On Living Stories: Kristen Millares Young in Conversation with Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum

Seattle-area writers Kristen Millares Young and Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum met just after the 2016 presidential election through the literary advocacy organization Write Our Democracy. As a result of that volunteer service, they began an ongoing conversation about the intersections of literature, community, parenthood, and the canon.

Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum’s short story collection What We Do with the Wreckage, published in October of 2018, won the 2017 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Kristen Millares Young’s debut novel Subduction publishes with Red Hen Press on April 14, 2020. Young is the Prose Writer-in-Residence at Seattle’s Hugo House.

The following conversation unfolded over the course of a few months and a presidential election cycle.

Kristen Millares Young: Kirsten, you’ve long centered your stories on women’s lives—a radical act, given the canon’s preference for masculine problems and ways of being. Your fiction operates as a slow burn of intimate disclosures about the constraints of being a daughter, a wife, and a mother—roles that both resolve and compound the problems of being a woman. Three books in, with a full-time job and a family, you’re familiar with the demands of fulfilling many identities. And yet, since 2017, you’ve co-organized a reading series in Seattle, Write Our Democracy, to engage performers and audiences in civic ideals. Why now?

Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum: I became involved with Write Our Democracy when it was first founded (still under the name Writers Resist) in late 2016. After the election, I (like many) felt bereft, and that grief stripped me of my sense of meaning as a writer. Nothing I’d been working on before the election seemed to hold any value or relevance anymore, and so I put it all aside and looked for more immediate ways to use my time and energy. I found Writers Resist through Sam Ligon, whom I’ve known for years, and he invited me to what turned out to be the first meeting of the Seattle Write Our Democracy cohort. There I made connections to other writers (you among them) that have sustained me over the last two years. One of those writers was Julia Hands, who with me decided to collaborate on organizing a reading series. The series eventually took the shape of a quarterly “Write In,” hosted by Hugo House. At each event, four or five local writers read a short piece related to the mission of Write Our Democracy, followed by a community “write in.” It’s a simple structure, but these events foster relationships between writers, create spaces that uplift truth and the democratic ideal of free expression, and illuminate how art cultivates a more just republic. By making and sharing art, we expand our capacity for critical thought and empathy. And that drives justice, civil discourse, and the co-creation of a humane and functioning democracy.

KSL: As I was moving toward a more direct expression of the ideals that have long driven my writing, you were affecting a different transition, from a career in journalism to writing Subduction, your first novel. From the outside, this feels like a radical transformation of your gaze. What influenced (or maybe necessitated) that shift? Why fiction? What were the challenges of making that shift? And—because I always look for light—what joys did you encounter?

KMY: Lately, I’ve been seeking books with the desperation that drove my reading as a child. Novels have always been where I go for insight into humanity. These long stories imbue those who love them with subtlety and compassion. Without novels, my outlook on life can take on a harsh cast, beaten into shape by the incessant news cycle. I need novels in order to live as I must.

It was action—the timing of my own efforts set against a global sense of urgency—that brought me into journalism, which I still practice as a freelancer for The Washington Post and The Guardian. I turn toward articles, reported essays, and investigations when I want something done now—whether it’s removing plastics from our waste streams, honoring the memory of an indigenous woman whose disappearance was ignored by the police, or attracting resources to an underserved elementary school while critiquing the system that created such disparities.

Journalism heightens social awareness and reflects a pact of trust between reporters, who labor without knowing what will happen upon publication, and readers, who either respond to such calls to action or do not. Having experienced the displacement of revolution as part of the Cuban diaspora, I believe in incremental change, though our current circumstances call for exponential amounts of it.

I flicker between writing personal and reported essays. As a writer, I find true pleasure in lyric prose. I found a cadence to fiction that is extraordinarily difficult to replicate elsewhere, a patience for the withheld. That respect for longing—an ache, though attenuated—is at the center of my most cherished books. Through creative non-fiction, I’ve been able to use what I learned writing Subduction.

I write essays to dislodge recurrence from my memory. Together, we return to phrases and images that haunt my private meanings. With the discipline of revision arrives the revelation of joys unavailable to the first draft of history. I make novels to share that which society would rather keep hidden. In revision, I discover and reveal my true concerns, refracted through characters with thoughts in contradiction to my own.

As a society, we have work to do. I believe in the power of investigative journalism to deliver the progress promised by democracy, which is why I serve as board chair of InvestigateWest, a nonprofit newsroom I co-founded in 2009. InvestigateWest’s reporting has led to the passage of 15 new laws to better the environment and the lives of foster families, health care workers, people of color caught in the criminal justice system, and advocates for government transparency. Stories can be powerful if we pay attention.

KMY: I was so pleased when your new collection, What We Do with the Wreckage, won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. O’Connor has been my favorite ever since I read “The Geranium,” and yet a crucial aspect of her lifelong thematic inquiry has fallen out of favor in literary fiction—spirituality. An agnostic, I read widely for wisdom derived wherever I can find it. The question begged by your latest collection’s title is existential. How do you draw upon your faith while writing? At what point, if ever, do you set that structure aside?

KSL: I’m wrestling with that question now—or, rather, I’m wrestling with the place faith might have in my life and in my work now and in the future. I was raised within the progressive strand of Lutheranism (the ELCA), the daughter of a pastor, and I’m not sure I’d be a writer had I not experienced the isolation that is part of being in a clergy family, which taught me to become a careful observer. Growing up steeped in the stories of the gospels and sensibilities of faith also gave me a vision of the world as a place full of complexity, metaphor, and mystery. That’s a perfect brine for a young writer. But also built into my childhood was a charge to use what you’ve been given in service of others (that verse from Luke is fairly tattooed on my heart: From those to whom much has been given, much will be expected)—and I think it was that responsibility not just to see (and to be comfortable sort of swimming around in the darkness and light of being human in this world), but also to do something with what I saw that pulled me toward writing, because what better, truer witness is there than fiction?

The trouble I’m in now is that my adult relationship with faith—and with the church, in particular—is not easy or straightforward or even certain at all. I’m far more aligned with you in agnosticism than I am with people who definitively and firmly claim belief, but I haven’t yet figured out how to cast that tension into story.

In O’Connor’s often-quoted prayer, she writes to God, “Please help me to get down under things and find where You are.” That’s what I want in fiction. I want to find the mystery and beauty that is (as Lutherans say) in, with, and under the scrim of the physical, visible world.

KSL: I want to turn this question about wisdom back toward you. You’ve said that you “read widely for wisdom.” I’m interested in knowing more about the specific influences—the sources of wisdom—that informed you as you wrote Subduction. 

KMY: That question requires a deep dive into the many years of research I invested in writing Subduction and refining my own thought, and, I hope, that of my readers.

The tendency of dominant cultures to predicate that which is written has been the source of much pain in millennia of contact with indigenous peoples. Though I’ve sent you a lengthy bibliography, which includes many texts created by indigenous scholars, oral histories are my most specific influence for Subduction.

For their generosity, in and of itself a great source of wisdom, I thank the Makah elders with whom I’ve spent many hours during the past 10 years. I respect their buoyant humor and clear vision. They know what matters.

Like my fellow Cubans (I was raised by immigrants in coerced diaspora), the Makah community places a very high value on family. Tribal members make hard decisions—often costly—to be there for kin. That can seem like a rarity in the constant churn of personal socioeconomic ambition that characterizes mainstream America, where old people are left to die alone in warehouses crowded by beds.

Resilience is both an individual and a community practice. Age teaches us endurance. As a community, the Makah tribe has worked hard to preserve cultural resources for future generations. They’ll travel long distances to attend ceremonies that can still last for days. They show up for each other.

KSL: In the bibliography you sent me for Subduction, you cite Leslie Marmon Silko, whose work considers and illuminates the essential role of storytelling (and particularly oral storytelling) in identity, the construction and perpetuation of memory, and the connections between past and present/self and other. Do you write toward these same themes? How do you approach the stories of a tradition outside of your own in Subduction?

KMY: I wrote this novel to explore the potential and peril of engaging with stories outside our own experience. Because Subduction is a lyric retelling of the troubled history of encounter in the Americas, the storyline juxtaposes an indigenous community with an outsider who, living in diaspora, has come to uneasy terms with the power structures that make her successful.

Subduction begins when Latinx anthropologist Claudia Ranks embarks on fieldwork in Neah Bay on the Makah Indian Reservation, an ancient whaling village. Reeling from her husband’s adultery with her sister, Claudia fails to keep ethical boundaries and begins an affair with Peter Beck, an underwater welder and the prodigal son of her best informant.

Told in chapters that alternate between Peter and Claudia’s points of view, Subduction traces Peter’s attempts to deal with his mother Maggie’s hoarding and trick memory, the key to the enduring mystery of his seafaring father’s murder. It’s not just the stories we tell, but what we refuse to say, and when, and to whom. Peter gives Claudia access because he needs help unraveling old family secrets withheld by his mother in an attempt to keep him safe.

Maggie shares very personal stories with Claudia—but she also obscures and adapts Makah cultural knowledge to highlight the dangers of Claudia’s presence for others who are listening and know the true telling. For example, Maggie changes the identities of a tribal tale’s characters to critique Peter and Claudia’s affair. Claudia, in turn, mischaracterizes the facts of her own life in an unsuccessful, self-protective effort to maintain distance.

Peter is unprepared for the consequences of Claudia’s presence. Her work is both transgressive and transformational. Like many disruptors, Claudia risks damaging what she finds, even as her participation creates a new dynamic to heal a family grown stagnant. Claudia unearths Maggie’s plan for the hoard she spent her life building, and with that discovery, enacts the family’s long-cherished wish for a legacy.

By examining the fallout of this family’s engagement with an anthropologist, Subduction provides meta-commentary about finding meaning in stories that were made for the Makah people. Alive in the hands of their makers, stories condition how we think of ourselves and others. Subduction begins by exploring the lies we tell ourselves so we don’t have to change. The novel ends by showing the power of narrative—both communal and self-given—to change who we are and what we do.

KMY: In What We Do with the Wreckage, you also explore this power of story to change and define the self, though you occasionally step outside the boundaries of realism to do so. The story “Where Have the Vanished Girls Gone?” comes to mind—here you play with fable to unearth the dangers of our daily lives, particularly as self erasure becomes more than metaphor for your characters. How and when do you invite transgression of the real, by which I mean the possibility for the fantastic, into your fiction?

KSL: A few years ago I began to feel boxed in by the limitations of realism in trying to capture what I’m going to call here the liminal zones of life: adolescence, grief, anxiety, anger, real and difficult love, pregnancy, faith, middle age. These are not objective spaces, and we don’t occupy them with a straightforward gaze. It suddenly didn’t make sense to me to write these states as if they were certain or solid or easily perceptible. That recognition sent me into a panic for a while, and I stopped writing as I looked for how to better—and more honestly—convey the layered, the mysterious (and I use that word here to mean that which is hidden and even sacred).

I went back to my bookshelf, looking for books that walked a line between realism and the surreal. I reread Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Brontë’s Jane Eyre; but also more contemporary work, like John Berger’s To the Wedding, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Anne Enright’s The Gathering. I read traditional and contemporary fairy tales (stories by Karen Russell and Dan Chaon and Kelly Link and Karen Joy Fowler). I read widely within recent children’s literature and YA. While I’d say that I’m still exploring how and where to enter the fantastic in my fiction, the result of that reflection and reading is that I’m already far less confined by the strictures of any particular genre than I once was, and I think shrugging off those strictures is actually getting me closer to writing something that feels true.

KMY: On that note, I’m curious about the role your family has had in your writing process and focus. You’ve written about the difficulties of bringing early parenthood into the canon. Why has this fruitful topic, central to the lives of so many readers, been avoided?

KSL: That’s the question of the moment, I think, for writers who are mothers, and it’s long been a question at the core of my writing. To return to where we began this conversation, I’d say that it’s here—in my dedication to seeing women’s stories on the page and in the canon—that my politics most fully inform my writing. For generations (as we all know) the canon was determined by men, by people outside of the experience of pregnancy and childbearing and (largely) childcare. Stories focused on the female body as an agent of change, of creation, of the more difficult kind of beauty that pregnancy and childbirth necessarily are—those stories weren’t reflective of either men’s lived realities or their desires, and so they weren’t given space in the canon.

But the answer is more complicated than just “men had no interest;” the other truth is that women artists always have had to make a choice about their use of time and energy (“Book or baby?” my friends and I started to joke when we hit 30, but our laughter was edged in anxiety), and they’ve also always had to make a choice about representation. This is changing, I think, but I still feel it now. It’s best not to talk too openly about one’s children in literary circles (lest you be seen as boring). It’s best not to note that parenting slows down your writing process, that it alters the way you see and tell stories. Best not to admit that motherhood is—like sex or love or violence or grief—a fundamental and sometimes identity-fracturing experience (lest you be seen as weak).

To me, though, that’s where the stories are—in that tug of war between identity and relationship. As a writer and as a reader I’m far more engaged by the messy human drama of family than by anything else, and I don’t think that’s an intellectual or artistic weakness. To talk about my motherhood—my daughterhood, wifehood, womanhood—is to talk about my craft as a writer. The threads of identity are inseparable for me. And while I recognize that there’s still a fear that a woman acknowledging that truth is a woman undermining her own professional authority, I refuse that fear. I feel a kind of righteous fury about that refusal, in fact, and it’s out of that fury, too, that my energy for organizing the Seattle Write Our Democracy series comes. There must be space in literature for the multiplicity of human experiences. I didn’t do enough to hold that space in the past, but I’m trying to now—for other writers and for myself.

KSL: What about your dual role as a parent and writer? How has being a mother transformed your work?

KMY: Birth forced me to submit to my own potential. Not just the fruition of the sons I would suckle for years, not just the creation and completion of the family I wanted to build. The act of carrying a body inside my own, and laboring to deliver that body, whole and filling with breath, to the world, burned away the excesses of my youth and replaced them with the urgency of creation.

Twice, I did so, with no regrets.

I had always worked hard. But I also allowed myself a trough for every crest. Work hard, play hard—a family motto. Being a mother brought me closer to my baseline. I weave through it with tighter and tighter stitches until I pull back and see, in that brocade, the tapestry of my happy life.

When I was a child dreaming of adulthood, I didn’t know that having what I want would require constant motion. But my children taught me the true meaning of play—not the delirium of released stress, but an unchecked upwelling of joyful intention. When we laugh, it is not ironic. When we shout, it is not in anger. We are in orbit of love.

I learned to accept myself because I no longer have time to waste. I decided to love myself—finally!—so that I could be present for my sons. With these choices came a comfort. I am who I am. Though I often defied power structures as a reporter, I once thought professionalism required an impersonal presentation to the world.  In the end, I prefer intimacy—its dangers, its rewards.

I’ve brought that capacity for risk into my writing, and my work is better for it. In my prose, I don’t hide my rowdy self, nor the sophisticate within. Vulnerabilities I once tried to conceal as a reporter—unanswered doubts and cravings, the difficulties of being—are now that which I examine through my writing. I tell stories because they showed me how to live.

John Zada Is Still Searching for Sasquatch

In the Valley of the Noble Beyond begins with a dramatic scene in British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest. John Zada, a journalist and photographer, is being led to where a local man saw a Sasquatch 30 years earlier, in 1983. Zada and his guide don’t see the fabled creature—but they do barely avoid an encounter with a grizzly bear and a cub.

“We’re forced to crawl on
our hands and knees, past sprawling blooms of wet, rotting skunk cabbage,
making loud noises, and occasionally having to untangle ourselves from the
branches that snap our packs,” Zada writes. The men came looking for Sasquatch,
and found fear; Zada’s book suggests they are one and the same.

We spoke about the
mythology of the wilderness, the political and cultural implications of writing
about Bigfoot, and why we keep believing in mysteries.

The Millions: You write about being “obsessed by stories about Bigfoot” when you were a kid, thinking the “most memorable tales were set in the mountainous and exotic Pacific Northwest.” Among the roads and houses of your Toronto suburb, there was “a wooded ravine through which a creek ran…It didn’t matter that it was a pruned pseudo-forest existing in a choke hold of suburban sprawl. The ravine was a self-contained extension of all wilderness areas—a spark from the fire of grander wilds.” How did these two experiences—a whisper of wilderness among suburbia and 1970s television shows about the paranormal—coalesce into an ardent search for Sasquatch?

John Zada: Even though I had let the Sasquatch preoccupation slide somewhat in early adulthood, I kept having serendipitous run-ins with the topic. Years ago, something large and seemingly bipedal shadowed a friend and I while on a day hike near Nelson, British Columbia. Later, a few acquaintances who had almost no knowledge of Sasquatch, and were the least likely people you could imagine to discuss it, had eyewitness encounters. Those sightings included lesser known, but nonetheless typical, details of the creatures. So in a sense the topic kept seeking me out. Finally, when I was on a solo press trip in the Great Bear Rainforest on the British Columbia coast and came across a bunch of reports without seeking them out, I knew I had to look into this further.

TM: What is it about the Pacific Northwest that captured your imagination as a kid—and why does it seem to be the center of American Bigfoot mythology?

JZ: Like most peoples’ predispositions, my attitude to the Northwest was a function of my environment and upbringing. Growing up on the outskirts of Toronto, a Great Lakes city set in a largely flat and mundane landscape, left far too much to the imagination of a kid with vagabond genes. Road trips from Toronto to Detroit and Montreal were (and still are) journeys of tortuous visual monotony. By contrast, mountains are wild and magical landscapes that contain depth and brim with loftiness. Because, from a distance, they conceal far more than they reveal, mountains insinuate mystery and beckon one to explore them.

The Cascade and Coast ranges always struck me as the most mystical of mountains. Their primeval forests, volcanoes, and snowcapped peaks seemed to be tailor-made for giants. When I looked at old pictures of Washington State’s Mount Saint Helen’s, or California’s Mount Shasta, I intuited a spirit and wildness tied to them that spoke to the ineffable magic of life. I think Sasquatches are the personification of those same essences, which is why they’re so often associated with the Pacific Northwest.

TM: In the book, you note that John Burns, a writer for Maclean’s magazine, wrote dozens of “articles about the [Sasquatch] creatures, which he wholeheartedly believed in and whose protection he later advocated for—but which he never once saw.” Later, you admit that “stories of monsters, the fairy-tale landscapes, and the novelty of travel mix to form an intoxicating cocktail…The thrill of the chase is a high. And I want something to show for it.” In the Valleys of the Noble Beyond is full of dramatic, tense chase scenes—the book is, quite literally, an adventure story. How did you negotiate being an objective journalist with the pull of adventure? Is such negotiation even necessary?

JZ: At a certain point in the journey I realized that the book couldn’t be a work of pure, classical journalism in which I doggedly cling to a dualistic, black-and-white, and very left-brained investigation into whether—or not—Sasquatches exist. I agree with British scholar Iain McGilchrist, who writes in his book, The Master and His Emissary: “The nature of attention one brings to bear on anything alters what one finds; what we aim to understand changes its nature with the context in which it lies.”

In other words, in this case, you’re going to limit what you understand a Sasquatch to be— what you see in Sasquatch—by looking at it solely from one specific viewpoint. There was too much to unpack subjectively and experientially on that journey, including my own struggle with the Bigfoot obsession, to push it all aside in favour of a very logical and formal investigation that would yield just one of two pre-determined answers. Anyhow, a journalistic work need not be “objective”—a word which, in that field, describes an artificial pretense of neutrality—for it to qualify as journalism.

TM: You make some mention of it in your book, but what is your opinion of the brief but iconic 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film as evidence of Bigfoot, and as a cultural document?

JZ: I’m no expert in bipedal locomotion or primate anatomy, and I can’t speak for the loads of analysis done on the film that argues for its authenticity. What does strike me about the purported creature in the film is its seeming body mass and musculature. As the creature retreats you see its muscles move and ripple. That 16mm footage came at a time when Hollywood started producing Planet of the Apes movies that featured more or less straight cut costumes. By contrast there’s something fluid and organic about the Patterson-Gimlin film that defies what we might expect from a gorilla suit made in the 1960s—or from the undeniable hoaxes we see online today. You see the female creature’s breasts move—an unexpected and superfluous detail for a hoax. The guys who shot that film were also men of modest means to say the least. There was no money to put to elaborate cutting-edge costumes. That’s what strikes me the most. I know that there are questions lingering about Patterson’s motives and credibility.

The Patterson film, our
dependence on it for either ultimate proof or disproof of the Sasquatch, is a good
illustration of our culture-wide mentality that something can only exist to the
extent we can visually or physically show it to. It’s a monument to our
unshakeable materialism.

TM: As you consider the various reasons for the preponderance of Bigfoot sightings across cultures and time periods, you note that “People who regard Bigfoot as real and who go looking for it, as well as eyewitnesses who become obsessed by it, are chasing a symbol, a mental representation of their own or someone else’s experience.” If Bigfoot is a “psychocultural or metaphysical phenomenon,” why has it taken the particular shape that it does—of a humanoid whose gaze disarms even hunters who have the creatures in their rifle sights?

JZ: One of the possibilities I put forward in the book, in addition to Sasquatches being real animals, is that some people who “see” or otherwise encounter a Bigfoot are experiencing emanations of nature for which their minds have no pre-set mental patterns, or templates. It’s as if they are experiencing, ever slightly, an altered state. That idea, I admit, is more of a philosophical or phenomenological assertion than a purely scientific one. Nonetheless, perhaps the mind, in an attempt to understand the subtle yet powerful frequencies of a living, sentient, forest, ends up personifying it somehow. Nature presents, and we re-present it—and then chase the latter bi-product. Or perhaps there is a pattern within us, an ancient one, of how we once were and appeared, which is brought out under those circumstances. A deep, deep memory of some kind.

TM: As the book develops, you become more and more invested in your quest for Sasquatch—and engage various theories of how we process reality and retain memory (including the work of Bruce Wexler and V.S. Ramachandran). These scientific and theoretical interludes never feel clinical. At what point in your writing of the book did you encounter or research these theories, and why do you see these sections as important to In the Valleys of the Noble Beyond?  

JZ: I don’t think you can approach a subject like this and not explore psychology, perception, and the nature of reality. I thought it would be beneficial on so many levels to include this material in the book. The research not only helps explain why some people see and believe in Sasquatches, but it also sheds light on why so many people might not see Bigfoots—if they exist and live around us.

Similarly, the material sheds light on how and why Sasquatch proponents construct and then defend (with such vehemence) their models of reality. But that applies too to hard-core skeptics, debunkers, and closed-minded scientists. I wasn’t picking just on Sasquatch enthusiasts. I wanted to shed light on all the players in this mystery. If in the process we can understand the deeper, unconscious machinations of our minds, we move that much closer towards self-knowledge. That, to me anyways, is a greater prize than even finding the Sasquatch.

TM: Your book is about Bigfoot, Sasquatch, and other humanoid creatures and legends, but it is also about culture and tradition. Part of the book takes place in Bella Bella, British Columbia, which is the seat of the Heiltsuk First Nation. During one scene at a backyard bonfire, a man says to you: “You’re on an Indian reservation and [Sasquatch] is the kind of thing you want to write about?” The man continues: “Look around you! We’re hurting here! There aren’t any jobs.” Do you think this represents the perspective of the majority of First Nation citizens—that outsider interest in Sasquatch stories is for reasons of entertainment, rather than genuine care?

JZ: Yes, a little bit. I think many residents of the places I visited get annoyed when people come to their communities with an obsessively singular mindset, ignoring all else those people and places have to offer. Bigfoot obsessives included. At the same time, there is so much interest in Bigfoot and Sasquatch in those towns and villages, and so many people with experiences, that having a serious, open mind created an instant talking point, or bond, with people there.

The context to the bonfire scene was that the community was distraught and traumatized by a tragic fire that had just destroyed their supermarket and other facilities. The town was in a state of crisis at the time. The man’s criticism, both valid and poignant, was an object lesson in the psychology of perception I later write about. It showed the extent to which I had marginalized that crisis because of my Bigfoot tunnel vision. I wonder if something similar happens to Bigfoot researchers when they are in the forest looking for Sasquatch sign. Because their minds are fixated on one thing, they lose sight of much else around them.

TM: I love that this is a book about wilderness. You make the great point that “How far-fetched (or not) we deem the Sasquatch might also hinge on our perception of space. Bigfoots may be unbelievable to so many people simply because most of us are disconnected from the true depths and expanses of the earth and its wild areas.” We don’t understand the wilderness—much of which “is dense, overgrown, and obstacle-littered, with little visibility and sometimes rent with cliffs, gorges, gullies, and canyons.” What—if anything—can be done to help people appreciate the authentic wilderness?

JZ: There is no better antidote to the urban-centric illusion of a human-conquered planet than to bushwhack a mile, off-trail (at your own risk), through a dense, mountainous rainforest. And then see how long it takes. There are many ways to consider space. I once read that many people who get lost in the bush don’t actually wander very far from where they originally became disoriented. They walk in squiggly lines and circles along a kind of infinite trajectory of their own making, through old surroundings that are unrecognizable because they appear different from different angles.

One’s introduction to the wild needn’t be that extreme. A period spent hiking, trekking, or otherwise traversing greater than normal distances on foot, where the pace of movement is slow enough to allow the appreciation of very small details, can reveal something of the immensity of a given landscape. That kind of journey may hint at, but will never truly convey, an entire region that is greater than the sum of its parts since our narrow trajectories are thin slices of a place. That applies just as much to brief travels to foreign cultures as much as to a five-day hike from one end of a park to another.

TM: You write: “In First Nations cultures, the creatures associated with Bigfoot, even if they are also flesh-and-blood animals, are imbued with religious and supernatural significance.”Do you see these religious and spiritual elements appearing in other cultures who report Bigfoot, including American culture?

JZ: I think the interest in the creatures among non-indigenous people in North America also largely stems from an impulse which we could call religious—maybe not in the conventional sense of the word, but where it denotes our deep yearning for something otherworldly and beyond the pale. As our thirst for that magic has deepened over time, running in parallel with the soulless mechanization of our species and the exploitation of nature, our depiction of the creature has become ever more complex and bizarre. Sasquatches in the 1960s were not associated with mysterious orbs of light or were not thought to dematerialize. Proponents of those views would say we simply know more about Bigfoots now. Perhaps. But I can’t help but feel those sentiments are both a sign of our turbulent times and a reflection of a deep, unmet need.

I do think it’s similar
elsewhere in the world. Wildmen are a bridge and a connection with the unknown
and unobservable universe that deep down we feel is right there, right beside
us, but which we can’t see or articulate properly. Whether it does or doesn’t
physically exist as an animal, that may be the Sasquatch’s deepest significance:
what it tells about ourselves.

I Am Loudermilk: The Millions Interviews Lucy Ives

In Lucy Ives’s gorgeous and funny second novel Loudermilk—after 2017’s Impossible Views of the World—we follow the adventures of aspiring writer Troy Augustus Loudermilk and his best friend, Harry Rego, as they attempt an audacious con at the country’s most prestigious creative writing program. Loudermilk has been accepted to the MFA program for his poetry, but it’s Harry who has been doing the writing. As the book progresses, we’re introduced to other intriguing characters: Clare, the first-year fiction student with writer’s block; Lizzie, the professor’s daughter who wants to sleep with Loudermilk; and Anton Beans, who wants to think his way through the process of writing a poem. 
As a recent MFA graduate, I wish I’d picked this book up sooner. The questions raised by Ives—Who is a writer? Who is the creative asset? Are we all creatives? Who is to say what can be done at a creative writing program?— are poignant and timely and relevant.
Ives—a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—and I recently discussed MFA programs, her writing process, and what it means to write about our obsessions.. 
The Millions: I just graduated from my MFA program in fiction and as I finished Loudermilk, I couldn’t help but laugh at how spot on it was about the entire system. You say in your afterword, “He does what he does because of the existence of institutional structures that produce the illusion of self-expression.” It was ironic, being confined to certain academic rules as we were prodded to be creative. What do you think would happen to the MFA structure if your book became required reading at the college level?
Lucy Ives: Would the novel be required reading as a part of the college curriculum? Or, do you mean that it would be informally required among students? I ask because I’m not sure that faculty would be eager to adopt the novel in this way—although, of course, anything is possible. Leaving aside these logistical questions, let’s go along with your thought experiment and say that lots of undergrads, or even a small handful of undergrads, or okay: One undergrad reads this novel before entering an MFA program. What happens to that one undergrad? 
I imagine that this one undergrad, privy to the secret knowledge in Loudermilk, realizes that they can be or pretend to be who or whatever they want, when they write, and they subsequently hand in many interesting creations for their workshop assignments. This person might choose to write in the style of a bestselling American author of the late 1970s; they might write in the style of an obscure Surrealist poet. They might experiment with the effects different styles and genres have on their captive audience. They might have fun. Perhaps they wouldn’t worry too much about whether their writing is “good.” I guess this might be what I would hope for.
As for the structure of the MFA itself, I do think that if there were a greater emphasis on actually learning how to write—which isn’t just a matter of story arc and pacing, prosody and description, but also concerns things like, what or who is a reader, where are we now in history, how is it to be part of an institution—this would be helpful. My sense is that in being afraid to be awake to the exigencies of institutions, as teachers, we can also fail to be awake to the present and subsequently struggle to convey liveliness. But I don’t know if my novel can really help with these problems. They might sort of be endemic to teaching. This, at least, is my experience.
TM: How did you go about structuring the novel from the perspective of a poet? You say you wrote using a trope from the libertine canon, how did you reach that point? Your sentences are lengthy and include quirky word choices not seen in most novels. I loved how you played with words and sentence form. Do you think all poets should write novels?
LI: I do want to be clear that I do not think that poets are required to write novels. I think it’s fine and even very good to just write poetry. I don’t choose to express myself in novels as a reaction against poetry. I’ve always wanted to write novels as well as poetry, and I don’t do this because I think that poetry is too hard, or obscure, or otherwise inadequate. Maybe you aren’t even asking about this, but I mention it because poetry has a sort of troubled reputation and I worry.
If the novel is structured “from the perspective of a poet,” as you put it, this might be because one of its main goals is to attempt to narrate the writing process. This was not an easy thing to do, and I often despaired about getting it right and not having it turn into a big pile of mush that nobody would be interested in. It’s a smart observation on your part that the use of the Cyrano trope really helped me out in this undertaking. Thinking about proxies allowed me to make the act of writing into a sort of drama; it allowed me to introduce the idea that characters ran the risk of being revealed, whether they knew, strictly speaking, that they were disguising themselves or not.
Thanks, too, for the compliment about my language. I don’t know if this makes me seem extremely pretentious or just bizarre, but the way I put things together in novels as far as sentences are concerned is a slightly heightened version of the way I think. Of course, I don’t really think in sentences, so that might be part of the effect you are noticing.


TM: The character Marta Hillary has a long dialogue with Loudermilk about what writing is, which of course he does not follow at all, and she says, “We’re here to confront something about humanity, to confront the fact that, as humans, we are fated to make things, and we are, meanwhile, the subjects of history.” What did you confront with your own humanity as you wrote this book? What did you discover about yourself, even as you wrote a satire?
LI: When I write fiction I often discover that I know a great deal more about the fictional world (and the fictional people in it) than I know about the real world, so called. My omniscience, as far as imaginary things go, surprises and alarms me a little. Writing this book exhausted me. It took 10 years and there are probably about 80,000 words on the cutting-room floor, so to speak. The funny parts of it started to seem so miniscule in comparison to other requirements: to come up with descriptions of what happens when someone is writing or thinking about wanting to make a work of art; to describe a creepy man without so belittling him that his creepiness starts to seem unimportant; to show how the history of a given institution affects its present; and so on. I started to know more and more about these artificial people and places—and the strangest thing of all is that I probably know more about them than I know about living people I’ve met and cared for, places I’ve lived, and so on. I’ve come to feel that the creation of fictional entities is tied to life, but it’s as if it’s happening somewhere else, in a familiar but nonetheless alternate dimension. Sometimes fiction circles back and reanimates someone you’ve lost or revisits a room you used to spend time in, but more often than not it just does its own thing. I might have had an inkling about this before, but the writing of this book convinced me.
TM: The relationship between Harry and Clare remains elusive. With writer’s block and suffering from the idea of time, Clare is looking for someone to cling to and Harry, as her opposite, is a shy person who “has the appearance somehow in outline and from the rear, of being a creature able to approach others only in their dreams.” Why do their characters never meet? Clare does not speak to anyone throughout the entire novel, she is a free-floating being who does not interact with the plot. Why did you leave her hanging at the edges as a form of expression for the existential writer? If she and Harry had met, what do you think would have happened?
LI: I decided early on that Harry and Clare should not meet, that it might be more interesting to think about a world in which two soul mates (for this is what they are) are in such proximity, sometimes in the very same building or room, but do not fully encounter each other. Who knows, by the way, what happens to them after the novel is over. However, for the duration of the book, they exist primarily in relationship to artistic tasks rather than in relationship to other people. I think this has something to do with the fact that both of them make art by pretending to be someone else: they each imagine that they are writing for, or as, another. 
You mentioned Clare’s isolation, and I do want to point out that both she and Harry are quite isolated. Without their writing they seem really not to exist. I think that if they met and recognized each other during the time of the novel there would be a problem, since each of them is counting on the idea that they need art—and only art—in order to exist. It might even be catastrophic for them to encounter someone else who has this belief; far more catastrophic if they were to fall in love. Believe me, I know.
TM: The idea of what an artist is or who they could be is an important theme of the novel. As Harry secretly writes the poems, what kind of artist is Loudermilk who is the face of the duo? I recently read an article about a con artist who tricks his way into Princeton, posing as a 19-year-old track star, when in reality he is 31. Art is ambiguous, and would you say Loudermilk is an artist in his own right?
LI: Yes, Loudermilk is definitely an artist. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote that there is something called an “artist of life.” I don’t remember Rilke explaining what an artist of life is or does, specifically, but I do recall that he is very clear on one thing: So-called artists of life are quite dangerous. If you meet one, run in the other direction.

TM: You said in an interview with Granta, “Everything I write wants to be with something else.” I think this is a great way to analyze your own creation process. Can you discuss your writing process? As you formed the novel, what happened first? Where did you go after it was finished?
LI: I’m glad that you liked that formulation. It’s often hard for me to articulate what I am doing, so it’s very exciting when I manage to say something that seems intelligible to someone else. As far as process goes, I have a tendency to become obsessed with an aspect of a story, a character, or situation. The good thing is that I don’t have a lot of these obsessions. The more challenging thing is that when one of these obsessions begins, it takes me years, possibly as much as a decade, from what I’ve lived so far, to be done with the obsession. I write in order to give that obsession an independent life, to free myself to think about other things. 
In the Granta interview you mention, I talk a little bit about a framing narrative about another fictional writer that was the genesis of Loudermilk. I think in the past I was less comfortable with these obsessions when they began, and so I would try to bury them in other stories. I’m cautiously hopeful that I do that a bit less now; this might be the place where Loudermilk has landed me.
TM: Did you ever get tired as you wrote the absurd dialogue of Troy Loudermilk? He is every guy I’ve ever met growing up in the Southbay of Los Angeles and captures a certain surfer bro aesthetic while also being smart. Every sentence made me laugh and also cringe in horror. It seems as if he is an absurd version of the bro character, did you research dialogue or listen in on any conversations to capture the authenticity of his voice?
LI: I could pretend that I have an amazing ear or was just magically inspired to write Loudermilk’s voice, but I’m not going to do that. The truth is that I spent a long time reading publications like Maxim and Playboy and watching endless period television shows and movies. Loudermilk’s voice is a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of these anthropological activities. He’s a carefully researched amalgam. I have notebooks, binders full of Loudermilkian words, phrases, and sentences. And, although I’m not going to write them, I certainly have enough material for several sequels. But even given this excess, I’m not sure I ever got tired of Loudermilk’s way of speaking. It was weird because when I began thinking and writing about him I was pretty sure he was my polar opposite, the person in the world to whom I was the most opposed, but the more I worked on this book, the more I began to see the similarities between myself and this character. He was my proxy, after all. To paraphrase the poet John Berryman in his 242nd Dream Song, “I am him.”

Mitchell Zuckoff on Writing His 9/11 Magnum Opus

The seniors graduating from high school this year know what 9/11 is. They know four planes, two towers, 3,000-plus victims, 19 terrorists, Osama bin Laden. They know all of that because they were taught it in history classes. Because, to them, that’s all it is: history.

With each passing year, the terrorist attacks that happened on the bright blue morning of September 11, 2001 become more of a history lesson than a lived experience. This year, most high school seniors were born in 2001. Eighteen years later, they have the facts memorized, but often fail to understand the emotional and lived experience of that day.

Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11, a new book by former Boston Globe reporter and current Boston University professor Mitchell Zuckoff, aims to fix that. Fall and Rise reports the facts, but Zuckoff also weaves the lives of people affected by 9/11 to create a narrative not frequently seen on cable news channels or in documentaries.

Fall and Rise shares stories about pilots, passengers, and aviation professionals linked to American Airlines Flights 11 and 77, and United Airlines Flights 93 and 175. He reveals stories about Mohammed Atta and other terrorists. Zuckoff also dives into the stories of New Yorkers and other Americans who experienced that day in different ways. The result is a woven story that puts the humanity back into a day the history books won’t forget.

I spoke with Zuckoff about what he was doing the day of the attacks, what followed, and how a Boston Globe feature published five days after the attacks turned into an essential book more than 6,000 days later.

The Millions: What was the day of September 11, 2001 like for you?

Mitchell Zuckoff: I was on book leave from the Boston Globe trying to write my first book. When the first plane went in, I didn’t think much of it. It could have been an accident. When the second plane went in, I ran to the phone and it was ringing as I got there. Globe editor Mark Morrow was on the other line and said my book leave was over.

He told me to come to the paper and it became apparent that I was going to be in what we call the control chair to write the lead story for that day. It became a matter of trying to figure out what was going on by taking feeds from several of my colleagues, working closely with the aviation reporter, Matthew Brelis, who took the byline with me. It was an intense and confusing day.

This was personal, on top of everything, because two of the planes took off about a mile from the Globe office at Logan International Airport.

TM: You mention the confusion. When did it become clear to you that it was a coordinated terrorist attack?

MZ: I think when the second plane went in. I was still home. When the first plane went in, we didn’t know what size it was. There was speculation that it was some sightseeing plane that got confused. Then there was no way, 17 minutes apart, that two planes were going to hit two towers accidentally. When I got in my car, we didn’t know about the flight heading to the Pentagon or United 93.

TM: What exactly were you looking for in real time during an event like this?

MZ: Really, what we do on any story. We were trying to answer the who, what, when, where, why, and how of it in as much detail as possible. I was just trying to process it all. My desk is an explosion of papers and printers and notes from reporters. We want it to come out so our readers can digest it in a meaningful way.

TM: I was in seventh grade and in Arizona at the time, so I had no clue what was going on. I was hours back—

MZ: That’s significant. Really significant. Folks on the West Coast, by the time they woke up, it was essentially over. People on the East Coast were watching the Today Show or running to CNN to watch it unfold. It’s a different experience.

TM: I remember it as my mother waking me up for school. She said something, and to this day I remember it as being “They’re attacking us.” I always second-guessed myself, but as you said it was something being reported.

MZ: That would have been a good thing to say.

TM: As the day continued to unfold, how much of a rush was it to finish the initial report out there?

MZ: The adrenaline is flying. We had a rolling deadline because we knew we had as many editions as we needed. The first probably left my hands at 6:00 p.m. I continued to write through the story as it continued to unfold. There were little details—little edits like finding better verbs—that continued to be changed until about 1:00 a.m. or 2:00 a.m.

You can’t unwind after that. You walk around the newsroom waiting until it comes off the presses. I needed to let the adrenaline leave because I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep.

TM: Then that first week, and this may be a dumb question, but how much did the events consume your writing life?

MZ: Completely. I wrote the lead story again the next day. I came back in and it was understood I would do it again. The next day, on Thursday the 13th, I approached the editors with the idea that I could keep doing the leads, but I had an idea for a narrative I could have done for Sunday’s paper. I needed to dispatch some reporters to help me, but I pitched them to weave a narrative. I wanted to weave together six lives: three people on the first plane and three people from New York: one who got out, one who we didn’t know, and a first responder.

That consumed me all day Thursday and Friday reporting it with those reporters. Then writing it Friday into Saturday for the lead feature in the Sunday paper.

TM: That’s what became the backbone of Fall and Rise. But, at the time, you were already reporting the facts. What was it like going into the humanity of those affected less than a week after the attacks?

MZ: Satisfying in a really deep way. I felt, as much as I valued writing the news, I felt we could do something distinctive and lasting with this narrative. I think all of us—not just reporting the news, but consuming the news—all of us were so inundated with information.

I felt we needed to reflect on the emotion of the moment. By talking about the pilot John Oganowsky and the other folks I focused in on, I felt it could be a bit cathartic. We were all numb and in shock. But this could help.

TM: Did you talk to the people in the narrative or was it strictly the other reporters?

MZ: It was the reporters. I was focused on telling the story of Mohammad Atta. I gave myself that assignment. I was guiding my four teammates to some extent. If someone came up with an important detail or timestamp, I would ask the other reporters to follow up with questions about that particular moment to build around it. I didn’t talk to the families until much later.

TM: When was the first time you talked to survivors or the families of victims?

MZ: I talked to some back then. I was teamed up two weeks after the attacks with Michael Rezendes, who was on the Spotlight team, to write about the terrorists. So, at that point, I wasn’t talking a lot with the families—I did some in 2001 and 2002—but really my deep dive into the families didn’t start until five years ago when I really began working on this book.

TM: What did focusing on the terrorists do to you mentally and emotionally?

MZ: It took a lot out of me. We were really trying to instill the journalistic impartiality to it. But you can’t be objective about this sort of thing. We could be impartial. We couldn’t be exactly sure of who these guys were. We had their identities, but we were aware people use false identities or other’s identities. We had to enforce this impartiality to it. We had to be detached in our work even as we were grieving in our hearts.

TM: With the toll it takes, why continue to write about 9/11 after all these years?

MZ: Exactly that reason: because it does take a toll. The way I process things is to write about them. I didn’t really have a let down for months. I was focused on the work before letting the emotion in. It never really left me. I was still talking about this story to my students. I was still talking about this to my family. There are certain stories that will never leave, but I have to instill something of value into it. I wanted to write something that outlasts me.

TM: You’ve had books come out over the years that weren’t related to 9/11—most notably 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi. This comes out nearly 18 years later. What was the process like throughout all these years?

MZ: I was not writing directly on Fall and Rise during those years. I was working on those other books and projects. It was on a back processor in my mind. The lede story from 9/11 hangs in my office at Boston University. It’s in the corner of my eye. I think it was always playing in the back of my mind.

Once I dove into it in 2014, it was all consuming. It was the deepest dive I have ever taken on a story. As much as I care about all of the work I’ve done, I kind of knew I would never tell a more important story than this. I had to respect the stories of the people telling me about the worst day of their lives. That responsibility was with me day and night for these past five years.

TM: What were the families’ responses to a reporter coming to ask about the worst day of their lives after all this time?

MZ: It amazed me because overwhelmingly people said yes. There were some who understood what I was doing, but told me they couldn’t go there again. They couldn’t revisit that day. The ones who said yes were amazing. I know I was tearing open a wound. A lot of the interviews go for hours and hours. There were moments of weeping and I have no problem acknowledging I did so along with them.

TM: These stories aren’t necessarily widely known and now they’re preserved in this book. It’s so important because now 9/11 may just seem like an event students study in textbooks. Eighteen years…your college freshmen were born the year it happened or the year after, I suppose. How does this generation react to it?

MZ: I teach really engaged journalism students. I’m not sure how the generation as a whole reacts to it. My students approach it with curiosity and a little bit of uncertainty because they didn’t experience it. They are well-read and aware of things, but for them it is a little like Pearl Harbor. They know who was involved and can cite numbers. They can say 3,000 dead, 9/11, four hijacked planes, 19 hijackers. They got the test questions down very well. They don’t have the human connection or that feeling for it that I wish they did. I hope that’s what my book can do.

I Have Never Felt That I Have Roots: The Millions Interviews Isabel Allende

Largo pétalo de mar (A Long Petal of the Sea), the latest book by bestselling author Isabel Allende, is a historical novel that could very well be set in present time. The central theme is immigration—from those who fled Spain during Franco’s dictatorship and arrived in Chile, only to have to later flee Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship that began in 1973. It is about what people lose when we are forced to leave our homeland in order to survive, and how history repeats itself. It is a story of millions of people throughout history that is more relevant today than ever before.
Largo pétalo de mar, the metaphor that Chilean poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda once used to describe his country, begins in the late 1930s, when Spain was gripped by a civil war and hundreds of thousands were forced to flee in a treacherous journey over the mountains to the French border. Among them is Roser, a pregnant young widow, who finds her life intertwined with that of Víctor Dalmau, an army doctor and the brother of her deceased love. In order to survive, the two marry and together are sponsored by Neruda to embark on the SS Winnipeg, along with 2,200 other refugees, in search of a new life in Chile as the rest of Europe erupts in war.
The novel explores questions of identity, abandonment, redemption, and fate, and presents strong independent protagonists navigating two wars and a military coup. Throughout the novel, the power of love is, again, Allende’s main subject. Roser and Víctor have to stick together as husband and wife to support each other and her baby, though they are not in love. But the adversities they overcome demonstrate to them that real love grows from loyalty, companionship, and the hardships they face together.
Largo pétalo de mar, released in the U.S. in the Spanish-language edition last month by Vintage Español and due out from Ballantine in English in January, is the 17th novel by Allende in a career that has seen worldwide bestseller and critical success; she was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contributions to American Letters by the National Book Award Foundation in 2018. But writing isn’t the only thing keeping Allende busy these days, as several of her novels are being made into movies, TV series, theater productions, and operas. And she will start writing a new book January 8, the same date she started writing all of her previous books.
The Winnipeg arrived at the shores of Chile with the dreams and hopes of many. In Largo pétalo de mar, Allende delivers to the U.S. shores a novel that exposes the fears and heartbreak that come from leaving one’s homeland to immigrate to a new land. Although the novel is not set in the U.S., it is very much an American story.
The Millions spoke with Allende from her home in California. She sounds happier than in previous interviews. We soon find out the reason for her jovial tone: later in July, at the age of 74, she will get married for the third time. She has pointed out in several recent interviews that one is never too old to fall in love.
The Millions: With this novel, you take readers through a journey in which history, and immigration in particular, repeats itself. Is this your way of exploring the topic of immigration, which seems to be consuming many parts of the world?
Isabel Allende: I think the theme of refugees that are displaced has been in the air so much with what has been happening in Europe, where millions of refugees are reaching its borders. Then there is the hatred being built by Trump here in the U.S. My last three novels have dealt with refugees and immigrants, but in this one, it is the central theme. I didn’t plan to write about refugees, but the conversations are all around us, and it just seeps into my books.
TM: You yourself have emigrated a couple of times. Does this impact your identity? And do you feel, like many immigrants, that you no longer belong to one place or another?
IA: I have never felt that I have roots. I lived in Chile for seven years, then moved back when I was 16, and then left when the military coup took place in 1973. We arrived in Venezuela as political refugees, forced to leave Chile. But coming to the U.S. was a very different experience. When I moved to California, I came to be with a man I loved, William Gordon. It is quite different to be forced to run away from something than it is to run toward something.


TM: Where is home for you: Chile or the U.S.?
IA: Up until recently, I felt very Chilean, but a big part of that was because my mother and stepfather were both in Chile. They were my link to my roots, but they recently passed, within three months of each other, so I suspect the ties won’t be as strong going forward, as I don’t have any immediate family left in Chile. My son, grandchildren, and now Roger are all in California. Everything for me is in California; I will probably die here.
TM: In this book, like several of your prior books, love is one of the main characters of the novel. In this book you explore a platonic love that becomes romantic with the passing of time. What type of love have you not explored in any of your books that you would like to explore in one of your novels?
IA: That’s an interesting question—never thought of it, ever. In some of my books I touch upon love between homosexuals, but I would like to explore it more, go deeper into it. It is still love between two people, but with layers of social prejudice and negative stigma. Those things seep through a relationship and make it more complicated. There are several types of love that carry social stigma, for example, couples that live together but never get married or someone that leaves their spouse for their lover—society places a judgment that is always part of their relationship.
TM: Your novels are often an homage and a celebration of women, and yet, in this book, you pay tribute to Nobel Prize–winning Chilean poet-diplomat and politician Pablo Neruda—a man who didn’t always treat women with respect. Do you consider that to be a dichotomy?
IA: Neruda was a flawed man, but you can’t take away his literary merits and his work as a diplomat. He was sent to Paris as special consul to assist with the Spanish migration to Chile during the Spanish Civil War. Neruda was amazing. He chartered the Winnipeg and was able to get over 2,000 Spaniards on the ship and take them to Chile as refugees. If Neruda is to be judged on his treatment of women, you would have to judge him in the time it happened, not by today’s standards. Those were very different times, and if you censor him, you would have to censor everyone. The discussion around Neruda and his treatment of women has come up lately in Chile because they wanted to name the airport in Santiago after him. The idea of naming the airport after Gabriela Mistral, the first Latin American and Chilean author to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature, who was also a diplomat, was dismissed because she was a lesbian. She deserves to have the airport named after her.
TM: In one of your interviews, you mentioned that when you were a journalist, you went to interview Neruda, and he told you to be a novelist and not a journalist. If Neruda were alive today, what would he say about you as a novelist?

IA: He invited me to his house for what I thought was my opportunity to interview him, but instead he said that he would never be interviewed by me, that I was the worst journalist in the country, that I lie all the time, and that if I don’t have a story, I make it up. He recommended I switch to literature, where all these defects are virtues. He had invited me because he liked the humor and irony in my articles. Neruda had cut out many of my articles because they made him laugh. It was many years later that I wrote my first novel, The House of the Spirits, which Hulu is now making into a TV series.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.

Telling Toni Morrison’s Story: The Millions Interviews Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

A new literary documentary, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, which chronicles the life and career of the prolific author (and, less famously, influential book editor), hit theaters last week.
The film touches on a number of milestones in Morrison’s wide-ranging career: fighting for a salary equivalent to those of her male colleagues at publisher L.W. Singer; editing, among others, Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton, Quincy Troupe, and Muhammad Ali; and the backlash from the white male publishing and literary zeitgeist following her Nobel Prize in Literature win. The Millions spoke with the film’s director, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, about what he hopes his film will achieve.
The Millions: How did this documentary come about?

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders: I first met Toni Morrison in 1981 when she sat for a portrait in my East Village studio. Tar Baby was just out and I shot her for a cover story of the Soho News. Our friendship continued, and over the years I photographed her for book jackets and press images. As the years passed, I split my time between portraiture and documentary filmmaking. It was a 2006 conversation with Toni in my kitchen that sparked the idea for my film series on identity. Toni was the first to sit for HBO’s The Black List, which ultimately featured 50 leading African Americans. It became clear to me then that Toni deserved her own feature documentary.
TM: Morrison is known for being extraordinarily perceptive. How did she make for an interview subject?
TGS: The key to any great interview is trust. Toni trusted me to make this film and, consequently, was very open about her life. Additionally, Toni is a master storyteller, and the camera loves her. Her warmth and wisdom come through…and she is blessed with a magnificent, mesmerizing voice. As filmmakers, you could not ask for anything more.
TM: How did you strike a balance between portraying Morrison’s family life, her publishing career, and her writing career?

TGS: We wanted audiences to see more than just Toni Morrison the Nobel laureate. She had a huge career at Random House, where she edited bestsellers like Muhammad Ali’s The Greatest: My Own Story and published voices that might have been lost without her support: Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, Lucille Clifton. She “cracked the ivory tower” of the publishing world and did all of this while she was writing her own incredible novels, teaching college, and raising two boys as a single mother. We wanted to show all of Toni’s hats and how her life of books had all of these lesser-known facets among her many achievements.


TM: How did you come to choose the other voices from the publishing and writing worlds that appear in the documentary? How did Hilton Als, Oprah Winfrey, Angela Davis, Robert Gottlieb, Walter Mosley, Russell Banks, Fran Lebowitz, and Sonia Sanchez get involved?

TGS: We started with a long list of names, and a very sharp pencil to cross most of them off! We became very specific about what each interviewee would bring to the narrative. For example, Oprah, the Book Club and Beloved; Gottlieb, his experience as her editor; Lebowitz, her humor and long friendship with Toni, etc. I didn’t want too many other voices, so there would be plenty of room for Toni. Visually, my idea was to shoot Toni direct-to-camera and the other interviewees looking off camera. This way, Toni talks directly to us and the others talk about her. It was a risky decision because once you go down that road, you’re stuck with the format. It did work out beautifully.
TM: Writing is not an activity that’s visually interesting. How did you manage to tell Morrison’s story on film, considering this challenge?
TGS: There are more than 600 archival images and video clips in the film. Our editor, Johanna Giebelhaus, was also the researcher, and she pulled remarkable material from the Library of Congress, the National Archives, Howard University, archives in Toni’s hometown in Ohio, the Random House archive, and Toni’s personal archive at Princeton. Toni’s old interviews with Charlie Rose, Dick Cavett, and Bill Moyers were also important elements. Additionally, we incorporated stunning fine art paintings from a wide range of African American artists such as Kara Walker, Kerry James Marshall, Rashid Johnson, Lorna Simpson, Jacob Lawrence, and Faith Ringgold, to name a few. These artworks help illustrate the themes Toni explores in her writing. Mickalene Thomas came onboard and used my images of Toni to create a spectacular opening credit montage.
TM: Were there any interesting publishing tidbits you chose to leave out of the film? If so, can you share one?

TGS: The one person we interviewed, who sadly didn’t make the final cut, was Peter Sellars. Toni and Peter worked together at Princeton in the atelier program that Toni created and had many debates about Shakespeare. Peter challenged Toni to write an answer to Othello and Toni’s play Desdemona, which focused on the female characters, was the result. We edited a riveting discussion of Toni and Peter’s artistic collaboration, but ultimately didn’t have room for it. Hopefully, this will be in the DVD extras. Toni’s thoughts on writing about sex for her book Jazz was also cut for time. Fascinating stuff!
TM: In what ways do you think this film, through telling Morrison’s life, gets at a fundamental truth about American publishing and literature?
TGS: An important section of the film explores the mostly white and predominately male world of 60’s and 70’s publishing. Toni describes how she navigated that. Her own writing and her publishing had profound impact, and fundamentally changed the canon by introducing African-American writers to a large audience. We also show how she brought to publishing her experience as a teacher, which gave her a critical insight into what literature and books were missing from the “catalogue.” It was a heady time, and while people were demonstrating in the streets, Toni’s mission as an editor was to create a permanent record of the ideas percolating outside—most importantly about race and the American experience.
TM: What do you hope audiences will take away from your film?
TGS: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am presents Toni as the person that I know…and I think one that her other friends will recognize too. That’s a rare achievement for a documentary. Audiences will see her as the brilliant, strong woman that she is. They will also love her more than ever. I also hope the film introduces Toni and her writing to a new generation that might not have read her books.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.

When We Were Young: Christine Sneed in Conversation with Anthony Varallo

One of the many pleasures of reading Anthony Varallo’s fiction is how skillfully he inhabits the points of view of his adolescent and child characters. They aren’t bossy, diminutive adults who tell the real adults how to behave and what to think. Instead, they’re bona fide children and teenagers who see the world as kids believably would.

The Varallo short story that I find myself going back to most often is “The French Girls,” which appears in Out Loud, Varallo’s second collection, which won the 2008 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. This story—about the reaction to three foreign exchange students enrolling at an American high school—spans only two pages, but the author captures with an almost preternatural artistry the nostalgia and treacherous suspense of adolescence. The charm and knowingness of this story are indelible.

In The Lines, Varallo’s fifth book and first novel, the author embodies the adult and child point-of-view characters with similar nuanced humor and sympathy. The Lines is set during the gas crisis of the summer of 1979 and begins when two parents announce their divorce to their son and daughter, ages seven and 10, who subsequently become unwilling witnesses to the family’s demise.

Via email and Google Docs, I recently had the opportunity to correspond with Anthony Varallo about The Lines.

Christine Sneed: Having been a young boy in the 1970s, you likely remember the gas crisis of 1979 first-hand—what came first, the idea of a family breaking apart or the dramatic backdrop of the American gas shortage that informs your title?  

Anthony Varallo: The original title for the novel was The Parents, the Children, and that’s very much the way I thought about the book as I was writing it: a story about parents and children, divided into sections, in alternating perspectives that explores a single summer viewed from four different consciousnesses.  So, the family came first.

The novel was always set in the 1970s, but the specific 1979 gas crisis actually emerged in later drafts.  I hit upon the idea of setting the novel in the summer of 1979 when I realized the characters kept stopping by the same gas station, which led to me describing the gas station, which got me thinking about gas station details, which led me to researching those details—what did gas stations look like in the 1970s?, etc.—which led me to the gas crisis of 1979.

I do remember the summer of 1979 pretty well, actually, but my only memories of the gas crisis are of adults either joking or complaining about it.  It was something adults seemed to complain about a lot, along with the other stuff adults seemed to complain about a lot (bills, taxes, having to drive kids around, humidity, aches and pains).  But, honestly, in the summer of 1979, I didn’t spend much of my time thinking about world events; I spent most of my time watching TV and eating sugary snacks.

Oddly enough, the very last element to arrive was actually the title, The Lines, after my wife pointed out that the gas lines are the thing most of us remember about the gas crisis of 1979.  I also liked the idea of “lines” referring not only to the literal gas lines, but perhaps to storylines, too, if that’s not too much of a push.

CS: The Lines’ third-person point of view moves between the mother, father, boy and girl, and you roam among them with an enviable ease. Was the POV always this alternating close third-person?

AV: Yes, the POV was the one thing that remained consistent throughout the two years it took me to write The Lines. I knew I wanted to write a narrative in an alternating, close third-person perspective, a technique that would afford me all the intimacy of first-person POV while still lending the distance and objectivity of third-person.

That’s nice of you to say that I roam among the characters with ease—thanks!—but that’s not at all how I felt when I was writing the book. It took me forever to figure out how many perspectives I could inhabit in each section, one or two or more, until I realized the POV worked best when I explored one consciousness per section, with some latitude to comment on exterior events (what James Wood might call “free indirect style”), something my editor encouraged me to amplify in the second half of the novel. At times, the POV breaks into a near omniscience in the closing pages of The Lines, which is something I’ve never tried before.

CS: Adults in this novel often do or say questionable things—Gumma, for example, the children’s paternal grandmother, is an alcoholic who phones the boy and girl often and makes cringe-inducing statements she claims will help the children be more vigilant of potential dangers. Was Gumma always as…problematic or are there different versions of her in different drafts?

AV: Christine! I can’t believe you’re asking this question, because this is one thing I was hoping no one would notice about this novel, but what the heck, you’ve got me cornered: Gumma is actually a composite character of two characters from an early draft: one, a mean-spirited aunt who calls the children to tell them terrible things; and two, Gumma, whom I envisioned as a truth-telling, yet mostly-benign margarita enthusiast, who lives in Florida and likes to drive her golf cart around her neighborhood while under the influence. In later drafts, I combined the aunt and Gumma into the same character, reworking the dialogue and changing some of the details so that it would seem plausible that Gumma would say and do all of these questionable things. The result is a darker Gumma, more menacing, but still with some light comic touches too.

CS: The four main characters are never addressed by their given names, but some of the supporting characters, such as the two people the mother and father begin dating after their separation, are named. What is your rationale for not naming the four focal family members?

AV: The idea of leaving the four main characters nameless started off as nothing more than an experiment: I wanted to see if I could do it without getting into pronoun confusion. Luckily, since the family is separating, the four main characters are rarely in scene together at the same time, so that made the challenge a bit easier. Sometimes I’ll impose some kind of technical challenge on myself, just to see where it leads me. Those kind of self-imposed challenges help keep me going in my writing, especially through the long haul of the novel.

That said, I wouldn’t recommend this technique too highly, since it prohibits exploring the characters’ pasts in great depth. So, for example, if I wrote “The father recalled his kindergarten playground, where the father liked to swing on the swing-set and slide down the sliding board,” the reader will picture an adult male swinging on the swings and sliding down the sliding board. Which would be…odd. The technique only seems to work in present tense narration, with nearly all the action unfolding in the present, as is the case with The Lines.

CS: The boy, who is seven, is probably my favorite character—he’s sweet, funny, and earnest and still believes in the goodness of the world and his adult caretakers, and as a result is easily victimized. Is a child’s POV one that you find yourself able to inhabit instinctively or is it hard work? Or both?

AV: I had a lot of fun imagining what life was like for him. I knew I could play his “unreliable” perspective for irony and humor, but I wanted to be careful not to overdo it. I didn’t want his naivety to be his only trait; I wanted him to have the capacity to change too. My approach to writing my child characters is to allow them to see the world of the story in all its brightly lit particulars, with 20/20 vision, but not nearly as able to understand what they are seeing. So, the boy sees everything that the girl sees, for example, but what’s clear to the girl (and the reader) is often a mystery the boy has yet to solve.

I’ve written several narratives from the perspective of children, so I guess it does feel comfortable to me on some level. Still, I try to take into consideration a reader’s possible objections to inhabiting a child’s POV—sentimentality, familiarity, a child narrator who is ridiculously wise beyond his/her years, etc.)—something I’ve had to learn over the years. My one rule about child characters in general is: no “cute” children in fiction. Your child characters can be sharp, observant, curious, even clever, but they cannot be “cute,” or say “cute” things, or, God forbid, redeem the sorrows and complications and disappointments of adulthood by just being plain adorable. No.

CS: Until now, your books have all been short story collections. Can you comment on why, after four collections, you decided to write a novel?

AV: Well, the real answer is: because I did write novels before, but no one would publish them. But the sort of real answer is: because I’ve always liked the short story a little bit better than the novel, since that’s what I teach and read and edit, and since that’s the form that means more to me than any other. Another answer is: because novels are really hard to write, and it took me forever to write one that someone actually wanted to publish. All of the above are true.

CS: Each of the 14 chapters in The Lines is broken into several short sections—did you feel at times as if you were writing a short story? The narrative compression seems short story-like too.

AV: My original idea for The Lines was to write a “collage” novel that would employ vignettes, short-shorts, flash fiction, and short sections in some kind of point and counterpoint fashion to tell a story about a family of four going through a transition. My models were Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation, Renata Adler’s Speedboat, Elizabeth Hardwick’s √Sleepless Nights, and Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn. I was able to write the opening pages of The Lines in this style, but, like nearly every writing idea I’ve ever had, this one started to break down after about 20 pages or so. I couldn’t write the “collage” novel I’d set out to write; I had to give up on my plan and let the story instruct me how to write it instead. I don’t know why I have to keep learning the same lesson again, but here’s one I can never quite seem to remember: Your writing doesn’t really care about your plans for it.

Yes, I was aiming for compression throughout the novel, both at the sentence and paragraph level. I wanted The Lines to be the kind of novel that hits as hard as a short story, since those are the kind of novels I like best. I also wanted each section to have some emotional compression, too, where the character reveals something to the reader they likely wouldn’t reveal to anyone else, ever. Eventually, I began to see that as one of the themes of the novel—the pleasure of having a private life, private thoughts no one will ever know—even though I get a little nervous thinking about themes in my writing.

CS: Who are some of your key influences? And would you say that, like John Updike, your default mode is the comic?

AV: I’m glad you mention Updike, since I sometimes get the feeling that no one really reads him anymore. His writing is important to me in the way it says yes to the world, the way it embraces everything, no matter how ordinary or banal or insignificant (He wrote a little too often about golf, but oh well.). That’s a quality that I notice about most of the writing I love, the way it finds the extraordinary in the ordinary.  That still means something to me. I also love humor, of course, maybe too much at times. My stuff always reads a bit lighter to me than I intended, not sure why. Lightweight syndrome? But the writers I’m reading right now with the most enthusiasm are Sally Rooney, Rachel Cusk, Elena Ferrante, and Karl Ove Knausgaard. And a few dozen others I’m utterly failing to mention.

CS: What are you working on now?

AV: I am working on another novel. It’s in that stage where I can’t quite explain what it’s about yet, which has been the case with every novel I’ve ever written or tried to write. I’m hoping this stage will pass soon, and I can answer this question with a jacket copy-worthy sentence.

We Can Be Anyone: A Pride Month Conversation with Nicole Dennis-Benn

Novelist Nicole Dennis-Benn is having a well-earned cultural moment. Pick up any newspaper or arts publication and you’re likely to see her, or a (glowing) review of her newly released sophomore novel, Patsy. This nuanced, layered story about a mother and daughter touches on issues like motherhood, immigration, family, politics, sexism, say colorism, class, and queerness.

Dennis-Benn is one of the most well-known and highly recognized fiction writers working today, and being a queer Jamaican immigrant informs much of that writing, enriching the literary landscape in the process. In honor of Pride Month, The Millions sat down with Dennis-Benn to discuss Patsy, representation, the idea of home, gender and sexuality, what it means to have access, and what Pride means to her.

The Millions: In a recent Vulture interview, you said that, “The idea of home is so complicated…Both of my homes don’t give me the opportunity to be my whole self. So I feel I’m divided still. Really home has to be within myself.” This disconnect between identity, which is kind of the internal home, and the physical home where one lives is often a crucial aspect of stories about immigrants, queer people, and anyone who feels out of place. Both Patsy and Tru—the mother and daughter from Patsy—have periods of feeling very much not at home in their bodies or in their physical spaces. You also said that, “Love is synonymous with home.” How do you think the idea of home shapes these characters, and how do you think they shape or claim home for themselves in the novel?

Nicole Dennis-Benn: That’s a very good question. Let me start off with Patsy because she’s the matriarch, the first protagonist. Patsy, living in Jamaica, does not feel like she is home, in that she is a working-class Jamaican woman in a society where upward mobility is really hard. In addition to that, she’s a woman finding out that her body is in many ways not her property. She was violated at a very young age, and also feels like she has never been able to claim how she really feels as a woman. She is a mother, but a reluctant one, and in a culture like Jamaica’s, a woman who says to herself, “I do not want to be a mother,” or “I cannot be mother,” is seen as a pariah.

The reason why she looks so hard to Cicely is because Cicely, as a light-skinned woman, represents something that Patsy, a dark-skinned woman, was told to desire. She also looks to Cicely for her escape. Cicely was that person who she clung to, and was willing to move all the way across the ocean to be with, because of that false perception that Cicely chose her and accepts who she is. In that way, she claims Cicely as home.

Meanwhile, you have Tru, the five-year-old daughter who is left behind, who comes of age questioning this abandonment. She’s also coming into her own identity and realizing that her identity doesn’t really match anything that she sees around her as a gender nonconforming person. But Tru doesn’t have a word to describe this. These characters are not calling themselves lesbians or trans or gender nonconforming. It’s not a vocabulary that they have. But I had to write it in so that the reader picks up on it and sees that there’s internal conflict, in addition to the external ones that they are pushing against.

For Tru, I gave her a community that kind of sees her for who she is as gender nonconforming, but doesn’t really chastise her for it. A lot of that is because she’s Sergeant Bigfoot’s daughter; if she wasn’t, that would have probably been a different story altogether. So that’s where I wanted to go with that story line—home is not necessarily the safest place for people. And the home that we think is safe is not necessarily the safest place either. So the next best thing is to find home within yourself.

TM: In the beginning of the book, Patsy feels very burdened by motherhood in a lot of ways, as well as by her home life and her relationship with her own mother. So she kind of has this tunnel vision toward Cicely, because she has this fantasy that it’s going to be this freedom, this life that she can live with Cicely in New York. And it turns out she just kind of trades some limitations for other limitations. This makes her reflect on what she left behind, it seems.

NDB: Yeah, because  you have Cicely now existing in that place in America, trying to mimic this American dream. She’s suffering the abuses of her husband and is really unhappy, and here Patsy is saying “I love you, I can give you more in terms of love.” But Cicely doesn’t want that either. That crushing disappointment is something I really wanted to add to Patsy’s story, to show what’s at stake for her. Because after that, she’s left all alone trying to now fend for herself in this country where she thought she would be happy.

TM: Yes. You also mentioned Tru and how she really struggles with the abandonment of her mother on a daily basis. The fact that both Patsy and Tru are queer or struggle with traditional gender roles feels like this lifeline between the two characters. But it’s also devastating because, within the novel, they never really know this about each other. Can you talk about the decision to have both mother and daughter, the two characters at the heart of the book, deal with different but parallel journeys when it comes to gender and sexuality?

NDB: Yeah. I wanted to explore that irony, that mother and daughter definitely are queer. So they might have been best friends if they had been together—they probably would have been able to talk to each other and sympathize with each other. However, Patsy struggles with the knowledge that the world is not kind to women who dare step out of the box. Girls and women are told to like a certain thing, to be a certain thing. This seeds into Tru when Patsy tells her that she doesn’t want her to be a tomboy, enforcing this burden on Tru and telling her that if she doesn’t police herself now she’s going to be criticized. She tries to protect Tru by telling her this, but it’s a harmful way to do that. Women aren’t provided with a list or guidelines to guide our own daughters or our siblings or friends. We just say what the authority tells us to say, right?

So I wanted to play around with that a little bit where both are leading parallel lives as queer women or queer persons trying to navigate love and loss and relationships. Tru is coming into herself not feeling that she is girl or boy. She’s looking around and noticing that everybody else is so contained in their little boxes. So who can she look to? And of course the one person who she could have looked to is gone.

TM: Tru is one of my favorite characters in Patsy; I loved reading about her and found her journey really compelling. There’s still so few gender nonconforming characters in mainstream fiction, so it’s really refreshing to see such a well-rendered and complex gender nonconforming character like Tru on the page. What was the process of her character development like for you?

NDB: I did interviews. I researched. I went to an all girl’s school in Jamaica, and I always asked myself, what if? Especially when I came here to America. What does a person who isn’t gender conforming feel like wearing those gendered uniforms?

So I reached out to all my friends who are trans or gender nonconforming and I asked them, “What was it like for you in high school, coming out to yourself and feeling that you’re not girl or you’re not boy?” And they said they had to grit their teeth and bear it. For them it was like wearing a costume. So that’s how I started developing Tru, writing her in that way where she says she has to wear her tunic like a costume. And in terms of wrapping her breasts—that was research as well, where I looked on YouTube and I did interviews with trans men.

But more than that action itself is the emotion attached to it. The desperation. Wanting so badly to hide that part of oneself. And so I wanted to get into Tru’s mind, to get into this mentality of a teenage girl growing up in a society where no one else is doing this. No one else has words for it. She herself has no words for it—how devastating and crushing it can feel. I wanted to get into her psychology and also her ultimate depression. Existing in that realm.

TM: Yeah, actually the depression is kind of a throughline between Patsy and Tru also. You write about the Devil’s Cold and this kind of dark depression that consumes them both at different points. Can you talk a little about the portrayal of mental illness and depression in the book?

NDB: Yeah, so that’s another thread; they have depression in common as well. Depression is also biological. Similarly to their queerness, I wanted to tell a story where mother and daughter are grappling with the same thing. Mama G, Patsy’s mother, also suffered with depression, and she was the one who gave it the word Devil’s Cold. For her, the church could solve it. In Jamaican culture, everything is about the church. The church can cure mental illness, the church can cure cancer. Pray about it and it’s all good.

So in a way Mama G imparts that to her daughter, Patsy. Mama G looked to the church to cure her depression or to feel good about herself and her situation as a working-class impoverished Jamaican woman trying to make ends meet. In a sense, Patsy herself was abandoned for the church. She had her mother present, but her mother was absent. When she’s going through these depressive spells, she thinks about all the choices that she doesn’t have. About how helpless she is in society.

Patsy was never really given a choice to be herself, to be anything she wants to be. Depression is not a term we use loosely back home, especially among working-class Jamaicans. She doesn’t know how to treat it. She doesn’t know where to go. Her one attempt to get help in America, when she went to the pharmacy and she asked for Prozac, they told her it has to be prescribed, so she just turned back and walked away. She’s an undocumented immigrant; she doesn’t have that accessibility to mental health care or health care in general. Then there’s Tru suffering back home in Jamaica. She internalizes it even more and she starts cutting herself. That’s how she’s able to cope. In addition to that, I gave her soccer, where she feels that she’s more powerful on the field playing soccer with the boys.

They each have different coping mechanisms, and some of them are harmful coping mechanisms. But they don’t know to walk into a psychiatrist’s office, or they can’t, so I wanted to write it subtly, given that there’s still cultural stigma attached to depression.

TM: Yeah, that really comes across too. And it’s true, the question of access. There’s so little access to mental health resources across the board.

NDB: Exactly, and that came to me as well. Once my grandmother was here for three months and my wife and I were taking care of her. She was just here on a visiting visa, so we had to wait in the emergency room for four hours because she didn’t have papers. And I looked around and there were all these different Caribbean immigrants sitting in there who had been living in the country undocumented for years, and they had to do the same thing. Sit inside that emergency room to be called.

And I said to myself, wow, if anything happened to these people, this is what they have to do. They have to take the day off from work, and most of them don’t even have agency in their own jobs. They have to sit it this place for four hours to be seen by an intern who could care less what the symptoms are. They just say, okay, let me write you a prescription, go. No specialists, nothing. Nothing about mental health. There are so many different psychosomatic symptoms that could be a result of mental illness, but undocumented immigrants are rarely seen in the medical care industry, much less cared for in a nuanced way. So in writing a book like Patsy, I wanted people to see that our assimilation and acculturation process is mentally taxing and if you are a person who is predisposed to mental illness, it could send you over the edge.

TM: Switching gears a little bit, your 2017 Modern Love column, ”Who’s Allowed to Hold Hands?” is one of my favorite of the whole series. In it, you simultaneously paint this beautiful picture of lesbian love, and also write about how important visibility is in the face of homophobia, which exists everywhere—even in supposedly safe places like Brooklyn. Can you talk about how, if at all, increasing visibility and dismantling internalized homophobia informs your writing process? And is that something you actively try to do with your writing?

NDB: Oh yeah. I always think of that little girl in me, that 17-year-old girl, 14-year-old girl, who wanted to see books like mine. I didn’t see it. I wanted to see two women, love between two women on the page. I did not see that, or see anything Jamaican even, on the page. So I write the kind of books I want to see.

The incident I wrote about in that essay for Modern Love was really disheartening, because I came to America, like Patsy, for that freedom to be able to express my love for another woman. I didn’t realize that I’d get the same catcalls or that a man would ever say what that man said to us; he said, “Oh you two are going to hell.” And it really crushed me for a long time, but then I realized as a writer I do have the power to write it on the page so people can see that we’re visible. That we exist. And so the next time they see two women walking hand in hand, they already know it because they already see it in books. They already see it on film, hopefully. They already see it everywhere, so to them it’s not a shock anymore. And that’s really what I’m writing toward. I’m writing toward that place where readers can say, “Oh, this is normal.” They’re not going to pull back anymore when they see two women loving each other on the page. They’ll embrace it, embrace us. And know that we exist, no matter how we look. Black, white, Jewish, Asian, we exist. That’s my goal.

TM: Do you have any recommendations of things you’re reading now that you’re really loving? Or where you first saw yourself represented in books or media, if you did?

NDB: Yeah. The first time I saw myself represented in books was in Beloved by Toni Morrison. Also Audre Lorde’s Zami. That book! I read that book once a year. It’s so important to me. She was of immigrant descent, with parents from Grenada, and lesbian. I’d never encountered a woman who spoke so openly about her sexuality and her sexual exploits. Audre, she’s my literary mother. Zami, I’ll put that on everybody’s list. As for what I’m reading now, I recently started Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, and I found his story so similar to mine. I wasn’t born a crime, but existing as a lesbian back home felt similar. I didn’t come out in Jamaica, but I felt like it was such a crime that I couldn’t identify to anyone. Going through his story and seeing how he navigated that with comedy—I found myself laughing along more than anything else. So that was a really nice way to take my mind off of other things. And I love Kiese Laymon’s Heavy. That one floored me. I was not prepared for that weight, the gravity in that book.

TM: It’s aptly named.

NDB: Yes! It was amazing. That’s another book with a motherhood aspect, where there’s another mother who tried her best; it was really interesting. I loved how he explored that relationship between this mother and son, and seeing her flaws. Because people usually look at mothers and they put them on this pedestal and don’t see them as human beings who have flaws, who have desires, who have dreams of their own. So I was really glad that he pared her down, he made us see the human being. That’s similar to what I wanted to do with Patsy—see the human being behind the woman, the person.

TM: Yeah. I love that. It really works in Patsy too. Similar to Margot in Here Comes the Sun—these women are so complicated and they make big, painful decisions that have consequences for so many people besides themselves. You’ve talked before about sometimes judging your own characters. There seems to be something inherently queer about these complex characters that challenge readers, and even the writer who is writing them, to question their own assumptions and biases and empathetic capacity. Because queerness seems rooted in this constant questioning and challenging of norms and values.

NDB: Exactly. Right. I’m so happy that you said that because I was just thinking about that myself. When you think about Patsy and Tru, I was skirting around these boxes that people were quick to put them in. Patsy, I would say she’s lesbian, but when you backtrack a little bit there’s also attraction to Barrington, there was attraction to Roy. So Patsy also dabbles, but her ultimate desire is for Claudette and before that Cicely. So what box do you put her in? Or do you put her in a box at all? Same with Tru. In terms of her sexuality, yes she’s attracted to Saskia, but she’s also attracted to Marlan. So again, the lines are very blurred in their attractions and their queerness and that’s what I wanted to do as well—to write around those boxes, the outside of them.

TM: I love that. That seems very queer to me and I love that. Finally, June is Pride Month, so it’s perfect timing for the release of a book with queer protagonists. I don’t know if that was intentional.

NDB: It was really supposed to be Mother’s Day at first.

TM: That makes sense too. Since it’s Pride month, what if anything, does Pride or the concept of Pride mean to you?

NDB: To me it means freedom. My first Pride in America was in New York City. It was the Summer of 2006. And it was an emotional journey for me because I stood there on the sidewalk—I didn’t march because I didn’t have any affiliations back then. So I stood on the sidewalk and I was in awe. Coming down the parade were police officers, fire fighters, nurses, doctors, and I thought, here I am, this girl from Jamaica, standing there saying oh my god, all these gay people existed!

I grew up in an island where you’re told to be wary of the funny people, that these people are not to be associated with. In your imagination you visualize who they are and what they look like, and I never thought I looked like a lesbian. I never thought that my next door neighbor could be a lesbian, or that my friend could be a gay man. I don’t know how to explain this, but it meant so much to me, seeing that there are so many different parts to who we are as far as gayness and queerness. We could be a police officer, we could be a doctor, we could be a lawyer. We are walking down in that parade together. It really touched me. So that’s really what pride means to me—saying to the world that we exist and we don’t have to look a certain way. We don’t have to have a certain profession. We can be anyone. We could be your paramedic. We could be the person that you’re tipping in the parking lot. We can be anyone. And that’s really what we’re saying to the world when we show our faces on that day and we march on those streets. Because you never know who could be watching, who is struggling with that themselves, and seeing us would say “Oh my god, that looks like me! I could be in this parade.” And that’s really what pride is.

Celebrity Culture and the Mechanics of Fame

There’s a section of Sharon Marcus’s wonderful new book, The Drama of Celebrity, in which she examines the dizzying appeal of actress Sarah Bernhardt: “Why did hundreds of thousands the world over, including drama critics hired to be professional skeptics, find [Bernhardt] so powerfully attractive and so attractively powerful?” Marcus describes how Bernhardt—praised even by Henry James—had a “superlative management of her own body.” Marcus settles into a meticulous and fascinating discussion of how contemporary audiences and critics pored over Bernhardt’s every turn, pause, flail, and thrust.

The Drama of Celebrity is full of these moments; part interesting anecdote, part revealing analysis. The idea of celebrity is at once everywhere and difficult to understand, but Marcus offers a robust consideration of charisma, fandom, and media. Marcus teaches at Columbia University, where she is the Orlando Harriman Professor of English and Comparative Literature. A founding editor of Public Books, she is the author of Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England and Apartment Stories: City and Home in Nineteenth-Century Paris and London.

We spoke about defiant celebrities, the
parallels between religion and fandom, and who might be to blame for celebrity
culture.

The Millions: In your introduction to the book, you explain that traditionally, media scholars have thought that there are three origins of celebrity, each competing with the others. First, that “celebrities themselves charm the media and wow the public.” Second: “the public decides who will be a star.” Third: “producers, publicists, and journalists determine who will be a celebrity.” Can you summarize your new theory of celebrity culture—and why you think readers should pay attention to the creation of celebrity in America?

Sharon Marcus: All of the theories cited above are wrong—because all of them are right. No one group has a monopoly on creating celebrity. Instead, celebrity culture is a drama involving three equally powerful groups: media producers, members of the public, and celebrities themselves. All three groups have agency, so all three groups influence the tales we tell about celebrities and fans, with none exercising full control. Stars aren’t always (or even often) pawns; members of the public aren’t all dupes all of the time; journalists and publicists are rarely omnipotent Svengalis. It’s the interactions of media, publics, and stars that create celebrity culture, and those interactions are dynamic and unpredictable. Publics engage with celebrity both as onlookers and as active participants—and have been doing so for a long time.

In an era when celebrities can exercise a lot of influence, it’s
important to understand how celebrity works; to recognize that celebrities are
not simply good or bad, deserving or undeserving; and to be aware that
celebrity culture is much older than the internet, People magazine, or Hollywood. As I like to say, if you don’t like
celebrity culture, don’t blame the internet: blame everyone. 

TM: Actress Sarah Bernhardt
(1844-1923), whom you call the “godmother of modern celebrity culture,” is an
absolutely fascinating figure—and her life is the perfect through-line and
refrain for your broader arguments about celebrity culture. How did you first
discover her life and work, and what drew you to her story as a foundational
element of this book?

SM: Sarah Bernhardt has fascinated people for over a century. She belongs to a genealogy of great performers with powerful personas and strong aesthetic visions: Bette Davis, Maria Callas, Laurence Olivier, Madonna, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga. Like some of the people on this list, she was outrageous and liked to push limits. Like others on the list, she was a brilliant, highly-respected artist, hailed in her lifetime as a genius and still recognized as one of the very greatest actors of her era, which spanned the 1870s through the 1910s. 

Even better, Bernhardt’s story was triumphant rather than tragic. Her personal life was that rare combination: happy and interesting. She was a single mother who remained close to her only child, a son, who made her a contented grandmother. Her one legal marriage didn’t last long, but she had a lifelong relationship with the painter Louise Abbéma that seems to have given both women freedom to pursue other sexual interests. I’d describe Bernhardt as omnisexual. For most of her life Bernhardt also had a satisfying relationship to her work, and an incredibly successful, long-lasting career. She was classically trained in the 1860s and admitted to France’s prestigious national theater, but she found that too confining and left it to become a free agent. Between 1880 and 1882, she toured Europe, the U.S., and Canada, as well as provincial France.  Her earnings from those tours gave her the resources to lease her own theaters, in effect becoming producer, director, and star. For the rest of her life, she thoroughly enjoyed her freedom to call her own shots.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know who
Bernhardt was, although my childhood obsessions were more focused on Hollywood.
 That may be why I only began to
understand how pivotal Bernhardt was to understanding the history of celebrity after
my scholarly work took a turn towards theater history.

In 2003, I became a professor in Columbia University’s department of English and comparative literature, which also houses a theater Ph.D. program. Like most students and scholars of 19th-century literature, I had read only a handful of plays as part of my doctoral training. But once I began to work more with people whose focus was drama, I saw how important theater was to the 19th century.

In the 19th century, millions of people attended the theater each year in London, Paris, New York, Chicago—who knew? No one had ever mentioned that in any of my graduate seminars. Plays by Dion Boucicault, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and Victorien Sardou were more popular than most novels. Thanks to steamships and railways, actors and plays could travel, and 19th-century theater culture was genuinely global, making dozens of stage actors household names in many countries.

I realized that to understand the 19th century, I had to understand theater. And if I wanted to understand theater, I had to focus on the actors who were theater’s main attractions. That led me to Bernhardt, the 19th century’s best-known actor, and one of the first modern celebrities.

TM: I grew up in New Jersey during the 1990s, where Donald Trump’s penchant for spectacle was regular news—so it surprised me when people seemed confounded by the speed of his political ascension. You skillfully examine Trump at select moments in The Drama of Celebrity, including in your chapter titled “Defiance.” How might understanding the social elements of celebrity defiance, as well as celebrity culture in general, help us understand the rise of Trump?

SM: Celebrities often represent our ideals, and for some, normalcy is an ideal, which leads to stars who embody the norm du jour. But celebrity culture also shows that normalcy is not our only ideal, because figures like Katharine Hepburn, Muhammad Ali, Madonna, and Lady Gaga became celebrities by being openly indifferent to norms.

I would not say that Trump is typical of most
defiant celebrities. True, he shows contempt for rules that most other people
and certainly other presidents at least pretended to follow. But stars like
Muhammad Ali and Lady Gaga broke rules in order to expand possibilities for
marginalized people. Trump disregards norms to expand possibilities for
himself, and to assert the right of straight white men to do and say whatever
they feel like. To my mind that makes him a bully, but Trump’s supporters see
him as a maverick.

Defiant celebrities exist across the political
spectrum. That suggests there’s something we like about defiance itself. What
might that be? As social creatures, we have to follow a lot of rules; in
exchange, we reap the benefits of belonging to a collective. But that doesn’t
mean we don’t dream of being able to enjoy those benefits without paying their
costs. Celebrities have wealth, status, power; their success is social. When
they succeed despite defying convention, they make it seem possible that
someone could be rewarded by society for openly disdaining what society holds
most dear: its power to regulate individual excess. The spectacle of celebrity
defiance lets us indulge the anti-social fantasy of getting something for
nothing. And because social existence can be exhausting and constraining, many
of us like to indulge in anti-social fantasies.

TM: “Fandom is often about excess, fantasy, and obsession,” you write. “Audiences under the spell of celebrity attraction daydream, sigh, weep, faint, shriek, roar, and swarm. Whether stampeding or swooning, fans treasure the ecstatic experience of feeling their autonomy, reason, and individuality melt away under the influence of the stars.” I love those sentences from your “Sensation” chapter. Could you talk more about fandom as an ecstatic phenomenon (or perhaps even as a religious one)?

SM: There are many parallels to draw between religion and fandom, depending on how one defines religion. Historian Peter Brown understands religion as fulfilling mundane social needs, so he interprets Christian saints as evolving from pre-Christian patronage systems. People went from asking powerful living friends to intercede on their behalf to praying to dead saints for help. Centuries later, people sought help from celebrities. World-renowned actor Edwin Booth received hundreds of letters between 1860 and 1890; many of his correspondents asked him for advice, money, jobs, and free acting lessons.

We can also define religion as offering transcendent experiences that take us out of ourselves. There too, fandom can resemble or be a religious experience. Fans invest favorite celebrities with superhuman powers, just as believers do with gods. Just as many people find ways to connect to a god they will never see or touch, fans turn stars into imaginary friends. Fans often worship in groups, whether attending a baseball game or a stadium concert. Being part of a crowd can amplify emotion and intensify belief just as a religious service can. A few years ago, I was walking along Seventh Avenue in New York City when suddenly a bunch of teenagers ran past me, screaming “Nicki! Nicki!” They were rushing to surround a limousine carrying Nicki Minaj to a concert. I don’t usually like crowds, but at that moment, I felt the thrill of being in the middle of one.

Ecstatic fandom isn’t always about melting into a collective, though. Star worship can be a surprisingly private experience. There’s a specific thrill to knowing that you can gather material about someone who is by definition known to millions of people, and sequester yourself with it. Many fans develop quirky and secretive relationships to celebrity media, and their behaviors are interesting and important. To research The Drama of Celebrity, I looked at hundreds of scrapbooks from the years between 1880 and 1920, and many seemed very private and internal. One man living in Rochester, N.Y., almost never went to the theater in person—his albums included only a few theater program and ticket stubs. Instead, he clipped material from newspapers and magazines in order to document almost every play, opera, or film mounted in New York City annually. High, low, middle, he didn’t care: pictures from vaudeville acts and follies appear next to reviews of avant-garde European theater troupes. The act of reading about performances meant more to him than attending them; he found mediation more alluring than immediacy.

People who attended live performances often
had a surprisingly individual experience of them. Sarah Bernhardt drew big
crowds, yet people describing what it was like to see her perform often give
the impression that they were alone with her in the theater; they rarely
describe their neighbors’ reactions. It’s as though their awareness of her
blocked out everyone else present. The experience was ecstatic because she took
theatergoers out of themselves by absorbing them completely in her performance.

TM: You engage critic Henry Jenkins’s seminal book, Textual Poachers (1992), which you say “radically transformed celebrity studies.” Jenkins’s position on active fandoms always struck me as interesting, yet rather optimistic—so your rethinking of this conception is quite useful. Now, in 2019, do you think the typical fan is active or passive (and does this depend on the medium of the content, art, or work that is experienced)?

SM: Henry Jenkins aimed to redeem
fans by showing that they are not passive but active, not consumers but
producers, not isolated weirdos but members of thriving communities. But what’s
so bad about being an isolated weirdo, or consuming art instead of creating it?
To the extent that Jenkins was saying that fandom blurs the line between consuming
and producing, his ideas in 1992 were very prescient. But often Textual Poachers aims to present fans as
authors in the most conventional sense: autonomous agents who produce freestanding,
original works. That kind of fan is not typical. Few fans are writing fan
fiction or even online reviews. Most of them are not even bothering to dress up
as their favorite stars for Halloween.

Most fans hover somewhere between activity and
passivity, or toggle between them, no matter where their interests lie—sports,
music, movies, dog shows, ice sculpting. You can be a fan by engaging in
reverie and contemplation. You can be a fan by being a collector, compiler, and
arranger. You can be a researcher. You can be an imitator or impersonator. You
can be a groupie or a stalker. You can be a creator. The ability to occupy so
many different positions is part of the appeal.  

TM: Your book offers important new ways to think about so many elements of celebrity culture, and I appreciate your willingness to rethink foundational critical principles, such as Walter Benjamin’s theories of mechanical reproduction and originality. Rather than destroying “the actor’s singular aura,” you argue that “the age of mechanical reproducibility gave rise to its own version of aura,” what could be coined the “halo of the multiple.” Do you see the possibility of endless reproduction (and manipulation) of image as ultimately benefiting the celebrity’s power, or could it be seen as undermining it?

SM: Western culture has a bias
against copies which have for centuries been viewed as diluted, marred, false,
unoriginal, secondary. I find this odd, because culture exists only because of
our capacity for copying and multiplication. When it comes to celebrity, any
publicist will tell you that proliferation is always a good thing. Stars can
afford to be selective about where their image appears only after they have
become instantly recognizable. And how do they become instantly recognizable?
By having their image, name, and story reproduced multiple times, so that more
and more people become exposed to them.

Despite his claim that film celebrity was
invented to compensate for the disappearance the live actor’s body, I think
that Walter Benjamin recognized that multiplication generates its own glamor.
He equated the aura associated with unique objects one had to travel to see
with their “cult value,” but he also noted that the era of mass reproducibility
had created an “exhibition value” associated with visibility. Celebrities have
cult value and exhibition value. As
real people who can be physically present in only one place at a time, they
have the aura that Benjamin associated with cult value. And as representations
who circulate as copies, celebrities also become endowed with what I call the halo
of the multiple.

TM: Your book is written in such
an effective, engaging mode: meticulously-researched anecdotes and scenes build
toward a broader historical argument about celebrity culture leading to the
present, and there’s also a very empathetic tone here—you seem truly curious
about, and sympathetic to, the lives of fans. How have you experienced fandom
in your own life? How have you perceived celebrities?

SM: I grew up in New York City in the 1970s watching old movies on network television and at the public library. The Academy Awards were a much bigger deal then than they are now, and when I was around eight, I took out a library book about the Oscars, memorized all the major categories, and bugged my parents to quiz me about them. My father liked movies, and knew a lot about them, so the quizzes often led to impromptu lectures. He’d ask me who won the Academy Award for best actor in 1936, I’d say Paul Muni, then he’d tell me about five other movies Muni made, what studios he worked for, and his early work in Yiddish theater.   

My Academy Award book got me interested in Vivien Leigh, who won two Oscars for Best Actress. I acquired my first research skills in order to learn more about her. I figured out how to use an index so that I could see more quickly if a book in the film section of the library discussed her. I learned how to use the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature (it was the olden days) to track down articles about her. I even learned how to use a microfilm machine in order to read New York Times reviews of all of Vivien Leigh’s films and theater performances. (A belated thank you to all the librarians at my local public library who let a 12-year-old handle microfilm.)

When I found books about Vivien Leigh in used
bookstores, I bought them. I even began to cut out the pictures and assemble them
in a scrapbook. So even though in adult life I am not much of a fan, I do
remember what it feels like to be obsessed with a celebrity. And because the
celebrity who interested me died the year after I was born, I never perceived
celebrities as people one would seek out in real life.  They always seemed simultaneously close and
distant, present and absent. Stars were people we could picture easily but
never really know, people we might read about in books—or someday write a book
about ourselves. 

I’m Going to Keep Writing: At 91, Lore Segal Is Still Going Strong

For the past few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of revisiting the writing of one of my favorite authors, Lore Segal, in her new book, The Journal I Did Not Keep, a volume that includes new fiction and previously uncollected nonfiction, as well as excerpts from her best-known work. At 91, Segal is overdue for a retrospective. Her career spans six decades and includes memoir, translation, and children’s literature. She’s known best for her stories and novels, including Shakespeare’s Kitchen, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and Her First American, a 1985 novel that has as much to say about race in America as anything being written now.

Her debut novel, Other People’s Houses, published in 1964, was serialized in The New Yorker, and is Segal’s most autobiographical work. It tells the story of a Viennese child refugee, who, like Segal, was put on the Kindertransport, a rescue effort to bring Jewish children to England from Nazi-occupied Europe and place them with foster families. Very few were ever reunited with their parents, though Segal’s parents were able to escape Austria on a domestic workers visa—which meant that they had to work as live-in servants and could not live with their daughter. Segal’s father passed away before the war ended, but Segal and her mother were able to emigrate to the U.S. in 1951. Other People’s Parents was reissued last year in the U.K. to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the Kindertransport, and The Guardian noted that its subject matter is unfortunately quite timely in an era when refugee children are routinely separated from their parents.

Though Segal’s material is often weighty, she’s very funny. She revels in dialogue, jokes, and sometimes fantasy, allowing fairy tale, myth, and magic realism into her stories without any preamble. Segal also carries characters from one book to another, aging them and letting them take on slightly different identities, a technique that rewards Segal completists. The best example of this is the way that the heroine of Her First American, Ilka Weissnix, shows up again as Ilka Weisz in Shakespeare’s Kitchen—and finally in Half the Kingdom, as an old women telling stories to her grandchildren.

In Segal’s latest fiction, included in The Journal I Did Not Keep, a different set of characters has emerged, a group of 80-something women and their grown children. Segal calls them the “ladies’ lunch people,” and told me that they were her new people, a different set from Ilka, Joe and Jenny Berstine, Lucinella, Maurie, and all the rest, adding, “There are no more Ilkas, or any of those people. I think most of them have died.”

I spoke with Segal over the phone last week. The following interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

The Millions: Before we get to talking about The Journal I Did Not Keep, which looks back on your whole career, I wonder if you could tell me about when you were first published?

Lore Segal: That took forever! I was published when I was 30. I had spent ten years in England, three years in the Dominican Republic. I always say it took me 13 years to get from Vienna to New York. It was here that I walked around thinking, I don’t have anything to write about. Everyone already knows about Hitler. I took classes at the New School. I knew a lot of writers at the New School, we were all sending things out. And you had to pay someone to type your story, then you put it in the envelope, with a self-addressed stamped envelope so they could send you the story back, so you could put it in another envelope. I think in 1958, I had finally published three pieces. And then I sent one to The New Yorker and I put in a little message with the submission: Is there anyone there? I know there’s a pencil that keeps writing ‘sorry’ at the end of my rejection slips. They noticed the theme of it, and they noticed that I had published a story on a related theme in Commentary. And they called me up on the phone and they said, Would you like to write a series on this? I couldn’t believe it.

TM: And here’s another sort of debut writer question: who would you say are your major influences?

LS: Jane Austen, Kafka, The Bible, Shakespeare. Nothing extraordinary about that—oh, and the Grimms.

TM: You know, I first read your stories when I was in my 20s and I couldn’t figure out why I recognized your name. Then I realized that I knew your name from The Juniper Tree, which you translated. That was my favorite book of fairy tales when I was growing up. As a child, I couldn’t have explained why I liked it better than the others, but now I see that it was the translation.

LS: Oh, that’s wonderful to hear. You know, four of the stories were translated by Randall Jarrell. And Maurice Sendak had been wanting to illustrate the fairy tales forever. On my wall I have the printer’s proofs from that project. It was great. One of the fun things in my career.

TM: The Journal I Did Not Keep is a retrospective, with excerpts from your fiction as well as essays and memoir. Can you tell me how this project came together?

LS: I’m 91, I’m going to keep writing, but I’m not going to write another novel. So the idea was to collect what I’m writing now that has not been published, to publish something that is both fiction and nonfiction, which I think it unusual. It was to have a kind of an overview.

TM: How did you choose which pieces to include—especially from the novels?

LS: That came fairly obviously. First of all, a lot of my novels actually come in story form. That’s not a new thing. Dickens did it, Henry James did it. Some of the chapters make publishable units because they were originally published alone. I picked the ones that make the best sense by themselves, and the ones that I liked best. From Her First American, there’s a big central piece called “Summer” which introduces all the characters living together for the summer for the holiday, which I thought was a good set piece.

TM: What was it like to look back on your whole career?

LS: It was interesting, having to read them under these circumstances. I realized it was very new to me. Stuff I wrote in the 1960s I hadn’t read since the ’60s. Her First American was written in 1980s, but I had not read that novel in decades. Some of the stuff I thought was good, other times I thought, oh you should have moved this to here. And it was interesting to reread these old columns that I had written. There was a moment in the 1980s when it seemed like a good idea to ask writers, particularly women writers, to write about The Bible. I’m not a religious person, but as I said, The Bible is one of my influences.

TM: Looking back over your work, I was surprised to notice that you only used a first person narrator once, in Other People’s Houses and then never again. Why is that? 

LS: Did you know when I picked up Other People’s Houses, I couldn’t remember that it was written in the first person? I don’t think it matters. I know people have theories about first or third, but I don’t think it makes a difference. It surprised me that it was in first person.  

TM: Another thing that’s distinctive about your work is that you use a lot of dialogue.

LS: I like writing dialogue. I like it better than explaining. I’d rather have a character develop and express him or herself through dialogue than explaining what they’re thinking. It’s a preference. I like how we discover and uncover ourselves through dialogue. I tell my students, you see any two people together, walk behind them, listen, get the tone of their voice.

TM: One of the new pieces of fiction, “Dandelion,” begins with the narrator describing rereading old work. Is this something you’ve been doing lately?

LS: I thought I was experimenting with something, but it worked. I was 21 years old when I wrote that one originally. The joke is I took Henry James as an excuse to do that. In a way, I was taking the reader with me in the editing process. As a young writer I tried to remember being in the mountains. Now that I am a better writer, a more experienced writer, I can do it better. The body of the story has really not changed. The whole notion of having visions as a child—which I think children do have—that’s what I wanted to write about. It’s only the first page where I am interested looking back. Really, it’s about editing. What it is like to be edited by someone and also to edit yourself.

TM: When do you edit?

LS: I never sit down without going back to what I did yesterday. When I’m finished, I go back to first chapter. And when it’s published, I still want to edit. 

TM: What are you working on now?

LS: Actually an essay about being edited. About the pleasures and irritations of being edited. It’s called “Editing Caesar,” because my joke is they would say—what’s that they say now? Let’s “unpack” that. If Caesar said, “I came, I saw, I conquered,” the editor would say, “Let’s unpack that.”

TM: This collection showcases lots of different forms: essay, memoir, fiction; in what genre do you feel most at home? Where do you express yourself most fully?

LS: Oh, in fiction. Stories. When I was starting out, I had it in mind that to write an essay you had to know what you’re talking about. To write a story you figure out what you know by writing the story. My essays are clearly the essays written by a fiction writer. They use the methods and insights of a fiction writer. What do you think, as a reader?

TM: I think your fiction, although I really like your essays in this book. There was one that stuck with me, “The Gardeners’ Habitats.” It was about so many different things: friendship, writing, fame, grief. How did that essay come about?

LS: My husband David Segal was an editor, and John Gardner was one of his authors. We visited him in Carbondale, and John and I both taught at Breadloaf. I knew them for many, many years. I think they asked me to write an introduction to his book on writing. It just shows what an inefficient writer I am, because I wrote something that is not an introduction or an essay.

TM: You begin The Journal I Did Not Keep saying that you didn’t keep a journal because you assumed memory would be your editor—in the way we forget the things that are not important. But I noticed another theory in your book, which comes up in your fiction, where characters store away things that are confusing to them, things they don’t understand, so that they might be able to understand them. Is that right?

LS: Yes. There was a woman recently who was the first to get the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for mathematics, and she said: “If I understand it, it bores me.” It’s what we don’t understand that we put in the back of our heads. The other thing about memory, which I’ve not expressed fully, is that when you write it down, you’ve done a number on the thing that actually happened. Once you’ve put it into a story, what’s happened is lost and buried.

TM: What is it like to write at 91?

LS: It’s the same. I don’t think I had the verve I had when I wrote Lucinella. I was really surprised at the amount of energy that I had. But I still have a lot of curiosity, and a lot of celebration to do.

TM: Do you keep up your schedule of writing for five hours in the morning?

LS: I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t have those five or six hours. I always wonder what other people do. And then, what you call writing is often, we change the comma to the period and the period to the comma. It’s a way of life. It’s a lucky life.

TM: What are you reading these days?

LS: I belong to a reading group. We’ve are doing Goethe’s Elective Affinities. I read my German literature at school, but I haven’t returned to it since. I like to reread, but some in the group like to read contemporary work. There are eight of us, and I can no longer read except on kindle. So we have to find something that is an e-book. Most things are, but many are not. We have a hard time choosing books.

TM: Are you still teaching?

LS: I still have a class. It began with my teaching at the 92nd Street Y. So there are still some 10 to 13 students who come to my living room, these are older people. A number of them are in their 80s. We talk about each other’s work and what we are reading. It’s wonderful.

TM: Can you give some advice to the writers in our audience?

LS: Oh, you know I’m going to say something silly. Write and find the right words, be patient with yourself, don’t use words you don’t need.