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.

Fixing the Femme Fatale: The Millions Interviews Joyce Carol Oates

In Cutting Edge: New Stories of Mystery and Crime by Women Writers, a collection edited and curated by Joyce Carol Oates, women blast into the traditionally male domain of noir. These 15 stories and six poems—by the likes of Margaret Atwood, Aimee Bender, Edwidge Danticat, and Oates—attest that women in noir are more than the ubiquitous femme fatale created by men.

The Millions: Why do you feel it’s important to promote female noir at this point?

Joyce Carol Oates: Female noir is both in contrast to traditional noir—a predominantly male genre—and wholly distinctive, original. Essentially, it is the dramatization of women appropriating actions and attitudes that have traditionally been the province of men. As Margaret Atwood wittily observes, “In the old days, all werewolves were male.” While no one in Cutting Edge is a werewolf or a vampire, there are a number of transgressive acts that declare that women have come into their own in the #MeToo era.

TM: Do you feel that female protagonists tend to be one-dimensional in traditional noir?

JCO: There are rarely female protagonists in traditional noir works. By far, these are men, and the women are wicked, untrustworthy, evil—or they are of no dramatic interest at all.

TM: What is the main difference between these stories and previous noir stories, even those written by women?

JCO: Some women in some of these stories embrace their wicked, evil natures with a startling enthusiasm. “Enough with being victims!” they seem to proclaim.

TM: Does that empower women? Or could it be seen as a throwback to biblical female wickedness? 

JCO: Fiction dramatizes specific individuals; it is really not intended to be propaganda or to proselytize. Serious fiction presents characters who are unique, individual. They are neither “good” nor “evil”—life is not that simple, and art mirrors life in its essential mystery.

TM: How did you choose the stories?

JCO: My publisher, Johnny Temple of Akashic Books, and I have gathered together three anthologies, in all: New Jersey Noir, Prison Noir, and now Cutting Edge. In all three cases, the criteria were outstanding stories written by invitation. We each contacted likely contributors, who put us in contact with others, and these with others, until finally a manuscript emerged. There are exceptional noir female writers not represented here—Megan Abbott, Gillian Flynn, and Laura Lippman—not because they were not invited but because, with regret, they had to decline our entreaties.

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

Small Moments of Joy: The Millions Interviews Edwidge Danticat

Edwidge Danticat was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1969. At the age of 12, she moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., where her mother worked in a factory and her father drove a taxi. Danticat’s 16 works of fiction and nonfiction have won numerous awards. She now lives in the Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami, and she will be at the Miami Book Fair with her new collection of short stories, Everything Inside. We caught up with the bestselling author and MacArthur Fellow to talk about her latest book, the Haitian-American experience, and small moments of joy.

The Millions: Haiti is a presence in all of these new stories. Tell me about the pull Haiti exerts on you and your writing.

Edwidge Danticat: Well, everything I’ve written is either about Haiti or about the Haitian-American experience. I still have a lot of family in Haiti, so it’s sort of what interests me as a subject. Also, migration to the U.S. and the Haitian-American community in New York and, in this book, in Miami. A lot of the book is set in the area where I live now.

TM: Do you return to Haiti often?

ED: Yeah, I go back a couple of times a year for weddings, funerals, family gatherings, and book-related things. They have one really famous book festival called Livres en Folie, so I go back for that and for conferences. But mostly for family things.

TM: A lot of the characters’ lives in these new stories have not worked out well. I’m thinking about the woman who’s swindled into paying ransom for the bogus kidnapping of her ex-husband’s wife; the woman with AIDS who gets placebos from a shady doctor; the woman who’s summoned to the bedside of the dying father she never knew, only to find he’s dead when she gets there. Yet these characters seem to find consolations.

ED: Some of the stories are based on the experiences of people I know. Not everybody comes out with a happy ending, you know? And that’s one of the things that interests me—how people deal with difficulties. Maybe I just happen to be a melancholy person. I think also, these days, the experience of poor immigrants is a lot more precarious and terrifying because the rules are always changing. But I hope there are consolations. I think people in very difficult circumstances figure out a way to have moments of joy, you know, moments of appreciation.

TM: In your memoir, Brother, I’m Dying, you talked about the “generational sacrifice” that a lot of immigrants make so that their children and grandchildren can thrive in a new country. Is that sacrifice still an influence on your work?

ED: Oh yeah, absolutely. When I was writing that memoir, my father had just died and my uncle who raised me had died in immigration custody. Both my parents, at the ends of their lives, got terminal diagnoses, so we had a lot of time to reflect. And for both my parents, the marker of success was how their children had done. And they felt a kind of consolation, like you were saying before, in the fact that we were doing okay because they had made these great sacrifices. If things hadn’t worked out, that would’ve been devastating to them. So the fact we were doing okay, we’ve done better financially, we’re in a relationship, we seem happy—that, to them, was proof that everything had been worthwhile.

There’s a sense of forward-looking about it. The people who are traveling with their small children, leaving places because they feel like their children will be in danger, the people arriving in Europe from Syria and other places—I think there’s an element to immigration that is so forward-looking. And then the younger person has the burden of dealing with it, figuring out what to do with it. I’ve spoken to young people who feel like it’s such a big responsibility.

TM: Do you feel that burden yourself as the child of immigrants?

ED: I felt that much more when I was younger. My mom worked in a sweatshop in Manhattan, my father was a taxi driver and also left in the dark and would come back exhausted. I could see the wear and tear on their bodies. And so I always felt like I had to do something to make all of this worthwhile. I wanted to help out as soon as I could, drop out of school. But my parents never allowed that. School was our job. They wanted me to be a doctor, and at times I felt like maybe I should be a doctor to please them. But that didn’t happen.

TM: Well, you turned out pretty well.

ED: Yeah, I did OK.

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

Readers Don’t Need to Be Babied: A Conversation on Translating Japanese Literature

This year Japanese popular literature superstar Tomihiko Morimi was translated into English for the first time—and the second time! Yen Press released Penguin Highway on April 23 and The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl on August 13. Translations were handled by Andrew Cunningham and Emily Balistrieri respectively.

Penguin Highway is the story of a boy, Aoyama, who takes “the most notes of any fourth grader in Japan. Maybe in the world.” He researches his first crush and his environment, and when penguins start appearing around the suburb where he lives, he and his friends investigate.

The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl is set in Kyoto, as many Morimi works are, where a college student struggles to find romance on a road paved with fantasy and angst. After spending nearly a year trying to get the girl of his dreams to notice him, can he finally get a date?

Translators Balistrieri and Cunningham got together to discuss their experiences translating Morimi and their impressions of his work.

Emily Balistrieri: One thing, I think, is interesting is that, so these are the first two novels of his to be translated, but in terms of style, they’re about as far apart as you can get. Penguin Highway in Japanese has always been my go-to recommendation for Japanese learners, since the fourth-grade protagonist makes it easier to read, while the first time I read Night Is Short in Japanese a few years ago, I really struggled. Despite the novels’ differences, though, I think it’s still clear that Aoyama is a Morimi guy, from the way he thinks and, well, loves. Is there anything you paid attention to specifically when crafting his voice?

Andrew Cunningham: I certainly did an unusual number of drafts on the first couple of pages. Aoyama is a bit of a snot, but you don’t want him to be unlikable. I tinkered a bunch until I found the right balance. The wrong tone on the first page of a book can really set readers on the wrong path, so I always spend extra time on them. Generally, though, this is a case where Morimi’s own voicing is so distinctive that I found I was instinctively locking into the right way to translate things. Like, I realized after a while that Aoyama was only using one word as a strengthener, and combed back through the translation to make sure they were all the same…and I’d translated taihen as “extremely” every time without even noticing the pattern. It just felt right.

The Night Is Short has that exact same delicate balance of tone, only twice, for two very different voices. How did you approach that?

EB: The style of Night Is Short is pretty much peak Morimi in the sense that the style in this (and Tatami Galaxy, which hasn’t been translated yet but has a fantastic anime adaptation, as well as Taiyō no tō, Koibumi no gijutsu) is what people usually think of when they think of him. Not that every work of his fits into this scheme, obviously, but broadly he has this mode and then his spooky spirited away/supernatural mode, which you can see in titles like Kitsune no hanashi, Yoiyama mangekyō, and Yakō.

So this mode features these “rotten” university students, with what I feel are hearts of gold, and their various attempts at trying to get the girl. They tend to think in this sort of complicated or at least over-the-top way, which was once called “fuguing” by a mentor at a translation workshop I attended. I liked that term, so I sort of latched on to that idea, but the less roundabout answer is that lots of Morimi protagonists have this sort of voice, and I’ve been doing samples and tinkering with it for years now, so my main task is to just push it and get it to the point that it’s as fun to read in English as it is in Japanese.

Then for the girl’s voice in Night Is Short, she was actually sort of too similar to him in some ways (in the ways that would have been easy to render in English), but different enough in other ways that I tried to simply compare her to him to take away or add things as necessary. And I tried to make her sound a little more proper, I guess you could say, since she does speak more politely.

AC: She has a kind of giddy enthusiasm that always comes through, while he has a somewhat world-weary cynicism. It’s pretty telegraphed when the narrators change, but I think you could open your translation to any given page and know very quickly who was speaking.

EB: Oh, I’m glad you feel that way. I think some people felt they were too similar. But yeah, her character is almost too child-like.

AC: But it definitely gives her that sort of wonder and curiosity that is the driving force in all of her adventures.

EB: Speaking of Morimi protagonists, I wanted to ask you if Aoyama’s obsession with breasts was annoying to translate.

AC: I was certainly acutely conscious of how differently Aoyama’s interest in breasts would play culturally speaking. I definitely made a conscious choice to use the word “breast” as the most scientific sounding term for them, to emphasize that his interest in them is purely scientific and he’s completely unaware of anything sexual about it (which is what Americans tend to be bothered by). Then the subtitles of the [Penguin Highway] film adaptation I saw used “boob” the whole time, and that seemed to defang it in an entirely different way that worked just as well, so maybe I just overthought it!

EB: Yeah, to me, I felt like well, he’s getting to be the age that he’ll start noticing these things more and more. So it didn’t strike me as that bizarre, but also he thinks about them in a pretty specific way that is endearing and very in character. I like the choice of “breasts.”

AC: What did you think was the single greatest challenge with your book?

EB: Chapter three, definitely, which is hard to speak to now because my editor changed a few things, but there were some terms that I had to really think about, and then the guerrilla theater production. But actually, the script for the play the students at the university put on went more smoothly than I thought. I was going to try to get feedback on the draft from my sister and her husband, who are both in the theater world, but they were busy and I ended up being satisfied with what I had.

AC: Reading the play in English, I got the sense that that was the section you most enjoyed translating. There was a real zeal to it.

EB: It’s just so ridiculous. What about for you? I also wanted to ask about the onēsan (the lady Aoyama likes never gets a name) and shōnen (what she calls Aoyama), if that wasn’t the hardest part.

AC: I think I got lucky there, since I tried “the lady” first, and it worked, and nobody disagreed. And even the movie subtitles did the same thing, so I guess sometimes there is just a right answer.

EB: Yeah “the lady” is what I would have gone with for her, too. But I feel like “shōnen” could go more ways. “Kiddo” seemed perfect to me.

AC: “Kiddo” came less from the Japanese and more from the lady’s personality and voice. It just seemed like the word she would use to humor him. The biggest headache, though, was the reality warping around the unidentified floating object the kids are observing, which they call The Sea. The blocking gets very specific and occasionally not what you expect, so I had to reread a bunch and make sure I wasn’t messing things up and really understood what was going on.

EB: I remember thinking, as I read your translation, that it was probably a lot to think about. Was there anything that was particularly fun?

AC: All the sections where Aoyama is winding up his bullies by impassively refusing to get mad at them were great. Morimi talks about how Aoyama was the hero he wanted to be as a child, and I definitely relate.

EB: Yes, Aoyama is one of my favorite protagonists of all time.

AC: Another thing that’s unique about Penguin Highway is how little of the book is actually specific to Japan. It’s as if childhood makes things immediately more universal. But The Night Is Short is chock full of extremely Japanese things, and some of them are pretty obscure even for readers familiar with Japanese culture. How did you approach those aspects of the translation?

EB: Well, looking at the finished product, I see that my editor approached many of them with stealth or not-so-stealth glosses. Personally, I wanted to explain a little less in many places. I feel like readers don’t usually need to be babied as much as we think they do? I read a story translated from Korean recently that had a few footnotes, but I didn’t end up looking at any of them until I reached the end where they all were. If I wanted to, I could have Googled at any time, but I was enjoying the flavor of things and understanding well enough through context.

On the other hand, there are things like the padded coats in the hot-pot scene of The Night Is Short where you need to know that, rather than “some style of Japanese clothing,” it’s a padded coat. It impacts the action. So that’s how I tend to balance it.

AC: Yeah, there’s always a struggle between “I know all this! Let the readers Google!”; my knowledge that it can be frustrating to see a cultural reference you don’t know; and the need to anticipate what an editor will change. I’d always rather do the gloss myself…

EB: I guess up until now I haven’t had to do much glossing like that, so I was somewhat unprepared for how much they would add. It also depends on editorial style. I’ve been doing some other projects with a lot more back and forth, which has been refreshing.

Still, for things like street names, I think it’s silly to assume that any reader in Wisconsin (where I’m from) would immediately be able to picture a street in New York City from its name, or would be upset and stop reading if they couldn’t, but then say that it’s too much when coming from somewhere a little further afield.

That’s another big difference between Penguin Highway and most of Morimi’s books. Penguin Highway is deliberately almost placeless, whereas The Night Is Short is very much set in Kyoto.

AC: Having actually lived in Kyoto for several years, there’s also a gap between how native English speakers talked about Kyoto stuff living there and what would make sense to a reader. Like, we all called it “Kamogawa,” but do you add “River” in there? And do you call it the “Kamogawa River” redundantly or the “Kamo River” instead? It’s inherently a nightmare.

EB: I wanted to ask you, since Penguin Highway won the Nihon SF Taisho, which is often said to be like a Japanese Nebula, if you had any thoughts about doing this versus the extremely hard sci-fi Seiun Award–winner by Gengen Kusano that you translated recently.

AC: I actually did Last and First Idol and this one back to back, so that was a challenging couple of months. My feelings are that we should probably be translating a lot more things that win these awards, but that can’t happen if people don’t buy them.

EB: Word. I also really hope we can bring over more Morimi, too. The Night Is Short might be a little off-putting to people because of the stalkery way the guy pursues the girl, but when you hit the emotional climax (or at least what I consider to be the emotional climax) in chapter four, where he mulls over what a “correct” way to start a romance could possibly be—I feel like that’s the kind of thing people need to see today, almost. So it’s kind of a push-pull with the current zeitgeist, but I hope people survive the push to get pulled in.

AC: I think the intent is that he can’t get close to her until he addresses the negative aspects of his own behavior, but it isn’t lamp-shaded very explicitly. Some readers certainly seem to only feel comfortable if a book is straight-up preaching its moral, but I think Morimi is generally more fascinated by the process of self-improvement and self-discovery than judging his protagonists. He definitely allows them to be human.

EB: What Morimi book are you most eager to translate next?

AC: I don’t know! I really loved The Eccentric Family but I also really don’t want to figure out what to do with that character everyone just calls Nidaime so…

EB: As long as you don’t leave him as “Nidaime,” I think almost anything is fine! I’m really eager to get his epistolary rom-com, Koibumi no gijutsu, out, but I think we need Tatami Galaxy first, so I’m kind of focused on those two. He was up for the Naoki Prize with Nettai earlier this year, which is a book about a disappearing novel and the book club that tries to get to the bottom of its mystery—totally genius—but I also kind of feel like it should just come later. Basically, I’m chomping at the bit.

AC: The dizzying variety of writing styles in Koibumi would make it a real show-off piece for any translator. Which of us should translate it? We’ll have to settle this with a faux electric brandy-drinking contest.

All Books Are Maybe Books: The Millions Interviews Tim O’Brien

Dad’s Maybe Book, the first in almost two decades from the National Book Award-winning author of The Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato, began with stories and reflections Tim O’Brien wrote for his sons after becoming a father at the age of 58. Over time, the book evolved into a recursive meditation on fatherhood, fiction writing, and the unexplainable mysteries of life.

Midway through the book, O’Brien shares a scene from his own childhood in the 1950s, when his father—often drunk and absent—gave him a book of Hemingway stories and asked him to pick five to read and discuss with him. When he finished, his father was nowhere to be found. As a boy, it was devastating, but in looking back on it now, discussing the Hemingway stories and telling us how the best fiction doesn’t explain, he arrives at a stirring description of what fiction does instead:
The essential object of fiction is to embrace and widen and deepen all that is unknown and unknowable —who we are, why we are—and to offer us late-night company as we lie awake pondering our universal journey down the birth canal, and out into the light, and then toward the grave.
O’Brien and I talked about the book, the life lessons he offers, and how to tell a true story.

The Millions: At what point did you know this would be a book book as opposed to a “maybe book”?

Tim O’Brien: All books are maybe books until they’re finished. Even War and Peace and the Bible. So it went beyond just a title to something important about the way we live our lives. We’re always provisional and conditional. Maybe there’ll be tomorrow and maybe there won’t. So that’s kind of how it developed. After I knew I would have children, I gave up writing and thoughts of publication for many, many years, but periodically I’d sit down and write a little vignette about something that caught my attention that I’d laughed at or cried at. It began really as little messages in a bottle to leave for my children. The way I wish my own dad had done.

At some point along the line, my youngest kid saw me writing and he said, “What is it?” And I said, “I hope it’ll be a book someday.” It was the first time I’d even said that, kind of not believing it when I said it. He said, “What are you going to call it?” And I said, “I don’t know. I don’t even know if it’ll be a book.” That’s when he suggested the title. Call it what it is. Call it a maybe book.

TM: Sometimes, in literature and in life, fathers inhabit a silence. Your book speaks from the place of late fatherhood, and you have a great deal to share, which made me think about how other fathers and sons might interact with the book. What did you want to share about fatherhood?

TO: There are several chapters called “Pride,” which get into my misgivings about the subject. We tend to erase our kids’ failures or remember the basket they made from the three point line, and then forget the 25 ones they missed. The same goes with grades and everything else you tend to take pride in. On the other side, disappointment and anger and sadness can come in. Then there’s the pride we take in our country and how we’ll kill and die for it. Pride can be a vice and it can kill people. So there’s this tension inside of me about this whole fatherhood and pride thing. Telling myself, “Watch it. Be careful. It can kill.” And not only can it, it does and has. This is an example of how the book moved from fatherhood to a kind of memoir, in a way. I suppose the book really is essentially a selective memoir. Not chronological, but picking out points of my life or things that have happened that have changed my life.

TM: You write about the dangers of certainty and absolutism. In our increasingly polarized world, what you think is the best way to beat them?

TO: Going After Cacciato ended with the word “maybe” as the second-to-last word, and it infects all my work, since I was in Vietnam when staying alive was always a maybe proposition. Everything seems conditional and I see few absolutes that I can’t some way modify or qualify or change my mind about.

There’s a kind of know-nothing rhetoric, when it comes to immigration and warfare. Who cares about the facts? We’re hearing it from very high places now on a regular basis, in the form of little tweets, which have their own kind of absolutist rhetoric. A tweet doesn’t qualify, show modification or exceptions to the rule. It just declares things. It’s disturbing. 

TM: Some of the book’s vignettes are similar in style to your short fiction, where you convey a truth while calling attention to the made-up parts. Did you start drawing intentionally on the writing style that you became famous for?

TO: That’s the age-old question of writing, in that it’s not going to be word for word dialogue. It’s going to be my reconstruction of things that were said, and so on, as faithful as I can be to what I recall. Never exact, but I think that’s true for everybody, not just me. If I were to ask you, “Tell me what happened yesterday,” how much you could get out of your mouth before you’ve blocked out the dish washing and the dialogue coming out of the TV set? I don’t think you could reconstruct what you said when you were shopping for groceries. But none of us can. So much is lost.

There’s a line in Nabokov’s Speak, Memory: “Well, your memory speaks, but it stutters. It speaks in ellipses.” You do your best to give an impression of a thing that happened, but it’s not an exact replication of what occurred. A few things were so indelible they remained permanent. There’s a part where we’re vacationing in France and my mom died. I told my young kids, who were then 7 and 5. We were walking down this long road down to a little town in France, and one of my sons looked over to me. I asked, “Are you thinking about grandma?” He said, “No, I’m thinking about you thinking about grandma.” That’s indelible. I didn’t make that up.

I’m Very Bad at Being Secular: The Millions Interviews Nathan Englander

In Kaddish.com, Shuli (née Larry) tries to set things right with his dead father 20 years after paying a stranger to say Kaddish through the internet instead of doing it himself. The Millions chatted with author Nathan Englander, who discusses the fascinations that drove his novel of obsession, the creepiness of Instagram, and why it doesn’t make any sense to be a writer.

The Millions: The book opens in 1999, at a crossroads where many people allowed the line between technology and private life to dissolve. What kind of thoughts about the internet did you bring to it?

Nathan Englander: I grew up really religious. I remember being tossed out of class for asking a question. It was like Philip Roth’s “The Conversion of the Jews.” My rebellion was solely theological, which is just heartbreaking. They were asking us to believe in a god that could know what everybody in the world was doing, what they’d done before, and what they’re going to do next. Like a predictive omniscience. It was such a giant ask. And so looking back, I was like, we’ve built it! My Instagram is full-on creepy. It knows I’m hungry and it offers me food. I think I found out my wife was pregnant from, like, a side ad. It really knows your stuff.

TM: What do you think makes people susceptible to strong religious beliefs?

NE: We’re in a moment of extreme black-and-whiteness, and I’m obsessed with the gray space. So I thought, this radically secular Larry still has his old self in him. What would it take to flip? “He used to be religious, now he’s secular,” is so part of my bio. But then I was thinking, man, I’m so hardwired for switching. People tease me that I’m very bad at being secular. I feel like my wife’s afraid she’s going to come through the door and I’ll be koshering the kitchen, or I’ll turn Hasidic while she’s out picking up our kid or something.

I’m also interested in giving mass to jokes. One of my first stories, “Reb Kringle,” is about a Hasidic guy who can’t afford to pay for his synagogue, so he has to work as a Macy’s Santa Claus. I used to have long hair, and my sister’s religious friends used to say, “I could make such a great wig out of that hair.” I was like, that’s a good joke—a woman who desperately needs a man’s hair.

TM: Why was it important for Larry to mourn his father in his own way and reject (initially) the pressure from his family?

NE: When a sister believes it’s a brother’s job to say Kaddish, it’s not symbolic. You need to say this prayer eight times a day for 11 months, and if you miss once, your father burns in hell. I wanted to find a bridge between such extraordinary opposing realities within a family. You know, it had been 10 years since my father passed away when I started the book. It’s been really moving to be on the road and hear from people who’ve accidentally read it while mourning. People are reflecting on how they mourn. Your relationship continues. I really feel that I get closer to my father as the years go on.

TM: In a dream, Shuli’s father inspires him to take on a crazy task. It reads like satire, but the emotions are genuine. How did you balance the different registers?

NE: We’re all on a mission. It really doesn’t matter what it is. I can’t read any more articles about people who need to “summit” things. Did you watch Free Solo? I was like, is it even ethically tenable to film this guy? The fact that he’s not dead is actually surprising. I’m also interested in us having empathy for the framing of a mission. We all cheer this guy on. I’m almost 50 and I still need everyone’s approval. Maybe that’s the writing life. My wife is always like, “Are you on the phone with your mother again?” It doesn’t make any sense to be a writer. It’s not supposed to work. And even after it does, you feel like it doesn’t. So you have a mission. What are you supposed to do except be on it?

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

I Hope My Grandchildren Will Know Me by This Book: The Millions Interviews Patricia Henley

Twenty years ago, Patricia Henley’s novel Hummingbird House was a finalist for the National Book Award and The New Yorker Fiction Prize. Henley, a longtime professor in Purdue University’s MFA program, enjoyed the acclaim that her years of research and writing produced.

Then the novel went out of print for a decade. Henley, now 72, felt erased, as if she had to start her career anew. That’s about to change: This powerful, deeply affecting novel will come back into print in November, thanks to upstart publisher Haywire Books, which will release a 20th-anniversary edition of Hummingbird House.

Given the current crisis of immigration and detainment at the southern U.S. border, the story is as timely as ever. The novel closely follows Kate Banner, an American midwife in Central America who is caught between two worlds and rendered nearly powerless by the civil war in Guatemala. Steve Yarbrough, an author and professor at Emerson College, wrote the introduction for the new edition, calling Hummingbird House ambitious and wide reaching. Most impressive, he writes, is the novel’s depiction of the depth of human suffering, “with all the accompanying acts of malice, veniality, cowardice, courage, and humanity that one finds in places where people’s backs are constantly pressed to the wall, their character on trial every single second of every single day.”

Henley renders this suffering in poetic prose. She is also the author of four story collections and another novel, In the River Sweet. She retired from teaching in Purdue University’s MFA program after 26 years there and recently spoke with The Millions about obsessive research, finding your subjects, and the winding, unpredictable trajectory of a literary life.

The Millions: It’s said that books have long lives, and that seems true of this 20th-anniversary rerelease of your novel Hummingbird House, a National Book Award finalist. What has this book’s life looked like, from conception to now?

Patricia Henley: The idea came to me in 1988 when I first traveled to Guatemala. I’d had a romantic breakup and needed to prove my independence and thought that traveling to a war-torn country would give me some perspective, which it did. Standing on a street corner in Antigua, a British doctor told me the story of an American priest who had lived and worked in the Mayan highlands until he was murdered, a victim of la violencia, the civil war. The Mayan people asked his family if they could cut out his heart and bury it behind their church because they felt his heart belonged in the Guatemalan highlands. From that moment, my path was set. It took 10 years from the original idea to holding the book in my hand. I went through two agents. Neither liked the story or thought it had a chance. I made five trips to Central America. I was obsessed. It was a heady time. I was still young and had so much energy. I felt I could do it all. I was completely obsessed with the novel, the travel, the research. I dreamed about it.

When it came out in 1999 that was validation. When it became a finalist for The National Book Award that seemed almost secondary, after all I’d been through. Then it went out of print. It’s been out of print for a decade at least. Jon Sealy bringing a new edition into the world feels like recovering from a long illness, a generalized malaise. I’m not exaggerating.

TM: That’s fascinating. Could you describe what that time was like?

PH: I have been writing for decades. When I was young there was always the longing to keep me going, longing to be heard, to be published, to be accepted as part of the grand conversation writers are having. As time went by, and some of my dreams came true, I was fueled by that. And Hummingbird House and its accolades were validating, inspiring to me. When the book was sold to a different house than the one that originally published it, and that new house cared nothing for it, allowing it to go out of print, I felt as if I’d been erased. That happens to writers, I know. I am not saying my case is unusual. Just that the book being out of print left me feeling like an outsider, as if I had to build my career all over again.

TM: Hummingbird House covers difficult terrain in terms of the personal and political, as does your novel In the River Sweet. I recall you once saying that the most fulfilling part of the entire process of making a book was the writing itself. Not publishing, not winning awards: being alone and writing. Is this still true for you? How do you hold that pleasure in writing alongside such deeply felt and seemingly difficult subject matter?

PH: So glad you remembered that. It’s true for me now more than ever. Isak Denisen said that she wrote a little every day, without hope, without despair. Writing a little every day feels like a gift in my life, especially now that I’m 72 years old. I haven’t lost my mind. Or my health. As for the second part of your question, sometimes writing about difficult subjects requires a dispassionate approach to the job, a little like a surgeon, I imagine, engaged in life-and-death matters, but cool.

TM: Because you’re passionate about these subjects, how are you able to get the necessary distance to be dispassionate?

PH: A switch gets flipped in my brain when I start to write. My psyche becomes all about the sentence-by-sentence, image-by-image work. The process of writing supports a coolheadedness, I think.

TM: What has it been like to return to this material for the rerelease, and what have you noticed this time around? Did you make any changes for this edition?

PH: I did not make any changes to the text. Jon Sealy at Haywire Books felt that it holds up. And the tragedy of the Guatemalan people goes on. I hope the book will enlighten some readers about the history of the Guatemalan people and all that they have suffered and what drives them to the border between Mexico and the United States. I did, however, change the dedication. I decided to dedicate this edition to my grandchildren. I have six. Most of them are old enough now to read this book. Perhaps they will someday. I am always excited by my communiques with them. We communicate primarily by text message. And it has gradually dawned on me that they are beginning to see me outside my role as Nana. This book took 10 years of my life to complete. Writing it clarified my own identity. I hope my grandchildren will know me by this book, as well as by all the memories we share.

TM: In some ways, the 20 years since Hummingbird House came out are a blip in time, especially given the current situation on the Mexico/United States border. Along with that history, has the latest news been on your mind as you prepare for the rerelease?

PH: Yes. I have not returned to Guatemala since I finished the book. Of course, I naively thought that once the civil war ended life would improve for all Guatemalans. But from what I read, that has not been the case. Gangs are a problem, the climate crisis is a problem, on top of the issues that have always been there, primarily the severe inequities monetarily. An oligarchy runs the country and takes in most of any profits and those people pay little or no taxes. That’s my understanding. So for the average Mayan family, nothing trickles down. Who can blame them for wanting to send someone to the U.S. to make a decent wage?

TM: Do you have a favorite part of the craft of fiction? What do you gravitate toward as a writer and a reader?

PH: Hmm. I started out as a poet, so I suppose lyricism is fun, always fun. What Robert Olen Butler calls “sensual selectivity” is an enjoyable part of writing, being observant then figuring out details to include to create what John Gardner called “the vivid and continuous dream.” As a reader my tastes vary. I spent last winter reading all of Jean Thompson’s books. I love how messed up her women characters are. But they are also resilient, a trait I admire, a trait I imagine many readers admire. I’m in a period of enjoying family stories. Stories of women becoming more who they are always appeal to me.

TM: Does your subject matter choose you, or do you choose your subject matter?

PH: There has to be an urge in the writer toward certain subjects. Then, you open yourself to exploring those subjects. Once you open yourself, the universe sends news of that subject matter to you. Does that sound too New Age? I hope not. When I went to Guatemala for the first time I was interested in the civil war and the fate of the Mayan people, particularly the women and children. I was also interested in the ex-pat life, how people make that work. So many people walked right up to me and gave me gifts that allowed me to write the book. They told me stories. They took me places.

TM: Your first book of stories, Friday Night at Silver Star, was published by Graywolf in 1986, and your most recent collection, Other Heartbreaks, came out from Engine Books in 2011. Now you’re working with a new press, Haywire Books, for Hummingbird House. What have you gleaned about publishing over that time?

PH: When I was young, without any books to my name, I thought naively that publishing would go on as it had before and that I would connect with a publishing house and an editor and be with that house and editor my entire life. [Laughs.] I’ve been published by Three Rivers Press, Carnegie-Mellon Press, Graywolf Press, MacMurray & Beck, Pantheon, Engine Books, and now Haywire Books. You go through the doors that open is one way of looking at that.

TM: So you’ve encountered some closed doors?

PH: Are you kidding? I get rejected on a regular basis.

TM: You describe writing as a gift, but it also seems like something you’ve chosen, a life you’ve made. Where did that come from, for you?

PH: I started reading before I went to elementary school. The life in books was endlessly fascinating to me. I wanted to be a writer from an early age and I was fortunate enough to have been encouraged by my mother and my teachers.

TM: What’s next for you?

PH: I have about 65 pages of micro-memoirs, inspired by Abby Thomas and Beth Ann Fennelly. Some have been published in journals. Brevity and Atticus Review most recently. I kept thinking these short essays would leave me alone but they keep coming. Now I’m on my way to a full-length manuscript entitled You Could Live Here: Migrating to Cronehood. Dictionaries describe a crone as an older woman with magical power. These micro-memoirs, as a whole, are about embracing aging and living alone. I think some people still pity women who live alone, but there are, I dare say, millions of us who celebrate our solitude and freedom.

TM: We met when you were a professor and I was a student in Purdue’s MFA program. How has your writing life operated around teaching, and now in retirement?

PH: I taught at Purdue for 26 years. Before that I taught high school and at a technical college, and before that I taught in the Poets-in-the-Schools program. Around 40 years total. It’s very easy to give up writing for teaching. Teaching has immediate rewards, even something so small as a stack of papers graded can feel more satisfying than sitting down to a blank computer screen. So I had to pay myself first, as financial advisors tell us we should do. To pay myself first required getting up early, around five or six in the morning, and writing for as long as possible before going in to my day job. Sometimes that might have meant only a page or 250 words. But I did it. Now I’m so lucky to have the freedom to create the shape of my days. I still teach—and love short-term teaching stints. But not being tangled up with an institution and its meetings is the greatest freedom.

TM: What do you advise fledgling writers?

PH: Don’t take on too many domestic and financial responsibilities until you have established the writing habit. Decide what you’re willing to give up in order to be a writer. Are you willing to leave social gatherings early so that you can get up and write the next morning? Are you willing to give up being in control of how your home is cared for, to hire a cleaner, to train your 10-year-old to do his own laundry? When asked how she raised so many children and still wrote books, Ursula Le Guin said, “Benign neglect.” Will you learn to say no when volunteers are called for? Certain habits and sacrifices are necessary. And it’s likely no one else will enthusiastically support you in these decisions. It’s all up to you.

Unsettling the American Dream: The Millions Interviews Viet Thanh Nguyen

When Viet Thanh Nguyen visited Iowa Writers’ Workshop in May, everyone—including me—was starstruck. He talked about a prevailing belief back in his college years at Berkeley. “People say literature saves the world,” he said. “No, it doesn’t. But social movements do.”

At a time when democracies around the world keep making bad decisions and young writers feel the urge to facilitate social changes, Nguyen’s role as one of the leading public intellectuals in the literary world is both inspiring and motivating. He is aware of the underrepresentation of minority groups in literature, but he also understands that great fiction is much more than making one’s community look good. He views the customary writing adage “Show. Don’t tell.” with suspicion. As writers, we need to make great art and bring to light vital social issues, he says, rather than simply trust that readers will understand.

In the following interview, we talked about the aesthetics and politics of his brilliant novel The Sympathizer; how his literary education has nourished his writing; and how he deals with opposition and hostility from people with very different worldviews.

The Millions: I’d like to start by talking about The Sympathizer. Like everyone, I was hooked from the beginning: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” This distinctive perspective challenges the binary thinking that people often have. We cannot use words like “good” or “bad” to describe the narrator; we cannot use words like “failure” or “victory” to describe the war. How did you come up with this premise?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I had to write a novel. And I wanted to write an entertaining novel—that was also a very serious novel at the same time—and a novel that would grapple with politics, history, and obviously the Vietnam War.

The spy novel was the genre that was a perfect fit for all of these concerns. And also because I enjoyed reading spy novels, so I knew the genre very well. And as a writer, I gravitate toward both highbrow literature, like modernism, and so-called lowbrow literature, the genre literature. I don’t agree with any of these classifications, but the spy novel would allow me to bridge all these things.

Lastly, the idea of making a man of two minds and two faces was there from the very beginning, because I wanted the novel to be a cultural critique as well. I wanted the novel to deal with both cultural divisions—the so-called East-West divide—but also ideological divisions between capitalism and communism in the Cold War. So that’s where the man with two minds came from. And in order to make that seemed organic and not simply something that I was forcing onto the book, I made him a mixed race—half Vietnamese and half French—and someone who was both infatuated with capitalism but also a devoted communist. Putting all of these elements into his character made these theoretical ideas very organic as the plot unfolded.

TM: To follow up on that: In his book The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois said that this American world yields “no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.” He ever feels his “twoness”: “an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts,” “two warring ideals in one dark body.” Also, the opening of The Sympathizer pays tribute to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I wonder if African-American literature has influenced your writing and the way you perceive the Vietnamese and other previously colonized Asian communicates (e.g. Korean, Filipino)? If so, how?

VTN: I have another book called Nothing Ever Dies. And the title comes from Toni Morrison’s Beloved. And in my book, the section where I talked about W.E.B. Du Bois, the quote that you just mentioned to me, and Du Bois’s notion of the inevitable twoness of the Negro that he sees himself through his own eyes and those of others, is also true in many ways for Asian immigrants and Asian Americans. You see that also in the work of someone like Chang-Rae Lee, in the thoughtful Native Speaker.

It’s no doubt that African-American literature has been very influential on me. I think that African-American writers have created, in the United States, the body of literature that is both most politically committed and yet also most aesthetically elevated. I mean, the masters, the most accomplished practitioners of African-American literature—like Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison and many more—have demonstrated that you can be both politically and artistically engaged at the same time. And that if you are, in fact, a minority in this country, you need to do both at the same time. So, their model of aesthetic and political commitment was very important for my own work.

TM: Who are some of the other writers you most admire, and what else do you feel you have learned from them?

VTN: You know, I had a very good literary education as a student when I was growing up before I went to college. So that meant that I had read some of the modernist and classical literature of the West. And then when I got to college, I also encountered African-American literature and Asian-American literature, including Maxine Hong Kingston. And so I’m trying to bring all these different strands together. So Asian-American literature in general has been very influential to me, including Kingston, but also, for example, Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker, which I mentioned, and many other works, because they foreground Asian-American experiences. And among other Asian-American writers that I haven’t included, there would be the classics like John Okada, Carlos Bulosan, Frank Chin. Contemporary writers, after Kingston, like Susan Choi—her book, The Foreign Student—or Julie Otsuka, in her novels about the internment.

When writing The Sympathizer, I wanted to write a novel that was a so-called minority novel and that was unapologetic about being a person of color in the United States, but also a novel that could contend with both the Vietnam War canon and American literature as a whole. Hopefully it will be an American novel that will also have a presence internationally. So that was why it was important to The Sympathizer to directly confront the Vietnam War, so that I could contest the narratives of American writers of the Vietnam War, like Tim O’Brien, just to name the most famous example. And in writing The Sympathizer, I had my eye directly on how this novel would fit at the canonical level of American literature. Because I had studied writers like Herman Melville and William Faulkner, I wanted this novel to gesture at these major novels and their major concerns, their major themes about American literature and culture.

And finally, in writing The Sympathizer, I was also reading European modernist literature, because I always felt that this was not going to be the great American novel; this was going to be the European modernist version of the American novel. So that would be writers like Dostoevsky, Louis-Ferdinand Celine from the 1920s in France, Antonio Lobo Antunes from the 1970s in Portugal. So I really wanted this to be a novel that was both very specific to being Asian-American and American, but also to have those global ambitions as well.

TM: You grew up in the age of “narrative scarcity.” In other words, there were not many stories told from an Asian-American point of view. Because of this, minorities cared more about their representation as a group on the big screen or in fiction. Did you consider the potential reaction of your readership while you were writing? Did you do anything to avoid being misunderstood or misinterpreted?

VTN: I was worried about those kinds of things. When I wrote my short story collection The Refugees, most of which was written before The Sympathizer, I was concerned about how my audiences would respond to my work, both Americans in general but also Vietnamese readers. And when I wrote The Sympathizer, I decided that I no longer cared what my audiences thought, that in order to write the novel that I wanted to write, I had to stop caring. Because even as conditions of narrative scarcity were true, which they are, I don’t think a writer can allow herself or himself to be shaped by those conditions. We should be aware of narrative scarcity, but we can’t let our writing be shaped by that. For example, the anxiety that because there are so few stories about us, we have to write our stories to make our own community look good, whatever that community is.

The Sympathizer is written from the perspective of a communist spy. And when I did that, I knew that my community, which is the Vietnamese-Americans, many of them would reject the novel because communism is completely antithetical to Vietnamese-Americans. But I couldn’t care about that. And then I knew many Americans would reject the novel because the novel was a very strong critique of American culture. But I couldn’t pay attention to that either, not to write the novel I wanted to write. So that can be a tricky position for writers who live in narrative scarcity, we have to be aware of that condition. We have to fight back against it, but we can’t let our work be driven by the anxieties around narrative scarcity.

TM: Have any of your family members read the novel? What was their feedback like?

VTN: I don’t know about how many members of my own family have read the book. I don’t ask. That could be an awkward question to ask. But I think they are very proud of me, as are many people in the Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American community. So when The Sympathizer came out and got uniformly great reviews, it made, I think, very little difference in the Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American community, because like most communities, they don’t read, not on the average, right? I’m exaggerating a little bit. I mean, certainly, some Vietnamese-Americans sought out the book, and I got some very good feedback from them. But I also knew that a lot of Vietnamese-Americans were not reading the book, because they didn’t read books or because they heard it was from the perspective of a communist spy, and they just refused to engage. But after the novel won the Pulitzer Prize, all of a sudden, all these Vietnamese-Americans that never read the book and might never read the book were suddenly proud of me. And in Vietnam, the case was similar. But I think the difference the Pulitzer made is that it made more of them read the book. So in Vietnam, for example, even though the book is not available, apparently young Vietnamese readers who can read English will seek the book out in English. Because I encounter quite a few of them, who are foreign students in the United States and who told me that the book offers them something that is completely unavailable in Vietnam, which is history that is completely antithetical to the government’s point of view.

TM: If I am not wrong, the narrator is loosely based on Pham Xuan An, the Vietnamese man most beloved by American journalists during and shortly after the war. Can you say more about how you balance historical fact with fiction? What do you expect your readers to take away from a setting that is both real and imaginative?

VTN: In writing The Sympathizer, I felt that I had a fairly unique opportunity to engage with real historical events and real historical characters, because so much of what I knew about the war in Vietnam, and how it affected Vietnamese people, is fairly common knowledge in the Vietnamese refugee community but is not talked about widely or known widely to the rest of the world. It was actually relatively easy to construct the plot of the novel, because almost all the events are drawn from history. Very little in the novel in terms of major historical events are made up. And yet, for most people, this would be a completely new story. Writing this historical novel, I had an easier time probably than a lot of other historical writers would writing about events that are more widely known. And the major challenge was to put in enough historical detail so that the events would be convincing without writing a history book where there would be too much information. And so I always had to read much more than what actually appeared in the book. But the history from the book is drawn both from my fascination with the Vietnam War—over the last 30 years, I’ve read a lot of books and seen a lot of movies—but also from some very specific research I had to do for the novel. So, for example, while I knew that the Fall of Saigon had happened and I knew the general outlines of that, I still had to go and read 10 or 15 books on the Fall of Saigon in order to construct first 50 pages of the novel at a level of novelistic detail that would be compelling for the reader.

TM: Did you collect oral history?

VTN: No, that’s a completely different skill set for journalists. That’s not the book I wanted to write.

TM: Back when you visited Iowa City in May, you discussed your decision to open the novel in Saigon. You said that if the story had begun in the States and ended in the States, it would have been all about the life and death of the American dream. This inspired me to think about the prevailing immigrant narrative. Even though a lot of those stories intend to challenge the American dream, they are still built upon the assumption that the immigrants are attracted by the American dream in the first place, which, like you mentioned before, “affirms America to Americans.” But you identify as a refugee writer. Can you say more about the potential differences between a refugee narrative and an immigrant narrative?

VTN: I think that immigrant and refugee narratives overlap. We cannot completely separate them all the time. But as you were saying, immigrant narratives generally have a trajectory of moving from one country to the other country. And the immigrant narrative implies settling down in the new country. So we leave one home and we build another home. In the context of the United States, where the immigrant narrative is very strong, that idea of settling in the United States inevitably affirms this American mythology of the American dream. So that even when immigrant stories talk about how difficult life in the United States might be because of racism or economic challenges and so on, nevertheless, the very existence of the immigrant story itself—the immigrant novel that we’re reading—is evidence of the success of the immigrant story and the American dream.

The refugee story introduces other elements that can unsettle the immigrant and American dream story. These elements include, most critically, the fact that many refugees that come to the United States have come because of something the United States has done in their country of origin. The refugee writers, simply by acknowledging that history, introduce some troubling elements into the American story. So the existence of Vietnamese refugee writers talking about Vietnamese refugees, acknowledging the history of the war in Vietnam, means that the Americans who read these books or anybody who reads these books has to at least acknowledge this war took place. Now, the problem is, where the refugee and immigrant narratives overlap is that many refugee writers still, in the end, even as they acknowledge the refugee origin, including American intervention, often end with settlement in the United States. So that in the end, the refugee story looks like an immigrant story. And that’s why I think a lot of Vietnamese-American literature that deals more with refugees ends up focusing on what happened in the United States.

Writing The Sympathizer, I did not want to do that. If I look at the way that American literature has dealt with the Vietnam War, it’s bifurcated. It’s mostly Americans who get to write about the war in Vietnam, and it’s mostly the Vietnamese who write about the Vietnamese refugee experience in the United States. And when there are refugees who write about both parts, they write about their civilian experiences of the war in Vietnam and then the refugee resettlement. The Vietnamese soldiers who could write these war stories don’t write in English. So typically their story is only available in Vietnamese. What that means is that Americans still get to define the war. And so The Sympathizer is unique, I think, in this landscape by refusing the immigrant story, using the refugee narrative to demonstrate these contradictions of American intervention, and directly confronting the actual war in Vietnam, in a way that Americans are not used to. So I think that’s how the book is different, by deploying the refugee perspective.

TM: In your opinion, what is the difference between writing a novel and writing a short story? Do you have to train different muscles for different genres? If so, how?

VTN: I spent 20 years writing that short story collection The Refugees, and I think I exercised a lot of muscles, but maybe very different muscles and I never really coordinated everything together. So even now I could not explain to you what I’m doing in each of those stories and why I made the decisions that I did. It was, for the most part, a very intuitive process of trial and error in writing each story, which is very frustrating to me. Because I’m not a natural short story writer and I don’t have very good understanding of the short story form, it took a very long time to write that book. But I was exercising muscles.

So when it came time to write the novel, all of a sudden, it felt that I could put all these muscles together and work much more quickly, much more powerfully. And in the context of the novel, it felt much more natural. So it wasn’t as though there was no connection between short stories and novels; it was that they exercise different physical/mental capacities that I had. And with the novel, I feel like I can explain almost every single decision that goes into the book, and I can explain almost anything about the book that you could ask me about. It took two and a half years to write that novel versus 20 years for The Refugees, even though The Sympathizer is more than twice as long. So I don’t think I could have written The Sympathizer without having first written The Refugees. That being said, I would never want to go back to writing short stories and try to exercise those muscles again.

TM: Do you read to exercise your muscles?

VTN: Yeah. I tried to read books that personally move me both in terms of their story and concerns, but also how they move me at the level of a sentence. So unfortunately, I often pick up a book, I’ll read the first sentence or first paragraph, and I will decide immediately if I’m going to continue reading. I have so little time; I cannot afford to waste time on a book that doesn’t move me in every respect, but especially at the level of a sentence. Unfortunately, you know, in my life now, I have to read a lot of books that I would not necessarily pick up except that I’m reading books because I’m doing favors for other people and writing blurbs and things like that.

But in terms of reading for my own work, I tried to find books that I think are going to teach me something about some kind of literary technique or political concern that I need to know. So with The Sympathizer, it was very important for me to have discovered, again, Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night or Antonio Lobo Antunes’s The Land at the End of the World, because both of those books were doing things at the level of the sentence and at the level of politics. And the whole novelistic forms were not typical. They were very inspiring for me. And then finally when I’m actually writing, I try to read poetry, because the rhythm, the use of images, the use of sound, and these kinds of things are very important for me, in terms of trying to construct sentences and deploying images that are almost as concentrated as what you would find in poetry.

TM: I really enjoyed the introduction you wrote for The Displaced. You said something beautiful about memory. Your personal memory of displacement cultivates sympathy and empathy in you; remembering the best of humanity allows us to form an ideal that we can hope and work for. But others may go in the exact opposite direction for the same reason. Their past trauma teaches them to be self-centered to protect themselves; their recollections of the worst of humanity become the reason why we must close off our borders. Currently, the two groups cannot even have a conversation with each other. What’s your suggestion for a writer who aspires to speak to the latter group?

VTN: To the ones whose minds and hearts are closed? I think it’s very difficult because writers live and work oftentimes in environments and an entire marketplace that are different from the environments and marketplaces of people who are opposed to immigration and to refugees, for example. As writers, we like to believe that if we write an important story, the story will move people and change hearts and minds, because that’s our background; we’ve been moved by stories. But the people who really need to have the hearts and minds moved are oftentimes the people who are not going to be reading what we write, either because they don’t read literature or because they’re reading different kinds of books. And I can tell, based on my own personal experience; because I can go on amazon.com and see on my author page where my books are being sold, they are sold mostly in the so-called blue parts of the country, the coasts and big cities. But there are huge swaths of America where the books are not sold, and that is oftentimes a rural or red America. So that means that authors—especially literary authors who are writing fiction and poetry and so on—we have to be realistic about what our writing can actually do.

And we have to recognize that if we have a message that is not just an aesthetic message but also a political message, oftentimes we have to do different things to get that message out there, which is why I write op-eds. And I go give lectures in different parts of the country, because people who read my op-eds oftentimes are not people who are reading my books. And even in the context of the publications I write for, like The New York Times, Washington Post, or Time, they’re certainly not leftist, and sometimes they’re not even liberal. And so it is actually gratifying to see sometimes that people, like even childhood friends of mine who would not read my books, get Time. Or when I go give lectures, I have to go sometimes to very red parts of the country. And even if I’m giving these lectures in the blue parts of a red area, like a university, sometimes there will still be people who show up who are hostile to what it is I have to say. So they have to listen. And I have to acknowledge their presence. Sometimes I get some very difficult questions from people who come from a completely different perspective. So the work of changing hearts and minds is oftentimes not just at the level a book, but also at the level of personal interaction and going out there and having these kinds of conversations, trying to meet people where they’re coming from.

TM: How do you deal with hostility?

VTN: I think that I’m still relatively fortunate, because I know that women and women of color, especially in particular, get the criticism much worse than I do. As for me, I still get hostility, but it’s oftentimes restricted. You know, people will write me emails, they will send me letters that are very critical, but they’re still polite. The worst I heard is “Go back to where you came from,” which is bad, but not that bad compared to what people may actually have said. Social media allows people to have much more direct confrontations; people will send me messages on Twitter, or Facebook, or through my personal website. And sometimes, rarely, the conversations will be face to face. So people have said things very critical to me in an audience. But again, that doesn’t happen that often. And it’s happened less since I won the Pulitzer Prize. And so I think there are all these layers of insulation that I have that other people, particularly women and women of color, may not.

How do I deal with that? In a face-to-face moment, it’s important to have those moments, to not back away from that and to have that conversation. I don’t have a problem with that. And then with other kinds of written communication, sometimes I’ll respond. And sometimes these conversations will have an immediate dead-end, because the other person is so angry that we can’t have a conversation. But sometimes we exchange a few emails or communications, and we actually move forward a little bit in terms of understanding each other a little bit more.

TM: That brings me to my next question. How has the Pulitzer Prize changed your life as a writer? Have the changes been good, bad, or both?

VTN: Both. I mean, obviously I’m not complaining. There are negatives, challenges, but they’re completely outweighed by the positives. And the negative is that there has been a huge imposition on my time. So I’m about a year and a half behind in delivering my novel to my publisher. If I were to quantify how much time the Pulitzer cost me, that’s how much: a year and a half, because of giving lectures and responding to people and blurbing people’s books and things like that. The positives are that I’ve earned a lot more money. Because of the Pulitzer Prize, there’s no doubt about that. And that’s afforded me more time to write, my audiences have grown. I went from having no foreign edition to 30 foreign editions of The Sympathizer, because of the Pulitzer. So it’s turned me into more of an international author.

And it’s given me the prestige and the opportunity to speak to audiences I would never get to speak to before, both in terms of lectures but also in terms of op-eds. So I think the Pulitzer has, in every way, transformed my status as a writer, and it’s made me want to live up to that status, to use the Pulitzer for good and for other purposes.

The final challenge of the Pulitzer power play is what people will say about the novel that I’m writing now.

TM: I don’t want to get writers to talk about their ongoing projects. But in one of your previous interviews, you mentioned that you are working on a sequel to The Sympathizer. I only want to ask this question: What do you hope to achieve with this sequel?

VTN: Well, I think I want to write a good novel. That’s the most basic thing to do. And I want to write a novel that lives up to The Sympathizer, both in terms of its entertainment, but also its politics. And, let me set the expectations low and say, it won’t probably be better than The Sympathizer, but I hope it was at least be good and can live up to the reputation of that first novel.

But besides that, I think, going back to our earlier conversation about how I situate myself in terms of other bodies of literature and so on. Obviously, narrative scarcity, one of the problems for the so-called minority writer is that we get pigeonholed. We write a book that’s ostensibly about “our experience,” in my case, being a Vietnamese refugee in the Vietnam War. And we’re allowed by dominant culture to own that little piece of territory with the expectation that we won’t break out. That’s a trap. Because on the one hand, we want to break out; on the other hand, we don’t want to feel as if somehow we can’t write about what we just wrote about. I think about Philip Roth, arguably and possibly a minority writer, but definitely a majority writer. And no one now would ever say, “Oh, Philip Roth is only a Jewish writer, because he only wrote about Jewish experiences,” right? For me, the challenge is the same. That in the second novel, in the sequel, I’m still dealing with Vietnamese people, Vietnamese refugees and so on, which I’m not reluctant to do and I’m not apologetic about. But also, at the same time, I want to make the claim that just because I’m still writing about Vietnamese refugees and the consequences of the war, it doesn’t mean that it’s “only” about these things. In fact, we can write about these things, and yet they still are universally important. It’s up to me to prove that. But it’s also up to me to challenge readers who would not be able to see that.

TM: One last question: What are some of the habits that you think aspiring writers need to develop?

VTN: There are so many, but I think if there’s only one, that is to write a lot. Some writers would say you have to write every day. I don’t think that’s true. But I do think it’s true that you have to write a lot. No one ever became a writer by writing 100 hours. I think almost everybody has become a writer by literally thousands of hours. So however you choose to do it, you’ve got to do it. Whether it takes you five years or 10 years or 50 years. You can’t be a writer unless you do that.

And what goes along with writing a lot is enduring a lot. You have to endure rejection, obscurity, mockery, miscomprehension, apathy, that no one cares that you want to be a writer. And, in fact, life will constantly throw obstacles in your way. For me, one obstacle is I live in California, so to spend thousands of hours writing I have to sit in a room and not go outside and enjoy the sun. That may not be much of an issue in Iowa but it is here in California. So we endure and sacrifice a lot. So if you cannot write a lot, if you cannot endure, if you cannot sacrifice, then you should probably choose another passion.

The interviewer would like to thank Alyssa Asquith and Philip Kurian for their generous and thoughtful contributions to the interview.

About Brooklyn, All of Brooklyn: The Millions Interviews Thomas J. Campanella

“That which seems long gone is often still about our feet, hidden in plain sight,” writes Thomas J. Campanella: a lovely evocation. Brooklyn: The Once and Future City is an ambitious and accomplished book. 

For lovers of history and of the city, this book is a dream. It feels like a book that Campanella was born to write. An associate professor of urban studies and city planning at Cornell University, he is the historian-in-residence of the New York City Parks Department. He holds a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His previous books include The Concrete Dragon: China’s Urban Revolution and What It Means for the World and Republic of Shade: New England and the American Elm

We spoke about the urban past, Brooklyn’s forgotten figures, and how writing a book can be a “homecoming.”

The Millions: “Like many of Brooklyn’s native sons and daughters,” you write in the preface, “I went through a long period of disdain for the place”—until you were a graduate student at Cornell. Your “rediscovery of Brooklyn also tapped deep family roots”—grandparents, aunts, uncles, and more. “My very first debt of gratitude for this book, then, is owed my much-missed parents, who stuck by Brooklyn as everyone else” in your family “fled.” What has it meant for you to have written this book, considering this robust local lineage?

Thomas J. Campanella: Working on this book was a slow-motion homecoming for me, and the closing of a great circle that has literally looped the world—from college and grad school in upstate New York, to New England for my Ph.D., to Hong Kong and China where I lived for several years, to the faculty of UNC Chapel Hill, the American Academy in Rome, and—finally—back to both Brooklyn and Cornell. I have longed to be back “home” for years, but the academic job market is not much swayed by one’s hopes and dreams. Thomas Wolfe was right when he wrote that “you can’t go home again”; nothing stays the same. But you can get back to something pretty close. My parents are gone, and except for one cousin, I am the last family member in Brooklyn after four generations. Everyone else is dead, in the suburbs, or down South.

TM: “The urban past is all around us, and it conditions and qualifies the present,” you write. “The modern city is replete with palimpsests and pentimenti, stubborn stains and traces of what went before, keepsakes that beckon us to unpack and explore and to understand.” You say Brooklyn is “overexposed as it is understudied.” Why is that so? What do you hope that your book does for these “stubborn stains and traces of what went before”?

TC: This book will be successful if it gets people to look at their everyday environs, the ordinary urban landscape of Brooklyn, with fresh eyes and searching curiosity. Every corner of our city is layered with history, and this book is an attempt to peel back some of those layers—not every inch in every place, but at strategic points—to reveal the treasures concealed below. The book covers all of Brooklyn, but much of it focuses—by necessity—on the city south of the terminal moraine, below Prospect Park. If Brooklyn has long been in Manhattan’s shadow, deep-south Brooklyn is in the shadow of both. What drove me initially to write this book was the almost complete lack of historical scholarship on the extraordinarily rich Native American and colonial history of places like Flatlands and Marine Park. Or Jamaica Bay, the great building boom that turned the old Dutch farms into blocks of Tudor-revival houses for escapees from the Lower East Side. Or Floyd Bennett Field, New York City’s first municipal airport and one of the cradles of American aviation. Brooklyn is a global superbrand today; but it’s still understudied terrain, especially in relation to Manhattan. And nowhere is this more true than in the borough’s vast and peopled southern hemisphere. I have seen maps—of Brooklyn, no less!—that simply cut off everything below Prospect Park. Snip. Coney Island usually gets a call‐out box. Deep‐south Brooklyn is the flyover country of New York City. I want to make people think again, and more deeply, about Brooklyn, all of Brooklyn.

TM: Brooklyn: The Once and Future City, as you note in the introduction, is not a book “driven by a grand thesis, but rather a telling that plaits key strands of Brooklyn’s past into a narrative about the once and future city.” It’s a fine approach, and one that made me excited to encounter all of the fascinating residents portrayed in the book—like Deborah Moody. A 19th-century Englishwoman who was a child of nobility, she “was America’s first woman town planner”—now the neighborhood of Gravesend. Your book teems with characters like this: How did you decide whom, like Moody, to include (and perhaps, whom to leave out)?

TC: This book began as an eight-chapter proposal and wound up as an 18‐chapter tome. As I delved into the research I just uncovered things that had to be in the book. Fortunately my editor at Princeton is the kind that authors dream about working with. She not only tolerated multiple, years-long delays but encouraged my habit of going down enticing rabbit holes uncovered in my research. Many of these led to little more than a footnote, but others yielded entire chapters. The chapter on the search for the lost Maryland regiment and the creation of Green-Wood Cemetery was one; the one on Olmsted’s extraordinary scheme to extend green fingers from Prospect Park all the way back to Central Park was another. I was especially interested in throwing light on lost and forgotten figures, extraordinary people like Moody or Newell Dwight Hillis of Plymouth Church or the ingenious charlatan who tried to build the world’s tallest tower, Sam Friede. I steered clear, for the most part, of people and subjects well-covered by others—Roebling and the Brooklyn Bridge, for example—and only dwell on the overexposed subject of the Dodgers in terms of the postwar urban renewal. It’s pretty hard to write about Brooklyn without eventually bumping up against the Dodgers, especially when your name is Campanella!

TM: You mentioned that this book took nearly a decade to write, so I can’t help asking a process question. You start Chapter 4, “Yankee Ways,” with a lucid and concise paragraph that’s a precursor to your section on Prospect Park. In a few packed but smooth sentences, you contextualize the life of Frederick Law Olmsted, a “wanderlusting Yale dropout,” the forerunner of American landscape architecture. How did you distill what seems like an almost overwhelming amount of Brooklyn culture, lore, data, story, and more into one book?

TC: Well, the book in larval form was a very different creature than what I assume you have in front of you now. It started as an effort to tell about failed and forgotten planning projects—what the late German historian Reinhart Koselleck called “the onetime futures of past generations.” And from that it grew and grew, its reach steadily expanding as I became more confident about its thrust and scope. There are pieces of the book that I can trace much further back in time—I did the initial research on Deborah Moody as a grad student at MIT in the early 1990s—but had no idea they would end up in this book. I also had to avoid the “totality trap,” trying to cover every aspect and every age. That would have required three volumes and probably would have killed me.

TM: As a fan of periodical and publishing history, I loved your anecdotes about the Brooklyn Eagle. “Founded in 1841, the Eagle had been published without a break for 114 years and was one of New York’s oldest and most storied institutions. One of its early editors was none other than Walt Whitman.” The newspaper folded in 1955. You share a quote from Pete Hamill: Although never a great paper, the Eagle “had a great function: it helped to weld together an extremely heterogeneous community. Without it, Brooklyn became a vast network of hamlets, whose boundaries were rigidly drawn but whose connections with each other were vague at best, hostile at worst.” That’s high praise for the paper! Do you agree with Hamill? (And a side question, which you can feel free to ignore! Do you think any other publications, print or digital, have since captured the spirit of Brooklyn?)

TC: To your side question: No, not even close. The Eagle has been resuscitated in name, and its editor Ned Berke is doing yeoman’s work getting the hatchling to spread its wings. They have a superb real‐estate reporter, Lore Croghan, who is as history‐obsessed as I am and writes well. But these are not easy days for any newspaper. The old Eagle was a massive operation, with an eight­‐story building all their own. As for Hamill; yes, completely. I would have used “tribal settlements” rather than hamlets, which makes me think of towns in the Adirondacks; but the idea of boundedness and vague or hostile relations betwixt and between is spot‐on. And yes the Eagle helped bind everyone together; so did the Dodgers, frankly, and Steeplechase Park, and the Navy Yard, and the trolleys. And by the mid‐1960s every last one of these was closed, gone, or destroyed.

TM: The plans for the Linear City project in Brooklyn “were trotted out in a swirl of publicity on Feb. 25, 1967. By May 1969, the plans were shuttered. What was appealing about the plan in the first place—and why did it never come to pass?

TC: The racial politics of the era became too complex and too fractious for any compromise to be reached on the project’s many fronts, largely due to the terrible public school crisis and teacher’s strike of 1968 (which was centered on the very neighborhoods that Linear City would have served, Brownsville and East New York). It was a very convulsive time in the city’s history. What really grabbed me about Linear City was its hopefulness, its attempted reconciliation of the sledgehammer approach to highway infrastructure made infamous by Robert Moses and the yarn‐and­‐needles grassroots activism of Jane Jacobs. If Jacobs and Moses ever hooked up and had a baby, it would be Linear City. It was schools, community centers, art galleries, neighborhood shops and stores, all built atop one of the few expressway plans in New York that actually made real sense. Remember it was to run in an existing transportation corridor, the Long Island Railroad’s Bay Ridge division tracks. It could easily have accommodated below‐grade road that would have diverted a huge percentage of Long Island‐bound traffic away from the ever­‐clogged Gowanus and BQE.

TM: In your epilogue, you consider the future city, first turning back to how in the late 1960s, a “trickle of college‐educated, young, and mostly white progressives began moving” into Brooklyn. They were the “children of Woodstock, straining against the status quo,” and they “relished the borough’s working‐class grit.” For them, Brooklyn was “a place with everything Levittown lacked—a storied past, architectural splendor, racial diversity, down‐to­‐earth folk more or less tolerant of nontraditional lifestyles.” What might the future city of Brooklyn look like?

TC: Well, you can get a good sense of that by walking around any of the sought‐after neighborhoods of Brownstone Brooklyn, where most apartments start over the million-dollar mark. Lots of highly educated folks, mostly from elsewhere, mostly white and mostly well‐off—or well on their way to being well-off. An enticing array of bespoke and handcrafted, cruelty‐free and grass­‐fed. The good life, the well‐appointed life. I am certainly not immune to this. But the hungry grasping hand of gentrification can reach only so far—and you can map how far by studying the subway lines. I’ve advocated for extending the long‐promised Utica and Nostrand Avenue lines into Flatlands and East Flatbush and Mill Basin; but there is always a chance that the unique qualities of the outlying communities, trolleyburbs of the 1920s, will change in fundamental ways once you make them more accessible. It’s a delicate balance. I’ve often wished there were cafes and wine bars and galleries closer to me in Marine Park. Or a bookstore! There are only two general‐market bookstores in all the vastness south of Prospect Park. But after a long day in the city, or a night out in Dumbo or Cobble Hill, I find it comforting to be off the radar.