Jamel Brinkley’s nuanced debut A Lucky Man collects nine short stories set in places the author knows very intimately: Brooklyn and the Bronx. The writer grew up in these diverse neighborhoods and years later immersed himself in the lives of men and women to create these powerful stories that have been featured in a variety of publications, including the forthcoming The Best American Short Stories 2018 collection edited by Roxane Gay. The writer’s work explores many aspects of what it means to be person of color in America today, including masculinity and social class. I corresponded with the author about how the collection evolved, what New York City means to him, and what to expect from him in the future. The Millions: These stories take place in New York City, which feels like its own character at times throughout the collection. Why was capturing the city you grew up in so vital for this collection? Jamel Brinkley: I'm guessing here, or trying to make sense of things retrospectively, but I think one thing that must have been in my mind as I worked on the stories in this collection was the violence of gentrification and the way it has been rapidly changing New York City and the lives of many of the people who have lived here. (I'm in New York as I respond to these questions.) The collection begins solidly in the 1990s, and by the end, with "Clifton's Place," we come closer to the contemporary moment and gentrification becomes more explicit as a subject, though there are traces of it elsewhere. Also, I've spent the vast majority of my years living in New York, so in many ways, this city is all I knew when I was writing the stories. Seven of the nine stories in the collection were written while I lived in the Midwest, in Iowa City, so I think that distance from New York made me long for it. For all these reasons, with respect to the city, I feel like the stories are a mix of paean and elegy. TM: All of the stories have been previously published. Why did these make it into this debut collection? JB: Well, at the time that the collection was sold to Graywolf, only two of the stories had been published, both in A Public Space. The rest of the stories were placed at the same time the book was being edited and prepared for publication. During that time, one story was added and another one removed. I think the resulting nine were the stories that spoke to each other in some way and could be arranged into a shape that made sense. TM: What about the story “A Lucky Man” is special to you? JB: I chose to use the title of that story as the title of the collection for a few reasons. "Man" just makes sense because every story features a male narrator or protagonist, though "Wolf and Rhonda" also has a female protagonist. "Lucky" resonates for me in a number of ways. I feel like each story in my collection is about an ordinary person, along the lines of what the writer Frank O'Connor called "the Little Man," in contrast to the traditional hero of the novel. In the title story, the idea of being lucky is reflected upon and interrogated. We see that luck can vanish or be stripped away in an instant, and that taking the notion of luck seriously means realizing that it says absolutely nothing about the innate character or qualities of the person it happens to attach itself to. In that story, we also get the idea of luck as an empty, haunting presence. The word "luck" also makes me think of the idea of being exceptional or special. Whether we're talking about kids in school or writers in the publishing world, institutions often regard black people and other people of color by using the scarcity model, which assumes that there can only be "a few." Only an exceptional few will make it out of the hood and go on to live successful lives. Only a special few will be chosen by gatekeepers to become the representative voices of their people. Stuff like that, ideas that I obviously don't agree with. So "Lucky" in terms of that story, and in terms of the collection overall, is tinged with irony, under scrutiny, or under erasure. At the same time, that word suggests some kind of happiness, and in that sense I want to embrace it without irony. My hope is that the moments of happiness and joy, however fleeting, feel authentic in the collection. [millions_ad] TM: Though this is your debut collection, your name and stories have been floating around for a while. What lessons or skills have you learned throughout the years that make your writing so special that you wish you knew right when you started? JB: I wish I knew that experiencing resistance while writing, being stalled in the face of the unknown, is often a good sign, and that lots of easy fancy footwork with prose can often be a warning sign. I've always loved language, and I want my sentences to be solid and stylish, but language in the kind of fiction I want to write has to be responsible to character, first and foremost, and to the world that characters I write about inhabit. When I first started writing, I would get carried away with "lyrical" writing and stylistic flourishes and kind of forget about my obligations to the characters and the story. I would get impatient with difficulty. Who knows how many stories I missed out on writing because I couldn't handle being uncomfortable in that way. TM: What is it about the short story form as opposed to novels that pushes you to keep writing them? JB: I like the density or layers of stories, relative to their length and perceived simplicity. I like that you can more or less hold an entire story in your mind and heart. I like that stories exert a constraint of gathering on you as a writer. One of my writing teachers says that stories, from their beginnings, are in the process of searching for their endings or shutting themselves down, and that feels true to me. Novels, by contrast, tend to feel like they are opening up and expanding. I also like that stories feel like they lean towards poetry. TM: Now that this collection—which thematically explores race, masculinity, and social class—is out, what other parts of society would you like to explore? JB: I think race, gender, and class, among other things, will always be present in my work because there's no way of talking about society without reference to them. But my honest answer to your question is, I don't know. I think I discover what I'm writing about only in the middle of the process of writing it. And that's a best-case scenario. Sometimes it isn't clear what I'm doing, or what I've done, until after I've done it. That's actually the way I prefer to work. I don't want to set the thematic cart before the sentence-writing horse.
What’s the state of flash fiction today? Seems there’s no short answer. But I asked a handful of author/editors who write and review flash fiction day in, day out (see some of their favorites published at The Millions earlier this month). Their responses are expansive, touching on the difference between adapted fragments and “a real flash piece;” transitioning from nonfiction and poetry; erotic gapes; Carver, Sarraute, Oulipo, and Joseph Cornell; fast-food literature; guerilla literacy; readers as co-creators, and the future of flash’s evolving aesthetics. Nancy Stohlman is the author of three books of flash fiction, editor of three anthologies of flash fiction, and a prominent instructor of flash fiction techniques; Tara Lynn Masih is the founding editor of Best Small Fictions anthology series and the Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction; Lynn Mundell is a co-founder of 100 Word Story whose flash fiction has been published in numerous journals and anthologies; and Grant Faulkner is the author of Pep Talks for Writers and the flash collection Fissures. Jon Roemer: What was the first flash fiction you read? Were you writing it before you knew it as a practice, and then realized it's a thing? Or did you have model practitioners before you first started? Tara Lynn Masih: Yes, I was taught to write in what some call "vignettes," brief scenes that my high school writing teacher encouraged her students to explore… It wasn't till someone gave me Shapard and Thomas's Sudden Fiction that I knew, years later, that what we had been doing in that classroom years earlier was becoming "a thing." Nancy Stohlman: Flash fiction arrived for me in 2007 as I was writing my third novel, agonizing over it like a relationship you really really want to work out, dammit! It was during my MFA at Naropa University—I took a flash fiction class with Barbara Henning, and after so many years of writing more—talk more about this, give more description here, more backstory here, explain this more—it was such a relief to write less. I feel like flash fiction saved me from writing all those novels. Because I never really wanted to say all that other stuff anyway. Six months later I co-founded Fast Forward Press...I read hundreds of submissions and I started to lean into flash with my body, listening for my own voice to emerge. Lynn Mundell: Apparently, I was reading flash fiction long before it was called that since I read Hemingway in high school and then Chekhov, Raymond Carver, and Kate Chopin, among others, in college. During this time I wrote poetry, and much later turned to creative nonfiction. It wasn't until we opened up shop at 100 Word Story that I really started reading flash in earnest, then expanding to include writing my first flashes—a trio of "scary tales" for an early Halloween issue...That said, I really love a good, fat novel! Grant Faulkner: I began writing short shorts before I truly knew flash fiction as a genre. I’m a ragpicker by nature, so I’ve always collected odd things that I find on the streets or in flea markets, and I view a lot of my flash pieces in such a way. Life isn’t a round, complete circle—it’s shaped by fragments, shards, and pinpricks. It’s a collage of snapshots, a collection of the unspoken, an attic full of situations you can’t quite get rid of. The brevity of flash is perfect for capturing the small but telling moments when life pivots almost unnoticeably, yet profoundly. JR: When do you turn to it now? As a writing exercise, or as something that just happens, or with the forethought of achieving something specifically flash? Has your approached evolved or changed? TLM: Flash is a creative respite for me. It's been there through some very stressful times, both personally and professionally. I can sit down at my desk without pressure. I can simply enjoy creating something I know won't take months or years, yet get the same feeling of fulfillment after I've completed a flash piece that satisfies me. Sometimes within the hour. NS: When I first started writing flash fiction I was just pretending to write it—I was basically a flash fraud. My “flash” stories were just cannibalized from my novels and other longer projects and given new titles. And this sort of worked, for a minute, but it felt like cheating (and it was). I think many writers spend some transitional time as flash frauds while learning the form. Eventually you run out of excerpts or longer stories to butcher and you’re forced to do what you should be doing from the beginning—seeing through the flash fiction lens. The switch flips. I knew when I finally wrote a real flash piece and not something passed off as one. It felt different. These days my work keeps getting shorter and shorter. I’m afraid one day an entire story will be distilled down to the letter P. And it will be perfect. LM: I am intentional when I write flash, although my "failed" flashes are probably just exercises or warmups for the better writing. For me flash writing is very challenging but also understandable, because there is a crossover with poetry writing as far as length, use of metaphor, dramatic leaps, and inventive forms in order to deliver a finished piece. I have also returned to creative nonfiction by writing some in flash form. I write anything between six-word stories and those around 1,000 words. It's just lately that I find myself writing longer pieces, although I will probably keep writing flash because I love it and I still have so much to learn within the form. GF: When I get an idea for a story, I always know immediately whether it’s a short short, a short story, or a novel. It’s just an intuitive sense of what form the story needs. The change in my approach over the years comes from my rag-picker aesthetic. I collect words and stray phrases and snippets in notebooks, and often one of those starts to flow into a story. Writing flash has influenced my longer writing. My novels now often move with a flash aesthetic—I like imagining stories in a fragmented, elliptical way—so I think there’s a little flash in all of my writing. I think often of Roland Barthes’s question in Pleasure of the Text: "Is not the most erotic portion of the body where the garment gapes?" It’s an apt metaphor for flash fiction because these tiny stories flow from tantalizing glimpses that lure the reader forward. Writing flash has taught me how to move a story along by implications, through escalating hints, and that what’s left out of a story is often more important than what’s included. JR: What do you think about working with limits, like 100 words? French Oulipo writers felt constraints could be freeing, that overtly imposing them is a way to acknowledge the constraints on writing everywhere. Do you find limits freeing? TLM: I love working with word count limits because it is more of a challenge. It's double enforcement of the rule of concision. Not only do you have to be concise, you have to find ways to tell your story in an even smaller box. I personally don't feel it's freeing, it's just fun and rewarding if it works. NS: We’re working within limits all the time—publishers define a novel as 60,000 words, for instance, so writers write to that finish line. I love the Oulipo movement, it’s a big inspiration to me. Interesting things bulge against a boundary: you can only paint with the color green; you must finish a film in 48 hours; you have to write a story without using the letter E. Beethoven wrote his most important symphony when he was deaf. I think the magic of flash fiction happens because of the constraint. But flash fiction is influenced by other artistic movements, too—the Impressionists suggested entire scenes with just dots and splashes, for instance. Of course people didn’t consider it “art” for a long time, and that’s where politics comes in. Remember that the novel was once considered a vulgar, lesser art form mostly written by (yikes!) women! I’ll quote Yoda here: We must unlearn what we have learned. LM: It's sort of like pruning a bonsai, trying to make this perfect, unique item that can be viewed and absorbed in a sitting or returned to and admired with a longer look. That said, the stakes are high because you can really screw it up if you don't accomplish a complete story within that allotted word count, and there sure isn't anywhere to hide from the failure. GF: The constraints of different forms spark different types of creativity, whether it's a sonnet, a villanelle, or a 100-word story. These "boxes" make the creative act more difficult, yet the requirements of the form force the writer to look beyond obvious associations. Imaginative leaps don't necessarily happen by thinking "outside the box" as the popular saying goes, but within the box. I learned this when I started writing 100-word stories after years of writing novels. A novel is like a Southwestern city. You have so much land to build on that you can just keep building further outwards. Writing a story in exactly 100 words is more like building a tiny town hemmed in by mountains and the sea. You have to be very careful with each element you add. You have to eliminate excess. I like to think of my miniatures as one of the artist Joseph Cornell’s box collages—a poetry of assemblages confined in a frame that is its own expansive world. The condensation of a 100-word story can open up the irreducible mystery of a single intense moment. JR: Most people who haven't read flash fiction presume it's like poetry—like an old-fashioned tone poem, impressionistic and without characters and plot. That style of flash certainly exists and delivers in lots of beautiful ways. But flash fiction can also achieve solid narratives, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. When you read flash fiction, what do you like best? TLM: I like the best of every form. In Best Small Fictions, we've drawn attention to the haibun story. I love its mix of prose and haibun, another challenge. Form doesn't sway me one way or another, it's voice, subject matter, setting, details, etc. The same for any short story. NS: People who think flash fiction is like prose poetry have not read enough flash fiction. Just because a piece of writing is small doesn’t mean it’s flash fiction. For me the difference is a sense of urgency: Flash fiction is always telling a story. A woman at a cafe watching the way the fall leaves shimmer in the sun could be a prose poem or a vignette or even a character study. But a woman at a café watching the way the fall leaves shimmer in the sun—as a man in overalls is sawing through the trunk—has urgency. Obviously there’s crossover. Can’t poetry tell a story? Of course. Can’t flash fiction be poetic? Absolutely. But the answer lies in the driving force of a piece: prose poetry and vignettes are driven by imagery and emotion whereas flash fiction has an almost desperate need to tell a story before it’s too late. LM: I like a wide range of styles, from the impressionistic to the "traditional" stories that are very plot-driven, but for me a successful flash has to have a thrust or denouement, even within flash that is more of a hybrid between poetry and fiction. A favorite impressionistic piece is called "Candlelight," by Christina Sanders, in which the daughters witness their mother glow and then dim over the years as she is thwarted at work, men, and just life. It has characters and moves through time, but this very short flash is told through this one really gorgeous image carried throughout. GF: Although a good short short has a beginning, a middle, and an end, flash stories are built through gaps as much as the connective tissue of words. They end, as Jayne Anne Phillips said, in a breath that takes the reader in and beyond the story. The most haunting stories are those that don't provide answers, but open up questions. I like to think of the writer Ku Ling’s words: "A good short-short is short but not small, light but not slight." In many ways, short shorts are the prose version of haiku. Like a haiku, a 100-word story is an imagist's medium. Every word, every detail matters, but it moves through caesuras and crevices, and like poetry, tone, diction, and timbre can guide a story as much as a rising narrative trajectory of actions. [millions_ad] JR: When people talk about flash, they often mention the modern short attention span. But reading well-crafted flash is a long, long way from clicking on, say, a simple blog post. What do you think about the attention-span angle? Can you make more demands on the reader in flash, compared to longer forms? Can flash fiction be too dense? TLM: They've been discussing the shrinking of the American attention span since the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s. Periodicals back then were publishing many "short short stories," which was the term most of the journals used. So I don't quite buy that theory. Especially since many readers still prefer reading novels. But I do think it lends itself well to online journals and social media, which has helped spread it around the world. NS: I think there should be a special level of Dante’s Inferno reserved for the people who make the short-attention span comment. Is the bonsai tree proof that its creator didn’t have the attention span for a full-sized tree? Basically the logic in the short attention span argument is that flash fiction is the fast food of literature, served up for increasingly dumb and/or distracted readers. I believe just the opposite: not only is flash fiction cultivating a new kind of writer but also a new kind of reader. The reader become a co-creator in the process rather than just a passive consumer. The writer throws clues, the reader lines them up. What the author omits, the reader intuits. I think it requires more intelligence from the reader. And anyone who has tried writing flash thinking it will be easy has usually had a very shocking revelation. Like painting the Mona Lisa on a grain of rice. LM: We have so much thrown at us these days, from work emails that grind through the evening and weekends to a news cycle that brings tragedy right to us even as it is unfolding. That has to impact our ability to focus on the present and to commit to things that take longer to do. But I am overjoyed to report that I still see people reading and even writing during my weekday train commute, and my youngest son, who is 15, read War and Peace over the summer, which he thoroughly enjoyed. Flash is another form to read, not a replacement for people who are distracted. That said, I suppose flash is very well-suited for social media, since you can read a flash on your phone from the many, many online literary journals out there, or even tweet the shortest flashes. I like to think that flash is doing a form of guerilla literacy to all of the people glued to their devices! GF: In this world of more—more emails, more social media, etc.—people’s reading styles have changed. People scan and read in nuggets, and online platforms are largely designed for that type of storytelling. When we started 100 Word Story, we thought 100 words was the perfect length of story to read online because 100 words is essentially a Facebook post. That said, most flash stories shouldn’t be read in such a breezy fashion. In fact, because they speak to what’s left out, because they often border on prose poetry, the reader needs to pause, reflect, and fill in the gaps—to be a co-creator, essentially. JR: Should flash fiction be considered and judged in a category separate from the conventional short story and its traditions? Readers and writers bring different expectations to short stories than to novels, and its traditions have shaped those expectations. Is it helpful to construct a separate category for flash? Does that fit with the spirit of flash fiction? Or should I quit poking at it? TLM: When I dream of the future, I see flash being taught side by side with the longer form. I know some academics still think of it either as a gimmick or as just a really short story. I do believe that there are differences in practice and execution, and just as there are different forms in poetry, there are different forms in prose. Separate it if you wish, but don't disregard it. NS: Absolutely, especially when we start looking towards flash books. And absolutely there are politics involved—for starters who has the power of naming and defining? Don’t forget the term “flash fiction” has only recently, in the last 25 years, given legitimacy to the form—until then all these stories were “marooned in a wasteland” as Susan Sontag would say, forced to compete with much different stories. In 2011, an anthology of flash fiction I co-edited, Fast Forward: The Mix Tape, was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award—but they didn’t have a category for flash fiction, so it had to go in “literary fiction” and compete against two novels! Apples versus oranges. Flash fiction writers are using a different set of skills and writing a different kind of story. A word of caution: Flash fiction is still emerging, still soft in the hands, still pliable, still wonderfully gooey and fresh. And while this stage of emergence and convergence is desirable, it also leaves the art form vulnerable to others who will want to define it, start to put rules on it. It’s exciting to envision flash as mainstream, but there is also the very real possibility that we will lose some of the elasticity we currently enjoy. LM: Flash may be a sister or cousin to short story and to poetry, but it is its own form with its own challenges and expectations, and now standards. As such, we see contests and "best of" nominations and anthologies dedicated to the form, which seems appropriate to me. I tend to read those because it is a sort of curating of the best writers and stories out there, which I might not be able to find on my own. What might be more debatable is what to call flash. Some like to call it short-short stories because that signals that it is not something trendy, which is sort of what flash sort of sounds like, but rather part of the family of storytelling as old as man. GF: I find it interesting that some keep defining the word count of flash upward—from 1,000 words to 1,500 words to 2,000 words. At the same time, the conventional short story seems to be shrinking in length. Journals that used to accept stories that were 8,000 or 10,000 words long now ask for stories that are less than 5,000 words. Maybe the forms will meet in the middle, but a novelistic short story by Alice Munro is obviously quite different than a one-sentence story by Lydia Davis, so I think of flash as a distinct aesthetic, one that lives on the border of prose and poetry, one that requires a different sensibility, so I turn to it as a writer and a reader with different expectations and needs. JR: Who are your favorite flash fiction writers? Who has been influential for you? TLM: There are too many to list. But I'd have to put Yasunari Kawabata at the very top of mine. His Palm-of-the-Hand Stories should be required reading in every English class. NS: This is a hard question to answer, because what is happening in the flash world right now is a full-on literary movement: every flash fiction writer I know is kicking some serious butt. Literature is changing. It’s an exciting time to throw rocks into the status quo and watch the ripples. The anthology Flash Fiction Forward by James Thomas and Robert Shapard was influential in my flash education but the book that finally did it for me was Lydia Davis’s The Thirteenth Woman and Other Stories. I was in Puerto Rico by myself and I read that book and I was like—yeah. I get it.) LM: This may be the hardest question of all, since there are so many excellent flash writers out there! I am going to skirt around any hard feelings by not naming a friend or 100 Word Story writer. I am a Lydia Davis groupie, and an Etgar Keret admirer. I love Jenson Beach, who wrote one of my favorite flashes, "Family." I am a big fan of a California writer named Kara Vernor, whose work takes risks and is memorable and sophisticated. I just discovered Helen McClory after reading her incredible flash called "Pretty Dead Girl Takes a Break." I couldn't find the story again online so I bought her book in order to reread that one story! That's the best kind of flash, that you just really crave and want to read over and over again. GF: Nathalie Sarraute’s Tropisms is landmark collection of short-shorts for me. “Tropism” is a biological term that Sarraute described as the “interior movements that precede and prepare our words and actions, at the limits of our consciousness.” Sarraute sees these subconscious pulses as fleeting and often indecipherable, so we are unable to comprehend them when they happen. I love short shorts because they’re perfectly equipped to capture the nuanced turnings, the tropisms, of life. Image Credit: pixabay.
Feast Days, the second novel from Ian MacKenzie, is narrated by Emma, a “trailing spouse” who accompanies her husband to the Brazillian megacity of São Paulo. Keenly observant and devastatingly intelligent, Emma feels “an affliction of vagueness” about her own purpose in the here and now. Her ambivalence is framed by the country’s political unrest, and the sharp divide between the haves and have-nots—as witnessed in the mass protest over corruption and inequality from behind the floor-to-ceiling windows in her luxury high-rise apartment. Emma’s desire to somehow do something is the central movement of this lyrical, spare, deeply prescient entry in the Americans-abroad canon. Her loss of political and personal innocence is at once familiar and new, darkly comic, and, thanks to MacKenzie’s unerring ear, tonally flawless. It's a superb novel about unrest within and without. Ian MacKenzie spoke with me about the risks (and necessities) inherent in his decision to write in a woman’s voice, what it means to inhabit vantage point not your own, how Feast Days grew out of MacKenzie’s own time spent living in Brazil as a foreign service officer, and how the 2013 protests in Brazil over the country’s extreme economic and political inequality compared to the Occupy movement here in the States. The Millions: This is your second novel. How did the process on the whole compare to that with your first? Ian MacKenzie: I published my first novel, City of Strangers, in 2009. At the time, I was doing freelance editing work to make ends meet, living in Brooklyn, subletting rooms from friends, 27 years old. I'd been working on that book for maybe three years, after failing to publish an earlier novel and leaving a job as a high school teacher in order to have more time to write. I had this whole idea of what Being a Writer meant, an idea founded on received notions about personal and artistic freedom, and which involved living in New York City, keeping strange hours, and remaining sufficiently unattached to uproot myself on a whim. I don't think I was really an adult yet. In other words, I was a cliché. Now it's 2018. My second novel, Feast Days, seems to me to be the work almost of a different writer entirely, and it's inarguably the work of a different person. I'm married, I have a real job that has nothing to do with writing, I haven't lived in New York for almost a decade, and I have a daughter, too, who was born only a few weeks after the book was sold to its publisher. Almost every prejudice I used to hold about what it means to be a writer has been demolished, happily so. When I was working on my first novel, I had nothing to do but write and think about writing and think about Being a Writer. I couldn't imagine anything more important in the world. By the time I was working on my second novel, however, I was writing in what scraps of time I could pick up in and around a demanding job, a marriage—in and around real life, in other words. I think, looking back, that I wrote City of Strangers as much because I wanted to be a writer as because I wanted to write that particular book, let alone needed to write it. I was in a rush to get somewhere. Feast Days I wrote because I had no choice but to write it. As a husband and a father, I have a completely different sense now of what matters. Writing is no longer the most important thing in the world. That's another cliché, surely. And, by the way, I also have a sense for what it's like not to have the time or energy, around the demands of adult life, to read a novel or even two in a week, to give priority to fiction in that way. Perhaps that's blasphemous for a writer to say, but from this knowledge I have an appreciation for what you're asking of people when you send a book out into the world. It's not just a matter of competing for attention in our distracted age, rather an understanding of the place books or any art have—a vital and indispensable one, obviously, but not an exclusive one. In a busy life, those encounters with art perhaps take on even more importance; so they have to be worth it. So I have much more empathy now regarding the way in which a person conceives of herself as a reader, and loves novels, but might not want to read, you know, The Recognitions on a Tuesday evening after work. If you publish a book, it needs to be worthy of another person's time. That doesn't mean that it should be simple or easy or that everyone has to like it. (Personally, I think that nothing makes a book difficult to read more than bad prose.) But it should be necessary. And it should also be really fucking good. And when I talk about necessary books, I'll say here that I think of your novel After Birth as absolutely that kind of necessary book. Its necessity, its raison d'être, just burns on every page. TM: Thank you. I tried. And truth, there are not enough hours in the day or days in the year or years in a life for books that are not “worth it.” More and more I can intuit whether a book is going to bullshit me and waste my time from its opening pages, and I’ve grown shameless about not finishing books that hedge, books that are not tightly written, by writers who feel like mercenaries. There’s writing in service of the ego and then there’s writing in service of exploding the ego. Feast Days is so much the latter. It had me locked in from the first paragraph. You are so open and deliberate and clear and honest and funny and wry and arresting and self-aware. “Our naivety didn’t have political consequences. We had G.P.S. in our smartphones. I don’t think we were alcoholics.” It’s like the entire novel in microcosm. Gorgeous, and deceptively simple. Told from the P.O.V. of an American woman living in Sao Paolo. How did you arrive at this voice/structure/place, and what about the political implications you so shrewdly skewer on every page? IM: The lines you just quoted, from the first page of the book, were among the earliest I wrote. The narrator's voice, her existence, was always there for me. This book began as a short story, something that's never happened to me previously as a writer—a short piece growing into something much longer—and it was because Emma's presence was so clear and large and immediate; she required more space to inhabit. At some point I thought of Saul Bellow’s description of writing The Adventures of Augie March—he has a great line about Augie March's voice coming down like rain and he, the writer, needing only to stand outside with a bucket—because I was so sure of Emma, but the experience of writing Feast Days wasn't like standing outside with a bucket. I still had to manufacture every sentence. What was new for me, though, was how immediately it was clear if the sentence I had just written belonged to Emma, or if it was an impostor sentence. I started writing the book when I was still living in São Paulo. I arrived there a few months before the nationwide demonstrations in 2013, the events that in many ways really catalyzed the political drama that continues to consume Brazil—a president impeached, a former president imprisoned, a large number of congressmen indicted for various corruption-related offenses, just the complete demolition of the country's political class, all while crime and a general sense of instability permeate the major cities. And it's important to note that this is happening in a country whose democracy is still quite young, barely 30 years old, so you have people speaking nostalgically of military dictatorship, which is both extraordinary and not at all ahistorical. A lot of the most consequential political developments happened after I left, in 2015, and so the moment I was there to witness was preliminary—so interesting, because the future could still have gone in so many different directions. Emma's voice is the main engine of the book. It's a woman's voice, of course, yet I've never written something that felt so natural. Somehow, writing as Emma allowed me to juxtapose registers—melancholy and biting, moody and ironic—in the way I do in conversation but have always resisted in writing. And, as you imply, she's direct. She doesn't say everything, and the lacunae, the things she doesn't say, occupy the book's white spaces and serve as frames around what is there. But when she does say something, she says it clearly. She doesn't use a lot of simile or metaphor. She notices, and she remarks on what she notices. She's laconic and sensitive at once. That's why I used the line from the Mark Strand poem as the epigraph. It's a great poem, "I Will Love the Twenty-First Century." It's filled with a kind of epochal, almost eschatological, emotion, yet it's told in this ridiculously cool, dry, bemused voice. And that's how Emma also thinks and talks. TM: It strikes me as potentially problematic that one of the sharpest, deepest, most emotionally and intellectually enjoyable female narrators I’ve read recently was written by a man; probably a different reader would be up in arms about it, but I’m more interested in celebrating your accomplishment here. A good book is a good book is a good book, and this is a damn good book. The rest is noise. Though I confess I did wonder whether “Ian Mackenzie” might be a pen name. I’m very curious to hear about your day job. I admire the way it informs your writing as well as your perspective on writing. Feel free to tell me to fuck off. IM: I certainly won't tell you to fuck off! And as for your statement of the problem, I’ll take it as a compliment. But you're right: it's not what's expected. And I wish I had some great, articulate account of being a male author writing in a woman's voice, but I don't. It was a voice—Emma's voice—that simply began to exist within me. That isn't to say that I wasn't cognizant of the appropriation; I was, intensely so. I'm aware of recent controversy regarding writers' appropriations of others' cultures, sexes, experiences, and my instinctual response is that, ultimately, any writer should have the freedom to write from any point of view. But that doesn't absolve writers from the sin of being tourists in others' lives for the sake of a text. There's lots of bad writing that results from a simplistic expropriation of exotic experience. If you're going to write from a vantage not your own, you have a lot of work to do, both interior and observational. That said, you can write a shitty memoir, too, so it's not as though writing only from your own experience guarantees success. As for my day job, I'm a foreign service officer, a job that keeps me pretty far from the literary world, both physical and virtual. It's ultimately distinct from writing, but, just as any writer's day job or other experiences inform writing, it informs mine; for one thing, it brings me to other countries to live and work, and Feast Days grew out of my time living in Brazil. What I do as a foreign service officer is certainly useful to the concerns of a fiction writer: spend time in unfamiliar places, learn new languages, understand another country's culture and politics, speak with and come to know the people who live there. I'm grateful that my livelihood is independent of my writing, although it's a bit funny sometimes when the fact of writing comes up with my diplomatic colleagues, as it can't help but seem somewhat curious. When I was living in Brazil and the large-scale protests began, in 2013, I was cognizant that I was witnessing something not merely local but arising from the warp and weft of human society in the 21st century. I couldn't help but think of DeLillo’s line from Mao II: "The future belongs to crowds." You see it everywhere, especially from the first months of the Arab Spring. It's the kind of thing, also, that engaging with the world as a foreign service officer deepens and complicates. [millions_ad] TM: Your distance from the literary world makes great sense, given your extraordinarily unselfconscious, intellectually and emotionally honest prose. The writing feels pure and fresh, unafraid of itself. And these tricky questions about appropriation remind me of something Geoff Dyer once said about how he’s not interested in fiction or memoir or nonfiction, he’s just interested in really good books. And incidentally, “Foreign Service Officer” is a great euphemism for “Novelist.” Diplomacy is the noble goal, but sometimes we’re outright spies, are we not? On March 15, the politician and feminist activist Marielle Franco, who came out of the favelas to become this incredible leader, was assassinated in Rio. She had become a threat to the existing political system. Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets to demand justice for her. One of the things Feast Days does so beautifully is to articulate the ways huge disparities in class and privilege define life in Brazil. Do you think things will change? Are they changing? What will it take? Are these hopelessly naïve questions? IM: I like your alternative definition for "foreign service officer." Something I love about Brazil is its idiosyncratic tradition of diplomat writers—João Guimarães Rosa, Vinícius de Morães, João Cabral de Melo Neto. Osório Duque-Estrada, a poet who wrote the lyrics to Brazil's national anthem, was briefly a diplomat; and Clarice Lispector, of course, was a diplomat's wife. To your question, I think things—all things—change slowly, when they change at all, and I resist being seduced by the narrative that the arc of history bends toward justice, because as much as I would like it to be true, and as much as the second half of the 20th century offers some consoling evidence, the arc of, say, the last 2,000 years of human history, or 4,000, shows that we're not on a straight, predictable, or necessarily upward path. In Brazil, where enormous street demonstrations have been a feature of life for the past five years, I don't think anyone would say the changes that have resulted are uncomplicatedly positive. The legacy of the 2013 manifestações is an ambiguous one, and frankly an unsettled one—there's more to this story yet to come. And the same has to be true of the outpouring of public anger following Marielle Franco's killing; perhaps it's ultimately a part of the same story, or perhaps it isn't. Brazilian society is riven by deep fissures along lines of race and class, great disparities that mark pretty much every 21st-century society but count particularly heavily in Brazil, where the wealthiest high-rises overlook the poorest favelas. That's all a way of saying that your questions aren't naive at all, but they also aren't straightforward ones to answer. I mentioned DeLillo's line about crowds; that was something I thought about a lot during my time in São Paulo, as these protests turned into a recurring part of life. My main point of comparison was the Occupy protests in the United States, but what I saw in Brazil felt different. I don't mean to diminish Occupy, but I never had the sense that something fundamental would change because of it. In Brazil, it felt like something was changing, or might, but it also felt like—as Emma's husband notes at one point in the novel—the change to come wasn't something those petitioning for change could control. You see that now, with some activists and politicians blaming the manifestações—or the June Journeys, as they're known now—for leading indirectly to President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment. In 2013, something came uncorked, and no one could predict the course of events to follow. This preoccupies Emma, a feeling she perceives in others of unearned sureness. She doesn't feel sure, even as the world demands that she feel sure of her opinions, her information, herself. Beyond the local and personal concerns of the novel, I wanted to situate Emma's story in this very specific 21st-century moment, when we're only just beginning to reckon with the meaning of crowds, both physical and virtual. It's the background hum of the novel. I don't need to say more about that here; there's plenty of opinion on that subject out there already for those who are inclined to consume it. TM: Yes, yes, yes. This is precisely what I found so glorious and refreshing and truly hopeful in the most earnest sense about Emma’s voice: her refusal to be sure about anything. It’s so much harder to remain uncertain, to not know. Certainty can feel so cheap and shortsighted in general. She’s a stranger in a strange land, yes, but I got the sense that this is somehow constitutional for her. I love her for that. And it’s what makes her such a stellar narrator. She’s one of those characters I would follow anywhere. Tell me what you’re reading, what you’ve been reading for the past few years, what fed into Feast Days, and what your head is in these days? IM: Feast Days has two presiding spirits: Elizabeth Bishop and Joan Didion. Both of them are referred to in the course of the novel. Elizabeth Bishop, beyond what her poems mean to me, is inextricably bound up with the idea of the expatriate in Brazil. You can't think of Brazil and not think of her. Didion is a more global sort of influence for me, the rotating blades of her sentences, the reach of her eye, her precise sense of the dangers of exporting Americans to far-flung locales. She puts her finger on things. Elizabeth Hardwick, in particular her masterpiece Sleepless Nights, gave me a feeling early on for the possibilities of attrition in prose, for what a slim book can do. Perhaps no writer is more significant to me than James Salter. The title Feast Days is meant as a nod toward Light Years, and also Salter's memoir, Burning the Days. Graham Greene is another influence buried deep in the substrata of my sense of self as a writer. He's named in the book, too. I suppose that's to say I wear this stuff on my sleeve. One of the finest recent novels I've read is another slim one, Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd. Not only is it intellectually rich and entertaining, in the way of, say, Ben Lerner’s novels (another favorite), it slyly builds toward a resonant and devastating ending. Outside of any obvious relation to Feast Days, Zia Haider Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know, which I read a few years ago, is, I think, one of the most extraordinary and accomplished novels written in English this century. It's a book I continue to think about as I contemplate the book I'm working on—which is in fact the book I was working on before even beginning Feast Days. Feast Days started life as procrastination, or distraction, from what I believed to be the main thing. I hope to turn back to that in earnest now. Don't you find influence such a slippery thing to discuss? And performative—just like on Facebook, you can't avoid the attempt to curate the presentation of self through references and allusions. But of course it's fun, too, rattling on about the literature you love. So I'll just also mention two books published this year that I loved, Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry and Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil. Uzo is a good friend, and we were able to do a couple of events together around the publication of our novels. His book is like chamber music, dense and woven, all rhythmic voice and concentrated emotion. TM: At the close of the novel, Emma ruminates on the ending of Rossellini’s Journey to Italy, in which a estranged married couple embrace "out of fear...not devotion." She judges this purported "happy ending" harshly: "their embrace is merely the postponement of something difficult." But there seems to me, in the book's final exhale, a note of grace, of resolution, of acquiescence to her life and her marriage and whatever life will bring. The possibility (or inevitability) of childbearing, in particular, haunts the novel. Does Emma live on for you? Do you have a sense of her trajectory beyond the pages of the book? IM: Emma absolutely lives on for me! I said before how powerful the emergence of her voice in my mind was; that voice hasn't gone away. I think with pleasure of revisiting Emma, in the way that Roth or Updike or Richard Ford helplessly revisit their characters; but, as with Roth, I can imagine returning to Emma albeit in a nonlinear way—a mind and a voice that are Emma's, but imposed into different circumstances, not necessarily flowing directly from the events of Feast Days. I wonder about other possible lives for Emma. Other worlds at which to aim her particular eye.
“They were married on the Day of the Dead, el Día de los Muertos, which no one gave much thought to in all the months of planning, until the bride’s deceased father-in-law showed up in the car following the ceremony.” So begins Natalia Sylvester’s new novel, Everyone Knows You Go Home, whose premise involves the firm rule that the deceased father-in-law, Omar, will only appear one day a year. Those regular appearances give the novel structure but also presented a problem: how to portray a world that had only a touch of the supernatural? It was a craft challenge that took on a moral dimension. Sylvester had to find a tone and approach that honored the natural intrigue of the premise and opening sentence but that also portrayed it as a natural occurrence in the novel’s world and not an exotic caricature of a real cultural tradition. But it wasn’t only the spirits that risked being exotified. Because many of the characters are immigrants, Sylvester was writing into established narrative expectations, not only for fiction but journalism as well, for what might happen to them: through overwhelming difficulty and suffering, desperate people struggle to reach their goal. The focus is on the terrible things that happen to them (encounters with cartels, coyotes, and ICE agents), and this novel certainly has those elements. But Sylvester didn’t want her novel to frame her characters’ lives around them. She wanted to tell a different narrative. An immigration story isn’t only a story of crossing a border, she said. It’s a story about everything that happens afterward, of making a new home. The Millions: How did you figure out the direction this novel would take? It begins with a spirit, and I would imagine that it would be very tempting to use that spirit every chance you can. That’s the direction that Coco went: into the land of the dead. But you went a different direction. Natalia Sylvester: I knew I had these two people who were going to develop this very special and interesting bond. And already there were certain rules. He could only come once a year. One of the things I kept thinking of was, “What’s happening in between?” Even though you have this premise of the story, you forget that there’s the in-between moments of what’s happening. There’s what we think is happening, but then there’s actually what’s happening in between. It just so happened that with this story, there would be a lot of life going on in the year. That’s really what it became about. I had to shift that focus to what’s going on in the meantime and how’s that going to affect what happens when November 1 rolls around, and how is November 1 going to affect what happens in the year. TM: So much of the novel is built around journeys: Omar’s journey from beyond the grave, of course, but also the journeys taken by the group of immigrants in March 1981 and the different travels that the characters embark after they arrive. How did you manage to organize these different storylines? NS: I didn’t intentionally think, let me make these journeys. I actually thought let me just think about their lives once they arrive. For me, when we moved to the U.S., we still had to move around so much. My whole childhood was defined by, okay, we’re in Miami, now we’re in central Florida, and then we moved to the valley. I remember those years being really defined by this idea of “but when will we be home.” For the first 50 or so pages, I was alternating between the time lines, but it got to be too hard to keep track of. It was becoming too much about the timing and how each one led to the next and what note are you hitting on this one and the rhythm of it, and I thought, that’s not really helping the story. So I wrote that one out from beginning to end and then went back and started rewriting the present ones. On one of the last revisions—when I figured I was close to figuring out what it’d look like as a whole—I began weaving them together. A lot of the feedback was about the pacing was off. The first half was a little slow, but then you hit this one point. So it was then about how can you get to that one point, not necessarily faster but in a way that makes it more engaging. TM: Was that revision focused on moving things around or cutting? NS: Both. I went scene by scene and decided are there things that are in two scenes that could be in one. I started condensing. There was a whole perspective that I cut. The coyote, who only got one chapter. TM: Why? NS: I feel like to choose a protagonist is, not necessarily to choose a side, but to say, “Here’s someone who deserves to be heard right now.” It’s not to say that someone like that doesn’t ever deserve to be heard, but I felt that there were all these others characters I wanted to focus on. So he only got that first one, which was really an establishing thing. On a plot level, the chapters with him, if you took them out, you could still figure out what had just happened because of the other characters. TM: It sounds like the decision to cut his sections amounted to a kind of moral choice. NS: I think it is. And I think people aren’t aware sometimes that it is a moral choice. There is so much responsibility to writing. Even when you’re saying, I just want to write a book that’s fun for someone. A book can have the power, while being entertaining, to change how a person thinks or lay the groundwork for it or make them say, “I never thought of that before. Let me delve into that a little more.” So, it’s something that needs to be done very carefully. I know there’s some resistance to that, as if it’s telling someone what to think. People tend to react against it as if it’s censorship. This is art, but it’s a powerful art, and so how about wielding it well? It’s about the craft, too. It’s going to make all of the book stronger. In the revision, it’s a step back, of thinking, what am I trying to say and what have I said? You can never know completely, obviously, because people are going to interpret everything a lot of different ways, but you try to do your best. It was helpful to me to get a lot of readings. The choice with the coyote was the result of a conversation with a friend, who said, “You don’t have to put him in there.” I said, “Well, it’s a lot of different perspectives,” and she said, “Why why why?” And I realized, actually, I don’t think this needs to be there. [millions_ad] TM: Beyond the coyote, there are characters with compelling stories who make only occasional appearances in the book. In particular, I’m thinking of Marisol, who crossed the border with Omar and Elda and who is part of one of the most gripping scenes of that trip. Were you ever tempted to give her more space in the book? NS: She’s one of my favorite characters even though she’s not in there as much. I felt that she was strong enough to be okay with not having to be in the spotlight. She has agency and enough—not control, but this strength that allows me to know she’s okay. She’s got this. She’s got a lot of crap going on, but she’s going to be okay. Even if I turn away from her and leave her alone for a bit, she didn’t me need me looking over her, making sure she’s okay or exploring what’s going to happen next with her. It was important for me for her to be that way. When I did write her, I got all of her. To me, she was very captivating in whatever small bits she was given. We have these immigration stories that are so often all about suffering and hardship. They’re a fetishization of the pain of all these different ways of being human. I didn’t want it to only be about her pain. That’s why I was willing to let her go, let her live her life and just check in and let her have these small triumphs. TM: Did anyone ever suggest that you give her bigger triumphs or add more details about the suffering and pain the characters experience while crossing the border? The novel begins with Isabel and Martin, and in many ways, their story is unremarkable. They live in a nice house, have jobs, have plans for the future. They’re happy. NS: Sometimes you don’t realize the things you’re pushing up against until someone pushes back. One of the things that someone said when the novel was out submission—and it came up a few times—was could it be more bombastic, that we get a lot of these everyday, mundane things. I really got very upset by that. I think this is a story worth telling. When we talk about universal stories that speak to universal truths, they often are very mundane stories except that they happen to be mostly told by white men. At one point, my agent said, “What do you think about this feedback? Should we do something about it?” I said, “No I don’t think we should. I’m only getting this feedback because they expect the story to look a certain way, to adhere to this idea that all life is suffering, that immigrants are border crossers.” I was also equally interested in what happens once you’re there. TM: It’s not like Isabel and Martin have no drama. They’re young newlyweds, and suddenly they’ve got Martin’s cousin Eduardo living with them. NS: Exactly. I wanted to know, what is it like if you’re these newlyweds and suddenly you’re essentially raising a teenager? While I was writing this, at one point I went back to Peru because my grandfather was dying. I went back with my father. I remember we sat in the hospital with him for several days, and I kept thinking about what it was I had missed. You leave a whole country, you leave your home. Immigration also means a death. You’re leaving one life for another. You’re ending this whole life and existence that you had in order to hopefully live this new one. So, what’s the tradeoff. What’s lost in that trade? We tend to think that what’s authentic is all these exoticized stories about suffering. It’s not that they’re not real, but they’re not the only ones. I grew up with a lot of different immigrant experiences, not just in my life but in the people around me. I didn’t think it would be fair to ignore this wide spectrum of experience. I’ve had some family members for whom it was a real struggle—friends for whom it was a real struggle—and others who were very lucky. For me, it wasn’t so much about the physical journey but what happens when you’re here and trying to make a life. What does that look like? One of the questions that has always stuck in my head when I think of my parents leaving everything to come here is, how bad do things have to get for you to leave? I’m about the same age as my parents when they came here, and I can’t imagine picking up and leaving. What would make someone go? It’s a question I didn’t end up exploring through an immigration story but through Omar and Elda and what would make him want to leave her. Here’s someone you love with all your heart. It’s not that much different than leaving your whole country and life and all the people in it. That became the catalyst for so much in the book. That question, what would make someone leave, is really saying to a reader, please try to understand this. TM: What sort of research did you do to find out what would make people leave? NS: At one point, I reached out to my friend group and asked, “If anybody has an experience they’d like to share, please reach out to me.” I did some personal interviews that way. I had conflicting feelings about the interview process. If you have to do it so much, then should you be writing this story? The people I was interviewing didn’t tell me everything, but I felt that if I could listen enough, then I could be able to try to put myself in their shoes and imagine it in a way that is compassionate and understanding and coming from a place of listening. I feel that’s a choice I made in my first novel, Chasing the Sun, too. A lot of people ask, why don’t we get more details about what happens to Marabela when she’s kidnapped. I think that when you’re telling a story, you have this choice about how much someone needs to know. Who are you telling this for? Is it voyeuristic? To get someone to put themselves in the shoes of a person, do we need to divulge all of our pain and secrets? Do we need to relive all of our worst moments for you, or can you just trust that we’re human? Do I need to open up my veins for you and bleed to show you I’m human? That is something that applies especially to anyone who’s marginalized because we get this thrown back at us all the time: Is it authentic enough? Oftentimes that feels like code for, have you delved deep enough? Have you opened the veins? I’ve become very protective of the characters because they’re not just characters. They’re representative of the people I know and love. I never used any actual details, taking someone’s story and reusing it as it happened in the book. I tried to understand the emotional aspects of it and tried to think about my characters and what would happen had they been in the same situation. Nothing in the book is based on people I talked to. TM: What was it like to write Omar’s scenes? On one hand, he’s a spirit, which is awesome, but he also can’t do much. Mostly, he talks, which isn’t inherently dramatic. How did you approach those scenes? NS: I’m so glad you said that! It was hard to write those scenes because they only happen four times. There’s a lot to pack in there. I remember feeling, he can’t just keep coming over to just talk. What is he making happen? What are the results of his coming in? He doesn’t have a lot of power in a physical sense. It ended up being about what he was revealing. The idea of him taking her to the cemetery was not part of the original plan. It came through in the revision process. I thought, what would he want to do on that day. We’re told so often that protagonists must be active, but what does that being active look like? Especially in a world where not everyone has the same power? Does someone who doesn’t have the power to be active all the time, don’t they also deserve to be seen and heard? Also the power of what power and agency look like, what being proactive looks like, how much of that is informed by what we think it looks like. For example, someone like Marisol doesn’t have a lot of power, but I think she’s a very powerful person because she makes choices that maybe are invisible to people or to people who might never know who she is, but I thought, I see her, and I hope that other people do to even though she’s not the main character and rising up against all these forces—because in her own way she is. We frame strength as having power. But isn’t strength also when you have no power but you still manage to maintain your integrity, even though the world is completely beating you down, you still managing to raise this loving child that is going to grow up and fulfill every dream that you never got to have?
Stacy Horn defies death by ceaselessly writing books about it. Although her first book, a memoir titled Cyberville: Clicks, Culture, and the Creation of an Online Town, was about her creating the New York City-centered social network Echo (a network she still administers), nearly all of Stacy Horn’s subsequent nonfiction has centered on death in some way. In a second memoir, Waiting for My Cats to Die, she mused on both feline and human mortality, polled members of Echo about middle age and what they wanted to accomplish before they died, and joined a cemetery’s board of directors. A third book, The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City’s Cold Case Squad, married true crime and journalistic writing: four unsolved cases provided the narrative, but detailed descriptions of the Cold Case Squad detectives and the NYPD’s history still rival anything found in David Simon’s similar classic Homicide: A Year On the Killing Streets. The Restless Sleep was the first book of Horn’s that I read, and it was part of a wave of nonfiction titles I devoured after an epic reading slump in my 20s that I now recognize was the result of reading a lot of modern fiction that I wasn’t enjoying. Books like Horn’s helped me realize that nonfiction, for better or worse, was going to be my reading home. She subsequently obliged my nonfiction habit by producing two more investigative works: Unbelievable: Investigations into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena, a history of the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory and a pseudo-biography of its longtime director Dr. J.B. Rhine, and the other, a deep dive into the history and science of choral singing titled Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others. Her new book is a history of New York City’s Blackwell Island (renamed Roosevelt Island in 1971), the site of several 19th-century institutions in which death was no stranger but rather a frequent visitor. In Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad & Criminal in 19th-Century New York, Horn resurrects the stories of many who have been forgotten, including the missionary who walked a route between all the island’s facilities (including the Lunatic Asylum, the Workhouse, the Almshouse, the Penitentiary, and several hospitals) and talked with their inmates daily; the “lunatic nun” who fought to get herself released from the asylum; and a young girl who received her first prison sentence at 15. Recently I got to have what turned out to be a surprisingly cheerful email conversation with Horn about death, resurrection, community, and, oh yes, fact-checking. The Millions: Stacy, I loved your new book. But it’s full of unhappy stories that mostly end unhappily. Can you tell me what drew you to Blackwell Island? What made you think, “I want to investigate this history of the ‘poor, sick, mad, and criminal’ and spend years writing about it”? Stacy Horn: I desperately wanted to find happy endings. I’m always drawn to sad stories, but sad stories that are mostly forgotten precisely because I hope that by resurrecting these people and what happened, I will bring a sense of peace to their histories, and to the reader. Blackwell’s Island drew me in because I already had a general sense of what had gone on there. I knew I would have thousands and thousands of opportunities to recover what was forgotten, and to use their stories to enlighten the present. What I didn’t get was happy endings. Instead, I’m now a passionate advocate for criminal justice and mental health care and welfare reform. TM: In the book, you follow several personal stories, including those of the Reverend French, who was a missionary to Blackwell Island, and multiple inmates and staff members of the various institutions there. How did you find those stories, and how did you decide on the people whose stories you told in detail? SH: It’s a good thing that research, and the chase, is my favorite part of writing because this book was my biggest challenge to date. Not surprisingly, most of the records for each of the institutions on Blackwell’s Island (the Lunatic Asylum, the prisons, the Almshouse, etc.) were not saved. I was able to tell the stories I did through a combination of luck and perseverance. For example, at the New York Historical Society, I came across a letter from a young woman imprisoned in Sing Sing to a society lady who had visited her once. Something about that letter drew me to the inmate, Adelaide Irving, who I ended up featuring in the Penitentiary section of my book. But there were no official Penitentiary records of Adelaide because none were saved. I had to kind of reverse-engineer her story from a number of other sources, and here I was lucky that any existed at all. Sister Mary, the “lunatic nun” who was committed to the asylum, was an even bigger challenge because there are still fewer extant records for the asylum. Here again I lucked out because I happened to find an archivist nun in Canada who was willing to help me, and the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception turned out to be better record keepers than the city of New York. Reverend French wrote annual reports, thank God, and a wonderful Workhouse warden wrote an autobiography, as did a survivor of the attack on the Colored Orphan Asylum during the draft riots in 1863. All these little miracles helped me to recreate what life was like on Blackwell’s Island during the 19th century. Oh, and remembering researching Adelaide Irving just reminded me of a very proud find I made. After being told that there were no prison records for the Penitentiary at all anywhere, from every librarian, archivist, and corrections history expert I consulted, I found the records for 1883 to 1908 on, of all places, Ancestry.com. I was searching on a generic Irish name, because most of the inmates were Irish, and a number of Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary inmates popped up. I’m sure I screamed. The actual records are at the State Library in Albany, where I’d already looked, but they were indexed in such a way that no one knew they were there. I went back and let everyone who’d told me that they didn’t exist know, but they weren’t as excited as me. No one screamed. Come on! Nineteenth-century prison records, people!! TM: I am blown away by the scope and sources of this book. How long did it take to research it? Was there a point when you knew had to stop researching, and start writing? SH: I never stop researching. When I start writing that only leads to more research. Even when a book is finished and published, I will still keep looking into whatever subject I’ve written about. I still research cold cases and unsolved murders after writing about the NYPD’s Cold Case Squad, and I keep up with parapsychological research after writing about the former Parapsychology Laboratory of Duke University. I never let go. I must have attachment issues. But I started researching Blackwell’s towards the end of 2014. I started writing in probably around the summer of 2015, and I was still working on it this year, right up until the moment my editor insisted I “step away from the computer, Stacy.” [millions_ad] TM: I want to talk about how that theme of never letting go appears in your other work, and talk about your other books, but I also want to ask about something as workaday as fact-checking. I know you are very dedicated to doing that for all of your nonfiction. Do you literally go through your manuscripts line for line and make sure everything has a source, a citation? How long must that have taken for this one? SH: With every book I get better and better at fact-checking. I’ve learned over time that yes, you really do have to check almost every line. It’s insane how, no matter how careful you are, mistakes creep in. It also takes such a ridiculously long time that knowing how much work I have ahead of me I’m always a little nauseous before I begin. I may even cry a little. It’s hard. It’s daunting. But then, once I start, it almost becomes a different sort of treasure hunt. Every mistake I find and correct is like a victory against some possible person in the future pouncing on me and calling my work sloppy. I’d like to add one thing I do that might help other people writing nonfiction. Maybe everyone already does this and I’m the last to figure this out, but I keep a separate timeline for every section in my book. In it I list every fact and where I got it. I started doing this when I wrote the cold case book because I was writing about so many different cases, with so many different “characters,” detectives and other law enforcement personnel, and the cases I picked spanned a half century of time. So I had a hard time keeping track of what happened when, who did what, who said what, etc. These timelines helped me later when I had to go back and fact-check, but it wasn’t the reason I started doing them. Now I am pretty meticulous about these timelines. I can’t depend on them, the timelines are as vulnerable to error as anything else, but I at least know where to go back and check. TM: Your first two books, Cyberville and Waiting for My Cats to Die, were definitely memoir. You followed those with The Restless Sleep, which is considered true crime, and your later books (Unbelievable, Imperfect Harmony, Damnation Island) seem to be more investigative and historical in nature. Can you talk about the arc of your nonfiction writing career, what made you turn from memoir to these other subjects? How is the writing process different for you in these very disparate nonfiction genres? SH: With the exception of Cyberville, all my books are different versions of the same quest or interests, but a quick back story. I decided at nine years old that I wanted to be a writer, and originally I wanted to write novels. Fast forward to the 1990s, when I started Echo, one of the early social networks, although we didn’t call them that at the time. The New York Times did a brief profile of me, where I mentioned I wanted to be a writer and had an unpublished novel in my drawer. The next day I got a call from Warner Books who said they’d publish my novel! Turns out, they didn’t think it was publishable, but they liked my writing and they asked me if I wanted to write about the Internet. My agent said do it. Once you have one book published it’s easier to get another, and then you can try again to write a novel. That led to my first book, Cyberville, and the discovery that by writing nonfiction I could follow my interests and obsessions more directly than with fiction, and with much more satisfying results. And my biggest interests have to do with death and impermanence, and how many stories are forgotten. Every book circles back to this, at least to some extent, even if I begin by thinking they won’t. Like my book about the history and joys of singing. Who knew that would be about death as well? I pitched Waiting for My Cats to Die as a memoir, but it was always going to be about my first serious research into death and the fact that we and everyone and everything we love must die. The Restless Sleep was about people who not only had to die, they had their brief time on Earth criminally cut short, and no one was answering for that. My book about the Parapsychology Laboratory of Duke University [Unbelievable] was supposed to be a fun break from death, but it turns out the lab was established in order to see if they could find evidence for life after death. My book about singing was also supposed to be a break, but our mortality is one of the driving inspirations for composers, musicians, and our audiences. We sing to deal with loss and to reaffirm life. Requiems are among the most moving and profound things I sing. My books are my attempt to defy death and the fact that most of us will eventually be forgotten, and tragically quickly. It’s a mission that will ultimately fail, but it’s like singing requiems while I still can. TM: I know this about your books, and about you, that often the theme (seems to be, anyway) is death. I'd like to draw your attention to some of your own quotes. From Cyberville: “As cyberspace grows, it will only become more and more like the rest of the world. Not an even bigger global village, but a bigger collection of villages.” From The Restless Sleep: “I want to resurrect the city's forgotten dead.” From Imperfect Harmony: "the magic current of potential that comes to life whenever people are drawn together by the astonishing and irresistible power of a song.” Can I put it to you that your themes are actually community and resurrection and so much joy in life that even the hunt for its existence after it is gone is worthwhile? SH: Yes. Definitely. Community and resurrection. I’m not religious, so there is no hereafter for me (as far as I know). I think people who are religious think that makes life pointless and empty, and without the promise of heaven or the threat of hell there is no reason to be a good and decent person. But for me, the opposite is true. It makes life the only point, and therefore it’s much more important to use it well, and to be as good a person as you can and not add misery and pain to anyone else’s life. It’s the only one they get. Spending my time resurrecting forgotten lives, acknowledging past wrongs, feels meaningful to me. It does give me joy, and purpose to the now, and I hope it does the same for my readers. Knowing we’re going to die, how do we want to live? What do we want to leave behind for the people who will replace us to use? What do we want to tell them? I want to tell them: “There was once this girl named Adelaide Irving. She was a lot like you.”
For more than four decades John Edgar Wideman has written novels, short stories, and nonfiction books that have chronicled contemporary American life while considering larger questions—historical, cultural, and existential—that underlie it. His new book is American Histories: Stories, a title could encompass a lot of Wideman’s work. John Brown and Frederick Douglass, Romare Bearden, and Jean-Michel Basquiat make appearances, but the stories are also about suicide and teaching writing, family conflicts, and relationships. The book comes out less than two years after Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File, about the father of Emmett Till. For people of Wideman’s generation, Emmett Till’s story is personal but also universal. Many Americans have talked about growing up with that photo in their houses, and what it meant. Wideman sought to uncover more about Till’s father Louis, who was courtmartialed and hanged during World War II, and to interrogate what his life and death mean for the present moment. That journey and the resulting story, which is ultimately about what our society was–and continues to be–is an example of how Wideman has always balanced the personal with the universal. I began reading Wideman as a teenager and he was one of the first writers whose work forced me to consider structure and genre in new ways, think about how new narrative structures and ideas can be a valuable way to rethink the past. His work taught me to be conscious of the author, reconsider what a novel could be. These two new books are among the best of his career and I would place American Histories as his very best collection of stories. Now in his 70s, John Wideman’s work is as relevant and timely as ever, and he remains one of our best, most important writers. The Millions: Some writers think of themselves as primarily novelists or short story writers. Do you think of yourself or your work in that way? John Edgar Wideman: I definitely don’t think of myself as anything but a writer. Number one, that gives me a lot of license, but number two, that’s really how I think. When I start a piece I don’t start it as a scholar, as a short story writer, as a novelist—I just start writing. I have some things on my mind and maybe I get a couple words down, maybe I get a lot of words down first time through. In a sense, it doesn’t matter. The point is for me to have something that stirs me up enough that I go ahead and start thinking about it and put words down on paper about it. That’s the process. What I come up with, that’s kind of problematic. It depends on where the piece goes. A piece about Nat Turner or a piece about my sister can go in any direction—towards memoir or towards history, and that’s not my choice. I might think I’ve written a piece of memoir and somebody else might think I’ve written fantasy. The labeling is a part of the publication process, the settling in of the work with the public, and I don’t worry too much about that. In fact, I love the freedom of just starting out. That’s the whole point for me. TM: You might sometimes write a book like The Island, which is a nonfiction book about a specific subject, but otherwise you begin by just sitting down and writing. JW: I was speaking to the impulse in me. I have ambitions. If I’m working on a book of short stories and I want to have a couple more, then I’m in that mode. I’m thinking about stories and maybe I go back and read some of my favorites like Heart of Darkness, or Benito Cereno—just to get a little humility and put everything in perspective. [Laughs.] I’m working on a novel. Or I think I have a novel idea. I have a couple hundred pages written so I’m thinking like a novelist. I’m thinking this thing has to have some weight and some heft and direction so it’s a different mindset, a different framework. But it’s the work, it’s the doing it, that matters. Not what somebody calls it. Not even what I call it, for a while. TM: As far as a novelistic mindset goes, I think about your novels and I’ll cite The Cattle Killing, which is both my favorite and I think your best novel, and it does not function and it is not structured the way we think of a novel working. JW: Well, I would hope not! [Laughs.] One of the criteria for me of almost any work is how is this piece I’m reading connecting to similar kinds of material or similar attempts that I really like. How is it pushing those? How is it talking to those other works? What is it doing to try to talk to me about the tradition that I want to be a part of? It’s a kind of community and I want to see signs that the particular work I happen to be reading is pushing at the limits, opening up new doors, opening up new ways of seeing things. I may be paying attention to transitions in the new work that I’m reading or writing. I may be paying attention to characters. What are the boundaries in terms of chronology, in terms of isolation, in terms of context? Is the work I’m reading shifting these things and making them interesting? If not, then very quickly for me, I lose interest in the new work. Or interest in my own work—for a while anyway—until it begins to come into conflict with the borders, with the tradition, and ask questions about limits and tradition. TM: You’ve always been interested in that. One of the short stories in American Stories is a conversation between Romare Bearden and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The way that Bearden used collage and the heart of his work, about changing perspective and ways we think about the work, is important for you. JW: Extremely important. It appeals to me that Bearden could spend a lot of time just holding a piece of material in his hands and looking at it. A literal piece of material, like part of a quilt made by traditional Southern quilt makers. He could hold that in his hand and live with it, maybe put it on the wall and think about it for a long time and daydream. That seems great. How the hell do you get that thing into a collage? Do you make a cartoon of it? Do you cut a swatch of it out? Do you try to reproduce it with a sketch or a painting? And what was so important about that anyway? What about the smell of it? What about the fingers and hands that made this? Is there a place for them in the collage? Maybe that’s what the collage is all about? Fingers and hands. Are they dark hands? Is that a connection? You go from there. I want my interests to be piqued. My imagination is restless. I don’t work systematically. That’s not true; I do work systematically because I work hard. I’m very demanding of myself. I read about Bearden—I read a lot about Bearden—I scrutinized his work, I read biographies of Bearden, though not all in the same week or day. That Bearden-Basquiat story had an early form as an essay for a book about Bearden. For that essay I had done a lot of homework and had been back in Pittsburgh and walked some of the streets he walked, talked to some people who were Bearden experts. Reintroducing me to a part of the city that I thought I knew but had changed over time. Learning all that was fun and eventually some of that got into the story that appears in American Histories. TM: That’s been true throughout your career. There are events and ideas and concerns which you return to in different ways and different forms. JW: I think it’s been that way from the very beginning. I’ve just become more conscious of how my mind and imagination works. I’ve tried to take advantage of that and also prune it and control it and use it to my advantage. And the advantage of the readers. You mentioned The Cattle Killing and it’s a kind of collage. A very ambitious attempt, maybe, to squeeze into one moment the history of two or three cultures and many individual folks and many stories and many epochs in history. [millions_ad] TM: You were saying that your mind may wander and be open to possibilities, but you work in a very disciplined way. JW: Yes, and I expect that in what I read. If not, then very quickly what I’m reading becomes a kind of beach book. All kind of writing is difficult. Any good genre of writing is difficult to do. It takes a certain kind of genius and skill and I respect it greatly. Distinctions are invidious. You read something and it grabs you and you enjoy the hell out of it and that’s that—Thank you, author, thank you, book. You don’t have to put it on the shelf of classics or beach books. It has a lot of qualities that connect it with both classics and books that people read on the beach and have fun with. So I respect good writing, but the stuff that keeps me going, that I want to come back to, has to have an edge. There are certain formulas at work in genre fiction that I get aware of. If you’re in the mood, that’s enough. But I’m more demanding in my reading time. I want to feel I’m pushed. I want to feel that I’m learning something about writing, about expression, when I am taking the time to read books. TM: American Histories is your second book in less than two years. Writing to Save a Life had a collage quality to it. The book was about trying to look at something from multiple perspectives and approaches. JW: One side of it is always the personal. My family background, my history. That’s where I come from. That’s the world I write out of and that is a certain kind of language—or many languages. They connect themselves to that world. I feel comfortable when I go there. And then whatever else happens beyond my mind, whether it’s the Berlin Wall or a sonata by Bach or a question about time, what makes some things visible and some things invisible—all that, it all starts from the personal, from the family. That’s what constitutes me. And then where I take that becomes either a good story or not such a great story or becomes a novel or becomes an essay. That’s freedom. I think I earned that freedom to move in many different worlds by becoming more and more certain about where I come from. My specific world even though that world always is changing. Hence collage. Hence at least two very different kinds of elements, the personal history and the larger history, cultural and sociological and political. The context in which I find myself. TM: Your work has always been very personal. You’re not the narrator of every story in this book or most of your work, but I feel like “you” keep coming up. Are you conscious of that? JW: I think what you see is what you get. I don’t want my presence as a narrator to be oppressive. I don’t want to foreground myself in the same manner with the same intensity again and again. I think that the whole idea of a narrative voice telling stories gives me—gives anybody—infinite possibilities. Like singing or like dancing or how you play a particular moment in a basketball game, it’s always changing. I work hard not to be the only character in my fiction or in a particular story, but when you get right down to it, what is a story? It’s a voice recollecting and putting together a narrative. So you start with that voice and how you erase it is just a matter of what, a matter of convention? I guess what I’ve been suggesting is that because I write narratives from my point of view all the time I’m demanding—demanding of other writers and myself—with this infinitely flexible range of possibilities, what am I doing with it? How do I not become overbearing? How can I avoid the kind of cliched methods of disguising my presence that traditional fiction offers? Any sophisticated reader at one level knows, I’m in the hands of a single person no matter what’s supposedly on the page. No matter what’s on the page, there’s somebody telling a story. We all know that. What’s funny is the range and the variety and how we keep coming back to the written word, how we keep coming back to story. The same way we continue to make love with each other. Even though we know where that’s going. [Laughs.] But you don’t, do you? Because it’s Susie this time and George next time or whatever. We know the game at one level, but good art makes it seem like a new game, a different game. One that we’ve never played before. TM: As you were saying that, I thought of your story "Writing Teacher"where readers might assume the main character is you, but by the end, that doesn’t matter because the story is ultimately about other things. JW: Whatever voice is telling the story of "Writing Teacher"—and it may be the voice of the writing teacher—is a conundrum. The forever receding thing here is that you cannot get to the end of. That was fun to try to play that out and attempt to make that very complicated set of affairs—writing and who’s listening and who’s doing it and how you do it and who’s explaining—which is always at work in fiction or teaching fiction, seem simple. TM: I’ve never thought of your books as simple, but I also don’t think of as hard. JW: Thank goodness. [Laughs.] I want more readers like you! TM: There was a very nice profile of you in The New York Times Magazine last year and part of it was about you being solitary and alone. Do you feel that way? Or is this what random journalists and essayists say about you for whatever reason? JW: Who knows? That’s another sort of writing and another set of conventions that people fall into. I enjoyed the writer of that piece. I enjoyed his company. We had a good time. He was a good reader and respectful and I respected him. We had a good walk, we had a good meal. All that was cool. I think maybe that’s why you liked the piece because it was produced from a sincere conversation that we both contributed to and had fun doing. A demanding conversation, however. But to your question, I am a solitary. I spend a hell of a lot of time writing in a room shut up with just myself. And when I’m not doing that I spend a hell of a lot of time walking alone. Hours. At this stage of my life I enjoy it. On the other hand, I depend very much on my wife, I call my family all the time, I travel to see people. But I think it’s inevitable as you age. Your family and friends are both the living and the dead. That’s kind of the hard truth. People are melting away and leaving all the time. So rather than protest too much, I think I’m just trying to accommodate myself to the way things happen to be. We’re born alone and we die alone and that’s unavoidable. But I like to have fun. I like to talk, I like to hang out, I love the company of my wife and friends. If you read a lot of my fiction, it’s about loneliness. It’s about wanting what is not available a lot of the time—a person, a place, a thing. But it’s also I think about sociability, about playing a game, about a crowd of guys on a playground. The ones who are playing and the ones who aren’t create a community and these communities are very, very important to me. Whether they’re in the past or whether I’m living in them right now. TM: One reason I ask is simply because so many profiles of writers seemed stunned to discover that the job involves being alone so much. There is a lot of loneliness in your work, but as you said, we’re born alone and we die alone. JW: I think the time I spend alone is more unusual than a lot of the time people spend looking at a phone or listening to a phone and talking with it. That’s not my thing. I’m not that generation. That seems to me a much more deeper kind of loneliness comes out of those sort of interactions. If I grew up that way I probably wouldn’t feel that way. Or feel so alienated from that experience of you and your phone or you and your screen. So I take walks. I don’t have earphones and I don’t keep the phone on. But I’m trying to do the same thing people do when they pick up those phones, I guess. Amuse myself and be in the world.
Lucas Mann is interested in everything. Sincerely. His first book Class A followed a minor league baseball team in rural Iowa but was really a mediation on small-town Americana. His second book was an in-depth exploration of who exactly his charismatic and ambitious brother was before a heroin overdose killed him. Now, he’s written about his relationship with his wife and how sharing an interest in reality television brought them closer together. Captive Audience is a loosely structured set of essays that move between time and location and seeks connection and meaning in our lives. Mann has always had a keen eye for what makes people tick and now he turns it inward to explore his own desires. All of his books, regardless of subject matter, have an undeniable wit underlining his writing, and this love letter of a book is no different. I chatted with Mann about what draws society to reality TV and how watching it is more immersive than watching an Emmy Award-winning drama. The Millions: Captive Audience tracks your relationship with your wife and reality TV over the course of numerous years. How did you know this was going to be a book? Lucas Mann: I didn’t. There was a vague idea in mind about writing a book about watching reality TV. It was almost a challenge to set for myself to write about something I’m very interested in. This was sort of my white whale. A lot of the watching was just reruns we happened to be watching when I knew I was writing the book and some of it was just memories of scenes that were stuck in my mind. Later on, if that scene was sticking in the narrative I could go back to find it. I debated between going out and finding shows that fit my cultural criticism narrative or just using these things that happened to pop up in my life. I went with the latter. TM: What is it about reality TV that made it become your white whale? LM: The origin story was that when I was still in graduate school in Iowa, an award-winning author did a reading and one of the compliments from the audience was about how it took place in modern times, but could take place in any time because it felt so detached from the modern. The writer said you want your writing to be timeless. He put out an example of not wanting to read a novel about Britney Spears breaking down on TV or something. I was in the audience saying how I totally want to read that novel. I wanted to write about these things that were so culturally relevant, but how they interact with your own personal narrative. When I looked at it in my own life I looked at how much shared time and meaningful time with my wife has this actually taken up. People say this sort of TV doesn’t resonate, but if it didn’t resonate, then what the hell was I doing? TM: What do you think draws people to reality TV either as a real pleasure or a guilty pleasure? LM: I feel like the book was a project the figure out that answer. One of the interesting things is the relationship between pleasure and guilty pleasure. How guilty pleasure is such an easy phrase for people to describe things while others like Chuck Klosterman have pushed against. For me, a lot of the pleasure is in the guilt. It's an active pleasure where you passively watch these things happen, but then also question what they are doing. Should I turn it off? Why do I remember this fact about this random person on this TV show? For a lot of people, you’re constantly negotiating what you're doing and why you like this show. It feels easy to watch, but then, on the other hand, is complex. Television has been elevated to an art form. You can watch 12 straight episodes of Westworld and feel like you’ve done something important. Whatever this low culture anxiety has been removed. However, reality TV still functions as this lowbrow piece of culture. TM: For me, I was always hoity-toity with television and never watched anything. I moved in with my sister after not really being close as adults and she said they had to watch Kardashians on Sunday or whatever. Actually, I know it’s Sundays and I don’t know why I’m trying to hide the fact that I can tell you exactly what time it’s on. I ended up getting hooked after a few episodes and had to start keeping up with them because it felt like this endorphin high. I mean, we have these hundreds or thousands of friends and followers on social media, but who is to say those people I never see in real life are as real as The Real Housewives or whomever? LM: I think that's true. Everyone has these relationships with how we get into these reality shows. When people asked me what I was writing about a lot of the reactions were unpleasant, but a few people would say how they don’t watch a lot of reality TV, but there would be this one show. Then they gave this very specific time stamp and a moment they can recall. We always set the scene for these shows more than we would with other shows. Like, this was a moment in my life, my sister was there, wer'e in this apartment living together. Whether it starts as an explanation, it becomes part of the watching experience. That feels like an enormous part about how anyone talks about their favorite shows. From a writing standpoint, that’s really compelling. We can’t even talk about the show without setting the scene of how we watched it. TM: It almost starts as a defense mechanism. “I understand Jersey Shore is whatever, but one time I came home while my male roommate was watching a marathon and we didn’t move from our couch the entire day.” LM: You need to tell the story of it. [millions_ad] TM: I recently read in Psychology Today that more educated people—like PhD students—make up the majority of demographics watching reality because we crave drama as social creatures, but don’t necessarily want it in our lives. LM: I just saw that. I think that's part of it. Nothing emphasizes your stasis or boredom more than watching this over-the-top intensity in someone else's life. Then it also stokes our intellect by constantly making us ask about the implications of what they do and how we would react. TM: I find it so interesting that people pretend they don’t watch reality TV, but once you crack into one of the shows they love, the walls come down and everyone can rattle off four reality shows they love. LM: Right. Then there is always a reason why they watch those shows and not others. When we bought our house a few years ago a realtor mentioned watching House Hunters or those other home buying and renovation shows. The realtor had to follow it up with something like, “…only because it’s so funny because they’re so staged.” That was their thing. Even when I was interviewing reality producers they would say how they don’t watch the shows they produce in their own time because they like to watch people who are good at something because then it’s art and not gossip. There are always these ways we define footholds into things that are important to us. TM: What are shows that you hold close to your heart after this entire experience? LM: It’s weird. I spent all of my life caring about this topic and then researching it was exhausting and stressful. Like I did with baseball after Class A, I am entering a part in my life where I am less interested in reality TV. It’s weird timing. For this book, the things that were always on my mind were always things like Vanderpump Rules. Keeping Up with the Kardashians was interesting to dive into and then out of, then once you were in it again they were still there. They were incredibly compelling and exhausting to think about. I wrote about a lot of The Real Housewives franchises in my book. A lot of that has to do with the shared experiences of my wife and I. Those people came into our marriage for whatever reason. TM: In the book you, mention loneliness, dissatisfaction, and incompleteness. Are those things you think draw people to being on reality TV? LM: I think it’s impossible to know for different people. Part of watching is being invited to make these assumptions about that. For me, a lot of it is just thinking about that. There is an implied combination of wanting more than what I have now, but also the justification of wanting someone to see me searching for me. That’s the tension that is compelling to me. That’s how I imagine it happening at least on some level. One of the things that drew me to write this, was looking at myself after Lord Fear came out where I though, “Holy shit, what did I just put out there about myself and the people I love?” as well as, “Why aren’t more people reading it?” That felt so strange and tense and hard to reconcile with myself. As I was trying to write again after that book thinking about this weird mechanism of self-revelation and then this desire to not be embarrassed in these relationships of things that are intimate enough that they become interesting enough to write about. Especially what you’re willing to give up of that intimacy. TM: This book is subtitled “On Love and Reality TV” and I have talked a lot about reality TV because I’m single and hate love at the moment. But, this is also a love letter in a sense to your wife and your relationship. Why did you choose to frame it this way? LM: I loved the idea from a craft standpoint it feels like everything I have written has had the pretense of something happening outside of myself and my personal response to that. I didn’t know if could go inside something. Also, in thinking about reality TV and how it was something I spent my time, it was always rooted in us—in my wife and I. It became part of this challenge because a) it’s hard to write about a happy relationship and then b) if I am trying to be really honest and do it essayistically, can I frame what I feel so genuine about with this background of shared time watching these things that may not be talked about or not valued. Then at the end, there is nothing to be learned; it was just shared time. TM: With Lord Fear and then this book you play with the chronology of events. In an interview, you said how you think memory just works like that and not in a specific pattern. When you're writing do you just write whatever and hope it makes sense later? LM: Yeah, basically. This felt more freeform than anything I have ever written. Each of these three books has been a move away from a cohesive contained narrative. Class A had a season built into it. I could riff off of everything but I knew the scene would pick up with the team. Lord Fear had a chronological process of me interviewing people trying to figure out more about my brother. I could move around time a bit, but there was still that structure. For Captive Audience, I told myself to take a leap on it and that there wasn’t going to be any structure to this. I had no idea how it was going to look or where it was going to end. It was just to follow this essayist train of thought. I liked the idea of writing these scenes that could be moved around thematically. TM: You’ve written about a variety of topics in your first three books. Moving forward, what interests you? LM: Right now, I am trying to write a novel for the first time. I don’t know. One of the weird things about the writing I’ve done, I shot myself in the foot by not finishing something and picking up and moving forward in that direction. At the end of every project, there was always an "oh shit’ moment. I think now after three books, there are larger ideas I am concerned with. Even though these books seem very different on the surface, there are these questions of performance, community, and connection.
Melissa Broder was famous before you even knew who she was. In 2012, she launched the anonymous Twitter account @sosadtoday. Armed with a wry sense of sarcasm, Broder wrote poignant and irreverent words of wisdom 140 characters at a time. Now with over 600,000 followers, Broder came out publicly as the voice behind the account in 2015 around the time she started writing her collection go personal essays So Sad Today. Her collection, which explored her depression, anxiety, and personal life, was heralded for being an honest look that broke the stigmas of mental health. In addition to that book of essays, she is an accomplished poet with multiple collections out including Last Sext. Even with all of the bylines, however, she never imagined writing a book. Especially one about having sex with a merman. I spoke with The Pisces author over the phone prior to the release of the book as anticipation swirled for her debut about her desire to control the narrative of her depression and writing about merman anatomy. The Millions (TM): A lot of people know you as @sosadtoday on Twitter. So I want to start by asking how do you pitch this book to readers in a tweet-length? Melissa Broder (MB): On the narrative level: It’s about a book about a woman who moves to Venice Beach and begins a romantic obsession with a merman whose tail starts below the D. On the thematic level: It's about the attempts to fill one’s existential hole with the narcotic of limerence, lust, and love. TM: And speaking of Twitter, you started the account anonymously and now you’re public with your identity. I think you’ve been public just as long at this point as you were anonymous. MB: Yeah, I think so. It’s about equal. I was anonymous from 2012 to mid-2015. Then I’ve been out from then until now. TM: How has your life and how people approach you shifted in the past three years? MB: I just had a great conversation with someone about this. It was an article I wrote for Vice with the twitter account Depressed While Black. We talked about the idea of people’s expectations about how depression presents itself in life. People expect me to appear as Wednesday Addams and are probably disappointed that I’m a very smiley person. There are expectations of how depression should look and feel. People also assume So Sad Today is a persona. It’s not a persona. It’s a part of myself that I felt was not fit for public consumption. I think some of that has to do with perfectionism and fear of really being seen. Some of it may have to do with being a woman. But for many, many reasons I felt I could not share these feelings of depression and anxiety. Especially anxiety. It can feel very lonely. If you’re at a dinner with people and you have a panic attack, you feel so alone. A lot of people don’t even know that I am having a panic attack. They just see the smiling. So, So Sad Today isn’t a persona, but it isn’t all of me. It’s a part of me I felt I couldn’t share with the world. I still fear about having a panic attack in front of a person. Or what if depression renders me imperfect in some way. You think I’d cut myself some slack because people know about the Twitter account, but I have not yet given myself that permission. TM: Is that permission a reason you return to these themes and topics so much? MB: Yeah. The thing with depression and anxiety is that it has been very cyclical in my life. I feel like every time it happens that I’m never going to get out. Each relapse of depression feels like it is going to be the one that takes me out, but then I end up on the other side. Writing about it is that one place that gives me the illusion of control over depression. It is the control over the narrative though. It lends itself some meaning to the experience because I can alchemize this feeling and experience that may resonate with other people. That’s why I started the account at first. I was in a very bad place even though I was in therapy, on my meds, and doing all of the stuff I was supposed to be doing. It’s like any other chronic illness. You can be doing everything “right” like getting your sleep, taking your meds, and never missing therapy, but sometimes you just get sick. TM: After the years of running a popular Twitter, releasing books of poetry, and an essay collection, was this always what you imagined your first full-length piece of fiction would be like? MB: I never thought there would be a full-length piece of fiction. I never even thought there would be essays. I thought I was going to be a poet forever. I still am a poet, but what happened was that I used to write my poetry on the subway in New York City. Then when I moved to Los Angeles I started dictating in the car and all of the line breaks started disappearing. It became more conversational and that’s how the essays were born. After the essays came out and my last book of poetry, Last Sext, came out, I had this desire to annihilate oneself in love or the addictive qualities of love. I was writing poems and felt I was writing the same poems I’ve written before. At one point, I was on the beach and reading this book called The Professor and the Siren by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa who also wrote The Leopard. I was never a mermaid fan. I would have selected Pegasus to hang out with. As I was reading that book about the professor in love with a mermaid, I realized how much darkness there was. I thought about what if it was a merman and a woman. I didn’t think I could write a novel, so I approached it the same way as So Sad Today and I dictated. It was three paragraphs a day and within nine months I had the whole first draft. TM: The idea of the merman was really what kicked the book off then? It wasn’t Lucy in an existential crisis and the merman came later? MB: Yes, but Lucy was born right aside Theo. He existed in relation to Lucy’s need for that stimulation. It was why Lucy could see Theo. I was consumed by these themes that Lucy embodies. My first concern was to get this stuff out of me. Then I encountered the siren and human relationship. TM: What was it like writing Theo the merman? MB: I was never a mermaid girl. I was always a horse girl, so Pegasus all the way. If I were going to have a sexual relationship, it wouldn’t be with Pegasus. I would be more inclined to have a sexual relationship with Apollo because he is a twink who would ignore me. Maybe Cerberus the Dog of War. Maybe the Kraken like in the painting “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife.” Who wouldn’t want that? I’ve also been attracted to Ursula the Sea Witch. She’s my sexual ideal. I’d rather fuck Ursula than Ariel. So when I was creating Theo, I knew there were going to be merman fundamentalists that were going to ask why the tail started below the D and tell me this is how it should be. For me, it was just there were certain things I needed to accomplish. I knew Theo was going to have a dick. I built him as I needed him to be just as any fantasy we build as it needs to be. When people ask me if Theo is real I say he is as real as anyone we are ever obsessed with. How well do we ever really see anyone we’re obsessed with? Right? Theo fulfilled all of our fantasies. TM: Okay, so I hate when I ask authors “How autobiographical is this book?” but I am going to ask that. Were you putting yourself in Lucy? MB: I mean Lucy has a lot of me in her and not a lot of me in her. It was fun writing a character who was a little older than me. The book got optioned by Lionsgate and I am writing the script right now and people would ask me who I would want to play Lucy. To me, Lucy has physically always been this librarian I had in middle school named Mrs. Luccia. Mrs. Luccia would play her in the movie. There are experiences I had and feelings I had that are very Lucy. We have a lot in common, but at the same time, there are differences. TM: Your Twitter account is this therapeutic outlet for you to talk about mental health and break stigmas— MB: It’s also an addiction. Let it be clear: it’s also a dopamine addiction. TM: What about this book then? What did it do for you mentally? MB: Similar. Similar. I always need to be writing because just living — and this is probably a fault of mine — living in the moment is not my forte. Sometimes when I am just alive, I forget to live in the moment. I feel like there is nothing is tethering me to the planet. Yet, when I write it makes me feel like — I guess it makes me feel less depressed. It makes me feel like, okay, I can do this. It makes sense why I am here. TM: It helps with depression even when you’re writing so much about depression? MB: Yeah. It gives me control of the narrative. Or the illusion of control. TM: You’re also very funny. While reading this and some of the essays or your work on Vice, I notice you walk a fine line between humor and sincerity. How do you manage that? MB: I first adopted humor to talk about darker things as a defense mechanism. They say to tell the truth but tell it slant. I think humor was a way to get people off my back. I can control the narrative. It’s about control. It’s like I was feeling like this, but I could still make a joke. I also believe that when it’s something I have gone through and experienced that there is no proper tone. There’s something very feeling about humor. Stuff doesn’t seem so big or daunting when we can laugh about it. For me, there is no sacred topic that I can’t joke about. It’s my depression and I will talk about it how I want. I find myself doing similar things. I love making fun of myself when I’m in the hole because then I don’t have to worry about what everyone is saying because I beat them to the punchline and I was funnier than they could be. It’s like if you have a giant zit at a party. I’m not the one to try and hide it. It will be the first thing I say. I don’t want someone seeing something about me and thinking I am not aware. It’s like let me confess to you all my weaknesses so you don’t see them first. Again, it’s the illusion of control, but I’m doing that for me and not anyone else. TM: Now that this book is done and you're addicted to writing, what’s next? MB: I have written two more novels. My agent has not seen them, but she knows what they are about. One is set in Venice, again. It is about a married couple who move out to Los Angeles in search of healing and the American Dream. They become obsessed with their upstairs neighbor. The working title is The Man Upstairs. The other’s working title is called Milk Fed. It’s about a love affair between two Jewish women. One is a very voluptuous Orthodox Jew who works at her frozen yogurt store. The other is a reformed Jew with an eating disorder. The Man Upstairs is on its second to last round of edits I would say. With the other, I’m almost done editing my first round. Since I dictate and don’t edit at all, my first round of edits is going back and trying to figure out what the fuck I was trying to say.
Anya Yurchyshyn’s debut memoir My Dead Parents is a gut-punch, but not for the reasons you might expect. Yurchyshyn’s account runs counter to traditional narratives of loss: after a fraught childhood and adolescence, she mostly felt relief when her parents died (her father in a car accident and her mother, years later, from alcoholism). Yurchyshyn said she had “untethered” herself from her “emotionally distant and occasionally abusive” father years before, and her mother, deep in the throes of addiction and unable to care for herself, had long been a burden. But while cleaning out her childhood home, Yurchyshyn discovered a stack of documents, letters, and pictures that made her question everything she had come to believe about her family. Curious and compelled, she travelled to Wales and Ukraine in an attempt to make sense of her findings: evidence of her parents’ deep love for one another, the tragic death of a child, and even a possible murder. My Dead Parents is an unsentimental examination of grief, and a diligent account of the ways our families shape us, whether we realize it or not. Yurchyshyn and I first met as students in the Columbia MFA program and later in Gordon Lish’s summer intensive at the Center for Fiction. We spoke on the phone about gathering up the shards of a story, writing when you don’t want to, and revising your own history. The Millions: The blueprint for My Dead Parents was your 2013 BuzzFeed essay “How I Met My Dead Parents” (which was based on your anonymous blog of the same name). Did you always know you wanted to spend more time with this story? Anya Yurchyshyn: At the time, it was just that essay, and of course, the blog that had preceded it. I’d always wanted it to be a memoir, but I really didn't know if the story was going to be interesting enough. I had no sense of what people's response would be. With the blog, I certainly had followers, but it's not as though I had a huge audience. It was a little terrifying, not only writing the essay, but attaching my name to it, finally taking ownership. To me, it was really important to do, both so I could kind of claim all the work I'd been doing on the blog, but also because publishing something on the Internet is a really great way to see who is interested. The response was quite big, and overwhelmingly positive, and that was the encouragement that I needed. It was shared by a lot of people in the literary community and agents contacted me. I was living in L.A. but within three or four weeks of the essay being published, I was in New York with something like ten to 15 meetings. It was kind of a Cinderella story. TM: That’s so amazing! What was the expansion process like? AY: To go from the blog to the essay, and then the essay to a book, it really required me getting the book deal. I felt I had kind of reached the limit of what I could do without making a really large financial investment, both in terms of spending money traveling and taking time off of work to research the book full-time, which is what ended up happening. I had been reaching out to people slowly, but because I wasn't sure what the project's ultimate scope would be, it almost seemed like too much of a risk at that point, to invest even more. My fantasy blueprint was actually something quite similar to the blog. I had this idea that there was a version of this book that was wasn't chronological, where readers were kind of discovering things with me in real time, which also means that they would not be learning things in a chronological order, or one that fit my parents' life or my own life. I spent a good month or two really trying to make that work, and bemoaning the fact that wasn’t able to write this incredible, not only non-linear memoir, but one with three different timelines of what I was discovering in real-time, my parents' lives, my life, this and that. It was just impossible. I couldn't even follow it, so I realized that no one else would. I really liked how the blog had happened organically, but then I also realized that what readers need from me as a writer is to actually take charge of the information, and to share it in a way that both benefits the story, and is workable for them. As far as the actual writing goes—I really need to isolate myself when I write, so even when I was writing in New York, if I got edits back, I would email all my friends and be like, "I'll see you in three months." I needed to shut everything down. Like, "Sorry if you have a birthday. Sorry if you have a breakup. Consider me not here." TM: You were also traveling a ton, meeting with long-lost relatives and family friends as you researched the book. Were there things you discovered in your research that you had to leave out or wish you could have explored further? How did you decide whose input made it into the chorus of voices? AY: A very challenging aspect of the book was synthesizing the research and figuring out what mattered, which was so difficult because I was convinced that all of it mattered, which wasn't true. In my first draft, I felt obligated to the information I found, and I included all of it. And it really dragged the plot down, and the pacing and the narrative thrust. But also I somehow got through the entire first draft without writing anything about my childhood. I didn't really see the book as a memoir; I saw it as just about my parents. And my editor really kept saying, "Uh, no. That makes no sense. We need to understand your experience of these people as a child." So it was really after the first draft, which of course took me months, that I then had to cut four chapters and write four new chapters from scratch about my childhood. And that was really hard because I hadn't intended that. I was obviously lying to myself, kind of hoping I could get away with it. TM: It was your blind spot. AY: It really was. And I still had no idea, not only how to write a memoir, but how to write this book, because I didn't know what I was going to find. So even when I was working on the proposal, and working on the overview, my agents and I kind of agreed that the story would end at a particular place emotionally. But the point of this project was that I didn't really know what I was going to find out. That felt honest and important, and ended up being so much more true than I even realized, because what I learned about my father's death, I didn't actually learn until I was almost done with the second draft. And from a writing perspective, it's just like, "Okay, great. Slap on this extra ten pages." But what I discovered certainly changed how I’d conceived of everything, and then I had present these new facts that were pretty...not exactly explosive, but definitely unexpected. I thought, how do I then balance this information with kind of a reveal at the end? It was this really big thing. Like, how do I make everything else as interesting as that? TM: To me this is a book about the manifestation of grief, and how that experience varies so much from one person to the next, but also how it changes over time. Do you feel that, having written this book, your grief has changed once again? AY: A lot of people had really tough relationship with their parents, but I was happy that my dad died, and when my mom died, I felt relieved. And while I'm sure those are somewhat common experiences, I have not found other people who are saying it, and it's kind of a scary thing to say out loud. Plenty of people don't feel that way about their parents, or find it incredibly disrespectful, or think that that is deeply uncompassionate. And they're not wrong; that perspective is very understandable to me. But, it was important to me to be really honest about all of the aspects of my emotional experience, including feeling like I wasn't having a traditional experience with grief, and feeling like, if I don't say that I was happy that my father died, the eventual arc and emotional experience that I had isn't going to have as much weight or gravity because it doesn't matter as much. It's a much bigger journey to go from, "I hated this person." Now I kind of feel compassion for them, or understand them. To being like, "Oh, I was sad." And now, "I'm still sad, but I have more information." [millions_ad] TM: Anne Carson wrote about her dead brother after having not seen him for 22 years—she said, on choosing him as her subject: “He was a mystery to me. He died suddenly in another country, and I had a need to gather up the shards of his story and make it into something containable.” Was that part of your motivation, to know your parents better? And do you think you do, now that you've written this book? AY: So, the easy answers are yes and yes, although by the time I wrote the essay, I had already kind of been blogging for two years at least. I think how I articulated it to myself at the time was, "I need to understand both how my opinion can be so wrong—which I guess is more of a philosophical question—but more than that, what happened to them? And how could I have no real sense of the amount of love that they had for each other, and have no sense of the fact that they were these fully-formed humans with very rich lives, both before I was born, and during?" They weren't just my parents. I think those were the questions, but then what I realized as I wrote the book, and especially as I continued reworking the same material through the drafting process, it was this kind of very basic, and possibly even primal desire to be like, "For better or for worse, these are the foundational people in my life, and I want to understand who they are." TM: Did you have any other memoirs in mind, or was it more just you charting your own path? AY: You know, I certainly felt that I was charting my own path, and that feels uncomfortable to say that. I'm much more well-read in fiction than nonfiction, so it's very possible that something similar exists. I call my book an investigative family memoir—I say it's a family memoir, because it really isn't my memoir, that doesn't feel accurate. I have no idea if that is an actual category of literature. TM: It should be. I like it. AY: I was certainly looking for models and hoping to find one, but I didn't particularly find something I could work with. I would read Knausgård, or Mary Karr, or even Nabokov, and then I would invariably throw the actual book, or my Kindle, across the room, because their writing was so lyrical and they really managed to transform these content-heavy passages in a way that I felt that I couldn't, and it killed me. It got to the point where I actually had to stop reading memoirs completely. Everything I was reading was so good that I found it actually kind of paralyzed me. TM: I love that, though. I think throwing out the memoirs was fine. AY: It had to be done. TM: The epigraph from MDP comes from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason “…the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt.” Did contemplating the unknowable in this case bring you more pleasure or pain? AY: I feel like without realizing what I had done, I had distilled my own emotional experience in the emotional arc of the book—and that was kind of comforting, though I certainly found plenty of things that weren't comforting, that made me feel worse. Like understanding how much pain my parents experienced and how little I was aware of and therefore failed to have compassion for. Not as a child; that's an unfair expectation for a child. But as an adult, that’s something that made me feel ashamed, or made me feel guilty. I was so ready to be done with my parents. When my mom died, I could be like, "Great. Now they're both gone." She was such a source of anxiety and concern for me. I don't have to worry about that. I don't have to wonder about how sad she is, or if she's going to hurt herself. And it was very, very comfortable for me to even say 20 years after my dad died, to still be like, "That dude was a dick. It's great that he was gone from my life. Done." That was the extent of my reflection. And that's gone. I can't do that anymore. And this is, of course, a super-loaded moment, but I received the final copy of my book the other day, and burst into tears. Totally normal response, I think. Not because I was excited, but because I was kind of terrified that this thing actually existed, and was about to be released into the world. But there was also a moment of looking at the picture of my parents on the cover, and thinking, "God, what happened to you both is really sad." I realize just how outrageously limited my previous perspective was. And I didn't know it, but that protected me, and was its own kind of comfort, and that doesn't exist anymore. If I hadn't written the book, I would have been spared that pain. But it also feels really important to me, and I feel so lucky that I was given the opportunity to pursue this information. TM: You’re a fiction writer as well, with short stories appearing in NOON, Two Serious Ladies, Guernica, etc., and your MFA at Columbia was in Fiction. Were you eager to make the shift to memoir or was that a scary prospect? AY: My fiction is pretty minimalist—I feel allergic to adjectives. I would read memoirs, and they're beautiful, and there's all this lyrical prose, and they’re so detail-filled. And my fiction very specifically shuns details. I never describe what someone looks like. You just can't do that in memoir, and I really felt that I had to push myself to get to the level of detail that I felt a reader wanted without sounding really hokey. You know, "The yellow of my mother's dress matched the daffodils." That kind of shit. But I also would...after a certain point, I was writing as I normally write for fiction, feeling like, "This is really ugly." If you read Mary Karr or someone, which is kind of unfair, because she's poet, so much of her writing is...it's all factual, but it's so lyrical. And I really didn't know how to make these work-a-day content sentences that needed to be there interesting. TM: What are you currently working on? AY: I honestly still feel I'm recovering. My brain has not fully come back online. When I feel up to it, I have been revisiting short stories and kind of starting the precept of getting back to that. I always saw myself as more of a short story writer than a novelist, for no other reason than I've never had any idea for a novel that really has legs. But also, I have been quite gentle with myself. For me, the book was so, so draining. I mean, it just really took everything I had. In Mary Karr's book about memoir, she talks about how she knows these writers who have all kind of lost their minds during the process. One of them finished her draft, realized she had pneumonia, and was checked into the hospital. I mean, I got shingles when I was on the second draft. To say that it took everything I had, and often more than I had, is an understatement. There's some terrible metaphor, like I'm refilling the goblet or something, but yeah, super-excited to work on a short story collection, or work on these other writing projects when I’m able to. TM: It makes perfect sense to me that it would be so draining to be immersed in fact, to be, like, making yourself sick every day and sleeping the sleep of the dead every night. You revised your own history. How hard is that? AY: I love that phrase, "revising my own history." That rings very, very true, and I mean, yeah, the sleep of the dead for sure. Of course, with any writing project—I've only written a memoir, but as I've heard from friends who are novelists—it doesn't matter how much you love the idea, or how exciting the characters are to you. At some point, you wake up one day and you're like, "Oh, my god, this again?" And then that's what happens for years. Because that's how long it takes. But one other thing I took from Mary Karr’s book about memoir—and also from my friends who’ve written books—was just how bad it can get. I got shingles, I lost the ability to feed myself. But it’s expected. It happens to every writer at some point in the process. It’s actually kind of heartening to be like, "This will kill you, or come close."
Digest, Gregory Pardlo’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize winning collection of poems, begins with “Written by Himself”: “I was born still and superstitious; I bore an unexpected burden. / I gave birth, I gave blessing, I gave rise to suspicion.” His lines carry a mythic rhythm that originate with the self, and then extend out, as in “Problemata,” when neighborhood fireworks flare emotions: “My neighbor’s teenaged boys argue who possesses the greatest / patriotism. Just as pit bulls chained to their fists imply / their roughly domesticated manhood, / they seek to demonstrate their patriotism with bottle / rockets, spinners, petards, these household paraphernalia of war.” I like when poets write prose. Air Traffic, Pardlo’s new memoir, is a masterful consideration of manhood in contemporary America: the lies we tell ourselves, the struggle to find our own identity in the shadow of fathers, and the sweet perils of ambition. Pardlo is poetry editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, and teaches writing at Columbia University. We spoke about family, poetry, and the stories that, sooner or later, we have to tell. The Millions: Let’s talk about New Jersey, where we both grew up. Your family lived in Willingboro. In 1976, they bought their third home there, and with three bedrooms and an in-ground swimming pool, it “meant the Pardlos had arrived.” There, in one of the three original Levittown communities, your “skateboard reeled in the streets like a length of garden hose.” You don’t live here anymore, but what of this state remains with you? Gregory Pardlo: New Jersey is all of America under a shrink ray. Colonial towns next to prefab towns next to shopping malls and farmland. Crumbling highways and curated bike paths lined with mulch and railroad ties. The McDonald’s is a venerable old institution in my hometown. Things that some might find kitschy or crude I take very seriously (which is not to say uncritically). Parts of New Jersey feel like they’re below the Mason-Dixon line while at the same time being the historical home of the black middle class. My concept of this nation—its flaws and potential—grows out of my life in the Garden State. The Isley Brothers are from New Jersey. (Mic drop.) TM: For a state that gets lampooned for other reasons, New Jersey has quite the literary tradition. You won the Pulitzer for poetry in 2015, and Peter Balakian, another NJ writer, got it in 2016. Is our state good for stories? What is it about New Jersey that might elicit good writing? GP: Stephen Dunn, a literary hero of mine, won the Pulitzer in 2000. William Carlos Williams won in 1963, the year that he died. The list of literary achievements in NJ is long, disproportionately so. Maybe it’s because New Jersey occupies that sweet spot between Philly, representing the aspirations of Revolutionary America, and New York City, representing the talent and dynamism of our immigrant soul. TM: Air Traffic is a memoir that arrives in essays. Each section’s discrete; each narrative feels somehow both complete and porous, leaning into the next chapter. How did this book grow (structurally, conceptually)? GP: The earliest drafts were written as straight-up memoir. I was trying my best to write a book the way I thought a book was supposed to be written. I wrote flat grammatical sentences that I hated and that had no relation to the way my imagination actually works. This went on for more than 300 pages. Out of frustration I admitted to myself that I had no idea what I was doing, and I went hat-in-hand to Columbia’s graduate nonfiction program, begging them to let me in. As a student in the program, I discovered I would much rather write essays that would allow me to think on the page while still aspiring to be literary, as opposed to scholarly. I began to cherry-pick chunks out of that original manuscript and develop them in terms of ideas and themes. My thesis had little more than a family resemblance to the manuscript I brought with me to Columbia. I spent another year or so writing new stuff, revising and reorganizing the manuscript with my agent. After we sold the book to Knopf, it went through another major overhaul. Some of the DNA from that ancestral manuscript is still in Air Traffic, but much of what might feel like porousness or consistency is the result mostly of edits, revisions, arguments, and compromises. TM: Story, narrative, performance, grandiosity: your father’s penchant for rhetorical presence is a theme in this book. “I’d learned at a young age to adjust for the self-aggrandizement in my father’s narratives. Problem was, so much of the way I interpret the world has come from the way he interprets it.” He has many shades and identities in this book, and the metaphor of him as an air traffic controller is not lost—and yet you are the storyteller here. How does your sense of narrative differ from your father? How are they similar? What were the goals and desires of his stories—and what are yours? [millions_ad] GP: If there were some way to chart my father’s narratives and mine graphically, I think the curves would look very similar. They would differ in the sense that my father privileged sound over substance. He wanted to ravish his listeners more than he wanted to convey anything. My father would have been at home among irony-loving hipsters. He avoided public displays of sincerity. Maybe to be contrary, I crave sincerity although I distrust it. I am sincerely in search of truth and revelatory statements. What this has meant for the book is that as I found myself trying to reproduce his lyricism, his voice stayed with me as an editorial influence, amplifying my self-consciousness. I think this had a big impact on the tone of the book. TM: Your father looms in this book, of course, but your mother also comes alive in these pages. You share a birthday with her. “I have always belonged to her, through the infinite umbilicus of fate,” you write. What did you learn, or understand, about your mother from writing this book? GP: Early in the writing process, my therapist kept asking me if I’d written about my mother yet. I realized I was putting it off because I didn’t trust myself to represent her fairly. I definitely couldn’t be objective. I knew I would have to sit down with her and interview her the way my teacher Phillip Lopate had interviewed his mother for his recent book, A Mother’s Tale. The conversation with my mom turned out to be less traumatic than I expected. This encouraged me to go back and look at the places where I had ducked or skated over references to my mom in the manuscript. When I thought I had represented her in a way that honored my own truths as well as hers, I let her read the manuscript. As you know from the book, she’s an artist. She would never tell me what or how to write. When she very gently suggested that I might have been a little hard on her “character,” I knew I had to do some soul-searching. She still gives me a little side-eye when we talk about the book, but I think she trusts that the way I present my own biases suggests to readers a margin of error that she can live with. TM: Before you join the Marines, there’s a great scene in the book when you’re sort of drifting between temporary jobs, having left Rutgers after a few semesters: “More than once I’d stood in line in the parking lot of some warehouse or tool-and-die shop to get a Saran Wrapped tuna fish sandwich, only to find myself overcome by a mild terror when I saw the workaday world rippling in the diamond-patterned stainless steel siding of the truck.” When I read those sentences, we see the poet living in the essayist. Or is it the other way around? What types of stories, scenes, and sentences bring you to poetry instead of prose? GP: Oh, man, that’s a great question. I remember clearly the internal war sentences like that set off in my head. The comp teacher in me was writing in the figurative margin, “how does this advance your argument, how does this help you reach your destination?” And the poetry workshop teacher in me was shouting, “whoo-hoo, we’re going off-road!” So I guess the two coexist, and it comes down to a series of intuitive indulgences in which I allow one or the other to predominate. There are also plenty of passages that are functional in their delivery of data in which I paid attention to the outcome of the argument rather than the pleasure of the language/moment. The goal is to find a balance or synthesis. If I’m trying to capture a nuanced emotion, I turn to poetry. When I suspect there is an insight to be gained that could potentially contribute to the discourse around a particular issue, I bring my essay game. TM: I’m torn between “Cartography,” “Tolle, Lege,” and “Behind the Wheel” as my favorite sections of this book—they are each perfect in their own way—but I want to ask about “Tolle, Lege” since it speaks to poetry. You’re a poet, an editor of poetry, a reader and critic of poetry. You talk about the power of turns in poetry, and how poetry doesn’t require “grand epiphany or catharsis,” but it should feel like “I’ve just survived a vicarious encounter with some unqualified measure of intensity that I could not have created on my own.” Do you look for the same things in poetry as a reader, editor, and professor? GP: The “vicarious encounter” quality is pretty consistent, but each one of those perspectives changes my relationship to the work. As a reader, my needs are self-centered. I don’t care how a poem works for me, only that it does (or does not). As an editor, I’m interested in whether or not the poem rewards re-reading. I want it to work in the moment, but I also want it to work differently the next time I return to it. That way, I can be more confident it’ll speak to a variety of readers who will be bringing various needs and dispositions. As a professor, I want to figure out where a poem promises to take a reader, what route (that is, which “turns”) it takes, and (to triple-dip the metaphor) how close to that destination it arrives. TM: In the book’s introduction, you imply that your story—your life—is still a work in progress. You speak of failure often. Your story, as you say, contains “digressions and indulgences”—and there’s a literary power in your willingness to step aside from your story, smirk, and wonder at what to make of your life. What do you make of it now, as your memoir is set to be released? What does it mean to tell the story of your life—thoroughly, stylistically—in 2018? GP: For anyone to tell their story today is a political act. Our stories are not ours alone. I know it’s popular to defend against cultural appropriation, but you can’t tell the story of a culture exclusive of the cultures surrounding it (and I’m not agreeing that “a culture” is an isolable thing either). And it’s even less possible to tell one person’s story without telling the story of the world surrounding that person. On the one hand, to tell my story is to say, “I exist, and I my presence is relevant and meaningful in the social and political landscape.” On the other hand, my story is necessarily your story. It may be on the lower frequencies, but in a very real sense, I speak for you.