An Illustration, an Illusion: The Millions Interviews Carla Zaccagnini

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Written during the pandemic and released on the occasion of her concurrent solo exhibition at the Amant art campus in Brooklyn, Cuentos de cuentas (co-published in April 2022 by Amant Foundation and K.Verlag) artist and writer Carla Zaccagnini, who grew up in Brazil and Argentina during the turbulent decades of the 1970s and ‘80s, scrutinizes inflation, status, family, political and social uncertainty, under the guise of memory.

Cuentos de cuentas mixes English and Spanish to examine the complicated and unstable economy of memory in five vignettes. Peering through the often-distorted lens of photographic collage, ephemera, and appropriated stories, Zaccagnini asks of the reader: what is real and unreal? Here she defies genres in an artful mingling of history and memory, text and image, dollars and cents.

The book itself is a rich object, punctuated by vibrant pages of solid color, scattered images of the author’s drawings, archival clippings, ticket stubs, and other ephemera. It is at once a literary masterpiece and visual pocketbook. Its written investigations pair perfectly with Zaccagnini’s art installations, but they resonate far beyond the gallery, serving as a dialogue—a guide—to her visual work. Cuentos de cuentas invites readers into Zaccagnini’s kaleidoscopic realm of imagination, where she fuses domestic to historical, episodic to timeless, in effort to understand our individualized—and imperfect—perceptions of the past.

Leslie Lindsay: At the café where I read Cuentos de cuentas, I found myself eavesdropping. It was located in an affluent area, and conversations ranged from the economics of an upcoming “celebration of life” to the ethics of silencing notifications; they were a tangle of hope and hype: vein clinics, star smiles, and eyebrow threading. As I listened, I encountered this line: “Look, I brought you an idea.” My mind immediately morphed ‘brought’ into ‘bought.’ Are wants insatiable? Can ideas be bought?

Carla Zaccagnini: This is a beautiful way to start talking about this book, through words that are not in it, but were floating around it while you read. There is a passage in the Spanish version of the first chapter that couldn’t be translated. I mistyped the word “blanco” (white) for “blando” (soft) when describing a scene in which I fell down the white—or soft—marble stairs of my childhood home. I kept the typo, which is somehow like a faux pas, a misplaced step, a (Freudian) slip that can make one roll down the stairs. But it can also reveal how the hardness of stone is impermanent; challenged by the flexibility of a body in movement; corroded by memory. Any Lacanian psychoanalyst—like my mother—would say that desire is, by its very nature, insatiable. I am not sure ideas can be bought, but they can most certainly be sold. What do people really get when they think they are buying ideas? Probably something unable to satiate their desire of possessing those ideas: a timid reflection, a tortuous refraction, an illustration, an illusion.

LL: What makes a person want so much? What gives things the power to enchant? Is there a limit to the desire for more?

CZ: One thing is the structure of desire; another is the logic of capitalism. Desire for the other, and for the other’s desire, desire for difference, for the unachievable, is the motor that can make us move beyond what we know. Nothing good can be said about the logic of capitalism, the compulsive craving for excess and all the misery and destruction it creates.

LL: The same could be said about creativity. Some fear their creativity will be “all used up,” the well will run dry. In fact, the more one creates—or is around those who create—more ideas flow. This circles back to the consumerism of ideas, is there ever a “collapse of market”?

CZ: The well might be a good metaphor. A well is not an impermeable vessel, containing a limited amount of liquid that can be administrated to last as needed. Water does not belong to the well. A well is nothing but a passage. A well is the extraction of earth, an opening, an emptied space that gives access to aquifers, which extend beyond borders and are part of the continuous water cycle. The economy of ideas is similar. We are not born with a limited amount of ideas to have, and our ideas are not isolated in impermeable brains.

LL: In terms of art, might it be presumptuous to suggest artists get out of the studio and onto the streets? For example, viewing art in a gallery is one thing, but in Cuentos de cuentas, one can experience art as text, anywhere, as I did in a café. In that sense, you shifted the way people normally see things; maybe you shattered the optical subconsciousness by offering a dialogue. Perhaps you intended something else?

CZ: On different occasions and using different strategies, I have been attempting to establish with the readers of my work the same kind of relationship that literature has with its readers. Something parallel to the fact that you can bring a book with you, to the café or the park; that you can force the letters to shake with the subway or make the pages grow thicker with rain. The fact that places end up being imprinted in a book: the smell of sunscreen accompanied by a few grains of sand hidden between pages; the metallic smell of house keys in a book that has been in a purse for long; the receipt from a restaurant or a bus ticket marking a page with a passage that we cannot recognize; the alien underlined words that are like a present in a book from the library. The fact that you can read faster and without pause when you need the story to develop; or you can close the book and make the characters wait. You can go back some pages, re-read a paragraph, skip a passage, abandon the book altogether. The fact that you lend the printed words your voice, your accent, your rhythm.

LL: Punctuated throughout Cuentos de cuentas are color plates, like paint chips, which speak to the artistic quality of your work. Color theory combines context and harmony with the color wheel. Broken into elements, this might apply to the larger construct of your overall message: the context of consumerism, world citizens of all colors operating in harmony, and the gears of capitalism. Was that your intention with the blocks of color?

CZ: The color plates in the book are a printed approximation of how I remember the shades mentioned in the text, a reaffirmation or a correction in relation to the color each reader envisions when reading the words “army green,” “raw cement,” or “French flag”.

When Anna-Sophie Springer, editor at K. Verlag, read the first chapters of the book, she noticed the recurrent presence of color in the narrative. These stories, witnessed from the perspective of a child and recalled after decades, have a shallow depth of field: some details are in sharp focus, a lot of it is blurred. Some colors are focal points, as vivid as some smells. Around them are the “permissible circles of confusion,” as photographers call the areas of the image perceived by the human eye as being in focus. These colors are condensation points of whatever substance memories are made of. At least for me, memory matter becomes thicker as the abstract density of colors than as lines and scale.

Sensory Overload: The Millions Interviews Liska Jacobs

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I first met Liska Jacobs in 2016, when she was the events coordinator at The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles, where I had the book launch for my poetry collection Emergency Brake. In the six years since, she’s published three excellent novels: Catalina, The Worst Kind of Want, and her latest, The Pink Hotel. Jacobs’s novels are sexy and atmospheric and often center on someone spiraling out, toeing the edge of some abyss and teetering on a knife’s edge of pleasure and abjection.

With the The Pink Hotel, Jacobs has written a dark and seductive literary satire. The novel takes place at a luxury hotel in Los Angeles amid spreading wildfires, riots, and an escalating class war. Small-town newlyweds Keith and Kit Collins arrive at the historic and opulent Pink Hotel for their honeymoon, which quickly transforms into a job interview between Keith and the hotel’s general manager. Ignored by her husband, Kit gets sucked into the bacchanalia of the hotel’s eccentric, uber-wealthy patrons. Meanwhile, Keith must prove himself a worthy hire by catering to the every whim of the hotel’s elite guests, no matter how chaotic or dangerous. Narrated through the alternating lenses of guests and staff, the novel interrogates social hierarchies, climate-change-induced natural disaster, and how power and money can turn a relationship into a pressure cooker.

I spoke with Jacobs about writing socially-conscious fiction, balancing absurdity and realism, and how her writing process has changed between her three novels.

Ruth Madievsky: Your last two novels belong to my favorite genre of literary fiction: acidic women on the verge behaving badly. The Pink Hotel has plenty of those as well, but what made you decide to cast your net wider this time around and write a social satire?

Liska Jacobs: I write from a place of rage—I call it my rage diamond—so acerbic female characters are close to my heart. It’s funny, I didn’t set out to write a social satire. We’re living in strange times. If you listed out just a few things that have happened this year, it reads like satire. Nancy Pelosi officiated Ivy Getty’s wedding; Pete Davidson is in a love triangle with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West; a Ukrainian actor who wrote and starred in a show about becoming the president of Ukraine is now the president of Ukraine. It doesn’t take much to satirize what I think we’re calling late-stage capitalism, though we’ve probably been here for a while. I mean, the idea for The Pink Hotel is inspired by a true event that happened during the 1992 riots: The Beverly Hills elites didn’t feel safe in their mansions, so they gathered in the Polo Lounge where they watched the events unfold on TV, highballs in hand.

RM: The novel’s descriptions of the Pink Hotel—inspired by The Beverly Hills Hotel—and of Los Angeles are so vivid: the wild parrots, the piles of caviar, the poolside vitamin IV drips. What kind of research did you do to fictionalize these real places?

LJ: I wanted the setting to feel almost claustrophobic in its lushness. We’re dealing with the uber-rich and the descriptions needed to reflect the gluttony that goes with hoarding that much wealth. But then, when I was on the final draft, I started to have sensory overload. Part of it was that some of the things that I fictionalized came true. I was writing a book that had wildfires and civil unrest and by the summer of 2020, there were wildfires making the air toxic and citywide curfews to curb protests. At night you could hear flash bangs in the distance. So I accepted a six-month writer’s residency in Chapala, Mexico and left Los Angeles.

Having digested all kinds of material for research—architectural magazines, articles on extravagant parties, tree arbor books of Santa Monica, newspaper clippings of fancy dress balls, not to mention a week-long stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel—I needed some distance. Some breathing space so that all that research could become this heady, fictionalized version of the truth. That’s a long way of saying that I did the research and then removed myself to let memory and imagination take over.

RM: The combination of social unrest, climate-change-induced wildfires, and eccentric ultra-wealthy people with no boundaries trapped in one place prepares the reader for a wild ride. But that doesn’t make the twists, particularly the ending, any less surprising. How did you thread the needle between the absurdity of satire and enough realism for the reader to buy in?

LJ: All the outrageous, unhinged settings in the book—late-night meat parties, orgies, dog parties, black and white balls—have all happened. Even the details like couture face masks. Do you remember when Christian Siriano threw his fashion show in his backyard for New York Fashion Week because Covid was at its height and they “just needed an escape”? The models all had intricately detailed face masks that matched their couture. Nor did I make up the wild animals and plants that take over the Pink Hotel’s ballroom. That was based on the Vanderbilts’ masquerade in the 1880s, which saw potted palms, masses of ferns and ornamental grasses, waterfalls of roses take over their grand hall to turn it into a tropical garden. One of the guest’s costumes consisted of a taxidermy cat head and seven cat tails sewn onto her skirt—that’s a thing that happened in real life!

It was entertaining to collect all this information about what wealthy people do with their wealth, but it also really pissed me off. Especially the way we consume and idolize the world of the rich. The reality of our lives is we’re seeing the erosion of our civil liberties, debt will follow us into the grave, and you can forget about health care. I’m not saying we should go burn down Beverly Hills, but maybe we stop paying our student loans.

RM: What were your lodestar books while writing The Pink Hotel?

LJ: I set out to write a novel that would be some kind of melding of J.G Ballard’s Highrise and Kay Thompson’s Eloise. But as it progressed through rewrites, I turned to Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind and Lydia Millet’s The Children’s Bible—both incredible novels.

RM: You’ve worked with the same editor, Daphne Durham, on all three of your novels. What has it been like to grow as a writer and build your career in that context?

LJ: I’ve been very lucky. Daphne’s also a fan of women on the edge. I think she must have a rage diamond too. We’re kindred spirits that way. I honestly can’t imagine working with anyone else. She’s very open to my insane ideas. When I pitched her this book, I sounded absolutely crazy—“There’s going to be wildfires and wild cats and an orgy but it’s also a takedown of late-stage capitalism and influencer worship and society’s complicity in our own demise”—but she was all in. And then I remember at some point after I turned the book in, I kept referring to it as being “ambitious,” and she said to stop calling it ambitious because I had accomplished what I’d set out to do. Writers everywhere should all be so lucky as to have someone like that in their corner.

RM: My debut novel is coming out in July 2023, and I can’t fathom how one replicates the process of writing a novel a second time, let alone a third. What was the experience of writing your third novel like compared to your first and second?

LJ: Yes, congratulations! I’m very excited to read All-Night Pharmacy. I felt similarly bewildered after Catalina. Looking back at the process of writing a novel is incredibly daunting. But when you’re in the thick of it, nothing else matters. It’s like being in a fugue state. I’ll sacrifice pretty much anything to get the words right and to hit the finish line. When I was writing The Worst Kind of Want, I was at the desk for so long I was wearing compression stockings and wrist guards and twice I had to get steroid injections in my fingers from swelling. After that novel I swore I’d take better care of myself but then when I needed to finish writing The Pink Hotel, I sold all my belongings and moved out of the country. So I’m not sure if writing my third novel was much different than the first two—maybe just a different kind of crazy. Every novel has to be its own adventure.

The Element of Silence: The Millions Interviews N. Scott Momaday

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N. Scott Momaday is a novelist and essayist, poet and playwright, visual artist and scholar. He’s the recipient of many awards including the Academy of American Poets Prize, the National Medal of Arts, the Frost Medal for distinguished lifetime achievement in poetry. For some he is first and foremost the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist of A House Made of Dawn, which received the prize in 1969.

In the decades since the publication of A House Made of Dawn, Momaday has written a number of other books including The Way to Rainy Mountain and The Ancient Child. His essays and poems have been widely anthologized. In 2020, Harper released his books The Death of Sitting Bear: New and Selected Poems and Earth Keeper: Reflections on the American Land. His new book, Dream Drawings: Configurations of a Timeless Kind, is a book of poetry and poetic writing. I spoke with him recently about that distinction, Emily Dickinson, and bears.

Alex Dueben: Have you always written poetry? One reason I ask is because everyone knows you as novelist and essayist, but poetry feels like something you’ve been writing before you had career, even.

N. Scott Momaday: Pretty much, yes. I started writing poetry fairly early. I often think that I’m not recognized as a poet but as a novelist, and it’s because of the Pulitzer Prize.

AD: It seems like in recent years you have focused more on writing poetry.

NSM: I think that a good statement, yes.

AD: Why is that? Is there any reason or conscious effort behind that?

NSM: I think that my knowledge of the Native American oral tradition leads me in the direction of poetry because it is poetic. It’s not poetry, but it has a great many poetic elements and so I gravitate towards poetry.

AD: You studied writing under the late Yvor Winters as a young man and you have a doctorate and have studied literature, and I’m curious about the role that poetry has played in your life and your life as a writer.

NSM: When I started out writing poetry, or what I thought of as poetry, I was very unschooled in English traditional forms. When I went to Stanford I learned a great deal about those forms and that had some influence upon my writing. I think that’s important. I believe that people should be instructed in the writing of poetry. They should study it. Too many people just write down things in haste that look like poetry, but they’re not. I think it’s good to be educated in that way. I’m very pleased that I had the opportunity to study traditional forms and I incorporate them in my own poetry.

AD: You said you were always writing poetry and how important was understanding formal verse and those traditions for you as a writer?

NSM: They were important to me because I didn’t know anything about them and there’s hundreds of years of poetry in English. I needed to know about that in order to really write what I considered good poetry. I’m pleased that I had that opportunity. I took advantage of it. That and my study of Native American oral tradition, led me to a particular kind of voice, I think, which I maintain.

AD: As you were studying you saw the relationships between oral traditions and the lyric verse traditions, and you have spent your career working in both traditions and finding ways to combine them.

NSM: Yes, exactly. I think even my prose incorporates lyrical elements that I’m glad are there. They come more or less naturally to me now and I think it’s a good thing. I think that my ancestors were conversant with an oral tradition and they perfected their expression in one way. I have that in my background along with the formal study of poetry and those two things I have managed to combine in a way that suits me and gives me an original voice.

AD: Was there anything particular that you saw in reading Emily Dickinson or Frederick Tuckerman or whoever?

NSM: Absolutely. I fell in love with Emily Dickinson when I was a graduate student and I’m one of the people in the world who has read her in manuscript. And I admire her. I think she is probably among the very greatest of poets in American poetry. You can’t imitate her. She has a voice that is inimitable. It doesn’t do to imitate her, but to look at her and admire her and to understand a little bit about what she’s doing. The same thing may be said for Tuckerman. He had a very original voice. He was an expert in the sonnet, of course, so he represents formality in English poetry that she did not have. She had enough of it to make her voice very distinguished.

AD: I think of both of them, and maybe a lot of poetry, as on the page, but so much of poetry is spoken and about the breath, even in formal verse.

NSM: Yes, and that incorporates the element of silence, which is extremely important in her work and in the oral tradition generally.

AD: Reading Dream Drawings, I kept thinking that whether you thought about each piece as a poem, they felt as if they were meant to read aloud.

NSM: I think so. I think that’s generally true of 90% of what I write now.

AD: So have you not always thought of your work in that way?

NSM: Well, no. I was forming a kind of attitude towards poetry. An understanding of it. I developed ideas as I went along and learned from this experience and that, this poet and that. I shouldn’t say that I restrict my attention to poetry. I have read a good deal of prose that I admire and I think that’s also a big influence, but I find that the prose that I particularly admire has very strong poetic elements. My interest in poetry has always been there, I guess.

AD: There’s always been something poetic about the way you write. There are a lot of elements in this new book that I think have been there from the beginning of your career.

NSM: I would agree with that, yes.

AD: You have a number of pieces in the new book like “The Marrowbone Manuscript” which is this short funny short story. Well, I laughed but some might not find it so funny.

NSM: [laughs] Well, that kind of writing is a kind of story form, but it is also just taken from the oral tradition. The Native American oral tradition is full of short stories with lyrical elements. I guess that’s a good way to define it. I try to duplicate that as much as I can.

AD: This is why when you studied lyric poets and other writers, you could see what they were doing, and saw the similarities.

NSM: I think that’s true. I learned a great deal of course when I was studying the English poets. As I say, that information that education stood me in good stead. It added a dimension to what I was already doing. It had that feeling of growth. I liked that. I think I benefited greatly and my poetry grew and became sharper. More lyrical on the one hand and more oral in its definition on the other hand.

AD: In Dream Drawings you have a lot of artwork and you’ve been a visual artist your whole life, as well. Has painting and drawing, like poetry, always been part of your practice?

NSM: Yes my father was a painter so I learned a great deal from him. I’m glad to incorporate some of that into my work as well. I came to painting rather late. All the time I was watching my father work, for example, I did not aspire to be a visual artist. When I was about 40 years old, I was in the Soviet Union and I was very lonely there. I somehow felt an urge to turn to drawing and so I did. I started drawing things that reminded me of my own homeland. That developed into a whole career of artistic expression. I started drawing seriously and then I started painting and that’s stayed with me all this time.

AD: It’s interesting that it was in another country where you were cut off. I know you’ve traveled a lot, but you’ve spent much of your life in the Southwest.

NSM: Yes. It’s a place to which I always gravitate. I’ve been in and out of Santa Fe all my life. Well, it feels like it’s been all my life; since I was about the age of twelve. I’ve been in and out of it, but I always come back to it. I guess I think of it as my home. It’s an incomparable landscape. Full of color and drama. So I appreciate that very much and take hold of that in my own imagination.

AD: I know that some people who haven’t spent time there may not understand, but Santa Fe is very distinct and different from Tucson or elsewhere in the region.

NSM: Santa Fe has a character all its own. One that I’ve come to know pretty well and appreciate a good deal.

AD: When you write, do you make a conscious choice to write in verse or not?

NSM: I don’t generally approach a piece of writing with an idea of how it’s going to take form. I start something and usually it’s an idea, maybe a picture in my mind, and then I fill it in. Sometimes it seems appropriate to do it with elements of traditional English verse, rhyme and meter, for example, and so on. Other times I want it to be more free flowing and put my expression in a more oral framework.

AD: You start the book with a piece in verse and ended the book with “World Renewal” and organizing the book in this way was conscious but writing each poem was not thought out consciously. You followed the idea.

NSM: I think that’s a fair statement. I’m not altogether conscious of a given poem’s form as I’m writing it. It takes shape on its own, in many ways. Sometimes I have to change course in the middle of the stream and revise a piece of writing, which I’m happy to do because I generally feel that I improve it that way.

AD: I mentioned that the book is funny. You have a number of pieces, “The Dark Amusement of Bears” comes to mind and others that made me laugh.

NSM: I think humor has a real place in literature, in general, and I like to play games with words. I think it’s a good exercise. So when I write something like bears sit around and are thinking about things and laugh a lot—to me that makes a lot of sense. Knowing what I do about bears, I’m sure that’s true. [laughs] By the way, that’s an in-joke in itself. I am a bear. By virtue of my name. My name is based upon a story which has to do about a boy who turns into a bear. I identify myself with that boy in my own mind and so I write out of that as another context.

AD: You’ve written a lot about bears over the years. You write about them as complex beings. Just as we are.

NSM: Yes, exactly. Bears are very complicated animals in spite of their pretense at humor and self amusement. They’re complicated and wonderful creatures.

AD: Knowing you identify as a bear and bears being amused by reality brings to mind the last poem in the book, “World Renewal”. That idea that one world ended and another began at the exact same time. I remember back in 2012 when people talked about this and I think there was a literalness of, the day came and went and nothing happened, so it didn’t happen, but of course that was the point.

NSM: I like that idea. I came upon that and wrote that and I think there may be something to it. I keep thinking about it and maybe I’ll write again about the idea. We have a strong need, I think, to think of renewal. Especially when our planet is so endangered. It’s a good idea to imagine going on in spite of the abuse we’ve shown it. It’s comforting in a way to write about renewal.

AD: I think so. And one theme of the book and in Earth Keeper of course is renewal and an attempt to rethink our relationship with the land. In writing Earth Keeper and other things recently are you consciously trying to push a rethinking our relationship to the land.

NSM: I’ve always had that in mind, at least in the back of my mind. It’s coming to the foreground now. I’m much more conscious about writing about the environment than I was at one time. I must say it’s very gratifying because its such a great subject and one that needs a special kind of expression in our time. I feel that I’m doing what I ought to be doing.

AD: I hesitate to say there’s educational component because that’s not correct and I don’t want to say moral argument either. I’m not quite sure how to describe it.

NSM: I think I do know what you mean, yes. I agree. I’m always reminded of my friend who commented on a particular feature of the landscape and he said, I don’t own it, but it’s mine. [laughs] I’m encouraged by that idea.

AD: I like that. I can relate to that. But you’ve spent the past few years focusing on shorter work. Is that what you prefer and enjoy?

NSM: Pretty much, yes. I’ve been writing shorter pieces because I think it’s in my temperament. I’m a sprinter rather than a long distance runner. I enjoy being concise, when I can be. That satisfies my longing for expression. I’m content to write poetry instead of prose. And even in my poetry I’m content to write short pieces. I get out what I wanted to, I think, in writing shorter lengths.

AD: I read that you had been working on a memoir. Are you still writing it?

NSM: I’m still toying with that idea. I’ve got a work in progress in which a large part—all of it in one way—but specifically the last quarter of the book is autobiographical. I’m picking up where I left off in The Names, in a way, writing about not my boyhood, but about my adulthood.

AD: When I asked at the beginning if you were also writing poetry, throughout your career you’ve written novels and plays and The Way to Rainy Mountain, but poetry was always there.

NSM: That’s right. That’s how think of it as well. It’s always there. [laughs] I appreciate other forms of writing, but when it comes right down to it, I think I write poetry. And something like poetry based on oral tradition.

AD: I know other writers who are not necessarily known as poets, but poetry comes closest to them and their expression of things.

NSM: That’s certainly true of myself, I think.

AD: As I said, I really liked the new book, and it feels very much a piece of your recent work.

NSM: I agree. I think it’s in some ways very much a summation of things I’ve been thinking about for a long time and finally getting around to putting down on paper.

Surrounded by Choice: The Millions Interviews Sopan Deb

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I first met Sopan Deb in 2020 when I moderated a virtual panel called Brown in America: Community, Culture, and Code, hosted by San Antonio’s Malvern Books. Deb had just published his first book, a memoir, Missed Translations: Meeting the Immigrant Parents Who Raised Me. Missed Translations is a breathtaking read about the contradictions in Deb’s upbringing. He had an all-American suburban childhood in New Jersey, yet was raised by Bengali parents who both drifted away from him by the time he became a young adult. Far from being a paean to loss, Missed Translations is a compassionate, at times humorous, recounting of Deb’s adult efforts to reconnect with both parents, now living worlds apart.

Deb’s first novel, Keya Das’s Second Act, published earlier this month by Simon & Schuster, is grounded in tragedy, but is ultimately a story of redemption. When the novel’s titular character dies in a car accident just after she’s come out to her parents as gay, her family—who was horrified by her revelation—is destroyed by her sudden death. Keya’s father, Shantanu, discovers a script that Keya and her girlfriend Pamela had been writing and shares his discovery with his ex-wife Chaitali and their remaining daughter, Mitali. Along with Pamela, Shantanu and Mitali bring the play to life as an affirmation of their lost loved one.

In addition to being an author, Deb is a basketball writer, contributor to the Culture section of the New York Times, and a stand-up comedian. Curiosity and humor mark his writing, which centers flawed, lovable characters. I caught up with him by email.

Martha Anne Toll: What was the inspiration(s) behind Keya Das’s Second Act?

Sopan Deb: I began writing the novel in the summer of 2020. After the release of my memoir, Missed Translations, I wanted to write something that dealt with grief and redemption. It could also have been the pandemic. Redemption is an interesting topic to me. Are we a forgiving society? I think many of us like to think we are, but I’m not so sure of that. I’ve also been interested in South Asian family dynamics and wanted to explore a split family and what it would take to bring one back together. Finally, this particular story is inspired by the real-life interaction of a Bengali friend of mine, who had a difficult coming out experience with her parents.

MAT:  This book has a dark premise at its center, the death of a daughter, and parents’ inability to accept their child’s choice in love. Can you talk more about that and why it matters to you?

SD: My parents were arranged to get married. More specifically, my mother was pressured into marrying my father. This wasn’t unusual culturally at the time. But the natural progression is that when the next generation grows up here in the United States and are surrounded by choice, it can be difficult for my parent’s generation to adapt, particularly those of South Asian descent. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong. It just is. I think about “choice” a lot. I think I take “choice” for granted. For my parents, “choice” isn’t a word they knew a lot about. In terms of Keya Das, I do think a certain subset of South Asian parents still struggle with LGBTQ issues. It’s a generational issue, but also a cultural one. Remember, it was only in 2018 that India struck down its sodomy law.

MAT: You have a lot to say about the current dating scene for younger and older people. 

SD: One of the most interesting relationships for me is the one between a character named Chaitali and Jahar. Chaitali is divorced and remarries Jahar, who was also previously married. It’s incredibly unusual for South Asian marriages to end in divorce. There’s a stigma to it. It’s partially why my parents stayed married for so long, despite having a difficult marriage, which ultimately ended after 30 years. I wanted to explore a different type of dating. We rarely see middle-aged dating depicted with characters of South Asian descent in literature, so I wanted to give it a shot.

MAT:  In addition to their dating life, Mitali and her father have many other parallels. Can you talk about that?

SD: When we meet them, these characters are both fundamentally broken human beings floating through life without purpose. They see themselves as empty shells and act like it. Ideally, they would deal with the emptiness together. But they blame themselves so much for Keya’s death that they don’t feel they deserve any sort of companionship. They likely model handling loss after each other. Deep down, they’re loving people with huge regrets about not expressing that love enough. There’s a lot of self-loathing there, combined with a huge capacity to love. (We see hints of that through their interactions with Kalpana, Mitali’s grandmother and Shantanu’s mother.) They also both have a resentment of Chaitali, although it’s an unfair one. Finally, I also think Shantanu and Mitali very much crave the adoration of the other one.

MAT:  How did your experience with the publication of Missed Translations, a memoir, inform this novel? This is your first novel, how was that process different as well?

SD: Writing my memoir essentially gave me the confidence that I could write fiction. I learned a lot about my own voice in writing Missed Translations, including what I’m good at and what I’m not so good at. I would definitely write the memoir differently today because I think I’m a better writer. The biggest adjustment was being able to make things up in the novel. As a journalist, my mind is trained to be accurate about all things. In fiction, you could make up an entire planet if you want to. (I didn’t do that.) That took some getting used to. In the memoir, I was mostly focused on my own story, whereas in the novel, I had to think about how to serve several characters.

MAT:  Do you feel Keya Das’s Second Act shares any connective threads with Missed Translations?

SD: Definitely. For one thing, the concept of a split South Asian family. I’m very familiar with that from my own family. But also, there are several scenes with a therapist in the novel. One of the concepts I discuss in Missed Translations is how mental health treatment is often stigmatized in South Asian communities. In Keya Das’s Second Act, I wanted to explore what it might’ve been like if someone of my parents’ generation went to see a therapist. There’s also the concept of what it means to achieve the American Dream. The opening scene features Shantanu looking out onto a barely maintained lawn, while his white neighbors have perfectly green lawns. My father, who grew up in India, worked for years to have a perfect lawn when I was growing up. He never quite got there. It’s emblematic of what his life was like in America. Beyond that, both books partly take place in the New Jersey suburbs, where I grew up, and feature the Bengali American community I grew up around heavily.

MAT: You have wonderful and humorous insights into being part of an immigrant family in America. You’re through and through an American, but some Americans may not see you that way. Can you talk about this? 

SD: This is an interesting question. When I covered the Trump campaign as a politics reporter, I was told to “go back to Iraq” by a Trump supporter at a rally, followed by someone else asking if I was a member of ISIS. Those were jarring moments and a reminder that in some eyes, I will never be a true “American,” whatever that means. I think it’s important to remember that when someone is deemed “other” or “un-American,” it’s not just about bigotry or citizenship. It’s often political disagreement being funneled into something else. I remember being angry in those moments, but the anger quickly dissipated. The way I look at it, I don’t feel the need to defend or discuss how American I am. I was born in Lowell, Massachusetts. That’s the end of the discussion for me. If it’s not, it says more about  the person who thinks otherwise than me.

MAT:  You don’t translate or provide background on the Indian holidays that are important in this book, particularly Durga Puja. What was behind this decision?

SD: I didn’t feel the need to, truthfully. It makes the book feel “otherized,” if that makes sense. If I read a book that features a reference to Christmas, I don’t need Santa Claus explained to me. I tried to leave enough context for the reader to understand, but ultimately, this isn’t a book mainly about religion.

MAT: Your day job is as a sportswriter—does this influence your fiction writing at all?

SD: It sounds simple, but as a writer for the Times, I’m able to keep my writing sharp because I have to do it so often. Since everything is extensively edited, you’re constantly reminded what is and isn’t good writing. Obviously, I have more leeway in the type of voice I use when I’m writing fiction, but being a journalist allows me to keep my storytelling skills, to the extent I have them, in as good a shape as possible.

MAT: Have any books in particular influenced your writing life?

SD: This may be a cliched answer for a South Asian writer, but it’s true: Jhumpa Lahiri’s works were profound for me, particularly The Namesake. Her short story collections as well. I had never seen Bengali characters brought to life like this before. It made me feel like I was reading about my own family and conversely, gave me the push to write about my own experiences. An amusing story my parents told me—they knew her family before I was born and used to spend time with them. They told me this while I was in the process of writing Missed Translations. My mother said something like, “I heard Jhumpa became a writer or something,” which made me laugh. Yes, Mom! Jhumpa Lahiri more than “became a writer.” That’s how I knew it wasn’t made up.

Safe Words: The Millions Interviews Teddy Wayne

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Early in the Trump years, novelist Teddy Wayne grew so irate at the seemingly endless river of presidential perfidies that he and his wife, the novelist Kate Greathead, had to establish a safe word to indicate that it was time for his political ranting to end. Years later, with Trump out of office (but not yet out of mind), Wayne has off-loaded some of that free-floating ire onto the protagonist of his latest novel, The Great Man Theory. Paul, a recently demoted adjunct instructor of freshman comp, is angry not only at the president but at our entire dumbed-down, media-obsessed modern age. Except that Paul doesn’t have a wife—she’s ditched him for a “Tom Cruisian” second hubby—so he has no one in his life to help him edit his rants.
In The Great Man Theory, we watch the slow-motion meltdown of a proud would-be public intellectual undone by his outrage at a world gone wrong and at his inability to accommodate himself to its digitally mediated demands. But what makes the book a joy to read is Wayne’s deep empathy for his sad-sack protagonist, who, for all his preening moralism, remains a dedicated teacher and a loving, if sometimes inept, father to his preteen daughter.
Wayne is the author of four previous novels, including Loner and The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, and regularly writes for the New Yorker’s “Shouts and Murmurs” column. We caught up with him recently for an email interview about The Great Man Theory, which comes out today.
Michael Bourne: As I read The Great Man Theory, I was doing that thing where you cast the book for the movies, and it seemed obvious to me that your protagonist, Paul, should be played by Paul Giamatti. Which reminded me that Paul Giamatti has been getting a lot of work in the last decade or two. Why do you think this character of the hapless, yet aggrieved middle-aged white guy has become such a cultural staple? Is this character a part of the present zeitgeist or has he always been around in our books and movies?
Teddy Wayne: Historically, there’s certainly been no deficit of disaffected or disenchanted middle-age white male protagonists in American literature. But those unhappy characters typically chafed against their putative success, from the man in the grey flannel suit to the Armani-clad Wall Street psycho. There’s been a marked diminution in the white male’s self image that mirrors the decline of America’s stature since 9/11. (Or since at least 1999: that year, in the first episode of The Sopranos, Tony laments that he “came in at the end—the best is over,” and that fall the film version of Fight Club depicted various crises of modern masculinity).
Throw in the 2008 recession and a steep drop in military veterans (from 37 percent of the male population in 1950 to about one in eight now) and the U.S.’s disastrous record in wars since 1945, and you get a country of men who perceive themselves as being weaker and poorer than those in their father’s and grandfather’s America. It’s no surprise that post-9/11-culture introduced all those feckless losers—the Giamattis, the Walter Whites, the Judd Apatow characters—as well as the compensatory buff of superheroes to shore up fragile egos. The rapid gender and racial shifts of the past decade or so have further threatened the white male, accelerating his descent into a state of aggrievement or, worse, anger; whereas the younger ones have a chance to come of age seeing these changes as signs of progress, the older ones are more likely to feel that for them, too, the best is over.
MB: So how did you come to write this character? I know you a little, and you strike me as neither hapless nor aggrieved. And it’s not just Paul from The Great Man Theory. The protagonists of your last two novels, Apartment and Loner, are socially awkward, sometimes malevolent guys. Why are you drawn to writing these characters, do you think?
TW: The narrators from my first two novels, Kapitoil and The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, were far more talented and lovable figures, so it’s been more of a recent trend. In part, I think writers in their early books—especially their first, when readers assume a debut is veiled autobiography—are concerned with how they may come across as authors and therefore strive to create likable protagonists. Having gotten that out of my system, I seem to be going the opposite direction, nearly inviting readers to confuse me with the last three protagonists, all of whom share at least some details of my own life and are repellent to varying degrees.
But the bigger factor is the political and cultural environment. Loner cameout in September 2016, so while it’s technically a product of the Obama years, it feels more like a precursor to the gender and class dynamics of his successor’s reign, and Apartment and The Great Man Theory were both started during the Trump administration. I can understand a desire for art to serve as a beacon in benighted times, but I’ve been more interested in exploring commensurately darker characters—in particular, men who are responding with growing frustration and aggression to their changing status.
MB: The Great Man Theory is indeed deeply engaged with the cultureand politics of the Trump era. In a recent Publishers Weekly interview, you said: “I was obsessed with the Trump administration, but I didn’t want to write a sanctimonious novel, a takedown.” What specifically were the pitfalls you were trying to avoid? And why not a takedown? What’s the danger, in an artistic sense?
TW: In the early days of the Trump presidency, when the shock was fresh and violated norms still came off as abnormal, I would read the news at night and rant to my wife about the latest horror. She was in agreement but found my jeremiads hard to take before bedtime—so much so that we introduced a kind of safe word to indicate that I needed to wind down. (It was “sufficient.”) So, the biggest pitfall would have been writing just that, a book-length tirade about the obvious—that Trump is a corrupt, incompetent, bigoted con man; his cronies in politics and media are cowardly cynics; and his followers are greedy or ignorant or racist—while preaching to the choir, readers of literary fiction who are overwhelmingly liberal and who, too, would tire of being told what they already know.
The path I hit upon was to write a character who was like me in his hectoring outrage, but to regard him from a slight, at times comic, distance so that the book itself did not recreate that unpleasant or tedious experience for the reader. Paul is angry—not just at the unnamed president and his right-wing media enablers, but at his liberal friends for what he sees as their hypocrisy, at younger people for their presumed apathy, and at a consumerist, technocratic society that he believes is anesthetizing us all. Again, many readers are already likely to be in sympathy with some of his positions, and, taken on their own, his ideas might be better served by a nonfiction book. What potentially redeems this as a novel is that Paul is ultimately embittered most of all by his own failures: as a man, a writer, and especially as a father to his young daughter. This tragic quality, I hope, gives his “sufficient” lectures a more acutely painful sting.
MB: I like the idea of a safe word to end political rants. I think we need to institute a national safe word, particularly online. But you’re right about Paul and his daughter, Mabel. Paul loves Mabel deeply, but he also feels a compulsion to curate her life, particularly her media diet, to meet his sometimes fusty standards. What’s your take on this? We’re clearly not supposed to see his political obsessions as healthy. What about his parenting? Is he blowing it there, too? Is it possible to not blow it as a parent these days?
TW: My own children are still too young to be in danger of succumbing to the temptations of the internet, so I can’t speak from a place of real experience, though I’ve already seen how hooked they can get on superficial visual entertainment; they’d watch Tom and Jerry all day long if they could. (My own curation has been to steer them to older movies and cartoons when possible.) If there’s a major overlap between my and Paul’s cantankerous judgments, it’s in the effects of modern technology on all of us, especially children and adolescents. After Paul lectures his students on this topic, one of them raises the point that the internet and social media can be democratizing forces and amplify voices of those who would otherwise be silenced, which I agree with.
Other than that, I think it’s mostly hurt us, as a body politic and as individuals, in all the ways that don’t need to be restated, with the most pernicious effects on those who are too young never to have known a disconnected life. The experience of spending hours by yourself with no external stimuli other than maybe the printed word is getting harder and harder to come by, and at the risk of sounding like a sentence from Paul’s book-in-progress, The Luddite Manifesto, we are losing something essential to our humanity in the process. So, to answer the question in this roundabout fashion: it’s probably not possible to not blow it as a parent, but maybe that’s always been the case.
MB: I know you have adapted some of your earlier novels for TV and film. Is there interest in a screen adaptation of The Great Man Theory If so, what’s that process like? Do you find that elements of the original novel get sanded off in the transfer to screen or does the extended space of a cable series allow you to explore characters and themes that got left out of the novel? 
TW: I’m adapting it for a production company for TV. Not to be annoyingly secretive, but I’m not supposed to publicly state which company it is. Without revealing too many details, one change I decided to make with the producers is switching the era and the country so as not to set it in Trump-era America (even though Trump is never named as the president in the novel), to sidestep viewers’ MAGA-fatigue and the skittishness networks have over depicting modern American conservatives as villainous.
With the shorter runtime of a film, you have to pare away the source material and leave only the absolutely essential scenes, and if there’s a character-evoking moment in the novel that doesn’t take place in a scene that moves the story ahead, you have to find a way to incorporate it into one that does. With the longer span of a TV series, there’s still a premium on implacably advancing the narrative, but with some wiggle room to include subplots, minor characters, and smaller scenes that are more about building tone and character.
I find the creative aspects of screenwriting very enjoyable. In my experience, at least, I’ve collaborated with smart people who want to make elevated fare, and I like the craft of the medium quite a bit; there’s something a little mathematical about the form in its emphasis on structure. The business part is less appealing and involves a lot of waiting around for contracts to be reviewed by lawyers, for executives to read things, for decisions to be made by entities you never meet. Ultimately, hardly anything ever gets produced, so I enter into each new project with enthusiasm while also assuming that it won’t get made.
MB: So what’s next for you after The Great Man Theory? Can you talk about your next book or are you worried about jinxing it?
TW: I’m working on a new novel. I’m hesitant to say much about a work in progress, but the protagonist isn’t hapless and aggrieved, which is a refreshing change.

An Essential Decency: The Millions Interviews Michael Bourne

John Gardner once said that there are only two stories: a man goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town. Michael Bourne’s debut novel Blithedale Canyon is the former, beautifully written, with the ring of truth. Observant. Bleakly funny. Honest about life’s darkness.

Trent Wolfer is an addict who is trying and failing, and failing, to find another way to live. So he journeys home—and because he’s on probation, has to work the counter at the local burger joint, where he’s humiliated to see a pretty girl he once knew intimately. Soon enough, the man finds himself hanging out with his old dealer buddy from high school, who then as now brings out his worst tendencies. Has Trent helped or hurt himself by returning to his hometown of Mill Valley, California? The answer, Bourne hints, is both.

This is hard stuff to get right, and Bourne, a contributing editor at Poets & Writers, gets it right. I emailed him to ask him how. In this interview, he talks about the inspiration behind his debut, as well as its 20-year incubation process and path to publication.

Catherine Baab-Muguira: Where do you think the strength to change one’s life comes from? Did you set out to dramatize how people sometimes totally fail to do that on a desirable schedule?

Michael Bourne: I do think Trent, the novel’s narrator, eventually changes. He’s lived to tell the tale, right? But one of my goals with this book was to tell the other part of the addiction story, which is what happens after a person decides to change their life. We’re drowning in addiction narratives, but so many of them seem to stop when the person takes their last drink or drug. Like, that’s it, they’re cured! But most addicts are like Trent. They stop and start and stop and start endlessly for years. I wanted to dramatize what it’s like to know what you’re doing is wrong and self-destructive, and still keep doing it. Trent is onto himself right from the start of the book. He lies and cheats and uses, but he’s pretty clear-eyed about himself. That’s where the pain is, and also the humor.

I don’t think most people have the strength to change their lives on their own. They do it with the help of family or community. In my case, the only reason I didn’t end up dead in a ditch somewhere is that I come from an intact, supportive family and found a community I could rely on. Trent doesn’t have that and it’s killing him. He pretty much raised himself and what he did learn from his parents was how to lie so people will believe you. I wanted to write a story about a guy learning how to build that community, that found family, out of nothing.

CB: What’s it been like to live with Trent for so long?

MB: A pleasure, honestly. I like Trent. He’s a screw-up, yes, but he has an essential decency. And because he’s had to be a little bit of a grifter to survive, he notices things most people miss. He possesses a first-class bullshit detector, probably because he’s such a bullshit artist himself. Trent sniffs out people’s vanities like some kind of psychic bloodhound. As he says in the book, if you know the lie a person is telling about themselves, it’s a lot easier to lie to them, and that’s true. But it’s fun to write a character who’s always seeing through people, including himself.

CB: How about other forms of inspiration? Were there any novels or stories you had in mind as you wrote?

MB: Publishers Weekly said Trent is like an older Holden Caulfield, and though it wasn’t a conscious influence, I might have had The Catcher in the Rye in mind since the book meant a lot to me when I was a kid. All American books about screw-ups you can root for owe a debt to Salinger, I think. A more conscious model is probably Clancy Martin’s How to Sell, which is one of the few books I’ve read that gets addiction right, both the ups and the downs. Like Blithedale Canyon, it’s fundamentally a book about lying, but it’s so dead honest it breaks your heart. I was going for that. But really, the roots of Blithedale Canyon lie less in books I’ve read than in all the hours I spent sitting in church basements listening to people talk about their lives. I don’t mean I took people’s stories and literally put them in the book. But the way Trent thinks, all the stratagems and self-justifications, that came from listening to addicts talk—and talk and talk.

CB: What about your writing process, what did it look like?

MB: My writing process with this book was looong. I wrote the opening pages of the novel 20 years ago. The characters, the setting, the basic premise, it was all there, but I had no idea what to do with it and I set it aside. A few years later, I picked it up again and wrote another hundred pages, but again, I didn’t have the writing chops to get any further. In the meantime, I wrote a couple other books and finally learned enough about how stories work to finish this one. I do not know why I’ve been such a slow learner. I don’t consider myself an especially stupid or slow-minded person, but it’s taken me decades to figure out what others pick up in just a few years. On the other hand, I do feel like I finally have a better idea what I’m doing. For so long I felt like this big, dumb klutz crashing around in my narratives. Now I don’t feel quite so klutzy.

CB: Can you talk about how you found a publisher, and how you’ve found the publishing process?

MB: I’m living proof: You can publish a novel with a legit publisher without an agent. I shopped Blithedale Canyon around to agents, who are, despite what you might hear in some corners of the internet, great people who love books and writers. I came very close with several who loved the book and its voice, but times are tough for literary fiction and they worried they couldn’t sell it. This is happening more and more with literary novels, especially debuts. That’s the bad news. The good news is that a crop of new, entrepreneurially-minded indie presses is stepping in to pick up the slack. I probably would have made more money if it had sold to a corporate press, but I couldn’t be happier with my editors at Regal House.

CB: Tell me about why you chose this setting, geographically and era-wise.

MB: Mill Valley, California, where Blithedale Canyon is set, is my hometown, though I haven’t lived there in decades. I wanted the town to be a character in the novel, one on the cusp of change. Like so much of California, Mill Valley boomed after World War II when people who had worked the Bay Area shipyards crossed the Golden Gate Bridge for the suburbs. There was another wave of refugees from the Summer of Love, who lent the place a hippie vibe in the 1970s. Blithedale Canyon is set in 2001 when those earlier residents are getting priced out by the dot-com crowd. In the book, Trent works at a family-run grocery store, which is trying to innovate to stay in business. I wanted this to be a secondary plot in the book, what it takes for a small town to stay a small town, how hard that is. It’s not unlike a person trying to stay true to him or herself. It rarely works out well.

CB: As I’ve been reflecting on your book, I realize one of the things I like about it most is that Trent is an anti-Mary Sue. We live in an era beset by Mary Sues, and they’re by no means all female. Every character in every show and movie, no matter whether it’s Pixar or a high-end prestige drama, they’re all rising above their circumstances, showing preternatural emotional maturity, solving rather than managing their problems, all while surrounded by functional, emotionally honest relationships. I love that your book is not that. Do you think it’s more difficult to dramatize failure than to dramatize success? What was the most difficult part of the book to write?

MB: As I’ve said, I was trying to write against the standard addiction story, which I think is essentially false. People romanticize addiction, make it all about rebellion and pushing boundaries, but real addicts don’t rebel or push boundaries; they’re too busy getting high. A true addiction story is unreadable—it’s just a person doing the same damn thing over and over and over for years. It’s not remotely interesting to anyone. My goal was to tell a story that felt true, but that also worked as a story that would keep you reading and interested. So Blithedale Canyon isn’t just an addiction story, but also a love story and a story about hometowns. I’m not sure it’s more difficult to write these kinds of stories than the uplifting Mary-Sue tales you’re describing, but it’s probably harder to sell. People like to see characters transcending their circumstances. It makes them feel better. I was trying to make people feel better in a slightly different way, by showing them life as it’s actually lived by a whole lot of people.

CB: Just out of idle curiosity, exactly how many people have read the book and told you: I dated this man?

MB: Asking for a friend, are you? I’ve heard this a lot, actually. When I was passing the book around to writer friends to get feedback, friends would respond to the book and then include a little note at the end saying they’d dated a guy like Trent or somebody in their family was going through something similar. As I was writing the book, I was very aware that I was writing a kind of user’s guide to the mind of an addict for people who are having to deal with one. And when I say people, I really mean women, because it’s so often the moms and wives and girlfriends and daughters that end up with the caretaking duties. Blithedale Canyon is not autobiographical in any literal sense, but I think I was that boyfriend for a few women who had the misfortune of meeting me in my early twenties. I’m not that guy now, but I still remember how my mind worked and that informed my depiction of Trent.

CB: It’s been a few weeks now since I finished your book and as I look back on it, one of the things I’m most impressed by is the everyman, every-town feel. Trent’s experience of running into old classmates from high school—the girl he liked, his druggie buddy—has an archetypal feel. It’s all very resonant. Were you trying to reach the universal through the specific?

MB: It’s gratifying to hear the book is having these resonances for you. With Trent and Mill Valley, I was trying to capture them in all their particularity. It was important to me, for instance, that in addition to being an addict and felon, Trent is a fan of bad horror movies and has a childhood nickname he hates. Likewise, with the setting, I wanted the reader to know what the Little League ballpark looks like and how to get to the World War II bunkers on the Marin Headlands. In my favorite books, I end up feeling like I know the characters and setting as if they were people and places from my real life. That’s what I was going for in Blithedale Canyon, that this story is happening to people you feel like you know. So maybe what you’re saying when you say the characters and setting feel archetypal and universal is that they’re real to you. You know them. If that’s the case, well, I can retire right now because that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.

Wage War Against Cliché: The Millions Interviews Isaac Butler

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Isaac Butler’s The Method is the rare instance of book that lives up to its blurbs, its hype, and its press. Arriving in February to a hectic flurry of praise, I read and sticky-noted my copy slowly through the spring, savoring its masterful blend of historical research, literary analysis, and celebrity dish. The Method chronicles the evolution of what we now call “method acting”—and regrettably now associate with such bad behavior as Jared Leto sending boxes of dog poop to costars—beginning with its roots in Russian theater as a reaction against the artificial declamatory style of nineteenth-century Continental acting style. Over the course of the next two decades, Konstantin Stanislavski honed what he called “the system,” an at-times opaque practical philosophy of dramatic technique that disciples like Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya brought to America, where it was, in turn, adopted by and refined by Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler.

The Method is illuminating in historical and cultural terms, but I was especially drawn to Butler’s descriptions and analyses of Stanislavski’s ever-evolving craft principles. Butler is thoughtful and eloquent on the subject of craft, and on the way great artists articulate and advance craft through their work. Dramatic craft, from its nascency in Russia to its current iteration in the popular imagination, is the main character of The Method.

Butler was gracious enough to answer some craft-related questions that arose for me during my reading. I hope you’ll find our conversation this as enlightening as I did!

The Millions: As a fiction writer (and more specifically, a fiction writer interested in craft), I helplessly read The Method through the lens of fiction writing and narrative. To a degree, the book also encourages this reading by beginning the book with the figure of Nemirovich, Stanislavski’s original partner, whose specialty was the text itself. I know that you’re a great reader of fiction, and a very smart thinker about it as well—to begin with an open-ended question, was there any aspect of Stanislavski’s acting system, or the ideas that Strasberg and Adler converted into the Method, that felt particularly resonant in terms of reading and writing narrative? And were there any of these ideas that guided the writing of The Method?

Isaac Butler: First of all, thank you! I love your writing about craft, so I take it as a huge compliment that you think I’m a good reader of fiction. I took so many craft lessons from Stanislavski that I feel in some ways like Stanislavski himself taught me how to write a book about his ideas. But isn’t that what we hope will happen on these big projects? That in some way the project teaches you how to create it as you become the artist worthy of serving it? But to be less woo-woo for a moment, Stanislavski’s idea that both the thing you are working on and the process to create that thing (in his case, a character; in my case, a book) could be broken down into “bits,” and then you could attack each discrete bit, and then put them all together to have the whole of the project (or process) was super helpful. And then just about everything that falls under the broad category of “script analysis”—the “task/problem,” dramatic action, the throughline of action, the given circumstances, et cetera—was all stuff I knew a bit from my theater background, but going deep into it was really useful. I’m actually trying to figure out a way to teach dramatic action for prose writers—or maybe write a guide to it or something— because I think other people could benefit from it.

TM: One thing that struck me throughout The Method is the way that this 19th century Russian’s ideas about craft still feel so modern and relevant in 2022. For instance, Stanislavski’s fixation on “given circumstances” and specificity are still so resonant with writing axioms about the importance of detail and the dreaded “show don’t tell.” So many of his (and later Boleslavsky, Strasberg, and Adlers’s) ideas about acting craft, seem to describe (and possibly anticipate) shifts in literary craft. Do you have any sense of the interplay between the evolution of what theater and literature valued in the twentieth century?

IB: I draw a couple of connections in my book between the Method and realist MFA fiction, and I wish I had had time and space to research that more deeply because it’s a fascinating thing to consider. At the same time, it just wasn’t that germane to my book’s supertask! Stanislavski’s artistic predilections arise in response to trends in literature and visual art, which he considered more forward-thinking than the theater of his time. He was incredibly inspired by Tolstoy’s What is Art, the work of critic Vessarion Bellinski, and the Moscow Art Theater’s signature dramatist Anton Chekhov, who was known as a prose writer, not a playwright. So, I do think these things are all related! And when it comes to America, I think all these things are influencing each other. The way people are thinking about character crosses over to TV and film and fiction, and then it’s flowing the other way too. Just think about the term “the beat” which is something we get from Stanislavski, and is now used whenever we discuss storytelling in any form.

TM: You mention Stanislavski’s idea of the task (zadacha) and supertask (sverkhzadacha). The Method covers these ideas in great detail, and I found them to be extremely valuable craft concepts that port easily to fiction writing. In my intro to fiction classes, I often describe stories as problems, a situation or series of related situations the character must attempt to get out of or figure out. A story without a problem, I tell them, is not a story. On the subject of the supertask, in Stanslavski’s view, is the supertask “owned” by the character or author? That is, does it exist in the realm of theme or character, or both? And do you think this concept is applicable to other art forms, perhaps even non-narrative?

IB: I’m so glad you’re talking about the zadacha! It is one of the most useful concepts for talking about how narrative works. Characters have something they need to do—the task/problem—and that in turn necessitates action, and even if that action is somehow internalized, it is still a kind of action nonetheless. But it goes deeper than that, because Stanislavski’s other brilliant idea here is the sverkzadacha, or “supertask,” which is the character’s main goal in the text. In a perfect world, you want to find a way for all of the task/problems to derive from the supertask in some way. And then if you take all of those actions and line them up, you have “the throughline of action” which is everything the character does in the play, or story, or novel, or what have you. It’s so elegant and helpful!

But to answer your question, all of this actually exists at multiple levels because plays (or stories, novels, what have you) have their own supertasks. Later on, in the United States, this is often called a play’s spine: the big thing that the play is doing. Hopefully, the play’s supertask and the supertasks of the characters relate. But generally, figuring these out is not the author’s job, it’s the job of the director and actors, because plays have rich veins of ambiguity due to their restrained set of tools. To give a maybe-obvious example, a version of Hamlet about the nature of justice will have really different tasks from one about the Oedipal complex. I’m honestly not sure how well this all applies to non-narrative or abstract work, except in the general sense that you want the individual components of something to relate to its major themes.

TM: Here’s a loaded old-fogey question: there has been a vogue in writing craft for quite some time not to worry what stories are about, that they are the thing they’re about. Obviously I disagree with this. Are we living in an era of harsh supertask deprivation? Related, can you talk about any recent books or films that struck you as having especially well-articulated or interesting supertasks?

IB: Oh man, I love this question, and I have really conflicting thoughts about it. I do think in something as big as a novel, there’s space to wander afield, digress, get lost, wrestle with a difficult subject and maybe even lose the fight. If things get too well-organized, all the life can go right out of your project. And, of course, if the supertask is “make sure the reader knows I have the right political opinions and good taste,” the work gets didactic and boring.

At the same time, is there anything better than experiencing a foreign consciousness working its way through some unanswerable question in a narrative? God, I love it! I was recently really struck by Claire Stanford’s Happy for You and the way every piece of it relates to questions about happiness, and what the meaning of happiness in our present moment might mean, and how the world of tech is defining for us what happiness is. Or Laurent Binet’s HHhH and how it obsessively circles the meaning of history, and the relationship between history and fiction.

In a way I think films, plays, and short stories can be much more focused with their supertasks because they’re so much shorter. The film Everything Everywhere All At Once is laser-focused on questions about what it means to lead a meaningful life, and the short story “A Father’s Story” by Andre Dubus has a very particular thing to say about what it means to be a father. I think one of the reasons why Barry is such a great TV show is that it’s got a very silly high-concept premise—a hitman tries to become an actor—but it’s really about whether or not people can change, and while it takes a way more pessimistic view of that question than I do, the results are bracing.

TM: Are there examples, in your mind, of TV, films, plays, or novels that have over-articulated supertasks? Is it possible to go too far in organizing the supertask of a piece of narrative?

IB: Oh, for sure. For a while I had a running bit on Twitter where I would tweet, apropos of nothing and without context, “It’s a metaphor for depression,” because it felt like every show, video game, comic book, and movie was just hammering that gong over and over again. I really think sometimes authors can keep their eye on the supertask too much. This is what I find so suffocating about Nabokov. The work is too controlled, too schematic, and too often it feels like the real supertask behind whatever he’s doing is “make sure the reader knows I’m smarter than them.” The sense I get from people who love Nabokov is that it’s like watching a really dazzling stage magician put on a brilliant performance. And while that makes sense to me, and I can see why people love his work, the few times I’ve ventured into it, it has left me really cold. Whereas someone like Iris Murdoch—whose The Black Prince feels very related to Lolita—is exploring how we all know less than we think we do, including herself. That negative capability is really powerful, and I think if we try to locate our own negative capability and use it in our work it can help avoid this trap. I’m reminded here of the end of Invisible Man where the narrator announces the book’s supertask: to reveal his contradictions as a way of helping the reader to see their own. That’s a kind of wild one because it allows so much freedom within it, and the book really takes that freedom and does so much with it.

TM: Lingering on the subject of zadacha, the book talks about the way Adler and others urge actors to manifest the zadacha in their physicality. In a sense, it seems to me, good acting involves a constant awareness, and externalizing of, zadacha. How do you think this might inform an author’s fictional approach to their characters?

IB: Stella Adler and Elia Kazan were both really big on this: characters are always doing things. The way you reveal subtext is physical action. Every task has to result in action or it’s not worth anything. Stella has this whole riff about how even “to reminisce” is an active choice, because it’s about the self reaching out to the past for understanding. When it comes to fiction, I don’t want to give interiority short shrift. The revelation of interiority, the use of language to explore consciousness, is something fiction can do that plays cannot. But at the same time, I think it’s worth thinking about a scene in terms of its physical action. What are the bodies doing in this space you’ve created? Particularly in the first person, where you want the reader to read around your narrator a bit. What can the bodies reveal that the narrator might not want you to know? If we think about physical action as flowing from character need and desire, it might also help to make those actions we include feel a little less arbitrary. Sally Rooney, of course, does this—there are times where the disembodied narrator of Beautiful World, Where Are You? is forced to speculate about what physical actions might mean because that narrator has no access to the characters’ thoughts. I’m not saying everyone should write like Sally Rooney so much as it might be worth it to try writing a scene where everything is revealed through staging just to see what happens. You’ll probably rewrite it! But you’ll also probably learn something.

TM: I was struck by the idea of the “circle of attention” in acting. Is this, like zadacha, a concept that could be applied to character awareness? And expanding the idea, could this also be applied to authorial awareness, delineating authorial style?

IB: I often tell students, “A character is made out of the things they do, the things they think, and the things they notice, and then how each of these are described.” Of course that also means they’re made out of the things they don’t do, the things they don’t think, and, especially, the things they don’t notice. The same is true of our narrators, no matter what POV strategy you’re employing. A novel cannot pay attention to everything. So what you choose to pay attention to goes a long way towards defining your style. For what it’s worth, I also think it goes a long way towards defining who we are as people as well. One thing living in New York City does to you is drive home how much you are making choices about what you will and won’t notice to get through your day.

TM: I want to pull back a little from craft and ask a large-scale question about the book. It seems to me that a central tension you describe in The Method is a tension embodied in the different philosophical approaches of Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler to Stanislavski’s system. As you put it, “Strasberg used the self as raw material for a performance, [while Adler] wanted to transform and transcend the self.” Strasberg stressed the use of affective exercises that predate the actor’s performance, while Adler believed (perhaps in closer step with Stanislavski) that the actor’s energy had to derive from the work itself and the character’s tasks. This schism seems to aptly describe several different ways people tend to think about fiction and fiction writing: the novel as a vehicle for an author/narrator’s lived experiences vs. artifice that reveals truth through story; author as mystic vs. author as technician; authorship as performance vs. authorship as reception. Does this capture Adler and Strasbergs’ differences? If so, do you feel a greater kinship with one of these traditions? And is there a meaningful or even necessary way to reconcile them?

IB: Yes, I think this is a good way of putting it. Not to get too highfalutin here but what they’re really wrestling with is two different sides of the nature and purpose of art. One thing Stanislavski talks about a lot is that art comes from real life experience, but it is a refinement of that experience. There are all sorts of things a play leaves out. Every painting has a frame, after all. But through that act of compression and refinement, the coal of life gets pressurized into diamonds. So art comes from real life but isn’t real life. Stanislavski’s protege Richard Boleslavsky talked about how we go to art because we yearn for perfection of the fallen world. I think there’s a grain of truth in that, even as it’s a very, very Christian idea and I am a secular Jew.

Lee Strasberg really attaches to the “based on real life experience” part. He wants to unlock the idiosyncrasy of the actor, their individual peculiarities, so that their palette will have as many colors as possible, in order to wage war against cliché. Meanwhile, Adler felt that we had to earn the right to be artists, we had to earn the right to play our roles, because art was so much bigger and better than we were. In order to do that, you needed to use research, imagination, action, and an incredibly in-depth encounter with the text. I find the way Adler talks about theater unbelievably moving and, as a director, writer, and critic, her way of analyzing text is massively influential on me. But at the same time, there were lots of brilliant actors and directors who felt that Strasberg was really where it’s at. So one of my jobs as a historian is to take that seriously and to think about why they felt that way, and trust them to accurately represent their own experience, and to kind of hold back my own preference for Adler in order to understand these people and their world better.

Adler and Strasberg talked about their methods as irreconcilable. Adler would tell anyone who would listen that Strasberg was a sick man who was practicing psychotherapy without a license. When Lee died, Stella’s first words were “good riddance.” Meanwhile, Strasberg would refer to her as “an actress I once worked with” instead of saying her name. But actually, their approaches are totally reconcilable! Many people studied with both teachers and created their own synthesis between Strasberg’s focus on the self and Adler’s focus on the text, imagination, and the world.

TM: I think the affinity for Adler is evident, but you do an admirable job of keeping the scales level. To conclude with a stupidly literal question, in general I have been drawing parallels between the acting philosophies laid out in The Method and the creation of characters and plot and narrative. But is there a way that writers themselves might employ Method ideas as they themselves attempt to write? That is, in terms of psychological and emotional preparation, could we conceive of a kind of A Writer Prepares?

IB: Maria Irene Fornes, the great experimental playwright and writing teacher, adapted Strasberg’s exercises into her own artistic practice, and then would use them as part of her teaching, apparently to great results. I think all of these techniques are adaptable and usable for other forms. And as I said before, I’m kind of thinking about writing this myself, at least as it pertains to dramatic action. I’ve talked to a few fiction writers about this, and they all feel like it’s a subject that could use more exploring and fleshing out, so I suppose, watch this space!

Our Moment of Collective Rupture: The Millions Interviews Edie Meidav

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Edie Meidav’s new lyric novel, Another Love Discourse, publishing June 21, nods to Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse beyond just its title: structurally, thematically, and philosophically, Meidav puts her narrator into direct conversation with Barthes’s 1977 book. Interwoven in this conversation is the intimate unraveling of a woman’s life, encompassing the pandemic and sheltering-in-place with her three daughters, the end of a 20-plus-year marriage, the loss of her mother, and a nascent love.

With the myths of marriage and motherhood shattering around her, the narrator’s story provides fertile ground to invoke Barthes. Another Love Discourse is a small yet expansive book, containing passages from Barthes’ work interwoven with the narrator’s reflections on love, memory, child-rearing, death, and more. Her varied interpretations adhere to Barthes’ view that there can be infinite readings, depending on which semiotic system serves as one’s lens.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Edie Meidav about Another Love Discourse, which is philosophically rigorous, narratively rich, and a pleasure to read and reread. Barthes would approve.

Nina Schuyler: Can you describe the genesis of the novel?

Edie Meidav: I began Another Love Discourse at the dawn of the coronavirus pandemic while teaching students online and trying to keep body and soul aligned. When the pandemic began to break over all of us, I was teaching a course called Confessions and Rants in which we discussed Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse. 

Because I had just finished a big manuscript, a polyphonic novel on refugees, love, and telecommunications, because our whole world was tilting, I found myself responding to the innovative chapter titles of A Lover’s Discourse and using them as aleatory prompts, if not in their exact sequence. I came to the enterprise because, over these past years of writing and teaching, I began to see that most of us who like to create tread a paradoxical path: what comes most easily to us, whether in voice or form, often appears, at first, as our farthest destination.

And yet—importantly—I believe the best art comes from finding that magic path of least resistance, the lens of your true subjectivity, the little song or gift you have to offer the world. During the pandemic, which I view as our collective unhusking, I thought, really, at this point, what do I have to lose? And so I embraced the oddity of the form as it emerged.

NS: In the book, you use white space throughout. Sometimes text is aligned on the right, the white space on the left. Sometimes white space connects entire passages, and toward the end of the novel, you splice both techniques. Can you talk about the intention behind this?

EM: My hope is that in the act of reading, the reader might feel the freedom of dance. The truth is that I began writing this book in prose blocks, using a more straightforward approach, but at one point my computer, as if a latter-day Helen Frankenthaler, mistakenly right-justified one section, and because I have a deep belief in both the aleatory and the improvisational as important parts of the creative path, because something new started to happen to the meaning with the dance across the page, I kept the format, developing it as I continued. The white space seemed to confess to the intimacy I wanted with you as an ideal reader as well as to our moment of collective rupture and decentralized authority.

Deeper into the revision, I grappled with the question of how much to bring forward both the sonic elements and meaning inherent in line breaks, and ended by voting for the breaks acting as more dance than cage. If you as a reader find yourself newly awake or aware of temporality, then the spacing works. And maybe it is also fair to say that the prose blocks work a bit as a code, tending to offer context, background, motivation.

NS: You’ve written a lyric novel in which there is great attention to sound and rhythm. Why was that important to you?

EM: In college, I studied both painting and British Romantic poetry, lucky to study briefly with Robert Hass, but chose to pursue prose, in which time is less frontal, simultaneous, in which information needs to be delayed. In this book, I wanted time to move so that you, as the ideal reader, could choose whether you wished to linger on the meaning of certain sonic choices or cadence, but wouldn’t need to if you wish merely to get to your destination. I wanted the reader to have the fun of travel, a fluid journey, as if on a canal-boat with the narrator, passing lit windows, enjoying moments that are visual, ruptured, and emotionally illustrated, invited into complicity, invited inside if you wish.

People have sometimes told me my novels are dense as poetry, which made me wish, at times, to offer more breath and ease in the sentence. My hope with this book remains that as the narrator comes to understand x or y, perhaps the reader feels they travel deeply with her, undergoing some corollary catharsis or revelation.

As a kid, I spent hours and hours improvising at the piano, which at the time was my main form of art and a first portal toward entering a flow state related to synesthesia. While playing, I saw stories and shapes, and now still deeply feel writing as music, wanting to give it the same kind of sinuous pauses or robust swells that characterize the music I love. The reason that, by the end of the writing, I called this a lyric novel is that I wanted the story to behave as a kind of Aeolian harp, a moment being played as if wind on strings. I have always loved the root of our idea of the lyrical: that the lyrical is innominate, a guttural, sonic breaking-out, an explosion of feeling on the ancient lyre.

The multiplicity of tones in this book also has to do with my deep love for unfinished art—the demo track, the half-sketched Picasso notebook—all that invites us in. With this work, I didn’t want to smooth out creases but rather to invite all voices to sit at the table, even those that embarrass or terrify me, especially since I often find myself advising writers to vanquish the mediocritizing and homogenizing aspects of shame in order to find their most singular voices. Creativity always begs you to vanquish shame. With that concept my talisman, I decided to be that intimate with the reader.

NS: In the novel, the narrator refers to Roland Barthes’ term “punctum,” writing: 
Roland Barthes, a friend to this text, might tell us: the five cans of beans near the crazed writer’s fire would be the punctum, the detail that punctures the heart of the picture with vulnerability and risk. 
As I understand it, punctum is a term Barthe invented for that detail in a photo that pricks you emotionally and viscerally awakes you in some way surpassing your conscious thought. How did “punctum” serve as an organizing principle for you? 

EM: Barthes used punctum in contrast to his idea of the studium, which is the more instructive, documentary, intellectual aspect of a photo, the part that lends us cultural information, that speaks with authority of a more static order. The punctum matters to the structure of this book: I tried using a rhizomatic or perhaps fractal structure, hoping the reader might connect with a textual punctum which could then be submerged for a few pages and resurface again, varied with subtlety or not.

You know how when you experience a bit of singular music moving into another passage, something happens to your heart in the transition? My hope is the reader can move punctum to punctum through this book, in a kind of textual lily pad dance. You might have had this experience, perhaps, when you feel a punctum in a photo, just as in a text, I think—that the urgency of whatever the photographer felt, saw, and documented can pierce you into the real. To me, this is one of the most important forces in art. And in general, if we create enough moments for a reader to pause and invoke the intimacy of their own lived experience, a reader might go on a ride which, by the end of a book, means some great shift in consciousness has occurred.

NS: Thank you so much for speaking with me.

EM: Thank you for being such an engaged reader. It is such a pleasure to have this oddly intimate book I wrote—truly as a form of survival, while my own life was threatened by the fun of neuro-Lyme during its writing—find such interesting and interested readers. You are helping me believe all over again in the project of what we try to do with this ancient technology of ours, these books we offer out into the sea of possibility and understanding, our greater imagined community.

The Spectacle of Cruelty: The Millions Interviews Phil Klay

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Great essay collections are generative, both extending and deepening the original reading experience of each individual essay. I’ve been moved by the power and grace of Phil Klay’s fiction, but Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless, Invisible War, his new collection of essays, is an exercise in both empathy and erudition. Klay is well-read, and well-considered.

Klay writes of war, of suffering, of veterans, of aspirations and delusions and laments. His writing sends me to other books, as when he quotes G.K. Chesterton on the power of fairy tales: “They make rivers run with wine, only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.” That line then sent me back to Orthodoxy, where I found another gem tucked in the same paragraph: “One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star.”
In the spirit of literary inversion, I’d like to turn Chesterton’s line back on Klay—his essays force citizens to consider their complacency, their imperception of the self, in the face of constant war. His work not just illuminating but challenging, in the way that all great essays force us to confront our inadequacies.
A veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, Klay won the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction for his debut book, Redeployment. His novel, Missionaries, was named one of the ten best books of 2020 by the Wall Street Journal. His essays have appeared in the Atlantic, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere, and he currently teaches fiction at Fairfield University.
Nick Ripatrazone: In your introduction to Uncertain Ground, you note that many American citizens are “swaddled from the consequences” of war. I love the malleability of this metaphor: how we can often be made sheltered, silent, and infantile. In another essay, you write: “There’s something bizarre about being a veteran of a war that doesn’t end, in a country that doesn’t pay attention.” These essays were written over a period spanning at least a decade. What’s your sense of American awareness of war now?
Phil Klay: We’ve been excused from thinking about war by our political leaders. Congress doesn’t vote on wars anymore, journalists aren’t allowed to embed with troops, and when something happens like President Biden announcing he’s sending troops into Somalia, it isn’t done publicly but rather first leaked anonymously to the press, with scant details about why and what they’ll be doing. Also, right now we heavily rely on special operations troops, on drones and airstrikes and mercenaries and partnering with local forces to achieve our objectives. It’s a style of warfare designed to be opaque to the average civilian. And so there isn’t really much interest in how we are using military force around the world, even though it is obviously one of the most important and morally fraught exercises of American power.
NR: “Marines,” you write, “are drawn like moths to a flame when it comes to the dangerous, the transgressive, and the darkly humorous.” Do you think this translates to a literary or storytelling style for Marines as well—including yourself?
PK: Ha! Guilty, probably. There’s an impish streak in me that I hope is healthy for a writer, an attraction to the bizarre, the out-of-place, the disturbing. One should poke beehives from time to time, so long as that’s not all you’re doing. Transgression does not justify itself, but needs to be earned. By that I mean that simply showing the grotesque and cruel and darkly funny things that happen in war is not enough. One must have a moral vision, a sense of why and in what context you are showing these things such that the reader does not lose sight of the human beings in the midst of the spectacle of cruelty and absurdity.
I actually think that humor is one of the more powerful tools we have for this. People in war don’t just make jokes because it takes the edge off of horror. They make jokes because human extremes come out in all their startling immediacy in war, and humor is the most serious and honest response. Emerson, in his essay on the comedic, notes that:

There is no joke so true and deep in actual life as when some pure idealist goes up and down among the institutions of society, attended by a man who knows the world, and who, sympathizing with the philosopher’s scrutiny, sympathizes also with the confusion and indignation of the detected, skulking institutions. His perception of disparity, his eye wandering perpetually from the rule to the crooked, lying, thieving fact, makes the eyes run over with laughter.

War is constant exposure to the difference between the rule and the crooked, lying, thieving fact, and the result is some of the funniest books ever written: Goodbye to All That, Journey to the End of the Night, The Good Soldier Schweik, Catch-22, Beer in the Snooker Club, and so on, right up to contemporary Iraqi literature like The Corpse Exhibition and Frankenstein in Baghdad.
NR: At the end of one essay, you recall a Vietnam veteran telling the story of his best friend, who “was the sort of guy you could count on, even if he might not have been the best soldier in the world.” You add: “He was nineteen, and he always will be.” How does war affect our sense and conception of time—for veterans, especially?
PK: I think it affects veterans differently, and at different moments. I remember having beers with a veteran in Texas almost a decade ago. He showed me a grisly photo from Iraq of an injury he’d received in combat, a photo his young daughter had apparently found on his phone. It’d caused nightmares, and he’d had to talk her through what happened to him. He also had another, still younger child, and he said to me that right then was when he realized that he’d need, at some point, to have with them both “the sex talk, and the Iraq talk.” I suspect that his own relationship to what he’d been through, and his sense of that past event, suddenly warped as he saw it through the eyes of his child, and as he imagined retelling it in the future. I also think these current wars are particularly strange, in that they haven’t ended so much as become attenuated, and pushed to the side even while low-level military efforts continue.
NR: You briefly mention an essay “It’s Not That I’m Lazy” written by an anonymous veteran that appeared in the October 1, 1946 edition of Harper’s. I found and read the essay, and agree that it is as arresting as you describe. The veteran writes that his “respect for my civilian occupation was badly shaken. It wasn’t a rational change of mind. It was a gradual and unconscious effect of four years of membership in a military society which, if not contemptuous, was at least indifferent to my special abilities as a member of that other society back home.” Do you find contemporary veterans echoing a similar sentiment? Do you think that there are particular sectors of civilian society that are doing a good job of inviting veterans back into the civilian world?
PK: You know, I quote a veteran in the book who, during the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, said, “Everyone wants to know, am I OK, and I’m like, ‘Really?’ Is the burden of feeling guilty about this also a burden veterans have to carry, too? Not only did you not care about Afghanistan, not only did you not follow Afghanistan, it’s like you gave such a little shit you can’t even feel bad yourself? Could somebody else please take some of this, take some responsibility? I’m so fucking tired of it and it’s killing me and it shouldn’t be fucking me up this much.”
It was an expression of bitterness, and disconnect from the civilian world that had paid such little attention to the war that had been so formative for him. But I spoke to him a few months later, after he’d been doing work resettling Afghans, and he told me it’d been a revelation to him to see how many people had expressed an interest in helping. Many of these were people with no connection to the military or Afghanistan at all. “I used to think people were apathetic about Afghanistan and I don’t think that’s true,” he said. “I think it wasn’t communicated well. When everyday Americans see that there are people in need or there’s a crisis and people are lacking access to basic needs and treated in a way that denies them their basic human dignity, people have stepped up.”
One of the tragedies of these wars is that our political leaders have asked far less of our populace than they’re capable of. That said, there are absolutely places where that has happened. There are a lot of veterans in humanitarian communities working on immigration issues, with arts organizations, and so on. In some universities you’ll find that veterans can feel isolated, but others have taken pains to provide robust support to develop a real community. This often means a commitment of real resources. I’m currently at Fairfield University, which has committed funding to veterans who want to study in our MFA in creative writing program. Currently, about a third of the students are veterans, which has enabled an incredible community as well as the opportunity for real engagement between a diversity of veteran and civilian writers.
NR: You quote W. B. Yeats, who, while compiling poetry for The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, passed on English soldier-poets, saying “passive suffering is not a theme for poetry.” It’s certainly a glib statement from him, and it makes me think of your own appreciation for the talented work of David Jones, a Welsh soldier during World War I. Paul Sheehan finds an “oblique rejoinder to Yeats’s dictum” within In Parenthesis, where Jones writes of a soldier: “He found him all gone to pieces and not pulling himself together nor making the best of things. When they found him his friends came on him in the secluded fire-bay who miserably wept for the pity of it all and for the things shortly to come to pass and no hills to cover us.” As someone who mostly writes and publishes in prose, could you engage Yeats’s contention from a genre standpoint? Do you think fiction and nonfiction about war differs—in mode, intent, and perhaps result—from poetry about war?
PK: What’s interesting is that although Yeats famously insulted Wilfred Owen as “a revered sandwich-board Man of the revolution… all blood, dirt & sucked sugar stick,” he greatly admired Jones (once, at a party where Jones was present, he entered and bowed low to salute the author of In Parenthesis). And of course, Jones’s work is far more than “passive suffering.” It’s complicated, because Yeats is not entirely wrong in his dissatisfaction with some of the trench poets when he suspects that they’re limiting themselves because they feel obliged to plead the suffering of their men. But he obviously misses the genuine power and beauty of Owen’s verse.
Owen, as a man who self-consciously crafted his poetry as a form of protest, and who died in the war, is a critical exemplar of the ‘poet as witness’, who, as Seamus Heaney put it, “represents poetry’s solidarity with the doomed, the deprived, the victimized, the under-privileged…[and for] whom the truth-telling urge and the compulsion to identify with the oppressed becomes necessarily integral with the act of writing itself.” And that’s a form I’ve distanced myself from.
As to whether fiction and nonfiction differ so much from poetry about war, I’m not sure. Poetry has been vital for me as a writer. Memorizing poetry to get the rhythms in my head. Working through the arguments and ideas and approaches to capturing experience in so many wars. I just read Tom Sleigh’s poetry collection The King’s Touch, which at points deals with his work as a journalist in conflict zones, and though obviously I work in prose Tom’s approach throughout his books has been pivotal for me as I think through what can be done with war writing, and how to balance ethical, political, and aesthetic commitments. Sleigh adopts a kind of caution about that in his work, a care that the poet not overstep his bounds, speak not simply for but over the voice of the oppressed, while nevertheless immersing the reader in the complexity of political fraught, emotionally intense and sometimes violent situations.

I try to do the same—immerse the reader in situations of political, emotional, psychological or spiritual complexity, but without necessarily providing the reader with the clear emotional or political cashout we come to expect from some poetry of witness. As a war writer, you find that people are comfortable with clear jingoism or pure denunciation, and your job is not to provide comfort.

NR: The final section of the book is titled “Faith.” “Faith, for me, has always been a place to register a sense of doubt, of powerlessness, of inadequacy and uncertainty about my place in the world and how I am supposed to live,” you write. You note: “It increasingly seems to me that the certainty of earlier life was based on fantasies of an orderly future in a rational, controllable world, fantasies that were no more than the wish that the Leviathan might one day be tied down by force.” You write of times of doubt in your life, and your musings make me think of the differing conceptions of God between the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who imagined a unified cosmos and consciousness, and Fr. Raymond Nogar, who envisioned the difference between them as “His God is the Lord of order; my God is the Lord of the Absurd.” You seem inclined to agree with Nogar, but I wanted to see which vision of the divine is more in line with your Catholic sensibility—and what that means for you as a writer and a veteran.

PK: Oh wow, I apparently have another book I need to read! I do find Chardin fascinating. He was a veteran of World War I himself, and has some truly fascinating reflections on it. In one essay, written during the war, after he’d already served in several major battles, he reflected on the strange nostalgia that he felt whenever he was rotated out of the front. Why was it, though he hated pain and death and suffering as much as the next man, did he find himself wanting to return to the front, this cataclysmic site of death and destruction where he knew he could be killed at any moment, and where he would certainly encounter extreme suffering? And he goes through various explanations—that simple desire we have to encounter extremity and the unknown, the freedom from normal social convention, the sense of being submerged in a larger task, and the mystic encounter with the absolute he finds in such close exposure to horror. He writes:

No one, except those who have been there, will possess charged recollections of wonder that a man retains of the plain of Ypres in April of 1915, when the air of Flanders was filled with the smell of chlorine and when artillery shells cut down the poplar trees all along the Yperlé; or when the chalky slopes of souville in July of 1916 blossomed in death. These super-human hours impregnated life with a tenacious perfume, definitive in exaltation and initiation, as if one had passed through them into the absolute.

This compulsion we have toward horror is, I think, difficult for people to talk about, and yet it is most certainly there. It’s funny, every once in a while I’ll mention that the ostensibly anti-war film Full Metal Jacket has been a fantastically successful recruiting commercial for Marine Corps, and annoyed critics have informed me that this is because I’m stupid, or the viewers are stupid, since the correct interpretation is to be repulsed by what we see. But of course, human desires are more complex than that, something I appreciate in Chardin’s searching WWI work. But it’s precisely for that reason that I’m on Nogar’s side against Chardin here. Yes, I’m wary of the Lord of order. Far too often the order imagined by those who espouse such a god has far more to do with narrow human desires. For me it comes down to the strange, broken, beautiful, unruly creatures humans are, possessing of freedom and creativity which seems to explode outwards, rather than narrow to a point.

Art Makes Us Better: The Millions Interviews Percival Everett

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Before I started my Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California, I had heard about Percival Everett’s teaching philosophy. Due to the pandemic, my first year at USC was entirely online. Everett Zoomed in to one of my classes from his workshop where he kept his jazz guitars and the tools to fix them. He struck me as both a performer and a repairman. This dual identity perhaps explained his literary mastery: by fixing the issues in the art-making process, he learned the fundamentals of the craft which in turn granted him more freedom in performing in the arts.
After the campus reopened, Everett and I had the following conversation in his office. We talked about his latest novel The Trees, the power of humor, our common misconceptions of realism, and the language in our daily politics. He imagined an alternative reality in which people crave knowledge and wisdom instead of cheap sensations: “What if our heroes on television are not throwing shields at each other? What if they were heroes because they were smarter?” Art, as he inspired me to see, has the potential and capacity to mend the world.
Jianan Qian: Everyone marvels at your many talents: novel writing, abstract painting, training horses, repairing instruments, playing jazz guitar. You once said to James Yeh at the Believer that they are all the same thing. How so?
Percival Everett: Art is art. It’s my attempt to express myself. Even more precisely, it’s my attempt to understand the world. I never think of these things as challenges. You live in the world. You do stuff. What else am I supposed to do with free time? My idea of doing nothing is doing something.
Working with my hands is a great complement to working with my head. I love painting also because it’s physical. I love playing instruments because I’m doing something with my hands while I play. And I’m thinking too. It’s hard when I’m writing. Sometimes I wish I were Chinese because there’s so much art in making the ideograms. It’s fantastic to me how people would display their intellectual prowess with their calligraphy. We don’t have that, though I think at one point script was more important than it is now. Even Roland Barthes goes on and on about the kind of pen he writes with that makes the French have a different relationship to language from the English speakers. There’s this connection to something physical in writing that I wish I had.
JQ: You grew up in South Carolina and spent a lot of time in the American West. How do different places influence your work? 
PE: When I first saw the western landscape, I realized this was my landscape. I feel comfortable on the West. Los Angeles is not representative of what I mean when I say “the West,” though I like the city of Los Angeles far more than any other American city. I love the wide-open, non-populated state of Wyoming. That helped my work because I spent a lot of time by myself. Likewise, I used to spend summers in New Mexico. I would take a horse up into the mountains and use the camp for a few weeks. When you don’t see anyone for a few weeks, two things happen. You really appreciate your solitude; you also really appreciate people. More than place, I used to be around animals. I consider them as a place in a way.
JQ: I wonder if you can talk more about South Carolina? It is representative of the American South and racism. But you also mentioned that the American South is oftentimes the scapegoat of the pervasive racism in this country. 
PE: It’s arguably true that every American work of art is about race, which is sad but also the experience of this American culture. If there’s no race in it, that itself is a comment about omission. I think of the television show Friends. The crazy thing about that show was they lived in New York and there were never any Black people. Finally, after many seasons, they tried to insert a Black character. That’s an industry of omission and that tells us something about how America would like to see itself.

But one thing that white Americans don’t seem to understand is that Black Americans don’t wake up in the morning thinking about being Black. There’s a scene in Chester Himes’s novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go. The main character is having a very nice day. He’s crossing the street and he sees a white man in a car glaring at him. He wasn’t walking around thinking, Here I am, a Black guy in America. He is just a person. But the racial gaze, the stare of white Americans at Black people, is a constant reminder that you don’t belong. That’s not so different from what people experience insidiously and perhaps unconsciously, when they see a television show like Friends with no Black people in it. Where’s the representation of people like me?
JQ: You mentioned every piece of writing is experimental. But it occurs to me that people use the term “experimental writing” to differentiate from “realistic writing.” What is your view on realism? Is it a convention, a restriction, or something else?

PE: First of all, there’s really no such thing as realism, the same way that paintings are never photographs. You can have something that’s representational. Then you’re going to have something that pushes against the representational, or what we think realism is. Take crime novels—crimes never happen in real life the way they have in crime novels. It’s formulaic. It’s completely unreal. This is an abstraction of what we think reality is. If anyone had a real notion of what reality is, we could solve a crime every time it happens. That’s also “a trick of the eye,” to use a term from paintings that are considered painstakingly real. It’s forgetting the fact that we don’t see in three dimensions. We see in two dimensions. Our mind creates that third dimension. That’s what’s interesting about this whole idea of realism. In my mind, my most experimental novel, Wounded, is the one that people might call the most realistic. I can see it’s experimental because I wrote it understanding that there was no such thing as realism.
JQ: Most of the craft advice in today’s writing workshops comes from the tradition of realism. For example, events have to be believable and characters must be complex. What’s your take on craft advice in general?
PE: If you were to find what you consider the most realistic fiction, memorized with a friend a portion of dialogue from that novel, then sat on a bus and acted it out, people would think that you are crazy. It is not realistic fiction. This is the magic of fiction. It seems the same way that you can have on a canvas that looks really three dimensional. It can’t be. Also, if you were to record the most meaningful conversation you’ve ever had with your best friend about something really important to you and wrote it down on paper, it would be the worst dialogue ever written. It’s a trick, recreating illusion. So it isn’t necessarily not realistic. It’s something else that gives us the appearance of realism. Given that, there can’t be any rules. You’ve already started from a place that is unreal.
JQ: I am always captivated by the seemingly effortless humor in your novels. Particularly, in The Trees—a novel that deals with the history of lynching—the humor seems both disarming and offensive. Do you intentionally choose humor as the narrative tone?
PE: I’m a product of reading Mark Twain. I don’t shy away from humor, or maybe a better word for me, irony. In the death camps, people made jokes. Humor is a way people survive. Maybe it’s because if you take irony away from the people, then they really are dead. If you take their ability to step outside of themselves and see the world, then they will not live. When we step outside and see the irony, I think that’s often where hope resides. You realize that as small as it might be, you have some power over yourself, over your world.
JQ: Do you also use irony as a weapon to offend those who deserve to be offended? 
PE: Someone once asked me a question early on about The Trees, “Do you think you are afraid of the white people?” I said no. The depiction of Black people, Chinese people, Latino people in American popular culture has been ugly for a long time. Just to turn it around. Have you ever seen the film Blazing Saddles?
JQ: No, I haven’t.
PE: It’s Mel Brooks’s last Western movie, made back in 1974. It’s much smarter about race than we are now. That is, not to take into account that the film is misogynistic and homophobic—get rid of those things. In the movie, the bad guys want to take the town so the railroad can come through and they can have the money. In order to combat all the bad guys, the townsfolks get the Chinese and Black people working on the railroad to come and join forces with the white people from the town to stop the bad guys.
There’s one line where one of the white guys in the town says, “Okay, [in return] we’ll give the land to the chinks and the niggers but not the Irish.” (Excuse me for quoting the language they used in the movie.) All the Black people and the Chinese say no, no. Then the white guy goes, “Okay, everybody.” In order to thwart the bad guys, they build a replica of their town—only the fronts of the buildings. Everything is a facade and then the bad guys attack the wrong place. To me, what’s wonderful about the movie is that when they do include everybody, it’s not America. You’re invited to build something not real. You’re invited to fight and protect something that doesn’t belong to you.

JQ: Another thing that strikes me about your novels is that the drama keeps escalating. I am thinking of SuderI Am Not Sidney Poitier, and The Trees. Did you worry how you could possibly end the story when the plot seemed to spin out of control? What are your views on how to end a novel?
PE: No story ends. Stories are abandoned. You can always ask the question: what happens next? Even if it’s the story of human history in which everybody dies, what happens to all the other animals? What happens to the planet? There’s always another question. The story will end since we are god in the creation of a work of art. It ends when we say it ends. But that really isn’t the end of a work. If what we have created is a work of art, what is thought after consuming it is the real story. That’s the story that I get to participate in making. Instead of thinking novels as a complete work, I consider them as a springboard for work that happens in the world.
JQ: Do you think it necessary to give a work of art a sense of ending?
PE: I do it, but it’s not necessary. Now you say it, it really makes me not want to do it (laughs). I’m sort of contrary by nature. I read about how they test the ending of a movie by showing it to a small audience before they decide what they are going to do. I’m not sure how true this is. There is a scene in the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Sabotage, where the bus carries a bomb. The tension rises as the bus gets closer to the town where the bomb is supposed to go off. In our understanding of those kinds of scenes, our main characters will resolve the issues eventually. That’s one of the reasons why television shows are so strange to me. When you have a main character who runs into danger, and we feel this, but we know she’s not going to die—she’ll be back next week. But back on the bus scene, that was one of the ending editions that the bomb goes off. Imagine you have an audience sitting in the room, then the bomb goes off, and the tension has nowhere to go. That’s not the ending they use because no one was satisfied. People are satisfied when you get their main character back. They need that safety. In fiction, you don’t have to worry if everybody blows up in the beginning. That’s one thing you’re exploring. When the bomb goes off, you have to resolve, but never to the extent to satisfy your audience. That’s how different films and televisions are from fiction. What we do is even harder.
JQ: Your transition from analytical philosophy to fiction writing is beautiful. I wonder what you think about the role of language in shaping our daily politics and our perception of reality?
PE: Language has suffered in the hands of American politics. Part of it is because we have a political party who would really like an uneducated population. This is why they’re hostile toward higher education and completely anti-intellectual. We have even experienced the death of philosophical ideas.
One of my pet peeves is that the term “to beg the question” has been changed to mean to raise the question. It’s a great philosophical concept which isn’t quite summed up in the notion of assuming that conclusion. As a philosophical notion, begging the question is a way to call out someone who is arguing poorly, someone who is not answering a question by reposing the question in a different way. It used to be a valid complaint about someone’s argument. It was the case in politics when you say, “He’s begging the question” and everyone understood it. No one understands it now. To say to someone that you’re assuming a conclusion doesn’t carry the same weight. Language suffers.
JQ: Do you happen to track the language of the pandemic?
PE: Not really. But I hope someone will write something about it. I’m sure language has suffered throughout and certainly science did too. Science is, in some ways, always shifting, and so paradigm shifts happen. But it’s never, in the strict sense, religious. So all of a sudden we have people who don’t have faith in science. That line of thinking is very strange to me. Why are you talking about faith in science? Sciences are our best attempts to understand things in empirical way. It doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily correct. But they are our best attempts. We can’t simply decide what’s true or false in the physical world. It doesn’t work that way.
JQ: You reject the notion of writers’ block. How do you keep yourself motivated?
PE: I put my bills on my desk. Just kidding. I do ask myself a question: Do you want to write a book? If I want to write a book, then I write a book. If I go out with a shovel, I ask myself, “Do you want to plant this tree?” If I do, I dig the hole. If I don’t, I go back inside. I don’t have time to stand around there playing the show. If I have a student who wants to write a novel. Then write a novel. If they don’t, then that’s not going to happen. Usually that’s enough motivation for people: Shame.
JQ: In recent years, the world seems crazy—or maybe it’s always been crazy. Many young writers, me included, feel compelled to do something to help change the reality. But instead, we are writing stories that not many people would care. What would you say to people who feel that way?
PE: I think about Picasso’s Guernica. It affected the world. Does it affect the world now? Not really. But it did. Art has that capacity. But you don’t know when that’s going to happen. If we only made art for numbers, we wouldn’t do anything. If you were a farmer, would you stop because you can’t feed everybody? It’s not just because I do it, but I believe that art makes us better. Art makes us think, and that’s the first step to being smarter. If more people consumed art, I think more people would consume all sorts of knowledge. That might be naïve, but I have to believe in it.
I don’t like what I see in the world, and I don’t mean entertainment. There used to be those racks at the supermarket, full of trashy romance books. They no longer exist there now. But I always thought what if there were books about ideas and those were the books that people would pick up as they were checking out of the market. And those were the books that they would read. I am happy when people read anything. But what if those books are not about romance, but about philosophies, about people who care? What if our heroes on television are not throwing shields at each other? What if they were heroes because they were smarter? That would be a very different world. But how do you get an audience to do it? That’s where art comes in. Maybe, maybe we could solve and change.
(The Chinese translation of this interview appeared in the Shanghai Review of Books on May 22, 2022. The interviewer would like to thank Philip Kurian for his generous and thoughtful contribution to the interview.)