher talked about the difficulty of reading his father’s handwriting, and how some of it remained impenetrable. Most of it—with patience and by developing a familiarity with the handwriting—he was able to decipher. And that really chimed with me because, of course, a lot of my work as the Tolkien archivist is reading Tolkien’s handwriting, and he could write so beautifully, and so calligraphically. But when he was writing really fast, and the ideas were just coming out of his head and he was scrawling in pencil, particularly, it becomes awful, just like a string of squiggles. So I really felt that we had some connection in our daily lives from that shared experience.

LP: Richard, how would you summarize Christopher’s role in both preserving and enhancing his father’s legacy?

RO: When J.R.R.Tolkien died, he had published only a fraction of what he had actually written about the worlds of Middle-earth. There were a series of legends which were left in unfinished form in manuscripts, which Christopher then edited and brought into publication. The first of these was The Silmarillion, and that was then followed by The Unfinished Tales, and then the 12 volumes of The History of Middle-Earth. It’s a massive achievement, really. And that breadth of detail which Christopher’s edited works bring to the world of Middle-earth would have never appeared if he hadn’t taken on this labor—and it was a labor that really lasted 50 years. And that was brought about through his painstaking scholarship. He was a scholar of Middle English. He lectured and taught at Oxford and brought that erudition and that scholarly rigor to the manuscripts of his father, as if they were Middle English manuscripts that had been written on parchment 600 years ago. He gave up his academic career to do that. He’d been very successful in Oxford for about 10 or 12 years as a lecturer, as well as a fellow. So he gave that up and just dedicated himself to the editorial work. But I don’t think he ever saw that as a loss. Quite the opposite. It was a fantastic opportunity for him to dedicate himself to providing, the most faithful editorial versions he could. And in his nineties, he produced his father’s edition of Beowulf. So there’s not just the literary works related to Middle-earth, but something which scholars had never thought would see the light of day—one of the greatest scholars of medieval literature of the twentieth century’s edition of Beowulf, one of the most important works in literature. And Christopher finally bringing it to the public in a meticulous edition, while in his nineties—I mean, what an incredible achievement.

LP: Catherine, was there anything from the contributions to this volume which changed your understanding of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work?

CM: I do feel like I have a much greater understanding now of Christopher’s role in his father’s work—from his childhood, sitting on a stool and listening to tales,  right through to not just his editorial work on his father’s writings, but, as some of the essays in this volume note, creative work in collaboration with his father. There’s a lovely phrase in the eulogy in the book by Maxine Pascal, who was a family friend—she says Christopher served as “a creative companion.” I thought that was a really lovely sort of description of that relationship between Christopher and his father. There was a lot in this book that is thought-provoking. I particularly liked Vincent Ferré’s essay, “The Son Behind The Father: Christopher Tolkien as a Writer,” for making you think about which parts Christopher might have contributed himself, rather than just rearranging words on the page.

And I always found the ending of The Lord of the Rings quite disappointing. I do love that book, but when you get to the end and Samwise says, “Well, I’m back” [the last words in the published The Lord of the Rings], that feels like you missed a step or something. And Verlyn Flieger’s essay “Listening To The Music” brings to the fore that there was more to the book that Tolkien had written, and that that wasn’t how it was supposed to end. It was supposed to end with, “Sam heard suddenly the sigh and murmur of the sea on the shores of Middle-earth.” And that was a link back to the creation of the world, and the Music of the Ainur [immortal spirits existing before the Creation in J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythology] in the waves. And that just changed my whole approach to the ending of The Lord of the Rings, which is lovely because I’ve read it, you know, probably every year of my adult life. And that scholarship changed my way of thinking about it.

Dwell in the Wondrous: The Millions Interviews Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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Of the more than 50 novels H.G. Wells wrote in his lifetime, The Island of Doctor Moreau, published in 1896, is one of his most intriguing—and frightening. This seminal science-fiction narrative tells the story of Edward Prendick, who finds himself shipwrecked on the island home of Doctor Moreau, where Moreau has created human hybrid beings via vivisection, or surgical experimentation on live animals. A compelling page-turner, the novel also confronts major philosophical themes about human identity, our responsibility to animals and other people, and our penchant for playing god.
The Island of Doctor Moreau ignited the imagination of bestselling novelist Silvia Moreno-Garcia, whose latest book The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, plumbs even deeper into its predecessor’s philosophical themes by exploring cultural, political, and sociological issues that arise from colonialism, colorism, classism, and sexism. In yet another twist on Wells’s narrative, Moreno-Garcia sets her novel in Mexico and centers much of it on Moreau’s hybrid beings.
The Daughter of Doctor Moreau is a thrilling, complex, and ingeniously crafted novel that explores not only what it means to be human, but also society’s often cruel and devious attempts to dehumanize those who are categorized as “other.” Moreover, Moreno-Garcia is an expert storyteller who populates her exhilarating tale with complex characters. I talked with Moreno-Garcia about the evolution of science fiction, the surrealism of history, and writing one of the must-read novels of 2022.
Daniel A. Olivas: Your novel is loosely inspired by the H. G. Wells science fiction classic, The Island of Doctor Moreau, first published in 1896. What was it about the Wells novel that inspired you to create your own vision of Moreau’s medical experiments of creating human-animal hybrids?
Silvia Moreno-Garcia: I’d been interested in doing something with this for a while, but I just couldn’t find a way to ground it. It wasn’t until I decided to set it in the Yucatán in the late nineteenth century that I was able to get a true feeling for the structure of the story. One of the things that interested me about Wells is that he is one of the progenitors of modern science fiction. He helped the genre take shape, but the genre is still very malleable. He wrote what were then called “scientific romances”—the term “science fiction” hasn’t been coined yet. And a lot of the tropes and the forms of the genre that we’ve come to rely on, they’re still in the future. Because of this, I think nineteenth-century literature can transcend boundaries. It can get messy.
The other thing is that I was not just looking at Wells—I was also very interested in the work of Ignacio Manuel Altamirano and his 1869 novel Clemencia. This is what might have been termed a “sentimental” novel, a mix between historical and romance. Altamirano wanted to create a new type of national literature, one that was in some sense free of foreign influence. Ironically, Clemencia is very much influenced by Dickens, Scott, and French literature—the book even opens with epigraphs by E.T.A  Hoffmann. Still, Altamirano and other Latin American writers were trying to create a different kind of book at this time, something that blends European Romanticism with Latin American specificities. I was looking back at Altamirano as much as I was looking at Wells when I was considering how to build this book. That’s why Clemencia is also mentioned in the novel.
DAO: The Wells novel is told in the first person through the voice of a man who is shipwrecked on the island of Doctor Moreau. However, you constructed your narrative in alternating third-person chapters that focus on several key characters including Carlota, your novel’s titular daughter, who is the central figure of your tale. Could you talk a little about your creative decision to depart from the Wells novel in this and in many other ways?
SMG: Wells basically tells his story in epistolary form. You have someone narrating what happened to him via a manuscript years after the fact. Conversely, I have two points of view. One is Carlota, Moreau’s 20-year-old daughter, and the other is Montgomery Laughton, the doctor’s right-hand man. They provide a contrast. Carlota has grown up isolated in the middle of the jungle, exposed to the outside only via her father’s teachings and books. She is young, naïve, hopeful, and has not seen enough of the world. Montgomery is an alcoholic who works with Moreau because he hit rock bottom. He is 35, cynical, bitter, and has seen perhaps too much of the world. These radically different characters balance each other and serve to complicate the story.
DAO: By setting your novel in Yucatán in the late 1800s and giving agency to Carlota and the other hybrid characters, one could read your novel on two levels. On the one hand, your narrative can be enjoyed as a thrilling science fiction and horror story that keeps the reader turning each page to find out what happens next. On the other hand, your novel may be read as social commentary on colonialism and society’s treatment—and exploitation—of “the other.” Could you share with us your process of developing the key elements of your narrative, and did you have this dual goal in mind?
SMG: I like grounding my work in historical fact because the truth can be surreal. You can’t quite believe the things you find in footnotes. Colonization is an especially interesting subject in Latin America. Did you know, for example, that there were Mormon colonies in nineteenth-century Mexico? That after the American Civil War, ex-confederate soldiers went to Brazil to establish settlements there? Or that there was a bloody conflict between the Indigenous Maya of the Yucatán and the Mexican population of mixed and European descent? This last event, known as the Guerra de Castas, is what I use as the backdrop in The Daughter of Doctor Moreau. It’s a time when Great Britain is supporting the Maya rebels because it benefits their interests in British Honduras and the peninsula is essentially divided in two. This is also a time of great scientific discoveries, and great quandaries. You have the rise of eugenics, you have vivisection, happening at the same time people who are figuring out ways to save lives and stop the spread of diseases. These different forces coming together and how they clash, I think they’re very interesting. You can approach all of this in a completely realist manner by building a historical novel with no speculative elements. Or you can dwell in the wondrous, almost unbelievable nature of it all.

Life Beyond Your Four Walls: The Millions Interviews Jillian Medoff

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Jillian Medoff’s When We Were Bright and Beautiful is a New York novel of a distinct period. At the novel’s center is the uber-rich Quinn family. On the outside, the Quinns seem to have it all—money, good looks, Ivy League education, whiteness—but all is not what it seems, especially when the youngest son is accused of rape. Medoff employs a kind of narrative hall of mirrors combined with a slew of unreliable narrators, leaving the reader eager to unpeel all the layers to get at the pith of this troubled family. I spoke with Medoff about her meticulous plotting, the isolating power of wealth, how the #MeToo movement impacted When We Were Bright and Beautiful, and more.

Marie Myung-Ok Lee: To not give away spoilers, let me talk about WWWBAB via other books. It feels very much in the great tradition of New York books like Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children. Did the milieu of this book come first, or did the characters? What kind of research did you do?

Jillian Medoff: Believe it or not, the Valmont, the luxury building at the heart of the novel, came first. Modeled after 740 Park, the Valmont is older, smaller, and more well-appointed, so it’s more exclusive. WWWBAB was conceived as a contemporary Upstairs, Downstairs, or Downton Abbey, and, like Bonfire of the Vanities, kicked off with a crime. The earlier incarnation tracked the interrelationships among the Valmont’s monied residents and the staff who serve them. The current version retains vestiges of these relationships, but it’s leaner, faster, and more focused.  
In initial drafts, a six-year-old girl named Cassie is kidnapped leaving the Valmont in a Town Car. She’s alone and her heiress mother, Eleanor, is accused of neglect. I wanted to explore class and privilege using parenting as the pivot. This setup was implausible, however, so I changed kidnapping to sexual assault, winnowed down the characters, and zeroed in on the Quinns. Cassie Quinn, now 23, narrates WWWBAB.
When I changed direction, I was about 10 months into the project. Since the setting and major characters stayed the same, I was able to repurpose my research, which included biographies of Wall Street titans like JP Morgan; TV shows and movies like Gossip Girls, Billions, Succession, Wall Street, The Godfather; and websites featuring lifestyles of the rich and famous—so, lots of blogs about luxury cars and wristwatches. 
MML: This novel has more twists and turns than an origami cube—can you tell me a little bit how you came up with the idea for it? 
JM: When I write, I typically begin with an image or a line of dialogue and let the story unfold. I don’t use outlines, which means I have a lot—a lot—of false starts. I’ll move forward tentatively, but the dialogue is a huge part of my interior process, so once characters start talking, scenes start to take shape. Instead of fleshing them out, however, I start over. This happens, like, 50 or 60 times before I’ll understand what the novel is about, and more specifically, whose story I’m telling and why. It’s slow and frustrating because I veer off on tangents for days, weeks, even months, and write many—many—pages that I end up cutting. On the other hand, working this way means I know the characters so intimately, they become part of me. I eat with them; I breathe with them. I feel them on a cellular level.
I worked on WWWBAB this way for about three years. But as I got to know the Quinns, and they became real to me, the story became increasingly complicated. By this point, I realized that the novel is a study of consciousness—specifically, moving from knowing something implicitly to acknowledging it explicitly. Cassie is telling you the story of her brother’s alleged crime, but in fact, she’s telling you about two crimes, and she’s the victim of one of them. This was an enormous challenge because I was writing two different books. The story flips after Part One, flips again after Part Two, and then the trial is in Part Three. It’s only after finishing the entire book do you realize what the novel is, and what I’m trying to accomplish. So, when I figured this out, I had to change my approach. Along with creating outlines and multiple timelines, I choreographed every detail, every action, every line of dialogue. Then, after I sold the novel, my editor asked me to cut 100 pages and rejigger the information flow all over again!
I had another reckoning a year later. The #MeToo movement exploded, and I got skittish. It was coincidental that I was writing about sexual assault at the same time the rest of the world was waking up, and the overlap overwhelmed me. Again, I considered changing the central crime. But seeing so many brave women come forward evoked a sense of urgency. Plus, I felt I could bring something new to the conversation by illustrating the complexity of survivors’ responses in a unique way. WWWBAB is a psychological thriller that moves quickly and covers a lot of ground, but the architecture is hyper-consciously engineered. Honestly, I couldn’t have written a book this nuanced and layered earlier in my career. It took 30 years and four novels—and lots and lots of rejection—to get me here.  
MML: Not to give too much away, but the idea of family in this book seems straightforward but then gets more and more complicated. Not just the legal idea of who is family, but who is chosen family and, when you grow up, do you get to un-chose? I really like the question the book poses: if adults go above and beyond to save a child, what does that child owe the family in loyalty when she grows up? Or, does the child owe the family anything, since it was never her choice, anyway? I think of when parents, especially often adoptive parents, demand some kind of spiritual payment or something for raising a child when the child never asked to be brought into the world, or adopted.
JM: I think every family has its own spoken and unspoken rules and rituals around money, responsibility, and loyalty. Sometimes it’s cultural, other times it’s circumstantial. Looking at the Quinns from the outside, it’s easy to envy or covet their level of uber-wealth, but Cassie makes it clear that for her and her brothers, money is both a noose and a trap. She wants to be her own person but isn’t sure how to do that, or if she even should. Is her inner conflict compounded because she’s adopted? Probably, but her brothers feel it, too, albeit differently. 
Similarly, loyalty and responsibility are expressed between parents and children in a variety of ways; sometimes it’s money, other times, it’s working in the family business or caring for a parent as they age. As Cassie says in the book, the rich have their own economy and their own forms of currency. Moreover, the higher a parent’s demands, the deeper felt the betrayal when these demands aren’t met. Parental expectations may not be expressed explicitly, but these expectations are communicated. This is what I’m trying to illustrate in WWWBAB, all the subtle and not-so-subtle messages that are imparted in a family; how we misinterpret behavior, how we tell ourselves stories about events we don’t, or can’t understand, how we believe myths about ourselves and each other. What do children owe their parents? What does loyalty look like? Ask a hundred different kids, and you’ll get a hundred different answers. 
MLL: As someone who also went straight to lucrative corporate work—namely, Wall Street—after college while nurturing dreams of writing novels, your nonfiction writing about how working in the corporate space gives you both freedom to write and material. That essay you wrote for Lit Hub was fascinating, especially now when in our culture the young aspiring writer in TV and movies is a young woman who somehow lives and writes in Brooklyn and has plenty of free time to hang out with her—meanwhile I still have PTSD over the exhaustion of working nonstop late nights and weekends on Wall Street. How did you plan your own path?

JM: I wrote the Lit Hub piece in 2018 to support my workplace novel, This Could Hurt. In it, one of the characters, Leo, reflects on how much he enjoyed talking to his therapist: “Therapists had a way of making his life feel scripted and thematic like he was the star of an action-packed feature film instead of an ordinary fool bumbling through random events.” In retrospect, my writing and corporate careers may appear carefully planned, but in fact like Leo, I’ve been bumbling around for 30-odd years. 
I started a corporate job when I graduated from college and never stopped working. At the same time, I wrote novels at night and on the weekends. I craved structure and financial security, but more importantly, I had no confidence in my ability to write an entire novel, much less sell one. So, I worked and went to work during grad school—NYU has MFA workshops at night—and then for the next three decades. Currently, I’m a senior communications consultant with a pension, a 401(k), and medical benefits; I’m also a novelist with my fifth book hitting shelves. While my life might look strategic and well-executed, I spend most of my days triaging projects so I can steal more writing time—just like I did 30 years ago. And now  I have a husband, three kids, and a dog, so I have even less time!
MLL: F. Scott Fitzgerald is of course known for parsing the nuances of wealth and class; he is often quoted as saying “the rich are different from you and me” but the whole quote is actually a lot more complicated: 
…the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are.”
JM: I definitely think the very-rich are different from even the regular-rich. I also think they believe they’re “better,” mostly because they’re so insulated from the grind of normal life. This doesn’t mean they’re happier or more fulfilled—I mean, look at the Quinns. As a novelist writing about an uber-wealthy family, my job was to humanize each of them, which was challenging. But I kept thinking about Nate, and how purposeless he felt—if you’re born into a closed community, you don’t know differently. Of course, you can learn about life beyond your four walls, and understand it intellectually, but to experience it is something else entirely. We may envy the 1%, but the trappings of that life are soul-killing. It’s an isolating and lonely life in the long run, in some ways as isolating as being born into a Hassidic family or a cult. Sure, you may have more options if you’re wealthy, but you don’t know what you don’t know. That’s what I wanted to capture, the insularity of privilege—so that I could rip it open and twist it up to serve my own ends. 
MLL: What’s your favorite book about money? 

JM: Tough question! I’ll say one of my favorite books is Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis. I’m captivated by the details of closed communities, especially those made up of men—prisons, fraternities, football locker rooms. I especially love reading about men and money. Liar’s Poker revealed the savagery of arrogant, privileged, white men who had access to titanic amounts of money with no oversight. The sense of entitlement is gasp-inducing. I’ll never forget one guy, Donnie Green, who stopped a younger salesman heading out the door to catch a flight. Green tossed the kid a ten-dollar bill and told him to take out crash insurance for himself in his (Donnie’s) name. When the kid asked why, Green replied, “I feel lucky.”

Conflicting Narratives: The Millions Interviews Courtney Denelle

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Courtney Denelle’s debut novel, It’s Not Nothing, forthcoming from Santa Fe Writers Project on September 1, is based on the author’s own struggles with mental health and addiction. The novel follows an adrift woman, Rosemary Candwell, as she tries to claw her way out of a mental breakdown that results in homelessness. In telling Rosemary’s story, Denelle creates her own niche in the genre of women’s psychological fiction. Written in elegant, poetic bursts, It’s Not Nothing reflects the psychic battle of its subject’s illness. Denelle helps pave the way for mental-health fiction writers who crave a written structure that speaks to the reality of their experience. I met with Denelle via Zoom to discuss It’s Not Nothing, writing women’s pain, and misogyny in the field of mental health.
Liv Albright: I’m really interested in how you portray men in It’s Not Nothing. There’s a passage where Rosemary, the protagonist, reflects on how the men in the psych ward take up so much space, but women aren’t allowed to do that. Can you describe how male entitlement manifests in mental health settings?
Courtney Denelle: Rosemary realizes that contrary to the men in the psych ward, her pain has never been validated or seen as respectable; her symptoms don’t compel sympathy. Women are encouraged to make themselves smaller, to make themselves more manageable in order to move through the world. If there are aspects of gender socialization in children that cast a long shadow, of course there would be gendered expressions in certain symptoms of mental illness. It’s my experience that women are aggressively condemned for being mentally ill in public, versus men who sometimes can get a pass, especially in creative communities.
LA: I also think certain diagnoses, like borderline personality disorder, may be used to shame women for their emotions. This theme shows up in other ways too, such as with Freud and other contemporary male psychologists who are misogynists.
CD: I was focusing on a particular outpatient program that I was in that implemented DBT practices, that have their merit for sure, but the irony to me is that, for the most, part it’s only available to women. It’s just funny that it’s a classroom structure that is designed to teach women how to sit with discomfort, how to bear pain. That’s kind of our lot in life—bearing pain and moderating the narratives around that pain. The way DBT is processed by others that are in a position of power in mental health communities is problematic.
LA: In your book, you talk about how Anne Sexton died from “terminal misogyny.” Her doctors were fascinated by her, and they didn’t treat her. They kept her where she was.

CD: If you haven’t read it, Anne Sexton: A Biography by Diane Middlebrook is considered canon. Of course, it was another era, but they taped her sessions, which are reported on in the book. You could see as a fly on the wall that it was less about moving into an integrated whole life, and more about activating certain wounds and the narratives that she had around those wounds. As a reader, that seemed to resonate with my experience as someone who lives with mental illness. But it does romanticize the tortured artist. I think an artist who is living a whole and integrated life is more likely to make art in a sustainable capacity.
LA: Did you write a lot when you were ill?
CD: I was engaging with the page. I always have, but it was not deliberate work, it was not work that I would ever pass off as being more true or real. It was me just trying to bear the weight of my own reality, and that’s always my relationship with the blank page. So much of my healing has come not only from my relationship with the blank page, but also my experience in meditation and in trauma-informed therapy, and that relies on witnessing the quality of my mind, which is a whole mess of conflicting narratives. Really cultivating my own still point enables me to honor those narratives, those parts of myself that I still live with, but don’t necessarily listen to. Writing this was very much cutting along the nerve. I’m a Rhode Islander, so I always think of water analogies, ocean analogies, and to swim out of riptide, you can’t swim into it—you have to swim alongside it until you feel the rip lessening and you’re able to go back to shore. This novel was really me swimming alongside the riptide until I didn’t feel the charge of it quite so much.
LA: Aside from catharsis, do you also feel like you’re also trying to help with the stigma around mental illness?
CD: I would say that it’s splitting the difference between both. I was only ever a writer because I wrote—I never had anyone outside of myself validating me, saying, “Yes, you’re a writer.” I had to find my own way. I wrote this novel as somebody who doesn’t have a college degree, as somebody who is making outsider art in a literary capacity. I think it was an extra benefit that it might work to destigmatize, or at least make people feel seen, by writing an aspect of real-time resilience. Resilience doesn’t always look the way that we want it to or expect it to, or how other people want it to, in order for your tale of woe to compel sympathy. For Rosemary, there’s no laurel crowning, there’s no overcoming obstacles, but she is somehow learning to live alongside all that’s passed, and that can be heroic. Especially in recovery from substance abuse or alcoholism, you’re never recovered, you’re always in recovery. Writing this was a way of implementing my tools and gaining new tools.
LA: There’s a scene in which Rosemary is feeling self-conscious about her scars, and the guy from the vitamin store is startled when he sees them. Why do you think society is so uncomfortable with those kinds of signs of mental illness?
CD: A mind run amok is scary for the way most people move through the world, as if there’s one person sitting behind our eyes, pulling these little levers. It could just be the idea of loss of control, true loss of control. There is increased fluency in the language of mental illness, but there is also an idea that it should look a certain way. I would say that if it’s heavy for people to observe or perceive, imagine what that’s like living with it.
LA: I think it’s easy to say don’t be scared of somebody who has a mental illness, because even to the person who experiences it, it’s terrifying. It’s also hard for the person observing, because that person can probably tell how bad it is.
CD: I think with suicidality in general—even for deeply empathetic, compassionate people—there’s a natural human fear or aversion to situations that you can’t impact. You can’t fix it, you can’t take it away from somebody, and that’s the same for substance abuse, too. That’s part of the challenge of recovery, supporting somebody who’s going through that.
LA: The character Rosemary has this guard up to protect herself, and she needs that because she’s been through so much.
CD: There are many things that we do that maybe don’t serve us in the long term that keep us safe in the moment. At one point, Rosemary has that internal response to the woman running the coat drive. The woman is outwardly a woman of wealth, who passes judgment on Rosemary, because Rosemary’s not subscribing to what she thinks is applicable to a young woman in her situation. I think that’s where the real test of people’s compassion displays itself, in moments like these, where the privileged can determine who among us is worthy of care and concern. I think there is still that knee-jerk response of wanting to determine who’s really in pain, who really is in need, and that is not helpful.
LA: A lot of people also don’t understand what is behind someone’s illness. For instance, Rosemary had a difficult relationship with both parents. Rosemary’s mother refuses to see her after Rosemary tries to kill herself, and her father is in his alcohol addiction, while Rosemary is trying to recover from hers.
CD: Rosemary is raised by a woman who hates women. Writing the novel made me investigate my own internalized misogyny. Moreover, alcoholism is often called “the family disease,” not just because it reoccurs intergenerationally, but also how it shapes, warps, and contorts interpersonal relationships. It was important to me to write a character where her drinking problem wasn’t the whole story. In fact, her sobriety was just the first step. It catalyzed the whole new emotional, somatic experience of having landed stark sober in a body, her physical body, for what felt like the first time. She has to learn how to live all over again.