Translation as a Condition of Life: The Millions Interviews Aron Aji

Before I took the translation workshop with Aron Aji at the University of Iowa, I had translated two novels from English to Chinese. Literary translation struck me as hard labor, often times low paying. But Aji’s class turned out to be a life-changing experience for me.

When I began translating from my native Chinese to English for his class, I thought I must be “faithful” to the original text (words, phrases, and sentences) so I wouldn’t lose or distort the work’s meaning. But my initial translations were too awkward to resonate with any of my English-speaking classmates. I had a meeting with Aji in which he asked me to read him the Chinese text. I did. And I was astonished to see that he—someone who doesn’t speak Chinese—could correctly point out the rhythm, cadence, and emphasis of every sentence. He showed me that sometimes I could move away in order to get closer.

I had always wanted to share Aji’s brilliance with more translators, readers, and literary tourists in between languages and cultures. So we had the following conversation shortly before I left Iowa in July.

In this interview, he points out problematic nature of the words “mother tongue:” the phrase is itself a social/ideological construct that serves the power of modern nation-states. One’s command of language is not determined by birthplace, but by practice. He also speaks about our current “Age of Translation,” when myriad speakers can skirt the many gatekeeps in the publishing industry and find new voices, forms, and ideas to enrich our literary world culture.

The Millions: You were raised in a household where four languages—Ladino, Hebrew, Turkish, and French—were spoken. What was that experience like? How has that upbringing shaped you as a translator?

Aron Aji: I was born and grew up in Izmir, the second most cosmopolitan city in late Ottoman period and the early Turkish Republic. A port city, Izmir was home to several Levantine communities, including Greek, Italian, French, Armenian, and others. Practically speaking, many residents of Izmir interacted in a rich translational space because quotidian life, from basic commerce to business, brought them into contact with people outside their respective language communities.

TM: What was a typical day like in a multi-lingual city like that? For example, what language did you speak when you bought groceries?

AA: Our multi-lingual house was located inside the larger multi-lingual city, although by the time I was born Izmir saw an influx of newcomers from the provinces, and Turkish became the language of small trades, say, while buying groceries. Before I attended elementary school, I had significant exposure to Ladino (the Spanish spoken by the Sephardic Jews who had arrived in the city in 1492, after they were expelled from Spain), French (the lingua-franca practiced among the Levantines), and Hebrew (our liturgical language). My grandmother did not like speaking in her broken Turkish and insisted that we all learn and speak Ladino. In my childhood, though, there were still Jewish vendors who paid home visits and spoke Ladino as well. I still remember Sabetay, the plump kosher-wine vendor, who carried the bottles in the many pockets of his large poncho. Of course, our holiday dinners, especially Passover, involved readings and commentary in Hebrew, Ladino, and, for the benefit of the young, Turkish. When relatives visited from South America, we all spoke in Spanish and French. Through formal schooling, Turkish became my primary language but, in retrospect, I think the other languages already had strong formative influence in my life. And beginning with middle school all through college, I attended schools where the primary language of instruction was English. It is fair to say that I always experienced a language in relation to (an)other language(s) since my meaning most often took shape in one language and I needed to express it in another language. In short, translation as a condition of life.

TM: A decade into your American life, you started translating Bilge Karasu as a way to reconnect with Turkey. Why is that?

AA: In my first decade in the U.S., English became my almost exclusive language—in which I taught American students, conducted research, wrote scholarly papers and my own poetry, and cultivated social relations; it nearly overwhelmed my other languages as it gradually worked itself deep into my arteries of cognition. I still remember crying one morning when I woke up having dreamed in English!

TM: It took over your subconsciousness!

AA: Yes. I decided to translate back to Turkish because, without the active presence of another language in my life, I felt I was becoming less critical, less creative, less expressive, in short, a narrower and impoverished version of myself.

TM: Why Karasu?

AA: The author himself is a language artist, a semiotician, a translator from six or seven languages, and a writer with an expansive cosmopolitan vision—the ideal interlocutor I needed at the time. Karasu is credited for pushing the boundaries of the Turkish language and for inventing an authentic literary vernacular with greater capacity to interface with world literatures. His writing is characterized by what I’d call a “translational aesthetics” and therefore naturally lends itself to translation, you could even say, calls itself to be translated. For me, recreating him in English necessitates reconstituting those translingual, transcultural relations that have shaped his work in the first place.

TM: Did you feel you were enriched by translating Karasu? In what ways?

AA: In my ostensibly monolingual environment in the U.S., Karasu’s cosmopolitan voice felt intimately familiar. He drew from literature and languages that had shaped me and that I no longer had natural access to, except when studying literature. While translating him, I think I became much more aware of how I used language, what of my experiences were lost or enriched when expressing them in different languages. The multi-lingual brain has its own reflexes and switches among languages with great ease, but understanding the leaps and stops that happen during these switches helped me get better at controlling them and, I’d like to think, putting the snarl of languages to richer expressive use.

TM: Once you talked in class about the difference between the translators who work from their mother tongues and those who work into their mother tongues. What are the respective strengths and weaknesses of the two types of translators?

AA: Let me reiterate my views on this topic. There are hundreds of bilingual translators who translate into their second language, including English, especially when translating from languages that native English speakers don’t. The so-called minor languages are crucially dependent on bilingual translators. In the end, quality is the best measure of successful translation.

One’s proficiency in a language has little to do with one’s birthplace. Proficiency requires training, study, and practice. What do we make of people who have been professionally functioning in a second-language environment for many years, even if they happen to have been born elsewhere? I would even argue that English, one of the most absorbent languages in the world (because it is in constant contact with myriad languages, flexed and morphed as it is by myriad speakers across the world) obtains much of its richness also because of its capacity for diversity. It would be good to read up on the topic of native-language in order to re-examine our assumptions about the so called mother tongue, which is really a political/ideological construct that has been utilized to defend stratified societies by designating people as insiders and outsiders. For translators—who are dedicated to listening to the world’s voices—such designations should be anathema. I’d recommend two award winning scholarly studies: The Invention of Monolingualism by David Gramling, and Beyond the Mother Tongue by Yasemin Yıldız.

My point is that translation into one’s mother tongue would not by itself lead to excellence any more than translating into one’s second language would by itself lead to deficient translation. As much as I, too, love the poetry of feeling my mother tongue in my bones and blood, I would not be able to translate into it for the very fact that my literary knowledge/experience (the four decades of studying literature and writing about it) has been in English. I owe my proficiency as a literary translator to the considerable command I have obtained of a range of aesthetic and linguistic strategies by immersing myself in—and critically examining and reflectively internalizing—literary works written in English, both historical and contemporary. Likewise, I would venture that someone who translates beautifully into one’s mother tongue does so because of the mature sensibilities and skills one has developed in that tongue (by perfecting it as an instrument and as the substance of art) and not because one was born with it.

Our artistic sector is already plenty regulated by the so-called gatekeepers (publishers, editors, reviewers, award juries, etc.) who consider it their job to let awfully little of the world’s voices to be heard widely, especially in English. So, I say, let a thousand translations bloom. Our hard and often insufficiently understood work is the only way we will widen the reception of world literature in English, not merely because we translate them but because in doing so we also lend English greater capacity to express, and express well, the diverse voices of our world.

TM: In the literary translation workshop at the University of Iowa, we only read and discussed the English translations, in the same way we assessed works that are originally written in English. Is this how translation is traditionally taught in the States? What are the upsides and downsides of this approach?

AA: Your question is one of the most-commonly asked questions for us. Only on the surface, we may seem to read and discuss the English translations in the same way we assess works that are originally written in English. However, our pedagogy has greater ambitions than making translations read as if they were originally written in English. We encourage students to understand literary translation as discipline that combines creative art and critical, reflective practice across both the source and the target languages and poetics. By critically reflecting on the English translation, we always direct the translators back to the original text, back to the relationship or the so-called equivalency they have construed, in order to critically examine their effort, to reflect on the instances of semantic shifts, stylistic inconsistencies, sonic fluctuations, etc. Inconsistencies in register or diction or syntax—which we observe in the English—often reveal a misinterpretation of a characterization or point of view or style in the original. So, for example, when a sentence in the English translation feels overworked, if the rhythm of the clauses feels mechanical rather than natural, or if the diction fluctuates across registers, we notice these as literary inconsistencies, as interferences in our reading experience. And when we ask the translator to walk us through the same sentence in the original, we—and the translator—can detect the causes of these inconsistencies. These causes almost always derive from imperfect decisions in translation. Back and forth, back and forth, we go. The aim is to help the translator to improve consistently in the discipline of translation, which is often practiced in solitude and requires strong and refined skills of self-criticism and self-reflection.

As you’ll recall from your own experiences here, the workshop also affords the emerging translator the unparalleled opportunity to work side by side with equally dedicated practitioners who are as invested in their peers’ development as they are in their own development, since these two are pedagogically interlinked at all times. Because translation always entails negotiating between pairs of languages, one student’s strategy to resolve incommensurability when working, say, between Hindi and English, can provide unforeseen solutions to another student who is working, say, between Italian and English.

TM: What are some of the translational terms that you think we need to redefine or reassess nowadays? What is your view on domestication and foreignization?

AA: As with translation practice, terms and theories, too, need to be approached critically and reflectively largely for two reasons: first, because they emerge in a given time, in a given cultural space, and they would well benefit from reassessment when applied elsewhere; and, second, because, over time, terms and theories themselves can undergo a kind of domestication, assuming a deceptive over-familiarity, that may belie their original intent. Venuti’s terms, domestication and foreignization, are perfect examples, and are seldom appreciated for their original complexity. Whenever someone labels a translation as domesticating or foreignizing, I prefer to ask them to explain what they mean exactly. Translation terms and theories are, to borrow a term from Buddhism, useful means, and without critical reflection, they lose their usefulness.

Let me work with an example. When a translation retains certain words in the original language, is it a foreignizing or a domesticating translation? Often, it is labeled as foreignizing. But which words are retained in the original? Are they truly foreign? Or are they chosen because they are relatively familiar because they can be deduced relatively easily? Because their unintelligibility does not affect the general sense of the text? Or because they have been cleverly glossed in the translation? And how many “foreign” words should we retain so that the translation is sufficiently “foreignized?” There are other, more crucial questions: does the foreignization strategy succeed in bringing the reader closer to experiencing what is truly foreign in the foreign text? Or does it end up creating greater distance? Are the foreignizing elements in the translation foreign to the reader in the target language but perfectly familiar to reader in the source language? Cultural markers—say, names of foods, kinship relations—most frequently retained in the original language to foreignize a translation, are arguably the most familiar to the readers in the original. Any translation strategy—foreignizing, domesticating, feminist, or other—needs to be determined critically, reflectively—in light of the literary characteristics intrinsic to the original and the need to translate them as successfully as possible.

TM: When we talk about translation, we often focus on how “faithful” it is. In your opinion, what does “faithfulness” mean in literary translation?

AA: “Faithfulness” is a very problematic term in relation to literary translation, or any translation, for that matter. For starters, it has a dogmatic character, designating either the original text or a third (often illegible) source or maxim as the sole, fixed, and perfectly transparent source that can authorize a translation. There is no such source. “Faithfulness” is also linked with the general assumption that something always gets “lost in translation.” Well, on one level, something gets “lost” in reading, too, or as any creative writer can attest, in writing as well. Take, for instance, Wordsworth’s famous adage, “spontaneous overflow of emotions recollected in tranquility.” Wouldn’t you wish you could ask him just how much of the “spontaneous overflow” got lost in the “recollection?” This is in the nature of expressive, interpretive arts, whether creative writing or translation. But anyone who has known an accomplished translator will also know that the risk of “loss” is never a license for unfaithfulness; on the contrary, it is the very force behind our disciplined vigilance to achieve the closest approximation possible in translation. Instead of asking, is this the correct translation?, we ask is this translation the result of correct effort?—the result of a disciplined, critical and reflective practice.

TM: This may be a silly question. But readers always want to know which translation is better, especially of classics and renowned works. In your opinion, how can people assess the quality of literary translations if they don’t speak the source language? How do you judge whether the translator’s effort is “correct” if you have no more information than the English translation itself?

AA: As you know, I am deeply suspicious of the terms “correct” or “better.” I’d like to think that no self-respecting, professional translator sets out to translate sloppily. While it is true that the book publishing market seldom gives us enough time to complete translations, I think most literary translation that gets published in English is still very good, thanks to the serious efforts on the part of translators and editors. And, to be honest, judging translations by their “correctness” or “newness,” is also a function of the book trade rather than translation practice. Much of what is perceived as translation criticism takes place in the narrow confines of book reviews, which are part of the book trade and marketing. Likewise, if publishers want to revive sales of a classic, or want a share of the market, they will claim that their edition is a “new” or “better” or “authorized” translation—god knows by what criteria.

The task of appraising a literary translation requires a patient and methodical investigation of the translation process, the decision-making, the re-creative strategies, the intellectual and aesthetic considerations that shape and inform the translation. Such higher-order concerns cannot be addressed through sound-bite size quips in book-reviews; they deserve space and a full-fledged critical discourse similar to literary criticism.

In terms of classics or renowned works available in multiple retranslations, one of the best forms of appraisal would be comparative analysis. When set side-by-side and read with care, the retranslations can reveal the different strategies that each translator employed and to what end. Perhaps, one translation prioritized sound and rhythm while another aimed at contemporizing diction or foregrounding a particular thematic thread in the original that had not been adequately acknowledged. When reading comparatively, we also learn to recognize our own expectations, our own reading preferences. We become reflective about how translations should be read.

TM: I remember the day you taught me to translate “My Poor Girlfriend” by Zhu Yue. After you showed me how much liberty I could take as a literary translator, I suddenly realized that only by being “creative,” was I able to grasp the soul rather than the frame of the original work. But people don’t really talk about the creative side of literary translation. In your opinion, how important is that? How much liberty can a translator take to be creative?

AA: Oh, I loved reading Zhu Yue’s story in your beautiful translation. I think your translation succeeds because you balance creativity with a keen understanding of the original language in the story, especially the humor—which itself holds a slanted gaze at the language in the first place. When translating a text, we don’t only ask, what it means, but also how it means what it means—how it sounds, how it’s shaped, how it evokes feelings, how it brings about its intended effect, how it wants to be read, and so on. Investigating these how questions requires, on the one hand, close reading, careful critical analysis, and, on the other hand, creativity and imagination so that we can attempt to recreate the text, reimagine its body and soul, in the new language. We do so by bearing on the expressive faculties of the new language that are often incommensurable with those of the original language; by reconstituting metaphors, by transplanting the original idiolect in the soil of a new language; by tuning the new language to sing the music of the original. All these operations and more require a great deal of creative intervention, reimagining. Without creativity—measured, justified, skillfully deployed creativity—literary translation would be like whistling an opera.

I should also add that creative license is not a substitute for understanding a text fully and recreating it correctly. A creative solution to a problem we don’t fully understand often exacerbates the problem rather than solves it.

TM: I am constantly enthralled by the many “magic powers” that you possess. One of the most fascinating powers is that you can capture the sound of a language, whether you speak that language or not. How do you do that? How important is the sound? Perhaps many people’s attention goes straight to the meaning of the text. What are other linguistic aspects that we tend to ignore but that affect the aesthetics?

AA: You are much too generous. I wish I had magic powers. Mine are probably well-practiced skills combined with years of literary study. As you recall from our workshops, we approach language on at least five levels—semantic (lexical meaning), phonetic/sonic (sound), grammar and form (physical, visual, durational properties of language), pragmatic (the intended effect), and emotive (mood, tone, pathos). A literary work reveals how it wants to be read on all these levels simultaneously. Focusing only on lexical meaning risks missing out on much of what constitutes the poetics of a literary work. Any unit of text—be it a paragraph or even a sentence—is like a little dramatic play. It has a beginning, rising action, climax, denouement, and end. It packs a great deal of emotion to elicit our response. We must pay attention to its duration, to the event of its unfolding. Understanding its meaning/message, while obviously good and useful, is only part of experiencing the language fully.

It is fair to say that I am quite obsessed with sound. Sound as a total embodied experience. Hearing is probably the most reflexive, persistent, autonomous of our senses. Hearing is also highly evocative. Sound experience entails, often at once, our physio-neural, intellectual, visceral, intuitive, emotional faculties. This is what I mean by sound as a total embodied experience. It is a complex site of meaning-making. We experience sound in three interrelated dimensions: either epistemically, that is, by interpreting sound as signifier of previously stored information in our mind; or acoustemically, that is, by responding physically or emotionally to such auditory/acoustic properties as timbre, vibration, rhythm, pitch, ratio, harmony, and so on; or synestethically, that is, by involving all the other senses in simultaneous associations across visual images, smells, tastes, tactile memories. This last one often is spontaneous and intuitive. A text sounds itself out through vowels, consonants, syllables, punctuation marks, syntactic cadences, and so on. Here is one of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems:
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
I want to experience this poem as a soundscape, by reading it out loud, by paying attention to the movement of my lips, the hollow of my mouth, to where in my body, in my musculature, I experience certain cadences, by imagining tastes, images, memories that correlate with the sounds I hear. My task as a translator would be to create not so much a similar sound texture but a texture that can produce close approximations of the total embodied experiences of sound I had when reading and experiencing the original. I find this work especially fruitful since I am translating from my native tongue (the sounds of which are still rich, embodied experiences for me) into a language in which I’ve studied poetics.

For me, all the levels of language I mentioned earlier converge in sound. Learning to read for sound takes time and patience, but it is a competence that, once obtained, made dramatic difference in my translation practice and, I’d like to think, my teaching.

TM: What is your ideal picture of “World Literature?” What do you think translators can do to contribute to that picture?

AA: In the current era of globalization, we are experiencing a renewed interest in translation since virtually every form of global circulation–goods, information, human beings—depend on translation. Circulation of international literature, too, has gained great momentum as well as circumference. Works travel faster and more widely. An author’s sphere of influence—both the influences on and those of her writing on others—has widened considerably, too. More and more of the writers who hold International Writing Program residency in Iowa City are self-professed global writers rather than identifying with any particular national literature. They read extensively foreign works in translation more than they do works in their national canon. Consequently, literature is emerging and experienced in a persistent state of “border” and “movement,” actual or imagined. There is a dynamic exchange and interchange of styles, genres, narrative norms, the effects of which can be seen not only at the level of diction, sentence, syntax, but also in how they perceive, interpret, and express/represent reality. Times of great movement like ours are always difficult to understand from within, when we are ourselves part of the movement. While David Damrosch and others speak compellingly about “world literature,” works written with keen awareness of the global context, I am not sure that we are experiencing a categorically different kind of literary and artistic production. Certainly modernism and post-modernism were international in orientation and influence, albeit in a narrower “world.”

TM: In your opinion, is there an aesthetic standard of great fiction that is shared universally?

AA: I am happy to leave the question for the critics and writers to resolve. As a translator, I am overjoyed by the energetic circulation or literature. In the dynamic, global context translation has obtained greater significance as a medium through which we are immersing ourselves in the language of the other, in the way languages interact with each other. We are making rich discoveries about other cultures and our own; we are observing how languages/societies shape meaning, concepts of selfhood, otherness, how they negotiate ambiguity and difference, how they manage and adapt to change. And consequently, I’d like to think that we are encouraging cross-fertilization and new creativities. In Bhabha’s famous dictum, “newness” enters culture through translation.

TM: In New York Review Daily’s article, “Your English Is Showing,” Tim Parks points out the growing trend of European novels that are written in a kind of “international vernacular, shorn of country-specific references and difficult-to-translate wordplay or grammar” so that they “would be easily digestible in an Anglophone context.” The same can be said of China and I presume most of the non-native English speaking countries. How do you feel about this current writing trend? What lessons should translators draw from this phenomenon?

AA: To some extent, I agree with Tim Park’s assessment, but, again, I am not sure that the problem he diagnoses is unique to our contemporary era. Every era has had its lesser works that enjoyed wider purchase and circulation. In our era of hyper-circulation, perhaps the great works are, at times, being overshadowed by the lesser and more “digestible” ones. But I’d like to believe that great literature outlasts the vicissitudes of its time, and ours will, too. I am more interested in (and excited by) the new challenges that global literature presents the translators. There is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek question that I use in my public talks: How do we translate a Syrian novel written in Arabic, by a refugee author who cites the Japanese novelist Murakami as her main influence, whom she read in English translation, in Germany? How do we translate the growing number of multi-lingual authors—refugees, emigres, expatriates—writing in more than one language, often coming to literature in their second or third language? How do we meet the growing need for translations across borders, within regions, especially those with histories of conflict and forced silence? In a period when we are witnessing the evisceration of foreign language training in U.S. universities, who should (who can) translate the world’s voices? How do we support the emerging wave of bi-lingual translators (heritage speakers, transplants, etc.) who are no longer the odd minority that I certainly was 25 years ago when I dared to translate into my second language? What are the new forms of translation—collaborative, author-translator, translator teams, etc.—that we should actively encourage and train for? And, as importantly, how do we cultivate a learned, critically discerning readership for literature in translation so that we widen the discourse community around our work and the work of world authors? One of the exciting developments in the U.S. is the growing number of undergraduate-level courses, tracks, and programs in translation and global literacy with the aim to foster this kind of learned readership and more rigorously trained translators. These questions illustrate the magnitude of the challenges before us, yes, but they are also indicative of the crucial relevance of translation in determining the future of global circulation of literature.

TM: Would you give some suggestions for aspiring literary translators?

AA: As with all forms of art or vocation, literary translation, too, requires a great deal of learning, a great deal of practice. Think of a skill that you learned to practice well. It probably took patience, many failures, slow and steady progress, and, as importantly, learning from others who are masters of that skill, whether it is cooking, woodworking, or playing an instrument. Literary translation, too, involves a process of maturation. Don’t be impatient to see yourself in print. Read great literature, read great translations. Take time to deepen your sense of the practice, to widen the intellectual and aesthetic space in which you practice it. Your relationship is not with words, but with languages, with the cultures and traditions that continuously give shape to those languages, and to you.

Image credit: Unsplash/Jelleke Vanooteghem.

All Poetry Is Political: The Millions Interviews Olivia Gatwood

Author Olivia Gatwood’s debut collection of poems, Life of the Party, was a hot ticket at last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, and was published by Random House last month. In addition to being an accomplished poet both in spoken word and on the page, Gatwood is also a Title IX Compliant educator in sexual assault prevention and recovery, and her new collection interrogates issues of the body and sexual trauma. The Millions spoke with Gatwood about the process leading to her first published collection, the distinction between poetry and spoken word poetry, and the importance of feminism and politics in art—and asked for a recording of her reading a poem from the collection as well.
The Millions: Was there one poem, or a few, in this collection that was harder to write than the others? If so, is there a story behind that you’d be willing to share?
Olivia Gatwood: The Babysitter poems and the No Baptism series were both really difficult for a variety of reasons. One, because they both unfold throughout the book, so I had to consider their narrative arc of the specific series as well as within the individual poems and how I would weave them in conversation with the other poems in the book. But also because they are both deeply vulnerable, personal stories that, to be honest, I don’t remember quite well but affected my life in significant ways. I felt like I was investigating my own life, forming a hypothesis based on what I remember and how I felt, then throwing my findings into the hands of other people.
TM: Do you distinguish at all between slam and written poetry in your work? Do you write differently when a poem will be published in print before it’s spoken, or vice versa?
OG: Slam poetry is a competition in which I am no longer active. The only distinction I make between spoken word and written word is that one is spoken aloud and one is not. When a poem is read aloud, no matter where or in what way, that poem is spoken word. I know that seems obvious, but I think a lot of people (often those who don’t perform) enforce this very strict boundary between spoken and written word in order to preserve some understanding they have of what makes something “literary”. Which is often just rooted in racism and misogyny. Anyway, I do think it can be important for poets like myself who were brought up in slam to learn how to consider their work on the page—can your poem still stand up for itself when you’re not there to give it life? That came later for me and when it did, it drastically changed the way I understood my craft. I think poets who haven’t historically performed their work should challenge themselves to do the inverse, too. Now when I’m writing, I’m considering both (performance and page) equally and in constant conversation. I don’t want people to rely on me to read my poems aloud to them. But also, when people come to my shows, I want them to leave feeling like that was exactly how they needed to experience it.
TM: How did you work to strike a balance between the more traditionally lyric verse in your book and the more prosaic?
OG: I studied fiction in undergrad so I think it’s pretty natural for me to tell stories in prose. I love how much permission poetry gives me to write a story, to honor the form that it takes despite genre. I wish I had a more concrete answer but that’s really it. I write the poem how it’s asking to be written and rarely do I try to sculpt it into something else.

TM: This collection mines personal experience very explicitly, in ways that would seem to encourage readers to see its author as the speaker in many of its poems. Do you see yourself as a “confessional” poet? Why or why not?
OG: I don’t really know what it means to be “confessional.” To be honest, I just had to google it. Okay so it means the poet uses “I” versus I guess, writing about what is happening outside of the self. In that case, I’m extremely confessional. Or maybe just a narcissist.


TM: In addition, this collection is strongly feminist and takes a stand against patriarchal values and the representations of domestic violence in pop culture. Do you see yourself as a “political” poet? Why or why not?
OG: All poetry is political. Even the freedom to be indifferent is political. Poetry by white, cis, straight men that doesn’t explicitly talk about politics is political because white, cis, straight men feeling unburdened enough to not talk about politics is political. So yeah, I’d say my work is political.
TM: Which poets working today whose work you see as similar to yours do you most admire, and why? Similarly, what poets do you see as writing very different poetry from yours whose work you admire?
OG: Melissa Lozada-Oliva and I are super close friends and came up alongside each other in poetry—I admire her work so much because she is bending genre in really interesting ways. She’s merging comedy and poetry and performance and challenging her audiences to come with her, which they are. I see a lot of similarities between my work and Kim Addonizio’s. When I came across her book, I read every poem aloud to myself and was overcome with how much of myself I saw in it. I’m endlessly inspired by Ada Limón. Discovering her work taught me more about writing than any class I’ve ever taken. Same goes for Lucille Clifton, Ross Gay, Kristin Chang and Carrie Fountain. I love Remy Ma, Amy Winehouse, Lorde. All of their work is super different from my own, because of genre but also lyrical content, but I turn to their work and their careers for guidance all the time.
TM: What did you find to be the hardest part of putting together a book of poetry?
OG: Building a clear, narrative arc with a bunch of soundbites that you didn’t write in chronological order. Every wall in my house had poems taped to it.
TM: What can you tell us about the poem you chose to read and why you chose it?
OG: I chose this poem because it functions as a kind of retroactive disclaimer for the entire book. It explains something explicitly that I think I’m trying to explain all along.

Women Have Always Been at the Center of Upheavals: Amber Tamblyn in Conversation with Janet Fitch

Amber Tamblyn and Janet Fitch first met at a tiki bar in Los Angeles in 2010, when Tamblyn was seeking the movie rights to Fitch’s second novel, Paint It Black, which became Tamblyn’s directorial debut. Since then, the two have had an ongoing conversation about feminism, politics, history, aesthetics, sexuality, cinema, tiki drinks, and life in our times. This year, both have new books—Tamblyn’s memoir of political awakening, The Era of Ignition: Coming of Age in a Time of Rage and Revolution, and Fitch’s novel Chimes of a Lost Cathedral, the second part of a duet set during the Russian Revolution, which began with The Revolution of Marina M.

The conversation continues here:

Amber Tamblyn: Janet, you have inspired a generation of feminist writers with works like Paint It Black and White Oleander. Your latest book, Chimes of a Lost Cathedral, the follow up to The Revolution of Marina M., is a full-throttle culmination of all the powerful ways in which you have written dangerously as an author, and also written dangerous female characters. What about this latest collection feels different to you than the stories about women you have told before?

Janet Fitch: My books have always had a feminist orientation, girls and women at agency in their own lives, grappling for meaning and a moral philosophy—though they would not have called it that. But up to recently, I’d written about my characters in a kind of isolation. Though they were impinged on by the structures of society, the thinness of social nets, or class issues as in Paint It Black, it was always about the drama of a few isolated individuals. Ingrid Magnussen, the rebel, was the only one who thought directly about the larger political structures.

But in the books set in the Russian Revolution, my young women, especially my protagonist, poet Marina, and her radical friend Varvara, think directly about society and its future, and their part in its unfolding. Women made the Russian Revolution. They were the ones who said, “No more.” When the women say it’s time, it’s time. They were an essential part of the new government—something that had not been seen in the world before, ever. I often use the voice of the bread queue as my Greek chorus, women expressing the temper of the times. Varvara at 19 is a responsible part of the Bolshevik government. Marina at 17 is already on her own, finding an absolutely new way of living in the world. Their friend Mina is the head of household, making decisions that will affect everyone around her. These women are forces in the world.

I think what all my books have in common is that I take the internal lives and moral development of women with utmost seriousness. What’s different in Marina M. and Chimes of a Lost Cathedral is the extent to which they are directly involved in the social upheaval, the way these questions become inescapable.

AT: This is so fascinating and true: Women have always been at the center of upheavals throughout history. We are seeing that now in the United States in politics as well, where women are finding themselves in unprecedented and necessary positions of power—especially black and brown women such as Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—Women who are our nation’s Varvaras and Marinas; agitators and accomplices to the much needed change we have craved for so long.  It’s one of the things that drew me to one of your previous novels, Paint It Black, because it wasn’t just a love story or a grief story or a revenge story—it’s a story about a revolution. In that case, an emotional and spiritual one, driven by class.

JF: What was it that drew you to Paint It Black, made you itch to make it into a film—this gothic-Noir story about class and rage and female connection in the aftermath of a suicide? What made it worth fighting for?

AT: What made it worth fighting for was the fact that I knew it tapped into a kind of volatility and conflict story often not reserved for women characters portrayed in film—a volatility and complexity that transcends how, exactly, women are allowed to behave and be shown on screen. Paint It Black was about the ugliness of trauma, the underbelly of shame, and how complicated it is for women to confront these things, both in each other and in themselves. I find a lot of value and charge in the uglier sides of women’s thinking and behavior, and the parts of our violence that have not yet been explored or told. What do you find most thrilling and most difficult about the writing process itself?

JF: The most thrilling is when you’re writing and the suddenly, the angels sing.  The writing takes you up and flings you into the air. There’s a rhythm and a sound—it’s like flying, it’s like jazz, what it must be to be Miles Davis out there playing a horn solo, feeling the music pouring through you.  You can’t make it happen, but it does happen more often when you’ve been working very, very hard. Something takes over, you find you’re no longer standing on the ground, and that sound is coming through you. It’s the most glorious feeling, Like the Muse is breathing through you, through your hands.

The hardest is when you find that you’ve written yourself into a dead end, it’s not going to work, it’s never going to work, and you have to tear it all out back to the crossroads, where you first went wrong. That is a tough place to be. Also when you’ve been writing a long time, five years, seven years, and you wonder if this is ever going to come together, whether you have the chops to pull it off, and why did you decide to do this in the first place?  I had many a moment like that.

AT: Where do you get your inspiration to write during this age of Trump and a world that continuously asks for women’s silence over their rage?

 JF: Like other artists, I am by nature rebellious.  Even as a kid, I was more likely to get thrown out of class for insubordination than sit there politely with my hand up in the air, hoping teacher would call on me. This has always been my inspiration to write—the rage to be heard, for others to see the world through my eyes. But my inspiration to write has been yanked into hyper drive by this current outpouring of lies and cruelty. It makes me want to slap truth up against it, to stir people’s humanity against the brutality.

Yet I’m a writer of fiction. Historically, poets have been literature’s first responders. Poetry is about the unpacking of a moment, turning it around in your hand, letting it catch the light like a prism. Essayists are also quick to respond. They’re already duking it out with this current disaster. But novelists are much slower.  It takes us time to process, and find a narrative that can contain the bigger movements of the times. The danger for many fiction writers is to think we’re irrelevant if we don’t react immediately to every outrage.

But not every writer is a fast writer. What we have to remember is that the times are like the terroir in which our vineyards grow. If we’re writing deeply and honestly enough, our work can’t help but take on the flavor and the temper of the times and say something significant about it.

A mythic battle is being waged now, between truth and the lie, between real reality and claims of “fake news,” between science and commerce under the guise of religion, between reason and propaganda, women and people of color succeeding in making their power felt vs. the struggle of the old white male hegemony to maintain power. I think this epic struggle is going to touch everything being written now. Dark secrets will come to light, or be stuffed down again. Corruption will sink a family. A curtain will be torn back in a relationship. A man’s assumptions about the world will be broken open. The inspiration of this time will manifest in a million ways.

Women are breaking taboos—don’t talk about that! They’re rebelling against the old truisms. It’s the way of the world. Boys will be boys.  We’re seeing how deadly those statements are and how foundational they are to our culture, as women hold a mirror to that behavior and say “we won’t pretend anymore. We will not be silent.” Even the act of holding the mirror is subverting the claim that our voices don’t matter.

Your last book of poetry, Dark Sparkler, examined the culture’s consumption of young women. Your first book of prose, the genre-bending novel Any Man, widened the discussion by putting men into a similar position—victims of not only of rape but the culture of rape. Now you’ve written what I would call a political coming of age memoir, a straight-up call to action, Era of Ignition.  What was the progression here, what was the evolution?

AT: I think, similarly to you and many women like us, I also grew up feeling rebellious. I used to constantly get in trouble for, “my mouth,” for the things I would say as a kid, for the ways I pushed boundaries. Even from a young age as a child actress, I rebelled against my own industry and its sexism. I was already writing poems and chapbooks on the treatment of women and girls in Hollywood. The first poem I ever wrote, which you can find in my first collection of poems, Free Stallion, called “Kill Me So Much” was written at age 12 and is a complete confrontation with the fakeness and cruelty of the entertainment business. I was constantly doing this as a kid, in my writing, but also in life, when I felt something was not just.

Once when I was starring on the television program Joan of Arcadia, I said something publicly about then-CEO Les Moonves, criticizing the direction he had forced our show to go in because he wanted the teen demographic; he had tried to dumb it down by forcing us to do stunt cast (when you cast famous people simply because they are famous). Immediately my manager and agent and everyone on my team freaked out and told me I had to apologize to him. He was extremely powerful at that point and no one wanted him to feel called out by the star of his own television show—a young 21-year-old girl, for that matter. But I refused. Instead of writing him an apology note, I wrote him and double downed. I told him why I thought what he was doing was dangerous for the long-term success of the show and how it might alienate viewers and the real fans who watched us every week because we had an important story to tell, and were telling it in a way that no one had really done before. I tell you this story to say: I am with you on the rebellion stuff and believe that if any of us can afford to put our necks on the line, because of our privilege or access or whatever the reason may be, then we absolutely must. Especially if it’s in the name of protecting another person or protecting art.

Have you ever thought about writing something in another medium? Like, say, a screenplay? Or a book of poems?

JF: I actually went to film school for 3.5 seconds. A disaster.  As a screenwriter, I’m a novelist.  I think my first screenplay was 185 pages. I like to be god of my own planet. Screenwriting is a scaffold for other people to build on. Too spare and elegant a form for me.  I’m in love with describing the world, being able to go wherever I need to go, invading the characters’ heads, using language in its beautiful, powerful extremes.  I’d be more likely to write a book of poetry. I like the power and compression of it, the way you can unfold a moment, sink deep inside.  I wrote all the fictional characters’ poetry in The Revolution of Marina M. and in Chimes of a Lost Cathedral. Marina M. in fact started out as a novel in verse.  I write a lot of narrative poetry.  Maybe I’ll come out of the poetry closet sometime.

AT: This is a brilliant answer. Is there a single instance you can remember early on in your childhood or your teenage years that propelled you into not just wanting to be a writer, but wanting to write the stories of dangerous women?

JF: I still remember my rage and my shame when a substitute teacher challenged my class to name a single woman writer, and I couldn’t think of any.  How smug he was—until a girl in the front row raised her little hand and said, “What about Anaïs Nin?”  He just stared at her…and changed the subject. That very night, I got my parents to take me up to Pickwick Bookstore and bought the boxed set of The Diaries of Anaïs Nin.  I remember the picture on the side of the box, Nin with her strange, Kabuki-like makeup and false eyelashes.  I lost myself in those books.  She was the future I wanted for myself.  Unapologetically sexual, a lover of beauty, creator of a new language—a woman treating herself as subject, rather than object. Determined to have the life she wanted, valuing her own search. I must have always held that picture of her in my mind. When I woke up in the middle of the night on my 21st birthday and decided I was going to be a writer, it was Nin I imagined.  She stood for the dangerous woman, the self-driven consciousness, determined to find her own unique path, no matter what.

AT: This is such a badass story. And in your quest to find a woman writer to connect with, you turned your very own life into subject, rather than what could’ve been object. You became the propeller of your own trajectory.

JF: You’re a tireless battler for justice, yourself—I’ve seen you going out on the campaign trail for Hillary nine months pregnant, riding those buses. You just came back from the border where you spoke to women in a shelter for women and children recently released from detention camps. You talk to women everywhere you go, encouraging them to step up, or to help another woman step up. I have a collage in my study, portraits of women I admire for owning their own power, with a caption I found in some magazine, “What gave her the nerve to send back the espresso?” So, what gives you the nerve to send back the espresso?

AT: What gives me the nerve is watching the suffering all around me every single day, whether it’s immigrant children being separated from their parents on the first day of school by ICE, or whether it’s the suffering of the Amazon burning to the ground while we sit around making up jokes about the size of Donald Trump’s hands. I get it: we all need a check-out sliding scale. We all need a minute to focus on the shallow, or to be cruel back, in response to a cruelty we cannot control. But I have always tried to use my anger as part of my creative tool—no, weapon—and I know no other fight than the fight we are all in now. Because it is the one we have always been in. It is a fight that lives in my DNA, the make-up of every woman who lived before me so that I could exist today. And so I’m done with the politeness of swallowing my fury for the comfort of others. If the Amazon is going to burn to the ground, then so am I. And I will do everything in my power to continue to show up for the world, and other people who need showing up for, even if the world does not always give that in return. Silence is not death. Complacency is.

I’d like to close this interview by writing a short story with you, based on some themes in our interview, in real time. You heard me. Just something off the tops of our heads. Let the readers of our interview see if they can figure out where I end and you begin. Ready? Here we go:

AT and JF: Edwin sat on his porch drenched in sap and sweat, staring across the new tree line he had spent all day cutting for his back yard. Without those few extra trees in the way, you could really see solid skyline. Edwin took a sip of something cool and wiped his dripping forehead with something soft.

In the distance he could hear the ground’s crunch, the sound of something moving up through the woods. Deer, maybe. Although deer don’t usually make that much sound. A bear, he thought. But what bears are in this area? Above the ground, high up in the air, Edwin heard small branches begin to break from their larger trunks. Edwin paused his heavy breathing to listen closer, to try and hear what was coming. All around him, branches severed themselves, large and small, and fell to the ground making the sound of giant birds crashing to Earth. Edwin rubbed his eyes, trying to understand what was happening. Was he dreaming? He stood up, the glass of something cool dropping from his hands and shattering on the ground. He looked around at his beautiful trees, now branchless. Bare.

One by one, each branch began to move. To lift their own wooded bodies. To stand, like men. Edwin stepped back and braced a hand against the doorframe of his house, his mouth frozen ajar. He watched as an army of twigs slowly made their way toward him, as if alive, as if embodied. Some even rolled. One by one, they piled themselves on top of each other right in front of him, at the bottom of his steps. They piled for so long, and so high, he could no longer see his precious sky. When they were finished, a silence struck the entire forest. Not even a bird called to its mother. Not even the stream heckled its rocks. Edwin began to tremble, then cough. He coughed until he felt something loosen from his throat. He dropped to his knees lunging his body forward, until finally from the depths of his throat, out fell a matchstick.

What did they want from him?  He was sorry! He was so sorry. He hadn’t realized this could happen. They were just trees! Blocking his view of the city.  That million-dollar view. Actually $2.5 million but this was not the moment to quibble. A few trees more or less, he’d thought—what difference would it make? A little more yard, a little more for him.  Don’t do it Daddy, little Rachel had said, crying, hugging the whatever it was, crabapple. Winesap.

He knelt and wept.  Don’t kill me.  He’d loved those trees, he didn’t know how angry they would be, that they would strip their very limbs in fury. So he’d cut a few, editing the view. Isn’t that what people called it?  Buying the skyline, a little more light, a little less lawn litter, those berries that stuck to the kids’ feet, the leaves he had to rake in the fall, those fucking little apples.

Now the branches where whispering to each other. Rattling their leaves, shaking as if there was a wind through this ghastly wall of torn limbs—though there was no wind.

The match ignited itself. It stood up on his back step, the smallest tree of all.

Complicating Our Narratives About Addiction and Illness: The Millions Interviews Amy Long

I first met Amy Long through a writers’ networking group where she often answered questions with extreme thoughtfulness and generosity. We became friends, and Long was kind enough to give me an advance copy of her memoir, Codependence. Long’s book is a fearless look at opioid addiction. It sheds light on chronic pain, the opioid epidemic, romantic codependence mixed up with substance abuse—all through a stunning combination of experimental techniques and traditional essays. Long and I sat down to chat recently, and the conversation was just as frank and thoughtful as her new essay collection.

The Millions: First, I’d like to talk about the form of the book. Some of it is experimental, taking the visual formatting of a doctor’s prescription, or a reference book entry about a drug; some is straightforward. What made you decide to employ the experimental format? In what ways do you feel your writing differs in the two formats?

Amy Long: The book mostly started as a medicine cabinet I made as a final project in Matthew Vollmer’s creative nonfiction workshop at Virginia Tech. The library’s graphic designers helped me make all this cool stuff—I rolled up stories in pill bottles and bags of fake coke and actual Suboxone packets and had flash essays printed on the backs of motel keys and a giant check or tucked them into a fake hospital bracelet; it was really cool—and I wanted to figure out how to get those stories onto a 2D page without losing all the formal stuff that made me love them so much. So, some of the essays are experimental because they started out as something even weirder, and some are experimental in some part due to necessity. Like, a map of pharmacies—my friend Silas Breaux, a printmaker and visual artist, made me this insanely cool map to use in it; you can see it on my Instagram and in the book—felt like the best way to write about the trouble I always had filling my prescriptions and how discourse about opioid abuse affects my ability to take them for chronic pain. The glossary essay felt necessary in that I’d hear people in workshop say, like, “Well, she is on opioids. Maybe she’s hallucinating,” and I realized I couldn’t expect everyone to have the same prodigious drug history I do! I also wanted to catalog all the non-opioid medications I’d tried (most of which are also represented in the medicine cabinet), and they fit nicely into that form. I never wanted the formal experimentation to feel gimmicky, and while I like the generative nature of those kinds of constraints, it was also nice to sort of spread out in the more traditional essays.

The first essay in the book centers on me telling my mom that I’m back on opioids. I wrote it as a braided essay, which I didn’t know then is an established form—I thought I was stealing the numbered-paragraph format from Maggie Nelson’s Bluets—and I started it immediately after I got off the phone with my mom. It came really fast, so I decided I’d kind of alternate between these two modes—experimental and braided, more traditional essays—but the decisions I made about how I’d write each essay were either intuitive or came from the medicine cabinet. The braided essays give me a lot more room and freedom, and I think I’m more associative and meditative there. I often touch on something or sum it up in an experimental essay and add more depth to it in a braided essay.

TM: Early on, you refer to yourself as an unreliable narrator. This seems true to a degree, but the book also has an unflinching honesty that a more traditionally reliable narrator could not bring to it. What are the benefits of styling yourself this way in non-fiction? Drawbacks?

AL: I mean, I don’t want people to think that what I’m writing about is untrue. Everything in the book happened the way I depict it to the best of my recollection. But I’m unreliable to the degree that I think all narrators in nonfiction are unreliable; I remember things wrong, I see my perspective first, there are things I don’t know. I guess I’m just a little more meta about it? I was aware as I wrote that I was creating a character with my narrator self, that everything kind of becomes fiction once it’s written down, and thinking of it that way maybe allowed me to be more honest (I also just don’t really have that filter; like, I never think “I don’t want people to know about this!”). But I also wanted readers to be able to make up their own minds about what I’m doing or what’s happening to me, and nodding to that unreliability inherent in personal narratives gives them an interpretive space that I haven’t often seen in recovery or illness narratives.

TM: You speak early on about using drugs extensively in a recreational sense, then later for your chronic disability. At one point, you say that the disability’s manifestations may be “the best thing that ever happened to you,” despite their clearly destructive power over your life, because it will enable your recreational use. Was it important to you to mention one or the other first, and how do you think that affects the reader’s view of your use? Was it an intentional choice to have potential readers view you as a “certain kind” of drug user?

AL: Yes. Definitely. I want readers to question what kind of drug user I am. I did want the pain strand—the medicinal opioid use—to come first since I think that’s kind of the heart of the book, and putting it at the beginning might incline people to follow that thread. Something happens when you put these two kinds of drug use in conversation with each other, but I’m not even totally clear on what that is or what it means that I used to take drugs for fun and now take those same drugs as medicine. I was never dependent on opioids when I used them recreationally, but I am now; so, I’m kind of more of a “junkie” in the later parts of the narrative even though I’m not using drugs to get high. It’s a fertile juxtaposition that I like a lot. I think that also plays a lot into the unreliable narrator thing: like, can the reader trust me when I say I’m in pain since I admit that I still like drugs? But, mostly, I think it blurs the lines we put up between “addict” and “patient,” and I like that the two strands come together to complicate our narratives about addiction and illness.

TM: You use the phrase “an obsessive steward of your own history” to describe your role as a writer, and I think this is so illuminating of what a writer—of fiction or non-fiction—does. In the same sentence, you worry that the use of drugs will alter this stewardship. This seems like a deep fear, but do you feel the existence of the book itself makes it unfounded? Or not? Is this a fear you live with regularly?

AL: There, I’m writing about a particular drug, Topamax, which has a lot of cognitive side effects; migraineurs call it “Dopamax” for a reason! It makes most people kind of slow and foggy. I don’t worry about opioids altering the way I perceive my life since, now, I don’t get anything but pain relief from them. Like, I just took a pain pill, but I’m not high. I worry more about the opposite. In 2016, the CDC changed its opioid-prescribing guidelines in a way that has really hurt pain patients, and I’m afraid I’ll never get the level of pain relief I need in order to write another book. So, it is a fear I live with daily but not in the way most people would expect.

TM: The book doubles back on character often, portraying characters such as Beth and Chelsea in one light, then taking the time to portray them the way a “more empathetic” person might. Though, the effect is that your narrator (you) really does see both slants to the character, but is lacking in the insight that she is the more empathetic narrator she wishes to be, as well as the less empathetic one. This provides an image of multiple narrators on the page, the “unreliability” we are told to expect early on. However, this unreliability seems to be more reliable than many narrations that, for example, skewer everyone but the narrator. Did this come early on in the writing, or through the process of drafting and revision?

AL: I like your reading of that. I wish my sisters agreed with it. I don’t like memoirs that make the narrator a kind of hero or exclusively a victim. I wanted to depict myself in as harsh a light as I do everyone else, maybe even a harsher one. I aimed for that in the draft stage, but I did add to it and use my editors as a check during revision and editing.

TM: There’s a section when you discuss how your first boyfriend, David, used to tell you no one would ever love you like he did, which is both a threat and a promise that you later acknowledge is true in some way. While this becomes obvious to you later as a sign of manipulation, do you think it’s also truth in the capacity that no one ever loves anyone the way one person did? I feel like manipulators often bend truths to the ends of control. Is this what this feels like to you, even now? Is there something of truth and need in dependence to people or drugs that make the want and happiness the incidental thing?

AL: That’s a good question. Of course all loves are different—especially first loves. It’s hard to replicate that experience. You’re so stupid; you don’t know anything about the world or what love is, and you don’t go into it with baggage or real-world expectations. And there’s a certain level of drama built into the kind of relationship that David and I had. All the needing and the problems make it feel special and important and sort of Romeo-and-Juliet like. It makes you think you want this thing that maybe isn’t the best thing for you because all that adversity brings you closer together and makes you want to fight to keep it. I don’t still think that no one will ever love me the way David did, and now I really hope he’s right. That relationship put a lot of pressure on me at a young age—and I was a young 18—and has affected every relationship I’ve had since. Now, I think love should be stable and kind of boring and that that’s much more romantic. I still get drawn into those kinds of melodramatic dynamics, though, so I’m trying to appreciate the boring parts more.

TM: What’s next for you?

AL: I think in books, and the next book will center on the themes I touched on in my last answer: relationships, loneliness, how love shapes us and how we shape it. The medicine cabinet is the only outline from which I’ve ever been able to work, and I’m still trying to determine the next book’s structure and scope; I think I need to make a diorama or something so I can figure out what I’m doing.

Alex DiFrancesco’s novel All City (Seven Stories Press) and their essay collection Psychopomps (Civil Coping Mechanisms) were released this year. They can be found @DiFantastico on Twitter.

Sprawling Messes Are What I Aim For: The Millions Interviews Chris Ware

The product of 18 years of work, Chris Ware’s graphic novel Rusty Brown is set in a parochial school in 1970s Omaha, Neb. The book will be published in Sept. 24 by Pantheon.

Ware’s book takes a plunge into the daily consciousness of his characters—third grader Chalky White; his sister Alice, perpetually bullied middle-schooler Rusty Brown; his remote father, Woody Brown; cruel stoner Jordan Lint; and Joanne, a black teacher with a powerful secret—in a methodical, unsentimental, lyrical rendition of their lives.
Meticulously drawn and designed, each page is a testament to Ware’s distinctive visual syntax and to a story that is both heartbreaking and heartrending. In this email exchange, Ware responded to questions about the creation of the book and his  process.
The Millions: You’ve been working on this book for 18 years. When did you imagine Rusty Brown as a book? Your editor Chip Kidd said that the last hundred pages or so are unpublished. How long did they take you?

Chris Ware: I drew the first page of Rusty Brown a week after finishing [my earlier graphic novel] Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000). I knew it would be a long book, but as in the embarrassing cases of my other experiments, never thought it would go on as long as it has, or metastasize into such a sprawling mess. Then again, sprawling messes are what I aim for, since they most accurately reflect real life. After a few years of working on it along with other projects (I started Building Stories [a PW Best Book in 2012] and finished that somewhere in the middle) it became clear that it would stretch well into a many-years-long project and I decided to make that a defining characteristic of the book rather than a humiliating secret.
I’ve changed as a person while working on it, reflected both in how I draw and in how I write, and the nation has changed as well, all of which I’ve tried to acknowledge and incorporate into the “feel” and plot (for lack of a better word.) Then again, this sort of “staying the same while changing” is no different from the way in which we all live, trying to fix what we consider important moments in our minds yet inevitably changing and rewriting them, while making plans which always change or fall apart in the face of unpredictable fortune and tragedy.
TM: How autobiographical is Rusty Brown?
CW: Well, comics are the art of memory, and every word, picture, gesture, idea, aim, regret, etc. that’s gone into the story has somehow filtered through my recollection and selectivity, so it’s all somehow autobiographical. I did grow up in Omaha, and while I share qualities with all of the characters in the book, I’ve tried to imagine people different from myself and also to understand and empathize with them as much as possible, since I believe that’s really the only aim and hope for humanity and art, and also one of the points of the book, more or less.
With Building Stories I tried to write a book without a beginning or an end, and Rusty Brown is an attempt to write a book without a protagonist, despite its goofy title. Without going all college-seminar-y here, it’s inspired by the structure of a snowflake, the six-sided shape of which is determined by the molecular structure of a water molecule, and which cannot form without a central piece of flotsam or grit. Though that sounds really pretentious; sorry.


TM: Can you tell me something about your process?
CW: Every morning after recording the events of the previous day in my comic strip diary, I sit down at my table and try to avoid all of the distractions of the modern world day by turning off my computer and phone. If I’m starting from a blank page I might have some notes or ideas as to how the page is going to take shape, but those might also be completely jettisoned once I get going, since when I start drawing, new ideas and memories float to the surface based on what I’m looking at that rather than what I was thinking about; sometimes I might even remember a person or an incident I’ve completely forgotten, or a character “reacts” to something in a way I would not. In simpler words, it’s improvised, but no more improvised than it would be to sit down, stare at a wall and see what I could script and come up with—which, from experience, I find is always vastly inferior and banal compared to what the slow-release inward-looking process of drawing suggests.
I work in lumps of two pages each, since that’s how books are bound, and once I get two pages all “written,” which means drawn in pencil and which usually takes two to five days, I’ll ink it using a brush and ink, which usually takes a day or two. Then I’ll scan it in and color it, which takes a day. So generally it takes about a week to do two pages. Not a very efficient mode of storytelling. Then again, it allows for a certain slow percolation of ideas and story that perhaps other art forms don’t. The guiding rudder of writers I revere like Zadie Smith, Tolstoy, Joyce, Nabokov, etc. provide a humiliating reminder that I’m never trying hard enough or getting enough done, but Rusty Brown is my current best attempt to make a literary graphic novel that respects its reader, and unlike a film director or even an artist with multiple assistants, it’s all me doing it and none of it involves any collaboration or editorial adjustment. So if a reader doesn’t like it, then I’m solely to blame.
TM: Can you tell me about the book jacket for Rusty Brown?
CW: Not unlike the folding jacket for Jimmy Corrigan, this one is something of the conceptual inverse, designed to be folded into a different jacket for each of the book’s three protagonists. Once the second part is published for the other three, it could also be arranged into a larger diagram of how the six characters combine and narratively mortify each other. It, like the book itself, is loosely based on the structure of a water molecule. Perhaps I was in college for a little too long.

I’m a Stained-Glass Guy: The Millions Interviews Kevin Barry

The Irish writer Kevin Barry is no stranger to literary laurels. His debut novel, City of Bohane (2011), won the European Union Prize for Literature and the IMPAC Dublin Award. His two collections of short stories have been awarded the Rooney Prize and the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. His second novel, Beatlebone (2015), won the Goldsmiths Prize. Now Barry is out with a wicked little rabbit-punch of a novel, Night Boat to Tangier, that’s on the longlist for this year’s prestigious Booker Prize. From his home in County Sligo, Ireland, Barry spoke by phone recently with The Millions staff writer Bill Morris.

The Millions: The last time we spoke, you were in New York flogging your novel Beatlebone. Remember?

Kevin Barry: Yes, of course, in Washington Square Park. October of 2015 it would have been.

TM: I remember a couple of things about that day, Kevin. First of all, we talked about places, and you said your books come from the reverberations given off by a place, and a specific place is the beginning of all your books. In Night Boat to Tangier, the most prominent place is the Spanish port of Algeciras, where our Irish drug-runner buddies Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond are waiting for Maurice’s daughter, Dilly. Have you been to Algeciras?

KB: I have, I have. The first time I passed through was 1991 en route to Tangier, for largely William Burroughs-related reasons. I would have been 20, 21, and big into the whole Burroughs thing at that age. So I went to Tangier and stayed in the hotel where he wrote Naked Lunch, and all that. Afterwards I had a much stronger memory of Algeciras, which is a gloriously seedy kind of town. Something about the place just seemed to offer itself up to fiction. I’ve been back many times; I go to Spain a lot. I go during the winter here. January and February, the west of Ireland is just a fucken swamp and it’s gray and dark and creative energy goes down. Since the winter of 1999 I’ve been escaping for however long I can afford, for a few days, a few weeks, even a coupla months to the south of Spain, just kind of mooching about these little cities.

TM: What was it about Algeciras, though? The seediness of it? The history? The bones in the ground?

KB: Like with all novelists, it was two things combining. I had these two characters in my mind that kept showing up, Maurice and Charlie, and I knew that having gone to Spain so often for so many years, I wanted to write a Spain book, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it—until I had a blinding flash of inspiration one day: what if I just put those two Cork gangsters down there? So I just sent them down there. It’s weird, you only figure out stuff about a novel after you’ve finished it and start talking about it. It strikes me that the movement of this book is directly the reverse of my earlier novels, City of Bohane and Beatlebone. Both of those books started out offering a kind of realism but then very quickly went into fantastical territory. This one is the opposite. It starts out with this highly theatrical premise, but it kind of moves toward realism as we go through the book. You become kinder to your characters as you get older. This is a very different treatment of this story than I would have written 10 years ago. I guess that’s the start of any long story or novel or script or whatever, what you’re doing really, as a writer, is you’re giving yourself a problem and asking yourself if you can fix this problem in 220 pages, or whatever it is. And the problem I gave myself at the start here was, I have to make the reader not just vaguely sympathize with these two guys, but I want to make the reader love them and buy into their world. As desperate and as dangerous and as dark a pair of individuals as they are, I want to see if I can sell their soul and their spirit to the reader.

TM: Another thing I remember from our conversation in Washington Square Park was that I asked you that obligatory, ridiculous question: What are you working on next? And you told me you thought you were going to head back to the fictional City of Bohane. And yet here you wind up in Algeciras, Cork, Cadiz, Malaga, Barcelona, London. Why the detour?

KB: I gave a reading from City of Bohane last year for the first time in eight or nine years. The reading was at the university in Athens, Ga.

TM: My father’s hometown!

KB: It’s a great town. I saw Michael Stipe on the street when I was there. But as I was reading from the novel I thought, wow, there’s great vitality in the language here, but it’s hard to go back. It felt to me very much like a first novel, in terms of the way it was structured. What you have to figure out as a writer often is what projects should be on your desk at a particular time in your life. I had thought vaguely of going back to the City of Bohane, but I thought, no, let’s do other things. Somebody said once that the great enemy of a good idea is another good idea. I get that a lot. Notions pile up for stories and books and I kind of jump around. I’m not ruling out going back to Bohane. I’ve talked to people about developing it for TV, but I don’t know that I’d have access to the same language that I had when I was writing that book. It’s quite a young man’s book [laughs]. As fond as I am of it, you change as a writer.

TM: You mentioned the vitality of the language when you were giving the reading in Athens. Night Boat to Tangier certainly has its own vitality. I’d like to read you a couple of short sentences from the novel and then ask you a question.

KB: Okay.

TM: A character walks into a bar here: “The barman is as stoned-looking as a fucking koala.” Here’s a woman: “She had a smile like a home-made explosive device.” And here are two lovers: “They fought like drunk gorillas.” So here’s my question: is there a little workshop at the back of Kevin Barry’s writing studio where he has little tiny precision tools that he uses to carve out these crazy fucking similes?

KB: You did manage to pick one of my favorites in the book, and that’s the home-made explosive device. I think I might have given myself an afternoon off after that one [laughs]. If there’s any writer I sometimes go to for that kind of thing, it’s the very late V.S. Pritchett, who comes up with these really unexpected images all the time. I remain a devotee of his. You know that overused expression, being “on the nose”? And I probably err in the opposite direction because I try to go as off the nose as possible. The reader has to say, “Okay, I can see a smile that could go off like a home-made explosive device.”

TM: You mention Pritchett. As I was reading the book I was thinking of Samuel Beckett, of course.

KB: Sure, Irishmen waiting.

TM: Tell me some other influences on this book.

KB: The playwright I was thinking about mostly wasn’t Beckett, believe it or not, it was Harold Pinter. I really like those early Pinter plays from the early ’60s, The Caretaker and The Birthday Party. They’re really funny, but they’ve got great menace like a thread going through them. Those books were close to my desk as I was writing. I was also reading Don DeLillo’s Libra, his Lee Harvey Oswald novel.

TM: I remember we talked about that before—how the Jack Ruby character spoke to you.

KB: Exactly right. Sometimes as a writer you have books that you use like tuning forks. You come across favorite books by favorite writers where you know that the writer’s ear is just completely in. I often go back and read those Jack Ruby sections from Libra because there’s beautiful unexpected comedy in them, and great characterization, and just brilliant dialogue. Sometimes when you’re feeling flat or kind of slow you want to pick up some of the good stuff and remind yourself what the mountain looks like.

TM: You also mentioned that Elmore Leonard is another writer whose dialogue speaks to you.

KB: Oh, for sure. I love Elmore Leonard’s golden period, I’d say from the early ’70s to the early ’80s where he was just on fire, beautiful economy of storytelling and killer dialogue. I’ve always been a reader of crime fiction. I had a long period in my 20s of reading nothing but James Ellroy, which isn’t recommended [laughs]. The problem with reading a writer like Ellroy when you’re starting out as a writer is that the style is so strong and pronounced that you can’t help but ape it on the page. It’s funny, Night Boat to Tangier has elements of a crime novel. My U.S. editor describes it as a book with criminals in it rather than a crime book, and I think that’s kind of right. Especially in the title I was thinking about stuff like Graham Greene’s entertainments, things like Stamboul Train, that vaguely noirish, thrillerish atmosphere rather than plot. I was happy when I came up with the title Night Boat to Tangier. That’s Graham Greene-ish.

TM: Speaking of Graham Greene, I’ve got a question about Catholicism. There’s this description of a bartender in your novel: “He looked as if it were all turning out just as he’d been warned. A Catholic, in other words.” Having been raised Catholic, I can attest that you nailed it there. Were you raised Catholic?

KB: I was, of course. When I was growing up here in the ’70s and ’80s, Ireland was still almost a Catholic monolith. It’s very different now in lots of ways. I don’t have a religious bone in my body, but if there’s any Catholicism left in me it’s in my prose style. I’ve got a stained-glass-window of a prose style. I would sometimes love to have a lean, austere, stripped-back Protestant style, but it’s just fucken not in me, man [laughs]. I’m a stained-glass guy.

TM: Your novel’s protagonists, Charlie and Maurice, these guys are a load, and they carry the book on their beat-up backs. But I really fell for Maurice’s daughter, Dilly, when she said she’s been listening to the reggae singer Lee Scratch Perry. That man’s a genius. Are you a fan, by any chance?

KB: Absolutely. I would argue strongly that one of the great cultural acts of the 20th century was when Lee Scratch Perry burned his Black Ark Studio (in Kingston, Jamaica) to the ground on the basis that it was possessed by duppies, by evil spirits. And he said, “Okay, I’m going to burn this thing to the ground and move to Switzerland.” I think that’s one of the greatest artistic gestures of our time. I listen to Scratch Perry all the time. But I’ve gotten quite jazzy with age. I listen to a lot more jazz than I used to, one of the reasons being I finally got a nice new record player, so I’ve been buying vinyl a lot and the jazz stuff sounds so good on vinyl. And it’s something I can listen to when I’m working without the distraction of lyrics.

TM: I went to see Scratch Perry perform in New York a few years ago, and I was afraid he was going to be gaga—but he was great! The band was tight, he was coherent, he was on his game.

KB: Yeah, he’s sober. He got off the weed.

TM: Let’s talk briefly about your novel’s form. You mentioned that is starts off in a kind of fantastical way and then becomes more realistic. Throughout, the paragraphs are short, very little punctuation, no quotation marks or dashes to denote dialog. Tell me about these decisions.

KB: This often, for me, is the fun of it and the enjoyment of it. I hate the first draft, it’s really slow and laborious, dragging the stuff out of your darkest recesses. What I tend to do is write long in the first draft so I have a lot of material to start playing with. For me, the fun of it is seeing how much scaffolding I can take away. At least that’s the way I am now as a writer. I probably had more of a maximalist approach when I was writing my first novel. Now I like to see how much of the traditional scenery of a novel I can remove and still keep the heart of the thing beating. I’m moving more toward subtraction than addition at this stage. Which isn’t to say that the next novel won’t be a big and baggy monster. You change all the time.

TM: How old are you now?

KB: I just turned 50. I had that significant birthday in June, and the novel is all about these two guys in their early 50s. It’s about one of those weird constellations that as you age you start to realize that the past isn’t a fixed entity. It keeps moving and shifting and rearranging itself back there. And this is the realization Maurice and Charlie have in the book—that things you thought meant one thing in your life meant something else. And it’s all going to keep moving. In a weird curious way, that’s one of the consolations of age. And also the book is about male friendship, which is written about weirdly rarely. It’s a really interesting subject, and when you’re doing two male friends talking a lot to each other, if you listen to what’s going on just beneath the surface, there are all these power battles.

It became clear to me after a while that what I was really writing was this portrait of a very strange extended family. When these two characters first showed up, they kept trying to get into short stories and they would immediately destroy the story because they’re too big. They were annoying me. I eventually realized I have to give these two fuckers their own thing and figure out who they are. I started off writing a play script but very quickly realized, no, it needed the kind of space a novel allows.

TM: The novel is on the longlist for the Booker Prize, and the shortlist comes out Sept. 3. I’m wondering, are you having kittens or is this just another day in the life of Kevin Barry?

KB: It’s a big prize, and when I was put on the longlist there was a lot more noise around it, much more so than with other book prizes I’ve been involved with. I’ve been mostly managing to distract myself and not think about it too much, but it certainly does creep into one’s thoughts. But it’s really cool for the book. It gives it a good push.

Bonus Link: Bill Morris’s 2015 interview with Kevin Barry that appeared in The Daily Beast.

Fiction Is Better Than It’s Ever Been: The Millions Interviews Brian Birnbaum

The Dead Rabbits moniker dates back to a 19th-century New York street gang, but it’s about to have a major resurgence in the form of a new literary press, Dead Rabbits Books—itself a spinoff of New York’s Dead Rabbits Reading Series, founded in 2014 by writers Devin Kelly, Katie Rainey, and Katie Longofono, who met while attending the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College.

Brian Birnbaum pitched the idea for Dead Rabbits Books to Rainey, his domestic (and now business) partner, in 2018, following a litany of failed attempts (including a near-miss) to publish his debut novel, Emerald City. After roping in software engineer Jon Kay, the trio decided to make Emerald City their inaugural title. (They have also announced upcoming titles by David Hollander, Annie Krabbenschmidt, and Rainey.) The trio wanted to use Birnbaum’s novel to launch the press before asking any other authors to trust them with their work. But Birnbaum also took particular inspiration from Sergio De La Pava, who had initially self-published his novel A Naked Singularity.

Having also attended Sarah Lawrence from 2013 to 15, I was privileged to read Birnbaum’s Emerald City in a germinal state at the end of our time together there; I later received a revised draft in the fall of 2017 that significantly expanded the novel’s scope and the depth of its characters. The novel’s sprawl is difficult to summarize in a one-line grabber, but, beyond the description featured on the Dead Rabbits website, suffice it to say that it’s one of the most electrifying performances by a debut novelist this side of the year 2000—a heartrending tragedy of addiction, an absurdist comedy of privilege and inadequacy, an inter-generational crime saga to rival The Godfather, a disarmingly touching love story, and, at bottom, a book about the ineradicable ties of family.

Earlier this year, as Birnbaum was in the final stages of preparing the book for publication, I sat down with him in his apartment in Harlem—Chet Baker crooning in the background in harmony with the whines of Birnbaum and Rainey’s dog, Rosetta—to learn more about the evolution of his writing and the practical considerations of running a small press.

The Millions: As I recall, you wrote something like three novels before Emerald City.

Brian Birnbaum: Yeah. Very bad ones.

TM: What did you learn by writing those novels, and at what point during the writing of Emerald City did you think that this would be the one to get published?

BB: I didn’t. I knew I was going to try, but here’s the thing: the third novel I wrote, The Material, I did try to get that published—if you call querying like three or four people “trying.” I got responses from an agent and an editor who were saying “Look, you’re 23 years old, and you’re clearly somewhat good at this, but…” So, I realized immediately: this is not it, and I’m not going to go back and hack this again.

TM: So, you wouldn’t want to publish that today?

BB: Oh no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. No way. Even at that point, I didn’t want to go back and work on it. That’s when I started Emerald City. I had just turned 24. So, what I learned was that I sucked. I think most people go into writing with a lack of self-confidence, whereas I went in with a wealth of bravado. But bravado is based on insecurity, so subconsciously I knew I wasn’t that good, but I had to have people tell me I wasn’t that good. Also, with [the second novel I wrote] I had to learn not to imitate David Foster Wallace. I had just read Infinite Jest, right after college, and I wrote like him for a year or two and it was just, you know…you’re trying to emulate your heroes kind of thing. It pushed me off track a little bit because you’re not doing your thing, you’re not doing you. The first novel I tried to write was actually a lot better than the second one.

TM: Can you pinpoint what was bad about these early novels?

BB: A lack of ability to express emotional depth, really. That’s what it comes down to.

TM: So where do things stand with the Emerald City manuscript now?

BB: I am fucking relieved to say that I am done, it’s over, it’s with the book designer.

TM: You’ve locked in the text?

BB: I’ve locked it in, the acknowledgements are there, everything is there. Those last few months were hell, and I’m just starting to come out of that hole where I was really abusing myself to get this done.

TM: To what extent were you inspired by Sergio De La Pava when you decided to publish the book yourself?

BB: Very much so. Sergio and his wife, Susanna, were our role models, and they’ve helped us immensely. Susanna is honestly the brains of this operation. She’s beyond brilliant. She helped us write our contracts for our writers, stuff like that. Sergio’s going to blurb it. I don’t know if I told you, Gabe Habash just gave me a blurb, which was one of the greatest days of my life because Stephen Florida is easily one of my favorite books.

TM: Have you been forced to read more contemporary fiction than you used to, just by virtue of being a publisher?

BB: I just think contemporary fiction is where it’s at. I think fiction is better than it’s ever been. Which is ironic because fiction is technologically faded in a certain sense, but it’ll always be an artifact, it’s always going to be of interest. But at the same time, I think it’s better than ever. It’s like anything—you look at the NBA now compared to 50 years ago and it’s like a joke. The ability now is just through the roof. They’re building on things that have been going on for too long.

TM: Is there anything you’re worried about as you go forward with publishing your first couple of titles?

BB: Some of the little stuff, like I’m nervous that we’re going to launch and people will order our book and it’ll have problems. Like, the book’s going to be fucked up or the ordering process will be fucked up. I just want to make sure we’re legit.

TM: I ordered a Dead Rabbits coffee mug and it came in about seven days.

BB: Not bad. And the good news is we have Jon Kay, and he’s a genius. He worked at Amazon, he knows how to program, so we’re pretty good to go. But those are the only things I’m really nervous about. Obviously, I want to sell copies, but I think that just comes as a product of hard work and putting out good stuff. That’s out of our hands. So, I’m not really worried that much. Whatever happens, we’ll just have to learn from it and move on.

TM: Do you enjoy networking within the literary community? I’ve seen you work the room at KGB Bar, and elsewhere—does that come naturally to you?

BB: Socializing comes naturally to me, social media does not. Self-promotion is tough for me. I’m learning social media, I learned Twitter pretty well, I’ve gotten a shit-ton of followers in a short amount of time—which is good and everything, but I still don’t want to be doing it. I want to be reading and I want to be writing and I want to be experiencing existential things that don’t have to do with something that feels like a job. But that’s the beauty of Dead Rabbits—we are trying to build communities in real life, we’re founded off the Manhattan reading series, we’re building satellite reading series [in Little Rock and Los Angeles], we’re trying to have events, and that stuff is awesome to me. I love people, and as much as I hate people, I love people.

TM: Did you have to talk David Hollander, your mentor at Sarah Lawrence, into publishing his upcoming book, Anthropica, or was he pretty open to it from the beginning?

BB: He was more amenable than I thought he was going to be. I think Katie handled the initial talks. It took a little while, but I read it and it was amazing. It’s so funny and smart. And more than anything, it’s just something that no one’s done before, it’s actually reading something innovative, and that’s the reason we wanted to publish it.

TM: How does it compare to L.I.E., his first novel?

BB: I think it’s a hundred times better. L.I.E. is great, but Anthropica is…The changes I suggested or whatever he goes with, I think it is only a couple rungs from being a masterpiece, I think it’s absolutely brilliant. And I don’t say this as some fucking proselytizer—this book is not for everyone, but that’s fine. For the people that it is for, it’s going to be a masterpiece. The linguistic gymnastics are definitely on an Olympic level.

TM: Now, as to Emerald City: I’ve read two drafts, and I look forward to seeing the final edit soon. The story is very diffuse on a narrative level. It’s a family saga, it’s a drug thriller, it’s an almost Hoop Dreams-like sports drama, and the whole way through it’s deeply attuned to its characters’ psychologies. Did you think about genre at all when you were writing?

BB: I didn’t. I think if you come at a novel from a genre perspective, you are writing from a different place. I think you’re writing specifically for an audience and to disseminate the book. Which is not a bad thing. It’s more of a business approach. My approach is that I’m writing because I love language and I want to tell a story, and whatever that story calls for is what I’m going to write.

TM: Something that came up when you workshopped parts of this novel at Sarah Lawrence had to do with how you portrayed people of color. I remember a long discussion in workshop about the dialogue, and questions of appropriation and representation. Did you have any trepidation about writing characters of other races?

BB: If you can’t write about other races, then the only way this conversation ends is that you can’t write about anyone but yourself. However, if you think that just because you listen to hip hop you can write black characters, you’re sorely mistaken. You have to have experience. You should be able to write about whatever you want, but it has to be good. And I think this is a necessary conversation—if I had chosen to write from the perspective of one of my black characters, that would have been a huge risk—and that’s still something I’m considering for my next novel project, and I have to ask myself, how do I deserve writing about this?

TM: As I recall, you discovered David Mitchell while writing Emerald City.

BB: Very early on.

TM: Did he change the way you write the way Wallace did?

BB: I think he’s probably my favorite writer. Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet are pure masterpieces. He’s operating on a level that I’ll never reach. He changed the game because he was the first maximalist writer I read who, paradoxically, reined me in. He’s writing these sparkling sentences that are really punchy, really cogent, and I loved him as much as I loved Wallace, but it was so different. It’s more mature in a way, and where I want to be heading now. Same with Rachel Kushner. She’s a maximalist writer but she’s doing it in a compacted way. The Flamethrowers was revolutionary for me. I think her prose, especially those first hundred pages, are just like—whoa.

TM: You’ve talked on the Dead Rabbits podcast about your experience in an MFA. You chose Sarah Lawrence because David Hollander was teaching there, but it seemed like you didn’t totally buy into the MFA experience in terms of your development as a writer.

BB: And in hindsight, I totally buy into it. Which I have a problem with saying, because I hate these kind of monetized systems that are just pumping out writers who will never see the light of day. But I will say that my MFA experience was extraordinary. Sarah Lawrence was the best school I could have gone to. The culture we had—not only on campus, but also our own little culture on Stillwell Avenue…it was perfect: being removed from the city, being forced to write, the time that they give you to write, instead of loading you with all this bullshit.

TM: I want to end by returning to something you said earlier. You mentioned that fiction is technologically faded. So how do you feel about the future of books, given that you’ve launched a literary press?

BB: I think writing will become obsolete when we are able to directly access our brains. It’ll be like Hieroglyphs—they’re beautiful, but we don’t need that shit anymore. People will still read books; they’ll be fascinated by them. But I’m not being pessimistic or cynical about writing itself; it’s served a purpose that can’t be overstated. And I’m more than overjoyed to be starting a small press. I think it’s still completely necessary, because we still run on fiction. That’s what the human race runs on because we don’t know what’s going on in our minds.

B.J. Hollars Explores the Midwest’s Strangest Corners

During his yearlong trek spent researching paranormal claims throughout the Midwest, B.J. Hollars admits “whether discussing the mundane or a monster sighting, it’s hard to know who to trust.” Everyone, it seems, has a story.

“The irony,” Hollars writes in Midwestern Strange, “is that much of the research conducted by cryptozoologists, ufologists, anomalists, paranormal investigators, and the like undergo the same processes employed within academia’s hallowed halls—namely, hypothesizing and theorizing toward a greater understanding of truth.” He often returns to this sentiment: Strange tales demand our attention, but such research is met with skepticism.

Midwestern Strange is a fun and fascinating romp through those
tales—delivered with Hollars’s talent for connecting dots while remaining
comfortable with unanswered questions. The author of Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America, The Road South: Personal Stories of the Freedom Riders, and other books, he is an associate professor of English at
the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

We spoke about Goosebumps, folklore, and the hidden strangeness of “flyover country.”

The Millions: I like to hear of other
writers who were born wandering library stacks. You said the books of your
childhood were “part pulp, part peculiarity.” Why—and how—did books about
creatures and the paranormal especially capture your imagination?

B.J. Hollars: I think what fascinated me most about books on creatures and the paranormal were that these books were shelved in the nonfiction section of our library. I was probably nine or 10 when I fell headlong into strange and spooky tales, but prior to wandering toward the nonfiction shelves, I’d only known these subjects in their fictional forms.

I admit it: I was a Goosebumps kid. By which I mean I mowed as many lawns as I could to earn the four bucks I needed to pick up R.L. Stine’s monthly addition to his wildly popular series. I devoured the earlier books faster than Stine could write them, and once I ran dry, I travelled a little deeper into the library. Imagine my surprise when I learned that there were shelves overflowing with nonfiction books on subjects as strange as Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, werewolves, and the Bermuda Triangle. I gathered them up by the armful, then spent more than a few weekend nights sidling up to the kitchen table, notepad in hand, anxious to get to the bottom of these mysteries.

Prior to venturing to the nonfiction side of those library shelves, I felt I had a pretty clear understanding of the demarcation lines between fact and fiction. But books on Bigfoot and the like dramatically complicated my understanding. Suddenly I wasn’t sure what to think. I was 10 years old and the world had doubled in size for me. There was so much to see, so much to learn, and the widening of my world was revelatory.  

TM: What is particularly
Midwestern about these cases and stories—other than that they are located in
the region?

BH: One of the things I love most about the Midwest is its chameleonlike ability to blend in with its surroundings. The downside, of course, is that as a result, we Midwesterners are often overlooked. We are, for many, merely “flyover country”—just a swath of land you pass through en route to another place. But the upside is that in being overlooked, we’ve got a lot left to explore, especially in terms of the strange. I’m a firm believer that every place has something unique, but in the Midwest, it’s not always so apparent. We don’t have a coast, we don’t have mountains, and so, our “uniqueness” sometimes requires a little digging. Many of the “case files” within the book discuss how small Midwestern towns often take it upon themselves to employ creatures or stories or legends to serve as proof of their uniqueness. As I’ve learned, those towns that embrace the strange—rather than shy away from it—often benefit both economically and culturally. In the Midwest, it’s cool to be weird. We’re humble about our oddities, of course, but we’re a little proud of them, too.  

TM: Other than Project
ELF—the Navy’s creation of “a one-way communication system to relay messages to
America’s nuclear submarines by way of extremely low frequency waves”—which of
these cases do you think is the most likely to be true, and why?

BH: Throughout the book, I try to steer clear of making too many definitive statements about my own feelings toward these subjects. For reasons of trying to preserve at least a little credibility, I let the narrative and the research do the work. As the various case files thickened, I tried to take an Occam’s Razor approach to the truth, assuring myself that the obvious solution was likely the correct one. But some of these events and creatures and phenomena seemed to defy any and all rational explanations. One interviewee said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that she likes to “keep an open mind without my mind falling out of the back of my head.” I really appreciated that candor. And I suppose I feel similarly. If you fess up to believing in phenomena such as UFOs or cryptozoological creatures, the general public dismisses you pretty quickly. But I’m always surprised by how many thoughtful and logical and rationale people come up to me in private to share their own encounters with the strange. Oftentimes folks begin by saying something like, “I know this sounds crazy but…” I just listen. And I try to do everything I can to intimate that I’m not judging them. That’s important, I think—just listening without offering an explanation. And I think that applies to most of our interactions with our fellow humans, too. Sometimes people don’t need an answer, just an ear.

Having said all that, the case that gives me the most pause is the Minot Air Force Base Sighting of 1968. It’s one thing when a single witness comes forward claiming to have seen a UFO, but what do we do when dozens of highly-trained military personnel claim to have seen something? Further, what are we to think when radarscope prints confirm that something strange was bolting through the sky? One answer, of course, is that the “UFO” seen over the Minot skies was an “unidentified flying object” of terrestrial origin. We tend to link UFO sightings with extraterrestrials, but we can’t forget the likelier explanation: that the technology is human made. That the strangeness in the skies is of our own making. Which is scarier: acknowledging intelligent life in the universe with technology far more advanced than our own, or that we ourselves possess such technology and refuse to speak of it?

TM: You reference journalist and ufologist John Keel several times in the book. Keel is best known for The Mothman Prophecies, but my favorites of his are The Eighth Tower, and “The Flying Saucer Subculture,” a 1975 essay that appeared in the Journal of Popular Culture. “Ufology has been a propaganda movement rather than a scientific movement,” he argued. “The ufologists began stumping for a myth in the late 1940s before the sighting evidence was empirical.” You include a few UFO cases and encounters in this book, and speak with several researchers. Do you think Keel’s assessment is correct?

BH: One lesson I learned throughout this book is that everyone has a motive. As I sought out interviews with folks who had stories to share, I was always leery of those who were a little too willing to talk. Most of the interviewees that made it into the book were people who were a bit hesitant. They needed to know more about me and the project before they signed on. And I appreciated that vetting process immensely; mostly because it provided me the opportunity to get to know them better, too. So much trust goes into writing a book based primarily from firsthand accounts. At every turn, I was acutely aware that I might be played for a fool. In most interviews, I tried to tease out what the interviewer might get out of the process. On occasion, people said things like, “Look, nothing good came from this incident in my life, and I don’t expect anything good to come from it now.” Their hesitancy is what solidified my trust toward them. And I hope my willingness to listen without judgment allowed me to reciprocate that trust.

I haven’t read John Keel’s work widely enough to make a proper assessment in any definitive way. But speaking directly to the quote, my gut tells me that a good chunk of the population would likely agree. And that many Ufologists would, too. Carl Sagan famously told Ufologist J. Allen Hynek, “I predict that if and when you ever get a really good case that involves hard evidence, there will be no lack of federal funds.” It’s not that Sagan was dismissive about other intelligent life in the universe; rather, he just needed science to support such a claim. All serious-minded Ufologists likely share that sentiment. Because without the scientific backing, it’s even easier to dismiss the claims. An eyewitness account always proves insufficient. But unaltered photos and videos and radarscope prints, those are the building blocks of proof.

TM: The story of Oscar the Turtle—an alleged giant turtle spotted in Indiana during the 1940s—leads you to discover a folklorist who wrote his dissertation on the subject. “For a folklorist like [John] Gutkowski, it was never a question of whether or not Oscar ‘existed’: what mattered most were the stories surrounding the creature.” You’re a professor and writer; what did you learn about storytelling from spending a year steeped in folklore?

BH: We twist ourselves into knots over the so-called “truth,” when in fact “truth”—for better or worse—seems to grow more relative with every passing day. In the introduction, I write that one of my primary motives for this book was to test “whether our grappling with such unanswerable subjects might fortify us against the onslaught of misinformation now embedded in our lives.” Following the 2016 election, I became terrified by the weaponization of misinformation. Which is to say: there are serious socio-political ramifications for how we spin a story. Whether or not Bigfoot exists is hardly the most pressing question of our time, but I’d argue that better understanding how and why some people believe fiercely in Bigfoot, while others refuse even to entertain the possibility, is a question worth considering. What information tips our belief scale? How can two people look at the same information and arrive at two diametrically opposed conclusions? Of course, it’s hardly as simple as that. But, indeed, exploring the strange might be a vehicle for testing our own critical thinking skills on an array of subjects.

Throughout the research process, I found plenty of pitfalls in my own thinking. How easy it is to get caught up in the lie. And how difficult to return to solid ground once your heart gets ahead of your head. If a story is good enough, it’s easy to suspend our disbelief. And when we do, sometimes we let down our guard. For me, that realization is both empowering and terrifying. In the right hands, stories can create positive change, but in the wrong hands, they can prove destructive to the world beyond the story.  

TM: Midwestern Strange includes stories and legends that range from the bizarre to the silly to the violent. What led you to focus on these particular cases (and were there any interesting cases that you researched that you didn’t include in the book?)?

BH: About 35 miles due west of my home in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, is a village called Elmwood, which claims to be the UFO Capital of Wisconsin. No matter that a few other places in Wisconsin make the same claim, Elmwood totally claims it the hardest. Not only does Elmwood host an annual summer festival called UFO Days, but back in the 1970s, following a rash of UFO sightings, a few of the village’s citizens led a grassroots effort to raise $50 million to build a UFO landing strip. While surrounding towns were working on finding funding for the library and the school, a select group of folks in and around Elmwood set their sights a whole lot higher (pun totally intended—I couldn’t resist). The story is fascinating, yet I couldn’t track down enough of the key figures in the fundraising campaign to make the story worthwhile. And so, I had to let this particular case file. As far as I could tell, there was no new discoveries to be had.

As for the cases that are
included, I selected them for a variety of reasons. First, I think they
provided a nice range of “strange.” On one end, we’ve got wolves running about
Wisconsin on two legs, and on the other we’ve got a pre-Columbian stone with a
runic inscription dredged up in western Minnesota. One’s the kind of thing
you’d see in a horror movie, the other, something you’d see on an archeological
dig. In between, we’ve got creatures like Mothman, whose sole existence is
based on eyewitness reports, as well as Project ELF—a top secret military
operation with no shortage of documentation. Each of the cases provides a new
way to view our world. As you mentioned, some of the case files are scary,
others are a little goofy, but all of them, at least in my opinion, were
totally worthy of further exploration.

TM: In your epilogue to the
book, you write “Researcher be warned: when it comes to the strange, the work
never reaches its end.” Keel has written about this; the feeling that
existentially (or even psychically), paranormal researchers are trapped in
constant inquiry. You spent a year “living strangely”—what has happened since?

BH: I
spent a year leaping headlong down every rabbit hole I could, then another year
trying to dig myself out. Researching strange phenomena was like nothing I’d
done before. With this subject, the “written record” was always pretty thin. And
even when I did find written accounts, there were always questions of
credibility to consider. I began every case by calibrating myself toward
neutrality. I had to leave any and all preconceived notions at the door. Of
course, that’s virtually impossible to do. But I tried.

But the truth is, with few exceptions, the deeper I got into a case, the further from the truth I became. This was a wholly unexpected development. At the start of the project, the whole point was to let the evidence lead me toward explanations. Not necessarily to “debunk” any phenomena, but to provide additional possibilities. If I turned over enough stones, I figured, eventually I’d find something new. The problem, though, was that there were always stones beneath those stones. I turned over one and I found another.

The “Martian” section of the book was the most difficult in this regard. Information on UFOs and extraterrestrials is simply without end. I suppose this probably confirms Keel’s quote about UFOs being a “propaganda movement rather than a scientific movement.” One of the most startling moments of my research was when I tracked down a well-known Ufologist who’d been off the grid for some time. He made it clear to me that his UFO research had done real harm to his life. It ruined his career and his personal life. And he told me I ought to be careful if I insisted on going down this particular path, as he had. It really shook me.

Equally strange was the
moment when various interviewees from various case files began highlighting the
same specific detailed locations and mineral deposits, claiming that these locations
and mineral deposits seemed to attract strange phenomena. I figured this was
part of some larger theory, but not so. I searched every search engine and
found nothing. These folks, on their own accord and without prompting, were
simply mentioning a few details which they couldn’t make sense of. Having heard
these details again and again, suddenly I was in a place to try to make sense
of them, or at least look a bit closer. That was the moment I knew I needed to
either go deeper down that rabbit hole or begin to claw my way out. Coward that
I am, I chose to claw my way out. Things were becoming a little too strange,
even for me.

The biggest change in my own life is that now I view the world differently. Mysteries aren’t something to be solved, but something to be embraced. We don’t need to conquer; we just need to be curious. For me, that’s where the revelation lives—in the not-knowing.

Rick Moody’s New Book Takes on Marriage, for Better and for Worse

“In order to have a second marriage you can believe in,” begins Rick Moody in The Long Accomplishment, “you may have to fail at your first marriage. I failed spectacularly at mine.” In this, his second memoir, Moody comes clean about his resistance to monogamy and an adult life marked by sexual compulsivity, self-destructiveness, and “a long list of regrets.” But something shifts in him around the time he meets visual artist Laurel Nakadate, and when they decide to get married, he is prepared to commit to the vows of marriage with someone he deeply loves.

As soon as their marriage begins there are troubles, but this time the nature of the troubles is external to his marriage: the ongoing “contaminating” legal matters of his divorce; deaths and health crises of loved ones; some terrible situations involving his homes; and a long, soul-crushing struggle with infertility. How much can early marriage withstand, and how can hardship teach of the strength that marriage offers? The Long Accomplishment offers an answer to this question: It is a raw and candid account of the power of committed love to combat life’s sorrows.

I spoke with Rick Moody about marriage, artistic collaboration, infertility, and how he approached the structure of memoir when writing The Long Accomplishment.

The Millions: The basic structure of The Long Accomplishment is the first year of your second marriage, told in chronological order, each chapter organized by a month in this year. Beyond this framework, what thought did you give to structure as you embarked upon this project?

Rick Moody: With my prior memoir, The Black Veil, I had a lot of thoughts about the nonfiction novel, the way, e.g., that Mailer tried to structure certain nonfiction works as though they were novels, and about the whole theory of formal hybridizing between and among the genres, between fiction and nonfiction. These were really rewarding ways to think about memoir writing for me, but in the case of The Long Accomplishment I didn’t want to overthink or to labor for an idea of form. I wanted to tell the story, because the story was most of what I was thinking about in 2015 to 2016, when I first really started bearing down on the manuscript. I didn’t want to have a structure that called undue attention to itself. I have done that a lot in the past, preoccupying myself with forms, but I have sort of been repenting of it lately, trying to locate near at hand forms that are more organic. So in this case, beyond the chronological, there weren’t really many ideas about form, though it was a sort of solidifying and emulsifying thought that a solid year was the form chosen by a certain 19th-century transcendentalist for his memoir. In my case, the calendar year was also a valid form because I really was talking about a year, from my wedding day to the dark events of exactly one year later. The form was natural, at hand, and pretty obvious, and that seemed valid enough to me.

TM: The Long Accomplishment is a memoir about a marriage. Of course, any memoir is primarily about the experience of the person writing the book, but in this case, you are also telling the story about your partner, Laurel, and her experience of your first married year. Can you talk about approach to the main point of view of the memoir? Was it your experience as an individual in a marriage, your marriage as the primary persona, you and Laurel as two separate individuals with a common life vision, or something else?

RM: Perhaps the perfect way to write the book would have been to write it with Laurel, dividing the labor evenly, had Laurel been the kind of person who does such a thing. I talk in the book a little bit about the overlap between our creative lives, and it may be, yet, and according to the stealth influence that exists between her and me, that Laurel recasts some of these themes in visual art somehow, and then her point of view will be more exactly rendered than it is in the refracted version of her in my book. In the absence of her full participation, however, it could not, from my point of view, have been a perfect portrait of her there, because it is my portrait of her, and though I spend more time with her than anyone else does now, she is her own person, and even in marriage there are spaces that one inhabits alone. I am, I think, perhaps marginally more gifted at this than the average guy in rendering a woman on the page, and I believe in the attempt, but neither am I perfect. The Laurel in the memoir is the result of all these collisions of form, history, the politics of gender, which make her other than the actual Laurel, and that is interesting, and it is the truth of the matter. I am the writer in the family, most of the time, and it is, therefore, a portrait of myself in marriage, and, I hope a portrait of one’s vulnerabilities in marriage, one’s failures, one’s aspirations, and the way that marriage rises to meet the participants where they are, if they really want to be married. I hope I pretty well captured Laurel and myself together, at least in the moments of crisis, which make up a fair amount of the plot.

TM: What part did Laurel play in the revising of the book?

RM: She did read the galleys very closely, and had a lot of opinions, and thus in a late stage, she actually did help quite a bit with the text. We have a tradition of staying out of each other’s creativities, by and large. I don’t tell her what to do with her photographs, and she doesn’t tell me what to do with my writing. But she did have to be involved, this time, for all the memoir reasons: She is in the book, her family is in the book, our life together is in the book, and so she had to read it pretty closely when I had a finished manuscript. I think she read it twice before we got to the fifth pass, which was when I started to feel good about the whole.

TM: In a discussion with the LA Review of Books in 2015, you told the interviewer: “I like novels best when they have nothing at all in common with the tradition of the American realistic novel. I like when they don’t really seem like novels all that much.” Do you have any similar feelings about the memoir genre?

RM: I’m sort of bored of myself and my passionately held opinions, of which this is one example. These days, what I want from a book is simply to care deeply about it, in whatever condition it is to be found. And mostly I care about things that thoughtfully observe, and which note what there is to say about human emotions and human consciousness, about the great convolution and mystery of consciousness and being. It doesn’t really matter, anymore, what the shape is. Whether it is revolutionizing the form or not. It doesn’t matter what genre it is in. (Though it is also true that there are non-fiction and memoiristic books I love that are expansionist with respect to genre: Cheever’s Journals, Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, Nelson’s Argonauts, Yvonne Rainer’s Feelings Are Facts, Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, etc.) I have made some attempts to revolutionize, in my way, and I’m glad for my attempts, but how many books do I have left now? Six or seven? I don’t know. I want to make something lasting and meaningful, and I’m tired of aesthetics and aestheticizing all the time, I’m tired of debate, a sort of artistic fiddling while Rome burns, and I’m tired of the sort of self-regard that goes with my own interviews. What does the heart want in a story? Something like the truth. I am trying to head there now, where the human emotions find their genuine evocation, however complicated.

TM: You sometimes offer your services as Rick Moody, Life Coach. Now that you’ve “failed spectacularly” at your first marriage, as you write in the opening of The Long Accomplishment, and written a meditation on how a strong marriage (in your case, your second) can weather all kinds of storm, what “life coach” advice can you offer people about how to enter into marriage? Is it about where you are in your life? About what kind of partner you choose? Luck? All of these things?

RM: The book is probably a terrible primer on marriage. I am not holding myself up as any kind of model. (Indeed, my position on why I am a good life coach is because I have failed so badly at so many things. I have broad-based and intensive experience at failure, especially interpersonal failure.) In so many ways, in life, I am sort of hanging by a thread. That said, I believe in being honest about marriage, that is at the heart of the book, and I simply wasn’t any good at it, and wasn’t going to be any good at it, until there was a person, a time, and an age of life, when I really wanted to be here doing it, being in a marriage. I never thought I was commitment-phobic, really, it bears mentioning, I was just intensely interested in my work and didn’t want anyone in the way of it. But then the middle of life’s journey comes, and one sees how little time might be remaining, and the poignancy of attempting to love and be loved, accepting love, these all become things that seem rather precious. I counsel people to avoid marriage if it is in the least a result of normative pressure, or because your parents want you to, or because you think it is what heterosexual couples do, or because now you can marry because it is now permitted for people of the LGBTQ community to do so, or howsoever. Marry only because you want what marriage offers, which is a crash course in intimacy and support and responsibility and community.  When you want those things, for uncontaminated reasons, and you believe you have found a person with whom that seems feasible, then of course go for it. But if you aren’t there yet, there is every reason to wait. There is no shame in waiting. All things are possible in time’s fullness, and according to the mysterious road forward.

TM: You describe the emotional toll of assisted reproductive technology in detail in this book, which is something a great number of people experience when trying to have a baby later in life, but which male partners in particular don’t frequently talk or write about. What did you learn about IVF, fertility, pregnancy, etc. that you think people should know more about? (There is a movement to encourage young women who want to be parents in the not-near future to seek fertility testing, educate themselves on fertility and age, and potentially freeze their young eggs, which I personally think is an idea that should spread, having gone through IVF myself.)

RM: Really Laurel should answer this question, as she was the more educated of the two of us on the fine print. There was a period in which she had a lot of acronyms at her command, and I was frequently having to look up these acronyms so that I was sure I knew what we were discussing. I know that she believes strongly in freezing (eggs and embryos, where relevant), as I do, too, and she has counseled people of our acquaintance who might need what we needed to freeze. Obviously, she might have done so herself earlier, had she known sooner what we were up against. We sort of blundered into the whole world of assisted reproductive technology, adjusting to our difficult circumstances as they got more difficult, and we would spare some others the floundering, if we could, which is one reason for the book. The percentage of people who experience infertility is extremely high, of course. I think the CDC says 10 percent of women experience infertility, and I believe the number is trending up, for reasons that are not yet a matter of settled science.

The part of the saga of assisted reproduction that I would want to reiterate here for the lay people in the audience is the idea of infertility as a “silent disease.” So-called, because those in its grip don’t often talk about it. It’s pretty obvious, if you dig in, think about it a little bit, why it doesn’t get talked about, but if you do think about it, attend to it, the affliction is more sad, more harrowing, the more you learn. Our story, in comparison to friends we met along the way, is not that bad. We know well people who had to terminate pregnancies very late, so-called stillbirths, we know people with twice as many losses as we had, and worse. In every case, these stories involve women and men who then went back to work and pretended it was all fine. Who lost children, not potential children, mind you, but actual children, and then went back to work—since few, if any, employers, give time off for miscarriage. They discussed their grief, mainly, with other people going through it. Not with friends and family. Their strength and dignity, it seems to me, is a thing to be revered. Their sorrows should be our sorrows.

That men discuss this even less frequently than women do is in some ways not surprising: first, it is women who disproportionately do the work, and thus who perhaps have a greater share in the way the story might be told; second, where the men themselves are afflicted with infertility, it is in a way that men are often particularly sensitive about; third, there is the politics of men talking about a subject that has in large measure to do with women’s bodies. I am obviously acutely aware of all these problems, these traditions of male silence. But just as one has seen men, in recent years, coming to feel that they have a role in the discussion of choice, a voice in support of women, so do men have a voice, it seems to me, in a discussion of infertility. Let me describe the nature of my support. Laurel was not alone in her struggle, and I too wanted to have a child. I didn’t want to have a child so that Laurel could go through it and do all the work. I wanted to have a child because I love children and love being a father, no matter how ridiculously hard it is, and I wanted to do it with Laurel and to share in it with her, at every step. That means the story, in some impossible-to-quantify portion, is also mine. I too had feelings about it, had, for example, feelings about the twin boys we lost (and by saying this I am not overlooking the daughter we lost, but am just not belaboring the discussion). My feelings, and the biological root of these feelings, cannot possibly be identical with Laurel’s feelings, but that doesn’t mean that I have no part. And, since I am the writer in the family, it is logical that I could try to tell this tale. If we can help one other couple not feel alone, if I can help one other guy not feel alone, if I can help a few more people who don’t know about the real, tumultuous grief of infertility to see how intense is the suffering of those who are afflicted with it, and in many cases how immense are the sacrifices that people make in the world of assisted reproductive technology (we are a very privileged couple, it bears mentioning, and we couldn’t even get close to being able—as citizens of New York State, where there is no coverage for IVF—to being able to pay the fees), then it is worth it. (And: I know you know about this too so I hope it’s obvious I’m not saying it to you, but with you, I think.)

TM: What was the most surprising or important thing you learned about yourself during the writing of this memoir?

RM: In a way, a lot of my thinking lately has been about gender, and about a sense of myself in near constant conflict in the matter of my own gender. I don’t mean in the sense of traditionally dysphoric, as in I don’t have the right body, but rather simply I am terribly conflicted about what it means psychically, ontologically, to be a man. On the one hand, I am satisfied with the idea of difference within masculinity, and I am happy saying: I am not conventional at being a man, at least according to popular preconceptions, and that is fine, because my saying so, that I am unconventional, helps others who have the same experience, who might not identify with masculinity (though I would probably use stronger terms for my inner feeling). But at the same time there is for me an insurmountable interrogation of self that has accrued to me, that has been internalized, for my lack of ability to conform, psychically, ontologically. It was the basis of my depression in the ’80s, or one of its bases, and was a not infrequent topic in my earlier memoir, The Black Veil. But my intense discomfort about one chapter in The Long Accomplishment (I will keep to myself which, for now, as I don’t want to skew the reading experience), my discomfort about my own conduct, has stuck with me, and my feeling about the book, sometimes, about this one portion, is of shame. I think I am enough self-aware to know that this is who I am now, I am a person who has these issues, and the goal is acceptance and appreciation of and respect for the soul in discomfort, with an eye on wholeness, at the end of my journey. But in the meantime, the work, again, has indicated some of the ways that I am not whole, am, in fact, rather injured, and I bring this injured self into my marriage. And though to many people I look, act, and have all the privilege of being a certain kind of man, a white straight guy, inside I have a rather stark dislike of this kind of masculinity, and can’t seem to let it go, nor to avoid feeling accountable for it. It’s like having been burned in one spot, and still having the sensation of the burn, the burn being called forth, as it were, on every sunny day. And I know this is a sort of heavy answer, Alden Jones, but you asked, and because the subject is this book, a nonfiction book, I am honor bound to tell the truth.

Alden Jones is the author of the forthcoming bibliomemoir, The Wanting Was a Wilderness, and the previous books The Blind Masseuse and Unaccompanied Minors. She teaches creative writing and cultural studies at Emerson College and is core faculty in the Newport MFA program.

Topple the Top 10 List: The Millions Interviews Emily Nussbaum

I Like to Watch is the first book by Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker’s TV critic. It combines nearly two dozen of her Pulitzer-Prize-winning reviews with essays on subjects ranging from product placement to Joan Rivers, profiles of showrunners like Kenya Barris and Jenji Kohan, and a new 17,000-word essay on the question of separating the art from the artist in the age of #MeToo.

Nussbaum traces her love affair with television back to 1997, when an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer changed the way she thought about the then-derided medium. She has spent the two decades since arguing for the once-unpopular notion that TV is an art form central to our culture and worthy of our attention and criticism. Since then, television has entered its current “golden age,” and Nussbaum’s side has won what she calls “the drunken cultural brawl” over the importance of TV. In the process, the best shows have slowly shed adjectives like “novelistic” and “cinematic” and earned respect on their own terms: as television. But along the way, she says, too many great series were ignored or met with condescension. And as innovations from TiVo to Netflix transformed the industry, the very definition of television itself became less and less clear.

Nussbaum and I sat down last month at a Park Slope café to talk about underrated shows, the downside of technological advances, and the benefits of Twitter. (And if you need a new show, she said she was looking forward to Season 2 of Succession; and she recommended Los Espookys, The Other Two, the most recent season of High Maintenance, and the final season of Orange is the New Black.)

The Millions: A key part of the case that you’re making in I Like to Watch is that we should be celebrating shows with female protagonists like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Jane the Virgin and Sex and the City and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. In fact, in a piece about your book, Mother Jones said that you’re shaping an “alternative canon” for television’s golden age.

A lot of my female partners and female friends have loved those shows over the years. And honestly, I’ve ignored most of them in favor of shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad. So your book definitely gave me pause. I’m wondering: Do you feel like this part of your argument has been less successful than your larger argument, which is that we should be valuing TV?

Emily Nussbaum: Well, it depends on who you’re talking to. I think your experience is not unusual at all. And I do think that, to the extent that the book has kind of a pugnacious project, it is to say: Cast your attention elsewhere. So, I think that the point made in that Mother Jones piece about an alternative canon is true.

It’s not that I’m trying to put down certain great shows of the masculine antihero type. Several of them are among my favorite shows, including The Sopranos, which I have an essay on [in the book]. And I think The Wire is an extremely brilliant show. It’s not about creating a new hierarchy. It’s about exploding the false status anxiety and, to a certain extent, the gender bias that’s basically kept all of those [female-centered] shows categorized as “optional” shows that girls and teenagers watch. It’s like: topple the top 10 list, the anxious hierarchy. Look across the universe at different kinds of creativity, and find ways to celebrate and critique all of them for what they’re trying to do.

[The undervalued shows belong to] a bunch of overlapping categories. Some of it’s about gender, some of it’s about comedy, some of it’s about genre (like sci-fi), some of it is about shows that are bright and warm and deal with domesticity and romance—and that stuff gets coded female.

The main theme of the book is about celebrating television as television. And a lot of those shows that you mentioned actually fall into categories that people deride as particularly “TV-like.”

TM: Like the romantic comedy…

EN: Romantic comedy, sitcom, soap opera. They have arch or stylized qualities that I think people condescend to.

But I have to say, TV is not the only medium that this happens in. [Another is] books. There’s a major issue with male friends of mine who have literally never read a female author. It’s a real rancorous struggle.

It’s always a little shocking to me that some men that I know haven’t watched certain overtly great female-centered shows: Broad City, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Fleabag, Lady Dynamite. It is a perpetual frustration for me. I hope that the book shames people into watching good TV shows. I’d be happy!

TM: It’s not that I haven’t ever watched any of them, but you have made me think…

EN: Not every show is for everybody. I mean, I don’t require people to love Sex and the City. Some people really don’t like that show. I get it. But part of my thing is to oppose the default condescension, and also the sort of stink of, “oh, that’s a teen girl show. I don’t want to watch with teen girls, because that’s somehow embarrassing…”

Sometimes I get frustrated when female shows are only compared to other female shows. Some of the pieces in this book are about trying to break the ghettoization of things. So it’s not like, ‘if you like Jane the Virgin, you might like Claws!’

[For example,] there’s a piece in the book comparing House of Cards to Scandal. Those are the same show, just done in an aesthetically different way—and one of them has a sense of humor. I’ve written a couple of pieces like that, that are basically just pointing out the incredible similarity of shows that people generally think of as in different categories. I think that’s a valuable thing for critics to do—to break the boxes that people have created for art, that keep people from seeing them in a bigger vision.

TM: There have been other books that have been so specifically trained on the male antihero drama as the epitome of the golden age. So it’s really helpful to have a book like this…

EN: You know, poor Brett [Martin] wrote this great book, Difficult Men. But then I used it as a teeing-off point for my piece [about Sex and the City].

TM: Which was totally fair.

EN: It was fair! Brett really treated those antihero shows as something that transcended television. And he had a very dismissive attitude toward a lot of the shows that I find artistically substantial. So his book ended up being a perfect launching point.

But Brett is great. He sent me a tank top that said “Difficult Woman.”

TM: Another thing you talk about as far as the way TV has evolved is that there have been these huge technological advances. You say that some of them were necessary in order for TV to have the ascension that it’s had—for example, the ability to pause and rewind TV makes it a text that can be analyzed. Are there ways in which you think these massive changes have been harmful?

EN: The fact that people tweet while watching things is ironic, because it’s overlapped with the expansion of visual ambition in TV. Historically, TV was not a highly visual medium, for economic and pragmatic reasons. It’s not as though people had the money or the ability to film on-location, or in idiosyncratic ways. If you were making a network show, you had to produce 22 episodes, you had to do them on sets, you couldn’t confuse the viewer. Recently, there have been these really beautiful and visually specific shows that have a lot of silence, that have different kinds of framing that never existed before. And this has coincided with people constantly looking at their computers while the show is on. So I do think that that is unsettling. Sometimes there’s a show that I think of as a very visual show, and it worries me that people live-tweet. (But on the other hand, I sometimes do that.)

One other thing: I love that streaming puts out whole seasons at once. There’s something powerful about being able to watch a whole show. But it also bums me out on several levels, one of which is that I’ve built my whole career on being interested in the unique looping relationship [between shows and their audience] over time, and streaming changes that. Another damaging thing is that sometimes you’ll have a great show come out, and people don’t know when to talk about it. Streaming has really rattled the ability to talk about shows in any kind of logical way, because you can watch them any time you want, and you watch all of them.

TM: As opposed to the kind of appointment television that used to exist 20 years ago on Thursday night on NBC.

EN: There is something beautiful about the episodic week-by-week model. It’s easy just to be nostalgic about things because they’re older, and I don’t want to fall into that. But the episode itself, as a thing, is definitely changed by the release of a 10-episode season. The way you experience episodes, without the pause in between—I think it benefits some shows and is actually worse for other shows.

TM: A couple months back, you posted a thread on Twitter about Friends and homophobia. You were talking about how calling the show homophobic was “short-sighted, silly & simplistic.” There were hundreds of comments, including a few from people who identified as gay, saw the show as children, didn’t pick up on certain nuances you were arguing for, and instead absorbed it as homophobic. My reading of your responses was that your perspective shifted a little bit. Is that accurate? And is that one of the things you’re intentionally using Twitter for—to have your mind changed?

EN: One hundred percent. Definitely. It’s not that I changed my mind about the point that I was trying to make—which was that adults watching Friends at the time perceived it in a specific cultural space. That show had pretty clear pro-gay bona fides in that period, because there were very few gay characters on TV, and that show had a lesbian couple. Several colleagues of mine, gay journalists around my same age, talked about their own reactions at the time: that it was thrilling to see a show set in New York in which gay and straight people were constantly acknowledging one another and had relationships. (That hardly seems radical now, but it was true at the time.) And to me, the jokes about Joey and Chandler, which read very poorly now to a lot of younger people watching the show, seemed to be making fun of Joey and Chandler for their insecurity. The target of the jokes was [straight] male anxiety about the increasing visibility of gay men.

But, yes, in that thread, several people were like, “I was ten or eleven when I was watching the show. And the message to me was that straight men, when they’re alone, are incredibly nervous about being seen as someone like me.” And I found that incredibly helpful. It did change my mind.

It definitely was a fruitful conversation—and that’s happened a lot on Twitter. It reminded me that TV always sends multiple messages to multiple audiences. What seemed, to a bunch of urban friendship groups in cities, like this sophisticated show making fun of straight men for their homophobia, struck gay children as this frightening representation of themselves as the source of anxiety and the butt of the joke. Both of those things can be true at once.