An Essential Decency: The Millions Interviews Michael Bourne

John Gardner once said that there are only two stories: a man goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town. Michael Bourne’s debut novel Blithedale Canyon is the former, beautifully written, with the ring of truth. Observant. Bleakly funny. Honest about life’s darkness.

Trent Wolfer is an addict who is trying and failing, and failing, to find another way to live. So he journeys home—and because he’s on probation, has to work the counter at the local burger joint, where he’s humiliated to see a pretty girl he once knew intimately. Soon enough, the man finds himself hanging out with his old dealer buddy from high school, who then as now brings out his worst tendencies. Has Trent helped or hurt himself by returning to his hometown of Mill Valley, California? The answer, Bourne hints, is both.

This is hard stuff to get right, and Bourne, a contributing editor at Poets & Writers, gets it right. I emailed him to ask him how. In this interview, he talks about the inspiration behind his debut, as well as its 20-year incubation process and path to publication.

Catherine Baab-Muguira: Where do you think the strength to change one’s life comes from? Did you set out to dramatize how people sometimes totally fail to do that on a desirable schedule?

Michael Bourne: I do think Trent, the novel’s narrator, eventually changes. He’s lived to tell the tale, right? But one of my goals with this book was to tell the other part of the addiction story, which is what happens after a person decides to change their life. We’re drowning in addiction narratives, but so many of them seem to stop when the person takes their last drink or drug. Like, that’s it, they’re cured! But most addicts are like Trent. They stop and start and stop and start endlessly for years. I wanted to dramatize what it’s like to know what you’re doing is wrong and self-destructive, and still keep doing it. Trent is onto himself right from the start of the book. He lies and cheats and uses, but he’s pretty clear-eyed about himself. That’s where the pain is, and also the humor.

I don’t think most people have the strength to change their lives on their own. They do it with the help of family or community. In my case, the only reason I didn’t end up dead in a ditch somewhere is that I come from an intact, supportive family and found a community I could rely on. Trent doesn’t have that and it’s killing him. He pretty much raised himself and what he did learn from his parents was how to lie so people will believe you. I wanted to write a story about a guy learning how to build that community, that found family, out of nothing.

CB: What’s it been like to live with Trent for so long?

MB: A pleasure, honestly. I like Trent. He’s a screw-up, yes, but he has an essential decency. And because he’s had to be a little bit of a grifter to survive, he notices things most people miss. He possesses a first-class bullshit detector, probably because he’s such a bullshit artist himself. Trent sniffs out people’s vanities like some kind of psychic bloodhound. As he says in the book, if you know the lie a person is telling about themselves, it’s a lot easier to lie to them, and that’s true. But it’s fun to write a character who’s always seeing through people, including himself.

CB: How about other forms of inspiration? Were there any novels or stories you had in mind as you wrote?

MB: Publishers Weekly said Trent is like an older Holden Caulfield, and though it wasn’t a conscious influence, I might have had The Catcher in the Rye in mind since the book meant a lot to me when I was a kid. All American books about screw-ups you can root for owe a debt to Salinger, I think. A more conscious model is probably Clancy Martin’s How to Sell, which is one of the few books I’ve read that gets addiction right, both the ups and the downs. Like Blithedale Canyon, it’s fundamentally a book about lying, but it’s so dead honest it breaks your heart. I was going for that. But really, the roots of Blithedale Canyon lie less in books I’ve read than in all the hours I spent sitting in church basements listening to people talk about their lives. I don’t mean I took people’s stories and literally put them in the book. But the way Trent thinks, all the stratagems and self-justifications, that came from listening to addicts talk—and talk and talk.

CB: What about your writing process, what did it look like?

MB: My writing process with this book was looong. I wrote the opening pages of the novel 20 years ago. The characters, the setting, the basic premise, it was all there, but I had no idea what to do with it and I set it aside. A few years later, I picked it up again and wrote another hundred pages, but again, I didn’t have the writing chops to get any further. In the meantime, I wrote a couple other books and finally learned enough about how stories work to finish this one. I do not know why I’ve been such a slow learner. I don’t consider myself an especially stupid or slow-minded person, but it’s taken me decades to figure out what others pick up in just a few years. On the other hand, I do feel like I finally have a better idea what I’m doing. For so long I felt like this big, dumb klutz crashing around in my narratives. Now I don’t feel quite so klutzy.

CB: Can you talk about how you found a publisher, and how you’ve found the publishing process?

MB: I’m living proof: You can publish a novel with a legit publisher without an agent. I shopped Blithedale Canyon around to agents, who are, despite what you might hear in some corners of the internet, great people who love books and writers. I came very close with several who loved the book and its voice, but times are tough for literary fiction and they worried they couldn’t sell it. This is happening more and more with literary novels, especially debuts. That’s the bad news. The good news is that a crop of new, entrepreneurially-minded indie presses is stepping in to pick up the slack. I probably would have made more money if it had sold to a corporate press, but I couldn’t be happier with my editors at Regal House.

CB: Tell me about why you chose this setting, geographically and era-wise.

MB: Mill Valley, California, where Blithedale Canyon is set, is my hometown, though I haven’t lived there in decades. I wanted the town to be a character in the novel, one on the cusp of change. Like so much of California, Mill Valley boomed after World War II when people who had worked the Bay Area shipyards crossed the Golden Gate Bridge for the suburbs. There was another wave of refugees from the Summer of Love, who lent the place a hippie vibe in the 1970s. Blithedale Canyon is set in 2001 when those earlier residents are getting priced out by the dot-com crowd. In the book, Trent works at a family-run grocery store, which is trying to innovate to stay in business. I wanted this to be a secondary plot in the book, what it takes for a small town to stay a small town, how hard that is. It’s not unlike a person trying to stay true to him or herself. It rarely works out well.

CB: As I’ve been reflecting on your book, I realize one of the things I like about it most is that Trent is an anti-Mary Sue. We live in an era beset by Mary Sues, and they’re by no means all female. Every character in every show and movie, no matter whether it’s Pixar or a high-end prestige drama, they’re all rising above their circumstances, showing preternatural emotional maturity, solving rather than managing their problems, all while surrounded by functional, emotionally honest relationships. I love that your book is not that. Do you think it’s more difficult to dramatize failure than to dramatize success? What was the most difficult part of the book to write?

MB: As I’ve said, I was trying to write against the standard addiction story, which I think is essentially false. People romanticize addiction, make it all about rebellion and pushing boundaries, but real addicts don’t rebel or push boundaries; they’re too busy getting high. A true addiction story is unreadable—it’s just a person doing the same damn thing over and over and over for years. It’s not remotely interesting to anyone. My goal was to tell a story that felt true, but that also worked as a story that would keep you reading and interested. So Blithedale Canyon isn’t just an addiction story, but also a love story and a story about hometowns. I’m not sure it’s more difficult to write these kinds of stories than the uplifting Mary-Sue tales you’re describing, but it’s probably harder to sell. People like to see characters transcending their circumstances. It makes them feel better. I was trying to make people feel better in a slightly different way, by showing them life as it’s actually lived by a whole lot of people.

CB: Just out of idle curiosity, exactly how many people have read the book and told you: I dated this man?

MB: Asking for a friend, are you? I’ve heard this a lot, actually. When I was passing the book around to writer friends to get feedback, friends would respond to the book and then include a little note at the end saying they’d dated a guy like Trent or somebody in their family was going through something similar. As I was writing the book, I was very aware that I was writing a kind of user’s guide to the mind of an addict for people who are having to deal with one. And when I say people, I really mean women, because it’s so often the moms and wives and girlfriends and daughters that end up with the caretaking duties. Blithedale Canyon is not autobiographical in any literal sense, but I think I was that boyfriend for a few women who had the misfortune of meeting me in my early twenties. I’m not that guy now, but I still remember how my mind worked and that informed my depiction of Trent.

CB: It’s been a few weeks now since I finished your book and as I look back on it, one of the things I’m most impressed by is the everyman, every-town feel. Trent’s experience of running into old classmates from high school—the girl he liked, his druggie buddy—has an archetypal feel. It’s all very resonant. Were you trying to reach the universal through the specific?

MB: It’s gratifying to hear the book is having these resonances for you. With Trent and Mill Valley, I was trying to capture them in all their particularity. It was important to me, for instance, that in addition to being an addict and felon, Trent is a fan of bad horror movies and has a childhood nickname he hates. Likewise, with the setting, I wanted the reader to know what the Little League ballpark looks like and how to get to the World War II bunkers on the Marin Headlands. In my favorite books, I end up feeling like I know the characters and setting as if they were people and places from my real life. That’s what I was going for in Blithedale Canyon, that this story is happening to people you feel like you know. So maybe what you’re saying when you say the characters and setting feel archetypal and universal is that they’re real to you. You know them. If that’s the case, well, I can retire right now because that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.

Wage War Against Cliché: The Millions Interviews Isaac Butler

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Isaac Butler’s The Method is the rare instance of book that lives up to its blurbs, its hype, and its press. Arriving in February to a hectic flurry of praise, I read and sticky-noted my copy slowly through the spring, savoring its masterful blend of historical research, literary analysis, and celebrity dish. The Method chronicles the evolution of what we now call “method acting”—and regrettably now associate with such bad behavior as Jared Leto sending boxes of dog poop to costars—beginning with its roots in Russian theater as a reaction against the artificial declamatory style of nineteenth-century Continental acting style. Over the course of the next two decades, Konstantin Stanislavski honed what he called “the system,” an at-times opaque practical philosophy of dramatic technique that disciples like Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya brought to America, where it was, in turn, adopted by and refined by Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler.

The Method is illuminating in historical and cultural terms, but I was especially drawn to Butler’s descriptions and analyses of Stanislavski’s ever-evolving craft principles. Butler is thoughtful and eloquent on the subject of craft, and on the way great artists articulate and advance craft through their work. Dramatic craft, from its nascency in Russia to its current iteration in the popular imagination, is the main character of The Method.

Butler was gracious enough to answer some craft-related questions that arose for me during my reading. I hope you’ll find our conversation this as enlightening as I did!

The Millions: As a fiction writer (and more specifically, a fiction writer interested in craft), I helplessly read The Method through the lens of fiction writing and narrative. To a degree, the book also encourages this reading by beginning the book with the figure of Nemirovich, Stanislavski’s original partner, whose specialty was the text itself. I know that you’re a great reader of fiction, and a very smart thinker about it as well—to begin with an open-ended question, was there any aspect of Stanislavski’s acting system, or the ideas that Strasberg and Adler converted into the Method, that felt particularly resonant in terms of reading and writing narrative? And were there any of these ideas that guided the writing of The Method?

Isaac Butler: First of all, thank you! I love your writing about craft, so I take it as a huge compliment that you think I’m a good reader of fiction. I took so many craft lessons from Stanislavski that I feel in some ways like Stanislavski himself taught me how to write a book about his ideas. But isn’t that what we hope will happen on these big projects? That in some way the project teaches you how to create it as you become the artist worthy of serving it? But to be less woo-woo for a moment, Stanislavski’s idea that both the thing you are working on and the process to create that thing (in his case, a character; in my case, a book) could be broken down into “bits,” and then you could attack each discrete bit, and then put them all together to have the whole of the project (or process) was super helpful. And then just about everything that falls under the broad category of “script analysis”—the “task/problem,” dramatic action, the throughline of action, the given circumstances, et cetera—was all stuff I knew a bit from my theater background, but going deep into it was really useful. I’m actually trying to figure out a way to teach dramatic action for prose writers—or maybe write a guide to it or something— because I think other people could benefit from it.

TM: One thing that struck me throughout The Method is the way that this 19th century Russian’s ideas about craft still feel so modern and relevant in 2022. For instance, Stanislavski’s fixation on “given circumstances” and specificity are still so resonant with writing axioms about the importance of detail and the dreaded “show don’t tell.” So many of his (and later Boleslavsky, Strasberg, and Adlers’s) ideas about acting craft, seem to describe (and possibly anticipate) shifts in literary craft. Do you have any sense of the interplay between the evolution of what theater and literature valued in the twentieth century?

IB: I draw a couple of connections in my book between the Method and realist MFA fiction, and I wish I had had time and space to research that more deeply because it’s a fascinating thing to consider. At the same time, it just wasn’t that germane to my book’s supertask! Stanislavski’s artistic predilections arise in response to trends in literature and visual art, which he considered more forward-thinking than the theater of his time. He was incredibly inspired by Tolstoy’s What is Art, the work of critic Vessarion Bellinski, and the Moscow Art Theater’s signature dramatist Anton Chekhov, who was known as a prose writer, not a playwright. So, I do think these things are all related! And when it comes to America, I think all these things are influencing each other. The way people are thinking about character crosses over to TV and film and fiction, and then it’s flowing the other way too. Just think about the term “the beat” which is something we get from Stanislavski, and is now used whenever we discuss storytelling in any form.

TM: You mention Stanislavski’s idea of the task (zadacha) and supertask (sverkhzadacha). The Method covers these ideas in great detail, and I found them to be extremely valuable craft concepts that port easily to fiction writing. In my intro to fiction classes, I often describe stories as problems, a situation or series of related situations the character must attempt to get out of or figure out. A story without a problem, I tell them, is not a story. On the subject of the supertask, in Stanslavski’s view, is the supertask “owned” by the character or author? That is, does it exist in the realm of theme or character, or both? And do you think this concept is applicable to other art forms, perhaps even non-narrative?

IB: I’m so glad you’re talking about the zadacha! It is one of the most useful concepts for talking about how narrative works. Characters have something they need to do—the task/problem—and that in turn necessitates action, and even if that action is somehow internalized, it is still a kind of action nonetheless. But it goes deeper than that, because Stanislavski’s other brilliant idea here is the sverkzadacha, or “supertask,” which is the character’s main goal in the text. In a perfect world, you want to find a way for all of the task/problems to derive from the supertask in some way. And then if you take all of those actions and line them up, you have “the throughline of action” which is everything the character does in the play, or story, or novel, or what have you. It’s so elegant and helpful!

But to answer your question, all of this actually exists at multiple levels because plays (or stories, novels, what have you) have their own supertasks. Later on, in the United States, this is often called a play’s spine: the big thing that the play is doing. Hopefully, the play’s supertask and the supertasks of the characters relate. But generally, figuring these out is not the author’s job, it’s the job of the director and actors, because plays have rich veins of ambiguity due to their restrained set of tools. To give a maybe-obvious example, a version of Hamlet about the nature of justice will have really different tasks from one about the Oedipal complex. I’m honestly not sure how well this all applies to non-narrative or abstract work, except in the general sense that you want the individual components of something to relate to its major themes.

TM: Here’s a loaded old-fogey question: there has been a vogue in writing craft for quite some time not to worry what stories are about, that they are the thing they’re about. Obviously I disagree with this. Are we living in an era of harsh supertask deprivation? Related, can you talk about any recent books or films that struck you as having especially well-articulated or interesting supertasks?

IB: Oh man, I love this question, and I have really conflicting thoughts about it. I do think in something as big as a novel, there’s space to wander afield, digress, get lost, wrestle with a difficult subject and maybe even lose the fight. If things get too well-organized, all the life can go right out of your project. And, of course, if the supertask is “make sure the reader knows I have the right political opinions and good taste,” the work gets didactic and boring.

At the same time, is there anything better than experiencing a foreign consciousness working its way through some unanswerable question in a narrative? God, I love it! I was recently really struck by Claire Stanford’s Happy for You and the way every piece of it relates to questions about happiness, and what the meaning of happiness in our present moment might mean, and how the world of tech is defining for us what happiness is. Or Laurent Binet’s HHhH and how it obsessively circles the meaning of history, and the relationship between history and fiction.

In a way I think films, plays, and short stories can be much more focused with their supertasks because they’re so much shorter. The film Everything Everywhere All At Once is laser-focused on questions about what it means to lead a meaningful life, and the short story “A Father’s Story” by Andre Dubus has a very particular thing to say about what it means to be a father. I think one of the reasons why Barry is such a great TV show is that it’s got a very silly high-concept premise—a hitman tries to become an actor—but it’s really about whether or not people can change, and while it takes a way more pessimistic view of that question than I do, the results are bracing.

TM: Are there examples, in your mind, of TV, films, plays, or novels that have over-articulated supertasks? Is it possible to go too far in organizing the supertask of a piece of narrative?

IB: Oh, for sure. For a while I had a running bit on Twitter where I would tweet, apropos of nothing and without context, “It’s a metaphor for depression,” because it felt like every show, video game, comic book, and movie was just hammering that gong over and over again. I really think sometimes authors can keep their eye on the supertask too much. This is what I find so suffocating about Nabokov. The work is too controlled, too schematic, and too often it feels like the real supertask behind whatever he’s doing is “make sure the reader knows I’m smarter than them.” The sense I get from people who love Nabokov is that it’s like watching a really dazzling stage magician put on a brilliant performance. And while that makes sense to me, and I can see why people love his work, the few times I’ve ventured into it, it has left me really cold. Whereas someone like Iris Murdoch—whose The Black Prince feels very related to Lolita—is exploring how we all know less than we think we do, including herself. That negative capability is really powerful, and I think if we try to locate our own negative capability and use it in our work it can help avoid this trap. I’m reminded here of the end of Invisible Man where the narrator announces the book’s supertask: to reveal his contradictions as a way of helping the reader to see their own. That’s a kind of wild one because it allows so much freedom within it, and the book really takes that freedom and does so much with it.

TM: Lingering on the subject of zadacha, the book talks about the way Adler and others urge actors to manifest the zadacha in their physicality. In a sense, it seems to me, good acting involves a constant awareness, and externalizing of, zadacha. How do you think this might inform an author’s fictional approach to their characters?

IB: Stella Adler and Elia Kazan were both really big on this: characters are always doing things. The way you reveal subtext is physical action. Every task has to result in action or it’s not worth anything. Stella has this whole riff about how even “to reminisce” is an active choice, because it’s about the self reaching out to the past for understanding. When it comes to fiction, I don’t want to give interiority short shrift. The revelation of interiority, the use of language to explore consciousness, is something fiction can do that plays cannot. But at the same time, I think it’s worth thinking about a scene in terms of its physical action. What are the bodies doing in this space you’ve created? Particularly in the first person, where you want the reader to read around your narrator a bit. What can the bodies reveal that the narrator might not want you to know? If we think about physical action as flowing from character need and desire, it might also help to make those actions we include feel a little less arbitrary. Sally Rooney, of course, does this—there are times where the disembodied narrator of Beautiful World, Where Are You? is forced to speculate about what physical actions might mean because that narrator has no access to the characters’ thoughts. I’m not saying everyone should write like Sally Rooney so much as it might be worth it to try writing a scene where everything is revealed through staging just to see what happens. You’ll probably rewrite it! But you’ll also probably learn something.

TM: I was struck by the idea of the “circle of attention” in acting. Is this, like zadacha, a concept that could be applied to character awareness? And expanding the idea, could this also be applied to authorial awareness, delineating authorial style?

IB: I often tell students, “A character is made out of the things they do, the things they think, and the things they notice, and then how each of these are described.” Of course that also means they’re made out of the things they don’t do, the things they don’t think, and, especially, the things they don’t notice. The same is true of our narrators, no matter what POV strategy you’re employing. A novel cannot pay attention to everything. So what you choose to pay attention to goes a long way towards defining your style. For what it’s worth, I also think it goes a long way towards defining who we are as people as well. One thing living in New York City does to you is drive home how much you are making choices about what you will and won’t notice to get through your day.

TM: I want to pull back a little from craft and ask a large-scale question about the book. It seems to me that a central tension you describe in The Method is a tension embodied in the different philosophical approaches of Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler to Stanislavski’s system. As you put it, “Strasberg used the self as raw material for a performance, [while Adler] wanted to transform and transcend the self.” Strasberg stressed the use of affective exercises that predate the actor’s performance, while Adler believed (perhaps in closer step with Stanislavski) that the actor’s energy had to derive from the work itself and the character’s tasks. This schism seems to aptly describe several different ways people tend to think about fiction and fiction writing: the novel as a vehicle for an author/narrator’s lived experiences vs. artifice that reveals truth through story; author as mystic vs. author as technician; authorship as performance vs. authorship as reception. Does this capture Adler and Strasbergs’ differences? If so, do you feel a greater kinship with one of these traditions? And is there a meaningful or even necessary way to reconcile them?

IB: Yes, I think this is a good way of putting it. Not to get too highfalutin here but what they’re really wrestling with is two different sides of the nature and purpose of art. One thing Stanislavski talks about a lot is that art comes from real life experience, but it is a refinement of that experience. There are all sorts of things a play leaves out. Every painting has a frame, after all. But through that act of compression and refinement, the coal of life gets pressurized into diamonds. So art comes from real life but isn’t real life. Stanislavski’s protege Richard Boleslavsky talked about how we go to art because we yearn for perfection of the fallen world. I think there’s a grain of truth in that, even as it’s a very, very Christian idea and I am a secular Jew.

Lee Strasberg really attaches to the “based on real life experience” part. He wants to unlock the idiosyncrasy of the actor, their individual peculiarities, so that their palette will have as many colors as possible, in order to wage war against cliché. Meanwhile, Adler felt that we had to earn the right to be artists, we had to earn the right to play our roles, because art was so much bigger and better than we were. In order to do that, you needed to use research, imagination, action, and an incredibly in-depth encounter with the text. I find the way Adler talks about theater unbelievably moving and, as a director, writer, and critic, her way of analyzing text is massively influential on me. But at the same time, there were lots of brilliant actors and directors who felt that Strasberg was really where it’s at. So one of my jobs as a historian is to take that seriously and to think about why they felt that way, and trust them to accurately represent their own experience, and to kind of hold back my own preference for Adler in order to understand these people and their world better.

Adler and Strasberg talked about their methods as irreconcilable. Adler would tell anyone who would listen that Strasberg was a sick man who was practicing psychotherapy without a license. When Lee died, Stella’s first words were “good riddance.” Meanwhile, Strasberg would refer to her as “an actress I once worked with” instead of saying her name. But actually, their approaches are totally reconcilable! Many people studied with both teachers and created their own synthesis between Strasberg’s focus on the self and Adler’s focus on the text, imagination, and the world.

TM: I think the affinity for Adler is evident, but you do an admirable job of keeping the scales level. To conclude with a stupidly literal question, in general I have been drawing parallels between the acting philosophies laid out in The Method and the creation of characters and plot and narrative. But is there a way that writers themselves might employ Method ideas as they themselves attempt to write? That is, in terms of psychological and emotional preparation, could we conceive of a kind of A Writer Prepares?

IB: Maria Irene Fornes, the great experimental playwright and writing teacher, adapted Strasberg’s exercises into her own artistic practice, and then would use them as part of her teaching, apparently to great results. I think all of these techniques are adaptable and usable for other forms. And as I said before, I’m kind of thinking about writing this myself, at least as it pertains to dramatic action. I’ve talked to a few fiction writers about this, and they all feel like it’s a subject that could use more exploring and fleshing out, so I suppose, watch this space!

Our Moment of Collective Rupture: The Millions Interviews Edie Meidav

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Edie Meidav’s new lyric novel, Another Love Discourse, publishing June 21, nods to Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse beyond just its title: structurally, thematically, and philosophically, Meidav puts her narrator into direct conversation with Barthes’s 1977 book. Interwoven in this conversation is the intimate unraveling of a woman’s life, encompassing the pandemic and sheltering-in-place with her three daughters, the end of a 20-plus-year marriage, the loss of her mother, and a nascent love.

With the myths of marriage and motherhood shattering around her, the narrator’s story provides fertile ground to invoke Barthes. Another Love Discourse is a small yet expansive book, containing passages from Barthes’ work interwoven with the narrator’s reflections on love, memory, child-rearing, death, and more. Her varied interpretations adhere to Barthes’ view that there can be infinite readings, depending on which semiotic system serves as one’s lens.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Edie Meidav about Another Love Discourse, which is philosophically rigorous, narratively rich, and a pleasure to read and reread. Barthes would approve.

Nina Schuyler: Can you describe the genesis of the novel?

Edie Meidav: I began Another Love Discourse at the dawn of the coronavirus pandemic while teaching students online and trying to keep body and soul aligned. When the pandemic began to break over all of us, I was teaching a course called Confessions and Rants in which we discussed Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse. 

Because I had just finished a big manuscript, a polyphonic novel on refugees, love, and telecommunications, because our whole world was tilting, I found myself responding to the innovative chapter titles of A Lover’s Discourse and using them as aleatory prompts, if not in their exact sequence. I came to the enterprise because, over these past years of writing and teaching, I began to see that most of us who like to create tread a paradoxical path: what comes most easily to us, whether in voice or form, often appears, at first, as our farthest destination.

And yet—importantly—I believe the best art comes from finding that magic path of least resistance, the lens of your true subjectivity, the little song or gift you have to offer the world. During the pandemic, which I view as our collective unhusking, I thought, really, at this point, what do I have to lose? And so I embraced the oddity of the form as it emerged.

NS: In the book, you use white space throughout. Sometimes text is aligned on the right, the white space on the left. Sometimes white space connects entire passages, and toward the end of the novel, you splice both techniques. Can you talk about the intention behind this?

EM: My hope is that in the act of reading, the reader might feel the freedom of dance. The truth is that I began writing this book in prose blocks, using a more straightforward approach, but at one point my computer, as if a latter-day Helen Frankenthaler, mistakenly right-justified one section, and because I have a deep belief in both the aleatory and the improvisational as important parts of the creative path, because something new started to happen to the meaning with the dance across the page, I kept the format, developing it as I continued. The white space seemed to confess to the intimacy I wanted with you as an ideal reader as well as to our moment of collective rupture and decentralized authority.

Deeper into the revision, I grappled with the question of how much to bring forward both the sonic elements and meaning inherent in line breaks, and ended by voting for the breaks acting as more dance than cage. If you as a reader find yourself newly awake or aware of temporality, then the spacing works. And maybe it is also fair to say that the prose blocks work a bit as a code, tending to offer context, background, motivation.

NS: You’ve written a lyric novel in which there is great attention to sound and rhythm. Why was that important to you?

EM: In college, I studied both painting and British Romantic poetry, lucky to study briefly with Robert Hass, but chose to pursue prose, in which time is less frontal, simultaneous, in which information needs to be delayed. In this book, I wanted time to move so that you, as the ideal reader, could choose whether you wished to linger on the meaning of certain sonic choices or cadence, but wouldn’t need to if you wish merely to get to your destination. I wanted the reader to have the fun of travel, a fluid journey, as if on a canal-boat with the narrator, passing lit windows, enjoying moments that are visual, ruptured, and emotionally illustrated, invited into complicity, invited inside if you wish.

People have sometimes told me my novels are dense as poetry, which made me wish, at times, to offer more breath and ease in the sentence. My hope with this book remains that as the narrator comes to understand x or y, perhaps the reader feels they travel deeply with her, undergoing some corollary catharsis or revelation.

As a kid, I spent hours and hours improvising at the piano, which at the time was my main form of art and a first portal toward entering a flow state related to synesthesia. While playing, I saw stories and shapes, and now still deeply feel writing as music, wanting to give it the same kind of sinuous pauses or robust swells that characterize the music I love. The reason that, by the end of the writing, I called this a lyric novel is that I wanted the story to behave as a kind of Aeolian harp, a moment being played as if wind on strings. I have always loved the root of our idea of the lyrical: that the lyrical is innominate, a guttural, sonic breaking-out, an explosion of feeling on the ancient lyre.

The multiplicity of tones in this book also has to do with my deep love for unfinished art—the demo track, the half-sketched Picasso notebook—all that invites us in. With this work, I didn’t want to smooth out creases but rather to invite all voices to sit at the table, even those that embarrass or terrify me, especially since I often find myself advising writers to vanquish the mediocritizing and homogenizing aspects of shame in order to find their most singular voices. Creativity always begs you to vanquish shame. With that concept my talisman, I decided to be that intimate with the reader.

NS: In the novel, the narrator refers to Roland Barthes’ term “punctum,” writing: 
Roland Barthes, a friend to this text, might tell us: the five cans of beans near the crazed writer’s fire would be the punctum, the detail that punctures the heart of the picture with vulnerability and risk. 
As I understand it, punctum is a term Barthe invented for that detail in a photo that pricks you emotionally and viscerally awakes you in some way surpassing your conscious thought. How did “punctum” serve as an organizing principle for you? 

EM: Barthes used punctum in contrast to his idea of the studium, which is the more instructive, documentary, intellectual aspect of a photo, the part that lends us cultural information, that speaks with authority of a more static order. The punctum matters to the structure of this book: I tried using a rhizomatic or perhaps fractal structure, hoping the reader might connect with a textual punctum which could then be submerged for a few pages and resurface again, varied with subtlety or not.

You know how when you experience a bit of singular music moving into another passage, something happens to your heart in the transition? My hope is the reader can move punctum to punctum through this book, in a kind of textual lily pad dance. You might have had this experience, perhaps, when you feel a punctum in a photo, just as in a text, I think—that the urgency of whatever the photographer felt, saw, and documented can pierce you into the real. To me, this is one of the most important forces in art. And in general, if we create enough moments for a reader to pause and invoke the intimacy of their own lived experience, a reader might go on a ride which, by the end of a book, means some great shift in consciousness has occurred.

NS: Thank you so much for speaking with me.

EM: Thank you for being such an engaged reader. It is such a pleasure to have this oddly intimate book I wrote—truly as a form of survival, while my own life was threatened by the fun of neuro-Lyme during its writing—find such interesting and interested readers. You are helping me believe all over again in the project of what we try to do with this ancient technology of ours, these books we offer out into the sea of possibility and understanding, our greater imagined community.

The Spectacle of Cruelty: The Millions Interviews Phil Klay

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Great essay collections are generative, both extending and deepening the original reading experience of each individual essay. I’ve been moved by the power and grace of Phil Klay’s fiction, but Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless, Invisible War, his new collection of essays, is an exercise in both empathy and erudition. Klay is well-read, and well-considered.

Klay writes of war, of suffering, of veterans, of aspirations and delusions and laments. His writing sends me to other books, as when he quotes G.K. Chesterton on the power of fairy tales: “They make rivers run with wine, only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.” That line then sent me back to Orthodoxy, where I found another gem tucked in the same paragraph: “One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star.”
In the spirit of literary inversion, I’d like to turn Chesterton’s line back on Klay—his essays force citizens to consider their complacency, their imperception of the self, in the face of constant war. His work not just illuminating but challenging, in the way that all great essays force us to confront our inadequacies.
A veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, Klay won the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction for his debut book, Redeployment. His novel, Missionaries, was named one of the ten best books of 2020 by the Wall Street Journal. His essays have appeared in the Atlantic, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere, and he currently teaches fiction at Fairfield University.
Nick Ripatrazone: In your introduction to Uncertain Ground, you note that many American citizens are “swaddled from the consequences” of war. I love the malleability of this metaphor: how we can often be made sheltered, silent, and infantile. In another essay, you write: “There’s something bizarre about being a veteran of a war that doesn’t end, in a country that doesn’t pay attention.” These essays were written over a period spanning at least a decade. What’s your sense of American awareness of war now?
Phil Klay: We’ve been excused from thinking about war by our political leaders. Congress doesn’t vote on wars anymore, journalists aren’t allowed to embed with troops, and when something happens like President Biden announcing he’s sending troops into Somalia, it isn’t done publicly but rather first leaked anonymously to the press, with scant details about why and what they’ll be doing. Also, right now we heavily rely on special operations troops, on drones and airstrikes and mercenaries and partnering with local forces to achieve our objectives. It’s a style of warfare designed to be opaque to the average civilian. And so there isn’t really much interest in how we are using military force around the world, even though it is obviously one of the most important and morally fraught exercises of American power.
NR: “Marines,” you write, “are drawn like moths to a flame when it comes to the dangerous, the transgressive, and the darkly humorous.” Do you think this translates to a literary or storytelling style for Marines as well—including yourself?
PK: Ha! Guilty, probably. There’s an impish streak in me that I hope is healthy for a writer, an attraction to the bizarre, the out-of-place, the disturbing. One should poke beehives from time to time, so long as that’s not all you’re doing. Transgression does not justify itself, but needs to be earned. By that I mean that simply showing the grotesque and cruel and darkly funny things that happen in war is not enough. One must have a moral vision, a sense of why and in what context you are showing these things such that the reader does not lose sight of the human beings in the midst of the spectacle of cruelty and absurdity.
I actually think that humor is one of the more powerful tools we have for this. People in war don’t just make jokes because it takes the edge off of horror. They make jokes because human extremes come out in all their startling immediacy in war, and humor is the most serious and honest response. Emerson, in his essay on the comedic, notes that:

There is no joke so true and deep in actual life as when some pure idealist goes up and down among the institutions of society, attended by a man who knows the world, and who, sympathizing with the philosopher’s scrutiny, sympathizes also with the confusion and indignation of the detected, skulking institutions. His perception of disparity, his eye wandering perpetually from the rule to the crooked, lying, thieving fact, makes the eyes run over with laughter.

War is constant exposure to the difference between the rule and the crooked, lying, thieving fact, and the result is some of the funniest books ever written: Goodbye to All That, Journey to the End of the Night, The Good Soldier Schweik, Catch-22, Beer in the Snooker Club, and so on, right up to contemporary Iraqi literature like The Corpse Exhibition and Frankenstein in Baghdad.
NR: At the end of one essay, you recall a Vietnam veteran telling the story of his best friend, who “was the sort of guy you could count on, even if he might not have been the best soldier in the world.” You add: “He was nineteen, and he always will be.” How does war affect our sense and conception of time—for veterans, especially?
PK: I think it affects veterans differently, and at different moments. I remember having beers with a veteran in Texas almost a decade ago. He showed me a grisly photo from Iraq of an injury he’d received in combat, a photo his young daughter had apparently found on his phone. It’d caused nightmares, and he’d had to talk her through what happened to him. He also had another, still younger child, and he said to me that right then was when he realized that he’d need, at some point, to have with them both “the sex talk, and the Iraq talk.” I suspect that his own relationship to what he’d been through, and his sense of that past event, suddenly warped as he saw it through the eyes of his child, and as he imagined retelling it in the future. I also think these current wars are particularly strange, in that they haven’t ended so much as become attenuated, and pushed to the side even while low-level military efforts continue.
NR: You briefly mention an essay “It’s Not That I’m Lazy” written by an anonymous veteran that appeared in the October 1, 1946 edition of Harper’s. I found and read the essay, and agree that it is as arresting as you describe. The veteran writes that his “respect for my civilian occupation was badly shaken. It wasn’t a rational change of mind. It was a gradual and unconscious effect of four years of membership in a military society which, if not contemptuous, was at least indifferent to my special abilities as a member of that other society back home.” Do you find contemporary veterans echoing a similar sentiment? Do you think that there are particular sectors of civilian society that are doing a good job of inviting veterans back into the civilian world?
PK: You know, I quote a veteran in the book who, during the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, said, “Everyone wants to know, am I OK, and I’m like, ‘Really?’ Is the burden of feeling guilty about this also a burden veterans have to carry, too? Not only did you not care about Afghanistan, not only did you not follow Afghanistan, it’s like you gave such a little shit you can’t even feel bad yourself? Could somebody else please take some of this, take some responsibility? I’m so fucking tired of it and it’s killing me and it shouldn’t be fucking me up this much.”
It was an expression of bitterness, and disconnect from the civilian world that had paid such little attention to the war that had been so formative for him. But I spoke to him a few months later, after he’d been doing work resettling Afghans, and he told me it’d been a revelation to him to see how many people had expressed an interest in helping. Many of these were people with no connection to the military or Afghanistan at all. “I used to think people were apathetic about Afghanistan and I don’t think that’s true,” he said. “I think it wasn’t communicated well. When everyday Americans see that there are people in need or there’s a crisis and people are lacking access to basic needs and treated in a way that denies them their basic human dignity, people have stepped up.”
One of the tragedies of these wars is that our political leaders have asked far less of our populace than they’re capable of. That said, there are absolutely places where that has happened. There are a lot of veterans in humanitarian communities working on immigration issues, with arts organizations, and so on. In some universities you’ll find that veterans can feel isolated, but others have taken pains to provide robust support to develop a real community. This often means a commitment of real resources. I’m currently at Fairfield University, which has committed funding to veterans who want to study in our MFA in creative writing program. Currently, about a third of the students are veterans, which has enabled an incredible community as well as the opportunity for real engagement between a diversity of veteran and civilian writers.
NR: You quote W. B. Yeats, who, while compiling poetry for The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, passed on English soldier-poets, saying “passive suffering is not a theme for poetry.” It’s certainly a glib statement from him, and it makes me think of your own appreciation for the talented work of David Jones, a Welsh soldier during World War I. Paul Sheehan finds an “oblique rejoinder to Yeats’s dictum” within In Parenthesis, where Jones writes of a soldier: “He found him all gone to pieces and not pulling himself together nor making the best of things. When they found him his friends came on him in the secluded fire-bay who miserably wept for the pity of it all and for the things shortly to come to pass and no hills to cover us.” As someone who mostly writes and publishes in prose, could you engage Yeats’s contention from a genre standpoint? Do you think fiction and nonfiction about war differs—in mode, intent, and perhaps result—from poetry about war?
PK: What’s interesting is that although Yeats famously insulted Wilfred Owen as “a revered sandwich-board Man of the revolution… all blood, dirt & sucked sugar stick,” he greatly admired Jones (once, at a party where Jones was present, he entered and bowed low to salute the author of In Parenthesis). And of course, Jones’s work is far more than “passive suffering.” It’s complicated, because Yeats is not entirely wrong in his dissatisfaction with some of the trench poets when he suspects that they’re limiting themselves because they feel obliged to plead the suffering of their men. But he obviously misses the genuine power and beauty of Owen’s verse.
Owen, as a man who self-consciously crafted his poetry as a form of protest, and who died in the war, is a critical exemplar of the ‘poet as witness’, who, as Seamus Heaney put it, “represents poetry’s solidarity with the doomed, the deprived, the victimized, the under-privileged…[and for] whom the truth-telling urge and the compulsion to identify with the oppressed becomes necessarily integral with the act of writing itself.” And that’s a form I’ve distanced myself from.
As to whether fiction and nonfiction differ so much from poetry about war, I’m not sure. Poetry has been vital for me as a writer. Memorizing poetry to get the rhythms in my head. Working through the arguments and ideas and approaches to capturing experience in so many wars. I just read Tom Sleigh’s poetry collection The King’s Touch, which at points deals with his work as a journalist in conflict zones, and though obviously I work in prose Tom’s approach throughout his books has been pivotal for me as I think through what can be done with war writing, and how to balance ethical, political, and aesthetic commitments. Sleigh adopts a kind of caution about that in his work, a care that the poet not overstep his bounds, speak not simply for but over the voice of the oppressed, while nevertheless immersing the reader in the complexity of political fraught, emotionally intense and sometimes violent situations.

I try to do the same—immerse the reader in situations of political, emotional, psychological or spiritual complexity, but without necessarily providing the reader with the clear emotional or political cashout we come to expect from some poetry of witness. As a war writer, you find that people are comfortable with clear jingoism or pure denunciation, and your job is not to provide comfort.

NR: The final section of the book is titled “Faith.” “Faith, for me, has always been a place to register a sense of doubt, of powerlessness, of inadequacy and uncertainty about my place in the world and how I am supposed to live,” you write. You note: “It increasingly seems to me that the certainty of earlier life was based on fantasies of an orderly future in a rational, controllable world, fantasies that were no more than the wish that the Leviathan might one day be tied down by force.” You write of times of doubt in your life, and your musings make me think of the differing conceptions of God between the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who imagined a unified cosmos and consciousness, and Fr. Raymond Nogar, who envisioned the difference between them as “His God is the Lord of order; my God is the Lord of the Absurd.” You seem inclined to agree with Nogar, but I wanted to see which vision of the divine is more in line with your Catholic sensibility—and what that means for you as a writer and a veteran.

PK: Oh wow, I apparently have another book I need to read! I do find Chardin fascinating. He was a veteran of World War I himself, and has some truly fascinating reflections on it. In one essay, written during the war, after he’d already served in several major battles, he reflected on the strange nostalgia that he felt whenever he was rotated out of the front. Why was it, though he hated pain and death and suffering as much as the next man, did he find himself wanting to return to the front, this cataclysmic site of death and destruction where he knew he could be killed at any moment, and where he would certainly encounter extreme suffering? And he goes through various explanations—that simple desire we have to encounter extremity and the unknown, the freedom from normal social convention, the sense of being submerged in a larger task, and the mystic encounter with the absolute he finds in such close exposure to horror. He writes:

No one, except those who have been there, will possess charged recollections of wonder that a man retains of the plain of Ypres in April of 1915, when the air of Flanders was filled with the smell of chlorine and when artillery shells cut down the poplar trees all along the Yperlé; or when the chalky slopes of souville in July of 1916 blossomed in death. These super-human hours impregnated life with a tenacious perfume, definitive in exaltation and initiation, as if one had passed through them into the absolute.

This compulsion we have toward horror is, I think, difficult for people to talk about, and yet it is most certainly there. It’s funny, every once in a while I’ll mention that the ostensibly anti-war film Full Metal Jacket has been a fantastically successful recruiting commercial for Marine Corps, and annoyed critics have informed me that this is because I’m stupid, or the viewers are stupid, since the correct interpretation is to be repulsed by what we see. But of course, human desires are more complex than that, something I appreciate in Chardin’s searching WWI work. But it’s precisely for that reason that I’m on Nogar’s side against Chardin here. Yes, I’m wary of the Lord of order. Far too often the order imagined by those who espouse such a god has far more to do with narrow human desires. For me it comes down to the strange, broken, beautiful, unruly creatures humans are, possessing of freedom and creativity which seems to explode outwards, rather than narrow to a point.

Art Makes Us Better: The Millions Interviews Percival Everett

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Before I started my Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California, I had heard about Percival Everett’s teaching philosophy. Due to the pandemic, my first year at USC was entirely online. Everett Zoomed in to one of my classes from his workshop where he kept his jazz guitars and the tools to fix them. He struck me as both a performer and a repairman. This dual identity perhaps explained his literary mastery: by fixing the issues in the art-making process, he learned the fundamentals of the craft which in turn granted him more freedom in performing in the arts.
After the campus reopened, Everett and I had the following conversation in his office. We talked about his latest novel The Trees, the power of humor, our common misconceptions of realism, and the language in our daily politics. He imagined an alternative reality in which people crave knowledge and wisdom instead of cheap sensations: “What if our heroes on television are not throwing shields at each other? What if they were heroes because they were smarter?” Art, as he inspired me to see, has the potential and capacity to mend the world.
Jianan Qian: Everyone marvels at your many talents: novel writing, abstract painting, training horses, repairing instruments, playing jazz guitar. You once said to James Yeh at the Believer that they are all the same thing. How so?
Percival Everett: Art is art. It’s my attempt to express myself. Even more precisely, it’s my attempt to understand the world. I never think of these things as challenges. You live in the world. You do stuff. What else am I supposed to do with free time? My idea of doing nothing is doing something.
Working with my hands is a great complement to working with my head. I love painting also because it’s physical. I love playing instruments because I’m doing something with my hands while I play. And I’m thinking too. It’s hard when I’m writing. Sometimes I wish I were Chinese because there’s so much art in making the ideograms. It’s fantastic to me how people would display their intellectual prowess with their calligraphy. We don’t have that, though I think at one point script was more important than it is now. Even Roland Barthes goes on and on about the kind of pen he writes with that makes the French have a different relationship to language from the English speakers. There’s this connection to something physical in writing that I wish I had.
JQ: You grew up in South Carolina and spent a lot of time in the American West. How do different places influence your work? 
PE: When I first saw the western landscape, I realized this was my landscape. I feel comfortable on the West. Los Angeles is not representative of what I mean when I say “the West,” though I like the city of Los Angeles far more than any other American city. I love the wide-open, non-populated state of Wyoming. That helped my work because I spent a lot of time by myself. Likewise, I used to spend summers in New Mexico. I would take a horse up into the mountains and use the camp for a few weeks. When you don’t see anyone for a few weeks, two things happen. You really appreciate your solitude; you also really appreciate people. More than place, I used to be around animals. I consider them as a place in a way.
JQ: I wonder if you can talk more about South Carolina? It is representative of the American South and racism. But you also mentioned that the American South is oftentimes the scapegoat of the pervasive racism in this country. 
PE: It’s arguably true that every American work of art is about race, which is sad but also the experience of this American culture. If there’s no race in it, that itself is a comment about omission. I think of the television show Friends. The crazy thing about that show was they lived in New York and there were never any Black people. Finally, after many seasons, they tried to insert a Black character. That’s an industry of omission and that tells us something about how America would like to see itself.

But one thing that white Americans don’t seem to understand is that Black Americans don’t wake up in the morning thinking about being Black. There’s a scene in Chester Himes’s novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go. The main character is having a very nice day. He’s crossing the street and he sees a white man in a car glaring at him. He wasn’t walking around thinking, Here I am, a Black guy in America. He is just a person. But the racial gaze, the stare of white Americans at Black people, is a constant reminder that you don’t belong. That’s not so different from what people experience insidiously and perhaps unconsciously, when they see a television show like Friends with no Black people in it. Where’s the representation of people like me?
JQ: You mentioned every piece of writing is experimental. But it occurs to me that people use the term “experimental writing” to differentiate from “realistic writing.” What is your view on realism? Is it a convention, a restriction, or something else?

PE: First of all, there’s really no such thing as realism, the same way that paintings are never photographs. You can have something that’s representational. Then you’re going to have something that pushes against the representational, or what we think realism is. Take crime novels—crimes never happen in real life the way they have in crime novels. It’s formulaic. It’s completely unreal. This is an abstraction of what we think reality is. If anyone had a real notion of what reality is, we could solve a crime every time it happens. That’s also “a trick of the eye,” to use a term from paintings that are considered painstakingly real. It’s forgetting the fact that we don’t see in three dimensions. We see in two dimensions. Our mind creates that third dimension. That’s what’s interesting about this whole idea of realism. In my mind, my most experimental novel, Wounded, is the one that people might call the most realistic. I can see it’s experimental because I wrote it understanding that there was no such thing as realism.
JQ: Most of the craft advice in today’s writing workshops comes from the tradition of realism. For example, events have to be believable and characters must be complex. What’s your take on craft advice in general?
PE: If you were to find what you consider the most realistic fiction, memorized with a friend a portion of dialogue from that novel, then sat on a bus and acted it out, people would think that you are crazy. It is not realistic fiction. This is the magic of fiction. It seems the same way that you can have on a canvas that looks really three dimensional. It can’t be. Also, if you were to record the most meaningful conversation you’ve ever had with your best friend about something really important to you and wrote it down on paper, it would be the worst dialogue ever written. It’s a trick, recreating illusion. So it isn’t necessarily not realistic. It’s something else that gives us the appearance of realism. Given that, there can’t be any rules. You’ve already started from a place that is unreal.
JQ: I am always captivated by the seemingly effortless humor in your novels. Particularly, in The Trees—a novel that deals with the history of lynching—the humor seems both disarming and offensive. Do you intentionally choose humor as the narrative tone?
PE: I’m a product of reading Mark Twain. I don’t shy away from humor, or maybe a better word for me, irony. In the death camps, people made jokes. Humor is a way people survive. Maybe it’s because if you take irony away from the people, then they really are dead. If you take their ability to step outside of themselves and see the world, then they will not live. When we step outside and see the irony, I think that’s often where hope resides. You realize that as small as it might be, you have some power over yourself, over your world.
JQ: Do you also use irony as a weapon to offend those who deserve to be offended? 
PE: Someone once asked me a question early on about The Trees, “Do you think you are afraid of the white people?” I said no. The depiction of Black people, Chinese people, Latino people in American popular culture has been ugly for a long time. Just to turn it around. Have you ever seen the film Blazing Saddles?
JQ: No, I haven’t.
PE: It’s Mel Brooks’s last Western movie, made back in 1974. It’s much smarter about race than we are now. That is, not to take into account that the film is misogynistic and homophobic—get rid of those things. In the movie, the bad guys want to take the town so the railroad can come through and they can have the money. In order to combat all the bad guys, the townsfolks get the Chinese and Black people working on the railroad to come and join forces with the white people from the town to stop the bad guys.
There’s one line where one of the white guys in the town says, “Okay, [in return] we’ll give the land to the chinks and the niggers but not the Irish.” (Excuse me for quoting the language they used in the movie.) All the Black people and the Chinese say no, no. Then the white guy goes, “Okay, everybody.” In order to thwart the bad guys, they build a replica of their town—only the fronts of the buildings. Everything is a facade and then the bad guys attack the wrong place. To me, what’s wonderful about the movie is that when they do include everybody, it’s not America. You’re invited to build something not real. You’re invited to fight and protect something that doesn’t belong to you.

JQ: Another thing that strikes me about your novels is that the drama keeps escalating. I am thinking of SuderI Am Not Sidney Poitier, and The Trees. Did you worry how you could possibly end the story when the plot seemed to spin out of control? What are your views on how to end a novel?
PE: No story ends. Stories are abandoned. You can always ask the question: what happens next? Even if it’s the story of human history in which everybody dies, what happens to all the other animals? What happens to the planet? There’s always another question. The story will end since we are god in the creation of a work of art. It ends when we say it ends. But that really isn’t the end of a work. If what we have created is a work of art, what is thought after consuming it is the real story. That’s the story that I get to participate in making. Instead of thinking novels as a complete work, I consider them as a springboard for work that happens in the world.
JQ: Do you think it necessary to give a work of art a sense of ending?
PE: I do it, but it’s not necessary. Now you say it, it really makes me not want to do it (laughs). I’m sort of contrary by nature. I read about how they test the ending of a movie by showing it to a small audience before they decide what they are going to do. I’m not sure how true this is. There is a scene in the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Sabotage, where the bus carries a bomb. The tension rises as the bus gets closer to the town where the bomb is supposed to go off. In our understanding of those kinds of scenes, our main characters will resolve the issues eventually. That’s one of the reasons why television shows are so strange to me. When you have a main character who runs into danger, and we feel this, but we know she’s not going to die—she’ll be back next week. But back on the bus scene, that was one of the ending editions that the bomb goes off. Imagine you have an audience sitting in the room, then the bomb goes off, and the tension has nowhere to go. That’s not the ending they use because no one was satisfied. People are satisfied when you get their main character back. They need that safety. In fiction, you don’t have to worry if everybody blows up in the beginning. That’s one thing you’re exploring. When the bomb goes off, you have to resolve, but never to the extent to satisfy your audience. That’s how different films and televisions are from fiction. What we do is even harder.
JQ: Your transition from analytical philosophy to fiction writing is beautiful. I wonder what you think about the role of language in shaping our daily politics and our perception of reality?
PE: Language has suffered in the hands of American politics. Part of it is because we have a political party who would really like an uneducated population. This is why they’re hostile toward higher education and completely anti-intellectual. We have even experienced the death of philosophical ideas.
One of my pet peeves is that the term “to beg the question” has been changed to mean to raise the question. It’s a great philosophical concept which isn’t quite summed up in the notion of assuming that conclusion. As a philosophical notion, begging the question is a way to call out someone who is arguing poorly, someone who is not answering a question by reposing the question in a different way. It used to be a valid complaint about someone’s argument. It was the case in politics when you say, “He’s begging the question” and everyone understood it. No one understands it now. To say to someone that you’re assuming a conclusion doesn’t carry the same weight. Language suffers.
JQ: Do you happen to track the language of the pandemic?
PE: Not really. But I hope someone will write something about it. I’m sure language has suffered throughout and certainly science did too. Science is, in some ways, always shifting, and so paradigm shifts happen. But it’s never, in the strict sense, religious. So all of a sudden we have people who don’t have faith in science. That line of thinking is very strange to me. Why are you talking about faith in science? Sciences are our best attempts to understand things in empirical way. It doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily correct. But they are our best attempts. We can’t simply decide what’s true or false in the physical world. It doesn’t work that way.
JQ: You reject the notion of writers’ block. How do you keep yourself motivated?
PE: I put my bills on my desk. Just kidding. I do ask myself a question: Do you want to write a book? If I want to write a book, then I write a book. If I go out with a shovel, I ask myself, “Do you want to plant this tree?” If I do, I dig the hole. If I don’t, I go back inside. I don’t have time to stand around there playing the show. If I have a student who wants to write a novel. Then write a novel. If they don’t, then that’s not going to happen. Usually that’s enough motivation for people: Shame.
JQ: In recent years, the world seems crazy—or maybe it’s always been crazy. Many young writers, me included, feel compelled to do something to help change the reality. But instead, we are writing stories that not many people would care. What would you say to people who feel that way?
PE: I think about Picasso’s Guernica. It affected the world. Does it affect the world now? Not really. But it did. Art has that capacity. But you don’t know when that’s going to happen. If we only made art for numbers, we wouldn’t do anything. If you were a farmer, would you stop because you can’t feed everybody? It’s not just because I do it, but I believe that art makes us better. Art makes us think, and that’s the first step to being smarter. If more people consumed art, I think more people would consume all sorts of knowledge. That might be naïve, but I have to believe in it.
I don’t like what I see in the world, and I don’t mean entertainment. There used to be those racks at the supermarket, full of trashy romance books. They no longer exist there now. But I always thought what if there were books about ideas and those were the books that people would pick up as they were checking out of the market. And those were the books that they would read. I am happy when people read anything. But what if those books are not about romance, but about philosophies, about people who care? What if our heroes on television are not throwing shields at each other? What if they were heroes because they were smarter? That would be a very different world. But how do you get an audience to do it? That’s where art comes in. Maybe, maybe we could solve and change.
(The Chinese translation of this interview appeared in the Shanghai Review of Books on May 22, 2022. The interviewer would like to thank Philip Kurian for his generous and thoughtful contribution to the interview.)

Beauty and Lightness: Gina Nutt and Ashley Farmer in Conversation

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Spring 2008, Ashley Farmer and I met at Syracuse University. Ashley was a first-year MFA candidate in an open poetry workshop that the instructor gave me permission to enroll in as a third-year undergraduate. The same semester, Ashley and I sat at drafting tables in a studio art class, sketching blue-jeans in pencil and painting grocery store cakes. Both the workshop classroom and the studio hummed with collaborative energy; the exchange existed between students, as well as students and the respective instructors, but also between the artists and the work they created. Reading Ashley’s writing that spring, and in the years that have since followed, I have felt this same synergy. Across four full-length works and a chapbook, she conjures dream-states, digital farms, off-kilter versions of the American Dream, unsettling domestic spaces, women who become the sum of our online searches; a deft hand at compressed narratives filled to emotional brims.

Ashley channels her exacting clarity and poetic sensibility in her latest work, Dear Damage, an essay collection following a family tragedy, in which Ashley’s grandfather shot her grandmother after a fall that left her paralyzed. This searching, lyrical exploration draws upon personal narrative, transcripts, court documents, and internet comments to reflect on family, mental health, guns, California, work, love, and the American Dream.

When I reached out to Ashley to request an interview, she suggested we interview each other, given shared themes in our essay collections, Syracuse history, and both our work across form. We spoke in February from our homes in Ithaca and Salt Lake City. A Joan Didion Library of America edition floated above Ashley’s head. We discussed bringing poetic backgrounds to nonfiction, David Berman, nostalgia, and how the open-genre approach of the Syracuse program primed us to work across genre. We collaborated on editing our two-hour dialogue for clarity and length.

Gina Nutt: We’re all smiles to talk about our sad books.

Ashley Farmer: Let’s go there!

GN: Your book gives us insight how to do this. There’s this moment when your husband, Ryan, says “You have to let the light in.” The first time my husband, Dave, read my galley he said, “It’s so weird reading it, because it’s you, but a very specific version of you.”

AF: It’s interesting, right? Because there’s a tension: in some ways we’re writing really revealing things and yet we’re very selective. The work is curated and it’s really personal, but you don’t give it all away either.

GN: It’s a balancing act. So I want to start by asking about the genre switch for you. Dear Damage is your first book of essays. I remember reading your essay “Mercy” in Gay Magazine, hearing your voice and clarity, and the gorgeous lyrical momentum I admire in your work. Your earlier books often involve surreal, dreamy elements. Strange things happen in the short fiction in Beside Myself. You expand on predictive text searches in The Women in unsettling ways and elaborate on computer farm games in The Farmacist and [the chapbook] Farm Town. Did the willingness to get weird open up your exploration and offer unexpected ways to write about these experiences?

AF: I think that the event within my family was so surreal that I just knew I was going to write about it. But the fact that it was surreal made it easier to enter into it: the emotional and intellectual experience of it was so strange that it made it a natural place to start writing a work of nonfiction.

My project pretty much started with that essay, “Mercy.” And then among more traditional essays, I have these moments in the book of flash fiction or poetry pieces. I felt really grateful to work with Sarah Gorham at Sarabande—she offered great guidance in terms of editing in such smart ways. But she also allowed me things, like these pieces that aren’t so much surreal as they are maybe more just poetry in nature, and associative. I was grateful for that. I got to balance my interests in terms of weirding out in my imagination in a prose poetry-type of way, but then working with essays grounded in reality, too.

GN: It makes sense that your earlier writing primed you to write through the surreal nature of the experience. I’m also curious about how you juggle timelines from one piece to the next—moving from childhood memories to adjunct life, leaving LA, relationships and marriage, and your work in an art museum—and weave in transcripts of conversations with your grandparents, Bill and Frances. Did you have a guiding framework for writing and organizing the collection?

AF: I wanted to clearly show how my grandparents’ lives and choices had influenced mine, so I tried to organize it in such a way that these juxtapositions and connections in terms of geography, jobs, womanhood, love, and aging were clear. I also knew I had an opportunity to break up the transcripts of our conversations in such a way that they’d become woven into the book and that the essays around them could reflect off of these transcribed sections. And although I didn’t plan it this way, I think the collection moves from shock to grief to what happens post-grief.

GN: You also weave in cinematic, poetic flash essays, many of which feel cast in golden-hour light, but they’re also acutely aware of darker personal and cultural undercurrents. One line that stuck with me especially: “What didn’t I want climbing out the basement window at midnight?” I love the way you write about nostalgia and coming-of-age, like the essay where you write about Kurt Cobain’s death and the impact of losing a celebrity—someone we feel like we know but actually don’t, which is a different experience now with social media.

AF: This is a question I also want to ask you: for me, I think that in writing about something so heavy—this mercy killing that happened in my family—I wanted to give myself permission to write about other things that just felt fun for me. I wanted to make some of it sweet. Like, if I’m going into the past, I also want to write about smoking Marlboro lights with my girlfriend at the park or sneaking out.

GN: There’s a charm to it. I have a lot of love for the 90s shopping mall. Seeing Titanic, going to the arcade, unwrapping a CD in the Burger King while I waited for my mom to pick me up.

AF: Oh, you’re conjuring this sensory memory: remember how hard it could be to open a new CD? The plastic and then the seal around the edge?

That makes me curious about something I love in your work. I have a couple questions in mind here: one is, I felt really interested in how you balanced these moments of beautiful nostalgia, even the way you talk about weather in upstate New York, how you talk about the malls—there’s an ambience and a lightness to it. I was trying to figure out how to write about something so heavy and balance it with another type of energy. So how did you do that?

GN: Hearing you notice balance means a lot to me. It wasn’t always there. It emerged over time with revision and reorganizing, on the level of individual essays and the entire book. I’m not sure I thought of it as light, but I enjoyed writing about watching horror movies with friends, seeing a whimsical taxidermy tableau, reading, writing, Dave. I hope these parts in the book bring a sense of lightness or hope. I also wanted to conjure stillness because being outside is one way I make sense of the heaviness, in the gorges or paths around Ithaca.

AF: You conjure place really well.

GN: So do you! I love how you write about place and explore the legacy of L.A. in your family. Part of the picture you paint emerges from the transcripts with your grandparents, which appear throughout the book. I love the warmth they bring to the essays. Did you initially record these conversations thinking you’d keep them as a family artifact or were they part of another project?

AF: I’ve always loved recordings—I have recordings of my siblings from when we were little and also of my grandparents that I recorded when I was thirteen. I don’t even know why I was interviewing them! There’s something about recordings that has always felt like a way of keeping people. But those particular interviews [the transcripts in the book], were recorded two weeks before the shooting happened. I visited my grandparents over the holidays, and on New Year’s Day I just sat with them in their living room. I was trying to write about how California had changed, how Ryan and I were having a very different experience than my grandparents or my mom and dad had. So I interviewed them in their living room and, a little more than two weeks later, everything was different. It felt lucky that I captured it. I also felt like, because I had told them I was writing a book about California and they knew I wanted to use their words, I had their permission: they knew I was going to use the transcript in a written piece. It just ended up becoming a different piece.

GN: It’s moving that you told them you were going to write a book about California and then you did. It reminds me of Jeannie Vanasco’s The Glass Eye, in which she promises her father she’ll write a book for him and she does. It’s a gorgeous memoir with collage and deep-dive family reported elements, which is another thing you do really well. And that you write about California has such a Didion… I see her—is that Didion behind you?

AF: Yes [points to bookshelf], behind me.

GN: Behind all of us who write nonfiction. Which I want to ask about because your collection calls The White Album to mind, the idea of life’s messiness and how we try and assign neat parameters to our experiences, which are often not so neat. You’re skilled at finding a throughline and branching out to complicate and deepen the work. How do you navigate the challenge in nonfiction of curating toward a specific current—cultural, familial, or emotional—and leave room for uncertainty?

AF: I felt like I should be as honest as possible about the fact that I had no easy conclusions. I also wanted a recursiveness throughout the book, because I was thinking about patterns within my family: my moving to California more than once, going back to literally the same places where different generations of my family had lived (almost by happenstance). Or writing about marriage: marrying, divorcing, and then marrying someone I’d danced with at my first wedding. So that recursiveness became the best throughline.

GN: I like how that first essay establishes a narrative and emotional core and gives a focal point the other essays orbit. Your exploration of uncertainty and complexity is part of what makes the book so powerful.

AF: I’m also thinking about when we choose to write about other people in our lives. You said something before about telling someone else’s story versus yours. You write about family—your uncle, your father-in-law, Dave. How did you make those decisions?

GN: It wasn’t an easy or apparent choice. Part of figuring out the line for me was seeing the effect when I took away details. I also showed Dave an early draft, asking some version of, “Am I crossing a line? Is this unfair?” Mostly, I overwrote and cut away, rewrote, cut away again. I calibrated each piece—and what to reveal, or not—differently. How did you find this balance?

AF: You said “fair” a moment ago and that’s how I tried to think about it, too. I wanted to do right by everybody. I asked people for permission. I relied a lot on my mom: if my mom felt okay about it, then I felt okay about it. And then there were certain moments in writing about Ryan where I was sort of like, “Okay, I made this! What do you think?”

Something about your book that I love is that it feels really timeless in terms of how you work with literature and cinema. And so many writers appear in your book: Wallace Stevens, Frank Stanford, Paul Celan, Lucie Brock-Broido, Joy Williams. Are these your influences? Or was their work resonating with you as you wrote this book?

GN: Lucie Brock-Broido, Frank Stanford, and Joy Williams are a few writers I return to again and again. Some of those writers I was reading or re-reading while I was writing this book, like Muriel Leung’s Bone Confetti. I was reading a lot of writing about death because that’s what I was thinking about; I felt comforted reading alongside those speakers. The way Stanford writes about death doesn’t bum me out. His work has this Southern Gothic feel, but it also has a shine.

AF: There is something about these events in our lives when we’re really shocked or grieving and details come into focus, things that are beautiful. Time stands still, which makes it easier to capture certain details or insights.

GN: Yeah, that sense of suspended time. Earlier you described the experience in your family as surreal, which sounds accurate to me. I think pressing into details we remember, spending time with specific moments, can unfold a meditation. Descriptions can be atmospheric and emotional. One memory came up often, and unexpectedly, for me was a meal friends brought us. Our books share different versions of this moment. I hadn’t really thought of this as something I’d write about though, it came up as I worked. Did you have any breadcrumb essays? Pieces inspired by something else you wrote, like a breadcrumb trail.

AF: Yes, writing about my grandparents’ marriage led to my writing about my relationship with Ryan. One thing opened up another. Then something like a song would come up in an essay and I’d think oh I just want to write this prose poem about it now, a little ditty. I’d get to something and think Oh, I want to do more with that.

GN: A little ditty. I love it. The circularity and picking up earlier threads reminds me of Elissa Washuta’s White Magic.

AF: Yes! Her writing is really just incredible. I’m definitely influenced by a lot of women writers.

GN: So who are some writers you looked to while writing and revising? You write about David Berman, how his music and poetry backlights your friendship and marriage to Ryan, like a soundtrack to accompany your relationship.

AF: Berman has been a thread throughout our  relationship, from early on when Ryan would make mix CDs with Silver Jews songs on them and send them through the mail. Then I got to know Berman’s writing. Berman also has a connection to my hometown of Louisville: he didn’t actually like Louisville, but he lived there and wrote about it. But in terms of his writing: Actual Air, good lord. His turns of phrase, the humor and pathos.

GN: I love Actual Air. I love how on the first snow every year, without fail, I see someone post the poem “Snow.” Or “Halloween” in the fall. Berman brought a warm, inviting spirit to art. Play the songs. Write the poems. Like, “It’s just a little ditty.” It can be fun and playful, even when we’re getting at deeper stuff. A balance of levity and depth. Who else did you look to while working on your book?

AF: You mentioned Didion, who can be complicated, but I really I’ve learned a lot from her. She writes about grief so well—I’d count her among influences. But there are so many writers my work doesn’t bear any resemblance to but that I love. Like Samantha Irby, Roxane Gay, Chelsea Hodson. Therese Marie Mailot’s Heart Berries. Who are some of yours?

GN: Chelsea Hodson, definitely, I remember reading Tonight I’m Someone Else and feeling so struck by those essays. Her writing is so poetic and meditative. I was really lucky she worked with me on Night Rooms, through the consultations she offers. I still think about her guidance and things she pointed out in my writing. And Chelsea recommended Elissa Washuta’s first book, My Body Is a Book of Rules.

AF: I also love Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams. Everything of hers is like a clinic on how to infuse researched work with personal narrative.

GN: Maggie Nelson.

AF: Oh yes, especially in terms of form. And Eula Biss! I’m late to Biss.

GN: I was late to Biss too! Oh, I also feel like my book is nothing like these, but during later revisions I read Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing and Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror and love both those books.

AF: These are all so fantastic. I’d love to know how you started Night Rooms? When did you know you were writing a book?

GN: I started the earliest seeds after Dave’s dad passed away. I was struggling to keep up with writing because I was just writing about death but when I went with it I fell into the work and eventually had an essay I revised. Eventually, I submitted that essay and continued writing short bursts that wove in horror movies, thinking, Maybe I’ll expand this. My early starts were very much all over the place. [The lit mag] Cosmonauts Avenue accepted that first essay and I just kept going. Writing is always an act of faith. I often feel like, “I’ll just go in my little office and do my writing every morning and hope.” But having the cookie along the way can feel like a sign I’m on the right track.

AF: You’re right about the act of faith. You’re making something, and for someone else to see and recognize what you’re doing, to feel like someone gets it—that gives you momentum.

GN: That’s so true, because it’s really hard to keep writing. I write every day and it never gets easier. Where were you in the process when “Mercy” published in Gay Magazine? Did you have a complete manuscript when the first essay found a home?

AF: I didn’t really have much when I placed that piece. I’d written a little bit about adjunct teaching and leaving California. The “main event” is what I wrote first and it’s what appears first in the book before it becomes a different kind of storytelling.

GN: Starting there prompts the exploration that follows, rather than building toward a big moment, and it has wide meditative reach. You say the hard thing and then delve into family, California, work, love. I keep circling back to those transcripts. I especially like the one where you’re talking about an earthquake and Frances is like, “No school.” Those conversations really speak to their personalities. And my first-year comp instructor brain is kicking in, like, primary source. Speaking of which, I’m drawn to how you write about adjunct work. You’re straightforward about the reality that “higher ed seems to work just fine.” Before we started recording you shared you’ve had a steady eight years in art museums. And in the collection, you describe the moment you went into the office and saw ordinary objects like a desk, a stapler.

AF: My own shiny stapler, yes!

GN: Those things can feel certain. For adjuncts, it’s like, “Here’s a key to the office you share with five other people for the next 15 weeks.” If you’re lucky enough to have an office and you’re not holding office hours in your car. Assuming you have a car. I know you edit for [the lit mag] Juked and still keep up with writing, in addition to holding down a job. How do you sustain your writing practice and find community beyond academia?

AF: In writing about adjunct teaching, I was aware that my problems with the system are not unique. But I wanted to share my perspective as it related to my general sense of an unsteady world at that time. I also wanted to write a love letter of sorts: all of that fondness and excitement I felt for my students. I have to say that, even then, my job fed my writing and I found community with other writers and artists getting by as adjuncts in L.A. Today I still seek inspiration in my day-to-day work. It’s a puzzle piece that fits together with writing. I admire that you write every day! How do you balance things? And like me, you don’t work in academia either.

GN: I’ve worked as a bookseller longer than I’ve worked in academia. I enjoyed working with students, but I struggled with the instability. There are more sustainable ways to teach, even if not in a full-time capacity. I’ve taught with Catapult and that’s a meaningful way to work with writers who want to carve out time to write alongside day jobs.

AF: Professors we studied with talked about possibilities for writers beyond academia. I think about George Saunders telling stories about jobs he had, like sitting in his car outside an office park and writing.

GN: My first job after grad school was at the local grocery co-op. It paid the bills and I still made time to write. Sometimes the way you earn a living isn’t connected to your writing in obvious ways, but it can fuel the work, or give you time away from the desk. It’s a way of being in the world, which is part of being a writer.

AF: Can I ask about how your relationship with Dave, another writer, factors into your process?

GN: We often share smallish pieces. I used to share earlier in the process. Now I hold off because I want to figure out as much as I can before sharing. We occasionally trade longer work, but we like to take things as far as we can on our own. Dave usually offers first eyes on work I intend to share though. Do you and Ryan trade?

AF: Yes, we’ll go on walks and talk about different possibilities for characters or think out loud: “What if things are in this order instead?” We’re each other’s readers and we’re pretty candid and kind. It’s nice encouragement to live under the same roof with someone who’s trying to finish a project—you know, someone who understands the process.

GN: Who gets that you have to get your work done. And all those years when maybe there’s no publication, no book or journal publications. It’s hard to justify those stretches of time when what we have to show for our time is the work itself and that’s it.

AF: That’s right. I mean, this book took me five years and I have 200 pages to show for it! To some people, that’s not necessarily the best use of your time. But someone who really cares about words the way that you do helps you remember why you’re doing it. Helps you remember that it can become something. What are you working on these days?

GN: I’m working on a novel, which is a change of pace from Night Rooms, but you can write a different book every time. It’s something I admire about your work. Each of your books feels distinct, but they all exist in the Ashley universe.

AF: Thank you. I have a half-finished collection of stories and then wonder if I should try a novel or more essays. I like to work in different genres and you do, too. I wonder if that’s a Syracuse thing? We were really given permission to do that.

GN: I feel it’s a big part of the program. We had leeway to write and decide what the work was later. That fluidity is so generative. Writing and seeing what happens, following your interests, the sentence, or the emotional heart. I’m hearing echoes of all our teachers. For one class, Michael Burkard led us to a gallery, we wandered around and wrote and shared what we came up with later. I also loved the option to take open workshops opposite the main genre we studied. That’s where you and I met, in an open workshop.

AF: And we had art class together!

GN: The cake painting you made! I love that we both write about that art class in our books. Before we part, I’d love to know what’s on the horizon for you. Are you writing anything new, or are you focused on publication as Dear Damage goes into the world?

AF: I want to get messy into something right now, to find a topic I want to obsess about for a little while, something with beauty and lightness. I feel like I’m ready to turn the channel.

ASHLEY MARIE FARMER is the author of the new essay collection Dear Damage (Sarabande Books), as well as three other collections of prose and poetry. Her work has been published in places like TriQuarterly, The Progressive, Santa Monica Review, Buzzfeed, Flaunt, Nerve, Gigantic, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a Best American Essays notable distinction, Ninth Letter’s Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction, the Los Angeles Review’s Short Fiction Award, as well as fellowships from Syracuse University and the Baltic Writing Residency. Ashley lives in Salt Lake City, UT with the writer Ryan Ridge. You can find her at ashleymfarmer.com.

Our Dark Curiosities: The Millions Interviews Katie Gutierrez

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Katie Gutierrez’s debut novel, More Than You’ll Ever Know, out today from William Morrow follows two central characters: one, a Mexican-American mother named Lore whose double-life in the 1980s results in one of her husbands convicted of murdering the other; the other, a white aspiring true crime writer, Cassie, who is hellbent on telling Lore’s story. Both women have secrets buried deep that, over the course of the novel, refuse to remain underground.  

Over a mid-morning Zoom, I spoke with Gutierrez—who is also a prolific essayist, with work published in Time, Harper’s, Catapult, and elsewhere—about true crime, the many versions of ourselves, women’s ambition, the writing process, and our innate pull toward darkness. 

Shannon Perri: More Than You’ll Ever Know plays around with the truth, and really questions the nature of truth itself. But throughout the novel one truth affirms itself again and again: we all contain multitudes. We all have the capacity for multiplicity. What drew you to this idea? 

Katie Gutierrez: I’ve always been fascinated with the ways that we compartmentalize ourselves, the ways that we change depending on who we’re with. We can be one person with our husband, another with our best friends, with our mothers, with our children, with strangers. We’re all constantly presenting different parts of ourselves to the world depending on how comfortable we are or what we want.

When I was in my MFA program [at Texas State University], sometime around 2011, I read this story about a man with a double life who’d been with his wife for thirty years. When she died, he married another woman two weeks later. At that point, people were like, Who is this woman? It turned out that he had a whole separate family with her. They lived 20 miles apart. He had two kids with each woman, and they all went to the same school at different times. He bought both wives the same white Lexus. That he could compartmentalize himself so completely was this extreme version of what I had always been interested in, but I wanted to explore that from the perspective of a woman living a double life. I feel like women are especially forced to compartmentalize themselves. I wanted to take that concept of, like you said, the multitudes, and take it to an extreme, the ways that we all do every day.

SP: Much of the tension in this book exists between motherhood and familial responsibilities versus ambition, and the ways women get punished for being ambitious.

KG: With Lore and her first husband Fabian, I was interested in exploring two people who love each other and are good together in many ways, but are put in this pressure cooker situation. Especially in Mexican culture, there’s that element of machismo, and expectation that men will be the providers. When that can’t happen and the roles are switched, that can put pressure on even the best relationships. I wanted to explore the impact that might have on an otherwise fairly good marriage. If a woman’s ambition and success were to outdo her husband’s, what could happen? 

SP: The novel is masterfully plotted. How much of the story did you know before you wrote the first draft and how much was discovered through revision? What was the initial seed?

KG: I mentioned that double-life story that I’d read, and that was probably the initial seed. At the time I was working on my thesis for my MFA, which was a collection of short stories set in South Texas. I had this idea of a woman living a double life and of there being a frame story with the reporter, but it felt bigger than a short story, so I shelved it. After I got my MFA, I had a full-time job as an editor for many years. When I stepped away to focus on writing, I was working on an entirely different book and that took a couple of years, and when that book didn’t sell, this double-life story idea was still in the back of my mind. 

I started playing with the characters and trying to figure out who they are. Who is this woman living this double life? How does she pull it off? Especially in this day and age of being online, where everything and everyone are so connected? It felt obvious that it should happen in the past. Setting it in the past also created the opportunity to explore truth in a different way—what if the events known to have happened didn’t actually happen that way, or what if there was a deeper story behind them? That opened a different door for exploration and tension between the characters. The next question was, where does it take place? I grew up with my parents telling stories about this time in the 80s, with the peso devaluation. I liked the idea of setting it [in Laredo] and playing with the idea of doubleness in this city that I grew up in. It’s a border town. The city itself exemplifies duality. 

Every decision led to another decision. Before starting to write, I like to have 50 to 60 percent of the book sort of outlined. I was using Scrivener for this, and I used the cork board feature to take any scenes that I could already envision in like a one-line synopsis and order them in the way that I thought they would go. The structure of the book changed fundamentally across probably twenty different drafts. The first draft was a mess—it was 600 pages. The 150 pages were all Lore’s perspective and then it switched to Cassie for the next hundred, and my agent was like, Yeah, this is not working. There was a lot to do in terms of braiding their stories and trying to make sure that both women were equally compelling. I realized that I didn’t know Cassie as well as I did Lore. I learned a lot about Cassie in the writing process. Lore as well, but Lore came to me whole for some reason. 

SP: The novel made me fall in love with Mexico City, which plays a central part in the story. I’ve never been, but now I desperately want to go. Did anything surprise you in your research about Mexico City?

KG: I actually have not been to Mexico City either. My family is all Mexican and I’ve been to Mexico a few times over the years, but less so after the violence got worse. In researching Mexico during this time period, I was able to get closer to my culture. I really enjoyed that aspect of it. I had planned to go to Mexico City several times, and then the pandemic hit. That’s a big regret I have with the book, because no matter how much research you do into a place, being there physically will always change it. Maybe not fundamentally, but being able to add those sensory details would’ve made a difference, so I’m sad that I didn’t get to. 

Mexico City was one of those pieces of the story that I didn’t know would be so central in the beginning. Probably my research about the 1985 Mexico City earthquake was—it seems weird to say my favorite research because it was so tragic, but it was a piece of history that I wasn’t aware of. I was just a kid when it happened, and it was so unexpectedly moving to read firsthand stories and to see photos and find articles and explore archives from that time period. There is a moment in the book where Andres, Lore’s second husband, is telling her about a little boy who was stuck in the rubble for a week or so before dying; that boy was a real boy that I encountered in my research.

SP: In some ways this book is a traditional crime story and in other ways interrogates the true crime genre itself. Given that, were there challenges in deciding what to reveal and when? How did you approach plotting a crime narrative while critiquing the way true crime narratives are told in the first place?

KG: Yes, especially with Cassie. With Lore, I always saw her as this unapologetic character putting it all out there but in sort of a self-serving way. Her revelations feel true and intimate, yet she’s very careful about the way she constructs her own story. Her character is all about the stories we tell ourselves, the narratives we create from events in our own lives, how those narratives change and become what we need them to be at different times. With Lore, I wanted everything about the affair and the marriage to be upfront; I wanted the tension to be between what the reader knows that the husbands don’t. 

With Cassie, there were different points with her mother, father, and brother, that were withheld. It was a challenge to figure out when to reveal those things so that it felt compelling, but not manipulative. With Cassie’s perspective, I didn’t want to be withholding as a way to falsely build suspense. I wanted to earn it, so it was a challenge figuring out where the sweet spots of those revelations would be, and those also changed in different edits. I also was interested in her own personal blind spots. Cassie withholds information from the reader, and in a lot of ways, from herself. 

The last third of the book became a much more traditional whodunnit with those revelations. My U.K. editor works primarily with crime fiction, and so he was really focused on the suspenseful elements and the plot points, and he helped with a lot of the pacing in terms of when those revelations were made and how they were made. It was a great complement to my U.S. editor, who was very character focused. 

SP: You recently wrote an essay for Catapult about the ethical challenges of true crime and the possibilities of crime fiction. Why do you think so many of us find crime stories pleasurable, and for some, even comforting? I have friends who watch true crime shows or Law & Order: SVU to help them fall asleep. 

KG: I’ve totally done that. There’s something so morbid when you consider these shows are about people whose loved ones are probably still mourning them; meanwhile here’s a person putting the story of their murder on in the background to help them fall asleep. That is such a strange juxtaposition. And I think part of the comfort of episodic shows like SVU, in which each episode is self-contained, is that most of them have satisfying conclusions. Nine times out of ten, they’re going to catch the person who did it, and there will be some level of justice or catharsis. In turbulent times, which we’ve been living in, there is a level of comfort in knowing that soon, you’ll know what happens. 

There are so many different elements of why true crime is compelling. The fact that it’s proliferated into all these different categories—books, podcasts, prestige documentaries, network TV—no matter your mood or your personality, you will find a genre of true crime that appeals to whatever you’re searching for. Rachel Monroe does a great job of identifying these archetypes that people are drawn to, and maybe some of them overlap and maybe you identify more with one archetype, the victim in one story and more with the detective in another, but there’s a level of personal investment we place into our true crime stories. We latch onto one of these characters, we have something emotionally at stake in knowing what happens to them. 

Then there’s part of us that just has that dark curiosity. It’s like not being able to look away from a car wreck. We are drawn to things that we don’t understand and can’t comprehend. Also, like I said in the Catapult piece, men are murdered much more often than women, but when women are murdered, there is often sexual violence involved, and so many women have experienced sexual violence in their lives that I think it can be validating to see their world reflected back, particularly when justice for sexual violence is so rare. 

SP: It’s common for parents, especially new moms, to be flooded with visions of the worst thing that could happen to their baby, and sometimes that can weirdly be—I don’t know if comforting is the word?—but, for me, l would think, “if I imagine it, it can’t happen.” It reminds me of what you said about our pull toward the dark. 

KG: That’s so true. I did that a lot, particularly with my first baby. I think I had undiagnosed postpartum anxiety. Just those repetitive, compulsive imaginings of the most horrible things that could possibly happen. It was so endless and on a loop, and like you said, I felt like I had to think of everything from start to finish, and if I could, then I’d somehow prevent it from happening. I think that can be part of it as well with true crime stories, especially if we’re identifying with the victims. There’s an element of, Okay, let’s take note of what they did or didn’t do so that we can protect ourselves better. 

What Is and Is Not a Body: The Millions Interviews Allison Wyss

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Allison Wyss is a writer and teacher in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her debut collection of short stories, Splendid Anatomies, was published earlier this year by Veliz Press. She also writes a popular column on the craft of writing for the Loft Literary Center and her interest in how stories work is evident in her own writing. Her stories are lively and strange and span across known and unknown universes, in a collection in which there are no rules. The stories vary in length and style, though each one shares elements of playfulness and curiosity in the world. When recommending the book to a friend I said that reading it felt, at times, like having a possibly-psychedelic drink with a witch. I think that’s apt, but curious readers should test my metaphor. 

Wyss spoke to me about creating worlds, writing over years, and living in human bodies. The conversation that follows was held over email and then drinks in March of 2022.

Margaret LaFleur: In the acknowledgements page of Splendid Anatomies, you thank your family for “making you weird.” While it’s fair to say the stories in this collection are weird—there are talking spiders, time vortexes, ghosts—I’m curious how you would describe the collection as a whole. What do these stories have in common and what are you hoping readers take from the collection? 

Allison Wyss: Truthfully, I didn’t know how to thank my family because I don’t really know if they’ll want to be thanked after they read the book. But! On the whole I think of the collection as being about body modification, and more broadly about bodies. Many of the individual stories are specifically about bodies and people fighting either with or against them, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. And then for other stories Splendid Anatomies is about problematizing the line between what is and is not a body. It’s about the borders of self, the borders of me. Human beings are good at othering, but if we want to, we can also draw people in. We can draw objects into ourselves, too. We can draw in the whole world. I can say that you and me, sitting here together focused on the same topic, gathered at the same table, breathing the same air, are the same organism. And who can prove that I’m wrong? And who can say, really, that my clothes aren’t my body, or that the chair holding me up is not. And if I decide to change my body—adding to it or taking away—my body only becomes more me. 

I really think that the story about tattoos and a story about losing yourself in yogurt and a story about turning into a toad  are individually about tattoos, yogurt, and toads, but collectively they are about the boundary between self and other, as defined—or not defined at all!—by what is body. And the stories about plastic surgery and naked space travel and veins becoming worms are, again, about those things individually, but collectively they are about all of the ways people fight to control and claim and own their bodies. Because all these stories are bound in the same book, they are all part of the same body and that itself blurs the boundary of a body. 

ML: Tell me a little bit about when you wrote the first story in the collection? Or, how do you see this collection beginning?

AW: Some of these stories are really, really old. One of the oldest ones came into being after I was talking to friends in a bar and I went home and wrote “Nutsacks in Space” about things we talked about, like floating naked through space. At the time I was just writing stories. I didn’t notice for a while that they were about the same things. It took someone else pointing out my hang-ups. There were always people doing weird things with their bodies. And then I focused for a long time on writing a novel but I kept writing stories sort of in between the cracks of that. The stories became even weirder, especially after having a baby. The body stuff became more front and center, how gross and messy it is to exist in the world and just be human.

ML: Did you have an agent? Or did you submit the manuscript directly to publishers?

AW: When I wrote the story “Boobman,” it was rejected ninety-something times, but I always really liked the story and had a lot of faith in it, so I kept submitting it. It was ultimately published by Moon City Review and nominated for a Pushcart. I thought “What the hell? This is amazing!” Someone finally, really got what I was doing. Right around then Moon City Press had a collection contest. “Boobman” really felt like an anchor to a collection and I thought, Well, if they like what I’m doing, then I’ll to put this all together into a collection, and submitted it to the contest. I didn’t win , but I was a runner-up. The editor at Veliz, my publisher, saw my name on that list. He looked up the other stories that I’d published in other journals. He liked those and then he got in touch with me and asked if he could read the collection. He liked it. It went through some changes after that, of course, but that’s how Veliz found it.

ML: So you’re saying it’s worth it to publish in literary journals?

AW: One hundred percent yes. This collection happened because I was publishing in literary journals. And because I was publishing in online literary journals. I don’t think he went out and bought the journals of stories that were only available in print, but he was able to find my work online. Of course when I got runner-up I was devastated. I was so close! I wanted a book so bad I could eat it. It was torture to be so, so close. But then it did bring me to my editor.

ML: I find much of your writing to be very visual, though you achieve a lot of imagery without a ton of description. In “Only Real Art Lasts Forever” there is a woman covered in tattoos, though only a handful of tattoos are actually described in detail. Do your stories begin with images for you? Or do you find that comes after characters or circumstances?

AW: I often wonder if I approach imagery differently than other writers do, but I don’t know! I learned a few years ago that I don’t see pictures in my mind, by which I mean, I learned a few years ago is that other people do see them. And what I had thought was a metaphor—picturing things when you think of them—is literal for most people. Instead, inside my brain, I know what things look like, but there is no visual element to it. I don’t know if some of how I think of imagery is related to that difference in the way my brain works.

It’s often some idea that is much more abstract, and the process of writing is about finding how to make it tangible. Like a feeling or complicated mix of feelings, or a personality or question or a desire. And then finding what character or scene or moment embodies that feeling. But that is really early in the process, way before I start writing anything down. Stories often live in my head for years before I try to write a first draft or even a first sentence.

When I do start writing, voice is very often the piece I start with. I can often feel the rhythms of a character’s speech before I know who they are or what their story is about. Or if I start with another element—a circumstance or an image—it’s not until I find a voice that the story takes off. 

ML: One of my favorite stories of yours is “The Seamstress and the Spider.” It is a fairytale told by a grandmother that is at once a fable and also a story about how stories are told. Can you tell me a little about how you approach stories that play with narration and form like this?

AW: This question proves I lied in my answer to the previous one. A story like “The Seamstress and the Spider” did start with imagery. It started with what I’d call “flashpoints.” I sometimes get taken with certain ideas or objects and I try to write different stories about the same things. In this case I was writing about spiders, sewing, and severed arms. I have some other stories, not in the collection, that spin around those same flashpoints. I’ve also written three disparate pieces of flash about worms that work the same way: I kept thinking about veins being worms and it spun into three different stories, that are not really alike, and yet they are alike. 

I think this method of storytelling is very authentic! Or I tell myself it is. It seems to me like in the history of oral storytelling—which I have read and thought about but not formally studied—there must be these flashpoints, these shining details that are remembered even if the rest of the story falls away. Because when you’re only telling stories out loud and you don’t use the remote brain of writing—you just use your actual memory, which is of course imperfect. And so in some ways, every time a fairy tale is retold, it really is the teller spinning something brand new from the flashpoints of whatever it is they can remember from when the story was told to them. It’s a game of telephone, and the flashpoints are the details so vivid they can’t be forgotten. It seems to me like starting again and again from the same vivid details gets you to new places each time and also maybe always to the same place, but with a different spin on it. 

ML: What is it that draws you to fairy tales and rewriting from the fairy-tale form?

AW: I love the strangeness. I love that the form is counter to traditional workshop craft. They are also women’s stories and children’s stories. They’re not taken seriously. They come from oral storytelling, which is seen as less educated and therefore less respected. It feels subversive, then, to write in that form. They are also conversations. They invite retelling in a new way. It feels like inviting someone to speak after you because of the tradition of oral storytelling.

ML: I don’t feel like any of the fairytale stories in your collection have a moral, which is something commonly associated with fairy tales. I wonder how you feel about stories with moral lessons?

AW: If you look at fairy tales as a whole, the history of every fairy tale ever written, you can find morals for each story, but they often contradict each other. One will say “Oooh, don’t step off the path.” But another will say “Oooh, you stayed on the path and you’re going to be punished for that.” The punishments are completely unpredictable. 

I think if you look at the morals of most fairy tales, they’re just some version of “The world is a dangerous place.” My fairy tales also say that the world is dangerous and unexpected. But one way to retell a story is to reframe the moral. Beauty and the Beast is often told as if the moral is “Be kind and your beast of a husband will treat you well.” But maybe the moral was actually “Hey, this world is scary. You’re going to be sold to a monster. And eventually, he’ll still be a monster, but you’ll be brainwashed into thinking he’s okay.” It’s actually more like a warning. But the story supports either reading.

ML: Speaking of form, there are a few stories in this collection that utilize footnotes, such as the ghost story “Dr. Francis Longfellow Hendrix.” How does employing a tool or structure that traditionally belongs to non-fiction writing affect how you approach a story? Are the footnotes there from the beginning?

AW: In “Dr. Francis Longfellow Hendrix,” they were there right away. In the tattoo story, they didn’t come until very recently—after the story was first published, in fact. But here’s what I think they do: They’re a way to break a story open. The story is contained by a voice but also punctured by something else. It makes the inside story into an artifact of a bigger world. It’s just a great way to poke it.

If the voice of the story, the narrator, is the only voice we get, then that voice becomes a sort of god of the story and the story is the whole world and there is nothing outside it and there might not be a hole for the reader to crawl into. But if there’s another voice to question it, the world gets bigger and the perspective gets problematized. It’s a way to say, Oh hey, this is just one view of things—there are probably others. And it’s a way to do that while being true to the voice of the story. I don’t exactly have to interrupt Dubby, who narrates “Only Real Art Lasts Forever”—I would never interrupt Dubby. But I can add these notes on top of Dubby’s story, to tell the reader she exists as a part of something bigger. 

This can sort of trick you, as a reader, into taking the story with you into the real world. It puts you in both the inner and outer story at the same time, so the border between those two dissolves. And when it does so, maybe the other border, between story and “real world” dissolves too. And I love dissolving borders! Or if the inside border doesn’t dissolve, maybe you firmly exit one, but forget to fully leave the other. That dissolves the border too—because you’ve stopped reading, but you haven’t left the story. 

ML: I think of these stories as tender; both in the sense that they show a deep interest and care for what it means to be human, but also in the way we use tender to describe food. The stories are easy to consume, though some feel like quick snacks while others are full meals. Do you think the varying lengths help the collection tie together? How do you decide on the length of a story when you’re writing and revising?

AW: When I read a collection, I like the pace to vary. When I get done with a long story, I tend to feel ready for a short story. When sequencing the collection, I thought a lot about the reader’s journey through the worlds of the stories. But I also thought about ways to ease them along that journey. You don’t want put too many difficult ones together. Left to my own devices, I would have been pretty awful to my reader in terms of difficulty—it was working with a good editor that made me understand that structure is not just about what the story is trying to say, but about supporting the reader as they work through it.

I think, in theory, I believe the old cliche about a story finding its own length. But I also notice the way length of story correlates to my life. When I was workshopping stories for my MFA, I wrote 30-page stories! That’s what the workshop wanted. Writing was also the focus I had at that time: I went to class, I taught undergrads, and I wrote stories. During the summer months of that MFA, I didn’t teach or take classes and so I worked on a novel. I had whole uninterrupted months. When I had a baby, and I could only snatch small breaks here and there, and on the rare occasions that she slept, I started writing a lot more flash. And it’s not that I can write a piece of flash quickly—I still work on them for a very long time. But if I have only 30 minutes, or even 15, I can capture the whole story in my head to think about it. I can take that bite.

And I love that you talk about stories as snacks or meals, because I think about that a lot. You don’t need the same structure when you can eat the whole story in one bite. Sequence of events doesn’t matter as much, if your brain swallows it all together. It’s just “crunch!” But when the story is larger than the reader—or writer’s—brain can hold at one time, you need more structural supports to move through it. At least I need them. I know different brains work differently!

ML: I want to ask you about teaching, and the connections you see between your work as a writing teacher and your work as a writer. How do you see that relationship?

AW: I often propose classes about things I might not know very much about yet, but want to. I first taught a class on dialogue because I was struggling with writing dialogue. I knew I would have to learn and think about it more intensely. I always learn something when I teach. Sometimes I forget to use that in my own writing! I tell my students to do the stuff that is really hard and it’s all the stuff I don’t want to do either.

Ultimately, I really believe in strategies and tools, not right and wrong. I want students to think about what effects they create for the reader. Then we talk about the tools we can use to achieve that. It’s always “What do you want to do?” That’s the hard question. You have to decide what a good story is for you.

Risk and Craft Are Inseparable: Kristen Arnett, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, and Shelly Oria in Conversation

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I Know What’s Best For You, Stories on Reproductive Freedom, a multi-genre anthology that I compiled and edited for McSweeney’s, will be released on May 24, a few weeks before the Supreme Court decision is expected to overturn Roe v Wade, and a few weeks after a draft of that decision was leaked. In this fraught moment, I invited two of the book’s contributors—Rachel Eliza Griffiths and Kristen Arnett—to discuss with me their experience of thinking, writing, and feeling on the topic of reproductive freedom.
Shelly Oria: Had you written about or made work in response to reproductive freedom before, or was this your first time spotlighting this topic?
Kristen Arnett: It’s an interesting question, because thinking back on everything I’ve worked on over the past few years, I would say that reproductive freedom is definitely not something I purposefully put into my writing. It just hides out there, lurking, waiting for me to finally recognize it. I think a lot about queer women and queer bodies when I’m drafting, especially queer bodies in Florida, so I think it’s something that just has naturally migrated into some of my more recent novel work, but I wasn’t able to realize it until after the drafts were complete. Writing about queer motherhood is writing about reproductive freedom. Writing about the queer body is writing about those things. The more I think about it, the more I tunnel down into how much it touches almost everything!
Rachel Eliza Griffiths: In much of my writing and visual work, there is a thread, sometimes faint and other times deliberately visible, about exploring and orbiting reproductive freedom in relationship to Black womanhood. For me, I can’t help but immediately think of the bodies and stories of enslaved women. Their brutal oppression was a fundamental, transactional narrative of America’s genesis. The violation of our rights to be considered human at all is a continuous trauma across so many mediums, as is our healing. There is eugenics. There are unrelenting economic and ideological collisions that endanger Black women all the time. My imagination, in pictures and texts, attempts to defy, to praise, to trouble, and to witness these wars, which are global, against our right to our bodies. It is also my right to reject feeling obligated to confine my work solely to this topic.
KA: Shelly, was reproductive freedom something you’d already been thinking about meaningfully?

SO: No more than the average queer feminist Brooklyn-based writer. So, you know: yes. But also not in any serious way. I was about to go on tour with Indelible in the Hippocampus, Writings from the MeToo Movement and Amanda Uhle, McSweeney’s publisher, asked me to meet the women behind The Brigid Alliance for lunch—she was considering partnering with them to make a book that would be similar to Indelible in spirit and format but center reproductive freedom, in response to our crisis. I realized at that lunch—began to realize—how little I actually knew, how much more dire this emergency was than most people seemed to think. And that was back in 2019.
My work on both Indelible and I Know What’s Best for You have made me think a lot about the role art in general and books in particular play—or could play, and at times perhaps should play—in both writers’ and readers’ lives, in shaping the larger conversation and responding to injustice. It seems to me that art and literature can complement other forms of activism in ways that are quite powerful and unique, and yet good luck to any writer who sits down with a prompt like, A poem that saves reproductive freedom. How do you think about this tension?
REG: There must be something at stake, shared between the writer and the reader. I’d hope that the writer draws the reader into her cosmos, her flesh, her resistance, her joy without any easy propaganda. Maybe the reader feels uneasy yet secretly grateful, relieved, no longer alone in comprehending the excruciating ways that women confront and celebrate our rights and choices. There’s that sense of wonder, hope, and power we’ve encountered as both reader and writer. I write from a swelling of intuition that is indivisible from my learned intelligence and from my body. Risk and craft become inseparable.
Shelly, when you invited me to submit visual work, I was terrified. I could hear my mother’s disapproval. I was worried about what anyone might “think” of me because it isn’t necessarily how I usually center myself in my work. I’d first begun making these raw, self-images during a retreat just after my mother’s death. I was thinking of childbirth, rebirth, pushing my own understanding and acceptance of not being a mother yet realizing the bond of chosen motherhood I share with so many close women friends. There’s a painting by Frida Kahlo where she is giving birth to herself. I wanted to create a call-and-response on my own terms, in my own voice. The  initial work took me out to the edge of something startling.  My body was visible to me in a greater spectrum that emphasized to me what women are facing everywhere.

KA: I love the idea that risk and craft are inseparable; it’s something I want to always remember when I’m building something.
SO: Relatedly, I’m also interested in the responsibility of publishers and editors and artistic curators in this context, in supporting art that responds to crisis. Were you already working on the piece you contributed to I Know What’s Best For You when I reached out to you, or did the solicitation from McSweeney’s inspire the work?
KA: I have to admit, I was in a bit of a writing slump when you reached out to me about participating in the project. I was at a fellowship and my last novel tour had completed and I’d sent away the draft for the next book, and I just felt hollowed out. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to work on next or even what I wanted to read. I think I was burnt out, to be honest! But when you sent the email and described the thrust of the project, I felt that little spark dart up in my chest—that one that always makes me aware that I have an idea brewing. I sat down that day and immediately began drafting out what would become the story I gave to you, “The Babies.” It felt very inspiring, thinking about all the work that other people would contribute. Before this project, I hadn’t thought about reproductive freedom in direct relation to my fiction.
REG: When you reached out, Shelly, I had about a dozen or so of these images—and I mean, the ones I would be remotely comfortable having published. During the pandemic, I found the need to return to the series because of our conversations, but also because of how intensely aware we all became of our bodies, of coronavirus, and how it has changed everything, including our urgency about having conversations about reproductive rights. Since I realized I trusted myself to keep going with these photographs, I haven’t stopped expanding the series.
SO: Multi-genre books, like Indelible and I Know What’s Best, felt super important to me for all kinds of reasons—creative inclusivity, responding to social and political causes in ways that extend beyond nonfiction, inviting different genres to share space, and so on—but I’d love to hear your thoughts on this aspect of the project and what it may have felt like from a contributor’s perspective.
KA: So often we write in little silos, in our own heads, and contributing to this project—one where I knew that my work would sit alongside the art of other people I deeply admire—felt like such a blessing. A way to collaborate on something that felt deeply meaningful. And just knowing that so many different perspectives were going to be housed together, put in direct conversation with each other, just thrilled me. I felt very held.
REG: Kristen, I love what you said about collaboration and how meaningful these conversations are for us, however they can happen because they must happen now. Shelly’s thoughtfulness and vision is a brilliant “house” and in it I felt safe. The notion of women and what “home” means to us, particularly in I Know What’s Best For You is distinct, revelatory, necessary, and real. It felt as if I got to sit on the porch, surrounded by the power, joy, strength, and love of what we’ve learned about our lives for ourselves and where we must anticipate what is to come.
KA: That is such a beautiful way to put it, truly. I did feel very safe with my work. I think a lot of that was from absolutely knowing how much care and compassion everyone put into it.
SO: Have either of you felt emboldened as writers because of the misogyny that’s more blatant and “in our face” these last few years?
REG: It feels “in our face” in a different way, as I can’t help but think of how the lives of women before these past years were damaged and wounded. And how those women and their hopes were often silenced, turned against themselves, or, in so many cases, they couldn’t keep fighting these spaces—their bodies gave out, insisted on other forms and languages. They had children to care for, or had chosen not to be mothers, or had felt that they couldn’t become writers, artists, et cetera, because they received little to no support to be many things. I think about language so much, about stories and images, that offer nuance, complexity, and vulnerability. It happens innately in whatever I create. I don’t want to necessarily feel reactive all the time yet I can’t help it in this country. I have to stand up, aware that there are others—elders, unborn, tortured women—who need my shoulders. The knowledge that being a queer Black woman, any part of those words, means everything to me. And, of course, it might mean absolutely nothing elsewhere.
I think I remain haunted by the fact that Black women have been “disappeared” in this country for centuries—by the American imagination, the justice system, law enforcement, economic and healthcare systems. It’s the sense that “in our face” feels separated from my own “Black face”—I have to unpack that process and language in myself. I have agency so the faces “in my face” will always be for women—our call to arms and to love. What was the most tense element for you during this process, Shelly? Did your editor-self and writer-self have any truces?
SO: Oh, they’re not interested in truces; each of them wants to dominate. My writer-self is generally much stronger, and that’s sort of a given, so in a way it’s shocking that I’ve spent almost five years now putting together and editing two books (three, really, if you count the ebook I Know What’s Best For You All Over the World, the international supplement to our book, which spotlights writers and artists from 16 countries). I think the editor-self was a bit shocked too that all this was happening, that she was getting this sustained attention from me, and in a way it only made her more aggressive, like, This is my moment.
The most tense element, I’d say, has been the timing. As I worked on this project, the reproductive crisis got more and more dire, and three weeks before our publication date, the SCOTUS draft was leaked. I’ve barely slept since it happened; I can’t seem to convince my body that this little book isn’t in fact tasked with saving America from the catastrophe of overturning Roe.
REG: I know that feeling.
SO: Rachel Eliza, since your piece in the book, “Journal of My Birth,” is comprised of an essay and photographs, I wonder if you could talk a bit about the creative process of writing toward (or in support of) images, and how that may differ from writing a standalone essay or poem.
REG: Something I hadn’t expected to haunt me in the writing and the photographs was shame. I had to return to a lineage of history, of memory, threaded by race, assault, and imagination. I remembered my mother’s grief as she spoke of a white doctor who wouldn’t listen to her—young, Black, poor—when she said something was wrong with her baby. I had to try and to really remember some of the names of girlfriends whose lives would’ve been different if we hadn’t shown up for each other. The trauma of being mislabeled and laughed at in a medical setting. I had to realize that the ugly things that have happened to my mother, my friends, myself—those things aren’t who we are, and we are irreducible.
The photographs scaled those bridges so that I could leap and land at the site of my own house, my own body. I had to let go of my mother’s shame which I internalized at a young age. I was confused because she raised me to be very conscious of having my freedom and independence. Except that it had to be on her terms. I know that wasn’t her intention and that as I grew, especially as a queer Black woman who would not be giving her grandchildren, I felt that I had failed her. After her death, our conversations continued spiritually. I know she’s proud of my vulnerability, my desire to hold sacred the childhood she gave me and the motherhood she’d always wanted.
SO: Kristen, something you and I grappled with in the editing process of “The Babies” is the tension between your initial impulse to write Shauna and Julie’s story in a way that reflected a fundamentally healthy lesbian relationship, and the inherent darkness of the subject matter—especially in today’s America, and for a queer couple at that. Could you speak to that tension and your experience writing this story?
KA: It was this very real thing, to want to understand what it’s like to write characters that you want to feel are deeply intimate and deeply in love, and then to understand what a loss like that would feel like between them. Like how it would necessitate a kind of divide even in the best relationship, because it comes down to the queer body, and that’s always itself. With this couple, there is one woman who is pregnant. That queer body does the holding, and that is the body that loses the baby, and that was something I thought a lot about when it came to deciphering loss. What that would mean when it comes to different feelings of pain. It became the real tension there, that one you’re mentioning, because even when people care a lot for each other, it is difficult to share and hold the same kind of loss when it comes to our bodies and our minds. And when I took them to the clinic together, I was like, How can I make it so that even though they care deeply for each other, there is going to be a way in which they feel like they are separated from each other, or that the other one can’t exactly see what is missing? So I tried to access it that way, to think more about what wasn’t there between them, or a boundary that couldn’t be breached, and it freed up ways for me to give them both a lot of empathy.
SO: I was so careful not to include any spoilers in my question, and you’re like, So here’s what happens in this story!
KA: Hah! There’s always one million different ways to tell it, am I right?

Kristen Arnett is the author of With Teeth: A Novel (Riverhead Books, 2021) which was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in fiction and the New York Times bestselling debut novel Mostly Dead Things (Tin House, 2019) which was also a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in fiction and was shortlisted for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. She was awarded a Shearing Fellowship at Black Mountain Institute and was longlisted for the Joyce Carol Oates Prize recognizing mid-career writers of fiction. Her work has appeared at The New York Times, TIME, The Cut, Oprah Magazine, Guernica, Buzzfeed, McSweeneys, PBS Newshour, The Guardian, Salon, and elsewhere. Her next book, a collection of short stories, will be published by Riverhead Books. She has a Masters in Library and Information Science from Florida State University and currently lives in Miami.
 
Rachel Eliza Griffiths is a poet, novelist, and photographer. Her recent collection, Seeing the Body (W.W. Norton), was selected as the winner of the 2021 Hurston/Wright Foundation Legacy Award, the 2021 winner of the Paterson Poetry Prize, and a finalist for the 2021 NAACP Image Award. Griffiths’ literary and visual work has appeared widely, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, New York Review of Books, Los Angeles Review of Books, McSweeney’s, Best American Poetry (2020, 2021), and The New York Times. She is the recipient of fellowships, including Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Cave Canem, and Yaddo. Her debut novel, Promise, is forthcoming from Random House in 2023. She lives in New York City. 

The Ecstatic Excess of Translation: The Millions Interviews Soje

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Created in 2019 by Soje, a Korean-English translator and poet, chogwa is a quarterly, public-access e-zine that takes its name from the Korean word for “excess.” Like its title suggests, chogwa takes great joy in excess, of going beyond singularity. The zine’s format is what initially caught my attention: chogwa presents one Korean poem in hangul (the Korean alphabet) and an editor’s preface in English contextualizing the poem; then, it presents varying English translations of the poem from at least ten Korean-English translators, stitched together by Soje’s editorial commentary on each translation. chogwa released a special print issue in December 2021, an anthology that drew together a community of translators, writers, and readers.

As a reader that stumbled upon chogwa accidentally, I was struck by Soje’s illuminating yet down-to-earth commentary, which tackles everything from the ins-and-outs of Korean honorifics to overweight baggage fees. Soje’s tone brims with warmth and playful insight, and is sprinkled with the occasional emoji. It’s like reading translations with a very smart and funny and open-hearted friend, who’s right at your shoulder (or in the zine margins, in this case). “When there’s one, it has to be everything,” states Soje; in chogwa, translations are allowed the space to play around. What then makes chogwa stand out for me is how its pluralistic approach to translation allows each translator to interact with, diverge from, and form a community with one another. Soje and I connected over Zoom, where we chatted about translation and intimacy, the economic precarity of translators, queer theory, and commentary as an act of care.

Jaeyeon Yoo: You’ve cited what you call the “burden of singularity” as one reason to found chogwa, and how the community of contributors that chogwa has gathered has helped alleviate that burden. What roles do loneliness and connection play in your translating practices?

Soje: A lot of writers talk about being lonely children who find solace in books, right? I read a lot as a shy, traumatized immigrant kid and would feel a kind of affinity with the characters in the stories, or with the people who created those characters. I’d always had that kind of spiritual relationship, but when I started translating and eventually started meeting authors, it went to another level. It became so much more intensified; many people have said this, but the translator, in many ways, is the most intimate reader. It’s a kind of erotic bond, in the sense that there is an exchange of power and attention being given.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has also written about the erotic submission of translation. For my college thesis, I looked at Spivak and Audre Lorde—you know Lorde’s essay, “Uses of the Erotic”? I brought Spivak and Lorde together to make a point about that exchange of power in translation, how it’s a process of trust and respect. And the more that I talk about translation, the more BDSM I get in language! But I think it’s apt because for a good BDSM relationship and a good translator-author relationship, a sense of trust is so crucial—and also a sense of play, which we’ll get to. I really tap into a kind of new interpersonal, human relationship through translation. I don’t think the author-translator relationship can replace a romantic relationship or a friendship; it’s just its own category. Translating has relieved a lot of the angst that I felt in earlier years of feeling lonely and isolated.

JY: Translation can function as a bond of power, but also can simultaneously be an act of care, right? I feel like there’s a lot of care in your commentary in chogwa that comes through, a warmth which goes beyond just tying the zine together. I’m struck by how you curate every single translation in chogwa, and how curating is often an act of deep care and attention.

S: I was amazed at how people showed up for a zine that was run by basically a nobody! I realized then that the commentary is what I can offer to translators, because they—especially emerging ones—probably feel like they’re shouting into the void, and I wanted to be a kind of echo. To remind them that they’re not alone in this endeavor. And that’s the importance of community and care for me.I get extremely nervous, even now, about hosting chogwa gatherings, but the payoff is always so great. At the first in-person gathering, after the launch of the second issue, everyone was so adorable and earnest and enthusiastic about poetry in this unpretentious way. That’s when I knew this was something special. People are connecting not only with me but with each other. We have a Slack, where people message one another and share compliments and post job opportunities. That’s been the most incredible thing: that these relationships that come out of translation. I get to talk to people about things that I’m interested in! I think that’s the greatest joy, and that’s why I keep doing it. The pay is terrible, the hours are terrible. But these life-affirming relationships keep happening.

JY: In that vein of community-building, you write beautifully about the presence of queer literature in your essay, “사람들은 역시 야한 것을 좋아하니까.” Could you speak more about your call there for solidarity within queer literature (“퀴어문학을 위한 연대”)? Fellow translator and chogwa contributor Anton Hur has similarly highlighted a conscious group effort to decolonize and queer Korean literature in Anglophone translation. I’ve been thrilled to discover all these cool translators working together and wondered, how did this group come about?

S: As a queer Korean American person at UC Berkeley, I was concerned about the experience of being a non-binary, queer person in Seoul. I was literally searching “queer Korean literature” on Google, every iteration of “queer” and “Korea.” There was this essay by Anton Hur called “The Lunar Sorority” and the first sentence is: “Insofar as a translator can be ‘well-known,’ I am not the most well-known gay translator of Korean literature.” And I’m like, “What? There’s not one, but many?!” It was of course my Korean American naivete; I admit to being ignorant, because the version of Korea that I was exposed to, as a Korean American, was through my parents and my extended family. I had this very sanitized idea of what “Korea” means. I consumed pop culture, but for the most part, I was consuming the very mainstream culture exports of Korea. So I had a very heterosexual view of Korea—until I started reading more Korean literature.

“The Lunar Sorority” is a very touching essay, and I shared it on Facebook. That spring, I had met Korean-English translator Sophie Bowman through a week-long Korean translation workshop at Berkeley. She saw that I’d shared Anton’s essay and introduced me to Anton when I flew over to Seoul. The first time I met him, it was August and we were eating 양꼬치 [meat skewers] over open flame, and obviously I was sweating. I really don’t know what he saw in this sweaty 23 year old, but he asked, “We’re about to start a translator’s collective, do you want to join?” And me, I was like, “Moi? Me with no translation credits?” He took me very seriously. To this day, it confounds me.

The group that Anton invited me to became the Smoking Tigers. Pre-COVID, we used to meet in cafes and have workshops. They were like creative workshops, but with translations, where we’d bring in our manuscripts and give one other feedback, get into arguments about how to translate something. Afterwards, we’d complain about publishing culture and how “so-and-so won’t give me the rights”—a lot of communal venting and problem solving. There was a lot of learning, especially for me, because I was so new to everything. But even within the Smoking Tigers, I was the only person who mainly did poetry instead of novels, and that’s the kind of loneliness I mentioned in chogwa. I had the best mentors I could ask for, but I also wanted more 시토크, poetry gab. That’s how I started getting the idea for chogwa, but it took me a while to gain the courage to put it together.

Cover art for chogwa Issue 11, by Gyunghwa Roh

JY: Can you say more about the publishing industry and translation’s status within it?

S: With each passing year, I continually realize that the publishing industry is a business. Part of making profits is cutting costs, and for whatever reason, most of the time that falls on the translator—particularly for poetry. The percentage of translated books in the U.S. book market is still very, very small. And the market for translated poetry is even smaller. I really do not get a lot of money translating poetry. I’m surviving off various grants I’ve gotten in relation to translation. I’m excited to be working on an upcoming poetry anthology with multiple translators that pays very well, and to shepherd all my chogwa friends into better working conditions in that way.

JY: You write, “I knew that the existence of other translations would… dare us to be a little cheekier.” I think of playful exuberance and taking pleasure in translation as two of my favorite characteristics of chogwa. Why are qualities like playfulness and cheekiness important to you, as a translator?

S: The term 장난꾸러기, or 장꾸 [janggu] comes to mind—someone who likes mischief and play! I consider myself a janggu. I love teasing; I like levity and mischief. I think that extends to my work as well. I don’t like heaviness or pretentiousness, especially for myself. I like being a fool and the idea that nothing is set in stone. Another initial metaphor for chogwa is a sandbox, the kind that children play in. The thing with sandboxes is that you can build little castles and make things, but it’s not marble, nothing is permanent. You can always build something back, and that’s the fun of it. You can leave the sandbox, and make something again when you come back to it. I like the option of renewal and do-overs, repair.

If we want to talk theory—there’s this great quote by Joseph Litvak [as reprinted in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction]: “a lot of queer energy, later on, goes into… practices aimed at taking the terror out of error, at making the making of mistakes sexy, creative, even cognitively powerful. Doesn’t reading queer mean learning, among other things, that mistakes can be good rather than bad surprises?” That kind of blew my mind, especially as an undergrad who was terrified of making mistakes. When translation is involved, I’m translating something that I deeply respect and admire, so I don’t want to fuck up. That’s at the core of everything.

But with chogwa, it’s different. Even if one person makes a “mistake,” it’s in the context of all of these other translations. That’s part of what I mean about the burden of singularity. It’s not that we get to be careless. It allows for different perspectives without damaging the source. There are translators who think much more liberally than I do about this; I’m not considered a liberal translator. I do want to carry the “essence,” whatever that means, and maybe part of it’s because I have a close relationship with my poets. It’s one thing to read their work and another to get drinks with them, to hear their speaking voice. These unrelated conversations can help me understand, “Oh now I get why she uses this particular word in that poem.”

I’m still very concerned about misrepresenting someone. But I’ve gotten more comfortable with the idea of suggesting things to them. Now, I will also take the time to explain my choices back to the poets, to see what they think. I don’t really do that for the novels I translate, but a poem can be read in so many different ways. And that’s the purpose of poetry, right? To have these multi-layered meanings of language. I will give my poets the English version, but because a lot of them don’t really read English, I will translate my translation back into Korean. And that’s been a really interesting exercise, it shows what I’ve highlighted, what’s been gained and what’s lost.

JY: It seems like you have a very similar attitude towards your literary translation that you do in chogwa, this idea of dialogue and exchange.

S: Yes, but an exchange that’s really non-transactional. There’s a word I’m thinking of—communion? Let’s see, the definition of communion is: “the sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings, especially when the exchange is on a mental or spiritual level.” So, yeah, it’s a communion of sorts. Very—how to say, maybe related to ecstasy, too, because ecstasy is both a religious and sexual/drug-related concept. Queer theorist José Muñoz writes about ecstasy, right?

JY: Yup, on the Magnetic Fields’ “Take Ecstasy With Me”! Great song.

S: Exactly, and he does a great reading of it in the epilogue to his book Cruising Utopia. It’s that kind of ecstatic communion that I experience, where I am outside of myself but, at the same time, I’m not? Every translated word I put down is filtered through me, so there’s no word that is not mine. But there’s still this sense of communal ecstasy. I love Muñoz because his writing is so sexy, and he’s clearly having such fun with it! Maybe that’s the ecstatic energy in chogwa.

JY: There’s also a potential pun there with chogwa’s name. Excess? Excess-tatic? We began this conversation by talking about your intimate relationship with the author, which ties in nicely with this idea of translation as ecstatic communion and chogwa as an example of that shared space.

S: But at the same time, I’m also very deeply cynical. Humans are messy, and it’s easy to idealize collectives and artists. I mention this because, throughout history, the writing groups and literary friendships that have been highlighted are usually masculine spaces—famous male writers hanging out, degrading women, being racist, et cetera. But then it gets idealized, framed as“philosophical.” So I just want to say that there are also problems within and around the communities I’m a part of. There are conflicts, because we’re humans with emotions. I don’t want to make it sound like there’s this utopic quality to it. I think what’s great about chogwa is that people are actively working to bring a certain pure energy into the space. Everyone is earnest, and it makes it so much easier to be earnest in return because you’re not afraid.

JY: I think that’s a really good clarification. And I guess I should clarify, on my behalf, I think there’s the reality of people disagreeing and conflict, and there’s the space that the artwork itself opens up. There’s a distinction, I think. It’s important to not idealize people or groups, but there’s also an artistic energy to chogwa, the zine itself, that’s very exciting and fresh.

S: This reminds me of something the poet Claire Schwartz said in a tweet: “I don’t understand the implications that aggression is inherently more rigorous than praise, when it’s obvious how much in this world is stacked against loving well.” In my commentary-making, I try to go beyond what’s just there in the text, and I try to think about why they might have made that choice. It makes me, in this process of empathizing with the translator, a much more imaginative person. I’m not trying to say this process has made me kinder, more that it’s benefited me by expanding how I think about translation. That’s why I’m so grateful to chogwa’s contributors, because it’s been an incredible educational experience for me. If translation is the most intimate act of reading, then I’m very intimately reading the intimate reading. There’s this sense of, Wow, I really feel something, I’m really connecting with you on some level. It’s not that I like every single translation or that it’s to my “taste”—because taste is very subjective—but it’s just this process of trying to love well, as Claire said. Trying to love someone or something well, on their own terms, while not saying it’s just “perfect,” here are the ways that this can be appreciated. Calling something perfect—you’re not engaging with it.