Starting Over Is What’s Hard: The Millions Interviews Mary Laura Philpott

Mary Laura Philpott explores reinvention in her wonderful debut memoir-in-essays, I Miss You When I Blink. “One thing I’ve learned again and again is that starting over can save your soul, but it’s almost impossibly daunting if your only vision of reinvention is the all-or-nothing, blow-up-your-life kind,” she told me. “There are smaller, incremental ways to start over that can save us, too.”

But Philpott’s collection isn’t only a guide for reinvention. It’s the kind of book that shapeshifts into what each reader needs most. Some essays are laugh-out-loud funny; others are affectingly tender. Many are both. Seriously, read “This is Not My Cat” and “I Miss You When I Blink,” and try to explain the reason for your tears. Whether she’s writing about home, work, or family, Philpott’s essays show life as it truly is.

Philpott and I spoke via email about, among other things, cathartic writing, wise words, and literary citizenship.

The Millions: One thing I admire so much about I Miss You When I Blink is how open you are in discussing different parts of your life. Among other topics, you talk about your family, your health, and your insecurities. Did you find being so open about your life and experiences to be cathartic?

Mary Laura Philpott: That’s a great question. I think the cathartic parts of the writing process come early on, at least they did for me, when I was just blabbing things out and getting drafts on paper. But in the stages that came after, when I took those drafts and dug deeper into those personal stories, it became more about finding something bigger than just my own experience, as in Okay, so I hated my first job. What does that say about what it’s like to be that age or the way perfectionists tend to prioritize work in our lives? I wanted to ask and try to answer those questions, so that the experience of reading the book would be somewhat cathartic, too. The challenge was to verbalize those thoughts and observations in such a way that other people would feel like they’d finally gotten the words for something they’d always been thinking.

TM: Were there some essays you hesitated to write because of how open they required you to be?

MLP: There were definitely parts of my life that I hesitated to write about, mainly the parts where my experiences and feelings overlapped with the experiences and feelings of other people. While I don’t feel nervous about being open with the pieces of myself I’ve chosen to share, if there’s a story of mine that’s very much someone else’s story too, I erred on the side of not telling it—or not telling that part of it. In the parts of this book that deal with family, for example, I really tried to keep the focus on my own experience, the adult side of it, not stories about my kids themselves. I mean, they’re hilarious and I could tell you stories about them all day long, but that’s not what this book is. My spouse is a very private person, too, so I initially tried to write this collection without ever mentioning him, which was kind of ridiculous. So, he’s in there now, but as minimally as I could get away with.

That boundary ended up being really useful to the purpose of this book. I wanted to write about the internal conflict, the loneliness, and the absurd private bargains and humor—the inside jokes so “inside” that they happen only in our own heads—of being a person, and how the human experience often feels so solitary, even or especially when we’re surrounded by other people. Staying focused on my own piece of each experience helped me do that, I think.

I’m reminded of something Dani Shapiro wrote in a fantastic essay about the difference between the memoir as a piece of literature and the more private openness of a personal conversation: “My interest is in telling precisely what the story requires.”

TM: Do you have a favorite essay in the collection?

MLP: I don’t know — I’m proud of all of them for making it out of the mess of my mind and into the world. But one of my favorites to read aloud is “A Letter to a Type A Person in Distress.” It’s shorter than the others (which are all pretty short), and it’s a different format from the rest. I wrote the first draft of it in one sitting. It directly addresses the reader, and it was something I needed to hear and suspected a lot of other people needed to hear, too: You’re trying so hard; I see you; you’re doing great.

TM: You pack I Miss You When I Blink with lots of wisdom. Seriously, I feel like I highlighted a quarter of the book. In “Wonder Woman,” you write, “When you internalize what you believe to be someone else’s opinion of you, it becomes your opinion of you,” and just a few pages over, you add, “Even small events can have a formative effect on our lives. Everything sinks into the soil.” Similarly, in “Everything to Be Happy About,” you have this great line about what it means to be fortunate: “But being fortunate doesn’t mean you won’t reach a certain point in life—many points, actually—and panic. It doesn’t mean you don’t periodically wonder how you got where you are and if there’s any way to get out.”

But it’s “Mermaids and Destiny” that I marked up the most. It discusses the ways in which we, especially as young people, develop and dream and create goals for ourselves. It ends with this paragraph: “The picture you get at the end of a connect-the-dots activity really depends on which dots you decide to use. So try things and go through phases. Put down a lot of dots. Later, you can look back and pick any of those dots to create a picture of how you became who you are. And if you don’t like the picture you end up with, you can always choose different dots, which just goes to show destiny isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” That’s so brilliant. I imagine people seek you often when they are in need of advice. Am I right?

MLP: Oh, thank you. I’m so glad those parts resonated with you. People do ask me for advice a lot, which is funny, because I don’t really feel like I know what I’m doing, much less have enough wisdom to help anyone else know what they should do. But maybe that’s what this book is—the scraped-up bits of any wisdom I do have. Sometimes as I was writing it, I felt like I was trying to go back and give advice to my younger selves.

TM: Your memoir offers proof that we don’t have to ever settle on a previously established identity. Here’s my question: Which do you think is more difficult: settling into someone we don’t want to become or starting over to become who we want to be?

MLP: It’s frighteningly easy to settle into being someone you don’t want to be, because that settling can happen so gradually. Starting over is what’s hard. And I didn’t realize until well into putting this collection together that the theme of reinvention ran through so many of these essays. One thing I’ve learned again and again is that starting over can save your soul, but it’s almost impossibly daunting if your only vision of reinvention is the all-or-nothing, blow-up-your-life kind. There are smaller, incremental ways to start over that can save us, too.

TM: Whether I’m thinking of “Lobsterman,” which tells a funny story about your interpretation of a writing prompt when you were in high school, or “Nora Ephron and the Lives of Trees,” which is about your interest in the characteristics of animals, your memoir displays a sincere appreciation of imagination and what it can do to better our lives. In today’s fast-paced world, how do we adults remember to keep imagination prevalent in our lives?

MLP: I think my imagination is my mental safe-zone. As soon as the real world gets too horrific to witness, my brain just flips an emergency switch and goes, “Nope, let’s imagine a squirrel trying on shoes.” Animals are a big part of my imagination, maybe because while we share so much with animals—we’re all breathing, we all need to eat and sleep—they’re oblivious to most of the bullshit of the human world. They’re not listening to politicians bicker, they don’t care who won the Oscar for what, they don’t know to be terrified of the gun violence epidemic. So being around creatures who aren’t focused on all that inspires me to let go of it for a little while. Also, juxtaposing the animal world with the human world in my imagination—like, okay, what would the deer in my yard say if she had a Twitter account?—makes me laugh, and I definitely need to locate my joy in order to access my imagination. So, I guess that’s my answer. Go outside.

TM: At this past year’s Southern Festival of Books, you brought up a topic that I haven’t been able to get off my mind: literary citizenship. Although it’s a concept I have thought about often, I’d never really heard of that phrasing before. Do you mind talking about what you think makes someone a good literary citizen?

MLP: Ah, yes! I love this subject. I was chatting with someone recently who said, “I don’t have time to read every new book when it comes out—am I a bad literary citizen?” No, no, no…literary citizenship is as simple as valuing the written word and the institutions that support it. Check out books from your library or buy them at an indie store; tell a friend about a book you enjoyed; give books as presents; whatever. Show up and sit in the audience when your favorite authors go on book tour. Join a book club. Subscribe to a literary magazine. Literary citizenship, like just plain citizenship, largely comes down to what we do locally—it’s about supporting the groups and businesses that keep literature alive in our communities. Be a part of the cultural ecosystem in whatever small way you can, so it stays healthy.

TM: You work for one of my most beloved bookstores, Parnassus Books in Nashville. So, I have to ask for recommendations. What’s on the horizon in memoir that you recommend?

MLP: Oh man, you’ll have to cut me off on this topic. Just in the next couple of months, there’s Once More We Saw Stars, which Jayson Greene wrote about the aftermath of a tragic accident that killed his little girl; it’s heartbreaking but also surprisingly life affirming. I’m absolutely in love with Out East by John Glynn, which is one of my favorite new entries in the “we’re still becoming who we are, even as adults” category. I really enjoyed Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb, which shares a pub date with my book. Southern Lady Code by Helen Ellis is a brilliant and hysterically dry essay collection. If I may go into summer real quick: My writing group friend Margaret Renkl has a poetic, memoir-ish meditation on nature and grief coming out from Milkweed Editions called Late Migrations. I guess I should stop there? But there are more coming in the fall. There’s also so much good literary fiction coming out this spring. Novels are popping up like flowers. Right now is a great time to visit a bookstore.

Who Says Memoir Has to Be Nonfiction? The Millions Interviews Tyrese Coleman

Tyrese Coleman’s debut, How to Sit, defies easy categorization. It’s a slim book—about 120 pages—that blends essay and fiction. A finalist for the PEN Open Book Award, How to Sit is an unforgettable meditation on family and home—how our families both damage us and make us who we are; how we form our own families and how we find our place in the world.

Coleman and I recently discussed the book’s unusual blend of fact and fiction, as well as the process of publishing with a very small press.

The Millions: From the beginning, this collection plays with the line between memoir and fiction. Often memoirists will include a caveat that their memories are fallible, but they strive to present events as accurately as possible. In your opening author’s note and throughout the book, you actively embrace and explore the blurry line between what happened, how you remember it, and how you’d prefer to remember it. Why did that structure work so well for telling these stories? Do you think more writers should try playing in that space?

Tyrese Coleman: There was something freeing about being able to lean into the way my memories presented themselves in my head rather than shading them with research or other factual evidence. There is a poetry in memory and emotion that I did not want to lose. So, it would’ve been dishonest for me to make a claim that everything was as accurate as it could be. But I will say that it depends on the piece. Not every piece was drafted with the intent to blur lines; it was more to create a particular voice. So, there are definitely essays in this collection that are factual, yet because they incorporate some memory or emotion, the language is going to be more fluid.

I can’t say what other writers should and should not do, but I do think they should consider eschewing the concept that memoir has to be nonfiction. This is the kind of statement someone could read and say, “That’s bullshit.” But often, when someone makes up a part of their memoir, they’re afraid to admit it’s been fictionalized or to explore why they feel like they need to make shit up. Instead, they should admit that it’s not-quite-fiction or not-quite-nonfiction but that the emotion you feel coming from the page is completely true.

TM: The idea that memoir doesn’t always have to be 100 percent true (to the best of the writer’s ability) and that’s okay—whew! That’s a little hard for me to process. But you’re not saying that we should all be like James Frey. Quite the contrary, you’re careful to label your work at that intersection of truth and fiction, rather than calling it a memoir when it’s not quite a memoir. Would you say it’s all right, even encouraged, to explore that space—but to call it what it is?

TC: No, I’m saying memoir doesn’t have to be nonfiction and that you can call it whatever you want. I think the best example of this is Wendy Ortiz’s dreamoir Bruja, which is a memoir that includes incantations and dreams interspersed with events and her personal narrative. Is a dream nonfiction? I would say a dream is on par with a memory, in some respects. Does the fact that they both occur in your head, your subconsciousness, mean that they aren’t true? That memory and that dream are true for me and true for Wendy. Does that then mean that we aren’t sharing a part of our life story?

But this isn’t only about memoir. I am currently reading The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. It is a novel-in-poems. So where do we put this book? On the young adult fiction shelf? On the poetry shelf? What makes it one thing over the other? The fact that her publisher has put the words “a novel” on the book jacket because novels sell more than poetry? All of these labels feel arbitrary to me. The book is amazing, regardless of its genre.

The thing that connects all of these examples, though, is that, from the jump, you know what it’s about. James Frey put forth fiction and lied and said it was 100 percent true. Ultimately, you should let the reader know, “Hey, some of this is true and some of this isn’t, but all of it is based on my life and the way I interpret my memories.” If you want to call it memoir or fiction after that declaration or not, that’s on you.

TM: Did fictionalizing some parts make it easier to write about events that may have been traumatic to recall? Did it help protect some identities?

TC: No. It helped with plot, with creating a better story. Writing about traumatic events or hurtful things from my past is not an issue for me. Those things happened and I cannot avoid them. Identities… well, I didn’t do a whole lot of not revealing identities. In the pieces that are not-quite-nonfiction, it is parts of the plot or aspects of the story that I made up. In some instances, it’s just a short story. In other instances, it’s a small line here and there.

TM: I’d read several of these stories when they were published previously. But all together, they create a powerful narrative—the sum is greater than its parts. How did you choose the stories for this collection? What was the revision process like?

TC: At some point, I realized I was writing the same story, or writing about the same thing but in different (or even not-so-different) ways. I kept returning to aspects of my childhood, even when I was writing about a situation as an adult. So, I put them together and, like you, realized that they were even more powerful when put together. When I revised, I had to find a way to make everything feel more than tangentially linked. That meant changing any made-up names, removing redundancies, and coming up with a structure that demonstrated growth.

TM: You manage to build an entire world in one slim book, and it’s almost like poetry; some sections left me breathless with how you wasted not a single word. I know that flash (fiction and memoir) is your wheelhouse. Why do you like it for telling stories like these?

TC: Flash is the stepchild of the literary world and it breaks my heart. People assume it’s easy to do because the stories are short. Most people really have no idea what it is exactly. Is it a scene, a character sketch? Is it a poem? (It is definitely none of those things, by the way.) The proliferation of terrible online flash fiction has not helped opinions of it. Even when flash does get some recognition, it’s disappointing. For example, when The New Yorker decided to highlight flash fiction, they chose writers who don’t write flash fiction instead of people who have made careers of it. The majority of my book is flash writing from a flash writer who works for a prominent flash journal. That’s what I love so much about my book being nominated for a PEN award, despite the fact that it was published with small indie press. I really hope that helps legitimize the form in some way.

Okay, now I’ve gotten that off my chest.

I love flash because when I was learning how to write, and to write what I felt was from my unique voice, I was reading black writers from back in the day who were doing amazing things with as few words as possible. I was reading Cane by Jean Toomer, I was reading Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks. I was reading short stories like “The Flowers” by Alice Walker and “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid. I was reading Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, and I was learning the art of concluding every paragraph as if it is the end of a chapter and forming mini-chapters within paragraphs, within sentences, as if a whole story could be its own book. And though her stories are notoriously long, I was reading Alice Munro and learning how to make every single word work, as if building a railroad with a sledgehammer.

When I sat down to write those short pieces, I never said, “This is going to be flash.” Rather, I wrote until I was done. Sometimes that meant it was short and sometimes it was much longer. But those short pieces mean much more in terms of technical editing and precision than my longer pieces. My biggest pet peeve with flash is when people think it’s as simple as letting everything pour onto a blank piece of paper, and they don’t take the time to edit it or to learn that flash is not just a scene from something longer. Flash isn’t poetry, but I think it requires the same level of attention to language. I love that.

TM: One section in particular spoke to me: the premature birth of your boys. I’d read an earlier version of this story back when we were in grad school together. But now, after my own son was born early, the piece has taken on new meaning for me. You write so well about the guilt that all preemie parents, I think, feel—that sense of failing to stay pregnant. And you feel particularly guilty about putting your own pleasure above the possibility of going into early labor—which ended up happening. What was it like to put such an intimate moment out in the world?

TC: It is scary yet freeing in some ways. I always felt like an imposter or that I didn’t deserve the sympathy others had for us and our situation. And yes, the boys deserved their prayers and my husband was not to blame, but I felt convinced that it was my fault. I needed to get this off my chest.

But, you know, motherhood is a series of events resulting in guilt, it feels like. There is nothing you can do right all of the time. Like, right now, I feel some kind of way because my son is in our bed sleeping in the shirt he wore to school. We should’ve put him in his pajamas before he fell asleep and now no one wants to risk waking him up to change his clothes. It doesn’t stop me from thinking, “Oh, he’s going to get so hot when he sleeps,” and “Oh, his bed sheets are going to get dirty.” It’s guilt on a smaller level, but it’s still guilt, and I’m really just waiting for the day these feelings go away. I need some wise and mature mama out there to tell me that one day, the guilt will go away (please).

TM: From one guilty mama to another, I hope it does. Stories like yours help us process events like these, though. It reminded me that my son’s premature birth wasn’t because of something I’d done. And even if it were, that’s still okay. It’s okay to be less than perfect.

I loved how many of the stories in your collection aren’t tied up neatly. Like life, nothing really has a happy or at least resolved ending. But there are some really beautiful moments you pull from, like the character T walking home from prom in an imagined fairyland. How much of writing this book was an attempt to find, or in some cases create, closure? (I’m also thinking of that powerful final essay, where T narrates the time after her grandmother’s death as it is happening.)

TC: Sometimes things have to be resolved; there has to be a change by the end. I am a proponent of the happy ending. I’m not talking about trite, sentimental endings that almost mean nothing. I mean endings where the character is in a better place than where she started, and I think that there are many instances of that in my book. The two pieces you mention and also “Sacrifice.” I believe not all things Literature have to be sad even if they are about topics that are sad. And I also think that a character can change for the good and that a good story or essay doesn’t have to end with some esoteric and nebulous statement about the emptiness of the human existence. Fuck that. I want to be happy.

“How to Mourn” was indeed a way for me to find closure. I needed to examine my feelings about my grandmother, about her death, but also about myself and why I had to write about her death. But the other pieces? I don’t know if they were an exercise in finding closure. I think they represent the way I left the situation or the way I felt my character left the situation.

TM: Switching gears a little bit: Why did you want to work with an indie press, and what was that process like?

TC: I knew this was not the kind of book a big publisher would take. Its sole purpose is to question “the shelf.”

TM: By its very nature, it defies categorization.

TC: That’s why I knew large publishers would not be into it. I knew that I could do more with a small press. The people who run small presses, or at least the guys who run Mason Jar, are writers themselves and they are more interested in the art of writing and creating beautiful books—not whether or not the book is going to be sold in Barnes & Noble. Not to say that we don’t want to make money, but that’s not the main thing for them. The main thing is putting out art and interesting stories and beautiful poetry and enriching this world with books that push boundaries and that do not subscribe to any rules. I liked that.

TM: Did becoming a PEN award finalist change anything?

TC: I feel honored and, honestly, I think of this as a win for small presses and the flash community, as I mentioned above. It didn’t change my relationship with my press. At this point, they are learning along with me, I think. Initially, I got some emails from a few agents, but that’s about it. I am still unrepresented. Which is what it is.

TM: What’s next for you? Will you continue to play in this space between fiction and memoir, or would you rather commit (at least for the time being) to one or the other?

TC: Right now, I am about halfway through the shitty first draft of a novel that may or may not be a romance novel, but there is a love story and lots of sex. Actually, I’m probably less than halfway done, since I plan to rewrite the shitty first draft into (hopefully) a less shitty second draft. I am over writing about myself for the time being. I am not blending genres or blurring lines. I am writing straight up fiction and loving it. I need an escape and I love these characters. I can’t wait to finish so that I can start rewriting and then editing and then… I’m obsessed with this book!

TM: That’s when you know a project has promise—when you get excited for revisions!

I Think of My Stories as Comedies: Josh Denslow’s Sad Superheroes

Josh Denslow’s debut collection, Not Everyone Is Special, follows a cast of memorable characters who have resigned themselves to failure. “I do indeed write about broken souls, but I tend to think of my characters as superheroes,” Denslow told me. “Except instead of courageously moving forward under adversity, they never get past their origin stories. They have already decided they will lose.”

Whether Denslow seeks to capture failed love—as in “Too Late for a Lot of Things”—or shows us how special powers aren’t always so glamorous in “Proximity,” he presents stories with equal amounts of humor and loss. Ultimately, the collected 15 stories in Not Everyone Is Special serve as a heartfelt ode to those living among impossible-to-escape difficulties.

Denslow and I recently discussed the appeal of failing, the importance of humor, and the inspirations behind some of his most memorable characters.

The Millions: When I finished Not Everyone Is Special, I began, almost immediately, to think back about your characters. Whether I was reflecting on the lovelorn Keith in “Too Late for a Lot of Things,” jealous Neil in “Proximity,” or even the current and soon-to-be guilt-plagued group of boys in “Crossing Guard,” I realized just how broken these souls are. What is it about these troubled lives that make them such good subjects?

Josh Denslow: I can’t imagine a more wonderful compliment than knowing you are still thinking about the characters, Bradley. Thank you.

I do indeed write about broken souls, but I tend to think of my characters as superheroes. Except instead of courageously moving forward under adversity, they never get past their origin stories. They have already decided they will lose.

When I begin a story, I usually start with one of these “superheroes” on the precipice, and I find it’s impossible to fill in the backstory without unearthing all the sadness and pain and regret. I mean, who doesn’t have all of that in their past? But one of the real tragedies of life is when we root for someone to succeed and that person can’t quite rise to the challenge. Almost as if our expectations are a curse. That’s the feeling I like to evoke in my stories. Because everyone can relate to failure and disappointment.

TM: With characters such as these, there’s of course going to be plenty of sadness and loneliness. However, there’s also a lot of funny stuff going on here. How important was it for you to balance some of the darkness with moments of humor?

JD: I might even say it’s the most important thing to me. Humor is how we understand each other. It’s how we relate to each other. It’s how we mask our pain. I think of my stories as comedies even though they can indeed be just as sad and lonely as you say. A lot of times when I tell someone what one of my stories is about, I have to follow up with, “But it’s a comedy!”—because it usually doesn’t sound all that funny when it’s broken down into its working parts. There is, of course, what a story is about, but then there is also how it’s about. For me, the humor holds the parts together.

Because real life is a balance of tragedy and comedy, I try to replicate that as best as I can. I usually find if I just let my characters talk, the comedy will find a way in. And that humor has a way of making the truth of the story land harder.

TM: Do you still think of any of the characters from Not Everyone Is Special?

JD: Probably the character I come back to the most is Mark from the story “Mousetrap.” He has an interesting job picking up dead bodies and bringing them to a funeral home. He’s also contemplating suicide. (But it’s a comedy!) He might be my saddest character, but also, the most self-aware and critical, and I find that really interesting. A guy who is critical of himself can learn from his mistakes, and more than anything Mark wants to be a better person. That’s a journey I could easily continue following. Plus, I’m fascinated by his job, and I bet there are a million stories to be told about it. I really like the jobs people choose to do, and I think that manifests itself through the collection.

I actually attempted a series of stories that feature Squid from the story “Everyone Continued to Sing.” He valet parks cars, which is a job I held for many years in college, and his stories were colored by the actual experiences I had during that time. There’s even a character in that series named Cody who might be the closest to autobiographical I have ever written. But ultimately it is Squid who is the most fascinating character, the way he sees life as a contest, and I think about him whenever I’m in a parking garage. Only one of my parking stories made this collection, and it’s because watching Squid deal with grief is fascinating and it fit thematically with everything else in Not Everyone Is Special.

TM: There’s a sense of realness that’s clearly established in your stories. I mean, honestly, I could probably pick any one story out of the collection and see myself or someone I know reflected in some way. But you also use magic at times. “Proximity,” which follows a young man who teleports, is the story that probably takes the biggest leap into the fantastic. What does the addition of magic add to your stories that staying with realism just can’t?

JD: One way to truly understand a character is to thrust him into an extraordinary experience. And since I already think of my characters as superheroes, it wasn’t too big of a leap to start giving them actual superpowers.

But I knew I needed to treat any magical additions as I would any other mundane revelation. “Proximity” was the first story where I attempted this. I wanted to explore what it would be like to have a superpower in the exact world we live in now. I believe that if given a power like that, a lot of people would hide it; scared to take a chance on greatness.

In fact, a unifying theme in the collection is how people squander their talents. So instead of Neil having some secret artistic talent that no one knows about, he’s hiding his ability to teleport across town. But when he does it, it’s incredibly painful, so he has to choose his times carefully. I didn’t want the teleportation to become what the story was about. I wanted to keep that realness you mention. That’s incredibly important to me, that the characters feel real no matter what crazy thing is happening.

“Proximity” turns out to be a fairly sweet story about a guy who is new to adulthood and his relationship with his mother. The addition of his teleportation power makes everything worse than it would be without it, and that’s what I like most. The way powers complicate things.

TM: One story in particular that’s loaded with funny bits is “Too Late for a Lot of Things.” The story is about a small person named Keith, who works as an elf at Santa’s Workshop. He dislikes basically everyone and everything except for Tina, and he’s in love with her. I won’t spoil the ending, but I think it’s such a unique and special story. Do you mind talking about the genesis of it?

JD: There was an actual place near where I grew up in Illinois that was a year-round Christmas-themed amusement park. I never actually went, which makes me a little sad now considering I don’t think it’s there anymore. But for some reason it always fascinated me. There was something incredibly sad about capitalizing on Christmas for an entire year, and so of course, I always wanted to write a story about it.

One thing I like to do, particularly in this collection, is to give my main characters a disadvantage. In “Too Late for a Lot of Things,” Keith uses his diminutive stature to hold himself back in every aspect of his life. Because he dislikes himself, he takes it out on everyone around him. And what is around him is this rundown Christmas park where he works as an elf. It is a form of self-punishment in which Keith forces the world to see him as he sees himself. In fact, when I was submitting this story for publication, the title was actually “How I See Myself,” but I think Third Coast was right to change the title before they published it. “Too Late for a Lot of Things” opens up the theme to encompass everyone who works there. They all missed out on something.

Once I then created an antagonist in the form of the guy who portrays Santa Claus at the park, this story just fell into place. All I needed at that point was a very tall love interest. And a whole sleigh full of bad feelings.

TM: Another standout is “Not Everyone Is Special,” which closes your collection. What made this particularly story stick out for it to be your titular one?

JD: “Not Everyone Is Special” was the name of the collection before there was even a collection. In fact, years ago when Cutbank accepted this story for publication, they also wanted to change the title. But unlike with Third Coast, this time I pushed back. My argument was that I was using this as the titular story of my collection. With the hazy way memory works, I might even say that was first time I thought of collecting my stories. What was apparent though during that exchange, was how much the title meant to me.

Cut to many years later when I was actually putting this collection together. I’d amassed quite a few stories by that point, and that title actually became a litmus test. If one of my stories could theoretically be called “Not Everyone Is Special” then it made the cut. So, in a strange way, to answer your question, it wasn’t anything about the actual content of the story that caused it to be the titular story, it was the title itself and how it tied everything together.

But that all being said, I think the title story is the most hopeful in the collection, and I love having it last because it leaves you thinking there might be a chance for some of these characters if they just figure out what makes them special.

TM: I have to ask about how your music influences your writing. For readers who don’t know, you are in the band Borrisokane. Do you feel like your drummer self helps better your writer self and vice versa?

JD: I would like to think that drumming has helped me with my rhythm in stories. When rewriting, I sometimes add or subtract words just to get the flow right. I give the sentences a tempo by controlling when they appear. I love the musicality of dialogue.

But I don’t know. A lot of writers have great rhythm and don’t play the drums. The one thing I can say for certain is that performing on stage as a drummer has helped me with the more uncomfortable aspects of being a writer. My time spent promoting Borrisokane, including all of our live shows and albums, paved the way toward promoting Not Everyone Is Special.

When you’re in a band, you have to put yourself out there, much more than we do as writers. My instinct is to hide away with my stories because they feel so intensely personal. But my time spent on stage gave me a lot more confidence to get out there and talk about myself. I actually treat my writing like a band now. My output, including my time spent promoting, is a form of branding. It makes it a little easier when I feel like I’m promoting a product and not just me as an individual.

I’m not sure if writing fiction has influenced my drumming, though there is a cohesion I have been striving for in the last few years. Much in the way I try to let my voice come through in my stories, I want to have a voice behind the drums. I love the idea that perhaps someone could recognize my drumming by just hearing a Borrisokane song. I want to have an identity in everything I do.

Please Read This Interview Carefully: Karen Havelin on Writing Pain

I began reading Karen Havelin’s debut novel Please Read This Leaflet Carefully with the intention of reviewing it. Havelin’s protagonist Laura, a Norwegian expat who has settled in New York, lives with endometriosis and the chronic pain it causes. I was determined to be a good literary citizen and review as many books as I could before the September release of my debut essay collection, Codependence, which centers in part on my intractable headaches. A novel centered on another woman’s chronic pain seemed a good place to start. But as I got further into the book and learned that Laura’s health issues have their roots in Havelin’s own experience, I became less interested in writing a straightforward review and more curious about what we could learn from putting our books and bodies in conversation.

Havelin was diagnosed with endometriosis at age 29, though her symptoms went undiagnosed for 10 years. Endometriosis affects over 170 million women worldwide, and according to the CDC, women are more than twice as likely as men to suffer from headache disorders; although more women report chronic pain than men, studies show that doctors and researchers often dismiss or overlook women’s pain. Havelin and I arranged a video chat—no easy task when one of you is in Norway—and discussed her novel and its aims, how pain affects our writing lives, inequities in pain treatment, and more.

Amy Long: In telling people about your book, I’ve called it “a novel about a woman with endometriosis,” and it is that, but I also know that description is reductive. How do you describe the book? What did you hope to explore or communicate or accomplish with it, particularly by centering the narrative on this specifically feminine pain syndrome?

Karen Havelin: I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently because I’ve been filling out questionnaires for publishers in three different countries [the U.S., the U.K., and Norway], and the book gets presented in different ways in different countries and by different editors. It’s important to me that the book is viewed as a work of art that explores larger ideas about human frailty, human bodies. At the same time, I want it to reach people with endometriosis and other illnesses, I want to get people to talk about endometriosis, and I want the book to reflect an experience I’ve never read or seen in media. I grew up reading books, and I never read a book that I saw myself in. Every time I read a book about someone who was sick, they always had cancer, and they always died or were cured. The narrative arc was predictable, and I wanted to subvert that with the structure of my book.

AL: I wanted to ask you about the reverse chronology. So many illness narratives sort of go, “I was sick, and then I got better, and I’m so grateful to my illness for teaching me XYZ.” I really wanted to avoid that in writing about my chronic pain, and I think you did, too. How did reversing the timeline help you challenge that typical narrative arc?

KH: Mostly, the structure allows me to loop over the same issues again and again. That way, I can depict Laura’s pain and how it’s still there even at points when she’s doing “better.” And at some points, she has the illness, but she doesn’t know what it is, but it’s still influencing her. So, as readers get further into the book, they know more, and Laura knows less about her illness, herself, her relationships. She’s pretty young by the end of it, so we see her change a lot.

The structure also creates a kind of multitude of potential endings. I go into a moment of her life in each section of the book [Please Read is divided into eight sections], and at the end, she’s kind of sick, and she’s going to get sicker, but she’s also okay at that moment. There are all these scenes in the last chapter that show her loving her body and using it and having fun and feeling a sense of expansiveness. I think of it as a lighter part of the book, but I hope all the different parts will resonate with each other since they do circle back to the same themes again and again from different angles.

AL: What would you say those themes are?

KH: Bodily frailty and what happens when it encounters love and relationships, growing up, anger. Self-presentation is something I think about a lot, both in terms of gender and being a patient. With pain management you have to present yourself in the right way so you get what you need from a doctor who might not really be listening to what you’re saying because he has, like, 10 minutes, and he’s going to judge everything you do and say even if you are perfect.

Recently, I was talking to the chairwoman of the Norwegian Endometriosis Association, who is a nurse. She was at least in her 30s when she got sick, so she was an adult and she had a formal medical education; she was a professional, and she still couldn’t advocate for herself. It seems like, no matter how perfect you are and no matter how well you present yourself, you can’t get away from the stigma. Being a female patient alone in a room with a male doctor trying to make yourself understood and heard is really difficult, and this is part of the picture with endometriosis, why it takes so unnecessarily long to get a diagnosis.

AL: Exactly. Did you ever read that study “The Girl Who Cried Pain”? Leslie Jamison mentions it in her essay “A Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” The researchers found that, when men report pain, they tend to get painkillers for it, and women more often get tranquilizers because our pain is “all in our heads.”

KH: Oh, yeah, I’ve heard of that. It’s so interesting, but I can’t even read that stuff because it makes me want to set myself on fire.

AL: Do you think you captured the complexities not just of gender but of race, class, and sexuality in pain treatment?

KH: I’ve tried to be cognizant of the intersections of gender, race, and sexuality. I certainly am not the person to enlighten a lot of people about race. U.S. racial stuff is different and more complex than it is in Norway, and I’m always nervous talking about it because, though I’ve learned a lot, I need to learn more. And I know that women’s pain gets downplayed, and race is definitely a part of it. There have been some studies that find that black women and women of color have it even worse. There’ve been a lot of moments in my life when I feel like I’ve barely squeaked through, and I have a lot of support and privilege, and I don’t even have to pay medical debt. And, still, it’s almost too hard.

AL: I wanted to ask you about the ice-skating sections. You use definitions of ice-skating moves to sort of introduce or expand on themes and plot points. But Laura is also a former figure skater. Can you talk about that formal element of figure skating as a plot device and a way to explore the body in pain?

KH: I had this book about figure skating, and I looked at all these definitions of jumps and pirouettes and stuff, and I thought there was a weird kind of poetry to them. Even as a former figure skater, I can’t really picture it. It sounds like it’s magic or ridiculous—like, how could anybody do that? It’s a kind of art and a kind of bodily mastery, and I just like the poetry of these weird little snippets. I think it reflects trying to do something that’s basically impossible but that you can somehow still do.

AL: Which is sort of like dealing with pain all the time. Like, you think you could never do it—

KH: But somehow you do.

AL: There have been a few recent nonfiction books that focus on endometriosis or on women’s pain specifically, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a novel centered on it. Why did you choose to write Please Read This Leaflet Carefully as a novel, and what do you think fiction allows you to do that another genre such as memoir wouldn’t have? And what were the biggest challenges you faced translating something you’ve experienced into fiction?

KH: Yeah, Abby Norman wrote a brilliant nonfiction book last year about endometriosis, Ask Me About My Uterus, and it’s like my worst nightmare medical experience interspersed with the whole of patriarchal medical history, so it’s a tough read for me, but it’s so good. Writing this as fiction is, again, like, doing something impossible and somehow still doing it. But, no, writing fiction means you can do whatever you want, and writing is hard enough without having to stay true to real life. So, I think all writing for me is a question of trying to create a little bit of private space somehow. Or, like, be left alone.

I made a very radical change when I left Norway to do my MFA at Columbia. I changed language and genre. I’d mostly written poetry before. It was kind of an insane thing to do! And it also meant that I didn’t have any backlog [of stories to turn in for workshops and classes], so I had to start writing a lot very quickly when I got there, so I couldn’t really help that the writing reflected what had been happening in my life. I had to submit a lot of pages, so it was an intense time. Everything I was reading and doing just kind of came out. And then I had these different sections, and it took me a long time before I figured out how to combine them into a novel. Or whether that could even be done. I didn’t just want to write a story about someone who gets sick. Not that there’s anything wrong with that story. There aren’t enough stories like that either.

AL: Is it the distance that helps you—the idea that this is a character and not you—or did you add in things that haven’t happened to you?

KH: Laura has a lot in common with me in terms of physical health. She isn’t me. She actually gets off really easily compared to me! So, she gets a pretty good deal in the end, which is also something that I definitely wanted. I wanted to make sure that it had a happy ending: like, she’s okay, but she’s also not okay, but she’s okay. There’s that balance at the start of the book. She has a job, she can write. When she’s out in the world, no one really knows she’s sick. She has her limitations, but they’re not as harsh as they could be.

AL: In an early scene, Laura describes her shoulder pain as hot and nauseating, which stuck out to me because I use both those terms to describe some of my headaches. Do you ever worry or just wonder how people who don’t know chronic pain will interpret your descriptions and if they’ll make sense? How do you think the book will read to an audience for whom this is all totally unfamiliar?

KH: I’ll certainly be interested to find out. In a way, I feel like I’m trying to force the reader to be inside that pained body. And I want to give them some of that experience, which maybe is not going to make people want to read the book! But it will hopefully bring out readers’ empathy. In a way, though, I’m kind of writing more for people like us, who will hopefully read it and go, “Oh, yes! That helps a little bit.”

AL: There’s something sort of validating about seeing your experience represented, especially in fiction because, in nonfiction, it’s often, like, “This is my totally crazy, unique experience.” But, in fiction, the emphasis is often more on universality, so to see something described in fiction is sort of to make it real—more comforting, less alienating.

KH: Yeah. I hope so, anyway.

AL: When Laura is in New York, she feels a sort of freedom that she doesn’t feel in Norway. Do you think, in terms of pain treatment, that she’s better off in one place or the other? What does she have to trade for the freedom she feels in New York?

KH: She gives up a certain safety by not going back to Norway, and that gives her a lot of anxiety, but she feels more free because she feels like nobody’s watching her. She feels like she has more in common with people in New York, people whose lives are strange and unpredictable. And people live these crazy lives right next to each other, where Norway is a small and very conformist type of country where you can feel like you’re very visible. In New York, you get a sense of anonymity, and you’re not in your home country or your home environment. For Laura, it’s maybe not a rational choice, but it’s a choice she feels compelled to make.

AL: The book also features multiple love stories. In her essay collection, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, Sonya Huber writes that “all pain sex is queer sex.” Laura is also queer, and we see her negotiate pain and sex, particularly with men, a lot in the novel. How does that idea—of pain sex as queer sex—resonate with you?

KH: I love that idea. There’s something important to me about these different identities intersecting and how, for Laura, it’s incredibly freeing to think of herself as queer and have this pride concept that she can use. Even though it’s, like, 10 years before she hears anyone talk about disability or illness in a way that reflects that, it sort of works for her anyway. It comes down to maybe being on the outside a little bit or having an experience that’s not typical. There’s also something about that—how people think that the sex that people with physical trouble and queer people have is more difficult and weird or something.

AL: And kind of gross. Or that people with disabilities or illnesses are kind of sexless.

KH: Yeah. People who are heterosexual and healthy often think that they can go their entire sex lives without ever talking or figuring out anything for themselves. They just try to do what they see on TV, and that’s a terrible idea! If you’re doing something that you’ve never seen—if you’re not trying to reproduce sex you’ve seen in media or something—you have to figure it out for yourself. You have to be open to what the other person wants and realize that not everyone likes the same things or has the same kind of body. All bodies are singular, and even if you are a healthy, heterosexual person, your sex life will be better if you realize that!

AL: Do you see pain always being part of your work, or do you want to move on to something else next time? Do you feel like you can? Do you feel like it’s a thing that will always attach itself to your stories or something?

KH: Oh my god, I would love to move on to something else! But we’ll see. I’ve many times tried to write something different, and it always comes back in. I do feel like there are plenty of stories about pain left to tell; there’s kind of a whole world that I’ve never seen reflected in art. But I would love to write, like, a sexy, action-filled romance next!

Anything Goes: The Millions Interviews Chris Rush

 As a painter, Chris Rush is preoccupied with how his subjects interact with light. Like the air, light is a natural phenomenon, but when manipulated, it can reveal hidden layers and tell complicated stories. As a memoirist, Rush has a similar ability: to wrap us into his world and flip us on our heads.
The Light Years begins when Rush is a wide-eyed, church-going New Jersey boy. He’s not yet discovered who he is, though he knows he likes weird art and wearing flashy capes around the neighborhood.
Eventually, due to tensions with his parents, he is sent to live with his older, hippie sister in San Francisco, where he discovers the counterculture and psychedelics of the 1970s. There, he is introduced to a seductive drug dealer. The story goes from New Jersey to San Francisco to a stash house in the desert of Southern Arizona. The particulars seem too farfetched to be true, but believe me: it’s all true.
Rush and I spoke about how Catholicism shaped our childhoods and influenced our thinking for years to come, as well as how his memoir and the relationships with his family unfolded over the years.
The Millions: Your opening chapters start with your childhood and your relationship to religion. Is there a thread that has followed you from your days as a boy all the way to now that has shaped and informed decisions regardless of your current beliefs?
Chris Rush: One of the advantages of growing up Catholic is that the Catholic church is so old that for a kid like myself, it is a treasure trove of old ideas, new ideas, costumes, dead languages, and candles. The whole thing was a grab bag of possibilities.
Not to be too flip about it, but there was lots to sort out as a kid. One of the things the Catholic church prepared me to do was to believe in things that were invisible and possibly even farfetched and totally impossible. As someone who spent my entire life making art, these are not bad working conditions. My concern with the invisible is a really important part of my life because there are many things that are not what they appear to be. As an artist, my relationship was always one of active imagination; I questioned everything. Yet, I never shook my faith in the unseen.
TM: As a child, I went to Catholic school in Pennsylvania, but when I moved to Arizona, my connection with the church vanished. Now, I would never say I am religious, but I feel for a long time I thought about how my actions would be viewed by bishops, teachers, or whoever. As opposed to my sister who diverged from those beliefs fairly quickly.
CR: She has a more cynical view of the church?
TM: I’d say so. I just find it interesting how something like religion and the church can affect people in different ways.
CR: I think one of the good things about the church is that it very much showed me art being used. The church was filled with stained glass, statues, and golden objects of questionable virtue, certainly. As a child, I was dazzled by it. It made me realize that art wasn’t just something you saw in a museum. It was used in life. It was a very important influence the church had on my curiosity and context of life.
I understand how corrupt the church is and how dastardly the history is, but at the same time, I am not bitter at it at all. I’m a gay man and I have a very strange relationship with the Catholic church. At the same time it was instructive, it was bizarre. I am glad I got to see such a complicated piece of machinery at a very, very young age. Some Catholic people are very nice; including my family.
TM: Your family plays an integral role throughout the memoir. How has your relationship with them shifted throughout the years?
CR: As with any family, it changes season by season and decade by decade. I have six brothers and sisters. We are all old and complicated people as well as different than each other in a surprising amount of ways. We do enjoy each other’s company.
My father died about 20 years ago. My relationship with him continues to evolve. In the writing of this book, I had to negotiate the fact that my father left very little in the way of an emotional record. He confided in no one and was a man of few words. There were a lot of secrets.
Literature is particularly adept at getting at the uncertain. At painting, one struggles to illustrate the invisible. Literature is entirely happy to circle a subject and describe a subject but be able to not come up with a conclusion. It’s all in the question rather than the answer.
In looking at my father, I spent 10 years thinking about who he was, why he did the things he did, and what I needed to know to understand him. I came up with a lot, but at the same time as I learned more about him and deduced more about him, I found him to be much more complicated, more interesting, and kinder than when I started writing.

TM: You mentioned thinking about your father for a decade. When did you first start thinking about what became The Light Years?
CR: The book started to write itself. I knew I was writing something. I knew I was veering into a new kind of territory. I’ve written my whole life, but is a very scattered assortment of notes, love letters, or, say, grant proposals.
When I started writing what became this, there was a momentum that I had never felt before. I began writing around 2007, but it was a while before I understood that it was making demands and it got a hold of me. When I first started to write, I had some idea that I was writing about my teen years. I thought I was writing about a raucous road trip of sorts.
Then a few things happened. I was taking a long, endless train trip in India some years after I started writing this. I started telling my traveling companion, Daniel Mahar, what I had been working on and stories of my childhood. His eyes got very big and he listened for a long time. Finally he said, “My god, you have to write this down. You have to write it all down. Especially your family. It’s all incredible.”
I suppose in some ways, I was so busy living a life and I had not spent a great bit of time reflecting on how odd my story was. My partner, Victor Lodato, told me that a great memoir is not about the author. The great and enduring mystery was my family, particularly my parents.
I did extensive interviews with my family and discovered my mother had saved drawings, photographs, and letters from my childhood. I hadn’t seen them in 40 years. That’s when I started to understand that The Light Years wasn’t just a road trip.
TM: What did you learn about yourself through those found artifacts that you may have forgotten or suppressed?
CR: There’s a line in the book in which I say, “I would rather believe in too much than too little.” What I discovered, particularly in the letters, is that I had a breathless belief in the world. I believed in many crazy things, but they motivated me, they agitated me, they took me into the world in very interesting ways.
It’s easy to look back now to say how I was foolish, but it was also fearless that I wanted to believe in a great and interesting world. I populated my world with my fantasies.
I discovered I was really, really starry eyed. I was troubled and had stuff to work out, but I believed in a lot. I was enthusiastic.
TM: What were you passionate about as a kid? What were you reading? What art inspired you? What influenced you the most?
CR: It really changed year by year. As a child, before the age of 10, everything was school. My parents subscribed to everything. I was reading The New York Times. I studied every page of Life and Look. I went to the museum a little bit in New York and that confounded me.
The most exciting thing was when I was 10 in 1956. That’s when Life started to show the hippies, acid heads, and psychedelic art. I thought it was a message from God. It thrilled me. Up to that point, I was drawing what kids draw, but when I saw psychedelic art, I knew.
I was very influenced by album covers and music my sister was listening to. Around this time, music was changing. Style was changing. I discovered art nouveau. I loved it all. I understood that anything goes.
TM: The memoir tracks a large portion of your life. Is there any more story to tell?
CR: There’s another book. I’ve started it and would like to believe it’s my five year book (as opposed to the decade this one took). I didn’t really write this book imagining a sequel, but it looks like there is one. The book essentially ends when I am 22 and my life got really interesting around then.

Cut the Sentimentality: The Millions Interviews Polly Rosenwaike

The characters in Polly Rosenwaike’s debut story collection, Look How Happy I’m Making You, have children or choose not to, experience infertility, miscarriage, or abortion, and deal with postpartum depression and the aftermath of secrets and longing. They work inside and outside the home and renegotiate parental roles. They come together to form a portrait of modern life, centering on the struggles, choices, and realities of reproduction.

With stark images and metaphors (menstrual blood on white underwear “like a botched Japanese flag”) and an undercurrent of humor, Rosenwaike’s stories explore topics from women’s lives that are often underrepresented in contemporary literary fiction.

Rosenwaike has published stories, essays, and reviews in The New York Times Book Review, Glimmer Train, New England Review, The Millions, and the San Francisco Chronicle. She is fiction editor for Michigan Quarterly Review, and lives in Ann Arbor with the poet Cody Walker and their two daughters.

The Millions chatted with Rosenwaike via email about secrets, plotting, and writing about women’s lives with honesty and humor.

The Millions: The experiences of the women in Look How Happy I’m Making You provide a window into traditionally underrepresented or ignored subjects. Did you find yourself freer in writing these stories, or wishing for more models to draw from? Were there any books or authors that served as inspiration?

Polly Rosenwaike: I’ve had a great number of wonderful models for writing about new motherhood, as well as about the experiences of young(ish) women and their relationships with their families and romantic partners. Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, Helen Simpson’s Getting a Life, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America, Elisa Albert’s After Birth, and numerous stories by Alice Munro have inspired me with their candor, artfulness, and humor about emotionally complex subjects in women’s lives.

I’d say I felt free in writing on these topics in the sense that writing has been for me, as I think it is for many shy or private people, a space in which I can be open about things I might not fully express to many others. I didn’t see myself as venturing into new territory—to the contrary, I worried that I might be treading on too-familiar ground (and indeed was told as much by several agents who rejected my collection).

TM: You tackle subjects that often carry social taboos: infertility, miscarriage, abortion, choosing not to have children. What was writing about these topics like? Did you get any pushback?

PR: I haven’t gotten any pushback, which I think speaks to the fact that everyone I’ve worked with on the book has understood that these are aspects of women’s reproductive lives and choices that are worth discussing and representing. My relationship to writing about each topic was different. I had two miscarriages, and I fictionalized this firsthand experience in various ways when I created the characters who have miscarriages in “Period, Ellipsis, Full Stop” and “Tanglewood.” Like many people, I think, the prevalence of miscarriage wasn’t on my radar until a number of women I knew started getting pregnant, and a significant percentage of them had miscarriages. I think it’s scary to become aware of how common it is—10 percent to 20 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage—but I also think it’s comforting to view it as a common part of the reproductive process, and to know that most women who have one will eventually have a successful pregnancy.

I’ve been lucky enough to have gotten pregnant only when I wanted to, and despite the miscarriages, I didn’t have to wait very long, and so I haven’t had an abortion or had to struggle with not conceiving. I entered into writing about those topics delicately, with the fiction writer’s hope that I would portray the lives of invented characters in a way that felt true. As for the matter of choosing not to have children, I find it frustrating that women are often judged harshly for what feels to me like a perfectly understandable choice. I really love how Sheila Heti takes on this subject in depth in her book Motherhood. In my story “Love Bug, Sweetie Dear, Pumpkin Pie, Etc.,” I wanted to explore what happens when a couple disagrees about whether or not to have a child.

TM: This book explores grief, longing, and depression, and there’s also so much subtle humor from line to line. The title comes from Audrey in “Grow Your Eyelashes.” She doesn’t want children, and her mother tearfully tries to convince her that children bring joy. Audrey replies, “Look how happy I’m making you.” In “Love Bug, Sweetie Dear, Pumpkin Pie, Etc.,” when Serena goes back to her job as a research librarian after maternity leave, she thinks, “No one would scream or fall ill because she hadn’t satisfied them.” How do you see humor informing your stories?

PR: My partner Cody Walker’s first book of poetry, Shuffle and Breakdown, has an epigraph from Richard Pryor’s stand-up show Live & Smokin’: “This ain’t as funny as we thought it was gonna be.” I wish my book were funnier. Cody’s books, let me just say, are really funny; I like to think I’ve learned a bit from him. He studied comic theory for his dissertation, and I stole some of his stuff for “A Lady Who Takes Jokes,” about a cognitive psychologist who does research on babies’ laughter. I think humor helps to cut the sentimentality that often accompanies the portrayal of new mothers and babies. And I love how it can work to intensify (rather than lighten) a dark and difficult situation. Lorrie Moore’s “People Like That Are the Only People Here” is a wrenching story about a mother whose young child has cancer. It’s also terribly funny. That’s the kind of humor I aspire to—the kind that makes sadness and longing and fear even more acute.

TM: “Ten Warning Signs of Postpartum Depression” uses a listing device and structure to tell the story. How does experimentation play into your writing? Do you often write across different genres and forms?

PR: In my 20s, when I was trying to escape how hard it was to write a story, I puttered around with poetry, screenwriting, creative nonfiction; but it turned out those genres were just as hard. So I accepted my fate as a fairly traditional fiction writer. In the second-person story “Ten Warning Signs,” I really enjoyed how the structural framework—the 10 warning signs listed in a pamphlet about postpartum depression—helped me to generate material I might not otherwise have come up with. I’m hoping to experiment more with form and content in my next longer fiction project. And I have some hope of returning to genres I’ve abandoned. Though probably not poetry. I love to teach it, and I love to encounter it in my house (Cody writes a poem every single day), but it’s probably best that I stick to being a fan of poetry rather than a failure at it.

TM: Secrets are deeply woven into these stories, some shared and others kept hidden. How, for you, do secrets operate within fiction? Are they tied more closely to character or to plot?

PR: What an interesting question—I hadn’t quite thought about it, but yes, I guess there are a lot of secrets in these stories, and indeed, secrets play an important role in fiction generally. Everyone knows fiction writers are liars, right? Considering the characters that keep secrets in my collection, I think there’s something about their personalities—a deep insecurity mixed with pride, a calculated self-armoring—that makes this an enticing behavior for them. But for me as the writer, a character’s keeping a secret from other characters is definitely a means toward trying to increase the level of drama and conflict in the story. So in that way, it’s more closely tied to plot.

In “Period, Ellipsis, Full Stop,” it was quite late in the drafting process when I decided to have Cora hide her suspicion of having a miscarriage from her husband. I needed a way to externalize the conflict in their relationship and create more tension between them, and so I added in this secret. In “White Carnations,” it was always inherent to the story’s structure that when Karyn gets together with other childless, motherless women on Mother’s Day, she hides her pregnancy—until the final paragraphs, when revealing it to Anne allows the two women to get closer and the story to end with that moment of connection. My inclination has been to use secrets to explore the consequences for the characters rather than to conceal things from the reader. A reader of “The Dissembler’s Guide to Pregnancy” figures out pretty quickly, I think, that the narrator has stopped taking the pill without telling her sort-of boyfriend. The narrative question, then, becomes, what will this deception mean for their relationship? For the deceiver herself?

TM: What were your early experiences and influences as a writer? What’s next, writing-wise?

PR: I’m going to interpret this “early” as really early, because I’ve wanted to grow up to be a writer for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I was a great fan of Maud Hart Lovelace, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Rumer Godden, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Jennie Lindquist, Astrid Lindgren, Louisa May Alcott, Judy Blume. When my friend and I got the idea to make a celebrity cookbook like they do in a Sweet Valley Twins book (Yes, I read a lot of not-very-literary stuff too.), Judy Blume sent us a letter with a recipe for noodle kugel, which was hugely exciting. I never made the recipe, though, because it sounded gross, and I never made the cookbook because Judy Blume was the only celebrity who wrote us back.

As a girl, my favorite books were almost all by women writers, now that I think about it, and they were almost all realistic fiction. Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking, who lives on her own with a monkey and a horse (which she can lift up in the air), does stretch the bounds of realism a bit.

My grandmother’s first cousin Roz, an English professor who I think of as my first real-life literary influence, gave me a diary when I was about eight or so. It was royal blue with a shiny gold fan on it, and I viewed it as a sacred object, the beginning of my writing life. For many years, keeping a journal was the main genre of creative writing I practiced, and I see it as a precursor to the kind of fiction I began pursuing in my early 20s. Though my journals were certainly filled with lots of angst and emotional excess, I think articulating and obsessing over some of the elements of my daily life helped me develop an attention to detail and to “the mystery of personality,” as Flannery O’Connor calls it in her brilliant essay, “Writing Short Stories.”

Now I’ve conveniently run out of space and can’t discuss your second question. Writing about a work-in-progress feels to me like trying to describe a book I haven’t read.

TM: This collection seems to capture a significant cultural moment in that most (perhaps all?) of the mothers work, and parental roles are in negotiation. These stories collectively paint a portrait of working motherhood as the norm, rather than an either/or proposition. Was the idea of choosing to work in your mind while writing the book?

PR: Recently, Joshua Johnson interviewed Terry Gross on his NPR show 1A, and he asked about her plans for retirement. The gist of Gross’s answer: she plans to keep working as long as she can. Alluding to that oft-heard trope, “No one ever says on their deathbed, ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office,’” she said something like (I’m definitely paraphrasing), “Well, you don’t say that if you don’t like your job, but I love my work.” The work in my own life—writing, teaching, nonprofit work, editing—has always been really important to me: intellectually, emotionally, practically. In the collection, I wanted to represent women who enjoy their work and find meaning in it. For most people, this doesn’t go out the window when you have a baby. It’s hard to manage everything, of course, but I think we need to assert that mothers have just as much reason and right to continue devoting themselves to their work lives as fathers, if that’s what they want to do.

TM: Is there a question about you or your work that you wish someone would ask? How would you answer it?

PR: I’m flattered that I’m being asked about myself and my work at all. A question I guess I’ve felt poised to answer, and did answer for my editor when she asked about it, is why I don’t have a birth story in the book. A few births are briefly alluded to—a sudden C-section in “June;” a “natural birth” that goes fine but “hurt so much you thought something must be terribly wrong” in “Ten Warning Signs of Postpartum Depression”—but for a collection of stories about having a baby, it might seem odd that this crucial experience is essentially skipped over. One reason why I avoided it is because I think childbirth often functions like the marriage plot trope, where a singular joyous event is meant to serve as the crowning culmination of a woman’s story. All the difficulty and pain of childbirth, as well as the hard work of mothering to come, is subsumed by the image of the shining newborn. For me, labor and childbirth, though certainly interesting—in the way that an extreme physical experience is interesting—was also a time when I felt least myself, most disconnected from the observing, reflective brain that I think of as me. It totally wiped me out. And so I didn’t write about it both in reaction to the way it’s often represented and because I couldn’t come up with a better way.

Harmful Stories Are on the Rise: The Millions Interviews Susan Choi

Susan Choi is highly accomplished. She teaches at Yale University. Her first novel, The Foreign Student, won the Asian American Literary Award, while her second novel, American Woman, was named a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize. Her next work of fiction, A Person of Interest, was as finalist for the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award, and most recently her novel My Education earned the Lambda Literary Award. Next month her children’s book, Camp Tiger, will be published, and this weekend a film adaptation of American Woman will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival under the direction of Semi Chellas. Our focus, though, is on her newly released novel, Trust Exercise, which was one of the year’s most anticipated books.

Trust Exercise follows Sarah and David, two teenagers in a high school dedicated to theater arts during the early 1980s. They fall for each other but are pulled in different directions by the drama of teenage life, both on and off the stage. As the story progresses, the reader must consider the power dynamics of storytelling and performance: who is granted a voice and who is seen as merely an object rather than a subject. It is a story that spans 30 years, an intricately crafted novel that asks important questions about power and identity.

I recently caught up with Choi to talk about education, theater, the #MeToo movement, our distance from our teenage selves, and the writing process.

The Millions: I wanted to start with the topic of education. In your previous books you’ve engaged with the educational sphere at the college level, but in Trust Exercise you’ve moved to high school. One of the things that I particularly enjoyed about your take on this age group is how you show the power of the heightened emotions of being a teenager. What made you shift your focus to this younger group?

Susan Choi: For me these things are never premeditated. I write a lot of things that never make it out of my hard drive, and then, every once in a while, there’s something that I stick with. In this case, I think my preoccupation with all our past selves—all of us adults were teenagers once—predated my work on this book. In My Education I was preoccupied with the way in which the selves we were at earlier periods of adulthood might come to seem like strangers—incomprehensible and even kind of crazy—once we’ve aged a little more. In Trust Exercise that same preoccupation shifts back further in time.

TM: Your writing about high school theater training really captures how this activity creates a space for forming identity and a sense of an artistic self. Why did you want to write about theater?

SC: The tension between unleashing emotion and controlling emotion is really interesting to me. And theater is a context in which, it seems to me, that happens in particularly fascinating ways. And there’s a parallel there, to writing, which never occurred to me until later.

TM: While this novel is treading its own path, I also see its connection to some of your earlier work. Let me give you one small example: Trust Exercise includes a scene that recalls one from American Woman. In both a young woman is identified merely by the texture of her jeans. What interests you in the reworking of themes and images over the course of your novels?

SC: I don’t rework themes or images very often, and in this case I didn’t choose to do it so much as I just couldn’t resist recycling that idea. Once I’d done it, I fretted about people noticing it and indeed they have! I wish I hadn’t used it the first time around because I think it’s far more indispensable where it happens in Trust Exercise. But maybe we can view the previous iteration as a rehearsal?

TM: I enjoy the historicity of your work, whether you are positioning your reader in the 1970s California of Patty Hearst or in the Korean War and its aftermath in The Foreign Student. What kind of research did you do for this book to create this world? What did you draw from your own experiences during the early 1980s?

SC: I didn’t do research specifically to support this book because, unlike with the time periods of some of my other books, I have clear memories of the ’80s, just as I have clear memories of the ’90s setting for A Person of Interest. But I was, on a separate track, doing research into Scientology a handful of years ago, and that research ended up feeding into this book in very unexpected ways. With that research I was also thinking about charismatic leaders, and the sorts of rituals those leaders impose on their followers, to forge those followers into a compliant collective.

TM: Interesting, what are some of the ways that you see Scientology connecting to Trust Exercise?

SC: Some of the trust exercises—the repetitions for example—bear uncanny resemblance to Scientology practices, and it’s my understanding that both derive from a common source, a type of actors’ training. I found this intersection really striking, and it contributed a lot to my thinking about the world of the book, in which a charismatic leader uses specific rites and rituals to mold disparate and in some cases unruly individuals into a compliant cooperative group.

TM: My Education dealt with issues of sexual identity, and this book continues with some of those questions in its own way. Did you begin this book to address some of those continuing questions or were you thinking about more timely topics like #MeToo?

SC: Honestly, I almost never begin a book to address questions. If I did, I don’t think I’d get very far. I begin books because certain situations, involving certain characters, interest me and I want to see what might happen. The questions that preoccupy me start exercising their influence right away, but I’m not particularly conscious of that process, any more than I’m particularly conscious of the way in which the questions that preoccupy me exercise their influence on all the choices I make in every aspect of my life. However, once this book was well underway it did become glaringly clear to me that its trajectory, and real-world events including #MeToo, were intersecting in really interesting ways.

TM: Yes, in my reading, I certainly thought about #MeToo issues and the related questions of consent and power. Are there any particular ways that you see the novel reflecting these issues?

SC: Karen in particular is a character struggling to make sense of a past experience for which she blames herself, for making an ultimately damaging choice, and blames the other party involved, for taking advantage of her inexperience and credulousness. What happened to her has happened to countless women who, if they heard her story, would echo the refrain of “me too” that gives the movement its name—but the very fact of the experience being so widely shared only makes Karen harder on herself. She isn’t able to resolve the contradiction between self-blame and righteous accusation, and she isn’t able to ally herself with other women in similar circumstances. Her problem is both eternal and—because recently the cultural conversation is finally echoing all our private conversations—timely.

TM: This book is very much attentive to its structure. Through its three major sections, readers must resituate themselves in relationship to the narrative and their confidence in their perception of it. At what point in the development of this project did the structure come to you?

SC: The structure of the book really evolved out of the writing process, the way most of my books’ structures do. I never sat down and thought, I want to write a book with this particular structure. Structural aspects presented themselves along the way as solutions to problems that had arisen in the course of the writing. That’s how it always happens, for me. I never outline in advance and most of the time I have no idea, in advance, how something is going to end. It’s possibly a very disorganized way to write, but I find it more generative and interesting than planning everything ahead—not that I’m even able to do that.

TM: Earlier you mentioned one of the acting exercises I wanted to talk about because it creates quite a memorable scene. In it, two students repeat the same phrase to each other while trying to alter the meaning of the words through emphasis and delivery. This moment encapsulates the work’s interest in point of view, shifting context, and the change of a person from subject to object. What were your thoughts about perspective in this book?

SC: I’ve always thought a lot about point of view or perspective with all my books, but usually in pretty narrow terms that have to do with the book itself and what perspective will solve the most problems, what perspective will best convey character and give me what I need to communicate information and so on. It’s often a mess; with My Education I wrote a lot of the book in the omniscient third person and it just didn’t feel right so I rewrote it in the first person and again, it didn’t feel right, so I had to rewrite that first person voice from a specific point in time that was more retrospective…there was lots of trial and error. With this book I had all the same craft-centric thoughts about what perspective would work best, but it’s true that I was also thinking a lot more about the role of storytelling in our lives and not just in the books we read.  Our culture and our politics are all stories, often contending stories, often harmful stories—and harmful stories are on the rise right now, it seems to me. So, I was thinking a lot about who gets to tell these stories, and who gets told about, and all the harm that can be done.

I Have to Write Differently Now: The Millions Interviews Jennifer Acker

Jennifer Acker is one of my dearest friends, so I was thrilled to have the chance to interview her about her debut novel, The Limits of the World. Acker and I have been exchanging writing since our mid-20s, so I come to this interview having read multiple drafts of her book, a multi-generational story centered on Urmila and Premchand Chandaria, emigrants from the Indian-enclave of Nairobi. Like many immigrant parents, they are confused by the choices of their American son, Sunil, who has become, of all things, a PhD candidate in philosophy. They also don’t approve of his girlfriend, Amy, who, unbeknownst to them, is actually his wife. Multiple family secrets come to light over the course of Acker’s novel, which also tells the story of the Chandaria family’s ancestral migration from India to East Africa.

Acker began writing the novel in graduate school, and then spent several years revising it. While working on her novel, she founded the literary magazine The Common, which is now a publication of Amherst College, and which Acker edits, full-time, working with student interns. Although both the magazine and her novel have been met with acclaim, there have been a lot of bumps in the road. Her novel was almost accepted for publication a number of times, an experience which, if you’ve ever been through it, can feel more devastating than an open-and-shut rejection. Acker has also spent the past few years dealing with a chronic illness, ME/CFS, sometimes known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which can leave her exhausted for weeks, and sometimes months. But through focused, efficient efforts, she has continued to edit The Common, and to find time for her own writing projects.

Acker lives in Montague, a small town in Western Massachusetts that is close to Amherst College. She visits New York City often, and travels whenever she can. When I spoke to her over the phone, she was on vacation in Arizona, soaking up some sun before a busy spring of book promotion.

The Millions: I’d like to start with the story of how your book came to be published. Because I know, as your friend, that you had a lot of near-misses, and I think for Millions readers, it would be a really interesting story—and I personally need the refresh, because I can’t even remember some of the twists and turns.

Jennifer Acker: I
knew you were interested in this question, so I’ve been thinking about it, and
it’s made me a little nervous. Telling a long and convoluted publication story or
one in which your book is not snapped up right away is kind of embarrassing.
But I do think it’s important for people to be honest talking about these
processes, because it’s often more complicated that you would think. I also
wanted to refresh for myself what the story was, because it was over a period
of several years and I wasn’t even sure if I was remembering it correctly.

So this morning I was going back through my emails, because I wanted to reconstruct things. In any case, I think, I first signed with Duvall [Osteen, Acker’s literary agent] in the fall of 2014. I loved her enthusiasm and smarts from the beginning. I did do some revising for her, which I think is typical, or at least not that uncommon. So I revised with her in 2014, we went out with the book for the first time in January 2015, and I remember that timing pretty well because I was on vacation in Puerto Rico and I was trying to grab cell signals in various places all over the island. About a week or so after I sent the book out, there was a lot of excitement and a lot of editors were interested, and it was just so exciting. I was on vacation, the sun was shining, we were at the beach, and it just felt kind of miraculous.

Basically there were several editors at big houses who were interested, and I had a few phone conversations when I got home. And then out of that group, there were two editors who were really interested in the book but wanted to see structural changes. And they weren’t willing to buy the book and then work on it, they wanted to see the changes first. So that was my first experience with the revise-and-resubmit process. I even met with both of these editors in person, and I tried to coalesce each of their comments into a direction that they would each be happy with.

TM: You were
trying to make revisions to please both editors?  

JA: Yes, it wasn’t
an exclusive revise-and-resubmit. They were both interested in similar
revisions, so I was working on a new version for both. And I kind of killed
myself on the revision—which is partially metaphorical, but as you know, I got
sick that spring. It was an incredibly busy time for me, because not only was I
running the magazine, but also teaching a seminar that semester—which was
enjoyable, but quite intense. I was traveling a lot, I was going to New York
every month, I was planning the Common in the City Party for that spring, and I
was trying to squeeze in those revisions on nights and weekends. I was working
all the time, late at night. At the time I remember thinking, I have never been
so busy as this in my life. I had a friend who said, why are you doing this so
fast? Why not just wait and tackle it in the summer? But I had this feeling
that I had to take advantage of the momentum before I sort of lost my place.

I finished a pretty significant overhaul of the book and we sent it back to those two editors and they didn’t take it. I didn’t fully understand what it was that they didn’t like. At that point it gets kind of vague in terms of the feedback that you get. It was a pretty crushing disappointment. We had The Common in the City party, and I was very tired for that, but I wasn’t sick yet. But then I had first really clear early signs of my illness in June. That period was pretty devastating. I felt that summer that I was in stasis in pretty much every way. I didn’t know what was wrong with me physically; I didn’t know what was wrong with my book. I wasn’t sure how I was going to crawl my way out of either of those situations.

Over the next year basically, I was pretty sick and mostly not doing much, but just trying to keep up with things where I could. But I had this book in my mind and I didn’t want to let it go. So then—I’m actually looking at my notes right now, because it’s really hard to remember—I didn’t do much on the book until the following spring. Then I tried to address another round of revisions with the idea of sending it out a second time. What I sort of remember about that process was that I was scaling back on a lot of things, I was cutting a lot of things, I was trying to make the book really streamlined. My impression at the time was that the book was overstuffed, so I cut out the backstory and character development. But I think it was kind of a skeletal version of the book, because when it went out again, that was the least successful response.

One good thing that did come out of that submission was that
another editor at a big house wanted to see revisions. This editor wanted an
exclusive revise-and-resubmit. I was wary of it, feeling like it hadn’t gone so
well the first time, but when I had a conversation and learned what the edits
were, they made a lot of sense to me and were in the direction I wanted to go
anyway. So that whole process took kind of a long time, getting a first
conversation with that editor, and then many months later, getting those notes,
and then taking the following winter, January through March 2017 to do my
revisions. It definitely felt more promising, I was adding things back into the
book, things I had been reluctant to cut. It felt like the book was regaining
its shape. And then—I don’t know how frequent this is, but I haven’t heard of
it happening to anyone else—once we sent back the revisions, we never got a
response from this editor. There were a few email communications, but in the
end we never heard either yes or no, which is crazy and crazy-making. Someone
who had been so invested in seeing a new version, wouldn’t even say no? It was
totally baffling. There was just this complete breakdown in communications—and
it was a process that had taken about a year and a half. But I did then have a
version that I felt good about. I felt like the editor had done the book some
good so it wasn’t totally wasted effort or time.

Then the book went out again in Fall 2017, for the third time—and the third time was the charm. That’s when we connected with Delphinium. I remember we finalized the contract on the day of the National Books Awards and I was going to the ceremony that night and I was telling everyone. I was like, yeah, yeah, yeah, these other people are getting prizes and are amazing authors, but I sold my book! It was tremendously exciting. Of course I did even more revisions with my editor. At that point we were really tightening the narrative. He was really instrumental in helping me to see how to connect the dots and how to build narrative tension.

TM: Now that
you’ve gone through this marathon revision process on this one project, how do
you think you’re going to approach revision in the future on your own work? Has
it changed for you?

JA: I think that one thing I’m going to try is to be more conscious of narrative events from the beginning. I think I’m going to try—if not to outline exactly—but to think more about cascading events, one event leading to another event, from the beginning. When I started this project, it was really about figuring out characters, creating a family, and it was this complicated, multi-voiced structure, and I had this idea about narrative tension that it meant that everything had to be at a fevered pitch, and that narrative tension was making people upset with each other in every scene, so there was lots of arguing and lots of yelling, but there wasn’t a lot of connection between events. Also, I just read a craft book, The Kite and the String, by Alice Mattison—she’s one of my Bennington teachers, who is this narrative master, we call her the novel doctor. I read it recently and I was underlining everything she said about creating narrative, and manufacturing concrete events and making one event lead to another.  

TM: Has this
process changed the way you edit other people’s work?

JA: I think the
funny thing is, I was much better at this at editing other people, when it
comes to the narrative connections.

TM: Considering
that this went on for years, revising and waiting on responses to your book,
how did you stick with it? What kept you going?

JA: I think it
just felt like so much a part of me, I just couldn’t bear the idea of
abandoning it. And every once and a while I would get some encouragement from
people who really loved it. I also knew that it was a story and a subject
matter that wasn’t very well known and would be interesting to people eventually.
Lots of different editors had different views about how the story should be
told. I felt like they liked the story that was there. It was frustrating, I
was bouncing back and forth between people’s individual views about how the
story should be told. I just needed to find the person whose vision aligned
with my own.

The hardest is when you’re on your own. Once I had Duvall as my agent, she was unwavering in a remarkable way. I don’t know how she was able to keep her confidence up. Maybe she wasn’t confident and she was just telling me that she was! But I just believed her, I just let her convince me. I could not have kept going without her being willing to keep reading, keep sending it. And then I also, after I got sick, I didn’t have any ideas, I didn’t have any energy to create anything new. So this was my one chance, because I didn’t have the faintest idea of what a new book would like.

TM: Can you talk
about how your process has changed because of your illness? I know, for
example, you use voice recognition software.

JA: Actually, I
first switched to speech recognition software because it was hard to sit at the
computer for a long time. I had a lot of neck pain and back pain and I would
get tired and achey from looking at screens, so I began to use the speech
recognition software. Now it seems like a very natural part of my writing life.
I was telling someone recently who was just shocked that I wasn’t typing those
things, I was speaking them out loud. There is a certain amount of
embarrassment that you have to get over when you’re dictating. The software
also likes you to speak in complete sentences, so I would have to speak a
little bit more at length—I couldn’t just add a word or change a word. I think
it did lead me to produce these very voluminous drafts.

If I had the physical stamina I would be one of those people
who write longhand. The other thing I’ve been doing for a long time, but more
so recently, when I’m even less tolerant of screens, is printing things out at
every stage, so I’m looking at things on paper. I’ve been trying to get myself
to do the Lauren Groff method, where you write a first draft and then forget
about it and then write it again, which strikes me as a really good way to do
things but is emotionally so difficult.

TM: Tell me both
why you think it’s a good way to do things and why you think it’s emotionally

JA: I think it’s a good way to do things because I think your mind retains some of the strongest narrative elements, and so, when you write a first draft and then you don’t look at it again, I think when you’re trying to reconstruct the second draft, I think what sticks are some of the most singular aspects of the characters or some of the most important narrative moments. I think it helps you retain some of the most important elements at an earlier stage, instead of falling in love with a description or a paragraph. You don’t keep things in because it sounds nice—but I think it’s emotionally devastating, because you invest all these time and energy into something you’re not using. And that anxiety about throwing out things that might be good.

TM: Are there
other strategies you’ve come up with in terms of organizing your time? Or in
deciding what to work on?

JA: I do have to write differently now, I used to be able to go to a writing residency and take a week off and write for seven or eight hours a day. But I don’t have that stamina anymore. I only have a few hours a day. But I also have a hard time doing both my job and writing something new simultaneously. I think a lot of people have that difficulty, but it’s become even clearer to me that I need to focus on one thing in any given day, or any given period. I’ve been moving toward this residency model where I only focus on one thing at a time—either I’m working on The Common or I’m working on my own writing. Because everything I do is slower, I need the mornings to do whatever thinking work I have, whether that’s editing or doing some strategic thinking for the magazine, and then the afternoon is sort of catch as catch can. I’ll schedule calls or listen to music to give my mind a break. I’m trying to give myself a little more down time in between the writing. I don’t know if it means I’ll be more efficient. But my thought is that I’ll do more thinking and less drafting. Less free writing and more thinking—like what I was saying about being more thoughtful about creating a narrative.

I’m also writing a lot more personal essays than I was
before. That comes out of my own experience being so large in front of me, and
there’s something that I may be learning about storytelling that has come out
of writing personal essays as well.

TM: What do you
mean by your own experience being large in front of you?

JA: I don’t feel
well most of the time and I spend a lot of time dealing with that. So my own
physicality is so present and often kind of distracting. And then I think about
writing about those experiences, because I’m a writer, and that’s how I process
things. If I’m having a hard time, I’ll think about what is this hard time and
how is that impacting my life, and what can I learn from other people who have
had similar experiences?

TM: Now would be
a good time for me to ask you about the kindle single you’ve been working on
about chronic illness . . .

JA: Why, thank you for asking! Yes, I’m on the homestretch of that. After that first terrible year when my book didn’t sell and I got sick, at the very end of that year, I published an essay in The Washington Post about Nishi [Shah, Acker’s husband] reading to me. And that was the first thing I wrote about my illness. And then, because I wasn’t sure what was happening with the novel, I ended up writing a lot about that and how I was living this small life that was very domestic, and the people I was seeing the most were my family, and particularly Nishi. And then he developed his own physical ailments, maybe six months into mine, and it was just extraordinary and terrible confluence and we had to figure out how to take care of each other. So that was really the genesis of that essay: I found I was writing not just about my experience but about our experience—how we were coping psychologically and logistically on a day-to-day basis. I had written several different pieces that I ended up combing into one longer piece, which is going to come out sometime next year.

TM: Getting back
to your novel: earlier you were talking about how each editor had a different
idea of how to tell the story, and I was wondering how you settled on the
current structure, which has multiple points of view?

JA: I originally
was interested in the mother’s story because of this particular situation of
her an immigrant and being an unconventional character. I knew she was going to
be sort of a thorny, intense, difficult character, and it was a challenge to
think about how to write her. Then I thought I wanted it to be mother-son
story. So I added a second point of view, and then it was a challenge to myself
to write the father, because he was the most remote to me, because he was a man,
not of my generation, who also was an immigrant. And also, since the mother and
son were emotionally intense characters, I thought I would need someone who was
a little more balanced, to weigh on the actions of the mother and the son in a
way that would be helpful to the reader. And then, the grandfather’s point of
view was crucial from the beginning, because that was the point of view that
would tell the migration story of this family, the move from Kenya to India,
and give the back story of how there came to be this Indian community in East
Africa, which is surprising to most people. Once you know it has to do with
British Empire, you can understand it a bit more. So I had to tell that story
and figure out how to do it.

TM: When did you first become interested in the migration
story of Indians in Kenya?

JA: I first became aware of an Indian community in Kenya,
when I first took my year off before college. From living in Kenya I was
fascinated that this community existed. I didn’t know, really, how they got
there, I just knew that they existed and they were a pretty robust presence. There
were certain foods—like we would drink chai with my host families—so I was
noticing these influences but didn’t have another opportunity to think about it
or dig into it until I met Nishi, whose family history this was. What really
gave me an opportunity to think about it concretely was visiting his family in
Nairobi, in 2007. I had first been in Kenya in 1995 and then in 2007 I went
back with my dad. I wanted to visit my Kenyan host family, and Nishi’s parents
were also going to be traveling to Nairobi, and I wanted the chance to meet his
extended family.

TM: And how do you feel about the book now, if the seed of
it started in 2007, if not before that? Do you still feel close to it? Or do
you feel it’s in your past?

JA: It still feels very much a part of me. I think what’s
exciting about it being published, and being out in the world, is that it’s
going to be a public part of me, when for so long it was a private part of me,
and a secret and at times it was a shameful secret, and now that it’s something
that I can openly talk about and be proud of. It doesn’t yet feel distant to
me, and in part because I’ve been talking about it a lot recently. But I think
it will always feel very personal.

Literary Testimony: Fernando Aramburu Tells the Basque Story

As it turns out, Spanish author Fernando Aramburu and I frequent the same bookstore in the Basque city of San Sebastian. Cozy and family run, the bookstore Donosti looks onto a fountain, sandstone apartment facades in the Belle Époque style, and foot traffic that crisscrosses the circular plaza. As far as I know, he and I have never squeezed past one another in the little space not occupied by books in the store. However, two summers ago, it was there that I first encountered his monumental novel Homeland, which has recently been released in English by Pantheon, translated from the Spanish by Alfred MacAdam. At the time, the novel was featured on the bookstore’s front display and had likely been there since its publication nine months earlier. It was in its 19th printing then and had sold 350,000 copies.

I possess a healthy skepticism of the masses’ collective palate, yet the bookstore owners convinced me that Homeland was, in fact, the real deal. They gave me the novel’s thicker brushstrokes: Two Basque families in a village near San Sebastian are torn apart when the father of one is assassinated by ETA, the Basque terrorist group that the oldest son of the other family belongs to.

The 600-page novel tracks the two families as they approach an inevitable and fatal encounter and the decades-long process of trying to heal that follows. As humorous as it is heartbreaking, Homeland explores how various factions of Basque and Spanish society were violently pitted against one another for 50 years.

The novel has sold nearly one million copies in the Spanish-speaking world and will be coming to the small screen next year as an HBO Europe miniseries. Fernando Aramburu and I conducted our interview via email, with Alfred MacAdam translating Aramburu’s responses into English.

The Millions: Homeland opens in 2011 with ETA’s declaration of a permanent ceasefire. Did you start thinking of these two families at this time, and did ongoing developments affect the outcome of the novel?

Fernando Aramburu: The idea of telling the Homeland story using two families came to me in a natural sort of way. The two families are closely related.  There are nine people, nine protagonists who have their own narrative voices. The two families are made up of men and women of different ages and temperaments, with different life experiences and different destines. Combined, the two families constitute a small society. The ETA ceasefire creates a narrative situation that favors memory. Something terrible has finally come to an end, and the moment has arrived to turn it into a testimony, into a literary testimony as well. It’s also a moment for considering the possibility of reconnecting the social and emotional ties broken by the violence.

TM: Homeland tells the story of two families torn apart by terrorism and ideological fundamentalism, set in the larger story of the Basque Country’s complicated history over the past 30 years. Though the outside action is integral to the characters, they manage to be more than just a product of their environment—complex and complicated, they remain with the reader for reasons other than their political views. For those writers considering writing a work of fiction about the current fractures in their society (there’s plenty of material here in America these days), how would you recommend approaching the work so as to avoid the allegorical or polemical?

FA: I don’t think I’m in any way authorized to give advice to anyone about how to treat social conflicts in literature. Nor about any other issue. What I can do is briefly describe my way of working and my objectives. From the first sentence of Homeland, I knew I’d place my bet on literature. I’m not a historian, not a politician, and not a journalist. For me, words used in their musical combinations, in their aesthetic possibilities are as important as what those words can express. So, all my decisions must take into account the fact that the ultimate objective is composing a good literary work and that the work must offer readers the most complex image possible of each character. Other people can decide if I’ve achieved my goal or not. I’ve tried to avoid the two greatest dangers in any dramatic story: pathos and the subordination of the facts to a thesis. I’ve limited myself to narrating private lives, not historical events. I haven’t theorized. I haven’t made a judgment as to who is good and who is bad. I’ve never paused the narrative to point out anything on the ideological or political level. I’ve followed each character over the years and tried to have each one own his or her voice. All of that, of course, within the context of a novelistic structure. When all is said and done, a novel is a means whereby we impose order on human experience, always leaving to the readers the possibility of reaching their own interpretations.

TM: You are a Basque writer living in Berlin. Do you feel that this life experience, of living outside your homeland, affects your portrayal of any of your characters or the Basque Country itself? And has this geographical distance made it easier or harder to write about the events that touch your characters’ lives?

FA: The first 25 years of my life I lived in el País Vasco, enough time for me to get to know the habits, the culture, and the people there. I suppose that living far away has given me a panoramic perspective, the same kind a chess player would have viewing the board from above. Depending on the issues at hand, it may well be that such an all-inclusive perspective, one that takes in the entire chessboard, is preferable to the perspective of one who sees his side but does not understand the general sense of the game. At the same time, never in all these years have I had any problem with regard to travel, with verifying things, reading books and newspapers, talking with other people, etc. The fact is, the internet has cancelled distances.

TM: There’s an interesting literary technique in Homeland that I’ve never come across before. The book’s narrator, or perhaps narrators, would interrupt and supplement the narrative by asking questions in response to the story as it is being told to us. How did this technique come to you? Can we find it in your other books or is it something this particular novel required?

FA: It may well be that some other writer used that technique before I did. Don’t we always say there’s nothing new under the sun? I had no desire whatsoever to narrate episodes in a conventional manner, so even before beginning the work I decided that the characters would intervene in the novel in their own voice and that they would do so as soon as they had something to say, even if that were to happen in the middle of a sentence spoken by the external narrator. I also decided that the text, conscious of being the foundation of a narrative, would intervene from time to time. Since the text cannot speak, what it does is pose questions to the narrator, demanding more exactitude or new facts. From the first pages, I realized that this way of telling the story—it doesn’t matter to me if it’s a novelty or not—has immense creative possibilities.

TM: I recognized many of my family members in the strong female characters that populate Homeland. These are Basque women, typically older, who tend to rule many aspects of society, including even the speed at which foot traffic moves along the sidewalk. But for American readers who are unfamiliar with the Basque Country, what aspects of Basque culture and society do you think they should know in order to more fully appreciate the book?

FA: I’d have to wonder if the culture and social life of the País Vasco could be completely strange to the American reader. That reader might certainly find strange elements, but always within life parameters known to the American reader. For example, the mothers. Mothers are an institution for Basques. There are many mothers who are women of strong character, hardworking, brave, decisive, who govern the family and handle themselves well in arguments. The American reader will find a land where it rains a lot and where people have a great fondness for good food. People say Basques are cooks by nature. The American reader will find that the men tend to be of few words, disciplined, serious, and fond of sports. So, nothing that an American reader doesn’t already know, even if it all comes in different doses.

Drifting Toward Wonder: The Millions Interviews Lia Purpura

“Childhood’s a long training in never minding all you’re losing, everything that’s falling, crashing, being taken”—Lia Purpura’s essays unfold in rich, detail-driven vignettes, but every so often she stops me with a sentence of pure wisdom. I’ve got to take a second before moving on. All the Fierce Tethers, her new book of essays, is full of these moments. Yet when I read that line about childhood, I not only thought yes, she’s right, but also appreciated her essayistic skill in opening that place for imperfect conjecture. Her essays help readers drift toward wonder.  

In the collection’s title essay, she says that when she
watches people, “it’s exactly the boundedness of their lives, the precise
sizing down that moves me. How absorbed and unprotected they are.” In a twist
that might best be described as a bit of literary magic, Purpura’s essays make
me appreciate the contours of everyday life more: our “small moments, fixed in
their own tondos of light.”

Purpura is the author of nine collections of essays, poems, and translations. A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction, her awards include Guggenheim, NEA, and Fulbright Fellowships. Her work appears in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The New Republic, Orion, and The Georgia Review. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, where she is Writer in Residence at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and teaches in the Rainier Writing Workshop’s MFA program. We spoke about presence, absence, irony, and how writing can come from a “desire for repair.”

The Millions: You’re an essayist and poet, two forms of writing marked by an associative style. In the early pages of the first essay in your new book, All the Fierce Tethers, you move seamlessly across several subjects: screaming, the idea of “never minding,” Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” a tin of mints, a consideration of trash, and the paradoxical history of the term “bandwagon.” How do your essays and poems happen? Do you seek association and breadth in your sense of observing and perceiving the world?

Lia Purpura: Associative behavior is a form of relatedness, alignment, empathy even. Storytelling, caretaking, flashes of insight revealing wholeness, the recognition of what it feels like for a tree when the wind moves among its branches—because you’ve felt that in your body—all these are manifestations of the likenesses extant—abiding—in the world. So maybe it’s more that, rather than seeking association and breadth, I am aware of being a site at which intersections occur. I’m stunned by, (and often beset by) the ways so many different forces and beings are telling a part of the same story. Linking us up. And I see my work as a way of regarding and surfacing the interdependencies—the awe, the responsibility, the wounds incurred in recognizing the connectedness. The associative impulse confirms the deep systems holding us together even if we’re bent on ignoring or destroying those tethers.

TM: One essay in this collection, “Of Prayer,” has an early, imagined scene of a man buying a knife from Crate & Barrel. “Here, when you buy a knife, they wrap it securely in sturdy paper, which indicates they run a safe ship, no bows or gift wrap for the cutlery. They seal such things with a wide strip of tape and let it be your problem undoing it at home.” We learn that the knife was used by the man to kill his wife and daughters; his oldest daughter went to a university where you taught. In class, you ask your students to take a moment of silence: “What rattled me, though of course it shouldn’t have (this being a Catholic university), was that they had a prayer ready and knew what to say, while I had to make something up on the spot about breath and pennies and each of us being assumed into another’s day.” You write elsewhere in the book of being “given no church, no practice, no prayer (no under-the-breath rote anything to lean on).” Do you see your essays functioning as prayers? What does that mean for you as a writer—and perhaps your vision of what gives us comfort and transcendence?

LP: It’s not uncommon, I think, for many writers to consider their work a form of prayer. Writing’s practices—long, slow attentiveness (or sharp, incisive revelations), repeated sounds, words, phrases, a focused and set-aside time for work—are features of more traditional prayer practices for sure.  Prayer, at least in my practice, does not require language and often refuses it, works to thwart it, asks that I become an altered perceiver and communicator. Essays, for me, take on various modes that are found in prayer: self- interrogation and arguments with self and with fate, praise, a laying out of the vulnerability of places or beings that I’ve known intimately, a desire for repair and the wits and strength to carry it out, question-asking, direction-seeking.

TM: You quote John Donne mid-essay, mid-book: “All things that are, are equally removed from being nothing.” All the Fierce Tethers feels so aware, narrated by someone who is so observant and here in the world. As a writer, and even as a person, how do you feel most present in the world? When do you feel most absent?

LP: I love that quote because it so directly asserts a radical equivalence, a rock-bottom sense of sanctity shared by all beings. I suppose I am most absented from the world when I’m forced to interact with what I call “the systems”—by that I mean not the sustaining systems found in cloud formations or animal habits or planting cycles, but the human made-systems and apparatus that I’m afraid I have very little stomach for and am abraded by in chronic ways, and can’t fall in with: everything from phone menus to computerized steps-following, the constant noise that our systems of “upkeep” require (leafblowers, compressors, etc) all the dinging bells (microwaves)—all these requires our tacit assent, our not-minding the ways we’re forced to break peace, concentration, etc. These are smaller abrasions but the assumptions undergirding them extend out to the enormous and intractable forms of rote behaviors, land and climate destruction and so on. On the other end of things—my sense of presence is confirmed when I am able to confirm others’ presences, when I can behave in relationships of reciprocity and proximity with humans and other beings without much mediation. The essays in the collection manage two impulses: they write into these unmediated often joy/awe-filled experiences, and they also delineate forms of contemporary assault that fly under the radar.

TM: Have there been any particularly formative essays in your life? Ones that unlocked the genre for you, or that you might return to, as a reader?

LP: Oh—here are only two of many: James Baldwin whose essays scour and love simultaneously, are ferocious and moral and relentlessly seeking, that hold accountable both the writer himself and the systems into which he’s been born. C.D. Wright whose poems move through prose-realms and are unabashedly essay-ish even while she falls in so fully with image and speech and is awe-filled by the smallest gestures witnessed in the course of a day, a drive, a conversation.

TM: In a related vein to the previous question—are there particular essays (or essayists) who you love to give to students?

LP: Most recently, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen which offers such elegant, compact, formal ways to counter speechlessness in the face of injustice and angles by which to express chronic anger. Also—Jo Ann Beard’s ”Fourth State of Matter“ is an amazing work—one that describes and mirrors cosmology at large as it creates its own local cosmology, set in motion by the stupendous and tragic events of a single day.

TM: I absolutely loved the essay “Brief Treatise Against Irony.” It made me think of your wonderful poem “Belief,” and your words about that poem’s core feeling: “the seam that fuses doubt/faith, optimism/despair (whatever other binaries one comes up with)—that seam holds for me a kind of light, and a capaciousness. A way of living that seemed to clarify. The holding of opposing forces makes me feel like a catfish, looking off in both directions at once. It also keeps curiosity alive.” You begin this essay with the line “The opposite of irony is nakedness,” setting a binary contrast between the vulnerable nature of sincerity and the posed performance of irony. What do you think is the “seam” between irony and nakedness, between performance and honesty? What is the healthy space between them?

LP: Some states of being need protection because the language around them sags, drags the nuance down, threatens their fragility. Your question is actually an enormous and complex one—it speaks to the range of modes of expression we’re offered today, the idea of aesthetic “choices”—which aren’t actually choices for many writers but rather the act of coming to speak as one needs to, personally—and the methods for this vary tremendously—from the raw/confessional/exuberant (Ross Gay for instance) to the more enigmatic/suggestive (Merwin), to modes that agilely employ both (C.D. Wright). Amplified performance mode in no way indicates a lack of authenticity (see Tyehimba Jess’s Olio—which is an astonishing full-body experience that just keeps coming page after page with relentless force). On the other hand, some forms of self-proclaimed “honesty”—can come off as psychological reportage or emotional indulgence. One way or another, authenticity intensifies the heat, the light, the stakes. In my essay “On Being of Two Minds” in Rough Likeness, I work through being unable and unwilling to land on one “way”—spare or effusive—and having to live in that seam, that ecotonal space where both Dickinson and the winding perambulations of Whitman are equally meaningful. So I work with loving both, and don’t necessarily feel the drive to reconcile impulses or vocal registers or amplifications or sentence forms—as a reader and writer.

In terms of “irony”—the essay essentially works through the distancing that irony requires to sustain itself, critiques its protective features, the ways it creates hierarchies and keeps one from feeling directly and unabashedly—in fact, shames a person for feeling. I love work—poems and prose—that allows the blows the creator has sustained to make it to the page. No buffing, cooling, quieting, or intellectualizing.