For readers who haven’t already discovered Julie Buntin’s Marlena, this visceral, gripping novel combines humanity with a thrilling edge. We watch as Marlena descends into addiction, but rather than being allowed to simply be voyeurs, we’re forced to face our own complicity in the vulnerability of girls—all girls, not just the reckless ones. I was lucky enough to catch Julie during her paperback tour, and over a few weeks of emailing, we had the following conversation. The Millions: One of the (many) gorgeously vivid, telling images of the book, for me, came near the end, when the narrator, Cat, goes back to one of the places she frequented as a teen and finds this: “A poster on the leftmost wall of a girl bent over, holding her ass apart, her face hanging down between her ankles, a cigarette burn in the middle of each cheek.” As a psychiatrist, one aspect of the book I really appreciated and want to make sure gets the recognition it deserves is how skillfully and artfully you weave together the twin themes of trauma and addiction. It's estimated that nearly 80 percent of people with PTSD, either from “civilian” causes (such as childhood sexual abuse and rape) or “military” (from combat exposure), suffer from some form of addiction, the most common of which is nicotine dependence and heavy smoking, with up to half of PTSD patients in some cohorts reporting some degree of opioid abuse (most commonly prescription). We know also that the endogenous opioid system (endorphin, dynorphin) is engaged during the formation of traumatic memories. So at this point in the history of neuroscience, we actually know a lot about the science that links trauma with addiction [for readers particularly interested in this, I recommend Neurobiology of Addiction, by George Koob, a genius scientist at the NIH]. Yet one of the strengths of your novel is how all that history, all the science and statistics, are so effectively submerged and seen through an adolescent perspective that absolutely knows “something is wrong” but not exactly what. In that way the book reminded me of Emma Donoghue’s Room, where the 5-year-old boy's view makes clear how disturbed the situation is without ever getting “clinical” and removing the reader from the visceral experiences that he's going through. That poster—the brutally degraded young woman, senselessly violated with those painful cigarette burns but posing for a picture, allowing herself to be consumed—that in one image tells so much about the story of trauma and addiction and how they're linked, how Marlena's most self-abasing moments reflect such a complex mix of the symptoms of PTSD (self-blame, cognitive distortions, risk-taking/recklessness, suicidality, hopelessness, hypervigilance) and her ongoing craving to use. What did you already know about addiction and trauma before writing the book, and what do you feel like you learned, and how did you learn it? Are there experiences from writing the book that you feel could be useful for emerging writers? What do you think are some of the key differences between writing about addiction in the memoir vs. novel mode? Did you intend, as I felt, that Marlena has so much more self-knowledge than she is sharing with the (younger) narrator Cat—and yet there's something really avoidant in this "best friendship" for Marlena? Julie Buntin: Most of what I knew about addiction and trauma prior to writing the book came from lived experience—by which I mean not necessarily experiences I’d had firsthand, but ones I’d witnessed. I have a family member, a young woman, who struggles with addiction, and her relationship to drugs and alcohol does seem intertwined with the fact that, even though she is blessed in many ways, her life has also had an outsize number of losses, including a central one that seems to have infected her worldview in a destructive way. As I wrote the book, focusing in on Marlena’s character, I was always asking myself what felt true. I’m not sure if this will be useful to emerging writers, but it was useful to me; what feels true for your character isn’t always going to be the thing you want to write. Especially when Cat and Marlena start drifting apart near the end—I knew that was the authentic thing, considering the seriousness of Marlena’s addiction, but I hated writing it. And thank you for your observation that the friendship is avoidant for Marlena—I think that is absolutely right. She gets so close to Cat in part because Cat isn’t going to call her out, isn’t going to challenge her outright, and Cat’s someone she can fool into thinking she’s OK. But then, when Cat starts to figure it out, Marlena retreats inward. [millions_ad] TM: Did you, as you were writing the novel, think about "heroin chic" and any problems of glamorizing addiction and its aftermath? The one consequence presented as a discrete event is Marlena's (sudden) death—but even that has so much brilliant shadowing around it (in particular the brief scene where Cat sees her looking like a scarecrow, a "meth-head," skeletal and even her beautiful hair ugly). Other consequences seem more pervasive, subtle, expressed through mood shifts in the narrator, like the wistfulness you conveyed so beautifully as Cat compares what she's doing in Silver Lake with what her school friend Haesung would've done, or the letter Cat writes to her absent father. There's no question that we feel the negatives of addiction. And yet these kinds of sentences convey the thrill as well: “It's not a question. I love this wildness. I crave it.” Did you consciously think about or set up this ambivalence, to have “drug glamour” in there along with devastation? JB: I thought a lot about the danger of glamorizing addiction while writing this, especially because I hoped that the book might be read by older teenagers. It was constantly on my mind, and while I had no interest in writing a cautionary tale, either, if the balance doesn’t tilt more toward cautionary tale then I’ve failed myself a little bit. I had to walk a careful line in the narrative—I needed to show all the ways this lifestyle could be intoxicating, how it might suck a girl like Cat in, and then slowly reveal the way those choices add up to a trap that nobody is going to want to find themselves in—and furthermore, a trap that extends past the teenage years and into adulthood. One of the ways of doing that, narratively, was to make Cat, herself, an addict. I’ve often had people tell me very matter-of-factly that Cat drinks because she’s sad/guilty about what happened with Marlena, and while I never argue with that interpretation—certainly the narrative, structured as it is, argues that—I always find it very interesting that no one ever says, oh, of course Cat’s an alcoholic, because she started binge drinking frequently at 15 years old and her brain chemistry changed forever. I wanted both of those things to be at work at once, and for Cat’s trajectory, which on the surface seems great—upwardly mobile, at the very least—to be itself a warning about the danger of experimentation that goes too far. It’s not just your life that’s at stake, in terms of an early death, as in Marlena’s case; it’s also the possibility of living a life that’s not reliant upon a substance, that’s not in some way dimmed and hemmed in by dependency. TM: So one of the other major symptoms of PTSD is "numbing" or "numbness." Current science actually identifies a subgroup of PTSD patients who mainly are numbed out, who dissociate from current reality when remembering or reminded of their trauma, rather than showing more of a "fight or flight" response. I felt that the New York sections of the book told from Cat's adult perspective so adeptly expressed what it is like to be numb in this way, and it made me think differently about what Cat and Marlena went through (including with various exploitative adult males). Can you talk about the craft challenges of writing a "numb" narrator? I'm thinking of Bret Easton Ellis's Less than Zero (describing some of those scenes of drug use among a slightly younger cohort of adults in their early vs. late 20s) but also of Zadie Smith in The Autograph Man and even Aravind Adiga's narrator in The White Tiger and Akhil Sharma's narrator in An Obedient Father. All of these have numb narrators facing the aftermath, one could argue, of being complicit in one's own traumatization. Numbness as a form of self-punishment but also involuntary. And numbness seems to become a force for delay, for waiting to move forward, for even blocking oneself from moving forward. A kind of semi-paralyzing spell that can only be broken by the person experiencing it and not externally by a therapist pointing it out. How can you (how did you?) sustain an energetic and gripping narrative drive while writing a narrator who was experiencing a (very understandable) numbness? Did this challenge relate to what you said you did in 2015 (rewrite the novel substantially after it sold) and, to support other writers out there breathing hard from "editorial letters," can you talk about your revision process and what that was like? JB: Oh, I love this question, and I love that you used the word numb. Also, I wasn’t aware of that background on PTSD, though it relates so deeply to how I thought of Cat’s character. Certainly the experience of befriending Marlena, all of her experiences in Silver Lake, and then the sudden loss of Marlena all formed this hinge point in her life: She was one way before, and she would never be the same again after. That’s the kind of moment I’m fascinated by as a novelist—this periods when we become ourselves, for better or worse, the stories that change us forever. When I was writing Cat as an adult, I was actively striving for numbness, which was challenging! You can never sacrifice your reader’s interest to achieve an effect, or I don’t believe you should, anyway, so I had to make those scenes in New York feel sort of muffled while being interesting and moving the story forward, which was genuinely hard. As you mention in your question, I did rewrite the novel after it sold, in an attempt to address some of my editor’s concerns—and as I worked through her comments, I kept coming up against a sort of larger question. We’re often, as writers, told that we need to know the answer to the question, “Why this story?” And I definitely knew why I was writing it—as I’ve discussed a little bit above. So the urgency and intensity were there, but there was something missing structurally. The question wasn’t just why this story, I realized—it was why this story, now? Why is Cat revisiting this at this precise moment in her life? And the answer actually was that numbness. She’s gotten everything—a whole new life, a better life than her mother and Jimmy, and yet why is she numb? I thought I might be able to make it gripping and interesting by virtue of the contrast between the past sections and the present sections—the tonal dissonance, so to speak, might keep readers moving forward, wanting to know how Cat got to be quite like this. I also worked on varying the language, clipping it a little when Cat’s sober, and making it loose and blurry when she’s not. I also think there’s something inherently interesting, for better or for worse, about reading someone who is on the brink in their own life, and Cat really is, with her drinking. I hoped the reader would care enough about her, even if they didn’t exactly like her, to want to figure out whether she was going to pull through.
Good fiction typically provides few good answers but many good questions. The great novels and stories can often be, however incompletely, expressed as a single, overarching question that the author is working out via narrative. Is the American dream an illusion? (The Great Gatsby); should a person marry for money? (Sense and Sensibility); can the son of God be born in human form and sacrifice himself to save humanity? (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows). Good essay, like good fiction, is also mostly engaged in the act of asking questions. But the forms differ in a few crucial aesthetic respects, leaving aside the basic fact of fictionality, which, as we know, can be an overstated difference—nonfiction is often partly invented and much fiction is true, or true enough, but never mind that. Centrally, fiction possesses a narrator that obscures the author. Largely as a function of the narrator’s existence and also simple novelistic convention, most novels seek to attain a smooth narrative surface, an artifactual quality. A great deal of received wisdom regarding fiction craft has to do with the author disappearing in the service of creating John Gardner’s “vivid, continuous dream.” This isn’t to say that essayists don’t also obsessively and endlessly revise to create a polished surface, but the goal is typically not authorial effacement. Maybe an easier way to say it would be that both fiction and essay revolve around formulating questions, but essay very often works the act of questioning—of figuring out what the question is—into the form. Joan Didion pioneered what we think of as the modern essay, a self-conscious blend of journalism, criticism, and personal experience. Some Didion essays are intensely focused on one subject, for instance, “On Keeping a Notebook.” But the most Didion-y of Didion’s essays are ones like “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” and “The White Album,” that meander through subject and theme like a car driving home from work via L.A.’s surface streets. “The White Album,” for example, combines the description of her mental instability and compulsive dread with a more panoramic view of her bad-trippy east-Hollywood neighborhood in the late ’60s, a personal account which ripples out into larger cultural considerations: the Doors, the Manson murders, and California—always California. Didion’s stylistic legacy serves as both influence and study for Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls, an excellent collection of individual essays and also, to my mind, a fascinating example of the book-length possibilities of the essay form. Dead Girls begins in what seems straightforward-enough fashion with Part One, The Dead Girl Show, a quartet of thematically unified essays examining the centrality of the figure of the dead girl in American popular culture. These include “Toward a Theory of the Dead Girl,” about the glut of recent dead girl TV shows including True Detective, The Killing, and Pretty Little Liars; “Black Hole,” about growing up in the serial killer-y Pacific Northwest; “The Husband Did It,” about true-crime TV shows; and my personal favorite, “The Daughter as Detective,” about Bolin’s father’s taste in Scandinavian crime thrillers. (A side note: It’s not a requirement that you have mystery-addict parents to enjoy this essay, but it could hardly fail to charm someone who, like myself, grew up in a house crammed with Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö mysteries.) Having established its seeming method in Part One, the book veers sideways into Part Two, Lost in Los Angeles, essays largely about Bolin’s experience as a 20-something living, for no especially good reason, in L.A. Aimlessness becomes a dominant theme, as the book shifts gears into writing about freeways, Britney Spears’s celebrity journey, and wandering around graveyards. Perhaps in an attempt to pre-empt readerly confusion at the book’s shape-shifting, Bolin has made it clear, both in press and in the introduction: This is not just a book of essays about dead girls in pop culture. I understand this concern and will admit to feeling a slight confusion about Bolin’s project immediately after Part One. But proceeding through Part Two, and then Three, Weird Sisters, about teenage girlhood and the occult, I found myself increasingly glad the book had morphed and kept morphing. The book’s intelligence has a questing quality, a pleasant restlessness as it moves from literary criticism to personal anecdote to academic cultural/political critique and back again, like a jittery moth that never lands for too long on the light it circles. The way Bolin modulates subject and approach metaphorizes both the breadth and slipperiness of her main thematic concern: narratives of female objectification. The book generally proceeds from objective to subjective, mimicking the detached and objectifying eye of its central detective figure in Part One, then moving steadily into subjective, personal territory. Like Indiana Jones switching a bag of sand for gold, Bolin substitutes her younger self as the Dead Girl and, in doing so, bestows the Dead Girl agency, brings her to life. Part Four, the longform essay “Accomplices,” brings the project to an end and to a thematic whole. In a way, it embodies the entire book, incorporating the major concerns—growing up, white female objectification and privilege, romance and the lack thereof, Los Angeles—into a self-aware meditation on the author’s sentimental education in the context of literary counterparts like Rachel Kushner and Eileen Myles and, yes, Joan Didion. Bolin seems to be asking whether there is, inherent in the act of writing the classic coming-of-age “Hello to All That” essay, as she puts it, a self-objectification that echoes the deadly cultural objectifications critiqued earlier in the collection. “How can I use the personal essay,” she asks, “instead of letting it use me?” Part Four anatomizes the entire Dead Girls project, simultaneously encapsulating the book and acting as a Moebius strip that returns the reader to the more stylized and essayistic distance of the opening chapters. To be clear, there are many standout and stand-alone individual essays in these sections. The aforementioned “Daughter as Detective,” which, in addition to its many virtues, contains the unforgettable description of Bolin’s father as a “manic pixie dream dad.” “This Place Makes Everyone a Gambler,” a deft personal history of reading and rereading Play It as It Lays, that weaves together L.A. noir, Britney Spears, and Dateline NBC. “Just Us Girls,” a touching cultural study of adolescent female friendship. But the book’s biggest triumph, in my opinion, is of a larger, formal nature, as Bolin marshals her themes and interests into a book-length reflection, of and on, the persistent figure of the Dead Girl. Alice was kind enough to field a few of the questions that occurred to me in writing this review, mainly regarding how this book’s singular form came to be. The Millions: Can you provide a little general background about how the book got written? I'm curious which essays were written first. Also, if there were any pieces that it became apparent needed to be written in the interest of book-length cohesion. I'm especially interested in "Accomplices," which serves so well as an embodiment and critique of the project. Alice Bolin: This is a little hard to answer because most of the previously published essays in the book are drastically changed from their earlier forms. I would say the book really started with “The Dead Girl Show” and the essays in the second section about California, which I started writing, hilariously, the second I moved there. I started most of those pieces in 2013 and 2014 in Los Angeles, and that was when I started to see the ideas I'd been working with coming together in some vaguely book-like shape. Most of the essays in the third section, “Weird Sisters,” existed earlier, though, in different versions—I realized late in the game that my preoccupations with witchiness and teen girl pathology pretty obviously dovetailed with the Dead Girl thing. "Accomplices" was the last piece I wrote for the book, and I knew that it was my opportunity to pull up some of the narrative paths I'd laid down earlier, both about Dead Girls and about my own life. The book as a whole is about questioning received narratives, so I had ambitions for it to work as sort of a (sorry) palimpsest, putting forth suppositions and then writing over or revising them. I want there to be some dissonance for the reader. TM: At what point did the theme of The Dead Girl emerge? Was it obvious from the start? The collection approaches this subject from so many angles; I’m interested in if there was a certain amount of retrofitting in the revision—that is, were there already completed or published essays that you went back to and revised with the dead girl subject/theme in mind? Or did it all kind of hang together as it does from the start? AB: I think once I wrote “The Dead Girl Show,” I saw that Dead Girls were a theme that I had been interested in for a very long time. I had already been writing about thrillers, true crime, detective fiction, and horror movies, genres where Dead Girls were everywhere. After that I was thinking about other ways I could write about Dead Girl genres—like in the Nordic Noir essay—and about subjects from other pulp genres that could throw those essays into relief, like pop music or reality TV. I didn't really do much retrofitting that I can remember, except maybe lines here and there. I have my MFA in poetry, so I have borrowed a lot of the ways I think about a collection from poetry books—that you allow your preoccupations to dictate the shape of the book, instead of the other way around. TM: The book’s critical mode seems to move somewhat from objective to subjective, and then, in Part Four, comment on that move. That is (and I realize I might be oversimplifying here, since all these elements exist in all the essays), Part One is predominately cultural critique, and then parts Two and Three become increasingly personal. To what extent was this movement something that organically emerged in revision, and to what extent was it conscious? AB: It's interesting, because in my original draft I had the California essays first, and the Dead Girl essays second—they seemed most important to me, but then my editor was like "Uh, shouldn't Dead Girls be first since that is the title and the whole point of the book?" She was so right. Someone else has pointed out that the book works like a Dead Girl show, with the Dead Girl as bait at the beginning of the book, but the rest of the narrative arc being about something totally different. I love this, but it didn't really occur to me, except maybe intuitively. I definitely wanted the fourth section to critique the strategies of earlier essays, but beyond that, the organization was more by subject than method. I actually wanted to cut the third section late into the drafting process, if that tells you anything about how uncomfortable I am with writing about my own life! TM: To me, because of the thematic unity and movement of the book, Dead Girls has a somewhat novelistic quality or instinct. Is this something you’re interested in doing? More generally, what’s next? AB: This is such a nice compliment! I am absolutely interested in experimenting with fiction. I had a sort of epiphany in the past few months about how my own attitude toward myself in the book is a lot like the detachment novelists have toward their characters—it's the only way I can break through (or maybe... use?) my self-loathing. Anyway, yes I am interested in writing an autobiographical novel sometime in the future, with more details TBA, in maybe like 10 years. I'm also thinking about another very girly essay collection about magazines, social media influencers, and the vintage internet, and more generally, the way women have mediated and monetized their personalities.
Anelise Chen and I first met at a bar in New Haven, Connecticut, where we’d each worked. “You were getting marrow ‘to go,’" she wrote, "which I thought was the craziest thing.” Chen’s careful observation of the absurd ripples throughout her debut novel, So Many Olympic Exertions (Kaya Press, 2017). The narrator, Athena Chen, is a Ph.D. candidate ostensibly at work on a dissertation concerning Olympic athletes, but she spends much of the novel sliding into unfunded, perpetual-ABD status. Athena is a feverishly avoidant narrator: She’ll almost acknowledge her own emotions, only to redirect with an obsessive digression into Andre Agassi’s childhood or Diana Nyad’s long-distance swims. Athena begins to describe herself as though she’s one of her research subjects: “She can’t fake it anymore. She’ll have to do something or do nothing and keep going forward blindly.” Currently a finalist for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, Anelise Chen has written for The New York Times, Gawker, Vice, Bomb, The New Republic, and The Paris Review Daily. She teaches creative writing at Columbia University. We spoke over the phone. The Millions: So Many Olympic Exertions is a novel of distraction and dissociation. Athena is preoccupied with her own body, but she’s also studying other people’s bodies. How do you craft a voice that navigates these tensions? Anelise Chen: That was really hard. I didn't realize the disconnect between being so in my head and having such a sort of locked-in narrator who was attempting to write about the body: She completely doesn't have any access to her body. At the same time, she's trying to think about it. That problem didn't occur to me until many years into the writing. I was going through a difficult time and I was going to therapy, and of course they tell you to exercise. It's actually very cheesy, but then I just started moving my body a little bit more and paying attention to it. I do remember in the first drafts of it someone in my workshop just refused to read it. He said it made him feel claustrophobic and crazy; it was suffocating and uncomfortable because we never got to leave the narrator's head. That was a complete revelation for me. Prior to that I hadn't considered that this was what I was doing: trapping the reader in an anxious person's head. But I think that is what is happening to the narrator. She's sort of just locked into her head and she can't escape and she can't access her body. I did go through a phase where I felt that writers had not properly addressed the body as a subject; that we weren't very good at it. So I was like, who has written about the body before? In Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, Barthes writes about these two brothers. One of them is an intellectual, and so he's not as good as his brother, who's just this, like, maniacal bicycle demon. So [Barthes] sort of puzzles over why the intellectual one can't be as good, what it is that's preventing it. And it's the mind: The mind is an impediment. He thinks too much. There's this very old René Descartes, or Cartesian, dualism, the separation of mind and body. TM: On what draft did you realize that you were writing about the body? AC: I wanted to write about the body from the beginning because I wanted to write about sports, but I didn't realize right away that I was disconnected from my body and didn't know how to access my body. I was just curious about it, and I was just wondering, just as I was watching the Winter Olympics, "How do they have so much conviction?" They have so much conviction in their bodies, so much belief and confidence they can just do these things! All of their intentions channel through their bodies, and how does that happen? So I really wanted to investigate that, initially. TM: The book is apprehending the physical through a form that's inherently intellectual, which creates some tension, too, between form and content. AC: Form and content, right. I mean, that is the problem with every book, and with this book, the content is very much just thought and the movement of thought, and that is different from the movement of the body. Movement of body is just like, how we move around in space, and that's where plot comes from, that's where drama comes from, because we bump into each other, we interact, that's drama—and movement of thought doesn't really have that. When people say things are claustrophobic and boring, that's what they're talking about. So it's like, how do you sort of fuse those two things together? So I puzzled over this and I thought, well, I have to capture somehow the movement of her day to day, how she's moving her body around in life—the book might feel very static, but she's actually going about her day. She has these real routines. So I started reading a lot of journals, journals of writers and artists, or just any kind of journal, and sort of recording, like, how organic structure arises from just a life. I mean, arguably, a journal has no form—just organic documentation—but actually, you do see these ebbs and flows, and you do see these sort of climaxes in action, and especially with Virginia Woolf's diaries, you can really tell there are these lapses, and she has attacks and is ill. Her entries are like, very far apart, and the prose isn't as vibrant. There are these natural waves in every life. So this isn't a journal, but I tried to mimic that in form, and I think it fits it to use that to create movement. TM: Yeah, there’s something very balletic in the structure. You have these very short, staccato interludes of very tight paragraphs, and then you'll have a long, sweeping passage. And often it's either Athena discussing something that's quite painful for her or avoiding it entirely with a very long discussion of a particular athlete that she’s become obsessed with. AC: Yeah, so that's a question of patterning, too, and so I tried to really be physical in a way and tried to put myself in Athena, in her life, experiencing how she would experience, and of course I have to invent things that happen to her, so it's like, well, if a person were in such a situation, what would be captivating to them? What would they be thinking about? What would they be feeling in their body? Sometimes you go to work out, and you show up and just have nothing. You can't run or whatever, but sometimes you can just go for miles. Mental attention is the same thing. Sometimes with these journals, the writers will just go on for pages about something, even their day; something just sets them off. And other days it's like a bomb could have dropped on this day. Virginia Woolf would just record it in a single line. So it's really about placing yourself in that person's body, in the character's body, in their situation, allowing yourself to feel what they might feel, what they might be looking at. And I think the form sort of arises very naturally out of that. Like, if someone is manic, for instance, it makes sense that they would have a lot of long, sort of unhinged passages. But if someone is depressed, or they can't even get to a notebook, then they wouldn't — huge stretches of time are just passing unrecorded. But of course, with the novel, you have to make it stretch right. The arc has to feel, but it is all artificial. You have to pattern it directly. TM: That sounds like when you're running. The pacing is different for a 5K than it is for a half-marathon. AC: Toward the end, I was so exhausted from writing it I did start thinking of it as a marathon. I blocked it out and thought, you know, if this were mile 18, then I should be feeling this. I was trying to account for my thoughts in that way. [millions_ad] TM: There’s a point in the narration that approaches that acutely: “Women experience time like an animal that wants to thrust us off its back.” It seems as though gender expectations are negotiated as another bodily expectation alongside that of athletic exceptionalism. AC: Yeah! She has these separate expectations, and she carries the brunt of being a woman and being an athlete, being a daughter, all of these things. I mean, why do we have this stress, like “time's running out, time's running out"? Why is time running out? There actually is a very concrete reason, because it's like, oh, there's a physical marker—once you cross it—I mean, if you just don't have a kid after you're 40. Or you don't have a career—nothing's going to work out for you. You're not going to have a family; you're not going to have kids; your life is over. And that just came from conversations that I had with friends, academics, and my friends who are academics, and from everyone's anxieties about that. And then it's just—I feel like now that we're older, it's a little more relaxed; now we know older mothers, and the timeline has gotten pushed back a little bit, so I don't feel as stressed about it. And also, just having a kid is such a leap of optimism, and even that is an expectation. And it's like, well, are you optimistic about the future? Can you imagine yourself having a kid? And it's like, no. But Athena is someone who wants to push herself to get to that point, and it's like, why aren't you optimistic—why can't you envision the future? And it's very much about self-blame. Which is how athletes operate, too. So they're similar in that way. There's a lot of self-blame involved. TM: Yeah, there’s also a recurrent discussion of addiction, which I think is tied to athleticism. AC: I mean it really comes from this semi-set gold rule of sports, which is just never quit, and if you take that to its logical extreme, then you shouldn't quit anything, not even addiction. But you wonder what came first, the addiction-prone personality or the training? It's probably both. You probably have to have an addiction-prone personality to move yourself forward, because sports reward that. So never quit. Athletes just don't know how to quit, and everyone always says the retired athlete always dies twice, because after they quit, they don't know what to do with their lives, and then that leads to addiction, and they also have physical injuries and concussions. There are a lot of reasons why those things go hand in hand. But I think the biggest one is the never-quit idea, which is a pretty dangerous one. TM: There's a passage where Athena talks about how her vocation most closely resembles other people's vacations. What relationship does she have to conviction? AC: Yeah, I mean, her shame comes from not really having a conviction, or not truly believing in what she should feel conviction about. She doesn't totally buy into her life's endeavor, this academic career. She doesn't really buy it, and she's really questioning what anybody does anything for. And some people have a lot of conviction. These athletes totally devote themselves, and it seems valid, and it's very beautiful to watch. And they're very good at it. But it's not really doing anything; it's not really productive in any way. It's not useful. So she has self-blame because she can't figure out, "Why can't I feel as convicted, or have as much conviction about what I'm doing as these athletes, and how do I get that conviction?" It's something she wants but knows she doesn't have. Is that shame? I guess it's shame. Or is it more like envy? TM: I mean, I think that shame and envy get along really well with one another. Another comorbid set of emotions in So Many Olympic Exertions is grief and humor. Athena is also processing a lot of grief, and guilt, and her dissociation seems sort of willful. AC: That's exactly right, and I totally forgot about that until just now. You're right. There's so much blocking. There's willful blindness and dissociation. This seems to be a pattern: Every time someone tells me something about my own book I am surprised. Just the other day my mom said, "You have to stop feeling so guilty all the time. Why do you have so much guilt? Your book is all about guilt too." I thought, oh, right. Athena has survivor's guilt, but she also has so many other strains of guilt: second-generation guilt, high-achiever guilt, etc. TM: And humor seems like a way of letting some air in to the narrative. AC: I don't like reading anything that doesn't have any humor in it. Humor's very important to me, and I don't even have a way to explain it; it's just a personal taste kind of thing. I like funny writers. It just seems like the way to get by, because life can be pretty grim and depressing, and then you just laugh about it and it's better. My family has coped that way, and it's what I seek in writers and in friends, too. All my friends are very funny. But I mean, as I was writing, when I got that claustrophobia comment, I remember thinking, "No! I wanted it to be funny!" So I’m glad you said "let some air in," so it doesn’t feel so claustrophobic. TM: A lot of writing about sports tends to pivot on the Big Game/Match/Race. But for a narrator who's obsessed with athletes, there's so little action or high drama. What is Athena thinking about when she thinks about sports? AC: She's mostly thinking about failure. I really love Kon Ichikawa's documentary Tokyo Olympiad because he shares a similar sensibility. He focuses on all these moments between each event, these seemingly throwaway moments when athletes are stretching or chatting or working out their competition jitters. He really lets the camera linger on their faces, especially after they lose. From a literary standpoint, these moments carry more potential because winning and losing—that's a simple narrative that doesn't leave much room for nuance.
After her aging father takes a life-threatening fall, Penelope Grand returns to her childhood hometown of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, to keep a closer watch on him. She finds both her father and her neighborhood much changed. He’s become withdrawn and wistful, and the Bed-Stuy she knew is disappearing under the rising tide of gentrification. Already emotionally adrift, Penelope must find a way to navigate the challenges of her now-unfamiliar home. She takes a job teaching at her own former elementary school, which has changed along with the rest of the neighborhood. She becomes the tenant of a white family, the Harpers, whom she can’t help seeing as part of the economic transformation that closed her father’s record store. And perhaps most difficult of all, Penelope once again confronts the void left by her estranged mother, Mirella. Despite their antagonism, Penelope and Mirella have undeniable parallels—both in temperament and in the way their lives unfold. Halsey Street is a novel about one woman’s experience of gentrification, alienation, and homecoming in a changing world. I was fortunate enough to speak with author Naima Coster about this novel over the phone. The Millions: Could you talk a little bit about who you are and why you wrote this book? Naima Coster: Sure. I grew up in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. It was a place that I always felt connected to, a part of my identity. The Fort Greene that I knew was black and brown, Caribbean, working and middle class, creative, and full of this rich, collective life. At age 12, I started at a private girls’ school on the Upper East Side. That was my first experience of some kind of identity fracture. I felt split between two entirely different worlds that both existed in New York. That experience of being caught in between is one that gentrification reproduced for me; I saw the world of school and the world of home colliding in the Brooklyn landscape that had been so familiar. I wrote an essay about that in 2011 that was published in The New York Times. I wanted to take some of the questions that came out of that essay and explore them in Halsey Street, which is about gentrification in part, but it’s also about seeking to find your place in your community and also figuring out how to come home to your family and to yourself. TM: Principal Pine doesn’t appear all that often in the novel, but her first scene jumped out to me as very thematic. Penelope meets her, and there’s this charge, and she winds up having a rather averse reaction to her boss. Specifically something she says about integration and gentrification. Can you speak to that conversation a little more? NC: Sure. One of the great things about writing fiction—as opposed to, say, writing a personal essay or an explicit polemic—is that I get to represent all kinds of stances on these issues. Principal Pine is somewhat of an opportunist. She says “all right, well, the neighborhood is becoming more mixed in terms of race and income. Let’s see how this can benefit our students. Let’s see how we can take advantage of it.” For Penelope, this position seems shortsighted; it definitely neglects the losses suffered by people in the community, including Penelope’s father. But Principal Pine has a point about the benefits of integration across lines of class and race for students, which is something that really interests me about the work of Nikole Hannah-Jones. Part of the problem with gentrification is that it so rarely results in that kind of integration in the public school system. But I got Principal Pine to be able to bring up some of those ideas in the book, and it’s one of the great pleasures for me as a writer. It’s one of the things that makes a novel enigmatic; there’s such an array of positions and responses that it can be difficult to locate the author and what kind of view the book is endorsing. So the reader is left to wrestle with all the different views that all the characters bring up. TM: I saw Halsey Street not just as a story of gentrification but also of the main character, Penelope, trying to make sense of her parents, Ralph and Mirella. What would you say was the genesis of these two towering figures in Penelope’s life? NC: You know, I started Halsey Street with the intention to think about and craft Ralph. I wanted him to be a symbol for Bed-Stuy but also to have his own identity and inner life. So I wanted him to be sort of on the way out, a figure of old Brooklyn in terms of both his failing health and also his diminished sense of self. But I also wanted him to be charming and still have some power left, even if he’s out of touch with it. So, I imagined Ralph as Brooklyn just to get started with him. Mirella was initially a present absence in the book; I didn’t know much about her when I first started writing. I knew I wanted her to be estranged from her daughter. I wanted her to have left. And I wanted her to have a version of Ralph that would conflict with Penelope’s version of Ralph. But when I started writing into Mirella’s point of view, I discovered that Mirella had a different story—not only of Ralph and their marriage but also of Brooklyn and life in the United States. In the beginning, she was the character I considered the least, but as I wrote she began to capture more of my interest. TM: I wanted to concentrate more on Mirella for a moment. At one point, a younger Penelope returns to the Dominican Republic with Mirella. Penelope actually really hits it off with Mirella’s mother, leaving Mirella herself somewhat adrift. NC: Yes, she does. TM: That struck me as a bit of a complication. I was originally thinking Mirella might have this outsider bent because she’s of two cultures, but it occurred to me that there might be a deeper reason for it. Mirella feels like she’s really an outsider, like she represents a break in this lineage of women. I was wondering if you could comment on why that might be? NC: Yes. That chapter is one of my favorites in the book. It’s not my favorite, but it’s one of the ones that I consider the most painful. Mirella is an outsider for many reasons. Part of it is because of her red hair. Part of it is the way she presents as ethnically ambiguous, maybe white presenting. She’s an outsider in that way, and she’s also lost quite a lot; the book doesn’t dwell on this, but it does say it. She lost her father at a young age, going from being quite wealthy and living in the city to living this rural existence. It was really traumatic. And the book doesn’t use that word. The word “trauma” doesn’t come up in the text, because Mirella wouldn’t necessarily think of the facts of her life in those terms, but it certainly is still traumatic. So Mirella is also marked by loss, pretty powerfully, in a way that, in that chapter, Penelope and her mother are not. There’s this sense that Mirella has lost something, that there’s something that she wants to reclaim but hasn’t been able to. So then Mirella goes to the Dominican Republic and she gets to live in a big house, like she did when she was a girl, and begins to reclaim some of the status that she lost when she was very young. [millions_ad] TM: Right. Going back to Mirella for a moment, there’s a comment made about her somewhere in the story that I found particularly striking. It’s remarked that Mirella is relatively young as mothers go and that she could almost pass for Penelope’s sister. What does Mirella’s youth do for her character? NC: Right. Well, I was thinking a lot about this: For a woman like Mirella, what are the parts of her identity that she would take pride in and consider powerful? For Mirella, as someone whose education becomes stilted when she goes to the United States—because she never goes to college and is an outsider in terms of language—and as someone who hasn’t had the same sense of accomplishment that her husband has with the store, one of the things that she comes to pride is her physical appearance. And her beauty, and her youthfulness. It becomes a source of self-satisfaction for her, and also a way that she judges other women around her. It’s one of the things that she has to hold on to. She doesn’t have intimacy with her daughter to hold on to. So she clings to this idea that “Well, as long as I have my beauty and my youth and my red hair and my pale skin…” Because it’s one of the things that the world values; it’s something that she’s able to value about herself. TM: I had one last question for you: If you have any advice to other aspiring artists or novelists, I think we’d all love to hear it. NC: Yes, I’ve got some advice. First, I’d say to aim for publication without rushing toward it. Sometimes there’s the impulse to rush, and I felt that in myself. There’s so much uncertainty in being a writer, and I wanted to publish something just so that I knew that I could have a life as a writer. Publishing is only a small piece of the writing experience. This is something that your own teacher, John Reed, was instrumental in helping me to learn. Writing is about the practice of writing. That’s the part that is exciting, gives joy, and sustains you. Something I’ve had to do—and continue to have to do—is remember that the work is the actual practice of the writing, the creating, and that there’s no rush. The work has value in and of itself apart from any kind of end result. It’s a nice saying, but it's hard to accept when you’re years into a project, still devoting time to it, and you don’t know what will become of it. You have to affirm for yourself that the work is valuable. It’s really challenging, but it has been grounding and prevented me from being an anxious mess from all the uncertainty that comes with becoming a writer. I’ve also found that having supportive friends who are writers as well is critical in affirming the value of all that time we devote to making stuff up and moving words around on the page. Being friends with other writers and readers and having community continually reaffirms the work for me and helps me to keep going. Right now, I’m enjoying some attention, and the book has some traction. But for a long time, that’s not something that I had. I think writers need to hear “keep going” from other people now and again. It’s important to find the people who will do that for you: who will tell you to keep going, who will read your stuff, and who will meet up with you to revise your work. Writing, for me, is a mind game. It’s about finding the discipline to sit in a chair, to work on something without knowing whether you’re going to have to throw it out later. The mind game is the harder part for me than the actual generating of pages. Revising is challenging, but it’s also exhilarating, like cracking a puzzle. But the part that feels harder to overcome is the questioning of what’s going to become of something you write, whether the time you’re spending is valuable.
One of the questions at the heart of Old in Art School, the new memoir by Nell Painter, is what it takes to be “An Artist” and who gets to decide you’ve earned those capital A’s. In her 60s, Painter left a career as an eminent Princeton historian and author of numerous books about African-American history and race—including, in 2010, The History of White People—to study painting and drawing at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts and in the MFA program at the Rhode Island School of Design. After a lifetime of hard work and intellectual rigor adding up to success, Painter found that art school was governed by a different equation, where who you were and how you looked seemed to be at least as important as what you produced. “To be An Artist was to be a certain kind of person that you could not become through education or practice,” she writes. “If I lacked the essential quality of being An Artist, I was condemned to failure.” In a recent interview at her vacation home in the Adirondacks, Painter discussed why she chose such a radical change of direction at this time in her life and what she learned about art, society, and herself in the process. The Millions: Did you always think you might go into academia? Nell Painter: Yeah, after I got a C in sculpture and realized—I thought—I didn't have enough talent to be an artist. TM: So your earliest love was art? NP: Oh, yeah, I drew all the time, and I was briefly an art major at Berkeley. But this C—and I earned my C, I didn’t do a damn thing—I thought, oh, if you have talent… TM: Are you glad that you took the history path or do you ever wish that you had stuck with art? NP: Oh, no, I did the right thing—not for the right reasons, necessarily. That generation, the Modernist generation of women and black people—totally ignored. And there are some fantastic artists in that generation. I don’t think, working as hard as you have to work for as long as you have to work, I don’t know if I could have sustained it, with virtually no recognition. TM: What made you decide to make this huge change at this point in your life? Did you feel that you had done everything in your academic career that you wanted to do? NP: I wouldn’t have put it quite that way, but that’s as good a way to put it…I was ready to move on. I had shepherded a whole lot of really good dissertations, and I had written a whole lot of really good books. And as I say in Old in Art School, my history writing had started pulling me into the visual already. TM: I imagine you knew that you would be older than most of your classmates, but did you imagine that it would make as much of a difference as it did? NP: No. I had done these tryouts, like taking classes at Princeton and doing the drawing and painting marathon. And it didn't come up either time, so for me it was, first, satisfying myself that it was rewarding enough to invest a lot of time, and that I had the physical stamina to do it, and so the answers in both cases were yes. I thought that would do it. You know, I didn’t feel so old in undergraduate school, because Rutgers is a university, and there was a lot else going on besides art, whereas the Rhode Island School of Design is an art school and design school. TM: Are you saying that there were people of different ages at Rutgers, so it didn't feel like you stood out? NP: Yes, and at Rutgers my fellow students weren’t on a track to become professional artists in the same way that I discovered was so wrong for me in graduate school. It took me a long time to figure out. TM: So you’ve concluded that wasn’t the track for you? NP: I used to say, oh, I'm a former historian. I don’t say that anymore. I’m still a historian. As I was preparing my book, going through my journals, I discovered that every three months or so, I would say, “Oh, I want to make books.” But I’d always forget, what is it I’m doing here? But it was hard to realize that I am not going to be an artist like my fellow students [at RISD] are going to be artists. I mean, they may not become the artists they want to be, but their chances are much greater because they don't have the kind of past that I have. TM: Do you think it was your age, or your particular background and education? NP: It was both. TM: You wrote about what you called your “20th-century eyes” being a limitation in art school, and also about how the other students presented themselves, that people dressed “like artists,” and I think you even said at one point that everybody was thin or at least nobody was overweight. How much do you feel your critiques or the response to your work was related to how people were perceiving you as a person? And how much do you think who an artist is should affect the judgement of their work? NP: I don’t know if that’s a “should” I can address. We live in a world that is racist and sexist and ageist, and all of those are so salient in our culture that it's kind of counterfactual to try to figure it out. I did feel that I was being “invisible-ized” as an old, black woman. I definitely felt that, and women my age, of any race or class, can testify to feeling invisible. TM: There is so much emphasis on youth and what you called “right-nowness” in our culture, but is there, or should there be, a place for the perspectives of people of different generations? NP: Art is market-driven. Art is about taste. There are no “should”s. I mean, we can decry ageism and sexism and racism but [it doesn't change anything]. There are no objective criteria, and that was one of the hardest things, because a lot of people were pretending that there were objective criteria, and there weren’t. There's just so much art in the world and there's so much art that succeeds that's different from other art that succeeds—in the sense of the marketplace, which is basically how you judge. One of my teachers at RISD, I said to him, “What's to become of me?” and he said, “I don't think you'll get a gallery, but if you do it'll be, like, in a summer place.” Such a putdown. But turns out that his gallery was in a summer place, and it just closed. Then he said, “Well, people may buy your work but they'll buy it because it's you, not because it's good art.” Another putdown. I think I realized right then what was going on here, that this was very personal about him and that also, what people buy is usually about the artist. And certainly, when you get to prices, it’s about who the artist is, it's not what the stuff looks like. And then again, there's so many different ways the art can look, so I don't feel diminished that people may buy my work because it’s me, because that’s how the marketplace is. I make the work that satisfies me. I have no idea who my market is and what they would want. I make what I want. TM: Do you think art school was worthwhile, not just in your growth as an artist but as a life experience? With people living longer, there’s a lot of talk about what to do with your post-career life and keeping your mind active. Do you feel that it gave you a sense of purpose? NP: I don't know how much usefulness for other people my particular experience would be, because other people aren’t likely to go into it with what I did. But on the other hand, I think one big question worth asking, for someone who is thinking about an encore career, is how intense do you want it to be? I went for 100 percent intensity. And, you know, people said to me even before I went to Mason Gross, “You have lots of degrees—why don’t you just take some classes?” And for some people that will work. But I said I wanted to be the kind of artist I was a historian, which is totally misguided. TM: Why do you think it's misguided? NP: I just didn’t have the time. Also, I had too many entanglements. When I went to Harvard my parents were healthy; they could help me, and I didn't have a public presence in the world, so those were the two big sucks of energy and time this time around. TM: Was this the first time you had written something autobiographical? NP: Yes. TM: How did you find that compared to scholarly writing? NP: It was so hard. [Laughing.] It was so hard. Luckily I had an agent who is very experienced and patient and helpful and got me through it.
Tom McAllister’s third book, How to Be Safe, begins with Anna Crawford being accused of a school shooting she did not commit. The news reports, “Former Teacher Had Motive.” Law enforcement interrogates her. When they realize she is innocent, she is left to process the anger and grief that comes from having worked at a school where one student chose to kill 19 people and wound 45 more and from living in a country that can’t seem to do anything about it. McAllister’s debut novel, The Young Widower’s Handbook, about a man who takes a cross-country road trip after his wife passes away unexpectedly, came out in 2017. Bury Me in My Jersey, McAllister’s memoir about his father’s death and his Philadelphia football fandom, came out in 2010. Alongside writing, he is an associate professor at Temple University, an editor for the literary magazine Barrelhouse, and a co-host of the literary podcast Book Fight. (Read his recent essay for The Millions on how to survive the publishing process.) We spoke by phone about the process of writing How to Be Safe, how he felt about its reception, his work as an editor and a podcaster, and more. The Millions: When did you start working this project? What drew you to the subject of school shootings? Tom McAllister: I started on the original notes started after I was reading in horror the news about the Sandy Hook shooting. I always tell my students they should be writing about their obsessions and the things that are preoccupying them. And sometimes I don't take my own advice, and in this case I said, “Oh yeah, you need to do this. This is a thing you're constantly talking about and reading about and thinking as someone who's teaching at a college.” I didn't actually start working on the book meaningfully until about a year later once I finally solved some narrative problems and geared myself up to do it. TM: What were you working on over that year? What was the research process like? McAllister: There are some fiction writers who are really great researchers and conduct database and library research, and they do really thorough stuff, and a lot of my research is very Wikipedia level. I read a few books—like I read Columbine by Dave Cullen, which is a really incredible book. I read One of Us by Åsne Seierstad about the mass murder in Norway by Anders Breivik. But then a lot of it was not so much research as it was trying to figure out what I wanted the book to be. I had the really vague idea of writing about a school shooting, which is not a plot or characters or anything. It's nothing, right? It's just a premise. And so a lot of that time was actually trying to figure out who my point-of-view character was going to be. Originally I thought the plot would be a thriller sort of thing, where we build up to the shooting at the school and we're in the head of the shooter most of the time. And instead I ended up going the exact opposite way, where the shooting happens basically off the page in the prologue and then we follow the aftermath. TM: How did that big shift in focus for the book happen? The prologue is from the shooter’s perspective and then the shooting happens and we move on from that. McAllister: The prologue, in a slightly different form, was originally just written as a short story that got published in the online journal Sundog Lit. And those were the first words that I produced related to this project. I liked the tone of it a lot. But then I didn't think I could sustain interest, my own personal interest in the shooter's story over the length of a book. And then I tried to write from the perspective of lots of different people in this town. Teachers and some neighbors and so on. And I had started character sketches basically of who these people are and trying to map out their relationships. And I got really bored by a lot of them, too. And it wasn't until I started writing Anna, the current point-of-view character, that I was actually excited to get back to work on it. TM: What do you think it was about Anna’s character that made her more appealing to you as a writer? McAllister: I think there are probably two things. One is the voice. The thing that draws me in, more than any other characteristic of a book that I'm reading, is a compelling voice. This is one where I had fun writing it. Anna is pretty dark and cynical, but I thought that other people might have fun reading it. I really enjoy getting into the head of a character that is kind of a mess and being stuck in their worldview. I also like the idea of having someone who is a little bit separated from the shooter, so that she can be defined by characteristics besides the fact that she's related to the shooter. I thought about writing from the shooter's mom and staying in her head. I feel like there's a bunch of different waves of trauma. There's obviously the victims and the victims' families. There's the family of the person who commits the crime, which is...They have to deal with a lot. But then there's all these other people who have to deal with not only the fear but also a survivor’s guilt thing, where they know that it's completely random chance that they weren't killed. And so like the idea of having someone who was maybe two degrees away from this kid who knew him and had interacted with him but really had nothing to do with him except that they happened to be in the same town. TM: Would you consider this to be a political novel? McAllister: On one hand, I get that it is a political novel because it touches on some really charged hot-button political topics. On the other hand, I was really hoping when I was working on it to avoid writing something that would turn out to seem like propaganda. I was trying to avoid it just being an anti-gun pamphlet and trying to keep it compelling as a story. But I think however one may define it, it probably has to be categorized broadly as a political novel because it's really engaging in some pretty massive social issues. [millions_ad] TM: I’m interested in how you came to address those social issues in the book. How did you build out the book’s political world from the original anti-gun idea? Did it come from Anna’s character? McAllister: That was the key to me unlocking this and making this actually a book. I was worried it was going to be too one-dimensional. And the more I wrote about Anna and the more I thought about who she was, I saw her as sharing some characteristics with a lot of women I know. She's in her late 30s and she spent a lot of her life trying to politely follow the rules and not make waves. And she's reached her breaking point, and she's sick of apologizing and sick of being nice and sick of protecting the feelings of the men around her. Part of the influence was just my wife and my peers and my friends. We're all getting older, and a lot of the women I know are reaching that point where they're like, “OK, I'm 40 years old and I'm tired of doing this.” It's also definitely influenced by social media and being exposed to not just women writers but also accomplished women who have used that platform to express these ideas. I feel like I've read a lot of books by women and about those kinds of issues with sexism. But to see women expressing those points of view and discussing their experiences on a day-to-day basis was really influential. TM: The way that the politicians in the book try to answer the question of how to keep their constituents safe was fascinating and also depressing. Someone proposes that teachers should be armed and that there should also be a cavalry of trained armed kids. My first thought was, “That’s crazy,” but it’s also not all that far off from stuff that’s actually been proposed. When you were writing that, did you think the ideas were dystopic, or were you trying to write something nearer to reality? Or both? McAllister: It's kind of a mixture. There are drones and the sentry robots set out on the road. That was me trying to be ridiculous. And then some of the other ones are almost word-for-word on some of the stuff people have said in the standard playbook after the shootings. After the Virginia Tech shooting, I remember people were saying, “Well, if the teachers had been armed…” I feel like sometimes taking the exact things that we say in one context and just putting them in a new context shows you how absurd they are. There’s a bit early on where something is said about how we should make the children bulletproof. And I thought, you know, this is pretty absurd. And nobody's proposed that exactly yet, but it didn't take long for them to start selling Kevlar backpacks and trying to market bulletproof vests to children. And it seems crazy to me that we just have to accept that the bullets will be there and need to find some way to help children dodge them better. TM: Another significant piece of the world in How to Be Safe is that the sun over the town has disappeared. It’s an odd element of the story because at first it seems metaphorical, but then they start putting in lights and it becomes very literal. What were you trying to accomplish with that? McAllister: I'm shocked that has come up so little. It's in the first line of the book after the prologue. I liked the sound of that first line and then I said, “Well, let's experiment and see what happens.” The more I worked on it, the more I liked the idea of presenting it in a way where the reader isn't really sure whether to take it literally or not. Over the past several years, I have come to really enjoy reading poetry, fiction, whatever, that has these kinds of magical elements that it doesn't bother to explain. The first example I think of is Etgar Keret, who has a lot of these great stories. There’s a story called “Bottle” where a magician goes into a bar and says, “I bet I can put you inside this bottle.” And then he does. And then a guy spends most of the story living inside a bottle, and it's never explained. So I thought, “Let's see if I can pull that off myself.” TM: So the last book-related question I have is also just a general background question. What’s your relationship with guns? Did you grow up with them or have you never interacted with them or somewhere in between? McAllister: So my wife has three conditions that she says would result in immediate divorce. One is if I start smoking. Two is if I were to buy a snake. And three is if I were to buy a gun. I think she's not 100 percent serious about that, but she might be. I knew some people who were police officers, so we had family members and friends who had guns. I had some acquaintances who would go hunting with their dads on the opening day of deer season and that kind of thing. TM: On top of editing at Barrelhouse, writing, and teaching, you also host a podcast called Book Fight with another Barrelhouse editor, Mike Ingram. When you have guests on the show, you always ask them three questions at the end of your “lightning round.” If you’re all right with me stealing your intellectual property, I’m going to ask you those questions. McAllister: Oh, man. You’ve really turned the tables on me. TM: First: who is one author, living or dead, that you would like to fight? McAllister: I don't want to be like everyone else on the show and just say Jonathan Franzen, who actually doesn't make me that mad. You know, I would fight Joseph Conrad. Because I realize I'm supposed to like his books, but I'm so mad about all the time I spent reading them in high school and not liking them. And he writes too much about boats. I don't think boats are interesting. That's my piece. TM: That’s as good a piece as any. What is the book or who is the author you have most often pretended to have read? McAllister: That’s probably still Moby Dick. I've got a thing where I'm really interested in whales, and I've read all these other books on whales and people just assume—and I let them continue to assume—that I'm very familiar with Moby Dick. TM: And even though this is not a lightning round like it is called on your show, the last question is: Please share some thoughts about lightning. McAllister: Just the other day, my wife and I were babysitting my 5-year-old niece and her younger brother, and we were talking about lightning. She was talking about how terrifying it is because lightning can destroy your house. And on one hand, we wanted to reassure her. But on the other hand, she's not wrong. Of course, we did. We said, “No, no, it's fine. Has it ever destroyed your house before?” I mean, we just put out some 5-year-old logic. We used to have a giant tree in front of our house. Every time there was a thunderstorm, I was sure it was going to collapse on the house. It was torn down and now we have a 5-foot tree that I am desperately trying to keep alive. Anyway: lightning. Scary.
There are some who make writing seem like some sort of magic—they’d have you believe the stories just appear and there’s no telling where they came from. Then there are writers like Rebecca Makkai, who are more like engineers: writers who deeply understand the physics of a story, who know how to break it all down and put it back together and make it even better in the process. I learned this about her back in early 2015 when Brian Turner, the director of the Sierra Nevada College MFA program where I was a student, assigned Rebecca as my second-semester mentor. I’d asked to be placed with her, even though I was a bit intimidated. She had two successful novels and an incredible string of four years of Best American Short Stories selections. And she had a reputation for being a tough mentor, one who didn’t allow for lazy thinking or half-assed work. During that semester, she asked me to take apart stories, piece by piece, to figure out how they work. I wrote massive outlines of stories like “Snakes” by Danielle Evans and broke down every minuscule variation in point of view used in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (following an eight-page, single-spaced list of possible variations of POV Rebecca created), among many other tasks. I applied what I learned in writing exercises describing imaginary cities, writing scenes over and over in different points of view, and outlining and tearing apart my own stories. I expected, when I picked up her newest book, The Great Believers, to enjoy seeing her lessons about structure and character and conflict come to life in her own work. I wish I could point some out in a more than cursory way, but the story of two friends, Yale and Fiona, and the way their lives are rocked by the “slow motion tsunami” of the AIDS epidemic, absorbed all my attention instead. Yale is living through the worst of the epidemic as it crashes ashore in 1985 Chicago, while Fiona deals with the aftermath as she makes her way through 2015 Paris. Along the way, the reader sees the way the tragedy ripples through time, and as Publishers Weekly said in a starred review, Yale and Fiona’s stories create “a powerful, unforgettable meditation, not on death, but rather on the power and gift of life.” Rebecca and I talked via Facebook Messenger over a few hours one evening recently about the work of crafting this novel, about the real lives that motivated her writing, and of the opportunity to draw attention to other voices telling the stories of the AIDS crisis: The Millions: Where did the initial spark for the story come from? Rebecca Makkai: So, this isn't going to make much sense. I was visiting my agent right after I'd turned in my second novel, and she asked if I had an idea for my next book, and I said no. I got into a cab, and somewhere between her place and the train station, I saw this really tall, beautiful woman walking down the street, and I assumed she was a model. So I started thinking about models and about artistic muses, and I had a flash of a woman who had been an artists' model in 1920s Paris. I set out to write about this artists' model, and I wanted to show her at the end of her life, which couldn't be much later than the ’80s. So I started thinking (and this took like a year) about the gallery she'd be in contact with to donate the paintings and sketches she had from that time, and I thought about the development director she'd be in touch with, and I thought about who'd be working at a gallery in the ’80s, and I thought that AIDS might be a small part of the book. It turned out that the AIDS theme stole most of the book's gravity. The art is still there, but now it's only about 5 percent. TM: Many of your stories draw on other art forms in some way, especially fine art and classical music, stories like “Couple of Lovers on a Red Background,” “Cross,” “The Worst You Ever Feel,” and many others. Here, you have Yale trying to obtain that collection from the model. It seems like a lot of your work approaches other art forms, has a sort of conversation with those existing (or sometimes imaginary) artworks. Why do you think that is? How does it help you craft your own work? RM: I’m not exactly sure why I write about artists so much, except that I grew up around a lot of poets and musicians (not so much around visual artists) and I relate to the way they think. I think most people do, really—whether or not we're artists, we're all trying to find or make beauty in the world. It's challenging, actually, to write about pieces of art that don't exist and to describe them so that they seem real. But it's a lot easier to describe them than to actually PAINT them. If I could be a painter or a musician, I would be. But it's satisfying to write about pieces of art and pieces of music and almost imagine that I made them real. TM: In your recent piece in Poets & Writers about writing this novel over a number of artists residencies, you said that including Fiona’s narrative felt at first like a “cowardly move.” What about it felt cowardly? RM: It was more the motivations behind the decision that initially came from a place of worry. This was still really early in the first draft, of course, but I was writing entirely from Yale's (third person) point of view in the ’80s, and it started to feel more and more like ventriloquism, and I was really worried about a narrow story like that feeling appropriative. One possible solution, I realized, was to broaden the story quite a bit, and so Fiona's sections came from that impulse. As soon as I tried it out, though, I knew this is what I should have done from the beginning. The 30 years that elapsed and the way that we could now learn what had happened to people, on top of the second perspective on everything—this was what made the novel really start to work for me. I was only worried for a little while, maybe between my decision to do it and actually executing it, that I was diluting things, or backing away from my real story just because I was nervous. But once I saw the things this move opened up for me, I was thrilled that I'd pushed myself to go broader. TM: I know from your acknowledgements that the concern about ventriloquism and appropriation was on your mind. But what would you say to the people who maybe are concerned that a straight woman is writing about something so deeply personal concerning gay men? And how did you ensure you didn’t cross that line from allyship to appropriation? RM: I really wanted to make sure I could answer two questions satisfactorily for myself. The first was whether I could do this well, and while it's not up to me to decide if I did, I ultimately felt that I could do it well with scads and scads of research, which I undertook over the four years I was working on the book. The second question was whether the success of this book would ultimately amplify or mute other voices on this topic. I have a couple of reasons to believe it's the former. First of all, the way commercial publishing works, presses put their money behind books when they've seen similar books do well. It's not a zero-sum game. The more successful this novel is, the more likely the next person is to get published when they're writing a memoir or novel about AIDS or about LGBTQ history. And I have the chance now to point people toward first person accounts of the crisis and toward other art that came out of it and is still coming out of it. I hope that readers don't stop with my book—that they move on to other accounts and that they move on to advocacy. TM: What are some of those other accounts that you would recommend? RM: So glad you asked! In terms of nonfiction—for those new to the topic, something compendious like David France’s How to Survive a Plague would be a good starting point (I’d recommend that over something like And the Band Played On, which is wonderful but awfully misleading about the origins of the epidemic). When We Rise by Cleve Jones is a great study of activism. I think we tend to know more theater than fiction about AIDS—Angels in America and The Normal Heart, of course, but for theater I’d also recommend Paul Rudnick’s Jeffrey, which is strange and wonderful. To pick a few pieces of fiction: Rabih Alameddine’s novel Koolaids: The Art of War is brilliant. There’s a story collection called Monopolies of Loss by the British writer Adam Mars-Jones that deals only partly with AIDS, but it really influenced me. I want to put in a word for M.K. Czerwiec’s graphic memoir Taking Turns, which chronicles her time as an AIDS nurse at Illinois Masonic in Chicago. She was a wonderful resource and early reader for my book, and her book is gut-wrenching. TM: In your research, you spent time talking to people who had lived through the AIDS epidemic, right? I was curious how you approach that sort of conversation. It seems like such a difficult thing to do, to ask someone to talk about this incredibly tragic part of their lives. RM: YES. Yeah, so the thing is, there turns out to be very little in book or film form about the crisis in Chicago, specifically. Everything's about New York and San Francisco. So I ended up having to do a ton of legwork, which was actually a very good thing for the book. First of all, there was a lot of primary source material. I read every back issue of the Windy City Times, Chicago's biggest gay weekly, from 1985 to 1992. And then I met with a lot of people. Doctors, nurses, activists, lawyers, journalists, an art therapist, survivors, people living with HIV. They were incredibly generous with their time and with their stories, and in many cases, they were sharing tremendously emotional things. And in some cases, people were telling me detailed things about their sex lives about five minutes after I'd met them. Some of them told me it was therapeutic to talk to someone who really wanted to know all this stuff. I got so much more out of talking to them than I would have out of reading some book. Their fingerprints are all over the novel. TM: Did you ever feel any sort of tug-of-war between the fiction writer in you who saw all this great material to use and the person who knew these were true stories from people's lives? Did you ever feel like you struggled with fictionalizing elements that might have been based in fact? RM: Yes, definitely. It drives me nuts that there isn't a comprehensive nonfiction account of the AIDS crisis in Chicago, and sometimes I wished I were writing it. There were so many beautiful or heartbreaking or maddening details that I couldn't fit into my book. While people will learn things from story, I believe, its main intention is not educational, and cramming too much in there wouldn't have felt right. I didn't struggle with fictionalizing things—I think that's just the way my brain works—but I did struggle with not being able to include everything. I have hours and hours of taped interviews that I had to stop myself from listening to again when I reached revision, because I knew I'd want to stuff more and more details in there, to the detriment of the broader story. [millions_ad] TM: Paris was attacked in the fall of 2015, while you were writing Fiona's story, also set in Paris in the fall of 2015, so you were forced to reckon with that sudden real-life event in your novel. How did that change the story for you? What did you learn from that experience as a writer? RM: Yeah, I was writing it kind of in real time and then the attacks happened. I could have moved the story, but it would've been hard, and there were a lot of timelines I'd have had to move. Plus moving it later, I'd have had to reckon with the American election, and I felt like moving it earlier wouldn't have worked with the age of Fiona's daughter. So, I decided to just keep the story in 2015 and deal with it. It felt thematically appropriate—the interruption, once again, of public tragedy into someone's private drama—and it was something to shake Fiona out of her 30-year repression of some of the worst things that had happened to her and her friends in the ’80s. Ultimately, it worked for me because this wasn't just a character-driven novel where all the conflict comes out of people's own flaws; it's a novel about the ways the world comes at you no matter who you are or what you do. TM: There was an interesting sort of mirror image with the Challenger explosion in the 1985 thread. Was that something you added after having to deal with the Paris attacks, a way to create that similar experience of tragedy, or was it already in the narrative? RM: I can't remember which came first, but it wasn't a related thought process for me (except that in revision I did ask myself if it was too much and ultimately decided it wasn't; if these people really were living in these years, these incidents would indeed have affected them). The Challenger thing just came more out of my looking up the major events of 1986 and putting them on my Google calendar (I have Google calendars for my novels—it's terribly nerdy) and that seemed like something that wouldn't go unremarked. I had a lot of fun with that scene, actually. I think it's the weirdest sex scene I've ever written. TM: I guess tragedy brings people together in weird ways. RM: Which is maybe the thesis of the book! I just don't usually mean it as comically. TM: One of the things that hit me very hard early on in the novel was the myriad of small ways these men suffered every day. There was, of course, the AIDS epidemic and the unbelievable suffering that came with that, but there were also these everyday tragedies, like not being able to hold hands when walking down the street, or when Yale was afraid to keep a photo of Charlie on his desk at work, the way they had to constantly navigate revealing—or not revealing—this important part of themselves to others. And with Yale, I keep coming back to that detail about the missing picture on his desk, and it makes me think of something I saw recently in an interview with Tayari Jones, where she said one should write about “people and their problems, not problems and their people.” For me, Yale felt like a deeply realized character, like Jones’ person with a problem, rather than just a problem with a person attached. There wasn’t a weak character in the book for me, but I find myself still thinking of Yale often (and it was surprising to hear you felt like there was an element of ventriloquism in earlier drafts with him). What was your entry point for him? What was the moment where he became a fully realized character for you? RM: It’s funny; I tried too hard to map out this novel before I started writing, and none of it worked. I realized I had to just dive in and get to know my characters first, and the first thing I wrote did end up being the first chapter—specifically, Yale's really bizarre and lonely experience at his friend's memorial party. I'm not sure that I knew everything about him yet, but I did start to have a real physical sense of him, a sense of him as a real person. He feels realer to me than any character I've ever written, to the point where I've occasionally forgotten he's not real, and have thought of him as someone I once knew intimately but lost. About the everyday stuff: A lot of that wove itself naturally into the story, but I still had some missteps early on, some moments of ignorance. The one that sticks out to me was that in my first draft, after Yale gets separated from his friends, I had him walking down the street looking into the windows of gay bars. It wasn't until I was interviewing someone who was talking about the Chicago bar scene back in the day that I realized that of COURSE you couldn't look IN THE WINDOW of a gay bar in 1985. They all had shaded glass, or black-painted windows. I had a lot of little revelatory moments like that when reading it, a lot of things I've done my whole life and have taken for granted these guys couldn't do, little things that could have gotten these guys seriously hurt or even killed. It was pretty eye-opening. TM: As you work on a novel like this, one that's challenging and takes a number of years, how do you keep yourself excited? How do you resist that siren call of new ideas? RM: I don't know that this is going to work for the interview, but the honest answer is that I had this photo as my computer wallpaper for four years: They kept staring at me. It's five guys at a candlelight vigil in Chicago, around 1991. I learned a lot about one of these guys, and another—the only survivor from the group—sat down and talked to me. It wasn't very tempting to work on anything else when they were staring at me like that. TM: Wow. Yeah, I can see how that would keep you focused. In a recent piece in Tin House, “Candy: A Footnote,” you write that one of the pitfalls of writing is that “no one is ever going to see everything you so carefully invented for them. Not the way you intended.” Is there anything that you’re worried people won’t see here, or will see in a different way than you intended? RM: I mean, it's completely inevitable that people will misunderstand or misinterpret some things. One of the wonderful things for me so far with this book, though, has been the early readers who have told me that they pictured a certain lost friend in a certain role. I have my own mental pictures of these guys, but if people are plugging in memories, pictures of real people, that makes me really happy. And I was writing, in some cases, about places I'd never been, bars that have long since closed—places I could imagine but couldn't picture. And weirdly, some of my readers will be able to picture them in detail because they were there. I like that.
Lauren Groff has enjoyed the successes of the literary world since her debut novel The Monsters of Templeton came out in 2008. Her star continued to grow with a short story collection and a second novel—2012’s Arcadia—before becoming a supernova in 2015 with the release of Fates and Furies. Everyone seemed to have a copy—from strangers on the bus to high school English teachers to President Barack Obama. Whatever was going to come next was sure to come against high expectations and be criticized under a microscope. Groff knew that, so she’s technically still deciding what her full-length follow up should be. Instead, the writer decided to go back and collect her stories, which have been published in a variety of outlets ranging from Tin House to The New Yorker, in new collection Florida. The collection takes place over the course of decades in various towns and features a variety of characters. The connecting thread is that they all take place in Florida and explore what the state really has to offer. I communicated with the National Book Award finalist via email to discuss what she’s been up to since Fates and Furies was released, why Florida is the perfect state in which to set a short story collection, and how she taps into characters with such precision. The Millions: First, I was hoping to catch up with what your world has been like since the extreme high of Fates and Furies. A National Book Award finalist. Numerous “Best of” lists. Obama’s stamp of approval. What’s life been like? Lauren Groff: Oh, life has been nice. I’ve been busy. I've been protected a little bit from the high winds of Fates and Furies by my extreme self-skepticism. I've written multiple drafts of three other novels, one of which went into a bonfire (RIP—you won't be missed), two of which are still being thought through, one of which may work out someday. We’ll see. Each project needs to, in some ways, obliterate the previous project, so I've been waiting for the firepower to arrive. TM: The majority of these stories were published within the past decade—give or take. How have you changed since the earlier stories (2012’s “Eyewall”) to now? LG: I've somewhat resigned myself to the idea that I may live in Florida for the rest of my life, and that all the other imagined lives for myself have slowly withered away. It sounds sad, but there's so much about this life that allows the writing to happen, and it's where the people I love are, and where they're happy, so it's all pretty much at a balancing point right now. And I've grown a deep love for the resilient, teeming Florida wilderness that people who don't live here don't often know about. TM: I feel like Florida is really this unknown entity to a lot of people who have never been there. There’s Disney. There are hot Miami night clubs. There are Everglades. But Florida is huge. What does Florida mean to you? LG: Florida is giant. You can't ever successfully define it because it's not a single cohesive thing; it's endless and changing and strange and gorgeous in its contradictory nature. My Florida is a pretty taut spiderweb of ambivalence; I'm stuck here but also lifted somewhat off the ground at the same time. There are things here that I despise; there are things I would lay down my body to protect. I would need the rest of my life to write my way out of Florida, the mental state, not just the actual state of the union. TM: A lot of times readers assign autobiographical truth to writers' novels. Your first novel was about a woman who didn’t know who impregnated her and I read in an interview that people asked you about that. I’m assuming people asked about your marriage after they read Fates and Furies. With short stories though, it’s different. Do you want to stop the buck here and answer if there is any Lauren Groff in these stories? LG: Just a minute ago I read an excellent Tim Parks piece about this in the New York Review of Books, and now I'm convinced both that there's no such thing as autobiographical fiction and that there's no fiction that's not entirely autobiographical. My answer for this question is the same with every book: There's not not a Lauren Groff in it—whoever she is has been made a little grotesque by fiction. TM: Your characters are wide-ranging in this collection. Is there something that you feel connects them somehow? LG: Florida—both geographically and as a sense of bright dread—connects them. TM: Other than characters, how do you know when a story or a novel is going to work? What is it about a piece that clicks for you? LG: I've learned not to write stories when they're new in my head, unless they're so loud they need to be written so that I can go back to thinking about other things. A story is an idea that needs to build its layers in the subconscious for as long as it takes, until something sparks the story and it starts to come alive. The process of building a novel, for me, is a more physical and daily and laborious process, though in the end it's the same kind of building, just out in the open. The difference is that it has to take place day after day on blank pages, instead of in the darkness of the subconscious, because of the scale of the thing. And I never really know either are going to work until I catch the tone and color of the prose it needs to be written in. TM: The past few years have had some stellar short story collections published. What are some collections or just single-released stories in magazines that have caught your attention? LG: I really liked Daniel Alarcón’s The King Is Always Above the People and am always interested in Ottessa Moshfegh’s work. And I thought Catherine Lacey's new story collection, Certain American States, out soon, was brittle and brilliant, particularly the story “Violations.”
Those who know Steve Almond as an incredible short story writer might be surprised by the deep rigor and political analysis of this recent nonfiction book, Bad Stories. But those of us who read his Week in Greed column won’t, particularly those of us who read “To Behave like the Fallen World“ and were able to revel in his capacity to expose his own transgressions for the sake of a narrative that epitomizes the human condition. I consider Steve a mentor, and he's had a great deal of influence on my work. We chatted over email about his latest book. The Millions: Early on in Bad Stories, you say you believe that faith in stories has been integral to our survival, but you also believe this capacity poses the central risk to our species and that the 2016 election is an object lesson in just how much harm bad stories can inflict upon even the sturdiest democracy. When I read that I was reminded of an interview Lauren Groff had with Brad Listi, wherein she likened Ayn Rand to someone who was given a pen to write with yet used it to stab us in the eye. I agree so much with what you’ve both said here, and in this political era, I’m clamoring for narratives that promote collectivism, what you mention as the beautiful fiction known as the common good. But maybe there’s a different narrative approach that can be taken here. I’ve had the good fortune of learning from you. One of my favorite lectures of yours is one you call “Show Me the Gun,” about the amount of information we share with the reader. You urge your students not to hold back, to not be coy; perhaps all the characters don’t have the information, but our beloved reader knows it all. Am I naive to think that collectivism is the narrative that will lead us toward change? Will it be satire? It seems there are a lot more dystopic narratives, stories about greed gone awry. We watch people on Westworld and Black Mirror and Handmaid’s Tale reaching for more than their fair share, and it acts as a portal into our present or our future, and maybe we’ll learn from it or maybe we’ll all suffer compassion fatigue. What do you think? Steve Almond: I hadn’t made the connection, but my approach as a teacher of creative writing does have something to do with collectivism. What I often see from student writers is the withholding of vital contextual information from the reader. The writer does this for a number of reasons: She hasn’t figured out the context yet and/or she fears it will be boring and/or she believes withholding will build suspense and/or she’s been told “show don’t tell” too many times. Whatever the reasons, the most common result is that the reader gets confused. They really don’t know the character they’re reading about and what’s at stake for that person. And they usually stop reading that story—no matter how vivid the prose is. They can’t connect emotionally. Because we can’t feel what a character feels until we know what they know. This is really at the heart of the essential human struggle between selfishness and collectivism. Are we, as individuals and as a culture, willing to recognize the humanity of other people? Are we willing to imagine our way into their struggle? That’s what our most powerful good stories help us do, stories such as the Sermon on the Mount, or the Gettysburg Address, or Their Eyes Were Watching God or Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letters from a Birmingham Jail” or Song of Solomon. Great books—great art of any kind—complicate moral action by making us feel our responsibility for the suffering of others. In this sense, it’s the literary ally of collectivism. Propaganda seeks just the opposite. It’s intended to help us disregard other people, to nurture our own selfish impulses, to anesthetize our mercy. This is what Lauren means when she talks about Ayn Rand. Her novels are properly understood as dogma, a kind of capitalist propaganda devoted to the childish fantasy that the rich are virtuous and the poor are morally defective. They hew to the basic moral logic of eugenics. And they portend a world straight out of Thomas Hobbes, in which life is understood as “a war of all against all.” It is this manner of thought that has animated the American right for the past half-century, and which our current president embodies—a mindset that is a precise repudiation of the Sermon on the Mount. What you call “compassion fatigue” is the understandable exhaustion that people of conscience feel in having to fight such tireless greed and cruelty. But it’s important to remember the stories in American history that have marked our moral progress: abolition, emancipation, suffrage, the labor movement, civil rights. Long before we had a “war on drugs” or a “war on terror” we had a “war on poverty.” All of this required Americans of conscience to turn away from their screens and get off their couches and take action, to embrace the burdens and privileges of citizenship. As you know from your work, Melissa, it’s exhausting and often thankless work. But it’s the only way we can push the pendulum back in the direction of mercy. It’s not going to happen by us just sitting on the sidelines, hate-watching the demise of our democracy. TM: You define bad stories as stories that are fraudulent either by design or by negligence. One of the first bad stories is our electoral system. You talk early on in the book about how our system of democracy has been rigged, structurally and logistically, by some combination of cynical partisan intent, class privilege, and abject negligence. You later go on to state how we are powerless to fix our broken institutions. It was one of those rare, stunning summer days at a summer writer’s conference in Portland, Oregon, when a writer said she just wasn’t sure about voting, that her vote mattered, or maybe I’m remembering wrong—maybe she wasn’t sure about a specific initiative like universal health care or a progressive tax or a candidate—and either I looked at you pleading for help or you me, but that brings me to what I often find to be the worst bad story: What is the antidote for apathy? If I were to channel my inner Steve Almond, I might say the narrative antidote to apathy is to invoke empathy, and the best way a writer could do that is to write honestly, with an open, unguarded heart. Much less a what to do than a what not to do…to not protect oneself from excessive emotional involvement. That emotional entanglement is the point. As Cheryl Strayed has said, be brave enough to break our own hearts. Today I get to tell my students that contrary to what we’ve been taught, the page is the one place where we are not just safe but encouraged to break our own hearts. SA: Yeah, look—it hurts to touch the inner life. Our best stories are not the ones that try to soothe that hurt, but ones that articulate that hurt and remind us that we’re not alone in that hurt. Apathy, like alienation, is a defensive response to thwarted desire. It’s people deciding—consciously or unconsciously—that they can no longer shoulder what Sarah Manguso calls “the burden of hope.” So maybe the question we should have asked that woman in Portland is: What do you desire? What are your hopes? Who are you worried about? Where are you hurting? That’s what our best stories do: they peel back our grievances and reveal our vulnerabilities. [millions_ad] TM: My most damaging unreliable narrator is the one I’ve manifested over time by way of capitalism. I’ll wake up and think of all the ways I’ll lose everything I have. All the things I have not yet acquired. I have to catch myself and say, no Melissa, that is not a true story; those are the little capitalist elves taking over your mind. You articulate this so well when you say Trumpism is predicated on the zero-sum model; in order for you to win, the other guy has to lose. What do you tell your children when they are entertaining that very American ideology of compare and despair? SA: Gosh. Yeah. I mean, my kids are constantly doing this. It’s a natural human impulse, one that capitalism has amplified in ways we hardly ever discuss. Look at the manner in which we fetishize wealth and vilify poverty. You can’t blame that on “pop culture” because we’re the ones who create pop culture. What I’ve found with my kids is that it doesn’t work to scold them for bratty behavior, because these behaviors arise from shame—the shame of feeling that you have less because you are less. And here’s the thing: You can’t shame shame out of existence. You can only love it out of existence. What I try to do is recognize that a bratty kid is a kid in need, but one who can’t articulate his or her needs. My wife and I also try (emphasis on try) to model generosity. One of the curiosities of the 2016 election was that the psychodynamics revolved around shame. Donald Trump presented a kind of unprecedented figure in American politics because he didn’t just appear immune to shame; he weaponized shamelessness. And this made him irresistible. Not just to his base, who saw in him a kind of wish fantasy of moral impunity, but also to his haters (like me) who reveled in repudiating him. We all fed the oxygen of attention into the Trump Express; we all let him set the agenda. It was a kind of shame-based Ponzi scheme in which Trump would say something despicable and people would express disgust and Trump would say, “See, the lying media looks down upon you!” and his supporters, feeling looked down upon, would convert their shame into greater devotion. It’s the precise opposite of the lesson you try to impart to children, which is that shame should lead you to question and modify your own behavior. TM: One thing I find to be most difficult about political writing is that heavy lifting of unpacking the backstory. The exposition. How can I write political history in dramatic scene? What does the reader already know? How much should I share? You do this genius thing where you give the reader a bunch of information, but you respect us—by prefacing your statement with “We know”…as in: We know Fred Trump was arrested at a Klan rally as a younger man, that he didn’t like renting apartments to African-Americans, that he was sued by the federal government for discriminatory practices and forced to desegregate his properties. We know he used to take young Donald around with him to collect rents, and later employed him in the family business. We know that he urged his son to be a “killer” and shipped him off to a military boarding school at age twelve. And I was like holy shit—I didn’t know all that, but I was glad for the extra props. Can you talk a little bit about the craft of writing a political essay? SA: A lot of it resides in simply providing the relevant dramatic context for the reader, like we were discussing before. In this case, you have to understand that Trump was raised by a racist father who failed to love him. You can’t understand Trump—his instinctual racial animus, his inexhaustible masculine shame, his need to project his weakness onto others—unless you give the reader the full story. I wrote Bad Stories in part because nobody is giving Americans of conscience the full story. We get all these half-baked hot takes without any sense of the bad stories that led to particular bad outcomes. It’s all panic and no reflection, all present and no backstory, all symptom and no cure. TM: You tell a story of your time as a young journalist, a pretty incredible one actually. You discuss how you wrote about an assignment to cover the city of Meriden, Connecticut, how you were not from the city. You were honest about how you simply sat in coffee shops and in your Mercury rather than getting to know the city, scheduling ride-alongs, talking to some people who work graveyard shifts, going to the hospital, things like that. You turned in the story, and here is the best detail: Your boss hands you an envelope with $350 and instructs you to buy something nice for your girlfriend, to go get her some cocaine. First of all that, is such a great fucking line to a story I don’t know how you’ve gone this long without using it (unless you have, and I suck for not remembering). This story is all about what is wrong with journalism. And I agree, wholeheartedly, but I have to disagree that journalism could not awaken the conscience of the powerful, nor rescue those most in need. I have to believe in something. I am part of a nonprofit called the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. It was founded by Barbara Ehrenreich with the aim to enable writers who experience poverty to write about it. So rather than parachute some cocky 20-year-old out to Meriden, Connecticut, a local warehouse worker in Meriden could tell her own narrative. I often report on lived experience, and one of the greater challenges I’ve found is that news outlets don’t want to entrust someone with lived experience to tell their story; they fear we may have a bias. For example, the child welfare system has been my beat, but as a former foster youth, people may think that could cloud my judgement in some way or another. But that brings me to the point you were making here: What exactly does that say about who we do entrust with the story? Who does get to shape our narratives? SA: Yes! That’s it! The problem is one of privilege and cynicism and sloth—and I was a party to all three back in Meriden, though I had no idea at the time. Who gets to shape the narrative? We should all be asking that, every minute of the day. Who gets to shape the narrative? Look at all those rich old white men in front of microphones. Are they telling the story of every American? Can they possibly know the story of a child of color who grew up in foster care? Why are we allowing people who can’t see or understand such lives to make policy that profoundly effects (and usually harms) such lives? You can draw a straight line between Ronald Reagan talking about “Welfare Queens” and Trump calling immigrants “rapists” and “animals.” This is why I tell so many stories in the book about the limits of my own experience, the way in which I would sit on my porch in El Paso sipping coffee while below me I could watch young women crossing the Rio Grande from Juarez to come clean American toilets for 12 hours a day. They’d stand there, shivering in the dawn, having to strip off their wet clothes and change into dry ones, hoping an INS van wouldn’t chase them through the low desert scrub. That’s just a stone-cold picture of American privilege. I can’t witness that. I can try to imagine what those women are thinking and feeling, but I have no fucking clue. Only they do. One of the foundational bad stories of journalism is the bad story of “objective journalism,” which Hunter S. Thompson called “a pompous contradiction in terms.” It’s just a little ethical fairytale that reporters tell themselves so they can sleep at night. It makes much more sense to let people tell their own stories, because even the most sensitive journalistic account is really just an approximation from without. TM: This brings me also to Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. You describe this book as an elegant polemic against television; Postman outlines that as a result of television, serious things are handled (and received) with the same essential lack of seriousness. What do you think Postman would make of social media? SA: I suspect he would see it as the final step in the disintegration of epistemology, the moment in which the very idea of “the truth” became so decentralized and subjective as to be irrelevant. And that’s really most of what you see when you look at social media: Everyone is crafting a public fiction that conforms to their inner life. The tech greedheads have this whole utopian rap about how the whole point of social media is to connect people. But that’s marketing, which is to say bullshit. The point is to aggregate attention on behalf of the sponsors. That’s why Facebook was happy to become a sewer of Russian misinformation during the election. That’s why your Google search feeds you results that confirm your biases and nourish your bigotries. It’s why so many Russian bots haunted the digital halls of Twitter. Any sensible government would regulate these huge companies, to prevent them from spreading bad stories. That’s what the Fairness Doctrine was about: putting a spoiler plate on for-profit propaganda. The whole point of the Fairness Doctrine was to make sure the public airwaves were used to serve the public good. When Reagan’s FCC repealed it, right-wing radio went wild. For-profit propaganda became the media’s central growth industry. The modern media echo chamber was born. The folks who spew this propaganda sound serious as poison. But they are completely unmoored from reason, science, verifiable truth. Which is to say: They are entertainers who are paid to appear serious. And because there is no Fairness Doctrine to keep them honest, actual scientists and professors and journalists and workers are never allowed to call them out on their bullshit. They enjoy the ultimate epistemological safe space, where they can craft enthralling fictions about how white people are the true victims of everything and are constantly under siege by dark others. In fact, they get to inject this poisonous rhetoric directly into the American political bloodstream, which is how you get Trump as president. But here’s the thing: We’re not just witnesses to this process. We’re the needle. The attention we give to the bad stories spewed by these hatemongers distracts us from the stories we should be focused on—the story of climate change, of income inequality, of systemic racism, the stories of our most vulnerable citizens. This is why, in darker moments, I see America as engaged in a kind of disorganized descent into fascism, because rather than housing the Joseph Goebbels of our age in a dungeon or relegating them to the fringes of our public discourse, we’re amplifying their paranoid and fraudulent hate speech. TM: Can we do a throwback Thursday and I ask Steve “Sugar” a question that kind of relates to all these bad stories? So I was teaching a writing workshop to young women at a camp in the Pacific Northwest. I talked about being a teenage girl in foster care and developing an ache: the don’t-get-too-attached-you-can’t-spend-eat-fuck-your-way-out-of-it ache, as it were. My talk was the one thing between the young campers and their lunch. So I gave my talk, and we all scattered our own way, but later in the food line over trays, a young woman approached me and sheepishly asked, “Did you ever get rid of the ache?” I felt like I was at a fork in the road; one direction could lead to a bad story. What should I have told her? SA: I would have told her that she was brave and beautiful for asking that question and that the only honest answer to give her is that we’re living in the ache. The ache is the astonishing sorrow of the examined life. The ache is how we know we’re alive. And when we’re telling good stories, the ache is how you know you’re not alone in this life.
This interview first appeared in Chinese at the Shanghai Review of Books on June 3, 2018. I spent my first Iowan winter day at home reading Tinkers, the 2010 Pulitzer Fiction Prize winner. Outside, snow began to fall. I poured myself a cup of hot tea, sat next to my window, and opened the book to its stunning opening line: “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died.” Perhaps it was the snow, but my world quieted. Slowly I lost myself in the labyrinth of George's memory. When, finishing the last line, I looked up again—it was four hours later, the street lamps casting their long bluish shadows on a whole white land. Ever since then I’ve wanted to talk to Paul Harding, to ask him for his writing recipe, his marvelous use of time and lyricism. As a foreigner who grew up exposed to Emerson, Melville, and Faulkner, I was astonished to hear that in America only high school students are still reading them. I want to ask him about the literary tradition in this country, about the relationship between the self, history, and the present, and how art can reach beyond its creator’s self-obsession and connect to a larger world. So we had this conversation. Paul’s responses are illuminating and yet sometimes counterintuitive. Instead of encouraging young writers to find their own voices, he says he rids markers of his voice during revision and editing. In Paul’s view, writers and their writings are not a cause-and-effect relation; rather, it’s the subject that desires to be rendered in a specific way, and the writer who needs to listen to this hidden message. As far as literary tradition, the Bible to Paul is both the foundational literary text and a spring of democracy and humanism. (Paul’s forthcoming novel, Island, is coming out with Random House in 2019 or 2020.) The Millions: Before you switched your career to writing, you were a drummer for the band Cold Water Flat. What’s a musician’s life like? Does your past as a musician influence your writing? Paul Harding: Well, mine was a sort of “half-time” musician’s life. When we were not touring or recording or playing shows around Boston and New York City, which was often, I temped in all sorts of lousy jobs. I also worked in bookstores, which was lousy work, too, because it was retail, but wonderful because I read all the new fiction that came out. I loved working on songs with the other band members. We were not very good, but I was fascinated by arranging and finding different parts for different songs. I loved being in the studio, too, watching the engineers and producers use the studio itself, and the mixing boards almost as instruments in themselves. Touring was a lot of fun at first, but it grew very tiring. Most days are spent driving for many, many hours from show to show, getting to the theater or club, doing a soundcheck, playing the show, breaking down, sleeping in one motel room with five or six people, getting up in the morning, and driving all day again. Very wearying! But not entirely awful, because it’s interesting to show up in towns and cities you might never otherwise see, and find people in the middle of what they consider “normal life,” which is, from the outside, always clearly highly localized and eccentric in one way or another. Music absolutely influences my writing. I was a drummer—the “time keeper.” And I think of narrative prose as keeping time, too, of rendering characters’ experiences of time, of “being in time” in the philosophical but also, simply, immanent physical senses. I write by ear, by rhythm, intuitively. I can often tell what the tempo, time signature, accentuations are of a sentence or a passage before I discover its literal meaning. I think of Tinkers, especially, as lyrical, like incantation, song. TM: When was the first time you introduced yourself to others as a writer? How did you feel about it? PH: I suppose I went through some version of the self-conscious, pretty much coy mannerism of protesting that I was not a writer; I just wrote. Or something like that. I was never self-conscious about wanting to be a writer, or aspiring to be an excellent one, since neither is the same thing as claiming to be an excellent writer. But now, I accept the job title! From my point of view, I do in fact think of writing as a way or manner of being in the world, that in some deep senses, I do write, as a function of my being a person, of exploring, interrogating, describing the experience of personhood, of being an “I,” that utterly mysterious thing. I guess I also feel a bit like I’m not so much “a writer” but a writer of strange, oddly shaped stories and not much else. TM: The original inspiration for your debut novel, Tinkers, was your maternal grandfather. Why did you want to tell his story? Do you find your writing experience has changed your understanding of him or your family story? In what ways? PH: I did not feel compelled to tell my grandfather’s story in the general sense. I felt an urge to describe aspects of his life about which I remained curious after his death, which were mysterious to me, yet also formative, normative. It was also a way to remain in conversation with him, by means of aesthetics, of imagination. George, in Tinkers, though, ended up achieving his own kind of aesthetic critical mass, or momentum, and while he is my grandfather, my grandfather was not him, if that makes sense! It also pleases me to think of my own sons, and perhaps someday their children and grandchildren, reading the book and feeling as if it’s their own, highly local book of genesis: an anthology of family myths and legends. TM: Were some chapters of Tinkers workshopped before its publication? If so, what feedback did you receive? PH: Tinkers was originally a 15-page short story. It was one of two stories I submitted to apply to the MFA program at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I was not supposed to workshop it, but I did, because I ran out of material to submit. It was given a life-changing workshop by my teacher and now friend Elizabeth McCracken. Her reading of it was so subtle, attentive, solicitous. She not only taught me a great deal about the story but also how to teach. The feedback, as I remember, mostly had to do with the 15-page version being too elliptical, too obscure. So, when I had the chance, after graduating, to work on it some more, I expanded it from the “inside out,” so to speak. I had the entire plot, such of it as there was (which was and remains not much—plot does not interest me), so I just kept elaborating on the characters’ lives, building up layers of them, slowly, like a river piling up silt or something. In fact, it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that if you took the five opening pages, the five closing pages, and the five pages right at the middle of the published book, you’d pretty much have the original story. So strange, art—so lovely. TM: Almost all readers said they marveled at the unique use of time in Tinkers. Time both constricts and expands, which reminds me of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, but Tinkers is also very different. How did you come up with this idea? Did you doubt it at any point during your writing process? PH: I doubted it the entire process. Not what I wanted to do with time but whether I was in fact doing that, or whether I was just being clever, fancy, using pyrotechnics. But that was good motivation. Every twist, turn, redoubt, exploded or accelerated moment had to earn its way into the manuscript. Also, since most of the book takes the form of consciousness—and most of that the form of memory—I had built into the structure of the book that what I think of as a “quantum,” almost supraluminary nature of consciousness, where almost without apparent causality, you can be thinking of yourself as an infant next to a river watching your mother catch a fish and instantly next be thinking of yourself as a parent, feeding your son a bite of shrimp. Or whatever. That’s kind of a silly example, but I certainly had writers like Proust in mind, pushing on how prose that must be read diachronically—that is, in order, in lines of words, can be experienced by the reader as something like the synchronous apprehensions of full memories, and full memories shifting and moving and leading into and out of one another, and so forth. William Faulkner was a huge influence thinking about this. Also, the so-called “magical realists,” like Julio Cortazar, Carlos Fuentes. Emily Dickinson, too, whose poems look so small and compact and yet have the transcendental, metaphysical density of collapsed stars. TM: Tinkers has an associative rather than linear architecture, as you put it. One tricky thing about this structure is that readers may get lost. Many writers embed perches for readers to rest and reorient. I read the countdown of George’s life as serving this purpose. Did you worry that your readers might lose their way? Did you provide guidance for them? PH: You have perfectly answered your own questions! Yes, I worried. Yes, I absolutely “staged” the book as a countdown to the instant of George’s death—incidentally, the eight days it takes for a traditional American or European wall clock to wind down. I figured that as long as the prose eventually looped back to “8 days before he died; 7 days; 6,” the reader would have a predictable point to which she’d periodically return and be able to clearly, concretely take stock of what was happening. I think that the narrative takes some getting used to, but once the reader knows the, as it were, rules of the thing, those rules are consistent and wholly organic to the deepest meanings in the book. I feel more or less that it’s fine to ask the reader to do some work, to actively participate in the reading of the book, so long as that work is rewarded two, five, tenfold with art that surprises, delights, activates deep human recognition—all that good, artful stuff. Two things I always tell my writing students are: Don’t write your stories for poor readers, and don’t write your stories for people who won’t like them. If you pick up a copy of Tinkers and read the jacket copy and maybe the opening paragraph or two, you’ll continue reading because you like what you read. The book does what it does, consistently, right from the very first sentence. TM: After Tinkers won the Pulitzer Prize, did you feel any pressure on your second novel? Did you worry whether Enon would replicate the success of Tinkers? PH: I did feel pressure, and a lot of it. But I also recognized that I was a kind of minor, temporary protagonist in the larger Pulitzer Prize narrative or phenomenon. I certainly worried during my time as a private citizen—that is, for instance, when I lay awake at night, at four in the morning, say—wondering whether I could pull it off. But I either had to write a second book or disappear. Much better, I thought, to get on with it. I did not worry whether Enon would replicate Tinker’s success, although I certainly hoped it would. But being a lifelong avid reader, bookseller, and observer of all (or many) things literary, I knew the usual, very predictable risks. For example, I knew there’d be people who would not like Enon, no matter what, because it was just Tinkers II, and there would be people who would not like it because it was not Tinkers II. No matter. My job was to filter out all the noise best I could and be loyal and attentive to what was coming over the wire from inside the world of that book. TM: Enon, at least in its first part, reads more like a conventional novel—a lucid point of view with a plot that everyone can relate to. What things were on your mind when you were making writing choices for Enon? PH: It’s interesting, because you sort of learn things about writing on the fly. At first, because the opening felt more conventional, I tried to make it more, I don’t know what, experimental, or something like that. But that was me inducing meaning, coercing the material. What I found was that much of that book is precisely about this narrator, Charlie, having a more or less common, recognizable, conventional way of looking at and describing his life—a relatable, work-a-day kind of idiom for the love he has, for instance, for his daughter. When his daughter dies tragically and without warning, that idiom, the very language out of and with which his world and place in it has been constructed, is made instantly and totally alien, unrecognizable, insufficient for his experience of the tragedy. Much of the rest of the novel is simply a dramatic presentation of him desperately trying to improvise a new idiom for a universe in which his daughter has died. That improvisation intersects with his romantic, so to speak, imbibing of drugs and alcohol in an effort to give himself just a bit of distance from his own white-hot grief, almost as if the chemicals are like the mirror Perseus must use in order to look at the Medusa and not simply perish. And that combination becomes more and more phantasmagorical, of course, and populated by fairly specific New England ghosts and legends. I also realized that the story was a version of Orpheus and Eurydice, or Persephone and Diana, the narrative of losing someone so dear that you simply cannot accept it and try to go down into the underworld to fetch the lost loved one back. Tons of other stuff in there, too. Hopefully. But I did find myself with the technically confining structure of a first-person narrative, which I found the hard way is very, very difficult to sustain over a novel-length narrative. And I did find myself in the face of how our culture thinks about drug and alcohol addiction, which made for a very prominent foreground that many readers could not or would not subordinate to the character’s—the true subject of the book—human experience. Certainly, some of that was my shortcoming as an artist. Such is art! Fascinating to learn along the way. Interesting, too, when readers would come up to me and say, Oh, why doesn’t that Charlie guy just pull himself up by his big boy pants and get over it? Well, if he did, there would not have been a book! It’s like asking (on a much, much more sublime level, of course), Oh, why didn’t Hamlet just get on with his revenge? Well, because that’s the play. What would be left of Hamlet if he didn’t agonize? That’s what the whole play is about! If he didn’t agonize, he’d just murder Polonius, assert his right of succession, become a typically vengeful, murderous king, and the play would be two minutes long, and they’d have to bring out the jugglers and dancing bears! Anyway, Enon was and remains a tough nut to crack. Wholly necessary for me to write (I had close friends who’d lost children, whose experiences were partly why I chose to try to write such a book, and two close friends lost their respective only children while I was writing the book). I am deeply loyal to it. It remains a mystery to me. An occluded vision of something deep and dark and, to me, fascinating. [millions_ad] TM: You teach students to write precisely. What do you mean by “being precise”? How to be both lyrical and precise? Can you give an example? PH: I guess I have an idealistic, or Platonic, spirit in the use of language; my sense is of a perfect version of, say, Tinkers somewhere out there in or beyond the universe. What I got of it onto paper is the buckled, scorched, dented, imperfect version of it that I managed to fetch from my forays toward that perfect version and bring down through the atmosphere into the English. As it precipitates from that imaginary, perfect state into language, it distorts. But English is a pretty magnificent, flexible, rich, dense language. So I revised. And revised. And revised some more. There’s not a sentence in the book I did not go over 100 times, pushing on the precision of the language to see how close to perfect I could get. That pushing is, of course, aesthetic, too. It is applying aesthetic pressure to the language for precision, largely with the faith that every further degree of precision is a further degree of revelation, of beauty. When I began to realize this, it took a huge leap of faith, exactly because I thought of myself as a lyrical writer. Even the word itself, “precision,” seemed to contradict the very spirit of lyricism. It seemed surgical or like something from engineering. But again, it is used in this kind of writing to achieve aesthetic sophistication. The matter was one of learning to trust your subjects. If you sense beauty and lyric essence in your subjects, that means that beauty and lyricism inhere in them. That is, they are already beautiful and lyrical in themselves, before you even stumble by and notice. Which means that it’s not you, the writer, who induces those qualities, with “your” writing. You don’t happen along, sprinkle glitter and fairy dust on the subjects, and they become lyrical. That would be a form in itself of distortion, imprecision. It’s not a cause-and-effect phenomenon, where the writer “causes” subjects to be lyrical or whatever via her writing. The writer pays deep, sustained, considerate, selfless, solicitous attention to subjects she intuits are beautiful and lyrical, and if they indeed are, then the best—really, finally, the only—way to render those things is by precisely describing them as they are. That’s all the difference between poetry and writing that sounds poetic, between beauty and pretty writing. It seemed counterintuitive to me at the time, so as I said, it was a huge leap of faith. I had to be very deliberate, conscious of writing that way. It took a lot of work to make myself write that way and to keep writing that way. But it was faith well rewarded. It’s a wonderful mystery, but it works every single time. I should say that this way of thinking is undertaken in the context of writing about character, that is, about experience, so much of the beauty and lyricism also come from refracting, for instance, the description of a striking landscape through a character’s perception of it, experience of it, which in itself is something that, if precisely attended, strikes the reader as true, authentic, thus beautiful. I never write “objectively” about a stand of birch trees in the golden sun near a stream of cold clear water, but of a mind perceiving those things. So the mind and landscape become coextensive and so forth. TM: Nineteenth-century spirituality is rare to see in contemporary American literature (with the exception of you and your teacher Marilynne Robinson). Based on your reading experience, what do you like most about contemporary American fiction? What don’t you like about it? PH: The only contemporary American fiction I read is that written by my students! Not because I’m doctrinaire or anything, but because when I teach, I teach a novel-writing workshop in which we read and critique a full-length novel manuscript every week, no upper page limit. That’s a ton of reading, but the students are so good that I get to read a rough draft of a good or great novel every week. The rest of my reading time I devote to nonfiction—tons of theology, lately a lot of history, like John Foxe’s massive Actes and Monuments, which chronicles English history from the dawn of time, practically, through the reign of Queen Mary (I think). Anyway, what I love about the books I see from my students is a willingness to try new ideas, to write unabashedly big, smart, beautiful books. Generally, I dislike books that complain so much about, say, crass, white, middle-class materialism that they themselves becomes artifacts of the very phenomenon they allegedly lament. That’s like shooting fish in a barrel, as they say. What could be easier that pinching the noses of burghers? TM: One common critique is that contemporary American fiction is small. But our world is big and chaotic. We need a novel that is about the right size. What do you think of the “size” of contemporary American fiction? PH: Oh, that’s a tough one! “Size” has to be dictated from inside the work outward. There are a lot of 600-page novels that have about 75 pages of substance to them and the rest is just self-indulgent riffing. “Size” is properly about the seriousness and depth of idea, of subject. There’s nothing I like better than a big book. You get to live with it longer. It becomes like a friend or lover. Moby Dick, by now, is less a book than a place for me, an actual sort of aesthetic ontological dimension I go back to and live in periodically. I can do that with Melville because the book is 600 pages, but more importantly, each page is 100 pages deep in a sense. It’s so rich, dense, gorgeous, big-spirited, generous, genius. Every page is a feast! So if you crank out several hundred pages of received popular opinion about whatever this season’s version of the American dream or nightmare is, you’ve still written a small, sad little book. TM: Another contemporary writing trend is that, perhaps under the influence of postmodernism, writers are bold in trying experimental forms with their novels—very often by the use of visual art. But I find, quite often, those forms are a way to legitimize a weak plot or string together a collection of slightly related scenes. In your opinion, what’s the ideal relation between form and content? How to make experimental forms organic? PH: Well, I think you’ve given a great answer to another of your questions! This is very, very much a matter of personal taste. At this point, we’ve crossed over into personal aesthetics, so this is all purely a matter of my own preferences. But, for me, first, all good writing is experimental. You experiment with the material to see what works and doesn’t and how and why. I spend tons of time collaging passages, juxtaposing them in various ways, improvising and experimenting with them to see what tones, textures, nuances, harmonies, dissonances, revelations, etc., they generate on their own, almost independent of my own intelligence, as it were. But I do not ever induce form prior to writing or insist on form as I write. I mean, sometimes I do, but in the former case only to jump start the writing in a very early stage of a project, to invoke it, for example, but with the full understanding that the formal structure is a prompt or conceit that the material, if it’s good, will inevitably outgrow and shrug off, and in the latter case usually because I’ve unconsciously or stubbornly persisted in some formal conceit past its usefulness or necessity and have been disfiguring the material so that it accommodates the form. That’s an instance of the writing becoming the subject of the writing, if that makes sense. The writing is the predicate of the proper subject—for me, the characters, their experiences, the phenomenology of things. The writing is subordinate to the people whose lives it serves to portray (which goes back to what we were talking about in terms of precision). I often tell my students, never preserve a conceit at the expense of the story. One way to revise and edit for this kind of thing, I’ve found, is to listen for your own voice. Whenever I can hear my own voice in my work, I know that I have somehow improperly become the subject of the writing. It’s no longer about my characters but about me being clever, showing off, getting revenge or whatever. So to my thinking, form is an organic function of the process in that it is what physicists might call an “emergent property.” I’m probably fudging the proper definition of the concept, but roughly, I understand emergent properties to be ones that arise from the interactions of a system that could not be predicted prior to that system being set into motion (or whatever—I think it must have something to do with thermodynamics). Form emerges from the inside out, then, rather than being something the writer thinks of abstractly, intellectually, rhetorically beforehand and then induces onto a plot or set of characters or whatever. Of course, some authors can do this brilliantly. But as you suggest, a lot of writers try fancy formal stuff because there’s no necessity to the work. There’s the mortal danger of constructing something that is purely ornamental. Which is in no way to suggest writers should not use such experimentation as a way of getting to things they find true and essential. But there’s also the risk of a shallow level of appeal. Look! The whole novel is written backwards! How clever. Who cares, you know? It’s not strictly the same thing, but the spirit is similar when the American jazz critic Whitney Balliett described musicians who are technically brilliant but have no vision or soul as possessing “mere virtuosity.” TM: “Tradition” is a word Americans don’t often mention. I was told by workshop friends that only high school students read Faulkner. In your opinion, what’s American literary tradition? What are the greatest things that young writers can learn from reading them? PH: American literature by now is so vast it’s hard to describe it as a single tradition. Historically, the tradition probably began with people like Jonathan Edwards, the theologian, who was a magnificent writer. I think of the tradition, if somewhat narrowly, as arising from the New England Reformed Protestant tradition that led to Transcendentalism. I see that vein as being disciplined by the idea of the primacy of personal experience. Not in a romantic sense but in the deepest intellectual, aesthetic, moral, spiritual sense of using your brain as much as possible to ponder experience itself—the experience of being human, of experiencing a self, the experience of being human as a self. That leads to all sorts of pretty lovely democratic, humanist implications, having to do with allowing every person the freedom to experience her own given humanity, free from coercion, having to do with the premise that every person’s experience has the same ultimate value, and so forth. It’s not the same thing as radical relativism, or simple license to do whatever you’d like. Parts of the literary and philosophical traditions arise from the earlier theology of what was called the “I and thou” of things. A person activates, cultivates, deepens her own self to the extent that she cares for and dignifies other people’s selves, lives. Pondering one’s own experience makes one more sensitive to the experiences of others, or that’s the spirit of it. Empathy, pretty much. Not a naturally occurring impulse, always, perhaps, but through the discipline and the habit of deliberately thinking as deeply and constantly as possible about such things, one can, so the thinking goes, meaningfully participate in the true value and valuing of human beings. That’s a pretty radically abbreviated description of what I think of as humanism. In America, but also wherever such thinking has any efficacy, I think it’s fair to say people’s lives are enriched materially and spiritually. In America, such thinking and art, broadly, helped to give rise to things like the abolitionist movement, then civil rights, labor rights, women’s suffrage, an overall lessening of discrimination against and disenfranchisement and of various groups of people. Emerson and Thoreau certainly wrote and thought in that tradition. Emily Dickinson. Herman Melville. Later, Faulkner, for sure. One of the problems of keeping the heart and soul of such a tradition intact is that all those writers, regardless of differences of denomination or faith or however you’d like to describe it, wrote from within the literary and cosmological traditions of the Bible. Well, if only high schoolers read Faulkner these days, it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that no one at all reads the Bible. The book has become so encrusted in ideological nacre that it’s almost impossible for Americans to approach the book and what’s in it as they would, say, Moby Dick, which is not necessarily to say secularly but as literature, which is not to demean religion but to elevate narrative, poetry, song, art to the level of the sacred. Anyway, not knowing the Bible is a certain state of illiteracy. It’s not a value judgement (in my judgement!) but a factual description having to do with the simple, unalterable fact that the Bible is the headwater of so-called “Western art.” You don’t have to like it, but it is the case. To the extent that people are ignorant of that tradition, they are separated from what I’m sketching as a kind of stipulated “American tradition.” Basically, I love the combination of the most sublime, sacred, essential aspects of human experience with the impulse that those things are available to everyone, no matter how high or low they appear in life. Think, again, of Faulkner’s characters. Think of “unlettered Ishmael” in Moby Dick, all those sailors who sign their names “X,” and to whom Melville gives the language of kings and prophets and angels. I love William Tyndale, who made the first translation of the Bible into modern English, and who almost miraculously, single-handedly invented modern literary English by putting the kind of aesthetic pressure I’ve mentioned on it to raise it to a level where it was fine enough to render the sophistication of Biblical literature. His stated goal was to make a translation so lucid and clear that it could be read by the boy out plowing the field. There’s something essential and recognizable to me in that idea in the best parts of the American tradition of democracy, imperfect, severely compromised, often corrupt, battered and embattled thing it has always been. TM: What is the thing you wish you knew when you were just beginning to write Tinkers? PH: Easy: nothing! For me, writing is not engineering, in the sense that I do not care much about efficiency. For me, the inefficiency of writing—improvising, discovering, screwing up, searching, finding, not finding, interrogating, exploring, unveiling, revealing—is what yields art. You can’t think it up first, then type it. The putting of language on the page and seeing what meaning you’ve released into the world and shaping it, revising it, building it up, layering it, scraping it back down, and all that is what I love about making beautiful artifacts out of words. There were plenty of technical things it may have been nice to know ahead of time, but I don’t really think much about them, because once you know them, the problems you consider only get deeper. I mean this as a guarantee, a promise to all writers, when I say that one of the best things about writing fiction is that it only gets harder the more you know, in some ways, and that is, to me, a wonderful thing. Whatever I learned writing Tinkers, when I turned to Enon, it was not as if but in fact that I had to learn to write all over again. Fantastic! What good fortune!