The Practice of Paying Attention: The Millions Interviews Beebe Bahrami

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Award-winning writer and anthropologist Beebe Bahrami is the author of the travel memoirs Café’ Oc and Café Neandertal as well as several travel guides, including The Spiritual Traveler Spain and Moon Camino de Santiago. Her essays appear in BBC Travel, Wine Enthusiast, Archaeology, the Pennsylvania Gazette, Perceptive Travel, and other publications.

Her latest book, The Way of the Wild Goose: Three Pilgrimages Following Geese, Stars, and Hunches on the Camino de Santiago, published earlier this month by Monkfish, recounts her inner and outer journeys through southern France and northern Spain, where she encounters wild nature, ancient roads, quirky pilgrims, wise locals, and mysterious folklore. In The Way of the Wild Goose, Bahrami embarks on a quest to find out why the goose has become associated with the medieval Camino de Santiago and how its symbol came to preserve a universe of pagan, pre-Christian lore. Her walk on the ancient roads in France and Spain ultimately led her on a journey into the Self.

Anne McGrath: Why is it so important to you to be clear about why you walk the Camino? 

Beebe Bahrami: When I first started the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, I really didn’t think about my intentions. They came into focus as I was walking. There is something very powerful that happens when you simplify your life and you just carry what you need. You get down to the basics of walking, eating, sleeping, and showering, if you’re lucky. This paring down makes other things happen inside and around you.

The idea of intention presented itself to me as I was walking and started paying more attention to my surroundings. I thought about what was coming in but also about what I wanted. It’s a fascinating alchemical process that sets into motion. Later, when I walked other trails, it was clear to me at the beginning that I wanted to set an intention for the walk, to think about what I wanted to learn. It doesn’t mean that initial intention will necessarily stick, it’s just a good starting point. Often the process of walking a particular Camino will present itself with another intention:  you thought that was important, but here’s what’s really important.

AM: This notion of being flexible and open to detours and sidetracks is a recurring theme in the book.

BB: When people planning to walk the Camino ask me for advice—how much should I plan ahead, how many kilometers should I walk each day, what should I carry—I tell them they can plan as much or as little as they want to get them to the place where they feel ready to walk. But when you arrive at the Camino, prepare to have all those plans dashed. As soon as you show up, everything kicks into motion. You think you have plans, but the Camino has its own plans for you. You just don’t know what will happen when you show up and flexibility is part of staying present in the moment and seeing what’s really happening instead of trying to forcibly fit what unfolds into a preconceived idea.

AM: The shape-shifting goose in your book is described as both a guide and a symbol of the Camino. Did you land upon the goose idea before you embarked on your journey or did its significance arrive as a revelation during your walk?

BB: This was part of the wild goose chase. When I first started walking the Camino I had no idea about following signs except for the physical ones—arrows and scallop shells to let me know I was still on the trail—but then I started meeting pilgrims, especially from Spain and France, who said they were following a more initiatory, spiritual, esoteric path. One of them mentioned following “signs of the goose” and it made no sense to me.

Then it kept coming up—the goose. I repeatedly met people who also talked about looking for signs of the goose, or mentioned the three-pronged foot imprint or the goose itself. I realized I was dealing with a huge bundle of metaphors and symbols that had a long association with the Camino and the cultures through which the trail passes. So I decided the next Camino I went on I would start paying attention to this.

The three-pronged foot imprint is engraved in stones along the path, in some churches there are geese and ducks associated with the goose quest, and there is a whole body of folklore. I realized I’d stepped into this beautiful well of European folklore that has not disintegrated with the modern era or with the official versions of spirituality that Christianity layered over. The folklore is alive and people are still engaging with it.

The goose went beyond being a sign for me. It became this embodied being that is also a guardian and guide on the trail. You look for her signs and she guides you.

AM: The confidence you gained from your pilgrimages led you to what you described as a move from fear-thinking to trust-thinking. Can you talk about how this manifested for you and for others on the path?

BB: Everyone arrives on this unknown path, you’re meeting people from all over the world, you don’t know where you will sleep that night. It’s amazing to realize that no matter what, all your needs will be met, often in much better ways than you could have imagined. After such struggles I would realize that the way things unfolded was perfect and I would not have wanted it to be any other way.

You start carrying everything you think you need and the more you walk the more you realize you don’t need half of what you are carrying. You get rid of half and then further on you realize you still don’t need half of what’s still in there. You’re lightening up with what you think you need in your backpack, and all the while locals and pilgrims are helping you to find food, shelter, support. It’s a very generous and giving world as soon as you step on the Camino. I think that’s a big part of the magic and why so many people keep wanting to go back. It’s a great environment to let go of fear thinking because people are there to help, even before you ask.

AM: The paring down, the trusting that there are enough resources to go around, these are things that I, and other people fortunate enough to have good health and the ability to quarantine, experienced during the pandemic. There were so many things I used to think I could not live without that I no longer need. Part of it is also a result of aging, for me.

BB: People on the path often say the Camino is a metaphor for life, that everything that happens on the walk is a concentrated version of what happens in life. What you just said about the pairing down is a great example of that. A pilgrim would say that’s a pilgrimage. The process of letting go of things you don’t need—that’s a pilgrimage.

AM: You wrote that when you travel with a companion “fellow travelers become mirrors to each other for what the path is pulling up from inside us each.” 

BB: As a travel writer I largely travel alone because I have less protection against the world I’m in—I really have to speak to locals, ask for help, and locals are more likely to speak to me. On the Camino you’re referring to I was walking with a close friend from my hometown in Colorado and she and I were going into a more remote part of the trail in France. We were amazed each day how one of us would be mulling over something in our mind and when we would voice it we found that we were consistently having similar thoughts. I would be thinking about my relationship with my mother and my friend would say, “That’s really interesting, that’s what I was just doing.”

There is something about the meditation of walking, being in nature, having all that space and time to process your life that amplifies connections. My friend and I were processing our lives in the same rhythm, very much in tune with each other. Some people say there is an energy on the Camino that creates this synchronicity. It brings people who need each other in that moment to each other.

AM: When you return to your regular life and routines how long does the magic of the Camino stay with you?

BB: Because I’ve been walking it for almost three decades, it’s with me all the time. But I remember the first full trek. Every day I kept bringing up that experience of being present, trusting, listening. I would remind myself to look and listen before I reacted or tried to find a solution. I would wait, take a Camino frame of mind, and trust that something right would come along.

The simplification of life stuck with me right away. When I got home I realized I did not need three quarters of what was in my closet or in my house. I did a purge. I gave things away. To this day, I question very carefully what I need before I buy something new. I think of what I can do with things to put them into an experience or share them with someone.

One of the hardest things is that when you come back from such an experience, you want to be able to share all your epiphanies and transformations, and not everyone in the life you return to wants or necessarily needs to hear it.

AM: Do you find more places sacred since you have embarked on these pilgrimages?

BB: I think I do. Walking the Camino cultivated the practice of paying attention and the pandemic drove home the idea that everywhere we are is sacred. As sacred to me as the Camino is, with these many layers of human and natural presence, it is everywhere. When I couldn’t travel due to the pandemic, I started making a practice of paying attention to where I was going when I walked my four to five miles each day.

I was influenced by the work of Martin Shaw, a mythologist and storyteller in England. He spoke about going to the same place in nature every day during the pandemic, for something like one hundred and one days. He went there and just listened. I thought, I’m going to do that on my walks. I’m going to walk the exact same path each day and listen. Shaw said that at some point in the one hundred and one days, the land should start telling you its stories. He said we need more stories of the land and less of the landowner.

I Write to Find Out: The Millions Interviews Marie Myung-Ok Lee

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Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s novel The Evening Hero, publishing May 24 from Simon & Schuster, centers on Dr. Yungman Kwak, an obstetrician living and working in the fictional town of Horse’s Breath, in rural Minnesota, near the Iron Range. Yungman, whose Korean name translates to “Evening Hero,” often feels trapped between two worlds, unwilling to return to his ancestral—near-imaginary—land of Korea, yet somehow yearning for it. Now, a father and grandfather in the twilight of his life, Yungman has less time ahead of him than behind him. And when a letter arrives that threatens to the life he has worked so long to build, everything changes. Keenly felt and deeply observed, this sweeping sociopolitical historical saga bears witness to the medical institution and the immigrant experience. 

The Evening Hero is Lee’s second novel, after her 1992 debut Finding My Voice, hailed as one of the first contemporary Asian-American YA novels to explore hometown bigotry. Lee is one of a handful of American journalists granted a visa to North Korea since the Korean War and was the first Fulbright Scholar sent to Korea for creative writing.

I spoke with Lee about how she brought The Evening Hero, and Yungman’s story, to life. 

Leslie Lindsay You grew up in Hibbing, Minnesota, a predominately white community. What was your experience like growing up in Northern Minnesota as a Korean-American? It’s an isolating area in itself, but perhaps you endured additional challenges? 

Marie Myung-Ok Lee: We were for most of my childhood the only family of color in our community. The area we lived in was predominantly white, and, at the time, the whole of Minnesota was more than 90% white. We talk a lot about physical violence against Asians today, but my first experience getting punched in the face and called the c-word was when I was four or five years old. But even though I was aware of racism at a young age, because everyone else was white, that made me feel white as well. I was born in Hibbing just like all my white friends. My parents wanted to be really “patriotic” and kind of disavowed Korea and never talked about it, so I grew up not really knowing who I was and how I fit into the grand scheme of things. I think figuring out who I am is why I write—to find out!

LL: There continues to be a good deal of anti-Asian racism, even in settings far more diverse and metropolitan than Hibbing. How do you confront this in your daily life?

MML: Non-Asian allies are so important. I’ve seen several cases in New York City where when people intervene, it can defuse a situation. I think the more some people step up, more other people will step up as opposed to everyone being afraid of the bully. I believe the work I do both in fiction and nonfiction is to make the experiences of Asian Americans legible. I think the more stories and voices we have, the less chance there is for racism and stereotypes to seep into that vacuum. As you know, reading builds empathy.

LL: One of the things I was particularly keen to as I read The Evening Hero was your use of color: the white and black, that woodland gray-green, made from the iron in the clay, celadon. We see it in ginseng, grasses, the family tree. Celadon originated in China, was brought to the Goryeo region in Korea. In a sense, celadon is a bit like an “immigrant color.”

MML: I love the celadon color and was happy the book designer, who is Korean, chose to use it.

LL: In the book you pay special attention to the color white. Minnesota is not just “white” in terms of people, but landscape, too. Snow, ice, even farmhouses are sun-bleached. And there’s the medical aspect as well. White lab coats, white shoes. At one point in the novel, Yungman is proud of purchasing white shoes in Korea. Combine that with the lab coat, white collar—he thought he was as close to a white American as possible. And in Korea—white rice, white ramie fabric, white “powders” and substances falling from planes during the war. What was the intention there?

MML: I’m glad you caught on to that. I wanted to point out how in the U.S. and the West in general, “white” has positive connotations, including racially. In Korea, white is a frequent motif—Koreans are called “the white-clad people,” and the flag is predominantly white, a color of peace. So it’s all about context—in the U.S., a white flag doesn’t mean peace but surrender. Or how in Korea, Korean faces can be “white” but no one in Horse’s Breath would describe Yungman’s wife, Young-ae, with her fair complexion, as “white.” 

LL: Ancestors also play a pivotal role in The Evening Hero. Like the use of color throughout the narrative, I find this elegant. There’s a section about trees and saplings, family burials, keeping bodies intact, rather than cremation, about honoring the dead. Can you expand on these? 

MML: My grandfather died during the Korean war and we moved his body in 1996 to a better place. It took forever to disinter him and my father explained that they had to find all the pieces. They laid out a tarp and we watched them reassemble everything—it was very moving and I could see how sad my father was. As a matter of accuracy, I also studied anthropological books on Korean funeral rites when I was writing the book.

LL: The idea of “what’s in a name” becomes apparent in the end of the book. Kwan translates to “Evening Hero” in Korean, which takes on extra significance seeing as Yungman is in the twilight of his life. We get the sense he might die soon, but his legacy will continue. 

MML: In my mind “evening” refers to the time period when Yungman muses that he’s lived more life than he’s going to live. He can just coast into the end of his life, or he could do something with it—but then does he have enough time? He doesn’t have that luxury anymore.

In Case I Didn’t Survive: The Millions Interviews Devi Laskar

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In 2010, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation raided the home of author Devi Laskar, after her husband was falsely accused by his former employer of misusing resources for his start-up. With a rifle pointed at her, Laskar watched as the officers confiscated personal files, tax documents, her children’s iPods, CDs of classical Indian dance music, and her laptop. All her writing—poetry, short stories, novels-in-progress—lived on that laptop.

In 2014, Laskar re-imagined one of the novels on the missing laptop, essentially rewriting it from memory, and in 2019, The Atlas of Red and Blues was published by Counterpoint Press. It went on to win the Asian/Pacific American Award and the Crook’s Corner Book Prize, and was a finalist for the Northern California Book Award. In 2016, the charges against Laskar’s husband were dismissed, but the couple’s things, including Laskar’s laptop, were never returned. The unfinished works—like all things without an ending—haunted her.

With Circa, published by Mariner earlier this month, Laskar attempts to recreate and complete yet another unfinished novel from that lost laptop. Circa tells the story of Heera, an Indian-American teenage whose best friend, Marie, is killed by a drunk driver, an event that reframes Heera’s life. The losses are multiple: the novel is based on the death of Laskar’s own best friend. I spoke with Laskar about the resurrection and reimagining of Circa.
Nina Schuyler: I want to start with the raid, which incalculably disrupted your work. How did that experience change you as a writer? 

Devi Laskar: As you can imagine, from May 2010 to 2011, I didn’t write much. By the end of May 2011, I realized I couldn’t write at all because I was still so upset. My friend suggested that I watch the movie Julie & Julia, which is based on the true story of the writer Julie Powell, who in 2002 decided to make 524 recipes from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 365 days and blog about it. Because I’m a photographer, my friend suggested I take a picture every day, give it a title, and post it. So that’s what I did, and I still do it to this day. Thanks in part to doing this, slowly my writing returned. In 2012, I was able to write poetry again. In 2014, I got my prose back.

Once I started writing again, I first returned to a short story I’d written that had been lost on the seized laptop, “When the Dolls Leave the Dollhouse.” That unpublished story was a nod to the model minority myth that Asians are passive, doll-like, into STEM, good citizens. I’d originally thought it would be one of many stories, in the vein of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros.

But as I began to enter the work again, I found I’d changed as a person and as a writer. I still liked the main character, but the story felt too small, too focused on family. This time I was influenced by Claudia Rankine’s book, Citizen: An American Lyric. I wanted my novel to explore racism and misogyny, what it meant to be Other in America. What resulted was The Atlas of Reds and Blues, which I finished in 2016, around the time the case against my husband was dismissed.
NS: You sold The Atlas of Reds and Blues to Counterpoint Press in 2018, and it came out in 2019. You next turned to reviving your novel Circa. How did the book change from its conception? 
DL: Like The Atlas of Reds and Blues, Circa was originally a family story, much quieter and more contained. It was not directly confronting anything controversial. But I wanted the novel to talk about patriarchy, how boys are treated differently than girls. There are three main characters, and the boy character has a lot of freedom compared to the girls. If it had been the male character who died in the story, then the two female characters, Marie and Heera, would have been able to grieve together. But because it was Marie who died, the grieving process for Heera was very different.
I’d originally written Circa in flashback, which is also how I wrote The Atlas of Reds and Blues, and I didn’t want to do that again. For Circa, I was inspired by The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka and her use of first-person plural. Originally Circa was in first-person. Then I tried third. But after reading Otsuka’s book, I chose second-person. The second-person point of view does double duty. It’s reflective because it’s really first-person. It also closes the distance between the reader and the character, so the reader is right there in the room with the narrator, experiencing what the narrator experiences.
NS: Another important theme in the novel is disappearance. Heera’s best friend disappears through death. When Heera marries, her husband essentially disappears. Heera’s mother undergoes a kind of disappearance, too. How did this theme become important to you? 
DL: When the agent pointed his weapon at me, I automatically thought of my family and very close friends in case I didn’t survive. I still vividly remember the day of the raid. I used to work as a newspaper reporter, and I remember one of my editors at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin telling me, if you want to know why something is happening, you have to remain silent and watch and wait it out. During the raid, my editor’s voice came to me. I disappeared. I was very calm. I didn’t fight back. I became a reporter. 
This experience and the idea of disappearing also enter the book through the lack of consequence for the drunk driver. In the story, the man who kills Marie is drunk. He’s part of the patriarchy, part of the dominant culture, and it becomes important that he not lose face. In the end, there are no consequences for him.
NS: Can you talk a bit about your writing process?
DL: I had the good fortune of having Lucille Clifton as a professor in grad school. She told us to read our work out loud. I do that. When I finished writing it, I read Circa out loud twice. When you do this, two things happen: if your tongue trips or stumbles, you’ve found an improper word choice and an opportunity to make the sentence better. I also caught when things were out of place—things revealed too early, for instance.
I started out as a poet, then I became a newspaper reporter. I’ve had a lot of people in my life say, keep it short. I give myself constraints, like, Write this in 500 words. I also used to be much more factually based. When I originally wrote Circa, I tried hard to stay close to the facts about the loss of my best friend. But when I rewrote it, I let the facts go and focused on the story of friendship.
I’m quite rotten when writing the middle of a book, so I do a pendulum; I write the beginning, then I write what I think is the end. Then, based on the ending, I go back to the beginning and rewrite it. Back and forth until I get to the middle.

Just Make Someone Feel Something: The Millions Interviews Bud Smith and Rae Buleri

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In Bud Smith’s newest novel, Teenager—out now from Vintage—we’re taken on a ride between the deep-fried corners of America to visit some of the nation’s greatest myths. I say we, because in Smith’s work there is a special intimacy to the narrative, a quality much to the reader’s benefit. This might seem at odds with a summary of the plot: in the first hundred or so pages, there is an escape from a juvenile detention facility, a double-homicide, an extended telling of a relationship’s origin story that is both incredibly comic and tragic, a visit to Graceland, all with surreal and moving drawings by Rae Buleri, a painter and illustrator who is married to Smith. If I were summarizing another novel, I would feel I had given away too much. But the high volume of events, combined with Smith’s delightfully galvanic style, creates a sense of participation for the reader, a welcome involvement—even friendship—with Teenager’s young and troubled kids on the run.

For the interview, Smith and Buleri came over to my place in Brooklyn. My wife, Kelley, cooked us all dinner. We ate, we drank, we took to the couch with coffee. The result? A transcript that topped 12,000 words before undergoing several procedures of hyper-distillation.

The Millions: Here’s one of my favorite sentences in the book: “Arizona, somewhere.” I love the symmetry of the word “Arizona” juxtaposed with the vagueness of “somewhere.” You feel the exhausting monotonous beauty of the desert. To start us off, can you talk a bit about your philosophy of language?

Bud Smith: I love a beautiful sentence, but I’m captivated by the paragraph, and think of myself as a paragraph writer rather than a sentence writer. I love how a paragraph can tell a whole story six times on a page. The way they can be anecdotes, vignettes, jokes (with their own set-up and punchline)—islands all on their own. How the first sentence launches this investigation and then by the end we’ve tried to resolve some idea. And all during there are twists and turns that do and undo, and mimic the way the mind plays. Sometimes the movement of the paragraph turns in a complete circle, boomeranging back to the original thought and maybe the thought has been examined enough and kicked around enough that through different acrobatics of language we’ve gone a course and feel satisfied.  As if we’d read a small poem.

TM: Where do you think that comes from?

BS: Anecdotes and bullshit stories said aloud. My style was completed/formed from listening to people share stories out loud on construction sites. Brief. Succinct. I noticed, if somebody was brave enough to tell a story in a crowd, it was often told quickly, to the point, and framed in some bleakly comedic way to evoke a release. And a good tiny story does one thing well—it makes someone else want to raise their voice and tell their own story. Now, I always try to write things I would be willing to read out loud in a crowd. You know, be an entertainer. That’s one thing, the oral side. But what came first was more oblique. Comes from music. How the talking-blues thing I heard on those first Bob Dylan records collided with his abstract (irreverent) poetry attached to some beat, peaking with Blonde on Blonde. I had his cassette tapes on my Walkman and listened on the school bus. It felt like, Do whatever you want. He was a high wire act, going by his instinct. And borrowing whatever, in that grand tradition of thieves back forever into the mists of time. So Bob Dylan kind of cracked the door open on many lines of thinking. Eventually that leads me to guys like Vonnegut and James Tate. Writers of dreams within dreams, now, all the rules of narrative be damned, just make someone feel something, and laugh. It’s all a complete miracle to me. Just dump your life into it and see if those abstract broken utterances tell the middle of the story and the clarity of the setup and the impact of the punchline can save the whole thing.

TM: It’s funny you mention Dylan, because he was on my mind while I read Teenager. Your approach to the material is similar, right? You’re taking up these American myths and making them new.

BS: That’s it. Exactly. There are these stories that keep repeating over and over again. Our moment in history already happened. We’ve always lived in a world of love and war, and it’s never been too different since human consciousness kickstarted. Teenager is a folktale. The book is looking at these themes that keep repeating themselves, beating us over the head. The country seems older than it is. Right now America is just about ready to go to the senior prom.

Maybe my American folktale is sarcastic but I don’t consider Teenager a satire. I’m not an ironic person. I do not enjoy too much art where someone doesn’t let you know how they feel. Err to the side of sincerity. I get a lot of joy from participating in art. Art that takes the time to say: “Hey, I like this, all right?” It’s the same way with people. I like to be around people who take the time to say, “Hey, I’m into this, this is what I like, this is what I stand for.” So I try to do that with my work, put forward something that I really believe. Teenager is a modern folktale about the things that have gone wrong in this country’s years of massacre and great love affairs.

TM: You can imagine a version of this folktale you’re revising with slightly altered details. Malick’s Badlands comes to mind, where the guy is several years older than the girl. Why was it important for you that Kody and Teal both be teenagers around the same age?

BS: Badlands is amazing. Now I’m thinking of Springsteen’s, Nebraska. And just all the pieces of art based off of the Starkweather murders. That cycle of violence repeating again and again. And yes, the details smudged, and moved around. Youth happens to everyone, but your exact youth will never be repeated in anyone else. The novel comes at it that way, in the point of view of teenagers because when you’re that age everything seems new and fresh and the possibilities of the world are wide open. It feels like the first chance to break away from the paternal home and do things in the world. There are a lot of corny songs about this.

I had a great family. My mom and dad both worked blue collar jobs. My dad was a garbage truck mechanic and my mom worked in a factory. We had a stable house. They always had the bills paid and everything was stable and loving. A pain-free childhood where I could study and learn whenever I wanted. We had a house full of music and library books.

If I was to write my own story about being a teenager, it would just be a story of gratitude. But I feel the story of this country is also a story of anger, and a story of things that are not as good as they could be. Wonder mixed with contempt, you have both those strongest things in your adolescence. That’s why Kody and Teal had to be 17. Nobody loved them like I was loved by my parents, but they found each other and broke away to see their country before they and it die.

TM: You said recently that you liked a novel very much because there’s a villain in it. What is it that appeals to you about villains in fiction?

BS: We don’t have them in real life.

TM:  You use an omniscient narrator in Teenager, which I think contributes to this sense of rewriting a classic. What brought you to that perspective?

BS: Well, this story is one that I’ve told in many variations, and this novel is the final form of that story. It was first written as a poem. A poem in the first person. Very brief. And then it became a short story. And then the short story grew a bit and soon it was a novella. All of those versions were in first person. But I was just not done. I never felt like fully expressed. Too close to the suffocated feeling of being trapped in one person to tell this big story. So it switched to third person and it was off to the races. I rewrote the book. And I started to feel like I could better express what I needed to say through everybody, not just Kody, and suddenly I had a true picture of him, because he too faced criticism, like any real person would. I not only had his version of the world, I had what felt closer to our universe as I see it, peeking down from my twinkling star.

TM: You build in this great tool with Kody. His head trauma allows for surreal moments. I’m thinking about when he’s on the phone with Neil for the first time: “A woman on stilts walks by with her head bleeding. Pink clouds coming out of the Dunkin Donuts.” There’s this surreal tinge to everything when we’re in Kody’s perspective. I’m curious about what draws you to the surreal.

BS: I come to fiction to suspend my disbelief. The book is a drug. I’m trying to take this drug. Get melted off this drug. I’m trying to get away from belief. I’m trying to get away from the real world and I’m trying to take the drug and go somewhere different from my own responsibilities. That’s what a book is. I have these responsibilities I have to do in my life. I’m sitting down for however long to read your book. During those hours, I’m not taking care of my family. I’m not solving any of my own problems. I give myself to your book and the pressing problems are probably only going to get worse in neglect.

But when I give myself to a book like that, I free myself totally in another kind of way. Like I said, if I’m there to duck reality and suspend my belief, you better believe I’m open to surrealism. And it goes so far in little drips and drabs. More can be accomplished in surrealism and abstracted reality than can ever be accomplished in a straightforward scene.

Now some of my favorite writers are straight realists, but my absolute favorites are alchemists trying to turn lead into gold. They’re holy fools. They’re not worried about falling off the edge of the earth, because they’re too busy flying off the edge of the earth. There’s a slightly woozy feeling in their narratives. That’s kind of what I want to happen. I want somebody to realize there’s a world within the world and feel the beauty of that. You have to paint the picture clearly, but to finish the picture, you have to blur it just right.

TM: Thanks, Bud. Rae, can you talk about how the illustrations came to be?

Rae Buleri: During quarantine Bud would read to me from the book and then afterwards we would talk about it. It was Todd Portnowitz (Bud’s editor at Vintage) who mentioned that he might want illustrations, and Michael Mungiello (Bud’s agent) told him that I’m an illustrator and a painter. So I sent Todd a previous book of Bud’s that I did drawings for, Dust Bunny City. And Todd was like: I love it, let’s do it.

Bud and I decided to start by making a list of ideas of scenes from the book that I could work from. The illustrations for Teenager were a new challenge, blending some of the abstract writing in the novel with a more traditional, character or object study.

There’s this fun first year of art school exercise, blind contour drawing. You look at your subject while you draw and you don’t look at your paper. It tricks your brain so your left side dominates. You’re trying to make your sketch resemble the subject but you don’t look at your paper and you don’t lift your pen. The work comes out loose and skewed. Many drawings from Teenager are in that style. Or that’s at least how I started many of the drawings, and then I’d relook at the drawing, redo it, go farther in one direction or another. Some scenes were very difficult to get right. Like when Kody and Teal go to Graceland. I was trying to draw Graceland itself, and it was just not coming around. Bud had this great idea. You know Elvis loved bananas? I laughed do hard. Go from trying to draw some sprawling colonial revival architecture, to try to capture how it felt to be Elvis, and have the heart of Elvis, to a couple of black-spotted bananas because he loved them so much.  It didn’t always need to be so literal. You just had to look for the heart was.

TM: That’s great. I was telling Bud earlier. The book has this Dickens vibe. A very modern Bildungsroman. You think of the Victorian novel. The serialized novels then all had illustrations. And that feels so right here. The illustrations feel essential. I’m curious: which one is your favorite and why?

RB: The one of Kody right before he goes to see the priest. He has his mouth open and there’s all of those eyes. He’s about to have a seizure. I love how he looks fucked up, about to go on some cosmic journey within. One of my other favorites is the double page where there’s chickens running around and a coyote. If you really look closely, there’s the coyote, and right before him is the chicken looking at him, as if he’d refused to run.

TM: I don’t want to give away the final image of the book, but I’d love to know what it felt like to draw.

RB: There’s hope. Life is worth it and more.

The Hurting Kind: The Millions Interviews Ada Limón

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To read the poetry of Ada Limón is to enter mysteries around life and nature and the world for which she has no answers. She distrusts her own role as an observer and tries to de-emphasize herself, understanding that she cannot truly understand the changing people and creatures around her. As she writes in “Intimacy”:

a clean honestyabout our otherness that feelsnot like the moral, but the story.

Her new book, The Hurting Kind, is her sixth collection of poetry and the titular poem about the death of her grandfather captures a lot of this. It is a poem with multiple registers, that seeks to talk about his life and how he would have wanted to be remembered, talk about her grandmother and her family, about how individuals grieve and how a family grieves. It tries to celebrate him while also understanding that he didn’t want to be celebrated. He saw himself as ordinary and Limón wants to record the moment as something ordinary. Grieving is a common human experience, but that doesn’t mean that it is not sacred and important and powerful. Her grandfather was both ordinary and important, and Limón feels similarly about so many things, seeking to celebrate things even as she acknowledges their ordinariness.
Limón is also the host of the podcast The Slowdown, which comes out five days a week, and we spoke about what a poet does with missing, the human and animal experience, and how her mother paints all her book covers.
Alex Dueben:  Thanks again for doing this. And it’s nice to see you. I listen to you daily on The Slowdown, so it’s odd to see you because I know your voice so well.
Ada Limón:  That’s wonderful! I’m alone a lot and writing these things by myself and then I’m recording in my bedroom and so when people tell me they listen I’m like, Oh good! There is someone out there!
AD:  I’ve never been to one of your readings, but your poems have a musicality. You’ve always seemed very interested in the sound of a poem.
AL:  I am. I want to say the sound is the biggest driver for me because I’m interested in music, but I’m also interested in how the poem really is like music on the page. It really is a whole-body experience. It’s meant to be read out loud. It’s meant to be in the mouth and the ears. Not just the eyes. It’s not really meant to be read in a quiet silence. It’s meant to be heard. Even if you just read it out loud to yourself. I always think of poetry as very close to music.
AD:  Like a piece of music, a poem doesn’t resolve the way a narrative does, but it does conclude.
AL:  That is a great way to put it. I think that one of the most important things about poetry is that it doesn’t provide answers, but it does transform something. Even in the smallest way. The way music does. It can wash over you and you can feel different on the other side of it. It is remarkable to me that I can be a changed person on the other side of one single poem. Not just writing it but reading someone else’s poem. I have experienced something and now I am different. Just from this one page of words. It’s really so remarkable to me.
AD:  On The Slowdown this week you read Shelley Wong’s “Walking Across Fire Island” and in introducing the poem you spoke about walking and you used this phrase that’s been in my head: “You put your body into the world and something happens.” It sounds like you feel that same way about a poem
AL:  I do. I struggle a lot with the idea of inertia. The idea of what it is to be quiet and observe and just watch. When to go into the world and can you be an observer while you’re moving into it—and how those two things collide. I think about that all the time. That’s the way birds experience the world. They’re experiencing it from flight. They’re experiencing it running on the ground. I find that the physicality of both poetry and the experience of the world really interesting. We live so often in the mind. [Laughs.] I mean, I’m that way. I can sit for a long time and just be alone with my thoughts. I’m grateful that I have a little dog next to me that gets me out into the world. Remembering the body, remembering the animalness of me as opposed to that chaos and mayhem and beauty that’s in the brain. I love spending time there. Even gardening. Just doing a simple task like preparing the beds and planting the lettuces feels like almost a spiritual practice.
AD:  It’s a practice, which is true of writing and religion and politics and so many things.
AL:  We often think that poetry is an act of the mind and I find myself fighting against that a lot. I think it’s bigger than that. It’s connected to all the parts of the body. It’s really connected to the breath. It’s made of breath. That space, that cesura, the line breaks, the stanzas—that’s all breath. And that’s one of the most essential movements of the body. I think sometimes we forget that and think that, no, it’s an intellectual act. It’s that, too, but I like thinking of all the elements that go into it.
AD:  As far as organizing the book into these four sections. To everything there is a season, of course. But in writing about nature and family, which I think are the central themes of the book, how does it make sense to organize this book into spring, summer, fall, and winter sections?
AL:  Nature and family, for sure, are the themes. Putting together a book is actually really fun for me. I think that part of it is that it always surprises me. I never try to rush it. I think my publisher was asking for this book for a while and I was like, I don’t know. I don’t have any poems. Of course, I did, but I’m not going to say that. [Laughs.] I like to really feel ready. I was really surprised by the seasons because I’ve never organized a book that way. It’s not something that I was expecting, but I realized that the book has so much to do about time, simultaneity, the non-existence of time. And also cycles. What was wonderful about it when I figured that out, was that it de-centered me in some way. That instead of the narrative being “my” narrative—Ada Limón, the speaker of these poems—it became a larger narrative. A narrative of not just my community, and not just animals, but of the world itself. Even though it’s very much me. I’m in the book. But I wanted a sense of ongoing-ness that didn’t necessarily involve my physical presence in the world. When the seasons came, I thought, that’s it. That’s how it needs to be organized.
AD:  As we were saying earlier, that gives this sense of movement and time passing, but not necessarily a sense of ending.
AL:  The way that “The Hurting Kind,” the titular poem, ends—“Love ends. But what if it doesn’t?”—I think that that’s also part of it. That ongoing-ness. There was a part of me that thought, it would be lovely to finish reading the book of poems—I know most people don’t read a whole book of poems in one sitting, but I do.
AD:  So do I.
AL: [Laughs.] We have that pleasure. We call it “work.” [Laughs.]
But I love the idea of finishing the book and then starting it again. The idea is that it begins again. Because what comes after winter? Spring. That sense of cycles and returning and ongoing-ness and de-centering. It wasn’t something I was planning when I started gathering the poems and seeing what shape it would take.
AD:  Family is central to the book. The titular poem is the center of the book, but in poems like “Joint Custody” and “Sports” and “Runaway Child,” you write about what family means and how it’s understood and how that changes over time.
AL:  I think that’s very true. I really was interrogating the idea of connectedness and how we see ourselves in relationship to the world. I’m always fascinated by that. What we claim as our identity. I was so curious as to what would it look like to ask myself some serious questions about that. Also, lean towards gratitude and appreciation and affection in that interrogation, so that it became a way of really seeing deeply what other people have offered and given in order for me to have this life. I don’t know about you, but I think the last three years with the pandemic and the climate crisis and now the war—not to mention the racial reckoning going through all of that—made me really want to lean into connectedness and the people who have sacrificed and given me permission to do what I do. To live the life that I am living.
I also think that because I was separated from everyone and couldn’t travel and couldn’t see anyone. Now, not all these poems were written during the pandemic. There’s probably five years of poems in this book. But I would wake up and miss my dad. What do I do with that missing? Well, I zoomed with him and we had cocktails and all those fun things, but what does a poet do with missing? We write poems. These are real gifts that I could send and be, Hey, I wrote this poem for you. They weren’t exercises. They were offerings to real people in my life.
AD:  There are a number of poems in the book which on first reading I thought, these are pandemic poems, like “Banished Wonders” and “Blowing on the Wheel” and “Lover.” But on rereading, they’re not necessarily pandemic poems. “Lover” is a winter poem and a pandemic poem—and it’s neither of those things.
AL:  Like I said, there were many poems that were not written in the pandemic, but some were. I wrote “Banished Wonders” over the first summer where it felt like everyone was just, Okay, this is it. Also, I always go to South America during the summer and that idea of the world’s just closed and what does that mean? But also trying to figure out what are the wonders here?
I like that sense that it can be translatable and into different eras and times because this is a unique and tragic time, for sure. Especially if you consider the climate crisis that we’re in. And at the same time, I think about how so many people have lived through so much and to acknowledge that this is a unique time, but every time is a unique time. I want to work against the preciousness of the individual “I” experience. That this moment is all there is. Yes, this breath is all there is. But I want to push against that I’m the only one who’s ever gone through this kind of thing. So many people have gone through so much globally and through history that it feels a little false sometimes to privilege our own suffering in a way that makes it seem more important than other people’s experiences.
AD:  Having so many poems about nature and the way you structured it with the seasons gives that sense of recurrence. Similarly to reading a love poem, poems about isolation and loneliness and death are unique and they’re also very much not unique.
AL:  They’re the human and animal experience.
It’s easy for me to get carried away in my own little world and it’s good for me to place it into the larger context. Larger of all of us. That kind of de-centering is important. That doesn’t mean that I don’t feel, that I don’t grieve, and I’m not cheerful and I’m not going through my own thing, but I still remember the first time I realized that everybody lost someone. [Laughs.] I mean I was in my 30s and I was like, Oh, everyone’s going to lose their mom. Everyone! It’s interesting to me that we don’t acknowledge that as much. We feel whatever we’re going through is so deeply personal. We don’t talk about it. Of course, if we do talk about, we realize everyone’s going through this.
AD:  I love how you talk about and use nature throughout the book. You have a line in “Privacy”: “they do not / care to be seen as symbols.” You’re writing about nature not as metaphor but being a witness to nature and being witnessed by the natural world.
AL:  That was really important to me and that’s part of that idea of what it is to really be connected. What it is to not always be the watcher. To not always be, I’m going to look and because I am looking I am the narrator. [Laughs.] That’s part of my work. There’s a part of me that’s like, what does the bird think of me? I always laugh that the birds are thinking, Lady! The feeder’s empty! I think the birds call me lady. I’m an animal moving amongst their space. It’s not “my” backyard. No, my house is in their world. [Laughs.]
AD:  Someone built a house in their field.
AL:  Yeah! [Laughs.] We have a weird ownership of things that doesn’t make sense.
AD:  You make clear that to deal with nature is to encounter and embrace this mystery and magic and an unknowability.
AL:  I’ve been thinking a lot about how I miss knowing things. [Laughs.] I do! I feel like when I was in my 20s, I knew so much. I know it’s cliche, but it’s so true. I don’t know. If the last three years have taught us anything, it’s that we know nothing for certain. We don’t know what’s next. I think this book is in some ways a way of coming to terms with that. Finding beauty in that instead of being terrified of that, which is partly the emotion that happens when you realize you know nothing. Just being at peace with that and realizing, Oh, that is part of the human condition. That surrendering. That doesn’t mean you don’t try to figure it out. That doesn’t mean you don’t question and live in wonder and awe. But you’re not always trying to make sense of everything. I found a lot of peace in that. I could roll with that. That was something I could move in the world with.
AD:  I feel like you’ve written a few poems over the years about your husband’s ex’s cat. That strange changing unknowing mystery isn’t just about animals, but people too, and embracing the strangeness.
AL:  And how much we’ll never fully know about one another. I can never not be curious. I’m always going to be curious and want to know more. But I kind of love that I’ll never figure it out. And the changeability of people! I think we sometimes hold people to this fixed-ness. They’re supposed to be this or supposed to be that or that happened and therefore they’re bad. We change all the time. To make space for that is another way of recognizing our animalness. Recognizing our mortality.
I could write a million books and no one’s ever really going to know who I feel myself to be. That inner core. That self underneath the self. I could read a million Audre Lorde poems and a million Lucille Clifton poems and feel like I know them, but there’s still that mysterious human element. Whether you call it a soul or whatever, it is mysterious and unknowable and I love that. It’s another one of those sweet mysteries. I mean wouldn’t it be a bummer if we could figure it out? [Laughs.] If we could go, I know exactly who you are. You will only be that person.
AD:  I did want to mention the cover because your mother paints the cover art for all your books, and it’s such a beautiful way to communicate. Does she read the book and then paint something? Or paints many things and then you pick one? How does it work?
AL:  Thank you for asking that. I think she’s an incredible artist. And of course, the first artist in my life. I feel like our process is really unique in the sense that she reads every single poem and she’s very articulate, but she always says that language is not her medium. She’s visual. I’ll ask, did you like the book? And she’ll say, I love it. But she’s the person who’s going to respond with, Here are 10 paintings I did. That’s our communication about my work. When I saw this one in her studio, I said, that’s it. I like the idea that it’s a gesture of a bird. It’s not really a bird, but the idea of a bird. Also, the bright seam on the horizon. I love that. But it’s a real gift because we don’t collaborate in any other way. Well, we talk every day. We collaborate on our lives.
We always had a relationship through language, but I think she really responds to me in her most big-hearted holistic way with the paintings. And so, to really have those on my covers feels like it completes it. And now it’s done. She gave it its completeness, its wholeness. It’s so beautiful.
AD:  The titular poem is a winter poem about grief, and gray fits with both of those things. And that seam of light is the horizon. Or Leonard Cohen’s crack in everything.
AL:  That’s how the light gets in!
AD:  I wanted to talk about the titular poem, which as someone who has had relatives and friends die, captured some of that experience of grief and grieving. The ways you structured it, using multiple stanzas and registers, felt very true to that experience.
AL:  Thank you. I think of all the poems in the book that took me the longest to write. It took me the longest to finish. I started it in May 2018 and probably finished it in 2021. I think the reason it was so hard to finish was because of that line in the poem, when my mom says you can’t sum it up. I have a moment where I don’t know what she means. She means a life. I’m driving and we’re getting things done and I just had a really hard time getting out of the poem. I’ll just keep writing this poem until I die. [Laughs.] I feel like there could very easily be a poem like “The Hurting Kind 2” in the next book. [Laughs.] It just goes on and on and on. I think the hard part is that there’s a part of us—and I’m very suspicious when I say “us” and “we”—there’s a part of me that feels we want people to see like the heroic parts of our dead. I didn’t want to do that. That felt untrue to my grandfather’s experience. He would have said, I’m no one. When I asked him what kind of horse he had, he said, it was just a horse. I feel like that’s him. That to me was really important. It’s hard to really write an elegy for someone who’s like, I’m just like everybody else. I had to honor that. There were probably 10 poems about him that were very heroic poems and I had to honor him because he would not have liked them. I had to make the poem not only about his passing, but also about my grandmother. He would have been good with that. Also that sense of, this is just the way it goes. That maybe this just continues. It’s living and then the remembering of living.
It was a really hard poem to write only in the sense that I really wanted to get that honoring right. It can feel a little prose-like and I wanted to make sure the music was there and that the tempo changed in different places. There are longer lines and then shorter more staccato lines. I wanted to have that because I think grief moves like that too. Sometimes it’s chatty. You’re getting things done and here are the funeral clothes and then sometimes it’s heavier and somehow rhythmic and formal. I think that that was part of getting the musicality of that poem right. Not making it all prose or one kind of line was important to me. Both formally and emotionally it was a tough poem to get right. And when I finished it, it felt like oh, maybe I have a book coming.
AD:  Also, it captures how we grieve differently and in different stages. Like your mother having this reflective moment while you’re busy getting things done and to do that, you can’t be in your feelings. That feeling gets echoed in the different stanzas and registers and I think that is part of the experience of grieving.
AL:  I think that’s absolutely true. I couldn’t not record all this stuff in my head. I mean I’m the person who drove and did the errands, and the other part of me—or the other part of my job—is that I remember these things. That’s my role.
AD:  I wanted to mention the last few poems that close the book. “Salvage” hit me really hard.
AL:  Me too. [Laughs.]
AD: [Laughs.] All those poems are beautiful and they follow “The Hurting Kind” and there is a flow and movement to them.
AL:  Thank you. I really worked hard at putting the book together. That when you finished it, it would feel like reading one whole poem, even though each individual poem has its own life. Putting it together was very interesting because usually a titular poem is in the beginning or towards the beginning and it wasn’t supposed to be there. It was supposed to be where it was. I had to listen to where it wanted to be.
AD:  You’re very good at concluding your books. There’s that old Stanley Kunitz line about “the dream of an art so transparent you can look through it and see the world.” In all your books, you have this way with the last poems of almost easing the reader off the page.
AL:  Thank you. I believe so much in the power of poetry and language and what it does to us as humans. And what it can do. I deeply believe in the power of poetry. I take it seriously. There’s this other part of me that really believes in the power of connection. Getting out into the world. Watching things. Breathing. Being alive. I’m just as interested in being a good artist as I am in being a good and whole human being, and I want to offer that to the reader. You’ve lived in this world—now go live in your world. Go live in the natural world. Or in community with whomever you’re with, whether it’s animals or plants or humans. I think someone asked me about [the final poem] “The End of Poetry” and they said, it seems like the last poem you’ll ever write. I said, “No! It’s just the end of poetry for that day.” [Laughs.] Or for that minute. Or for that month. But it’s about setting it down.
AD:  Don’t pick up another book immediately.
AL:  Exactly. Go back in the world.

Telling Secrets: The Millions Interviews Steve Almond

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Although he’d worked as a journalist for several years before attending graduate school for fiction writing, Steve Almond arrived definitively on the literary scene in 2002 when his smart and memorable short story collection My Life in Heavy Metal was published. It was his second book, Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America, however, that truly launched him as a writerly force when it became a national bestseller in 2004. Candyfreak is a funny, candid, well-researched memoir/journalistic nonfiction hybrid that offers vivid glimpses of Almond’s formative years in northern California, as well as dispatches from his travels to several independently owned candy companies across the United States. Almond’s voice is alternately wry and affable, confiding and melancholic. He’s like the droll and irreverent older cousin you wish you saw more often, the one who can be counted on for wise, uncondescending advice.

Along with Candyfreak, Almond has published three story collections; a novel coauthored with Julianna Baggott, Which Brings Me to You; and six other works of nonfiction—among them, Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto and Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country. He also cohosts Dear Sugars with Cheryl Strayed, a popular advice podcast produced by the New York Times.

Despite what could reasonably be considered a polymathic writerly aptitude, novels have long been Almond’s first love, and, as he notes below, he wrote several before finishing the one that serves as his solo debut, All the Secrets of the World, which will be published this month by Zando Projects, a new publishing house founded by Michelle Obama’s Becoming editor Molly Stern. Stern has also edited other mega-selling books, among them, Gone Girl and Ready Player One.

All the Secrets of the World is an almost fiendishly engrossing, thrill-ride of a novel that likewise manages to be humane and erudite and, at times, laugh-out-loud funny. Linguistically, Almond toggles between the hard-boiled and colorful (think Raymond Carver) and the vividly sensory: “Lo’s eyes scrolled an ocean of sand,” “She smelled smoke, the tang of his sweat…his limbs were thick and covered with hair.” It’s a complex, ambitious, deeply imaginative novel, and weeks after finishing it, I’m still thinking about it.
Christine Sneed: This novel is set almost entirely in California of 1981, the year Reagan took office and soon after was shot by John Hinckley Jr., and both events figure into the narrative of All the Secrets of the World. What drew you to this particular time in history?
Steve Almond: I lived it. As a California kid of the ‘70s, I remember that assassination attempt. It was one of those events that should have knocked some common sense into our government. As in: Hey, don’t make guns readily available to lunatics. But this is America, so instead it became the impetus for Reagan’s ideas about “law and order.” He believed that crime is not the result of social conditions but the inherent evil of “certain” people—brown people, immigrants, the poor. White people could only live in safety if the state protected them from predatory minorities and immigrants. You can draw a straight line from the Reagan Revolution to the eugenic psychosis preached by the right today.
So obviously, I had some things to say. But I also wanted to capture the rhythms of the era I grew up in, which felt slower and more personal, less numbed out by screens and devices. I really enjoyed being in a world where characters interacted face to face, where secrets spilled out in person, rather than online.
CS: You worked as a reporter at El Paso Times for a couple of years after college and I’m wondering how that experience informs this novel, which features major characters who are Latin American immigrants and in the case of Lorena Saenz, first generation Americans.
SA: Secrets is a direct result of that experience. I’d never lived on the border, or even thought about it. And suddenly, at age 22, after a suburban youth and four years at a liberal arts college in New England, I was living in an apartment that overlooked the Rio Grande. The reality of immigration was right in my face. I could watch the day maids sneaking over every morning from my balcony, as I sipped coffee. The maquiladoras were jammed with workers, mostly young women coming from the interior of Mexico and further south.
When you live on the border, the story of immigration becomes quite stark: it’s almost entirely about desperate people wanting a better life in a country where they can work hard, improve their lives, and give their kids greater opportunity. Our immigration system essentially criminalizes the American Dream.
CS: You write from several points of view throughout the novel—including Nancy Reagan’s and that of a first-generation Honduran-American teenager, Lorena, who is the one documented member of her family. Did you begin All the Secrets of the World with this shifting point of view or did it evolve over time?
SA: Definitely evolved. Early on, Lorena was the only point of view. But as the tale broadened, I got curious about the other characters. I wanted to figure out who they were and what their stake in the story was. The only way to do that was to get inside their heads. As I did this, the psychological thriller I’d been writing started morphing into a social novel about how the powerful and powerless collide. But I didn’t want to reduce my characters into villains and victims. Someone like Nancy Reagan makes for an easy target. The fashion obsession, the fatal naiveté. But she was also a true believer in her husband’s political destiny, and when he was shot, she behaved—as most of us would—like a hyper-protective partner. But if I’m going get inside Nancy, then I damn well better extend the same compassion to Lorena’s undocumented mother and brother, because they’re the ones in the most danger.
Obviously, there are real risks to writing about the disenfranchised from a position of privilege. I’ve never had to move through the world as a woman of color or an immigrant or an undocumented person. So if I get anything wrong, I’ll deserve whatever criticism comes my way. At the same time, my goal is to understand the inner lives of my characters, to empathize with all of them. To do that, I had to live inside them, to understand the story they were born into, and how they viewed the world.
CS: There’s a fascinating amount of information about scorpions, astronomy, police work and legal procedures, the Mojave desert, Nancy Reagan’s wardrobe (as alluded to above), among other topics, throughout this novel—how did you find all this information? I’m guessing it was more than just through Google.
SA: Some of that came from my reporting days. Down in El Paso, I did a feature story about a couple of scorpiologists, who took me into the desert and switched on a giant ultra-violet lamp. I still remember watching the sand light up with the glow of a thousand scorpions. They told me that nobody understood why scorpions fluoresce and I remember pondering that mystery, too. Later on, in Miami, I worked as an investigative reporter, which involved a lot of reporting on police corruption. But there were other aspects—Nancy Reagan, astrology, the transmigration of Mormons—where I did use the Google machine. In the past, I’ve had a tendency to get obsessed with research as a way of avoiding my confusions about the story I was telling. But with this novel, I knew the story, so the research was just about making sure I got the details right.
CS: Your first book, My Life in Heavy Metal, was a short story collection, but you’ve since published as much nonfiction as fiction. Despite your pre-graduate school employment as a journalist, was fiction your first love as a writer?

SA: For sure. As a kid, the books I returned to again and again were all novels: Where the Red Fern Grows, Lord of the Flies, Cat’s Cradle. But I never thought about writing fiction until much later. My family had a lot of creative people, but no real artists. So, I figured I’d become a journalist. That was my way of sneaking up on my artistic inclinations. I was nearly 30 before I finally screwed up the courage to leave journalism and get an MFA. I wrote short stories because those felt manageable. I could finish them without panicking. But as a short story writer, you figure out pretty quickly—usually via agents—that the world wants novels, not stories. My entire career has been spent slugging away at failed novels and bouncing back by writing nonfiction books and short stories. I wrote the novels partly because I wanted to prove I could “be a novelist.” It was an ego thing. And like most ego things, it collapsed pretty quickly under the weight of its own anxiety. But there was also a part of me that genuinely longed to create the kind of immersive imaginative experience I’d had as a kid reading novels.
CS: All the Secrets of the World is being adapted for television by Jon Feldman. Before I knew about its acquisition for the screen, I kept thinking about how cinematic it is. Did you also imagine it as a film or limited series as you wrote it? What do you see as the primary challenges of adapting it for the screen?

SA: I wasn’t thinking about a visual treatment of the novel at all as I wrote. I was totally preoccupied with shaking their secrets loose and pushing them into danger. But there was a lot of action in the book—scenes of temptation, violence, natural wonder. I spent a lot of time trying to envision those, so I could describe them on the page. Early readers told me they felt like they were watching a movie. Which makes sense. There’s a lot happening, plot-wise: teen rebellion, sexual predation, an alleged murder, a media circus, an FBI interrogation, a police cover-up. And that’s before you get to crazy old Nancy Reagan. I’d taken to describing the book to friends as a mashup of Jane Eyre and The Wire. So, yeah, I can see why the book appealed to Jon Feldman and the folks at 20th Century TV.
As for the adaptation—that’s really up to Jon. We had a long talk and he clearly understood what the novel was about at the deepest levels. But the truth is, I’ve made my artistic decisions as a storyteller. Now Jon and his team get to make theirs. TV involves a level of financial investment—and potential commercial reach—that is almost beyond my imagining. But it’s also a different art form. So I’m super excited to see what they create, while also completely uninterested in trying to control the process.
CS: In the acknowledgments, you mention that writing All the Secrets of the World was a long process. Would you speak to this experience? Did you start over entirely at any point? I ask this in part because of the present fervor for life hacks. Fiction writing skills aren’t easy to develop, and beginning writers usually have to work through many false starts and wrong turns before they write something interesting and alive.
SA: I didn’t start over, exactly, but I wrote the book in two shifts. I started in 2014 and got 200 pages down. Then the 2016 election happened and, like a lot of people, I went berserk. What was happening in the real world felt too urgent and distressing to ignore. So, I wrote a book, Bad Stories, in which I tried to explain what was happening to America through the lens of literature. By the time I returned to Secrets, in 2019, I discovered two things. First, that I was still really invested in Lorena and her fate. And second, that her story had become far more urgent. Because families just like hers were now being ripped apart at the border, by agents of the U.S. government. There was no question in my mind that I was going to finish the book. But not because I needed to prove I could write a novel. I was genuinely committed to the characters and curious what would happen to them.
That’s what you need if you want to write a novel: you have to be more interested in the characters and their struggles than your own ego need. That’s the central takeaway I can offer. It took me five failed novels to get to Secrets. I’ve spent a lot of time kicking myself around for being so inefficient. But in healthier moments, I can see that all of those failures were a part of the process. As a writer, the real question isn’t whether you’re going to fail or not. It’s whether you can learn from those failures and outlast your doubt.
CS: What are you working on now, if you don’t mind saying a few words about it?
SA: My hope (and it’s just that at this point: a hope) is to publish a craft book and another collection of stories called Songs for the Infidel. The craft book would be a way of gathering up all of the stuff I’ve been saying to students—and myself—for the past 30 years. For instance, I think the show-don’t-tell dogma has been a disaster for a lot of aspiring writers. But I’m mostly interested the psychological and emotional dynamics that keep people from doing their best work. That’s where I think most craft books fall short. The reason writers give up isn’t because they don’t understand the intricacies of point of view. It’s because they lose faith in themselves, and the stories they’re trying to tell. What they need isn’t technical advice, but straight talk about how to contend with the doubts and anxieties that hound most of us when we sit alone in a room trying to chase down the truth.

Survival Is Insufficient: The Millions Interviews Emily St. John Mandel

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Canadian author Emily St. John Mandel is, to put it mildly, on a tear. Her critically acclaimed novel Station Eleven (published in 2014) was recently adapted into a limited series by HBO Max, and met with rave reviews by top critics: The New York Times, Roger Ebert, Rolling Stone, and The New Yorker, to name a few. Mandel’s latest novel, Sea of Tranquility, is a work of literary science fiction in which Mandel crafts a tale of flawed and disparate characters—whose lives are unwittingly altered in time and space—yet linked by an anomalous glitch in time.

Mandel was born in 1979 to an American father and a Canadian mother in Comox, British Columbia, Canada. At the age of 10, she moved with her family to the remote Denman Island off the west coast of British Columbia, and was homeschooled for the next five years. At 18, she left high school to attend the School of Toronto Dance Theatre. Mandel now lives in New York City with her husband and daughter.

Her first novel, Last Night in Montreal, was published in 2009, and then in 2010, she released The Singer’s Gun, followed by The Lola Quartet in 2012. Mandel’s breakout moment came with her fourth novel, Station Eleven, winning the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Toronto Book Award. In addition, Station Eleven was shortlisted for the National Book Award and nominated for both the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Station Eleven has been translated into 31 languages—and put Mandel on the map.

Curiously prescient, Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic story of a future in which a deadly pandemic has wiped out more than 99 percent of the human population on Earth. The remaining humans have no power, no Internet, and devolve into scavengers of a dead society. Within this barbarian existence, a wandering company of Shakespearian actors tours the Great Lakes region, with a quote from Star Trek painted on the front of the horse-drawn wagon, “Survival Is Insufficient.” With a melancholy warp and weft, Mandel skillfully interweaves the time before and after the apocalypse into the lush tapestry of dark and light within humanity.

In 2020, Mandel published The Glass Hotel, a story of greed and human weakness. The novel was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, and in 2019, NBC Universal International Studios acquired the rights to turn the story into a TV series. In Sea of Tranquility, Mandel twists a series of encounters of past and future, including characters from The Glass Hotel, around a singular aberration in time.

Mandel’s near-future novels create an allegorical mosaic of apocalyptic tales, but perhaps can be distilled into the words posed in Sea of Tranquility: “When have we ever believed that the world wasn’t ending?”

Recently, I was able to catch Emily St. John Mandel for an interview. 

The Millions: You grew up surrounded by the sea—a unique childhood on the beautiful and isolated Denman Island in British Columbia. This lyric setting emerges within your novels, and I wondered if you could talk about your early life and its bearing on your work?

Emily St. John Mandel: Yes, absolutely. I was born on Vancouver Island, and then we moved to Denman Island when I was 10. But of course, “unique” is a relative term—I think my childhood was quite ordinary in the context of the place where I grew up. I was aware of how beautiful Denman Island was while I was growing up there, but I also found it lonely and claustrophobic. I moved to that island when I was 10, and maybe if I’d had a bit more confidence or natural charisma, I would’ve been able to make more friends there, but I was painfully shy and found it impossible to break into a group of kids who’d known one another since infancy.

So, my childhood was often a bit lonely, but on the other hand, being homeschooled and not having much of a social life meant I had an unusual amount of time on my hands, and I truly loved having hours on end to read books. When I was a kid I built forts in the woods behind the house, and the woods really did have the feel of an enchanted kingdom sometimes. When I was older, I read a lot, mostly sci-fi and fantasy, a lot of Isaac Asimov. I started writing when I was eight or nine, because one of the requirements of the homeschool curriculum was that I write something every day. I loved it. I kept writing long after the point where it was required of me, just as a hobby. I never showed that very early work to anyone.

TM: When you were 18, you left high school to attend the School of Toronto Dance Theatre. How do you feel your background in dance and theater shapes the way you create your scenes?

ESJM: Well, I’d already left high school and had done a couple semesters of community college by that point, but it’s true that I didn’t quite get a high school diploma. I was very serious about dance by my teenage years. There was an excellent ballet school on Vancouver Island, about 45 minutes south of the Denman Island ferry terminal, where I danced six days a week. I wanted to leave home and start a new life in a city somewhere, dancing all the time and being an adult. My mom wanted me to do a year of college before I went away to study dance, and it turned out that all I needed to take the courses that interested me at the local community college was 12th grade English, so I just never did 12th grade math and never got my high school diploma.

I’m not sure that my background in dance has really impacted the content of my work or the way I create scenes, but dance requires an incredible degree of self-discipline, which probably makes it a useful background for just about anything else.

TM: What authors do you feel have influenced your writing?

ESJM: I think the two who have influenced me the most are Irene Nemirovsky and Dan Chaon, for different reasons. There’s no such thing as a perfect novel, but I believe that Nemirovsky’s Suite Française comes pretty close. There’s an understated quality to her prose and her storytelling that I truly admire. I was greatly influenced by Dan Chaon’s 2011 novel Await Your Reply for his structural pyrotechnics. He’s a master of non-linear, multi-POV storytelling. I was also deeply influenced by Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. I find Mailer a bit hit-or-miss, but that particular book struck me when I read it as a model of lucidity and clarity, and it changed the way I write.

TM: With Station Eleven, a dystopian story woven through a catastrophic pandemic, you stepped into the speculative fiction genre, and I’m using Heinlein’s narrow definition “speculative” for near future fiction. In your latest novel, Sea of Tranquility, time travel and a future pandemic are major threads. What draws you to the speculative fiction genre and what are your thoughts on these two novels with the world locked in the grips of an actual pandemic?

ESJM: I used to only read speculative fiction. When I was a teenager, I was really only interested in sci-fi. In writing it, there’s a sense of returning to a genre that I knew very well when I was young.

Those two books came about in very different ways. With Station Eleven, I was interested in writing about our technology by writing about its absence. The only reason the pandemic was in there was to move the narrative quickly into a post-technological world. That pandemic was never scientifically plausible—in actuality, an illness that killed its hosts that quickly would burn itself out before it got a chance to spread—but on the other hand, the pandemic wasn’t the point.

The things that ring false to me about that book now have more to do with the times we’re living in than with the epidemiology. In Station Eleven there’s a scene where flights are diverted to a regional airport, passengers disembark, they stand under the monitors watching a newscast on CNN, and everyone believes everything the newscaster is saying. That scenario was plausible back when I was writing it, in 2011 or 2012, before our society was torn asunder by misinformation.

Sea of Tranquility was different. In the three or so months before the pandemic, my novel The Glass Hotel was going to press and I’d begun playing around with autofiction, but I didn’t know if I was ever going to do anything with it or if it was just an interesting exercise. Once the pandemic hit, I found myself in this weird position of being held up as an expert on pandemics—you know, because of my scientifically implausible flu novel—and in those first months of 2020 I declined a lot of invitations to write op-eds and personal essays and such. I am not an expert on pandemics, I didn’t like the whiff of using a real pandemic as a kind of Station Eleven marketing opportunity, and I felt like sci-fi autofiction was just objectively a more interesting way to write about the experience I was having. I also sensed that immersing myself in the project of a new novel might be a good idea if I was going to stay sane.

So, Sea of Tranquility was a refuge as much as anything else. It was written against a backdrop of ambulance sirens, while wondering if I was going to see my family again.

TM: The quote from Star Trek, “Survival Is Insufficient,” is a theme that runs through Station Eleven, but I felt its drumbeat through each of your novels. Can you discuss this?

ESJM: It’s a quote I came across on an episode of Star Trek when I was a teenager, and it’s just stayed with me all my life. It’s most clearly applicable to Station Eleven—I thought of it as the answer to a question that the Symphony would probably be continually asked as they went to enormous effort to perform theatre and music in the post-apocalypse—but of course it’s also the reason why we write and read books.

TM: What I found intriguing with your novels are not only how you intertwine your characters from novel to novel, but the inherent flaws of your diverse cast of characters. In The Glass Hotel, you have a hesitant acceptance of your most heinous character, Jonathon Alkaitis, fashioned in some ways after Bernie Madoff. And in Sea of Tranquility, your protagonist, Gaspery, is an imperfect and yet empathic human stumbling through time and space. Can you discuss your approach to character development?

ESJM: Thank you. Alkaitis was a difficult character to write, because I actually felt like there was no one I could base him on. His crime is obviously very similar to Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scheme, but Madoff himself was so uninteresting to me. If you read his prison interviews, he just came across as a garden-variety sociopath. I tried to make my character less boring than Madoff, by making him a degree or two less sociopathic. He commits an unforgivable crime, but he also truly loves his first wife and is capable of real kindness.

In general, I just try to create characters who interest me as people, and part of that is that they need a balance of virtues and flaws.

TM: You use a fluidity of time within your novels, shifting from past to present and back again. In Station Eleven, this highlights the sharp division of society before and after the apocalypse, and in your latest novel, Sea of Tranquility, time travel is a major component in the story. What draws you to use time as a variable within your stories?

ESJM: I think it’s an interesting way to structure a narrative, and it also rings true to me as a way to tell a story that acknowledges that the past isn’t past. How much time in a given day do you spend in your memories? For me, it’s a lot of time. I’m not great at living in the moment. My thoughts wander constantly from the present to random memories of the past to considering the future—how various scenarios might play out, what unspeakable disasters might plausibly occur in the next five minutes, etc.—and I move all over the place in time in my fiction too.

TM: In Sea of Tranquility, a phrase surfaces several times: “No star burns forever.” Can you tell us what this means to you, both within the novel and perhaps beyond that context?

ESJM: It’s just an acknowledgement that this whole “life on Earth” arrangement is temporary. We orbit a star, and stars eventually die. My understanding is that in approximately five billion years, our sun will run out of hydrogen and then begin a period of expansion that will eventually engulf Earth.

TM: Before we end, I’d like to congratulate you on the HBO Max series based on Station Eleven. It’s fantastic! How you feel about your work being recreated into a visual format?

ESJM: Thank you! But I’m not entirely at ease accepting congratulations for the Station Eleven series, given that I had very little to do with making it. I feel that congratulations should be redirected to the show runner, Patrick Somerville, and his extremely talented colleagues. I was so moved by that show. Watching it was an extraordinary experience.

TM: One final question: What’s on the horizon for you?

ESJM: I’m working on a new novel. I’m also writing a feature screenplay of my first novel—Last Night in Montreal—with my friend and collaborator, Semi Chellas. I’m hoping to move into television and work on another adaptation of my work. It’s going to be a busy few years and I’m so grateful for this job.

Trapped Between Two Worlds: The Life of John Morris

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After his propulsive novels set in 1950s and 1960s Detroit and Vietnam, The Millions staff writer Bill Morris delivered a memoir about his cub reporter days in rural Pennsylvania, chronicling the “schizo ‘70s” and its “stylistic Sargasso.” In his latest nonfiction work, The Age of Astonishment: John Morris in the Miracle Century―From the Civil War to the Cold War, Morris expands the historical scope by painting a portrait of his grandfather John Morris, a man who led an ordinary life—he was a long-time professor at the University of Georgia—but witnessed extraordinary things: “He was born into a slave-owning Virginia family during the Civil War and died at the peak of the Cold War.” The sober philologist could hardly be called an early adopter, but the range of technological advances that occurred during his lifetime was staggering:

He was among the original users of window screens, the telephone, modern plumbing, electric lights, typewriters, radio, automobiles, phonographs, airplanes, elevators, movies, subways, safety razors, television, penicillin, pasteurized milk, refrigeration, antibiotics, and central heat and air conditioning.

Throughout this biography and cultural history, Morris tracks his grandfather’s conflicted relationship with the pace of change: “He must have felt trapped between two worlds, unwilling to go back to an imaginary past and equally unwilling to step into a mad mechanized future.” Whenever events were too overwhelming, though, he could find comfort in his recondite scholarly interests—the development of diphthongs in modern English, for instance—or work on a massive, destined-to-be unpublished German-English dictionary that occupied him for nearly 40 years.

I spoke with Bill Morris about bringing to life his grandfather and the “age of astonishment” in which he lived.

The Millions: In the book, you paraphrase Ralph Ellison, “Some people are your relatives but others are your ancestors, and you choose the ones you want to have as ancestors.” What made you “choose” this ancestor as a subject?

Bill Morris: There is a (now lost) picture of me as an infant in 1952 on my grandfather’s knee, when he was about to turn 90. Even as a teenager, I was thinking, wow, the life this guy lived. The things he lived through and witnessed, and the way his day-to-day life changed must have been a whiplash experience. And then back in 2016, this economist Robert Gordon published The Rise and Fall of American Growth. I read this book and I’m thinking, this guy wrote the blueprint of the things my grandfather lived through. It’s a fabulous book, and Gordon’s saying that the century from 1870 to1970 brought the most amazing changes in the history of humanity. And I thought, my grandfather’s dates were 1863-1955, almost a perfect match. And that finally got me going. I have to write this book. I’ve been thinking about this for 50 years. It’s time to sit down and write it.

TM: And the argument is that the speed and variety of technological advancements of this period dwarf those that any other generation has lived through?

BM: People say, “Oh, the world is changing faster than ever now.” Well, not really, because my life hasn’t changed all that much, except for laptop computers and all that. I grew up with the telephone and electric lights and flushing toilets and paved roads. It was all there when I was born. None of that was there when my grandfather was born.

TM: They didn’t even have the curveball! You mention how your grandfather’s brother is credited with inventing the pitch, called the “drop-shoot,” in the late 19th century.

BM: That’s right. John was the catcher on the first University of Georgia baseball team, and he kept getting his nose broken because his brother would throw these curveballs and they would hit the ground, bounce up and hit him in the face. They didn’t have masks or chest protectors.

TM: Perhaps that’s why he took refuge in the comparatively less bruising world of philology. You describe this as a “mongrel” book comprising various forms. What motivated this approach?

BM: I realized the book couldn’t be any single thing. It was not going to be a biography because the written record is sizable but not really great. It wasn’t like I had thousands of his letters. Late in the process, though, I did stumble on the manuscript of his English-German dictionary, which he spent 40 years working on. But I wanted it to be nonfiction. I wanted it to be factual. I knew there was going to be a lot of reporting involved—research in archives, letters from relatives, leads. A little bit of scholarship, little bit of reportage, and then, as I admit, when the record was thin, I had to imagine a bit, resort to fiction. All of the kinds of writing I’ve done in my life came into play. It’s a mongrel work.

TM: Your grandfather was born into a slave-owning Virginia family. Throughout the book, how do you wrestle with, and what did you uncover about, what you call this “original stain on the Morris family.”

BM: I unearthed a lot of letters that John’s father, Charles Morris, who was a quartermaster in the Confederacy, and his mother, Mary Minor Morris, wrote back and forth during the Civil War. That was the richest historical archive that I found. And from that I got a richer appreciation of what it was like day to day on a plantation where people owned human beings. I think slavery, American slavery  in particular, was an abomination. John grew up believing that, too, even though his father owned slaves. Charles was not apparently a vicious slave owner, although he didn’t apologize for it or try to abolish it. It was the world he’d been born into, it was the world his family had been in for many generations, and it was like breathing to him. He was not a man to question it. Now, that doesn’t make him evil in my eyes. And it doesn’t excuse him. But like I said, in the beginning of the book, this project was about trying to find the richer truth about what it was like for people who were born into that world to suddenly have that world crumble.

And possibly more important, what about the people they owned who were suddenly free? And that’s where it got interesting to me. Because they did not take it rolling over. They did fight back. The house [Taylor’s Creek in Hanover County Virginia] burned one time, under suspicious circumstances. The former slaves melted away, many of them, as soon as they were free. But, Charles also donated the land that would become Bethany Baptist Church, a black church that is still in existence today. He helped his former slaves who wanted to stay around, gave them loans, pieces of land. I was hoping that by looking into the family’s participation in this horrible institution of slavery, I would get a deeper understanding of what the slave owners went through and what the slaves went through.

TM: And how did John Morris, a relative progressive living most of his life in Athens, Ga,, throughout Reconstruction and Jim Crow, respond to the racial violence surrounding him?

BM: I ask this question in my book: Why didn’t they get out? Lots of people, Black and white, were leaving the South, had given up on the South as hopeless. And I think the answer is that both John and Gretchen [his wife] had seen enough in the world—he had studied in Berlin, she had travelled widely as a musician—and they came to the conclusion that it’s not any better anywhere else. It might be really bad here, but when you get down to it, during the Red Summer of 1919, there were racial killings from California to Connecticut. I think that they thought that if we stay here and try to be decent to Black people and treat everyone with respect, maybe that’s better than leaving and letting the yahoos take over everything.

Athens and places like Charlottesville and Chapel Hill have always been these bastions of somewhat enlightened culture in not-so-enlightened parts of the South. Georgia in particular was real heavy-duty. Georgia was on a level with Mississippi back in the day. You have the Leo Frank lynching. The riots in Atlanta in 1906 were absolutely appalling. But there again, we see W.E.B. Du Bois and Walter White picking up guns and getting ready to defend their homes in Atlanta in 1906, which was the beginning of the Black resistance to this wave of horror that Jim Crow had brought to the South. John and Gretchen felt they could maybe do a little bit of good if they stayed. I don’t know if they succeeded or not.

TM: There’s one scene near the end of the book in which you recall your aunt showing you the spot outside of Athens where a lynching occurred.

BM: That’s one of those moments in life you never forget. I was visiting my father’s eldest sister in Athens as I was driving cross country. I was a college drop out. One day my aunt said, “We’re going on a drive.” She drove me out to this lone pine tree outside of town and told me the story of a Black man who was lynched by that tree in 1921. And her father, John Morris, had driven her out there one day and pointed to the tree and told her the story of how they burned a man alive there, and that it was evil and that she was never to have anything to do with such things or such people. And that stayed with me ever since.

TM: Your grandfather taught for over half a century at the University of Georgia, devoted to teaching and to abstruse academic studies in which he found a “harbor and a fortress.” Throughout, you try to determine his ambitions and wrestle with how he might have defined success.

BM: I think he made his own little room and pumped in his own oxygen. He spent upwards of 40 years writing a German-English diction that was never published. He was also writing articles in obscure philological journals. He’s writing about where Shakespeare’s name comes from. He decided he was going to do his own thing, and to hell with everybody else. It wasn’t like he was sitting in a room by himself like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, writing the same thing over and over. But he was very much in his own bubble and yet yearning to connect with the world, which never really happened. And I don’t think that makes him a failure. I think that makes him an interesting case, actually, because he pursued a dream with tremendous focus and discipline. And it amounted to absolutely nothing, and I think he was perfectly at peace with that.

That’s my definition of heroic: someone who pursues what they want to do.

But it’s also not like he just retreated from all the horrors of this complicated, confusing world. He loved going to the movies. He loved the radio. He loved to drive. He loved to travel to Europe. He spoke many languages. He was a person who selectively embraced technology. He liked screened-in the windows, which was one of the first innovations he experienced at the family farm in Virginia. He liked not having mosquitoes bite him in the middle of the night. Technology wasn’t all bad to him, but then we get little problems like Hitler and the A-bomb. He was ambivalent about all the progress that was going on. He was an old-school Southern gentleman.

TM: Because you cover the half-century he spent teaching at the University of Georgia, we get a full portrait of that institution, warts and all.

BM: He went to law school there and then became a professor until the end of the Second World War. When he got there, it was really just a glorified academy, not a serious university like they had in the North. Mencken said the only true university in the South was the University Virginia. But as the 20th century rolled along, the University of Georgia did become more modern, more progressive, more seriously academic. But there was always this thing about sports—and the military. Those are big things in the South. So when Stanford Stadium was built in 1929—with convict labor, by the way, because they couldn’t afford to build it with “real” workers—they built this huge 30,000-seat stadium. And John hadn’t gotten a raise in 10 years. There was no pension. He had no health insurance. The football coaches made more than he did, and he’d been there for 35 years. So he wasn’t thrilled about these things. He thought making money through sports was the height of vulgarity. Big-time college sports made a deal with the devil, and he saw it in 1929, and I think that’s exactly how it played out. And it’s funny, because the week I finished writing the book, UGA won the national football championship. Of course, I thought, “Ah yes, if only John were still around to appreciate this moment!”

TM: He also distrusted what you call the “boosterism” of Henry Grady and the New South.

BM: Henry Grady was the big proponent of the New South. He was a newspaper editor in Atlanta. John certainly would have known him. And John was very put off by the New South, the notion that if we could just get a cotton mill in this town, everything would be great. And this created these sprawling ugly mill villages. It was supposedly salvation for the white man. They’d go to work at these mills at a young age, and this was the progress that Grady was preaching as the salvation of the South after Reconstruction. And John wanted no part of it. Grady’s vision did bring some progress and raise the standard of living, but it also brought a lot of misery. There was nothing romantic about it. It was an act of desperation.

TM: This book surveys a wide range of social, political, and cultural movements from the 1860s to the 1950s. American wars from the home soil to the Philippines to Europe. Electricity: efforts to install street lights, its use as a method of execution. The transcontinental railroad, the Panama Canal, and the interstate highway system. The rise of the KKK and Nazism. Given the breadth of the research involved, what were some of the more surprising discoveries you made?

BM: Well, during the 1918 so-called Spanish Flu pandemic, everybody in the Morris family but Gretchen got sick. When I was doing the research, I learned that the town fathers in Athens had very strict rules and mandates, quarantines, and everybody in town just obeyed. Atlanta got hammered by the flu, but Athens was barely touched because people cooperated with the local government. While out in San Francisco, they were practically having riots because they had an Anti-Mask League in California during the pandemic, and people didn’t want to be told to wear a mask. There’s one for you.

And then I was learning about things like the Chinese Exclusion Act and the immigration laws of the 1920s, and I started thinking, Trump’s wall is nothing new. Anti-vaxxers and people who don’t want to mask are nothing new. I started to realize that if you start to dig into the history, there’s truly nothing new under the sun. This has all happened before. And it’s happening again. And it’s almost comical that we keep doing the same things over and over again. Actually, it’s kind of tragic.

The great joy of writing this book was that every day, I learned something like that. It could be something like the Confederacy imposing a draft in 1862 after one year of fighting because everyone had signed up for one year. And Jefferson Davis passed what came to be known as the 20-Slave Law. If you had 20 or more slaves, you could get an exemption and stay home to take care of your farm, and your slaves and your family could grow food for the Confederacy. And it wasn’t until a year later that Lincoln imposed the draft of 1863, which caused riots in New York and elsewhere. Wow, the Confederacy had a draft before the U.S. Army? I learned something like that every day. It was really the joy putting this book together.

TM: Personally, I had no idea about Teddy Roosevelt wielding his bully stick to try to institute phonetic spelling, which your grandfather also endorsed.

BM: When I was growing up, my father told me that his father was a big proponent of phonetic spelling. And I have a cousin also named Jon Morris, but it’s spelled J-O-N in honor of my grandfather’s passion for phonetic spelling. So this was in the family lore. And then I found some letters, and my grandfather was writing in the phonetic, like “luv.”

And when Teddy Roosevelt became a proponent of this, he was ridiculed by the press. They suggested he spell his name “Butt-in-Sky.” Teddy Roosevelt? Who knew that he was briefly a proponent of phonetic spelling and then got mocked into submission. Andrew Carnegie also spent a lot of money on the movement, but gave up on it right before he died. Carnegie was hoping that English could become the global business language. But the big impediment was that English had words like “through,” “tough,” “thou,” and there are all these exceptions. With German, what you see is what you get. Every word is pronounced exactly as it’s written. Carnegie was thinking, if you could change “through” to “thru,” anybody in the world would know how to pronounce that word. For Carnegie, this was a business thing. For John, I think it was an intellectual exercise, because he had read all these philologists and linguists, and there were a lot of brilliant people—George Bernard Shaw among them—who wanted to make the written language follow the spoken language. And I agree with them. But it didn’t work out that way. People resisted. Once people learn to read and write a language, they are very resistant to change.

TM: As you write in response to one of your grandfather’s phonetically spelled letters to his sons: “Wize werds.”

Mass Media as a Form of Mass: The Millions Interviews Nick Ripatrazone

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I first took Marshall McLuhan seriously when I was trying to claim in my dissertation that John Milton’s Paradise Lost is, among other things, a network of media effects. McLuhan’s The Medium and the Light and Understanding Media: The Extension of Man gave me the language I needed to persuade that Milton’s media ecologies—his gardens, his use of the epic form—are more important than his content (I’ve never really been that interested in Milton’s theology). Though McLuhan was interested in television and nascent computing networks, his famous maxim—“The medium is the message”—offered me a way of grappling with form and its world-shaping force in our lives.

By the time I was integrating McLuhan into my writing, though, his star as a theorist had faded.  McLuhan’s over-saturation within his own media environments in the mid-20th century—the magazine covers, the television appearances, and the debates with the likes of W.H. Auden and Norman Mailer—turned him into a caricature. Yet his theories and his non-linear approach to observing how media rich environments shape our thinking and way of being in the world paved the way for contemporary discussions of affordance within our digital modes of experience.

In his new book Digital Communion: Marshall McLuhan’s Spiritual Vision for a Digital Age (Fortress Press, 2022), Nick Ripatrazone puts McLuhan the media theorist, the glib performer, the Renaissance scholar, and the devout Roman Catholic on full display. And he makes compelling claims for revitalizing McLuhan’s ideas and his methods today, as we navigate the digital worlds McLuhan predicted. In Ripatrazone’s view, it is McLuhan’s Roman Catholic faith that has been underexplored and remains necessary for appraising his work and applying it within both sacred and secular environments today.

We talked over a week through both written correspondence and a Zoom conversation, a mix of media environments that Marshall McLuhan would surely have wondered at. The following has been edited for concision and clarity.

Elise Lonich Ryan: On one hand, turning to Marshall McLuhan in our media saturated world seems natural. On the other hand, McLuhan can sometimes smell a bit of mothballs, or sound like a voice coming to us over cassette tape. Why do you want to engage McLuhan? How do your intellectual and personal concerns converge on this mid-20th century media theorist? 

Nick Ripatrazone: As Douglas Coupland—one of the most perceptive readers of McLuhan has said—we don’t get to choose our prophets. McLuhan was the first to admit that he was an unlikely visionary, yet he was a rather nimble and capable showman. Central to McLuhan’s appeal to me is his concept of obsolescence: we can’t form a dynamic vision of the future if we focus on what is already obsolete, but if we are able to find that which is on its way out—the current modes of communicating and being that are evolving into something else—then we might begin to decipher the unknown. I’m also drawn to McLuhan as a Catholic public intellectual; that he experienced his highest level of renown at the same time as another public Catholic—Andy Warhol—fascinates me.

ELR: You’re sensitive to the distinctions between the “medium of touch” that McLuhan associated with TV image-projection and the touch-world, the thing-rich world, that Catholics inhabit. You write, “For McLuhan, mass media was a form of Mass.” Do you think replication was central to his idea of sacramentality?

NR: Yeah. I think that there’s an interesting overlap with McLuhan and Warhol, and they are coming to Catholicism from different experiences and certainly even different rites—the Byzantine Rite for Warhol—but there is something Warholian in McLuhan’s appreciation for mass reproduced things. Certainly, Warhol thought that reproduction of something didn’t neuter or lessen its sacramental possibilities. And I think McLuhan, although sometimes skeptical of what he would call “the electronic age,” had an appreciation for what it could do for the masses of believers. And he certainly appreciated the idea that a very working-class piety was central to Catholicism. That’s something Warhol grew up on, and that’s something McLuhan came to appreciate.

Whenever I see McLuhan speaking about mass culture in a skeptical way, I feel like his ultimate dream would be a mass-produced faith that didn’t sanitize things, that didn’t extract the sacramentality out of it that sustained it.

ELR: There is no way for me to have a conversation with you and not ask you to explain McLuhan’s most oft cited and likely least interrogated aphorism: “The medium is the message.” Or, as he put it in what is my favorite of McLuhan’s works: “The medium is the massage.” So, will you enlighten us once and for all on this?!

NR: McLuhan loved puns! He loved words; he loved jokes. His first book, The Mechanical Bride (1951), is a wonderfully strange exegesis of print advertising. Corporations and advertising firms of the day paid to pick his brain—we might call him, strangely enough, a certified influencer of his time. “The medium is the message” is most casually meant to describe how the media of our time (television, radio, the Internet, phones, etc.) themselves are important, or perhaps more important, than the minutiae of what is communicated through them. Basically, the content of the texts that we send to each other are less important than the fact that we are communicating via text. While it is a good starting point to engage McLuhan, it’s not the full story. McLuhan clarified his famous saying to mean: “a hidden environment of services created by an innovation, and the hidden environment of services is the thing that changes people. It is the environment that changes people, not the technology.” Twitter does not change us, but is the environment of Twitter, a way of being and performing in that space, that distorts us—we are massaged by that medium. McLuhan liked how “massage” could be split into mass age, Mass. The word itself, to borrow a locution of McLuhan, works us over completely.

ELR: I’m taken by your claim in part because I think performativity is an under-examined category of McLuhan’s self- and intellectual-presentations, and since we often dismiss any performativity as inauthentic and deceptive, we miss the opportunities afforded by performance. How did a performance of self shape McLuhan’s message?

NR: McLuhan’s mother Elsie Naomi Hall McLuhan was an accomplished elocutionist, and young Marshall would travel along to her shows. He learned that language was pliable. McLuhan was an extemporaneous speaker whose thoughts didn’t match the expectations of most readers. Scholars wanted him to argue; McLuhan merely wanted to see. I suggest that people first listen to him, and then read him. When he said, “I don’t explain, I explore,” he offered the best way to appreciate him: a poet whose associative way of describing the world was far more prescient than the linear thinkers of his time. His doctoral thesis was on the acerbic satirist Thomas Nashe; McLuhan loved writers for whom play was their central spirit. He traded Nashe for Joyce, and then pivoted from examining Joyce as a writer of literature to appreciating Joyce as a Catholic parodist, an artist on the precipice of technological change. Joyce’s oeuvre is a put-on; McLuhan was inspired, and performed accordingly.

ELR: Digital Communion is a book as much about McLuhan the literary scholar as it is about McLuhan the media theorist. You write that we need to view McLuhan as “a prose-poet, a writer of almost mystical visions…a poet of the media, an artist who realized that an extemporaneous mode of communication worked better to capture the realities of his changing world than traditional literary techniques.” I’ll admit to being persuaded by your reading. Why do you think keeping poetry in view when reading and applying McLuhan is critical?

NR: McLuhan was essentially formed by his Cambridge years, and poetry was central to that intellectual and personal education. McLuhan’s literary criticism of Gerard Manley Hopkins is deft, and he correctly reads James Joyce for the novelist’s near-prosody (in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, especially). McLuhan was also drawn to Yeats, among other mystic poets, and I think he recognized after The Mechanical Bride that he needed to get with the times (or the media of his times). I think McLuhan realized that his attraction to poetry was largely structural, as a vehicle (or medium) for language—once you accept that, the shift to other media happens quickly.

ELR: Do you think that writing this book changed you as a writer? As I read Digital Communion, I was struck by the coherent collage-like effect of your prose. You have strong claims, but this isn’t a book that drives toward a traditional argument. Instead, following McLuhan’s lead, it’s a book that pays attention to our shifting electronic and digital environments and reports back from there. Do you think your prose style has been influenced by McLuhan?

NR: Thank you for saying “it’s a book that pays attention”—that was really my goal, to inhabit McLuhan’s methods and perform him, so to speak. I wanted to “explore” McLuhan’s world, and the man himself, and think biography should be prose-poetic in nature and gesture. Like McLuhan, I’m a fan of Francis Bacon’s concept of the aphorism: “Aphorisms, representing a knowledge broken, do invite men to inquire farther; whereas Methods, carrying the show of a total, do secure men, as if they were at farthest.” People, including myself, bemoan the brevity of digital communication, but there’s a calisthenic quality to rendering our thoughts in tight spaces—to perhaps leaving certain things unsaid.

I think he gave me license to write in a mosaic style, coming to this as a fiction writer originally, before I started writing nonfiction. So, I think his model offered a kind of prose poetic way forward. And also his disruption of linearity was pleasant.

It would almost feel sacrilegious to lineate McLuhan, to clean his meandering messes. Don’t we want our prophets to be weird and uncanny?

ELR: Do you find yourself wanting to offer a different kind of written engagement with literary, media, and theological questions?

NR: I’m writing a book now on mid-century nun and sister poets, women who published widely in magazines, who won awards, who had books, who were just significant writers in the time where it was really surprising they had the time or support to break through. And I don’t engage with McLuhan specifically in the book, but I do engage with that time.

There was something rather interesting happening in the Catholic intellectual world between the ‘40s and the ‘70s. It was a rich moment for a lot of people. How does that extend to the present? Does it? Because it’s easy to get nostalgic where you think the past was perfect. I am quite interested in that moment in Catholic intellectual history and how Catholics were, it seems, everywhere.

ELR: One of your foundational claims in Digital Communion is that there is no Marshall McLuhan as we know him without a consideration of his Catholic faith. Analogous to the forms of media he often described, McLuhan also saw Christ as the ultimate “extension” of humankind and the body upon which the space between the medium and the message collapsed. How does bringing McLuhan’s Catholicism into sharper focus give insight not only to his ideas but also to avenues of application that have been previously ignored?

NR: McLuhan is sometimes dismissed as a glib carnival barker; merely a product of his pop moment. His religious foundation reveals that his public pronouncements, including his aphorisms, were part of a greater project. For example: McLuhan’s essential medium was television. At the same time Pope Pius XII was pondering how the television viewer was “drawn on, as it were, to take an active part” in viewed events, McLuhan was positing that we should understand television as light through, rather than light on—the mode of film and photography. At first it seems like a strange claim, but when we recognize that McLuhan was relating television to stained glass, it begins to make sense. McLuhan was very much a Jesuit-influenced Catholic; a thinker in the Ignatian tradition, who saw God in all things. Paul Elie has said that being a Catholic means considering the border between the sacred and profane, and recognizing the tension there—it is a rather porous one, often, in the real world.

ELR: Throughout the book, you show rather clearly that the Roman Catholic Church attempted to address and to consider seriously technological advances. And yet, you also show how there have been a string of missed opportunities—McLuhan never received a full voice in Councils; McLuhan’s own reliance upon yet ambivalence toward Teilhard de Chardin prevented a powerful synthesis of worldviews; a persistent recalcitrance in prioritizing what is happening over how it happens within the Church. What is at stake for the Catholic Church today in its engagement (or lack thereof) with media rich environments?

NR: The Church, as both an abstract and material Body, needs to transcend the current moment, while also recognizing the needs of its people. I wish McLuhan had been offered a true voice in those committees; it is one of the tantalizing footnotes of history where things could have actually worked out, well, perfectly. Yet you can tell that McLuhan’s language, rhythms, and vision did find its way into elements of the Church writ large. His greatest cheerleader was a Jesuit priest, Father John Culkin. McLuhan’s student, another Jesuit named Walter Ong, was a brilliant thinker who carried and evolved McLuhan’s theories even beyond the scope of his mentor. It’s no wonder that I keep on using the word Jesuit: America: The Jesuit Review of Faith & Culture, is where I’ve most written about McLuhan over the years. Catholics fail to listen to McLuhan at their own peril.

And to not use him as a resource is a lost opportunity. And I guess the question is who will the church listen to now? Are they listening to people? If you ask the average priest or nun or sister, they might connect the dots, but if you ask a typical Catholic, first of all, they would have to have heard of McLuhan and then they’d have to understand his sometimes almost psychedelic theories. I would hope that at some point they’re going to break through.

ELR: You titled your book Digital Communion. How do you understand the connection between McLuhan’s sense of communication and Catholics’ understanding of communion/communication?

NR: I’ve been drawn again and again in the book, and kind of beyond, to the St. Clare story [of how she miraculously received the Eucharist on Christmas Eve while lying ill in bed] and how there’s something there where you have an incredibly pious person who longed for the Eucharist so much that, at least in her vision, she felt as if she partook of the Eucharist in that moment. Certainly, saint stories are embellished all the time, but there’s something powerful in just imagining her as someone who was incapable of being by the altar [who could] emote it and feel it. So, I keep on going back to her as this idea of extending the traditional concept of communion, while also feeling the significant, I would say rhetorical, push or narrative of tradition itself.

I think it’s a healthy tension to be in as a person, as a writer, to ask yourself to what extent can communion be extended? We’ve had to extend it in the past two years, and I think it’s been successful for a lot of people. But we are on the precipice now where if things do get back to some sort of a traditional normal, the Church and to certain extents parishes have to decide what are they getting to do with these extensions of mass, which are oddly McLuhanesque in the idea of the extension of the body.

But I do think, as you note in your question, that it seems like the right time to be having a conversation about the mystical elements of this. Because if we are going to name someone as a Saint in the church and valorize that miraculous moment, in what ways could we extend it to others who would benefit from them? The church has already in place a way to deliver communion and Eucharist to people who are not healthy in the moment or for whatever reason are unable to attend. There’s something there that could happen, but we are in this oddly tense moment where [the Church and parishes] are going to have to make some decisions.

ELR: If you had to recommend one place to start with McLuhan, where would you suggest we go?

NR: I would say The Medium Is the Massage is the best way to understand the environment of McLuhan perhaps. And then once you recognize that itself is almost like a mix tape of sorts and then you can follow the trail to his other work. Once people read a lot of McLuhan, his literary reviews are really fascinating and his work with Kenyon Review and Sewanee Review was really fun to read for this book. And that’s a part of McLuhan I think a lot of people don’t see, but that’s what he was trained to do. He was good at it. I use McLuhan with high school students, AP language students, and they enjoy it because he’s kind of on their wavelength.

ELR: Why are we ready for McLuhan now?

NR: It’s been long enough. McLuhan went from being perceived as an obscure Canadian scholar of literature to a wildly popular media guru to a bombast to, hopefully, a minor prophet. The true McLuhan is the McLuhan charged by God. I think of great lines from “Pied Beauty,” a poem McLuhan returned to while traveling through England: “All things counter, original, spare, strange; / Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?).” That parenthetical move by Hopkins is McLuhan incarnate. Such a spirit of playful, curious, and sacred inquiry would serve us well in the digital age.

Becoming a Radical Reviser: The Millions Interviews Matt Bell

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Matt Bell’s new craft book, Refuse to Be Done, came into my life when I was struggling to revise a late draft of a novel. Bell’s book, which provides an overview of the novel-writing process, is useful at pretty much any stage of writing and revision, but I found it especially helpful for the final stages of revision, when you know a book so well that it is very difficult to see it with fresh eyes. Using some of Bell’s exercises, I managed to cut 20 pages from my most recent draft, even as I added two new scenes. What I appreciated about Bell’s tips for the final stages is that they are practical and actionable. In the early and middle stages, the best advice might be to take a walk and hope your subconscious picks up the slack, whereas at the end phases, you can experiment with removing section breaks, deleting chapter openings, and cutting filler words and phrases like “there is,” “there were,” “she thought,” “he saw,” etc.

I’ve
started with the end of the Bell’s book because in some ways it’s the heart of
his craft book and what makes it unique from other guides. Using Bell’s book,
you can successfully take your book from the earliest, roughest draft to a final,
polished edit that you could submit to an agent or publisher. Bell divides his
writing process into three drafting stages. The first stage is generative and exploratory
and involves writing a lot of material that might not make into the final
draft. The second stage is about identifying the story in the first draft and
giving it a robust structure, and the third stage is about refining the
language at the sentence level. The stages he outlines are similar to what I’ve
hit upon over the years and will likely be familiar to writers in many genres,
but they are described in a very clear, approachable way. I wish I’d had this
book when I first trying my hand at fiction.

Bell’s novels include 2021’s Appleseed, Scrapper, and In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods. Refuse to Be Done is his ninth book and comes directly from his experience as a novelist, as well as a teacher of creative writing at Arizona State University. Bell described the book to me as an approximation of his teaching persona: conversational, encouraging, and focused on helping the reader or student to write the best book they can. There is an enthusiasm at the core of Bell’s guidebook that makes it especially accessible, much like his monthly newsletter, the straight-forwardly titled “Writing Exercises from Matt Bell,” which provides writing prompts and often includes examples from contemporary fiction.  

I
emailed with Bell about his book a few weeks ago; our exchange is edited for
clarity and continuity.

The
Millions: In your book, you divide the
novel writing process into three stages of drafting. Of these stages, is there
one that you prefer? Has it changed over the years or with different
projects? 

Matt Bell: They all have their pleasures, but I think the second draft is often the one that feels most like what I imagined novel writing to be, before I did it: I’m working from an outline, usually writing more or less linearly through the story, and making the scenes the best they can be before going on. (I couldn’t do this without the exploratory, generative first draft, though, or at least haven’t so far.) I usually know my characters pretty well by then, and the voice of the book is pretty established. It’s the end of this draft that, book after book, feels most like a real accomplishment: at the end of the first draft, I just feel daunted by how much is left to do, where at the end of the second, I feel like I’ve written a novel.

As for what’s changed over the years? Every novel presents its own challenges—it’s absolutely true that the stubborn new novel does not care and is not impressed that you successfully finished the last one—but a lot of skills transfer over. For instance, I’m better at recognizing the various discouragements that always occur at certain stages, and I remember how I’ve pushed through or persevered in the past. I don’t know how much time knowing what to expect saves, but it does short-circuit some of the anxious handwringing.

TM: This brings up a question I’ve been thinking about: what is the
relationship between revision and time management? I notice I sometimes bring
an expectation of efficiency to revision that I don’t bring to a first draft,
and I’m not sure it’s particularly helpful, psychologically.

MB: I love this question, and I’d agree: focusing on
efficiency probably isn’t the most helpful approach with anything in writing,
or at least creative writing, which is so rarely on a real deadline. In
general, I’m trying to expunge all the productivity talk I can from my language
about writing, although I know I don’t always succeed. But I’m not a factory,
and I don’t want to treat myself like one either.

That
said, I do think the layered approach to revision I suggest in the third draft
part of the book is efficient, because it gives you a concrete series of
steps to take, instead of the nebulous “just keep making it better until it’s
finished” vibe that so much of my own education took. As I go through that part
of the process, I can feel the book moving closer to done every single day: it’s
actually one of the places where progress seems most apparent, at least for me.

TM: One important caveat you include is that writers might
need to go back and forth between these stages, and I wondered how often you
find yourself doing that? Has there been a moment in any of your books when, in
the final stages of refining sentences, you suddenly realize you need to write
a new scene?

MB: Yes! I can remember specifically the last scenes I wrote in both In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods and Scrapper. The first was written in the final stages of working with my editor Mark Doten, where he highlighted a couple sentences of exposition and said they needed to be a scene: I thought it would be difficult to write it, so far from the drafting phase of the book, but it was one of the easiest scenes to write. The last scene in Scrapper was written after my last research trip to Detroit, conducted after I’d already drafted and revised the book. There was a film adaption of that book in the works that unfortunately came apart during Covid, but the screenwriter started his screenplay from that last-written scene. He told me, “That scene thematically contains the whole novel,” and I thought, Of course it does. It’s the only scene I wrote with the full knowledge of what the novel is.

I’ve
thought about that conversation a lot. There’s another world in which I started
over again from that scene and wrote a whole other draft—and who knows how much
farther that one might’ve gone? (Thank god the book was already published when
the screenwriter told me so I didnt try to find out!)

TM: Since this book comes out of your teaching, could you
describe what your students’ approach to revision tends to be when they first
come to you? What are the common pitfalls and mistakes that you see them
making?

MB: I think the biggest pitfall tends to simply be an unwillingness to radically revise, which in most cases means rewriting. Especially when you’re starting out, it costs you so much to make the first draft of something that the idea of doing it again is understandably abhorrent: certainly most students would rather write something else than write the same story again, or even a single scene of it. But I think if you can convince students to give it a try, the results are so good that they’ll eventually be convinced to make it part of their process. I’ve got a couple thesis students right now who are committed radical revisers, and it is amazing how much stronger a novel chapter gets with repeated attempts. I’ve seen one student compress 100 pages of action and backstory into a lean 20 over the course of a few attempts, and the sheer thrill we shared going over their latest draft was well-earned.

TM: How do you advise your students to incorporate feedback
into their revision process? You don’t give a lot of specific advice in your
book, only to keep the draft to yourself as long as possible. When do you
incorporate feedback from others? Does it depend on the project?

MB: I don’t usually share my novel drafts at all until they’re at the very end of the process outlined in Refuse to Be Done. Even after 10 years of working with my agent, I don’t tell him what I’m writing until I have at least a first draft down, and I don’t show him anything until I feel like I’ve gone as far as I can on my own. I’m probably a little more secretive than the average writer! But that also means that I am hungry for feedback by the time it comes.

I’ve been lucky to have talented, perceptive editors for my books, good at both plot/structure and at making my sentences shine. There’s always a period of learning to work with an editor (and their learning to work with you), but I’m game to try out just about any suggestion. More and more, I take sentence level suggestions without hesitation: on one draft of Appleseed, I hit “Accept All” without even reviewing the changes, then kept my eye out for anywhere something felt off to me as I reread and worked on other feedback. I tell this to friends, and they reliably gasp in horror, but it saved so much time and anxiety, and in the end there were only a few places where I had to “fix” something that had been done to my sentences. If you have a talented editor you can trust, you might try to do so: a good editor isn’t try to take your style from you, only make it the best version of itself. And, of course, then you’re doing your final edits on top of that help, instead of spending time resisting it.

The other best kind of feedback is actually the place where
an editor or a friend’s attention lights something up in the book for you. For
instance, there’s a thread in Appleseed drawing on the Tree of the
Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis that was there in my submitted draft but
wasn’t as developed as other parts of the book. My editor’s interest in that
renewed my interest in it, and the final version is better simply
because she was so into it. I think chasing a good reader’s enthusiasms about
your draft is a great way to find a door into the next rewrite.

TM: Okay, I admit I gasped at the idea of just hitting “Accept All,” though I can see how that’s a useful strategy in the final stages of revising. Do you think there is any danger of over-revising in the final stages?

MB: I mean, that “Accept All” thing probably is lunacy, but a little wildness late in the process feels good too! It opens me up rather than shuts me down. I think there is likely danger in over-revising, and I think you see it especially in places like the openings of novels: they’re almost always screwed down a bit too tight. (Including mine, for sure.) There’s so much pressure on those pages, and we spend so much time with them, and in the end we do some damage in our attempt at perfection or acceptability or even just hooking the reader. I always think of Zadie Smith taking about rewriting the first 20 pages of On Beauty over and over: “I can hardly stand to look at my novels in general,” she said, “but the first 20 pages of each in particular give me heart palpitations. It’s like taking a tour of a cell in which I was once incarcerated.”

TM: How do you see research fitting into the revision
process? I get the impression from your book that it’s something to fit in as
needed but I wondered if you ever take a more structured approach?

MB: I think there are a couple of kinds of revision-related research, for me. One is simply the going through the book and making sure you’ve got your facts right: in Appleseed, for instance, I wanted to make sure the science in my science fiction was more or less plausible, and in some places I needed it to be as airtight as I could make it. (Not much point writing about climate change if you get the climate science wrong.) But there’s also a real joy—maybe especially in that second draft phase—of doing research with the plot already in hand: by then, you know what your book is interested in, which means certain details catch your attention that would’ve gone right by if you’d researched before you started. That’s one of the stages of research that actually feels most enjoyable to me: where the novel is acting as a filter, letting through only what pertains in the material you’re sifting through.

TM: What craft books do you rely on? Did you look to
any writing manual as a guide for this one?

MB: Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English came out around the time I was drafting this book, and I know it was a model of how to organize the material and how to stay in a conversational and encouraging voice. I really love the two Writer’s Notebook collections of lectures that Tin House put out, as well as Graywolf’s Art Of series. I just picked up Peter Ho Davies’s new The Art Of Revision from them, because apparently I’m not done learning about my own subject either! I think Matthew Salesses’s Craft in the Real World and Paisley Rekdal’s Appropriate are two essential reads for anyone writing today. Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style gave me the language to talk about sentence structure that I always wanted and didn’t have. Lately I’ve been obsessed with Samuel Delany’s About Writing and Charles Johnson’s The Way of the Writer, both of which are made of short, punchy essays full of wisdom. And Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel feels like an essential text for me: a lot of my way of thinking about what I want my life as a novelist to be was shaped by Smiley’s willingness to share how she’s lived hers.