Books Are a Place to Put Your Feelings: The Millions Interviews Jami Attenberg

Jami Attenberg, author of seven novels and recent New Orleans transplant, is a very considerate interviewee. I know everyone starts these little intros with gushing remarks; it just seems polite. But I was her third interview of the day. She asked which publication I was with, again? She told me she’d planned it out so that she would give slightly different answers to each interviewer, so it wouldn’t be just the same stuff on each platform—even though, she added, her publisher reminded her that “there’s nobody who reads all of them. Maybe your mom.” She said she’d once made a spreadsheet, after the breakout success of her novel The Middlesteins, in 2013, to track what she told each interviewer, and then her publisher told her this was insane and there were better things to do with her time. As a fellow listmaker, I was impressed and intrigued.

We conducted this interview over the phone, me in my windowless office in Madison, Wisc., Jami in her house in New Orleans. Halfway through, there was a strange noise and she told me that her dog was humping her leg. Then he started eating dirt. We continued the interview anyway, discussing grief, families, Jewish books, and the post-production side of writing and publishing a novel. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

The Millions: Where does your latest novel, All This Could Be Yours, fit in the line of your previous work? Is it a departure, or a continuation?

Jami Attenberg: It feels different because it’s set in New Orleans. I was writing about a place I didn’t know very well, and through writing this, I got to know it better. My last two books, Saint Mazie and All Grown Up, were in New York, and then The Middlesteins was in Chicago. Even with Saint Mazie, which was set in the past, I didn’t feel insecure or nervous about capturing the city, because I had lived there for so long. So here was my new home, and it was just a real challenge to get to write about something different like that. Also, all my books have dysfunctional families, or families in them, but to have that be the primary focus of the book was something I hadn’t done that in a while. You know, I wrote The Middlesteins in 2010.

TM: What kind of research did you do for the novel?

JA: I went to a lot of places. I wanted to know the landscape, not just of New Orleans but of Louisiana. I think it’s really easy now for people to just look up a bunch of stuff online, but when you really put yourself in a situation, I think, something’s always going to come out of it. I drove to a pecan farm in Alabama, and I was talking to somebody who worked there and I was like, can I walk around the farm? And she said no, it just rained last night, so there’s snakes everywhere. Which I never would have known in a million years, that that’s what happens after it rains on that farm. So it became, like, I’m definitely putting snakes in there! At this point, this is my seventh book, so I’m really in tune with how much I need to do my work, what I need to do in order to write things.

TM: You mentioned you hadn’t written a family novel in several years. All This Could Be Yours shares a lot of superficial similarities with The Middlesteins, but in many ways they’re also very different books.

JA: I think they’re very different books. A lot more happens in All This Could Be Yours, there’s just a much bigger plot. The Middlesteins is a novel, but it feels more like linked stories. Right? Each chapter is kind of its own compact thing. You could have pulled out any of those chapters, and read them and had a complete experience, whereas I think with All This Could Be Yours—some of the chapters could be excerpted, but they work best together.

TM: Something I really liked about the novel is the way the narrative floats in and out of the consciousnesses of different people. You have this claustrophobic family, and then these detours, these offshoots into other characters’ heads. So I was wondering how you came to that, if that was always part of the novel for you.

JA: The intention originally was that it would just be the four main characters. Whatever I intend to do when I start a book, though, I don’t want to say that it falls apart, but it definitely bends to whatever my instincts are. It’s good to have somewhat of a strategy going in, but also, especially with a first draft, I just kind of let my freak flag fly. Whatever’s going to show up is going to show up, and I’m just going to let it go. So these characters just, fairly insistently, demanded to be heard, and I just let them! But they weren’t as strong as they could have been initially.

I have an initial round of readers, and then I was getting notes from another, second tier of readers, and Laura van den Berg was part of that. She’s an incredible reader. She’s an incredible writer too, but she’s really good at giving notes. Very thoughtful. She said, I really think you need to lean in a little bit more to this kaleidoscopic vision. So I had them in there but I hadn’t fully—I knew they were there, but, sometimes you just need a nudge. So I went back and did another round where all these characters got tightened up a little bit.

It’s fun, right? Very fun and very playful, there’s a lot of little, for lack of a better word, tricks that I use in the novel. Times that I’m talking to the reader directly, or where these little characters show up. I’m definitely very playful and experimental with my structure—always. Every book needs to feel different. Even if the subject matter is dark, I still want it to be an entertaining ride.

TM: There’s a lot about criminality and bad men in this novel. Victor Tuchman, the patriarch, whose hospitalization provides an organizing structure to the novel, is so alluring to all the people around him. At one point, a friend of his wife, Barbra, says, “Isn’t there something so sexy about being married to a criminal?” Obviously, there’s a lot about Bad Men and Ugly Men going on right now. What is compelling about this kind of criminality, to you as a writer and to the characters in the novel?

JA: I mean, I personally am not interested in it. I’m not attracted to those kinds of people. What I was interested in was why Barbra was with Victor. This book was about understanding what men like that leave behind, and how it impacts families and communities. There’s a reason why you only see Victor for two seconds, you know. Because I could really give two shits about men like that. I’m done. I’ve heard them enough. I’ve heard enough talking from them. So I was interested in why—how he impacted people, and why people put up with him.

TM: The Tuchmans, like the Middlesteins, are Jewish. The older Tuchmans, especially, socialize and grow up in a space of Jewish community. Is it important to think about this book as a Jewish book?

JA: I think it is. But I definitely did not sit down and say, gonna write a Jewish book. It’s just who the characters were, how they showed up. Writing The Middlesteins, the fact that it was really embraced as a Jewish book was quite surprising to me. I was writing about a specific community, but I thought that they were, and I believe they are, a very universal family, and I feel the same way about these characters. It’s part of who they are, but in a way they could be lots of things.

But I’m waiting to hear the Jewish response to this book. I have one really big Jewish event I’m doing at the very end of my tour, at my mom and dad’s new temple in Florida. [Laughs.] There are enough characters in this book that aren’t Jewish, though, that it does feel like a bigger tableau. Whereas The Middlesteins was very claustrophobically—as it turns out—more Jewish than I thought it was.

TM: Did it feel different to do events for The Middlesteins in a Jewish space?

JA: Yeah. It’s weird because I’m not a practicing Jew, so I had not spent time in any sort of religious buildings. Anyway, I came out of doing all these events in a really interesting place, which was that I sort of embraced my Jewish cultural connections more within myself. I’ve lived in New York for so long, which is, like, the most Jewish place ever, so I didn’t really think about it too much. But then to go and talk to all these people about their families—often, that book triggered conversations about people’s struggles with health issues, or people in their lives who have had those struggles, so it ended up being an incredibly enriching experience for me – and an honor to talk to these people. So I have learned to just take whatever comes my way. Books are a place to put your feelings. I’m just happy when people give a shit! Really. Truly. And get something out of it.

TM: You said earlier that you’ve figured out, by now, pretty much what you need to start writing and get your work done. Does that extend to the publicity side of things?

JA: [Laughs.] I don’t really like it. I don’t think it’s healthy for a writer. I think most writers would agree with me that the hardest part of writing, or being a professional writer, is the actual publication. My first book came out in 2006, and I still remember what it was like when you weren’t counting on the Internet, and you weren’t counting on lists. You were waiting for reviews. And I’m still waiting on reviews, but now it’s like, if I’m not on this list or that list, you know, that’s what so many magazines and newspapers and websites are doing now. And I’m not knocking the list! Please! Put me on every single list! It’s just weird to see it. I’m just going to imagine that it’s really hard for people to break out these days, you know, it’s a real struggle to figure out how you promote your book, and how you get recognized. I have so much sympathy for all my fellow writers, and I try really hard to read as much as I can so I can talk about people’s books and promote things – and I don’t do it unless I really like something.

TM: Since you mention it, then, is there anything you’re excited about right now? What are you reading?

JA: I just started reading Kate Manne’s Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, and I’m very intrigued by it. Let’s see. I just read Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson and it was excellent, I really enjoyed it. A proper book. And I read Morgan Parker’s YA novel, Who Put This Song On?, I enjoyed that, and also Mary H.K. Choi’s Permanent Record, I always enjoy YA. I read and blurbed Jenny Boylan’s Good Boy, I liked that, I thought it was very heartfelt.

But the true pleasure is about to come, in about a month or so, after most of the reviews are in—so I can stop worrying about that—and people will just be reading the book. Once you get to that it’s quite delightful. You’re hearing from people who really liked the book, who are getting in touch with you. The joy is about being read.

Back to your earlier question, the other thing I’ve noticed is that there’s an evolution in your relationship with your work. You have a relationship with the book when you write it, where it’s just yours. Then you get another relationship when you give it to your editor and you start working back and forth and getting copyedits and things like that. It becomes something slightly different and not 100 percent yours anymore, even though you’re doing most of the work on it. And then it gets read and it gets digested and people have questions and people may interpret it—not incorrectly, but maybe not as you would have desired, and that can be complicated. And then, about a year later, I have found that the book comes back to me, and it’s mine again. It’s been altered by all of these opinions, and these experiences, but I can sort of reclaim it for myself. So I look forward to that also, a year from now, when it’s just mine.

She Cared Enough to Take It As Far as She Could: The Millions Interviews Rob Garver

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 

Pauline Kael was the most renowned film critic of the 20th century. It’s a strong statement, but inarguable: You may not have loved or agreed with or even respected Kael’s criticism, but you could not deny its robustness, passion, or significance. For Kael, movies were both high art and utterly relevant to our daily human existence; and movie reviews thus mattered accordingly.

What She Said, a new documentary about Kael’s work as a critic and cultural force, had its theatrical premiere at the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles on December 13 and will open at Film Forum in New York City on December 25. It was a pleasure to interview New York-based filmmaker Rob Garver about the film—what it is, what it isn’t, and, of course, “what she said.” 

The Millions: Let’s start with the film’s title: In The Hollywood Reporter’s review, Todd McCarthy suggests that film criticism as an “art” (versus a “craft”) is up for debate. We learn in the film that Kael had originally hoped to be a playwright, but that she was rather bad at it. She also tried again to be involved in moviemaking later in her career, when she attempted to co-produce a film with Warren Beatty (she ultimately withdrew from the project). Tell us why you think Pauline Kael was an art maker.

Rob Garver: She was an artist because she had a gift and she cared enough to take it as far as she could go. Pauline was really not a film critic; she was a writer whose subject was the movies. She gave all of herself to it—all her knowledge, experience, and talent. Not to mention humor, wisdom, honesty. Even if you felt she was wrong about a movie, she was always enlightening—or funny, or maybe rude, or all three at once. And she believed that at his best, a critic could be an artist too. She wrote about that.

TM: I couldn’t help thinking of Susan Sontag: She too is better known for her criticism, while she aspired to be a great novelist, and also attempted to make a film (which was not well received). Both women were passionate about the art of filmmaking but had almost polar opposite tastes. (They also had a common nemesis in Normal Mailer!) To your knowledge did they ever encounter each other?

RG: They were both California girls—as was Joan Didion—but I don’t know if they ever spent any real time together. I believe I did find a note from Sontag to Pauline (as I did from Didion) in Pauline’s archives at the Lilly Library. A friendly note, about one of their books.

TM: How much time did you spend researching Kael’s archives, and what were some of the most engaging or surprising things you found there?

RG: One of the first things I did was to hire a great researcher named Rich Remsberg, and together we spent two weeks in the archives. One of the great things we found were the letters from celebrities, some of which made it into the film. Some that didn’t were a series of letters from the famous producer Ray Stark—about five or six letters written over a period of about 10 years. Funny and interesting because they were initially friendly, but then, over time, become more and more frustrated, because Pauline is obviously not giving his movies the love he feels they deserve.

The best part of her archives, though, are the many letters she wrote to a couple of her close friends when she was in her early 20s—as a college student at UC-Berkeley and then in New York after college. It’s Pauline at her most vulnerable and emotionally naked, and most intellectually voracious. She was interested in everything. She was a young person who very much knew herself, but who also struggled with acceptance I think, because of her strong opinions, even at that age. She also seems to have understood how the world worked already.     

TM: You convened quite an all-star cast: Greil Marcus, Camille Paglia, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Schrader, David Edelstein, Joe Morgenstern, Alec Baldwin, David O. Russell, Sarah Jessica Parker as the voice of Pauline Kael, and others. Was there anyone you’d really hoped to include who refused or was otherwise unavailable? Did you consider enlisting today’s prominent critics (e.g. Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, David Denby and Anthony Lane), or younger critics? Do you think the new generation of filmmakers, actors, and critics know how central Kael was to film culture during her time?

RG: I would have loved to talk to Woody Allen and Warren Beatty, but I don’t think they wanted to talk to me. I tried. Spielberg I tried, DePalma I tried. David Lynch I tried. Armond White I tried. Michael Moore I tried (he can’t stand Pauline), Manohla Dargis declined, A.O. Scott didn’t respond (but he wrote a lovely obit in The New York Times when Pauline died). Denby I didn’t approach as I already had several critics, but they were friends, and I think they had a falling out. Some people just don’t like to go on camera, and I respect that.

Not sure about current critics knowing Pauline. Some do. Eric Kohn at IndieWire teaches a class in criticism at NYU, and Pauline is part of his lesson plan. Others have told me the same thing.  But I think unless a critic is steeped in film history—and they should be—they don’t know her, or don’t know her well anyway. I think Pauline’s first five books are just fantastic, great reading for anybody, critic or not. But if you’re a critic who hasn’t read at least one or two of Pauline’s early books, I think you probably need to.

TM: In the film, Molly Haskell says about Kael, “No male critic had as much testosterone as Pauline.” Kael was notorious for championing violent films like Bonnie & Clyde, Scorsese’s early film Mean Streets, the films of Brian de Palma and Francis Ford Coppola, as well as sexually controversial films like Last Tango in Paris. She was a feminist by example—speaking her mind, pursuing her ambitions, never compromising in order to be “nice.” But I wonder how/if Kael would engage today’s feminisms and/or the #MeToo conversations. Any thoughts?

RG: You can never say for sure, but one thing about Pauline that seems to hold up pretty well: She didn’t like messages in movies, she didn’t belong to groups, and she was never called a word with an “ist” at the end. I think, yes, she was a feminist by example, but she wouldn’t like to be called one. She did it on her own, in her own way.

She also loved the bad boys—Sam Peckinpah and James Toback, the guys who often shot from the hip, even if people like Toback missed more than they hit, creatively.

As for #MeToo, it’s hard to guess. Toback made a fool of himself and got caught, and I think she would not be on his side in that case, despite her friendship with him. And Harvey Weinstein she might see as a clueless narcissist in the vein of some of our current leaders. Of course, she was a woman, and a very sensitive person, and probably one who in her personal life didn‘t take any shit from men. But I think she was more the aggressor in sex. She did not have many long romantic relationships with men, I don’t think, but most of her friends were men.

I could imagine/hear her often taking the side of the men in the #MeToo debate (she was supposedly a champion debater in high school). I can hear her telling women to wise up—that if a guy is telling you to come back to his hotel room to audition, it’s a bad idea! I can hear her saying that men are naturally predatory when it comes to women—so watch your back! I think she would probably be on the side of men more than women in some of these cases. That’s just my guess. I think she might be on Woody Allen’s side, since she knew him and he didn’t have a pattern as others did. But who knows? Mostly, she didn’t take sides in her life, publicly, on public issues. She does write about the rape in the movie Straw Dogs in an unusual way, expressing feelings of both eroticism and revulsion. That’s a great example of her honesty coming through. And I think if she wrote that review today, she might be plundered.

TM: I’ve read that your interest in making this film began with your own admiration for and enjoyment of Kael’s reviews. But the film doesn’t shy away from giving voice to her detractors, showing the ways in which her sharpness, at the height of her powers, could injure filmmakers and their careers—David Lean did not make a film for 14 years after being eviscerated by Kael both in a review and publicly at a luncheon—not to mention ruffle the feathers of mainstream moviegoers. Would you say that the central tension or conflict of Kael’s legacy is the question of motives?

RG: Not in my book. I know there are many who think she was out to “get” people, but if you read her books, which are made up of her published reviews and essays, they are almost entirely thoughtful, honest, insightful. Hardly ever personal, although she could go there. I think maybe a more central “tension” might be her “rightness” on some of the big movies of her era. Many still get upset about her review of their favorite movie from 40 or 50 years ago. That speaks to who she was, and the power of her pen. I don’t think anyone gets upset about Rex Reed’s review from 50 years ago, or even Vincent Canby’s review from 20 or 30 years ago.

TM: Her supporters describe her as courageous and generous, her enemies as cruel and narcissistic. Her own daughter, Gina James, spoke to what she believed made her mother tick: “She truly believed that what she did was for everyone else’s good, and that because she meant well she had no negative effects. This lack of introspection, self-awareness, restraint, or hesitation gave Pauline supreme freedom to speak up, to speak her mind, to find her honest voice.” Does the film lean one way or another on the question of Kael’s essential character?

RG: Oh I love Pauline, despite her flaws, because I’m similar to her in some ways. If I love a movie, I’m all in; if I don’t, it’s hard to accept that people don’t see what I see. I’d make a terrible critic. So I can see where she came from, and I can feel for her because I know it wasn’t easy for her. (She also said she couldn’t be friends with someone who disagreed with her on a movie.) She had to avoid people in restaurants, at parties, in the streets. A price she paid. And she was a very outgoing, generous, and magnanimous person. But, I think she believed she was right, always. She believed she knew best and that people should listen to her.

TM: Kael’s unapologetic subjectivity seems to be a point of controversy in any assessment of her criticism: She could forgive one film for the very same flaw that made her love another. She critiqued “auteurism” for its emphasis on the filmmaker’s mark, but then became enamored of de Palma and to some degree Godard. Where do you think we stand now on the spectrum of subjectivity and objectivity in film criticism? Is the “I” of the film critic anywhere near as present in today’s film criticism as it was in Kael’s work? If not, are we better for it or worse?

RG: More than critiquing auteurism in particular she critiqued “isms.” She critiqued belonging to a cabal of thought. She believed in coming to a movie—or a painting or a piece of music or a book or play—with everything you are, with all your experience, and being open to it, not simply looking at it through the lens of a theory. That’s what makes her so fun to read: her windows are open, not half-closed. And she was never “all in” for any one filmmaker. She liked some of DePalma, some of Altman, some of Scorsese. Her job was to criticize, not to be a fan.

I think film criticism is probably much more subjective overall now, partly due to Pauline’s influence, but mostly due to the digital age, where everyone can publish their opinions. Bloggers can be very personal in their “reviews,” and I think this has probably bled over to professional criticism.

TM: Bio-documentaries often explore an interesting or important figure beginning with their childhood and background. What She Said doesn’t linger much on Kael before she became a well-known critic—which is to say there doesn’t seem to be much interest in psychologizing her. Was this your preference/decision, or was it more your sense of what her preference would have been?

RG: That would have been a different movie, much more narrow, and specialized. I wanted to make a film that was an expression. Not an analysis or comparison, or an effort to figure out why she was who she was, and why she wrote those things. I mean, I do think some of that comes through, but I was more interested in showing her work, and how it became part of the culture. My film is just what the title says it is—it’s “what she said,” not “why she said.” I’d be very happy to watch that movie if someone else made it though.

I wasn’t making it for Pauline, or making as I thought she would like it. The movie is my impulses and expression. I guess I’m channeling her, but I’m doing it in a way that pleases me. I just wanted to make her come alive.

TM: Do you think or hope What She Said might bring renewed attention to some of the landmark and classic films of Kael’s time? I know for me, it made me want to rewatch Bonnie & Clyde and all of Altman’s and David Lean’s films, and to watch Christopher Strong and Casualties of War for the first time.

RG: That would be nice. There are so many remakes these days that if you’re really interested in movies, you should know where they came from. Pauline mentioned that a few times—that what seemed new to audiences didn’t seem new to her, partly because she was, one, so well read and knew the great literature before she ever started writing about movies, and, two, knew movies and had seen so much.

One of the many things I found in the research that I learned about Pauline was that she was a voracious reader who went through all the works of so many novelists and poets in her 20s—not just one book, but she would read everything by that author and then move on to another author—and it formed a bedrock for her writing about movies later on.

And it is very fun to watch a movie after reading one of her reviews. She wrote a great review of the Fellini movie Satyricon and wrote about how she thought Fellini was really the good Catholic school boy who loves sex and sin, but who feels guilty about it all at the end of the day. Funny, and she makes you see her view.

TM: This is your first feature film. Tell us a bit about your own career trajectory.

RG: Many false starts, and a lot of plugging away without results. I’ve made my own short films since I was a teenager, and have done other things to make a living—but always working on my own projects and trying to break through with one of them. Writing scripts, developing ideas. This is my first one to break through. I want to make a fiction film that I’ve been working on since before the Pauline movie, and I’m writing a second script that is an out-and-out comedy, which is what I like most.

TM: Any theories on why this one broke through?

RG: I always felt very strongly that this could be a special movie, and I felt completely driven to make it. And I love the movie. That’s probably why it broke through. But also because Pauline is such a compelling figure: complicated, strong, powerful, flawed, but without the brazenness of so many in the movie business. She was like a buddha, in a way, in her certainty. A buddha who loved to drink and smoke and swear and live like a bohemian.

TM: Was it important for you that the film have a theatrical release, given Kael’s strong attachment to seeing movies in theaters, with audiences?

RG: Definitely! That’s what I told my sales agent when they signed on—that I wanted to get a theatrical release because my movie is primarily a “theatrical” movie, in that I tried very hard to make it visual and cinematic. Also because it’s a movie that stirs up a lot of feelings and ideas, and so when people see it in a group, there is always a lot of conversation afterward. But now we’re set to open in 30-plus cities theatrically this winter in the U.S. and Canada, and in more markets internationally. So thank fully my wish came true.

Freedom in Telling the Truth: The Millions Interviews Adrienne Brodeur

I was first introduced to Adrienne Brodeur and her memoir, Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me, when I was invited to a breakfast at the offices of her publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, in Midtown Manhattan last spring. The breakfast was catered, tables laid out with a bountiful spread of exotic meats—wild game, naturally—only a few of which I could identify. While we ate, Brodeur regaled us with the story of her childhood, one of sprawling coastal mansions and summers on Cape Cod, cocktail hours and lavish meals of squab and foie gras, and a massive ruby- and diamond-encrusted necklace from India. As I picked at my plate, self-conscious about getting meat stuck in my teeth at a table of industry influencers, I wasn’t sure if Brodeur’s book—which sold for a staggering seven figures—would be for me. In addition to her rather glamorous upbringing, Brodeur has also led an impressive literary life: Before her current position as executive director of the literary nonprofit Aspen Words, she was an editor at HMH and founded Zoetrope: All Story with Francis Ford Coppola. This author’s story, and her world, seemed so far from mine.

But when I started reading Wild Game, I was whisked away to Brodeur’s world, devouring the memoir like an exquisite meal in one feverish sitting. The book centers around an affair between Brodeur’s mother—an elegant, enchanting, and highly narcissistic woman named Malabar, who studied as Le Cordon Bleu and could whip up clams and pâté in the time it took to quaff one of her signature (and very strong) Manhattans—and a close family friend named Ben. It was an affair, and a lie, that lasted decades, a drama in which the young Brodeur played the role of both confidante and coconspirator. She kept the secret like it was her job: she lied to her beloved stepfather and brother; covered for her mother; and often helped orchestrate trysts between the lovers, rewarded by Malabar for her loyalty with a love that was by nature conditional. It was an extravagantly constructed deception, one that led Brodeur to years of depression, self-harm, and shame. But more than the secrets and the scandal, more than some mommy-dearest tell-all of the rich and destructive, what I found in Brodeur’s book was a much more universal story: one about a mother, a daughter, and the trauma we inherit. It’s a beautiful and tenderly wrought book about loss, reclamation, family, and forgiveness; about the secrets we keep to protect the people we love, and how women so often carry the pain and wreckage of their forebears. I spoke to Brodeur about the book, how writing it helped her process the secret she kept for so long, and how becoming a mother helped her decide to finally tell her story. 

The Millions: This book feels like the story—and the secret—you’ve been waiting your whole life to tell. Did it feel that way to you on some level—inevitable? Or was there a catalyst, a specific moment when you knew you had to write it?

Adrienne Brodeur: A bit of both. It’s funny—for a long time, way before I started to think about a serious memoir, I used to play the story for laughs. I tried to turn it into a romantic comedy and even published a piece in Modern Love years ago where I focused on the humorous aspects of this crazy saga. But when I started a family of my own and as my children grew, I realized that I had to dig deeper and reexamine the way I was brought up, and look closely at the mistakes I’d made. Writing this book has been a form of atonement. It has also forced me to take a serious look at the legacy of deception that plagued my family for generations, a cycle that I’m determined to end, with me.

TM: It’s difficult to write about the people we love, especially when there’s pain at the heart of the story. Several of the key players in this story have passed away, but Malabar is still alive, though she now has dementia. Did you feel like such losses were necessary before you could write this book? Did you still struggle with writing about these lives, and if so how did you work your way through it?

AB: I didn’t intentionally wait for people to pass away to write this book, but I will say that it is always a struggle to write vividly and honestly about the people you love. What I didn’t know is that I would develop a reservoir of compassion for every single person in this book, myself included. When you explore people’s lives deeply, it’s hard not to forgive them their flaws, and to acknowledge both the highs and lows that shaped them.

TM: You render Malabar with such empathy. Despite the harm she caused you, you write her as a vivid, complex, and complicated character—larger than life, charming and magnetic, wholly human in her failures and flaws. There were times while reading this that I hated her for her selfishness, for how she treated you, but there were so many moments of tenderness I couldn’t help but feel profound empathy for her too. What was the process like in creating her as a character on the page—with all her darkness and her light?

AB: One of the surprises of writing Wild Game was the empathy I developed for my mother. In examining her life, I begin to understand anew the incredible losses she endured—twice-divorced parents, an alcoholic mother, the discovery of a secret sibling, the tragic death of her first child. Writing Wild Game was a heart-expanding process. It taught me to see my life with more nuance. We all have darkness and light within us. My mother made some terrible choices, but she also suffered greatly, endured many tragedies, and still managed to find moments of joy and tenderness.

TM: It seems like in order to write this book with so much empathy you’ve had to forgive Malabar. Have you forgiven yourself? Do you still carry some of the shame you write about, that you carried for so long, or have you been able to let it go?

AB: It is always easier to forgive others before you can even think about forgiving yourself. I still carry shame, of course, though I’ve worked hard to let some of it go. As a society, we seem to want “closure” on all of the unpleasant parts of our lives, but the past is always with us, and although we can reckon with the events that shaped us—and hopefully move beyond them—I don’t believe they ever disappear completely. I will always be someone who spent her formative years in a world where deception and secrets were the norm, and in doing so, I hurt people I cared deeply about. I make a conscious effort every day not to repeat these patterns.

TM: So much about this book is about inheritance, about intergenerational trauma. There’s alcoholism, narcissism, abuse both emotional and physical—and its ripple effects. In a scene near the end of the book, when you give birth to your daughter and then see your mother, we can feel the terror, the weight of all the things you’re afraid to pass down. Did writing the book help you reckon with that fear?

AB: Yes, it did. Writing this book not only allowed me to put feelings into words, it helped me understand my past, heal from those old wounds, and face my fears of passing intergenerational traumas along. I’m sure I will make mistakes as a parent, but I’m even more sure that they will not be the mistakes that my mother made with me. My mother believed we were two halves of the same whole, which was both thrilling because I loved her, and incredibly stifling because it prevented me from becoming my own person. We were codependent in the extreme. I love my children more than anything, but there’s nothing I want more than for them to stand on their own two feet, apart from me.

TM: Books about family trauma, especially those by women, often get called cathartic. But as a reader this story really did feel something like catharsis—like a purging or a cleansing. The story was based on a secret, and publishing the book feels like a big final way to break the silence you kept for so long and release it into the world. Did writing this story feel like catharsis? And now that it’s out in the world, how does it feel?

AB: First of all, thank you for saying that. I’m so glad you felt that way as a reader. Writing Wild Game was an intensely cathartic experience. Needless to say, I felt vulnerable writing the book, because I really put it all out there and tried not hold back, even on things I felt ashamed about. I do feel vulnerable now that it is out in the world, but I also know that every reader will bring his or her unique experience and lens to this story, and that, in a way, it is no longer just mine. People’s reaction to the material differs dramatically. The book has elicited sympathy, horror, and everything in between. And that’s okay. I enjoy hearing about other people’s relationships with their own mothers—everyone has a story.

TM: Food plays an important role in this book. Malabar the gourmand, Ben the hunter, the title based on an idea for a cookbook that the two devised as a platform upon which their affair could thrive. Food is not just an important part of your family history, but both the site of trauma and a vehicle of desire. It’s so sensually and viscerally rendered on page, the moaning over meals, popping bites in one another’s mouths, the ringing of necks and the breaking of bones, that it seems to function as a metaphor for the affair and the harm caused by it. Did you always know that food would play such a central role in this story?

AB: One thing you just have to understand is that my mother, for all her flaws, was a truly gifted cook. She was simply magical in the kitchen. You could hand her a bag of squab and a bundle of herbs and she’d whip up a gorgeous, restaurant-worthy meal. If Instagram had been around back then she’d probably be a foodie star. So yes, writing the food scenes was fun for me because it was so sensual and vibrant. Everything about it felt R-rated. Even the language she used: succulent breasts, luscious thighs—you get the drift. When I thought back on the events of my life and started to construct the scenes for the book, I thought in terms of meals. The night my mother and Ben began their affair my mother had made this feast and I can still picture the table like it was yesterday. Every meal described in the book is indelible in my mind. And it was all so delicious.

TM: Literature also plays an important part in this story. Your late stepmother, Margo, who serves a maternal role that your mother couldn’t, gives you stacks of books that help you begin to envision yourself more autonomously in the world. Which books did you read while you were writing yours, and which have been most influential?

AB: I still remember the first stack of books Margo gave me way back when: Jim Harrison’s Dalva, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees, and Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Three such different books, all involving young female protagonists who must sort out complicated problems, which enabled me to imagine ways I might do the same. That is the beauty of books, of course: Every one of them takes you out of the bubble of your own experience and into a whole new world. Thanks to Margo, I’ve been a passionate reader for my adult life, and ended up making a career in the world of literature, too.

I’ve devoured memoirs for at least a decade before writing my own. I love Elizabeth Alexander for the poetry of her prose, Mary Karr for the audacity of her voice, Jeanette Walls for the grace and compassion with which she described her deeply flawed parents. The book that influenced me most as I wrote Wild Game was Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, which contained a line that served as my guiding light: “For the drama to deepen, we must see the loneliness of the monster and the cunning of the innocent.” I really hope this comes through.

TM: In the epilogue, you write about your own daughter, who’s about to turn 14—the age you were when the affair began and your life changed course. I’m sure this book is going to resonate with a lot of daughters, especially those who have complicated relationships with their mothers. Did you write this book in part for your children? Who else do you hope will read this book, and what do you hope they might take from it?

AB: I didn’t so much write Wild Game for my children as I wrote it for me so that I could be a better mother to my children. I hope that this book helps anyone with a complicated or secret-filled past know that they can get to the other side. I truly believe that the more we suppress or hide our stories, the more they control us. It’s when we confront them—and own our pasts—that we are able to move beyond them toward a brighter future. There’s such freedom in telling the truth about who we are.

No Such Thing as “Not Racist”: The Millions Interviews Ibram X. Kendi

To fight racism, people need to be antiracist, which is different from being nonracist. In his new book, How to Be an Antiracist, ideas columnist for the Atlantic Kendi explains the distinction—and why it’s so important.

The Millions: What motivated you to write How to Be an Antiracist?

Ibram X. Kendi: I think that the people really motivated me to write it. What I mean by that is my last book [the National Book Award–winning Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America] was a narrative history of racist and antiracist ideas, and I would often speak of this long-standing debate between racists and antiracists, encouraging people to be antiracist. People would often ask me what that means. The more people asked, the more I realized there was a need for this book.

TM: Being antiracist sounds more active and intentional than being nonracist. What is the difference?

IXK: When I look out at American society today, I see that, typically, when people are charged with being racist, their response is “I’m not racist.” The term “not racist” has primarily been a defensive term, a term of denial, and that’s really all its meaning has ever been. So, I would argue that there is no such thing as “not racist”; it exists only as a denial of being racist. However, an antiracist would have definitions of racist ideas and racist policies and would admit when they were being racist, or when they supported a racist policy, and then seek to essentially not do that again. The heartbeat of racism is denial, is consistently saying, “I am not racist,” while the heartbeat of antiracism is confession, self-reflection, and seeking to grow change.

TM: Your writing suggests that it’s arguably most crucial for people of color to be antiracist. Why?

IXK: If black people believe the problem is other black people, they will spend their time attacking other black people instead of attacking racism. That will only make our condition worse. For me, everyone is responsible for striving to be antiracist, but if you are materially suffering more than other people as a result of forms of racism, then it’s in your interest—the interest of people of color—to be antiracist. That has always been the case, because people of color have always led the way of antiracism in this country.

TM: What are some ways we can begin to practice antiracism? Where does one start in looking at their immediate surroundings?

IXK: Everyone is different and everyone has different passions. What I would suggest is for people to think about the spaces and places they hold most dear. Perhaps you’re a school principal who is most concerned about the citywide curriculum or a nurse in national nursing associations. Look at the racial inequities and disparities in that space and place and then recognize that those disparities are not the result of racial groups—behaviorally or biologically. The fundamental cause of these inequities is racist policies. The next step is to figure out who has the power to change these policies. Join those people. Support them. Fight with them to create a more antiracist space.

TM: Can one ever actually be an antiracist, or is antiracism perpetually an act of becoming, of recognizing and committing to change?

IXK: Yes, no one ever becomes an antiracist. The reason why no one can ever become one is because to grow up in this country, and in many other parts of the world, people are raised and trained to be racist. In many ways, people become addicted to racist ideas. It’s like a personality characteristic. Once we decide that we want to be an antiracist, we can’t just wake up one day and be one, just like we can’t wake up one day and be free of an addiction. It’s an everyday process. One has to be constantly challenging themselves.

TM: So, in a sense, someone striving to be antiracist is sort of like a “recovering racist.” Is that right?

IXK: On one level it is recovery, on the other it’s advancing an antiracist project—to challenge those racist policies and be a part of movements and organizations that are toppling them and replacing them with antiracist policies.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and the Miami Book Fair.

You and I Have Peril in Common: The Millions Interviews Saeed Jones

Saeed Jones’s How We Fight for Our Lives has landed on many most-anticipated book lists. The author’s second title, after the 2014 PEN Award–winning poetry collection Prelude to Bruise, explores his experiences as a black, gay teenager in Texas. We caught up with Jones to learn more about his writing process and what inspires him.

The Millions: Tell me about How We Fight for Our Lives—why you wrote it and what it means to you.

Saeed Jones: People often call it “coming of age,” which isn’t entirely inaccurate; I just tend to think of it as the story of “coming into self.” My intention was to chart the journey to the point in my life at which I felt truly self-possessed.

I wrote it because I get very emotional when, going about my business, I encounter people, especially young people, who are in the midst of that journey. It’s hard feeling that you are not yet who you want to be—even more so if you feel that you are surrounded by people actively working to prevent that emergence.

I hope this book helps people coming into themselves feel less alone—and less crazed by the way America lies to young people about what they’re experiencing. I know young people aren’t the only ones who feel this way, but they were first on my mind when I set out to write it. That’s what brings me back to the blank page every day: How can I help people feel less alone? How can I explain how I stopped being a stranger to myself?

TM: You mention Greek mythology and James Baldwin as early influences. Can you talk about any other writers or works that have resonated over the years?

SJ: I just moved into a new apartment and have been going through my books as I reorganize them. This morning, I found a signed copy of Christopher Paul Curtis’s novel The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963. My teacher recommended it to me in the seventh or eighth grade, and I was so taken with it that she gifted me a signed copy in January 2000. I couldn’t believe an author—a real author—had spelled my name correctly. In keeping with some of the broader themes of my work, it’s both telling and quite funny that my other favorite book around that time was A Time to Kill. I loved all of Mildred D. Taylor’s books as a kid too.

Alexander Chee’s writing has been important to me for quite some time. In college, I found a very sexy, experimental short story he published in a now defunct online queer literary magazine, and it absolutely burned through me. Everything I wrote for at least a year after that was probably just mimicry of what he had accomplished with that piece.

I was introduced to Audre Lorde—via the poem “Generation”—my junior year of high school, and her work has since been a major influence through every phase of my life as a reader and writer. The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House remains seminal. And, of course, Patricia Smith. I started reading her in middle school, started showing up at her readings in college, communicating with her in graduate school, and somehow befriended her at some point after that. I’ve had a very lucky life as a reader.

TM: You talk a lot about libraries in your book and their role in your development—not just intellectually but in that one memorable scene, sexually. What role did libraries play in your upbringing?

SJ: I guess, growing up as a black kid in the suburbs of North Texas, the library was one of the first public spaces I could regularly visit alone and enjoy without suspicion. It felt like I was just a person there, free to use my time and attention as I pleased. It was very freeing, even if—at the time—it didn’t strike me as so profound. Young people always take what they believe is “theirs” for granted.

TM: There’s a scene in your book where you realize your life is in danger, but the whole book is permeated by this kind of awareness of the collective possibility of danger experienced by both black and gay men. The reader really gets the sense that it isn’t just your story but the stories of everyone who’s grown up like you. Can you talk about that choice? To emphasize the collective rather than the individual?

SJ: I grew up with a creeping sense of peril. I’d feel it and try to ignore it. The news, teachers, or family members would try to impress it upon me, and I’d briefly recognize it and then try to ignore it again. In the ninth grade, a black teacher—who I do believe was well-intentioned—got very frustrated with me one day and kept me after class. “Don’t you understand,” she basically yelled, “that it’s a miracle that you’re a black boy in the ninth grade and you aren’t in a gang, in jail, or dead?” And I just remember being like, “Girl, this is Lewisville, there are no gangs here. Calm down.” And I was probably right. I didn’t want to accept the simplistic, cliché, do-or-die worldview she was trying to apply to my life. But, in many ways, America is simplistic, cliché, and do-or-die when it comes to young black people. She didn’t know I was gay; I can’t even imagine how much more dramatic that lecture would’ve been if she had. The point is, the peril is present and it doesn’t even make you special. Whether you know that or not, if you aren’t a rich straight white man, you and I have peril in common. Ain’t that a trip?

So then, in writing the memoir, I sought to honor how I felt about my circumstances at the time and how other people felt about our shared circumstances and, at least, to gesture toward the fact of our circumstances. That’s why I made a point of referencing some of the news stories that were getting a lot of attention at the time. You spend a lot of time in my head as a character and you certainly hear from people like my mother and grandmother and others, and everyone rarely agrees on what’s what. Then, occasionally, there are moments like Matthew Shepard’s and James Byrd Jr.’s murders that no one can argue with. The peril is factual and, as you note, collective.

TM: Can you talk a bit about grief and its role in your writing?

SJ: Loss was already a major theme in the poems that became Prelude to Bruise. My mother passed away suddenly when I was in the middle of writing that book. And I learned a lot about the differences between loss and grief, to say the least. It literally exploded my writing. If you look at the poems in Prelude, you can identify the later material by identifying the poems with more white space and unexpected line breaks. Grief did that to me and my writing. It exploded my expectations and introduced these blank pockets of deep feeling. My prose writing became more fluid and lyrical.

My mother was my first champion. She always encouraged me to read and write. And she seemed to be the only person who was entirely unsurprised when it started paying off in terms of pathways and opportunities. I think she always knew I would become a storyteller in some way. I had to write about her because erasing her from the story of how I came into myself as a person and a writer would’ve been ahistorical. Also, I love her. And, in its way, this book is very much about love.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and the Texas Book Festival.

The Private Life of Debbie Harry

Debbie Harry shot to international stardom in the late 1970s as the lead singer of the new wave band Blondie. Now, at age 74, Harry has produced a candid, harrowing, and humorous memoir, Face It, that looks back at her eventful life—as a child put up for adoption, as a dreamer scuffling in New York, through Blondie’s rise and dissolution and reunion, and her solo career as a singer and actress. Along the way, Harry introduces readers to a sizable chunk of the pop pantheon, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Andy Warhol, and John Waters.

The Millions: You say in your book that you’re a private person. Why did you take on the challenge of writing your memoir at this point in your life?

Debbie Harry: I sort of got persuaded to do it by my manager, but after I got started, I enjoyed the process. I think in a way what it’s done for me is just to clear away a lot of the debris and be done with it. I’m really looking forward to making some new music and possibly writing some more stories.

TM: You mention in the book that memory is subjective.

DH: I’ve done a lot of interviews with Chris [Stein], my partner, and inevitably we remember different things. Fortunately, together we sometimes create a better understanding of what we’re talking about. But, yes, memory is subjective.

TM: You say you were influenced by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale. Were there other memoirs, maybe music memoirs, that resonated with you when you were writing this book?

DH: For a long time I was really, really interested in autobiography and biography, and I’ve read quite a few. And they’re fascinating, but I sort of got out of the habit. Recently I picked up Chronicles, Bob Dylan’s memoir, and he’s quite a good writer. And I’ve read Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, and some of her sentences are just mind-blowing, so good.

TM: You say in your book that you still love New York, even though it’s unrecognizable from when you were making your way here in the 1960s and ’70s and even the ’80s. What do you miss most?

DH: I don’t know that I miss any building or restaurant or anything like that because that’s always in flux in New York. I discovered that after being out on the road. I’d go out on a tour for a couple of months and come back—and something would be completely gone, and there would be something new in its place. That kind of transition and change in New York City is normal. The things I miss a lot are the enchantment and the drive of the ’70s when I was just getting started with Blondie. That was a really special time, getting all that going and me and Chris having this wonderful relationship and the excitement of the scene and the other bands. It really was a privilege to be a part of that.

TM: Are there things you don’t miss about the good old days?

DH: The problem for us was survival. We weren’t making any money and we were scratching to get by, but I guess what helped somehow was our youthful enthusiasm—and optimism, basically. Day-to-day would seem like, “Oh, this is hard! What’s gonna happen?” Sometimes it was almost deliciously scary that you would be fighting against these odds. The reward of having a creative enterprise and having it be accepted is kind of amazing. It’s not like anything else. You’re at your wits’ end, and when you make the slightest little bit of a gain, it’s like, “Oh, man, it’s unbelievable!” You really do get a great feeling.

TM: You mention that Marilyn Monroe was a big influence. You describe her as “a woman playing a man’s idea of a woman”—with a lot of smarts behind her. That’s Debbie Harry in Blondie, too, isn’t it?

DH: To some degree, yeah. I actually don’t think I was as smart as Marilyn. She was playing with the big boys, you know. The music world is not quite as cutthroat as the movie business. The more money that’s being spent to produce a project, the more intense and tense and crazy it gets. The movie business is definitely in that league.

TM: Is your own movie career something you prize a lot?

DH: It really is. I’ve been fortunate to work with some great directors, but I’ve never been in a position to be a producer or a writer or a director on a film. I’ve always been hired to play a part or make a cameo, so the responsibility hasn’t been on my shoulders. But it’s a tremendous enterprise. Look at John Waters. He started out from such an underground position and was so controversial. Much the same as David Cronenberg—again, a very controversial, independent director who slowly built to a point where he was making very commercial pictures.

TM: Have you read any of John Waters’s books? He’s a fine writer.

DH: Yes, and he’s an artist who has exhibited in galleries. And he gives lectures—I love his lectures, they’re fabulous. He’s so knowledgeable and so entertaining about B movies.

TM: In your book, you write that “success quickly started to feel anticlimactic.” Do you still feel that way?

DH: I think I understand the nature of the business a lot better, and my own nature. I think I’ve come to an easy resolve about it. But for a person like me who was not familiar with showbiz, it was a bit of an eye-opener. You know, I was kind of idealistic and foolish—and I’m still kind of a fool, but at least I have a little bit more experience.

TM: Climate strikes are taking place all over the world today. There’s a picture in the book of you onstage in Argentina last year with the words “STOP FUCKING THE PLANET” on your back. Are you optimistic or gloomy about the future of the planet?

DH: Unless we act very quickly and very seriously, I think we’re in a lot of jeopardy. I’m not optimistic unless people get on it right away and start appreciating how beautiful the planet is and how desperate the situation is. Unfortunately, the majority of the world’s population is busy with their own day-to-day survival. If every single person on the planet took an hour or two out of their week and did some serious environmental work—cleaning water, cleaning rivers—it would really be important. If you talk to Vivienne Westwood, she’s much more up on the science. And many scientists are saying we’re beyond the pale.

TM: You mention in the book that you’re making some new music. What are you working on?

DH: Just writing snippets, little bits and bobs of ideas for lyrics and themes. I’ve been parsing out some of the instrumental tracks, and I’m trying to learn about new artists I really haven’t been paying attention to. All the little pieces are filtering into my brain. Hopefully in the New Year, I’ll get in the studio to do some solo work.

TM: Who are the musicians you’re listening to?

DH: One is Aldous Harding. She has this great video on YouTube called “The Barrel.” The song is very interesting and quirky, and she comes more from being a poet. There’s some great stuff out there. Let’s face it, rock ’n’ roll has come a long way; it’s very sophisticated and it encompasses a lot of attitudes and instrumentation.

TM: Do you think you’ll have a new record next year?

DH: Oh, God no, I don’t think it’ll be out that soon. Thinking positively, we could possibly get an EP out.

TM: Are you going on a tour to promote your book?

DH: I am. I have about five or six dates around the country, and then I go over to the U.K. and Germany. I’ll be at the Miami Book Fair.

TM: Good luck with the book. I hope it sells like Krispy Kremes.

DH: Oh, thanks [Laughs.] But not as fattening!

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and the Miami Book Fair.

The Humanity of Being Freakish: The Millions Interviews Kevin Wilson

Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here celebrates weirdness. “A writer like Carson McCullers was so important to me, to reveal that freakishness but to also assert the humanity of being freakish, that meant the world to me,” Wilson told The Millions. “And so I try to do that in my work, try to build a story that lets us live in this strange place and still retain those elements that make us who we are.”

Wilson’s latest novel follows the complicated friendship of Lillian and Madison, two women who were college roommates until a scandal forced their separation. Out of the blue, Lillian receives a letter from Madison, welcoming her back into her life. But (major) strings are attached. Madison needs Lillian to be the nanny for her twin, spontaneously combusting stepchildren, Bessie and Roland. It doesn’t take long for Lillian to find herself more connected to the two children that she could’ve ever imagined.

Nothing to See Here is a hilarious yet tender exploration of what it means to be a family—and to love. Wilson and I spoke recently about parenthood, home, and, of course, Nothing to See Here.

The Millions: I love the weirdness of “Wildfire Johnny” in your most recent collection, Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine. In that story, the protagonist transports back in time by slitting his throat with a magical razor. Your new novel, Nothing to See Here, exists in a similar realm of magic. For you, when you set out to write this new book, did the magical element come to you first? Or was it the initial story of Lillian and Madison, the two ex-roommates and best friends, that drew you into the more fantastic story with the children?

Kevin Wilson: The magical element came first, the weirdness. For me, stories begin with conceit and novels begin with character, and that’s typically how it works, but this time the magic was pushing me toward finding the narrative to support it. And that just happened to be a novel.

TM: Speaking of magic, Bessie and Roland, the two children at the center of the novel, have a pretty distinctive trait: When they get agitated, they spontaneously combust. What sparked the idea?

KW: It’s an obsession of mine, has been since I was probably 9 or 10 years old. I might be wrong about this, but I remember a friend of mine in grade school had the Time Life Mysteries of the Unknown set of books—which I wanted so badly but was so expensive and my parents were not going to let me order something over the phone—and there was a small section on spontaneous human combustion and it just locked into my brain forever. I thought about it a lot, this recurring image in my head of people bursting into flames. And then I kind of worried that I might burst into flames. That felt logical to me. And then I kind of wanted to burst into flames, that it might help me feel better if I could just burn off all this anxiety inside of me.

In my first collection of stories, I wrote about a character who lost his parents when they spontaneously combusted. And I thought that might be the end of it, that my obsession had a little pressure relieved and I could move on. But then I wrote my first novel, The Family Fang, and one of the characters gets a role in a movie as a nanny for kids who bursts into flames. And it still didn’t get rid of the images in my head. I kept going back to that little plot point in the novel and worrying it again and again and thinking about the nanny and the kids, and I knew that I was going back into it.

TM: So much of the novel is about parenthood. When writing about the way Lillian and the other adults handle Bessie and Roland, did you find yourself channeling your own personal experience of parenting?

KW: Raising a regular kid is pretty similar to caring for a child who might, at any time, burst into flames. Children are combustible. They’re mysterious in wonderful and also scary ways. I know, in my heart, that I’m a decent parent. I know that my children are wonderful. But I feel some guilt that in those early years, I sometimes was afraid of not only what I might do to them, mess them up in some profound way, but also of what they might do to me, how I might crumble under the weight of their need.

I think parenting, even when you put your whole heart into it, is fraught with anxiety, the worry that you’re making a person and hoping they survive. There are times when I feel like I’m not capable of caring for another person, that I’m not strong enough to do that. But I have to find a way to do it. And I think writing about that anxiety, working through it on the page, helps me deal with it in the real world.

TM: I think that, oftentimes, it’s easy to write kids as being the ones who need love, care, and attention from their parents and to forget that parents appreciate—and even need—some of these similar things from their kids. Nothing to See Here captures that parental desire for affection through Lillian: “I imagined them walking the aisles of the library in town, picking out books, books that we could confidently check out without worrying about them catching on fire, dead lord, the rescinding of our library card. I imagined them inside the mansion, then leaving for school, then coming back home. I imagined them sleeping in a bad that wasn’t mine. Where was I during all this? Far away, right? Like, if I got the kids to this level of normalcy, they wouldn’t need me anymore. And I wasn’t sure if I was happy or sad about it.” When you set out to write this book, did you know you wanted to look at some of that parental vulnerability? Or is it something that just comes naturally to you in your writing?

KW: Every night, I read to my oldest son, who is now 11. He lets me read to him, a book we pick out together, and then, because he reads on his own, when I’m done he’ll then read his own book by himself. So we sit in this bed, so close to each other, and I read to him. And I know that this will eventually end, that he will not need this. And maybe, even now, I need it more than him. Most days, that 30 minutes when I’m reading to Griff is the happiest part of my day. The goal is that Griff and Patch, my other son, eventually don’t need me anymore. But I can’t reconcile that yet. So, again, I write about that anxiety.

TM: I want to ask about the thematic emphasis of home. Early on, when Roland and Bessie arrive at the guesthouse at which they’ll live, Lillian tells them they are home. But she adds this: “I knew it wasn’t my home. And it wasn’t their home. But we would steal it. We had a whole summer to take this house and make it ours. And who could stop us? Jesus, we had fire.” Finding a place we know as home is complicated for many of us, isn’t it?

KW: I write a lot about home. At the heart of it, I’m a domestic writer and my focus is almost always small and contained, trying to build a world that will hold a few people safely. And I think that’s just my nature. Because I live so fully inside my brain—that it’s always kind of racing alongside the real world—having a physical space that I know will hold me is important. I think we’re constantly looking for that space that will contain us and the people that we love, and it just goes on and on and on, constantly adjusting that space to accommodate people who leave or come into it.

TM: Near the end of the novel, Bessie admits of her fire, “I don’t ever want it to go away…I don’t know what I’d do if it never came back.” Then, she asks Lillian, “How else would we protect ourselves?” I’ve thought about this exchange several times since I first read Nothing to See Here. Bessie seems to have accepted her power as a part of her identity, but at the same time, that desire for the fire is for protection. For you, did you think of this fire as a blessing or a curse? Or is it something else altogether?

KW: I think about that line a lot, too. I think the world can be so scary, that sometimes we need to hold onto those elements of ourselves that cause us the most anxiety, that keep us separate from other people. This just occurred to me, but I received an email a few weeks ago from a young man who a few years ago came to a reading of mine. And I had talked about Tourette syndrome and my trouble with bad thoughts, with looping, constant thoughts that can overwhelm me. And those thoughts make me obsessive, makes it hard for me to ever let go of anything. And he said that he’s been working to develop these methods to erase those tics, to help people not have those aspects, and he wondered if I might meet with him and begin that process. And I never wrote back. And the reason is that I don’t want to lose those things anymore. Maybe earlier, it would have been nice. But I honestly don’t know what I’d do if my brain worked differently than it does now. I think I’d be frightened of not having that stuff in my head, or what would replace it. It keeps me separate from the world enough to feel safe, to have a place inside of me that, even if it’s scary, it’s mine.

TM: Nothing to See Here celebrates outcasts and weirdness in such a tender, affecting way. I think many of us who love books and reading probably self-identify as being outcasts in some kind of way, and to read a book that so boldly celebrates weirdness and shows the inherent power in being different—well—it’s special.

KW: I think at an early age, because my parents were the most supportive and loving people because my sister took care of me and watched out for me—even though I felt so different from them sometimes, felt like something was wrong with me—I knew that I was human. I don’t know if that makes sense. What I mean is that even when I thought of myself as weird, as deficient, I always asserted my humanity, believed that I deserved to be in this world. And a writer like Carson McCullers was so important to me, to reveal that freakishness but to also assert the humanity of being freakish, that meant the world to me. And so I try to do that in my work, try to build a story that lets us live in this strange place and still retain those elements that make us who we are.

In Witchcraft There Are No Spectators: The Millions Interviews Amanda Yates Garcia

In 2017, I published an essay on The Millions called “How a Witch Cured My Writerly Envy” about receiving guidance from a professional witch named Amanda Yates Garcia (aka the Oracle of Los Angeles) in order to rid myself of professional jealousy. Last month, Garcia’s book, Initiated: Memoir of a Witch, was published by Grand Central. Initiated has received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. I spoke with Garcia about her book, her dedication to social justice, and ways interested readers can begin to develop their own magical practice.

The Millions: I’m thrilled to read Initiated. As you know, I’m fascinated by your work as a professional witch and want to learn more about the path you took to get there. Can you talk a bit about the book, especially for potential readers who aren’t familiar with you, your writing, and your work?

Amanda Yates Garcia: The book describes my process of becoming a professional witch, i.e. someone who works as a witch in service of her community and gets paid for her work. Though I’m a hereditary witch and was brought up practicing witchcraft, I didn’t realize that witchcraft could be my profession. My mother dedicated countless hours to serving people in our community, but like many people performing feminized forms of labor, she was rarely paid for her work. In my late teens and early 20s, I turned away from witchcraft and became a devotee of the arts, thinking that they would help me create the life of freedom and beauty I was searching for. But eventually I found myself trapped in jobs I hated, hardly making any money, and I couldn’t see a way out. It was then that I returned to witchcraft as a means of empowering myself to create the life I wanted.

Each of us is initiated into our life’s purpose through the struggles that we face. As we use our ingenuity to make it out of the underworld, we will return to the upper world knowing our gifts. Our lives initiate us. Each initiation teaches us what our healing powers are, what our magical powers are, what gifts we have to offer the world. We attain these gifts through the challenges we face. When we come through those struggles, we have a kind of light within us that can help guide the way for others as well. I don’t believe we should be grateful for the adversity we face. But we can be grateful to ourselves for the strength we find to make it out of the underworld alive.

Initiated is for anyone who feels like there is more to life than submitting to the imperatives of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, more to life than struggling for money at a job that makes them miserable, yearning for the weekend, hungry for meaning and purpose. It’s for anyone who wants to live in an enchanted, numinous world, where the earth is sacred…where our lives are sacred, where justice is possible. So the book is really about how I found my way to do that in spite of the odds. I also occupy a position of privilege in this culture; it’s important to acknowledge the advantages I had: white, cis, able-bodied, middle class, educational privilege. But because of that privilege, I feel even more responsibility to create a world where a life of freedom and beauty is possible for all beings. As we rise to embrace our own power, and join forces with other witches, we will transform our world. Witches are resistors, and as Alice Walker says, “Resistance is the secret of joy.”

TM: That just makes me think a lot about things that you have taught me during our work together and I just really appreciate you sharing them in that way.

AYG: Tell me what you mean.

TM: It’s great to hear that if we have trauma or struggles, we can come through them. And it doesn’t just mean that we don’t have to be broken by those things—it also can mean that we can then know what our superpowers are and use those powers to help others. That really speaks to me.

AYG: Yeah, and I feel like you’ve really done that. You’ve had a lot of struggle and adversity and you’ve been able to come through that. And part of the way you have done that is through a distinct commitment to kindness and a sense of humor about all of it. One might say that your kindness and your sense of humor are your superpowers that you are using to help heal the world by sharing them through your writing.

TM: I love that that might be the case. Thank you.

AYG: “Might be the case.” Another one of your superpowers is clearly your humility.

TM: [Laughs.] Magic and witchcraft are often about connecting with the earth, the seasons, the cycles of the moon, and even astrology. But much of your magical work and public presence are focused on social justice issues. Can you talk about how and why you find witchcraft and social justice to be so compatible?

AYG: This question is very important. We live in an individualistic society so a lot of my clients come to me with feelings of alienation, of disenchantment, of loneliness and longing for a life of purpose and meaning. They are afraid they are going to lose everything. Or that they’ll never find a way to be happy. They are afraid their lives will spin out of their control. So a lot of time when people come to witches they are coming with a deep sense of anxiety.

But the problem is that our individualistic culture tells us that it’s our own personal behaviors or choices that will allow us to solve those problems. When in fact, most of our problems also have a social or political component. If we are feeling like we are going to be trapped in a meaningless job forever, that is not just because we have made bad choices about the jobs that we want. It’s because we live in a society in which 70 percent to 80 percent of the jobs that are available are “bullshit jobs,” as the anthropologist David Graeber would say. And we are not going to be able to solve these problems alone just by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. Community is the source of healing, ecosystem is, which means that we can’t just fight for our own rights, we need to fight on behalf of the kids in cages at the border, of immigrant families, of black and indigenous people of color, of people with disabilities, of our elders, of the water, the air, and of the world. That’s what love is, and protecting what we love is what will heal us.

It’s important to remember that in witchcraft there are no spectators. There is no witness in witchcraft. We are all participants. So part of what is really important is that we all become agents and get active. We are all participating in this culture; each of us has a responsibility to change it. The greater our position of privilege, the greater our responsibility to the most vulnerable in our communities. We need to remember that we are not alone. Working together, we can create the world that we want to find.

Witchcraft is not just a practice you do so that you can find the right lover, or sell your house, or get the job you want. All of those things are important for us to attain stability, but witchcraft goes beyond those things. It’s a deeply spiritual practice. It is a practice of connecting to the Spirit of the Earth. The most fundamental and important aspect of witchcraft is celebrating and honoring the sacredness of the earth. Witchcraft is intimacy with the spirit of the world, with the Anima Mundi. And in order to create that intimacy, we have to recognize all the systems of injustice that are damaging the earth right now. And that very much includes white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, kyriarchy, all of that. The oppression of people of color is intimately bound to the destruction of the earth. Simultaneously, the oppression of women, and women’s rights to control their own bodies, the persecution of queer people, and the assault on indigenous people’s right to inhabit their land, all of these things are bound together. We will feel less powerless and alienated the more we work towards justice.

To be a witch is to recognize your power and your agency. Witches carry the banner for the Spirit of the Earth; we are Her emissaries, working always on behalf of the earth itself, and of the life force that is imminent in nature. As witches, it is our privilege and honor to do this work. If we are not doing it, we are missing out on something deeply beautiful. It would be a huge tragedy for us to deny that beauty in our lives. The practice of witchcraft helps us understand what it means to be a part of this gorgeous living planet, this goddess. We have that connection available to us; witchcraft can help us access it, to our great pleasure.

TM: To take the conversation somewhere a little more worldly—I follow you on Facebook and Instagram and your podcast, Strange Magic. I love that you often share suggestions for simple spells and other magical practices and rituals. Do you have any advice for readers who are interested in practicing magic but don’t know where to start?

AYG: Usually the things I talk about on my social media pages are simple practices that can immediately bring us into deeper intimacy with our lives, which is really the purpose of witchcraft.

Step one. It’s important to create space in your life for your spiritual practice. If you don’t have an altar, it’s a signal that you might not have room in your life for your spiritual practice. So beginners might want to set up a space that they can work in, even if it’s just the top of a dresser or shelf. On your altar you want to have something that represents the four elements—fire, earth, air, water. A candle, a stone, some incense or a feather, a cup of water.

Once you have that, start paying attention to whatever is immediately around you. So maybe you would collect a stone from around your house, or some flowers, or seedpods, or water from a nearby river for your altar. Learn the names of the trees on your street, learn their history, their geology. Where does your water come from? Part of witchcraft is becoming intimate with your nearby environment, getting to know it. That’s what intimacy is: knowledge, listening, paying attention, exchange.

Find the sacred places in your neighborhood, in your city, in the nature that surrounds you. Notice where you feel empowered. You don’t have to go outside of your immediate environment. You can start just by getting to know whatever is around you.

In the morning, I sit at my altar and I call in the spirits of the elements. I say their names. I light my candles, I sing them songs, I read them poetry. I honor them. And I sit with myself. I center myself. And I listen. If you do that you will start to get messages, intuitively, that will help guide you and will help lead you to your next steps.

When you begin to practice witchcraft, essentially you are entering into a relationship with your life as a sacred experience. That is all you really need to do and you will find the teachers you need to go from there.

Author image: Siri Kaur

I’d Rather You Decide: The Millions Interviews Susan Choi

Susan Choi is faced with a rather delicious dilemma with her new novel, Trust Exercise. The story, even on a structural level, is so filled with twists and turns that she can’t really discuss any of it without giving spoilers. Her reticence is provocative. It seems Choi is challenging readers to make a trust exercise out of reading Trust Exercise by disclosing so little about it. Here’s a taste of what we learned.

The Millions: What are some of the themes and ideas that Trust Exercise explores?

Susan Choi: Trust Exercise is about a group of high school students in a drama program. It follows them beginning from when they are actually art students in the 1980s, but the story and the time frame are not limited to that context. I am always reluctant to articulate themes when I try to describe my books because I hate to be the person to say, “the theme of this book is this.” I’d rather you decide. My whole thing is: I want people to come to it without knowing anything and just pick it up for what it is, ideally with no ideas.

TM: Of all the novels you’ve read, to which would you most hope Trust Exercise would be compared or live on a shelf beside?

SC: Wow, that’s an interesting question that I can’t say I have an answer for. When I started working on the book, I had a very specific vibe I was really enjoying in literature: the Muriel Spark vibe. I liked how dispassionate, clinical, and unsparing her gaze was when she looked at her characters and unveiled them to her reader. There is great precision and a certain level of mordant humor. When I started writing Trust Exercise, that was the writing mood I was in, but the book didn’t really stay in that vein. In retrospect, I was probably influenced by wonderful books I had read in the last couple of years including Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck and A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. Those two books were so smart, brave, and just badass. I’d love for my books to be on a shelf with them.

TM: You primarily write fiction, yet I’ve noticed in reviews of your work, as I have in those of countless other female novelists and screenwriters, the critic’s sneaking suspicion that there’s an autobiographical element to your work. What do you make of these assumptions?

SC: I don’t know why women seem to face that question more than men. I can only assume that there is a lot of entrenched cultural sexism involved. There is this idea that if women create literary work, it must be their diary. It seems as though male writers are viewed differently, or perhaps in the same way but we’re less comfortable confronting them with these “gotcha!” questions. No one ever confronted Philip Roth [if his fiction was based on real experiences]. We all know that fiction writers draw on personal experience—whether they’re male, female, trans. I’ve never understood why it becomes so gendered. In the case of men, it seems to be just overlooked. Herman Melville worked on ships. No one seems to be asking, “Oh, did he know that whale?”

A Truth Accuracy Could Never Achieve: The Millions Interviews M. Randal O’Wain

M. Randal O’Wain’s Meander Belt: Family, Loss, and Coming of Age in the Working-Class South is part of the University of Nebraska’s American Lives series, edited by Tobias Wolff. It offers a rich and moving portrayal of O’Wain’s hardscrabble childhood in Memphis and his journey away from his family’s working-class roots toward art and academia. The book has drawn praise from the likes of Patricia Foster and John D’Agata, who says, “For all their poignant intimacy, the essays in Meander Belt are somehow also achingly universal.” I was fortunate enough to get to talk to O’wain about his book, its genesis, and formal challenges.

The Millions: Meander Belt is about your childhood, growing up in a southern blue-collar family, the divergent path you took to become a musician and then writer, and the friction this caused at times. Despite the friction, you note that your father’s work ethic informed your writing—in a heartbreaking scene, you inscribe your debt to him on a self-published copy of your book that you give him for Christmas, that he refuses to read. Besides hard work, how else would you say your upbringing influenced your writing? 

M. Randal O’Wain: Bodies. I’m not sure I would have such a strong pull toward the intersection of emotional stakes within a memory (or character in fiction) and the way we physically move through the world. In part, I think this is because of my father and how in the summer he’d come home shirtless and dirty, smelling of sweat that was as much sawdust as the mushroomy pungency of something organic. I also think of my mother, who contracted polio as a toddler and forever after has had a distinct walk, one that I find impossible to describe but looked as if she needed to use her core strength to swing her right leg forward and yet she raised us to never consider her as disabled. In fact, we saw her as so able-bodied that it was often shocking to witness ways in which strangers treated her in public—cruelly, at times, or with kindness, but each had the same effect of drawing attention to the one thing she consciously avoided in her day-to-day: feeling different. We often did not have AC in our cars and us four siblings would sit close to each other in the southern heat, our skin tacky from sweat and sticking to this one’s thigh or that one’s arm.

TM: What was the original impetus for writing this? Why did this feel like a story that needed telling? And a related question: when did you know this was a book?

MRO: I never wanted to write about my family or myself. Even though there are fantastic memoirs out there, I have always had a difficult time respecting memoir as a genre because there is an expectation established by the more money-minded editors and houses out there that often flattens life experience into a palatable structure where the hero/heroine always gets better and learns a lesson. I am no hero and even if I might have learned lessons along the way, they are rarely teaching moments. Instead I was consumed by grief when I lost my father and brother at age 22 and 25 and I was suddenly faced with this knowledge that I would never be able to out grow my more selfish impulses, never be able to forgive both men for their more selfish reactions, and when this lack of rapprochement suddenly exists when the death of a parent or sibling happens so young it is a special kind of trauma. For me, this trauma told me stories of who I was in relation to home and in relation to the men who raised me and these memories were so horribly fucking bright I couldn’t turn away.

TM: Despite the admission in the preface that the dialogue and details are largely invented, this is a deeply personal memoir. Did you have any reservations about writing this as far as family and friends were concerned?

MRO: What I’m trying to respond to in the preface where I write about using storytelling techniques often found in fiction is an argument popular among essayists, which has specific battle lines drawn around how much detail and dialogue is acceptable. As I said before, it was hard to look away from my memories. It was as if my mind was trying to compartmentalize my past in order to store memory away and each time this mental picture show was presented, I felt it in my guts, man. In my heart. I fully inhabited each instance, and I heard dialogue, and I smelled the rooms and the bodies, saw the chipped paint, and touched the rough-hewn hardwood. From this perspective, I tried to inhabit memory as bodily as I could without worrying over accuracy. I wanted a truth that accuracy could never achieve and the way I felt most comfortable doing this was through narrative storytelling. In terms of family and friends, I often needed them in order to “fact-check” my memory. I relied on my older sister and my mom quite heavily and hounded friends about details of certain events in order to get a broader understanding of the memory. This usually came after I’d written a draft because I really wanted to maintain access to that raw, initial remembering. In short: Everyone was excited to participate. A friend, Parker, wrote me a nice note the other day and I thanked him for reading. He said, “I’m in the book so of course I read the damn thing.”

TM: I’m curious about some of the more unusual choices, for instance the numbered paragraphs in “Superman Dam Fool,” and “Memento Mori Part One,” in which you slide into and out of your father’s head. Talk a little, if you would, about how the less straightforward moves that you don’t always see in memoir suggested themselves.

MRO: A lot of the experimental sections came from a need to deal with large swaths of time and without letting these experiences and memories take over the entire book, or worse, cause the book to balloon to some grotesque page count. “Superman Dam Fool” encapsulates two full years of middle school but manages this in 10 printed pages. “Memento Mori Part One” came about for similar reasons. In this section, I needed to address a three-year period where I lived in Olympia, Wash, and for the first time in my life I had a band that I loved and we owned a van and equipment together, a label put out our record, we had tours lined up, and eventually traveled the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. All the while, my father’s mental health tanked. He developed crippling panic attacks that were not readily diagnosed at the time and doctors often insinuated that what caused him to stay in his room without sound or lights for weeks at a time was somehow psychosomatic, and there is nothing worse for a man who has ambition to be a provider, to be strength for his family, than telling him he is making his ailments up. And so the panic doubled-down. Soon after, discs slipped in his neck and he was fired from his job. Anyway, I needed to figure out some way to tell his side of the story even though I was not at home. I tried looking over photos and letters in a more essayistic style; I interviewed my mom and tried to insert these interviews into the narrative. Both were terrible—really hokey, man. And then, I heard his voice thinking, as I might hear a fictional character think before writing them into being. It was authentically him and so I wrote these sections that are entirely from his POV in just a few days. None of them have really been altered or edited since.

TM: Circling back around to the original question: a complaint many people have about the state of modern writing is that the influence of MFA programs has homogenized everything. While I disagree with a lot of the anti-MFA sentiment, it does perhaps seem true that a few decades ago there were more southern writers and regionalists, and writers from blue collar backgrounds like Raymond Carver that wrote about and from that place. Meander Belt reminds me, in some ways, of those books—I wonder if you feel like there’s any truth to this, if something gritty and regional has been lost in fiction being subsumed into the academy. 

MRO: I’m not sure New York even knows what it likes these days. It seems to me that the big houses are only interested in making money and will jump on whatever train follows the market. Everything is bought and sold at such a high level that it is difficult for most art to have a chance. Some great books slip through, sure, but the trends are obvious. For this reason, I don’t see New York lasting as the seat of the literary world. It has been Paris and London in past. Perhaps Oslo will be the new taste-maker.

I’m so close to Meander Belt, I don’t even know if it is a good book anymore. I’m glad it exists. I am happy to be on this side of the experience. I don’t know if my book was ever going to be widely read, but I always knew that it did not fit the current modes of capitalism and literature.