American Survival: The Millions Interviews Jung Yun

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Too often, the image of the Midwest is blue-eyed white people with Peter-Jennings accents or white people sitting on tractors in well-worn overalls. Despite the population’s increasing diversity, midwestern-adjacent terms such as “heartland” or “flyover country” or “undecided voter” have even recently become synonymous for white. A daughter of Korean immigrant parents, I grew up in rural Minnesota, home of the world’s largest open pit mine.

Doing research on my hometown’s mining industry, I learned one of the earliest miners in our town was a Korean, someone who stowed away on a ship in the early part of the 21st century, probably to escape Japanese colonialism. Our town also had a (short-lived) Chinese restaurant run by an Asian family, and yet during our town’s “Ethnic Days” celebration, it was only white ethnicities—Norwegian, German, Irish, Finnish, Slovakian, Serbian, Swedish, Italian, Lithuanian, etc.—that were celebrated.

Thus, I’m often drawn to fiction that reflects the actual and not whitewashed image of the American Midwest. Jung Yun’s O Beautiful is about a young Korean American woman, Elinor, a former model and ambitious recent journalism school grad, who returns on assignment to her hometown in North Dakota, which is now overrun by roughnecks in the Bakken oil field boom. Yun explores this territory, riven by greed, economic decline, and the specter of climate change, her hometown heavy with memories but also coming to stand symbolically for a contemporary America, one more visibly diverse but also more divided than ever. The narrative explores Elinor’s life and what she thought she knew, and, on a larger scale, the immense anger of people fearing that their societal power and dominance is slipping and the anger of those who feel they have never had access to this power at all.

I don’t know if I want to describe a book as a punch in the face, but here I really do mean it as a compliment. O Beautiful starts with a beautiful Asian woman on the cusp of aging out of that beauty, being harassed by her overly interested seat mate (never too old for that!) … and later wondering if she’d been sexually assaulted while she was asleep. This is how the book starts, and it just rolls on from there.

The novel has to do with power, writing, a sense of home, fracking …and that’s just the beginning.

The Millions: Can you tell us how you got the idea for the novel, or how you started it?

Jung Yun: My parents lived in North Dakota until 2017, so whenever I flew home to visit them, I’d treat myself to a drive out west to the Badlands if I had time. (There are Badlands in North Dakota, and they’re beautiful! People often only associate them with South Dakota.) Those trips allowed me to see the oil boom change the western part of the state over an extended period, and I knew there was a story there based on the tensions I witnessed between the locals and the newcomers, as well as the tensions I experienced personally. Prior to the boom, I’d always felt conspicuous in that part of the state because I was Asian American, but during the boom, I felt wildly conspicuous because I was female. Being an Asian American female also added an extra layer of complication because people usually assumed I’d come to the area from somewhere else to find work in the service industry (e.g., masseuse, prostitute) which pissed me off, as you can probably imagine. In many ways, I still think of North Dakota as home, yet I often had to deal with people’s surprise and disbelief that someone like me had actually grown up there. The net effect was that I spent several years going back and forth to that part of the country, thinking about what constitutes “home” and how an oil boom might complicate people’s sense of belonging to a place or a community.

TM: Shelter, your first novel, was about another boom-and-bust cycle (or, maybe the false promise of a boom)—this time the mortgage crisis. Are there certain themes you are particularly interested in exploring?

JY: I tend to write stories about the ways in which race, class, and gender intersect, overlap, and complicate the lives of my characters. This is really what interests me as a writer and a reader, and what feeds some of the biggest questions I have about myself as a human being and humanity at large. With my first two novels, I was particularly interested in telling stories about characters living through large-scale economic phenomena like oil booms, recessions, and house market collapses. Growing up in an immigrant family, I was taught to believe in the value of hard work and pulling myself up by my bootstraps (what the hell is a bootstrap?). But what happens when hard work isn’t enough? What happens when something unexpected or even cataclysmic comes along and destabilizes the things a person has worked so hard for? And why does the American Dream often resemble American Survival for some, and how does that kind of precarity and inequity change people? Writing doesn’t necessarily resolve these types of questions for me, but it does provide a focused way of thinking about them.

TM: Both your novels (without giving away too many spoilers) have an overlay of violence, real and imagined, or misinterpreted. Do you want to elaborate on that?

JY: Similar to large-scale economic phenomena, I think violence has the capacity to interrupt well-established patterns of human behavior and cut through the facades we create and maintain for others. People who present themselves as “good” or “honorable” may shy away from intervening during an act of violence (or may inflict violence upon others behind closed doors), whereas the weakest or most selfish among us might step forward to help out of pure instinct. If all stories are based on some form of pattern disruption, I think these split-second moments when one has to act or react in the face of violence are fascinating and full of dramatic potential because all bets are effectively off.

TM: Your work has a propulsive mystery/thriller feel—do you enjoy/read this genre?

JY: Not really. I actually don’t think much about genre. I’m more interested in how quickly a writer pulls me into a story, whatever that story might be or how the publishing industry might classify it. I’m always wary when people recommend a book with a warning that “the first hundred pages are a little slow, but once it gets going…” Maybe I’m just an impatient person, but I enjoy cracking open a book and watching the story get going right from the start. I try to write with that same aim.

TM: What are you working on next? What’s your process for starting to think about what you will write next?

JY: I’m just starting the research for novel three, which is set in New York during the early 2000s. Right now, I’m just reading and watching things to help me remember what that time was like. Even though I lived through it, it feels so much more distant than two decades ago. It’s hard to imagine not having smartphones or social media or the ability to stream content while walking down the street or sitting on the subway. Tech did something to us. In some ways, it made the world seem smaller and more accessible. In other ways, it just broke us as human beings. I’m interested in telling a story about who we were back then, but I’m loath to say much more than that because it’s still so early. I’m in that very luxe stage where everything seems possible, and I want that feeling to last for a while.

An Unexpected Encounter: On the Illustrated ‘Ulysses’

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When Spanish painter Eduardo Arroyo set out to illustrate James Joyce’s Ulysses in the late 1980s, he did so with the hope that the final product could commemorate the 50th anniversary of Joyce’s death, in 1991. But resistance from Joyce’s estate prevented the project from ever coming to fruition. Forever after, Arroyo dreamed of one day seeing Joyce’s original text and his own illustrations side by side in a single volume. When, in 2011, Ulysses entered the public domain, that dream became possible.

To commemorate the centennial of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Other Press will publish Arroyo’s dream—a fully illustrated volume of the novel, featuring over 300 color and black-and-white illustrations by Arroyo—in collaboration with Spanish publisher Galaxia Gutenburg. Judith Gurewich, publisher of the Other Press, took on the project just before Arroyo’s death in 2018; although he won’t himself see the edition’s publication on January 25, 2022, Gurewich takes pride in knowing that she helped bring his decade-long dream to life.
The Millions spoke with Judith Gurewich about Arroyo’s legacy, the challenges of reading Joyce, and her international collaboration with Galaxia Gutenburg.
The Millions: This book was a collaboration between you and Galaxia Gutenberg publisher Joan Tarrida, the seeds for which were planted during a visit to Tarrida’s Barcelona’s publishing house apartment. Can you talk a bit about the nature of your collaboration with Tarrida?
Judith Gurewich: I came across Eduardo Arroyo’s artwork even before I met Joan Tarrida. Arroyo’s watercolors were spread on the chairs, tables, and windowsills of the elegant living room at Galaxia Gutenberg, and I was simply blown away. When Joan came in to meet me, I asked right off the bat who this artist was and what his drawings and watercolors were for. This is how this wild collaborative project started. Then Joan took me to a more formal conference room where we talked about literature and about books we could buy from or sell to each other. We made many, many deals after that meeting. It was truly an unexpected encounter. We have very similar tastes and visions of the world.
TM: In 1935, Matisse was commissioned to illustrate an edition of Ulysses, of which just 1,000 copies were made, though many speculate that the artist never in fact read the book himself. Why do you think Arroyo is the right artist to illustrate this new edition of Ulysses, and what about his style do you think complements the novel?
JG: Arroyo has an interesting artistic perspective. For him, the contemporary movements of abstract expressionism and even surrealism weren’t political enough, so he opted instead for a form of radical figurative art more in line with George Grosz or Roberto Matta. Eduardo was thrown out of Spain for resisting the Franco regime, and he remained exiled in France for more than 15 years. By the time he decided to illustrate Ulysses, he was back home and democracy had returned. But his satirical acumen had found a perfect target.
When it came to Ulysses, I think Arroyo felt free to accompany the passages he picked with whatever came to his mind. I don’t think he was under any injunction to make sense of the book. This is an impossible task anyway. As Joyce himself said, “The demand that I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works.” I also think that Arroyo’s interventions serve as a form of punctuation, or as a breather. Joyce’s genius and/or madness allowed him to see all aspects of life on the same plane. No high or low, no distinction between what is allowed or forbidden. Arroyo reveals that Joyce’s work isn’t about interpretation. It is a straightforward process.
TM: Obviously the timing of this project is tied to Ulysses entering the public domain, but why else do you think now is the right time to reintroduce Ulysses to U.S. readers? Because it is such a famously challenging and, for many, prohibitively inaccessible novel, do you think this new edition might help readers rediscover it—that is, engage with it differently or more deeply—or introduce it to new readers who were previously too daunted to dive in?
JG: I think Joyce is a puzzle and will remain a puzzle. But what is interesting is that what was provocative and eventually censored is today also part of the public domain: pornography, insulting the church, speaking the unspeakable. Joyce was a prophet in a way, and one day we may finally be able to fully grasp what he has to say. But for now we have Arroyo to hold our hand as we peruse our illustrated version of this impossible masterpiece.
Honestly, nothing will make Joyce easier. Arroyo’s works are merely an homage to the incomprehensible, interrupted at times by scenes that are easier to understand. Joyce is a mad artist who wants to mess with his reader, and Arroyo is a serious artist who insists on making art accessible. Turning the pages of the book, looking forward to the next drawing may also encourage some of us to read a few sentences. This is good enough, no?
Classics are a necessity in our lives because they say different things at different times. But I wouldn’t call Ulysses a classic that you are delighted to “rediscover.” It isn’t so much a classic to reread but a classic that maybe hasn’t been fully read yet.
TM: At 720 pages, 1.25 lbs., and 8.82″ by 12.28″ in its hardcover binding, this edition looks more like a coffee table book than a novel—and to capture the grandeur of Arroyo’s illustrations, it surely needed to be. How do you feel about this book as an art object?
JG: I think this is an art object more than a book. Anybody will tremendously enjoy turning the pages—the drawings are at once complex, satirical, and super easy to grasp. No art history course required!


This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Reading Tolstoy, Together: The Millions Interviews Yiyun Li

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When author Yiyun Li announced last year that she would lead a collective read-through of War and Peace, called #TolstoyTogether, on behalf of the literary magazine and publisher A Public Space, my first though was: perhaps I’ll finally read War and Peace. Then I didn’t. I had already fought my battles with the book and lost, which I later detailed in an essay on my complicated relationship with the book published in Literary Hub last fall. But when A Public Space announced that it would be publishing a companion volume to Tolstoy’s masterpiece as a sort of capstone to Li’s project, Tolstoy Together: 85 Days of War and Peace with Yiyun Li, and that Li would hold another read-through this fall, I knew I had to speak with Li. (Li was awarded this year’s Deborah Pease Prize, which is given yearly at the A Public Space benefit, for “her leadership and generosity in leading us in two readings of War and Peace with Tolstoy Together.”) Perhaps I wanted to be convinced—or maybe I just wanted to hear someone who loves the book tell me all about why.

Li, it turned out, had read my piece, which she mentioned to me amid laughter during a phone conversation on Tolstoy’s book, her book, the read-through project, and more. And while I’m still not convinced I’ll ever read War and Peace, Li makes a compelling case for why you should do so. Here is her case, amid other insights. (This interview has been edited for clarity.)

The Millions: Leaving aside my vendetta against War and Peace, let’s talk about your love for War and Peace. The pandemic started to really set in early in 2020, and shortly thereafter, A Public Space announced that you would be doing a collective read-through of War and Peace. Tell me the backstory.

Yiyun Li: I think the lockdown started on March 13, and we started on March 18. Everybody was going into lockdown, and one day I was thinking, I’m sure everyone is going to have a little bit of a hard time just going into this uncertain moment. I myself felt very uncertain. Clearly, I’m such a nerd. I love War and Peace, and I read it all the time. I thought, maybe it’s good to invite people to read War and Peace because it’s such a long novel. It takes a long time to read. And by the time we were finished reading the novel, I thought, we’ll be done with the pandemic. That’s how I proposed the idea to A Public Space. I said, “Let’s invite people to read War and Peace with us.” We announced it like two days later, and then we started right after that. There’s really almost no backstory! 

TM: You said you expected that the pandemic would be over by the time you and your fellow readers finished reading War and Peace at the pace of 10 to 15 pages a day? And now you’ve finished an encore read-through just as a new variant has arrived on the scene. What is your relationship with this novel? Why read it twice in two years?

YL: We’re still in the middle of the pandemic. That seems very much like War and Peace, right? I read War and Peace once a year, but much more slowly. I usually take six months to read War and Peace. But I don’t ask people for a lot—just half an hour of their day. So I calculated that I think if we read 10 to 15 pages, it would take half an hour. At that pace, it takes about three months. At the beginning of the pandemic, I thought that by last June, for sure, we’d be done with it. 

TM: Why read War and Peace once a year, rather than, say, Moby-Dick, or Paradise Lost, or The Tale of Genji?

YL: It’s funny you mentioned Moby-Dick, because I also read Moby-Dick once a year. You’re talking to one of the nerdiest people ever. I do spend six months on War and Peace and six months or Moby-Dick, and for specific reasons. I think Moby-Dick is the epitome of metaphor, while War and Peace is almost at the other end of the spectrum, as it’s sort of the epitome of a realistic epic. So I alternate between the two novels every year, just to keep my life structured by two great books. When you reread, you start to have conversations with yourself over different readings, and on each reading, you annotate more. That’s why War and Peace. I also need a big book in my daily reading. It’s sort of like your daily bread, right? We can eat oysters and anything else, but the daily bread is War and Peace and Moby-Dick.

TM: Do you find that the structure of a big book informs your writing or your reading practice in a way that’s different from the structure of a much smaller novel?

YL: Yes. Reading War and Peace, to me, is like writing a novel. You cannot finish writing a novel in one sitting, and you cannot finish reading a novel like that in one sitting. It’s a steady pacing, to me. It’s both good for my reading and my writing as a habit, to spend the same amount of time, every day, on the same book, usually around the same time. Usually I read around 11:00 p.m., 11:30. It’s part of the scaffolding of my life at this moment.

TM: Clearly this read-through project was successful, because there is now a book about it. What was it like reading this novel with other people? How did you find the interactions with people engaging with you and your daily meditations on the novel? Which social media platforms did you find the most fruitful for conversation? Tell me about the experience of the read-through. 

YL: It blew my mind. For one, just the sheer number of people reading with me. I truly thought there would be five reliable friends who would read with me, and possibly five strangers. At the beginning, I had in my head that I thought 10 people would stay from the beginning to the end with me. And in the end of the first read-through, based on how many people followed our newsletters and participated in a Zoom at the end of the read-through, 700 people came to the Zoom session, and 3,000 readers signed up for the newsletters. We also got anecdotal letters and emails from strangers.

Then there are a lot of people on Twitter. Twitter is the main platform we used socially. A Public Space helped me. I’m not on Twitter, so I used the A Public Space Twitter account to post my daily meditation. But because it’s a big novel, even if we read 10 to 15 pages a day, I might have 200 thoughts about those 10 pages, but I didn’t really have to share 200 thoughts. I could just share three. Because the readers around the world shared their thoughts. Sometimes their thoughts overlapped with mine, and sometimes they saw things that I missed.

People from other parts of the world, for instance. Someone from Sweden was reading with us and actually found some sort of ancestor in that book, a Swedish general. Then someone else said she was looking at the map—her Jewish family came from Poland—and she said, “Oh, I found my great grandmother’s village in War and Peace.” It comes from War and Peace, but it’s also just life going on for all these people, and they come to share from their lives.

TM: Do you teach?

YL: I do.

TM: We live in an era of great division, which, one might argue, is spurred on by social media. Did this exercise, which was really enabled by social media and the Internet, feel to you…more wholesome? Almost like a mega-seminar about War and Peace with 3,000 people? It sounds like you got a lot out of, well, all these student insights.

YL: Right! Except I would say it’s the exact opposite of teaching War and Peace in a classroom. When you teach a book in the classroom, there are always themes to talk about. There’s a map when you teach, and you follow that map. This is really the opposite. Everybody has reactions. There’s no hierarchy and how to read War and Peace. Someone may just be looking at the finances of the Rostov family and say, “Wait a minute, they’re losing a lot of money just by keeping 200 hounds on their estate.” And some people may be looking at geometry. There are physicists who look at War and Peace through quantum physics. Doctors, historians. It’s a book that you can read from different points of view. All of them are legitimate, and all of them are interesting to me. We’re not reading to get a consensus. We’re actually reading just to get to…whatever. And the whatever is actually quite interesting to me.

TM: It does sound like it turns the process on its head, doesn’t it?

YL: I do appreciate what you said, that people tend to be divisive on social media. People tend to be judgmental. But I like that this reading process is reading inconclusively. Nobody has the final words, because we’re just following a bunch of characters. There’s no judgmental opinions. People can like a character. People can hate the character. Someone can say, “I don’t like Andre,” on one day, and someone else can say, “I like Andre,” on another day. I like that, because nobody has final words on War and Peace.

TM: This isn’t a book about which we get to say, okay, it’s done now. We’ve learned everything we can about it. Tell me about your book. How did the decision to turn your reader of War and Peace into a book come together?

YL: When we talk about using Twitter, I have to say, I don’t tweet. So using Twitter with the word limit to express my feelings or my thoughts, my observations about War and Peace, was such a good experience, to train myself to be precise and succinct. I think the idea of the proposal came from what I learned from when I was reading with the group. I know the book well, but when I read by myself, I also take a lot of shortcuts. I don’t think through things. By reading with people, by expressing my observations, by watching people react, I realized that I have been thinking through a lot of topics about War and Peace more thoroughly.

It’s interesting, because this book, Tolstoy Together, is not only my reading journal. There were 200 to 300 people actively tweeting. It’s all these people’s reading journal through a pandemic. It’s like an oral history of a group of people reading through a period of time. So I said to Brigid Hughes, “Let’s just make it into a book.” That’s how it started. So we started to look at people’s tweets. Sometimes people echo each other. The cacophony, when multiple people are talking about multiple topics. We were thinking that we could bring these multiple voices into a book. On one side is my observation, and on the other side are the readers’ observations.

TM: How would you recommend someone read Tolstoy Together? From front to back, or to flip through?

YL: There are different ways to read it. If someone is going to read War and Peace, it’s one of the best companion books. You can just follow the reading schedule, read 15 pages and see what characters said something on that day. I know a lot of people who participated in the latest readthrough read War and Peace with Tolstoy Together as a book. But even if you don’t want to read War and Peace, the book itself is just a very interesting book about people’s minds. And to me, people’s minds are not boring at all. Even if you don’t know War and Peace, you open the book and realize people start to talk about history or the pandemic or each other, sometimes. I love the contributors. I have not met many of the contributors. But by reading through their contributions, they sort of have become characters in my head. There are characters who just want to be contrary, and in War and Peace, there are jokers, characters who just like to tell a joke. Among the contributors, there are always people who tell a good joke and who makes good comments. In the end, even if someone doesn’t read War and Peace, this is a book about all these real-life characters being obsessed with something.

TM: And we’re all that way, right? That’s one of the beautiful things about this book that I will never finish reading: the sheer spectrum of character in it. I Do you remember when you first read War and Peace? When it was first introduced to you?

YL: I remember the first reading, because last year, sometimes people said, “I cannot remember the characters.” Then at one moment, I think maybe a quarter in, someone tweeted and said, “Remember the old days, when we could not figure out who was who in this book?” I realized then that, collectively, we crossed a line: we actually knew these characters so well that we didn’t have to go look up their names. But my first introduction to War and Peace was really late. I knew Tolstoy’s work well, but War and Peace I read when I was 30, I think. It was a little confusing.

TM: I have a lot of memories around War and Peace, as you know, having read my essay. But my first significant memory about the book was right around when the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation came out, and it was making quite a stir. And at the time, I was a teenager working as a cabana boy at a beach club on Long Island—another personal experience I’ve written about in relation to a book. One day, there was this extremely tall man—who looked quite like Paul Slovak from Viking, in fact—walking down the beach with a giant copy of War and Peace. Because this is a Long Island Beach Club, and I don’t expect anybody to be reading anything like War and Peace, I went over to ask him why he was reading it, and his response was, “You know, sometimes, you just gotta finish somethin’ big.” It’s stuck in my head forever. And as you mentioned, you kind of thought that this was a book that was going to last the whole pandemic. I wonder how many people went into this project with that exact attitude in mind.

YL: Yes! I think the pandemic was a very rare opportunity, because all of a sudden, we are all isolated, and we have all this time on our hands. I have to say, War and Peace is one of those books that sometimes people just wish they had read it. But I think the invitation went out at the right time. There was this momentum: if I do this thing, the pandemic will be over when I finished. I do think that, at the beginning of the pandemic, that was very much on everybody’s mind: let’s just do this one big thing, and the pandemic will be over. But it wasn’t over.

TM: Would have been nice, though, wouldn’t it?

YL: Personally, I know several families reading together. Mostly it’s older parents with grown-up children. Someone in New York emailed me and said that the pandemic has  been one moment when older parents are not visited by children, but they have to keep in touch. She said, “Really, I have nothing to talk about with my mother. But we started to read this together. So every day, we just talked about War and Peace. What a good thing to talk about!

TM: What a wonderful way to reconnect with family. Through literature, no less. Imagine, in the Year of Our Web 2021, they’re connecting through literature and not Netflix shows? Yiyun, did you just fix culture?

YL: [Laughs] I don’t know! But I know a lot of older parents reading with children. I know several families, and I have colleagues who are reading with their grown-up children. It’s something special, right? But I think that it’s one of those things that just happens. It’s a happy fluke.

TM: I would ask you if you would do it again, but since you are doing it again, clearly you would. So instead, I’m going to ask: Is Moby-Dick next?

YL: Someone did ask me! I would have said yes to Moby-Dick, but there’s one big hurdle. When I was in Iowa, Marilynne Robinson would take a whole semester reading Moby-Dick with the students. She would lecture on Moby-Dick every week. Since Marilynne Robinson has lectured about Moby-Dick for so long, I’m intimidated!

TM: Seems like A Public Space needs to give Marilynne a call then.

YL: I think that’d be good!

Witch + Spy = Essayist: The Millions Interviews Randon Billings Noble

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As soon as I put my hands on A Harp in the Stars, I realized how lucky we readers (and writers) are that Randon Billings Noble not only curated this extraordinary collection, but also provided guideposts for reading.

Dubbed “An Anthology of Lyric Essays,” the book contains work by 50 authors, and offers four different forms of essay: flash, segmented, braided, and hermit crab. Among many others, contributors include Diane Seuss, Lidia Yuknavich, Tyrese L. Coleman, Casandra López, and Sayantani Dasgupta; writers we already know, and writers we need to know. The book’s subject matter covers the map of human emotions. In these distracting times, a lovely aspect of A Harp in the Stars is that you can open it to any essay, and instantly immerse yourself in a meaningful and gorgeous piece of writing.

Chief among the book’s pleasures is Noble’s introduction, a clearly written and enlightening chapter in which she notes that Michel de Montaigne may be the essay’s most well-known progenitor, but what about Sei Shonagon, a woman writing at the turn of the 10th century whose “pillow book full of what we might now call list or nonce or flash essays?” Noble walks us through Greek mythology, citing Apollo’s lyre as the root of the word “lyric,” and gives a brief history of various essay forms. She writes, “Lyric essays require a kind of passion, a commitment to weirdness in the face of convention, a willingness to risk confusion, and comfort with outsider status.”

Is there a better reason to open a book? I was fortunate to catch up with Randon Billings Noble by email.

The Millions: You write that lyric essays have the “power to soothe, to harrow, to persuade, to move, to raise, to rouse to overcome.” You say much more too! For those who have not read your anthology, can you talk about the lyric essay and how you came to it?

Randon Billings Noble: I came to the lyric essay haphazardly; I was writing them before I knew what they were. For one essay I thought, what if I used strikethroughs to show things I didn’t want to admit but were still true?  For another, I thought, what if I divide this essay into segments without obvious transitions?  Later I learned the term lyric essay and realized that’s what I had been writing.

Defining a lyric essay is tricky.  These essays rely more on intuition than exposition. They often use image more than narration. They question more than answer. But as I write in my introduction, “despite all this looseness, the lyric essay still has the responsibilities of any essay: to try to figure something out, to play with ideas, to show a shift in thinking (however subtle). The whole of a lyric essay adds up to more than the sum of its parts.”

I came up with this definition: “a piece of writing with a visible / stand out / unusual structure that explores / forecasts / gestures to an idea in an unexpected way.”  I clung to structure–or form –because it’s more discernable than other features of a lyric essay, like the use of intuition or “poetic” language.

TM: Speaking of form, I know that it is very important to you as well. Can you talk about that, and what might distinguish form in a lyric essay from that in a poem?

RBN: I’m not a poet but in my experience as a reader, the forms of many poems are strictly defined–a sonnet is very specific, as is a villanelle. The forms of lyric essays, which I’ve generally categorized as flash, segmented, braided, and hermit crab, have more latitude to them.  A flash essay can be 10 words or 1000. A segmented essay can be any length, as long as it is divided into sections. A braided essay is a segmented essay with a repeated pattern to it–but the way the pattern repeats is entirely in the hands of the writer. And a hermit crab essay uses a form already in use such as a Yelp review, or a Web MD entry.

I like the way a particular form acts as a constraint. The limits that the form imposes can help push your thinking and expand your content. It’s strange that it works that way, but it does.

TM: Creating an anthology is complicated. Can you talk about how you reached out to writers and what you were looking for?

RBN: It was a lot harder than I thought it would be! I didn’t think it would be easy, but I thought it would be more straightforward.

The idea began simply–I wanted all the lyric essays that I admired, all the ones I teach, to be in one place. I couldn’t find an anthology dedicated to lyric essays, so I decided to make one.  There were some previously published essays I knew I wanted to include, like Lidia Yuknavitch’s “Woven,” Elissa Washuta’s “Apocalypse Logic,” Davon Loeb’s “My Mother’s Mother,” and Dorothy Bedel’s “Body Wash.” But I knew there were all kinds of other lyric essays out there that I didn’t yet know about and hadn’t yet read. So, I put out a call and got more than 300 submissions for about 30 spots. It was a real challenge–and sometimes a heartbreaking one–to narrow it down.

TM: Once you had all these wonderful pieces, I can imagine that organizing them was a bear. Can you talk about that?

RBN: After a few different attempts, I decided to order them with the same strategy I had used in my own collection, Be with me Always. I went for contrast within themes. I knew I wanted to start with Diane Seuss’s “Gyre” (which begins with “When I was a schoolgirl, now and then a delicious state would come over me”) and end with Steve Edward’s “The Last Cricket.” Then I tried to have a series of waves of theme or emotion. Each wave might loosely follow the same thread of content (essays about transformation, essays about family) but there would be contrast in terms of the form (a short essay followed by a longer one, a braided essay followed by a hermit crab), etc. Most people don’t read a collection or anthology straight through, but I wanted it to have a certain flow if they did. And I made sure each essay is labeled so you know what the form is—segmented, braided, etc.—whatever “wave” you might be riding.

TM: Can you talk about the editing process?

RBN: I wanted all the contributors to keep creative control over their essays, so I did a minimum of editing. Most of the edits were copyedits that came very late in the process and even then, I sometimes lobbied to defy grammar and keep the rhythm or mood of a particular sentence or passage. Since I’ve been edited in ways that I thought were too rough or that changed the meaning of my work, I didn’t want to do that to any of these essays. If I accepted an essay, I accepted it as it was.

TM: How did you come to writing and essay writing in particular?

RBN: In some ways I always wanted to be a writer.  But my first career choice (at age seven) was to be a witch. My second was to be a spy. I feel like that played out: witch + spy = essayist.

In high school I was always bending the rules of essay writing—using the forbidden first person, starting my essay with a story or a joke. I got compliments on my creativity but points off for deviating from the five-paragraph form. In college I had more latitude, but I was still pushing the boundaries of academic writing into something more creative. It was only in graduate school that I started to see that there was such a thing as a creative or literary essay—one that did serious thinking but expressed that thinking in a way that was more personal, more human, less certain, more wondering. I read Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That,” and then James Baldwin and then Richard Rodriguez and then Virginia Woolf and then Cheryl Strayed (“The Love of My Life”—before Wild) and I saw I was on a particular path, part of a longer tradition. It was very exciting to be joining that larger conversation.

TM: Tell us about your reading life.

RBN: I read rather a lot and pretty omnivorously—essays (of course), novels, graphic novels, you name it. Right now, I’m finishing up a big reading project—Philip Lopate’s anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, which I’ve been discussing with a small group of fellow essayists.  It’s been great to read some “classic” essayists (Montaigne, Lamb, Baldwin, Didion) but there’s always so much more to go, including more lyric essays.

I’ve also recently read Good Talk by Mira Jacob and My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland, both of which really knocked my socks off.

TM: Did any books in particular influence your writing life?

RBN: When I was in graduate school (not yet for writing but for Renaissance drama–another life for sure!) I took a 20th-century nonfiction class as a lark and read Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That.” I was in New York, and very young, and thought it completely possible to stay forever at the fair. When I was much older, and had said goodbye to New York, I came to understand what Didion was getting at. The seed was planted. I realized this was the kind of thing I wanted to write.

Later I read Eva Saulitis’s collection Leaving Resurrection and felt that same chord of recognition. This is what it looks like to see a mind at work on the page. I feel it still when I read Maggie Nelson or Cathy Park Hong or Patrick Madden or Tressie McMillan Cottom.  I feel like I’m constantly influenced by others’ formal choices—Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Naja Marie Aidt’s When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back, Lily Hoang’s A Bestiary.  It’s a great time to be a lyric essayist.

TM: What’s next for you?

RBN: The pandemic has been incredibly disruptive to my creative life but I’m very much looking forward to getting back to writing. My next book is a lyric meditation on shadows, and I’m very keen to return to thinking about Rembrandt and Macbeth and Peter Pan and Joseph Cornell–and Bonnie Tyler.

Guilt Is Fecund: The Millions Interviews Frank Bidart

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At 82, Frank Bidart remains one of the preeminent voices in American letters, let alone American poetry. He has won nearly every major prize awarded to poets, among them the Griffin Poetry Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Wallace Stevens Award. For more than half a century, his poems have investigated the dualities of body and soul and love and hate through the exploration of both self and others. His work, as poet Craig Morgan Teicher put it for NPR, with its “relentlessly intense voice,” has over the years been distilled “down to an essential expression of need and desire, of how art, if it can’t save us, can at least embody and preserve us.”

On Nov. 3, after months of delays due to issues with the supply chain, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published Bidart’s eighth collection, Against Silence. Our conversation, however, was held four months earlier, over a phone call that spanned the better part of an hour and a half. Bidart—generously, modestly, and, most of all, passionately—spoke with me about the sociocultural circumstances that inspired his latest collection, the difference between poetry of identity and poetry of the personal, his relationship with that titan of 20th-century American poetics, Robert Lowell, and the power guilt and memory hold over his art.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

The Millions: In 2017, you finally won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for a collection of your life’s work, Half-Light: Poems 1965-2016. In the collection were some new poems, including the fourth of your Hours of the Night sequence. What brought you to a fifth poem in that sequence, and to this next book, Against Silence, besides the obvious urge as poet to never stop?

Frank Bidart: That’s very important, the urge to never stop. There are at least two patterns that happen after one finishes a book. Either the barrel is empty and one has to wait for it to fill back up, or, if one is lucky, one starts out in some new direction, and one knows one can’t fulfill it in the context of the time one has to publish a book, so one puts it off.

That happened to me here. There was a poem I published in The New Yorker called “Mourning What We Thought We Were,” and it appeared in the issue the week that Trump was inaugurated. It’s a poem that mattered to me tremendously, but I knew in my bones that it needed other poems around it. It needed to be fleshed out. It needed development. So I did not include it in my collected poems, which came out the following year. In other words, I had this poem that was the promise of other things, but was only that. It needed a world of experience and a lot of other writing to back it up, to provide an earth for it to settle on. In that sense, I was lucky, because I had then a beginning. I did not know if I could develop it, but I had a beginning. And that’s really what this book is; it very much proceeded from the attempt to provide the underpinnings for that poem.

TM: Your work has often interrogated the horrors of history happening in real time, while also undergirding them with historical precedents and instilling the writing with the personal as well. (I’m thinking specifically of your poetry about the AIDS crisis.) In this book, you’re looking at American failure, and human failure writ large, and the possibility of where that will go from where it is right now, and you’re looking at these subjects in a way that is both expansive and tied into the personal. How did you balance those things?

FB: You know Carolyn Forché’s work, and you know her anthology, Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness. I agreed with her that it was important that poets witness what they knew, what they experienced—that they not think poetry was only lyric. But on the other hand, what had I witnessed? I was not in Vietnam. I had nothing new to say about Vietnam. It was easy to write an anti-Vietnam poem with a lot of secondhand opinions, but I had nothing to contribute in that way. But I was genuinely shocked when, with Trump, suddenly, white supremacy seemed something that had raised its head. You know, I really thought that was dead. And suddenly, I realized it wasn’t dead. As the poem reports, I felt things that I thought were over were not over. And on issues of race, as I thought about it, in fact, I had experienced things that were worth talking about.

In some ways, everything in the book proceeds from the experience, in the poem “The Fifth Hour of the Night,” of my grandmother refusing to let me, at the age of seven or eight, have dinner at the house of a Black friend. I can remember so vividly the rage I felt at her, at her racism—that it was not a question that I could even argue with her about. I was ashamed of the fact that, at the age of seven or eight, I gave in. I buckled under. My mother and I lived in my grandmother’s house, and I could not fight her at the age of seven or eight.

The book does not go into this, but later in my mother’s life, this was a very real issue. She worked in a doctor’s office and was very important in it. She ran it. She had very good relations with the doctors, and it was crucial to her sense of her own value. Dr. Zary was a Lebanese Christian, and my mother wanted to marry him. He was dark skinned, and my grandmother—the same woman who I had fought at the age of seven or eight—simply threw a fit. She could not stand the idea that her daughter was going to marry somebody with dark skin, though he was Christian. She talked my mother out of this. It was one of the central tragedies of my mother’s life. My mother gave in, and later, she married someone from Texas who was, unfortunately, a very stupid man, and it was a very unhappy marriage. She never should have given into my grandmother. These issues about race had been lived out in my family, and lived out in my own experience, and lived out in what happened to my mother, and in the shape of her life. 

TM: As they are reflected here, they take a look at something that a good deal of your poetry interrogates, which is the feeling of guilt over something over which you are powerless. As an eight-year-old, you have no power to tell your grandmother, “Stop being racist, my friend is coming over,” and as a survivor of the AIDS crisis, you had no ability to save the people you loved nor choice over whether you survived. So what has come of this interrogation, besides many books of beautiful poetry? Do you feel like there is any exorcism? Is exorcism possible? Do the poems assuage the guilt at all? 

FB: The guilt doesn’t go away. But on the other hand, it changes. The fact that one can feel guilt over something that one had no control over. There’s the survivor’s guilt of AIDS. Why on earth did I survive rather than someone else? There’s nothing that they did that I didn’t do.

TM: And with race, it’s a question of, “Why was I protected from this pain and this persecution when others were not?”

FB:  That’s right: why have I lived a very privileged life? And I know I’ve lived a privileged life—because my grandparents came here from the Pyrenees in 1905, because of things my father did in earning money. There are a million ways in which one is the recipient of privilege that one has done nothing to earn. That’s absolutely the nature of our experience. The fact is, one feels guilty for things that one cannot control. I feel guilt for the irreconcilable things in my relationship with my mother for which I was not altogether responsible. Nonetheless, I felt an anger toward her that I could never entirely get over. That was a source of division between us. That’s the nature of human experience.

TM: That parallel shows up in a lot of your work, the inextricable nature of hate and love and the inextricable nature of life and death.

FB:  The irony is, of course, that intellectually one knows these things. But in terms of experience, one discovers them over and over again. That’s partly one of the things this book is about: discovering, again, and again, the inextricable relation between love and hate, which I certainly knew about conceptually, but have had to experience over and over again.

TM: I think back often to words that you use frequently in your work—to your eye toward the balance between Latinate and Germanic diction, and in the way you use such words as “incommensurate” and “irreparable,” words that you come back to very often. I was thinking about those two words while I read this book, specifically, because it interrogates both of them as you define them, and because sometimes they can be one in the same. And I was thinking of how you come back to ideas and words again and again, to learn the same lesson from them in a slightly different way. It’s almost natural that we get a “Fifth Hour of the Night” here. That sequence of poems is one of the great through lines of your work. But here we are with one that, unlike a lot of the prior entries, isn’t centered on a historical figure—unless you consider yourself a historical figure. What brought you to write this poem? How did you decide to include it in the Hours of the Night sequence? 

FB: As in the poem, I started writing about that experience:
They love each other more than anything and their child knows that.

They love each other more than anything but the well is poisoned.

Thirst no well can satisfy.

The well of affection that bloods the house is poisoned.

Love that bloods the house is poisoned.

He was smart and good-looking and charmed everyone.

She was beautiful and smart and charmed everyone.

Deep wrongness between the two that somehow no fury can wipe clean.
That was one of my earliest experiences. That’s really what I felt as a child—that somehow, for this family that outwardly seemed happy, there was something deeply wrong that they could not cure, for which loving each other was not enough. Those lines sort of popped out, and in that sense, the trajectory of the poem grew from that. Each hour attempts to talk about some process that is fundamental. That was, in a way, the fundamental process that I experienced as a child. That had to be in the sequence.

TM: It’s a particularly powerful moment in the book because it crystallizes something you’ve been writing about for your entire life, which is this tension between love and hate and the irreconcilability of how humans care and hurt each other no matter how much they care. How has your perspective on that duality changed over the course of your career? Do you think that this book agrees with your Odi et Amo series, or do you think it takes a different tack?

FB: It takes it in a slightly different direction. The minute, as a graduate student, I read Odi et Amo, I felt that it was the quintessential thing I had ever read: that in two lines, Catullus crystallized this utterly fundamental thing, that we love and hate at the same time, that we love and hate the same thing at the same time. And in a way, I’ve spent my life trying to excavate that.

TM: Desire wants to both create and obliterate.

FB: Absolutely. These are two tercets in “Fifth Hour.” Let me read them:
Sleeping in a motel with my father, when he, in anguish and crying,
implored
me to try to get my mother to return to him,

I said I / would,–
…and knew I wouldn’t.
That I can remember as if I’m right there in the bed with my father at the age of five or six. I can remember feeling that. My mother was not going to go back to him. My mother didn’t want to go back to him. It was too painful. In that sense, I didn’t want him to go back to her either. It would have solved nothing. And at the same time, I wanted to give him some reassurance. I certainly didn’t want to say that my finger was on the scale. I said that I would, and I knew I wouldn’t. That’s like a knife cutting into me.

TM: It’s like the blood that spills from which soldiers spring, right? In “The Ghost,” you write, “guilt is fecund.” It sums up a lot of what your work is about: the agony of having to remember these things is not blotted out by the fact that the memory allows the work—which exists and, in its way, becomes a release in as much as it remains the bars by which the guilt is trapped.

FB:  There’s a history behind that title that I love. Sextus Propertius wrote a poem about Cynthia, whom he loved and who returned to him as a ghost after her death. She partly excoriates him for their relationship. Robert Lowell translated the poem under the title “The Ghost.” In my mind, the speaker of my poem “The Ghost” is the side of my mother that is ferocious, forever in a sense unreconciled, but which also can see, somehow, both sides of everything. I loved giving the title “The Ghost” to this poem in which she speaks, because it had the echoes of both Propertius and Lowell’s great translation. 

TM: When I was reading it, I wondered if it was your mother, and then I wondered if it was personified guilt.

FB:  In some sense it is. But it’s also my mother. Those are not the words my mother could actually have uttered, or would utter if she were alive, but in some sense it’s the quintessence of part of her. It’s the tough part of her, that part they could acknowledge guilt as fecund.

TM: Another word you love! Let’s go back to how you’ve made certain words your own. I’m thinking now of the poet and educator Richard Hugo’s collection of lectures and essays, The Triggering Town. In it, he writes that “your obsessions lead you to your vocabulary,” essentially arguing that poets must “take emotional ownership of…a word,” even if those words aren’t the most impressive or most important, in order for the poetry to be anything more than a finely wrought thing that belongs to no one. We’ve discussed “incommensurate” and “irreparable” and “fecund”—these are words that you’ve made yours, just as you’ve wrought the phrase “the absolute” into your own concept. What brought you to them, and what brings you back to them so often?

FB: They’re words that somehow carry within them more than their denotative meaning. They’re words that recur to one because they have a kind of weight and density that can’t be exhausted by any one utterance of them, or any one context. I think that Hugo sentiment is wonderful, because it’s true. They’re not always glamorous words, they’re not always the most superficially eloquent words. But these words have within them some density of feeling, and of desire, and of failure, that therefore become what we want to call poetic. Someone who was an absolute master of this was Robert Lowell. He found words and kept them and gave them a context in which they had the right density and resonance.

TM: Lowell is a good person to talk about in general because, although your verse shares very few surface-level similarities with his, as poets, you are preoccupied with many of the same things: agony, atonement, family, history, self-examination. And, of course, you had a personal relationship with him. 

FB: First of all, I loved him. I don’t at all mean sexually. Though I’m gay, I was certainly not attracted to him sexually. I knew his work way before I met him. Life Studies had meant a great deal to me before I met him. When I first was in a room with him, it was a classroom, and I couldn’t believe I was in his presence. I was also so shocked that this person whom I had read, who was from New England, had a slightly Southern accent. I had not anticipated that.

I loved the fact that I was useful to him. That I could understand the prosody from the inside. I didn’t want to imitate it, but I could make suggestions that were useful to him. He wanted someone to tell him the truth as they experienced his work. He did not want someone who was simply going to praise him. He did not find that useful. But I could make suggestions that he found useful. That this person I so admired valued me was a tremendous event in my life. It’s almost incomprehensible. That feeling that I was indeed an artist and could talk to another artist that I so admired in a way that was useful to him. I really can’t tell you enough how important that was for me. My relationship with my own father was very screwed up. In some ways, that Lowell could be an analogue to that, but that it could be a relationship that I did not screw up mattered to me tremendously. I was very, very, very lucky.

Lowell did not make suggestions about my own poems. He did not understand my prosody. And I did not expect him to, but he was not threatened by the fact that, in general, he often took suggestions I made about his work, and he did not make suggestions about my work that were useful to me. He was not threatened by that. He found it funny. He was really a very wise man, in many ways. He was someone who had terrible breakdowns and when he was ill, mentally, he was really ill. But in other ways, he was really very wise, very humane. And with me, incredibly generous. I adored him.

TM: Inspiration and influence, it seems, are often slant. That is, for instance, Lowell didn’t have to edit your poems or provide you with feedback for you to have been influenced not just by reading him, but by knowing him. When you were writing your first book, before Lowell died, how did his poetry change you without changing your prosody?

FB: The work was openly ambitious in terms of what it took on, in terms of subject matter, and I loved that. But when he took on something ambitious, he always connected it to his own experience. That seemed, to me, to be completely fundamental to why it worked.

TM: One of the most powerful parts of your work is its confessional aspect, and confessionalism has proven to be among the most influential strains of American poetry over the past 50 years. A good portion of the contemporary poetry being fêted in our time is a poetry of identity—poetry that explicitly interrogates personal and gender and racial and sexual identity. You are very openly and movingly a gay poet, but would you call yourself a poet of identity?

FB: No, I certainly wouldn’t!

TM: You are, however, a very personal poet. But your interest in identity and the personal is less central than your interest in art, death, love, hate, compulsion to write, curiosity even in taking on the identities of others.

FB: I was very much formed by Shakespeare as a kind of model of the artist. Shakespeare is the greatest writer—it really is Shakespeare. He was not an Egyptian, and he was not a Danish Prince, or any of these things, literally. And he could inhabit the minds, sensibilities, perspectives, and worlds of these characters. He never treats them as merely creatures of their circumstances. He always connects them to what one wants to call universal human experience. That’s what I think an artist does. And as one goes through one’s own experience, one wants to catch something from history or psychology, or one wants to be caught by something. There’s an illusion of freedom in that that is thrilling.

When I was an undergraduate, I received from the Reader’s Subscription a book called Existence, which included an essay by Dr. Ludwig Binswanger called “The Case of Ellen West.” I immediately identified with her. I immediately wanted to write a poem about her. I was not old enough. I did not know how to do that. But that lay in my mind for a long, long time, and finally, about 15 years later, I was able to write a poem in which she speaks. I felt very grateful to have known the Binswanger. And I was grateful that I couldn’t write my poem when I first read it.

TM: Did you think you needed to grow into the poem in some ways?

FB: At the time, all I knew was that I couldn’t possibly write the poem that would embody her. But I think that is indeed what happened, that I had to grow into that. I had to experience a lot of other things. I had to experience the singing of Maria Callas. I had to have my own battles with being overweight, and a desire not to be. Everything that went into making that poem I had to grow into. I do think you can’t have a narrow view of what an artist is. An artist is not someone who simply transcribes his or her experience. An artist is someone with a sympathetic imagination—sympathetic meaning identifying with ways of being that are not literally one’s own.

TM: And your work does that in both a personal, confessional manner, as you do in “Mourning What We Thought We Were” and “The Fifth Hour of the Night,” and by animating historical figures whose experiences move you, as you did with Ellen West, and Vaslav Nijinsky, and Herbert White and, in “Behind the Lion” in this collection, Sidney Bechet.

FB: All the words in that poem are Sidney Bechet’s! None of them are mine. But I think I was able to inhabit the sensibility that resulted in his writing at that time, or his speech at that time.

All this bears on my relationship to Lowell, because when I wrote “The War of Vaslav Nijinsky,” Lowell was alive. It’s a poem that for a long time was in manuscript, but I had not set it up on paper. I could not get the movement right on the page, in terms of punctuation and stanza breaks and all those things. I got stuck in a passage for about two years. I just could not get it right. I could not get the words on the page to embody the voice that I heard in my head, and the voice with which I read the poem.

I was worried because Nijinsky was someone who had mental breakdowns, and who did, in fact, violent things when he was ill. One night, at the Blacksmith House in Cambridge, Mass., I read the poem aloud, and Lowell was present. I was worried that he would think that I was writing about him—and I knew that I wasn’t. Whatever insights that poem has about mental illness and breakdowns did not in any way proceed from my experience of Lowell.

After I read the poem in public, we talked, and I told him that I was worried that he would think that I was writing about him. He said, “No, no, no, no. It’s about you.” Of course, he was completely right! All the extremities of emotion, all the imagination of how things are connected, have to do with my experience. Not literally, but psychologically and mentally and emotionally. I was so pleased that he could see that it was not him that was the subject of that poem, but me.

TM: It’s fascinating that you frame this this way, because I was going to ask if, when you inhabit another—in the way that you do with Nijinsky or West or White—does it feel freeing, or does it feel once again like being cursed to carry a mind and a body that you cannot escape from in another form?

FB: Well, it’s both freeing and cursing! One feels the curse of an identity. But at least it’s not one’s own identity. Identity can indeed feel like a curse. As it does to Nijinsky and Ellen West, in many ways. They are not free. And I have no illusion that I’m free, except insofar as I can inhabit them, and that only occurs in the writing.

TM: You can’t escape being Frank Bidart. And you cannot escape the society you are in—nor can your childhood friend, whose presence in your life your grandmother raged against as a child, escape being perceived as Black in a country that hates Blackness, even though that should not matter whatsoever as to how he is treated as a human being. A number of these poems are more explicitly political than even your poems on AIDS. What brought you to writing these poems in this way, and putting them in this context? The Trump election inspired you, of course, but what made you, say, write poems on racial relations and climate change in this fashion?

FB: Let me say, the poems did not feel different in kind to me from my earlier poems. Let me take the second poem, “At the Shore”:
Since childhood, you hated the illusion that this
green and pleasant land

inherently is green
or pleasant

or for human beings home. Whoever dreamed that had
not, you thought, experienced
the earth.
It felt like a relief to find the words that could say that, but I have felt that way for a very long time. Behind this is obviously the Blake poem about England being this green and pleasant land. That poem, of course, objects to what’s happened to England in Blake’s time. I admire and envy that poem on one hand, but my experience is not that something that was green, pleasant, and pristine has been defiled, which is Blake’s experience—it is that the Earth was never those things. I felt relief to find words that could state that feeling that the Earth is not our home. And of course, the Earth is our home. There’s a line in a later poem…”mind at war with ground.” The earth is our ground, but we are at war with our ground. In a million ways.

TM: Still, it is impossible for a reader in 2021 to read that poem and not think, “This is Frank Bidart’s climate change poem.” The same way that, when you read “Mourning What We Thought We Were,” you think, “This is Frank Bidart’s poem on race.”

FB: These are things that I had felt very deeply before, and never found the context in which to utter them.

TM: And so you had to put it into words, even knowing that what is past is past, that you cannot change anything about which you have written by feeling guilt, that you can only write the poems, and that even that solves nothing for you or them.

FB: Well, it’s something. It’s better than not having realized such things.

TM: This book is filled with such realizations, and ends with one. “On My Seventy-Eighth,” the final poem of the book, incorporates a number of the themes found in all of your other work, and deals explicitly with not just loss, but with the acknowledgement that even loss isn’t loss—that we carry with us even what is gone from us. 

FB: The last thing I did with the poem was to work in the reference to the end of Hamlet: “the rest is silence” is the last thing that Hamlet says, and I was writing a book called Against Silence, and I did not have that reference. This is a very good example of having worked with Lowell. He loved giving a poem a kind of density through illusion. The poem was published in Threepenny Review, without the lines:
Intolerable the fiction
the rest
is silence.
And I suddenly felt I could not publish a book called Against Silence without reference to Hamlet’s last words. Not only is it a very famous ending, it is something that the whole play, of course, contradicts. The rest is not silence after death. The first thing that happens in the play is that the father appears to the son, and the dead do speak in that play.

In my book—insofar as it’s against silence—in “The Ghost,” my mother speaks, and she’s dead. It’s not as simple as “the rest is silence.” That was the last thing I did not just to the poem, but to the book. It was a very Lowell-like thing to do.

TM: What do you hope readers will take away from this poem, and from this book?

FB: You know, I want the reader to say, “He’s not senile.”

Beware the End of Art: The Millions Interviews Mark Slouka

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Mark Slouka is an American writer who has published eight books, fiction and nonfiction, that have appeared in 16 languages. The son of Czech immigrants, Mark has two stories in Best American Short Stories, and three pieces in Best American Essays. Further credentials include Harpers, Ploughshares, the Paris Review, Granta, Guggenheim, the NEA, Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Chicago. You get the idea.

The part you don’t yet get but will is that when a writer with this CV exchanges the security of the academy for the unfathomability of east-central Europe, it’s incumbent that the rest of us give serious consideration as to why. Mark recently gave me two solid days on Skype—Prague to Kyiv—making a strong case for the necessity of book learnin’ and more.

The Millions: So now that you’re retired from the MFA business and living in Prague, where is the good writing going to come from?

Mark Slouka: Thanks for that, but my guess is, pretty much where it’s always come from, which is to say, probably not an MFA program.  Honestly, the MFA industry in America is a wonder to me: The less people read, the more they seem to want to write, and a whole lot of them think that dropping the big bucks on an MFA is the only way to do it.  It can work for some.  For others not so much.

TM: How so?

MS: Okay, for example, when I taught at Columbia, the bill for an MFA came to around 70,000 bucks and we offered precious little financial aid. There was one student sleeping in her car with her kid until I found out about it. What’s worse, I was on the acceptance committee—one of the people who had to call students to give them the good news. So, I make the call and somebody’s mom out in Ohio picks up and I can hear her whispering, “Oh, my God, it’s Columbia University!”  Then the student gets on, her voice shaking, and I say “Congratulations, you’ve been accepted to the Columbia MFA program,” which is followed by much rejoicing. Then she musters up the courage to ask if there’s any financial aid and I say, “absolutely, we’re awarding you a $3,000 scholarship,” or whatever.  To offset the blow—or sucker them in, in my opinion—we were supposed to tell prospective students that they could apply for a teaching fellowship in their second year, omitting the fact that only a small percentage of applicants actually got one.  I felt like I was hustling sub-prime mortgages. To my credit, I always told them the odds of hitting the teaching jackpot were low, so if money was a concern and they had better offers, they should consider taking them.

TM: Okay, but for those who could afford it, the workshops were worth it, right?

MS: I don’t know, maybe.  I had some amazing students, but the sad truth is that all too often the culture of the workshop can lead to a kind of “blind leading the blind” situation: As an instructor, you’re not really allowed to just lay out the problem and suggest solutions.

TM: Not allowed?

MS: Let’s say, “discouraged.” After my first class at Columbia—I’d never taught writing before—‚a student came up to me and said, “Um, professor, I’m not sure you understand how it works around here.” And I said, “Probably not, what am I doing wrong?” And she explained that I wasn’t giving students enough time to frame the conversation themselves and I realized I was expected to step back and let them lead each other.  Results were mixed. Sometimes a good student would take it in the right direction.  Other times, someone would write, “Her tears fell like pebbles on an iron grate,” and I’d try to say something about what metaphors are supposed to accomplish only to get a chorus of, “But I loved that pebble thing!”  But hey, lately I read a review by Dwight Garner of The New York Times, who singled out for praise the line, “The moon is a huge sanitary pad,” so what the fuck do I know?

Bottom line is that writing is not done by committee.  If you try to please everyone in your workshop you end up with this sad, neutered thing that any agent or editor worth her salt can smell from a mile away.

TM: Russians say, “not fish, not meat.”

MS: Exactly.  If you want to write, make reading your MFA.  Find the writers who move you and try to figure out what they’re doing on the page.  If I’m honest, my teaching at Columbia, and later at the University of Chicago, really just came down to disarticulating the written page.

TM: Meaning . . .?

MS: Meaning teaching students how to read like writers, showing them what their options are in terms of voice, silence, time, dialogue, and so on.  How certain moves on the page—a period in the right place, to recall Isaak Babel—can break your heart.  If it was up to me, I’d teach nothing but example-based craft seminars, which go straight to the issues writers encounter, then cut people loose to do their own work.

TM: I have to say, it sounds like a sweet deal: guided looking, credentialed people shaping your study—

MS: I’m not saying there aren’t some great programs out there. Just that sometimes the MFA program’s guiding principle seems to be “the shortest distance between two points is a cube.”  People will say there are good reasons for this, that students need time to write in a supportive environment, to develop relationships or whatever. Fair enough. But if somebody considering an MFA today were to ask my opinion, I’d tell them to at least consider saving the dough and doing what every writer in history had to do until a few decades ago: read their ass off, then take the leap.

TM: You have a PhD in American literature. How much does that shape your views on this?

MS: God, I don’t know.  Some, maybe.  I mean, if nothing else, a degree in literature introduces you to some great writing, right?  Virtually none of which was written by committee, by the way.

TM: We’re a mimetic species, though.  Isn’t any act of writing somewhat of a collective function? If I look at the novel you’re writing now, do I hear Kent Haruf in there? Steinbeck? Who makes up your writing committee?

MS: I see where you’re going: committee as influence.  In that sense you’re absolutely right—writers are sponges. We absorb everything—a metaphor here, a bit of dialogue there.  To some degree, we’re made up of the writers we loved, and for all I know, the ones we hated too.  So…yeah.

As far as my committee goes, I wouldn’t know where to start.  I mean, I grew up falling asleep to my parents and their friends singing Czech and Slovak folk songs late into the night, my dad reading me those dark fairytales the Czechs love so much . . .

TM: Like?

MS: Oh, I don’t know—there’s one called “Otesanek” that I wrote about in The Visible World.  It’s about this couple who have a baby that can’t stop eating.  It devours everything—the chickens, the plow-horse, its own parents—until it makes the mistake of swallowing a little girl who’s sitting at her sewing and this little girl, finding herself in this community of the consumed, takes her scissors and delivers everybody out of the monster’s stomach by a kind of reverse caesarean.  I loved that story when I was a kid.  It’s a parable of fascism, of course, and how it always dies from within, having consumed too much—though I somehow doubt I got that when I was six. Anyway, mix all this Slavic stuff in with Shane and Old Yeller and “Coo-coo for Coco Puffs” and Daniel Boone and Man from Uncle and you’ve got . . . what?  Me, I guess.

TM: Any particular writers who had an influence?

MS: Melville, for sure, who, by the way, you strikingly resemble.

TM: Young, rugged Melville, no doubt.

MS: Absolutely.  I guess if you forced me to name names, I’d say I was most influenced by Melville and Kafka—which makes sense.  After those two, though, the floodgates are open: all the writers of the American Renaissance–Thoreau, Whitman, Poe–a mix of American voices from Cotton Mather to Frederick Douglass, Wharton, Ellison, Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Fitzgerald, Richard Yates. European writers from Dante to George Eliot to Woolf and Musil, Hamsun and Hrabal. Essayists from Montaigne to E.B. White to Joan Didion to, I don’t know, more contemporary voices like Charles D’Ambrosio and Thomas Lynch.  Pro tip: never ask a writer what his or her influences were–they’ll never fucking shut up.

TM: Perhaps some of those names help explain the aphoristic quality I pick up in your writing, particularly your fiction? Like, for me, the key line in Brewster: “Stay somewhere long enough, you don’t really see it at all.”

MS: I hadn’t really thought about it.  But it’s true, don’t you think?–that a place begins to fade with time?  Maybe the biggest struggle in life—or the biggest prize, if you want to get all positive about it—is to just keep on seeing.

TM: You hung around academia for 30-years plus, taught at half a dozen universities—did you stop seeing it?

MS: No such luck.

TM: So how do you see American higher education today?

MS: Oh, Jesus. Ask me about daffodils and sunsets.

TM: Any position on daffodils and sunsets?

MS: I’m pro-daffodils.  And sunsets.

TM: I can quote you?

MS: Sure. Important to get that out there.

TM: Absolutely, so . . .

MS: I honestly think the state of higher education in America today—and I’m talking about only the humanities here and completely ignoring the huge, structural changes the pandemic has forced—is pretty well screwed. The humanities are an endangered ecosystem, just hanging on between the subdivisions.  Whether they’ve slipped below the threshold of genetic viability is anybody’s guess.  Extra credit.

TM: What’s endangering them?

MS: A dozen things.  For starters, the humanities are being forced to justify their existence on economic grounds—What kind of job will this Shakespeare class get my Jimmy?—even though their real value is civic; they form human beings, citizens, not workers.  Asking the humanities to justify themselves in economic terms is like asking a tomato to hammer a nail: It’s a fucking tomato—it serves a different purpose.  But that’s a tough case to make to parents shelling out a king’s ransom for their daughter’s college education.

TM: Sounds like a feedback loop: As the price of education goes up, market forces come into the classroom, forcing it to become more vocational.

MS: Exactly, one standard of value comes to dominate everything.  Of course, the marketplace bias is hard-wired into our culture. Consider Marco Rubio, that paragon of American statesmanship, who once memorably said that what America needs is more welders, not philosophers. Really, it was probably only a matter of time before the universities morphed into the corporations they now are. Of course, I’d love to ask the good senator from Florida why a philosopher can’t also be a welder, or whether he realizes that “manly labor” vs. “effete book-larnin” is a cliché as old as time. Maybe he could write me a five-page essay on why the Founding Fathers would have found his statement ridiculous, while Herr Goebbels would have applauded it.  Of course, to write that essay would require something resembling a humanities education, so . . .

TM: So where does this leave students?

MS: Equal parts entitled and ripped off. The story of higher education these past two generations is that as tuition costs skyrocketed, students morphed into customers.  It makes sense: if you’re paying a quarter mil for a four-year BA, it’s not unreasonable to want to have some say.  But just because something makes sense doesn’t automatically make it a good idea.

TM: I’m going to need something more concrete…

MS: Sure. At the end of every semester, college professors all over America hand out evaluation forms so the students can evaluate their teaching, the class, whether they found it a rewarding experience—stuff like that. These forms factor into promotions, tenure decisions, and so on.  Which sounds fine except that it doesn’t take professor X very long to figure out that he’s handing out customer satisfaction surveys, and that Ted will be a happier customer, and rate professor X as a genius, if professor X gives him an A instead of a B and doesn’t bust his ass with demanding exams and 15-page papers.  The incentive, clearly, is to inflate grades while depressing requirements.

What it boils down to is diminished rigor and party favors all around.  My so-called career basically tracked this paradigm shift. When I was a student, a 15-pager due on Monday was a 15-pager due on Monday. It never occurred to me to argue or to feel aggrieved if I missed the deadline.  By the time I quit my professorship at the U. of Chicago 30 years later—and we’re talking about a place that fetishizes rigor—things had changed. Obviously, there were exceptions—professors who struggled to maintain standards and students who appreciated a rigorous class—but these were the exceptions. I had students in my office at Chicago in tears because I’d given them an A-. They’d never had an A- before.

TM: An A-? That’s pretty heartless.

MS: Oh, there’s more!  All this stuff I’m describing—the corporatization of the university, the transformation of students into customers—has had the unintended side-effect of turning the classroom into the perfect petri dish for grievance. How many stories have I heard lately about some professor being taken to the woodshed for assigning a book that caused a student offence? It’s gotten to where some students don’t even bother discussing it with the prof—they just show up during office hours with the administration’s legal representative.  Thank God I split when I did because I’d last about 20 minutes in today’s environment.

TM: I’m guessing you’re not a “safe space” kind of guy.

MS: How could you tell?

TM: Melvillian intuition.

MS: Let me put it this way: I think “safe spaces,” where a student can opt out of a discussion that might upset them, are well-intentioned.  But I also think that, with rare exceptions, that option makes about as much sense as having science labs in which students can opt out of undesirable results from an experiment.

This whole movement toward customizing our education, making it more about us—above all protecting our tender sensibilities from anything that might upset us or, God forbid, force us to defend our position—is anathema to the humanities. The entire purpose of the humanities is to do the exact opposite: to force us out of ourselves, to challenge us, to flay our pieties. I wrote as much in a piece for Harper’s. The humanities are supposed to make us question our givens, disturb us, unsettle us. A safe space?  The humanities are life itself.  Where’s the safe space from that?

TM: You’re not concerned about blowback?

MS: I’ve stuck my foot in it, so let me earn my hate mail for real.  To my mind, the whole notion that education, or art, should match the consumer’s background, that Latino students need to read more Latino authors and Black students more Black authors makes about as much sense to me as saying that privileged, white, male students need to read more privileged, white, male authors to the exclusion of everything else. What we need is to read good writers—Black, white, Latino, you-name-it.  Whatever hue, whatever cultural background. Especially those who confound us, or piss us off, or tell us something that goes against what we believed to be true.  Kafka still says it best: a book should be like the axe for the frozen sea within.

TM: So how would your ideal classroom be run?

MS: Openly, dangerously, fearlessly.  Against the grain.  Everything on the table, nothing exempt from discussion, debate, argument.  You say James Baldwin’s use of the “n-word” offends you?  Good—it should.  Now let’s discuss whether it’s the word itself, Baldwin’s use of it, or my having assigned Baldwin’s essay in the first place that offends you, and why.  Let’s talk about Baldwin’s reason for deploying that word in the context of his time, and how that particular slur’s payload has changed over the years, how it’s been weaponized by some and co-opted by others…That would be my ideal classroom. I actually had something like it back in the 1990s when I led discussion groups for a course called “The Making of the Modern World” at the University of California, San Diego.  An amazing time in my life—I’ll remember those students, and some of the conversations we had, till senility do us part.

TM: And that’s no longer possible today? Only 30 years on?

MS: Honestly, I don’t know that it is. Between the orthodoxies of the right and the orthodoxies of the left—in academia, definitely more the left—professors have to walk between the raindrops.

TM: Orthodoxy is something we’re both familiar with, considering where we both live. 

MS: Sure. I mean, during the Soviet era, whether in Kyiv or Prague, certain expressions were sanctioned and others condemned, certain works deemed correct, others criminalized. Which is more or less what’s happening in the U.S. now, with the right and the left both clawing for the right to decide what’s “acceptable.”  It’s just a matter of degree, but given our criminal ex-president’s interest in criminalizing dissent, who knows how long that gap will hold?

TM: There’s something else at work here, though, isn’t there?  Tech. What part does it play? Twitter’s an easy target. A vital tool of free speech, but also a cesspool of tendentiousness and impulsivity when it’s called on to address an important cultural stress-point. Though it’s not entirely the fault of the tool, rather, what techies call “an IBM error”—the Idiot Behind the Machine. User error.

MS: Sure.  What’s happening in academia is obviously just a subset of what’s happening in the culture as a whole. The decline of rigor in education—and, again, I’m only talking about the humanities here because I’m not competent to discuss the sciences—is part of the general dumbing down of society.

TM: Okay, Boomer.

MS: Careful, comrade—I might be offended. Some professor has argued that “boomer” is a slur, right?

Seriously, though, this stuff is real. I’ve watched student attention spans atrophying over 30 years. Slowly breaking up—fracturing might be a better word.  And it’s not just students—we’re all under attack.  My honest opinion is that the assault on the silence of the inner world will be the biggest story of our time.  I see it as a form of colonization, masked by convenience and speed. The new gadgets are extraordinary—and extraordinarily addictive—but each new thing plants a flag on a bit more of our inner space. That stillness we need in order to figure out who we are and what we believe.

TM: Your first book was about this, wasn’t it?

MS: Yeah, it was. I was yelling about this back when having any reservations about the digital revolution at all made you kin to the Unabomber. At least he seemed to think so.

TM: Hold on. You know the Unabomber? THE Unabomber?

MS: I wouldn’t say “know,” exactly. We corresponded a bit in 2012 because I wanted to write an essay comparing Ted Kaczynski and John Brown—basically exploring the connection between fanaticism and prophesy—and I thought it might be interesting to get his view.

TM: How’d that go?

MS: The essay? Never wrote it. Harper’s wasn’t interested and they were my go-to guys back then. I let it slide.

TM: And your correspondence with the Unabomber?

MS: Not so good.  For starters, ADX-Florence is a supermax, so all correspondence has to be handwritten.  I was fine with that—I still write letters by hand now and then—but the list of things you couldn’t send—no seeds, no body hair, etc.—was pretty weird. I mean, it’s not like I was dying to send Ted Kaczynski some tomato seeds and chest hair. Anyway, I just didn’t find him all that interesting.  Worse, he’s a terrible writer, but the thing that creeped me out was when he said he had some people on the outside researching me, hoping I’d be helpful for “the cause.” Which is not what I had in mind.

TM: Ted’s People are looking you up. I’d move to Prague. But back to literature—what it did, what it does, what it’s supposed to do.  I mean, once upon a time, a liberal arts education, for all its lack of currency, provided an examination of classical literature that exposed a student to elements of anthropology, phenomenology, metaphysics, ethics, rhetoric—to the story of human progress, basically.  But contemporary fiction—and I say this as somebody who’s working pretty hard playing catch-up to contemporary literary thought—it strikes me that it so rarely goes for the bigger picture. We get a lot of unvarnished processing of personal experience, which, frankly, most of the time isn’t interesting enough to warrant a novel.

MS: I heard a two-part question.

TM: You’re generous that way.

MS: Tell my publisher. Anyway, part one has to do with what’s being taught in the universities today—with the disappearance of what used to be called a classical education. Personally, I think there was a lot of value in the core curriculum at Columbia. It required us to read—or at least convince our professors we’d read—the so called “classics” of world literature, political philosophy, and so on. Of course, almost all the books were written by dead white men, since white men were the only ones empowered to write until a nanosecond ago, but they still had value.  My take would be: Absolutely, mess with the canon, challenge it, include more contemporary voices, female voices, non-Western voices. These have been neglected for far too long. But don’t throw out Aeschylus and Machiavelli because they happened to be privileged, white, and male.

Part two has to do with what’s being written today, and that’s tougher to talk about. I do think that literature has been forced to respond to the changes wrought by the digital revolution.  We expect to be gratified instantly by what we’re looking at now—if we’re not, we swipe it away.  We’re more visual, more short-form. We’re increasingly impatient with complexity, nuance, indeterminacy—all the things that bend toward wisdom, all the things that literature once trafficked in.  The market has adjusted accordingly, as markets do, so that for most novels to succeed today—and, again, there are wonderful exceptions—they basically have to do the impossible and break through the noise, the distraction of the culture.

About 80 years ago, reporting on this new gadget called the TV, E.B. White wrote that “the race today is between loud speaking and soft, between the things that are and the things that seem to be, between the chemist at RCA and the angel of God.” It’s a great sentence, but the point is that the angel of God has been taking it on the chin for a while now. A novel that whispers rather than shouts is going to have a tough time finding the light.

TM: No room for the still, small voice. And this fits in with the corporatization of higher education and identity politics and–

MS: God, you had to ask.

TM: It’s why I get the big bucks. Swing away…

MS: Why not? So, when I said that we expect to be gratified instantly now, I guess that in literary terms, that would mean either entertained or comforted. Still, there are so many exceptions to this that I’m not entirely comfortable with the generalization; I mean, Louise Erdrich just won the Pulitzer. But I have this sense that more and more people today are turning to books to get away from the complexity of the world, not to confront it.  And given the direction of things these days, from the climate crisis to the rise of a fascist political party in America, who can blame them?

What I’m trying to say is that I think it’s possible that this need to be comforted has resulted in people wanting to read more about people like themselves—entrenching themselves in their tribal group or whatever—which in turn has led some to question whether writers have the right to imagine characters different from themselves. That’s a problem. The whole point of literature is to imagine another world, another consciousness. Taking this nonsense to its natural conclusion would imply that you shouldn’t read Huckleberry Finn because Twain wasn’t a runaway slave and neither are you. But read that book and for the duration of that reading to some extent you are Jim. And Huck. And the King and the Duke. You’re taking your ego out for a spin. That’s what defines imaginative fiction. Your genotype doesn’t determine your ability to write fictional characters, your imagination does. Of course, you might do a lousy job of writing a character who is “not you,” but you have the right to try. If the writing sucks, if your imagination can’t cut it, prepare to be criticized. But to incarcerate a creative spirit, to say, in effect, “you don’t have the right to imagine that”—that’s the end of art.

TM: Does the critique of cultural appropriation misunderstand how fiction works? And is this the place to talk about the lingering effects of Soviet cultural policy?

MS: The effects of Soviet cultural policy…?

TM: I mean the way the rank and file were compelled to develop this uncanny bullshit detector, which produced the unforeseen consequence of spilling over into their ability to read fiction.

MS: Well, as far as the cultural appropriation thing goes, like I said, I honestly think it’s another one of those well-intentioned absurdities. Art begs, borrows, and steals, and the rest it imagines. Force artists to stay on their racial or gender reservations or whatever, and you may as well forget about it. Again, you can argue with the accuracy of a writer’s depiction—its success, its spirit, what-have-you—but don’t forbid an artist, a priori, from imagining the other. That’s nuts.

But you’re probably asking the wrong guy about this. My first novel, maybe still my best, was God’s Fool, in which I imagined the lives of the Siamese twins, the women they loved, the children they had, the slaves they owned, and yet I’m neither Siamese nor a black slave nor a woman nor born in the 19th century—though my kids would probably argue that last one. My point is that after the novel came out, I had people who’d lived in Thailand for decades asking me when I’d lived there. I’d never been there in my life.  So.

But your second question, about the effects of Soviet cultural policy and how it’s led people to basically be suspicious of fiction, to see it as just an elaborate form of lying, is more complicated. Basically, as somebody who writes both fiction and nonfiction, I’m always amazed when people assume that fiction is “made up” and non-fiction is “real.” The genres bleed into each other all the time—there’s no fixed border between them.  Which is not to say that certain things didn’t happen at certain points in time–I have no patience with historical relativism–just that our retelling of what happened, no matter how objective, always borrows from fiction.

TM: Examples?

MS: Okay.  Let’s say you’re retelling an event in a personal essay. That retelling’s going to involve chronology, selection, memory—you’re basically lining up events in a certain sequence, stressing certain things while leaving others out, possibly misremembering what actually happened…All these things shape the remembered event in a certain way. There’s nothing wrong with this—you’re not consciously falsifying anything—but some degree of subjectivity is baked in. Again, I’m not saying there’s no difference between the genres, or that we shouldn’t have certain expectations when we read them; all I’m saying is that the most wildly imaginative fiction is rooted in empirical fact, and the most objective essay borrows from fiction.

Sometimes I wish that some university out there would set up, I don’t know what you’d call it— a Reality Studies Program—basically a discipline that would map the territory between fiction and nonfiction in all forms of private and public discourse—histories, novels, diaries, political speech, legal opinions, journalism, you-name-it.  I mean, what could be more relevant in our shapeshifting, post-truth age, right?

TM: Do I hear a desire to go back to academia?

MS: Honestly, only if I felt I could be part of the conversation about what’s happening with the humanities—and part of the solution, hopefully. I wrote a piece on the humanities for Harper’s in which I interviewed a bunch of people—the president of Harvard at the time, the head of the National Endowment for the Humanities—who basically confirmed what I’d been seeing. That there’s less and less room at the table for the humanities. That no one’s making a very compelling argument for them.  That the sciences are gobbling up market share at an extraordinary rate because money talks. The reality today is that private capital and U.S. Department of Defense contracts flow into MIT, for example, the good folks at MIT cook up a product they can sell, and everyone splits the profits. If I’m teaching a course on Kafka, I’m not part of that show. There’s no product. I’ve got nothing the DOD might want.  Which would be fine except that I’m being asked to justify my existence according to criteria the sciences use, criteria that guarantee my eventual erasure. I care about the humanities too much—I think they matter too much—to want to be part of that charade.

TM: So, it’s a marked deck?  No point in playing?

MS: Not at all. If a group of people were to get together to try to articulate an argument for the humanities—an argument that played to our strengths—I’d love to be part of that. I’d love to try to figure out how best to explain to Senator X from Wyoming why he should fund the humanities. Maybe I’d ask him if he knows why it is that the authorities in Tehran, say, will happily let me teach chemistry, but not history. Or why the communist authorities in pre-revolution Czechoslovakia always planted a spy in my English classes. If I’d been teaching physics, I’d have been free to do as I pleased.

TM: How much of the problem with the humanities has to do with what they’re producing?  Unreadable papers loaded with jargon; books that seem deliberately opaque?

MS: A lot. Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the average educated person could read academic literary critics like Lionel Trilling or Richard Poirier and understand what they were saying. Except for James Wood and a few others, try that today. Some of the most God-awful prose in the known world is being cranked out by university literature departments.

TM: What created this?

MS: You got me. The operating principle seems to be “obscurity equals genius.”

TM: Is advancement, understood differently, undermining literature as well? Or changing it? I mean, are writers, tyrannized by the market, being forced to self-censor?

MS: I think they are.

TM: I gotta ask: censorship is something I know a little bit about. 

MS: I know you do.

TM: And self-censorship is what the Soviets were after. In the current context, who needs censors, enforcers of orthodoxy, if you can get people to censor themselves?

MS: Censorship is a loaded word, of course, but I think the question is legitimate.  Basically, I see a market that rewards a certain kind of creative work and discourages a different kind. Fine. That’s how markets work. You could argue that it’s always been like this, but I also think that until fairly recently there was still this charmed space where writers whose books didn’t sell a lot of copies could at least hope to find shelter.  Survive. My sense is that this space is getting smaller. The market dominates everything now.  Agents, editors—good people, people who went into it for all the right reasons—are being squeezed.  A lot of them are fighting hard to resist the forces we’re talking about, but they need to survive too. The result is that books they admire sometimes have to be cut loose.

TM: So, the writer adjusts to the market?

MS: Or not, but it takes a lot of energy not to adjust, to ignore everything and just write your book, especially if you’re in the unhappy position of actually having to make a living. I don’t think there are many writers in America who haven’t struggled with this. You’re working on a novel for three, four years, all the while ignoring that voice in your head whispering, “Your last one sold 4,000 copies, you idiot. How’re you going to pay Billy’s tuition next year?” It’s not easy to ignore that voice saying, “Well, you could juice it up a little, bend it this way or that.” I’m guessing it gets even tricker if you’ve had some real success, because then you start thinking, “Hell, I’ll just give them a little more of that!”  Fortunately, that’s not something I’ve had to deal with.

TM: I’m going to venture that tech—access—makes the situation worse?

MS: Bet your ass. Writers today can look up their numbers on Amazon for example.  See the rankings of every book published in America, from #1—Stephen King or somebody—to some poor schmo at #12 million. This is like crack for writers. If my book jumps from 800,000 to 512,000, I feel great, I have some value in the world. If it goes the other way, hide the belt and the scissors. And then there’s the commentariat—people who think you’re Tolstoy and others who think you’re the antichrist of literature.

TM: So, what do you do?

MS: You go on saying what you need to say, bleeding market share, wondering how you’ll pay the bills.  And then somebody from Australia writes to tell you she’s reading your novel for the third time because she’s going through some difficult times and it helps her—and suddenly it all makes sense, somehow.

TM: The bigger picture: are human beings losing interest in stories?

MS: Not at all—I think they’re craving stories.  I mean, look at TV—it’s full of stories, and some of them are terrific.

I’m repeating myself, and I’m sure there’s a lot more to it, but I do think a lot of what’s happening has to do with the marketplace.  Books have to compete with Netflix, so publishing houses are looking for what they can market—which by the way also means writers they can market. Writers who look like fashion models or have exotic life stories.  I can’t even blame them. Unfortunately, I don’t really check off those boxes. I don’t have a brand.  I’m interested what used to be called the human condition—that’s it.

TM: But that should be enough, shouldn’t it?  I’ve just reread The Visible World, and there’s that heartbreaking story in there where the narrator is trapped on a tram with this old guy who tells him about the day his father was arrested during the German occupation. It’s so convincingly told—he could be the old guy who lives two floors above m—a guy who’s probably riding every tram that passes my building.  It strikes me that it’s not to the benefit of the culture when stories like that struggle to get published.

MS: I’m glad that story spoke to you, but seriously, there’s no way to respond to that without sounding like an asshole who believes his stories are a gift to the culture. On top of which, though recent years have been harder, I haven’t really “struggled” all that much. I’ve written the books I wanted to write, I’ve had the good fortune—so far, anyway—of getting them published, the critics have generally been kind, and now and then I get a letter from a reader who actually took the trouble to write to me.  Not bad.

If I take myself out of the equation, though, I couldn’t agree with you more: In some slow, sedimentary way, literature—and I use the L-word without apology—builds human beings, human beings capable of imagining lives other than their own, so to the extent that literature struggles, and I think it is struggling, we’re all the poorer for it.

MT: What’s the way forward?

For me, I’d say more of the same.  I’d like to think that as we get older some of the bullshit peels away and we’re able to see who we are and what we’re drawn to. I’m drawn to characters who have a history, who’ve taken some hits and have the scars to show for it. I’m interested, basically, in how well, or not, we’ve survived the life we’ve led. That’s my territory, and I’ll keep coming back to it, one way or another, for as long as I write.

At the same time, I’d say it’s important to take your work more seriously than yourself.  Keep a sense of humor, if possible.  I mean, most of us have had the experience of walking into some venue to do a reading and there are two people in the audience and one of them is your wife and the other seems insane.  It’s not fun, but it’s okay.  It’s survivable.  You can rend your mantle and defile your horn in the dust, or you can figure, “Fuck it, I get to go to dinner an hour early.”

But that’s just me.  On the larger, cultural level, I guess the way forward might involve something as simple as putting down our phones and picking up a book.

TM: Good luck with that.

MS: Yeah, I know.  You see it everywhere now, though it’s worse in the States. Groups of friends hanging out, each one on a device.  Couples having dinner or sitting on a bench, both on their phone. We’ve created a space that doesn’t exist and we’re migrating into it at extraordinary speed.  I can’t predict what the blowback will be, but it’s going to be considerable. I just don’t believe we can sever ourselves from everything that’s sustained us for millennia—in the blink of an eye, evolutionarily speaking—without suffering some kind of psychic kickback. But there I go again, bitching about tech.

TM: A bit. Still, a couple more?  Tell me about your decision to give up tenure at the University of Chicago and move to Prague. You were Chair of Creative Writing there, right?

MS: There were some years between the two moves, though I guess you could see them as related.  Basically, the U. of Chicago and I didn’t see eye to eye, let’s just put it that way.  It’s a strange place: An extraordinary university, and at the same time, I don’t know how else to put it, a kind of Mecca of depression—the pilgrims drag themselves to it from the four corners of the earth.  My family and I stuck it out for a while, then split.  For all I know, I’m the only person dumb enough to give up a gold-plated professorship like that without having something lined up to replace it with.  I’m blessed with family members as impractical as I am.

TM: And so, Prague.

MS: After a decade or so in Brewster, Canton, New York, and Winslow, Ariz., yeah.  What can I tell you?  I love this city, though it regularly drives me nuts. And, of course, our kids live here, which is huge for us.  But coming here was also an economic decision. Around the time writing became my sole source of income several my venues from the old days had dried up, Harper’s had gone in its own direction, a couple of books had gotten good reviews but didn’t sell well…you get the picture.  And so, it came down to either figuring out how to make more dough or moving to a place where the little we had would be enough.  We chose, “b,” and it was the right call.

TM: It’s likely that some people assumed it was because of Trump.

MS: Yeah, which was funny for two reasons. First, because the moon wouldn’t be far enough if that was our intention, and second, because the Czechs have their own corrupt leaders in Zeman and Babiš (the current president and prime minister of the Czech Republic) who they’re going to have to get rid of just like we got rid of Trump.

TM: A positive note to end on…

MS: Qualified. As the Czechs say: Pravda zvitezi, ale veme to fusku!—The truth will triumph, but it takes some sweat!

Image Credit: Publicdomainpictures.net

Body Betrayal: The Millions Interviews Maegan Poland

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Selected by Carmen Maria Machado as winner of The Bakwin Award, debut author Maegan Poland’s What Makes You Think You’re Awake? is a searing collection of stories that grapple with the limits of human connection, the borders of consciousness, and the slipperiness of coming to know oneself deeply amid the pressures of daily survival.

Poland’s book was published in June by Blair Press, and the same month appeared on The Millions “Most Anticipated” list. Stories in the collection include “Spores,” which previously received a Special Mention in The Pushcart Prize XL: Best of the Small Presses 2016 Edition anthology, and “Milking,” which was a finalist in the 2019 Mississippi Review Fiction Prize. Poland currently teaches creative writing and composition at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

While the stories in this masterful collection are deeply introspective, they are also incredibly gripping and, at times, darkly funny. Set amid contemporary life or in a very near future, Poland’s stories are grounded in the realism of daily life but layered with the speculative and the surreal. They sustain a level of narrative tension that approaches something like a thriller, causing her protagonists and readers alike to contemplate their bodies, minds, and motives. Think along the lines of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper but for the 21st century, if Gilman’s classic work met with the likes of Machado and Laura van den Berg. Poland’s collection offers a nuanced feminist critique of society and technology and asks difficult questions about the nature of perceived reality when internalized social norms have made it difficult to separate one’s true desires from one’s learned expectations. Poland’s characters grapple with trying to break free from traps both socially enforced and self-imposed. They seek something better, freer, truer—though perhaps yet ineffable.

Poland and I first met while we were Black Mountain Institute PhD fellows at UNLV and co-editors for Witness literary magazine. She spoke with me about her inspirations and writing process over two Zoom meetings this spring. The interviews have been condensed for length and lightly edited for clarity.

The Millions: Since you’re a debut author, I thought it would be good to begin with you introducing yourself to readers. Tell me about your inspiration: where do you feel you write from, and what considerations are foremost to you as a writer?

Maegan Poland: When I was growing up, like so many writers, I was a dedicated reader, and was really fortunate to have parents who gave me access to lots of books. I remember, in particular, being captivated by the book The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley. I read it over and over as a kid. The main character is an illegitimate princess who tries to prove herself by being a dragon slayer and ends up getting horribly burned in the process, and I remember thinking, “This goes against all the Princess stories that I’d read.” I fell in love with the main character. Her story wasn’t about being the beautiful princess, getting rescued, and having the one-dimensional happily-ever-after romance. She was a fighter. Even then, I think I wanted to read more stories about girls and women that surprised me, that didn’t fit with the dominant societal narrative I’d been fed.

The writing that inspires me shifts over time. I may curate what I’m reading to put me in the right state of mind for my writing. I have often turned to Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison for inspiration. I also am inspired by Lorrie Moore’s dark wit. More recently, I’ve discovered and deeply admired the writing of Laura van den Berg and Carmen Maria Machado. I’m often drawn to writing that examines societal expectations, gender roles, and sexuality, as well as writing that simply amplifies the magic and horror of life.

TM: A couple of the stories explore anxieties of living in the technological age—like in “How They Saw Her”—and even flirt with the dystopian; yet the stories still approach the dystopian from a realist sense, set in the now or the not-too-distant future, as in “Landline” and “Modern Relics,” but one could argue “Milking” gets at this, too, in a way, through the technology of the fertility industry. And then there’s “The Shed,” which uses magic realism to create a beautiful fantasy that soon goes awry. How do these stories originate for you? How does the blurring of genres serve the larger themes?

MP: There is a tendency in my writing, at least at this point in time, to be interested in things that are gearing toward a sort of psychological surrealism, but with a light touch. I’m really interested in the reliability of our perspectives, these epistemological concerns that seem to be even more relevant now that we’re living in an age where there’s so much discussion of what we can trust in terms of information. But also, this fits with sort of unpacking what we know about what we want. “How do you know that what you want, is actually what you want?” is a question that I explore in a few different ways in the collection because it’s just really hard to excavate the layers of what’s coming from inside us, whatever that means, versus what’s coming from outside of us, and the sort of feedback loop between those things. So, I often find myself leaning toward a place of a character maybe unlocking another perspective, maybe a different understanding of reality, but with the lingering question of, “Is this an accurate way of seeing things?” That’s the anxiety of the character. Is the character actually seeing their world the way that it is? And with a couple of the stories that dovetails with technology.

TM: What I particularly notice and admire about your writing is that the pacing and suspense are often approached at the level of what I thought of as almost a psychological thriller—but I like how you called it psychological surrealism—because mortality, death, and the threat of sexual violence are quietly present in much of the work. Yet the tensions within your stories are most often the kind nestled in the spaces between two people. It’s invisible, subtle, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, but unmistakable. Can you tell me more about what you mean when you say psychological surrealism?

MP: I think about how so many of the stories that I’ve been writing recently—and it’s not every story—but so many of the stories are exploring how the characters’ perspectives are creating these harrowing possibilities. And so, there’s a sense of slipperiness between reality and perspective, and uncertainty about how much those two things are overlapping or connected. And so, one of the tensions in my recent fiction is essentially how things deviate from our expectations for reality. I’m able to explore that through the characters’ perception, which may or may not be flawed.

TM: Yes! And how do you go about crafting that? It’s so masterful because it’s these really subtle—almost microaggressions, but in some cases it’s even more subtle than that—like you said it’s a slipperiness of perspective. So that strikes me as very ineffable in life, in a lot of ways. I’d love to hear more about your process around bringing that out in your stories.

MP: I think in life I’m actually a very social person who cares deeply about my relationships, and I trust the people I care most about. But there is a part of me [laughs]—the nightmare that is always at the back of my mind is this idea that we’re all skin bags [laughs] creating these illusory personas for each other. And that we never truly are connecting as much as we would actually hope to. That’s not necessarily how I engage with the world, but it’s a part of me: this fear that resurfaces from time to time—and I suspect it’s a common fear for others as well. It’s something that can produce a lot of tension in relationships when we feel like maybe we’ve been wrong about someone, and we don’t trust our discernment. I think that can also comment upon our larger anxieties about the world, and about trying to be able to correctly perceive what is happening around us.

I’m concerned about a reckless propensity towards conspiracy theories right now in the United States. So, when I examine these questions, I don’t want it to sound as though I’m trying to create fodder for that sort of mindset, but I think there is something in the zeitgeist. There’s a lot of anxiety about how we can feel sure about any of the information that we’re receiving, especially with certain structures of power, like even just thinking in terms of the subtle ways that we’re influenced by algorithms, and the subtle ways that algorithms can be utilized for profit. There are so many things that are shaping how we see the world that a lot of us are not yet aware of. The exploration of the ways in which we fail to know each other, or the ways we are nervous about whether or not we truly know each other, is also about how we are anxious about the world and the knowability of the world. I think all those things are connected. As a craft question, I just think about all those fears, and I write them down [laughs]

TM: [laughs] That’s wise advice.

MP: —but, I write down the weird specific permutations of it, you know? All the strange mundane manifestations of those types of fears. Sometimes if it’s the right character, who is inclined to have those fears as well, that helps me shape them, and to shape how they’re interacting with other people.

LT: Even amid the narrative tension we just talked about and those deep dark issues that you’re exploring, there’s often an underlying comedy—witty, ironic, sometimes neurotic. There are certain lines that I find myself laughing out loud at, even on the second or third read. Yet, that sense of comedy does not take away from the actual darkness of what the protagonist is going through in any of the stories and I’d love to know more about how you approach the use of humor in your work.

MP: I have had people before say that my writing can tend towards being darkly funny. You know, I was watching a movie last night, The Wolf of Snow Hollow. It was a dark comedy in a lot of ways, but it was so sincere with its treatment of the main character and his struggles with alcoholism; for me, that use of dark humor did not take away the emotional impact. If anything, the quick juxtaposition of a joke followed by a moment of really raw emotion emphasizes the character’s struggle, I think. So, if somebody thinks that I’m doing something similar, then that’s very good news for me. At least, that is something that I sometimes do aspire to. I meant for “Spores” to be a funny story. That’s what I think of as my most comedic story.

TM: [laughing] That’s hilarious to me because that story really freaked me out! I’d love to know why you find that one funny.

MP: [laughs] That story is fiction, but it was informed by my experiences in screenwriting and film school as well. I had screenwriting in mind as I was writing it, so I thought of set pieces, and I was thinking in terms of creating this comedic payoff. I usually write from character first and foremost—you know, I usually do not approach comedy in that way—but I did in that story, and now that we’re talking about it, I do think that screenwriting was an influence on that.

I tend to be a person who can be very joyful, but I also struggle with having a pessimistic interpretation of things sometimes, and I think the way that I have learned to cope with that is to try and poke fun at it, and so I think that sometimes gets translated into how I’m trying to explore the heavy seriousness of a moment. I sometimes then have this impulse to—not poke fun at the character’s predicament—but I guess it’s a way of sort of commenting on the inevitable absurdity of the human experience [laughs]. It’s like, how strange that we can conceive of our own mortality, and have to constantly make choices to minimize the likelihood of our death, while also deciding whether or not we want to have a unicorn latte, you know?

TM: [laughing] The characters are recognizing that as much as they’re really hampered by these existential as well as practical concerns for their lives, they also see the absurdity in it, but they can’t stop themselves. That really comes through in the stories.

So, going back to the darker subject a little bit—In many of the stories, which are most often told from the perspective of a female protagonist, there are antagonistic men invading women’s spaces and lives through gendered microaggressions. I am thinking especially of “The Shed” and “Landline,” to different degrees. While the women in the stories are often sort of painfully polite—which you’re masterful at conveying as a survival strategy—for instance, in “The Way They Saw Her,” the protagonist, who is being harassed and potentially stalked, cannot think of what she would have done to be worthy of “a vendetta” since she has always prioritized trying to behave in ways that would make her innocuous and well-liked by others. Can you discuss how these stories deal with the issue of safety and survival in a male-dominated world?

MP: With “The Shed,” when I wrote it, I had been revisiting Virginia Woolf. I was thinking of A Room of One’s Own and I was also finalizing my dissertation. I remember saying to my now-husband, “I just wish I could go into a shed and stop time,” and then, I was like, “Wait a minute. I’ve got to write that down.” And so, it started with a premise: What would that mean if you could go into this separate space that really does sort of stop the world for a while as you gather your thoughts or collect yourself—what would that do to someone? It seems like it could be addictive. It would be tempting to shut the world out, but how much would that interfere with somebody’s ability to perceive the world?—whatever that means, if that is possible. On top of that, there’s a man in that story who invades her space. I didn’t want to create a story that was didactic or that had all the questions answered for me. I wanted to use the story to explore—to set up these premises and then, set them in motion and see how the tension of those elements, the shed and this intruder, would resolve or explode. And of course, this premise evolved into something quite different than the importance of Woolf’s message that women needed dedicated space and time for their writing, but I think there are still resonances; on one level, the story depicts how difficult it is for a woman to secure an inviolable space.

TM: It strikes me that she’s had these life experiences that have drastically influenced her to know that the world is very dangerous. She’s uprooted her whole life in fact, as a result of it. Yet, even so, the rules of social engagement are such that the reason she doesn’t react until things boil over is because she’s afraid of his reaction; because then he could say she didn’t have the right to be more assertive, right?

MP: It was definitely part of my intention that she feels that there are certain ways that she has to behave to de-escalate the situation and that allow him to actually keep pushing. It’s still a problem that some men expect women will pay them a certain type of attention. A seemingly well-intentioned guy might still have some of these bad habits of demanding a level of attention that would force a woman to have to pause and do the calculus of “is he safe or not?”

TM: That is really well-depicted in all your stories. The women in the stories are often experiencing being watched in some way—most overtly “In the Way They Saw Her,” but again recurring in “Landline” and “Modern Relics.” Thematically, it made me think of Foucault’s panopticon and this idea of being observed all the time or not knowing if you’re being observed all the time. So, I wondered if you might talk about how this idea might apply to gender dynamics—perhaps, when considering the male gaze.

MP: In “Modern Relics,” the surveillance becomes part of the automation and part of how the capitalist system can just keep rolling along. But the main character also has this fear of how surveillance video could be used against her. Could someone secretly watch footage of her having sex with her husband? Could someone use that footage to say she was unfit for her job? Previously private spaces have become public and open for public judgement and consumption. With “The Way They Saw Her,” it definitely was about exploring a social media-saturated, Internet-saturated world and thinking about how that gives people so much access to—I am trying to think of the right word—I almost want to say so much access to hunting, sort of like cyber-hunting, and how that gives somebody so much access and, sometimes, anonymous access to criticizing and, maybe in other ways, psychologically violating anyone. Specifically, I was thinking about how certain groups, including women, are more likely to be targeted. It creates an amplification of an already problematic power structure. And then, the unfair burden that the way to protect yourself would be to go offline, but that’s in direct opposition to career goals, and direct opposition to the character’s goals of no longer being isolated, right? So that if she is going to follow police advice, if she is going to do the thing that’s prescribed for her by authorities within society, she is sort of erasing herself.

TM: Many of the stories deal with women’s sense of self and identity amid social expectations, such as the roles of wife and mother. These stories also offer a nuanced and complex exploration of sexuality and desire—often in conversation with one another and to different degrees—with danger and trauma as well as the nature of romantic intimacy, sexual identity, and the complex search for sexual empowerment. How do you see these themes being explored in your work?

MP: Earlier, I had said how a driving question or anxiety I have for many of my characters is: how do they know what they want? How can they know how much of what they want is what they really want or how much of it is influenced by other forces that make them think they want that? I explore this in “Milking,” for example. There is a sense of how the protagonist’s mother pictured that her daughter should have a kid by a certain age, how her husband now thinks that she should start a family with another round of IVF versus what she feels comfortable with, and she’s struggling with that pressure.

TM: I was thinking primarily of “What Makes You Think You’re Awake Right Now?”, but I feel many your stories capture the experience so well of being a woman in this time—maybe always, but I know it is a conversation I have had with many of my friends—for example, in deciding to get engaged or the possibility of having kids. Part of the experience is parsing, What do I want? What is empowerment? Whether it follows the script or not, you know? How do you see that aspect of the sense of self and identity amid romantic intimacies, sexual identity, and sexual empowerment?

MP: When I was writing the sleepwalking story, “What Makes You Think You’re Awake Right Now?,” I was thinking about the premise first and foremost. I found myself really interested in, first of all, a recurring theme in my writing, which is anxiety about the way in which our body can betray us. And then another anxiety I often explore is the ways in which people, even people we care about, how we might not perceive each other accurately. We may not be understanding what the other person needs, or maybe we might not be accurately perceiving what the other person needs. I also was tonally interested in something that at first could seem light-hearted and how quickly—because of this situation of being betrayed by your body and then also having someone not understanding how important it is that they correctly read what’s going on with you and your bodily experience—that could lead to such a traumatic experience.

TM: I love that you keep mentioning this phrase “body betrayal” because it is something I hadn’t articulated for myself as a reader. Could you talk a little more about your conception of body betrayal in this collection?

MP: Well, I think there’s a couple of levels. One is that it goes back to that anxiety and the absurdity of us being these walking skin bags and that’s a sort of two-fold horror. One is that the body is such a fragile vehicle through which to observe the world—I know we could also frame it as the “resilient human body,” but I am exploring the anxieties of the fragility of the human body. For all of our extraordinary thoughts and creativity and imagination, we are still housed in this skin bag that can fail us and shut it all down. I think that often, I am interested in how the reminder of that mortality can ratchet up anxieties that then fuel reexaminations of other aspects. But then also, going back to this idea of skin—the body betrayal is also this idea that we’re betrayed by our inability to transcend that skin barrier when we are talking about human connection. We need other humans, and we need to connect with other humans to be healthy and yet, we also—it’s a weird contradiction that we can never actually get outside of that perspective. We can never actually know what another person’s thinking or actually know what the other person needs beyond a shadow of a doubt. Even if the person communicates with us and tells us what they need, are they self-aware enough to correctly communicate what they need?

TM: This also speaks to how a couple of stories in the collection, such as “Overnights Welcome” and “Landline,” really seem prescient in the mood that they capture of the year we all just lived through in that they feature pandemic or catastrophic blackout, though they were written years beforehand. Can you tell me a little bit about how these stories came into being for you?

MP: I’ve always been obsessed with viruses. When I was in junior high, I remember I had this book—I think I got it for my birthday because I asked for it. It was The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett. I remember reading that when I was in junior high and just being obsessed with this idea that we’re doomed and a pandemic is going to happen, it’s just a matter of time. And so, of course, I got caught up in The Hot Zone and all of that. I wanted to be a virologist for a while. I can’t say that I have any expertise there because I dropped that dream pretty early, but for a while I really wanted to be a virologist. Then when Zika was happening, I was struck by how devastating it was, especially in Brazil and then, thinking what would that look like in a community where there’s a lot of privilege?

TM: One thing I noticed about your stories is that there is often this exploration of intimacy or connection between lovers or, more often, the misconnection between lovers. Can talk about that?

MP: It goes back to something that we talked about before—this anxiety about not being able to truly know another person. This anxiety about how limited we are in our abilities to understand each other—and I say that as somebody who deeply values my connection with other human beings who I care about deeply and do feel like we actually communicate very well and have a significant degree of knowledge and intimacy with each other, right? But, there is something I find alarming about how people can become so deeply invested in each other and then find out that it wasn’t at all what they thought it was. And this happens to so many people, whether we’re talking about romantic relationships or friendships, work relationships, political relationships. Especially, though, when it’s romantic, the stakes are so high. You have presumably the most access you will ever get to another person, and there’s still the possibility that you will feel isolated from each other. That really fascinates me. I mean, it sounds like kind of an obvious statement about human nature, but I am always fascinated by how we bridge that gap, by our constant attempts to bridge that gap, yet it will always be there to some degree.

TM: These stories bring that complexity to the forefront really successfully. So, what are you working on now?

MP: I’m currently working on a novel set in a high-tech future about a woman who goes on a tech-free retreat in a ghost town in Nevada, but when mysterious and disturbing things begin happening at the hotel, she discovers that the retreat is not what it seems and tries to escape. The story explores the impact of data collection and strong AI on personal identity, privacy, and freedom.

A Brilliant Visionary of Terrible Decisions: The Millions Interviews Catherine Baab-Muguira

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“Live your best life.” It’s one of the most common, yet worthless, aphorisms offered today. Chipper, insipid, and surprisingly relativistic (it fits arsonists as well as anybody), this meaningless maxim is the Tic-Tac of modern aspiration, boasting all the nuance and depth of Target word-art or pastel Instagram posts. Fed up with such drivel, and equally skeptical of the therapy-industrial complex, writer Catherine Baab-Muguira urges us in her debut book of nonfiction to take the exact opposite tack: to live our worst life instead.

In Poe for Your Problems: Uncommon Advice from History’s Least Likely Self-Help Guru (Running Press), Baab-Muguira preaches the good news of one of the greatest screw-ups of all time: Edgar Allan Poe. Drawing insights on work, love, ambition, and legacy from Poe’s blazing dumpster fire of a life, she concludes that the surest way to thrive is to sabotage everything you can get your mitts on, then build something new and totally novel out of the wreckage. Her literary forebears—Richard Fariña and Charles Bukowski among others—would be proud.

Recently I posed Baab-Muguira a few questions for The Millions, which she graciously answered amid her publicity tour of Richmond pubs—knocking back local spirits in honor of her favorite local spirit.

The Millions: Cat, you and Edgar Allan are both Richmond natives. Growing up in the River City, did you ever feel his ghost next to you at the bar?

Catherine Baab-Muguira: Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised right now if he walked in from the next room. He’s part of the atmosphere here—a callback to a more gruesome era but also an enlivening, animating myth. I’ve heard people propose a Poe statue to replace some others which, as you may have heard, have finally been removed. I’m not convinced, even as I love the guy profoundly. As cheesy or silly as it may sound, he’s someone I grew up with.

TM: Early on you write that your book started as a “dark joke”—which sounds almost like it started as a dare, but a dare to yourself. How did Poe for Your Problems come to be?

CBA: It was 2016 and I was doing a lot of crying in my bathtub. I’ve had depressive episodes since I was a kid, but late that year, I experienced the worst one yet. During a mental-health leave from work, some kind of intuition led me to start rereading Poe for the first time since elementary school. And suddenly, revelation: Poe wasn’t some goofy, spooky mystery man spinning 19th-century torture fiction. Instead, all the stories were metaphors for the horrendous pain of living, while the poems proved to be the most deft, intricate puzzles. Poe’s tonal complexity just blew my mind in the best way.

I read deeper, getting into the biographies, then the two volumes of his letters. One night I was having a drink with a buddy, and I started telling him about how Poe, of all people, was cheering me up. “That sounds like a book,” my friend said. “Oh yeah,” I deadpanned back, “I’m going to write a book about reading Poe for self-help and call it How to Say Nevermore to Your Problems.” The idea stayed with me, though. And when I wrote an essay about Poe for The Millions in 2017, it attracted enough of an audience that I got an agent and was eventually able to sell the book idea to Running Press/Hachette.

TM: Literature, film, and pop culture are full of anti-heroes, some of which Poe created himself. But you’re blazing a trail into what may be a new genre, the anti-self-help book. What is your vision for this genre? How can studying villains, rascals, and wretches help us flourish?

CBA: I wish I could claim to have pioneered anti-self-help altogether, but maybe I can claim to have spearheaded the subgenre of anti-self-help literary biography? And, of course, Poe would have to be first in line for the treatment, with his spectacular success a direct result of his impossible personality, feuds, mistakes, and missteps. It’s inspiring to see someone succeed because of their flaws, you know? Feels so much more accessible than your typical self-help message of becoming a better person, plus the guru’s not some self-righteous sales guy with pecs and veneers.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate self-help as a genre. I do think it needs reform, and not through legislation but irony, satire, and kayfabe. You know how teenagers on TikTok and Instagram use “girlboss” as an ironic insult, not a compliment? I love that vibe, though I am too earnest (as a person and in the book) to totally pull it off. I’m not being totally ironic when I call Poe a hero.

TM: Fair point. The self-righteousness of self-help is often its worst attribute. Yet you steal a page directly out of the genre’s playbook by including exercises, checklists, and break-away bullet points. Have you no shame?

CBA: Get with the Poe-gram, Ben! You’ll never carve out your own unique, notorious place in history if you don’t repeat every affirmation, finish every quiz, and check off every checklist item. This is about putting your most outrageous and seemingly self-defeating impulses into action, starting today. Starting right now.

TM: Okay, Okay, clearly I’m not cut out for this. On my way to mediocrity and oblivion, then, tell me: in your biographical accounts of “history’s most accomplished neurotic,” you offer some cracking stories of his childhood and youth, such as the time he lost $2,000 at poker as an undergrad at UVA—around 50 grand in today’s money. Where did you dig this stuff up?

CBA: I read Poe’s letters, and much of the material about the breakdown of his relations with his foster father comes from there, along with some lies tall tales he told friends and professional contacts about his childhood. Poe was not at all a reliable source of information about himself—one more reason to love him—though his renditions of events are revealing in their own way.

So, to get closer to the truth, I compared his accounts to The Poe Log, scholarship, journalism and more personal, contemporary accounts about him and the era (Benjamin F. Fisher’s Poe in His Own Time was super helpful), then I fact-checked it all against Arthur Hobson Quinn’s 1941 biography, which is the most reliable and fair of all the Poe biographies. There are about a half-dozen other major biographies and at least a dozen more minor ones, but often, the sourcing is bad, and not-so-credible accounts are included, and the biographer is obviously sneering at Poe.

I’m very glad to have added 21st-century anachronism and my own pathological identification with Poe to the mix, clearing the air forever and making for the definitive Poe biography of our time. A tough job, you know, but somebody’s got to.

TM: One of your early claims is that in order to succeed, broke-ass freelancers like Poe and the rest of us need to get cozy with selling out: to jettison our pride, to put our idealistic dreams on layaway, and get a damn job, even a down-market one. “Developing economic insight is to develop insight, period,” you write. The future can wait. How do you square this short-term vs. long-term thinking?

CBA: Poe’s example suggests that adapting to the market and even selling out is the smartest long-term move, I’d argue. One of the reasons he translates so well to every new era, and keeps finding fans in every new generation, is that he wrote in commercial genres and a commercial style. It wasn’t his first choice. He bitched about having to. Yet the effect was to knock a crucial portion of the pretentiousness out of him. If there is a magic zone in literature, a formula for achieving some lasting literary impact, it’s in bringing one’s unique weird genius to a commercial genre, playing with and experimenting with the forms until you hit something out of the park.

That’s my big takeaway from his career. It’s an encouraging message for those of us who are trying to find our way as writers and reluctant living-earners. Poe’s probably the most unemployable person I’ve ever seen, but he managed somehow, which means there’s hope for us. 

TM: Work aside, you spend a good deal of time on Poe’s lessons for the lovelorn. Not everyone may know that he was passionately devoted to his wife (and first cousin) Virginia, before she died of illness around 10 years into their marriage. What surprised you most in learning about Poe’s personal life, and is there one key takeaway you’d offer the romantic seekers of our age?

CBA: You could almost pick an incident from his love life at random, but one of my favorite periods is the wake of his “Raven” fame, circa 1845. His semi-flirtatious exchanges with female fans, some of which were published in newspapers at the time, look so much like today’s DM slides and moony Facebook comments. The big takeaway is that, when it comes to romance, people have always been embarrassing themselves and acting out of raw infantile need. What a relief that is to know. Or is it me?

TM: Perhaps one of the most important lessons you offer is the old saw that you have to make the right enemies in life—or on Poe’s terms, if you don’t have enough enemies, you’re doing something terribly wrong. In today’s literary world, how do you see this playing out—in the post-Dale Peck era, should feuds, takedowns, and rivalries still be a thing?

CBA: I think the culture is definitely ready to move that way. While reviewing to curry favor hasn’t changed in centuries, the ongoing collapse of traditional journalism in our era seems to mean that all we ever see now are raves, deserved and not-so-deserved. And people are asking, where are the meanie reviews? Where are the unashamed truth tellers? Let’s see some hatchet jobs. Let’s bring back the literary trolls! Just please don’t troll me, obviously.

TM: No promises! Lastly—nearly every chapter has what you call a Poe (Pro) Tip, ranging from “Scams are far more reliable moneymakers than dreams” to “If you’re going to have a nervous breakdown, go big or go home.” Practice what you preach: out of the dozens of tips you offer in the book, Cat, which one has been most fruitful for your own life?

CBA: It’s that uber Poe tip I mention at the end of the introduction, unnumbered because it’s too fundamental to the Poe-gram even to be labeled number one: “Stop looking for models of perfect living. Instead, embrace a brilliant visionary of terrible decisions to guide you to an epic life.”

Got me here, didn’t it? Arguably.

Bonus Links:
Edgar Allan Poe: Self-Help Guru
Poe’s ‘Eureka’ Is a Galaxy-Brained Space Opera for Our Times
Twenty-Five Ways to Roast a Raven: The Spiciest Criticism of Edgar Allan Poe
Was Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ Inspired by an Edgar Allan Poe Story?
Edgar Allan Poe Was a Broke-Ass Freelancer

Bearing Witness to All That’s Being Lost: The Millions Interviews Claire Vaye Watkins

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Claire Vaye Watkins is a rising voice in the literary world; she launched her career in 2012 with Battleborn, a collection of short stories published by Riverhead that garnered a flood of literary acclaim. The New York Times called the collection, “brutally unsentimental,” and The New Yorker wrote that Watkins is writing in an entirely new genre: “Nevada Gothic.”

In 2015, Watkins published her first novel, Gold Fame Citrus, (Riverhead), a work of stunning speculative fiction—LeGuin meets Orwell—which hit the literary scene with a flurry of accolades and was named the Best Book of the Year by a landslide of major publications. Louise Erdrich praised the book as, “Exhilarating, upsetting, delirious, bold, Gold Fame Citrus is a head rush of a novel and establishes Claire Vaye Watkins as an important new voice in American literature.”

Born in Bishop, Calif., in 1984, Watkins grew up in the Mojave Desert, living first in Tecopa, Calif., and then Pahrump, Nev. But Watkins’s unique upbringing was not only the desert—her father was Paul Watkins, a member of the Charles Manson Family.

Watkins’s latest novel, I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness, publishes October 5, and I was lucky enough to snag her for a conversation. 

The Millions: It’s a real pleasure to interview you and I appreciate your time! One of the first things I like to ask authors is about their background and childhood, because I think it’s significant in shaping a person. You are a unique person in the literary world and one of the things I’ve found fascinating is the fact that you grew up on the edge of Death Valley. I want to hear your perspective of how growing up in the isolation of that desert environment shaped you as a person and then as a writer because it’s different than a writer who has been raised in an urban situation.

Claire Vaye Watkins: I think it’s probably everything in terms of determining who I am and how I write. I mean, a big part of being in the Mojave Desert was being with my parents who had sort of defected from city life and were kind of retreating from it. There’s this identic overtone, but it’s also sort of hellish because it’s hot and death is all around you and my parents worked in this little museum and rock shop. A big part of their job was giving European tourists advice for how to stay alive. We talked a lot about death because we lived there, and not just because it’s hot, but also because of nuclear testing. Atomic bombs were dropped very close, into the ‘90s. I was in the second grade when they stopped.

Then when that stopped, Yucca Mountain, the nuclear waste repository, started construction and there were generations of existential threats from nuclear war and environmental destruction. From that vantage point, that’s how I came to understand climate collapse and drought in the West. And so, there’s definitely been a lot of grief as a part of loving that place. It’s like bearing witness to the things that are done to it and that’s also why my dad died of cancer when he was 40. Part of our family myth was that he basically got cancer either from mining, being down in the talc mines, or from radiation. Either one, those are very specific. It’s from the rocks, the very rocks around you, but it’s also from extraction and living in a sacrifice zone.

TM: Right. So we poison ourselves.

CVW: Exactly. I think as a writer, I’ve become actually quite lighthearted compared to the place I come from. I think I’ve become a real clown in some ways, but it is also a joyous, exuberant, super expressive culture. People are wild and they’re either there because they feel trapped there, and they’ve been trapped there, or they are radically choosing it and it’s not a choice that a lot of people really understand. It’s full of people who don’t care much what others think and don’t buy into many of the myths of mainstream society. That’s quite enlivening for an artist.

TM: I think it would be, as you say, in some ways, you’re sort of on the edge of death and, in another weird way, it’s freeing.

CVW: Oh yeah, that can be very enlivening. I think that’s what, if you move through the fear of it, it can make you feel really alive and that’s why I live here.

TM: I think it is very significant, obviously, and your own childhood and upbringing and as a writer—you can just feel it in your writing.

CVW: Yeah, it’s not that different from what my parents were doing: taking people into the shop and kind of touring them around, making sure that they’re okay. Welcoming them. And that’s really what my grandma was doing when she was a change girl at Caesar’s Palace. It was welcoming the tourists. That’s really the only way any pioneers survived was being welcomed and helped out by each other, so maybe I’m just participating in that long tradition.

TM: That’s a very interesting point of view—I like that. One of the other things I really am interested in is; what authors do you feel like have primarily influenced your writing?

CVW: I came of age reading anthologies, because I wanted to know how to write short stories and I wanted to see how many, many different people would do it. Then when I found somebody I really loved, I would just go and find their books. So that meant that Louise Erdrich, Tony Earley, Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, a lot of regionalists. I was really jazzed by Southern [writers]—southerners because they are so unabashedly, for some reason, interested in their homeland—but I recognize that in the American West. Part of the literature of the American West does have a real propaganda origin story. It was used as an instrument of manifest destiny to try to get people out West. It has kind of a nationalistic, can be a bit jingoistic, but when it’s done well, it’s really about, for me, the land itself and how it feels to be in it. Wallace Stegner does that for me, Ed Abbey. Joy Williams and Joan Didion are probably the most important living writers to me.

They helped me kind of bust up the myth of the American West and decide for myself which parts of it were railroad boosterism and which parts are a real, authentic, honest experience of a particular landscape with a long bloody history.

TM: I read, years ago, a book by Richard O’Connor, Iron Wheels and Broken Men, about the opening up of the West with the railroads and all the scams and stuff. It’s pretty amazing.

CVW: Yeah, I read a lot of nonfiction and history about the West, like Sally Zanjani is this historian I really like. She writes a lot about the founding of Nevada or Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner. I think the myth of the American West is quite intoxicating, but it’s also alienating. It doesn’t really make sense to tell yourself you’re [in] this Edenic Mediterranean fantasy in Southern California when I live in the Mojave Desert. I’m like, “It’s sort of unlivable right now. It’s 125 degrees, so I don’t think this is America’s Eden and that God wants us to have it. I think you need to find some shade, is what I think. I think we better not do any more industrial scale agriculture out here. It’s like the observation. Writing helps me kind of see the place as it really is. I like reading stuff that does that for me too.

TM: One of the things you were mentioning, your parents and how significant they were in your life, obviously, and another thing I’ve found really interesting is that your parents of course came of age during the late ‘60s and early ;70s and were into the counterculture of that era. And I read that your father, Paul, wrote later in his life that he was, and I’ll quote, “…a fugitive flower child in search of enlightenment and truth.” I was wondering if you could kind of discuss specific influences on your writing from all of that.

CVW: Yeah, well when I reckon with my own family history, I think…there’s a moment in the book where Claire’s gone to Villa Anita with her sister, and she wonders if she’s found a family with a lowercase f or a capital F. I think because of my dad’s involvement with the Manson family, I was allowed to have a really skeptical position toward the family as an institution in general. Maybe I felt that impulse to kind of defend them a bit, defend the counterculture against figures like Charles Manson who are like a boogeyman. He became such a boogeyman. There was this real reactionary turn to make him seem emblematic of everything the counterculture would bring when, in fact, his values are not counter-cultural. He’s a good old-fashioned misogynist, racist, made in the American prison system. He’s very mainstream—that’s what’s so horrific about him. Killing and violence is American. It’s very mainstream.

I sometimes wonder if the casual, everyday misogyny and racism of that scene had been a deal breaker for my dad. He never would’ve gotten into that business, which it feels a bit like an allegory for the American West and the reassess thing. How successful or not the counterculture has been from the year 2020.

TM: Well, people tend to manipulate what they want with all the hidden agendas and, as you say, picking boogeymen to use as an advertisement or something else—against that or for that, or whatever. It’s interesting because as I read your Gold Fame Citrus novel—which I thought was just stunning, a really, really incredible work of fiction—and knowing your dad’s history within the Manson family as I was reading, I had this epiphany that the Colony of Outcasts, which Luz and Ray stumble upon in the desert, is in a way a parody of the Manson commune and the leader of that colony was in effect Charles Manson. I was wondering if you could discuss that.

CVW: Yeah, you’re right. It’s sort of me kind of looking out of the corner of my eye at that, in a way, and I’ve spent a lot of time wondering about my dad. Not just his involvement in the Manson family and how these disillusioned teenagers who’d just recently lost their innocence could be so fooled by a character like Manson. But I wanted to make Levi in that book really persuasive. In fact, I knew that I had to agree with everything Levi says. Everything he says about the desert not being dead and it’s just that we need to treat it better. I am really down with his philosophy in a way that I imagine my dad must have been, and it sounds like, from his writing and other people’s writing, that he had really found a kindred [soul] in art making with Charlie. That it was about making music together and then how heartbreaking to have that relationship morph into one that’s violent and so destructive and really changes the course of your whole life. So, I guess, yeah, you’re right. I was really kind of working out some of my curiosity about what would be alluring about a family but it’s a powerful instinct. We really need our little village, I think.

TM:  Exactly. It’s just a part of the human existence; if you don’t get it one place, you’re going to get it from another.

CVW: Right, and the desire to be loved is so powerful and human, and in a way there’s nothing that’s strange about what we’ll do or endure to be loved. We need it so much.

TM: One of the other things that I loved about Gold Fame Citrus is the incredible landscape, the drifting sand dunes. I know that novel is touted as environmental dystopia or cli-fi, or climate fiction, but the other thing I thought was, in a lot of ways, to me, the surreal backdrop is part of a deeper commentary on the human condition, and I was wondering if you had any comments on that?

CVW: I think I was drawn to what happens when it becomes hard to distinguish the work of man from the work of God. In the American West, there’s a robust and romantic tradition involving the landscape—you find yourself in Yosemite or [reading] these rapturous American romantics, like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. Those were really, really important to me, but I am living in a totally different climate than they were, but I still have the same impulses for looking for spiritual wholeness from the landscape.

It’s kind of like what happens when the landscape gets so out of whack, what does it do to your soul? What does it do to your spirit? If there’s a relationship, as there is for me, a relationship between what’s happening outside and what’s happening deep inside me, I think that’s so basic. That’s just what hominids are, but we forget it because we’re sort of cut off from nature in many ways and disembodied, arguably in the attention economy and with the unethical and addictive design of the iPhone. It’s really easier than ever to forget that we are in a place, a specific place, and we need that place to be healthy for us to be healthy.

TM: I think that’s really true.

CVW: In both books, it’s like characters are looking to the natural world to be healed and getting mixed results, I’d say.

TM: I agree with that and I felt like, in a lot of ways, that Gold Fame Citrus is in a way almost a foil to your latest novel, I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness. Gold Fame Citrus had such a brutal surrealism and then it’s juxtaposed against your second novel, which had this unrelenting realism. I was wondering if you could talk that out.

CVW: I really do believe books are written in response to each other or in reaction to each other. So, it’s almost like all of the things I couldn’t or didn’t do in Gold Fame Citrus, I wanted to do in I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness. One of it is, be very in the now on the land, not in the future, not imagining, not letting my nightmares run amok, which can be fun, or it could be healthy in a way, but there’s a limit to it. And then it’s like, okay this Claire is here now. She feels compelled to travel across the American West and bear witness to all that’s being lost there and she’s also in love, and having fun, and having great sex, and finding herself. The flux is tremendous in the book. One sentence will begin very mournful and end with basically a rim shot and a punchline. It’s just sort of fluctuating through different registers, magpieing different people’s voices to tell different types of stories. She always will undercut and be like, “That’s how they like to tell it.” She kind of doesn’t want to believe her own yarns sometimes but can’t help but spin them out. I think you’re absolutely right and it’s also less brutal. This is much more an act of devotion than a eulogy.

TM: I really felt that there was this absolute humanity—in all aspects of who we are. The weakness and strengths and all of that. I really loved it.

CVW: Thank you. Yeah, that’s exactly what I was hoping.

TM:     One of the things that I really enjoyed about it is that you have sort of these different aspects, points of view, in a way. You had these series of old letters from your mother, Martha, to her cousin, Denise, but near the end of the novel, they were burned in an oven, and I was curious: were the letters real? And if so, is the burning a metaphor or did it truly happen?

CVW: You mean real in my plane of existence or real in the novel?

TM: Right, right.

CVW: They’re real in my plane of existence and they did not get burned in my plane.

TM: Oh, good.

CVW: I still have them. I’m looking up at the box right now. But I thought it was important to release those sisters at the end, more so than just imagistically. Those letters in the images system of the novel, you already had them in the novel, and you’ve gone from the cusp of womanhood with Martha all the way back to girlhood and seeing maybe little tiny glimpses into why she became the woman she became and letting her be so complex and infinite, like unknowable. We can just see these little glimpses of her and then I guess in the novel, it’s like they don’t really need the letters anymore. They’re kind of able to let them go because they’re cremated, in a way I think, by their grandmother, in the oven.

TM: I thought that was powerful. I loved seeing these letters and you’re suddenly going back, present, back to a past, and I think that was really, really a beautiful way to bring everything together. It’s like the past and the present.

CVW: My editor, Becky Saletan, she found that structure, the reverse chronology. And when she told me her idea for it, I was like, “Are you crazy? It can’t be done.” I gasped when I realized how well it worked and this effect it had. You need to buy her a drink when the little fabric of society is mended.

TM: One of the things, you’ve sort of brought it up earlier in the interview, but I’ve seen a couple of your past interviews and you’ve expressed a deep love for the desert and concern that when you visit the Mojave, that you find detritus or ruin from past human incursions. I was just wondering, as you see the future unfold, do you feel like there’s hope, or fear, or what are your thoughts about the American Southwest?

CVW: Well, these days I’ve been keeping my eye on industrial solar arrays because we basically just started building these things about a decade ago in the Mojave Desert and they’re still our first draft. The American Southwest is really going to probably be transformed, if we are going to transform our energy economy. The idea right now is to do that with industrial solar arrays. I would much prefer that we do it with community solar on the built environment and not destroy the intact ecosystems of the desert. I just don’t think it will work to replicate the same extractive for-profit structures that got us into this mess, but at the same time, I think we definitely need to stop burning fossil fuels and we need to find different energy sources, but we also need to use things differently and scale our society down to be more sustainable, and I don’t really see that second half as part of the conversation that’s being proposed right now.

That being said, I’m hopeful that we’re talking about it at all. I’m skeptical when it’s, “Meet your new savior, the same energy company that got us into this mess,” for-profits destroying [the land]. I’m watching particularly this little patch in South Pahrump Valley called Yellow Pine and an industrial solar array will scrape up all this land and create potentially toxic dust. And the tax revenue goes over to Las Vegas and the energy itself goes over to Orange County. I see that really exacerbating the types of culture wars that we’re already having between rural and urban places and locally extincting the tortoise in the process. So, I hope that we could have a wider vision. To me, when I’m looking at an industrial solar array, it’s like building infrastructure to make solar extractive and private, rather than what most of us think of when we feel hopeful about solar power, [that] it will be for all of us on top of your own house. And you could put it over strip malls, and universities, and stadiums, and irrigation canals and military bases.

TM: I totally agree. I hate the thought of people tearing up the environment instead of just using the human built structures that are already there, and the energy would be right there for those structures instead of trying to transmit it.

CVW: Exactly. There are a lot of problems with turning the Great Basin into the West Texas oil fields. I don’t want to see that happen and there’s a false binary I see emerging in environmentalists in the urgency to do something about climate change. It’s like green energy or biodiversity. It’s stopping the carbon emissions at the cost of the plants and the water that keep us alive. It’s not a good idea. We won’t be enjoying driving around in our electric cars if we don’t have clean air and clean water. So there needs to be a much deeper, harder, less profitable approach, too, rather than just, as Biden likes to say, “They help turn the public lands into an engine for the new economy,” and it’s like, “That’s troubling.”

TM: I believe that we, as humans, need to share the planet with others. Plants and animals.

CVW: Exactly. We don’t have the right to make a snail habitat into a lithium mine.

TM: All right. Well, I have one more question for you and that’s, what’s next on the horizon for you?

Claire Vaye Watkins:  Who knows? I don’t really know. I actually will probably not know or be able to answer that question until whatever it is, is pretty much done. I’m sort of just working. Right now, I feel sort of the important thing is to pay attention to what’s happening in the Mojave regarding local extinction events and other things, and just be around and listen. And then I’ll be keeping notes like I always do and writing down interesting things people say or interesting ideas I have. I’ve always wanted to write a historical novel and I do find myself reading a bunch of history right now, so maybe something like that could be really fun.

TM: That sounds very interesting. There’s so much stuff, especially in the West, that happened historically and stories that really have been hidden.

CVW: Yeah, and there’s so much great, great history, like historians going and finding these amazing characters that have helped me understand my home in this place and the true [history]. I’ve just been rereading An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States because I teach part of it, and you can feel that it’s more honest than the boosterist Teddy Roosevelt versions that wanted us to have this [land]. And nothing was here before we arrived. That’s the feel good.

TM: Well, it’s ludicrous.

CVW: Right. It would be cool to write a novel that sort of explores that in the West in a mid, late 19th century probably. The [stretch of] time of the Overland Passage—the three years between you’re going to die on this trail and become the Donner Party to this road is really built up and it’s over already. It’s interesting.

An Embodied Experience: The Millions Interviews Brian Evenson

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Brian Evenson is the author of a dozen books of fiction: 12 highly-acclaimed novels, novellas, and story collections. He’s the recipient of three O. Henry Awards and a host of other literary prizes, and his success is even more impressive when one considers the fact that his work is uncategorizable. He’s referred to a writer of “literary horror.” And yet that label seems to only partially describe his weird, wonderful, and unnerving stories. In 2016, The New Yorker ran a profile of Evenson that called his fiction “equal parts obsessive, experimental, and violent.”

The stories in his latest collection, The Glassy Burning Floor of Hell (Coffee House), are all of those things. They’re also beautifully and precisely written, elegant, and emotionally complex. I got the chance to sit down with Evenson for wide-ranging conversation.

The Millions: I’d like to start off talking about the story “Myling Kommer” which contains many of the themes that run through the collection. It did something to me that few stories have done: it had me putting down the book and looking behind my recliner as I was reading. I think a really great story of any genre affects us physically—whether that’s a physiological fear response or an emotional one. There’s something interesting about fiction intruding on our physical world and it strikes me that “Myling Kommer” is fundamentally about this dynamic: a story that imposes itself on the protagonist and takes over his life. Is that fair to say?

Brian Evenson: I think that’s fair to say. I do feel like one of the things I’m thinking about when revising has to do with rhythm and sound and all of that is meant to create a response in the readers. Partly emotional, but ideally, a physical response. With “Myling Kommer,” you’re very close to a character who only understands part of what’s going on, you’re figuring it out as he’s figuring it out. As a result, you start to take on what he’s taking on.

TM: It’s a trope of the horror story and many of the stories in this collection that the protagonist enters a space that she or he can’t turn back from; she or he can’t simply walk away. Because these people can’t turn back, there’s this sense we’re dealing with the damned: to not be able to turn back is to be damned. Could you talk a little about that?

BE: It’s an interesting way to think about it. These characters are compelled; that’s a kind of damnation. These characters are making the same mistakes over and over again. There is something about fiction being this kind of trap; and the reader is replicating this process. I think of fiction as allowing the reader to have an embodied experience. The reader might suspect how trapped the characters are before the characters do themselves.

TM: There’s a sense that any character in any horror story has an audience yelling at it, saying “Don’t go down that hall! Get out of there.” And yet there’s a compulsion that drives the protagonist of a horror story that seems almost like an addiction. There’s an addiction to see things through; there’s an addiction to unravel a mystery.

BM: I think that’s true. I think often we have characters who do things that in life we wouldn’t do. This allows us as readers to approach things vicariously. It allows us to experience things we’d never actually want to experience in life.

TM: In my own life, the truly dangerous situations I’ve found myself in have always had to do with not being afraid, with knowing I ought to feel fear, but congratulating myself on not. There’s something very healthy about fear. There’s something about the survival impulse and it seems the horror story is about when that fails, when we ignore it.

BE: I can think of moments in my own life when I was doing something and I thought, This is such a mistake. But I did it anyway. I think you’re exactly right: whatever fear response you ought to have isn’t coming or you have such control over it that you don’t listen to it. And usually that ends up being a terrible mistake. Fear impulses are there for a reason and they’re why our species has survived.

TM: I think your protagonists sometimes congratulate themselves on not feeling fear or being unusually calm—in “Altmann’s Tongue,” the first story I read of yours from your first collection, the narrators prides himself on his calm after committing murder. There’s this sense of “Wow, I ought to be functioning in a standard way, but I’m not and look how special I am.” And that’s when things really fall apart for them.

BE: Yeah, it doesn’t always work out. (Or, it never works out, I should say). I think this notion of being exceptional goes back to my first book of fiction. In that collection, the characters often don’t respond; there’s a lack of response.

TM: And an absence of emotion where we might expect it.

BE: Yeah. And it’s weird because as a kid I was incredibly phobic. I was afraid of everything. I was afraid of the dark; I was afraid of heights. One time we took a trip up into the mountains and I couldn’t even get out of the car. As I grew older, I learned to master those fears. But the thing is: how do you keep those fear responses as something useful as opposed to something that’s debilitating?

TM: As I was reading “Myling Kommer,” the effect of the story was so powerful that I began to think about what the ingredients were for the piece. I started writing things down that I found particularly spooky. And I thought, okay, these are things I’ve seen before: the idea of the very aged being spooky, people with a foot in the next world; codes of seemingly innocuous communication that are gradually shown to have a dark meaning; the ability of language to bring things to life. How did “Myling Kommer” start for you in terms of process.

BE: Part of what I do when I write is I’m playing back into the fears I used to have. There’s a certain amount of authenticity there. For this story, I started with the notion of the Myling, which is a Scandinavian legend where if you have a baby and abandon it to die, it becomes this creature that can haunt you. And then I started to play with that. Then I started to play with a family dynamic that’s not dissimilar to the family I grew up in. Also, my great-grandmother when I was growing up was someone who when she got old lost her ability to speak English and went back to speaking Norwegian. And I have these memories of going to see her when I was seven or eight and her being incapacitated; at first, she would speak Norwegian and then she got to where all she would do was write it. I’ve gathered all those things sort of like a magpie, and then redirected them in ways that have a more universal effect.

TM: Thinking about the women in this story, there’s a comment that you make about women being charged, culturally, with keeping family history and family secrets. And men are often oblivious to these things until they’re educated by these women about codes that have been hidden in plain sight—in “Myling Kommer” there are messages, of a sort, embedded in photographs on the mantle: sometimes the pictures are turned up, sometimes they’re turned facedown.

BE: And there’s something so strange about living in a family. Everyone’s experience is very different. And then one day you realize there are all these things you didn’t know: good and bad. And these secrets can be really unsettling and intense.

TM: I thought a lot about why aged women would be a trope in horror. Once women aren’t seen as sexually viable beings anymore, do they become threatening to us culturally? Why do we have the mythic figure of the Crone? I think your story ties into these deep cultural notions.

BE: I think it’s not only aged women but the aged in general that we have an odd relationship with. But I think you’re right: women are often portrayed in these ways. It’s something that’s fairly extensive, I think.

TM: In the story that opens the collection, “Leg,”—whose premise I don’t even want to reveal because it’s so original and shocking—you introduce the theme of possession that comes up again and again. And the fear of your own body—that there can be a part of your body that isn’t you: a You that is not You. Is that fair to say?

BE: I think that’s true. Possession is a part of this. The body is both a vessel and an instrument of restraint. And, in addition, there are a lot of my horror stories that are about what it means to be or not to be human.

TM: In your fiction in particular, the idea of possession is linked to language, with narrative and voice being viral forces that seize hold of bodies and alter them. Language is an entity that enters us from the outside and reconfigures us.

BE: I think it’s true that language itself is a means of expression, control, and infection in my work.

TM: In terms of setting, a lot of your pieces are set in a kind of characterized no-place, a sort of anti-setting.

BE: Right. I’m very interested in the idea of world building, and I think with short fiction you have a little more leeway with what you leave undescribed.  The hotel in the title story [“The Glassy Burning Floor of Hell”] is a kind of amalgamation of five or six different hotels I stayed at. The main thing is that the place has a kind of feeling to it. I think the way world building works in short fiction is there’s a lot that’s suggested and a lot that’s left to be completed. That’s also part of my writing style—stripped down and minimal—and it also allows to the reader to graft their own experiences onto the stories and complete the stories in various ways. You want just enough that you can allow the reader to build a world in their imagination that’s a little bigger than what’s on the page.

TM: It’s both specific and open.

BE: Yeah.

TM: You’ve written numerous times about cults and cult-like groups over the years. I was thinking about your work when I watched the HBO documentary about the NXIVM cult last year. One of the women who becomes an activist against the group—when she showed up to the first NXIVM meeting said that initially all this was B.S. She couldn’t believe the nonsense Keith Raniere was spewing. But then this thing happens where, during her fifth session with the group, something really clicks and all the lazy aphorisms seemed profound. It very much reminded me of the cults you write about.

BE: I watched that same documentary and was fascinated by it. I was raised Mormon and am an ex-communicated Mormon. And it is fascinating to me—and I know exactly what moment you’re referring to in the documentary: where’s that moment you go from thinking it’s all a joke to being convinced all of what you’re hearing is true. And this seems especially relevant to me in the days of Q-Anon. You have all these people who do the same thing. I’m super skeptical of those groups. I think it’s largely to do with my upbringing. I totally understand the appeal of those groups, too. I understand why these members think it’s a joke and then why they suddenly feel terrified.

TM: It seems that Sapiens are such social creatures that it makes sense for us to be in a tight group—that’s the way we evolved—but it also makes sense that, given the way language creates reality and constructs the world that you can enter into a new community or discourse that makes no sense to you but then, as the cult member in your story says, the world of the initiate is “punctured,” and once that membrane is abraded, all of a sudden this new language reconfigures your reality.

BE: Exactly. And I think it’s something that can happen to anybody. These cult leaders are very good at finding the things that can disassemble someone’s notion of the way the world is.

TM: Over the years you and I have talked about some works of literature that are considered great but are willfully obscure: we’ve talked about Finnegans Wake many times. A book like that becomes cultic among the people who study it. I returned to the Wake recently after being away from it for two decades and initially my reaction was, This is such a work of ego and indulgence and purposively obscure. And then it begins to brainwash you. And you’re like, I really see what he’s up to.

BE: That’s a language.

TM: Wow. Yes!

BE: Language is part of the thing that convinces you. You think, “Well, he must know what he’s doing.”

TM: Having followed your work since the 1990s, I’m interested in the way your use of language has changed. In your first collection Altmann’s Tongue, many of the pieces are almost prose poems. In this latest collection, you’ve modulated your voice into something more beautifully transparent and less poeticized. There’s this striking clarity to your prose in The Glassy Burning Floor of Hell.

BE: I think you’re right about that. The language does change from book to book, but overall, the language here is pretty clear and precise. Hopefully, a lot of what the reader is taking in is being taken in unconsciously.

TM: Because the language has this transparent quality, when you use an unusual piece of diction, it’s really hooks into you.

BE: I think that’s true. There are moments of disruption in a relatively smooth surface.

TM: Has writing literary horror changed the way you think about the work of more conventional horror writers?

BE: Yeah. There are these writers who are fairly traditional who get praised who don’t really work for me. Partly, I find that what they’re doing with language isn’t that interesting. And there are other writers who are doing something really powerful, such as Peter Straub; I like his work quite a bit, even though he’s more conventional. But he reads a lot of experimental poetry. He was my entry into horror fiction.

TM: A lot of conventional horror stories are morality tales: a character makes a questionable moral choice then enters the crucible of suffering. But in your stories, often the protagonists suffer regardless of their moral decisions. They’re not being punished for some moral choice; they’re being punished because they’re in your story.

BE: It’s a question of making a choice they’re not even conscious of. A few of my books have come out in Japanese, and when I went over to talk to Japanese audiences, the person who introduced me said my work was all about questions of etiquette. As I thought about it, the choices my characters make are often because they don’t want to offend someone.

TM: Who aren’t people reading as much as they ought to be?

BE: I really love Robert Aickman. His work is really interesting. He writes these things that he called strange stories; there’s this energy there that’s really original and powerful. Anna Kavan is also very good. Her stories are really interesting. I just read a book by Reggie Oliver which I really loved. He has a story called “Flowers of the Sea” that does so many unusual things. As you know, I really admire Joyce—actually, I both love and hate him. I’ve had exactly same experience as you with Finnegans Wake.

TM: You know—I’ve always thought you’d write a gargantuan novel at some point. Maybe that’s just what I’ve wanted to see from you.

BE: That could happen. You never know. I actually have a 72-page outline which, if I write the book it projects, will be massive. I made the mistake of outlining it and making the outline specific enough that now I feel like I don’t need to write the actual book.

TM: It’s a trap! If you map these things out, you feel like you can’t do the actual writing.

BE: I know. I keep thinking that once I forget enough of this outline, I’ll be able to write the novel.

TM: We look forward to it.

Bonus Link:
A Year in Reading: Brian Evenson