The Unimaginable Became Reality: The Millions Interviews Shashi Tharoor

On December 6, 1992, a chanting mob of Hindu nationalists, enraged by a contested claim, spread by India’s BJP party, that medieval Muslim invaders desecrated the birth site of a Hindu deity, descended on the Babri Mosque in the city of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh. Some rioters climbed to the rooftop domes and began battering them with poles and rocks. Others stood by, waving saffron flags of Hinduism. By the end of the day, the 450-year old mosque was destroyed. In the nationwide unrest that followed, more than 1,000 Indians were killed.

In his book Why I Am a Hindu, Indian author, member of parliament, and former candidate for U.N. Secretary-General Shashi Tharoor challenges the nationalist philosophy, known as “Hindutva,” which has encouraged countless acts of violent vigilantism against Indian Muslims in the years since the mosque’s destruction. He traces its trajectory as a fringe movement influenced by Nazi theories of racial purity in the 1930s to its rise as a mainstream ideology endorsed today by the ruling BJP party.

Part memoir, part polemic, Why I Am a Hindu reminisces about the India Tharoor remembers from his childhood, a country he says was more tolerant not just of diverse interpretations of Hinduism, but other religions too.

The Millions: What prompted you to write Why I Am a Hindu now? You’ve mentioned that you felt there was a moral urgency to address Hindutva. Was there a particular incident in recent years that made you feel like this?

Shashi Tharoor: No, it’s an accumulation of the last few years where a certain kind of Hindutvan heresy has portrayed itself as the authentic voice of Hinduism, which it’s not. That was what led me to say, “time someone fought back.” But as I said, it’s not totally new in the sense that these ideas have popped up in my earlier books for 30 years. It’s not that I’m suddenly leaping onto a purely political agenda hitting back at these chaps. I just felt it was no longer enough to leave scattered observations and ideas in various books. I needed to have one solid work that would attack the issue head on and say everything I wanted to say about the matter.

TM: Do you remember what your initial response was after the destruction of the Babri Mosque in 1992?

ST: Disbelief. I was in New York actually when it happened, and I had gone to a brunch party attended by a few Indians and some scholars of India and one person told me they destroyed the mosque. I said, “You’ve got to be wrong. India doesn’t do things like that,  that doesn’t happen in my country. Some idiots may have thrown a stone at the dome or something. I can imagine that or mobs getting out of control, but no one could have actually pulled down the entire mosque.” I was in a state of shock and disbelief.

TM: Was there a sense that things had permanently changed after that?

ST: Well, yes. From about that time on, the unthinkable became sayable. The unsayable became publicly sayable, and the unimaginable became reality, such as a 450-year-old mosque being knocked down. All of these things happened, and when you break the barriers of civility that help hold certain standards of conduct in a society together, and therefore keep us all together, you make anything possible. So yes, there was a qualitative change.

TM: In Why I Am a Hindu you write about how Hinduism is the ideal religion for the 21st  century. Could you elaborate?

ST: In a world today, where so much is uncertain, we have a religion that recognizes and embraces lack of certitude. In a world today, where there is genuine doubt about authority and hierarchy, we have a religion that doesn’t have any inbuilt authority; no pope, no Vatican, no ecclesiastical hierarchy. In a world where increasingly individuals want to assert themselves, we have a religion that allows each individual to fashion his own way of worship. In an increasingly networked world—the world wide web as it were—we have a religion that networks its believers and doesn’t actually press them into one conformity; one community hall, one Sunday worship, nothing like that. In its universalism, it also goes beyond the conventional borders of religions…[according to Hinduism] all ways of looking at the truth are equally valid. All of these things, I think, make it a very, very good faith for today’s world.

TM: At the end of the book you mention that Hinduism “must be revived and reasserted in its glorious liberalism.” Do you have any hope that this can happen in the foreseeable future?

ST: The problem is that Hindu revivalism is at the moment in the hands of people who interpret the faith very differently from me, who have reduced it to a brand of identity politics rather than one of metaphysical enquiry. So, my frustration with that is linked to the unavoidable conviction that what they call revivalism is going to mark the death knell of what was precious about the religion. What I would like to revive is the tolerant, inclusive, accepting Hinduism that I spoke about. It’s certainly something that I would like to continue working on, not that I’ll write any more books on it. I think all I have to say is said, but rather that I would like to try and contribute towards a greater realization of the need to stand up for this kind of Hinduism.

TM: In the book you list all these things that the Hindutva movement condemns despite there being no instructions in Hindu texts to do so—for example, condemning public displays of affection. Why do you think they’re making these entirely new moral claims in the name of Hinduism?

ST: It actually confirms my theory that the Hinduism these people belong to is a Hinduism of defeat, subjugation, and resentment. This is what became of Hinduism after Muslim invasions. We felt besieged. Hindus felt the need to wrap up their women and sequester them and cloister them. They felt the need to keep their heads low and hide. And from there comes the desire to defensively protect the faith… So, what that means is that they end up saying, “If we let our girls have freedom, they might go off and fall in love with Muslims. If we permit social practices that many Hindus very easily and readily embrace, like dating and affection”—Hindi movies depict a world in which boy meets girl across various barriers of class, creed, wealth and so on—“if we allow that to happen in real life, our faith will be diluted by all sorts of other influences, therefore we have to be nervous.” Well, I’m sorry, but our faith was large enough to survive 4,000 years of various influences, reform movements, attacks on it, revivalist movements, movements seeking to convert people from it, and it survived very well. It doesn’t need this kind of petty behavior to keep it alive and flourishing.

TM: You write that, at one point, ancient Hindu society would have had no qualms with public displays of affection. Can you tell me a little bit about that history?

ST: It’s amusing reading the accounts of Muslim travelers to India in the 11th century, or even before, who were quite shocked by how free Indian men and women were with each other, how open sexuality was. Indeed, some of the temple architecture of India, which has of course survived, speaks to this sexual liberalism. You have all sorts of sexual practices, including non-heterosexual ones, depicted on temple walls in some of the most famous temples of India. It just was a very open society and, as you know, the kamasutra was actually a very detailed volume about the various acts of amatory coupling…You know, when it was one individual traveler, he could write about this, either with shock or prurience, but when it was an army load of people coming in and conquering, they would tend to impose their own views, and the horrified local people would tend to cloister themselves and cut themselves off in reaction to this. So, a lot of Hindu orthodoxy and conservatism and so forth is actually a reaction to the attacks on Hindu society from outside, rather than a normal organic development from within.

TM: You write about BJP politicians using Hindutva to justify the rejection of a bill to decriminalize homosexuality. Why do you think they would see that as a threat to their Hindu identity?

ST: There’s no rational explanation…In fact, I pointed out at the time and in parliament and in subsequent articles that Hindu culture recognizes all forms of sexual behavior, as well as transgender [people] who are described in our great epic texts, in our mythology, in our literature. It was not as if people were in denial, as very often they were in the Western world. In India they were openly acknowledged. They were not necessarily exalted, but they were openly acknowledged and accepted, far from what society is doing now. But the overall orthodox conservatism of the Hindutva movement includes conservatism across the board on everything and anything. And it’s a conservatism shaped in the crude crucibles of reacting to Muslim invasions and then Victorian morality imposed by the British, who were of course very hypocritical about things like homosexuality—as we know from the example of Oscar Wilde and others, where they ruthlessly stamped on it instead of accepting what existed. And Indians in turn were forced to believe that the British way was the right way. So, something that had never been illegal in India was made illegal by the British. It has ceased to be illegal in Britain, but we are still clinging onto British law as the right model. It’s pathetic. One of the many fractures and distortions of colonialism.

TM: You also write that not all forms of Hinduism condone the caste system. Could you explain the distinction between casteist and non-casteist Hinduism?

ST: Well, my argument is that caste is an emanation of Hindu society rather than Hindu religion. Those that find sanctity for it in religious text will have to point to what text they’re referring. They’re usually referring to relatively secular texts like the Manusmriti, which are the laws of Manu, one of the ancient law texts, which is indeed something that sanctifies caste oppression and also is pretty misogynistic in many places. My counter argument is why do you want to rely only on a text that preaches this when the Hindu canon is full of so many other texts that preach the opposite, that respect women, that exalt women, and that reject the idea of external factors like caste, class, social position, education, financial means, and so on as unacceptable. So yes, it is true you can find examples that exalt caste and you can also find examples that don’t exalt caste. If you take a holistic view of the faith, the idea of the unity of all human souls makes it very difficult to differentiate between them. You cannot distinguish between people on the basis of external factors like caste when the internal factor of the soul links them all on an exactly equal plain. That was the belief of Adi Shankara, the belief of Swami Vivekananda, the belief of Mahatma Gandhi. Most of the people I respect who write about the Hindu faith tend not to take the social practice of caste as something that’s accepted and sanctified. There are undoubtedly so-called traditionalists who will anchor their views in texts that they claim sanctify their view of caste, their version of caste.

TM: Is there a particular Hindu religious text that you feel best embodies the tolerant and pluralist spirit of Hinduism?

ST: My book! [Laughs.] If you read widely and eclectically and find the materials that you’re looking for and construct a narrative it gives you a holistic picture, which is why I was not entirely joking when I said, “my book.” Because each of the many hundreds of sacred texts that exist seeks to explore different aspects of divinity or to engage in different debates of different metaphysical speculations. It’s the sum total of them that gives you this picture of inclusiveness and eclecticism…Swami Vivekananda of course read and studied a whole lot of Hindu texts, and what he preached was a synthetism of everything he’d read, so I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve very much been inspired by his reading. Obviously, he read them in Sanskrit and has explained them to me and the world in English. I’ve only read them in English and I’m happy to be guided by his light.

Caitlin Kunkel Wants to Turn You On—Equitably

In February of 2018, Caitlin Kunkel, Brooke Preston, Fiona Taylor, and Carrie Wittmer published a satirical erotica piece on the humor site McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. It was a series of vignettes that begin as common erotica scenarios but then turn into more feminist tales, like this one: “He calls me into his office and closes the door…to promote me. He promotes me again and again. I am wild with ecstasy.”

The piece went viral and an editor contacted the writers about turning it into a book. The resulting book, New Erotica for Feminists: Satirical Fantasies of Love, Lust, and Equal Pay came out just nine months later.

Although I’ve never met Caitlin Kunkel in person, I’ve gotten to know her in the virtual world over the past few years. We first met in an online group for female-identifying comedy writers, and I have written for The Belladonna, a site she founded with her co-authors in 2017. Kunkel has also written for The New Yorker and Live Wire Radio and developed the online satire writing program for The Second City. She also frequently tweets about writing and comedy.

I recently talked with her via email about co-writing the book, using humor to advance feminist ideas, and what writers she finds funny.

The Millions: The original McSweeney’s piece came out in February of 2018, and the book was published in November of 2018. In a publishing world where it can take years for books to come out, that’s really fast. What have been some positives and negatives to having a book come out so quickly?

Caitlin Kunkel: I think for the four of us, never having published a book before, and writing so much and so quickly for the internet, the timeline felt…somewhat normal? If we had known better, I think we would have cried even more than we did. We got the book deals in the U.S. and the U.K. at the end of March, and the 12,000-word manuscript was due June 7. Luckily, with four people, every time one of us went into the doc other people had added things, so it did feel like we were a snowball gathering speed the closer and closer we got to the deadline. Some of us were really good at generating a lot of ideas and first drafts for vignettes, and some of us were great at rewriting and polishing. It was like a joke assembly line.

The negative side of that was not having as much time to reflect as we would have liked—we all kept working full-time through this process, and if we’d had a few more months I think we could have hit on some even larger topics through the vignettes, and had time to polish up some of the vignettes we all loved but couldn’t quite find an angle on. It’s very sad to us that none of the Harry Potter vignettes made the book. And the exhaustion. We’re all professional writers so we know that you can’t wait for the muse to show up, but there were definitely some spots in the writing process where the idea of writing more jokes or doing edits was a lot more mentally and emotionally challenging than it would have been on a longer timeline.

But at the end of the day, we had a magical and exciting 2018, one that absolutely none of us saw coming in January. Not sure I would choose to do that timeline again, but if someone waved another book deal in front of me tomorrow…honestly, I probably would.

TM: The book has four co-authors but feels very cohesive in terms of voice. How did you logistically go about writing it? Did you break it up into sections and each write initial drafts or do something differently? How did you make sure the voice read consistently?

CK: The four of us co-founded and edit The Belladonna, which is a satire site written by women of all definitions, for everyone. By the time we published the first “New Erotica for Feminists” piece on McSweeney’s, we had already been working together and talking pretty much daily for a year and a half. So that existing mind meld helped.

We had a big breakthrough when we wrote the book proposal and saw that splitting the book into chapters with specific headings would help us generate more material and structure the book. So, the chapters cover pop culture, sex and dating, parenting, literature, history, the workplace, and everyday. We could sort the initial 12 vignettes into those buckets, and then we had those overarching themes to help us write jokes and choose topics. Then we all got to work just generating a lot of jokes. We know from both writing and editing humor and satire that we were going to need to overwrite by at least several thousand words to get to the best 10,000 to 11,000 that would be in the book, so we wrote in batches, polished them, sent them to our editors in the U.S. and the U.K., and then immediately started on the next batch while we waited for feedback on those. Then we would do edits as we got them and resubmit those along with the next batch of new vignettes. We did this every two weeks until we submitted the first full draft, which had been edited along the way, so it was more like a second draft.

Before that full draft submission, we all went to Columbus, Ohio, (where Brooke lives, the rest of us are NYC-based) and spent a weekend writing the resource section at the end—“14 Ways to Make Our Fantasy a Reality”—and reading every single vignette out loud and doing very fine edits. This was to make sure that we all supported each one, and that they all had the same tone and voice to them. We printed out copies and did all these final edits by hand, to try and see the book with fresh eyes after the incredibly fast turnaround.

TM: In the #MeToo era, there have been a lot of conversations about women in comedy. The success of things like Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special Nanette, which gets meta about comedy and discusses serious challenges facing women, shows that there is an audience for feminist comedy. I’m curious what you think about using humor to advance feminist ideas. Do you think people are more open to some topics when they are presented in a comedic format?

CK: I definitely do. When I teach satire (for Second City, in workshops around the country), I tell students that op-eds are like punching someone in the face with your beliefs. Satire is like punching them in the back of the head—it makes them turn around and look at what you’re saying, at the very least! It’s violent, but that seems to be the metaphor that makes people understand the difference between a piece of satire and more straightforward writing the fastest.

We tried to vary the rhythm of the jokes throughout the book—some are incredibly short, just a sentence or two—like one where the joke is just that a couple’s safe word in their equal pay role play is just “Benedict Cumberbatch,” which is (a) a funny name to imagine people saying during sex, and (b) he went public this year saying he wouldn’t take roles where he was paid more than a female co-star—and others are longer and less clearly comedic, but explore a larger idea—like a vignette where it seems like a woman has been undressing for a stream of men, and it flips when a female doctor comes into the room and finally correctly diagnoses her endometriosis. That varying of rhythm, length, topic, and critique keeps people guessing as to what the satirical point of view of each vignette is, and hopefully challenges them to think about the more serious underpinnings of each joke.

And they aren’t just for readers who identify as women—we hope that men will look at vignettes that talk about how satisfying it is for a science fiction book not to have any violence against women motivating the male protagonist, and think, “Wow, yeah that’s a common trope I see a lot,” or look at the Lolita vignette in the Literary section and maybe see that book a little differently.

TM: One problem with writing satire is that people don’t always understand that what they are reading is satire. Have you had people think the book was actual erotica rather than satire, or do most people seem to get it?

CK: I think the confusion comes more from the title—when you hear “New Erotica for Feminists,” there isn’t necessarily a clear indicator that this is comedy. So, in the U.S. we added the subtitle, “Satirical Fantasies of Love, Lust, and Equal Pay.” In the U.K., where they publish more satire and humor gift books, the tagline was, “Get what you deserve—again and again and again.” I think both of those allude to the more serious side of the book, and that it’s not straight erotica. We also included one of the shortest vignettes printed on the back cover, and once people read that they understand it. It’s: “He calls me into his office and closes the door…t0 promote me. He promotes me again and again. I am wild with ecstasy.”

We think that particular vignette really captures the two parts of the comedic premise—it will start sounding like a piece of erotica, and then it will flip into something that should be a reality but is still a fantasy. That particular vignette was inspired by Bad Man Matt Lauer locking people in his NBC offices…not for promotions. Once people read/hear that one, they pretty much always understand the concept.

TM: How did you get started writing comedy? Didn’t you focus on a different form of writing in grad school? When did comedy become more of a focus for you?

CK: I came into comedy in a very sideways manner. I always wrote when I was younger, but I was mostly exposed to novels and fiction—I didn’t have a sense that people made their careers writing comedy, especially more specific things like sketch or satire. I studied writing seminars as an undergrad at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore—pretty much everyone I went to school with is a doctor now. Great work guys!!—and wrote fiction, but I started to have more fun writing stranger forms and topics. After college, I taught English in Indonesia for a year where I wrote a blog and read a lot of poetry in English and Bahasa Indonesia, since that was helpful to me in learning the language. During that year, I applied to graduate schools and got into several for fiction, but eventually decided to go to the one program that was for another discipline: the Writing for the Screen and Stage program at Northwestern. There I was exposed to playwriting, TV writing, screenwriting, and learned to think more critically as a writer. I still was writing almost entirely dramas that would have some loony elements to them and looking back I could see that I wanted to be comedic but had absolutely no grasp of tone (or idea of how to be funny at all).

Finally, after I completed the two year program, I went to The Second City in Chicago and saw a sketch comedy revue, and it finally made sense in my head—I wanted to write satire and humor, and weave those elements through my work in all these other forms I’d been learning and studying (fiction, screenwriting, playwriting, etc.) for the past six years. So, I went through the year-long sketch program at Second City, which changed my life. Basically, I was exposed to a lot of training and variety of forms of writing from 18 to 25, and at 25, I finally began to be able to write some things that read like how I felt inside. It took me another three years to get decent at writing a short humor or satire piece. I’m a slow learner, but once I grasp something I feel like I really get it. Since my late 20s, I’ve been almost entirely focused on writing and teaching satire, and that’s where things like The Belladonna and New Erotica for Feminists have sprung from.

TM: I often think of humor writing as nonfiction (which some is), but satire lives more in the realm of fiction. Do you think of yourself as a nonfiction or fiction writer or a little of both?

CK: That’s a very interesting question. I almost never write myself into my satire pieces, but I write topical a lot, which means there’s a decent amount of research and facts in a lot of my pieces. We did this for the book as well, especially when we did things like write a parody of a “My Day” column by Eleanor Roosevelt, and when we wrote about Pierre and Marie Curie for the Historical section. I think the fictional part comes in in terms of the creativity of the format— here’s a piece I wrote on Brock Turner in 2016 using math word problems—and the nonfiction element is responsibly using facts to create your satirical point of view on a topic. If asked, I would say I’m a satirist, but that definition to me (and I stress this when I teach as well) does include accurate research and employing facts in service of your piece.

TM: What books or writers make you laugh?

CK: The very first book that blew my mind as a preteen in terms of how funny it was was A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. I just could not believe the character of Ignatius J. Reilly. So much of satire and humor is based in specificity and heightening, and that book really showed me how those things can be employed throughout a fairly long book. So that was a mind-bending early laugh for me.

Currently, I love anything that the great Megan Amram writes, both on her Twitter and in her longer humor and satire pieces. I’m a huge Simon Rich fan, especially his stories “Animals” (which has one of the darkest opening lines for a humor piece I’ve ever read) and “Unprotected” (which also makes me cry a little?). David Sedaris can swing from making me laugh wildly to weep uncontrollably in the span of a paragraph, which is a skill few writers have. I think Bossypants by Tina Fey is a perfect mix of memoir and comedy, and I think about pieces like “A Mother’s Prayer for Her Daughter,” which is both hilarious and touching, all the time. And so many of The Belladonna contributors and pieces make me laugh on a daily basis.

TM: What writing projects are you hoping to work on in the future?

CK: I would really love to write another satirical/humorous gift book in the same vein of New Erotica for Feminists—I didn’t know that they were called gift books until we wrote the book proposal, but I’ve always bought and read them. I want to return to screenwriting and writing for TV as well, weaving satirical elements into longer works. And I would like to write a satirical novel. I’ve been working on one slowly for two years, so we’ll see if I can kick it into high gear. Based off my past learning curves, you can look for that one in a decade or so. But my true love is short, satirical pieces, mainly topical—so I’ll keep writing those and getting them out there.

A Constant Process of Waking: The Millions Interviews Mira Jacob

A graphic memoir composed almost entirely of dialogue and static drawings might seem like an unlikely follow-up to The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, Mira Jacob’s acclaimed 2014 novel. But Jacob, author of Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations, which will be published this month by One World, doesn’t shy away from a challenge.

No matter whether the challenge is explaining race relations and Michael Jackson’s fluctuating skin color to her six-year-old mixed-race son, or confronting the mother-in-law she adores about supporting Donald Trump.

Jacob, the daughter of East Indian immigrant parents and married to a Jewish man, does all of this and more in Good Talk. She allows her characters—her son, husband, friends and extended family—to speak for themselves, literally, in a memoir that is as graphically inventive as it is deeply personal and unapologetically political.

We talked to Jacob about creating her first graphic work, identity and American racism, and the challenge of raising a child during a period of political and moral crisis.

The Millions: Which came first, the graphic nonfiction form or the subject matter? Or did they evolve together?

Mira Jacob: I’ve always drawn, and my agent knows this because when I turn in manuscripts, I have drawings in the mix. When I get stuck, I draw my way out. She said, “You should draw a book,” but I had no idea what it would look like.

Then, I was stuck in a nursing home with my grandma in India—and in India, no one goes to nursing homes—and she was depressed and angry, and the TV went out. But in the span of the four minutes it was out, we had the most intense conversation. I drew that conversation to crack up my cousins because there are so many of us and I knew they’d understand it immediately with no additional explanation. That’s when I understood that if you just draw the conversation as it happened, people will understand.

Later my son started asking these questions. I wanted to write an essay about it. Most kids go through an obsession with Michael Jackson. But he figured out he was brown and that it wasn’t as welcome as white, and his idol was black. I started writing those conversations down and drawing them.

TM: I’m curious about how you decided to approach writing about the unwitting racists of the world, of which there are many.

MJ: I kept wondering, especially in my interactions with my liberal white friends, “What do I do when racial violence is happening everywhere, but you express this skepticism. The only thing you’ll accept is the idea that you weren’t racist, so we can keep being friends.”

It’s a known known now that people are more upset about being called racist than by being racist. There are clear patterns with my white friends, where I say they’ve hurt my feelings, and their emotional reaction trumps anything I could ever do. Defending yourself is not getting us anywhere. How can we not have a conversation about this? It’s usually with my liberal friends. They say, “If this is how you handle it, you won’t have anyone on your side.” And I wonder, “How on my side are you?”

Writing to that place is tough. The other thing I’m writing to is this persistent fantasy that if people have interracial relationships that are positive, they’ve worked through it…. People are like, “I’ve done the work. I’m woke now.” I myself am in a constant process of waking.

TM: There are several scenes at different points in your life in which you depict your own ignorant or bigoted moments. Why were those important to include?

MJ: It was very deliberate. There’s a scene where I said something really stupid to my black boyfriend’s friend, but right after that [in the book], I told my son we weren’t racist. So I just let it stand.

TM: The parenting conversations really resonated with me—the constant tension between wanting to protect our kids and wanting to be honest with them. How have your conversations with your son evolved?

MJ: He’s ten now. This book ends two years before this moment. It’s gotten more complicated. I’ve lived by the rule of answer the question you’re asked. Don’t rush forward into all the things you think he needs to know. Those things will come. He’ll be a teenager and he’ll figure out how people perceive brown boys. It’s gonna be awful. It’s not gonna be less awful because I tell him about it ahead of time.

There’s a lot of anti-Semitism too. He asked me a year ago, “Is it that I’m brown and Jewish, because those are two things no one likes?” I wanted to call my in-laws and say “What do you think brought this on?” When he was born and Obama was in office, we were living with a level of privilege. He didn’t know everything that went behind creating that moment.

TM: There’s so much humor in this book, like the scene where you draw your parents as space aliens with these crazy eye-stalks.

MJ: Drawing on a computer is a trip. Literally anything you can dream up you can try it very quickly. What would it look like if my parents had alien eyeballs? I tried so many alien parents. I found that one the most bizarre and haunting. For all the pain in this book—I cried a ton—I did crack myself up an awful lot. I’d be up at three in the morning cackling feverishly.

TM: What kind of reactions to the book have you had from your family and friends?

MJ: My mother says to all of her friends, “Oh, Mira is so creative. Of course I know how it really happened.” My brother said, “What do you think about Hasan Minhaj playing me in the movie?”

TM: You write about the racial micro-aggressions you experienced when your novel came out. How did that impact the decisions you made about publicizing this book?

MJ: Any woman of color on Twitter can tell you there’s an incredible amount of hate. Then throw the identity of “mom” on top of that. As far as making rules for myself, I’m most comfortable talking about myself. I’m protective of my family. I’m also aware that people are really hungry to know how it felt for us, as a way to have more hope or to not have any, and I’m not taking that on. People want to read their tea leaves through the lens of my family. I want to turn that around and say, “This is my family. You take those questions to yours.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.

Our Politics, Ourselves: The Millions Interviews James Sturm

Americans, young and old, of every race and gender, saw their lives upended in 2016. I’m referring to the at least 800,000 marriages that ended in divorce that year. Many of these divorces were amicable, and in time, everyone involved was better off for them. Others left behind emotional carnage from which no one involved—husbands, wives, and children—would ever recover. The election of a fascist to the most powerful position in the world was the least of these newly broken families’ problems.

But no one can ever completely ignore their political moment. James Sturm’s Off Season, set against the 2016 election, is a portrait of a middle-aged man—presented like all the book’s characters as an anthropomorphized dog—who sees his world shattered when his wife leaves him, forcing him to face his inadequacies as a lover, a father, and a contributor to the great U.S. economy. It’s not so much an American tragedy as it is an elegy for the myth of the Great American Male.

Off Season originally appeared in serial form in Slate. Drawn and Quarterly has released an expanded version of the story as a graphic novel. Sturm answered questions by email about his oeuvre, as well as the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, where he sits as director.

The Millions: You’ve written and drawn books set in the past: Market Day, The Golem’s Mighty Swing, and Unstable Molecules. How do your strategies differ when you write and draw a story set in the contemporary moment?

James Sturm: With historical fiction there is more of an element of excavation to the undertaking. Switching gears to contemporary fiction, I enjoyed being more attentive to the current moment and my immediate environment, especially because the story was set in a place similar to where I live. There were times while writing Off Season that it felt like I was working on a documentary.

TM: What do you mean by documentary? Do you see similarities between the methods you employ in Off Season and those employed by non-fiction comics creators?

JS: After working on the book a year, my characters felt real to me. With characters set in another era you have a sense of the history they are moving through. When I decided to set this book during the election season, I didn’t know what was going to happen, I had to let things unfold and record my character’s response.

TM: You began your career making books about non-Jewish themes, but you are best known for exploring Jewish culture. Referring to the books mentioned in the previous question, you have studied life in the “old country,” as well as Jewish-American life in the Midwest in the 1920s and in New York in the late 1950s. Why did you write a book about life during the 2016 election about non-Jews?

JS: I chose certain times and places for my stories that I thought would lend themselves to the themes I wanted to explore. I never saw the themes in those stories as being uniquely Jewish.

I started Off Season to help me process a rough stretch in my own life and I was working on the book a year before the 2016 election. There was no political dimension to it but as real-world events unfolded, given who my characters were, it would have been too great of an omission not to include the election.

TM: If you pay attention to politics—and not everyone does—it invariably becomes personal. Sometimes an angry disagreement about a major event simply illuminates what long lay underneath a troubled relationship. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of not wanting to associate with someone whose values are so repugnant you can’t stomach their company. I think Off Season explores this ambiguity.

JS: I’m glad to hear you say that. This is certainly something the book gets into. Our politics are often a projection of our deepest selves and this is also why it is rare that anyone’s political allegiances change even after they are given factual evidence to the contrary.

TM: You employ very few tricks in your composition of Off Season. The panels are the same size. The movements of the characters are expressed with relative subtlety. LSD plays a role in the narrative, but you don’t indulge any stereotypes of what “being on a trip” might look or feel like. Why the restraint?

JS: Off Season’s narrator, Mark, is all about restraint—he’s trying to hold it all together. I tried to make storytelling choices that seemed appropriate to the character. I trust the material and strived to present it without artifice or pretense. Regarding LSD, it’s such an intensely personal experience that for me trying to depict it literally would only cheapen it. I much prefer to create the space that the reader can fill in.

TM: Your sense of landscape in Off Season feels claustrophobic. I don’t want to live in this Vermont. Is this a function of your protagonist’s consciousness or a function of your city boy’s sense of your current home?

JS: I don’t think I ever state the book takes place in Vermont. It could also be New Hampshire or even Maine. But your question is well taken. I find New England winters incredibly beautiful. After the fall colors go away, what’s left is something bare and primal. They possess this haunting feel that I tried to capture. I love living in Vermont, winter and all.

TM: Why dogs?

JS: I’ve often drawn these type of dog/humans as a way to get me going in my sketchbook, it invites a certain playfulness. My intention was to turn everyone into a human but at some point during the project, the dog heads seemed to make sense. Maybe it was the idea that the even the strangest things can quickly become normal. Or this idea of doggedness as the essential quality that’s needed if we have any hope to cross the divides that separate us.

TM: Have there been any works of fiction—graphic novels, prose novels, or films—made in the last couple of years that have also overlapped with your work? Are there any that resonate with you in particular?

JS: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro really resonated with me. This older couple, following the death of King Arthur, take this mythic journey and their love is tested. It’s a meditation on trauma and memory and casts quite the spell. Though not recent, one of my all-time favorite movies is Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind. That too shows an estranged couple trying to find their way back to each other.

TM: As the founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies, you potentially have a lot of influence on the future of comics art. If you decide that your students read and study Jules Feiffer’s work from the 1950s and ’60s, for example, Feiffer’s work may end up serving as the model for future cartoonists. There has long been a complaint that MFA fiction programs are designed to produce a very specific idea of fiction.  

JS: This is an issue that the entire CCS faculty engages with. What comics should emerging cartoonists be familiar with? Works like Krazy Kat, Fun Home, Maus, Love and Rockets, and One! Hundred! Demons! seem canonical. That said, each generation should challenge the previous generation’s canon. You see that happening now with artists like R. Crumb for example. This conversation is essential to keeping the medium vibrant.

A central part of the school’s historical survey class are students sharing their formative influences and what they are currently reading so a broader reading list is put forth from the ground up. The history of comics has traditionally been viewed from a patriarchal, industry-driven lens. That needs to change, and CCS is working to that end.

TM: A canon is never truly static. Are there any neglected comics creators you would want in a comics canon? Are there any that need to be kicked out? Which canonical artists do your students dislike the most?

JS: I’m much more interested in recognizing neglected cartoonists than trying to establish canons. There are so many truly amazing cartoonists who haven’t been given their due. I’d also like to see a broadening of our definition of cartoonists. I’d like to see Native American Ledgerbook artists, who began making graphic novels at least as far back as the 1860s, be recognized. Or Charlotte Salomon, who created a painted autobiographical graphic novel in the early 1940s that’s a masterpiece.

Noise Requires Poetry: The Millions Interviews Shane McCrae

“America I am unnameable.” Several poems in Shane McCrae’s new book, The Gilded Auction Block, begin with America: the idea, the myth, the collective body. The speakers of his poems are nearly ecstatic with frustration: tired and terrified, they are convinced “America you wouldn’t pardon me.”

Shane McCrae has many
gifts as a poet, but among his most hypnotizing is his ability to create poems
that simultaneously blare and beacon. Since his first book, Mule, in 2011, McCrae has been creating
ambitious work that demands—earns—our attention. I often feel out of time when
I am reading his words; they arrive with a Miltonic fury, and yet they are so
contemporary and critical for our present, strange world.

We spoke about our current
political fever, Hell, and how poems sometimes have to wait for the right
moment to arrive.

The Millions: I don’t know if there’s an ideal way to read a particular book of poetry, but I read The Gilded Auction Block after midnight, at my desk, in what seemed like phosphorescent light. I had the feeling of being consumed by the book—particularly “The Hell Poem”—and each time I turned back to the cover, Ulisse Aldrovandi’s monstrous image unnerved me further. It’s rare to experience a book that hits so hard on the levels of form and function and feeling, which leads me to wonder: How did this book come together for you? How did you go about structuring, ordering, arranging these pieces into their profluent whole?

Shane McCrae: Thank you so much for the kind words about the book. Well, “The Hell Poem” came first. In 2014, I got it into my head that I wanted to write a Dante-esque, Inferno-ish poem, which is a terrible thing to get into one’s head—although there is something to be said for going into the writing of a poem knowing it will be impossible for the end result to be anywhere near as good as its inspiration. So I wrote a few sections of “The Hell Poem,” got stuck, and then abandoned the poem. Not long after that, I wrote In the Language of My Captor. Then Trump was elected. And immediately I felt I had to write something in response to Trump’s election, and wrote “We’ll Go No More a Roving.” Maybe a month or so after that, I wrote “Everything I Know About Blackness I Learned from Donald Trump,” and poems along the lines of that poem followed. Eventually, I started thinking about “The Hell Poem” again, and realized there was a place for Trump in it—indeed, I think the reason I had gotten stuck was that the poem was waiting for Trump.

TM: In other interviews, you’ve spoken with illuminating complexity about confessional poetry, noting that “in some very actual ways the confessional mode, strictly speaking, is not possible for non-write writers” because the confessional condition “assumes a fall from grace, but only whites occupy the initial position vis-à-vis grace from which the confessional poet must fall.” Yet you’ve also described a simultaneous pull toward that space of confession in verse, and I think one of the many powerful modes of The Gilded Auction Block is that the book feels kenotic (both metaphorically and theologically)—an emptying on the way toward reception. Was there a kenotic sense for you in writing these poems—and if so, what has been emptied, and what might be received?

SM: Oh, I wouldn’t describe anything I’ve ever done as kenotic, not thoroughly—kenosis is something I think one works toward one’s entire life. But I also think I never manage to really empty myself when writing my autobiographical poems—that’s why I keep returning to certain figures, particularly my grandmother. I don’t ever—not that I can recall at the moment—feel satisfied by the writing of my more autobiographical poems. I can manage to get my non-autobiographical poems to seem finished to me, but my autobiographical poems always seem not quite right. They are the poems I consistently abandon.

TM: Your previous book, In the Language of My Captor, begins with the poem “His God,” which includes the lines “his    / God is a stranger // from no country he has seen.” The Gilded Auction Block begins with “The President Visits the Storm,” which includes a clever allusion to Mary’s Assumption and an ominous nod toward the Book of Revelation—both skillful touches that feel like transfigurations. I enter both books thinking about forms disembodied, and looking for the places of souls. Considering this book is peppered with quotations and permutations of Donald Trump, how have these past years had you thinking about bodies?

SM: Well now I simply do not have a good answer for this—not yet. Let’s see. The reason I initially felt like I didn’t, and wouldn’t, have a good answer for this question was that I don’t really sit around thinking about bodies—I don’t often think about the things it seems smart people think about. But I do think about the bodies of poems sometimes, and I have lately become intrigued by what seem to me to be the contradictory dominant impulses behind the forms of the poems of younger poets writing today—an impulse to expand, and an impulse to compress. Often one will see poems that open up a lot of space inside themselves by expanding across and down the page. But one also sees a lot of prose poems, which, even though they are written from margin to margin, seem very compressed to me—they’re very dense. And I think each of these impulses has to do with the ear rather than the eye. Each, I think, responds to a desire to make the music in poems more apparent than it would otherwise be—or, at least, to make the poet’s attitude toward music more apparent. The spread-out poem isn’t so certain readers will notice its music; the prose poem is more trustful. But I think the popularity of the prose poem is a holdover from life before Trump. Who feels confident their body will be recognized and acknowledged for what it is nowadays?

TM: We’re both editors for Image Journal, a magazine that publishes writing “informed by or grappling with religious faith.” One of your own poems for the magazine that appeared a few years ago ends with the lines “Lord forgive my torturers // Who hate my faults    as if my faults were theirs.” It makes me think of something you said upon publication of your first book, Mule, quipping “I wrote a bunch of poems about God.” I’m drawn to ambitious writers like yourself and Katie Ford, whose religious and theological grappling has a rich poetic lineage. What draws you toward God—in poetry, and in life? Who are poets of doubt and faith whose work has influenced or interested you?

SM: I believe God is; I have no doubts about the existence of God. And I think it’s God’s very being that draws me toward God. If one believes God is, how can one be otherwise but drawn toward God? That said, I find the mystery(ies) of God overpoweringly attractive—when thinking about God, one inhabits a space in which one can think forever. That’s nice. And with regard to thinking, I suspect I’ve been most profoundly influenced and interested by Jorie Graham and Susan Howe—both of them say deeply true things about how the mind works. As for poems that have more explicitly to do with God, I think I’ve been most influenced and interested by George Herbert.

TM: “And even in my dreams I’m in your dreams” ends one of your poems in this new book—a work, like several others, that includes Trumpian excerpts and exhortations. Your book feels like a lament for our age, or perhaps a catalog of spiritual exhaustion: “America I was driving when I heard you / Had died I swerved into a ditch and wept.” How does it feel to have a book publish now, when the murmurs of a coming election are nearing a crescendo? What might the place of poetry be in a world so full of noise?

SM: I think noise requires poetry, because I think poetry requires a retreat from noise. Although, you know, it’s a book of poetry, and so is unlikely to have a huge reach. I hope nonetheless that The Gilded Auction Block might make some positive contribution to the discourses about Trump and about America. When FSG took the book, there was some feeling that it needed to be published as quickly as possible—both because it was maybe timely, and because, at the time, it was thought that Trump’s presidency might be brief. I feel as if every moment of every day I am actively wishing Trump weren’t president; since he is president, I hope my book, in its small way, can work against him.

TM: I’ve already mentioned “The Hell Poem,” the masterful, long poem that anchors The Gilded Auction Block, but wanted to speak about it more. I’ve read other poets who are transformational with language—giving us new ways to see—but you also have a transfigurative sense, of creating, like Dante and Milton, a surreal world in a poem that still feels grounded in earthly suffering. I’m even reminded of Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony; I feel out-of-this-world, and yet reminded of my form: “At that a darkness like the darkness / Before the world was overtook me.” What route led you toward this Hell poem? What caused this poetic descent?

SM: Folly. Folly got me going, and folly kept me going. The poem came out of nowhere, and in retrospect I think if I had planned it out a little I could have saved myself a lot of work. After I got stuck writing “The Hell Poem” (as I mentioned above), I decided that I had gotten stuck because I didn’t want to write anybody into Hell. And the obvious—to me, at least—solution was to write a poem set in Purgatory instead. So I wrote a considerably longer poem set in Purgatory which I now think was a near-total failure. I say “near-total,” because I did manage to salvage a bit of it and plug that into “The Hell Poem.” But it wasn’t until I had written 60 pages of that Purgatory poem that I realized it was a failure. That failure aside, however, once I was a few sections deep in “The Hell Poem,” I asked Christine Sajecki, with whom I had worked previously, if she would be willing to make some paintings for it, and I still can’t believe she said yes. The paintings she made are wonderful. At bottom, I think I’ve always wanted to say something worthwhile about the world and the people in it, and the ascendance of Trump, because he is a caricature and makes all around him caricature, made the effort to say something a little easier. But, really, I’m still trying.

A Way Out: Dave Cullen Doesn’t Want to Write Another ‘Columbine’

A few years ago, I read Dave Cullen’s gripping and horrifying masterpiece Columbine over the course of a few weeks, which is a lifetime for a quick reader like me. With Columbine, which is deeply researched and devastatingly detailed, Cullen seemed to have written the book on school shootings. Yet he’s continued to report on mass shootings for the nearly two decades since—sometimes to the detriment of his own mental health.
On Valentine’s Day 2018, Parkland became (in a lot of ways) Columbine’s other half. The two tragedies broke through the media cacophony for different reasons. Where Columbine was shock and confusion, Parkland was understanding and action. The aftermath of Parkland was unlike any other mass shooting this country has ever seen. Just a few hours after the most devastating moment of their lives, the Parkland kids gave the nation their voice, tears, and a call to action. Thankfully Cullen was there, with his keen eye and sharp writing, to lend them another megaphone.
Cullen’s newest book, Parkland: Birth of a Movement, is out this month—just two days before the one-year anniversary of the shooting. Reported, written, and edited in less than a year, Parkland is a very different book than Columbine—and rightfully so.
Last weekend, Cullen and I spoke for a few hours over the phone about the Parkland teens, how Columbine ushered in the “horrible school shooter era,” the shifting cultural and political climate, and his next project (a book about gay soldiers that he’s been working on and off for nearly two decades). Our interview has been condensed, with far too much wonderful material left on the cutting room floor.
1. Comparisons to Columbine
The Millions: Obviously people are going to compare this book to your previous book Columbine, which I always say is a masterclass on school shooting reporting. But Parkland is very different in terms of subject and scope. What made you want to write this kind of book versus a Columbine-esque book?
Dave Cullen: I never wanted to do a Columbine book again…I had already done that. It’s kind of a selfish and unselfish part. The selfish part is that I couldn’t handle that.
I never thought I would do this again…[Parkland] feels like a possible way out…But my hunch, my best guess and hope, is that these will be the bookends—neither the first nor the last—Columbine was the one that really ratcheted up and set the rest of this in motion, and [Parkland is] the beginning of the end and the way out.
So with Columbine, since it’s the one that set it in motion and took the survivors by shock, that seemed like the appropriate story to tell: both why this happened and what’s going on with these killers, and what it did to a community and how they overcame it. That seemed like a relevant story to me, both of those two different stories. And this time: If this is the way out or a way out…then I want to do their story of the way out, the exit strategy. This is a different time, different situation, different need, and if this is the way out: Why would I do another book on the causes?
There have been hundreds of mass shootings since Columbine…and we don’t need another book…What’s unique about Parkland is it’s these kids who did something and took America by storm and led this uprising. America was so ready and desperate for something—we didn’t expect it to be these kids—but we were desperate for a way out, and they arose and let us out. And that’s amazing and that’s what grabbed me, and I think America. That’s the story I wanted to tell.
2. The Parkland Difference
TM: I think some of the [Columbine] expectations speak to what you’re outlining in the book: Parkland deserved a different kind of book. They created a different kind of narrative.
DC: Exactly, and these kids flipped the script. I say in there too: We have this ongoing problem. There are three big problems and potential ways out of this disaster. People say mental health but I would put it much more narrowly as teen depression. Treating and identifying teen depression early before it becomes a problem. Two is guns obviously. Three is the media giving the stage to the people who want to create this spectacle.
So they picked one, or we’d fritter our message or fragment it. Nobody has had success on any of these and if we try to do all of them, we’re going to be one more failed group. They decided very, very quickly on guns…They may have solved the media one, too, inadvertently.


Timing is everything and these kids—it was such a perfect storm of things—but the luck of their timing was perfect in a couple different ways. First, the country was so angry partly because of the Trump situation and really ready for something. There’s something called the “Resistance” but that didn’t have an agenda or a positive purpose…The country was waiting for someone to lead us on something.
3. The Changing Tides
DC: Being the mass murder guy, unfortunately I have a keen awareness of a lot of these things by doing the shows and answering these questions and getting emails.
I would say about the first 17 years after Columbine, and there was no exact moment, but the first question of every interview was always “Why they did it?” “Why did they do it?” was the burning question. I don’t get that as a primary question anymore starting two to three years ago. …The media was actually starting to pay less attention and the phenomena of “no notoriety” was catching on and showing them less and using the name less.
We were losing interest and still doing it because we didn’t have anything to take its place. And then suddenly the kids came in at just the right moment and so okay here’s something to take its place and they did.
I’ve been asking other people who have been interviewing me and so far no one can even name the killer…We really won that battle without intending to. He’s invisible.
TM: I don’t think I’ve read anything about him since that initial week or even seen a photo of him.
DC: I know, right? I did see photos of him early on but it didn’t stick. He’s just a nobody. I think they really solved that problem. David Hogg, I believe, became the first person who became more interesting than the person who attacked him—more interesting and more famous and he did that within 24 hours. And two days later, Emma González was much more famous than David.
The media doesn’t have to go back to its old ways. We have a better story. The kids created a better story for us. They slammed the door, not all the way shut, but slammed it. Some other perpetrators will force their way through it but I think it’s closing. I think we’re on our way out.
TM: Let’s hope so. So what’s next for you? I assume you’re back to the gay soldiers book.
I am and I can’t wait to get back to that…I am really excited. This is such a different kind of story. It’s the kind of stuff I like doing. It’s like really in-depth character work. I didn’t know how to say this without sounding pompous or full of myself but I don’t know of any journalistic enterprise where someone spent 20 years with their subject.
I want [the book] to be two things: America’s role in the Middle East—misadventures, I would say—for almost 30 years, and the gay rights struggle. …The main story I’m focusing on is gays in the military and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. What I try to do…is telling the larger story through the small. There’s the bigger picture going on with this vast change in American attitudes toward gays and gradual acceptance. …I’m trying to tell two uber stories through…two specific guys.

The Good Place: The Millions Interviews Elizabeth McCracken

Over the course of her career, Elizabeth McCracken has written critically acclaimed short story collections and novels. Opening one of her books to page one always brings a rush of excitement because you truly never know what to expect. Her latest, Bowlaway, is no exception. The exceptionally weird and cozy novel set near the beginning of the 20th century opens with an unconscious woman in a cemetery with 15 pounds of gold hidden in a secret compartment of a bag that also contained a small bowling ball and a slender candlepin.

Using a candlepin bowling alley as the backdrop, McCracken tracks the lives of a fictional town in the state of Massachusetts. What follows is an ode to the state, the lineage of townspeople, and how pastimes help shape our society. The novel slowly reveals the sort of dark secrets that can unravel community in an instant. It feels both timely and timeless.

I spoke with McCracken over the phone about place, humor, and community in her writing.

The Millions: What drew you to use candlepin bowling as the backdrop for this book?

Elizabeth McCracken: I used to be a candlepin bowler. I still bowl sometimes now but would bowl a lot back in Massachusetts as a kid. I miss New England. I knew I wanted to write about home, and it seemed like an interesting way in for me.

TM: Massachusetts, and New England as a whole, are very unique compared to the rest of the country. How did growing up in Massachusetts inform your reading and writing in your youth?

EM: I’ve been trying to think about this. I live in Texas now and Texas is its own thing in ways I didn’t realize before. I have kids in the public schools, and they have an entire year on Texan history. Sometimes I have friends here ask me if I studied Massachusetts history as a kid. Well, we did. The Boston Tea Party, the Revolutionary War. It’s just American history! We never devoted a year to learn about the state.

For reading though, I read a lot of Hawthorne when I was growing up. There was Edith Wharton. A lot of New England ghost stories. [With this novel] I was thinking about my love for the cramped, ill-lit rooms of New England now that I am in the wide open, brightly lit spaces of Texas.

TM: You mention New England ghost stories. American literature was very regionalized at first, then writers started to think globally. You book feels very regionalized. Was that intentional?

EM: I was definitely thinking about place more than anything I have ever written before. It was hugely a reaction to living in Texas. I wanted to write an example of Massachusetts literature.

TM: Prior to moving to Texas, you lived in many places including Massachusetts, then Iowa for school. I moved around a lot and ended up back in Phoenix. When I returned here, I felt like an outsider. I was very disconnected to my life here prior. How did moving around impact your writing?

EM:  think you’re right that you leave a place and come back to a shifted perspective. I also lived in France and spent a lot of time in Berlin and England. I don’t know, man, it was broadening. There are writers who are brilliant about writing about their home and can stay home and still find things to write about.

I’m a garbage disposal writer. I need things to put in so I can write.

TM: That makes sense because one thing I love about your writing is that I never know what to expect. A lot of authors, which is great, write about the same themes or settings. You know what to expect. With you I feel I never know what to expect on that first page. This novel starts with an unconscious woman in a cemetery. How early did that image come to you?

EM: Relatively late. There wasn’t a ton of backstory on Berta Truitt. There was some, but mostly about her childhood and she was a very mysterious character. There was a ton of problems with it. I had written an entire draft before I thought of that opening. Even after that, I kept coming back to it.

TM: What drew you to Bertha as a character?

EM: I was going through my grandfather’s genealogy and pulling out names, which is how the book started. I liked the idea of someone who was mysterious, even to herself, but also wildly confident. It was fun to write about a character who believed they could do anything.

TM: Reading through this novel, it feels very Massachusetts. Also, the voice and the tone don’t feel very 2019 but also feel very 2019. It’s a historical-ish novel…

EM: I like that term for it. Someone called it a historical novel and I responded, “well, kind of.” It feels like a disservice to people who write actual, extremely researched, and accurate novels.

Because the novel in the beginning was about genealogy, I am happy to hear it feels very of its time but not of its time. I was interested in how a generation leads to the next generation and how people are unbelievably invested in that.

Here’s this story from a long time ago and [it] ends up in a place only because people have children. It ends with people who didn’t know about that older generation. A lot of people, even if they did research, would be ignorant about how that generation is connected to them.

Even in those ghost stories I read as a kid, a lot of those stories were tied to real places. Then there are stories that sound like myths but were actual events. I wanted something to feel out of time like those pieces.

TM: Building off of that, in the acknowledgements of this book you write: “This book is highly inaccurate.” There is always some humor in every page you write. How important is humor to you?

EM: Vital. I don’t know how to write without it. I’m always telling my students that is impossible to write fiction without using skills for which you interpret the world. I can’t exorcise humor from my worldview. I can’t take it out of my fiction.

Sometimes I read a piece of fiction without any humor in it—and I don’t mean jokes, I just mean fiction that doesn’t acknowledge the fundamental absurdity of life. Fiction like that feels sterile and dead.

TM: Whenever I read or watch something that is supposed to be this big, dramatic, heart wrenching moment, I sometimes can’t help but laugh because life is funny even when it’s awful.

EM: Exactly. I also believe humor makes things sadder. It’s a way to light up your fiction before an event like that.

TM: Looping back to place, I want to talk about writing as a community. I feel the general public thinks authors are competing against each other. I’ve found it to be the opposite and authors are all champions of one another. What does your writing community look like?

EM: My community is really important. Feeling competitive with other writers is impossible to get away from entirely, but it’s such a useless emotion. There’s no way to measure it. It’s not bowling. I teach at the University of Texas at Austin. I feel that teaching has made me a better writer. To teach and read year after year really teaches you how many possibilities there are.

I also have very dear friends who are writers that I give my work to. My husband [Edward Carey] is a writer whose opinion of my work means a huge amount to me. His own work means a huge amount to me. I feel very lucky that I ended up marrying a writer whose work I loved and adored before I met him.

My dear friend Paul Lisicky is one of my first readers. His opinion and own works mean a lot to me. Ann Patchett is someone whose opinions means a lot to me. One of the perks of being a teacher and getting older is becoming good friends with former students. I have Paul Harding and Yiyun Li who are really good friends of mine and they were students of mine a long time back.

TM: That’s what is so amazing about the literary world. You’ll mention a writer and they’ll mention someone else. Then it’s six degrees of separation and before you know it, someone is saying they admire you.

EM: It’s true. Every time I meet someone who is a friend of a friend of mine, it feels like we know each other even though we’ve never met.

TM: How often are you letting your readers read your works in progress?

EM: Very little. The older I get, the more I hold my work closer than I used to. It used to be that I would want to give people my chapters as I went along. Now I feel like in order to have the privacy to write well, I need absolute privacy during the draft. I am the type of writer who does a ton of drafts. I wrote an entire draft before giving it to my husband. Then I wrote another draft before giving it to Paul Lisicky.

I usually talk about the book with people, but the way it works for me is I’d rather not have too much advice. I want to have the problems and go back myself to figure out how to address the problems.

TM: When do you know you finally have it: the final draft?

EM: I never, ever have ever thought “I really have it.” I think about a month ago I thought of something else I should have done with Bowlaway. That’s just how I am. I need to have the book taken away from me. Someone recently said to me that writers should stop working on things when they are aware they are no longer making it better. That’s true for me.

When I wrote the first draft, I knew this had a remarkably terrible end. I knew I needed to put something down. Architecturally, I had to have a big brick there just to hold up the rest of the novel so I could go back and fix things.

I do depend on my readers to help me. I’ll know something is wrong, but I don’t always know if something is right.

Taking the Time: Christine Sneed in Conversation with Mandeliene Smith

Although some mainstream publishers still publish story collections comprised largely of stand-alone stories (George Saunders’s Tenth of December leaps immediately to mind), many contemporary collections published by large, New York-based presses are more likely to be novels-in-stories or linked collections.

Enter Rutting Season, a remarkable debut from Mandeliene Smith, out this month from Scribner. The stylistically and topically diverse stories in this collection demonstrate Smith’s extraordinary range, although a few commonalities are evident. Smith’s stories all take place in New England of the present or recent past and feature characters whose lives have been upended by personal or professional hardship, circumstances the author explores with compassion and occasionally with subversive humor.

Smith has been writing for more than two decades and scrupulously revised each story in this collection, several of them having taken years to complete. In an era where many writers feel the pressure—self-imposed or otherwise—to publish fast (and likewise have the opportunity to self-publish manuscripts written, in some cases, in a matter of weeks), it is heartening to encounter a writer who appears to value the creative process as much as publication and any rewards it might confer to her.

Via email and Google Docs, I had the chance to correspond recently with Mandeliene Smith about Rutting Season.

Christine Sneed: There’s such a range of character, point of view and theme in the stories in Rutting Season—for example, a young widow grieving over her husband’s sudden death, three siblings being held hostage by their dead mother’s deranged boyfriend, an African-American social worker who works in racially and economically divided New Haven, a little girl whose mother is selling off the girl’s siblings to strangers—how do you find your subjects?

Mandeliene Smith: Some of those stories, like “Siege,” “The Someday Cat,” and “You the Animal,” are loosely based on newspaper articles that grabbed me. “Siege,” for example, came from an article about a bunch of kids in Iowa who barricaded themselves in their house for two days after their mother was arrested for child neglect. I kept thinking about what it might have been like for them inside that house together with the police waiting outside—what a weird combination of danger and normalcy, to be trapped with the people they knew best. That was what I saw in that news article that hooked me: the power that family has over us.

Most of the rest of the stories are fragments of my own experience that took on a life of their own. “Mercy,” for example, came from a memory of my mother, a number of months after my father had died. She was outside, yelling at me to come down and help bury my sister’s dog, which had been killed by a car. I had had my fill of death and just wanted to skip the whole thing—there had been a number of deaths in the family that year, both human and animal—but my mother had dug a hole; she was going to bury the dog and then go on to the next thing in her day. By the time that memory came back to me, I had children myself, and what struck me wasn’t my own experience but what it must have been like for my mother in those first years after her husband died. So that was the jumping off point for that story: How does one go on after such a crushing loss? Or maybe more specifically, how does one find a way to accept one’s own need to go on?

I think the real answer to your question is that I’m drawn to subjects that trouble me, things I can’t resolve. The experiences (or articles or situations) that inspire me to write all embody something I find deeply disturbing. The writing, I think, is an effort to figure it out, or at least to lay out the pieces in a way that makes them clear to me. Maybe this is true for all artists, I don’t know. I recently saw a quote from the British director Sam Mendes in The New Yorker that I thought captured this beautifully: “There is a grief that can never be solved. And that’s what fuels you and confounds you in equal measure. It gives you a motor.”

CS: The violence in some of these stories, both emotional and physical, is strikingly raw but not histrionic—you write with admirable restraint. I’m thinking in particular of the title story, which is darkly comic but also chilling in the manner you portray the main character’s elaborate fantasy of murdering his mean-spirited boss. What draws you to the impulse in us to do others harm?

MS: When I was growing up, we spent our summers on a farm in western Massachusetts, and I would often see my parents—my good, kind parents—killing things. (Most of the animal deaths in “Animals” are drawn from actual events in my childhood.) This deep co-existence of compassion and savagery was something I puzzled over as a child. I still puzzle over it, I guess. We are often aggressive, underneath our socially acceptable demeanors: We fight about territory and our place in the hierarchy and who will get what. (That character in “Rutting Season” who is thinking about killing his boss isn’t just a nut. He’s responding, according to a certain animal logic, to what he sees as a threat—the fact that he’s at the bottom of the pecking order.) At the same time, of course, people can also be amazingly kind and generous, willing to make even the ultimate sacrifice for each other. Which side of us wins out in a particular situation, and why—that question fascinates me.

CS: You’re in your mid-50s, but you’ve been writing for many years.  How did this collection come together?  Did you assemble it and find an agent who then sold it to Scribner? Or…?

MS: I’ve been writing for most of my life (my first attempt at a novel was in third grade). It took me a long time, however, to commit to writing in any public way. I was in my 30s by the time I published my first story, and even after that I proceeded fairly slowly. (The stories in Rutting Season were written over a period of about 20 years.) I’m not a fast writer; I tend to let my stories marinate for a while. Sometimes I even put them away for a year or so, if I can’t see my way forward. There were times when I made a concerted effort to submit my work to literary magazines, but I found the rejections demoralizing, and after a while I mostly stopped trying. I did keep writing, however. This wasn’t due to any laudable trait, like grit or determination—I just need to write. If I don’t, I sort of lose my bearings. So, I kept writing, and tried to find jobs that wouldn’t tie me down too much, and let my husband carry most of the weight of supporting the family, which is a gift I hope to repay someday. Eventually, my friend Daphne Kalotay suggested I contact Rob McQuilkin, and I sent him my manuscript.

Rob was incredibly patient, I have to say. I think it was probably more than two years between our first phone call and the time when the manuscript was finally ready to go out for bid. Initially, we tried to package the stories with a novel I’m writing, the assumption being that publishers would be more willing to take the stories if they could get a novel in the bargain. It turned out, though, that Scribner wanted only the stories. That was a blessing, really. It didn’t solve the problem of needing to earn an income, as an advance on the novel might have, but it does give me the space and freedom to write without having to answer to anyone, which is pretty important for me.

CS: What has the editorial process been like for you? You’re working with the great Kathryn Belden, who is also National Book Award-winner Jesmyn Ward’s editor.  Have you worked intensely with Ms. Belden on revisions or has the book changed little since its acquisition?

MS: The editorial process was so seamless, I barely remember it. Kathy made some suggestions, which all made perfect sense, and she decided to pull one story that wasn’t set in New England, which also made sense, and that was about it. She is very easy to work with, but I try not to think about her being Jesmyn Ward’s editor. I find that intimidating.

CS: “You the Animal,” the story about the New Haven social worker, is filled with what I assume must be authentic detail about Connecticut’s foster care system—do you have experience as a social worker? Or did you interview social workers while writing this story?

MS: I was never a social worker, which is probably for the best as I don’t think I’d be very good at it, but I’m relieved to hear that the details rang true. I always worry about this aspect of my work. For the record, I did interview someone in the field, and I read a few articles that went in depth about the child welfare system, but I’m sure if you asked someone who actually works in a child services department, they’d find plenty to pick apart.

The process of negotiating this line between real-world facts and a fictional story often feels challenging to me, since the story sometimes demands things, in a dramatic sense, that don’t strictly square with reality. I also have a certain apprehension about facts, because it seems to me that any event or situation can be viewed in multiple, even contradictory ways. This really haunted me during the year or two I worked as a reporter. I’d do the interviews, go to the government meetings, etc. and then, when I sat down to write, I’d freeze. I had a set of facts and a list of quotes, and now I was supposed to choose which to highlight and how to frame them. In other words, I was to decide what the story really was, and by deciding, I would necessarily leave out, erase all other possible interpretations. Who was I to do that? And what if I was wrong? As you can imagine, I drove myself crazy. It was a good thing when I quit that job.

CS: Race, social class, alcoholism, and divorce all inform the story “What It Takes,” which features a white adolescent female point-of-view character in a racially tense New Haven high school. Reading it was like taking a master class on building narrative tension—where did this story come from?

MS: That story is largely based on my own high school experience in New Haven, Connecticut, where I grew up. While the protagonist is not me and her family and friends are made up of bits and pieces of a number of different people I’ve known, the situation at the school is pretty much what I experienced. I should say that I myself did not have the larger socioeconomic and historical understanding back then that I tried to bring out in the story. I was just afraid, and angry about having to be afraid. It was only later, after I was safely out of that situation, that I allowed myself to think about things from the black kids’ perspective, to wonder what it was like for them. So, while the confrontation that comes at the end of the story is something that did happen to me, the realization that the main character has afterwards actually took me a couple of years to reach. I had to stop feeling threatened before I could open my mind.

CS: Who are your main literary influences?

MS: That’s a hard question to answer, because it’s always changing. When I was young, there was the whole world of children’s fiction, which I would have liked to just live inside, possibly forever. Later, in high school, Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening, really struck a chord. I guess if I had to pick just three writers from the hundreds who have affected me, they might be Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, and Alice Munro. Woolf for a kind of ecstasy of imagination—the permission of that. Hemingway for the incredible restraint of his prose, which somehow still manages to be deeply emotional. And Munro—well, Munro for everything, but maybe especially for narrative structure. Those are the three who came to mind first, but already I’m beginning to think of others: Zadie Smith, George Saunders, Elena Ferrante, Elizabeth Strout. Really, it’s impossible.

CS: What are you working on now?

MS: I’m writing an historical novel about a 19th-century farm girl named Ada who defies her community to become an evangelical preacher. The story combines a place I love—the hill town region of western Massachusetts—with a tragedy that has always haunted me: My grandmother, when she was very small, saw her 15-month-old sister burn to death. The novel is not about my grandmother, but it does begin with a similar accident. Ada believes she is to blame for her sister’s death, and this sense of culpability ultimately launches her on a quest for redemption that brings her into conflict with the social rules of her family and her community.  The novel is set during a period of enormous change in our country, when capitalism was beginning to visibly erode traditional values and the primacy of community. It’s been interesting to delve into that time, and also to think about the hill towns and what they must have been like back then. I’ve really enjoyed escaping the tight confines of the short story. It’s very freeing.

A Voice of Our Own: Debra Jo Immergut in Conversation with Lisa Gornick

I met Lisa Gornick last spring, at a gathering of women writers in the living room of a gracious old Brooklyn Heights townhouse overlooking a rain-soaked back garden. I didn’t know it at the time—I hadn’t read her latest work yet—but it was the perfect setting to encounter Gornick as she prepared to publish her fourth work of fiction, The Peacock Feast. Historic, vibrantly appointed New York City homes are at the very heart of this panoramic saga, which centers on a family descended from a pair of servants employed by Louis C. Tiffany. This century-spanning tale by the acclaimed author of Louisa Meets Bear and Tinderbox has now landed (Meg Wolitzer called it “both grand and intimate”). I was happy for the chance to quiz Gornick on the secrets of the book’s intricate structure, and to compare notes on writerly hopes, ambitions, and angst in the strange cultural landscape of 2019.

1. On Time

Debra Jo Immergut:  The Peacock Feast is a novel obsessed with time—its mysteries, its ravages, the costs and benefits that accrue with the passage of years. This is certainly an obsession we share. But I’m awed that the narrative covers more than a century. Were you intimidated by the prospect of crafting a story that would unfold over so many years? Quite amazingly, you kept the novel at a very manageable length—were you ever afraid it would become an 800-pager?

Lisa Gornick: Wide-ranging and labyrinthine as the plot and narrative are in The Peacock Feast, its most elemental structure is simple: a line segment bounded by, on one end, the baroque peacock feast Louis C. Tiffany threw in 1914 at his Long Island estate and, at the other end, the meeting, nearly a century later, of two women, both of whose lives were shaped by Tiffany.  Before I could decide how I would tell a story that stretches over four generations of a family as they traverse multiple social classes, I had to flesh out its contours as it unfolded against a century of American history — which involved a prodigious amount of research.

In The Captives, you, too, are telling a story that stretches over decades. Your timeline begins in 1981, when Miranda, your female protagonist, is 13 and ends with the postscript in 2016 from the point of view of Frank, your male — I don’t think I can call him protagonist, though you present him too compassionately to deem him an antagonist — central character. When in your process did you commit to the structure you employ?

DJI: True, The Captives covers more than 30 years — but I hardly think of it this way because the present action of the story unfolds in less than two years. I find a compressed timeline simply helps me focus on moving action forward. I layer in flashbacks that explore my characters’ histories and motivations. So, the idea of a lot of tumult in a short time dictated the structure of The Captives and even more the shape of my next novel, which takes place over the course of a year. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these days I tackle a novel that takes place in a single day or even an hour.

LG: One of my loves in literature is what I call the “tight-frame” novel: books like Mrs. Dalloway and Embers and Crossing to Safety in which the present action is constricted to a short stretch of time, but the narrative includes accounts of entire lives. While The Peacock Feast doesn’t fit this moniker, its backbone is the weeklong encounter between Prudence, a 101-year-old woman who was born on the Tiffany estate, where her parents worked as gardener and maid, and her 43-year-old hospice nurse great niece, Grace, who she’s never known existed. Whereas in Mrs. Dalloway, the past — what we learn about Clarissa’s relationships with Sally and Peter and her marriage — illuminates Clarissa’s experiences the day of the party, in The Peacock Feast, the reverse is more operative: the conversations between Prudence and Grace cast light backwards on the hidden history of how they become who they are.

DJI: How do you keep track of multiple time lines? I was struck by the book’s internal rhythm — the narrative bubbles along with a sort of musical point and counterpoint. Did that come naturally, or did you have a plan about when to shift from one timeline to the next?

LG: With three storylines — Prudence’s, Grace’s, and theirs together — that ultimately braid together, not to mention various historical characters each with their own chronologies, I never could have kept the dates straight without timelines. As for when to shift between storylines: each storyline unfolds chronologically, though to bedevil matters, portions of Prudence’s and Grace’s stories are told to each other, which then stimulate memories. Musical composition contains so many lessons for writers, and I did think about the storylines as musical themes: aiming to let each develop but returning soon enough to the other threads that their momentum would not be lost. Superimposed on this rhythm between storylines was a more granular rhythm between sentences and sections — long and short; associative as in thought, propulsive as in emotion.

You mentioned the risk of an 800-page behemoth, and though I never approached that length, I ultimately cut many, many subplots and characters because, as I could only see later, they were undermining the centrality of the evolving relationship between Prudence and Grace.

2. The Uses of Intuition

LG: Both of our books have a mystery at their core — and The Captives was just nominated for the Edgar Best First Novel award. In my novel, the reader and the main characters are in the same shoes: they don’t know what happened. With The Captives, however, Miranda knows very well why she landed in prison. I’m curious whether your decision to narrate Frank’s chapters in first person and Miranda’s in close third-person was a way of handling the unfolding of the mystery, or if it happened intuitively.

DJI: It was an intuitive decision, and also a purely selfish one. For me, writing only happens as part of a pitched internal battle. I’m compelled to write, but part of me absolutely rebels against it, because it is such hard and sometimes painful work. I finally figured out that I do best when I give myself some sort of enlivening challenge. Switching back and forth between Frank’s first-person narration and Miranda’s third-person allowed me to play with voice and style. Then, over the long stop-and-go history of this project, I began to realize the narrative advantages of Miranda’s more distanced point-of-view—it left her space to keep secrets.

Speaking of style, Tiffany provides the aesthetic underpinning of this narrative—you gorgeously describe the sumptuousness of his homes, and that detailed jewel-toned imagery seem to bleed into all the other descriptive passages in the novel. Surprisingly, though Tiffany is a central influence on the action and looms large in the characters’ psyches, he makes only a brief, silent appearance in one scene. Did you intend for him to have this ghostly presence? What are the roots of your fascination with him—and do you have a special love for his work and its aesthetic?

LG: I didn’t realize that Tiffany was so off-stage until after I finished the novel, but, in retrospect, it makes sense because the novel is not about him: it’s about the impact on others of the sadism that’s an inevitable part of perfectionism and the legacy of feeling dehumanized that lingers over a century. I’d never particularly liked what I knew of Tiffany’s work—largely his lamps and stained-glass windows, which struck me as treacly and have acquired a patina of kitsch over the years. My view of Tiffany as an artist, however, was turned on its head when I saw an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, now more than a decade ago, about Laurelton Hall, his Long Island estate, for which he served as architect, interior designer, and landscaper: an extraordinarily beautiful and lavish historical mash-up with a loggia that borrowed from the Red Fort at Agra and a courtyard that evoked the Topkapi Palace.

3. Writing While Hyphenated
DJI: We both have spent years balancing fiction writing with many other pursuits. Can you talk about your journey as a “hyphenate” novelist?

LKG: I’ve been writing since I was a child, but it never occurred to me that I could solely pursue writing. Rather, my family culture and circumstances made it imperative that I acquire both an advanced degree and have a secure means of supporting myself. Working as an analyst and writing fiction draw from the same wellspring: an appreciation of narrative and an understanding of how emotions and language are entwined. As I’ve written about elsewhere, for a long time, there was a happy marriage between my two professions. There were many factors that lead to the ultimate divorce, including the birth of my second child, which made having two demanding jobs in addition to being a hands-on parent impossible, the increased complexity of my fiction writing, which could no longer be relegated to “borrowed time” (which at one point was four to seven a.m.), and the explosion of the internet, which undid the comfortable separation I’d been able to maintain between my professions. Nonetheless, stopping practicing as an analyst hasn’t stopped my being an analyst: It’s still the primary lens through which I look at the world, and through which I understand my characters and the writing process.

How about you?  Can you tell about your “hyphenate” journey as a fiction writer?

DJI: First, I must say that your deep knowledge of human psyche informs every page of this story. Plenty of novelists are “self-styled analysts” but it is fascinating to read a work by someone with real bona fides in this area. It shows.

I worked as a magazine editor, trying—and often failing miserably—to balance a fulltime job with parenting, household duties, and writing. I sometimes call my story “a triumph of intermittent persistence.” I walked away from my writing desk for years at a time, but I always found my way back. There’s a machismo in the literary world about discipline, the ironclad full-time writing routines, and so on. That kind of talk used to fill me with real shame—at a deep level, I truly believed in myself as a writer, but I felt I wasn’t acting like a writer was supposed to act. So, I’ve been trying to add a small voice to the conversation—one that says that you actually can walk away from this work at times, you can write only on weekends, or one night a week (I wrote much of my second novel’s earliest iteration in a one-night-a-week group at a neighbor’s house). The work will be there, waiting for you, when life allows you to return.

My second novel explores this topic—how a working mother’s thwarted creative ambitions drive her to extreme measures. In that context, I’ve been rereading A Room of One’s Own. I mean, how ahead of her time was Virginia Woolf? It’s uncanny to read the book in the current era, as women try to use their collective power to redress some old wrongs and resist new ones. As I returned to the fiction scene after many years away, I’ve been pleased to discover a solid sense of community among women writers. We met, in fact, at a supportive gathering of authors of the female persuasion. Writers have a reputation of being very sharp-elbowed, but that has not been my experience lately. What do you think? Are women authors just more aware of our common challenges?

LG: Now, I’m feeling guilty that my mentioning how I carved out writing time during the early years of being a mother contributed to that machismo view you’re trying to counteract.  There is no correct way to be a writer: We each have to find our own way that works for our personality and within our circumstances.  Many writers proceed in the intermittent pattern you describe, either because it’s their creative style to work in blasts (think Faulkner’s legendary six weeks for writing As I Lay Dying) or because it’s how they’re able to manage other demands. I wrote my first novel when my older son was a toddler and I was in full-time practice and analytic training.  Every morning, he would wake early and come into the little study I’d fashioned in a portion of our dining room and go back to sleep on the loveseat I’d put next to my desk. It would never have worked if he hadn’t been the kind of sound sleeper he was or if I hadn’t been the age I was then, able to burn the candle at both ends.  It was a sweet and special time, and I’m sure some of that emotional field must have seeped into that novel. Fundamentally, though, it didn’t feel like a choice to me: It was what I needed to keep my sanity.

For most women writers, it’s been a tough road both to create our work and to get it into print. My experience of the community of women writers is in line with yours: characterized by warm helpful hands, not sharp elbows. You are a perfect example: We’d met only once when I emailed you with a publishing question, and yet you sensed the urgency I felt for an answer and pulled off the highway to call me to respond!

As a woman writer, the largest challenge for me has been balancing mothering and creative work. Neither looks kindly on compromises.  I’m certain there are male writers—perhaps Knausgård with his epic struggle? — who experience this challenge at an equivalent pitch, but I’ve never met one. For me, and for many of my women writer friends, there is a profound contradiction between two truths: On the one hand, mothering and writing can both bring us into contact with deep wells of feeling and an understanding of human nature and can therefore fuel each other. On the other hand, to write requires something even more radical than Virginia Woolf’s room of one’s own: It requires a mind of our own — and that, to be brutally honest, often requires cutting ourselves off from children and household, for three hours a day, or one evening a week, or for more welcoming stretches of time.

DJI: We both have a longer view of publishing and how it has changed. Does the current sense of urgency about the fate of fiction, publishing — and the world in general — inform your work and your ambitions for it?

LG: I’m aware that many writers have felt so distressed about our current political situation, they’ve either been unable to write or have decided to devote themselves to activism — a decision I respect, though it’s not been my own. Perhaps it’s sophomoric or naively idealistic, but I believe in fiction as a means of nourishing the best in humanity. Reading a novel requires solitude, concentration, unplugging from the daily onslaught.  It’s a kind of meditation and a way of resetting the distracted, jangling mind so as to allow for reflection.  And, as has been amply said and now scientifically studied, reading fiction develops empathy. It doesn’t surprise me that our last president, in my view, one of the most compassionate public figures of modern times, is both a passionate reader and gifted writer, nor that our current president, in my view, the most callous and base of politicians, reads nothing — most certainly not books — and writes only tweets.

As for the state of publishing, I don’t think it’s ever been static or that the current condition is entirely dispiriting. I’m cheered by how vibrant so many independent presses are, and how the work of their writers is being so recognized: two of the five nominees for this year’s National Book Critics Circle fiction award are from small presses! What’s most important, it seems to me, is to understand both how very heterogeneous publishing is with different sectors having entirely different aims, and to interrogate ourselves about our ambitions.  If you’re writing poetry or literary fiction, it’s unlikely that you’re going to sell a five-digit number of books. If you’re writing celebrity tell-alls, it’s unlikely that your work will receive a review in The New Yorker.  In the end, I’d say there’s wisdom in the old canard: embark on being a writer only if you’re unable to not be a writer. If you are one of those persons for whom transforming experience into words is required to feel fully alive, putting pen to paper will help you achieve that.  Nothing else is guaranteed.

Dear John: Benedict Wells in Conversation with John Irving

It is rare that we get to meet our literary heroes, but in 2010, a young German-Swiss writer, Benedict Wells, approached John Irving at a reading in Zurich. More than a decade prior the 15-year-old Wells, feeling adrift at boarding school, picked up a copy of Irving’s enchanting coming-of-age novel The Hotel New Hampshire. Swept up in the great wit and charm of Irving’s writing, and deeply drawn to characters he couldn’t help but relate to, Wells found a direction for his own life and, after graduation, moved to Berlin to write. He landed at Irving’s same publisher and, eleven years and two published books later, took the night train to Zurich to hear Irving read. When the two met for the first time, Wells could barely speak with excitement, and as the years have passed, the writers have kept in contact.

On the eve of the U.S. publication of Wells’s internationally bestselling The End of Loneliness, he and Irving connected again, on the page, to discuss the merits of longhand versus typing, how fear plays into fiction, and why authors have to be outsiders.

John Irving: Lieber Benedict, I remember when we first met—it was at a reading in Zurich. You had just published your second novel. You told me how much you liked reading American novels. I see there is a suitably melancholic epigraph from Fitzgerald at the beginning of The End of Loneliness. Now your fourth novel is the first to come out in English. Tell me what this means to you. Is a little bit of the melancholy in The End of Loneliness coming from your reading of American novels?

Benedict Wells: Dear John, F. Scott Fitzgerald was indeed very important for me while writing The End of Loneliness. However, I would almost say it the other way around: the melancholy, that you find in the book, does not come from the American novels I have read. But rather I read and searched for such American novels because I carried this melancholia inside myself. And I found it in works by Fitzgerald and McCullers, but also in books like The Cider House Rules. English-speaking literature has influenced my writing from the very beginning, and I felt drawn to it, unlike for instance to German literature. That is why it has been a dream of mine that one day one of my books would be translated into English. And it is even more surreal and amazing that this story has now found its way to America.

JI: Halfway through the book, Jules—the main character and narrator—thinks: “A difficult childhood is like an invisible enemy: you never know when it will come for you.” The plight of children—in particular, of orphaned children—has often been my subject as a novelist. The importance of a formative childhood friendship—especially, for such children—has often been my subject, too. Where do these themes come from, in your case?

BW: They come from my own childhood and youth. When I was six, I was moved to a home and spent the next 13 years in boarding schools, not least because one of my parents was ill and the other one was self-employed and because of financial hardships had to work around the clock. This childhood far from home, in dorms and later on in single rooms, this loneliness, surrounded by other people, but also the solidarity among one another, has shaped me. From the very beginning it made me look for a language for all of it—a first step towards writing. And I never regretted anything because, besides all the problems, there were always moments of love and feelings of security. So, in my youth I found everything I needed to tell stories. Even today everything I write comes from the feeling I learned back then, that it is important to see other people and put yourself in their shoes.

JI: In my case, these themes are more in the nature of obsessions than themes—maybe in your case, too?

BW: That changes from book to book. However, after five books I cannot deny that loneliness is my major topic, that melancholic melody accompanies every story…Where did these themes come from for you? What would have happened with your writing if you had grown up differently or hadn’t had wrestling for instance?

J.I: I’m not sure that loneliness is a theme—a theme sounds like a subject you choose, intellectually. I think loneliness is a perception, an awareness—the loneliness might be someone else’s or your own. With writers, we’re observing as much as we’re experiencing. You ask, “if you had grown up differently or hadn’t had wrestling…” Well, there would still have been my mother, a nurse’s aide. I got my sexual politics, my social conscience, from her. She taught me to see and sympathize with sexual minorities, beginning with the understanding that women were treated as if they were sexual minorities. From seeing—through my mom’s eyes—how women were treated, I could see for myself that more vulnerable groups—gay men, lesbian women, transgender men and women—were treated worse. And if it hadn’t been wrestling, it would have been another combat sport. I was small, I got picked on, I fought back. My mom knew the wrestling coach; she introduced me to him.

BW: I often have to think of a quote by Erich Kästner: “Someone without fear has no fantasy.” It rings true to me. Fear can paralyze me, but it also fires up my imagination, opens doors, and creates images I have at my disposal when I tell stories. At the same time writing is the opposite of fear, because unlike reality I can control everything … Do you feel the same? I remember at the reading in Zurich you said that as a father you mainly wrote about your fears.

JI: There’s an element of fear in all my fiction. I’m always imagining a situation that I wouldn’t want to be in; I’m trying to create circumstances that I wouldn’t want anyone I loved to be in, certainly not my child. I’m a worst-case scenario writer. I’m not always writing a political novel—maybe only half the time. But even when the subject isn’t political or social, something will go terribly wrong. I didn’t make up this idea. I read it. Greek drama, Shakespeare, the 19th-century novel—not many happy endings.
*
JI: These so-called formative childhood friendships have a way of compensating fictional characters for the loss or absence of parents—at least, in my case. Perhaps this is another related theme (or obsession) we seem to have in common?

BW: Yes, definitely. As an author and as a reader I love that kind of lifelong friendship that can run deeper than many family ties. In the book you find that especially with Alva. For Jules she fills the gap that his parents and at times also his siblings have left behind more and more. Similar to how important Melony became to Homer Wells. Or Owen Meany to John Wheelwright after the death of his mother…

Speaking of them: You have created a multitude of great literary characters, many of whom as a reader you care about more than some acquaintances. Has the opposite ever happened to you? That you had a character that you secretly didn’t like but couldn’t change anymore and now had to “work with” reluctantly until you handed in the novel?

JI: I like creating characters I don’t like. But if you simply hate a character, you can’t expect your readers to care. The Steerforth character in David Copperfield taught me a lot. He’s such a cruel guy; you think you hate him. He torments young Copperfield; he seduces and abandons Copperfield’s dear friend, Emily. When Steerforth’s body washes ashore, you would think we wouldn’t care. But the way Dickens describes the body—it’s a first-person novel, in Copperfield’s voice—makes us realize that Copperfield also loved Steerforth or might even have been in love with him. Which makes Steerforth’s cruelty crueler, but it adds a dimension to Steerforth—one this reader never saw coming. Dickens writes, “I saw him lying with his head upon on his arm, as I had seen him lie at school.” You have to love your villains, at least a little.
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JI: I grew up as a faculty child on the campus of a boarding school. Before I attended the school, I lived in dormitories with all these older boys who’d been sent away to school. I felt like a foreigner among them; they must have felt like foreigners among themselves. But maybe writers grow up feeling that we are foreigners, wherever we are?

BW: I like that image very much. I always had the feeling that constant observing—which is essential for writing—relegates you to the fringes. You don’t participate completely and are always creating a second level, that already reflects and categorizes events. But the true dilemma for me with writing is that I escape to parallel worlds that are invisible to other people until publication. And while friends and family finally see where you have spent the last few years when a book is published, you are already living in the next lonely parallel world, your next novel … Do you know that feeling? Do you sometimes fear that by writing for decades you are missing out on real life, or do you think that it has in fact helped you understand life?

JI: I absolutely feel that we writers are outsiders—we are detached. Loneliness is what we do. I’m speaking to you as an American who lives in Canada. More than three years ago, I went through the immigration process in Toronto. In various waiting rooms, I was occasionally the only adult applicant for Permanent Residence who spoke English. I helped other applicants fill out their immigration forms. Just a few times, I saw families who’d been granted Protected Persons Status by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. I worked with the children; they understood English better than their parents. I remember a girl—she was 12. She was worried about my immigration story. “What about you, Mister?” she asked me. “What are you running away from?” Only last fall, as the number of refugees from war (and other human rights violations) continued to rise, the Trump Administration capped refugee admissions in the U.S. at the lowest level since 1980—not to mention, President Trump’s idea of a wall. And this girl—I’m guessing she and her family had been running for their lives—was worried about me. Well, this is our job as fiction writers—not attending to our real lives, but imagining the lives of characters who’ve had a harder time than we’ve had. Good fiction is imagining (truthfully) what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes.

BW: For me the key to telling a story is empathy. It is even more important in these worrying times when right-wing parties are winning elections around the globe. Good literature is the opposite of building walls, rather it tears them down by showing individual humans, in whom we recognize ourselves. If you read the story of the 12-year-old girl that had to flee to Canada with her family, you would automatically put yourself in her shoes. You would understand the girl and feel with her. Also strong, touching films like Roma can achieve this; they give me hope.

JI: Perhaps, in my case, the atmosphere of the boarding school—all these boys away from home—gave me that feeling (of being a foreigner) before I was one of them. I was 20 when I went to Vienna. I’d been writing since I was 15, but it was in Vienna where I began to feel that I actually was a writer. And of course I was an actual foreigner there—a genuine Ausländer. Was going away a kind of trigger for you to start writing?

BW: What you recount about Vienna, I felt about Berlin, where I moved after school to become a “real writer.” I had written before that, but only then did it really count for me as I consciously decided not to study and instead put all my energy and attention into books. I was 19 at the time, the rents in Berlin in 2003 were ridiculously low and the city was like the wide-open entryway to a slightly run-down flat. Here everyone who wanted to get something of the ground and had an idea was welcome. Back then I lived in a one-room flat that had no heating and electricity only on occasion. The shower was in the kitchen and in winter my breath would turn into clouds. But for the first time I felt freedom. In the daytime, I would do odd jobs and at night I would write. Of course, things didn’t work out for years and I received one rejection after another. But I never became desperate, because at least I was failing with something I loved.

JI: You weren’t only away in boarding schools; for several years, you lived in Barcelona, where you were also a foreigner.

BW: That time abroad was something I didn’t look for as an author but as a person. Because I only worked and wrote in the years after school there was something crucial I was missing: A kind of student life and living with others. But there was another reason I thought that living abroad was great, it meant that in my mid-20s I could start from scratch once again. I didn’t speak Spanish, nobody there knew me and for the first time I was a dark horse to everyone else. An exciting feeling, I enjoyed being a real foreigner. The years in Barcelona, living in a shared flat with a lot of people from around the world, was maybe the best decision I ever made.

What brought you to Vienna back then? You said that you lived in Canada for three years. Where did the wish come from to live abroad again, and why Toronto?

JI: I felt right at home, as a foreigner in Vienna. There was a gloominess there; the city was so much older than I was. And the suspicious looks you got as an Ausländer—perfect! My wife is Canadian. She was the Canadian publisher of The Cider House Rules when we met. I’ve lived as many as four or five months of the year in Canada, since the 1980s. But, in 2015, I became a full-time resident of Toronto. Sometime this year, in 2019, I’ll become a Canadian citizen—a dual citizen, actually, because I intend to keep my U.S. citizenship. (I pay U.S. taxes, I vote.) But I love living in Canada. I love Canada, but I’m also at home with the foreignness I feel living here.

BW: You have always had strong female characters in your novels and you have always been a very liberal, political, and progressive author. In In One Person an important figure is transsexual, but already in 1978 in The World According to Garp with Roberta you have a man who becomes a woman. In A Prayer for Owen Meany you write about the Vietnam War and in The Cider House Rules about abortion. Do you have the feeling that the American society has become more tolerant and open over time or do you think it has regressed again, at least partially?

JI: The World According to Garp is a feminist novel. It’s about sexual hatred, and sexual violence. A woman will be killed by a man who hates women; her son will be murdered by a woman who hates men. The novel begins with a sexual assault. Garp’s mother is assaulted in a movie theater. No one believes she was sexually assaulted. The Trump Administration recently put a judge on the U.S. Supreme Court, someone who’s been accused of more than one sexual assault. And Trump has publicly mocked and ridiculed the women who’ve accused this judge. In the U.S., abortion rights are in danger; LGBTQ rights are being compromised, even scorned. Trump’s narcissism may be somewhat new, but his xenophobia, his homophobia, his fascism are familiar. My mother taught me: If you’re going to be intolerant of something, try being intolerant of intolerance. My old teacher and mentor, Kurt Vonnegut, always said that the U.S. should give socialism a try. The U.S. is looking more and more like a plutocracy—government by and for the wealthy. Right now, it looks like the plutocrats are in charge.

BW: Do current political events influence what you write?

JI: There’s a chapter I’m writing now. If the chapter title stays the same, it’ll be: “Sexual Politics, a Fire, Jealousy.” That sounds familiar. Near the beginning of the chapter, there’s this passage. “In America, we don’t appear to notice when or where the politics start—we just wake up one morning, and everything is political. In America, we’re not paying attention when those things that will divide us are just beginning.” That sounds familiar, too, unfortunately.
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JI: I believe writing is rewriting. I think you know what I mean. I’ve heard that you worked on this novel for seven years; that you first wrote it in the first-person voice; then you changed it to the third person, and back again to the first person; and that, during this process, you also cut the novel by half. How much of your writing is rewriting?

BW: In my case it is also a lot. The finished book is just the visible tip of the iceberg, and the giant invisible rest is revision. But it is also what I enjoy the most, while writing itself—filling hundreds of white pages with half-finished thoughts and scenes—often causes me a lot of anguish. Improving an existing text however, rewriting scenes, tweaking dialogue and the language, putting yourself in the characters shoes and get closer to them over the years—that I love. With The End of Loneliness it was important to me to narrate as densely and as thrillingly as possible. I often thought about where I should make cuts in a 35-year-long story. What should I specify for the reader and where can I leave gaps, often many years long, that they can fill themselves? Ideally, I wanted there to be a book beside the book that only existed in the readers mind.

JI: Does the rewriting necessarily (or always) make the novels lighter? (In my case, the rewriting usually shortens an earlier draft, but occasionally I discover that I’ve made more inserts than cuts.) To many people, seven years seems like a long time to spend on a novel—especially on rewriting a novel—but I also take a long time. My novels are all about what happens in the rewriting.

BW: Usually my first two drafts are particularly long. I try to write like a child, boundless and intuitively. Quasi with the “id.” Later on, the intellect, the “I” revises it. During revision a lot of new scenes get added because often it takes years for me to understand what is missing and as I get to know the characters better. At the same time, I try to get rid of scenes that might no longer be needed or I condense what I’ve already written. Then again, I would also love to write a long novel of a thousand pages that you can get lost in for weeks.
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BW: I’ve heard that you write your first draft by hand. That has always fascinated me. I only write on the computer and I like that I can type about as fast as my subconscious can formulate something. This can lead to me finding sentences in the manuscript after hours of working that surprise me at first. They sometimes seem foreign or too hard. And then I realize that while I’ve never consciously thought like that, I must have always felt like that inside. A kind of dialogue with an invisible self. Do you have moments like that? And what is the reason for you consciously writing the first draft by hand?

JI: I used to write only first drafts in longhand. Now I write every draft in longhand. My mom taught me to type when I was 13 or 14. I’m too fast on a keyboard. Writing by hand makes me slow down. I go at the right pace if I’m writing by hand. Of course I write emails to my friends and family, but I write novels, screenplays, and teleplays in longhand.
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JI: Do you know the end of the novel—I mean, when you start writing? I need to hear the final tone, the sound of the voice in the last sentence, in order to write toward it. What about you? What matters, of course, is not if you know the ending before you begin, but that your readers are given this impression when they get to the end. (You give me that impression.)

BW: Thank you! Funnily enough with every book I write I have to think about what you once said, that you need to write the ending first in order to know what kind of tone your story needs. I can understand that completely and I could never start writing a book without knowing how it ends. For me everything is about the ending, the last, final tone and my whole story is determined by it.

JI: The passage of time, as I’ve said—“the trajectory of a long life, from childhood, through the adult disappointments, through parenthood: this is what novels do best.” Do you agree?

BW: Yes, that is also something I love, whether it is in Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, Stoner by John Williams or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon—or of course again and again in your novels. To span a whole life in your head and tell it has always fascinated me. In the same way I appreciate the opposite, for instance just a summer in Summer Crossing by Steve Tesich or a year in Looking for Alaska by John Green.

JI: I know you’ve had some experience as a screenwriter for movies based on your novels, as I have had. (I’ve also written some original screenplays, which have turned into novels.) I love what films can do, but I believe that novels do the passage of time best. What are your thoughts about the passage of time in storytelling, in novels, and in movies?

BW: There are some great cinematic exceptions like Moonlight and Citizen Kane, but the possibilities of a novel are of course different and it is almost the privilege of the novel to be able to master this genre so well. East of Eden by John Steinbeck tells the fortunes of several people over hundreds of pages and at the same time the history of California. However, in the film with James Dean they focus only on the last third of the book, the last generation, because there is just no room for everything else. Something similar was done with the wonderful movie version of The Cider House Rules, which you adapted yourself and shortened by around 15 years…What I find fascinating in this regard is the TV-series boom. I’ve heard that you are working on an adaptation of The World According to Garp. Would you say that this is the perfect format that was missing for a long time? While reading your book My Movie Business one often secretly wishes that some of the projects had been made into a series instead.

JI: The screen work is a good companion to the fiction. I often start a story as a screenplay, which will become a novel. Surely a miniseries is a better format for a novel than a feature-length film. You lose less, overall, and you get to compose a miniseries in episodes—not unlike chapters, or acts in a play. Both the overall length of a teleplay and the episodic structure of a TV series are better suited to an adaptation from a novel than a feature-length film.

BW: With Trying to Find Piggy Sneed you released a book of short stories. Besides screenplays, have you had ideas for short novels? Are you perhaps working on one now?

JI: I am trying to write shorter novels—not short ones, but they are getting a shorter. The one I’m writing now—a ghost story, called Darkness as a Bride—is one of the shorter ones. And the next couple of novels I’m thinking of will be significantly shorter than this one—an influence, perhaps, of writing screenplays and teleplays. (I still like writing fiction better, but I like what I’ve learned from the screen work.) Yes, my novels will get shorter—after this one.

BW: As much as I love films, I found writing screenplays rather difficult in the beginning. Compared to the more intuitive writing of a novel you are bound by a lot more rules. Sometimes I found the limitations of a screen play, the implacable 100 pages, to be a mathematical riddle. But I have to admit, that I learned a lot from writing them as well.

JI: I don’t know if I accept fate, or a sense of predetermination, as entirely realistic—that is, if I see fate or predetermination at work in what we call “real life” or the “actual world.” But I know that I believe in Fate or Destiny as a fictional truth—as more than a literary device. What happens to the characters in my novels feels fated or predetermined, I hope! I sense the hand of Fate at work in The End of Loneliness, too. (As a reader, I think I was first aware of fate—and influenced by fate in literature—from reading Hardy and Melville.) In your case, the cards that you deal to Jules seem to work as a challenge to him—Jules’s fate seems to motivate him to find his place in the world.

BW: As a human being I don’t believe in fate, more in being responsible for your life. But as a writer I of course employ fate greatly, while the characters, which are at its mercy, think like humans and wrestle with their fate. Through sometimes-dramatic events they have lost their place or their home and will be looking for a new one all their life. And yet they do not accept their fate. In The End of Loneliness for instance Jules says at one point: Life is not a zero-sum game. It owes us nothing, and things just happen the way they do. Sometimes they’re fair and everything makes sense; sometimes they’re so unfair we question everything. I pulled the mask off the face of Fate, and all I found beneath it was chance.

So I guess: as a human being I sympathize with the characters and feel for them, if something happens to them—something I deliberately do to them as an author. A rather schizophrenic matter … Dear John, would you agree?

Copyright (c) by John Irving and Benedict Wells