Body Betrayal: The Millions Interviews Maegan Poland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TM: [laughs] That’s wise advice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Got me here, didn’t it? Arguably.

Bonus Links:
Edgar Allan Poe: Self-Help Guru
Poe’s ‘Eureka’ Is a Galaxy-Brained Space Opera for Our Times
Twenty-Five Ways to Roast a Raven: The Spiciest Criticism of Edgar Allan Poe
Was Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ Inspired by an Edgar Allan Poe Story?
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Bearing Witness to All That’s Being Lost: The Millions Interviews Claire Vaye Watkins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TM: Right. So we poison ourselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TM: I think that’s really true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TM: Right, right.

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

TM: Oh, good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TM: Well, it’s ludicrous.

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

An Embodied Experience: The Millions Interviews Brian Evenson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TM: It’s both specific and open.

BE: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

BE: That’s a language.

TM: Wow. Yes!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TM: We look forward to it.

Bonus Link:
A Year in Reading: Brian Evenson

It Has to End Now: The Millions Interviews Dave Eggers

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Dave Eggers’s newest book, The Every, is about a near-future mega-monopoly clearly based on Amazon, Facebook, and Google. It’s his follow-up to The Circle, and follows a different protagonist, Delaney, who seeks to destroy the company from the inside.

Appropriately enough, Eggers has found a way to avoid Amazon during of The Every’s initial release. The hardcover edition will not be sold through the site. If you want a copy when The Every is released on October 5—with one of its 32 different covers—you’ll only be able to get it from independent booksellers. 

The Millions spoke with Eggers about Amazon’s grip on the publishing industry, authorial self-censorship, public surveillance, and much more.

Rachel Krantz: Congratulations on your book, and also on figuring out how to subvert the Amazon behemoth. 

Dave Eggers: Thank you. It has been really illuminating, because the last time I really tried to not have Amazon distribute books, that was almost 20 years ago, and Amazon’s market share and power have grown exponentially since then. So it’s been enlightening just how difficult it is to work around the tangle of Amazon’s influence in every aspect of the book business.

Still, I believe that books will be sold and read and passed around if they’re good, and if you read them and enjoy them and passionately push them onto the next person—that’s how I think our books get read and last and persist. And I think that’s how booksellers and bookstores will last. A bookseller goes, “Oh, this new book just came in the other day,” and tells the customer about it. And if you want that [experience] and choice, you have to remember monopolies will limit choice and always will—that’s the nature of monopolies. If you want choice, you have to put in the work.

RK: My book is coming out in January, and I’m in this group with a bunch of other debut authors. There have been a lot of people grappling with how to reconcile their politics with the fact that there’s basically no way to avoid being dependent on Amazon if you’re at this stage in your career and want to make any money, or get any sort of major book deal. What would you say to authors who feel like they don’t agree with Amazon or want to support them, but have to profit off of them if they want to have a career as an author?

DE: I think it’s a lot more difficult for a first-time author to try and experiment than it is for me. I have the benefit of being around for 20-odd years, and I can hope that I can depend on an existing audience that will support this book, and my platform, I guess, for lack of a better word, where I talk about these issues and bring people into independent bookstores. But I would never prescribe or expect anyone else to be able to follow the same path, because everybody’s situation is so different and I honestly do not know what the landscape is for a debut author now. 

RK: I think what’s scary is that I was having these conversations with friends while reading The Every, and knowing many of the things that you’re predicting about publishing and self-censorship are already here. People I know who are writers right now and are not as established as you are have expressed that they’re afraid to ever say anything negative about Amazon, because how do we know there’s not some sort of retaliation in the algorithm? 

DE: I don’t think Amazon is a retaliatory company in that way. I think that there is more machine-driven presence than you think. I have no fear whatsoever for retaliation, nor would I care, but the fact that your friends have to think about that is a terrifying reality. Really. And we have empowered this monopoly to strike fear into the hearts of authors. And that may be unprecedented in history. Through our own complicity as consumers, their market share only grows. Right now, Amazon sells 45 percent of print books [and 75 percent of e-books] in the US. If it grows from there, then we’re at a really terrifying place. So if we want to avoid algorithms deciding which books are published and which are not, it has to end now.

But as to the amount of fear that there is out there about Amazon, I think it is a function of their predatory business model and also this sense that their power is too great and everyone else is little. The fact that we have empowered a machine that controls books is beyond irony.

RK: And many of us new writers would be completely terrified of going on the record as saying the same, even though we know that probably Amazon’s not a retaliatory company, and could care less about us. But just the chance of that, it’s scary to envision potentially speaking out.

There’s another thing I really see authors grappling with right now, in terms of “what am I allowed to say,” even in fiction, and how much more important the author’s personality and visibility has become. There’s this fear that if you write a negative character who’s not obviously a villain or satirical, that people are going to think it’s you, or your opinions. And so I see a lot of self-censorship happening, just in terms of what you can even imagine as a writer. I’m curious how you think of that impulse, if it ever arises in your own writing, to self-censor. 

DE: I’ll answer it more in terms of the characters who live on this campus in the book. Everything said on campus is recorded and then analyzed by AI for any potential wrongness. And then there are certain words that you have to get permission to say, essentially. They think that they can perfect humanity by having a closed ecosystem and 24/7 surveillance. And that they are uniquely qualified to protect and defend what they deem right, and prevent any wrong action or sentiment. And they can do that with the help of digital tools…

And then in real life, our society, you have a tragedy of a high schooler who tweets something when they’re 16, and has been canceled. I think it’s definitely a culture that lacks the ability to forgive. And we have got to forgive each other and not judge anybody by their worst day, and a word that they used when they were 16. I think that we have to open our hearts a bit and allow people to develop and improve. I think and I hope, because I believe in humanity, that we will find our way to move on to being a forgiving culture, but I do think that when we give this power to an algorithm, to a big company like Amazon to surveil, we become part of the machine altogether. So we find ourselves in the situation that we’re in, and then we become a population of fury. 

RK: I’m kind of surprised to hear that you’re maybe even a little optimistic, because I definitely felt like, reading your book, oh, okay, this is the direction he thinks it’s going — and it’s not particularly hopeful. So is part of your hope expressed in trying to create a severe warning? 

DE: That’s the point of this kind of fiction, to present a dark path that might be avoided when you wake up, and you’re painting a vibrant and terrifying truth of what it could become, in the hopes that people say, “I don’t want to live there. I don’t want that to be our reality.” So to write something like this, I think one has to care. You are painting a picture that—I was trying to terrify myself. 

Like, imagining what would happen if it became a law that you had to have audio surveillance in your house? Well, I think that there’s a 50/50 chance that we’re going there within 10 years, because it’s very hard to defend not having it in your house. On the one hand, you have the right to privacy. On the other hand, it might make families safer and protect children that otherwise might be in harm’s way at home. When we have become a surveillance state, and we are almost a surveillance state right now, how will that change our lives? 

RK: Well, social media has already changed people’s conception of self. That line has blurred already, so it’s not so much of a jump to have these other forms of surveillance, because everyone thinks they’re living a public life and are a celebrity in their own minds anyway.

But then I was thinking, also while reading your book, about all the people refusing to wear masks. And that this is happening at the same time that we’re mostly comfortable being surveilled by corporations—but there’s so much more resistance to the government telling people to wear a mask. So people seem much more willing to let corporations impede on them than the government. How were you thinking about how that was playing out as you wrote the book, why the resistance is stronger in that area?

DE: You nailed something I thought about a lot, that it essentially cuts against a lot of the theories in the book, that I feel like people have sort of a limitless tolerance for surveillance and enforced behaviors. I will say that I feel like those flare-ups as anomalous. When you write a book like this, you have to sometimes leave out some exceptions, I guess. But I think that mask-wearing and vaccine-getting is much more visceral to people than digital surveillance, passive trolling, passive surveillance, passive acquiescence. Whereas if you put a needle in somebody’s arm, that’s a lot different and will evoke a much more passionate response than the sort of slow, pot-burning, boiling-hot way of doing things. 

RK: I also think the mask itself is such a perfect symbol for all of these white people who feel that there are all these things they’re not allowed to say—aka racist things. It’s kind of this perfect symbol for feeling like they’re supposed to be quiet and cover their mouths. 

DE: Right. And there’s so much that’s so analogous about the Trump era that I could never have seen coming. So many strange forces—and so much ignorance, hatred, racial tension, homophobia—all of these things that we California liberals thought were dying quickly off. I spent time at Trump rallies as a reporter trying to figure out exactly what was happening, how this could have happened. I was surprised just how much hatred and homophobia was still out there, and I think that’s the function of this San Francisco bubble I live in. 

Bonus Links:
A Little Bit Beta: On Dave Eggers’s ‘The Circle’
An American Nightmare: The Millions Interviews Dave Eggers

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Karl Ove Knausgaard Will Not Read This Interview

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I’m a major admirer of Karl Ove Knausgaard. His memoir, My Struggle, of course, 3000-plus pages spread out across six books, each of which has its own unique character (Private ranking: 4, 2, 1, 5, 6, 3.) But I also love his short “season” books, especially Autumn and Spring, and his novel A Time for Everything, which reinvents stories from the Bible and places them against a Norwegian backdrop.

I recently spoke with Knausgaard via Zoom about his new novel, The Morning Star, a multi-perspective first-person story set in Norway in which a giant star appears in the sky and earth’s beings seem to stop dying. The novel features nine different narrators. Several appear relatively briefly, but the leads are Egil, who is writing an essay on death that appears toward the end of the book; Kathrine, a priest struggling with her marriage; Jonnstein, a nasty reporter trying to get his crime beat back; and Arne, whose bipolar wife is suffering from a mania, wandering their property at all hours of the night, and painting disturbing images. These characters each have their own dramas—but all the while the world is changing in the light of the new star, with murders, monsters, brutality against animals, and ever-rising heat.

The Morning Star is Knausgaard’s first work of pure fiction in over a decade. He was in London and I was in Brooklyn during the interview, with the sun setting as he spoke until he was in near-total darkness

The Millions: You’ve said that writing a novel is like setting a goal, then walking there in your sleep. When you were in New York a couple of years ago, you told me that you were 40 pages into a multi-perspective novel. Was that The Morning Star?

Karl Ove Knausgaard: Yeah, it was incredibly slow in the beginning until some things fell in place. Then I wrote it very rapidly, mostly during the first spring of the pandemic, from Christmas until May, I think. But before that, it was a long period where I just had it lying around and didn’t work on it.

TM: I saw inklings of the pandemic all over the book. Did you find that it impacted your process?

KOK: I didn’t think about that at the time, but I could see clearly afterwards when it was published that, yeah, very much so, I think. Because the kind of intense feeling I had and probably everybody had in the beginning was of the intimacy of the family, all of a sudden, coming together and spending much more time together. Then you have that threat outside which was really horrible, at least here in London, with all the deaths and the ambulances. Same as in New York, of course. Yeah, it must have somehow snaked its way into the novel. I had four hours a day to write, and then I had to deal with all the other stuff because we were all there. We were nine people in the house, you know?

TM: Oh my gosh.

KOK: But that was good, too. It was a good experience. You had to give it all of those four hours. I couldn’t hesitate. I had to just write whatever came into my mind.

TM: There are nine narrators in The Morning Star, so it’s interesting that there were nine people in your house.

KOK: Oh, I never thought about that.

TM: These characters have their own concerns, and they’re very much private ones. A new baby. A problem at work. Seeing a teacher you don’t want to see in the grocery store. Though it’s getting hot, and animals are acting strangely, and there’s a new star in the sky, it seems like the characters stay focused on the granular, day to day stuff.

KOK: Definitely.

TM: That did remind me of the pandemic. This idea of disaster out the window, but then at home, what are we going to eat, I’m fighting with my partner, whatever.

KOK: I think so. It wasn’t like I thought that was how I wanted to make it. I just wanted to find these people and to be in their life, and then this star appears, and I didn’t know how they would react. So, I think it was kind of—yeah, it was probably also related to what happened, really, and that very particular experience, because the funny thing is, you couldn’t share it with anyone because everybody had the same experience, you know? Couldn’t write about it, couldn’t talk about it, couldn’t call friends and say, “Do you know what’s happening here?” I never experienced anything like it. Never saw something so general in history. But this isn’t a pandemic novel at all.

TM: I was thinking about the idea of the big story, that Tolstoyan concept of the war going on in the backdrop of peace. Or the whale being off-camera for most of Moby-Dick. It’s hard, as a reader, to even picture, exactly, what the morning star is. I was wondering what it’s like to write with something on the periphery of a novel that is so giant, yet moves away right when a reader might most want to look at it?

KOK: Well, I started out and I had this idea about The Morning Star, and I wanted to have nine narrators. That was basically what I had, and then I started to tell the story and I realized, I had just started, it’s going to be more books. The Morning Star is going to be more scrutinized. I think what I struggled with the most was, and it’s probably very understandable, was credibility. That the characters could believe in the star. That’s the only thing I’m really working hard with, trying to get that star up there and make an impact on people.

TM: Have you started, I hate this kind of question, but are you writing the next part?

KOK: Yeah, yeah, I’m actually finishing it. I have a deadline for it on the first of September, so I’m really at the very end of it.

TM: Oh, great.

KOK: You have to write so much. I’ve written a lot today, for instance. I was almost done.

TM: This is a pattern book, but then you break the pattern in many ways. There’s two characters that you only spend a bit of time with, the one watching the baby and the one who was kissed by her brother-in-law

KOK: Yeah, and I felt like I’m starting a novel each time, you know? Just stop them and go onto the next. I will pick them up and go further, but I have no idea what’s going to happen, really.

TM: A technique you use in My Struggle and here is suspension. You see a big thing, you pause, and in this book, sometimes you go 200 pages before you come back to whatever the moment of suspense is. I’m curious how you juggle these moments.

KOK: I have no idea. I’m sorry, it’s very intuitive. It’s a lot about pacing, really, and what you can allow. Suspense allows you to dwell with something and to write about other stuff, and it makes it possible to get to, for me at least, everyday life. Somehow get the sense of intensity to it. For me, writing a novel is a way of creating a room or a space where I can say something that might otherwise have been incredibly banal, or not worth it all. But I never think about those terms in a technical way. Suspense doesn’t mean anything to me, really. It’s just writing.

TM: When we last spoke, you were preoccupied with making the characters feel different. You said that was the biggest challenge you were setting for yourself with this project.

KOK: Yeah, that was something I also discussed with my editor throughout, because every person is written the same way, thinking the same way. It’s like—how to create different characters in the same language?—and I didn’t want to pretend I’m going to other languages, or other ways of writing. I also didn’t want the third person, which could have been a solution, so that was something I thought about all the way through. My editor said to me, “Just write about these people and it becomes an illusion.” I mean, everybody knows you’ve written it. But I set some different parameters in the beginning, and that makes them different in a way.

TM: When you switch back and forth, are the characters waiting for you? Or do you have to write your way back into them?

KOK: No, I can just go into them, but the whole goal was to establish them, because I didn’t know anything about any of them, so I just started the situation and kind of found my way. Then something opened up, and then more, and then there was a life there. For instance, the priest, all I knew was that she would come in on an airplane, and that she had been on a conference for translation of the Bible, which I was part of. I knew this was at least authentic, in a way. That was all I had about her, I had no idea that she didn’t want to go home, that she had these troubles. It was the same with all of them, and that’s the fun of writing fiction.

TM: There’s so many moments in writing, I’m thinking of Stendhal maybe, where you have characters that seem separated by wide gulfs, and then suddenly you learn that they’re linked. For me, finding out that Egil (an important character) went to school with the priest was the kind of moment in writing that makes your heart beat a little bit.

KOK: Yeah. I had great fun with this, and there are going to be more link ups to come.

TM: I found a quote of yours in your Munch book about The Scream, I’ll just read it, because it made me think of what we’re talking about:
What is shocking about the picture…is that the entire space is subsumed into the face and the state of mind it expresses… The space is recognizable, it is Oslo with the Oslo fjord, probably seen from the ridge of Ekebergåsen, but it is greatly distorted…the perspective has been moved into a single person, and the work’s main concern is the place from which the world is viewed, reality as experienced by this single individual is the world. Everything seen is coloured by emotions and moods, which are continually changing.
KOK: Yeah, I think that’s just the way I looked at everything, really. Art, literature, and writing. Yeah. I haven’t specifically thought about that, but of course I’ve thought about the view of the world and of different worlds a lot, and that’s also an opportunity. It’s exactly that, sure. Exactly that, that you could see the same world and it’s completely different. That could be a relation. I wanted this book to exist also in between the characters, not like my previous book My Struggle, which is just one person, nothing else.

TM: I wanted to ask about the character Jostein—I’m sure he was fun.

KOK: He was fun to write, yeah.

TM: Peeing himself, drinking, hitting on girls, ignoring his son’s very clear psychiatric crisis. But then he gets this transcendent journey through a Dantean purgatory. He would have been the least likely character for me to say, “I want to see what he thinks about the river Styx.” How did that sequence come into it?

KOK: He was just this idea of journalists writing about culture while hating culture. Which I know for sure exists, and I wondered why that is, you know? I really hate it, I mean, really, really hate it, and so I had to write about it. Then I just riffed on him through the novel. And he was the obvious choice for that scene, really. I never thought of anyone else. Also, I don’t really know, but I really like it that in that scene everything has to be simplified, simplified, and simplified. He actually doesn’t remember anything. That whole trip to the other world was also very late stage in the novel, and came when I was very in the book, and he was there.

TM: The way the language shifts into something primordial when he drinks from the river was a pleasure.

KOK: Yeah, it was fun, actually, to do.

TM: Another thing that was fun was the essay at the end of the book that you show Egil writing earlier, with that little capsule story of him on the train. And I know your answer is going to be it happened organically while you were writing it, so I’m not going to ask you that question again.

KOK: Sorry.

TM: No, it’s good! I’m the same way. But the use of research and these theoretical opinings on death in a novel about people who can’t die—I do think is worth asking about.

KOK: It was stuff I was reading for the book, mainly, throughout the writing. I read, I do the same thing now, I have not a lot of time to read, so I read before I go to bed, and I have like half an hour, an hour, and that was the stuff I was reading. I knew it was going to be an essay, I wanted an essay in there. We discussed if it should be the start of the next one or the end of this one, but then I started to write it and I realized that the level of abstraction is very high when you are writing romantically about death or whatever. And death is not like that, that’s the thing. It’s not abstract, it’s not something you can really think of. It’s absolutely horrible, as everybody knows.

I needed to move that essay into a real expression, and then I remembered when I must have been 24 or something, I took a train from Oslo and there was this medical doctor. He was an anesthetic doctor. It was only him and me. We started to drink, and he started to confess from his life. Never seen him before, never seen him later. This is now 30 years ago, so I think I’m pretty safe. He just told me everything about his life, and he said, “I know I’m not going to see you again,” and then he told me about an experience he had about being on an ambulance helicopter and actually seeing people who weren’t there. I’ve always thought “I have to use this,” and there it was. Then I just expanded the story and invented a funeral, his anger and sorrow, and the death of his child. Basically, that’s how it works with fiction, you have an experience and then make use of it in an entirely different way. It was very important to end the essay in reality somehow, even though it’s an invented reality in the novel.

TM: In Fight Club, single serving friends, I think is what they call it.

KOK: I see, yeah. It was very powerful, actually.

TM: Sounds like it.

KOK: Yeah. I was very young, too.

TM: Toward the end of the novel, you write that death has been taken out of darkness, with mythological ideas of death turning into scientific processes. And I couldn’t stop thinking about your brain surgery essay about Dr. Marsh, when you’re looking at the brain through the microscope and you see this gorgeous thing. That’s a human being, but at the same time it’s science. What do you think science is doing to our understanding of death?

KOK: That’s a very good question. I’m actually reading a lot about that for the book I’m writing now, which is a very different perspective. And I don’t really want to talk about what I’m doing now, but I think there are several traits about death and about the body and about life that are very fixed in a way; they belong to each other’s department. The interesting thing, for instance, is that the idea of resurrection has always been in religion. It’s been the center of Christianity, but in a way, that idea has been impossible now, because religion has become more rational, so they can’t make it work in an old fashioned, biological, flesh and blood way. We don’t believe in it, but they did. Instead, it’s just moved into science, where it pops up in the most amazing ways. I just read, what is his name, the singularity man, who starts to think it’s possible to defy death and to beat aging. All through science, all through molecules and biology and computers. That’s doing something very weird, because for me, body is earth. Body is animal, body is primal, somehow, and very, very old.

Then you’ve got this kind of modern body, but the body is the same. We are the same. That is what I’m trying to write about again and again, the pull from the earth versus the enlightenment and the brand-new world we’re living in. When death comes, it just smashes all of that and destroys it. You face something completely different.

There’s this wonderful novel I just read, a Russian novel, by Chinghiz Aitmatov. Have you read it?

TM: No.

KOK: The Day as Long as a Century, it’s called.

TM: Oh, wow. Great title.

KOK: Absolutely wonderful. It has a very silly science fiction part, but it works, and it has an incredibly good part down on earth. It’s about a man in the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan in the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s, burying a friend. Going on a camel to bury him, and he kind of relives his life. Then there is a completely weird presence of rockets and the combination of those worlds side by side is absolutely brilliant.

I do have the same feeling when I read those crazy futurist American people, that really freaks me out somehow, but still it is very interesting. If you read them, you think yeah, it is possible. We are basically numbers. The scary thing is maybe this is where the hard science is going. That’s very much part of what I’m writing. It’s very existential, but also very much now. You know?

TM: Very much.

KOK: The very simple thought that death is something archaic, is something that kind of sets the rules, and it does something to us. It’s the thing I’m exploring in the first book. And the feeling I have is the same as I had in the beginning of My Struggle: it was my father’s death. It’s something you have to relate to, and it is everywhere, especially now with so many people dying around us. Dr. Marsh said—I asked him if he believed in something after death—and he said, “No, it’s over. It’s nothing. It’s just death. It’s like blowing a fuse.”

He’s seen many people die, so he knows what he’s talking about.

TM: I trust him more than me on that. When you were speaking, I was also thinking of the fundamentalist speaking-in-tongues American beliefs that still have a more spiritual approach to death.

KOK: Yeah. I was intrigued by all of them, all of that, the whole tradition you’re talking about. And Shamanism is incredibly interesting, just as a phenomenon. What it does to your view of the world, which is what I’m interested in. I’m not so interested in if it is true. It’s what it makes the world into. Turns it into something else. That’s what I want to do with this book. In a very, very mundane world, of course.

TM: A Time for Everything is one of my favorite books. You place mythological stories, Cain and Abel, Abraham, in familiar Norwegian environments. Woods that are very much like the woods in My Struggle, figures that we see again in My Struggle. In The Morning Star, too, I was having fun Googling the restaurants you were mentioning in the book and seeing the interiors you described. So, you have this surreal landscape, but it’s very, very strongly mapped onto a real place.

KOK: Yeah. I hadn’t written about many landscapes, and the lesson in my second novel, A Time for Everything, was that when I tried to write those stories, I had set them in vivid landscapes, and it was impossible, because I didn’t have the knowledge or the insight, and if you’re a bit insecure, it’s impossible to be free.

It was a bit the same in The Morning Star with writing from the perspective of women. In the beginning I wasn’t free, and didn’t know anything, so I really wrote badly because of that.

What I did in A Time for Everything was to move it to Norway. I knew the Norwegian landscape, so then I could just be free. I gave those people some traits from my grandparents and so on, as you know. When I was writing The Morning Star, I was in London, but the memories and images of where I grew up were very strong, and it gave an extra dimension.

Because to me, it is real because I was there, but it isn’t here, so I have to make it up anyway. If I have something realistic, then it’s much, much better to let something extraordinary or fantastic happen. To be free in something, I have to know it really well. I do also like a concrete, real world combined with fiction. It’s always something that I appreciate with many of the novels I like. If you read Tolstoy, for instance, you know those places exist somehow, and it’s grounded in the information of the world.

TM: How did you start to feel more comfortable writing the female characters?

KOK: I had to say, “I can’t do this,” because I was being so respectful. I asked myself, “Can a woman think this? Would a woman do this?” Then you’re fucked, because there’s no creativity, it’s just restrictions. I had to let go of all of that, and just write and be completely free, never think about if a woman could think that, would do that. Then the novel in itself started to come alive, because the first person I wrote was the nurse.

TM: One thing I was intrigued by with her was that In the Land of the Cyclops has an essay that’s partially about you working in a place that’s very similar to the place she works, a home for the mentally ill. Were you giving bits of yourself to different characters?

KOK: Yeah, yeah. That’s all over the place, really, because you need something that is true, and it doesn’t have to be true in any direct sense, but there has to be an experience of something you know. I have to have that when I’m writing, so there’s a lot of that spread out and I just use whatever comes in hand. That goes for all of the characters,

TM: You’ve written that having a family member with bipolar disorder changes the you and the I, and creates questions about what is essential to an individual’s identity. I wanted to ask about that astonishing moment where the bipolar character Turid’s painting contains a truth that no other character sees.

KOK: The thing with her is that she is psychotic. Or she is getting psychotic, meaning she is seeing something. Because it’s like a dream, but you are in the real world, and you can’t believe everything. You have the ecstasy with the shamans, and that’s also the same way, that you see something that might not be there. Or you have experiences with mushrooms or whatever, you always see something. It’s just an interesting place to be, I think, if you are in the world with everyone but you see something else. Not that that should be real, or not real, or whatever. It’s a position, and the outer world is completely dissolved.

TM: This book has strong elements of horror. The being in the woods, violence against cats. I wanted to ask about your decision to use fear in this book.

KOK: I set out to. One of my favorite books is Dracula by Bram Stoker. I think I was 14 the first time I read it, and I read it many times. I really, really loved it. I remember playing Echo and the Bunnymen when I read it, so every time I hear Echo and the Bunnymen again, I remember. I wanted to go, the gothic and the grotesque and all of that, those are places I wanted to go. And of course, The Morning Star has many elements, especially cliffhangers and supernatural stuff.

TM: And Dracula can’t die in a normal way.

KOK: That’s true, yeah. Never thought about that.

TM: I was reading your essay on Cindy Sherman’s pig person, and thinking about non-humanness as something that is really frightening as well.

KOK: Yeah. It’s just a fascination I have. We have all of these other living creatures and we’re not afraid of them. They are not us, they’re different, and we accept them and don’t think too much about them, even though it’s very weird to have other creatures that experience the world completely differently. But then think about meeting the devil, not in any fictitious way, but in a real way. If you try to think about non-human creatures like that, or a divine creature, or whatever that people have been seeing throughout history, how immensely scary that is. It’s the same with robots.

TM: I would love to ask about The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air, the Kierkegaard text. Egil, the character, writes about how strongly it impacted him, like it was seeing something for the first time. I was wondering if that follows your own journey of reading?

KOK: I actually read it in New York, and I read it English the first time because I bought it in a bookshop there. I was just blown away by it, really. I think the immediate appeal was the repetitions, the poetry. It was like I was transfixed. There is a complete impossible idea that it brings forth which I was intrigued by. I didn’t think I should use it in any way, but I did. I think it’s the common knowledge of living now, the radicality of it and Kierkegaard makes you see it, like you said, for the first time. You see the radicality in it. In The Morning Star, there are two different types of Christianity going on. The priest, Katrina, she’s very much about the social reality, very much about mercy. Then you have Egil, which is completely the opposite, which is Kierkegaard, turning away from the social and looking into the abyss, which Kierkegaard was very good at doing. And then I also did, like Egil, I bought the complete series of all of Kierkegaard’s work in Danish, which I have here on my shelves. Then I read an incredibly good biography about him. He was such a fun character as a person.

TM: Did you find that going back to fiction, was it fun, was it different, did it feel liberating?

KOK: It was fun, but it was in a way also much harder, and I also felt that I took a risk, really doing this. You know? That was part of the fun, and I really enjoyed it.

TM: When I talked to you about My Struggle, sometimes I felt a little awkward because I was asking questions about the character you to the writer you. Is this a different sort of interview for you?

KOK: Yeah, much harder to talk about fiction because with My Struggle, we can just talk about myself, you know? It’s fine, I don’t have to think. With this book, I have to find a way of talking about it and there’s so much I don’t know. I did write it very fast, really. And I haven’t talked much about it because there was a pandemic, so I did like three interviews in Norway, three in Sweden, one in Denmark, and that was it. Which is great.

TM: You don’t read anything written about you, right?

KOK: No, I don’t.

TM: So, I can do whatever I want with this.

KOK: Yeah.

TM: Is it easy to avoid pieces about yourself?

KOK: It’s easy, but sometimes there is a headline, often reviews come out like two weeks before the book, and I’m not prepared. Then I know, okay, it’s a shit review or whatever. But I don’t feel curious anymore. It’s very, very good not to read it. Even the good stuff is terrible. It’s such a good thing to do, not to read about yourself.

Bonus Links:
A Complete Visual Map of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘My Struggle’
You’re Not a Real Writer Until You Have Enemies: The Millions Interviews Karl Ove Knausgaard
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Seasons Quartet Is a Raw Journey through the Writing Process
Karl Ove Knausgaard Shows You What Makes Life Worth Living
Devoutly to Be Wished: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Consummation

This Thing Feels Alive: The Millions Interviews Brad Fox

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I have trouble getting books in Kyiv. Not books. There are lots of those. Most of which make me wonder if the Russian nationalists burning books in Crimea might be on to something. Check that. Flip it. They’re not on to anything. They’re just assholes. They burn books because ideas scare them and books in Ukrainian and Tatar apparently terrify them.

No, I have trouble getting physical books, in English, translated or not, that are appearing on the American market. And so, last autumn, a publisher I’d never heard of offered me a physical book from a writer I’d never heard of. I read the blurb, looked at the bio, and said yes, please send it.

The blurb was fine. But that bio: Brad Fox left the U.S. at 20; came home to get an education; left again. Came back 15 years later. An American who’d spent the better part of his adult life living in places profoundly not America, doing humanitarian work. The book, and the man behind it, drew me in, in part, because their very existence—both the book’s and the man’s—cuts against the grain of a whole slew of American political and cultural orthodoxies.

And after several hours on Skype with Fox, I found out that being angry, hyperbolic, or revolutionary are not required for great prose when intelligence will suffice. In fact, I’d say the former are counterproductive to writing this strong. Particularly, when it’s a book that is destined to challenge the pieties of anyone who picks it up the way this one will.

The publisher is Rescue Press. The writer—for those just tuning in—is Brad Fox. The novel is To Remain Nameless. And for the hours spent on SKYPE chewing on every bizarre question I threw his way; for a talk that offered serious balm for the sting that comes from getting my hands on only a half-dozen physical books worth reading every year; for offering up his authentic, experienced perspective, I am grateful. Below is some of what we talked about.

The Millions: So, elephant in the room. The audacity of a man writing a woman protagonist with another, pregnant, woman as her foil…no worries about criticisms of appropriation?

Brad Fox: It came from hearing stories about birth. I don’t have kids. I was present at one birth. The parents were very close friends of mine, I helped them get to the hospital and they pulled me into the room. That’s the extent of my personal experience, other than being born myself. But I am married to a woman who worked as a birth doula. She assisted at around 40 births. She’d get a call that one of her clients was going into labor, she’d grab her kit and rush off. She’d come home 36 hours later, euphoric from sleep deprivation. And she had a routine—it didn’t matter if it was 9 a.m., she’d buy herself a couple of beers and half a rotisserie chicken. She’d show up, eat and drink, and tell me what happened. The stories of the births themselves were fascinating, how the woman made it through the process, the body versus the medical system. Then there were the other people around. Partners, family members, everyone pushed to the limit until all their defenses fall away. Who are they? And what do they see at that moment? I thought it was a perfect frame for a story. It forces all kinds of questions about life and meaning. I started looking around to see what had been done with birth narratives. There was the birth scene in Anna Karenina, and some other scattered scenes, but not a book where a birth is the narrative device. But I thought about all that later. First I just woke up one morning and wrote a couple of pages with no plan. The premise came into focus, and I thought: this thing feels alive.

TM: I’ve lived in the post-Soviet space for a quarter century, I’m required to ask: You would be opposed to a proscriptive approach to modes of expression in literature?

BF: I guess you mean the way identity is used to forbid certain kinds of writing or storytelling? There are good reasons why positionality needs to be examined. And there are reasons some people can travel more easily than others. Power dynamics are always involved. But that doesn’t mean you’re not allowed even to try to enter how somebody else thinks or feel how somebody else feels, that it’s impossible to write from the perspective of anyone who’s not strictly who you are.

TM: But, a man, you’re on some foreign soil there, no?

BF: There’s baggage in every identity. If I only write about men, that’s unbearable and wrong. Taking on another perspective is fraught, which means you have to devise an ethics about it. I did a lot of interviewing to get the birthing stuff right. I revisited the hospital ward where it was set. I asked a few writer friends who are mothers to read the book and give me notes. There’s one detail that’s inaccurate.

TM: And that is?

BF: I’d rather not say. But I’m curious if anyone spots it.

TM: I wanted to be there when my sons were born. But if that delivery scene is accurate, I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes. Didn’t matter. Ukraine is pretty traditional: No men allowed in the room. Three cheers for tradition.

BF: I wanted it to be accurate and also graphic. Because it’s the confrontation with extreme bodily reality that sets the book in motion. Most of the book takes place in the mind and memory of the birthing woman’s friend—a woman who doesn’t want to have children, who’s disillusioned with humanity, a misanthrope. To have her faced with the reality of a new child, but before that, the struggle, the smells, the weird light. What does that do to her?

TM: So, no hesitation to write about a character whose circumstances you could never fully embody?

I can’t say I did it without hesitation. I thought about the reasons. But the reasons to do it were much more interesting than the reasons not to. I spent a lot of time imagining having a different body. I knew I would need help to get it right, and that in itself was a compelling challenge. I haven’t always decided to go ahead with things.

TM: You have suppressed your own work?

BF: Yes, I have, for various reason. Abandoned things or decided not to show them around.

TM: But To Remain Nameless is different?

BF: Who knows! But I wrote it and the people at Rescue liked it. It was important to me that the editor was a woman. And it’s a book that comes from legitimate concerns, from a sense of what kind of questions a narrative operating on different levels can ask.

TM: To Remain Nameless: That title has some deep roots. Care to elaborate?

BF: I’m a student of apophatic theology. It’s an orientation toward what lies beyond thought and language. It’s more of a disposition than a way of thought. It’s a way of engaging the divine through negation, through terminal dissatisfaction with any linguistic structure. I spend a lot of time trying to read Ibn ‘Arabi, the great Andalusian visionary writer. But also Plotinus, Pseudo-Dionysius. Many others.

TM: Pseudo-Dionysius! He’s always reminded me of Sgt. Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes. You know: “I know nothing! I see nothing!”

BF: Please explain.

TM: I’m talking about absence: where else in contemporary fiction can we read an informed perspective that incorporates apophatic theology? What the Old Book describes as “the Spirit interceding in groans that words cannot express.” Mourning in contemporary fiction is typically a device—a decorative bauble, maudlin, self-pitying, not like this—it’s central to her dilemma.

BF: These are two different things. You’re right that here mourning is inseparable from beauty and human connection, the richness of life, but that’s not what I mean by an orientation beyond thought. Apophasis is a matter of using language to point beyond itself, endlessly, endlessly, so there’s a forward momentum in that. Or there might appear to be at times.

TM: Yet her assessment of her ontogeny is pretty harsh. You’re sure she’s no pessimist? Even a nihilist?

BF: She’s someone who’s seen the worst of human nature, now staring into a birthing body. Also holding on and trying to help in whatever way she can. Here is her closest friend in the world engaged in the continuation of life, which she herself has turned away from. It’s a genuine mystery to her.

TM: But the self-abnegation inherent in the work, the self-flagellation of working for an NGO, the suggestion that, well, I have this or that capacity so who cares what happens to me as long as the job gets done? Not nihilism?

BF: There wasn’t much self-flagellation among the NGO workers I knew. It was a pretty hedonistic life. A lot of burn out. But that’s something else. For her, yes, there’s a self-abnegating impetus to serve. She understands the neocolonial reality of what’s happening, sees herself implicated, and sees that any intervention may do more harm than good. Still, the concerns are immediate, and that compels her to keep at it. What else can she do?

TM: How significantly has your own experience internationally, seeing the results of the blind spots in U.S. foreign policy, bled into the writing?

BF: I left the U.S. at the beginning of my 20s. I knew nothing at all. I practically grew up in the Balkans. My sensibility was formed in Sarajevo and Belgrade and later in Cairo and Syria and Mexico and Istanbul. Often, U.S. foreign policy was a matter of life and death. I never went to Iraq, but what the U.S. unleashed with the invasion was the definitive event of the era. I moved back to the U.S. after 15 years away, which turned out to be the 10th anniversary of 9-11. It was a harsh reminder that though U.S. foreign policy may be a matter of life and death elsewhere, within the country there is little awareness of it. That fall of 2011, there were celebrations of veterans’ experiences, the trauma hero, and a sense of victimhood—what happened to us, what we’d been through—but no acknowledgment that the U.S. had rained ordnance on the rest of the world for a decade, causing permanent damage. We had perpetrated outrageous violence. There’s still been no reckoning with that.

TM: It’s like bad clams for lunch: eventually they’re going to come back up. Is that, in part, what’s happening now in the U.S., in this reconsideration of its own history?

BF: I do think the Trump phenomenon is an effect of decades of lies and denials about history and the effects of recent policies.

TM: And yet, in the book you avoid any explicit politicization of your argument. Your character’s politics aren’t ideological, partisan, but pragmatic.

BF: This book is driven by bodily knowledge, by staying close to granular realities. She sees, as anyone would, the damage all over the globe. That’s not a polemic, it’s simply the world. The novel gives space to talk about love and friendship and quotidian struggles and health issues and also politics and mortality in an open-ended way. And to see how all that mixes with desire and pleasure and humor. There are passages that are just following an energetic impulse, like dynamics in music.

TM: So, not a fan of manifestos posing as fiction?

BF: I participated in the movement to oust a group of corrupt politicians from the New York State Senate a couple of years ago. If you want to make changes in policy—and it’s a worthy pursuit, activist movements, criminal justice reform, all of it—you need to do the work of politics. Which is tireless, usually thankless, but social. Novel writing is something else.

TM: A couple more? First, the pain. Why was To Remain Nameless not picked up by a big house?

BF: I had the same question! Querying is so demoralizing. How many times can you hear “I don’t know how to sell this”? But there’s a big world of small presses in the U.S. People who are engaged, who care. For love not money. It’s not a cultural desert; it’s just hard to connect. And then Hilary Plum at Rescue Press saw it. So careful and astute, so beautiful in her attention to it. In my experience that’s really rare.

TM: A story question: That scene where Laura and Tess go out drinking in Istanbul with a couple of Swedish NGO financial guys. Is this the single greatest scene written in contemporary American literature in the last decade? Or just one of the greatest?

BF: Ha! There’s a kind of euphoria in that scene. The frustration of working in the international sector builds up until you have this kind of ecstatic release.

TM: The kiss that follows a piss. You wandering into magical realism?

BF: No, I think it’s real. You do piss out reports and meaningless tax documents, files that no one at headquarters is going to read. They are in your body until you pass them. And then—ahhhh—you feel better!

TM: Indeed, a protagonist at the breaking point but still with so much to offer. Decidedly hopeful, no?

BF: I mean, the oceans are rising, how could you bring a life into this twisted, unjust place? That’s part of her conundrum. It’s the contemplative space of the book. Its structure puts grace, faith, and the hope for something better under pressure and it’s for us to see what comes of that.

TM: A comment, not a question. I’m a snob and the stuff I like to read has to be really good. So, big house, schmig house. To Remain Nameless is a strong, thoughtful read. Honor is due.

BF: That’s gratifying to hear. Thanks.

I Don’t Have Time for All These Rules: The Millions Interviews Kendra Allen

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Kendra Allen’s debut poetry collection, The Collection Plate, was released by Ecco earlier this year and the restless mind, playful sense of language, and concerns with form and structure seen in her first book, the essay collection When You Learn the Alphabet, has grown and changed in interesting ways. In her poems, she crafts a world where her personal life and familial history, patriarchy and religion, sex and death, Super Soakers and the reality show Naked & Afraid intersect and build upon each other in unfamiliar and at times unsettling ways. We spoke recently about music and religion, our grandmothers, and what it meant to call oneself a poet.

The Millions:  I came across an old interview from when When You Learn the Alphabet was released, and you were talking about the essay form and being intimidated by poetry because “in poetry everything has a name.” I wonder if you could talk about what poetry meant and writing the poems that became the book.

Kendra Allen:  Like I said in that quote, I always feared saying that I’m a poet because I didn’t really know the names of those forms and I felt constricted by them. Fearful to even dive into poetry because I’m not trained in this the way. I’ve spent the past years learning the art of essay writing, and narrative essays, in particular. What’s ironic really is that when I started writing the poetry, that fear I had of feeling stuck and strained because of my ignorance of form ended up being the thing that freed me. It made me fearless in terms of form and content—and how form and content coincide with each other. When I sat down and started to actually see these poems go together—these poems could be a collection—it really was freeing because I wrote what I wanted to and how I wanted to. I didn’t have second thoughts about form. I’m studying form now because I want to know, but at that moment of my life, writing The Collection Plate was a moment to be free and figure out my own form in a way that expresses what goes on in my head in the clearest way.

TM:  I understand. You’re busy trying to write and can’t be thinking about counting syllables while you’re doing that.

KA:  Yes! I don’t have time for all these rules! I have a story I’m trying to tell. It’s not even rules, but suggestions of what makes something good craft wise, which I think can lead to same-old same-old if you think about writing in a strictly craft way.

TM:  Form is important to you, though. In your acknowledgements you mention L. Lamar Wilson, who told you that the poems needed to be “put in somebody’s mouth.” Which is such an interesting bit of advice. Where did you take that?

KA:  Lamar single handedly made this collection a collection. I had most of the poems, but they weren’t that good. They were in the first-draft stage. Lamar read them and he said, these are good but you need to put them in somebody’s mouth. I spent a few weeks trying to process what that meant and I sat down on the floor one day and I was looking at the poems and I was listening to a song about how a father was a doctor and all the impatience of this person probably stemmed from their father. I saw that I was talking about religion and church and family and fatherhood, and I just changed the first line of the first poem from whatever it was to “We say Our Father.” I capitalized the O and F and it became like a character and a thread and a recurring character throughout the collection. It can be symbolism but also it can be duality between our father in heaven, which is what I was taught, and my literal father and patriarchy in general. I can talk about all three in conjunction with each other just by creating this character. Once I did that, the collection just started falling into place like puzzle pieces. If Lamar didn’t tell me that, I would have never thought of that. I’m very, very grateful.

TM:  And the Lord’s Prayer, which begins “Our Father,” is one of the first, if not the first, prayers we ever learn.

KA:  It’s the first thing I learned. Before I learned to tie my shoes, I learned the Lord’s Prayer.

TM:  As you were rewriting the poems and thinking about how they fit together, how did that idea shape them?

KA:  The short “Our Father’s house” poems were initially one very long trash poem. [Laughs.] It was not good at all. I was so tied to it. I don’t know why. I wouldn’t let it go, but it just didn’t fit. I started breaking it apart and making couplets from it and once I broke that poem down, I was able to make better transitions. I’m very big on transitioning. I think my favorite albums are as good as I think they are because of how each song flows into the next. I think when I broke the “Our Father’s house” poems up they provided the through line and thread that helped me connect them.

TM:  You have two sets of poems that are paired together, though in different ways. One is “Naked & afraid” and “Afraid & naked.” Were they always two poems and was that idea there from the beginning?

KA:  I was taking a documentary poetics course at the time, and I was writing about the desegregation of Alabama swimming pools. I started thinking about water in my life. Also, one of the shows that me and my father watched together was Naked and Afraid. [Laughs.] It’s a wild show if you haven’t seen it. I was trying to figure out how to bring journalism into poetry. I thought about how you cannot survive without clean water. A lot of the contestants on the show have to leave because they didn’t pick the right weapon, which is a pot to clean water, and then they get sick and have to leave the show. I started thinking of Flint, Mich. It was a mirroring in terms of capitalism, race, class, and all these factors. I wanted this mirror of how we see this reality show with these mostly white contestants who are able to get help when they run out of clean water. But in actual reality, we see these poor black people who are denied the human right of water for no other reason than they’re poor and black. I really wanted to show that mirroring in a very clear way. Reality show and actual reality. Being seen as human is very different if we’re talking about something that is scripted to an extent, versus something that is lived out and is still going on.

TM:  So you had the idea of two poems that would begin and end much the same, but reframing certain aspects.

KA:  I was writing them both simultaneously while also working on an essay where a portion of it was where I would write about the same thing but from a different point of view. I was like, let me try to do it like this. It wasn’t in the front of my head at first to be the same poem but use different words, but once I did it, I saw it was the poem. It was one of the easiest poems for me to write. I didn’t have to do much revision on it. It’s clear.

TM:  Water is one of the themes of the book, and I’m curious why.

KA:  It’s definitely that class. I was getting my MFA and in my last semester and I was taking that class because there was nothing else to take. You picked a subject and they wanted it to be about where you were. I was in Tuscaloosa, and I picked the desegregation of Alabama swimming pools. Of course, as I was doing my research and trying to write poems, I was getting mad. I didn’t want to read about it because it would just make me angry. So, I pivoted and changed my topic to documenting Lonnie Johnson, who invented the Super Soaker. A lot of the “Super Sadness!” poems were originally about the invention of the Super Soaker. I ended up shifting those and making it more about myself and my mental health issues, but I still wanted water to be a metaphor throughout the collection. I wanted it to not just be about other people. I wanted it to be about what I was going through in my head and blend cultural commentary with personal narrative. I kept changing my topics, but water was always there. Baptism. Getting my hair washed. Learning to swim. All these ways water was in my life.

TM:  The two “Super Sadness!” poems are very different poems and are paired in a very different way.

KA:  That first one was really about Lonnie Johnson inventing the Super Soaker and gatekeeping and racism. I didn’t change that poem a lot to make it fit my life. I just shifted a few words around and I think once I changed the title from “Super Soaker” to “Super Sadness!”, it aligned in a way that made me feel like this is what I’m supposed to be writing. When I was talking about Lonnie Johnson, they felt empty. His story is amazing, and I would love to document it, but I couldn’t just make it work. I wrote the second one because I didn’t want to finish the first one. It was a poem about what I was going through at that very moment. I’m not a writer who can write in the moment. I need time to assess what I actually felt, but when I was writing those “Super Sadness!” poems, I was able to write about what I was feeling in the moment, which was brand new for me.

TM:  There were a few poems that really got to me. I’m sure you’ve heard some of this, but “I’m the note held towards the end,” which was a good poem is also brutal and I would imagine not easy to write.

KA:  It’s actually my favorite poem in the collection, along with the last poem. Just because I like how that one looks. [Laughs.] But yes, that poem was brutal, but extremely necessary for me to write. I got to get that out of me through the lens of this song that I love, but I’m writing about something very, very difficult. Also, during this time, I had started therapy and was dealing with repressed memories that I had never talked about. Writing that poem was a brutal and beautiful experience. It also made me realize that I could listen to music and get so many different takeaways from it. On the surface this song is about sex but also the way that she holds the note, it feels like pain and release and banishment. It was very quick to write this poem. I did it in one take. Over time I edited it, but the meat of that poem came out very quickly. I’m learning to trust when that happens. The content made me think, I can’t share this, but also: you have to share this. So yeah, it’s a very special poem to me.

TM:  You said before that you need time and distance to process things and write about them, and there are a few poems like this one that are about the process of stepping back from things.

KA:  And being able to see it clearly for what it is.

TM:  Some of that distance and clarity comes from having the language to understand what happened.

KA:  What you said. Having the language. I wouldn’t have been able to write it without that time where I could access the language. I literally did not have words for these things. Giving yourself time and space to form the language is so, so important.

TM:  I really wanted to talk about “Happy 100th birthday.” My grandmother had dementia for years before she died, but there are lines especially—for example—“All yo history / in rooms with none of you / in it”—that resonated in beautiful and brutal ways.

KA:  Thank you. I came home to Dallas and it was my great-grandmother’s 100th birthday and my granny wanted to go to the gravesite. My family is not the type of family who goes to visit gravesites except after the funeral. So I went with my aunt, my mama, my uncle, and my granny and I realized that we had a lot of dead family members in this graveyard. [Laughs.] I had a realization that I was so thankful to have been able to spend time with my great-grandmother, because she lived into her 90s. She died of Alzheimer’s and one of my biggest fears is forgetting my life or losing myself, because I saw that happen to her. When I started writing that poem, I wanted to document the times I remembered her on the decline of her memory. I felt like I had to write it for my granny, as well. She never really talked about losing her mother. It had to be hard to see the way that she went. I really just wanted to show those memories in the midst of her losing her memories. Because it is terrifying.

TM:  You mentioned loving the last poem, “Gifting back bread & barren land,” which is a very ominous title, especially as a final poem.

KA:  That wasn’t the last poem at first. It was the opening poem. I had a few people tell me, no, but I couldn’t let it go. I was just so married to this poem. I think because I felt like a poet for the first time when I wrote it.

TM:  What did it mean for you to feel like a poet?

KA:  It was scary! [Laughs.] It was a happy scared. I was excited but also, oh shit. You work towards something and you’re happy that its done but also, you’re fearful because you’ve got to do it again. [Laughs.] It was the first poem I wrote that I was super proud of. Before I wasn’t sure if my poems were poems, if that makes sense? But with that one I knew, this is it. I wanted it to open the book. I feel like it encompasses a lot of those underlying messages. I’m not 100 percent happy with it at the end, but I know it makes more sense at the end than at the beginning.

TM:  Was part of feeling like a poet is just feeling out this structure and the voice and the themes—and making it feel like you?

KA:  It was that. I really took my time on it. I felt like a poet because I felt like myself. I didn’t feel like I was trying to mimic the poets I love and am inspired by. I took time to figure out the language. I always think about rhythm. I felt victorious writing that poem. That’s dramatic to say. [Laughs.] I felt like myself and that made me say, you are a poet. There’s not one way to be a poet. Poets don’t all fit the same aesthetic or idea. Writing that poem felt like me and the way that I talk and how my mind shifts from subject to subject in the middle of a sentence. It felt peaceful.

TM:  In your poetry and essays your language has this musicality, and there is this restlessness in terms of moving from one topic to another and making connections between them.

KA:  You’re saying the perfect words. Restlessness. And recklessness! [Laughs.] And rhythm. All R words! That’s something I don’t want to lose. I think that’s why I feared saying I’m a poet. I felt like I might lose that urgency that makes me want to keep writing. Which is crazy, because poetry is the greatest genre of writing ever.

TM:  Music is so important for you. Was finding a way to bring musicality to your language, and finding a way for that to work on the page, the big challenge for you as a poet?

KA:  My biggest writing inspirations are people who write songs. I’ve always been a person who studies lyrics. When I listen to a new album, I’m going to listen to it the first time and read the lyrics alongside. If I don’t like what you’re saying, it’s hard for me to care about the music. When I first started taking writing seriously, I really just wanted to mirror songwriters that I like. I wanted to write like Amy Winehouse, who is an amazing songwriter with an amazing voice. I think about people I obsess over and how can I insert myself into the conversation. I hear certain phrases from certain songs, and I will want to write around those phrases. I’ll create prompts like that. Musicality has always been the thing that I feel like I’m reaching toward in my work and I want to honor how much music in my life has saved me.

TM:  Do you enjoy giving readings?

KA:  I’m learning to. I’m learning to love reading poetry aloud because I’m learning my own flow and my own rhythm of how I want it to come out versus how it looks. That’s why I like points like Danez Smith because Danez is one of those rare talents who is just as effective on the page as they are on the stage. You don’t see that a lot. Sometimes something will hit when you read it, but when you hear it, it’s all right. I’m learning to like reading, but I’m one of those people who can’t concentrate at readings ‘cause I get stuck on some punctuation. [Laughs.] So yes and no.

Pause is the thing I want in my work. In music something can hit so hard and so viciously because there’s silence between the words and that’s where the music comes in. I want to be able, as a reader, to honor those pauses and that silence because that’s what I do with my line breaks. To explore those pauses. I’m learning. But I’m getting better.

TM:  Now that you think of yourself as a poet, are you writing more poems? What are you writing now or thinking about next?

KA:  I haven’t really been writing poetry, but I know it’s coming. I’ve been working on essays and I’m working on how to make the essay as imaginative as possible. I don’t like being bored when I’m reading or writing. I’m taking a lot of the things that I learned from writing this collection and trying to bring it to essay writing. I’m trying to figure out how we can bring lies into creative nonfiction—and how it can still be the truth. [Laughs.] So I’m experimenting with that in terms of form and content.

Bonus Link:
Into the Liner Notes with Kendra Allen

Through the Human Lens: The Millions Interviews Meghan O’Gieblyn

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While it is an admittedly high bar, I’m most drawn to nonfiction books where I feel surrounded by the writer’s manner of thought; I am not merely given an argument, but I am made to experience a mind. God, Human, Animal, Machine, the new book by Meghan O’Gieblyn, is that type of book: an intellectual journey that is generous and generative. I paused the book often to take notes, to ponder O’Gieblyn’s wise and unusual perspectives on big questions, and to even track down her fascinating miscellany (I’m happy that I followed her trail to find the curious essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat” by Thomas Nagel. Great writers, I believe, send us reading.)

Perhaps what I love most about her work is that O’Gieblyn reveals that old, even ancient concerns remain absolutely immediate—unavoidable, perhaps. “Today, as AI continues to blow past us in benchmark after benchmark of higher cognition,” she writes, “we quell our anxiety by insisting that what distinguishes true consciousness is emotions, perception, the ability to experience and feel: the qualities, in other words, that we share with animals.” 

Meghan O’Gieblyn is the author of Interior States, which won the 2018 Believer Book Award for nonfiction. She has written for Harper’s Magazine, The New Yorker, Bookforum, n+1, The Point, The Believer, The Guardian, The New York Times, and is a columnist for Wired. She has received three Pushcart Prizes for her writing.

We spoke about how metaphor sustains language, our stubborn search for meaning, and what it means to be human in a transhuman world.

The Millions: The subtitle of your book contains the word “metaphor,” and you include lines of poetry from Gerard Manley Hopkins, Algernon Charles Swinburne, and Richard Brautigan. You also share a wonderful quote from the philosopher Gillian Rose, who described the act of writing as “a mix of discipline and miracle, which leaves you in control, even when what appears on the page has emerged from regions beyond your control.” What does language—and perhaps language at its most poetic—offer us in our search for meaning? Is language ultimately helpful or harmful in our pursuit of truth?

Meghan O’Gieblyn: I don’t think we can understand the world, at least on a conceptual level, without language. And you could argue that this language is always poetic, if you define that term broadly, as in “reliant on metaphor.” I’m thinking of the research that George Lakoff and Mark Johnson did in the early 1980s that found that all languages are built on spatial metaphors we learn as children, from our interactions in the world. When we envision the continuum of time, with the future lying “ahead” of us, and the past “behind” us, that’s a metaphor, even though we don’t often recognize it as such. It’s difficult to imagine being able to conceive of time without that visual metaphor. Their work, incidentally, ended up inspiring a lot of work in robotics because it suggested that in order for machines to develop conscious thought, they’d have to interact with the world and understand spatial relationships—you can’t just have a brain in a vat.

In the book, I’m primarily interested in technological metaphors, particularly those we use to describe ourselves as humans, like the mechanistic idea that humans are machines, or the more contemporary notion that the mind is a computer. Those metaphors are obviously useful in our attempts to understand ourselves. The mind-as-computer-metaphor has been crucial to both cognitive science and artificial intelligence. But a kind of slippage frequently occurs, where people forget that these are metaphors and begin to take them literally. You now have people working in AI who insist that their systems are actually thinking, or that they understand—words that used to be put in quotation marks. Nobody consciously decided that the metaphor would become literal; it just happened, little by little. It’s not unlike how certain passages in religious texts that were once understood metaphorically are taken literally by later generations. As a writer, I’m both fascinated and unnerved by those moments where language seems to slip out of my control. Every writer has experienced this at some point. You call upon an image that turns out, later on, to be the perfect metaphor for the point you’re making. Or you realize you’ve written something much smarter than what you set out to argue. It recalls the old poststructuralist point that we don’t speak language, it speaks us. Language, like all technologies, is constantly at risk of escaping our control. 

TM: There’s an interesting and generative tension in this book between the personal and the scholarly, the self and the analytical. You consider your time studying theology at a fundamentalist college as a formative part of your life: an experience that contributed to you leaving the Christian faith and worldview. I found myself drawn to your sense (and prose) in these personal moments, and then pulled again by your confession of sorts later: “As soon as I opened a small aperture into my life, people became less interested in the ideas I was discussing than in my personal story and my perspective as someone who was formerly religious.” How do you feel now, as this book is making its way into the world? Do you want to allow this aperture of the personal to grow or to shrink, as it relates to your analytical and philosophical discussions? 

MO: I’ve always felt that tension, as a writer, between the subjective and the objective approach. On one hand, personal writing is often considered less serious than journalism or criticism; that’s always there in the back of my mind. On the other hand, I have a hard time making sense of ideas without filtering them through the lens of the “I.” I think that’s true of all writers, to some extent, even those who don’t write explicitly in the first person. And when we distrust an argument, as readers, it’s often because we suspect the author has some personal axe to grind, or is writing in bad faith. It’s hard to avoid the personal, even when it’s not there, overtly, on the page. 

Throughout the process of writing this book, I struggled to maintain the right balance between the personal and analytical. When I write essays, that balance usually feels intuitive, but in this case, I couldn’t get it right. I kept resisting the use of the “I.” I teach writing, and I often tell my students that craft problems are often content problems in disguise; they tend to enact the very tensions that you’re writing about (or refusing to write about) and can clue you into the story’s larger themes. That’s what happened with this book. There was a certain point during the writing process when it occurred to me that this problem mirrored one of the underlying intellectual concerns of the book, which is the tension between the subjective and the objective points of view. Many of the fields I was writing about—consciousness, artificial intelligence, physics—have reached an impasse over these two ways of seeing the world. We can observe consciousness clearly from the first-person point of view, but from the objective vantage of science, it doesn’t exist. In quantum physics, there’s the observer problem, where the physicist sees one thing, and scientific instruments register something different. Some contemporary philosophers have argued that these problems come down to the fact that we’re not accounting for the subjective vantage. And that’s ultimately the problem I had to come to terms with during the writing process. I was stuck because I wasn’t thinking about what was at stake for me, or why I became interested in these questions. That tension immediately resolved when I put more of my own story in the book.  

TM: “For the medieval person,” you write, “the cosmos was fundamentally comprehensible: it was a rational system constructed by a rational God, the same intelligence who constructed our minds.” The Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin makes several appearances in your book; he strikes me as one whose radical, creative visions assume a certain neatness of construction. In the past year, I’ve been taken by the arguments of his contemporary, Fr. Raymond Nogar, who wrote: “My chief opposition to the vision of Father Teilhard is that it resembles far too much the Thomistic synthesis, and that it is, basically, too archaic to satisfy the demands of our contemporaries. The trouble with the world of Father Teilhard, as I understand it, is not that it is strange, but that it is not strange enough.” Nogar thought that Teilhard believed in “the God of the neat; mine is the God of the messy…His God is the Lord of order; my God is the Lord of the Absurd.” How might a Lord of the Absurd—or perhaps simply the Absurd—connect to your investigations into how we seek meaning and patterns in the world?

MO: Nogar’s observation that Teilhard’s cosmos is “not strange enough” reminds me of something Niels Bohr once said to another physicist, after a lecture. He said, basically, that everyone agreed that the physicist’s theory was crazy but the question was “whether it is crazy enough to have a chance of being correct.” I’m interested in this idea that there are truths that remain absurd or paradoxical to human understanding. It’s a problem I encountered in my theology courses in Bible school, where I was first introduced to the nominalist idea that God’s morality, or his sense of justice, is far beyond human understanding—and perhaps even arbitrary. I didn’t realize at the time that this was a fairly modern view of God, one that arose in the late medieval period. The God I’d believed in growing up, the one who appeared in Sunday school lessons, was a lot more like the God of Aquinas, which is to say an entity that could be rationally understood, and whose world was similarly orderly and comprehensible. I’d always believed that my conscience was a reflection of some larger moral order in the universe. But in my courses, we were reading theologians who insisted that morality was based on nothing more than the sovereign will of God—the implication being that it could diverge from our intuitive sense of morality, or even strike us as alien. 

What’s interesting is that modern physics presents the same problem. When you begin looking at the world on the quantum level, it becomes clear that our notion of time, of cause-and-effect—basically everything that allows the world to be comprehensible—exists mostly in our minds, not in the world itself. Reality is governed by all sorts of absurd phenomenon that we can’t explain, like the observer effect or spooky action at a distance. I’m always baffled when self-professed “rationalists” object to the supernatural claims of religion—that a virgin could give birth, that God could be three persons. Modern science contains just as much mind-bending absurdity. It too requires that we take paradox on faith. C.S. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain, argues, in fact, that it’s precisely the “illogical” nature of the incarnation that makes it more likely to be true because it’s not something humans could have easily made up. “It has not the suspicious a priori lucidity of Pantheism or of Newtonian physics,” he writes. “It has the seemingly arbitrary and idiosyncratic character which modern science is slowly teaching us to put up with in this willful universe.”

TM:  “Perhaps the real illusion,” you write, “is our persistent hope that science will be able to explain consciousness one day.” I loved how God, Human, Animal, Machine feels like the work of a seeker from first word to final—your skepticism is fueled, seemingly, by a sense of wonder about the world; a respect for the complexity of consciousness (human, digital, and otherwise). You write early in the book that “It’s true that I have come to see myself more or less as a machine.” What type of machine are you? What is your function?

MO: That line is a little tongue-in-cheek, given that nobody really accepts that they’re a machine. (At least I don’t think they do.) But there are important differences between how I view myself now and how I viewed myself when I was a Christian. I am much more likely today to resort to purely quantitative or physical explanations of my behavior and mental states. If I’m feeling depressed, I immediately think about how much sleep I got the night before, or whether I’ve exercised. If I lash out at someone, it’s because I probably need a sandwich. I think most of us rely on these purely physical explanations because they can be objectively observed and quantified (we can now track our calorie-intakes, our heart rates, and our REM cycles on our phones). Whereas our mental lives—what we spend our time thinking about, what we value, and why—are difficult to talk about. Or maybe they don’t seem like a convincing causal force. I don’t think this is incidentally related to the fact that consciousness can’t be accounted for by science. There’s a persistent refrain in academic circles that we in the modern West overvalue our subjectivity, that we believe our minds are more real than our bodies. To me, that feels like one of those instances where the objection has become the consensus. The academic conclusions have trickled down into mainstream culture, such that it’s difficult, even in everyday life, believe that our minds are real.  

TM: You write about those who wonder whether we exist within a simulation, and it feels connected to what Hopkins once conjectured about the inscape of the world: “What you look hard at seems to look hard at you.” This resembles what you write about Jesus:  “When his disciples asked whether he was the son of God, he answered, ‘Who do you say I am?’ as though the faith of the observer determined whether he was human or divine.” In a world that increasingly feels anatheist—seeking God after God—how do we seek to answer the question that Jesus poses? Does the question still resonate in a transhuman world?

MO: I love that Hopkins line, and the reflexivity it describes. If I remember the context correctly, he was talking about how the intrinsic beauty of the natural world bespeaks design and purpose. Even though I no longer believe in a divine creator, I find it very difficult to resist seeing the world as a created object, especially in those moments that involve wonder, or the sublime. I don’t think that’s unusual as we might assume among atheists. Maybe that’s why theories like the Simulation Hypothesis—the argument that we’re living in a computer program created by future-humans—are so compelling. It satisfies our desire to see the world as containing a larger purpose or telos.

The objection, of course, is that we’re simply anthropomorphizing. We ourselves are creators, so we see the world as a created object. Not only that, we see it as precisely the kind of technology that we ourselves recently created—a giant computer. Both science and religion rest on a tension between the anthropomorphic and the transcendent. We can’t help but see the world in terms of the human, to see it in our own image, and this often leads to error. There are commands in many traditions against applying human qualities to God. And the scientific method is designed to keep us from sullying our inquiries with subjective beliefs and assumptions. But then whenever we try to go beyond the human, we encounter absurdity and paradox. 

What I still find compelling about Christianity—and maybe what it can teach us, in an anatheist world—is that it acknowledges this tension is an essential part of being human. The incarnation is a recognition, in a way, that we can’t escape our human vantage, that God had to come down and become flesh so that we could understand. You see that especially in Christ’s parables, stories that are rooted in the human world, but that nevertheless contain these insane paradoxes that are beyond this world. Going back to Niels Bohr: he once said that all the major religions of the world rely on parables and kaons because the gap between the human and transcendent realms can only be bridged by seemingly contradictory statements. I suspect there’s some validity to this, that paradox is connected to truth. This is becoming especially clear as we glean more and more information about the world. We now have so much data, we need AI systems to process it because our understanding and our scientific theories begin to break down when faced with that level of complexity. But I’m skeptical of the notion that we have to build bigger, more sophisticated machines that can comprehend a world that transcends our understanding. We have to find a way to understand the world on our own terms, through the lens of the human. 

You Live and Die by the Prep Work: The Millions Interviews Karen Tucker

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Irene and Luce wait tables at a pool hall in Anklewood, a rural North Carolina town. After a fateful night in which the girls get revenge on a vile customer, they fall under the spell of pills and, at once, become best friends. Written with both humor and gritty clarity, Karen Tucker’s novel Bewilderness is Irene’s devastating reckoning with the year of her life she spent with Luce.

The novel spares none of the joyful details of the characters’ lives, like the hilarious chorus of Reddit users who respond to Irene’s post on r/opioids asking for advice on getting Luce to a meeting. Nor does it avoid looking into the hardest places of addiction, like the moment when a dealer teaches Irene how to use a needle and syringe for the first time.

I read excerpts of Bewilderness in writing workshops with Tucker when we were both attending the graduate creative writing program at Florida State University. For The Millions, I spoke with the author over email about what it takes to write about substance use disorder, the relationship between art and activism, and the importance of prep work—just as in waiting tables—in writing an honest novel.

Whitney Gilchrist: When people ask you what your book is about, what do you tell them? Is it a different answer from how you described it when you were writing it?

Karen Tucker: As someone with questionable skills in the verbal department, I usually say something like, “You know. Friends, drugs,” and let my voice trail off. Sometimes I add the food server angle, and––depending on who I’m talking to and their personal interests––I’ll mention the many pee and poop jokes. I’ve found “trauma and grief and substance use disorder” doesn’t quite have the same zing.

WG: With addiction so stigmatized and misunderstood, you must have made countless decisions in order to write about it responsibly. Could you talk about the choices you made that you felt were important in portraying the opioid crisis?

KT: The correct answer is that I’m an irresponsible writer, since I spent little to no time considering how to present the opioid epidemic in a responsible fashion.

Certainly I did copious research to better understand how this disaster unfolded (late capitalism strikes again!), but my obligation, as I saw it, was to portray these characters’ lives as fully as possible. To not omit the moments of genuine joy and pleasure, and to avoid prettying up any ugly choices or brutal events.

Not that this was easy. Among other things, Bewilderness is about a painful disorder––and who wouldn’t want to inject a hefty dose of order if it meant relieving some of that pain? I did my best, slipped up plenty, and at last I had a novel. No doubt I would have abandoned the manuscript in its earliest stages if either I or the characters always did the responsible thing.

WG: This book is written back and forth in time, and that back and forth seems to grow increasingly untidy as the characters edge deeper into drug use. How did you develop that structure?

KT: As with any other craft choice, I got the nonlinear structure from reading and admiring other novels with a similar back-and-forth quality––probably all fiction is fan fiction to some degree. Graham Greene’s The Quiet American had the most direct influence in that regard, at least in the early stages of drafting.

Once it became clear that Greene’s structure could only carry me so far, I tried to keep a few things in mind when deciding where to go next. Because Irene narrates this story from several years in the future, I considered where her memory might take her as she attempts to puzzle out what happened.

I also thought about the most pressing question a reader might have at the end of each section. Should I address it right away or would it give them more pleasure if I made them wait?

Patterns, too, were on my mind when making these choices. There are few things I love more than a poem or story or novel that establishes a particular drumbeat and then disrupts it by tossing its sticks in the air. And because we need to upend conventional thinking about substance use disorder, it felt vital to take an unconventional approach to this story whenever possible.

WG: How did you come to choose Bewilderness for the title? Were you ever considering other titles?

KT: Back in the first month or two of drafting this novel, Kaveh Akbar posted a Gwendolyn Brooks poem, “First Fight. Then Fiddle,” online somewhere. Among other things, the poem talks about activism and survival and how art alone isn’t enough to make necessary changes. There’s a line, “Bewitch, bewilder…” that rang hard in my head, unresolved. In what I suppose was an attempt to resolve it, my brain answered “Bewilderness.” From that point on, the title––and the poem’s advice––stuck.

I’m under no illusion that this novel will usher in any meaningful change to the opioid crisis, although I hope it gets readers to interrogate their own biases regarding substance abuse, low-income communities, effective treatments for opioid use disorder, and the relationship between painful trauma and the use of painkillers.

Some ways to actively promote survival are to support harm reduction principles, get Narcan nasal spray, and fight for evidence-based medical care, particularly in Black and brown communities

WG: Your characters come across as incredibly real. It seems that you felt desperation, love, and loss alongside them at every turn. Was this book painful to write? How did you push through it?

KT: It’s probably inevitable that writers experience at least some discomfort at some point during the writing process. My number on the pain scale always jumps when I get overly concerned about how poorly I’m doing. “You’re the worst writer ever,” is a popular interior chant.

Lately I’ve found the antidote isn’t to banish thoughts about how I’m doing––but to ask myself why I’m doing. What’s the damn point of your writing? What are you fighting for? Bearing that in mind helps me push through the difficult parts.

WG: There’s a moment, at the start of Part 2, when the voice of the book switches from the narrator, Irene, to what seems to be Teena’s voice. It’s a moment of education about how to stay alive. There’s also a scene in the story when Teena teaches Irene how to use intravenously—previously, she’d only used pills. Those moments took my breath away; I felt like we were looking right into the hardest place of addiction. Could you talk about writing those two vivid, albeit quite different, moments?

KT: Both of those sections came out somewhat quickly, in a single sitting. One in a crowded coffeeshop in Tallahassee, one at my lonesome little desk in Asheville. God I hate it when writers say stuff like that. However! Had I not agonized over the many scenes that came before those two––I’m one of those sinners who revises as they go––and had I not immersed myself in firsthand accounts of similar experiences, the relatively easy labor could never have happened.

I say this in hope of offering comfort to anyone who might be struggling with a difficult scene in their own writing. As anyone in the service industry knows, you live and die by your prep work. You could be the most brilliant waiter in the solar system, but if you don’t make adequate supplies of coffee and sweet tea before the lunch rush, your section will come to a fatal halt. I learned a lot in my 20-plus years of folding napkins and marrying ketchups, and while some of that knowledge I could do without, many of those lessons remain useful in this endeavor, too.

WG: There is a Reddit thread in this novel! I want to shout it from the rooftops! It’s amazing! How did that come to be such an important part of the novel?

KT: Whitney, thank you! That section gets mixed reactions from readers and I’m glad it works for you. It wasn’t something I planned or even had any ideas about until right before I reached that chapter––though I had been spending a fair amount of time on Reddit in my own life. I’d recently left Florida and moved back to North Carolina to finish the novel. Gone were my friends and colleagues. Gone was my in-person teaching, replaced with online comp classes. My partner was working out of the country. It was a lonely period of my life. Which I guess is why, despite its somewhat unnatural format, it felt completely natural for Irene to turn to Reddit during her own unhappy time.

And it cheered me up to write it. Even though the content is serious, I had fun coming up with the various usernames and off-topic exchanges. The break in form felt liberating. Most importantly, it gave me the opportunity to include a range of voices and perspectives. Up until that point, narrator Irene has been in charge of the story––and she often fails to get it right.

WG: When you think about the landscape of fiction and the topic of opioids and addiction, do you see gaps? Were there writers who inspired how you wrote about addiction?

KT: Short story writers and novelists taught me everything I know about structure, time, characterization, dialogue, and other craft elements. I was a reader decades before I ever thought to call myself a writer, and the list of authors who have shaped my fiction would probably double the word count of this interview. Three novels with visible influence on Bewilderness are Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce, Problems by Jade Sharma, and Marlena by Julie Buntin.

Also! Many people and communities outside the world of traditional publishing played a role in my effort to bring something novel to this novel. They include anonymous authors of old Bluelight posts and Reddit threads, stars of shadowy YouTube videos, in-person 12-step meetings, online 12-step meetings, Dopey Podcast and the Dopey Nation, friends, co-workers, family members, a string of crappy customers from restaurants past, two terrible photographers, the worst doctor at the worst VA hospital ever, and what I could observe.