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.

Put Down Your Phone: The Millions Interviews Sammy Nickalls

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“I look forward to the day that I don’t have to be on Twitter anymore,” I told a friend recently. I imagined a future in which I had achieved some level of professional success at which I no longer needed to monitor social media for opportunities to seize and connections to make. Any young literary aspirant knows what I mean. Many emerging writers and editors feel they have little say in the matter of time spent on social media—on top of actually putting pen to paper, combing through Twitter is just another part of the job.

Sammy Nickalls is experienced in the occupational hazards of social media. She’s written for outlets including Vulture, Teen Vogue, and Vice and previously worked in New York as an editor at Esquire and Adweek. After spending most of her 20s behind a screen, Nickalls decided to shut down all of her social media accounts for six months and emerged from the reset with a new perspective. Now, she proselytizes digital minimalism, a philosophy developed by Georgetown professor of computer science Cal Newport, to the tech-weary masses.

In her new book, Log Off: Self-Help for the Extremely Online, out May 10, Nickalls offers practical advice for those who want to limit their screen time but for whom logging off completely just isn’t an option. Taking cues from Jenny Offill, Jia Tolentino, and Sherry Turkle, Nickalls provides a road map to a more deliberate online existence and a more mindful offline one. She and I spoke about Log Off, literary Twitter, self-discipline, and much more.

The Millions: I want to start off by using myself as a case study that I think will sound familiar to a lot of readers. I’m a writer who by necessity is Very Online. Being online, and specifically on what we might call literary Twitter, feels like a requirement to be a successful writer—to cultivate a presence and a following, to scope out publication opportunities, to network. Some publishers even base book deals off of Twitter followings! How can someone who is actively trying to build a writing career also practice digital minimalism?

Sammy Nickalls: I absolutely can relate to this, and this exact situation is what led me to develop a wildly unhealthy relationship with Twitter in my early-to-mid 20s. I felt like I needed to be online 24/7 to avoid missing the next great opportunity that will launch my career.

Granted, there’s a grain of truth in this. In a flattering light, Twitter is an excellent tool for young creatives to find opportunities from the comfort of their couch. But the Next Big Thing mentality is exactly what platforms like Twitter use to keep their users scrolling. When you boil those vibes down, they have nothing to do with talent, or work ethic, or any of the inspiration one needs to create—they’re based in fear. And for those with the same kind of tendencies toward workaholism, perfectionism, and codependency as me, it’s a slippery slope into a dark, twisty place where you feel like your entire worth depends on faves, or followers, or whether you tweet an opinion on that long stressful article everyone’s talking about. There will be a new long stressful article tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day. It’s just not sustainable.

This is exactly why digital minimalism is so important, and even more so for folks who need these platforms for their livelihoods. It’s not about scrubbing yourself off the Internet, as tempting as that may be sometimes. It’s about noticing your Internet stressors, then actively creating and maintaining boundaries around your screen time so that you don’t let these platforms and stressors eclipse your entire life.

TM: If you are a writer who prefers to write on a laptop, you’re going to be on the computer, and probably online, a lot. What is your advice for approaching a writing session—or any online work session—in digitally minimalist way to eliminate distractions?

SN: I love [the debate over] writing on a computer versus writing on paper. I do the latter more than the former these days, but I still think typing is so much more satisfying than writing on paper, because you can get your thoughts down so much faster. And I will never tire of the clickety-clacks!

If you choose to write on a laptop, start by identifying what you like most about writing that way, then shaping your rules around that. Is it the aforementioned clickety-clacks? Consider whether a typewriter would give the same kind of creative satisfaction. (Editor’s note: Freewrite also sells Internet-free, keyboard-equipped writing tools.) If that feels too extreme, or if your writing must be done online due to the nature of your work, I highly recommend trying out different digital minimalism tools and apps that will help you stay focused. I list a bunch in my book, but for this situation in particular, I recommend Freedom, which lets you block any number of distractions. You can block literally every website other than what you’re working on, or you can just block a single platform like Twitter—it’s up to you. When you try to go to the platform or website you blocked, your device will instead display a green screen with a butterfly reminding you to take a deep breath. So, you can either take said deep breath, or you can go, “Dang, foiled again by me.” Both are fairly satisfying.

TM: I deleted Instagram in college because I recognized, to borrow your terminology, that it was my primary “digital stressor.” It felt fundamentally incompatible with my brain, and I could tell it was actively detracting from it. At the same time, when I tell people I no longer have Instagram, they sometimes say things like, “I don’t like it either, but it’s really helpful for keeping up with friends, getting in touch with people, networking, finding inspiration, etc.” How would you respond to this big “but”? When does the risk outweigh the reward?

SN: Firstly, props to you for deleting Instagram. It’s one of my top problem apps too. Secondly, I gotta pull out my favorite version of the Serenity Prayer for this one: Grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change, the courage to change the one I can, and the wisdom to know that one is me. People might directly or indirectly insist that you’re missing out, but that’s on them. You know your own brain, and you know what feels good to you. Maybe for them, Instagram is helpful for all those things, and that’s great, but there’s no point in trying to change their mind, because odds are they don’t want to change their mind. Personally, I believe that the rewards a) don’t really hold their own upon further scrutiny—for example, is liking your friend’s photo every couple of weeks really “keeping in touch?”—and b) are far, far smaller than the risk.

TM: I’ve recently found my relationship to one social media app, TikTok, changing. It isn’t bringing me as much joy as it used to—now I check it compulsively rather than consciously, and I’ve been seeing more videos lately that I consider to be stressors. Can you talk about how our relationships with certain digital platforms can evolve, how we should monitor them over time, and what sort of steps we should take if we see our relationship changing in a way that’s harmful?

SN: Oof, TikTok is a rough one, I hear you. But yes, it’s all about intentionality—that’s really the core of digital minimalism. It’s not a once-and-done thing, where you set rules for yourself and then never ever break or change those rules until the end of time, because that’s not how doing anything intentionally works, right? You can’t predict the future, so you might not know exactly what you need or don’t need right away. That’s why it’s important to monitor your relationship with platforms and adjust accordingly, over and over again. It’s really a lifelong thing, because you can bet these platforms will adapt to the digital minimalism wave by finding new ways to capture your attention.

Your relationship with platforms will naturally change, and that’s perfectly okay. It’s also okay when you notice your relationship with one platform or another is becoming harmful, because the first step is simply noticing. That itself is hard to do, but hey, you already did it! You get to pat yourself on the back for that, and then you get to make a change, whether that’s deleting that app off your phone or taking a break from the platform to gather your thoughts.

Once it stops feeling scary, it’s actually a bit thrilling every time you get to make a change. It might sound a little cheesy, but it’s like realizing over and over that you actually have the power, you know? And it becomes easier as you learn to tune into your feelings every day, or as often as you can—no need to beat yourself up if you mess it up every now and then, because you’re human. The really wonderful thing about all of this is that you get to make your own rules based on how you feel. It’s not about doing it perfectly—it’s about reclaiming your agency and not letting these platforms control your emotions and behavior. My book has a guide on how to get started, but it’s something that anyone can do with or without a guide, just by paying attention to how you feel when you’re on social media.

TM: The experience of the pandemic emphasized how important it is to stay connected with loved ones when we can’t be with them in person. My closest friends, for one, all live across the country, so I’ve had to be more deliberate about getting in touch, whether it be sending each other stupid tweets or TikToks, or just texting throughout the day. But at the same time, I’m trying to spend as much time away from my phone as possible. How can you balance the priority to stay connected with faraway loved ones while still maintaining healthy digital boundaries?

SN: I think this is exactly the reason why people are rethinking the way they use their phones, or at least one of the big ones. There’s so much more pressure to be “on” during a pandemic, because the alternative can feel like abandoning your relationships.

I live in Pennsylvania, about six hours away from my best friend in Massachusetts, and we used to message each other on Facebook constantly. For a long time, even before the pandemic, I used that as an excuse to keep Facebook Messenger on my phone, because otherwise, how would I talk to her? Eventually, I communicated my digital minimalism intentions to her, and we moved the conversation to text so I could delete Facebook from my phone. It was that easy. Sometimes, I’ll tell her that I’m trying to stay off my phone for the weekend, so I might not respond to texts quickly, and she is always deeply supportive. And lately, we’ve been trying to schedule times to video chat. It might still involve a screen but taking time to actually talk face-to-face for a couple hours every few weeks strengthens relationships so much more than a never-ending text conversation, the latter of which tends to keep attention permanently divided because of the nature of texting. That said, my best friend and I still text each other stupid TikToks.

It’s true, though, that some relationships will start to fade away when you practice digital minimalism. That’s okay! Frankly, they probably weren’t strong relationships to begin with, and that’s also okay. I think social media gives us the idea that we’re supposed to have countless close friends, but relationships take time. Literally, how would we find the time for that? And are all our relationships really as close as we think, or are platforms trying to force FOMO-fueled friendships to keep us online? I don’t mean to trivialize the idea of Internet friendships, because I have met some truly wonderful people online. But if you communicate your intentions to them, and you’re meant to stay close to them, the universe will find a way.

TM: It feels like in just the past few years a lot more thinkers like you and Jenny Odell and Cal Newport, both of whom you cite in the book, have sprung up in response to not just how to live in the Internet age but how protect yourself from the Internet age. What other thinkers and ideas surrounding digital life are inspiring you right now?

SN: Lately, I’ve been listening to Tara Brach almost daily. I often start my day with one of her meditations, and I find that a lot of her teachings line up perfectly with digital minimalism, even if they’re not directly about digital life.

Growing up, I experienced what I’ve come to think of as a lasagna of trauma—layers, baby—that instilled a deep-seated fear of my own emotions and internal life. Throughout my teens and 20s, I buzzed around like a hummingbird on cocaine, trying to find the job or the person or the shiny flashy thing that would finally make me feel whole. I eventually became quite physically ill from the stress of functioning like this, and I had to sort of let everything in my life come toppling down so I could start rebuilding it with stronger foundations. Tara Brach has been indispensable in helping me learn how to overcome the fear of my own internal life so that I can use my emotions as a guide instead of running away from them. I believe this is one of the most important elements of digital minimalism. If you don’t know how you feel, how can you know what you need?

You Can’t Help Being a Person: The Millions Interviews Maureen McLane

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Poet and critic Maureen McLane’s new book More Anon: Selected Poems includes work from her first five collections of poetry including Mz N: the serial and the National Book Award finalist This Blue. In her work, McLane writes a variety of registers and approaches and styles, with as wide a range of subject matter as forms. Her poems range from the political to the erotic to the intellectual. There’s a playfulness to her work that sometimes obscures how detailed and precise that work is. McLane also has two poems in The FSG Poetry Anthology, which includes work by nearly every poet that FSG has ever published, and places her work in conversation with some of the great poets of our time. Both books offer an opportunity to read McLane’s poetry anew, and we spoke recently about how she came to understand her work and about trying to contextualize it for readers old and new.

Alex Dueben:  I’m curious about the process of curating a selected volume of your own work.

Maureen McLane:  It was interesting being an anthologist of my own work. I knew I wanted More Anon to have a representative core from each book, but I also wanted to make sure that through-lines across the books could be signaled in various ways—for example, the various versionings of Sappho which appear in each book. And I wanted this selected poems to reflect the sense of emergent seriality in my work. I have a poem featuring the character or persona of “Mz N” in my first book, Same Life (2008); later on, that character became the basis for a much longer development, in what ultimately became the book Mz N: The Serial (2017). In More Anon I wanted there to be some sense of what persisted or developed over those years of my writing life. I also wanted to preserve the range each book offers: from some very short intense lyrics to some more essayistic poems to longer sustained work.

In selecting the poems for this book, I fortunately didn’t feel like I was going back to a stranger. The book draws on 20 years of a writing life, and sure, you go back with some distance and maybe a slightly different, more dispassionate eye, but I was glad that I didn’t feel estranged or remote from my earlier work. It felt of a piece, even if in some cases I wouldn’t write the same poem now. (Would one ever write precisely the same poem twice? Again?) That was interesting to discover, because it’s not like I sit around rereading my books. [Laughs.] Usually when I give readings, I tend to read from recent work. So it was interesting to go back to the beginning, as it were, and to think about how to shape a book that was alive and not a doorstopper. I mean, this isn’t a collected work: I’m not dead! [Laughs.] And hopefully, too, as the title More Anon suggests, the book welcomes new readers, and points to a horizon of ongoing writing and engagement. I hoped the book might offer something fresh and inviting to people who don’t know my work, and something fresh too to those who might be familiar with my poetry.

AD:  I have Jim Harrison: Complete Poems, which just came out and that’s a massive project where, when you’re dead, someone else can put it together. [Laughs.]

MM:  Exactly! [laughs] I mean, there are some wonderful poets who later in life have done that—and thankfully they are still with us and writing beautiful work. Louise Glück had a collected some years ago that was excellent, and now she’s writing some amazing new work. Fred Seidel had a collected a few years ago. But that’s a very different kind of project and I am hopefully decades away from that!

AD:  So why did you decide on this format and not a new and selected volume?

MM:  Some of those books are really wonderful and I enjoy reading them. For example, Toi Derricote’s I: New and Selected: I really liked that. It offers a survey of her career, obviously, but also a launching pad for the new poems. A couple of years ago, I did a Selected with Penguin U.K., in the spirit of introducing my work to a British audience. This new book for FSG—More Anon—was a slightly different project, because my work already had a presence here in the U.S., and this gave me another and different opportunity to distill the work, and maybe reintroduce it. My last book of poems, Some Say, was published in 2017; I had submitted that manuscript in 2015 alongside Mz N: the serial, and since 2015 I had been doing other kinds of writing, while also writing poems in several different keys. I felt like I didn’t want to include, say, 10 or 12 poems as the “new poems.” I felt I had another kind of manuscript emerging, and that More Anon would be a chance to take stock, to winnow and then frame poems a bit differently—not to introduce wholly new work. Another reason why I called the book More Anon is that, touch wood, there will be more from me anon. [Laughs.] Hopefully not too long from now. So, I didn’t want to dilute what was slowly distilling. Maybe that was stupid, I don’t know. For good or ill, I don’t tend to think about things in terms of “marketing.” I try to follow what feels formally and compositionally true to that moment in my writing life. Jonathan Galassi, my editor, was very on board with that, too—making it a selected, straight up.

AD:  You’re very consciously framing the book and the work with four quotations to open the book, and opening and closing the book with an envoi and envoi eclipse. I loved the envoi, which ends “make her regret everything about her life / that doesn’t include me”. Isn’t that what we all hope for? [Laughs.]

MM:  [Laughs.] These micro decisions carry a lot of weight. All of my books have envois—a kind of gesture sending the book out to the world. I realized that I did not want envois ending the sections from each book; I wanted there to be a sense of a new and  broader unified arc. So I begin and end the book with an envoi. In terms of epigraphs, I undertook a similar kind of selecting—choosing to sound a few notes for the whole collection. One can think about this almost musically: here’s an overture with little provocations and motifs, little sparks that hopefully will fuel a slow burn—or a poetic conflagration!

AD:  The quotations you include from H.D.—“Spare us from loveliness”—and Alice Notley—“Experience is a hoax”—are very intentional.

MM:  [Laughs.] So much of this reflects a kind of both/and, neither/nor quality of my mind. H.D. is a poet who you could argue trafficked ostentatiously in loveliness, even if the content of her verse is often about erotic duress or unlovely conditions. One could say that this line is a bit rich coming from H.D., but it’s a wonderful line and a wonderful note to self—as well as a note to the reader. Ditto with the Notley. These lines grooved themselves on my mind. These meta-poetic moments became wonderful glosses on my experiences of reading and writing—Notley pressing hard on the idea that poetry is “about” “experience,” as if experience were some kind of unmediated obvious thing. I just love that Notley presents this as one gloss on her own work: it’s like, okay, let’s pay attention. [Laughs.] So yes, there’s an intentional spin these epigraphs want to introduce. They certainly have spun in my mind and they became a way of transferring that spin to the reader.

AD:  You also have quotations from Malthus and Blake which push that framing in a more political direction. Which is related to notions of experience and loveliness, especially when we talk about queerness and about what it means to be a woman in the world.

MM:  Definitely. And they point to other trajectories baked into this book—trajectories about modernity, America, prophecy, “identity,” “experience,” after-lives. And the Shelleyan question arises, “What is life?” And for whom? I think the Malthus quotation—“Life is, generally speaking, a blessing independent of a future state”—is highly arguable. All of these epigraphs are meant as goads, not simply as endorsements. They all have an edge, a torque to them, and I would think they would vibrate differently for different readers.

AD:  I also kept thinking of the Malthus quotation in relation to the Notley quotation. From the Buddhist perspective, there is only the present, the past and future are illusions.

MM:  That’s wonderful. Of course Malthus was an Anglican pastor, so he was deeply not a Buddhist, but it is a really interesting philosophical claim he’s making in his famous or infamous essay on the principle of population. Which is an amazing and crazy and still influential document. But also one thinks of Keats—as he wrote in an 1817 letter to his friend Benjamin Bailey, “O for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!”  On the one hand, Keats is longing for such a life, but he’s got this existential unavoidable predicament of living via sensation and thought—“where but to think is to be full of sorrow,” as he writes in the Nightingale Ode. I love that the Malthus and the Notley did a two-step for you. [Laughs.]

AD:  As part of going through all the books and selecting representative work in different ways, I kept thinking about how in all your books, you’re not a poet who has a single tone or approach. There’s a way in which you’re playfully looking for an approach in a similar way you’re trying to playfully look at the world. This book tries to represent that.

MM:  That seems to me really on target. For me, certain approaches or tones or phrases tend to determine the path of the poem. A poem like “Excursion Susan Sontag” goes immediately into a kind of strongly voiced mock-professorial key—“Now Susan Sontag was famous / among certain people”—and it’s almost like you’re riding on a different bike or driving a different car, compared to other poems. I have tended to pursue this multiplicity of tones and modes in every book. Some books might be more in a certain key, but certainly my first book Same Life had a real diversity of approaches. I personally don’t see that as a haphazard eclecticism, I see that as almost an effect of sensibility, as you’re suggesting. It’s not the case that I can’t imagine writing a book or ultimately publishing something that is all in one key. I met a poet some years ago and they were surprised because, having read some of my work, they thought I was going to be very grim and dour. [Laughs.] I remember another poet said to me after a reading, I didn’t realize your poems were so funny. I didn’t know what to make of that. [Laughs.]

It’s a funny thing how tone reads to people and how a multiplicity of tones reads. I talk about this a lot with students because I can think of many wonderful books in a profoundly unitary key, or with a common approach throughout—some of Glück’s books, for example, or, to go in a very different direction, David Kirby’s, can be like that. Or think of Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, or Diane Seuss’s frank: sonnets. Or Donna Stonecipher’s amazing books. Or consider a poet like H.D. Obviously I feel like there are a lot of instruments to play on, and some people like to play on many and some like to play on one.  I see that this analogy is breaking down pretty quickly, because you can play in a lot of keys or modes on some instruments, if not all. But anyway, it’s also the case that Mz N and Some Say were written during the same period, sort of dividing up the poetic universe in my mind. Some Say is in a focused lyric key, while Mz N tracks an actual character, in looser, more expansive poems, some of which move into essayistic or narrative territory. This was the way I found myself channeling different tendencies in those two books. We’ll see what happens in the future. I have found myself writing more prose poems, which is interesting and a little surprising to me.

AD:  From your first books with poems like “Mz N” and “Saratoga August,” you were interested in longer narrative poems.

MM:  That’s one of the reasons I included “Saratoga August” in More Anon—it’s a multi-part poem which does have story in it, narrative elements, alongside lyric and song: these modalities are not mutually exclusive. At least for me or in me, whether as a reader or a writer. So yes, I think that that’s 100 percent right. In the early 2010s I was writing My Poets, a poeticritical memoir, and that shifted some internal gears. I realized I wanted to do more within poetry “proper” in that essayistic, autobiographical/autofictional key. I found myself going back to the Mz N figure, which I hadn’t expected to do at all. That was a surprise to me. So from this vantage I can see how different kinds of writing opened doors for other kinds of work. At a certain point I’ll likely be able to look back and say, here I came to the end of the line with such and such a thing. I don’t yet know what or when that will be, but certainly one doesn’t want to be repetitive. I haven’t been a poet who’s operated much from a principle of will or decision or program in the sense of: “Now I shall do X,” or “Here is my project book.” Though I suppose we could call Mz N: the serial that. I admire some writers who do proceed that way—Donna Stonecipher, MC Hyland, Cathy Park Hong, Srikanth Reddy, Edgar Garcia—but that’s just not the way I’ve tended to go. I’m usually responding to certain things in the environment, whether it’s ambient stuff or political things or my internal environment. I keep notebooks that are full of jottings and I’ll look back and start to see threads, but I tend to see these threads only later. And out of that gets woven a manuscript.

AD:  Someone asked me to describe your work and I half-joked that you’re a very philosophical poet and you also write about sex, not as a series of metaphors using SAT words.

MM:  That’s a wonderful compliment. Thank you. [Laughs.]

AD:  I mean that as a compliment, but you also know exactly what I mean.

MM:  I do. I really do. And we don’t need to name any names. [Laughs.]

AD:  Just as you enjoy playing with style and approach, and I think this was clear from the beginning of your published work, you want to write about life and experience and what that means in ways that don’t always get addressed in poetry.

MM:  That’s true and that leads you into different places. Some poems zoom in intently on the erotic. Some poems focus intently on registering a soundscape or landscape. Or some poems want to be looser, baggier things that pivot among politics, weather, erotics, story. So much is inflected by things I’ve read and heard and admired—and not necessarily in poetry, it might be in essays or fiction or music: works that are capacious, that allow for intensity but also expansiveness of concern, attention, scope. I want to honor all those registers.

AD:  I don’t know what the queer poetic tradition is, to the extent that there is one, but part of queer writing is about trying to encompass many things and address it and look at it and not hide essential things behind metaphor or being an aesthete.

MM:  It’s important that there are many queer genealogies and paths available now, more than there might have been 30 or even 15 years ago. Certainly the emergence of an identifiable queer literary and theoretical tradition opened up a lot for me and many others. Anything from Virginia Woolf to H.D. to Gertrude Stein to Eileen Myles to Frank O’Hara to James Schuyler to Audre Lorde. I remember reading Olga Broumas and Adrienne Rich early on. Foucault’s writing. Eve Sedgwick’s. This is all very ‘90s, a crucial decade for me. Critical theory was a lifeline for me and also a kind of horizon. This was about sexuality, sure, but also more broadly about what constituted my sense of the given, and testing and sounding that out. Not having the luxury of certain assumptions. Or not wanting that luxury. Or not being able to sit with that. So in terms of a “queer poetic tradition,” there was and is for me a socio-psycho-sexual domain and also a stylistic dimension, questions of formalization and style and experiment carried by literature, art, thought: and this has been galvanizing and inspiring. All of this gets reimagined by new and emerging writers, in many languages. The horizon of what queer traditions were circa 1995 versus 2022 is very different, in part because of all the thinking and writing and protesting and grief and tragedy and solidarity and transformation that the past 60 years have wrought in the U.S., but also internationally.

I was saying recently to a friend that before I had any conscious affiliation with “queerness,” I was responding to writers who I later realized or discovered were queer. It is endlessly interesting to see how your unconscious knows more than you do. There were many reasons I was particularly oriented, so to speak, to H.D. and Stein and Virginia Woolf. Also to writers whom I liked couldn’t quite “get,” like Frank O’Hara. As a teenager and in my early 20s I had a very idealized sense of a poem and of poetry, but part of me also had a strong critical debunking impulse, too. Or rather, a critical, analytic impulse. When I was struggling and searching and flailing in my 20s (and beyond!), I found some really good avenues for thinking—if not yet solutions for living—via queer and gender studies. Also via Enlightenment and Romantic-era thought. And I drew on the poets and writers who were vibrating in my mind.

AD:  As you were talking I couldn’t help but think of My Poets, which is a work of criticism and I don’t want to say that it’s not consciously a memoir because you were very conscious of what you were doing, but you weren’t just saying, here are poets I like.

MM:  Exactly! I understood My Poets to be a kind of memoir via a reading life, which in my cases was always feeding back into sexual, erotic, intellectual trajectories. These, for me, are very enmeshed. For other people, eros might be enmeshed with film or music or sports, but for me, these poetic encounters were generative. Marianne Moore has a line in her poem “Picking and Choosing,” “literature is a phase of life.” Which might suggest you outgrow it, but that is not, I think, her point. I think My Poets was testing that out: the relation between literature and life-phase. A chapter like “My Elizabeth Bishop/My Gertrude Stein” offered a way to talk about those writers and their work, but also to talk about gender and sexuality and sexed writing. The book aimed to explore the interpenetration of reading and living.

AD:  Before we ever spoke I remember coming across My Poets and trying to write a different kind of criticism, which doesn’t always show its work. Which isn’t quite what I mean, but you found a different way into talking about the poetry that spoke to the relationship a lot of us have to literature.

MM:  Thank you. I remember that at some point I read Edmund White’s My Lives, which had chapters like “My Hustlers,” “My Friends,” etc.  I was attracted to this way of grouping things, to this alternate way of writing memoir via relationality. In My Poets, the chapter rubrics invoking specific poets (“My Chaucer,” “My Shelley,” “My Fanny Howe”) opened onto other matters too—questions of marriage and erotics and religion and reading itself and being a student. I didn’t go, oh, now I shall hybridize criticism. [Laughs.] I have done a lot of normative critical writing, but by the mid-2000s I was moving towards another key. My Poets was really fun and also hugely challenging to write; there was certainly no one saying, okay, give us 5,000 words on H.D.

AD:  To circle back to the beginning, and the title, which says that there’s more to come, more soon, I know you’ve done a lot of scholarly work on ballads and minstrels and these works which have come down to us anonymously. We don’t know who made them or when, we have vague notions of traditions, and I kept thinking of Mz N, which is a series of poems about someone not unlike you, shall we say?

MM:  That’s a lovely way to phrase it.

AD:  Your name is on the book, obviously, but here are a lot of poems and a lot of different kinds of poems and the title is telling the reader, just go with it.

MM:  You really hit a bunch of nails on their exact heads. After hovering among titles, I went with More Anon, because it ramifies in all these different directions you point out—and also “more anon” suggests “more to come,” and also raises the question, or possibility, of “more anonymity.” That is a thing that I’ve been long interested in. We’re all really preoccupied by our individuality. Or most of us. Certainly I can be! [Laughs.] You can’t help being a person. And then there is your ego and investment in your work, but also you know—or get reminded—that in the longer flow of time, all this is contingent and provisional and erasable. I have for a long time been interested in anonymity and poetry, in ballad traditions in particular. English and Scottish ballads usually entered into print—via broadsides, or anthologies, or other books—without authors. Some so-called traditionary ballads were circulating for decades or centuries, and one reason they survived is that they were so beautifully distilled or memorable that enough people wanted to keep singing or reading them. It’s useful to think about a poetic economy and vitality that’s circulating that way as opposed to the commodity-form of the author and the book. It’s a useful reminder, too.

I think it was the poet Devin Johnston who reminded me that Thom Gunn said he wanted to write with the same anonymity you get in the Elizabethans. I’m sure that’s a paradoxical kind of commitment, and a beautiful aspiration. For me, the Mz N figure  was an enabling device allowing me to do all kinds of things with the figure of autobiography but also to write in a more narrative or dramatic way. “Mz N” points as well to the question of pseudonymity and to “n” as an anonymous or unknown variable. I think of Rimbaud, “Je est un autre” (“I is another” or “I is someone else”). I respond to that non-alignment or self-estrangement, which is certainly a profound experience for me and I think for many people. [Laughs.] I’m enough of an old-school psychoanalytically oriented person that I feel like we’re not in charge of that self-estrangement or non-alignment. That’s our given condition as humans. I always think of a line from the geneticist Richard Dawkins, that a chicken is just an egg’s way of making another egg. From poetry’s point of view, a poet is simply poetry’s way of making more poetry. If you’re a poet, of course you will likely or even necessarily experience an intense personal engagement or sense of vocation, but from the perspective of poetry out in the world, you’re just a medium for generating more poetry out in the world. [Laughs.]

Maybe the Buddhist ambition—if such a paradox can be held—would be to aim to write poems that travelled widely and not under anyone’s name. I mean, you called me up to interview me, which is lovely, but think of somebody like Robert Burns. He published a book under his own name but he also became a prominent song collector in late 18th century Scotland. When these songs were published by the editor/impresario James Johnson, it was in a multi-volume collection of Scottish songs called The Scots Musical Museum. There were 600 songs published over several years, and at first Burns’s name was nowhere, though he’d contributed or set the words for some 200 songs. Once Burns got famous, the editor wanted to be sure to attribute certain song texts to Burns; hello cultural capital! But Burns was by then dead. RIP Burns! He’s a fascinating example in poetic and musical history: somebody who was a prominent author but also an incredibly important song collector. And his legacy toggles between “Robert Burns,” this supersaturated cultural figure with a proper name, and anonymity—someone who set the words to songs many know, like “Auld Lang Syne,” though few know he was the poet there. This bears on many other traditions too, not least the history of Black song in the Americas, and all kinds of so-called oral traditions.

AD:  You’re also in The FSG Poetry Anthology, which is an incredible book, and maybe especially in the context of the last question, how do you think your two poems in the book read in the context of this broad illustrious company, and just being read as part of this book which is a selection of postwar poetry?

MM:  Isn’t it a great book? If it’s not cheesy to agree. I found it really surprising—lots of discoveries, not least from poets I thought I knew (e.g. Bishop, Heaney, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Katie Peterson, Devin Johnston, August Kleinzahler). The book sets up new resonances and reverb; obviously it’s an honor to be in it, and its establishing of a longer and international reverb is inspiring, as is the longstanding commitment to poetries in translation. How my poems might read in this context: well, that’s probably for others to say—but it is striking to see poems organized by decades. One of my poems appears in the 2000s section, while another appears in the 2010s. I told the editors that I hoped to be one of the poets of the 2020s!  But seeing things this way, you get a slightly different feel for generationality, and also there’s a nice push I think against monumentality: some big monuments are clearly represented (Heaney, Walcott, Bishop, Lowell, Neruda), but not as monuments, rather as poets among a company of poets; and one also encounters poets less hyper-canonical, like Louise Bogan. And to see the array of poets gathered in the past 20 years shows new lines of poetic and cultural force, I think—in the work of the poets I mentioned above, or in, for example, Shane McCrae’s work, or Iman Mersal’s poetry, translated from the Arabic by Robyn Creswell.

It’s interesting; I hadn’t thought of the book as a post-war book until you said so. I guess I also feel that “postwar” might be a kind of historical artifact; it feels very 20th century, very Cold War, and that might be an accurate and striking way to think about a good swath of the anthology. And the historical sweep of FSG’s poetry publishing.

AD:  It’s interesting to read all these poets—the ones I know and those I don’t—and see them in conversation because of how they’re grouped together. Demarcations like when FSG started or even the decades are somewhat arbitrary and vague. When did “the sixties” end and begin, for example? But out of such randomness, relationships emerge. Your editor asked for a selected volume, so you assembled one. Decades from now, will it feel like a natural demarcation or a random one? Who knows? But it’s a nice collection of poems.

MM:  Your thoughts make me think of a hilarious essay by Kay Ryan from some years ago, “I Go to AWP,” in which she casts a gimlet eye on project books, books with “arcs,” all those requirements (and sometimes impositions) of conceptual structure and organization. I suspect “a nice collection of poems” would be a fine gloss on things, in her view. And yes, modes of grouping can be arbitrary or vague, but they can also be enabling, at least sometimes, right? As for my selected, well, as you say, who knows how it will feel decades from now. But I can tell that even now it feels, for me, like a useful, and certainly not random, demarcation. The chance to make More Anon was an occasion for reckoning and taking stock, while allowing me to feel out the intimations of further, as well as returning, commitments as a writer. I’m hoping some of those glimmerings will take worldly form in some collaborative projects and in a forthcoming book, What You Want: we’ll see—more anon!

Pain Is Not Always an Emergency: The Millions Interviews Melissa Febos

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When I was an undergraduate in college, I sent a fan letter via Facebook to an author, a personal essayist, that I greatly admired. To my astonishment he replied, and an email correspondence ensued. Immediately I inundated him with craft-related questions, the most pressing of which was about navel-gazing and how to avoid it. I wanted to write personal essay like he did, but the fear of being interpreted as navel-gazy—vain, narcissistic, self-obsessed—often kept me from writing about myself. This author’s work, though intensely personal, never felt myopic. He sent a lengthy and enlightening reply with the subject line “How to Avoid Navel Gazing.” I’d never treasured an email so much.

You can imagine my curiosity, then, when I opened Melissa Febos’s Body Work and began to read its first chapter, “In Praise of Navel Gazing.” It didn’t completely change my mind on the topic, but it made me reconsider my initial aversion to being seen as a navel-gazer. Febos incisively articulates the systemic undervaluing of women’s narratives and how personal writing has been gendered as feminine—to its detriment. “Bias against personal writing is often a sexist mechanism,” she writes, “founded on the false binary between the emotional (female) and the intellectual (male), and intended to subordinate the former.” If writing about oneself is a feminine act and feminine acts lack intellectual rigor, I wanted to avoid bringing myself into my work at all costs. The trouble was that I bought into this false logic in the first place.

I diverged with Febos on other points, though, such as the extent to which reading is an “exercise in empathy” (I defer to Namwali Serpell on that issue), as well as her claim that Body Work is “not a manifesto.” Even more than a craft book, it is a manifesto that claims and declares, as its subtitle states, The Radical Power of Personal Narrative. She implores her readers to:
tell me about your navel. Tell me about your rape. Tell me about your mad love affair, how you forgot and then remembered yourself. Tell me about the hands, the things they have done and held and hit and let go. Tell me about your drunk father and your friend who died.

Don’t tell me that the experiences of a vast majority of our planets human population are marginal, are not relevant, are not political. Don’t tell me that you think there’s not enough room for another story about sexual abuse, motherhood, or racism. The only way to make room is to drag all our stories into that room. That’s how it gets bigger.

You write it, and I will read it.
A sentiment I fully agree with—there’s no reason not to document your experiences, to capture yourself with words, to work through your life on the page. There is every reason to do these things! But after that last line—“You write it, and I will read it,” I couldn’t help but write in the margins: “yes, but will it be any good?” If Febos gave me permission to write about myself, then my correspondent showed me how to write about myself well. Febos sees all personal writing as navel-gazing; my correspondent saw it as a subsect of personal writing that is superfluous, unfocused, and not-very-good.

Body Work is a sophisticated, penetrating, and elegantly written argument for devoting space, time, and energy to oneself, especially those who have been marginalized and excluded from literary history. For any writer leery of venturing into the personal for fear of being “unserious”—like college-aged me!—this is required reading. I was privileged to speak with Febos about cultivating internal discernment, the quiet work of bearing witness, and why she thinks of writing in terms of temperature.

The Millions: Earlier in your writing career, you were somewhat in thrall to the “the fantasy of toughness—the idea that lack of feeling signified mastery of it.” I love this line. When I read memoir, I want my narrators to feel deeply—I find nothing particularly cool about being cold. At the same time, I want them to be clear-eyed enough to reflect critically on their emotions and actions. In writing personal narrative, how do you negotiate being vulnerable with doing the more detached work of analyzing your own life?

Melissa Febos: I couldn’t agree more! In general, I’m increasingly more interested in being warm, instead of cool. I actually think of writing a lot in terms of temperature. Memoir is almost always interested in topics and experiences that I think of as hot—like, they have a lot of magnetism, they are active and roiling, they can burn to touch. They require a lot of care in handling. When I first approach my subject, it’s messy—there are a lot of the intense feelings, and only the crude bones of what will later become the essay are visible to me.

As I work my way into it, and through it—using craft techniques, research, lyrical modes, et cetera—it starts to cool a bit. And the tools of writing—the aesthetic elements—work as mediators between me and that molten subject. While handling the difficult past and processing it, which is slow and challenging work, I am half distracted by the more instinctive and imaginative and analytical pursuits of my artist brain. That distance allows me to move toward and through difficult emotions and memories in a way I cannot under any other circumstances.

It’s this dynamic that makes writing the site of so much personal transformation and integration for me. By the time a reader sees the work, that molten beginning is still in it, but it is layered over and molded by the whole process—the aesthetic, emotional, and intellectual progressions are all visible and working together to form this very faceted and crafted final product.

The simpler answer to your question is that I let the process take as long as it takes, and I support myself in a lot of ways while I’m writing. Some essays take years and years to ripen before I can really, safely, thoroughly write them. I lean on my creative community a lot. I lean on my spiritual practices. I take a lot of breaks and get a lot of hugs and seek the counsel of other people frequently.

TM: As a woman writer I’ve often bought into what you call “the false binary between the emotional (female) and the intellectual (male),” in which the former is subordinated to the latter. For so long women’s intellect was discredited that there remains a pressure to prove ourselves. As a woman writer yourself how have you confronted this binary, and how would you advise any writer of any gender to confront gendered expectations around their writing?

MF: We’re bombarded with this kind of gendered conditioning from the moment we are born, so I don’t know anyone who is immune to it. The important first step for me has been to stop blaming myself for internalizing the bad ideas that I’ve been disciplined to believe. I’ve had to confront this in many areas of my life. For instance, feeling ashamed of having body shame does nothing to free me from body shame, you know? So, I try to approach the interior voices that parrot these messages with compassion, and then begin the sustained work of countering them.

A big part of this work consists of cultivating an internal discernment. When I have the thought No one cares about this story or This has been done before or This isn’t serious nonfiction, I practice slowing down, so that instead of taking these ideas for granted as true, I have the space to ask myself, Do I really believe that? Does this belief arise from my own experience as a reader? If the answer is no, then I ask, Where did it come from? Sometimes it’s like solving a crime in that a useful question is often: Who benefits from this belief? Who benefits from the silence of this voice or from discrediting this story?

The idea of having to prove my intellect is a trap, and one I wasted a lot of energy on as a younger writer, and a student, and a person in the world—which is no accident. It’s an illusion that distracts and dissuades me from creating my best work. It gets me to cosign a definition of “intellectual” that excludes many forms of my own intelligence. It tricks me into disembodiment.

The other important part is surrounding myself with people who are also committed to this work. I mean, friends and peers and role models, but also the books I’m reading and teaching. Though I’m sort of framing it as an individual undertaking, what we are talking about is social change and social change does not happen in a vacuum or in silence or in secret. It is a collaboration that begins in relationships, that grows out of the stories we tell and to which we give our attention.

TM: Historically women have loomed large in memoir. Four of The New York Times’s top five memoirs of the past 50 years are by women, and it seems like so many leading figures of the form—Cheryl Strayed, Vivian Gornick, Maggie Nelson, Sarah H. Broom, Mary Karr, Alison Bechdel, Carmen Maria Machado, Margo Jefferson, Jesmyn Ward, Elizabeth Gilbert, Patti Smith, Roxane Gay, etc., etc.—are women. How are gender and memoir as a genre interrelated? What do you make of the remarkable surge of women memoirists who are really coming to define the form?

MF: This is one of the main premises of Body Work—that personal writing has been gendered as female over the last 25 years and the biases against it have grown in parallel. I think the perception of “confessional” poetry has taken a similar trajectory, though it begins more like 60 or 70 years ago.

It’s arguable that memoir’s popularity really peaked decades ago, and many magazines that used to publish personal writing no longer do. But overall, the popularity of memoir makes sense, historically. Particularly those by women. Women’s stories, like those of all folks of marginalized identities, are relatively absent from our national histories because they weren’t considered worthwhile or were considered dangerous to the prevailing social structure, and because women didn’t have access to the parts of society that are considered relevant to history or to the means of documenting them publicly, whether they lacked time, a room of one’s own, etcetera. Therefore, they were often isolated from each other, isolated from knowledge of the shared aspects of their experiences. Partly as a result of this vacuum, women—and so many other marginalized folks—are hungry for each other’s stories.

Also, we are all hungry for these kinds of stories. Whatever biases they have, all sorts of people love reading personal writing because it is not actually gendered subject matter. The stories of bodies and interior life, families and sex and friendship and death, and the way our understanding of them changes over time—we all benefit from the sorts of insights that mark the genre of memoir.

Still, if you think about even the most successful memoirs, they might be rewarded in terms of sales, but it is incredibly rare that they are lauded in the institutional way that historically male forms are recognized. How many times has a memoir won one of our most prestigious literary prizes? Almost never. The ones that are occasionally recognized are usually those that include some significant aspect that has been historically gendered as male: theory, journalism, more analytical or archival realms of nonfiction, books that use the personal to overtly take a broad social or historical view. Or they are authored by writers who have already proven themselves by masculine-gendered metrics, like Patti Smith or Joan Didion. Don’t misunderstand me, I love these books—and I write them! But I see clearly the lack of institutional recognition given to straightforward memoirs, books whose principal forms of intelligence and insight—corporeal, psychological, interpersonal, sexual, interior, “domestic”—have largely been gendered female. In the even rarer occurrence that this sort of writing is recognized as serious or intellectual, it’s often written by a man.

I mean, if the equivalent to Karl Ove Knausgård’s autobiographical works, which I appreciate, were written by a woman—multiple enormous books detailing the granular details of motherhood and home life and the narrator’s attending thoughts—would it have found a publisher? If it did find a publisher, do you think it would have been an international literary sensation? Would it have received many awards? The idea is laughable, until it’s cryable.

TM: You cull such amazing examples and excerpts, from heavyweight theorists like Sontag and Foucault, to the leading writers of today, like Natasha Trethewey, Raven Leilami, and Garth Greenwell, among many others. What was your research process like for this book? You pull, for instance, such great models for sex-scene writing; how did you know those were the ones you wanted to spotlight?

MF: My process of consulting and sometimes including other texts in this book was a bit different from my research process for my previous books. Usually, when I’m in the early stages of writing an essay, I have a distinct research phase. I’ve established my interest in a subject and probably begun writing some early ideas and outlines, but my best energy during this phase is spent reading. I cast a wide net, scavenging in databases of scholarly articles, library stacks, whirling in Wikipedia eddies, and talking about my subject obsessively with everyone. It’s a kind of ecstatic, overwhelming state to be in—seething with questions, my mind sparking. Everything leads back to the subject and everything feels connected. It has elements of what Jung might call synchronicity, or what other psychologists might call “selective attention.”

Body Work was less an immersion than a distillation of thoughts that had been circling my mind for many years. [These thoughts] were based on observations accumulated over years spent reading and teaching, and refined through the writing process. So, my own thoughts and experience were really the main source, and the other texts were ones I was already familiar with, that had already contributed to my thinking, rather than new ones that served as foils spurring me deeper into the work. As I was writing the sex essay, for instance, I just made a list of all the sex scenes that came to mind, that rested within reach. The ones I cite in the essay were mostly ones I thought of without ever looking at my bookshelves. I trusted that my memory had already collected and filed the sex scenes that stood out to me, and it had.

TM: I imagine teaching memoir poses unique challenges, since your students are often producing such vulnerable, intimate works. How has your philosophy of personal narrative informed you as a teacher of writing?

MF: My philosophy of personal narrative has been informed by my experiences in the classroom as much as the other way around. So much of what I write about in Body Work came out of years of working with other writers—seeing what making this kind of art did in their lives, what prevented them from doing it, and how the aesthetic processes interacted with their emotional, psychological, and social experiences.

I guess I could think of the phenomena unique to personal writing that occurs in my classrooms as challenging, but I more often think of it as a privilege and an opportunity. I feel so fortunate to have a job that essentially boils down to facilitating other artists as they develop their relationships to their lives and the world they live in through the medium of this form of art. It’s fucking amazing. I love being the custodian of a space where they can do this work, which is so much more than the work of writing—it is the work of growing, becoming, learning how to be in community, how to be seen by others, how to see others and ourselves.

I’ve learned a lot over the years about how to hold a space into which people bring their greatest fears, their secrets, their traumas, their regrets and humiliations and rage. I have learned how to create and maintain boundaries. I have learned—and learned how to teach others—that it isn’t any of our jobs to fix or react to other people’s feelings, only to do the quiet work of bearing witness, of demonstrating that pain is not always an emergency. One of the things that we learn, over and over, is that the most confounding and painful of experiences, when looked at through the lens of art and artistic practice, can become opportunities—to transform those experiences and ourselves vis-à-vis the artistic process, and to demonstrate the possibility of that alchemy for other humans.

In Body Work you advocate for unlearning entrenched attitudes around personal narrative. What other books on craft would you recommend to a burgeoning writer looking to do some unlearning?

I think the unlearning education is one most supported by books that aren’t writing craft books, because our writing is us—our ideas and beliefs and perceptions and feelings, it’s all completely integrated. Unlearning entrenched attitudes is less of a craft issue and more of a life issue. This is one of the arguments of Body Work: that to awaken to a greater truth in our writing, we must awaken inside of ourselves, inside of our society. That said, Matthew Salesses’s Craft in the Real World is fantastic, as is Paisley Rekdal’s Appropriate, How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ, Hélène Cixous’s work on écriture féminine. But really, the unlearning literature at our disposal is vast and multifarious. I think everyone should start by reading Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider—over and over.

The Original Search Engine

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In Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age, University College London lecturer in English Dennis Duncan dives deeply into a humble feature of modern books. The index’s existence is both taken for granted and the essential precursor to the ubiquitous search engines that govern life today.
His dogged research traces how the index developed over centuries, following the necessary prerequisite of the innovation of page numbers, and evolved from the simple listing of names in biblical concordances into the much more subjective subject index that eventually produced the search terms we now type into Google.
Lenny Picker: How did this book originate?
Dennis Duncan: I did a Ph.D. on a group called the Oulipo, a French avant-garde collective from the second half of the 20th century. A few years ago, I’m still thinking about the Oulipo, and it struck me that several of their novels have indexes. And I thought I might do an academic article on that—what is it about the way that this group of mathematicians and writers think about narrative that means that very often they play with having indexes for their novels? As I started to plan this, I thought, I just need to look up some things about the history of the index, when did novels stop having indexes, and so on. And as I asked around, I’d say, “Well, where’s the standard history of the index?” None of my colleagues knew. And it became apparent that there wasn’t one, that nobody had written it before. I was still quite fresh from my Ph.D, still had this sort of slightly utopian idea that all the great reference books had already been written, you just have to ask which one to use. So there was a gap there, and I thought, right, well, we need that.  That coincided with this sense, yes, something is changing about the way that we search, whether it’s searching books in class on a Kindle, or whether it’s searching for information on Google.
LP: How did the final book differ from that starting point?
DD: Well, it was going to be an academic book. I got a grant to spend three years in Oxford, and then a year in Cambridge, and all the time, I thought, this would be a very niche book, I didn’t think anyone would be interested. And I thought it would come out with a university press. And I thought that it would be very dry. This will be a very bibliographic history of the index, for a very small coterie of academic nerds. And I published a little bit of it in the Times Literary Supplement. And it went online on a Wednesday afternoon. And that afternoon, my inbox pinged and it was a publisher saying, I liked your thing about indexes, is it from a book? And about 20 minutes later, another publisher pinged. So suddenly, I realized that people were interested in this, and my niche dry academic idea for the book might might need to change a bit, and might there might be a way of making this interesting for a wider audience? So I took the same research essentially, and kind of rewrote it to just to make this more accessible, highlight some of the personalities, people like Robert Grosseteste [a 13th-century poet, statesman, mathematician, and religious reformer], or William Poole, in America in the 19th century [who produced An Alphabetical Index to Subjects Treated in the Reviews and Other Periodicals]. There are a few moments in this book where I introduce myself, here’s what my research looked like, here I was sitting in a library looking at a manuscript. I wouldn’t put that in an academic book, because you assume that your colleagues all know what that looks like. But it’s interesting for other people who don’t work in this field, what’s it look like to sit in a library with a map, people bring you a manuscript, you hand it back to them at the end. What does it look like to suddenly have an experience of, Oh, my God, this manuscript is making me cry. It’s the same research, but there’s just a little bit more, of showing my work, what it’s like to be a historian, and allowing some of the characters to have a bit more space.
LP: What was the hardest part of writing it?
DD: Losing bits. If you meet an indexer, now, nine times out of 10, they’re a woman. If we were 150 years ago, and you met a professional indexer, they would almost certainly be a man. And that switch happens instantly in 1894, when a woman called Nancy Bailey opens an indexing agency in London, and starts training women. Women were excluded from most areas of employment. And she says, “Okay, well, we have a new thing called the secretarial agency, maybe we could do the same for indexes, women could be allowed to become indexers,” and she trains women indexers. As other people, then, open their own indexing agencies, it’s always advertised as these are jobs for women. So in the middle of the 1890s, suddenly, it switches. And I wrote a chapter on that, that I think is important, I think it tells a story that’s relevant, but it didn’t fit in the narrative. I have a sort of movement from the 19th century to the digital era. And Nancy Bailey sat between those as sort of an interruption to the narrative. And my editor said, and I agreed with her, “I’m afraid Nancy’s got to go, this is great, this is important, but it also smashes up the natural arc of the story you’re telling.” So that was the hardest thing for me, the sort of kill your darlings.
LP: From all the things that you researched, what led you to say, “Wow, I didn’t expect that”?
DD: I think the book has been presented as having a hook, which is that the index is something that we use every day, the Internet, Google. This is why this book is relevant—because this is the age of search; Google is an index. I didn’t know that when I started writing. When I started the book, I thought it was going to be just a history of book indexes. And it was at some point further on, when I already knew I was going to write a history of book indexes that I came across a Google engineer saying, “You know what, Google is actually an index.” Oh, my God, I’ve got to use that. Suddenly, suddenly, this is much more relevant than the sort of dusty book on medieval indexes that I’d envisioned, because it really gives the book currency, it gives it a hook. Why should we be interested in this? And I go, well, because Google, but I didn’t know that I was going to say that until at some point in the research, I thought We live in the age of search, how did we get here? So that’s what I say now. But that wasn’t what it was going to be.
LP: Apart from discussing indexes, you go into how reading has evolved, and the notion that you can’t say that there’s one proper way to read something. Can you talk about balancing the notion that people have always been worried that a certain technological development is going to change reading for the worse, with feeling that there is some basis for alarm about the impact of search engines?
DD: That’s a really good question. Balance is the right answer. I feel that people have always worried about reading. At the same time, I do worry that I look at my mobile phone too much, and I have the same anxieties as everyone. But I did, from quite an early point in writing, want to engage with that Nicholas Carr idea of “is Google making us stupid?” and with the guilt that we feel about reading or whether we are reading properly. Well, historically, that’s a mistake. I talk about this in the opening chapter of the book that reading is an umbrella term for a whole collection of different activities, that the attention that you bring to reading an email, or tweet, or a map, or a street sign, or restaurant menu, or a newspaper, or a novel, or a book like mine, are all very different, they all take up different kinds of economies of attention. And to say, nobody reads properly anymore, is a mistake, all of these different modes of reading evolved at different times in response to different problems, different technological ecosystems, different economies of leisure. People didn’t do very much reading at all in the 17th century, or the only people who did were the people who were moneyed enough to have leisure. So reading  is not a stable thing. Reading is a whole variety of different things.  At the same time you speak of balance. That isn’t to say that I don’t worry myself about how I found over the pandemic, like a lot of people, that I find it harder. I still need to read a lot for work, because because it’s my job. But I need to go through the gears; I feel like a sort of pianist who hasn’t practiced their scales for a few months. And I’ve become good at grazing, grazing tweets, good at grazing news articles, but getting back at the start of term into being able to read a Ph.D. chapter or a novel, or things like that has taken some practice. So I have the same anxieties.

Shifting Faster and Faster: The Millions Interviews Julia May Jonas

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In her debut novel, Vladimir, playwright Julia May Jonas turns her eye to shifting social mores and the tensions they cause between different social groups by employing a classic trope: the affair (both intermarital and intergenerational) on the college campus.
Publishers Weekly called Vladimir “a mordantly funny post-#MeToo campus story about a 50-something woman unhinged by desire for a younger man.” The book, released earlier this month from Avid Reader, finds its unnamed narrator attempting to come to grips with both her lust for a talented new colleague and increasing scrutiny on her own actions from colleagues and students alike, as her husband, who is also the head of their department, is under investigation after being accused of sexual predation by a number of former students.
The result is a page-turner blending romance with social observation that speaks to issues of consent, desire, and trauma in an era in which generational and political divides both on and off campus seem to be ever-widening.
The Millions spoke with Jonas about the campus novel as social novel, what romantic affairs and their aftermaths still have to teach us about human nature, and how she brought her experience as a playwright to bear on writing a first-person novel.
The Millions: What made you decide to center this narrative on affairs between colleagues, and between teachers and students?
Julia May Jonas: I think that affairs, and how we respond to sexuality, is still kind of a litmus test for where we are emotionally, and I think it’s shifted. It continues to shift. But no matter what structures we’re interacting with, I think love is still something that we’re all interacting with all the time. The book for me was a big question about desire inside of this woman, and her being torn about what she wants and what she’s allowed to want and can choose to want and how she is supposed to react to desire.
TM: The narrator seems to believe she’s weighing nearly every angle she could on a certain situation, and yet when she acts, it’s in line with her pre-existing biases. Academics tend to be very analytical in their assessment of things, as the narrator is, but even the very analytical miss things. How do you write a character like that?
JMJ: Partly what allowed for that was a sense, when I was writing, of something that came from being a playwright. The writing process really came out almost as an extremely long monologue. She’s working these things out for an audience, in a way. And whenever you’re working something out for an audience, you’re consistently making choices—about what you’re allowing and you’re admitting and what you’re not allowing and what you’re not admitting.
TM: Which the author is doing as much as the narrator is, right?
JMJ: Of course! And that’s when it helped for me to really situate myself inside of her voice. When I do that, and when I’m thinking through her voice, and I’m thinking about her talking to someone or telling someone, that I felt like I could work through what she would say, what she wouldn’t say, what she would see, what she didn’t see.
TM: Did the decision to go with first person narration come specifically from the theatrical tradition?
JMJ: I had actually started out the book with a couple chapters in first person, and then I switched perspective, and I had it in third person, focusing on Vladimir and his perspective. In the end, I felt like this was about someone’s fantasy, and their desire to make their fantasy a reality—and how that pushes the book itself into a fantasy. It became clear to me that the force was going to come from staying inside of her head for the for the entire time.
TM: Was that a more natural writing process for you as well?
JMJ: It was certainly the natural process for this book. I think there were, because this is my debut, things I was figuring out about writing prose as I was writing it. And I think there would have been a different set of things that I was figuring out about writing prose if I were writing in the third person.
TM: How did you bring your experience with a small liberal arts college and this particular generation of students’ perspective on social issues to bear on this novel in a way that informed it but left it open to interpretation?
JM: Well, for one, I am not tenured. I am not a professor. I am a teacher, and a guest artist and lecturer at a small liberal arts college. I am in, but not of, college life. And so I’ve been able to kind of sit to the side and see it, rather than be inside of it. I’m also 20 years younger than my protagonist. That’s kind of crucial, because what I was most interested in—what I’m always interested in—are people who, all of a sudden, find the ground shifted from beneath them. Here you have somebody who is a liberal woman; who has deemed herself to be, in her mind, on the right side of history; who has seen herself as being always an advocate for her students; who has not had to question what she feels about things; and who has had a particular relationship to sexual politics for both herself as a woman, and also in terms of her students. And now she is dealing with the ground shifting from underneath her. That is the thing that I found most interesting. That’s certainly something I observe, to greater and lesser extents with my professors around me at Skidmore College. (Disclosure: the writer of this piece is a graduate of Skidmore College.)
I love my students and have great relationships with them. And I think they’re right. I think what I was interested in is someone’s perspective of thinking, “Wait, I thought it was this way, and now it’s this way. I thought I was this kind of person, and now I’m this kind of person.” That, to me, is the most fascinating question about her. That’s what I’m always most interested in, is what these people do in these circumstances. And I think John, her husband, thinks he was one kind of person, and then finds that he’s another kind of person.
TM: Because what kind of person you are isn’t set in stone, it’s determined by social mores that are ever-shifting?
JMJ: Exactly. And I’m 20 years younger than my protagonist, but when I went to college, it was kind of a cool and sexy thing to date your professor. And it keeps shifting. I think it shifts even more now because of our ability to chart the shifts. It’s shifting faster and faster.
TM: Do you think it is possible, in 2022, for a campus novel to not also be a social novel?
JMJ: I don’t know when a campus novel was not a social novel. I think the idea of all campus novels are that colleges are kind of test tubes for life, constructed realities in which people who are transitioning from being children to adulthood are put in a small society.
TM: And yet there are campus novels so intensely focused on the interiority of their protagonist or subject that the social aspect is somewhat blurred by character. That didn’t strike me as being the case with this novel.
JMJ: It’s interesting that you bring up the idea of interiority, because I think the book is, in itself, about interiority, and the force of the narrator’s perspective and how it colors our perspective as we move through the book. Vladimir is, for her, this object, that becomes a kind of icon, in a way, that she can put her energy toward and build up fantasies around, and that she can filter through everything that she is processing at that moment, whether she is aware of it or not. In some cases, she is aware of it. And there are a lot of things she’s not aware of, in terms of why she’s feeling this pull toward this other person.
TM: There is one moment in the novel that really highlights this shifting of mores, in which the narrator notes how impressed she is by the students’ advocacy for themselves, because she and her generation, always assumed that there were certain things that would never change.
JMJ: I think it’s kind of an American phenomenon, in terms of how hard it is for someone to endure any hardship and not turn around and say to the next person, ‘And now you should endure hardship, too.’ I think that’s kind of endemic in so many issues that we have right now. It’s so challenging for people to go through something and then not say, “Well, why can’t you go through that too? I went through it!” Instead of wanting to shift the world in some way.
TM: Yet the students don’t seem to feel that way. John’s former students, who attempt to have him removed from his position as chair of the English department, are in effect saying, “I went through this, and I don’t want anybody to ever have to go through this again, which is why I want this this professor removed.” How do those two imperatives coexist in the book?
JMJ: I’m not sure they do. One time, my friend said to me, “It feels like there’s two camps right now. There’s the camp that says, ‘your trauma shouldn’t mean anything, get over it, keep moving.’ And then there’s another camp that says, ‘your trauma should mean everything, and anything can be categorized as trauma.'”
TM: Where does a campus culture, which eventually transports itself to culture at large, go with such disparate assessments of what an incredibly important word like trauma even means?
JMJ: Well, my hope is that the book doesn’t offer a take on that. I don’t have a take on that, necessarily. I have lots of questions about that. I hope that it’s more about describing what various factions and camps are feeling and putting forth and what the opinions are than it is about taking a stance on any of it.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

It’s About Joy: The Millions Interviews Rabih Alameddine

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Rabih Alameddine does not write novels about easy topics, but I think that every book of his has made me laugh. At its heart, The Wrong End of the Telescope is about Mina, a Lebanese-American doctor working with refugees in Lesbos—and specifically her relationship with a woman named Samaiya, who’s dying of cancer. That’s not really what the book is about, though. It’s about Mina’s distance from her family when she moved to America and came out as transgender and lesbian, about the relationship that she’s forged with her brother. It’s about Mina’s relationship with her wife. How Sumaiya is preparing her family for life after she dies. The stories of the Syrian refugees who have fled to Lesbos. Stories that might force some readers to rethink queer identity.

A book about so many people fleeing violence and facing an uncertain and uneasy future could easily become despairing, but as in all of his work, Alameddine is driven by a righteous anger. That means refusing to make easy choices, and instead to face trauma, but to also find joy and find hope and fight for that. In life. In art. In Mina, Alameddine has crafted a character who is many things, who has lost so much, but who does not despair and tries to be of use and finds joy. Even if fleeting, her openness to possibility is a wonder. This is a novel about trauma and death, but it is also a novel about possibility and change. And hope.

“Even if there’s no hope—there is hope,” Alameddine said at one point in our conversation. This is perhaps as good a summation of his philosophy as a writer, and perhaps as a person. The Wrong End of the Telescope is possibly his greatest work to date, and he was kind enough to talk with me about the long effort to write about this topic, where the character of Mina came from, and how we see and read people.

Alex Dueben:  The Wrong End of the Telescope, like all your books, is different from your previous book. You’re very restless.

Rabih Alameddine:  Both when it comes to writing and when it comes to reading. I’m teaching now here in Virginia and my graduate class is basically reading one book a week. I assigned books that I love, but it’s fascinating when I reread something I used to be in love with 20 years ago. I still think it’s great; I’m just not as interested anymore. It’s interesting how not just reading habits, but who I am, in many ways, is constantly changing. There are some books that I tried to read, more than once, and just never got into it. Then one day I pick it up and oh my god, this is the most amazing book. It’s essentially change. This constant change.

A friend of mine always says that I get bored easily and I’m not sure that’s true. I just get excited by different things. [Laughs.] It’s not about boredom. What interests me keeps changing. Whatever book I end up writing is the one that has sustained my interest for three or four years.

AD:  It’s interesting you phrase it like that and it’s a good segue into the structure of the book, which is composed of short chapters. The central story is Mina coming to the island and treating Sumaiya, but you keep moving around and did you have that idea of short chapters and that structure early on?

RA:  Partly. It is essential to the book. There are so few of my books that are even close to linear. Probably the closest would be An Unnecessary Woman, which was three days in the life of someone, and my first novel was short vignettes, but this is different. The short chapters was determined by the book. It needed to be that. There were many starts to this book. I tried essays. I tried all kinds of things, and nothing seemed to work. It was only when I realized that so much is happening that you have to look at it piecemeal. The whole idea of the wrong end of the telescope is that it’s difficult to keep everything in context when so much is happening.

I could have had the book be all Mina and Sumaiya. I don’t want to say that the brother is unnecessary, but he’s not central to the plot. But he is. Everything is peripheral to the story of Mina helping Sumaiya. But then you realize that that’s not the story. All of it together is the story. The other thing that I’ve been thinking about for years and like I said, I’m teaching books that I love and one of them is Calvino. In 1976, in If on a Winters Night a Traveler he says that long novels written today are a contradiction because time has exploded. [Laughs.] Whether it’s a contradiction or not, I still enjoy them, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to write a novel where time has not exploded. I just can’t. That’s not how my mind works.

AD:  You’ve never written a book with this structure before, but in so many of your novels, the plot as secondary to how the story gets told, how it’s framed, how people understand it as it’s being told.

RA:  It’s not secondary. It’s so weird. Now that I’m teaching for the first time in I don’t know how long, I go into teacher mode, so forgive me. [Laughs.] I don’t see how one is able to separate plot from story from characters from style, etc., etc. But yes. The story has been told before. And has been told many, many times. The only thing that matters, really, is how we tell that story. How can we break through to a listener or a reader or a viewer? It’s how we tell that story. The story will in many ways determine how it is told, whether it’s the plot, structure. If you look at the simplest form of the story, it’s this family who’s had a disaster and they’re migrating and this person is trying to help. That story has been written many, many times. So what makes it different? The current situation. We’re in a new situation with all these migrants coming from the third world. We’re in a new situation in terms of how we tell the story. Then I get into language and my characters are weird. [Laughs.] That determines how the story is being told. I can’t remember the quote from The Hakawati where I say, stories come and go, but there’s more at stake in the telling. How we tell the story is for me what’s important. And maybe this is the reason I get interested in so many things. Whenever I read a book and somebody is telling the story in a different way, my eyes light up. It’s rare these days but it still happens. Oh my god, this is fabulous. In my whole roundabout way, I was agreeing with you. [Laughs.] Yes, I think maybe structure beats everything.

AD:  Talk about Mina because she’s fabulous and I just love her.

RA:  Me too! She is totally fabulous. I have noticed that I have only written short stories and segments or chapters in books in third person. For the most part I write in first person. I do it by inhabiting a character. I become Mina. At the same time—which is weird, but I think all writers do it, I’m almost 100 percent sure—I become the character, but I also see her next to me. Somebody separate from me. Mina and some of the situations are based on a friend of mine. Not me. Like, how she met her first lover. Many things are basically—and I asked permission—plagiarized from another person. But at the same time, I became Mina. And I love her for many reasons. I love all my characters, but Mina saved me. She saved the book. I had spent a couple of years trying to write something and everything sucked. Everything sucked! I cannot begin to describe how horrid the writing was. Because I couldn’t separate myself from telling the story. I was working on this short story that Mina was in. That story was completely different. It was about a trans poet going home to confront her mother, or to make peace with her mother, and her brother was trying to be the in-between. She goes to her mother and her mother doesn’t recognize her and it was a whole different story. But then I was having trouble writing and suddenly, she jumped from that short story into the novel. And everything falls into place. There were many reasons for it. She became a surgeon. In my mind I always see surgeons, more than doctors, have the ability to have emotions but set them aside. And that’s what happened. All these things that I was feeling about the novel and about who I am. Am I Westerner? Am I an Easterner? Am I Lebanese? Am I American? She was able to go through all that without having a nervous breakdown. I’m not silly enough to think that she wrote the novel, but by imagining her, I was able to imagine the right kind of distance from the novel.

AD:  Because of her life and her character, she has a distance. She is separate and feels separate to navigate it.

RA:  I don’t know if you’re going to ask the question that everybody seems to ask, why did you include a writer who’s just like you? Well because in many ways that’s what happened to me. I was interested in that. In the clash of what happens to those who have a foot in different places. Mina would not experience that kind of clash. She would see it, but she would not necessarily be involved. Whereas I am not admitting that I fell apart, but… [Laughs.] Even if I don’t admit that I fell apart in Lesbos, after working for five years with refugees in Lebanon, in Istanbul, Lesbos was such an experience. And writing about Lesbos was traumatic. Until Mina comes in, and I could see what was happening and write about it. Not being too far from it, but not being too close. The goldilocks distance.

AD:  I kept thinking the “you” character was almost on one end of the spectrum and the annoying volunteer tourists on the other end of the spectrum of people who Mina is not dealing with. She’s like, I’m a doctor, I’m busy.

RA:  Exactly. That’s why she was perfect narrator. There’s a crisis and that person—I’m not saying it’s me—is under a duvet and listening to Mahler. There was no need for him to be helping. I thought that this is so stunning. That somebody goes to help and then it becomes all about them. That sort of reverberates with the other volunteers where it’s all about—‚and this actually happened—oh look, a rainbow! And poor Mina in the middle of all that. [Laughs.] There are many reasons why I love Mina. I gave her so much, but one of the things that I really wanted to give her was the ability to love. Her relationship with Francine is almost ideal. Her relationship with her brother is ideal, in some ways, with all the problems. But with all those problems, she’s able to love. That was necessary for me.

AD:  You have so many great characters in the book. Mina is surrounded by her partner, Francine, who’s amazing. The relationship with her brother is great. Her friend Emma who convinces her to come in the first place. Mina is a woman with a large family.

RA:  Which was important. It was truly important. As a gay man, I’m very close with my biological family, but I’m 62 now and I’m looking back, it was essential just how much family I made. How important it was to me. It was essential for Mina to have that and in some ways, that gave the novel hope that some things are salvageable. Even if there’s no hope—there is hope.

AD:  Sumaiya seems to see in Mina what her daughter could be. To be separated from her culture and her home, but also happy and successful and surrounded by a family.

RA:  You noticed that. She wanted to make sure that her daughter had the same family around her. Which is why at the end, Mina sends the writer. I thought about Mina visiting, but it was more important that she enlarges the family.

AD:  The mother is trying to set the family on its path, especially her daughter, and she wants to do that, to have that control, in her last breath.

RA:  Yes. Again, writing the book was emotional on many levels. I had lots of trouble with many things in the book, but Sumaiya and her family was no trouble. Sumaiya was birthed fully formed. Like a horse that comes out of its mother fully formed. I’m a horse just smaller.

AD:  I kept thinking that she sees in Mina a refugee, which I’m sure a lot of queer readers can relate to on different levels.

RA:  I come from a very close family, and they love me and they’ve always known I’m gay and have always loved me, but I couldn’t live there. I needed my independence. I always joke that when I go back home, my mother and her sisters talk on the phone every morning. And every morning it’s like, yes, he did have a bowel movement this morning. [Laughs.] It’s such a close family. I kept thinking that if I’m in Beirut, every time I had sex, the super would call my mom to tell her. [Laughs.]

AD:  Queerness comes up in the book in different ways and often I couldn’t help but think, oh no, this really happened. Like the gay couple from Iraq and teaching them to act more gay so that the immigration officials will let them in.

RA:  Oh, it happened. It wasn’t in Lesbos, it was in Turkey. This academic wrote a paper about it.

AD:  I can only imagine what it’s been like the past few decades being Arab and queer and how those things get understood here in the U.S.

RA:  Or how they are read. That’s one of the things I was interested in with Mina. How she is read. How do people see her? Again, the wrong end of the telescope. How do people see refugees? One of the more surprising things I saw was how many trans refugees I met. I had to change my perception of what that meant. The chapter “How To Trans in Raqqa,” about a trans woman who had her boyfriend killed but the militants did not touch her, is a real story. She just packed her bags and came to Beirut, but she was living in this dinky village as a trans woman. And nobody gave her any problems. All of a sudden you start thinking, what the fuck? Whereas her boyfriend was probably, for them, gay. But anyway how Mina was read, I was fascinated with.

AD:  All your books deal with large topics, but they’re really the stories of individuals and their families.

RA:  The stories of individuals is always the story of people, and the story of people is always the story of individuals. The political is personal. I don’t know if I’m interested in large topics or that it’s just that I look at the world and I react to it. I didn’t go looking to work with refugees. It’s just that suddenly there was a million refugees in Lebanon. I didn’t choose to write about AIDS, it fucking came to us. I’m interested in the story of people, I just think that people live in this world. Not all of us have the privilege of living separately. Not all of us have the privilege of the biggest thing happening to us is cheating on one’s wife. If you engage the world, you see it. In some ways I’m envious of writers who can make such great literature from a place of safety. Unfortunately for a lot of us, safety was never a given.

AD:  For anyone not in the dominant culture, when the winds change, you notice.

RA:  It’s interesting to me the books that come out that prop up the dominant culture and the books that come out that are trying to shift. Or really good books that try to blow it out. It’s not that one is better than the other, but I’m interested as a writer, how can one live as a human being and not be angry at so many things happening? At the same time, we obviously find joy in little things. It’s what we decide to write about. I want to take a machete and go after the dominant culture, but I also see the little joys in it. The little joys in living. This is what I meant by I wanted Mina to know love and to be loved. It was important. That’s why probably my favorite chapter in the book is how Francine and Mina met, with the dance. I wanted that because it brings joy, and the world is about joy. Even though they try to fuck it up for us. It’s about joy. And they can’t take that away from us. No matter what those fascists think. They can’t take it away. We’re still here. I keep thinking as to how many times we’ve been pushed down. How many of my friends didn’t make it. How they’ve tried to crush us—whether it’s the queers or the Arabs. It’s important for me that no matter what is going on, that a part of me still has joy. I wish I was more like Mina than me. [Laughs.]

AD:  That dance chapter where they met stood out, and the chapter where Mina gets her name stood out. Just to avoid spoiling it for people who haven’t read the book. But both are joyous and almost transcendent.

RA:  The dance chapter was pure invention. The orangutan was not. I was there. That’s when Mina took over the book. I was there and I was by myself with a forest guide and the guide tells me, we can’t go this way. I asked why and he said, there is this orangutan named Mina and she attacks all men. I said, Mina? I have a character named Mina? I never met Mina the orangutan, but when he said that, it was like, Mina comes to Indonesia and this is what happens. Like I said, it happens with a lot of writers. There’s a certain point where everything that has been torturing you comes into place. It doesn’t mean that the novel won’t have problems, but that everything begins to make sense. Oh, that’s why I’m writing this. And it starts fitting together like the perfect jigsaw. Then you start to worry! [Laughs.]

AD:  All these threads and thoughts and ideas coalesce and come together beautifully—and then you have to write it down and the true agony begins.

RA:  Exactly! [Laughs.]