A Moose in Maine: Marcia Butler in Conversation with Richard Russo

If you set your novel in interior Maine, there’s a better chance that a moose will stray into your narrative than, say, if you situated the story in Nevada. Still, it’s a rare writer who’d be so accommodating to the moose’s sudden appearance, and only a truly daring and inventive one who would allow the animal multiple point-of-view chapters. Nor, in Marcia Butler’s Oslo, Maine, is doing so a gimmick. You think there’s nothing going on in a moose’s brain? You think there’s neither love, nor pain, nor loss in her heart? Think again.

I’ve known Marcia Butler for a good decade now and my admiration for her has grown to something closer to envy. As a young man I used to play guitar and sing semi-professionally (I was paid, but not much). When I decided to become a writer, I put the guitar in the closet and never took it out again, convinced that I would only have enough creative energy for storytelling. Butler—a first chair oboist, novelist, and documentary filmmaker—proves that we needn’t make such choices, needn’t reject gifts. All we need to be is fearless and devoted to craft. That Marcia is all that and more will become evident in our conversation below.

Richard Russo: You have more than a tourist’s knowledge of Maine, where your fictional town of Oslo is set. How did you come by that?

Marcia Butler: When I was a professional oboist, and for many summers, I performed at a music festival in central Maine. We musicians were housed with local residents who graciously opened their homes to us. My host was an older widowed woman who happened to be a gifted storyteller. It was through her that I learned about the town’s doings and human dramas. Celebrations and illnesses. Who’d given birth, who’d passed away. Those who separated and then reconciled. All the profound and minor aspects of life in rural Maine. Weirdly, I never met any of these people yet found myself becoming emotionally invested—and increasingly so with each passing summer.

I also heard lots of stories about moose which I soon became obsessed with, especially because for years I didn’t see one. I’d hear about a sighting on the other side of Bridgeton and race to the location. Of course, the moose was no longer there. But I kept at it, jumping at the vaguest mention of the animal, till finally I was rewarded. A moose cow with her calf. What a day that was, and particularly sweet because it happened to be the final year of my tenure at the festival, and, in fact, my career as an oboist. I retired from music but never forgot that moose or the Mainers, one or two of whom serve as archetypes in my novel.

RR: The novel has several point-of-view characters, the most unusual of which is a moose. In the hands of another writer this device might have come across as a gimmick. How did you avoid that pitfall?

MB: Indeed, this was daunting to consider. A few author friends suggested I read other novels with animal points-of-view, but I didn’t want to be influenced in any way—sort of like not listening to another oboist’s version of the Mozart Concerto. And I felt somewhat (naively) qualified because my obsession with moose has continued past my Maine years. I’ve probably YouTubed every video of a moose in existence and spent a lot of time researching the way they manage their world—all before I ever became a writer. Moose are stunning animals: efficient, intuitive, a miracle of survival. They’re born knowing that the only place they can get a vital nutrient is at the bottom of a lake and they’ll dive twenty feet to access that plant. During the winter they eat up to seventy pounds of leafless twigs a day to survive the season. Just two of many jaw-dropping factoids. My moose, and what happens to her, is the lynchpin of Oslo, Maine because though she remains a background character, almost all human action flows from this animal’s presence. Specific to her point-of-view, I needed to convey what she observed in a manner that was both understood by the reader and still remained animal-like. I made decisions along the way that straddled those imperatives, achieving what I felt was believable anthropomorphism. She also, at times, contributes dramatic irony in that through her point-of-view the reader is clued into events that human characters have no awareness of. My moose is probably the most sympathetic character in the book because she operates purely and without guile. A thing to behold and something humans might aspire to but will never achieve.

RR: Some of the characters in this novel do some pretty reprehensible things, but you seem remarkably non-judgmental toward them. You appear to suggest that just as the moose is going about its business of being a moose, your characters are simply human and doing what comes naturally. It’s their nature to be violent and venal, but also to be kind and generous. Can you source this non-judgmental tone in the book? It seems pretty remarkable given the age we live in, where social media judgment is swift and vicious.

MB: Big topic. Yes, my characters are messy. But life is messy—beautiful, ugly, painful, blissful, and filled with people mostly doing their best while failing miserably. This is the world I grew up in and it is the world we all continue to live in. This bandwidth of human nature is what I am interested in exploring through my novels; to draw complex, interesting, and unknown people. To place them in situations where the human stakes are high, yet their solutions may not seem ideal or even good enough. In other art forms such as music, there are certain norms that one adheres to, such as always, always make a beautiful sound. I believe that one of the reasons I was so drawn to contemporary music is because the thrust and difficulty of that type of composition demand priorities other than a pretty sound. I ended up making lots of beautiful and unusual noises on the oboe!

So as a writer, when a character shows up and he/she behaves not so pretty, I am curious as to where this person will end up and I loosen the reins in order to find out. It is a necessary process of discovery that my novel deserves. Then, if that character remains through many drafts, I keep in mind that someone loved this person despite their bad acts. Which brings me back to the source of the nonjudgmental tone in my novels. I know firsthand about bad acts and that most people don’t set out in life to commit them. I try very hard to give people, and my characters, a pass.

Regarding the current treacherous territory of writing unattractive or controversial people in fiction, I am aware that as I write these words I am also considering censoring myself. Right now. And that’s a shame. The truth is, I’m all for likable and relatable protagonists, but I don’t ever want to feel that I must tamp down (or gussy up) my characters in order to appeal to a certain readership who might be put off or to avoid a backlash on social media. I strongly believe that with any creative endeavor real art, and perhaps ultimately important art, will emerge from the freedom to defy some of the rules—and, if necessary, break every single one. As writers, we are naturally limited by the personal prism through which we see the world. We fight this every day and when we break through, this is how imagination takes flight. It is tragic that we might allow someone else’s limits to constrict what we write!

So, in this current “cancel culture” environment, defying popular talking points takes bravery. I always seem to go back to music, but when Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was premiered in 1913 it was met with near riots in the audience and was deemed nothing less than demonic: “a barbaric and puerile barbarity”. Clearly, popular culture was less than happy. Yet, there is no doubt that this one composition changed the course of music for the next century. I shudder to think what might have happened if Stravinsky censored his creativity because he was afraid of offending popular tastes. So yes, I occasionally made a strange sound on the oboe and I’ll create a father who, despite loving his child deeply, hurts him. And yes, we must break all the boxes we possibly can. Because when things fall apart, how we decide to reassemble might help people understand each other.

RR: One of my favorite characters in the novel is a boy named Pierre who, after a head injury that wrecks his ability to form short term memories, is saved by music. I know that music has been a vital presence in your own life, but did it save you? How about writing?

MB: The beauty of a prepubescent kid who’s not yet become jaded can spot irony without even knowing what it is, and notices the absurdity in the adults around him, well, that sort of kid captures my heart. Pierre, indeed, finds relief from his injury and those who fail him through his violin. I relate very much to how learning an instrument demands a focus we rarely achieve during our everyday lives. Music itself creates a space and time where the past and future are suspended—it anchors your entire being to the now. There is no doubt that if I’d not discovered music at age four my life would have played out very differently. Music served as my only friend while navigating a bad childhood. Then, throughout subsequent difficult adult years, my mantra became “as long as I can play the oboe, I’ll be okay.” Now as a writer I’ve discovered a different freedom of expression, one that feels more interior, more personal. And while writing is not performative, I do lose myself to the process every day and for many hours. I feel lucky to be able to “go there”. In many ways, the introvert in me finds making up worlds preferable to real life.

RR: Your novel shows great reverence for teachers, which suggests you must’ve had a few pretty good ones yourself?

MB: Oh, yes. I believe teachers are boots on the ground first responders – saviors, really. They are, after parents, the adults who shape children’s minds, sometimes without the child knowing the full impact until years later. When I was in seventh grade my history teacher taught the Roman Empire through the love affair between Antony and Cleopatra. Though it was embarrassing to listen to (I wasn’t even sure what a love affair was) I’ve never forgotten how absorbed I became with a subject that otherwise would surely have been dry and tedious. I couldn’t wait for class to find out what happened next; the teacher was a master storyteller.

While in music conservatory, my oboe teacher was the primary source for the musician I became. He encouraged me to step up and dedicate myself to a profession where the odds of success were slim. Most valuable was emulating his strict sense of discipline, which continues to serve me to this day. He did all these things and then went farther. During my first year, I was experiencing emotional turmoil such that it impacted my ability to progress on the oboe. He found a benefactor to pay for a shrink. I believe his insight and this pure act of kindness, in large part, cemented my future in music. He cared and he saved me. Then, years later after I sold my first book, which is non-fiction, I made my first ever stab at a novel and was accepted into a weeklong workshop with a well-known author. My pages were filled with point-of-view problems and terrible dialogue, but he gently brought me through all the mistakes and ended the session by advising me to take heart. The craft stuff was easily fixed. But the best news was that the story premise was “golden.” That word meant everything, and those nascent horrible pages turned into my first published novel. Ah, pedagogues: to lead the child of any age!

RR: What’s next? Have you started a new book? Some other project?

MB: I don’t know what I’d do with my day if I wasn’t writing, so, yes, I’m well into my third novel. As of this morning, it involves a twenty-year-old woman of Northern Irish extraction, a financier from Belarus, a washed-up British rock star. And a plumber.

Bonus Links:
A Year in Reading: Richard Russo

Resisting the Easy Impulse: Te-Ping Chen in Conversation with Brenda Peynado

Short story writers Te-Ping Chen and Brenda Peynado recently met when speaking at an author event about their books debuting this year, Land of Big Numbers and The Rock Eaters. Although both collections are set in different locales — Chen’s stories mostly take place in China, Peynado’s in the U.S. — they each share a palette of magic, violence, and themes of transnational identity and class differences.

Chen’s collection was published in early February (Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt); her stories have appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Oprah Magazine, and Granta, among others. Peynado’s collection (Penguin Books) will be released in May with stories from the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award, the O. Henry Award, and the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy.

The following conversation took place at the start of the new year.

Te-Ping Chen: One thing that strikes me is how hard it is to write in a compelling way about the current American political moment. The Rock Eater’s first story addresses gun violence. Can you talk a little bit about why you wanted to address that topic through fiction, and what that process was like?

Brenda Peynado: When I write political fiction, it’s less often that I want to write about something on the scale of national politics, but more out of a sense of bafflement of the particulars, something that seems so contradictory, so bizarre to me, it’s bordering on the magical or science fictional. My most political stories often use various techniques of the unreal because that’s the way I can communicate my bafflement, the ordinary magic of our contradictions. People who chant rhythmically at humanoid birds to be spared the world’s violence but are determined to do nothing about it, an autocrat that disappears people’s body parts for his own benefit, flying prodigals, all of these are my attempts to represent how utterly baffling — wondrous, rage-inducing, worth weeping over — I find the world.

When I started that first story, it was very recently after Hurricane Maria, and that became entangled with the near constant school shooting news. When Maria moved away from Florida, my mother said her prayers had been answered, without acknowledging that it had hit Puerto Rico devastatingly, even though we have a ton of family in Puerto Rico. I kept wondering if she thought more people in Florida had prayed than had in Puerto Rico. Did she think my siblings and I survived school without being shot simply because she was at home praying for us and the victims of the Parkland school shootings had said eight novenas instead of her nine? When people hear about school shootings and natural disasters, they’re always saying things like they’re sending over their thoughts and prayers. But those are just easy absolutions from true action. And yet, I have to remember that most people have a wholehearted conviction that their actions come from love, will make the world a better place, and they may never realize if they’ve made things worse for the very ones they’re trying to love. Out of that contradiction came the image of a family performing oblations to these bird-angels and the plot of a salvation march led by an armed Instagram prayer group.

Speaking of political writing, I am so thrilled I got to read Land of Big Numbers. Your stories capture a political frustration with bureaucracy, the Chinese political system, globalization, yet they do so through such specific and vivid characters and they resist easy answers. “Lulu,” the first story in the collection, is such a poignant example of this. The main character chronicles his status quo life versus his dissident twin sister’s radicalization. I kept hoping the narrator would come to an understanding about his sister, and yet it was more haunting that he didn’t despite his love for her. It’s too tempting to think that had we been any of those characters, we would have been the dissident, throwing our lives after a cause we believed was just. But I think most of us are the brother. How did you negotiate between your own position as a writer who perhaps wanted these characters to realize an essential truth, and resisting that easy impulse?

TC: Throughout Land of Big Numbers, though there’s a lot of playful use of the surreal and magical realism in the collection, I wanted the stories to feel true to life, and because of that I think the story had to end the way it did — with the sister, who’d spoken out, being punished by the state, and her apolitical brother, by contrast, getting feted as a professional video gamer, simply because of the political realities on the ground in China. I could — and did! — endow fruit with supernatural properties, and I could make a group of Beijing commuters get stuck underground in a subway tunnel for months, but I did not feel like I could change the fundamental rules of how politics work in China, even in fiction.

Perhaps this is a reflex I have as a journalist, but as a fiction writer, too, I also find myself instinctively recoiling from a feeling of judgement, or the idea that characters should ideally evolve or act in a certain way. Would it have been better for the brother to end up sympathizing with what his sister had done? And if so, better for whom? It might make a reader feel better, I suppose, but it would likely make his own life harder. He’d spent so much time learning to compartmentalize his understanding of the world — a skill he and so many others around him rely on.

“Lulu” actually makes me think of one of the stories in your collection, “Yaiza,” which traces the relationship between two girls from different sides of the tracks, the intense competition they have on the tennis courts and the way their lives fork. That story, along with stories like “The Whitest Girl,” are very much engaged in questions of race and class. Can you share a little about how you’ve tried to approach those themes in your writing?

BP: Authenticity was a real struggle for me until I graduated my MFA, just figuring out how my many hybrid identities could all exist on the same page in ways that felt honest. Growing up Latina and writing stories about girlhood and womanhood meant grappling with those hybrid identities, dealing with being white-passing in a culture steeped in colorism and classism, engaging with religious and political convictions that rubbed against solidarity in my communities. When I was growing up, I wasn’t aware of the ways all of that was playing out. So growing into authenticity as a writer meant trying to accurately capture the way these characters were steeped in all of these conflicts without always being able to see their way out of them.They’re not yet listening to what the world is trying to tell them. How often, really, do we hear what the world is trying to tell us, without catastrophe forcing it? I wanted the reader to see, through these surreal or exaggerated conceits, what the main characters often cannot.

Speaking of hybrid identities, we both went back on Fulbright grants to live in the countries that our families emigrated. I’d love to hear about how you navigated that hybrid psychology of feeling like you’re both inside and outside the culture you’re writing about.

TC: I’d grown up in Oakland, Calif. as an American of ethnic Chinese descent, in a family whose traditions were more particular to southern China, and whose forebearers had largely left the country before the Communist takeover. From the first time I arrived in Beijing as a student in 2006, and later as a Fulbright fellow, many of my early experiences in the country were about learning all the ways it was different and in many ways unrecognizable from the time my grandparents had lived there. It was dislocating, but also really spurred me as a reporter and a writer to try and understand and learn as much about the country and how it worked as I possibly could.

And eventually, working as a reporter there, the fact that I was Chinese honestly felt nearly beside the point. It made it easier at times to blend in and do the work, but for me I mostly felt occupied with trying to capture this world around me, and wanting to share it.

I was also conscious of the ways my being foreign was useful in China — as one of my Chinese colleagues once observed, it meant that I was often curious and interested in details of life that locals might take more for granted, but to an outsider seemed so vital, surprising, and significant.

What about you? You mentioned feeling like you had many hybrid identities — what were they exactly, and how were they in conflict? And what you mentioned about how your MFA helped you deal with questions of authenticity is so fascinating! Could you share more?

BP: That’s great that being an outsider gave you that distance to find things striking. I had to go both directions. I had a similar experience of being dislocated from contemporary Dominican culture because of stories from my parents that in many ways were outdated. But I also spent so many summers there, being shocked and fascinated by the difference between my summer life and my school year life, often longing for one or the other. In order to write the stories in The Rock Eaters, I had to both forget whatever “insider knowledge” I thought I had, but also normalize what felt strange to me about both my American and Dominican experiences while calling attention to what I really wanted to investigate. That’s probably where a lot of the magical realism comes in, as a way of magnifying psychology or particular issues while normalizing other things that would have otherwise been surprising.

I don’t think I could have done this as a younger writer, which goes back to what you were asking about authenticity. As a younger writer, I was sucked into other people’s sense of what kinds of things I should write about, what should have been shocking based on previous media representations — what Chimimanda Ngozie Adichie calls “the danger of a single story”. I loved Junot Diaz’s stories, and he was a mentor of mine in my undergrad. I unsuccessfully spent much of my MFA years trying to pull myself away from his experience of being Dominican American. My suburban, Floridian, Catholic school experience was just so wildly different from the lives of his stories. In trying to understand my own experience, I forced my stories to represent that confusion. I wrote long, sprawling, very unfocused stories. But I had to flounder through all of that before I was able to handle my own perspective. It wasn’t until after my MFA that I was able to piece together that my stories weren’t about being Dominican American, they were about girlhood and love and death and grief and privilege. They were about Latinidad insofar as we can’t escape ourselves and the histories that surround us, and I had to thread that line between the individual and the history. I had to understand how to contain all of that bigness in a small space without making the stories themselves small.

Your stories pack a tremendous wallop in small spaces, taking on large time scales, whole towns, whole relationships, weighty topics — basically, whole novels. Can you talk about how you handle the bigness of your stories and compression? How do you make stories feel important enough to spend time with?

TC: I sometimes think about the Tralfamadorian sense of time (from Slaughterhouse Five), and the idea that the universe is just so vast, with all events happening simultaneously or having happened, and the lack of linearity of it all. In some ways when you’re faced with such a sense of bigness, you don’t have any choice but to narrow in on one moment, or one gesture or person or scene to try and find meaning and make sense of it. That was absolutely how I felt about China, and in writing these stories — trying to identify those moments and scenes for readers that could unfold a whole world.

And I also really loved getting to play with different styles and genres in one book, almost like making a mixtape. When writing about a country as sprawling and diverse as China, it made sense to me to write a collection of shorter pieces, and also was really fun.

What about you? How did you arrive at short stories? What was the genesis for The Rock Eaters, and why short stories?

BP: I love reading short stories, the swiftness with which they wallop you with a whole life, a swift punch. I also love the way that surreality and exaggeration can work in short stories in ways that they don’t often in novels. The wilder the conceit, the harder it is to sustain, like it’s rocket fuel. Surreal novels tend to be on the shorter side too, like Laurie Foos’ Ex Utero, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo, and Jeannette Winterson’s The Passion. Even longer magical realist novels function, in some ways, like connected short stories, or have such long time scales because they’re running through so many generations of myths and stories, like One Hundred Years of Solitude or The House of the Spirits. So, because I love exaggeration, wonder, and the absurd, I often write explosions rather than slow burns, and each of the stories in The Rock Eaters started with an image so vibrant to me that only a wild ride would honor them — ghosts, angels falling from the sky, alien arrivals, virtual reality pregnancies, a tennis rivalry between two girls, the greatest recluse in Santo Domingo. Right now I’m writing a novel about a girl who can see all possible futures in the 1965 Dominican civil war and American invasion, and each of those futures allows me to write like I’m handling rocket fuel, with conceits like a housewife who can bring people back to life, the strongest man in the world, and a marine who can trade places with his shadow. But my first love will always be short stories. And especially during Covid quarantine, I have more attention span for quick bursts of reading than long hours, something to break up each day.

Your stories have so many electric pops of image that feel like rocket fuel. I will never forget the house on stilts in the middle of a landfill sending a bucket down for food in “Field Notes on a Marriage”. I want to ask you about what that image represented, a gulf that seems inexorable between even people who love each other in many of your stories. Do you feel like literature can bring people closer together—whether characters or readers—or only illuminate a gulf?

TC: It’s one of the most striking images you’ll see in China—so-called dingzihu, homes where people have refused to move, even when a developer has come in and torn up everything around them, and there’s road being poured on either side of their house and rubble everywhere but they still won’t go. They’re cinematic scenes of resistance and love and stubbornness and attachment, which is so much of what Land of Big Numbers is dealing with, those human passions taking place against a much grander backdrop of power and control and plans with a capital P.

I do think literature can change how we relate to each other, enlarging our sense of the world and identity, almost in the way that travel can, the ability to sit in a busy plaza in a city in another country and look around and be reminded, all these people, all these stories, a million lives happening at any given time, always. Or just the chance to engage with a mind that’s not yours, characters who aren’t your family or coworkers, who speak in their own tongues and have their own histories and experiences. That ability to pick up a book and get lost in its pages is something I’ve been especially grateful for of late, in a time when so many of us are feeling so relentlessly stuck in place. If we can find refuge in each other’s stories, I think we can be reminded of our commonalities, yes — but also, importantly, be struck by our differences. To me that’s part of a book’s promise, too, that it will remind us that our perspective is not the only one that exists (and what a relief that is).

Complicating Consent: The Millions Interviews Katherine Angel


When I read Katherine Angel’s first book, Unmastered, I badly craved the experience she described: A feminist enamored with a dominant man, analyzing the power dynamic and its eroticism from multiple angles. I was astounded by Angel’s brain and how clearly she articulated nuances of desire I understood so acutely, but hadn’t yet experienced outside my own fantasies. Years later, I find myself on the other end of a similarly gendered relationship, having also written a book about the experience
So clearly, Angel’s work has had a big influence on me. And that impact continues with her new and very important book, Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again (Mar., Verso). This nonfiction tour-de-force is a must-read for anyone interested in exploring themes of consent, power, sex, and the Me Too movement.. This is the kind of book that seeks not to create dichotomous binaries, but to complicate the narrative.
Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again certainly merits further conversation, and I was lucky to be able to have one with the author herself. 

The Millions: Why do you think the current discourse around consent is shortchanging many of us, perhaps especially women? 
Katherine Angel: Well, first of all, let me just say I’m a supporter of consent education. It’s obviously completely crucial that consent is respected and is taught as part of education starting from a young age. But I feel very disturbed by the way in which in some of that consent rhetoric, the onus is placed yet again on women to embody a certain kind of behavior, and a certain kind of personality —somebody who’s explored their sexuality and found out what they want, and is able then to communicate that without fail to sexual partners. But it can be very difficult to speak confidently and clearly about your sexual desire. Expression of sexual desire gets used against women, especially women of color, in courts of law. 
The implication of some of the consent rhetoric is that we can only be safe from violence if we know what we want. And the truth is, we don’t always know what we want — not least because a misogynistic culture makes that difficult. Self-knowledge is something we like to insist we have in our culture. But the fact is, we don’t. And my worry is that in insisting on it, we make women’s safety a condition of their own states. And I think that’s a sort of a strategy for risk management — but I think we should name it for what it is. It’s risk management. It’s not sexual violence prevention. 
TM: The way we’re thinking about consent mostly in these very legalistic terms of, “You either gave it or you didn’t” also reinforces, I think you’re saying, this very contractual idea of sex. That it’s a scarce resource women are withholding, and men are asking for, right? 
KA: Yeah, exactly. And I mean, contractual sexual relationships can be very important. For sex workers or for BDSM sex— there are all kinds of contexts in which the idea of a contract is actually what protects people. However, my worry is with the way in which a legal concept has come to sort of stand-in for what I think is a much wider kind of ethical conversation about not just sexual interactions between people, but interactions in general, where we have to contend with power dynamics. We have to contend with the “otherness” of the other person who might want something different from us and we have to negotiate our own desire in relation to another person’s desire. 
There is sex that is bad and not strictly assault, but that’s not a reason to handwave that away, as I think some critics do. On the contrary, it’s a reason to say, “Okay. What is it that makes sex bad? Why do so many, women especially, experience depressing, painful sex? And why is that something that the culture seems so resigned to? So, I want to acknowledge the importance of the legal conversations, but to say that conversation must not take the place of something much wider and deeper in terms of our cultural preoccupations. 
TM: As you say, any sexual relationship is really about power. And any power relationship is really about sex. 
KA: Right. There’s no sexual relationship in which individuals aren’t dealing in the excitement of feeling one’s own power, and the power of the other — feeling one’s self vulnerable. And that is also true for men. I think a lot of the harm that’s done in the world is done through men’s denial of their vulnerability — and also women’s collusion with that denial. I mean, women can hurt men during sex too, if we want to. Genitals are very hypersensitive parts of their bodies, and it’s also very easy to hurt men psychologically and emotionally. Men undeniably commit the majority of violence. But we all sometimes collude in this kind of denial of men’s own vulnerability. And I think that denial is often at the heart of men’s own sadistic feelings towards women. 
My utopian ideal is if we could live in a society where everybody could feel their vulnerability and try to ride it with excitement. That we wouldn’t have to harden ourselves against that vulnerability, whether in the form of very inflexible notions of our own desires or very inflexible contracts, or in the form of insisting, as in the consent rhetoric, that we know exactly what we want. Because not always knowing is part of the pleasure of life and sex, and unfortunately, it’s also what makes it very risky. 
TM: I love your utopian vision. Of course, I can see the critique that is a privileged one, right? 
KA: Yes. It’s obviously really important to acknowledge that very, very few people have the luck and the privilege to be able to kind of experience that vulnerability, even fleetingly. Because the reality is that women, especially women of color, are disproportionately subject to sexual violence. Men worldwide are punished for not being masculine enough, and that’s not even to mention the violence and discrimination trans people face. 
So, all those things are in the mix, such that for most people, touching that vulnerability is just not an option. But I suppose the thrust of my book is that I really want us not to give up on that hope anyway, and I want our feminist rhetoric not to collude with resignation. And that’s why writing about this kind of stuff is really frightening, because you’re unleashing something very subtle into a really unsteady terrain, where there’s a lot of trauma.
TM: And there’s sort of this pressure when you experience bad sex or sex you’re not sure is assault, to then categorize it. But that pressure is furthering a certain kind of patriarchal, either/or mentality of, “things can’t be subtle and fluid, and you have to decide who’s bad and who’s good.” It’s interesting that the danger I feel in writing down my own story is coming at me from both sides. I’m afraid of the trolls and the misogynists, and I’m also afraid of the Twitter court of public opinion and upsetting those who feel I’m somehow betraying the cause by expressing my ambivalence about whether I was assaulted or abused or consented. 
KA: Yes. And, I mean, on the one hand, consent is the bare minimum for good sex. But it doesn’t guarantee good sex. Consent is just consent. It’s dangerous to inflate it into enthusiasm and ecstasy. These things are different. Agreement to sex is just agreement to sex. So, that’s the kind of the legal side of it. But beyond that, we should really be listening to what makes so much bad sex possible. And that these very constrained horizons for women about how much pleasure they can expect, how much joy they are entitled to? How much sexual exploration they’re invited to play with. 
The world really caters to male heterosexual desire. It doesn’t cater to women’s sexuality. When it addresses women’s sexuality, it tends to do so in ways that kind of re-inscribe this sense of punishment and guilt and responsibility. And the flipside of that is that male desire is represented overwhelmingly in terms of kind of conquest, and sort of joyless satisfaction. And that’s also why sex is often bad for the women who sleep with them, because I don’t think men are well-served by that. I don’t think men are encouraged to explore the unknown in themselves and the vast kind of breadth of sensations they might be capable of. And that kind of narrowness leads to unpleasant sex for women, because it’s so often so focused on such narrow kind of physical parameters. 
So, I really think it’s about on the one hand, like, really taking seriously that very basic kind of consent education. But on the other hand, really trying to think imaginatively about what ideas we might try to loosen and what kind of unknown sort of experiments and pleasures we might allow ourselves if we weren’t so intent on closing sex down.

Sometimes There Are No Good Choices: The Millions Interviews Robbie Arnott


A heron made of storm. A squid culled for its ink. A society broken by coup and disintegration. Floods, droughts, hiding in caves, and offering blood to the seas. Robbie Arnott includes it all in his sophomore novel The Rain Heron, a beautifully poetic, hypnotic, barreling ride through symbiotic characters and landscapes, churning its nimble feet with environmental and existential angst. It is as delightfully brutal as it is captivating.

Born in and still residing in Tasmania, Arnott’s debut novel Flames was released to critical acclaim in 2018. The novel was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award, the Queensland Literary Award, the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, and the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize. Arnott was also a 2019 Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelist and won the 2019 Margaret Scott Prize in the Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Prizes.

The Rain Heron is sure to garner just as much attention. It is as pitch-perfect a second novel as could have been anticipated. Bringing darkness with light, chaos tinged with resolution, and a magic and myth-encrusted world that sings and stings, Arnott displays stunning talent on every page. Connected halfway across the world, Arnott and I spoke about the influence of environment, literary inspirations, external versus internal pursuits, and the complicated notion of symbiosis between nature and society.   

The Millions: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me about this brilliant novel. The Rain Heron is a stunning blend of mythologies, grim society, and fatefully interconnected lives, and I’m curious to know, what was the origin of the book? Was it a particular line, an image, an idea?

Robbie Arnott: The writing of the book began with the first section, which details the legend of the rain heron. I was trying to invent my own myth, of a creature that was emblematic of both the beauty and savagery of nature. I tried a few different things until I realized I was trying to describe a storm, and the way a storm can be as captivating as it can be deadly. Once I figured that out, I turned a storm into the only creature that I believed could embody its grace and power: a great, wondrous bird.

TM: Landscape plays one of the largest roles in the story, particularly through weather and environmental changes, which makes me wonder how much you gravitate to the outdoors? How much does the environment around you inform your daily life, or your writing process?

RA: I’m fortunate enough to live in a beautiful, somewhat remote part of the world, where stunning landscapes and environments are all very close, so I spend a lot of time outdoors. If I’m stuck for something to write about, I start describing a landscape I’ve visited recently—a forest, a stretch of coastline, an ocean, a mountainside—and then see if a story or plot line curls off it. It’s not necessarily intentional; I’m just easily influenced by the world around me.

TM: The landscape in the novel is rendered geographically anonymous though—generalized in title as mountains, forests, rivers, seas. Is this to make the plight more universal, to drive the story forward as a more collective mythology?

RA: Absolutely—I wanted it to feel universal, and unanchored to any places in the real world. If I placed the story in my homeland of Tasmania, for example, the setting would bring along all the things that readers already associate with the island. The book would be imbued with an inherent Tasmanianness, and I wanted to avoid that. Instead, I wanted it to feel clean and new, as well as being recognizable, although not as anywhere specific.

TM: In terms of literary influences, I’d love to know what writers and artists inform and inspire your work?

RA: I’m heavily and unashamedly influenced by the descriptive prose of Annie Proulx. I think she’s a wizard. My work is also heavily in debt to Richard Flanagan, Jeanette Winterson, and Susanna Clarke, as well as many other writers. I love the clean and revelatory prose of Kazuo Ishiguro. When writing about landscapes and nature, I think I’m probably inspired by non-fiction writers as well—people like J. A. Baker and Helen Macdonald.

TM: The Rain Heron is built on minimal dialogue. Is that a style particular to this novel, or an aesthetic you cultivate across your writing?

RA: It’s probably both. I generally don’t use a lot of dialogue, probably because I’m naturally drawn more to description than conversation. For this book, I wanted to portray the characters almost entirely through their actions and reactions rather than what they said or felt. It felt right to do it that way—to flesh them out through their behavior.

TM: Does the sparse dialogue tell us something about the novel’s take on internal pursuits versus external influences?

RA: I hope so. I hope it draws out a sense of tension and conflict between motivations that can technically be justifiable, and things we inherently know to be wrong. Sometimes there are no good choices.

TM: Ren, our anchor point character throughout much of the novel, only relinquishes her solitude when the landscape around her is endangered. Is this a commentary on valuing the world itself above the individual?

RA: Yeah, I guess so, although I don’t know if I conceived of it that sharply. Human destruction of the environment is unavoidable in real life, so I thought it should be unavoidable in the book. Yet we still like forests, mountains, and rivers. I wanted Ren to experience a tension between her love for nature and her unwillingness to interact with other people. If that plays out as a commentary on valuing the natural world, then I guess I’ve done part of my job.

TM: That begs the question then: What is the other part of your job?

RA: To entertain, I think. And hopefully to enrich. I love books that both drag me in and mess about with how I see the world. If I wrote anything like that, I’d be over the moon.

TM: Throughout the book, there’s a focus on nature versus humanity, specifically society’s desire, and yet inability, to fully control or dominate nature. Do you think we’ll ever truly see a genuinely understood symbiosis between society and nature on a global scale?

RA: Many communities and groups of people have done it before, for long periods of time. It’s not hard to cast around and find examples of civilizations that existed harmoniously with their environments for hundreds of years, sometimes thousands. I don’t know if it will happen again—at the moment, it seems unlikely. But it has been done before. It’s tempting to hope lessons can still be learnt from the past.

TM: At one point Ren also says that she wishes she’d been “less cold” to other people. Beyond the influence of the environment, how much do our relationships build who we are, affect who we become?

RA: We’re just a sum of our experiences and relationships, really. And we don’t often get a say in how they affect or shape us. It’s out of our hands. I’m not a total believer in determinism, but I do think we are largely molded by forces outside of ourselves, rather than through internal machinations of the mind.

TM: Through some slick and smart perspective shifts in the novel, the notion of antagonist and protagonist is muddied. Do you see that typical dichotomy as outdated or flawed?

RA: Not necessarily—there are lots of books with typical antagonists and protagonists that I love. But I didn’t want to write a book like that. I’m interested in the messiness of people, the hesitations, the self-justifications, the swirl of kindness and selfishness. I wanted to create characters who embodied those things. I don’t think standard protagonists and antagonists need to be done away with, but I do think there’s room to write stories about people who are neither wonderful or evil, and whose singular actions don’t necessarily define who they are.

TM: Have virtual events been any sort of silver lining to releasing a book during a worldwide pandemic?

RA: I’ve met some incredible writers I wouldn’t have otherwise, and have been able to talk about my book to people who never would have been able to make a traditional bookshop or festival event. So that’s definitely been a surprising benefit. Everyone has adapted so quickly.

TM: From your first novel to this second one, what has changed in your approach, style, or intent as a writer?

RA: I still feel like I don’t know what I’m doing, but if my writing has changed, it’s probably because I can figure out what’s not working more quickly. I think my instincts have sharpened through experience. I’ve done away with a few styles I played with in my first book and focused more on what I believe are my strengths. Although my writing process is still a giant mess. It’s chaos. I don’t know any other way.

TM: Can you tell us about some remarkable Australian authors you think might be deserving of more international recognition?

RA: Oh hell yeah. I love the work of Ryan O’Neill, and can’t wait for his next book. Jane Rawson is phenomenal, too—From The Wreck is a work of tremendous skill and imagination. And I desperately hope the world doesn’t sleep on Laura Jean McKay and her remarkable novel The Animals In That Country. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years.

Celebrating What Defines Us: The Millions Interviews Joshua Bennett


2020 was a big year for Joshua Bennett with his first nonfiction book, Being Property Once Myself: Blackness and The End of Man, out in the spring and last fall, his second collection of poetry, Owed, was published by Penguin. Originally a spoken word poet, Bennett has taken to the page in a remarkable way. His first book, The Sobbing School, was a National Poetry Series selection; his new book is a work of poetry and a work of cultural criticism and personal reflection, which seeks to reclaim what his childhood meant, and celebrate his true influences. Currently the Mellon Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College, Bennett and I spoke in October about our shared experiences; of being a scholarship student at private school; rejecting the narratives others wanted to craft for us; coming to rethink our childhoods and parents as adults; and teaching during a pandemic.

The Millions:  Joshua, I know you came up doing spoken word and poetry slams. What was your introduction to poetry?

Joshua Bennett:  My introduction to poetry was strange and multifarious: Sunday mornings indelibly marked by the rhetorical brilliance of Black Baptist and Pentecostal preachers; my sister taping Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” to the front of her bedroom door; the sounds of Motown each weekend as I did my chores begrudgingly. I grew up understanding poetry as an occasion for celebration and gathering. That has always anchored the way I encounter the page. I’m a self-taught poet. My approach to poems is rooted in love and continuous study. I had to read a bunch of books to figure out what I was doing and how to make it sing on the page the way I had always heard it sung aloud.

TM:  There’s always this tension between spoken word and written word and how to capture it on the page. A handful of people—Patricia Smith comes to mind—have been able to do both well, but it’s not easy.

JB:  Spoken word was a way for me to make friends. There was something about the incredible privacy of writing my first book that instructed me in other approaches to putting language together. I had to sit by myself with my fears and my shame—my joy and my dreams, too—to remain in that quiet and try to create something beautiful that no one would ever see or hear until I put them in a meaningful sequence. The part of my mind that composes for the stage, in that sense and others, feels like it’s working in a different mode than the part that composes work that is meant to be read.

TM:  People our age grew up surrounded by hip hop and that influenced so much about the way we thought about rhythm and lyricism.

JB:  I hope that’s right. Certain kinds of secular music were banned in my household, so my introduction to hip hop was my sister having Common’s Like Water for Chocolate as a kind of contraband item I could listen to when I got home from school. My friend Vincent would use Limewire to make mixtape CD’s that he sold for five dollars. I was one of his most consistent customers. That was my introduction to Biggie, Big L, De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, and any number of other MC’s I would come to love over the course of my teenage life. The Diplomats eventually became another one of those early inspirations. Not only the rhythm and tone of the work, but more this particular approach to thinking about the relationship between violence and value. The music struck me as strange, insightful, astonishing. On-wax, the personae they invented and perfected were adventurers, outlaws. These were men essentially narrating their lives at the edge of life, without the protections of civil society. I didn’t grow up with money, but I grew up protected in a certain way. My father integrated his high school in Alabama. My mother grew up in a tenement in the South Bronx. They had a relationship to danger that was quite different from my own. In part because they did so much to try to shield me from it. That wasn’t always possible. But I developed a relationship to music that became a way to tell not just my own story in some pure, autobiographical sense, but rather as a way for me to imagine myself as a character in an elaborate origin myth that I could expand whenever I turned to the page.

TM:  I don’t think this is so much true anymore but, for a long time, you wouldn’t hear much hip hop on TV or in commercials, and a lot of parents wouldn’t let you play it. Hip hop was both a public and a private art form in a way, and I feel like I can see you straddling that.

JB:  I will say this. I don’t put anything on the page that I don’t think sounds beautiful when it is read aloud. But I do think there is a distinction between exceptionally good spoken word poems and poems that sing on the page. Some of that is about pacing or diction, and a great deal of it, of course, is one’s capacities and talents as a performer. Poetry slam is its own art form. We can discuss the ways that these genres and approaches overlap, while still honoring the fact some people are undeniably gifted when they step in front of a microphone, and that their mastery in that realm deserves its own kind of attention and recognition.

TM:  As far as your new book and the double meaning of the title “Owed” and “Ode”. The cover is a picture of you and your father and I kept thinking about what we owe our parents and the frame that they provide for our lives in so many ways, which is one of the threads running through the book.

JB:  That’s a beautiful reading. It’s also, I think, a way to approach the entire collection. What do we owe the people who made us possible? The book begins with my literary ancestors—Gwendolyn Brooks and James Baldwin and Herman Melville—three of my favorite writers and the ones that really taught me how to think about the social, political, and psychic roles of literature. The cover is a photograph that my mother took in 1992. It’s an image of my father holding me. His strength, his grace and vulnerability, are what laid the groundwork for me to pursue my life as a writer. He worked in the post office for 40 years and before that fought in the Vietnam War and before that was a little boy in Alabama eating red river clay and trying to dream his way out of his social situation in the segregated South. The reason he enlisted as a teenager was that my uncle wanted to fight in the war, and the recruiter told him that they wouldn’t take two sons from the same family. And so he tried to lay down his life for his little brother. He did the same for us every day. He worked a job he did not enjoy very much so that I could go to fancy schools and read books he had never heard of. In this way, he offered me a model for what it meant to be a man, a human being, a moral actor, that was immensely instructive.

TM:  An ode is celebratory and I don’t want to say everything in the book is a celebration of your parents and growing up, but looking back you find joy and strength and celebrate that.

JB:  Joy is the through line. And it always requires work. Or at least, in the contexts in which I first earned to talk and think about joy, this was the case. Pain or terror persists in the night, but joy comes in the morning. You have to go through a gauntlet to get to joy. It’s not easily gotten or reached—or sustained. So alongside celebrating my family and my neighborhood I wanted to celebrate spaces like the barber shop, the 99-cent store. I wanted to take my time and meditate on what made these places, people, and things wonderful and worthy of praise.

TM:  They definitely resonated with me and some of my memories of childhood and finding a way to look back and reconsider what that means as an adult.

JB:  Could you say a little more about why and in what ways?

TM:  My parents were the first to go to college and I was a scholarship student in private schools, and reading your books I could feel and relate to what it felt to be in those spaces and not fitting in. The ways that as an adult you recenter what you value and what it meant.

JB:  I hear that. And what I eventually learned, at the level of craft, was how to more insistently, consistently, praise the forms of social life that made the sorts of educational spaces you’re describing here livable for me.

TM:  The Sobbing School opened with a poem about Henry Box Brown, which was a poem about the fear about being defined by trauma, and Owed is very much a refusal to think that and celebrating what helped define you.

JB:  I don’t think I knew how sad I was supposed to be until I spent real time in the sorts of places we were just talking about. Does that make sense?

TM:  It does. We knew we didn’t have money, but so many people there defined us as lacking not just money, but so much more than that.

JB:  It wasn’t until I got a scholarship to attend an elite private high school, and spent my mornings and afternoons with the other scholarship kids—and this was quite a diverse group, it bears mentioning—all taking various buses and trains to get to Rye, NY that I realized I was supposed to understand my life as a tragic story. Arriving at this place was meant to represent a narrative shift. This was the moment where everything would change for the better if I made it through. A number of the poems in The Sobbing School reflect my attempt to work through some of that, how forms of this logic persisted through my educational experiences as an adult.

In Owed, I’m elaborating upon the grounding assumptions that structured my first collection, and its opening poem in particular, which is centrally concerned with the historical figure Henry Box Brown, as well as the larger relationship between trauma and performance. I discovered, writing the second book, another set of organizing questions. Who is to say that the places which formed me were ones defined, primarily, by lack and deprivation? What if my aesthetic sense as a seven-year-old of what was valuable, what was beautiful, was much more worthy of exploration? I wanted to honor that perspective. I wanted to honor the vantage of the living, irreducibly complex human beings from my neighborhood who supported that first book and posted my poems on Instagram and sent me notes about what it meant to see the places we grew up represented in a book. I had to work through, differentially, a certain angst about not being or belonging to the old neighborhood anymore in the same way. In this second book, I wanted to kick things into another gear, and assert a set of principles about what beauty is, what poems can accomplish.

TM:  As you were learning to write poetry and thinking about what writing for the page meant, who did you read and who were you looking to?

JB:  You already mentioned one of them: Patricia Smith. And especially her collection, Teahouse of the Almighty. I carried it with me everywhere. I’ve been on tour since I was twenty years old. I started performing at colleges and universities, high schools and middle schools, when I was quite young, so this reading practice while on the train, or plane, or in the back seat of a cab, was the training ground for me to become a poet whose work could live a full life on the page. Smith was one of those people who helped me to make that leap. Lucille Clifton was another. William Matthews. Amiri Baraka. Gwendolyn Brooks. W.S. Merwin was central. Especially because at this time I was thinking so much more about nature poetry for my larger, critical theory project. This interest brought me to people like Merwin and A.R. Ammons, who was also influential. You’ll see that more in the new book project I’m working on. Those are the first people I was reading. I was also engaging more consistently with authors I first met through the national spoken word scene. People like Sonia Sanchez, who I met at a poetry slam when I was nineteen years old. Thinking about her work in the context of the Black Arts Movement was helpful to me. June Jordan. B.H. Fairchild. Robert Hayden. This constellation of writers became my base, my foundation.

TM:  Was Terrance Hayes a big influence on you? I’m thinking especially of the influence of American Sonnets For My Past and Future Assassin on Owed.

JB:  For sure. I actually just taught his American sonnets alongside Wanda Coleman’s and my students loved it. I’m teaching a literature course with about fifty of them on Zoom right now, and the experience has been absolutely surreal. I met Terrance at the Hurston/Wright Foundation summer workshop that he led maybe five or so years ago. His work was formative for me, especially Wind in a Box. After discovering that book, I read his collections out of sequential order—Hip Logic then Lighthead then Muscular Music—before reading the most recent two in rapid, chronological succession. As a poet just starting out, I was blown away. I didn’t know you could do those sorts of things with poems.

TM:  You mentioned teaching and you’re at Dartmouth and I’m curious how you’ve had to reteach thinking—sorry, rethink teaching. [laughs]

JB:  “Reteach thinking” is interesting! I want to linger with that slip for a bit, because it resonates. I have always been interested in discovering—in part through my ongoing practice as a reader and teacher—more about what thinking is or can be, how that process is honed, sharpened, beautifully complicated by collective study. There is always some of that involved during a new class. What I’ve discovered anew teaching this course is how much of the classroom teaching business simply does not work without tremendous buy-in from students. This has, of course, always been the case. And perhaps if you’re especially charismatic and can get up and be James Brown for two hours no matter who is in the audience, it doesn’t matter if students are all that interested or vocal. But for me, looking at fifty students on Zoom panels is only a productive pedagogical exercise because they do the reading, and we can have a collaborative, productive discussion where people have interesting things to say about what the work makes them feel, what it helps them to imagine. It’s clear that we’re all going through it. I have gotten any number of emails from students dealing with heightened levels of stress and anxiety. Folks whose economic situation has changed during the pandemic. And in some of these messages, they’re apologizing because they feel like they can’t participate in the class in the same way. I always want to reassure them, in the spirit of Lucille Clifton, who taught me this lesson: Your work is not your life. This class is not your life. Your life is your life.

Put another way, I have had to re-think what exactly is that we’re doing here, and why. The class is called “Modern Black American Literature: Education, Abolition, Exodus!.” In this first section, we are discussing the ways that 20th and 21st century Black writers render schooling in their works, how for so many of them—and here we’re talking about Zora Neale Hurston, David Bradley, and W.E.B. Du Bois among others—unforgettable moments of racial antagonism and alienation occur in the classroom. In Du Bois’s “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” for example, the theory of double consciousness, as he narrates it, has its roots in a moment of racist encounter with a classmate. That’s when he sees the Veil descend. Teaching this material in our current context has been instructive. So many of my students, since I have come to Dartmouth, tell me that they are taking classes in Black literary studies because they want to learn how to be more thoughtful, decent people. That’s a tall order for literature. But it’s brought me back to a series of first questions. What is the philosophical content of African American literature, of Black poetry, as such? What does it make and demand of us? How might we think together about a way to save our souls and be good to one another? How do books, songs, poems, help us get part of the way there?

TM:  It is a tall order. And it sounds like you’ve managed to find a routine this year in the midst of everything.

JB:  My wife and I are expecting our son to arrive any day now. Before that, we moved from our old place. Finding a routine has been difficult, but it’s also been absolutely necessary. I had to finish these books. In part because I’m under contract, but also because I’m not going to have a lot of time to work on any of this stuff soon. That knowledge changed my relationship to writing. I had to wake up, feed our dog, Apollo, go for a run with him, and put in my hours with the poems and prose every single day. In that window, I wrote a new monograph, which you will all hopefully see soon, and put the final touches on Being Property Once Myself and Owed. It’s been a wonderful journey. I look forward to what the future holds.

How We Endure: The Millions Interviews M.I. Devine


“Julia Zavacky comes down to us today as an eccentric accomplice to an eccentric artist well supplied with accomplices—a factory of them,” M.I. Devine writes, describing the mother of Andy Warhol. “But what if, instead, Julia, you signify—your journey, endurance, sacrifice—a human depth upon the surfaces of things, even the surfaces of a son.”

Warhol’s Mother’s Pantry is an inventive, playful, and rangy consideration of that human depth upon the surfaces of things—an examination of what it means to put “the mom back in pop.” It’s the type of generative book that left me with a personal syllabus of poetry and film—Devine has a way of magnetizing himself to past and present, bounding across references and texts.

M.I. Devine is, along with Ru Devine, the pop music project Famous Letter Writer. Their debut album Warhola was released on Big Deep Records, and was recently featured on NPR. Devine earned his PhD in English from UCLA. He has won the Gournay Prize for Creative Nonfiction, was a finalist for the American Studies Zuckerman Prize from the University of Pennsylvania, and has received support for his work from the National Endowment for the Humanities. He is an associate professor of English at SUNY Plattsburgh.

We spoke about the definition of pop, the merits of playful literary and artistic criticism, and how Warhol still haunts us.

The Millions: The first section of Warhol’s Mother’s Pantry begins with a photo of Andy Warhol and his mother, Julia. The arrangement of the photo places Julia at the forefront—which is true of the book as a whole. I feel like Warhol “haunts” this book more than he is physically or literally present in the text. What is the spirit of Warhol himself in the book?

M.I. Devine: Well, there’s maybe a double haunting, because for me Andy is Warhola, the immigrant’s son.

So, let’s start with Julia Warhola, his mother. Her infant daughter dies in her arms while her husband is in America. (I’ve called this elsewhere the Pietà of Slovakia). She came here alone when the border was closing in 1921. Year of pandemic, persecution: sounds familiar, right? Everything is haunted: now by then, 2020 by 1921, Andy by his mother, a name by its erasure. Call it a haunting, or call it the deep continuity between all things. I call it pop. Why not?  

That’s how the book starts, with a kind of prose poem about this nobody woman crossing the water, this folk artist. She’s my “reusable muse.” She cut soup cans into flowers, and taught Andy how to use scissors, how to remake, recrop, repurpose. 

To your question, then: Andy as a spirit of reproduction—in every sense of that word (as child, of course, but also as force, as strategy) is what haunts the book. To reproduce is to repeat, and pop is always a bid against death, against our own ends. It says we’re not just these woods we wander in, to quote Richard Wilbur (wildly out of context—which is a very pop thing to do!). It’s a portrait of Marilyn the day after her death. A soup can that’s maybe your mother, for sure. And it’s Kendrick Lamar singing “Promise that you’ll sing about me,” it’s Leonard Cohen’s Casio “Hallelujah.” It’s a way to live. Our equipment for living. How we endure. 

I see Andy, in other words, as endlessly affirming. Our desire to cut through. To make new. Tyehimba Jess tells you to use scissors on his poems in Olio and I see Andy there. I see him in the long takes of Cuarón’s Roma, a mother and her stillborn child.

You might say that we know so much more than Andy. Maybe so. But of course he is that which we know. 

TM: Your references to film and music are encyclopedic in this book—and both well-crafted and entertaining. How would you define “pop,” and where does poetry belong within or related to that definition?

MD: Pop means saying something deep in a stupid way.

To say something stupid in a deep way, of course, is to be an academic. (Okay, okay, maybe that’s just from a meme I just shared. Ha! If it’s not it should be.)

But I think there’s something there. Stupid is flow. Stupid is your body. It’s your stupid limits and our stupid forms and the stupid fact that we all die. Andy suffered seizures as a kid and he knew all about the body. We’re not free. So much we can’t control. Right? Right. Pop is most pop, most stupid when it leans into that, let’s say, and a little bit of light shines through, and then we feel at home. We sing along. Pop is deeper than you suspect and probably more superficial than you can take. It’s the skin and the soul. It’s Stevie Smith’s poetry. It’s waving and drowning, the body and the sign; it’s a dead man explaining it all at the end, which is an absolutely stupid and wonderful thing.

Pop is MF Doom, a rapper who wears a kind of superhero mask. It’s repeating the title of his song “Sofa King” three times fast. (Try it.) And pop is especially the opposite of pop, obviously. Doom has a line that goes, “All fake rappers, 23 skidoo.” As far as I can tell, it’s a reference to, among other things, a very early Edison film called “What happened on 23rd Street”—a stupid little bit of cinema in which a woman stands on a subway vent and, voila, you know the rest, Marilyn Monroe. “23 skidoo” means beat it, stop watching, scram. And it means Keep Moving! Which is what all pop says, right? How did that expression reach Doom? Who cares? This is pop’s archivist poetics, the thrill, remixing, flowing, telling us what’s real and, you know, what’s not—who’s just the fake rapper. 

Perhaps this sounds stupid. If so, I’ve answered your question.

TM: You write about one of the poet Philip Larkin’s selfies: “He’s thin here, alone, taking a picture of a mirror, which of course is what we all did before our phones grew smarter.” Later: “Can a form be selfish? And what’s that even mean? What are forms but rooms you put yourself in, self-portraits that keep things out, let things in?” How would you describe the “form” of this book? 

MD: Oh, God, talk about stupid, using Philip Larkin in a book about American art! What was I thinking? And of course it gets worse: while traveling in Genoa, I took a selfie with a bomb that is unexploded in this absolutely stunning cathedral. It just sits there like a statue. And a few things occurred to me: 1) The British fired it there about three months after Coventry, Larkin’s hometown, was absolutely razed in WWII. And 2) The rather Gothic bomb was shaped almost identically like the cathedral. Okay, I’m getting to the point: Later that night, I watched a Pearl Jam cover band (quite good) and took notes on all of this—Italian Eddie Vedder singing “Young girl, violence,” Larkin’s city erased, the bomb unexploded in a church. Now what part do I leave out? What part do I keep in? I began by writing about how forms repeat and endure, and somehow I ended up here! With Eddie Vedder telling me that things change by not changing at all!

The point is: this is all very Andy, who’d be a great writing teacher. He said, “When you do something exactly wrong, you always turn up something.” So, I guess I’ve tried to be a bit stupid, which is maybe what literary criticism needs.  Writing is taking a selfie and it’s knowing you can’t help but let in the chaos, the clutter, the noise. When I finished writing my book I read Amitava Kumar’s Every Day I Write the Book. It’s advice for academics, but it’s really just great about writing as every day practice—as pop, and open, and conflicted, and stupid, even, and, look!, there’s Elvis Costello! Writing is life. 

So order and chaos, pattern and chance, I wanted all of it in the pantry, footnotes that aren’t footnotes at all, distractions, startling juxtapositions. It’s all part of the journey, starting with Julia’s journey—for the reader. Into America, into the violence and beauty. Into great writers and artists I love. Into my writing.

TM: “I am not Jesus,” you write. “I can’t speak plainly. I’ve wept and fasted. Write and wait. Give you what I cross out.” There’s a great rhythm and layers to these lines, which I see reflected in the way you write of John Donne: “Donne doesn’t explicitly say whether God exists outside of language. Perhaps because Donne so loves the wor(l)d that he just doesn’t care. Like Hopkins, he reads in the Book of Creatures the unmistakable authorship of God. But undone, always undone is Donne. He has to complicate things. God is a strange king. And so hard to know.” Maybe it is because I have been reading a lot of that pun-admirer Marshall McLuhan, but it feels like punning and play are a big part of your prose. Is Warhol adjacent or present in that linguistic and intellectual play, for you? How about his mother?

MD: Well, to quote Kumar quoting Geoff Dyer quoting Albert Camus: “After all, the best way of talking about what you love is to speak of it lightly.”

Look, there’s a deep humorlessness that stains our understanding of art and creation. It took, what, about half a century for art critics to actually even read the words Picasso and Braque were cutting up in their paintings. Cubism’s a cut up! Oh, now I get it! Visual puns, verbal puns: to get it means you use more than your mind; you use your body; you let art touch your body; you laugh when you see that cutting up “Le Journal” makes some joyful nonsense. Jouer. Jouir. My book’s brilliant cover designer, Jeff Clark, ran with that idea. Collage is less about fragments and more a punning strategy about depths and surfaces. 

Am I divine? I’m not. And this feeling of epistemological play is rooted, I guess, in a broader approach to writing. Who am I to say what art should teach me? Art will not be possessed, nailed down. Andy’s mom titles his book 25 Cats Name Sam and One Blue Pussy and Andy’s like, Nailed It! One of his earliest religious works: “The Lord Gave Me My Face but I Can Pick My Own Nose.”

But the part you mention first is from “Dead Poets”: my elegy for Sam See, a poet, professor, and dear friend who tragically died. I process his death by returning to early childhood encounters with Duchamp in the Philadelphia Art Museum. Looking through peepholes at death. At life. I found it all terrifying and wonderfully out there as a kid. This sounds bleak, right, but pretty soon Andy crashes the party and the elegy, as all elegies do, turns joyous. I didn’t plan that. But it’s precisely because of this spirit of play, of affirmation and life one finds in the pantry, I guess.

Death is stupid, like I’ve said, and our only hope is to outwit it. 

Jesus said to Lazarus “Come forth.” But he came fifth so he lost the job. 

TM: There’s a fascinating bit here about film historian Tom Gunning’s observation that in early film, spectators were cued to the act of display and movement, something like “See the still image spring to life!” You mention that this “pop throwback” has “become more and more common post-9/11,” and consider it “an attempt, I think, to recover a shared experience.” Why didn’t it return after other traumatic events?” What was it about 9/11—and us then and now—that prompted this resurrection?

MD: The 21st century has seen the great early cinema revival, no doubt. Our 1890s peeps watched cat videos on a loop, and, turns out, we watch cat videos on a loop. Sure, some of our cats are more poetic (please google Louiswildlife, a German cat, immediately) but the point is what you’ve said before: a kind of haunting. And hauntings are good! That’s where the spirits are! In lots of ways our digital habits have returned us to the wild sublime of the medium. Dogface 208 skateboards and sings to Fleetwood Mac on TikTok to a trillion views and it’s like you’ve never seen the sunset before; it’s like you never seen our massified, inhuman infrastructure of roads before; it’s like you see for the first time the body in space, singing, free.  

This return, I think, began, ironically, with a brutal collective GIF: 9/11. After the Towers, and the run-away machines, artists responded in all sorts of ways, from Foer to Scorsese in all sorts of magical ways that I write about. I think we’ve been trying to heal that wound, taking new control over our machines, because that’s what pop does. Remixing, recovering, going “old school.” Back to innocence. We are like Andy the amateur not quite sure knowing how to use his camera, you know? And that’s beautiful. It’s a way of unknowing better, which is all we can ask for from art. If readers tell me that they unknow art and America and Andy and even writing better after reading my book, well, that’s all I can ask for. 

Ghosts Who Walk Among Us: The Millions Interviews Claire Cronin


“Horror fans are often asked to explain why to people who don’t like or understand the genre—to offer an apologia,” Claire Cronin writes in Blue Light of the Screen: On Horror, Ghosts, and God. “I’ve always felt haunted…There is something about watching ghosts on screens that satisfies this personal unprovable.”

Some books arrive at the
perfect time, but Cronin’s fascinating book feels absolutely made for this
especially disturbing Halloween. It speaks to the transcendence of her concerns:
she reveals how horror, ghosts, and God exist among each other.

Cronin’s vignette-style
structure arrives like whispers in the dark, or frenetic prayers. Her sense of curiosity
permeates the book. Fans of horror films and Catholics—devoted or drifted—will
love this unique book, but so will those who seek to understand fear.

Cronin is a writer and musician. Her latest album, Big Dread Moon, was described as “a full-length folk horror movie” by The Fader. She has written for Fairy Tale Review, Bennington Review, Sixth Finch, and elsewhere. She earned an MFA in poetry from the University of California, Irvine, and a PhD in English from the University of Georgia.

We spoke about writing that scares us, the power of ritual, and the ghosts who walk among us.

The Millions: Blue Light of the Screen is unique, expansive, and scary—and I don’t think it’s merely because I read it during the Halloween season. Your book mines the spiritual in a true sense: the world of spirits and the spirit. Were you ever scared while writing this book?

Claire Cronin: I did sometimes feel scared of what I was revealing about myself. The process of writing about my past called distant memories to surface, and some of those memories were scary—or sad.

working on the book over several years, I also became more attuned to uncanny experiences
and weird synchronicities. By the time I finished it, I found I was more of a
believer in the mysterious and supernatural than when I began, which was not
the outcome I expected.

I think my experience of the spiritual world has always been one of awe, fear, and dread: the “tremendum” in Rudolf Ottos’s definition of the numinous as “mysterium tremendum et fascinans.” It wasn’t ghosts and demons that most frightened me while writing; I was haunted by God.

TM: While reading your book, I recalled this observation by Father Andrew M. Greeley from The Catholic Imagination: “Catholics live in an enchanted world, a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures. But these Catholic paraphernalia are mere hints of a deeper and more pervasive religious sensibility.” Catholicism and God permeate this book—there’s even a Johannine (Gospel of John) cadence to some of your formulations about horror, like “We see it to believe it, and in believing, see.” What makes Catholics particularly receptive to horror and discussions of mortality?

CC: Well, the version of Catholicism I grew up with combined ordinary, post-Vatican II masses and catechism with my mom’s more magical beliefs and practices. From a very early age, this gave me the sense that our lives stood in a complicated relationship to the hereafter, and that we were sustained by our connections to invisible beings: God, Mary, the Holy Spirit, angels, and the dead, which meant both saints and dead people we knew personally. I learned that even if I couldn’t directly experience these beings, I should speak to them as if they were always present and listening. That whatever suffering I might face on earth was very small compared to the suffering of those who came before, and smaller still compared to the torments I might face in purgatory or hell. There’s a real horror to this idea, and it’s distinct from the secular, nihilistic horror of a vacuum. It’s a depth that’s filled with something—not a void.

And of course, the central rite of the Catholic mass is the sacrifice of Jesus’s body. This is very violent and mysterious. Catholics are taught to think of the eucharistic bread and wine as the literal flesh and blood of Christ. Through the power of the ritual, these substances are transformed. They are not symbols. When you’re actually in church, however, it’s hard to believe this because the eucharist still tastes and looks like bread…but there are stories of saints who were so holy that when they ate communion, they said it tasted like raw meat.

think this muddling of the symbolic and the actual is what set me up to be an
artist. I am, and always have been, fascinated by questions of what’s real and what’s
unreal, what’s manifest and what’s occult. I learned elaborate prayers to the
dead, saw images of wounded and transfigured bodies, heard gruesome stories of
the martyrs, and took seriously the threat of demonic evil. All these things were
present in my psyche before I recognized them in the horror genre.  

TM: “TV is a medium of ghosts,” you write. You title one section “Spirit Box,” and tell the eerie story of the 13th-century St. Clare of Assisi, the patron saint of television—who, unable to attend Mass in person, saw a vision of it projected on her wall in the convent. She is your namesake; what do you have in common with her? What does it mean to experience the world—material and spiritual—through a screen, a vision?

CC: I’m sure I’d be a disappointment to St. Clare. I’m not willing to give up everything I own, become an ascetic, and serve the poor with someone like St. Francis. My dad chose the name for me after his mother, but he’s also had a long career in the television industry, so it  fits in several ways. Or perhaps the name determined my fate, and I grew into it.

I think visions seen on TV, movie, or computer screens are very different from spiritual visions like St. Clare’s, but the problem of visions is something I spend the whole book worrying about. In one sense, a vision is by definition unreal—it’s a delusion, fantasy, or dream. But at the same time, a spiritual vision can reveal something more true and real than what’s normally perceptible.

I don’t know that people are capable of experiencing reality in some pure, unmediated, wholly physical way. We’re always drifting off into visions of the past and future. We become overwhelmed by memories and fantasies and moods, and we spend many hours watching images flicker across screens. Some of us, like St. Clare or William Blake or the poet H.D., have spiritual visions so powerful that ordinary reality fades in comparison.

There is something about watching a convincing horror film that is akin to having a terrible vision or a nightmare. But I think it would be an oversimplification to say that films are the same as dreams or delusions, or that witnessing an apparition of a ghost in a horror movie is the same as seeing a ghost appear at the foot of your own bed. The difference is the essence of the thing, which is the hardest part to define and yet the most important.

TM: I love to see Malachi Martin included in this book! Hostage to the Devil was a book I found in my house as a kid, and, fresh off repeated viewings of The Exorcist (and probably clutching a rosary), I pored through Martin’s disturbing tales. For the uninitiated: could you tell us a little about Father Martin? And how do you see possession relating to ghosts?

CC: Yes, thank you, Malachi Martin is fascinating! I still don’t know what to make of him. He was an Irish priest who left the Jesuits in the mid-1960s because of their alleged corruption, then he moved to New York, where he began a writing career and started practicing as an exorcist. He’s most known for Hostage to the Devil, which gives a terrifying and convincing account of several possessions. The book was a bestseller, but reviewers weren’t sure how seriously to take him, and he won as many followers as enemies.

I like Hostage to the Devil and find it scary, but I’m more convinced when I hear recordings of Martin speak. He gave a few long interviews on Coast to Coast, Art Bell’s long-running fringe paranormal talk show, and I found Martin to be so erudite and charming that I sincerely considered everything he said, though much of it is plainly impossible. The effect of that was chilling.

Within the world of horror, Martin was in the same circle as other paranormal investigators, like Ed and Lorraine Warren, and mentored a few contemporary demonologists who are still working in the field. The stories from these exorcists have been used as fodder for fictional horror films for decades.

As for the differences between demonic possession and ghostly hauntings, I think a person can be haunted, literally or figuratively, in such a strong way that it can seem as if they are possessed. What I mean is almost Freudian: that the ghost of a deceased parent or other ancestor can stay with a person and dwell within them, determining their interests, moods, and thoughts.

demonic possession is something totally other. It’s not a frustrated or unhappy
human spirit exerting its influence. It’s a nonhuman entity that has only
hatred for our species and wants to see us utterly destroyed. In horror films and
paranormal reality shows, these two kinds of spirits often coexist: a house or
a person may be tormented by both demons and ghosts. Very unlucky! But a demonic
possession is much worse; your soul is at risk. A demon works with a logic and
power we can’t understand and shouldn’t underestimate. No matter how frightening
a ghost may be, they are essentially the same as us.

my book, I think about haunting and possession as different metaphors for the
experience of depression and suicidal ideation. Both are states of being
overtaken by a negative force. My description of those states gets a little
more complicated and nuanced in the manuscript.

TM: Rilke, Plath, McLuhan, Merton, Deleuze, Sontag, Styron, Baudelaire, Kristeva, Freud, Lucretius, and Barthes all make appearances in this book—and that’s nowhere a complete list of thinkers and writers you reference. You include an especially great quote from Deleuze: “The modern fact is that we no longer believe in this world. We do not even believe in the events which happen to us, love, death, as if they only half concerned us. It is not we who make cinema; it is the world which looks to us like a bad film.” I can’t help but receive this quote in the world of 2020—and connect it with your observation that horror, possibly more than any other genre, “gives its fans the gratifying daze of repetition.” Are we somnambulating through this moment? How do you view horror films during a time of visceral, worldwide horror?

CC: It’s a good question, and we’ll see what happens in the next few months—if things get better or worse as the year comes to an end. Since lockdown began for me in March, I’ve have had the strange sense that life has never been more virtual, more screen-mediated, yet the danger which keeps me trapped inside is physical. I have never felt more aware of my own bodily fragility and mortality, and never more afraid of the hatred, violence, and delusion in our country, which is making the pandemic so much worse.

matter how much time I spend “doom scrolling” on social media or reading the
news on my phone, I don’t feel numb. I don’t think we’re sleepwalking through
this, though time has taken on very strange proportions, and life has often
felt surreal. The distance between me and everything that’s awful (which is,
perhaps, the distance of a screen) doesn’t make the situation less emotionally
charged, it just makes me feel more powerless. But of course I’m grateful that
it’s not my body on the line right now, and that I have the tentative good
fortune of health and safety.

I think people are still watching a lot of horror in 2020. It can be a helpful genre in a terrible time because it works as a distraction (replacing a bad thing with something worse) and as a way to think through questions about evil, violence, and death at an entertaining distance. There are many subgenres of horror that speak directly to the issues we’re dealing with now, though as always, I get the most satisfaction out of ghost stories. I think a lot about the hundreds of thousands of people who have died this year, and I wonder what those ghosts might ask of us in the future. I suspect they’ll be returning, seeking justice.

Bonus Links:—Eight Horror Films About WritersTerrify Yourself with These Ten Horror NovelsTen Haunting Ghost Stories for Halloween

A Project of Defiance: The Millions Interviews C Pam Zhang


C Pam Zhang’s first novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold is a thrilling, lyrical take on the harsh and beautiful landscapes of the American West, and its muscular writing shows that even these seemingly ironclad narratives—the white, American cowboy—are actually more fragile than they seem, if not entirely breakable.

The story centers on two Chinese American siblings on the lam after their sometimes abusive father dies, leaving the two orphans to do whatever they have to do to survive. The story takes place in a kind of dreamscape that both feels in and out of history. For instance, we all know the story of the forty-niners, but trying to follow the chronology in a literal way initially confused me. The sister who is the narrator tells the story of the sister whose gender is more fluid—in this layering, the novel also becomes a look at the stories we tell ourselves about other people who are close to us. Part of the book is narrative by a ghost. There is gold, and also tigers. But the narrative about the West has always been a myth, and myths are open to reinvention.

The book was longlisted for the Booker Prize, and Zhang was nice enough to answer some questions.

The Millions: Why the West—can you talk a little about your intentions (conscious or unconscious) to revise/rewrite the iconic, white-centered American West?

C Pam Zhang: I suspect that most writers have two answers to this question, and I appreciate your trying to unearth them.

My original intention was simply to have fun, to plunge into the joy and possibility of language. I wanted to mix the rangy cowboy poetry of pulp Westerns, the pidgin Mandarin of my childhood, and a game of trying to avoid gendered pronouns. Language itself was the entry point into this sound and rhythm of the world of the book, which is one of adventure, harshness, beauty, speed. I wrote several drafts of the novel before the subconscious intentions unearthed themselves. I grew up reading stories of the American West as my own family moved westward. The loneliness, starkness, and epic qualities of this landscape were imprinted on me through the Little House books, John Steinbeck’s oeuvre, Annie Proulx, Larry McMurtry. But eventually I realized that none of the people in those books reflected myself or my family. My project was one of defiance, in a way.

TM: The novel takes place in XX42 and XX67; dates with the XX in the century is usually the reverse of how it’s done; is this referring to a different calendar system?

CPZ: I borrowed the idea from Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. The idea is one of stepping just outside the boundaries of our world.

TM: How about the research? Did you feel like you had to confirm the actual possibility of tigers, or how did you proceed?

CPZ: The tigers, the XX in the dates, and the epigraph “This land is not your land” all function as signposts. Something like Here there be dragons on the margins of old maps. I was aware of readers’ tendencies to see this book as realistic, straightforward historical fiction, and I wanted to mark the novel as something different.

I had a delicate relationship with research. I was able to write the first draft of the book without research because I spent a good chunk of my life in the California public school system, and had foundational knowledge about the Gold Rush and the presence of Chinese workers. That misty place between the facts and my memory of them was the place of mythology that I wanted to occupy. In later drafts, I combed through dates and historical events—sometimes to use them, often to ponder how I wanted to deviate from them. Historical research is important, but in fiction it’s just as important to allow your imagination room to breathe. I mentioned defiance above. I have a somewhat defiant, combative relationship with the historical record, which is deeply political, written largely by and for white men. There are so many stories of women, people of color, indigenous people, immigrants, queer folk, the impoverished, and the dispossessed left out of written history. As a woman of color, I take it as my task to let my imagination expand into the spaces of erasure.

TM: What writers or other cultural producers were your influences?

CPZ: All the writers above, as well as Angela Carter, Michael Ondaatje, Anne Carson, Marilyn Chin, and, most profoundly, Toni Morrison. She was my first teacher in having the audacity to tell your story and trust the reader to follow your voice. Beloved is a reminder that you can let the surreal into the real, and that an emotional truth can have greater impact than mere facts. I would be remiss if I didn’t, at this particular point in history, acknowledge how great a debt Asian-American writers and other writers of color owe to Black writers. They have expanded so many boundaries in literature, and taught us to reclaim space previously thought of as marginal. I would not exist without Morrison and others like her.

What was is like having your first book come out during the Covid-19 pandemic?

My book came out right as California was sheltering in place. The pandemic has lent a surreal air to the whole endeavor; I still haven’t seen my book in a store and have had a hard time feeling like I’ve crossed the finish line. I’m not one for the limelight or public speaking, so I didn’t mourn the loss of a 15-city book tour as much as I might have. I mourn that tangible sense of finality.

My overwhelming experience, however, is one of great gratitude for the bookstores that have provided so much support as they themselves struggle. An incomplete list of bookstores people should support so that I, selfishly, can visit after this pandemic ends: Green Apple Books in San Francisco, Point Reyes Books in Point Reyes, Bookshop in Santa Cruz, Changing Hands in Tempe, Greenlight in Brooklyn, Solid State in D.C., Literati in Ann Arbor, Midtown Scholar in Harrisburg, and Bookmarks in Winston-Salem.

TM: What’s your current/next project?

CPZ: I’m pretty superstitious, but suffice to say it is the complete opposite of this first novel. No more child protagonists, no more history. Lots of twisty adult fun.

Bonus Links:
—Correcting History: On C Pam Zhang’s ‘How Much of These Hills Is Gold’
A Year in Reading: C Pam Zhang

Making Sense of Trauma: The Millions Interviews Melanie Abrams


The title of Melanie Abrams’s second novel, Meadowlark, evokes something peaceful, tranquil. From the first page, however, readers are thrown into a series of increasingly volatile scenarios. It soon becomes clear that the idea of tranquility, while indeed present in the novel, is always just out of reach, buried under the complexity of power, cults, motherhood, and childhood trauma. The tension in the book has an immediacy to it that might prompt most readers to speed along, riding the fast-paced narrative to its stirring climax. To do so, though, would risk missing an intricately layered tale that forces us to untangle trust from obligation, care from fear, and devotion from affection.

In her debut novel, Playing, Abrams tackled the lofty subject of kink and alternative sexuality with precision and subtlety. Here we get that same meticulous eye turned to the world of spiritual/communal life and alternative parenting.

I caught up with Abrams via Zoom, and our discussion, through its medium of isolation and social distance, felt very much attuned to the current chaos of the world around us.

The Millions: In the novel, two of the main characters, Simrin and Arjun, grew up on a compound called Ananda. Throughout the book, the reader can’t help but think about what is or isn’t a cult. By the novel’s end, we may have an idea of what is, but we’re still unclear on what isn’t. Do you think of Ananda as a cult?

Melanie Abrams: I thought a lot about this both during the writing of the book and after, and I really struggled with what to call both Meadowlark and Ananda – cults, intentional communities, communes, counter-communities, and (specifically for Ananda) an “austere spiritual compound.” Labeling either of these communities as “cults” felt reductive and unnuanced, but there’s no doubt that some of the more nefarious aspects of cults are present in both.

I did a lot of research on cults and there’s agreement that a cult generally has three features: 1) a charismatic leader who eventually becomes the defining element of the group, 2) some sort of brainwashing that eventually leads to members doing things that aren’t in their best interest, and 3) economic or sexual exploitation by the leader or higher ups. By this definition, Ananda probably wasn’t a cult in the early days, and you can even see members actively resisting this definition when, post-Waco, the kids are “drilled to answer prying questions about their lifestyle with, ‘Ananda Nagar is not a cult. A cult maintains totalitarian control over its members and is led by a self-appointed leader who has complete authority.’” But by the time Simrin, Arjun, and Jaishri run away, it does seem to adhere pretty closely to the above definition of a cult.

TM: What kind of research did you do on cults to write this book? Were there any specific examples that you used in your writing?

MA: I’ve always been fascinated by cultish environments—from outright cults (like The People’s Temple) to intense self-improvement courses (like Lifespring) to fundamentalist religions (evangelical Christianity)—so being able to justify going down the rabbit hole of research in service to the book was incredibly fun (although, clearly, also painful).

Eventually, I narrowed my focus to cultish environments with either a large population of children or where children were somehow the focus of the ideology of the group. This took me all kinds of places. The saddest was probably researching The Children of God who believed sex with children was a divine right, but I also branched out into learning about more benign communities. Living in Northern California was great because we’re at the epicenter of where commune life began, so I was able to interview people who grew up on Adidam and Black Bear Ranch and hear about what it was like to be raised in these environments.

I also was interested in alternative ways of raising children, so I did a lot of research on families who subscribe to untraditional philosophies like unschooling, where children don’t go to school and instead let life be their teacher, or who believe in concepts like indigo children which is a New Age theory that believes some children possess supernatural abilities. You can definitely see these childrearing ideas at play in Meadowlark.

TM: And how was the novel shaped, or perhaps how did it change based on some of that research?

MA: When I talked to people who were raised on some of the Bay Area communes I mentioned, I was actually surprised to find most of these people had almost exclusively fond memories of their time growing up (or they were refusing to engage with the negative memories). I think this is partly why I was reluctant to make either Ananda or Meadowlark “too” bad, that and the fact that both communities grow out of a very altruistic place and only begin to devolve when the characters are about to leave.

I hope both communities come off as nuanced, but…I can’t ignore that my initial nuance was probably too nuanced. Ananda was always the strict spiritual compound that Simrin and Arjun bristle against, but in early drafts, it lacked the harsher punishments that are now in the book. Luckily, I had some fantastic readers, and both my agent and editor said, “yeah…you got to make this place worse.” Narrative-wise, it was just difficult for readers to understand why two teenagers would run away from the only world they’ve known without some kind of pretty significant inciting incident. And they were right. With students, I’m always talking about how whatever you write must be in service to the story. Characters need to want something and something has to be at stake. You can’t make a spiritual compound relatively bad and expect your main characters to want to get out. Not much is at stake if running away just earns some extra cleaning duties.

Likewise, I also have a habit of idealizing characters (at least in early drafts), and this happened with Arjun. He is a golden boy, and it was easy for me to see him exclusively through Simrin and Bethany’s rose-tinted glasses. Harder was seeing that in order for Simrin and Bethany to have the epiphanies they do and the narrative to really work, Arjun couldn’t just be misguided, but had to also be intentionally manipulative and narcissistic.

TM: For your first book, Playing, we did an interview that focused primarily on kink and sexuality. This book doesn’t touch on those subjects, or at least not in overt ways. But I wonder in what ways interpersonal power dynamics, similar to those in Playing, are still at work here.

MA: The novel I’m working on now is all about sex, drugs, and rock’n’ roll, so the more Dionysian elements will be back soon. But yes, I do think there are power dynamics at play in Meadowlark, and for those looking hard enough, even some pain/pleasure.

I hope Arjun is more nuanced than just being the charismatic power-hungry player at the center of the book, but he is definitely intoxicated by attention and spends much of the book either jockeying for or occupying a place of control. When he’s young, you can see him trying on what it feels like to be the “chosen one” and rejecting Simrin when she doesn’t tow the line. And, of course, as an adult, he’s very comfortable sacrificing a whole community of people so he can advance his agenda and stay in the spotlight. I think the difference in this book is that although the women surrounding him allow for some of his grandiosity, they are ultimately the ones who refuse to submit to his vanity. They are firmly in control, direct the narrative, and determine what happens to them, and Arjun.

And, maybe, I can never completely get away from the idea of pain and pleasure as cohorts. Ananda, the ashram Simrin and Arjun run away from as teenagers, hold this idea as a central tenet: “‘Pain and pleasure revolve like a wheel.’ If you didn’t like something, the grown-ups would say, wait patiently for the wheel to spin. They hadn’t liked a lot of things, but they had endured. Pain, then pleasure; pleasure, then pain.”

I’ve always been fascinated by this binary—whether in a sexual context or while moving through the world. We’re constantly moving from pain to pleasure and back again. Even motherhood travels fluidly on this pain/pleasure continuum, and you see this in the book. Simrin and Bethany were constantly hurt by their own mothers and are constantly trying to course correct with their own daughters. Sometimes they succeed, but the truth is there is always pain in being someone’s mother, and in being someone’s daughter. As well, I was really interested in exploring what it means to connect and disconnect which maybe exists on its own wheel—the pleasure of really knowing someone, of really feeling seen, and the pain of losing that.

TM: You have this really impactful way of positioning adages or aphorisms as both clichés and as deeper truths within the world of the characters. Simrin’s mother, in a scene that is both terribly sad and almost comical, says “to want is both to desire and to lack.” Do you think that balance of seriousness with something like absurdity plays a role in the way your characters develop?

MA: I’ve always loved writers who are able to capture both the tragedy and the comedy of life in their writing (think: the unrivaled Lorrie Moore), so I’ll happily take the compliment, but I think it has more to do with the idea of connection and disconnection, or feeling seen and feeling invisible. Simrin’s mother, the higher ups at Ananda, even Arjun espouse these very self-helpy truths. When Simrin’s mother says the above line, it’s ridiculous. She’s completely blind to Simrin and what Simrin has lost, but the comedy (I hope!) stems from this—from being completely invisible to the people who should see you most clearly while also being able to see the absurdity of this.

Even Juniper, at 11, sees this in her father. She’s most uncomfortable with her father’s idea that Meadowlark kids have “the power to do anything” because she’s pretty sure it’s not true. But what do you do with the knowledge that your parent is outright lying to you? It’s very hard for children to see their parents as deeply flawed. Much easier for children to internalize and see themselves as flawed. It’s why childhood trauma is so insidious. It makes the victim feel at fault, which is of course tragic, but when victims are able to finally see, there’s anger of course but also a kind of perverse humor that comes with finally being able to see clearly because how can it not be absurd? To have been told your whole life the sky is green only to find out it’s the blue you were pretty sure it was to begin with? If you don’t also find it absurd, it would kill you.

TM: Motherhood, in this novel, feels central to understanding the full breadth and depth of how you’re exploring attachment. How did you navigate both critiquing and embracing the concept of attachment, and how important did it feel in crafting this book?

MA: It’s somewhat embarrassing to admit that I didn’t really know I was writing a book about motherhood until it was very much done. I did know that I was writing a book about connection
and disconnection, being seen and unseen, basically about the effects of childhood trauma (which, for better or worse, seems to be what I write about). But obviously, this is a book all about motherhood—the relationships we have to our own mothers and the relationships we have to our children. Both Bethany and Simrin have mothers that are checked out at best and abusive at worst, but both Bethany and Simrin are determined to not repeat this. They’re, unequivocally, much better mothers than their own, and their attachment to their children is much healthier, but even “good” mothers are flawed.

And good mothers see that their attachment to their children is strong, but not everything. Simrin can help Quinn navigate the world, but she can’t make it easy for her. In fact, she’s partly to blame for passing on the synesthesia that complicates Quinn’s life. And Bethany, despite attempting to distance herself completely from her past and the world that hurt her, can’t alleviate Juniper’s pain. She sees “her own hypervigilance in so much of how Juniper approaches the world, the same cost-benefit analysis of nearly every situation” and is taken aback by the fact that “so much of what she has always assumed is nurture–she is surprised to find–is nature.”

TM: Since you mentioned how you often write about childhood trauma, one thing I’ve noticed is how frequently other writers, even very talented, thoughtful writers, default to easy explanations regarding the subject, instead opting for puzzle pieces that fit nicely together. You don’t seem content with that though, and I’m wondering if that nuance is something that came naturally to you or if it was something you had to work at?

MA: I think all writers are interested in nuance. Even in genre fiction where “good” guys and “bad” guys are expected, good writers hope to create multifaceted complicated people. I think the problem comes when writers try to make characters fit perfectly within a narrative. I was aware of this in my first book. The main character is fundamentally shaped by a single childhood accident that dictates much of her life, but she also comes to see that whom she is has been shaped by more than just one incident. She’s shaped by nature, nurture, trauma, etc.

In Meadowlark you can also see the characters shaped by their childhoods. Simrin and Arjun grow up under strict dictates. Still, this trauma allows an incredibly strong and tender bond to develop between them, and it’s both the trauma and the connection that drives them as characters and allows the book to unfold the way it does. I think the key is to allow your characters to drive the narrative, not the other way around. If you create complex people, you’ll (hopefully!) create complex, compelling plot.

As well, I think most writers have experienced some kind of trauma in their development. Why else would we feel propelled to do this excruciating work if not partly to make sense of some of our wounds? Still, I wasn’t raised in a cult (like Simrin) or forced into the entertainment business (like Bethany), but I think that’s the joy of writing. You can channel your own trauma and make narrative sense of it, something harder to do in real life. I’ve always loved the Lorrie Moore quote, “The proper relationship of a writer to his or her own life is similar to a cook with a cupboard. What the cook takes from the cupboard is not the same thing as what is in the cupboard.” I think good writers take what’s in their cupboards and make lovely, messy sense of it.

Bonus Links:
Cultic with a Chance of Rain: The Novel and Cults and Novels About Cults
From Father Divine to Jim Jones: On the Phenomenon of American Messiahs

An American Nightmare: The Millions Interviews Dave Eggers


With the presidential election drawing near, it seems there has been an increase in Trump-related books, though the publishing industry has steadily published titles about Trump or inspired by him since he took office. Dave Eggers, author of numerous books, founder of McSweeney’s and Scholar Match, and co-founder of 826 Valencia and Voice of Witness, has reported on Trump’s presidency for The Guardian, The New Yorker, and The New York Times, and recently turned to fiction to focus on the subject.

Eggers’s latest book, The Captain and the Glory, is a hybrid of political satire and allegory that begins when a new captain, modeled after Trump, takes over a cruise ship called the Glory. The book presents the Captain as cowardly—he hides under his bed, listening to a voice in a vent—and cruel. While the ending of this slim novel is hopeful, the inhumane acts may be what linger most for readers.

During what is now commonly known as “the before times,” I spoke with Eggers at the McSweeney’s office in San Francisco to discuss The Captain and the Glory. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the upcoming elections, the American Dream and Nightmare, and Trump’s cruel policies. 

The Millions: What do you think is at stake this election?

Dave Eggers: Well, I don’t think I could handle four more years myself, but whether it’s four more years or just a year, I do believe that we can bounce back and think that the values that we typically live and stand for will be restored. I think he’s once in a lifetime. There’s nobody with his combination of fame, charisma, madness, and seeming expertise in certain things. There’s nobody like that, there hasn’t been, and I don’t think there will be.

I think that the dignity of the office will humble the next person in the way it’s supposed to. That’s what I hope and believe, and that’s what I wrote at the ending of this book, because I actually can’t imagine it being any other way. If there was another person like him in the wings I would be scared, but I don’t know if that person exists.

TM: In a PBS NewsHour interview, you mentioned that the American Dream “is always alive and always under threat.” I think that The Captain and the Glory is your take on the American Dream, specifically post the 2016 election, and I like to define these kinds of terms and concepts. How do you define the American Dream?

DE: Well, you walked through Scholar Match on the way here and that to me is the embodiment of the American Dream, where higher education is much more accessible here than it is in any other country; we have more colleges, we have more of an egalitarian approach to it. Higher education has been the catapult to class mobility since the beginning of the Republic, since Alexander Hamilton came from the Caribbean and got his degree and came here with nothing and ended up as Secretary of Treasury and one of the framers of the nation.

You see the American Dream alive every single day, and the most sort of bedrock and corny aspects of it—if you work hard, you can get ahead; if you play by the rules, as they say, you will be given opportunities. You know, I’m from the Midwest, we believe in some simple but provable concepts. I believe that’s where I define the American Dream, where it is about anyone from here or from elsewhere in the world, if they come here, opportunity is available—it is not always available, but for so many, tens of thousands, if not millions, every year, it becomes a reality.

At the same time, I think that Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, when he was part of the administration, all of these people, would very much like to limit the access to that American Dream and pull up the ladder, close up the borders, and keep a white majority and limit those opportunities to people that are already here and can prove their lineage to Norway ideally. I think that’s where it’s always under threat.

I don’t think in our lifetime the American Dream, as it pertains to new arrivals, has ever been so explicitly denied. There might have been implicit or quiet ways of making people feel unwelcome, or favoring certain groups, but this is the first time in our lifetime where from the highest levels we’ve said, Enough, enough of any of you from countries that we don’t consider favorable to our national demographic. It’s never been so punitively and cruelly stated, I think.

TM: It’s been said that we’re living in a moment of crisis, that these things have always been present, and the volume has been turned up. I think you partially answered this next question, but how would you define the American Nightmare?

DE: Well, I think in many ways we’re living in it, in the cruelty, the denial of rights, the denial of the rule of law, the naked xenophobia, the glorification of ignorance in a way, the black hole culturally speaking of the White House—having no recognition of any cultural contributions that the United States has or makes or can export. It’s been the first administration in probably 100 years that hasn’t had one artist visit the White House at any time. Instead, like out of any authoritarian playbook, there is an exaltation of the military, of the police, of anyone in Europe, of order. For a liberal democracy, this is as far as we can go toward illiberal authoritarianism without completely breaking the American experiment.

At the same time, weirdly, our checks and balances and our legal system and organizations like the ACLU, keep proving every day that there are ways to thwart, slow down, push hurdles in front of, and outright defeat so many of these policies. One of the most encouraging moments was seeing Ivanovic and Bill Taylor, and dedicated civil servants, come out with incredible earnestness and talk about their work and talk about the mission that they’re tasked with and how important it is to create a hedge against Russian imperialism. It was heartening to see there are tens of thousands of people like this in the government that are so sincere. They are what make the government run and hold themselves and the country to the highest standards.

It was restorative to see civil servants in public expressing basic outrage about what they see as an infringement on and an abasement of the dignity of their mission. That makes me think that there are so many more of them than there are the Trumps and the Bill Barrs. The vast majority of Washington and all government systems are sincere people.

TM: It sounds like that even though you think that we’re living in a nightmare, knowing that these folks work in the government, helps you feel more hopeful or secure about the future.

DE: Yeah, it was a good reminder. I think the foundation is strong. There’s a certain amount of damage you can do from the Oval office, but I don’t think that it’s enough to irrevocably alter that foundation.

TM: You’ve talked about scaling down setting and characters in The Captain and the Glory in order to satirize D.C. What things did you intentionally leave out?

DE: Melania, it started with Melania, maybe. It’s both too easy and too mean.

TM: In what ways?

DE: Well, I had passages written about somebody like Melania, and it seemed too broad, actually, and I guess too easy. I was about to say I consider her a victim of this predatory clown, but I don’t think that she’s a victim.

I think you have to decide on who that cast of characters is. When you shrink the cast and the setting and you create a universe with its own rules, you don’t have to at all conform to the logic of D.C. or a government anymore. There’s something inherently funny about a cruise ship, and the people that work on it. At the same time, if you consider what is to be a happy, celebratory atmosphere and turn it a little bit and the people that serve you mojitos and lay out the deck chairs become a pseudo-militia that carries out what amounts to ritualized drownings of certain people, then it can get really dark, really quickly. I wanted that to be part of it from the start. There’s this ridiculousness at the superficial level, which we’re living with, but then, at the same time, Trump and his cohorts enact policies that have ended the lives of countless people and created a culture of menace and fear for millions.

I was visiting a family that I wrote about before, that has been living in a church basement for a year and a half. A woman that came here because her ex had threatened her life, and she was quite sure if she didn’t leave, she would be killed. She left one child with her mom, came up here with her youngest child, presented herself at the border, applied for asylum, and they gave her a court location but no date. They said they would tell her the date and time of the court appearance. They never did and they tried her in absentia and they issued a final order of deportation. If she goes home, she dies. She has two American kids now, she’s been working— she’s exactly who we should be protecting in every way, and we should be keeping her with her American children where they can do harm to no one and live their lives in peace; but instead, the government has put the full force of its authority into removing her. They most recently fined her almost $300,000. They issued a terrifying letter saying that she owed the government $300,000. They tried to lure her out of the church, so that they could arrest and deport her, which they do a lot of times. And that level of venom and cruelty is, at least to me, new and soul shaking and hard to live with.

There’s the ludicrous communication and superficial appearance and clownishness, and then there’s this cruelty and our capacity for tolerating cruelty. Those were the two themes of the book from the beginning.

TM: Yes, and in the Captain and the Glory, there seems to be an attempt to get at the Captain’s internal reality, almost as a way to explain why those themes exist. In the book, it seems that his fear and paranoia are fueling the clownishness and cruelty.

DE: Yeah, and in the book, the Captain starts as a little bit more of an empty vessel than Trump is, I think, in real life, and the voice in the vent articulates and confirms his fears and gives him an action plan for them. In my studies of Trump, he’s always been a racist and he’s always been a xenophobe, but it turned up many notches when he ran, and I think his handlers, starting with Bannon and Miller and others, convinced him that this was important to his base. I’m sure Nixon was the same kind of fearful and loathing personality, but, in public, he had some discipline about expressing it. Trump’s lack of discipline is actually the reason why we see the nutty side.

If you read the tweets before he was in office, more and more, he was always inclined toward the conspiracy, whether it was Muslims dancing after 9/11 or starting with the Central Park Five. He was always ready to believe the worst of anyone that wasn’t white, for one thing. Then he started courting and being advised by people like Bannon, Alex Jones, Stephen Miller, and coddling the alt-right—that was the voice in the vent, originally it was an amalgam of Alex Jones, Stephen Miller, Bannon—people that do present a bleak, paranoid, fearful view of the world that is about threats and about invading hordes. He gravitates towards those voices, because they stoke these fearful embers in him and that is something that’s fascinating to me.

I was trying to get at that the Captain is such a cowardly person that he has to live largely under his bed, and there has his fears confirmed and articulated by this disembodied voice. It’s one of those things where it started writing itself, because a lot of this was written in a stream of consciousness, in the first draft. Sometimes that’s where you get your best and purest truth—when you just let go and, like the shaping of a dream, you realize afterward that it’s speaking to something that you haven’t been able to articulate otherwise. I think writing from the subconscious is rewarding sometimes.

TM: Slightly related to the subconscious, I was thinking about symbolism. I was thinking about the vent and the ship and what they might mean on a symbolic level. But I think you might be fascinated with ships, or maybe they appear in your work because of San Francisco, your setting.

DE: Well, obviously I think it’s subliminal—you’re always seeing oceans, water, island, and ships. Once I knew that to make this at all interesting, it couldn’t be in D.C., and it couldn’t be exactly now, it couldn’t be landlocked or land-bound; you do have to completely change the venue to tell a story that has parallels, but doesn’t kneel before the facts at all times. You have to tell your own story that is appealing and entertaining on its own—and I was determined to do that.

I wanted the story to go into even darker places, and to show nobody aboard that ship is suited to revive it—they’ve been transformed, paralyzed, and desiccated, and it’s only those from elsewhere that have heard the legend of the Glory that are equipped to restore it and to believe in the mythology and to believe in those books of laws and principals. Refugees from tiny vessels come having recovered the floating manuals and guiding principles and laws, saying, I thought you might want these back. I didn’t know that was the ending until I wrote it.

TM: Right. You didn’t know that that’s where you were heading. Given that it’s a book about the American Dream, and that you believe in the foundation of the government, and you believe in the American Dream, it makes sense that your subconscious would take you there, right?

DE: Yeah, I’ve always said the people that dream the American Dream the best are immigrants and the sons and daughters of immigrants—it’s always been that way—I don’t think there’s any exception. We’re not ourselves without constant influx of new people, that has always been the energy of this country and it always will be. On a basic entrepreneurial level, all the statistics say immigrants are double or triple the rate of entrepreneurship and that’s important to me—I am sort of an entrepreneur, too.

I hope that we’ll be okay. The number of asylum seekers we’re taking in has dropped almost to historic lows, the number of turnarounds at the border is higher, higher than ever. It will take a lot of effort to get that back up again, because it’s hard to open the doors once people have gotten used to them being closed. But I do think that the people that will remind us of why this country exists are not necessarily going to be the Stephen Millers and Bannons and Trumps of the world—it’s gonna be people that actually have read and believed in the words that define the country in the first place.

TM: Earlier you mention cutting Melania out. I’ve been thinking about the Captain’s fascination with his daughter. As a reader, I think it’s clear he has sexual desire for her—the way he’s looking at her. It’s something that the narrator goes back to again and again, and I’m interested in why this book includes it.

DE: The book is mirroring his public comments on Howard Stern and elsewhere, and when he said, “If Ivanka weren’t my daughter, I’d perhaps be dating her.” Because there are too many outrages to count, we forget 90 percent of them in any one assessment. We elected somebody who had been accused of and demonstrably was a predator, bragged about it, and also expressed amorous interest in some way or objectified his daughter in the national media. There were certain things that I wanted to remind people of.

TM: You mentioned being an entrepreneur. In an interview on Connecticut Public Radio, you listed some attributes that you thought should be necessary for the president. You mentioned empathy and knowing the Constitution, among other things. The presidency is kind of a macro example of leadership. What attributes do you think are necessary for leaders on a more micro level, in small businesses or institutions?

DE: Empathy, again, of course. There are positions for people that lack empathy and they could be in places where they could do less harm. I think empathy is genetically predisposed to have more or less, but I also think it’s something that could be taught, simply by reading a lot and listening a lot.

Intellectual flexibility, curiosity, eagerness to listen and learn, a presumption that you don’t know much and that everybody around you can teach you so much every day. I think one of the great joys of life is you go through it knowing how little you know and taking such pleasure in the relief that you’re really not going to know 99 percent of anything. So, if you consider yourself a vessel that has room to be filled, then that’s so liberating in a way. I’ve learned so much even in the last 20 years being with McSweeney’s.

With 826, I knew 100 percent I did not have any qualifications to run a nonprofit, so I was going to do mostly listening and helping along. All Nínive Calegari, the co-founder, and I ever did really was aggregate everyone’s ideas into a workable form and execute them. So tenacity, the ability to achieve the result, would be the last attribute.

Bonus Links:
A Little Bit Beta: On Dave Eggers’s ‘The Circle’
The Perils of Writing Wilderness: On Dave Eggers’s ‘Heroes of the Frontier’
Stranger in a Strange Land: Dave Eggers’s ‘The Parade’