Ferocious and Violent: The Millions Interviews Rachel Yoder

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At home with her newborn son, the protagonist in Rachel Yoder’s Nightbitch is starting to feel like a dog—that is to say, she’s turning into one, literally. It isn’t a fairytale or a dream. It’s her life. In turns equally dark and funny, violent and satirical, Yoder’s debut novel doesn’t follow any expected route on its way to uncovering what it means to be a mother, to have a relationship, to raise a child. The turmoil, the vastness of the experience, it roils in this edgy, weird, and brilliant book.

Coming to feel more and more akin to her canine alter-ego “nightbitch,” this mother learns to embrace her instinctual nature: the need to paw the ground, to sniff the air, to roam the streets under the moonlight, chasing and snarling. Her husband is rattled but vapid, while the community around her full of mothers who might also be more than they appear. But her son loves this new side of his mom, how she ignores what the world wants and gravitates instead toward what she feels.

Nightbitch is as unexpected as it is poignant, as quirky as it is well-crafted. To start with such a simple and surreal premise and yet create depth and significance at the same time is truly fantastic. This novel snaps at the heels of art and motherhood, of female power and autonomy, of finding your inner instinct.

The Millions: Is being a mother a joy, a curse, or something else entirely?

Rachel Yoder: Being a mother in a society that praises and encourages mothers’ absolute abnegation of the self is the curse. Imagine being told from an early age that it’s right, holy, nice, and proper to abandon your own needs, emotions, and desires. We are conditioning girls and women to believe that psychological and emotional self-harm is correct. That’s the curse.

Motherhood itself is power. Women understand this power in their bodies, especially during unmedicated childbirth. You truly feel how much of a full, vibrant, and uncompromising self you are as a child tears out of you. You are in touch with a profound creative force. I have to wonder if the entire structure of patriarchal control is a fearful reaction to women’s singular power of creation. “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” sure is a convoluted and roundabout way of getting to the much more fitting metaphor of Mother.

So then, how do women move from self-denial into power? This is Nightbitch’s central question.

TM: The toddler escapades—the eating, the sleeping, the pooping—are rendered with the exact right frenetic energy. How did you go about committing those scenes, that vibe, to the page in such a faithful manner?

RY: I hadn’t written in two years when I embarked on this book. Those two years also happened to arrive after my son was born. So we might say there was a lot of material to draw from. I went to the coffee shop for small chunks of time and wrote as fast as I could. It poured from me.

TM: Were other motherhood-centered books a part of your reading and writing practice? I’m thinking of novels like Kristen Arnett’s recent With Teeth, Makenna Goodman’s The Shame, and Sheila Heti’s Motherhood. Or do you abstain from reading anything connective or near your own subject matter during the writing process?

RY: I was incidentally reading books about motherhood in the time leading up to writing and then writing Nightbitch, but it was by no means a concerted effort. I had no plans to write a “book about motherhood.” If anything, I had plans not to write that book because I had accepted the messages that motherhood is boring, unimportant, only of interest to women so not worth writing about, etcetera.

Looking back at my Goodreads, many of the books I read from 2014 when my son was born to 2017 when I began writing had to do either with motherhood or child-rearing in some regard, or else were literary psychological horror or slipstream. I think that Han Kang’s The Vegetarian has as much to do with Nightbitch’s emergence as, say, Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors. The strange postapocalyptic book The Rending and the Nest, in which women give birth to inanimate objects, is definitely a part of the subconscious of Nightbitch, as is Sabrina Orah Mark’s Wild Milk.

TM: Where did this novel start? What was its smallest seedling?

RY: I read Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation years before I began writing this book, and her “art monster” line I consider the very earliest sparkle of Nightbitch’s magic. I copied that passage down in a document on my computer, thinking I would write an essay about it. I eventually wrote Nightbitch instead.

TM: Though there is tension, suspense, and devastation in Nightbitch, there are also frequent pops of humor. How do you manage fun and comedy in your writing?

RY: Comedy is a survival tactic. You can’t let the rage burn bright all the time or else you’ll burn up, too. The comedy comes in to cool you off, to provide a bit of relief. I am reminded of the narrator of Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows, another book I read as I was writing mine. (And, it should be noted, a book by a writer raised in the Mennonite tradition, like me.) That book, its story, is full of such deep darkness, heavy sadness, and repressed rage that the only way you as the reader are able to keep your head above water is the relief that Toews offers you via the voice of the narrator. While not a conscious choice on my part, Nightbitch operates in a bit of the same way, I think.

TM: So the violence—the cat episode in particular—showcases some of this blending, mixing the visceral with the comedic. How fun was it writing this character who could pivot so instinctually toward the ferocious?

RY: I was very scared of my anger in early motherhood. I didn’t know how to relate with it. I was afraid of it getting out of control. I used to joke that anger is not part of my genetic or cultural heritage, since I was raised Mennonite, and perhaps this is why the mix of rage and comedy comes naturally to me: It’s the most acceptable mode in which a Mennonite woman can be angry.

The cat scene is where Nightbitch touches the abyss so to speak. Her anger has become unwieldy, and she suddenly and horribly wakes up to this. She must find a way to wield her rage that’s not destructive but, rather, creative. Her anger certainly has an origin in the forces acting upon her, but her greatest anger is at herself, for the ways in which she has abandoned herself, so she must come to terms with her power, and her capacity for creating the life she wants and needs. She must take responsibility for her own story.

It was immensely gratifying to have a female character who was able to be ferocious and violent. There are so few stories in our culture that show women expressing rage, and I was interested in how a female character might write her own story of rage. What would it look like? How can women perform anger so it doesn’t stay trapped in our bodies?

TM: For as much as art and family are in conflict for the mother protagonist, they are also often in service of one another. Is the crux of art built on or made from relationships?

RY: The crux of everything is relationships! Consciousness is a tool for wielding metaphor, which is just another way of saying that we make meaning by actively and seriously negotiating our relationships. Recently, I’ve been experimenting with curiosity and bringing a spirit of curiosity to troubled relationships, and that really does seem to have cracked something open for me, the process of asking earnest, open-hearted questions in the face of relational dysfunction. And isn’t this truly what storytelling is, an exploration of the relationship of characters, of themes, of ideas?

TM: From a craft point of view, you made an interesting decision to keep most of the characters in the novel unnamed. What led to that choice and how did it shape the book?

RY: The only reason I started out this way is because it felt right. I didn’t interrogate the decision too much. I don’t think I ever considered giving the characters names, or if I tried to, it immediately felt incorrect. Now, it seems to me that I wanted to keep these characters as close to archetypes as possible because I was more interested in the ideas they were animating rather than the specifics of their knowable realities. Certainly they do have socioeconomic and historical and racial contexts, because the book is being written from within those frames, but I wanted the main character as Mother and Artist/Creator and Wife to be front and center, because these features are most salient in regard to the ideas I wanted to explore and animate.

TM: In the mysterious tome your protagonist reads—A Field Guide to Magical Women: A Mythical Ethnography—the “aga” or second life is referenced as passing from “the world of the known to that of the unknown.” What do you think your second life will be? Or has it already happened?

RY: Oh, I think this book was largely about my challenges in coming into a workable motherhood and womanhood. I knew how to be the black sheep, the truth-telling adolescent, the prodigal daughter, but I didn’t have a way of being, or an image for, a wife and mother and a fully-emerged woman in a way that didn’t stifle or oppress. I knew I didn’t want to be a “good Mennonite wife” and I knew I didn’t want to be a “self-sacrificing mother,” but what were the other models for these? I had to write them. How can I be fully myself while also being a mother and a wife, these roles that will absolutely take over if you give in to the scripts that have already been written? So I suppose my “aga” is that I feel I am moving into the world of metaphor and, hopefully, a deeper understanding of the metaphors animating and controlling our stories.

Love Is Not a Destination: The Millions Interviews Kaveh Akbar

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“Heaven,” Kaveh Akbar writes in Pilgrim Bell, “is all preposition—above, among, around, within—and if you must, / you can live any place that’s a place.” It’s a fitting line to capture Akbar’s poetic sense: that life—however dizzying, steeped in suffering, and fragmentary—is a tremendous gift.

Akbar’s life as a poet has been guided by a generous sense. For several years, he interviewed poets for his Divedapper site, guided by a simple philosophy: “I want to be able to have meaningful conversations with the poets whose words have shaped the way I experience the world, and I want to share the artifacts of those conversations with as many people as possible.” That sense appears to guide his editing and curatorial work—the feeling that the world of poetry sustains him, and that he can play a part in bringing that good work to the wider world.

Kaveh Akbar’s poems appear in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Paris Review, Best American Poetry, and elsewhere. He is the poetry wditor of The Nation and a recipient of honors including multiple Pushcart Prizes, a Civitella Ranieri Foundation Fellowship, and the Levis Reading Prize. Akbar was born in Tehran, Iran, and teaches at Purdue University and in the low-residency MFA programs at Randolph College and Warren Wilson. Pilgrim Bell follows Calling a Wolf a Wolf, his debut collection. 

We spoke about prayer, his literary influences, and how poems arrive.

The Millions: I read much of your book aloud; I think Pilgrim Bell compels me (as Gerard Manley Hopkins hoped for his work) to live in the ear and mouth more than the eye. “The Value of Fear” feels especially aural, the living sound of the opening lines, following the title: “is in its sound, sewing song / to throat. The pale thrush // trills the snow.” Do you find yourself speaking your way through your poems? Where does voice—the mouth open, the words out and heard—exist in your process of composition

Kaveh Akbar: I’m always reading the poems out loud, from the very earliest stages of doodling language through revision and fine-tuning, laying the poem out on the page. The breath hooks into the spirit. In Arabic “ruh” means both breath and spirit. Ditto the Latin “spiritus.” Without some physiological sublimation of the inert font into a living poem—whether via breath or even just the movement of ocular muscles along a line, fingers across Braille—the poem remains ink on a page. If a poem augurs any holiness, it begins in the body.  

TM: We are mutual admirers of the late Franz Wright. Pilgrim Bell feels haunted by him. I think he is one of the great Catholic poets in recent memory, someone who arrived at that faith in his late 40s. He spoke of having a shift in September 1999 from having a longtime intellectual interest in Scripture to feeling a visceral, palpable attraction to Jesus as one who loved absolutely—drawn preternaturally to sinners. I am unable to read Wright without crying. Could you talk about Wright a bit? Do you return to his poems?

KA: He was my first favorite living poet. Everything I make is indelibly inflected by his thinking. Everything I think, really. He was so unwell, holistically, but he made such space in his life for young poets who could do him no good. He granted me the last interview he ever gave, and talked to me seriously, like I was a real poet. Not many had done that before him.  

I actually wrote to him for months trying to strike up a conversation. I was a baby, and a shameless fan. I didn’t know anything. I hadn’t learned that you’re not supposed to appear so desperate. Maybe I still haven’t. But I wrote him letters for months with no response, not even an away responder. It was almost like I was just keeping an epistolary journal. “Dear Franz, Last week I did such and such, read so and so,” that kind of thing.

Then finally, after maybe nine months of me emailing him, he wrote back with just a couple words and a phone number. Which I called immediately. Of course it rang and rang and rang and nobody answered. No machine, no voice mail. Same thing the next day, and the next. I worried he’d mistyped his number. But after a couple weeks of trying the number, his wife Elizabeth picked up. I said who I was and she brought the phone to Franz, who said “Kaveh! Why didn’t you call me sooner!”

TM: The epigraph to your poem “Cotton Candy” is from John Donne: “To go to heaven, we make heaven come to us.” In its original context, the line appears: “All their proportion’s lame, it sinks, it swells; / For of meridians and parallels / Man hath weaved out a net, and this net thrown / Upon the heavens, and now they are his own. / Loth to go up the hill, or labour thus / To go to heaven, we make heaven come to us. / We spur, we rein the stars, and in their race / They’re diversely content to obey our pace.” I love your epigraphic eye here. Who is Donne to you, as both poet and legacy? Why choose these lines in particular from his poem?

KA: He’s a titan. Sexy, ferocious. Magisterial. But what I’m really interested in, as it pertains to Pilgrim Bell, is Donne’s silence. Really all the metaphysical guys were great this way, Marvell and Herbert too. And Hopkins kind of tangentially. But the way Donne could get so bombastic, so loud. And how that volume created such a contrast to the silence immediately after. Like how the silence following a gunshot is somehow deeper than the silence before. “OH my blacke Soule! now thou art summoned / By sicknesse, deaths herald, and champion; / Thou art like a pilgrim.” Maybe I’m tipping my hand too much. But that pilgrim, the silence between “Soule” and “now” conjured by Donne’s exclamation. It’s such unforgettable drama.

TM: Among the glorious lines in Pilgrim Bell, I’ve been returning to these: “God’s word is a melody, and melody requires repetition. / God’s word is a melody I sang once then forgot.” You’ve returned (appropriately) to this theme of return, past and present, and the evolution of self in your work. Your narrators have lived two lives, or perhaps more. They have found and forgotten God, and understood the body and how it breaks (“Show me one beast / that loves itself as relentlessly / as even the most miserable man.”). What is it about poetry (as a form and genre, perhaps) that offers a useful vehicle for this theme?

KA: Even just putting a word in a poem places some tension upon it. Using it again and again, straining it differently each time. Like the chiming of a bell. M. NourbeSe Philip talks about “decontaminating” language and I feel like that’s at the heart of how Pilgrim Bell works. Poems are the best way I know to explore the divine. But the language of my poetry has been so endlessly compromised by its murderous histories. There is something about the iterative nature of lyric that allows me to vet my own thinking.

I once heard the critic Parul Sehgal use the phrase “a productive distrust of the self” in a talk and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I think, as an English language artist, that distrust has become central to my practice. When Brian Eno describes the crack in a blues singer’s voice on record as the sound of “an emotional event too momentous for the medium assigned to record it,” that’s what I’m after. Cracking the poem along the axis of my (hopefully!) productive skepticism of the language. And of myself.

TM: You’re the poetry editor for The Nation, and you’ve selected and presented the forthcoming Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse. How do the modes of editor, curator, anthologist differ from that of poet? Do you find your editorial work generative for your creative work, or do they remain distinct?

KA: I don’t know that it’s so linear as X is generative to Y. I want to be useful, and I think we’ve been able to put a bit of wind at the back of some really fine poems at The Nation. I hope, with the Penguin anthology, we’ll be able to help introduce readers to voices from antiquity, from other parts of the world, that might usefully illuminate something about living. Steadily (re-)orienting myself toward humble grateful service to what I love best keeps me healthy. When I’m healthy, I can write. You know Merton’s prayer? “The fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.”

TM: I want to return to Wright to finish. I find it telling that he (a poet of craft and rawness, and a person who said of himself, “I’ve been around the block a few times, and have an idea of what men are capable of. I’ve been capable myself”) could be so sentimental and earnest about faith. I find equal parts power and humility in your engagement with the spiritual—I think of you among poets like Jericho Brown, Shane McCrae, Carl Phillips, and Mary Karr, all gifted stylists who live among faith and doubt. So let’s follow Wright for a moment. What, do you think, is the relationship between love and faith?

KA: I remember once, overzealous, I compared Franz to Rilke and he said, “You may as well compare me to Catullus.” That’s how I feel about your question situating me among those titans, moved as I am by the kindness. I am going to try to answer quickly to avoid overthinking myself into immobility. Love, faith. Yes, okay—

Poems, like prayers, orient one toward action. The trouble comes when people believe the poem, or the prayer, replaces action. I have faith in the capacity of writing, as a devotional technology, to illuminate the next right thing for me in my living. How I might learn to better pass through the world without harming it. That is a kind of love. And like every other love I have known, it is not a destination. It’s a marching. Daily, hourly.

Making Meaning in an Honest Way: The Millions Interviews Dana Spiotta

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It’s an odd privilege to learn from someone you are in awe of. The senses seem to shut down, overwhelmed by brilliance. I know this from experience. Dana Spiotta was a teacher of mine. Her unsparing curiosity, her care for details, her devotion to the craft—in person, on the page—have been an endless source of inspiration. In Wayward (out now from Knopf), Spiotta continues her quiet run at the front of American fiction, with a novel that achieves ends sometimes thought exclusive: formal innovation and profound emotion.

Wayward might be most distinguished from Spiotta’s previous four novels by its subject. In the chaos of the recent past, at the time of Donald Trump’s election, through the particulars of a family in Syracuse, Spiotta confronts readers with the unseen terrain of menopause. Sam wakes at night in the Mid, which “always seemed to be precisely 3:00.” Sam struggles with comedically-rich impulses, such as “the urge to scream…at young women sometimes. She imagined herself shrieking ‘Menopause! Menopause! Menopause!’” Shopping, Sam reflects on clothes that were “flattering…to a grotesque midlife misshapenness—a blurriness, a squareness, really.” Sam becomes obsessed with the story of a middle-aged white woman who sneaks aboard planes without consequence. To age as a woman is to become invisible to the culture, Spiotta tells us, as she beautifully offers form to all the culture refuses to see.

Spiotta and I spoke over Zoom and exchanged emails about her new novel, the definition of structure, Ward Wellington Ward, lists. I was confident that, at the end of our conversation, I had just completed a master class on being alive.

The Millions: The struggle to be a better person—in an existential sense, in a moral sense—features prominently in all of your work. But it’s a struggle that has evolved from Lightning Field to Wayward, and, in its most recent form, it appears varied, new. Maybe we can start there, with talking a bit about this dilemma, often faced by your characters, to be someone better than they are.

Dana Spiotta: I remember when Lightning Field came out. Some people interpreted it as being ambivalent about morality. I didn’t understand that. I’m not concerned with this in a Christian way. I’m thinking of what Joy Williams says, about how a character can see with clarity in both directions. This is what interests me. It’s a version of a Joycean epiphany, to see yourself with clarity. It’s a struggle of being human. But then comes the challenge of what to do with what you learn. Of course, I don’t have the answers. Fiction is about consequence. About playing out the consequence. And part of playing out the consequence for me—because I’m a character-driven writer—is not so much about dramatic action, but, rather, that you can’t unsee what you see. My characters then have to choose to live with the compromise or try to change themselves.

In all of my novels the characters want to be better but are not necessarily able to. In Eat the Document, this takes the form of the characters wondering how to live in a capitalistic society and maintain their integrity. Nik, in Stone Arabia, struggles with something similar. That is, he finds a certain obligation to resist. And there are consequences of this for his family. Of course it’s your right to do whatever you want with your life, but it’s naive to ignore how you affect other people. Beyond that, I am increasingly interested in this question of responsibility toward others, in a broader sense, in the context of society. I think what feels most different about my work now, though, is that when trying to write about the broad cultural moment in Wayward, I go into a more local, more intimate field.

TM: In Wayward, many of the consequences for Sam’s change are the result of her being a middle-aged woman. There’s this hilarious moment in the novel when Sam and her husband tell Ally, their daughter, that they’re splitting up, and Ally assumes that it’s her father leaving her mother. She can’t believe that it’s her mother who wants to leave.

DS: What interests me about Sam is that, as a middle-aged person, it’s harder for her to change. There is more self there. You’re more compromised. You’re part of the status quo. You have more to lose. The older you become it gets increasingly more difficult and more consequential to change. I thought it was important that it would be Sam’s idea to leave. Her rupture. Her will. I didn’t want it to be a miserable marriage or an unhappy life. I wanted her to leave behind a comfortable life. One of the ways the book works in the beginning is to sift through why she left.

TM: I’ve wanted to ask you how you define structure. In general, I tend to understand structure as patterning, but for Wayward, it seems we need a definition to include asymmetries, the deliberate resistance of pattern.

DS: I’m not too conscious of structure while I’m writing. I do think you can be overly schematic if you squeeze your story into an apparatus. Even if you look at works like Ulysses, a work that contains invented constraints—and it’s great to have constraints, you need constraints, in some sense that’s what structure is, the big invented constraint—but you constantly have to defeat over-patterning, defeat where it becomes predictable. I think about it on the level of a sentence. For the sentence, you can repeat a pattern, but you have to vary it, otherwise it becomes sing-songy, and horrible. You can have a little pattern based on sound and white space and diction and then have it evolve. Let’s say you have a three beat ending on your sentences. “It was this and this and this.” And then you switch it to: “This, and this.” And it ends with: “This.” You’re aware as you create a sentence of the patterns you’ve created in the previous sentences. You have all of these things you can do with the patterns you’ve established. And then you have all of these things to vary it with. So I think of structure in terms of the micro level of the sentence, the semi-micro level of the paragraph, the somewhat macro level of the chapter, and the macro level of the novel. But they all have the same structural concerns, and they’re all things you can play with as you go forward. Patterning connects the recursions. What I love about writing novels is that you can introduce something in the first 20 pages, and when it recurs 100 pages later, the reader will still remember it, the novel will be going sideways and forwards and back at the same time, and all the meaning is made. That creates a feeling of completeness.

TM: Structure then becomes both the creation and destruction of patterning. Which I love. I want to make sure I ask about structures that influence you besides prose. I know paintings have been helpful for me.

DS: It’s interesting because when you’re confronted with a painting, you have to choose where to look first. Your eye eventually apprehends the whole thing. I think architecture does that as well. In Wayward, I reference Ward Wellington Ward, a real-life architect of the Arts and Crafts era. His work is not symmetrical but it is cohesive. He’ll have a fireplace with an inglenook and bookshelves nearby. He’ll have a patterning of windows that he’ll violate in some interesting way. It never feels messy. It feels purposeful, controlled. It’s that effect that makes me think of the comparison for writing. You want to have enough authority so that when you disrupt something structurally the reader is with you. If that makes sense.

TM: It does. Shifting a bit here, I wanted to ask about the setting for Wayward. Syracuse is this ultimate post-industrial and post-modern city. Your descriptions of Sam’s life here made me think of Red Desert. I know California is normally in your work, but why Syracuse, specifically, for this book?

DS: There has been more and more upstate New York in my work. All of the works had a California component though. And California is still really interesting to me. There’s an eccentricity to Los Angeles that I love, and upstate New York has that too. There is alternative culture everywhere. And it feels capacious. There’s a long history here of that “old weird” America. To me, the most appealing thing about America is how reformist and experimental it has been. It makes you want to take people aside and say, “What’s the point of all of this freedom if we’re just going to fall in line?” So people trying to do something countercultural—there’s a history of that in upstate New York with the women’s movement, abolition, and also all of these whackier things. It fascinates me. Like in Oneida, which I incorporate in Wayward.

I started researching the Oneida community and a lot of other 19th-century experiments in living for Eat the Document, but it didn’t make it in there. These were religious communities, and they were mostly concerned with counter cultural interpretations of how to be more Godly. In Oneida’s case, this involved a communal society without private property or private marriage. Part of what’s interesting about Oneida is that their community was so successful for so long. Which was partially because they were making things they could sell to the rest of the world. But as I was writing Wayward, I was thinking about how these alternative communities offered a kind of liberation for women. At Oneida, they could be in a religion that allowed them to have sex for pleasure, wear pants, and cut their hair. It’s not a coincidence that a lot of the culty religions in upstate New York had so many women active in them, either founding them or having major roles in them. When you think of Victorian culture and how limited women’s possibilities were because of constant childbirth, it’s also clear that menopause became a form of liberation. Once women were done with children, they could do other things. These alternative communities are fraught because they can’t really divorce themselves from the structures of the culture. You can’t say I’m going to make a non-patriarchal community because you’ve been raised by the patriarchy, so all of that shit comes with you. You could connect to a more modern instance of this, in Wayward, with Ally’s relationship with a much older man. It’s a recurrence of the questions the cult material raises, where sex is both a liberation but also has unintended consequences for her.

TM: I want to return to how Wayward fits in with your other novels. Often your work builds around a dramatic act of compassion. To me, this distinguishes your work. It’s never sentimental, but it is so concerned with compassion. Where does that come from?

DS: This was a big thing for me as a writer, a breakthrough. Learning to write emotional reality. Characters who are deranged with emotion. I think you can write unsentimentally about these things. You can’t be afraid of having consequential emotions in your book. You can undercut them without dismissing them or making fun of them. That’s what I really hope for in the work. The emotional connection between the readers and the characters. In this book, the humor is front loaded, and then it gets more serious.

TM: You said that was a breakthrough for you as a writer. What got you there?

DS: I grew up reading the writers of the ’70s, the postmodernists. In their work, you’re propelled forward but the expected revelation is taken away. It was discomforting and really powerful to me. But I found in my own writing, it became a kind of cheat. I remember in Eat the Document, I thought, Maybe I’ll never show what they did. And then my editor said, “I think we need to see it.” And I thought it would be corny, but once I wrote it I realized: yes, we needed to see it. Ultimately it’s about making meaning in an honest way. And for every writer that’s different. But for me, my honest relationship to the world is very emotional. I needed to be freer about that. Understand that derangement of emotion is a crucible for revelation. For me, then, the question becomes: can you be up to those moments as a writer? That’s difficult. It involves taking a risk.

TM: I want to ask about the role technology plays in Wayward. Similar to the struggle to change, this is something I see evolving through your work. There’s this passage in your debut, Lightning Field. The passage comes after a character introduces a camera into his romantic relationship with the book’s protagonist, Mina, who reflects on why “being filmed by Max was so deeply erotic…it wasn’t about vanity, damn it, it was about having the feeling that your life was being attended, about having your life signify something, some true thing.” This made me think of, in Wayward, Ally being asked by her boyfriend to send a picture of herself. I found Mina’s reflection to be so beautiful and sad. Of course, her situation is different from Ally’s. How do you see this technology complicating a relationship?

DS: In one case, Mina is being filmed. In another, Ally takes a selfie. But both are for men. In some ways, it’s compelling. To be closely paid attention to. But you’re also losing something in that. I think that comes up in Stone Arabia, too. It’s interesting that the Amish don’t want to be photographed. They were suspicious of the vanity of an image. In their view, a Christian vanity. Also, it’s interesting how easily the need to be seen in that way gets away from you. And, of course, in our society still, women are being taught that their value, their very existence, depends on being looked at in certain ways.

TM: I think it’s interesting how one-sided love through technology is. Technology in your work is both a way to transfer love but also to estrange.

DS: I’m very interested in incorporating what it’s like to be alive in the moment the book is set. One of the things I love about the form of the novel is that you only have prose to convey everything. That challenge—how to approach distinctly non-prose things—is exciting. I like writing about listening to music, about watching movies, about what it’s like to surf the Internet. So often my approach is to anchor the actual experience in the body and the consciousness of a character. But sometimes, other strategies work. You don’t want to be gimmicky, but this stuff is our lives. The technology has to be incorporated. We so seldomly think about the thinginess of what we use. What this object, this phone, is like in your hand. I was thinking about this a lot in Innocents and Others, the body relation you have to the technology. You can’t not engage it. It shapes who we are. Just like how the architecture of Sam’s house shapes who she is. Phones are machines for living.

TM: The language in the book has such energy. Syntactically you make brilliant use of lists. And you capture the smashup rhythms of Internet talk, the “faux po’/demi-dereliction.” But you also go deep into the particulars of a system here, the “chinoiserie,” the “inglenook.” There’s the gym-bro talk, the startup talk, the need to “optimize.” Then there’s the emotively lyrical, the “mildewed lemon wedge.” I would love to hear about your philosophy of language for Wayward. How did your relationship to language change (if at all) for this book? What I felt more in this book was the conflict between the different systems of language.

DS: A lot of my favorite writers do this. I do like subcultures that have an energetic jargon. When you invent new speech, at first it illuminates and then it obscures. It almost always tends toward euphemism. There’s often some sort of crime that gets committed, with the language covering it up. The more the language gets used the more problematic it becomes. And things get hammered into cliches that no one questions or thinks about. This is a big source of creativity for me. I also find it very funny, and pointing out what is funny about it is part of what energizes me.

I like lists. I like making lists. It’s an excess which I own. The list feels poetic. When you put things in a list, you put them in a syntactic relationship with each other that’s different from the usual way they’re viewed. You start to exist on the surface of the language in terms of the sound and look of it rather than how it’s used in the world. You’re dislocating that piece of language. You’re seeing new patterns, new relationships beyond the conventional ones.

TM: To end, I want to ask you about a scene in the novel where a character, MH, says: “Care? That the catastrophe that was human civilization is dribbling out? Why would I care about us?” To which Sam responds: “I don’t agree.” My question is: do you feel the novel is specifically equipped to take on the problem of building meaning? And, relatedly, do you feel the form of the novel has a responsibility to attempt to build some sort of meaning?

An example of a crosswritten letter.

DS: I am drawn to humor as a means of expressing honesty, subversion, and joy. Also, I derive hope to from paying attention to the small details of human behavior in different contexts. I am particularly moved when I look at people and notice small acts of resistance. For an example, how some women in the past used to crosswrite letters to save money on postage. The result was formally beautiful but also very hard to read. Almost secret writing that was considered “feminine” and perverse. I admire the beauty, the eccentricity, and the recalcitrance of the act. It gives me hope. In a big sense, I am not bullish on America or humans in general most of the time, but I do think our job as writers is to stay curious about the species in all its paradoxes. Can we truthfully engage our own pessimism while still holding on to hope?

Enter the Dream Factory: Christine Sneed in Conversation with Matthew Specktor

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Many readers know Matthew Specktor as the author of the propulsive 2013 novel American Dream Machine, which, like his virtuosic new work of nonfiction, Always Crashing in the Same Car, explores Hollywood both as metaphor and as geographic location from an insider’s point of view.

The son of a screenwriter and one of the founding partners of the powerhouse talent agency Creative Arts Agency, Specktor was born and raised in Los Angeles and grew up observing the successes and near misses of many actors and screenwriters. His lifelong proximity to and nuanced understanding of the traps and rewards of a career in Hollywood imbue his new book with authority and pathos, as do his own experiences as a screenwriter.

Part memoir, part cultural criticism, the book’s chapters each focus on a well known writer, musician, or filmmaker with ties to Hollywood—among them, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tuesday Weld, Hal Ashby, Michael Cimino, Renata Adler, and Warren Zevon—whose life and work Specktor has researched extensively and admired as a fan and close observer for many years. Most of his subjects were—famously or not—beset by professional frustrations and disappointment, self-sabotage, turbulent intimate relationships, and by some measures, failure to reach a higher plane of notoriety, prosperity, and sustained personal contentment.

What’s perhaps most remarkable about this extraordinary book is how eloquently and compassionately Specktor writes about loneliness and disappointment—his own as a writer, as a friend, as a son and a husband— as well as that of his subjects. He sees with a clear, unwavering eye the perils of believing the glittering promises fame makes and acknowledges how difficult it is to ignore them.

I had the opportunity to correspond with Specktor about Always Crashing in the Same Car.

Christine Sneed: I’m curious about how you chose the writers, filmmakers, and musicians who serve as focal points for the eight chapters in this book. Had you been thinking of writing a biography about one of your subjects but in time realized you instead wanted to write a book with several protagonists that explored fame, creative success, failure, and the loneliness of artists?

Matthew Specktor: I had a list. Anyone who knows me has heard me fulminate about lists at one time or another—I tend to resist them, and I think their prevalence (as Top Ten Lists, Best of the Year, etc.) has had a deranging effect on the culture at large. But in this case, the joke was on me: I made a list. There was never any intention of writing a biography of anybody. I just drew up a constellation of people who fascinated me and wondered what, say, Tom McGuane might have in common with Tuesday Weld, or Hal Ashby with Renata Adler.

Eventually I realized that all of these people had traveled complicated paths that had some relation to the movies, and to certain American mythologies that exist both inside and far beyond Hollywood. There was some winnowing—it was a really long list, and I wanted to be sure that each person’s story was different, that I didn’t get locked in to writing too extensively about disappointed screenwriters, or musicians with problematic personalities—but somehow it all fell together, as books tend to.

The people I chose had all kept me company during a difficult time in my life, and their paths kept intersecting: Tuesday Weld playing Zelda Fitzgerald in a television movie; Frank Perry directing Tom McGuane; McGuane co-writing songs with Warren Zevon. The various strands cross-pollinated nicely.

CS: I don’t know if I’ve ever read a book quite like this one—was the memoir and cultural criticism duality present from the beginning? As I read, I wondered if it began as a traditional memoir but before long you discovered you were more interested in looking at your life in tandem with other artists’ professional and personal trajectories.

MS: It was never a traditional memoir. I don’t know if I could write one of those. In 2016 I had finished a novel, and I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t want to publish it. My agent was ready to go and I just couldn’t get excited about it. (Never mind the fact I’d already written it. Maybe I just didn’t think it was that good!) I started thinking about the books I’d read around that period that had excited me—Heidi Julavits’s The Folded Clock; Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments; Hilton Als’s The Women (very much that one, which does blend criticism and memoir in a very beguiling way); Terry Castle’s The Professor: A Sentimental Education—and I realized pretty much everything that had excited me recently wasn’t a novel. A wonderful monograph by Sam Sweet called Hadley, Lee, Lightcap was another.

And these books, with the exception of Castle’s, weren’t essay collections either. They were long form prose excursions that managed to be intensely and vividly personal, on the one hand, and on the other to turn their gazes on things that were outside, to work in a way that was also sort of oblique or elliptical. Which appealed to me. I thought, why not write a book that interpolates all these different modes—of fact, found material, speculation, criticism—and allows them to coexist, that has a kind of almanac quality. That sort of expansiveness is what writing is for! But conversely…I know this book is gonna sit on a shelf marked “memoir” or “nonfiction” or whatever, but I’ll go to my grave insisting it’s actually a kind of novel. There’s nothing that asserts a novel can’t contain all sorts of factual material. As Ishmael Reed said (speaking of writers who don’t always get their due), “A novel can be anything it wants to. It can be the six o’clock news.”

CS: The chapter focusing on Tuesday Weld features a wrenching story of your close friendship with “D,” whose struggles with addiction and depression kept him from realizing his potential as a novelist. “‘My heart will always be with the loser,’ [D] wrote. ‘Always’” In the same paragraph, as a kind of reply to the above, you wrote, “I thought [D] saw the world all the way to the bottom. That he understood the meaning of disappointment.” Today the cult of optimism (Think positive, everyone, or shut the fuck up!) has sent a lot of people the message that failure and disappointment are to be avoided at all costs. But doesn’t that view all but guarantee some of us will become insufferable, if not outright monsters? With your own daughter (and yourself), how do you address the tension between positive thinking and realistic expectations?

MS: Well, that’s the work of a lifetime, isn’t it? Obviously, the life of an artist—surely no more than any other kind of life, but perhaps a little more forthrightly—is about disappointment. Even the most successful artists are rejected over and over again (or they have been, and just from knowing a lot of absurdly successful ones I know how often they’re—still—rejected), and it usually takes an unholy amount of rejection even to reach a very modest degree of public-facing success.

Unless one is lying to oneself, life is a hotbed of failure. You miss your goals. Your relationships implode. You lose your job. You disappoint your friends, or your children. You have an experience of illness, or loss. This happens. To everybody, it happens. But with any luck, and (it must be said) with whatever privilege one has that allows you to even have a chance at succeeding (i.e. of not being murdered by the police, of having time to write, etc.), you are likely to succeed at least occasionally.

And if you can internalize some of those successes as effectively as we all do our disappointments (which, we’d better internalize too; I mean, otherwise you turn into a moron or a monster, like Tony Robbins or something), you become a little more flexible. The failures might not torture you as much, and the successes won’t mess with your head. My own heart always will be with the loser, though, also, just like D’s was. Always, it will.

CS: I was particularly moved by the passages about your mother, a frustrated screenwriter who, due to a WGA strike and her one produced script having been written during that strike, was thereafter blackballed by the industry. Her dependence on alcohol increased after her career foundered, and your relationship with her also faltered. When you reconciled with her after years of silence, did she have a different perspective on her experiences or any advice to offer you as a writer?

MS: Not really. I mean, her estrangement from Hollywood—and her estrangement from me—might not have left her with a ton of usable information. (I’m not sure that estrangements ever do.) She never talked about that part of her life much. But the story of her talent was an odd one, insofar as that talent may never have had a chance to properly develop, and she largely stopped thinking of herself as a writer once she quit writing. (On the other hand, there was a late short story or two I found among her papers, so…apparently she didn’t entirely quit writing.)

But the real story there is that of an entire generation of women, many of whom my mother was friendly with, like Polly Platt, or Elaine May, Carole Eastman and Joan Micklin Silver, Barbara Avedon—I mean there were a ton of preternaturally gifted women (it’s hardly too much to call some of them geniuses) whose work in Hollywood didn’t get its due. That to me was the bigger story (and still is: it factors into my next book as well). I don’t know that my mother had that kind of talent—the one produced movie she wrote isn’t overwhelmingly good—but I do know that for reasons that go beyond even her own personal demons, she never had a chance to find out. That’s a lesson, I suppose, and a particularly important one for a white, male writer to be taught. There’s much more than “talent” involved in the making of an artist.

CS: Your mother left Hollywood for good when she was still a relatively young woman. Although two other screenwriters featured in this book, Carole Eastman and Eleanor Perry, had greater success in Hollywood than she did, their stories nonetheless bear similarities. Perry’s husband achieved greater notoriety than she did, and your father’s success as a talent agent likewise eclipsed your mother’s career. Eastman wrote Five Easy Pieces—under a pen name—and shunned the spotlight.

Do you believe your mother would have embraced success if it had come her way? I think the stereotype that a confident woman is a show-off or a troublemaker is still prevalent, despite all the lip service paid to gender equality.

MS: I do not think my mother would have embraced it. Women of her generation—by which I mean my mother, specifically—were expected still to be secretaries and helpmates. They weren’t necessarily expected to be filmmakers and artists. Obviously there were such—arguably, Hollywood is a more sexist culture than even the other strands of American life that surround it (arguably: I’m not sure if it’s “more” or equally so)—but my mother was first a model, then an actress, then a stay-at-home mother, then a schoolteacher…she didn’t really start writing with any intent at all until she was in her early 40s. (She did other things, activist things that are interesting, when my sister and I were young as well.)

But I don’t even know that she wanted success, at least not in the way we’re discussing—not even in the way Eleanor Perry went after it, which seemed less about chasing a brass ring and more about chasing the highest artistic standards—but, again, that’s a revelation of itself. Women are still not afforded the same latitudes in this regard as dudes are. Megan Rapinoe or Serena Williams come on with a little bit of confidence, perhaps only a fraction of the amount their male counterparts display—I think of athletes because it’s an arena where one might be expected to show maximum confidence, where absolutely no one bats an eye if a man says something arrogant—and people still lose their minds.

CS: Among the luminaries you include in Always Crashing in the Same Car, was there one you found yourself identifying with more than the others?

MS: Eastman. I mean, I won’t particularly say I identify with the men in the book (I’d like to identify with Tom McGuane, because he’s such an incredible prose writer and seems in many ways to have had an exemplary career; I can’t say I do too much with Michael Cimino or Warren Zevon…maybe a little with Zevon, because there’s a romantic streak there that I can get with, but the autodestructive stuff not so much), but Carole Eastman, yeah.

And I don’t even know why that is: there’s a gnostic quality, a radical privacy that I can understand, and also just something about her sense of humor, the music of her sentences, that feels true to me. I feel she was working out of a deep sense of pain, but also a constant sense of irony, which—ahem. But honestly? I think I do, on some level, relate to all of them. There’s something in every one of them—Hal Ashby’s joy and obsessiveness at being in an edit bay; Renata Adler’s ambivalence in the face of the commercial and promotional mechanisms that are pervasive inside our culture—there’s something in each of them I very much relate to.

CS: In one way or another, each focal character in this book is a legendary figure who experienced moments of unusual creative distinction and success, but some of them would probably say (or have in fact said) they never reached their full potential. F. Scott Fitzgerald, perhaps most notably among the artists you write about, was plagued by many bitter professional and personal difficulties that doubtless contributed to his death at the cruelly young age of 44.

For many, it seems as if fame is a curse—like a big lottery win—yet millions of us aspire to fame and fortune. Are there, in your view, habits of mind that a person really must cultivate in order to survive their own fame?

MS: This is actually a great question because it’s a preoccupation of mine. How do artists stay viable? Because most artists, I think, don’t. I mean you can have a long career, and you can write good books (make good movies, record good music) over a span of many years, but really when you look at most artists there are fallow periods, or eras where they’re churning out clunkers. I mean even the best and the most blessed have periods of failure and unsuccess. And I think it’s actually harder, much, much harder, for the ones who do experience significant material or popular success (for whatever reason, I’ve known a lot of them: not just movie people, but literary ones and so on) to sustain it.

The ones who manage to sustain it are all, I think, the carriers of somewhat paranoid interior grudges, more or less private in their life and art, and relentlessly stubborn in cleaving to their own compass. They’re not all that interested in that sort of success (which isn’t to say they’re immune to its seductions, or that they don’t also, on some level, crave it: they’re not interested in it) to begin with.

So that’s the habit of mind one likely ought to cultivate: that of not believing—and not just “not believing,” but actively pushing back against—the hype. Fitzgerald, of course, bought into it hook, line, and sinker: even while he was writing about the ravages of success, he was doing so because it was ravaging him. And he managed one (alas, unfinished) great book at the end, but it took him a lot of pain and failure to get to it.

CS: Was it more difficult to write the most personal passages, e.g. those about your mother and father and your first marriage, than those that explored the lives of the cultural figures featured in Always Crashing in the Same Car? Would you say you’re comfortable writing autobiography or do you prefer to write about others?

MS: Not at all. I thought of it more like a key-change in music, a way of keeping the narrative propulsive and engaging. Moving between the personal narrative and the narratives of the lives I was exploring seemed not only natural but necessary. I felt the narrative would collapse if I didn’t keep shuttling, or if I lingered in either mode for too long. But also—I don’t know that there’s a difference for me. Writing about other people—in criticism, or as figures of the imagination—is writing about the self and vice versa. That was true in American Dream Machine, and it’s really true in the book I’m writing now, which braids a very different type of memoir writing with very wide-scale social history. I think I am only ever really interested in doing both.

CS: What was something you learned while writing this book that truly surprised you?

MS: This is ostensibly a book about Los Angeles and/or the movies, but anyone who reads it thoughtfully—and the book certainly makes this explicit towards the end—will know it’s not really about the movies at all. It’s about disappointment, and about how the lives we have tend to not much resemble the lives we anticipated or wished for. That’s something I think most people can understand, and I think what surprised me is that reckoning with this disappointment can be a cornerstone of a moral education.

I don’t mean that it is one, necessarily—you can be kicked in the teeth repeatedly, fail over and over, and still be a rotten person—but that it can be. It is possible that repeated exposure to disappointment can teach one tolerance for ambiguity, empathy (actual empathy, not the suspect kind that gets bruited about online), and even a bent towards more ethical behavior. I’m not sure how this is so, exactly, and I don’t believe the goal of literature is social improvement (i.e. that reading “makes one a better person,” or anything like that), but nevertheless, I came to understand that while writing the book. And that surprised me, for sure.

CS: Lastly, please share a few more details about the book you’re working on now, if you don’t mind doing so?

MS: Of course. It’s another hybrid. It’s a melding of memoir (again) and social history, one that blends enormously intimate material with stuff that’s very sweeping and broad. I have moments when I’m not sure I’m gonna pull it off, when it seems like having, say, myself or my kid sister and Ronald Reagan be coequal characters in a long form narrative might be unwise. But—kidding aside—it’s a fun book to write: a story of late capitalism, how the movies died, the making of Los Angeles (and…America, really) in the late 20th century. It’s a foolishly ambitious book, probably. But…well, if I were afraid of failing, I probably wouldn’t have written this last book or this new one in progress. You throw the knives up in the air. You don’t think too hard about what will happen if you can’t juggle them, or how they might land.

Bonus Links:
Lessons of Hollywood: On the Fate of Middle-Class Art

Always Coming Back: The Millions Interviews Marcela Sulak

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Marcela Sulak is a conjurer of dazzling words and images. In her work, seasons swirl, thoughts cascade, and memories morph through the here and now. An accomplished poet, literary translator, podcast host and lecturer, Sulak has written three full length poetry collections and one chapbook; a lyric memoir; and has also translated several books from Hebrew, Czech, and French. In “Shekhinah,” the first poem in her latest collection, City of Skypapers, she writes, “I am alive today” —and the rest of the book is testimony to the vibrant world Sulak inhabits, to the microscopic vicissitudes that are both particular to her and yet familiar to readers, wherever they live. She lives “in a place where the flowers are old enough to have stories,” and it is these stories, often hidden under the surface, that she shares with us: freshly picked almonds and olivesbecome silk between the fingers; and radio waves “rest as lightly on our heads as air stirred / by a hand moving from a blessing.”

Sulak is Associate Professor at the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar Ilan University in Israel, where I studied with her some years ago. The Millions talked to her about rivers, runners, and the narrative paths we take.

The Millions: City of Skypapers was written over a three-year period. What was the process you went through? 

Marcela Sulak: I had been through an initially demanding period as director of a graduate program and had just completed Decency, an earlier collection of poetry that considers etiquette and ethnicity. It was time, I felt, to take care of myself a bit more. I went running every day and began gardening a lot. I recorded in great detail everything around me. Traditionally, in literature, roads and rivers serve to pull together diverse populations as they move along with the currents. The Yarkon river, close to where I was living at the time, did just that. On my runs, I encountered the same people each day: an 80-year-old man who lifted weights and moved slowly; an ultra-religious woman who was a runner, like me, and had a beautiful voice. I watched the birds that appeared every day and I noticed the dailiness of the river. I kept doing this when I rode the bus to work, observing the people around me. So really, it’s about living in a place that has a dailiness about it.

I didn’t realize this until I went to the VCCA writing residency, where I exchanged manuscripts with poet Erica Meitner, who was then working on Holy Moly Carry Me. You have two books here, she said. Mouth Full of Seeds, (which became my translation memoir) and another book about movement, botanica, people. A daily book. I guess it’s fitting that I didn’t know this because you don’t always realize what you’re doing every day.

TM: In fact, there’s a definite cyclical feel to this book. 

MS: It’s a book about being in the moment, experiencing the calendar, the Jewish holidays, the daily movement in which every day is slightly different from the next one and suddenly they propel you into something new but then again not really new. It’s cyclical, so you’re always coming back.

TM: I read the book from the beginning, straight through. I like the river theme because the book pulls you along like a river. There’s incredible movement to different places and different thoughts and all the cycles you’re experiencing. Structurally, how does the book flow through the three sections you delineated?

MS: I almost wanted to keep the whole thing as one section. But the poems are dense, so I broke it up to give it some space. The first part begins with the same prompt – “To get here today I had to” – and those poems are arranged seasonally, an intersection between sacred and secular, an interpenetration of sacred and secular time. The second section is a combination of gardening time, botanical time, and because it deals with land it also deals with conflict based on the land. It deals with the people who have fought here. There have been several flare-ups with Gaza, and so that’s constantly on one’s mind and therefore part of it is war. You can mourn the loss of human life, you can wish that it didn’t exist, you can care deeply about the people, but it’s still war. Gardening is like narrating the land. You literally create the roads and borders and boundaries. Or maybe it’s just the people and the land, how we recreate the land in our own image, how we plant and how we sow.

The third section deals with practicalities, the stuff that makes a city work, you know? Garbage collection, people’s habits of putting out clothing on the street, of letting things go, a global look at where I am though recycling, garbage and waste management. There’s the gardening section in which you create food and resources and then the final section, in which you’re consuming and disposing. This is the heart of the book.

TM: Ultimately, these are more than just interesting entries in a diary; these are poems well-crafted and finely shaped.

MS: I wrote in the form of diary entries, or just plain observations. When I went running, I would come back and write down everything I thought while I was running, everything I saw. I shaped each thought by imposing an external frame upon it. I would turn the poem into syllabics, or an ottava rima, a sonnet sequence, or heroic couplets. I think this is what enabled me to arrange or discard, to shape the stream of consciousness.

TM: This book swings between physical movement (running, biking, busing) and absolute stillness. I’m wondering, is this stillness a microscopic observation of the world, in which everything is the same but a little different? I’m thinking specifically about the poem that opens the third section, “When I Sit and When I Stand” in which you write:
Otherwise, I am perfectly
still inside my breath, which I send out
into the world, which always comes back to me.
MS: I think you’re right. The whole book is a balance between a still center and movement, which is really how everything works. You can’t register movement without stillness, you can’t register stillness without movement; they depend on each other. Think of the still space inside a turning wheel. I think this is also some of the movement you get when you’re looking at the intersection of sacred and secular time. The universal is always there, the beingness of the Jewish calendar and the infinite change, the constant fluctuation of human life, and the imperfect.

This poem you just quoted is interesting because it mimics the Jewish prayer, the Shema, something you say every single morning. It changes every time I read it, but perhaps it’s the stillness, the constancy reflected at the base of all movement.

TM: City of Skypapers is, in fact, teeming with contradictions. What particularly interested me is the rootedness into the land, into holidays, but also this sense throughout of un-rootedness in plants and people, particularly your own sense as a person who’s lived in so many different countries, your own sense of rooting yourself and the nuanced undertones that, ironically, you’re not rooted at all.

MS: On a personal level, I never felt exactly at home wherever I was. My whole childhood was spent around my grandparents who spoke Czech at home and who were always talking about the country they’d left. Texas, on the one hand, I know intensely. I learned Spanish, my dad is a farmer, I’ve lived in Mexico, I know the culture, I can dance every one of the dances from cumbia to polka. I know it intimately, and I love many things about it and yet in many ways I hate it with the hate you have when it’s not exactly the fit. So it’s deep intimacy, deep love, and deep hate. I don’t really know if there is any place on earth at this time where someone feels utterly at home. Wherever I am, I really need to dig in, to become part of it. No place is perfect, but there are places that match you better than other places. And so I think the issues that I had been thinking through with these poems, specifically with the gardening metaphor, is how much you can change something to fit your own image. This is what agriculture is, this is what gardening is, you’re changing the land to give you what you need, and part of it is dealing with what’s there, the climate, the seasons, what can grow.

TM: To continue this metaphor, there is a sense that you’re constantly digging in with your linguistic shovel, uncovering magic in what might otherwise be monotony. You’re an accomplished translator from several languages, and I’m wondering how your experience as such has impacted your writing. In my own writing, I’ve found that the deep reading required in translation has a definite influence.

MS: I’ve been translating almost all my life. I don’t remember what writing was like without it, perhaps it was something I did by myself as an individual soul, an individual mind. When I write as a translator I’m constantly aware of the multiple layers of language, the multiple layers of experience, the way which the world itself is layered, especially in Israel, where underneath a path is an ancient ruin, or underneath a ruin is another ruin. One of the poems in the third section is about a Granta event on translated poetry I was involved in. Somebody said that underneath a house is always another house, and that’s what it feels like with translation and writing. Everything is multiplied.

TM: In that same poem you write about Yehouda Shenhav, a translator who savors the delicate similarities between the foundations of Arabic and Hebrew, and berates the fact that contemporary Hebrew is less nuanced, as in the word “rain”:
…called geshem in modern Hebrew

instead of matar, as in the Hebrew Bible and

the Arabic his tongue first curved into.
MS: I’m always looking at how words are constructed. In Hebrew, I look at the stanza, the bayit, which also means house, and the words become rooms in a house so, especially in Hebrew and Arabic, you’re getting these very basic building blocks. Maybe what lies at the base of this book is how speaking and building are a similar activity.

TM: I love the title and am wondering where it came from.

MS: City of Skypapers is what my daughter called the skyscraper district where I was going to sign some papers and so she transposed the skyscrapers for skypapers.

TM: That sounds like a whole new story opening out.

MS: We are always mediating the world through narratives, through stories. When you listen to other narrations and other stories that are not yours but deal with the same place you’re writing about, when you listen to all the different languages that this land has, it affects the way you navigate through the world. We always bring a story with us, wherever we go.

That’s What Language Can Do: The Millions Interviews Pádraig Ó Tuama

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“Faith shelters some,” Pádraig Ó Tuama writes, “and it shadows others.”

We are lucky—those of us who are believers, and those of us who are not—when our theologians are poets. Ó Tuama makes me think about belief, God, and language in such a jarring, revelatory way. Afterward, I don’t want to return to my tired assumptions. 

I felt invited into In the Shelter not because it was about a life quite like mine—although we both come from the Catholic tradition—but through Ó Tuama’s syntax; how his sentences move from past reflection to present encounter. I often think of good books as journeys, and all of the kinesthetic, profluent metaphors and feelings that go along with such movement, and In the Shelter feels like it moves. 

Pádraig Ó Tuama is a poet, theologian, and host of Poetry Unbound with On Being Studios, where he is the Theologian in Residence. From 2014 to 2019, Ó Tuama was the leader of the Corrymeela Community, Ireland’s oldest peace and reconciliation organization. His poetry collections include Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community, Sorry for Your Troubles and Readings from the Books of Exile. He is the author of In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World, and, along with Glenn Jordan, Borders & Belonging.

We spoke about language as exploration, the necessity of questioning, and how we seek sanctuary in this world. 

The Millions: Early in the book, you write of being in the monastic community at Taizé, France, during Lent in 1998. Each morning began with reflections in English, French, German, or Spanish, and a monk “would ask, moving casually from language to language, which tongues he should use in order to be understood by everyone.” Then, on Holy Thursday, he reads from the Gospel of John, and others in the group read it in Dutch and Norwegian. There’s this swirl of language as a glorious but also frayed route toward belief throughout your book, and you include moments of Irish as well in the text. Where does language carry or compel you? Does language bring you closer to faith, to God, or to somewhere else?

Pádraig Ó Tuama: When I was a child, my mother wasn’t very well. So, from September 1978 (I was two, soon to be three) I spent a few hours a day with a woman known only to me as Bean an Tí. This lasted for two years. She was from Baile an Fheirtéaraigh, an Irish speaking village in West Kerry and was up in Cork city living with her niece. My dad told me later that he’d heard her try to speak in English once, but she was utterly confused. She had some vocabulary, but no sense of the English language. So, for two years I was surrounded by her Irish, fluent as the salt in the sea. I remember she had a gravelly voice. I remember she wore lots of navy. I remember that I had a plastic cup—was it yellow or red?—from which to drink milk halfway through the day. It was a kindergarten of sorts, there were other children there too. I thought she was two hundred years old. She gave me language. Bean an Tí means Woman of the House, a term meaning landlady perhaps. I was affronted when I heard another woman being called Bean an Tí years later, thinking that I knew the one and only. She was from the Ó Bric family, a well known clan in the Dingle peninsula.

All of this goes to say that the question of language, or, to be more accurate, languages has been a part of my life as long as my life has been my life. I loved speaking in Irish and English, once I realized that I could speak them both already. My older sister Áine started learning French at school so I begged her to teach me anything she could. When my mother had a small accident involving two German motorbikers, they were invited (read: forced) to our house for dinner. I sat next to them admiring their sleek jawlines, begging them to teach me anything in German. My auntie Mary is deaf, so I asked her for a sheet of paper with the alphabet for Irish Sign on it.

You get the drift.

I don’t know if language is a pathway to God. But I know it’s a pathway. For me, learning that Jesus of Nazareth didn’t say ‘be quiet’ to the waves in the gospel of Mark, but rather said ‘be muzzled’ fills me with wonder. I am not particularly interested in what it means—because that implies it definitely means something, or, even worse, definitely means one thing—but I’m transfixed by what this implies. It implies so much: the sea like a rabid dog, growling, gazing, muzzled temporarily, saliva and ferocity all crowding the experience. It’s the kind of language that makes literature literature. It doesn’t have to mean one thing in order to mean anything. It is like a mouthpiece at the edge of the universe telling its own story to itself.

Language compels me towards more exploration. Sometimes I feel like language is a tool for exploring the underground, the layers of rock underneath the assumptions and messages that are being communicated. When I was 20 and a man who was trying to cure me of being gay told me that my problem was language, I was accidentally landed into an experience of confidence. He claimed to be an authority in religion and psychology, so I—a good Catholic, always submissive to authority—took him at his word. But when I asked him what his obsession with teaching me how to objectify women was, he became angry and told me my problem was language. And suddenly I was more shiny than I’d ever been before. I saw through his trickery. He was a man making up language for the mouth of God, and he was pisspoor at it. I left and never went back.

That’s what language can do, when language is doing its work: it can spur extraordinary action.

Pisspoor—look at that delicious alliteration. P.P. Two little explosive sounds right next to each other. I needed those sounds to describe the explosion of life that happened in me after I realized that language could be part of being more alive. I know I’m not describing anything like a pathway to belief—because mostly, I’ve been affected by an awful kind of religion, so I’ve needed language to lead me away from it, not towards it. God’s own anarchy, giving humanity the faculty by which God created the world. We can create too. And destroy.  Language can be a terror, as we know well.

I know. I’m still not answering. Look at all this language. Once a man I know was telling a group of people how tired he was of fighting for his rights when his rights were being denied by those who said they spoke for God. He was in a room of a retreat at Corrymeela, a reconciliation community I was leading at the time. A woman sitting next to him said. “It’s okay to rest, others will do the standing for you.” Something about the quality of her words meant he heard them. He cried. The seventh day. It was evening. It was morning.

TM: There’s a real strand of Ignatian spirituality in this book. While in a course of Ignatian spiritual direction in Australia, you learned the vision of the world that transformed Saint Ignatius of Loyola: “The Glory of God is found in a human being fully alive.” You also ponder the humanity of Jesus: “We can ask about when he fell, or when he cried, or when he had nightmares. But we must also ask when he learned truth, or courage, or integrity. When did he learn the human art of apology? How did he live with his own body, the move from boy to man, the richness of a life lived in tension?” What has the corporeal sense of Jesus meant to you? Do you think that people fully reckon with his—and maybe our—flesh and blood?

PÓT: Years ago, when I was definitely more religious, I was teaching a class about the Stations of the Cross. It was a class of adults. I had been doing a daily practice of the Stations of the Cross myself for five years by that stage. I’ve always found the three-fold falling of Jesus to be very affecting. I had some images of Jesus that I was using as we were considering the walk of torture for a man about to be executed.

All of this was in a room in Australia. I was the only Catholic, and I was, in a certain sense, trying to prove to the Evangelicals in the room that Catholics, too, can be Christians. I have all kinds of problems with everything that was happening.

Anyway, after the third “Jesus Falls to the Ground” Station, I asked the people in the room what they’d say to Jesus. A woman named Julie said she’d ask him if it was worth it. Julie had lots of piercings and tattoos and half her head was shaved. The hair she had was dyed pink and green. She wore Doc Marten boots, and lots of leather. She was magnificent. Her own self. I hear she went to do a degree in law and worked in public defense of young people who’d been criminalized by a law system bent on marginalizing the already marginalized. She was somewhat of a scandal in this class because she would regularly say she wasn’t a Christian, even though she was on devotional course meant only for Christians. I admired her so much. There was something about the disposition of her question that moved me deeply. I think it was the first time I’d ever heard someone pose a question about—or, even more audaciously, to—Jesus without expecting they knew the answer. I want what she has, I remember thinking, which was: more distance from religion in order to be able to see a little more clearly.

I have never seen her since—this was 20 years ago—but I think about her regularly. She gave me what others resented her for having: distance and non-predatory curiosity. She was able to ask a question of Jesus of Nazareth without having formulated what she thought his answer should be. In the freedom she held in herself, her Jesus was also freer. I could imagine him saying No, it’s not. Get me out of here in response to her.

So whatever my relationship to the complicated question of Jesus’s identity is (and I wrote complicated essays about the hypostatic union in my degree), I always want the curiosity of the brilliant Julie. I’m not interested in being part of a gang who are so desperate to prove we love Jesus that we don’t take him seriously. I don’t know if I love him. I certainly respect him. I have many questions. I imagine he’d have been exhausting as a friend. I imagine he must have had some kind of energy in him that drew people to him with a heavy appeal. I’ve got a few friends like that. I am drawn to them. I come away depleted sometimes.

Who taught him to read? Was he interested in spelling? Did he skip formalities for the spirit of things? What did he say about Herod when nobody was writing down? Why did he tell the story of the desert with a devil in it? Wasn’t it just himself? When he said Why have you forsaken me, was that the end of his belief? It seems to me that when he posted three friends to keep watch as he prayed that he was leaving room for escape. Who is the escaping Jesus? What would he say?

To take Jesus of Nazareth seriously is to take ourselves seriously, I think. And consequently, to treat Jesus like some kind of perfect boy god is to deny the complexity of the secular everyday today. I’ve still got questions. I think I always will.

TM: You talk about studying redaction criticism during your theology schooling: “the skill of discovering how the texts that we now accept as a literary whole may be the product of decades of editing, with changes, additions, and extractions having happened.” I’m curious: do you find the action of memoir as a form of redaction criticism? What does it mean for you to revisit the stories of your life?

PÓT: A few years ago, I was in a Swatch Watch shop in New York City. I needed a new strap. The people were very friendly in there and after I’d gotten a new strap, the man working there said, “Do you want to come to a Swatch party on Thursday night?” This was not what I was expecting him to say. “What happens at a Swatch party?” I asked. “Oh all kinds of people come and they share their Swatch Story,” he said.

Swatch Story. Jesus. I could almost hear the voice of the branding consultant who came up with this inanity. People had sat in a room wondering how to build their corporate reach, and some overpaid person came up with the idea that the Swatch Story was a way to make people buy more shit.

I didn’t go. Although, I wonder what would have happened if I had. I hope that at that party there were small corners of people talking about what really mattered in their lives. I hope people made friends that night. I hope there are groupings of people who, when someone asks them, “How did you all meet?” answer, “Oh, at some party one Thursday night.” They forget that it was for a brand of watch. They made human in a place where money was the imagination.

Story is everywhere these days as a commodity. And that’s a betrayal of the brilliance of story. Story, if it means anything, is always changing. Story should never be convenient, or pretty, or nice. Stories should have the capacity for change—or, at least, the people who tell them should. If I’m telling the same old story at 60 that I am at 45 then I think I’ll have failed. I’m uninterested in being outraged because sometimes stories of outrage are being told by people who are profiting from my outrage while dodging accountability.

Stories are extraordinarily entertaining, but can leave corpses in their wake. Who is made a hero of a story? Who the scapegoat? How can a new point of view be told? How can a story be told anew? How can powers be re-examined? How can I be suspicious of the neat in a neatly told story? Who is the teller? Is it me? Am I over-identifying with the me in memoir? How can I make plural where commodity insists on single? I need to be made exile and made new. Stories have borders, too. And walls. And guns to keep certain people out. So I need all redaction, all historical criticism, all literary theories, and queering and turning upside down. Life is not a story, but stories—maybe—can help us live a life. So they’d better be good enough.

TM: You intersperse poems in this book, and one in particular, “Staring Match,” really paused me: “I stare at the icon, / the sacrament, and / the sacred story.” I think staring is a form of the ecstatic moment—our eyes locked somewhere, lost and drifting. What causes you to stare, to hold yourself to the point where you can’t look away?

PÓT: I’m intrigued that you’ve found such ecstasy in that poem. And I’m moved, too. That you found this in the poem speaks to me that the poem is doing its work; in that the words made space for you to put yourself into them. Were we sharing a pot of tea (Assam, made with leaves, stewed for seven minutes, proper boiling water. Microwave? Get behind me, Satan.) I’d want to ask you more about the poem, because you are participating in the making of the book, in the sense that you’re engaging with a conversation that I’m only an eavesdropper to.

All of that goes to say that if ever anyone ever says to me “I liked your book,” I always ask, “Why?” Not because I’m interested in checking out whether they’ve read it or not, but because they always say something interesting in answer to the why. Usually I realize the book is just a prompt for them to have a conversation with themselves.

I’d gotten completely stuck halfway through writing In the Shelter. It wasn’t that I didn’t have a plan, as much as I wasn’t sure what the point of writing something new was. I was reading Adam Phillips’s book In Writing, where he says that most things are written in order to be forgotten; but what happens in the experience of reading is what is meant to be remembered. It changed everything for me. I went back to writing.

Staring, for me, in the context of that poem, was actually an accusation. I’d been schooled in the art of the devoted gaze, the gaze of love, the gaze of adoration. I needed something more like the fuck-you-glare towards an icon. If an icon is a window into God, then I had something to say. So much of In the Shelter is a landscape of anger; as well as a landscape of slowly stripping away denial about the violence of religion. Looking at the placid face of Jesus in an icon, I was angry, and in staring at him (through him, to him, with him) I was able to hear parts of my own life that had questions. I didn’t think he was cowed by my anger. I get the impression that if he was listening, he’d have been glad for it. It was my hidden-and-stowed-away questions that required me to get to the stage of exploding towards the very source of the very source. It was such a relief. Like many, I’d found myself caught in a cycle of leaving a suitcase of questions, objections, fantasies and furies at the doorway of the halls of prayer. Learning to bring a few of those items into chapels helped me take whatever it is that religion does more seriously.

The last word in that poem is “hungry.” Hunger, in Irish, is Gorta, a word we use for a body’s hunger, but also a word we use to imply the Great Famine—An Gorta Mór—a famine that was not a potato famine, but was, like most famines, influenced heavily by the political machinations of the day. While perhaps two million Irish people starved to death from the years 1845 to 1847, the British landlords (grabbed lands, I hope you didn’t need me to say that) were making money by supplying over half the corn and half the cattle to Britain. Hungry people were filling ships with foodstuffs they’d farmed but would never be nourished from. People who couldn’t pay the rent to live on the land that had been stolen from them were being evicted. Kindly neighbors who brought in evicted neighbors were subject to a new law that made such hospitality a crime. All of this being watched over by people who said they had God in mind. Jesus Christ. He deserves everything he can get.

TM: You wrote of living overseas, and sharing an occasional meal with people who were lesbian, gay, or bisexual, and “haunted and loved by God,” but who “had found the welcome of the church to be more airy than substantial.” You receive a call that the local priest wants to come to the house and join the dinner, but the caller says the priest “is keen to be seen to respond.” You focus on that language, and consider a few paradoxes. The priest came, brought some wine, and you spent time together. You remain friends. But you let him know that his presence there was fraught, and that what you needed to see “was less his kind words around the privacy of a table and more his public words in the halls of the powerful. Show us your change, please, I asked.” I can’t help but think of your recent erasure poem in response to the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s statement on the blessing of same-sex unions. Do you feel, as you write in the book, that “faith shelters some, and it shadows others”?

PÓT: God almighty, that priest. He was a lovely man. He’s still a priest, and one of the good ones. But the level of entitlement he had to send a message to me—via a secretary—that he’d heard I had a gathering of LGBT people in my house and he wanted to join, in order to be observed to be doing the right thing… that left me speechless. Of course he couldn’t come. I wouldn’t even tell him the night of the week, and I was aghast at how he’d found out. But he came alone to talk about the message.

There was so little consideration of the safety of the people around that table. Many of them would have feared being fired by him—or, at least, his machinery—had the story of their sexuality become known to him. Was the priest gay? Well, perhaps. But in this instance, unfortunately, who cares? There was a roomful of people seeking sanctuary around a table hoping that a Thursday evening in a kitchen in West Belfast could give enough courage to survive till the next month. His presence there would have been a little echo of empire.

It was a demonstration of the chasm between intention and impact. He would have said that he intended no harm, he intended no worry or threat. But actually his intentions weren’t really of any interest or consequence. His presence there, his self-invited presence, would have had an impact far beyond any intention he’d have used to butter over whatever awkwardness he’d have felt. I’ve grown suspicious of my own intentions, too. It’s all well and good for me to say I mean well. But I’ve been alive long enough to know that when I say I mean well, that that’s only sometimes true, and even when it is true, it can still wreak havoc.

Anyway, like I said. He was a lovely guy, but the luxury of his imagined innocence was a luxury he alone could luxuriate in. I stay in touch, I do. I text him, too. I’m always happy to hear from him, and support him if I can, or ask him for his help if he can give it. He’s not some boogie monster. But he needed to wise up about the impact of his association on a room of people at risk of unemployment.

So of course the establishment of religion works for some and not for others. For some it is important to find a pathway out, knowing that your imagination and safety and creativity might find life outside the borders of religion. Others find religion a salve, and I believe them. Some people say that such violences of religion are evidence of establishment, not Jesus. But I don’t accept that at all. Jesus said many things that, today, would not be considered acceptable. Sheep and Goats and Jews and Dogs and Belief and Gehenna and Pharisees and Divorce and Eunuchs and Devils, oh my. I would love to talk to him. But he’s not an innocent in the corner with angels dancing round his head. There’s blood on his hands, and not just his own. There’s blood on mine, too. Not just my own either.

That recent statement—or Responsum—from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was such a strange pronouncement. It was ostensibly aimed towards LGBT people. But any Catholic LGBT person already knew that any space for our unions to receive blessing was unlikely to come from the top. In reality I think that the true target of that document were allies of LGBT people within the structures of the church. It was a shot across the bow of a Cathedral. You next.

Such a use of language from such a platform was a complete failure of language, and authority. So I wanted to mine for something of curiosity within a text that was utterly predictable in its aggression.

Groups of belonging—whether that’s a country, a religion, a gender, an ethnicity, or a club—have a long history of violent bordermaking. Some groups are easy to join and impossible to leave. Others deny anything outside them exists. Some are almost impossible to join, but’ll kick you out if you sneeze the wrong question. What is the quality of fluid belonging, is something that’s at the heart of my interest. I don’t need to—or, my god, want to—belong to all the groups. Every group has membership requirements, etc. That’s probably okay, or at least, it could be.  But it’s the quality of entry and departure that interests me. And the quality of the stories told about those who left too; and those who wanted to leave but didn’t for fear of repercussions; and those who needed to; and those who stayed, too; and all of us in the in-between.

We’re back at story. I know. How neat. 

There Is a Freedom to Being Kept Outside: The Millions Interviews Kate Zambreno

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Kate Zambreno’s To Write as if Already Dead is, in part, a study of writer/photographer Hervé Guibert’s To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life. Guibert’s book, published in French in 1990, is a thinly veiled autobiographical narrative about AIDS, following the protagonist from his discovery that he has the illness through an increasingly severe decline. Michel Foucault features in the book as “Muzil,” a friend who is also suffering from AIDS; so does French actress Isabelle Adjani, as “Marine.” The book made Guibert a celebrity. Zambreno reads it in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and her own medical suffering.

But that’s just the seed of this complex, daring new book. She has written it, Zambreno says, for a contract: her family needs money, she is pregnant with another baby, and her temporary teaching positions lack necessary benefits. Yet the book, which Kirkus describes as a “meta-memoir,” escapes her original grasp. In doing so, it expands, delightfully, to take in a host of other concerns, including literary friendship—and betrayal—motherhood, the pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests, and the brutal shortcomings of our healthcare system.

This interview was conducted over email, shortly after Zambreno was awarded a 2021 Guggenheim in nonfiction. I was finishing up a brutal semester of teaching, and apologetically sent her my questions weeks late. She, doubtless also finishing up her semester, plus dealing with, well, winning the Guggenheim, nevertheless amazed me with a response sent less than 24 hours later, elaborating thoughtfully and carefully on each in my long list of questions.

The Millions: To begin, could you talk a little about the decision to write this book in the immediate present tense? I’m referring here to your literal tense, but also, of course, the inclusion of extremely recent events like Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter uprising. Everyone has heard the advice to wait before writing about an experience, and there was also a hasty wave of pandemic literature published early on, in which, as you observe in the book, “Every writer with a byline publishes a coronavirus diary, even if they are never sick, especially then.” Were you at all unsure about ending the book on a necessarily unresolved subject—a pandemic and political movement still being felt in profound ways around the country and world?

Kate Zambreno: The book is divided into a diptych—there is a story in the first part, “Disappearance,” that takes place in a more speculative time period (there are references to the museums being closed, and the daughter being out of school), and then the second half, “To Write as if Already Dead” is a first-person notebook with the catalyst or impetus of a bodily deadline in which to finally write this study on Hervé Guibert, which has the vertiginous thrust of the novel being circled around, To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life. Guibert’s novel, documenting his AIDS diagnosis as well as the death of his friend Muzil, based on his neighbor and intimate Michel Foucault, has as its frame the actual diagnosis but goes back in time to situate a chronology of his body and the portrait of various friendships and fallings out. Likewise, the second half of my study attempts to figure out how time works in Guibert’s book, and how narrative works in a sick body, and does so by adopting Guibert’s methods. As soon as I set about the project to write a date, as Guibert does, and attempt to move forward in a calendrical way, to write a diary at least as a frame, then it becomes a conceptual work about time, which Drifts was as well, in different modes. I couldn’t ignore the pandemic, and the twinning feeling of it, as I was writing of the AIDS crisis, I couldn’t ignore being in New York during the summer of protests, because that was the frame I had chosen for my book, to proceed forward in time.  Plus thinking of Guibert became a way for me to think through the often-paralyzing intensity of the current moment. I feel lucky that I had a project like this to work on—for a couple hours a day it was another way to feel active, alive.

TM:   Early in To Write as if Already Dead, you refer to your “fascination with how writers have historically made money, and when this desire is expressed nakedly, how it affects the form.” This book, you tell us, is written for a contract. I’d love to hear more about the decision to write about how you make money in this book, and the book itself as money-maker—in direct contrast to the romantic idea of the novel as something born deep within your soul, the book you were born to write, etc. How does it affect your form?

KZ: Well, I made $5,000 before an agent’s cut for this book for Columbia University Press, spread across the three years I was supposed to write it—this was not a money-maker, like basically all of my works, I always spend far more time on them (and then editing them, and then promoting them) than would amount to an actual salary, but also of course I need that extra money, which probably went to a few months of family health insurance, which I pay out of pocket for, as I am an adjunct at the two places I’ve been teaching for close to a decade, or almost two months’ rent in Brooklyn. I also write about needing to sell the novel that is Drifts throughout the span of the second half of the Guibert study, in order to continue living in NYC and supporting my newly growing family. I think that the publishing industry and its adjunct institutions, the university, the MFA program, want to hide the question of money, and make everything about the romance of the writer, to hide the fact that writers, in all of their various ways—you and me having this conversation!—are workers for the publishing industry, and being workers, are precarious and vulnerable and often unpaid. I started being interested in the question of money and writing as I became more interested in the question of labor and bodies. But all of this is fed by Hervé Guibert’s novel, in which he writes openly about needing to make money and selling various books. I do think the speed of his illness books is catalyzed by survival energy, and this energy and speed is something I meditate on and enact in this work.

TM: Relatedly, I was thinking while reading the book that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a writer publicly write about doing research on Google Books, although I can only assume every researcher with Internet access has done so at some point in their lives! Later, you write that you’re reading The Compassion Protocol on a PDF on your phone. There’s almost a sense of the camera zooming out to show the writing and reading process itself as it is taking place. Why was it important to include these moments of radical reveal, banal as they might be?

KZ: I don’t believe in purity, in terms of research methods, and am far more interested in the daily and embodied way that people actually read. Thinking of Moyra Davey cutting her Genet diaries in half and reading them on the train in Burn the Diaries (and reading on the train is also a very Guibert thing), or how Bhanu Kapil performs deleting her epigraphs in Ban en Banlieue. I feel I’ve read a lot of writing that’s not mine that does this—but perhaps this also bespeaks to the community of blog writers from a decade ago that the first half of To Write as if Already Dead elegizes. There was recently an essay by Aarthi Vadde and Melanie Micir about how Heroines restages an “amateur criticism”—they consider it alongside Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas—perhaps I am playfully not trying to be a real scholar. Rephrasing Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, there is a freedom to being kept outside as well. Also, it’s been impossible to get into a library.

TM: To Write as if Already Dead plays with a variety of anxieties and challenges around performing the labor of writing, teaching, and bearing/caring for children all at the same time, from (eminently relatable) anxieties about healthcare and mortality to interrogations of your own fragmentary form. Can you expand on this—the book as Portrait of the Artist as Woman, Mother, Precarious University Worker, and more?

KZ: Yes, I do think this work does this (at least as a portrait of a mother, an artist, and precarious university worker, I also think and hope it plays with gender in more slippery ways) as do the lectures that make up Appendix Project, which I delivered at universities across the country in the first year of my firstborn’s life, bringing her with me. As does Drifts. I think becoming a mother has widened my understanding of the intense vulnerability of precarity, and how it’s a condition of the modern world (quoting Anna Tsing here) of which I am an extremely privileged yet still precarious art and university worker. I’m not interested in erasing that in my work, because so much of my impulses towards writing is a protest or provocation against disappearance or erasure. It’s telling that the thrust of both Drifts and this Guibert study, coincidentally, deal with the labor of pregnancy and intense anxieties of how to pay for it while working and anticipating working without any maternity leave. I will say a lot has been made over how fragmented my work is. I guess I don’t see it! I am interested in form. The Guibert study is a diptych, half fiction, half notebook, and I’m interested in the form of the day, of a paragraph, is a paragraph or passage a day, continuing with Guibert. Or maybe—of course it’s fragmented! I wonder if I read anything that’s not fragmented. What makes, I would counter, a work not fragmented? Isn’t a chapter a fragment? Isn’t a paragraph?

TM: You’ve said, of a previous book, “One of the great heartbreaks of my life is that I love poetry and I identify as a poet, but I’m not a poet.” I love that, and I think it points to an often-overlooked relationship between what’s defined as poetry and some forms of nonfiction prose. I’m thinking of Chris Kraus, for example, whom you mention in the book and who has articulated a similar attitude toward poetry. I wonder if you could talk more about your relationship to poetry and poets in To Write as if Already Dead?

KZ: This was for a conversation I had with the lovely T. Cole Rachel in The Creative Independent, in the weeks after my first daughter was born (I had to look it up). I was being hyperbolic. I don’t think it’s one of the great heartbreaks of my life. I do think I considered Book of Mutter poetry, and wanted it to be considered as poetry, and how much that book got rejected was intensely despairing for me (as I also trace through the anhedonia of Drifts rejections in the current work—can I say I consider Drifts poetry as well? Can it be a poet’s novel if I’m not considered a poet?). There is no one else who would have published Book of Mutter as it was—literally nobody—except Chris Kraus and Hedi El-Kholti at Semiotext(e), who also commissioned Heroines and published Appendix Project. Their publishing project comes from such a place of brilliance and love. I don’t think Appendix Project has sold more than a couple hundred copies, if that. So I am a poet after all! I think TWAIAD traces through relationships with prose writers who are part of the poetics world that I met online, and a banishment I feel from a particular subset of that community. The heartbreak of community, of “The Poets.” But again, I’m being hyperbolic!

TM: Relatedly, how did you ultimately decide to name or not name the writers you engage with in the book, from the mysterious Alex Suzuki to “Bhanu” (the wonderful Bhanu Kapil, I assume) and “Sofia”?

KZ: The Guibert study is dedicated to the genius Bhanu Kapil, and our conversations on caretaking and survival energy form part of the thinking in the book. I’m also playing with referentiality across Drifts and To Write as if Already Dead, so that book continues the conversations with Sofia Samatar, also a genius, in Drifts. I think of both books as friendships, more than any other genre (I reference Thomas Bernhard’s Wittgenstein’s Nephew throughout, also subtitled “a friendship.”) Guibert also plays with names (and facts) across his books, that he sees as linked together—there are some fictionalized names that are consistent, and others that change, and other real-life people (like Mathieu Lindon) whose names are not changed. Alex Suzuki is in many ways a fiction, based on a real-life genius, who was also part fiction—the first half of the book explores the concept of pseudonyms and personas—and “Disappearance” contains a good deal of invention.

TM: I’m interested in the way you often write about the particular nexus of literary success (your shame at publishing books so quickly) and professional precarity (adjunct at an elite university). Do you worry about the repercussions of writing so honestly about the financial arrangements of the “life of the mind”? To what degree do you think the need to obtain a professional position through writing defines what people are publishing now and why?

KZ: I think my shame at publishing books so quickly has more to do with my relationship of writing to shame, which probably involves also the family, without which I would not be a writer. It seems that I am writing constantly, I should also say, but that’s not the truth. I do write in a notebook constantly. But I just wrote an introduction to a book and I feel it’s the first writing-writing, like in a Word doc, I’ve done since giving birth at the end of August, besides revising the Guibert study. I have written a few books in a quicker time frame—Appendix Project over a year, the majority of the shorts that make up Screen Tests over a summer—but everything else took at least a few years, and often much more. Columbia UP is publishing this book months after it was finished, which is lightning speed in the world of publishing. It does seem like I constantly have books out, and I have been writing fairly consistently in the past four years, often because I have been under deadline.

Anyway. Constantly having smaller books out is not actually the key to literary success, at least in terms of major publishing. I am supposed to write a big, coherent book, that can be translated into screen, and have it do well, and then repeat this again a few years later. I should appear on talk shows, and make bestseller lists, and excerpt in big places that want me, and promote the book for a solid year. Instead, I take on things like this Guibert project, like the lectures. I cheat on the projects I’m supposed to write with other projects. My books tend to get fairly ambivalent reviews. And still I keep on, because I do think my desire to write comes out of something insatiable, some internal need to write the kind of book that I will finally feel does what I want it to do…and publishing a book is perhaps a way that I can finish something. I think this is why I take on Guibert, because I’m interested in what appeared to be his hyperproductivity in terms of writing and publishing, and the why of it (what was the exact texture of his ambition?).

You ask about the repercussions of writing so honestly about the life of the mind (I am looking forward to reading Christine Smallwood’s novel of the same title.) I have wondered if there would be repercussions for writing so openly about not having maternity leave at the two places where I work, at least in Drifts, but I think that would involve them reading my work? There might be repercussions for writing about publishing in this new book. I think Philip Leventhal, my editor at Columbia UP, took it very well. I don’t know. It would probably help if my books sold better. Also I could just say it’s like the Ben Lerner baby octopus, or whatever. I did half-wonder if I would be burnt forever for joking about the genius grant in Drifts, like what if I did someday become a genius, would they hold it against me? But I just was awarded a Guggenheim, so maybe the publishing industry likes to feel they’re in on the joke? By the way, thank you Guggenheim committee, this was life saving, I now can pay for outrageously expensive family health insurance for the next two years.

TM: I wonder if you could expand on the relationship between writing, shame, and the family? I find this is so insightful, and certainly so relatable, but I don’t know why. Why is shame so deeply entwined with writing? Is it, at least for you, a productive tension, or a destructive one?

KZ: I almost feel if I could—fully—articulate the answer for myself then I would never have to write again. It is not lost on me that one of the reasons I feel deeply bonded to Hervé Guibert and, for that matter, Thomas Bernhard, whom Guibert is also channeling in To the Friend, and other members of the so-called Vienna Group, Elfriede Jelinek, etc., is because they are writing from and against a society rooted in the prurience and hypocrisy of Catholicism, also as it informed the repressive state and its policies, and as represented by the conservative petit bourgeois family. I recently wrote the introduction to the Portugeuse writer Maria Judite de Carvalho’s 1966 novel, Empty Wardrobes, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, that will be published by Two Lines Press. The novel is set amidst the Catholic family and a sort of deadened interiority marked by gender expectations, the expectation to be the good mother, wife, daughter, daughter-in-law, etc., all the more brutalized amidst the Salazar regime. I became a writer as a way to write out of silence and silencing—whenever I see extended family, I am reminded that nothing has ever been or is still expected of me, I literally cease to exist, except for my role as a mother and aunt and daughter. There is a real freedom, however, to write amidst such invisibility from the family. I believe I write so as to continue to exist, and also to perform disappearance, nonexistence. I write knowing I inevitably shame my family by doing so, by writing at all about an interior life.

TM: You talk about the strangeness of talking to readers about a book once it has been published, writing, “I feel like I shouldn’t be included in the conversation. I am no longer the person who wrote that book, who wrote any of the books, and am not sure I can speak for them.” I’ve heard this from other authors. Of course, you don’t need to have a solution in order to validate a problem, but I wondered if you have a sense of what a better reader-writer relationship would look like? Is there a different conversation you want to be having with readers?

KZ: I like the reader-writer relationship as it is, prickly, intimate, invasive, tender, ambivalent! I’m incredibly grateful that my work does connect. It’s what I deeply desire. Whenever Drifts got a dick review I always hoped there are readers out there who did respond to it, who did deeply connect, even if they don’t write about it publicly, and hopefully the books live far longer than their press cycles. Having Drifts, and this book, come out, it feels like more of a vacuum, because I can’t have conversations with readers in bookstores and at events, which I do love to do. I think the conversation is, hopefully also, in the process of reading the book.  But I also write writers I admire as well. That’s how I’ve formed community as a writer.

TM: I’m having some trouble articulating this question, but I want to ask about the role of fantasy in this book. For example, the ending. I don’t want to spoil anything for readers, but I wondered if it might point to some larger decisions you were making in this book. Was there a feeling that you needed to tell this story in a particular way, a way other than the way you ultimately ended up telling it? Was there a different kind of story you felt the reader might want to hear, about Guibert and about your own life?

KZ: I love the move that Nathalie Léger makes in her book on Barbara Loden, first, she didn’t talk about the book in interviews, so we have to only speculate what’s fact and what’s fiction, and it’s unclear what’s real and what’s fantasy—the whole trip to America that makes up the end of the book. You don’t know whether that actually happened. That’s all I will say!

TM: Speculation and the idea of the speculative also seems important. For Guibert, you write, “his survival was speculative fiction.” I hope it’s not overreading to suggest that this felt like a point of identification between Guibert and you as reader/writer. Guibert’s survival is speculative because he has AIDS in the 1980s, but also, it seemed, because survival is speculative for anyone who becomes a “medical subject.” Could you expand on this? What does that idea of speculative fiction mean to you in the context of this book, and, more broadly, of life as it is being lived right now under the pandemic?

KZ: I also read To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life as structured or framed as a dystopic novel, utilizing some of the tropes of plague fiction, and ultimately it has an open-ended feel to the fate of the “hero” (the narrator) in the conclusion, the speculative survival you refer to, because also, that’s what it was like living with that disease that was shrouded in both secrecy and mystery. There’s no equivalent comparison between me being a medical subject and/or pregnant during a pandemic and the circumstances of dying from AIDS, however, but I do think being a medical subject can be an experience of alienation, and often an experience with the unknown.  I don’t know if this answers your question directly, but life has become and continues to feel very weird, for years predating the pandemic and certainly now. Time is vertiginous, connections are mysterious and superstitious, bodies feel doubled and uncanny. The more my work feels speculative, crossing boundaries, the closer I am to achieving something that feels like lived truth.

Bonus Links:
A Year in Reading 2012: Kate Zambreno
A Year in Reading 2019: Kate Zambreno
The Millions Interview: Kate Zambreno

A Kind of Deep Companionship: The Millions Interviews Jo Ann Beard

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Jo Ann Beard is a straight genius when it comes to observing and rendering observations with a twist. In Festival Days, her recent collection of essays and stories, skinny, Upper-East-Side trees are “scrawny and impervious, like invalid aunts”; an electrical cord catching fire is a “sprig of cloth-wrapped wire [that] sizzled and then opened, like a blossom.” Beard won lifetime fans with her 1998 nonfiction debut, The Boys of My Youth. It included “The Fourth State of Matter,” which ran in The New Yorker and managed to be about many disparate things: a mass shooting, friendship, divorce, plasma of both blood and space, dogs (“The dogs are being mild-mannered and charming; I nudge the collie with my foot. ‘Wake up and smell zee bacons,’ I say”). It’s hilarious and tragic and often lands on writers’ lists of favorite essays.

In Festival Days, Beard returns with her immersive, high-stakes storytelling. “Cheri” follows a terminally ill woman who obtains the services Dr. Kevorkian. Small, striking details set the scene—the light through the “parchment lampshades” of a cat’s ears, train tracks “unspooling like a grosgrain ribbon.” Beard illuminates what’s essential about her subjects; Cheri, sick as she is, registers others’ kindness: “She reels from it sometimes, the mute commiseration, the gestures of support and assistance so subtle she barely recognizes them as such.” In other essays, there’s a battle royal among ducks, coyotes, and weasels, written with Annie Dillard-esque love and attention. We read about the crappiness of ex-husbands, the salvation of friendship. All are threaded with a killer sense of humor (“‘We discussed you.’ ‘You don’t disgust me.’”) and a continual ability to delight.

Beard teaches at Sarah Lawrence College’s MFA program, where I studied with her in the early 2000s. The Millions talked with her about how she’s doing, her great love of tobacco, and mycological wonders.

The Millions: Animals—whether it’s a dog with an “aging dog-actress face” and “long glamorous ears,” or a horse who “noticed for the millionth time how small his stall was compared to how large the world,” or the starving, holy cows of India who “may not get eaten but they also don’t get fed”—play starring and supporting roles in Festival Days. How do animals find their way into your work, and what do they bring to a story?

Jo Ann Beard: Well, we live alongside them. Whether it’s domesticated animals we have curled up on our sofas, or the squirrels who move the nuts around between the trees that shade our houses, or the cattle who are forced to graze on our public lands or wander India’s busy streets, or the carriage horses whose lives are made up of endless trudging and standing, or the birds who flit or the bats who soar or the feral cat I’m watching right now out my studio window—a thickly furred yellow striped one who is barely more than a kitten but a ferocious one. I saw her stalking a wood duck out in the wetlands. The wood duck looks like a decoy of itself, but she’s half-starved and was all focus. It was a terrible thing to see; no positive outcome possible. The duck got away, of course, it wasn’t going near the reeds, and so she continued starving. You might suggest that I feed her but I can’t, because one of my dogs thinks of cats the way the cat thinks of a wood duck. So, I guess animals find their way into my work because they find their way into my life. Even if it’s just a scrabbling sound in my walls, or a yellow blur way out there, stepping quietly through the reeds, trying not to splash.

TM: In your essay “Werner,” the scenes describing Werner Hoeflich’s plight—he’s trapped in a building that’s quickly going up in flames—are mesmerizing: “With this nearsighted, close-up view, he could see smoke curling up through the floorboards, black specks inside the tendrils like a flock of birds banking and moving together.” How did you learn about Werner, and what were the unique considerations of telling his story?

JAB: The unique consideration wasn’t the story on the surface—for all its dire nature, it was a fairly simple narrative—but the underlying story. About what it means to discover that death can be stalking us even while we are safely asleep in our beds, that there’s nothing we can do to avoid the randomness of a fire that breaks out deep in the walls. You can live your life as an artist, devoted to your work, and to the catering jobs that keep you afloat, but like the wood duck bobbing on the water, there could be a striped cat somewhere right beyond your view, and the cat might be hungry enough to get her paws wet just this one time.

TM: You told The New York Times that “every page of Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change our Minds & Shape Our Futures had something moving and new for me.” As a member of the New York Mycological Society, I was happy to see you were also entranced by Sheldrake’s work! What was something in his book that especially moved you?

JAB: I listened to the author read the book last summer. His voice was the perfect narration for the walks I was taking through the woods, nine hours over nine days, with me inside the invisible network of fungi. I spend so much time feeling like we’re all inside the Matrix, due to the fact that we are living these muted online lives. When you’re in the woods, you’re not only walking through the mycelial network, but you’re inside the overlapping network of the trees as well. All these separate-same beings communicating with one another through chemistry instead of words, while I was listening to Merlin’s words. I call him Merlin not because I know him, but because I love him, and because he’s a wizard.

TM: In Festival Days, you thank weed, which I thought was funny. Do you have any interest in talking about that? Maybe in light of New York’s recent legalization of cannabis?

 JAB: Well, my version of weed—not in the essay, but in real life—would be tobacco. Some people, especially now that it’s legalized and artisanal, are becoming dependent on THC to get them through their days. I say, as a former cigarette smoker, you all have a long way to go before you can compete with tobacco. The best feeling I have ever had in my life, bar none, is waking up early, making a cup of coffee, and going out into the field to sit on the splintery Adirondack chair and have the first brain-whirling cigarette of the day. Such a feeling. Euphoria combined with vague nausea and self-hatred. I would give almost anything to have it again. Except my life, I suppose.

TM: You refer to Jonathan Franzen as your “imaginary friend,” and I think you, more than most writers, cultivate a sort of friendship with your readers.

JAB: I think a good book is always a good friend—when I’m reading something I like, especially a good long book like Franzen writes, I feel a kind of deep companionship. Not with the author but with the story and the characters and perhaps a little bit with the actual object and its cover, which sometimes includes the author’s face. When you’re slogging through your day, imagining what else is to come, and you remember that the minute all else is done you can sink down into your book like warm water, and be absorbed while you’re absorbing, is priceless, as they say in capitalism.

TM: Lawrence Weschler has said that he uses blocks to sort out the structure for his work. How do you create the structure for your writing?

JAB: The structure comes from the story, I’m pretty sure, not the reverse. I’m not aware of how it works, to be completely honest, and I like to maintain the sense of mystery whenever I can so I don’t analyze my own work if I can help it.

TM: You’ve got a big, loyal fan base. I’m sure many of them want to know how you’re doing, what’s going on with you, and your current dog/animal situation.

JAB: I have two dogs, Beatrice and Jet, both of them in late middle age and both of them looking at me right now. They have acres to run around in, but all they want is for me to take down the leashes so they can walk through the woods. I like to imagine they can hear the chorus of fungi and trees as loudly as I hear the spring peepers. Actually that last sentence was just writing, it isn’t really true. But what is true is that once a duck came flapping across our woods path—full disclosure, this was a while back and two whole other dogs—with a broken wing. Only not, it turned out: as the dogs tore off after it, I saw that it was leading them away from a nest. Chicks running every which way and the dogs never figured it out and never caught the mother. There have been other hysterical occurrences in the woods but they all involved me and my nemesis, the garter snake.

The Tragedy of Self: The Millions Interviews Makenna Goodman

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In Vermont, Alma and her family tend chickens and sheep, make maple syrup, and harmonize with the land. And while it seems idyllic, when her husband leaves each day to teach at a nearby college, Alma vacillates between raising their children and feeling utterly trapped. She’s constantly questioning if she is good enough, if she is doing everything right, and The Shame is a record of her breaking point. Suddenly, driving furiously away from it all—from her kids, from her husband, from her so-called quaint life outside the city—debut novelist Makenna Goodman gives us glimpses of Alma’s frustrations in a series of remembered vignettes: Her stress in attending collegiate dinner parties, her struggle to pursue a creative career in the face of monetary risk, and her solitude in living apart from society. It is a novel that bears witness to a blearing spiral of self-doubt.

Further complicating the matter, Alma has taken to obsessing over the social media posts of the a woman named Celeste. Celeste is a single-mother of three living in Brooklyn. She is a potter. She bakes. She cooks. She does yoga and meditation. She has impeccable taste, beautiful yet understated fashion sense, and a seemingly limitless well of patience for her children. Initially, Alma revels in the parallels she sees between herself and Celeste. But when she realizes that Celeste has somehow managed to avoid the darkness, Alma’s loneliness, solitude, the ever-evolving bouts of anxiety increase and her obsession intensifies. If only she could meet Celeste, talk with her, become a part of her life, then maybe she could find the key to righting her own existence.

The Shame is a sharp, poetic debut. It touches on motherhood, marriage, creative careers, and social media obsessions in a unique and thoroughly engaging way. We are in the car with Alma, speeding away from her former life. But Goodman also puts us in Alma’s head, as she grapples with each reminiscence and memory, and in her heart, as she works to sort everything out that is haunting and hurting her, everything riddling her with apprehension and doubt. Shame and self-loathing have found an honest, witty, and absolutely relatable ride in The Shame.

The Millions: Let’s start with the idea of shame. What does that word mean to you, what does it mean to Alma, and how did it come to be the title?

Makenna Goodman: It’s hard to pinpoint what one word means to me, because words hold within them such big concepts, and it depends on the context in which it’s being used. Shame is a human emotion, something everyone feels at one point or another, and in some cases is a determining factor in how we interpret the stories about our lives, a metric which we often use without knowing. For Alma, I suppose it means the moment of realizing she is inextricable from a system that she thought she was morally above, that her ethical choices had liberated her from being complicit in. But I suppose I could have called the book many things, and I had a hard time titling it. One afternoon, I was on the phone with my friend, the writer Sheila Heti, and we were talking about the embarrassing truths about what we were looking at on the Internet at that moment. I said, it’s just “the shame, the shame, the shame” and she was like, you should just call the book that. It felt right. But titles are just teasers, or suggestions, and I don’t hold it too tightly.

TM: I love that. Speaking of Sheila Heti, can I assume that her book Motherhood is one that resonates with you?

MG: Definitely, everything she’s written. I find her fiction and nonfiction to veer so beautifully into philosophy; she constantly is transgressing both formally and stylistically. Even though Motherhood was a book about, ultimately, not having children, it could easily be seen as a treatise on art and ethics, if the critical media could see past the word “mother” or its well-trod categorical biases.

TM: What started you writing this novel? What was its genesis?

MG: I had just had my second child and was on leave from work. There was a lot of time to think, but my thinking was blurred by lack of sleep. I would take these long walks up our dirt road with my daughter asleep against my chest. It was around that time I read a book of Jungian psychoanalytic theory from the 1980s that deconstructed the Greek myth of Eros and Psyche; it suggested that each character in the myth was, in fact, a different aspect of an “archetypal” woman—whatever that means. But when I started to consider that Eros could be characterized as something other than the god of love, as, say, a woman’s animas, I began to see that it was possible to interpret everything in life as some kind of projection of the “main character,” and that stories can be re-characterized by those who interpret them based on their own projections. It allowed me to have this kind of narrative distance on social structures I found myself either entrenched in or critical of, and I came up with a loose storyline as a kind of container. And from that story, I began to play with how theory and narrative can allow for a rendition of “truth.”

TM: That notion of a “rendition of truth” is really interesting, especially considering Alma’s contention both with her own truth and with that of her high-brow doppelgänger, Celeste. In terms of our outside influences, do you think we all have that kind of level-up influencer who wreaks havoc with our sense of self?

MG: I think we all engage with projection, which manifests differently depending on the person. It’s easy to say something is a cultural phenomenon and try to come up with a valid theory of why. For example, the Internet is obviously a space that has affected the way our brain works, and, as a result, our subconscious. But to say “we all have our influencer” assumes everyone uses the Internet in the same way. I do think when humans search for meaning, the search in and of itself is telling. When you go into the abyss of the Internet to find a sense of truth or comfort, for example, answers seem to instantly appear. But we are curating the space just as it is being curated by algorithms on what we view, which calculate our desires based on where our eyes rest for any significant amount of time. Our sense of self is being made and remade with our permission, and as such our projections are manifested, because they multiply, and then the whole “Internet” seems to be speaking directly to our individual quests. What is “real” and what is “self” might be changing rapidly, yet how can we determine what is true about either?

TM: When Alma does finally reach out to Celeste, in search of her own sense of self, she phrases it as a chance to “fuck with fate a little.” Between fate and free will, where does Alma exist?

MG: I’d say she exists between fate and free will to the same degree anyone does—waffling between the two. Free will is entirely subjective, though, obviously. Who has the right to it? Who is granted it and at what rate compared to others? And fate also holds a mythology of inevitability, the idea that “everything happens for a reason,” which could be interpreted in various ways. Either as a kind of critical systems analysis—‘it’s a game and it’s rigged’—or something more spiritual. For Alma, I see it as her reclaiming the narrative of her life. She’s given Celeste power over her story—even though Alma’s creating the story, creating Celeste to a degree, she’s projected the idea of free will or fate onto something other than herself. And once she reclaims the narrative from the spiraling path it’s on, what will she do with it? What comes next? In my mind the book is about the tragedy of self, more than anything.

TM: In the end, would you say the novel concludes with a resonating sense of freedom, escape, or something else entirely?

MG: I think there is a palpable sense of awareness. An acknowledgement of a story that needs to change. I hope readers will interpret the ending as a beginning of a new one, perhaps the same story, told again, told differently. Isn’t that the case with life? There’s no neat bow, no solution, just new perspectives on patterns. My hope is that the book asserts itself as a cautionary tale, less a moralistic assertion, although there is a moral question central to it all. It is less about the choice Alma makes at the end, and more how she’ll interpret it in the context of her larger beliefs about the world. Ultimately, the book lays out an exercise for her, a mental and emotional exercise, the kind of thing that could happen in the course of one day in anyone’s life, in various ways. How we choose to reprogram our perspectives. How we might rewrite them. I like the idea of control, giving the tools back to readers, to see engaging in literature as a practice in interpretation of our own consciousness. If books can offer that freedom from the algorithmic status quo, then perhaps there’s hope for art yet.

TM: Absolutely. Well said. And speaking of books and hope, what recent releases have stirred or inspired you?

MG: Mieko Kawakami’s new novel, Heaven, is an unbelievable book. Her writing feels so fresh and different, and I have loved everything that’s been translated into English thus far. Another book I loved recently was Noemi Lefebvre’s Poetics of Work. And this isn’t a new release, but I recently read and loved Cristina Rivera Garxa’s The Iliac Crest. There are many others!

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Writing to Heal: The Millions Interviews Elissa Washuta

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I once heard writer and educator Elissa Washuta say that writing essays can get very exhausting when it feels like the essayist is expected to be an insight machine. I took comfort from that acknowledgement, as a young writer who was (and still is) wrestling with the limits of my perception and self-awareness in a genre that often depends heavily on those qualities. And I continue to take comfort and inspiration from her work. She writes well about the difficult and sometimes fruitless struggle to shape narrative out of the mess of experience—from romantic entanglements to searches for the supernatural to our place in the troubling histories of our nations and peoples—and enacts that struggle on the page. The narrator Washuta’s readers encounter is not a sage on a mountaintop doling out wisdom to the worthy, but a friend writing from the middle of confusing and painful experiences, letting you listen while she considers the failures of life to cohere.

Washuta is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and an assistant professor of creative writing at The Ohio State University. She is the author of My Body Is a Book of Rules and Starvation Mode, and her book White Magic is forthcoming from Tin House Books. With Theresa Warburton, she is co-editor of the anthology Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers. She has received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Creative Capital, Artist Trust, 4Culture, and Potlatch Fund.

I met Washuta when I was one of her graduate students in the MFA at Ohio State, and this spring we exchanged some thoughts via email about White Magic.

The Millions: This is your third major publication, after My Body Is a Book of Rules and Starvation Mode, and a third book seems like a special milestone. Does it feel that way to you? What’s different about this publication from your previous two, in terms of your career or development as a writer?

Elissa Washuta: This book feels massive to me—it feels like my book in a way that the first two no longer do. I guess that’s not unusual. But I wrote those relatively quickly in comparison, and I didn’t know what I was doing to the extent that I do now. Starvation Mode was actually an offshoot of the project that eventually became White Magic, though the starting point (ancestral diets, disordered eating, and chronic health problems) is completely gone from the book at this point. I think of White Magic as my second book, and the second book is notoriously painful to write: we know our bad habits better, we’re more self-conscious, we know the literary marketplace is real and “the reader” isn’t an abstraction.

I believe I’ve told you (probably multiple times) my sad story about my first book as a cautionary tale about taking seriously the knowledge that when something is published, it’s beyond the writer’s control forever, to some extent. I wrote My Body Is a Book of Rules when I was in grad school and in the year following. I believe I finished grad school at the same age you did, but I didn’t have as much good sense as you do. I was reckless, and I just wanted to get the book done and published so I could become a literary celebrity. That’s not how it happened. Finding a publisher was hard, and readers arrived slowly. Once they did, I began to really understand that all my MFA school learning about the distinction between personal essay narrator and self was not really a thing in the real world. The narrator and I are seen as one in the same, which is a problem because we’re not. I was trying to write myself as a flawed, authentic character. Now that version of self will live forever.

I spent a long time on White Magic—about eight years or more—because I understood the enormity of a book. I wanted to stay with it until I felt certain that it was exactly what I wanted. In that time, I began teaching creative writing, and that made me a dramatically better writer, especially after I came to Ohio State and had to explain craft concepts to a bunch of brilliant grad students. My confidence in my knowledge became very strong very quickly, and I was able to push myself to take bigger risks, like writing a 100-page essay with overlapping timelines, that I knew could either flop or pay off. I also became really clear about where I stood in regards to narrative structure, and the acceptance that I was not at all anti-narrative made the book come together in a way that was a real departure from my first book.

TM: Your “Oregon Trail II” essay is so much about narrative, as is the rest of the book. On page 185, you write, “A trail is both more and less fixed than a narrative. When you’re writing the narrative, choices are infinite; when you’re reading it, your only choice is whether to continue or not. The trail is somewhere in between: when you get to the river, you can cross or not […] This river may prove a little tricky. You ford the river. This river may prove a little tricky. You ford the river. This river may prove a little tricky. You ford the river. This river may prove a little tricky. He’s been silent for a week but you don’t know what it means. You ford the river. Text him or don’t.” Later, on 187, you quote other prompts from the game: “Try to find another path – You were unable to find another path. Wait for conditions to improve—”. These moments reminded me of something I’ve heard you say, which is that a collection of essays is a series of failures to make sense of your experience, and that it’s through the accumulation of these failures that the narrator (and reader) arrives somewhere new. Your use of the game’s mechanical text prompts helps make these attempts and failures feel as rote as they feel in life, where sometimes we can end up asking ourselves, “How am I at this juncture again?” and “Will I ever get past this?” Do you think writing has had a direct effect on the way you understand the events of your life? Do you think writing about your life has impacted the way you approach life choices?

EW: It really has. In 2015, when I was not really writing much and hadn’t yet found the direction this book would eventually take, I was diagnosed with PTSD, and the psychiatrist said that it was clear that creating a narrative of my trauma through my first book had a significant positive effect on my mental health. I really held onto that—it was affirming. At that point, I had very little recognition as a writer. I didn’t yet have big grants or a tenure-track job. I had a small press book that had great reviews and very modest sales. It had made me almost no money. I was really beginning to wonder whether I was wasting my time, whether I even had another book in me, because I couldn’t find it. I don’t think I immediately consciously appreciated the significance of what the writing had done for me as a person working on healing, but the doctor’s words stuck with me, so I know they’ve mattered to me.

In 2017, as I talk about in White Magic, I was trying to figure out why I was so stuck on a failed relationship, and I was also newly in Ohio, without any furniture but a new couch while I waited for the movers to show up with most of my possessions weeks after I arrived. I spent those weeks watching Twin Peaks: The Return and re-watching the original run of the series. The book began to jell as I wrote down quotes that felt related to the feeling I had that I was experiencing a kind of magic I didn’t understand. I started writing to figure out what that relationship meant to me and why I wasn’t moving on, and as I wrote into that, I realized that the answer was much bigger and more complicated than I knew (though I did suspect that, which is why I started writing about it). I kept writing until, 100,000 words later, I had my answers, and I felt that I was free and could move on. I really did break the bad patterns of my life by writing this book and coming to understand myself.

TM: In “Centerless Universe,” you write, “Our old stories are about things like excrement, dreams, and learning to copulate, because they’re meant to teach us how to live,” which is a small part of a longer reflection on ways of knowing, in this essay and throughout the book. There used to be a lot of anxiety in the nonfiction world about the integrity of the genre, and of “truth” in the genre. I think people have mostly tired of that discussion. But as someone who often writes outside of, or even against, rationalism, can you discuss how your thinking about how to pass on or express knowledge (especially in this genre) has developed over the course of your career? Did you ever receive criticism for engaging with forms of knowledge like magic or astrology or spirituality, and how did you respond—not directly; I mean in your own life and writing, how did you respond?

EW: Oh, definitely! I think this book is very much a product of my feelings about who gets to make facts. That’s something I was thinking about in writing My Body Is a Book of Rules, which is about the documents that defined me and sometimes overwrote my stories about myself. I was very conscious of the veracity debate when I was writing White Magic, even before it was focused on the “supernatural” in the way it is—it was always concerned with ancestry and Indigeneity, because I wasn’t satisfied with the writing I’d done on that in my first book.

The problem, though, is that Coast Salish and mid-/lower-Columbia River epistemologies aren’t easily approached by settler fact checking, and the disruptions of colonization have complicated this further. I have ancestors who had a number of different first names and last names at different points, for example, my great-grandmother was named Abbie but was also named Lucy—I can’t explain it—and she had a number of last names during her life. There’s a lot of conflicting information out there about my family history, and a lot at stake in understanding who we are. For example: some of my relatives were disenrolled by their tribe of enrollment, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon, and the history of our family in the 19th century became very important in the battle over disenrollment.

My friend Theresa Warburton wrote about my work in her new book, Other Worlds Here: Honoring Native Women’s Writing in Contemporary Anarchist Movements, and this analysis really struck me as capturing the difficulty of writing the truth about our history: “My Body Is a Book of Rules use[s] genealogical approaches to self-storying to imagine what a practice of memorialization can look like when it seeks to hold in one space multiple, conflicting histories whose synchronism refuses absolution, either personal or collective. In fact, this rejection of the assumed division between the individual and the collective is central to the employ of such a genealogical method in the first place.”

So that’s one part of it. The other is the astrology, tarot, synchronicities, and the occult. The tension around what’s unverifiable is at the heart of the book: I was looking for some kind of proof from the universe that I was on the right path. But the universe doesn’t give proof. That’s a human obsession, and its importance is supposed to be self-evident, but we so often operate from a place of wanting the trick instead of the truth. Ultimately, the book is factual because it’s true that I believed all these things, and the book isn’t meant to inform as much as it’s meant to evoke.

TM: In “Centerless Universe,” after mentioning a man who was stalking the narrator, you write, “And now—I’ve gone and opened a door, introduced a wrinkle of a plot point, and I will have to deal with the stalking on the page or delete it. Can I ask you to deal with it for me? In my opinion, I’ve done enough. I’ve served as a sturdy container for men’s anger and need, so often overlapping. I’ve disclosed for the curious. Learned to wear my suffering like a mimesis of suffering, a tolerable performance, heart turned human interest story.” I’m interested to know what you think is owed or not owed to the reader when it comes to disclosure. I’ve often heard the phrase, “delve or delete,” in workshops, but you resolve that tension simply by acknowledging it. Do you think that’s usually sufficient, that we can disclose as much or as little as we want in an essay as long as the reader knows we’re aware of what is or isn’t there?

EW: I think this is an under-utilized tool. We talked often in workshop about whether essays were trying to do too much, scope-wise—“I think this is a book” became a joke pretty quickly, if I remember correctly—and I’m also reliably reluctant to tell students that I think they need to split one essay into two if there are multiple things going on. I think it’s always worth investigating why things assert that they need to appear in an essay we’re working on, even if the connection isn’t clear.

But yes—in this essay I mentioned the stalking, which began in 2015, paused in 2016 when I got a restraining order, and briefly resumed when the order expired in 2017. That was not originally in the book at all, and not because I didn’t want to disclose that to the reader, but because I just didn’t feel it tugging at me as something I needed to work with in an essay. The dynamics at play there were similar to those I’d written about elsewhere. In revision, I added the passage you quoted, because it was a significant experience in my life, and it did intensify the hypervigilance I was writing about in that part of that essay. I felt that the reader needed to know it as backstory, but I really didn’t feel like getting into it. So I just dropped it in there like that. Why not? If I were bringing it to a workshop, I know I’d probably be expected to answer for the exclusion—but in a book, the reader gets what they get. If they’re unsatisfied with my refusal, they can put down the book, but if they’ve made it to page 230, they probably won’t mind the scantness of my mention of this huge thing.

I tend to think readers want to know more than they need to know—readers are busybodies, that’s the deal. In writing this book, I came to realize that giving the imagined audience everything they wanted would mean engaging in the same self-destructive people-pleasing behavior the book is about. I think calling attention to this moment was an act of boundary-setting that is a sign of my growth.

TM: Your depiction of the narrator’s relationship with Carl was familiar to me. I recognized (and I’m sure others will, too) the feeling of having a love interest you’re always circling but will never be with definitively. By the end of the book, it seems like the narrator’s extricated herself from that pattern. How did she do that? Is there any such thing as the right person? Will you let me know if you figure that out?

EW: I did that by becoming a powerful witch. I’m being flip, but really, I think the process of writing the book was incredibly empowering, and increasingly so as it went along, because the most ambitious and technically challenging work came at the end of the drafting process. I believe I understood, at the end of it, what’s behind that whole thing about having to love oneself before being able to be in love with someone else. I had understood it to mean that a person wasn’t lovable or worthy until that point. But now I understand that, for me, it meant that I wasn’t fully open to accepting interest and affection I thought I didn’t deserve. So I got out of that by developing self-worth as part of the ongoing process of getting and staying sober, and through writing a book I’m immensely proud of.

I don’t know how the “right person” thing works, but I know I did meet the right person for me immediately after finishing the draft I’d then send to my agent. The next day, I believe. So, yes, I did figure it out, and my advice to you, as always, is to work on your book.

TM: There are a lot of parallels in the book drawn between body and land (each essay is so centered in place), and the violence done to people’s bodies seems always linked to violence done to the land (white settlement is both geographical and physiological). At what point did that theme enter your writing process? Did you already understand that was what you were writing about when you began, or did you write your way into it?

EW: Even though my first book and my chapbook were all about my body, I resolved nothing about the topic, because even as the tension in the plot of my life diminishes over time as I get boring, the thing about being alive is that the body is always changing. The physical effects of various medications have been significant for me, and (related or unrelated, I don’t know) my chronic health issues have intensified. I have a constant awareness of sensations (throat soreness, spinal pain, presyncope, dizziness) and changing characteristics (dry eyes, hair loss, etc.) that potentially signal problems, as I was trying to solve the mystery of my sickness for years. That was actually a much more significant area of inquiry when I was aimlessly researching in the early 2010s as I tried to find my way toward a book. I was gathering research on the health impacts of intergenerational trauma. But, as I’ve probably told you many times, not all questions can be answered by the essay, and some questions couldn’t be answered by bloodwork or any other tool I had available to me. The illness just had to get worse, which didn’t happen until last year.

Anyway. The body was always there, and so was the violence. I was sick with alcoholism during the years I tried to write my second book but failed. I think that absence of meaning-making through essay is part of the book, somehow.

It did take me about eight years to fully understand what had happened in my relationship with “Henry” and how it had affected me. Sometimes I write from the middle of things, but sometimes I just can’t, because I don’t know I’m inside a narrative at all. This was one of those things.

TM: It seems like you gave yourself permission, in this book, to include all the sources and threads you wanted to. In terms of style, it’s pretty maximalist and meandering, while your previous two books felt more tightly constrained. There’s been an overemphasis on spareness in white Western literature, in the past (and now), and as I think about style and form in the context of your book, it makes me think about how a text, like a body, or a landscape, can be settled and straightened and made to conform. Can I indulge in a Billy-Ray Belcourt quote here? Is that allowed? “There is an art to spinning words so that they are always-already against the monotony of voice and for the polyphony of political speak. This is the terrain of NDN writing. It always has been and always will be […] Simplicity is a mode of being in the world available to those enmeshed in white structures of feeling.” I guess the subject matter and purpose of each book has to determine its form. Starvation Mode thinks about the body and consumption in terms of restrictions and rules, so it made sense for it to be spare and highly structured. How do you think the subject matter of this book helped shape its style and form?

EW: This interview is a Billy-Ray Belcourt fan page. Your observation about style is so interesting, because I think of the book as maximalist in terms of content, but minimalist stylistically. This is because I was trying to get the manuscript under 100,000 words without making any major cuts. My last revision before my agent went out with the book was focused on examining every single sentence to see how I could trim them.

But I might be thinking of something as a matter of form that you’re thinking of as a matter of style. As you know, I don’t have a lot to say about style: I don’t teach it, I don’t have words for it, but of course it matters to me. It’s just that it’s largely intuitive and sonic, an internal sense of my own voice.

At some point, I got it into my head that I wanted to write a book as long as a Franzen novel, because I know he’s allowed to and the conventional wisdom said I wasn’t. Of course, I know that’s because the length of a book is a material consideration, and thus a financial one, and I know Franzen’s audience is much larger than mine. But all that aside, I get the sense that a 125,000-word novel is more acceptable than a 125,000-word memoir or essay collection. Why is that? I mean, I know why.

So yes: I believe I used to have a nearly imperceptible feeling that I was always taking up too much space. I would pull my arms close to me if walking near someone in a hallway. Or cross my legs at both the thigh and ankle if sitting on public transportation. My legs won’t actually do that anymore, I just learned when I tried it. And my relationship with space is different now that I never leave the house, and everyone has a different relationship with space now.

In my house, I sit wherever I want, and I take up space. Nobody is going to occupy the space around me the way men sometimes do in public, manspreading on public transit or getting too close to me in the elevator, making a claim on space that I can’t. The house is my space. I think of the book as being like a house in many ways, that one included. And I decided to make it as long as I needed and, beyond aesthetic considerations, to only cut when I was told I had to rather than limiting the length in anticipation of being told to. I did end up cutting, but not just for the sake of shortening the book. Tin House found ways to keep the book under 500 pages. 

TM: What have you read lately that you want others to read?

EW: Well, it is thesis defense time, and I got to be the second reader for Mia Santiago’s brilliant thesis, a collection of essays I hope everyone will get to read in book form sooner rather than later. I’ve mostly read unpublished work lately, and my to-read pile is more like 12 piles; the coffee table is stacked high with books. Soon I intend to read all of them, including Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey; Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls by Nina Renata Aron; Night Rooms by Gina Nutt; The Witch of Eye by Kathryn Nuernberger; Carry by Toni Jensen, Subdivision by J. Robert Lennon; Dog Flowers by Danielle Geller; Pedro’s Theory by Marcos Gonsalez.

TM: I’ve seen you joke on Twitter that your next book is going to be much longer than this one. What’s next for you, in terms of projects?

EW: Oh my god, did I say that? I really think I just want a book as long as a Franzen novel, but I don’t know whether this one will be it. I’m working on essays about living between apocalypses. Right now I’m interested in the stock market. Something weird is happening. Perhaps it always is, and I’m just paying attention now. But I will say that this is the first time in history that a cryptocurrency created as a joke and based on a meme about a dog with a weird look on its face has spiked 400 percent in a single week. Where is the personal essay in this? I’m not disclosing my position yet, but I do not own any Dogecoin.