The novel’s superiority over the short story has long been a subject of contentious debate among writers, readers, and publishers, and is in no danger of being resolved to anyone’s satisfaction in the near or distant future. The New York publishing world’s privileging of the novel over the short story, with a few notable exceptions, helps to assure the novel’s primacy among today’s prose forms, and booksellers likewise feature more novels on their frontlist and new paperback tables than short story collections. Certainly there are other reasons why novels, along with memoirs (putative autobiographies, in which their authors often employ the conventions of the novel), are the dominant prose forms on offer in bookstores, but if more short story collections were published by corporate publishing houses, it seems a reasonable assumption that their sales and marketing departments would then necessarily be tasked with promoting them with the same publicity muscle and marketing ingenuity used to promote long-form fiction titles. Some readers complain that the short story doesn’t allow them to fully inhabit the fictional world the author has created because they feel as if the story is over almost as soon as it begins, but this has always struck me as a hollow reproach, one easily remedied by more careful reading, by slowing down and calling on all five senses instead of proceeding solely with the devouring eye that savors little of what it alights upon. In the last couple of years, a number of debut collections have broken through the proverbial glass ceiling most short story writers confront, even with a large publishing house behind them, and have garnered considerable acclaim and review attention, among them titles by Carmen Maria Machado, Jenny Zhang, and Ottessa Moshfegh. Another writer who could justifiably take his place alongside the new generation of short story masters is Matthew Lansburgh, whose collection of linked stories, Outside Is the Ocean, was selected by Andre Dubus III for the 2017 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and was recently named a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction. One of the more notable formal qualities of this addictive, deeply imaginative, and often very funny debut is that despite its classification as a story collection, it could be described as a novel with equal accuracy. Many of the stories in Outside Is the Ocean were published in journals as stand-alone stories, but taken as a whole, the book’s narrative moves with the fluidity and authority of a novel, most of the stories alternating between two point-of-view characters, Heike, a German woman who emigrated to the U.S. as a young woman, and her son, Stewart, a young academic whose estranged, bullying American father divorced his mother when he was still a small boy. Outside Is the Ocean is novelistic in scope, spanning 42 years, with the earliest story set in 1967 and the latest in 2019—the force of Heike’s big personality reverberating through every story. In order to escape the unreasonable expectations she has of their mother-son relationship, and her recriminations when he can’t meet them, Stewart flees to the other side of the country as soon as he reaches adulthood and eventually becomes a college professor in Boston. Stewart’s father, Raymond, is also an academic whom he sees rarely, and in the stories where Stewart does visit his father, he is treated with hostility if he fails to behave or perform exactly as his father demands. Although it would be easy to portray both Raymond and Heike in a villainous light, Lansburgh manages to suffuse the stories that focus on them with pathos, ensuring they are fully realized, complicated characters whose sorrows and disappointments ultimately feel as immediate as Stewart’s do. Via email and Google Docs, Lansburgh and I recently corresponded about Outside Is the Ocean and his formation as a fiction writer. Christine Sneed: Which story did you begin with? (I'm guessing you didn't proceed chronologically from 1967 to 2019). And how did these characters and their stories take root? Matthew Lansburgh: You’re right that I didn’t write all the stories in the collection chronologically, but the stories I first began working on were in fact the earliest from a chronological perspective. I started these stories well over a decade ago when I first tried to write about my parents. Initially, I began writing what I thought might be a kind of memoir—mostly as a way for me to try to understand my childhood and the people who raised me. This process of making sense of my past through crafting and recrafting scenes in various permutations led me to realize that fiction would be a better vehicle to tell my story. One of the most important lessons I learned early on is that how you tell your story is the most important decision a writer makes. The first five years of working on this book were really about exploring the various ways I could structure and frame my material. In the end, I ended up letting go of the idea that I needed to be true to the facts, and I began to fabricate and embellish and let my imagination take over. CS: Outside Is the Ocean has been marketed as a story collection, but it's more novelistic than David Szalay's latest novel, the Man Booker Prize finalist All That Man Is, which is thematically linked but has almost no overlapping characters. It’s hard not to assume Szalay's book was marketed as a novel for the sole purpose of bringing more readers to it (which isn’t, all things being equal, a bad thing, considering how hard it is to sell books today). Why do you think there's such a preference for novels over short story collections among readers and most publishers? ML: I’m glad to hear you think Outside Is the Ocean feels novelistic—thank you! I think the fact that the book follows the lives of a recurring cast of characters and that the reader can see how those characters’ lives evolve over time does make it feel more like a novel than many short story collections. When people ask me whether I had any literary models in mind as I worked on my book, I often mention Olive Kitteridge, which was marketed as a novel-in-stories. As for why it is that many readers and publishers favor novels over short story collections, I’m guessing the reason is that people like the idea of escaping into another world that is fully realized and allows the reader to transcend the confines of his or her reality. We all know, however, that the best short stories do in fact provide this kind of escape—in an hour or two, rather than over a much longer timespan. Indeed, I would argue that given the increasingly diminished attention spans we all have these days, short stories should be more popular than ever. Perhaps a book of linked short stories offers the best of both worlds: bite-size narratives that can be consumed one sitting at a time, over the course of several days or weeks? CS: Did the fact that you were aware of the novel’s popularity over the short story guide the way you wrote and structured OItO? ML: I wish I could say that I wrote Outside Is the Ocean with some kind of master plan, but the truth is it felt like I was stumbling along during most of the writing process. Some of the key factors that shaped the book’s form had nothing to do with the “market,” but rather with where I was in my life: this is the first book I tried to write and I found the idea of writing one short story, followed another and another, less daunting than tackling a novel (so many of us start with stories, I suppose); I also wrote most of the book while I had a full-time day job, and I found working on a series of shorter pieces easier to navigate than than a single 300-page project. Once I’d gathered together a critical mass of stories and realized they involved the same characters in various settings and circumstances, I did begin to think about what it might take to create a book-length work, but that came later on. CS: I’m guessing, based on your reply to question #2, that you read more novels than story collections, though perhaps I’m wrong? Do you intend to write more short stories? (Maybe you’re working on some at present). ML: Yes! I love writing short stories and hope to write them for many years to come, though recently I’ve been spending most of my time working on a novel. (The novel is quite different from Outside Is the Ocean in terms of its tone and sensibility—it’s about a misfit with horns who gets fired from his corporate job and ends up working at Chipotle!) As for my reading habits, I think I pick up story collections and novels in approximately equal numbers. I tend to dip into lots of books, because I’m always curious to see what contemporary writers are up to. CS: William Trevor and Alice Munro have written novels, though in Munro’s case, only one, Lives of Girls and Women, which could probably still be considered a story collection, but they’re best known for short stories and are considered masters of the form. Do you see Outside Is the Ocean as a book in conversation with authors like Trevor and Munro? You mention Elizabeth Strout above, but I’m curious about your other influences. ML: Alice Munro and William Trevor are absolutely in my pantheon of favorite writers. Stories like “Runaway” and “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” as well as “Folie à deux” and “An Afternoon” will, I’m certain, remain in my consciousness and inform who I am until I die. I’m embarrassed to say that I’m a slow reader: I’ve always wished I was someone who could read a novel a week, but that just isn’t how I’m wired. As a result, I’ve never gravitated toward large, sprawling novels—the books I connect with most powerfully are usually collections of short stories or shorter novels. I love everything I’ve ever read by Flannery O’Connor and Janet Frame. I also love Coetzee (Disgrace, Waiting for the Barbarians), Nabokov (Lolita), Salinger (especially Nine Stories), Ishiguro (Remains of the Day!!!!), and Anne Carson (Autobiography of Red). Now that I’m answering this question, I’m realizing the list of writers I admire is quite long and includes more people than I can reasonably list here, including Jorge Luis Borges, Virginia Woolf, Federico García Lorca, Gabriel García Márquez, Haruki Murakami, Raymond Carver, Lorrie Moore, Edward P. Jones, and Tony Doerr. CS: You mentioned above that you began writing Outside Is the Ocean as a memoir but realized that fiction was a better vehicle for this particular story. I kept thinking as I read that Heike and Raymond would be extremely challenging parents to have, and Heike especially is larger than life and almost pathologically maddening at times. What were the main challenges of writing characters who were based on people you knew very well? ML: Because the material’s seeds are so personal, I do feel like writing the stories served as a form of catharsis. Working through draft after draft of some of the pieces often felt like a kind of therapy, as if the process of conjuring various permutations of certain scenes allowed me to revisit and reexamine events from my past, imagining different fact patterns and possible paths along life’s decision tree. As I mentioned above, the end result is fiction, but the emotions underlying and informing the narrative moments came from my lived experience—I suppose that’s often the case for most writers. I think one of the reasons so many people aspire to write is that putting words on the page can provide an opportunity for us to grapple with things that have happened to us and to understand not only who we are but who the people in our lives are. As for Heike and Raymond, I think the biggest challenge posed by using my mother and father as the basis for these characters was allowing myself (forcing myself) to let go of reality and let my imagination run free. The characters in the book are different in important ways from my parents and ended up being distinct people. One of the things I struggled with in revision was how to make Heike and Raymond as three-dimensional as possible: to avoid caricature and cliche. This was especially difficult in the case of Raymond who existed for several years on the page as the prototypical angry, domineering father. Writing “The Sky and the Night” was definitely a turning point in my understanding of who Raymond could be. That was one of the last stories I wrote, and it felt like a bit of a breakthrough emotionally. [millions_ad] CS: You earned your MFA in creative writing from NYU, and I’m wondering if in the writing workshops you participated in, most of your classmates were writing short stories (and were they encouraged to do so, rather than writing a novel while in the program)? ML: I loved my experience at NYU. The program is incredibly flexible, and they allowed me to take classes part-time. (I was enrolled in the program over a period of five years, taking just one class a semester and sometimes skipping semesters altogether.) The faculty is superb, and I had a chance to study with Jonathan Safran Foer, Zadie Smith, Amy Hempel, Colson Whitehead, E.L. Doctorow, Hannah Tinti, and Darin Strauss. The professors who led our workshops didn’t encourage one form over another. It seemed to me about 60 percent of the students were working on stories, the rest novels. In general, I think the students who were the most ambitious and “connected” were, more often than not, working on novels. I guess they figured out early on that it would be easier to sell a novel than a collection of stories. CS: You likely worked on many of the stories in Outside Is the Ocean while at NYU—did any of your classmates or professors suggest that you write this book as a straightforward novel, i.e. a book with many fewer stand-alone chapters? Was this something you tried? ML: I did indeed work on many of the stories in the collection while I was a student at NYU. As I recall, only one or two people suggested that I think about what the stories might look like if they were combined into a more traditional novel, but I did try to see whether that approach might work. In the end, none of those attempts got traction (I tried to write the entire book from Heike’s POV, for example, but that started to feel too claustrophobic). In the end, I think the story format offered more flexibility by allowing me to use multiple voices, points of view, and narrative postures. CS: Do you ever encounter readers who say, “I think you’re a good writer, but I’m straight and just can’t identify with gay characters?” I’m asking this because the topic comes up in writing workshops, i.e. some readers won’t or can’t read from a subject position other than their own. Stewart, who is gay, is of course central to the book and it’s his perspective through which so many of the stories are filtered. His sexuality, however, is only one aspect of who he is. ML: Ha! I think if I did come across someone who said that I might spray some Chanel Eau de Parfum in their hair. I know that there are probably many people out there who still hold these kinds of views, but, fortunately, I rarely interact with people like that at this point in my life. I live in New York City where it seems just about everyone is gay or wants to be gay. In all seriousness, I have to say I’ve been thrilled by how supportive and enthusiastic the book’s readers have been (including a number of straight, white, cis dudes—some well over 60—who told me they’ve enjoyed it). The reception I’ve received has been quite heartening, especially given the fact that when the book came out, I really only expected the gays and women to be interested in reading it. Many of the readers (including the straight dudes) have even said they were able to identify with many of the characters in the book. Responses like this have made my fragile heart burst into song. CS: Despite the undercurrent of sadness that pervades many of the stories in Outside Is the Ocean, there are so many comic moments in this book. Would you say that comedy comes naturally to you? ML: It always makes me happy to hear that readers find parts of the book funny. Humor is important to me—both on the page and in life itself. My father was a jokester, and I think I inherited his somewhat zany way of looking at the world. It was one of his best qualities. A lot of my writing does have a comic dimension, but Outside Is the Ocean is, for the most part, quite serious, so I’m glad to hear you found moments of levity along the way. I do think that comedy comes naturally to me. Sometimes people don’t always share my sense of humor, but I see the world as a strange place, full of ridiculous situations and things that often don’t make sense. My father was a difficult person, someone who could be quite scary and sometimes menacing, but he could also be whimsical and funny. In retrospect, I think I developed humor as a kind of coping mechanism to help calm him down and defuse tension. It worked much better than bursting into tears or trying to match his fury with my own. CS: You wrote above that you’re working on a novel about a man with horns. Where on earth did this character come from? ML: Yes, I’ve been working on this novel, on and off, for about five years. One of the book’s central characters is a woman with wings who grew up in Croatia and who works in Coney Island. My protagonist, Karl, becomes infatuated with her, and I figured I needed to make him special too. I gave him horns in the second draft of the book. They’re not big horns—just little ones. Most people don’t even know they’re there. CS: One final question: what has been the hardest part of launching a new book into the world and how have you handled it? ML: Getting people to read it. Getting reviews in national publications. There are so many good books out there, so to ask people to take a chance on a book that hasn’t been promoted with a big-budget marketing campaign has been a bit of an uphill battle. On the plus side, many of the people who’ve read Outside Is the Ocean have become enthusiastic supporters. I feel very fortunate that some very well-respected writers (such as yourself!) have taken the time to read my book and have responded so positively to it. It means a lot to me.
Michael Nye is not certain whether he considers his debut, All the Castles Burned, a sports novel. “My first response is no, this is not a sports novel,” he said. “But I think that’s just me not wanting to have my novel pigeonholed.” Owen Webb, a scholarship student at a prestigious private high school in Ohio and the novel’s protagonist, is a prodigious point guard. The friendship he builds with Carson, an older student, grows while they shoot hoops during a shared free period. Basketball is at the heart of All the Castles Burned. When thinking about sports novels he really appreciated, like Fat City by Leonard Gardner, The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, or The Hopeful by Tracy O’Neill, he hit on one of the things that makes his book work so well. “These sports novels, and other really terrific ones, aren't about winning a game…Sports are just a way of getting into those themes that drive our characters to making critical choices in their lives with irreversible consequences. Does it really matter if a character hits a game-winning shot? On the surface, of course not. Beneath the surface? Maybe it does.” It’s only a game until it isn’t. The Millions: One of the things that I was most impressed by was the way the basketball games were written. How did you approach those scenes? Were there any books or pieces of writing you were looking toward as guides for how to write about the game? Michael Nye: One of the things that has always struck me about sportswriting is how rarely it makes game action vivid. For beat writers, they have to churn out the facts of the game—who scored what at what point in the game and so forth—and rarely get to describe the action in a vivid way. I wanted to avoid moments that a reader might typically see in any kind of sports story, whether it's in a book or in a movie. No miraculous shots, no wild scrambles of pure luck, no buzzer beaters. So I picked moments that Owen would experience and view in his unique way: Carson shooting a free throw, his on-the-ball defense at the end of the game, and all the small gestures that can lead to a fistfight. Each gave me the chance to do something a little different; respectively, the careful examination and memory of his friend and the mechanics of shooting; the tension and action of one moment; and the slow build up of game play leading to a drama much bigger than just a basketball game. Because I haven't seen this described in other novels, I felt free to write them however I wanted to without the restraints of influence. TM: I'm glad that you mentioned the immediate tension and the slow build up in the games because that was one of the most interesting things about the games and the novel as a whole. There's a sense reading it that that a few characters—Carson, Owen, Owen's father—could blow up at any minute. All sorts of small moments in the novel feel like they could directly or indirectly result in something explosive and tragic. What was the process of winding it so tightly like? MN: The first drafts of this novel were a bit of a free-for-all. My driving thought was to finish the book, to get to the end, hurry the story along, and I didn't think much about how to make the story tense and compelling. In later drafts, I thought of Owen being squeezed, the sense of pressure building around him. What really helped to give the book tension was thinking about how to use first person. One of my writer-friends, Rachel Swearingen, pointed this out: Owen has survived these events and is in the here and now telling the story. The reader doesn't know what the present day Owen is like, where he's speaking from, how he turned out, only that he is alive and telling the story. Owen looks back on his life and sees certain events differently, perhaps, than he did in the moment. We all do that, right? We very clearly remember yesterday; we are hazy about five weeks ago, five months ago, five years ago. Neuroscience research indicates that we change and shape our memories all the time to better fit who we are right now. The more we access a memory, the more unreliable it becomes. So, every time Owen slows down, ponders, focuses on his story, the reader is reminded of the survivor, the teller of the tale. Rachel urged me to remind the reader—sometimes, not too much—of Owen's role as narrator, and I think that really helped to construct tension and intrigue into his story. TM: How many drafts of the book did you go through? And how much did Owen's reflective narration change over that time? MN: On my laptop, I have eight drafts. But I'm not sure how significantly different each draft is from the other. When I'm revising, a "new" draft might be a complete rewrite or it might be changing the word "the" and everything else in between. In the end, I would guess closer to six drafts, but I'm honestly not sure. What changed? The book has two timelines, the first in 1994 to 1995 and the second in 2008. In early drafts of the novel, the book was split evenly between those periods. I was trying to write something sort of Nabokovian, and it only took a few months [to learn] that I don't write anything like Nabokov and don't much want to. It was the completely wrong influence for my writing and, more specifically, this book. As I thought about what this book was really exploring, about male friendship and class, I focused on Owen's formative teenage years, and saved the present for a much shorter period of time. Shifting in both time and character (from a Nabokov antihero to, say, a Richard Russo storyteller) reshaped Owen, both who tells the story and the events he chose to share. TM: I was really interested in how you dealt with class throughout the book. Owen is a scholarship student at an expensive private school and Carson is from a very rich family, and there are things about his politics sprinkled throughout the book. I was wondering how you were thinking about class in a political context as you were working on this book. [millions_ad] MN: There have always been class divisions, in 1994 and of course today, anytime in civilization, really. I wanted this sense of class to be particularly to Cincinnati, to the Midwest, to the era. By attending a private school, Owen becomes aware of what he doesn't have, which is often how we think about wealth: what is denied or unattainable rather than valuing what we already possess and cherish. So much is in the details, the things that Owen is learning to become aware of, and how easily, as Carson shows, that leads to entitlement. TM: Can you elaborate on how you approached the particularities of the place and era? MN: I graduated both high school and college in the 1990s, so all pop culture elements like movies, books, TV shows, world events, the O.J. Simpson trial, and so forth, are fairly ingrained in my memory. There are enough details in the novel to get the facts right, but I'm reluctant to rely to heavy on culture references to make characters vivid or to move a plot along. In some ways, I want to deemphasize this by having the characters aware of, but dismissive, of events such as the Russian invasions of Chechnya or the Republican takeover of the U.S. Congress in 1994. In fact, thinking about it now, the lack of cell phones really helps to force action into a story. Owen can't find out about Carson with a Google search. Caitlin can't post selfies. Google didn't exist. Teenagers are always going to find ways to be bored or kill time, but something as simple as "I need to use a phone" helped add tension to the novel by forcing Owen to go home, leave messages, wait for phone calls. I want this world to be recognizable as another era, but I didn't want to be steeped in nostalgia that it would feel kitschy or forced. TM: Was that something you found difficult to avoid, having been the same age around the same time? MN: I have no idea how effectively I truly balanced the nostalgia in this book. You know how you often only see a story or novel clearly once you've been removed from it for a time? Organizing my home office, I recently came across my story collection, and started flipping through it, and mostly thinking "ugh." I really didn't find the nostalgia hard to avoid. While I had a perfectly fine childhood, I'm suspicious of nostalgia in narrative art. It always rings false to me. I often think I'm not remembering my past correctly: I tend to sugarcoat things, so as a fiction writer, I distrust my own memories and avoided using my specifics in the novel. Which is a good thing: I know then I'm writing Owen's story rather than some bastardized version of my own life. I didn't heavily research this era. I didn't want to be tied down to the facts when writing fiction. I double-checked that the references to music, film, and television shows were correct along Owen's timeline, but in doing so, I was operating as a fact checker rather than looking for influence for the story. I don't particularly enjoy doing research. And, really, the past never seems that long ago to me. When thinking about being a teenager in the 1990s, I never think "that was so long ago!" until I glance at the calendar. That's the thing about the past and memory: when called up, it's so visceral and sharp that it seems recent, urgent, right there in the room with me. Owen feels the same way; the Owen at the end of the novel doesn't so much look back on his past as he relives it and carries it around with him all the time. TM: I think my favorite piece of 1990s culture in the book were the scenes of Owen watching basketball MN: BOOMSHAKALAKA! The 1990s is when I fell in love with basketball and the NBA (and, clearly, NBA Jam) so writing about that era was fun. I'm not sure TV ever got better than when you had a big dumb box with buttons on it, the cable literally attached to the back of your TV, that you had to thwack to change stations. TM: Who were your go-to NBA Jam pair? MN: For a long time, my go-to with NBA Jam was the Hornets: Larry Johnson and Kendall Gill. But! In NBA JAM: Tournament Edition, I'm pretty much unstoppable with the Warriors. Tim Hardaway and Chris Webber. Having a combo of one player for threes [and] steals and the other for rebounds [and] blocks is key. I'm a pretty big fan of 16 bit arcades/bars where I can go nuts on that game for a solid two hours. TM: You’re a big Celtics fan, so here’s the most important question: are the Boston Celtics going to make the NBA finals this year or what? MN: Well, why not? I'll be a complete and total homer right now and insist they are making the Finals because Cleveland is a dumpster fire and I have no faith that We The North are anything but a regular-season team. Banner #18, baby!
A few years ago, Michael David Lukas wrote about what he calls the "polyphonic novel" for this site. His new novel is a jewel of the form, weaving voices of modern Cairo with those from the city's millennium-plus history, and describing events leading to the discovery of the famed Genizah trove in the Ben Ezra Synagogue. Lukas is interested in the sites of Jewish history in Muslim-majority contexts--his first novel, The Oracle of Stamboul, was a magical realist work about a Jewish girl during the waning days of the Ottoman empire. The Last Watchman of Old Cairo juxtaposes the peregrinations of Joseph--a young American graduate student with Egyptian Muslim and Jewish roots--with the life of a distant forbear and those of the so-called "Sisters of Sinai," who played a critical role in the development of scriptural history. In addition to his novel-writing, Lukas works at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley (where I also used to work, although we didn't overlap--we met on a losing team at a book trivia fundraiser thing, and now meet up every so often to discuss books and babies). At Berkeley, he runs an online exchange between students in the U.S. and the Middle East. I spoke with him about how this novel, like that work, looks for the sites of coexistence in a long shared past. The Millions (TM): Tell me about the Genizah and the source material for the book. Michael David Lukas (MDL): So, I'll start with the first seed, which was that I studied abroad in Cairo during my junior year of college. It was a weird period in my life, and in the world, and it was my first time living in the Arab World. I was feeling somewhat alienated from my Jewishness. It was during the Second Intifada--I was hyper aware of, and also very conscious of, and also sort of defensive about, and alienated from my Jewishness all at the same time. I was really enjoying the city but having a hard time figuring out how I fit into it. And in the midst of this, I came upon the synagogue at the heart of the city. Seeing that, and realizing that there was thousand-year-old history of Jews in Cairo, I had a sense not only of the possibilities of coexistence, but also of how I fit into the place. And then later on, I learned that this synagogue is the site of all these amazing stories and of the famed Genizah in its attic. Jews would hold onto any piece of paper that had the word "God" written on it; there was a prohibition against throwing away those pieces of paper. So for hundreds and hundreds of years, they kept these pieces of paper up in the attic because it was dry. They didn't mold, and in the 19th century they were discovered by Solomon Schechter and the British twins, Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson. That’s the first seed, and it was dormant for a long time. Then many years later I had an experience where I sat next to this woman on a plane and we ended up talking for basically the whole flight across the country, and she told me that her family had been the watchmen of a synagogue in Kolkata. She was Bengali Muslim. That sparked this memory of that other synagogue in Cairo and the Jewish-Muslim coexistence, and it all kind of came together. TM: What sort of sources did you use to familiarize yourself with the twins, and with their part of the story? MDL: They were so interesting. They were very Victorian, bible-hunter-type folks, but also very quirky. Luckily there are a few books written about them. One in particular called The Sisters of Sinai was useful. They actually wrote a couple of books about their experiences as well, so I knew their voices, and I knew how I wanted to position them in the narrative--kind of this driving force behind the discovery that didn't really get recognized as a driving force at the time. One thing that was difficult about it was that as much as they were proto-feminists, and really remarkable for what they were able to accomplish at a time that was quite misogynist and when women weren't able to go to Cambridge, they were also, as one would imagine, pretty imperialistic. So I didn’t want to lionize them even though they are in one sense heroes of the story. Since it was such a close point of view, it was hard to figure out ways to show their colonialist mentality, without reifying it, or supporting it. I ended up having them be proven wrong in a number of ways about their assumptions about Egyptians, or about the way things work in Egypt, when these assumptions were undercut by events. TM: Your last novel also had a Jewish protagonist in a Muslim-majority context,. MDL: My brother-in-law was like, "You gotta stop writing these Jewish novels, no one cares." TM: Your novel-in-progress is also a Jewish novel, right? MDL: My current novel is different because it's set in the future. You don't necessarily realize that it’s a Jewish protagonist, although it's a rewriting of the Book of Esther. It's more like The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe is a Christian novel. I think to a Jewish reader it feels very Jewish, but I think to other readers it might not. TM: It's an Abrahamic novel. MDL: Exactly, Abrahamic. That was really the whole point. That's the idea behind the original title, which was the 43rd Name of God. The idea being, there are lots of names for God, to encapsulate one entity or one way of being. TM: I love how The Last Watchman highlights the fact that Jewish history--and Arab history, and Muslim history--is so rich and complex as a result of the interplay of cultural and religious traditions. When you talk to Jewish people and tell them you're writing about Jews in a Muslim-majority context, what kind of responses do you get? MDL: I think about it this way: Jews have been in the United States for 350 years. Jews were in Cairo for a thousand. Within that kind of time span, you have ups and downs, obviously. But that long history of Jews in the Arab world has been erased in a lot of ways, for political means, or political purposes, by all parties. I'm very careful to paint neither too rosy a picture, nor too much of a picture of conflict. I chose the time period of the novel specifically to be able to paint a picture that was complex. The two books that I can think of about Cairene or Egyptian Jews are Lucette Lagnado, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, and André Aciman's Out of Egypt. Those are both personal memoirs about the expulsion of the 1950s, when Gamal Abdel Nasser expelled foreigners from Egypt and put Jews in that category. Some Jews were foreigners, from Italy, France, or what have you, but there were other Jews who were from Cairo, whose families had lived there for a thousand years. In terms of the response I get, generally people are pretty interested. There's a kind of wide appetite for this sort of thing, if only because it stakes a Jewish claim in this place. Then there are a lot of Jews who are very focused on the late twentieth-century conflict, and that history. So they aren't really trying to hear the previous history, which doesn’t fit into the narratives of “it was really bad and then Israel came along and they were saved,” which sort of reverses the chain of events as they actually happened. Generally, people are pretty happy to read about Jewish lives. The book is so much about this interplay between Muslim and Jewish identity, I'll be curious to how people react to that. TM: What is the Cairene Jewish community like today? MDL: There aren't that many Jews who still live in Cairo. When I was there in the year 2000, I went to Rosh Hashanah services and the synagogue was completely full, but it was mostly staffers from the American and Israeli embassies, and oil company employees. There were a few Cairene Jews who were there, and I based some characters in the book on them, like sort of seeing them from a distance. But apparently there's been a real resurgence in interest in Jewish history in Egypt. There was a little mini-series on TV and there have been a few people who have rediscovered their Jewish roots, including one famous actor who came out as Jewish, with a Jewish mother. There were a couple of famous Jewish actors during the golden age of Egyptian cinema, one of whom converted to Islam in order to advance her career. Which sounds crazy, but it happened in Hollywood all the time. Jews were a part of the cultural fabric. You can see these little traces of that history if you know what to look for, but you really have to know what to look for. TM: You were an undergraduate when you were in Cairo the first time. Did you go back and do more research for this book? MDL: Well I set it in the year 2000, which is when I was still there, which is sort of a cop-out. I went back a couple times subsequently, just to get a sense of the place and the feeling of being there. Being in Cairo is such a visceral experience, the sweaty taxi seat sticking to your back--that's basically what I went back for, to reacquaint myself with what it's like to be in the city. TM: Why do you say cop-out? MDL: I wanted the book to take place before the Arab Spring, because that's the city I'm familiar with. When the Arab Spring was happening, I was two or three years into writing the book, and every person I would talk to about the book would say something like "Oh, that's so relevant. You're going to work in some Arab Spring angle." And I really didn't want to do that. In part because it was happening as we were talking, and in part because I knew I wouldn't do it justice. TM: Well it seems that few people who tried to sound authoritative about it at the time did it justice. MDL: Yes, looking now--where the security apparatus is deeply paranoid, even more so than it was, even more authoritarian and regressive than it was. TM: I think the angle of your story is so specific, and it's looking at a kind of interaction and historical mosaic that is not usually emphasized in discussions about the so-called "Middle East" in the United States. But you're still an American writing about Egypt in a weird American moment. Did you feel anxious about how to fairly depict Egyptians? MDL: I definitely thought about it a lot. The answer that I came to is that it's sort of a story that would be difficult to be told by anybody, because there are so many different perspectives and identities at play. That was sort of the point, was to create a mosaic of different perspectives. There's the Presbyterian Scottish twin. There's the half-Muslim, half-Jewish graduate student. There's the Muslim teenager in the 11th century. In writing a polyphonic novel, you force yourself into writing perspectives that aren't your own. TM: And your graduate student protagonist is also a gay man. MDL: That was something I definitely thought about. As with all of these characters, his identity was fully formed when I met him, so it's really not an issue of deciding, is he going to be gay or not? It was about deciding how to represent that and deal with who he was, protagonist-wise. TM: When you say, when you met him, he just shows up in your brain? MDL: Yeah. Joseph just kind of showed up as who he was. The thing that was hardest was not trying to write a half-Muslim, half-Jewish character, or a gay character, although I thought a lot about those things and talked to a lot of friends as I was doing it. The thing that was most difficult is that he's the character who felt closest to me, closer than any person I've ever written, and I really identified with him. I got, I think, overly identified with him, and was trying to write him as me, as a sort of version of myself. At a certain point I realized I needed to take a step back from him. He was his own person, a fictional person and I needed to write him as who he was--someone who had a lot of the same experiences as me, but also separate. TM: I'm laughing because that's exactly the way you could talk about having a child. You just meet them and that's just what they're like--you can't change anything fundamental about them so much as steer, or course-correct. You forget and try to make them you (a better you, obviously), but they're not you. MDL: It's exactly like that. It's like trying to be the best parent that you can be to that particular child, and wondering who they are, rather than trying to impose who you are on them. While also recognizing that they're a piece of you. I do think having a child made me better understand my own writing in general. I think for Joseph I didn't fully get him until I was able to see him as a child, from his parents' perspective, and to see the brat that he was, in a way. Seeing that I was like, oh, now I get it. Because it's a novel about his relationship to his parents in a lot of ways. I was missing that huge piece and didn't know I was missing it.
I interviewed André Aciman in his Upper West Side apartment on a bright July morning. His book Call Me by Your Name has recently been adapted in a film directed by Luca Guadagnino, which is already a hit. His last novel, Enigma Variations, has been praised by The New York Times as a Proustian tale of conflicted desires. Aciman is also Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center of City University of New York where he teaches the history of literary theory and the works of Marcel Proust. This interview has been adapted from a documentary, American Journey, directed by Lucia Senesi and produced by Abuelita Film. All Rights Reserved Lucia Senesi: You said that young people interested in writing should do two things. First, understand that writing is not only a career, sometimes it's a mission. And second, read the classics. André Aciman: Yes, you have to absolutely read the classics. Most people nowadays do not read the classics or they don’t consider the classic writers who have written in 1940, 1950, 1960, and which is not the way to go. You should really go back, a long long time, and familiarize yourself with all the great writers and some of them are anonymous, as in The Bible, for example. And you should really read all these. As for the mission, it's not just a vocation, it’s that you are really trying to capture something that is essential about yourself, and you hope that by getting it about yourself correctly that you're touching other people, and that is the job. It's not just to write and publish and publish and publish. LS: Do you think that there is some difference between the generations, for example is the younger generation more taken with the fashionable aspect of writing? AA: Well, there's definitely a sense that one writes a lot, very fast, especially very fast and quite voluminously and the idea that you should work on a sentence for half a day would never occur to any young writer today. And so the price for this is that a lot of young writers, who are talented essentially, are writing the same way each of them, so that you can’t tell them apart. You really have to try, very very hard to tell one from the other. LS: Do you think that maybe it's about our society? I mean, today with social media, a lot of people just write on Facebook or Twitter. Before we had to spend time to reflect on what we really wanted to express, now we think something and we can express it immediately. AA: Not only it is expressed immediately and very fast, but you press the return button and it's out, whereas even when I send an email normally I will write the email and then I will read it and maybe read it twice or three times just to make sure that the ideas concretize well enough. And then with a lot of hesitation I would press the send button. Most people will immediately text their reply. And it's because it's an exchange of information and information is fundamentally cheap. What you want to convey from one e-mail to another is also a whole gamut of emotions, reflections, hesitations, irony, all these sort of superficial things, considered superficial, take time. LS: When you were young, how did you approach the classics? And when did you realize you wanted to be a writer? AA: Oh, I always knew I was going to be a writer. When I was, I think, 10 or even 9 years old. I knew that I liked writing poetry and I liked the fact that I was putting on paper my emotions. That was very important. But I didn't know that I could become a writer. My first published piece came out when I was in my late 30s. So all these years were a process of long incubation. But I read the classics because there was nothing else. My father was also very devoted to the classics, so he told me to read X, Y and Z. There was no censorship. In other words, if it was a bad dirty book or a clean book, it didn't matter, it had to be well written. And so I was always reading, I was reading classics all the time. And I have written about this, but when I was living in the Alberone district in Rome I hated it so much that all I did was stay home, especially in the summer, with the blinds drawn, because I didn't like the lighting and I would read all the time and my mother couldn't understand and nobody could understand. What is this boy doing? Let's go to the beach. I said the beach is too far. I didn't want to go to the beach. So I read everything I consumed. I think all the Russians, the French classics, and the English classics as well. LS: That reminds me Proust because he basically writes that for his parents and his family the time he spent reading was a sort of waste. AA: I think that he himself considered it. I mean he loved it, but he was not sure that it was the way to be and therefore there was always a touch of dysfunctionality in being a reader. But he loved it and I loved it too. I loved reading, but I was considered that I am hiding from life because my father says you should read, but at the same time you should go and have fun and have friends and do all those things. Except that I couldn't do those because they were not mutually exclusive. It was just said the reader in me didn't know what to do with other people. I mean I desired other people but I didn't know how to how to meet them. LS: Do you think that for Proust this dysfunctionality was also about being a writer? I mean, in the Recherche he wonders if he actually could be a writer and then says that all the first part of his life was a waste because he spent it in society whereas he should have work. AA: Work was very important for him and the idea that he had a vocation was also very important. The whole book is the story of this vocation. But I think that the beginning of his life was not wasted. But at the same time he was sheltered, it was so sheltered that you had a feeling that this boy's reading in order not to go out and live. But I don't think in my case it was the same thing. I didn't know how to go out and live. But as soon as I went to graduate school then I began to socialize, aggressively, because I hadn't done anything before that and I loved social life and I still do. LS: You said that Proust’s book is one of the few books that changes who you are because when you read him you read things you already know. AA: I teach Proust to graduate students. In other words, they're writing the dissertations, so they're all in their mid to late 20s. I teach Proust to college students and I've taught Proust to high school students, in the jail. And what happens is that everybody understands Proust because he is simple, he's transparent. Once you accept the terms of the reading experience. Everything he says about our behavior, our emotions, the way we think of other people, is totally true and we accept it right away. Now when you read his book, the whole sort of epic, once you've been absorbing all this, you cannot be the person you were before. LS: It’s true. AA: In other words, if you read Dostoyevsky, which I read when I was very young, you begin to understand that Dostoyevsky thinks that everybody lies. I had never thought of that but it didn't surprise me that Dostoyevsky said that people lie all the time and that people are guilty. And at the same time all these combinations of contradictions made perfect sense to me. Once you've accepted, you've been absorbing it by osmosis, it begins to color your way of seeing life. As a writer, once you realize that human beings are not consistent, but they are constantly paradoxical and contradictory, then at that point you begin to reproduce that emotion with your own signature as a degree. LS: Indeed, even Camus took that way. AA: He was ambivalent. And I think an entirely intelligent person is always ambivalent. There's no such thing as having a point of view. You have to be ambivalent because you can always see the two sides of the same thing. And if you see one and you hear somebody seeing one, you necessarily must contradict them out of intellectual spite. LS: Then we have Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who are a contradiction themselves. AA: They are contradictory. I think she's more important. He has become totally obfuscated, there's nothing really going on there anymore. I never liked him. And now I feel justified. I knew that there was nothing there to begin with, but that's me. LS: You know, they are a difficult couple. AA: He was ugly and he knew it. And that is a very important fact. LS: I love him as a writer, but for sure I would never have him as a boyfriend! AA: [Laughs.] I believe you! [millions_ad] LS: But to come back to Proust, you said that present doesn't exist for Proust. He is always in the past or in the future, right? AA: This is a new idea. We’ll see if you like this idea. LS: [Laughs.] Okay. AA: Time does not exist. LS: For him or in general? AA: I think it does not exist at all. There's no such thing as Time. And Proust is a genius. Precisely, I mean, he believes that there is time and there is wasted time and wasted space. But fundamentally he's always shuttling. He's constantly shuttling between one temporal zone to another temporal zone, and he’s very comfortable doing that, from the past to the present, to the anticipated past, because it hasn't happened yet. It's in the future, back and forth, and he's constantly doing this game because he's really not comfortable in one time zone. LS: I think it’s time to talk about the style and how he uses the verbs in French. AA: Everybody knows that he does something that's totally un-Orthodox when he begins his novel in the “passé compose.” LS: Indeed the problem with the translation. Last year I read Melville, Moby-Dick. Basically we have this situation: “Call me Ishmael,” in Italian can be “Chiamami Ismaele” or “Chiamatemi Ismaele” [in the first person or in the third person]. AA: Yes! I wrote a lot about translation. Proust is difficult to translate. LS: I guess especially in English. AA: It's very difficult to translate in English. French is extremely supple and extremely forgiving. Just to give you an example of the terrible things that can happen in English is that after the third relative pronoun, the sentence is dead. So you cannot have three relative pronouns, or four, or five, because the reader will loose you, especially modern readers, so you try to work around this. But if you work around this, you're changing the rhythm of the sentence and therefore the rhythm of meaning, because Proust's sentences have a meaning that is implicit to the style. LS: Let's talk about the style, because again, when I read Moby-Dick and Dracula— AA: Bram Stoker? LS: Yes, Bram Stoker. I thought that Proust took something here and there, in term of style. AA: It's difficult to say. I don't think that there is anything similar to Proust and he knew it. I mean, it's a complicated thing. I teach the style, usually that's all I teach when I do Proust because the style is in fact semantically constructed in such a way that it means something. I think that, just to give you an example, Proust’s sentences always begin with a yearning, a call. Let's begin with the beginning: “Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure.” He's already in the rhythm, he’s summoning us into emotions. But that was how Proust wrote at the beginning of his career. And then suddenly something happened, I think in his mind, some genius thing happened to Proust and he realized that he had a sense of humor and that he liked humor. LS: [Laughs.] Of course. AA: So what happens is the sentence that begins with this kind of summoning this sort of, the Yiddish word is “descry.” It's like a yell for help for inspiration. It's like Wordsworth, you begin with this “oh, as a boy, blah blah blah blah blah,” and then suddenly the sense of humor comes and closes the sentence. And both work together beautifully. Now, Melville did not quite have that, and the person who has it even less, and therefore is not really a stylist is Henry James, who is a writer who has a style simply because his sentences are all over the place. But the wit that is so typically French and has been retained from classical times onto Proust is there. The French call it “la pointe.” It's that moment when suddenly something happens at the very end of the sentence that closes. Now the only other author who did that with some degree of difference, and Proust knew it, is Saint-Simon. Long sentences, investigating, in excavating personality. And at the very end, damning them totally or totally forgiving them. And I think that's the genius of Proust, there's nobody can write like Proust. Now it's a hundred years. And guess what. We still haven't come up with that yet. LS: You said something that could be very controversial, but I feel I totally agree with that: “Proust is about possession. He doesn’t know what love is, he doesn’t believe in love. He just wants someone immediately because he needs.” AA: Yes. I think he does not understand love. I don't even know what love is in any novel, but in Proust what we have a sense is that what really animates and feeds the emotional life is a desire to have someone else. And I've made the point in my own book, Enigma Variations. That is never love or it could be love, but it's not really love and love is of no interest. What we are interested in Proust especially is that he wants someone. He wants somebody to possess them or he wants to have them in his house. He wants to have a nearby. Whether he loves the person that he wants is irrelevant. LS: Marcel doesn’t even like Albertine. But he wants her because she’s not available. AA: Exactly. What he can’t have is what he wants. LS: You know that I live in Los Angeles. I actually live between Santa Monica and Venice, so I often go to the beach and I read Proust to California surfers. Unfortunately, I have the sensation that they don’t get the point. AA: [Laughs.] That’s California, isn’t it? Well, [Proust] has no special effects. I mean, the whole sensibility of the young people today is very much guided not by complexity and characters. A lot of it has to be, I want to say special effects. I was exaggerating of course, but Hollywood and the industry of Hollywood has re-sensitized a huge contingent of the population, to the point where the only access they have to what maybe the ideal situation is given to them from television and films. LS: And we come back to the beginning of our conversation: the new generation. AA: If you think of Madame Bovary, it’s a very good point. Madame Bovary was herself a stupid woman. Why? Because all she did was look what she had seen, not in movies of course, but in books. She had read cheap romances and she wanted the same things in real life. And of course Flaubert is making fun of her. I think a lot of people in California…I don't know. I like Santa Monica because it reminds me of other places like Naples and Cannes. And I like it not because of what it is, but of what it can be, in my imagination. LS: How do you use the sense of humor in your novels? AA: I think the one where I have most of the fun is when I revisit my family and because they were all regular individuals. But what I realized is that they were old extravagance in every conceivable way, not just money. They were absolute constructions of the imagination. They were monsters. And yet at the same time to be ordinary with ordinary passions. My uncle for example, the one I start the book with [CMBYN], was a man who was essentially a salesman but he didn't think of himself as the salesman. He thought he was an aristocrat. And so he surrounded himself with all the accoutrements of an aristocrat when in fact he was just the salesman. He was not even a salesman, he was an auctioneer which is even lower than a salesman. But he knew how to make money and he made money. And at the same time, he had certain points of view that suggest that he was aware that human beings needed to be manipulated. And so in examining a character like this you have to realize that he is a salesman, he has a career, he has had a very checkered life. At the same time he is ridiculous. And how do you get this character whom you have to, at the very end, you have to salvage them because it's easy to make fun of a character. You have to also give them back their dignity after you've demolished and made fun of them. And I think the movie was precisely that, to always rehabilitate what you just made fun of. And this you learn from Proust, is that whatever it is that you're doing to make fun of someone, because you desire them, then you realize they're stupid and arrogant and flatfooted and at the same time you really have to admit to yourself that you may not like them but that they have a dignity and a life of their own and you have to give them that back and that whole sort of circuit is important. LS: I consider the incipit of Call Me by Your Name perfect. A lesson on how to write an incipit. In terms of style, rhythm, sound. AA: I think it came to me later. LS: [Laughs.] “Later.” I love your incipit. I love the sound. Maybe it’s because I’m Italian. For example, when I read Cesare Pavese— AA: Oh, Cesare Pavese, great writer! LS: La Bella Estate. AA: I love that book! That is a wonderful book! It was given to me by my ex roommate. LS: “A quei tempi era sempre festa,” a perfect incipit. Pavese is a poet, so he’s interested in sound. And when he writes novels, he pays a lot of attention to it. AA: He does, and that's why he's also a good stylist. My theory has always been that a very good prose writer is always the product of having been a failed poet. Now I think James Joyce was a case and so was Proust. Proust and Joyce started their lives as poets. They were mediocre poets, totally. But of course they realized that they imported the gift for poetry, the love of poetry, into prose whereas I think a lot of writers who come to prose, particularly in this country, come to it from journalism. And so the ear is attuned to the necessities of journalism. And what I call information, as opposed to what poetry does.
The Puerto Rican drag queen is a recognizable personification of New York in the 1980s, the neighbor (and opposite) of the white, Gordon Gekko-style master of the universe with his slicked-back hair. In The House of Impossible Beauties, debut novelist Joseph Cassara brings this stock character into the foreground in order to recognize her humanity and her history. Based on the figures associated with the real-life House of Xtravaganza, the first Latinx house in New York’s 1980s ballroom scene, the novel follows a family of queer characters of various ethnic backgrounds and sexual identities through the tumult and crises of that time and place. Cassara immerses us in a New York that we may think we know from countless other novels and films, but which is, in fact, significantly more complex (and more urgently relevant to us today) than previously imagined. I met Cassara last winter at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where he was editing the final draft of the novel. He was kind enough to talk to me via email about the book’s origins, its political dimensions, and its composition process. The Millions: What first drew you to this milieu? How does Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning fit into the development of the novel? Joseph Cassara: I love the milieu of New York City in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. There was this perfect combination of grit and fabulousness. Like someone could spit in your face and you’d still be like, “Oh yeah baby, I’m in New Fucking York.” I love that as an aesthetic. So I grew up in New Jersey—not far outside of the city—but most of what I know about NYC was, by proxy, through my family who all hail from the Bronx and Brooklyn. I’m Puerto Rican and Sicilian, and I was always a quiet kid, so for years, I was totally into the music, the sounds, the rich linguistic rhythms of New York and the stories I heard them tell about the ‘70s and ‘80s. Then of course there’s the queer history aspect. I’m gay and I always feel sad when I realize how much of queer history is lost because it hasn’t been documented properly. Or it’s been purposefully erased. Now I realize that my modus operandi when writing is to try and resurrect queer stories and turn them into narratives that people can experience in a linear fashion, but when I first started writing this story, I didn’t realize it was going to be a novel. I had always loved Paris Is Burning and I thought I would write a short story that drew inspiration from the people we meet in the film. I was in my first semester of grad school at the time and I submitted the story for workshop. It was about 43 pages and my peers kept saying, much to my chagrin: no no no, this isn’t a story, it’s a novel, it clearly wants to be a novel. The documentary served as a launching off point. Angel, Hector, and Dorian are based on real people. Paris Dupree and Pepper LaBeija were also real people who have minor appearances in the book. The artist Keith Haring is mentioned very briefly. On the other hand, Juanito and Daniel are completely fictionalized. Towards the beginning of Paris Is Burning there are two boys—one has his arm around the other’s shoulder. One has a purple spot on his neck, probably a hickey. They look so young to me now. When I was 18 and watching the movie for the first time, their youth didn’t startle me as much as it does now. I always imagined their faces when I was writing Juanito and Daniel. TM: This is both a historical novel and a novel that takes a very specific subculture as its topic. What sort of research did you have to do to tap into the ball culture of 1980s New York? JC: I watched the documentary about a million times. It felt like the ultimate treasure trove—not only do the subjects talk to the camera, but we also see them in scene. Sometimes they contradicted themselves, which is so beautiful and human. I was fascinated by how many levels of performance were taking place. My goal was to study these moments in the film as closely as possible so that I could render something similar on the page with precision. One of the novel’s main concerns is how queer people of color navigate the spaces around them, so it was important for me to see their bodies on screen, moving around the world. Then there were the smaller things that came together to create the milieu. I curated an informal archive of photos. Some images had people from the documentary, while others showed the subway or the streets of NYC. For a while, I saturated myself in these images, sometimes as a way of justifying why I didn’t have to write that day. Like I could say, “Oh I’m technically not writing, but I’m being productive by looking at photos of telephone booths and people walking down the street in shoulder pads and this is research.” It sounds a little silly to say it that way, but I really think it helped allow my subconscious to run wild, which eventually helped my writing process. I’d also add small details to this collection, like what the Boy Bar matchbooks looked like, or the posters used to advertise parties at the Saint, or the comments people made about their experiences dancing at Paradise Garage. It was like a collection of primary sources that I used to inform my descriptions of the place and time. I interviewed some people when I could. For example, one of the characters in the book has dreams of becoming a dancer. I know very little about dance. I took Ballet 101 in college to fulfill a physical education requirement, and I learned many things about myself in that class, none of which are related to grace or flexibility. So I have a friend who is a very talented dancer. He was trained in the Martha Graham method and was one of the cats in Cats: The Musical. I took him out for lunch one day and said, “Tell me everything you know about Martha Graham. Obsess about her. Just gush. Talk to me with dance jargon I won’t understand. Just talk.” And so he talked and I stored it all to memory so that I could tap into it later when writing. TM: Did you have any reservations about writing transgender characters? It’s a community that has dealt with a lot of misrepresentation and misunderstanding, and we’re at a moment in the culture where there is an active discussion over who can tell whose stories. JC: I think that the role of the novelist is to deeply inhabit the lives of characters who are different than ourselves, to practice a radical empathy and honestly represent that on the page for readers. (Unless, of course, the writer practices autofiction, then it’s a different set of rules, but that’s not your question here…) I’m not trans, so I knew that when I was writing a trans character, I would need to make sure I was being precise and truthful, and not exploitative. My hope is that by approaching it this way, clichés and stereotypes wouldn’t even become an issue, because my intent was to take each character and treat them as the beautiful, nuanced, complex human beings that they are. Within the larger context of the novel, I wanted to represent various shades of gender and sexual identity, so there are various queer characters whose expressions range from fem to butch. I thought it was important to show that there are many ways to be a person, and they are all beautiful and worthy of love. [millions_ad] In terms of the active discussion that’s taking place, I think it’s great that the dominant culture, which is generally composed of straight, white people, is starting to have this conversation. And acknowledge their, to be frank, lack of imagination. Because for too long, they have portrayed people of color and queer people as archetypes, or props, or servants, or non-existent. We were never really seen as human beings with the potential for complex and complete character arcs, so my goal with this novel was to actively combat that. Of course, I had to utilize certain tropes because I’m writing in a certain medium and in conversation with a specific literary tradition, but that didn’t stop me from trying to inhabit and represent my characters’ humanity. Each of the characters in this novel is a complex human being with hopes, dreams, desires, a sense of humor, and we see them struggle to survive in a white, straight world that simply refuses to welcome them. TM: I was interested in how you handled gender in the novel. With characters like Angel and Venus, the narrator moves back and forth between male and female pronouns, depending on the circumstances. What was that decision process like? JC: In regular day-to-day speech, queer people will code switch their pronouns, usually for comedic purposes. It’s like a form of irony because everyone in on the joke knows who uses what pronoun and that the shift is taking place. Like when a bossy gay guy walks into the room and people are like, “Who does she think she is?” or, “Oh boy, there she goes again.” For example, whenever I criticize Mike Pence, I use “she” as an ironic way to subvert power because he’s very homophobic and would never approve of the pronoun shift. So my point here is that when pronouns shift, there’s a lot of implicit work that is being communicated on a linguistic level. In terms of craft, the pronomial shifts take place, for the most part, in the earlier sections of the novel, when Angel and Venus are respectively growing into their own. There’s a scene early on where Angel gets into a fight with her homophobic mother. Her mother demands that Angel take off the dress she’s wearing. When she complies, the pronoun shifts to “he.” I always thought of it as a moment where the form represents the content in a literal way. There’s an emotional shift that is also a shift in the language and it comes at a really distressing and heartbreaking scene. So much is contained in that pronoun shift. Later in the chapter, she’s talking to her brother, who she loves and feels comfortable around, and the pronoun shifts back. I think it’s a subtle and unspoken way of showing the reader what’s going on in her psyche in the moment. TM: I was struck by the sort of grim pragmatism of the people in this world. There’s a lot of prostitution, for example. Dorian, who is a role model figure for Angel, actively encourages would-be queens to sell sexual favors in order to support themselves. You don’t shy away from depicting these scenes, which can be pretty upsetting. Did that give you pause, in the writing process? JC: It didn’t give me any pause because I felt like those scenes were really important. So much of the book is concerned with the violence that is perpetrated against queer people of color. Those scenes were a chance for me to slow down and document it, to present the harsh reality of those situations for readers. There is no sugarcoating, just honesty about how these characters are treated in the world. For queer people of color, the statistics surrounding poverty, unemployment, HIV infection, drug use, murder, and suicide are so shockingly high. That enrages me because it’s not fair. But a statistic is a number, which feels distant, whereas a novel is a narrative that feels completely immersive. It’s much more upsetting to become attached to a character and then watch them deal with this shit because it feels more personal. TM: I thought the narrative voice was really wonderfully done. It’s generally a close third for whatever character is the subject of the chapter, and adopts a lot of the slang and speech patterns of the characters, as well as their logic and decision-making processes. It’s so perfect for this project that I’m wondering what your prose would be like in a book about different people, in a different world. Was this a voice that took time to find, in the writing process? Is it a hard one to get out of your head, now that the book is done? JC: I love voice on the page and I think a lot can be done on a craft level to inform our understanding of setting and characters by representing the cadences, musicality, and patterns of speech in the narratorial voice. What comes to mind are Toni Morrison’s Jazz, where the prose taps into the rhythms of jazz to evoke the sounds of Harlem in the early 20thcentury. Also, Junot Díaz’s Oscar Wao, whose narration has an energy that sizzles off the page and feels rooted in the speech patterns of the Dominican diaspora in New Jersey. I also love Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories, because, my gosh, the voice in those stories feels so utterly of a specific place, it tears my heart into pieces. I’m always really excited when I come across narration that is very much borne out of the story’s setting and characters. It makes a book feel like everything is tied together in a way that feels integral. Everything is working in tandem to create the fictional world for the reader. It didn’t take me long to find the voice for this novel. It was actually one of the first things I discovered while writing. There was this explosive energy to it. It captivated me, but there were also moments where I needed to calm it down a bit because it was too much. I think I would eventually like to return to this voice in the future, maybe for a collection of stories, but right now I’m working on a novel that is set in a different time and place. It requires a completely different voice and tempo. I’m trying to challenge myself as a writer to see what I can do next, how I can grow. TM: Even though it’s set primarily in the 1980s, this novel feels pretty relevant to today’s gender identity politics. I’m sure that was something you had on your mind during the composition. Do you think a historical novel has any didactic advantages that a novel set today does not? JC: I didn’t really think about politics at all. When I was composing the book, I really was in a bubble. I was in graduate school in Iowa City, and anyone who has ever experienced winter in the Midwest can tell you that it’s frigid. There isn’t a whole lot to do there except write, so I was holed up inside my apartment or the library, in a literal and figurative bubble. I was very focused on the book and the characters and I felt like I had such a singular focus that I wasn’t exactly tuned into the regular world. As I describe that now, I realize that may not have been the healthiest approach, but that’s just how it happened. I tried not to let the outside world influence what I was writing. I say that about politics, but I also wasn’t thinking about the publishing world either. That would have stressed me out too much. I will also say that I’m not really interested in books that feel didactic. Maybe this is a generality, but didactic books don’t strike me as sufficiently complex because they already have a pre-set goal or point they want to get across. For me, the most interesting stories are the ones that don’t have any goals or points, they just show readers what a particular kind of life is like. As if the book is saying to the reader, “Well would you look at that? Ain’t that a sight?” So I didn’t have a didactic goal. I just wanted to have living, breathing, complex human beings on the page. And I wanted those characters to break the reader’s heart because their stories were tragic and unfair. Given our present political moment, with the new administration’s policies, which seem guided by Pence’s virulent homophobia and transmisogyny, I see our attitude towards, and relationship with, LGBT issues shifting. I also think that there’s been a progressive wave over the past decade to welcome our LGBT brothers and sisters into the mainstream and to acknowledge their humanity and stories. We’re at an interesting, if not anxious, point in time. TM: I’m interested in the social novel as a genre. They kind of go in and out of fashion. Do you consider this a social novel? JC: I kind of see this novel as fusion of two literary traditions: that of the American Family Novel, plus the lineage of 20th- and 21st-century queer narratives. This question about the social novel is a bit tricky to answer. It reminds me of a question I was once asked on a panel about politics and queer writing. The question was, “Are all queer stories inherently political? Is it possible to write a queer narrative that isn’t political?” Wow, goodness, I don’t know. I feel like—and forgive me for some of these academic terms—sometimes living life truthfully as a queer person of color in this predominantly white hetero-patriarchy feels like a radical political act in and of itself. Can any artistic work produced by queer people of color be apolitical, or is it by nature of its producer, infused with social critique? These are fascinating questions that I think about often, but I don’t think I have an answer for you. It’s like when a cereal company, or fashion brand, or department store, or what have you, airs a television ad with a same-sex or interracial couple—which is just representative of actual people and relationships in our society—they are treated like bold, transgressive political statements. Like, it’s a Cheerios commercial that is finally acknowledging the presence of people who aren’t white and straight. Are these ads inherently political, or does it only feel that way because of the environment that it’s created and received within? TM: Who were your influences on this project? What author, what novels? JC: I really love the Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. He writes and directs all of his films and his aesthetic is very queer, very extra, very vulgar, kind of gritty, usually dark, and sometimes absurd. He’s a master. His best films taught me a lot about how to deploy humor and tragedy, sometimes in close proximity to each other. Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red and Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter were two books that I read when I was just starting college that made me want to be a writer. Then there were the writers whose work I fell in love with. In no particular order: Virginia Woolf, Michael Cunningham, Miranda July, Junot Díaz, Colm Tóibín, Justin Torres, Edward P. Jones, Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson, Ann Beattie, Adam Haslett, Nicole Krauss, Joan Didion, Rivka Galchen, Jhumpa Lahiri, James Baldwin, Frank O’Hara. Finally, the teachers who influenced the way I approach craft, and whose work I also return to in awe: Karen Russell, Stacey D’Erasmo, Ethan Canin, Lan Samantha Chang, Paul Harding, Margot Livesey, and Yiyun Li. If any of those links were missing from the chain, I wouldn’t be the type of writer that I am today. And I look forward to a lifetime of discovering new voices and listening to the stories that I hear out in the world, when people open up and share their innermost secrets. I think that being a writer is so wonderful because we open ourselves up to the mysteries and wonders of the world. We can sit, observe, listen, and bring all of that into our fiction. It’s a beautiful way to live a life.
Over the course of three books, Marie Howe has established herself as one of the great poets of her generation. Her first book, The Good Thief, was chosen for the National Poetry Series by Margaret Atwood, and awarded the Lavan Younger Poets Prize by Stanley Kunitz. Her second book, What the Living Do, is about her brother’s death from an AIDS-related illness, and it marked a shift both in what she wrote and how. Since then, Howe has published the poetry collection The Kingdom of Ordinary Time and edited the anthology In the Company of My Solitude: American Writing from the AIDS Pandemic. In her new book, Magdalene, Howe writes about Mary Magdalene, but she’s also writing about all women. The seven devils that plague Mary are devils common to us all and the book depicts Mary raising a child, listening to the news, missing her teacher. She is struggling to be fully alive and to be a spiritual being. Howe writes about growing up in the Catholic tradition, about family, but also about words and the ways that they shape us, sustain us, and can save us. We spoke recently about these issues, The Lives of the Saints, public art, listening in the contemporary world, and how they play out in her new collection of poetry. The Millions: Where did this idea for a series of poems about Mary Magdalene come from? Marie Howe: I was raised in the Catholic tradition, and grew up with the stories and images of what we called the Old and New Testament. As a young girl growing up into a patriarchal world the female archetypes I absorbed weren’t the Greek gods and goddesses but were Mary and Mary Magdalene and the other saints: women who seemed to be the subjects of their own lives. They weren’t defined by a prescribed plot. They were struggling to understand who they were, what they were here for, trying to reach through the muddle of whatever it is we live in to touch something authentic. Like so many young women growing up in this tradition I was presented with two deep archetypes: Mary the Virgin Mother and Magdalene the Repentant Prostitute. The early church fathers had created these myths. They manifest this intended split between the spirit and the body, the sacred from the sensual. Women have been wounded by them for a long time. The wife and the whore—the subject and the object. How can a woman integrate her sexuality and her spirituality in such a culture? Magdalene has carried the burden of shame for the sensuality of women. I feel like I’ve been trying to write through her all my life. Failing—and failing and failing and failing. And then one day several years ago I was walking along the sidewalk and I remembered that she had been possessed by devils. I went back to the gospels and read Luke—Mary called Magdalene from whom seven devils had been cast out. I got to thinking what those devils might have been. That really opened this version of her. For years I’ve trying to write these poems and throwing them out, throwing them out. So many. And suddenly there she was. Well—she, me, who knows—but a voice came. And the devils of course were the devils that beset us all. They’re internal, they’re psychological, they don’t have to be blargh. TM: I remember reading “Magdalene–The Seven Devils” a few years back before the book came out. It opens “The first was that I was very busy” and then you go through these devils and keep revising them. I kept wondering how autobiographical the poem is, which is a question I hate, to be honest. MH: The whole book of course is autobiographical–and yet, not. In writing you use your life like wood and you burn it up to make the heat and the energy for the poem. To point out the details of the wood seems not as interesting as that. The wood is used to transform something into something else. What I can say is that when I read “The Seven Devils,” or many of the poems in the book, people come up to me and say, I know about that. My hope is that people feel more liberated and more identified with each other. There’s a quote in the beginning of the book from the Gospel of Thomas: “When will you be visible to us? and when will we see you? He said, When you undress and are not ashamed.” What a thing to say? When you undress and are not ashamed. I wanted Mary–a woman–who lives throughout time. Not just back then, but alive now. I wanted her to be able to undress and not be ashamed. Undress her consciousness, if you will. TM: One reason I phrased it that way is that in this poem specifically you manage to be so very specific but in a way that so many people can see themselves in it, like a mirror. Stanley Kunitz had a line about art so transparent that you could see the world. MH: “The dream of an art so transparent you can look through it and see the world.” My whole life changed when my brother John grew ill and then died with AIDS because that transparency became really important to me. Because the thing as it was was enough. It doesn’t have to be a simile or a metaphor. The thing as it is. The ice water next to his bed, the glass shining in the shaft of sunlight, John’s hand. That’s enough. It didn’t have to be anything more than that. In fact to make more of it was to diminish it TM: I was raised Protestant–and I’m a guy–so I only know The Lives of the Saints through women who were raised Catholic and obsessed over the book. MH: And I bet you loved those women, Alex. [Laughs.] TM: Well, yes. [Laughs.] MH: Perhaps women were looking for lives of women who led passionate lives and acted on that passion. The truth of the inner lives of women wasn’t available to me growing up. In 1980 Lucille Clifton and Sharon Olds and Audre Lorde began to open the door to poetry. The real stories of women’s lives. In the 1950s, in the early 1960s, I was looking and looking for stories of how women searched for God or searched for meaning. My mother had nine children. All of her sisters had nine or 10 children, so I had 100 first cousins. Their lives were–god bless them–given over to this. The saints weren’t necessarily mothers, they had chosen another way. They had chosen a life that wasn’t necessarily in the service of others–although sometimes it was. There was an excitement in reading about these people who might have entered a monastery or led an army of France and also they were the only stories I had ever read that were about women’s psychological and spiritual development. [millions_ad] TM: In your previous book you wrote a series of poems about Mary, before she was a mother. Did this book grow out of a similar impulse? MH: I used to write Christmas plays we kids would put for our parents My brothers and sisters did not always enjoy this. They grew increasingly alternative. By 1968 the angel carried a machine gun. [Laughs.] The Jewish tradition of midrash, which is imagining your way into the silences of the stories of the Torah–what we call the Old Testament–has existed for centuries. You could actually imagine what Eve and Adam did on the first day out of paradise—did they have sex? did they not? That tradition has long existed and I didn’t know it until I was older, but I feel that the imagination is a way into truth. Wallace Stevens said, “God and the imagination are one.” There are so many silences in the stories and for me, they carry archetypal values. So Mary Magdalene who was in all the paintings the repentant woman in red–that’s nonsense. I wanted to write about a woman’s real life–her sexual life, her psychological life, her interior life, her desire for a teacher, her desire for meaning and peace. The dualism that we all live with in this culture is so much rougher on women. Men suffer, too, but women suffer terribly from objectified dualism: virgins or whores, sexual or sacred. TM: One poem that jumped out at me was “The Girl at 3” and the line “the interiority we create by reading is rich and lonely.” MH: We chose logos over image–word over image–long ago, and there are those who suggest that’s what separates us from ourselves and from reality. I think I was reading into that and at the same time my daughter was learning to recognize letters. And of course I was thinking about the paintings where Mary, the soon to be mother, is reading something in the painting and the angel appears and she holds her place in the book to receive the angel. We know that when any annunciation occurs–no matter what it is–you’re not the same person after it happens. Maybe it’s I no longer love my husband, maybe it’s I no longer believe in God, maybe it’s I’m going to adopt a child. After any kind of annunciation we’re not the same. The notion of Mary reading at all is of course a fiction. Meister Eckhart says that perhaps Jesus is the fruit of Mary’s enlightenment. Isn’t that radical? Jesus is the fruit of Mary’s enlightenment. I love that. He goes onto say that each of us can become the mother of God. And he means that in an almost Buddhist sense. That we are that which we seek. TM: One writer I’ve talked with has pointed out that grimoire, the old word for spellbook, has the same etymological root as grammar. That to write and read and name things is a form of magic. MH: In the beginning was the word and the word was made flesh. TM: The word preceded the world. MH: Or as Meister Eckhart said in his first sermon, every creature is a word of God. The word of God–whatever God is, I don’t presume. When I say God, I wish there was another word. This energy or whatever–every creature is an expression of that. Yes, a spell. But poetry is a spell, isn’t it? That’s what one hopes. A spell that returns us to ourselves. Not that it bewitches us, but I feel like the poetry that I love is the poetry that returns me to myself whole for a minute. It’s so rare to feel that way. TM: Do you think of writing as a spiritual act at its core? MH: I do, because it involves a wonderful contradiction which is in order for it to happen you have to be there and you have to disappear. Both. You know, nothing feels as a good as that. Being there and disappearing–being possessed by something else. Something happening through you, but you’re attending it. There are few other things in the world like that, but writing is pretty much a relief from the self–and yet the self has to be utterly there. TM: People have talked about the relationship between poetry and prayer and how do you think of that relationship? MH: As Bob Dylan says, you’ve got to serve somebody. [Laughs.] Might be the devil or might be the lord. I feel like poetry for me is in service to something greater than myself. Everything is greater than myself. [Laughs.] But [in service] to the great mystery of being alive. So many people I have loved are dead now. And I will be dead one day. How strange is that? To know that we’re alive and that we’re going to die. Poetry can hold that. It holds that knowledge and it holds that dialectical energy field–we’re alive, we’re going to die, this is now, and in a minute it will be past but it will still be now. All of that that occurs when we read a poem. TM: Writing is its own thing, but to read poetry, to recite it, definitely has some of the quality of prayer. MH: I’ve been thinking about the word sacrament lately and what is sacred in our culture. I think poetry is one of the last places where the inner life of someone is held sacred. How it feels to be alive is held sacred. That reading it is a sacrament. Writing it–when one is in the right attitude and position, whether it fails or succeeds–is a kind of sacrament. I studied with Joseph Brodsky the great Russian poet and how do I say this, he thought we were lazy American students. We had to memorize 500 lines a week and come in and write them out for him. He said, you Americans are so naive. He said, you think that evil is going to come into your houses wearing big black boots and climb up the stairs–it begins in the language. Look to the language. He said, in the Soviet Union, nothing is permitted and everything is important. In the United States, everything is permitted and nothing is important. What is important? Especially now that so much is externalized through social media. The inner life, where we actually live most of our minutes of our days, is still a sacred place. That’s where transformation occurs, where all sorts of things occur, but it has to be nurtured. My concern is that with externalizing of experience many, many young people are not nourishing that inner space. It hurts to do so. It hurts to read a poem sometimes. It’s demanding in a way. It calls you to yourself and it’s sometimes difficult. TM: Speaking of language, your last book was titled The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, which is a phrase with religious meaning. Today people talk about real life and real time in a way no one did just 15 or 20 years ago. MH: Remember how it started, when things began to be in quotes? Like “home made” food or “natural” food. When people began to put those words in quotes, what does that mean? Now the quotes are gone. It’s real life, real time. There’s no way we can stop this, but we can drag our inner lives along with it and try to make sense of it. I feel like people are hungry. People my age want to be together and read books and talk. I wish we could spend days talking about what we’re losing with all of this speed. People are lonely. We want to be in the same room with each other. We want to talk and hang out and we’re just so busy. It’s consumerism and capitalism. Capitalism has stolen our sense of time–that truth that time belongs to us. TM: You were the Poet Laureate of New York state, you did a lot of public events, and when you first got the post, you said that you wanted poetry to be as ubiquitous as Gap ads. Which I love. I think that’s my fantasy of a city. MH: Wouldn’t it be great? The Poetry Society of course puts poems on buses and we need more and more and more. People are hungry for it. We just did a huge event called The Poet Is In at Grand Central Terminal. We’ve done this three times now but this one was the biggest. At Central Terminal at Vanderbilt Hall, right next to that clock, from 11 in the morning until 8 at night, there were six desks beautifully produced by the MTA art and design people and a production company called Wizard. There were six poets that changed every hour so you could come and sit down and talk with the poet and the poet would write you a poem after talking to you. Forty-eight poets participated in the course of a day and the line of people waiting for a poem was an hour and a half long. And people waited. An hour and a half. It was so amazing. You would ask a lot of questions and then you would take their answers and transform them and give it back. You would type it out on the typewriter with carbon paper, stamp it, sign it, separate it and you would read it to the person. People cried all the time. The person cried, the poet cried, and then you would give them poem to them–free. I want to do this all over the country. I think we’re not used to being heard. We’re not used to someone listening to us. And somehow transforming what we said to them and giving it back in a way that only poetry can do. It’s so startling. TM: Right now we’re at a moment where rapacious capitalism is running the government and they don’t believe in arts funding among other things, and people are now asking in a very fundamental way about what is important and what do we value. MH: I was just outside Chicago and in Indiana and the world is so big, the country is so big, but everybody wants to read a poem when their father dies. Everybody wants to read a poem at their wedding. Everybody wants to read a poem at these crucial moments in their life. When there’s a ritual. When there’s a sacrament, essentially. They want something that can hold the moment. If people don’t turn to art and they don’t turn to religion, we’re left with consumerism. After September 11th in New York these big sheets of paper would go up and people would write on them. Like by the arch in Washington Square Park. People were reading what other people had written. It was so amazing. People would crowd in and read all sorts of things that other people had written. We need public squares. TM: We need moments where we stop and listen to each other. MH: Poetry stops us and gives us something in common. I still believe that we could get poetry more into the public world. Unfortunately a lot of people believe they can’t read poetry because they were taught in school that it was difficult. Some poems are difficult, but many are not and so people are afraid–they don’t know where to go they don’t know what to do. I feel like we have to ambush them with something to realize that they don’t need to do anything more than just read and they’ll receive it. TM: The last line in your book is “the moonlit path over the un-walkable water.” It’s a beautiful line and I feel like moonlight is an image that comes up a lot in your poetry. MH: I’m in love with the moon. I mean, who’s not? It’s so amazing. To me, what we’ll call the divine is unseeable, unknowable. But we can see a reflection of it. We see it reflected in each other’s faces, we see it reflected in art, we see it reflected in the beauty of the world, the sorrow of the world. My friends actually mock me about this. We spend time in Provincetown every summer and the moonlight across the ocean makes that path, that wide amazing radiant path. It looks as if you could walk upon it to whatever is next. But of course you can’t walk on the water. I was also thinking of Peter who walks on the water when Jesus says, you can do it. Jesus walks across the water to the boat in the storm and he tells Peter, come on, and he starts to, but then Peter says, I can’t walk on water, and falls. It is un-walkable for most of us, and yet it’s so compelling. The sun is the source of life and everything that is, but we can’t look at it. We can only look at it indirectly. The beauty of that indirectness is also the moon and how it falls onto the ground and onto us. I just love the whole physicality of it. What Mary is facing is human limitation, sensing that there’s energies that are beyond us and yet seemingly known, but not being able to utterly participate. It’s what you said early, just there but not quite. TM: I guess in some sense that’s poetry. It’s the word describing something, a reflection of the thing itself. MH: Beautifully said. The word isn’t the thing itself and yet it can be close enough because we have this imagination and we can say apple and we can picture an apple. And the apple is there.
“He knew blood, and could see this man’s was different. Could see it in the way he filled the space, with no urgency and an all-knowing air, as if made of finer threads. Other blood. The man took a seat at a table and his attendants fanned out in a semicircle behind him.” Thus begins Yuri Herrera’s brilliant and brutal debut Kingdom Cons, a story set on a fraught but nameless border where a young songwriter, drawn into a lethal world full of glitz and death, is forced to examine the meaning of loyalty and artistic integrity. The songwriter (Lobo or “the Artist”) is delighted to have found a wealthy patron (“the King”). He becomes the court bard at the King’s lavish palace, but soon finds out that the price he must pay to stay in this elevated world far outweighs what he receives in return. Kingdom Cons is the Mexican novelist's first book but his third to be translated into English, and like his other two slim, impactful novels (Signs Preceding the End of the World and The Transmigration of Bodies) the story he tells reaches out its tendril hands in many different directions. Herrera’s novels are at once evocative of royal court dramas, Greek tragedies, Shakespearean romances, old world fairytales, hardboiled detective novels, and philosophical treatises on the power of art and words. I had the honor of speaking with Herrera recently about silence, power, creation, and translation. The Millions: I want to start by asking you about the things not said in Kingdom Cons, the unnamed countries, cities, and even characters. The book is set on a border, but the border is not specified, the cities are not named, and most of the characters are referred to only by epithets or roles. The main character has a name that sounds more like a nickname, Lobo, and very quickly he becomes simply the Artist, and he is surrounded by the Girl, the King, the Heir, the Commoner, who in the final pages of the novel becomes simply She. Can you talk a little bit about the power of absence and what you intended by not naming people and places? Yuri Herrera: I don’t think everything has to be explained in a novel. Silences are important because they are the most eloquent part of a creative work in how it allows the readers to reveal themselves when they fill them. In the case of the novel, not naming certain places helps avoiding clichés and easy formulations of issues that are much more complex than what the mass media and government speakers say. Regarding the names of the characters, these are like that in order to introduce an element of tension: their names as roles create an expectation of what they are supposed to do, and each character is going to define itself by resisting or obeying that expectation. TM: At one point in Kingdom Cons the news arrives at the Palace that the Artist’s songs have been banned, the DJs get “orders to shut his groove down.” Something similar to this happened across northern Mexico in the early 2000s, city governments implemented bans on narcocorridos, claiming that they would poison the youth by glamorizing the narco lifestyle, a similar critique to one that has been voiced in the United States about gangster rap. The ban in Ciudad Juárez has apparently since been lifted because the new mayor is financially invested in several radio stations and the ban was not good for business, either way it did not really matter because the songs by groups like Los Tigres del Norte only got more popular when they were outlawed. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on the popularity of narcocorridos and their influence and what it means for a society when people are banned from partaking in something? YH: In the case of the corridos, the ban of certain songs is a simplification of a very complex phenomenon. Maybe some singers have worked for criminals, like scores of lawyers, financiers, and architects have done and still do, but the focus of these politicians is on the singers because they are an easy target, it allows them, the politicians, to transfer their responsibility to someone else, to blame artists of their own ineptitude. But corridos are not a genre that emerged with the War on Drugs, it has been around for a long time, and very often has been a way in which stories out of the mainstream have circulated. TM: I’m interested in the influence of fairytales, folklore, and fables on your writing. Kingdom Cons includes lots of recognizable archetypes that appear in fairy or folktales across the globe—the King, the Witch, the Commoner, the Heir—can you talk a little bit about your choice to use these sorts of stock mythic characters? YH: In this specific case it is because although I took for my model a very precise space, the border between Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, and a very precise issue, the criminal stupidity of the “War on Drugs,” designed by different American administrations and followed by several Mexican administrations, the craziness of the powerful was not invented by these criminals, the drug lords, it is something that has always been there. The present day criminals are a very explicit example of that, but the need to have your name in golden letters, to proceed following your testosterone, to not listen to other opinions, to believe that artists are there to promote your greatness, that kind of megalomania can be seen very clearly in the old kingdoms, as well as in decaying democracies with spoiled frat-boys-turned-presidents who decorate their houses with animal skins and golden furniture. As for the other characters, it has to do with the role that the King assigned to them, their names signal the tension between what they might or might not want to do and what power expects from them. TM: You have a very distinctive writing style: charged but very clipped, deceptively simple, with short sentences and not a lot of description. There is a moment in the middle of Kingdom Cons when the Artist is talking about writing corridos and he says “The story tells itself but you have to coax it […] you take one or two words and the others revolve around them, that’s what holds it up. Cause if you’re just saying what happened, why bother with a song. Corridos aren’t only true; they’re also beautiful and just.” When I read this quote I couldn’t help but wonder if your writing process is anything like the Artist’s? YH: I think it is a lot like that. For every story I find a core around which the rest of the text is going to proliferate, sometimes it is a tension between characters, sometimes it is a dramatic line, like a transformational journey, sometimes it is an atmosphere. And I try to understand what kind of language, what kind of landscape, what kind of behaviors are organic to that core that generates meaning. TM: What are your thoughts on big novels versus small novels? All of your books are approximately the same slim size, somewhere around 100 pages. Should more novels be small and distilled? Are big novels just spinning their wheels and wasting everyone’s time? YH: I always think my next novel is going to be as long as War and Peace, because I have many notes and I think that once I develop them it is going to be a long breadth book, but then I discover that my notes look a lot like how I want the story to sound, or that they require not more development but more concision and more versatility. I like words and phrases and paragraphs that do several things at a time. I guess that is why I can’t write long novels. But I would love to be able to create that kind of respiration, to engage with a tempo that depicts a different pace in which emotions develop. TM: Your novels were all written in Spanish and then translated, often by the same translator, Lisa Dillman, into English. I’m curious what your relationship is to your translated texts? I’ve never had my writing translated so I have not yet had this experience and I’m curious how it feels to you to read your words in a different language? I’m also curious about the translation process and how involved you are in it? YH: Translation is a step into the abyss, because it doesn’t matter how “accurate” it is, it will always create a different object, with unexpected meanings. And that is fine, that is something that should be embraced, precisely because it is a way of expanding the life of a text. This is something that has to do not only with the lexicon or the syntax, but with how the new version sounds; sound creates meaning, even if you cannot articulate it in words. So I trust the translators because I assume they know the readership in this other language much better than me, that they know how to activate those new meanings in the text. I participate in the process only as much as they ask me to. In the case of Lisa, we have had a very rich dialogue, with each book we exchanged daily emails for months, and even though I suggested ways to do it, the final decisions were hers, she always found graceful, inventive solutions. TM: There is one word in Kingdom Cons that I kept coming back to and thinking about in terms of translation: the use of the word "tho" in place of "though." To me, when I was reading, it was a visual cue to me to remind me that I was existing in Lobo’s world (similar to the way that the verb"‘verse" made me feel when I read Signs Preceding the End of the World.) The use of tho felt slightly off kilter in a really good way and it seemed perfect because Lobo is someone for whom spelling is probably not a main focus—it seems like a wonderful way to show what a slang culture he is living in. I wondered if there is an equivalent word that you used in the original Spanish or is this something that only exists in translation? YH: There are a lot of words that work as markers of a certain rhythm and a certain character of Lobo, like Simón, which is another word for Yes, but, say, with more attitude. I think this word is a translational device, a compensation, to communicate that same attitude and rhythm, even if it’s not always in the exact same spots. TM: When the Artist’s songs were banned the King comforted him, “He smiled and his smile seemed a protective embrace that said to the Artist, Why sugarcoat the ears of those fuckers? We know what we are and we’re good with it. Let them be scared, let the decent take offense. Put them to shame. Why else be an artist?” When I read this, it reminded me of something that another writer I know, Scott McClanahan, said recently in an interview. He said, “If you’re not asking the question “Could this possibly destroy my life?” then you shouldn’t write it. That’s what I think anyway.” Do you agree with the King and Scott McClanahan. Is risk the main reason to be an artist? YH: I don’t know if it’s the main reason, but it’s something that you are going to have to face if you truly engage with the creative labor, because art implies creating new ways of looking at familiar subjects, and in order to do that you have to disassemble rules, meanings, certainties, you have to look at the arbitrariness of certain aspects of reality, or at the nonsense of cruelty, or at the complications of love, and in this manner you can not only mess with your readers’ emotional stability, but with your own. And this is a necessary step in order to provide a space for critical thinking, or for emotional discovery, but also for madness.
Two years ago I published an essay here called “How the West Was Lost.” In it, a handful of gifted writers—Ivan Doig, Joan Didion, Edward Abbey, and Jim Harrison—offered their takes on how Americans have despoiled their frontier. Harrison and Abbey decried environmental degradation, especially the damming of rivers so cities could bloom in deserts, where no city belongs. Didion punctured the myth of pioneer grit by pointing out that federal tax dollars have underwritten most signature western ventures, including the railroads, the aerospace industry, and big agriculture. And Doig, a product of the “lariat proletariat,” lamented the sacrifice of old ways and individual freedoms on the altar of spurious progress. Now I would like to nominate Deanne Stillman for admission to this distinguished group. Over the past three decades, her nonfiction and journalism have probed the violence Americans have done to the people, wild animals, and lands of the West. Her books include a devastating account of a double murder, Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave (2001); Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West (2008); and the story of a hermit turned cop-killer, Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History (2012). Stillman has just published Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship Between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill. Through the unlikely reconciliation of two adversaries from the Indian Wars, the book explores “the fault line that runs through the national story”—the subjugation and repeated betrayals of Native Americans. Like all of Stillman’s work, the new book is deeply researched, a work of passion and rich insight. She spoke with me by telephone from her home in Los Angeles. The Millions: Let’s start with a stupid question. Where did you grow up? Deanne Stillman: I grew up in Cleveland. I’d been writing since I was a little girl, and I just knew I had to be in New York to start pursuing the creative life and I moved there in the ’70s. I was writing first for the underground press, and then began writing humor and satire and comedy, including working on projects for Saturday Night Live. In the early 1980s I began going back and forth between L.A. and New York because I had gotten a series of television jobs. And then I was hired for a TV series called Square Pegs. I was aboard that train for a while and didn’t like it and in fact at some point it started making me physically ill. One day my personal apple cart collapsed. Writing humor is all about reacting and pretending everything’s fine and everything’s funny, but things had really come to a complete halt in my life and nothing was basically funny anymore. Once I got in touch with that and got back to some earlier desires, my writing moved in another direction. TM: In the introduction to Blood Brothers, you state that all of your books are about “acts of violence, the killing of people and wild animals, assaults on the land that have unfolded on a very big canvas, the American West.” Did you decide to work on this canvas after you moved west, or did you move west to be part of the canvas? DS: All of the above. It all has to do with my upbringing and with my father teaching me to be a writer when I was a little girl. My first submissions were to Mad magazine, actually, under the name Dean Stillman because I saw that they were only publishing boys. The West was an escape for me as a little girl because there was a lot of turmoil in my household, and I was escaping into books about the West. And we grew up around horses, too. My mother was one of the first women in the country to ride professionally on the racetrack, and she taught me how to ride. That had a lot to do with fueling my wanderlust—hanging out at the racetrack and coming into contact with a lot of strange characters. And also moving from the right side of the tracks to the wrong side of the tracks after my parents got divorced, and finding out that there was a working class and that they were kind of persona non grata. When we moved from very comfortable surroundings to the wrong side of town, even some of our relatives stopped talking to us. So I found out at a very early age that America has a class system. TM: So reading and fantasizing about the West was an escape for you even as a girl? DS: Fantasizing and living inside books which my father read to me. That became a landscape I started living in. TM: When did you move to L.A. full-time? DS: The late ’80s or so. When my personal life fell apart, I began spending more and more time in the desert. I was kind of on automatic pilot with my writing because I had to continue making a living, and I had reached a dead end there. And then one day the story I wrote about in Twentynine Palms crossed my path and it took over my life and I knew that I was going to follow it wherever it went. So that’s how the next phase of my writing life began. TM: Your earlier books, Twentynine Palms included, are deeply reported. There are also flashes of fiction writing in Desert Reckoning, where you get into the brains of people, which I loved. But Blood Brothers is closer to straight history. You traveled all over, reading in archives, visiting sites, looking at newspapers. I wonder if you could talk about the differences in researching and writing these different kinds of books—one is reportage, the other is almost straight history. DS: Blood Brothers involved more archival research, for sure. But I do bring elements of fiction into all of my writing. I did have to recreate characters in Blood Brothers, and I did recreate scenes, such as when [Buffalo Bill] Cody and Sitting Bull meet for the first time—in Buffalo, New York, of all places. That draws from actual reporting, but I do weave in other elements, what they might have been feeling and how the conversations played out. TM: So the researching and writing of this book were not all that different from the books that came before it? DS: Most of Blood Brothers takes place in the 19th century, so I was obviously not able to talk to associates of the main characters, which does make things different. I rely on many historical accounts, some of which are from the white man’s point of view and some of which are from the Native American’s point of view. But there are plenty of things that weren’t written down that we don’t know about. TM: I didn’t realize just how vast the literature is on the subjects you write about here. It seems like just about everybody has either written a memoir or been the subject of a newspaper or magazine article, or a biography. I laughed out loud that Tim McCoy, a cowboy turned movie actor, published a memoir ghost-written by his son. What rock hasn’t been turned over? With so much stuff available, I’m wondering if your challenge was finding something new to say—or did you not see it that way? DS: That’s part of what I was dealing with. You’re right, there’s so much that’s been written about many, many characters of that era. But the image that drew me into writing this book was the dancing horse outside the cabin where Sitting Bull was murdered. I always follow my instincts when it comes to my work, and I knew that that image would take me somewhere, exactly where I didn’t know. But isn’t that the allure of writing?—finding out the answers to these questions? I didn’t find very much about that image of the horse tied up outside Sitting Bull’s cabin at the time of his assassination. That dancing horse was in effect taking bullets for Sitting Bull as he was being killed—that’s an insight that came to me from Chief Arvol Looking Horse, who I called to ask about the dancing horse and what it meant. So I couldn’t find out much about that horse or the image because there wasn’t much on the record. That kind of confirmed my instinct that the image could take me through the writing of this book. TM: So that image propelled you to write the book? DS: Totally. It totally propelled me. It haunted me for years. TM: One of my favorite things in the book was that Buffalo Bill got sick of the “sham-hero worship,” as he puts it. Then he sets out to make a movie that captures the real spirit of the West, including the Seventh Cavalry’s massacre of Native Americans at Wounded Knee. But the movie turned out to be a failure because it was too real. People couldn’t handle it—even though he left out the fact that women and children were among those massacred. I thought that was a powerful irony. DS: I’m glad you brought that up. Here was Cody near the end of his life telling people he was sick of this whole thing, referring to the fact that he was trapped in this persona of Buffalo Bill. I think it’s kind of a universal situation—that sooner or later we often find ourselves accepted for being one thing, but in our hearts we’re something else. Here was Cody who’d become this mythological character adored around the world by kings and wastrels. But as he began to feel remorse for his role in the closing of the West, he says many times to reporters that we haven’t done right by the Indians. Even when he was talking about Sitting Bull to reporters, he would make a point of talking about how he was the Napoleon of his people. After the Wounded Knee massacre, Cody wanted to set the record straight by making this documentary, using actual survivors and members of the cavalry. It was so real that some of the Native American re-enactors in the documentary thought that actual bullets were going to start flying. TM: But the movie failed, as I say, because people didn’t want to hear it. DS: We’re such an Action Jackson country. People just wanted to see a shoot-’em-up, they didn’t want to take a look at the victims. But also we Americans have a problem looking at what really happened, period. I think Cody making that film was a metaphor for the fact that we haven’t reconciled our original sin, which is the betrayal of Native Americans. TM: This leads to another thing I wanted to ask you about. There’s a subtext in the book about celebrity in America. Look at Sitting Bull—he’s involved in the battle of Little Bighorn, he has to flee to Canada, he comes back and joins the Wild West show. He goes from fugitive to star. DS: [Laughs.] That’s true! TM: He and Buffalo Bill were superstars. When all else fails in America, you can always become a celebrity. These guys weren’t the first American celebrities, but I think they’re a template for what’s happening to this day in this country. DS: I completely agree. They were hardly the first celebrities, but they were arguably two of the most famous men in American history. Without the Wild West show, our national story may well not be what it is. TM: To go back to your book’s introduction. You mention that you’ve witnessed several recent moments of atonement and forgiveness between Native Americans and descendants of the soldiers who fought against their ancestors. These are contemporary events—the renaming of sacred lands, the fight against the pipeline—and you wrote something that I like: “Perhaps the brief time that Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull were together can serve as a foundation upon which this rift can be repaired.” That’s a wonderful thought. I like to think you’re right, but I wonder if that’s hoping for too much, given our history. DS: That’s a good question. We have choice here: we can hope for too much or scale it back. What’s going on now in terms of Trump’s policies regarding the environment, the rollback of wildlife protections, the assault on the wilderness, the call to euthanize all of America’s wild horses, this nonstop assault on what’s wild—this, to me, is the end game of the Indian Wars. TM: So do you think there’s a chance for this rift to be repaired and for this country to become healthy? DS: Over time, yes, there is a chance. You look at Standing Rock last December—descendants of soldiers who fought at Little Bighorn apologizing to Lakota elders about their role in the decimation of Native Americans, and the elders giving their acceptance speech. That was a very powerful event, in my opinion. It was covered, but it was overshadowed by the politics of the pipeline. Behind all of that, there was this spiritual shift involving this apology. It’s been happening for the past two years in other ways across the Great Plains and the West. Native Americans also apologized for wiping out Custer. The ramifications of that down the line are beyond words. It’s all to the good.
Daniel Mendelsohn is one of the most prominent classicists in America today. A contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, he’s also a professor at Bard College. His 2006 book The Lost: The Search for Six of Six Million, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Memoir, among many other awards, recounts Mendelsohn's attempt to discover what happened to six relatives who were killed in the Holocaust. It is also a book about storytelling and how we construct our identities and our relationship to the past, issues that recur throughout his work, including the memoir The Elusive Embrace. He has also translated the poetry of C.P. Cavafy and established himself as one of the most significant critics and cultural writers of the moment. Mendelsohn has the kind of wide-ranging mind one hopes for from a critic. He ends up writing about topics that one might expect, like the films 300 and Troy, but he’s clearly a pop culture junkie writing about Mad Men and George R.R. Martin and Patrick Leigh Fermor and the meaning of the Titanic. His new book An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic is about his father. At the age of 81, Mendelsohn’s father, Jay, attended his son’s weekly seminar on The Odyssey, and when the class finished the two took a cruise retracing Odysseus’s steps through the Eastern Mediterranean. His father died not long after; the book is about teaching The Odyssey, about the last year of his father’s life, and about Mendelsohn trying to better understand his father. Which happens to be one of the themes of The Odyssey. An excerpt of the book appeared earlier this year in The New Yorker. We spoke recently when he was jet-lagged in Paris on book tour. The Millions: Where did this book start? You wrote a travel article about going on the cruise with your dad not long after it happened. Daniel Mendelsohn: All my books accidentally end up being books. As soon as my dad asked me to take the course, I thought I would do something with it because the experience at a certain level was just so amusing. I may have even called my editor at The New Yorker. When we were on the cruise, I think I started thinking that it was going to be a book. It was after he died that I looked back at what had turned out to be the last year of his life and saw that the whole thing was one story—the classroom and the cruise and the hospital. On the cruise I started to think it would be a book but I didn’t know at that point what the narrative was, what the shape of it was, but I knew I had a story. Several months after daddy died I started thinking, this is the book. I knew that I wanted to map the structure of this book onto The Odyssey somehow and figuring that out took me a while. TM: Anyone who reads you knows that structure is very important to you, and I can only imagine how much time it took to figure out the right structure for the book. DM: That’s a shrewd observation. I had a lot of material. The classroom was so funny at times and also so poignant at times. Then the cruise with the cave and the guy with the scar on his leg—and not getting to Ithaca. I thought, life is handing me a great story. The Lost took me one third as much time to write as did this book, although one could say it’s a much more gigantic story. It took me a very long time to figure out how to map this onto the structure of The Odyssey. It was not easy. It took a long time. People said, it’s taking a long time because it’s your dad and he’s passed away now and it’s so sad and emotional. I said, no, actually that’s not the reason. I love thinking about my dad every day. It was like a nice haunting. It was hard because I wanted to be echoing both the structure of The Odyssey and the development of the themes of The Odyssey. Going from this education of the son to this metaphorical emphasis on recognition at the end of The Odyssey and then at the end of my father’s story. That was not so easy. In my review of the movie Troy with Brad Pitt I began by quoting Aristotle—which is probably too big of a stick to use on Brad Pitt. Aristotle has a very interesting observation about the other so-called epics about the Trojan War that did not survive. Every aspect of the Trojan War had an epic about it, from the judgement of Paris to the death of Odysseus. We only have The Iliad and The Odyssey. Aristotle said some of these other epics just weren’t that good, and the reason why is because they told the story in the order that the events happened, which is a mistake that Homer did not make. I realized about two years into writing this book I was making exactly that mistake. In other words, I told first the class, then the cruise, then my father’s illness, and death in that order. Each element was interesting, but it didn’t have an interesting structure. I never share my work while I’m writing except with my editor and a close friend and mentor of mine, Bob Gottlieb, who used to run Knopf and The New Yorker. This was literally only a year ago. I had hundreds of pages and Bob said, the problem is when you get to the end of the school year, you don’t want to go on. That’s the narrative, the class. You have to think of a way to work everything else into that. Literally the minute he said that I burst out laughing because of course, I need to do this Homerically, which is, to think of a way to fold the other aspects of the story into the classroom narrative. The class is the spine of the book. I have to talk about the cruise while we’re discussing Odysseus’ adventures at sea in the class. I have to talk about the illness and death when we’re coming to the end of the class. Then the whole thing fell into place and I was finished in two months. TM: As soon as he said that, the structure presented itself to you. DM: It clicked into place all at once. He said, you have to think of something and he didn’t know what it was, but the minute he said that, I thought, duh, you have to think like Homer. TM: You make the point in the book that The Odyssey is much more narratively and structurally complex than most people understand. DM: Oh my god, yes. The Odyssey is—in an almost postmodern way—aware of its own narrative devices. In fact it draws attention to its own constructed-ness, so to speak, in a way that is just amazing. I remember reviewing a very good book, that I quite liked, by Zach Mason called The Lost Books of the Odyssey for The New Yorker. I said this book is very clever and interesting, but you’re never going to be more clever than The Odyssey itself because it already anticipated all these games. One of the things I really wanted to make people aware of in this book—through getting to be a fly on the wall in the seminar—is how incredibly structured The Odyssey is and how alert it is to the tricks of narrative. All of my books, starting with my first memoir, are obsessed with narrative and truth-telling and the way that lived history becomes narrated. It’s very interesting to me. It’s a theme that binds all of my memoirs together certainly. TM: I think thats true. Your books are about how we construct our identity through narrative. DM: Precisely. When I was writing my first book, my grandfather, who reappears in The Lost, is sort of the figure of narrative. He is a great storyteller. In both books I become alert to the way in which the self fashioning through narrative can be misleading. Not necessarily in a sinister way. I think quite often people narrate themselves not with the intention of deception but because they honestly believe that this is who they are. That this is their story, if you see what I mean. I’m fascinated by this. It’s also a way of alerting my readers to the fact that even though these are true stories that I’m telling in my book, they are constructed as narrative. The story you’re reading is never the whole story because if you told the whole story, it would just be boring. TM: I know you’ve written about this a lot, and I’ve written about it a little, but the fact that the memoir isn’t a recitation of events; it’s about the psychoanalysis of the self, it’s a consideration of what those events mean, it’s much more complicated than just what happened. DM: The memoir is a highly crafted version of unedited reality. Nobody wants to hear a boring story. The Lost is highly obsessed with the dangers of narrative because I’m trying to get at a historical truth. When I was on book tour for The Lost, a woman in the audience very nicely said, I loved your book and I’m so glad that somebody has finally told the whole story of this one little town. I burst out laughing and I said, if I had told everything that I heard, it would be 2,000 pages long and unreadable. It’s not a matter of fact or fiction, it’s not a matter of you’re making it up or whatever—even if you’re just relating things that happened or things you heard, you’re shaping it, because people want to be enticed by a narrative. In this book I’m doing that very deliberately by evoking parallels with the themes and structure of structure of The Odyssey—which is itself a text which is very alert to the enchantment and seductions of narrative. It’s over-determined in a kind of fabulous way, but of course I don’t talk about the boring parts of the cruise or the days we just sat around waiting to get somewhere or the questions that people asked at the site of Troy that weren’t interesting. You’re always shaping and when you’re writing this kind of thing you are writing in a way to convey what you think are the insights that you have had about yourself. But of course who knows what you’re doing unconsciously, right? That’s for the critics to figure out. TM: I think you were harder on yourself than you were on your father in a lot of ways. DM: I take that as a huge compliment. I think when you’re writing memoir obviously the great danger is to glamorize yourself. Even through a kind of disingenuous negativity by saying, oh I’m so terrible. I think I’m pretty tough on both of us. The Lost was about the search for the identities of people I had never known. So in a funny way even though the subject matter was so painful, it was easier to write. This book was about my father, and for that reason I was bending over backwards to not sentimentalize either myself or my relationship to my father. I thought that was very important and I think it’s something he would have approved of given the kind of person he was. [Laughs.] He didn’t like mush. You’re probably right. I may have bent over too far, but the hero of this book is not me. The hero of this book is my father. It’s like those bunraku puppeteers who dress in black but you only look at the puppet? I wanted to be like those puppeteers, not intruding too much because it is about my father, although obviously through the lens of my relationship with him. TM: I guess what I mean is that you don’t overdramatize anything, you’re not overly sentimental, and you write that when you were young you were embarrassed by him. You make it clear that this isn’t about a distant father and a dutiful son. DM: Absolutely. When you write a memoir, you have an unwritten pact with the reader that you have to expose even the unattractive aspect of your narrative. I’m not talking about, I had a problem or I had an addiction. I mean really embarrassing things that make you squirm and might make the reader squirm, but I think you have to do that because that’s why the reader is on board. In particular, reading a book about a father-son relationship, I just felt I owed it to myself, I owed it to my father, and I owed it to the readers to put those mortifying, uncomfortable moments on the page because that’s the bargain you’re making. Look, no one has perfect relationships with their parents. We’re all embarrassed by our parents at some point in life, but only a few of us get to write about it. That’s the point hopefully when the reader will say, aha, I never really went there or talked about this, but I know what it’s like to have a parent you’re sometimes just mortified by. I don’t think it reflected well on me but I was 14. This is life and you have to be honest about it. TM: As you were writing these moments seemed to present themselves. Like the man on the cruise with the injured leg. The emotional climax of the book is your father revealing himself to you and the class when you’re discussing Book 23, which was echoed in the very last scene of the book. DM: I reflected on this a lot when I was writing The Lost when there were so many extraordinary coincidences. Truly amazing things happened that you wouldn’t believe if it were a novel. I had a long passage in The Lost where I reflect on that and I say it happens because to some extent you make it happen by putting yourself into this story. If you sit at home on your sofa nothing’s ever going to happen. Just by putting yourself out there you make things happen. You know what this is like as a writer when you’re working on a thing, suddenly everything becomes about that subject. Everything becomes irradiated because your perceptions and sensitivities are engaged. It’s not that more things are happening or more coincidences are happening, you’re just noticing things you never would have noticed before because you weren’t writing a book about them. I was just lucky because the one time my father really responded positively to The Odyssey was on the last day of class when he said this amazing thing. If you read the passage it’s not like he bears his soul, but for him...That’s a great vehicle for talking about how you turn experience into a narrative. What I had to do in order for that moment to feel like a climax, which is how you just described it. It is the emotional climax of the book, I would say. What I had to do was to create my father as a character in such a way that for him even to say that feels like a huge climax. Everything before then I have to choose out of everything that he said and did, those things which I thought illustrated his character in such a way so that by the time you get to that I think amazing moment where he started talking about my mother in class you’re like, whoa. TM: And then you play with structure and time so that you jump to you relating it to your father and show her reacting to it. DM: Here also I’m imitating slightly something that Homer does; he gives you reaction shots, as it were. I felt that to be an extraordinary moment in the classroom and I know that some of the students did, but then I choose to narrate the conversation that I had with my mother about that because she thought it was amazing too. It was a way of locking the significance of that moment both when it happened and afterwards. I didn’t have to describe the conversation I had with my mother—although that conversation leads to what I think is the second big emotional moment at the end of the book. I was trying very hard in this book to avoid over-dramatizing and that’s why you get in the conversation with mother as a throwaway remark the information that finally explains why my father didn’t go to the high school he always wanted to go to. For me that was a very big emotional moment, but I bent over backwards not to spotlight because I think it’s more devastating if you experience it the way I experienced it, which was in passing. It’s a throwaway remark from my mother because she’s not thinking about what I was thinking about at that moment. TM: That’s also a narrative tool, to have a great emotional moment but not to dwell on it or emphasize it. DM: That’s a thing that happens in the work that I admire the most. You’re not showcasing the big emotional moments and I think they’re more devastating for that reason. I always think of Proust where you meet Odette de Crécy early on in the novel. She’s a major character and the focus of a lot of narrative attention and you’re led to believe that this fancy aristocratic name that she has is one of these made up names that high-class courtesans gave themselves. I think it’s in the fourth or fifth volume where in passing the narrator meets the Count or Maquis de Crécy and you realize that Odette really was married to that guy. Every time I encounter that I’m just blown away by how brilliant it is. A thing that interests me is retrospective emotion, when you think oh my god that’s what that thing was and you get that kind of pang. I’m fascinated by that because to my mind it has 10 times the power of some big drumroll cymbals clashing kind of climax. TM: It gets at this point, which is at the heart of so much classical Greek literature, that character is destiny. DM: Right. It’s interesting when you think about what is this book about. Yes, it has a plot, which is the classroom and the cruise and the hospital, but like The Lost is a search narrative, the search here is just to know who my father was. You can say, well who cares who my father was, except that we all have fathers and mothers and we never quite understand them. This book I would say what it’s about is a series of gentle revelations about things that I never guessed about my father or why he did them. I thought I knew who he was and then through a kind of odyssey and sequence of events, people saying things—sometimes knowingly sometimes accidentally—reveal the key to major episodes of my father’s life. That’s about character. So much of Greek literature—particularly tragedy, my scholarly specialty—is about how events reveal character. That’s all that tragedy is about, one could say. That’s what this book is about. As with tragedy, you could say who cares about that person’s character, but you want to do it in such a way that it can be enlarged and become a metaphor for a certain type of experience. In this book the type of experience that I’m interested in is a child’s partial knowledge of parents and a child’s partial understanding of his parents' marriage. TM: You get at this in the book that so much of The Odyssey is about this father-son relationship and the education of a son into the wider adult world. DM: I think that’s about as good a way you could put it. TM: You’ve been teaching these works for years, I wonder if there’s been a shift in how students respond to Homer? DM: It’s an interesting question. I don’t mean to be evasive, but I have two answers to that question. On the one hand, I don’t want to call it superficially but certainly the students now are interested in things because they’re being raised in a different culture than I was raised in, so they’re focusing on things that they have been trained to notice. I got here yesterday afternoon and a kid who graduated from UVA who I met and kept in touch with is in Paris so we had dinner together. He had just finished reading The Iliad and I said what did you think? What he was focused on was why aren’t there more female characters, why there aren’t more strong female characters, what is Achilles's sexuality exactly, to what extent is the text explicit about his relationship with Patroclus. I thought well of course because he is a product of contemporary college education where—and I say this with approval—they’re focusing on issues of gender and sexuality. Every generation has its own focuses and lenses, let’s call them. That said, at a whole other possibly larger level, I would say no, there is no difference. [Laughs.] I started teaching as a graduate student in 1989. The fundamental elements are still fundamental and it doesn’t matter what gender or sexuality you are—or what class, something contemporary students are rightly zeroing in on. Who are the slaves? Beyond that I think they’re all finally susceptible to the great power of both The Odyssey and The Iliad in the way they present in the strongest and also most stylish way the fundamental issues of human existence. That’s why they’re classics. I always like to say that the great advantage to teaching great books is that they are great. It’s not like we’re trying to sell you a bill of goods here. [Laughs.] We’re not trying to sell you a lemon and dress it up as a Cadillac, they really are great. I had never really understood the extent to which The Odyssey is obsessed with familial relationships and particularly father-son relationships, as you were just saying. Even people who haven’t read The Odyssey know that it’s a famous story about a guy who’s trying to get home to his wife after 20 years away from home. But in terms of pure real estate, more of the poem is devoted to father-son relationships than to husband-wife relationships. I’ve never done a count, but my hunch is it’s just as much if not more so. The Greeks were obsessed with this as a patriarchal society. Surprise! Odysseus in the book has a double role. He is both a father to a son he doesn’t know and didn’t raise and who has found other father figures to be his father in his absence, but also at the end of the book there’s his old father that he has to reconcile with, come to terms with. As I think I point out in the book, the climactic reunion of The Odyssey is not Odysseus and Penelope, it’s Odysseus and his father. Even structurally the emphasis is clearly on that relationship. I understood this, of course. I taught it a million times, but somehow it just hit me this time around. Look, we all have parents. We all watch them getting old. Those of us who have children watch our children growing up. I think many people feel, did I miss something in my child’s growing up? This is a text that speaks very loudly and clearly and powerfully. TM: One reason I ask is because the military has been sponsoring performances of Greek tragedies for soldiers and veterans and using them as a way to talk about war and trauma. I know The Odyssey is often talked about in a post-traumatic context. DM: I’m not a big fan of those readings. It’s not because I don’t think they’re not true, but I think it leads to the possibility of a reductive reading and I am always militating for expansive reading rather than reductive reading. I reviewed one of those productions, of Euripides’s Herakles, which is adapted as a war hero with post-traumatic stress disorder. I think the danger of that is reducing the complexities of extremely complex works of art for the purposes of contemporary psychologizing. It’s not that I think they’re wrong, but because their emphasis is on trauma I don’t like the idea that people will think that’s what they’re about and thereby exclusive of other readings. Ajax suffers this kind of madness for reasons that are made very explicit in the text that have to do with hubris and Greek theology and the whole system of honor and heroism. I’ve spent my whole career trying to argue for the continuing, vivid relevance of these texts, but there’s more to the story than just this kind of interpretation. I have been certainly been keeping abreast of these performances before veterans and obviously the veterans are responding. If you get a group of soldiers and they’re crying during Ajax, I’m never going to argue with that. But there’s a much bigger picture. I’m a product of a certain moment in classical education when I was in grad school. One was constantly reminded that they were a very different and often strange civilization in comparison with our own. One can go down a slippery interpretative slope if you want them to be a perfect mirror of contemporary experience because they’re not. They had this wacky religion, they had very weird ideas about gender and sexuality, and you have to be careful about how you use them I guess is the point of this digression. TM: When I talk with people who are adapting or interpreting classical stories, we talk about how pop culture stories are often fundamentally different from classical stories. Classically character was destiny, and in contemporary stories that means everything is awesome, I guess. I still remember your review of Julie Taymor’s Spider-Man musical and how she was trying to combine the comic book transformation with the mythical tradition of transformation and they don’t quite match up. DM: Exactly. Listening to you one thing that flashes through my head is that maybe these Greek texts have a kind of hardness and durability because they don’t make a mistake which I think is the great mistake of so much popular entertainment—sentimentality. Modern superheroes are all essentially optimistic visions of transformation. The transformations are always empowering, where you need to only read two pages of Ovid’s Metamorphosis to understand that the ancient transformations are very problematic. The essential vision of life is pessimistic and these transformations are punishments, so [Taymor] was trying to conflate two essentially incompatible visions TM: This is incredibly geeky but Spider-Man always fights people who go through animal-like transformations—The Lizard, The Rhino, Doctor Octopus—and they are flawed tragic characters caught up in this web of hubris and obsession. Who are then defeated by, I guess, a can-do American attitude? DM: I think that’s a brilliant observation. The Greek dramatists would focus on the villain in the Spider-Man stories, not on Spider-Man. That’s so interesting because they’re all grandiose strivers who go wackily wrong—both physically and mentally because of their grandiose ambitions. Those characters would be of much more interest. Back to Taymor, you have made a much more interesting way of stating the issue that I was talking about in the Taymor production—the villains are so much more interesting. Because the heroes are so obviously heroic, the drama about the American hero versus the Greek is they have these double identities. The drama is generated by the necessity of keeping the heroic identity secret. That’s the great anxiety. There is no inherent drama in the way the Greek mind would understand the word drama in these heroes. I’m not saying this is a lesser theme—especially today when we’re so alert to issues of identity and concealment. There is drama in that, but it’s not what a Greek dramatist would be interested in. Obviously identity and self-revelation are very interesting to Homer in The Odyssey. TM: You wrote that great piece in The New Yorker about Mary Renault and your correspondence. I was curious if you planned to write more about it or do something with the piece? DM: I do have an idea for a book. Bob Gottlieb suggested it to me after I wrote that piece and I always listen to him. A book with a title like My Old Ladies. I published that piece on The New Yorker website about this fabulous elderly French lady that I boarded with when I was in college. I could write about [my teacher] Froma. How continually I’ve come under the influence of these very strong older women. As I recall, that Renault piece was probably 14,000 words. I think to amplify it would be a matter of adding more detail but not more structure, so I don’t know that I’m going to revisit that but I would like to assemble some of these ladies in one place. I could write about my mother. It might be a fun book. TM: I also read that you’re working on a book about reading the classics. DM: That’s my next book, which I’ve thought about doing for a long time. When I’m on book tour, there’s a huge number of people who really want to know why these great texts are supposed to be so great. Not in a skeptical way, but a lot of people are like my father, for whatever reason they didn’t get to read the classics or they sped through them in high school and as adults they have some sense that these texts have tremendous amount to say but they need someone who’s going to be the professor. I thought it would be a good to write a book, which in some sense is like these pieces I’ve done for The New Yorker about The Iliad or Herodotus or Thucydides. A number of chapters on different authors or genres, and just say, here’s what it is, these are the issues, let’s sit down and look at them together. TM: The description of An Odyssey sounds like the description of either a new sitcom or an Oscar nominated film, so I have to ask, have you sold the Hollywood rights? DM: [Laughs.] As my grandmother would say, from your lips to God’s ears.
Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Iliac Crest is one of the most fascinating novels I’ve read in years—utterly weird yet deeply resonant in its portrayal of gendered violence. On October 30th, Rivera Garza, Chavisa Woods, and I will meet to discuss the transgressive power of queer horror stories at the Mid-Manhattan Library at 42nd Street. In anticipation of that conversation, I spoke with Rivera Garza over email about the relationship between language and sanity, crossing both literal and literary borderlands, and transforming people of note—in this case, Mexican author Amparo Dávila–into fictional characters. Samantha Hunt: In The Iliac Crest you create a new language, though in the book, the language seems to be less a creation, more an emergence. It appears the way a gathering of mushrooms might spring forth after rain. Central to this language is the word glu. I understand glu to have something to do with water and accordingly the word’s meaning remains liquid. Can I ask what glu means to you? Of course you don’t have to answer this directly. I only long to hear your thoughts around language creation and the mutability of words. Cristina Rivera Garza: Books, real books, produce and reproduce language. Or better yet: they constitute themselves in the territory in which the emergence—the constant emergences—of languages both private and social is thoroughly recreated, registered, and documented. Many have said it before me, but I´d like to repeat it: language is the place of our sociality. We are never lonely in language. We inscribe ourselves in traditions we might agree with or not, so it is always better to be aware of this and position ourselves accordingly. We become social, too, in and through language. The two female characters speaking glu glu—you´re right, the liquid tonality (at least in Spanish) of these letters and, especially, vowels, is central to it—convey both their intimacy and their complicity—can you have one without the other? SH: What is the relationship between language and sanity? CRG: I spent entire years reading and analyzing the files of a large insane asylum—the famous or infamous La Castañeda, out of which grew my first novel No One Will See Me Cry—from 1910 (the year of the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution) to the 1930s, when the early post-revolutionary regime attempted to reconfigure the modern nation. I read insanity there—what these distinct medical and political regimes termed insanity, in any case. Poor men and women from both urban and rural areas of Mexico struggled there to define their condition, often accommodating to the ear of proto-psychiatrists of that time. In those contorted, highly negotiated dialogues surged what came to be known as insanity, and its evil twin: sanity, the other name for modernity. The insane seldom forgot to include their social background through carefully crafted stories in which suffering took a prominent role. You might as well say that sanity, at least in terms of the linguistic exchange taking place within asylum grounds, meant eschewing these experiences—which were an implicit criticism to the causes of their misfortune—out of diagnoses, which by doing so became medical. So, here you have it, language and sanity mediated by concrete relationships of power developing in very tangible circumstances. Something similar happens with language as it becomes Literature (note the capital L), or not. I am prone to the vanishing points. SH: The ocean, rain, and clouds are very present in The Iliac Crest. The book’s concern with language and its setting (a psychiatric hospital) create an atmosphere that is psychological, a realm of the mind. Yet, you title the book The Iliac Crest, a reference to the skeletal body. This bone becomes the sight of seduction and attraction to the narrator. How does this book of ideas, of thoughts, find residence in the skeleton? CRG: Unlike writing that unfolds according to arguments or ideas (as in traditional academic writing, for example), creative writing is bound to bodies. And, as anthropologist Gastón Gordillo once said as he investigated sites of multiple devastation in northern Argentina: bones are the most intimate of all ruins. I am interested in the thisness of my materials. An utter or extreme materiality of sorts. I see myself as someone creating spaces in language in which rubble—non-glamorous ruins—may speak for itself, bringing its pastness with it. In a country in which bodies are made to forcefully disappear, a skeleton is a last remnant of the material life—and a material truth—it held. It all comes down to it. SH: Amparo Dávila, a Mexican writer whose work is often described as uncanny, is all but unheard of in America. She’s transformed into not just one character in The Iliac Crest, but more than one. Some of her fictional characters even appear in The Iliac Crest. What does it mean to have multiple Amparo Dávilas? CRG: Many years ago, when I was a young reader, I came across a haunting short story: “The Guest.” I lost that book and forgot the name of the author, but never quite managed to forget the story. Unnerving and hard to classify, the story became a kind of subtext to what I wrote at that time. Years later, as I was starting what became The Iliac Crest, the story—by Amparo Dávilas, it turned out—came back to me as a gift. A friend mailed the book from Mexico to the United States out of the blue. I realized then that the story was real and not a figment of my imagination. I knew that Amparo Dávila had to become a character of my novel right there and then. I believe “The Guest” was published in English a while ago; and recent translations by Matthew Gleeson have been published in The Paris Review. But you´re right, Dávila's work remains to be fully accounted for in English—and in Spanish too. That quality of her work—and her being—is replicated in the many young Amparo Dávilas that roam in that area of the body known as The Iliac Crest. SH: The Iliac Crest is full of gorgeous language. How do you write? What is primary to your process? Is there a hierarchy (i.e, beautiful language, character, plot, a personal game or joy)? CRG: We all tell stories, at times beautifully, but writers are bound to extricate from them a knowledge—a critical knowledge—to go beyond limits established by the powers that be. As everybody else I am hostage to daily stimuli from my social and natural environment, but I work with those I cannot normalize. The enigma has to be strong and deep enough to keep me from swimming or chatting and sending me directly to writing instead. For years, at times. I believe what Marguerite Duras used to say (I am quoting from the top of my head): writing is what we´d write in case we write. The role of the present and the use of subjunctive—at least in the original phrase in French—underline the aleatory and implacable nature of what we do. I write thus to get to know my materials, and once there, in the process, I try to follow them as closely as I can, as organically too. Language, the specific language for each book, emerges from this operation. As far as I can tell, you know. SH: The book moves beyond borders in so many ways. Life and death are difficult to discern, genders shift, the sane turn insane by a stroke of words. As a citizen of the borderlands yourself, what does border mean to you? CRG: I was born on the border—between Matamoros and Brownsville, cities on the edges of Tamaulipas and Texas, respectively—and have lived on the border much of my life—20 years between Tijuana and San Diego, for example. I've gotten used to eye borders wherever I go, even in places we assume there are none. But they exist—borders of race, language, class, among others. The difference with geo-political borders is that inescapable pair of questions: Who are you? And where are the documents to prove it? Crossing borders, a practice in which so many of us engage across geographies and throughout history, has become a privilege over time. Recent talk about the wall between Mexico and United States is but an example of discrimination and injustice, not to mention plain stupidity. That's why it is so important for writing to attempt to cross borders, be it borders of genre or language (between Spanish and English, for instance), but also larger borders about, for example, our uneven access to the common good. SH: Sarah Booker translated The Iliac Crest. Did you ever consider doing the translation yourself? CRG: I have the greatest admiration and respect for the work translators do. If it is true that writing—true writing—is always written first in translation, then it follows that we all have a bit of the translating bug in ourselves. I have tried my luck at translation and have enjoyed the journey tremendously. But I usually translate works written by others, especially when I am convinced that a translation may take a conversation throughout borders and expand it into new realms. Would you believe me that I find the idea of translating myself redundant? Perhaps a bit dangerous. I have been revising Sarah´s magnificent translation of The Iliac Crest and at times I have not been able to suppress the urge to change entire paragraphs, adding or deleting words more or less at will. Translators are avid and careful readers; they are co-creators of new work.