I Didn’t Have a Plan: The Millions Interviews Nick Flynn

In 2000, Nick Flynn’s debut poetry collection, Some Ether—which examines family, childhood, and trauma—won the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award. He followed it up with collections like Blind Huber, The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands, and My Feelings, as well as the memoirs Another Bullshit Night in Suck City—which won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award—The Ticking Is the Bomb, and The Reenactments.

Flynn’s latest book is a memoir about his early childhood and mother, who committed suicide when he was 22.  This Is the Night Our House Will Catch Fire, in which Flynn reflects on his dysfunctional family and its effects on his life, was hailed by Publishers Weekly, which said, “Readers will devour this powerful memoir of letting go.”
We caught up with Flynn to talk about family and the difference between writing poetry and memoir.

The Millions: Another Bullshit Night in Suck City was an immediate success in 2004, and became a film. Was it always your plan to write a trilogy?
Nick Flynn: Immediate success? I’d say the surprising success of Suck City! It was never the plan to do a trilogy. My relationships with my parents were complicated. After the first book about my father’s homelessness, and then the second about my daughter, the third grew organically out of all the time I had spent writing about family and how interesting it was to see them projected onto the movie screen. At a certain point, it felt like the three memoirs were talking to each other. One might say that it’s all just writing one book.
TM: For this book, you took your daughter with you to visit the house that your mother tried to burn down when you were seven years old. What inspired you to take her along?
NF: Again, like writing the memoirs, I didn’t have a plan. It just worked out that while I was teaching in Boston, my wife was out of town, and I decided to take my daughter on my road trips. The interesting thing to me was that when we started our trips, she was seven years old, and she was interested in knowing what I was doing at age seven. Every summer for the next three years we would travel to Scituate. It was like showing her a map of my childhood, showing that these things had happened to me.
TM: Did you rely on journals from your life during these trips with your daughter?
NF: Actually, I had nothing written about those times. In a way, I did the work of getting the material for this memoir by working collaboratively with my daughter, by her wanting me to tell her stories but also the way those stories would bring back memories of other stories. It wasn’t until the third trip that we walked into the house that my mother had tried to burn down. It’s still standing, and it felt odd. But I was lucky the house was standing, to be able to go in with my daughter and see it again.
TM: Is your approach to writing poetry different than writing memoirs?
NF: All writing is different. My approach to memoir writing demands a different schedule than other writing. It may be more organized. I take notes, I write in condensed bursts. I do that with poetry also, but the process is more alchemic. It’s uncontainable. It’s fluid, I can drift in another realm. I can’t really do that in a memoir. The stuff in this book actually happened. It doesn’t always put me in the best light, but it’s not my job to put myself in the best light.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Craft Corner: The Millions Interviews Samanta Schweblin

Samanta Schweblin’s absolutely terrifying second novel, Distancia de Rescate, published in America as Fever Dream and nominated for the Booker Prize, was among many readers’ and critics’ favorites of 2017. Her third novel, Little Eyes, published in May of this year, is somewhat less frightening, though equally compelling, and has received much the same rapturous praise—as J. Robert Lennon writes in his glowing New York Times piece, “I cannot remember a book so efficient in establishing character and propelling narrative; there’s material for a hundred novels in these deft, rich 237 pages.”

Little Eyes centers around a pop-culture phenomenon, spawned in Japan, called the Kentuki, cute little animatronic animal creatures with cameras in their eyes. For a few hundred bucks, people buy Kentukis, or buy the right to inhabit a Kentuki. In this way, Keepers are paired with Dwellers, strangers who often live on opposite sides of the globe. With this deceptively simple, very creepy premise, Schweblin masterfully intertwines multiple characters’ lives in this slim, audacious novel that speaks with oblique force to our present moment.

Schweblin was gracious enough to answer a few questions about her writing process, via her long-time translator, Megan McDowell.  

The Millions: First, I love Little Eyes. I think it succeeds at something that is very hard to do, namely, to write about our current cultural moment in a way that feels plausible, but just imaginatively different enough to provide perspective on the way we live in 2020. Kentukis are such perfect metaphor for the Internet, and the voyeuristic abuse we willingly participate in every day. I’m sure you’ve been asked this a lot, but can you talk a little about where the idea for Kentukis came from?

Samanta Schweblin: I guess it was the combination of several things. It was a moment of my life when I lived—physically—in Berlin, but really I spent the whole day—virtually—in Buenos Aires and Barcelona. I could spend maybe five or six hours a day in video meetings, and sometimes I’d go an entire week when my only interaction with other people was virtual. In times of coronavirus that seems like a fairly common thing, but three years ago it still felt like a pretty strange lifestyle. The idea of the kentukis emerged from that context, as I thought about the emergence of drones in the cities, about the legal and moral limits of new technologies, and how those technologies seem to work—maybe treacherously—as the new universal language between cultures, languages, and idiosyncrasies.

TM: It always strikes me that the main struggle in writing a novel is figuring out the structure, the specific form that provides you the best angle of approach to the material. Little Eyes takes the form of many different interwoven stories of Kentuki dwellers and keepers. Did you work through other versions of the telling to get to this structure, or did it immediately occur to you as the right way to tell this particular story?

SS: The structure was there from the first draft onward, short chapters that occur in different cities around the world. I can’t imagine this story told any other way besides chorally, as a panoptic window onto dozens of small, mundane private worlds. What did gradually change and evolve along the way was which stories really needed to be told. The kentuki device functioned so easily when it came to telling new stories that it was very tempting to fall into the trap of telling all, of delving into each opportunity and ending up trapped in a kind of exercise of cataloguing possibilities. So at some point in the process there was a big selection and discarding of stories in favor of the large main arc that goes through the whole book, which is the introduction and spread of the kentuki through society, and where it drives its users.

TM: Is there one of the stories that you consider the “central” story of Little Eyes? The novel ends with Alina, so in a way the book presents her narrative as perhaps the most significant. But in the writing of the book, was there a story that felt like the central story that the other stories were constructed around?

SS: Yes, Alina’s story could be considered the main one. Of all the characters, Alina is the one who most thinks about and even challenges the logistical and moral ideas of what a kentuki is. She refuses to actively participate in the master-pet dynamic, and that refusal leads her to another kind of trap. Alina is also a kind of alter-ego of mine. I lived for three months at that residency in the Oaxacan mountains, far from any city and surrounded by the genius and egocentrism of many artists, with disillusionments and existential crises that were very similar. It was an exceptional experience, and much of that adventure became material for Alina’s chapters.

TM: This novel, like Fever Dream, is very unnerving, though perhaps to a slightly lesser extent. Both books, in my reading, involve the idea of inhabitation—in Fever Dream, David, who is seemingly beside Amanda, almost in her head; in Little Eyes, the Kentukis, which both inhabit the living space of their Keepers and are inhabited by their Dwellers. What is it, do you think, that’s so frightening about this idea of inhabitation?

SS: Maybe it’s a great curiosity about the “soul” or “essence” of things, of people and words. Things, people, and words can seem to always be the same, you can touch them, even words. They’re tangible and verifiable. But their essence is a great mystery. What would happen if one day your son looked at you a second longer than usual, and something in his eyes made you certain that it wasn’t him anymore? What would you do if you were confronted with the disturbing and unprovable idea that whoever had been inside your child all that time has suddenly been replaced with someone else? What we don’t see is also what we presume, it’s the mystery where our prejudices nest, our personal ideas about everything, people, and words.

TM: A related question: over the course of a novelist’s career, you begin to see, like it or not, the emergence of persistent themes. For example, in my own work, a theme of suicide appears over and over—I’m not especially happy about this, but I write a novel and there it is. Have you been conscious of this theme of inhabitation in your work, and do you have a sense of where it comes from? 

SS: Yes, it’s not easy for me to escape my subjects either. When I started to write Little Eyes, I felt like I was absolutely outside my comfort zone. I thought, with curiosity but also with fear, am I really going to write a novel about technology? Who cares about technology?—I’m not the slightest bit interested—but then, what is this book about? After the first edition was published in Spanish and I had a little more distance from the book, I saw clearly that I hadn’t escaped anything, there were my same subjects as always: lack of communication, prejudice, the violence of the unsaid, desire, voyeurism, solitude, “inhabitation,” as you well call it…Maybe it’s not so much the problem of the subjects we talk about, but rather our own fears, our pain, and the questions by which we move through those subjects. And these are not burdens that change from book to book, they are big life questions, and maybe answering them takes us more time–or more books—than we would like.

TM: Little Eyes is a dark novel, but compared to Fever Dream, the tone feels a bit lighter, even somewhat comic in places, for instance the Barcelona chapter in the old persons’ home, and the chapter with the two little girls. Both of these chapters are simultaneously terrifying, and yet very funny (to me), almost a kind of slapstick comedy. There’s a real intermittent joyfulness to the book, as well, for instance in Marvin’s quest for snow, and in the short chapter at the concert. I wonder if this tonal difference was intentional after the absolute darkness of Fever Dream, or merely a product of the material.

SS: There’s something in the material that allows for a more lightweight game, but it was also a necessity. All my books have been a little dark up to now, and I felt like I needed a little fresh air, I needed to change the tone, the rhythm, even the narrator. Also, thinking about references as I was writing Little Eyes, I felt oddly connected to Ray Bradbury, who was perhaps the first writer I read with devotion in my first adult readings. Bradbury is dark and mysterious, but also, without a doubt, he’s an optimist. There is always light and air in his stories, there’s always a moment that today we would read as almost bordering on naïveté, when Bradbury says, “I believe in humanity, this will work out.” I thought a lot about that, I reread him carefully, and I realized to what extent that kind of optimism is perhaps one of the most daring—and difficult—movements to make in horror and mystery. In fact, I don’t think Little Eyes achieves that optimism in the slightest. But maybe there’s at least the feeling of a little air, a gesture, a nod toward that brighter zone.

TM: In Little Eyes, Kentukis are described so persuasively as a cultural phenomenon, that I think a reader can’t help but imagine them in the real world, and imagine if they’d prefer to be a Dweller or Keeper. Dweller seems the obvious choice to me, if I had to choose one—I wonder which you would pick?

SS: I had the same feeling when I started to write this book. Maybe because being a Dweller allows you to look at the other, to spy on them and discover who they really are when they think no one is looking. There’s a lot of voyeurism in the Dweller, and I guess all writers have something of the voyeur about us. We want to look at others in order to understand ourselves. But the truth is that over the course of the novel I discovered that being a Keeper, “possessing” the other, was a very interesting condition to investigate through literature. What is really awakened in a person by that desire to possess, by that morbid curiosity, even a veiled form of violence? What is it about certain contemporary devices that drives us toward places we never thought we’d go, but where we suddenly recognize ourselves, caught in the trap?

TM: I like to end these interviews with a stupid question. Do you mostly write on a computer, typewriter, or by hand? If, like most people, you usually use a computer to write, have you ever attempted writing longhand and what was the result?

SS: Practically speaking, and thinking about my routines, I’d say that 90 percent of my writing is on the computer. But there are also times when I get stuck, and I’ll take my notebook and go out for a walk. And that other, more sporadic kind of writing, if it comes to me, arrives as a great surge of information, and I can write pages and pages standing in the middle of the street feeling no shame or physical discomfort. Writing by hand is always, for me, tied to what happens to the body—it’s more visceral and less thought out. I would even say that all my books begin and end with writing by hand. They are notes that come to me very clearly, and that contain the embryos of everything that will be built later (voice, tone, narrator, atmosphere, etc). So, writing on the computer is what takes up the most time, but that doesn’t mean it’s the most important.

Creating Wider, Deeper, Better Realities: The Millions Interviews Patrick Madden

Patrick Madden begins the acknowledgements to Disparates, his new book of essays, with a quote from the Spanish mystic St. Teresa de Ávila: “The true proficiency of the soul consists not so much in deep thinking or eloquent speaking or beautiful writing as in much and warm loving.” It’s a pleasant thought on its own, but it is especially welcome—and gently radical—as the preface to a book of thinking and writing.

The quote is also apt because Madden’s essays are self-aware, self-critical, inquisitive, encyclopedic, and ultimately what the essayist Brian Doyle called “songs of the small that is not small at all.” The essay as a work of thought, yes, but also as a certain balm for weary times.

Madden’s previous books of essays include Sublime Physick and Quotidiana. He co-edited After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays, and co-translated Eduardo Milán’s Selected Poems. His essays have appeared in Iowa Review, Portland Magazine, and TriQuarterly, and in the Best Creative Nonfiction and Best American Spiritual Writing anthologies. He co-edits the journal Fourth Genre and teaches creative nonfiction at Brigham Young University.

We spoke about his affinity for the essay form, his background in physics, and how Eduardo Galeano says our experiences are “transfigured in the process of creation.”

The Millions: In the introductory essay to Disparates, you write that essays have “always been concerned with disparates: (seeming) trivialities, absurdities, inanities, flippancies.” You affirm that this book is an “attempt to reassert the value of the disparate, which controverts reason, which shakes our certainties, which lightens our burdens, which alleviates our sorrows and brings us to laughter (of insight or humor).” In a nod to the realities of the publishing world, you acknowledge that disparate essay collections have a stubborn staying power. When I think of genres that, unfortunately, need to continually reaffirm their relevance, I do think of the novella, the short story collection, and the essay collection. Why, in particular, do you think these genres are met with skepticism—and by whom?  

Patrick Madden: This feels a bit like a chicken-egg problem in how marketers want to gauge what sells and focus on that, but what sells is always a function of what is available (and most visible), which is, of course, a function of what the marketers expend their efforts (and money) on. So much in life pretends to reflect people’s “unbiased” and organic preferences, their likes and desires, without recognizing (whether because of ignorance or conniving) that our desires are always a reflection of and response to our culture, which is always relative and can be manipulated (the Payola radio scandal is one instance; the obscene money still spent on advertising is ongoing evidence). I’m reminded of Virginia Woolf’s example of Shakespeare’s hypothetical sister, who was never given a chance to learn or write or express her creative self because her culture believed that women were inferior to men and therefore could not succeed at “men’s work,” and thus created or perpetuated the conditions to ensure her (and other women’s) failure. I believe that a similar (certainly less damaging and far-ranging) cycle of expectation/acceptance/confirmation perpetuates the scarcity of these literary forms. As far as the essay goes, though, I’ve been quite encouraged by trends over the past two decades, at least generally. When I was in graduate school, nobody I met believed that publishers would publish an essay collection (especially by an unknown writer like myself), and many such books had to hide their essayness. But nowadays, you see the word “Essays” on all sorts of books, even on front covers, from David Sedaris to hip coastal writers to lots of folks you’ve never heard of before. I think this is great. “Essay” is no longer a kiss of death for a book. The term speaks to a growing contingent of savvy, with-it readers, who’re drawn to the genre, instead of repelled by it. I’m really grateful to be among the beneficiaries of this resurgence in essay-interest.

TM: “Life doesn’t always happen in the best order or with the best details for a story. Fiction writers can simply rearrange and embellish to craft the story they want. For a truth-teller essayist, this is not an option, unless the essayist indicates clearly the manipulations and perhaps offers them to the contemplative reader as fodder for a rumination on the nature of truth or reality or the essay genre.” This is a prefatory note at the start of your essay “Order,” and prompts me to ask two questions: How did you, a physics major at Notre Dame, first become an essayist? And as an essayist, what interests you more: truth (however subjective), or the artifice of literary truth? 

PM: I have to laugh, considering my “essayist origin story.” You’re right that I studied physics, all the way to my B.S. I loved the way physics could explain the workings of the natural world with precision. Within the scientific paradigm, things felt knowable and, by extension, controllable. Unfortunately, real physicists no longer work testing Newton’s mechanical laws, which are already well established. So they tend to specialize in very narrow areas, and some of them spend entire careers colliding subatomic particles deep beneath the earth and then analyzing computer readouts of what other subatomic particles flashed into existence for a nanosecond before disappearing. This did not seem appealing to me. I wanted very much to open outward, instead of collapse inward, and to pursue as an amateur all kinds of interesting ideas. I had the good fortune of leaving on a two-year Latter-day Saint mission to Uruguay soon after graduation, during which time I effectively stripped away most of the buzzing distractions in my life (and this was the mid-90s, long before our hyperdistracted present), so I had plenty of time to ponder anything and everything (it seemed). I came to the conclusion that what I loved more than anything, and what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, was to think. Period. Just to think, without any particular object or discipline (I meant this as in “branch of knowledge,” but I like it, too, as “controlled behavior”). When I returned from Uruguay, I cast about a bit, doing temp jobs, long-distance courting Karina (who would agree to marry me soon enough; hooray!), and my mother bought me The Best American Essays 1996, where I found Ian Frazier’s “Take the F,” and I thought “That’s what I want to do: write essays.” I got very lucky to study at BYU for a master’s degree, and then Ohio University for a PhD, and then got hired back at BYU, where I’ve been teaching and writing for 16 years now.

Maybe I should end my story here, but I think it matters, and gets me to your second question, to say that while my worldview prior to taking up the essay was rather binary (and my novice understanding of physics supported this view: that if you but knew the formula, you could predict the results with absolute accuracy), my studies in the essay completely upended all of my unearned certainties. From Montaigne on, essayists have sought and often successfully revealed an expansive, probing, meandering humility in the face of the vast unknowability of the universe. The essay paradigm is filled with both doubt and wonder, seeking not a dominion over but harmony with the world, a recognition of each individual’s insignificance and the mind’s inability to do more than make limited and subjective tests of truth. I’m not sure if this is pointing to (subjective) “truth” or “the artifice of literary truth,” but maybe here those concepts overlap. I’m certainly interested in the ways literature aims at truth, recognizing no unequivocal or oppressively universal truths but instead suggesting that truth is always contextual, limited, a function of interpretation. It is worth noting, too, that even physics, in more recent times, has recognized some fundamental uncertainties (the best known of which, according to Werner Heisenberg, almost a century ago, states that a particle’s location and velocity cannot be known simultaneously, not even with “perfect” instruments for measurement), so I’ve learned that “real physics” does not even conform to my abandoned worldview.

TM: We are both from Whippany, N.J: we went to the same high school, our families went to the same church. How would you describe that place to those who have never been there? How has it found its way into your writing?

PM: Right! I mention this fact (of our shared hometown) in the essay on “Happiness” in the book. I really love Whippany and am happy to have grown up there. My father still lives in the home I grew up in on Clemens Terrace (my mother passed away four years ago; my siblings, like me, have moved to other states). But I find it really difficult to describe the place. Superficially, it’s a Revolutionary War-era town along a river, with streets cradled by trees and lots of tract houses surrounding the few remaining 18th-century mansions. Lots of winding streets and hills and trees and no real “downtown” to speak of. Intersected by a few highways, but home to abundant wildlife (deer, of course, squirrels, turkeys, bears sometimes). During the mid-20th century it was a working-class town with a few industries that expanded the population. By the time my family arrived in 1979 (I was eight), it was a pleasant suburban town, home to lots of commuters. In some ways, Whippany seems indistinguishable from surrounding towns (once I was driving somewhere with my visiting college roommate, who grew up on a chicken farm in Ohio, and he asked “Where does your town end?” and I had to laugh and tell him “We’re four towns away from my town!”). I grew up with a backyard that led to a large tract of woods near the Whippany River, where my friends and I would build forts and bike trails and explore abandoned cars and catch tadpoles and sled down hills and shuffle across a dam to the abandoned Whippany Paper Board factory and climb on rotted-out roofs and explore underground passages and get chased by police and…There’s really so much I can say about Whippany, the place that nurtured me, imbued me with a spirit of adventure and affirmed my best qualities, really formed me in so many ways. But I haven’t written much directly about Whippany. Certainly it finds its way into my writing as a setting for my childhood experiences, but I rarely name it, and, as I say, I haven’t set out to explore it in writing as systematically as I might. Still, I think I’m so deeply shaped by Whippany that its spirit infiltrates my way of being: curious, adventurous, quirky, subversive, a bit pranky, pseudo-intellectual. All that. Oh! And since everybody who grew up in Whippany in the 1980s is a Rush fan, so am I. Big time. And Rush pervades my writing.

TM: There’s a funny scene in “Memory” of you and your childhood friend John eating slices of smoked sausage samples at FoodTown, a local supermarket. At some point, the woman distributing the samples says “You boys are eating up all of my profits.” In the essay, you reflect on how it “seems strange to me that I should remember such an inanity, even more so because I didn’t really understand what she meant. But the phrase stuck, stayed intact, verbatim, somewhere in my mind amidst the millions of other things people have said to me, sometimes people who mean a great deal to me, whom I love, yet whose sayings have gone utterly lost from my brain.” Is this, in some measure, why you write essays? Is this a sense that you get from other essayists—this reckoning with the oddities and confounding grace of existence?

PM: I’m glad you put that into words with your questions, Nick. Yes, I write essays to reckon with oddities and confounding grace, which it seems to me are ever present, if only we’re attentive to them. Or, to think of it another way: the externalities of life come at us not quite arbitrarily, but unpredictably, and they land and generate effects both short- and long-term (which suggests a dichotomy of time, which is not accurate), and we cannot know, nor can we control, how they’ll resonate or return to us, but we may have some control over what (or how) they mean. I think we’re surrounded by ready-made categories of meaning, which can be a good thing, such as when someone tells you that one of their family members has died, you know the default response is to express sympathy, even if you don’t know their family member well or at all. Certain communal or universal experiences, too, come attached to a common and easily available set of meanings, such that right now, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, we all seem to understand the general anxieties and hardships and experiences of our fellows, and we are equipped to interact with each other from some baseline assumptions about how others are feeling (granted, some of us, unaccountably, choose to respond with callousness and disdain). But essayists have long seemed to recognize that experience does not come attached to meaning, or not to preset meanings at least, and if we can be even a little bit conscious in our engagements with life (usually after the fact, in moments of reflection, often when writing and reading), then we can shape and share our responses in beneficial ways, ways that recognize grace and oddity and see their connections, to each other and to everything. This is one of the many wonders of essays, I think: how they nudge our perceptions and create for us new (wider, deeper, perhaps even “better”) realities.

TM: In “Solstice,” you include some lines from your first conversation with Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, in which he says that our writing itself—in addition to the real thing we writing about—is also real: “The original act, which comes directly or indirectly from reality, is transfigured in the process of creation.” I’m especially drawn to transfigured here. First, a practical question: what is your “process of creation” for essays like the ones in this new collection? Then, considering the connotations of transfigured, do essays have any semblance of spiritual work or action for you?

PM: I’ve just revisited my transcription of that interview, which was conducted in Spanish, to check on Galeano’s original wording, and sure enough, he said, “Ese hecho que viene directa- o indirectamente de la realidad se transfigura en el proceso de creación.” He reiterates in the next sentence, that “Es inevitable que se transfigure,” or “It’s inevitable that it’s transfigured.” So let’s talk confidently about transfiguration, which Galeano, who was raised Catholic in a country steeped in traditional Catholicism, would surely have understood in its mystical, spiritual senses. Regarding process of creation, I suspect that I’m much the same as you and every other writer of nonfiction: I try to remain attentive to what’s going on, not so much to happenings (though they are important) as to ideas that flit through my consciousness as I’m going about my day. I often take brief notes to jog my memory later, or to spark connections to other ideas. The notes accumulate and call up related ideas, though most of the things I note never grow into essays; they remain jotted in notebooks or in a file on my phone. When I can find a free moment (like now, it occurs to me, sitting in the early morning before anybody’s up, with the faint hum of tires on the nearby roads and the fragrant floral smell of blossoming trees, a slowly brightening, sharpening light as an unseen cloud wafts out of the path of the sun’s rays behind me), I write in binges and for long stretches, attuned to the music of language more than any unfolding narrative, and I seek discovery or surprise with the associations my mind makes when it’s allowed to work free from the usual demands and distractions of harried life. In this sense, absolutely, essays feel deeply spiritual, at times more spiritual than any rite or ritual I’ve participated in. In both reading and writing essays, I find that I am opened, enlarged, elevated from the norms of my life. Essays provide a respite from the systems wherein value is determined monetarily and people are viewed (even view themselves) as cogs in an economic machine. If one accepted binary to understand our lives is material/spiritual, and if “materialism” branches to mean both a philosophy that reduces everything to matter and a system that values only possessions, and if materialism tends to engender a toxic individuality, then essays often successfully break out of those systems and point to something more ephemeral, less tangible, more essential and connected and deeply valuable about us. They gently brush the edge of the cloak of what I believe to be our innermost and truest selves. When I am in an essay, caught up in attentiveness, in interconnectedness, in realizing (both “becoming aware” and “making real”) something never before seen or heard or understood, I feel that not only the essay’s “material” but I myself am transfigured. And I believe this transfiguration is available to others, too, when they read. This feels utterly spiritual to me.

To Be Free of Time: The Millions Interviews Samantha Harvey

Sleep is forever mysterious and mundane, necessary and difficult: endless fodder for writers and artists. In The Shapeless Unease, Samantha Harvey’s mesmerizing new book, she captures what W.B. Yeats calls “the moment of contemplation, the moment when we are both asleep and awake”—in its most melancholy and purgatorial senses.

Harvey moves swiftly and skillfully between narrative modes in the book, between past and present, ghost and real, doctor’s office and bedroom at night. She’s a philosophical writer; although this memoir is focused on her “year of not sleeping,” her experiences reverberate through her entire existence: “My life, all life, opens out in accelerated footage of growth. It doesn’t feel like it could ever stop, and that’s the trick of life—it seems so abundant, and even while we’re watching it die all around us it’s whispering in our ears sweet-nothings of plenitude.”



Her most recent novel is The Western Wind; her other novels include Dear Thief, All Is Song, and The Wilderness, which won the Betty Trask Prize. A senior lecturer at Bath Spa University, her fiction has appeared in Granta and on BBC Radio 4. She lives in Bath, England.

We spoke about the struggle of insomnia, the salvific power of writing, and the wildness of night.

The Millions: Early in the book you reference the medieval Ars moriendi, The Art of Dying: “the deathbed of a man is crowded with them, saints and demons, each vying for his soul.” The mysterious, supernatural world of night feels apt for religious reference—I think of the metaphorical lines from St. John of the Cross: “One dark night, / filled with love’s urgent longing / —ah, the sheer grace!— / I went out unseen, / my house being now all stilled.” What compels you toward those religious and spiritual themes in the early pages of the book, while in bed, “with the light out, here they come, all of them, the holy and the horrifying; here they are”?

Samantha Harvey: Thanks so much, firstly, for your wonderful and challenging questions. It’s interesting that you quote St. John of the Cross, and that lovely first verse, because, as you’ll know, it’s from this poem that we get the phrase dark night of the soul (though it never actually appears in the poem). And that’s a phrase that has often come to me, for obvious reasons.

In the worst months of insomnia, it began to feel that I entered a battle each night between light and dark, trust and fear, calm and panic. The “light,” trusting, faithful part of my human nature would assert, “It’s okay, I will sleep again, if not tonight then soon, there’s nothing to fear,” while the “dark,” terrified part would say, “It’s not alright, you won’t sleep, you’ll go mad, you’ll die of this.”  It would take an enormous effort of will for the “light” part to overcome the “dark”—and it often didn’t succeed. The battle felt biblical in its proportions; I could find no other language that would do it justice.

I guess that religious or spiritual language and symbolism come from an attempt to articulate and map these sorts of internal human experiences. That’s why religion is often a comfort to people in times of trouble, even people without a religious fiber in their bodies—because at its best it’s speaking the language of human experience, it’s mapping the lows, the highs, the conflicts and contradictions, the countless ineffable things of being alive; as poetry often does too. I think that, like poetry, the best religious language is precise and diffuse at the same time, luminous yet elusive, pointing at meaning while also scattering meaning. It’s precisely what I love about writing, why poetry and religion have always been central to what I write and why—predictably—they’re there at the beginning of this book.

TM: Some sections of the book are written in frenetic third-person: “at night, she felt increasingly feral, like a wild animal enduring a cage” and “She reports that she did not understand where the wildness came from at night.” Later in the book, in a wonderful description of falling asleep, you also write: “There’s nothing for you to assign your faith to but this one inevitable act of animal grace that is yours for the taking.” The scenes wonderfully capture what Ingmar Bergman depicted of vargtimmen—the hour of the wolf, a dark time of deaths and births, of frenzied creation. I have to wonder: in the midst of your struggles at night, do you ever feel driven to create? Do you ever write at night?

SH: I love the expression vargtimmen; I hadn’t heard it. There’s also the French expression for dusk, entre chien et loup, between dog and wolf, i.e. when the light is such that you can’t tell the difference between a dog and a wolf, which has metaphorical meanings too—the blurry line between the safe and the wild. I now know that wildness intimately well.

But, it wasn’t this wolfish, feral state that I wrote from. It was the fall-out from it the next day, the wired, exhausted, 50-hours-without-sleep rabid bouts of clarity that surface in the midst of extreme deprivation. That’s when I wrote. I never wrote on the days when I felt relatively well-slept. On those days all I wanted was to be outside, to put aside all thoughts of sleep and not sleep. And hardly any of The Shapeless Unease was written at night.

My insomniac self has tried to write in the night, or draw, or something. Nothing would come. Back when I used to be a good sleeper, I’d occasionally stay up at night and work and I found it a rich, receptive time. With insomnia, not so. When the insomnia was at its worst —while I was writing  The Shapeless Unease—I was often very distressed at night, ranging about, over-adrenalized, in terrified fight or flight. Or, I would lie silent and inert in bed, pretending I was asleep, barely breathing.

Whereas the next day I’d be physically shattered, too shattered to range and rave and rail, but my thoughts were electric and urgent. They had about them a raw lucidity. All I had to do was sit quietly and transcribe them. Without sleep there’s no shock absorbency for the body or mind; nothing is felt mildly or gently. So, writing was both a sort of lightning rod that earthed my electric mind, and also a harness for those raw, clear, fleeting insights—if “insight” is the right word. I’m not sure that all of my seemingly revelatory exhausted thoughts actually made sense…

TM: Time returns often in this book: “Sometimes time, for me, is a medium with a sort of viscosity, like water, or like oil, or like mud, depending on how it impacts on me.” And later, the wonderful line: “Time, not life, is what we live.” How has insomnia impacted your perception of time as a concept, and as a lived experience?

SH: I’m not at all sure how to answer this question. I want to be able to say profound and enlightened things about the nature of night and day and so on. Really, having insomnia quite severely for quite a long time has made me feel imprisoned by time. Time has often felt like the enemy.

I’ve sat in the living room alone at 3 a.m. with the world a dead, dark thing all around me, and the passing of a single second has felt like an hour. Each minute would pass over me very slowly with the weight of a freight train. I wanted nothing more than to be free of time. Because, isn’t that partly what sleep and dreams are—freedom from the push and pull of time? It’s hard when you don’t get much of either; your life collapses inward.

I used to always say to myself at 3 a.m., This will pass, this will pass. But I don’t anymore; the sense of passing just evokes that freight train which will pass, yes, and then come back. Now when I can’t sleep, I tend to say to myself, This is, this is. There’s no desire in that statement and no hope and no fear and no argument and no panic. There’s also no time in it, where time is the engine for all these other things. Desire—I want it to be other than this. Fear—it will always be like this. Hope—maybe it won’t always be like this. Argument—it never used to be like this. Panic—make it stop being like this.

When I sat down to write my experience of sleeplessness I think that’s what I was writing: this is, this is. No fight or fear in that moment, and no waiting for the moment to lapse into the next. Interesting that a whole book could be written from that huge, tiny place. That gives me some happiness now actually, to think of it that way.

TM: You say that an Episcopelian priest from the United States wrote a sermon inspired by your novel, The Western Wind, and an essay that you’d written about anxiety. “He picks up on the sense of anxiety I describe,” you write, “that of something groundless and objectless, something that has to find objects to attach to in order to maintain itself, but which originates without those objects. The mind inflates with a shapeless unease, he says. I find myself going over that phrase again, the loveliness of it, the aptness, the fact that shapeless is a word that occurs to me often lately.” I love that phrase that has become your title—the shapeless unease; could you talk about how that title came to be connected with this book? Did it inspire/influence the writing of the book as a whole, or particular sections?

SH: You’re right that titles do influence the writing of a book, and I like this question because I haven’t properly considered it before.

Yes—the title (that is, the email from the Episcopalian priest to whom I now feel I owe so much) came late in the process and helped me to understand a lot of what I’d already written. For a long time I was just writing vignettes and observations without any sense of their unity. I had no idea I was creating a book. When I read that phrase, the shapeless unease, I could see that all fragments I’d put down were describing that shapelessness—that the shapelessness was, if you like, the very theme.

But then, ironically enough, finding the title of the book helped me find its shape. Within those fragments there were certain shared refrains. I could begin to see how all the pieces I’d written were speaking to one another, becoming a song—how a short story I’d written, for example, spoke to some other sections about my own childhood, which spoke to the fears I’d described when I attempted to sleep, which spoke to what I’d written about my cousin’s death, etc.

It wasn’t that I then had to spell out these connections, or write in neat narrative links; it was just a question of allowing the refrains to come through. At most, all it meant was that I shuffled the order of a few of the sections so that they could relate to one another more plainly, or less plainly. 

In the end, the book, I think, took on a sort of organization of its own, and this was part of what made it so consoling to write—that instinctively I’d created shape out of a raw experience that was panicky and formless. And that the very unease that I was writing about was finding itself eased by the writing. I can’t overemphasize the sense I have of writing having saved me somehow. It is to me such a miraculous thing.

TM: Your insomnia first arrived with the results of the European Referendum. A fractured time, of course, but now we are in the midst of a pandemic, so I have to ask: how are you sleeping now?

SH: Thanks for asking—I’m still a poor sleeper by any measure, but a much better sleeper than I was a year or so ago, and no better or worse a sleeper for the pandemic. In general, now, I find my insomnia is kept going by its own internal engine, rather than by anything that’s happening in the world. It’s become a habit of body and mind rather than something fuelled by circumstance.

It might sound strange to say but I’m not generally a person who gets worried about national or global events—at least not to the point of them affecting my sleep. Brexit got me because it felt so sad and pointless, a right-wing power-grab dressed up as some great national emancipation. And it changed the character and identity of the country I’ve always loved and called home; it felt far more personal than most other political events in my lifetime and it felt like a loss of several things I valued.

A pandemic is different. In itself it’s not an ideologically-driven thing, it’s a huge, shared human problem and there’s something in that—in the rare compulsion for us to act together as a species rather than define ourselves by our divisions and differences. I find something hopeful there—though am neither putting a gloss on the virus nor the political goings-on behind it. I have moments of really feeling the tragedy of this pandemic—my partner’s friend lost his wife to it, another friend has lost her mother. But there’s also the possibility we can use this as a reminder of how senseless it is to make enemies of one another when we have other far bigger and more pressing things to worry about. That’s more a hope than an expectation, but if I think about the pandemic at night at all, it’s that hope that’s in my mind.

A Surreal and Outrageous World: Jessica Anthony in Conversation with Joshua Ferris

Jessica Anthony’s surreal and outrageous Enter the Aardvark published on March 24 into a surreal and outrageous world. In the months leading up to publication, the novel saw an outpouring of love from indie booksellers, and Anthony had a tour planned with events in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Houston, and Denver, among other cities. She was particularly looking forward to a night at Brooklyn’s Greenlight Bookstore, where she would have been joined in conversation by Joshua Ferris, a novelist she has long admired. It was an ideal pairing: Both Ferris and Anthony take aim at the absurdities of modern life in their work, walking the line between satire and soul and managing to be wickedly funny and greathearted at once. Luckily for readers, not even a pandemic could stop their conversation.

Ferris has said that Enter the Aardvark “estranges all over again our deplorable political moment, and thereby helps make it bearable.” Now, as the state of the world gets more deplorable every day, Anthony and Ferris aim to make it a little more bearable with this discussion of the exit of reason, Venetian dolphins, horses who eat cars, and how to resist the temptation to opt out of the world.     

Joshua Ferris: Hello, Jessica. I’ve been so excited for such a long time now to speak to you in person and get to know the mind behind your new novel, Enter the Aardvark. Alas, the coronavirus came along and dashed our plans.

Jessica Anthony: The virus is a mega-dasher, unlike any we have seen before. It was a strange and peculiar thing to watch the book tour fall away after spending years writing and editing the novel. It sort of felt like being 10 feet from the finish line of a five-year-long marathon and then getting tackled by a linebacker who appears out of nowhere. (First football analogy I have ever used.) I’m sure we are all swapping virus stories, but mine began March 3. I was planning on going to AWP when the mayor of San Antonio declared the city was in a state of emergency, and I was torn about attending. Back then—you know, three weeks ago—there was still quite a bit of uncertainty about the degree to which the virus would be a problem in the States. (This was just two days before Trump was saying he would prefer the souls on the Grand Princess cruise simply stay put to prevent “rising numbers” that would fuck with the stock market, and then lying about the availability of testing.) So I made the call not to go. Ten days later, the college where I teach was closed, and my book tour evaporated.

Josh, I was so looking forward to meeting you in person, as I’ve devoured your novels for years. Missing out on our conversation at Greenlight Bookstore was honestly one of the biggest disappointments for me. But at this point, where we are now, with everyone talking online (two days after Trump offered up the true character of whatever we might call the “Trump Doctrine:” “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.”)—well, I’m just feeling grateful waking up every day that the people closest to me have so far eluded this awful thing, looking for ways to help, glad that the Internet seems to be finally showing its fullest use and purpose. A virtual book tour didn’t exist last month, and now everyone’s doing them. My first event, we had 100 people join from all over the country…it was actually a pretty extraordinary, novel experience.

JF: Your novel involves a stuffed aardvark, a closeted Victorian-era naturalist and his taxidermist lover, the ghost of that naturalist, his widow, and, in a completely different timeline, the deeply closeted Republican Congressman and Reagan acolyte Alexander Paine Wilson who, once gifted the stuffed aardvark, sees everything around him crumble.

But before we get to all that, I hope I can convince you to do me a favor. One of my favorite things about your book is your expert capacity to reduce enormous amounts of cosmic time into a succinct paragraph or two that appears to explain the aardvark, or the eyeball, or really whatever your imagination alights upon. Can I get you to summarize the current state of the world vis-a-vis the coronavirus with a brief Anthonian paragraph that includes the phrase “Enter the virus”?

JA: Enter the virus, exit any plans you had for, oh, like, the next six months. Exit intimacy. Exit the toilet paper and watch your lazy, spray-tanned president assure the People that everything is going to be okay, that “anyone who wants a test can get a test,” while, like, Fox News cries out hoax, while senators Burr, Loeffler, et al secretly sell their stock, buy into telecommunications, and Tom Hanks gets it, Rand Paul votes against fighting it and then gets it, and as countries shut down, one-by-one, read an article in the Times warning us that like, more of us will die if we don’t worry about our dollars, watch Steve Martin play the banjo, and when the Fed coughs up an answer: the “money-printing presses are fired up and ready to go!” exit reason, you think, and remember that reason is like, totally gone. The very notion of Reason, it exited a long time ago…

JF: Excellent. You really do have this remarkable ability in the book to synthesize enormous amounts of factual information while keeping everything brisk and entertaining. Where does that impulse come from? Have you seen something similar in other writers?

JA: I could ask you a similar question! Voice. I started out writing poems. I was trained to write syllabically. I hear a sound in contemporary tech-speak as I do in contemporary political speech and in, like, Millennial speech. I suppose I want to read a voice that speaks language the way that I hear language, which means sometimes hearing “multitudinous seas incarnadine” and sometimes “I put my thing down/Flip it/And reverse it.” I want language in a novel to be egalitarian. Mostly though, the pace and sound happened naturally when I realized that I would be writing a novel that would happen over the course of two days. In less than two days, a gigantic taxidermied aardvark would somehow completely ruin a politician’s career. The voice had to be fast, and reflect in some way the speed of Alex’s indictment, which is hastened by his own vanity, blindness—but also by our very modern thirst for “cancelling” human beings out of our public spaces. So what has stunned me, too, about this virus, is how it’s forced us all to stop. There’s barely any traffic. The skies are clearing. People are being charitable to one another, at least so far. As my friend Deb Olin Unferth pointed out: dolphins are swimming again in the canals of Venice. The pace of Enter the Aardvark speaks to the moment just before this, when we were all just always moving, and now that we’ve stopped, it’s really a shock to the system. In some ways, then, the pace is a kind of warning. We are all rushing, not looking, and living in a time when our systems and leaders cannot be trusted to safely guide us. Everything is risky. Which is all to say that I want fiction to pay attention the way that I have to pay attention. To do otherwise feels like a lie.

JF: The aardvark, after a valiant battle, loses her life to an African hunter, is shipped to England, stuffed, displayed and sold, travels to Germany and then to America where it prompts a political scandal, and from there is finally restored to its—but no spoilers here. Tell us a little more about this aardvark—aardvark-as-invention, aardvark-as-plot-device.

JA: The aardvarks, with their long ears, tubular snouts, thick tails, are creatures that sort of look like they defy reason. They appear marvelous, in the surrealist sense, and are one of the oldest, most “evolutionarily distinctive” mammals on earth. I began imagining a kind of tension between these two irrational-seeming characters who both occur in nature, and have not evolved: the ancient aardvark and the modern-day politician. To “enter the aardvark” (a phrase which is recontextualized several times in the novel) meant that literally, yes, a gigantic taxidermied aardvark would enter a millennial congressman’s life, setting into motion a series of chaotic events that would hasten a spectacularly fast downfall—but it also meant entering into a hyperbolized 21st-century state of mind; one which has evolved in response to a distinct set of circumstances which ask us to ignore or repress our innermost desires in preference for a constant state of image-making. I am reminded of a Grace Paley quote from her speech in 1982 about the global movement for women’s equality: “We are in the hands of men whose power and wealth have separated them from the reality of daily life and from the imagination. We are right to be afraid.” The aardvark—irrational, everlasting—emerged as the symbol of the perfect political hypocrite in a time of rampant hypocrisy. There is the donkey, the elephant. And then there are aardvarks.

The aardvark in the novel exists very much on her own terms as a living being, then as an object of Titus Downing—the taxidermist’s—affection, then as a perverse prize, then as a totem of hope. One of the founders of Surrealism, poet and novelist Andre Breton, believed in the “convulsive” beauty of objects, which can only occur by “affirming the reciprocal relations” between an object in motion and the object at the moment of the “expiration” of that motion. The aardvark both moves and is expired in the novel, at which point it moves again, but differently; just as the phrase “enter the aardvark” is recontextualized in the telling, so is the way in which the stuffed aardvark—now an expired object—situates itself, disturbing Alex.

Why? Because the aardvark, once stuffed, is a work of imagination. For a guy like Alex, who rides on vanity and privilege, and who never had much use for his imagination, the bizarre aardvark is, among many other things, a terrifying reminder to him of everything that he is not.

JF: Wilson is a familiar figure from our current crop of congressional Republican scum-a-dumbs. Yet he is not totally devoid of a moment or two in which he nearly ekes out from the feeling reader a half-drop of pity. Was that inevitable, or did you have to work hard to arrive there?

JA: The question of who is more vulnerable, who is more deserving of our empathic focus, Alex or those he oppresses, gets right at the heart of Enter the Aardvark. I was interested in writing a character I haven’t seen—a politician at the mercy of his own politics. What makes room for us to feel something, maybe, for Alex Wilson is the fact that he simply doesn’t believe in, or even remotely care about, what he votes for. And he doesn’t think about why it matters that he does or doesn’t believe it. For example, early in the novel, being anti-abortion is named as a key part of his “platform,” but Alex has never once imagined an abortion, and doesn’t actually care about it in the exact way that he does not believe in God, but will say he does “to appease evangelicals.” So here was a man, I realized, who unthinkingly embraces policies that hurt so many people simply because even having to think about voting otherwise would be…politically inconvenient. (Of course, these “inconveniences” are hurting him, but to see himself honestly would be antithetical to his political goals.)

Ironically, his lack of belief in it all, his nihilism, if you can call it that, made him more human to me than if he actively hated other people to the extremes we see from the GOP nowadays. His racism, sexism, intolerance…it feels rote. Extremely immature. His attitude of disregarding or disparaging others who aren’t immediately useful to him as a politician? That way of living in the world—opting out—is a danger for all of us, and is frankly something I’ve seen widely in the United States, not just in Alex, which is maybe where the half-drop of pity appears. And of course we also know, even if Alex doesn’t, that he identifies with a political party that does not support his sexual preference. It’s one of the many subterranean cruelties running through the novel that had to force itself to the front of his consciousness—or closer to the front of his consciousness—by the end.

JF: Enter the Aardvark is slyly didactic, especially toward the end, when dumb-ass Wilson repeats Reagan’s dumb-ass disparagement of government assistance (“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”), eliciting strong accusations of hypocrisy from the women in the room. Yet this book is entirely too delightful to be dictated by white-hot rage alone. What was the operating mix?

JA: The women existed in the margins at first, but they eventually revealed themselves to be the novel’s moral agents and directors. I love the women in the novel (or, I should say, most of them). The women are largely in defiance of Alex’s scorn and derision, and they are the only people who stand to reveal to Alex the severity of his hypocrisy. They also act as his lone opportunity for redemption. Of course, he can’t realize that he is the same kind of American citizen as these women; that he is himself oppressed by the same votes he casts which oppress them. To Alex, there are simply ambitious white men like him—and then there are “women and minorities.” So by the end of the novel, fate has ruled against Alex Wilson, yet he still can’t see that he, too, is part of the majority populace with the rest of us “women and minorities.” But he is, maybe, closer to seeing. Marjorie Pinkwater and her posse of part-timers at the Library of Congress are simply saying out loud to Alex what women across America want to say to the GOP every day.

JF: Tell me about your willingness to guard foreign bridges, and why the act might be helpful to writing novels.

JA: Yes. I served as a “bridge guard” for the Maria Valeria Bridge, connecting the towns of Štúrovo, Slovakia, and Esztergom, Hungary, over the Danube, while finishing Enter the Aardvark. The bridge has an amazing history. It was destroyed in WWI, then rebuilt. The Nazis bombed it again, and it was left that way, obliterated, separating the two towns for over 60 years. When the bridge was finally rebuilt in October of 2001, an artist in residency was established to guard it against the reappearance of fascism through the act of creation. “The mental act of guarding,” the organization says, “is more important than the physical.”

The position is for three months, and you live in an apartment under the bridge on the Slovak side. The days were long and slow and boring, the perfect climate for novel writing, and were punctuated only by the Friday nights when the “V2 Rock Pub” next door played Metallica covers, or some other occasional, strange event. (Once, in the middle of the night, I awoke to a series of loud, crunching sounds, and followed the noise to the bathroom window. I stared out at two moonlit wild horses, eating the tires of a car.)

On my mind throughout that summer were notions of bridging literally, as I crossed the bridge once a day, and metaphorically. I love that you instinctively understood the import of a job like this to novel writing! I found it incredibly healthy to be thinking about bridges while ending the novel. I don’t know if you feel this way, Josh, but for me in fiction, if something appears twice, it becomes true. I often teach as a pairing the brilliant short stories “Brownies” by ZZ Packer and “Sh’khol” by Colum McCann; both introduce an expectation and not only answer but completely subvert that expectation by the end. (Flannery O’Connor was probably our most gifted subverter.) Revising, completing, to me, absolutely means ensuring that the bridge between the beginning and ending is intact, and intractable. I’ll often reread a novel’s opening after completing it. If the novel is intact, the beginning will reveal, obliquely, some sense of the ending. By the end of Enter the Aardvark, Alex Wilson, the “whirling mass of vapors,” remains “unhinged.”

Bonus Links from Our Archive:
Human Resources: On Joshua Ferris
A Year in Reading: Joshua Ferris

A Process Not Without Casualty: Amity Gaige in Conversation with Susan Choi

When I received my advance copy of Amity Gaige’s new novel, Sea Wife, something immediately warned me to clear the decks—well, the day’s calendar—before I started it. I don’t know if it was the luminous Caribbean blue of the cover—the color of seductive water concealing great peril—or if it was the charged, terse title, or if it was Gaige’s well-earned reputation as the author of masterful and spellbinding novels, but I knew I was going to read this book straight through and snarl at anyone who tried to interrupt me.

I was right. To say I was dazzled by Sea Wife would be an understatement.  I was so captivated I sometimes had to remind myself to breathe while I was reading.  As a reader, I devoured the book—even thinking, in the last 40 pages or so, Slow down and save some for later—but I didn’t.  As a writer, I was envious. Wow, I thought, how did Amity Gaige learn to sail the high seas/write both beautiful poetry and beautiful poetry criticism/get so far inside the head of a Trump voter that he becomes deeply sympathetic?

Recently I got the chance to ask. Gaige and I floated the following questions and answers back and forth between the islands of our separate quarantines in Brooklyn.

Susan Choi: Maybe, start with how you achieved such authority in terms of sailing that it seems as though you literally wrote this book while circumnavigating the globe in a sailboat?

Amity Gaige: First of all, this praise makes me need to pinch myself. Susan Choi, the author of Trust Exercise, thinks these things about my book? Your book made me envious, so we’re even.

I must have wanted/needed a challenge like the one I took on for Sea Wife. Why else would I have tried to write a book about sailing when I had no sailing experience? I had to learn how to sail. (I write about the ill-fated trip I took to the Caribbean for Coastal Living Magazine this month). I had to learn the hundreds of archaic nautical terms that are second nature to the sailor. But the most mind-bending challenge was trying to plot the novel. How do you know what should happen next when you don’t understand the rules of the environment?

My secret weapon was a sailor named Ben Zartman, who raised his three girls on a boat. He was the sucker who responded to my deranged emails. Over a period of about four years, he answered reams of increasingly bizarre theoreticals, like “I need something to go wrong in a remote anchorage. What if they foul the outboard motor by leaving a sheet lose in the water?” Ben and his amazing wife, Danielle, welcomed me into their lives, and onto their boat, the Ganymede. One rainy evening in Rhode Island, when I was close to finishing the book but didn’t know how to move through the final scenes, Ben, Danielle, and I had the most intense brainstorming session. Never have I let other people inside my creative process quite like that. If I can take any credit, it’s for being bold enough to call up strangers and ask for their help. I never know why people say yes to my requests, but I think it’s because they want to share their knowledge. In order to write Sea Wife, I also spent days following my neighbor around his Hartford insurance company, conducted interviews about postpartum depression with women in my life, and read numerous works of popular conservative political thought. I have a friend who is a cop who read and fact-checked each of the scenes involving police procedure. I owe a lot of people a lot of favors. Maybe now would be a good time to take a yearlong sailing trip myself…

SC: I love these stories behind the story—now I want to read the book about your friendship with Ben and Danielle! Speaking of stories behind the story: I so vividly remember reading about the incident you’ve said first inspired you—involving the yacht Rebel Heart—that I was surprised when I looked it up to find that it was six years ago, in April 2014.  Can you talk about how that news story got its hooks into you?

AG: What struck me about that story is how much blowback the Rebel Heart couple got for taking their kids on such a journey. You can’t win as a parent; you are either too reckless or too narrow-minded in your approach. Personally, I was feeling confused myself, resentful of the conventions of my suburban neighborhood, and my duties as a wife and mother. I’ve always admired people who take risks, even if they end up losing. Especially if they end up losing! This preoccupation can also be seen in my last novel, Schroder.

SC: A stroke of your storytelling genius here is that while the real-life Rebel Heart couple seemed to have a watertight—forgive me!—marriage, the marriage of your novel is in big trouble even before casting off.  Did you already know what your characters’ big issues would be before you started writing, or did these evolve as you went?

AG: I see now that Sea Wife is really a response or an offering to many people in my life and in society at large. I have indeed struggled personally in some of the ways Juliet has, but in the end, she is a composite of so many conversations, with so many women, and men, too. Women in particular can be so open and unguarded with one another. So I started with the notion that the book would be a kind of a duet, a call and response—a lament of a wife, and the slightly echoey rebuttal of her husband. I also knew that Juliet was wounded, and this was my expression of anguish over the effects of sexual violence.

Of course, the book does not succeed if Michael is the bad guy or the chump. He’s a human being; he loves and believes and wants and hurts too. He wants to be a better man and a better dad. I’m so glad you found him sympathetic, Susan, despite disagreeing with him politically. I found it edifying to write him, because I had to find a way to hear this imagined character reflect on his own losses and reckon with his choices. Late in the novel, he confesses that when he fell in love with the hyper-intellectual Juliet, “I suspected I would never be a satisfying husband to her, but I did it anyway.” This is a very honest thing to say.

SC: I love oceangoing novels so much, many of my all-time favorite books fall into this category:  Moby-Dick, Marianne Wiggins’s incredible and under-appreciated novel John DollarTreasure IslandA High Wind in Jamaica…I could go on and on.  Now yours has joined this list.  Were there particular works of maritime literature that you thought about as you were working on this?

AG: Oh, I cannot wait to read John Dollar. I have never even heard of it! Maritime works that were essential to writing Sea Wife: Robert Stone’s nauseatingly tense 1992 novel Outerbridge Reach, a truly excellent non-fictional portrait of a sailor lost at sea called The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst. I also gained such insight from Gwyneth Lewis’s 2005 memoir of sailing with her husband, Two in a Boat. I dutifully worked my way through classics like Robinson Crusoe, and Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum, published in 1900. But I think in the end I only like maritime literature where somebody loses their mind. Yes, Moby-Dick.

SC: Your title, Sea Wife, bristles with contradictory meanings even before we read the book, and once we’ve read it, becomes even more meaningful in light of Juliet’s literal and emotional journeys in this story, all the external obstacles she rages against, and all the internal ones she creates for herself.  Can you talk about the title, and the character who ironically bears that title on the boat, Juliet herself?

AG: The title is somewhat mysterious to me. I like that it’s a spondee. Would you do me the honor of explaining what it meant to you, Susan? For example, these various forms of wifehood you mention above? Then I will steal your answer.

SC: No need to steal my answer, I’m thrilled you might find it useful! Well first of all I loved that you didn’t use an article: it’s not A Sea Wife or The Sea Wife. And so to me it immediately took on the sound and appearance of not just a book title, but a title of rank, like ‘seaman’ but lower. In the book Michael makes a big show of calling Juliet first mate—and he, of course, is captain—and it’s supposed to be jokey, this hidebound hierarchy imposed on their enlightened marriage. But in fact the marriage is starkly unequal in all sorts of perilous ways. Michael and Juliet both believe she’s more intelligent than he is, and that he’s more rational than she is, and though obviously partners are going to be different, these particular differences are really charged in this marriage. Despite their having met at college and subscribing, they thought, to every progressive idea about marriage, Juliet notes of their domestic life “We divided everything up unconsciously along gender lines I’d thought had been consigned to the cultural ash heap”—a line that made my blood run cold with recognition. So there’s all this incredible tension in the book around the marital power imbalance, around traditional roles, around the idea of being captain in your own life regardless of whether you’re on a boat or not. Then, at one point in the book which I don’t want to describe too much lest I spoil it, Juliet—who has raged against all these imbalances and confinements—finds herself being addressed, correctly, as “captain,” and she’s completely flustered and tries to dodge the title. Of all the white-knuckle moments in this book that was one of the most excruciating for me, because I so well understood how and why Juliet had internalized the title of “sea wife” despite her resentment of its inferiority. It’s very difficult for her to recognize the captain in herself. And you recognize this with your heart-wrenching ending—which of course I won’t describe! Okay, enough of me answering. Back to me asking:

Not just your command of the subject matter, but your command of the story’s structure is virtuosic.  You have multiple time frames, multiple voices, multiple formats—for much of the book Juliet trades off storytelling duty with her husband, whose log/journal she’s reading—yet the story comes together seamlessly, and the reader is never lost for an instant, even on the high seas without a landmark in sight.  Did you struggle to come up with this structure or did it flow together for you as fluidly as it does for the reader?  Sorry for all the watery language!  I can’t help it!

AG: Um, can I use this as a blurb somewhere? I humbly accept your praise. As my husband will tell you, writing this book almost made me lose my mind. If you combine the ambition of the research, the demands upon the spirit in delving into certain difficult subjects, and the technical complexity of the structure—multiple voices, timeframes, formats—you pretty much put me in the same crosshairs as poor Donald Crowhurst or the protagonist of Outerbridge Reach. I am not sure why I took all that on. It’s possible that the tension the reader feels in reading Sea Wife runs parallel to the tension of the author trying to write it. Maybe I’ve bought in to a kind of Stanislavskian theory of needing the stakes of my writing to be as high as those of my characters. The process was not without casualty.

I will say, however, that the form of the book was what excited me most. I liked writing in bits. I wrote the bits blind, hoping that they would stand in some thematic and narrative relationship. I have moved away from writing extensive fictional exposition. I believe less and less in the stability of the conventional novel. This is one thing I loved about Trust Exercise; you take half of a novel that is amazing on its surface, then you subvert it, and in so doing, make a whole that’s even better. This formal subversion works with Trust Exercise because it’s not tricksy, or ornamental, but rather, essential to the meaning of the work.

The point-and-counterpoint nature of the narration in Sea Wife is also—I hope—illustrative of the meaning. If the novel is about dialogue, and the failure of understanding and partnership, and the importance of partnership—both political and marital—then the form reinforces the meaning of the novel. Readers will see a very cool typographical gesture toward that theme in the way the two characters’ voices sit on opposite margins of the page. I wanted the book to be published sideways, so the book page could be wider and the voices could be further apart. But turns out, that’s a completely impractical idea.

SC: Now that you’ve said it, I’m dying to see a version of this novel published sideways. Not only would it space the voices even farther apart, as you say, but it would evoke the width of the horizon at sea…who cares if it’s impractical? Now I feel like Michael trying to persuade Juliet: if people only did things because they were “practical,” would we have poetry?

Sorry—I’ll move on. Did this novel ever surprise you, as you were writing it?  Or did you have your course all charted out in advance?  (You can see how good a thing it is that my own dream of writing a maritime novel has never been achieved.)

AG: I love your nautical metaphors! We use them because they make sense. Yes, the novel surprised me in lots of ways. I did not expect Sybil to pipe up. I did not know Michael’s secrets. I did not know in what ways the family would be challenged. I did not know about the crucial protective gesture Juliet’s mother makes toward the end of the book.

SC: Sibyl’s piping up is a thrill—I loved when it happened. And overall I loved and admired your portrayal of Sybil and George, a.k.a. Doodle.  You capture their voices unerringly, brilliantly, and without a shred of sentimentality.  Can you talk about writing about children, and how to do it so well?

AG: I steal! My lovely seven-year-old daughter provided me with many of Sybil’s kid-coinages like “garatulations!” or “Let’s stay up until 10:75!” It was my daughter’s observation that “the easliest way to win is to cheat.” I’m sorry to expose myself in this way; when I write kids, I am a mere secretary.

SC: What was the single hardest thing about writing this book?

AG: Trusting that it would come together.

SC: What was the easiest thing?

AG: Not easy, but pleasant—describing the sea. What a powerful, changeable thing surrounds us. Weather at sea offers so much insight about the human psyche. The high winds, the roiling waters, the sun canting down from the broad sky after a storm; these are the earth’s feelings. Witnessing weather at this scale is what finally lessens my heroine’s depression. Every mood in human life is exemplified by the sea.

Bonus Links from Our Archive:
Living a Lie: The Millions Interviews Amity Gaige
I’d Rather You Decide: The Millions Interviews Susan Choi

Adulting in Motion: The Millions Interviews Emma Straub

Emma Straub is the gift that keeps on giving. She’s the New York Times-bestselling author of Modern Lovers, The Vacationers, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, and the short story collection Other People We Married. She and her husband are the owners of the beloved Brooklyn independent bookstore Books Are Magic. She is loved and admired by the literary community far and wide. I’m not totally convinced that Emma Straub isn’t just three rays of sunshine, standing on top of each other under a trench coat.

In her latest novel, All Adults Here, out May 5 from Riverhead, Astrid Strick has had her ducks in a row all her life, no silly business, no stone left unturned. Her three grown children don’t know any mother besides the compulsively scrupulous one they grew up with, until they are introduced to a new side of Astrid, the one lurking beneath the surface, hesitant to make the leap from private to public. Since witnessing Barbara Baker, a 40-year acquaintance, die in a school bus accident, Astrid has tried to reconcile who she is now with who she thought she was as a mother, a wife, and, ultimately, a person moving toward her future. It is the story of love and growth among a triangulation of generations, of distance and collision, and what it means to be an adult still, and forever, in the throes of growing up.

Written in a signature wit that can only be delivered by Emma Straub, All Adults Here is the novel you want on repeat, the characters immune from the fade of memory. It sparkles in its own unique way among Straub’s body of work, and I was fortunate enough to discuss its unmistakable shine with her.

The Millions: There used to be a moment in the Celion Dion Vegas show—just stay with me here—and I don’t know if she does this anymore, but she would dedicate a song to “all of the children and parents in the room.” Which is, just, everybody? But also, I can’t help but feel like this book is for everybody. Was this your intention writing it?

Emma Straub: Greg, not nearly enough people start out their interviews with Celine Dion anecdotes. Thank you for starting this out on that note, I’m having a wonderful time already, no small feat these days.

To answer your question, though, that does indeed include everyone, but I think there are a lot of childless adults in the world who don’t see themselves as children, and who wouldn’t self-identify that way, despite having passed through those years of their lives. All Adults Here is very much for everybody, because, as you and Celine know, we all fall into one or both of those categories, and for me, the book is really about the point in life when you’re in the middle of that Venn diagram, and are both a parent and a child simultaneously.

TM: What was your initial motive for writing this book? What were you looking to explore and, ultimately, unearth?

ES: Oh, to have a motive! What a beautiful idea. The next time I write a book, I’m going to try that. You’re much closer when you say explore and unearth—that’s really what writing is about for me, and what writing feels like—and if we can loosely say that my motive was to write a novel about people, then what I ended up exploring—how people are or aren’t allowed to change, forgiveness, sexuality, adult sibling relationships, for a few—all came about in the exploration. If you’d asked me what my book was about when I started, I would have said the answer was cheese.

TM: You and your protagonist, Astrid Strick, are, obviously, at very different points in your respective lives. What was it like getting in her head?

ES: Delicious. I loved Astrid. She’s tough, she’s cool to the touch, she doesn’t fuck around. Also, unlike me, she’s a successful cook and gardener and full of skills. She was a pleasure. And I think that through her, I was working to better understand women in my mother’s generation—maybe mothers in all generations—but mothers who are further down the road than I am. My kids are four and six years old, and already I feel like I understand life so much more differently than I could before. This is obviously not to say that people without children can’t understand people of different ages and stages—I think I’m just a bit slow, actually, to understand things.

TM: Even though she dies on the first page, Barbara Baker is very much an omnipresent character throughout the book, serving as a reminder to live authentically, especially for Astrid. Was Barbara and her death your first choice as That Moment of something clicking for someone—in this case, Astrid—or were there other moments you considered as well? What made you ultimately choose Barbara’s death as the impetus for what follows?

ES: Oh yes, that scene was so much fun to write. It’s not a spoiler, because it’s the very first sentence. Poor Barbara gets whacked right off the bat. It just felt right, to have someone who feels neutral to set the whole thing in motion, and then, at the end, to see Barbara from the inside. I guess I was thinking about a character like Barbara—an acquaintance, someone who Astrid had formerly socialized with but not for decades—because I’m surrounded by people like that at [Books Are Magic]. Parents of kids I went to school with, former teachers. That sort of thing. And of course people I’ve met just through the store, but now say hello to on the sidewalk three times a day. It’s a funny thing, being a fixture in a small town. Even if that small town is Brooklyn.

TM: You reference Don Hill’s, a former nightlife staple for any club kid in New York City, in the book. I used to spend a lot of time there myself! Do you have any memories from this place, beloved and missed by the nightlife community, and if not, what made you choose to include this particular spot in the book?

ES: I spent a lot of time at Don Hill’s. A lot. Oh, lord. I loved it so. We used to go in high school, on ‘80s night. This was like 1996 to 2001, I’d say, high school and college. There were always movie stars. I followed Joaquin Phoenix around the whole place, when he and Liv Tyler were dating. She would dance and he would sulk. It was incredible. We were cool NYC kids, and would never dream of approaching a celebrity, but one night I was so very, very drunk, and I was standing in that narrow hallway waiting for the bathroom, and Liev Schreiber was suddenly right next to me—this was in the days of The Daytrippers, and Walking and Talking, and Scream, all truly exceptional movies that I loved—and I clapped my hand on his arm and said, like a 96-year-old grandmother, “Li-ev Schriber! I am such a fan!” And then, of course, I ran into him on the street the next two days in a row. I miss being young and stupid in New York City.

TM: Robin, whom we originally meet as August, is trans. You write her and her arc with such care and sensitivity. How did you ensure writing this character with responsibility and respect to the trans experience?

ES: Thank you. As a cis-woman, obviously I can only try to understand the experience, and I would never try too write a book that was exclusively a trans character’s story, because there are fabulous trans writers for that. I’m reading Jordy Rosenberg’s The Confessions of the Fox right now, and one of my fave YA debuts in recent years is Tobly McSmith’s Stay Gold—but I did feel like I could write Robin’s story with love and care. I asked a trans friend to read it. I read a lot of books about gender, a lot of kids books in particular. And I watched a lot of YouTube and Tumblr coming out stories. I hope I did Robin proud. I certainly was proud of her. I don’t think there’s anything more brave than a kid knowing who they are, and telling the world. One of my children identifies as non-binary. We talk a lot about gender in my house.

TM: What did you learn about yourself, as a parent, while writing this book?

ES: Oh god, a lot. I learned a lot about myself as a parent and a child and a person, in part because of the book but also because it took me four years, and so much of my life has changed in that time. Hell, so much of my life has changed in the last month! Could I tell you exactly what I learned? No. But I can tell you that I’m very glad that I found a therapist I love before the pandemic.

TM: You, as you mention, birthed your third child, your bookstore, during the writing of this book. How has becoming the owner of a bookstore influenced your voice as an author?

ES: I don’t know if the store has influenced my voice, per se, but it has certainly influenced my reading habits, and my book intake, which of course only adds to a writer’s voice. I love my bookstore. I don’t want to spend too much time on this question because I will start crying. Let me just say that I really, really can’t wait until we can open our doors again. 

TM: You write that Astrid had “always been trying to survive one day so that she could live the next,” which is a helpful and poignant reminder to live in the present, to find joy where you can. How are you finding joy right now, in the midst of this global health crisis, on top of also having to promote a book and take care of your business and employees? 

ES: So, a lot of childless people on social media are just cackling to themselves (and to me! directly! which is very rude!) about how much better it is not to have children at this moment. In some ways, sure, you have endless days to yourself, and can learn how to knit or read all of Tolstoy or whatever. But if I were alone, I would be spending a lot of time reading the news, and on Twitter, and watching CNN, and I think I would be a wreck. Because I’m with my kids all day, I’m not doing that. I’m building things out of Legos. I’m playing games. I’m watching My Little Pony. I’m baking cookies. I’m cuddling and reading books with the people I love most in the world. So that’s where I’m finding joy.

Obviously, the twin worries of my business and my book are enormous, but honestly, and I don’t know if I should say this, but I’m a very ambitious person, and always have been, and the silver lining of this horrible, horrific experience is for my ambition to sit down for a little while. I want people to buy my book, of course, and I want my business to survive and succeed, but right now I just want the world to be okay.

TM: Books Are Magic is my second home, as it is for so many in the community. How are you all doing?

ES: Thank you for asking. We are doing okay. It’s weird and uncertain, and we’re taking each day as it comes, but we’ve been flooded by online orders, and so we are buoyed by the support of the community and the neighborhood.

TM: Besides ordering books from the website, what are other things we can do to support the store and its employees?

ES: I’m glad you asked! There are lots of things one can do. Shipping things out (whether things are shipping from the store or from a warehouse, as the case may be, depending on what different bookstores are doing) costs money, and so if you really want to do a store a solid right now, order a gift certificate. But yes, order books, order merch. Buy audiobooks from Libro.fm, buy ebooks from Kobo. Buy subscriptions, or join memberships programs. If there isn’t a store you love, but you want to support bookstores more generally, order books from Bookshop.org, which gives money back to indie bookstores, unlike Amazon, which is just out to crush all of our souls. I think if this slowing down is good for anything, it will be all of us living more intentionally, and thinking before we make choices. Shop like your life depends on it, because it does. What is New York without small businesses? What is your neighborhood without the places you love and rely on for community and sustenance?

TM: Releasing a book right now seems to be scary and uncertain at best. But what is one good thing about releasing a book right now?

ES: As for a good thing about having a book come out right now, I’d be hard pressed to come up with something other than my total lack of anxiety about it, because my anxiety is working so hard in other zones. But if that’s a silver lining, I’ll take it. 

Giving Voice to Shame and Fear: The Millions Interviews Jonathan Franzen

“There is infinite hope, only not for us.”

Jonathan Franzen began his New Yorker piece, “What if We Stop Pretending with this quote from Kafka. Franzen was referring, of course, to climate change, a topic he has been obsessed with for several years. His outlook was depressing: we wouldn’t be able to save our planet, and the symbolic expressions of unrealistic hope—ride your bike to work and the climate won’t get hotter—only served to deny the imminent disaster.

Not surprisingly, he was butchered on social media soon afterwards. People called him a “climate fatalist.” This new label was only one of many other labels people had given to him. When he warned that Internet utopianism was a lie technological oligarchs had fabricated to manipulate users, people mocked him as a “technophobe.” When he handed out 10 rules for novelists on Literary Hub, young people turned up their noses at his “elitist” and “condescending” attitude.

During my recent self-quarantine, The Initium Media in Hong Kong asked me to interview Franzen about his engagement in the public discourse. I had mixed feelings about the assignment. With the Covid-19 pandemic, the last thing I needed was for someone to take away whatever remaining hope I’d been clinging to. Nevertheless, I dialed his phone number. We talked about his experience in the crisis, the unsolvable problem of death, the notion of literary salvation, freedom of thought in the digital age, and humanity. I had expected to meet a much angrier man, bitter and cynical from everything that Twitter had said about him. Instead, he was patient, calm, and sincere. He was curious what I was doing in his hometown of St. Louis.

I find Franzen’s views sobering, rather than depressing. He rejects wishful thinking, but I do find a profound sense of hope in his words. “Freedom of thoughts persists,” he told me, when I expressed concern over the pressure to conform on social media, “but whether we are able to express them and whether we dare express them is a very different question.” Moreover, since death is unresolvable and disaster unavoidable, we might feel more urgency than ever to hold onto what we love. As he wrote in “What if We Stop Pretending,” “As long as you have something to love, you have something to hope for.”

The Millions: I happened to read your latest essay collection, The End of the End of the Earth, during my recent self-quarantine. The wide-ranging topics in the book—from climate change, to technology and oligarchy, to bird-watching—feel all the more relevant and sobering. How have you been handling the Covid-19 pandemic?

Jonathan Franzen: I’ve been declining all interviews about the pandemic. I can talk about my personal experience in the last six weeks, but the essence of the crisis right now is total uncertainty. Uncertainty about the virus and its transmission, even more uncertainty about how it’s going to play out economically and politically, and I’m no more clairvoyant than the next man. All I can tell you is that Santa Cruz was one of the first communities in the country to do a shelter-in-place order, and that Kathy, my spouse-equivalent, and I are following the rules. The county still has fewer than 100 cases, so I think the measures have been effective. We’re suffering, along with everyone else, for not being able to see people. I’m also suffering because I can’t leave the area to go bird-watching, not that I expect anyone to cry about that. But I can still go to my office, which has its own bathroom. I’ve been working away, trying to finish my new novel. In terms of my work, the crisis has probably been a net gain.

TM: Have you been using technology to connect with people lately?

JF: There’s been more email than usual, and I already spend a couple of hours a day doing email—the last thing I need is more of it. I’ve also done some Zooming, which I find tiring and really unsatisfactory. I’d much rather talk on the phone. To me, the devilish thing about the crisis is that it helps Silicon Valley, which I don’t think is anyone’s friend, unless you have money invested in it, in which case I guess it’s your friend. Trapping people in their houses, making them spend even more time on screens, forcing all the local businesses to close—it’s like a wet dream for the tech companies.

TM: Currently we are experiencing a sudden expansion of technology. Does that make you even more concerned about the future?

JF: My feelings about digital technology haven’t changed much since the middle of the ’90s. I thought it was hypercapitalism then, I thought the utopian rhetoric was a ridiculous lie, and now it’s even more hypercapitalistic. Now we have good evidence, like the presidency of Donald Trump, that these technologies, particularly social media, have on balance made the world a worse place, not a better place.

TM: Looking on the bright side, some people argue that the crisis actually helps us prepare for bigger disasters like climate change. Do you share that view? Why so and why not?

JF: It’s too early to say. My thinking about our climate situation has been evolving over the last six years. The point I finally came to, last summer, is that the fabric of our world is very fragile. Political institutions are fragile; international relations are fragile; the global economy is fragile; the natural world and its systems are fragile. All these systems are going to be hugely stressed in the coming decades, as the climate worsens dramatically. Out of that recognition, I’ve come to a greater appreciation of the value of local community. We’re going to become ever more reliant on what’s close to us, and the pandemic is a kind of stress test: How is your local community responding? Are people obeying the rules? Are people being kind to each other? Are people supporting individuals and businesses that are in trouble? Where is your food coming from? Maybe it’s good that we’re asking these questions now, good that we’re getting a little taste of the future. But a novelist is the wrong person to ask whether something is good news or bad news.

TM: I really enjoyed the talk you gave at Google in 2018. You said that technology imagines that it is going to solve the problem of death, but that literature doesn’t think it’s a solvable problem. So, what’s the beauty of unresolvable problems?

JF: The problem of death is emblematic of a number of other intractable problems. Like, the fact that people can be both very good and very bad, which seems to be a fixture of our species—under certain circumstances, people become entirely bad. Or you cherish your spouse but you’re attracted to that neighbor of yours. Or your loyalty tells you to do one thing and your conscience tells you to do the opposite. You can mitigate some of these problems technologically, or politically, but you can’t actually solve the problem of death; you can’t even solve a problem as simple as boredom in a marriage. And that’s where literature comes in. Its earliest roots were intertwined with religious narratives, which also take on the permanently tough problems. The point of the narrative isn’t to make the problem go away. It’s to represent it, to recognize it, to fully inhabit it, to make something beautiful out of it, and to connect you to all the other people who’ve ever struggled with it.

TM: You also mentioned on a number of occasions that literature saved you. Could you elaborate on the notion of literary salvation?

JF: What would I have meant by that? I don’t think it literally saved my life.

TM: I suppose it’s not that we take refuge in the beauty of literature?

JF: Not so much. The moment I come back to is when I was 21 and went home to St. Louis. I hadn’t spent a holiday with my family for two years, and suddenly the literature I’d been reading at college made sense. It wasn’t just something you studied at school. It was a way to understand what was happening in real life. I could suddenly see the levels of meaning in a simple sentence that my mother uttered. I’d been listening to her all my life, but now I could construct a story about where the words were coming from. I could read the coded messages, and I’d been given that key by reading literature. Did it “save” me? No, but it gave me a way forward. Part of it was trying to be a writer myself, because I was grateful to the authors who’d given me the key and I wanted to give something back. But it was also a way of being in the world—of being attentive to the hidden levels, of not being so quick to judge other people. Maybe that’s what I meant by being saved.

TM: It also occurred to me that, in the past, people used to resort to religion for answers to the problem of death.

JF: Technology took over for religion and became its own kind of religion. People still have an unshakeable faith in the goodness of social media. People continue to believe that electric cars will avert catastrophic climate change. Billionaires believe they won’t really have to die, because tech will find a fix for that. As I said in the Google talk, it’s just so dumb. What exactly are you going to be doing when you’re 9,000 years old? That’s what you want? Really? Think it through for five seconds!

TM: You warned about the polarizing logic of online discourse, and the pressure to conform on social media. What do you think of the role of freedom in our digital age? Are we as free-thinking as we think we are?

JF: One thing I learned from my immersion in the literature of East Germany and the Soviet Union is that freedom of thought persists. With any kind of repression, there’s punishment for saying things that aren’t acceptable. The beautiful word is “anathema.” And so much is anathema nowadays, maybe especially on the left. You’re simply not allowed to utter certain things, even if they’re true. But censorship doesn’t mean that everyone stops thinking. It just means they become very cynical, very careful whom they speak to candidly. And I find this weirdly hopeful. It’s hard to sustain a totalitarian system because, at a certain point, the disconnect between what people are saying officially and what they’re thinking privately becomes so huge that the whole thing just becomes silly and falls apart. So I’m not particularly worried about freedom of thought. My own self-appointed job, as an essayist, is to try to give voice to what people are afraid to say publicly, ashamed to say publicly.

TM: You describe the role of an essayist as a firefighter. “While everyone else is fleeing the flames of shame,” your job is to “run straight into them.” Would you say more about the risks you are taking? Are they worth the effort?

JF: There are definitely things I’m sorry I said the way I did. A trivial example: In the mid-’90s, I wrote a piece making fun of the utopianism of Silicon Valley, and I had a throwaway line about what a ridiculous idea online dating was—how dismal it was to imagine a relationship that started that way. And now something like half the couples I know met online. There are lots of little things like that—you take a risk and you get it wrong. More recently, the risk has been total incineration on social media, but that’s not all that big a risk for me, because I don’t read the stupid things people are saying, and it’s more than offset by the response I get from people privately, on my public email account and in letters that come in the mail. If you only looked at Twitter, you’d think my last climate essay, in The New Yorker last fall, was universally condemned. If you read my email, you’d think the opposite.

TM: In the piece, “The Essay in Dark Times,” you talked about the lesson you learned from Henry Finder, your editor at The New Yorker. There are two ways to arrange materials: one is “This followed that,” and the other is “Like goes with like.” The second method sounds fascinating. Would you say more about your nonfiction writing process?

JF: I mentioned Henry’s lesson because it’s valuable. You can either organize material according to category or you can tell a story, and you want to make sure you’re always doing one or the other, if not both. The more fundamental question is: What makes me want to write something? Typically, at some level, I’m angry about something. Sometimes it’s injustice, a literal injustice, or a crime against nature, or the underappreciation of a writer I think is great, Edith Wharton, Christina Stead. Sometimes I’m trying to correct a misunderstanding, a misunderstanding of our climate situation, a misunderstanding of me personally. But most often, I think, I’m angry about simplifications. There is such a thing as moral simplicity—slavery in the United States was purely wrong, and so was the discrimination and racism and oppression that followed it. But most things are not so simple. When I hear politicians and activists and online screamers acting as if things were simple, leaving out important facts, it makes me really angry.

TM: Like you once said, you have skin in the game. You write what you care about.

JF: You’re right. But I have the luxury of that. If I don’t write a single piece of journalism or a single essay all year, it doesn’t make any difference, because I also have my novels.

TM: How do you evaluate subjectivity in nonfiction writing?

JF: Almost by definition, an essay is subjective. If I produce something purely objective, I’ve failed as an essayist. I actually never intended to be an essayist. It was Henry Finder who saw something in my first piece of reporting, a couple of subjective paragraphs, and he said I should do more of that. It’s safer to stick to facts, because they speak for themselves. With subjectivity, there has to be a tone, the sentences have to work on the page. The subjectivity has to earn the right to be in the piece. In “Essay in Dark Times,” I made a comparison between the anxiety I felt in Ghana in November 2016, about not seeing as many birds as I’d hoped to see, and my anxiety that Hillary Clinton wouldn’t get enough electoral votes to win the election. Kathy was afraid I sounded like I was self-absorbed and didn’t take seriously how terrible it was that Trump was elected, although in the very next paragraph I talked about how terrible it was. I decided to leave the comparison in the essay, partly to make fun of myself and partly to convey the frame of mind of a person who’d been chasing birds for two weeks and was obsessed with seeing more of them. It just seemed kind of interesting. Even if it didn’t reflect well on me, I wanted to record what I was thinking, which was this strange conflation of Hillary’s Electoral College problem and my checklist problem.

TM: But obviously not many people share your passion about birds. So they may find the analogy insensitive.

JF: That would be too bad. I meant it to be ridiculous.

TM: Do people usually get your irony? Or do they usually perceive it in the wrong way?

JF: It happens all the time. I once called Michiko Kakutani the stupidest person in New York City. She’s given wonderful reviews to every novel of mine, but I was told that she’d trashed my book The Discomfort Zone. One of my friends reported screaming at her review, “She has no sense of humor!” And I was like, oh my God, did she really think I was serious? The book is full of stuff that could only have been meant ironically. I realized that if Kakutani, who’s the opposite of stupid, can miss the humor, then anyone can miss it.

TM: What’s the biggest change you’ve noticed about the author-reader relationship over the years?

JF: The fundamental relationship is that I write something by myself and you read it by yourself. Through the magic of printed words on a page, we feel a connection. And that is still the fundamental relationship. In the social realm, writers are much more accessible to readers now than they used to be. I’m definitely more accessible, not on social media but through the public email account. I have some kind of personal connection with a lot more people, and I try to remember that this isn’t the important relationship. It isn’t me with the page and the reader with the page. But if I’ve had a hard day, and I come home and hear from somebody who seems to have been moved by something I wrote, it makes a difference. And it’s nice to be able to thank that person. I don’t write long replies, but I try to have a moment of person-to-person feeling, the same as I do in a signing line. I only have 30 seconds, but I want to be present as a person. It’s probably the ’70s in me, the Midwesterner in me.

TM: What’s the biggest difference between yourself as an essayist and as a novelist?

JF: To do a novel well is much, much harder. You enter an obsessive state that’s going to last for a minimum of two years, and the number of problems to be solved is three orders of magnitude greater than with even a long essay. With an essay, you start with a topic, and you either have something interesting to say or you don’t. If you do, then you know that, with enough revisions, you can get there. Once you get the hang of it, once you’ve got a voice, an essay isn’t that hard. But the novel just gets harder and harder. The more levels you master, the better you see how many more levels you haven’t mastered. It’s just really hard.

TM: Do you feel more alone when you are writing a novel?

JF: If you stretch that out temporally, yes. With this novel that I’m almost done with, I’ve only had two readers, and even they only get a chunk of material every two, three, four months. So, for long stretches—big stretches of a year—I’m completely on my own. With an essay, I get immediate feedback from the editor, and pretty quickly it will show up in print or online.

TM: I usually close my interviews by asking great authors to give suggestions for young writers, but I want to try something different here. I’m not a bird lover. I didn’t ask any questions about bird watching. But like many critics, I read the birds in your writing as a symbol. Birds reveal how inhumane we have become. Do you have some suggestions for those who want to be more humane, especially young people?

JF: That’s a big question. I do think reading a good novel is a way to be reconnected with one’s humanity. If you’re young and you don’t know what a good novel is, it’s a good way to discover your humanity. So, that would remain my first suggestion. If you don’t immediately know how to read a novel, I think studying with a good teacher, or talking about something with a book club, or just having a friend who you can read the same book with, can deepen your engagement and help you see all the levels of meaning available in a novel. So that would be one thing. The other thing would be to open your door and go outside. Even though you think you’re being very human and connected, texting, Instagramming, Facebooking, all that stuff, there’s a point of diminishing returns. You’re not actually getting that much from the screen, it becomes a kind of compulsion, and much of the discourse is either trivial or fake. Paradoxically, one way to find the self is to walk away from it. Even if you just go to a city park and spend time with a tree and look carefully, look at the bugs that are on it, the birds that are in it, it can be incredibly restorative. That would be my other suggestion.

The Chinese translation of this interview appeared first on April 19 in The Initium Media.

Craft Corner: The Millions Interviews Emma Copley Eisenberg

Emma Copley Eisenberg’s The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia was released in January to rave reviews. NPR called it “a masterful work of journalism,” and Melissa del Bosque agreed in her New York Times review: “In the end, The Third Rainbow Girl is not just a masterly examination of a brutal unsolved crime, which leads us through many surprising twists and turns and a final revelation about who the real killer might be. It’s also an unflinching interrogation of what it means to be female in a society marred by misogyny.” It’s a fascinating, dense, and ambitious project that manages to simultaneously work as investigative journalism, true crime, memoir, cultural criticism, and a social history of Appalachia—specifically, Pocahontas County, W.V., where Eisenberg worked after college and where the Rainbow Murders, as they became known, occurred in 1980.

I was excited to talk with Eisenberg and learn how she had approached an undertaking of this size and complexity.

The Millions: Emma, I’ve admired your short fiction for a while, a form with which, in my estimation, you have a great deal of facility. How do you feel your short story/fiction chops informed your work on this project? And, related: as someone best known for, and perhaps most comfortable, working in short fiction, did you have any trepidation about working in the realm of journalism/true crime/creative nonfiction?

Emma Copley Eisenberg: Thanks! I love fiction, particularly short fiction; it’s my first love, my first language. I tried to write this book as fiction at first, but it just didn’t work. I realized pretty quickly that because I’m not from the place where these events took place and where the camera of the book is looking, my imagination would not be able to supply the bone deep details and insights required to tell this story well and truthfully.

In many ways, this book has its roots in genre trouble. I was getting my MFA in fiction at the University of Virginia when I began writing this book and a few things happened around the same time, all in November of 2014. One, I was having a crisis of belief in “fiction”—did it demand a kind of “coherence” that falsely smoothed over and story-ified the bumps of real life? Two, Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus” article came out, throwing UVA’s campus into turmoil. Three, a black student-led protest in response to the failure to indict Darren Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown drew local white supremacy out into the open in Charlottesville. And four, two young women—one white and cis, one black and trans—went missing and were later considered murdered to vastly different community and law enforcement results.

Many of my fellow fiction MFA students seemed to feel these events had nothing to do with them. But I felt I could not go into my room and write from my imagination at that moment. I wanted to participate, in some way, so I opened the door to nonfiction. To be fair, I had also already worked in two alt weekly newsrooms by then, where I had learned the fundamentals of reporting and fact checking. Once the door was opened to nonfiction, what would become The Third Rainbow Girl came tumbling out.

I didn’t think about it as in a particular genre at that point, like journalism or true crime. I just kept letting the sentences pile up. But it quickly became clear that the information I would need to tell this story did not exist on the Internet or in my brain, it lived only with real people and in documents that belonged to real people. Reporting is really just calling people and asking them questions, so I set about doing it. One thing led to another, naturally.

And also: I was absolutely terrified! But most of the terror came later, when I realized and realized again the responsibilities tied to writing nonfiction that we do not attach to fiction, and navigated again and again my positionality as an 85 percent outsider, 15 percent insider to the place. There were a lot of moments of being scared to pick up the phone or send the email, but then I would do it.

I think my fiction training shows up a lot in the book. First of all, I love sentences and playing with language and cramming lowbrow and highbrow words into the same sentence. When I first started writing the book I was writing in “serious nonfiction voice” where I was like “As he perambulated the cobblestone path, an innovative concept appeared in his brain.” I thought that’s what reported nonfiction should sound like. But that’s bad writing! And boring! And then I remembered that I knew how to write sentences and things improved. Also scenes and dialogue. My fiction skills really served me well in taking trial transcript and making it into a scene with human interest and desire.

Once I started working on nonfiction, my fiction improved tremendously; basically all the fiction I’ve published to date was written while I was also writing The Third Rainbow Girl. I think this is because I was trying to tackle big questions of class and race and sexuality in my fiction but it came out clumsy and didactic. Once I had a place to really probe those questions elsewhere, my fiction became so much more fluid, playful, and strange.

TM: Building off that last question, can you talk about the tremendous pressure in writing a book like this, involving a real case with real victims and suspects, to “get the story right” in a sense that doesn’t exist in creating fiction? (In my fiction, I’m personally tremendously unconcerned with factuality and only really care about not being obviously wrong, and reading your book it struck me what a luxury this is.) Did you find this to be the case? And if so, how did it impact the imaginative process?

ECE: Yes, I absolutely felt this pressure, as all writers of nonfiction about real people should. For about the first three years or so of the project I just interviewed, read, wrote, interviewed, read, wrote, listened listened listened. I racked up all this material and felt I was drowning in it. Every time I thought I “had it right,” I would talk to someone new and they would say, “Oh no, that’s not it at all.” Ultimately, right before we sold the book, I realized that was what the book was about—the fact that the story of these crimes and this place have been told so many times and it’s never all the way true. There were two alleged witnesses to the crime who put men in jail with their testimony whose accounts do not include that the other witness was even there. There’s a statement that both suspect and investigator swore the other wrote. Fact itself, storytelling itself, contradiction and multiplicity, these things became the center of my book rather than its periphery, not out of my imagination but because the material and the “truth” demanded that it be so.

That’s one thing I think I learned: that the creative process for fiction and nonfiction is very different. In fiction, there may be (should be) some surprise coming from the elements, the sentences as they are written, but in (good) nonfiction it’s like 100 percent surprise. There are so many things you did not know you didn’t know. Something happens and everything you’ve done up to that point is worthless. It’s very exciting and humbling and woke me up to the hugeness of other people and information and truths I could not ever have created myself.

Then, during the fact-checking process, there were things I found I’d made up or embellished for the sake of scene or coherence as you would in fiction and my wonderful fact checker caught them and I took them out. (Note: nonfiction books are not fact checked by publishers, if you want to be confident everything in your book is factually correct you must hire your own fact checker at your own expense. Because of this, many books are never fact checked). It was interesting to see that my fiction brain could not totally be turned off.

The Millions: One thing that I think is true of almost all full-length books, whether fiction or nonfiction, and regardless of genre, is that they are an exercise in world-building. And part of the challenge of writing a book is figuring out what the boundaries of that world are; or, put another way, I feel like when you understand the boundaries, you often understand the book. The Third Rainbow Girl is such a capacious story, concentric rings of stories, really, that include the crime and investigation, the victims, the suspects, West Virginia, Appalachia, our national history, and your own life—how did you figure out the boundaries of the book?

ECE: Oh dear, indeed! How did I? I really didn’t understand the boundaries for a while, I would say for about three years. As you say it’s a huge story that kept sprawling and my process was very open and organic. My agent, the excellent Jin Auh, read many drafts and refused to take the book out one moment before I knew what it was and for that I am very grateful. I do a little writers festival each May in southern West Virginia in honor of Grace Paley, and in the May of 2017, I sat on this beautiful swath of land near where I used to live there and felt as stuck and mixed up about the book as I ever had. It felt out of control and a mess and I worried it had no story and never would. So I decided to just make a list of everything I knew to be absolutely true, whether it be about the community, the crimes, me in the place, anything. The result was “True Things,” the list that became the book’s prologue, and the thing that convinced my agent the book was ready for sale. That list came to serve as a kind of true north for me, which may be something similar to the boundaries of the project.

The Millions: As mentioned, you include a great deal of your life in this book—it is arguably as much a memoir of your time working for VISTA in West Virginia and living there, as it is true crime. Can you talk a little bit about the way this project presented itself and evolved? To put it simplistically: did it feel like a memoir that started drawing in elements of nonfiction, or nonfiction that started drawing in elements of memoir, or did both sides evolve more or less synchronously in the writing process?

ECE: There are seven parts to the book, my personal story is present in two of them. After I moved away from Pocahontas County, I felt haunted and confused by things I’d done and witnessed and just also super homesick, if you can be homesick for a place you’re not from. It’s the most beautiful place on earth. So there was always some introspective writing, mostly notes towards essays that I was working on in the years 2011 to 2013. But when I began working on the project that would become The Third Rainbow Girl, I thought I was writing a purely reported and researched narrative about Pocahontas County and what became known as “The Rainbow Murders.” But as may be clear by now, I’m not a pure journalist, finding out the answers to factual questions has never been compelling to me, and I knew there were so many aspects to the crimes that would never be fully answered, that could not be fully answered by a purely factual accounting. I felt I needed another element to the book, something that could both offer context to the place where the crimes took place and supply the emotional truth that facts, and particularly legal and law enforcement facts, sometimes lack.

The things I read about the case, the way women in the county got shafted when it came to power and possibility but also were able to survive and connect in much higher numbers than men, and the way some of the men accused of the crimes seemed to carry a particular kind of guilt that seemed to be related amorphously to their bad treatment of women felt familiar, rhymed and resonated with my own experiences as a person living in Pocahontas County. I’d driven that road that used to have a grocery store on it but it was gone now, I’d drank and played music on that mountain where Vicki Durian and Nancy Santomero were killed.

Further, it was important to me not to portray Pocahontas County, W.V., as a place from the past, a historical place, a place where only old and bad things happen. People were thriving and working and struggling in contemporary West Virginia and contemporary Appalachia, though their lives are inexorably tied to, and connected by, their particular history. I wanted a way to talk about how West Virginia is actually a way more politically liberal state than Virginia by most measures, and that Pocahontas County has the highest concentration of crazy talented musicians of any place I’ve ever lived, and the trans guy who’d been a student at the nonprofit where I worked and was still making sense of his time there. I also wanted to talk about the Appalachian diaspora, that so many people from Appalachia don’t live there, and that there are also a lot of people like me—not quite from, not quite away—whose experiences don’t fit neatly inside the insider/outsider boxes. To do all this in the most straightforward and honest sense, I eventually realized that I had to include my own experiences in the book.

The Millions: On that note, I think a really interesting thematic aspect of The Third Rainbow Girl is the consideration of queerness vis-à-vis West Virginia (which, as the book points out, has the highest transgender rate in country). Despite an image people might have of macho coal-mining hillbillies, West Virginia is a diverse place, and one that can also be “read” as a very queer place—full of learned codes of behavior and communication, as well as a sense of belonging strongly informed by its existence outside mainstream American culture. I’m interested in other ways that your time in West Virginia and your exploration of this case might have affected your sense of yourself (and vice versa: the ways your evolving sense of personal identity may have affected/informed your view of West Virginia).

ECE: Thanks for this reading, it was important to me that people see that dimension to the state. West Virginia may be the queerest place I’ve lived in some ways, for just these reasons of coded speech and code switching you describe. Appalachian people are queer in this country; they must literally change their ways of speaking and being to be accepted by mainstream America, as a recent episode of the podcast Dolly Parton’s America points out so beautifully.

I came to West Virginia as a very recently out queer person who was very excited and fired up about feminism and queer theory. I often say Pocahontas County rewired my brain, and its true. I learned there about the ways class intersects with queerness and gender and renders most of the theories I learned in classrooms wholly irrelevant. I participated in real and difficult conversations, sexual encounters, and social encounters, and all of them left me questioning and changed. I saw the way that it is so easy to hide in the costume of heterosexuality if you are even a little bit straight and how having that option afforded me love, community, and access that those without it did not have. I saw how complicated the bonds of family and community were, often trumping (pun intended) all supposed political affiliations. Just because you vote for a white supremacist misogynist (which actually not that many West Virginians did, let us recall) doesn’t mean you won’t stick your neck out at a family picnic for your queer child or show up at your biracial cousin’s house when you’re needed. Things are so much more complicated than colors on a map. That insight has stuck with me and influenced my identities in countless ways—not only will I never jump aboard the band wagon of blaming “poor white people” for Trump’s election (The facts do not bear this out!)—but I am also suspicious of any sweeping liberal opinion that demands absolute fealty or belief. If the queers in my neighborhood all believe one thing absolutely, you can count on me to be very suspicious of it and be researching it late at night. Nothing, I have learned, is ever all the way true.

The Millions: I’m always interested in thinking about process. Having successfully written, revised, and brought The Third Rainbow Girl to publication are there things that, if you had to do it again, you would approach differently? Or put another way, if you were to write another nonfiction book, are there lessons from writing this that you feel you could use?

ECE: I’m almost certain I’ll never write another nonfiction book again, or at least not one at all resembling The Third Rainbow Girl. This story was unique, it came into my life when I was very young and held me hostage; writing it has made me into a different person and there will never be another like it.

If I were to write this book again, I’d do two things differently. Firstly, I think I worked very hard and stressed a lot about thinking through my own positionality as a middle-class educated person not from West Virginia who was writing this story, but I perhaps did not interrogate myself enough when it came to being a memoirist. I was so focused on making sure everything in the account was true and ethical and substantively contributed to the larger story I wanted to tell, that I perhaps did not prepare myself for the personal and intimate revelations that memoir often brings.

Secondly, I wish I had known how psychologically grueling a book that deals with this kind of darkness would be on my mind and body. I dreamed about murder—either murdering or being murdered—every night for about two years. At times I was enraged, and at times I was very sad. Meeting other writers who have gone on similar journeys with their books since mine has come out has been incredibly reassuring that this process is okay, even normal for the material. But how I wish I had known that upfront!

The Millions: I like to end these interviews with one incredibly dumb question. Are you a morning, daytime, or nighttime writer?

ECE: Mostly morning, I need to get those good hours where people haven’t sent me too many emails yet and before the anxiety kicks in. But if I’m honest, many of my best ideas and sentences still happen in the night, somewhere between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. There’s a sign I keep by my bed that says “Trust no thought had after 10 p.m.,” which weeds out most of the truly bonkers stuff, but if something gets through during those hours, it’s usually a true keeper.

In the Process of Becoming: The Millions Interviews Amina Cain

I first encountered Amina Cain’s writing with her first book of short stories, I Go to Some Hollow, published by Les Figues Press. I remember impressions—her laconic precision and distinct voice, which have continued to evolve in her second book, Creature, and in her novel, Indelicacy, just published by FSG.

Cain’s writing is succinct in a way that conjures Dickinson or Duras, with her swift and deliberate delivery. Reading Indelicacy feels like inhabiting a painting. Or to play with the metaphor that writing a book is like building a house, my experience of reading Amina Cain is akin to wandering through a series of exquisite rooms where I’m surprised by a decisively placed fixture or an oblique passageway. They are rooms I’d like to return to again and again.

Indelicacy’s protagonist Vitória is a writer and a former cleaning woman, who was rescued from her job when she married. She is concerned with note-taking and observation, and with the authenticity in her life. Just as Vitória is seeking, so is this novel in asking what it means to be free, to think, to be true to oneself. This quandary of being and becoming is quite the opposite of self-help: Vitória is indelicate and self possessed. For example, she tells her former employer, who is quite cold to her, that he is “Like a tooth that hasn’t been brushed in years and is growing hair.”

Vitória’s solitude without loneliness is a quality I’ve considered quite a bit over the last month as the following conversation with Cain has evolved, and even more so now that we are living mostly isolated within our homes during a pandemic. Here in Chicago, all events are canceled and establishments closed, and I am thrust into a solitude that Vitória makes her companion. Or rather, Vitória is not lonely when she chooses her solitude. When wandering alone and when writing in her room, she becomes visible. As she notes at the end of the novel, “in the process of becoming, the soul makes room.”

The Millions: I’ll begin with a remark that seems as true—having just reread Indelicacy—as it did when I first read the novel. I experienced a kind of synesthesia when reading, each word and image so precise, each action so clear, sentences came together as a portrait, a landscape, an emotion. This novel feels as close to art as a novel can. And I mean “art” in many ways, but I’ll start with it in the sense that reading Indelicacy somehow made me feel that I’m wandering within a painting, and at times like I’m walking through rooms.

Vitória, cleaning woman and writer at heart, takes note of multiple works of art both as she cleans the museum and upon reflection, but her notes are almost like an accent within the larger picture. When reading I also started thinking of similarities and stark contrasts with Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, where the Adam passed days gazing at paintings in the Prado; it’s so beautifully written but also so masculine and privileged, whereas Indelicacy is gorgeous but spare, and Vitória dwells amongst paintings as she cleans.

I could say more, but for fear of saying too much, I’d rather ask you about the influence art as had on your writing, and this novel in particular. How were you thinking of approaching feminine vs. masculine approaches to making art? Were you thinking of maintenance art and labor versus emotional labor? It seems, too, privilege and gender intermingle, so I’d be curious to hear your thoughts about that as well, with regard to Indelicacy.

Amina Cain: It’s wonderful the images came through to you in that way, precise and clear. I want them to be. I like that you felt you were wandering in a painting, and sometimes through rooms. And if the novel, for you, feels close to art, then I am happy. I’ve wanted that too.

Art has had a huge influence on my writing, starting with the time I spent at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, when I was in college, working for two years at the information desk and coat check. I had never spent so much time at an art center before, and it was formative. I remember discovering Essex Hemphill and seeing the film Tongues Untied by Marlon Riggs, a huge show on Fluxus, a concert by Diamanda Galas, a dance performance by Bill T. Jones. Though I majored in Women’s Studies, I worked at the Wexner Center at the same time that I started writing, and now the fact of this seems meaningful.

For graduate school, I went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and was surrounded by art and artists. As students, we were given free admission to the Art Institute (which is one of my favorite museums of all time; in fact, it inspired the museum in Indelicacy), and for two years I went there every week. I remember seeing Bill Viola’s work for the first time at his retrospective there, which changed me as a writer. I felt then that I wanted to do in writing what Viola was doing in video and installation. I’ve felt the same looking at paintings by Amy Rathbone and Carravaggio and Bruegel, and experiencing the work of Kara Walker, Marina Abramović, Yinka Shonibare, Sarah Conaway, and Alex Branch, in the films of Laida Lertxundi and Alicia Scherson, in sound and animation by Todd Mattei, in the music of Coco Rosie, Josephine Foster, and Antony and the Johnsons.

When I was working on Indelicacy, I don’t know that I was thinking consciously of feminine versus masculine approaches to art making, but subconsciously I obviously was, and that’s my favorite kind of thinking anyway. And the novel is subsumed in “female” experience, the experiences of the narrator, as well as her friends, Dana and Antoinette, and their art making. It feels tricky, because I don’t think I can say what female experience even is, and though I’ve written about women, I don’t want to set up binaries, gender and otherwise. But I know that the book has nothing to do with male experience or art making, and in it I poke fun at men a lot, though my narrator likes art by men, as do I.

Labor (of all kinds) is an oppressive force in the book, in that it so often tries to define who a person is, circumscribes their life, and, in the worst case scenario, is abusive. And privilege is entwined in this in terms of class. My narrator is suspicious of men, but also of other women, the ones to whom she’s made invisible because she is poor. When she herself has money, she sees the same thing happen to Antoinette, who is still without it.

TM: One of the pleasures of reading Indelicacy for me is the centrality of the female friendships. However, for Vitória and Dana especially, their relationship to art—writing and dancing, respectively—is arguably the central relationship for each woman.  I don’t perceive their engagement with each other or their art as a pushback against the masculine, but rather, something organic and specific to their friendships, related to the power of this attention. In this vein, Indelicacy seems to be a kindred spirit with Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which portrays female friendships and a love affair in an age in France that predates telephones (I believe it’s the 18th century) — this also mirrors a timeless quality in Indelicacy. In a post-screening interview, Sciamma answered questions and she stated she had wanted to make her film, in part, to depict the process of a woman making art.

Vitória is defined and thus defines herself by a need to write, and I’m so curious to hear more about your sense of her writing as a vocation, as a way to live. I know Joan Didion famously once said that she writes in order to know what she’s seeing and thinking and to know what it means. I feel like Vitória might say something similar but different—in that she writes and thinks about art in order to live. Can you talk about this in regard to Vitória’s becoming, and her becoming visible, and also her invisibility you mentioned earlier?

Vitoria also comments that reading certain books enhances her desire to write, and that she writes in part to keep them in conversation. With this in mind, what books and texts have you found a similar desire to write strengthened, and that you write to in response?

AC: Definitely. For Vitória, looking at and thinking and writing about art is not only what makes her feel alive, but what she forms her life around. I feel similarly to Didion, that I write to see what is inside my mind, but Vitória is coming to art for the first time, and to heightened experience, and writing is a way of interacting with both, which is also a way of living. It is how she becomes herself. I don’t know if it makes her more visible to others; in a way it is an invisible vocation, and she is rarely acknowledged by others in this pursuit. Certainly not by her husband, or “her” maid, Solange. It’s part of why her friendships with Antoinette and Dana are so important—they see each other as they really are. It is a wonderful thing, to be seen by someone, and to see them in return. It doesn’t always happen.

I just saw Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and that makes sense to me—that Sciamma in part wanted to show a woman making art. I like the scenes in which we’re watching Marianne draw. And there’s a particular scene in the kitchen, when the three young women are in front of the fire, with chopped vegetables on the table and flowers in a vase: it looks like a scene from a painting.


As to other books, so many! I really can’t read any of these books without wanting to write: Renee Gladman’s Ravicka series, Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond, Kate Zambreno’s Drifts, Anna Moschovakis’s They and We Will Get into Trouble for This, Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, Tarjei Vesaas’s The Ice Palace, Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue, Joanna Walsh’s Break.up, Tisa Bryant’s Unexplained Presence, Rachel Cusk’s Outline, Suzanne Scanlon’s Promising Young Women.

TM: I’m curious about the novel’s title, Indelicacy, which is so cunning—what what led you to it? I sense it’s related to Vitória’s perspective—she’s strong-willed and independent, gloriously and hopelessly herself; but she’s also very attuned to beauty and elegance within the museum and in the world. When dining on Christmas eve, Antoinette’s small careful bites make Vitória “want to eat like a pig.” Or there’s the way she has an outburst after enduring a self-indulgent conversation between two male authors, and she calls them both worms: “When you open your mouths you are male worms eating from a toilet.” I love this line, so angry and unexpected and quite indelicate. Is indelicacy for Vitória a source of pride? A reaction against expectation? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, and on indelicacy in general.

AC: Yes, I would say so: indelicacy as a source of pride, and a reaction against expectation, certainly. It is how she pushes back against who and what she perceives as trying to keep her in her “place.” She likes to upset the status quo in her own way, and she has a certain bluntness when it comes to people she sees as privileged. She is judgmental, and in that way I think she might be the daughter of Sei Shōnagon, with Shōnagon’s endless lists of the things she hates in The Pillow Book.

It took me quite a while to get to the title. In general, titles aren’t easy for me. There’s a line in the novel when Vitória says of herself: “how indelicate,” and my husband said, why not Indelicacy? It made such sense. In addition to the fact that being indelicate is partly how Vitória finds her freedom, it’s a word that isn’t used as much as it once was, which seems apropos to the novel. And a word used to insult suffragettes!

TM: What does freedom mean to Vitória? Her marriage is and isn’t a form of entrapment—she relocates when she marries and is able still to write and see art, but her husband doesn’t understand her devotion to writing. Is she captive because she’s estranged from herself?

And when she ends her marriage, Vitória goes on a self-imposed exile. How is this sense of becoming distinct for her, must she be alone to sit with her thoughts? There’s such a meditative quality to this book, in her existential focus—I’m curious what becoming and being free mean to Vitória, and also how does this freedom relate to meeting one’s fate, as articulated in the epigraph, taken rom Clarice Lispector’s The Apple in the Dark: “It’s as if something that should happen is waiting for me…it’s something that owes itself to me, it looks like me, it’s almost myself. But it never gets close. You can call it fate if you want. Because I’ve tried to go out and meet it.”

AC: Freedom means everything to her, and in a way it’s what drives the whole book. I’d say it’s not so much that she needs to be alone in order to write, as much as she needs to feel that she is living authentically, close to the things that have meaning to her, that make her feel she is becoming who she was meant to be. Freedom means being herself, whatever that looks like.

For awhile it makes sense for her to be married; she finds great freedom within that institution because she has time to write, and money that allows her to go to dance classes and concerts, and buy pretty clothes and objects, all of which make her want to write. But it doesn’t last, and it isn’t enough, and to spend her life in that way feels false. She says she has no vision for it. To go away alone is an impulse she feels and then follows, to give everything to her writing, but even that isn’t perfect. She is figuring out how to have the life she wants; it may always be a work in progress. Like the Lispector epigraph, she is trying to go out and meet something in herself; she doesn’t want to block it. But what does it mean to never quite meet one’s fate, to get close, but not come right up against it? For me, it is one of the central questions of the book.

TM: Vitória encounters a gallery of unfinished works, filled with empty space—and she reflects “Why is empty space a comfort and a relief?…Empty space remains empty, always. And for a little while a small part of me can be empty too.” Does Vitória’s relief come from feeling the presence of others too strongly? Is writing a way for her to empty herself? Your prose is so beautifully pared back and illustrative—in what ways are you mindful of emptiness when writing, and what is your relationship to emptiness or the unfinished?

AC: I think writing is a way for Vitória to empty herself, and to fill herself too. Since she is becoming who she is through her relationship to looking at art, and to writing, and both sort of purge everything else, all the things that aren’t important to her fall away. Without them, she can see herself, and everything around her, more clearly. There is room; she can breathe. That is where the relief comes in. As a writer, I’m always thinking about how to empty out a text so I can see (what remains) more clearly too, with the hope that this will be true for the reader as well. As to the idea of the unfinished, I think it’s the true nature of things, that we are always “becoming,” never finished. There’s something nice in a text or an object or a person that appears polished and neat, but there is also something appealing about one that wears its changing nature on its sleeve.